How Did I Save For One Year Away?

I am seven months into my twelve month journey – so I am using this week to do a general status check…reviewing my finances, reflecting on my mental health, and beginning to plan for my return home.

Starting with finances…

Traveling looks so exotic. When I look at photos of people around the world, I often wonder how they are covering the expenses of being away.

Outside of “Are you married?” and “Do you want a ______ (fill in nationality of country) husband,” the questions I am asked mostly relate to how I can afford to take a year off of work. It’s a curious conversation because while others might think it personal, I am more than happy to share.

First off, I recognize that I have the privilege of having a good job and a lifestyle that allows for much financial freedom and personal decision-making when it comes to money. I know this is a privilege – and will say it again and again. My privilege is not lost on me, and I recognize that being away is not a luxury afforded to all. But, I also know that there are others who want to know specific strategies for adding more travel to their lives – even if it will take years to plan, so I am sharing a few of my basics.

On the positive side, sometimes, people are surprised to hear that life on the road is WAY CHEAPER than living in Chicago. While my accommodations are typically not fancy, there are generally safe and comfortable options that fall well below the monthly cost of rent at home. Eating on your own often means picking up grocery store items or simple take-out options. Generally, on most days, I don’t have many expenses outside of accommodations, food, and transportation. Being away from places like Target, missing nights out with friends, and having to carry anything I buy are all financial wins while away.

As for challenges, I have taken a few unanticipated financial hits that happen when traveling. I have spent more on airfare than I should have because of a wonky itinerary that includes detours for valued people connections. Last minute changes in plans meant lost money on a flight and accommodation that needed to be changed. Unexpected expenses are a reality of traveling, so I think it’s best to count on them before going and really consider the importance of blending travel planning with budgeting. Having more than you think you will need is likely a good plan.

Here are some things I did to prepare financially for this journey.


It took me four years to prepare for the financial aspects of living without a paycheck for a year. Outside of not getting paid while away and having to pay for my ongoing travel expenses, I also had to prepare for “up front” and maintenance expenses that needed to be considered before I left. These expenses include covering my international health insurance for the entire duration of my trip, maintenance costs for my condo while away, initial airline tickets, etc.

The budget-guru Dave Ramsey became an important partner as I used his books or online resources as a foundation for much of my planning. Ramsey suggests, “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.” Instant gratification of spending feels so good – so he doesn’t say not to spend anything. He just suggests being logical in planning your budget and using your own hustle to live the life you desire.

Budgeting the Ramsey way is scary because you can’t fool yourself about your spending. Every penny is planned and accounted for. For me, an adapted Ramsey spreadsheet documented every penny I spent during the last four years and led me to categorize money into predetermined budgeted areas. While I was never perfect with my spending – this system kept me consistent in monitoring all money going out and adjusting my time working if I needed to make up for unplanned spending. So – instead of a plan that restricted all spending, I decided exactly what I was able to spend on things like dining out, clothing, gifts, groceries, and charity each month. Logging my expenses each day forced me to take a hard look at whether or not my money was supporting my goal and adjust as needed.

The Ramsey budget plan revealed parts of my daily life that were less than desirable – with so much waste in which I was not a gracious steward of the money I have earned. There were definitely struggles with taking a hard look at myself – but I feel like the value went beyond just my financial planning – but also made me really consider my personal values and priorities.


If you know me, you know I have been working a lot during these four years with my full time employment as a teacher and weekend work at a hotel front desk. Outside of this, I tutored one student weekly and supplemented all of the jobs by delivering food with Uber.

There were two benefits to working during all of my waking hours. First being the obvious income from my work and the side hustles. Having money from multiple sources allowed me to cover my typical expenses while also putting extra into a travel fund. Second, working so much kept me away from spending on social events and shopping trips. I learned that free time is expensive.

Outside of side hustles for work, Ramsey encourages you to look for all types of creative income streams. Some that worked for me would obviously not be possible for others. But, he suggests that everyone consider their own lifestyle and find creative ways to find money sources.

For the year before I left, renting my condo and being a bit of a vagabond was an option for me. Between time with my aunt, staying at hotels using the employee discount, and house-sitting for friends who live in the community, my life was a bit unpredictable. My overnight bag was always ready and there were some nights when I craved the comfort of one solid place to sleep. Living this way wouldn’t work for everyone, but there might be ways to supplement income through things like a roommate or AirBnb room rental.

I also planned for my rental income while I am away to cover most my costs and provide a bit of funding for travel expenses. While it has certainly helped, a large special assessment for roof repairs and an error with taxes on my parking space have minimized the bottom line of rental benefits. For me, it’s easy to imagine the rental dollars coming in, but I am not great at anticipating the costs that go out. It’s a lesson I am learning.


Four years ago, I covered a shoebox with vision board pictures and quotes from magazines and made some very specific rules for this “dream box.” Any cash that I was given – as a gift, through reimbursement by others, or via tips or Uber earnings went into this box. Money could not leave this box unless it specifically funded something that supported a dream – mine or others – that could not be otherwise accomplished with my regular income. This has been the MOST FUN part of my budgeting because it feels like real money when it is removed. Through gifts from family and friends, I have been able to fund some beautiful projects while away – and I always try to match their gifts using money from my dream box. Dream box expenses are rash and against better judgment sometimes – and that is fun too.


I can talk myself into almost any bad idea when it comes to money. For this reason, I have found a few key accountability partners to keep me on track. Getting someone else involved in your finances can be tricky, so I can only suggest that having a thick skin reaps positive rewards – even when it hurts a bit.


There isn’t much that I can say about this that would work for others. There are many ways to save money while traveling, but determining a traveling budget is so personal. For me, I am totally okay with staying at less than perfect places but will spend extra money on flights if I really want to meet up with someone. I have time, so on this trip, I can take slow, but cheap methods of transport. Food is not important to me so I rarely spend more than $10-$15 a day on all of my meals. Finding hotels with breakfast included usually means I am only buying one meal a day. I am just as happy at a local coffee shop as I would at a fancy restaurant. A day spent wandering is just as good as a daylong tour. I guess my point here is that I don’t know how to tell someone else to plan financially for their time away outside of saying that you can’t always do everything, so try to determine what is most important to you.


There really wasn’t any magic here – even if it took me 15 years to save instead of 4- it would have been worth it. Here are the best tips I have…

  • Make a plan for specific amounts to spend each month and try to stop spending when that money is gone. Some people use the “envelope system” for this. I like to earn credit card rewards – so I have done my budgeting in a spreadsheet that gets updated each morning.
  • Find extra work and put the money from those side jobs into a dream/travel fund. Doing this, motivated me to keep delivering food with Uber even when I was tired because I knew that every dollar made a difference in my bottom line of traveling.
  • Be creative with the “big” expenses in life like housing and a car. Not everyone may have someone to live with – but considering AirBNB rental income from an extra room might make a difference.
  • Provide enough time to make it happen – four years was a big commitment – so I had to consistently review my goals and finances to remind myself that the extra work was moving in a good direction. There is no way around it – there are days when saving felt frustrating. Set and achieve mini goals along the way to help your psyche and motivation.
  • Tell everyone about your plan – having others hold me accountable made a difference when I felt like changing my mind or giving into excessive spending impulses.
  • Feed yourself with a “diet” of budget-minded websites, books, and articles that provide new ideas for saving kept the process fresh for me. There are other people who have been successful in saving – look for ideas from what they have learned.
  • If you haven’t already done so, sign up for a travel reward credit card. As a Marriott employee, I opted for the SPG/Marriott card. Over the course of four years I charged as much as I could and have been able to use my points for multiple nights of accommodations.
  • Setting up an Acorn account was another way to “find” money as this app that tops off all of your credit card purchases to the next highest dollar and invests it. While it is just your own money being saved, the small chunks made the savings feel invisible – but the $$ add up fast.
  • Be sure to budget, but also enjoy ongoing treats too.. You just want to be sure that these treats fit in your overall long-term plan. I still had splurges and spent on travel during these four years, especially during summers. I just pre-planned and accounted for the expenses to avoid loss of savings and stay on track toward my big mission.
  • While away, schedule tours and events locally when you can and always be open to sharing them with others. For example, when visiting Wadi Rum last week, I reached out to a couple on my bus ride there to see if they wanted to split the cost of a Jeep tour. It was not only more fun together, but we all saved money.
  • I had to learn that being on a budget does not mean being cheap. There are still ways to be generous with others – you just have to be a bit more creative in your approach.
  • Do what works for you – but recognize that a specific and deliberate plan is important. Here is the bottom line for me. When I don’t have a plan, I spend what I earn and that means I never have enough money to do what really matters to me.

I am an open book. If there are ever questions about your own planning, feel free to reach out.

Posted in Budget, Dave Ramsey, HeartsTravel, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Ramsey, Self Care, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Art & Smiles on the Alkalha Steps

A bleak and brooding vibe filled my first rainy days in Amman. While shuffling quickly through flooding streets, my one pair of boots and socks soaked it all in, squishing water with each step. Stony buildings appeared dark and dusky across the horizon and for these first days, I couldn’t see beauty anywhere. Traipsing through downtown felt like more of a burden than an adventure – with little interest in peeking around nooks of the city. Turn after turn brought more of the same – until began my descent down the Alkalha Steps.

Entering the corridor at the top of the steps, you are first struck by bright street art that seemingly appears out of nowhere. A “Starry Night” inspired piece stares regally across the walkway at a whirling dervish surrounded by a circle of Arabic calligraphy.

As you begin the trip down, you notice stairwell is something special. Wall spaces are filled with artwork of many styles. I was drawn to a Zentangle-inspired mandala filled with intricate designs. In the hope of making a connection, I took a picture of the words “Abeero Art” as this was the artist’s Instagram profile name.

Zaizafoun Art Cafe stands proudly at the halfway point down the stairs heading toward the bustle of downtown Amman. The colorful artwork outside and welcoming decorations inside invited me in for my first of many hours spent enjoying tea, snacks, and time for writing.

Abeer was easy to find online – and to my delight, she quickly replied to my direct message with a willingness to meet and brainstorm ways she could support the Hope Travels mission of community connectedness.

We met at Zaizafoun where I learned that Abeer was a university student who found great pleasure in artwork, but I also heard what had become a common discussion by young artists in the Middle East. Many have said that art can be viewed as a distraction from studying even when they expressed great therapeutic benefits they found on a canvas. She has a great passion for art, but is also generally concerned with being a person whose life is purposeful for herself and others. Her kind nature and determination to create something special was evident from the first words of our conversation.

After sharing ideas, and making an initial plan, Abeer headed off for a day filled with studies, but soon returned with Telek. You see Telek is a volunteer on the corridor who wanted to join our planning team

He told me about the restaurant near the top of the stairs named Ezwitti where the owner and volunteers work tirelessly because they have a heart for feeding all who hunger. By that, I mean that they not only sell meals, but they also have a voucher system where customers can buy tickets for people in need to use while purchasing food. Along the wall in this tiny space, hangs a bulletin board covered with donations that can be modestly taken and used as cash for any meal.

Telek brimmed with excitement as he also told us about the Jadal Center for Culture and Knowledge where his friends volunteer each week to host a group of Syrian refugee youth. Every Friday morning, the young adults and teens meet for outreach sessions that include lesson on music, art, leadership, self defense and more. Children are brought to the center on a bus to enjoy the center and young adult mentors and friends who eagerly await their arrival.

We all agreed that our partnership plans should include adding a Hope Mural to our ongoing collection to the corridor that involved the kids in some way – so they could pass each week with a personal reminder of the importance of hope and the knowledge that they were sharing the message with others. As we brainstormed ideas, we decided that we would use art lessons as a foundation for mental health discussions during the two upcoming sessions.

Shopping for art supplies is always fun. Abeer would teach mandala art which brings therapeutic benefits of peace and focus. I talked about plans in motion at AlHadaf Training Center and we decided to also include a Kindness Rocks Project for the corridor. We determined that our messages would focus on the power of using self expression to decompress and the power of sharing and receiving acts of kindness.

Our first session on mandala art was a bit rushed when the bus was late, but I personally loved the way Abeer created a template that made mandala patterns so easy to create. She has a wonderful style – guiding each child to create their own masterpiece – being both an encourager and teacher. She has a wonderful style – guiding each child to create their own masterpiece – being an encourager and teacher. I loved how she naturally leaned into each young artist and offered kindness with her gentle and genuine nature. Personally, I enjoyed the time spent creating. I never jumped on the coloring page bandwagon, but there was definite power in the peaceful mood of the repetitive patterned mandala designs.

Our second session connected the power of self expression through art with the value of kindness. At first, there was a tad of disappointment when the wall Abeer wanted to paint was unavailable and we were given a long space above other completed murals. As our mural was intended to have interactive participation by the Jadal youth group, we had to quickly adjust our plans so they could have a step up while adding handprints to the mural space.

The mural design included three elements of community input blended together to show unity of purpose in hope. The center “Have Hope” message is surrounded by whimsical doodle creations by Abeer, Arabic calligraphy by Abd Alrahman, and children’s handprints decorated with positive messages. While each section is interesting by itself, the blend of styles is powerful when combined and stands out high above the Alkalha Steps.

Our time together created fun bonds between the children and adults. Painting rocks together blended support for creative expression with sharing uplifting messages. Some designed their words of wisdom in Arabic while others asked for English translations and learned to say their selected phrases.

One girl eagerly shared her heart with, “I have a choice. My choice is hope.” Each person took one rock to place in a location near home and found a special spot on the corridor to surprise passing visitors with the other rocks they designed.

Handprint painting was exactly like you would expect – fun and a bit messy. Giggles were everywhere as oozing paint squished between fingers and plopped onto waiting walls.

After a bit of cleanup, we wrapped up our time together with a short origami lesson and a lunchtime meal together. Children departed to their bus gleefully, as they shouted spirited farewells and returned home with pockets full of inspiration.

Abeer and Abd Alrhaman continued to work on the mural – with Abeer’s doodle portion lasting well into the evening. In spite of the dropping temps and strain of working on the high wall, Abeer maintained dedication to every detail – especially in her desire to leave handprint messages to surprise each child –

Working with this team continued the Hope Travels theme of finding mentors in people much younger than me. New friends like Abeer are leading a global generation that celebrate the act of caring for others through their dedicated spirts and selfless actions. Young people have much to learn from each other. For me, it was a pleasure to be a small part of their time together.

Posted in Abd Alrahman, Abeer, Alkalha Steps, Amman, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Jadal, Jordan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paper for Water, Refugee, Self Care, Street Art, The Kindness Rocks Project, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject, Zaizafoun | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Open Arms and Hearts at AlHadaf

People have asked about the process of establishing Hope Travels partnerships. There really isn’t a perfect answer, aside from the fact that I reach out to people in as many ways as possible…Google searches, Facebook messages, connections from friends, and hanging out in a new city with eyes open to new partners. Social media posts have also been helpful. Sharing project information does more than keep my family and friends connected, it offers invitations to potential partners. The more people know I am interested in sharing hope and engaging in conversations about proactive mental health, the more doors seem to open.

(Like right now, when I am sitting at a cafe near the Red Sea with a beautiful view, cup of chai, and some zatar bread while planning for my next destination)

In some cases, I communicate for weeks, ending up with a handful of empty promises and lost connections. I’ve been excited about potential projects and then ghosted – jilted without identifiable cause and a bit disheartened. It’s hard not to take that personally after weeks of communication. However, there are rare gem moments where my outreach receives instantly positive results, the celebrated message bubbles of receptive fingers typing a response. As cliche as it sounds, people who are openly excited about working together have given me a bit of hope. In fact, Hope Travels has taught me a lot about perseverance and maintaining a positive attitude when things don’t seem to be connecting.

With all that said, magic happened when reaching out to AlHadaf Training Center in Amman, Jordan.

Before arriving, I found AlHadaf from a general Facebook search using keywords related to my outreach interests including, “Amman, Jordan, mental health, outreach, women, art, refugee, nonprofit.” As I have done a hundred times, I shared an invitation message telling about Hope for the Day and the Hope Travels “Agent of Impact” program. Quickly, and with great celebration, I received a response from Maran Maayah who is the organization’s CEO and founder. In just a few welcoming words, she was open to meeting upon my arrival, clearly proud to the work they were doing, and willing to discuss some partnership ideas.

My first day in Amman was a bit bleak. With so much busyness in Kurdistan/Iraq, I arrived feeling depleted without much energy for grand plans here. Rain poured down and filled me with a malaise and ideas that I should make this a quick stop on my journey, see the major sites, and head to other destinations. Staying close to bed for a few days didn’t do much to change my spirits and I wallowed in bed on the only day I have felt a bit sick this year. My biggest venture during the first days in Amman was to a nearby cafe to warm my soaking feet and watch the storms pass by.

With some sense of commitment on my shoulders, I traveled to the training center, where Maran greeted me with great enthusiasm and excitement about the work being done there. My tentative nature turned to enthusiasm as we walked through the bright facility, she stopped to describe collections of artwork on the walls that were obviously created by children. Uninformed eyes could see paintings on the walls, but Maran stopped to point out some of the specific places in the artwork where paintings of regimented blocks and designs opened to more hopeful representations of the world. Each piece of art was the story or lesson shared with one of the Jordanian orphans or Iraqi refugees served at the center.

Bulletin boards shared pictures of children and adults engaged in a variety of activities and dream statements filled the walls.

In one of the classrooms, where I mentioned feeling a bit embarrassed by my worn out face and cosmetic-free face, a group of beautiful women chatted and laughed along as they practiced cosmetology skills. The center is always a hub of activity including classes that include sewing, positive self image for teens, and more.

There is a great energy at the AlHadaf Training Center. Maran’s oversight requires strong respect and a sense of safety in each experience. Over the course of time, she has worked hard to build positive relationships between the women who learn together. They can be real – and share their great challenges with each other – knowing that they will always be treated with dignity and respect. AlHadaf provides more than training sessions, they provide a sense of community and a place where people are received with open arms. Maran and the AlHadaf team bring strong personal and professional pride to the center each day.

During the next week, collaboration sessions mirrored my favorite moments (with Colleen Walsh, of course) at school. Ideas flew as I worked with my Muna and Joy, my planning partners, to blend mental health outreach and art therapy activities within their weekly English and leadership lessons. They are committed to excellence – but also want to make sure that the sessions are fruitful and fun.

We found inspiration for our sessions from two great Hope Travels partners. For our Valentine’s Day session, we spent time getting to know each other. For me, the relationships formed stem from informal time together and Paper for Water has taught me that there is great relational power in a single piece of paper. With a tremendous story and endless examples of generosity, Paper for Water focuses specifically on using origami sales to fund water in developing countries. They have been generous partners who have supplied stacks of origami paper to build connections during my journey. This activity was a nice warm-up for our days spent together.

Our new partner, Megan Murphy of The Kindness Rocks Project, enthusiastically encouraged us in using the phenomenon and culture of kindness she has created. Her inspiration for sharing painted rocks with beautiful messages became the base for group sessions and mental health discussions. While Megan’s project began with a few simple rocks shared on the beach, it has extended around the globe as a way to carry messages of hope and kindness in rock gardens. To me, she is an example of one person who saw a need and filled it. Her actions teach others that caring (even for strangers) is an active process. I was thrilled that she became our partner who shared paint pens and supplies for us to use as my journey continues.

I was also EXTREMELY THANKFUL for Raed, who graciously offered to find bags of rocks for us.

For these moments, Hope Travels was working exactly as I imagined, building relationships and supporting people who are already doing amazing work in their local communities.

During each Kindness Rocks session – the classroom filled with women and children who are not only neighbors, but deeply connected by the shared experience of being Iraqi refugees forced to flee their homes due to threats from ISIS. Discussions about hope and change moved from influencing the world to also focusing on family relationships and personal self care.

There was so much chatting as everyone painted – and lots of laughter. Women shared about their appreciation for the AlHadaf team and the value placed on their weekly time together to learn and grow. For some, art projects may seen juvenile or like time spent creating isn’t enough to address big issues. To me, artistic environments supports friendship and a small escape from routines.

People converse openly as they are painting and benefit from making something beautiful and purposeful. The more I learn about mental health, the more I recognize the value of self expression strategies like art, music, fitness blended with self care and the power of serving others.

Projects like AlHadaf, Kindness Rocks, and Paper for Water are making a difference because they offer tangible and positive outlets that build communities. And, I am still in awe that we can be partners while miles apart.

After a rocky start, time in Jordan has far exceeded my hopes – all because of the open doors by AlHadaf. I am grateful to be welcomed into the powerful place of friendship they have created.

As with other nonprofits, AlHadaf is always in need of funding to support their goals. People who want to learn more or donate to their cause can find necessary information on their webpage.

For my remaining time in Jordan, I will travel to Petra, Aqaba, and Wadi Rum – along with supporting local artists in the creation of a Hope Mural. More to come…

Posted in AlHadaf, Amman, HeartsTravel, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Jordan, Kindness Rocks, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paper for Water, Self Care, The Kindness Rocks Project, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final (and Random) Stories from Kurdistan/Iraq

In fifteen days, our “More Friends That The Mountains” projects in Kurdistan/Iraq took us to four different IDP and refugee camps and included hosting two community kite events. We flew kites. We danced. We shared many moments of friendship!

Photo by: Farhad Blbas

While most days were filled with active movement on this work, our time also included quirky moments typical of traveling.

In no specific order, and with a random nature to these stories, here are some of my favorites:

On our first morning, after a few slow-paced weeks in Lebanon, Brian and I arrived at our hotel in Erbil and enjoyed a similarly leisurely walk near the Citadel for our first of many kebabs. We returned to our hotel to await Jason’s evening arrival – thinking about a relaxing evening of catching up. Jason texted that he landed and was ready for his pick-up by Awa, an artist he had been communicating with for weeks about the Hope Mural Project. In a matter of a few text exchanges, we were dressed and ready to meet Awa and eight of his closest friends for an evening of chai and nargila. We soon learned that Awa and his friends are very popular on Snapchat in Iraq. Our first hours in Kurdistan were snapped for all to see and while we enjoyed chai, some of his fans came to visit and say hello. This was our first experience as Snapchat celebrities.

Speaking of chai, it’s a big deal in Kurdistan, served in small, piping hot glasses with at least a half inch of sugar lining the bottom. Wherever you stop, it’s not uncommon to be offered chai. It is usually good for a chuckle to see us try to blow the liquid to a tolerable temperature while our Kurdish friends quickly down it with total disregard for seared esophaguses. Over the course of fifteen days, I developed a pretty hearty addiction to this sugary goodness – ending my time there with a daily habit of 8-10 glasses. Although I wouldn’t change a thing, when I arrived in Jordan, my first three days were filled with detox headaches from the caffeine and sugar.

While we were enjoyed chai at our favorite spot near the Citadel in Erbil, a woman asked if we would agree to be on video while drinking our chai. We weren’t sure why, but agreed, and were soon given a clip-on microphone to wear while drinking tea. Since we weren’t exactly sure what to say, our conversation focused mainly on how much we loved tea and how delicious it was. Who would have guessed we could spend ten minutes chatting about this delicious treat? We felt like actors in a cheesy commercial.

During our final meal with friends, we watched Jason’s shocked face as he nearly spit out his chai after realizing he added a bit of salt instead of sugar. We laughed at him – only to watch our second friend (who will remain anonymous) do the exact same thing. For us, chai was not only delicious, but also at the center of many shared moments with friends…some that were pretty funny!

Chai – was usually one part of a really big meal. We ate some sort of a kebab or shawarma every single day. When eating with friends, we would finish our meals and often still have a table of half-filled plates because the sheer amount of food was overwhelming. Each bite offered flavors to impress with a desire, but not an ability to finish every bite. We also loved that you could find delicious shawarma for less than a dollar – which made eating them habitual too. In Dohuk, the men behind our favorite shawarma counter had to laugh on the day when we had enjoyed all three meals there. Oh, and the bread!!! Piping hot and delicious.

One of my favorite chai and food experiences was at the home of Rawand who surprised us with a beautiful spread of fruit and snacks – along with a custom-made nargila pipe that was covered with an artistic display that includes our names a a bit of homage to Kurdistan. While I don’t smoke, I can now say that I have had a favorite nargila experience. Art can be found in the most interesting places!

While visiting Domiz camp, we enjoyed working with the Barzani staff and center volunteers. As we prepared to head to lunch, one of the volunteers shared pictures of his musical talents and a video of a song he made to honor the camp leader. It was beautiful and enthusiastic in praise. I mentioned that he was the best volunteer ever because I have had many volunteers and have never received a song written in my honor. As we ate lunch, he joined us in the small center side room and let us know that within the last half hour, he had written the lyrics of a song for me. While he still needed to finish the music, he shared a beautiful collection of words he had written…words of kindness and friendship.

Each day was a pleasure and I felt lucky to spend my time with so many wonderful people.

And my final random note on time in Iraq…Jason, Brian, and I enjoyed games of Uno at the end of most days. The competition was fierce with happy dances by the braggiest of the winners (no need to mention name). However, in the final championship game – there was a big winner – a really big winner – someone who won in only two hands. Okay, it was ME! I mean – it’s not great to brag, but when you end a trip on a win like that – and will remain champion until the next group adventure – it does seem worthy of sharing with the world. I wish I had pictures of my championship game, but I guess the memories of the triumph will have to suffice! So, thanks for the memories, Kurdistan!

Posted in Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Iraq, Kurdistan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Friends Than The Mountains

Iraq/Kurdistan was a whirlwind, at times, too much to process.

For weeks before arriving, I hiked and strolled through Middle Eastern streets enjoying friends, freedom, and falafel, while Jason worked around the clock to make connections for Hope Travels and developed “More Friends than the Mountains” outreach projects.

While he reached out to many organizations, there was one group who stood out for their welcome willingness to become partners – not just in name – but through generous shared resources including time, transportation, and oversight.

Barzani Charity Foundation oversees centers in IDP and refugees camps throughout Kurdistan/Iraq. Each of the centers is unique based on the camp needs and available resources, but all of the camps are filled with dedicated people who bring hope through hardship.

While I know this blog post is long, it is only a sliver of the goodwill shared and challenges addressed by the Barzani team during our time together.

Our first camp visit was to Hassan Sham IDP camp. Internally Displaced Persons are people who remain in their countries but were forced to leave their homes because of the effects of armed conflict, generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural/human disasters.

As we turned onto the road leading in Hassan Sham for the first time, both sides of the street were filled with abandoned buildings obviously hit by air strikes. The structures appeared to be destroyed with specific precision from clear explosions centered on rooftops. We learned that these buildings were previously occupied by members of ISIS and the entire community was destroyed by US air strikes in the fight to remove them. It made sense – but felt ominous and unsettling at the same time.

Photo by: Jason Everett

After entering the general camp area and meeting the camp leaders, we walked to Hassan Sham’s Barzani Center which illustrated a literal form of a “safe space.” Through the fence, music blared as a cluster of girls danced in an experienced sync, a classic recess parachute rose and fell in the eager hands of smiling kids, and determined feet kicked a soccer ball across through a small field. All of the destruction we passed seem far away, which now I recognize as one of Barzani’s key goals. As we heard again and again, we can’t give answers for every single problem, but we can help kids to experience happiness – and that means something.

For our first hour, we dove in…not knowing where to begin. I imagine this is how the kids feel each day as they decide where to start. Of course, the parachute and dancing feet pulled me in…with a few side trips down the slide. While this could have felt like a playground anywhere in the world, there were moments of clarity that proved this wasn’t true. Within these fences are a mix of children orphaned by parents who were members of ISIS who gently play alongside other children who lost their parents during ISIS attacks.

This was our first experience sharing the kites gifted by friends from home…and it was a bit crazy. Kids were everywhere, all seeming to finish coloring at the exact same moment. An intense glee filled with air as we struggled to get kites together in time for play. In the end, kites filled the field, along with kids who were smiling, laughing, and running while wearing ninja headbands made from kite ribbon. Creative chaos at its best.

The Barzani team at Hassan Sham is exceptional. Every person we met was dedicated to growth and willingly worked beyond reason to make a difference. Working in intense environments like Barzani Camps is a 24/7 job and not something you walk away from at the end of the day. Through tired eyes and limited resources, they persevered in connecting with every child we encountered.

Our second camp experience was much different. Domiz Camps 1 and 2 are home for Syrian Refugees. Unlike the tent homes of Hassan Sham, the streets were lined with more permanent structures including a typical main street lined with small shops selling essential community goods. There was sense of progress here and hope as kids shared dances and were equally eager to fly kites. For camp two – we quickly trained the Barzani team and were getting in the groove of putting the kites together.

Photo by: Jason Everett

We are learning a lot about how to be more responsible humanitarians when it comes to interacting with kids, but we also have much to learn. Developing relationships is important, but it’s also hard for kids to have people in and out of their lives. It’s something that I have consistently pondered on this trip – wondering about the best ways to interact with children in respectful and helpful ways.

Photo by: Jason Everett

The third camp we visited was outside of Duhok. Dawidiya IDP Camp is primarily a home for Yazidi families. The plight of Yazidis at the hands of ISIS may be familiar from news reports describing them being held in mountains where they were persecuted and starved with great cruelty as they awaited support from the international community. This camp was hard. The location is further from primary cities so there we fewer resources and support from international organizations allocated to people who have already suffered intense atrocities. The camp lacked play structures found in other spaces we visited. Classrooms in the camp school were filled with kids who were ready to decorate kites. It was apparent that life experiences had made the children more cautious…you could feel weight on their young shoulders and even fear and reluctance in some eyes.

Photo by: Jason Everett

After kite-building, during a walk through the camp, we encountered many of the children again. Soon, we had a big group of playing and dancing kids. The boys followed Jason as he randomly sprinted down the dusty street with a dramatic appeal. They laughed while attempting to catch his whirling feet that psyched them out in all directions. A group of girls looked at the boys, then looked at me, and did an international eye roll, noting the silliness without saying a word. Instead, our girls club easily enjoyed chatting and skipping down the same streets. It was so much fun, as it is whenever you get a few minutes with kids, but as we walked away, I carried the weight of a person who can so freely walk out these doors while others were left behind.

Photo by: Jason Everett

While in Kurdistan/Iraq, we also collaborated on the planning of two community events with local nonprofit organizations. The map of Erbil is a circle with the Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, smack dab in the center. Truly, all roads lead to the Citadel. On a perfectly sunny Saturday, with just a touch of a breeze, Barzani Charity Foundation invited families to enjoy an afternoon of kite flying. The children received kites filled with designs from the US. We watched as proud parents smiled and laughed at the antics, running along with kites and cheering in awe as the traveled aloft. Colorful kites above his historical site shouted majestic messages of friendship and hope.

With a colorfully diverse HOPE mural proudly hanging in the background of Citadel stage, Jason and Mo offered words of friendship to connect our countries and share hope. News cameras filled the area with microphoned reporters asking questions about the project and highlighting the deep friendship of US citizens and Iraqi Kurds. This moment was the culmination of hours of investment by many: the mural designers, US artists, Melissa Marie Collins and Mike Steneron and Kurdish artists, Awa F. Bakr and Vanila Van; people who purchased or colored kites; and Jason, Aamr, and Mohammed who communicated for months to create this powerful moment.

The second event was planned in partnership with Halabja Glory Foundation who are instrumental in planning humanitarian efforts in this city. Halabja is another community that struggled to receive international support from NGOs because of the longer distance from main cities. However, recent history of this town certainly warrants a deep international response. On March 16, 1988, Halabja was the site of a chemical genocidal massacre where mustard gas and unidentified nerve agents were used to kill up to 5,000 and injure 10,000 Halajans, mostly civilians. The atrocities committed by the Iraqi Regime under Saddam Hussein have left both physical and emotional scars on Kurds that continue to create issues throughout the area including the increased incidence of cancer and birth defects that occur today.

The Halabja Glory team tirelessly dedicates itself to bringing awareness to the plight of chemical massacre survivors while fighting for the reconstruction of hearts and minds. During our time in Halabja, their team extended themselves to meet our every need. Their event planning was precise and they used kites as a tool for sharing hope at the feet of the Halabja Memorial. Children sang with enthusiasm, teachers watched students with firm, but loving eyes, and kites flew.

Fun was had – but the Halabja Memorial was also a place for intense sadness. Looking at statue recreations of March 16, 1988 illustrated the types of everyday activities taking place during this attack. Parents unsuccessfully attempted to cover their children while taking the brunt of the painful attack. Burns, disfigurement, and excruciating death are the realities of chemical warfare. Each child pictured within the memorial resembled children I know, and even that tiny bit was overwhelmingly painful to consider. Halabja left an imprint for the resilience to move forward, but also for the great needs that exist there today.

Emotionally – time in Kurdistan moved between these intense moments of despair mixed with gratitude for our Kurdish friends and the culture that is by far the most generous I have experienced. Characteristics of strength, resilience, and unselfishness are the norm rather than the exception.

At the same time, we experienced the same youthful spirit that questions status quo and fights for change. Snapchat and selfies fill the air and conversations question the establishment and push for change. There is a vibrancy about this area where we will surely return.

As I said, there is so much more to say about time in Kurdistan beyond our project experiences. In fact, there is so much more that I will add some highlights on another post.

Posted in Halabja, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Iraq, Kurdistan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Traveling With Friends…

There is no way around it, solo travel is inherently self-centered. There is also no way around the fact that traveling with others has the potential for disaster, and the possibility of being miserable for everyone involved. Like all relationships, it is magical when people can be together, and in spite of all our quirky needs, find the taste of unity to be desirable.

For the last six weeks, I abandoned solo time to travel with friends. The thing about being together on the road is that you are ALWAYS TOGETHER…even in ways you might not otherwise connect with your closest compadres at home. Every decision becomes a discussion of, “What should we eat? Where should we go? Should we turn left or right? Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” There is an intimacy to being together in small rooms, sharing finances, and well, you know, even sharing the bathroom space.

After years of experience, my collection of travel partners is small. Often, the reason is more, “It’s not you, it’s me,” than anything. I am not everyone’s cup of tea on the road as I don’t really like sightseeing, am pretty cheap, don’t drink much alcohol, talk to everyone I meet, and spend full days daydreaming in cafes.

For me, my recent travel partners were dreamy. In December, my dear co-teacher Colleen and sweet friend Cat met me for travel throughout Israel and the West Bank. Sometimes, traveling as a trio can be tricky because it’s hard to coordinate ideas. For us, it was perfect. I have visited the area multiple times, so in some cases, it was fun to enjoy familiar spaces through the eyes of my friends. Other times, they journeyed out for exploration while I snuggled with a cup of tea and a good book.

While we were together, we walked Biblical steps…sharing days in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and at the Sea of Galilee. We floated in the Dead Sea – just barely – splashing in just minutes before sunset. I was able to connect them with dear friends who live in the area over shared meals and fellowship.

Travel was easy together because we have so much in common…teachers, women, friends. We laughed. We philosophized. We made plans for the future.

The best part of being with these ladies was that they know me so well, and there was total freedom to blend our shared times with a bit of independence. As they went off on adventures, I anxiously waiting back to hear about their exploits and laugh about their shared adventures.

As we said goodbye, I prepared for my next travel partner. Brian is Jason’s good friend from Portland. While we have met during visits to Chicago, and for a few days of overlap travel, being with someone 24/7 who is relatively unfamiliar could seem a bit daunting. Yet, all the things I knew about Brian made me quite comfortable with the idea. What I knew is that he is a low-key and seasoned traveler. He loves to read and has a great appreciation for the value of being quiet. He is a dreamer and a planner – one of my favorite types of friends. We spent two weeks exploring Lebanon on our own and then traveled to Kurdistan/Iraq to meet Jason.

Our month together seemed to fit into two distinct sections. In Lebanon, I didn’t preplan any Hope projects, and once we arrived, being reminded that sometimes, the best outreach begins at home, I felt like our time together was more important than anything else.

In Lebanon, we spent our first week in Beirut. I realized that my own perceptions of the city were so far off…formed from movies and wartime newsreels. The remnants of these times can be found scattered throughout the city in the form of abandoned buildings that are often broken from explosions and gunfire. While walking, you wonder about the deep history of these buildings that sit as memorials to tragic civil war events.

The seaside in Beirut is something special. On our first day, we watched as others climbed a fence to visit a lighthouse and pool area in Manama. There we met Abu Hoda – an octogenarian who happily posed in his swimsuit, shared some of his fanciest swim strokes, and showered me with a bit of water to the face and a shared grapefruit. It was easy to see why Abu Hoda was considered the “king of the sea.”

In both places, having friends along increased the ease of renting a car. To me, driving a car in an unfamiliar place is a two-person operation with a driver and navigator. In Lebanon, Brian was a driver and I was co-pilot. Usually, I am happy to drive, but sitting back and enjoying the mountainous views from the passenger seat was exquisite. As we visited destinations throughout Lebanon, we got splashed by waves, took a cool swim (mine was more of a toe dip until a wave pulled me in), and did a tiny bit of hiking. Even with exotic food options, most of our meals were shared grocery store treats at the end of our days.

Conversations with Brian were deep. I think not knowing each other well proved to add depth to our time together because we had so much to learn and hours by which to do so. His insights were valuable with a knack for asking thought-provoking questions. Moving beyond the travelers’ special, “What is your name? What is your job?” and “Where are you from?” felt really good. We explored new places, chatting the entire time. Brian’s research and insights into our destination added depth to all we saw.

We also rested – a lot. Brian’s jet lag gave me a valid excuse for heading to sleep at my typical 7:00 PM. We had time together, but also included some important hours of personal time too.

For the second half of our trip, we met with Jason to complete projects in Kurdistan/Iraq. After weeks of resting, we were up to the many planned tasks and intense socialization. More on this part of our trip later, but overall, traveling with Jason and Brian together was fun….because they are both funny. Silly actually.

It’s fun to be with friends who have shared so much and still believe in the power of being goofy. Sometimes, a good laugh was all that was needed for a bit of decompression from the intensity of our days.

I am back to being alone…with mixed feelings. In a way, it’s like taking a deep breath. I have spent four days recharging by writing, reading, and spending hours being quietly invisible. At the same time, looking at the empty chair across from me leaves me a bit nostalgic for shared conversations over hot tea.

Since I am focusing on mental health, I have spent time thinking about the benefits of traveling. For me, while the good outweighs any challenges, there are definitely some pros and cons. I wouldn’t just recommend that everyone just take a leap to get away as a form of self care. However, one thing I know for sure is that my time with friends was important and valuable for my own feelings of comfort. Traveling far and wide has only served to increase appreciation for the friends I hold so close.

Posted in Beirut, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Self Care, Street Art, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It Takes A Village” – An Active View From Yemin Orde

For 25 years, I have sought an elusive magic wand that would transform education, building deep bridges to the world beyond school doors. From day one, it has often felt like a quest beyond the reach of schools everywhere…two steps forward and three steps back. Pockets of innovation burn, simmer, and fade…only to be discussed again as new initiatives a few years later. In all of it, I have never lost passion or hope in the full knowledge that there is no better place to be than where I have settled…but I can still dream.

When I arrived at Yemin Orde Village, there was an immediate sense of excitement as I watched the teenagers walking to lunch while laughing, taking selfies, and engaging in a bit of bantering. While in some ways, it felt like my junior high, there was an amplified sense of urgency and connectedness that comes from serving groups of at-risk teenagers who live and learn together. Initially, I was happy to share craft supplies collected by my students with their team, but during the visit, I learned so much more about this wonderful learning space. Yemin Orde is more than a school – it is a village that provides a safe haven that teaches youth the power of personal development that encourages global leadership.

During my visit, Racheli and Lisa provided a tour that inspired my teaching goals and supported my belief that best practices do not stem from a nationally-based curriculum or assessments that require quantity over depth.

As I have been traveling to learn more about mental health outreach programs, I recognize that providing a sense of belonging is just as important as the work needed to repair the heart and aspire toward goals for the future.

Yemin Orde masterfully integrates mental health support within their academic and social goals through ten core components that make them a giant in prioritizing leaders of tomorrow and innovation. According to this website, a successful Village Way educational community must integrate each of the methodology’s 10 core components into its work including:

Anchors in the Past: Recognizing and strengthening positive personal narratives, empowering communal history, and honoring cultural traditions;

Anchors in the Future: Designing a plan for the future and encouraging youth to change present actions accordingly, teaching valuable life skills, providing support for graduates and letting youth know that the community will serve as their safety net;

Earth (the physical environment): Creating an aesthetically pleasing home-like atmosphere, using the physical environment to convey lessons and communal values;

Sky (the spiritual environment): Reinforcing communal values and national belonging, finding meaning in tradition and holidays, promoting moral judgment;

Tikkun Halev (repairing the heart): Providing diverse opportunities for success in academic and extracurricular activities, providing programs for emotional healing, and using setbacks and crises as an opportunity for growth and learning;

Tikkun Olam (repairing the world): Participating in community service to empower youth through helping others and serving a valued role in the wider community, promoting a sense of responsibility to service, opening up the wider world to the child;

Reliable Representations of Parental Wholeness: Placing every educator in the role of a meaningful adult in children’s lives, involving parents in community, empowering parents in the eyes of their children and the children in the eyes of their parents;

Community of Meaning: Crafting a sense of belonging to and pride in a supportive community with common values and spreading values beyond the community’s borders;

Dialogue: Opening up understanding, respectful dialogue between adult and youth, aimed at promoting the youth’s progress, without blurring the role of the responsible adult;

Minimizing institutional characteristics: Building a living community that goes beyond the bureaucratic aspects of institutional life, on the physical and interpersonal levels.

As I read these principles, they are not just how I want to teach, they are descriptors for the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to live.

Yemin Orde team members – all of them – including maintenance, secretarial staff, food services, etc. and called to exemplify core values centered on respect of the youth they encounter each day. Everyone on staff is trained and empowered to be advocates for the children with the expectation that everyone is part of a solution.

Students are taught that they are not defined by their past, and they can rewrite personal narratives to highlight what makes them proud. Reflecting upon their unique backgrounds and cultural heritage helps to repair their hearts from angers in the past.

In an effort to reinforce that the youth are not victims but part of solutions, serving others is expected in some capacity as a volunteer. Outreach and service aim to empower kids by showing that they are not needy, but needed.

Walking through Yemin Orde Children’s Village is exciting because there is something interesting around every turn. As students crossed our path, Racheli was visibly excited to see them and share their individual talents and contributions to the student body. The Eco Farm was a favorite spot to visit with chickens, goats, and student-designed spaces for hanging out. The wood shop offered a necessary space where students create items needed throughout the village.

Through active learning, with real-life applications, students learn that they are worthy enough to invest in themselves…not by saying it, but through their actions. Yemin Orde demands that everyone expects enough from students and that they are not prone to reducing expectations because they feel sorry for the challenges they have encountered. This is seen as one of the miracle corners of the world where students are nurtured, but also challenged to defy all limitations and expectations perceived by others.

Thank you to Adina and the Yemin Orde team for sharing your space with me. If you are interested in learning more about Yemin Orde, this webpage is a helpful starting place. I am particularly interested in determining ways to include their academic research and progressive programs into my plans when returning to school. Innovation is complex – but can be done with minds and hearts focused the core components of growth.

Posted in Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject, Yemin Orde | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment