The Volunteer

Photo: courtesy of njaj/

Photo: courtesy of njaj/

So, I’ve been reading Erma Bombeck’s work. Love her humor. One of my favorites is her piece on volunteers. Have you read it? She talks about a dream she had where all American volunteers become disillusioned and set sail for parts unknown. At first, she’s happy to be done with committees, casserole concoctions, saving particular items and peddling baked goods. But then, she realizes the quiet left behind in places like the hospital, the nursing home…how those in need lift their arms, but no one’s left to comfort them or offer a hand.

She ends with, “I fought in my sleep to regain a glimpse of the ship of volunteers just one more time. It was to be my last glimpse of civilization…as we were meant to be.”

This is from 1975 and still timely as ever.

It’s a good one, isn’t it? Do you have a favorite Erma story?

Help Fight The World’s Fastest Growing Crime

Are you a poet? A writer? Do you know one?

Human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the world. Criminals buy, sell and trade human beings into the commercial sex industry and forced labor. Take up your pen to help combat this horrific form of modern-day slavery. Submit a poem to the Poetry For Their Freedom Contest.

Poetry For Their Freedom

First prize includes $100, a live reading at The A21 Campaign – U.S. East Coast office’s Be Their Freedom annual benefit to be held on Sept. 19th in Charleston, SC. Additionally, the winning poem will be printed in the Be Their Freedom event program and posted on The global A21 Campaign’s Instagram feed.

For submission guidelines and more information, please visit Poetry For Their Freedom at

Please forward to any poet you think would be interested in becoming an active voice for freedom!

Books That Make A Difference

So many books, so little time…

Are you like me? Do you have multiple pages of wish lists for books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and “To-Read” shelves on Goodreads and Library Thing?

I know this will come as a big surprise to you, but I have an especial interest in books that highlight aspects of humanitarianism and social justice.

Two of my upcoming reads:

Strength in What RemainsStrength In What Remains by Tracy Kidder

This is a non-fiction story about a man from Burundi who comes to the U.S. after surviving civil war and genocide. He arrives with practically nothing, but through the kindness of strangers, finds his path to healing (and a medical degree from Columbia).

All That is Bitter and SweetAll That Is Bitter And Sweet by Ashley Judd and Maryanne Vollers

This is Ashley Judd’s memoir that stemmed from diary entries written during her humanitarian journeys around the world. It details individual stories of survival as well as her own personal struggles.

Have you read either of these? If so, what did you think? Do you read books like these? Why or why not?

If you know of an inspiring book I should add to my list, I’d love to have your suggestions!

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?

Modern-Day Good Samaritan?

Uganda signsIf this had been you, what would you have done?

You’re in rural Uganda, in a convoy of 4 vans, packed with 15 people each, on a 4-hour drive from a remote town to a more remote, dangerous town to offer humanitarian services for the day. You’re traveling over roads of packed clay, pocked with divots deep enough to jar your teeth. You share this one-and-a-half-lane road with walkers, bikers, dogs, pigs and oncoming traffic. Oh, and there’s actually a steer (with the sharpest, biggest horns you’ve ever seen) right outside your window. You pass flipped cars in ditches strewn with trash and fear you understand exactly how they ended up there.

To get to your destination, the van bumps along, down into the Rift Valley. The mountainsides, green with forest, gradually give way to tall savannah grass. You think you see a woman lying in the grass on the side of road among the trash. But the van is traveling about 40 miles/hour through a series of switchbacks, so you’re not completely sure. No one else seems to have noticed. Plus, people on the road are walking right by. Surely, if someone were there, they’d stop.

The van continues on its way. You arrive in the small town of Buliisa on Lake Albert and are immediately overwhelmed by close to 1,500 people needing medical attention (50% of Ugandans don’t have any access to any medical care). More people are crossing Lake Albert in paddleboats from the Democratic Republic of Congo—the border somewhere in the middle of the lake. They’re coming to see you, too

After a long day, you’re on your way back to your bigger remote town. It’s dusk and it’s raining. The van slows at one point. A group of baboons sits in the middle of the road. They only grudgingly move off. There! It really is a person lying in the grass. A woman. Not just a pile of clothes. Several others see her this time, too.

The baboons are very close to her. Waiting.

Lots of people spill out from the vans to take a closer look, all while keeping an eye on the baboons that aren’t known for their friendliness. One of the bus drivers translates what he has been told about the woman by a local passing by. “She’s crazy.”

The woman lies there, unmoving in the grass. She’s wearing lots of layers of clothes although it’s muggy and hot. She appears to be between 20-24 years old. She’s twig-thin, her clothes like tent material. The van drivers shake their heads. No room in the vans. Already packed in like playing cards. Also, the woman might have a contagious disease. Who can tell?

Several people run back to the vans for food bars stashed in backpacks in case the need for a quick energy boost arose during the long day. But the food bars can’t be left beside her. The baboons will be drawn to them. Water is given instead. The woman moves slightly—just enough to accept the water.

The van drivers look around, frowning. Darkness is coming. Nighttime is dangerous here. It’s time to go.

This is based on a true story.  I promise to give you the details and what happened, in my next post. But for now, what would you do in this situation? What do you feel right now?

Key2Free Is Coming

October 18th is International Anti-Slavery Day. Yet, wasn’t slavery abolished? Sadly, it has simply twisted into a more shadowy and hidden form—human trafficking. People can be sold over and over again…unlike a drug.

In honor of anti-slavery day, The A21 Campaign is conducting its largest awareness campaign of the year: Key2Free. It’s an initiative to rally individuals, groups and businesses everywhere to join the fight and declare on October 18th that human trafficking is absolutely unacceptable.

People all over the world are coming up with unique (and funny) ways to use their business acumen, talents and creativity to help awaken our world to the fact this horrific crime is going on.

There are LOTS of fun ways to participate. You’re only limited by your imagination.

1. Wear the Key: On October 18, wear a key to symbolize freedom. 
Be prepared to explain what it represents.

2. Share the Key: Spread the word. Share human trafficking links on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Causes. If you host an event, post photos on the Key2Free Facebook page and tweet with the hashtag #KEY2FREE.

3. Raise the Key: Use your creativity and gather friends for a Key2Free event. Party with a purpose.

4. Be the Key: Join the fight and make a difference by becoming an A21 abolitionist. ‘Cause, yes, they are still needed.

Need some more ideas?

  1. Walk in her shoes: organize or participate in a sporting event to promote awareness and/or raise funds
  2. Smarten up your staff: Invite staff and friends for a showing of the documentary Nefarious or the film, Trade
  3. Donate a percentage: donate a percentage of sales proceeds or funds from a specific product/service
  4. Offer future in-kind resources: arrange to become an A21 resource for specific products/services
  5. Poster the city: Make and display Key2Free signs.
  6. Come up with something entirely different. Be creative.

As red and black are The A21 Campaign colors, a local salon (here in Charleston) decided they’re going to offer red and black hair extensions for $15 in the month of October. All profits (after expenses) will be donated to The A21 Campaign.

A local football team has decided to wear red socks along with their black uniform pants every time they take the field this fall.

Doesn’t take much to promote a little awareness. But, could have a huge impact for some 14-year-old girl. Actually, the average age for a victim is 12. Tell me that doesn’t scare you.

Quote That Deserves Some Attention


“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Winston Churchill

Sometimes, when you volunteer for a cause, it’s not all bake sales and glitzy fundraisers. It’s standing up and shining light in dark places. Easy? No. But sometimes that’s what it takes to make what you care about, a reality.

What causes matter most to you?

Thanks to Pattie Welek Hall for first bringing this quote to my attention.

Photographer Expands Her Skill Set In A Big Way

Weddings must be fun to photograph—people clinking glasses, wearing fluttery silk, and holding hands. Most people will happily pose for the camera and grin, but plenty of beautiful flowers and candles are conveniently available to soften even the countenance of the grimmest great aunt.

But what about a different sort of assignment—when you’re asked to capture something hidden in the shadows that has nothing to do with a happy event?

One of my fellow A21 Campaigners found herself facing this challenge not long ago. Caroline Howard is a wedding photographer here in Charleston, SC, who recently created a photographic series for The A21 Campaign-East Coast’s: BE HER FREEDOM fundraising/human trafficking awareness event this past June. (She was also in charge of the entire design of the art installation used to portray a victim’s journey from darkness to light, but that I’ll save for a separate post.)

Her evocative series attempts to convey even a small portion of the despair and deep sense of isolation a human trafficking victim may suffer.

I decided to go interview style today.

Me: How difficult was it switching from photographing weddings to images representing the darkness of human trafficking? What kinds of challenges did you face?

Caroline: It was definitely a challenge to switch from shooting weddings to shooting a darker subject, not to mention that everything I knew about journalism was stripped away; I had to create those feelings of darkness, heaviness and oppression.

Me: Do you think this experience helped you grow as a photographer? In what ways?

Caroline: Before this series, I had never shot personal work. If I photographed someone that wasn’t a paying client, there was a work-driven motive behind it, typically to build my portfolio. Even though this was for a specific event, I had never (in almost six years of being in photography) shot something that was putting myself out there, my aesthetic, putting my vision into a medium of art. Shooting this series gave me the affirmation that it’s okay to produce work, produce art, without a motive. Although I’ve transitioned back into wedding mode with the approach of fall wedding season, I’m actually working on another project just because. It’s a nice feeling.

Me: Any particular words of wisdom or advice for other photographers out there who might be interested in volunteering their services for a cause? How to go about it?

Caroline: The biggest thing I’ve realized is to be proactive. There is a surprising amount of people who want to get involved, but we need people with specific ideas—people, and artists, who can step forward and say ‘Not only am I willing and interested in getting involved, but I have some ideas on how I could make it happen. This is an idea I have.’ Because when it comes down to it, organizations and groups are excited and willing to take on talented volunteers such as photographers because it’s something not everyone can do. But they may need some ideas on how best to utilize the talent of a skilled individual.

I am so thankful to Caroline for the interview and for the opportunity to show off her incredibly moving photographs. Please visit her photography website at CarolineRO to see more of Caroline’s amazing work. I’d also like to thank Meryl over at Recovery Thru My Lens for sparking the idea for this post by asking how a photographer might volunteer.

What unexpected opportunities have come your way via volunteering? What are some talents you might offer up? What might you present to a nonprofit?