Metamorphosis in India

By Emily Verbits, a member of the current SkillCorps Team in India.

Confidence. It’s a word that is used sparingly in my vocabulary. It’s not something I’m proud to admit, but confidence is something I try to work on daily. I applied to SkillCorps as an ABA tutor from California, with only a few years of experience under my belt. I honestly did not think I had enough experience to even be considered for volunteering with this organization, but that didn’t stop my curiosity in applying for this unique experience. When I was accepted to SkillCorps, I was completely shocked and overwhelmed with emotions. I had done it, and I was good enough! I had no idea what to expect on my upcoming trip to India, but I knew I could tackle the challenges I would be faced with.

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Our first few days at SOREM were filled with observing and getting to know the staff members and kiddos. I realized that the teachers were looking at our team for answers and feedback on their work within the classrooms. I felt myself freezing my emotions inside. What if I suggest the wrong solution? Or provide feedback in the wrong scenario? I didn’t want to start off this amazing opportunity questioning my ability to provide feedback and help. I brought these concerns to my team’s attention one night during a de-brief session, and they all immediately understood where I was coming from. All five of us come from such different backgrounds, and we all bring something unique and special to the table. I was reminded that I have a set of skills to help support services in India, which is why I was picked to be a part of the team. I am just as capable to provide support to SOREM as another team-member with more education than me.

A few days later, the team pitched our main focus and big idea to the staff of SOREM, where I was sweating because of my nerves (and the whole no AC thing…). Our discussion began, and words flowed so naturally. I was confidently answering questions and speaking up. “I got this,” I had thought to myself. Afterwards, my team provided the praise I needed to really breakthrough my fears and embrace my confidence. We all contributed to the goal we had in mind, and throughout the rest of our time working in SOREM, I stepped out of my comfort zone and confidently helped run a classroom implement our suggestive changes.

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I now realize that this experience can make anyone feel insecure at one point, thinking they are not qualified enough for this role we take on at SOREM. It is how we step out of that comfort zone and push our limits, where we really build our confidence in this field… not to mention the great support I have been provided with my team-members, turned life-long friends. Our team all brought important traits to our teaching process, and we all had skills for different areas in the school. I am so proud of my team and how far I have come in this experience. Bring it on, America.

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Excursion Weekend in India

By Jennifer Jaye, a member of the current SkillCorps team in India.

Each morning since our team landed in Delhi, the first ten seconds of every morning, after I’ve woken up, I’ve had a recurring thought – “I can’t believe I’m in India!” Yesterday morning, after basking in the excitement of that reminder, I got ready for our first excursion after a week’s worth of diligent work at SOREM.  We readied ourselves for a beautiful drive from Chandigarh to Amritsar. On the way, the sights were so vivid – the scenery became more lush and green; we drove past rice patties, horse-drawn carts, farmers, sleeper buses, auto-rickshaws, as scooters zoomed around us. Our driver navigated crowded roundabouts – where cars were inches away from another, honking horns, and, at times, perpendicular to one another – with profound calm and grace.  I often boast about my ability to drive through the streets of New York City, but after being a passenger in a car here, I realize what an amateur I am.

Upon arrival in Amritsar, we changed into our beautifully colorful kurtas and made our way to the Golden Temple.  Our taxi dropped us off a few blocks from the Golden Temple and the streets were buzzing with activity – vendors were selling roasted corn, sweets, toys, clothing, Punjabi jutti (traditional shoes), and postcards; scooters and rickshaws swerving this way and that; we brushed elbows with the locals; neon lights blinked excitedly; swatches of colorful cloth with gold embroidery fluttered in the occasional humid wind gust.

As we neared the courtyard of the Golden Temple, the busy excitement of the streets quickly transformed into serenity.  The stark white marble courtyard contrasted with the deep darkness of the night. We washed our hands and checked our shoes before walking through water towards the steps that led into the inner courtyard of the temple. We slowly descended the cool, marble steps with wet feet to an absolutely breathtaking view.  The temple emanated light – it glowed seemingly from within and threw light into the surrounding Nectar Pool. A muffled, distant voice read the prayers as we sat there, cross-legged, taking in the view. After a few moments, I became mesmerized by this dazzling sight and was hypnotized by the rhythmic sounds of the prayers.

In my moments sitting at the Golden Temple, I was reminded about what an absolutely unique and incredible experience this is and how blessed I really am. Two of my greatest passions – working in the field of ABA and collecting experiences (and stamps in my passport!) – are wrapped into one intensive two-week experience. Best of all are not only the new relationships we’ve developed with those at SOREM, but the tight-knit group of SkillCorps colleagues-turned-friends that I will walk away from this trip with.

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My First Experience Traveling Out of the Country

By Meagan Corr, a member of the SkillCorps team currently in India

I had never been out of the U.S. prior to my experience with SkillCorps, and I was certainly given a crash course on international travel upon arriving to India! With a brand new passport and my first visa stamp in hand, I immediately found myself immersed in an environment I had never experienced anything like before. The thick, humid air and aromas took me a while to get used to. I was alarmed by the unorganized traffic and constant honking of vehicles. I have never heard so much honking that existed without any actual road rage whatsoever!

I was also taken aback by the living conditions I witnessed in several areas. Families living under tents, crowded apartment buildings with curtains as windows, people sleeping on blankets in the dirt, and trash all over the ground. On our way into the hotel, little girls ran up to us trying to steal items out of our hands and purses. At another time, little boys came up and knocked on our car windows asking for money. I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, and the only kind of begging I was used to prior to this was adult panhandlers downtown. Occasionally children will ask me for work, but I have never been approached by a child who was poor and so desperately begging for food. I have to admit, that was really hard for me to see in person.

A thrilling and fascinating aspect of being in a new country for me has been the animals. I’m used to mainly squirrels and deer roaming around. Here, there are wild cows, pigs, dogs, and I even saw a monkey on someone’s roof! The wild animals in the U.S. seem to avoid and be fearful of humans, but the wild animals in India co-exist amongst humans very comfortably. The wild dogs walk by and even sleep right around people, and as opposed to acting more feral, they actually wag their tails when you acknowledge many of them.

I feel very culturally informed and understanding after just a few days in India. Although I am saddened by some things I have seen here, I am focusing on the positive path to sustainability for developing countries. This concept is extraordinarily inspiring, and we strive for this with our partners of SkillCorps. Instead of feeling sorry for those who live in countries less resourceful as our own, I feel hopeful that these countries will develop to the point of self-sustainability. In other words, they don’t need my money, they need skills and a foundation to function successfully on their own. I am contributing to the sustainability of their country by volunteering with SkillCorps, and that is something I can feel hopeful about.

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Four Steps to Take When a Child with Autism Has Wandered

Vee Cecil is a guest author on the Global Autism Project blog. Read more about Vee at the bottom of this post.

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Via Flickr – by Lance Shields (aka Juria Yoshikawa in SL)

Four Steps to Take When a Child with Autism Has Wandered

            According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 50 percent of children with autism wander. Naturally, for parents of children with autism, wandering is a huge concern.

From extra locks on doors to posting “Stop” signs to educating their child on the dangers of leaving the safety of their home, parents do everything in their power to prevent their children from eloping. But parents of children on the autism spectrum also know that they can be extremely crafty. And sometimes, despite one’s best efforts, these children can find a way out of the home.

What’s the best response for these situations? Read on to learn more about what steps to take after discovering your child has wandered.

Check bodies of water immediately. Many children with autism are fascinated by and attracted to water. That’s why the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children advises that first responders and others involved in the search check bodies of water immediately when a child with autism has wandered.

If your child is prone to wandering (or even if they aren’t!), knowing how to swim can literally save their life if they do find themselves alone at a body of water. There are many swim programs designed to teach children with special needs how to swim. This great guide on how aquatic therapy benefits children with autism also features a section on how to find swim lessons that will work for your child in your area.

Alert neighbors. The more people involved in the search for your child the better. In this article from KidPower.org, parents of children with autism share the different ways they’ve used to educate their neighbors about their child’s autism and tendency to wander. Two parents mention distributing flyers about their children while another has her child wear a charm bracelet that has her cell phone number on it. When your neighbors are informed, it will be much easier to enlist their help in an emergency situation. As soon as you realize your child has wandered, activate that network. Your neighbors can play a key role in bringing your child home safely.

Notify First Responders. As with your neighbors, if local First Responders have been educated ahead of time about your child’s autism, they’ll be better able to take action in an emergency. In its article on how to prevent and respond to wandering, the National Autism Safety Association provides a list of information to give to first responders to help them in their search for your child. For example, you’ll want to tell them a physical description, your child’s favorite song or toy, their favorite places to go, the best way to communicate with them, and more.

Consider using tracking devices. As FriendshipCircle.org notes, tracking devices can be valuable resources when a child has eloped. The site has compiled a helpful list of resources that parents of children with autism may want to consider. Each entry includes information about how the device works and how to find out more about it.

Realizing a child has wandered is terrifying. That’s why it is so important to have an action plan in place ahead of time. When you know what steps to take immediately, your chances of bringing your child home safely increase greatly.

Vee Cecil lives in Kentucky with her family. She works as a wellness coach, personal trainer, and bootcamp instructor. Vee loves sharing her knowledge about health and wellness through her recently-launched blog.

Posted in Autism, Guest Blog

Returning Better Versions of Ourselves

By Joann Totah, a SkillCorps member of the most recent team in Indonesia

As we embarked on our sunrise journey to Borobudur, our gentle and soft-spoken guide greeted us. He had a warm presence to him, which was pleasantly received at 4:30am. As we approached Borobudur in the mist and dark, we heard birds chirping, roosters crowing and crickets making themselves known.

Before we ascended the several flights of stone stairs, Fatah explained the pilgrimage that just occurred at the last full moon, a few days prior. The celebration, Vesak, otherwise known as “Buddha’s birthday,” is a celebration of the life, death, and enlightenment of Buddha.  In this daylong ceremony, the Buddhist monks come to meditate and repeat mantras as they circuit the temple in a ritual called “Pradakshina.”  He noted that he has been a tour guide for many years and he loved the feeling of being at Borobudur. He made an interesting observation in which he said, “Whether it is a Buddhist monk, or a tourist, when everyone leaves they are all happy and they all come back as better people.”

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Just as the monks go through this process to meditate at Borobudur and return as better people, we as SkillCorps volunteers go through this journey and we all come back happy and as better versions of ourselves.

As we individually and collectively went through the process of becoming a SkillCorps volunteer, we went through the steps, not knowing what the end result would be. For some, the planning process was months- from applying, to interviewing, to fundraising. Once the time came to embark on this journey, we established life-long relationships with people who were once strangers, we traveled as a group a total of 22,000 miles, nervously laughed while getting out of our comfort zones, collaborated with our partners at Hi-5, laid the foundation for a new treatment center in a country where autism is not readily understood, and faced the emotional roller-coaster of saying goodbye.  We went through this process as a group, but we came out as better versions of ourselves.

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We are better because we didn’t stop learning. We didn’t come here just to teach our partners at Hi-5 how to conduct assessments, we came here to learn for ourselves what work is like outside our comfort zones and without the tremendous resources we have at our fingertips. We came here to learn more about our own strengths and weaknesses. We learned to assess our roles in a large group. Our low days only encouraged us to do better the next day, to make sure when we left, we left our partners with the gift of knowledge and confidence to continue to build a center of excellence using evidenced-based practices.

Whether we view ourselves as better people because we gained a point on the emotional intelligence scale, or because we have a stronger clinical understanding of assessments, or simply because we learned to be flexible in our method of teaching, it is a personal conclusion. However I have no doubt that we all left this journey as better versions of ourselves from who we were a mere two and a half weeks ago when we started at orientation in Brooklyn.

We are not just volunteers with the Global Autism Project; we are a family, a family that works toward achieving the mission of the organization – a world where people with autism have access to services that enable them to reach their full potential.  We didn’t build a cathedral in two weeks. We added one vital piece to the cathedral being built. We are a part of a worldwide education revolution where we are fighting for education to be a right for all, especially for children with autism.

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Our amazing team leader inspired us with daily quotes that provoked introspection. As a team, we actively worked towards making each day count and achieve the goals we set forth. We will fly away with the skills that we gained here that made us better versions of ourselves.

As we bid farewell to one another, may we all continue to grow and continue to become better versions of ourselves, everyday.

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Comfort Zones

By Lauren Peterson, a member of the current SkillCorps team in Indonesia

When we met at orientation, we were asked to rate different situations on how they fell into our comfort zones, on a scale from 1 to 5. A rating of 1 was feeling at our most comfortable and 5 was the worst possible thing that could ever happen to us. Having lived in England for a year, I for sure thought I’d gotten this “getting out of my comfort zone business” out of the way. I’d gone abroad, without knowing anybody, for twelve whole months. I made new friends, lived with strangers, traveled on a regular basis, and had experiences that far surpassed my level of comfort. So, of course I thought joining SkillCorps would be a piece of cake. Well, that feeling lasted up until day 1 of orientation.

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On that first day, I found myself completely out of my element. I was surrounded by new people who had so much experience, and most had been in this field for years. Everything I’d overcome from my year abroad seemed to disappear.  I felt nervous meeting new people; I was hesitant to speak up in group discussions; I wasn’t keen on the idea of sharing a room with someone I didn’t know, and I had no idea how I was going to manage traveling across the world with these people for the next two weeks. Everyone was extremely nice, and the team got along great, but the second day still wasn’t much better for me. We spent the day learning more about one another and discussing how far our comfort zones stretched, but I still couldn’t shake the feelings of discomfort.

I know I wasn’t the only person who was out of their comfort zone; these feelings around spending so much time with strangers (who are now my friends) just happened to be the element most uncomfortable to me.  As soon as we began the actual traveling to Indonesia, it seemed as if all of our comfort zones were being tested. Our own experiences replaced the “what if” scenarios given at orientation. Things such as being placed on the wrong flight; finding dead lizards in our showers; using squatty potties; trying to initiate conversations in Bahasa; or being constantly stared at because you are the only “white-skinned“ folks around, and having people either sneak pictures of you or ask to take selfies, became the true test to what our comfort levels could actually handle. The situations that we’d previously rated as fives at orientation, become ones and twos, and these new experiences ranked higher on our lists. It’s funny how your true feelings appear when you are placed in real situations, as opposed to just thinking about how you might react to these things. However, these unpleasant surprises were temporary. The feelings I was dealing with only seemed to persist.

From the beginning of our time at Hi5 Centre, the group as a whole was thriving. Everyone was offering awesome input; people were feeling inspired, and each team member seemed to be experiencing incredible emotions. I was beginning to worry that I wasn’t having these same reactions. Don’t get me wrong, I was truly enjoying where I was, but I wasn’t having those magical moments that everyone else seemed to be experiencing. Finally, on day three, I pushed myself a little further to participate in ways that had been difficult for me. This was when I really began to feel part of the team. Then, on day 4 we left for our awesome excursion, and I got to thoroughly enjoy my team members without the worry of feeling out of place. When we arrived back in Jakarta for Car Free day, I realized that I’d finally done it; I was finally out of my comfort zone, and I’d been soaking up every minute of it that I hadn’t even noticed. By the time we were back in the center on Monday, I was feeling that spark of inspiration.

I honestly don’t remember the exact moment that I officially stepped out of my comfort zone; it just sort of dawned on me that I hadn’t been worrying about any of the pressures from before. I don’t know if it was the great ending to the first week, the incredible time I had on excursion, bonding with my team, or the wonderful experience of car free day, but I finally felt that I had a purpose for being here. We learned early on in the SkillCorps process that outside of your comfort zone is where the magic of this adventure will happen. Well, after multiple “feelings talks” and daily quotes from our team leader, I realize now that once I began to make the days count, became mentally present in the work we were doing, and pushed the old me aside, I was able to truly step out of my comfort zone and see magic happening all around me.

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Let’s Go Fly A Kite

By Jamie Moses, a member of the current SkillCorps team in Indonesia

Purely exhausted from a day at the Hi5 center, I joined the eight other women and sank into a seat on our bus back to the hotel. Staring out the window, my eyes began to wander, looking at nothing in particular and everything all at the same time. I let the scene wash over me as I replayed the day’s events in my mind. My brain was bouncing from one scene to the next, but I tended to gravitate towards the emotions of teaching a modified assessment and then practicing it’s implementation with the women who worked at the center.

I kept coming back to these feelings because the women who work at the Hi5 Center are truly amazing and exceeded my expectations in every way that day.  Collectively we overcame hurdles that might seem daunting for most, but not these women.  I recall the memory of how the center’s location was described to us as being in the poorest part of Jakarta. Yet as you enter the Hi5 Center, it’s as if you are leaving all that behind you. The Clinic’s director, Shinta, was quick to attribute the clinic’s success to their partnership with the Global Autism Project. But it’s evident through their interactions that she values and relies on these women that surround her. It’s quite a pleasant place to work, learn, and teach; and it’s all because of these women’s drive, determination, and passion for helping others.

As our bus weaved and bounced along the road, I saw a little boy, in tattered clothing on the side of the highway, carelessly flying a kite. Almost instinctually I began humming a song from my childhood; “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” from the movie “Mary Poppins”.  I fought to try and remember the lyrics, but feeling like my eyes were being held up by toothpicks, the only part of the song I could recall was “let’s go fly a kite, up to the highest heights, let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring, up in the atmosphere”.  He wasn’t worried about where he was or what he was wearing, his full attention was on that kite.  Completely mesmerized by it’s ability to soar in the sky by what he could only surmise was magic.

Later that afternoon, after a nap and some time in the AC, I continued to dwell on this scene with the little boy and my emotions from earlier that day. A realization began to set in as these two seemingly different events actually had many parallels.  That scene perfectly embodied the clinic’s director, Shinta, the women who work at the center, my group and the Global Autism Project, and the Hi5 center itself.

In my mind, Shinta is the little boy just wanting to fly her kite and mesmerized at the heights it can reach. The kite is the Hi5 Center itself, allowing for an escape from the austere conditions surrounding it. The partnership with Global Autism Project and our group is the wind that provides constant support to help her reach new heights. And finally, the women are the string that holds the two together and allows them to soar. They are the connection between Shinta and her dreams and visions, and the center itself. The Hi5 partnership will be lifted to the highest heights but not without those incredible women’s drive and passion for helping children with Autism.

Through all this I came to the realization that it is truly about the people you surround yourself with and not the facilities or circumstances you find yourself in. With the right group of people, you can transform something that might not look like much, into a beacon of hope for those in need.  The Hi5 center is just a building, but it’s the drive and passion that these women bring to work each and every day that make it the beacon of hope for those with autism is Indonesia.  I am so proud to have the opportunity to work with these women and for us to learn from one another.

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This Is It

By Jen Fisher, a member of the current SkillCorps team in Indonesia

We entered the crowd at car free day with nervous laughter. Ashika looked at me and I gazed back with the same thought: How will we communicate our message? Soon we were lost in the crowd with our pink and green flyers in hand. It took us a minute or two to hand out the first one. One after the other it got easier to hand over the informative flyers, but we still hadn’t flexed our scripts in Bahasa. Just as we were nearing the end of our first stack of flyers, surrounded by the community (literally thousands of people), a new energy came over Ashika and I. Ashika looked at me and said, “This is it” and without explanation I knew exactly what she meant. We are halfway through the trip and there has been no shortage of moments that have made me feel like my time here was important on a level I cannot articulate yet, but this one felt paramount to the others.

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With our hands empty and energy surging through our bodies we rushed back to the consultation station set up roadside to gather more information and a sign that we could display. We bumped into Cassie and Arshiya (our trip leaders and Global Autism Project staff members, the heads of this trip) who had been diligently collecting names and phone numbers of people who had any questions about Hi5. They encouraged us to engage the people we encountered in a conversation about Hi5 and to get as much contact information as we could. This was the plan all along. Shinta, Rani, and Hotik had given us a script in Bahasa to recite and we had practiced it the past two days, but we were lacking the confidence to execute the plan. Cassie and Arshiya expressed, almost in unison, that they were thinking about what is most important about today and what will help Hi5 long after we are gone -  and that is gathering as much information from the community as possible, so they can sustain interest and provide services to those who are interested.  We nodded in agreement, remembering that sustainability was the goal, and set off on our second trip into the crowds.

As we made our way through the crowds, scanning for families with a sign held high I noticed we were getting a lot of attention. Ashika started to hand out a flyer to anyone who had taken a pause to read the sign I was holding. Soon she was asking families if they spoke English “Bisa Bahasa Inggris?” and if they knew about Autism “Kamu tahu Autisma?”. Excitement swelled in me as I saw my SkillCorps team member really start to connect with the community. We would share a smile and a sigh of accomplishment after every family we had reeled in and either left with a flyer or left us with their information. Soon we saw people passing who had already received the flyer, which meant our other SkillCorps team members were connecting with the community as well. As we were passing home base Shinta did not look as excited as I felt inside. She expressed that she wasn’t getting a lot of questions from the community and thought it may be better if we stayed near here to filter them to the consultation station.

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“Be stubborn with your goal, but be flexible with your method”. This was one of the quotes Cassie had shared with us during one of our  (now infamous) “feelings talks”. It didn’t take us long to rally the team around Shinta’s new plan and within minutes there were families and community members approaching Shinta with questions. I looked over at Ashika and exclaimed “This IS it!”.  For the next hour we were like a well-oiled machine, I was displaying a sign that roughly translated to “ Parent partnership to help the child succeed” and Ashika was talking with families and sending them to Shinta for more information. The feeling was overwhelming.

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I saw my team members and the employees of Hi5 really connecting with the community. I felt like I was really connecting with the community. One thing I love so much about my job back in the states is being connected with the community as an advocate and raising awareness. Standing in a main street of Bekasi, not a car in sight, and surrounded by thousands of community members grasping for information, I began to tear up.

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I looked over at Ashika who was connecting with a woman who had a little boy right next to her in her grasp. I overheard the woman say in English “He has autism.” Without hesitation Ashika walked the woman and the little boy over to the consultation station to speak with Shinta. They waited patiently on the curb as one of the therapists from Hi5 began engaging with the little boy. Ashika and I were overrun with emotion watching as the woman explained her child’s needs and expressed interest in the center. This was it. After the woman signed her son up for the free clinic day Hi5 she personally shook every one of our hands and stopped at Ashika, looked her in the eye, and said “beautiful.” Ashika cried a little and looked over to me and said, “This is it”.

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Posted in Indonesia, Stories from the Field

Enjoy Your Heaven

By Ashika Lakhani, a member of the current SkillCorps team in Indonesia

I read somewhere that the world is too big to stay in one place, and life is too short to do just one thing. When I read this during my lunch break at my place of work at the beginning of the winter season in Toronto, it really stuck with me for the rest of the day, then the rest of the week. I felt more and more each day that where I was, and what I was doing was not sufficient for me to feel satisfied with my life. I recalled taking my BCBA prep course with the Global Autism Project and, while wandering around the website, found SkillCorps. I remembered being told about it by a coworker. I was determined to be a part of something bigger than myself, and I was elated to be accepted, and to be fundraising and spreading the word about this wonderful cause. Now that I’m here, and I’ve been through my first work week with a team of incredible, inspiring, independent, and unique women, that unsettled feeling that I wasn’t doing enough has dissipated, and I’ve found a new way to look at, and reflect on, each day that goes by. What we had at the end of week one was a foundation to build on, and an exciting excursion ahead.

Day one of our excursion began with an early morning rise to get to the airport in time to leave for Jogjakarta. We were not pleasantly surprised to learn that rush hour begins at 5:30am in Indonesia, which made our journey to the airport longer than the flight to our destination! But all was forgotten once we landed and met our guide, and we were off to visit the Sultan’s palace. We learned about how Jogjakarta is governed, and the history behind the Sultan. One of our team members took a look at each one of us, and pointed out that we all had the same look of wonder on our faces. It was clear that we were all very happy to be here. For me, what started this excursion off perfectly was a reference to Dr. Spock made by our tour guide. The nerd in me was impressed.

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Soon after we had finished our visit to the palace, we couldn’t resist the eye-catching Batik art gallery adjacent to the water castle just behind the palace. It was mesmerizing to see such intricate, colorful, and creative pieces that left each one of us with that same look of wonder.

Lunch was ayam goreng (fried chicken), which was absolutely delicious, and the dish that Jogjakarta is best known for. The restaurant was so well known for their ayam goreng that the statue in front of it had the dish’s name engraved in stone! We had the restaurant all to ourselves and, as usual, had some great conversation. We were refueled, and ready for the rest of the day.

The next stop was Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple. The majesty of Prambanan left many of us speechless, and grabbing any device we had handy that would help us capture this epic moment. It wasn’t long before we realized that no amount of photos would do it justice. We learned that each stone that was created is unique, and made to fit together to build each smaller temple like a puzzle. I found myself alone at one point, and saw Arshiya, one of our trip leaders, walking up the stairs towards one of the larger temples, and followed her up. We saw the idol of Shiva inside, and she began to tell me all about how the Hindu gods fit together, and what some of them represented. We continued to discuss these stories and Hindu mythology while exploring every side of the temple. I love that I got to learn about all this at such an opportune time – she had a personal connection to Shiva and Ganesh, which made this experience in Prambanan that much more amazing and personal.

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Our first day of excursion had ended, and we went to our hotel for a short night’s sleep to wake up early for our sunrise tour of Borobudur. Waking up at 4am was not a difficult feat knowing that what awaited me I had only seen in pictures. I had been waiting for this for months. With flashlights in hand, we walked toward the temple through the dark pathways around our hotel, realizing that we really weren’t far from Borobudur at all. I had been looking forward to this experience, yes, but the stairs were what I was dreading. They appeared before me sooner than I thought they would and I started climbing, annoyed that I was exerting myself so early in the morning, and in the dark. Someone was making their way down the stairs – I never got a look at his face, I was so focused on finding the next step – I heard him say the words “Enjoy your heaven”. My whole thought process changed after that.

I remembered the question Molly posed to the team the day before – “What is here for you to learn?” – and opened my eyes in that moment to think about how this past week has formed such synergy within the team, within the work we do. How do I fit it all in on a personal level? What is here for me to learn? What did he mean when he said “enjoy your heaven”? I may be here with a group of people, and what a great group of people it is, but right now, I’m here for me. I’m here to experience what this means for me. What I learned through watching the sky turn from a smoky grey, to a powdered pink, to a pastel blue; what I learned through listening to the many stories of the many reincarnations of Buddha; what I learned through stopping and thinking about what was here for me to learn; was the necessity of spirituality and moments of stillness in my life. This, I’m sure, wasn’t what we all took away from this experience, but it’s what was here for me to learn, and it’s how I can enjoy my heaven.

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After a very inspiring and spiritual early morning, we took a bicycle tour through the nearby local streets of Jogjakarta, riding through rice and tobacco fields, and ended up making our own little stupas in an outdoor pottery studio. Along the way, we had some laughs (because we’re an entertaining group that is also very easily amused), but also took in the beautiful scenery surrounding us. In the distance, we were able to see Borobudur, as well as greenery that went on for miles. Many of us couldn’t stop repeating how great today had been so far. And it wasn’t even noon yet!

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We had lunch and then it was onto the silver factory, at which most of us ended up buying most, if not all, of our souvenirs and gifts. After that, we were on our way to a jeep adventure up Mt. Merapi, an active volcano. We learned the last eruption was in 2010 and that it erupts about every 5 years (yikes!). We put on our medical masks to shield our mouths and noses from the dust, and we were off! The roads were bumpy, the jeeps had no roofs or windows. It was certainly an adventure. What was waiting for us at the end was a beautiful view of the top of the volcano, a large crater releasing steam slowly, with valleys of ash that are meant to help lava flow as safely as possible out of the volcano when there’s an eruption.

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Stillness once again. This place, the mission we were on, and this day, all hit me at the end of the day when we were at our hotel, and I thought about how grateful I was to feel sad about this day being over. Days like this don’t happen often, if ever, for many people. Before I went to sleep, I thought about the week of work ahead of us and recalled a story we were told at Borobudur. It was about a bird saving a lion from choking by pulling a bone out of the lion’s throat, expecting the lion to give him a reward at the end because that was what was promised. The lion said to the bird “the reward was that I didn’t eat you”. The moral of that story was not to expect a reward when you help others. The fact that that story was told to us at Borobudur amidst walls of stories to a group of volunteers was simply perfect.

My heaven was not experienced only today, but it is being here for this purpose, for this entire two weeks. I’m in my heaven at this very moment, with these inspiring and intelligent women. We’re present, we’re passionate, and we’re helping the people here persevere to make a difference, and to raise awareness for children with special needs with no expectation of reward, but feeling fulfilled with each day that goes by. And we’re going to carry what we’ve learned and experienced here for the rest of our lives, not just the rest of our time here.

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Being Present

By Michelle Zube, a member of the current SkillCorps team in Indonesia

Remember when you were in school and the teacher would say your name during roll call and you would have to respond, “Present”? Well, was he just taking attendance or did he want to know if you were actually “present”? As in here. In the now. Living in this very moment.

Joining SkillCorps was a conscious decision that involved thoughtful planning and execution. Fundraising, trip preparation, working two jobs while conducting thesis coupled with daily life and all of its nuances times applying for doctoral programs divided by the square root of a nervous breakdown was my life leading up to SkillCorps Indonesia. I wasn’t living – Hell, I was barely breathing. I felt like I was suffocating every day. My body was an empty shell on autopilot. Something had to give. I was ready to change – change the world, myself, and my current situation. Despite the logistics calls and detailed emails, I had no idea what I was about to embark on.

I arrived at orientation looking for answers that I didn’t even have the questions for. This was supposed to be the experience of a lifetime and I am perseverating on packing two suitcases when everyone else has backpacks, who will I room with and what we were going to order for lunch. Stop. Breathe.

Once I was able to take a step back and let go, I found myself surrounded by people who shockingly enough were just like me. When I took the time to be mindful of where I was, who I was with and why we had all come together, I transcended to a place of inner peace. Things felt like they were starting to take shape. From that point forward I made a concerted effort not to lose myself in worry or doubt and to capture each moment as it happened. I quickly began to bond with my team mates over coffee, dinner and an early morning boot camp class. As orientation came to a close, I felt confident and at ease despite my excitement and anticipation for was still to come.

Our first day at Hi 5 was an amazing experience. Meeting the staff was inspiring. Realizing how much of an impact our SkillCorps team was going to make on their center is beyond words. While all of this is life changing in and of itself, I found the most interesting aspect of the day to be about me. I was not distracted by the do this and data collection that’s and run to the store we are out of whatever’s…I was focused. I was available. I was present. For the first time in a long time, I could breathe. It was a feeling I never want to lose.

I realized in my mission to help others, I also need to be able to help myself – to listen to my needs in order to be able to be present. If I am not present, I am not available to help others and be the agent of change I have spent so many years studying and working to be.

That same night at dinner, Cassie’s (now infamous) “feelings talk” was about being present. We discussed being aware of who we are and what we need for ourselves in order to make a difference in the lives of others. It was so early in the trip to learn such a powerful lesson but it is one that I will need for the remainder of SkillCorps and in my life after these two weeks.

“When you are motivated by the desire to transcend suffering, to get out of a difficult situation, and to help others do the same, you get a powerful source of energy that helps you to do what you want to do to transform yourself and to help other people.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

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