When I arrived to the school, Esther crawled into my lap; it’s the last story time I would spend with her. Connections made were not in vain as precious little hands embraced each other around me as we read. As hours passed, one by one, the children I had grown to love began to fall asleep. Sitting in my lap she rests her head against my chest as we gaze. Blissfully in each other’s presence, we take in this beautiful moment; our last night spent under a sky splattered with stars in a display of pure divinity. Woken by ringing bells, it was time to say goodnight. Tearful final hugs and an exchange of tokens facilitated the notion that it was real. The month we spent experiencing life together had come to an end. Hand in hand we embraced each other in love and positivity, we rejoiced in the memories and said our farewells.
What an incredible setting. Los Angeles is the supposed city of angels when all the real angels remain in a place far in distance yet so close to my heart.
I still look to the stars at night and whisper sweet nothings to the moon hoping my message will reach them.
Content by Alex Rager
Photograph by Andrew Johnson
This is the story of when I left a piece of my soul in Katanga.
The taxi lets us off atop an elevated heap of trash looking out over Katanga, a slum where 10,000 residents live in a single square mile outside the capital. In order to even begin to understand Katanga, one must experience Katanga. I cannot describe to you, except for in excruciating detail, the beauty I see here; I decided instead to share with you a single day spent walking alongside the people there. The day started making educational posters for the kids at Emnet, the local school. After several hours of poster making and playing with kids, we ate at MJ’s restaurant where I got a chance to really learn about the beauty that lies beneath the surface. MJ is a man from Katanga with a mission to improve the community and the lives of those who live there. He started the project Hope 4 Katanga Kids which provides English classes and tutoring for anyone with a desire to learn. His restaurant was started as a means of feeding the volunteers who work around the slum and provide a means of income for the project. The first experience teaching women of Katanga alongside their teacher and Thread of Life coordinator Florence was deeply impactful; I yearned to be in Katanga every day after. Today Florence needed help, so instead of attending to my half- finished posters I got to sit in class and teach English. I felt so empowered being around an intelligent group of women helping and encouraging each other through the terrain of the English language. The love, acceptance and positivity felt in that moment radiated throughout the room and through my veins. All too quickly it was time to leave and I set off into the maze of Katanga looking for fellow volunteers. I didn’t realize how far behind I was and quickly got lost among the ramshackle homes, tight passageways and food stands. Katanga is not for the faint of heart; it was a day with as much reward as hardship. Bloody, fatigued and elated all at the same time; I left a piece of my soul there that day. The reward of working in environments such as these is the smile on a child’s face when they recognize a dog on the poster, it’s in supporting the people who fight every day for the progress of others, and felt in the loving embrace 50 year-old woman gives you before she leaves the classroom.
Content by Alex Rager
Photograph by Dylan Johnson
Soapy water and a plastic cut-out make for a great ice breaker. Today was a day like no other as we were given a rare opportunity to experience Wakiso and the residents who make the area so amazing. It all started by meeting James, a grandfather who lives with his wife and grandchildren near the school. We were invited into his yard where we swapped stories of our lives and homes. James and his wife are the sweetest couple who pour love and energy into their family and community. We sat for hours in the yard learning about farming, meeting the family, coloring with his granddaughters and getting a grand tour of his home. From there, we ventured off along the back roads that beckoned us. Stopping to speak to every beautiful woman, man and child we encountered soon lead us to another school where children were hanging out. We asked them to join us on our adventure to nowhere in particular. Soon we were all laughing, playing football, blowing bubbles and enjoying what was arguably the most perfect Saturday. Eventually we all wondered into their friends where the initial introductions were hesitant until we broke out the bubbles. Before we knew it we added another five kids to our football game and bubble lessons! It was such an incredible way to engage with the kids and greater Wakiso district through the sharing of cultural experiences. I had never really played football, so to learn from kids who love the sport was truly a special experience; so too was the opportunity to share with them the joy of bubbles from my youth. Once dusk was upon us we ventured back to the school where familiar faces and adorable giggles rang out as more volunteers arrived through the gates. Making connections and experiencing the joys of life in the most authentic way is what this beautiful existence is for. You don’t need to travel halfway around the world to spread good vibes. All it takes is a little love, understanding and arms open wide for the people you experience life with and among every day.
Content by Alexandrea Rager
Photograph by Meredith Steward
The very real struggles of life and of simply being human do not end when half a world away. The now familiar sound of roosters welcoming the day is followed by grudgingly releasing myself from bed and pouring endless cups of synthetic energy. Not all interactions are joyful like in the photos. Not all days are pleasantly spontaneous. Today however, pulled me out of my thoughts right into the loving embrace of a thankful child. I had been looking forward to the opportunity to volunteer with the kids on swim day and the timing could not have been more perfect. She pokes my arm in the waist deep water to grab my attention. I pick her up and she points at another volunteer helping a little boy learn to swim. On my hip, little hands clasped around me, I take her to the shallower end of the small pool. I ask her to show me how she swims; a few promising kicks and no arm movement was more than I had anticipated. I placed my palms around the edge of the pool and start to kick in an effort to show her how that movement helps keep my body afloat. She copies me followed by an adorable giggle. I take her hands in mine and drag her across the water so she can practice and get a sense of what swimming feels like. I show her the different ways her peers are swimming and place her torso in my arms so she can practice the stroke and kick simultaneously. She didn’t really learn to swim with my less-than-informative efforts but trying with her was too fun. This attempt at teaching was one in many that day, as the kids were so excited to learn a new skill and play with the volunteers in a setting outside of the school. Few days really captured the essence of humanity quite like today. The love and appreciation shared between volunteers and the kids became a catalyst for the sounds of joy that rang out from all sides. The connections made on days like these hide notions of difference too many keep within them. A beautiful reminder of what putting love out into the community can do, the reward of today were all the smiling faces and being a part of that joy. Not all days are difficult. The very real struggles of life and simply being human can end when experiencing life alongside others half a world away.
Content by Alex Rager
Photograph by Alyssa Durst