Friday, April 24, 2015

Another Shameless Plea for Money

Everyone and their uncle has a cause that needs money, I know. I come from the performing arts where ideas are grand and budgets are small, if they exist at all.

But really, in the next week we need $1,800. Crazier things have happened in the universe, so I am confident that we can make this goal. We've raised well over half in just two weeks.

Let's make art!


Friday, April 10, 2015

Acting Out Awareness: Camp for Youth Health Promoters

On August 28, 2011 I closed my last show with the Santa Fe Opera, and I have not been working in theatre since. For the last 3 years, I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer working within the extremely remote, impoverished indigenous reservations of Panama to improve personal and community health through education and infrastructure. 

The work is hard, trying to convince an illiterate population that invisible bacteria will make you sick or mixing concrete in the tropical heat. At eight degrees off the equator, the sun is a whole different ball game. I've had my fair share of jungle illnesses and injuries. Yet for all the sweat and other unmentionable bodily fluids, I've loved every minute of it. Building relationships with community members, kids, and being adopted into another culture is an experience unlike any other. For every 1 thing I managed to teach them, they have imparted at least 10 things to me.

Pretty regularly our hammock conversations come around to, Amber, what do you do? What did you go to school for? What is your job?

Where to begin? How do I explain the magic of theatre, the joy of being a stage manager, or the creative process of the designer to a population that has never heard of the performing arts? 

I'm a storyteller. I'm an architect. I make movies. I'm a project manager. I'm an artist. I'm a teacher. My answers vary, depending on the context and what response will have some kind of meaning to them.

Now, after 3 years, I finally have the opportunity to share the theatre with them, to show them another side to who I am and what it is that I really do. From June 1-5, an unlikely collaboration of Peace Corps Volunteers, the Panamanian Ministry of Health, and theatre professionals from the United States will come together to create Acting Out Awareness: Camp for Youth Health Promoters. 

We will train 40 youth from some of the poorest communities in the country how to use theatre to promote health awareness about HIV, hand washing, and safe drinking water- three of the greatest threats these communities face each day.

However, for this camp to happen, we still need to raise $3,845.00 and we need to do so quickly- within the next 15 days- so that we can receive the funding in time for camp. 

While HIV is not yet epidemic in Panama, the number of cases in this country have increased 500% in the last decade.

Every minute, 4 children under the age of 6 die from illnesses that could have been prevented with basic hand washing and access to clean water.

In addition to addressing important health concerns, this camp gives us a chance to empower teenagers through theatre games, performances, dance, and gives them an opportunity to stand up in front of their peers to tell their own story. For a whole week, these students will have a chance to just be kids- to learn, grow, and play. This truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Please donate at the link below, in the name of Meredith Comnes, the Volunteer hosting the camp in her community. No donation is too small. Please help me share the magic of theatre with the youth who need it most.

Alto Caballero, the community hosting the camp has already donated $2,000 worth of materials and labor. This project has been my source of inspiration and hope throughout the past year and I am so excited to finally see it coming to life. 

We are so close, please help us get the rest of the way!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Latest Obsession

Last week, someone asked me how long I had been living in San Felix. I said about 6 months. Yesterday I looked at a calendar and realized that on the 21st of April I will have been there a year.  Clearly, my concept of time is a little distorted! So when I say I have recently become obsessed with TED talks, you should probably understand that I mean about a year ago.

A big part of my job as sanitation coordinator is to work with other Volunteers to improve how we train our community members. We are trying to slay the giants of apathy and learned helplessness. Hence, I have done a dissertation's worth of research on behavior change and leadership. I have no title, certificate, or important signature's to validate my work, just a stack of books about my height and a hard drive full of TED talks. 

On their site, they describe themselves as 'a nonprofit dedicated to spreading ideas'. 

TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. On, we're building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world's most inspired thinkers — and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other, both online and at TED and TEDx events around the world, all year long...TED is owned by a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation. Our agenda is to make great ideas accessible and spark conversation.

For a Volunteer looking for a free education on global development, leadership, and basic psychology it's a perfect starting block. Everything I have done in the last year has been inspired and influenced by the work of these amazing creators, thinkers, leaders, and teachers. Of the nearly 100 talks I've watched so far, here are my 5 favorites, which have impacted how I work, live, and learn. Enjoy.

Every Kid Needs a Champion (and every grown up too!)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Living out of a Backpack

As of today, I have spent two entire weeks sleeping in the same place. 14 nights in my bed. This hasn't happened since July.

I know, right. In fact, from October through January, I never spent more than 5 nights in any single place. That's...insanity. It totally explains why the last thing I want to do right now is leave my house, for nearly any reason.

Therefore, loyal blog readers, I apologize for the lack of updates in the last 6 months. It's embarrassing. The down side is I am so behind I don't even know where to start. The up side is I have done a lot of great things and have learned some valuable skills living on a bus. I have been taking advantage of every opportunity in Panama I can.

So...let's tackle the last 6 months shall we?

First, I'm really good at traveling. I can pack for anywhere, for any amount of time, in about half an hour. Tops. Just grab tons of underwear, 2 pairs of shorts, some parumas, a shirt for every day (but never more than 5), a bar of soap and your phone charger. If it's bien metido (way out there), bring bug spray and rubber boots. If it's something fancy, bring your razor and eyeliner. If it's winter, grab your only pair of jeans and buy a long-sleeve shirt at the airport.

When it comes to the act of traveling, it's better to travel independently in groups. Wait...what? Lemme explain. It's always nice to have a friend with you on the bus so that you don't have to snuggle with an old man and his chickens on the seat. It is helpful to be in a group of people who somewhat know where they are going and how to get there. Having a buddy to make sure you don't get left behind while peeing behind a tree is important. I've been that girl chasing the bus down the Inter-American Highway.  

But as far as the act of traveling in Panama, sometimes you just have to get yourself where you're going. Shove yourself into that bus and just trust your friends will get themselves on too. You get YOU on the boat/bus/truck/plane, then you shamelessly flirt or distract the driver to do whatever you have to do to get him to wait as long as possible. Especially when the bus is pulling out and you are holding a random woman's 6 month old child because she hasn't come back yet. She dropped him off, said 'Cuidalo' (take care of him) while I assumed she went to the bathroom. But now that you mention it, she didn't mention for how long she wanted me to care for him...For a few frightening minutes, I thought that kid and I were about to get real close.

You know the disoriented feeling you get the first time you wake up in a new place? I have effectively disabled that function. To be more specific, maybe it's not disabled, just the new normal. Open my eyes...what country am I in right now? Oh right. Seattle. Chicago. Bocas. Darien. Chiriqui. Omaha. Sioux City. Lincoln. Panama. Those aren't even countries. That's my point. Just open your eyes and roll with it.

Going back to the US for 6 weeks really brought some of these new traveling 'skills' to light. I hadn't really realized I was doing them, I just always did them. For example, I had silverware with me at all times. Apparently that's not really normal. There was a purpose, of course. You would also never go anywhere in Panama without snacks. Even if you are going to visit a Volunteer that has a store- you just never know. When the bus will break down, when you will miss the boat, when the PCV will decide that a spoonful of peanut butter is a good enough dinner. It's better to be prepared. Quaker oatmeal cookies, apples, bananas, peanut m&ms, and cans of tuna with saltines are the best travel snacks, fyi.

"Where are these snacks coming from?" was a regular comment throughout my US travels. Apparently, its unusual to take snacks with you unless they are being transported in a diaper bag. Whatever, I was prepared for anything. Besides, whose gonna pay $12 for your silly airport snacks?! Leaving Panama for the US, security saw my diplomatic visa and pulled me ahead to the front of the line, and I ended up waiting to board sitting between two suits, also with diplomatic visas. While they sat there with their rolling leather suitcases matching their shiny leather shoes, I sat there with my muddy little purse and a plastic grocery bag of bananas and tuna. Which I ate, much to their dismay.
One of them gave me the side-eye from behind his newspaper. When he realized that I saw him watching, he asked, 'So...are you a Peace Corps Volunteer?'

When I said yes, he gave a knowing nod, then went back to his paper. The way I see it, he was in luck. I had showered that morning using shampoo AND conditioner, and had spent all my time in air conditioning after that. What more could he expect?

It's true that in Peace Corps we tend to glorify our 'rugged'-ness and frugality. I know a few ladies who went months without washing their hair to save money on shampoo. I have seen facial and body hair that surpassed all boundaries. I know a guy that hikes an extra hour to get in an out of his community in order to save $1.50. (His hike could be 90 mins up a mountain, but to save money, he takes the 2.5 hour route) Admittedly, we're a little ridiculous.

It is easy to get caught up in the stereotype that Volunteers like being smelly and cheap, or that we think it makes us superior. It's not so much that we value it in so much as it becomes so ingrained into our daily lives that we just embrace it. We can't change the fact our houses have dirt floors and we bathe in Nesquik rivers. We can change how we deal with it. So we have disgusting competitions I won't subject you to the details of. We establish bizarre grooming and spending habits.

Visiting the States, I thoroughly enjoyed my hot showers, lotions, clean toenails, and wearing makeup without it melting off. I had no regrets spending my money on fancy coffees, beautiful produce, and spectacular beers. Oh man, breweries. There aren't words to describe how much I miss great beer. I enjoyed spending time on my appearance and spending money- but I didn't feel pressured by it. I had as much fun dressing up for beers as I did the night I went bowling without makeup on. I equally enjoyed dinner out for sushi as I did making canned bean burgers in my friend's kitchen.

During the world cup, I ended up at a bus stop with only 25 cents for my dinner. In the States, I spent roughly 80 times that for food and drinks during a football game. In one instance, I was wearing the my favorite t-shirt with rainbow-colored mold stains in the armpits. In another, I was wearing a cute new sweater.

My point is that both were great memories I'll always have. It's not about being frugal, it's not about splurging. It's not about what you look like or how you smell. Real friends will sit next you anyway. (Although, if they are worth their salt, they will tell you when you need to bathe!)

Living out of a backpack is to constantly be reminded that's about taking full advantage of the opportunity in front of you because it won't be there tomorrow. So catch that sunset. Buy that beer. Go play frisbee instead of washing clothes. Embrace the mud between your toes, until the next hot shower comes along.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Today is a Very Special Day

December 1st is my birthday. I turned 26 today. Over the years, I have learned that it is a very common birthday, and I have had the privilege to befriend several of my birthday buddies, all of whom are wonderful people. But as great as we are, we are not what make today particularly special.

Today is important because it is World AIDS Day.

I know, another calendar day hijacked by a social awareness cause, but this one is different. It is easy to talk about hand washing- it is simple, straightforward, and is appropriate to talk about at all dinner tables. However, HIV is a virus that is most commonly transmitted through contact with sexual fluids- and that comes with a huge stigma. A stigma that keeps conversations about it not just away from the dinner table, but out of the family, school, church, community, and government. It’s literally killing us.

HIV/AIDS seems like ‘old news’ in the US. We’ve all seen Rent. It’s been a global epidemic for thirty years- that is longer than I have been alive. I don’t know a world without AIDS. Yes, medical treatments have improved greatly in my lifetime, and discrimination against those living with HIV has decreased within the US. But we’re not there yet.

AIDS was the cause of 10% of all deaths in 2013, the second largest killer in developing nations, and still in the top 10 of the developed ones. There are still 35 million reported people in the world who live with HIV/AIDS, and of them, 1 million of them are US citizens.

In Panama, a country of just 3 million people, there are 16,000 reported cases. That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Read that statistic again. 16,000 reported cases. If you don’t know what HIV is, you won’t get tested for it. If you don’t get tested, you don’t get treated, and you transmit then die of AIDS without anyone ever knowing.

My favorite toddler in Playona is Bello. If I thought I had any sort of resources to do so, I would have adopted Bello in a heartbeat. He lives with my host family, because for the first year of my service his mother was very sick, and then in July 2013, she died. Her cause of death is ‘unknown’ but her symptoms make AIDS a definite possibility- particularly since just days before she died, she went to the doctors and they said they could do nothing for her.

“Was it cancer? This? That?” I ask my host family. No, the doctors said it wasn’t. I ask if it was HIV. “Our race cannot get HIV. She couldn’t have had that.” I will never know if Bello’s mother was HIV positive, because even if she had been tested, her family would never admit to it. Even though Bello, his brother, and his father are at risk, they will not get tested because they do not believe they can contract the disease, or they are afraid of the discrimination would come with it. Only in Panama, right?

Not so much. In Namibia, the disease spread so rampantly through the country in the 1990’s because their society believed that having sex with a virgin would cure it. Yes, you read that correctly. And if it didn’t cure you, then it meant that she wasn’t a true virgin. I’m not going to get into how many levels of messed up that is, but it is the perfect illustration of what happens when we let stigma and discomfort keep us from talking about serious issues. Watch out, I’m going to talk about sex for a minute.

The Quick and Dirty About HIV/AIDS:

The disease is spread through contact between bodily fluids- blood, semen & pre-seminal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. It is NOT transmitted through tears, urine, or saliva. One of those first four fluids from the infected person needs to enter the body of a healthy person (usually via more bodily fluids) in order for the virus to spread. So all forms of sex- anal, oral, and vaginal- can transmit the disease. If you choose to have sex, the best method to prevent sexual transmission of HIV is with proper condom use.

Blood-to-blood transmission of HIV in the States is not common, unless you are a drug user or sketchy tattoo artist, but if you were to have an HIV-positive family member or roommate, it is important not to share items that could come in contact with blood- razors, toothbrushes, manicure equipment.

Getting tested is incredibly simple and easy. Yes, getting poked with a needle once a year sucks, but dying because your immune system staged a mutiny is worse. Always get yourself and your partner tested before becoming sexually active. HIV can lie dormant in your body for years before you show symptoms.

HIV/AIDS victims are still people. With access to the right medication, many of them can live symptom-free lives for quite a long time. They can give birth to healthy HIV-free babies, and live long enough to raise them. The technology exists to help them, but right now many are too afraid of prejudice to seek it out. They deserve and need our respect, support, friendship, and love. We need to talk about this disease more, if not for us, then for them.

I talk about HIV/AIDS with kids, teens, and adults on an almost monthly basis. I can teach you the finer skills to putting a condom on a phallic-shaped jungle fruit. I play a great game with handshakes and socks, using glitter to simulate HIV transmission and we make jokes about people who end up with AIDS on their face. But this isn’t a laughing matter.

On September 15, 2014, my friend Patrick died of AIDS. He had been a fellow student with me in the theatre department (theatre family) at UNL and we did several productions together. Sometimes we bumped elbows as artist and technician because his artistic priorities and my technical priorities were not always the same, but we deeply respected each other for our passion to the art. He was a tremendously positive cheerleader for many of us within the theatre department and his sudden death was shocking and tragic. We had no idea.

On June 30th, 2014, Patrick didn’t know he was HIV positive. He would find out a few days later, but he would tell no one of his condition. It wasn’t until a few days before his passing, when he was hospitalized for the last time and no longer able to make decisions for himself that his family chose to share with everyone the news.

It is sad to hear about the death of a friend, but what is particularly heart wrenching about this situation is that for the last 2 months of Patrick’s life, in his most difficult moments, most of his friends, colleagues, and advisors were clueless to his suffering.

I never had a chance to talk to Patrick, I am sure that he had many reasons for choosing not to share his medical condition with others and I respect a desire for privacy. However, if any part of him chose to remain silent because he feared the stigma, the shame, the discrimination that still comes along with this disease, then I’m angry. No disease- not Leprosy, not Ebola, not mental illness and definitely not HIV can make a person into anything less than a dignified human being worthy of respect and love.

Since Patrick’s death, teaching kids about HIV/AIDS has become an entirely different experience. It’s not about handshakes, glitter, and this mysterious invisible disease. It’s about teaching kids, teens, moms, and adults to love themselves by using protection, love their families by getting tested, and to love HIV-positive individuals when they need it the most.

Today in West Africa it is estimated that 4 people will die of Ebola. And 685 will die of AIDS. It will be the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

My challenge for you is this: Every time you hear the word ‘Ebola’ this week, reply with a comment about HIV. Let’s get this out of the dark, both here and abroad. The developing world may seem galaxies away from your life, but American pop culture, media, and politics have global impacts. Let’s make my birthday a positive one.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

4 in 5 People Don't Wash Their Hands, and Not Enough People Are Upset About it

Look at the clock; take note of what time it is.

War is dramatic. If you want evidence of that, check out tonight’s news headlines, look at the latest box office hits, or play almost any video game. We’re attracted to drama, and our global society idolizes violence. Peace is not as flashy. But it is still deadly.

Every minute, 4 children around the world die from diarrheal illnesses. Yea, they die from the problem you have after a crazy night of drinking or after eating too much cheap Mexican food. The same illness that we don’t usually have to go to the doctor to treat, we just chug the pink stuff, take an Imodium, and down a Gatorade.  Yet this American inconvenience is still one of the most leading causes of death in children throughout the developing world- Central and South America, Asia, Pacific Islands, Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. It’s a universal killer, and it’s killing more babies than war.

But who really cares? 4 children die every minute just from diarrheal illness. We think, wow, that’s a lot…and then click on the next cat video. But hold on. Put down the vegan cupcake recipe for a second and lets put that into context. What does “4 children die of diarrhea every minute” mean?

If your child is in a classroom of 24 students, that entire classroom is dead within 8 minutes. If that classroom is one of 7 classes in a small elementary school, K through 6, the entire school dies within the hour. In ten weeks, the entire student body of the Chicago Public Schools is deceased and in one year the entire city of Houston, the 4th largest city in America, is gone. That is 2.1 million babies and children under the age of 5 each year. That is a Holocaust of children every 3 years.

Diarrhea causes a Holocaust of children occurring every three years.

But hold on a second- that’s such a strong word, Holocaust. It represents a tragic, painful, and devastating period in our history. Holocaust is defined as ‘any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life’. Is it really appropriate in this context?

The earliest recorded evidence of soap dates back to 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. Soap has been around for over 4000 years, and yet to this day millions of people are dying because although we’ve managed to spread the good news of modern religion, democracy, Facebook, and Whatsapp, the lifesaving message of soap hasn’t gotten through. Every week I see families with smart phones who believe they cannot afford soap. What is that, other than a reckless destruction of life? Almost half of the mothers in my previous community had lost at least one child very young to illness. What is more tragic, painful, and devastating than losing your child?

My baby host brother
Every kid learns about the Jewish Holocaust in his or her social studies classes. Why don’t we ever hear about the ongoing Child Holocaust happening around us every day? I’m not here to point fingers or blame specific person or group for this, because personal behavior change at this level is hard. It is really, really hard. No matter what they do, governments, institutions, non-profits, businesses, schools, and families can’t do it alone. It takes systemic change, on all levels.

Today is Global Handwashing Day. Today, all over the world, children, schools, nonprofits, businesses, and governments celebrate the importance and the dire need for hand washing with soap, because despite all of the technological advances of the last several centuries, it is still the most effective weapon against diarrheal and respiratory illness. Just one gram of poop can contain 10 million viruses and 1 million bacteria. And yet 4 out of 5 people in the world still consider hand washing optional, irrelevant, or too expensive. 4 out of 5 people in the world don’t wash their hands after “using the bathroom”.

Let’s look at the Stats:
 Hand washing with soap reduces diarrheal disease transmission by 44%- more effective than any water treatment, sanitation infrastructure, or other hygiene education.

The impact of $8,000 invested in vaccinations against diarrheal diseases (Cholera, Rotavirus, Measles) is EQUAL to

$200 invested in household water systems is EQUAL to

$11 invested in latrine construction is EQUAL to

$3.35 invested in Hand washing promotion and adoption.

Hand washing with soap is the most effective tool we have to prevent diarrhea, parasites, worms, the common cold, flu, cholera, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and even Ebola. Today, and every day, wash your hands with soap for 30 seconds every time you use the bathroom and sit down to eat. Then teach a child to do the same. You could literally be saving their life.

My Ultimate team waves farewell!
Ok, so diarrhea, hand washing, and those amazing kids I play Frisbee with get me all sorts of upset. But it’s not all negative, and hand washing can be a lot of fun. All over the world today there are poetry slams, artwork contests, skits, songs, parades, games, and activities happening to in honor of hand washing. This week kids in Panama are making art about hand washing in hopes to get their drawings published in a book. We’re doing finger paint activities with preschoolers to teach hand washing and making actors out of 6th graders to role-play positive peer pressure. I’m sure there are other activities happening with better ideas that I don’t even know about yet.

While the silence around this terrible, there is tremendous good news. We have the power to cut this Holocaust in HALF through the simple use of soap and our voices. I can, you can, and we all can make sustainable, impactful, and lasting change when it comes to improving the health of children all over the world. No fancy college degree, public office, lucrative wealth, or complicated technology required. Just wash your hands with soap for 30 seconds after using the bathroom and before handling food, and make it socially unacceptable for your family and friends not to do the same. We can use peer pressure for positive change for once.

Look at the clock again. Now what time is it? How many minutes have passed since you started reading this? Multiple it by 4 and that’s how many kids we lost while you read my angry, preachy blog post. May their souls rest in peace and may they someday forgive us for our apathy and ignorance.

For more information and resources on Global Handwashing Day, check out these links:

TED Talk: Myriam Sidibe, The Simple Power of Hand Washing

Global Handwashing Day website

and to help you remember how to hand wash, One Republic made a great video

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lost in Translation

Last night my friend Andrew was passing through so I offered to make pumpkin soup and cornbread for him for dinner, if he brought me some cornmeal and red pepper. He said it would be no problem and picked up a box of ‘maicena’ and a packet of red pepper. When he arrived I put them on the kitchen counter.

At dinner time, I was simultaneously cooking soup, making cornbread batter, and catching up with Andrew about life. When I opened the box of cornmeal, instead of being the grainy, yellowish stuff, it was a fine, very white dust. I was confused, and we looked at the box for awhile, trying to figure out what this stuff was. The only thing listed in the ingredients was a Spanish word that I didn’t recognize that had ‘corn’ as its root. Sometimes ingredients in Panama look different than they do in the States. Salt is courser, sugar is not white nor brown but something in between, and red pepper is named for the Afro-Antillean culture that stereotypically uses it, ‘black pepper’. So I was willing to forgive this cornmeal for being different.

We concluded that he must have bought some kind of corn flour instead of cornmeal, but that since I was halfway through making the batter and the store was closed, we could use it anyway. So I added 2 cups to the mix.

The batter tasted bread-like and it smelled like cornbread while cooking, so I thought it would be ok. However, it was a nightmare to remove from the pan and had a very weird, dense texture. It was rubbery and super white. We were very perplexed but cut it up to eat with the soup anyway.

Second bite in, Andrew says, ‘it tastes kinda like play dough,’ and the light bulb went off in my head. I suddenly recognized the texture, smell, and consistency of that powder before. I’ve made play dough several times as a kid and the main ingredient was…OH NO.


I essentially made baked play dough bread, and it tasted just like it. The only thing it lacked was fun colors. We laughed about it for a long time and then gave the remainder of the “bread” to my new four-legged canine roommate Mango.

Second languages, man. They’ll get ya.