Words of Advice from A TTS22 Mom
By Debby Greene
When my daughter Juliana left for SW Africa with The Traveling School last August it was a big step for our family. The months leading up to her send off were filled with anticipation and excitement coupled with apprehension and worry. There was the constant search for the "right" gear and supplies, checking her passport and airline ticket, setting up communication and banking information, getting medicine and shots, last minute indecision about the warmth of her sleeping bag and her jacket, learning to use her water purifier and take her malaria medication, writing down phone numbers and addresses, health insurance information, medical history and more. Lists were made and remade, the bag was packed, unpacked and repacked and then finally it was time for her to go.
At the airport I wanted to imprint her face and the feel of her hug in my memory to last for over 3 months. Not one for dramatics, Juliana wanted to get the hugs over with and be on her way. And before I knew it she was gone. I got home that summer morning, sat on the back porch with a cup of coffee and breathed a huge sigh of relief. We had done it. She was off. For a day or two I relished the quiet and calm and then I started missing her --a lot.
We were prepared for no communication from our daughter for the first two weeks as TTS explained it helps the girls assimilate. But it drove me crazy. I wondered what my daughter was doing? Did she get along with the other girls? Is the sleeping bag we chose warm enough? Is she sick? Is she homesick? Eventually I learned to let go of the worry and trust or I wouldn't sleep for 3+ months.
Near the end of the second week we got an email from TTS telling us to expect the first phone call sometime soon and that the call may be teary because the girls hadn't heard our voices in awhile. Not knowing when to expect the phone call I took my phone with me everywhere -- showers happened with the shower door open to hear the ring. I panicked on my commute to work when I was without cell phone coverage for 30 minutes. I didn't want to miss that first call. The phone rang on a Thursday morning with this long, unfamiliar number and I answered, "Hi sweetie," as I barely held back tears. But Juliana wasn't teary at all. Her voice was clear and strong and it was impossible for me to cry because she sounded so great.
My husband compares sending your daughter to The Traveling School with sending her to the moon. Like most parents cell phones give us immediate connection to our kids but with TTS that is gone. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not complaining -- it's just a strange experience. For over 3 months I lived for trip blog updates, photos of my daughter, mentor reports from the teachers, academic reports, the elusive phone call, letters delivered via a TTS teacher (so cool), Facebook messages and any tidbits the office staff could share with me. I felt like I had sent a fledging bird out of the nest with this incredible leap of faith and I had to track her progress in some way without being able to text or call her. When it seemed like an achingly long time had gone by without communication, I would even stalk my daughter's checking account.
Throughout Juliana's entire TTS experience I kept my phone with me constantly. I felt a little strange but it was a lifeline to my daughter and I wanted to be there if she needed me. I missed a call about 6 weeks in but my daughter called my husband instead and they had a great conversation all to themselves.
Three and a half months is a long time and there were moments when it just seemed like enough already it's time for her to be home but that clearly wasn't an option. The photographs really helped pull us through. Our daughter is not the most smiley kid -- but the smiles she had in almost every TTS photo lit up her entire face. Those smiles pushed away any fear and reassured us she was having the time of her life --which she did. Of course, not every moment was great and we did have some emotional phone calls. It is difficult to comfort a kid so far away and to not over-react but we knew that although this was a moment where she was struggling most of the time she was doing very well.
Keeping in touch with Juliana's friends and having them over also helped me cope. They communicated with her via Facebook so we got to hear the stories she shared with them. Also I knew a few parents who already sent daughters to TTS and they offered a ton of advice -- like some kids don't call home a lot (our daughter). We also sent photos and updates to a long email list of relatives and friends and all their feedback and encouragement was a huge support. I also had a friend who lived in Tanzania for many years and walks and talks with her were priceless. Just keeping a good support system of people who love you and your daughter and ask about her because it is so fun to share what the girls are going through with people who care and it helped me feel like my daughter wasn't so far away.
I also enjoyed connecting to other parents with daughters on Juliana's actual trip. Every girl shares different things so hearing other perspectives was interesting as was commiserating with someone who really understood . We didn't go on the parent trip so it was nice having a parent who was going on the trip to send things for Juliana and also connecting with another parent who wasn't going so we didn't feel so alone staying behind.
Overall I tried to remember my daughter was doing great (and if she wasn't TTS would let us know). She had the experience of a lifetime and though it was hard to let her go for so long and so far away we felt proud to give her the independence. Juliana's life was changed forever because of TTS and, really, it's hard to express how much this trip has meant to her. She has returned more mature, thoughtful, engaged and open.
In December, Juliana gave a presentation about the SW Africa TTS trip and someone asked if there were any girls she really connected with and Juliana said, "Well of course there were some girls I connected with more than others but I can also say I consider every one of the girls on my trip my best friend."
So TTS23 parents enjoy the experience. It is amazing.