My Spark

My Spark

Kristen Gadbois

Elephant Training and the Hill Tribe Experience, Thailand 2015 | Sun, Sand, and International Service, Fiji 2016

Kristen is in her final semester at Marquette University, completing her bachelor’s degree of science in nursing. She currently works for the Milwaukee Health Department as part of their covid-19 response. She hopes to one day work for a humanitarian organization such as Doctors Without Borders to help bring good healthcare to people around the world who need it most.

All photos have been provided by Kristen. Read her story below!

While packing my bags for a summer in Thailand, I expected an adventure and a few new friends. In the end, I gained far more. My travels there sparked a fire which has continued to burn throughout my life.

My apprehensions were abundant as, at age 16, I left for my first “solo” trip.  However, the moment I arrived at the children’s home my worries drifted away as I was welcomed with family-like support and warmth.

The next days were spent playing games with the children’s home residents and staff, teaching lessons in the local school, visiting markets, and engaging in insightful conversation with those around me.

The following weekend we left the children’s home and departed for the Mae Ra Moe refugee camp. The road there was remote and bumpy, and I was shocked to learn many of the camp’s inhabitants walked for days or even weeks to find safety at Mae Ra Moe.

Upon arriving, there was an instant sense of sadness, and a realization this was a very different situation than anything I had ever been exposed to.

The first place we went upon arrival was a small stilt-propped structure which housed children of all ages. They welcomed us with beautiful songs, and we shared recently rehearsed songs in return. We then spent time just chatting and getting to know one another. I met a teenage boy who listened intently and shyly spoke of his siblings and school.

Over the next couple days, I ran into him often as I visited his classes. We spoke broken English and talked of lives lived worlds away. His story was equally inspiring and heartbreaking. He told a story of shocking resilience as someone who had fled his Myanmar village and walked for miles to find safety at Mae Ra Moe.

My days there flew by, and on the last evening I said goodbye to my new friend. As I struggled to communicate the profound impact the past days had on me, he quietly interrupted.

He thanked me for my friendship, pulled a red string from his pocket, and proceeded to tie it on my wrist. He said he had found it and picked it up because of the nice color. He knew it wasn’t much, but he hoped it would always remind me of my friend in Mae Ra Moe.

The following year I eagerly embarked on another trip, this time to Fiji in hopes of continuing to fuel this new-found passion for travel, culture, and meaningful new friendships. I was not disappointed in the slightest, as the people and beauty of Fiji filled my heart once again with joy and curiosity.

One particular moment which remains clear in my mind happened during my stay with a host family in the remote highlands of Fiji.

My host family kindly welcomed us into their modest, one room home, and insisted that my friend and I sleep on the one bed while they slept on the floor. While they did not speak a lot of English, nor I Fijian, we enjoyed dinner and conversation with our host parents and their lovely sons and daughter.

The next morning as we ate breakfast, I pulled out my camera for the day’s hike, and the kids were immediately enamored by it. I told my host mom that she had such a beautiful family and asked if she would like me to take a photo of them. She excitedly accepted and gathered the kids for a few pictures.

After snapping a few, they gathered around to watch the photos appear on the tiny screen. I made a remark along the lines of “beautiful photos of a beautiful family”, and my host mom teared up while thanking me for her “family portrait”. I have many photos of breathtaking Fijian views from my time there, but the most meaningful remains the family portrait, which continues to bring me back to the smell of sweet homemade rolls on a lovely morning in the highlands of Fiji.

As I finish off my final semester of nursing school, I will enter my career with a clear sense of purpose. The spark created almost six years ago continues to inspire me daily as I pursue a career in healthcare.

My goal is to one day provide healthcare to marginalized populations who need and deserve it most. My dream is to work for a humanitarian organization such as “Doctors Without Borders”, and to continue to build relationships within our global community.

I know some beautiful friendships can form when one has the willingness to listen, and the desire to understand. While the red string has fallen from my wrist, the memories of my time in Thailand and Fiji have and will continue to guide me. For that…..I am forever grateful.

Learn more about Rustic Pathways programs in Thailand and Fiji, or view more Alumni Stories here