Canadian Sisters Build Opportunity, Roofs and Friendships in Latin America

Last month, we highlighted the magical place (aka “the summer camp for adults”) in Nicaragua that is Maderas Village. While there, we met two inspiring young Canadian sisters who are changing the lives of countless people in Latin America. The Latitude Project brings founders Jennifer and Alanna Tynan to impoverished regions like Nicaragua for prolonged periods of time where they act as agents of change in struggling communities, inspire other young travellers to get involved, and even get to soak up the sunset in their (limited) downtime. We caught up with the BC natives come citizens of the world and they offered a little more insight into the MO of the initiative, the remarkable people they have met, and how others can get involved in their adventure. 


Can you explain The Latitude Project in a nutshell? What’s your elevator pitch?
We’re a lively grassroots organization working to alleviate poverty in Latin America by pursuing and funding initiatives that improve standard of living. We operate a 100% model – directing 100% of public donations into projects in Latin America without filtering through administration costs and overhead fees. Dedicated to not using guilt as a tool, Latitude is made up of a rambunctious and spirited group of people who do this work not because they have to, but because they want to. We have fun.

Can you elaborate on how you work with the people as opposed to for?
From the very initial stages of our projects, the communities in which we work are an integral part of the process. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But a lot of charities overlook important elements of need by forgetting to listen to the very people who are affected by hardship. Instead of telling people what they need, we listen and find out from them what is impeding on their ability to live safely and comfortably. From there, we work together to find solutions that will be most effective, sustainable and appropriate for each particular geographic area and differing culture. 


In deciding our last project, we learned from local Nicaraguan families that many rural communities feared the approaching rainy season (having roofs that were too corroded to provide adequate shelter). After researching the most appropriate roofing technology, we supplied the means (materials) while each village leader set up rosters of who would be working daily and mobilized members of their communities to get the job done. We are with them, on site everyday, watching the projects unfold and ensuring transparency for our partners and donors… but the community members are responsible for the construction themselves. We don’t claim to be experts; often it’s not a lack of knowledge in these communities, it’s a lack of means. By simply providing the means, we are enabling communities to be agents of their own change.

Can you describe a remarkable individual you’ve encountered?
It would be difficult to choose just one person because the sense of togetherness and support in the rural communities in which we work is so often remarkable. People rely on each other in a way that a lot of us North Americans can be really far removed from. A couple of days ago we were unable to fix an older woman’s roof because the strength of the foundation (wood) was just too weak and eroded to put anything else on it. It was a tiny structure with no walls, only supporting a hammock and room for her small cardboard box of belongings. Without a question, her neighbour, Ariel, found enough wood and spent the next number of days building her a one-room structure by himself. The ironic part is that Ariel and his family are probably the poorest members of their community.


How do you engage and mobilize communities of fellow young people back home/ the North American travellers you meet?
We throw (awesome) parties to raise money that fund the projects. Every party differs in size and style, but the common thread is that they celebrate our own lives and the capacity that we have to help others improve their own. We don’t want these events to be obtrusive or leave people feeling depressed about the state of our world. We’ve seen guilt as something that stuns and stagnates people, leaving them doing nothing instead of inspiring them to get up and get into it, to do something about it because they can. This summer we have a series of events held in Toronto on May 10th, New York City (August), Vancouver (TBA) and Calgary (TBA). Stay posted on our Facebook and website!

How did you decide to form the charity and embark on this journey?
We were lucky to grow up with adventurous parents who valued travel and exposed us to different parts of the world. Exploring remote places revealed an honest portrayal of how people live – at a young age we realized that not everyone is born with access to basic human needs. With this reality also came the realization that although material possessions were not in abundance, the people we were meeting were teaching us that real wealth isn’t measured in dollars. Those childhood experiences of travel and exploration carried through to our adult lives and since then we’ve found it almost impossible to sit still. Wanderlust, you might call it. Latitude is a way for us to contribute positively to the world that we’ve been lucky enough to travel and to give back to communities that need it the most.


Can you explain the diverse “Latitude Family” that ranges from surfers to directors and writers?
As volunteers, the Latitude Family is made up of networks of friends who do this work not because they have to, but because they want to. They recognize the importance of balance in their lives and see ‘charity’ not as a chore, but as an adventure. They are people who love to learn, travel, and play. They are living proof of our philosophy that we don’t need to give up the adventures in our own lives in order to help other people improve the quality of their own.

What has been the most memorable thing from your time in Nicaragua this winter?
Nicaragua has been amazing. We’ve spent quite a bit of time here and we’ve really been working to solidify strong bonds in the communities with which we work. Staying at Maderas Village, we’ve been able to forge new relationships not only with the residents of the hotel itself, but with the flow of interesting people who come through. Bringing guests into rural communities with us has allowed them to get a glimpse of life in the campos and broadened our reach as an NGO that appeals to a young professional demographic. It makes for great dinner conversation and a lot of creative ideas for the future. On our days off we’ve been taking kids from the communities to the beach (many who have never been before) and we’ve been making sure we take in frequent surfs and sunsets. Balance!


How can others get directly involved with The Latitude Project?
It’s a pretty exciting juncture for us as more and more people express interest in joining the team. We’ll be looking for interns soon and we’re always open to new ideas and collaborations. We encourage people who want to get involved to initiate their own fundraisers and we have resources that can be sent to people wanting to spearhead an event of their own. A big part of what we always need are donations, not only monetary but also Aeroplan Miles to cover air travel for international volunteers. Operating with a 100% model leaves the additional costs to be covered by ourselves personally. It’s tough, but we feel strongly about the entirety of public donations going to projects on the ground without filtering through administrative fees. We are currently looking for opportunities to collaborate with companies and private donors that could act as underwriters, but until that happens, sponsorships such as the Aeroplan campaign take some of the weight off our shoulders (and credit cards).

What can we expect next from Latitude?
This summer will be full of fundraising initiatives before we head back to start up the next projects in Nicaragua and El Salvador. We’re teaming up with Zeal Optics and we’re really stoked on their whole philosophy of connecting your work and your passions. As the Latitude ‘family’ continues to grow, we’ll be able to fund more projects, which means we’ll be able to create more positive change.

If we can keep having fun and doing good while we’re at it, then I think we’re living pretty full lives.


Photos by Bennett Brown