I've taught a weekly yoga class to the young women from Niger for 2 years and in that time I have been amazed at how a simple gift of time and energy can have profound & far-reaching effects. At I really wasn't sure how much could be accomplished in 5 classes, and I don't speak French so I didn't know how much they would understand of the teaching. I was surprised at how much they absorbed, not only for themselves, but in terms of the big picture - how the tools could benefit their communities when they went home. They studied yoga with me and read books about it when not with me. They asked to try specific yoga poses when they came to class. Of course some wanted to try the exciting looking stuff, but they also appreciated the stress relieving effects of the breathing and relaxation practices. In the last of our 5 sessions each girl had the opportunity to teach a part of the class - in English. They took this very seriously and even the most shy of the group demonstrated courage and was supported by the others to succeed. The girls make the connection that what they learn in class can have benefits for their community and are creative in using the tools they learn. I found out that one of the girls, upon her return home, uses yoga as a draw to attract other young women to come to meetings where she also discusses healthcare and other issues relevant to their lives. Expanding Lives offers an experience that is life-changing for both the volunteers and the young women who are the focus of the program. These young women are becoming leaders in their communities. As such, they will have to take on the heavy responsibility that comes with that role. They will need tools not only to support their communities, but to support their own physical and emotional wellbeing. I am humbled to be able to help them to gain these tools, and I deeply respect Expanding Lives for having the insight to recognize these needs.
Expanding lives is a very hands on, on the ground sort of organization. This is what is really great about it--the girls become part of the volunteers' lives, and both groups are better for it. My family has gained so much from our interactions with the girls--we have learned about Niger, about Islam, about education and opportunities for young women in that part of the world. But mostly our experiences have confirmed our faith in oneness of global humanity. Even though I have done very little--I drive the girls from their homes to school, and I help teach them to ride bicycles--I am so priviliged to be part of Expanding Lives.
As a family we were able to see first hand how structured and beneficial the daily programs and classes were to the girls. These girls return to Niger empowered by leadership skills and self empowerment. When they return home they continue their education and the support is still there for them to achieve goals that were once unheard of. It doesn't get more self empowering than Expanding Lives!
The name of this nonprofit says it all: expanding lives is what happens not only to the girls who come over from Niger as part of the educational program, but also to the people who volunteer. We hear from families that they see the world through new eyes after hosting girls, and high school students who work with us sometimes change their majors as a result. It's fun work with great, immediate outcomes.
My first year with Expanding Lives was truly one of the most profound experiences of my nineteen short years on this planet. I hadn't planned to become so involved with the organization: I knew the teachers who founded it, and I was a high school graduate with a car. I offered to help drive around the three Nigerien women, excited to interact with people my age from a culture that was so foreign to me. What I did not expect was the way my involvement with EL would change my view of the world simply by reteaching me everything I thought I already knew: that we are all created equal; that one person CAN choose to make a difference; and that despite our differences in ideas, beliefs, values, clothes, languages, customs, etc., our humanity unfailingly links us all together. EL is such a special organization because it is so personalized. Everyone involved in the program gets to be inspired by the Nigerien women and by each other. Throughout my two summers with EL I have bonded with the girls over both American and West African music, laughed through multiple card games, listened to and participated in discussions about leadership and conflict resolution, admired their courage as they stretched into daunting yoga poses, enjoyed their cooking and learned their eating practices, admired their physical strength while losing at arm wrestling, and been humbled by their personal strength in the face of the hardships they have endured. The young women were more engaged in their studies here than me or any of my classmates have ever been. They learned how to use computers, speak English, take care of their bodies, and so much more. And what's even more exciting is the fact that they are now at home actively sharing that knowledge with their communities. This is how change happens. I have watched as more teenagers like me have gotten involved with EL and had the same life-altering experience that I had. Each year, EL continues to grow and touch new lives, creating a beautiful community of people that stretches across the continents. Two years ago, I knew nothing about Niger. Now I can say I have friends there.
A volunteer working with Expanding Lives, I am involved with both the young women from West Africa every summer, as well as those families who host our guests here in Chicago. As a Peace Corps volunteer once posted in West Africa, I saw first hand how a family and a village could benefit as a whole when women were empowered. After returning to the US, I found Expanding Lives, and was excited to continue helping those with the ability to change the way of life for not only themselves, but their whole family as well. This extends not only to those young women who visit Chicago, but also everyone with which they come into contact while they are here. Host families are given the opportunity to meet and share cultures with someone in their own home- allowing them to become ambassadors of goodwill. Those connections have a lasting effect on everyone involved, and the life-changing experiences which the women and host families share remain in their hearts for the rest of their lives.
This summer I had the fantastic opportunity to work with Expanding Lives as a cultural liaison to four young women from Niger. I worked with the girls from the very first day they landed in America and was with them up to the day they boarded the plane back home. It was my job to help the girls assimilate to American culture, their host families, and interact with other youth of similar age. This transition took place while the girls participated in six weeks of classes with topics ranging from English, computers, public health, leadership and democracy to peer mediation and African dance. Through this experience the girls gained invaluable skills, abilities, but more importantly independence. Coming from a country where only a nationwide 6% of women go to secondary school, the opportunities that a trip to America offers is priceless. It is life-changing both for the women and for anyone else who has worked with them. Personally, seeing the internal motivation and strive for education that each and every one of these young women presented was inspirational. They have the drive and the ambition, they just need the opportunity. The opportunity to get a better education to better themselves, the lives of their families and communities, and eventually become models of change within their country. The amazing strength that these girls showed in coming to a foreign country, all alone, to pursue education is phenomenal and truly says a lot about just how powerful young women are. They have inspired me to pursue a career in women’s empowerment, especially in developing countries in Africa.
Expanding Lives (EL) was founded by two teachers at my high school. As a French student, I was asked to help translate classes from English to French. I translated weekly classes on conflict resolution, and I did some one-on-one tutoring in computers. But I also helped by planning social activities, like picnics, soccer games, and tie-dying; I found these events to be the most rewarding part of Expanding Lives’s program. These activities, attended by students from our school district, provided some downtime from the academic curriculum, and demonstrated the organizational capabilities of young people. But most importantly, they served as a cultural exchange between American and Nigerien teenagers. Chasing a soccer ball, rubber-banding a t-shirt, in these moments I got to know the four visitors. They were not just participants in a non-profit I worked with the summer before my senior year; they were my peers, and by the end, my friends. Perhaps “Expanding Lives” strikes many as an ambiguous name. Canning to raise money for EL, I’ve had people ask me if it was a pro-life organization or if it provided health services, like weight loss. The name does not mention West Africa or women’s education or cultural exchange. But anyone whose life has been touched by the program knows that it is the only appropriate name. Ultimately, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Midwest, from the desks of a classroom to the grassy slopes of a park, this organization honors a commitment to change…a commitment to expanding lives.
I went on retreat with Expanding Lives, and it literally changed my life, and opened my eyes to the world. During this retreat, I acted as a cultural leison to help the four pre-selected girls from West Africa transition from country to country. During this retreat, we opened up to each other and talked about what our lives are like, and what we liked to do. This retreat helped me to realize how easy my life is in America, and how in other countries, women are still so oppressed! This charity empowers young woemn to stand up for themselves, persue Univeristy level education, and to become a leader in their own community to empower other young women. Also, I have personally worked with these girls in learning English. It's a hard concept to learn a foreign language, but it's even harder when you have to speak a language you are semi-knowledgable in in the same foreign coutnry. I loved this charity simply becuase it was hands on, and you had the experience of meeting the women from Africa. You were able to share cultural differences and make lasting friendships.