Nicaragua, Take Two

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I realize it has been awhile; my life has been pretty unexpectedly crazy!

But for those of you who care, for those of you who fell in love with Nicaragua along with me, I need to share this.

I was blessed to return to this country, this beautiful land that will always hold my heart. I took eight college students along with me. It was incredible and beautiful and heartbreaking. In so many ways, it was the same. In so many ways, it was different.

I got to reconnect with old friends. Yesina (the girl who gave me a charm for my necklace) ran to me and hugged me first thing and I knew the friendship we had last year was real. But now she goes by Scarlett. Janet and I had several good conversations and lots of hugs and laughter. I pray I grow into a woman like her. We painted some of the same rooms. We fell in love with new faces, and continued friendships from last year. We prayed the same heartfelt prayers to a big God who loves us all. It was beautiful in its sameness.

It was also heartbreaking in its sameness. Kids are still hungry. Too many have ill-fitting clothing or even worse, no clothes other than their school uniform. The school is too full with too few resources, but the only other option is to turn kids away. Too many parents still work in the dump, digging through trash, to make a living. This year I know the blond hair we marveled over last year is a very strong indication of major malnutrition experienced during childhood. This year I heard a bit of the history of this village, and it still haunts me how such a thing could happen. Too many kids had moved away in search of a better life, and the necessity of that is so very sad.

Fortunately we serve a big God who hasn’t forgotten this village or these people. And there are many, many things to be thankful for.

Food

Some of the kids enjoying breakfast in the new dining room.

Some of the kids enjoying breakfast in the new dining room.

The prayer I prayed most often over this last year, often whispered in the depths of my heart in the midst of my busiest of days, was simple supplication for food: God, let them have food today. Every time I said this, my heart broke a little, because it shouldn’t be necessary to pray such a thing. No child should ever experience hunger.

It turns out my prayers were being answered. I came back and still found hunger there; it hasn’t been solved. But, incredibly, the feeding program that used to be once a week for all of the students is now five days a week. The program isn’t much. They pretty much get rice and beans every day and a couple times a month they will get milk. It is hard to live on rice and beans. But they have food. Part of this is because of ministries that support feeding programs, part of it is through the generous donations of individuals here in the states, a lot of it is through the budgeting and penny-pinching of Janet and her team in Nicaragua, and part of it is through the kitchen we helped build last year. All of it is because of God’s blessings.

Now when I pray, I thank God for providing them with food.

Chicken Coop

This is a difference I found in my team, a difference we are hoping and praying will extend to this village.

The work we did this year was a little bit of school maintenance (painting classrooms), a little bit helping the feeding program (cleaning up a room, providing tables and chairs, cups and plates), and a little bit of making the school closer to self-sustaining (planting a garden of beans, watermelon, and more). The team this year caught on to the self-sustaining aspect and we spent a lot of time talking about ways we could make sure this school and these kids were taken care of long after we are gone.

We went to the dump one day, which is never an easy experience. Here we find the adults from the village digging and rummaging through, hoping for something worth selling to provide for their family. (This year the van was packed to the brim with 19 people to go to the dump. The last four to board were little boys from the school who chased after us, took a shortcut, and caught up to us all because they wanted to see their moms, who were working at the dump.)

It is hot and stinky and there are a lot of flies. We have too little food and cool drink and too few words of hope to pass around in a place that feels so hopeless. A few of the students took to the people, having long conversations with a few of the people we found there. We got to pray for a couple different groups. Someone found two huge old tractor tires for the kids at the school to play on (they literally jump on the rim of them like trampolines and later they started rolling kids around in it). It was incredible to see a few men at the dump band together with our guys to get these tires on top of the van. We must have been a sight coming back—seventeen people inside and two people and two huge tires on top of a 15 passenger van.

This day must have had an impact on our students, because that night we sat down and had a conversation about how they couldn’t imagine spending money to go zip lining in a few days knowing these kids and their parents were in the situation they were in. Being the leader of the trip, I actually encouraged them to take their fun day, to relax a little. I was blown away by their idea, but I wanted to see how serious they were. They were steadfast—they wanted the money to go to the school.

The missionary we were working with had been toying with an idea of building a chicken coop with the idea that it would be self-sustaining food. If you have enough chickens laying eggs, they can sell a few to buy grain to feed the chickens and still have plenty of eggs to eat. The students loved the idea, prayed over it, and committed their money for their fun day to build this chicken coop. (Many are even still giving now, even though we are home, because of their belief in it).

This is the area behind the school where we planted the garden and where the chicken coop will go. We saw sprouts coming up before we left. Our team and the students at the school covered this ground in prayer for those chickens. Jehovah-Jireh, God will provide. (This is also the name of the school, for those interested).

This is the area behind the school where we planted the garden and where the chicken coop will go. We saw sprouts coming up before we left. Our team and the students at the school covered this ground in prayer for those chickens. Jehovah-Jireh, God will provide. (This is also the name of the school, for those interested).

There are a lot of ifs with this. It may not work. But we have the incredible faith of eight students praying over this and giving of themselves for it. It means more than I can say.

Last year in Nicaragua I listened to a song titled “The World You Want,” a song about creating a good world. Last year I cried because I saw too little hope in Nicaragua. At the end of this trip, I listened again and I cried because of how much hope I saw, just in my team giving money for a chicken coop.

Daniella

This girl. Isn’t she beautiful?

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It has been a year, and she still has my heart. I always thought (without really putting it into words) that people who fell in love with babies on mission trips were being a little dramatic, making emotions sound deeper and longer-lasting to tell a good story. I think God wanted to prove me wrong.

I got to see Daniella nearly every day this trip! She is beautiful and growing (though still small for a one-year-old; she probably doesn’t have the best nutrition and being a preemie to start with can’t help things). She can stand and is close to walking. She has the prettiest smile, one I can’t get out of my mind. She is hungry all the time but will fall asleep on your shoulder when she is finally full. She has teeth and can eat nearly anything (I saw her gnawing on a chicken leg one day). Her grandma is the cook for the school, which I love because it means Daniella gets food (and likely milk when it is available). She loved watching videos on my phone (that was the biggest smile I got, when Daniella was watching a video of my little miss sing a song).

Most importantly, this little girl is loved to the moon and back. I first saw her being carried in by her grandma, who had the biggest smile on her face, wanting us to find the joy in Daniella that she has found. Daniella is primarily cared for by her grandpa, and the pride in his eyes when looking at her is so evident. He kept showing me how big and strong she is, how she can stand, and so much more. He gave each of us gifts on our last day at the school; he made sure to tell us they were from Daniella. This is the one thing that made it all okay. Loving a baby living in such poverty often means wanting to take them away from it; just bringing her home would solve so many problems (as impossible as it is for many different reasons, the desire is still there). But seeing her family love her so much makes it all okay. I thank God for that.

After two years of visiting this beautiful place, I am overcome by gratefulness. To God for allowing me to come and learn and fall in love with so many of his children. To this country, for lending its stories and beauty and teaching me about loving and living well. I hope and pray we gave as much back to them.

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My Sacred Space

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I’m fascinated with the idea of sacred space: churches, cathedrals, places Jesus walked and lived. Spaces humans deem holy. I wonder what gives these places meaning and what makes them sacred.

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It’s nothing fancy. But I love it.

My most sacred space is a little rural youth camp on a hill in the midst of trees and fields deep in the Ozark hills.

It is a place time forgot, a place without cell phone service or internet or even television. A place with joy and peace and soul-satisfying rest from the drudgery of everyday life.

My time spent there makes it sacred—I go there regularly. I have been to this place for two or three days a year minimum for the last 16 years at least, two-thirds of my life.

The mystery makes it sacred. Camp is and always will be a place for something special—I go one week a year, two or three if I’m lucky. The rest of the year I’m away. I am there regularly; I am not there frequently.

The history of this place makes it sacred. Because my family by blood has been foundational in this camp. My grandpa and his brothers gave a lot of themselves to this place. So did my aunts and uncles, my parents. So did countless others, many I will never meet, and many I am grateful to have known, grateful to call my family even though we don’t share blood.

My history there makes it sacred. This is the place I first encountered something beyond myself, a savior so good and so true and so pure and so strong and so wild I couldn’t contain it. This is the place I made a commitment to this savior and this is the place I learned of my savior’s grace. This is the place where I learned that ministry is more serving than seeking my own glory. And this is where I found that ministry is still worth it because it is good and meaningful and few things in life are.

This place, these walls, these dumpy white buildings. This hill and these trees. These pews and these alters.

They have been the witnesses to me becoming me. They are my witnesses of where I have been and my reminders of where I want to go.

When I get to go there, my excitement is uncontainable. I laugh while driving the hills and curves. I usually cry, too. I pray a lot. And when I get there, no matter how many people there are to talk to or how many kids want hugs and attention or how many games need planning and playing, I take a few minutes. I go find the moon and look up at it, or I kneel at this old alter, the alter that holds so many of my hopes and fears, my dreams and tears. I take a few minutes and remind myself.

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This is where it all began for me.

I remind myself of the truths these walls know, of a savior who loves and my choice to give myself to him, of grace and forgiveness and love. I have never lived there, but it is the closest to home I have ever been.

Life in Overdrive: How I’m learning to deal

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Breathe in . . . breathe out. I remind of this on a regular basis. To stop, to take a break, to enjoy it.

My life has been in overdrive for six months. I rarely spend an evening at home and even less often do I spend it alone. I have to give myself “days off” from all of my jobs because even though I only officially have one job, I really have three and it’s hard for me to stop doing the two unofficial jobs when I need a break. And even though I give myself days off (from everything—all 3 jobs and even family and friends) my last one was labor day, a month ago now. I figured it up a few weeks ago, and I have had exactly one free weekend since the end of March. It is fairly ridiculous, not to mention unsustainable—I left a full time job and got a part time job, but I spend less time alone, less time at home, less time running errands or doing chores. It is crazy and manic and relentless. But it’s a choice. It’s my choice, and I love it. I love it because this is what it looks like to do ministry. Because this is what it looks like to have friends that feel like family. This is what it looks like to remain close to my family, to be as invested and close to my niece as possible while living a couple of hours away.

It’s my choice to live this crazy and manic and relentless life. I love that I get to invest in girls in Chi Alpha. I love that I get to spend weekends chasing after my little miss, watching her grow and become her own person little by little. I love that I have a nice normal job at a great company with people who respect one another. It might make it a little crazy to have them all at once, but I’m learning to deal with it.

I’m learning to say “no, I’m sorry, I don’t have time. I really need to sleep, or clean, or buy groceries.”

More importantly, I’m learning how to use my time wisely. I’m learning that if I have an hour to myself that day and if I want to feel refreshed, I shouldn’t spend it watching TV. Maybe read a book, or write a little. When time alone is limited for an introvert, you have to make the most of it.

Most importantly of all, I’m learning to stop. To take a breath, whether it be in the midst of a stressful situation full of girl drama or minor freak outs during a meeting or whether it be in the midst of hearing great news from a loved one. I’m learning to stop, take a breath, maybe go outside and look up at the sky, and thank God. Because even when it is the former stressful situation rather than the latter, God is good. He is in control. I thank him because I get to live this wild and relentless and beautiful life.

Learning to Live

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I never expected to do this, or to even go on this trip. I couldn’t be happier I did; it was something I needed.

When I was 16 I went to a brain camp called Missouri Scholars Academy. The entire experience was so good for me—I had never before been surrounded by so many people that were smarter than me. I had never before been challenged intellectually by my peers; it was awesome and it showed me my nearly insatiable desire to learn was not something to hide or squash: it was something to revel in. I spent three weeks reading and discussing stories and poetry and articles and blog posts. I learned how to think critically about a topic and to get outside of my own prejudices (as much as is possible). The one topic we discussed that stuck with me through high school and college and even now was the idea of seizing the day, living life for everything it has.

For so long, this idea seemed a lofty and unattainable goal: something that sounded nice, but was ultimately impossible. Nevertheless, I strove for it through all of the socially acceptable channels—relationships, career, money, academic success. None of it worked. I had fleeting moments where life felt complete, like I had truly lived: serving at camp each summer, rocking my baby niece to sleep, watching the sunset over the ocean. These were all moments, but nothing lasting. Everyday life didn’t seem to measure up, but I wasn’t ready to give up. So instead, I went to Nicaragua.

On this trip, I came alive. I scraped walls and painted and sweated and worked so hard to build a kitchen that would barely be considered a kitchen in America. I showered under ice cold water in shower that would literally shock you if you touched the shower head. I fell in love with Yesina, with Daniella, with Angelee, with Mydol, with the boy who so patiently taught me how to play marbles, and with so many other children. I watched and learned how to barter in the largest market in Central America, a place so dangerous we were told to take nothing on our person, not even a tube of chap stick in our pockets. My heart broke when I saw the poverty and it was healed when I received the hugs and smiles from those I was there to serve. I experienced traffic so terrifying I can no longer complain about Springfield traffic (at least I don’t feel like I’m going to die on roundabouts here). I slept under the Nicaraguan sky in a hammock with the moonlight shining down, Switchfoot playing through my headphones in one ear and the chatter of my new friend Jess in the other until we drifted off. I made grilled cheese sandwiches just as fast as I could over a hot griddle in the even hotter kitchen—the same kitchen we had been working on all week—and then passed them out to people in a dump even faster than I made them. I grieved for loss and pain, and I rejoiced in God’s goodness through it all. I screamed in exhilaration as I zip lined upside down through the jungle with monkeys in the trees next to me at the base of Mombacho Volcano and was rewarded with a flower from the guide for being a “brave girl.” I stood in line with another from our team at a bank and for the first time, I was one of two white people out of hundreds. I ecstatically answered “Si, si” for five days when the kids asked “manana?” (tomorrow?), not realizing how much it would hurt on that sixth day, when I answered “no.”

I lived. Every single moment of that trip I felt like I was doing something awesome. Something that was worthwhile, something that I truly enjoyed. And it taught me that life isn’t worth it without living. I don’t have this down pat in my everyday life. But I’m working on it. Perhaps my choices are a bit odd to some—I am happily working a part time job and freelancing, struggling to make ends meet while working with a ministry I love.

It may be difficult, but I do work I love with people I love, and that is what is important. 

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Dignity in the Dump

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I, like most Americans, have had a less-than-ideal work situation—my coworkers and I were routinely disrespected to an extreme. It was dehumanizing and it taught me how important respect and dignity are to being human, to feeling valuable. I wrote at that time, “I didn’t know how blatant disrespect can make you feel so inconsequential, less than nothing.” I talked of how dehumanizing it was for months as I looked for new employment.

I never expected to feel like that place was dignified and respectable. And then I went to a dump next to Repato, Nicaragua. it wasn’t like a dump in America. There was literally nothing between it and the village other than a dirt road, and it was a field full of trash spanning the entire length of the village. The second we got there, literally hundreds of flies invaded our van. We were there to feed people because this is where the people were—this is where many of the people of the village spend their days. They dig through trash looking for food or anything valuable; this is how they survive. We heard at least one story of a young boy stepping on toxic waste that had crusted over, falling through, and losing his life, all while simply doing what he must to survive.

The atmosphere in our van as we drove in changed instantly; we had been cheerful and laughing, and then we were quiet and contemplative with wide-eyes. We got there and Dan, our mission coordinator, turned around and told us the people that were slowly making their way towards us were likely the parents of the kids we had been playing with for a week. That was a kicker—this is how these precious kids’ parents provide for them, and unless something drastically changes this will likely be how some of the kids provide for their children later in life.

We got out and I looked at these faces—many men, a few women including one young pregnant girl, and even a few kids. I felt bad taking pictures, I felt bad looking—not because I was disgusted, but because I wanted to preserve their dignity. I felt like I was intruding in a place I didn’t belong because these are beautiful people made in the image of God; they were not created to live in a world like this. I knew then that the loss of respect and dignity I faced in that job was nothing. I couldn’t talk of a loss of dignity until I was forced to dig through trash to provide for my kids.

I wanted nothing more than to talk with them and let them know they are important to me, that they are important and valuable and there is a kind of dignity in doing what must be done to provide for their families. I wanted them to know we are equals, maybe not in experiences of life or education or all the small things that come with being born in different countries, but in the important things: in our value as people living in this crazy world trying to make it work and in our situation as children of God—we are equals, and God loves them as he loves me.

We had been told not to show our aversion to them—that they would be dirty and they may smell, but we were not to show it. I thought it would be hard to do this, but then a woman came up to me after eating a grilled cheese sandwich. She had the biggest smile on her face, kept saying “God bless you” in Spanish, and immediately opened her arms for a hug. I hugged her with open arms and a prayer in my heart that she understood what I didn’t have words to tell her—that she is beautiful, that she is valuable, that she is loved.

Ode to Switchfoot

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This evening I will be attending my ninth Switchfoot concert. Nine is a lot of shows, but this one has more in common with that first one than any others I have attended, and I like the symmetry of it. Like the first, this will be an outdoor concert at a festival on a long, hot July day. There will likely be some diehard fans (like myself), but more who heard of free music and show up to see what it is about. Like the first, I will kind of be skipping out on family time to go (today is a holiday so I would likely be with family otherwise, and we skipped part of my cousin’s wedding reception to attend the first—sorry, but I don’t regret it!). There are a lot of differences as well: eleven years is a long time. I was barely a teenager at that first show, and now I am long past adolescence. There have been more Switchfoot albums released since that show than they had released before it. They aren’t the same band anymore, and I’m not the same person anymore—I have doubted my doubts and believed my beliefs and lived hard and loved a lot; Switchfoot has been the soundtrack to it all.

The soundtrack of my transition from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood. Of discovering who I am time and time again. Of my struggle with the dueling powers of doubt and faith. More than anything, Switchfoot has been the soundtrack of finding endless, inextinguishable hope in the midst of darkness and doubt and fear.

I started listening when I was 12, a few months before that first show. At a time when I was questioning my beliefs and desperately needed someone to say it was okay to do so, I found reassurance in “Life and Love and Why.” I continued listening to Switchfoot throughout high school. When life seemed hopeless, “The Blues” offered me a somber but strong hope that felt more genuine than anything I had ever encountered. I listened during college. When I encountered a darkness so encompassing it nearly swallowed me whole, “Always,” sung live at a show at the Gillioz Theater, taught me of a love that covered my failures and forgave my sin in a way I hadn’t dared even hope for. I listened at the cusp of adulthood—just two weeks before graduating college, the lead singer sang “Restless” standing in my chair and staring into my eyes. It became a personal challenge to let myself fall, to live truly and deeply, to not let fear stand in my way, to never stop searching. I answered the call of “Restless” and jumped in a trip to Nicaragua to love on some people and learn how to live well, listening to Fading West in its entirety at least once a day on the trip. The album came alive in this beautiful and heart-wrenching place as I drifted off to sleep in a hammock under the light of the moon. I came home and cried when I heard “The World you Want”  because Nicaragua is beautiful but the realities are so far from the world I want for my new family there. Switchfoot has been the soundtrack of half of my life; it has shaped me and stretched me and I am so grateful.

“Where I Belong” has been the closing song for over half of the shows I have seen—it is an incredibly beautiful and haunting song about finding home. It gives me hope and inspires me to live a great story. I heard once that when Switchfoot is no more, “Where I Belong” is the last song they will perform. I like that idea. I listen because I would like that song to be the song I sing, the song I live.

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Next week I will return to telling about my Nicaragua trip. I have at least a little more to say about it! Have a of July and be safe everyone!

Generosity in the midst of absolute poverty, and how it gave me hope

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A girl named Yesina.

Nicaragua was an enlightening experience for me. Everything was so very different. This included absolute poverty (I know we have poverty here, but it is nothing like what I saw in Nicaragua), but also the little things. From the moment we hopped in a van to drive down the street and I saw the businesses open to the air and the nearly complete lack of enforcement of traffic laws and the endless and truly meaningless honking, I felt like I was living in someone else’s life, or perhaps in a movie. This continued on with the heat and humidity and no air conditioning, which led to taking ice-cold showers by choice, sleeping with no blankets and as few clothes as I can manage in front of five other girls, and literally having damp hair for a week (it was too humid to dry fully). I woke up to a breakfast of rice and beans, which, while delicious, is certainly not typical American fare. This continued on to having gates and security guards literally everywhere that was safe, people standing in every intersection selling whatever they can or performing for tips, and so much more. What I did not expect to be the same, however, was my questioning over meaning and purpose. I question these things often here, but surely, I thought, this won’t be the case when I travel around the world just to help people. What could be more meaningful? But question I did.

We did what we came to do. We provided a kitchen for the school, complete with refrigerator, running water, electricity, and 1,000 pounds of food. The school runs a feeding program where they feed the kids one day a week. They usually get rice and beans; occasionally they will get chicken and the young kids may get milk. They hope to expand that program to feed kids more often, and a kitchen is a big step in that direction (they had been cooking outside over a fire beforehand and had no way to preserve leftovers). We also spent a solid week loving on kids that don’t get love very often. We played games and took pictures and gave hugs and ran races and jumped rope and held hands and drew pictures. We laughed together and slowly learned how to communicate through smiles and hugs and hand gestures and a little broken Spanish from us and broken English from them. We made them a meal of hotdogs, we handed out snacks and candy. It was huge, but it felt like we weren’t doing enough.

The need we saw before us was bigger than I thought possible—the village was heartbreaking in many ways. Families live in tiny homes with dirt floors, patched together outer walls and no interior walls. Food and clean water are scarce, and I saw plenty of people with clothes obviously donated or given to them (a man wearing a Curves shirt, for instance), and several naked children. The kids in the school had uniforms provided, but several came to play with us that were not students, and many wore the same clothes every day. The village was literally across the street from a dump—a giant field with trash just everywhere. People dig through it looking for some food or something they can sell just to survive. If there is a way for them to make any money, I didn’t see it. And this is just one tiny village—there are hundreds more in Nicaragua alone, I am sure. How could anything we do truly help? The need was too big, it seemed.

Then I met a very special girl named Yesina. She is tall and beautiful, and she built a strong bond very quickly with me and another team member. She taught us how to play games with her and the other kids, she drew us pictures, she left one day and came back dressed up for us, she learned how to say “I love you” in English, and she gave me a little charm for a necklace: a heart. On top of her generosity of giving something when she has so little, hearts speak incredible ideas of hope and meaning and purpose to me. She will likely never know how much this heart charm means to me.

When she gave that to me, my thoughts that what we were doing couldn’t matter because this is one little village out of so many that need help all went away. It was proof to me that even though I felt like we couldn’t do enough to alleviate the problem, what we did mattered to Yesina, to all of the children there. It may not be a lot in light of the need within Nicaragua, but it was a lot to this village. Because Yesina and all of the children there have a kitchen now, which brings hope for a healthy hot meal more regularly. Because we got to love these kids for a whole week—a week none of us will ever forget.

This heart taught me that what we did there was important. It let me know, without a shadow of a doubt, hugging Yesina and hearing her say “I love you,” in accented English was important. That taking selfies with a little girl named Angelee and seeing her joy when she took one needed to happen, and that hugging her after was the best thing I could possibly do at the moment. It taught me that praying for baby Daniella and her mother, Iris, was not something God takes lightly—this baby girl has 10 Americans praying for her, and that is incredible. It taught me that playing marbles with the little boys, jumping rope with the girls, and hugging each of those precious children had a meaning. It showed me that all of our labor and hard work and sweat and blood we poured into this school and this kitchen was important and it will impact children we never will get to meet, children that haven’t even been born yet. And this has infinite, eternal meaning.

A beautiful lifelong friend got married this weekend, and I was honored to serve as her maid of honor. I never would have thought I would choose to wear a little charm someone likely found in a dump in a third world country to a wedding, let alone when I’m in the bridal party, but I was proud to wear that heart this weekend. It gives me hope for our future, hope that what I do is important, and it reminds me of the country I fell in love with in such a short time and the little girl who gave it to me. She gave me more in that heart than I believe I could have ever given to her.

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The heart makes a perfect addition to this necklace.