In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Community Food Program (Lamanjay), we asked our founder, Margaret Trost, to share her reflections on this incredible milestone.
Tell us the story of why you started the What If Foundation:
When I returned from my first trip to Haiti 20 years ago, I was deeply impacted by the hunger I’d seen and prayed for a way to respond. During the trip, I’d met Father Jeri Jean-Juste and heard his vision for a community-based food program for children in the Ti Plas Kazo community. I wanted to help, and a miraculous series of events led to me receiving a $5000 check that I sent to Father Jeri to pay for meals.
I remember the first email Father Jeri sent me letting me know that the check had arrived, and the food program had begun almost immediately. I was amazed as I read his words: “The program is wonderful! It is working beautifully. From 200 children last Sunday, it has doubled today… The news is being spread. Children are pouring on us. I use many volunteers. Many youngsters want to help…” Then he wrote a sentence that still gives me chills when I read it, “There is great hope.” Knowing that I was part of helping provide “great hope” in the midst of suffering was what fueled my heart to spread the word and to take steps to create a 501 c3 nonprofit organization. I wanted to do all I could to raise awareness and the money needed so that the food program could continue and possibly expand. Starting the What If Foundation was a leap of faith, one that I felt deeply called to do. Being in partnership with Father Jeri and members of his community (who eventually became Na Rive) was sacred service work and I felt so grateful to have the opportunity to devote myself to it.
What were you hoping to achieve?
My focus was very in the moment. Having spent time in the Ti Plas Kazo community with Father Jeri, I’d seen the hunger and the children longing to go to school firsthand and wanted to raise as much money as I could so that as many meals and school scholarships could be provided. I didn’t think too far into the future since the immediate need was so great and the programs were growing fast. Father Jeri and his food and education teams knew exactly what was needed, what to do, and how to effectively do it. They just needed financial resources to implement their vision. Raising awareness about our partnership and giving people in the U.S. the opportunity to be part of such a hope-filled, heart-centered grassroots effort that was tangibly making a difference in the daily lives of children continually inspired me.
What do you think Fr. Jeri would say if he were alive today?
I hear his laugh and feel his smile and encouragement whenever I think of him. I think he’d tell us how happy he is about the Fr. Jeri School and all it is offering the children, especially during this tumultuous time in Haitian history. He’d express gratitude to all the What If Foundation donors, to the staff and board, and to everyone at Na Rive for their devotion and generosity over all these years. He’d remind us to have faith in a vision of the future where more children and families are given the opportunity to thrive and to keep taking the steps necessary to create a more just and peaceful world. He’d repeat what he told me years ago, that the programs offer great hope in the midst of troubled days. That they are like an island in the middle of the ocean. That you can never underestimate the value of even one meal given to a hungry child or one year of school to a student. He’d reinforce the truth that “lespwa fe viv”, hope makes life. And he’d tell us that love is the greatest power.
What are you most proud of?
On a personal level, I’m proud that I listened to my heart and asked the question, “What if I could help make Father Jeri’s vision for a food program become a reality?” Even though I was unsure of how things would unfold, or where the money would come from, I took steps to put that question into action. And “piti piti na rive”, little by little, we are here 20 years later with over five million meals served, three thousand scholarships provided, and a new school built, and years of an after-school program and summer camp funded. These programs have made a difference in the lives of countless children. They’ve also supported the local economy and have been a steady source of income for the teachers, cooks, and others who run the programs.
I’m also very proud of our partnership with Na Rive. It’s based on mutual respect, trust, and a shared commitment to the children and their future. It is an important example of a healthy international partnership that knows that the best way to create sustainable change is from the inside-out, with love leading the way. Through so many challenges, from hurricanes, to the 2004 coup d’etat, to the 2010 earthquake, and the current political and economic instability we’ve remained strong. And thanks to the What If donors, we have been able to keep the programs funded every step of the way.
How has the What If Foundation changed your life and the way you approach things?
Where do I begin? The What If Foundation has been a great teacher about so many things including what can happen when you pour your heart into a vision and work in partnership with others who have the same devotion. I never imagined I’d create a nonprofit until the opportunity was in front of me, so this taught me about being open to surprises in life, to take the time to ask the question “What if?” in its positive form, and to follow my heart.
What If gave me the opportunity to learn from the wisdom and life experience of Haitians, to absorb their teachings and to expand my mind, my heart, and my understanding of life. I didn’t realize how limited my perspective was until I landed in Port-au-Prince that first time 20 years ago. I’ve grown and learned so much from the Haitian people.
This work has taught me about the power and flow of giving and receiving, about the generosity of the human heart, which our donors and the members of Na Rive demonstrate on a daily basis. It has also taught me about patience, resilience, faith and hope.
At the center of this work is love. I’ve experienced what can be born from a deep well of love – Father Jeri and Na Rive have shown me this, the What If Foundation staff and donors have shown me this, my husband and family have shown me this. The power of love put into action changes things, fuels things, creates good things.
Finally, (and I could go on and on!) the Haitian proverb, “piti piti na rive” has been one of my greatest teachers. It applies to pretty much everything and is something I continually need to remember. Father Jeri taught me this proverb and demonstrated the value and importance of taking small steps towards a vision, even if the steps go backwards sometimes, even if they don’t seem like enough. He taught me to believe in possibility, to keep on learning and growing, and to not let the inevitable challenges (internally, locally, globally) overwhelm me into thinking that small steps don’t make a difference, because they do. When he shared this teaching with me years ago, we had been talking about the vision of a neighborhood school and I remember he closed by saying, “One day, many not during my lifetime, but one day, we will get there.” And he was right.
What are your hopes for the What If Foundation in the next 20 years?
My hope and prayer is that the programs continue to flourish; that meals continue to be served to the hungry and quality education is always available to hundreds of children at the Fr. Jeri School. Over the last 20 years, there’s never been a time where What If’s resources have surpassed Na Rive’s vision and capacity to implement life-changing programs. With this in mind, I’d love for the What If Foundation to grow so that it has resources that it can direct towards Na Rive’s vision of job creation programs, including entrepreneurial business development for Fr. Jeri School graduates. For many years I’ve had the vision that one day the What If Foundation will have an endowment that will provide funding for the Fr. Jeri School so that there’s a deep level of sustainability that ensures support for education and meals continuing well past my lifetime.