How a month in Finland changed my life for the better.

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I’ve always been an adventurous spirit, mom’s nomadic child, the friend you have to watch out for when out on the town because I will strike up a conversation with anyone willing to talk…about anything…always inquisitive, I take lifetime learner to a whole different level.  With adventure comes a seemingly non-existence of fear but truth be told even though I fear little sometimes when adventures are presented to me I will have a slight blip of hesitation.  However, once in a while an opportunity comes around that you can’t say no to, something so personally important that you decide to through caution to the wind, ask your boss for a month off work, and head into the unknown wondering if you are ready to take the leap.  February 2018 was just that time for me.

Like some I was late to the whole CISV party but you may be wondering what is CISV?  CISV stands for Children’s International Summer Villages, an organization founded in the belief that peace is possible through building friendship and mutual understanding, starting with children; CISV educates and inspires action for a more just and peaceful world.  As fate would have it two years ago my dear friend Andrew invited me and our friend Mary to attend a planning session for a Village that our local chapter was hosting the following summer; one meeting turned into multiple ones, which turned into helping with a mini camp, that lead to becoming our chapter Risk Manager (if you don’t think your level headed OCD tendencies can’t be put to use try out risk management, it will test you in a very fulfilling way), and eventually lead me to interview and accept a role as leader for our Step Up Program to Lappeenranta, Finland in July of this year.  You see, before the Finland trip I had only had a taste of what CISV was and how it could change your ways of thinking but with that I also thought I knew everything there was to know about myself and what I wanted in life.  Boy was I wrong.

When I first met my delegates during our initial Skype call I wasn’t sure what to think, leading a group of colleagues at work is one thing but leading a call of four 14 year olds is something new in and of itself; adding to this was the knowledge that all of my delegates had participated in programs before and I had not.  Talk about a layer of anxiety that I had to deal with but you know what, we all handled it with grace and ease.  Those first few months of planning weren’t easy, I was still learning the ropes and juggling turning in forms and planning travel but my four trusty delegates helped ease my fears with each call; they showed up, they participated, and their insight into past programs helped me better understand how the process would go.  So to Camille, James, Jasper, and Sarah from the bottom of my heart thank you; thank you not only for taking a chance on me but for also being the support system you didn’t realize you were being, your collective excitement and ability to prepare for our departure when we all were 5 hours apart helped ease my fears that we would not be prepared when we stepped on the plane in July.  Things weren’t perfect, we changed our ideas midstream, but we got through it together and had fun while doing it.

Fast forward to July when we boarded the plane to Finland; it takes immense trust for parents to send their children away with someone they have only known for a few months, let alone to a foreign country where they would have little contact with them for a month.  But you know what they did trust me and I took that to heart because for the next month I was entrusted to be their guardian and support system, a job I didn’t take lightly; as a social worker I help families every day so I knew how to handle myself an others in a crisis.  Blessed with the patience of Job, as my friends like to remind me frequently, we headed out for a country unknown; was my patience tested, you bet it was!  Try being exhausted trying to catch a train to your final destination and realizing there was nowhere to store your luggage so you have to get it and everyone else to the upper deck of the train without causing a pile up.  It wasn’t pretty, I needed coffee, but we did it and shortly we after we were blessed with meeting up with the delegation from India for the remainder of our train ride.  I’m grateful for that train ride, it taught me even during a whirlwind I have the ability to figure out a solution and remain as calm as possible; I’m even more grateful for that 1.5 hours we had to make a connection with one of our fellow delegations because as extroverted as I am having a familiar face when embarking on an adventure such as this is a welcomed thing.

Once we arrived in Lappeenranta it was a whirlwind of a weekend; the kids went away to their homestays, the leaders and staff got to know each other, and we prepared for the first few days of camp.  I am thankful for that weekend, the bonds we formed then (and during the camp) I believe truly prepared us for working together as a team when we faced adversity later in the camp.  I look at life as a series of peaks and valleys, the peaks being the high points and the valleys being the points in your life that didn’t go as planned and maybe you needed help to pick yourself up.  I won’t bore you with all the details of our month together, or of the things that went right or wrong, however I will share that when the camp was collectively in a deep valley we worked together to pick each other up, heal the pain, and climb to the peak.  I don’t shy away from failing because through failing we learn something about ourselves and the situation; failures, as I see them, are better called speed bumps.  They slow us down because there is something we need to be taught.  So with this month long adventure I’m sure you are wondering just what I learned about myself and others.

I learned that living without adding value to the world is not a life I want, life is not meant to be lived merely for the sake of living.  The kids in this program have shown me the fragility of life and how the future can be if we don’t work to make the world a better place.  Seeing their thought processes in uncomfortable situations and working towards a solution is mind blowing; if you don’t think kids can change the world I encourage you to witness a group of 32 fourteen year olds talk about racial injustice or border patrol policies more eloquently than politicians four times their age.  These kids engaged in conversations that matter, hard conversations, while also being respectful of everyone’s background.  They showed me that the world isn’t merely black and white and to make a difference we need to look at the grey area to find a common solution.

The kids also taught me that sometimes it’s ok to rely on their strength when you’re having a bad day.  This group was wise beyond their years and boy are they observant; after a particularly stressful 24 hour period having them come up during delegation time with hugs and laughter was more comforting than they know.  Camp, as in life, has moments when hard, emotional situations occur; these test your patience, your coping skills, and often times make you wonder if you were cut out for this.  Adults often have to be the strong ones, the ones to put on a brave face when times are hard, but sometimes roles reverse; I saw our kids comfort their leaders when hard decisions had to be made.  They may not have known it then but during those times it was their support that kept us motivated.  So thank you, thank you for being the quiet strength we needed to make it through that day.

Working with a group of adults and kids also shows you that everyone and their individual skill sets make a difference no matter how small.  Most of my friends will tell you I am a patient, active listener; little did I know that after I arrived this skill, and my knack for giving advice, would make an impact on so many.  It wasn’t until I was on the plane home, reading what others had written to me in my journal, that parts of me I classify as “just being who I am and nothing out of the ordinary” were traits that helped others during their valleys during camp.  For all of those that said I helped them they helped me too; I saw that being patient and encouraging the shy ones yielded leaders we didn’t know we had.  Nothing is quite as exciting as seeing the quiet ones leading a group by the end of camp, I think seeing this kind of development is one of the biggest testaments to CISV as a whole.  It’s not easy getting out of your comfort zone but when you do, oh how your flourish.

20180718_135350Lastly, to my amazing group: Camille, James, Jasper, and Sarah.  I believe some of the greatest things I learned were from the four of you; if you were scared about having a leader take you to Finland that had zero program experience you didn’t let on.  You each helped ease my fears, you were patient when I had to help with things that happened at camp, and never once did you not see the positive in a situation.  I will forever miss our delegation time, the talks of Buzzy, card playing at the airport, endless hugs, all that chocolate we bought, and the list goes on.  Being your leader was by far the greatest gift anyone could have given me and I am so proud of the leadership, friendship, and grace you all exhibited during our month together.  You have given me a lifetime of memories and I cannot wait to see what all you accomplish in life; you have taught me that fourteen year olds can alter the way an adult sees life, believe me each of you have played a role in altering mine.  I know in my heart this isn’t the last we will see of each other (and not just because Camille lives 3 roads over from me haha).  Keep growing, stay inquisitive, and continue to believe in yourselves the way you believed in me.

At the end of camp we have a group reflection time, a point when we can share with the group what we have learned or what we are feeling.  Those who know me well understand that I am a natural sap and can cry easier than most but thankfully I was able to semi keep it together when sharing my final words, as I finish this I would like to share them with you:

I don’t believe in perfection because it doesn’t allow us to grow.  What I can say is that coming to this camp I thought I knew everything about myself and what I wanted in life, however for those that don’t think kids can teach adults something I would like to say they are wrong because I am leaving here changed by a group of 14 year olds.  Our camp was perfectly imperfect and I wouldn’t change that for anything.  This isn’t goodbye, this is until we meet again; how lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

There isn’t one part of camp I would go back and change, the perfectly imperfect time together helped us create bonds and memories that won’t fade with time.  C.S. Lewis says it best, “You can’t go back and change the beginning but you can start where you are and change the ending.”  To my Finland Step-Up family thank you for meeting me in the valley, working our way out together, and starting the first chapter on our “until we meet again.”

I was apprehensive to put my life on hold for a month, not knowing what I would miss but the reality of this gift I was given is that I missed nothing; I was exactly where I needed to be, at the right time, with the right people.  You can’t put your life on hold while waiting on a better life to begin.  I encourage everyone to fight like hell to ensure the life reflected back is the one you want to be living.  Step outside of your comfort zone, go to another county, and immerse yourself in something new.  That’s exactly what I did and I now understand what matters in life and what I believe in because of the time I spent with a group of strangers, strangers I now call family.  I drank the Kool-Aid and I am forever humbled and changed.  Kiitos.


If you would like to know more about CISV use the following links:


3 thoughts on “How a month in Finland changed my life for the better.

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful testimony of your StepUp experience!
    (I am sitting here crying, and don’t feel ashamed to say so as I can absolutely relate to your words.)


  2. hello! Thank you for sharing this experience. Like you, I blindly fell into CISV seven years ago as a leader. My first experience was also a Step Up. It changed my life in more ways than I can describe (including a full career change into educational programming). I was lucky enough to represent my chapter (Vancouver, Canada) at the Global Conference for CISV in the Netherlands a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t even begin to describe how inspiring it was to meet 500+ people from 65 countries around the world who came together simply because they believe that peace starts with the children.


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