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Giving Back While Broke: How Playing A Little Bill-Paying Roulette Led Me To Bring The Power Of Pictures To Children In Mexico

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The See and Sprout Project is a creative collective, international exchange I originally launched for tsunami orphans in Khao Lak Thailand affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami. I bring digital cameras to youth in underdeveloped countries and teach kids how to use them.

This project is dedicated bringing together kids from diverse backgrounds and communities and guide them to shoot photos, write, and connect with new friends and each other. Each child is given a camera and taught the basics of photography, and participates in various workshops, and explorative field trips. All proceeds from photos sold in our shows goes back to each child who shot it. The intention is to share the concept of expression, raise self-confidence, and introduce the idea of self-sufficiency.

In early December, I set out to take my see and sprout project to a small town in Mexico, friends who knew I was in a less than perfect financial situation looked at me with that stare of "are you serious? How are you even considering taking off to give back at a time like this?" Truth be told, I had no idea. The combination of losing a lot of money on a recent investment, as well as a handful of clients, combined with the pressure of not having an immediate brilliant solution, was deeply affecting all areas of my life. Many friends, family and so many others were also in the same situation--and still are. Let's just say in my tribe, we're professional players of the "pay the utility bill versus the cell phone bill" roulette game lately. We constantly joke how we're obviously be starting a commune very soon and there's a lot if discussion as to whose house would be the ideal location for all thirteen of us to reside.

While I didn't have a solution, I know when I need a timeout and a splash of light. And even more than that, perspective.

Coordinating a project internationally is not the easiest undertaking, but it's also not impossible. I have this slightly annoying (to others) way of thinking everything is possible and carry on as if what vision I have in my head will play out just fine. This is both my greatest asset and downfall. Sometimes you just have to dive into a good intention, and make shit happen.

At the end of the day when we leave this place, our life's legacy won't be whether we paid the water bill on time, or even if we walked the dog enough. What we will be remembered for, is how and if we lived our lives, versus meander through it.

In November, I reluctantly resigned to canceling my planned See And Sprout trip to Southeast Asia. You don't go halfway across the world on barely there funding and hope it all fares well. I'm an optimist, but an optimist with a deeply practical side. Even if you are doing "God's work" God totally wants you to have some cash in your pockets.

My goal has always been to bring the project to an underdeveloped country each year, and having to bow out this year, I felt like a deep failure, as if I was failing the kids who were anticipating my arrival, cheating them of making pictures together and the opportunities those photos could create for them.

Everything happens for a reason.

One night, at a benefit in Los Angeles, I met a very cool woman named Anne Menke who happens to be a renowned fashion photographer. We spoke for maybe five minutes. I told her about my project, she said it sounded amazing, to email her details. People say this stuff all the time, generally they don't mean it and we get used to that kind of stuff don't we? Well, Anne is my people. I emailed her, she responded right away, mentioned she really loved the project and asked if I would be interested in ever coming to Sayulita a very small town in Mexico, where she and her partners had built The Costa Verde International School. Mexico's first green school.

Short answer, "yes." At that moment I fully embraced that so beyond overused cliché "when one door closes another opens." The door knocked me on my ass it opened so fast. I gave her a date (which by the way was far sooner than she and her school was prepared for.) I pushed for December 15th there's no time like right now, right? There's that annoying trait. Truthfully, I really want to keep my one country per year goal and I wasn't going to give it up too easily.

At the same time, I also researched orphanages in Mexico and sent emails, made calls and waited. My project originated in an orphanage and it's my goal to always bring the project to one in each location.

In the midst of our national financial crisis, I took a deep breath and just asked for what I needed. What I am always amazed by is that people are essentially deeply giving; they want to be a part of something good. God bless us for this common thread on America. I reached out to everyone I knew for used or new digital cameras, and being hyper sensitive to people's pocketbooks, since my own was rather thin (empty) I bypassed asking for cash donations. I had two weeks to pull this together and without cameras there was no moving forward, so we focused on bringing in used camera donations.

On December 12th, I received an email from the Refugio orphanage I had contacted, Dan Rios the donations coordinator wrote "First I want to thank you for your interest in our lovely children. I am sure they will steal your heart when you meet them. ...Your project is very interesting and anything that introduces creativity to the life of these children is more than welcome...." Amen. My heart soared.

The same day Anne advised me that her CVIS co founder Tamra sent an email out to the whole town asking if anyone was willing to donate a rental to my project. Within two emails we had a studio donated (thank you Valerie Bach and Jim Cassell) played a little more bills and airline mileage roulette, purchased a ticket to Mexico, twenty-three camera donations trickled in, three friends signed up to join me and suddenly See And Sprout Mexico was on it's way.

This is what it's about. Leaping. Sometimes you just have to do the exact opposite of what's reasonable. When you choose to live a mindful life, honor your passion, ideas and self, things happen and the unknown journey is the gift.

Our first day with the children of The Costa Verde International School (CVIS) was simply inspiring. They offer an after school program to local public school students, so we were able to work with so many kids from the village. It was diversity at it's finest. To see their eyes light up after shooting a photo on our field trip, "Mira look!" The constant sparkle and glow of being empowered with creativity, expression and choice as to what to shoot, how and at what moment.

The highlight was being asked by various students "are we doing this again tomorrow?" I could only promise three tomorrows to Olivia, Cecilio, Osmar and Sebastian. They should be able to do this tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. After the third day, I heard one of the parents asked how she could find a camera for her daughter in time for Christmas. Perhaps one day I will figure out a way to launch a creative arts/ vocational program at every location we work with.

The founders of CVIS, Anne and Johann Ackermann former New Yorkers turned full time Sayulita residents, and Tamra and Theo Koch created one heck of a school concept. The CVIS is this petite school full of so much vision, from a sustainable education model to international teachers, a special garden created by the students, and a diverse student body from different cultures and backgrounds.

The founders of this school had zero idea of how to build a school I know this for a fact, but they're vision was more powerful than their lack of experience. While they have no grand plan how they're getting a million dollars to keep their school growing-- the school is up and running and someday they will have locations in other countries, this I have no doubt.

Similar to my project, there were a lot of naysayers about their school; the community wasn't so eager for change, local parents thought they were a bunch of hippies rolling in pushing progress onto them. Funny thing, Sayulita now has a recycling program thanks solely to the CVIS. The school currently has sixty-eight students enrolled after only four months of opening. Baby steps. When you honor your ideas; you connect with likeminded people and the rest will fall into place.

An hour away from Sayulita, our time at the Refugio orphanage was a different kind of learning and joy. To see fifty-five kids from age 10 months to twelve years old, live under one roof with so much connection and positivity was a lesson for me. Refugio is run by the Rios family and funded purely on private donations. While the kids have no parents, they have a house full of siblings who love and care for them. They show up for each other but it doesn't replace touch, physical love or attention. They attached to our staff like glue; they were very huggy and are pretty starved for one on one connection, so this experience was a good one for them.

The ten kids we took on the field trip through the town walked through town with a sense of pride holding the cameras as their neighbors inquired what they were doing. Their enthusiasm was unbridled, when they printed their two favorite photos, they shared each with such confidence and pride, I only felt remorseful they don't have access to this kind of creative outlet regularly.

The See and Sprout Project is only a little seed that has been planted, much like the CVIS and The Refugio Orphanage.. Requests to bring my project to various orphanages and countries arrive at my inbox often. While I don't now exactly how we're getting there, I do know if I have to put off paying the utility bill, I will. I can live in the temporary darkness with so much light and possibilities ahead.