"Haiti is like this..." {Photo Blog}

We were driving down a busy street in Port-au-Prince when our country director slammed on the brakes. He eased his way over a sharp speed bump and apologized saying, “Driving in Haiti is like this. There are obstacles you don’t see until they’re right in front of you. They’re not labeled.”

In just a few short sentences he had summed up working in Haiti. There are moments when everything is clear, it feels like you’re moving forward and communities are thriving. But then something unexpected happens — a natural disaster, an unexpected illness, deep-seeded lies being sewn. In the two short days I spent in Haiti this week I met a woman who had recently lost two children, one to cholera and one to something the doctors couldn’t explain. I heard about people refusing to send their children to a VisionTrust school because it was against Voodoo. I saw people living their daily lives in a level of poverty that is still difficult to comprehend, even after working in majority world countries for five years.

But, for me, each of those stories was countered by the amazing locals I met that have dedicated their lives to creating long-term change. They know that unexpected obstacles will come, but they are fiery and steadfast in their determination to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. I was humbled by every conversation I had with them.

In the midst of hard there is always good. So, they will keep doing this work and I will continue to pray for them as they serve these precious children. Join me?  

4 Women, 1 Lesson

I don't know if you know this about me, but I am a feminist...and I'm willing to bet you are too. Do you believe in equal rights for men and women? Welcome to the feminist movement! When people take the definition of feminism and skew it with a bunch of negative connotations, it makes me...um...frustrated, to say the least. One of the reasons it really gets my goat is because of the women I’ve had the opportunity to meet on my travels with VisionTrust over the last four years. These women are some of the most independent, powerful, God-fearing women I've ever met and too often they're oppressed by a culture that does not respect all they have to offer. So, this International Women's Day I wanted to reflect on some of the amazing women and girls I've been privileged to meet.

Suza, who cares for her son along with her orphaned nephews, handicapped brother, and elderly mother. She wakes up at the crack of dawn to do backbreaking work in the fields (along with grandma and the boys) with this outrageously beautiful smile on her face.

Lucy, whose passion for teaching children about the Lord is overwhelming. She's pictured below teaching students at a leadership camp about health and safety.

Kate, the most radiantly joyful girl, whose ability to walk is a miracle.

Jenny, my Dominican “twin”, who is full of love despite the lack of love she was shown.

The reason these four women/girls stand out to me is because they’ve all taught me the same lesson—hope is incredibly powerful. But, hope must be paired with hard work and love in order to create change.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is, “Make it happen—encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women.” 

What I love about these four women above is they’re making things happen. They don’t let their circumstances define them and they don’t sit around waiting for someone to help them. They unabashedly follow the Lord wherever He leads, strive to see the good in every situation, and are generous beyond reason.

I hope to be more like these women. And in the meantime I’ll do all I can to advocate for them as they advocate for themselves.

Happy International Women’s Day! 

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Just a glimpse (Photo Blog)

On my recent trip to Haiti my team talked about how God is in the business of redemption—He redeems hard situations in our lives in ways we could never have imagined in the midst. Sometimes He heals pain and confusion by using it to teach or shape us. Sometimes He uses others to help take that pain away. And sometimes He just graciously allows us to forget.

Since my first visit to Haiti over a year ago I've been wondering how God will redeem the hurt this country has endured. A hurt so deep that it seems to penetrate every area of life—physically, spiritually and relationally. I walked away from this visit without a clear answer as to how everything will be redeemed, but a strong assurance that God is in the process of redeeming. I see glimpses of it everywhere—through the local heroes He's elevated to love others well; through a generation being raised up to live for Him and love others; through families who are trying so desperately to care for their children; through people who have a heart for the world. I'm encouraged by the work God is doing, but even more so I'm encouraged by the work I know He is yet to do.

Here are some of the glimpses I was blessed to see in Haiti last week with our Help-Portrait team.

The Church (Photo Blog)

One week ago ago I was sitting on a wooden bench under an open-air tent in Zimbabwe. Hundreds of students sat around me, eyes locked on a pastor passionately sharing about what it means to live for God and love others.

In the stillness that followed, light shining in from all sides, I was reminded that this is the Church. No building, no walls, no slideshows, no instruments required—just people sharing the love and truth of Christ with one another.

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We spoke the Lord’s Prayer and its power swept over me. 

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

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We lived life together and reveled in the joy that only comes from the Lord.

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My team stood in awe of the hospitality and love so freely given.

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Before this trip I prayed for healing—for those we would come into contact with, for the team and for myself. The Lord answered my prayer in a way I couldn't have expected. The people we met are the definition of sweetly broken, poured out for their Creator. Through overwhelming joy He has made them whole again—He has made us all whole again. I was and am humbled to be part of the Church with them.

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"I will greatly rejoice in the Lordmy soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations." -Isaiah 61:10-11

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Blue bunt cake

My fondest birthday memory is of a blue bunt cake. Teddy grahams, iced out with bathing suits, laid in the blue on Life Savor inner tubes (only the bravest of the grahams hung near the gum stick diving board). My mom made me this cake on June 12th when I turned four. Twenty-one years later, with a quarter of a century under my belt, that cake reminds me of a childhood filled with love and stability and naiveté.

For the past twelve years I’ve shared my birthday with the World Day Against Child Labour. My childhood experience makes it difficult, if not impossible, for me to truly understand the reality of these children’s lives.

I’ve been to the rock quarry in Liberia. I’ve seen it. I’ve heard stories of children dying there. But as I stare at this picture—one that I saw taken—the day to day of this boy’s life still has trouble sinking in. Everything about it is so foreign to me—a world away from teddy grahams and blue icing.

Photo taken by Matt Reed.

This lack of understanding carries with it a heaviness that makes me feel helpless. In 2008, over 215 million children between the ages of 5-17 were considered child laborers.* That means that, if child laborers made up their own country, they would be the 5th largest in the world.

Working at VisionTrust I’ve learned that just because something feels helpless doesn’t mean it is. The number of child laborers is declining, and we can help.

The highest number of child laborers are in the poorest 20% of households. 

By sponsoring a child for $40 a month, you’re easing burdens for these families in education, medical care and food. When they recognize the future their child could have through these programs, they will no longer see labor as their only option.

This year for my birthday, as I look back on my childhood, my hope is to give more children a childhood of their own. I hope that you’ll partner with me in changing one child’s life and eventually, the 215 million.

To learn more and sponsor a child head to: 

www.visiontrust.org/sponsor

* http://www.un.org/en/globalissues/briefingpapers/childlabour/vitalstats.shtml

*Photo in this post taken by Matt Reed.

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A miraculous dance

When I come back from VisionTrust trips overseas, I frequently have to stop myself from taking random pictures of cute kids at the ice cream shop or the airport. There's just something in their faces—a sweet sense of joy that transcends their surroundings—that I can't help but want to capture.

None exemplify this more than Kate.*

I met her a year ago while leading a team to an HIV/AIDS Transitional Home VisionTrust partners with in the Dominican Republic. At four years old, her Spanish was unusually limited and she had never walked before. But still, she would constantly motion for more and more pictures to be taken as she posed in her purple casts. I was inspired by this four year old's resiliency after surgery on both of her legs didn't change her joyous demeanor. And  when I asked about her story I was humbled by the struggles she'd been through that I could never comprehend.

This year I travelled with a team back to the home and did a double take when little Kate came running into the room. She was just as bubbly as ever, now able to keep up with the other kids chasing balls, giving the team new hairdos and dancing. There are a few Dominican models that are coming to serve at the home soon, so Kate even practiced her cat walk for us (I wish I had caught it on video for you). The doctors are hopeful that if physical therapy keeps going well, she won't have to have surgery again.

I can't fully express the joy on her face and in my heart while watching this little miracle.

But, I also know that if this sweet girl still couldn't walk this year, her smile and excited demeanor would have been the same.

While having a Bible study with the older kids at the home, the team asked, "What are ways Jesus shows you He loves you?" A 9-year-old boy raised his hand and confidently said, "Through trials." These kids, almost all HIV+ who have lost their parents or been abandoned, know what it means to go through trials. When I see Kate I see the "pure joy" talked about in James 1-

"Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." 

I see these kids live out these verses so clearly, and the depth of understanding they receive about the love of God in return.

I pray, as the Lord takes you and me through trials—both big and small—that He would give us eyes to see His love in the same way as these kids. I pray that our hearts would be softened to all He is doing when we can't possibly understand. And I pray that His constant faithfulness and miraculous healing would bring peace that keeps us dancing through it all.

*Her name has been changed for privacy and security reasons.

My Dominican twin

Sometimes when I go on trips, I like to keep some of the special stuff a secret; the moments that were so monumental to me that if others don't understand or if I can't communicate it correctly I might be disappointed.  But, sometimes these moments are too good, too hard, too simple and too beautiful all at the same time that no matter what someone else takes away from them, they need to be shared.

This moment was one of them.

The third day I was in the Dominican I met my "twin".

Her name is Jenny, she's 23-years-old and born in July, just one month after me.

We sat down to talk about some of the other children so I could share their stories with

VisionTrust

donors, but the conversation somehow turned to her own.

She was born in Haiti, taken over to the Dominican and placed in foster care.  A woman came and raised Jenny as her own when she was still young enough to forget about the foster home.  At first she treated her well because she was her only girl.  But, when two more sons came along, Jenny started asking questions about why she was darker than the others.  Her "mother" told her to stop asking, but as time went on grew frustrated with Jenny and began to abuse her.

[[I don't speak Spanish, but as I waited for everything to be translated I sat on the edge of my seat staring at Jenny, recognizing the emotions in her face and tone as she let me into her life.  Even though at this point I didn't verbally understand why she was crying, it didn't come as a surprise to see the tears.]]

One day as she was sitting on her porch a woman walked by and then slowly turned around to meet her gaze.  "You need to leave this house," she said.  Confused, Jenny asked her what she meant.  The woman responded, "I am a Christian woman and God is telling me that you cannot accomplish what you need to accomplish in this house."  The woman invited her to church and with permission, Jenny attended.  Over time she and this woman (a psychologist) became friends.

Concerned for Jenny and what she was seeing, the woman sat down with Jenny's mother.  But her mother, feeling threatened, forbid Jenny to ever see this woman again, securing this command by locking her in her aunt's house.  For months the only time Jenny's door was opened was for food.  One day it was accidentally left unlocked, so she snuck out and made it the psychologist's home.  Finding her missing, Jenny's mother called the cops and said the woman kidnapped her.  When Jenny straightened out the situation she was taken into protective custody to be placed in our partner orphanage a year later when she was 14.

There's no need for me to explain why her story impacted me so much.

...why the fact that without a birth certificate she can't attend college to become what she wants (a psychologist) makes me feel helpless and frustrated.

...why when I asked her if it was weird to feel like a mother to so many kids at the home and she said, "No, I'm used to it," made me feel so selfish.

...why when I asked her how she felt about God throughout all of this and she responded, 

"I know God has never forsaken me.  I know He has been with me since I was born.  If He wasn't with me I wouldn't be here today,"

it humbled me beyond words.

Jenny told me her story and is allowing it to be re-told because she believes the children she loves might be helped by those who hear it, and I pray they are.

American Mama

When I asked if it was okay to give the tiny gift I brought to my sponsored child while the other kids were still around, our Zimbabwe Country Director replied, "Oh it's okay, all the kids know you're her American Mama."

What?! 

This was the first time I was meeting my sweet sponsored child and I'm not going to lie to you, I had sent her a total of one letter in the year I had been sponsoring her (and I work for VisionTrust for goodness sakes). I felt under-qualified for the title of Mama in any context; I barely knew her and hadn't given her the opportunity to know me.  I realized how many people were in the same boat as me when I watched kids at our Learning Center be called up one by one to claim a letter from their sponsor. So many of the kids in the crowd were left without.

A week after Zimbabwe I led a team to the Dominican Republic.  Right when we entered our transitional home, each girl tried to find their sponsor or ask (if they weren't there) if you knew them. As we toured their rooms it was impossible not to notice the letters and pictures of sponsors taped lovingly next to bunk beds. The girls would point to the pictures and tell you the name of each person and even animal present. They wanted to know everything they could about their "American Family."

If these trips taught me anything, it's that as a sponsor I get the opportunity to love on my dear girl from an ocean away, to encourage her, to tell her she is special and Jesus loves her...and I hadn't taken advantage of it.

I promised myself I would be better at writing, and I've improved, but only minutely. (Let's be real, I've been meaning to write this blog post since October.) It's not always easy to take the time, but I promise you, there is a kid on the other side of the world that wants to know you and needs your encouragement.

So, here's to writing more consistently, who's with me?

PS- A really easy way I've found to write is to email my letter and attached pictures to 

childletters@visiontrust.org.

Working the Field (A Village Morning)

Suza woke us up at 5am.  I use the term woke very lightly as the night didn't provide much sleep. Only a thin thatch mat separated us from the hard concrete floor of the hut.

I climbed out of my sleeping bag and followed the two boys into the soft morning light of the village. There was no complaining, no pouty faces, just a common and calculated barefoot walk to the dirt field beyond the hut.

This morning, like every one leading up to the rainy season, was to be filled with "growing God's way." It's the typical type of gardening in the village. They (grandma, Suza and the two boys) hit the ground with hoes, creating rows of holes and hills of dirt. Moses, the youngest (who was allowed to sleep in this morning), would normally go around and put a seed and manure in the hole.  Then all that's left is to wait and pray for rain.

My boss and I felt of little use, so we jumped at the chance to help. Pointing to the next place on an invisible grid, Suza directed us where to make the hole. They made it look so easy, but trust me, it wasn't.  For each hole they took about three strokes and I took about ten. This was not soft soil, oh no, and after two holes I could feel every muscle in my body aching clearly.

Our family laughed with us at our weak attempts, patiently directing us on how to stand and where to hit the soil.  I'm afraid we were more of a distraction than a help, so we focused on our filming while they completed their work.

I couldn't help but stare at the boys bare feet, covered in dirt. I suppose it was easier that way, easier than getting mounds of dirt stuck in shoes from the backlash of the hoe. But, I marveled at how close the sharp end of the tool would come to those little toes.

I really can't describe why, but being out there with our village family was such a spiritual experience.  Their life, so different from the one I have led, is still sweet and full of love. And for one brief day I got to share in that love; share in the work God is doing in their lives;  share in the Kingdom of God.  And it was beautiful to join in as they sowed seeds and prayed for life.

Matthew 13:8, "Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

The Village

Our second night in the Zimbabwe, we (my team of 5) split up and spent the night in Ngundu village.

Ngundu looks exactly like you might picture. We were there in the dry season, the anticipated rains just a few weeks away, so the brown dirt stretched in every direction. Huts, mud walls with thatch roofs, dotted the landscape in clusters of two or three. One for the family, another for storage or the "kitchen" and maybe another for Grandma. The trees were tall and full, similar to those found in The Lion King (it's a classic for a reason people).

Our huts for the night belonged to Suza, her son, her two nephews, her mother and her brother.  Her sister and brother-in-law had both died, as had her husband. Death is all too common here.  

She welcomed us with a friendly smile and gestured for us to sit on the mat and water jugs she had placed in the open space between the huts. They had 3 huts and a tiny tiny shed (I hesitate to even call it that) which I learned the next morning housed more goats than seemed possible (picture a clown car full of goats).

As we sat, my boss Matt and I couldn't help but turn our heads up to the heavens and soak in the stars. I'll admit, in Colorado when one ventures into the great outdoors they get a pretty good glimpse of the stars, undisturbed by city bustle. But, these stars! Over and over again I just kept repeating how beautiful they were.  

The Shack describes these stars well, "Of all the places he sensed the presence of God, out here surrounded by nature and under the stars was one of the most tangible. He could almost hear the song of worship they sang to their Creator, and in his reluctant heart he joined in as best he could."

Matt Reed was able to snag this photo of the night sky. How cool is this??

Of course Suza and the kids just kept laughing. This was their backyard. Can you imagine? Every night they cook and clean under this mural. How funny were we to be taken aback by the normal? 

When we were alone she offered to cook sadza for me. I tried to politely decline, but if you've ever been to Africa you know you really can't decline their sweet generosity. She and her mother laughed because I'd never eaten sadza; laughter came so easily in their household. The entire time I watched Suza cook, her mother stood quietly outside her hut repeating "sadza" and laughing to herself. 

Methodically Suza fanned the fire and placed a worn black pot full of water from a nearby jug on top of the flame, shedding a quick stream of light on her face. Sadza is cooked cornmeal that's white and looks a bit like mashed potatoes, but has the consistency and taste of bland play dough. She served it to Matt and I along with the most salty, stringy, unidentified vegetable I've ever had. 

After eating as much as we could, we handed our plates to the three boys, who jumped at the chance to eat some more. But, after only a few bites they surrendered their plates to Suza to save for their breakfast the next morning.

The four sang, raw and beautiful, their prayers before bed. Then all six of us sleepily drifted to one hut to snag as much sleep as possible on the concrete floor before the sun called us to the next day's chores.

Hmm, there's so much to cover...I'll save the next day's events for another blog post :)  

Our sweet village family.

Our sweet village family.

The hut everyone slept in!

The hut everyone slept in!

This one's for Africa

I'm going to Zimbabwe. And it's happening in less then 2 weeks. Holy cow.

Here's the truth. When I started working for VisionTrust and learning about all the sweet countries we're in around the world, I became attached to Zimbabwe. It was the one place I really wanted to go with VisionTrust. If I had a bucket list, it would be on it. Why? Well...

In 2006 the UN stated Zimbabwe has the highest amount of orphans per capita in the world. It is estimated that they have an unemployment rate of 95%. 68% of their population live below the poverty line. It has the 5th highest death toll due to AIDS when compared to every country in the world.

All of these reasons make me want to go.

Plus look how cute these kids are! This is a picture from our VisionTrust project in Zim.

I want to go and love these people. To wrap my mind around the fact that they are not a statistic. To share their stories and live in their shoes, even if I only get to see a tiny glimpse. To help, even if it's only a drop in the bucket. To learn from them. To encounter poverty and what it looks like to truly have a positive impact in a community.

When my boss said we were going to Zimbabwe I was beyond excited, beyond thankful that God clearly put this opportunity in my path. We're going because VisionTrust is in the process of launching a 5 year sustainable program called Million Meals. The gist of the program is to partner with chiefs and villages in remote areas to feed children long-term. If the villages agree to work with us, we'll feed the kids 5 days a week the first year while teaching them sustainable agriculture and leadership. The next year we'll feed the kids 4 days a week and the village will feed them 1, then us 3 days-the village 2, etc. until we're no longer feeding the children and the village is self-sustaining.

Awesome right? So, my boss, three others and I are going to hear stories, take pictures and gather more information on how the project is going and how it'll move forward. Our hope is with this information, people in the US will be moved to help once we officially launch the program.

I would love your prayers for energy, boldness, patience, safety and anything else you can think of as I embark on this adventure. I'll share stories here, so be sure to check back.

I'm not a runner.

I am not a runner.

http://slaymyboredom.com/tag/what-i-think-i-look-like-when-i-run/

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a runner. In fact I was recently referred to as a stork and a giraffe while running…I don’t think either were meant as compliments. Needless to say, the idea of running a marathon sends shivers up my spine and loyal affirmation toward whoever is attempting it.

Recently I had the privilege of meeting and working with Bret Crock (featured in the picture above). This will be his 11th year running the Leadville 100 to raise support for VisionTrust’s medical services. In case you don’t know what the Leadville 100 is (I had no clue), it’s a trail run climbing 4,000 feet and spanning 100 miles (that’s almost 4 marathons back to back). Runners must complete the race in 30 hours.  If you don’t eat correctly during the race, your body literally starts eating itself. 

What?!

In other words, it’s my worst nightmare and the most intense all-nighter in existence. So obviously my first question when meeting Bret was “why?!?”

It turns out Bret had a legitimate response.  He has a passion for running and for helping others, but found himself wondering how he could use those gifts to serve the Lord…until he discovered the Leadville 100.  Over the years Bret has raised over $142,000 for kids around the world to receive vital medication and surgeries.

That blows my mind. Bret’s story keeps reminding me that God can and will use the most obscure passions for His glory if we let Him. Whether it’s running, high-flying trampoline-ing or just loving on people, God can use it.

I asked Bret if halfway through the race he wonders, “Why am I doing this?” His response, “Never. I know why I’m doing it.” I want to be like that.  I want to do something crazy for the Lord. And when people ask me if I regret it I want to be able to say, “Never, because I know why I’m doing it.”

To learn more about the Crocks, the Leadville 100 or to support Bret in his race go to  www.visiontrust.org/bretcrock.

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"Livin' the dream" in the DR

It's easy to pinpoint the good when major parts of a trip were terrible or even just ho-hum. But, with my recent trip to the DR, it's so hard to pick just one "best part."

(If you don't know, here's the skinny...I work for VisionTrust International and sometimes have the privilege of going to see the sweet kids we work with in-person. This time I helped take a group of CRU students from all over the country to the Dominican Republic.)

If I have to pick I would say "the best" was getting to see the Kingdom of God show up every day. See how I did that? Picked a general best, so I could tell you all the best moments that took place within that umbrella. Tricky huh? Well, here it goes...

This picture was the first "Kingdom moment" that God brought to my attention. I took it on the first day we spent at the Transitional Home when I had the chance to sit down and just look out at this awesome team of people loving on kids in the heat of the day. I can't really describe it, but it was a moment of pure joy, a little glimpse of what's to come. The picture might not seem special, but the moment was beyond words. 

On our last day at the orphanage we got to spend time with some of the older girls. We played Soularium with them and heard their thoughts on life and God (I can't wait to write a whole blog on their wisdom). After Soularium the team and the DR girls discovered their shared love of Hillsong and broke out into praise worship in English and Spanish. Another sweet glimpse into the Kingdom.  

Our last full day in the DR was spent with some sweet girls from another one of VisionTrust's orphanages. These girls have had hard pasts, so we weren't sure what our pool day with them would look like. It was awesome. They were so excited to spend the day in the water, hanging onto our backs, teaching us Spanish, jumping off walls...it turns out you don't have to know a lot of Spanish to understand they want to be dunked after "uno, dos, tres!" 

These girls are an amazing testament of what God and the love of some good people can do to restore joy and trust.

They're a beautiful picture of the Kingdom.

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I think this picture describes my CRU team perfectly. In case you were wondering, this is them "riding a roller coaster." They were so fun! Whether it was creating a video based off of Call Me Maybe, playing signs, getting stoked about Latte Losers or talking about the Lord, there was never a dull moment. They were from all over the country, but bonded with each other so quickly. I was blessed to be a part of their team and to see the Kingdom of God at work through them.

Yolo!