From two months old, I was exposed to mission work and community service as the daughter of missionaries serving in Albania. My parents lived there for 10 years from 1995-2005, during the country’s post-communist era, where they encountered poverty and hardship among Albanian citizens.
I remember stories about children buying guns and grenades on the streets for barely any money. At one point, my mom had to be evacuated by a helicopter while pregnant with my brother because a riot broke out.
During these early years in Albania, we often didn’t have electricity in our home. One year, an electrical fire destroyed my entire room, taking all my clothes and toys with it. Word got out, and the impoverished people who used to visit our home seeking help now came to our home to help by giving bags of clothes to me and my brother.
My dad always said to me that the greatest lesson he learned is that love and freedom are critical in our lives.
As I grew and began to understand this concept, he explained that the secret to life is to love and be loved.
These early years in my life paved the way for a future filled with volunteer work in local and international communities.
When I was 14, I volunteered for Project Mexico and St. Innocent Orphanage, an organization that builds homes for families experiencing poverty and for boys who are orphans around the area. This incredible week-long experience made me want more, leading me to take a gap year after high school.
I spent the year after graduation serving in Mexico, Albania, Greece and Uganda, doing various volunteer projects, like teaching English in schools, working in a soup kitchen and building homes for families experiencing poverty.
But my time in Uganda stands out in my memory like no other experience has.
In the fall of 2018, I was teaching English and art at Alund’entono Primary School in Kasubi Parish. Each day, I taught lessons, interacted with the students and experienced the Ugandan spirit of love.
One day, I was speaking with my friend Agnes. I noticed children constantly calling out to her and running up to her throughout our conversation. I told her what was so apparent: “These kids really do love you, Agnes.”
She had this perplexed look on her face, a sort of surprise as if what she said next was so obvious: “Well, it’s because I love them.”
Agnes is an incredible woman, who has dedicated her life to kids — taking in several children from surrounding areas and working for the St. Nicholas Ugandan Children’s Fund, a non-profit that helps pay school fees for students in Uganda.
This organization, and specifically Agnes, inspired me in my own journey for my future. She is so passionate about her work, and at times sacrificed her own time or money for those she was helping.
When I’ve questioned what I want to do in my future career, the advice I have been given is to find something I love and then make a job out of it. Agnes is the definition of someone who has done exactly this.
These experiences of traveling and serving others gave me more than I ever thought it could. I remember pausing for a minute and looking around to soak it all in. The world was my classroom, and the power of love and solidarity took over.
Loving people and offering them the space to be heard is so important.
These experiences recontextualized and instilled more deeply what my dad has been repeating to me since our life in Albania: the secret of life is to love and be loved.