Aug 23, 2015

Why I teach Spanish Immersion

It was around ten years ago that I first started my application to be in the Peace Corps.  It was my long time dream to go and Dave and I were on a bit of a break / break-up while I was living in Germany.  Of course a few months later, he won my heart back (it never takes much) and I put my dreams of 3 years in the Peace Corps on hold (through negotiation that we would definitely both join together after getting married).  I couldn't turn off all my anxiousness to get out and see and save the world though so upon college graduation we agreed I would just go for a year somewhere else.  After contacting and applying to 178409517238987+ organizations (and watching Hotel Rwanda one night), I set my heart on Sudan, not far from Darfur.  Right as I was about to buy my plane ticket, wouldn't you know someone would drop a bomb on the very city I was going to, kill the president and an all out civil war would restart.  So with a heavy heart, I started to look elsewhere.  My (now) in-laws asked me to come to Mexico.  I resisted.  My heart was dead set on Africa.  Africa was really my dream.  But everyone said if I chose Africa, I was choosing to be a 23 year old martyr, so Mexico it was.  It was safer, easier and surely would take me no time to pick up the language seeing as I already had a few years of Spanish in high school and everyone said it was so easy to learn.  Little did I know that I would get there in a few weeks and understand absolutely nothing that anyone was saying.  I thought I was going to save the world and make it better by volunteering in an orphanage but I couldn't even communicate enough to ask where/how to put the dishes away let alone be able to make a difference.  Everyone there bent over backward to help me out and accommodate me.  The kids learned to speak in verb infinitives rather than conjugating them properly just so I could understand them.  The only one there who spoke worse Spanish than me was my little sister who studied French in high school (love you Britt).  People would look at us with so much confusion when we talked while I always tried like crazy to stifle my giggles to no avail.  I was young, needy, spoke awful Spanish and had no idea what I was doing.  I cried multiple times a day and received way more help than I ever gave.  Nevertheless, people there welcomed us with so much warmth and love.  A couple from church we didn't even know gave us a key to their house upon our second time meeting them.  "Mi casa es tu casa" they said and we were always welcome any time, no questions asked.  When my crazy adventurous sister broke her arm jumping off a skateboard ramp (that + being super sick + horrible lice she couldn't pick out due to said broken arm) everyone came to the rescue to take care of her, take her to every doctor, and buy her what she needed with no request to be reimbursed for anything (she left Mexico early to come home and have surgery).  And while I was lonely without my sister there, I slowly but surely learned Spanish (thanks to the infinite patience of every person around me) and no matter how many idiotic mistakes I made, I was treated with nothing but love and kindness.

Fast forward a few years later, Dave and I were married and pursuing our dreams of the Peace Corps.  In the meantime, I traveled to a few more Spanish speaking countries and volunteered with Spanish youth in our church and community in Lansing, who I adored and admired more than words can say and could write another entire blog post about.  Due to economic downfall, we were cut numerous times from our Peace Corps placements and decided to go independently to the Dominican Republic where I would start a special ed. program at another orphanage.  While I know there are distinct differences between Mexicans and Dominicans, what I noticed immediately was the same Hispanic values of love, warmth, and hospitality during every minute of our experience there.  While I can make a meager attempt here on my blog, words cannot even begin to describe the extent of this.  There were a million small but incredibly kind gestures, like removing a piece of jewelry and giving it to me if I said I liked it or people living in extreme poverty who would insist on offering me the little food they had.  And then there were the bigger gestures - people who would do literally anything for us during our times of dire need.  When Dave was sick and nearly dying with malaria in the hospital, everyone we knew was there to help us out, bring us what we needed, and help us find the best care.  Strangers we didn't know would leave their spots in line at a clinic to help us find our way.  When Kenya was born and I couldn't walk to take her in to a doctor, there were doctors who came to the house, checked us and took care of us free of charge, left personal cell numbers for us to call 24 hours and brought diapers and gifts to boot.  Even though we were far away from family, we were with family because the people in this country loved us, received us, and cared for us like family.

Coming back to the states has been a difficult adjustment for about a million and one reasons, but part of it is transitioning back into a culture that has become unfamiliar.  Social norms/boundaries are way different here and I think I've become a bit (or maybe more than a bit) socially awkward as a result - never knowing how close I can get, how quick can I say "I love you" to a new friend, or wondering if I am total freak that I just accidentally kissed this person on the cheek?  So when we moved to Grand Rapids and found a new Spanish speaking church, we felt at home again where we are met with friendly embraces every Sunday and of course have been welcomed in with the same amount of warmth that we had been in the other Latin American countries we had been to.  And I thought maybe this would be an opportunity "pay back" these people with kindness as they were such a blessing to us when we were abroad.  But, not surprisingly, I was couldn't have been more wrong.  Of course, we are the ones who are constantly blessed over and over again by the people in our church.  If there was a hidden camera in our house, you would hear me say repeatedly all the time how much I love the people from our church and how awesome and kind and giving they are and how thankful I am to have met them.  They look out for Kenya like their own daughter, make sure she is fed, jump to help as soon as her little lip turns up and I am certain that they would leap out in front of traffic to save her if she was in danger.  Whether here or abroad, they are still the same people reaching out, showing love, and looking out for our family.  Our church calls itself "A Hispanic Church for Everyone" and goes by the motto "Open hands, open hearts, open minds".  While we might look or speak differently, we have never treated like outsiders or anything other than family.  We are proud to be a part of this family and among these people who work hard, love hard, laugh loud, love life, give anything and everything, and that truly make our community a better place.  Grand Rapids is made up of a 16% Native Spanish speaking population and I could not be more thankful for that fact.

During the children's lesson in church today which involved a "back to school" theme for the kids, all of the teachers were asked to stand and we were asked to share on the spot (something I'm never good at) about why we do what we do.  I stammered something in Spanglish about empowering kids and helping them believe in themselves and make the world a better place.  But the reason I teach Spanish Immersion is so much beyond that.  If you go on our program website, you can find all kinds of research on the benefits of language immersion to the developing brain.  In fact, in the school I attended growing up, a neurosurgeon came to talk to parents and staff recently about how intensely language immersion learning can develop brain muscles that otherwise would remain inactive, resulting in higher order thinking skills, increased creativity and intelligence.  Students receive higher test scores even when tested in a language they've never been instructed in.  They are more likely to get better jobs and earn higher salaries.  But none of these are the reasons I teach Spanish Immersion. I teach Spanish Immersion to give kids the opportunities to connect to these beautiful, amazing people that I have been so blessed to have built friendships with.  To travel to these countries, to reach out a hand, to serve, to connect and to love are the reasons I want to give my students the gift of knowing Spanish and being bilingual.  I am certain that every student in my class will be a better person for being able to know the people of this culture that I have grown to love so dearly.  This is the reason I teach Spanish Immersion and fully plan to enroll Kenya in Spanish Immersion.

Those of you know me know how much my heart longs to be back in Latin America - to be back in the vibrant culture I love, eating the food I love, among brightly colored houses, soaking up sunshine, and more than anything, with the people I love.  But since God's plan is not always the same as our own, this is the next best thing because I'm giving children a gift to go (whether 5 hours in a plane or 5 minutes down the road) and taste the culture and meet the people that I love so much.  And while this blog post may seem long-winded, this doesn't even begin to touch on just how blessed I have been by this beautiful group of people and how they have shaped my views and world and made me a better person.

While I try to avoid writing about anything political because I hate conflict of any kind, this really isn't a political post.  Because really no matter what your stance is on the immigration issue, I am okay with it.  I know immigration is a very complex and sensitive issue.  But what I'm not okay with is seeing such hurtful blanket statements and stereotypes being made lately about the people I love.  Remarks that build walls between cultural groups (pun intended) and teach and perpetuate racism among adults and children alike.  I've seen this both on facebook and outside of it, among both young and old.  And it just really breaks my heart that these people who have shown me so. much. love. are not being welcomed in with the same kind of hospitality that I was always shown and - it makes me ashamed and it is really not okay.  Unfollowing people on facebook and turning the other way is the easiest way to deal with it - but instead I choose to take a stand for these people because I know with certainty that they would take a stand for me.

I know that there are people from Mexico who choose to do horrible, awful things and epitomize the words that Trump has used about them, in the same way there are murderers, drug dealers, and rapists here in the states and every other country in the world.  There are sick, lost, troubled people of every race, every language and every country.  But during the past 10 years of being deeply involved in the Latino culture, I have never met any of these people.  The ones I've met are kind, generous, smart, hard-working, fun, loving and just absolutely amazing people.  The more time I spend with them, the more I admire them and learn about the kind of person I want to be.

In a few weeks I start teaching and will do my first Social Studies unit on the core democratic values of the U.S.A, which include justice, liberty and equality.  In one of the lessons I teach, I give the kids a big stack of photos which include people of every race, age, ethnicity, disability and profession.  There are hungry children, homeless men, astronauts, teachers, and presidents.  I draw a long line on the board representing a continuum in which I write "least value, deserves least rights" and "most value, deserves most rights" on each end.  Then I ask the kids to evaluate each person and place them along the line.  The kids discuss and contemplate this, and there is always at least one kid (I love that kid) that will challenge this idea.  In the end we place every person in one big stack at the far right end of the line - because they all have infinite value.  They all matter.  They all deserve every basic human right.

This seems like pretty basic third grade stuff.  We say that we are a country founded on justice and equality, that every life is equal and every life matters.  But we have to live it and show it in what we say and what we do.  So let's live it, show it, do it - with every person, everywhere, every day, regardless of race, language, social status, documents, or anything else.  Under God, we are all equal and equally have infinite value.  I teach Spanish Immersion so I can teach 8 year olds these basic but oh so important life values.  So how will you live out these values and teach them to your own kids and those around you?

Jul 19, 2015

Three years later....

"So great news," my PA exclaims as she walks in the room.  "You're not pregnant."

I let out a long sigh of relief.  This lets go of the inner ethical battle that would follow if I became pregnant with a baby I knew I could not carry.  I do not personally believe in abortion and I would want to keep the baby more than anything in the world but I am stuck living in a body that couldn't carry out a pregnancy.  I couldn't possibly hate more that "not pregnant" is great news.

It has been a loooong time since I've written any type of update on my health status or anything beyond loads of cute pictures of my beautiful daughter and happy snippets about her growth and development, silly quotes and stories, etc.  These are much easier and more fun things to share about.  I have written blog posts about my own journey at least a hundred times in my head and even published one about a year ago at this time but was asked to take it down (my health issues are not a fun or happy topic that people enjoy reading about - I know this and totally get it).  June and July are an intense mix of emotions for me every year.  It is summer vacation and time to "relax" with my daughter (if you really can relax with a three year old), a time to celebrate her (her birthday), and a time of serious nostalgia (especially now, thanks to facebook memories).  I reminisce about the instant love of meeting her, the unbelievable outpour of love and support from family, friends and even strangers during difficult times, and the unimaginable joy in the miraculous diminishing of Kenya's seizures.  I also remember (and often wish I could forget) the trauma of her birth experience and the hurt and pain that I never knew could even be possible.  I remember around three years ago today going from doctor to doctor to hear worse and worse news on my own recovery - and hearing about three years ago that I needed to "lay low" for a long time due to the extensive internal damage and to give myself three years to fully recover from her birth - and three years before considering another pregnancy.  I remember thinking three years was an impossible recovery time and this lady (while well-intentioned) was totally asinine.  Everyone I know recovers in less than three weeks not years.  They didn't know me.  I am a go-getter and one of the most determined people I know.  I would heal.  I would give every ounce of my being toward getting better and I would research every strategy, every super food, every therapy and work every day to be healed.  I would go to the best doctors and specialists and I would get better and go back to the DR and continue the work I was (and still am) passionate about.  There was no way healing would take me three years.

And so now, three years later, after seeing doctor after doctor and specialist after specialist and being diagnosed with a myriad of conditions (14 now I think), what is the outcome?  I can now say that I would give anything for that first doctor's "three year recovery" time to have had been true.  Instead I am told that I will never fully recover or that my "recovery" will be a lifelong process and battle. No matter how hard I work in physical therapy or how much treatment I get (right now it's electric stimulation and biofeedback every week which deducts over $400 a week from our HSA), my body will never be strong enough to carry another baby.  It will never be what it once was and I may never be able to do the things again that I once I loved to do.  Pain will always be a part of my life and things will progressively get worse with time so my focus should be on developing strategies and systems to prevent worsening of my conditions and to find meds and methods to manage the pain without screwing with my mind too much (speaking in a second language all day is challenging enough without drugs like Neurontin slowing me down).  Most treatments to consider are in clinical trials but because I have so many co-morbid conditions I don't qualify for any of these treatments and just have to wait a few years for them to get approved.  So for now, I continue to be a regular (and probably the youngest) at the Institute for Pelvic Floor Disorders where the receptionist calls me "Kris" and the nurses ask about Kenya.  I feel guilty talking about my experiences with the people around me because it makes me feel and seem ungrateful - ungrateful for Kenya's miracle, for all that I have been blessed with and for all the people who have helped me so I pretend I am okay and say I am thankful for the experience and understand God's purpose behind it all while many days I sob behind closed doors and yell about wanting someone to fix me already and that I just want to be normal again.  I snicker to myself when someone a bit heavier in my yoga class says "if I only had her body" (you would be wishing for those extra pounds back quicker than you could ever imagine if you only knew).  I don't personally (in "real life") know anyone else going through what I am so these past three years I have felt more alone and isolated than I ever have before in my life.  Whether for better or worse (I usually feel the latter), this experience has changed me enormously - physically, mentally, emotionally.  Some people close to me refer to Kenya's birth as "my accident" and have talked about me as Kristin BK and Kristin AK (before/after Kenya) because apparently I am that much different.  While most people in my current social circle never knew me "BK", I often wish that they did (God love them for loving and accepting this broken version of me unconditionally).

So why now, after all this time, am I choosing to come out of the dark with this horribly depressing self-centered blog post?  Because, as much as I might feel it, I am not alone.  Millions of women are going through the same thing I am (if you don't know any, it is because the vast majority, but not all, live in the developing world).  And while I have felt, more than once, that I would have been better off to have died in childbirth (sorry that's dark but true) - let me explain to you the differences between me and these women in Africa who suffer from some of my same injuries.

 While I and them have lived through inexplicable pain and suffering and had horrific birth experiences by less than skilled doctors, this is where the similarities stop.

While Kenya survived and is my miraculous, beautiful silver lining in this whole mess, these women's stories almost always sadly end with a dead baby and empty arms (this alone makes me fathom their will to live). 

While their husbands leave them immediately as they are no longer desirable, my husband has been my knight in shining armor and has been by my side every step of the way ready to deal with my emotional breakdowns and take care of me and Kenya on the days that are too painful to bear.

While I may not feel like it on some days, I still hold infinite value as a woman and person regardless of my empty womb and my inability to bear more children.  These women are immediately deemed worthless as they have no purpose in the world now that they cannot have more babies or serve their husbands.  By their community's standpoint, any value they previously held has been stripped away.

While my friends and family (and strangers) reached out and showed me an UNREAL amount of love and support and took me in without question (while dealing with all my issues), these women are literally SHUNNED.  Let explain what I mean by shunned.   While I can burst into tears if someone even looks at me the wrong way or says something semi-critical, these women are not only ridiculed and treated like dirt but they are literally exiled from their communities.  Their families kick them out and refuse to speak to them as they have been "dishonored" and their situation is usually viewed as a curse.  They are put into a hut on the outskirts of their villages and are literally left there alone to die.  Yes, in 2015, this actually happens.  Right now, this is happening.  Even as I write it, I will never fully comprehend it.  To read more that I've written about this specific situation and the act of shunning in another post, read here.

While I am in a state of the art facility which is specialized in treating my rare injuries and providing surgical intervention (if I ever choose to take it), these women have zero healthcare or medical resources when they need them.  They are literally left to die of infection.  They can't run to Walgreen's to get what they need and they don't have health insurance or any doctors who are trying to help them.  They are literally alone.  And while I complain about my rate of healing, I truly have healed 100000x more than they have (I do consider myself totally healed from my own obstetric fistula). 

I could go on and on with these comparisons, but the point is that my suffering is NOTHING compared to that of these women and I have SO MUCH when I look at what they have.

While I would be a liar if I said I really do thank God every day for allowing this to happen to me, I do believe He allowed to happen with a purpose.  I don't believe that His purpose in this was for me to suffer in silence and cry behind closed doors, even though this has been the easier option over the last couple of years.  I have a purpose to fulfill in my suffering and while I can make excuses about how busy teaching is and I'm not sure how to help or where to fundraise or that I might offend someone or make them uncomfortable, the truth is that I have just been scared.  Scared to share my story, scared about what people will say or think about me.  But that excuse is unacceptable.  It is unacceptable because women are dying right now as we speak.  Even worse, there are women who are wishing they would die because the conditions they are forced to live in are unspeakable.  And there are millions of them who need me to be their voice.

Three years ago after being made aware of these atrocities, I made contacts and started speaking out on behalf of the Fistula Foundation.  I stood in front of groups of strangers at colleges, meetings and wherever else people would take me in and spilled my crazy story and encouraged people to raise awareness and make a difference in the world of maternal healthcare in the developing world.  But then I got to know people in this community I live in.  And somehow the people around me who I respect, admire and look up to are much scarier to speak in front of.  And some people don't want to hear it - they have told me this.  But I am an ambassador for the Fistula Foundation.  I signed the dotted line and committed myself and I am committed to helping these women.  Sharing my own story is part of this process.  I don't think that just sharing generic facebook posts and donating every so often is good enough when I know I am capable of so. much. more.  I, and you, have the power to transform these women's lives.  For around $450 (what I spend on healthcare in a week these days - thank God for insurance) we can change their lives forever.  How, you might ask?  It would be another post entirely to explain all the details (you can get all those here), but physically these women are in a million times worse state than me - surgery for them would allow them to come back into their own communities and actually have a life again.  $450 to restore a woman's life forever.  I would love to tell you more about how we can do it and teach you all about obstetric fistula and maternal healthcare issues and how these women's lives can be saved (and no it doesn't have to involve any actual vaginas or trips to Africa or graphic/disturbing pictures - while the college nursing students got the full version of my presentation, I promise to keep it G rated for you ;).

So if you want to help me, or you want to help these women, here are some things you can do:

*(My first, and very favorite, option) - Help me host a screening of the documentary "A Walk to Beautiful" and fundraiser for the Fistula Foundation.  I would love to do this with you!  I can host it in my living room but it would be a very tight squeeze to fit maybe 5 of us, but if you want to help host one of these, pleeeease let me know!!  If I can come speak to your college class (ahem, women's studies, public health, nursing, etc.), church group, team, or just group of friends, send me a message.  While I'm not the best public speaker you'll ever hear, I do have a very important and valuable message to share, and the documentary is excellent.

*Go to Fistula Foundation and get involved - this could just start with donating a small amount of money or buying a gift in honor of these women from their online giftshop.  It would be an honor to me too. :)

*Educate yourself and share with others - follow Fistula Foundation on social media - you can sign up to do this here.

*Sign up to be an ambassador with me! (actually this is my favorite option) - you can do so right here.

*Start a crowdfunding project.  Actually I'm just finding this option so I will too - you can donate to mine here.

*Anything else you can think of!!  I hope that someone somewhere might move to Africa and decide this is their mission (sometimes I wish I could but I'm not about to go back to school for midwifery) - I would love to know if this is you!!

Your participation will help girls like this beautiful one whose life was shattered by giving birth at the young age of 16.  Now, at 18, she can smile because Fistula Foundation has given her life-altering surgery and saved her life.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading and being a part of my journey.  I avoided writing this for a long time because I thought it would make me feel sad, but I actually feel energized and excited of what good might come from it.  If even one woman can be helped by my story, it will all be worth it. :) Please tell me if you decide to get involved in this cause - it's such an important one and I'd love to know about your participation!!

With lots of love, hope, and gratitude already,

Jun 20, 2015

Summer vacay!!

My dearest Kenya,

It has been forever since I've written!! (and I actually started this post three months ago and just now randomly found it) We've survived another long cold winter and so much has changed!!  You are now potty-trained, now in pre-school (they let you start early), self-weaned from nursing (por fin), and in a big girl bed!!  You also talk like a grown-up most of the time - your dad is always correcting you but I still like to let you say some things your own way (like baloonloonloon) because it's too cute!!  Here are a few photos since the last time I wrote... 

Christmas photos by Auntie Jess

Prepping for our Valentine's Day card....

You in the photo booth at Auntie Jess's baby shower....

The tulip festival in Holland...

Your third birthday...

Now we're on summer vacay together and I'm so happy I get to spend all my time with you!!  We call everything from doctor appointments to funeral visitations part of our "summer adventures" and you tell strangers all about all of our adventures.  So far we've enjoyed the zoo, children's museum, boat rides, family nature hikes, airport picnics, and much more!!  Te amo MUCHO chica - hasta la luna y atra!!  I can't wait to spend my whole summer with YOU!

Your mama