Category Archives: Traveling

Uganda Part Two: Amani Baby Cottage

If you missed the first blog, you can find part one of my trip to Uganda here.

Lake Victoria / Nile River

On our free day (Saturday), we went shopping for souvenirs in downtown Jinja.  Then we went out to an Indian restaurant for lunch, followed by a boat ride.

The boat ride started out on Lake Victoria.  We saw some prisons that have land that leads right into the water, but there were no fences.  Our guide told us that 96% of Ugandans are unable to swim, so they know that the prisoners will not escape.

We also saw fish farms in the middle of the lake where tilapia are harvested.

We stopped at a fishing village where we walked around and saw all of these little silver fish that they were drying out in the sun.

DSCN6059

All of the children in the village were excited to see us, and they cried out, “mzungu!” (“white person!”)  They all wanted to hold our hands, but what was interesting is that many of them were also smelling our hands.  I have no idea why they did that.  I’m not sure if previous white people maybe had a lot of perfume or scented lotion on.  Or maybe our skin just smells different than theirs.  I’m not too sure.

After leaving the fishing village, we headed to the source of the Nile.  The Nile River is the world’s longest river and it flows north, from Uganda to Egypt.  The water started moving more quickly once we got closer to the area where the lake and the river meet.  The guide told us that it was because of the huge difference between the depth of the lake and the depth of the river.

Rachel and I stuck our feet into the water:

IMG_1188

Then we took a group photo there.

IMG_1206


After volunteering with Sixty Feet and Sole Hope, we spent our last three days at Amani Baby Cottage in Jinja.

Initially, when reading about the trip to Uganda back in December when I registered, we were going to split all of our time between Sixty Feet and Sole Hope.  It was only more recently that the three days at Amani were added.

To be completely honest, I was disappointed at the addition of Amani to our itinerary.  I’m not a huge baby person.  I teach high school students because I prefer the older kids.  I was excited for the other two volunteer opportunities because I knew that there would be children of many ages.  Hearing the words “baby cottage” did not excite me at all.

Fortunately, I found out that Amani housed children from ages 0 to 5, so I was hoping to get to spend most of my time with the older kids.  Five year olds I could deal with (or at least I thought so); it was the babies I was not ready for.

Amani Baby Cottage

According to its website, Amani Baby Cottage (ABC), “was established in 2003 to provide care for orphaned and abandoned children…Many are orphaned when their parents die due to AIDS, birth complications or other factors. Some are abandoned in the hospital after birth. Others are found abandoned at taxi stops, in latrines, or on the street…To date, a total of 328 children have been cared for in our home. 107 of these have been reunited with their parents or extended family members, 135 have been fostered into new families, and 26 have been transferred to other ministry placements. We do not refuse children in fragile health, thus 23 children have died while in our care.”

Everyone on my team had different tasks during our time at Amani.  There were 43 children there, ages 0 to 5.  Different team members helped with the infants, the toddlers, the preschool, cleaning, changing diapers, rocking babies, you name it.

There are Ugandan women working there who are referred to as “Mamas.”  It’s really cute hearing the children call the women “Mama.”  Any time the mamas hand out a snack or help a child with something, the kids say, “thank you, Mama.”

When volunteers come, they calls us “aunties” and “uncles.”  It was nice having that routine set before we arrived because even if they didn’t know our first name, they could still address us.

The first day at Amani, Rachel, Cortnie, and I were helping out with the preschool.  The students met as a group at first to do their morning routine, learning about the weather and the calendar.  Then they separated into three groups for different activities.  There were the zebras, giraffes, and lions, according to their ages.  They would rotate through different activities so that the groupings would be smaller.

It was amazing to see how well organized everything was.  The mamas had the schedule down to the minute and the kids were very well-behaved and polite.

DSCN6121
The preschool children in their school uniforms

I was with the zebras and our first activity was to go outside to play.  They ran around, played on the swings and monkey bars, and the mamas led them in some fun exercises like frog jumps and songs that had body movements incorporated.

After that, all of the kids regrouped, said a prayer, had porridge and a snack, before separating into their animal groups again. Each of the kids in my group were given a card with a letter on it.  They had to replicate that letter by building it with blocks.  I was really impressed by their language skills.  The other children we met in Uganda knew some English, but here their English sounded perfect and they were completely fluent.

Their schedule shifted a bit after that because the Auntie Rebecca, who had been their preschool teacher for the past month as a volunteer, was flying back home, so she gave out lollipops and they spent some time taking goodbye pictures.

Then we watched some Australian learning videos that were absolutely hilarious to Rachel and me.  They were super corny and the main actor was really strange, but the kids loved them, marching and dancing along to the songs.  There were songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” and then others that I hadn’t heard of.

We helped get the kids ready for lunch and then their nap, and then we left for lunch.

After lunch, we came back to play outside with the kids.  I mainly pushed kids on the swings.  Other people on our team were running around, playing with balls, or doing face paint.

IMG_6614.JPG

The next day, we expected to return to Amani to similar tasks.  However, upon arriving, we learned that the Mamas had professional development scheduled that day.  They had tried to reschedule it, but there were people who traveled from Kampala to go there.

Due to the change in schedule, preschool was cancelled.  Mission trips always require flexibility and this is the best example of that.  There was no time to complain or ask questions; we just needed to get to work.

Kimi, Joe and I went to the one of the male cottages, which housed ten boys: Edmond, Solomon, Jimmy, Silas, Babu, Michael, Dominic, David, Jonah, and Jonathan.  Jonathan was the only baby and Jonah was around two years old.  The rest were toddlers.

I cannot even begin to describe the chaos that ensued.  There were a few times when I looked over at Kimi and asked, “Am I being pranked right now?  Is this Candid Camera?”  During those moments, all we could do was shoot terrified glances over at one another and then simply laugh at the ridiculousness that we were experiencing.

The boys had acted like little angels when their mamas were around, sitting in a perfect formation, saying thank you, and using good manners, but it was like a switch flipped the moment the mamas walked out the door.

They were stealing toys from each other, running around, and trying to climb the shelves.  We put on a movie, but they wouldn’t stop talking so they couldn’t hear the movie.  I found two books, so I tried reading to them.  They listened to the first book, but by the second, their attention span was gone.

Every now and then, though, one of the mamas would come in to check on something or to make sure that things were going alright.  The minute they entered the room, the boys returned to their perfect angel state.  All a mama had to say was, “boys, stop talking,” and there was silence.  Kimi and I just looked at each other in amazement any time this happened.

IMG_1250
Watching a movie

Then it was time for their snack (porridge and a banana).  Mama Georgina told us to stir the porridge with a cup before serving them because it was too hot.  The boys were watching something on the TV while we stirred.  Then, one of the boys started the prayer before meals: “Hand together,” he said.  And they all repeated, “hands together” while putting their hands into prayer position.  “Eyes closed,” he continued, and they all shut their eyes.  They went through all of the prayer.  I couldn’t understand all of the words but it was something like: “Hands together, eyes closed.  Bless our porridge, bless our mamas, bless our aunties, bless our uncles, in Jesus’ name, amen.”  They would all clap while they said “Amen.”

Kimi and I thought that it was really cute that they just said their prayers on their own while watching the movie.  Then, a few minutes later, another boy started the prayer.  When he finished he said, “auntie, we would like our porridge.”  The problem was that it was still extremely hot.

IMG_1279
Prayers before snack

The same thing happened a few minutes later, with another boy starting the prayer.  This time we decide to give them the porridge because we knew they wouldn’t stop praying and asking.  I have no idea how they drank it since it seemed to be burning hot, but they loved it.  One boy in the room has special needs and he doesn’t have full control of his arms or legs.  He spilled the porridge all over himself, so we had to find him a new change of clothes.  I hope that he didn’t burn his chest.

After snack, we were excited that we could bring the boys outside.  We expected it to be less crazy than being cooped up in the cottage all day.  Boy were we wrong!

There were people working on the grounds of Amani, doing various tasks like gardening.  The boys ran out of the cottage and made a beeline for the yard tools.  The workers weren’t there at the moment, but their shovels, hoes, and rakes were.

I found myself running toward the edge of the property, wrestling these garden tools out of the hands of the toddlers.  Initially, I told the kids not to touch them and to put them down and they listened, but the moment I walked away, I saw kids chasing each other with the tools.

So back I went, running around in an attempt to avoid witnessing a child being impaled by a gardening tool.  Rachel came outside of her cottage with the girls and she was somehow able to grab a rake out of one of the children’s hands, despite holding two babies on either hip.

Katie told us later that the whole scene was hilarious.  Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at the chaos, but in the moment, I was feeling completely overwhelmed.

At different points during the day, I paused to say a prayer asking God for help.  It sounds so funny now, but gosh, we were all feeling completely overwhelmed and unprepared.  I couldn’t have gotten through that whole day if I wasn’t confident that God had placed me there for a reason and that He was going to help me to continue.

After the garden tool fiasco, we just played outside and then we left for lunch.

We usually went over our highs and lows each day at dinner.  Every team member would discuss their day and it was a nice way to debrief.  This day, we decided to do highs and lows at lunch since we were all exhausted and less than enthused about the thought of returning to Amani.  Many of our teammates were peed on, pooped on, or spit up on.

Kimi and I had been thinking that we had it the worst with ten boys between us, but we came to find out during lunch that Cortnie and Rachel had it even worse in the girls’ cottage.  There were 13 girls and it sounded like they were behaved even more badly than the boys.

Serving at Amani that day definitely gave us a quick dose of humility.  It also increased our respect and appreciation of the mamas exponentially.  The mamas do such an amazing job caring for and loving those children and I’m sure that they have their fair share of difficulties.

The children at Amani come from a variety of backgrounds so although everything looked like it was down to a science on our first day there, I know that doesn’t just happen out of nowhere.  Establishing the routines, rules, and procedures takes a lot of work and those mamas are simply amazing.  It is also clear how much they truly love those children.  If I ever considered adopting, I would have no hesitation to adopt a child from a place like Amani because it is obvious that they are extremely well cared for.

After lunch, we were all hesitant about returning, but it was much calmer.  We played with the kids outside.  We played on the swing set and we also brought bubbles.

Something that was really interesting to me was that the swing set was dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.  It had a plaque on it that included the names and ages of everyone who had died in Connecticut that day, along with the names of companies and churches that had either donated the supplied for the swing set, donated money, or helped to build it.

There were stores from Bethel and Danbury, Connecticut listed on the plaque, which is where I used to live before moving to New Jersey.  What a small world that I was playing with kids in Uganda on a playground that was made with supplies from my former town!

Sarah and Mary brought their Polaroid camera, so the kids LOVED having their pictures taken.

We found out that afternoon that the professional development was a two-day course. Upon leaving, we knew that we would probably have another chaotic day in store for us the following day.  I was thankful for a calmer afternoon, but nervous what the next day would entail.

IMG_1262
Yep, I’m holding a baby!

Some of us switched roles the next day.  I stayed in the same room as the previous day because I figured that it would be helpful that I knew all of the names of the boys in that cottage.  Rachel, Cortnie, and Joe were in that cottage with me.

This was our last day volunteering in Uganda, so I think that most of us hoped that it would be a better experience than the prior day.  Fortunately, it was definitely better.  There were definitely still crazy, chaotic moments, but not nearly as many.

The woman who is the current director of Amani bought new movies, hoping that the kids would behave better if they were interested in a new movie that they hadn’t seen before.  That worked really well; the boys were engrossed in The Lion King.

IMG_1272

The only slight problem was that every kid wanted to sit in our laps, but there were only three of us.

They watched all of The Lion King, so we followed that with The Good Dinosaur.  They were less excited about that movie, so they got a little antsy.

We had snack time with more prayers, porridge, and bananas, and this time it was much better because the porridge wasn’t too hot when I got it from the kitchen.

We turned on Cars instead of The Good Dinosaur since they really didn’t like that one.  We could hear noises coming from the girls’ cottage and some of the girls ran into our cottage to show the boys some crafts they were making.  Cortnie, Rachel, and I were nervous that would cause the boys to become rambunctious as well.  We shut both of the doors so that the girls couldn’t distract them and then we brought out the crayons and coloring books.

IMG_1276

It went well, other than one kid who was eating his crayon:

IMG_1280

We left for lunch and when we returned, the mamas had a variety of hand-made items out on display.  It was great to be able to support the mamas by purchasing some souvenirs from them.

Then the kids had pineapple for a snack before going outside.  They wanted us to play “Let it Go” from Frozen on our phones.  Katie had that song on her phone, so she had played it for them before, but she wasn’t with us.  They didn’t understand how it was possible that we didn’t have the song.  We had a phone just like her, after all.  I tried to play them other songs on my phone, but they were unimpressed.

Then it was time to go outside for the rest of the afternoon.  Mama Georgina handed me a pair of nail clippers and said to trim the boys’ nails.  I wasn’t too sure how that was going to play out, but the boys were actually really good at staying still while I clipped their nails.  I’m not sure if I have ever clipped anyone’s nails before that.

IMG_2330

We had nail polish, so we painted their nails.  That was a bit of a mess since they kept moving too soon after and smudging the nail polish, but they liked it anyway.  We also had more bubbles.

It seemed like there were fewer kids that afternoon, so it was much calmer.  I was told that some of them were going to therapists or other appointments.

After playing for a while, it was getting close to our time to leave.  The mamas had the kids form a circle so that they could sing farewell songs to us.  That moment was really touching.

They sang some songs in English and some in Luganda; there were some that we were familiar with, such as “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” and others that we had never heard.

IMG_6671.JPG

One girl started singing a Christian song and it was just precious.  Both her and her twin sister had one hand on their heart and one hand raised to the sky, praising God.

IMG_2351

The songs were really cute, but then it was time to leave.  One boy, Silas, had been sitting on my lap during all of the songs and he had been following me around a little bit that afternoon (he’s the one who ate the blue crayon).  He was holding onto my skirt as I got up to walk away.

I had to physically remove his arms from around my waist and then he started crying.  As we walked out of the compound, some of the kids (like Silas) were crying.  One boy, Edmond, ran up to the fence and waved goodbye.

I couldn’t stop a few tears from rolling down my cheeks.  I couldn’t help but consider how many people the children must say goodbye to.

It’s awesome that so many people go to Amani to volunteer, but there’s always a goodbye.  Some of these boys were abandoned by their parents, and I just felt like I was continuing the cycle of loss.

It was bittersweet, though, because at the same time, we were really needed there.  Although we did a lot of work with Sole Hope, I’m sure that they could have found anyone to help wash feet or pass out lollipops or stickers.

But when the mamas needed their professional development, I’m not sure what they would have done had we not been there.  Us being there helped take a lot off of their plate and I’m thankful that I was able to show my gratitude to them by removing some of their daily duties for a few days.

I know that God placed me and my team exactly where He needed us, so I know that I shouldn’t feel sad, but walking down the road and away from those children was really hard.


After leaving Amani, we went back to our guest house to pack our bags since we would be leaving early the following morning to take the long drive back to Entebbe for our flights home.

We left around 6:30 to drive about three hours to Entebbe.  We had our last lunch at a restaurant overlooking Lake Victoria.  It was nice to have one last team activity before heading out.

IMG_1297.JPG

We had a five and a half hour flight to Dubai, followed by a four hour layover.  When we landed in Dubai, we had to get off the plane and board a bus to take us to the airport, but Rachel was flying to Germany and Cortnie was flying to Dallas, so they had to get onto a different bus than the rest of us.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t expected that, so we didn’t really get to say goodbye.

The temperature was around 95 degrees even though it was 10pm in Dubai.  It was so hot and humid that my camera lens fogged up when I tried to take a picture.

Now this is completely random, but something weird about Dubai International Airport is that the toilets seemed to have hot water in them.  I’m not sure if it was hot simply because it was so hot outside.  (It was around 107 degrees on our trip in the opposite direction since it was day time in Dubai at that point.)  Or maybe they heat their toilet water, though I can’t imagine that.  It felt like sitting on a steamer or something when I sat on the toilet.  TMI?  Probably, but it was interesting to me.

After our layover, we flew about 14 hours to JFK and luckily, that was my last stop.  We went through immigration/customs, got our luggage, and I said goodbye to my team, most of whom had to wait for another flight later in the day.

So that was my experience in Uganda this summer.

To everyone who donated money to help me to go on this trip: thank you so much.  I would have been unable to do this work if it hadn’t been for your great generosity.  Although you were not able to be on the trip in the flesh, I brought you with me in my prayers.

To everyone who donated jeans or helped me to cut the jean patterns: thank you.  I was able to witness the entire shoemaking process, from jeans, to jean patterns, to sewing and creating shoes.  And then I was able to help out at the actual clinic and see the shoes on the feet of people who were now jigger-free.  Although you may have simply given me a pair of old jeans, they are now helping someone to avoid a jigger re-infestation.

To those of you who prayed for me and my team: I appreciate it so much.  There were a few teammates who experienced minor illnesses, but we were healthy for the most part.  We were safe, and we had an excellent, rewarding experience.

To my teammates, Kimi, Bart, Jacob, Katie, Cortnie, Rachel, Sara, Haley, Mary, Mia, and Joe: I am grateful for meeting you.  I know that God formed our team with each of you in mind.  We each brought along our own strengths and weaknesses and together, we were able to help spread love throughout Kampala and Jinja.  I will continue to pray for each of you and I expect to hear more amazing things that each of you are doing in your lives.  You are all inspiring.

Love,

Stephanie


Here is the video for part two of my trip:

Advertisements

Uganda Part One: Sole Hope

I traveled to Uganda to volunteer with Go Be Love International from July 22nd to August 5th this year.  It was an amazing trip and I am so grateful for all of the experiences that I had and all of the stories that I am now able to bring back to my friends and family in the United States.  We volunteered with three organizations: Sixty Feet, Sole Hope, and Amani Baby Cottage.

We flew from New York City to Dubai, where we had a short layover.  That flight was about 12 hours.  Then we flew from Dubai to Entebbe, Uganda, which took about 5 and a half hours.

We flew on an Airbus A380, which has two floors (first class and business upstairs and economy downstairs).  I had never been on an airplane that big before.

IMG_6370

I was really thankful that I live on the east coast because most of my teammates had to start traveling on July 21st to JFK or LaGuardia and then stay the night in the hotel before continuing on with their flights.  Instead of that, I was able to simply arrive at JFK on Saturday morning and head out from there.

Emirates Airlines was awesome.  Just walking onto the airplane, I could tell that it was really nice.  There was a flight of stairs heading up that was lit along each step.  I wish I could have just seen what first class looked like, but economy passengers couldn’t go up there.  I’ve heard that there was a bar and showers upstairs.

There were tons of options of movies, music, games, and TV shows.  I watched some good movies heading to Africa, like Lion and Gifted.

I know I’m unusual with this, but I really love airplane food.  I think all of the tiny packages are really cool.  On Emirates, they actually give you a menu when you get on the plane that tells you about each of the meals that will be served and what your options are.

We had dinner, then pizza as a snack in the middle of the night, and then breakfast in the morning.

IMG_1068

Once we finally landed in Entebbe, we had to stand in the immigration line for what felt like forever.  Once we finally got up to the counter, we had our pictures taken, we were fingerprinted, and a visa was printed for each of us and stuck inside of our passport.  Once we grabbed our bags, we met Patrick, who would be driving our bus, along with another man who would be driving the truck that held our luggage.  Patrick is an artist who makes amazing metal sculptures that are really unique (you can view his website here).

IMG_1107
Our team at Entebbe Airport

When we left the airport, we drove to a market to pick up bottled water and bread that we needed because we would be making our own lunches while staying in Kampala.  We brought our own peanut butter since it’s expensive in Uganda, so each day we made sandwiches with bread and peanut butter and then we would have tiny bananas to go with it.

Then we checked into Apricot Guesthouse.  We were pretty tired, but we needed dinner, so we went to an Italian restaurant that was in walking distance.  I had pizza with beef, calamari, and shrimp on top.

Apricot Guesthouse:

It was a nice place to stay.  I shared the room with a girl named Mia.  There were between one and two people in each room.  There was a nice patio with comfy chairs and the grounds were pretty.

I did a random workout in the parking lot and Joe joined me for part of it.  I did a little running, push ups, burpees, jumping jacks, dips, squats, and some yoga poses.

20798993_10102658721947141_9006298943835991087_n.jpg

I loved the food at the Apricot Guesthouse.  It was typical African food and I loved everything I had.  On the first night they had a delicious pumpkin soup, along with rice, beef stew, chicken, potatoes (which they called “Irish”), vegetables, and rolls that tasted like soft pretzels.  The next night we had spinach soup, chapati (a bread similar to the Indian bread, naan), fish nuggets, lasagna, and vegetables.

 

For breakfast there were eggs, fruit, cereal, and juice both days.  One day there were pancakes and meatballs and the other day there were green beans.

IMG_1089

Sixty Feet:

Sixty Feet is an organization that, according to its mission on the website, “targets a specific category of children… the least of the least – those imprisoned in Africa and more specifically Uganda. Some of these children have committed serious offenses. Some are as young as 2 years of age and have committed no offense at all. Working alongside Ugandan government officials we work in the detention facilities, and in the villages where the children come from, to bring hope and help – immediate relief and long-term restoration.”

We volunteered with them for the first few days of our trip while staying at the Apricot Guesthouse in Kampala.  We also got to see the spot where the equator runs through Uganda after lunch one day.

IMG_1105

 

The next day we drove about three hours from Kampala to Jinja to work with Sole Hope.

Sole Hope:

Sole Hope focuses on “offering HOPE, healthier lives, and freedom from foot-related diseases through education, jobs, and medical relief.”

I was particularly excited to volunteer with Sole Hope because I had been working on collecting jeans since last December.  Sole Hope used to have what they called “jean cutting parties.”  They mailed you a pattern to use to cut the jeans into specific shapes. Then you get a group of people together and cut old jeans according to those patterns, safety pin them together, and then they are turned into shoes once they get to the Sole Hope grounds in Uganda.

My high school students were very excited about the opportunity to take part in my trip by helping with the jean cutting process, so they donated a TON of jeans.  I was overwhelmed by their excitement and support.  I also had friends and family members who donated a bunch of jeans as well.

I was able to have my students help me with the jean cutting the day before winter break, which was a HUGE help.  I had not originally realized how difficult and time consuming it would be to so cut so many jeans.  I also had help from some other friends and family members, but a good portion of the jeans were simply cut on random days after work while I turned on a movie to distract myself from the monotony.

I was thrilled to have 100 pairs of jean shoes to bring with me to Sole Hope and they were excited to hear about how I had gotten my students involved in the process.  Right now, Sole Hope paused with the jean cutting parties in order to have Care Kit parties instead in order to acquire more medical supplies.

We took a tour of the Sole Hope property, so we could see the process of sewing the shoes and adding the soles, which are made of a few layers of old car tires.

IMG_1098

The shoes are provided to people once jiggers (small bugs that burrow into feet) are removed.  They help to prevent the person wearing them from getting more jiggers in the future.

Thursday is Sole Hope’s clinic day, so we got to go with them to help out at a school.  There were about 150 children (and a few adults) who needed to have their jiggers removed.  We started by gathering all of the children in a big circle and playing some games with them.  We sang songs that had corresponding hand motions.  One of them was a song about jiggers that would teach them good hygiene to avoid jiggers in the future.

After the song, we separated into stations:

Station 1: paperwork.  A Sole Hope worker would fill out a foot note paper with the person’s information such as name, age, grade, and information about their home address and their parents.

This is what the foot note paper would look like once it was filled out at the end of station 3.

IMG_1209
Foot note

Station 2: foot washing.  This was my station.  We each had a bucket with a scrub brush and a bar of soap.  We would scrub one of the patient’s feet and then let them practice scrubbing their second foot.  While we were doing this, someone else from our team would come around and pass out stickers to everyone.

I tried to speak to the children as much as possible.  They learn English in school, but some of them were too young to understand and others were too shy.  Some of them told me their names, ages, and favorite sports.

At one point, I washed the feet of an old man and it really hit me emotionally.  While I love volunteering, I don’t like feeling as though I’m the white savior coming to save the day by handing things out to people.  Those types of situations are times when helping hurts, which is common to some short term missions.

So I was just sitting on the ground, unable to communicate with this old man who could not speak English.  He was probably around 80 years old.  All I could do was scrub his feet and smile.

I considered how embarrassed he must have felt.  The clinic was set up at a school, so its primary patients were children, but he, too, had a jigger infestation.  Beside him sat children who were mostly under age 12.  It could have been humiliating, and it was undoubtedly painful.

Yet at the same time, he needed help, and I could tell from his smile how grateful he was that we were there offering him a future that would entail less pain.  I also considered how my simple action of scrubbing his feet was really not that significant; anyone could have done it.  But at the same time, I was able to show him love through that act.

Despite the language barrier.  I could get across the message that he is loved, has worth, and is deserving of love.  There I was, someone who had flown across the ocean to get to Uganda just to scrub his feet and offer him hope.

St. Therese of Lisieux was known for her small, humble acts that she always did with great love.  I am by no means trying to compare myself to her, but I felt similarly in that situation.  I wasn’t in Africa building a church or drilling a well, but I was spreading my love in simple, small ways in my scrubbing of feet.

And it was definitely a humbling act.  Many of the patients had feet that had wounds in addition to the jiggers.  You can tell it’s a jigger because it looks like a white circle and then there is a small black dot in the middle of it.  When you see that, you know a jigger has burrowed under the skin.

But most of them had other contusions on their feet, broken or missing toenails, and some deformities.  We were told to alert someone any time a person had an open wound so that they could change out our water in order to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

I wasn’t afraid to wash the feet, but I did know that it was possible for me to acquire a jigger in the process.  We were sure to wear closed shoes on the clinic day, which would help prevent jiggers in the feet, but jiggers can also burrow into other parts of your body, mainly your hands.  Fortunately, none of my teammates got any jiggers.  We were sure to scrub our hands and feet in the shower each night since it takes a while for a jigger to actually burrow itself into your skin.

Station 3: Jigger removal.  At this station, Sole Hope workers would use a razor blade and a safety pin to dig out the jiggers.  While they were doing this, people from my team would be filling out the foot notes.  Every time a jigger was removed, they had to put a dot on the foot drawing to show its placement while also counting up the number of jiggers per foot as well as the total number of jiggers on that person.  Some people also had jiggers on their hands.  If anyone had over 20, they would receive a follow-up, or they would go to the Outreach House (more about that in a bit).

While the jigger removal was happening, Joe, the youngest member of our team, went around passing out lollipops.  Jigger infestations are painful, just like their removal.  The lollipops helped the kids to concentrate less on the pain.  There were some tears, but most of those kids sat so quietly while the Sole Hope workers removed the jiggers.  I was extremely impressed.  I don’t know if I would have been able to sit so still in that situation, no anesthetic helping to remove or even ease the pain.

After the jiggers are removed, their feet are bandaged.

DSCN5994

Station 4: shoe fitting.  Each patient received a pair of the jean shoes in order to hopefully prevent a future jigger infestation.  They also have to be taught to wear those shoes every day.  Sole Hope has found that some patients avoid wearing the shoes because they don’t want to get them dirty.  They save them for church or for the holidays.  They have to be taught that the shoes are there to prevent jiggers, not just to be worn on special occasions.

After all of the 150 patients had finished having their jiggers removed, we were able to spend some time playing with the kids, both those who had had jiggers removed and the others who also attended that school.  It was fun getting to spend some time with them in addition to the actual clinic.

The next day, we went to volunteer at Sole Hope’s Outreach House.  This is where people go if they have an extreme case of jiggers.  They typically stay there for two weeks.  They are treated by nurses for both their jiggers as well as any other underlying issues.  They are tested for illnesses such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.  They are also educated about jiggers, jigger removal, good hygiene, ways to keep jiggers away from their homes, and Bible study.

DSCN6022
Inside the nurse’s station

Some of the people who need medical attention live far away.  Sole Hope has social workers in different areas of Uganda who scout out those cases.  Sometimes Sole Hope will take its clinic out to that village and other times, they will send a vehicle out to get certain people and then they bring them to the Outreach House for treatment, bringing them back to their villages once they are finished.

First, there was another jigger removal clinic.  Initially, I thought that I would try to take the foot notes since I had washed feet the previous day, but before holding the clinic, we had a tour of the facility and we were told how the average number of jiggers on a patient at the Outreach House is 150!  I didn’t know if I could handle that.

The previous day, many of the kids only had a couple of jiggers, and there weren’t too many really bad cases.  I knew that this next day would be different.

I’m usually okay at dealing with gross things, with the exception of vomit.  But I was not sure if I could handle watching and recording the jigger removal process in the likely event that I had a patient with a ton of them.

I opted to do arts and crafts while the clinic was taking place.  We colored in coloring books and I painted their nails. Everyone was  excited about the nail polish, even the adults and the males.

DSCN6023.jpg

Part of me was disappointed in myself that I didn’t try to do the foot notes, but I knew that I needed to admit my weakness.  At times I can be too prideful, excited to be able to do any required task on a mission trip to my best ability.  But during that jigger removal, I knew that I might not be able to do an effective job.  Other people had queasy stomachs watching the process, so I shouldn’t let myself feel like I failed just because I didn’t watch the removal.

After the removal we had lunch and then we came back and they were doing Bible study.  In Uganda, there are many different dialects and languages, depending on which village a person is from.  For the Bible study, they were translating from English to Luganda to another separate language from that particular village.

Then we made bracelets and necklaces and played outside with everyone.

On Sunday, we spent more time with the people at the Outreach House in the afternoon after church, just doing some crafts and playing games outside.  I was helping out with one of the crafts.  We were gluing popsicle sticks together and gluing sequins, pom poms, and googly eyes on them to make crosses.

I played a silly version of hide ‘n’ seek with this one little girl.  I would bend down under the desk and she would pop up, and then she would bend down under the desk and hide while I popped up to look for her.  She was entertained for a long time just going up and down.

20728176_10100137705969380_7301298091582664578_n

On our last day with Sole Hope, we spent more time with everyone, making crafts and playing games.  We told a Bible story that went along with a craft where they decorated construction paper people cutouts with stickers and sequins.

We played a bunch of different games with jump ropes, balls, and a parachute.  We taught them how to play freeze tag and duck, duck, goose.

After lunch, we listened to the hygiene lesson about jiggers and then we played some more.  I did more nail polish while other teammates painted faces, colored, or played games outside.

DSCN6019

The lesson took a pretty long time since, just like the Bible story, it had to be spoken in English, translated into Luganda, and then into the other village language.

The little girl who was sitting on my lap fell asleep on me.

20770050_10102658704132841_8391965615886698462_n

When we finished up that day, we had to say goodbye because we would be going to a different organization in Jinja, Amani Baby Cottage, for our final days in Uganda.

Sole Hope Guest House:

For most of our trip to Uganda, we stayed at the Sole Hope Guest House, which was really nice.  It felt very welcoming and homey, with a large living room where our group could gather.

It had really pretty African paintings all over the house.  There were these really cool chairs made out of wheelbarrows.  There was also a large outdoor sitting area.  We made our own breakfasts and lunches and then the cook would make us a delicious dinner each night.

IMG_1112
The kitchen

It was such a treat to have hot showers because we had cold ones when we were staying in Kampala.

DSCN5966

Because the guest house is geared toward volunteers coming from other countries, the food was not typical African.  It was delicious, but I wish we had gotten to try more traditional African cuisine.  We had minestrone soup, vegetable lasagna, pot roast, enchiladas, etc.  One really delicious side dish, though, was pineapple mixed with cucumber and cilantro.

The yard was really big, so I worked outside there a few times like I had in Kampala, running around and doing burpees and things like that.

DSCN6016

There were two dogs, Bear and Boomer, who always wanted attention.  Here is Boomer on my lap one day after a Sole Hope clinic.

20800347_10102658752356201_6175770148616954699_n


Here is a video from the first part of my trip to Uganda, mainly featuring Sole Hope:

 

God’s Abundant Blessings

I am currently still in a state of shock.  I cannot believe the ways that God has blessed me as of late.

I had recently been feeling very stressed financially.  For the first time, I owed money back when I completed my taxes.  So instead of receiving at least $800 as I had expected, I actually owed $1200.

I was also overwhelmed because I have to decide whether to fix some things on my car or to purchase another used car.  Plus, Friday night was one of my payment deadlines for my mission trip to Africa.  All of these numbers and bills were piling up and I wasn’t sure if I would have to drain my savings to get by.  I felt like maybe instead of volunteering, it would be more prudent to have a summer job, since I technically could work full time in the summer (since I’m a teacher), though I would prefer not to.

I knew somewhere deep in my heart that God would provide, but at the same time, I saw dollar signs looming on the horizon and I couldn’t help feeling worried about it.

Had I made a bad decision in my choice to volunteer in Africa this summer?  Maybe I was taking on more than I could handle financially.  Should I have opted for a cheaper, week-long mission trip somewhere in South America, which would have been more affordable?

Had I been too lavish in buying mainly organic produce, and meat?  Maybe I should risk the health concerns and go back to the antibiotic-infested meat and fish and pesticide-rich fruits and vegetables.  I really didn’t want to, but somehow, my finances had become a burden.

A few weeks ago, I was receiving phone calls from Franciscan University, my alma mater.  I knew they were calling for donations, as they typically do once a year.  I love that school so much, so I donate every year, but this year the timing was less than ideal.

After a week or so of intentionally not answering the phone, I finally picked it up one night, deciding that I needed to show God that I did, in fact, have faith in Him.  I couldn’t hoard my income and expect any fruit to come from that.  So despite my anxiousness about my finances, I made a donation to Franciscan University.

On a separate occasion, I was listening to my friend on the Catholic radio station.  It was their fundraising drive and initially, I planned not to donate because I knew that I already had too much to take care of financially in my own life.

But eventually, something made me realize that I couldn’t have that attitude.  I had to give with the faith that things would work out for me in the end if I could be generous to those who needed it.

And sure enough, that is exactly what happened.

By Friday evening (April 22nd), I needed a certain amount of money in my account for my mission trip to Uganda, followed by the final payment that was due by May 22nd.

All day, I left the donation page open on my computer, knowing that I would have to just put the amount (over $1500) on my credit card and hope that I would be able to raise some more money in the future.

That evening, almost immediately before I was about to put it on my credit card, I received a phone call from my mom that a family member of mine was interested in helping to make a substantial donation to my trip.

I almost burst out crying.  I am beyond humbled right now and incredibly gracious.

I feel so guilty for the amount of stress I have been experiencing lately with regard to my financial situation.  I should have maintained my faith in God, but I just kept doubting myself and my choices.

Yesterday during Mass, I couldn’t stop smiling and thanking God for His abundant blessings.

I am so glad that I made those donations to Franciscan and the Catholic radio station (in addition to my regularly scheduled donations, like the monthly $38 that goes to my sponsored child in Rwanda through Compassion International.)

When we give, we also receive.  That is so true in this very moment.

At the time that I signed up for the mission trip to Uganda, I truly felt that was my calling.  I absolutely love having a teacher’s schedule so that I can travel to volunteer each summer.  I have been blessed to experience a variety of mission trips serving in Ecuador, Haiti, Rwanda, and Nicaragua.  When deciding where to go this summer, the description of the Uganda trip immediately stood out to me.

We will be working in a children’s detention facility through Sixty Feet (prisons, the justice system, and justice reform is something that I care about quite a bit).  Then we will be working with Sole Hope, which holds medical clinics to remove jiggers from the feet of children (and adults) who have been infested.  It then provides them with shoes.

Everyone is on this earth with a certain calling.  One of my callings is to teach.  Another is to volunteer, specifically overseas, which is something that many people are afraid of, or simply uninterested in.

I regret how I had been second guessing my decision to join this mission trip because of finances and I am now more confident than ever that God has had a hand in forming this team and that there is a specific reason why that trip is the one that stood out to me.

I am absolutely astounded by the way everything happened this weekend.  I am beyond grateful to everyone who made a contribution to this trip.  I have received donations from close loved ones, to anonymous donors, to people who I have never met, but they know one of my friends of family members.  I am completely humbled by all of the support and I will continue to keep all of my donors in my prayers as I prepare for this mission trip.

In the end, God has our backs in every situation.  He is there for us and if we are able to accept that help and turn to Him when we are in need, we will reap great blessings.

We must give without knowing whether it’s a prudent financial decision because He will pay us back in ways we cannot even imagine.  We must maintain our generosity even when it seems most difficult to do so.

“Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.” – Deuteronomy 15:10

“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” – Proverbs 3:27

2016 Year in Review

As I’ve done for the past two years (2014: My Year in Review, 2015: My Year in Review), here is my 2016 year in review.  Everyone seemed so eager to see the passing of 2016, but I don’t feel that way at all.  While I am excited to see what this next year of life brings me, I am content looking back at all that happened in 2016.  I feel beyond blessed at how different my life is today, January 2nd, than January 2nd last year.  There are so many people I didn’t even know last year today who I am now happy to call my friends.  I had a great year and I look forward to an even better 2017.

January:

-I started off the new year in San Antonio, Texas, watching fireworks exploding all over the place at the passing of midnight and playing lots of games like jumbo Jenga before flying back to Jersey

12697409_10153982332333901_1671727628123816646_o

-Annual trip to Frost Valley in Claryville, NY

12622196_880604410990_5703195810849673111_o.jpg
Posing with the snowman and my cousin
12525205_880605239330_5149117268105418203_o
Hiking to High Falls with painted faces
12513602_880605942920_2639910518837035796_o
The crew

February:

-The end of my last relationship

-Caidin came to visit and we went to Twin Lights in Highlands

12748031_886751851470_4000042486813309757_o

-My mom traveled to Israel / Tel Aviv / Jerusalem / Bethlehem / Rome for her birthday pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  She got to renew her baptismal vows in the Jordan River.

736847_888077385090_7495360253343654452_o

March:

-I traveled to Brazil for Spring Break.  First, I was with my sister, Vanessa, and my brother-in-law, Carlos, for Easter.  We went to see an amazing waterfall.

12961331_896234388390_2448266164399249281_o.jpg

12898371_896234757650_1681754619427670243_o.jpg
Swimming by the waterfall with my brother-in-law, Carlos

-Then I went to Manaus for my grandma’s 99th birthday.  I am so thankful that I got to go and spend some time with her because that was the second and last time I would ever see her.

12961201_896407301870_7949962788837363568_o.jpg

I also got to see lots of other family members while there and I went swimming with river dolphins with two of my uncles.

12973502_896419831760_6615764716971921707_o

-My mom’s 60th birthday

April:

-Although my mom’s birthday was in March, we had a family party for her in April

12983356_898546634630_4655678555067066614_o

May:

-My cousin, Dan, graduated from UConn

13220604_902856407810_9143439467811832209_o.jpg

-I ran the Run the Hook 10k in Sandy Hook, NJ

June:

-I went to senior prom to see my students

-Finished my first year teaching in New Jersey

-Traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, to grade AP English Language & Composition exams with my friend from DHS, Elise

-While in Kansas City, I also got to see my friend, Kristin, from high school, who is now a zookeeper at the Kansas City Zoo

13428614_910560344060_4276779870370748848_n

-Ran the Fairfield Half Marathon and set a personal record of 1:55

July:

-Went to Connecticut for my grandpa’s birthday party

13613370_914328128390_1941963951875872756_o.jpg

-Ran the Belmar five miler

-My friend, Juan, came to visit me in Jersey

-Met on Monday nights with the Belmar Area Catholic Young Adult group that I helped run

13697116_916236973050_1292866224619967960_n.jpg

-Through the Belmar young adult group, I met my friend Gabriella, and through her, my Bible study, which has been such an amazing blessing and has brought me so many new friends

-Went to the sand castle competition in Belmar

13707636_916236983030_3215762801702394226_n

-Went to Long Beach Island for a week with my mom

-I turned 28 in Long Beach Island

13719613_918667272710_2767537692045569203_o.jpg
Birthday lunch

August:

-Ran the River to Sea Relay race with an awesome group of people to raise money for Covenant House

13914060_923967925160_2580908050753008799_o

-I started riding my bike all around the shore

14183734_931559077430_3554072254212443065_n
Riding my bike through Avon by-the-sea

-Traveled to Nicaragua with Living Water International

14107722_927684137840_8680022453230278259_o
My amazing team

-We helped to drill a well to bring clean water to a rural village

-We also taught hygiene lessons and Bible stories to the women and children.  I helped to translate.

14115516_927687825450_4543052248634883983_o.jpg

14124975_927680130870_6079836906877582612_o
The community with their finished well

-My friend, Lizzy, visited since she was in Philadelphia for vet clinicals, so we had a beach day

14064095_928767377020_7359037492291016803_n

-Worked on improving my yoga and handstands
14184379_931559566450_2444349923712427135_n

-Hung out with new friends from Bible study14212800_931558857870_9142389201927948083_n

September:

-As of the 1st, I have officially lived in New Jersey for one year

-Started my second year of teaching in New Jersey

-My Brazilian grandmother passed away right before her 99 1/2 birthday

-Went to the Philadelphia Zoo with my friend, Adam

14434838_936425415250_8096480138123025551_o

-Went kayaking with my friend, Adam

14516343_936902329510_7201335071043990918_n

October:

-Ran the Jersey Shore Half Marathon in Sandy Hook

14448901_938221920040_3287079071031479251_n

-Tenth Avenue North concert with my friend, Amanda

-Went to Catholic Underground in NYC with friends from Bible study

14559947_939879618000_5852361517362627532_o

-More kayaking with friends

-Ran the Atlantic City Marathon.  My mom and my friend, Adam, came to cheer me on

-I saw whales a few times from the beach in the fall

14907218_946006799080_7844733517025443770_n

-I went swimming in the ocean the day before Halloween

14729237_941970797260_7643199945378235167_n

November:

-I hosted our weekly Bible study once at my house in November.  It was tight to squish in 15 people, but we managed.

14890390_947361404440_2687692922311237888_o

-Bar Crawl in Asbury Park to raise money for Covenant House

14991857_947861222800_3424138299974684751_n.jpg

-Did some November stand up paddling and kayaking in the ocean in my wetsuit from my uncle

-Kayaking Shark River with my friend, Kate

14563538_951894150780_5272864502643436527_n

-Home to Connecticut for Thanksgiving

15123226_953643854360_1909474045621637731_o.jpg

December:

-Went to see the ice sculptures in Tinton Falls

15284901_955935157570_2440898352439205663_n
Mimicking the ice sculptures

-Out in Asbury for my friend, Stacy’s, birthday

15267535_956036629220_4198979149898904946_n

-Weekend in the Poconos for Sway’s 25th birthday

15369933_345044275853887_8549766296822456817_o.jpg

-New relationship with AJ on December 11th

15442146_958886433190_9216596886483603541_n.jpg
Climbing a tree in the Poconos

-Graham cracker gingerbread house building with AJ

15541681_962270411670_7914522706802736525_n

-Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house

DSCN5624.jpg

-Christmas day at my aunt and uncle’s house

dscn2584

-Devin & Elise’s New Year’s Eve wedding with AJ

DSCN5643.jpg

dscn5644

So here is goodbye to 2016 and hello to 2017.  This year should be another great one, filled with more adventures!

A Season of Gratitude

I try to always be aware of the importance of gratitude.  It is so easy to focus on the things that we with we could improve in our lives.  This is especially true in our prayer lives.  It’s easy to get caught up in constantly asking God for things.  There is always someone whose health could improve, someone who can use a new job, and many other requests that we have for God.

But we must remember to also thank God for all that He has given us and all of the prayers that He has answered.

With the approach of Thanksgiving and the Christmas season of Advent, it is now the perfect time to focus on gratitude.

So I want to reflect on my year and all that I am grateful for.

-My health – I’ve been doing well with my Lyme disease for a while, finally able to get back into running races again this year

-My family – Since I no longer live close to my family, it makes me even more grateful for the time I get to spend with them during the holidays.  I am thankful that they are only two hours away so that it’s not a difficult task to go home to Connecticut.

-My new friends – I have been so blessed with all of the new people I have met this past year, meeting people at work, at the beach, and in Bible study, and my young adult group.

-My Bible study – It is through this Bible study that I have been able to meet most of these new friends.  I am so grateful to have a group of people who are pushing me to grow in my faith.

-My apartment – I love living so close to the beach.

-The ocean – It keeps me sane on the days when I am stressed out.

-My job. I love teaching high school English so much.

-My students.  I have a really great group of kids this year.

Running

Racing

Biking

-My wet suit from my uncle that now allows me to go kayaking and stand up paddling even when the weather isn’t super warm

-The beach

-Having a roof over my head

-Living in a first world country so that I don’t have to struggle each day to survive

-My love for volunteering

-All of the people I have met through my volunteer opportunities both locally and abroad

-My priests

-My sponsored child, Patience, and his family

-That I have had the chance to meet the Brazilian side of my family, especially my now deceased grandma and grandpa

Desserts

Traveling

Waterfalls

Hiking

-My Catholic faith

How Will You Leave Your Mark on the World?

For my AP classes, I’m about to start analyzing the arguments of music videos with them.

So I decided to make my own video with an argument about leaving your mark on the world.

For this video, I compiled clips and photographs from my volunteer experiences in Ecuador, Haiti, Rwanda, and Nicaragua, plus some stuff from Brazil.

Here is the video if you’re interested in checking it out:

Nicaragua Video Part 1

Last week I had an amazing time in Nicaragua with Living Water International.  We drilled a 220-foot well to provide a community with access to clean water, taught hygiene lessons and Bible stories, made crafts, and formed relationships with the Nicaraguans we were serving.

I’ll be writing a blog about my experiences, but with school starting soon, I’m trying to enjoy my last beach days while getting ready for my classes, so it might be a while before that is done.

For now, here is the video I made of part 1 of my trip.  Part 2 will be coming later on.

 

28 Things I’ve Learned in 28 Years

With my 28th birthday taking place tomorrow, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the things I have learned thus far in life.  So, in light of turning 28 years old, here goes…

1. It doesn’t matter what people think.

I don’t really care what people think about most of the choices that I make in my life, but that is something that hasn’t always been true.

My middle school and high school self definitely cared what people thought of me, but once you remove that weight off of your shoulders, it really sets you free to become who you want to become and to do what you love.

I will continue to be myself, whether or not people like it.

10296713_753163793010_9081443574146995399_n

 

2. God must always remain my top priority.

When I am feeling depressed, lonely, or in pain, it’s so easy to turn to God in prayer.  But it’s also easy to forget about Him when things are going well rather than praising Him in thanksgiving.

Just like friendships will fade, family is not perfect either.  But God is my perfect father who has been by my side through every obstacle.

He is my main focus, since Heaven is my goal.  He is the source of all joy.  He has to come before everything else in my life – money, friends, relationships, work…everything.

Without Him, I am nothing.

543220_661103288000_1331949127_n
Christ the Redeemer with my sister in Rio de Janeiro

3. Family will be there during the toughest times.

Friendships sometimes weaken, relationships end, and once that happens, it is family who will be there to support me no matter what, even if they don’t necessarily agree with my decisions.

10860909_807632272740_8120532825224159127_o
My mom’s side of the family

4. True friends are people who lift you up and who push you to become the best version of yourself.

I don’t need to have tons of acquaintances.  I would rather have a few solid friendships, and those true friends are people who will push me to become better and to make positive choices in my life.

A true friend will be honest with me and let me know when I may be making a bad decision.  She will let me know that the guy I’m interested in might not be the best choice for me.  She will support me during the tough times and she will be there to laugh with me through life’s adventures.

A friend is not someone who I need to prove myself to; rather, a true friend will love me for me.

10620700_774261198640_791661596401675300_n
With Lizzy in NYC

5. Exercise should be a priority.

Now that I’ve endured a 9-year continuing battle with Lyme disease, I’ve tried many different treatment options.  But when it comes down to it, exercise seems to be the best remedy, at least for me.  I did the antibiotics (doxycycline, tetracycline, ceftin, biaxin, and mepron).  I cut nightshades from my diet (tomatoes, white potatoes, peppers, eggplant).  I used herbal supplements (fish oil, resveratrol, andrographis, cat’s claw, astragalus, garlic, B-12).

And I absolutely believe that a combination approach will always work the best for Lyme.  However, exercise would have to be my top choice.  When I run, I feel free.  It removes any sadness or stress.  It strengthens my body.  In order to maintain my health as well as my sanity, I need to exercise on a regular basis.

1003946_710293829760_1438692468_n
Running the Hartford Marathon

6. Yoga is much more than glorified stretching.

I don’t know why yoga always had such a negative connotation in my mind.  I thought it looked boring and easy.  But now that I’ve been going to hot yoga since February, I’ve come to love it.

It has strengthened my body, increased my flexibility, decreased my stress and tension, and made me a faster runner.  And it’s definitely not easy.

13654231_916281089640_4050698838434566425_n.jpg

7. Dessert is absolutely acceptable.

I eat healthy and I pay attention to the foods I put into my body.  I try to eat as much organic produce as I can, I opt for grass-fed beef, and I avoid farm-raised fish.  But I am against dieting and tight food restrictions since they usually don’t work anyway.

So while I eat healthy most of the time, I won’t give up desserts.  I have a sweet tooth and it’s not something that I’m trying to lose.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t eat massive, decadent desserts every day.  Sometimes my dessert consists of 6 Reese’s Pieces or two Starbursts.  But still, I love dessert and I don’t plan on changing that.

13346380_907255696600_6743754162385526597_o
Mint chocolate chip Freak Shake

8. Material objects do not provide lasting happiness.

I’m not a very materialistic person, so this is something that I’ve always known, but it amazes me how many people my age still seem to believe that new car or computer will cause them great happiness.

I don’t own designer clothes.  With the cost of one designer blouse, I can instead buy at least four shirts at cheaper stores.  I don’t think I’m any less happy because of it.

I’ve never had a new car.  I prefer used.  Then, if it gets some scratches, I don’t really care, since it already had some to start with.

229058_569005318070_3106931_n
My first car (used Plymouth Grand Voyager from my grandpa) and my second and current car (used Honda Civic)

9. Financial stability is nice, but wealth is unnecessary.

Do I seek to be poor? Of course not.  I am happy that I am financially stable, but wealth is not my goal.

I want to be able to provide for myself in terms of the things that I need in life, but I don’t need to buy that beach house or that Maserati to consider myself successful.

If I one day have a family, I hope that my husband and I can provide a level of stability without spoiling our children.  I want to be able to do the things that I need to do, but I don’t want to be so wealthy that I forget what it is like to struggle.

10. A yearly vacation is necessary.

So many people never go on vacation.  Others go once every few years.  For me, yearly vacation (or vacations even more often than that) are an essential part of life.

That doesn’t mean I have to shell out thousands of dollars to fly to Hawaii, Fiji, or Cabo.  I’d be happy with a week down the shore, a weekend getaway, a trip to see Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon.

Growing up, my mom never had much money, but vacation was always a priority.  She saved all  year so that we could go to Long Beach Island for one or two weeks and for that I am grateful.  Everyone needs time to hit reset, time to forget about work and problems at home and simply relax.

10450613_768775267490_4600458691611771375_n
Long Beach Island, New Jersey

11. Volunteering benefits the volunteer as much as the people being served.

I love traveling overseas on mission trips and serving the poor of the world.  But what is always amazing to me is how I end up being served, how I end up learning so much from the people I think I am going to help.

The Rwandans I met last summer were the happiest people, yet the poorest I’ve ever met.  They had nothing.  Some of them lived in one-room homes that were constructed from mud.  They had torn clothes.  One pot to cook with.  But their smiles could light up the room and their prayer was incredibly heartfelt. They worshipped God through their song and dance like nothing I’ve ever seen in America.  I was humbled to meet them.

Everyone should participate in some sort of community service.  It doesn’t need to be overseas; it can be down the road at the soup kitchen, or helping out with Habitat for Humanity.

11822405_853285348610_6617077975484104705_n
With my sponsored child, Patience, in Rwanda

12. A simple smile can brighten one’s day.

I try to be friendly and welcoming to everyone I come into contact with.  I say hello or wave to people I pass on my runs.  I care to hear the answer when I ask the supermarket cashier how her day is going.  I smile.  A lot.

Just like that famous quote about how we never know who may be falling in love with our smile, we also don’t know what obstacles the people we encounter on a day to day basis are facing.  Our smile might seem insignificant, but it could be what lifts a person’s spirits and makes them feel loved.

385194_661271810280_707603212_n

13. Love is powerful.

I have a tattoo from 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.  This verse reads: “If I speak in the tongues of men or angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have the faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Love is what it all comes down to.  If you volunteer only to convince people that you’re a good person, it’s meaningless.  If you help the poor while judging them and looking down upon them, you’re not really helping.  We must do everything with love.

196832_551302524610_4136735_n
In La Jolla, California with Amy, Lizzy, and Kara

14. Struggles strengthen and shape us.

Nobody wants to face pain, but it is those moments when we come close to rock bottom that we learn from the most.  It is those times of weakness that build us up.

During the various obstacles that life brings, it’s often difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but looking back, it becomes more clear how each struggle helped us to grow.

15. We must take pride in our work.

I love my job as a teacher and I take a great deal of pride in that.  I wish more people felt the same way about their jobs.

But even if you don’t have your dream job, you should still take pride in it.  I didn’t always have the perfect job.  I was a custodian for two years during college, but I still put forth my full effort.  I vacuumed every little corner in the library and I washed every smudge off of the windows.  Was it my dream job? No, but I still did it to the best of my ability.

There are custodians in my school who are the most positive, energetic people.  Did they grow up hoping to clean schools for a living?  Probably not, but that’s where they are at the moment and they are carrying out their responsibilities without complaint and with their full effort.

My generation is full of entitled people who think that they deserve that position as CEO with very little work.  They don’t want to accept anything lower than their dream position, but for most people, that dream job won’t ever happen without the stepping stones that lead to it.

10406607_759882907850_3700107365580436578_n
With two of my former students

16. We need to stop judging others, comparing ourselves, and being so critical.

If I spend my time judging someone, I will have no time to love him.

There will always be someone with a better job, prettier face, more toned body.  We live in such a cutthroat world that leads us to compare ourselves to everyone.  I can’t say that I’ve never done this before; we all do.

But this judging just hurts us as well as the people we’re looking down upon.

We don’t know what someone has experienced in his life.  We don’t know why people make the decisions that they do.  We must spend our time loving them rather than critiquing them.

17. We must savor the moment.

We need to be present in the moment, rather than waiting for the future or living in the past.

So many people waste their life away hoping for the future.  The high school student thinks that life will begin after graduation.  The college student is waiting for the “real world” that will open up to him after earning his degree.  The girl who spends her days hoping for her future husband.  The married couple longing to have children.  The older couple waiting for retirement.

Every day is special and we must acknowledge that, rather than wasting our time waiting for what we want next.  Be happy with today.

18. We should strive to remain child-like.

As the Bible says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

As children, we long to become adults.  And sometimes as adults we take life too seriously.

It is not just good, but necessary, at times, to be like children and to have their childlike faith.  We need to step back from our hectic lives to embrace laughter and silliness once in a while.

Children can accept the idea of God and Heaven so much more easily than many adults.  They have that childlike faith that God really wants from each of us.

376255_632983375530_1914232303_n

19. We must be aware of current events.

I’m not always the best when it comes to this.  Since I don’t have cable, I never see the news, so I have to make a point to look at the news online.  Some days I’m better than others.

I know that the news can make us cynical or frustrated, but we have to make ourselves aware of the world.

And we can’t just focus on America.  We must pay attention to international news as well.

If you have never heard of the Rwandan genocide, you should go do a little research.  If you know nothing about the many recent terrorist attacks, you should spend a few minutes educating yourself.

We can’t give into the “stupid American” stereotype.

20. Experiences are more memorable than tangible objects.

When I think about my experiences in life thus far, these are some of my most memorable moments (and none of them has to do with a tangible object):

-Teaching a group of teachers while volunteering in Haiti

-Trekking with gorillas in Rwanda

-Blowing bubbles while running around with a group of young children in Ecuador

-Hiking up a waterfall with my now brother-in-law in Rio and swimming under one in Brasilia

-Sitting on the hang-gliding platform with my aunt and cousins, enjoying the view of Brazil

-Family trips to Long Beach Island and Myrtle Beach

-Standing in line to get to stand front row at the Eminem/Rihanna concert

-Standing in line to wait for Adam Sandler’s autograph

-Hiking with my dog, Butterscotch, at Tarrywile and Lover’s Leap

-Meeting my sister for the first time at the airport in Rio and meeting my Brazilian grandparents for the first time in Cruzeiro do Sul

I could go on an on, but none of those memories has to do with any tangible object.  They are all experiences that are memorable because of the activities I was taking part in and the people I was spending time with.

gorilla
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

 

21. We can’t let fear stop us from living a fulfilling life.

I grew up terrified of airplanes.  I told my mom that I would honeymoon at the Jersey Shore because I had no need to travel if a flight was required.

But ever since my first flight during my trip to the Dominican Republic with my mom during my senior year of high school, I have learned how this silly fear of airplanes would have stopped me from experiencing so many places like Ecuador, San Diego, Brazil, Haiti, Rwanda, Texas, and Nicaragua (in a few weeks).

388618_675288430860_1168165283_n
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

22. We ladies with curly hair need to embrace it.

I used to despise my curly hair.  Although it’s not as curly now as it was when I was young, it’s still quite curly.  Although I would still love to have naturally straight hair, I have learned how to maintain my curls and how to make them look better by using mousse.

So many girls with curly or wavy hair straighten it every single day, but that just ruins the health of their hair.  So will I still straighten it occasionally?  Sure.  But most of the time, I now embrace the curls that I was born with.

10985515_814997567630_4150900219098933772_n

23. We must never stop learning.

I might be going into my 7th year of teaching, but there is still so much for me to learn.  We must never become satisfied with our current level of knowledge, as there is so much to know in this world.

Not only do I want to learn more about the best teaching methods, but I also want to become fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, two languages that I can understand and speak (Spanish more than Portuguese), but not fluently.

My mom started college when I was in high school.  She graduated with her associate’s degree when I graduated with my bachelor’s.  She graduated with her bachelor’s when I earned my master’s degree.  There is no age that is too old to keep learning.

10320396_751973697970_3501455303301748402_n
Mom’s graduation from WCSU the day after mine for my M.S.

24. Jumping pictures never get old.

I love them.  I take them everywhere.  I may be 28 years old, but I have no shame.

189733_550776578610_6070653_n
With Amy in Coronado, California

25. We shouldn’t always take ourselves too seriously.

Life is meant to be enjoyed.  Sometimes, we need to just let ourselves loose and be silly.  We can’t be so rigid that we forget to enjoy the simple moments.

1529928_729155850120_1108194622_o
With my cousins in Frost Valley, NY

26. Cousins are the friends we get to keep for life.

I love my cousins so much and I have so much fun with all of them.  I started off just knowing my two cousins on my mom’s side, but then as aunts and uncles started to get married, I got so many more.  And then I met my family in Brazil, along with even more cousins.

I’ll probably always be closest to my two cousins, Doug and Dan, on my mom’s side, since we spent so much time together, especially when going on vacations while growing up.  They’re more like the brothers I never had than cousins and I’m blessed to have them in my life.

1397152_876961471470_7676316537188679978_o
With Doug and Dan on Christmas Eve

27. Dogs truly are man’s best friend.

I love dogs and I miss Butterscotch so much, even though he hasn’t been with my for two full years now.

And rescued dogs are the best, since you can save them from previously rough lives.

I had so much fun walking him, hiking with him, and just cuddling up next to him on the couch while watching a good movie.

He licked my tears off of my cheeks when I cried.  He could tell when I was not feeling well.  He was with me for ten years and he was such an important part of my life during that time.

10464190_767052968990_7947923399055904840_n.jpg
The day I adopted Butterscotch for my sweet sixteen

28. Laughter is the best medicine.

I love laughing.  I laugh all of the time.

26576_537201148880_5658811_n.jpg

 

Manaus – March/April 2016

For spring break this year, I traveled to Brasilia and Manaus.  I already wrote a separate blog about my time in Brasilia.  You can read it at that link if you wish.  Now for the second half of my trip.

Tuesday, March 29th:

Upon landing in Manaus, the process to actually get to my family was much easier than it had been in Brasilia since it was a domestic flight, so I didn’t have to deal with customs or any lines.  I walked out the doors and saw my Aunt Celi and my cousin, Junior.

In Brasilia, I didn’t really speak any Portuguese.  There wasn’t a need to since Carlos, my brother-in-law, is fluent.  I had wanted to try to use more Portuguese, but it’s hard to force myself to use it when it’s not completely necessary.

Things were very different in Manaus than in Brasilia.  My aunt speaks no English at all and my cousin can understand some, but I was basically on my own to figure out how to say anything I needed.  I think that my aunt was surprised at how much I knew since I could say almost nothing during my last trip to Brazil, but there were still definitely quite a few struggles.

I unloaded my luggage at my aunt’s house and said hello to my soon-t0-be 99 year old grandma, who I had only met once before, during my first trip to Brazil in 2012.  I could tell that she was really happy to see me, and the feelings were mutual.

12970840_896406224030_8187527605302344110_o

Then they asked if I wanted to go to a zoo.  So the driver, Silvio, took me, my cousin’s son, Pedro, and a girl who lives with my aunt, Raimunda, to CIGS Zoo.

Pedro speaks some English and Raimunda was trying really hard, using a book that she had from school.  The car ride was so funny because it was a mix of English and Portuguese between the three of us trying to communicate with each other.

It wasn’t a huge zoo, but it was still fun.  There were snakes swimming through the water.  They had beautiful birds.  Usually I’m not a big fan of the bird section at the zoo, but in Brazil, the birds have such amazing colors.

12968033_896406313850_7212312620952414433_o

12973233_896406553370_2441098137332312931_o

After the zoo, went to the beach area by the Rio Negro to get some açai.  I had açai with granola on top and some sauce that’s similar to caramel, but less thick (we don’t really have anything that’s comparable in America).  It was delicious and I think it’s relatively healthy.  The fruit is a superfood and I know that many people eat it after workouts (probably without the extra toppings) because of its antioxidants.

12888528_896410171120_3302976189160279886_o

My cousin, Junior, told me about an amazing waterfall that is on the border of Brazil and Venezuela that he will take me to next time I visit Manaus.  It’s a 10-hour drive and he might have a herniated disk, so he said that he wouldn’t be able to go this time.  I do hope that I have the opportunity to go there in the future.  I love waterfalls so much.

At dinner I saw my cousin, Deborah.  She speaks fluent English, so she was able to clarify a few things.  We talked for a while after dinner about Trump, Hilary Clinton, and politics. Everyone in Brazil seems really scared about the possibility of Trump winning the election, which was interesting to me.  I didn’t think our politics mattered to Brazilians, but I was most definitely wrong.

She told me that Brazil’s public schools are terrible and that there is also a big problem with child prostitution.  These children sometimes only earn $2 per client and nobody really knows about it and the ones who do don’t really care.  She said that it’s common in Acre (the state where my grandparents and dad are from), and in some poor areas of Manaus.  She said that the U.S. is so much better than Brazil in terms of volunteering.  She said that she knows of nobody who volunteers in Brazil.  I found that interesting.

This was my first time to Brazil by myself.  The first time, both of my parents were there.  The second time, my dad was there for part of the trip.  I found that by being there alone, I learned so much more than on my previous trips.

Wednesday, March 30th:

Wednesday was my grandma’s 99th birthday, and the main reason I decided to go to Brazil for spring break.  I gave her a card.  I also gave her present to her that Vanessa and Carlos had purchased for her.

She seems to be relatively healthy for being 99 years old, but it just seems like life must be boring.  She is either in bed or sitting in her chair all day.  There is always someone in there with her, but it is a bit monotonous.  Throughout my time in Manaus, there were many times that I just sat next to her, watching TV with her.  She was the most difficult relative to speak to because she couldn’t really understand what I was saying and I couldn’t really understand what she was saying either.  So usually I would say something in Portuguese and then someone else would say it more loudly and clearly (and in the correct pronunciation) to her.  She would just look at my and smile all of the time.  It was really sweet, even with our lack of communication.

12417731_896407301870_7949962788837363568_n

In the morning, I went for a walk/run with my uncle Clovis.  Actually, every day we went out and we would walk in one direction and then run in the opposite direction, just like we had on my past two trips to Brazil.

We went to my aunt’s husband’s shipyard to have lunch.  I had seen the shipyard a few years ago when I visited Manaus and this time it had grown substantially.  They made us a really nice lunch there.  It was delicious.

12967384_896406937600_6558682735301719711_o

After lunch, the sun came out, so I went out by the pool.  I swam around and then read my book in the sunshine.

12968011_896407027420_2593341729437017840_o

Then I went inside and sat with my grandma for a while.  Raimunda helped to translate.  She said that my grandma said how she already can’t wait until the next time I come back.

During the evening of her birthday, my uncles had my grandma talk to all of our relatives who couldn’t make it to Manaus for her birthday.  Everyone was very excited about her turning 99.

12919842_896421179060_4102203944734636475_n
Grandma Angelina talking to my dad on the phone on her birthday

A bunch of people came over to my aunt’s apartment for the birthday party.  I knew most of them, but there were a few family members (or maybe friends) who I hadn’t met before.  Everyone was just chatting and listening to music.  My aunt was dancing with her brother.  It was nice.  What’s so great about going to Brazil is that although I’ve only met most of my family members 2 or 3 times, I’m immediately accepted and I don’t feel like an outsider even though I can’t speak Portuguese fluently.  I go there and I feel completely welcomed.  It’s really great.

1933475_896407416640_9082192421238393639_o

For dinner, they made special dishes with lots of seafood and different sauces that I hadn’t had before.  There was a cake for dessert, but by then, my grandma had gone back to her bedroom.  They said that she was just getting too emotional with all of the activity.  She has some heart problems, so she can’t get too excited.  At least she got to sit at the table with all of us while we ate dinner before going back to her room.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In the morning, I went with my Uncle Clovis to my aunt’s farm across the river in a town called Iranduba.  We had to drive through these windy dirt roads that ran right through the jungle to get to the farm.  In some places there were huge pools of water that we just drove right through in the SUV.  I guess that’s why we took the SUV and not the car.  A small car never would have made it through all of the water.  There were chickens, pigs, goats, dogs, and cats at the farm and there were also lots of banana trees.

12967957_896409337790_4761327256074634069_o

Uncle Clovis and I wanted to walk closer to the river, but the grass was pretty tall.  Suddenly, while walking through the grass, I felt a sharp, burning pain on my left foot.  I looked down and my foot had a bunch of tiny little black ants on it.  Apparently, I had stepped into some fire ants.  They hurt way worse than I thought they would since they’re so tiny.  Uncle Clovis said we should turn around anyway since there could be snakes lurking around in the tall grass, so that’s when I mentioned that I had been bitten.

12963713_896421184050_8220817487952704938_n

The bites hurt for a really long time.  It didn’t matter that I wiped the ants off within seconds of feeling the pain; the burning sensation lasted for at least two hours.

12900994_896409537390_2591160294604728900_o
With Aunt Celi and Uncle Clovis

After that, I went for a walk with my uncle.  We walked down to the beach at the Rio Negro.  He could tell that I wanted to go swimming, so I swam parallel to the whole beach while he walked along the edge, holding my sneakers and tank top.  The water was insanely warm.  It had to have been over 80 degrees.  I was a little bit nervous because the water is a dark brown color, so you can’t see the bottom even in the shallow parts.  They had a net (presumably to block out any snakes/alligators), but I was still a little bit nervous.  Despite any hesitation, I just love swimming so much that I hoped for the best.

Then we said goodbye to my Aunt Celi, her husband, Chiquinho, and her grandson, Pedro.  They were flying to Sao Paulo.

I went with Uncle Clovis and Raimunda to a place called AMPA.  I think it’s basically a conservation-type place.  They have lots of huge trees, so it feels like you’re in the rainforest even though you’re in the center of the city.

12916359_896409896670_118498706710862715_o

They also have some manatees and alligators.  It was fun, but it was super hot and humid.  There was also an indoor section with some dead bugs, butterflies, and huge slabs of massive trees and some huge leaves.

12898288_896410036390_2939222676224295129_o

Then we went to get some more açai.

Later on I was sitting with my grandma, showing her pictures of the American side of my family on my phone.

Friday, April 1, 2016

In the morning, Uncle Clovis and I walked 4 kilometers and then ran back the same distance.  In Brazil I actually get pretty sweaty when I run…not the case in the United States.  I can run so far in the U.S., even on a hot day, barely breaking a sweat, so I was excited to finally be sweating a decent amount.

Uncle Jose came over and took me and Uncle Clovis on a boat ride to go swim with wild dolphins in the river.  I never knew that rivers have dolphins.  The boat pulled up to this floating house and a pregnant lady put on a life vest and started splashing around in the water.  She had some dead fish that she threw into the water and in less than a minute, two pink dolphins (boto-vermelho) had arrived.

It was awesome because we got to swim near them and touch them, but they’re wild, so we didn’t have to feel guilty that they were living in captivity.

12901446_896419826770_7631197709675613036_o

Then when we went to leave the dolphin place to go get some lunch, the guy went to pull the cord on the motor and it broke off in his hand.  Nobody seemed to concerned.  We just waited for the boat to float by the floating neighborhood.

We drifted over to one of the houseboats and there was a Swiss man who saved the day by helping us out.  He had all of the tools that we needed to fix the boat.  He had been living on the river for the past 6 years because he wanted to get away from busy life in Switzerland.  He had a wife and kids and was planning to return to Switzerland soon since his kids were going to have to go to school.  There is a floating school on the river, but it’s probably not the best educational option.DSCN4809

So we fixed the boat and went on our way.  We stopped at moon beach for lunch.  It was awesome.  There were a bunch of tables right in the water, music was playing, and almost nobody else was around.  The only other customers was a group of three women.

DSCN4843.jpg

We swam around in the river.  Then we sat on some chairs in the middle of the water.  The water was so warm, it felt like a bathtub.

12931161_896421388640_5694875852435774757_n

 

Eventually, lunch was served.  We had an appetizer of three small fish.  Aside from the head and tail, you just bit into it and eat the whole thing.  From the picture, it looks like I’m hesitant about it, but I only was in the beginning.  It tasted great.

 

Then the main meal came, which was rice, farofa, and a big fish.  Again, that was delicious as well.

12961447_896411268920_6045816283059811272_o

Later that night, I went for a walk with Raimunda.  They close the road by the beach every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday morning.  There were tons of people running, biking, and just hanging out.  In Brazil it seems that there are many places like this where they close certain roads on certain days to cater to people who are exercising.  I think that’s a really cool idea and also something that I’ve never heard of in the United States.

Then I went out to dinner with my uncle, my dad’s half sister, and my cousin.  They ordered ants for me as an appetizer.  It was a real appetizer, but they also found it amusing since I had been bitten by ants the previous day.

10364186_896421822770_6744515384606525722_n

For dinner we had a huge fish from the local river.  We also had farofa, rice, cooked bananas, etc.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

My uncle was feeling sick today, so I went for a walk/run by myself.  I ran stairs a bunch of times by the river.  Then I went to the pool to swim and read.

Saturday was also the day I had to fly home.  I really didn’t want to leave.  I spent most of the day just lounging by the pool, reading my book, and sitting in my grandma’s room.  She likes to sing a lot, so she kept singing songs to me and it was really cute.

Once it came time to leave, I went to say goodbye to my grandma.  I guess she didn’t realize that I was already leaving.  She held onto my arm and said that she didn’t want me to leave already.  She told my uncle that she wished that she could give me a gift.  He tried to make her feel better by telling her that I will be back next year (which hopefully is true), or that she would come visit me in the United States (which obviously can’t happen with her age).  I was able to speak to her more than the first time I met her, but I still wish that I had been able to say more.

My uncle Clovis and Raimunda drove me to the airport, but they wouldn’t let us check in until a certain time, so we wandered around the airport for a while.  There was some big party in the parking lot, which was kind of strange.  There were tents up and the music was blasting.

Eventually I said my goodbyes and went through security, tears running down my cheeks.

It’s so hard to leave because I have such a good time when I’m with my family and I never know when I’ll be back.  I’d like to think that I’ll be there again next year for my grandma’s 100th birthday, but obviously at this age, anything can happen.  Also, I have family in Manaus, Cruzeiro do Sul, Brasilia, and Rio, so I never know exactly which part of Brazil I will be in next time and which relatives I will get to spend time with.

I am so thankful that they are now a part of my life, since I had never been to Brazil until 2012.  It was an amazing trip and I can’t wait to go back!