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Classic Woman Awards 2014

Meet five amazing women who represent the best in American caring and giving.

Written by Rebecca Christian
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Margaret Trost

What If? Foundation

Berkeley, California

Margaret Trost didn’t choose her cause. It chose her. In 1999, she was asked to volunteer in a Haitian orphanage and hospice. It wasn’t a good time. She had been recently widowed, had a young son, and ran a business from her home. Nonetheless, she recalls, “My heart spoke before my mind had time to catch up.” She almost canceled the trip, but something told her not to.

What she saw in Haiti—hunger and  poverty “spread out for miles and miles in all directions”—became her life’s mission. Afterward, “I could not go back to my life. The world is a mosaic, and each of us is called by a little piece of it.” In Haiti, she met Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest and passionate advocate for the poor. He dreamed of a food program for children in Ti Plas Kazo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. She wondered: What if I could help his vision become a reality? Within weeks of her return, Margaret raised $5,000. Soon 500 children were being served meals once a week. 

Since it was founded in 2000, What If? has helped raise more than $4.5 million to fund more than 6,000 meals each week, nearly 200 scholarships a year, an after-school program, summer camps, and the eventual building of a new school. Margaret tells the story of the Haitians’ plight stateside, working with members of the Haitian community who run the programs. “They know best what they need,” she says. (For some children, the meal they are given is their only one of the day.) “It’s an extraordinary partnership, built on trust, faith, commitment, and a shared vision.”

If the organization’s story was a movie, it would be dramatic. Margaret says, “The programs we support have survived a coup d’état in 2004, Father Jean-Juste’s arrests as a political prisoner for speaking out against the coup, hurricanes, a rice price crisis in 2008, Father Jean-Juste’s death in 2009, an earthquake in 2010, cholera, more hurricanes, and having to build new buildings.” 

Margaret had no experience in international relations, nonprofit development, or public health when she set out to feed Haiti’s children. She was simply a mother who saw a desperate, unmet need—and took to heart a Haitian proverb: “Little by little, we will arrive.”