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Answering the "what ifs"

Q&A with What If? Foundation executive director and Nelson Institute alumna Caitlin Szymanski

November 23, 2011 | By Meghan Lepisto

Caitlin Szymanski, who earned an environmental studies certificate in 2006, serves as executive director of the What If? Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, Calif., that supports food and educational opportunities for impoverished children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Through turbulent political and economic times and in the face of other significant challenges, the organization has grown since its founding in 2000 to today fund 9,000 meals each week and provide scholarships, an after-school program and a summer camp for hundreds of youth.

Caitlin Szymanski of What If? Foundation
Caitlin Szymanski (far left), executive director of
the What If? Foundation, with some of the Haitian
children the organization supports.

In Common: Could you talk a bit about the path that led you to the What If? Foundation? What inspired your enthusiasm and concern for the issues the organization is working to tackle?

Szymanski:Through my own experiences growing up in a supportive, caring family (and the realization that not everyone is as fortunate), being exposed at an early age to the environmental and social injustices that are present in our world and working with a number of extremely successful community organizations, I felt a calling to pursue sustainable or regenerative change on a grassroots level. In addition, the people I met and the classes I took through the Nelson Institute while at UW-Madison helped deepen my understanding and shape the issues that I am most passionate about.

Since graduating, I have had the privilege of working with organizations supporting educational equality in urban schools, democratizing access to affordable, nutritious food, empowering and connecting orphaned children in rural Swaziland, and the list goes on.

At the What If? Foundation I feel especially fortunate to be able to work with Haitian children, as they have long been exposed to dire poverty through no fault of their own, which has only been exacerbated by the inept foreign policy of our own government.

I am proud that all of the programs we support were inspired and are administered by our Haitian partners. These community programs continue to thrive and make a difference because our partnership with the Tiplas Kazo community has always been based on respect, trust and solidarity.

How has the foundation's work expanded over the years?

The What If? Foundation began by funding one meal a week for 500 children, inspired by a belief in the basic human right to food and the necessity of nutrition as a prerequisite to building community and economic opportunity. The community food program currently serves with dignity 1,800 complete, nutritious meals each weekday. For almost all children who attend, it is their only meal of the day.

Students supported by the What If? Foundation
The What If? Foundation funds food and education
programs for impoverished children in Port-au-Prince.

We also support educational opportunities for area youth, funding more than 200 school scholarships for elementary, high school and technical school students and an after-school program and summer camp. These are designed to reinforce skill development, creativity and self-sufficiency, and ultimately help students to
generate income.

Unfortunately, education is a privilege in Haiti, not a right, and even basic expenses required by the few available public schools are out of reach for the vast majority of Haitian families. We are committed to doing all we can to help our Haitian friends move through these difficult times and to take steps to create a sustainable future.

It must have been shocking when the news arrived of a catastrophic earthquake hitting Haiti in January 2010. How did What If? respond and how has the devastation and destruction affected the magnitude of your work?

I'll never forget that Tuesday afternoon -- while I exhaled with relief and a feeling of tremendous gratitude when we learned that our Haitian partners and most of those we serve in the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood had survived the earthquake, I felt deep sorrow for the extraordinary suffering being experienced throughout Haiti's capital.

Within two days of the disaster, our program coordinator Lavarice Gaudin arrived in Port-au-Prince via the Dominican Republic with the first truckload of food and water. As relief trucks full of supplies paid for by What If? continued to arrive, Gaudin and members of the food program team worked tirelessly to distribute canned food, baby food, bottled water, tents, shoes and other emergency supplies to
thousands, as this was the only source of relief in the area for many weeks.

Within a week, our food program had resumed and expanded to serve more than 6,500 meals each weekday to children and their families. Gradually, over the following months, the food program stabilized at a lower level, but the magnitude of needs and suffering in and surrounding the neighborhood still remains high.

Because of circumstances from the earthquake, the programs we support need to be relocated. Thankfully we were able to purchase property in the same neighborhood and look forward to breaking ground next year for an "oasis" for children in the community.

It looks like you travel to Haiti fairly often. What is it like to see firsthand how your work is being carried out in this community?

Child supported by the What If? Foundation food program
The What If? community food program serves 1,800
meals each weekday. For almost all children who
attend, it is their only meal of the day.

Whenever I travel to Haiti, I'm reinspired by the humility, compassion and dedication shown by our partners and community members despite the circumstances they face. Children often make the choice to share their own precious food with relatives at home, who are too sick to walk to our programs, by taking half of their meal home.

I'm often overwhelmed by the basic needs in Haiti, yet comforted that our programs are able to create incremental grassroots change by sustaining hope. It's a powerful reminder that no action is too small when I am able to pass a life-saving plate of food paid for by an individual donor to an impoverished child in Haiti and witness the look of gratitude and relief on the child's face. It is a gift to be able to see compassion in action every day, whether I am in Haiti or the United States.

What advice would you share with Nelson Institute students who hope to work in community service, or with anyone interested in helping to bring about change?

Really take the time to listen, observe and connect on a personal level with the issues you are advocating for. So often we are taught to lead with our brains, when in reality I think our hearts are our biggest asset. While knowledge and facts are important for fighting environmental and social injustices, communicating this information from a place of humility and compassion can make all of the difference. A dear Haitian friend poignantly stated that the greatest thing you can do in your life is the act of caring for one another and this Earth we are on -- from that, anything is possible.

All photos credit the What If? Foundation. Learn more about What If? at

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