Arts & Music Therapy and Mini Hackathons for Refugee Children


While volunteering abroad in orphanages and schools for children in third-world countries, I realized how crucial it is to focus on teaching them not only the necessary skills and information they will need to progress in school, get accepted for a job, or make it in life to provide for themselves and their families but also survival skills for any situation, as well as methods of creativity to express themselves and heal. The world is a beautiful place full of miracles, arts, music, historical artifacts, adventures, and possibilities, but one has to be able to wear their own invisible shield to protect themselves and the world from those who wish not to see those gems.

I think taking Native American shaman wisdom into consideration is crucial, especially during times of information overflow and starvation for wisdom, so I try to keep these arts and music therapy activities fulfilling in both – learning how to navigate through the tech world and being informed of skills needed to navigate through, and wisdom to retain their spiritual freedom and health that is essential during their decision-making process.

I found it fulfilling to travel abroad to help children to learn how to express themselves through creativity and music, but I also found it helpful to put my girls’ scout experience to good use and teach them a few survival hacks such as Morse code communication and how to navigate with a compass when lost. Below are a few activities I created to awaken a sense of adventure as well as curiosity, teamwork, and passion for life. Please feel free to use them if you plan to travel abroad for a similar cause.

Musical Improv & Theatre

If you play a guitar, piano, or djembe, you have the flexibility to use this skill set when volunteering as a music and art therapist. Laughter always provides an instant mental vacation and being from the city of comedy, I got to experience some improv and musical improv at Second City. I love taking courses there as a form of relaxation, self-expression, socializing, and training in public speaking. I found it extremely valuable. Getting together with a team to use music and improv in a humorous way to express oneself and find a way to not be afraid to express creatively can be very beneficial for anyone at any age. Getting a group of kids to say what is on their mind – anything that makes them laugh or peculiar thinking put into a melody that I would accompany with my guitar and/or djembe. Another activity would be dressing up for musicals to involve both singing and dancing. Musical improv and Theatre is a very open-minded activity. This teaches kids public speaking, self-expression, music, inclusivity, and creativity, and helps them overcome shyness and fear of crowds.

Dance Choreography Composition

Another way to overcome shyness, and learn to express oneself creatively is by dancing. Having experience with different dance genres, I like to combine them. Some of my favorites are contemporary, Latin, western African, and Arabic. There are many techno pieces that combine those genres with trance beats, which makes it a terrific music piece to dance to and feel invincible. Dance therapy does wonders in healing from trauma. Choreographing dance skits to engage in and perform with your peers is great for self-expression, public performance, positive and friendly competition, confidence & self-esteem boost, teamwork, body memory, and exercise.

Morse Code Communication & Jewelry

In Kenya I applied a couple of activities to learn the basics of coding, starting with morse code. I would share stories from girls’ scout camps and weekend trips, sharing how we would communicate with each other through the woods by sounds or through the dark by flashlights. I started with an activity to make bracelets that would hold round and oval beads to represent a dot and a line. They made their bracelets to hold a code for their favorite word, phrase, or name. I plan on coming up with more games that would involve morse code, similar to some of the communication activities we used in scouting. You never know what life may bring and when you may need the morse code knowledge. Morse code teaches communication, teamwork, coding, hearing and sighting reflexes, and imagination.

The Path of The Brave!

The path of the brave would be one of my favorite childhood activities. This could happen during the night or in the daylight. Participants would have to follow a path to get from one spot in the woods (or any other environment) to another. During the day we would tie strings from one tree to the other to have them follow the string with blindfolds (like in Bird Box). During the night, they would follow the candles to the destination. Once they would get to the destination, they would have to complete some type of task that would include a survival skill set they’ve learned. Many times the participants would face some type of scare through the path, like ghosts or sounds. Similar to some of the Halloween haunted houses, but not as scary and involving tasks to teach survival. A funny story I remember from my childhood was when we could go in pairs, and my friend said when we go deep into the dark woods I can go first, and we switch on the way back!! I had to giggle and I hated the idea. I actually think that if I had a wand and knew Harry Potter books then, then I would feel safer.

This activity also teaches sound reflexes, survival skills, and communication. It would be different for children who experienced any kind of trauma. I have not applied this activity, because I am not sure how much children from a traumatic past would enjoy scary moments, but I’ve thought to do something with blindfolds to navigate and complete survival tasks with the help of their teammates to enhance teamwork ethics and a sense of community. This is something I plan to discuss with my team on the next trip to design the game specifically to teach how to overcome fears and learn skills that will keep one safe and at the same time overcome PTSD. I wanted it to have a similar effect as the well-known activity of falling backward to have the team catch you as a therapy practice to give a sense of support to the team, but with more creative thinking and involving more teamwork in terms of different types of communication and innovation, looking into different challenges they may be facing in their lives and how to cope and protect themselves.


Creative writing is one of the activities I enjoyed as a child. Writing down my thoughts and experiences with sketches while traveling across Europe was sacred to me. I thought of getting every child an empty journal to fill in as another activity I would suggest doing on their own, teaching them that it is a form of self-expression and documentation of their life experiences.

Future of Hackathons for Children

With a bit of an experience with these activities as well as humanitarian hackathons and UX events abroad, I wanted to look into starting a mini hackathon for children as well, in order to help kids develop problem-solving skills. I thought the activities above teach the basics of skills children will need in the design process and presentation of solutions, but in a fun, introductory way where they learn to interact and collaborate with each other. Before the hackathon, the tasks are designed according to the global problem the child wants to solve.

Improv teaches them to be comfortable with sharing their thoughts and ideas, and sometimes even leading discussions, which is what happens during design workshops. I would give them a (user) scenario to act out, then let them make up the script to flex their creative and communication muscles.

Journaling would introduce them to journey mapping and storytelling. They would keep their own journal, but they would use this skill while working with their team to map out another persona’s journey.

Morse Code would introduce them to more abstract communication and coding in a fun, creative way.

Blind Trail I would do this with my cousins as a kid after I learned it in girls scout. I would tie a string to follow blindfolded, and go from one tree to another in the woods, for them to complete a survival task at each tree. It would let them learn capabilities such as navigating through the sense of listening.

Path of the Brave is meant to help them develop the mind of a strategist. They would have a problem to solve with tasks to complete in order to progress to the next steps (same as the full product design cycle). The activities would be as basic as building random office space without instructions using any items laying around as if they were lego pieces, to actually putting together a lo-fi prototype, depending on their age.

HCI Against Human Trafficking


I found my calling when I started incorporating my skillset in the humanitarian sector and exploring the role of HCI in combatting human trafficking, helping the victims to overcome the psychological effects, and providing them with the necessary assistance to successfully reintegrate into society. I have been inspired and encouraged by the possibilities UX professionals have to make a significant positive change in people’s lives and decided this is a cause I wanted to support. After listening to some stories that children I worked with at an orphanage in Kenya shared with me, it became impossible to go through my life without doing anything to fight this global issue that turned into a multi-billion dollar business. I was in Kenya, but when I saw the lack of response from parties that these children depend on, I realized the magnitude and complexity of the issue, not just in Kenya, but around the globe. As the founder of the Mekong Club Matt Friedman said, the trafficked kids are not mad at traffickers as much as those who stand by, doing nothing. I thought the reason is that one common tactic of traffickers to keep control of the victims is creating emotional dependency and connection. It is their way to recruit them as potential traffickers once they grow up without knowing anything better. Victims quickly realize the psychological challenges and uncontrollable sickness of the perpetrators, feeling of responsibility and shame, the power of the public to stop it, and blame their ambivalence. It creates their fear of stepping back into society, feeding the control of the traffickers. Their biggest question is “Where were you?”

I read somewhere that silent treatment and gaslighting while seeing someone suffer is one of the cruelest forms of psychological abuse, especially if it is someone who trusted you. Some have said that under extreme circumstances, it can be referred to as psychological murder. I cannot even fathom moving away from the effects of being sold into sex slavery by your own family under the silence of those who could do something to help escape, just to face society full of stigma around mental health. After learning about some of the tortures victims have to endure, I thought it would take me more than one lifetime to recover from extreme PTSD. Focusing her research on the psychological effects of victims, Katerina Calco describes it as “a comparative work that examines and compares the characteristics and effects of three other forms of trauma: torture, sexual assault, and the Holocaust.” Many victims shared stories such as being kidnapped, witnessing murders, being tortured if they tried to escape, and then being labeled as crazy when they try to speak up. Similar to victims of sexual abuse. Some of those who are unaware of the seriousness of the issue like to state that the victim is attention-seeking and jealous. One can’t help but begin questioning the moral code of these people and overall humanity. It’s easy to say “I can’t handle this, it’s too disturbing for me.” In fact, Matt Friedman could not publish an original script for a book due to sharing information from survivor stories that were deemed too disturbing. It is one thing to mentally take care of yourself because we could not help anyone if we were psychologically affected. Children need us to be mentally stable and ready to explore the world and inspire their imaginations of the possibilities to make the world a beautiful place. We are old enough to know that in reality, a safe and beautiful world is not always the case, in our history or in the present, but as one of the native American sayings states – we are borrowing the world from our children and need to return it in the best condition possible. There have never been as many slaves in the world as there are now and it’s another story to ignore the problem of child sex slavery altogether and put our own children at risk of being abused. Acceptance of something such as sexual harassment and abuse entertains the idea of child marriages and human trafficking. It is like running from a zombie and throwing a friend to them as bait so that you can buy yourself time to escape. Not much of a survival strategy in the long run.

I’ve seen a lot of scenarios around sexual abuse. I’ve known people who wanted to commit suicide or started shooting up because of past trauma, emotional or sexual. Most of the time it is because of stigma around mental health or victims of sexual abuse. I always wonder how many more children would be saved from being raped thousands of times if we skipped the pointless gossip about someone who spoke up about being sexually assaulted and instead tried to come up with solutions to avoid something like that from happening? This stupid gossip is the result of the #2 cause of suicides on college campuses. Some say the victims just want attention, why would anyone want this kind of attention? If they want attention, it’s probably because they are on the brink of losing their life and need help. I just think these sorts of silent and gossipy mindsets are sick and dangerous and it’s mind-boggling that people who look like the nicest people can turn out to be so destructive to their friends. When you witness something like this, it is hard to believe that they did not mean to be hurtful and really tried all they could to be there for that friend. I want to say if they had the time to gossip, then they did not try everything they could, but in my mind, they probably didn’t know any better and that is just another proof of the gravity of the problem.

Despite their experiences, the kids in the Riruta Satellite settlement in Nairobi were eager to learn to make a positive contribution to the world, and I believe that if they had the opportunity to do so, they could make a real difference. There was something about their spirit, almost as if they knew their mission in life as if they knew that this is happening all around the world and they have ideas on how to fight it. Their knack for self-awareness and their connection to their communities comes through their experiences to learn the ropes of survival at an early age. They are very good at figuring another person out and spotting signs of danger. It’s different and a lot more extreme for the children who are sold into sex slavery. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes they are sold by their parents or relatives or simply kidnapped. How does one find the end of the tunnel when this happens? Sharing their stories to raise awareness is a big part to make the eradication of modern-day slavery possible and sometimes they are afraid to share, conditioned not to trust anyone, including mental healthcare providers. They rejoin the world believing that everyone is out to get them, needing space and privacy and at the same time assistance. It’s tough for mental healthcare professionals to understand someone who has experienced something as tragic as they have. Personally, I was astonished by their attitude and bravery to restore their sense of self, from children who ran away to avoid being sold to a husband four times their age to children who have experienced burns as a result of domestic violence. The process of getting acquainted with society again can seem never-ending, and there were times I questioned the treatment they faced at the orphanage. Fighting the expanding network of traffickers is quite a labyrinth. It is mentally hard to swallow just the basic knowledge of what happens to the victims, but it is one of the most important problems for humanity to sort out. When I brought this up in a humanitarian hackathon in 2020, I realized that this problem exists not necessarily due to people’s ambivalence, but mostly because there is a lack of awareness. When we talked about how to spot potential human trafficking scenarios, some of us suddenly remembered instances in our lives, where we have possibly encountered one of these scenarios without knowing. When one learns these signs, one sees the world differently. They become more inquisitive and observant, which can save not only their lives but also the lives of others, including their loved ones.

I recognized how crucial HCI is in the fight against human traffickers. Helping victims requires not only user experience design expertise, but service design skillset in order to figure out how to build integrated experiences. More often than not, the victims do not have access to mobile or any digital device, and awareness of their ecosystem is pivotal to reaching out to them without putting them in danger. One example of that is “Truckers Against Trafficking”, which is a fantastic way to spot signs of human trafficking and report it. I used the idea of enabling volunteers who spend time abroad to network for information purposes and tips to observe these ecosystems as a way to get more familiar with the dangers that victims face and the possibilities to effectively reach out to them. This is just an example of many, ranging from digital tools to help with the psychological harms of past trauma to spotting traffickers.

Your Mind Matters #MayBreakTheStigma


I just read that Nellie Bly’s birthday is in May. I pondered if she was the inspiration for May to become the mental health awareness month, but it seems to just be an interesting coincidence. I always viewed her as a trooper and a big hero – such an important historical figure to remember. With mental health stigma and lack of awareness still being present in our society, her role and work became even more timeless and relevant.

Nellie Bly went undercover by pretending to be mentally ill and get admitted to a mental institution in an effort to report on the treatment of the patients within the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She became a pioneer in investigative journalism such as the Spotlight in Boston Globe. I believe that society’s view of and response to mental illnesses can hinder the success of the treatment and such investigations can help to avoid misunderstandings and achieve more effective learning environments.

The purpose of mental health awareness month is to break that stigma and build mental health literacy across our communities. Almost 20% of Americans are suffering from mental health illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. For college students, suicide is the second highest cause of death. Mental health is hard to talk about because of the stigma, resulting in sufferers becoming isolated and unable to receive the treatment they need.

I wanted to share a few ways that you can help someone you care about who is fighting mental illness. It is not easy to know their disturbance, especially if they find it hard to talk about it. Mental illnesses are complex and you may not have the expertise to help as much as a professional, but letting them know that you are there while they go through the process and truly be there helps them believe in themselves, can give courage that they need to discover who they are, what caused their disorder and how they can develop methods to help themselves to become independent and free from their internal struggle. This is important for them to progress and work on themselves.

  1. Listen Without Judgement

Giving advice on how to cope with depression or mood swings is helpful, but first reserve time to listen and avoid judgement. They could have done the research of what may be their condition or issue, and only need to be able to express themselves while someone they trusts lands their ear.

2. Let Your Friend Share What They Want To Share

If your friend opens up to you, it means they trust you. It takes a lot of courage to do so, so knowing how to respond is important. Keep your questions open ended. Pushing them to tell you more may feel like you are interrogating them, yet telling them that you don’t want to know can seem like you don’t care. It is understandable if you feel uncomfortable. In this case suggesting professional help is a nice way of showing you are there for them as much as you can, even if you’re unable to hear more.

3. Focus on Wellbeing and Motivating Activities to Restore It

People struggling with mental illness may have lost interest in their hobbies and passions, Helping them getting back into those hobbies, or find new ones, can be extremely helpful. Suggesting activities such as meditation and exercise can help to take their mind off of their struggle, and can feel especially good if you offer to accompany them.

If you are unsure how to react or worried that if you say something it may be hurtful, especially if they are sensitive and fragile, a simple check in can go a long way. Asking how they are or letting them know you care can mean more than you realize.

Reflection of THE Port Humanitarian Hackathon


A few months ago I met an ex-pat from Spain. I started talking to her about my experiences from working as a music therapist at an orphanage in Riruta Satellite settlement in Nairobi, my concerns about possible involvement of human trafficking at the orphanage, the complexity behind it, and my ambitions to get involved in the fight to combat this global issue. After my experience in Kenya, I started researching about the perpetual expansion of modern-day slavery, ranging from sex slavery to forced labor and child abuse. I watched TED talks, read books by long time fighters and survivors, and visited sites of NGOs to look up their research. In all honesty, it was hard to swallow what has been going on, what the victims endure, and just how large of a problem this is. In times of media getting flooded with COVID and politics behind it, I couldn’t help but question why no one’s talking about another pandemic – modern-day slavery. Modern-day slavery is an organized business with profits larger than any tech giant out there. It is estimated to rack up $150 billion profit. I’ve posted about it, talked to people about it, but I was starting to feel like someone with a case of humanitarian douchery when I got some silent treatments. I realized talking about it wasn’t enough, that it was time to stop being hypersensitive and put myself together, grow a thicker skin, start thinking strategically about how to address this, and try to find a solution. I told my new friend that I was astonished about the lack of awareness and wanted to find a group of people who would like to collaborate with me to work on a solution that would change that. She immediately suggested a humanitarian hackathon organized by CERN. I have always been interested in hackathons, but I was not aware that there were HUMANITARIAN hackathons. I was excited and applied right away with an idea for an app with a focus to combat human trafficking. I was thrilled to hear back that the idea inspired them to list human trafficking as one of the main topics for 2020 and that team was being assembled to collaborate with me on a prototype of a tech idea that would address it. I met with the team and we began researching a topic couple of weeks before the three days of hacking, three days that turned out to be one of the most empowering, inspiring, and exuberating experiences. I wanted to share some main aspects of the humanitarian hackathon that make this event a perfect opportunity for just about anyone who feels passionate about tackling any complex humanitarian challenge we face today.

Interdisciplinary Teams

When I met with the team, I was energized by their spirit, motivation and readiness to tackle the issue we were addressing. We were very diverse in terms of location, cultural and professional background, age and skillset. A large portion of the team needed a basic introduction to the human trafficking problem. Due to me being the creator of the initial idea, I was asked to share my story and possibilities in creating a technical solution. This ignited other members to suddenly recall a certain moment in their life where they suspected if they were unaware witnesses of a possible human trafficking scenario. Human trafficking is everywhere around the globe, everywhere around us and we began realizing that with more awareness people would be willing to work together to spot it and fight it. We decided to spend few days researching the topic and regroup to share our findings. All of my teammates were astonished about the severity of the problem and even more eager to address it. Being an interdisciplinary team had a lot of advantages. Not only did we learn a great deal from each other and our perspectives, but we also used the diverse skillsets to work through a very productive brainstorming session that resulted in several distinctive ideas. We began with going over some of the most pressing challenges in the fight of human trafficking and what type of a solution would make the most substantial difference. The biggest plus of our interdisciplinary team was that we all had a set of different skillset that would uniquely contribute to the success of the project and take an ownership of our areas of expertise. I loved that not all of us were designers and developers, but that we had entrepreneurs, scientists, marketing managers and others with a shared enthusiasm for technology. The dynamic between all of the teams participating in the hackathon was also incredible. If we needed an extra set of hands with development experience, we could reach out to other teams and see if anyone was interested to collaborate. We were simply energizing each other with ideas and shared passion for the possibilities technology gives us to make a world a better place.

Inspiring Learning Experience

Hackathons are always one of the best ways to learn how to strategize, manage, collaborate, innovate and influence. One reason this is so effective is because participants have only 2-3 days to get to know complete strangers from initially unknown professional backgrounds and quickly learn to collaborate with them while coming up with an original idea and find a way to bring it to fruition within a tight deadline. It becomes so prominent in one’s career, because many times the participants discover how to work fast under pressure and apply all their creative juices while they share their enthusiasm with their teammates. Having a working prototype of their idea within 2-3 days is a great feeling and inspiring. Another reason hackathons are inspiring is that at the end of it all teams get to share their products with everyone and inspire each other. It becomes a great opportunity to network, because sometimes members of different teams become interested in other’s idea and if their skillset are needed to continue on actually taking the product to full heights and making it available to the public, they can begin to collaborate and get involved in the idea’s mission. This aspect makes hackathons one of the best ways to find your team if you have a vision on how to tackle a problem or fulfill a life value you hold dear and an idea of a product to accomplish that. Humanitarian hackathons are perfect for those who are passionate about having a positive impact on the world and making others’ lives better.

Overall, I cannot stress enough how much of a life changing, inspiring and empowering of an experience humanitarian hackathons can be for innovators with various skillsets and professional backgrounds, who can spot world’s most pressing issues by experience and empathy and value technology for its potential to enhance people’s lives.

Learning the Meaning of “Hakuna Matata”


I have been back in Chicago from Kenya for a month now and as I am going through the thousands of pictures I have taken, I cannot express the influx of emotions I am going through. Getting back into the busy world of technology, overflowing media, malls packed with Christmas shoppers and perpetual post-election depression seemed incredibly hectic. This probably became acute for me since I came back from two weeks of working with children, who walk in mud all day (sometimes barefoot, because they have to keep washing their shoes and wait for them to dry) and share a positive view of Donald Trump and “how he talks”. I was shocked at first. I heard this from an 11-year-old girl I spent much time with – the same girl who wrote me a very touching letter about how she wants me to be happy upon my return home as I was saying goodbye on my last day in Kenya. I still wonder today if the kids were joking about our politics or if they only liked Trump, because they didn’t know anything besides the trauma they have been through and wanted to see the raw picture of US leadership, or they wanted me to become aware that this is all they have known as far as someone’s language towards them. I figured their orphanage was the place to be after 2016 elections. I could see how aware they were of the fact that they lived at the bottom of political corruption and saw Trump’s demeanor as more honest. I was amazed how smart they were, making sure you’re not there for sentimental reasons, but to educate them, inspire them and show interest in their community. They love to challenge volunteers like me. They don’t have parents to rely on, have experienced traumatic past we cannot even imagine, yet have the most energizing spirit and the biggest hearts to share. Simultaneously, they want you to know that they don’t have time for bulshit. This is something anyone should think about. People who can retain their emotional intelligence and good heart after such experiences are rare, and these children are necessary for society, before their positive spirits and flames enter a bigger risk of depleting. The point of this trip was to get to know the people in Kenya, interact with them and get a sense of their energy to understand them better, but at the end of the trip I found that the main reason to do this, was humility. Not just helping, but learning from them and realize how much I didn’t know. I am still clueless and learning – the more I get involved, the more I realize the complexity and mentality of the underlying system of their culture and eventually feel more clueless. As I grew somewhat closer to the children and learned about their lives, I felt like an ant trying to understand a large tree with deep roots. You definitely get humbled after spending time with them. After all, two weeks is nothing and the more I think about it, the more I realize I need to go back with more knowledge of the issues these children face when placed in rescue centers.


On my way to Nairobi, I did not know what to expect. I knew I was going to live with the locals and it would be very different from home, but I was looking forward to obtaining a better understanding of their life. I’ve traveled enough to realize, that it is the best way to actually experience the culture beyond touristic spots and hotels carefully designed to accommodate people like me. I didn’t have another choice, but to learn the ropes quickly enough to start volunteering the next day upon arrival.

I lived with my host and two other volunteers. We started getting along quickly, which I was grateful for because I only had two weeks. We shared the moments of meeting the kids and realizing their potential, their wit and understanding of life beyond their age. Due to their past experiences, they gained knowledge of the importance of positive social circles early on and this was staggering to us. They live in a community, where they share their food, wash each other’s clothes and look out for each other. Wherever needed, the bigger kids take on the daily tasks of parents – carrying the babies, making sure they are wearing shoes and comforting them, when they cry.  During lunch time they wanted to share food with me and even though I assured them I had food home or wasn’t hungry, they kept saying “Nooo, eat!!!” with a look of genuine concern on their faces.

Besides their geniality and affection, they were eager to learn. I arrived during a time of school break, so I was placed in an orphanage. It was surprising to me at first as I was not aware that the schools were out and was originally signed up to teach music. Nevertheless, many things were needed there. If it was helping with daily chores or fun activities, kids wanted to expand their knowledge. Any skills were useful there. The children wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Some kids craved to learn Spanish or French since they already spoke fluent English and Swahili. Others had musical talent and a dream of recording a label and one even wished to become a politician. I questioned why the girl, who wanted to become a politician didn’t have any means to keep herself informed. Why isn’t she able to receive a newspaper? She was a 16-year-old, inquisitive and courageous girl. I brought her newspaper and couple of books on influential African leaders, but I can’t deny my concern for her for the upcoming years. I tried giving her some pointers on how she can research her career possibilities and find out the steps she needs to take to get herself to the level she wants to be at, but I soon learned that even when she is at school she only gets one hour per day to use the computer and do her research.  Throughout my stay, I got to listen to several stories from the children about their past and their highly ambitious dreams. It was overwhelming because I could see where they were, I began to get a sense of the system around the management of their institution and found it hard to find the words that would be encouraging and at the same time realistic. It was clear to me how important they were to make positive changes in the world, having experienced the difficulties some of us face in life and having the spirit to do something about it.

Since they were having a break from school, we combined our skill sets to spend time with them that would consist of fun, educational, inspiring and motivational activities. My fellow volunteer Kevin brought his guitar and we started playing songs with them, learning some songs in Swahili and enjoying their laughter, when we couldn’t get the words right. Kevin also taught them chords on the guitar and I started incorporating djembe beats I learned towards the end of the trip. I wasn’t surprised the djembe became popular with some kids, who love to jam and dance with the beat or learn to play. We realized that some kids needed a good ear and someone to help them become aware of their worth and potential. My other fellow volunteer Sasha was very good at that, creating a collage with words of encouragement, talking to them and developing fun motivational activities that put smiles on their faces. Sometimes we could hear crowds of kids laughing out loud and when turning head, we’d see Sasha teaching them fun dance moves or skits from musicals. I found a couple of young girls who wanted to learn Spanish. I took Spanish here and there during high school and college, so I was up for the challenge of sharing my basic knowledge since they were complete Spanish speaking beginners. I let them jot down conversations they normally have among each other, so I could write up translations and converse with them in Spanish while explaining a little bit of grammar and sentence structure. I also brought a fun art activity of making bracelets to spell names and phrases using a morse code to teach them the thrill of encoding symbols and communicating in other “secret language”, perhaps with flashlight or sounds.

This could be obvious, but the hardest part of this trip was leaving as I could see how much more is needed (and will always be needed) to be done. The kids sang goodbye song and wrote letters, I got emotional, but we all laughed (or the kids laughed at me and I went from tears to laughter myself), because we knew I can always come back. I think I will, It was hard to leave. I felt really blessed and part of the community when they gave me this name. I felt as though the kids were eager to provide as much life education and love as I wanted to give them and they were very successful at it. One girl made me smile. She was about two years old. She introduced herself when she walked up to me through the mud with banana, saying “BANANA” in the cutest way, wanted me to take a bite and since I didn’t, took a bite herself then wanted to share the fruit with me to take a bite again. For those of you who are mad at mother Earth, you should listen to her advice. I felt so small when someone could show me such a selfless act at such a young age and in such situation of own need for love and security, and have a completely optimistic and innocent way of doing so. I cannot get that moment out of my head and often think of her, if she is safe at the orphanage, considering risks of human trafficking and the lack of dependability of the law enforcement in Kenya considering children. I have a hard time with it, because I left, and sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t have. The connection can haunt one if they don’t do anything about what they have learned from their experience. I have often felt disgust towards myself for leaving at times. Another girl spent a lot of time with me to learn French/Spanish and just talk to me. She was sad on my last day and quickly wrote to me that she hopes I find a lot of happiness back home. I’ve learned that sometimes privileged people want to take a whole arm when you give them a hand. These kids are just happy you are there and when your last day comes, they let you go with a sense of gratitude. To me that’s priceless AND timeless. My experience with them was undeniably one of the best I had. I learned countless lessons from them just by observing them and interacting with them and I hope they gained the same from me. I already know that I will be back one day.

Through my time in Nairobi, I was becoming more amazed by how much my experience exceeded my expectations. During our free time, we hardly ventured downtown or to any tourist-heavy areas.  We decided to engross ourselves more into the culture and keep hanging out with the locals. Walking in mud, munching on chapatis from the streets for 10 cents a piece, and having an utter blast with the Riruta Satellite people, hanging in bars with cheap Kenyan beer and listening to African music. I ended up getting a Kenyan name – Wanjiku (meaning “born with the rain”) – and learning a little bit of djembe. The kids clapped and kept repeating the name. We met a group of local musicians and artists, who get together to improvise through drumming, rapping, music mixing, singing and other forms of art such as beading, painting, and sculpting. We were instantly welcomed as part of the family to start jamming with them and listen to their improvisation sessions. One of the djembe players agreed to teach me. I have never touched a djembe or any type of drum in my life, but during my last few days, we spent morning hours before working and a couple in the evening practice. I quickly grew much more appreciation of this instrument. The guys did some very helpful exercises with me, where they tried to create a lot of random noise to throw me off and challenged me to focus on the beat throughout. I’ve taken guitar/piano lessons throughout my childhood and teenage years and music lessons have never been so much fun! The djembe teacher/player also helped me to connect to it on a spiritual level. I find it better to clear my mind when I have to stay focused on the beat of the drum, up until the beat comes in naturally and I get lost in it. Perhaps it is the type of person I am – always over-thinking and in need of action. Perhaps I need a loud sound to get me to snap out of it and chill my guts for a while. My awesome djembe teacher mentioned that getting connected with the drum spiritually is important and really one of the main reasons one starts playing. Any negative thinking gets overridden by the pulse I share with the djembe. With that said, working with children at the orphanage and learning to play the djembe have been invaluable for me during the process of learning the meaning of “Hakuna Matata” (No Worries)