Friday, December 24, 2010

World Vision's "True Spirit of Christmas Tour" - Dec 2010

This December, World Vision sent me to Africa
for two weeks to showcase unique Christmas gifts
that our donors provide during the holiday season
...everything from goats to chickens to cows. 
Every day, I got to meet a new family who received a different gift. 
I learned so much about how
simple gifts can not only change someone's life
but transform families and communities!
I hope you'll get a chance to read a few of my blogs. 
And if you're interested in giving this season go to
Merry Christmas!

True Spirit of Christmas Tour Trailer

Meeting Elvis in Tanzania- how chickens changed his life!

Meeting Alfred, the child I'm now sponsoring in Ghana.

Our "12 Days of Christmas"

Day 1- GOATS


Day 3- COWS



Day 6- travel from Tanzania to Ghana

Day 7- BIBLE






BONUS: Top 20 Lessons I learned in Africa...the hard way!

(Mindy Mizell, World Vision Media Relations Director
& 2010 True Spirit of Christmas Tour Host)

Top 20 Lessons I Learned in Africa...the hard way!

1- Always pack a carry-on bag that contains at least 4 days worth of clothes.

2- Don't ever lose your electronic room key. Replacements have to be shipped in and the rest of your team will be penalized with having to turn in their keys at the front desk each night. (thanks Josh!) :-)

3- If your luggage doesn't arrive for several days, don't bother buying men's deodorant if you can't find women's deodorant. It's not really deodorant but a really, really potent cologne!

4- If you need to buy pants to sleep in because you are still waiting for your luggage, expect to only find M.C. Hammer looking pants at the store. There are no solid colored clothes to choose from. (You'll get used to the stares each night when you go downstairs for dinner.)

5- Don't pick up the cute little African baby sitting alone in a mixing bowl on the ground. There is a reason they are in a bowl. Mama may be using it as a makeshift diaper and you could end up with pee down your shirt. (But in Africa, that means you will be blessed with fertility!)

6- Don't make up your own dance moves when asked to dance in front of an entire African could frighten the children. (steve!)

7- If your local driver likes to listen to country music, expect to hear the same c.d. over and over and over again all week.

8- Always pack an electric adapter...but please note that your American hair dryer may overheat and blow the power in your room anyway because it's not used to the high current of electricity.

9- Don't wave up and down. Wave side ways. Africans will think you are trying to get them to come to you if you wave the wrong way.

10- And don't do the thumbs up! It means you've offended their mother....not that you really like something.

11- If you end up taking cold showers every day for 10 days straight, you may want to ask your team if there just happens to be a switch next to your front door to turn on the hot water heater.

12- Drink the ginger juice at your own risk.

13- Look for bones ANY time you eat fish or anything with beef in it.

14- Creamy licky. It's just the name of the local ice cream store.

15- African children do NOT like craisins....they are not delicious cranberry raisins...but are considered repulsive and will be spit out immediately.

16- If you get mud on your jeans, do NOT wipe it off with your hand. It may look like mud but it could be 'fertilizer' aka cow manure.

17- Do not go to Africa if you do not like eating chicken and rice for every meal.

18- As tempting as it may sound to eat American food again for a change, do NOT order the cheeseburger. You may end up flat on your back for a solid 32 hours.

19- If you get motion sickness, do not travel with World Vision. They have a knack for finding every bumpy road in Africa!

20- Do NOT cross your legs when sitting and greeting the local African chief. It's not ladylike ...but is actually considered offensive! ooops

Day 12, Final Day in Africa- "Christmas Catalogs"

I absolutely LOVE Christmas catalogs! You know, those inch-thick books that department stores send in the mail each holiday season that are just chock full of anything and everything you could ever want to buy! Clothes, clocks, jewelry, furniture, toys…you name it! As a child, I used to look forward to getting our seasonal catalogs in the mail from all the big stores. I'd sit on the floor for hours thumbing through page after page just putting together my Santa wish list. I knew I wouldn’t get most of the items I bookmarked, even if I did send a letter to the North Pole, but it was just fun to dream about all those wonderful things appearing under the Christmas tree!

Until this year, I’d never seen a World Vision Christmas Gift Catalog. I guess I’d heard a little about giving goats or cows to people during the holiday season, but I didn’t really know if the whole concept was just a way for non-profits to get money or if those items really made a difference. I’ll admit…when I was invited to join this year’s True Spirit of Christmas tour, I still had my doubts about how the whole international gifting thing worked. How’d I get invited to be this year’s host?! Partly because I was new to World Vision and they wanted someone to see the items featured in our 2010 gift catalog from a fresh perspective. I guess it’s probably good they didn’t know I was a skeptic!

Believe me…I’ve asked a LOT of questions behind the scenes throughout this trip! Thank goodness our team leader, Steve Reynolds, was a 27-year veteran of World Vision who put up with my ignorant questions. He answered each thoroughly and patiently….one by one. Some questions he just chuckled at how basic they were. But over time, I slowly started to gain a better understanding of how critically important these simple gifts of cows, chickens and goats are to individuals, families and even entire communities.

This morning, I was thumbing through this year’s gift catalog again…but this time with the same enthusiasm as a child dreaming of toys. Page 3- a goat. Page 7- cows. Page 15- Bibles and soccer balls. Except now I don’t just see the gifts by themselves. Instead, I see faces. Helen smiling at me and thanking me for her dairy cow because now her family doesn’t go to bed hungry. 3-year-old Rose gingerly sipping from a cup of milk thanks to the cow World Vision gave her family. 11-year-old Deborah sitting on a bench proudly reading a Bible she can call her very own! And the unforgettable Elvis of Tanzania with his homemade soccer ball playing in his yard wishing for a real ball.

After having seen these items first hand and talking to real life people who got them, I continued flipping through item after item thinking “I get it!”

Christmas isn’t about what I receive this year. It’s what I get to give!

I still love Christmas catalogs. But I’ll be honest. I’m no longer a skeptic about World Vision’s. Instead, I’m now a little biased. My new favorite catalog is ours!

Africa Day 11- "Water & Wells" (Ghana)

Unfortunately, I spent our last full day shooting in Africa on my back, sick in my hotel room. I couldn't keep any food down and slept for nearly 32 hours straight. I was so glad to see my bedside table chock full of bottles of water to drink every time I woke up. Ironic, that on this same day our team was covering water in Ghana.

In Africa, clean water is hard to come by! Some children are sent every morning to fetch water for their families that's several miles away. And even then it's not the cleanest water. Yet, they drink it anyway because it's the only option.

Today, our True Spirit of Christmas team talked with a man named Yaw Owusu who remembers what his village was like before World Vision built a borehole well in his community. Back then, people were contantly getting sick from guinea work ...a disease that can severely cripple or even kill you. Yaw got guinea worm 37 times yet was one of the lucky ones...he survived.

Now he says his 6 grandchildren don't even know what guinea worm is! They've never gotten sick because they can get clean, healthy water from the borehole well. We asked him what his village would be like if World Vision hadn't built the well...he answered, "We would be a ghost town."

Earlier this week we also met a mother who wanted to thank World Vision for building a shallow well in her village. Before it was built, her children hiked each morning to a stream to get water. Sometimes the water would make them sick. Plus, her kids were constantly late to school because of the long walk and she always worried they'd get hit by a car because they had to walk along a busy highway. Now she says her children get to school on time and don't worry about whether the water is ok to drink.

I don't know what made me sick. We suspect it was something I ate. I just know that I was so grateful to have unlimited access to clean, healthy water to help me get well again. Before this trip, I would have taken for granted having plenty of water by my bedside. Now, I can't help but wish for everyone to have just as easy access to clean water as I do.

Africa Day 10- "Medicine & Supplies" (Ghana)

I was a little worried that today’s item in the World Vision Christmas Gift Catalog could be too boring to feature….Medicine and Supplies. I know. Yawn. I didn’t know if there was a way to make antibiotics, antifungals or de-worming medications sound cool or exciting. I was wrong! I could make a movie out of the compelling story we heard today!

We met a family in Ghana who recounted their dramatic experience and how World Vision saved their son’s life in the nick of time!

Earlier this year, their infant got sick. He was overheating and struggling to breathe. His parents didn’t know what to do and were frantic. They considered hiking 10 miles away to their nearest hospital, but they didn’t think their son would make it that far.

Their only other option was to find medicine….quickly.

In Africa, you can buy just about anything from street peddlers….phone cards, bananas, shoes…even medicine. The boy’s parents decided to spend what little money they had and buy drugs for their son from a peddler who told them he had a concoction that would help.

They were told to pour a powdery substance into a glass of water and have their son drink it. What other options did they have? They were so scared their son was about to die.

As they sat on the grass debating whether to follow the peddler’s advice, a nurse from a nearby World Vision clinic passed by and asked what they were doing. She examined the boy and quickly realized that the drugs were 20x stronger than the boy should be given. In fact, if he swallowed the concoction, the infant would most likely overdose and die. Instead, the nurse convinced his parents to follow her to a nearby clinic where World Vision had stocked the small building full of medicine and supplies provided through the Christmas Gift Catalog.

The little boy was treated with age-appropriate medications and sent home. Two days later, the nurse revisited his parents and found the infant happy and healthy again!

I got to talk to the boy’s parents today and they told me they believe it was a miracle from God that the nurse showed up when she did! If she hadn’t, they don’t think their son would have survived.

Today I walked away from this village in Ghana learning that Medicines and Supplies are not just another life changing item in our gift catalog this year…but a life saving gift! I’m so glad that this family will all be together this Christmas…thanks to the medicines provided through World Vision.

Africa Day 9- "Orphans and Vulnerable Children" (Ghana)

I knew today was going to be tough on me. I’d braced myself since the beginning of our trip to Africa for what would likely be the most emotionally trying day. Today’s feature item in our Christmas Gift catalog was what World Vision calls OVC’s…orphans & vulnerable children. We were going to a small village in Ghana to meet four children who had lost both their parents.

Having grown up with two incredible parents myself, I can’t imagine how differently my life would have turned out if I’d lost them as a child. Even in the United States, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for children in foster care or up for adoption.

In Africa, if you lose both parents it’s not assumed that your relatives or the government will step in to help you. Instead, many children become outcasts in their communities and are left to fend for themselves.

When we arrived, our team discovered that not only were all four children orphans but they were siblings. The two oldest sat down with us to tell us their heartbreaking story.

With tears running down both their faces, they struggled for words to describe the pain of losing both their parents six years ago. Although they don’t know how their mom or dad died, it’s assumed their parents contracted HIV…a common problem in Africa.

The oldest boy was just 14-years-old. He described how he and his siblings were left without any food, clothes or money. They were forced to scrounge for anything to eat and were treated like ‘animals’ in their community. Every night, they prayed to God for help…knowing that they’d have to soon resort to stealing or prostitution just to survive. Yet, all four children still forced themselves to continue going to school…knowing it was their only hope for a good future.

Until this trip, I’ll admit…I didn’t know the scope of what World Vision does. I was just hired a few months ago and I came in with only had a basic understanding of the type of work our organization is a part of worldwide.

Today, I couldn’t be more proud of what we are doing. I listened to these children describe how World Vision stepped in and provided them with food, clothes, school supplies and fertilizer to grow their own garden.

Now the oldest boy wants to become a teacher, and says he wants to use his experience to help others. The oldest girl wants to be a nurse, because she is so impressed with the nurses in the nearby World Vision clinic.

They still miss their parents immensely. A poster sized picture of their mother continues to hang on the wall inside their hut. But they told us, they know their parents would be so proud of how far they’ve come.

I'm so glad I get to be a part of something like this. What's really cool is that so can anyone! In the Christmas gift catalog, you can give to a fund just for Orphans and Widows. The money is used to provide food, shelter, education, job training etc to the most vulnerable.

I asked this family of 4 what their lives would have been like had World Vision NOT stepped in.  The tears flowed as they said they wouldn't have hope. This Christmas, they celebrate together not only believing they have a good future ahead of them....they KNOW they do!

Africa Day 8- "Child Sponsorship" (Ghana)

Children are such a blessing from God! I would love to have children of my own someday. But my husband and I have been married three years now and still haven’t been able to start a family. We trust that God will bless us in His timing.
But today….He put someone special into our lives.  His name is Alfred! And I am his new World Vision child sponsor. I wish you could meet him!

Alfred is 8-years-old, lives in Ghana and loves building his own toy cars. He wants to be a banker someday. His mother sells charcoal, his father is a farmer and his 4 siblings each have his same contagious smile. I’m so proud!

It was Alfred’s smile that first drew me to him. He’s learning English in school but only understands a few words so far. Yet, his smile speaks a thousand words. His smile immediately told me that this boy is kind, generous, gracious, humble, respectful and loving. And in my brief afternoon meeting Alfred, he was all that and more.

I wanted to become a child sponsor for many reasons. Most of all, I want to make a difference. This two-week trip through Africa has taught me how truly blessed most of us are in America. We don’t need chickens, goats or cows in our own backyard to keep our families from starving. Most of us can hop in our cars and make a quick run to the grocery store. Maybe we’ll pull over to the drug store and fill a prescription. Or maybe we’ll get thirsty and pull into Sonic for quick drink.

That doesn’t happen where Alfred lives. His daily chore is to go fetch water for his family. So after school he hikes to the local well and pumps it into a bucket.

How can I really make a difference in Alfred’s life? Should I send him money? Should I send him lots of gifts? I know now from this trip that there really are certain gifts I can give that will change Alfred’s life forever.

For one, just becoming his child sponsor means I am now financially enabling the World Vision staff in Ghana to help make his community better. Although he wants to be a banker, if I just gave Alfred money at this age he probably wouldn’t know how to spend it. Someone else would use it for him and maybe not on things that directly help my WV child. But in giving through World Vision, I know Alfred will get help with school, he’ll get medical attention if he gets sick and he will grow up with a loving team surrounding his community and looking for ways to make his life better.

Secondly, I now look at the Christmas gift catalog through a different lens. Now when I see chickens, bed nets, water wells, cows, etc….I can actually picture Alfred and know that he or someone just like him will benefit from my gift.

I’ve been asked on this trip, why would I encourage someone to be a child sponsor? I would say it’s just the first step in making a real difference. Being a sponsor means you’ll have a real face and a name to call your own and will visualize as you move forward in challenging yourself to do or give more.

I have Alfred. We both love to smile! And he’s already blessed my life more than he could know.

Africa Day 7- "The gift of a Bible" (Ghana)

“Jesus loves the little children.
All the children of the world!
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world!”

Most of us know the tune! You could at least hum it if you had too. For me, this may have been the first song I ever learned in life, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Yet, I haven’t heard it or thought about it for a long time now. But, today that song came flooding back to me!

Our first full day in Ghana was spent driving to another remote area of Africa…bumping along dirt roads with our team crammed in the back seat of an SUV. It took nearly an hour and a half before we finally arrived in a village where children were swarming everywhere. I jumped out of the middle seat to a sea of kids half my size….dozens and dozens of inquisitive, smiling, laughing faces all staring at us like we were celebrities.

Not knowing what to do, I started to communicate with a few high-fives. Yet before I knew it, every child wanted to slap my hand. This one. That one. This little one. That tall one. Before I knew it, I felt like I was in a mosh pit! Children everywhere all wanting to simply touch our hands.

We had arrived intending to do a story today about bibles. In Africa, the Bible is a hot commodity. Not everyone can afford to buy their own copy. Instead, children learn from “Quotation books” which are basically paperback books full of more than 800 verses. Yet, you’d be surprised how well these children know the Bible! The children greeting us were each members of their local Bible clubs where once a week they gather to study together. Today, they were holding competitions to see which club member could say the most verses or look them up the fastest.

For several hours, we just watched as more than 100 children watched the six finalists go head to head in all sorts of Bible trivia…in English too! It was truly fascinating…and humbling…to see how much these young children knew about the Bible with out even owning their own copy.

As we prepared to leave, mobs of children followed our every movement…still wanting to touch us or watch us. For some, we were the first of a different ethnicity they’d ever seen.

Yet, someone…or rather, something suddenly caught my eye….

There it was….a small, white lamb grazing ahead unaware of all the hoopla going on around. It looked like a page out of an illustration in a Bible that I may have owned as a child…a lamb like what Jesus may have held…just walking across the path in front of me.

Without really thinking, I asked my interpreter if I could try to hold it for a picture. I watched as the children cornered the lamb, scooped it up and placed it in my arms.

I held the lamb with its little body just trembling in my arms. I didn’t mean to scare it. I just thought it looked so picturesque. Yet, as I held the lamb for the quick camera shot, I knew this little creature was truly symbolic of what this day had been all about. The helpless, the scared, the weak, the innocent. The children.

Jesus does love the little children! And so do we.

The words of that song have never resonated with me more powerfully than they did today.

"A Long Journey to Hope"- blog by Steve Reynolds, True Spirit of Christmas Team Leader

Introduction by Mindy:

One of my favorite movies growing up was Back to the Future. I used to love watching Michael J. Fox jump into that flashy time machine car and whiz off down the street as he suddenly flashed into another year in history...or the future. It always made me wonder…what if I could do that?! What year would I want to go to?

This week in Africa, there have been days I’ve wished I had a time machine so I could leap back in time to see what life was like before World Vision had a presence here. Yes, I’ve met children who greet me smiling, happy and healthy. Yes, the animals they’ve received mean they are no longer starving. And yes, their parents say they are more successful than they’ve ever been.

I’ve only been an employee with World Vision less than a few months so I’ll admit… as the newbie to rural economic development …I have struggled this week to not judge too quickly “success” from a touristy American’s perspective. Some of the children I’ve met this week didn’t have shoes on or didn’t have a front door on their mud constructed home. One boy had to make his own soccer ball. Another girl had a rudimentary bandage on her recently sliced finger. And most, you could tell had never been to a modern dentist.

Should I feel happy for their ‘success’? Or disappointed?

My questions are probably too complicated to answer during this brief, 14-day journey through Africa, but I do feel as if I’ve had a sort-of ‘time machine’ with me this trip helping me out.

Steve Reynolds, a 27-year veteran of World Vision, has been our guide so far and remembers what Africa was like decades ago when he first started working here. I’ve peppered him with questions nearly every day asking him what life was like then. I encourage you to read his blog as it gives us a rare perspective on ‘success’ in rural economies…a perspective that starts by taking us back in time.

A Long Journey to Hope Steve Reynolds

The memories come flooding back to me whether I want them to or not. They are just mental images now: snapshots, really. But they are as clear now as they were 26 years ago. I can't forget the faces. Tiny eyes looking up at me through the lens of my camera. Eyes which I could swear had given up hope of ever looking happy again. In a way, I don't ever want to forget them - if for no other reason than to remind me of just how bad things can get. The year was 1984, and I was standing in a dusty dry village in northern Tanzania. I had just left Ethiopia where the greatest Famine of the 20th century was already claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. I watched helplessly as the same killer drought ravaged countires further south.

Fast forward the tape to this past Tuesday. I'm standing in another village in the same part of Tanzania. It's a lot greener now than it was then, but otherwise it looks the same. Only this time, instead of photographing emaciated bodies and children too weak from malnutrition to keep the flies from their faces, I'm watching a father help his son and daughter pull a net through a fish pond. I stand there watching as they expertly drag the net along the bottom with one hand, while holding the other end above the surface. I am skeptical. Maybe they'll get a few frogs ,I thought. Then, with a skill and adeptness that only comes from a lot of practice, they lilft up the net and inside are literally hundreds of small "fishlings" each one about four inches long. They don't eat these fish, they sell them, and earn cash to buy food, clothing, and pay their children's school fees. They also use the cash to buy banana seedlings, the excess produce of which they also sell. "As you can see," says Michael Shirima, the father, "my daughters are fat enough because they have lots of nutritious food to eat." He smiles and the girls giggle. I nearly cry.

What made this simple miracle possible? A small loan form World Vision.

These small loans are revolutionizing Africa in a way I never thought possible. They are allowing the poor families like Hellen and Michael Shirima - across the continent and around the world - break the chains of desperation and dependence, provide for their families, and become independent, respected, and successful entrepreneurs. The difference is astonishing. It's not just the food and the clothing and the school fees, although those are miracles in themselves. It's the look of pride in a father's face at being able to provide for his family. It's the look in a mother's face that says "We did this. We made this work." Everyone wins.

Tomorrow we'll be on to see other "gifts that make a difference." But today, maybe for the first time in a long time, I have hope for Africa, for families like Hellen and Michael Shirima's, and for myself. Who knows, maybe I'll finally get rid of those haunting images and replace them with images of smiling little eyes and giggles...and fish.

Ahh. Hope never looked so good.


Africa Day 5- The Power of Prayer

Being in Africa for December, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that Christmas is just a few weeks away! We’ve been wearing short sleeved shirts, swatting away mosquitoes and enjoying warm, sunny days.

Yet, as we hit our halfway point on our True Spirit of Christmas tour, what happened this final day in Tanzania was a stark reminder that December 25th is nearer than I think.

Today we decided to make the hour long drive back along the bumpy, dirt roads to Helen’s home…a woman we’d met earlier this week in a remote village of Tanzania. She is just one of many recipients in this area to receive a microloan from the World Vision Christmas gift catalog. Helen and her husband have since used the small loan to invest in a fish pond. During our initial trip, they even showed us how they can now catch dozens of fish in their own backyard and feed their entire family. She says her children are happy now…and don’t go hungry at night anymore.

Going back to say goodbye and pray for Helen was something I’d been looking forward to all week. I wanted her to know how so many people back home in the United States had been touched by her story…including me.

Yet I wasn’t prepared for what happened this afternoon.

We returned to Helen’s mud hut on a tight schedule due to delays caused by a massive rainstorm. We needed to say a quick goodbye. My interpreter and I huddled with Helen underneath her door where the words “Jesus is the Answer” were scribbled in Swahili. After we prayed, we started to say our goodbyes when Helen disappeared for nearly 10 minutes. We didn’t know where she went, but we waited for her to come back before leaving.

She eventually returned…but with an oversized envelope in her hand. With a shy smile, she said to me, “For you!”

I opened it up and found a large, store-bought Christmas card printed in English. Helen had also carefully written the names of each of her family members inside. But on the back of the envelope, in faded pencil, I could still see the price of what she paid for the card….roughly a few dollars. I got choked up.

For Helen, a few dollars is a LOT of money. She saves every penny just to pay for her children’s school fees and food for her family. I couldn’t help but imagine just how much this touching card may have financially set her back.

After we left, I asked our interpreter how Helen managed to even get such a beautiful, commercial Christmas card for me when she lives so far away from any major town. I was told that Helen likely hiked an hour away and caught a bus that eventually took her into the nearest market area. The trip was likely a full-day event!

I, on the other hand, had arrived at Helen’s with nothing to offer her in return….other than a simple, “Merry Christmas.” When I told our interpreter I felt badly that I didn’t bring her anything as well, she gently explained, “Helen was just honored to have guests come to her home from so far away!” She also told me how nervous Helen had initially felt when told we’d be coming from the United States to see her that week. Helen was concerned she wouldn’t be a good host since she didn’t have much to offer or share. After we left...having sat on tree stumps eating fried bananas and a cup of goat’s milk tea…Helen told her neighbors how relieved she was that “these Americans were so humble and willing to eat what we eat and sit where we sit.”

For me, Christmas came early this afternoon in Tanzania….to be so warmly accepted, greeted and blessed by strangers with so few possessions to claim as their own. I will always treasure my oversized Christmas card from Helen. In fact, I tear up just thinking about Helen’s unexpected generosity in this remote area of the world.

Helen’s story sums up what this first week in Africa has been all about - meeting people blessed by gifts from World Vision …but who end up blessing us so much more!