FEMA Corps Supports Efforts to Help Communities in Oso, Wash.

“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.” – Mother Teresa

Before and after photographs of the joint field office in Everett, Wash.


A week ago, my team and I left Sacramento for our first assignment in Everett, Wash. Despite having few details about the work we would be doing, we were prepared to serve in any way because we were aware of the suffering of those who were affected by the deadly slide in Oso, a small town about 40 minutes northeast of Everett.

In less than four days, we helped the FEMA logistics team transform a vacant two-story building into a joint field office (JFO) where nearly 300 people from FEMA and the state of Washington – including local and tribal affiliates – work together to support the communities in Snohomish County that were affected by the slide.

We unloaded several truckloads of supplies. We set up the tables as temporary desks, and equipped each workspace with everything from power surges and telephones to secretary chairs and trash cans. We learned how to wire RJ45 and Cat5 cables for communications purposes. We climbed ladders to replace lightbulbs and crawled on the floor to zip tie long electrical cords out of the way and cover them with caution cable tape to ensure safety.

Building out the joint field office gave me insight into the behind-the-scenes work that is forgotten about often. The tasks might seem simple, but they are important. I was an integral part of setting up a building in which federal, state, local and tribal affiliates can easily work together to support the communities that have been devastated by the slide in Snohomish County. They rely on the smooth operations at the joint field office, which wouldn’t be possible without a team of people to set up everything from cables to toilet paper.

There are many pieces to this puzzle, which is a concept that can be applied to life. Each person has a role in this world, and there isn’t one role that is more important than the other.


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Straying from the Norm

It’s 5:45 in the morning.

The sun is in no hurry to rise. The dark sky stretches on for miles and the earth appears flat. Dawn reflects off of the puddles left by last night’s thunderstorm. The cool air cradles my face and coaxes my sleepy bones to wake up because it’s time for physical training.

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Goodbye 2013: Closing Thoughts from a Twenty-Something-Year-Old Traveler

It’s hard to write about my life after I traveled around the world for the better part of this year. Instead, I found it easier to disappear as if I fell off the face of the blogosphere.

I work a lot since returning from studying abroad. I have two jobs in the food service industry. They keep me busy day and night, but I enjoy them on most days. Even though I’ve fallen back into a routined life again, the environment allows me to be with people. I have the opportunity to engage in conversations about anything.

Restaurants bring in any and all walks of life. I’ve met people from around the country and the world. I met a few aviation engineers from New Zealand and a man from Uruguay, all of whom have been living and working in the U.S. for a few years. My traveling experience made me more aware of and curious about my surroundings.

This year is coming to an end, but I cannot complain because it treated me so well. It handed me the world on a silver platter that was the MV Explorer. It pushed me out of the door to my comfort zone (albeit I might have willingly ran out) and reassured me not to fear the unknown. It encouraged me to embrace the possibilities in life because it has so much to offer. After all, I’m guaranteed only one life and, dang it, I better do something with it.

It’ll be a year in January since I left for San Diego to set sail on the voyage of my lifetime. I admit that I find myself drifting back to the past. I’m nostalgic for Semester at Sea and the people that I met and grew with along the way. I don’t think I’ll ever find a way to properly express my gratitude, but I try to live my life a little differently now. It isn’t easy.

My eyes have seen things that my heart and mind could hardly grasp and understand. I’m still processing it all today. I struggled with the thought of my life in America contrasted with life elsewhere. I felt an emotionally-charge complex combination of guilt and gratitude; I had gotten the luck of the draw, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I didn’t deserve it more than Su Thi, the 17-year-old girl selling postcards in Burma, or all of the children at the Akatim Ric Primary School in Ghana.

Why do I get to wake up beneath warm covers surrounded by sturdy walls and wrapped in heat during the cold, winter months? Why do I get to drink clean water from any faucet in my house? Why do I get to graduate from college with a degree that helps me get a decent paying job? Why do I get to travel the world?

But I realize that the luck of the draw is just that: luck. It wasn’t up to me to be born into a more privileged life. I shouldn’t feel guilty because it would mean that I have knowingly committed some act of wrongdoing when the truth of the matter is that I did not choose to be born in America to a middle class family nor is it wrong to be born in America. However, I would be guilty if I failed to recognize this privilege; and beyond that, I would be at fault if I only used this knowledge to my own advantage instead of using it to help others.

I hope to achieve this as I turn the page into the next chapter of my life. I accepted a position to serve with AmeriCorps FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for 10 months. I head west to Sacramento, CA toward the end of February to start training. I’m not quite sure what I’ll be doing, but I’m excited for this new adventure and the opportunity to serve others. Also, I’m hopeful that it will open many more doors to opportunities. My desire is to help others and to continue being shaped but the world around me.

As the new year comes to an end, I’m thankful for everything I have been able to and for all the things to come. I’ve learned that I can’t, nor do I prefer to, chart out the details of my life. I don’t wish to know the future nor do I spend too much time worrying about it. I want to live in the present moment. I want to see and do so many things. And the best part is that I’m just getting started. I had the privilege of visiting 15 countries in this year alone, but I have only dipped my toes into the water. I caught the bug and I cannot wait to see more. (And you all are more than welcome to come with me!)

Happy New Year everyone!

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Here’s to Beautiful People

There is something to be said about beautiful people.

They are as bright as the Sun that shines through my window in the morning, sliding under the cracks of my eyelids and lifting them out of the darkness of sleep. Each brilliant ray pokes me awake because it’d be a shame to miss the gift of another day.

I depend on beautiful people as I depend on the rise and fall of the Sun. Their light is as important as the light from the Sun, which nourishes life, to employ my senses in the magnificence of the world around me. It glistens and reflects the beauty that lies in my own mind, heart and soul; it encourages me to shine as bright as the Sun onto others.

Here’s to all of the beautiful people who shine their light on me and the world.

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Bus Ride to NYC

I met a man from India while sitting on a bench at the bus station in Hartford. It was a cool Saturday morning, and we were both heading to New York City for the weekend. We acknowledged each other and before long we were in an engaging conversation about each others’ travels. We shared sadness about the pollution in Shanghai and distaste for the stomach-turning smells of questionable food in China, and we reveled in the sweet juiciness of Southeast Asian fruits such as rambutan, dragon fruit, mangoes and jackfruit. He told me about the vibrant life in Mumbai, where he grew up, and about where he wants to travel. And I told him about the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met.

At one point during the two and a half hour bus ride, our laughter rang as if it was echoing throughout a lonely cave. The bus was quiet. Most people were sleeping or plugged into their electronics. They were looking out of their window with a vacant seat next to them where they placed their belongings to indicate that they’d rather be alone during the commute.

One thing I have taken away from my experience abroad is the ability to fully engage in face-to-face conversations with people. Everyone has a story to tell if only we stepped away from the distractions long enough to listen (and not just with our ears, but our eyes as well).

My interaction with that man might have lasted for only a couple of hours on a Saturday morning bus ride to NYC, after which we went our separate ways, but we became friends. We listened to each others’ stories and learned from each other, and we related to each others’ experiences despite how different we appear to be on the outside. It goes to show that we are more connected as a human race than we might think.

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Ode to the Ocean

sun setting over the ocean

The breeze still plays with my hair, but it no longer smells salty.
The afternoon sky is still blue, but it no longer rests on the crest of the waves.
The sun is still warm on my skin, but it no longer falls asleep beneath the horizon of the ocean.

Instead of waves crashing, I hear birds singing.

And a weed whacker buzzing, a train honking,
an air conditioning unit humming,
cars roaring, dogs barking…

I’ve a feeling I’m not at sea anymore.

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Finding Peace in Morocco

Jack pops his head through the entrance of our tent made out of camel wool blankets. “I’m sorry to wake you guys up, but I swear it’s worth it to come outside right now,” he whispers.

I rub my groggy eyes and look at my watch. It’s 4 in the morning. We went to bed a couple of hours ago and all I want to do is sleep, but I trust his word. I lift myself up from the piece of foam that lies between my body and the desert ground. I step outside. The air is brisk, the sand beneath my feet is cold. It’s so quiet that I feel as if I don’t really exist. At some point in the night, the Moon retired beneath the horizon leaving billions of his star soldiers to stand watch and light up the Earth.

There have been few moments on this trip in which I’ve been in complete awe of the beauty of nature. In South Africa, lions and leopards live in the mountains that meet the coast that kisses the ocean where the penguins, seals and sharks swim. In Munnar, India, the mountains of vibrant, green tea bushes roll through the blue sky.

It’s unfortunate that I’ve witnessed overall disregard for the preservation of the earth and disrespect for its inhabitants – animals and humans alike – as I travel around the world. Infinite amounts of trash, plastic and debris clutter most of the streets, sidewalks and waterways in India, Vietnam, Burma, Ghana and Morocco. It seems to be culturally acceptable to use the earth as a big trash can, but there are consequences. For example, the water is contaminated and drinking it poses severe health risks. Also, a lot of this trash gets washed out to sea and harms the marine ecosystem.

But I was overwhelmed with appreciation as I gazed at the canvas of stars above the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert that night. Once again I couldn’t help but be thankful for my existence in this world and the privilege to see a lot of it first hand.

That being said, I had an amazing time in Morocco. My friends, Jack and Emily, and I ventured far southeast of Casablanca to Tagounite, a small desert village near the border of Algeria. There we met cousins Muhammed, 25, and Hassid, 21 who have lived in the dunes of the Sahara for most of their lives.

They prefer the desert because it’s quiet and peaceful, which I highly respect and can understand after experiencing it first hand.

Jack, Emily and I rode camels into the sunset before dinner. I felt as if I was a princess in a movie, with the exception of a prince, but that’s okay.

We also tried sand boarding for the first time. We were successful, but not quite graceful. The sand in the dunes is so fine and soft that I could have rolled around in it all day… well, I just about did.

Muhammed made us tajine, a traditional Berber dish that consists of stewed potatoes, vegetables and meat. Tajine refers to the clay pot that is used to slowly cook the food. It isn’t a spicy dish, but has good flavor. We also drank sweet Moroccan mint tea and ate a few juicy oranges.

We woke up to the sun rising before making the long journey back to Casablanca.

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Ghana: God is in Control

The blue lightbulb hanging from the ceiling illuminated the small room with an eery glow. It was sweltering hot. The memory foam consumed my sweaty, dirty body as a I laid there wishing myself to sleep. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t calm my mind. The emotions poured over me.

I was sad, angry and frustrated about the poor living conditions in Senase, a village in the Ashanti region of Ghana, where I and 26 other people from Semester at Sea did a homestay for two nights. Most people of the village do not have electricity or clean water, and there’s no health clinic nearby.

There’s a small school called Akatim Ric Primary School that’s located about 30 minutes from Senase. Most of the classrooms are fashioned out of tree limbs, wooden boards and sheets of steel.

Many of the children who attend Akatim have to walk an hour and a half to and from school. Sometimes the teachers who come in from Senase bring bagged lunches with them, but most days the children go without food or water.

I felt guilty for feeling gross from not showering for a couple of days when the people of Senase bathe with buckets of water. It was hard not to think about how nice it was going to be once I got back to the ship. And, as I laid in that bed in a home in a village in the middle of Ghana, I was overwhelmed with shame because I had the means to leave in the end.

I felt embarrassed to be White. The Senase children stared at us with idolizing eyes as if we were some sort of celebrities walking through their village. They followed us everywhere. They fought over our hands, grabbed at our arms and legs, and wrapped around us as if they could squeeze into our bodies if they tried hard enough. A group of girls around 12 years old surrounded me at one point. They caressed my skin and pet my hair. They kept calling me “beautiful girl.” When it was time to eat, we were given food first, and after dinner one night, a group of boys scraped clean the pot of leftover rice.

Now, I’m grateful to have been born in America. My stay in Senase was a difficult experience that I thought I was more prepared to handle because of my previous exposure to the conditions in Haiti. However, it reopened my eyes to the very harsh and often unfair realities of the world. We can complain about America until we’re blue in the face, but the truth is, it’s a privilege be an American. I can’t help but feel so lucky to have been born in a stable environment in a country that allows growth and provides a level of security that other countries don’t have.

The Senase homestay was made possible by a 22-year-old man named Fredrick “Fred” Benneh who grew up in Senase. He started the company Can Do Land Tours a few years ago after meeting some students from Semester at Sea (SAS) who wanted to do more to help people in Ghana. Since then, SAS participants have helped to provide enough funds for school uniforms for the children of Senase, a building for Akatim Ric Primary School and a clean water tank that will help to alleviate the laborious task of pumping water from a well. The next project is to renovate a building in the village that will become a health clinic.

Fred is studying international relations at a university in Turkey. His goal is to continue giving back to his village. He is a humble and an inspirational person with a pure heart.

He and the people of Senase are seeking any kind of help and/or advice as they continue to make progress in their village. Please contact Fred via email with any questions and/or suggestions (medical, academic, etc.): can.do55. Also, visit the Senase Project on Facebook to learn more about the village and how you can help.

Today, I am hopeful for the future of Senase because “God is in control.”

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SAS Quote of the Day

How fitting that the Quote of the Day on the ship refers to my previous post:

“Humans, not places, make memories.” – Ama Ata Aidoo

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Making Memories in South Africa

Journeys are about the people you travel with and meet along the way and the experiences you have.

Travelers shouldn’t waste too much time trying to fill every second with a laundry list of restaurants, sites and activities recommended by the staff at Lonely Planet. Most of the suggestions are major tourist attractions that provide great photographs, but tend to block travelers from engaging in a more local experience.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s no problem with hiking up Table Mountain to snap that perfect sunset photo, but I choose not to center my day around the obvious attractions (I still have pictures of the sunset even though they might not have been taken from the top of Table Mountain.)

As I leave South Africa, I realize that I didn’t do anything that I planned on doing. If you’ve been following me, you know my opinion about plans and how they are never set in stone. I didn’t hike Table Mountain. I didn’t go on a safari. I wasn’t even able to go shark cage diving because Semester at Sea’s insurance refused to cover it because of the recent incident involving a great white and an unstable cage. Regardless, I look back on my time in this beautiful country with a smile because I made unforgettable memories with some really cool people.

A few friends and I had the privilege of staying with Kerry, a new good friend from South Africa who traveled with us on the ship from Mauritius. (In the above photo from left to right: me, Katie, Derek, Christine, Braden, Kendall, Tory, Dawn, Kerry and Ross.)

Her family welcomed us into their home for three days where we hung out, ate good food, drank good coffee, played board games, shared stories and laughed until our stomaches hurt.

Kerry and her boyfriend Ross showed us around their town of Noordhoek in Western Cape. We ran through the white sand of a few secluded beaches, drank and ate at a couple of a local bar/restaurants in the mountains, encountered a group of ostriches…

Our friendships grew strong during the short period of time that we were with Kerry and her family, but it goes to show how incredible human interaction is. It was hard to leave, but I know I’ll be visiting again soon.

Hands down one of the best experiences on my voyage thus far. Although I hate to rate them because they’re all so different and spectacular in their own way. I’m just happy that I was able to not only connect with Kerry and her family, but get closer with a good group of fellow shipmates.

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