Author: ashleyvnhahn

Final Moments

As I stared out of the window and watched small puffs of smoke escape the lips of Fuego Volcano, I fought hard against the large pit that was forming in my stomach.

With the inevitability of my return home staring at me through the windshield and with all of my adventures, memories, struggles, and successes fading out of view in the rearview mirror, I checked my seatbelt for the comfort, safety, and stability that I craved.

With shaking hands and a quivering voice, I refocused and tried to concentrate my gaze on the ever-changing horizon in front of me.

Since I had spent the past few weeks doing intense work with different NGOs in Guatemala, I felt like I needed time to relax, reflect, and process everything that had happened and was happening, so I boarded a van early one morning to spend the last few days of my fellowship year on the black sand beaches of Monterrico.

The last time I was there was during my first weekend in Guatemala and I had a blast relaxing and talking with my friend Olivia who I had met through my homestay family in Antigua.

This time I was traveling alone to the beach; however, traveling alone ended up bringing me unique and exciting experiences that made my time in Monterrico a complete adventure.

Within hours of arriving I met other travelers and locals who made the next few days absolutely unforgettable.

We shared stories about the different systems and problems facing Guatemala, reflections of our relationships and our own personal journeys, and hilarious anecdotes from our travels.

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I experienced the overwhelming generosity and compassion of others as I spent a day sharing wine, food, and conversation with a lovely couple.

I had a few laughs while politely declining a proposition from an older Guatemalan man and his third wife.

And I enjoyed my time relaxing and getting to know wonderful people.

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Together we sipped delicious and fresh licuados on the beach, played volleyball in the scorching black sand, relaxed and chatted in the pool, and explored the small coastal town.

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I went on a private sunrise boat tour where I saw beautiful sights of nature, a variety of different birds and animals, and even jumped out of the boat to help push it through the mud and muck.

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I even went sea turtle spotting led by a local man where we walked along the beach for hours, failed to find any turtles, and became drenched by vicious and torrential rain.

Ultimately my time in Monterrico allowed me to begin the process of reflection, reaction, and action as I prepared for my journey to the United States.

When I returned from Monterrico I then spent my last full day in Guatemala doing what I love! I spent the day with a youth program as they visited a historic sight in the city of Antigua.

After a day of laughs, pictures, games, pizza, a snake, and activities, it was hard to say goodbye. As we gathered into a large group hug in the central park, I struggled to fight back my tears.

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One by one the young women and men approached me with open arms as they hugged me goodbye. Many began to say things to me and about me that I will always treasure.

They told me that they would miss my positive attitude, my funny comments, and how I was always smiling and laughing. They told me that they admired my strength, my happiness, and my openness.  And they thanked me for taking the time to be a part of their experiences and for sharing my stories and my personal journey with them.

I have never felt so humbled and so appreciated as they described what our time together meant to them, how they care about me, and how much they will miss me.

I was incredibly grateful that I was able to make an impression on them because they have definitely left a strong impression on me. They have inspired me with their kindness, strengthened me with their resilience, brought me so much joy with their smiles and laughs, and I will miss them dearly.

After witnessing how they have overcome difficult experiences and have remained strong, positive, and happy, I am confident that they will continue to grow in love and in strength.

I feel so blessed that they have shared their experiences, their stories, and their lives with me.

I also feel overwhelmingly blessed, appreciative and grateful for everyone who has made my time in Guatemala as memorable as it has been.

So many people have welcomed me into their lives and their families.

My family here has been supportive, kind, friendly, and has made my time in Guatemala truly special. From delicious meals shared together; heartfelt conversations; funny nicknames (my nickname is Hash brown); and strong feelings of love, support, and acceptance; I feel honored to have become a part of this amazing family.

As my last day came to an end I decided to spend my remaining few hours with my family, friends, and some of the original people I met when I first came to Guatemala. Together we shared an incredible final night of dinner, wine and crepes at a local restaurant, and dancing to a wonderful band at a local café.

With only a few hours left I quietly made my way back to my room, packed my things, and then walked down the stairs for the last time toward my family.

Before I could process all that had happened and all that was happening, it was time to put my bags in the car, say goodbye, drive to the airport, and begin my newest journey returning to the United States.

After months of waiting for this day, wondering what it would be like, and romanticizing the experience in my mind I couldn’t believe that the moment had finally arrived.

I was leaving yet again. I was leaving my family with Violeta’s fabulous cooking, Fernando asking me to sing Lady Gaga songs to taunt Alejandra, and jokes of hash browns and hash.

I was leaving the beautiful view on the mountaintop of Cerro de la Cruz that overlooked the colorful city of Antigua and Fuego Volcano.

I was leaving behind social workers, families, and children.

I was leaving fiery volcanoes, black sand beaches, and cobblestone streets.

For the first time in my year I was leaving one place to return to another.

But what would I be returning to?

It was clear that so much had changed in my life and in the lives of everyone I care about as we had spent a year apart exploring new places, new opportunities, and new relationships.

I also knew that I would be returning to a new stage in my life.

Within a week of arriving in the United States I would be moving to my first ever apartment and within a month of arriving I would be starting classes at law school.

What made me the most anxious was the fact that my relationships would forever be different as I acknowledged that I would need to understand and adjust to how my relationships have evolved and changed over time.

As I sat on the plane and the sight of Guatemala’s mountains and lush, green forests disappeared from view, tears streamed down my face and I felt the same feelings when I boarded my first plane exactly one year ago.

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I was afraid. I was excited. I was anxious. And I was ready.

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Nearing the Finish Line…

I have had a very busy, exciting, and exhausting few weeks exploring numerous programs in two main NGOs in Antigua, Guatemala.

I have visited schools, participated in different youth activity and empowerment programs, participated in a women’s/mother’s support group, participated in a parenting workshop and support group, shadowed social workers in the field who were visiting families, and I have attended a special “at risk” youth rehabilitation program focused on improving and building academic skills.

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I am very thankful that the workers and communities in both organizations have welcomed me and have really allowed me to explore their organizations and see the work that they do to help children and families.

Both organizations are interestingly similar in their mission and programs. Both organizations have a strong emphasis on education where their main focus is to encourage and support children to attend school.

Organization A supports education through a sponsorship and scholarship program where children and their families are given money to help support the children’s. education. The money is supposed to help keep the children in school rather than at work and assist them with the costs of uniforms and books. Social workers check on the children every month, checking their books, attendance records, and grades. If the children do not attend school or are struggling with grades, the social workers then offer a variety of services from therapy sessions with the organization’s psychologist to different youth programs.

In this program, children are supported and the emphasis is on finishing primary school (up to sixth grade). Many children in this program struggle to continue school after sixth grade. Unfortunately the government doesn’t provide much support for education after sixth grade, so many children are unable to afford and access high school. Also by that age many of the children are then considered to be of “working age” by their families and so many children are then expected to help contribute to the family’s finances by working.

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Organization B focus on education by supporting children with the aim of them graduating from high school. This organization operates two schools for the most needy families in the area. One school is on the organization’s main campus, provides students with free breakfast and lunch, and offers classes for students up to sixth grade. The second school is close to the organization and is an alternative school for non-traditionally aged students and students struggling with behavioral issues. This school provides an education through the end of high school. Organization B also is partnered with six schools and provides homework support programs for all six schools.

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Organization A and Organization B have developed numerous other programs to assist families and children with challenges and struggles that would interfere with their access and success in school. From support groups, medical clinics, psychological services, social work services, workshops, youth activities, and housing projects there are many ways for children and families to receive the help that they need to continue their education and address their challenges and struggles.

I have been lucky to observe and participate in many of these programs, projects, and services.

I have spent time with the house building projects where workers and groups of volunteers spend a few days building a one room house to help families living in severe conditions. Organization A’s program builds houses with concrete foundations and each house is built within three days. Organization B builds houses that are movable.

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There are also a variety of different support programs for children of all ages.

I spent time with a “sisters” group where a facilitator discusses important themes and ideas from stereotypes and women in the media to domestic violence and relationships. This group provides an amazing opportunity and support system for the girls in the project, as they talk about important issues that they have and will face while also empowering them to be strong women within their communities.

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I also spent time with a leaders group where children in the project focus on a variety of team building and skill building activities and exercises. This program helps to support, empower, encourage, and inspire the children to become involved, active, and positive members of their communities.

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On Saturdays I spent time at a youth program that teaches the children about a variety of topics including sexual education. After educational and creative activities, the children then have the opportunity to socialize and play sports. One Saturday after the main educational program and activities, Alejandra and I taught a group of students a variety of different “American” dances from the “Cupid shuffle” and the “wobble” to the “cotton eye Jo.”

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I also attended a special rehabilitation program for young kids who were struggling in school. This program was run by a psychologist in the organization with activities that focused on building and strengthening different skills to help with school such as memory, attention, organization, concentration and motivation. I was impressed by how creative the activities were and how the children really enjoyed them!

I also attended different support and skills programs for parents.

I participated in a support group for women and mothers where women would meet and discuss a variety of topics from domestic violence to codependency. This program not only helps women with a variety of different personal struggles but it also provides an incentive program where women who attended the program were then eligible to receive additional resources including food services.

I also spent time with an incredible parenting program that focused on both parents and children. Every Thursday for three hours facilitators run a special educational program for parents and children that help to address parenting issues and struggles including establishing boundaries and different disciplinary techniques. The program includes time specifically for parents, programming for children, and activities where parents and children are interacting together. With fun activities and enthusiastic and knowledgeable facilitators, I truly enjoyed this program and believe that it is a great tool to help address and prevent child abuse, maltreatment, and neglect. This program provides the support and education necessary to help struggling parents.

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I also spent a day with a center for malnourished babies where I was able to help feed, change, and play with babies as they continue along their journey of growing and becoming healthier.

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Away from the organization campuses, I also had the incredible opportunity to venture out with social workers for home visits in the small pueblos around Antigua. I was inspired by seeing how passionate, kind, and supportive the young social workers were and how they truly cared about the children and families. However, at times the visits were difficult as I experienced how some of the families live in absolute poverty in unimaginably difficult conditions.

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After spending time with families, women, and children in these different programs, I am further inspired by how they are learning, growing, and thriving despite facing difficult challenges and struggles.

It is amazing to see how passionate the social workers, international volunteers, and staff are and how hard they work to help make a difference in the lives of so many.

It is also interesting to understand how these organizations and programs have developed and continue to develop to take on such a variety of different projects and programs.

I hope that these programs continue to grow and further help families and communities because there is still so many people in need.

I also hope that Guatemala will be able to address the corruption and problems in their government, political system, and economy.

I hope that the people of Guatemala will someday experience a more supportive and less corrupt government and political system that will be able to truly invest in their children, families, and communities.

Overall I am very thankful for the opportunity to spend time with these organizations and for all of the incredible memories getting to know so many amazing women, children, and families.

I am also thankful for the opportunity to spend my time with such wonderful people throughout my time in Guatemala.

My host family, my new friend Alejandra, and my housemates have been incredibly supportive and helpful as they help me to explore my project and Guatemala. I appreciate how they have embraced and accepted me for all that I am and that they have helped to support me as I have struggled with the challenges, insecurities, and anxieties of returning home soon.

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I also feel very lucky that I met Julio. He has become a great friend and has gone above and beyond in showing me so much of his beautiful country.

We went to Guatemala City together.

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We climbed Volcano Pacaya, roasted marshmallows at a volcanic crater, went out into a lake with a rowboat that is an old crater filled with water, and we even went zip-lining.

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Thank you for your kindness, support, and encouragement. Thank you for making me feel appreciated and valued and for reminding me of important lessons that I have learned throughout my travel year.

It is amazing how many incredible memories and how many unforgettable friendships and relationships I have made during my short time in Guatemala.

With less than a week left of my fellowship year I am excited to spend my next few days beginning to process my travel year and my return home while relaxing on the black sand beaches of Monterrico.

Hola, Guatemala.

When my plane landed in Miami International Airport my heart sank. I was so close to home, but so far away.

During my short two hour layover I felt an overwhelming desire to go home.

I sat staring at the departure board, looking at multiple flights for Newark New Jersey, messaging friends and family members, and wondering….what if I just went home right now?

I help but think that had been gone for too long.

I know that I am so lucky and blessed to have experienced all that I have in the past eleven months.

I have explored six continents and have accomplished so much for my project and for my own personal journey. I have shadowed judges and revised written decisions in child protection cases, attended parenting classes and support groups, visited shelters and safe houses, and visited schools and hospitals.

I have jumped out of a plane skydiving, thrown myself off a bridge bungee jumping, held on tight while riding an ostrich, spotted animals in an African Safari, ran off a ramp on the top of a mountain while hang gliding, and stared straight into a great white shark’s mouth while shark cage diving.

As I sat at the airport scrolling through the pictures on my phone, I was overcome with a feeling of happiness and pride for all that I have accomplished during my year and how I have made the most incredible memories and met the most amazing people.

I have seen and experienced situations of extreme pain, loss, and sadness.

I have spent time with children and women who are living in conditions that many people could never imagine.

I have learned how fear can hinder us all from our true potential.

I have explored how fear has hindered the growth of programs, governments, and services as people are afraid to challenge the established culture, practices, and ways of life.

I have understood through my own journey and the journey of others how fear hinders our own personal growth as we shy away from new experiences, avoid change and the unknown, and struggle to live with a truly open mind and open heart.

I have felt and witnessed a new and different kind of strength, resilience, love, acceptance, and happiness.

I have witnessed the beauty of the human spirit as I have met people who remain positive, kind and giving even though they don’t have much to give and are struggling with their own difficult situations and challenges.

I have been taught a new way to approach people, places, and life in general as a more open, strong, and spontaneous person.

I have experienced a new level of happiness and love. I have formed new friendships and relationships with people who have shown me absolute acceptance, compassion, generosity, and genuine love.

In many ways I am a new person!

And it is strange to think that the people in my life will have to get to know the “new” me when I return home.

At the same time there are also many moments in their lives that I have missed while away: new jobs, new partners, struggles, and successes.

I will also have to understand the ways in which they have learned, have grown, and have changed.

As I boarded my plane, I readjusted my mindset and focused on embracing all that I can learn and experience in a Guatemala.

Fortunately, with the help of a beautiful city full of history and incredible people I was able to have an positive transition to Guatemala and a memorable first two weeks exploring new places, a new culture, and a new way of life.

I am very lucky to be staying with a welcoming, compassionate, and kind host family.

Violeta, my home stay mom, cooks very delicious traditional Guatemalan meals every day and I get to spend time learning and practicing Spanish while sharing meals together. My host father host brothers,and the travelers staying we the family have also been very supportive and helpful as I explored the area, organized my project, and adjusted to my new surroundings.

I really enjoyed exploring the city and surrounding areas.

The city of Antigua is absolutely beautiful. The colorful buildings, stone streets, churches, parks and ruins are full of life, memories, and history.

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I visited a macadamia nut farm where I had special macadamia nut pancakes.

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I visited a farm with a scenic view of the city and began a routine of morning walks to the iconic view at Cerro de la Cruz.

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I explored local villages where I went to a chocolate factory and visited a man’s shop where I sampled a dozen different flavors of homemade fruit “wine” (moonshine).

I rode a horse up the San Pedro volcano to a scenic mirador.

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I kayaked with my friend Olivia at sunset on Lake Atitlan.

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I relaxed, loaded, tanned, and rode a four wheeler on the black sand beaches of Monterrico.

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I have also shared delicious meals, continued to try salsa dancing, and have walked around the city while getting to know my housemates and my host family.

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At the end of my two weeks I had to say goodbye to my first two friends in Guatemala: Kati and Olivia. I cannot thank them enough for making my first two weeks in Guatemala so special and I look forward to seeing them again hopefully someday soon back in the United States!

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Their departure reminded me of how truly close “home” is for me and how even though my travel year will soon be over, there is still so much for me to learn and to experience.

With three weeks left I am excited to immerse myself in my project and to continue to make the most out of my time here in Guatemala.

Into the Amazon!

Three hours away from the closest city. Two boat rides and a car ride into the Amazon rainforest. No wifi connection. No signal on my cell phone.

My trip into the amazon was an absolute adventure!

I stayed in a beautiful wooden lodge run by a local family where I had my own private cabin with a large bed, a mosquito net, and a small bathroom.

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It was like my own little sanctuary and my trip into the Amazon allowed me to explore and have new and exciting adventures while simultaneously allowing me to relax, breathe, and reflect on my past and future adventures.

Every day was filled with different experiences and opportunities to explore!

We went jungle-trekking and we went on canoe and boat rides into the flooded forest to explore different rivers and creeks.

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I learned about the medicinal properties of many trees and plants in the area, I attempted and failed to climb a tree, I ate some grubs, and I hiked deep into the amazon rainforest.

We spotted many animals: different birds including toucans and woodpeckers, monkeys, frogs, grey and pink dolphins, and a variety of different insects and fish.

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Some of my favorite moments included interacting with different animals.

While in transit to the lodge our amazing guides spotted a sloth at the top of a tree. We then maneuvered our boat over to the tree and our youngest guide then climbed the tree, retrieved the sloth, and brought the sloth down for us to see and hold.

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I went piranha fishing!

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With bits of chicken feet tied to the end of fishing line held in place by a small stick, we waited to feel the strong tug of the piranhas. Even though at times they were difficult to grab, together the four of us caught more than a dozen piranhas! The family at the lodge then prepared a delicious meal with our fresh catch that night!

On our last night we went cayman spotting!

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Our brave guides searched the edges of the water with headlamps looking for the red light of the caymans’ eyes. When they spotted a cayman they would position themselves at the front of the boat, hook their feet on the edge of the boat, lay out over the open water, and then suddenly plunge their arms into the water to catch the caymans.

On our final morning I was able to hold a HUGE anaconda that measured about 4.5 metres long!

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Our guide took us to a local village where a man had an anaconda that had been trapped in his fishing net. Without hesitation our guide quickly reached down, grabbed the snake’s head, and then we stretched the snake out and held it for a few minutes.

With wild wildlife encounters, time swimming and relaxing in the Amazon river, delicious food with local fish and fruits, stunning sunsets on Lago do Zuma, and with the company of great people, my time in the Amazon has been a highlight of my travel year.

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Thank you to everyone who helped to make it such a great experience!

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Next stop-my final destination of my travel year-Guatemala!

Holding on and Letting go

As I sat packing my bags on my last day in Rio de Janeiro I was overcome with a variety of different emotions.

I felt sad to leave behind the beautiful sights that comforted me; the people who helped me to continue to learn and to grow; and the memories that I have made while exploring myself, my project, and the communities of Rio de Janeiro.

I felt excited for the next chapter of my travel year. I was looking forward to spending a few days exploring the Amazon river and rainforest and I was excited to land in my Guatemala, my final destination of my travel year.

I felt anxious about my return home as I am now beginning to fully understand and realize how different my life will be when I return.

I also felt proud as I thought about all that I have experienced in Rio de Janeiro and my travel year.

I have spent time with programs that are truly making a difference for the children and families in the favelas and Rio de Janeiro communities.

During my last few days with Project Favela, I was able to experience firsthand how the programs are making a difference in the lives of the children, families, and community. I saw people gather and watch a concert that Project Favela held at a local pizzeria where the children sang and danced to music that they had learned from a visiting band.

I was also happy to learn that the project is continuing to expand. On my last day I learned that the organization is now sending volunteers into a daycare program for children in one of the “worst” parts of the favela. I believe that getting involved in more community programs and services in need like the new daycare project is essential to ensure that the organization continues to positively help the community.

I hope that Project Favela continues to grow and to expand to include more local people and programs. I hope to someday see the programs further expand into the Rocihna community in a way that increases the involvement of local community members since most of the staff are international volunteers. I believe that Project Favela and the Rocihna community could really benefit by having a volunteer/intern program for Brazilians who are interested in social justice, social welfare, and helping their communities.

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With new volunteers arriving every week, with the development of more programs sending volunteers into the Rocihna community, with so many dedicated and passionate volunteers and staff, and with a founder who has an incredible vision for the future of the organization, I am excited and thankful for the continued growth of Project Favela.

I am so grateful for all that Scott and Kristine have done to welcome me into their organization and for letting me see their programs. I enjoyed spending time with the children and will miss their energy and kindness! I will also miss the volunteers and staff! It was nice to see so many dedicated and passionate young women and men working hard to create a fun, educational experience for the kids at the daycare and the after school program.

I am also grateful for the chance to see the programs at the Julio Otoni Community Center.

After weeks of arts and crafts, drum circles, soccer and volleyball games, and tons of laughs it was difficult to say goodbye.

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I have learned so much from the kind, compassionate, resilient, and strong children of the Julio Otoni Favela. I have learned a different mindset of how to view life and happiness. I have learned how we can truly do so much with so little. And I have been reminded of how truly blessed I am and how I must make sure that I appreciate all that I have and all that is truly important in life.

I appreciate all that the Julio Otoni community has taught me and I will truly miss spending time with the children and experiencing their unconditional love and compassion through their hugs, smiles, and laughter.

Even though my time here was short, Rio de Janeiro has truly left an impact on my travel year and my own personal journey.

As I struggled with personal challenges and insecurities while preparing for my return home in a few weeks, the beautiful people and places of Rio de Janeiro helped me to continue to learn, to grow, and to overcome.

I am continuing to understand and overcome my fears and insecurities as I learn how to embrace and accept the unknown with the vulnerability of an open mind and open heart.

I have learned that by allowing myself to be vulnerable I am also becoming stronger. I have learned that by being more open and taking risks, I am opening my eyes, my mind, and my heart to new experiences and feelings of freedom, love, and happiness.

I have truly fallen in love in Rio de Janeiro.

I have fallen in love with the beautiful city, sights, and beaches….

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From Christ the Redeemer….

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To Sugar Loaf Mountain……

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To the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.

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I have also grown to love myself and others in a new and unexpected way.

I feel truly blessed to have had such a memorable experience in such a short amount of time!

While it is with a heavy heart that I leave Rio de Janeiro, I am excited for to begin the final chapter of my travel year.

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Next stop-the Amazon River and Rainforest!

“The only thing to fear is fear itself”

Fear.

The experience of fear can be stifling, suffocating, and overwhelming.

We have all experienced that feeling.

Where your heart races, you get chills down your spine, and you can’t catch your breath.

Where words whirl around your head, you struggle to think clearly, and you feel the knot in your stomach growing bigger and bigger.

I know that I have let fear stop me.

I have allowed fear to hold me back.

I have allowed fear to influence my decisions and ultimately affect how I have lived my life.

Fortunately, that is beginning to change.

The first step towards this change was making the most frightening decision that I have ever made in my life: leaving my loved ones and everything I knew at home for a year of independent, international travel.

Throughout this year I have learned so much about my relationship with fear and I have been taking action to address how fear impacts my life.

With each destination I encounter new experiences, new challenges, and new fears.

As I settled into my new home here in Brazil the familiar thoughts and feelings of fear began to creep back into my mind as I started to explore a completely unfamiliar place.

I had moments where I felt alone. I had moments where I wondered if I would accomplish anything substantial for my project. I had moments where I began to fall into the familiar trap of doubting myself.

With the support of friends and family and by reminding myself of everything I have accomplished and experienced in the past ten months I began to fight back those feelings of worry, anxiety, and fear.

I took the time to think about what I was feeling and experiencing while also deciding to do what I could to remain as hopeful, optimistic, and brave as possible.

With a revitalized approach and a little bit of luck I began to make significant progress on my project and my experience.

After hours of exhaustive research, numerous rejections, and many unanswered emails I received the opportunities that I had been searching for when three separate projects invited me to visit their programs in three different favelas.

When I told my local host family and friends about my plans to visit programs in favelas I received mainly negative responses.

I soon learned that “favela” is a kind of “f” word here in Brazil. A word with an extensive, divisive, and complicated history. A word with negative connotations, judgments, and stereotypes.

When people became aware of my plans to spend a significant amount of time venturing into different favelas in order to explore my project they became hesitant, concerned and worried.

I was flooded with words of advice, concern, and caution.

I was told stories of tourists being mugged, murdered, and attacked. I was reminded of the heightened level of violence and crime, gangs, and drug trafficking in the favelas.

It became clear that even though many of these people hadn’t ventured into these favelas, they formed quite a strong and negative opinion about these communities.

I was warned to not take the buses because I may contract lice.

I was told that I should not walk around alone because there are many people willing to take advantage of a young, foreign-looking female.

Despite all of this, I wanted to maintain an open mind and create my own opinions based on my own experiences in the favelas.

With an open heart and an open mind I have spent the most incredible past three weeks in Pavao, Rocihna, and Julio Otoni.

My experiences have been unbelievably positive and inspirational.

At first walking into the different favelas was overwhelming because of how different the favelas were in comparison to the area of Rio where I lived.

It was like walking into a completely different world.

Buildings were stacked high upon the mountain tops with concrete, wood, and brick. Tangled electrical wires hung low along the streets and drainage canals along the sides of the roads carried trash and unpleasant smell. The streets were in constant movement with people, motorbikes, and markets. Meats were butchered and cooked in makeshift barbecue areas, stray dogs and cats scavenged for food, and children wandered around alone or in small groups. Deep within the community some buildings were so close and the overhead electrical wires were so thick that the alleyways were completely dark and you could see neither the sun nor the sky.

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Despite all of the ugly stereotypes and stories that I have heard I also saw so much beauty.

I saw striking and elaborate art spray painted along buildings, walls, and fences.

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I saw homes where the concrete was painted bright colors.

I smelled delicious meals being prepared in small restaurants and homes.

I heard the laughter of friends, families, and children.

I experienced the kindness of complete strangers who were extremely welcoming and helpful as they guided me along the streets to help me find my way.

And I have been inspired by the incredible programs that do so much with so little to help the children and families in their communities.

In Rocihna, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, I have spent time with an incredible organization called Project Favela. This organization was created by an American and has grown to provide several different programs to help children and the community. Staffed and supported by international volunteers, this organization runs projects that include English language courses both for children and community members at different times throughout the day, structured lessons for children at a local daycare, and an after school program focused on providing kids with a safe space off of the streets.

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In Julio Otoni, I have been visiting the Julio Otoni Community Center for their morning activities with younger children and their afternoon activities with school-aged children. Here children play sports, complete crafts, and receive a light meal while being cared for by two caring and kind women.

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In such a short amount of time with these projects I have learned so much.

I have learned that life in the favelas can be very difficult and that there aren’t many programs or services to help.

I heard stories about how some of the children rarely see their parents because their parents are working unbelievably long hours. I have heard how some children do not attend school and instead stay at home and stay on the streets caring for their younger siblings. I have heard disturbing stories that there was a child molester taking advantage of families’ difficult situations as he preyed on the children who are left unaccompanied throughout the day.

I also learned so much about different approaches to life and what it truly means to embrace life in a different way.

As I started to really get to know the children and community members I was inspired by their mindset and their approach to life.

Many of these children did not have very clean or well fitting clothes. Some didn’t have much food to eat. Most of the children didn’t have flashy toys or electronics.

While many people would comment that these communities had “so little”, I was able to see how these communities truly had “so much”.

They had so much positivity, laughter, and happiness.

I never heard the children comment on the way that they looked. I never heard the children complain about what they did or did not have.

I fell in love with this mindset.

Coming from a culture in America that is so obsessed with comparisons, money, material possessions and achievement, life in the favela was indubitably refreshing and inspiring.

The children played together, shared with one another, and helped one another in ways that I had never seen before.

There was a different level of appreciation, compassion, and love between members in these communities.

So many of the children and the community members went out of their way to help me and to help each other.

I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be welcomed into their communities and to experience their kindness, compassion, strength, and resilience.

There have been so many moments throughout the past few weeks that I will always treasure and remember: drawing and painting, making animal crafts, the music lessons and concert in Rocihna, creating our paper chain decoration for the community center, jamming out and singing Taylor Swift and Beyonce songs, playing soccer and volleyball, making music together with a collection of old drums and instruments, and teaching each other different phrases and pronunciations in English and Portuguese.

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With only a week left in Rio de Janeiro I have been incredibly humbled by my experiences in the favelas.

I have continued to learn so much about different approaches to helping and also different approaches to living.

I have realized that it could have been very easy for me to allow the opinions and fears of others to stop me from exploring the favelas and having this incredible experience.

My time in Brazil has further shown me that by taking a chance and venturing out of my comfort zone I am able to explore, grow, learn, and live my life in a completely new and different way.

Even though at times it may be difficult and even though I am sometimes flooded with the familiar insecurities, anxieties, worries, and fears that I will continue to battle throughout my life, I have been embracing change and progress.

I have learned that by leaving my comfort zone, taking risks, and embracing situations that would normally make me feel guarded and vulnerable I am liberating myself and giving myself the opportunity to truly live.

“At the Copa…Copacabana”

My first two weeks in Rio have allowed me to relax, regroup, and reflect.

After an incredible and intense last few weeks in Cape Town, I tried to take my time and slow down once I arrived in Rio.

It was nice to have a lot of downtime to focus on exploring the local area, exploring my project, and becoming acquainted with my new life in Brazil.

After more than 24 hours of travel I landed in Rio de Janeiro with the same confidence, excitement, and positivity that I had felt when I first landed in Cape Town.

It is a great feeling to know that since the halfway mark of my travel year I have been able to approach each new place with confidence and excitement rather than insecurity and fear.

At the beginning of my year I was always a bit anxious about the experiences that each new place would bring. I used to worry that my host family experience may not be what I wanted or needed. I used to be concerned about finding meaningful experiences and opportunities for my project. And I used to worry about meeting new people and feeling alone as I approached a new destination with limited contacts.

At the beginning of the year, the idea of traveling to Rio de Janeiro was a bit frightening since I do not speak the main language and I have very few contacts here.

Now my mindset and approach has changed.

Throughout my year I have grown in my ability to trust, value, and have confidence in myself to the point that I now believe that I have the ability to adapt and overcome any challenge that I may face. Now I am excited to travel to each new destination because each place brings new opportunities for me to learn and to explore.

As I expected, not knowing the main language has been a challenge for me as I struggle to find contacts for my project.

From talking to different organizations, locals, and other international volunteers I have learned that Brazil has an interesting recent history of developments and progress in addressing major social problems including domestic violence, child abuse, and the poverty and challenges in the favelas. These developments include new police squads, laws, programs and institutions focused on helping women, helping children, and improving social and economic conditions in the favelas.

Unfortunately with limited time and with a difficult language barrier, it isn’t as easy for me to access and spend time with these programs, services, and institutions.

Fortunately, I have made recent progress with my project thanks to people who have gone out of their way to help me establish contacts and see the work that they do.

After talking to a young man playing foot-volley ball on the beach, I learned that there is a developing program in the favela near where I stay that helps children in the community by teaching them English every Saturday morning.

I was invited to spend time with the program and have learned a lot about how this program and many other programs approach helping the favela community.

The program is set on the terrace of the young man’s home near the top of the favela. The large terrace has a stunning view of the favela and the surrounding area of Copacabana. The program materials include one white board, two markers, an English instruction book, four tables and about 30 chairs. Every Saturday the program has anywhere from eight to eighteen children ranging in age from 5 to 10 years and who are all at different levels of english comprehension.

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Similar to other programs that I have tried to contact, this program survives with the help of international volunteers. On my first Saturday in Rio de Janeiro I made my way to the top of the favela by walking up dozens of stairs and taking a cable car with two other international travelers. I was surprised to see that the organizer of the program, the local young man who lives in this favela and who runs the program out of his home was nowhere to be found.

I then spent the next two hours continuously crossing over the boundaries I had tried to set for my project by moving between the observer and participant roles when my help was requested by the international students.

We went over the letters of the alphabet, the alphabet song, basic introductory questions, and how to spell each other’s names.

It was nice to see that these children were really trying to learn! Many of them enthusiastically helped each other with pronunciation or the answers to questions that the teachers would ask. Many of them were closely listening to the teacher and writing down everything that they possibly could in their notebooks. A few of the children surprisingly had smartphones or tablets and were using them to sometimes disrupt the lessons by taking a selfie.

After observing and participating in two classes with this program, I believe that this program truly is a great way to help the children and the favela community in a variety of ways-from emphasizing the importance of education and teaching children to value education and learning to teaching the children another language that can help them in the future.

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While I recognize the many positive aspects of the project, I do believe that the program has a lot of unmet potential. I believe that with more support and communication between the international volunteers and the young man who started the program, with a more organized curriculum, with a more structured program, and with differentiated instruction tailored to the children’s different levels of english language comprehension the children will be able to learn a lot more and have their educational needs met.

Fortunately, the young man who started the program is currently working with students from an American University who are helping him to develop his business model for his tourism service and this community project. I was able to provide my feedback to them and they will hopefully use my recommendations to create a more stable platform for this program that includes more of a planned curriculum, the possibility of the teachers providing differentiated instruction based on the different learning levels of children in the program.

I am excited to see how the program continues to grow and develop during my last few weeks in Rio!

When I have been working to establish contacts for my project in Rio and in Guatemala, I have also taken the time to explore the local area, meet new friends, and adjust to life in a new country with a different culture and different language.

I have explored the local beaches and different areas of town, I have gone dancing to try to learn forro and salsa, and I have spent the day listening to samba music with new friends.

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I have explored the local beaches.

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I have been incredibly lucky to have a host and “host family” who speaks english.  My host is very kind and helpful! I have enjoyed going on walks with her around the area, sharing amazing local takeout together, and getting to know her.

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Leandro is a local who has been a breath of fresh air with his kind heart and gentle spirit. Despite a sometimes challenging language barrier he has done so much to help make my time in Rio de Janeiro memorable and special. I’m excited to continue to get to know him and spend time adventuring with him!

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Shannon is a traveler from the United States who has been a great support for me while I have adjusted to my life in Brazil. I look forward to continuing to adventure around the area together and I appreciate our conversations about the issues that we face both as international travelers and as people who want to help others and make a difference.

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With the help of these new friends Rio de Janeiro has provided me with the opportunity to continue to learn while also reflecting and appreciating all that I have experienced and will continue to experience.

Every night I take a long walk along the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

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While listening to the waves gently crashing and feeling the sand and water at my feet, I reflect and think about the days that have ended and passed, the current day that is coming to an end, and the days yet to come.

During these walks I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride and happiness with where I have been, where I currently am, and where I am going in all aspects of my life.

I have now traveled to six different continents and have seen and experienced some of the most beautiful sights in the world.

I have observed and participated in truly rewarding programs, services, and systems that are making a difference in communities, countries, children, and families around the world.

I have felt unconditional love and support from people who are at first complete strangers.

I have experienced fear, insecurity, heartbreak, disappointment, and challenges.

I have also experienced moments where I have have felt so loved, blessed, valued, lucky, happy, free, and alive.

Ultimately all of these moments combine to allow me to now experience and appreciate a new and heightened level of achievement, happiness, and love.

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When I See You Again

It is incredible how the kindness, generosity, and support of one person can truly make a difference.

So many people in South Africa have made my experience here absolutely unforgettable.

So many people have done so much to help me with my project; welcome me into their homes, lives, and families; and spend time showing me all the wonderful sights and experiences that Cape Town has to offer.

With the help of Natasha, a clerk in the Children’s Court, and with the help of several Magistrates I was able to observe and participate in a variety of different domestic violence and child protection court proceedings where I learned so much about how the law functions to help children and families.

With the help of social workers and staff I spent the past two weeks in three different townships in Cape Town (which are similar to slums or ghettos) to see an NGO’s unique approach of child abuse prevention through advocacy programs and support groups.

I spent time with a group of young pregnant women in an ante-natal support group focused on preventing child abuse, maltreatment, and neglect by teaching pregnant women about motherhood and caring for children while offering them the support of NGO staff and community members.

I observed a parent support group in a township school that had about twenty young teen parents who were learning how to overcome the challenges of being a parent at such a young age.

I also participated in a support group for mothers where women shared their stories, learned positive parenting practices, and had a truly safe and open space to share their concerns and seek advice.

I have learned so much from these experiences in the past few weeks and I believe that without the magistrates, clerks, support workers, and social workers going out of their way to accommodate me and welcome me these experiences would not have been possible.

My last two weeks in Cape Town have also been filled with incredible new memories as I explored the area and spent time with so many wonderful people. My Cape Town family and friends have gone out of their way to make my last moments in Cape Town absolutely amazing!

I went hiking around the Constantia area…

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I hiked up Lion’s Head Mountain..

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I took a Cable Car ride to the top of Table Mountain..

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I visited Robin Island, an apartheid era prison where Nelson Mandela spent several years incarcerated.

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I visited Moyo’s restaurant for a lovely “South African meal experience” complete with face painting, dancing, and ostrich filet.

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I explored food markets and shops.

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I visited the Bo-Kaap area to see the historical and colorful buildings.

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I shared many delicious meals and wonderful conversations.

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I explored my favorite beaches on both the Indian and Atlantic Ocean side of the Cape peninsula.

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And I saw sunset at Signal Hill.

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In all, I am so lucky and so blessed to have met such amazing people during my time in Cape Town.

Alvina, Ricky, Johann, Ruth, Jenna, Joy, Darren, Chloe, Natasha, Tatum, Merit, Time, Liam, Chloe, Daphne, Jane, Rodman, Little Boo, and Boo-bette, I cannot explain how thankful I am to have you in my life! You have become like family to me and I cannot thank you for everything you have done for me during my journey!

I will miss all of you so much! I will miss my nights and weekends with my host family, Ricky calling me “Russian” and “Uruguayan”, rocking out to Whitney Houston on Sunday mornings with Alvina while we cook, talking to Alvina about everything and anything and how she would laugh at all of my ridiculous jokes, playing with Little Boo and Boo-bette and hearing them laugh when I call them their nicknames, and making my family brownies and seeing them disappear within minutes. I will miss going on day adventures with Ruth, Johann, and Jenna; Jenna’s stories and jamming out to music in the car; chatting to Johann and Ruth while having tea; Johann’s sense of humor; and Ruth’s kind heart. I will miss all of my adventures with Joy and Darren, exploring mountains and markets, Darren laughing at almost everything that I said, and Joy’s never-ending kindness and generosity. I will miss my adventures with Chloe and Daphne, learning french words and phrases, and supporting each other while we missed our loved ones and our lives back home.

The relationships and memories I have formed in the past three months here have made my experience here truly unforgettable.

We have laughed together, explored and adventured together, and I will always treasure our memories! You welcomed me with open arms and embraced me for who I am. You supported me when I felt down, celebrated with me, and offered me unconditional encouragement and support. I am incredibly thankful andI feel privileged to have you as my family and friends.

This is not goodbye; this is “see you again”. 🙂

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Progress

The past few weeks have been a crazy combination of new adventures and blasts from the past as I have explored new frontiers in my project in South Africa and have began to prepare for my return to the United States.

With the help of my family I am trying to find an apartment in the Newark, New Jersey area where I will begin a new chapter of my life.

I accepted a full scholarship to Seton Hall Law School and I am excited to begin this new journey. With such a strong program and opportunities to explore my interests in domestic violence, child protection, and family law, I am confident that Seton Hall Law school will allow me to integrate my fellowship experiences with continued opportunities to learn and grow as an advocate and person.

I have also increased my contact with friends and family as I prepare to reintegrate into my life at home.

During this process, I have been reminded of many of the challenges that await me at home as I continue to examine my past and current relationships.

I have established a sense of closure with several past relationships as I was able to effectively and honestly communicate my thoughts and feelings to myself, friends, family, and previous partners.

I have also taken chances, reconnected with people from my past, and I am excited to explore these new and revitalized friendships and relationships.

I also continuing to enjoy my time exploring Cape Town with my friends and family who I have met throughout my journey.

I have visited new places and have continued to be amazed by the natural beauty of South Africa.

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I was inspired by my friend Ruth who completed her tenth Two Oceans half marathon.

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I learned how to surf.

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And I have spent quality time with my host family during Easter and on the weekends where my incredible host mother has taught me how to cook a variety of dishes and styles including a South African braai (barbecue).

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I have also taken chances and risks with my project!

After spending a few days with a firm of family attorneys, I decided to just show up to court and try to establish contacts there.

Thanks to the support and assistance of incredible court staff and Magistrates, I have spent my past week and will continue to spend time in Children’s Court, Domestic Violence Protection Order Court, and Domestic Violence Criminal Court.

While shadowing a Magistrate in Domestic Violence Protection Order Court I have learned so much about the domestic violence legal system, policies, laws and social welfare system.

I find it interesting that the Cape Town domestic violence laws and legal system are very similarly structured as the laws and system in the jurisdiction where I was a domestic violence court advocate in Pennsylvania.

There were also some interesting differences.

I was surprised to see that even though the Magistrate has the option to have all trials in a courtroom, she is comfortable having all court proceedings take place in her own office and does not have the assistance of a clerk nor the protection of security, sheriffs, or police. While this may raise questions and concerns of safety, I appreciated this environment and layout. After spending a few days observing the court process and seeing how the parties reacted to the process, I believe that this relaxed and informal environment allowed the Magistrate to successfully and effectively implement an experience of therapeutic and restorative justice.

Through my observations of the court process and conversations with the Magistrate and parties involved in protection order cases I have also been surprised and at times disappointed by how the laws were implemented by the courts and the police.

I was surprised to discover that protection orders here are granted without an expiration date and therefore offer protection for the rest of the applicant’s life.

I have also seen how the Magistrate can be lenient in how she makes decisions in protection order cases. I learned that as long as all parties have been appropriately and legally notified of the court proceedings, the Magistrate will easily grant an order of protection when the respondent (the alleged perpetrator of abuse) is not present in court. I was surprised how the Magistrate granted these protection orders without establishing that a protection order is needed or that abuse has occurred.

Furthermore I was disappointed to find that this court system struggled with similar challenges as the system in my jurisdiction back home where many orders are dropped or withdrawn. I was disappointed to see that there are about 50 protection order cases a day and yet up to half of the cases everyday are dismissed because the applicant does not come to court to pursue his/her protection order.

I was also extremely disappointed to hear that the police are impacting the effectiveness and success of the protection order process.

I have spoken to the Magistrate and I have heard stories from victims that suggest that the police have a troubling and inappropriate approach to domestic violence where they falsely state to protection parties that their order is outdated or has expired and where they do not make a sufficient effort to serve the court documents and enforce protection orders.

Despite these challenges and potential problems with the domestic violence court order system, I was left with a very positive opinion of the domestic violence protection court, especially with the Magistrate’s approach of therapeutic and restorative justice.

I found it refreshing that the Magistrate took the time to examine deeper issues behind many of the abuse applications. I admired her tenacity and her true investment in making a difference in the lives of the parties who are seeking help from the court.

I was very impressed by and appreciative of her involved approach in a case involving two teenagers. The young couple, their six month old child, and the teenager’s mothers entered the court room and explained their situation. Both of the teenagers were raised by single mothers with fathers who had hardly been a part of their lives, the boyfriend has been using crystal meth for the past four years, and he has been physically and emotionally abusive and controlling toward his girlfriend. The protection order application described how the boyfriend would order the girlfriend to do things for him and when she refused he would hit her and emotionally degrade her.

For about an hour the Magistrate asked all of the parties questions about their situation and offered advice and support. She explored the issues around the boyfriend’s drug addiction and the reasons why he acted toward his girlfriend in such a demanding, abusive, and controlling way. The Magistrate made powerful statements to the boyfriend about drug addiction, caring for his child and his family, respecting his beautiful girlfriend, and getting the help that he needs to overcome his drug addiction and abusive ways. The Magistrate then spoke openly and honestly to the girlfriend, talking to her about what she needs to do as a young parent and how she needs to have the strength to create a safe and healthy life for her and her child even if it means not being with her current boyfriend. I appreciated how she involved the parents in the discussion, addressed the issues affecting the abusive situation with both parties, and helped to guide and support the family in how to approach and improve their relationship.

Overall I was inspired by how the Magistrate commented on cases with a strong voice of respect and authority, offer support and additional counseling services through referrals to a non-profit organization, and lecture the parties about appropriate behaviors and how to improve their situations.

I believe that this kind of judicial approach can help parties understand and respect the judicial system and laws in a way that can help repair relationships between government institutions, the legal system, and the people. I also believe that this approach helps to inspire the parties to reflect on their own situations and receive the help that they need to address their problems and challenges.

With two more weeks in Cape Town and the opportunity to continue to explore the domestic violence courts and Children’s Courts, I am excited for all that I will continue to learn and experience.

Third Quarterly Watson Fellowship Report: Responsibility

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My past three months in Cape Town South Africa and Rajasthan India have been some of the most incredible, memorable, and challenging moments of my fellowship year.

During my month in India I encountered new challenges, a new culture, new ways of life, and a new reality for my project as I shadowed the work at an international NGO and their projects in the city of Udaipur and the rural villages of Rajasthan.

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I spent a lot of time with women and children in the only domestic violence safe house in the Udaipur region.

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I participated in leadership, social, and team building activities at a school for children with hearing challenges and other special needs.

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I traveled into the rural villages of Rajasthan where I explored women’s empowerment programs and the Women’s Resource Center where women leaders help other women and families with issues ranging from domestic violence and family problems to accusations of witchcraft.

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I then traveled to Cape Town, South Africa.

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In Cape Town South Africa I began my project with a focus on children who have experienced different forms of trauma.

I observed the services at a local government hospital for children with physical disabilities.

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I also explored a variety of different services and programs at a school for children with hearing challenges.

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For my last few weeks in Cape Town I have now been refocusing my project back to family abuse and family violence as I spend time shadowing Magistrates in Children’s Court, Domestic Violence Protection Order Court, and Domestic Violence Criminal Court.

All of these different experiences have inspired similar questions about different kinds of responsibility: institutional responsibility, cultural responsibility, organizational responsibility, societal responsibility, and personal responsibility.

I have learned that domestic violence, child abuse, and child trauma are phenomena that are deeply influenced by cultural and societal systems, norms, morals, and values.

In different communities in India I found that the cultural and religious norms and traditions had a profound influence on how women and children conceptualized abuse, experienced abuse, and how they approached addressing their experiences of abuse.

In the cities and rural villages of Rajasthan I found that there was a high level of stigma around abuse, trauma, and violence. Many victims felt embarrassed and ashamed of their experiences and others normalized their abuse as a usual part of a relationship.

This mindset led many victims to approach abuse as something that should not and could not be acknowledged nor addressed.

At the village level many women experiencing domestic violence felt that they couldn’t and shouldn’t live independently, they couldn’t approach the local police (because of both fear and financial reasons) and they couldn’t approach the local panchayat (the village governing body) because these services and institutions are known to be corrupt, treat women badly, and they are known to not help women with issues of domestic violence or abuse within the family.

Because of this many women believed that they only had two realistic options for addressing their abuse: to not address the abuse at all and stay with their husbands or to leave their husbands and live with their parents. Most women who experienced abuse didn’t believe that it was culturally appropriate nor overall feasible to live on their own and independently raise their children. Also, because of financial struggles and the cultural stigma associated with leaving their husbands many women didn’t even see leaving their husband as an option; rather, they believed that they must accept the abuse, cope with the effects of the abuse, and ultimately stay with their abuser.

This discourse also seems to both affect and be affected by all aspects of society with how the government institutions, local police, village institutions, and societal institutions offer little to no help for abuse victims.

After spending time with organizations and government institutions, I began to learn how these ideas influenced how different laws, services, and programs approached addressing abuse.

Questions about institutional responsibility whirled through my mind as I saw the grim reality of domestic violence and child abuse in parts of India and South Africa.

In a society where 8 out of 10 women report experiencing domestic violence and statistics suggest that a woman is raped every twenty minutes, I was surprised to see the lack of services and programs available to help abuse victims in India.

Families both in the cities and the villages complained that the government institutions, legal systems, and government services were often corrupt and biased to the extent that they were completely inaccessible. I heard stories about how the police would charge ridiculous fees to investigate domestic violence claims and that they ultimately treated female victims with such a level of disrespect that victims became fearful of utilizing the help of the law enforcement agencies that are supposed to serve and protect them. I heard stories about how the completely male-dominated panchayat would have rules for how women can attend and participate in their meetings; how the panchayat members would be under the influence of drugs or alcohol during meetings; and how the members would mock, ridicule, and further abuse the women who were seeking help.

While working with different programs and services I also encountered questions of individual staff responsibility as I wondered about the individual staff members’ roles and responsibilities in addressing abuse not only through their services and organizations but also in the larger community and society.

From observing and participating in services, I often found that staff were overwhelmed with their client’s realities. Many women, children, and families were experiencing a variety of issues and challenges that needed the assistance of several different services and programs.

Often staff were also overwhelmed by how their services were falling short of the organization’s vision and plan.

I witnessed and heard staff complaints about the low quality of the children’s hospital school, the inadequate medical and rehabilitation services for the children, and the lack of access to toys and games that could help keep the children healthy, social, active, and in positive spirits.

In Cape Town I heard cases of domestic violence protection orders where the police interfered with evidence, refused to arrest perpetrators when they violated a protection order, did not make a reasonable effort to serve the respondent with the court documents, and inaccurately informed protected persons that their protection orders were no longer in effect and were “out of date.”

In India the women leaders of the Resource Center were frustrated that they didn’t have the resources to be able to easily travel to and effectively communicate with their clients. They were also upset that they didn’t have the support and assistance to help their clients navigate and challenge the patriarchal nature of the government, local institutions, and family structures.

At the domestic violence safe house in India I was disappointed to find that the women and children didn’t have the level of counseling, support, or services that they needed. Despite a vision and plan to provide educational training, occupational training, and a variety of different counseling services, day after day I found that the women mainly spent their time sitting and laying in the courtyard. There also didn’t seem to be any educational or counseling services to help the young children at the shelter. After talking to staff and volunteers, I learned that they didn’t have these services because of staff problems coupled with a lack of resources.

At the school in Cape Town many staff were frustrated with the limited counseling services and the limitations of the hostel. They believed that with more services the children would be able to better overcome the challenges that they face as a result of their disabilities and their experiences with abuse and trauma.

Through these experiences I have seen that progress and improvement in organizations, services and communities all have one thing in common: dedicated, passionate, and hard working staff.

Because of the dedication and passion of hardworking volunteers and staff, Mosaic in Cape Town has transformed to become an organization that helps with a variety of issues in a variety of different ways in many different communities. Mosaic started their programs by selecting staff from within the communities and then training the staff to return to their communities and learn about and address a variety of issues through direct service. Mosaic staff have then grown and established different programs that that help to provide support services, counseling services, training, educational forums, and awareness for a myriad of different social problems and issues.

In India I learned how the NGO has developed to address issues of women empowerment, domestic violence, and educational and financial problems in villages and cities over time. With the help of dedicated staff and volunteers, the women’s empowerment workshops and women’s resource centers have grown and will continue to grow and expand to new villages.

Overall, I observed that the programs that were continuing to successfully grow and evolve had staff who continuously reflected and challenged their approaches, services, and programs.

Because of this I believe that an essential part of progress, growth, and change is to inspire and empower our staff to accept responsibility for being a part of the growth of their programs and services and progress within society. We must support and encourage our volunteers to challenge and take action to improve our systems, institutions, norms, ideas, and practices.

I also have learned that acknowledging personal responsibility is very important.

In order to be able to help their clients to the best of their abilities I have learned that staff must understand their own preconceptions and experiences with abuse. In order to better help their clients, staff must first “heal the healer” and learn how to overcome their own experiences with abuse, biases, and preconceptions.

I also believe that abuse victims themselves must understand and accept personal responsibility.

I have found that many discourses around abuse place all responsibility with the abuser, society, and the culture. I believe that not acknowledging the victim’s role can be disempowering to abuse victims because it perpetuates the idea that they are helpless victims.

Because of this I found Mosaic’s approach of victim empowerment focused on the victim’s role in her own abusive situation to be both important and refreshing. Mosaic counselors believe that in order to be able to address the effects of abuse and to try to prevent the unhealthy dynamics that can lead to their clients having abusive relationships in the future, their clients need to understand and accept personal responsibility. These programs and services are therefore focused on having women acknowledge that they have power within an abusive relationship and that they specifically have power over how they react and the decisions that they make in their current and future relationships.

I also have learned that we all have to accept personal responsibility to challenge and change our societal discourses around abuse.

Once we accept personal responsibility, we then can start to participate in meaningful conversations to better help how we address abuse.

I have seen in both India and South Africa how through advocacy campaigns, education, and community discussions communities have begun to break down the barriers that keep these issues unaddressed.

My experiences have also further supported my belief that education is not only essential to hep victims overcome their experiences of abuse but that education is also important to improve how our society and future generations approach helping children and families in need.

I have seen how youth programs, women empowerment programs, and everyday classrooms can help address how we conceptualize families and relationships.

In Cape Town I have spent time with an organization that has a powerful educational and awareness campaign focused on preventing and addressing abuse by teaching men how to have more involved and healthy roles in the lives of their children and partners.

I have seen how empowerment programs in India have taught women and girls to become independent and demand the respect, treatment, and opportunities that they want and deserve.

I believe that through education we can take responsibility for our roles in addressing abuse in society and that we can learn to acknowledge and change our preconceived notions and ideas about domestic violence, abuse, family structure, and family problems.

We have the responsibility to teach our youth and to work to improve how every aspect of our societies and communities address abuse. We have the responsibility to reflect and change how our cultural norms, religious values, societal practices, and institutional structures affect the experience of domestic violence and child abuse in our communities, how we currently help, and ultimately how we can better help.

I believe that it is important to acknowledge the role and responsibilities that all parts of society have in a victim’s experience of abuse: from the victim’s own personal responsibility to institutional and cultural responsibility.

We must also acknowledge and accept our responsibility and role as change agents so that we will be able to achieve progress in how our laws, governments, cultures, organizations, and communities approach and address abuse.

Throughout my journey I have become more confident in my role as a change agent as I look forward to continuing to learn and to help abuse victims in need.

I hope to return home and continue to learn and to take action to change how the United States’ culture, government, legal systems, and social welfare systems approach helping children and families who have experienced abuse or trauma.

I believe that changes in the United States system will also lead to international changes. I have seen throughout my travels that so many different systems and services model their practices and laws on those in the United States. Therefore, by creating change in and establishing a solid and improved model in the United States that is focused on continuous growth, progress, and increased services and support, I hope that this model will then have a further positive influence on developing systems around the world.

With the end of my fellowship year on the horizon, I am excited to begin my next journey at home.

I know that I will be returning home as a transformed person.

I have grown in confidence and strength and as I have learned to trust myself.

On the plane ride to South Africa I realized that for the first time in my fellowship year I was neither anxious nor concerned about my new destination. My usual thoughts of self-doubt and fear were not prominent thoughts in my mind; rather, I had thoughts of excitement and a yearning to learn and to explore. For the first time during my travels I felt a new sense of confidence where I trusted my ability to be able to adapt and overcome any challenge that I would encounter on this new part of my journey.

I also am continuing to learn more about myself, other people, and the world.

I have made many new friends, new mentors, and new family in India and South Africa.

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I am continuing to learn how my different identities affect how I think, how I act, and the way that I am perceived by different people and different cultures.

I am learning more about privilege and how my realities and experiences affect my interactions with myself, other people, and the environments around me.

I have explored my role as an outsider examining different cultures and societies as I traveled as a noticeably foreign woman for the first time in my travel year while exploring India.

I also have learned about the vulnerabilities and dangers of traveling as a young, single woman as I overcame potentially dangerous and uncomfortable situations.

These past three months have been particularly transformative as I have continued my journey of self acceptance and personal growth.

I have painfully examined, acknowledged, and am in the process of addressing unhealthy dynamics and relationships in my life.

I have learned to recognize and take action against unhealthy dynamics in my life.

I have been able to recognize that I have relationships with family and loved ones that can at times be incredibly unhealthy as they inappropriately criticize me and belittle me as a reaction to their own stress and anger.

Since I have seen how these dynamics are extremely dangerous and threatening to my personal health, wellbeing, and progress I am finally making an effort to stand up for myself. I hope that when I return home I will continue to be able to positively address these unhealthy dynamics and work toward continuing to repair my relationship with myself and others.

I have also continued to learn how to confront my issues and problems from my past as I focus on learning from the past, leaving the past behind, and embracing the present moment and the future.

In the last three months I have established a sense of closure with past relationships where I was able to listen to my heart and my mind while effectively communicating my thoughts and feelings to myself and my loved ones.

In doing so I am learning how to embrace moments of vulnerability as opportunities to grow, to learn, and to become stronger.

I am learning how to make myself my first priority as I grow to understand how to balance my needs and the needs of others.

I am learning how to embrace failure and rejection in a healthy way.

I am learning how to proudly and unapologetically accept myself for who I am and to expose my entire self to the world and the people around me.

I am learning to accept and learn from my strengths, my faults, my imperfections, and my quirks.

I am exploring my fears and my interests with new adventures including skydiving, completing the highest bridge bungee jump in the world, a desert camel safari, a big five game safari, riding a camel and an ostrich, shark cage diving, cave exploration, learning how to surf, and becoming a healthier person physically and emotionally.

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I am learning how to take more risks, be more spontaneous, and live in the moment rather than spending too much of my time and energy planning the future.

I have been developing a new outlook on how to approach my life, where I am learning how to balance proactivity and reactivity in a healthy way that allows me to continue to strive for what I want while learning how to embrace the current moment and relinquishing some control.

I have learned to accept a new level of responsibility over myself and my life.

I have learned that I am responsible for how I react to things and how different situations and experiences affect me.

I have learned that I am responsible for my journey in life and for my own happiness.

I have realized that it is up to me to live the life that I want to live and to chase and achieve all of my goals, wishes, and dreams.

I know that this journey has undoubtedly changed me. And I hope that I will be able to overcome the challenges that await me at home, remember and embrace what I have learned throughout my journey, and have the strength to continue to progress, learn, and grow.

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