Person of the Week
Administrator (President and Founder of the Mustard Seed Peace Project)
I feel very blessed that I get to do something that I feel so passionate about. The Mustard Seed Peace Project (MSPP) is a grassroots nonprofit whose vision is to support youth in underprivileged countries. Life may not be about working at a job from 9 to 5 to make a lot of money.
1. What led you to the mission of being the president and founder of the Mustard Seed Peace Project?
My husband and I met a young man who was in formation to become a priest at the Oblate community near Godfrey, Illinois. He became friends with my family. After his year was over, my family remained close with this man. When he was ordained, he was sent to Guatemala. He said, “Teresa, you need to come.”
I had met another priest who became a dear friend of our family and this other priest had lived in the same area in Guatemala. He would tell me about his times there for sixteen years. Now I knew two priests working in Guatemala.
I was told I needed to come, but I hesitated. I was a stay at home mom. I still had kids living at home. I prayed about the idea a bit. I wanted to make sure I was going for the right reasons.
I remember the moment I decided to get a passport. I was bringing my son home from the oral surgeon. I was driving along and the idea just hit me, “I have to go to Guatemala.” I told my son, “I’m going to take a leap of faith.” He said, “Which leap of faith is that, Mom?” I said, “I’m going to get my passport.” He said, “Well, OOOO…K!”
So I got my passport although it took me a year. Once I said, “Yes”, to my passport, I was more open to the idea of going to Guatemala. Things kept passing in front of me and flowing toward that idea. Things were going right to take the trip. I took my first trip in 2004.
Honestly, I was blissfully ignorant about the whole idea. I didn’t want to be any other way. I didn’t want to go with expectations. I wanted to go and experience things with a fresh look. I made my first trip to Guatemala and never really anticipated that I would fall in love with the people and the culture as much as I did.
(To learn more about the Mustard Seed Peace Project, click here. The Mustard See Peace Project MSPP is a grassroots non-profit whose vision is to support youth in underprivileged countries. By addressing medical, dental, educational, nutritional, and economic needs, MSPP hopes to empower the native youth to become instruments of change in their homes, communities, and countries.)
I came home and looked at the daunting task of doing the paperwork to become a nonprofit corporation. I was a stay at home mom and I didn’t have an experienced business mind. I looked at the nonprofit paperwork for quite a while. I said, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know what to do.”
A young girl who babysat my children said, “Well, my neighbor is a nonprofit attorney. Do you want me to ask him for you?” This attorney was getting ready to move. He lived on the street on which I grew up. I picked up the phone and called him. I said, “You don’t know me. I was told you were a nonprofit attorney. I need some help.” He said, “I’m moving tomorrow. Could you be here today?” I said, “Absolutely.” I went to his house that afternoon. He worked through all the paperwork with me.
That’s how things happen. I could have just as easily said, “I’m too afraid to call this guy. He is going to think I am crazy. He doesn’t know me.” But I didn’t give in to fear. I called him. That’s how things have happened and I was able to start the nonprofit.
2. What does this mission mean to you?
This is an adventure for me. I have loved the way things have fallen into place. I feel very blessed that I get to do something that I feel so passionate about. It’s like it is a part of me. It’s as if it has always been there within me. I just needed to wait for the right time to experience this idea and have it transpire in my life. I still feel everyday that I don’t know what I am doing, but I’m not afraid. It’s not a fear. It’s exciting and adventurous to wait and see where I’m going to be led to next.
I don’t feel like a president of a nonprofit. I don’t even know what a president is supposed to feel like. I feel like I am following the path that is put before me. It is very exciting for me to be able to be aware of that path. I feel very excited about his path. Everyone’s path is put before them. Some people may not be aware of their path. So I feel lucky that I am aware that I can see my purpose put before me on this path.
3. What was your best day being the president and founder of the Mustard Seed Peace Project?
There was a day when my perspective of what I was doing changed. I had made several trips to Guatemala. It was a long trip and I came home. I felt sorry for the people. I thought, “Oh. I feel so sorry for them. The kids don’t have toys. They don’t have water.” I didn’t want to feel sorry for them because they didn’t want me to feel sorry for them.
Each time I went to Guatemala, I felt something different within me. I saw growth within me. On one trip I was travelling alone on public transportation and I’m not sure why but the bus slowed down along side of the road. I saw this man riding a bicycle. I’ll never forget this moment and I don’t know why it was such a moment of change of perspective for me. He got off his bike and he bent down and picked some flowers to put in his basket. At that moment I thought, “Wait a moment. They are just like me. That is a loving husband picking flowers for his wife. He is going to take those flowers home to his wife. They love their wives and they love their children. They love their home. They love their county.”
That moment was the best because it brought me a change of perspective in what I was doing. It made me realize that people don’t need for me to feel sorry for them. They need me to build a relationship with them. That’s when this project became a project in relationship building. It is not simply me building a relationship with the families in the community. It is about helping women develop relationships with each other and build a women’s economic development program. From that initial relationship, women have built relationships with two other communities in the country who also have a women’s economic development program. So now they have this network of women in the country. I realized relationship development building is the most important thing that I do.
As a result of the Mustard Seed Peace Project, communities have the opportunity to build relationships with universities here in the United States. Also universities in the United States have opportunities to build relationships with universities in Guatemala. Thre is a full circle and Universities in Guatemala City have been able to build relationships with communities. These relationships are going to help the families build sustainable programs to help improve their lives.
That moment seeing the man on his bike and his picking the flowers, sparked in me a whole different perspective. Before I had spent a year thinking about my purpose going to Guatemala. Was I going so I could feel good? No! I didn’t want that to be the reason. In that moment I realized that the people were just like me. We were all building relationships. My blessing to them was going to be to develop relationships that go out to other parts of the country or outside the country. Each time I bless people they are encouraged to bless someone else. The blessings just go on and on.
4. What was your worst day being the president and founder of the Mustard Seed Peace Project?
There can be moments that feel like a worse moment. For instance, when I go to a community there might be a bit of jealousy over who’s going to have me at their house. There can be a struggle that I’m going to have to deal with.
One worse moment was when a man was helping with our nonprofit projects in Guatemala. He was working with the communities on a daily basis. He was my on the ground person. I depended a lot on him. He ended up fleeing the country for safety reasons. In that moment, I was asking myself, “What do I do now? I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t have anybody on the ground.” In that choice I had the moment of giving up and dropping the whole thing or making a trip and becoming who I was – someone who was going to help facilitate these needs and help the people in developing sustainable programs.
In that moment, I grew up. I realized, “OK. You can do this.” So I made the trip to Guatemala. I had a friend who said he would go along with me as translator. I found out a lot of things that were going on with the project and I wasn’t aware of these things. I did a lot of mending of fences and rebuilding bridges. This became the story of my worst day and my best day – if that is possible. The real work or fun began. Here is the reason why.
I realized that things were not really going the way they were supposed to go. We have a little piece of property there – about six acres. I had been trying to get the community to use this property. I went to the property. I wanted to visit and see how things like maintenance were going along. The people said, “This is where the man said we would put our swimming pool.” I said, “What? Do you need a swimming pool?” They said, “No.” I said, “Well frankly, I don’t think you need a swimming pool either. When I go back to the United States and try to get funding for a swimming pool, people are going to laugh in my face.” We sat down right there in that moment. I said, “I need for you to tell me what you need.” They said, “We need education for our children. We need medical care. We want our children to be healthy and strong. We need clean water.” I said, “OK. Those are things that I can help you with. But the swimming pool? I’m not really into helping you with that.” So that was the worst day when this man called and said, “I’m no longer helping you and I won’t be going back.” Or it was my best day because I grew up in that moment and realized that his leaving was giving me the opportunity to get things going the way they were supposed to go.
During that time I started developing real projects with these people. We have relationships with two universities in the United States. Engineering students are doing projects. We have our medical trip every March. This year we’ll also have a group from a university in Mississippi going down. What turned it from my worst to my best day was going down there and stepping a little more into a leadership role on the ground and I did.
5. How did you survive your worst day?
I make it through by realizing it’s not about me it’s about my families in Guatemala. I realize that when I say my “best day” or “worst day”, the day becomes about me. I have to realize that I am not taking this on as something of mine. It’s really not about me. I’ve been going to Guatemala several times a year for almost eleven years. I love the people. So I have to remember it is not about me. It’s about their needs.
6. What advice do you have for someone who would like to have a mission like yours?
I would say first of all to be quiet and listen and not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Once you listen and hear something, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort and find your passion. That would be my advice: be quiet and listen and not be afraid to step out. This comes from my heart.
People ask me how I started the Mustard Seed Peace Project. I have to think back years ago. I was in school as a child and missionaries would come in and talk about other countries. That was when the idea was sparked. I remember thinking, “Wow. I would like to do that.”
But during the years following, I allowed myself not to think of that feeling. Later in life I did think about my passion and I started this nonprofit. I’ve even thought back and wondered, “Gosh if I had done this ten years earlier. Where would I be now?”
I try to encourage my children to do what they are passionate about. It makes a whole difference in your life. Life may not be about working at a job from 9 to 5 to make a lot of money. If you aren’t happy there, what is the point? So my advice is to listen to that feeling and not be afraid to fulfill your purpose.