Monday, March 28, 2011

A Walk In The Park

In Malaysia, the tropical heat is intense, the food is spicy, and the monkeys roam freely in my local park, Kiara Park, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Each day I unwind from work by walking around the lake, admiring the lush flowers and trees, and soaking in the scenery.

As I watch all of the different families playing and picnicking, I think back to the neighborhood park where I grew up, Laurel Acres. Some of my fondest childhood memories include sledding down what I called “big mountain” with my father or playing a soccer match on the other side of the park. Many of the children who are walking hand-in-hand with their parents will also reminisce about their outdoor excursions one day.
During my youth, trips to Laurel Acres with my family and friends were so frequent that I took them for granted. My work in Malaysia has reminded me that good health and the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors is a gift not everyone is granted.

For five months I am volunteering full-time with a small organization called eHomemakers (eH). eH helps women who are marginalized due to their ethnicity or because they are low-income, uneducated, disabled, elderly, single moms, or suffering from chronic diseases. eH helps these women improve their circumstances and quality of life by providing computer training or teaching them how to weave intricate baskets out of discarded magazines from home. Mastering an unfamiliar skill can be an intimidating activity for women who are not used to being presented opportunities, but it is integral to helping them earn a sustainable income.

Among my assignments, I am teaching women who are new to using a computer how to use programs like Microsoft Word and Excel. One of the women I am training in the eH office was diagnosed with Systematic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) at age 13. The disease has weakened her immune system and attacked the healthy tissue in her hip. At age 24, she has already received a prosthetic hip replacement and must be careful to avoid catching a cold because it could lead to serious health complications. She also has a heightened sensitivity to sunlight, which limits the amount of time she can be outdoors; chronic pain in her joints; and often feels lethargic.

Despite her health concerns, she travels two hours each way to come to the office to learn. As her first time working in an office, collaborating with colleagues and volunteers is a brand new experience. She is shy but eager to learn and happy to receive positive reinforcement. In two weeks time, she has already shown a great deal of growth and I can see her confidence rising. The SLE may prevent her from spending time in the park, but her desire to learn and persevere is a testament to the strength of the human will.

Maria Skouras was born and raised in Mt. Laurel and was Lenape Class of 2000’s class president for four years. She holds two Master’s degrees in cultural sociology and global affairs, human rights from NYU and worked as the Senior Policy Analyst in NYU’s Office of Government and Community Affairs for 7 years. Maria is currently serving as a “Peace Fellow” through a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. called The Advocacy Project (AP). AP works with partner organizations in developing communities around the world to help them build capacity, promote social change, and share their stories. Maria will be writing about her experiences in Malaysia in the Mt. Laurel Sun as well as her blog.

Author: Maria Skouras

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