Behind the Scenes with our Board Chairs (Part Two!)

We recently published a story by Steve Richards about his time as chair of our board of directors. Now, our incoming board chair, Charlotte Dougherty, chimes in to describe her experience with Sustainable Harvest International and her vision for our future.

Incoming board chair Charlotte Dougherty prepares soil for planting during a 2009 trip to Piedras Negras, Honduras in 2009.

Incoming board chair Charlotte Dougherty prepares soil for planting during a 2009 trip to Piedras Negras, Honduras in 2009.

As I assume the role of board chair for Sustainable Harvest International, I keep asking myself what fuels my passion for this organization’s work. I have spent most of my professional life working on social change from the top down, assisting government agencies in creating programs and policies that promote environmental protection, conservation, and sustainable development.

I have often been frustrated by political roadblocks, problems with implementation, or limited results on the ground. I’ve come to realize that real social change happens from the bottom up. Individuals, families, and communities transform lives and sustain change. This is what Sustainable Harvest International is doing in Central America with demonstrable results.

In 2009, I traveled to Piedras Negras, Honduras on a trip sponsored by Sustainable Harvest International. We arrived in the back of a pickup truck after a long, dusty and bumpy ride. Kevin, our trip leader, led me on foot through the village up a dusty dirt road, to the home of Miguel and Candida Garcia, where I would be staying for the next five days. Scrawny dogs and children showed curiosity and concern along the way. When I met Candida at the top of the hill, the baby in her arms took one look at my short blond hair, light skin, and broad smile before shrieking in horror, followed by inconsolable crying.

It took me a moment to realize what was happening. No wonder I was terrifying children! The community was in its first year working with Sustainable Harvest International and unused to American visitors popping in to check out the gardens.

Candida Garcia with 6 of her 11 children, Piedras Negras, Honduras 2009. – Photo by Charlotte Dougherty

Candida Garcia with 6 of her 11 children, Piedras Negras, Honduras 2009. – Photo by Charlotte Dougherty

The seriousness in the faces of residents and their reserved nature reflected perhaps some fear, surely some skepticism, likely some malnutrition or illness, and maybe some sadness.

I was told by a neighbor that Candida’s nursing baby was the only one in the family who regularly ate. Malnutrition was a very real problem for many families in the community. Most subsisted on basic grains, and children suffered without the nutrients needed for good health.

During that first visit to Piedras Negras, our group helped to build and plant household vegetable gardens, terracing small plots and constructing raised beds. We made bocashi, an organic fertilizer from local waste products. Our hope was to address the desperate nutritional needs of the families in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way.

Two years later in 2011, I returned to Piedras Negras and again stayed with Dona Candida, Don Miguel and their family. To my great surprise, I was greeted with smiles, hugs and delight from everyone (even the baby, now a toddler). The energy was so completely different from my first visit.

The children seemed to be flourishing and so was their vegetable garden. They played with homemade spinning tops and eagerly carried soda bottles filled with water up the hill from the stream to water the garden. Throughout the community, there was a sense of trust, hope and happiness that I had not seen on my first visit.

For our second trip, our focus broadened beyond subsistence gardening to reforestation and establishing income-generating crops. On our first day, we planted cassava between rows of pineapple plants, digging holes in hard dry soil that had to be broken up with pick axes. It was back-straining work in the baking sun. In the afternoon, we happily sat in the shade and filled 500 small bags with soil and coffee seeds.

On that first night of my 2011 visit, I listened to the laughter, squeals, and giggles of the children and their parents as we all settled down to sleep. I was witnessing real improvement, real change in people’s lives as a direct result of working with Sustainable Harvest International.

Children in Piedras Negras, Honduras scramble for pinata treats.

Children in Piedras Negras, Honduras scramble for pinata treats.

I was convinced of the organization’s impact in Piedras Negras, and I knew that if other people could see the improvement in Candida’s world, they, too, would understand the value of this community-based approach. I was accustomed to assessing hard-to-quantify benefits of environmental programs in my work as an environmental economist, and I wanted to help Sustainable Harvest International document the very palpable change I was seeing in Piedra Negras.

Soon after that second trip to Honduras, I joined the board of Sustainable Harvest International. As Steve recalls, he and I were newbies in June 2012, and it was a “defining moment” for the organization. As a board, we boldly committed ourselves to addressing funding issues, embracing leadership changes, and setting priorities that included program evaluation, which I took on with the Program Committee.

Needing to rigorously document our impact is a good problem to have; it means change is happening and that more and more families are experiencing the Garcia’s story each year. We’ve completed two impact assessment studies since 2012, and I am pleased with our continued success with documenting our impact.

While we are still working on those issues (in a good way!), our significant progress has brought us to another defining moment for the organization. We believe we can have even greater impact.

Our priorities for the coming year indicate that we have our internal house in order and are ready to take on more:
           ·      We are looking outward and considering how to grow and increase impact.
           ·      We are redoubling our efforts to better communicate what we do and the success of our programs.

These current priorities reflect a clear shift from a reactionary mode of addressing pressing challenges to a proactive mode of identifying and taking advantage of new opportunities for growth. 

I feel very fortunate to be taking on the position of board chair at this exciting time, and I am grateful to Steve for preparing the way as we enter a phase of vitality for the organization. We will strengthen our communications, outreach, data systems, evaluations, and programs; all with the goal of expanding our reach by training more families in sustainable farming practices that reduce poverty and environmental devastation. As always, our focus will remain on supporting transformational impact in the lives of families like Candida’s.

Read Steve’s story in Part One, and if you’d like to join us to experience our impact in Central America first-hand like Charlotte, get the details about our upcoming trip to Panama here!