Some things naturally spark gratitude, but at times it can be more difficult to find reasons to be grateful. This has been a difficult year for humanity, but Northern New Mexico youth have found meaningful ways to help others in the local community and beyond. Knowing that others are also struggling, they are generously giving their time and energy to serve them. In doing so, they are building relationships locally and globally and discovering how much they themselves have to be grateful for.
The Peace Ambassador Program: Connecting Internationally through Stories and Virtual Meals
Tomorrow’s Women created the Peace Ambassador Program to bring young women from Santa Fe high schools together for six months of intensive training in leadership and conflict-transformation skills. They then meet Israeli and Palestinian young women during a summer camp. Last January, eight students began biweekly meetings to explore identity and belonging and its connection to place.
Together, this year’s ambassadors created a walking tour of Santa Fe places they related to and that informed their identity. The young women were able to shift it into a virtual tour. One Peace Ambassador, Xitlalitl Rodas, shared her gratitude to the program for making it possible to interact with other young women, to tell their stories and to share meaningful experiences in this new virtual world.
The Peace Ambassador Program helped participants look at the complex histories of Santa Fe and understand others’ perspectives. Rodas says, “As a young Latina born in New Mexico, the Peace Ambassador Program helped me look at my sense of belonging, not through the lens of an imposter but through the lens of respect and acknowledgement of the stories and experience of the Native community. In exploring those identities, I was also able to explore my sense of belonging. I was fortunate to learn about Native American history in New Mexico from two of our [Native] Peace Ambassadors.”
About halfway through their program and in response to the pandemic, the participants shifted everything to virtual platforms. The summer camp was postponed to 2021. Even so, Executive Director Tarrie Burnett and her staff were determined not to let the pandemic disrupt the connection. The participants from Santa Fe, Israel and Palestine were able to meet online for sessions called Transformational Encounters. During one of these events, each participant cooked food that held meaning for her and brought it to a virtual potluck. Participants shared stories, discovered commonalities despite cultural differences, laughed and built relationships.
Throughout the program, the young women developed their own sense of belonging and learned about working through conflict by listening to each other’s unique experiences and perspectives. One Peace Ambassador, Elizabeth, said, “Even if we are across the world or stuck behind computer screens, we’re still able to connect, and that gave me a lot of faith in humanity. Through all the barriers we’ve been through this year, we are still able to connect.”
Santa Fe YouthWorks: Connecting to the Community through Service
Santa Fe YouthWorks, founded by Melynn Schuyler in 2001, is a welcoming organization that supports disaffected youth and helps them reach their potential while re-engaging in the community. Among its core programs of education and youth outreach are job training and employment opportunities in construction, culinary arts and conservation. Some participants also work on local farms to grow produce for the emergency meal program while learning about food security and local food production.
Renee Ramos has found meaning through working in the culinary program. This year, the program participants helped prepare and deliver thousands of meals every day to public schools and food-insecure Santa Feans. They overcame the challenges of closings to continue providing over 90,000 nutritious meals.
Food inspires connection and draws us together, whether through sharing a meal or helping ensure that neighbors have enough to eat. Ramos says, “Knowing you’re making a difference in your community with the work you do every day is an exceptional feeling. I’m grateful that us youth can use [the] support [of YouthWorks] to flourish with our academics and work ethic. Especially during these hard times [of the pandemic], the YouthWorks program has connected me to the community by helping those that are in need, which is something that I have always been passionate about.”
The Tanzania Pen Pal Project: Finding Commonality across Cultures
Danlee Winegar founded the pen pal project (now called 1Humanity) after she spent a year in Tanzania as a volunteer with the school programs of famed English primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall. Winegar says, “I was fifty at the time, and I had such an amazing, paradigm-shifting experience. All I could think about was if I had had that experience and exposure when I was younger, how it would’ve changed the trajectory of my life, my career choices, my travel — all of that.” In 2017, this experience inspired her to draw on her connections with Santa Fe Prep, where a teacher had helped a Tanzanian student study abroad. Together, they created a program connecting over 400 students in Santa Fe and Tanzania as pen pals.
Once the pandemic closed down schools in both countries, the program had to get creative: Tanzanian students no longer had a way to send letters, which had previously been handwritten and then scanned at school. Since many Tanzanian high schoolers used WhatsApp not only to communicate but also to receive homework, the pen pals switched to that platform. Winegar says, “We’d send prompt questions, and kids on both sides of the world answered and shared their experiences. It was really cool to see how similar their experiences were.”
Abbie Francis, a Santa Fe Prep student who graduated this year, has been involved in the program for several years as a student leader. The switch to WhatsApp made it possible not only to share day-to-day experiences but also pictures and videos. Says Francis, “The letters are great for having one person [to communicate with], but WhatsApp has really developed this whole community of people in the project.”
Winegar originally thought the guided prompts would reveal that the Tanzanian youth were having a harder time. She reports, “It was the human thread that ran through the whole thing — [everyone was] missing sports, friendships, social life and having a hard time adjusting to a new way of living their lives. That speaks to so much of our humanity at the core and what the world is struggling with at this time.” Students’ ability to share their experience provided a sense of relief in feeling understood, and it fostered their resilience. “We’re all in this together, and we’ll get through it,” Francis said. She noted that the project made her realize how interconnected the world is and how it helped her shift from a “they/them” mentality to “us.” In fact, it has inspired her to study international affairs.
This academic year, Winegar hopes to expand the project to other schools and “to reinforce the value of both creating and listening, to emphasize not only that everyone’s story matters but also to show that it is through understanding each other’s stories that we can exercise empathy and build understanding and compassion in our own communities and cross-culturally.”
Meg Peralta-Silva was born in Baltimore and lived in many states and countries before moving to New Mexico three years ago. She has worked as a youth advocate, creative expression instructor, program director and farm intern. She enjoys learning from others’ perspectives and challenging her own biases.