BLOG: A Passion in my Blood
Written by Miss Oregon Teen USA 2017 Vanessa Matheson
Most of you likely know me simply as Vanessa Matheson, Miss Oregon Teen USA 2017. If you follow the program closely or have done your share of research, you may also know things like the fact that I am a student at the University of Oregon, that in high school, I won the 4a doubles tennis State Championships, or maybe that I volunteer with the organization Habitat for Humanity. While it is simple to know facts about an individual, what is often overlooked and unquestioned, and ultimately what is much more intriguing, are the underlying reasons and motives that drive that individual to do the things that he or she does. So today, I want to walk you down the path that led me to my service with the Habitat for Humanity Organization. Today I want to tell you my story.
Now this story began long before I had even been born. Let’s take it all the way back to 1956, the year that my father was born. For much of his childhood, he grew up in India in a missionary family. He knew a very different life than most American children; a different culture, a different language, a different lifestyle. His horizons were broadened from a very young age, and he grew with a very different, and open, outlook on life and on the world. When he married my mother, they decided to follow in his parents footsteps and continue missionary work, and after living in France for a short time to learn the language, they moved again in early 1991 to where they were going to be working; Rwanda, Africa. He was working in bush clinics providing medical care, doing what he could to help aid in a part of the world that so badly needed it. They had lived there for almost four years, and had two young children, when the Rwandan genocide broke out in 1994. The country was entirely wartorn, and nowhere was safe. They were forced to live under a table in their hallway out of sight from any doors or windows for nearly a week before they were able to be evacuated from the country, and eventually to the United States. They returned with no possessions, having seen and endured an absolutely horrendous and life-altering event. While this time in Rwanda was tragic, my father knew he could not sit in ignorant bliss safe in the United States. He wanted to continue the work and global relationships that he had been raised upon and allow some good to come out of his experience.
Years later, when my sister who had been about four years old when they evacuated Africa was now an early teenager, my father and her founded an organization through Habitat for Humanity called Klamath Basin Youth Without Borders (KBYWB). This organization would provide high school students in our hometown with the opportunity to travel abroad and help build houses for well-deserving families in dire need. The motto of this group was “building bridges”. Figuratively speaking of course, meaning to build positive cultural bridges between the U.S. and individuals living in foreign countries. While the objective of the project was of course to provide people in third world countries a safe place to live, the students were also there to immerse themselves in an unknown culture, getting to know the local people and ideals and exchange positive impressions from one culture to the other. These projects began in 2007, with a trip to Thailand, when I was eight years old. Being that I was so young when the organization began, I grew up around it; helping with fundraisers and seeing the inner workings of the projects at hand. For as long as I can remember, I was absolutely dying to go on these service trips. I could not wait until I was old enough, even being as young as I was I had a great appreciation for the work that they were doing. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to help people less fortunate than I. I wanted to learn things that can’t be taught in a classroom. And of course, I had seen my family do this for years, and heard all of the stories about the generations before me; it was in my blood.
My junior year of high school, I finally got the opportunity to partake in the KBYWB service trip first-hand. We would be going to Trinidad & Tobago, and I could not have been more excited. In preparation, I helped with and organized many fundraisers, shared the work of our program and our plans with others, and spent time learning about the culture and what to expect when we were there. I expected to travel to this country and positively change the lives of a family in need. What I didn’t expect, however, was that they would change mine just as much.
From the moment I set foot on the build sight in Trinidad, I knew that this was something I was meant to do. We met the family that we were going to be building for, and it all became so real. There were three children in the family, one that was older and no longer lived with the family, and two that were fairly young, around ages five and seven. The house that they had been living in consisted of one room for all four of them to live, and the stability of it was bare minimum. It was falling apart, and there was nothing that they could do about it, despite the fact that the parents were extremely hardworking and the father maintained a job. As we began our work over the course of the week raising the walls of this family's new home, they worked right alongside us. The father and the oldest son helped put the blood and sweat into building their home, and the young son and daughter helped paint the exterior when it came time, all while we got to know them and they shared their stories of their lives there in Trinidad. On our lunch breaks, the sweet five year old daughter Adalia would read us her books or share her toys with us, and we all became so close. These relationships we formed with the family in our time there made the experience so much more special and rewarding, and is the reason that I love and continue to do work like this to this day. The family was so grateful to us for what we were doing for them, and although they had very little, their outlook on life was always so positive. Seeing this changed my outlook as well, and when our service there sadly came to an end and it was time to say goodbye, I could not wait to take part in another build.
The following year, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel with KBYWB abroad again on another service trip. Another country, another culture, and another opportunity to use my hands for good and help deserving families. This time, we made the trip half-way around the world to build in Macedonia. This experience was just as incredible as the first, because it was in an entirely different part of the world and therefore it gave me the chance to learn about a whole new culture, history, and people. Our project here was also a bit different. While in Trinidad, we built a new home for a single family, in Macedonia, we worked on low-income apartments that would provide housing for many families in need. While this meant that we didn’t get the chance to work one on one with the particular family we were serving, it did give us the opportunity to meet and work with many people that would be benefitting from these habitat apartments in the years to come. One man we had the pleasure of getting to know was a single father with a young daughter. He helped at the build sight nearly everyday with us, helping the homes of other families come together so that he later could have his for him and his daughter. Once again, his and other people’s willingness to give to and help others when they have nothing themselves completely amazed me. And while I am so happy to have gotten to take part in something that changed others lives for the better, I am also thankful for how it changed mine in the process.
I learned to take nothing for granted, and to be thankful for every little thing that I have in this life. I learned that family, friends, and community are all you need to be happy, and that possessions mean so little. These people were always willing to help their neighbors and give what they could, even if it was simply their time. And that is what inspired me to give back. No matter how much you have, you can always give to those around you. Give your energy, your time, and your kindness, and the world will be a much more harmonious place for us all. I hope today that you have gained a deeper insight to me and my life, and what drives me and sets my soul on fire. This is something that runs in my family and in my blood, and I am forever grateful to have been raised in a family that is so globally aware and has the desire to serve in the places that need it the most, when we live in a world where it is so easy to simply focus on the smaller picture in front of us. Many people spend their lives looking at a tree, while there is an entire forest beyond their view. I strive to do my part to look beyond my horizon and care for the whole forest, and if my story can motivate even one person to do the same, we can create a ripple effect that can turn the path our world is heading down around, and create a more positive future for us all, and for generations to come. While of course, I will love to have inspired some of you to potentially volunteer with the Habitat for Humanity organization in specific, I hope, most of all, that I have simply inspired you to find your passion to give to, because I have certainly found mine.