Healing Through Humanity, Part 3 of 3

This is the final excerpt in my three-part blog series, “Cemented.” Read part 1 and part 2.

Healing Through Humanity

This trip allowed me to heal.  Throughout the weeks I was there, I was able to see the graciousness of humanity’s hearts.  I remembered that helping others matters.  I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with the family we were helping, supporting, loving.

Remembering some of my Bulgarian language skills, I was able to converse with the family and they explained to me what this meant to them and their family.  We were calming their anxious hearts by not having to worry about a safe home for their two young boys.  They were living with many other people and if I understood correctly, in the kitchen of another’s home.  Now their children have the opportunity to grow up being kids and able to focus on school and family.  They will finally have a place to call home.

I know I have  taken for granted the fact that I have a place to call home, a place to be myself, a place to restart, rest, and make memories.  I was reminded that all acts of care in this world are worth something.  If we are capable to help, we must help.  I was reminded on this trip by a fellow First National employee that we can’t all give in the same way.  We must give in the ways we are capable of.  If you cannot give money, give with your hands, give with your time.  Give and help in any way that you can.  Another First National Bank Member reminded me that the simplest conversations can change whole person’s life, self-worth, and thoughts.

Humanitarian work to me isn’t always the most obvious things we do.  It can be simple acts of kindness, a gesture of care, speaking for those without a voice, teaching those to speak for themselves, empowering and encouraging those around us, or role modeling the behavior you wish others to follow.  We must all learn we are in this together, we are all part of the same human family.  We are all part of one big community and we must take care of each other.

There are many stories that arise when I think of the questions I have asked myself.  I realized that I cannot prevent the world from pain, I alone cannot save it and I relish in the fact that there are many others out there who are changing the world.  It will not take one person, it will take us working together in our communities and every opportunity matters.

One story comes to mind when I think of seeds growing.  When I first started at the Social Support Center, my coworkers and I struggled on where to start.  They decided they wanted to work with the mainstream kids in the schools.  I of course agreed, but felt it equally important to work with the Roma population and the orphanage youth.  They needed to be considered, it needed to matter.

At first I couldn’t understand their strong hesitation, for they made it clear that those populations were lazy and wouldn’t want to participate.  They felt the orphan youth and Roma populations weren’t as smart because they couldn’t read or write.  They felt they were disruptive and corrupt, which wasn’t necessarily incorrect for most.   My coworkers weren’t bad people, this idea was new to them.  What I realized is that I had to plant those seeds before they could grow.  They needed someone to show them that it mattered, that someone could care.  I myself started to work with the Roma population and the children in the orphanage.  At first these populations weren’t allowed in the Social Support Center.

I built relationships with these groups and began to figure out what their needs were and what I was capable of providing.  I started coming up with life skill activities and games.  Once in a while, I would ask my coworkers if they would like to participate with me.  They turned me down many times.  My coworkers would start to ask how activities were going and if they were learning or if they cared.  To their disbelief, I said yes.  I would encourage them to see for themselves and participate with us.

After some time, the orphan youth were then allowed into the Center.   Of course, it didn’t start out the best.  The children came in and the staff would find a reason to validate the way they felt and at times, the youth would prove it to them.  In fairness, both parties needed to plant seeds of trust before a relationship could grow.  I was the only one who would work with them, and after some time, one by one my coworkers started to want to work with them, too.

Since I had built a relationship with the youth, I could correct their behavior when they acted out.  There were times the youth needed to leave the Center and start fresh another day.  After more time, I created behavioral guidelines for being able to participate in our activities, which would hold the youth accountable for their actions.  At first they hesitated, but overall they loved being at the Center and loved participating in all the activities and therefore followed the guidelines.

Still with much hesitation, I now had a relationship with my coworkers where I could be bolder.  I remember having more honest and stern conversations with them about working more closely with the Roma population.  I told them that if you want the Roma population to be part of your culture, you must invite them in.  If you want them to learn to read and write, why not teach them?

After more time, my coworkers began to help me create for and teach the orphan youth (which also housed many of the Roma population) and built very respectful and close relationships with them.  Toward the end of my service, I saw the seeds in full bloom.  Without me saying anything, my coworkers developed a plan for the youth and were excited to share it with me.  They decided to let the community Roma population into the Center and that they wanted to work in the Roma schools with them as well.

At first, not many Roma youth and their parents wanted to come to the Center.  My coworkers were frustrated, but came up with another plan on their own.  They told me they were going to walk through the Roma neighborhoods and knock door to door to sign the youth up for activities we would provide.  They wanted to introduce themselves and make it known that they cared.

colgateI wish I would have captured this moment with a camera.  My coworkers and I walked to the entrance of a Roma neighborhood and stopped.  There were four of them.  They were so nervous and decided to hold hands.  They asked me if I wanted to hold their hands and I said no.  I said I will follow you from behind because you deserve to lead the way.  I watched in utter amazement.  My coworkers entered a world they at first believed to be bad.

I watched them knock on many doors and had many Roma families sign up. They were also all invited to a meeting about the activities we would like to provide.  When the meeting came, the room was so full with parents and youth, you were elbow to elbow with them.

They didn’t need me to lead anymore.  They started doing activities and sessions, for life skills on their own.  We divided our time between many different schools, sessions at the Center, and in the orphanage.

A very wise First National Bank member told me, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”  -Nelson Mandela

This concludes part 3 of my three-part blog series, “Cemented.” Thanks for reading!

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, Part 3 of 5

This is part 3 of a 5-series post, On Bulgaria:  Life Beyond the Wall.  Not caught up? Read parts one and two.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer

Encountering My Self at The Wall

It was Thursday morning, the fourth work day.  Everyone was assembled in the dining room enjoying what was starting to become a monotonous breakfast buffet of soft-scrambled and hard-boiled eggs.  This was Victor’s day to give the morning benediction before we loaded ourselves onto the bus that took us to the build site.  Victor’s words were crafted from insights he had experienced over the previous days while contributing his labor to the construction of The Wall. He’d artfully titled his observations something like “Thoughts at the Wall”.

I can’t remember every point he made that morning, and I imagine I’m not alone in my wish to now have a recording of exactly what he did say.  I do remember this – in his closing remarks Victor invited each of us to be open to what we might encounter at The Wall.

Afterward, I caught up to Victor as everyone walked to the bus. I had a few brief minutes to compliment him and mention an epiphany I’d had at The Wall only the day before, but we were quickly surrounded by the good-natured chatter and banter of everyone else once we climbed inside and sat down.  I had appreciated his words, but his experience was vastly different from my own. I was lost in my thoughts by the time we arrived at the build site.

Like a mendicant but with a desire to repay the privilege of her trip, I appreciated the manual aspects of the tasks I was given that helped me relax my mind.  I was grateful for work that enabled me to prove I could still move my body and use the muscles in my neck and shoulder without severe pain.  Being part of a group eased the sense of aloneness that so often accompanies grief, and especially when the loss has been your last surviving parent.

Although I was quiet in comparison, I welcomed the community of sounds that emanated from various places in and around the house where my teammates performed their work.  Two sounds were always the most prominent.  Ken’s laugh  – it seemed to make everything twice as funny because its’ pitch was

so at odds with his tall, muscular stature.  The other was the churn and clank of the cement mixer  – it provided such a constant hum of white noise that its’ alternating times of silence and mixing were often what signaled me to the beginning and ending of our breaks.

In addition to the regularity of those two sounds, during my days working in the attic I could usually catch the strains of music wafting up from below.  I noted how the tone of everyone’s voices carried a good natured quality that would have fooled anyone passing by of the fact that we were relative strangers to each other.  Only occasionally was the pleasantness of this homespun symphony interrupted by admonishments from our Bulgarian site manager, Assya.  In fairness, her tone probably seemed more severe than it actually was because of how her accent syncopated the instructions she was forced to deliver to us in English.

On the afternoon of the third day, I took my place at The Wall.  Surrendering myself to chance, I allowed the music to guide the pace of my hand and arm in their repetitive motions of moving the sanding bricks across the concrete’s surface.  I heard with only a passing interest the conversations around me. Otherwise, I was wholly absorbed in my task at The Wall.

If I hadn’t been so quiet I might have missed what happened next.  What is mine to do?   Was my being here and doing this particular task really the most purposeful, life changing action I could take on behalf of another?

The answer followed swiftly on the heels of the question with such an acute prick of clarity that in the context of where I stood, my first emotion was pure dejection.   I knew unequivocally that the act of building a house was not my answer to “What is mine to do?”.  Even though I didn’t speak it aloud, I immediately wished I could take back the thought.  Everyone around me appeared completely confident about what we were doing and accomplishing on this trip.  So much so that anyone might have thought we held the golden keys to the City of Greatest Impact.

I did a gut check – I wasn’t resentful of the work I’d been assigned to do.  On the contrary, each day felt like a vacation to me. Probably because it was so removed from the recent stress of my life.

“What is mine to do?”  I was so sad and unforgiving of myself at this point in the trip.  “What”, I wondered, “is wrong with me?”  Given all the generosity making my participation possible, who could I possibly talk to?  No one here would ever understand.  If anything, I would only end up feeling even more on the fringe of things.

I’d forgotten a truth Gregg Levoy writes about in his book Callings, “Calls emerge as readily from the ground as from the sky, as much from the exhortations of the common life as from our spiritual ideals.”

This concludes part 3 of a 5-part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond the Wall.  Read what happens next in part 4:  Discovering My Life Beyond the Wall.

On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, Part 2 of 5

This is the second in a five-part series, On Bulgaria:  Life Beyond the Wall.  Need to catch up?  Read part one.

Image created by: Diane Mora using Paper 53 Quote by: Pico Ilyer

To say I was “terrified” of discovering what would be mine to do on the build site, is definitely an exaggeration.  Curious, yes.  Terrified, no.  Granted, I’m not a regular shopper at Home Depot or Lowe’s.  Trips to my local Restore (a residential building supply thrift store operated by Habitat for Humanity) are usually for the purpose of donating items rather than purchasing them.  I enjoy refinishing the occasional piece of furniture.  However, I leave all but the smallest household repairs and all remodeling projects to the experts.

As Ken and Chad discovered, I do did have an irrational fear of climbing down ladders.  A fear that I was quickly forced to face (and eventually conquer) each time necessity compelled me to descend the narrow wooden ladder that rested at a sharp angle through the attic’s only opening.  If I wanted to pee, eat, or go home I had to descend that ladder;  all three of these proved to be pretty good motivators for overcoming fear.

My otherwise fearless participation was interrupted only by a bout of nausea and vomiting one afternoon on the way back to our hotel after a full day’s work.  I had repeatedly eaten street food in China without any side effect.  I’d done nothing of the kind in Bulgaria, and I had no idea what overcame me.  I had been pushing through my tasks for the better part of the workday while trying to ignore a deep sense of tiredness and nausea.  In hindsight, I think by the time we got on the bus my body decided it was going to force me to slow down and take stock one way or another.  Thank goodness our bus driver had rapid reflexes enabling him to quickly pull curbside upon request.  Puking into a unemptied, galvanized metal trash can (thankfully present on the sidewalk of that residential street) was not an example of my finest hour.  Once we made it back to the hotel I took myself straight to bed while everyone else went out for a sushi dinner.  From five o’clock that evening until the next morning, I vacillated between a fitful sleep and short periods of semi-wakefulness.

I probably sound like a wimp.  In comparison to other volunteer service and humanitarian aid trips I’ve made in and outside the United States, the Global Village trip to Bulgaria with Habitat was by far the easiest.  Mind you, it was physically strenuous but our accommodations were the best I’ve ever had for a service travel engagement.  We had no need to expend any effort thinking about meals, transportation, or safety of any kind.  All we had to do was show up.

Be that as it may, that night I knew I had hit a very different kind of wall.  A wall I had probably been building for several months.  The short explanation is that I thought I could hide myself from grief while hiding my exhaustion from everyone else.  Most foolishly, I thought throwing myself into a project doing good for others would cure me of both.

Only nine weeks prior to departing for Bulgaria, my mom had finally been overtaken by dementia and leukemia.  She died the first night of the full moon in July.  I am now in the habit of watching for it to appear each month, and I remember noticing that it was present over Sofia several evenings as I looked out the window of my hotel. I may never look at a full moon again without thinking of her.

In those few weeks between her funeral and the start of our trip to Bulgaria I had traveled to Spain and back giving a presentation to international educators. I had only eleven days to unpack and repack my bags before meeting up with the Global Village team in Omaha.  As if that weren’t enough, with only nine short days to go before our trip I had received the second of two epidurals in my cervical spine to alleviate chronic neck and shoulder pain that had been nearly debilitating me for the seven months it had taken doctors to determine the cause. When I left Kansas City to meet up with my Global Village teammates, I thought no trip could have been more ill-timed than this one.  But I’d made a commitment, and I was bound and determined to keep it.

Underscoring this sense of poor timing was a phone call taken in my Omaha hotel room from a school expressing interest in an application I’d submitted for my dream job.  The opening was immediate and their need for a teacher was pressing.  Knowing I couldn’t respond to their requests for additional documents while on the trip, I had no choice but to hope they would determine I was worth waiting for.  I was having trouble sorting out how much of my angst was a result of the delays imposed by the trip versus my fears about taking a thirty percent pay cut to teach the specific population of students I longed to work with.

In the words of Pico Ilyer, I had “surrendered myself to chance” when I applied for the trip. I had surrendered to chance when I accepted the invitation. I was now surrendering on faith that whatever happened next was meant to be.  It was in that state of surrender that I now stood in wonder at The Wall.

This concludes part 2 of a 5 part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.  Read what happens next in part 3:  Encountering My Self at The Wall.

Thanks for reading.

My Favorite Photos

Loving these photos with the family. We’ll have a bond for years to come!

An Incredible Connection

Photos with our deserving Habitat for Humanity Bulgaria family.

Habitat Bulgaria Tour & Photos!

Last Day at the Job Site

It was a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to see that wall turn out that nice. It was a great team work to get the wall plastered, roof insulated and rooms painted in 5 days. Go team Bulgaria #habitat #unforgettablefirsts


Even More Motivation

Here’s the darling, deserving 13 year old boy who is super excited to have a room of his own in the attic for the first time ever in his young life!! He spoke clear, polite English to us !! Talk about motivation to finish his home!