Life Change Stories

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A Shining Sun… A Celebrating Community. 

The sun shone, the westerly winds blew delightful warmth that enveloped us.  Leading to that day, for an entire week, the weather had been cool and wet.  Today’s beauty was exceeded though by the wonderful scene that unfolded about us.

Two years prior, while the community children were at school, their playground, determined as unsafe, was, without warning, removed.  For families, as many are, who had journeyed the refugee highway survived bullets, famine and violence the irony was poignant.

Now on this day, after many conversations, much dreaming, and the hard and creative work of the landscaping firm Earthscape, the community was prepared to celebrate. A job well done!  A neighbourhood, that rarely comes together, found common ground through the design, implementation and funding of their new playground.

“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” ― Howard Zinn

This day was set apart to celebrate and to say a big thank you to all who worked hard and to those who donated to the project.  With BBQ’s billowing smoke, hamburgers sizzling, and desserts pouring out from the houses… the kids squealed with delight at their chance to show off their new playground.

The community came together. A ribbon was cut by the youngest member, groups huddled on the grass, laughter and chatter filled the air, Jean Claude took the microphone and guided the proceedings.  The community was alive. In time these memories will fade, and even the playground will sadly deteriorate and need to be replaced…. but my hope, my desire is that the realization that change is possible when people band together and work hard for a common goal will stay firmed rooted deep in the hearts and minds of each participant, young and old.

Screenshot 2014-10-16 23.36.26 Screenshot 2014-10-16 23.35.23   Screenshot 2014-10-16 23.45.48Screenshot 2014-10-16 23.29.42Screenshot 2014-10-16 23.33.01Screenshot 2014-10-17 00.20.52Screenshot 2014-10-17 00.26.12

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Four Fun Days: Live Your Adventure

frontEarly Tuesday afternoon, amidst the manageable chaos of registration and organization, I received an email. In the subject line, two words “Brace Yourself!” So I did. I braced myself when I opened up that email and saw attached a photo of our campers: a never-ending kanga line of little smiling faces! I braced myself when this flock of approximately 80 kids bounced over to Church in the Woods this too cool summer afternoon for the first of four fun days to come.

 

I also braced myself (we all did) for on outpour of rain that would drench us all, destroy our fun and coop us indoors with 80 let down kids. Instead, we were met with kids who wouldn’t miss this week for the world, downpour or snowfall; kids who know camp station rotations better than most because they’ve done it 6 times over; dedicated leaders with energy bouncing off the roofs. It was to be a journey through the hopes and dreams of 5-yr olds, teenagers and twenty-somethings: people living their adventure!

 

Our circle is filled with aspiring professional basketball players, child-workers, dentists and beekeepers. “I want to tell you my dream,”  little George says tugging on my shirt, as do many of these guys and gals. This camp provides the space for that: to remind them of their own value and the value of their dreams. I think we’re going to have to brace ourselves when the time comes. Brace ourselves for the amazing leaders, visionaries and life-changers these people are going to be (and are, really!) And some of it starts here, at our yearly Five (four this year) Fun Days Summer Camp!

IMG_20140812_130150   brae

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Albert St. Playspace

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

– Albert Einstein

 

“Tickets! 5 dollars, please?”

A little voice called out from inside the water tower.

Imaginations had already begun to fire; within 24 hours of the opening of our new play space!

I listened and watched as the 5 children, (two from El Salvador, and two from Pakistan and one from South Sudan), pretended that the new slide was a train and the tower a ticket booth. I commented that I thought the charge was a little too steep, but they were having none of that!  Clearly, they had planned it out. Underneath two very younger children playing with the woodchips and a piece of plastic soon baked and served up delicious cake to anyone who would play along.

Imagination! Imagination plays a central role in our lives. Poverty and struggle can dampen and erode the ability to dream.  This is part of what is referred to the “Cycle of poverty”.  Not able to imagine new futures and possibilities the same old issues stunt growth and generation patterns become entrenched. A better future relies so much on our ability to imagine new possibilities. Hope is a powerful force that carries us from the present.  And play is where we learn to dream and where our imaginations are formed and take flight.

So, as little Matthew and his friend bake their cake from woodchips and the 5 in the ticket booth plan exotic train vacations,  wonderful we futures are being created, process that may one day result on the design of new vehicle, or the teaching of classrooms of eager learners or a family hurdle being overcome. The play space is just the beginning.

We are very excited about the new playspace we have assisted the community in designing and building. It you would like to see one of the most creative and interesting play areas n the entire region let me know. I am happy to give you a tour.

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Community Coffee House

Last week they did it again!

Seven years ago, after encountering a young and struggling Sudanese fellow my friend Brian was inspired to start ‘Sunnydale Connect’.  Three youth has become 25 or 30. Our kids come from all sorts of worlds, many encounter significant struggles: language, culture, financial are but a few. Over the years we have journeyed with many through uncertain, tumultuous and even very dark times. These days though, while troubles and challenges continue to abound, we quite frequently find ourselves simply amazed.

The other day they amazed us again!

Months of planning culminated in an wonderful evening of performance and celebration. To support the building of a new play space in a nearby community, they planned and led a coffee house fundraiser; twelve excellent performances, tons of food and drink, silent auction items, and at the end of it all they raised more than $1,000!  There was no bigger highlight on the evening for many of us then watching our grade 12 friend and co-emcee Meaghan, singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

Meaghan sent me this note:

When I think of Sunnydale Connect I think of all the friends I have met over the years, the connections I’ve made and relationships that have been built, as well as the doors it has opened up for me to become a leader on my own. All these things remind me of just how much connect means to me because without it I would not have the amazing friends and mentors that I do. I would not have a place to go and hang out every week as I do now. And I would not be the leader I am today.

 

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Boys Becoming Men: the magic of partnership

Life Change is a long term admirer of Dave MacNeil and Wildhawk Basketball.

A few years ago our partnership took on deeper levels as we started signing up some of our boys for MacNeil’s basketball programs. It became quickly apparent that a few of our fellows had talent and they qualified for travel teams.  Almost any day this summer if you were to venture into the neighborhood you will see a number of the lads dribbling and a shooting on a nearby court. We have helped create a bunch of basketball fanatics!

It is always fun when one of our fellows gets a write up in a local newspaper.

Check out the article!

We were introduced by a school principal to Gang Martin Gang 18 months ago; a rather imposing 6’3”, grade 7 students. Since this time he has been involved in our Sunnydale Connect programming. Last year he was invited to join a travel basketball team opening up many opportunities for growth and development.  Competitive basketball at Gang’s age can be extremely challenging and he has risen to the challenge.  Winning the Ontario basketball gold medal and graduating from grade 8 have been significant recent milestones. Wildhawk Basketball has again, as it has done so many times before, played a critical role in guiding a boy towards becoming a man.

Last week we have 5 fellows in the high school camp, this week we have 9 boys in the younger one: A truly Life changing partnership!

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Baby – rants of an AfroEcuadorian girl.

I’m not as poor as they think. They look upon me with pity, and they think I struggle. My family may not have as many cows, our plot of land may be a couple of acres less than others, but it’s not as bad as they think. I have heard of worse.

Okay, so maybe I do struggle a little bit. Maybe I do when mother is unwell and my sisters need to be cared for. I’m not as mature as I look, and it’s a tough job. Who cares for me? Maybe I do when I am only able to go as far as grade 10 with my education. Maybe I do when the eyes of the men at the river port shamelessly follow the 17-18-19 rhythm of my buttocks as I walk past with my family’s laundry on my hips. They all notice it, I know they do. And it’s not just the men either. It’s the wives who consider me competition for the attention of their husbands. It’s the young boys who are looking for some fun or for a little wife to prove their manliness. It is the little girls who wish to look like me when they grow up. They say it is in my African blood: the wide hips, large thighs, the booty, the “coca-cola shape”, they call it. Now that is where my connection with my ancestors end.

I’m nothing like them. My present situation is nothing like theirs. Abuela said many, many years ago they got stranded here, brought in on slave ships from West Africa to work these lands, but they escaped their masters, settled near the Onzole and built a home and a community. Well, I say, lucky them! lucky us! We are this new breed of never before existed Afro-Ecuadorians. One of a kind. Our home is rich in fruit trees of oranges, sugarcane, guanabana. We thrive on our rice and plantains and shrimp. Dare I say, we live quite the life. These Africans, the people of my ancestors, now they, they struggle. I’ve heard stories of their suffering from the radio in Luciano’s house. It is not pretty.

Yesterday, the gringos came back.The one who speaks our language said he would return with more of their kind to help build the school for my sisters. Or at least that is what I understood. Because then I saw her, among the gringos, but she was not their kind. She was more my kind. Skin dark like the cacao beans mother lays out in the sun to dry, large brown eyes, lashes to the heavens, not quite the coca-cola shape, but African descent nonetheless. She even seemed to share my struggle, for it appeared the young boys and the old men at the river port had eyes for her as well. She stood on the desk, silently covering up the thin planks of wood in fresh white paint. I stared. Que es tu nombre? De donde eres? She stared back at me for a couple of seconds. She had not understood. The one who speaks our language came to our rescue. Our precious Spanish-English translator.

As we spoke my eyes dug straight through hers, ready to uncover what secrets she hid. For she admitted that that continent was her home, and she had lived there all her life. Yet, her belly bulged not, neither were her eyes sunken with fear and destitute. It made no sense to me that dark-skinned one eats my plantain in her Africa and squeezes the juice from her oranges straight to her mouth like my people. She even knows that the burnt bottom of the rice pot is the best part of the meal. Yet her last couple of years were spent in school in Canada! How is this ever possibly so?

It seems we are more alike than I thought. If there is one thing I know now it is this: Our people are not all like her, able to travel the world. But they are not all like Luciano’s radio says either, hiking deserts and unable to afford a square meal. They are no lower than me, and I no lower than them. We both experience a poverty that is no fault of ours, but a product of corrupt leadership, unjust hearts, blind eyes and apathy. But we fight, oh do we fight! We fight for lives better than our ancestors’. We fight to be heard and to be educated and successful. We fight out of love and a desire for justice for our people to encourage, impassion and motivate them.

To remind them that They Too Matter.

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The Beauty of Partnership

And the Importance of Education   Thirty minutes up river from the village of Santo Domingo lies the much larger village of Colon, another Afro-Ecuadorian settlement. It is the last Afro village along the Onzole River and has received much less government and NGO attention than the villages that come before it. Over the past few years, however, our partnership with Colon has grown and strengthened. Every aspect of this relationship was recently on display when my co-worker Nikki and I went to the village to examine the school that’s in place. We had decided to work with the community to repaint the school together with a group of Canadians who will be here over the next two and half weeks. When we got to the school, however, we realised the true scale of disrepair it had fallen into. The government had started construction on a new school in Colon but the architect in charge of the project took off with the money he had been paid before construction had gone very far. The project stalled and still remains far from finished, with only a few pillars standing, a constant reminder to the village of the government’s unwillingness to provide basic services. The students have been forced to remain in the old wooden school, a building not fit for anything, let alone as a place of learning and inspiration.

It was then that we decided we were going to help Colon build a new school.

After a meeting with the community the project was ok’d. This was barely 2 weeks ago. Now, as I sit here writing this, the group of Canadians is about to arrive and together we’ll set off for Onzole. The community of Colon, however, has been hard at work ever since the meeting. The very next day the old school was torn down and work begun on cutting all the boards necessary for a brand new building. Cement, paint and other materials were purchased with funds raised from the Onzole Scarf Project, a project many of you directly assisted with your purchase of scarves. 

By this time next week Colon will have a new school, just in time for the start of the new school year here. It will be the result of a beautiful partnership between the Onzole River Project, the community of Colon and all of you back in Canada. It will stand as a testament to the power of relationships, love and mutual respect and hard work. It will be a beautiful thing indeed.

Nelson Mandela once said that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

While I personally believe the most powerful catalyst for positive change is the unconditional love of God, I do believe that championing the emancipation gained through education is something that flows directly from God’s great love. 

This is what this school will represent for the community: the power and importance of education provided by the immense love of Christ. It will be the work of the community, for the community and God will, without a shadow of a doubt, bless it greatly.

Your thoughts and prayers over the next few weeks would be greatly appreciated as we move forward with the build and the rest of the time the group of Canadians are with us along the Onzole River. 

With Love!

C3 C2 C1

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MI Kick Off!

Three months ago I embarked with 15 others on a new initiative; the Mission Immersion Project. Recently one of the participants exclaimed; “I will never be the same. The things I have experienced, the people and the lessons I have learned have changed me for a life time.”

Mentoring, curriculum, group discussions, weekly mission involvement, journaling, readings, along with two highly experiential practical mission encounters all combine to form the ‘Project.’

At this very moment the group is in the jungle of northern Ecuador. I am on my way to join them. For the next few weeks we will live and work alongside a people who have seen their country’s leaders turn their backs on them and their needs. We have a number of projects and activities that we will seek to carry out. The primary aim I have for our Immersion gang is that they would grow to understand the needs and opportunities that exist with this particularly people group, Afro- Ecuadorians, and do the hard work of understanding what our responsibility might be. The entire 4 months have been established to help each participant understand what their contrition to the process of change might be, and grow in understanding how they can embrace that role. 15 wonderful people: 15 young, creative, energetic, gifted young men and women, each in the years ahead moving out into their world with a solid commitment to work for change in the lives of another! It just doesn’t get any better.

Programs and activities each have an important role, but at the core of real transformation is people and relationship. I cannot remember a time when I have been more encouraged over an initiative that I have been involved in than the Mission Immersion Project.

We intend, when possible, to chronicle our experiences. Visit lifechangeadventures to read more.

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An Invitation: Help Make Some History

Man, I really enjoy Wednesdays!

Late in the afternoon, I go over to a local school and fill my car with kids. Chattering, stories, smiles, (tears sometimes), hugs are all part of the weekly drama.

Yesterday, we are just driving along. Me, rushing as we were late. The radio gets tuned to 91.5 “The Beat”. Music is blaring. A particularly song starts up. Immediately the entire car erupts. Everyone is singing and tapping the beat. And there leading the bunch, with a huge smile across his thin face, is Jon. This grade 6 kid is full of life, but never is he more alive than when he is with music.

I need your help. Next week we are starting Jon into guitar lessons. He is more than excited. Does anyone have a guitar that they would-be willing to donate?

Just think, one day, when Jon becomes famous, (and he will!), you can say with pride; “I gave that man his start. That was my guitar he learned on!”

Hope

He stood erect and confident as he related his dream. All around life bustled along.

This was far from his first project; he had learned a lot. His present plan involved mobilising friends and family to raise the necessary funds to supply clean water for life to a 1000 children.

‘A formidable goal’, I thought.  I probed further and it was obvious that he had done his homework. He went on to recount in detail the amount of money needed and his practical plan. Remarkable!

“What have you done lately?” He then asked, turning the tables on me. It was a straight-up question; a legitimate enquiry coming from one so invested in change. I was a little startled, but was able to recount a little about a recent initiative. He seemed satisfied. I had passed his test.

‘Very interesting,’ he responded with genuine enthusiasm. ‘What organisation do you work with?’ And then the question that totally caught me off guard, ‘Could I raise money for you?’ I have never had anyone ever say that to me!

Earlier I had been chatting with the principal of a Catholic school in Waterloo when she suddenly stood up and enthusiastically marched me down to meet Casey, a grade 7 student.  The12 year old before me stood erect and with his mob of dirty blond hair flopping into his eyes, spoke with clarity and passion of his commitment to make a difference. He knew that the odds were great, but he was undeterred and he was determined.

I am not a cynic; rather I possess a great hope for a better world. Today as the world leaders engage in yet another dangerous wrestling match, this time with Ukraine as  the focus, the basis of my hope rests, in part, with this soon to be teenager and all others who possess a desire for change and a will to work towards that end.

What does it take to make change happen?   A 12 year old with a dream, passion and commitment.