Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Family Affair

In my life I have found that family is always important. I have also discovered that who you consider your family goes much deeper than blood relations. The first family I had in my life was the one I was born into – and I don’t think I could have chosen a better one myself. I was raised by parents who loved and cared for my younger brother and I but also weren’t afraid to discipline us when we stepped out of line. They are largely responsible for the person I am today and without their constant support and encouragement I know I wouldn’t be sitting in South Africa right now. But we also have other people who exercise influence on our lives and continue that molding and shaping process begun by our parents. I discovered this notion of a larger family most distinctly when I left home for college. I found a new set of people that were walking through life with me and understood what I was going through. They were there to celebrate the good times – a good grade in a tough class, a birthday, another National Championship (Go Gators!). They were there to laugh until it hurt. And they were there in the rougher times – when my last grandparent passed away during finals week my first semester, when my mom found out her cancer was back, when things with another friend just weren’t working out. They were there to just sit and wait and encourage. These are the things I had come to expect from my biological family and sure enough they were qualities in a family of brothers and sisters that I was able to create for myself even hours away from the family I had always known.

When I embarked on this journey of living abroad for a year, I was also given a new family of people to rely on and share our similar experiences with. The 11 of us volunteers from all parts of the country, from all different kinds of families, were unknowingly being woven together to fill the voids of the families we were leaving behind. We were the last country group to leave our larger YAGM orientation in Chicago and begin our year of service and I think it was within a matter of hours that we began calling ourselves a family unit. Our last day in the States was spent with us split into two teams: one Team Laundry who spent the day washing all of our dirty clothes from the week; and the other Team Shopping who spent the day trying to economically replace the majority of one member’s wardrobe after his suitcase had been stolen at the airport upon arrival to the Windy City. Now that right there is a family in action. We may be scattered across different parts of South Africa but even as we continue to come together for church events, retreats, and just to visit one another, we find that we are that family – we laugh, we cry, we sit and do nothing, we talk and reflect on our experiences so far, constantly teaching and learning from one another; continuing that molding and shaping process our parents and our other families began. In the end these are the people who will likely understand better than anyone else what it is I’ve been going through during this year. But this new MUD family wasn’t the only family I was getting for the year.

Kimberley is a new site for the MUD program and just as with some of the other placement sites, mine includes living with a host family for the year. Instantly upon my arrival to the Northern Cape Province, I was thrust into yet another family. I could not be more grateful for this. The Julius family welcomed me into their home with open arms and lots of love. My host parents are always asking me how I’m doing, if I need anything, including me on day to day things like grocery shopping after work – just genuinely making me feel a part of the family. That also requires me to be a family member when it comes to washing dishes, cleaning up after our new puppy messes in the house, and other general chores around the house. It definitely gives that sense of normalcy to life since if I were in the States I would be doing the same things day in and day out. My host siblings are relatively close to me in age – 2 older and 1 younger – and have a good circle of friends that I was also welcomed into as soon as I arrived. We go to movies, celebrate weddings and birthdays, and take turns hosting casual brunches every couple of weeks. Again, these are things that make the transition to life here so incredibly easy and really make it natural to call Kimberley home. I find that even in leaving my site for a week to visit another volunteer or travel for an event or a retreat that I am eager to come home and catch up on all that happened while I was away. From half a world away, I never could have picked a better place or a better family to call mine for the year. Already, even after being here for just a few months, there is talk about when I will visit again after returning to the States – there will certainly be more weddings and events that will merely be excuses for me to come back home to see this family. While most visitors to South Africa will, and should, see places like Durban and Johannesburg and the Mother City of Capetown, it may be easy to miss treasures like Kimberley. I know though that any opportunity I have to return to this beautiful country won’t be complete without a long stopover to my home and my family.

In the MUD program we talk a lot about our purpose during our time here as being to walk alongside our local hosts with the goal of both giving and receiving and to just “be” and not always strive to “do.” To me that sums up what all of the families in my life have been exemplifying, including the most recent ones I have found myself in. Family is a two-way street, family is there for the good and the bad, family is sometimes shown in an action of doing but sometimes recognizes it is equally as important to just “be” together. The impact of family is forever, so biological or created along the way, remember that those families are the ones who are and have been shaping the person you are. Thanks to all the members of all the families I have been blessed to be a part of, no matter which hemisphere you call home, you are the people who are teaching me the most about life and what it means to walk with others.


  1. you are so eloquent... and a huge part of my heart. i knew that i'd miss you this year but i'm not sure i had a clue to what extent.

  2. Hi Jess

    Your mom just shared your letter. I was so touched by your heartfelt wisdom about family. She must be so proud of all that you are doing. What an awesome experience! Please know that you are thought of often and are such an inspiration to so many people back home. We mIss ya- lots of love- Erin Harrel