Kakamega Rainforest, Kakamega, Kenya

Adventure Awaits: Europe Bound!

Today, as I set off on a three week transatlantic, transgenerational adventure I reflect on what adventure means to me and think about this post I wrote for LifeStraw’s “Adventure Awaits” campaign. Reaching this point has been bittersweet with many mishaps and silver linings along the way. It will take another full blog post to discuss all that has gone on over the past few months. That said, I am thrilled to be bringing 11-year-old Sophia on her first trip to Europe along with my mom, sister and 13-year-old niece. We will be starting in London, taking the chunnel to Lille and then a train to Paris, where it all began for me. I went to Paris when I was 13 and decided on the spot that I would learn French and live in Paris someday which I did seven years later. That fateful trip changed my life and began a lifelong love of travel and exploring.

My husband was supposed to join me and Sophia with our 13-year-old son Max in Munich after my family left. However a turn of events which has left him at home with back pain for the past month means my 75-year-old dad will be taking his place. My dad will fly to Germany with Max, pick me and Sophia up at the airport where we will continue our journey through Germany and the mountains of Austria for the next ten days.

I cannot express the gratitude that my kids will be able to spend this special time with their grandparents. I am certain it will be an unforgettable trip which I deeply hope changes their lives and makes them fall in love with seeing the world as much as me. In the meantime, I will leave you with this post and all will be quiet on the blog for the next month. I look forward to taking lots of pictures and will have many stories to tell upon my return. Bon Voyage!

 

What Adventure Means to Me

To me, adventure means freedom. Freedom to dive in and to completely let go, living in the moment and forgetting my to do list. Freedom to feel alive, like my true self, and like I’m ten again. Adventure feeds my soul with curiosity, passion and unleashes a zest for life that makes my heart sing. For me, adventure means everything and is my world.

There is no better place I can embrace adventure than the outdoors and exploring the world. Being immersed in nature or traveling to new places brings adventure to life. Whether it is hiking in the Himalayas, learning to surf in Nicaragua, walking with the Maasai in Tanzania or simply exploring my own backyard in Minnesota, adventure awaits and can always be found.

Last February, I had the honor of traveling to Kenya with LifeStraw to join the Follow the Liters campaign to reach the one-millionth child to receive safe drinking water. LifeStraw began the Follow the Liters program four years ago in Western Kenya after realizing they could be a catalyst for positive change throughout the region. Children were getting sick and missing many days of school due to waterborne diseases and illness caused by drinking unsafe water. Some were even dying. The need was immense, and LifeStraw had the answer.

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

I heard about LifeStraw’s Follow the Liters campaign through social media and discovered that they were running a contest to pick three adventurous storytellers to join the trip to Western Kenya to help document the campaign. I put together a video of my work, crossed my fingers I’d be selected and was thrilled to win a spot on their upcoming trip. I had never been to Kenya before and could hardly wait for the adventure to begin.

I left for Kenya on a Thursday afternoon feeling the normal pre-trip jitters of an exceptionally long 24 hours of travel ahead. I had a packet of detailed information about the program and the campaign but that was all I honestly knew. I was traveling alone and would meet up with ten of the 130 members of the international LifeStraw team in Amsterdam to continue our journey. I was taking a big step into the unknown, having no idea of what lay ahead for the next seven days. Thankfully I had done a lot of these kinds of trips before. In my view, the further I go out of my comfort zone, the more alive and adventurous I feel. These kinds of experiences are always the ones in which I learn and grow the most. These are the adventures that I live for.

We landed in Nairobi to a sea of darkness and sparkling lights. It was already ten o’clock in the evening and we would spend the night at a hotel before continuing our journey to Western Kenya in the morning. Despite the jet lag and pure excitement, I was so exhausted from all the flying that I slept peacefully. The next morning, we boarded a domestic flight to Kisumu, and then continued by car for another hour and a half to reach our base in Kakamega. If reaching Kakamega was an adventure, getting out in the field and visiting the schools would be even more exciting. Some of us would travel hours on bumpy gravel roads each day while others traveled by small boat to reach the most remote schools in the area. A few people on our international team had never left their home country let alone go to Africa. Most of us had no idea what we had in store for the next week.

When we finally arrived at our hotel, we were welcomed with song and dance by the local Kenya staff, all wearing their blue LifeStraw t-shirts. I would soon discover that song and dance is an essential part of Kenyan life as we would be singing and dancing all week long with the school children. We spent the next two days training and getting to know our amazing international teams.

The highlight of the weekend was the group hike to the Kakamega Rainforest on Sunday. After we completed a long day of technical training, we loaded up into a long caravan of cars and headed to the outskirts of town where we did a forty-minute steep hike up to the top of Kakamega Hill. The views on top were absolutely stunning as all you could see where the lush, green tops of the trees. Somewhere out there in the sea of green lived the children of the schools we would be visiting over the next week.

Kakamega Rainforest, Kakamega, Kenya

Monday was the first day of the campaign and I was up at the crack of dawn hardly able to contain my excitement and anticipation for the week ahead. Although the sky was still an inky black, the world outside my window was alive with noise and commotion as drivers rolled into the parking lot thumping African rap music and fellow LifeStraw staff talked robustly as we all began to start our day. The smell of breakfast being served two floors below crept through the cracks of my door. Despite the early morning hour and my fatigue, the exhilaration of the adventure ahead filled my veins with a rush of adrenaline. I could hardly wait. Little did I know what a massive operation this would be and how incredibly inspired I’d feel by my time in Kenya. By the end of the week, we reached our goal and it was a monumental feeling to know that now 1,015,652 kids at 1,621 schools now have safe water.

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

Demonstrating washing hands with safe water

When my flight took off over the African savannah I reflected on the miraculous realization that a week can truly change your life. I took a leap of faith when I boarded the first flight to Africa only seven day prior, feeling uncertain of the adventure and my own personal journey that loomed ahead. Yet I realized that it is only through taking chances that we will grow and thrive as a human being. The beauty of adventure is it can always be found for those who seek it, trust it and are willing to take the leap.

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LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

What a Week in Western Kenya with LifeStraw Taught Me: Water is Life

I rose with excitement and anticipation to the pre-dawn sound of the birds outside my hotel room in Kakamega, Western Kenya. Although the sky was still an inky black, the world outside my window was alive with noise and commotion as drivers rolled into the parking lot thumping African rap music and fellow LifeStraw staff for the LifeStraw Follow the Liters Campaign began to start their day. The smell of breakfast being served two floors below crept through the cracks in my door. Despite not having a huge appetite in the early hours of the morning, I knew that the omelette and perfectly ripe mango I had that morning at 6 would have to fill me up until dinner time.

I jumped out of bed, untangling myself from my mosquito net and quickly dressed in my uniform for the day. A blue LifeStraw t-shirt, a long pair of gray cargo pants, closed-toe hiking shoes, sunscreen, hat and ponytail. Today was to be my first day out in the field and I didn’t want to be late. Despite utter exhaustion, jet lag and concern that I had only slept a little over an hour the night before, I could hardly wait. It was the start of our campaign to reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water. Little did I know what a massive operation this would be and how incredibly inspired I’d feel by the end of the week.

Given the size and scale of the campaign, our international team of 130 LifeStraw staff and volunteers were divided up into 15 teams with the goal of reaching 3-4 primary schools per day all in different parts of Western Kenya. My team was called “Team Crocodile” and was lead by Rebecca Masoni, the local Area Coordinator for LifeStraw. We also had local Sub-Country Coordinators Vincent, Patrick and Dorice (known as Mama LifeStraw) and Dehli-based Raju, myself, and mother and daughter pair Detria and Sophia, from California. Over the course of the next five days, our team alone would reach 15 primary schools and 11,923 school children throughout Vihiga, Hamisi, Khwisero, Butere, and Lurambi counties in Western Kenya. 

By 6:30 am, the parking lot was jammed pack with a motorcade of SUVs, drivers and enthusiastic LifeStaw staff and volunteers all setting out to start the day. Some of the teams had already departed as early as four in the morning to reach some of the most remote schools. We were lucky to have the region surrounding Kakamega meaning our daily drive to reach the first school would only take about two hours.

As we left our base, we set off into the rising sun leaving behind the chaos of early morning in Kakamega. Markets of fruits and vegetables stands were being set into place. Clumps of shoes, clothing and homewares were laid out on colorful blankets across the dirt ground. Motorcycles of entire families and buses packed to the rim were scurrying around. Children in their school uniforms of baby blue and white, pink and green, maroon and navy blue, were walking alongside the road heading to school.

After a half of hour, the paved roads ended and we began our trek along the bumpy, pot-holed dirt roads of rural Kenya. The roads that always remind me of what it is like to get around in the developing world. The urban landscape began to fade and the beauty of rural, Western Kenya greeted my hungry soul. The lushness and greenery such a delight to see after so many months of colorless winter back at home.

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We passed several single-plot farms growing maize and tea surrounded by traditional mud huts interspersed by small rural towns of nothing more than a few shacks and rundown buildings. Women walked side by side gracefully balancing 20 liter jerrycans of water on top of their head while farmers worked the fields. Children frantically waved and yelled “Mzungu!” (foreigner) as our car passed them by along the way. As the morning dew began to lift off the horizon, the beauty of the landscape took my breath away. It was spellbinding.

The arrival

An hour and a half later we reached the entrance of our first school, the Khanirir G. Jeptorol Primary School in Hamisi. A faded hand painted wooden sign stood proudly at the gate beckoning us to enter. Our caravan of three SUVs slowly drove up the dirt path to the school, to the sound of laughter, cries of joy and song. As we got out of the car, a large cow bell was rung and out came 500 excited school children dressed in green and pink uniforms, running out the open doors of the school rooms thrilled to meet us.

As much as we ached to say hello and greet the children, I quickly learned that proper protocol is of utter importance in Kenya. The first thing our team had to do was go inside to meet the Head Teacher and cover a few formalities. We briefly introduced ourselves and went over the plans for the next two hours. At the first school, we would be installing five LifeStraw Communities. Each LifeStraw Community can serve 100 children and five would serve the entire population of the school.

While our drivers began installing the LifeStraws, our team assembled inside a large circle with the children surrounding us, for introductions which of course involved song and dance. This was my absolute favorite part of the presentation!  It is hard to put into words the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of joyous children singing, dancing, clapping and laughing together as one. By the end of the week, I couldn’t get the songs out of my head and still wake up in the middle of the night singing them.

Since I had such a hard time capturing my experience into words, I created this short video of some of the footage I took during the week. Every time I watch the video it makes me smile. Hope you can get a sense for what my week was like by viewing it

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Kakamega Rainforest, Kakamega, Kenya

The Journey to Reach the One Millionth Child with Safe Water in Kenya

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”. –  Lao Tzu

I left for Kenya on a Thursday afternoon feeling the normal pre-trip jitters of an exceptionally long 24 hours of travel ahead. I was flying from Minneapolis to Amsterdam with a five hour layover, and then I had another eight hour flight to reach Nairobi. I knew that it was going to be a long, exhausting journey yet I was exhilarated all the same to be off on a trip into the unknown.

I boarded my first flight with anticipation wondering what was in store for me when I finally arrived in Kenya. I had been chosen to join LifeStraw’s Follow the Liters campaign to reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water. I had a packet of detailed information about the program and the campaign but that was all I honestly knew. I was traveling alone and would meet up with ten of the 130 members of the the LifeStraw team in Amsterdam to continue our journey.

LifeStraw, a part of the Vestergaard global health company, began the Follow the Liters program four years ago in Western Kenya after realizing they could be a catalyst for positive change throughout the region. Children were missing many days of school due to waterborne diseases and illness caused by drinking unsafe water. Some were even dying. The need was immense, and LifeStraw had the answer.

With over twenty years of experience working on global health issues in Kenya, Vestergaard understood that Western Kenya was the perfect place to launch the campaign given the fact that it is one of the most populous, rural parts of the country which is in dire need for safe water. At the end of 2014, 158,000 school children were reached during the first Follow the Liters Campaign. Four years later, we would be reaching one million kids! I could hardly wait to be a part of it.

Giving Back through Retail

LifeStraw is not a pure one-for-one program (like TOMS shoes) because the needs of the retail market and local market on the ground in Kenya are quite different.

For each LifeStraw product sold in retail markets in Canada and the U.S, one child receives safe drinking water for a year. It is not a “buy one give one” model but instead a comprehensive program implemented and adapted for the needs of the local market. For each school LifeStraw serves, they provide ongoing training, education and follow-up for a minimum of five years. It is a long term commitment that employs local staff from the community to ensure sustainability of the program.

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LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

International Women’s Day 2018: In Honor of the Women and Girls of Western Kenya

“If we don’t empower women, we don’t allow them to unlock the potential of themselves and their children”. – Melinda Gates

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, a day celebrated around the world in honor of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Women and girls have made a tremendous amount of progress over the years however much work still remains to be done especially within the developing world.

In honor of this special day, I wanted to share a few of my recent photos of some of the inspiring girls and women I met in Western Kenya last week with LifeStraw. It was a truly life-changing trip that fed my soul with joy, compassion and hope. I can hardly wait to share more!

Over the course of a week, our international team of 130 LifeStraw staff and volunteers, rose at dawn and were off on the road by 6:30 am to reach the schools. We were divided up into 15 teams with the goal of reaching 3-4 primary schools per day. Our days were long but incredibly exhilarating and rewarding as we provided training and installation of safe water filtration systems at each school.

At our demonstrations on how to use the LifeStraw Community (a water filtration system that treats unsafe water making it safe to drink), it was almost always the girls who were up front and center participating in the program. Many of the girls were selected to be prefects in charge of maintaining and cleaning the LifeStraw Communities, a tremendous honor.

I was thrilled to see that in all the primary schools my team visited (15 in all ) and in the 11,923 school children we met, there was not a wide gender gap as you normally see throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world. In fact, girls and boys have reached gender parity in schools and that is a huge sign of improvement and success.

CULTURE SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
LifeStraw Follow the Liters

I’m Heading to Kenya with LifeStraw and Here is Why #Lifestraw1million

“For it is in giving that we receive”. – Francis of Assisi

Sometimes life takes an unexpected curve and you just have to go for it. Back in December, as I was preparing for the busiest time of the year for me and my family I received an email telling me about an opportunity to join LifeStraw, a water filtration social enterprise owned by Vestergaard, on their upcoming trip to Kenya in February on a special project: To reach the one millionth child to receive safe drinking water.

I dropped everything I was doing that December day and applied for one of three spots to attend as a storyteller and volunteer on the trip. I hoped for the best and left for the holidays returning right after the New Year to receive the exciting news that I was selected to join the 2018 Follow the Liters team to Kenya!

As I prepare to leave for the trip today, I want to tell you a little bit more about LifeStraw and the what I will be doing for the next week in Kenya. I am thrilled to be going and doing the work I love so much. Traveling, volunteering and doing good! Making a difference has become so important to me throughout the years. I have been blessed with so many opportunities to travel and have realized how inequitable the world can be. Giving back to my family, friends, community and those around the world in need is a critical aspect of my life. I look forward to making a difference over the next week.

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Bird + Stone

Bird + Stone: Meet the jewelry brand helping women and girls around the world

“Do one thing everyday that scares you” – Eleanor Roosevelt (Elana’s favorite quote)

I am amazed by the number of millennials who are not satisfied with the ordinary 9 to 5 job and instead have taken a chance to make a difference in the world. One such woman is Elana Reinholtz, the young social entrepreneur behind Bird + Stone. Elana left an aspiring career in finance in the heart of Manhattan to help single women in Kenya through her company, Bird + Stone.

Bird + Stone is a socially conscious jewelry company with mission aligned products designed to inspire, educate, and most importantly help shape the dreams of deserving women who aspire to be independent and financially stable. As a social enterprise, Bird + Stone uses jewelry as a funding vehicle for micro-loans and financial training, and invests in single mothers in Kenya to start farming businesses to help lift themselves out of poverty. It is a beautiful concept and has shown much success in changing lives.

Bird + Stone

Elana teaching business classes to women in Kenya

Today October 11th, in honor of International Day of the Girl, Bird + Stone is partnering with Girl Up, a campaign of the UN Foundation, to help fund access to and education for the 62 million girls out of school around the globe. Each bracelet will give $3 to Girl Up programs for girls to become leaders in their communities and get access to school.

To see the new Girl Up and Bird + Stone Bracelets launched today, click here. 

Bird + Stone

New Girl Up Bracelet by Bird + Stone

I had the opportunity to chat with Elana and meet her in person in NYC to learn more about the inspiration behind Bird + Stone and why she views micro-loans as a way of changing lives in Kenya. Here is what she had to say.

Gifts that Give Back SOCIAL GOOD
Women holding NTD pills

END7: Three Generations, One Hope for Health

Early this fall, I wrote a post about END7, a global advocacy campaign run by the Global Network to raise awareness of the seven most common Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) and cultivate the resources necessary to eliminate them as public health threats by 2020.

The Road to deliver treatment. Photo credit: Mo Scarpelli

The Road to deliver treatment for NTDs in rural Kenya. Photo credit: Mo Scarpelli

I had honestly never heard of NTDs before even with all my international traveling. However, NTDs keep millions of children in the developing world out of school from preventable, treatable diseases further reinforcing the cycle of poverty and despair. Per END7, there are seven NTDs (Elephantiasis, river blindness, trachoma, snail fever, hookworm, whipworm and roundworm) that are responsible for 90% of the global burden of NTDs. NTDs are a huge problem: It is estimated that NTDs infect one in six people worldwide including one billion children. 

Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD