Working amongst locations that some only dream about, the vivacious duo behind The Latitude Project are creating the perfect balance between meaningful work and a good dose of play, proving that you can have your cake and eat it too. We jumped on board with them for a trip to the beach as part of their side project, To See the Sea.
We first met sisters Alanna and Jenn over sunset drinks down at Playa Madera, Nicaragua. Killer smiles aside, we were blown away after talking about their non-profit organisation, The Latitude Project, which assists in providing essential needs within developing communities throughout Latin America. From the outset, it looked like the girls had the best of both worlds—doing rad work that they love during the day and enjoying themselves at night, which is a work/play balance that many people struggle to achieve. As we got talking a little more, it was clear that these ladies work pretty damn hard to sustain this lifestyle, because unlike a lot of non-profit organisations, Alanna and Jenn put 100% of all profits into community projects and cover all administrative expenses out of their own pockets. So while they spend 6 months in the year working on various projects throughout Latin America, the other half of the year they return home where they work like Trojans to save money in order to support themselves when they’re abroad.
“It’s not that they’re lacking joy, it’s not that they’re lacking satisfaction, they’re lacking an access to basic human needs. Beyond that, they have something to teach us.”
Hailing from Nelson, Canada, the two sisters set up the foundation in 2009 after working in the non-profit world for a number of years. They were both running separate organisations when they conjured up the idea to venture out on their own. They both felt the same things that they loved and the same things they wanted to let go of in charity, “So we decided we could just start our own, where we kept all the magic and dropped the bullshit”, Alannah explains. Since then, the ladies have not only completed projects in which they facilitated medical assistance and educational needs, constructed pre-schools, provided roofing, water wells and more, but they have set about redefining charity into a lifestyle they see “as an adventure, not a chore”, that allows people to do work that is enriching and meaningful, but they can walk away at the end of the day and enjoy a glass of wine, go for a surf and simply let their hair down. The LP is also passionate about counteracting the trend to use guilt as a way of gaining people’s attention or compassion. Alanna explains, “I think that with charity as a whole or people in charity work as a whole, people often use guilt as a tool. Because the people in the places where we help, it’s not that they’re lacking joy, it’s not that they’re lacking satisfaction, they’re lacking an access to basic human needs. Beyond that, they have something to teach us.”
A glimpse at their website when I returned to my casita confirmed my first impressions about these easy-going ladies and the overall ethos that I imagined the LP to embody. Testimonials from what Alanna refers to as the “spirited, rambunctious, traveling souls” that the LP has recruited along the way share their glowing experiences in working with the LP on the various projects. There are blog posts and photos of the kick-arse fundraising parties and events the girls throw in Canada and the US, which is an example of the sort of fun they inject into their work. Doing rewarding work with panache, smiles and laughter is what sets them apart from the rest, so you can imagine how stoked we were when they asked us to come along with them as part of their side project, ‘To See The Sea’. This is something they do in addition to their main projects, where they take children and teens from remote communities for an ocean excursion. Needless to say it’s quickly gained popularity amongst these kids who would not otherwise be able to go to the beach.
“I think this takes it to another dimension of what it means to feel free and be a kid and be out in the world and experiencing all the natural beauty that the ocean has to share with us.”
The night before we went on this day trip had rained profusely, welcoming in the start of the rainy season in Nicaragua. The ladies pick us up in their beaten-up old truck and are hopeful we’ll be able to make it out to this remote community, as they’re dubious about the condition of the roads, which are motley at the best of times. We head out of San Juan del Sur, which has become a hotspot for tourists and expats alike, and make our way to the remote community of Callado, which is about 45 minutes out of town.
Paved roads soon turn into dusty ones that have us bumping along in the true Latin American mode of travel—with the wind blowing in our faces as we wave and say hola to strangers and stop to pick up locals needing a lift. It seems perfectly fitting to conduct this interview in the back of the truck rather than in the comfort of a café, as it only adds to the overall experience of the day. Traffic congestion is made up of a local farmer and his teenage son trying to herd his cattle down the road, coercing them into moving with a whistle and a crack of a stick on their backsides. After a couple minutes of the ‘traffic jam’, we’re on our way again.
By a stroke of luck, the roads were not as bad as Alanna and Jenn had anticipated and as we arrive in Callado, a hoard of children come running toward the vehicle, in eager anticipation for the trip to the beach. ‘To See The Sea’ is a relatively new project that they started after working closely with these communities and learning that many of the children had never seen the ocean before, despite living relatively close to the beach. So, every week during their days off, Alanna and Jenn head to different communities and pick up little kids and teenagers to take them for a day trip to the beach.
“Often the cars are over-crammed and we can’t squeeze anymore in, so we have to come back a second day.”
“A little while ago we came up to Callado to pick up a group of the kids and Jenn was driving and said one of the girls had a strange look on her face. Jen asked her if she was nervous about the ocean and her sister piped up and said, ‘she’s never left the community before’.”
Given that nobody in this community owns a vehicle, the sound of the truck coming down the one road is instantly recognised and the kids come running towards us from all different directions. We pull into the first house of kids we’ll be taking, which belongs to Omar and his wife Julia, who have a brood of 15 children! The household is full of some of the most amazing smiles and beautiful kids I’ve ever seen. Omar’s peepers resemble the colour of tiger’s eye and they sparkle when we ask if he would also like to come along. He smiles shyly and says ‘yes’. After everyone was packed in, we finished picking up some other kids who were keen to join us. Everyone was full of excitement and laughter as we made our way to the beach. Despite it only being about 10km away, the logistics of getting there is a dilemma, as there are no cars and no public transport, and the idea of ‘spare time’ is a foreign concept for these parents who generally work 6 days a week on top of running a household.
The car has barely stopped running, yet the kids have already made a quick exit from the car and are racing one another to the beach. As expected, the excitement multiplies tenfold as soon as they are splashing about in the water. The ones with confidence go that little bit further out than everyone else and there’s only the youngest one in the group who stands at the shore, letting the water lap at his feet. Watching the children run up to him every couple of minutes to look out for him and check to see if he’s OK is a reflection of the culture of Latin American people—always looking out for one another.
I ask Alanna about some of the initial reactions to seeing the ocean and she tells me, “I don’t think I’ve seen too much fear yet, other than that one girl. When it gets to their feet it seems to be complete reckless abandon.”
“They just throw themselves into the water and the waves. That was a learning experience for us…we started playing a game where you link hands and don’t let go of anyone’s hand! They definitely love the experience.”
Omar looks like one of the happiest men alive, the smile has not left his face for a second. He tells me it’s the first time he has swam in the ocean for 5 years and he’s relishing every second of it. He flips his sons off his shoulders while everyone stands around hooting and laughing. As we watch them muck about, Alanna has a poignant way of explaining the impact the ocean has on these kids.
“I liken their experience with the ocean to something I see in them, which is the buoyancy. I see a lot of buoyancy and support, if that makes sense. I see them running into the unknown, and seeing them floating and I think that’s really important for kids to be experiencing the power of play.”
“Not that they don’t get to in the communities, because they definitely do, but I think this takes it to another dimension of what it means to feel free and be a kid and be out in the world and experiencing all the natural beauty that the ocean has to share with us.”
Seeing the genuine stoke on their faces made me think of how rewarding their work must be and Alanna tells me that watching them being able to relax is one of the greatest highlights of the gig. She loves “when you start being able to recognise the change that the people are experiencing and recognise the difference in what they were experiencing to what you’ve contributed to in their lives.”
“We believe in moderation and that’s what’s going to allow us to do it for longer.”
As we headed back, I was thinking about how Alanna and Jenn have created something really inspiring with the LP. I love seeing how they manage to have fun while doing some incredible work and still maintain a busy social life. Alanna is fervent in the LP’s whole premise is that you shouldn’t have to give up your adventure in order to create positive change or to help other people.
“We go surfing in the morning before we go to work, we make sure we’re back by sunset. The whole ‘mother Teresa’ thing is what gets me a lot of the time. There needs to be this dichotomy that if you’re doing good, then you need to give something back to yourself. We believe in moderation and that’s what’s going to allow us to do it for longer.”
Despite the challenging work involved with running the foundation and the sort of work that is carried out in the communities, there is no shortage of good times amongst the girls and their cohorts, because putting the magic into their charity work and lifestyles is what LP is all about. They have all sorts of plans for the future, but for them, the most important thing is just being authentic.
“At this point, I think we’ve been pretty inspired by the quality and the spirit of the people on board already and just want to watch that grow and see everyone continuing to have so much fun and do so much good while we’re at it. It’s been a really fulfilling journey that’s just constant proof that we can really do it all.”