A Journey To Discover My One Word…

Late in 2017, as the spirit of reflection was in the air, I encountered an online testimony about the power of picking ONE WORD as an alternative to making a New Year’s resolution. The concept was appealing because my resolutions typically drone on about health, relationships, wellness, and budgeting. While my efforts are generally consistent, I make the same dips and strides in a cyclical manner each year – increasingly disconnected from these resolutions as the year proceeds. So, I began searching for my word, pondering options during free mind moments, and making a list of every word I could think of that might propel my life to new heights.

Two weeks into the year, I was left with a running list, but not a single word that inspired change or growth. After submitting a request to take a leave of absence for the 2018-2019 school year, the urgency to claim my first annual focus word increased with my deliberately unpredictable planning.

On January 14th, while sitting quietly at the New Buffalo Fairfield Inn on an early Sunday morning, with very little additional pondering, a word that wasn’t even on my list swam to the top. OPEN! As in opening doors to new places…helping to open doors for others…having an open heart and mind to new experiences…and opening a window to new relationships.

After selecting my ONE WORD, I created this list of ways it would impact my life during 2018 and bought myself a My Intent reminder bracelet.

    OPEN the door to unexpected opportunities
    Be OPEN to input from others – even when it feels a bit uncomfortable
    Look for OPENings to new friendships
    Keep an OPEN mind and don’t settle for “I’m too old” to try something new
    OPEN my home to a tenant who will allow me resources to travel with ease
    Find ways to OPEN knowledge to students about life around the globe
    Try a bike trip during the summer on the OPEN road
    Try to OPEN my mouth with advice – only when it’s a last resort
    Be OPEN to criticism and use it as an opportunity for learning.
    Remember that the OPEN air is my friend
    OPEN my closets and jewelry box to give away anything that isn’t useful
    OPEN my eyes to unseen beauty all around
    OPEN books – just for fun! Lots of them!
    Find OPENings to communicate HOPE mission while leaving touchstones behind both at home and abroad
    OPEN my wallet – for needs more than wants – and only when aligned with my planned budget
    Be OPEN-handed when giving to others – in unique and interesting ways
    Have an OPEN heart to others who think differently than I do and be willing to learn from them
    Be OPEN-eyed and aware of potential risks – situational awareness is important too
    Pray – and allow God to OPEN parts of my heart that might be closed in fear or uncertainty

Throughout the year, when I struggled with a decision or found my mind wandering into unfocused spaces, I remembered my ONE WORD and pushed myself back on track. As the year closes, it’s time to reflect on this list. Since i feel that I am deeply in the middle of this journey, I’ve decided that OPEN will carry into August, 2019 when I return home.

As you enter the New Year and the season of goal-setting, what will your word be?

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What is the PITH of Black Pith Poetry?

Deep within a young tree is the pith, or soft tissue which stores and transports nutrients throughout. As the tree grows, rings surround this pith to show the evolution of time and development. After meeting the young men who are known as Black Pith Zambia, I think this is a perfect name for their team. It is not only reflective of the solidly rooted poetry they share, but symbolic of their deep character focused on sharing knowledge with others.

As you can read on their Facebook page, Black Pith believes “in talent, the magnification of art and the value of an artist” with the mission of “raising a generation of poets in Zambia and beyond.”

Embedded within their poetry is a strong connection to proactive mental health education, reducing the stigma related to conversations about mental health, and showing the power of poetry as a valuable form of self expression.

After reading about their work and focus on community development, I contacted Black Pith and learned that it was an eleven hour bus ride between Lusaka and one of their outreach areas in Solwezi. Despite, a general aversion to long bus rides, and after only a few informal conversations online, I felt good about the trip. Everything they shared was in-touch with the kind of missions I hope to support…innovative, positive, productive, interactive, and hopeful.

I arrived in Solwezi on Thursday night to a bus station filled with people willing to help find a taxi to my hotel. Without a phone, local communication is a challenge, so I to knew I had to wait to contact Black Pith until I had a WiFi connection. To my surprise, during a quick stop to get water at the local grocery store, four smiling young men greeted me by name saying they must be psychics. We all laughed as I fought moments of confusion, but I was immediately sure that this would be a weekend filled with friendship and fun.

Charles Chalwe, Ezra Mwenda, Mbwangi Mwenya, and Mwanangwa Zombe offer their own skill sets to this well-designed team with each focusing on poetry and another specific role within the organization. They met in college and shared a common desire to use the spoken word they enjoyed in school to influence their others and support local development. Through six shows a year, and a variety of outreach events in Kitwe, Zambia and beyond, they are doing just that.

Our weekend, which also included two Black Pith volunteers named Nsofwa and Grace, was filled with diverse outreach in a variety of settings.

What I enjoyed the most about participating in their events was the way their mission was always clear, focused on sharing poetry and building the power of others. However, their approach varied to customize the experience for different audiences.

On Friday night, Black Pith hosted a poetry event at Shamel’s Restaurant. I have to say that I was awed when these fun-loving and humble guys took the stage and dove into their poetic personas. In one breath, their spoken words were deep and meaningful, and in the next, funny and inspiring. It was a wonderfully emotional poetic ride. I loved it!

Photo Credit: DC Photography Zambia

On Saturday, in preparation for our visit to the correctional facility on Sunday, we shopped at the local market for Chitenge fabric that we could used to cover up to follow local customs. It was fun shopping with the girls for clothes – and then some groceries for the lunch they made. They even bought some dried caterpillars which I must say – for caterpillars – tasted good. Even though I still can’t believe I ate caterpillars. It’s funny how our cultural food hang-ups run deep. The dried caterpillars were similar to a small piece of a pretzel – but my own bias made it feel different. I also know, there are things I eat at home that others wouldn’t dream of eating. This is why I love the way travel shows us new ways to be.

During our afternoon of lounging, I learned Zambian cooking basics – and enjoyed the fellowship of our meal, playing cards, watching soccer, origami making, and just hanging out. After months of traveling, this recreation time was a welcome friend.

Saturday’s visit to Cheshire Home was beyond special and gave me a chance to see Black Pith connecting with children. The young people who attend this school have physical challenges and a ton of spirit. They board at the school during the school year under the care of their maternal leader Sister Michelin Kafwembe. During the show, the children were encouraged through puppetry and interactive activities to be overcomers focused on achieving their dreams.

On Sunday morning, we visited a correctional facility where the poets share regular poetry workshops for a small group of prisoners. The men who participated shared poetry written after their previous workshop- and reinforced the power of freedom they will never take it for granted again. There was a strong connection between the poets and prisoners – focused on self improvement and the potential for change. The workshop focused on writing with sensory details – which I loved – and made me feel a tad like I was back at school.

Sunday night was for relaxing at Georgie’s Restaurant outside of Solwezi where there was a bit of kayaking, bridge walking, pizza, and dance.

One cool project we have in motion is collaboration between Black Pith and Chicago poet, Adam Gottlieb. During our video collaboration, they planned a combined poetry workshop centered on, “What gives you hope for the next year?” Through video and audio work, they will host a poetry workshop in their respective cities that will be combined for a global poetry production. As a teacher, this is my dream for how technology can be used to build partnerships and provide cross-cultural learning opportunities.

I cannot say enough about the men of Black Pith poetry and the way they have created an outreach program built on their talents. In many tangible ways, they are providing poetry therapy for the masses in their community through large and small group activities.

If I had grown children, I would want them to be just like this crew…filled with respect for others, a desire to influence the world, and a general good nature and strong set of values.

Someday, they will come to visit me. I can already picture them working with some friends from home, and other I have met on this journey, to bring their positive influence to Chicago.

Posted in Africa, Black Pith Poetry, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Kitwe, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paperforwater, Poetry, Self Care, Solwezi, Spoken Word, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hearts Travel Where Hope Travels

It’s December! The hustle of the holidays makes this a whirlwind month. I think of how many holiday gifts I have wrapped in my lifetime and how much time I have spent finding just the right presents, while often succumbing to the pressure of just grabbing something to fill the need. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed the process less and less, seeking simplicity in a world crowded with stuff, seeking a way to bring cheer without an ounce of expectation, and seeking ways to find perfect gifts that feel right instead of just checking a holiday box. After my last three weeks in Africa, I have determined that an ounce of holiday cheer can be found in a single sheet of paper.

Where did this origami mission begin?

You may have enjoyed pictures and stories from the travels of Jason Everett. He has shared a story of when a young woman in line at a Bethlehem, Westbank, checkpoint alleviated boredom and tension by transforming a few squares of paper into origami surprises. While it only took a few minutes, the imprint of the way the small gesture elevated the mood of that moment left its mark on him- leading to his partnership with Paper for Water who generously sent him to Africa armed with large stacks of paper in the hope of sharing small treasures along his way – which he did.

I watched his work in action throughout Uganda and Rwanda, enjoying the process, but never mastering a technique of my own. However, as his leg of our journey finished, I became the beneficiary of his unused stack of paper. I turned to the master teacher named Google – and searched for “preschool origami projects” with my instructional competency level. I watched 8 year old experts as I painstakingly practiced the simplest technique found in the form of a basic heart.

With paper at the ready, my backpack is currently armed with tools to surprise children with an unexpected paperfolding lesson. Each time we engage in the process, I am surprised at the collective sense of accomplishment experienced when our basic square becomes a colorful heart.

This small gesture makes me think maybe I don’t need BIG and beautifully wrapped gifts right now. Maybe this is a time for simple gestures of kindness in places where no one is looking for it. While it’s easy to let encroaching excess fill the air, I wonder if there is joy to be found at home in these seven simple folds.

Is anyone else is willing to test the idea that a few minutes of sharing origami with a stranger can bring a snippet of unexpected joy? All you have to do, is make your own paper hearts to share with others. Or, teach someone else to make their own so they can share with others. I promise, if I can perfect this technique, you can do the same within minutes of watching my short training video.

If you’d like, I will send you paper in the mail in the hope that you will find someone to surprise with a heart-making exchange. Or, here’s a link to buy a pack of your own.

Share a pic!!! I would love to see your work in action. #heartstravel #hopetravels

Posted in Africa, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Origami, Paperforwater, Self Care, Street Art, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Afri-cans Street Art Festival 2018

In its second year, Afri-Cans Street Art Festival in Kampala, Uganda was a collaboration of artists who met to celebrate their passion for community-building through the design and creation of street art.

For one of the event’s founders, Sparrow Uganda, this day was the culmination of his longstanding vision to create a platform for artists to share knowledge and connect with each other. As he hoped, it also supports his mission to spread the development of street art throughout Africa.

On a weekend in November, 2018, artists from countries including Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Canada, Italy, and Zambia joined their Ugandan counterparts to transform Kampala’s Kitintale neighborhood which surrounds the Uganda Skateboarding Union Park.

At a Friday night fest precursor, artists met at Kabalaza, which is a brightly painted rooftop innovation hub filled with a creative vibe. In fact, the whole open-air space is filled with graffiti art that serves as a small oasis from the busy city streets. As the event leaders, Sparrow and Mos welcomed the crowd, they talked about the importance of young Africans working together to empower themselves and each other….being stronger as a united front.

As each artist was introduced, their messages wove a common theme of pride in working with people they have admired from afar, finding kinship in common interests, and the power of art to change lives. Speech after speech brought cheers and applause of celebrating friends – many who had never met in person before. People offered inspiration to others and noted that art is a means to share stories of Africa without the bias of outside influences.

When I arrived at the Kitintale sight on Saturday morning, things were just getting started, slowly warming up, but with a buzz in the air. A few artists sat together sketching in notebooks, there was a swirl of a few early-rising skaters, the griddles warmed with smells of local food, the dj tested the mic, and groups of kids eagerly helped to set up the seating areas.

Kitintale is a bit remote, requiring a walk along dusty roads. As you enter the park area, street art from previous days starts to pop up along buildings to guide your way toward the central skateboarding ramps.

As murals began to populate the area, residents could feel the positive spirit that came along with the them. Now, given the chance, most of the community willingly donated the outside walls of their homes as blank canvases for one of the 40 artists attending the fest. The theme of festival art centered on the power of women. As the event founder, Sparrow, noted at the opening, “We all owe a lot to the women in our lives and this is our chance to honor them.”

Throughout the day, artists were painting every available space. As a spectator, I watched their work unfold, graceful hands sliding over walls with seemingly magical touches. From their hands, beauty emerged in the form of diverse representations of the theme. Some had colors popping from their space. Others were bold and filled with vibrant messages. As every wall was covered at once, it was hard to know where to turn your head for fear of missing out.

For this momentous event, I took a whirl at a mural (internal rhyme there – 8th graders)! After watching my friends create public masterpieces for the past weeks, I sketched a kindergarten style design of the word HOPE surrounded by a heart. Luckily, my artist friend Rach could recreate my drawing in an enlarged and improved form on the side of a house.

Our mission was to get kids involved in the painting process – and for a few minutes of awesomeness – our plan was working….until about 100 more showed up. Coming and coming…we had way more kids than wall space. We were lucky that Zebia, who I met the night before, showed up as a paint angel who lent her helpful hands all over the place…a real partner in our process.

While I have been enjoying kids wherever I travel, I have yet to master the best way to organize large groups who are vying for access to a few available adults. It has happened in every spot. We start out with clear guidance and before you know it, kids are huddled into a large circle which makes any level of success a challenge. Once the cans came out, kids were getting pushed, paint cans walked away, and our line became a massive huddle. Although it was fun, general chaos ensued, so we trimmed our group size and continued to a finished product that made us all proud.

As I worked with Rach to find my inner artist, I was honored at his investment and enjoyed the thrill of seeing the creation of our partnership.

Every detail of this Afri-cans Festival was impressive. The art, the graphic design by Mos, the DJs, the visiting performers, the camaraderie. All of it! At each turn, blank walls became inspired messages of female empowerment. Clusters of motivated people engaged in conversations about visions for excellence and demonstrated their willingness to work together to create opportunities for themselves and others. Kids surrounded the skateboard ramps, cheering and watching a deeply engaged community beautifying their homes.

Young leaders can change the world, and Afri-cans was about more than the art – it was about the establishment of youthful and innovative leadership roles within Kampala. Having just recently met Sparrow and Mos, I was filled with honor as I watched them work in their leadership element. As a teacher, these are the kind of moments we talk about and dream of…the transition of power focused on good where we have a chance to learn and grow from the next generation of visionaries. They were a reminder of the shift of finding inspiration – not only from our mentors, but from those who are forging new paths.

I didn’t get many pictures of other murals…we might have gone a bit over the top at taking some of our own. Plus, after painting, we took a bit of time for origami. Be sure to search for #Africans2018 or #ASAF2018 on all social media to see pics…beyond impressive.

Plus, if you visit Kampala, Uganda, Kitintale is definitely THE place to go!

Posted in Africa, Africans2018, Kampala, Kitintale, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Street Art, Travel, Uganda, USAF2018 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Caring For My Mental Health While Traveling

Traveling brings out the best and worst in ourselves and our partners. Long distances, changes in nutrition, and sensory overload can disrupt all semblance of a life balance. At the same time, there is often a drive to “get everything in” which leads to personal neglect and a lack of self care.

I tend to see most experiences through the “chalking it up to experience” point of view and some people might even say I see the world through rose-colored glasses. While my last months have been filled with abundant gifts, most people don’t know I have also lost my phone, been in a small motorcycle accident, had my taxi involved in a hit and run, and gotten an unsuspecting bonk on the forehead by a passing woman. In all cases, I was quite fine, and these things happen when you are out and about all day – even at home. But, as a long-term traveler, I have learned that my positive mental health relies on actively making it a priority and that if any of these things happened when I was feeling particularly challenged, the personal impact may have cut deeper than it did. What works for me has been learned by hitting a wall after neglecting the important aspect of self awareness and care and finding myself negatively impacted by situations that arose.

During this journey, I realize that I can’t share messages of hope with others if I am not preparing my body and mind to do so. Rest is key for me. While I know this isn’t the case for everyone, I just can’t book a full day and night of events and have learned not to feel guilty about that. There was a day when I felt like time to read and recover each night was a waste of time and was kind of embarrassed by my 8:30 bedtime while in exotic locations. Experience has taught me that these aren’t things to be ashamed of. I enjoy people and experiences with heightened pleasure when I have also had quiet time to myself. Sometimes, a day of quietness by the pool is the best thing I can do and the most valuable way to spend a day.

In my experience, nutrition changes – especially the inability to eat most fresh produce adds an element of strain to a long term trip – and a little bit of guilt that I am privileged enough to include so much food variety in my daily life at home. Sometimes, tagging recipes that I plan to make someday makes me feel hopeful. Drinking water is not something I love – but it’s necessary for reducing unfamiliar illnesses encountered in new places…so I carry a Camelbak water bladder that I fill each day and carry in my backpack. I drink the water I carry because it lightens my load. I am always on the hunt for ways to add fruit and veggies into my diet. While I love trying new sweets, I try not to overindulge in sugar. It’s easy to believe that it’s important to TRY EVERYTHING while away, but moderation still reigns across the globe.

Preparing financially for a journey reduces my stress about doing the extras when I arrive. Before I left, I spent three years saving with one full time job and three side hustles. Using the Dave Ramsey mantra of, “If you live like no one else, later you can live like no one else,” got me through some hard seven-day work weeks and allowed me to take this trip. Sometimes, when I get where I am going, I tend to still be very budget-minded – which is great. I am not willing to spend a lot on accommodations or food because that isn’t where I take great pleasure. However, I have learned that spending money wisely includes just that – spending on experiences that bring great joy. Personally, it might seem silly or shallow, but I love buying dresses in new places. The experience of buying or having dresses designed just for me offers a fun relational experience – and I love when I am home – and my morning routine of getting dressed elicits memories of far away places and people. I will spend on local spa treatments – always reasonably price – like massages – because it improves how I feel. Achieving a balance between spending and conserving is key to reducing my anxiety about running out of money.

People connections are the reason I travel. Sightseeing is not a big thing for me – but I have learned that when people are brought together for a short amount of time – friendships gain a sense of urgency and depth. Staying focused on being relational and not missing opportunities to be engaged are key for bringing value to my travel experiences. I have met some of the most wonderful friends while traveling. There is a genuine filter of loving new places that builds instant connections and easy rapport.

I realize that personal care is just that – personal. There is no magic wand for mental health – and I never think that what works for me is what is best. It’s just that I know the power of self awareness and self care matter for me. Others may be challenged by some logistics and pressures of travel that typically don’t faze me…but knowing that the message that “it’s ok not to be ok” also applies on the road – is liberating. Taking time to weave self care into travel experiences is a valuable use of time. I would love to hear how others make this a priority.

Posted in Africa, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Nicaragua, Self Care, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thanksgiving from Afar

It’s almost Thanksgiving. While I am dreaming of dinners gone by and craving the sweet mix of mashed potatoes and cranberries, my thoughts are focused on gratitude. I often ponder how people I’ve met on this journey practice explicit thankfulness for things I take for granted. Is there is a connection between dissatisfaction and excess and is it possible that scarcity intensifies gratitude?

While dining at Queen of Sheba DC restaurant, I met the owners and was smitten by their vibrant personalities and outgoing charm. I love watching people in their element, especially entrepreneurs who overtly share so much of themselves as they provide for others. Over delicious injera and vegetables, I learned a bit of their life stories including their recent return to Ethiopia after years of living in Washington, DC. I shared how I aimed to learn about projects that share hope with Ethiopian people. Queen suggested we visit St. George’s Cathedral as one of her customers speaks highly of their work serving elderly people.

While touring the church, we learned about an effort to provide medical and financial support to over 160 women. We visited a small room that served as a lab facility where volunteers diagnose ailments and often treatment options. We also met Yamerot who lives on the church grounds in a humble home she says meets her needs. After her husband died, she found herself facing financial hardships, but felt blessed that the church provided her with a living space. While you could see that Yamerot carried burdens from life, even with our language barrier, I sensed her genuine pride in sharing her home with us. There was a great grace in her pride – but also a sincere warmth in her appreciation for our time together.

Queen brought a huge circle of humbasha bread that we happily shared after it was blessed by the local priest. We sat and enjoyed this meal with great joy and thankfulness. Even without an abundance of multiple courses and endless food, it felt like a celebration of gratitude…a thanksgiving so far from home.

As I continue to understand and share about mental health, I am finding through research and interactions with people that a doggedly focused attitude of gratitude can promote positive mental health. While it’s not the only answer, the benefits of focusing on what we have, instead of what we want can be powerful.

During this busy week, I wish you all a bucket of time to make Thanksgiving an authentic opportunity to enjoy the abundance of joy granted by thankfulness. I will forever be reminded that people all over the world practice faith and gratitude with less.

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Skateboarding is Cool…Especially in Rwanda!

There is no magic wand for providing effective proactive mental health education. Support for each person is an unique mix of self and community care. As a teacher, this can be hard because we often ask, “What should we do about…?” while relying on tangible data to determine our next steps and progress. When we work on mental health strategies, results are often more internal and hard to quantify.

In the midst of this intricacy, there are a few things I know for sure. I know that providing children with a sense of belonging matters. Setting, monitoring, and achieving goals establishes a sense of purpose with eyes cast on the future. When children know they are important to others, they can gain a sense of their individual value within a larger community. Helping young people find their personal valves of self-expression promotes positive self-care and awareness of ways to decompress during stressful moments.

The skateboard park at SOS Children’s Village in Kigali, Rwanda is a breathing example of a mental health prevention network. From 3:00 – 6:00 PM each day, children converge from all directions on this colorful play place. Led by Skateaid volunteers, hopeful skaters take brooms in hands to clear dust from the previous day and prepare the park for the whooshes and rolls of flying decks. A collection of boards and donated shoes line the entrance ramp as eager children anticipate their moments in the spotlight and dream of floating through the air with varied levels of expertise.

Some of the smaller children, tentatively stand on boards, soaking in the support of the volunteers and the shouting encouragement of their peers, as well-versed senior skaters practice flips and dips along the curving ramps.

On one special Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the park for the highly-hyped skateboard competition. When market-shopping for gifts on the previous day, Tim (from Skate Aid) and I anticipated attendance of about 100 children. We confidently carried our load of shopping bags away from the market, filled with clothing, toothbrushes, toys, candy, and other treats. As the afternoon proceeded, cheering grew to a fevered pitch – well beyond the screams of 100 and my confidence in having gifts for everyone began to wane.

The Skate Aid volunteers, Tim, Maxim, and Pat kept this wily crew organized with their bullhorn, shouting names of competitors with high shouts of directions and praise.

For hours, kids stayed focused, as they watched others – ranging from youngest to oldest – take their turns swooshing across the steep curves and ramps of the park. Big tricks received an uproar of screams and raucous name-chants. Big falls received silent moments of fear that quickly turned to laughs and cheers as the skater dusted off and jumped back on the board – seemingly trying to convince the crowd that the blip never occurred.

The rapidly approaching sunset forced the competition to a close with the final, most advanced skaters wow-ing the crowd with their skilled leaps and tricks. As the judges deliberated, children gathered with anticipation in a large circle to learn who garnered the coveted prizes. Our hope was to provide gifts for everyone, but the rushing masses made it a challenge – with the judges quickly surrounded by a flurry of hands and bodies hoping to score some goods.

The final moments were a bit chaotic…with the Skate Aid volunteers masterfully managing to hold onto some of those treats for another day – while also being the kind of teachers who used the chaos as an opportunity for learning.

I used to pass skateboard parks with limited understanding of the positive role they can play in the lives of young people. Luckily, Skate Aid has a vision for using this method of self expression to build children up, help them to set and achieve goals, teach them that they matter, and show the power of community.

Posted in Africa, Rwanda, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment