In tales of two cities, two women I’ve volunteered with — one in Marrakesh, Morocco, and the other in Music City, Nashville — embody the official 2021 International Women’s Day theme: “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” They’ve been #ChoosingtoChallenge by dreaming and doing for a long time. I’ve gained more volunteering with them and others than I could ever give back, which is why I’m now sharing ways you and your family can serve.
“Women are strong,” Donna Pack a volunteer at Nashville International Center for Empowerment volunteer told me. “Women and children never cease to amaze me. Figure out what your gift is. It doesn’t have to be something huge. What do you find joy doing? Bring it to the table to serve.”
Lifting up vulnerable teen girls in Morocco
I spent International Women’s Day, March 8, 2015 BC (Before COVID), in a Pilates class alongside Moroccan women. Our mats lined the floor of the new Project Soar headquarters in their village, Douar Ladaam. Maryam Montague and Chris Redecke founded the nonprofit in 2013 to empower girls to stay in school and become leaders rather than girl brides. Some of the women had daughters in the program; for most, it was their first exercise class. Though my students at the American School of Marrakesh translated the instructor’s words into Darija, attempting new moves made us all speak one language, laughter.
In 2014, I’d first caravanned with teen and adult volunteers to Peacock Pavilions, Project Soar’s original site. Nearby was the family home/boutique hotel and souk (store) the American couple designed and built to help support their passion project. The van pulled inside the gates where girls were gathering. We met guests staying on the property who were also volunteering. We formed a circle with the girls. Maryam showed them our homes on a map — New Zealand, Austria, Chicago, Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee. They recited their mantra: “I am strong. I am smart. I am capable. I am worthy.”
Chama, one of our students, explained: “It’s important to share special moments with people from different cultural backgrounds. We open their minds to a bigger world and the idea that we girls in Morocco can do big things.” Her peer, Sophia, added, “As much as the girls learn from us, we learn from them.”
‘Tis true. I had fun not only with the girls but also meeting the artists, authors, and athletes volunteering. Over lunch at a painting party, Maryam announced Project Soar had been chosen to pilot BeGirl, a program to make period protection accessible, in Morocco — the first Muslim country to do so. She asked me to line up ASM girls for the roll out. Her wheels always turning, she shared her vision for expansion by way of something she called “Project Soar in a Box.” She would provide 50 lessons teaching girls to know their value, voice, body, rights, and path.
In 2016, sharing the love came full circle. Jessica, a former student from Nashville visited and volunteered with me. We’d previously done a service trip in Ecuador, and she was headed to serve in Mozambique. We received 88 kisses from 44 girls, one on each cheek.
By 2020, Project Soar served 2,812 girls. To date, the Project Soar in a Box curriculum is used in 22 chapters in Morocco and five chapters in Uganda. This year the program will expand to work with internally displaced girls (IDGs) in Northwest Syria.
I asked Maryam how the pandemic is affecting Project Soar and what she needs. Her answer: “COVID-19’s impact on teen girls in the Global South is a tragedy in plain sight. Ten million girls are estimated to never be able to return to school. Girl marriage has spiked, and teen girl suicide is on the rise. Project Soar’s partner in Syria shared that some parents who have fled the conflict are so desperate that they’re giving hormones to their daughters as young as 10 to provoke menstruation, so that they can be married. During this critical time, we must not leave teen girls behind or we will lose all the potential of the women they will become. At Project Soar, we are empowering teen girls so they can have brighter futures.
The best way to help Project Soar and support girls is to become a Starling for as little as $10/month. During the week of International Women’s Day (March 8), Global Giving is matching one month of monthly donations up to $200 by 100 percent, which makes this an ideal time to sponsor a vulnerable teen girl. For more on the organization, see the girls in the CNN documentary, We Will Rise, made after Michelle Obama visited Project Soar.
Helping vulnerable mothers and children here in the U.S.
Last Saturday in Nashville, I parked in front of Highlands Apartments. Women and girls were lined up in drizzling rain waiting to get to “Mrs. Donna’s” door. Earlier, I’d caught up with Donna Pack, who has volunteered at NICE (Nashville International Center for Empowerment) for the last 16 years. I’d taught her children and helped her recruit student volunteers years ago. When I’d left for Morocco, she was working with African refugee resettlement and teaching citizenship classes. Since COVID, she says, much has changed.
“The people who live here in the complex now are mostly Latino, immigrants and refugees from Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, El Salvador,” Pack told me. “COVID has ravaged my community. We’ve lost people to death. They’ve been out of work. For the first time, I’ve had to find food. They don’t have cars, so they can’t get to food distributions. The Community Resource Center, Crosspointe Church, Catholic Charities, Hispanic Foundation, Nashville Food Project, the Tennessee Titans, Rethink Certified — somehow they heard about us and helped. When the tornado hit one of Chef Brock’s restaurants and he had to postpone opening, he used his new kitchen to feed people in need. Every Thursday, I pick up meals from his sous chef. We’re a two-person operation.
“People fear volunteering because they don’t speak the language,” she continued. “I’ve distributed diapers for six hours with women who speak Spanish. I can’t, but nobody cares. We communicate by laughing a lot. Pre-COVID, much happened over food. Our best times were cooking. No one speaks the same language. Food opens your mind. Everything’s about relationships. Everything starts there.”
Donna said to stop by her “office,” a makeshift food bank, diaper-distribution station, and center for hooking up people with whatever they need. On the drive over, I remembered volunteering at an elementary school where the mother of a former student taught kindergarten. She’d said the moms of her students were sad because they couldn’t help their children learn the alphabet. They didn’t know English. I didn’t know Spanish, but I saw a need. Over the next year, I volunteered to teach them English and they helped me with their first language.
I squeezed past the line and found Donna slinging packs of diapers while instructing two boys on where to deliver a mattress. She pointed a young teen girl toward me: “Cindy, she doesn’t speak English. We just got beans and rice donated so take her to the food corner and see what she needs.” Though a terrible language student, I managed to remember, “Arroz?” Then the name of a horse I’d ridden in Costa Rica, “Frijoles,” came back to me. I could ask if she needed rice and beans.
For those of you far from Nashville, here are ways to help female refugees and immigrants:
— Set up an apartment
— Pick up from the airport
— Help with finding a job
— Being a birth partner
— Driving her to work or the doctor
— Teaching language and citizenship classes
Your kids will love these Black and mixed-race dolls.