|Margaret Trost, founder of the What If? Foundation, visits with a child eating at a feeding center in the Ti Plas Kazo community of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
WHAT IF? FOUNDATION/COURTESY PHOTO
How many times have you said, what if?
And how many times have you said what if ... and did?
As part of its annual Social Justice Sunday Jan. 12-13, among the organizations Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill will be supporting is one founded by a Berkeley woman who has done just that.
On a trip to Haiti 13 years ago, Margaret Trost was with the Missionaries of Charity, when Father Gerard Jean-Juste talked to the delegation. In response to a question about hunger, he described a plan he had to feed children in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. So many children the parish priest encountered asked him for food.
"There was something in me that lit up," Trost said. "What if I could help that vision become a reality?"
Trost was a widowed mother of a 5-year-old son. She was not rich, not a CEO or an experienced fundraiser.
"If I knew more, I'd have said I could not do it," Trost recalled.
But she did nothing like that.
She returned to her Berkeley home and started telling others of her desire to make this "what if" a reality.
Her father, a minister in the United Church of Christ in Wisconsin, had a check in his mailbox, destined for a food pantry that had closed.
"I asked Dad, 'Can we send it to Father Jean-Juste?'"
In March 2000, the program was up and running. Partnering with community members in Port-au-Prince, they began by feeding 200 children. A week later, 400 were coming to the kitchen at St. Clare Church. "We've been called to a big assignment from God," Father Jean-Juste wrote to Trost in an email.
That big assignment has been tested by hurricane and earthquake, as well as the imprisonment of Father Jean-Juste — whom human rights activists call the Martin Luther King of Haiti — and even his death in 2009.
Since the priest's death, the feeding program has moved from St. Clare's Church to a half-acre of land the What If? Foundation has purchased with big plans in mind.
In addition to a kitchen and open-air feeding center, the first phase of the project on this land includes construction of a primary school. Oakland-based Builders Without Borders is partnering on this project. Most schools in Haiti charge tuition, which leaves most poor children outside the schoolhouse door.
More than $550,000 has been raised toward the $1.2 million goal. The collection at Christ the King Parish this month will be directed toward this project.
Gwen Watson, a Christ the King parishioner who is active in the parish's social justice work, has visited Haiti and seen the feeding program firsthand.
"The highlight of the trip was going to St. Clare's and seeing the kids," she said.
Even though the children were so hungry, she said, before they touched their food, they would place a portion in a paper cup to bring home.
"It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time," she said.
She recalled "the sweet sound" of the children scraping their plates to get every morsel of rice, beans, vegetables and maybe a little chicken on their plates.
During the visit, her delegation, which was led by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and civil rights attorney Bill Quigley, met with Father Jean-Juste, who was in prison.
"We were allowed to have 30 minutes of his time," she said. "All he was talking about was the poor who were hungry."
He spoke of opening a school, so the children could get an education and improve their lives.
Today the What If? Foundation and its community partners are feeding 1,200 children Monday through Friday, as well as providing tuition to 194 students. There is an after-school program and summer camp, as well.
As progress continues on building the primary school and feeding center, and plans for building a school for grades up to 13 are in the wings, Trost continues to take heart from something Father Jean-Juste often said.
Translated, it is, "Little by little we will arrive."
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