Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Our Autumn

We had a long and lovely autumn here in Twin Falls.  And we enjoyed it and spent lots of time outside.  There were hikes in the canyon, bike rides at Auger Falls, sunsets at Dierkes lake with friends, plasma car rides in the driveway (and Cheerios snacks in the dirt...NBD), playdates with fat babies at the park, and family trips to the Tubbs Berry Farm hay slides.


We spent time with cousins and grandparents (funnest!), and our favorite Drew came for a day to go to the pumpkin patch and carve them with us.  It is so precious to see how sweet Drew is with both of our kids, and how much he and Noah are looking alike these days!


Aunt Dana came from Boise to spend a day with us, and it was so cute how Noah immediately took to her.  He whispered in my ear, "Mom, is that Grandma Sally?"  I told him, "No, but that's her older sister."  Unconvinced, he went and got a little framed photo of my mom out of his room and held it up next to Dana's face to compare them and be sure.  He's right, my mom and Dana really do look a lot alike!  And I love being with her because she reminds me so much of my mom!  It was so fun to take her on a hike around Dierkes Lake.

Our favorite babysitter, Taylor, got married and we had so much fun dancing at her outdoor wedding reception.  She watched the kids about 10 hours a week this past year while I wrote for Power of Moms, did some editing for a friend's business, worked on a website for Ryan (more on that soon), planned the fundraiser for South Africa, and enjoyed some sanity.  She was an absolute lifesaver, and as happy as we were to see her get married, we were also so sad to see her go.  (She and her husband started school at ISU this semester.)  We will miss our Taylor!!  She cooked, cleaned, played with my kids (I mean, she made salt dough volcanoes with them??)...I called her the babysitter sent from heaven.  I'm not sure how I am going to survive without her.

Ryan did his annual 10-trillion-mile bike ride over the mountains in Sun Valley with his brother and his dad.  He loves this ride and tradition with his family. 

Ryan also got a truck!  He's a real Idaho boy now.  It took us weeks to find a used one online that was the color, style, and price that he wanted--and we were so relieved when the long process was over.  And I have to say, it fits him perfectly.  He's a hotty in that navy blue truck.

We of course spent the month of October gearing up for Halloween.  We Nielsons love a good holiday.  Our neighbors and besties the Sumsions helped us kick off the celebrations by buying our kids pumpkins (Sally approved--diva!) and then inviting us over to decorate "Apple Uglies."  We had a competition to see who could decorate the ugliest caramel apple--really fun! 

 Ryan's office dressed up as Superheroes for Halloween, and Noah was super excited when Ryan bought a Captain America costume because that meant they could be twinners!  (Though this was not Noah's actual Halloween costume.  Much more on that in another post!)

And PS...Sally kills me in this photo.  ^

It was a wonderful autumn.  The weather really was perfect which allowed us to have lots of adventures.  So far it has been a very cold, snowy and brutal winter, so I'm glad we were able to soak up those extra months of temperate fall! 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

That Time I Went on a Safari

In addition to meeting amazing people in South Africa, I got to see some amazing sights, including going on a "game drive" one afternoon.  That is what they call safaris.  When I think of safaris, I often think of multi-day excursions through the bush, and this wasn't that--but it was certainly incredible to spend a few hours driving around in a jeep in a game reserve, seeing the wild animals in their element!

All of the wild animals in South Africa are contained in game reserves, basically national parks that are fenced off, but they are living in the wild--thousands of miles of protected, wild, natural habitat. 

My favorite were the giraffes.  I wanted to snuggle one.  Almost immediately when we pulled into the game reserve, we saw a giraffe on the side of the road, just munching some leaves...no big deal.  Ha!  I mean, it's normal to see a deer doing that--but a giraffe??  I was smitten.

We drove a little further into the reserve and had lunch at a lovely restaurant overlooking the savannah.  We could see giraffes roaming in the distance and a crocodile lounging in a murky pond nearby.  There were also zebra roaming the grounds of the restaurant.  Just a little bit cool. 

I lived on the wild side (see what I did there?) and ordered ostrich for lunch.  It was surprisingly good--not as tasty as a sirloin steak by any means, but not bad.

Then we loaded onto the Jeeps and went animal hunting!

We saw impala, rhino, water buffalo, more giraffes...so amazing!

The best part, by far, was when we were surrounded by a herd of elephants.  They walked right by us, and one guy came within five feet of the Jeep, not kidding, and reached his trunk out as if he would touch us, before slowly meandering away.  Just the coolest, most surreal moment ever.  They seemed like the most gentle, wrinkly giants ever.

It was an incredible evening that I will never forget.  But honestly, even those beautiful animals pale in comparison to the amazing people I met in South Africa.  Nothing will ever come close to that!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Final Thoughts on How My Heart Changed in South Africa

It's the beginning of January, and I am looking back on 2016 with fondness and also relief that it's over.  It was a good year and a hard year.  The end was particularly difficult--with a scary health diagnosis (more on that in another post) and the fundraiser for South Africa that took so much of my time and energy.

But the fundraiser is over, and it was a success.  Thanks to the generosity of a lot of people, we raised $25,000, and I am thrilled.  So thrilled, humbled, and grateful.  We still need $10,000 to finish the community center, but I have complete faith that God will provide.  If being in South Africa taught me one thing, it's that God works miracles--and it's not always in the ways that we expect or through the people we expect--but He always has a plan.  He is faithful.

During one of evening discussions with the volunteer group in South Africa, Crystal was telling us about how much she had wanted to raise the money to finish the building at Reagoboka the year before.  She had decided to donate a portion of the proceeds of one of her products to the building, and she thought if she worked hard enough and had enough faith, it would happen.

But then it didn't, and she was a little disappointed, until a distinct impression came to her: God intended for someone else to help finish that building as well.  He wanted someone else to be part of that story too.  It wasn't all about her.

I loved that.  I was so touched by her humility.  I was also surprised to realize that too often I leave God's will out of the equation when I am looking at outcomes in my life.  I simply rely on my own hard work.

Evening discussions like that one are a huge part of why my trip to Africa was so impactful.  I knew going into my trip that I would be going with a very religious organization.  I also knew that I would probably be the only Mormon and that I would be with born-again Christians who would introduce me to different ways of talking about God and talking with God.  That's a huge part of the reason why I applied to go!  Honestly, I was feeling a little stale in my beliefs and I wanted a little life and fire and "glory hallelujah" in my prayers.  Ha!   In my daily life, I am surrounded by people who share my faith tradition, and sometimes I feel so insulated.  I love to be introduced to different ways to worship and draw closer to God.

Oh how the members of my group touched me.  These people know God.  I already wrote about Pete, who prays so fervently it brought me to tears to listen to him plead with his Father.   There was also Candra, a volunteer in my group who is a mother of eight--yes, you read that correctly, eight--five of whom are adopted.  Honestly when I first heard that, I thought she must be some sort of "holier than thou" whacko--but when I met her, she is the most normal, down-to-earth, likeable, real young mother you've ever met.

She told me her story of adopting her four sons from Africa and her daughter who has Cerebral Palsy out of foster care, and it was just so touching and relatable.  She and her husband were truly lead by God and followed Him one step at a time into this life that He laid out for them.  And it's been hard.  But she and her husband are a team.  And they rely on Him, and their mantra is "Risk is Right," and I have never met anyone (other than Pete and Wanda) who lives with such faith.

I am so blessed that I got to meet these people.  Deciding to go to Africa was not easy.  You should've seen the pros and cons lists that I made.  I mean, who up and leaves their tiny children for ten days to go across the world to Africa?  It felt insane!  And on top of that, I struggle with anxiety.  So getting on that airplane was not easy.  In fact, on the days leading up to my trip, I called my doctor and asked for a Xanax prescription.  (I wish I was kidding.)  But then when I started to have a panic attack on the plane, I couldn't get myself to take the Xanax because I was afraid that it would make me feel or act crazier, so I just suffered through the anxiety without medication!  (Ummm, hello, serious personal problems!)  When I was recently in the Salt Lake Airport with Ryan I started having flashbacks to how nervous I was the last time I was there, when I was on my way to Africa, and I said to him, "Ryan, I don't ever want to do something like that again.  I am so glad that I did it, but never again.  If I ever go to some far flung region of the earth with complete strangers again, you are coming with me."  Ha!

But it was worth it.  It was so worth it to go and meet those people, both the other volunteers, the South African leaders of Take Action Ministry, and the local leaders like Gogo, Mokgadi, and Pastor Norman.  They changed me and taught me so much.

I will never forget on one of our last days, we were all meeting together and Crystal asked the leaders of Take Action--Wanda, Annelien, Jonna, and Darrin--how we could pray for them individually.  It was such a personal even sacred question, and she had no hesitation asking it.  Then they each shared their hearts with us, told us about their struggles and their fears, the ways that their ministry was impacting their families, their hopes and dreams.  And we gathered around them and joined hands and put our hands on their shoulders and took turns praying for them.

It was incredible.  I have never been part of a prayer like that.  It was the embodiment of true community.  Why don't we pray for our family and friends like that more often?  I think we often feel the desire to show our support in such heartfelt ways--but we are afraid.  We are afraid to go there--to open our hearts to each other in such vulnerable and true ways.  Being in Africa, I felt a part of my heart open up.  And it felt scary but also so right.

Coming home was so good.  I wrapped my arms around my babies and held them so close.  My heart was so ready for them.  I was different, and I knew it.  I wasn't sure I could hold on to the ways that I had changed, but I desperately wanted to.

Sally in her Africa dress!
In the months since, I have to be honest and say that I've mostly gone back to the way I was before--life has a way of doing that to you--but I still feel a little chamber in my heart opening up in a way that it wasn't before.  I feel it pulling at me, asking me to slow down and listen.  And I feel like 2017 is the time to make that happen.

So here's to a more vulnerable new year.  Here's to reaching into the hearts of my loved ones and pulling out prayers, putting my hands on their shoulders and bowing my head and sincerely pleading for them and with them.  Here's to coming to know God in a way that I haven't before, listening to Him and hearing Him and asking about His will for my life, instead of just plowing forward with my own plans.

I end 2016 on my knees--a little defeated, a lot exhausted, but mostly just very ready for whatever change God has in store for me and my heart.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It's happening...

The Power of Moms' fundraiser for South Africa is up on the site.  It's happening.

I am a mix between excited, relieved, stressed, frustrated that I'm such a perfectionist, exhausted, super happy, did I mention exhausted?, overwhelmed by the complexity of social media, grateful that I have a husband who puts up with me, and also exhausted.  (Oh wait, I said that twice already.)

I have been so preoccupied the past couple of weeks getting ready for it.  I have been writing blog posts, crafting the fundraising page, coordinating with the other bloggers involved, recording a podcast for it, editing images, and just all matter of tasks, that of course I made 100x more difficult because I want everything to be just so.  (I have problems.)

When I get immersed in a project like this, I hardly eat, sleep, shower, or pay attention to my family.  I mean, I give them the basics, but my mind is elsewhere.  So don't go thinking I am Wonder Woman and can do it all...I can't.  No one can.  Believe me, my house is in shambles, I've had a babysitter here a ton during the day, and my kids have been eating dry cereal for most meals, often while sitting in front of the TV.  Fortunately, my kids like dry cereal and TV, so for now they're happy with this arrangement.

The other day during his quiet time, Noah asked if I could work in his room instead of mine, and I agreed, so he ran and got me my laptop, and then he snuggled up next to me and pulled out a book. Man, moments like this are just perfection. 

I couldn't help but think that every child deserves to snuggle up in a warm bed with their mama and a good book--but unfortunately, that is just not the reality for so many children in the world.  

SO, I hope that we can raise a lot of money for families in South Africa.  I hope that all of this work will be worth it!!

Will you do me a favor and check out the fundraiser??  And will you share it on your social media and with people who might want to contribute??

There are three ways you can donate:

1. You can donate directly here.

2.  You can buy a Power of Moms online program (such as 5 Steps to Less Stress webinar, Organizing for School Success kit, Mommy Is a Person Video Training--there are 7 options) and 100% of the proceeds go to South Africa.  Go here to read about the options and purchase.
 **This would also make a fun Christmas gift!  If you really wanted to get fancy, you could right click on one of the beautiful Africa photos from my posts, save it and print it, and then write the person a note on the back telling them about this cause and giving them the program code to the motherhood program you bought for them! 
3.  You can buy a $10 printable Christmas fun kit--8 activities you can just print and play with your kids over the holiday break--and 100% of the proceeds go to South Africa.  Go here to purchase. 

This is the main fundraising page on Power of Moms that gives a brief overview of the entire thing: powerofmoms/africa.

And this is the link to the podcast that I recorded with Crystal Paine from the blog Money Saving Mom, "How Ordinary Moms Can Make an Extraordinary Difference."  I just love this big-hearted, hugely-successful but ever-humble woman who has become such a mentor to me!

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to plan this fundraiser.  And grateful that it will be over soon so I can get back to just being Mom to my kids!

Surely the Christmas season will be much sweeter as a result my life-changing experiences in South Africa this past year, and oh how I pray that we will be able to pass along the word to Take Action Ministry that Maubane will have a new community center in 2017, thanks to all the good people who have come together to donate and to make this happen for them.

So far we have raised just over $11,000....that is amazing.  Let's keep it going.

THANK YOU so much to those that have already donated and shared. 

Click the links to donate or share!

Much, much love to everyone. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Come With Me to Maubane...And Let's Help Them Build A School!

 It's the beginning of the Christmas season, my favorite time of year--a time when I am inspired to give and look outward and count my blessings.  Today I want to introduce you to one final hero that I met in South Africa.  His name in Pastor Norman, and along with Gogo, Elizabeth, Mokgadi, and Pastor Robert, Norman reminded me that giving is a way of life.  It's not just something that is reserved for one special season of the year. 

Pastor Norman lives in a community called Maubane, South Africa.  It is a place known for its red dirt that sticks to your shoes and your skin--and its beautiful children that stick forever in your heart.

Since leaving South Africa, I've known that I cannot just go back to my normal life.  But what can I do?  How can I put into action everything that I learned and how much I changed?  

I've decided to raise money to help finish a school building at the community center in Maubane.  I'm going to do that by asking my friends and family to donate. (That's you!)  I'm also planning a big fundraiser with Power of Moms that launches next week.  (They will have eight of their online motherhood programs on sale, and ALL of the proceeds will go directly to this cause.) So the last few weeks I have been busy writing and writing and writing--posts and podcasts and newsletters--trying to put my experience in South Africa into words to explain this cause and the life-changing people I met in South Africa.

It feels a little daunting.  I want to raise $35,000.  And that's a lot of money.  But I know, without a doubt, that it will be well used.  And I feel that raising money to finish this building at Maubane is the best way for me to contribute something meaningful long-term because once this school is finished, it will qualify for government grants for Early Childhood Development.  So if we can just help them complete the building, it will be a donation that keeps on giving and giving and giving to these beautiful children and to a community that has worked so hard to better themselves.

I'd like to give you some background on Pastor Norman and this great work at Maubane.  As you read, will you consider how you and your family might contribute?  I would not ask if I did not know, from the bottom of my heart, that any money that you donate will make an incredible difference--and that it will be carefully, gratefully, wisely, and righteously used.  

I have worked with some great non-profits over the years, and I have never been as impressed with any non-profit as I am with Take Action Ministry and their local leaders.  Truly, the Maubane community is on the verge of an incredible transformation, and we could be part of their journey.  We could help Pastor Norman achieve truly amazing things there.  You can give here, or you can read on for all the details.

Several years ago, Pastor Norman began to dream of building a safe place for the Maubane community to gather and unify, and he even got permission from the tribal leader to use a dusty plot of land, but there was no money to build a school, garden, or church. This is a community of tin shacks that doesn't have consistent access to food or water.  There is no electricity or indoor plumbing, and the needs can be very desperate.

But Norman pressed on in hope and started a small children's church that met under a tent, and over time his congregation of little ones has grown to 400 children! They walk from miles around to feel his love and to sing and dance to Jesus.  With the help of Take Action Ministry, they've now built an outdoor pavilion with a paved floor and plastic chairs, and it's a beautiful place to worship.

When orphaned and vulnerable children show up at his services, Norman finds out about their extended family situations and their needs, and if he can't find anyone to care for them, he brings them into his home, and raises them as his own.  He has helped to raise 22 children.

One of the young men whom he took into his home is named Terry.  Norman noticed right away that Terry has natural leadership abilities, and he mentored him, loved him, and taught him to reach out to others and make a difference. Today, Terry and Norman work side-by-side in their dream to build a community center at Maubane.  They call it a "transformation center" because they truly believe that it will transform their community. And it already has.

Since 2013, the Maubane Rivoningo Transformation Centre, run by this remarkable father and his adoptive son, has given the people of Maubane hope, by giving them reasons to gather.

Hundreds of children gather before school to receive a meal of vitamin-fortified porridge--and for many, it is the only meal they will eat that day.  Take Action Ministry helped them secure a grant for the porridge and helped them receive funding for a simple kitchen made out of a shipping container.  It is a miracle to see this life-saving operation in action!

The children come back after school to get help with homework, to receive instruction in gymnastics and netball, and to play on the playground, which is made of recycled materials.  As I've mentioned in my previous posts, most of these children come from single parent homes, and their mothers have to travel long distances by bus to work as domestic helpers in the city--so the community center gives the children a safe place to go.

And it's not just the children who gather at the community center.  There is also a community garden where adults are taught to cultivate vegetables with methods that require very little water.  They are mentored one-on-one by an incredible man named Dawid who patiently teaches them each step of the process.  They use the vegetables both to feed their families and to make income.   

Since the people don't have running water in their homes, Take Action Ministry helped them build a community water point a few years ago, which gives the women a communal place to gather to do laundry, talk, and fill their water buckets.  This is also a very valuable resource because it has a large water storage tank for times of drought, which are very common.
All of this gathering together has led to a beautiful spirit of unity at Maubane.  During my time there, I noticed many teenagers with their arms around each other, as well as older kids with toddlers on their hips or helping them along, hand-in-hand.  

A man named William who has cerebral palsy comes to the community center each day, just to sit there and be a part of what is going on, because he feels loved and welcome.  If he can't find anyone to push him there, he pushes himself with his twisted feet, from about a mile away.  The teenage boys at the center take care of him and include him in everything that they are doing.  It made my heart swell with love just to witness it.

When I walked through the gates, the children swarmed around me, welcoming me, wanting to hug me and look into my eyes.  They were fascinated by my blonde hair and wanted to touch it.  I pulled it out of my elastic so they could stroke it and play with it.  I could've held those sweet children all day! 

My heart broke that their mothers can't spend more time with them.  They have to leave their children early in the morning and come home from work after dark.  They are doing all that they can to support them and care for them.  They want what is best for them, and I'm sure that having the community center is a huge relief and blessing for them.
Truly, the Maubane Riviningo Transformation Centre has become a place of hope where there was once only a dusty field.  And it sprang from the vision of one inspired, faithful, heroic man who believed that God can work miracles by gathering people together.

 My friends, we can come together to help this miracle continue.  

 I feel so passionately about this.  We can do this!

The next step in this miraculous transformation is to help the people of Maubane finish their school building, which will house their Early Childhood Development program and their After School Care program.

Their preschool is now being held in their outdoor pavilion area, but, as I said, they do not qualify for  funding yet because they are not in a building that meets  government requirements.  If they could get this funding it would make all the difference.  They could increase their enrollment and help more kids, run the program without outside donations, and train their teachers in best practices for at-risk children.  It would be an environment similar to Gogo and Elizabeth's school at Reagoboka.   When I was at Gogo and Elizabeth's school, I could clearly envision what is possible at Maubane, and I knew that I must work to make that possible--because that is what every child deserves!!

This is their current preschool program at Maubane:  

This little boy reminded me so much of Noah at that age.  Such a rascal!  I love the way the other kids are amused by him!

We could get them out of the pavilion and into this building:

It was designed by an architect who specializes in rural development, so it is very practical for this community and its resources.  As you can see, it is well underway, and as soon as they get the funding to finish the roof, plumbing, and interior, they will finish it and start using it!  It will have two classrooms, a communal area, and a small kitchen.  It will be used for preschool, after-school care, community classes and meetings, and much more.  

Pastor Norman and the people of Maubane have proven themselves faithful--they have worked so hard to transform their community.  I know that if we can help them get this building finished, they will treasure it and work so hard to make it a thriving, caring environment for these amazing, beautiful children.

We can make this happen for them.  Will you join me??  I would love for Take Action Ministry to be able to tell them before Christmas that the money has been raised, so there can be Christmas rejoicing and praise in their community as they prepare for a new school.

$35,000 is a lot of money, but every little bit counts.  Pastor Norman taught me that big things are possible--anything is possible--with hope, faith, God, and the gathering together of good people.

Let's make a difference to these kids in Africa.  Click this link right now and make a donation, big or small https://www.purecharity.com/maubane-rivoningo-transformation-center.

And if you can't give financially, I could still use your help!  Will you help me spread the word?  Leave a comment if you're willing to help me share the Power of Moms' fundraiser when it launches next week.  I would love for it to reach as many moms as possible.


 Thank you, my friends.  I truly, truly love you.

For more of my writing about South Africa...

Take Action Ministry: aka The People Who Changed My Life in South Africa

Come With Me to South Africa and Meet the Heroes There

What My Trip to South Africa Taught Me about Motherhood