Five Things…

I recently finished reading the YouVersion Bible plan, “Praying For Vulnerable Children – Human Trafficking.” It was a fascinating devotional by Compassion International that discussed five things that, when present, better protect children from people trying to hurt them. I was moved by the publication of this plan as it addresses many of the activities that make up the bulk of the work we do at UnFinished. I wanted to share some of what is covered by Compassion in this plan as it applies directly to working with children with disabilities.

With Giving Tuesday just around the corner, giving you a better idea of what UnFinished does seemed appropriate. Since most of what is written below was lifted directly from the devotional by Compassion International, I am obligated to give them writing credit. Very little of what comes was written by me. The italicized portions are from the Compassion International devotional. Below is the link to the plan. I encourage you to read it. There is much more to the devotional than I include here, and I believe you will be blessed by participating in the actual plan. Compassion International is a fantastic organization doing an incredible work of God.

https://www.bible.com/en/reading-plans/15664

A Tight-Knit Community

“A tight-knit community can keep watch over those who are most vulnerable and speak up when they see injustice. God calls us to rescue the weak and the needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked. He challenges us to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and defend the rights of the poor and needy. God has put each of us in a community, and we are called to speak up and defend those who are being treated unfairly.”

The children in UnFinished programs are often hidden away, either in homes or institutions. They live lives of abandonment and abuse. UnFinished enrolls them into schools where they begin to make friends and find out they are not alone. Also, we work to bring the caregivers together into a supportive community. This helps the mostly grandmothers also feel they are part of a community and not alone.

A Loving Family

“There are always those who are pros at deceiving families. They tell caregivers they can offer their children with a special need a better life. Instead, the children are used or often sold into child labor. Children work for little to no pay, far from their home, completely hopeless.”

We’ve met many families who’ve been swindled of what little money they have with promises of help. “Organizations” that tell grandmothers if they pay a fee, the organization will evaluate the child and determine eligibility. These people take the only money the family may have and offer false hope. We include the family in every aspect of our process, never charge a fee, and do what we can, within organizational protocols, to help the entire family along with the child. Supporting a family environment, providing a home, only enhances the life of the child and helps to restore real hope.

Education for the Community

“Be devoted to one another in love. That’s the challenge Paul gives us in Romans 12:9-13. These verses are paired with a list of commands that, when taken together, paint a picture of a Christian life fully sacrificed to God. The unifying theme shares that we’re to set ourselves aside in order to effectively love and serve the Lord”

Our mission involves more than just educated children with special needs. We seek to change social stigmas related to the abuse and oppression of these kids. We involve the schools, teachers, administrators, churches, pastors, and government officials to change values and laws to prepare a better future for individuals with disabilities.

Holistic Child Development

“(UnFinished) also chose to care for the neediest using a holistic model. Our method develops minds, bodies, and spirits to help children with special needs. All of our programs provide opportunities that encourage healthy development in four areas—spiritual, physical, social and economic. That means we don’t focus entirely on physical needs. Instead, all aspects of poverty are addressed in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and stigma for that child. Children are lifted out of the stigma that entraps them and makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

Prayer

“God is aware of stigma and oppression and He cares about the suffering of His children. He has not turned a blind eye. Instead, He stirs compassion in our hearts when we hear stories like the ones of children with disabilities in Kenya. As a result, our compassion moves us into action, which creates change.”

This year, Giving Tuesday is December 3rd. You have the unique opportunity to provide these five things into the lives of children with disabilities in Kenya. Again, I encourage you to read the Compassion devotional, be in prayer and support for that organization, and follow the link below to learn more about UnFinished International and the work we do.

http://www.unfinishedinternational.org

The Evolution of Iron Man

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*Warning – This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame – starting in the first paragraph.* (You really should have seen it by now).

With the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the story of these heroes we have followed for the past 11 years comes full circle. But none so much as that of Iron Man. While not technically the first movie in this massive franchise (That would be The Incredible Hulk), Iron Man is the film that set it all in motion. Being the excellent storytellers they are, the writers at Marvel brought the series to an emotional close in this chapter – from the birth of Iron Man to, sadly, his death.

I grew up a Marvel kid. However, Iron Man was not really on the top of my hero list growing up. Tony Stark has always been more of a “grown-up” character. His struggles with daddy issues, women, and alcohol, thankfully, did not appeal to me as a child (well, maybe the daddy issues – but that’s a different post). My go-to, “good-over-evil” hero was Spider-Man. A superhero kid himself in brilliant colors and fun bad guys had me hooked.

Conversely, when I needed real action and some comic-friendly violence, Wolverine was my man. I subscribed to many of the different threads of each one of those guys and filled my room with their action figures, bookshelves, sheets, and everything else I could get my hands on. Iron Man was cool, he was still a key character in the greater Marvel Universe, and I’d pick up comics with him as a player often enough, but he was never my main guy.

Then 2008 came along and not only did Marvel change but so did my life. I lost everything after a very long fight to save that which I loved most in the world. It was a terrible conflict that cost me just about everything a person can lose. To say I nearly died fighting this battle is not overselling it. The trial that was this time of my life still haunts me to this day. (More on this in another post). I learned through this experience that loss can birth new life – if you are willing to learn from experiences. This transformation is precisely what created such a huge Iron Man fan in me. It was the evolution of Tony Stark, the change in his life that loss brought on, that revealed some needed truth in my life and changed the way I see myself.

2008’s Iron Man introduces us to Tony Stark, an arrogant, self-absorbed, careless, conceited, billionaire weapons developer and arms dealer on tour in Afghanistan to showcase his latest creations for the U.S. military stationed in the country. On his way, he finds himself escorted by a threesome of young, starstruck members of the military. However, their convoy is attacked, and Stark watches all three of these all-but teenagers die, and himself nearly with them, at the hands of his own technology by terrorists who were specifically targeting him.

One might think a scenario such as this alone would be enough to change a man. However, Tony is not finished watching people die at the hands of his weaponry. Stark is escorted to a cave where he meets fellow prisoner and scientist, Yinsen, who also loses his life as an indirect result of Tony’s life and choices. These deaths, up close and personal, set Tony Stark on a transformative journey unlike any other in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, all the characters throughout the 22 movies grow and change, but none like Tony Stark.

The opening scenes of Iron Man give way to Tony giving up the profits-over-everything mentality and changing everything about himself and Stark Industries. The company becomes a producer of clean energy and Tony begins to use his tech to fight the bad guys he once armed. At the same time, he must deal with his own mortality as the technology keeping him alive is also killing him. His attempts to ignore these issues reveal to him his need for others and force him to confront his father’s legacy that has been killing him spiritually as much as the palladium has physically.

From here he is denied “membership” to the Avengers by Nick Fury. Once things get bad enough that he’s allowed to help, he gets an ego check through accepting he is not the leader of the Avengers. This acceptance does not come easy as he repeated knocks heads with Captian America along with the rest of the team. Tony had been a supplier of war all his life, but it took him actually being in one to make him realize he did not deserve to be the leader. Here he began to understand that others had things to offer he did not.

But these revelations are of no consolation when Tony finds himself alone, dealing with PTSD, and the only help he can find is a young boy with daddy issues of his own. Growing through this scenario sees Tony finally give up control, destroy his suits, and throw his arc reactor into the sea. However, Tony Stark is an addict, and giving up one addiction often leads to finding a new one. Now that he has given up protecting the world, he lets fear fully manifest itself, and he bullies Bruce Banner into creating Ultron to defend the earth.

The results are, disastrous and Tony’s guilt gets the best of him. For maybe the first time, Tony learns that actions have consequences. So, to clear his conscience, the man who once told the government they’d never have his tech becomes their poster boy. Turning his back on his friends to calm his own demons, Tony tries to mitigate this newly created guilt by mentoring young Peter Parker. Still struggling to admit his wrongs, he, like many of us, just moves on. Tony makes amends with Pepper Potts and, with Captian America out of the way, becomes the face of the Avengers once again. However, I would go out on a limb and say that Tony saw Peter as a possible way to rebuild the burned bridges between him and the friends he turned into fugitives one day.

By the time we get to Infinity War, Tony’s sentiments reveal that time has allowed him to get past the civil war between Steve Rogers and himself. He seems to be genuinely sad that he and Steve, “fell out hard.” While his relationship with Peter has grown, Peter’s rejection of Tony’s offer to join the Avengers may have been another wake-up call for Tony. Learning that his friends don’t need him as much as Tony needs them is part of his final transformation. Tony, once the ultimate loner who lived on the outskirts of life, now only desires to be surrounded by his friends.

Tony Stark began his journey believing everything began and ended with him, and if something happened to not fit that mold, he ignored it. Gaining a family, then losing it, helped Tony to realize how wrong he was about things – it tends to do that. Following the life of Tony Stark, his, “arc” if you will, we watch a self-centered man evolve from believing his life was the only one that mattered to sacrificing that life to literally save the world. While all the characters in the MCU change and grow over this Three-Phase adventure, none experience the transformation that Tony Stark encounters. Many of the Avengers began their journey as heroes. Tony had to suffer and experience loss, many times at his own hands, to understand that sometimes not wanting to be a hero is what makes a hero.

The evolution of Iron Man teaches us that it’s a long, and challenging, journey from child-like attitudes to being a hero. That Tony Stark’s walk through life mirrored Robert Downey Jr.’s so closely only made the character more relatable. It took Tony Stark 10 years to come out on the other side and RDJ even longer. There were ups and downs, and for every two steps he took forward, he sometimes took ten back. I think that gives us hope that maybe being a hero is about more than just saving the day and fighting bad guys. Sometimes is about just getting through the day and fighting your own demons. But if an alcoholic, self-entitled, jerk with daddy issues like Tony Stark can become the hero we got and the end of Endgame, perhaps there is hope for us too.

Maybe, I am Iron Man.

A True Story of Change

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I know you’ve seen posts all over social media about this #GivingTuesday thing. It’s overwhelming at times; I get it. However, it’s so important. I don’t usually share the darker sides of what we do in a public forum. However, I wanted to give you just one of the stories of why this is so meaningful to us and show you a real kid whose life was changed powerfully through donations that were given to UnFinished International on a #GivingTuesday.

I’ve left her name out and any details that could narrow her down from pictures we post. But this is the story of a child in our program. A real little girl your giving has pulled out of the darkness and into the light of Jesus.

We have a girl in our program who was identified as a special child when she was three years old. Her nursery teacher recognized she was not able to read and write and found she was a very slow learner. Therefore, the teacher referred her to a special school in their area

However, the child’s parents were illiterate and steeped in poverty. As such, they were unable to transfer her to the special school. Financially, they could not pay the school fees, and they didn’t understand the reasoning in moving her from public school. They decided instead to keep her at home to help them with housework and chores. The little girl’s days went from school work to collecting firewood, digging, getting water from the general spring, and cleaning.

One day she had gone to fetch water from the spring. On her way back home, she was raped by an old man in the neighborhood. She became ashamed and lost hope since no action was taken by the parents. She was not taken to the hospital, nor was the incident reported to the police. The man started threatening her, and she began a life living in fear. She withdrew inside herself and did not speak or associate with other children.

However, one day, God brought you into her life. Through your giving to UnFinished, she was placed into a boarding school for special children, which moved her more permanently from the area, her attacker, and the constant reminders. Her new teachers report she is now a happy and smart girl in school. She is receiving treatment for both her physical disabilities and psychological trauma, and she is doing exceptionally well with her education. She also now communicates well with other students and teacher not like before. She is hardworking and promising and learning to be happy again.

This story is just one of many. For instance, we have two children who were born with HIV on top of disabilities. Because of your giving, they are not only in school; they get regular treatments for their HIV because they now have medical insurance. Your giving has literally saved their lives. What you do on Tuesday actually saves the lives of real kids. There are so many more stories I would love to tell you should you ever want to sit down and hear them.

Thank you for all you have done in the past. I look forward to seeing what God does through you on Tuesday.

May God bless all you do.

“Change the World?”

we-gather-in-small-groupsNowadays, we see the term, “Change the World,” often. While most using it probably have good intentions, the frequency of its use has perhaps weakened its practical application on the broader population’s mindset at this point. I believe most people wearing it on their hoodies, t-shirts, or ball caps genuinely want to be a world-changing force in some way, I also think the general public no longer sees the term as meaningful.

Are Christine and I trying to change the world? I suppose we are. Both of us are visionaries, entrepreneurs, Type-A, nose-to-the-grindstone, types of people with a heart for others. We dream of UnFinished reaching all 192 countries of the world. We aspire to change international legislation and make the world a better place for those with special needs and disabilities. I tell Christine all the time I see the day she is standing before the United Nations, delivering a speech on the need for change in the world of disability.

So “Change the World” is indeed a thing for us. However, it’s not the main thing. At least not right now. Right now, we are more, “Change the Life.” We have children in our program who live with special needs, disabilities, orphan status, stigma, HIV, and poverty. All of our kids experience at least one, if not all of those things. Yes, we have a six-year-old child who is being raised by a grandmother because the parent’s left, is special needs, has a disability, lives in poverty, and has HIV. He is six-years-old.

We are blessed to have people around us who care very little if the world is changed. Yes, I said blessed for that. It is a blessing because they are not worried about what the society as a whole thinks, as Christine and I do most of the time. They are concerned about that little boy. They are worried about the two little girls in our program with mental impairments who go home to sexual abuse during school break that we can do nothing for at this time due to legal entanglements. Our business manager, who is required to worry about nothing except money and numbers, cries and prays daily over these kids. Changing their lives is much more important to her than changing the world right now.

I believe you change the world one life at a time. We started out with two kids. As God has seen our dedication, our hearts, and our stewardship of all He brings our way, He has grown us to fourteen enrolled and several on waiting lists. If the right resources were available, those numbers could be in the hundreds just here in Kenya tomorrow. Through working with kids individually, we are also educating their guardians, their school teachers, their extended family. This is how you change the world – one life at a time.

Christine and I also heavily involve our three-year-old in our work. I struggle with trying to figure out how to raise him without letting him develop an entitled mindset as is rampant in my American culture. I need him to grow up around poverty, lack, need, disadvantage, and all the things that are prevalent in the world outside our upper-middle-class bubble. He is another one person that is part of the change the life mentality.

My point in all of this is that “changing the world” is not as complicated as people try to make it. Even Jesus did not work on a large scale. He used twelve people, and they are still changing the world to this day. If each one of us would get out and try to change a life, that is billions of people improving the lives of billions of people. That IS world changing. Get to know your neighbor. Do something nice for them. The world continues to become more divided and decisive each and every day. You don’t have to cross the ocean to be a world changer. Just change the world for someone across the street. Have your friend over for dinner. Say something beautiful to the person checking you out in your local retail store (God knows that would be life-changing for them).

Let’s resolve to change the world together.

Go West, Young Man

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11 of the 14 kids of UnFinished International

Kakamega is a town in Western Kenya that resides in Kakamega County. Before changes in the national government in 2012, Kakamega was part of the Western Province. Since the shift to a county-based administration, Kakamega has become a part of a network of larger towns within the western counties of Kenya.

We arrived in Kakamega Saturday afternoon after a flight with 540 Airlines from Nairobi to Kisumu. From Kisumu, a drive of about half an hour led us to our final destination. Kenya is currently undergoing a massive infrastructure improvement that has been underway for the past six years making travel over the road much quicker and safer.

Our first order of business was a visit to the Kakamega Teaching and Referral Hospital, known locally as Kakamega General Hospital. One of the children in the UnFinished International program had been admitted a week earlier. Tausi, the child, contracted malaria. Under normal circumstances, the school Tausi attends provides for the children when they contract malaria, which is often. However, Tausi’s case became so bad, she had to be admitted, consigned to oxygen, and placed under a doctor’s care.

In many countries, medical care must be paid for upon receipt. This is the case in Kenya. In fact, it is often worse. In some cases, fees must be paid before receiving care. While we were waiting to secure Tausi’s discharge, a child was screaming in the ward. In this hospital, there is no triage. All patients are lumped together in one room no matter why they are there. Whether a broken bone or a contagious disease, they are all treated in one room together.

As this child screamed, we heard the hospital staff explaining the situation to the parents. The parents were told the child had fallen and hit its head causing an open, bleeding wound and bleeding on the brain. However, the hospital would do nothing until the parents paid the bill. They advised the medical procedure would cost, 100,000 Kenya shillings – approximately $986.

The parents were beside themselves. The news would have been no different if the hospital told them to leave with their child and refused care. Their child was bleeding both on its brain and on the floor, and the hospital would do nothing until payment was made. Payment was not coming.

As we presented our documentation proving the payment made to cover Tausi’s medical expenses, we were told the doctor was out. The staff advised us they would not release her until the doctor signed off and he was gone until later in the day. We left the paperwork with the front desk with the understanding Tausi would be released as soon as the doctor returned.

The situation was explained to Tausi’s mother. She was overjoyed hearing the expense were covered. Even though she lives in poverty, Tausi’s mother had begged and borrowed 1,000 Kenyan shillings in an attempt to pay the bill. Through the dedication of UnFinished International supporters, Tausi was able to return to school.

We left the hospital to venture far out into the village. The grandmother of another one of our children, Anne, had been in the hospital for three weeks due to high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Upon our arrival, we found the grandmother at home with the four children she raises along with Anne. While she was in the hospital, for three weeks, Anne’s oldest sister of nine years old was left to care for her younger siblings and cousins.

Anne’s grandmother told us of her appreciation, gratitude, and joy at Anne’s improvement in the last two years in our programs. She relayed stories of amazement from friends and family at Anne’s growth physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We spent time talking with her and encouraging her to carry on with the lives she provides for herself and her grandchildren. We left her with food supplies and the few shillings we had in our pockets.

We ended our day at Daisy Special School. This is an integrated school founded by missionaries from Finland. They visited Kakamega decades earlier and started the school in honor of their daughter with special needs. Over time, the school became a county school administrated by the government.

UnFinished International has 12 children at Daisy. Our visit was most eventful, spending time with our kids, sharing snack time, and experiencing our girls sing in their group. The majority of our children are orphans. Not only have they spent life being shunned by society, but they also lack the necessary attention and love that comes from being part of a family. Anytime we can take a few minutes from our always packed schedule to love on them is a blessing.

The Starting Block

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I love airports. I know that is a break from the normal thought pattern. There are so many reasons not to love airports. The lines, the TSA, the lines, people, the lines. One could find many reasons to call airports the Mos Eisley of Earth. But once you look past all the horrible things that are processes within the airport, there is something beautiful – life.

Airports are full of people going and coming. Some are heading out on grand adventures to see new places and experience new things. Others are coming into welcoming arms of loved ones and friends. Airports are hubs of life and exploration that I find fascinating and full of hope. I love to walk through the terminal and see the looks of excitement on the faces of those ready to journey to someplace new.

Today my family and I entered the doors of the all too familiar George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). While not as quaint and warm as its smaller counterpart, Hobby Regional (now international(ish)) Airport, it has a character all of its own. The terminals that comprise the airport are cultural destinations in their own right. Houston, being a city of incredibly diverse culture, fills the halls of IAH with people and atmospheres of worldly callings.

Our regular transportation out of Houston is Emirates Airlines. I’ve flown scores of airlines, and none come close to the class and quality of Emirates. However, this trip sends us to a new location, Doha, Qatar, and Qatar Airlines is our conveyance across the pond. While the service offered by Qatar Airlines is nothing to sneeze at, I find myself missing my typical ride out of town. To steal a line from Prince via Sinead O’Connor, nothing compares 2 u, Emirates.

The purpose of our current escapade revolves around our nonprofit organization, UnFinished International. Through the incredible actions of our dedicated supporters, we use the resources they supply to restore hope to children with special needs and disabilities in impoverished areas. This trip leads us to Western Kenya to follow up on operations with our independent organization there, UnFinished International Kenya.

UnFinished International, through UnFinished International Kenya, currently supports fourteen children and their families. Our sustainability programs there provide educational opportunities for our kids, developmental opportunities for their families, awareness programs for communities, instructional classes for educators, and legislative advocacy through local officials and village chiefs.

This year, we have incredible opportunities to attend to and advise. Eight of our kids are scheduled for life-changing surgeries in August. These operations are merely part of new lives our kids and their families never even knew to dream of just a few short years ago. The programs supported by UnFinished partners are literally miracles delivered to indeed the least of these.

Airports. The starting destinations for life-changing adventures. I am grateful to the many people, churches, and organizations that send us to Kenya on this day to love on these kids that were orphans before UnFinished came into their lives. I look forward to sharing the adventure with you.

Much more to come….

 

The Heart Inside You

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My kid, like his father, is a movie watcher. Also, like me, he watches the same movies over and over again. He makes his old man proud, loving all my favorites. From Star Wars to Marvel to thirty-year-old Disney movies, I have found my partner in motion picture appreciation. While it is quickly being replaced by, “Coco,” his latest fixation has found itself in nonstop replays of Disney’s “Moana.”

While few can resist the lure of a Disney/Pixar movie, this was a particularly fun movie for me. I am a lifelong WWF/WWE fan. So, The Rock playing the role of Maui was a delightful aspect to this movie. In this story, Moana Waialiki, the daughter of the village chief, must locate Maui, a demi-god, who has brought a curse upon the sea over 1,000 years ago by stealing the Heart of Te Fiti – the mother island that possesses the power to create life and brings other isles into existence. Once Maui, a shape-shifter, acquires his magical fish hook, he and Moana set off to face Te Ka, a demon of lava and fire which rises from the sea like a volcano, who guards the island.

Maui fails to defeat Te Ka, sacrificing his magical fish hook to ensure Moana a chance to deliver the heart to the island. Upon arrival, Moana discovers the entire island of Te Fiti is missing, replaced by the shape of the goddess gouged beneath the water. Looking back, Moana notices a spiral symbol on Te Ka’s chest as it rages and understands. Holding the heart in the air, she attracts the attention of Te Ka in an attempt to save Maui’s life. Moana instructs the ocean to allow Te Ka to come to her and she walks to meet Te Ka face-to-face.

What Moana has come to realize is that Te Ka, the rage-filled monster, full of anger, hate, and destruction is actually the goddess Te Fiti herself. The backstory here is Te Fiti was once full of love, and that love manifested itself in her giving her heart to others through her creation of islands, the wind, flowers, trees, and all the other things the seafaring people of the South Pacific loved. However, Te Fiti’s heart was taken from her. That those she loved stole her heart changed and transformed her over time from the loving, giving beautiful goddess of creation to the fiendish legend known and feared as Te Ka.

Pixar is a master of placing the feels in their movies. Each outing to a Pixar movie almost guarantees a tug at the heartstrings at the very least. However, this movie in particular was different for me. I know what it is like to have your heart stolen from inside you. I know what it is like to have your heart taken from someone you loved and gave your all. I am sure many of you do too. How many of us have allowed the pain of what someone did to us or took from us turn into a hate-fill, raging, bitter monster?

When those we love wrong us, it causes significant damage to us, and we react in different ways. Having my heart stolen from me sent me into a full-blown spiral. I was drowning, and I pulled anyone who tried to help me under the water as well. The danger of becoming a monster was real. I was blessed that hate and rage did not transform me, but it took years waiting for my Moana to come along and restore my heart.

Our lives, our hearts, revolve around whatever we place at its center. If we set a job at the center of our lives and we lose our job, our world falls apart. If we place a person at the center of our lives and that person leaves or is taken from us, our heart breaks and our world falls apart. Anytime we place something of this world at the center of our lives, we run the risk of losing our heart. There is only one constant that will never leave or forsake us. That constant is God, and when you place Him at the center of your life, it does not matter if the other things go or are taken. Your foundation remains firm because all those things are not the center of what makes up your world.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Granted, I was blessed to have a foundation in the Word and a surrounding of friends to keep me from that road. So, I did not become a bitter monster, filled with rage and toxicity destroying all in my path. But I know people who have. I am sure you do as well. Ta Ka was fortunate enough to have someone like Moana who was brave enough to confront her and restore what was taken from her. I will never have what was taken from me returned. It is lost forever. The best I can do is pass on to others what I have learned.

Much like my last post which discussed the hidden things people go through that lead to suicide, we need to be like Moana. Brave enough, caring enough, and willing to get involved in the lives of people. Don’t let people in your life suffer alone, wallow in their pain alone, do life alone. What happens if, like me, they never get their “heart” back? They will need someone like you to lead them out of that dark place to find a new purpose in their life. We need to be reminded, as Moana reminds Te Fiti, “They may have  stolen the heart from inside you, but this does not define you.” Be willing to cross the ocean and take on the monsters of this world affecting the lives of others. Make the world a better, brighter place.