Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Sarah Kennedy

Leaf Litter talks with Sarah Kennedy, the Outreach Director for Sustainable Harvest International.

By Amy Nelson

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Sarah Kennedy is Outreach Director for Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), a non-profit organization that provides farming families in Central America with the training and tools to overcome poverty while restoring our planet’s tropical forests. Fueled by a passion to create meaningful connections between people in the U.S. and the communities served by SHI’s programs, Sarah established SHI’s Smaller World program. This unique program provides the incredible opportunity to directly support SHI’s work and meet the people the organization serves by taking part in service-oriented trip.

In addition to traveling with many of the Smaller World groups, Sarah oversees the organization’s publications, media outreach and coordinates events. Before joining SHI, Sarah served as a volunteer coordinator for a small Nicaraguan organization specializing in service learning and rural sustainable development.

For anyone who is not familiar with Sustainable Harvest International, can you tell us a little about the organization?

Sustainable Harvest International was founded in 1997 by Florence Reed, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Panama. SHI works with farming communities in Central America. We have programs in Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua and Panama. We hire local staff and provide hands-on training in a variety of techniques that families use to improve their quality of living while restoring the natural environment.

Our local staff members are really the key to the great deal of success we’ve had in a relatively short time. We have been around as an organization for just 11 years now, but in that amount of time we have worked with 1,800 families in 123 communities. It’s been great for me to see the organization grow since I first started. We now have 48 local field staff – we call them Field Trainers or Extension Agents – in Central America. We have seven staff members handling administrative support, development and outreach here in the U.S.

That brings us to your role as Outreach Director. What is your background, and what do you do at SHI?

I have a degree in Spanish and International Relations from the University of Maine and the University of Costa Rica in San Jose. I grew up on a farm in Maine, but I have learned a lot about agriculture – especially tropical agriculture – through SHI. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be involved with hands-on agricultural work through the organization.

I’ve been working with SHI for six years. I started with development and fundraising and then had the opportunity to move into education and outreach. My passion is to build awareness about our programs to address poverty and deforestation and educate people here in the United States about opportunities to get involved with the work we are doing in Central America.

As Outreach Director, I do a variety of educational outreach programs here in the U.S., including speaking engagements and events. I work very closely with our publications coordinator to raise awareness about our programs through newsletters, our web site, email updates, etc. I’m currently working on a short documentary about our program in Honduras. In addition to that, I started and oversee our Smaller World program.

What led you to start the Smaller World program?

As an organization, we are dedicated to keeping our administrative overhead as low as possible. We have a small group of core supporters, and we wanted to provide opportunities for these donors to go down and see our work in person. We believe it was important for us to be able to say, for example, “your $50 donation represents the amount of materials and staff support that go into building a wood-conserving stove for one of the families with whom we’re working in Central America.” We wanted them to be able to see that stove and actually meet the families, if they wanted to. So, initially, the program was an opportunity to demonstrate our work to the people who are supporting it, but it has grown to be much more than that.

The Smaller World program is now no longer just for people who are currently supporting our work. We see it as a way to reach out to people who may not have heard of us and expose them to our programs through an alternative vacation opportunity. It has grown to be much more than an opportunity for people to go down and see donations at work. It’s now an opportunity for people to get involved and get their hands dirty through meaningful volunteer opportunities. Our hope is that participants are returning to their home communities and being our SHI ambassadors all over the country. We have a very small staff here in the U.S., so we really depend on people who have taken part in our Smaller World tours to share what they learn with their communities when they return home.

How did the Smaller World program transition from demonstrating your work to supporters to providing people with an opportunity to combine their interests in ecology, volunteerism and travel to interesting places?

A lot of it came from the feedback we got from the families with whom we were working. They were very excited to have people come and see the work in person. It means a great deal to them. Realistically, in Central America, there is plenty of manpower available, but working side-by-side to, say, plant a garden with people you know have come a long way and are genuinely interested in the project provides a great deal of encouragement and enthusiasm in the communities we work with. The local staff and families were really excited by the first Smaller World trips. They requested more volunteer assistance. Since then, we’ve had an outpouring of interest. It began with the first groups of supporters and then branched out from there. A lot of individual travelers will contact us, but we also have many school groups, community groups and congregations. People learn about us through word of mouth, or by researching on line.

It sounds like there is a not a typical Smaller World traveler, then. Is that true?

Initially, we had a lot of student groups. I really like working with the students, particularly those of high school age. They have so much enthusiasm and you can really see the lasting impacts that these trips have on high school students from the U.S. who go to rural Central America and have personal interactions with the host families. It is a life-changing experience for them.

But we work with people of all ages. We have an Elderhostel group, for example, that’s going to be coming to Belize. We have college students who are working on business or micro-finance who are interested in helping our families with marketing. We have families who want to do something a little different for their vacations and expose their children to a different way of life.

SHI works to alleviate poverty while restoring the environment. What are some of the threats to the tropical rainforests in the areas where you’re working?

In the areas where we work, the traditional form of agriculture is called “slash and burn” farming. Historically, slash and burn farming worked well. Small groups of families would clear an area of forest, burn the trees and use the ash as a fertilizer for their crops. The family would plant their crops on that piece of land for one or two growing seasons. But in the tropics, there are heavy rains, and without root systems of the trees that were once there, the ash and the topsoil quickly erode away. At this point the family would move on, clear another section of forest and repeat the process.

The system of slash and burn is dependent on low population growth and large tracts of forest available to burn and replenish the soil. But what we’re finding is that with more than half of Central America’s forest destroyed by agricultural expansion, the most impoverished families are left with very little land to farm. This system is no longer working for them.

The big tracts of land in flat areas have been bought up by large businesses. Small and impoverished farmers are being forced onto steep hillsides and very small pieces of land. They’re still trying to practice the same techniques of slash and burn farming, and it’s not working for them anymore. Families desperate to provide food for their children are abandoning their land looking for new pieces of forest to burn or migrating to dangerous urban slums.

Many families are coming to SHI and asking for support because they want to stay on the land and restore what little is left of the natural environment. They want to learn techniques that they can use to grow food on one piece of land year after year without needing to destroy the forest which protects their watersheds and provides valuable resources to their communities.

What are some of the techniques your field trainers are teaching to local farmers?

Typically, our field trainers work with an individual family for about five years on their land. Initially, we look at basic needs. To begin addressing family nutrition, they help families to grow small vegetable gardens.

They also work to help families transition from growing staple crops – things like corn, rice, beans and coffee – using slash and burn to something more sustainable. They teach things like making compost, mulching techniques and small-scale crop rotation. We do a lot with agro-forestry projects as well, where you plant an upper story of hardwood trees for long-term crops like mahogany and rosewood; a middle story of crops like coffee, cacao and plantain; and a lower story of different spices like vanilla, cardamom, etc. That way, they have a great diversity of different crops that they’re able to sell and use to feed their family.

Is the historical slash and burn farming technique the main ecological threat you’re addressing in all four countries?

Slash and burn is the big one. Agricultural expansion in general is the leading cause for deforestation in Central America and throughout most of the tropics. But it’s all really a cycle. You have families who have been practicing slash and burn whose land isn’t productive anymore so they’ve moved. Maybe they are tenant farmers, and they’ve been removed from their land. Maybe the land owner has come in with cattle and they’re growing grass there. Families are being pushed further and further to an economically impoverished situation, so we’re really looking at both of those situations together. If families can meet their basic needs, they really are dedicated to improving and protecting the environment.

The combination of poverty with large scale deforestation leads to many other side problems, like malnutrition, poor education programs, and water contamination. One of the challenges of SHI’s work – but also one of the benefits – is that our mission includes a variety of projects. The scope of the programs in each community is defined by goals that the individual family members are setting with the field trainer that is working with them.

So in that initial year, they are looking at transitioning from slash and burn to more sustainable methods for their basic crops like corn, beans and coffee. Moving on from there, they are looking at diversifying their growing and doing some small scale projects like building a wood-conserving stove, which reduces the amount of trees that need to be cut down for firewood, but also really improves the health conditions of the women and children who spend a lot of time in the home where they just have an open fireplace. Those open fireplaces produce toxic smoke and soot that studies have shown are equivalent to smoking as many as eight packs of cigarettes a day! You can image the health implications that would have on a household.

Our programs include many different projects that vary depending on the needs of individual families and communities. One challenge we face as an organization is explaining our holistic approach to funders here in the U.S. Many foundations want to fund only one type of project. Our local staff members look at a wide variety of issues that might be impacting a community. Through sustainable agriculture, we’re able to tie it all together.

Can you describe a typical Smaller World trip?

During our typical ten-day trip, our first day is a travel and orientation day, where the volunteers will go out and meet with the families they’ll be working with throughout the week, see the project in person, and get an overview of the scope of SHI’s work in that community. They get to interact with the families.

We encourage our travelers to do home stays where they actually share meals and spend additional time with the families and make some real, personal connections. Then, our volunteers work on local farms for most of the week.

Usually, on the last two days of the trip, we do some kind of R&R or sightseeing. We do a mix of volunteer activities, cultural activities, and some fun excursions at the end.

If you ask people what their favorite aspect of the trip is, overwhelmingly, it’s the personal connections with the families and the volunteer projects. Most people don’t even get around to talking about hiking to the waterfall or exploring the Mayan ruins. It’s good for our travelers to decompress at the end of the trip and it’s good to see another part of the country or be exposed to another culture, but most groups say they’re interested in spending more time in their new host community than doing the tourist thing.

What are some of the trips SHI has planned for the coming months?

We have trips in all four countries coming up. I’d recommend the Family Voluntourism trip for anyone who has children and is looking for an opportunity to expose their kids to service work and an alternative to Disneyworld or watching Sponge Bob all summer. This is a family-oriented trip where our groups stay at Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize. We have a great partnership with Cotton Tree Lodge. They have been very generous in their support of our work in the communities around their lodge. They also host the SHI-Belize demonstration and training garden right at the lodge. We bring staff from the lodge as well as families from the surrounding communities to the lodge to see the work in person. If a family only has a small piece of land, they’ve only been growing one crop on that land for generations, they’re no longer making any money, and we encourage them to diversify, then that can be very scary. Our local field trainers invite these families to the demonstration garden where they can see the techniques we’re teaching on land similar to their own. Workshops and demonstrations provide the families with the training and confidence they need to try something new.

In Panama, we have an educator’s workshop coming up. We’ll have teachers from other parts of the world come together and help with volunteer projects during the mornings. Then in the afternoons, we’ll have workshops around curriculum development programs that we can implement in Central America and they can go home and work on in their own school communities.

We have lots of trips coming up that do not have a specific focus. Volunteers will take part in a variety of projects, ranging from gardening to tree planting to building wood-conserving stoves.

Other trips may be more defined. We’re hoping to do a beekeeping workshop in Honduras. The donation amount of the volunteers’ program fees will go toward providing materials for building hives and beekeeping supplies for the families. Then there will be a training workshop for the volunteers and the host community on beekeeping skills, honeymaking, different products that can be made from wax, etc. That trip comes from a specific community in Honduras that would like to do something with beekeeping but doesn’t currently have the ability to do so.

So SHI can actually customize trips to address specific needs that different communities might have?

All of the projects that our volunteers work on are projects that the communities have specifically requested. The funds to make those projects possible come from the program fees that participants pay to go on the trip.

Do you have hotel/lodge partnerships similar to your arrangement with Cotton Tree Lodge in the other countries in which you have programs?

Our partnership with Cotton Tree Lodge is unique among our country programs. The rural districts outside of Toledo, Belize, where we work do not have eco-lodges located in the communities. Cotton Tree Lodge is dedicated to protecting the cultural and natural beauty of the surrounding communities and makes a wonderful partner for our local program. In the other countries, we have rustic dormitories and home stay opportunities. Volunteers actually stay with a host family in a small group and then you come together as a larger group to take part in tourism and volunteer projects during the day.

Your trips have economic, cultural, public health, social and environmental components. Are most of your travelers interested in just one of those areas?

Initially, yes. They are usually most interested in one aspect of our work. One of the really nice things I’ve found in working with our volunteer groups, though, is that they come away with a broader understanding and greater appreciation of how all of these aspects fit together and how there are interconnected cycles of poverty, deforestation and malnutrition. Simply by empowering local people to make changes within their own community, we’re seeing some solutions to these issues.

[Before people sign up for our trips] we ask them why they want to volunteer. Is it because they want that nice, warm feeling inside from doing something to help others? Is it because they feel like they can make an impact on our planet? We ask them to think about what the impact of a trip like this would be. The cost of one of our typical ten-day, rustic trips to Honduras is just over $1,000. Once you add in take care of immunizations, plane tickets and passports, people will be spending close to $2,000 for a vacation during which they will be volunteering. What would the real benefit be if they just donated that funding to an organization like ours? We ask our volunteers to think about that. Our hope is that the impact of them seeing the work in person and having a personal connection to our program will be tenfold. Perhaps when they return, they’ll do a fundraiser or give a presentation for their local school or congregation.

Cost is such a barrier to this kind of trip for so many people. How does the cost of a Smaller World trip compare to the cost of a leisure or ecotourism trip to similar destinations?

As far as other service trips offered by other organizations, we are very competitive and usually less expensive than other options. Something to keep in mind is that we donate at least 20% of the program fee directly to the local partner organization we’re working with: Sustainable Harvest Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua or Panama program. What we ask of them is that they use these funds as they best see fit within the boundaries of our mission, and we ask that the volunteers get to participate in the way the funds are used so they can see their donations in action. Whether it’s buying some chimneys for wood-conserving stoves that the group helps construct, purchasing some chicken wire for an animal husbandry project, or buying tree seedlings that the group will plant, the travelers get to hear about how the funds are being spent when they get home and get updates on the projects they took part in.

Our trips really do not compare to your typical, tropical vacation. We’re off the beaten path and interacting with local communities. Because of the nature of the areas that we’re in, you don’t see a lot of tourist accommodations. This is something we’re also very aware of. We want to make sure that the tourist dollars that we are bringing into these communities are staying in the communities and helping them to establish sustainable tourism opportunities. After hosting our group of volunteers, maybe they can host another group of tourists in the future.

Where does the remaining 80% of SHI’s program fee go?

We seek out the most remote areas that are in need of our assistance. We look for areas where there is the greatest demonstration of need and also the ability to work within our organization and our programs. So we are in areas where, typically, there aren’t any other organizations – government or nongovernment. So in-country transportation can be a major aspect of the cost. For example, once you arrive in Managua, Nicaragua we fly you out to Bluefields, which is a port city on the Caribbean coast, across the country. From there, getting into our area of Nicaragua can involve traveling by mule or small boat deep into the jungle.

Administrative support is a small portion – about 10% – of the program fee. Then there is staff support. We always have a trip leader coming with the group. All meals, accommodations and tours are also included. People can bring a little bit of money for souvenirs, but really everything is taken care of with the program fee.

Have you seen any change in enrollment in recent months, with the fragile economic situation?

It’s something we have been paying very close attention to, but we have seen a continual increase in interest in our programs. The types of groups that are already organized and want to do these kinds of trips, like congregations and schools, are still doing them. Most of these groups are fundraising to cover their trip expenses. They may be working harder to meet their fundraising goals, but they are still meeting them and still interested in doing these trips. Family groups and people who are interested in this as an alternative vacation, still seem to be traveling. I think there is a growing interest in these sorts of travel opportunities. We currently have more interest in these trips than we are able to staff.

In 2004, we did two trips. I was just working on projections for the next fiscal year and I think we are going to do 22 trips. We have a lot of school groups, summer camps, etc. that may do every other year.

For people for whom cost is a barrier, does SHI help with fundraising?

While we don’t directly have a scholarship program, SHI is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and our program fees are tax-deductible, as is any donation to SHI for our core program. A lot of our groups get business sponsorships. A lot of people work for a company that has a corporate giving or company match program. That can be very helpful. A lot of the student groups are able to apply for scholarships. We are also able to suggest fundraising and event ideas.

Does SHI offer participants any fundraising tools, such as print materials, a web site where supporters can donate on line, etc?

People making contributions toward someone’s trip can certainly go to the regular donation link on our web site and add a note in the comment section. We have a list of suggested fundraising ideas. For us, as an organization, it’s really a win-win. When someone is holding a fundraising event, it’s really an awareness building event for us as well. People will do a fundraising dinner, show a video or presentation, car washes, bake sales, fun runs. We are definitely available to help brainstorm some of those activities and provide literature and materials.

If someone is able to get the funds together to take a trip like this, what is the return on investment for the traveler, the community, the planet and SHI?

That’s a difficult question, because so many of the benefits are intangible. As far as tangible results, we’ve raised literally thousands of dollars for our programs in Central America from the donation portion of the program fee. Those have gone toward planting gardens, building stoves, doing reforestation projects, irrigation projects, and any number projects our volunteers have gotten involved in.

In addition to that, among people who were already supporting our programs, we see a significant increase in the donations they give to the organization when they return home. I think a lot of that has to do with the personal connections they’ve made and knowing the funds can be given directly to the community they’ve been involved with. They also know they can trust the organization to carry out the work. They are seeing how the money is invested in the local communities. That has certainly been beneficial in terms of a return on investment for the organization.

For the communities we’re working with, the feedback we have received from them is that it’s been a huge boost of morale for them. It really means a lot to the families to have people come and volunteer and stay with them and see what their lives are like in Central America.

Environmentally, all of the programs are having a significant impact – both locally, for the communities who are depending on the local environment for food, shelter and all of their resources, and on a larger scale. As a planet, we’re very dependent on the tropical forests in Central America. They’re sort of the lungs of our planet and provide us all with the clean air we depend on. Our tropical forests mitigate climate change, protect watersheds, and provide habitat for plants and animals.

Have you ever attempted to quantify the ecological benefits/results of your programs?

We have planted in excess of two million trees in Central America with our families and volunteer groups. We just completed an official carbon survey that shows that we sequestered 73,425 pounds of carbon from our tree planting efforts alone. We have converted 9,000 acres of land to sustainable uses, thereby saving more than 45,000 acres from slash and burn destruction. Our local staff estimates that for every one acre of land that is converted to a sustainable form of agriculture, they’re saving approximately five acres from slash and burn. We’ve built over 700 wood-conserving stoves, and we estimate that that has saved more than 7,000 trees.

On SHI’s web site, there is a page devoted to stories and testimonials from the field. In your experience running these trips, is there a story that stands out that illustrates the intangible return on investment of your trips?

I have so many stories. In February, we were working in a community near the larger town of Trinidad in the department of Santa Barbara in Honduras. I was with a women’s group from D.C. area. One of the projects they were involved with was helping the families to make bocachi, which is a Japanese form of compost made by fermenting ingredients. The women in this community had very little land; most of them do not own their property, and the land that they did have was on ledge slopes with little or no top soil to speak of. The local field trainer, Roy Lara, was working with them to build raised beds filled with bokachi compost.

These women knew that we were coming, and in preparation, they had harvested used bean stalked, coffee pulp, sugar cane, and all these materials to make the compost with, and hauled it to their location. Our volunteers were able to help mix the materials, build up raised beds, and do some planting. We also got involved in a community reforestation project where we planted tree seedlings with local school children around the village watershed.

I just received some current photos of that area, and it looks beautiful. We went from seeing this ledge hillside where nothing was growing to these beautiful gardens full of tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers and many other vegetables the families didn’t have access to before. Now they’re able to harvest them, eat them, and sell them locally. The women’s group from D.C. is planning to go back next year. One of the women just turned 65, and she asked all of her friends and family to make a contribution to support the ongoing work in that community as a birthday gift to her. We’re seeing donations coming in already.

That’s a great story and a great example of how incorporating eco-voluntourism into an organization’s programs can create a widespread, growing cadre of ambassadors. Are you sharing this strategy with other non-profits who have programs in other parts of the world?

One experience I’ve had to be able to share this has been through the Changemaker Geotourism Challenge, a competition hosted by Changemakers, National Geographic and Ashoka. They set up a web site where you can write a proposal about what you’re doing and view what other organizations are doing. (Check out SHI’s entry in the Geotourism Challenge)

What would you say to a potential trip participant who is worried about safety?

I get lots of calls about safety, usually from parents of kids who are traveling. I explain that I am down there by myself regularly and have never experienced anything that would be more dangerous than traveling anywhere else, including the U.S. Most importantly, it’s essential to let people know that we have been invited to come to these communities, and families really do treat us as honored guests. The local staff members take good care of us and welcome us into their homes and communities. We have long-standing relationships in these communities and only go to areas where the villagers have requested our presence and support.

What is one of the key lessons you have learned since starting the Smaller World program over five years ago?

That personal connections are invaluable.

I give presentations about our work all over the country. I send out grant proposals. I work on all sorts of fundraising techniques. I’m always telling people about our work. But nothing compares to having someone see the programs in person. From talking to the families who are growing cacao…to meeting women whose lives have been changed by having a stove in their house so they no longer have to spend hours each day collecting firewood and aren’t breathing toxic smoke throughout the day while they cook food or their families …to meeting kids who say they pay better attention in school now that they have a full stomach …to parents who tell you that their kids are going to be the first generation in their family to go to high school because their family is able to sell a watermelon crop for the first time. That hands-on experience is invaluable, as far as educational outreach for our organization.

Does SHI have any plans to expand its mission and Smaller World program to other parts of the world?

We have a huge waiting list of families that would like to work with us – within and outside of the countries in which we’re working. With the model that we use as an organization, all of our programs in Central America are moving towards becoming independent affiliates of Sustainable Harvest International.

Honduras, for example, is our longest running program. They’re now an independent NGO called Sustainable Harvest Honduras (Fundacion Cosecha Sostenible Hondurano in Spanish). They have their own, independent board of directors, and they’re making their programming decisions locally. Their board of directors is made up of local community leaders and people who have graduated from our program and have seen success. While they’re still receiving funding from the international organization, as they become more independent, our hope is that we will be able to spread our resources to new areas, in Central America and eventually in other parts of the world as well.

What advice do you have for people who might be interested in combining volunteerism with tourism and an interest in the environment? How do you recommend someone find a program that’s most appropriate?

Do your research. If you’re looking at partnering with a non-profit organization, I recommend looking at web sites that rate organizations on their administrative overhead, costs, etc. Charity Navigator is a good one.

Look for an organization that meets what you’re looking for as a volunteer and as a traveler. Look for an organization that is working in a part of the world that you’ve always wanted to visit or an organization that is doing the type of work you’ve always had an interest in.

Our trip participants come from all over the country and have a wide variety of backgrounds ranging from people with experience in agriculture to others who might want to take meaningful vacation with their grandchildren. We had a computer programmer who works in an office all day long and may have never hammered a nail or planted a garden but really wanted to do something different on his vacation. He told me afterwards that traveling and volunteering in Central America was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. Even if you don’t know anything about agriculture, that shouldn’t limit you from taking part in one of our projects. At least with our organization, you don’t have to have any hands-on experience because we provide the training and tools. You just need to bring your enthusiasm and an open mind.

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