Do You Aspire to Serve? Do You Know a Teen Who Does Too?

Do you have a dream of service but don't know where to start?

Today I am interviewing a local leader in teen service about her journey from aspiration to action, Jeni Olsen.  (Check out her local chapter of Roots & Shoots here in Napa, California). She is in preparation for a  March 30-April 3 2015 teen service trip to Haiti with the organization Soles 4 Souls, and there is still an opportunity for a few more teens to participate.

One of my first memories of Jeni is when, as an acquaintance, she jumped at my last minute need to run a coat check on a pouring-down-rain March evening in Napa.  It was our first fundraiser for filming for Love Bomb and my first time creating what felt like a really big event.  I was struck by her in the moment willingness to help me, an almost stranger, on such short notice.  Now I realize, that is Jeni.

Jeni at the impromptu coat-check at our first Love Bomb fundraiser in 2012.  Photo courtesy of Kathi Cook Photography

Jeni at the impromptu coat-check at our first Love Bomb fundraiser in 2012.  Photo courtesy of Kathi Cook Photography

One year after she volunteered at my event I called to invite her to join our chiropractic service team to Peru.  I knew she held an aspiration to lead service trips of her own for teens, and thought perhaps being with us could spark an idea that would contribute to the next steps of that journey. Though not a photographer by trade, I asked her to stand in as our photographer. She also helped coordinate the sticker project by involving the teens she was working with in Napa.  As I suspected, she merged right in to the synergy of our group and brought a love, presence, and support to the entire team that was invaluable.

Jeni standing second from the left while on location serving children at a school in Peru, one of the rare photos she is actually in from that trip in 2013!

Jeni standing second from the left while on location serving children at a school in Peru, one of the rare photos she is actually in from that trip in 2013!

Much magic has unfolded since that trip, and here I catch up with her on the journey:

Rhea:  What was your biggest take-away from the experience of serving with us in Peru?

Jeni:  I knew this trip would be a life-changer for me, but I couldn't understand the depth of love I would feel for the Peruvian people until I experienced serving them, which deepened my connection to every living thing on this planet.

This is Jeni with kids in the clinic that we have created the sticker project ritual with.  She coordinated pre-trip with the teens she was working with to do the stickers for us on this trip.  They were quickly becoming collectors items.

This is Jeni with kids in the clinic that we have created the sticker project ritual with.  She coordinated pre-trip with the teens she was working with to do the stickers for us on this trip.  They were quickly becoming collectors items.

Rhea:  What were the steps you took after Peru to keep following your innate desire to ultimately lead teens on international service trips?

Jeni:  I immediately started researching service trips appropriate for teens, and discovered that the organization Soles4Souls had a travel component. I signed my son and I up for a trip to Honduras, along with some friends of ours. 

Rhea:  What was the most transformational part of your own first trip to Honduras with your son?

Jeni:  Because my heart had been cracked open in Peru, I immediately fell in love with the Honduran people. A love bigger than me was working through me, and I ended up giving the sturdy tennis shoes from my feet to a teenage girl, because we didn't have her size. In turn, she gave me her worn pair of flip flops, the only other pair of shoes she had. This exchange is something I will never, ever forget. 

This is the entrance to the home for teenage girls where Jeni gave away her sneakers.  It is for those who have lived lives as sex slaves, prostitutes and/or have suffered rape. They are heavily protected so that their yet-to-be convicted abusers cannot kill them.

This is the entrance to the home for teenage girls where Jeni gave away her sneakers.  It is for those who have lived lives as sex slaves, prostitutes and/or have suffered rape. They are heavily protected so that their yet-to-be convicted abusers cannot kill them.

Jeni giving the shoes off of her feet.

Jeni giving the shoes off of her feet.

Rhea:  What was the most transformational aspect of the trip to Honduras that you noticed for your son?

Jeni:  Watching Max hesitantly interact with strangers so different from him, and then completely open his heart to the children of Honduras, was magical. Max described his experience after the trip like this, "The children in Honduras had almost nothing, yet they were so happy. It made me realize how fortunate I am."

Max sizing a young child for a new pair of shoes.

Max sizing a young child for a new pair of shoes.

Max washing a child's feet as an act of service before receiving brand new shoes.

Max washing a child's feet as an act of service before receiving brand new shoes.

Jeni with her son Max connecting with children in Honduras

Jeni with her son Max connecting with children in Honduras

Rhea:  What is your experience working with teens?

Jeni:  I have been involving teens in local and global humanitarian projects, under the umbrella of Jane Goodall's global youth organization Roots & Shoots.

Jeni with the Roots & Shoots group as they pack care packages for U.S. soldiers deployed overseas.

Jeni with the Roots & Shoots group as they pack care packages for U.S. soldiers deployed overseas.

Stickers the Roots & Shoots group made for our Peru 2013 chiropractic service trip.

Stickers the Roots & Shoots group made for our Peru 2013 chiropractic service trip.

Rhea:  Tell me about the upcoming opportunity to travel with you to Haiti.

Jeni:  We are traveling with Soles4Souls again, with the same wonderful guides, this time to Haiti. We will be distributing shoes to children at orphanages and in impoverished communities. The dates for our trip are March 30-April 03, 2015. 

Rhea:  What does someone do to get involved with the upcoming Haiti trip?

Jeni:  For more information about Roots & Shoots Napa, Soles4Souls, and our upcoming trip to Haiti, please visit rootsandshootsnapa.com or email me at jeniroots@gmail.com

Rhea:  What would you say to a parent or teen who is considering this trip, but who might feel challenged at the idea of budgeting time and money for this trip versus a family vacation?

Jeni:  This trip is designed for teenagers - it's 5 days long, the work we do is simple but challenging, and is so rewarding. We will spend much of our time bonding with the children in Haiti, an experience that is life-changing for teenagers. We are in the process of fundraising for this trip, so there is an opportunity to cover a good portion of the cost.

Rhea:  Do you have anything else you'd like to share with the Love Bomb crowd about finding their way towards their form of service?

Jeni:  There are so many opportunities to be of service, in your own community and abroad. Start simple, open your heart, ask for guidance, and the opportunities will present themselves. The gifts you receive from serving others are priceless. 

Could this be the trip that sparks you and your teen on to the next phase of service you are aspiring to?  Or perhaps this story inspires you to take your own creative next steps?

In my experience, that first step is the most important one in the direction of your aspiration.  All else will follow.

Big Love!

Rhea