Friday, December 20, 2013

When They Meet with an Obstacle, Mount to the Sky;

Happy Holidays!

Welcome to my 2013 holiday letter, a throwback to when we communicated in more than 140 character bursts. How quaint! 2013 was an amazing, incredible year.  I spent the year living in Rwanda and working for the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village

I lived inside the village, near Rwamagana about an hour east of Kigali.  I ate my meals in a dining hall with 500 high school students.  I was a 'cousin' to a family of 15 orphaned and vulnerable girls who live together in the village, in the Eleanor Roosevelt Family.  With them, I worked on the farm, helped with homework, played games, taught English and tried to serve as an adult role model living the values of the village.  It was amazing to see a group of teenage girls learn to treat each other as family and blossom in the safety and opportunity of the village. 

It is a rare thing indeed to be given a whole additional family and I feel so lucky.  I traveled around Rwanda to visit each of the girls in their home outside of the village and those were rich and memorable trips.  It is not often that just showing up matters, but in some cases the presence of a foreign visitor for a girl that doesn't have much social status in her village can be a big deal.

Here's me with Eleanor Roosevelt:
The whole fam

My 'day job' was working in the Student Resource Center, like a high school guidance counselor's office, helping the oldest kids with resumes, studying for the TOEFL and scholarship applications. Having spent my professional life in consulting, I approached this role as if I had 500 clients.  Without fail, these were the best clients I ever had.  So appreciative.  So eager.  No less demanding.  There were always more requests from students than hours in the day and I was always busy and frequently exhausted, but the days were interesting and felt like they mattered.

Here's me at work in the resource center:
"Copy/paste from Wikipedia is frowned upon."

Really the best part of the work was making friends with the kids and getting to know them.  I had a blast and now I am really missing some of my buddies.
Ferdinand and me at his house in Kigali

Yvonne and me on a bus before a big adventure

Maxime, future ruler of the world.  Bow down now.

Me and Serge/O2: Rapper, class valedictorian and Ethanol Entrepreneur, to name just a few

Maurice and Miki discuss the documentation for Science Extravaganza day

Maurice is my new little brother and taught me all kinds of things.  He worked hard to take care of me all year. A real highlight of the year was him making me spaghetti dinner.  He is one of the students I worked closely with in Application Boot Camp for the last couple months. Give me a call if you know any admissions officers with clout.

It's hard to sum up an experience like this without leaning on trite cliches.  What I can say is that I've been inspired by children who have overcome more than you can imagine and still have wonderful positive outlooks and take charge attitudes.  I hope that I can stay mindful of them while dealing with things that qualify as annoying or 'problems' now that I'm back home.  It was also very nice to be reminded that we 'need' a lot less than we think we do, and that possessions can be a real drag.

Now that I'm used to being surrounded by 500 students all the time, being away from them feels quiet and strange.  

Aside from working with the kids, I really enjoyed running in Rwanda, with beautiful, hilly trails at elevation.  Now that I'm home safe, I can tell you without my mom having a heart attack that I also liked taking zippy little motos everywhere to get around.  They are just so convenient and the trip is always exciting.

While there, I took a couple of great side trips.  In April, I went Gorilla trekking in Rwanda.  It was a beautiful, memorable experience. 
This baby gorilla was about 2 meters from me, taking a nap

I also went on a visually stunning safari in Tanzania seeing the Serengeti and all manner of wildlife.  Highlights for me were watching the giraffes and the hyenas.
'Phants and 'Phants

In August, I went to Zanzibar for a beach vacation.  All the cliches about that place are totally true.  It blew away my expectations and was the most beautiful place I have ever vacationed.  The ocean views were straight out of a Corona commercial.  It's a pity it is not that easy to get to, because I heartily recommend it.

This beautiful view from my front porch of  cheap, cute rental

Me on the Beach in a state of total appreciation

I'd be remiss if I didn't take a chance to thank everyone who helped and supported me this year.  I received care packages, donations for the village, letters, and even simple emails checking in to keep me connected to home and my spirits up.  I always felt lucky and loved and thanks to everyone for being a part of that.
Thanks to folks from Scripps and others who donated dictionaries to the village

As for 2014, I truly have no idea.  Place your bets. Send your suggestions.  My short term goals are getting over jet lag, getting my winter coats out of storage and catching up on the NBA.  I'll be in North Carolina for the holidays visiting my mom, my sister and her two girls, Kate and Lindy, who in just one year grew up into complete, fully functioning adults.  I am hoping they will give me an internship or at least agree to mentor me.  I may try to be in Philly on March 1st when the 76ers retire Allen Iverson's number (Dorko, make a note). What can I say, it's a time of transition for me and my heroes.

As always, I hope you enjoy the holiday letter and don't find it too obnoxious.  You can 'opt out' by sending an email asking to be removed from this distribution list.  For those of you looking for more frequent updates, you can find me online at and @CourtneyMFK on Twitter.

Happy New Year!  May your 2014 be peaceful and fun.



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