I Dare You Not to Smile :-)

These days, it’s seems like all of the news is bad. But last week, there was a notable exception. This young Kenyan reporter was doing his best to be professional. But everyone has their limits. Seriously – can you watch this without a smiling, giggling out loud, or feeling a pure moment of joy?

There’s no caveat. I. Love. This.

It’s also a familiar and heartwarming scene, as I visited the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphanage in Nairobi on my first ever trip to Africa. I had anticipated that trip for more than 20 years and it did not disappoint. The Orphanage was on my schedule for the morning after I arrived. I was suffering from severe jet lag but this was the perfect remedy. What a great way to jump into the wonders of Africa!

At the time of my visit, the Orphanage was open at set times on just a few days a week. Visitors were allowed one hour and it was magical. First, the keepers brought the elephants out in groups arranged by age.

Once they arrived in the “arena”, they did what elephants do! They ate, drank, rolled around in the dirt and had fun with their mates.

In the (many) years since I visited, this amazing non-profit organization has continued to grow, expand, and serve in new and impactful ways. Founded originally as an orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program, they now run anti-poaching teams, coordinate mobile veterinary units, have established rehabilitation, reintegration and wildlife recovery areas, and run low-impact tourism ecolodges with proceeds supporting their programs. They have been leaders in social movements and played a crucial role in banning all trade in ivory. The Sheldrick Trust has expanded their international reach and now also operates in the US and UK. Dame Daphne Sheldrick passed away in 2018, but her legacy lives on through this important work. Check out their Facebook page here.

Even better, plan the trip of your dreams and stop by in person. You won’t be sorry you did. <3

Meet Don Wilman and Abigail

It’s time to get back to the work! Next week I’ll be traveling with a team of volunteers to Maunabo, Puerto Rico. While there, we will help to improve the home of Don Wilman and Abigail. Let’s meet this family!

Don Wilman and his wife Abigail inherited their home from Abigail’s parents. They shared the home with their adult daughter and their granddaughter. But when Hurricane Maria struck as a category 5 storm, their lives were forever changed.

Abigail recounts those terrifying 48 hours while their family endured:

We “believed that the house was falling on us but there was nowhere for us to go. We couldn’t leave my husband [bedridden following knee surgery] alone. The hurricanes destroyed the doors and several windows, the walls and ceiling cracked.”

“It was a horrible day and night. Our granddaughter was screaming. My husband was motionless. I couldn’t breathe.”

Once the storm passed, more problems arose. “My daughter and my brothers looked everywhere for somewhere we could shelter.  There was no electricity for the therapies I [asthma] or my granddaughter [kidney disease] needed. It was very distressing. Then came the mold and the moisture on the walls. We did not qualify for housing aid because our house belonged to my parents.  We did not have the resources to repair it as we wanted. We already had a lot of medical bills. Those increased following the hurricane.” Abigail recounted her experience.

She added, “We cried constantly.”

In order to seek medical treatment, Abigails daughter and granddaughter left Puerto Rico for the mainland of the US. Soon after, Abigail and Don Wilman followed because their house was no longer habitable. Depression threatened to consume them until they found an opportunity for assistance from The Fuller Center for Housing – Puerto Rico.

Our team is excited to assist Don Wilman and Abigail achieve their dream of returning to their family home in Puerto Rico. Over the course of our week on the island, we will break down some walls in order to convert it to a larger, handicapped accessible home with two rooms.  We will repair doors and install new windows, build a closet and a ramp for accessibility, change the entrance, and upgrade the electrical system. We will also rebuild the kitchen, plaster, and paint. 

Stay tuned for a post-build update on our progress!

*Thank you to the Fuller Center for Housing and the Fuller Center – Puerto Rico for providing information and photos used in this story!

Return to volunteering!

Wow, it’s been so long. 656 days to be exact, not that I’m counting. But it’s true – I got home from my last international volunteer mission “in the time before” in January 2020. And in November 2021, I was finally able to participate in another house-building service trip. That’s a great thing because while many of us are lamenting the loss of our ability to easily travel or see our friends or go out to a restaurant/bar/movie/event, there are many people who didn’t have such a comfortable place to ride out this pandemic. Those without a safe and decent home have struggled in ways that we cannot fully understand.

There are still many uncertainties and travel is NOT simple. The requirements and regulations are constantly changing. Travel in the developing world was already challenging – add pandemic-related safety concerns and you may give yourself a migraine just thinking about it! But if you are prepared and flexible, brave and determined you will make it work. Because there is a lot to be done and every bit, no matter how small, makes a difference.

At this point, because it is so complicated, only a handful of organizations have taken up the call to return to work, putting extra precautions in place for everyones safety. Many countries are still closed to international visitors, or require lengthy quarantines on arrival which make short-term visits unrealistic. Countries willing to allow foreigners to enter without quarantine often have covid vaccination/testing requirements which present significant logistical and financial challenges. And then there are the prospects of traveling in close quarters 24/7 with a group of people who have been existing outside your established bubble and of working in areas that may not have been exposed to covid if not for your presence. Oh my. It’s a lot to consider. But where there’s a will there’s a way!

The journey of this team began almost a year ago. I rallied a group of amazing humans who were not only willing and able, but who had the best combination of patience, positive outlook, generosity and flexibility. Because I suspected we would need all of those qualities in abundance. And as it turns out, it was true!

We partnered with The Fuller Center for Housing on this amazing trip. We originally planned to work in Madagascar, but Covid continued to block our entrance and we decided to reroute instead to Ghana. Challenge #1 of #947 surmounted. 😉 Madagascar did open it’s borders to international travelers – but only about 3 weeks before our planned arrival and still with a mandatory quarantine. We’ll just have to see that adventure for another day! I’m not sorry that we chose to go to Ghana. Do you want to hear about our work? Here’s the story!

Our team arrived in Accra, Ghana on a sunny and HOT day in November (we would soon discover that the heat does not ever stop!). Many of us knew some of our fellow teammates from prior volunteer work but I was the only one who was lucky enough to know everyone at the start. Lunch gave us the opportunity to get introduced to each other and to meet our hosts for the next two weeks. Then we headed out of town!

Our work would take place in the small community of Obretema, Ghana. It’s about 2 hours north of Accra close to the larger town of Suhum. On Monday, we were officially welcomed by the chiefs and members of the community.

After the formalities were complete it was time to get to work! We learned that our support would enable the construction of three homes. When we arrived, the foundations had already been started. Well, sort of… 🙂 On the first house (below left), the foundation was already built about 2 feet above ground. On the second house (below right), at least the digging was complete! The third house (not pictured) was in a similar state to the second. We had our work cut out for us!

Over the next two weeks, we moved a lot of dirt, rock and blocks. And along the way, we were able to meet each of the amazing future homeowner families.

William and Gifty, along with their 5 children, will be living in House #1. They currently live in the family house of William’s parents in the community adjacent to the project site, so we were able to see them every day! Their current home is a mud house which leaks when it rains and lacks a toilet. William is a construction worker by trade and put his skills to use on the job site. You could tell he was motivated to get this house built for his family. Gifty, along with her youngest son, also visited the team every day. We enjoyed getting to know them. Pictured below are their family at their current home (top left), Gifty and her son on site with volunteers (top right), and William and his son in front of their future home (bottom).

Francis, Susana and their 4 children will be living in House #2. They currently live in a rented house without a bathroom or kitchen which is about an hour from the current community, but were able to come on site a few times to meet the team and help with the construction of their home. Francis is a mango farmer and Susana runs her own seamstress business! They are excited to move into this new community and begin building a better life for their family. They are pictured below with one of their daughters – working on site and sharing their joy!

Daniel, his wife Sarah, and their 4 children will be living in House #3. Daniel is the first disabled person to be a selected as a Fuller Center Ghana home recipient. He suffered from polio as a child and has lived a difficult life, facing physical challenges and stigmatization, but he is so excited for this opportunity! His family currently lives in a single rented room. They use a shared kitchen, public toilet for a fee, and pay for water from a community well which dries up during the dry season. He visited with us for just one day (his current home is also distant from this community) and was full of smiles. Here he is (red shirt) standing in front of his future home.

By the end of the week, we had made great progress on all three homes. Here’s how things looked on our last day: William and Gifty’s house (top), up to the roof level! Francis and Susana’s house (middle) ready for the lintel. And Daniel and Sarah’s house (bottom) about half way there!

Of course, along the way there were so many fun times. We laughed, cried and learned together as we got to know the people of Ghana. In addition to meeting the homeowners and the amazing staff who supported our trip, some of our other highlights were working with the local volunteers, visiting the community school, seeing families flourishing in homes built a few years ago and of course sharing a very special Thanksgiving with this team!

And….the best news came just a few days ago. In the 4 weeks since our team left Ghana, local workers have continued to make progress and now all houses are up to the roof love, some with the roof nearly complete. 🙂

This trip would not have been possible without the courage and support of so many people. The team members and families are all grateful for the kindness and generosity of each person who played a role in the success of this project. Every single dollar donated or minute spent in this community makes a big difference. We couldn’t have done it without you! I hope to “work” with you again soon. <3

I Speak With My Eyes (2020 Quarantine Edition)

Last week I had to attend 2 essential appointments.  I did so with all of the appropriate precautions, including my latest fashion accessory…

Both appointments were with people who I see regularly but not very often.  As I approached, a strange thought occurred to me – would they recognize me like this?  What features do you pick up on to “recognize” someone?  Do you need to see someone’s face or can you just hear their voice, note their clothes, see their mannerisms and the way they enter the room?   And this reminded me of a story…..

I’ve had the opportunity to travel and volunteer twice in the country of Jordan.  Before my first trip, I had never visited any country in the Middle East and, like many people, I had no idea what to expect.  I think there are a lot of preconceived notions, mostly misconceptions and stereotypes, about the people and culture of this region.  I went with an open mind because really – isn’t this one reason why travel is so important?  To educate, to share, to experience for yourself and form your own opinions…  I was excited to take it all in!

Jordanians are extremely welcoming and I was lucky to have excellent company on this trip.  One of the first things I noticed and was curious to learn more about (in addition to the delicious food!) was the style of dress for the women.  In this country, about 95% of people are Muslim and 5% are Christian.  People are very accommodating of others traditions and I saw people wearing everything from cute tops and skinny jeans to “regular” outfits topped off with hijabs to full burkhas.  I’m definitely no expert on the different types of head coverings, but here’s some info if you are interested in learning more.

When our team arrived at our Habitat for Humanity Global Village location, we met with the family of Mr. and Mrs. S who were excited to soon have a home of their own!

We worked side by side, day by day, and not once did Mrs. S hesitate to put on gloves and get dirty with the rest of us.  She became one of my two wall-building partners that week. 🙂

Clearly, the fact that women here dress conservatively does not mean that they are limited!  In fact, I also had a chance to meet a group of women who have started their own community-based organization (CBO) – by women, for women.  To my knowledge, they now work with over 50 women in their community.  Their work focuses on seeking solutions to life’s daily challenges, identifying opportunities for all and generally providing a network of support for women.  The concept of women’s economic empowerment through CBOs in Jordan is highly promoted by the government – here’s an example of a recent event where organizations like this one were recognized publicly.

During the course of the trip, I also had an opportunity to become friends and have many conversations with Mrs. M, whose husband plays an important role in the CBO we were working with on that build.  She lives next door to the guesthouse where we stayed and has a good command of English, enabling us to have many in depth discussions.  I learned more about her daily life and quickly realized that despite our differences, she was describing a life which really was not that different from my own.  Mrs M normally wears a niqab and at one point when we were in her home, she took it off to show me her face and let me try it out. Um….it’s pretty hot under there, whew!

Once we became comfortable with each other, our conversations became more personal. When I posed question “why do you dress this way”, she immediately smiled and said, in an astonished tone, “why wouldn’t I??”.  She shared with me that she has covered her head since she was 15.  Because SHE wants to, it is 100% her choice.  She is proud of the way she lives her life and by choosing to cover herself, she is able to define how she interacts with others.  Her exact words? 

“I am golden.  I choose who is allowed to see me and who is not. It is my decision.  It is my special gift and power.” 

Wow, perfect.  It led to a conversation about self-expression and the recognition that we were truly seeing each other – despite her external coverings and my own less visible barriers.  To her, it was so clear.  You don’t need to express yourself through materialistic or ostentatious displays. Just be true yourself.  Her second lesson to me?  “You know me because I speak with my eyes.”

This conversation took place more than 2 years ago, but it still rings true.  For everyone.  If you want to honestly know someone, you only need to look into their eyes to see their heart.  Tell me you can’t see Mrs. S’s joy!

As tourists, it was totally fine to not cover our heads during our time in Jordan – but eventually, you realize that you “stick out less” if you give it a try.  So, on the last day of the trip, inspired by a parting gift given to me by Mrs. M, I did just that at dinner.  And the hotel staff, who had seen me in my usual pony-tailed state for days prior to the conclusion of our trip, all stopped and stared when I got out of the elevator.  Oh no!  I was immediately self conscious – did I offend them all?  Is this the worst idea ever??  I started to apologize only to discover quite the opposite.  They broke out in huge grins and sheepishly replied “beautiful…”. 

Let that sink in for a bit.  Hair free, looking my “normal” – no comment or even a sideways glance.  Wrap it all up – and every head turned.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I am golden.  I choose who gets to see me. 

We are all going to become experts at speaking with our eyes in the post-COVID new normal. I’m glad I got off to a good start with a great teacher.

To learn more about the work of Habitat for Humanity in Jordan, please click here. Global Village teams have been suspended in 2020 but families are still in need. If you are able, you can make a financial donation in support of this work using this link (scroll down to designate your donation to Jordan). Your kindness and generosity are most appreciated!

All Hands and Hearts in Mozambique (2020 Quarantine Edition)

In January 2020, you know – “the time before” – I participated in a project building two primary schools in Mozambique with All Hands and Hearts.  It already seems so long ago!  Why Mozambique, you ask?  Well….let me tell you the story.

On March 15, 2019, Tropical Cyclone Idai slammed into central Mozambique as a Category 3 storm. After lingering in the Mozambique channel for six days, Idai made landfall near Beira, Mozambique, and tracked inland towards Malawi and Zimbabwe. The storm brought severe wind and flooding and caused extensive damage to homes, schools, health facilities, and infrastructure, impacting nearly 3 million people.

As with most natural disasters, the media spotlight faded relatively quickly.  Attention shifted to other current events and compassion fatigue set in, reducing overall support for recovery of these communities (here’s an interesting article that talks about this phenomenon).  However, survivors were still living in dire circumstances.  All Hands and Hearts decided to answer the call. 

Two primary schools in rural communities in the Nhamatanda District of Sofala Province, Mozambique which had not yet received governmental aid were identified as potential high-impact projects.  Each school served 400-600 students in grades 1-7 before the storm.  Both were completely destroyed.  A plan was formed whereby volunteers from around the world would work with local masons at each school site to construct 4 cyclone-resilient classrooms, a teachers office, and a permanent, hygienic lavatory facility.

I was excited to arrive in Mozambique (my first time!) and start working on this project.  Everything was new and, well, I loved it!  It’s impossible to capture the spirit in words but trust me – it was an experience I will never forget.  I worked for a few days building roof-trusses at our pre-fabrication site.

Then I headed out to the Julius Neyere Primary School.  Part of the joy of this site was the ~45 minute commute each day through the countryside.  We witnessed many scenes of daily life and got the warmest welcomes!

Before one of our workdays, it had rained all night.  As we drove to work, we passed by many flooded houses – just from a few hours of “regular” rain.  This gave us a somber hint at what things may have been like in this area during a cyclone.

Work over the time I was on project was to (literally) raise the roof.  The first trusses were set but it was time to install those hip and incline trusses that we had been constructing in pre-fabrication.


We worked through unbearable heat and then several days of rain, but we got it done!

And then, on the day before I had to leave, the metal sheeting started going up, woohoo!

In addition to the primary classroom buildings, we also spent some time constructing a temporary learning center for the students to use until the completed buildings were ready.  While I was on the project, students were on their winter break but they were due back in just a few days!  Here’s how we set them up for continuous learning.

An amazing part of this project was how closely it was tied to the community.  This isn’t just an opportunity for outsiders to come in and feel good about themselves.  Local masons were hired and played a major role in the success of this build.  As guests in their community, we as volunteers provided labor, technical advice, and funding but we always deferred to the needs of the community.  We spent a lot of time getting to know the people on our worksite and, in turn, they were eager to know us and learn – English lessons happened often!

I enjoyed getting to know these local workers – they were all fun, friendly, hard-working, open and eager.

One of the senior masons, Albano, shared with us his story.

Albano lives close to the Julius Neyere Primary School with his wife, 3 children and 1 granddaughter.  He also has 3 married daughters who live with their families nearby.  On the night of the storm, he was visiting his extended family about an hour away from his home.  The storm prevented him from returning home that night and when he was finally able to venture outside around 4am, Albano discovered that many of the surrounding homes were destroyed.

He immediately started for home to reunite with his family and ensure they were safe.  The mini bus he boarded only made it about 15 minutes before severe flooding halted their journey.  Albano began walking the 15 kilometers to Nhamatanda, wading through water which was a times nearly 1.5 meters high.  In Nhamatanda, he was able to catch a motor taxi to Metuchira.  When he arrived, he found that the flooding was less severe than the area where he had come from, but nearly everything in town was destroyed, including his house.  Strong winds had ripped away the roofs of many homes.  And since most homes are constructed from sticks, bamboo and mud, they had simply washed away in the heavy rains.  Everything in the town was destroyed, including his own house. 

Albano found his family sheltering at the local community leader’s home. Not wanting to further impose, he went out and gathered whatever he could find – sticks, scattered metal, and nails – in order to build a temporary structure for his family. He dug holes for the sticks, and nailed on metal roofing sheets as walls and a roof. His family is living here until he is able to rebuild his permanent home.

For the three days after the storm food was very scarce, but Albano had two bags of corn from his family visit. After 3 days, the distribution of food by NGOs began in the village, including a bag of rice every 15 days. As time went on people began to work to regain normalcy, cleaning up debris, tending the fields, and rebuilding homes.

Albano saves the money he earns as a mason in order to buy bricks and roofing sheets with a goal of building a new house. He not only works tirelessly each day, but always has a smile. He loves meeting people from all over the world and sharing stories so that they can learn about each other.  He is proud to use the skills he has learned from his time building the Julius school, in order to build his own home and help others to do the same. ❤️

Unfortunately, with just a few weeks left to go before these schools were scheduled for completion, it became necessary to recall all volunteers and suspend the collaboration due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  While disappointing, safety always is paramount and I’m still proud to have contributed and made a difference in this community.  The local masons, true to form, have been working hard and today the schools are nearly complete.  It’s just a matter of time before 600 students per day get the chance to continue their quest for knowledge in these buildings.

There is still a great need in the communities in Sofala province.  If you are able, please consider a donation to support ongoing work in this area using this link.  Every dollar makes a difference. 

* This post contains information and photos provided by multiple staff members of All Hands and Hearts Volunteers – Smart Response.  Their support and willingness to share is much appreciated!

Exploring and learning while enjoying life and doing my part. Here, there and everywhere…