If it were me

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Returning from vacation this summer, I pulled off I-80 in Pennsylvania at a truck stop to get gas. I filled up the tank, paid in cash, then I went to the restroom before heading home.

Back in Meadville, I stopped to get groceries. No wallet. Hm. I realized I must have left it in the restroom. I had about $100 cash in it. My first thought: it’s a truck stop; a lot of people pass through. If someone did find it and didn’t return it, I figured he or she needed the money more than I did. My mom felt certain someone would return it.

One problem: I had no idea where I’d stopped.

I knew it was a Travel Center of America. I checked my odometer: 183 miles. I called the corporate headquarters. A kind woman suggested I could have stopped at Milesburg or Lamar. She called Milesburg with me on the line. Nope. I told the woman that I remembered that the restroom was by the ATM machine and the sodas.

“That’s Lamar.”

I called Lamar. Loretta answered the phone. “Yes, we have it in the safe. Josie, a waitress, found it and turned it in.”

A few days later, I drove back to Lamar. I wanted to meet Loretta and Josie in person and thank them. I had a hand-written note for Josie. I tucked some money inside. I’ve worked as a waitress.

Josie tried to wave off my envelope. It’s a thank-you note, I said.

She accepted it. I shook her hand. I thanked her again.

“If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me,” she said.

I spent a chunk of my summer swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, spending hours reading books for fun at the beach and listening to programs by the British Broadcasting Corporation on my shortwave radio. The story of the summer was one of waves of refugees arriving on the shores of Turkey and Greece, fleeing the ravages of war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last Thursday in our journalism classes, we discussed the photo of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan, a refugee who drowned and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. We discussed the ethical considerations of running an image of a dead child. The students agreed it was a harsh photograph that reflected a harsh situation. The world needed to see it, they concluded.

It can be too easy to turn away from devastation and horror if it’s not impacting your life, your family. You may feel there’s nothing you can do. By the end of the summer, I didn’t want to hear the stories. My heart hurt. And the stories stirred images of my own work when I had documented refugees fleeing conflict.

One BBC report told of women arriving hungry and exhausted from their odyssey across the desert and the sea. The reporter described how the women used their last shreds of strength and will to push their children onto the trucks, to hurl them to strangers if necessary.

My mind instantly projected a memory, an image of a time when I stood at the Kenyan border watching Somali refugees appear in the shimmering heat, near skeletons in ragged clothes heading for the hoped safety of a refugee camp in Liboi. When the women arrived, they would heave their children into the back of the United Nations trucks. They wouldn’t have any remaining strength to pull themselves onto the vehicle.

In August, before classes began, I listened to a report on National Public Radio.

Ari Shapiro was in Izmir in southwest Turkey where Syrian refugees board boats at night to cross to Greece. He shared the story of a man who joined 40 others who piled into a raft made for 10. The boat sank. Many died.

Smugglers and local merchants take advantage of the refugees’ plight. Shapiro reported that going rate for the short boat crossing to Greece is $1,200 per person.

He then told the story of another man, a Turkish merchant, who lets refugees charge their cell phones at his restaurant. He offers them water and food, free of charge. He lets women and children sleep in his upstairs offices, even though it’s illegal.

“These are people who are running away from war, and if I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me,” said Ali Demir, the restaurant owner in Shapiro’s story.

When I was a young photojournalist, I wanted to save the world with my photographs. In my years in Africa and the Middle East, I realized that it’s my actions as a human being while I do my work as a journalist that make the difference. And we’ve talked about this in our classes, too.

No matter where we live, each day we are given opportunities to show kindness, to offer assistance.

As Josie the waitress in Lamar, Pennsylvania said, “If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me.”

As Ali the restaurant owner in Izmir, Turkey said, “If I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me.”

If it were me. A thought that inspires action.

From one person to another, a simple, tender gesture of kindness can make a world of difference.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Fare well to Kazi, who sees each person he encounters

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014

Not long after I arrived in Meadville, I was feeling worlds away from my family and friends. At a table outside the Pampered Palate, I noticed two men talking. I heard the lilt of Africa in their words. My heart sang.

Steve Onyeiwu and Kazi Joshua were sharing a meal and conversation when I popped in front of them.

Hello. I’m Cheryl Hatch. I’m new here. I’ll be teaching journalism at Allegheny College.

I barely stopped to take a breath in my enthusiasm to make new friends.

Where are you from?

At the college, I have since been chastised for asking this question; however, as a military brat, a journalist and a relentlessly curious traveler, I love to hear people’s stories of their origins and journeys.

I explained that I had lived and worked in Africa. Allegheny professors, Steve said he was from Nigeria; Kazi, Malawi.

As students finished their finals this week, Kazi spent his final days at Allegheny. He accepted the “newly created position of associate dean for intercultural affairs and chief diversity officer” at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, according to a story in The Pioneer, the weekly student-run newspaper.

When I had lunch with Kazi recently, he told me he remembered well that day in the fall of 2012. He said I was having lunch with the editor of The Campus, our student newspaper. He already knew a bit about me from conversations at the college.

It turns out Kazi collects and cherishes stories, just as I do.

Kazi is easy to spot on campus with his high energy and bow tie. He calls me Professor Hatch and he addresses students with honorific titles and respect. Mr. Hailsham. Ms. Mauroni.

Students, faculty and staff call him Kazi.

His full given name is Kazipuralimba. I asked Kazi once what it meant.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Indeed.

When the going got tough, I went to Kazi.

As a new faculty member and the adviser to The Campus, I welcomed his advice. Kazi is a wise man—with the instincts of a journalist.

I would pass Kazi’s former office on the third floor of the Campus Center, usually on my way to or from The Campus newsroom.

I’d wave and say hello. Often, Kazi would invite me to sit and talk. He’d turn his chair and lean in to listen as I shared a challenge or hurt. Stories of students who were troubled, harassed or struggling. Stories of my own troubles.

Kazi always made time for me, as he did for countless students and colleagues in his five years at Allegheny. Our talks were not always about challenges and setbacks. We talked about life, current events, matters of the heart and spirit.

I would leave Kazi’s office and presence feeling uplifted. I always felt heard.

Kazi is a skilled listener.

In meetings, at speeches, in the classroom, Kazi’s quiet presence was felt. He would sit in silence and listen, profoundly.

At the end of a discussion or near the end of a meeting, Kazi would summarize what he’d heard and then ask a thoughtful and thought-provoking question.

Like the best journalists, Kazi is not afraid to ask the tough questions.

I remember when Sheryl Stolberg, a reporter for The New York Times, spoke at Ford Chapel as part of Allegheny’s Year of Civil Rights in the fall of 2013. After she had fielded numerous questions, Kazi stood. As was his practice, Kazi had let the students have the floor first. I will go from memory now since I don’t have my notes with me.

Kazi asked her about the media’s coverage of President Barack Obama. He asked if she felt racism played a part in the way journalists reported on America’s first black president.

I believe many in the audience had that question on their minds, maybe on the tip of their tongues. No one had dared to stand and ask it. Kazi did.

I felt a deep respect for Kazi in that moment. To me, he demonstrates the qualities that are imperative for a journalist—and human being. He listens carefully. He risks asking the tough questions that may yield unpopular and hard answers. Or may encourage resolution and results.

Kazi is a gentle man, a man of faith. He spoke with passion in the classroom—and on occasion from the pulpit in Ford Chapel. A colleague called him a brother and soldier for social justice.

I consider Kazi my brother, a fellow journalist and storyteller.

In South Africa, there’s a Zulu greeting, sawubona, which translates as “I see you.”

Kazi sees me. Just as he sees each person he encounters.

He took the time to sit with me and listen. He asked about my mother and father many times as they passed through their health crises these past two years. He sat with me as I weathered my hurts. He asked about my health—and my heart.

These past weeks, Allegheny students, staff and faculty offered Kazi fond remembrances, celebrations and farewells. Whitman waits to embrace him.

I am happy Kazi has found a place where he will be cherished and respected. And I am sad to see him go.

Fare well, my dear friend. I see you. Thank you for seeing me.

 

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/fare-well-to-kazi-who-sees-each-person-he-encounters/article_703177d4-866e-11e4-bf45-77df09ba2756.html

Breathe well, as we have just this one life

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Outside the Box by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

 

Breathe well.

Our yoga teacher repeats this often during our practice.

I came to Allegheny after working in Afghanistan by way of a hospital bed in Kuwait.

For my first year on campus, I was under doctor’s orders to rest. No running. No swimming. No yoga. Only walking. My body and lungs needed time to rest, repair, restore.

Breathe well.

A respiratory illness tried to take my breath. Now I breathe beauty. Sunshine. Rain. Wind. Tears. Ocean. Light. Laughter.

When I left Afghanistan, I left the world of breaking news. For two decades, I’d been in crisis mode. Wildfires. Plane crashes. Murders. Executions: at a federal penitentiary, in urban neighborhoods, on dirt roads in Africa. Earthquake. Floods. Famine. Civil war. Political campaigns. Sports playoffs. Serial killers.

I had more stretches of 90-hour weeks than I want to admit. Yes, the news never sleeps; and, too often, neither did I. It was a fun and frenetic career—and it took its toll.

When I came to this small liberal arts college in this small town, I envisioned a slower pace of life. I would write letters. I’d read books. And I’d write a book, a memoir, the book people had been asking about for more than a decade.

To my horror and surprise, I discovered it’s possible to live at a crisis-mode pace without a breaking-news job.

I noticed a disturbing, familiar pattern.

How are you? I’d ask. Busy.

How about a walk? I’m busy.

Dinner? Busy. So busy. Too busy.

In Arabic class, the students already know the word for tired. When the professor asks how they are, one by one, they often respond taa’baan. Tired. I’ve heard the word “exhausted” escape from my lips too often

Breathe well.

I remember my childhood and the lives of my parents and grandparents. We gathered around a table for meals every evening. On weekends, we played, visited friends. On Sundays, we went to church and relaxed. Our “free” time was just that: ours. There was time for family, friends, community and service. The professional and the personal lived in separate places.

On Sunday, I drew two columns on a yellow legal pad. One column I labeled “for me;” the other I labeled “for others.” For me, I listed Arabic homework, cleaning, doing an annual report for my nonprofit and writing this column. I also wanted to do some things for my well-being: swim, read, walk.

In years past, I did a great job of crossing things off my list for others and sometimes I’d work on evenings and the weekends to get that work done. It’s not a tradition I want to continue.

Some Sundays, I go to church. This past Sunday, I went for a long walk. I consider both forms of worship and meditation.

As I walk, I listen to the wind, the rustle and rattle of leaves and unseen animals that scatter and plop as I pass. I hear the tickle of the creek as water slips over rocks.

I notice a brown snake, slender as a pencil, stretched across the path, sunning. I walk gently by it, careful to leave it undisturbed.

Wait. Go back, Cheryl. What’s your hurry?

I turn and return to the snake. I get down on my knees and lean on my elbows, chin in my hands. I study the snake, sun on my face, sun on its scales.

I watch it breathe. Sides puff out slightly. Sides collapse. I am alone on the trail for long moments with the snake, its breathing, the sun and the wind.

Slowly it moves, tasting the air with its flicking tongue, finding its way through curled, fallen leaves. It slithers into the grass and vanishes from my sight.

Breathe well.

Our yoga teacher reminds us to expand our breath, expand into our bellies.

When I’m afraid or fatigued, my breath grows shallow, sprints ahead, dares my heart to join it. When I’m stressed, straining, struggling, I hold my breath.

When we hold our breath, we tighten. Constrict.

As our yoga teacher reminds us, when we breathe well, our breath opens our chests. It exposes our hearts. Leaves us vulnerable. Nourished. Alive.

We have this one life.

One sacred life. One sacred moment. One sacred breath.

Breathe well.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/breathe-well-as-we-have-just-this-one-life/article_dfa18a00-5fcc-11e4-84cd-8f6dbec5499b.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Key to success in class, and life, is to show up–even when things get tough

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Outside the Box by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

Last fall at the annual welcome bash at the president’s house, I met Allegheny’s new professor of Arabic, Reem Hilal, and her mother.

Ahlan wa sahlan, I said. Welcome.

I chatted with Hilal in my rusty Egyptian dialect and I told her I’d love to study Arabic.

Ahlan wa sahlan, she said.

I next met Reem Abou Elenain, the Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, who hails from Alexandria, Egypt. Both Reems—Hilal and Abou Elenain—insisted my Arabic was too advanced for the beginning course and advised me to join the intermediate class. I knew better.

I have lived in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and I worked for a significant stretch of my career in the Middle East and Africa. I have no formal training in Arabic. I learned by ear—and by necessity.

I speak street. I knew enough Arabic to scream at the man who called me a sharmota, whoreas I passed near Tahrir Square when I was a young journalist in Cairo. I had enough vocabulary and moxie—yes, moxie is part of the language—to talk riot police into letting me pass through their phalanx during Gulf War protests.

Yet, I don’t know classical Arabic, the gorgeous language of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, with its lyrical script that I can barely read and a grammar I have never tackled.

I held my own in the early weeks of intermediate Arabic. As the semester passed, I attended fewer classes. As a professor, I discovered that teaching class, grading assignments and attending meetings often sidelined my attempts at being a student.

And, as a professor, I am keenly aware that I set an example whether I am in front of a class or in it. By midterm, I realized I couldn’t keep up—and worse, I wasn’t setting a good example. I was embarrassed when I didn’t have the right answers to write on the white board. The students were gracious and patient with me. I eventually beat a retreat.

This semester Reem Hilal is on maternity leave and Reem Abou Elenain is back in Egypt. I spoke with Bilal Humeidan, the professor teaching Arabic this fall, and Salah Algabli, the new Fulbright assistant.

Déjà vu.

After chatting with me, Salah insisted I take intermediate Arabic. I insisted I needed the beginning class.

Three times each week, I join a group of intrepid Allegheny students in a tiny classroom in Ruter Hall where we stumble and sparkle through our Arabic lessons. It’s fun to be a student. I join others at the board for dictation exercises. We play games to improve our vocabulary.

Last week Humeidan led an impromptu Arabic version of Pictionary, a game I’ve never played in English. The word was shebaab, people. As I stood at the board with my dry erase marker poised, I decided it would take too long to draw a crowd of faces, so I wrote the word in Arabic. I felt clever. Problem solved. My team guessed correctly—though I was disqualified. Not so clever. I learned a player can only draw images—no words allowed.

Who knew? I know I’m still competitive, just as I was as an undergrad. I still strive for an A in class.

I took the first quiz. I wasn’t sure how I’d done. I would like to have studied more. I would prefer if my memory and retention were as sharp as when I studied French and Russian years ago at Oregon State University.

When the professor returned my quiz, I didn’t dare look at it. I hesitated. Then I opened it slowly and peaked at the score. An A. A smile busted out across my face and I busted into a happy dance.

I couldn’t help myself. I posted on Facebook. “I got an A on my Arabic quiz. As a student, I’ve still got game.” My friends around the world gave me thumbs up.

I enjoy learning. I don’t mind looking silly, taking a risk in Pictionary or mispronouncing a word. I’m learning to read and write Arabic. Alhamdulillah. Thanks be to God.

I do mind falling behind. It is getting tougher to keep up now. We switched books and gears. We’ve finished learning the alphabet and we’re on to bigger things: grammar, syntax and verbs. The amount of homework and the time needed to complete it doubled overnight.

I tell students in our journalism courses that one of the keys to success in class, and in life, is to show up. That’s what I intend to do. Keep showing up.

There’s a midterm on the horizon.

I can do this. Insha’allaah. If God wills it.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/outside-the-box-key-to-success-in-class-and-life/article_ce85287a-5a23-11e4-939a-d74312c02238.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Go on guts

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

Years ago, I was working in my father’s home office. I grabbed a gold Cross pen to sign a letter. Hours later, my dad wanted to know where the pen was. He was insistent. What’s the big deal, I wondered.

This is the guy who tossed his medals in the trash (mom rescued them.) He long ago jettisoned the reel-to-reel tapes he’d sent with messages from Vietnam. In the more than two dozen moves of my childhood, I’d watched my dad toss plenty of our possessions.

This pen was one of two treasured gold Cross pens. One was a gift from my mother. The other was from a solider that had served with him. The soldier had “go on guts” inscribed on the pen. The soldier admired my father and his approach to leadership.

As the daughter of a soldier, I wasn’t always fond of my dad’s leadership style. I often conjured the image of Yul Brynner in “The Ten Commandments” portraying the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II: so let it be written, so let it be done. Once, following my father up the stairs in a building at Fort Leavenworth, we passed a soldier who was descending.

“Take off your hat, son,” my father said. The soldier didn’t break stride or say a word. He yanked off his hat and kept moving. It made an impression on me.

Grown men followed his orders. I didn’t stand a chance.

At another military base in my youth, I was home in the early afternoon when the phone rang. I thought I’d be reckless and answer it the way civilian kids do. Just for fun. Just one time.

“Hello.”

“Who’s house is this?” my father barked.

“Col. Hatch’s quarters Cheryl speaking sir.”

I couldn’t spit the words out fast enough.

My father is a man of few words and a man of his word. He raised us to be accountable for our actions, to tell the truth and to respect our elders, especially my mother. He promised if we told the truth, he’d have our backs. No matter what.

When I was 16, my dad and mom got that terrible middle-of-the-night call that parents dread.

Driving home from work, I took a tight turn on a winding country road, skidded and wrecked the family’s second car, the beater Bug my dad used to commute to work.

“You were driving too damn fast,” he said, as he drove us to the hospital. The swear word and the silence that followed made his point. He never said another word about it.

Days later, he took me to purchase my first car. I’d saved my money. I’d agreed to make the car payments and cover the cost of the insurance, gas and repairs. I assumed responsibility for the car and my actions. My dad trusted that I’d learned my lesson.

When I was a teen, I asked my dad if I could stand in line all night to buy tickets to a Led Zeppelin concert. It would mean missing school the next day, too. He said yes. And when I asked to take my younger brother, a budding drummer, to the concert, my dad said yes. He trusted me to look out for brother and myself.

In January, Dad told us the doctor had found a shadow on his pancreas. Shadow and pancreas are not two words I want to hear in the same sentence, particularly not after cancer has stalked several people I love, claiming two, in the past couple years.

I flew home when the first procedure was scheduled. I arrived and learned that it had been postponed; the doctors required additional tests.

In early March, Dad underwent the initial procedure and I wasn’t there. I was at Allegheny hosting our second annual photojournalism conference. The family waited for the results: cancer or not cancer.

Dad called one day while I was meeting with a student. I excused myself and took the call. It’s not cancer. Good news. It could become cancer. Not the best news.

I’m an optimist. My dad’s a pragmatist, a soldier, a combat engineer. He gathers information. Weighs options. Then he goes on guts.

I like the expression and its double entendre. Go on guts implies following your intuition. To me, it also means to act with resolute bravery in the face of a daunting challenge.

These past few months have been tough for my father, a family man. Though he’s a man of faith, Dad’s facing his mortality. I sense that he doesn’t want to leave my mom. I believe that alone gives him a huge tactical advantage.

Dad did his research. He discussed his options. He chose surgery.

Go on guts, Pop. Go on guts.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/x1984807366/Outside-the-Box-Gather-information-and-weigh-your-options-but-always-go-on-your-guts

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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The human heart can only take so much

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

Last week, after the Texas A&M/Duke bowl game, posts from my photojournalist friends started pouring into my Facebook news feed. Veteran Associated Press photographer Dave Martin had once again captured the classic image of the winning coach being doused in water

The caption would read “Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is dunked in the closing seconds of a 52-48 win over Duke in the the Chick-fil-A Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)”

Moments after making the image, Martin dropped on the field—dead, at 59, of an apparent heart attack.

He went by “Mullet,” after the fish not the hairstyle, according to one memorial piece. Colleagues, friends and family remember him as a generous man and great storyteller, on and off the job. A hard worker who put his heart into everything he loved: his job, his photography, his family.

In refection, I read one story that included a selection of photos from the events Martin had covered in his 30-year career with the American wire service.

As I looked through the online gallery, I marveled at the images and the scope of his accomplished career. He covered hurricanes, tornadoes, the Olympics, Super Bowls and conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti.

I had one thought: the human heart can only take so much.

On Thursday, Dec. 12, our classes had finals: one from 2 to 5 p.m. and another from 7 to 10 p.m.  I went home, packed a suitcase and caught the flight from Erie to Houston, where my mom was undergoing unexpected heart surgery. I knew I wouldn’t make it before she went in. I darn sure wanted to be there when she came out.

There was a best-case scenario—and there were others that I wouldn’t consider and my father feared. Twelve days later, when Mom unwrapped her presents that Dad had piled under the Christmas tree, I knew our best gift wasn’t there. Our best gift is—and always has been—my mother’s resilient, tender, strong heart.

As a photojournalist, I once worked with a reporter on a story entitled “The Heart of the Matter” about a woman getting a new lease on life through open-heart surgery. The surgeon warned me there would be blood, and that many people wouldn’t be able to stomach watching—let alone photographing—the chest-cracking, blood-draining, multiple-hour procedure.

In Mogadishu, I photographed a gunshot victim as he reached up and tried to assist the medical students who were operating on him with no general anesthesia. They stood in pools of blood in a looted, dilapidated hospital. In Baidoa, I was barely an arm’s length from a gunman when he assassinated an unarmed volunteer schoolteacher at an orphanage, shooting him in the head at point-blank range. I watched the blood gush from his body.

Sure, I could handle the sight of blood.

More than a decade after Somalia, I would discover that I couldn’t handle the cumulative toll of my years as a reporter and photojournalist. I ground my teeth at night. I had debilitating migraines. I gained weight. My heart kept calling me. I kept shooting the suffering and depravity I witnessed in remote areas of the world and in American neighborhoods.

In 2003, I left my job as a staff photographer at the AP. I wanted to cover the Iraq War and there were no indications the editors would send me, even though I had experience in Iraq and combat. I had lived for years in the Middle East. I had knowledge of its history, cultures, peoples and the Arabic language. I didn’t want to miss the story of our generation, our war story.

In the end, I didn’t go to war and leaving AP did save my life. I chose a different destination. It was tough to resist the pull of the story I had abused my mind and body, especially my heart, for far too long.

I have heard the comments and questions about my life choices—the ones I made to go to war and the ones I made to stay away.

How could you leave such an exciting/glamorous/international/adventurous life for a boring one in a small town? Because my heart told me that the life I loved was killing me.

Many Allegheny students pursue their grades and degrees the way I chased stories. They live and learn on a pushed pace and under self-induced stress. Takes one to know one, as the childhood taunt goes.

Adrenaline-soaked, sleep-deprived and driven, these bright students are throwing themselves on the same pyre that burns day traders and journalists. It can be a slow burn or a fast one. If I hadn’t changed my ways and opted for healing and balance, I would have gone beyond burned out. I would have become ash.

I start each class at Allegheny with moments of silence. I invite the students to clear their desks, close their eyes and breathe. I tell them I care about their learning and their well-being. I care about their academic growth and their personal growth. I care about their minds.

And I care deeply about their young, open hearts.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Make 2014 a year of action

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Outside the Box: a weekly column in The Meadville Tribune

by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2013

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

Last month, I was sitting in the associate dean’s office when the college president walked in and handed him money. Terry Bensel explained that his wife Connie’s family was from the area hit hardest by Typhoon Yolanda, as it was called in the Philippines. People had begun asking about her family and offering support.

They received nearly $1,000 in donations and wired the funds to Connie’s sister, a doctor who lives and works in the Philippines. With the help of local family, she purchased supplies and made the long journey by car and ferry to Lantawan, where they offered food to 102 families, the first significant food delivery to the small town since the storm hit.

Years ago, I was in the Philippines. I had completed my scuba instructor training and I’d taken a day away from the ocean to join friends on a picnic in the jungle and a trip to a waterfall.

On the ride home, I turned the corner on a narrow dirt road and saw a pedestrian in the middle of it. I had a couple choices: hit the pedestrian; veer right and plunge into a steep ravine; or, veer left and hit a wall. I veered left.

The ATV went up the wall and flipped on top of me. My helmet flew off as the machine crashed on top of me. Pinned under the ATV, I looked at the sky. You’ve really done it this time, I thought.

The next day, I took a boat to the nearest island with a hospital and learned my wrist was shattered. I was lucky: no nerve or arterial damage in my wrist, no other serious harm. Since more than a day had passed since my injury, the doctors advised immediate surgery.

“Where’s your companion?” I was asked by nearly everyone at the hospital. I said I was alone. This was hard for people to understand; in the Philippines, no one would be in the hospital without friends and family to care for her.

The owner of the dive shop where I’d done my training sent a waitress from the resort to be my companion. Leah was waiting when I returned from surgery and I was glad for her company.

She stayed by my side in my hospital room. We shared our stories. She told me that she’d been a good student and dreamed of being a teacher. I told her my mom had been an elementary school teacher. When her father died, Leah left school and her home island to work to provide for her family.

Days later, I went to pay my hospital bill: approximately $2,500 for major surgery and four days in a private room. Leah wept when she heard the cost. How will you ever pay, she asked.

I learned later that $2,500 could pay for four years of college. I asked my Filipino friends if it would be appropriate for me to offer to pay for Leah’s education.

With their assurances, I offered and Leah accepted. In 2007, I returned to the Philippines to celebrate her graduation.

Many of my friends sent cards and gifts for Leah. They had followed her progress over the years. Some gave me money — and suggested it would be great to send another young woman to college.

In my years as an international correspondent, I saw firsthand that it is the women who hold their families and communities together when war and famine tear them apart. Women run the orphanages and volunteer in hospitals. And it’s also women who are denied access to education. I decided I wanted to plant something different in the scorched earth left in war’s wake.

Inspired by Leah’s story and success, I created Isis Initiative Inc., a nonprofit that offers scholarships to young women overseas who have the desire but not the resources to attend college.

I wanted a strong female to figure in the name of our organization, hence Isis. In Egyptian mythology, Isis collected the scattered pieces of the body of murdered Osiris and brought him back from the dead. As a former war photographer, I like the metaphor of healing what has been broken and bringing new life to what has been destroyed.

In the years since her graduation, Leah has become an elementary school teacher at a government school near her village. She is able to care for her elderly mother, who lives with her. She has made improvements to her home and paid for both her nephews to attend school. She adopted a baby boy who is now 9 months old.

It took me more than a month after the typhoon struck to reach Leah by phone. She said that her family was OK and she immediately expressed sadness and concern for the thousands who’d been killed in the storm and its aftermath.

Leah thanked God for all her blessings. She thanked me for sending her to college and told me that I had made it possible for her to achieve her dreams. I told Leah that she had done the work; she had made her dreams come true.

In our nonprofit’s name, initiative speaks to what it takes to make things happen. Leah showed initiative in returning to school at 31 to pursue an education and a better life for her family. Terry Bensel and his family showed initiative in accepting offered funds and acting quickly to launch their own relief efforts after the recent catastrophic typhoon.

In the new year, I encourage you to follow the examples of Terry and Leah.

Take action when you have an idea or an opportunity. A small action, a small donation, a simple gesture has the power and potential to make a significant difference in the life of another human being.

Take initiative. Don’t wait for everything to line up just right. Take the first step. In my experience, things will fall into place.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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