Quite recently I was given a rare privilege to host the Top 10 CNN Hero of the Year for 2009, Ms. Betty Makoni. She was in the states from England for a prominent speaking engagement at Duke University. When they asked her where she would like to go after her visit with them, she said, “I want to go to Seattle to see Kathleen.” Then she had to explain to them who I am and what I do. I am deeply honoured to not only have had her stay with me in my home, but allowed me to set up several speaking engagements for both of us in Seattle and San Juan Island.
I am filled with gratitude for everyone who helped me put the events together which I will share a little later. So let me begin about our journey with Betty’s first visit to the Pacific Northwest.
When my youngest son and I picked her up at the airport I felt as if I finally got to meet my sister for the first time. We had a quiet dinner (well, with my two busy boys, quiet is relative) at my home and she enjoyed time with my kids. My little one was upset she didn’t bring her boys with her so they could play.
Despite our already busy schedule, I made sure we had some relaxing time. So I took her to the Pike Place Market to have lunch at Athenian (you know, the same place Tom Hanks was filmed in “Sleepless in Seattle”). We visited shops, chatted, and shared stories about our boys. She is so filled with gratitude for what she has that even with little sleep, she allowed me to show her the sites of Seattle.
That night we picked up my Auntie Rose and my little one tagged along with us to the Space Needle for dinner. We laughed, shared stories, enjoyed some wine and amazing food. Auntie presented Betty a handmade broach (her hobby is Brazilian needlework). Betty was moved as this is something created from Aunties own hands.
I secretly asked our waitress to surprise Betty with a special dessert, a fancy presentation of dry ice billowing smoke out from under ice-cream with a yummy fruit sauce and candle. It was so much fun!
The waitress asked what the special occasion was for, so of course I told her we are with a CNN Hero. She asked what the award was for so I told her for her humanitarian work rescuing rape victims in Zimbabwe. This of course opened up further conversation and she shared her daughter is a rape survivor. It amazes me how many times I speak with people that they know someone or they themselves have been affected by rape and/or domestic violence.
We also had the privilege of having authentic Zimbabwe food from a friend we both met on Facebook. So after a very long day and commute from the event on San Juan Island, we zipped down to Tacoma for food and met some amazing people from Betty’s homeland. It also turns out they are related! I didn’t understand the language spoken, Shona, but I did understand the love felt. They where warm, inviting and so welcoming to us.
How do you explain who Betty Makoni is?
In a word, AMAZING. We share so many of the same ideals and dreams. I learned so much from her in 4 days and I have to say, it was life changing. She taught me about her empowerment program for her girls who are rescued from rape and abuse. They are brought to the Empowerment Village’s after getting medical care and stay up to 6 months empowering them.
She shared that part of the Girl Child Model is not only to bring up their self-esteem, but teach them to be resourceful, so they do not become reliant on people donating to help them or turn to prostitution or even marrying an older man. She teaches them to become leaders, business owners; girls and young women who learn to stand up for their own human rights and create a better life for themselves.
One of the poor girls that Betty helped is now going to Oxford. Because someone believed in her and that instilled the young women amazing work ethics and motivation to make her life better. Many are going to school to become lawyers, accountants, even police officers.
It was a great privilege to speak at the events with her. We spoke first the University of Washington Women’s Center, then Bush School and finally, San Juan Island Community Theater. We where guests on a local radio station and Betty also gave a presentation to Seattle Children’s Hospital Social work and they found it very interesting and thoroughly enjoyed meeting Betty. We met with staff at Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress. Betty was able to ask the medical staff important questions regarding treatment and exams after rape. Harborview not only answered her questions in great detail, but also provided resources for her to bring back to the medical staff that works with the girls in all the locations her Empowerment Villages are. (please visit my website under Speaking Engagements for further details on where we visited)
We met with the Executive Director & Assistant Professor of Womens’ Studies at the UW just before the event there. I must confess, being in a meeting with two very powerful women was a little intimidating. You see, people are surprised I didn’t go to college. I don’t have a degree in anything but Majoring in the University of Heart Knocks. But I know how to work and I rely on books and asking questions to teach me. My passion to help others and drive to create a better life for myself has led me this far. So there I was, in this room discussing ideas with these amazing women.
After which we went down to the theater where the volunteers set up Betty’s CNN banner on the stage. People began to show and yes, I was nervous. So what did we talk about? Perhaps we can start with what I shared.
“My name is Kathleen Schmidt; I’m a survivor of domestic violence and abuse and fled for my life over 15 years ago.
When I was living in a shelter for battered women, I kept telling myself over and over, “I have a brain, two hands, two feet and I know how to work; I WILL make my life better”. I chose to become a victor instead of a victim.
So finally, after many years needed to grow and heal, I wrote my little blue book “Escaping the Glass Cage: A Story of Survival & Empowerment from Domestic Violence”. But it didn’t feel like that was enough. I wanted to find a way to reach more people on a global scale.
So I created Project Empowerment, a blog talk radio show dedicated to empowering survivors of domestic violence and abuse as well as empowerment for all. My guests have included Betty Makoni (she was my first guest), I’ve also had on actress/author Mariel Hemingway, King 5’s New Day Northwest host, Margaret Larson; as well as shelter directors from all over the world, psychotherapists, counselors and survivors. Each sharing their story passion and work they are doing to make their world a better place.
It is humbling to be contacted by listeners from all around the world, to learn the vital resources shared and how their sheer will power helped them gain the strength to leave their abuser. My dream to create Project Empowerment into a global resource tool is coming true.
But again, I felt there needed to be something else I can do to raise awareness. So I am proud to announce Climb for Empowerment, with the mission to empower survivors of domestic violence and abuse….one step at a time. I will be climbing Mt. Rainier this September in honor of all those who have struggled to start their lives over.
It is by choice, to take one step after another. My dream is to show the world, if I can make a new life, so can you, one step at a time. I know how hard it is to rebuild a life. It takes a lot of courage to start over, learn how to live again and grow through the pain. So this climb is more of a symbol of that growth. It will take time, training and a lot of determination to do this and I will need your support. Donations will be shared between Betty’s organization Girl Child Network Worldwide and also The Pixel Project. Both are global initiatives to help end violence against women. The official links are found at www.climbforempowerment.com
How did I meet Betty?
Just over a year ago we met via, of all things, Facebook. With the power of the internet we have forged an alliance to empower survivors of domestic violence and abuse worldwide. This is a global problem, but how does one take on such a monumental task? It is done step by step, day by day, finding new ways to help other and never giving up on your dreams. If Betty can build an organization with a model that can be duplicated worldwide, why not use it to help others?
Her work has empowered tens of thousands of girls worldwide with Girl Child Empowerment Clubs, Girls Empowerment & Education Fund, Advocacy & Speak Out, and Girls Empowerment Villages-Support for girls at Risk.
Just like Domestic violence, abuse of young girls recognizes no borders, cultures, creed or color. It is everywhere and represents a massive loss of human potential as well as a gross violation of human rights.
But we can do something about it. Listen to Betty, learn from her words and example and find that inspiration within you to create the change we need to see in our world.
For as Gandhi once said, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history”
In closing I also shared with the audience that my book along with the DVD “Girl Child”, film we shared where available in the back for a small donation. The generosity was overwhelming.
After my speech, Betty took the stage and delivered a powerful message, starting off with her story off about her grandmother and the taboos she faced having twins, multiple times. Then the domestic violence that took her mother’s life while Betty was still very young. Betty was raped at age 6 and saw her mother being beaten to death at the hands of her father when she was 8. Her story is powerful and she is currently working on her book.
But my favorite part of her story is when she had to run for the bus. The bus that took her to school. The school that gave her an education. The education that gave her the freedom to get a job. But most of all, the lessons learned in this journey. You see, Betty worked for everything. She did not have grants or parents to put her through school. She worked for her tuition and wasn’t afraid to be a “Dignified Beggar” to get what she wanted.
Betty told the Catholic Nuns while in tattered and dirty clothes to allow her to work for her tuition so she could go to school. She told them “I have a brain, but no money, give me an education and I will work.” She knew an education was her ticket out of poverty and she worked for it. In a country where women are not encouraged to get an education, she was already facing an up-hill battle, but she did it. She teaches what she knows and I am doing the same.
During Betty’s speech, she shared with several of the young people “have books, not babies; babies cry, books don’t”. The kids laughed and the parents loved it as not only was it true, it was empowering.
We did the same presentation at Bush School here in Seattle which was organized by a passionate high-schooler. She wrote me a note thanking me for bringing Betty to Seattle. You see, we met some months back when there was a film being premiered here in town about Betty’s work and I was the presenter. This young woman decided at the last minute to come and she is so glad she did.
We shared our stories, our passion and our work with the young people and their parents and they were so moved. Betty and I were presented with flowers and it was truly touching. And again, people gave generously.
While at the San Juan Island event (our biggest one during the entire trip) we spoke to up to about 180 people. They filmed us in HD and when it is available, I will share the link. We did our presentation and again at the Q & A, many, many had powerful questions for Betty. But I think what stood out for me the most was how many men were in attendance. One thanked Betty for being there, for sharing her story and for her work.
Please note, all the monies raised will go to the Empowerment Villages and to their Education Fund. This will help all of them for 3 months (there are about 60 girls in each of the 3 villages). I cannot stress enough how important it is that these girls are not just given handouts. As Betty puts it, it is a waste if money is only given and not used wisely. You have to teach them how to be resourceful. So that is what happens. GCNW is creating opportunities for girls and young women to become active participants in their communities through the vocational training program. Something as simple as creating handmade baskets or beads is giving girls an opportunity to build a business instead of feeling they have to resort to prostitution or marriage to survive.
Betty started all of this with a dream; A dream to do everything in her power to empower all girls. She says, “You save a girl, you save a nation.”
We’ve created a powerful alliance and I know I have a great deal of work ahead of me. What is the next step? I’ve been invited to work with women at a local shelter, to speak with them not only about my story but what tools I personally used to carve a new life for myself. I will continue to create new shows each week, sharing valuable information that may save a life. And training for Mt. Rainier is a daily progress. Not only do I workout, but mentally I focus on why I’m doing this. I have no mountaineering skills, my starting from ground zero is so symbolic of a woman who is fleeing for her life and beginning again.
What can you do? It takes time to create change in the world and it will not happen until people begin to change their attitudes and beliefs. It starts with each of us. Stop putting blame on politics, religion, your boss or your spouse……anything that you feel causes you grief. Look at that person in the mirror and ask yourself, “What can I do right now to make my world a better place?” Then do something. Help Betty’s organization Girl Child Network Worldwide and create an Empowerment Club in your area. Find a way to give back, if only your time and energy.
As I shared before, Betty’s visit to Seattle was life changing. It was also a dream come true. I knew in my heart we would not only meet, but work together. We have great passion to help bring peace and empowerment to our world and we are doing it together…………one step at a time.