The dirt and grit was caked to my old, stained tennis shoes. My forehead was dripping salty sweat into my tired eyes. Our group had been working all week constructing a small shack – large enough to fit a family of four, in Tijuana, Mexico. We were near the finish line – almost done with our project. As I reflected on that hot roof about our experience in Mexico, with a nail gun in hand, I realized that I was never more proud to be so tired.
I went on this trip to Mexico with my youth church from my faith community when I was in 7th grade. I knew I loved to travel. I knew I loved people. But little did I know how this trip would forever change me.
In 7th grade, I was focused on my friends, soccer, church and school. My world was about as big as my small town. I couldn’t conceptualize poverty, hunger or struggle because I had never truly seen it. When the opportunity arose for me to join a group of teens my age from all over the U.S. to go to Mexico to serve, I said, “why not?”
I spent about a week in Mexico. We were located just over the wealthy California board in the outskirts of Tijuana, the poorest slums in the area. Our job as a team was to construct a small home for a family. I thought that I was embarking on an adventure that would help others. I thought I would be going to Mexico to build a house, help people and leave. However, between roofing and nailing siding to the house – I met people. Real people, like you and me. I played soccer with teenage girls my age. I knew Spanish, so I was able to ask them about their lives – what did they like to eat? What did they do during the day? Did they have many friends?
By the end of the trip, I quickly realized that the girls I met in Tijuana were happy – truly joyful. Their joy did not come from a new pair of shoes they bought, or the new iPhone they purchased. They were joyful with so little – and it made me realize how beautiful that simple joy was. While I worried about my new outfit, these girls lived in complete poverty – with no option to go to school, to grow and to learn. Because I hit the geographic lottery, I was born the U.S. – where I could go up in a safe home, with healthy foods and the right to vote and learn. It didn’t seem fair.
Because of that trip, I was unable to look at life the same again. Since that time, I have served on several service trips, worked for a family homeless shelter, and now I am a grant funder – providing funds to local nonprofits who are changing our community for the better.
Our world is so much bigger than the school we go to, the town we live in – or even the country we occupy. Had it not been for the first trip in 7th grade to Mexico, I would be a very different person now. That trip taught me humility, compassion and that I could do something to make a difference. You don’t need to be an adult to make a BIG impact in our world – you just need to get started by making an impact on something that matters to you.
I am a lucky one. By the time I was 13 I had travelled to 6 of the 7 continents. You see, my Dad was a mountaineering guide and he and my Mom took my sister and I almost everywhere. I was raised all over the globe alongside kids who didn’t look or talk like me. I knew, very early on, that I was blessed to be an American girl. I had (and still have) opportunities most kids only dreamed of and I have always been determined to show others what compassion for global issues looks like.
Africa changed me. It was there I spent my tenth and most memorable birthday ever. We had already climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro and were wandering around the local village marketplace. It was dusty and dry. Every time you took a step a small poof of dust would rise like when you open a box of powdered sugar and it was so hot, the type of hot that makes you desperate for a glass of lemonade. The market was small but there were kids selling beaded bracelets and I remember trying to communicate with them and us looking at each other confused by what were trying to say. Their eyes were so dark and their smiles so beautiful. The adults had loops in their earlobes created by the odd spool looking things people put in their ears these days. The kids were in awe of my blonde hair and pale skin; I was in awe of the incredible bead work. They were my age, but not in school. Why? I was exploring their country during a school break and going school was not even an option for them. At ten years old, it was hard to understand they sold their bead work to help feed their families. Did they even have families? Would it be odd if I just hugged them? Shakespeare wrote, “’Though she be but little, she is fierce!” I decided I was going to be fierce. I was completely enamored by the people, the animals, the mountain, and the culture. I even had my blonde hair braided, beads and all, before we returned home. I wore it that way to the first day of school. I wanted everyone to know about the people of Africa and I wanted to get back there (and every other country possible) as soon as I possibly could.
Fast-forward ten years and once again, I found myself in a market. What can I say, I am a sucker for beautiful things and markets make my heart happy! This time we were in Ecuador climbing Mount Cotopaxi. There were dusty dirt paths, livestock on leashes, women with children strapped to their backs and carrying live chickens by their feet, rows of spices, produce, and fabrics in every color in a new Crayola box, and beautiful, native people (mostly women) everywhere.
A darling young girl began to follow me around. She was selling friendship style bracelets. You know, the ones made of embroidery and a series of knots? Again, she wasn’t in school. As I spoke to her (this time I actually knew the language) I wondered, does she dream of going to school? Is school even an option for her? Is she by herself here? Is her family somewhere close by? Did she have a family? Would it be odd if I just hug her and tell her she is loved? How could I help? What could I do to help her have a bright future? All I had to offer her was a smile and a purchase, but I also had my voice and maybe, just maybe that would be something.
By then I had been begun reading everything I could find about all things worldly. I knew and understood that poverty, child labor, and even trafficking was a reality and many girls would never attend school or be given the opportunity to dream the big dreams that I did. You know what was the most shocking for me? Once I began to know those things, I couldn’t un-know and I couldn’t just sit back and do nothing. I took any chance I got to share with others about cultural truths and how something as simple as their purchases affected the lives of people around the world. Unfortunately, most don’t want to hear that kind of truth and I have spent many a moments frustrated and feeling rather misunderstood. Maybe you have felt that way as well?
Emma, at a small school in Haiti
My earliest travel memories are from when I was 7 and now they include my own daughter, but you know what? Our memories have only just begun. There are countless places to visit and people to embrace. You simply keep learning and seeking out new experiences, teaching and sharing truth, and standing firm in your faith for a changed world. Be fierce, and know your voice will be heard. In fact it can echo and if you have ever heard an echo you know it can be heard for miles away. I can promise you this, that feeling of being misunderstood...it will fade. Eventually you will find others who live, love and learn like you do. They will just “get it” and you will never let each other go. In fact, you may travel half way around the world with them, fighting for justice and embracing those who need that love you have to share.
Those friends I promised you will find, here are some of mine as we fight human trafficking, and advocate for families and for social justice.
It was a big weekend for Million Girl Army. Our very first small troop gathering took place. Million Girl Army provides the girls who join with opportunities to gather together monthly in smaller groups to learn about global issues and to compare the lives of girls their age around the world with their own. To uncover differences, similarities, and ways they can use their resources to help those less fortunate.
“Poverty and gender inequality go hand-in-hand; girls and women in the poorest countries suffer a double whammy, of being born both in a poor country and female. To see the extent of this disadvantage, ONE analysed the situation for girls and women in least developed countries (LCD’s) across key gender indicators. On every indicator, life is significantly harder for girls and women in LCD’s when compared with those living in other countries. While that may not be surprising – because men in poor countries are also disadvantaged – ONE also found that the gender gap between males and females is larger in the poorest countries.”**
One billion children worldwide are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
Million Girl Army is an organization that understands the immensity of global poverty and fights to change those statistics. Often the enormity of statistics can paralyze people to inaction. It isn’t that as a whole we don’t want to help, it’s just that we can’t determine how to even begin to make a dent when the numbers are so high.