The Charis Project – Keeping Families Together

With each step of this journey, I have learned from the passions of others and been amazed at the focused commitment they have to make a difference. Some have left traditional comforts behind to live in remote places where they share hope and love through daily actions and innovative programs.

One of the things that has been on my mind a lot during this journey relates to sustainability. While well-intentioned, it is easy to see remnants of projects that were started and never finished. It is also a challenge to know how to be a partner who listens well and doesn’t try to spew ideas that might not be culturally relevant or sensitive to specific local norms. However, I have also learned that it better to fumble and struggle than to sit back at judge from afar.

While I have never visited before, the area along the Thai/Myanmar border is a place near and dear to my heart. Twelve years ago, as a volunteer for World Relief, I became a “friendship partner” for a family who came to live in Aurora after years in Mae La Camp. They are Karen refugees from Burma, so during our years together, I have learned a bit about their culture as we enjoyed celebrations and food together.

Still, I have always been curious about their previous home and interested in supporting people who are working in border areas to support refugees and migrant people living in Thailand. While I wasn’t able to go inside the camp, I felt like traveling outside broadened my understanding of their life before coming the America.

The work of The Charis Project (known at Shade Tree Foundation in Thailand) was especially interesting to me. When I spoke on the phone with Aaron, the Charis Thailand Director, I was immediately struck by the depth of his work and commitment to supporting the growth of families. Essentially, his bottom line is determining how they can help parents who are often illiterate to parent children to become smarter and more successful than they are.

To me, it’s a bold statement. There is an honestly about his purpose that stands without judgement, but instead is the reality for many families who feel ill equipped to support their children. The statement shows that this goal is possible even when parents might feel inclined to give up.

The feelings of insecurity by parents can be exacerbated by the placement of orphanages opened by foreigners that exist in the area. Sometimes, parents feel that putting their children in an orphanage gives them more of an advantage over living at home. At other times, complexities and crisis in life might lead to parents giving their children up for someone else to raise.

Our conversation lead to a discussion of orphanages in general and asking, “Would I want this for my child?” The Charis Project, along with other influential organizations like Lumas Project (created by Harry Potter author JK Rowling) focus on giving families and communities the resources and skills they need to make orphanages obsolete. People who are living with their families are at least risk of abuse or trafficking.

Are orphanages really a necessary system of support? Should we live under the assumption that they are needed throughout the world – especially in less developed countries? Or, are there specific tools that can be provided to clearly focus on helping families stay together – in spite of financial, educational, and health challenges?

Aaron also discussed mutual exploitation that often exists with nonprofit organizations or orphanages in areas of poverty. Nonprofits can exploit people – keeping them dependent – in order to raise money or show their need. People receiving services can learn helplessness and actually find themselves demotivated by a belief that others will take care of their basic needs.

A belief that the goal of nonprofits should be to not be necessary…to essentially work themselves out of business struck a chord with me as being so practical- but also revolutionary.

So – how is the Charis Project different from other organizations?

Their three-tiered approach to sustainable development for families meets people where they are, while also setting up systems of personal independence, responsibility, and empowerment.

#1 – RESCUE FAMILIES: Charis is committed to providing crisis intervention for the most at-risk families. The family engagement team visits families weekly with food, emotional support, and friendship. They are partners in listening to families and helping them to overcome challenges they face. When life becomes overwhelming, families know they have supportive partners who will stand by them and find ways to keep their families together.

#2 STRENGTHEN FAMILIES: Education empowers families. Charis team members provide specific education opportunities to communities with a strong focus on providing for children and developing strong and successful adults. Training includes women’s health, childcare, nutrition, literacy, family communication, and much more.

Carrien Blue, Family Education Supporter at Charis, noted that classes in communication often change the whole dynamics of a family – especially between husbands and wives. By teaching people to communicate effectively with each other – marital abuse declines, parents support children more effectively, and families grow stronger.

#3# GIVE FAMILIES INDEPENDENCE: Using the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) model, communities comes together to save and empower each other. Teaching strategies for savings and financial independence are embedded in this model where people save together and provide their own micro loans to members of their group. Even when saving small amounts, people can watch the decisions they make lead to financial gains which inspires increased investment over the course of time. This program can? which changes the overall financial picture for a group can heavily change communities.

I had the opportunity to visit the Charis team and the pleasure of watching them in action. Each person seems passionate about their specific contributions to their work and a desire to create systems of support.

As they noted, it is important not to wait for a crisis, but to focus on being consistent partners who are there to lend support when a crisis arises.

One of their primary goals is the development of local leadership and when possible, team members are former clients who understand culturally appropriate ways to engage people in growth processes.

During my visit, I was able to do something I love. Carrien and I met to review curriculum and discuss strategies for implementation refining their multi-tiered approach. Their leadership team is geared up for clarifying all instructional goals and determining the best ways to provide real-time program evaluation of the courses offered throughout communities.

I also had a day of traveling with Zam and Lydia, friends from Charis who took me to the most beautiful coffee shop I have experienced on this trip. The view and food were fabulous!

One additional highlight was a chance to hang out with the Blue Family to create this Shadetree mural. Their creativity far surpassed my own and I learned a lot from their artistic vision.

The Charis Project is the real deal…an organization that has considered every detail of how to keep families together while empowering parents to strongly support the development of children in their own homes.

If I were in charge of the world, all communities would have a team like Charis, partnering with families on deep levels…inspiring growth every step of the way.

Posted in Charis Project, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, Mae Sot, Mental Health, Shade Tree Foundation, Thailand, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ouch! What to Expect from A Thai Massage – In Thailand

Streets in Thailand are saturated with massage shops. As you walk along steamy summer sidewalks, the cool air bursting from within, and welcoming waves from waiting masseurs invite desirable moments of respite. Each time I pass, I face the internal battle of, “Do I really need another massage?” Signs with prices posted with a cost of approximately $10 US per hour usually convince me the answer is yes!

Thinking of massages might elicit visions of quiet music, soothing touches, and a sense of self-pampering. This is not the case for most Thai Massages in Thailand. The best description I can think of is that they are unpleasantly amazing. Instead of soothing touches, you can expect an interactive process that include a variety of pushes and pulls. While some touches make you wince, it feels good at the same time.

While we often think of massages as a form of pampering, I have been told Thai citizens view massages as a form preventive medicine to alleviate stress, boost energy, stimulate circulation, and improve range of motion. Self care and taking time for things you love is also a positive way to support positive mental health. It’s hard to judge whether that is true for me, as there are so many other unusual factors influencing my health, but I definitely value the power of alternatives like massage for positive health.

Here are a few things you can expect when getting a massage in Thailand.

#1 SAFETY

At first, it would be natural to question the safety of massages and wonder if there is a concern about hinky factor. In my experience, I have never felt uncomfortable in any way when getting a massage in Thailand. I did some research on ways to watch for signs people are being exploited, and tried to be aware of work conditions when chooses places. There were some shops we passed that seemed less safe, but instinct, neighborhood, time of day, and communal spaces for massages were some tips I found for choosing a shop safe for everyone involved.

#2 MASSAGE OPTIONS

When you arrive, there are a variety of massage options. I have selected either a traditional Thai body or a foot and leg massage. I’ve noticed there are many options for massages with oil, but have only visited during very warm and humid seasons and felt this option would feel a bit stifling when exploring after the massage. Even when picking a traditional massage, I have found that the technique and amount of pressure vary a bit.

#3 CLOTHING AND CLEANLINESS

You are provided with a set of shorts and a shirt to wear during the massage. The cotton outfit provides full body coverage that allows for easy movement. If you are very concerned about cleanliness, I would look for a more upscale option. In my experience, this also varies from place to place. My standards are generally pretty low, but I know questions about table coverings and lack of cleanliness might be something that bothers others – so you might want to ask to see the massage area before beginning.

#4 ACCOMMODATIONS

Foot massages generally take place in recliner chairs pushed way back and sitting amongst others enjoying the same foot service. Sometimes, during a foot massage, the masseur will use a small stick to increase pressure points and focus on overall body benefits of reflexology. Full body massages are often on thin mattresses placed directly on the floor and separated from others by a curtain hung from the ceiling. While the area is private – you can also hear others close to you. I am guessing more expensive places might offer private rooms – but I have never experienced this in Thailand.

#5 OUCH!

Thai massages – unless specified otherwise – are not soft. They are firm to the point of being somewhat painful at times. Your body is twisted into contortions that stretch beyond typical movement and can at times feel like you are being stretched beyond your comfort zone. Typically, the masseur will use all parts of their body including knees, feet, and elbows to grind into pressure points in places you didn’t know existed. Each touch feels intentional and direct with a pinch to a spot like the wrist eliciting tingles all the way up the arm. It’s not uncommon to be pulled opposite to what you would expect – like having someone stand on your legs from behind while pulling your arms back to lift your head and torso off the ground. It’s almost too difficult to explain – but the best I can say for initial massages is to expect the unexpected.

#6 AFTER THE MASSAGE

Sometimes, you will receive a cup of tea and recommendation to drink a lot of water after the massage. You can expect a bit of discomfort on the days after your first massage. Occasionally, I even have gotten small bruises on my legs. It sounds way worse than it is – because the big benefit is a few days after your massage, you will feel fantastic. Honestly, there is nothing like it. For me, I feel like I can stretch beyond my usually capacity and find that places that usually feel stressed, suddenly feel amazing. Shoulders tend to take the brunt of pressure during a massage, but for weeks afterward, they feel loose and limber.

#7 ONE MORE?

Finally, Thai massages can feel a bit addictive. My friends Emily and Corrine visited Thailand with me for 12 days. Within that time period, we estimate we had seven massages. It sounds so over the top – even to me. There was one day, when we walked home and agreed getting a massage might be too much. Then, we passed the beachfront spot, with reclining chairs facing ocean waves and a glorious breeze and gave eye contact showing agreement that we changed our minds.

Massages can be part of your experience in Thailand. Hopefully, knowing what to expect smooths the process toward deep relief for tight muscles and long term benefits of satisfying stretches.

Posted in HopeTravels, Thai Massage, Thailand, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Elephant Love Project

If you know me, you know I am a bit scared of animals. It’s common knowledge. Yet, I often find myself in areas surrounded by monkeys, nearly hyperventilating to view sea life, or now, sticking my hand in the mouth of an elephant. In most cases, this picture pretty much sums up my first moments of animal exploration.

Having friends visit me throughout this trip has offered wonderful detours from time connecting with nonprofit organizations to promote proactive mental health education through projects focused on HOPE. For the last two weeks, Emily and Corinne were perfect travel partners as we traversed through a bit of Thailand enjoying the country – and so many good laughs.

While visiting Chiang Mai, I met Shayne while visiting Free Bird Cafe. I quickly learned that Shayne is known by others as Chiang Mai Ambassador and is a networker, connector and problem solver. I quickly learned he is also the man at the center of many positive and rewarding human connections.

I mentioned my friends were interested in visiting an elephant sanctuary and wanted to find a place focused on ethical treatment of the majestic creatures. Shayne had an option in mind that proved to be perfect for us, The Elephant Love Project.

When researching ethical elephant centers, there are some things to consider. Practices typical in the past, and some of which I have even seen, are actually very stressful for elephants. When choosing, it’s important to avoid places that advertise shows where they are taught behaviors unnatural for elephants including acrobatic tricks and painting. In nature, elephants don’t let people ride on them. Doing so for the pleasure of humans requires “breaking them in” which can be extremely tortuous. Elephant sanctuaries provide care for ex-working elephants who were held in captive, and are best when they allow elephants to live and wander in big open spaces with other elephants. Visiting smaller sanctuaries that do not service tourists all day is best – especially if part of the plan includes touching the elephants or spending time in water with them. It’s not natural for elephants to bath all day, so it’s important to be cautious about this.

The Elephant Love Project has taken all of these guidelines to heart. During our time there, elephants were treated like extended family members, receiving affection, kindness, and good quality care.

Thanarong is the husband of the Karen family who runs this center. As members of the Karen people, they take their historic role as “caretakers of the elephants” very seriously. Sadly, because of the expensive costs of promotion needed to engage with tourists, and the fees charged by tour companies, many smaller Karen sanctuaries face financial difficulties as larger corporate groups monopolize the tourist industry.

We were picked up in the early morning by Somsak. Happy to say, he was not only friendly and gracious, but a Kenny Rogers fan who happily became a duet partner. Loudly belting out “Oh, Holy Night” while driving through backroads in Thailand may have been one of my trip highlights. As he told us about the sanctuary’s work, he became emotional while sharing the importance for Karen people of continuing their mission of protecting elephants and his desire to help Thanagrong’s family overcome the financial challenges of feeding the elephants (who eat 300-500 pounds of food per day) and their ability to pay annual rental fees to maintain the large roaming land space.

Our day was so much fun! We began by making nutritious snacks for the elephants that serve as daily vitamins. Using a large wooden smoosher (named by me), we mixed bananas with a variety of plants and herbs with specific medicinal benefits to ease digestion and provide important nutrients for elephants.

As we walked through the bright green property filled with foliage, we could hear elephants in the background. Corrine was giddy. I was nervous.

When we first met the elephants, Posit and Karmoo (English name translation), we were able to watch them interacting with each other and hanging out for a bit. The sanctuary team was so gentle with them. I could definitely see a difference from past experiences I have observed with elephants. Posit and Karmoo were former working elephants at the Thai border who were recovering from lifetimes of being overworked. Both had injuries that included one ear scarred from bomb injuries and a foot and leg with longstanding damage from being forced to carry heavy loads.

At “Elephant Love Project,” the elephants live in a place where they receive care for previous injuries while also living in a safe and secure space that closely resembles natural conditions. After living in captivity, both elephants would be unable to survive without the specific care they receive.

Once we warmed up to each other through gentle touches and slowly gained proximity, we were able to share the treats we made by saying “bon bon” and putting the snacks in their waiting mouths. This is when I started to feel a bit freaky, but I loved the way there was no pressure to dive in, but just gentle guidance to encourage interactions with the elephants. Their big wet tongues playfully, but quickly gobbled the snacks that actually smelled quite delicious. I am pretty sure that without a lot of guidance, you would not see me get this close to an elephant on my own.

It was a humid day, so time in the water was desirable for all. These elephants enjoy scheduled water time based on their needs, not only for the purpose of pleasing tourists. The muddy bath “spa” offers a desirable cooling spot and a bit of a rest. The elephants seemed to eat up gentle touches and the cool water poured on their warm backs. I know I enjoyed the quick dip and a few splashes between friends.

Our time with the elephants was interactive, purposeful, and appropriate time wise to not cause stress for anyone.

The sanctuary has a shower space where we rinsed off before enjoyed a few plates of yummy Pad Thai while happily debriefing on our day. Words like surreal, once in a lifetime, and living a dream pretty much summed up our day.

People wanting to visit elephants while maintaining ethical standards can confidently enjoying Elephant Love Project.

If you are interested in visiting or supporting their rehabilitation efforts, be sure to visit their Facebook page.

Posted in Chiang Mai, Elephant Love Project, Elephant Thailand, Ethical Elephant, Free Bird Cafe, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Self Care, Self expression, Thailand, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Inspiration at Free Bird Cafe

In the past, when I heard the word entrepreneur, I have always imagined someone who craved money to acquire fancy cars, big houses, and loads of toys for personal satisfaction.

Lisa Nesser, founder of Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe, is a different kind of entrepreneur. As a social entrepreneur, Lisa has all of the talents of a successful business person, being creative, innovative, and full of vision. However, Lisa’s aim is not the acquisition of personal wealth, but instead, her efforts support a full resource center that addresses diverse needs of Burmese refugees and other minority peoples of Thailand.

For years, I have been a long distance fan of Lisa’s innovative efforts connected to the Burmese community I know well from experiences as a World Relief mentor. While I could see challenges refugees faced upon arrival in the US, I admired how Lisa was doing heavy work of creating change directly within communities of displaced people. With limited resources, she used every part of her being to create sustainable systems of support. As years passed, from the distance the internet provides, I watched the evolution of her efforts through many stages of growth. When planning to visit Thailand, I wanted to learn more about their work and see her efforts up close. As I walked down the street and saw this sign in the distance, I was filled with the geeky excitement typically reserved for hotspot tourist destinations.

Meeting Lisa in person, I was drawn to her warm nature, but also her direct style. She knows how to get things accomplished and is always on the move, helping others and making the world a better place. She is a vision-oriented person who can also see the necessary steps needed to fulfill a goal. Mastering the art of being both vision and task-oriented is a gift that changes the world.

Not only does Lisa guide the teams at Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe, but she does so in ways that provide sustainable skill development and education for everyone. Her goal is not to create her best workforce for herself, but to support others in the development of skills leading to their own business success and positively impacting their communities. The sheer number of projects she coordinates is overwhelming – and an example of how much one person can do. She even has her own line of natural products!

Current projects at Thai Freedom House include every aspect of life skills including birth and early childhood development, teen leadership, cultural preservation, specific skill development, and more. One of her main goals is to support entrepreneurial skills in others which can be easily observed by the success of Boo Boo Bamboo Straw company which is helping fill the need for reusable straws both within Thailand and internationally.

Lisa is also passionate about the environment and puts this passion into action through the creation of a Zero Waste Store filled with products that help people to create better habits for themselves and the earth and a “pre-loved charity shop” where clothes are sold to raise funds for project support.

Visiting Free Bird Cafe is a must when visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s not only a training ground for the hospitality program, it is also a wonderful place to enjoy a healthy meal and do a bit of shopping.

After years in a smaller space, Free Bird Cafe recently moved to an expanded location. The bright colored space has a positive vibe.

Not only is the food delicious, but it is healthy and made with fresh ingredients. Many traditional Thai recipes have been revamped to eliminate unhealthy ingredients while increasing the amount of fresh vegetables.

The presentation of each menu item has been meticulously planned. My favorite snack, the muesli with fruit arrived at my table each time, looking like a work of art.

The lavender limeade is delicious…beyond delicious really.

Outside of the delicious food, Lisa has created a space that offers respite from the steamy weather.

The courtyard space is filled with plants, colorful flowers, and brightly painted decorations. It’s clear that every detail of Free Bird was delicately coordinated to provide a space that uplifts guests.

As I walked through the “My Best Life CNX” zero waste store, I took so many notes of things I wanted to use when I return home. Lisa does that, through her actions, even things like providing zero waste options for standard products used by everyone, makes people think about their own habits and what changes can be made.

The Pre-Loved Charity shop is filled with books, clothing, and household items that have been donated to Thai Freedom House so profits can be used to support outreach programs.

I cannot say enough about the impressive work of Thai Freedom House. You can learn more by by visiting their webpage – or – if you find yourself in Chiang Mai, Thailand – be sure to make a visit to Free Bird Cafe. On the webpage, you can also learn about available volunteer opportunities and others ways to support their work. One of Lisa’s goals is to update the outside garden area. I can’t wait to see how this space develops in her loving hands.

Free Bird Cafe is a perfect spot to enjoy time with friends. Lucky me, I was not only able to visit with my lovely traveling companions, but I was also able to enjoy some time there with a former kindergarten student (from over 20 year ago) and her lovely family who I have known for years.

Thank you, Lisa for being a wonderful partner. I was so touched that we were able to create a collaborate mural in the Free Bird space to represent the LOVE and HOPE you so willingly share with others.

If you visit Free Bird Cafe, be sure to snap a picture of yourself with the Hope and Love murals. It’s one of over 20 #HopeTravels murals found around the world.

Posted in Chiang Mai, Free Bird Cafe, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Self Care, Self expression, Street Art, Thai Freedom House, Thailand, Travel, Zero Waste | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Out of Africa – Days of Transition

There was a moment in Malawi when I was stuffed in the back of a taxi – when I thought to myself, “I am not going to miss this.”

You see, there were five of us in the back seat of a small-sized vehicle. What I learned about public transportation in many African countries is that vans or cars only move when they are full. And, by full, I mean that an 11 seat van will wait until there are 15 people wedged inside before pushing the gas pedal. I have also learned, that the last person in has the best seat – because they can give one big final shove that accordions everyone else up as they comfortably yank the door closed.

Along with those facts, there is no expectation of following a schedule, and it’s not uncommon wait patiently for a van to fill up before leaving. There are also occasional moments when everyone en-route detours along the way to meet the needs of one person. On that day, not only were there five of us in the back seat, but one woman communicated to the driver that she needed to stop for a few dozen eggs, so we all paused in front of the small store and waited for her to return with merchandise in hand.

The most remarkable thing about this whole process is the great patience exhibited by everyone involved. What you won’t see or hear are things like eye rolls, raised voices, or questions of concern.

And now, here I am in Malaysia. I love visiting Asian countries. I always have. But this time, after months in African and Middle Eastern destinations, it feels a bit different to me…more isolated. I am not lonely, but I am definitely aware that I am alone for the first time on this journey.

You see – while there were things about places I visited that felt mildly challenging, I am also reflecting on how there are so many cultural aspects of life supporting positive mental health. So far, the lack of some of these things has felt heavy to me.

Some examples…

*Trust – there is great trust in communal cultures. It wasn’t uncommon to see children walking far from adults – down roads, through village streets, running errands for their parents late into the night. In some ways, it is everyone’s responsibility to look out for their well-being. In fact, while sitting and waiting for a van to leave, one woman happily handed me her baby as she went to get a few drinks. There is something about having people trust you this much that brings feelings of pride. In Malaysia, I have been told there is often a sense of distrust – so much so that even apartments on high levels have large metal grills covering the windows for fear of theft. I am not passing judgment on what is right, or which is safer, or the potential risks, I’m just noting the personal difference and power of feeling that others believe you are a trustworthy stranger.

*Activity – kids in previous destinations are always on the go. It is rare to pass an open space not filled with large groups of kids playing. What I love the most, is that there are rarely any adults to be found faciliting game rules, solve their problems, or organize their play. Conflicts are solved by them – sometimes with a shove – but in all cases, I watched kids play, resolve conflicts, and move on. Physical activity is constant for children. For me, all of the cities were very walkable. I felt safe at all hours, and the roads were meant for pedestrians. Here, in Kuala Lumpur, walking is almost impossible with highways breaking paths and the expectation of using public transportation. When asking for directions, people tell me, “Oh, no, that is 2k away, too far to walk.”

*Sense of Belonging – One thing I am desperately missing right now is impromptu human interaction. As I have mentioned before, my last months have been filled with daily short conversations with tons of people. Since arriving in Malaysia, not one stranger has talked to me without being forced into it. I make it my mission to spread love by smiling and greeting people, but it is always met with an initial awkward pause, and then either a pleased response or avoidance and backing away. It wasn’t just me who received attention in places in Africa – people often greeted each other with kindness and interest.

*Demonstrations of Faith – Mental health conversations often dig into connections to faith and move to breaking the stigma that things like depression and anxiety are demonic. At the same time, there was great comfort in interacting with so many people who would willingly pray for each other with deep sincerity and belief in powerful healing. Even the names of local shops center on messages of faith, well-being, and grace. Preachers share inspiration at the beginning of bus rides before the videos of praise songs begins. While faith is important is many places, it often feels personal. Forced public displays of faith can bring questions, but for me personally, I often found the messages on stores and cars to be something encouraging.

*Consumerism – Malaysia is filled with shopping malls. I have never seen so many. And yet, there are times when mall shopping feels relatively distant and unimpressed. There seems to be value in having expensive things. It’s such a drastic shift from local community markets where you can absolutely find everything you need and where people are laughing, shouting, and engaged in bartering. The chaotic nature of markets feels intensely connected and there is great personal satisfaction in securing the best prices. While visiting countries in Africa, I observed great resourcefulness wherever I turned with kids and adults using every available material. Some of my favorite moments were observing the great pride from children who had designed their own toys and games.

*Touch – My personal bubble is quite big and I really enjoy hugs and affection. People I met while traveling during the last months loved to share hugs when you met and departed…deep, loving, kind hugs. In many cultures, it takes time to warm up to someone before diving in for the deep hug. For many, this would be a desirable cultural norm. For me personally, I miss that.

*Acts of Kindness – People often shared what they had with me. When walking down the street, children would give me a piece of whatever they were eating. Random acts of kindness were typical each day – carrying my heavy bags, stopping traffic so I could cross the road, etc. At first, it was easy to feel suspicious, but after a few months, outgoing kindness became a norm. I haven’t been here long enough to experience these kinds of things, but I can say that there is great power in being on the receiving end of such gestures during recent months of traveling. I felt beyond safe – I felt loved.

For me, while there are great mental health conversations needed all over the world, there are things that we can do each day. I have learned so much during this journey, but my hope is the lessons from visiting countries in Africa and the Middle East will provide sustainable changes in how I view life at home. I believe the things I saw and learned should be valued and are valuable for all.

While I know I will transition to these new places, right now, I am aching for one more ride, trying to catch my breath as I sit stuffed below a crowded pile of passengers.

Posted in Africa, HFTD, Hope for the Day, Malaysia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Another Touch of Hope in Malaysia

Parent and Community Workshop

MengZhen is a Psychology Lecturer at Segi College Subang Jaya in Malaysia. After seeing a video about mental health community outreach at Sip of Hope Cafe, he decided to reach out and make a visit to Chicago to meet with the Hope for the Day team. This grand action is a great example of the type of teacher MengZhen is. It was an honor to partner with him and planning with his students to host a parent workshop to support outreach goals of Hope Travels.

Reaching out to Mengzhen’s Psychology students encouraged my commitment to proactive suicide prevention and mental health education. In my recent experiences, the concept of “taking a village” has created a concrete notion that mental health education cannot take place in a vacuum, but requires a general societal outreach and core understandings.

Relationships between children and parents can be complex in all areas of the world. There is nothing new about this. However, the onset of technology, social media, societal changes, and approaches to parents make this feel more challenging to many. While there are many cultural factors influencing observable mental health shifts, one things remains universal. In all workshops with teens, they talk about their deep desire for their parents to try to understand what they are facing and become willing listeners.

Parents can feel helpless when they encounter challenges and awkward in conversations about issues they have never comfortably discussed before. At times, this can display as overreaction, escapism, and silence. Strategies that have worked in the past, may not seem to hold the same power, which can lead to frustration for all.

During our online collaboration, Mengzhen determined time with university students was important, but that sustainable change demanded increased parent awareness and conversations about mental health.

Our community lecture was hosted by Segi College Subang Jaya with a focus on, “Safeguarding Children’s Mental Health and Reducing Harmful Risks of Technology.” Parents crave knowledge, and sometimes ache for simple solutions to complex challenges. This can feel frustrating for everyone, but we talked about the importance of being proactive and not waiting to communicate about mental health until challenges arise. Along with technology benefits and challenges, our session topics included the power of self expression, developing resilience and a growth mindset, and general information about depression.

After the session, club members taught me about, “Sidewalk Talk: A Community Listening Project.” On a monthly basis, students set up chairs outside of Sunway Pyramid Mall to create an environment that nurtures open dialogue and responsive listening. These sessions, based on international Sidewalk Talk program, are intended to change the world “one heart-centered conversation at a time.”

Sadly, on this stormy afternoon, setting up was as far as we got before having to cancel the event. Still, I was able to recognize the commitment of the students and better understand the framework and benefits of this important community program.

Proactive suicide prevention begins with conversations. I am proud of the work of the university students who planned these events. Sometimes, barriers exist, but students on both campuses show a deep willingness to be collaborative and open to important dialogue that will lead to positive change.

The university students I met at Segi University were motivated and dedicated to helping others. Their innovative ideas will surely provide positive results in the community.

Posted in Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeTravels, Malaysia, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Segi, Self Care, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Long Distance Sip of Hope at Sunway University

Last year, Meng Zhen reached out to Hope for the Day to arrange a visit to Sip of Hope Cafe. A willingness to travel thousands of miles illustrates his commitment to innovative and practical learning opportunities for students in his Psychology classes. When planning my Hope Travels journey, in an effort tp support his desire for connectedness, a stop in Malaysia to partner with Meng’s community was a definite plan.

During online collaboration, we determined that university students can often be steeped in theoretics over practical knowledge. His college students, as most across the globe, feel that they spend hours studying knowledge that can be quickly accessible with a Google search, while never addressing the big questions that linger in their minds about future careers.

We wanted to inspire students to recognize that their knowledge, passion, and power didn’t require a diploma to start making a difference. As proactive mental health advocates, they had to power to strike up conversations, plan projects to connect communities, and generally make an effort to share kindness and hope with others.

Our first presentation was hosted by Sunway University. Sunway is an internationally renowned academic environment determined to use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to inspire generations of globally-oriented citizens.

With oversight of energetic members of the Sunway Psychology Club, we hosted a two hour workshop centered on “Sharing Proactive Mental Health in Your Community and On the Road.”

Some topics discussed including the importance of raising visibility about mental health while minimizing the stigma associated with seeking help. As I have discovered, there are many different cultural factors throughout the world that make conversations about mental health challenging – and often off limits.

Not only was I able to share some of my favorite Hope Travels stories and introduce partners from around the world, but I benefited from the time spent with this dedicated core of passionate students leading a generation of change agents. From our short time together, it was clear they have the courage to stand up and create positive change.

Approximately 80 students took time from their busy schedules to attend the event. The depth of their questions, and desire to talk after the session show the need for proactive prevention. Suffering in silence is common and while there is no magic wand for mental health care, people often say they just want someone willing to listen.

The students at Sunway University want action – and have a desire to be part of positive societal change. Their investment in personal care and well-being of others will clearly produce strong results.

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