Two years ago, I chaperoned a middle school field trip to LA for the WE Day conference. I didn’t know much about the organization ME to WE, that hosted the conference, but was quickly inspired. It was started by two teenage brothers 20 years ago because they wanted to make change in the world, and didn’t want to wait to be an adult to make a difference. Over the years, ME to WE has grown into a worldwide organization creating lasting and impactful change on countless number of people across the world.
There are two arms to ME to WE – one is creating leadership skills for kids so they know how to find their passion, learn to get doing and how to take action (we were at the conference because my daughter’s school fund raises by selling jewelry made by women in Africa); the other arm supports villages in India, Kenya and Ecuador in helping them live a healthier life. Though it was my 7th grade daughter – Ari – who was in the leadership class, I was able to take my 5th grader – Kami – along with me. Sitting in the inspiring Forum in LA, my youngest turned to me and said, “Mom, I want to do more.”
That next summer she went to the ME to WE camp in Tucson, and came back with even bigger dreams. She is becoming a Bat Mitzvah this summer, and as part of the process, she is required to do a “mitzvah project” which means that she has to do some form of community service or a giving back project. Her sites were set super high when she convinced me to go to Ecuador on one of the family trips with ME to WE. Though the cost was big, it was hard to say no to my daughter who just wanted to experience making a deep impact on others, as well as on herself.
So, we journeyed deep into the Amazon forest off the River Napo in the northeast part of Ecuador. After the 7-hour drive from Quito, up through the Andes Mountains and then down into the jungle, we boarded a motorized canoe, which became our only means of transportation for the week. We had a 20-minute boat ride down the river and all we could see was tall trees and dense forest on either side of the river, not knowing that tucked behind the machete-cut-out entry points from the river were small villages and communities. We arrived at our home for the week, the Minga Lodge, where we had beautiful, yet rustic accommodations; at least they had air conditioning, which was a savior because it was the most humidity I’ve ever experienced!
For 7 days, we learned about the 5 pillars that WE implements in the villages: clean water, education, health, opportunity and food. By going into these villages, WE sets them up for sustainable and healthy living, without compromising the integrity of their culture or traditions. There is no westernizing at all, just setting up an infrastructure to live a healthy and thriving life. We volunteered in the village Bella Vista, and built the foundation for a new classroom. (This village has 156 kids, and before WE, they only had one classroom; now they have 7! The government will provide a teacher if there is a classroom.) We also connected deeply with the kids and played universal games (apparently deep in the Amazon, they play the same games they do here in the U.S.!) despite a huge language barrier; they speak Kichwa, which is the dialect of the Amazon. We got to meet a farmer whose daughter died from drinking the water from the river, and after 5 years of waiting for government assistance, finally got access to clean water from WE. He shared with us his amazing fruit and was so generous; he is forever grateful to WE and wants to give back to the volunteers. We got to making chocolate from the cacao bean (which grows abundantly in the Amazon) to our own chocolate bar. We had an authentic healing ceremony with an 80-year-old Shaman in his hut, got to learn weapons training with a spear and blow dart, did night and day hikes deep into the Amazon, showing not only the beauty, but how you can live off what the jungle provides. One night we had kids from neighboring villages come perform traditional dances for us; all of these experienes got us deeply immersed into the culture and life of the Amazon. Understanding from the inside-out how other people live, having compassion for and helping others, getting out of our comfort zone and creating connection with people around the world is the core of what ME to WE is all about.
My absolute favorite day was when we got to work with the women in the village as part of the opportunity pillar, which provides these women a chance to make money, therefore not only creating positive financial impact, but also allows them a voice in their home. This opportunity pillar has the women make jewelry for export, and we got to spend beautiful time making jewelry with them, and some of them brought their teenage daughters.
I cried the whole time we were with these women. To see that all across the world we all share the same hopes and dreams: that our children will be happy and healthy and have the opportunity to do the things in their life that we didn’t have. Though we couldn’t connect through language (we had a translator) that did not impact our connection. I could have talked with these women all day, and wished I could have learned more about their life as a mother, to find more of our commonalities, which I knew was ultimately greater than our differences. My favorite moment was when I got to take a photo with Florita and her 15-year-old daughter, Shakira. Here we were, 2 mothers and daughters, joined together in a common practice of making bracelets, but most importantly being mothers and daughters. We are so connected as a world, and yet we so often only see things through our filter. Taking this journey to a completely remote culture opened my eyes in a new way, a profound way, and a way that will last a lifetime.
This is a perfect time to share this story – the weekend of Mother’s Day. Being a mom is my greatest pride and joy, and I’ve been intentional every step of the way in my parenting; and it’s paid off! I have an amazing relationship with both my teenage daughters, who are growing into beautiful, secure, well-adjusted, kind and compassionate people!! I’m most grateful that my daughters have the inherent awareness and desire to make this world a better place, and I’m willing to go to any end of the world with them to do so!