Grace Wickerson is passionate about creating awareness of what a healthy relationship looks like. Her non-profit, Kickin’ Violence educates adolescents on respecting boundaries, healthy relationships, and self defense. The organization also provides Survivor Packs–care packages with essential toiletries, journals, and notes of encouragement–to victims of domestic abuse.
Grace’s work with Kickin’ Violence earned her a nomination for the Jefferson Awards Lead360 contest, which aims to support thought-changing youth to replicate their socially responsible efforts nationwide. As a finalist Grace earned significant financial support to fund more Survivor Packs as well as the opportunity to travel on a Rustic Pathways program during summer 2016. Read on to find out why Grace chose to travel to India on Service in the Clouds, and how her travels broadened her perspective while expanding her goals for Kickin’ Violence.
“I can still remember vividly the day Kelly Woolf called me to tell me that I had won the LEAD360 voting contest and would be named a National Jefferson Award winner. I was beyond excited that I would be able to take my non-profit, Kickin’ Violence, to the next level through working with the Jefferson Awards Foundation to promote “Survivor Packs” across the nation. I couldn’t fathom that I would be working to impact a total of 100,000 domestic violence survivors, an impact worth an estimated $1.4 million!
In all of this excitement, I was also made aware that another perk of my award was that I would be able to go on a free two week trip with Rustic Pathways. Like, how could this get any better? I was so excited that I was on the Rustic Pathways website for hours looking up programs that I could see myself going on. When I finally came across the India programs and saw “Service in the Clouds”, a service program based entirely in the Himalayas, I knew I had found my match.
Going to India had been on my bucket list for years and my LEAD360 project could never have been more relevant or applicable. Domestic violence is a serious issue in India, with nearly 37% of all married women having experienced either physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. This statistic is even greater in poorer households, at about 46% of married women. And due to the patriarchal structure of Indian society, women are very unlikely to seek help or report the crimes, and often will think the violence is justified under certain conditions.
So with all that in mind, I soon made my decision, and began preparing not only to leave for India but also for some kind of implementation of Survivor Packs that could be done with limited resources as well as time. Despite knowing I would have limited time and resources, I was committed to doing whatever I could to forward Survivor Packs while still enjoying the amazing program Rustic Pathways had planned for us.
And (no surprises here) the Rustic Pathways trip was incredible! I remember how amazing it felt to get out of the cars and breathe in the fresh mountain air and gaze in awe at mountains that seemed to touch the sky, definitely not something that was in any way familiar having come from Florida. That first night we were welcomed with a blessing of rice that was stuck to our foreheads and flowers before going home with our individual host families.
The service we completed in Balla was very labor intensive, but was also genuinely rewarding. As the first group, we were involved in constructing the foundations for what would later be toilets. What I greatly appreciated about this service was that it was something that Rustic Pathways had decided on after assessing community needs, and not because they thought it would be a “fun” project for students to do. Lack of basic sanitation perpetuates low health standards and even domestic and sexual violence, as women had apparently been raped looking for a place to pee. That last fact shocked me the most because I had never considered the intersectionality of sanitation and violence.
Being in Balla wasn’t all work and no play. While we did spend a majority of the time working on our project sites, we still had plenty of free time to engage in yoga lessons as well as Bollywood dance lessons, get to know our host families, and in my case, play with our host siblings, and even go on mini field trips to several NGOs, including a home for Tibetan children with special needs and the Norbulingka Institute, a center of Tibetan art and culture. And on the final night, we held a showcase of our awesome Bollywood Dance skills for all of the host families and probably looked ridiculous in the process. But despite my lack of dance skills and genuine awkwardness, it was a blast to just “let it go” for a night. That was also the night that I felt the most connected to my host family and host siblings, who had blast playing with SnapChat’s many filters.
Balla definitely did not prepare me for McLeod Ganj, which we headed to next after spending a day recuperating in a hotel. The sheer level of activity going on in such a small space was astounding, as tourists, shopkeepers, and cars shared a street that was barely wide enough for the car. In Balla, you were more likely to see a horse, donkey, or cow on the street than a car. My group also came in unprepared to how forward Indian people could be to foreigners, showcased most notably by how many times we were asked to take pictures with Indian families or groups of Indian men. My homestay in McLeod Ganj was also located right in the center of the busiest market in the town, which meant most nights were filled with the melodic tones of cars honking (also known as Indian traffic control), people talking, and even construction.
But those minor downsides were completely made up for by the remarkable people who hosted us, came to speak to us, and who we tutored, who all welcomed us with open arms and white scarves known as a khata, a traditional symbol of purity and compassion in Tibetan culture. Our days in McLeod Ganj were as jam packed as they were in Balla, maybe even more so since we did not split up to our individual homestays for lunch. We spent much of the first day getting to know the area through an intensive scavenger hunt that had us traversing the entire village for answers. Part of this hunt was finding out how many NGOs existed in the region of Dharamasala (McLeod Ganj). In our search, we came across a newsletter that detailed each of the 27 organizations, including one that caught my eye, The Tibetan Women’s Association, because of its work for domestic violence survivors. This was the organization that I would prepare several Survivor Packs for from the supplies I was able to fit in my small duffel bag later in the week. I spent the last thirty minutes of free time I had on the last day I was there to deliver the packs to their organization and share the contact information for my organization. Who knows, I might be back in a few years!
While in McLeod Ganj, we worked primarily with Lha Charitable Trust, an organization working to equip Tibetan refugees with the necessary skills and resources they need to be happy and successful members of society. We served recent refugees to the area as English conversation partners, and were a supplement to their English language curriculum. Our mornings were spent planning out our lessons for the afternoon and then listening to engaging speakers from the community, including a political prisoner, a Buddhist Monk who served at the right hand of the Dalai Lama, and a NGO leader who taught us about Tibetan culture and dance, before heading to lunch at a local restaurant, including one that served both Italian and Tibetan food (a really weird combination). In the afternoon, we had a bit of free time to shop, which definitely felt out of place as Tibetan Buddhism is all about evading commercialism while much of McLeod Ganj has been turned into a commercialistic place. We then headed to the Lha office buildings to work one on one with our language partners through both the lessons we planned in the mornings and through walking around the community and using the vocabulary to see the village through their eyes. This activity was definitely the most impactful, especially since my partner and I visited a museum that showcased the Tibetan struggle, and she was able to speak to the photos as things she had actually seen when she lived there, including the self-immolations. We also went to the temple together, where she was able to walk me through the proper techniques for prayer. My partner and I really connected on a person level, and we have stayed in touch since I left. Finally, our evenings were spent also listening to speakers from political activists, watching documentaries that truly opened our eyes to a struggle many of us were unaware of, and, on the lighter side, making momos, or dumplings. We even took the day off one day to go hike to a nearby waterfall and watch movies, which definitely helped us rest and recuperate.
Leaving McLeod Ganj really made me realize that the program was over, and made me really wish the program was longer. A week is really too short of a time to truly get to know and connect to a community. This program was really just a taste of what work we could do if we came back, which I am definitely considering doing, especially if I am able to do a larger implementation of Survivor Packs or do self-defense demonstrations and anti-violence educations in Tibetan communities.
I loved my Rustic Pathways program and I am so grateful to the Jefferson Awards Foundation for this opportunity!”
Rachel joined Rustic in 2013 and led programs for three summers in Costa Rica, Peru, and Ghana. She’s also led programs in Fiji and Tanzania. A graduate of the University of Vermont with degrees in sociology and Spanish, Rachel focuses her love for travel, writing, and her unquenchable curiosity of our natural world as Rustic’s Brand Engagement Manager. Based in Tahoe, CA, Rachel is a talented ceramicist and lover of the outdoors.