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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Expecting to be Awesome

I promised stories from my recent mission trip to Central Europe. While they are trickling in at a much slower rate than I wished for, I submit another to you today.

I admit I brought a lot of expectations with me on this trip - even though I know full well that expectations are one of the greatest causes for disappointment.

That is why they say  the Danish are among some of the happiest people on the planet. They keep notoriously low expectations in their lives.

I wished I had remembered that before I disembarked in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago with an entire suitcase full of markers, books, blocks and crayons.

Our mission was simple; bring Parent Education to two Roma communities. I was certain my prepared seminars were going to be life altering for the participants. Not that I expected standing ovations (although that did happen in one location...but that's another blog story) but I was sure I was going to make a difference. I dare say I was patting myself on the back before the trip had even begun.

When we arrived in Slovakia at our second presentation location we were informed that no meeting room had been secured for our classes. No meeting room meant no audience. No audience meant my awesome lessons would be lost.

Now, I know I sound pretty puffed up. But first, please remember I am very human. And secondly understand my job is parent education. I've spent the last 18 years of my career devoted to encouraging and supporting families. I've seen the benefit of the program and am wholeheartedly committed to it's cause. Children do better in school because of my home visits. Mothers yell at their children less because of the information I can provide for alternative forms of discipline. Children get age appropriate books because I give them away freely to low income families. This job does good. And I was going to wrap all that awesomeness up in a package and deliver it to families in Czech and Slovakia.
This mission trip was going to do good.
I was going to do good.
Why else does one go on a mission trip anyway?

Of course I went with the hope and expectation that I had something worthy to contribute.
Darn expectations.

When we discovered we had no venue for our program we were, of course, disappointed. However, we were invited to visit the home of a woman named Sonya. We were told that some Roma families who were interested (and who could fit into her home) would meet with us there.
Our team loaded up in our van and headed across town.
To the outskirts of town.
To the literal and figurative "other side of the tracks".

It was a short drive in reality but as the van bumped along a dirt path and wove between shacks and cement walls I grew pensive and quiet, not even realizing that I was holding my breath.
The darkness in this neighborhood could not only be blamed on dusk but from a distinct sense that we had entered a very different world.

As I stepped out of the van my eyes took in the scene. Dogs sauntered down the road towards us. I watched as they stopped and marked our tires. My heart was beating out of my chest. I didn't know whether I was terrified for good reason or because my uncomfortablility level had just spiked to record high levels.

Trying not to look so middle-class American I put my finger against my nose preferring the smell of my own skin rather than the mix of wood stoves and .... I don't know what I smelled. Maybe it was garbage - although the team that came to this Roma camp had cleaned up the trash just a few months before - but all I can say for certainty is it was a startling unpleasant odor.

We were advised to leave our jackets in the car. The quarters inside the house would be close and due to the wood burning stove we were assured it would be very warm inside. I looked down at my clothes and felt ashamed. As I dressed that morning I was quite furious that my white, cotton blouse had gotten so embarrassingly wrinkled in my suitcase. I choose to wear a cardigan over it to hide the wrinkles. Now standing in the dark on a dirt road with wild dogs and funny smells I removed my coat and sweater. Suddenly the condition of my shirt was meaningless. I was standing in the center abject poverty. Turns out an iron and making a crisp impression were the absolute least of my priorities.
My how vain I really am.



Our team huddled for a moment before entering the house. We were given quick instructions on what we might encounter and advise on how we should and shouldn't react. Including a warning that if we were served food, and if it looked like sausage, it might perhaps be dog.

The home, while precisely pieced together by with random construction materials; wood and cement blocks, had an immaculate lot. Following the stone path from the street to the door I noticed the gravel that covered the ground from fence wall to fence wall was raked. In perfect rows, the rocks had been meticulously taken care of, I sensed, in anticipation of our arrival. Chained dogs barked from the corner alerting the home owners to our arrival.

As I crossed the thresh hold of that house I am certain I've never taken a deeper breath in my life.
Warm, dark skinned faces greeted us as we stepped inside. Hands shook, unfamiliar words were exchanged and it was clear we were welcome.

Inside 4 Americans with a Czech translator smiled politely at 8 or so Slovak Roma men, women and children. Pleasantries in foreign languages were made with lots of stiff smiles and nods. Communication was certainly a barrier.

As we sat and waited - for what I'm not sure - I decided to engage the children. They were staring at me anyway. Thankfully I had some of the cancelled seminar activities packed in my bag.


I moved to the floor and invited the children to do the same. We matched colors, sorted sizes, counted who had more pieces and patterned colors. All with little or no translation. It is amazing how much can be communicated with gestures.

In a way, we all speak the same language. Turns out we all laugh the same. And a smile in English is a smile in Slovak. We're really not all that different. Really.
It was another day before we found a meeting room. When we did, 50 or so people gathered for our parent education training. And if you count success in numbers I guess you could say that leg of the trip wasn't a wash after all.

But I've learned success isn't always measurable.

Turns out one of my favorite parts of the trip was sitting on that floor and playing with those children. The home was humble. It was hot. My ability to engage and communicate with the mothers and fathers was extremely limited. I even admit I was afraid to be in their neighborhood that night. Trust me when I say I would have rather been in a million other more comfortable places. But playing in that moment, on that floor - magic happened.

In me.

I learned an important lesson that evening; good things can happen everywhere.
I also learned that I am often wrong.
What I am inclined to call bad or scary can, in fact, be beautiful.

How many times in my life have I let my expectations about a thing or even a person shape my attitude? And how many more times have I missed out because of those expectations?

I thought you'd do that for me.
I wanted you to be like that.
I thought people from there were lazy.
I think your skin color means you _____!
I believed your wealth as a person was attached to your income level.

When our expectations come from mis (or lack of) information we are living more selfishly than we realize. And we must be very careful otherwise will may miss out. That experience in Sonya's home that night was unexpectedly beautiful. Her friends were beautiful. Those children were glorious.

Sure they didn't get to hear my carefully prepared introduction on the importance of brain development in children and how important a literacy based home environment is. But who am I to think I was the only one to had something to give on this trip?
How dare I not expect to receive as well.
How dare I?

The moral of the story about an impromptu home visit in Slovakia? Be aware of your expectations friend. Otherwise you may miss out on some of the most surprisingly beautiful experiences life has to offer.


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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