– Story by Sean McIntyre Photography by Lia Crowe
Inspiration struck early for Alanna and Jennifer Tynan.
Born into an adventurous family that loved to travel, the sisters spent a lot of time as children on trips along Mexico’s Pacific coast. While their mother took to the water, chasing the perfect wave or windsurfing across the horizon, the girls stayed onshore under the watchful eye of locals. During these forays that went beyond “tourist” Mexico, the young girls encountered the difference between “haves” and “have nots.” They began to understand how fortunate they were to be born on the privileged side of that global divide.
“With no preconceptions or social stigmas shaping how we thought at that young age, we couldn’t make sense of the disparity between what we were born with and what the kids in Mexico were born with,” Jennifer recalls.
The strong sense of social justice mixed with independence and healthy curiosity gained momentum as the girls grew up in Nelson, BC, moved to the coast and attended the University of Victoria and Camosun College. After graduation, both found work with aid organizations, taking them to projects based in Nicaragua and Peru.
But Alanna and Jennifer began to feel that the conventional development model was missing the mark by not empowering local leaders, by underutilizing local resources and by reinforcing harmful stereotypes of poverty. It seemed as though the logistics of international aid projects overshadowed the all-important, eye-level connections with locals that they’d experienced as young girls on the beach in Mexico.
“Although the intent was coming from a good place, projects were failing because honest communication with communities wasn’t there. We wanted to get back to the basics of asking people what they need and working together to find solutions to those needs,” Jennifer says.
That’s when the women, then still in their mid-20s, launched The Latitude Project and built a school in Collado, Nicaragua. Ten years later and the sisters have recently returned from that very same village, where the school just got a fresh coat of paint and continues to serve and inspire the locals.
Since construction of the school, The Latitude Project has undertaken projects to provide clean water, literacy, basic healthcare and solar electrification in communities across Nicaragua. The group also sponsors a number of unique initiatives that Jennifer likes to call “fun-based projects.” In one, for example, photographers shoot portraits and help locals assemble family albums. In another, called See the Sea, families pile into vehicles destined for the coastline, where youngsters get their first sight of the sea.
“Some communities are only seven kilometres from the coast, yet the kids have never seen the ocean. Without access to a truck or other means of transportation, leaving becomes nearly impossible,” Jennifer says.
“This project celebrates what it is to be a child, to relax and just play. It’s become one of our favourite ways to end a needs-based project with the community, to see families come together to embrace the joy and wonder of experiencing the ocean for the first time.”
Ten years since they set out on their own, Alanna and Jennifer have remained true to the principles that started it all. One hundred per cent of all public donations are devoted to the projects. To eliminate overhead costs, both Alanna and Jennifer volunteer their time, and work other jobs to keep everything running. The sisters eventually hope to connect with private philanthropists or businesses to cover administrative costs, allowing them to keep donations funding field costs while taking the overhead burden off their shoulders.
Fundraising is ongoing. Earlier this summer in Victoria, The Latitude Project hosted a Market for Good, where local artists gathered in a fun and festive setting to sell products and donate the proceeds to fund ongoing projects. There are also opportunities for donors to participate in-country by attending a socially conscious, working-holiday-style volunteer experiences, featuring a range of accommodation and meal plans.
The sisters insist that each project begin with a conversation wherein residents share their most pressing needs.
“The act of truly listening is at the heart of what we do,” Alanna says. “Because of that, all of our projects, wherever we are working, are rooted in this profound sense of mutual respect.”
The sisters say they’ve never been big on using guilt as a tool, such as the “flies in the eyes” marketing campaigns that drive many of the world’s largest and well known aid organizations. Seeing malnourished children with distended bellies or villagers relegated to drinking unsanitary bog water may be an effective emotional appeal, but it’s an oversimplification that doesn’t always give the full picture of life among the world’s poorest citizens.
In their experience on projects around the globe, Alanna and Jennifer have encountered horrendous and unhealthy living conditions, but they’ve also seen remarkable joy, optimism and resilience. They’ve seen desire and ingenuity emerge from desperation.
“It’s enriching for us — not financially but emotionally, spiritually and mentally — to be making a positive impact in the world,” Alanna says. “By starting The Latitude Project, we knew that we’d be dealing with situations that can be grave and emotionally heavy, but we’ve always found it important to also portray and celebrate the joy and fortitude along the way.”
It’s this sense of a pro-active and engaged local community that The Latitude Project has fostered in the decade since building that first school in Nicaragua. By asking villagers about their most urgent needs, incorporating locals into construction, maintenance and ongoing education, and maintaining a connection to families, villages and organizations years after a project is complete, The Latitude Project strives to connect with those it’s trying to help, giving them what may very well be the most valuable asset of all: the know-how and inspiration to think big and work together for a better tomorrow.
More information about The Latitude Project, including project updates, volunteer opportunities and other ways to contribute, is available at thelatitudeproject.com.