Some friends of mine are a military couple. I don’t know many military couples and I am intrigued by their sacrifice and appreciative of their service. This gorgeous couple has an incredible bond and a beautiful, romantic story about their marriage….especially during his service in Afghanistan. When I first heard of this story, I immediately thought of a specific Greek myth of Odysseus and Penelope. I interviewed them about their inspirational story involving travel and love. There were other personal and poignant details interwoven into this story having to do with military life, sacrifices, friendships, and lost loved ones which will remain part of their story’s inner layer. The main message is shared here.
When your husband was deployed, I heard of a “pledge” you made until he returned safely. Can you describe the inspiration behind this?
When my husband was first deployed in 2003-2004, to Afghanistan, none of us knew what to expect. It seemed like the Wild West over there but thankfully everyone in the brigade came home and no one was killed. On my husband’s second deployment, however, there were several causalities and with each one I heard about, I started to feel really out of control about the situation. My husband’s battalion was operating in one of the most dangerous provinces at the time. I didn’t think he was going to come home and I started to fear a knock at the door about my husband.
At that time, I was going for a hair appointment and canceled it because I thought, “the only thing I can control at this moment is my hair.” When your world seems to be spinning out of control you latch onto anything that gives you a little control and growing my hair out was my control. I decided to let my hair grow and to only cut it when he returned home safely. Cutting my hair would represent a new chapter in our lives. A chapter that didn’t involve me feeling helpless and in a constant state of fear.
Ten months later when he came home safely, we went together and I cut my hair. That hair cut was like no other hair cut I had ever had in my life. It was emotional to say the least.
From the beginning I knew I wanted to donate my hair to those affected by hair loss from cancer.
Did you donate the hair to Locks of Love?
It was Pantene Beautiful Lengths. I donated 12-13 inches of hair.
What inspired you to do this with your hair?
(writer’s side note): It reminds me of the Greek myth of Penelope and Odysseus. In the myth of Odysseus, while he was at war, his faithful wife wove a burial shroud for his father. She put off suitors by telling them that she would not consider remarriage until the weaving was complete. Secretly, each night, she unraveled her weaving so that it was prolonged for 20 years…..in the hope that she would be reunited with Odysseus. The myth conveys the message of sacrifice, patience, faith and feminine virtue.
I don’t remember doing it for anything other than one of his favorite things about me is my long hair. It was like a tribute to him as well as to give the hair away as a sacrifice. Not just to cut if off for no reason but to give it to someone who has health needs and feel that their beauty was something that they could control in their life. (with the wig made from her hair.)
Do you consider it a “tama” ?—(Tama is a Greek word for a promise made in faith, sometimes in a votive offering. Usually for a miracle.)
He has been in the military for fourteen years now. I don’t know how we made it through everything—the divorce rate in the military is high but I’m an Army brat so I guess I’m used to that lifestyle. Most of all I think it’s the deep love we have for each other that has bonded us together even when so many miles separated us. This life has made us stronger.
Once it was all over, I could have just trimmed the hair but I decided to cut it all off. Because of the sacrifice we made, I wanted someone else whose health and beauty was sacrificed in illness to have something to feel in control of their situation…the wig made from my donated hair.
An enchanting and driven friend of mine travels to Seattle area every summer to volunteer at Camp Agape. Her active schedule involves a lot of volunteering in general but she manages to slip away and fit in this worthy cause, too. I didn’t know all of the details about this endeavor but I could tell it was near and dear to her heart and has deeply affected her. My friend has the unique combination of one of the sharpest minds with a philanthropic heart. She chaired a fundraiser which donated proceeds to Camp Agape. I recently interviewed my lovely and savvy friend about this incredibly special place called Camp Agape.
What inspired you to get involved with Camp Agape?
I first heard about it from my spiritual father, Fr. Tom. I’ve always had a soft spot for underprivileged kids or those who are struggling with illness or abuse. The concept behind the camp is what drew me in. This will be my fourth year to attend as a counselor .
What is the concept behind the camp?
Camp Agape NW provides an all-expense-paid, weeklong, overnight camp for the whole family of a child with cancer. Camp Agape gives children with cancer a chance to feel normal, siblings a chance to feel special, and parents a time to be together. There is a 1 to 1 ratio for every child meaning every child has a full-time buddy and playmate that never leaves him for the entire week. The buddy is there waiting when the child wakes up and stays with him until it is time to go to bed. The camp is free of charge for the child with cancer, the parents or legal guardians, and all siblings.
There are several locations but the one I volunteer at is in the Northwest, outside of Seattle in Gig Harbor which is on the Puget Sound. Families may attend a maximum of two years for each child that is fighting cancer. It is hard to believe, but there are families that have more than one child that is fighting cancer, so they can attend an additional two years. They only other circumstance where families can attend more than two years is in the event of a relapse.
Do the campers have to be from a particular religion?
It’s for all denominations.
Describe the preparation, itinerary and how it revolves around the concept.
We want the child with cancer to feel normal. The directors and nursing staff prepare the counselors on the kids’ needs before they arrive. Specific things for their physical needs, like how to handle their ports, any special conditions to be conscientious of, etc. are covered ahead of time. But we don’t want to focus on that–we just want them to feel normal. The rest of the family is treated extra special. We have just about any kind of food or snack you might want available all day. This includes a full milkshake and smoothie bar, coffee/espresso bar. They can have as much as they want. We try to pamper the parents. They can get haircuts, massages, take naps or do whatever they would like.
The camp operates under the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco and is run locally by the Ladies Philoptochos society. There is a local executive board that prepares for the camp year round. The camp directors and clergy that are on site are a combination of Orthodox and Protestant Christians, working side by side. I love that !
As I said, we try to make the siblings feel special and the campers feel normal. For parents, it is time for them to relax and reconnect as a couple and a family . Many couples are emotionally and financially strained but I’ve noticed that the families never seem to act like victims or whiners—they’re very positive and resilient – as are the kids . Some have had to move residences for their child’s treatment. Some are paying for two house payments.
The siblings also really suffer when the families have to pick up and move and many times take a backseat in order for the sick child to be cared for properly. This can cause guilt and anger. Some siblings physically and emotionally regress due to the stress. This week gives them a chance to forget about all of that and have fun.
What are the dates of the camp session? Describe the program and staff.
It’s the 3rd week of July. There are approximately 120 staff members or counselors . There is usually a 20 family maximum with a waiting list. We also have back up counselors because if any counselor gets sick, they have to be pulled from the program. We can’t run the risk of the campers getting sick. We also have a waiting list of families. In the event one of the campers blood counts drop or become ill, those familes unfortunately have to be pulled at the last minute and the next family on the waiting list is notified. We have even had instances where the campers got sick and counts dropped while they were at camp and the entire family had to leave. It is heartbreaking to see the disappointment on their faces.
All of the counselors and staff sleep in tents and the families sleep in cabins. The counselors are ages 18-25 and then we have 5-6 of what are called ” concierge counselors “. We (concierge counselors) oversee 2 entire families and around 10+ counselors and are there to get the families anything they might need from extra blankets, special meals, laundry services – whatever they need.
There is always a theme for the week. In the weeks I’ve been there, the themes were: Lion King, Back to the Future and Minions. We decorate the dining hall every day according to the theme. The entire week we make each day special with games, activities and costumes revolving around the theme. We have skits, races, arts and crafts, kayaking, fishing, swimming, intertubing. One day, we go to the local YMCA to use the pool for the kids. We have soccer matches. During Back to the Future week, we even had the DeLorean car. Each evening we all gather under a big tent and sing songs, dance, karaoke, bring in bands, watch movies. It’s non-stop activity.
Do you get updates from them? This must be hard on you emotionally when you get attached to the campers.
Yes, we all stay in touch. Some of the counselors like myself are located in states pretty far away. Thankfully through social media we can stay connected. One thing that I think is very special is that the families, counselors and staff get to know each other at camp and stay connected and support each other year round and become lilfe long friends. Through treatments, changing diagnosis, ups and downs, they stay connected.
It can be very difficult at times, but I have become a stronger person by knowing these families. Their lives are emotional roller coasters and some of them live life in constant fear of a relapse. But to watch these kids and families who are fighting for their lives keep moving forward, one day at a time, is incredible. These kids are resilient and so mature for their age. Most of them have fought their way through things that the rest of us will hopefully never experience. There have been several years that I knew I might not see that child again. It is extremely difficult at the end of the week to say good-bye. But I remember what my spiritual Father always tells me – “If you give them one good day–go with that because that is one good day that they might not have had.”
How do you “regroup” when you’ve come home?
It’s an adjustment. There is a very peaceful and content feeling that stays with you for awhile. After watching what these families are dealing with, my life is easy. For three weeks or so just about nothing bothers me . But then the stresses of daily life set in and it can be very easy to lose sight of what is really important. It is important for me to do a reality check!
How has this experience enriched your life? How have you grown from it spiritually?
The biggest thing for me is that I’ve never been exposed to terminal illness in my family . I have learned not to take anything for granted. Most of all, I have learned that there are just some things in life that are beyond our control and we can’t fix it. But we can still love and support each other the best we can. I have been enriched not only by the familes, but also the amazing counselors and staff. When you’re in that close of an environment with 18-25 year old counselors, you’d expect them to talk and gossip about things like young adults their age do….but when we gather at the end of the day to regroup, it is the exact opposite. I t’s 45 minutes of twenty-somethings (20 year olds) praising and supporting each other !
The word AGAPE, I never understood until I went there. It means total unconditional love…and it’s there.
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I interviewed my niece about her mission trip to a Romanian orphanage in 2007. This striking, bright-eyed young lady has a gift for working with early childhood children. Her compassion for mission work in this area was perfect for voluntourism. Her Orthodox background played an important role in her enthusiasm for working with young children. She was candid, frank and sincere in describing her trip experience and how she evolved from it.
What inspired you to travel to Romania?
During my senior year in High School, I was researching which mission trips I could go on. The choices included Tanzania, Guatemala, Romania, etc. There was an opportunity to build a church in Guatemala and that interested me. But my love for kids drew me to an opportunity to work in an orphanage in Romania. I had just graduated from high school when I found out that I would be going to Romania a month later. What did your trip itinerary involve?
Three days before we left for Romania, we went to Jacksonville, Florida for a three day training where we met the other kids who would be on this trip. The kids were from Kansas, California, Michigan, etc. One girl was from Romania originally and had moved to the states but went back to do this mission trip. When we got to Romania, we spent the first few days sightseeing in Cluj. We spent two weeks in a youth camp up in the mountains and went back into Cluj where we worked at the orphanage for three days. We stayed at the Bishop of Cluj’s apartment. St. Michael’s Cathedral was across the street from the apartment. Bishop Vasili stayed in his quarters but visited us every night.
What excursions and museums do you recommend?
It was pretty cool! We weren’t allowed to take pictures of Dracula’s castle. The outside was beautiful and the inside was like a museum….with many pictures of Dracula. The Nicula Monastery is the oldest monastery in Transylvania.
What meals do you recommend? How would you describe the perfect Romanian meal?
In Cluj, we ate a lot of cabbage rolls with chicken and rice. The cabbage rolls had either tomato sauce on them or lemon juice. The biggest thing over there is cabbage rolls. All the monasteries served them.
Describe the vibe of the Romanian people?
In Cluj, the people were very nice, very open. People walked up to us on the streets and asked us if we needed help or information. It was obvious we were tourists.
Perfect strangers? Were you supervised by an adult?
Yes, we were supervised by an adult. They offered to take us on tours when they saw us looking at maps.
Describe the terrain of Romania.
It was mountainous, beautiful and everything was in bloom when we went in late June/early July. There were beautiful rose bushes everywhere! I was shocked at the amount of rose bushes. Any challenges in getting there?
We flew from Florida to London, then Bucharest to Cluj…..all in all, approximately 12.5 hours. We had a long layover in London which made it nice. The Heathrow Airport is huge and we had to ask people how to get around it. In London, at the Heathrow Airport, we saw David and Victoria Beckham.
POSH AND BECKS?
Yes, they were friendly and waving to people.
What did you learn about yourself on this trip? How did it enrich you spiritually?
When I went, I had just turned 18 years old. I was immature, in the high school phase and the center of attention. Seeing people who don’t live financially comfortable lives made me realize how great I had it growing up. I appreciated my big family. The orphans had nobody. Spiritually, I got more out of the monasteries just sitting there where I wasn’t really comfortable. There were no pews–everyone participates, sings and says prayers together which is a different side of church from what I’m used to with the priest and choir doing most of it. They don’t have choirs at most churches in Romania. Chanting comes from parishioners. Men stood on one side and women on the other.
They do that in Greece, too, …
This was 4 years before I went to Greece so I had never seen that before.
Describe your experience volunteering in the orphanage.
It was mainly just playing with the kids so they had an interaction outside of the people who normally work there. We took them outside on walks. They were all little; 1-5 years old. There was a one year old I wanted to adopt and take home!
How many orphans were there?
There were nine orphans. It was at the orphanage called Protection of Theotokos Family Center. Most of the orphans are there because their mothers were too young to take care of them.
How did you grow from this trip?
I learned patience with older kids at the youth camp. They were 10 years old to seniors. We worked at the youth camp which was similar to the youth camp I work at in America . They had Orthodox Life Sessions, outdoor recreation, skits and sing a longs.
I remember contributing to the funds that you raised for the trip. Describe that process. What is the name of the program?
I gave a presentation at church and raised approximately $1700. The only thing I had to pay for was airfare. The program was OCMC: Orthodox Christian Mission Center. Other people in our church did this as well. I hope people who read this are inspired to take trips like this. It was my first trip by myself. I was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school. It was a religious experience and I got to work with kids. The Romanian kids didn’t know Americans and we didn’t know Romanians…until then. It was an eye-opener and I branched out to see the world. It was breathtaking and I’d definitely go back!
Voluntourism is a recent buzzword or concept in travel. Volunteer + tourism= voluntourism. Voluntourism is a great opportunity for anyone to immerse into a culture or destination while serving a need! Search it on the internet and you’ll be amazed at the opportunities and itineraries just waiting for you! Some young adults do it during a “gap year” in their education. Some adults do it as an opportunity to expand their horizons and also because of the financial benefit to affordable travel.
You can customize your volunteerism opportunities to fit the length of your desired stay, your destination and your skills to provide. I am looking forward to trying this abroad someday. For now, we have experienced some level of voluntourism through Boy Scout adventures , etc. handsupholidays.com is a good resource for volunteerism among several other great sites/ resources as well. When I looked up the National Geographic website, I found voluntourism information as well as a plethora of other resources that I’ve inquired about. The materials they sent me are informative, attractive and impressive.