The Power of Many

I recently was invited to attend The Summit, a conference put on by Sojourners, an NGO in Washington DC.  The conference was about social injustice, what was happening in various fields like mass incarceration, women’s issues, women in the church, etc. It was their inaugural conference and upon my return home they asked me to write a blog for their website about my experience.  It made sense to include it here as it’s a part of Million Girl Army’s development story, along with a link to their website so you can learn more about them.

“Although nervous to be a founder of a non-profit that hasn’t officially launched yet attending a conference with heavy hitters in the non-profit world, within seconds of walking into the initial Summit gathering I was glad I came. I cannot adequately describe the feeling of being in a room with 300 people who share a passion for righting social injustice that equals mine. The energy was electric and infectious. With every introduction, I learned just how many people are fiercely fighting to be God’s hands and feet, and suddenly I felt less alone in my own fight. While I’m surrounded daily by people who have a general care for the challenges around the world, none match the fervency and anger I feel when I think about what women and young girls face on a daily basis around the world. They might listen to my stories and shake their heads, but they aren’t necessarily motivated to take action. So to be in a room filled with people who not only dream of ways to right the world’s wrongs, but who actively do so every day, inspired me and set the tone for what turned out to be a fantastic few days.

Originally I thought it would be an opportunity primarily to network, to learn from people who had been through the process before me in an effort to streamline the work in front of me for Million Girl Army, my new non-profit designed to empower young girls and give a voice to the voiceless. And it was. I met person after person who shared common goals, who had the right connections, who had something to teach me. I covered in a three day window of networking what would have taken me years to do outside of The Summit. photo 1

But it wasn’t only that. Speaker after speaker, class after class taught me something new, opened my eyes even further to what we’re facing on a global scale, and confirmed there is a big task in front of us as Christ followers. And yet, for the first time, I felt as though change was possible on a grand scale. Sure, with my organization I thought I could reach hundreds maybe thousands of girls, but even that only puts a small dent in the sheer volume of girls victimized every day. But at The Summit, I was in a room filled with people who collectively could build bridges and collaborate to find new solutions, all the while working hand-in-hand with people in positions with real power to effectively support and execute the changes. photo2I remember feeling my heart soar and my soul whisper, “This is the answer, this is what Million Girl Army needs to be a part of.” For I recognize I am only a part. Each individual there is one piece of the puzzle. But I appreciate Sojourners’ vision for bringing us together, recognizing it’s when the pieces of the puzzle are put together with God’s guidance that the fight against social injustice gains power. It is then, when the collective works and speaks together for change, that the poor, the marginalized, the victimized, and the broken have real hope.

I was honored to be nominated, even more honored to be invited, and then sponsored by Marion Palmer so I could attend. It renewed my passion for why I’m drawn to non-profit work and why Million Girl Army is my calling, all while bolstering my ability to bring it to reality through the lessons and connections I gained at The Summit. So thank you Marion for encouraging me and financially supporting my attendance. And thank you Sojourners for having the wisdom, the desire, the dedication, and the drive to make this conference a reality. I will look forward to participating again in the future.”

-Sara

http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/07/16/spotlight-summit-world-photo 1change-through-faith-and-justice-2014-sara-Johnson

 

Walking by Faith

walk by faithI was born a thinker, an observer of my world. There are pictures of me as a baby where I am staring out of my stroller with a somber expression, taking in the world around me. There are stories of me as a child that are told at nearly every family gather. Stories of how my parents could not convince me something would be great by using the high happy voice adults use with children. My response to, “Come on Sara, you will have fun,” was often, “I might, and I might not.”

This approach to life has served me well. It has kept me safe, helped me take calculated business risks, and gave me a deep appreciation for the importance of a good education and the opportunities it can bring.

As I near 40, I’m beginning to wonder whether settling into this comfortable approach to life caused me to miss out on fully living life. I don’t necessarily look back and feel as though I missed out on things. I don’t see glaring holes in my life experiences. But by living primarily in logic and reason, I do wonder if I missed out on a world of faith and miracle.

I recently completed a three month sabbatical. It was a time designed for me to write my life story, working my way through a series of prompts with the purpose of uncovering what has shaped my life up until this point, and what I want to shape my life going forward.

The two themes that popped up repeatedly as I looked forward to my future were a deep desire to live authentically free and to walk by faith rather than by sight.

One of the advantages to getting older is you learn you no longer need to put so much energy into proving your worth to the world. You have already achieved a lot and learned that worldly achievements often leave you feeling as though something is still missing. I want to put this to work for myself, using the wisdom of age to free myself from others’ expectations, society’s values, and the voices of others that crowd my head wanting to be heard.

But more importantly, I want to walk completely by faith rather than relying on my own skills and talents to carve a fulfilling life path.

The creation and launch of The Million Girl Army is a journey that will put this desire into practice. I have had this idea for nearly five years now and yet it still lives primarily as a dream in my head. As I think through the business plan, there are glaring holes. This has never happened to me in business before. I have always been able to envision exactly what was needed, the order things needed to happen in, and the end result. I haven’t been able to do that with The Million Girl Army and that has made me push it to the side time and again. I simply was too afraid to tackle it for it required too much faith to succeed. It requires God to fill in the right people at the right time with the right skills again and again. And I am not used to relying on anyone other than myself even if He is God.

The hardest part about a belief in God is His stubborn refusal to communicate it a clear manner. And yet he has faithfully amped up my desire, the pressure, and His call for me to follow the path He chose for me and get started with this organization. It is now uncomfortable if I don’t take action and it feels fulfilling when I do.

In the last three months I have had more moments of walking in crazy faith and He has met me faithfully each time I followed His prompting. He has opened doors, pocketbooks, and my heart in the process. I find that walking by faith rather than by my sight fills my days with anticipation. I feel closer to Him because in each fearful uncertain moment I draw close to Him for comfort. And again and again He proves His faithfulness.

I don’t know how this journey will go exactly. But I am committed to waking each moment and doing my best to be his hands and feet as I work my way to the launch of this organization to serve the girls and women of the world. I promised to write along the way, sharing the highs and lows, the triumphs and the missteps of walking by faith as I created and launched The Million Girl Army.

Thank you for joining me on that journey.

-Sara

No Escape

–By Katy Sewall

I arrived home yesterday very early in the morning, after flying all night.  Returning home, I feel the familiar combination of loneliness and relief that solitude brings after busy and social weeks abroad.

I can’t say these days haven’t been without tears.  This trip has brought a lot to process.

groupThe group left Cambodia Friday night, and I left Saturday morning. So the first tears came finding myself alone, watching television and eating an expensive room service dinner of steamed rice and cheese.

The tears had no one cause to point to.   Maybe it was that my meal cost ¼ of what people in Cambodia make in a month.  Maybe it was loneliness, picturing my travel companions boarding a plane and lifting off.  My mind was full of pictures.  I vividly remembered Sam’s furrowed brow and Haley’s tired eyes as they learned about another atrocity poor women face in the developing world.  I saw Sara and Shanna with kids bounding around them.  Megan calculating a business plans to employ young workers.

It was all those things, coupled with the knowledge that my husband Derek wouldn’t be home when I arrived.  He’s in Israel.  We’ve been married for nearly 2 years, and this has been our longest separation.

I find myself praying a desperate prayer “Please, please, please protect us both so that we can be together again.”  It’s the prayer of someone fully in love, I think. This feeling is new to me and it has changed my perspective.

I’ve been to Toul Sleng (S-21) three times.  (Sara wrote about this Khmer Rouge interrogation prison in an earlier post.) On earlier visits, I studied the fading bloodstains on the floor.  I walked in the tiny cells and tried to imagine the heat and fear that had once filled that space.   My attention was on the horrors, the psychology of the captors, the torture.

This time I felt the families.  The lovers.  People who prayed and hoped desperately for a reunion with their spouse or their children.  People who hoped that saying the right thing, or doing the right thing, would set them free to reunite with their families.

We know now, these were hopeless dreams.  For the 20,000 prisoners of S-21, death was all that was before them.  The reunion with their loved wasn’t to be. For the first time, I could imagine how devastating that realization would be.

cambodian girlAll that historical pain and cruel disregard for human life still permeates Cambodia.  It causes injustice, pain, poverty, and desperate self-preservation at the expense of weaker people.

And we – the people of privilege who want to help – feel overwhelmed. How can we possibly help?

Today in Cambodia, orphaned sisters work hard for a better life.  Their living family members are no help.   Instead, they’ve tried to steal their house to ease their own poverty.

Today in Cambodia, a little girl dreams of school, but every morning she works at the market instead.  She’s the only family member making money. Her mother is dying from HIV.

Today in Cambodia, a businessman sells a poor country girl to one man after another.  She’s a sex slave, too ashamed to go home.cambodian girl 2

The culture overlooks it.  It’s commonplace.  The way things are.

As tourists, we walk through the streets, stepping over trash and noticing the skinny dogs.  We are impressed by the kindness of people toward us and we’ve learned to see the danger and frustration.

When I travel, I always ask myself the same question – “Could I live here?”  It is a question I enjoy contemplating.

The truth is-– I don’t have to live there.   Whatever my hypothetical decision is, I am free to go.

So, on Saturday morning, as I stood in the doorway of my hotel room, looking over the room for missed belongings, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was escaping.

I’m free to go.  That’s not true for people in poverty.  They have to keep trying or give up.

Today, they hope they’ll be luckier than they were yesterday.  They hope their family will be able to stay together.  They hope they’ll stay safe and feel full.  They hope for joy and relief.   They strive to get an education.  They make difficult and horrible choices to survive.

This isn’t theoretical or hypothetical or intellectual.  This is today.

On the trip, we were told that we help young girls dream bigger just by showing up.  That may be true, but they are the ones that must endure.   And we need to keep asking (and answering) the question — “How can I help?”

-Katy

When in Laos…

–By Samantha McKay

I have currently said my goodbyes to my lovely traveling partners and now I am trying to utilize my layover time in Singapore by catching everyone up on the trip. Last blog I had written, I had shared with everyone my adventures in Thailand and now I wanted to reflect and share the thoughts I had written in my journal during my stay in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang was a quick, yet an exciting day and a half trip of freedom and exploration. We had no set plans in Luag Prabang except to enjoy ourselves and taste the culture by residing at a guest house right in the center of the city.

So I did just that. Haley and I enjoyed our spacious queen bed, mosquito net, and balcony positioned room. On our first night, we met with a woman whose has been working in Laos for a local artisan museum. We asked her to share with us some stories she has heard while staying in Luang Prabang about the treatment of women and their current status, situations both living and social, and the priveledges they have.

Unfortunetly, it was not the best of news and our team leader, Sara, posted more in The Million Girl Army blog about the information we collected. To quickly fill in everyone, many women here in Laos cannot afford schooling; therefore, they sleep with men or sell themselves to have money for their education. While a majority of women use this as a last resort, there are some that are too lazy to actual look for a job. The thought of having no options of school loans, either government or private, was sickening and the possibility of prostituting myself for my education was almost unbearable. I had a hard time digesting this information and accepting this as a reality in other cultures. The longer I have been on this trip, the more I want to sometimes scream at the top of my lungs to gather awareness around the world. However, I must remind myself – many of the issues we face are cultural and culture is not something that changes overnight.

The following day, Haley and I settled for a walk around the town, through the markets, ending with coffee/lunch on the balcony. It was an overall peaceful day and we ended the night by having one more group dinner and passing out Australian souveneirs to little ones at the market. Probably one of my favourite things about the trip! Seeing the children light up, saying thank you, and hustling back to their parents in rejoice that they received a very inexpensive yet foreign item.
In the blink of an eye, our time in Laos vanished. Our group of eight boarded the next plane with a destination landing of Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had time to journal more in the airport and during the flight and I categorized five major thoughts.

Thought Number One: Each and every one of us are on these unexpected and altering paths in life. One minor twist or turn could possibly alter a future. Almost one year ago, I nervously boarded a plane and made my way to a country town in Victoria, Australia. With no idea of what my future had in store, I had this bright idea to start a blog to share with loved ones back home my adventures, experiences, and whereabouts while living abroad. During this blogging adventure, I had the silent follower named Sara. Whom only made herself more aware to me when I returned to Montana for a visit during the summer. We shared two inspirational coffee dates where we chatted endlessly about life and the amazing things it has to offer. She mentioned the start-up of a nonprofit organization The Million Girl Army. I believe we chatted about it at both coffee dates and she had asked me if I was interested. I vividly remember racing through both the pros and cons of a trip like this and clearly the pros outweighed the cons. I excitedly shared the news with my parents and Craig about this wonderful idea and opportunity Sara and I had chatted about. That friends and family is my thought number one. Plans in life alter frequently and opportunities come and go. I seized this beautiful opportunity and I am so thankful that I did because I would not be here if otherwise. So thank you Sara for letting me partake and be part of the very beginning of The Million Girl Army.

Thought Number Two: I made a beautiful friend by the nickname of Ben while on this trip. He was interested in learning about each and every member of the team. Ben is a quiet man of many stories. He is observant, gentle, and faithful to his God. I believe he speaks from the soul and often provides others with inspirational quotes or words. While boarding the plane from Laos to Cambodia, I began to cry. The others were in front and it was Ben and I at the back. Missing the first transport bus and climbing the stairs last we chatted. He praised my compassion and the beauty of my heart. He knew I had to be special because I am a teacher, a special-needs teacher at that, but when he saw me in action at the refugee camp, with the group, etc. he saw me radiate love and passion to all. (Please take this thought with care – I try not to share compliments upon myself for I am neither arrogant or conceded.) So I began to cry. He asked me where I learned these traits and I simply said my parents and I am so lucky to have them both in my life. After Thailand and Laos there were so few children with the same opportunities as mine. Especiallly the children at the refugee camp, many had only one or no parents at all. So I simply cried and said I could not wait for him to meet my mom and dad. For they are the beautiful people that helped to form their beautiful daughter.

Thought Number Three: On the second day of Laos, Haley and I settled for a foot spa. Not any type of normal foot spa, but one that involved skin-eating fish. Yes! I had heard about these fish before and I wanted to try it while here. So for $4 dollars we let small and little fish eat the dead skin off of our feet. How cool!

Now that is not the best part about the foot spa. Two middle-aged woman approached us and were curious about doing the same thing. We began talking and soon found out they were from Nevada. They were on the same type of trip for they too had started in Thailand, moved to Laos, and were finishing in Cambodia. We began sharing the purpose of our trip and our experiences thuse far. They immediately wanted our information so that they could follow the rest of our journey and donate in the future! They were amazed at what we have come to do and one of the ladies could related to our cause for she used to be a police officer that worked with children of sexual abuse. Its amazing what the power of networking can achieve even when just getting fish to eat your skin. Ha! I have learned extremely quick that you can never know too many people because I would not have gotten to this glorious place in my life without networking.

Thought Number Four: While getting to know everyone on this trip, it has come to my attention that we are such a diverse group of girls. Each of us bringing something special and unique to the team. Who are the more realists or practical thinkers vs the dreamers. After many thought-provoking discussions and debriefings, I have come to accept myself as a dreamer. For if I could heal the world with love I would do it in a single heartbeat. Especially if it meant relieving the pain from others. As a dreamer, I have learned the hard way that you can TRUST too many people and sometimes give too much (be taken advantage of). Maybe we are more prone to heartache if we are more prone to letting others permeate our shell. This is also where my partner, Craig, compliments me the most. He brings me back to reality and makes me think things through or view all possible options. Craig would be more of a realist and we feed really well off one another by doing so. I guess this thought that I am trying to word vomit out is that we have a team of very different women. A team made up of both realists and dreamers. One that can change the world when things come together. I am so lucky to be have met such beautiful and wonderful women. Well done Sara for bringing together many unique individuals!

Thought Number Five: Laos was an opportunity for me to reflect the major stages of this trip thus far. The first was how I came about being here. The second was having my parents create the daughter that wants to help others. Third was the power of networking and the fourth was dynamic team building. Now I am approaching my fifth and final thought and that is: this is not the type of trip you take to only remember the good parts but also a trip where I need to remember the difficult parts also.I won’t simply be traveling home expressing my overglowing joy of how fun EVERYTHING was because that is simply not the truth. The purpose of this first expedition was to educate ourselves and to gather infomation. While educating myself, I experienced incredibly painful emotions and helplessness encounters. However, now with both the good and bad in mind it is time to use this trip to move forward and not backward. One step at a time and eventually steps of not only 8 people but that of millions. A trip of a lifetime and a trip I will never forget. The Million Girl Army has already put that foot in the door and is now stepping together as an inspriing team with the vision of building something miraculous and changing the lives of millions.

Xx
Samantha

Perspective

–By Haley Konen

For all you youngins’ (ages varying from 16-24ish) this post is for you. Everyone should read it of course but around my age is where my focus is.

On Tuesday afternoon (I think, the days are running together) we met with Katy’s sponsor students, she has two. Both Incredible stories but the second one we met with struck a chord for me and I would like to share her story with all of you to put in perspective how good we actually have it. — So, I just turned twenty, I live at my parents house and am just now making the decision to go back to school. I have no bills to worry about, no groceries to buy.– I know that a lot of people I know back home are in a very similar situation.

Now.. let me tell you about He.

He and KatyI can’t remember her real name but she likes to go by He. She lost her mother sometime within this last year and has no contact with her father that we know of (we don’t even know if he’s still alive or even ever had contact with her). Right now, with the financial support from Katy, she is attending cosmetology school in the morning and then goes to a public school in the afternoon. Also with Katy’s help she is able to rent a small room in a boarding school type building. –Along with having to get herself to school, provide food and shelter for herself… she is raising her nine year old brother. Here’s the kicker… this girl is EIGHTEEN years old. Can you imagine the struggles? How truly incredible she is.

Compare the two stories. Apply her story to your own life. See how silly we are to EVER complain.

-Haley

Year Zero

Toul Sleng

–By Sara Johnson

We have just arrived back from Toul Sleng, otherwise known as S-21, just one of the interrogation prison locations during the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1978.  It is difficult to put into words how I am feeling right now.  Touring Toul Sleng where it is estimated over 20,000 men, women and children were tortured before being sent to the killing fields for execution is similar to what I imagine walking through Auschwitz would be like.  While the education is essential to my growth as a human, the affect is profoundly somber.  Room after room is filled with pictures of prisoners, taken upon their arrival. Each one stares at the camera with a mixture of fear, confusion, and even defiance.  It leaves me feeling haunted.

I have a tendency to think of genocide as a thing of the past, something we have moved far past as a society and yet this happened within my lifetime, a mere 35 years ago.  Had I been born into an educated family here rather than in the United States, I would likely have shared this fate with my entire family.  It’s a chilling thought, made more real as I walked through the prison cells, viewed the instruments of torture, read the forced letters of confession, and looked into the eyes of small children torn from their parents and afraid.

The end of this period of history is often referred to as “Year Zero,” the year the country began to rebuild from the ground up.  Imagine trying to rebuild a country without any educated people and most of the older generation to guide you, for over two million of them were the targets of this regime.  All the engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, and anyone with a degree was under suspicion, arrested with their families and sent to be tortured for information before execution.

The effects of this have spilled into every facet of life here.  This morning we learned that as a result of the genocide as much as 70% of Cambodia’s population is under age 30. Many are raised by parents who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder but are unwilling to talk about their experiences, leaving the younger generations with learned behaviors that are not always healthy.

There is also a volatile rage boiling just below the surface, fueled by an accurate sense of injustice over the crimes committed, the fact that the leaders of the regime are just now finally coming to trial, and that victims often live just down the street from their perpetrators who have blended back into society without repercussion.  There’s a sense of uneasiness, a wariness of those around you which to a certain extent creates a devaluing of human life, especially of marginalized powerless groups.

In addition, while they are seeking educations in greater numbers, with such a tremendous young workforce there simply aren’t enough good jobs to go around, especially for young women. Knowing this, families favor educating their sons over their daughters, seeing value only in what a daughter can earn through selling small trinkets or worse, through her sale into the sex industry.  Other young women eventually are forced to “choose” a life of prostitution as it’s the only industry with enough demand to earn enough money to feed a family.

As their leader I worry as I watch my group become overwhelmed.  The numbers are staggering, the need massive.  How could we ever possibly help?

But then I remember yesterday afternoon.

When we first arrived we had a chance to visit a couple of the girls members of my family have sponsored for years.  They are girls who grew up in at-risk homes, often having lost one or both parents to HIV.  They were marginalized, defenseless, and destined to become one of the statistics I mentioned above.  And yet our intervention did change their lives in a very real way.  By providing them with an opportunity for education, we watched them grow from shy quiet children into women with strong voices, doggedly fighting to finish their education and reshape the trajectory of their lives.

I cannot help but wish that every child in America treasured their education as much, pursuing it with this determination, recognizing the gift that it is.  These girls have fought off angry family members determined to take the opportunity away, juggled transportation challenges, continued on even when they lost their parents and had to support themselves, and fought back against society norms to carve out the life they want for themselves.sponsors

They are inspiring.  They are fearless.  They are hope.  They are my reminder.

A reminder that overwhelming numbers cannot stop me from doing my part.  I cannot help everyone, but I can help a few.  And I can encourage everyone I know to help a few.  And I can teach a million girls and women why they too should help.  And working together, we will make a dent in the need here.

-Sara

Thailand: A Breath of Fresh Air, Feeling of Hope, Empowering Group of Women

–By Samantha McKay

It feels so refreshing to be sitting at the computer screen processing and sorting out my grueling thoughts over the past few days. I am hoping to debrief and relieve some of the activities and meetings we have encountered while in Thailand from my mind and soul.

To start off our trip and on day one, we met with a lovely intern from IJM (International Justice Mission) to discuss the sex trafficking of young women, especially in Southeast Asia countries. Miss Hernandez, the intern, was full of life, energy, and purpose. Planning to study criminal justice – in particular for victims – she shared with us IJM’s mission of preventing trafficking of women, abuse, racism, human rights, etc. What I thought would be a meeting persistent on women and abuse, turned into a meeting about civil rights and the treatment of people that are presented as stateless. Instantly, I felt a mix of emotions wash over my heart. The feeling of being stateless. Something people that come from privileged homes have never had to worry about. Women, children, and families that cannot identify where they come from or do not hold any type of citizenship are degraded and looked down upon on a daily basis. Wow. How lucky are we? How lucky am I? What I liked best about IJM is the fact that they focus on PREVENTION instead of waiting for the action to take place and then step in. A good message that Miss Hernandez pointed out was that action can be documented and recorded; however, prevention is difficult to measure. We were lucky enough to have our lovely intern tell us about some stories that were extremely memorable to her and impacted her the most. She shared with us how a mother and daughter of a hill tribe village were related to a brother whom held a high status. However, the mother and daughter could not show that they belonged to some type of state. Therefore, they were stateless and treated extremely poor. As a teacher, my heart broke into pieces when I was informed that the daughter’s education lacked and her school teacher showed very little interest. All because they were stateless. They were considered less of a human being. Less than a person. Less than any form of life itself.

To wrap up our meeting, Miss Hernandez stated we were a breath of fresh air. Not only to be educating ourselves about the purpose of IJM, but also to come and share our own future purpose and that is to move forward with this non-profit to help those programs and other NGO’s already in place in these countries to continue their positive and difficult work.

Our next day in Thailand, we endured quite the trip to a refugee camp located by the border of Burma. We had been previously informed that not many people make it or travel to this camp and we soon had found out why. What started as a 3-hour drive and a fairly short trip in a transfer van ended up being a 5-hour drive and 30 minute truck ride. However, it did not end there. After the 5-hour drive, we were then relocated to the back of a ’93 or ’94 Toyota to continue 2.5 hours through treacherous, wet, bumpy, and leaf smacking roads. What started out as a giggling session, it quickly turned into a little bit worrisome and a physical workout to hold ourselves steady. Almost 8 hours later one-way, we made it to the refugee camp. It was a village of about 3,000 people and I might I add, the first time I have honestly felt like a woman with barely any status or respect by a man.

We were hoping to collect pictures and meet with young women to share with us their stories about their complicated and not-so-simple lives to later bring back as information to share with the future Million Girl Army teenagers about the differences of being privileged Americans compared to women in these third-world countries. We were greeted by the President of the Bible camp and his fellow male staff members. Instantaneously, I felt chills. We sat along a table and were eager to get out their and meet with the girls; however, right away we were told no photos or meetings with any girls outside of the camp. We were the minority and what felt like a nuisance. With this culture is was very rude of us to speak directly with the president. This type of agenda or meeting for them was only appropriate to have men address men. Sara’s father tried to smooth things out for us and explain our purpose and mission of the day. They had also informed us that they were preparing food. However, we were running out of daylight, had sore stomachs from our journey, and did not want to eat again knowing what was going to face us on the way back. Therefore, we declined. Strike number two! Our actions were rude and we were pushy. I felt frustrated and our group leader, Sara, held her composure and in result helped me to stay calm.

Finally, they agreed to let us look around the girls dormitories and we left the meeting room. Which was an instant relief for me and the girls excitedly led the way. I would say there were about 25-30 girls. They eagerly stood by their beds or sat on them with beaming smiles. Haley and myself went into one section together. I tried to make them laugh. One had a poster of pop star boys, I pointed, and we all giggled. We got to the end of the room and they persistently they asked us to sit with them for a photo. Before we knew it, we were laughing, smiling, taking hundreds of photos, and being led hand-in-hand by these beautiful girls around this portion of the village. Knowing nightfall was just around the corner, we decided to hit the road after our fun and exciting paparazzi session.

However, one girl in particular stopped me, held my hand and I honestly believe she looked deep into my soul. All she asked, “Are you happy?”

“Happy with what?” I responded.

“That you came here,” she said peacefully.

I replied, “I couldn’t be more happier than I am at this moment in life.”

She simply said, “I am happy to.”

Later to learn she is the teacher for the women, with decent English, and a mother hen because many have 1 or no parents at all, I had the hardest time saying goodbye to her eyes and most of all to her beautiful smile. Even if I felt I accomplished only a little bit on this trip, I know that I have delivered hope and passed on happiness. Not only to one teacher – but also to MYSELF.

Our third and final day in Thailand, we traveled up to Chiang Rai. We were meeting with the students that received scholarships from the MMF program in Washington. Our agenda for the day consisted of a beautiful picnic lunch followed by five or six interviews with the women from the university to share with us their upbringing and what it is like to be a woman in Thailand.  I have not had the chance to watch all of the interviews because we did not want to intimidate these women into sharing with us any harsh experiences; however, I was able to listen to a very interesting story. This young woman shared with us how exciting university is for her and that she eventually would like to return to her village to work and give back to her community. She then shared with us how being a woman in a village to a woman in the city is very, very different. A woman in a village experiences difficulties of holding lower statuses than that of a man. However, in the city, it is often seen as women with an education to hold higher positions and provide for their families. The student we were interviewing described this as a difficult thing for her to adjust to when she goes to visit her community. However, what hit home most was that she was so excited to be meeting with us. She says that many groups like theirs is often forgotten or skimmed over. But when women like us, come to meet with them, learn about them, and show an interest in helping out already positive groups doing positive things it is not only encouraging but also empowering.

There you have it. Our first three days. From my own perspective. We have had our triumphs and hurdles. We have learned to adjust and adapt to these different cultural needs. But what feels the absolute best and not only fills my heart even more with joy is that I have been told we are: a breath of fresh air, a feeling of hope, and an empowering group of women. 

Xx

Samantha