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My friend and I went to the airport without tickets or a plan and ended up in….Madrid!

by Alison Qualter-Berna

In early January 2016, I went out to dinner with Allison, my closest friend and business partner, and she presented me with an idea. What if we picked a week halfway between our birthdays, went to the airport without a plan and let fate decide our destination? What if we could finally go on a “mystery trip” together?

Within minutes, we blocked out 3-4 days a few months later and promised that no matter what came up in our lives, we would stick to the plan. The only two things you really need for a true mystery trip are firm dates and an adventurous, open mind. We had both.

As mothers of three children each who spend countless hours running our national franchise business, songs for seeds, it seemed impossible to stick to the dates. Everything began to come up. A cello concert for one of our kids. A bake sale for the charity we work with. A birthday dinner for a girlfriend. Each opportunity tempted us to move the date by a day or two (an option when you don’t have a ticket to anywhere), but we didn’t change a thing. It’s easy to be lured by the pull of life’s demands and cancel a trip for yourself, and to no particular destination, but we stuck to it, and prepared to roll the dice.

The night before we called each other from our closets, glass of wine in hand, and discussed what to pack. Our best guess was one of everything.
Bathing suit? Check.
Winter gloves? Check.
Hiking clothes? Check.
Most importantly…passport? Check.
It was raining in Scotland, freezing in Finland, and sunny in Belize. We wanted options for all of it.

We dropped our kids off at school on opposite sides of NYC and called each other to meet up. Right then and there (being Jersey girls), we decided to go to Newark Airport.

Amateur move number one: don’t arrive at the airport looking for an exotic international flight at 9:30am. Rochester, Cleveland and Saint Louis weren’t exactly what we had in mind. We wanted to leave the country. We wanted to be transported. We wanted an adventure.

After pondering the various flight boards, we saw Panama City pop up, almost at the very same time. “Panama City, Florida?” we wondered. But it was not, it was indeed the country that connects Central and South America and we had a winner. It passed our three primary rules we had set for our Mystery Trip - 1) neither of us had ever been there before, 2) the price of the ticket was in our budget (3 digits…not 4), and 3) it was out of the country.

Panama was an ideal location, delivering us a few super fun days each with a diverse experience – we visited a rainforest to hike, a remote island beach to relax, and the Panama Canal for a bit of history.

We stayed in an up and coming area of the city called Casca Viejo and ate at the most incredible restaurants, getting shout outs from our most “foodie” of friends. Having no agenda means having no expectations and we wondered if this was the magic ingredient. The spontaneity and newness of everything, including where to stay or eat (not knowing where to stay or eat!), made our mystery trip a true adventure. On our way home from Panama we set our dates for another mystery trip, one year later, and nothing could stop us.

In year two we ended up in Iceland which was similar to landing on the moon. Epic in its raw beauty, we found ourselves exploring so much of the country in only a few days, from the Golden Circle to the entire Southern Coast….and with a new friend from Germany we made on the airplane!

The puffy coat and gloves we shoved in at the last minute under bathing suits came in handy, but the bathing suits did too! Who knew you could swim in geothermal spas after climbing on ice glaciers? Not only were we seeing the world with adventurous, wide open eyes, we were bonding even further as friends, sharing so much together.

Our Mystery Trip in year 3 was a tough choice, standing in Terminal 5 at JFK, we whittled it down to Dublin versus Lisbon, ticket prices being equal and weighing the benefits of both. We decided to let the weather app on our iPhones make the final call – rainy in Dublin and clear skies in Portugal. Portugal - here we come! After doing my celebratory handstand at the western most point of Europe, we filled our days with the historical beauty of Lisbon and took side trips to the surfing town of Cascais and the castles of Sintra (admittedly hoping we’d run into Madonna).

We made friends in Lisbon too – and quickly found ourselves having drinks at our tour guide’s mother’s home. We are still in touch. Not having a plan means you ask more questions, stay open to new ideas and meet more locals. Those benefits made me wonder if I ever wanted to fully plan a trip again.

In this year, 2019, we updated a Mystery Trip rule. We could now visit a country we had been to before as long as it was a city we had yet to see. This widened our options, having had the good fortune to travel so much of this planet, and so at 3:15pm when I picked Allison up to head to the airport, we moved closer to JFK and our excited laughter began.

We had yet to decide which terminal and so our taxi driver decided for us. We got dropped off at Terminal 3, where we asked strangers their opinions on places to go. We excitedly ran from board to board, looking up at the destinations and times. I don’t think there was a minute that passed that we were not smiling, and I’m convinced that the anticipation of the experience is as much a part of our bonding, as the adventure itself.

We ran our way through Terminals 3, 4, 5, 7 (who knew there is no Terminal 6 at JFK?), and we tried to beat the clock knowing that the closer we moved past 6pm, our options would become fewer and fewer as we needed 2 hours advance time, at least enough to check in, get to the gate, and let it all sink in.

In Terminal 7, we whittled our choices down to two options – Warsaw or Madrid? I had always wanted to visit Warsaw to see the Jewish Museum and also to experience this city with Allison, who is of Polish descent. We had both been to Spain, but never to Madrid. Once again, our virtual coin was tossed and we threw it out to the universe to decide, while taking into account price, availability and what our friends on social media might think!

Neither one of us is great on social media. Our kids might say we are clueless. This is where the beauty of Facebook and Instagram come in, the intentions of these networks to connect us and expand our horizons, help us learn more and even do more. As soon as we posted our final two choices, we had countless suggestions and friends who came out from the woodwork of our past, high school friends suggesting we go to Warsaw and call an aunt. College friends offering a list of tapas restaurants to try in Madrid. People from the past surfacing in our joy-filled moment, sharing in our anticipation and offering to help. Every year we experience this. Our Facebook and Instagram friends join us on our travels to a certain extent…they offer to help us choose, they recommend places to stay, they suggest the newest restaurants or nightclubs, they even provide local phone numbers of family or friends to call for support. It’s an energy that is hard to describe in words. It connects a universal energy with the energy of friends, old and new, and it’s the very thing that make these Mystery Trips so special.

Booking our flights with Iberia Airlines reminded us of the three years past where the people working the airline counter get just as involved and excited for us. Every year, we are met with an angel who tries to give us a deal, bump us up to better seats, remove the baggage fee, or suggest things to do in their country. The people standing on line behind us are always a bit baffled and we challenge them to one day try to roll their own dice. Very often our same day plane tickets end up being less than if we purchased them months earlier. And no one could possibly hold the anticipatory energy we seem to exude to everyone we meet.

I believe in the energy of the universe and if it was trying to give me a message that evening, one saying Allison and I had made the right choice, it did. While eating dinner, after making it to our gate, I saw a woman from across the restaurant walk over to a table nearby. I should not have seen her as she sat way on the other side of the space, and I was deep in Condé Nast Traveler’s website with Allison, following up on hotel recommendations from friends. The last time I was in Spain was in Barcelona in 1992, when I traveled from Florence, where I spend a semester abroad to learn Italian and a bit of art history. And the woman I saw in the airport restaurant? My friend Lauren who was from that semester abroad program and someone I explored Europe with in this same adventurous way, decades earlier! I tend to “run into” people all of the time, I keep a list of these synchronicity moments, and this sign was indeed a good one. After hugging Lauren as she head off for Iceland, I looked up and thanked the universe for having our backs.

We landed in Madrid without a hotel or plan. We had a slew of hotel options from my kids’ Spanish teachers, from a colleague, and from old friends. We ended up at the Only You Hotel in Atocha, thanks to Allison’s friends Luis and Melissa. It was the perfect choice. It bordered the gorgeous Retiro Park, was across from the train station and was within walking distance of both the Prado and Reina Sofia museums. We immediately checked in, skipped the nap our bodies craved and set foot on a walking tour of the city, led by maps and social media messages of things we needed to see. As we wandered to the other side of the city on foot, we felt so much gratitude for this experience, while wondering how long our bodies could go without sleep. There was just too much to see!


When we got home after our first day, one of my Facebook messages was from a friend in my beloved Costa Rica. It was from Erick, my kids’ amazing surf instructor from the jungles of Santa Teresa. Erick saw a post that we were en route to Madrid and told me his brother Ruy lived there and I had to call him. Ruy said he’d show us around… and so this is how it goes. We found ourselves exploring the city with Ruy, Javier and other locals, eating tapas in four different restaurants along Jorge Juan in one night (and of course, like a local, at 10pm). We made countless conversations with people about the way they work, live and love. Our Mystery Trips always become a deep dive into culture, history, music and food, all through the eyes of new friends. If I could bottle these experiences - the way a stranger becomes a friend through a mutual connection - I would. The irony is that Facebook and Instagram are what bring us these very human moments, fostering our connections and enabling friendships that will forever remain.

Allison and I already have Mystery Trip dates set for 2020, year 5, and nothing will stop us. Having just returned from Madrid, it will be a difficult city to beat. Will our next destination have a city as clean, red wine as delicious, art that could wow us as much as Picasso’s Guernica, and a town quite as stunning as Toledo nearby, and really…what can beat Manchego cheese?

But there’s something that we know after doing these Mystery Trips for so many years. We know we will see and try new things. We know we will soon have friends we have yet to meet. We know we will see a city through the eyes of a local and use the recommendations of friends from our present and past. We know we will carry our adventurous spirit in the 360 days that live between our Mystery Trip dates and that alone brings a vitality to our lives that becomes contagious to others. This makes an entire year of waiting for our next unknown adventure worth the wait.


The hardest thing we’ve done with our son turned out to be one of the best

As I hiked past the majestic Grand Teton mountain last August while camping and rock climbing with my family in Wyoming, I looked up at the summit and asked my guide what it would take to get to the top.

“Three days,” she said. “One to prep and two to climb.”

I tried to think of friends that liked rock climbing enough to take time out of their life, fly to Wyoming and take on that summit.

“If I came out here solo next year, would you guide me?” That's when my 8-year-old Jack looked up at me with his big blue eyes and said, “I’ll do it with you mama! Can I?”

Our guide Jes paused a moment and replied in a way that only Jack would see as an invitation.

“You know what Jack, if you do this, you’d be the youngest kid that our guide service has ever taken up to the summit, I think there was once a boy your age that went up but he was an Exum guide’s son…”

Jack paused. And then he smiled. As he looked up at the summit, he simply said, “Let’s do it mama.”

It was decided. Bobby happily said he would join us on our hopeful adventure and the three of us locked it in the calendar, and looked forward to it all year long. Seeing Free Solo may have freaked me out, but seemed to get Jack even more excited for his mountain adventure. Underneath it all, I knew that even flying out west together and trying something hard would be a bonding experience in and of itself…and so we planned.

The following August arrived and the skies were good to us. The Grand Teton's ragged edges stood up majestically against a crystal blue Wyoming sky and its expanse once again took my breath away. Day one's prep day went well, Jack was reminded of the basics in rock climbing, the many rules that become critical in such a technical sport. I watched him gain energy as the day went on, eager for all that was ahead. I am constantly fascinated by the way my son comes alive in nature, his mind expands, he talks more excitedly and he bounds his way up and down trails like a billie goat. He is his best self when moving, exercising and outdoors, connected to the Earth. So many of us feel this way when we find ourselves reconnecting with nature, appreciating the trees and rocks that existed thousands of years before us and will remain thousands of years after we are gone. The perspective one feels in nature brings a kind of peace and recognition of the present moment. The excitement one gains from a challenging adventure brings a newness and a healthy fear that demand we both learn and grow.

We packed our backpacks, Bobby and I each carrying about 50 pounds, taking much of Jack’s food and winter layers up for him so he could focus on his feet and the task ahead. The first day was mostly hiking, and we relished the trails, the crisp air, and the cool water we sterilized from the mountain’s streams. We got accustomed to our giant backpacks, even though my lower back screamed stop every so often, and my shoulders began to burn. When we reached base camp later that day, we unpacked, reorganized our backpacks and set up shop in our 3-person tent. Our tent was next to the hikers’ hut that is set up at base camp as a permanent fixture from May to September, until the snows get too heavy and the winds make it hard to climb safely. Watching my now 9-year-old son engage with adults, climbers who had come from all over the world to take on the Grand Teton, was a feeling of both awe and joy. Joy is a feeling deeper than happiness, the kind you savor on a level that reminds you how grateful you are to have this life. This child.

We watched the sun set over neighboring Idaho and the most dramatic orange sky emerged, before night fell, stars appeared, and we were hit once again with that reminder of both our tiny size and our short time on this beautiful earth. The stars! I love raising my children in New York City but I often miss the ability to walk outside and see a sky that is white, white with the stars that surround our planet and express the vastness of simply everything.
As we settled into our evening, Jack told me he had a headache…twice. This is one of the strongest warning signs of altitude sickness. I looked over at Jes and Bobby with concern and we agreed to pay attention to his energy, his mood. As the winds blew and the temperature dropped rapidly, we layered up our clothes (6 layers seemed to do the trick) and then huddled with climbers inside the hut to heat up the meals we carried up for dinner. Jack had been sick with an ear infection before leaving for Wyoming and as people watched me give him his ear drops and final antibiotic dose, I began to wonder if this whole thing was a mistake. Cool mom or crazy mom, I pushed the thoughts aside, and re-committed to the challenge we looked forward to all year. The three of us laughed in the tent until about 930pm when Jack finally fell asleep. Our little guy curled up in his sleeping bag, his cherub-like cheeks, I could almost viscerally see him growing up through this experience.

I was staring at the ceiling of the tent and meditating for what seemed like hours, our 3:15am wake up time arrived with insistence. Bobby and I totaled about 52 minutes of sleep between us, but we were ready to conquer the day and gently woke up Jack. The billie goat seemed to pop out of bed, talking incessantly, ready for the challenge we were about to face. Coffee was critical and we ate snacks from our packs, before gearing up for the climb with our helmets, headlamps and ropes. As we packed our smaller climbing packs, Jack mumbled to me, “Mom, I have a headache again.”

Full stop. I’ve climbed mountains and have had my share of crazy endurance challenges and adventures. But I did not anticipate how my experience might change when I faced challenge in a new role, as mother. I cautioned going up suggesting that instead we enjoy how far we’d come, that early signs of "altitude" sickness are real….but Jack kept insisting. He was determined to keep going, and so we did. He promised to tell us if he felt any signs of nausea or headache pain, and we paid increased attention to his movements. I became a hawk looking for signs.

At about 4am, we walked out into the pitch black, the night sky a carpet of magnificent stars above us, and we began our second ascent. We hiked slowly, the way you must at altitude, and Jack learned the value of pressure breathing to support his oxygen intake as well as rest steps to give his muscles mini breaks. We climbed and hiked and the exposures and drop offs were real. Each time we’d reach an edge, no matter how safe I knew we were in theory, roped in, I would feel a pang of fear for my son, a mama bear’s instinct to fiercely protect him against everything, even the side of a mountain. As we ascended, Jack complained of nausea and we paused and sat on the edge of a giant rock. As the sun rose, we were exposed to the elements, with thousands of feet dangling below us and… a decision to make. I insisted we turn around, feeling that maternal pull of protection, but Jack kept asking to keep going.

But as we waited, Jack’s nausea increased and Jes made the executive decision to descend to prevent it from getting worse. We reached “Brigg’s Slap,” the summit before the final summit,12,500 feet in the sky, higher that most kids his age have ever climbed. Still, I saw his look of defeat, an even higher summit he would not see that day and an acceptance that his safety would trump everything. Our ambitions, however great, need to also be checked with the reality around us and calmly we celebrated this massive achievement, making it to the Brigg’s Slab summit, before we slowly began to walk back down.

Within an hour, Jack threw up twice from his beginning phases of altitude sickness, confirming our suspicions and helping him understand we made the right choice. The most difficult decisions are sometimes the smartest ones, and despite ego or intention, it’s important to assess and call upon the wisdom of experience to make the right call. Jack was disappointed, but that faded away into relief not to be even sicker and way higher. Jack defined the word resilience that day when I saw him with his head on my lap, as I caressed his hair and fought my urge to give him a piggy back down the mountain, leaving my 50-pound pack behind. I offered this.

“Jack, if I could carry you down this mountain I would…and you know it. I love you more than I love anything in this world. But you can do this. You know you can. The only way out is through. The only way home is down. Now you have to go inside of yourself, find that strength and put one foot in front of the other.” And with that, he stood up, put one foot in front of the other and made his way down, reaching for what can only be called a kind of courage and beginning to believe in himself.

To my delight, in less than an hour, the billie goat was back. He skipped down the trails, chatting (nonstop!) and telling jokes. Jack was himself again and he seemed to be quietly absorbing his own joy in what he had just accomplished. We stopped for a while and Jes set up ropes on some of the most gorgeous rock faces in the Tetons and he rock climbed for hours. Climb after climb after climb, he’d ask to repeat the same route until he'd find an easier way up the holds, trying to ascend more quickly and beat his time before it. He came alive on that rock face, proud of his achievement while connecting with the rocks themselves.

I did not internalize until later just how powerful the entire experience would be for him, or for me. It was a lesson in saying no with wisdom and grace, even when you want to say yes. It was a lesson in resilience and sheer grit, to keep going even when it’s hard. It was a lesson in the immense power of nature to bond, heal, grow...climbing the youngest mountain range on the continent that make up the oldest rocks. Ultimately it was a lesson that each time we choose to keep moving forward in a moment of pain, confusion or internal conflict, it is a chance to grow.

I feel a connection to my billie goat in a way I did not feel before, and it’s deeper, more real. We shared something big. We did something hard. And we promised each other we’d go back again.


School the World Guatemala

My twin daughters Maddie, Sydney and I recently got back from Chinique, El Quiché, in Guatemala. Since our return, I have had a hard time finding the words to describe our experience together. It was a life-changing immersion that will no doubt inform their choices - and perhaps their lens on life - forever.

To rewind this story a bit —
When I was slightly older than they are right now, I spent 6 weeks in Duran, Ecuador, an impoverished town outside of Guayaquil. I grew up in a very nice suburb of NYC and had never seen anything quite like the poverty that I absorbed as I lived on that hill near the Equator. There I grew as a person, and made friends for life. The main lesson I learned? That happiness doesn’t have much to do with material wealth. The people I lived with in that village were some of the happiest people I had ever met. There were deep struggles of course, and the very real issues that come with a life seeped in poverty. But the smiles of the children and the close-knit relationships within some of those families have never left my mind. That one experience transformed me, led me to my work at UNICEF and, quite literally, changed my life.

While raising Maddie, Sydney and Jack in the heart of NYC, I kept returning to those feelings I had in Ecuador, hoping my children would one day have a similar life-changing affirmation and eye-opening experience. I was admittedly skeptical of organizations that dip into international communities for a few days, offer well-meaning support to those in need, but then leave. I wanted to find an organization that didn’t simply give hand-outs, but rather empowered people to believe that they could pull themselves out of poverty, embracing their traditions, culture and togetherness.

My friend Vanessa introduced us to School the World, an amazing, immersive nonprofit organization, building schools and playgrounds for children in the poorest areas of Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. School the World just reached their not so simple goal to build 100 schools in 10 years and they are setting goals to build much more. While researching the organization to see if it was a fit, my girls and I learned that it takes the average American child 7-10 minutes to get to school, while it takes the average Guatemalan child about 2.5 hours, often walking alone. School the World wanted to change that fact - and thanks to them, every year, families are finding easier access to schools. Not just in primary school but through those difficult middle school years when children have an increased need for supportive spaces to help keep them safe. 

At the end of July, Maddie, Sydney and I joined a few chaperones and 30 U.S. students from Boston to LA and found our way to the heart of this Mayan community, still so rich with culture and spirituality. Within a few days, the kids formed friendships that they say are some of the deepest they’ve ever known. We built the 88th school alongside Guatemalan children, parents and teachers, we taught English, we visited homes and - our favorite - we played soccer and local games at recess every day. Chinique is a tiny village near Santa Cruz del Quiché, deep in the heart of Guatemala’s western rural highlands. The 3 classrooms we constructed were an addition to an existing school, El Calvario, allowing many more children in the area to receive an education.

We worked with local families and teachers to add cement floors, paint walls and dig deep holes to support a brand-new playground. It was hard work, as we anticipated. But I don’t think we could have anticipated the depth of relationships we would form, the joy we would experience every day, and the Guatemalan children that would enter our hearts.

We created a 3 min video that captures the experience… you can check it out HERE!

School the World has expanded into Honduras and Panama and ensuring a child’s access to education is their priority. They stay immersed in these communities for years, long after we leave, providing teacher trainings, parent education sessions and continued support.

What I love about School the World is that you can do more than donate…you can dive in, get your hands dirty and help. You can meet the people you are supporting, as you support them. You can take steps towards prioritizing education for children, the first step out of poverty. An educated child is an educated family. An educated family is an educated community. Educated communities solve problems differently and it all begins with helping children at the youngest age.

If you have a high school kid, I highly recommend School the World. If your child is still young, you can inquire about School the World's family trips in the three countries they currently work. It costs approximately $15,000 to build one school, and you and your kids will feel the value of every single dollar, with the deep recognition that a little bit of money goes a very (very) long way. And that giving your time goes even further. And that relationships, love and connection go the furthest.

Maddie and Sydney will continue raising funds for School the World, to support both the schools in session and the ones yet to be built. The hope is that the funds they raise will help buy desks, school supplies, books and more. $25 buys 5 books, $250 funds a classroom library, $3000 supports a Parent Training program, $3000 funds a playground for a school in need. The amounts listed below and we saw first-hand the impact each thing can have on so many young lives. We are deeply grateful to those of you who supported our efforts, and we appreciate your continued support! THANK YOU!!

Every child has the right to an education. I know for a fact we will never, ever take ours for granted.

To learn more about School the World, help build a school or support the organization, check out www.schooltheworld.org.

If you have any questions on how to get involved, you can email me at aqberna@appleseedsplay.com

Alison Berna is one of the co-founders of apple seeds and songs for seeds

$15,000: 3 Classroom School - 2,980 bricks ($5/brick for fun fundraising ideas)

$10,000: Pre-Primary Classroom and Playground

$8,000-$9,000: Supply ALL books for 1 year in ALL STW schools in one municipality

$7,500: Pre-Primary Classroom in Guatemala (stocked with supplies)

$5,000: Playground

$3,000: Parent Training in 1 Community for 4 Years

$2,500: Scholarship (they raise the other $1,000) for U.S. student in Global Citizenship Program (to travel to Panama or Guatemala)

$750: Parent Training for 1 year in 1 community

$500: Teacher Training

$300: Send a kid to basico in their community - Just the Basics Scholarship

$250: Classroom Library

$100: School Uniform for Basíco scholarship recipient

$40: School supplies for Basíco scholarship recipient

$25: 5 Books

$5: 1 Book


A Life-Changing Experience For Our Family

When we opened apple seeds in 2007, our older boys, Sam and Ari, were 2 years old (Dov, our youngest, was not even a twinkle in our eye). My husband, Craig, and I were having conversations probably similar to many other parents...

How best to teach our kids gratitude? When should we really start to expose them to the world around them? Although we realized that Sam and Ari were probably still too young to internalize these life lessons, we did not anticipate that a chance introduction at apple seeds would build the perfect foundation for our entire family to organically learn so much about gratitude and love while appreciating the similarities and the differences in this world. 

Samantha Broder, and her boyfriend (now husband) Brandon Rigoli, both worked at apple seeds. They told us about a non-profit organization that Samantha’s brother, Brad, had recently co-founded called Kenya Education Fund (KEF). After college, Brad joined the Peace Corps and was struck by the fact that half of all school-aged Kenyans could not afford to continue their education after elementary school. He joined forces with Dominic Muasya, a local community leader, to establish KEF to provide scholarships to students across Kenya so that they could stay in high school to graduation, transition to university and gain meaningful employment.  Brad and Dominic strongly believed that the cycles of poverty and dependency could be disrupted with access to quality education for all.

Craig and I had visited South Africa before our boys were born and had witnessed firsthand exactly what Brad verbalized to us. He and Dominic were securing their first scholarship sponsors for students and based on what Brad knew about our family and what he knew about a KEF applicant named Winnie, thought we would be a great match. He gave us a picture and her first letter. In it, Winnie told us a bit about herself. It was filled with a list of the books she liked, her hobbies, her siblings’ names and ages, gratitude and joy.

Her letter said she was from Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. It took awhile for us to understand that calling Kibera a slum is not an insult. It is a fact. The Kenyan government owns the land but does not provide Kibera's residents with basic services – like running water, proper roads or electricity. The area is overcrowded, with people living in extreme poverty - making less than $1 a day. The walls and roofs of homes are made of corrugated metal and wood, the floors are made of mud. Residents get water from 2 main pipes and then have to boil it for safe use. Bathroom areas have been set up by local entrepreneurs outside homes and are shared with approximately 100 other people...for a cost. There is no sewage system or garbage collection and both build up steadily in all the alleys between where people live. In Kibera, people struggle to meet their basic needs (shelter, water, food, clothing, education, sanitation, healthcare) on a daily basis. Despite these challenges, Winnie found her way to KEF’s offices, filled out an application for high school, took the entrance exam and thanks to KEF, she was entering her freshman year of high school and could not have been more excited. 

For the first few years of our relationship, I would write letters to Winnie and Sam and Ari would draw pictures. Winnie would send back letters and pictures of her own.

We sent details of our life in NYC and printed out photos of our family so that she knew what we all looked like. She kept us updated on her classes, and her family, and Brad would send us photos of Winnie in her school uniform.

As Sam and Ari got older they started writing their own letters – which now included details about their new brother, Dov. Sometimes it would take months to get our notes back and forth to each other. Winnie started to borrow the KEF computer to email us so that we could communicate more efficiently. During the first four years of being pen pals, we learned so much about Winnie, her family, her life, Kibera and her aspirations to be a nurse. She specifically wanted to work with children. As she got closer to graduation from high school, we spoke to Brad about her future. He said that he was confident Winnie could get into a university for nursing and that KEF could help her with applications and admissions. After years of hard work, filling out forms and taking her entrance exams – Winnie was accepted to Kenya Medical Training College.

For the next four years, Winnie worked her tail off in nursing school. She studied hard and took her field work extremely seriously. She spent 6 months working in a very rural area of Kenya within a tribe that did not speak English, Swahili or her mother tongue, Luhya. She learned to communicate with them, administered rabies and malaria shots and provided education to patients regarding both. During college, her favorite rotation was labor and delivery - helping to deliver babies. We kept up the letter writing, but at her university Winnie had more regular access to a computer so our communication became much faster and more frequent. She emailed us pictures of herself in class and in the field – really helping us to understand what her days looked like.

Sam, Ari and Dov would help write our emails back and attach family pictures of what we had most recently done. During those four years we made two attempts to bring Winnie to the US so that we could spend a summer together. Both of those attempts were denied by immigration in Kenya.

In December of 2016, Winnie graduated from college. We were so proud and sat in awe of all she had accomplished.

Around that time, our business partner and one of our closest friends, Alison Qualter Berna, was traveling to Nairobi. We connected her to Winnie so that they could meet. Our first face-to-face call with Winnie was during that trip, on Alison’s phone, using FaceTime at 3am. We sent Alison with a tablet to give Winnie so that we could use it to speak and (finally) see each other whenever we wanted. The first time that Sam, Ari and Dov FaceTimed with Winnie they were so excited they ran outside our apartment to show her all the taxis on 5th Avenue and the Empire State Building. Once Winnie had the tablet, and then her own phone, it took our communication with one another to the next level -- for the past 2 1/2 years we have used WhatsApp to text, send pictures or videos or just quickly check in on the day-to-day. 

After graduation, while Winnie waited for her exam results and nursing certificate to come through, she volunteered at Coptic Mission Hospital administering medicine and giving injections and New Life Home Trust - rescuing and caring for abandoned and neglected babies. Once she was certified, New Life Home Trust offered Winnie a job. She is currently one of 7 nurses at the home. She rotates between the newborn unit, babies and toddlers. 3 nights a month she does an overnight shift in the NICU. Because of our 7-hour time difference this is a great time for us to video chat. During our calls, Winnie has toured us around the facility and introduced us to the babies. She fills out their medical forms with at least one of them on her lap at all times. When we speak, it is the middle of the night for her, but she is lit from within. She was born for her work. When her shifts are over she goes home to Kibera where she lives with parents, her siblings and their children.

This summer Craig, Sam, Ari, Dov and I took a trip to Kenya to visit Winnie. We had been intimately involved in each other’s lives for 11 years and we desperately wanted to meet in person and spend quality time together. We went to Kenya for 3 weeks and spent 2 of them non-stop with Winnie. The timing worked out for us to meet Winnie for the first time at New Life Home Trust.  We were all a bundle of nerves and excitement waiting for her to come to reception to get us. It was hard to believe it was finally happening. Seeing her for the first time was magical.

Once she stopped spinning the boys around she toured us around the facility and we got to meet all the babies we had heard so much about and seen during our calls. We witnessed in person how attached they are to her and she to them. After work we went to meet Winnie's family and see where they all live. Winnie walked us through Kibera to where her parents and youngest brother, Bradley Joshua, live. From the minute we walked in every single member of Winnie’s family completely embraced us. There was so much joy and love in the air. It was such a high to all be together after so much time. Over the next few days we got to spend time with 6 of Winnie’s 7 siblings, her 2 nieces, father and incredible mother. We got to hear about their lives, understand their goals, see their strength and the closeness they share. We visited a KEF school in Kibera and Winnie’s high school in another area of the city.

On our fourth day together, Craig, Sam, Ari, Dov, Winnie and I left Nairobi to go to Watamu, on the coast of Kenya, to spend a week’s vacation at the Indian Ocean. Our time there together was so special. We toured ruins, went fishing and kayaking and celebrated Winnie's 28 birthday. Winnie saw and swam in the ocean for the first time and we had the time and space to ask every question under the sun, removing any trace of distance created by living 7,350 miles apart.

Winnie is one of the strongest, most joyful people we have ever met. Sam, Ari & Dov say there is no one nicer. It has been one of the biggest gifts in our lives to have such a close relationship with Winnie. We have all been deeply affected in the best ways possible -- to know her experiences and her character, to be both moved and inspired by her achievements, to love her and to be loved by her. We consider each other family. Winnie calls Sam, Ari and Dov her brothers and, with the utmost respect for her real mother and father, affectionately calls me and Craig, Mum and Dad. We have learned so much from each other and like any other beautiful relationship, I think we would all agree that we have each gotten more than we have given. 

One of the things we have learned, through Kenya Education Fund and Winnie, is how vital education is. It is the only pathway out of poverty and into a life of hope and opportunity. We’ve also learned that affording education means more than getting past the first hurdle of being able to pay school fees. It means affording pencils, notebooks, school uniforms, exam fees and sanitary napkins for girls. These all become barriers to getting an education. Without education there is no chance to thrive – which should be every child’s right. Kenya Education Fund believes that. That is why they exist. KEF has been working for over a decade to make that right a reality for as many kids in Kenya as possible. So far they have provided scholarships for over 3,000 students. Thankfully, they are not stopping anytime soon - but it takes a village.

·       Provide a student like Winnie with an education - $750 a year ($63 a month).
·       50% of KEF students have sponsors but the other 50% are put through school from general donations making donations of any amount extremely helpful.
·       $50 helps provide school uniforms for KEF Scholars.
·       $75 helps 3 girls with a year supply of sanitary pads.
·       $100 helps purchase school supplies and textbooks.

If you would like to learn more about KEF or donate -- please visit their website at Kenya Education Fund. You can also follow them on FacebookInstagram or Twitter

Check out this special message from Allison 
Allison Schlanger is one of the co-founders of apple seeds and songs for seeds. Feel free to reach out to her at aschlanger@appleseedsplay.com for more info.


Honored at the TheaterWorksUSA Spring Benefit

Honored at the TheaterWorksUSA Spring Benefit!

We are deeply grateful to have been honored at the annual TheaterWorksUSA benefit on April 29 in NYC. We are proud supporters of the mission of TheaterWorksUSA — to bring quality, live performances to children, inspiring minds all over the country. The money raised from the event will go to bringing shows to children who do not have access to theater arts. 

We have promoted TheaterWorksUSA programs to all our apple seeds families over the years. This is not just because we share an interest in the children’s arena. This is because we deeply believe in the philosophy of TheaterWorksUSA and we cannot say enough about the quality and caliber of the productions that TheaterWorks presents in communities. Their scripts, music, actors, sets, costumes and overall talent is unmatched in children’s theater. At the level TheaterWorksUSA is producing shows, it actually feels unfitting to call it children’s theater - this is our theater as well.

With 6 kids between us we have sat in the audience truly mesmerized by many, many Theaterworks productions...Click, Clack, Moo, Magic Schoolbus, Pete the Cat, Skippyjon Jones and more — and just as we thought our teenagers may have aged out of the kid oriented productions, TheaterworksUSA presented, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical and they were back! The truth is...one of the most impressive things we ever told our 9 year olds is that we know the people putting on Dog Man: The Musical this summer and they sent us a link to buy tickets before it sells out! TheaterWorksUSA just told us we can share that link with all our apple seeds and songs for seeds families as well. Hope to see you there!