My thoughts on Africa

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In Ethiopia during the famine, I saw stuff there that reorganized how I saw the world. I didn`t quite know what to do about it. At a certain point, I felt God is not looking for alms. God is looking for action. – Bono

It's here. 3 months of planning, 1 plane ticket, 60 cupcakes, 2,000 pearls later it is here. Tomorrow my family will take me to the airport and I will leave them for 10 days to serve thousands of people I have never met. I don't hoard things - but what I don't give up freely is time with my family. I get so precious little of it. It takes a strong force to relinquish hours at home. But I have felt a stirring in my soul about this trip from the moment I heard about it. 12 years after my first trip to Africa I cannot sleep thinking about what this trip will bring. My previous experience taught me that no words or pictures can begin to describe the magnitute of the situation. No one can adequately explain what it is like to be surrounded by severe poverty as far as the eye can see and yet be in the midst of the warmest, most joyful people you will ever meet.

And just thinking how we got to this day amazes me as well. For one family to adopt two children and have a vision to take 67 people to serve thousands is just unbelievable. Our local paper wrote about it and you can click this link to read the article. It was all so simple (easy for me to say I didn't mae hotel and taxi arrangements for 67 people). But simple in the sense that the idea was thrown out and we all latched on. We wanted to be a part of something big and life-changing. No doubt this will be.

I believe Bono's words from the quote above. God is not looking for us to throw money at a problem. He is calling us to compassion. Calling us to treat others with dignity and grace. My boss who I cited in a previous post wrote this comment, "In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due." Our trip should not be something that is out of the ordinary for a group of people to show honor and respect and love to another group of people. This is what our purpose is, what our duty is. And the fact that it seems so extrodinary is truly a comment on how far we have come from basic premis of loving of our fellow man. Loving a person for the mere fact that they are a PERSON.

So here I am. In 24 hours my journey back will be in full swing. Lord keep my eyes open to what you want me to see. Keep my heart strong when the surroundings cause it to break. Melt away my selfishness that will be tempted to focus on my own comfort and let my hands embrace others in the way you would embrace.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Doctors always ask why I send photos, why I don't just send the X rays and blood studies. I want them to know this is a human being. This isn't just a back. This is a soul. Dr. Rick Hodes

Do you remember back in the 90's when Kevin Bacon was popular and so was the game "6 Degrees of Separation"? For people like me who cannot remember how many ounces are in a cup but can rattle off to you most of the Academy Award nominees from 1986 this was a great way to pass time. The trick was to connect any actor back to Kevin Bacon within 3 movies. For example Rob Lowe (very easy). Rob Lowe was in The Outsiders with Tom Cruise and Tom Cruise was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon. Someone a little harder like Jessica Simpson. Jessica was in Dukes of Hazard with Seann William Scott. Seann was in Old School with Vince Vaughn. Vince Vaughn was in The Breakup with Jennifer Anniston and Jennifer was in Picture Perfect with Kevin Bacon. (I could do these in my sleep).

As I was talking to Emily one day about the people going on the trip she started describing all the people who had a connection. There is an adoptive family who lost their son and now collect baby formula in his honor. They happened to correspond to the Alexanders over the years and several weeks ago drove in hundreds of pounds of formula for us to take with us in our luggage to feed the babies when we get there. People who are passionate about Ethiopia are much like Kevin Bacon. Not just the fancy dance moves and rockin hair, but the connection to others with the same passion is uncanny.

I first discovered this one day at at lunch. When I was an intern at the DA's office another fella who was interning with me became a lifelong friend. He has sinced moved on from the meager pay of the public sector and now works at a high toned private firm in Wise County. One day I get a call from him about a young lady who wanted to be a DA. I'm always more than happy to meet students who are interested in criminal law and will gladly spend a lunch discussing the possibility. Well one thing led to another and the young lady had a little bit of a life change and was not going to be able to work with us. BUT, as a sign of her appreciation she wanted to take me and the friend that introduced us to lunch. This young lady's name is Michelle Simpson and my friend's name is Allen Williamson (or as I refer to him as Big A). Delightful girl and I know she will make an excellent prosecutor. So where is the connection to Ethiopia you ask? So glad you did.

When I get in the car that day for lunch Allen and Michelle are talking about adopting twins from Ethiopia. Michelle, who got engaged since the last time I saw her (hence the life change), was about to marry a wonderful young man whose mom and dad adopted 2 sets of twins from Ethiopia. I really didn't think much about it because I have been talking about our trip incessantly and assumed they just brought the topic up since I was leaving on my trip within the month. It was only later during the lunch when I mentioned something that we were going to do on the trip that they both realized I was going. The crazy part is Allen brought up the fact that they adopted because they were twins and Allen and I have both serendipitously had boy/girl twins. He thought he was making a twin connection and it was so much more. Michelle proceeded to tell me that her mother worked for years as a dental hygienist and she couldn't wait to get back to tell her about this trip. She wants to get information to possibly go in the future. And Michelle's future mother-in-law couldn't believe the connection either.

That is where I found out about Dr. Rick Hodes. Michelle said her mother just finished the book aboout Dr. Hodes called This is a Soul. It tells the story about this diminutive Jewish man from New York travels the world and ends up dedicating his life to the poor and disenfranchised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His main clinic is at Mother Theresa's home run by her Sisters of Charity. Sounds like a good read, but at the time I was deep in the other book and thought I could pick it up after I got home. Two days later my mother hands me an article from Ladies Home Journal. It tells about a journalist from New York who follow this doctor in Ethiopia and ends up "adopting" a young boy. You guessed it....it was also the story of Rick Hodes. So....I bought the book.

If you ever start to feel sorry for yourself or thing that the donation that you make to the local charity is a REAL sacrifice, pick up this book. Devotion doesn't begin to describe what Dr. Hodes feels about his patients and the people he serves. If each of us had 1/10th of his passion our communities would be unrecognizable. You can read more about him and donate directly to him here. As I was trying to mentally and spiritually prepare for this trip I has blessed to have some time alone. I was able to go with work to a conference on South Padre Island (I know....rough gig). While I was there I had an afternoon to go to the beach and finish my book and truly check my motives for going. This was my view as a read my book.

There is something so soothing and so introspective about water. Throughout my life being new water whether it was the small pond I grew up on, the lake where I spent my summers at Kanakuk Kamp, or the chances I have gotten to be by the ocean - it never fails to remind me of just how small I am. It's trite to say and authors and composers have written about it from the beginning of time. But there really is something about looking out into the ocean (or the nasty oil infested Gulf of Mexico...whatever) that reminds me when I think I have control over everything I have not a clue what tomorrow will bring.

I started thinking about a question I was recently asked. During a conversation about the trip the question came up about what my "goal" was and it caught me off guard. I had never really thought of the GOAL. My purpose was to serve the people and love them the way Jesus does, but what does that mean. That I just fly in for 10 days and give away candy and toys and then leave them behind. As I walked the sandy beach and thought about this I couldn't help but think about Dr. Hodes. In his book he refers to the Talmud where one of the rabbis asked Elijah the prophet where he could find the Messiah. He responds, "At the gates of the city, dressing the wounds of the lepers, one by one." Dr. Hodes ponders, "With everything the Messiah has to do - rebuilding the Temple, returning Jewish people to the ways of Judaism, bringing peach to the world - he is spending time treating the lepers." And his thought.....our job is not so small after all.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Strong women- precious jewels all- their humanness is evident in their accessibility. We are able to enter into the spirit of these women and rejoice in their warmth and courage.
— Maya Angelou

I have a great friend at work named Allenna. She LOVES to make things happen. If you need 1,000 pounds of sand....she's got a guy. Thinking about throwing a chili cook-off.....she can get it underwritten. She loves to talk people out of their money for a good cause. She's hysterically funny and a little bit irreverent and has a deep desire to make the world a better place.

When she found out I about our trip to Africa her superpowers kicked into overdrive. She immediately signed over a check she received as part of serving her jury duty - but for Allenna that was not enough. As timing would have it Allenna's mother-in-law had recently attended a jewelry sale. And not just any run of the mill jewelry sale. Genuine pearls purchased directly from vendors in China and designed in the most exquisite creations at the hand of a benevolent artisan. Allenna sent me the designer's information and we soon became internet BFF's. Before I ever met Margaret Palmer face to face i had a glimpse of her deep sense of compassion. She started her jewelry business as a way to give back. Every time Margaret presents a sale, a portion of the proceeds go to the host's charity of choice. The American Cancer society and Habitat for Humanity are just a couple of the charities who have received thousands from these sales. In fact, she created a gorgeous line of jewelry to benefit the Cancer Society. The necklace below is an example of colors she brought together to represent the different types of cancer. She states so eloquently on her website how she came up with this creation, "A pearl grows when a rough, irritating piece of sand is trapped within the tender flesh of an oyster. The oyster forms layer after layer of protective shell around the irritant until it is transformed into a beautiful pearl. Cancer is the irritant that we need to surround with layers of love and support. You and your prayers are the layers of protection for a cancer victim."

Please check out all of her great jewelry benefitting ACS at Margaret Palmer Jewelry

As soon as I told her about the vision of providing dental care to the orphans of Addis Ababa she didn't hesitate to commit to having a sale. And to boot she gave me some great ideas to get additional donations.

So one Thursday evening women from all over the metroplex came to my mother's house and selected some unique and VERY AFFORDABLE pieces. So much so that Ms. Palmer donated just shy of $1,000 to our trip!!! It was amazing and I am so grateful for her generosity and for all of the people who came by and bought pearls.

With her gift, we were already able purchase video cameras for the orphanage that Gladney oversees. These cameras are essential to the adoption process as they allow the proceedings to be recorded preventing any question of the validity of the adoption once the child gets to their forever home. We have also been able to buy craft supplies to use as a mini-vacation Bible school for the children as they wait to see the dentist. I am thrilled about the idea of each child being able to sit and make crafts that they will be able to decorate on their own and keep for themselves. For most of this children this may be the first thing they can TRULY call their own and know it was made specifically for them.

Three months ago I could not imagine where money was going to come from for this trip - once again I am reminded that my little mind cannot comprehend the unlimited creativity God has and bestows on me. And I am also reminded that you should never underestimate the power of a woman and her willingness to buy jewelry!

Monday, September 13, 2010

There is no me without you - Haregewoin Teffera

I have been thinking a lot about the differences between my trip in 1998 to South Africa that I previously wrote about and the one I am preparing for now to Ethiopia.

For starters, I knew very little history of Ethiopia when I committed to going on this trip and quite frankly still don't. When I went to Cape Town I'd poured through volumes of books and even minored in African history with an emphasis on South Africa in college (who knew UT offered so much diversity?) So, I decided before I could board the plane I had to get a base knowledge about the country and it's people.

It may start becoming obvious through this blog that I am a big fan of Emily and Moody Alexander. To say I "single white female" her on some things would not be an exaggeration. It's like friends who share a bond over coffee or shoes - only slightly deeper. It is a love for a place that no one can describe - yet you know exactly what they mean without saying a word. When she recommended the book There is No Me Without You I got it.

Now once upon a time in my life I read books. This time would have been after I had to cram 200 pages each night for the next day's class but before I starting thinking going to bed when the kids did was really not that bad of an idea. Back when I worked during the day and Chris worked at night and before I could fill my free time with Keeping up with the Kardashians. Back during that magical time I read books. Lots of books. One book after another. Then two humans started growing inside of me and they took all the energy I had. Then they started growing outside of me and took more energy that I thought I could muster. So when I buy a book now it is with good intentions but doesn't generally get read until Christmas break when I don't feel bad about letting the kids watch 12 straight hours of TV because it is too cold to go outside.

This book was different. From the first page I stared to get a glimpse of what my upcoming experience is going to be like. I thought back to the shantytowns I had been in outside of Cape Town and Johannesburg. I could see the desperation in the eyes of the people tempered with the determination to stand up and do something. I began to think about the contrasts of these two countries.

While South Africa has a horrific past it has birthed a nation of heroes. Men and women who sacrificed their lives to emerge from their banishment as the leaders of a new nation - the fulfillment of a grand dream. The people who had suffered the most were able to see one of their own rise up and carrying them with him on his shoulders like any proud father would. Ethiopia has not been as fortunate. It's heroes come in the form of a middle-class woman who lost everything she had and out of desperation took in some unwanted children. She was in the pit of dispair and saw in these children salvation - they needed each other to survive. The book follows the plight of Haregewoin Teferra, a widow who experiences the death of one of her children and essentially becomes the dumping ground for all of the children in Addis Ababa whose parents had succummed to the AIDS epidemic or had reach the end of their ability to feed another mouth, no matter how small. It's a vivid depiction of a woman whose love of children comes at a great personal cost. It's the story of someone who much like the Mandelas of South Africa was not willing to stand by and let a human being be treated with anything less than respect and awe as the divine creature God created them to be.

So I begin to see one of the sharpest contrasts between my past experience in Africa and the one I am about to embark on. Ethiopia still waits for it's leaders to rise up and take the "least of these" with him. What I anticipate will be the same is the unbreakable spirit of the people. The drive that each woman working with HIV-positive orphans has in the way she cares for the children who have been abandoned there by death or more brutally by choice. Ethiopia's heroes are not walking hallowed halls as lawmakers or politicians - they are walking the dingy floors of nurseries changing diapers and quieting cries. They are giving bottles and chasing away nightmares. They will never have their face on a T-shirt, but their acts will be imprinted on the hearts of the countless children they love like their own.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same - Nelson Mandela

There are many people living and dead who I greatly admire. They have some general qualities in common. Courage, integrity, compassion, vision. Nelson Mandela is probably the human I admire the most. As you can see to the right I had the gift of being able to meet him when I was in South Africa. I cannot begin to comprehend how a man is persecuted throughout his life, dedicates himself to the struggle to ensure that the color of a persons skin should not determine how that person is treated, goes to prison for 27 years because of this belief and emerges with a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. I'm so petty I still hold grudges against people who didn't include me in their group in high school. Recently a book was written about some of Mandela's fundamental principles. I gave the book to another man I admire.

You may have seen bumper stickers where the driver is proclaiming that his "boss is a Jewish carpenter". Well, my boss is a Jewish lawyer. His name is Richard Alpert. Apparently there was a character on LOST with the same name. This prompted us to purchase the likeness in bobblehead form.
The Richard I know really doesn't look much different. Just a little bit taller and not as much eyeliner. The non-bobblehead Richard is man not unlike Mandela. He likes to remind me that working so closely with me on a daily basis is a lot like the torment Mandela experienced in prison.....just more chatty. All new prosecutors in our office spend about 2 years under Richard's tutelage, and as hard as it is for me to put in print, we are truly all lucky to be able to glean from his talent. You see Richard has literally dedicated his life to prosecuting cases involving deaths caused by drunk drivers and he has become THE expert in the field not only in Texas but all over the country. This became his niche when he realized that most victims of drunk driving crashes are police officers who are trying to make the roads safe for all of us, but end up the casualties of a senseless act. Needless to say, his passion strikes home for me. About a year and a half ago Richard asked if I would be interested in working directly for him again supervising new attorneys. I was flattered by the offer....then realized I was about half a dozen deep in the line of people that he asked before me. Regardless, I was honored and took the position. Since that time Richard has not missed an opportunity to challenge me to grow as a manager, to be challenged as a trial attorney or to push me toward a situation that can only make me better. There are very few people who enjoy watching others succeed as much as he does. And while we share a lot in common professionally as well as personally, our faith is not exactly the same. We are both comfortable sharing our feelings and our convictions and have no problem even joking about it. I would write down an example...but that's really not something you want burned in print forever to be misunderstood. Despite where my Christianity and his Judaism diverge, Richard was one of the first whole-hearted supporters of me participating in a Christian-focused, dental mission. When I asked him what he thought about taking 10 days off to share the love of Jesus through dentistry to orphans in Ethiopia his response was, "I would be upset with you if you didn't". When I told him I was thinking about selling cupcakes around the office to raise the money he immediately threw out marketing ideas and sales techniques. With his encouragement I went home and whipped up these.
Chocolaty, marshmellowy, S'more cupcakes.

Armed with this plate of sugary goodness Richard lead me like a circus elephant through our office, leaning on all the big wigs to dig deep and fork out some cash. By the end of the day my measly 18 cupcakes raked in $67.50 (and I started by asking $1.50 for them). And when I felt bad about people who were paying me in $20s rather than singles, Richard pulled me aside and assured me that I should never turn away a gift someone is willing to give to a cause I feel passionately about. He reminded me that people want to share in an experience like this any way they can.

So ultimately Gabby's angst about who was going to make cupcakes for the children without mommies and daddies turned into the first $200 I received to go on this trip. And the man whose response to being asked to have a "come to Jesus meeting" said "that didn't work out so well when He met with my people the last time" was the impetus behind it all. You have to believe that God has a great sense of humor.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hold a true friend with both your hands. ~Nigerian Proverb

I started writing about the trip because from the moment I mentally committed to going and ran the proposal past my husband for the umpteenth time, extraordinary things began to happen. When I say extraordinary, I truly mean EXTRA ORDINARY. The acts of others have touched me and surprised me and some have completely flabergasted me. Without the first act though, this trip would not be possible for me.

Most people would say they have a BEST friend. Ask my kids and they would tell you who theirs is. Of course that answer could change in 10 minutes, but right now they will give you a name without hesitation. And some people will give the “sweet” answer and say their husband or wife. Make no mistake - I love my husband. Wouldn’t want to live a day without him, but even he knows that I have a best friend who will always have a special place in my heart. A place reserved for someone who is not legally obligated to love me unconditionally, but does anyway. For me that person is Lisa. Lisa and I have been best friends for nearly 20 years (wow….that sure looks old when it is in print). We have experienced some of the greatest adventures in life together. Here we are on our first trip together to New York City. Note the fashionable vest and “not- dated- at- all” denim. We really thought we were cute then.

One of our greatest adventures was when she came to visit me at the end of my time in South Africa. Here we are in Zimbabwe at the edge of Victoria Falls. And here is Lisa at the game reserve where we went on safari in Krueger Park, South Africa. The trip was special for both of us because this was a dream come true to me to experience life in South Africa and Lisa never hesitated to book a flight and join me on my journey. So when she booked another flight to Africa this summer I should not have been surprised. But I was. More than surprised – I was humbled beyond words.

When I committed to the trip I didn’t want to take anything away from our family. Whether that be a vacation or letting the kids go to the preschool they love for one more year. I was going to raise the money in other ways. The only problem was I needed to book my flight pretty quick to secure the price and I didn’t have the funds up front. I had this grand idea. I was going to borrow the money from my 94 year old grandfather. He keeps stacks of it just lying around waiting for one of his grandkid to ask for it and he would have loved to help me out. The plan was to borrow the money and then sell things like cupcakes or monogrammed bags or whatever I could to raise the extra funds and pay him back along the way. I was so excited about my genius plan I called my best friend. I hadn’t told her any of the details about the trip so I couldn’t wait to hear her reaction that I was getting to go back to the continent I love. She was every bit as excited as I expected her to be. I told her about what we were doing and who was going and what my plan was for raising the money. She said she wanted to send me some money and I told her that was silly – I was not going to let her to do something like that. I needed to be responsible and pay for myself and just pay my grandfather back as I earned it.

After I hung up the phone I went about my business. A few hours later she called back. She wanted to give me my flight numbers to Addis Ababa. DID YOU CATCH THAT? MY FLIGHT NUMBER. True to form she’d tracked down Emily, got the information and bought my tickets. Now you will hear me say this over and over (so much that you will start to think I am trying to convince myself) but I am not a crier. My mother has never been supportive of crying and I learned from her that if I was strong enough I could fight back the tears in any situation. Well, I wasn’t strong enough. I started bawling. I have learned in my life that sadness does not generally bring me to tears. Neither does anger nor pain. I see too much of those things in my line of work, I would be crying all the time. The things that open the ducts of my tears are kindness in the face of adversity, grace where none is deserved and the selfless sacrifice of one person for another. To me Lisa’s act was a culmination of all three. She knew how this trip would change me and I knew how much Lisa was giving herself to make it possible. I also know that few people know me like Lisa does and knows when I can be selfish and unkind. She knows when I do things for my own benefit or for the praise of men. In spite of what she knows about me she did this. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a best friend like her.