Featured: The Thomas Food Project
The Thomas Food Project
‘Giving away fishing poles'
What began as a routine mission trip to build a school in Haiti has become a blossoming ministry for Warren McGuffin.
McGuffin, a retired Silicon Valley executive and member of San Ramon Valley United Methodist Church in Alamo, Calif., had been on Volunteer in Mission trips for years, but he found something different traveling to Thomas, Haiti, in 2010, after the devastating earthquake, to build a school.
"I was being confronted with children who were eating mud pies," he said. "We gathered our funds and fed these children, but we knew the children would still be hungry when we got home."
McGuffin returned in June 2011 along with a master gardener and enough funds to start a kitchen. Through the Thomas Food Project, they have been feeding kids at that school every day since then — close to 200 meals a day — and have expanded to a second lunch program at another school.
Realizing that helping educate the children could lift them out of poverty and keep them from depending on aid for food, McGuffin's team decided to address the school facility.
"We saw these children had a thirst for knowledge just the same as kids in larger communities but had to do without," he said.
After looking at ways to incorporate computers into the learning system at one school, they ended up solar-powering the entire campus. The team set up a lab of 10 desktop computers in a network, installed computer curriculum for primary education and began to train teachers. Now there is a salaried staff, a cook staff manager who supervises the kitchen and an on-site project manager.
James Lazarre, the project manager, is a firm believer that basic needs must be met before the children can learn.
"How hard is it for a child to learn and focus if their belly is empty," he asked, "or if they have an upset stomach from drinking bad water?"
In addition to running the computer lab, the solar charger McGuffin installed also powers a water purifier so the school has clean drinking water.
The program begins with meeting the children's needs for food and clean water, before any instruction begins. The next focus is on training the teachers – including training them to use the computers – and providing them with better materials for their work.
"You have to be patient and develop relationships and trust," Lazarre said. "We also work on improving the classroom environment. The result: Children are healthier, they have the best teachers."
To date, the original program has grown to cover five schools — among the poorest in Haiti, and many without facilities except for a tarp and a pole. Plans are to open a sixth school in November.
Expanding into the community
Equipping the school with the computer lab is only the first step; next, the program expands into the community. Adults can take classes to learn to use technology for their projects and work with local businesses to use technology to market them.
"We asked, ‘How can this computer lab benefit the community?'" McGuffin said. "We did research on the ground as to what kind of businesses are in these communities, how our computer lab can help them and how we can avoid competing with them."
With an eye on moving the food program and the computer lab toward self-sustainability, McGuffin's team has devised mobile carts equipped with solar chargers. The school can deploy the carts in the community and provide charging services for water purifiers or electronic devices for a small fee. The profits go back into the school to expand its programs.
"We approach it as a startup business in how it's structured," McGuffin said.
"The carts can raise funds by charging for cellphones, giving computer classes, and the like. They are assets for the community that will help the school become sustainable in regards to its food program. We call it a holistic approach to humanitarian assistance."
Plans also include opening a cybercafé in Thomas, which is also intended to become a revenue source to purchase food for the school lunch program.
The program has also unveiled the New Vision Institute, another moneymaking venture, as people in the community can use the computer lab to gain skills to get a job or to start a business. When that happens, McGuffin said, they will need micro-financing and the potential for industry to thrive where currently the only commodity in abundance is sunlight.
Ten students graduated recently, he said, and a Haitian congressional representative has made a commitment to give scholarships to another 10 students.
"As businessmen and scientists," McGuffin said, "we feel we can place technology in the community to benefit and be sustainable. There's always going to be a need for mission there, but I equate what we're doing with giving away fishing poles."
Joey Butler is a multimedia producer/editor for United Methodist Communications.