Where All Roads Lead

Path in GuatemalaHow closely have you followed the road you life-planned for yourself?

Me? Not so much. I have a B.S. in Forensic Chemistry, but I am a freelance writer and novelist…and write for a non-profit. Writing and language arts always came naturally while math required serious focus.


You’d think I’d have recognized the signs back then. But, my brother doesn’t call me a tenacious bulldog for nothing. I wanted a chemistry degree; I have a chemistry degree. But, my career immediately veered into humanitarian operations and writing. My true north. And it found its way there because of first volunteering.

What have you discovered about yourself regarding your career? Is it what you expected?

Modern-Day Good Samaritan: Part II

Uganda clinicI forgot to mention in last week’s Good Samaritan post that members of the Ugandan military—toting Ak-47s—accompanied the team vans as they conducted village clinics. Apparently, the local police lacked the necessary capabilities to ensure team and crowd safety at the clinic locations.

So, there’s no getting around it being a dangerous environment. No easy solutions here. What do you do for a woman discovered lying half-hidden in the grass on the side of a remote road in Uganda—a woman whom the locals say is crazy and quite possibly has a serious disease? The vans are completely full. Everyone’s packed shoulder-to-shoulder. (Read Part I: Good Samaritan here to catch up on the story)

Now Remember: this is a team of dental and medical personnel, physical and occupational therapists, plus other non-medical volunteers who stepped away from their normal lives (and at significant expense) to come to Uganda to help others. These are the exact opposite of lazy, uncaring people. So far that day, they’ve helped close to 1500 people, and can expect to do the same the next. These people are intrepid doers.

But this one woman on the roadside creates a unique dilemma that slices deep, spotlighting an altogether different level of personal choice…and risk.

It reminds me of the one lost sheep. The shepherd will always search out the missing one.

No one wants to leave her. Yet, allowing any of the volunteers to stay behind would leave them extremely vulnerable. Let’s face it; a group of foreigners completely new to such an area would NOT go unnoticed. I can only speculate that the leaders in the group—those responsible for the visiting team—would not like their team split apart.

Thankfully, a plan both logical and compassionate is put forth. Another local driver is hired to bring the woman back to Masindi where she can be treated. A few of the team members accompany her, and one, a lawyer from Charleston, SC, offers to pay for the transport. Sadly, a few of the locals watching the woman being wrapped in blankets and lifted up, laugh and shake their heads, as if trying to save her is a waste of time. I can only imagine what they have suffered in their lives to numb them so. Most likely, they have witnessed this and worse.

The woman has severe malaria and without the water the team gave her, she probably would have died before she could receive treatment in Masindi. A blessing of timing.

For two days she is on an IV. One of the missionaries involved with the medical initiative lets the woman stay at her house for a couple of weeks. But it soon becomes clear that the woman does have psychological issues. Not hard to fathom. She is from the Sudan where war has torn apart her country. She has no family left.

Eventually, she is moved to the capital city of Kampala and placed in a psych ward to receive help in healing wounds of a different kind.

The team could have rationalized away whatever alternate course they might’ve taken, but they placed value on each individual…and did not look at her as a ‘lost cause’.

Every person matters—whether you are on the receiving end of hope…or the one giving it. Your choices matter.

Masindi clinicA little about this intrepid group: Palmetto Medical Initiative provides sustainable quality healthcare while increasing access to global medical missions. After construction of the medical centers, they are staffed by locals on the ground, creating jobs in the region and giving ownership to those for whom it is intended. PMI utilizes short-term medical trips to support and gain recognition for the medical centers while they undergo construction. PMI piloted the first medical center in Masindi, Uganda and after significant success, is expanding the model of sustainable quality healthcare to Viejo, Nicaragua. Learn more and/or join a team.

Is overseas mission work something you’d ever consider? Short-term? Long-term? Why or why not?

Three Cups of Tea Lawsuit Dismissed

Three Cups of Tea Lawsuit dismissedThis past Monday, the civil lawsuit against the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and the authors and publisher of Three Cups of Tea, was dismissed. The CAI is the non-profit Mortenson co-founded that works in Afghanistan and Pakistan building schools and promoting education.

Quick Catch-Up in Case You Don’t Know the Muck-Up. Author, Jon Krakauer and CBS news show “60 Minutes” did ‘exposes’ (more like accusation flinging) on purported untruths in Three Cups of Tea, disbelieving the CAI’s stats for schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Greg Mortenson’s account of how he first came to be interested in building schools in such a remote and dangerous region; and whether he was really kidnapped by the Taliban. Read Mortenson’s response to these allegations.

Judge’s take: After plaintiffs were given five tries (amendments) to come up with a case to support their claims of fraud, deceit, breach of contract or racketeering, the judge concluded, “…the imprecise, in part flimsy, and speculative nature of the claims and theories advanced underscore the necessary conclusion that further amendment would be futile. This case will be dismissed with prejudice.” For more on the Mortenson case, read here.

A Few Points About the Mortensen/Three Cups of Tea Case:

  1. I’m glad I write mostly fiction.
  2. The CAI can now get on with their worthy mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nothing like a lawsuit to stymie everything. They work with local communities to build, supply, staff, and maintain over 180 schools and 30 vocational centers. They provide support to an additional 56 schools, 20 literacy centers, eight scholarship programs, and 22 public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) projects. (stats from CAI’s recent newsletter)
  3. Nobody’s perfect. Mortenson’s had issues with book royalties: how he benefitted…and how the CAI benefitted from his book sales and speaking engagements all over the world. Promote one; promote the other. Who pays? The dual benefit sounds like an accounting nightmare…and has proven to be. In April, the Montana Attorney  General announced a settlement where Mortenson pays $1M to the CAI for mismanagement of funds. But, if you’ve read Three Cups of Tea, you know that admin stuff is not his strong suit. In my opinion, he’s not a bad guy; he’s just not details-oriented. If he was more geared toward stopping to think about the possible ramifications and risks of things, he probably wouldn’t have accomplished what he has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Anyone who has worked in management or with volunteers knows you need to identify your team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Mortenson is an intrepid, fearless sort who puts himself out there and makes things happen. He’s passionate about education and its implications for peace. But that does not a detail-oriented person make. He needs those types around him to keep him on track.
  • I worked in humanitarian logistics for several years, so in the book, when he first talked about taking all these heavy-duty supplies to this remote, mountainous village to build a school, my brow furrowed and my mind immediately went to, “How are you going to get them there?” Again, not his initial strong suit. (But maybe now it is. Sometimes, just takes some trial and error).
  • Humanitarian work is HARD. Very. There are no cookie-cutter responses because there are so many facets and factors. Overseas projects involve many layers of people and dip into all kinds of cultural issues, often without first realizing it. (A subject I discuss in my book.)

A Concern in the Publishing Community Raised by this case:  Along with the CAI, Greg Mortenson (whose story it is) and David Oliver Relin (who wrote the book in collaboration with Mortenson), Penguin Group (the publisher) was named in the lawsuit. This would’ve had serious implications if they’d lost. It would’ve in effect held the publisher responsible for verifying every detailed fact their authors site as truth—a task next to impossible. (Don’t get me wrong; publishers need to act responsibly and not just print whatever, but complete verification would take more effort than running Top Secret background checks on each author.)

What are your views on this case? Do you think publishers should be held responsible for every word their authors say? What’s your take on Mortenson’s book and the lawsuit?

Can’t Always Volunteer In the Way You Want

We all have an image or idea that comes to mind as soon as we think of volunteering, don’t we? For me, I instantly think of pounding nails into the roof of a girls’ dormitory in Guatemala because I did that many years ago and had a great experience. I helped build a clinic in Mexico, and enjoyed that, too…except for my face swelling up after someone cut fiberglass and had it dusting up the place. I intended to go to Haiti on a humanitarian construction project this summer. But that didn’t pan out because this past spring, I developed ulnar neuritis, which basically makes it feel like you’ve hit your funny bone pretty much all the time. I now have to pay close attention to how best to lift a gallon of milk or the best angle to dry my hair or brush my teeth. Physical labor is not an option for a while…which, I realized, has been my primary mode of volunteerism.

So, I’ve found myself in a time of adjustment. Adapting to new circumstances is frustrating, but there are other ways to be of use, right? So, I’m in the volunteer ‘dabbler’ stage at the moment, trying out different things and seeing where I might fit. It’s been a bit of trial and error so far, with even stuffing programs proving too much of a repetitive motion for my stupid elbows. See? I still resorted to something physical, as minor as it was.

But, subtler, more cerebral things can be just as important as swinging a hammer…more so in many cases. Like promoting awareness and advocating for causes that matter to you. And there’s a need for what I would call more white collar skill sets. In an interview I did with a group in Kenya, working with AIDS orphans, they mentioned needing help with graphics, brochures, thank you cards, videos, websites and such. All stateside, from-home stuff that isn’t the first thing to come to my mind when I think of how I could ‘volunteer’, but necessary all the same. They need individuals to host drives to recruit sponsors for incoming students. Lots of options if you have any of those skill sets.

I’m trying to focus more on family and friends as well…trying to be a better listener and be supportive in whatever ways they might need. I’ve had no choice but to alter what I do, but maybe that’s not so bad.

What’s your instant image of volunteerism, and why?

Walking For Water

Loved doing Water Missions International‘s WALK FOR WATER this past Saturday! Great cause. Scenic 3.5 mile walk in downtown Charleston on a gorgeous spring morning. An excellent combination. I actually got a little sunburn. I’m so happy it is springtime.

This annual walk is meant to symbolize the trek that women and children have to make each day to collect water in developing countries. Everyone grabs a bucket and halfway thru has it filled to simulate this daily trek. Now I see why women carry jugs on their heads. It’s practical. Water is heavy!

Donations support Water Missions International, which is an engineering, Christian non-profit, to provide sustainable safe water and sanitation solutions to countries all over the world. There were 2,000 participants in the walk this year and volunteers from 11 states. They raised over $185,000. Based right here in Charleston, they have worked in disaster relief and development situations in over 40 countries.




Along the walk route, volunteers held up signs that gave random facts about the world water situation–including things you don’t really think about…such as going down to the river and having to watch out for snakes and crocodiles. Or on your way back with your full bucket, tripping over a rock and spilling it. So, back you go. It is easy to take for granted, the clean water that comes out of our taps every day.

Here are some photos of a Water Missions’ filtration system and the difference it makes.






In 2005, the United Nations reported lack of safe water and sanitation to be the greatest cause of illness, and often the major cause of death following a natural disaster. And water-related diseases are believed to cause 90% of the sicknesses in developing countries.

Nearly a billion people in this world don’t have access to safe water. Next time you’re in a stadium for a game or a concert try to grasp how many that really is. Look around. It’s hard to fathom even a number much smaller. A couple years ago, my husband got tickets for us to see U2 in London for our tenth anniversary. It was at Wembley stadium, which has like 90,000 seats. I doubt that I’ve ever been able to see that many people all at once. But that’s a drop in the bucket.

Water Missions has a little quiz on their website about water. It’s 30 seconds. Take it. See how in-the-know you are.

Bring your kids next year. Bring your dogs. And when you’re finished with a nice, healthy walk..there are good ‘ol barbecue sandwiches from Home Team, waiting. Just wouldn’t be Charleston without that.

What are some of the walks or runs that you have done for a good cause?

Donating to the Japanese Disaster: 5 Things to Consider

A woman cries while sitting on a road amid the destroyed city of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan March 13, 2011, after a massive earthquake and tsunami that are feared to have killed more than 10,000 people. Picture taken March 13, 2011. REUTERS/Asahi Shimbun

When everyone’s shouting ‘emergency’ and ‘donate here’, how do you choose?

  1. Mission: Does their stated mission fit with your views?
  2. Current Needs: Be pragmatic. Right now, the basics of the basics are needed: water, food, medical care, shelter and search and rescue teams. Now is not the time for teddy bears and sweet photo ops.
  3. Experience: Has the organization been around long? If it has just set up for this one emergency, it’s probably not as likely to know how to run operations in a disaster of this magnitude. Look to those who specialize in disaster response. They most likely have decent logistics chains in place and specialized people on call.
  4. Locations and Reach-back: Are they in-country already? Where do they currently have projects? Will they beef up operations or have to start from scratch there? I like to donate to non-profits that already have a presence in the country. Why? Because they typically already have a base of operations, staff who are knowledgeable about the area and culture, and an established network of people and businesses that may enable them to better handle supply and logistical needs.
  5. Definitive recipients: Manpower is often a scarce commodity in major disasters. Do not assume that supplies can just be sent and accepted without a very clear, designated recipient. “To the people of Japan” doesn’t count. Volunteers are overworked and exhausted and won’t often have the time or ability to go through stuff that arrives haphazardly.

Money is often requested at this stage of an emergency rather than goods for a multitude of reasons. Some disaster response organizations have stockpiles and pre-made kits of very specific supplies that they know from experience will be needed. They have channels set up to procure more of what they need. Plus, as we’ve all probably experienced, it’s easier to ship things of a uniform size. Also, humanitarian organizations can try to buy supplies locally (if available), which will help the Japanese economy, which is obviously taking a serious hit right now, in addition to all its other troubles.

Haiti Volunteer Slapped with $35,000 phone bill

Volunteering can provide many rewards—but some, you may not want. American aid worker, Kerfye Pierre was rewarded for her service in Haiti during the aftermath of the devastating earthquake with a whopper of a phone bill—$34,872.82 to be exact. She thought T-Mobile’s offer to waive service fees for volunteers included the whole package. BUT, it was only voice, not text or data.

This brings up a couple of troublesome issues.

1) It’s a disaster setting. By definition, things are not functioning regularly. As ridiculous as it may sound, people tend to forget that. Logistics and communications are huge variables. Kerfye says that text messages would go through, but it was much harder to get through with voice. Hence, she chose the text route and sending messages to family and friends through her Facebook page.

2) As of right now, mobile phone companies can just sit back and let you rack up the costs as you text your merry way into severe debt.

Fortunately, the Federal Communication Commission is proposing new rules that will prevent ‘bill shock’ like this—possibly forcing mobile phone companies to send alerts, letting you know when you’re incurring extra charges. As of now, T-Mobile has dropped Kerfye Pierre’s bill down to $5,000. How nice of them. The company said most people were aware of the parameters. Of course! She should’ve taken the time to read the terms and conditions. I mean, all she was doing was setting up day camps for kids and distributing water after a disaster where over 220,000 people had died. She certainly could’ve done a little night reading by flashlight.

Have you ever had an experience where you’ve tried to do something good and received a totally unexpected backlash?

Volunteering Yourself into a Job

Several years ago, I was helping re-roof a girls’ dormitory at an orphanage in Guatemala when, in mid-hammer swing, I was offered a job working in humanitarian logistics. My shock was quickly followed by a gasp of pain from flattening my finger rather than the nail. With my finger in my mouth, (Why do we do that anyway? It’s not like it helps), I nodded. Didn’t plan it, but it proved a great opportunity. You just never know when or where it can happen.

Have you ever volunteered yourself into a job?

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea is an inspiring true story of how one person can make a huge difference in the world without actually having that grandiose objective. Greg Mortenson is an American mountaineer who averts death on one of the world’s deadliest peaks, K2, thanks to the ministrations of the Balti people living in a tiny, impoverished village in northern Pakistan. He decides to build them a school.

Arguably, it could be said that Greg Mortenson is helping to not only build schools, but promote a cultural shift in the education of girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Was it easy to begin? No, there was a lot of trial and error. The projects were and are on the other side of the world in very hard to reach and dangerous places. In this book, there is quite literally a steep learning curve. But, is he succeeding? You bet. As of this year, he has established over 131 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Part of that success, I believe, is about starting small, not thinking too big. Mortenson wanted to build a school in the village that helped him. A very focused goal. (So often, it’s easy to get sidetracked and overwhelmed.) He finished that project and then started on another. Now look at all he’s done since then. http://www.ikat.org/ Oh…for Charleston, SC folks, Greg Mortenson will be speaking at the Carolina First arena on November 11th at 5:00 pm. Free event, but tickets will be distributed.

Have you ever volunteered for something ‘minor’ or what you might consider ‘menial’ and had it snowball into something much bigger or more impacting than you could have imagined?