In 2012 I had the incredible opportunity to travel to 13 countries with the Starkey Hearing Foundation and a documentary film crew. We set out on a mission to fully immerse ourselves in cultures around the world and understand the unique challenges each community faced, with the goal of creating understanding, mutual respect, and ultimately the peace that comes through knowing one another.
The Starkey Hearing Foundation has a long history of traveling around the world to fit and distribute hearing aids to people in impoverished and underserved communities. As part of their partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Starkey pledged to distribute a minimum of 100,000 hearing aids annually. CGI applauded their commitment but challenged them to do even more. This playful but genuine challenges sparked the idea for "Operation Change" - the 10-part documentary series that enabled me to live out my life's dream of doing service work abroad.
Just as The Starkey Hearing Foundation had been doing for the past 15 years, we spent half of our time in each country fitting hearing aids. We had the opportunity to help children as young as 2 or adults as old as 90 hear for the first time or have their hearing restored when they thought all hope was lost. We spent the other half of our time partnering with small, local nonprofits or community organizations to complete the most pressing humanitarian projects in each region.
Every step of this epic journey was captured on film and ultimately aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. As I traveled, I had the opportunity to reflect on my experiences in a raw and informal blog. You can read my blog by visiting www.operationchange.com or just see below....
Building the house for Josette in Haiti was truly a unique experience. For the first time on a project, there were too many volunteers! Having Bill Rancic and his team along meant that there were 10 people working on a project, when the team usually consisted of about only three volunteers. It was nice to have the extra hands but Carlos and I felt like we weren’t doing enough. We kept trying to find more ways to contribute but Bill's team was fast and efficient, always managing to get things done before we even noticed.
Bill's team was hilarious. Being best buddies, they were playfully competitive and argued over the right way to do everything, all the way down to the proper form to use when hammering in a nail. They would randomly burst into song and even somehow for their hands on instruments. Spirits on the job site were definitely high and the mood was goofy. Everyone was happy to be doing something so positive.
I had never built a house from start to finish before so there were many things I didn’t know how to do but was determined to experience. I struggled through using a hand saw properly to trim some of the boards that were going to hold up the roof. It was particularly challenging and I’m sure funny looking because the boards had already been put in place. Carlos and I had to find a way to perch ourselves on the roof scaffolding and saw away without falling off. We did it…but the cuts definitely weren’t straight. As if it wasn’t challenging enough, we decided to race and see who could saw through the board first. I didn’t win.
My favorite moment on the build was when we presented the house to Josette and her family. Watching their faces light up and seeing the tears stream down their face when they were given the plaque that read: “The House that Didi Built” was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had. The endless smiles and hugs that followed filled my heart and reminded me of what we here to do: make a difference in the lives of one beautiful, deserving family.
The drive from Port Au Prince to Jacmel was definitely scary. Hours of twists and turns on small windy mountain roads that were often made of dirt and perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Our driver drove on without a care…whipping around corners that he was probably very familiar with but that were all new and terrifying to me.
While we were driving back to our hotel in Jacmel we suddenly encountered what looked like a parade marching down the street. They motioned for us to drive on as some of the people started to move aside to let us through. As I took a closer look I noticed that many people were wearing costumes, masks and body paint. I noticed that several people had machetes in their hands and many people were wearing seriously scary looking masks as they danced around and pushed each other. It made me nervous to be driving slowly in the center of all of this but I figured it was just a peaceful celebration of some kind. And then, in an instant, chaos ensued. The group erupted and people began running and pushing and shoving each other. It looked like fights broke out and some people surrounded our vehicle so we couldn’t move. I had no idea what was going on. Luckily the driver slowly pushed on as he honked and made his way through the crowd that reluctantly and slowly moved out of the way. I don’t think any of us really know what happened or why the crowd got so rowdy. We were just happy to not be trapped in the middle of it anymore.
My most memorable moment in Haiti was visiting the cathedral in Port Au Prince. Standing inside what was once an in tact, beautiful cathedral and imagining what it must have been like to be inside as it crumbled around you really made an impact on me. That was the moment when I really understood the devastation of the earthquake. Seeing the pieces of stained glass scattered all over the floor, and pieces of the cathedral being held on by nothing but rebar as the wind blew them from side to side made such an impact on me. There was this grand structure designed to make its parishioners feel safe…a place they regularly came to worship…left in complete ruins. It looked like an ancient structure that had been deteriorating for hundreds of years, but then the realization set in that it had fallen apart in an instant. It was sad to see it abandoned and covered in graffiti and trash - a sad reminder of the current state of Haiti. An overwhelming reminder that there were so many pieces left to pick up, without a clue of where to begin. How do you begin to repair such colossal damages?
I would like Haiti to be known for the spirit of its people. They are lively and joyful, and live life with an open heart and a thirst for life. They love to sing and dance and cook. They are amazingly resourceful and resilient.
ISRAEL & PALESTINE
The dialogue meeting with Bassam and Rami was intensely emotional. I couldn’t hold back the tears as I sat in the circle of men, both young and old, and listened to Bassam and Rami’s stories. The courage and strength these two men embodied was remarkable. They had both experienced such profound loss and sorrow, yet they found the strength within themselves to forgive, heal, and start doing something to ease the struggles of the Israeli and Palestinian people. They were traveling examples of what is possible when we forgive and open the door to dialogue. They were a testament to the power of compassion and connection, leading people to see that the similarities that unite us are larger than the perceived differences that divide us. I was in awe of their tireless efforts to bring men of all ages and ethnicities together to get to know one another, openly discuss their grievances, forge a bond and one day arrive at a shared solution.
All human beings want to be heard. They want to express themselves, and feel like their opinions, desires and grievances are truly acknowledged. Bassam and Rami were creating a place where both Israeli and Palestinian men could come together and genuinely feel heard.
In addition to being emotionally moved, I felt extremely anxious while sitting in the circle. It was hard to tell how the men seated in the circle were going to react to Bassam and Rami’s story. For the most part, they all sat stone faced, without showing any sign of emotion. The tension built until Bassam and Rami finally opened up the discussion and asked the men to talk about how they felt. Several of the older men expressed their anger and frustration with the daily struggles they faced due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finally one of the younger men joined in and spoke with such pain and anger in his voice that it made everyone take pause. At the height of the tension, Rami stepped in and diffused it all by expressing a simple sentiment: “I am you and you are me. I am here to listen and to make sure that you are heard.”
As the discussion came to a close, all of the men shook hands and hugged, without regard for who was Israeli, Palestinian or American. They were all men who had come together to respectfully hear each other out. I walked away from the discussion with a profound sense of hope that what Rami and Bassam had created within this small circle could be created throughout Israel and Palestine. Instead of allowing their anger and grief to drive them to violence, they were offering an alternative: dialogue leading to change. They were hopeful and unrelenting in their pursuit of peace, which inspired a sense of hope in the people they came into contact with.
While helping build the community center I worked alongside and chatted with a young woman who was my age. Our lives were so different, yet we had so much in common. She was married and had already had several children. After explaining to her that finding a husband was the prerequisite to me having children, she told me a bit more about how marriages work in the Maasai Mara. I learned that traditionally Maasai marriages are arranged. I was surprised when she told me that Maasai women who are more educated have more say in who they marry. It made me very happy to hear that as access to education increases so will gender equality. Building the community center instantly had a new and augmented importance, as it would give women the opportunity to make their own choices, even when it comes to the partners they marry.
We continued our conversation as we took a break from building. She commented on my brightly colored nail polish and I admired her beautiful jewelry. She offered to teach me how to make jewelry and invited me to join the women’s jewelry circle the next day. I excitedly accepted her invitation.
When I first arrived at the jewelry circle, the women were already working away on their beading. They were all very shy and Alais facilitated our initial conversation because the women claimed they didn’t speak any English. It quickly became clear that they understood a lot of what I was saying but were just too nervous to speak up. As soon as Alais left us to our beading, we instantly turned into a bunch of giggly girlfriends exchanging stories. It was amazing to see them open up and speak freely about what life is like as a Maasai woman. We talked about love, arranged marriages, what it’s like to be one of multiple wives, the struggle to provide for your children, and the modernization of the Maasai way of life. They accepted me into their circle as just another woman and gave me an intimate look into their world.
We talked about the traditional Maasai practice of polygamy and they described the close bond that often forms between wives who share a husband. It came as a shock to me to learn that the wives often love and respect each other more than they do their husband, as they share childcare duties and care for one another when they are sick. They also described how difficult life can be when you are not allowed to have any personal possessions, as is the case for Maasai women. My perspective on the importance of their jewelry making completely shifted when I discovered that jewelry and the money they make from selling it were the only personal possessions these women were allowed to have. Everything else belonged to their husbands. All of a sudden the practice of beading and the circle I was sitting in became so much more important. Instead of just being a fun opportunity to do some arts and crafts while gossiping, it became a small but powerful step in the empowerment of women and the modernization of Maasai culture.
It was beautiful to connect with this amazing, lively group of women and to realize that despite our cultural differences and the miles between our homes, we were essentially the same. The day I spent in the women’s circle made me realized that there are independent women fueling progressive change and striving to provide a better life for future generations around the world. Maasai women were not afforded the opportunities that many women around the world enjoy, but they took it upon themselves to start creating their own unique opportunities and leading their society in the direction of equality, one small step at a time.
About mid way through building the community center, we realized that we didn’t have enough uniformly sized bottles to use in place of bricks so we decided to take to the streets of Cazuca to see if residents and local business owners would be willing to help us collect the bottles we needed. We enlisted the help of Nohora and Niousha going door to door to ask people if they had bottles we could have. I thought we were going to be able to collect the bottles we needed in no time and was extremely surprised at how many people didn’t want to help us. So many people were distrustful of who we were and what we were doing. What I failed to take into consideration is how many times NGOs had come into Cazuca before and made promises that they didn’t follow through on. As a result, the people had become jaded and extremely distrustful. They didn’t trust our motives and were terrified of being exploited. Many shop owners turned us away before we could even describe what we were doing. Every once in a while, a compassionate citizen would open their door and hand us a bag of bottles that we had collected. We ended up scouring the streets, looking behind buildings and dumpsters until an angry man who claimed to be a community leader kicked us out of the main business district. He refused to listen to our explanation of what we needed the bottles for and he didn’t believe Nohora’s description of how we were helping the community. We left frustrated, defeated and a bit frightened by how aggressive the “community leaders” were about kicking us out.
After an extremely frustrating and unsuccessful attempt to collect bottles by going door to door, we got word that there was a local recycling center where we may be able to find the bottles that we needed. The only major issue was that we would have to make it to the recycling center, find and load up the bottles, and be on our way out of Cazuca all before the sun went down. It was already after noon and we had to get a plan together quickly. All of our local friends and guides were very insistent on the importance of leaving the area before nightfall. We were never given a clear explanation of exactly what could happen if we didn’t but it was made very clear to us that Cazuca became a very dangerous place once the sun went down. We were told that our search for bottles earlier in the day had alerted the community to our presence that that we would be in danger if we stayed past sunset. We quickly jumped in our vehicles and headed over to the recycling center to see how many bottles we could find in the little time we had.
I think we were all a bit nervous traveling around Cazuca and I was definitely frightened by the idea of the danger we might be in if we didn’t leave before 5pm. I didn’t know exactly what could happen to us but the various scenarios that my mind conjured up were all frightening. The stories of violence we had heard during the past few days definitely put us on high alert. It made me profoundly sad to think about the fact that the residents of Cazuca have to live with this type of fear on a daily basis, not knowing who would come knocking on their door or what could happen to them after dark. I have never experienced a life full of such fear and I don’t think anyone should have to live this way. The residents of Cazuca all fled their homes in other parts of Colombia to escape violence and are now faced with the constant threat of violence yet again.
When we walked into the recycling center, all we could see were rows and rows of compacted garbage, stacked as high as the ceiling. Sometimes it was hard to maneuver around the stack and you had to squeeze your way around the center searching for what we needed: bottles. After getting lost in the maze of recycling, we finally hit the mother load! There was an entire wing of the warehouse full of plastic bottles. The catch was they were all different shapes and sizes… and they were all dirty. The room smelled like foul, rotting trash and we were faced with the challenge of trying to find the types of bottles we needed in a sea full of every type of bottle imaginable. As we stood there, I jokingly asked Steven and Carlos to give me a boost so that I could dive right in and do the backstroke in the sea of dirty bottles. Little did I know that my joke would soon become a reality.
We started by sifting through the bottles on the edge of the pile, picking through each bottle and keeping the ones we needed and tossing the ones we didn’t need back into the pile. We slowly found ourselves wading deeper and deeper into the sea of bottles. Some bottles were covered in dirt, others were sticky, and there were some still full of fermented liquid. As I was about waist deep in bottles, I began to feel a cold wet sensation dripping down the side of my leg. Carlos and Steven laughed hysterically while I cringed in disgust as the mystery liquid covered my leg. It didn’t take long before they were neck deep in bottles and no longer laughing. We decided to have a little fun with our disgusting task and tried to climb to the top of the mountain of bottles without sinking in. Each one of us took turns falling into the stinky, dirty, pile of plastic. It was as disgusting as it was hilarious.
At the end of our search, we walked out of the recycling center with several trash bags full the bottles we needed. We were all covered in dirt from head to toe. Our palms were black, our shoes were sticky and our clothes smelled like garbage. Our job was done.
The most beautiful part of Colombia was the culture: the historical buildings, the hillside vistas, the rich food and the spirit of the people. No matter how much pain and suffering people may have endured, they still had a smile on their face and a desire to dance. So many people welcomed us into their homes, fed us delicious meals and told us their stories. Every Colombian I met had so much energy! They spoke quickly, danced passionately and enjoyed every little bit of life to the fullest. If I could describe Colombia in 2 words, they would be “vibrant passion.” Colombians are supportive, family oriented people who stick together. They help each other and work together to build strong communities. They are resilient and they are proud to be Colombian.
Fearless Ameena – Living Beyond Limits
Ameena is an extraordinary young lady with so much heart. She is strong-willed, tenacious and fiercely independent. She doesn’t live by anyone else’s rules and she is the master of her own destiny. She doesn’t allow society to dictate how she lives her life and has somehow found the strength to buck all of the gender stereotypes of a very traditional and patriarchal society. She is thoughtful, smart, emotional and introspective.
She has a profound love for her family and doesn’t want to do anything to disrespect or disappoint them, but she also knows that she needs to stay true to herself and pursue her dreams. I was in awe of her strength. She not only leads the way for independent young women, but she is also a leader in the skateboarding community of Lebanon. She fearlessly goes against the grain and participates in a sport that is traditionally reserved for males in Lebanon - and she does it with grace and confidence. I felt I like I could talk to Ameena forever. I had such a genuine bond with her. I was impressed and inspired by her. She is a true role model for all young women around the world, demonstrating that you can overcome any socially imposed obstacles and excel at anything you choose to pursue. Ameena is proof that the only limits in life are the ones we create for ourselves.
Beautiful Lebanon – The Dichotomy
Lebanon is a unique combination of a thriving modern city and a place that has been riddled with conflict for centuries and is still desperately striving for progress. A beautiful 5-star hotel and gorgeous world-class restaurants line the waterfront; however, less than half a mile away you can see bullet riddled, burned out, abandoned buildings and slums.
Seeing families riding their bikes and enjoying the skate park was awesome. Strolling along the boardwalk and seeing young women jogging in hijabs was also interesting. Dining at beautiful restaurants while sitting next to some of the most fashionable young women and businessmen was unexpected.
There are so many different things to see and do in Lebanon. Taking a trip to a winery and going wine tasking was an incredibly beautiful and memorable experience. Touring the ancient monasteries and tiny mountain villages was also incredible. Standing next to the hundred-year-old cedar trees that symbolize Lebanon and hiking in the snow with the sun warming our backs was beautiful. We had so many incredible experiences in such a culturally rich and politically complex place. We were able to enjoy ourselves so much that we often forgot the immense struggles of many of the Lebanese people.