Stories of Hope

Life in a Volcanic Dessert

As we bumped along the dirt road to what looked like the middle of nowhere, we suddenly pulled in view of what appeared to be a brand new center. It’s off-white buildings perfectly constructed. Even the ground had been covered in rocks to give the compound a feeling of wealth—but that was just an illusion.

Now all that remained was an abandoned center, cut off from funds, full of women, children, and older men inhabiting the rooms, once meant for classrooms. We were hours outside the city and with a minority people group living there, the government overlooked the needs. Others had come to help, but they also had given up, as seen by the classrooms now used as makeshift homes.

When our trucks pulled up with food, clothes, and blankets for this small community, it didn’t take long for word to spread. Soon children and women swarmed the vehicles. We quickly realized that what we thought would be a small gathering of village elders, had turned into a community event. Later that day, we learned that another organization was also planning a distribution that day, which may have led to the community already on alert for distribution of aid.

Mira stood out in her bright blue hijab, the colors bouncing off the background of brown dust. She had a baby slung on her hip and one of her daughters following her around as small children often do. Though she had another child, he was out playing with his friends. Mira isn’t sure what age her children are, as age isn’t something often kept in their community. Instead, she was more concerned with what they would eat and if they are safe.

Asna appeared quiet and uncomfortable, she nestled her little girl in her lap, and after few questions began to smile. She was pregnant. Joy came across her face as she told us, and one could see that having children out here was no small feat. Later when we were eating with the village elders, we learned that many women do not have access to a hospital. If there is an emergency they will go by ambulance to a town several hours away, but for the majority, having a baby is something done at home.

Agnus reminded me of myself. She had a gold nose ring similar to mine, she was tall and sturdy like me, and even had a 4-month-old boy just as I did. It’s funny, seeing yourself in someone, yet living completely different lives. I can’t imagine the hardships that Agnus faces. While we were blessed with a beautiful windy day, there are many months out of the year that their home is considered one of the hottest habitable places on earth. Temperatures sore above 100 degrees, and when you only receive water once every 10 days, surviving becomes that much harder.

Several of the women who received rice and beans at the distribution

 Asna pictured with her daughter

Asna pictured with her daughter

Agnus pictured with her children

Mira pictured with her daughter

We asked the elders how we could help relieve their strain for fresh water. Living in the middle of a volcanic desert doesn’t provide much access to clean water, or even dirty water for that matter. There is a water source 30 minutes away by foot, but it’s not much help, when there is no irrigation system for the water to reach the village. When asked what would happen if the water trucks do not come, Muhammed* replied matter of factly, “We would die.”

In our line of work there are often two things that help people get out of the poverty cycle—nutrition (provided through water and food) and education. But here, in a small village, of forgotten minorities, there is neither. The children do not have a school to go to, though they live in abandoned classrooms. Muhammed said that the older children are becoming restless and starting to cause trouble. The lack of basic needs is why these people feel helpless. Though they keep on having babies and caring for their young, they yearn for more—a place where they can send their children to school and not have to limit their intake of a water, a luxury we so often take for granted.

But since we now live in the country, we have the opportunity to keep helping, to keep loving, and to keep going to the hard and forgotten places. So it's our hope that we can soon send some teachers into this community and begin educating these kids, because we really believe that one of the biggest helps in getting out of the poverty trap is education. 

We feasted on goat meat and more

The fed us enough for days

Ya know, when you get a flat, and it takes 5 gives and two goats to get it done...

Because it's not a trip unless you come back with a goat. Don't worry by the time we were done we had one more goat in the back. Yet, sadly these goats will be dinner soon. :)

I am still amazed at to how they get up there!

Baby toes and the most colorful meal I've ever seen!

The boys hanging out.

Ezra was not into this flat tire thing...
 

This beautiful girl and her father live in a hut on the side of the road that takes us to our destination. We stopped and gave them some of the food we had for our distribution.

goats on trees

La Bonne Cuisiniere (The Good Cook)

As part of a NGO here in the Horn of Africa we strive to not just deliver aid and leave, but to develop valuable skills that will help people pull themselves out of poverty. One project that has been running for several years is The Project House.

How Musical Chairs and Face Painting Break Barriers

How Musical Chairs and Face Painting Break Barriers

I loved musical chairs as a kid. Usually it involved winning a cake, so what's not to love about that! Although watching children play musical chairs can be and adventure, especially when it's their first time learning the game.

African Beach Trip

When living in Africa there are things you come NOT expect. You celebrate on days where the water runs, electricity is solid, and you don't pass out from the heat. Even though most of those things are regular in our country, I prefer to never expect. 

Zero Tolerance on FGM

I first heard of FGM when I was watching Half the Sky. FGM or Female Gentile Mutilation is an ugly, not very known, reality. Popular in many parts of Africa it's a practice that dates back generations. And for many, it's a practice centered on old wives tales. 

I'm not going to describe what happens, because to be honest, I'm not even sure I can. But I want to tell you my story in facing this horrible tragedy. 

We were in hot East Africa and I was sitting in a room with three other women. They begin to describe their work with their girl's running program. We talked about how the girls managed to get proper nutrition, what their school schedule looked like, how their parents felt about them participating in a running group, and what they considered to be some of their biggest challenges. 

It seems that every month there comes a time in a woman's life when things just aren't so pretty. Nodding in agreement we understood, but you see that was just it—we didn't understand at all. In fact, we had NO idea. For when girls hit puberty they are often subjected to FGM. Even though many countries have outlawed this practice it still happens, and because in many places it's illegal it happens in unsupervised, unclean places. But when a woman has undergone FGM she doesn't just experience her monthly time like everyone else. She goes through a pain so strong it rivals childbirth...and this happens every. single. month. *jaw drop*

So these young girls already facing a lack of food, clean water, and proper shelter, now face a pain so unbearable most of us would be upside down in pain pills after minute one. As they go on to describe what happens to these girls my mind goes wild. I completely understand these women's concern and I'm even more proud when she tells me how she's stood up for these women. She's fought for their safety by going to their parents, telling them the real truth of what they are doing to their daughters, and even offering them education. 

A few days later I found myself in new whirlwind of a new country. This time I was in the thick of it. I was no longer in a place that considered this illegal, but in fact, 90% of women had undergone FGM, and all from the push of their own mothers. But that's where Dr. Edna comes in. I got the privilege to meet Edna and hear about her fight in FGM. She has a hospital in the city where she trains and sends out midwives. These midwives not only help with delivery but they help with educating locals on the reality of FGM. 

 Meeting Dr. Edna and hearing her talk about all the great things her hospital is accomplishing. (side note: I need to work on my smiling...life of always being BEHIND the camera I guess)

Meeting Dr. Edna and hearing her talk about all the great things her hospital is accomplishing.
(side note: I need to work on my smiling...life of always being BEHIND the camera I guess)

 Dr. Edna telling us about her initiative to train and education the women and men that work for her. 

Dr. Edna telling us about her initiative to train and education the women and men that work for her. 

I realize I'm not in a position to train midwives or stand up to mothers, but I am in a position to educate you. I can tell the stories of the women I've met and I can give you options to help. 

1. Donate to Dr. Edna's hospital directly: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/EAHF/

2. Donate to Global Aid Network. GAiN works in several countries around the world that help combat not just FGM but also in helping provide washable famine pads to women and girls. I've actually gotten the privelage to help work on this campaign and love watching it in action! Read more here: http://www.gainusa.org/engage-luopads/


2. Share stories like the one above and educate yourself. Here are some articles from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/society/female-genital-mutilation

If A Path Appears, Will You Take It?

I just finished watching the first installment of A Path Appears. Woof. That's really all I can say as a response. While I knew of the reality of sex trafficking in America, it was still a punch in the gut for the darkness that continues to surround us. Then I remember my former friend. I didn't get the privilege to know her for very long as I soon transitioned out of that job, but my time with her was enough to call her friend. I call her this because she entrusted me with her story. And she not only entrusted me, she entrusted me to tell her story to others. 

I haven't shared it very often, as it was originally for a class project and I never ended up pursuing it for publication. However, I think it's time it was told. I wish I knew where Gloria was today or what she was doing or if she was still walking with God and continuing to take the path she was on when I knew her. 

So I ask that if you are one of the few that take the time to read this that you will also take the time to pray. I'd love it if you'd comment below and let us know if you said a prayer. How cool would it be to lift her up through whatever she is facing today! 

I don't really have much more of introduction so here we go: (warning, there may be some graphic details)

Babysitter for Adults

Gloria Howl or Gloworm, as she prefers people call her, resembles Julia Roberts’s character in Pretty Woman. She owned her own prostitution service and fell in love with a rich, handsome client, who wanted to turn her into a respectable young lady. Only this guy behaved nothing like Richard Gere. He led a double life and robbed numerous banks for twelve years, making him one of the most notorious bank robbers in history, rightfully named, The Dapper Bandit.

Howl grew up in Dallas, Texas, around the Oak Cliff area. She attended Cockrell Hill Baptist Church with her mother twice a week, and the preacher baptized her at age four. She went to numerous Vacation Bible Schools and constantly helped her parents with charity contributions.

Eventually Howl dropped out of high school and ran away with a married man to Beverly Hills. He provided for her every desire: money, fancy clothes, expensive cars, and even her own business in the dinner theatre industry.

Today when Howl pulls back her straight dyed black hair; she shows her missing front teeth. “I was like Paris Hilton,” she said. “My mom raised me to be spoiled. I was into clothes and capped all my teeth. It was boob jobs or teeth, and I’m paying the price for it now. It was a great experience, but there is always a price you have to pay for all these things.”

Eventually Howl moved back to Dallas, but the desire for money never left. At age twenty-five she began working for an escort service. Called “the psychiatrist,” she catered toward men who needed a listening ear.

“They were lonely and wanted to get away from the convention they were on and just needed someone that would listen to them. Basically like being a babysitter for adults,” she said.

After two years Howl broke away and started her own service. She found a location, took out an ad in the Yellow Pages, and set up call forwarding. She even paid taxes to keep the IRS off her back.

Howl paid cash for two cars and a house, cleared all her debts, and had about $40,000 in the bank. For her, prostitution paid a lot better than any other job, but to survive she had to develop a keen sense of intuition.

“I had to be a detective, clean minded, not drunk, very articulate in reading people so I didn’t come across [as] some nut case.”

As she told of the musicians she met, her eyes widened and her voice raced as names rolled off her tongue.

“If you’re smart, you will [only] talk [with the person] and you won’t charge as much. No crime is committed if you don’t touch and no germs are involved. But sometimes the person is so cute! When you get with some of these rock stars you’re like ‘wow!’” Howl said. “I had a lot of repeat business. Guys would tell me anniversary dates of when we first met, and they seemed to like knowing you for a long time. It was like having a maid service come out when they needed someone to talk to.”

Her line of business usually involved more than talk. When Howl dropped out of high school she lived a short life of luxury, but she also lived a life of drugs and rock and roll. She followed bands around landing in a different guy’s bed every night. Realizing she could make money off her body, she worked in massage parlors and took out personal ads. Eventually a friend recommended the escort business. An agency hired her immediately, and by the end of the night she met with her first client in the Wyndham hotel. They drank champagne and ate shrimp cocktails.

After two and a half years of prostituting professionally, Howl met Mark Reeves, the infamous Dapper Bandit. At their first meeting Howl remembers him strung out on cocaine, wearing shorts with a Hawaiian shirt that displayed his toned body and golden tan. Roughly a year later, Howl ran into Reeves again. He pursued her, promising to take care of her. After struggling to stay emotionally unattached and unwilling to quit her job, she succumbed to the power of love.

“I took a break from the work because I couldn’t work and date him. He was a good-looking guy who drove Porsches, and I fell hook, line and sinker in love with him,” she said.

Howl dated Reeves for two years, while he continued to rob banks. The entire time Howl had no idea, because Reeves convinced her he drove racecars. Their relationship ended when Howl realized Reeves could not commit to one woman. While he loved her, he refused to stay monogamous. Howl, missing her escort business and tired of Reeves’s tricks, decided to leave.

A year after her break-up with Reeves, Howl discovered her ex-boyfriend led a secret life as one of the most sought-after bank robbers in Texas.

After that, she said, “I stayed with my parents and was too busy to date or be with anybody, so I developed a fear of really getting involved. After you date a famous bank robber and don’t know it, you kind of feel stupid,” she said.

Twenty-three years later Howl recounts those days like they happened yesterday. Currently, she volunteers at a local clothes closet attending to customers and organizing the inventory.

She lays down the article of clothing in her hand, leans forward and in a somber, sincere voice she says, “I miss that life. It was exciting. I was needed. It was a positive experience. It became a dump session for those people, and I was like a psychiatrist. It made me feel like I had a worthy job. But had I known he was a bank robber, I would have turned him in. That’s a kind of mental problem and needs to be treated. I guess it’s like my business and my craving for attention.”

At fifty-three years old Howl continues to search to find her place.  She recently spent a year in Oklahoma City in the faith-based Bridge to Life Recovery Program.  There she received educational, psychological, economic, and spiritual counsel.

“I had faith during those years,” she recounts as she reflects on her time as a prostitute. “I believe God kept me alive for a reason, and he’s not done with me yet. But going to church helps, it’s like a ‘shot’ of Jesus; it’s my daily bread.” 

 

Gloria did an interview with Texas Monthly back in 1989. You can read the original story (and I highly recommend you do) here starting on page 98. 

How Running is Changing the World

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I remember in middle school when my feet first hit the pavement of the track. Sweat rolled down my chubby cheeks as I choked back tears, “who would ever do this for fun?!” As the years went on I learned to appreciate the sport of running. Spending 8+ years on a track team will kind of do that to you.

I mean have you ever had a bad day and just feel the need to clear your head? I don’t know if I’ve ever found anything more motivating me to run than for that very thing. I seem to always think better after a good run. But what if running was used for something more than clearing your head, losing weight, or even a friendly competition?

I knew before we left for East Africa that we would get to spend some time with a local girl’s running club. I have been part in partnering with a local organization over there in helping provide nutritious food, running shoes, uniforms, and vitamins to the girls on the team, but for the first time I was going to meet the girls and hear the stories behind it all.

Our second day in country we rode a taxi through the make shift roads and pulled up to a gated house. Inside we sat under a fan and listened as the coaches began to tell us stories—stories of triumph, stories of heartache, and stories of change.

Stories like Medina who is still in her early teens. She has spent most of her life working as a shepherd, watching over the goats and tending to their needs. One day she saw her cousin coming back from school and she decided she wanted to be educated as well. She went to her mom to ask for permission but she said no, “You have to look after the goats.” Disappointed, Medina went back to the field and decided she didn’t care what her mom said, she would attend school anyways.

But her rebellious spirit didn’t end there. After spending time in school and still tending to the goats she was in the field when she saw a few girls running by. She decided she wanted to run too. Again, she went to her mother and asked for permission. Of course, she said no, “You must watch after the goats, the school is enough.” Disappointed, but not discouraged, Medina decided to run anyways. It just so happened that they were holding a race in her town so she entered…and won!

The neighbors ran up to her mom telling her how well her daughter did and that she must let her run; she could be a star! Frustrated and tired her mother reluctantlylet her start running. Now Medina has a chance at qualify for the junior Olympics…if she stays in school.

You see, for the coaches the running club isn’t just about becoming good runners or learning sportsmanship, it’s about developing a life worth living. The girls are required to stay in school and work hard. And if they do not pass their exams to continue on to secondary school (high school) then they require them to go to classes that teach skills like baking and sewing.

You see, because it’s about teaching empowerment, education, and giving dignity to those who need it most. One of the coaches told us that most of the girls involved in the running club are what society would call the “trouble makers”. There have been many times when locals will come up telling them that they can’t believe the change they have seen in these girls because they were all known to be girls who get into trouble.

As one of the coaches said in another interview, "As part of this team, they are empowered. Empowered to say, out loud, 'I want to be the first in my family to graduate from high school.' Empowered to dream of being a pilot in the air force, even in a country with no air force. Empowered to say, 'I want to place second in this race, higher than the team thinks possible, higher than I have ever placed before.' Empowered to run through menstrual cramps bordering on childbirth pains because of female genital circumcision. Empowered to value hygiene and clean clothes. Empowered to stop, pull the thorn from the toe, and keep running. Empowered to aim at the Junior Olympics and to believe that racing there is truly possible. Empowered to believe in one's inherent honor, value, and dignity even after an attempted rape."

So next time you go out for run, think of these girls. Remember their triumphs, remember their hardships, but more importantly remember that they are strong. They are strong women who will one day change their country and hopefully the world.

Weights made from cans and cement...genius!

The workout room. 

Love the fun they were having with the camera!

Girls will be girls. :)

Building Dreams Inside a Refugee Camp

Sweat rolled down every inch of my body. My clothes soaked up water like the children’s toy that just plopped into a glass of water. But it didn’t matter; adrenaline pumping as my senses took in the surroundings. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but for the middle of nowhere there sure was a lot of activity—women carried jerry cans back from the community well, children followed along, stopping to look at whatever creepy-crawly moved in front of them.

Soon our SUV rolled to a stop. After crossing through rough terrain a security checkpoint and a little smooth talking we made our way to the make-shift sewing center.

Camera strapped to my hip I bent my tall frame and entered in. Inside the dark sauna were around 20 young women working on their latest projects. Their smooth, black skin only accented their brilliant white teeth. It made me wonder what a Crest ad campaign manger would do if he walked in here! There was only one way they could avoid the yellow and brown stained teeth of their male counterparts—no kat. The highly addicting drug that drove so many into desperation, if chewed long enough, would stain anyone’s pearly whites. But these ladies were different. Their white teeth alone showed me they had determination.

 After the teachers introduced us we made our rounds to talk to the girls. Each one proudly held up their latest creation as I snapped a photograph. But the real joy came when I turned the camera around. You see, it’s funny how we Westerners react to the back of the camera. We squench our nose and usually follow with some sound of “ugh”. Immediately coming up with reason why we need to lose 5 pounds, get a haircut, or never wear that shirt again. But anytime I’ve turned the camera around to someone in the developing world I get a different response. I get joy, usually ensued by uncontrollable laughter. Whether it’s elderly men, young women, or children, they are fascinated to see their portrait! And now that they’ve discovered this little gem of the digital age, they want more. And being a photographer sent to capture stories, I never complain!

After capturing a few shots we stopped to talk to a young girl named Ayaani*. Her hot pink scarf immediately caught my attention followed by her shy demeanor.  But soon she began to open up, telling us of how she had arrived to the refugee camp when she was 8 years old along with her parents and two siblings. At only 16 years old she has spent most of her childhood living in make-shift house made of UNHCR tarps. She appreciates what she has now, because even though she doesn’t have much recollection of what happened before they arrived to the camp, she knows it wasn’t safe, and she knows this camp saved her life.

They told her she is in the process of going to America, that her family along with 6 others will soon be approved. Her face lights up as she tells us through a translator how she doesn’t want to be ignorant; she hopes to study both English and French.

Being in a refugee camp seems to always-illicit dreams of getting out to the Western world. Growing up watching friends and even enemies get tickets to the West creates a fascination of something better to come. I wish I could tell her of my friends who’ve made it and how living in the West isn’t always better. Fighting to overcome a new culture, language, and being too old for school, having to figure out a job with little to no education presents a new kind of hell none of us could imagine. But of course I can’t say that. In fact, what I really want to do is give her a hug hand her my phone number and tell her to call me as soon as she lands. But that wouldn’t be wise either. So instead, I muster up a smile as I choke back tears.

Each of the girls in the sewing center have a unique opportunity. They have the privilege of learning. They are given a skill that allows them to bring home some income, but more than that it allows them to bring home dignity. They are blessed to have teachers and supporters pouring into them, looking them in the face and telling them they are worth it!

So join me in praying for these ladies. Pray for their dreams and aspirations and pray for those who are pouring into their lives, that will never ever stop.

*names changed for security reasons

Ayaani showing off her latest creation.

Tina and I posing with two of the female teachers.

Group Shot of the sewing teachers

Group shot of some of the girls in the sewing program.

I absolutely LOVE this photo of Nami, one of the teachers. Her joy was seriously contagious. 

If you'd like to hear more about how you can play a part in helping us fund more projects like this leave your email below in the comment section and let's get together for coffee or over skype!

Kenya: Meet Grace

In October of 2011 I had the opportunity to travel to East Africa. While I only spent a day or two in Kenya, I was able to go out and visit with the Maasai People. The organization my husband and I work for, Global Aid Network,  has a trusted relationship there and throughout the years they have helped build schools, water wells, and more. I spent the day getting to know some of the ladies as well as hearing the stories of the kids who attend the school. The first set of photos are of Charity. She is so precious! Her mother led us into their hut and then let us photograph her family. She wanted her Bible in her hand as we photographed them so everyone would know she was a Christian. Then her and several other ladies proceeded to sing and dance for us.

I also had the privilege of meeting three brothers. Who are really the cutest things possible. They had to walk over 3 miles to get to school everyday, which is evident by the holes in their shoes. But now thanks to the new school they can attend classes in their own village! And hopefully get some new shoes soon.

And one of my favorite stories is of Grace. She was not allowed to go to school like the other kids in her village. Her father would beat her and force her to work all day long. Our Kenyan partners heard of this and every time they would visit they would ask Grace's father to let her go to school. Finally after numerous times of asking her father agreed. Now Grace is healthy (since she receives food at school), she is happy, and her father does not beat her and force her into child labor. "The change is significant!",  Joshua and Tabitha (Kenyan partners who work in this area) tell me.

Refugees in the Middle East: Learning to Laugh

While we were in the Middle East we had the pleasure of visiting several families from Syria. They have fled their homes trying to escape the bombs and fighting going on there. The first family we visited has 25 people in it. They all live in one house and by the smiles on their faces you would never know they were living in extreme poverty, having left everything behind in Syria. We talking with the father of the family and his mother. He also had several of his sisters present with their children as well. One of his sisters was carrying her precious 8 month old baby girl, and as we soon found out, she was actually pregnant with her when they made the long trek out of their country. Their stories of persistence will inspire even the weakest of hearts.     

As we visited the families we had the honor of having a beautiful young lady join us. (Pictured below) She is a Syrian refugee herself and is only 21 years old, but she has two children and her husband left her before leaving Syria. It was such a joy to watch her interact with others. She never stopped smiling and loving on the people she met that day.  

During our time in the Middle East we had the privilege of sitting down Syrian refugees and hearing their stories. A neighbor (and the first family we visited) introduced us to a man and his family. This man’s house was bombed during the war and as a result he became blind. He was able to flee with his wife and his 13-year-old son to a neighboring country, but his daughter and two eldest sons stayed behind. In addition to being blind he suffers from a heart condition that requires medication which is difficult to afford considering that the families sole source of income comes from their son who makes $7 per day. During our visit one of our GAiN staff members cracked a joke and everyone, including the man began to laugh. The laughter brought tears of joy to the wife as she explained “this is the first time that I have heard him laugh since we have been here.” We were able to connect the family to a local clinic to help with medications and also left them with winter jackets and food. But perhaps the greatest gift we were able to bring was laughter; a glimmer of hope shining light in a dark situation.

The last family we visited that day had been in contact with the staff for many months. It was great to see how receptive they were to all of us. The organization we partner with has actually helped the father of the family set up his own business for growing pickles. He has been able to make some income off of that to help provide for his family.

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The next four photos are from the Princess Taghrid Institute. This is an organization set up to help young girls from the local community. It’s specifically designed for women who were abandoned or come from a broken home. At the institute they have the opportunity to learn skills like sewing, cooking and catering, business, and cosmotology. All of the classroom are equipped with the necessary tools and machines to teach the women. While we were there we were treated to some of the goodies the girls have been baking, and believe me they were amazing!

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