Hey, everyone! First of all, thank you for the overwhelming support on my past post. I love writing these, and I love when you enjoy reading them! As you know, I am in Latvia on a service trip. We have been learning about Latvian history and the mission of the “Lust for Life” project that we are assisting, but we didn’t get a chance to actually meet the children we are supporting until Saturday, a few days ago. Then, after a 1.5 hour bus ride into the Latvian countryside, past fields of golden flowers and orchards of trees, we arrived at a former orphanage, now a house designed to host activities for “Lust for Life.”
We met the kids on our first day by beginning with a “live mandala.” We each brought an object from nature (a flower, a fern, a radish, a piece of driftwood), and one by one danced into a circle and placed it in the center of our mandala. As an icebreaker, it was incredible and immediately connected us all. It’s not easy to put yourself out there, dancing or skipping in front of strangers. Yet, it is such an incredible way to foster inner strength and encourage confidence. It brings us all to the same level. Makes us one. It gives us the energy we need to start the day off on an incredible, enlightening note.
After splitting into two groups, half of us headed upstairs to perform a creative activity in expressive arts, using collage, paint, words, and (honestly) whatever spoke to us.
The other half (my half) was led into the kitchen to prepare lunch. Waiting was the ever talented chef Siri (check out her blog!), ready with a kitchen full of food to make. We chopped radishes, sliced carrots, fried eggplant, boiled and baked potatoes, learned how to poach an egg, and made our own mayonnaise from scratch. We turned piles of uncut, raw vegetables into the most fabulous salad buffet I have ever seen. We worked together, interacting and chatting, putting all of our own talents and abilities into this one final project. At the end, I can at least speak for myself (and probably everyone else) that I felt strong and proud after that. For the children like the ones this organization supports, fostering that sense of personal pride is everything.
Which brings me to the theme of this blog post, introduced by Lara, our yoga instructor on the trip (check out her website!), during Saturday morning yoga and exemplified throughout the activities we did. That theme is Empowerment.
There are many things that can make us feel empowered, and I tend to divide them into two distinct categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. While each person’s experience with empowerment is as unique to them as with any other thing, I find that of those two types, extrinsic is the easiest to grasp, so let me start off there, and work my way up to the challenge.
This trip was the ultimate way to develop a sense of empowerment, as it had all the promise and potential in the world to be incredibly rewarding. Empowerment’s reward is pride and confidence. Service with children, especially, like this trip, is fabulous for fostering empowerment because they become the visual exemplars of the impact we as individuals donating out love and time can make. Children are open books, so when something you do makes them feel good, you can see it in their faces, body language, and reaction. You can feel it. Perhaps this is because on some level we can all relate to kids, having been kids ourselves at one point or another. Childhood ties us together.
The official definition of empowerment is: “1. To give power or authority to; to authorize, especially by legal or official means 2. To enable or permit.”
Now, that is interesting. To give power or authority, and to enable. What I find ironic is that in order for me to feel empowered, I believe that I must first enable the possibility of empowerment within myself. It’s almost as if I need permission from #2 to do #1. I believe many also struggle with this concept like myself. I can do something that could potentially be considered “empowering” from an outsider’s perspective, yet I have the unfortunate ability to turn a blind eye to it, underestimating myself.
That is why I am so happy and passionate about this trip in Latvia. These children, having grown up in a challenging state-run institutional environment without consistent familial or peer support that is less-than-conducive to proper emotional growth run the risk of also turning a blind eye to how amazing and promising they are. I try, every day, to bring that awareness to them. I act as the part #2—the enabler, the giver, the supporter. I can look at a child, or at their artwork, or the special words they say, and I can see their bright futures. Then, I try and show them “the light,” per say, so they can see their brightness as well.
It’s not easy to empower someone else, yet so incredibly rewarding, especially in children. It’s hard to measure, though. What does empowerment actually “look” like? Empowerment is an unseen and powerful mental, non-physical force. You cannot bring a ruler to it or give it an official unit of measurement. So how can we see it? I like to measure empowerment in the one thing that I personally know demonstrates this “invisible” concept in a “visible” capacity: in smiles. True, genuine, full-faced, cause-some-wrinkles smiles.
I smile every single day. We all do (even if we don’t process it). We smile while trying to get the nooks and crannies of our teeth when brushing in the morning, we smile at the first sip of coffee to start our day, we smile at our family, friends, co-workers, strangers on the street. We smile at a joke on the radio or our favorite comedic TV show. Yet in retrospect, how many of those smiles are true true true ones? Real, true smiles are hard to come by.
This trip and my first day spending time with the orphaned kids in Latvia, however, produced smiles from me that really were 100% true. I didn’t even realize that the joy I was feeling with them was coming out through smiles, until a specific moment with a little girl named Leila.
We met in, let’s say, an upside-down way. Or rather, in encouraging and assisting her in being literally upside down. After meeting over some wet dishes in the kitchen, we headed outside to play. Soon we found ourselves barefoot in the grass, doing forward rolls and cartwheels. Not to be cliché, but any frowns she or I had had were literally and theoretically turned upside down. I laughed. She laughed. She smiled at me and I did the same in reply.
That smile showed me more than enough. It was in her twinkling laugh and pride in learning the English words of her lunch of “egg,” “potato,” “bread,” and “chick peas.” It was in her patience and excited joy as I French braided her hair into pigtail braids, and in her shrieks as I chased after her and swung her in a circle. That smile showed me empowerment, radiating from the small frame of this little Latvian 7-year-old. By my encouragement and support in letting her simply be herself, the door inside of her that leads to a feeling of empowerment was opened. I told her it was okay to be a kid. She, like all the other children there, is special. Unique. Herself. Empowered.
This is just one example, from my own personal experience on this trip, of special moments when we as volunteers empowered the children in Latvia. Each and every one of us 28 people had times like this—moments that will be treasured forever. Moments that showed us we could make a difference in these kids’ lives, however small it may seem. When these moments add up, we begin to realize the collective change happening. That is when we hold the power to change the world.
Empowerment was especially important for us in our mission on this trip and in 109 World’s mission in general. We wanted to reach out to this population of orphaned children and show them that education, jobs, and a future are out there. From just the fundraising we did prior, we can now happily say that we will be able to support two students from the orphanage in 4 years of educational pursuits each. It can be very difficult for youth raised in such an environment to even picture that they have the capability to be whatever or whomever they want. That’s where we play a role. We look them in the eyes and say, “Yes you can.” We show them with our love and actions that they are more than worthy of a life they design themselves. In fact, we literally let them design their futures, at least in an artistic sense, this weekend.
A major aspect of our time with the kids was channeling joy and hope through creativity and expressive arts. We encouraged them to participate in a project developed by our fabulous expressive arts leader,Sofia Bolin (website here!), in which they folded a makeshift door out of construction paper and used clippings, words, and paints to place inside that door what they wanted to open up into their lives moving forwards. It is not the final product that was even as important as the psychological effect of the project. In having a child who may have lost sight of hope truly think about ways they want to rediscover it, we facilitated their own personal empowerment. We provided a visual link that solidified the fact that yes; they could grow and learn and be amazing human beings themselves.
The irony of this weekend is that as much as adult I helped these children, they helped me just as much, if not more. Because if you could count my smiles as well as theirs, you would see that Leila and the others like her gave me empowerment. Which, I think, is fabulous. Sometimes we need a kid to remind us of our own inner child. We need to count the smiles we create on a youngster’s face in order to dole them out to ourselves. In this way, “empowerment” comes full circle.
I picture the circle like this: I empower you, which makes me feel empowered. You gain pride and confidence because of my support, and I gain pride and confidence because I helped you get to that place. It is beautiful. In this cycle of empowerment, the extrinsic and intrinsic aspects overlap. We not only empower externally, but also touch on the side that is much more difficult to wrap our heads around, let alone reach: the intrinsic side.
I hear the word “intrinsic” or “internal” and I cringe a little. I think a lot of us do. It’s hard to think about ourselves! Why? Because internal is hard, and we know ourselves so well. We have no place to hide because we are running the show ourselves. It is one thing to show someone else how worthy you know they are, and a whole different thing to allow ourselves to see that we are also worthy of something.
You see, I am a giver, as many are. When I give to others, it makes me a happy person. Yet I often find myself denying that I deserve to “give” that energy internally. As humans, we tend to underestimate our value. We are our own worst critics. Sometimes we need to open our own construction paper doors of empowerment, to look our inner self doubter in the eyes and say: “Screw you. I am important. I am important because I can help others. I am equally important because I can have pride and confidence in who I am.” This is a mantra we must repeat to ourselves, especially when our goal is to get others like these children to do it for themselves as well.
Our fabulous yoga instructor Lara ended our empowerment themed class with the reminder that we must feel empowered within ourselves first, before we can be fully present in making our fellow humans and peers empowered. It’s a work in progress for sure (at least for me). It is for everyone to some extent. Nobody is perfect. No one should be and certainly doesn’t need to be. But what we should do is embrace our imperfections, and see that they are not parts of us that need immediate fixing or harsh judgment. They are instead parts of us that are uniquely ours—something we can use to help ourselves feel intrinsically empowered. Then, we can be even more prepared to spread that empowerment to those around us who also need it.
Ultimately, I went on this trip with the intention to spread that empowerment, specifically the children in Latvia. Although my time with them was limited, I am so very happy to have had the opportunity to be a supporter and a role model. I came aiming to show these children that they are worth it. Worth a future. Worth hopes, worth dreams. Worth more than they ever thought they could be. Worthy of intrinsic empowerment themselves.
We closed Saturday off with the children by sitting together in a circle. We put our hands together and rubbed briskly, generating heat and friction, and channeling our energy. Then, we closed our eyes and just…felt. Felt that warmth, that strength, and that ability coursing through our bodies and meeting up at this point of friction between our hands. We asked ourselves: What do our hands hold? What will they be a part of? What can they build? We all linked hands in the circle, and then felt that power as a whole. We lived and loved, without even a word. We embodied empowerment. We connected.
Moments like that are why 109 world and I came to Latvia. Why we do what we do: to facilitate empowerment, and to channel it inwards at the same time. It is a never-ending process, but it is oh so worth it for the hearts we can touch, and for opening ourselves to let others to touch us as well. In vulnerability, we gain strength. Let us embrace that, and turn it into pure empowerment.
Don’t worry, I’m not finished processing this trip yet! There is so much to think and write about! Expect at least 2 more blog posts…deep, like this one, but important. Stay tuned!
Also a huge thanks to Sodalime, the team that captured so many of these fabulous pictures! (website here!)