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Mom, four kids, a year of service

Teresa Keller and four kids are spending a year in service around the globe.
By Kimberly French
Summer 2011 5.15.11

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Teaching art in Calcutta (Teresa Keller)

Jennifer and Bella (right) teach art to an all-ages group at the Children’s International Sahey Center in Calcutta’s Nakeldanga neighborhood, February 2011. Keller says this was the poorest area where they taught, but also had the most enthusiastic children, some of whom later produced a video about their lives. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Keller)

At age 39, Teresa Keller got the chance to travel outside the United States for the first time. She was invited to speak on responsible tourism in Peru for the archaeological nonprofit she directed. One day, as Keller explored the streets of Trujillo, she met a boy about her son’s age selling gum. She learned he lived in the shantytown, which was cobbled together from corrugated plastic, woven grass, and tarps, pitched on the blistering sand dunes along the highway. He had no shoes. “It was just horrible,” she remembers. “I broke down crying.”

On the plane ride home, Keller knew she could no longer live her life the way she had. She could not turn her back on what she had seen.

The urge to change your life and do humanitarian work in the world may be almost universal, Keller says. So may be the urge to drop everything and travel the world.

In the circles most Unitarian Universalists travel in, a fair number of people do act on those urges. But she hasn’t met anyone else yet trying to combine both—especially not as a single parent, with four children along on the journey.

Since last July, Keller, now 41, has been circumnavigating the globe with her daughters Jennifer, 18, and Isabella, 13, son Alexander, 14, and a friend’s daughter, Meagan Franz, 18. They are partners in a venture they call Round the World with Us. When they finish this summer, they will have traveled to twenty-eight countries, working on fourteen widely varied humanitarian projects along the way.

Planning the trip took fifteen months, and Keller thought a lot about what kinds of development projects would work for her family. The Keller clan has helped build a computer lab for an orphanage in Bulgaria, raised money to buy land and build a village for Dalits (“untouchables”) in India, and planted trees in a Masai village in Tanzania where the traditional way of life raising cattle has been disrupted by drought.

“The idea wasn’t just to go and volunteer, but to make a connection between people who could help and people in need,” says Keller, who spoke about her journey by telephone during stops in India, Cambodia, and Laos. In some places, volunteering at manual labor would take a job away from a local person, she points out.

So she designed the trip as a combination of volunteering, raising awareness with youth back home, and raising money (all of which goes directly to projects), along with some fun, touristy days mixed in. Much of the travelers’ down time is spent communicating with youth groups and friends following their journey. All five of them blog and post photos and videos on their website.

Their goal is to raise $150,000 for the projects, and they’re most of the way there. One donor pledged a nickel for each visitor to the web site. Individuals and churches have also raised money. Their own church, First Church Unitarian of Littleton, Massachusetts, donated its collection plate one Sunday, the youth group held a bake sale, and its Council on Social Justice made a contribution, raising $1,700 in all for the Dalit village in India.

Keller has spent her career in nonprofits and has always wanted to work in the developing world. The idea of this trip seemed to solve a lot of what wasn’t working in her life—not spending enough time with her kids, worrying that her kids only knew a relatively privileged way to live, needing a change from a relationship and living situation that was breaking up. “I really felt in my heart this is the right thing to do,” she says. To fund the group’s travel, Keller took money out of her retirement fund and sold her house, minivan, and whatever other belongings she could. She quit her job, turning down a six-month leave offer. For the year before setting out, the family moved into a small apartment.

That year was tough. The two younger children took it hard, and they were old enough to recognize propaganda when they saw it. Alex was angry for about six months, Keller recalls, kicking over furniture when he left the room. Keller and Bella got only about halfway through reading the young adult version of Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson’s account of building schools for girls in Pakistan. No go. The kids rolled their eyes and warned their friends, “Be careful if your mom starts reading Three Cups of Tea.”

By the time everything they hadn’t sold was packed in storage, and the family dog and gerbils shipped off to new homes for the year, they began to accept it, a little.

Once they started traveling, Bella, who wants to be a zoologist, immediately tuned in to the “really cool animals” she met. A temple up a steep slope near Jaipur, India, was reached by riding elephants, who are limited to five trips a day. At the end of the fifth trip, she observed, the elephants flapped their ears because they were so happy it was quitting time. “They’re really smart,” she says. In Kenya, Bella wrote a poignant allegory, posted on her blog, from the point of view of a goat the travelers had donated for Christmas dinner at an orphanage, a goat she had been petting moments before.

“I want them to have their own voice, and be honest, not sugar-coat anything,” Keller says. She took a video of the goat’s slaughter, because U.S. teens so seldom see where their food comes from, and it’s gotten the most hits of any of their videos.

Before the trip, Alex admits, he was fearful about illness, theft, weather disasters, and bad food. In fact, much of that has happened. The group’s first stop in Russia was “like a post-apocalyptic movie,” Keller says, clouded by choking smoke from wildfires, record heat, and travel snafus that left them stranded on the sidewalk outside a train station overnight. Alex has had food poisoning and minor surgery for an ingrown toenail, and his sister Jennifer had to get a root canal in Cambodia. A delayed rainy season meant they could do only a ceremonial tree planting in Tanzania, and extended rain in India meant they worked on building water filters instead of houses.

“Seeing a lot of those things, like the food and having real experiences, has made me less worried,” Alex says. A quiet, thoughtful young man, Alex is the most popular at every stop, his female traveling companions say. He bonded so quickly with a Masai chief they met, both begged Keller to let him stay an extra week.

The teens have also discovered they have skills to offer that they hadn’t thought about, such as English and their ease with computers. For a youth center run by Children’s International in the Calcutta slums, the group raised $10,000 to train young people in health and sex education, according to plan. But with a little trial and error, the American teens discovered they could also make an important contribution by leading classes in spoken English.

“We figured we’d spend the two hours getting a feel for the class and going with the flow,” Meagan, who wants to become a teacher, remembers. “What a mistake that was! We quickly learned that planning is essential to teaching.” She documents their progress in four parts in an amusing blog post: “We aren’t exactly qualified for this . . .” “Crash and burn,” “We’re learning!” and “I’m lovin’ it.” At the end of four weeks, both the teachers and their students made dramatic improvements, and they helped the Indian teens produce and narrate a movie about their lives and dreams.

All five agree that the most inspiring project has been the Nyumbani Village in a remote part of eastern Kenya—even though staying there meant a month of only rice and beans to eat and an outdoor cold-water spigot as their sole water source. Keller learned about Nyumbani because she happened to mention what she was doing to a travel-insurance agent, who excitedly told her she had to go.

The vision of the late Jesuit priest Angelo D’Agostino, Nyumbani (“home” in Swahili) is a self-sustaining village being created with 100 houses, each with ten children and one elder left behind by the “lost generation” who have died in the HIV pandemic. Located on 1,000 acres in the dry eastern Kenyan desert donated by the local government, the village now cares for about 700 orphans.

Alex, who hopes to be an engineer or architect, adored building rainwater catchment tanks, learning to burn holes to set the pipes in a method developed by another volunteer. He hated it when meetings put the work on hold for a morning.

Nyumbani changed Keller’s notion of what “sustainability” means. Nearly everything is made or grown at the village—food from the gardens and fish pond, bricks from local sand, mahogany for furniture. Much of what isn’t produced locally is bartered, so there’s almost no waste. Even human waste is composted for six months.

The experience also changed her view of who can afford to give. One of the group’s goals is to help show Americans, especially young people, how even a small, carefully targeted donation can make a huge impact. In Kenya $3 buys a pair of sneakers for children who usually go barefoot through both rainy and hot seasons. A deafening cheer went up in the village’s auditorium when the group announced they were adding a campaign to raise money for shoes for all 700 kids.

But getting the message through has been harder than they expected, especially in an economic downturn. “In the meantime, these kids in Kenya, who have only the clothes on their backs, were performing dances and passing the plate, not for themselves, but to raise money for a school in town where the kids have even less,” Keller says. “It’s a way for people to connect that’s very powerful, satisfying, and Americans sometimes miss out on it.”

“These children will grow up with the idea that they are the lucky ones, who can afford to help others,” she adds, “and isn’t that who we all would like to be?”

Keller trusts that she can take what she’s learned about development projects that can have long-term impact and fashion it into the next chapter of her career, even though she doesn’t know exactly what that will be.

Often, she feels what she’s getting out of the experience is equal to what she’s given, maybe even greater. For example, nothing could have prepared the group for the crowding conditions they saw in Calcutta. They expected twenty or so in their classes, but sixty regularly showed up. “I kept wondering why they didn’t mind being so crammed,” Meagan remembers. “How can we work in here?” Then they visited the children’s homes and saw extended families of ten people sharing a 7-by-7-foot space, with platforms for sleeping, eating, and cooking. Most striking to Keller was how happy and well adjusted the kids seemed to be.

That has profoundly shifted her own thinking, Keller says. “Perhaps love is more important than achievement, even if that achievement is a noble cause like fighting poverty,” she wrote. “The trip isn’t over. I am still learning this lesson. . . . I am still fighting the internal battle between my achievement-oriented, concrete, thinking self, and all the signs out there that tell me that I’ve got it wrong, and the real stuff of life is much simpler than that. Many of us want to save the world, and we should do whatever we can. I’m not advocating complacency, but I think that perhaps our everyday attitude in simple interactions is the foundation, and the rest grows out of that.”

Round the World with Us will continue adding international humanitarian projects and new goals in 2011–12 and invites UU congregations and youth groups to get involved. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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