The LatituDe project
When Alanna and Jenn Tynan were young, their mother – a keen windsurfer – sometimes pulled them out of school for trips to Mexico.
They’d take their Volkswagen van into small fishing villages, where the wind was good and the hot sun a welcome respite from biting Canadian winters.
At that age, the culture gap was easy to bridge and the sisters became familiar with third-world poverty in a context never experienced by most North American children.
One afternoon on one of these trips, when their mom came back to the van, she found her daughters with 10 Mexican boys and girls, all happily waiting for a meal.
To Alanna and Jenn, the inequality was personal and straightforward: their new friends didn’t have any food for lunch.
‘There’s that simplicity to justice in the lens of a child – the idea of what’s fair and unfair is very clear,’ says Alanna, now 31. ‘It’s not clouded by academia, or bureaucracy, or any of that. We’re all equal – we’re on that equal plane.’
Years later, this perspective on sharing has stuck with the women. And by seeing the world through that lens, they’ve created a nonprofit beautifully different than most.
Its name, The Latitude Project, makes sense on two levels:
Latitude is where you are on the map – fitting for a charity run by two Canadians, supported (in part) by American friends, and based in Nicaragua.
The word also means freedom. Freedom to learn, live and grow in whatever direction you choose.
It also means that they’re unrestricted in terms of what projects they take on, with a model for change that is striking in its simplicity:
Ask locals what they need, then listen to the answers.
‘When we come at it as outsiders thinking we know what a community needs, that doesn’t leave much room for success,’ Jenn, 29, explains. ‘We decided to really bring it back to the basics – getting to know the people, building relationships, and bringing everyone in the community together to vote on what the most important project might be for that year.’
Using this system, the Latitude team has built a preschool, provided 500 new roofs, donated countless school supplies, distributed more than 570 solar lights, built mini libraries, and – in their biggest project yet – assembled a rural medical response team.
Eight communities – totaling around 1,500 people – are now being serviced with healthcare from the project’s on-staff doctor and nurse.
Latitude began about seven years ago, when Alanna was involved a car accident that shattered both of her femur bones, punctured her lung, and nearly took her life.
Jenn quit her job, moved to where her older sister was hospitalized, and cared for her every day. During their many inactive hours together, a notebook sat on the table between them.
Gradually its pages filled with the ideas for their dream organization.
They decided that in addition to community-chosen projects – completed using local engineers, volunteers and supplies – two other key components would make their project different.
First, they would abandon the guilt-inducing marketing techniques used by many industry leaders.
‘We wanted to create something that got rid of that bleak, famous actor holding a starving African child in a black and white image,’ Jenn said. ‘I understand that is one side of poverty, but we wanted to create something that showcased the whole picture -- the vibrancy, and fortitude and strength that is found in these communities.’
Their website features brightly colored photos of children flipping over shining waves, women making funny faces at the camera and sunsets over the Nicaraguan countryside.
They also resolved to give 100% of public donations directly to projects in the field.
‘When you’re young or you don’t have a lot of money and you really want to feel like you’re making a difference, this just takes that one extra barrier away,’ Alanna said.
That means both women work several other jobs to support themselves, while running the growing nonprofit on the side.
They hope that eventually outside funders will cover overhead costs, but they always want their individual donors to know where their dollars are going.
‘The personalization of giving back is something we take really seriously,’ Alanna said.
Though most of Latitude’s missions address the communities’ gravest needs, one venture is purely pleasure-based.
With ‘See the Sea’ the sisters drive carloads of local deprived children – who live as few as 7km from the coast – to visit the beach for the first time.
It’s a gift just as intimate as the lunch they shared with friends as little girls.
‘We tend to forget that we have this ability to make change in a really simple way,’ says Alanna, ‘just by sharing what we have with people who don’t have as much as we do.’
They know it sounds basic. But the possibilities are boundless.
By Annie Garau