Love notes to Nicaragua

"Love is beautiful when it's professed but it's only meaningful when it's practiced." -Brene Brown 

This is a quote I read before leaving for Nicaragua and I vowed to make it my mission while I was there, to spread my love like wildflowers. And to learn as much as my little brain could soak up. 

One month ago, I returned from Nicaragua. I had the opportunity to travel there and stay for 2 weeks through the University of Cincinnati's School of Social Work and the University of Cincinnati Study Abroad program. A group of about 30 social work students went and stayed with host families who graciously welcomed us into their homes. All of the students worked in groups at different work sites: from schools to community centers to the nursing home. However, I chose to work in the clinics. 

I chose this placement for 3 reasons:

  1. I am obsessed with Grey's Anatomy and I really just wanted to know what it was like to wear scrubs like Meredith Grey.
  2. Integrative health care and the implications for social work being more involved with the health care system is an area of research that, in particular, sets my soul on fire. And I wanted to learn.
  3. It was out of my comfort zone. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to be courageous. 

This was the view from my homestay's living room. I loved waking up in the morning and being able to see the sun shining and the tip of the volcano peaking through the leaves for the tree. 

I missed my dog so much. But luckily, my homestay family had an adorable little dog to 

Baby Jose was my favorite part of Nicaragua.

Even though I was over the moon with excitement to go to Nicaragua, I was simultaneously terrified. All caps. Terrified. I've always been an adventurous soul, but this was the longest time I've been away from home. 

The litany of thoughts that scurried through my brain were something like this: "I don't speak Spanish at all. How will I communicate? What do I know about working in a health clinic? What if my homestay family doesn't like me? How will I train for the flying pig marathon while I'm there? Will it be too hot to run? What if my dog forgets me while I'm gone?" 

The thought that caused me the most anxiety ridden, sleepless nights in the days before I left was: "Am I even a good enough social worker to go on this trip? Do I even get to call myself a social worker?"

This is the clinic in Diriomo, Grenada, Nicaragua. To me, this image symbolizes resilience. People in Nicaragua have more access to healthcare but only 9% of the budget is spent on healthcare. The expenditure per capita is only $162.9. The staff working in the clinics were some of the most compassionate human beings I have ever encountered, working tirelessly to ensure people received the care they need. (World Health Organization)

The "head" of a bed in Diriomo.

The "foot" of a bed in Diriomo. "Aqui" which means "here" was one of my favorite Spanish words.

Before going on this trip, I didn't feel like a social worker. I sort of felt like I was in this world that I didn't belong. I felt like a majority of my classmates have this vast experience working in social work settings, and here I was, the graduate student with her undergraduate degree in photojournalism and virtually no social work experience. I thought that maybe, my dream of combining my love of storytelling, photography, and helping people would stay, just that, a dream. And maybe I had no business being a social worker. 

Tuesday was my favorite day in Diriomo. This is ultrasound day. All of the new mommas line up to see their new little bundle of joy growing. 

Being able to witness these new mommas see their babies was one of the most magical moments of the trip. I think sometimes, it's easy to take these simple moments for granted but I am so grateful for each these little moments. 

But of all the many things I learned on this trip, I learned that my dream can become a reality. That I can be the girl who is interested in health care and research at the same time as the girl who spends 45 minutes taking the perfect artistic picture of the same flower. I can be the girl who loves to hear people's stories and to document them through photography and also be the girl who uses those stories for qualitative research to create positive change. I learned that I can be both. I can be a social worker and a photographer. And sometimes a marathon runner. I can be all the things I want to be.

On Wednesday we went to a health outpost located in the city of Grenada. From here we went to different houses in the neighborhood to give people the health care they needed, from vaccinations to pap smears. 

Doing home visits with the doctors was one of the most incredible things I had the chance to witness in Nicaragua. To me, this meant that people got the care they needed without having to travel anywhere for that care. 

The outside of another health outpost near Adalita. This is a mural that reminds people to wash their hands in order to prevent disease. 

Laundry blowing in the sunshine, in Niquinohomo, during more of the home visits we made with the doctors and nurses. 

This is at a clinic in Adalita. This little baby was getting ready to get a routine vaccination. I spent a lot of time in the clinics holding babies. 

On a daily basis, I carry about 3 notebooks with me. In those notebooks, I am constantly scribbling down ideas, thoughts, and dreams. Since returning from Nicaragua, I have filled those notebooks with Nicaragua. I have filled them with the sunshine. And the colors. And the warm hearted kindness of the people I met there. I hoped that if I wrote it down, I would be able to write this beautiful account of my time there and truly make people understand how much it impacted me. 

This is of the men we met while working in the clinics. He came outside one of the clinics to show us his parakeet. One of the most striking things to me about Nicaragua was how kind everyone was. Everyone welcomed us with open arms, willing to teach us about their culture. 

One of my favorite animals in the world is a pig. And I even got to pet this big boy. He responded with snorts of thankfulness. 

Lawren, one of the other students I got to work with in the clinics took a turn holding the little parakeet. I was so grateful to be surrounded by so many talented, passionate, hard working individuals on this trip. 

One of the most amazing people I met in Nicaragua was Jonathan. He was our interpreter, traveling with us to all of the clinics. I speak very little Spanish so although it was important that he was there so that we could learn, I was inspired by how much he enjoyed his job. 

But in my heart, I know that no matter what I write, or how many pictures I show I will never be able to fully convey how much this county has changed me. So these words and photos are like my tiny little love notes to Nicaragua, the University of Cincinnati, Viva Nicaragua, Carrie Mccracken, Xan Boone and all of the other people who made this trip and experience possible. My gratitude is limitless. I hope to return to this beautiful, vibrant country one day, to plant my love in more places. ¡ Hasta Luego, Nicaragua!

One of the days we went to a school in Niquinohomo to gives the kids Albendazole tablets. These tablets are taken to kill any parasites the children may have. As of 2015, data has shown that only 59% of the population has access to safely managed drinking water. Safely managed drinking water is any water that is free from contamination, fecal or chemical. (World Health Organization)

Working in the school was one of my favorite days because although we were giving the kids medication, they were still excited to see us. I got a surprising amount of hugs. It was also really incredible to see how social work can be a part of public health and how integrative health care can really work.

Baby Jose was the hardest goodbye. On the second week of the trip, he started crying every time I left, chasing me to the door with arms in the air to pick him up. 

Hot mulled wine

I'm calling the post "hot mulled wine" because it is a nice and warm 9 degrees outside. I'm curled up on the couch with my dog next to me, fuzzy socks on my toes, and a hot cup of mulled wine in my hands. And I'm dreaming of warmer weather. I'm more of a barefoot in the grass, sun in my hair kind of girl. Despite having lived in Ohio for my entire life, cold winters like this make me want to hibernate.

One of my New Year's Resolutions was to post on my blog more. To write. To share. 

So I'm going to share one of my favorite Engagement shoots. Maybe the photos will make me remember what it was like to feel my toes. 

I knew from the moment I met Kate and Noah that they would be an incredible couple to work with. So I was over the moon when they chose me to be their wedding photographer. Throughout their session, I couldn't stop noticing how Noah looked at Kate, like he couldn't believe how lucky he got. And Kate couldn't stop giggling. My favorite part of the session was when Noah looked at me and said "Can I show you how I'm going to kiss her at the wedding?", and sweeps Kate off feet to kiss her.

After their shoot, I couldn't stop smiling for the rest of day. And as a photographer, that is the best feeling in the world, to leave a shoot feeling so full and happy. Kate and Noah just emanated joy and love. The contagious kind, that warms your soul. 

So if you don't have any hot mulled wine to warm yourself up, I hope these photos of this sweet couple can.

More of you

As many of you know, along with going back to school to pursue my graduate degree, I also began photographing weddings. This opportunity was the kind of opportunity that just landed in my lap gracefully. And with a little praying and journal writing to clear my thoughts, I decided to accept the opportunity. I feel like I met Joe, the owner of Innovatory photography for a reason. 

This is only funny because once, a younger version of me said, "I will never be a wedding photographer." When you're a young, photojournalist, you only dream of photographing far, exotic places and weddings seem too simple. Too much like everyday life. But after a few years, I realized that two people vowing to be each other's teammates for life, two people being head over heels in love, that is nothing short of extraordinary.

I have found that a wedding day is full things that remind me of why I wanted to be a photographer. There are special, little moments tucked into every corner. The best part about wedding days are people have these huge, authentic emotions that they can't contain. They are usually bursting at the seams with love and laughter. 

Eisha and Tyler's wedding was the first wedding I photographed for Innovatory Photography. I was unbelievably nervous for the day. But they made my first wedding easy. They were relaxed and obviously over the moon about getting married. My favorite part about the day was the first look. Tyler's face when he saw Eisha for the first time was priceless.

I edited their photos while listening to Chris Stapleton on repeat. My favorite song is "More of You": 

It makes me want more of you
Again and again
I fall more in love with you
Than I've ever been
From the moment you wake me up
Till you kiss me goodnight
Everything that you do
It makes me want more of you

Tyler and Eisha embodied the lyrics of this song. And I feel blessed that they chose me to be their photographer and that their wedding was the beginning of my journey as a wedding photographer. 

Check out at Innovatoryphotography.com for more beautiful work by other members of the Innovatory team! 

Love made Visible

  Fairly recently, I found out that I was accepted into the University of Cincinnati's Master of Social Work program. Needless to say, I'm over the moon about my decision to further my education and am grateful for the opportunity to do so. This doesn't mean I'm going to stop being a photographer. I am a visual storyteller, it's an integral part of me that I will never be able to get rid of. This decision to go back to school is just one step closer to the direction I wanted to go with my career.  Honestly, I've never felt more at peace with a decision. 

  I decided to post my "personal statement" (slightly edited) that I submitted with my application to the program, because I've been getting so many questions about why I would do this. I thought that the best way to answer this is, to share the words that got me into the program to begin with:

   When I was in college, I consistently kept a journal to write down my thoughts, ideas, and goals. After looking through those journals, I notice a phrase I scribbled constantly: “Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience - Colossians 3:12-14”. I think I wrote it down so often as a reminder to always have a soft heart, full of love, with whatever I do. I majored in photojournalism in college, because I wanted my photos to make a positive difference. My experiences as a photojournalist, led me to the decision to pursue a career in social work because I want to continue down the path of making an impactful difference in the lives of others.

    A few particular experiences stick out as the sparks that lit the fire to pursue a career in social work. One was when I was working on a group project with two other photojournalism students. Each group had to pick a theme to base their project around. My group chose poverty; 31.5 % of people living in Athens County, Ohio live in poverty as opposed to the 13.5% that live in poverty in the United States. The extreme poverty was something that we had all noticed while living in Athens, and it was a story we wanted to explore; if only, to bring awareness to the issue. We connected to a family who was an example of the type of poverty many were living in Athens County. The family lived in a small trailer without running water. One of the first things that happened when we got to the trailer was one of the daughters, a little 6 year old named Hayley bounced up to me and said, “Do you want to see my room?” For me, that was one of the most important parts of the story, to tell it through the eyes of the children. Her room was in the back of the trailer and it was simply a dirty mattress with no sheets or blankets, that she shared with her 2 sisters. She showed me her favorite toy which was a broken umbrella. It broke my heart, but the only thing I could do was play with her and listen to her as she told me about her life. I remember she was very interested in the camera that hung around my neck, so I taught her how to use it and she took a picture of me that I still treasure today. Right before I left, she picked 3 tiny little pebbles off the ground and said, “keep these with you forever to remember me.” I wouldn’t need the pebbles to remember her, but I still have them. It amazed me how positive this little girl could be, even without knowing whether she would be able to eat dinner that night, or when she would be able to take a bath again. I thought to myself, “This little girl could move mountains if she was given the opportunity.” She was so creative and shone like a little light in the bleak environment she lived in. That experience forced me to think about my own childhood, one full of comfort and love. One where I didn’t have to think about if I would eat dinner that night. One where I could climb into a soft bed to sleep in every night. One where I could dare to dream to be anything I possibly wanted to be. I just wondered what little Hayley could do if she was given the same opportunities I was given, if her family had been more financially secure. I hope that she is still thriving in spite of it all, and I hope that she keeps that wild, imaginative spirit. Hayley inspired me to pursue a career where I can more directly help children like her and make sure that their sparkle never dulls.

    Another experience that led me to the decision to pursue a career in social work was when I produced a short documentary for a video class I had to take in college. I had been fascinated with PTSD, especially in war veterans; partly because my grandfather was a Purple Heart recipient and veteran of WWII. Near the end of his life, my grandfather would have flash backs to being taken prisoner by the Nazis. As a senior in high school at the time, the only thing I could do was hold his hand as he cried. When I got to college and started studying photojournalism and storytelling, I thought, “What if my grandfather had told his story? Would his PTSD have been better if he had been able to talk about the demons that haunted him?” Thus, I began searching for ledes to veterans willing to tell their stories for my video class. I knew that I couldn’t help my grandfather, but it somehow felt like if I could help other veterans, I would be honoring my grandfather’s memory.  On my search for veterans willing to share their stories I met Karla. Karla was a veteran of the United States Coast Guard. Her story was not one of war and valor. She was suffering from severe PTSD from being raped multiple times while serving in the military. Karla’s story was not an isolated incident. Through research I discovered that in the year 2012, an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military and only 1 in 7 of those victims reported their attack. Karla contacted me and wanted to tell her story because she had never told anyone what happened to her before.  I spent an entire semester with Karla, going to her house at least twice a week, sometimes to do filmed interviews and sometimes just to sit, listen, and cry with her. On the last day I spent with her before finals when I would be turning in my final project, she baked me chocolate chip cookies. I sat in her kitchen and watched, thinking about how it was such a blessing and a privilege that she would trust me with the story that shaped her life. Building a relationship with her is something that I will cherish forever. That human connection is what I seek in pursuing a degree in social work. 

    My goals in this career are to help people; to let them know that they are not alone and that their voices are heard. I hope to able to use my skills I have learned as a photojournalist to show compassion and empathy towards people and to use photography as a form of therapy for healing. Through my years at Ohio University, I noticed a pattern with every single one of my subjects: that telling their story and having their photo taken was healing to them.  They all thanked me for the opportunity. It always seemed ironic that they were thanking me, because I felt like I was the one that should be thanking them, for placing so much trust in me. I think a large part of being a social worker is advocating for society’s oppressed and seeking to give them a voice and equal opportunity, which is a goal I seek to achieve. I have read about the VA in Palo Alto, California which has started a photo recovery workshop for veterans with various issues, such as trauma, PTSD, depression, and substance abuse. Participants in the program take photos that represent their path towards recovery and during the workshop explain in words what the photos mean to them. They have found that taking photos is another way for veterans to process their emotions and work towards recovery. The photos can act the catalyst towards facilitating a conversation about their trauma and experience leading to recovery. One of my career goals is to facilitate a program such as this, that leads people on a path to recovery. There is also a photographer named Wendy Ewald, whom I greatly admire. She started her career by teaching photography to young students in the Appalachia community, a community where 1/3 of families were living below the poverty line. She taught them that the camera can be a “tool of expression.” Her book Portraits and Dreams, features the work produced by the children, ages 6-14, from the years 1975-1982. In reading that book, I saw how honest and pure the work by the children was and it inspired me. What if more children were given a chance like this? A chance to tell their stories and have a voice. Another career goal I have is to work with children, possibly in a school setting. I believe that every child deserves a quality education and I would like to be a part of ensuring that for all children.

    A particular challenging life experience that sticks with me, occurred the summer in between my freshman and sophomore years of college. My uncle is a man with a history of having a short temper. One day, he lost his temper on my grandmother, shoving her to the floor, leaving her with a broken wrist and a bloody nose. The next week, my mother was the victim of one of his fits of rage, leaving my mother covered in dark purple bruises. Seeing my own mother barley able to walk, with grotesque bruises covering her face was heart breaking, especially knowing that her own brother was the one that caused her this much pain. My mother reported the incident to the police, much to the distain of her siblings, who believed that if she just forgot about it, the family could move on. My mother wanted to see her brother get better and she knew that staying silent would do more harm than good. I went with my mother to court to tell her side of the story. The judge ordered therapy for my uncle so that he could begin the process of healing and silence whatever demon raged inside of him. This incident was a defining moment for me. It was the moment I think I really became an adult, because I suddenly saw how quickly everything can change. When my entire family stood behind my uncle and offered no support to my mother; that was when I really understood the culture of “victim blaming”. For me, that summer flipped my world upside down. When I went back to school in the fall for my sophomore year of college I suffered from panic attacks and nightmares. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with tears streaming down my face, paralyzed with fear. Photography became a therapy tool for me. I learned that by focusing on the details I captured in the frames, I could find a sense of peace in the world around me. I could learn to see the world as a place of beauty rather than a place of fear. I also took a journalism class that semester and chose to focus many of my projects on the issue of domestic violence. Talking about the issue and being able to research it detail was a soothing process for me. Although the incident is still something I think about from time to time, I have to say that I don’t feel the all consuming fear I once felt. Nelson Mandela once wrote in a letter to his daughter, “There are few misfortunes in this world that you cannot turn into personal triumphs if you have the iron will and necessary skills.” That incident inspired me to want to pursue a career in social work, so that I could help other victims and families turn their own lives around after their own misfortunes. 

        I think that one of my biggest strengths that will make me a successful social worker is my passion for people. During my undergraduate career, many of my photojournalism classmates would make comments about how easily I seemed to connect with my subjects and how quick they were to trust me. I always pursued projects with the intent of helping someone tell their story. It was never about gaining a perfect grade, but about forming vital human connections.  One of the other personal strengths I have is my ability to cooperate with others. This seems like a fairly basic life skill, but during college, I was a member of the Ohio University Women’s Crew team where cooperation with others took on a whole new meaning. In rowing, all 8 rowers must row in complete synchronicity, united together to achieve the common goal of crossing the finish line. I could probably write an entire book about how that experience shaped me, but by far the most important thing it did for me was make me realize the importance of human connection. I hope to carry that same compassion, harmony, and magic I learned in the boat into my career as a social worker.

With flowers in your hair

I could tell you exactly where I was one year ago today. 

I was sitting at my dining room table, armored with a hot cup of (black) coffee, typing until my fingers were numb. I was sending email after email to potential employers. Endlessly editing my website and resume, always finding more flaws the next time I looked at them. 

For anyone who has recently graduated college, you know this hustle. And you know that this hustle is a hard and scary one. You spend hours, analyzing your strengths and weaknesses, trying to figure out how you can pitch yourself as the best employee for the job. 

To keep myself from going crazy during my work search hustle, I always listened to music. One Mumford and Sons song, "After the Storm" always made me feel better. 

The lyrics that really soothed my restless, 23 year old, "I'm going to unemployed forever", soul were: 

And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

It was a reminder to hold myself to a standard of grace, not perfection.

One year later, I don't have flowers in my hair, but I do like to make pretty, little works of art with them in the photo studio. But my heart is full of grace and gratitude for the life that I have. 

 

The magic of the boat

I joined the Ohio Women’s Crew team when I was a freshman. I had been a competitive swimmer my entire life. I thought to myself, "This is a chance to reinvent yourself. You can be anybody you want to be. You don't have to spend 4 hours a day in the pool anymore. You don't have to always smell like chlorine." I originally tried not to do any sports, but what I quickly discovered is that I thrive off of competition. I felt incomplete without it.

I think what originally drove me to try rowing was that I figured it couldn’t be that much different from swimming; you’re on the water and you’re racing. The thing about swimming is that it’s more of an individual sport. It’s a test to see how much you can push yourself; How fast YOU can kick your legs, how fast YOU can spin your arms, how fast YOU can touch that wall.  In rowing, you loose that sense of YOU and you become a WE. It becomes a test of how much you’re going to push yourself for every single person in that boat with you.

I read a quote somewhere that said, “When you row in a women’s eight, you have eight new best friends: all of whom will put themselves on the line for you, who will endure the biting cold, heat advisories, or torrential downpour to ensure that you get across the finish line first. These women will ignore the aching muscles, blisters, and sleep deprivation for you, because they all share the same passion in pursuit of athletic excellence. It’s the most selfless form of teamwork I know.” I couldn’t tell you how true those words are. 

Rowing in a boat with eight other girls is power and grace. But I think the word I use to describe it the most is: magic. 

Today I was looking through some of my old work and found some rowing photos I had taken. The album contained photos from when my team was training for Dad Vails, the biggest collegiate regatta in the country, which is held every year in Philidelphia. I couldn't row because of a shoulder injury so I rode around with the coach in the launch and took some photos. Looking at the images, I was reminded of that feeling I got when I was in the boat. The feeling of complete peace with myself. The feeling that I belonged in that boat and that I was going to row my heart out for my team.  Looking at these images I felt the magic again. 

I wanted to share these images because rowing on Ohio University Women's Crew team literally shaped me as a person and a photographer. It taught me more about teamwork, passion, and diligence than I think anything else could have. For that, 39.3402° N, 82.0245 ° W, the coordinates of the lake in Athens, Ohio where the Ohio University Women's Crew team practices, will forever have a special place in my heart.