a bit on the origins of Vida Plena and the motivations that unpin our work
by Joy Bittner, Vida Plena creator (Quito, Ecuador – July 2022)
I sit alongside Maria, piles of colorful beads strewn out on the table before us. Looking through the glass window, I catch glimpses of the Andean volcano, Taita Imbabura – “Mother Imbabura” in Ecuadorian Kichwa. Slowly, in the space of hours and days spent together over the stretch of years, stories begin to be strung one at a time.
Maria lowers her eyes to the beads she’s threading, and her voice drops to a whisper. Because she doesn’t use terms like “mental illness,” “major depression disorder” or “suicidal ideation” the lasting pain and impact she describes from losing her husband feels more human, more tragic than when it’s hidden behind formal, clinical phrases.
A number of years ago I found my old journal from my very first trip outside of the US, a visit to Honduras with my university group. To my chagrin, I saw in the bubbly handwriting of an 18-year-old girl the nauseating cliché, “it’s amazing- everyone is so poor, but yet they are still so happy!” Now, after 15 years of living and working alongside people throughout Latin America, I wish I could gently explain to that enthusiastic, but naïve former self, that my inability to understand Spanish resulted in a level of superficiality in all my interactions. While admiring the simple, yet genuine, beauty of people’s friendliness and generosity, I had missed deeper human tragedies hiding in the background.
A decade ago, I arrived in Ecuador to lead a fair-trade jewelry company, thinking I would stay for just a year or two. Now, when people ask me why I’ve stayed so long, I joke it’s because I fell in love – with the mountains. But the real story is that I fell in love with the people of Latin America, and mostly because God has been molding and shaping the course of my entire life.
I stumbled into Effective Altruism as many of us do, through random google searches. I probably typed into that blinking search bar something like “how to find purpose?”. I had been praying for years for God to give me a clear calling, a path to follow. While I loved working with the artisans, like Maria, in the jewelry company, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to do something that would reach more than a handful of people.
I don’t want to be flippant and say that God spoke to me through a Facebook post. But I was instantly taken by an article about the Zimbabwean mental health organization, The Friendship Bench, thrilled to find that this was not just another NGO hoping to do good, but had a tremendous body of peer-reviewed studies showing their impact. That post provided me with the inspiration to set up a new nonprofit dedicated to providing depression treatment to marginalized communities in Latin America.
Earlier in my life, I never imagined that I would seek to launch a new organization. I didn’t think of myself as the entrepreneurial type, but when I look back, I see that God has been gently nudging me, ever so gently to this precise point. Vida Plena, which means “a flourishing life” in Spanish, was born out of a well-worn desire to help people who are living with the challenges that come from poverty. It was what I’d missed all those years ago in Honduras; physical needs are easy enough to spot, but the suffering caused by poor mental health is often vastly overlooked.
“My son ran away – I can’t come into work today”. Even over the poor connection of a cheap cell phone, the fear is clear in Maria’s voice. As the oldest child, despite being only 12 years, her son was under a lot of pressure, taking on a lot of extra responsibilities at home. Fortunately, later that afternoon the phone rang again. “We found him – he cut school and was hiding out at a friend’s house. I think I might kill him myself,” were the well-worn words of a mother who has been worrying for hours, immense relief flavored with frustration.
In some ways, Maria is a great example of the positive impact that social business can have on poverty. When we first met, she was struggling financially, occasionally working for a neighbor. When my manager decided to offer her full time work, I was hopeful that a consistent salary, flexible working hours, and full health benefits (all part of the trade commitment) would be a chance for a new start for her family. While it undoubtedly helped, the unfortunate reality is that there are some problems money can’t fix.
When you hang around the international development world long enough, it starts to seem that there are constantly new programs that launch with great fanfare, and then seem to be forgotten quickly. Poor communities are jaded from NGOs promising all sorts of shiny, but untested projects that rarely seem to have the results promised, if they happen at all.
In designing Vida Plena, I wanted to do exactly the opposite – adapt a model that has already been thoroughly proven and vetted. For that reason, Vida Plena is based on a treatment model recommended by the World Health Organization as the first line of depression treatment in low-income settings. Additionally, I have contracted the program authors, leading global mental health experts from Columbia University in New York, to train and certify the Vida Plena team in the therapy model. This is to be absolutely certain that we are correctly implementing the therapeutic tools and methods.
I feel a deep responsibility to the people we are serving, a responsibility to provide care that is based on evidence and the best practices. Too often, people who are poor have to accept whatever quality of service that is offered to them. However, I do not want to offer false hopes enshrouded with the veneer of good intentions to someone who is already struggling with the pain of depression. Regardless of economic circumstances, just as we care for physical health, everyone deserves to have access to the mental health services they need. The mission of Vida Plena is to provide the mental, emotional, and spiritual tools to ensure every person has the opportunity for a full and thriving life.
Maria’s face seems not to have aged in the two years since I left the jewelry world to launch Vida Plena. As we walk to our favorite restaurant on the way to dinner, she tells me about the challenges of the pandemic, “but fortunately, laughing stretches our skin and keeps us young,” she jokes, referring to the constant banter that happens between the artisans in the workshop. However, listening in on conversations shared while counting beads, I know it’s more than just playful teasing that happens between them. There is also the sharing of personal struggles and hardships, which are met by the group with supportive empathy. Caring relationships that form the basis for growth and healing.
Because of my faith, Jesus’s teachings compel me to “serve one another, in love.” God lives and operates in relationship, first within the Trinity, and then He seeks relationship with us. As Christians, we are called to follow in His example to be restorers of relationships.
This is the heart of Vida Plena: building connections between people. Our work is based on the transformative power of people growing and learning together to build communities of support. Group therapy works because of the relationships that are formed between group members. While I am striving to create a program that is based on the most up to date knowledge research has to offer, I know that ultimately this is God’s program. Although I might get called a title like ‘founder’ or ‘director,’ I know I am actually only a humble gardener. It is my responsibility to do all I can, preparing the soil, planting the seeds, and pulling weeds. But I don’t control the sun or rain. I can never make the seeds sprout and grow. In the end, it is in God’s hands whether this program succeeds or fails, who we are able to reach and what the impact is on their life. And so, I trust both the program and the people we serve, to Him.
*Note: names have been changed to protect privacy.
Regardless of their circumstances, every person should have access to the mental health care they need to live a thriving and flourishing life.
Vida Plena strives to provide an exceptional standard of service to the most vulnerable populations who otherwise would have no access to care.