Building Roads, Changing Lives

I’m a big believer in volunteering. There are so many needs – in our neighborhoods, throughout the country and across the world – and whether we’re motivated by passion, profession or personal experiences, we each have things we can do, big and small, to make a difference in the lives of others and the world around us. And in addition to having an impact on others, volunteer experiences can also often teach us so much about ourselves!

As you’ve probably gathered from several of my other posts, I’m also a fan of stepping outside of your comfort zone. This week, I’m so proud to share the story of someone close to me who has done both of these things in a tremendous way.

My “niece” Hannah (My best friend Carrie’s daughter, who I’ve known since she was born) recently graduated from college, and instead of spending her summer celebrating with friends, or diving into the working world, she decided to spend six months volunteering in a rural village in Ethiopia. Hannah really is like family to me, and reading about her work and plans makes me so proud of the woman she has become.

Left image: Hannah far right with my kids, Katie and Matt, and
My kids grew up with the kids of my closest friends. Left image: My Matt (center) and Katie (second from left) are shown here with the group, including Hannah (far right). Right image: (l to r) My son Matt, Hannah’s brother Jacob, Hannah and my daughter Katie.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read about Hannah’s experiences so far at Hannah in Ethiopia. And as she continues to post about her time there, I’ll be sure to bring her updates here to PLANK. Obviously we all can’t travel to Africa to volunteer; however, I think Hannah’s experiences will also show us how simple things can have  significant impact. And whether we’re looking to help out in our own back yard or someplace across the globe, I think we can all take something from that.

A little background on what Hannah’s doing …

Hannah teachingHannah is volunteering for a non-profit organization called Common River, which is dedicated to sustainable community development. Through the work of volunteers, who work hand-in-hand with local community members, the organization is empowering the community to become self-reliant, while also honoring the cultural heritage and environmental biodiversity. During her six month stay, Hannah will be living and teaching English in Aleta Wondo, a village located in the Sidama coffee growing region of Ethiopia. There, where access to education and health care are issues and women are extremely oppressed, Hannah will focus on encouraging female empowerment.

She’s only been gone a week, but has already seen and experienced so much. Here’s an excerpt from her first blog post, One Week Down.

Initial impressions:

Hannah & girls2Everyone here is so so kind and wonderful. The older women are extraordinarily maternal—they love hugging and kissing you, and have so much to say despite the extreme language barrier. They just talk at you in Sidamic (the tribal language) or Amharic (the national language) even though they know you have no idea what they’re saying. It’s really sweet actually; they really don’t care if you understand, they just want to tell you anyway. And all the kids are so excited and happy all the time, so they’re fun to be around.

It is insanely beautiful here—so lush and green and tropical. I would describe the terrain as rainforest-y grasslands. We all sleep in traditional huts that they have built themselves, which are super impressive. They are in the process of building a new one right now, so it’s been really cool to see how they do it. And the food is really good, very organic! Everything is either grown in our compound or bought in the village. Eating meat is rare, I’ve still yet to see it served. Lentils, potatoes, cabbage, avocados, and pineapple are some of the items I eat most often, along with injera, an Ethiopian staple.

Aleta Wondo

The culture:

The town of Aleta Wondo, and specifically the more rural part of the village where we are, are both quite traditional and very patriarchal. It is not hard to see that the women are extremely oppressed. They have little to no autonomy, and are extremely emotionally repressed. They are generally silent when men are around, and yield to them in most all areas of life. This all largely holds true amongst the children as well. The men who work here at Common River seem to be a little more aware of this than others, presumably because Tsegaye (the local co-founder) has tried to teach them to respect the women.

Hannah & the girlsNonetheless, they are all extraordinarily kind and welcoming. They treat guests very well—Emily (the other volunteer here) and I even got our feet washed! They also love to bless us which is really sweet. It is usually initiated by a man named Tefese, who says a whole thing about us and then someone translates, and everyone sends us blessings with their hands. It’s really cool. And as I said, the women shower you with so much love. We have started spending time in the kitchen with them which is so much fun. They’ve been teaching us how to cook and letting us help prepare meals!

Girls braiding Hannah's hair

I went into the town one day to exchange money, which was a very interesting experience. There are absolutely no white people here, so everyone just stared at me. Some were really excited to see me—one woman came up to me with a huge grin on her face and gave me a big hug, which I thought was cute. Others would come up and shake my hand. And most of the kids loved smiling and waving, or would walk with us for a little. But others just stare and stare, and even appear somewhat threatening. I was with two guys from Common River so I was protected and (somewhat) comfortable, but people would say things I didn’t understand, and look at me in really unnerving ways. At one point, a homeless man saw me and instantly started furiously begging me for money and wouldn’t leave me alone. Overall it was a somewhat overwhelming and very interesting time.

To read Hannah’s full post, and to follow her journey in Ethiopia, click here.



  1. What a strong & inspirational young lady Hannah is, to both you & her family. May God continue to bless her with the knowledge , wisdom & courage to serve those around the world with her beautiful loving & giving heart.
    I just wish we had more people who were willing to take a few short moments of their lives to helping others like Hannah. God Bless xx

  2. Hannah you are truly a awesome person for doing the things you do for those people.The world needs more Hannah in this world.I know your family is proud of you.iam proud of you Hannah.Keep up the great work you are doing!!God Bless

  3. What a wonderful thing to do. I admire her courage and her talent for writing too. I wish her a safe journey!

  4. What an inspiring, impressive girl Hannah is. I’m looking forward to following her time there in Ethiopia. Nothing is more important in this life than making a difference; clearly Hannah is doing that.

  5. Hannah is a remarkable young woman. It takes a lot of courage to travel so far away from family & friends for such a long time. This is an amazing experience she’ll never forget. I look forward to checking her blog to read more about her life there. Thank you both for sharing.

  6. Susan Nolen

    Such a great blog this week!…Hannah is truly an inspiring young woman! Thank you to Hannah for sharing this with you and thank you too Mary Beth for sharing it with us. Can’t wait to read more about Hannah’s experiences!

  7. Andrea W

    Hannah is going to be an amazing blessing to these women and children of Ethiopia. I think it’s wonderful she’s giving 6 months of her time. I’ll love following her journey! Thank you for sharing!

  8. Wow-what a caring and brave young woman to transport herself from the comforts of home to helping in this village for six months. That takes a special person with strong values. I would love to hear more of her journey on your blog Mary Beth. Very inspiring.

  9. What a great experience for this young woman. As women, we are extremely lucky to live in this country. It’s easy to forget that unless you experience other cultures first hand. I look forward to sharing Hannah’s blog with my kids. Thanks for letting us know about it.

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