Sunday, August 28, 2016

A little (lot) about me

When Ashley and I decided to pitch an activism project to Feminist Apparel, we decided we would be transparent and honest with the audience we want to reach.

That audience is everyone. There’s not a single person I can think of that I wouldn’t want to learn more about the difficult topics of sex trafficking, exploitation, unfit and unfair labor conditions, and abuse.

We decided our first step would be sharing our stories and how and why we decided to start standing up for women and children everywhere.

I’ve always, always been a worrier. I’ve worried about people I’ve never met, people I read about, people I saw in documentaries, everyone. I was the child who wanted to know how everyone was doing and if everyone was happy. I wrote that in my notebook as a second grader after 9/11, “everyone just wants to be happy, everyone wants love.” I was always told I was sensitive and overly emotional. I used to view it as a hindrance to my growth, but it definitely is something I now pride myself on. Need someone to cry with? Seriously, I’m your girl.

Growing up, I had a funny, bright family. I had a life I knew was cushioned with financial and emotional security, and stability.

Until it wasn’t.

I was in high school when some deep, abusive behavior was revealed within my parent’s marriage. I witnessed things that felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone. I felt like I had been wearing rose-colored glasses for years, ignoring all the subtle signs that maybe things weren’t okay. My parents divorced and I was devastated. It’s still beyond my understanding how you can know two people are better apart and still feel yourself shatter in a million pieces watching them separate. But I did. And while I thought the worst part was over, there was more coming. 

A few months after my parents divorced, my sister was diagnosed with cancer that turned into a year-long fight to remove a ganglioneuroma tumor the size of a football, located in her stomach. It was the very first time that the struggles I had seen through books and movies were part of my life. Teens with bone cancer, babies with leukemia, and siblings like me, praying hard every day, became something I witnessed. We had Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital waiting room that year, pushing together coffee tables and eating out of plastic containers, praying fiercely that life would look different soon. Looking back now, life was exactly what it needed to look like. The trials that year revealed to me that my constant worry and concern for people could be used  to bridge the gap between strangers and creating a meaningful, conscious community. I wanted everyone to know I saw them, that I supported them. We spend so much of our lives making irrational judgments, when we have no idea what people are up against. I started think about the families who couldn't afford treatments my sister was getting, the families who got this news and had no choices. The families who had no one to push coffee tables together with and create a makeshift holiday dinner.

I went back to school that year and my sister didn’t. She fought to get healthy. Anyone who knows me knows just how deeply I love my sister. We are eleven months apart and I swear, if she wasn’t my sister, I would look and long for her. She is the best part of me; the carrier of my favorite memories. Seeing her sick pushed me off the edge and I constantly had anxiety about her life. I became sick with the idea I would lose her forever, and in turn, I would lose myself. I went through a depressive spiral, suffered with an eating disorder, and found myself writing everything. I began pitching support and anti-bullying groups to my high school and as student body president I worked really hard to make sure I did what I could to recognize that not everyone is doing alright all the time. I knew I wasn’t the only one with a whole other hidden side to their life. I was able to keep up with varsity dance team, student council, and be voted as most-involved while stressing and suffering the moment I got home from school.

That’s part of my story I want people to understand the most- I think you can be incredibly hurt and sad and still be happy. I think you can be scared out of your mind of what’s in front of you and still be brave for those who need you. I think you can wake up at 8 am with a grateful heart full of hope and find yourself in the trenches of grief by noon. I don’t think there’s an instruction map to healing, but I do know you have to be willing to look within and realize your worth. I knew that despite everything that was going on in my life, I had an entitlement to give everyday my best shot. I knew despite everything, I was brought into this world because I was loved beyond my own comprehension. In college, this belief launched my blog, This crazy beautiful platform where I’ve met crazy beautiful people and I’m forever grateful that my biggest passion gave me hope.

I wrote because it was truthfully the only thing that kept me going. I started interviewing people for fun. I’d be at a coffee shop or a park, tell people I had a blog and ask them questions about what life is to them. I was this 19-year-old approaching strangers, asking them personal questions and it encouraged me every time they would share openly. Writing and sharing is a reminder that we are never truly alone. No experience is singular. We’ve got a tribe even when we think we don’t.

Despite how much I loved my blog, I still wasn’t studying English or Journalism in school. I was first studying to be a therapist, and then studying to be a teacher, until I realized my one constant was waking up everyday and putting pen to paper. I decided I needed to make a major change.

I started planning a trip to Bali, Indonesia. Because it makes sense to take off and go far when you don’t recognize your most obvious truth, right? I went by myself and met up with a tour group during my trip. The people I met are my life-long friends. The experience was eye-opening. It made me realize how abundant and beautiful my life is. I saw villages with no real plumbing or electrical systems, children eager to go to school, washing their one uniform in a tiny river by their homes and practicing their English when they saw me. I met people who wanted a life like mine, a life I had started to feel sad in. Everything is relative, and I believe all feelings are valid, but the trip made me realize while I could feel sad, hurt, and lost, I needed to direct it somewhere. Somewhere that opportunity and hope could grow again.


A few days before going home, my new friend and I had gone into a nail salon in a village called Lovina. Prostitution was big there and the streets were scattered with men looking for young girls. My safety felt so threatened. My first few days in Indonesia, I had been grabbed by a man walking home who shoved his hand down my swimsuit. I fought back hard and he ran as I screamed and a family came to help me, but my sense of security was completely rocked. My skin itched, my stomach flipped, and I carried that dark feeling that bad things are lurking around you and you don’t want to look any further.

In a “nail salon” I met two girls who were 15 and 16 and both pregnant. Old men came in and they made a face like they were in physical pain. The girls followed them to the back, where hot air blew curtains and sticky air around. Men came in and out. I began to cry. I asked one of the girls, “What do you want to be? This doesn’t have to be your life.” The girl said she didn’t understand. I asked again, “What do you dream of doing?” She shook her head, “Oh no, I do this.” There I was, acting upon wanderlust in their country, travelling with the knowledge I would return back to safety and comfort and she was suffering. I gave her money, and immediately, a man in charge of the salon took it out of her hands. Before I left, she showed me she had a purse with a big American flag on it. She smiled and hugged me.

The next day, I went to a women’s birthing center that helps prostitutes, youth, and abandoned women receive proper care and a safe birthing place. The woman who runs it is from Hawaii and said, “I woke up one day and asked myself, ‘What do I want to live for?’, ‘Love,’ I answered. And I moved here and began this center so I could live for love everyday.” I, being the overly emotional person I am, could not keep it together. I meet new mamas and sweet babies, swaddled and cuddled. The air was so thick with love and redemption. I fell in love with idea of serving others as a lifelong career.

I returned back to the States and had an internship at the Las Vegas Sun that turned into a year-long job. During that year, I had incredible classes as a new English Literature major that informed me about the trials and setbacks countries were facing. Ours included. In my women’s studies class, we learned about prostitution in Las Vegas, racial and sexual discrimination, women and children in other countries being sold and bought. I learned that women in Syria were just “promised” the right to vote, nearly 95 years after we were given the right. I learned that most women in impoverished nations never received an education. I learned that I had a voice, strengthened by change-makers and rule-breakers before me that paved a way. I learned that it would be a real shame not to use it and continue their fight.

At the end of summer the next year, I left to study abroad in Pau, France for a semester. Learning French gives me an advantage to volunteer and communicate with women in parts of Africa, a volunteer opportunity I hope to have in my 20’s. It also gave me the opportunity to eat baguettes everyday and get over myself and my fear of gaining five pounds. I met people abroad from all over who informed me of the issues happening in their country. I feel so grateful to be able to receive an education and a way to communicate with others. I learned so much about myself and how to deeply love every part of my story.  I’ve since volunteered with special needs children and hosted two small events for women to get together and share personal stories and writing, enjoy music, and learn from each other.

Throughout everything, writing has been my light and I truly believe my platform to help others. Stories remind us that we are not alone. You can read something and realize that no matter how different someone looks, acts, and lives, they have hopes, dreams, and aspirations just like you.

Learning from others and sharing their stories is what pushes me to be open-minded and not judge. Because life is messy. We can’t look at how someone lives, how they dress, and who they pray to and decide that they are “bad.” We can’t view our values as the only way to live. We can only love people. Allow them to know they are seen, supported, and acknowledged. We have to know that this world is big enough for everyone to thrive and for every individual life to be meaningful and intentional.

With everything going on in the world, I never say, “Gosh, there are bad people.” Because there aren’t. There are people that are seriously misguided, hurting, neglected, and taught that the only way to be seen is to create a tragedy. I want people to be able to rewrite their stories. I want people to stop referring to each other by their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and nationality. We are all human beings inhabiting that same planet. We are the same.

If traveling has taught me anything, it’s that we are all so much more similar than we are different. I lived in a place I didn’t speak the language for a solid month and made friends I will treasure my entire life. Because empathy and kindness are not only free, but universal. Because whoever said you have to be just like someone to understand their life, has never stepped outside of their comfort zone and into humility.

I want my life to be an expression of radical kindness and empathy. It’s why I feel so compelled to do this project. I want people to know they are loved even if I don’t personally know them. I want to hug the hurting, I want to stand up for everyone told to sit down, I want to speak up for those told to be silent.

We get one shot at this whole life thing. I want to live in my truth: that life and all of its struggles are a gift. That each individual life is no more or less than another.


I believe education is our strongest power. Witnessing what I did abroad has taught me that you can’t simply volunteer for two weeks and then feel that the work is done. Providing someone with sustainable tools and skills is a lifelong help, not just a quick fix.  Education is lasting. People need to understand the issues to know just how much they need to be changed.

Maybe it’s that seven-year old in me who believes people just want to be loved and feel happy, but I have no doubt that this is the time that lives around the globe can change. We all have the ability to do good. We owe it to our brothers and sisters of the world to go out and show them they’ve never been alone.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

All about Ashley

I posted a few days ago about how Ashley Ayala and I have been selected for a Brand Ambassador program for Feminist Apparel. We will be starting a project called "hey sister" that will be a blog-based education program to inform people about sex trafficking, unfit labor conditions, exploitation, and abuse. Because this is a big, exciting project and we want to share each step of the way, we are starting with an introduction of who we are and what we do. Ashley's introduction is first and I'm so happy to share my beautiful friend's story and heart. It's quite a read, but I promise you, totally worth it. Enjoy!

Ashley's Story:

 My first experience in a third world country was a weekend visit to Nicaragua when I was studying abroad in Costa Rica in 2010. Along with a group of exchange students from the U.S., my new friend Jill and I decided to join the school’s prearranged trip with our transportation and accommodations determined for us for the weekend. We had been traveling around Costa Rica on the weekends, staying in hostels and enjoying the nightlife and the beach. This short trip was entirely different though. All we had to do was show up for the bus and we would be taken on a cultural weekend tour in Nicaragua. I remember the first day going on a boat tour in a very poor area and being alarmed at the first words out of some of my peers’ mouths on the way to the dock. “Oh my gosh! Look at that horse. His ribs are showing- he must be starving!” In a typical, comfortable environment, this would have been alarming because yes, it was obvious that food and clean water were hard to come by. And that poor horse was suffering. The reason for my alarm was something entirely different though; myself and the few girls surrounding me were being swarmed by children, grabbing at our wrists and staring up into our eyes. In almost a soft chant they were saying, “money? money?” My attention could not be turned away from this massive group of children, covered in filth, most without shoes. How could this be? We came to enjoy the culture and sights of Nicaragua but I couldn’t enjoy much of anything after this wave of reality sucker punched me right in the gut. This was a tourist destination, yet these local kids weren't in school and none of the locals seemed to have a problem with it.
 Jill and I were rooming together that night and I remember being astounded at the travelers we saw passing through this town, dressed up and walking down the promenade to dinner. We were staying in a quite fancy hotel in a European-feeling part of the town. I assume that this was probably the safest area of town, which is why thirty 19-21 year old students were booked at this particular hotel. In our room, we had a large glass double door opening that faced the street where there was a park, just a few blocks away from a nice open street for walking with restaurants, bars and a few clubs. As the tourists and travelers made their way to the promenade, I couldn’t understand how they could possibly be enjoying themselves having walked through such a devastatingly poor city. I hadn’t been there a day yet and I already felt shame from privilege seeping from my pores. I felt bad that night; I felt bad because I didn’t understand the facets of poverty, the history, the solutions that were tried and failed.
 That night we saw a little boy who had been begging in the swarm of children we saw earlier that day. This time he’d been showered, had his hair brushed and was wearing new shoes on his feet. He was walking with his whole family down to the promenade for dinner. This was my first glimpse at the game that’s been made in some places of living in poverty. Children have a job in some poor communities- to beg. The money made begging provides significantly for the family in some popular tourist towns and sometimes, parents can stay home and care for the younger children while the older ones go out and trap tourists. Like the boy we were so confused by that night, we learned soon after this encounter that some families are well off because of a child’s ability to beg. Not always is this the case, but a definite sad reality is that these kids on the street are not learning how to read or write, or even think about what they want to be when they grow up. They are growing up fast, working and having to hustle like an adult to provide for their families. At a bar that night, another young kid approached us selling pots out of his backpack. Through his little English and our broken Spanish, we learned that he had not eaten all day, was high on something (rumored to be glue) and was scared to go home because he hadn’t earned enough money that day. Jill and I were in tears. Us and a few others from our group sat down outside with a group of little boys late into the night, playing guitar and laughing while all around us on the promenade, well dressed couples on vacation ate romantic meals listening to live music- as if there wasn’t a serious issue with what was happening not even seven feet in front of them.
 Over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time studying psychology. I’m fascinated by the human brain and the factors that play into each individual’s personality traits and decision making habits. When I am curious, I tend to do research. Although I did not go to school for psychology, or anthropology, or women’s studies- all of these subjects and the issues associated have intrigued me and been in the forefront of my mind for years. By the time I studied in Costa Rica, I was a junior in college, studying fine art photography and obsessed with portraiture. Writing was a hobby and I always had this goal of using photography as a way to connect people to the human experience. At the time I couldn’t really explain why I was so fascinated by different cultures, or why I had such a desire to immerse myself in a country where I only knew the basics of the language. In retrospect, I was seeking change in a drastic way for the first time. I wanted to experience being an outsider, not knowing what was being said around me 95% of the time and to be forced to find my way.

 As an independent project through my photo program at school, I decided to bring a few film cameras with me and get comfortable asking people to take their portraits. I’m a naturally shy person at first and I wanted to become confident and comfortable in my ability to photograph people. What better way than to ask in a foreign language, right? The project of photographing people was fun and worthwhile, though I see how my perspective became more broad through those months. By the time I arrived back to Las Vegas, I wanted to change my major but was only two semesters short of graduating. I continued with school, graduating a year later but vowing to get myself out of Vegas as soon as I could. I wanted to start new again in a place with better weather.
 My cousin Whitney had worked at a special needs camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains
and had shared what an amazing experience it had been for her. Summer after summer she would return from wherever she was living to be in this magical place- whether it was Sacramento or Syracuse, every single summer for six years she would come back to Camp Krem. That year as graduation was approaching, I applied and added on my application something like, “I would like to do the photography for marketing materials and social media but if that isn’t in the budget, I am also willing to be a counselor.” I had spent almost three years before that as a part-time ABA therapist for a little girl with autism, then when I came back from Costa Rica, an Early Intervention Specialist for babies 18 months - 3 years diagnosed with autism. I hadn’t actually intentionally gone into the special needs field, but my boyfriend at the time (who is now my husband) had gone to a seminar on ABA therapy and I had met a sweet family who needed an extra tutor for a few hours a week. I took it, not knowing that working in this field would be my livelihood for the next nine years!
 Fast forward to college graduation, having my application accepted for a counselor (although I desperately wanted to be involved in something art related) at Camp Krem and moving a few days after the ceremony at my university to the Santa Cruz Mountains. The camp took everything I knew and turned it upside down. I never thought I would be capable of bathing and changing and entertaining individuals with special needs from seven years old to well into their 60s. What a summer it was- full of new experiences and insight, and as fate would have it, three weeks into the ten week program, our art director at the camp offered to trade positions so that I could run the program. I loved it. Combining art and care in the special needs field was magic. I had found my purpose for that season of life; I fell in love with Santa Cruz and living close to the ocean so a week after the summer camp ended, I found a little room in a tiny house, a mile from the water and life after college began.
 It was worth it at the time, but living in California is expensive and eventually, my go-go-go mentally took it’s toll on me. My first nine months living in Santa Cruz, I had been working two jobs in the special needs field- one for the school district and one private, in-home care position and a third job as a caregiver for a woman with dementia. I was off most weekends but was working about 60 hours a week. The three jobs had sort of stemmed from being new to the town (after summer camp ends, everyone goes back to where they are from), not having any friends yet and trying to keep myself busy since the kinds of jobs I had were not ones where I would be meeting people my age very often. When I finally did make some friends, I continued working the hours, would try to make it to the beach often and also spend a good amount of time socializing. A few days after my 23rd birthday, I was working an overnight shift doing the in-home care when I had a breakdown. I often refer to this night as, “the turning point.” I was burnt out trying to keep up with my work schedule and had been partying nearly early weekend. I had been saying for months I wanted to start volunteering at the homeless shelter in town but had yet to wake up early enough (or without a hangover) to go. I had battled depression & anxiety for years before moving states but had been on such a high from all of the new changes in life since I had moved, I didn’t see it coming. Anxiety hit me with an intensity I had never felt before. All through high school I had panic attacks due to social anxiety but I had recovered. I’d had a few years without any extreme anxiety so I was blind-sided.
 “The turning point” had landed me in the hospital because I physically could not calm down; I was so anxious, I felt like I had completely lost myself. I was terrified for my life because my mind was racing and I could not turn it off. For hours my heart was racing and I kept falling further away from reality. I felt like I was losing my mind.
 I flew home the next day, back to Vegas to stay with my parents while I recovered and did some major resting and talking through some very personal struggles that were eating away at me. From the time I was a kid, my first memory being when I was five or six, I struggled with obsessive thoughts. I considered that something was very wrong with me; I told no one while I pushed them away for years. They would resurface from time to time, but I felt like I had learned to cope on my own, keeping this embarrassing and seemingly stupid information to myself. That semester before I graduated college, I found a book on obsessive thoughts and learned that this type of anxiety disorder is quite common. Just knowing that eased my fear of being weird; I joined an online support group from women with all types of OCD and for a while I felt like I could keep this secret that some days, I couldn’t shake my thoughts or get out of my head. My mind would play loops of negative self-talk or disturbing imagery that I saw or had imagined. When I was tired, upset or depressed, it would spiral out of control until I couldn’t interact with anyone. My brain would go into overdrive and settle down with me in a dark place. I hated this part of myself. Before, this would only last for a short time and I would be able to move on after a day or two. This time, when I came home to recover from the massive anxiety attack, I confided in my family and felt such relief. It took more time to shake the depression but I wasn’t a crazy person, I just had a particularly interesting disorder in the way that my brain is wired. When I went back to Santa Cruz, I changed a lot of my habits and things got better. I quit two of my jobs and went to therapy with a great doctor who specializes in anxiety disorders. I took better care of myself. I quit drinking for some time and got on a regular sleep schedule, I journaled a lot through this process and began to realize that I wanted to live a life that inspired me and had purpose. So often I would think, “well if only I met a guy who..” and I would think of all these wonderful traits the right man would have. He would be passionate about human rights, have a big heart for the disabled and the homeless, he would be a good cook, have traveled extensively and like to volunteer. He would ride a bike whenever possible and hike, surf and live spontaneously. Then it dawned on me- why was I waiting to meet this dream person? Why can’t I do all of those things and be the kind of person I admire?
 The first week I started coming out of my funk after the anxiety bout, I got back to work as a nanny for Emma, the special needs girl I had been taking care of in Half Moon Bay, about an hour north on highway 1. The highway stretches along the ocean and is hands down the most beautiful commute a person could ask for. I decided to not take that drive for granted, or my job, or my community. I found a Christian church near my neighborhood and got involved, first with Celebrate Recovery, where I could meet with a group of women each week and share my struggles and victories, and I also started volunteering like I said I would but had never made a priority since I moved. Months before all of this, I had been saving to take a trip to Europe with my friend Chelsea. I had saved a few thousand dollars but knew it wasn’t the right time to go on a big vacation. I needed to take care of myself first. As I was accepting the fact that I wouldn’t be going on any adventures that year, a friend from the CR program at the church told me about a trip to Haiti, which I instantly knew would be a worthwhile traveling experience. It was taking place the same time I’d wanted to go to Europe. This trip would not be as comfortable as Europe would have been, but this would be so much more meaningful. I felt driven to go experience another new culture, have my eyes opened to a place known mostly for being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That trip to Haiti pushed me further from my comfort zone but was pulling me more toward my purpose and I could feel it so intensely. I was starting to feel that living abroad was something I could do- and would do one day. It was humid and hot as soon as we arrived into the country. I expected some begging but the people in the village did not ask for money. They were used to foreigners coming to help but they wanted to learn. The kids I met were so eager to go to church and to school. When it rained heavily, the pastor of the church in this village had to make sure all of the parents of the kids knew not to send their children in the rain. A few children had drowned the year before when after walking miles to the church, they had to cross through the river after a big storm.
 I was taken to a school with a few people from our small group and learned that the school was the little adobe-like room sitting in front of us, only large enough to fit maybe 20 children if they were packed in like sardines. The children came though; even with the tiny, broken green chalk board lying on the ground near one of the crumbling walls. In Haiti I learned about the specific struggles of this country and it’s people. The extreme negligence and exploitation the people were being subject to from some of it’s foreign aid groups was astounding. A compound built for workers of a road that was donated by some Europeans to connect Haitian land to the Dominican Republic seemed to be a very obvious drug trafficking compound. The workers had been there for three years and not an inch of cement had be laid.
I also met a sweet little girl whose mother (who had Downs-Syndrome) was raped by a UN soldier, making her the only light-skinned girl in the village; also forcing the village to raise her since her mother could only do so much to care for her. When I left Haiti, all I could imagine is what could be done when I went back.
 I returned to Santa Cruz and continued living in a more healthy, conscious way. My roommates had been composting and gardening so I learned about that, along with brewing beer and making kombucha. I experimented with baking and cooking a lot during this time too, started a craft group in town and had little get togethers for women to come over and work on DIY projects together at a table in our big, green backyard.
 In the year after “the turning point,” I was forced to slow down and just enjoy where I was and what opportunities were being presented in my life. After volunteering with Stuart, whom I met on the trip to Haiti, he became a mentor of sorts to me. A strong Christian with a big heart for serving others and giving back to the community and on a global scale to those in need, we would volunteer at the heavily populated homeless shelter together and along with another friend I made at my church there, Hailey, we would go to downtown Santa Cruz, a very transient place, and hand out leftover bagels by the bag from a local cafe.

 By 2013, I had been in Santa Cruz for two years, working as a nanny for Emma Belle in Half Moon Bay, driving that beautiful, hour long commute for two day-into-overnight shifts a week. Emma was 12 by this time and had recently begun vomiting episodes that seemed to be related to her Cerebral Palsy. Emma was the sweetest thing, a tiny little pre-teen with attitude and good taste. She couldn’t talk but would communicate with her eyes, the way she looked at you or the direction she glanced in. She was in a wheelchair and had very low muscle tone but would kick a ball slowly if you set it on her chair’s foot support; she would also pull breakable things off of the table if you set them too close. She would laugh a lot at the smallest things, and every small thing was an important thing with her.
 When Emma started getting sick, it would be just after one of us nannies or her mom had fed her (she used a G-tube). There is something called Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome which starts around this age for some children with CP so for about a year, we assumed that this was what she was developing. At first the vomiting was infrequent but still concerning, and I will spare the gruesome details but by the beginning of 2014, after I had moved to Half Moon Bay, on the property of Emma’s family, in a barn-turned-apartment a hundred yards away, the vomiting and Emma’s inability to find comfort was increasing rapidly. We realized after a grueling year of hospital visits all the time for drug trials, tests, and every possible solution we could think of, we learned that Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome was not the cause of Emma’s episodes. Nothing was giving her any respite from the intense vomiting and all of the symptoms that came with them. Emma’s organs were starting to shut down, and we did not want to extend her distress by forcing food into her body. We decided to stop forcing food into her G-tube, letting her rest without irritation as she began to pass naturally that fall.
 Emma became a little sister to me, but also like a child. I cared for her, along with six other nannies and her parents in the end. That last year of Emma’s life, we celebrated life as much as we could. Living at the barn gave me the opportunity to be in close proximity incase of emergencies, but it also gave me and the other nannies a place to bring Emma to give her the experience of being a normal kid. While Emma was between episodes, we would plan tea parties and make crafts. We would occasionally bring her over to the apartment where we would make jam or bake in my tiny kitchen. We spent a lot of time on Pinterest and reading books we checked out at the library. We made sure to take walks when we could around her home tucked away in the Redwoods and visit her garden. One day before it got too difficult to leave the house, we even took her to the beach.
  In that year, being there for Emma was my purpose. By caring for her and getting lost in creative projects we would do together, we both found respite from all of the challenges we were facing. Creating things became our thing. She would chose colors and patterns and I would be her hands, carefully crafting our next distraction from her pain.
 When Emma died, I was in Thailand. Leaving her in September that year was the hardest thing I have ever had do to. My longtime friend from Costa Rica, Jill, was ready for a new adventure. I needed to get out too. I had South America on my mind, knowing that I would need some time away to heal after Emma passed. When I talked to Jill months earlier, she had been planning a trip to Thailand and was preparing to sell everything and start life from scratch when she came back. In the barn at Emma’s, I’d been reading a lot and becoming more and more fascinated and frustrated reading about human trafficking and labor/ sex exploitation in the U.S. and around the world in general. I had a feeling that if I met Jill in Thailand, I would get to Cambodia and find my place to start the next chapter of my life. Cambodia is the sex trafficking hub of the world, particularly for trafficking children. This is what sparked my interest. If there was a rehabilitation project in place for the victims that I could find, maybe I could join them and begin working abroad. I booked a ticket for October 9th and when I left Half Moon Bay in September, I didn’t expect for Emma to still be fighting to stay alive. I truly never imagined I would have to say goodbye. I thought she would pass on her own before September, and I would be there, and then I would go on this trip. I didn’t foresee having to say goodbye before it was her time to go. I bawled as I hugged her that last time, reassuring her of how much I loved her.
 Like Jill, I wanted to start from scratch after this trip. I also didn’t want to be in Cambodia, decide to live there, and be paying rent somewhere else or have to come back and go through my things. With the help of my friends in the Bay Area, I sold and donated almost everything in my apartment. All that was left were sentimental things, my bike, clothes, some shoes and my kitchenware (because I love vintage cooking ware and knew some things were not replaceable)! My truck looked like Santa’s sleigh by the time I left to spend a few weeks in Las Vegas with my family before heading to Thailand. Still not knowing when Emma would be ready to pass, I was prepared to jump on a flight to San Francisco when it happened in those weeks after I left, but she kept fighting.
 October 9th came, and I boarded my early morning flight to Thailand. I wasn’t sure what was in store for me next but I knew it was going to be more than I could imagine. So many mixed emotions filled me as I missed my life in Half Moon Bay and being Emma’s nanny, but also knowing that this journey I was taking was going to be completely different from anything I’d ever done. I had my backpack ready to go with me for nine to twelve months is what I had guessed. Little did I know, I’d be back by Christmas.

 Emma lived weeks longer than we expected. She was so strong. When Jill and I were in Bangkok, we even FaceTimed her while she was at home with one of her other nannies. She had gotten weaker but her sweet spirit was still there, so present. Two weeks later when she passed, I was a wreck. Jill and I were in Southern Thailand by then, being solicited by prostitutes in a dirty, seedy area of Phuket. I was so mad at myself for not being there with Emma, though I know I would have probably fallen apart much worse if I had been. That day was rough. We moved from our hostel in the bad area of town to a quiet, renovated hotel/hostel in the old town Phuket. I journaled a lot at our hotel, and that night I went to a salon around the block to have my hair washed and blow dried. I’d washed Emma’s hair so many times. I held back tears as the woman in the empty salon took her time, scrubbing at my scalp, reminding me that it was okay to feel sad and to miss Emma. I have so many beautiful memories with her, and even today I would not change a thing about my time with her. She taught me so much, and she was with me when she died, although across the globe. Her happy spirit and quiet nature was contagious. Emma truly taught me to enjoy all of the little things in life, and that creating something can be healing.
 Jill and I spent two months in Thailand, spending the last two weeks volunteering at a Burmese refugee home, just a few miles from the Myanmar border. Our time there was so special. We experienced the real, heartfelt welcome of the Burmese. We helped teach English to about 40 students in a program started by a woman, Paw Lulu, and her husband, Nandoe, who are refugees themselves. They also house about 50 children who are either orphans, have parents still in the camp, or whose parents are unwell and cannot care for them. This Christian couple is providing all they can for the children and the students; Jill and I were in awe of their selfless nature. They shared their home, their food and their time with us. By the end of our two weeks, we were teaching American cooking techniques and learning about harvesting our own cinnamon and making Burmese dishes! Our time in Thailand was so memorable and a few times we were exposed to children working on some of the islands- one day in Koh Samui specifically, we talked to a little girl named Nina for some time. She was nine and works with her mom selling jewelry on the beach. We talked to her about school, and home life and boys. She was not Thai, which we learned is how many parents can legally send their child to work without any legal consequence. Thai children are required to go to school but Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Lao- any other children who are not Thai can fall under the radar and spend their lives working on the beach, or worse, being trafficked. We saw some children at a bar at our hotel very late at night on the island; they were telling jokes in English to the travelers while Thai men our age were throwing fire to the music on the sand. We noticed after sometime, likely being the only sober people there, that many of the kids used the exact same line in English and were saying the exact same joke- the same way, every time. We also noticed two women who were watching the kids intensely, and when a tourist bought something or gave them a baht (thai currency), one of the women would jump up from her chair and signal for the kid to give her their money. I watched this for a while before becoming so upset that I had to leave. After typing into Amazon, “child sex trafficking” and having titles like, “Guide to Finding Sex in Asia” come up, I was livid at seeing with my own eyes these poor kids being pimped out for their ability to earn money with their cuteness. Although these kids were selling items like glasses and necklaces, it would become clear when we traveled to Cambodia that sometimes this is just a facade for offering other, unthinkable services. In this case in Koh Samui, an adult was putting them up to this for her benefit; it was almost 1am and these kids were hustling hard. Some were probably as young as six years old. A few little girls I saw were looking at the young guys with the kind of look a woman makes when she is interested in a man at a bar. Overtly sexual. It was sickening and I could barely sleep that night. There had been so many adults there- probably many adults with children of their own! How could I be the only one so bothered by seeing these kids out there, late at night without any parents? The conclusion I have come to is alcohol. When alcohol is involved, it probably doesn’t seem so bad. Alcohol is cheap in Southeast Asia. Especially Cambodia, which is where we were headed after our 60 days in Thailand was up. Cambodia, where I would be sitting on a bus in the middle of the night, praying what would be next for me- where was all of this going? What was my purpose? And then it happened. I imagined myself going back to Vegas, starting new- and spreading awareness about the exploitation that was happening all over the world. It’s bad in Asia, but it exists everywhere. In Africa, in South America, North America, Europe- no place is immune. It’s not something widely talked about though; it is uncomfortable and seems too crazy to be true. Modern-day slavery? It seems like there could be no way, but there is. And it is the biggest trade in the entire world. Even in 2016.
 Cambodia was inspiring in a way I didn’t expect- I saw rehabilitation projects and companies for victims of sex trafficking, and programs in place to train the disabled in sewing and garment making. I was so inspired by the little shops that sold goods made by these Cambodian men and women. The items they made were beautiful. I even found cafes and restaurants that trained and employed teens living in poverty. A turning point for me was finding an artisan bakery that employed women who had been in the sex industry and were in a job training program. The cupcakes and cakes they made were incredible. They were so artfully made- something you would find at a specialty bakery in Las Vegas in one of the fancy hotels. It was December by then and the morning I took Jill there for the first time, the girls were all wearing Santa hats and greeted us sweetly as we walked in to the empty shop. We sat across the room from who I assumed to be the founder of the organization; she was having a meeting with some other women about recipes for the coming season and how sales were going. I was so humbled by her approach and wanted to call every person I knew back home and tell them about this amazing group and how they were rehabilitating these women- caring for their well-being, providing counseling, mentorship, training in pastry making, English, and I’m sure so much well. The woman who founded this program had taken in girls who were seen as unclean and cheap- disposable to society- these girls were surely fed lies that they were not worthy of love and acceptance after being exploited and most-likely sold into the sex trade by their families. Knowing what I know now about sex trafficking, it’s a miracle that these girls made it. And they did. And children, men, women- all who have been trafficked or exploited, even whole communities living in poverty- will continue to make it, so long as there is a person who sees their worth and steps in. It takes one person to see the need for education or a trade to break the cycle. One person wanting to help easily becomes two, which becomes three..and so on.
 I spent two weeks in Cambodia and two full days in Vietnam. I came home a few days before Christmas with a wild idea about spreading awareness about what I saw and learned on my trip through a community based business. I could barely sleep on the 29 hour journey home. I was so focused and driven, and still am, wanting to share the stories of people being exploited and encourage the education of children abroad. To keep them off the streets and in school, the parents in these communities need sustainable income and education themselves- or at least to understand the value of education for their children. When I got to Vegas, I dove head first into research about importing from Cambodia- dead set on supporting these small organizations that I had found in the country. I wanted to support them by selling their goods here, only to find out that it is nearly impossible to import from Cambodia. I was a little disheartened at the news but I continued looking for similar companies and organizations that were providing jobs in similar communities around the world. While I began to visualize what Sister would one day become, I enlisted the help of my sister Carly and her love for DIY projects and we started creating things. Things we loved making for ourselves and for gifts, we created. Creating was, and will probably forever be, my healing ritual. Still grieving the loss of Emma and now starting life over in Las Vegas, this time was necessary and special. Carly and I started selling these things on Etsy and made a display stand with our brother. Within a month we had a pop up shop at our local First Friday; we sold a few hundred dollars worth of our creations and by that summer, we had enough to start our first partnership with a social impact brand in East Africa. Sseko Designs provides work for women living in poverty so they can generate income to further their education through university. As soon as I learned about what Sseko was doing in Uganda, I was so impressed and inspired; I emailed them and heard back within a day or two, that they would be happy to be part of (then) Sister Shop.
 Since finding Sseko and creating our own online store apart from Etsy, we started participating in our local pop up community and have now partnered with companies with similar business models in Costa Rica, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Sseko’s newer program in Ethiopia.
 Sister House Collective has been shifting since it’s start in late 2014 but I am still just as driven and inspired as the day I landed back in my hometown. Poverty and human trafficking are still two very large problems in our world; I truly believe education that inspires action will be the driving force behind the beginning of the end for both of these realities that exist now.
 Sister House Collective is not a charity, raising money to hand over to poverty stricken communities. We are not a non-profit; our mission is to do our part in empowering those who want to create a just economy in their community. We are going to spread awareness about our supported organizations’ missions and how people in better circumstances can help.

 We don’t believe in filling the hands of children chanting, “money? money?” as hard as that is- we believe that these children will benefit the most from education, and their parents from earning their income from a dignified trade in a safe working environment. We know that every single human is worthy of having the opportunity to rise above the situation they were born or forced into. In places like India, where caste systems prevent women and men from advancing economically, or Uganda, where women run the risk of being raped while walking to school- IF their families can even afford it- we are speaking up for these people. We don't want to perpetuate the cycle of poverty by endorsing the mistreatment of people in developing nations. Whether it is exploitation through poor and unsafe work conditions, trafficking children and women as slaves for perverse sexualization and abuse, or teaching children to beg before being able to read and write- we want to create more. More opportunity, more room for growth, more purpose than just existing.

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