Vanam Foundation: Improving Education and Conservation outside Bandipur National Park

About 230 km (143 miles) away from Bangalore lies the Bandipur National Park in the district of Chamarajnagar. Tucked around the stunning Western Ghat Mountains in Karnataka, Bandipur National Park is regarded as one of the most beautiful parks in India and is home to many types of wildlife including tigers, elephants and gaurs (a type of bull) as well as the predominantly indigenous communities that surround the park. Together with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and Nagarhole National Park in the North, it creates the India’s largest biosphere reserve popularly known as the ‘Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve’ and is an important part of India’s efforts towards eco-conservation.

Bandipur National Park was founded in 1974 under the Indian Government in efforts to conserve the tigers and wildlife community, however, in the process of establishing the park the tribal populations who has lived in the forests of the reserve for centuries were moved off of their land and into the villages and hamlets that surround the park. They had lost access to their traditional way of life as forest dwellers and were moved into subsistence farming on dry plots of land.

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

Conservation/Environment Gifts that Give Back Global Issues Humanitarian SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Chicabrava Surf Camp San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

Chicabrava: Empowering young girls through learning to surf

To be a girl in the developing world is an additional hurdle to overcome. Not only will you likely be poor, you will also likely be married young, uneducated, physically and sexually abused and lack the potential to follow your dreams of having a better life.

What if we could change this vicious path and instead give young women an opportunity to thrive, to be inspired and to follow their dreams? 

This is the inspiration behind Chicabrava’s Camp Bella and Chicas Adelante. To break the mold of gender equality by offering young women and girls hope. Hope to dream. Hope to change their destiny and hope for a better future.

Chicabrava Surf Camp San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

The women of Chicabrava Photo credit: Chicabrava

Houston-native Ashley Blaylock moved to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua in 2003 when it was an undiscovered fishing village. She had fallen in love with the country and wanted to follow her dreams of starting up the very first all-women’s surf camp in Nicaragua. At the time, no women surfed yet Ashley persevered. Over time she developed strong ties and acceptance within the local machismo community and opened the doors to Chicabrava in 2008. By working with the community, Ashley helped transform the cultural belief that surfing was only for men and party goers. On the contrary, Chicabrava broke gender roles by demonstrating that surfing is a serious sport that women can enjoy and feel empowered. 

Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Global Issues Nicaragua SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Women and Girls
Humanity Unified

Humanity Unified International launches first fundraiser to help Rwandan Women

Do you ever feel like the connections we make in life sometimes seems like fate? The more I work in this tiny niche of social good travel bloggers, the more amazed I am by the incredible friendships and network I’ve made online. I’ve met countless inspiring bloggers and humanitarians online through blogging and social media. One such person is Maria Russo, founder of the award-wining online media platform for travel and social good, The Culture-ist and the non-profit Humanity Unified InternationalIt all happened because I follow her on Instagram where I noticed the amazing photographs her organization was posting on women and girls in Rwanda.

A young girl in Rwanda. Photo by Arielle Lozada

A young girl in Rwanda. Photo by Arielle Lozada

I commented on the photos and began a relationship online that resulted in an interview  and a post on her and her husband Anthony’s work as the founders of Humanity Unified and Humanity Unified International. I was instantly drawn to Maria and Anthony’s passion for making the world a better place by starting at the grassroots level by improving the lives of women and girls in Rwanda.

The more I work in social good and advocacy, the more I understand how these kinds of programs work. It is a proven that investing in women makes a tremendous amount of sense and investing wisely in programs that provide training, education, health and sustainable agricultural practices is even better. Women invest 90% of their income back into their families while men invest approximately 30 percent (UNAC).

On a personal level, like everyone I am bombarded with requests for donations every day thus I choose my charities wisely. It is a arduous task since I would love to donate to every single cause I write about or hear but obviously I have to pick and choose which causes are most important to me. I donate locally to help our schools and families living in poverty, and I also donate quite a bit abroad.

The more I travel and witness the impact of poverty on women and girls and the additional barriers they face in creating a better life, the more I desire to give them opportunities to create a better one. I also prefer to create sustainable change, not just a band-aid approach that won’t fix the problem. This is why I love the work that Humanity Unified is doing so much. 100% of my investment will go towards empowering women and creating sustainable change.

I will never meet the woman who I am supporting but in my heart I will know that far away, in Rwanda my donation has helped change her  life. That is an incredible feeling! Whether it be vaccines for a child in Nigeria, a clean birth kit for $20 for an expectant mom in Laos or $100 to provide training for a woman in Rwanda, I’ve made a difference.

Even using my words to spread awareness by writing this post has helped and that is free.

Photo by Arnelle Lozada

Photo by Arnelle Lozada

This week, Humanity Unified International launched their first fundraiser on Generosity by Indiegogo to develop funding for their project in Rwanda. Here are some details on the campaign and how you can help.

Gifts that Give Back Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
USAID-funded project Saving Maternity Homes in Ghana

Saving Maternity Homes in Ghana

Global Health Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Children of Mosebo Village

Poverty is Sexist: How you can make a difference in the lives of women and girls

Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Humanity Unified

Humanity Unified: Empowering Women and Providing Hope

“We empower communities to rise out of poverty through education, food security projects and economic opportunities. We start by investing in women”. – Maria and Anthony Russo, co-founders of Humanity Unified. 

It all began with a trip to Rwanda. In 2014, Maria Russo and her husband Anthony, the creative minds behind the award-wining online media platform for travel and social good, The Culture-ist took a leap of faith and went to Rwanda in search of opportunities to start a non-profit organization. As world-travelers who over the past 12 years have visited over 35 countries, Maria and Anthony both felt compelled to give back and help the amazing people and cultures they had seen.

For a few years prior to going to Rwanda, the pair had been running The Culture-ist, an online media platform for social good that revolves around a community of storytellers, travelers, creatives and change makers who aspire to make the world a better place. Although The Culture-ist has seen extraordinary success, Maria and Anthony yearned to do more. They had tossed around different ideas in their head on what else they could do to make a difference and impact change when they connected with the founder of Kula Project who invited them to go to Rwanda and see the work they are doing. The trip was in three months.

Humanity Unified

Maria and Anthony in Rwanda.

It was in Rwanda where Maria and Anthony met an amazing Rwandan woman named Peace. Peace’s story was heartbreaking and filled with hope. Peace’s family fled to Kenya in the 60’s when civil conflict erupted in Rwanda, and spent several years in Kenya where she opened her home and her heart to women survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Many of the women have suffered unimaginable trauma and are widows or single mothers, illiterate and unskilled, HIV positive, and victims of domestic abuse. The women were poor with little opportunities to support themselves or their children. Peace’s home became a place of support, empowerment and hope for over 300 women.

In 2009, together with Sophie McCann from the non-profit Network for Africa, Peace co-founded Aspire Rwanda, an organization that equips Rwandan women with literacy, vocational skills, and training in sustainable agriculture, health and human rights that helps lift them and their families out of poverty.  Aspire’s mission is founded on the belief that the promotion of human dignity and women’s rights will lead to sustainable community development and strong and lasting grassroots reconciliation.  Aspire Rwanda also provides counseling, nutrition, family planning services and childcare for young children so the women can attend the 12-month training program. After graduation the women join a cooperative where they work and support themselves, contributing to a self-sustaining and peaceful community. In the last five years, Aspire has helped 450 vulnerable but resilient women rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide.

“Aspire helps to give resilient, hard-working women the skills and confidence to make their own choices, become self-sufficient, and take control of their lives.”

Humanity Unified

Mamerica, one of the 100 women enrolled in the farming cooperative project, working in her community garden. Photo by Arnelle Lozada

 

When Maria and Anthony heard Peace’s story, it felt like fate. Aspire Rwanda was the organization that had captured their hearts and was the perfect partner to launch their first project with through their soon-to-be non-profit organization. “We will work together” Peace smiled as she held Maria’s hand. Serendipitously the opportunity that Maria and Anthony had been looking for was right before their eyes.

Humanity Unified

Dativa, 75, one of the 100 women enrolled in the farming cooperative project. Photo by Arnelle Lozada

Gifts that Give Back SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

Solar Sister: Providing Light and Hope in Sub-Saharan Africa

Deciding to climb Africa’s highest mountain is no minor decision and it was a goal of mine for over 15 years. I had wanted to climb Kilimanjaro ever since my father scaled it in 2000, months before my wedding. Every time I thought of planning a climb, the timing just didn’t seem to work out and I kept pushing my dream further back on my “to do” list. Deep down inside, I was also a bit concerned about the altitude. I had been to almost 19,000 feet in Nepal and it was grueling. How would I feel even higher? 

All my doubts disappeared when I climbed two peaks in a row in Bolivia without any issues and realized my body was ready. Kilimanjaro was back on the list yet I needed to find someone willing to go.

A few months later, I received a call from a good friend of mine in Rhode Island who shared the exciting news. A small non-profit organization called Solar Sister was putting together a multi-generational, international team to climb Kilimanjaro in honor of bringing light to Africa. It felt like fate.

Without knowing a soul at Solar Sister, I joined their team of climbers and signed up to raise $4,000 to train 8 new Solar Sister Entrepreneurs and to celebrate Solar Sister’s five-year anniversary since its founding. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made, and I had an incredible trip. Perhaps what was even more inspiring than climbing Kilimanjaro itself was the group of people who have dedicated their lives to bringing solar electricity to Africa. The team at Solar Sister.

During our climb, I had the pleasure of learning about the inspiration behind Solar Sister and why their model of social entrepreneurship is thriving. I found their story so inspiring that I wanted to share it and introduce you to Solar Sister. Here is their story.

Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Group shot of the Solar Sister climbers.

Africa Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Tanzania TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Women and Girls

Raising Brave Girls

As a mother of a nine-year-old daughter it was with great interest that I read Stacey Radin’s new book “Brave Girls: Raising Young Women with Passion and Purpose to Become Powerful Leaders“. As my little girl grows up, I want to be prepared to guide her as best as I possibility can through the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Looking back, my early teenage years were perhaps the worst years of my life. Years that were difficult, unhappy and rocky. Even to this day, I will never forget my mother’s words of shock when she lamented “What has happened to my happy little girl?” when I hit thirteen and was drowning in hormones and confusion about who on earth I had become.

Sadly, these are years that I often wish I could do over but of course that isn’t at all possible. I realize how much these years negatively impacted me and my self-esteem. Thirty years later I still remember the mean, devastating comments and when all my friends decided to drop me. I was so afraid to go to school because I had no one to sit by and I vividly remember hiding in the bathroom over lunch. Thankfully life got easier for me once the braces came off, I grew into my body and blossomed. But those terrible years still haunt me when I think about them today.

Radin’s book “Brave Girls” opens with the following sentence that instantly pulled me in:

“Our society as a whole is lacking in opportunities designed to help preadolescent girls feel confident, secure and emotionally safe”. 

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CULTURE Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

My Walk with the Maasai

“In the Book of Life, the answers aren’t in the back.” – Charles M. Schultz

Setting off on foot through the heart and soul of Maasai culture has always been a dream of mine. I had first heard of the Maasai people when I was volunteering for a week in Morocco. I was speaking with a fellow volunteer – a young American woman- who confessed her favorite travel stories in her life occurred when she visited the Maasai. Her embellished images of warrior men in black and women dressed in brightly colored clothing while drinking cow’s blood under the moonlight sky in the bush were what first intrigued me. Was it true that a people like this still lived on earth and still practiced their long-held traditions and cultures?

Years later, when I began my work as a social good blogger, I began to learn more about the Maasai people and the threat against their way of life. Some of the things I had believed to be true long ago were more or less myths yet other traditions both good and bad continued until this day. It wasn’t until I set out on foot with my english-speaking Maasai guide, Jacobo, in the Mkuru Training Camp near Arusha, Tanzania that I would discover for myself what the Maasai people were truly like and what challenges remained.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo leads the way and I follow along for the next four hours on foot, touring a small part of the Maasai community.

“Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don’t”. -Pete Seeger

I was thankful that I had Jacobo, the Camp Manager, who was born and raised in the community, to lead the way. He was exactly as I envisioned a Maasai warrior to be: Tall, elegantly thin, muscular and generously kind. He has faced some criticism from the community by integrating too much with Western culture yet overall his work and passion for his tribe outshines a few negative viewpoints. Although he is also the camp driver, speaks English, and is the face of the camp with all foreigners, he has retained his culture even down to what he eats.

We set off shortly after lunch in windy, dry weather. I had hoped the weather would be better but at least it wasn’t raining or boiling hot. I followed behind Jacobo, pen and paper in hand and asked him as many questions as I could about his way of life.

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

Welcome to the bush

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

The Maasai are among the best known ethnic groups in Africa due to their distinctive customs and dress. As nomadic pastoralists, they traditionally herded their cattle on seasonal rotations across the open savanna of Kenya and Tanzania yet new laws instituted by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments ended their traditions and forced many into camps where they have suffered poverty, malnutrition, lack of education and economic opportunities to survive. It is an all too common story with native cultures across the world and today many governments and NGOs are doing their best to preserve and protect these tribes from disappearing off the face of the earth.

Mkuru Training Camp Maasai Tanzania

The grounds of the Mkuru Training Camp Maasai in Tanzania

As we walked, Jacobo pointed out the dried up river beds and the sparse vegetation. Most of the crops (maize and potatoes are the of the primary crops grown in the area) had already been harvested and the long barren months of the dry season had begun. One of the main problems for the Maasai community is malnutrition especially in children. The diet is basically meat, goat’s milk and grains with little or no fruit or vegetables. Although the camp has tried to alleviate malnutrition by providing meals at school, many Maasai hesitate to send their children because they are needed to herd the livestock (boys began herding as young as five years old), tend the house, fetch water and cook (the main responsibility of the girls). Despite the building of new schools in the community, attendance is very low and frequently dropping especially for girls.

The Maasai have a very unique social structure that is central to their culture. The head of society is the warrior class made up of boys and men, and status relates to age. A young boy starts out as a herder at the age of five and once he reaches puberty, he is set aside with the boys who will be soon circumcised and become junior warriors called “morani”. The morani range from 13-18 years of age and after circumcision remain in isolation and are dressed in black until they are healed. Once they reach maturity and have sufficient strength they become a full fledge warrior, dress in colorful clothing, and are in charge of protecting the community. They no longer kill a lion with a spear since that tradition has become illegal (by the government) but they are trained to fight.

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

Jacobo on left with his four brothers who have just been circumcised and wear black until they are ready to become moranis.

Maasai women and girls are traditionally in charge of the home and all work associated with family life such as fetching water, cooking and cleaning, making clothing and watching the very young children. Maasai women are known for their amazing beadwork and brilliant clothing. (I had written a great post about Maasai beading here)

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo’s mother

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Maasai beadwork has been integrated into the Mkuru community to empower women and give them economic opportunities to sell their work.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

A gorgeous Maasai beaded ankle bracelet.

Jacobo gave me a tour of his family boma, traditional mud huts made out of mud, dried cow dung and branches. Since the Maasai can have more than one wife, the entire family of husband, wives and children typically live together in a compound of 3-5 bomas depending on wealth. Each compound is surrounded by an open circle and fence made of thorny branches, where the livestock sleep safely at night, away from predators. The bomas are extremely basic with no electricity, no running water and oftentimes unsafe charcoal cookstoves are used inside the hut. The smoke from cooking turns the ceiling black with soot and you can imagine how bad it is for the family to inhale the fumes.

http://thirdeyemom.com/2015/10/25/learning-the-art-of-making-maasai-jewelry-in-tanzania/

Entering the Jacobo’s family home (the fence for livestock is on the left hand side of the photo).

http://thirdeyemom.com/2015/10/25/learning-the-art-of-making-maasai-jewelry-in-tanzania/

Jacobo’s extended family.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

One of the bomas.

 Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

A child peeks out and smiles. His face is covered in ash from the cookstove.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Since there is no electricity inside, the bomas are very dark. I tried my best to capture what they are like inside. You can see the cookstove on the far back righthand side of the photo.

Non-profit organizations such as Solar Sister (who I climbed Kilimanjaro with) are working hard to provide clean, safe cookstoves throughout the world. The benefits are immense and life-saving but sadly they have not reached the millions of people like in this community who need them. Not only are clean cookstoves healthier and safer, they also save ridiculous amounts of money which can be used on other essential things like education, farming, and crops.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

The ceiling of the boma is black from the charcoal cookstove inside.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

An up close look at the thorny fence and corral for the livestock.

To my relief, I was well received by my Maasai friends who gladly gave me a tour of their bomas for a very small fee. I also purchased some beautiful handmade jewelry from Jacobo’s mother, a couple of bracelets and a necklace that I love to this day.

As we headed out to see more of the vast area, we ran into Jacobo’s dad, a retired warrior. I found that many of the men have a pretty luxurious life compared to the women. No longer truly in need of a warrior class to protect them against invaders, the men usually have plenty of leisure time to sit around and talk while the women did all the work.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo’s dad

Jacobo brought me to a special place that once a year the morani and warriors go for a few months to eat meat. Tradition holds that morani and warriors must remain strong and be the best fed of all. Therefore, every year they head up to the forest where they eat goat meat for two-three months. The women stay at home.

As we neared the camp, I could see women walking their donkeys with yellow plastic jugs. I asked Jacobo where they were going and he told me about the well. A few years ago,the camp dug a well which is open from 5-7 pm every day. Before the well, women and girls would spend hours each day fetching water so the new well has made a significant impact on their lives.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

The women at the well

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

I thought about how such simple things as water are so easily taken for granted in the developed world. All I have to do is turn on the facet and out it comes, in plentiful supply. Seeing the well in person was a reminder how millions and millions of people around the world live. With little or no access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”. – Kahlil Gibran

Once we returned to camp, I was exhausted. It was quite an eye-opening day. I had a quiet dinner with Camila and the other European camp volunteer and they told me some of the more difficult stories about the camp. That female genital mutilation (FGM) is rampant in Tanzania despite it being banned and illegal by the government. That the process is horrifying and the young girl is cut with unsanitary knives and left to lay and bleed alone for months inside the boma. That Jacobo lost his first wife in childbirth because she was unable to deliver her baby safely after her the trauma caused by FGM. And the list goes on.

It was hard for me to reconcile my beliefs on how as a world we should intervene. Despite the belief that we should respect certain cultures and traditions that have been held since the beginning of mankind, it does not make them right or justifiable. Sadly change is difficult but not impossible.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

View outside my tent that night

Want to learn more? Here are some excellent articles:

“In Tanzania, Maasai women who reject FGM are refused as Brides” via Reuters

“Maasai in Tanzania: World Fame but Empty Stomachs” via the Guardian

Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

WaterAid – Tanzania (Fact: 14 million people in Tanzania have no choice but to drink dirty water from unsafe sources).

 

Adventure Travel Africa Conservation/Environment Food Security Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Tanzania TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Women and Girls

Gifts that Give Back: Introducing Thistle Farms

Thistle Farms stands for the truth that, in the end, love is the most powerful force for change in the world. – Reverend Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms

I am a huge follower of journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s work. The couple have dedicated their lives to promoting women’s rights around the world and it was after reading their eye-opening book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” that I made up my mind to devote my life to giving back and making a difference. I know it sounds rather cliché but honestly, I was so moved and intellectually awakened by their book that I began my work volunteering abroad, fundraising for building a school in Nepal and all the other social good writing and advocacy I do.

Their most recent book and documentary “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities” expands on the overall themes in “Half the Sky”.  It was from watching the documentary on PBS last year that I learned about the inspiring work of Reverend Becca Stevens and Thistle Farms, and I was delighted when they contacted me for an interview on my blog.

 

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Like many amazing organizations, Thistle Farms and its residential program Magdalene, all began by one woman who wanted to make a difference and promote change, Becca Stevens, an Episcopal Priest from Tennessee. Becca was finishing her last year of Divinity School at Vanderbilt and became inspired to give back to the community. After talking with police officers, homeless people and other social services within the community she realized a strong need to help women get off the streets and away from drugs, trafficking and prostitution. Many people believe that prostitution and human trafficking exist only in third world countries when in fact it is a huge problem here in the United States as well.

Gifts that Give Back Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Indian girl

Day of the Girl 2015

Empowerment of and investment in girls are key in breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence and in promoting and protecting the full and effective enjoyment of their human rights” -United Nations Resolution 66/170

Today, October 11, is the Day of the Girl, a day that just two years ago was declared by the United Nations as the International Day of the Girl Child to raise awareness about all issues concerning gender inequality around the world.  It’s a day when activist groups come together under the same goal to highlight, discuss, and take action to advance rights and opportunities for girls everywhere. Fast forward two years and the Day of the Girl has become a global movement of hope, inspiration and advocacy to better the lives of half our planet who is being left behind.

Indian girlSo why girls? 

As girls, we experience inequality in every aspect of our lives. There are a billion reasons why we need the Day of the Girl, but let’s start with just a dozen (all are linked to their source. Just double click on statistic and you can read it in full):

*Source:  Day of the Girl 

Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Mosebo Village

Helping Mothers around the world

This post was first published on Motherly, a new digital community to help modern women thrive that was launched today. 

Mother’s Day is always a special time of year as it is a time for mothers to be celebrated, appreciated and loved for the endless work we do to raise, nurture and love our children. Being a mom is one of the most wonderful gifts I’ve ever received and as a world traveler and writer on global health issues, I’ve realized how lucky we are as mothers to have the things we need to raise healthy children.

It wasn’t until I began traveling in the developing world that I got a sense of the enormous inequities for billions of mothers and their children who don’t have access to health care, clean water and sanitation, food and immunizations to protect themselves and their families. As an American, middle class mom of two, I took all these things we had for granted until I visited India, Ethiopia, Haiti and parts of Central America where I witnessed the struggles and tragedies that many mothers around the world face. So many moms lost their lives in childbirth delivering at home with no help or lost their babies due to preventable causes. It is heartbreaking and incomprehensible.

Mosebo Village

In Ethiopia at Mosebo Village. June 2014

Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Global Health Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls