In 2013, three students from UCF went to Haiti on a mission to help improve lives there. Two years later their idea has grown to aid villagers in building healthier lifestyles and stronger immune systems.
Cindy Toledo, a 23-year-old UCF alumna with a bachelor’s in social work, discovered the miracle plant that can change life in Haiti.
“I found a foundation called BioPlanet, which started a foundation for Moringa internationally. Initially, I wanted to start this project in Colombia, but I wanted to leave something while I was in IMO.”
IMO, or International Medical Outreach, is a registered UCF student organization with 170 members. Its mission is to plan medical volunteering trips to impoverished areas of the world.
According to the World Food Programme, 6.1 million of Haitians live in poverty and 2.5 million live in extreme poverty. Even though agriculture is a part of the economy, the country fails to produce enough food.
“Haiti was the permanent project of IMO, and it was the place we literally wanted to plant our seed,” Toledo said. “It’s hard in Haiti — the natural disasters, the poverty, the different health issues. What’s important is that you always see a smile on these individuals, and that’s what motivated me to help and come back.”
Toledo pitched the idea to the members of IMO, but she did not get their full support at first.
“Big things take hard work, and I learned a lot through this process, but when you’re passionate about something and your gut feeling tells you ‘you need to do something,’ you go for it,” she said.
Toledo, along with Cristian Valor and Brittney Ostrehoudt who were IMO executive board members at the time, traveled to Haiti to establish the project. The following trip, they started the socialization of the Moringa project.
“We’ve been to Haiti before, and we gave [people] food and clothing but never anything they had to cherish or care for in order for it to flourish,” Toledo said. “[The Moringa trees] gave the community a reason to wake up in the morning and work for one another. When we planted the seeds the communities came together, the children sang and it was like planting a new start in Haiti.”
The Moringa tree, which is mostly grown in tropical regions, provides nutritional and health benefits from just a single serving. Gram for gram, the tree contains seven times more Vitamin C than an average orange, four times more Vitamin A than carrots, four times more calcium than milk, three times more potassium than bananas and as much protein as an egg. According to the same research project, Moringa also improves health by lowering blood pressure, resisting infections and reducing fever.
Moringa is also planted on UCF property at the Arboretum. Jacques Werleigh, a program assistant at the Arboretum, said there are difficulties in planting the Moringa tree in a new location.
“In Haiti it’s all rock, then underneath that rock there’s soil. Working through rock was a bit difficult,” he said. “There was also a scarcity of water, and in some areas there was a hard access to sunlight.”
The Moringa tree is beneficial because of the leaves it produces. Werleigh said the bark could be replanted to create a Moringa hedge that is also edible. The plant itself processes seeds making it easier to replant and share. In just two weeks people can begin to consume the planted hedge of the Moringa tree. After foliage begins to grow, the Moringa tree planted by the seed can be consumed.
When it comes to taste, the bigger leaves of the tree are compared to horseradish and the smaller leaves have a mild spice flavor.
Since the start of the Moringa project, IMO has continued to take members to Haiti. Kelly Barbosa has been in IMO for four years and said traveling to the developing country was a life-changing experience.
“Working side by side with your colleagues, trying to get as much done in a week changes you,” Barbosa said. “Taking vitals, assessing a person, offering them clothing and medication is amazing. Seeing the smiles on their faces leaves you wanting to go back.”
Eric Prado, IMO’s president and a biomedical science major, said he chose to work with IMO because of its mission to make a difference.
He said he would like IMO members to learn Creole because when traveling to any country the first thing that will build trust is to know the language.
“IMO is run by UCF students, public donations and medical supplies donated by Florida Hospital. That’s how we are able to help the people in Haiti, and without their help this wouldn’t be possible,” Prado said.
During the first planting in 2013, more than 100 trees were planted in Marbial, Haiti. Toledo, along with other members of IMO, distributed more than 500 seeds to the households in the villages and started a community garden. This garden had “Moringa Ambassadors” who were responsible for the sustainability of the project. Tools and other supplies were also given to maintain the growth of the Moringa trees.
The Moringa project will continue to grow in Haiti, and IMO predicts an increase in the next five years.
“It only takes a seed to change the world,” Toledo said.
For more information about IMO visit imoucf.org.