Most people would be slowing down at age 71, but not Sandy Haggart.
“The hardest part is trying not to work too hard (because) then I feel like I’m out of balance,” says Haggart, who founded the nonprofit Feed the Dream (feedthedream.org), a nutrition program for children under 5 and women of reproductive age in remote areas of Guatemala. “We started in 2004 with one village of 150 children, and we are now up to about 11 villages and 2,200 children.”
Raised in La Jolla, Calif., Haggart studied Spanish and education at Northwestern University, graduating in 1965. That’s also where she met her husband, Gil.
“I taught Spanish at Maine West High School for three years after college while I was going to graduate school at night at Northwestern studying Spanish,” says Haggart, who has lived in Glenview for 48 years. “I loved teaching. I loved the kids that age.”
After raising their three daughters (Holly, now 45, Wendy, 43 and Suzanne, 40), Haggart felt the itch to give back. In 2000, she traveled to Guatemala to volunteer for a medical mission, accompanied by Holly — who with her husband was planning to adopt a child from China. That plan changed.
“Holly and I got there, and the people are just incredible — so grateful and open and warm — and she said, ‘We’ve got to adopt from here!’ (By the time) my granddaughter Sarita was adopted, I (realized) Guatemala is ranked No. 4 in the world for poor nutrition. … I said, ‘I can do something about this.'”
Following is an edited conversation.
Q: How often do you go to Guatemala?
A: I take two or three trips a year. It’s very easy to get there too — a flight to Miami, and then another 21/2-hour flight from there. And there’s no time change. I take three donors with me on each trip so that they can experience what they’re already supporting, and it makes a big difference.
Q: What are the living conditions like in these villages?
A: Very rough. These homes are pretty much a dirt floor, cornstalk walls and an open fire pit. The smoke from the fire pits is so dense you can barely stay in there. The Smithsonian says it’s the equivalent to 400 cigarettes an hour. And they’re in there all day long. The water is filled with bacteria, so diarrhea is rampant. We’ll help them install a stove that takes out the smoke and water filters so they can have clean water and clean air to reduce respiratory issues and cataracts. They’re also planting their own gardens — and we’re doing this on patches of land, not acreage. But the basic core of what we do (revolves around better) nutrition.
Q: How does it feel to know you are giving people the tools and education to be able to take care of themselves?
A: When we visit, I sit down and eat with the girls, and they talk about what they’ve learned. One woman — she was an indigenous woman with a second-grade education living in the middle of nowhere in the mountains — looked at me and said, “You are waking us up.” And that sort of says it all.
Q: Do you ever feel like you can’t give enough?
A: No, never. You can walk into a village and the people will be flat and unresponsive, eyes downcast. And then you come back a couple of months later and their self-esteem has just soared and they feel good about themselves, and the babies are bigger and healthier. I just keep doing it and adding villages when others graduate into self-sustainability. It’s amazing.
Q: What advice would you give someone starting a nonprofit?
A: Follow your gut feeling and your passion. If it really means a lot to you — go for it. But use your gut as your compass. And the time commitment is unbelievable! That’s not to say it’s not worth it, but it takes much more time than you think. But it’s much more rewarding than you’d ever think possible too.
Q: Is volunteering something you are born with, or can this passion be learned?
A: I think it’s both. Some people want to do it without being pushed into it, while others might travel and see something around them that shouldn’t be, then they just decide to take the plunge. So it can be inspired too.
Q: How do you find a balance between knocking down doors to get things done, and then surrendering and trusting that things are going to work out?
A: I’m a firm believer that if one door closes, then another one opens. You just have to be open to it yourself and be flexible because (doors close). You may not see the reason right away, but eventually you will. And even with fundraising … I read about someone who really fit our mission, and I didn’t have a lead but I wrote a great letter asking for his support. And I got his secretary, and we went back and forth for six months but it never went anywhere. I was so disappointed. And I didn’t know if I was close to getting somewhere or perhaps she never even showed him my letter — I didn’t know. I was torn. “Do I keep knocking? Do I call again? Or do I let it go?” Eventually, I let it go. I still think about him sometimes. You have to be very patient with fundraising. I’ve learned to be more patient than I ever was before, and then you’re led to where you’re supposed to be.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: We travel a lot. My favorite place is Corvara, Italy. It was just a magical place — serene and breathtakingly beautiful and remote.
Q: Do you have a secret for getting the most out of a trip?
A: I like to go to the smaller, more intimate towns. To see what real life in these towns is like, not what the tourists see. When I travel I like to see things that are real and native and meaningful.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: A lot of our friends do. They’re very solid people and share a philosophy of doing good things and being a good friend.
Q: Do you believe in the adage, “you are the friends you keep”?
A: Oh, yeah. The older you are the more you become aware of that. And I think that’s why the people I surround myself with are the ones who make me a better person.
Q: What would you tell your 22-year-old self knowing everything you know now?
A: Always take advantage of what comes your way. Don’t ever look back and say, “I wish I had …” Always go for it. Pursue what inspires you in any way that you can. I had the opportunity to be an exchange student in college — twice. Once I went to Spain and another time in Mexico. My Spanish family, 52 years later we are still very close. That made a terrific difference. The most worthwhile thing you can do is go out of your comfort zone and get out of yourself and it will awaken you.
Q: What about the naysayers who say, “We have people in the U.S. who need education about nutrition so why are you going all the way to Guatemala?”
A: People do say that, and they’re right, we have needs. But there are agencies to help in the U.S. There’s a support system here. There’s not in the villages of Guatemala. There’s no support system. If I stopped doing what I’m doing there, nobody would step in and take my place. This is a global society and people forget that. We are all connected.