Above: Margaret Trost with the kids at the food program for WhatIf? Foundation in Port-au-prince, Haiti.
Inset: Margaret Trost with the volunteer that cooks the food each week for the 500 children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Network marketing is a vehicle,” we often hear, “a means to multiple ends, rather than an end in itself.” This abstraction takes on the power of the real when we see it translated in the lives of people like Margaret Trost.

With the income and time freedom she’s created through her networking business, Margaret has worked to establish a program that feeds 500 Haitian children in Port au Prince each week. Through a foundation she recently started, she is raising funds to sustain the meal program and other projects that support the community’s vision for a better future.

Even before she embarked on these efforts, Margaret’s network marketing business had already served as an important vehicle for healing after the sudden death of her husband, Rich. When that tragedy slammed into her life, Margaret’s networking income allowed her to take the time she needed to care for her young son and begin recovery from the traumatic loss. In reemerging from grief, Margaret’s focus shifted to service. In retrospect, she sees that while the freedoms her business affords made her work in Haiti possible, the things she learned in the process of building a business provided the means for her commitment.

Turning Outward

“It had been a year and a half since Rich died,” Margaret remembers. “I had been so focused on my own internal process and running my business and taking care of Luke that I was ready to look outside myself and do something very different. I wanted to focus on others outside of the world that I’d known.”

It wasn’t long before she found the perfect opportunity. One evening, Margaret ran into a friend who takes groups of people to Haiti to do volunteer work; in the course of conversation, he asked if she’d like to go, and her spontaneous response was, Yes.

“It was one of those times, a lot like when I first joined my networking company, when your heart responds even before your head has had a chance to kick in.”

She knew nothing about Haiti except that it was impoverished, that she trusted her friend, and that the experience of going from the Bay area, one of the richest places in the world, to the poorest place in the Western Hemisphere, would inevitably be a powerful one.

“What first drew me to networking and to my company,” she says, “was knowing that my business was going to be about serving and assisting others. This was the next step.”

Nine months later, in January of 2000, she was on a plane with 13 others, bound for Haiti and Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity Orphanage and Home for the Destitute and Dying, for two weeks of volunteer service. She chose to work with adult women who were dying of disease.

“Under their mattresses was everything they owned, which was often just a rosary. Some of the women looked like they were 60—but were actually in their twenties! I brought my company’s lotion and gave massages and held their hands. With my limited French, we couldn’t communicate very well, but love doesn’t need any words. I felt honored to have the opportunity to be with these people.”

One evening, a Catholic priest, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, came to speak to the group. In response to a question about children, he made a few tangential remarks that, for Margaret, stood starkly apart from the rest. He said, “I have a vision of a food program for the children in my church. They come to me on Sundays asking if I have any food in the cupboard, and I have to tell them no.” Margaret was electrified.

“When he said that, there was something that clicked inside me. I knew I could help him without knowing why or how.”

She said nothing at the time, but got the priest’s address and left for California with a strong feeling of connection to his vision. In February, a series of serendipitous events brought $5000 her way, earmarked for a worthy cause. She contacted Father Jean-Juste and three weeks later, in March, his church was serving food to hungry children. His vision was realized—just two months after he’d voiced it to the group.

“What If...?”

In July, Margaret made another trip to Haiti, this time to see meals being served and to lend a helping hand. She saw that it was real—through the efforts of nearly 60 volunteers, the “Feed My Lambs” food program, as Father Jean-Juste calls it, was serving 500 children every Sunday. Each week, the volunteers buy food in the market from the local farmers to cook a stew of vegetables, rice, and chicken over an open fire. All children are welcome; any leftovers go to adults. She spent the visit chopping carrots and cabbage, stirring the huge pot, and serving food.

More trips followed; prior to one, she decided to do a toy drive. She’d observed the children playing soccer with a crushed tin can and using rocks for games, so through her son’s school, Margaret sent out a note to parents inviting them to donate extra toys. The outpouring was huge; in a few short days, her living room was so full of toys she could hardly walk.

“That’s when I realized that the concept I learned in networking marketing—a lot of people each doing a little—could be applied here, too. Everyone going through a few drawers in their house meant more toys than I could possibly bring in one trip. I thought, what if everybody did a little bit, what kind of difference could we make for the children in that community? It’s not a new concept, but suddenly I saw the power of it. I’d seen it in my business: here I was seeing it extended to something different. What’s possible?, I wondered—and I realized that I was committed for life.”

In this spirit, she started the What If? Foundation to keep the meal program growing. Father Jean-Juste soon expanded the vision. Standing in front of the church rectory together—a shell of a building where the meals are served but which has no running water—Father Jean-Juste pointed to the open dust and gravel lot surrounding it.

“He said, ‘Look, Margaret, over there to the left, that’s where the school goes. We’ll start with the first floor for the kindergarteners, and as we have more money, we’ll build up to first and second grade floors. To the right is the health center, I see it right there, and over here we’ll be serving lunch—they’ll be able to learn with food in their stomachs! Over there will be a recreation center, where the students can play and they’ll have soccer balls. I see these roads paved, I see these people at work, I see the children healthy. I see it all, Margaret, do you see it?’ If you can see that looking at hungry children in a community with impassable roads, no sewage system, no consistent electricity, and no running water for five years—that’s vision.”

Now the mission of the What If? Foundation has expanded to include skills training for adults in sewing and sustainable agriculture, and educational scholarships. Because there is no public school system in Haiti, many children never get an education—private schools typically cost a prohibitive $250 a year. The long-term goal of the What If? Foundation is to build the school Father Jean-Juste has envisioned. Thanks to her experience in network marketing, Margaret feels equipped to help make it happen.

“I’ve learned in my business about building belief; about creating a vision before you see any glimpse of it becoming reality; about hanging in there through the obstacles; about creating a plan and having goals you’re excited about; about sharing a story—and I’ve been applying all of that to this foundation.” Indeed, she’s funded the meal program so far entirely through word of mouth. Talking to people in her company, her customers, and other friends, family, and faith communities, is all she’s done until very recently to raise money—and they haven’t missed a meal in two and a half years. To raise more still, she’s developed a Web site, a video and brochure about the foundation so that she can reach a wider range of potential contributors. They’re close now to serving a second meal each week.

“Peti, Peti N’Arive”

This past summer, Margaret realized that if she really wanted to become effective, she needed to learn the spoken language, Creole, and spend more time in the community.

“I don’t have a separate vision for them,” she explains, “I really feel strongly that the vision comes from them and I help make it happen. The people there already have extraordinary talent and ability, they just don’t have resources.” She decided to go for two months.

Of course, that meant leaving her business for two months. She would not have a phone or e-mail while away. Before leaving, she wrote all her customers and held strategy meetings with her team to help them create plans of action for her absence. Sure enough, her customers kept ordering, her leaders continued building—and her checks kept coming in like they always did.

“Network marketing has allowed me to go down frequently and pay for my travel expenses; to leave my business for two months—goodbye!—and have it be there when I get back is just amazing. I didn’t really think about it at all when I was gone.”

During the day, she worked on the programs, and by night read stories to her son by flashlight. After her third week, however, Margaret became overwhelmed by the poverty and the enormity of the challenges she saw around her.

“It seemed like everywhere I turned there was a hungry child asking for food,” she recalls. “I began to question everything: ‘What little difference can one person make, what am I thinking?’ I felt depressed and completely inadequate.” That Sunday at the food program, they ran out of food for the first time. People came into the kitchen, holding out their hands for whatever could be scraped from the bottom of the pot. The food had been swallowed up by the need.

The next day, she was reminded of the motto Father Jean-Juste had shared with her: “Peti, peti n’arive,” which is Creole for “Little by little, we will arrive.” He’d seen people come time and again with the best of intentions, only to get overwhelmed and give up. Margaret knew from her network marketing business how tempting it can be to quit without a long-term commitment and strong reason to be involved. She recognized that she’d lost sight of her “why” for all the worries about how to achieve the vision.

“Why I was there was out of love for these people and to show solidarity with them and their struggle. I lost sight of the simplicity of that why and got bogged down in the ‘how.’ I realized that network marketing prepared me for this.”

She committed to adopt his view and never look back—peti, peti n’arive, a great big vision, broken down into small, achievable parts. A vision for a community, starting with a meal. The next networking lesson she’ll apply to the project? “Duplication! I’m bringing people with me next time.”

The What If? Foundation's Goals

Provide nutritious meals each week to several thousand children through the “Feed My Lambs” food program.

Provide at least 50 scholarships in 2002-2003 to families who cannot afford to enroll their children in school.

Provide funding for sewing and embroidery classes where children and their mothers can learn skills to help combat the 80 percent unemployment rate in Haiti.

Build a new school for primary, elementary and secondary age children with a library, health clinic and recreation center.

Provide funding for the development of a vegetable garden on the land surrounding the building where the meal program is served.

Donations can be sent to The What If? Foundation, 1563 Solano Ave., #192, Berkeley, CA 94707. For more information or to request a videotape about the food program, you can call 888-228-8020 or visit www.whatiffoundation.org

Uma Outka is a contributing writer
for Networking Times.