Friday, January 31, 2014

Chicken Soup and Solidarity

Last week I wrote a little story about being stranded on a Greek port. The whole ordeal lasted less than 30 minutes, but that is true with travel stories. Frequently they are just short blips on the radar of your existence, but they can make lasting, sometimes life changing alterations to who you are. I have found that the human connection is something that blurs the boundaries of language, culture, age and everything you think is normal. It seeks out those who are looking and bypasses those who are not. Opportunities for connection are quick; blink, and you will miss them.

Making tortillas with the ladies
This week I take you to Honduras on the educators study tour where I was lumped together with other educator types from all across the US who had an interest in Heifer International. That interest ran much deeper than merely an organization, however, and in the words of my trip-mate Dorn, "we all walk differently now."

I had never eaten so much chicken soup in my life, but it was some of the most delicious I had ever had. I didn't even like chicken soup particularly in the summer, but it was something about being in a small house with a dirt floor that made it the perfect nourishment. We had spent the day walking around the village and meeting the people who had been helped by Heifer. Each story we heard was inspiring in its own right, and each person who told it exhibited a sense of pride that emanated from his/her core. If I'm being honest though, all of the stories were starting to run together, and I was beginning to doubt my dedication to the cause. Don't get me wrong, I was extremely happy to be there and I had learned so much along the way. The problem was that I didn't feel connected. I felt a lot of things, fortunate, happy, tired, but I felt like something was missing. I was going through the motions, but that seemed to be it.

After the village walk, we came back to one of the houses for chicken soup like we had all week in various villages throughout Honduras. This time, however, some of us got into the kitchen with the ladies and learned how to make tortillas. They made it look so easy, twisting and turning their hands in just the right way. My tortillas looked like a hockey puck that had been through a war, but we were encouraged to make more. And we did, and we all laughed while we did it.

After lunch, we all gathered in the backyard where the village leaders spoke about how their village had changed after working with Heifer. I don't remember much of what was said. I had at some point stopped listening and started to look around at the people who I had spent the day with. Their stories came back to my mind through their faces and expressions. Then my eyes stopped on Suzanna, and I saw that she was crying. Fears of what was culturally acceptable aside I went up to her and just put my arm around her. Just like that her arm was around me, and I began crying too. So the two of us just stood there arm in arm crying tears of gratitude listening to the elders of the village talk of the exact things that I had finally started to feel. While I will never know exactly what she was thinking or why she was crying at that moment, I knew that I had finally made the connection I had hoped for and felt the meaning of the word solidarity. While our lives were so different, in that moment they weren't.

Suzanna and me

Monday, January 27, 2014

Heifer International: A Hand Up Not a Handout

Continuing with my Monday spotlight on humanitarian organizations, I thought I would focus on one that has become very near and dear to my heart over the past few years. It's also the reason why I think goats are so awesome.

Bee project in Honduras
Heifer International started very small by a man named Dan West. "West was a farmer from the American Midwest and member of the Church of the Brethren who went to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War as an aid worker. His mission was to provide relief, but he soon discovered the meager single cup of milk rationed to the weary soldiers once a day was not enough.

And then he had a thought: What if they had not a cup, but a cow?" (

From there, Heifer International has grown into a very well known organization helping to bring families out of poverty all over the world including in the U.S.A. Donors can "buy" an animal like a cow or chickens that will be given to a family in need somewhere around the world. But it is so much more than providing animals to families for food and income.

International development research has clearly shown us that the only way to have a lasting and sustainable impact in communities is to help provide the means for the communities to become empowered and lead their own change. It's a hand up not a hand out. Here's an example. When I was traveling with Heifer to Honduras we talked to many families who said that other NGO's (nongovernmental organizations) had come in and built very nice bathrooms in their houses. They were grateful for this, but there were more pressing issues for them like being able to feed their families and have a reliable source of income. Having a nice bathroom means nothing when your children are hungry. When Heifer became a part of the community, they worked with local partners and spent a great deal of time finding out what it was that the community needed most. Then they helped the community find a way to get what they need and provide a way for it to be sustainable without reliance on an organization. The key here is involvement. When people are involved in a project, they are more likely to carry it on because ownership is built within the community.

Heifer International operates on some essential yet very simple cornerstones within everything they do. One of the most important, however, is passing on the gift. To me, this is what separates Heifer from the other guy. Each family that receives an animal or other Heifer gift must pass on an offspring to another member of their community. It's the gift that keeps on giving. In addition to that animal, the community receives training and education based on their needs. This also contributes to the sustainability factor. Community members then become experts and teach their fellow community members. It's so simple, but it works.

Me in Honduras on a Heifer Trip for Educators
How can you get involved with Heifer?

Teachers: Whether you teach Pre-K or Middle School, there is a program for you. All of the fabulous lesson plans and project ideas are downloadable for free at the following website.
And if you are looking to teach your students about service learning, there are plenty of options including Read to Feed. I have done this a couple times with elementary students, and they just love it when they can choose the animals that they donate.

Volunteer: If you really want to get involved, the best way is through volunteering. Heifer has an amazing network of volunteers all over the world, people just like you who do the work on the ground to build awareness and raise funds to help bring communities out of poverty. Check out their new volunteer page for all the details:

Faith Communities: There are so many fun things that you can do like a living gift market or an alternative mission trip at one of Heifer's many educational sites. Check out the link here:

Donate: Take a look at the giving catalog and purchase a goat for your best friend on her birthday or some bees for your honey on Valentine's Day (I did this a couple years ago!). You can donate a whole animal or contribute some money to go toward a more expensive one like a camel or a water buffalo.

And there's much more on the website, so take a gander and see what fits your interests.

House in Honduras on a project visit

Friday, January 24, 2014

Stranded on a Greek Port

The port in Tinos
This story happened a long time ago on my first trip alone, but it is one that I always go back to when I think of travel. It still amazes me that when forced to extend beyond the limits that you place on yourself, things happen. Sometimes these things are exciting, sometimes they are scary, but hopefully they help you grow and stretch into becoming a better human.

Normally when a person decides to go abroad for the first time, there are many things to consider. Some of these things include safety, transportation to and from lodging, cost, and location to name a few. When I decided to go abroad for the first time I just wanted to get out of Orlando. It didn't really matter where, as long as it was cheap. I managed to find a way to teach English for a summer while living with a family (in this case the family owned hotels, so I got to live in one). All I had to pay was a small program fee and my airfare.

I booked my ticket and stopped my mail. What else was there to do other than pack a suitcase and get out of town? I was told that I would be met at the airport by "the family." That's all I thought I needed to know. What would have helped was if I looked at a map over the course of my travel planning. If I had, I would have noticed that there were multiple steps to my journey. This journey took two days.

I stumbled off the plane dazed and confused to find uniformed men with dogs and machine guns. I definitely wasn't in Kansas anymore. Fast forward past the car rides, meeting Christine, my host mom, and ending up at the port near Athens drinking a frappe. I was exhausted, but the adrenaline from everything being new was spurring me on to my final destination. I boarded the ferry bound for my new home, the island of Tinos. I was on a boat in the Aegean Sea, when only yesterday I was back home. Amazing doesn't even begin to describe it. It was getting late; the sun was starting to dip into the water. I was looking forward to getting settled in my room and going to sleep. All was right with the world until I stepped off the boat.

Within minutes, my excitement turned to concern and I'll be honest, a little bit of panic. The port had cleared out completely. The ferry had moved on to the next port. Everyone who had disembarked had found their families or their taxis and left. I was alone with my suitcase. I looked around feeling the confidence drain from me. What was I thinking coming here all alone? Why didn't I just stay home and have a nice quiet, predictable summer? How am I going to get to my hotel? Where are all the people? These were just some of the questions that peppered my thoughts on that pier.

As most travelers know, survival instincts kick in when situations like this arise, and suddenly I had cast away my confusion and traded it in for laser- like focus on how I was going to get from port to bed. Suddenly, my mental fog lifted and I saw three teenaged boys sitting along the pier. Why hadn't I noticed them before? Fear and lack of foreign language skills aside, I marched up to them. I used the international signal for phone (i.e. fist to ear with thumb and pinky extended) and handed them the phone number for my hotel. I'm not sure if they were so caught off guard that they couldn't refuse or if they understood my desperation. Either way, they saved the day. Being teenagers though I think they had a little fun with the situation. Not having any knowledge of Greek at the time, I'll never know. But about five minutes later, a full sized coach bus came rambling down the hill and into the port parking lot just for me. I thanked the boys using the only Greek word I knew, and I was on my way. They laughed and waved goodbye to the crazy American girl.
Beautiful Tinos

Oh the Humanity...Shopping Locally at Charity Shops

I've been off the grid for the past couple of weeks, but there is good reason for that. I have been in the process of moving and putting down some roots even if they are temporary.

As many of you know, I have been living out of a suitcase since I left Amsterdam on July 1, 2013. I have been bouncing around from place to place, staying with family and friends and occupying space in the residences of various people and establishments along the way.  So now I'm here, in Port Townsend, Washington with a little place with a kitchen and some other important rooms where I can work on my writing and whatever projects may come my way for the next six months. I'm living the writer's dream.

Speaking of projects, Tim and I have decided to save some pennies and build/refurbish our own furniture. This means that I have become a regular at places like Good Will and the recycling center. I'll admit, I was not thrilled about having to do this, but money dictates a lot. Let's face it, freelancing is not a gold mine (at least for me), so adjustments must be made. Luckily, this lovely area where I am currently living has a wealth of "charity shops" as they are sometimes called. One in particular is Habitat for Humanity, and there are several of them in this area. They are fabulous! There are so many benefits to shopping this way if you have the time. Spending just over $200, we were able to get so much, and with a little paint and effort, we are going to have a nice looking space.

Besides finding furniture and other items (like a brand new suitcase for $35, score!), it's good for the environment. It's the reuse part of the three R's in action, and it's a good thing. Habitat for Humanity is also a great organization, and the people who work at the store are volunteers. They want to be there, and they were so friendly and helpful it made me wonder why I would want to shop anywhere else. The money that is raised from the store goes right to helping to build affordable housing for people in the area, so not only am I getting a great deal on furniture and helping the environment, I am helping people too!

Check out the first of a few of the DIY projects we are working on. Pretty spiffy right?


Monday, January 6, 2014

naSuma and Inua in Tanzania

A street in Bagamoyo, Tanzania
For my first humanitarian focused post of the year I wanted to do my part to help an organization that comes from a place very near and dear to my heart. In the summer of 2010 I went to Bagamoyo, Tanzania on a volunteer trip. While I was there I met some lovely people both locals and fellow volunteers. One of those ladies was Pili. She's a seamstress among other things, and she made all of the clothing and bags that I came home with. I loved visiting her shop and looking at all of the beautiful garments she created.

Some awesome volunteers have helped her take her business to the next level and then some and it's called naSuma. What's even better though is that this organization was created to help fund Inua which helps girls get a chance at a better life.

"Allow us to introduce to you two names; two initiatives, coiled together in one sustainable model to lift up women and create change in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. naSuma is a brand new socially conscious clothing line designed and developed in Tanzania by women. Inua is an alternative training and education program for young women who were not afforded the chance to attend secondary school. naSuma's sales make Inua's programs possible."

The nearby beach in Bagamoyo

"Where Your Money is Going
In order to operate and develop naSuma and Inua this year, we need to raise at least $15,000. These funds will be used to cover the following:
• Teachers salaries: Currently Pili is operating all courses on a volunteer basis. She
does make fair wages as our head tailor, but we want to compensate her for all that she brings to Inua. We would also like to supplement our team by hiring a professional local English teacher.
• Administration and development: internet, phones, government registration fees, marketing
• Workshop materials: fabric, thread, sewing machine maintenance and tools, daily breakfast and transportation costs for students
• Stipends for volunteers: housing, basic food, residence visas (as required by TZ government)
• Workshop and boutique space
• Materials to produce naSuma on a larger scale: bulk fabric, other materials, etc."

What you can do to help them reach their goal to provide education and valuable training to local women:

  • If you are feeling inspired to help, visit Indiegogo for all of the project details and make a donation by credit card or paypal. I did it, now you should too!

While this campaign ends on January 15, 2014, you can still help in some other ways:

  • To find out about new designs and updates about the organization follow them on facebook or their Blog.
  • If you are interested in purchasing clothing, bags, scarves, etc. visit their Etsy site. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Welcome 2014

If you read my last post, and I think you should, I had an exciting year. But what I realized is that it was Erin-centric. I spent a lot of time thinking about myself and what I needed and wanted in my life. It was necessary though because I had to find some level of peace within myself before I could start thinking about what to do outside of myself. Now that I have made some major life adjustments, I am ready to move to the next level.

The new year is a time for resolutions for some, goals for others. Some people jump on wagons, others fall off. What I want it to be about is how to continue to make my life (and the lives of others) more amazing than it currently is. I have a plan, and it's a big one, but I need your help. One of my new year's goals is to crowd fund a volunteer trip. This will not just be any volunteer trip. It will be a volunteer experience that will last at least 2 months, and the trip itself will just be the beginning. I want to create a lasting impact. Much more information coming soon! So if you have ever crowd funded or know anything about it, I want to hear from you. Tips? Experiences? I want to learn it all!

Another goal for 2014 is to be more consistent with this blog. So, I'm going to try really hard to post twice a week: every Monday and Friday. It's a huge goal for me, but I'm feeling up to the challenge and ready to write! My plan is to focus my Monday post on humanitarian interests including the awesome people I know who work super hard to make this planet a better place. I will also be documenting my volunteering journey for all to see. My Friday posts will focus on the stories that come from travel. I think one of the greatest things about traveling is the people I meet and the connections I make along the way. So I am going to share those moments with all of you.

Finally, in addition to my blog I am going to continue some other types of writing. I am in the process of editing my first children's chapter book, and I want to see where it takes me. I have been discouraged by what I have seen happening to education in the U.S., and this book is my way of making my voice heard in a fun way.

I'm incredibly excited to welcome the new year, and I'm looking forward to what lies ahead. 

I wish everyone the best for 2014. Be daring, and do something unexpected.

Happy New Year!