We join with you, and people around the world, who grieve the loss of the children and school staff who died in school violence last week. Twenty children and six staff died in Connecticut and, that same week, a man went into a school in central China and stabbed 23 children. Whatever reasons emerge for this tragic behavior, our hearts and prayers go out to those who died, their families and friends, and for those whose internal pain was expressed in such an angry and horrible way.
In the midst of a holiday season, it is hard to feel joyous as we, as a nation, try to make sense of the deaths and injuries to all these beautiful children. The winter solstice on Dec. 22, though expressed differently by many spiritual traditions, marks the shift from darkness into light, from despair into hope. May we gather strength from each other as we move strongly into the love and light of the new year.
As a nation we will look at what policy changes can help prevent such disasters from reocurring. However, as individuals, we can all do our part, in whichever sphere we live, to bring peace and love to each other. I had already planned to tell you the following, and now the stories that follow seem even more important.
Two members of our community recently participated in the People to People Ambassador Program, which began with an idea during a Geneva summit where President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to support exchange programs as a means to ease Cold War tensions. From that conference, People to People was born. Although originally operated by the U.S. Information Agency, it was subsequently privatized and now is open to all who want to participate.
Courtney Nichols, daughter of Marsha and Curtis Nichols, is a sophomore and honor roll student at Rappahannock County High School. She wanted to go on the trip to England, France and Germany “mostly to experience the lifestyles of other teenagers my age, learn the history and most importantly get to know new people – not only from the area but all the way across the world.”
The best part of the trip for her was meeting Sara Hagele, the 15-year old daughter of her homestay family in Germany. “They invited me in with open arms. I spent three days with them and I made a friend and family for life.” Courtney believes that the European Heritage Trip changed her life for the better.
“It has broadened my horizons and it has made me realize that there is more to the world than what we see in our everyday lives,” she said. The trip was made possible by her parents’ support and from the generous contributions of citizens of the community after an article appeared in this column on May 24.
Patti Brennan, Sperryville’s stained glass artist, elected to visit Cuba. This is her story:
My family and I had the opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba recently. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The stories of this country create doubt about visiting it. One of the reasons we wanted to visit Cuba is because we now can. For so many years we knew very little about a country that is such a close neighbor. We went with a tour company that offered a “People to People” cultural exchange. Our trip included many personal, one-to-one opportunities.
Much to our surprise, our experience fell nothing short of amazing. Cuban people are gracious and friendly and the diverse architecture of Havana was incredible to see. They have so many old U.S. cars it made us realize how resourceful these people are to be able to still keep so many running.
There is a unique quality of contagiousness in the rich Cuban art and music. We visited several communities where the pure spirit of these people shines through in their joy of creating. One community was Fusterland, a mosaic project by world-renowned artist Jose Fuster. He has inspired the small fishing town he lives in outside of Havana to decorate more than 80 houses with this amazing ornate mosaic artwork. It was like visiting a mosaic Disneyland.
Another community, Muraleando, has created mural art and sculpture where there once was trash. The art became a source of pride for the entire community, uplifted the attitude of the way they lived and helped them come together to create a better place to live. They involved the children of the community and used their inspiration to draw the artwork on all the walls. We spoke with one young man who had been a troubled youth and explained how he has turned his life around because of the great energy in being part of such a positively engaged neighborhood.
Many times I felt like the magic we share here in Rappahannock was in Cuba, too. They have larger hurdles to overcome to achieve what they have, but their spirits are so bright and positive. My hope is that more people will visit this wonderful place and enjoy it as much we did. At Middle Street Gallery, in May 2013, I will be co-exhibiting some of my photographs of our trip, along with Gary Anthes, who also just visited Cuba. I hope you will come by Middle Street Gallery to enjoy them with us.
May each of us, in our own way, seek to increase outreach to others, peace and love, in the light of the new year.