“So, how did you girls get into this whole thing?” is a question we hear quite often these days. We thought we’d share our personal journey for this post, a long answer to the short question of what led us to where we are today…
It would be safe to say that our journey really began as rambunctious sisters squished into the back of our family’s traveling van, probably nattering “are we there yet?” all the way to rural Mexico. As kids, we spent many winters exploring communities, making friends, and absorbing culture while our windsurfing parents chased prime weather patterns and (bravely) created invaluable adventures by exposing us to a reality much different than the one back home.
It was during these adventures that we saw, firsthand, that many of the things we take for granted- basic human needs: health care, clean water, education, shelter – weren’t available in every corner of the world. As children, the inequity was obvious and the solution so simple: we have an abundance, they have a shortage. Why not share?
The education we had on these trips may not have been formal, but it was indispensable and came to define what is at the heart of what we do and why we do it. Later on, we fulfilled our parents’ expectations of continuing a more formal route of education and went on to run various organizations, diving into the realm of social justice as both a passion and profession.
As sisters, we often talked about collaborating: what if we could create a charity that dropped all the crap and kept all the magic, one that was different… But, our young and exploratory lifestyles kept us too busy to focus enough time to make this a reality and so it remained one of our dreams, a story we told with the prefix of “One day…”
Ten years of working on separate (but similar) projects passed before we came together in December 2010 in rural Nicaragua. On this trip, more than a school was built. The foundation for The Latitude Project was formed as we finally had a chance to collaborate: to share our ideas, passions and frustrations about the conventional world of charity and hone a clear definition of what Latitude would look like.
We returned to Canada and began the juggling act. We’d find spare moments in our busy lives to begin taking real steps to legitimize The Latitude Project and chipped away at it in our spare time. This juggling act continued until May 24, 2011, when our lives came to a jarring and terrifying turn: Alanna’s small VW Golf had been struck by a large truck towing a boat and trailer, head on. Our lives came to a halt as Alanna fought for hers.
It took two hours of emergency personnel attempting to separate her broken body from the ruins of the car afterwhich she was sent by helicopter to the closest hospital where doctors frantically pieced her together during 8 hours of emergency surgery. Two shattered femurs, broken knee, tib, fibula, punctured lung, broken ribs, serious facial lacerations, major concussion, bruised abdomen: spleen, heart, lacerated liver, ruptured pancreas. The list is pretty long. Afterward, as one surgeon put it, her body was like an ancient house on rickety stilts. Any small change would cause the house to come crashing down.
The road to recovery has been a long one. Jenn left her job on the other side of the province to move into the hospital and eventually into our family home to act as her caregiver as Alanna began her recovery. She was wheelchair-bound for many months after her release, her mind (eventually) as active as ever but her body unable to keep up.
We had gone from being seemingly unstoppable travellers soaking up the magic and freedom of our youth, with a blank canvas and the world as our oyster… to being entirely dependent, paralyzed by broken limbs and fragile organs.
The Latitude Project became our source of strength and inspiration. Rather than accept her fate as a victim, Alanna used the chance of having her body slow her down to focus all her energy on Latitude and the endless opportunities that lay ahead. We spent months outlining, editing, and revising our vision. Dreaming, planning, and building our organization into what it would be- where we would take it and where it would take us.
Situations like Alanna’s tragic car accident proved that there are things- big things- in life that are out of our control. A lot of the time they’re sad, difficult, frustrating, life-altering. But if there is one thing we never lose control over, it is how we choose to deal with the situations that are handed to us. Envisioning a future for The Latitude Project kept our spirits alive and our minds travelling when Alanna couldn’t even stand up on her own two feet. That’s not to say there weren’t times when it was a complete gongshow but Latitude gave us the direction, perspective, purpose, confidence we needed to see past those moments. It instilled in us a belief that we had the capacity to contribute to real change, even from a hospital bed.
To this day, we view ‘charity’ through the same lens that we did when we were kids: we have an abundance, they have a shortage: we must share. We refuse to use guilt as a tool and instead emphasize the adventure of travel and chaos and culture that make it so much fun, creating avenues that encourage people to dive in instead of turn away. We highlight the hope and focus on solutions. We are a charity that admits to our challenges (because there will always be difficulties), we laugh at ourselves, and we give it to you straight.
We’re excited about growing momentum as we take on bigger budget and more frequent projects throughout Latin America. In just a few short years, and with help from many, the story of The Latitude Project can now be told without the prefix of “One day…” It’s been a long road and we’re not ones to think the obstacles are over (indeed they pop up everyday) but armed with a passionate team, a clear vision, and a genuine purpose, we know there’s nothing that can stop us now.
We’re not claiming to be a couple of Mother Theresas: we’re imperfect humans with a desire to leave the world a little better than it was when we got here. We’re lovers of this fragile and wonderful life and staunch believers in the sentiment that to improve and enjoy the world are not mutually exclusive. And luckily, we’re not the only ones….