Guest Post by Natalie Rebecca Stafford, age 15
I was around four years old when I started asking my mom for “Talk Time.” It was more like Question Time because I always asked her to tell me “something bad” that happened in the world that day. Somehow I knew life was not always like the happy stories I read in picture books and saw in Disney movies. I desperately wanted to know real stories of real people, even if they scared me.
My mom told me about the suffering in the world in ways I could understand. I am glad she did. Pretending suffering is not happening or ignoring it does not make it go away. I believe that knowing and understanding other people’s struggles opens a window.
At a very young age, my mom opened a window for me, and I wanted to see the whole world, the beauty and the pain. And I wanted to respond to it with love.
As I grew, I took a special interest in the life of Pricilla, a child in Ghana that I sponsored through Compassion International. I learned about Water for Life and inspired my family to take part. I packed shoeboxes that went to parts of the world where kids had very little. For years, I wrote to the Sunny family in India who received one of our shoeboxes. I dreamed of traveling the world as soon as I was old enough.
Fast forward to a year ago. My mom received an invitation from a humanitarian organization to go on a trip to Africa as an author/blogger. I was the first person she told about the invitation. And even though that organization was not the right fit, my mom said she knew by the look into my eyes that she needed to find a way to travel with me to Africa.
My mom began telling anyone who would listen. She would eventually talk to an assistant director of a Portland seminary. Just as they were about to hang up the phone, my mom said, “Do you happen to know of any grassroots organizations working side by side with the people of Africa?” That question led us to African Road.
The window opened wider as my mom and I applied to join the African Road 2018 Learning Trip and were accepted.
Out of the many wonderful Changemakers and empowering community programs I was introduced to during the learning trip, there is one that has captured my heart. It is the Togetherness Cooperative founded 20 years ago by Steven Turkinunkiko for the orphans of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The Togetherness Cooperative is like a big family for those first members who are now young adults, and it is a place of welcome and belonging for new orphans and vulnerable young people who continue to join this loving community.
Every night, I look at my collection of photos and videos from my time with the friends I made at Togetherness. I am in awe of the way these young people have overcome tragic circumstances to celebrate life, thrive as one, and serve others. Through hard work, faith, encouragement from Steven and support from African Road, they have developed Togetherness into a healing hub where empowerment and skill building happen on the soccer field, the Women’s Bakery, the preschool, the water well, and the farm.
There is one memory from my time at the Togetherness Cooperative that I think about every single day. I am grateful to share this story with you…
Late one morning during our Learning Trip, the members of our African Road team got a tour of the Women’s Bakery. The bakery empowers young women survivors with confidence, community, viable skills, and a sustainable income.
After the tour, our team met in a covered area to have a picnic lunch that included some of the freshly baked bread. One team member began setting out rolls, cheese, and bananas on the wooden table. As members began to get their food, I looked over and noticed a group of children watching us. They were some of the sweet children, neighbors of Togetherness, that I colored with on the red-dirt hillside of the coop each afternoon.
Suddenly, I had a knot in my stomach. I had learned that many of the children in the community only get one meal a day, and it is usually corn mush, beans, or plantains. I had eaten breakfast, just like I do every day of my life. I would have lunch, dinner, and even a snack, just like I do every day. Having a full stomach is a privilege I took, and sometimes still take, for granted.
I began to feel sick. These precious children were my friends. They welcomed me with their laughter and sweet smiles. There was no way I could sit and eat in front of them. I surveyed the table of food and decided we had plenty to spare. After getting the ok to give the children some of the food, I collected bananas for each of the children while my mom gathered the rolls.
When we approached the children, they didn’t grab, shove, or push to get the food. They waited with big smiles until we put it into their hands. I watched as the children sat on the shaded wall happily eating their bread and banana. At that moment, I prayed that those children would live lives as beautiful and wonderful as their sweet souls. I vowed to never forget to be grateful for what I have and to share as much as I could, in all the ways that I could.
With the holidays approaching, I have been thinking about my friends and the encouragement and inspiration they brought me.
This led me to speak my thoughts out loud. “Do you think the Togetherness community celebrates the holidays, and do think they have anything special?” I asked.
What my mom and I learned a few days later brought tears to my eyes. The window opened wider.
Steven had been dreaming of having a Christmas/New Year celebration that could also honor the anniversary of the cooperative’s founding, which happened exactly 20 years ago. Steven had a detailed plan for a community celebration where 400 people (cooperative members and neighbors around them) could come together to sing carols, make small gifts to exchange, and be recognized for their hard work and dedication over the past 20 years. He hoped the celebration would include a hearty meal with a little meat and a slice of cake (made by the Togetherness Bakery women)—two things that would be a big treat for these children who touched my heart. I am inspired by this community that has overcome hardship and who exist to serve others and help their neighbors and these children. This is the kind of world I want to be part of.
Would you join me in celebrating this special community of people who are inspirations and blessings to my family, to their community, and to the world? The cost of Steven’s dream celebration is $3,000. Two weeks ago, I mailed 300 letters to family friends, telling them of this opportunity.
People are busy and many may not open their letters in time, so I asked my mom if I could write to you, her supportive online community, to ask for help. With small donations of $5, $10, and $20, I believe we can cover the cost of this celebration. In the case of donations exceeding $3,000, there are plenty of other opportunities for your gift to be a blessing that brings lasting impact to Togetherness.
With just a few clicks, you can donate online through African Road. Please include my name (Natalie) in the gift note so your donation will be directed to the Togetherness Celebration. Time is of the essence, so please act by November 22, Thanksgiving Day. Thank you.
This is a window.
Perhaps it is not your window, but I hope this window will inspire you bring care or concern to people or places others may overlook or not know about. Perhaps it will inspire you to give your children and loved ones truth about the hardships and hope of the world so they can help. Perhaps it will inspire you to speak your dream out loud so it becomes a window of possibility.
I find it amazing that last year when I was in the 8th grade, I wrote about the impact of being given a window. My mom asked then if she could tell you about my window, but I told her it was not the right time. Now is the right time. Come look at the view from this window and see what the world could be.
One Window is All I Need
One window is all I need,
To see what our world will become,
To understand why people can be so cruel,
To feel the pain of not having anyone to lean on.
One window is all I need,
To experience real love,
To realize that everyone has insecurities.
To know that life will have hardships.
One window is all I need,
To find true friends,
To appreciate what I have.
One window is all I need to follow my dreams,
To help others,
To notice good in everyone.
One window is all I need.
By Natalie Rebecca Stafford
Please join me in celebrating this special community by clicking here. No amount is too small.
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With love & hope,