I am fortunate…I am blessed…I am strong…I am loved. How many of us can say these words, and believe it fully, in our hearts? To admit that one is fortunate, first, he or she must understand and realize what it is to be less fortunate.
My travels to India and Nepal in the summer of 1999 led me to such a realization. I was a young girl, blessed with the comforts and security of a safe environment, the availability of food and necessities of life, and a group of family and friends who loved and protected me from the harms of this evil world. Yet, it took the experience of leaving the United States and traveling to a foreign land, a third world country, in order to have my eyes opened to a world that existed outside of my little bubble. The simplicities that I once took for granted became magnified in this place of destitution. I recall a moment of extreme guilt and sadness, when I glanced out the window of a small, but comfortable plane, and saw a sea of cardboard boxes that housed millions of Indians. It was at this particular moment that I realized all of my gifts, blessings, talents and freedoms must be used for a greater purpose than for myself.
In 2006, I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, where I worked with women and children, and used some of my teaching and counseling skills to break down typical barriers that present women in this culture as weak and without a voice. I was introduced to new misconceptions about life while spending time in this little corner of the world: The greatest challenge and disappointment being the inequality of women and men. Women are not visible in this country, as they are confined to the home, or to their volunteer position in a workplace that their husband deemed appropriate and granted special permission. I found myself wondering the streets of Istanbul, bewildered by the swarms of men, dominating the restaurant scene, smoking rooms, beaches, shops and other recreational places, while women were unable to enjoy these freedoms of leisure.
The absence of women in social areas caused me to investigate the Turkish culture and the findings were disturbing, to say the least. Turkey’s increasingly conservative society and the inequality between genders create a volatile atmosphere for women and children, with lethal results. In 2007, over one thousand women were murdered in Turkey, with no consequences or convictions for their perpetrators. Young children witness the mistreatment of women and girls in this society, and are doomed to repeat this pattern of practice, unless they are taught to change their outlook and attitudes towards the very women who gave them life.
The following year, China became my focus, where I found myself in a classroom filled with eager students, desiring to perfect their English speaking skills. It was there, at the University of Qingdao, that I learned my greatest lesson about life…people are what matter! Reaching out to those in need is the best use of my talents and gifts. My students in China were amazed to sit in a classroom with a teacher who cared more about their feelings and emotions than what grade they received on their final exam. Unconditional love and acceptance are unfathomable concepts in areas of Asia. An unbelievable amount of stress and pressure is placed upon young children to attain elite status in every area of academics, robbing them of their childhood and causing results that often lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. Again, I witnessed inequality between genders, which results in an unstable and unhappy society, especially for the women and young girls.
My experience with teaching and counseling people in Iceland, Budapest, Croatia, Guatemala and the Czech Republic have taught me many valuable lessons. Lessons that I would have never learned, had I not stepped out of my comfort zone and put the needs of others before my own. I learned to invest time and effort into things that really matter in life. I also learned that the one, common factor in every country that I have been privileged to visit, is that people desire healthy relationships. People want to know they are loved and accepted without conditions or services rendered.
Sixteen years of experiencing extraordinary places, people and situations has encouraged me to go, do and give more. I’ve learned that when I become overwhelmed with the workload, and reach a point of exhaustion and fatigue, I remember the strong individuals I encountered along each journey and how in spite of their circumstances and lack of freedoms, they pushed through hard times and succeeded in unimaginable ways. This recollection encourages me to push through and finish the task in which I am called.
I am an ordinary person, who has been given extraordinary opportunities and tasks. And when an individual experiences the extraordinary, she often never returns to ordinary, everyday life.