Travel With Purpose – Cebu (Philippines)

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I landed in the city of Cebu on a cloudy afternoon exhausted and sleep deprived after 2 days of traveling with one flight delay after another. To make matters worse, I booked a guesthouse accommodating to my budget, which unbeknownst to me was in a dodgy neighborhood. As the taxi drove through Mindaue I kept praying my guesthouse wasn’t there. We had been driving for a while and I feared we were getting close as the taxi driver began squinting in search of the street where my guesthouse was located. I had yet to see one tourist, and the sights were quite ghastly with dozens of shirtless men walking around on a typical “work day” apparently doing nothing. The houses were boarded up with tin and had tin roofs, ongoing cock fights in miniature coliseums, and seemingly unsanitary fast food restaurants side by side in dilapidated buildings. And then my nightmare came true; he made a left into an alley and pulled up at the “Europa Mansion Inn”, a tucked away guesthouse that looked like a creepy dollhouse slash mausoleum with a bizarre Rococo type of dĂ©cor. To top it off, my room looked like a scene from “The Shinning”. There was no way I was going to stay there…no way. So I quickly made arrangements to change hotels and found one in the nicer part of town.

When I arrived at my new hotel, I felt much better. But still no tourists in sight, well, except for that white older man in the hotel courtyard walking around with a much younger Filipino lady. I rested up a bit and met Crystal, My Refuge House’s director, whom I had already met in L.A., and Jamie, founder of the non-profit Joy Amp who had been working with MRH for a few years now. We had a lovely dinner, got to know each other and discussed what we would be doing the next couple of days. After dinner, I returned to my hotel to get some rest, as the next day would kick off with an early start.

The first day of my volunteering in Cebu began with a breakfast / introduction meeting with everyone who had flown from different parts of the states to attend the grand opening of MRH’s new cottage. We all introduced ourselves, explained why we were here and said two interesting facts about ourselves (mine were that I climbed Kilimanjaro and that I’ve been to 38 countries and 6 continents). Besides Jamie, who had come here to contribute financially and provide emotional support, there was a team from Dallas from a for-profit company called LWP (Leaders Worth Following) and Guille, a kind Mexican woman who had been doing missions for years through her organization Lilies of the Valley. Crystal briefed us on what we could and could not ask the girls, what were the cultural do(s) and don’t(s), and if at any point we felt too overwhelmed with emotion and felt the need to cry, to please step away until we were able to compose ourselves. Duly noted, but I thought to myself, oh shit…that’s going to be me, the girl who lost her composure and had to step away. Great.

Shortly after our meeting more staff showed up, including “Ate Gaga” one of the resident house mothers, a very animated and funny woman who began joking with us within 2.2 seconds after meeting us, and two of the girls from the refuge house. They all addressed us as “Ate” (Sister) and I was baptized “Ate Loren” and addressed as such going forward. (Filipinos address each other as “Ate” and “Cuya” [brother], an indication of their good nature). We split up into 2 groups in order to buy the materials and decorations for the cottage’s grand opening. Jaime, three MRH staff members, and one of the girls (one of two peer leaders) was part of the group I was assigned to. I connected with *Clara, the peer leader, right away. Clara was wearing a black t-shirt with over a dozen pictures of Hip-Hop artists with long shorts and a boyish haircut. She called me “guapa” (pretty in Cebuano and Spanish alike) and asked me a dozen questions about myself. Clara is a striking, slim, and radiant 17-year-old who had been at MRH for three years now. We talked about everything from her love of music to our noses and skin color agreeing we wanted to trade them (I’m not sure why she would want my beak but I’d sure as hell take her cute Filipino nose any day) to her most recent accomplishment, a scholarship to attend college! Clara wants to study criminology; an obvious choice for a girl who you can see in her eyes has had a tough life.

We spent the next 7 hours or so shopping in malls and shops to purchase all the things we were donating to My Refuge House. Our first stop was the music store for the keyboard, Travel With Purpose donated the keyboard and Joy Amp donated the stand. Clara was beside herself! She told us how the girls at the shelter had been praying for months for a keyboard because the only instrument they had was a guitar and they were all eager to learn the piano. It was so lovely to share her excitement, given my love for music and career in the industry for over a decade. We went on to the electronics store to purchase a LCD screen so the girls can present their monthly research projects to the staff and also, for the staff to train future staff. Joy Amp bought them a printer and extra ink. Then we left the mall to go buy a lawn mower. The staff and the girls had been cutting the grass with shears so it was nice to know they would no longer need to do that strenuous task under Cebu’s blistering sun. Our final stop was to purchase the generator. We were able to get a really good quality one because Joy Amp and TWP split the costs. Electricity and water goes out in this area once every week or so and at times for 3 days at a time preventing the girls from showering, studying, and having running fans. Albeit these gifts were not for the girls themselves, they were incredibly grateful their little community was being blessed with materials they would all benefit from. It was surreal to see generosity in its purest form.

On the way to the hotel, we passed by Clara’s old neighborhood. First she made sure the back door of the jeep was locked and then warned us about not having our cell phones near the windows. She motioned to us where exactly she grew up and with deep pain in her eyes affirmed she could never go back there…to her family. Respecting MRH’s wishes, we didn’t probe. But she went on to say a fire had destroyed most of her neighborhood and that it was ridden with drugs and dealers. She told us about some sort of glue they sniff in order to get high. The only recurring thought in my mind as she spoke was Why? Why am I so lucky? Why me?, to the point where I was overcome with guilt.

So after a very long and exhausting day of shopping, moving around, sweating, being famished and quite a bit of internal complaining (the challenging part of volunteering is doing the “hard labor” and not complaining about it, reminding yourself that the sacrifices you are making will have the most rewarding outcome), both groups met up for dinner and called it an early night. Tomorrow would be “the big day.”

We drove out of the city into the outskirts of Cebu where MRH is located. I sat in the back of the van with Haylie from LWP (Leaders Worth Following). We talked about their company and my goals for TWP. A lovely woman she is who spoke with such high regard about LWP and what her boss, Dale the founder of LWP, did to help others. It was very inspiring.

As soon as we got on the main highway, the view changed dramatically. It started to have more of an island feel, the ocean was to our left with houses on both coasts draped in warm green landscapes. After about 45 minutes we finally arrived. We drove up a hill where the compound was built and securely fenced off and were let into the premises. My first thought was…wow this place is beautiful! MRH is comprised of 3 small buildings (the main building and 2 smaller cottages), a garden with a built-in hydroponic irrigation system in which they grow vegetables and raise tilapia, fruit trees, and a chicken coop. Because it was built atop of a hill, it has a spectacular view of the ocean. It was so breathtaking and peaceful, comparable to a retreat house somewhere in California.

As soon as we entered the building, we were coyly greeted by the girls…well, except for *Vanessa a petit 13-year-old who looked not a day older than 10 with an infectious laugh and a gorgeous face that would melt your heart. Immediately after walking in, she hugged us all one by one and just laughed as she looked up at us. I for one fell in love with her right away. Shortly after, we joined the girls in their task of finishing the gifts they were preparing for us and the other guests that were confirmed to attend the grand opening (approximately 60 people). They started warming up to us pretty soon. Within minutes Chris from LWF picked up a guitar and started playing Christian songs the girls knew very well and suddenly there was a choir. Although I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs, the love and spiritual presence in the room was tangible. Emotions started circulating through my body and I kept on remembering what Crystal said…keep it together Loren, keep-it-together.

The rest of the morning and afternoon we helped put up stuff in the new cottage from decorations to curtains to arranging and dressing the chairs. We also took turns getting to know all the girls through a lot of “chika chika” (chit chat). A few of the girls latched on to me, others held my hand, and with others we conversed and figured out words that in Spanish and Filipino were the same (the Spaniards reigned over the country for over 300 years). Jaime taught two of them how to play chess and being the bright beauties that they are, they learned fairly quickly. On the way to see the chicken coop I got a poked by some type of weed that left a splinter in my calf. Right away I sat down to examine it and remove the splinter. The girls were all so concerned they wanted to try and remove it themselves. They all gathered around me to see how they could help and were genuinely concerned about me. Finally I managed to get it out and they were all excited, it was adorable. We all ate lunch together, delicious Filipino food prepared by the staff. After lunch the girls eagerly showed us their dormitories and made us guess which one was theirs. They all had posters or art or drawings hung on their wall spaces and closets. They proudly identified whose section belonged to whom. At this point it was nearly 1pm and show time was approaching. The girls excused themselves so they could get dressed and “guapa” for the main event.

By 2pm the guests started to arrive. Shortly after, the ceremony began with an introduction by two of the girls, the main hosts of the entire event. They opened with a song by the girls and Chris on the guitar, followed by a powerful performance emulating being saved by Jesus Christ from “that life” and finding hope. I was so touched by this performance the tears started to form, discreetly I used my finger as a wiper under my sunglasses. Loren please keep it together, please….you don’t want to be that girl that has to step away, remember what Crystal said. Later that day, Clara had confessed that during practice they cried a lot during the “salvation piece” because it triggered a lot of memories and emotions for them.

The performance was followed by a comical skit consisting of two of the girls performing to a song in Cebuano in which a man was trying to win and even buy the love of a woman who consistently denied him. Although it was in Cebuano, the message was clear because the girls are naturals on stage. To close the show, they performed a traditional dance with tambourines in hand and concluded the ceremony by thanking all of us who attended. Crystal, MRH’s director, was called to the stage to say some words. She thanked all the guests one by one. When she got around to thank me, I felt so important. I felt as if I had won some type of award or medal. I just couldn’t believe that I, a woman from Miami / LA who one day decided to do a campaign to help girls, was half way around the globe actually there, in the flesh, being thanked by a true hero just for donating a few things. It felt so great to be acknowledged for doing such a small deed of kindness. Really, it did.

Next on the mic was Dale, the founder of LWF, who had donated the funds to build the entire cottage. He spoke beautifully and eloquently about how he wanted LWP to be different and that despite the fact his company was for-profit, his vision was always to change the world. That resonated with me deeply because I share the same exact vision. Half way through his speech…he broke down in tears. Dale! Didn’t you get the memo? Crystal said no crying!! Here we go. I started to sob, I mean SOB. Thankfully, I was sitting in the front row so no one could see I was breaking the rule. He kept speaking in between sobs and at this point I was shaking. I did a quick sneak peak and saw that the entire audience was in tears! Whew! We all broke the rules so now I could let the river run its course.

Dale is an incredible human being, an inspiration, and a true leader. After his speech he called up his team and the two local directors of MRH to the stage and with that grin of his told them he had a surprise for them. He handed them a check for $5k USD in order for them to realize one of their long time goals, to launch an outreach program! The staff was speechless. Rose Ann burst into tears. We all did. We all wept…a lot. And so the ceremony ended with the cutting of the ribbon and lots of runny noses and sniffles. It was truly a magical moment to be able to witness real altruism.

Naturally we ate again after the ceremony because Filipinos love to eat! As soon as I was done, the girls handed me a giant 8″x11″ thank you card with 12 individual notes inside. I told the angel face that handed it to me that if I read it then I would be in bad shape and promised to read it later in my hotel. She laughed. The last part of the day was very unexpected besides the fact that I was very unprepared for what was about to happen. Most of the guests had already left so only the LWP team, Guille, Jaime, Crystal, myself and the local staff were left. We were all sitting inside the main house and suddenly the girls asked us to get up so they can rearrange the furniture into a circle. Then one by one they started thanking us. Some were eloquent and spoke perfect English and others like Vanessa, mumbled words in Cebuano between laughter translated by some of the other girls who were more fluent. Then as expected, each of us was summoned to say some words. Shit!!! I was not ready for this so purposely I went last. Mind you, I had already sobbed after everyone’s speech. And sobbed even more watching the girls cry as they listened to each person’s speech. It was both heart wrenching and empowering…sad yet hopeful. I sensed their deep-rooted pain but felt that glimmer of hope each of us was bestowing upon them, at that very moment in that very room.

When it was my turn, I told them I needed to put my shades on before giving my speech and the entire room broke out into laughter. But that neither calmed my nerves nor stopped my voice from quivering. I don’t remember what I said verbatim but I do know I told them I loved each and every one of them before I had even met them and that sometimes we don’t find love in our own homes but find it in other places. It was incredibly difficult to continue my speech as I watched them weep, as they stared at me with their dark and striking eyes, the mirrors of their pain. I affirmed that they were the most “guapa” girls I had ever met and that they were so strong and that I knew that they were going to make it, that they were going to be happy in life. I assured them that the real gift was not what we gave them but what they gave us…LOVE and the opportunity to be a part of their lives even if it was just for one day. I concluded my speech by saying, “I don’t know if I will ever see any of you again…but I will never stop thinking about you girls, I will never ever forget you. I love each and every one of you. I mean it!” Weak in the knees, barely breathing and looking like a wounded animal, I sat back down and was hugged and held by all the girls who were sitting next to me. I can’t even express what that felt like…but I can imagine it to be comparable to being blind and being able to see again or meeting your son or daughter for the first time.

By now it was time to go and boy was I not ready to leave. I was not ready to part ways with joy, with love, and with the beautiful angels who offered that to me. With runny noses and heavy hearts we all hugged each of them and say our good byes. I found Clara and hugged her again, told her she was very special, and that one day she was going to be a great leader. I asked her to please write “Ate” on the back of my thank you card. She did, and little did she know her handwriting would be inked on me for life upon my return to the States. I walked down the steps and got in the van. Looking back at them from the car and watching them wave at us in between smiles and tears was sad and beautiful…but I knew that although we physically left that day, we filled their hearts with hope and that, was exactly what we were all there for…

Most of the ride back home was silent. Half way Crystal broke the silence and asked us if we had any comments or feedback about the day. A couple of us expressed how moved we were and our disbelief that such angels had suffered so much. We got into a discussion about what exactly was the meaning of sexual trafficking. Crystal elaborated that sexual trafficking is not limited to a situation where a person gets physically moved from one place to another and commercially exploited for sex, it also means applies to situations in which pimps, friends, and even family members lure, coerce, or force people into the sex trade. The problem in the Philippines is similar to the one in the U.S. Young women in most of these cases, of which 90% have a previous history of sexual abuse, incest, and/or rape, get lured into the sex trade by a pimp, friend, neighbor, or even a family member. Most of these young women come from broken homes and impoverished families making them vulnerable to making bad choices. In a country where for some families, a 6-month salary is equivalent to $50 USD where opportunities are scarce and to some nonexistent, getting into the sex trade is a matter of survival.

In the Philippines poverty and being robbed of one’s innocence are two of the major factors that lead some of these girls to voluntarily enter the sex trade. Regardless of whether these girls made unhealthy choices, how can we judge them when really all they ever wanted was to be loved and in some cases find their next meal? How many bad choices have we made in our lives? Is not driving under the influence and putting your life and others’ lives at risk comparable to selling your body? Is a partner cheating on their spouse and living in dishonesty, after exchanging lifelong vows, not comparable to a woman who chose a career in the sex industry, who has most probably been abused and came from a broken home? When you put things in perspective, it is simply wrong to judge. Because we’ve all made bad choices, all of us…at some point or another in our lives, we have all done things we are not proud of.

I myself have never been compassionate towards women who voluntarily enter the sex trade. It’s always been easier to judge so that I can feel better about myself, so that I can reassure myself that I have morals and dignity….not them. But see, I grew up in a loving family, in a financially stable home free of domestic violence, went to great schools from kindergarten to grad school, and had a father and mother who would have taken bullets for me (they still would). Visiting My Refuge House and spending time with these girls not only changed my life, it changed my perspective. I realized that most people make really bad decisions in life because they lack love, support, and/or stability. If any of us ever found ourselves in such despair, marginalized, treated less than a human, and unloved or uncared for…we would probably make the same and if not worse choices.

Everyone deserves a second chance in life. MRH is a piece of heaven on earth that offers second chances for commercially sexually exploited girls.  A chance to leave their past behind, to find love outside their families, build friendships, get nurtured by mother-like figures, attain an education and attend collage, learn a vocational skill, discover hope, and more importantly to be free. Words cannot express the beauty, resilience, intelligence, and radiance each and every one of these girls possesses. I am forever grateful that they changed my perspective and touched my heart in so many ways. I forever vow to fight sexual trafficking…I also vow to lead society to be compassionate towards women actively in the sex trade. Thank you My Refuge House and the 12 Angels that gave me the gift of love and compassion that forever changed the course of my life.

*Clara and Vanessa are not the real names of the girls I wrote about in this article. Their names have been changed in order to protect their identities as many of them currently have open cases against their perpetrators.

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Travel With Purpose – Finding Hope in Battambang (Cambodia)

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She was f-o-u-r. 4 years young. At the end of the infant spectrum, a toddler transitioning into a child who probably barely fit into a size 3T. She was four. 4 years young.

At 4 years of life, a child is still developing their personality and temperament. At four, a child is discovering the world around them, displaying behaviors that mimic those of their parents or caregivers, a time when family genes and traits surface, a stage where love is reciprocated verbally especially from child to parent. Think for a moment about your 4 year old daughter, niece, or grandchild…how tiny they are, how soft their hair and skin is, how cute they are when they laugh, how fun it is to see their personality unravel, and how eager they are to learn about the world. Four is supposed to be a fun age for parenting. An age that marks the beginning of autonomy, learning, dialogue, and expression. Four….four was the age of the youngest girl brought to the shelter at Battambang. She was four when she got sexually assaulted. Four. Four years young.

My stomach turned sitting on the back of the motorbike as we drove in the dark on an unpaved and bumpy road heading towards my hotel. I was in so much shock that still I haven’t been able to digest it or even wrap my head around it. The director of the shelter elaborated that her case is so severe she can never go back to her family. She was four when she arrived in Battambang.

The director picked me up at my hotel around 4pm on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, two days before Christmas. When she knocked on my door, I hugged her right away. We had been communicating via email for months so I already felt like I knew her. A tall thin blonde with crystal clear blue eyes from Iowa with beautiful energy. We packed up all the gifts for the staff and headed to the shelter. Along the way we chatted a bit. She told me her parents had moved to Battambang and had done a lot of work for the shelter. I shared my experience with her about Siem Reap and spoke to her about my goals with Travel With Purpose. Then we arrived at the main shelter, a beautiful and enormous compound that can accommodate up to 120 girls with a garden to grow their own fruits and vegetables, a playground, a study and computer room and a shop with over a dozen sewing machines so the girls can learn to sow as a vocational skill. In addition, they recently had acquired another house down the road for the girls with special needs. She gave me an extensive overview of what the organization does for the girls from housing to counseling to education to helping them and their families seek justice to vocational training in order to successfully integrate them back into society. It really is a happy place and it reflects on the girls’ attitudes, especially in their smiles.

When we walked in, a group of young ones ran towards us hollering the director’s name and without an introduction, three of them jumped on me and started hugging me. The littlest one, which I’m guessing was about 5, climbed on me as if I was a tree (I am taller than the average person in this part of the world so perhaps I reminded her of the giraffe she always wanted to climb). Then we walked over to the house down the street that accommodates the special needs girls. My first interaction was with a witty and eloquent girl who was legally blind. She has partial vision in one eye and a glass eye in the other, the org had paid for her surgery. Her English was nearly perfect and jokingly she told me her name was “Pineapple” and I, being fluent in banter, introduced myself as “Dragon Fruit”. She laughed. The banter went back and forth for a bit about our monikers…I am “Bird”, “Milk Fruit”, “Crocodile”, “Linda” and so forth. She told me she was the president of the Kids Club, a prevention program that strives to create awareness amongst young kids about sexual trafficking and rape. She had also mentioned she wanted to become a teacher. Sadly, the director later told me that “Pineapple” possesses real leadership skills but because she is partially blind she is marginalized by the society there, so the chances of her realizing her dream of being a teacher is not likely. Another girl who was fully blind was also introduced to me. She hugged me and felt my hands and wrists and in Khmer told the house mother to tell me that she could make the bracelets I was wearing. Lovely she was.

Just like the shelter in Siem Reap, the love that flows through this magical place is unbelievable. After the tour, I played Cambodian “hacky sac” with a few of the girls who eagerly invited me to join them. Then, a sudden impromptu photo shoot happened in which I became the photographer, taking about 57 pictures of the girls in their best model poses and 87 selfies with special requests to take individual pics with just me and one of them. It was hilarious watching the girls push each other out of the way when one or two tried to photobomb our pic. It was absolutely adorable! Unfortunately, I had to delete all the pics due to the confidentiality agreement I signed and primarily for the girls’ safety. Oh how I wish I can show you what the face of an angel looks like!

The next day we had an early start. The director picked me up at 7:15am on her motorbike and we headed to the shelter for the morning devotion with the staff. During the devotion we were asked to share what the greatest gift we had ever received was. I told the director I had been given the gift of being able to travel the world and that Honda 70 ATC my dad bought me when I was 5 that I was obsessed with and cried for two weeks when it was stolen. Then I paused…and with tears in my eyes told her that as clichĂ© as it may sound, meeting the girls has been the greatest gift I have received. She smiled, she smiled because she felt the same way…she empathized what I was feeling…because she was lucky enough to be showered with the girls’ love every single day. After they discussed the bible, sang, and said their prayers, the director introduced me to the group. I was asked to say a few words to them. I told them that they were beautiful people for the work they did, that because of them the girls will have a better life, and that lots of people in America are supportive of this cause and really care about what’s happening. I also told them that the gifts I brought them were a small token of appreciation for their labor of love. They all clapped and smiled incessantly. One of the staff members, a man with a gentle face who spoke English fluently, said he wanted to say some words to me on behalf of the staff. He expressed his gratitude for all I had done, how happy they were that I came all the way from America to visit them and that they wished me health and happiness and wanted to bestow their blessings upon me. My cheeks were frozen because I couldn’t stop smiling. In that very moment I was enveloped in their love…I felt like I belonged there, despite the fact I look nothing like them, despite that my skin is white and that I don’t speak Khmer and that I have everything they might ever dream of having. But I was welcomed…I was addressed as “sister”…I was important to them…they loved me no matter who I was or what mistakes I’ve made or whether I was a Christian or not. It was so humbling, I wanted to stay in this moment forever.

Right after the closing prayers, we brought the gifts out of the storage room and I handed out the gifts to each of the staff. They all said “thank you” in English and I replied “Ah Kun” (thank you in Khmer) and with my hands in prayer formation bowed my head. They took turns hugging me, complimenting me, taking pictures with me, and three of the women said “I Love You Sister”. I was so moved, so deeply humbled. Later on, the director mentioned to me that the staff hardly ever gets presents. Usually when people come to volunteer, they only bring stuff for the girls; hence, the reason they were so overjoyed. I’m so glad the director asked me to get them gifts as well because these men and women sacrifice so much of their lives for these girls. Each and every one of them is a selfless and humble human being who cares deeply about the hundreds of girls who haven been broken and marginalized, seen as damaged goods, dirty and useless by the rest of society. They are the real heroes, not me.

I retuned to the hotel around 9am. Walked over to the cafĂ© across the street and checked in with the fam back home. I called my mother first, being that my maternal instincts had been brought to life. I needed my mother…I needed her to tell me everything was going to be okay, just like I told my “daughter” at the Siem Reap shelter. Mami expressed her sentiments about my previous blog, said she read it twice and couldn’t stop crying. I re-lived the entire experience with her over the phone, sobbing in front of a handful of tourists having breakfast, only pausing to sip my lukewarm French pressed coffee. (I’m sure everyone around me loved having breakfast watching me cry and attempting to stop my snot river). I expressed to my mom my desire to continue to do this and to adopt a girl. She was so supportive and really understood how this experience had profoundly changed me. Then I FaceTimed with my dad. I needed a laugh so I had to see his face. We exchanged some banter and he kept telling me how ugly my glasses are and that I’ve been gone for so long I’m starting to look like a “China” (a Chinese woman). I laughed so hard and at this point the customers of the cafĂ© were for sure trying to decide whether I was Bipolar, delusional or simply bat shit crazy. I asked him if he read my Siem Reap blog and he said he couldn’t talk about “esas cosas asquerosas” (those atrocious things) and that if my grandfather, who was a sergeant in Cuba, was still alive he would have hung them all. I laughed because I know that this was his Cuban redneck’s way of showing me that he cares about what’s happening here. I paid the bill, looking like I just stepped out of a psych ward, and returned to my room to spend the next 3.5 hours putting together the gifts for the girls.

One of the staff came to get me around 2pm. We went to go buy the bicycles for the girls. At the shop I realized I had about $200 USD extra so I was able to get them 2 more bicycles, 7 in total. We waited for a while at the shop as they polished, cleaned, and installed new pedals and baskets on the second hand bikes made in Japan. We dropped off the bikes and headed to the Kids Club Christmas party. “Pineapple”, the proud president of the club, was happy that I came to check out the event she worked hard at putting together. We walked around side by side embraced in a hug exchanging our usual banter. Some of the volunteers were passing out soda, curry soup and bread. I asked her if she wanted to eat and she said no because it was only right she ate when the staff ate. So cute. I sensed her thirst and hunger and told her “I” was cool with her not eating right away but that she had to at least have soda. She laughed and reluctantly drank the soda I handed to her.

After the Kids Club party we headed back to the shelter. As the girls did arts and crafts, I splurged in the sewing department’s shop where I bought a ton of beautiful gifts that were hand made by the girls…lap top covers, aprons, scarfs, headbands, ties, purses, wallets, etc. Some of the girls learn sewing as a vocational skill and they get to keep the proceeds of whatever they sell. I swear I wanted to buy the entire shop! And due to my shopping spree I would now have to buy a small suitcase. Great…because I already look like Erykah Badu’s backpacker version of “Bag Lady” carrying around 2 backpacks (one large, one small) and a large hand bag filled to the top with “stuff”. Smh.

During arts and crafts two of the girls made ornaments and gave them to me. It’s so incredible that they’re so giving. I smiled, thanked, and hugged them. Then it was time for the gift giving ceremony to commence. One of their peer leaders, a strikingly beautiful long haired 16 year-old who looks more Vietnamese than Cambodian and fluent in English, lined them up into groups. Timidly one by one, a total of 70, came up to me to receive their presents. They bowed with their hands in prayer formation and said thank you and then sat back down in their assigned rows. Once they opened their gifts the excitement ran rampant and most of them came back to me to hug me, climb on me, to say thank you or “I Love You”. It was so beautiful, so so very beautiful.

Some of the girls stayed and hung around me for a bit, some just kept hugging me. One in particular stole my heart, again. It was the 16 year-old peer leader. She was eager to converse with me and share her lifelong goals. She wants to be a teacher and continue working as a peer leader. I expressed to her that she possesses real leadership qualities and that she would make an excellent teacher one day. She wanted reassurance from me that God has great plans for her and I validated her belief. She hugged me, very tightly. She said God had sent me here and that she was so grateful for what I had done for the girls. Then she asked me for a pen, I said I didn’t have one but in the pencil case inside her gift bag there was one. She immediately grabbed it, took out the pen and started scrambling to find paper. She ripped a page from the notebook inside her gift bag and told me to wait, that she needed to write me a letter. I smiled, doing my best to prevent the Mekong from overflowing out of my tear ducts. After she handed me the letter, I asked her if she wanted me to read it then or later…she said later and boy was I glad because I already knew what that would do to me. I asked her to do one thing for me before I left, I asked her to write the word “LOVE” in Khmer on a piece of paper. She did, and taught me how to pronounce it, “Sro Lan”. I thanked her and right away I knew I would be tattooing that on me the minute I returned home. We hugged, tightly….for a long while and again I told her how beautiful she was and what a great life she was going to have and what an amazing teacher she would be. I told her I loved her and kissed her head and she said…”I love you too sister…please come back, please don’t forget us.” I nearly died.

I took the director to dinner that night, it was Christmas Eve. We got to know each other a bit more. We talked about how else we can work together in the future. I told her about my plans for Haiti and showed her my blog on Siem Reap which she felt was very powerful. I expressed to her how grateful I was that she let me in their beautiful world and the impact it had had on me. Then we said our goodbyes and I stayed near the restaurant to explore the area and have that much needed glass of wine or two. Later that evening while packing, I decided to be brave and read the peer leader’s letter. “Dear sister, I would like to say thank you so much for your spending your time with me and with our girls. I’m so glad that I met you sister. I will do remember you and pray for you all the time. I love you so much. I wish you have good health and more beautiful and beautiful. I hope that one day you come back to Cambodia again. May God bless you! Love your sister.” I lost it…and after hyperventilating fell into a deep slumber.

Over the last 10 years a lot of progress has been made in Cambodia regarding the sexual trafficking situation. Tons of non-profits have been working relentlessly in order to create a real change. They’ve done so by partnering up with local police in order to teach them how to deal with cases properly, working with the government in order to seek justice for the victims, creating prevention programs for children, and more importantly, spreading awareness amongst the community about this issue. Regardless of the progress, there is no spiritual or cultural justification as to why this happens to children, especially a four year old. I will never believe that Christianity’s God allows this to happen to a child in order to learn a valuable life lesson, nor will accept Buddhism’s karmic policy that the reason such atrocities occur is because of a past life situation. The ONLY consolation I have found is that these horrific and traumatic things that occur to young girls in Cambodia can possibly land them in a little piece of heaven such as the shelters I worked with. And although they may have been usurped from their families and villages due to such horrible events leaving everything that is familiar to them, there’s a chance that they may end up in a place where they are showered with love, are able to pick up the broken pieces, healed, educated, and integrated into society with a real chance to succeed in a country where the majority of people live below the poverty level, are uneducated and will never have a real chance of moving forward in life. Battambang gave me hope. And I will never forget them.

Travel With Purpose – Siem Reap (Cambodia)

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There is a Cambodian proverb that says men are like gold, a good polish will make it look new, and women on the other hand are like cloth, once it gets soiled it’s not the same. This phrase pretty much sums up the society’s attitude, specifically men’s attitudes, toward women and sexuality. It comes of no surprise to me given this is pretty much the double standard all over the world. What IS shocking is that according to their culture, if a man sleeps with a virgin he will be blessed with youth and it will bring him good luck; hence, the act of buying [from the girl’s own family] or taking a young girl’s virginity by force is quite normal. Because this atrocity is an inherent part of their superstitious culture, the demand for younger virgins is on the rise.

In America, if a 6 year old girl gets raped by a man it will make national headlines, 330 million people will hear about it, discuss it in the office with their colleagues or over lunch with friends or start a social media campaign with a hashtag like #InnocenceLost. Further, the perpetrator will surely get imprisoned and even segregated inside the jail so that other criminals won’t strangle him with a shoe lace or shank him with a sharpened toothbrush. In Cambodia, if a 6 year old gets raped, no one might ever find out because it’s shameful and because the girl will forever wear an invisible Scarlet letter or simply because the perpetrator is a government official or a wealthy man….so silence is the better option. Moreover, due to the culture’s oppression of women, the victim and her family might never want or be able to seek justice.

Poverty calls for desperate measures and the less fortunate, the vulnerable, along with women and girls, get short changed in Cambodia. Contrary to popular belief, not too many families sell their daughters’ souls to the sex trade or get kidnapped and sold to brothels. What’s happening here is that predators seek the poorest of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and recruit girls to work at “restaurants, karaoke bars, or massage parlors” promising their families economic stability. Hence, families agree to send their daughters off to a promising future but most of the time it turns out to be the beginning of a nightmare that ends up shattering their spirits. In one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, every man is for himself and if this means ruining the lives of uneducated peasant girls from villages in order to better themselves then so be it. However shocking this may be, it’s nothing new. Throughout history, the weak or less fortunate have always suffered at the hands of those in power from the concentration camps to the plantations and in the midst of wars. What’s heart-wrenching is that it’s still happening in 2014 and that the government turns a blind eye due to the profitability of the industry. There’s a law in Cambodia which states that if an undercover investigation is being conducted to take down a brothel, the evidence is not admissible in court. Because of this law, seeking justice for sexual trafficking perpetrators has been quite difficult.

Volunteering here has been a surreal experience. From the moment I met the orphanage’s director, a bright blue-eyed petit ex-pat from Missouri who had been in Cambodia serving others for 5.5 years, I felt connected to her.  We sat in my hotel lobby and chatted for a bit. Together, we came up with a game plan and budget to buy all the gifts. We spent 4 hours shopping and running errands and getting to know each other. At the market she gave money to every single beggar. A kind spirit she is and you can sense that from a mile away. Then she dropped me back off at the hotel, I scarfed down a protein bar and some fruit, showered and headed to the shelter to assemble the gift bags and attend their Christmas party. Immediately upon arriving at the shelter in Siem Reap I was greeted by a gorgeous 7 year old girl with a face and smile that would make you melt. Without an introduction from the director, she hugged me and held my hand eager to show me around. My eyes welled up…the love I felt from this little angel was overwhelming.

The next five hours were spent between my assembly line of gifts and watching the show the girls put together consisting of skits, dancing and a gift exchange. They also sang happy birthday to one of the girls, a gorgeous 12th grader with striking features. A few of her friends came up and recited some kind words about her. Her closest friend was crying from the minute she grabbed the mic…as the director translated what she was saying the tears started flowing down my face. Turns out, these two besties are from the same village and came to the shelter together. Then the director introduced me to the group as an American who managed to raise money so that I could bring them gifts. The girls cheered and clapped. I was so moved while trying my hardest not to lose my shit crying. I was incorporated into the gift exchange and after receiving their gift from the shelter each girl and staff member came to me to receive their gift bag and a teddy bear embroidered with a heart and the phrase “I love you” or “Te Amo”. The girls were ecstatic and as they approached me, they put their hands in a prayer formation, bowed and smiling in broken English said, “Thank youuuu”. It was beautiful.

The next day we went to their annual Christmas mass. It was interesting to see the girls practicing their faith. During most of the ceremony, the 7 year-old gorgeous girl who initially greeted me sat in front of me and held my hand during most of the mass. She kept pressing my hand to her face and trying to tickle me and make me laugh by making funny faces. I naturally did the same given my long history of misbehaving at church. Then we all had lunch and on the way back to the shelter she asked to sit in front with me on my lap. So much love.

My last day at the shelter in Siem Reap we did some arts and crafts and the girls wrote “Thank You” cards. What all these cards had in common was the phrase “I Love You” either in English or Khmer and some even said “I Love You Loren”. My eyes would get watery reading or having every card read to me and all I kept asking the universe was not to let me start crying like a lunatic during “arts and crafts”. Soon after, I invited the director to lunch. We chatted more about life, our lives, Cambodia, the girls, etc. That morning I had taken notice of one of the girls in particular which I’m guessing is around 10 or 11. I quickly realized she was the comedian of the group because every time she blurted something the other girls and staff would burst out laughing. I also noticed she was missing all her teeth (except for two molars) and that the bottoms of her feet were very rough possibly even severely scarred. Her mannerisms at times were rough and at times delicate…she had said “I Love You” to me the day before. I sensed that she had gone through a lot, way beyond being sexually assaulted. So I mentioned her to the director during lunch and she confirmed what I had sensed. I told the director I felt that besides the sexual trauma, I felt she had also endured some serious physical abuse and she’s probably one of the ones that has the most trauma. She nodded in agreement, without elaborating. We also spoke about the one girl who went to church the day before wearing a hat and a face mask. She explained it was because her fear of being in public and around people is so intense she rarely leaves the shelter and if she does she covers herself. She also said she still doesn’t feel safe at the house and is a bit of a loner. I don’t know anything that happened to her but hearing this broke me and I started to cry.

We wrapped up lunch and headed back to pack up the other supplies for the shelter in Battambang. None of the girls were around when we got back except for HER…the funny-doll-faced-angel. When she saw me she came up to me and hugged me and in Khmer said she would miss me. I hugged her tightly and said “I will miss you too”…she asked when I would return and the director said “soon…soon”. And then it happened, locked in an embrace, that recurring dream and thought that ruminated in my mind for months, that image and that thought of having this “moment” with one of the girls. We just couldn’t let go of each other. And then she started crying intensely and when she looked up at me, I started balling…trying not to hyperventilate, trying not to break down. A continuous river of tears ran down my face onto the top of her head and hair as my jaw quivered uncontrollably…her tears finding refuge on my shirt and chest. During the embrace, which lasted over 20 min, I felt all the pain this child had experienced. I became an empath. It was surreal…almost like an out-of-body experience. I kept praying over and over that all her pain be transferred onto me…because I could handle it, because I hadn’t suffered like she had, because I’m a woman and she’s a child who never deserved any of it. All the love and light I have within I asked the universe to give to her…I loved her like she was my child…I wanted to give her everything I had, my heart, my earrings, my clothes, a better life, take her to school, take her around the world, cook for her, take her to meet my family, buy her a puppy, brush her hair, tuck her in bed, teach her English…I wanted to heal her…remove every ounce of pain in her heart…erase all her scars…guide her, love her, protect her.  We couldn’t stop crying and we couldn’t let go. And every time she looked up at me and I saw fear and love in her eyes…my heart wanted to explode. I had never felt something like this…ever. So many thoughts ran through my mind…I felt so many emotions…we just couldn’t let go. Two of the staff approached us and I asked them to ask her why she was crying…she said she would miss me and that she hoped I would come back soon and just kept on repeating that over and over. I told them to tell her that she was beautiful and that life was beautiful and that there are so many people that love her…that I love her and that she needed to be strong. She nodded. She asked them if she can walk me to the car and held my hand. We hugged one last time and said our goodbye(s) and I Love You(s). And I got in the car heading to the shelter in Battambang…with a heavy chest filled with pain and my heart exploding with love.

I knew this moment would come…the moment that would forever change the course of my life and reassure me that what I was doing is exactly what I needed to be doing.

Re-defining my Purpose

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Inspiration is a powerful emotion, perhaps an emotion as powerful as love. It’s the driving force that leads one to create, generate, change, accomplish, and be better. Without inspiration, many of the world’s leaders, inventors, and geniuses wouldn’t have been able to change the world. It’s a beautiful thing, to find inspiration that is. It feels like the rush you get from skydiving or bungee jumping, an overwhelming surge of energy, that inexplicable feeling that we can conquer the world, that we can do anything.

I’m always looking for inspiration…in people, philanthropists, books, movements, documentaries, stories of success. And then one night I came across the documentary “Half the Sky”.

After watching it I wasn’t inspired, I actually felt hopeless. Then I read the book and I still felt hopeless because the thought that so many people in this world are in despair and might not ever see a way out of their situation breaks my spirit. I felt powerless…that I didn’t have the power to help large quantities of people, that I didn’t have Oprah’s money to build schools for children, adopt orphans, rescue girls in brothels, and end hunger. I was deeply saddened by the thoughts that ruminated in my mind day in and day out.

I started questioning myself. What is my purpose? What is my reason for being on this planet? What was I intended to do? Why has the universe given me so much and barely given anything to others? And then came the shift. And it happened on every level, from my neocortex to my soul. I no longer felt hopeless, I now felt inspired. It was that life-defining type of inspiration that catapulted me into a different direction in life. A life with purpose.

And so the idea to merge what I’m most passionate about in life together with my newfound purpose gave birth to “Travel With Purpose”, a non-profit movement to encourage others to travel and make a difference with a focus on empowering women and young girls. Through the years, traveling has enriched my soul. 34 countries, over 100 cities and 6 continents have given me a unique perspective on humans I wouldn’t have acquired if I wouldn’t have embarked on these journeys.

And so the inspiration led me to start the campaign Travel With Purpose: #STOPSexualSlavery. The way this campaign has resonated with so many people and the reaction from family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues has made me cathartic…bursting into tears in front of strangers in coffee shops, putting my phone on mute during conference calls and sobbing loudly as contribution emails appeared in my inbox, these moments of pure bliss have made me feel more alive than anything else I’ve ever done (including skydiving and bungee jumping)!

The amount of emails, messages, phone calls and re-posts of my campaign has been such a humbling experience. Everything has just been seamless. I used to think there were more jerks than good people in this world but what I’ve learned through this campaign is that that thought is far from true. So many of us want to help but get caught up in our lives, jobs, families, and our own suffering that we end up wishing and not doing. I’ve been a “wisher” for so long and now that I’m a “doer” I feel more fulfilled than I have my entire 36 years of being.

And of course the thought…”Why wasn’t I doing this before?” has been present in my mind, making me feel like I’ve wasted precious time…but no, I haven’t been wasting time. All these years that I’ve been working in the music business, meeting tons of people, artists, media, and influencers have been preparing me for this next chapter of my life. My extensive network is the blueprint for what I’m building. You have all been masons of this project…building it brick by brick. And now I’m here, re-defining my purpose, finding fulfillment in philanthropy with the hopes to plant seeds of hope in every child and woman I come across. -Loren

Travel With Purpose: #STOPSexualSlavery

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A few months ago, I watched a documentary & read a book that changed my life called “Half the Sky” [halftheskymovement.org] about the oppression and violence women face across the globe.

I remember just sobbing reading anecdotes of young girls who had been kidnapped and sold to brothels as early as age 9, who were forced to have sex with up to 10 customers a day 7 days a week and were kept naked, beaten, and tortured. My heart felt heavy learning about honor killings in the Middle East…knowing there are over 100k Chinese girls that are “missing”…that Vietnamese girls have to fight to get an education because a lot of families rather educate their sons…about African women coerced to undergo genital mutilation because of tradition resulting in obstructed labor and increasing the chances of a mother dying while giving birth.

Coincidentally, I had already booked a trip to visit Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines before I read/watched “Half the Sky” and I thought to myself, I can’t visit those countries knowing what I know now and not do something to help.

So many of us donate and don’t know where those funds go or whom those funds help. Most of the time, we don’t have an emotional connection to our donations. I want to change that. I will be personally going to 3 shelters (2 in Cambodia and 1 in the Philippines) and delivering supplies and educational tools to these young girls and women. All of the organizations I chose rescue and/or assist girls and women victims of sexual trafficking integrate back into society by providing them shelter, counseling and/or education.

My goal is $10k. Why $10k? 100% of the donations will be dispersed as follows: $4,500 will be donated to International Justice Mission [ijm.org] in order for them to launch a rescue mission to save girls from brothels and the rest of the monies will go to buying supplies for 110 girls and 20 staff members in a shelter in Cambodia, who chose to remain anonymous, and educational tools for the women at My Refuge House in the Philippines [myrefugehouse.com].

So here I am…asking you to be part of this journey with me. Please donate, share, create awareness…this is not for me…this is for the millions of girls that were robbed of their innocence and freedom. Thank you for listening and helping me make a difference.

With love,

Loren Medina

To Donate click here: http://igg.me/at/TWPSSS/x/9006460

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  • Between 500k-2M people, the majority women & children, are trafficked annually into prostitution, forced labor or slavery
  • It is estimated that there are up to 20k honor killings a year
  • An estimated 60M girls are “missing” due to selective abortion of fetuses or neglect
  • 75 million children are out of school, the majority are girls
  • More than 1M children are left motherless every year