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 , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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.

Posted in Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Self Care, Sunway, Travel, WJHSPantherpride | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hope for Widows – Malawi

Emotions are universal and transcend culture. While sometimes expressed in different ways, feelings of faith, love, happiness, and hope are observed wherever you go. Fathers watch their children play with pride sparkling in their eyes whether strolling through a big city park or along a sandy village road. Children express delight and wonder when handed colorful balloons whether at a birthday party or on a crowded city bus. Mothers give eyes of warning that stop children in their tracks – everywhere in the world. There is a universal humanity in our shared emotions that connects people around the globe.

As members of global societies, grief is the turbulent partner of love. Grief over loss of loved ones is universally gut-wrenching. Ceremonies of grief and commemoration of loss vary in diverse societies, but the emotions of those left behind demonstrate a deep connection humans share. Pain, denial, anger…we have been here – or will be at some time – to face these hardest losses of our lives.

Now, imagine this! For widows in Malawi, the grief and deep loss suffered when losing you husband is overshadowed by broader items on the hierarchy of needs. In Malawi, a woman is viewed as belonging to her husband, along with his other assets and property. Regardless of how the money was earned, when a man dies, there is a system of “property grabbing” that allows the family of her husband to claim their house, items within the house, and all saved money. Often, in these darkest moments, Malawian widows are so desperate financially they have no choice but to drop their children at orphanages where their basic needs can be met.

Amess Nthala became a widow at the age of 26. Of small comfort for her, she was one of the 30% of Malawian women who did not lose everything during this time. But, while working at a local orphanage to make ends meet, she began encountering more of the 70% of women who did. Instead of judging their need to put kids in the orphanage, she investigated root causes of something that seemed so unthinkable. The bottom line for her was their lacking sense of empowerment and inability to use their skills to support themselves. They were broken, left without support, and could only anticipate a life of grief and helplessness.

Photo Credit: Catherine Allison

Amess knew this had to change and has made it her life mission to empower widows – not by defining themselves as weak or needy – but by creating a network of shared support and entrepreneurship skills.

Hope for Widows is a powerhouse organization using innovative practices that create change. Here are just a few of the ways they meet widows where they are to empower independence and success…

*Widows meet each week for a time of fellowship and sharing. At each meeting, one widow’s business plan is supported by others who lend profits from their own businesses. As a treasurer takes a list of attendees, she notes the amount of money each person invests in the business owner of the week. When I attended, the circle of generosity traveled from person to person who shared funding to support a woman needing supplies for her charcoal business.

*Amess has created a workspace in her home for sewing, knitting, and jewelry-making. Women receive financial gains from the products sold and money is also shared with Hope for Widows to create sustainable development. Money is used to support current project including the watershed purchase of land where rental properties will be built to fund the business center of their dreams.

*The women use knitting machines to make sweaters for school uniforms. What is especially unique about this system is that their products are sold to the local orphanage in an agreement that benefits individual knitters, the organization, and the children at the orphanage.

*Amess is also committed to providing educational opportunities for this group. During my recent visit, a group of 30+ women met in a brick outlet of the local church where we spent time discussing grief, mental health, and the power of admitting when you are ‘not ok.” Women responded positively at the acknowledgement that grief is not a straight line of emotion where people “get over it” and that the impact reaches far and wide in their own lives. As they have already created systems of support, it is my hope they felt challenged to dig deeper into the power of conversations about mental health and related healing.

Sharing time with women from this group was powerful. Instead of talking and unfulfilled actions – this group readily committed to systems that support everyone. The labor of one person is to the benefit of many. While the topic was serious, we laughed, danced, and benefited from Amess’ fiery translation.

Property grabbing is an issue that doesn’t receive much attention. In fact, I have heard others say the plight of widows is often overlooked by the human rights and feminist communities.

There is something you can do to support Hope for Widows. Sometimes, the children of the women and other youth in their community are held back from attending school because they do not have the funds for a school uniform or annual fees. The costs of these items combined is $25 per year. $25 to keep a children in school for a year.

I have set up an easy way to get money to Hope for Widows for the specific purpose of paying for uniforms and school fees. If you would like to contribute to their cause, feel free to reach out.

Posted in Africa, HopeTravels, Malawi, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Girls Network Malawi – Amazing!

Just her name makes me happy. Pronounced as “ooh la la,” there is a sense of beauty, appeal, and fun. But, there is more to Ulala than a beautiful name, within her is a beautiful heart, dedicated work ethic, and desperate need to help young women in Malawi and beyond.

Ulala is the founder and CEO of Girls Network Malawi. She participated in the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow Program in the US and was selected as an honored fellow of the 2018 Obama Foundation Leaders Africa program. At the heart of all her accomplishments, Ulala is a teacher.

She began her career at a high school in Malawi where the system presents many challenges for teachers and students. As with many, her first years of teaching were busy and filled with new responsibilities. As her first class of students prepared for graduation, she reflected on their progress and successes during years spent together. There was much to be proud of. However, what she also found during this reflection was that somewhere along the line, within her average class of 55 students, there were 8-9 girls who did not complete school to fulfill graduation. What struck her most was that she really didn’t even notice this gap and wasn’t sure of the reasons her female students didn’t succeed.

With research and reflection, she discovered the reasons they faded out without much communication or intervention. Some of the root causes for leaving school included early marriages with families seeking one less mouth to feed in their homes, challenges with menstruation supplies that kept girls missing multiple days of school each month and falling behind, shame caused by UTIs which can be inaccurately linked to stigma of HIV, pregnancy, and lack of understanding of how education could have a positive impact on their lives.

Instead of sitting by and making excuses, Ulala began to meet with girls for one after school session each week to provide mentorship and education on issues that mattered to them.

At the end of her training in the Mandela Washington program, each participant was asked to make a commitment to using what they learned to enhance their programs. Ulala committed to building an organization that would provide a network for girls at other school to experience the same type of outreach, mentorship, and education.

At this time, Girls Network Malawi meets with girls in six schools, with the help of on-site teachers, and supports 420 girls. Activities focus on physical health, reproductive information, mentrual hygiene management, gender-based violence, and more. Girls are active participants in the sessions as they learn to advocate for themselves and care for their own needs. For example, during recent sessions, girls learned to make reusable sanitary pads that can be used to keep them from missing school. During this process, they learned a great deal about their physical health and ways to prevent infections and address monthly challenges.

Ulala realizes that there is still great stigma in addressing mental health proactively in Malawi. In many countries, just the words mental health lead to parents who are unwilling to provide consent for support as there can be great shame in this topic. However, that doesn’t stop Ulala. She recognizes there is a great need and continues to seek professional development on the topic while partnering with other organizations who have common purpose.

During my time with Ulala, I was not only impressed with her focus and drive, but also with her great attention to detail. From the moment we met, she had a plan for our time, lists of information, and had taken care of all the major details of our painting and workshop sessions. She had also created partnerships with multiple organizations who would benefit from collaboration. This diligent focus allowed me to be a collaborative mission partner doing a small part to support her much greater investment. I loved it!

In two short days, we painted a mural with teens from Samaritan’s Trust which is an organization that finds children living on the streets and takes them in for vocational training and leadership development. We also partnered with Chikondi Girls Project and Rehabilitation Hope – two organizations providing support for children, teens, and young adults. Together, we shared information about mental health and the importance of raising visibility through proactive conversations and education with young adults.

When I start to be overwhelmed by challenges and hardships I have seen along this journey, I think of people like Ulala – who are not sitting by and waiting for change – they are making it. The contagious appeal of her energy is inspiring – and helping me to consider ways to extend this journey to the time when I arrive home again. While there is much work to be done, I know that there are many people willing to do the heavy lifting needed to create change in their communities.

Thank you, Ulala for inviting me to be your mission partner and friend. I hope we meet again someday and will happily watch your continued journey to make a difference.

Posted in Africa, Girls Network Malawi, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeTravels, Malawi, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Obama Foundation Fellow, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Painting with Respect

Malawi is a picturesque country known as the “warm heart of Africa” based on the notably friendly nature of the people and the highly safe environment. While strolling the crowded streets of the Lilongwe, the capital city, greetings by strangers are common as they warmly engage with short conversations and authentically kind smiles.

This type of quick meet and greet is typical and takes place upwards of 50 times per day. Personally, I like the interactions, but they are so similar and rarely specifically memorable. Instead, they flow together as pleasant snippets of an overall nice day.

In this crowd of conversations, lucky for me, there was one not be forgotten. On an aimless, but purposeful meander through a grocery store parking lot, on a mission to buy some fabric to have dresses made, a young man matched pace with my stride and introduced himself with, “My name Respect.” He had likely noted my circling walk that distinctly lacked a plan and offered conversation and an offer to join my quest for the nearby market.

As we walked and enjoyed our conversation, I asked Respect about his work. His response was, “I am an artist.” It felt like a flash of Divine intervention… a purposeful meeting and invitation to work together. Not having secured a local artist for a hope mural in Malawi, I feel an immediate assurance that Respect would be the guy. As I told him about the Hope Travels project, we decided that he would begin the mission of locating a community space to paint. We agreed it should be in a highly public spot where the message of hope would feel valued and fruitful.

After we separated, (with fabric purchased and dresses ordered), he was back in touch within hours to report that a local screenprinter had agreed to let us paint his storefront. We met again so I could check out the space which is adjacent one of the small river bridges connecting two markets and in a central spot within the vegetable section of the market. All of these factors contributed to the location being a bustling hub of activity.

Initially, the storefront was dark and fading – looking like it had evolved over the course of time. It was a place you might pass without taking a second glance as you busily shopped at nearby potato and tomato stalls.

After a short detour with Respect to his home city near Lake Malawi, it was time to start painting. With paintbrushes in hands, Respect and his friend Max created a storefront that regally stands out in the market now. Bright colors draw the eyes to a stunning African village scene. At their work evolved, all eyes were on the store and many who passed stopped to compliment their work.

For me, there was something therapeutic about just being able to sit back ond watch their talents in action. As the scene unfolded, village huts, trees, people in motion, and a moonlight covered the walls.

Of particular note to me was the high quality of their lettering – even though I saw it happen – it was hard to believe the perfect, decorative letters were done without a stencil and evolved from their steady hands. Messages of hope in English and Chewa will greet all visitors of Lizulu Market and proudly highlight the location of the “Amazing Signs” shop.

Sometimes, well actually often on this journey, I have had a strong feeling guiding hands were directing my purpose and relationships. With Respect, I have no doubt this was the case. His name is a perfect description for the kindness shown during our time together – rarely letting me lift a package, always concerned about my well-being, and anxious to share the finest parts of Malawi.

I am so grateful for Respect (also known as Arone), Max, and Amazing for their deep commitment and contributions to this project. This HOPE mural is something special and a reminder that transformation is always possible.

Posted in Africa, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeMural, HopeTravels, Malawi, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, StreetArt | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope Travels & Kindness Rocks

When I first watched Megan Murphy’s “Origin” video on The Kindness Rocks webpage, there were a few things that connected me to her mission. First, she had an affinity for heart-shaped rocks, which is also my favorite hunt when walking rocky shores. It feels so exciting when I find them – like a special treasure – lost in a sea of extraordinary. Take a peek at my favorite, found in Iceland!

But, more important than our heart rock connection, I listened as Megan shared about how she began having beach walk “conversations” after losing her parents in her early 20’s, looking for signs and symbols of their responses during her daily life. For her, discovering rocks and sea glass were like the words she needed to hear to know her parents were paying attention as her life evolved. One day, with a Sharpie in hand, Megan left rocky words of inspiration on her favorite beach, and was inspired by a text from a friend who found one, guessed she was the person who left it behind, and told her how much that small gesture meant. And with that, a movement of kindness was created.

In my own life, and especially while far from home with the freedom of a rested and attentive mind, I have the luxury of the same types of conversations Megan has – but also with the ability to keep my eyes and heart open for those returning signs of continued connection. Losing people in my life froze time in those relationships, but also became the trajectory that guides how I live life and relate to others years later. In retrospect, losing my parents in my early 20’s cuts particularly deeply because I wasn’t a great version of myself – carrying a independent spirit that was also selfish, stubborn, unappreciative of their influence, and bit rude. I wasn’t aware of their lasting legacy in my life, and some of my memories make me cringe. Losing my brother years later brought a different kind of sadness because we shared more years of life together and his influence and sense of humor are sorely missed while facing life’s new challenges. With all that said, Megan’s message of seeking signs resonated because I do the same – feeling comfort in my belief that we are still connected – and I can use their lives – and their strengths gained to help make a difference and share hope.

After watching Megan’s video, I knew I wanted to connect Hope Travels with The Kindness Rocks Project because they both promote simple ways for people to build communities while traveling. Sharing rocks, like Hope Travels, tangibly promotes the power of small acts of kindness. The goal of The Kindness Rocks project is simple – to connect many, inspire & empower others to join us in creating a kinder world! The concept of the project is simple – paint a rock, add a loving message, and leave it behind for someone to find. Often, rocks are built by communities who put the rocks together in gardens that are not only artistic, but leave a space for people to assemble as a community.

I reached out via email, like I have done with hundreds of other potential partners on this journey, and her immediate and positive response supported my notion that there was something special about Megan and her mission. She not only responded positively, but shipped a package of rocks, markers, and activity cards for my journey. As a woman on a mission to pack lightly, I had to laugh at the fact there would come a time when I was literally carrying a box of rocks.

Photo by Megan Murphy

My first venture into creating rocks took place on the last day of the “Hope Travels” and “More Friends Than the Mountains” projects in Kurdistan/Iraq. After traveling through Kurdistan sharing hope through community murals and kites in partnership with Jason Everett and our Kurdish partners, it occurred to us that each child we met was so unique – bringing their own colorful and glorious personalities to the camps where they lived.

Photo by Jason Everett

Painted rocks seemed like a way to not only share kindness, but to symbolically showcase the beautiful children confined to these challenging circumstances. We met with small groups of children and the center educator as Hassan Sham IDP camp where we talked about how there might be times when you feel you have nothing to share, but in reality, you actually do – the gift of kindness. Children designed messages of kindness, hope, and Kurdish pride that added a bit of color to their play area.

Photo by Jason Everett

AlHadaf, a nonprofit in Amman, Jordan that supports refugees and foster parents, became the center of rock painting activity. Children and adults designed beautiful creations during art therapy sessions focused on the power of kindness. Art therapy can seem daunting for non-artists, but there is something disarming about this project that allows everyone to connect and share in the process. Many of the refugees at AlHadaf are waiting for asylum after being forced to leave their homes and lives behind because of their religious convictions – so it wasn’t surprising that many of their rocks combined messages of faith and hope. Their beautiful collective garden proudly welcomes them back to the center each week when they participate in English lessons and vocational classes. Again, I was struck by the connection between the people and their rocks – the idea that each of us holds unique beauty and messages worthy of being shared.

In Jordan, the rock projects took hold as I became more adept at connecting this project with mental health education.

After these initial experiences, Kindness Rocks projects have become a staple of the Hope Travels effort to develop global partnerships related to positive mental health and sharing hope. Wherever I go, I carry paintbrushes and markers, but I have also learned to just hunt locally for rocks.

My most recent rock project was a HUGE undertaking with partners at a community center in Namibia. Fourteen years ago, Patricia Sola and John Mafukidze began cooking food out of their kitchen and bringing it to nearby informal settlements. From this humble beginning, Hope Initiatives South Africa (HISA) currently works to empower hundreds of children each day through education, food and nourishment, and capacity building. Their community center sits in the middle of Kilmandjaro informal settlement, surrounded by small houses made of corrugated aluminum.

The center is a constant hub of activity for many children, often who are vulnerable as they face serious challenges in addition to hunger, such as trauma, abuse, neglect, limited access to education, and minimal healthcare. Outside of their daycare and early childhood programs, HISA provides children with hot meals and a place to enjoy each other safely during after school programs.

Driving through Kilimandjaro Settlement feels heavy as the houses are small, full, and often have limited resources and water. The appearance of the large green HISA structure is welcome – especially when you hear the loud laughter and fun pouring through the fences.

When I met with Steph, who is a Peace Corps volunteer, we talked about the powerful prospect of adding more color to this space and building community spirit by having the kids do the work. After completing our first mural projects, we introduced idea of painting rocks by working on a project that combined rocks artistically created by students in Community Unit School District 201 with those painted by children at HISA.

Photo by Julie Graham

Then, we moved to large boulders where children often sit to enjoy their meals, that we thought would look great with a splash of color. Naturally, this turned into a Kindness Rocks project that we deemed the “World’s Largest Kindness Rocks Garden.”

When working with on murals with Leena, an artist in Mauritania, I learned how to include large groups of kids in painting projects. While the prospect can be daunting, and paint is naturally spilled often, we used all kinds of techniques to ease the process. Here are a few to others to consider…

  • Giving each child a small container of paint created from a cut water bottle equals less mess
  • Buying a 5 gallon tubs of white paint and separate bottles of colorful dye equals many options of colors
  • Finding patterns that are easy to create like polka dots, puzzle pieces, and sponge painting equal involvement by more kids at the same time
  • Having an area for side work equals involvement by kids who are just too young to follow a plan, but are eager to be involved
  • Recognizing leadership within the ranks of the crew makes set-up and cleaning easier as their training comes in handy as the project proceeds
  • Overall, the best lesson I have learned, which is also my best teaching advice is to never underestimate the power of children when their mission is clear and systems are set up for their success

Our jumbo garden was a massive undertaking for a labor force consisting of 4-13 year olds, but after seven days of painting under the hot Namibian sun, we did it.

It was chaotic. It was creative. It was a bit exhausting. But, the children beamed with pride and ownership as these plain rocks transformed into messages of hope, love, peace, and more. People drawn into the center by children were happily provided tours of their work and an overview of the messages shared.

Megan Murphy has been a valued and appreciated partner in our rock painting projects, and I look forward to spreading her mission as my travels in Africa culminate in Malawi and I move on to SE Asia for the final months of the Hope Travels journey.

You can learn more about the work we have done to support the work of Hope for the Day on a global positive mental health Hope Travels mission by joining our Facebook group here.

Posted in AlHadaf, HISA, Hope for the Day, Hope Initiatives South Africa, HopeTravels, Kindness Rocks, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Namibia, Refugee, The Kindness Rocks Project, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments