Elizabeth Lanning, 31, has started an NGO in Manila, helping communities grow urban gardens and get medical care delivered by bicycle. She talks about being inspired by her father, cultivating relationships, and Project Propel’s next programs.
Question: You are the founder and CEO of Project Propel, an NGO that works with disadvantaged communities in the Philippines. What inspired you to start this organization? How long has it been operational?
Answer: Project Propel was first conceptualized during my undergraduate studies (Social Work at Washington Adventist University) but took root while I was completing my Master's of Public Health at Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. While working with an informal settlement of 300 families, I was able to build close relationships, learn more about their daily activities, the troubles they face, and how to include them in the development process. The theories of integration that resonated with my core were validated, and I saw no other way except by working directly with the priority population in order to bring about change.
Project Propel has been operational since December of 2013 and is now a registered 501c3 non-profit organization.
Project Propel's initial and oldest project is helping women to plant vegetable gardens, thus providing them with nutritious and affordable food. When was the first garden planted? How many do you support? Why weren't these Manila communities growing food already?
Project Propel started its first urban garden in 2013, and we now have six self-sustaining gardens. These gardens weren’t already in existence for several reasons. First, there isn’t much open space in metro Manila, which is widely known as one of the most densely populated cities in the world. However, many families actually worked in provincial farming before coming to the city, so they are not new to planting vegetables! We’ve really had to learn from each other to combine new, space-saving, urban gardening techniques with their practical skills and know-how.
Second, for families who live meal to meal, investing and building a garden plot is simply not feasible, so Project Propel helps with that initial set up — from coordinating with the local community officials to getting appropriate spaces approved to providing the funds for the materials needed to get started.
What has been the biggest challenge in the garden program?
Project Propel works predominantly within informal settlements, many of which have been bustling and growing for decades. These are close-knit communities that have cropped up along public areas such as railways and rivers and under bridges and overpasses. Initial entry into these communities was not easy. It was not that they were unaccustomed to well-intentioned people wanting to help. However, I really wanted to take time cultivating friendships and building mutual respect with both the community leaders and the priority populations. I also did not want to be intrusive or undermine their dignity in any way. Once I gained that trust, it felt as if I was being accepted into an extended family which, in retrospect, is really when the programs began to gain momentum.
You are not Filipino, and grew up in the U.S., I believe. Has that fact made it more difficult to do the work you do?
Sure, it took time to get accustomed to a new culture, and I’m still learning new things each day. It takes a lot of listening and observing and asking questions. I have found Filipinos to generally be excited to share their culture, and I’m fortunate that the people I work with have been great teachers!
I was raised in Maryland, but was introduced to the field of humanitarian aid at a young age while my father worked for ADRA. Hearing his stories and accompanying him on some of his project visits was an inspiration for me to do this type of work.
Do you still identify as a Seventh-day Adventist?
I am incredibly grateful for my Adventist upbringing and the healthy spiritual atmosphere in which my parents raised me. I am still very connected to the church and experience joy and fellowship among the religious traditions so many of us share. I do tend to shy away from identifying myself solely based on certain traditions or beliefs and prefer rather to nurture my relationship with our Creator and with all members of humanity as my brothers or my sisters.
Where does Project Propel's primary funding come from?
Project Propel gets its funding from both private donors and grants.
I believe you are now working to provide Medicabs (little health clinics on bicycles) in disadvantaged communities. Why this project specifically? Have you funded any Medicabs already?
Project Propel's Medicabs are custom-made, pedal-driven mobile clinics, equipped with first-aid supplies, materials for health screenings, emergency relief equipment, and a single stretcher.
The idea for the program came about quite naturally while talking with the local health workers. I learned that there was a small number of people visiting the local health clinic for basic health screenings, so we thought of bringing the clinic to them. The local health workers were very enthusiastic about the idea, and the program got underway after some basic sketches and a visit to the local welding shop!
We have Medicabs operating in several communities now, and the welder is currently working on a queue for more orders, all funded by private donors and partnerships with local organizations.
How do you determine which communities to set your projects up in?
Since the first projects started, word of mouth has really brought us from one community to the next. It seems simple, but word travels fast. We haven’t been short on demand! We have been invited to many of our communities by those who have seen our programs and wish to take part in the action. We are well aware that being invited into a community is significant in gaining entry and begins the relationship with a level of trust.
What other projects do you have in the works?
We would like to explore other mobile clinic options and develop arts and writing programs for children and youth.
How many people work for Project Propel?
We are predominantly volunteer based as we are still growing. We have three full-time staff, two part-time, and have plans to expand operations this year to keep up with the demand.
Who are the members of Project Propel's board?
Roberta Plantak is a program manager for Project Propel and also a board member. Like Roberta and me, board member Amanda Barizo grew up in the U.S. though her family is Filipino. Amanda has a full-time job here in Manila with a different organization. Sara-May Colon comes often to the Philippines to work with projects. Boryana Alexandrova is our fifth board member. It is our wish that the board always be involved on the ground in one aspect or another to help maintain the focus of Project Propel on the individuals and communities that we serve.
What are your ultimate goals for Project Propel? How is running an NGO different than you had imagined?
My ultimate goals for Project Propel are to empower individuals and communities and help create an environment for positive growth in the areas of health and wellness. I want Project Propel to remain true to the communities we serve — to always listen, learn, and love people.
Running an NGO is better than I imagined. It requires a lot of work, but the people and moments that stem from each day make each day such a joy. Every day I am inspired to do more, making my job a delight.
What is the best thing about your work?
I enjoy being able to brainstorm with members of the community and help our ideas materialize into unique programs which address their health needs. It is also rewarding to see women who once hid back in their communities now empowered and shining as local leaders.
See www.projectpropel.org for more information about Project Propel.
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