Featured

Teen Confidence Coach Michelle Mehta Empowers Youth Through Affirmations and Personal Experience

Michelle Mehta had been working in the corporate world for many years, feeling unfulfilled and unchallenged. She knew there was a missing puzzle piece in her life ready to be discovered. 

Mehta experienced many challenges and setbacks during her journey before finding her true calling as a Motivational Speaker and Certified Professional Coach.

“I had this ‘out of the box’ dream to be a motivational speaker and did not know how it was going to turn out,” Mehta told me. 

With a degree in finance and marketing, Mehta worked in sales and sold financial products and services for a few years. During her early career, she experienced a few layoffs and decided to eventually break up with Corporate America. She took her first coaching class and fell in love with the idea of empowering and changing lives through affirmations and supportive coaching methods.  

Photo courtesy Michelle Mehta.

Mehta first began her career as a Professional Coach and Motivational Speaker in 2015 after learning about the Co-Active Training Institute. With the help from amazing coaches, mentors, and peers, she was able to make her dream career as a motivational speaker and coach a reality.

She began working with women and realized the importance of supporting teenagers who struggled with self-esteem, confidence, and other issues after being invited to present at a Career Day event at her former middle school.

During her presentation, she had asked the students to raise their hands if they have ever had “evil voices in their heads.” Mehta was shocked to see every hand raised in the room. She knew there was work to be done to help boost the confidence level among youth.

View this post on Instagram

Did You Know That Your Network Builds Your Net Worth? Oprah Winfrey says “Surround Yourself With Only People Who Are Going to Lift You Higher.” This quote totally resonated with me, because I attended 4 Conferences in the past 3 Weeks that were totally unplanned. I was not planning on attending any more conferences or live events other than @iamruby’s Amplified Soul Live Event in February. As the universe delivered these weekend-long conferences to me, I caught myself in overwhelm as in how am I going to be present, and not get a “conference fever.” I realized that the Universe wanted me to attend these events that were given to me as a “gift” so I can learn and get surrounded with people who are going to lift me higher as I dive deeper into entrepreneurship. I came from a place of gratitude and learned something new from each of these events. I definitely made some amazing connections with like-minded people to last me a lifetime. I offer you to take on a challenge and experience life with people who are going to lift you higher by attending meet-ups, volunteering, and/or, creating your own community of like-minded people, and being a student for life. When you are a student for life, your heart opens up to new possibilities. Who are you going to be adding to your network? Please reach out to me if you want to expand your network, I love to collaborate and believe we should all rise together! #creating #heart #connections #universe #overwhelm #collaborate #entrepreneurship #oprah #oprahwinfrey #network #networth #friendships #collaboration #support #conferences #entrepreneurs #gratitude #gift #rogerlove #voiceofsuccess2019

A post shared by Michelle | Empowerment Coach (@iammichellemehta) on

“There were 100 students that day and every single hand went up. I was shocked and surprised, and made a decision that these teens need me and I will do whatever takes to help [them] overcome the evil voices.” 

Inspired by the overwhelming response to students battling negativity and their inner demons, Mehta decided to specialize as a “Teen Confidence Coach” to empower youth.

“I call it Teen Confidence Coaching because teens lack self-confidence as they are passing through puberty and many of them lose motivation to get good grades as a result of it. The teens begin to lose their own self-worth, sense of belonging and start feeling like they are not good enough as the stress of fitting in becomes a bigger issue.”

Photo courtesy Michelle Mehta (https://www.instagram.com/iammichellemehta/)

Often, the foundation of adulthood is based on our childhood and the way we react and respond to our middle and high school years shapes our adulthood, says Mehta. “If the issues of self-confidence, self-worth, and not feeling good enough are not addressed in the teenage years, it makes it harder in adult life to overcome struggles and challenges,” she added.

That’s why Mehta teaches teens how to stand in their power and recite affirmations out loud on a daily basis, or whenever those insecure or imposter feelings creep up. These affirmations include power words and phrases that the teens are told to recite in front of the mirror: “I am confident. I am loved. I am smart. I got this. I know I can do it.” 

As Mehta goes through these exercises during her sessions, she can see how the teens she works with exude confidence through their body language. She can see that they are feeling empowered, and that’s what makes her work so rewarding and fulfilling. 

“The goal is to help them shift their thinking from negative thoughts to positive thoughts. That is where I come in to remind them of their greatness. These teens are smart and intelligent, and have what it takes to be successful, and if the support system is not strong enough, it can very much backfire on them.”

Mehta’s teen coaching sessions are based on a 3-month plan, where she discovers the teens’ goals, implements their core values, and integrates healthy boundaries between their parents and peers.

“I aim to teach the teens’ self-confidence, higher self-worth, feeling good enough, and always remember to be in a state of gratitude.” Some of the common topics that are brought up by the teens she works with include insecurities about physical appearances, and feeling inadequate at school or disconnected and lonely.

Mehta was recently published in an international bestselling book, “Yes I Can!” and continues to impact hundreds of people through her coaching. Some of the highlights of her career have been interviewing Deepak Chopra, former Mexican President Vincente Fox, among others.

Part of the reason why Mehta decided to specialize in this area of Teen Coaching was because of the spike in bullying incidents among youth, and the constant pressure on youth and teens that feel as though they are unworthy or need to fit a certain mold. 

These days, youth are under a lot of pressure to “fit in,” says Mehta, who shares that social media often adds to the issue because teens often feel the desire to look, dress, and act a certain way especially after skimming through celebrity feeds. They often fall into the trap of comparing their lives to others and begin to lose their self-confidence and self-worth.

Photo courtesy MichelleMehta.com

Growing up in an Indian American household, Mehta shared her own experiences of being bullied in middle and high school. She recalled that in her early teen years, some of her friends made fun of her for giving hugs and compliments. There were also times when she felt insecure about the way her body looked, and also failed a majority of her classes before stepping into her self-worth and realizing the importance of practicing self-love and confidence.

Today, Mehta has channeled her early experiences of being bullied into learning opportunities to help empower youth and encourage them to own their power and individuality.

“I realized that what I struggled with was extremely painful and made me a stronger person. I am motivated to inspire and encourage the youth to not let their insecurities from their childhood affect their adulthood. The insecurities that began at a younger age make a lasting impact as the child gets older.” – Michelle Mehta

Photo courtesy Michelle Mehta.

Some of the reasons why Mehta enjoys the work she does is because she believes that youth and teens are the future. Sometimes they just need the right guidance and support system in place to get on track and feel confident about themselves.  

Michelle Mehta wrote a chapter in the #1 international bestselling book on Amazon, “Yes I Can! 22 Success Secrets from Inspiring People Around the World” by Dr. Izdihar Jamil, Ph.D (Screenshot from Amazon.com)

Through this journey of life, Mehta says the universe has delivered amazing coaches, mentors, and peers to help make her dream career a reality. She is grateful for the opportunity to make an impact through her teen coaching sessions, and for the incredible feedback she receives from parents and teens.

Mehta’s biggest takeaway is to always trust your gut feeling and to “keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, as you never know what opportunity will be knocking on your door.”

-Written by Monica Luhar @monicaluhar

Featured

‘Invested Millennial’: Tips from Investing Queen Wendy Gonzalez

I recently watched the “Millennial Money” segment from CNBC featuring 25-year-old UCLA grad Wendy Gonzalez. In the segment, Wendy discussed her passion for investing and how she spends her money and makes $80,000 a year. A little over a year ago, Wendy launched a YouTube channel, Invested Millennial, to inspire and empower women to invest and to share and document her transparent investment journey. I reached out to Wendy via Instagram to see if she was interested in being interviewed for my blog. She enthusiastically agreed, and we met up for coffee in Pasadena, CA, where we talked about investing, self-care, and doing what makes your soul happy. 

As a child, Wendy Gonzalez would always try to save as much money as she could. She quickly grasped the importance of saving money after witnessing her single mother struggling to pay the bills. Wendy realized that she would have to save every penny to secure her future and give back to her parents who had sacrificed so much.

“We were always living paycheck to paycheck…There were certain things I couldn’t do because my mom couldn’t afford it,” Wendy said. “So, my high school years were the years I realized how important it is to save and be as frugal as possible to secure your future.”

Wendy’s parents often instilled in her the value of money and made several sacrifices to ensure that she could live out her dreams. “For me, being raised by immigrant parents, it meant that there were certain things that I wasn’t going to be able to have as a child of immigrant parents.”

Photo courtesy Wendy Gonzalez.

Wendy says her parents always had plans for the future, but were not able to make those plans come to fruition. Today, Wendy says she is grateful that her parents set the stage for her financial and investing success.

“For me, I followed along that track, but now I’m actually…I’m the generation that’s able to make those plans into reality. Being raised by immigrant parents, it was their ability to formulate plans and have a vision that helped me actually follow through with that as an adult.” 

In high school, when she turned 15, Wendy picked up her first part-time job at Cold Stone Creamery. She was inspired to work and save money at an early age after seeing her mom work long and hard hours.  “My mom has always been that role model that has instilled in me the value of hard work and consistency, so when I turned 15 and a half I was able to work.” 

Wendy would save at least 90 percent of her gross pay from her part-time job and set it aside, no matter how tempting it was to spend. She would save every penny earned as difficult as it was. 

The logo for Wendy’s “Invested Millennial” brand.

Wendy’s money discipline carried on from childhood to college and inspired her to continue her journey. From then on, her savings account continued to grow. Throughout college, she also kept a close eye on her expenses and didn’t give herself anything glamorous, she said. “I was working really hard and saving money to pay for whatever remaining tuition.” Wendy received financial aid and scholarships for UCLA, and graduated in 2016 as a communications and Latin American double major. 

Shortly after graduating, she got a full-time job as a logistics supervisor for Tesla while hustling several side hustles, like working for VIP KID and Dada ABC as an ESL teacher for students in China. She would often start her side hustles at 4 in the morning and then commute to her full-time job at Tesla. 

Growing up, Wendy recalls that she didn’t have any role models or see representations of business women, who were Latina, like herself. “Not having that role model delayed my ability to jumpstart my ability to start investing early in my life. It wasn’t until I started working for a big company that I realized investing is important.” 

About a year and a half ago after watching a ton of YouTube videos on investing, Wendy felt inspired to start a passion project known as “Invested Millennial,” an honest, transparent platform on YouTube where millennials–particularly women of color—could go to for support and advice on investing. 

“I’ve been such a big saver since I was 15 and I never really learned about the power of investing until maybe a year and a half ago.” While Wendy has always been mindful of saving money since childhood, she admits that she often got caught up in the tunnel vision and monotonous routine which halted her ability to start investing until after college due to fear and the stigma or myth of investing being dubbed as “gambling.”

As a millennial herself, Wendy wanted to create her brand, “Invested Millennial,” as a way to document her investing journey. “So for me, that name signifies us millennials being invested whether it’s in the market, house, or whether it’s in career or education.” 

Wendy has been growing her content and marketing her brand with the hopes that more millennials will be inspired to make their own investment decisions without being held back or fearful of the term, “investing.” 

A video still from “Real Talk,” Real Talk | Ways to Prepare for Stock Market Investing from Wendy’s “Invested Millennial” YouTube channel.

“I wanted to create some type of brand that resonates with millennials and empowers millennial women because as a woman myself, I feel there’s not a lot of representation of female investors online. There’s mostly men, especially in the YouTube space when we talk about content creators…it’s only men for the most part,” said Wendy. 

Wendy started investing after realizing one day, that although she had saved a lot of money in her bank account, the amount of money she saved compared to the interest was nothing. She needed to shift her attention to investing. 

“That was the driving force. Start a side hustle, start investing money. For me, investing was the best option…” 

So, she started thinking about creative and practical ways to make more money. “I started finding out about a high interest savings account – pay two percent that’s higher than what I have so I realized I have to do something.” 

Before starting her “Invested Millennial” Youtube channel, Wendy had reached out to YouTube “Financial Education” personality Jeremy for some advice. “He was the first person who believed in what I wanted to do.” 

Her conversations with Jeremy and her growing interest in investing led her to jumpstart her passion project, “Invested Millennial.” Wendy envisioned her channel to be a platform where she could document her investment journey ups and downs, what she learned from her journey, as well as the money that she lost and made.

“I just want to be transparent because there’s a lot of YouTubers out there that share their wins…For me, I wanted to be different and show the process like when you start from a small amount and you build it over time.” 

Wendy shares that she didn’t start investing until she officially turned 24. One of the biggest reasons? Fear. “Because for the longest time, I didn’t know about investing. I wasn’t interested until I worked for a bigger company like Tesla shares.”

She also shared that she delayed investing because she didn’t know where to start, where to invest, and what company she should invest in. That’s when she dived into YouTube and spent hours learning from other people. Wendy said it took a while for her to start investing because she was trying to understand the fundamentals before she could share that knowledge with others. 

“One of the biggest things that held me back was the fear of losing my hard earned money because I worked so hard for so many years and I heard really bad things about people losing money…For me, it took a while for me to start investing because I was trying to understand the fundamentals.” Now that she has the fundamentals down, she’s ready to share her investing journey with others. 

Most recently, in August of 2019, Wendy was diagnosed with stage 1 thyroid cancer — which caused her to take a step back from her passion projects and side hustles to take care of her health. She shared that she has been battling thyroid conditions since the age of 11 and has been taking medicine to treat it and never imagined it would turn into a cancerous tumor until she saw a doctor who confirmed the diagnosis. 

“Getting diagnosed with this made me realize the importance of living a more meaningful life…like I think we all go through these ruts where we just don’t know what direction to go, we just feel like we’re going through the motions and there’s no end goal.” 

During the first two weeks of the diagnosis, Wendy shared that she felt like she was in a grey, foggy space where she didn’t want to talk to anyone or share the diagnosis with others until she was ready.  

Wendy said that for a long time, she felt like she was working herself too hard and getting burnt out and not taking the time to enjoy life. When she received the cancer diagnosis, a switch went off.

Her perspective on the importance of self-care and living in the moment changed and became more immediate. Her cancer diagnosis was also a reminder for Wendy that she needed to also slow down a little bit and enjoy life. As of now, Wendy continues to work full-time and is focusing more of her efforts into growing her passion project, “Invested millennial,” while taking care of her health. She let go of some of her side hustles in order to give her body the care it needs. “I’m just trying to feel better. I’m still on meds, but now my body is different. It needs more care than before. So I’m focusing on balance now and trying to grow Invested Millennial.” 

Photo courtesy Wendy Gonzalez

When asked about any tips for investing, Wendy said the best thing to do first is to start investing through an IRA. “Your money is growing. You won’t be able to touch your money so you will be depositing money, investing money. It’s just going to snowball over time and that’s going to create a cushion for your retirement.” 

She also suggests that if you have an employer who offers a 401k, consider going with a 401k plan, or going the Roth IRA route instead, which she says are the best way to start investing and getting your feet wet when it comes to the market. 

For freelancers or employees who don’t have the option of a 401k, she suggests going the Roth IRA route. Wendy shares that although her employer offered a 401k, she decided to decline and go with Roth IRA instead. “My employer offers a 401k. I didn’t do it. I decided to go Roth IRA especially because it grows tax-free so when I retire, everything I’ve invested and all the gains will be mine.” 

View this post on Instagram

Thank you @cnbcmakeit for the feature!

A post shared by YouTube | Invested Millennial (@investedmillennialwendy) on

Wendy’s long-term goal is to go to business school and pursue a career in clean technology. “I work for Tesla now and I want to take that experience working for a clean tech company and maybe start something on my own, but focusing on Latin America.” Wendy says she hopes to focus on finding ways to help bring clean tech to Latin America. “The infrastructure for clean tech in certain parts of Latin America is not doable, so how can we actually make that happen and drive change?” 

Wendy believes that business school will help her figure out her next path, whether that’s serving as a consultant for investing or starting her own company. In the future, Wendy hopes to get certified so she can serve as a consultant and empower women who would like to meet up, discuss savings and investments, and steer them in the right direction. “We would talk about what they want to invest in and i can guide them and tell them from my experience what works and they can make a decision.” 

At the moment, she is currently looking into various schools to pursue further education, some of which include Harvard, MIT, Columbia, and Stanford. Wendy says she is looking to own her own home by age 30, but as of now, her focus is on business school which might change the direction or put a temporary halt on home buying. “There are a lot of things up in the air, but ultimately, yes–I would like to own something. It doesn’t have to be a home, it could be a condo. Just something that is mine — it’s an investment.” 

For a long time, Wendy admits that she would put so much emphasis on the value of money and fall into the trap of comparing herself to others and feeling behind on her journey. 

“It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer that I realized this. Like..am I happy right now? For a long time, I was just going through the motions, I wasn’t enjoying the process.”

Wendy says a big part of her discovery was realizing that she needed to restore balance in her life, and to just enjoy the process of investing without comparing herself to others or being bogged down by what others make in a day. Because in the end, everyone is on their own financial and investment journey.

“So I think finding balance, enjoying the process, and having a plan is what will truly make you happy and you’ll be able to reach your goals without overdoing it and killing yourself over things that might not matter five years from now.” 

Written by Monica Luhar, for Mornings with Moni.

Featured

Mom Documents 3-year-old Daughter’s Journey with Cerebral Palsy

A few years ago, Kiara Manley found out that her daughter, Naomi, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP).

Kiara had initially noticed that her 3-month-old daughter didn’t meet some of the milestones or markers that other babies reached during their early childhood development and growth stages. 

She began to worry.

All photos from @gonaipage Instagram / Courtesy of Kiara Manley

“I had noticed that she wasn’t doing what other babies were doing,” Kiara said, explaining that she began to frantically research possible disorders on the web before consulting doctors and learning about the diagnosis. “I was in denial at first. I felt guilty as well because she wouldn’t have a ‘normal life’ and be able to play and move like other kids,” said Kiara.

Kiara was nervous and overwhelmed by the information about CP and didn’t quite know where to start.

“I felt like I wasn’t going to be a good enough mom for her. I was young, barely in college and just fighting my own battles.” 

Cerebral palsy is a common motor disability that can manifest in childhood. CP is part of a group of disorders that can affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture, according to the CDC. 

Today, Naomi is a vivacious and happy three-year-old with varied interests. She inspires her mother and everyone around her with her spirit and courage for moving independently and taking on tasks with a smile on her face. 

Recently, Kiara decided to create an Instagram page for her daughter in an effort to educate people about cerebral palsy and dispel some of the common myths or stereotypes about CP. It was also a way to document her child’s growth and journey with CP and support other moms who are looking to find more resources or a supportive CP community.

“I wanted to show that although she has a disability, she is a happy 3-year-old that still lives her best life! She swims, she travels, and she just isn’t being placed in a box, she has no limits,” says 25-year-old Kiara, who currently works as a special needs instructional assistant and is in graduate school to pursue a career in school counseling. 

Last month, Kiara posted a tweet about her daughter doing a task independently. The tweet went viral, amassing over 200,000 likes and 26,000 retweets. Kiara soon received a ton of support from the CP community as well as strangers who were touched by her daughter’s story. Kiara tweeted, “ my daughter, who has cerebral palsy, just wiped her mouth independently! This may seem small to you but this is the result of progress!!!! I’m so proud!!! #GoNai.”

The short video shows Naomi using a paper towel to wipe her face without giving up. It’s a sweet moment that also shows the bond between mother and daughter.

Kiara shares that she posted the tweet because she wanted to document her daughter’s journey with CP, and also because as a mom, she was excited about her daughter being able to independently wipe her mouth because that exemplified her fine motor skill progress. 

“I really didn’t think it would go viral. The support and encouraging words have been nonstop and it feels good to know that there are strangers out there that are wishing her well and wishing her good health,” says Kiara, who adds that the positive and heartwarming messages from people gives her faith in humanity again. Through the tweet, she has also recently connected with other people who have CP, and have given her encouragement through their stories and advice. “It’s been great and I am very appreciative.”

Kiara says that some of the main misconceptions or misunderstandings that people might have about her daughter having CP is that she either doesn’t understand others because “she isn’t verbal,” or that “she’s so fragile.” This, Kiara says, is untrue. 

“She’s the toughest person I know. She also understands a lot. I wish people knew that people with CP are humans first, their disability doesn’t define them or their capabilities,” says Kiara.

Kiara says the bond she shares with her daughter is very special. “We just get each other. She wakes up every single day with a smile, no matter if she’s sick or got woken up early.” 

Little Naomi has quite the personality, according to her mom. Naomi is hilarious and sassy and loves to play in her little rocking chair that has a rattle connected to it. She also enjoys listening to music and going to pre-school. 

“She has a mean side eye and has the brightest smile and cutest laugh! Her smile is contagious. She’s sweet and gives the best hugs too,” says Kiara. One of the current challenges for Naomi right now, is gaining more core strength daily. “That’s her biggest obstacle right now,” says Kiara, who adds that she is inspired daily by her daughter’s strength in the face of adversity, even at such a young age. 

Kiara is incredibly proud to be Naomi’s mother and says she is always amazed by her daughter’s resilience and ability to smile through challenges and difficulties at such a young age.

Kiara with her daughter Naomi.

Over the years, Kiara has learned so much from her daughter. She’s learned to appreciate everything and not take the little things for granted. 

“Naomi makes me realize that what’s easy for me may be the same exact thing someone else is working hard to do. She does everything with a smile and so will I… appreciate the small, celebrate the common and lead with love,” says Kiara. 

*This article was featured/published exclusively on morningswithmoni.com

-Written by Monica Luhar

Featured

Photo Project Empowers Women and Normalizes Breastfeeding in Asian-American Communities

Amanda Reyes, one of seventeen Asian-American mothers featured in an upcoming photo exhibit that normalizes breastfeeding. (Photo courtesy Amanda Reyes/Photo by Elisabeth Millay/BreastfeedLA)

The Asian Breastfeeding Task Force of Los Angeles, a group of advocates committed to normalizing breastfeeding in Asian-American communities, is launching its first photo project in honor of National Breastfeeding Month August 2019.

As part of the photo exhibit, 17 local moms have joined the movement in an effort to educate, normalize breastfeeding, and share their experiences breastfeeding. The photo exhibits will be hosted in both the San Gabriel Valley and downtown Los Angeles. (See information at bottom of this blog post for more details). 

The Asian Breastfeeding Task Force was formed in August 2017 by community members, hospitals, PHFE WIC, BreastfeedLA, and the LA County Department of Public Health. The goal was to help address the lower rates of Asian-American breastfeeding and address barriers to breastfeeding among Asian-American families. The task force currently aims to normalize breastfeeding in Asian-American communities through education and removing barriers that might prevent the community from breastfeeding due to cultural stigma.

Breastfeeding advocate and former TV reporter To-wen Tseng, who helped coordinate the photo project, shares that she has personally witnessed and experienced breastfeeding barriers in the workplace, after returning from maternity leave in 2013. (More on her story here).

She has also witnessed the stigma surrounding breastfeeding among Asian-American communities. Tseng shares that she came to the realization that somewhere between the generational divide between her mom being born, and her being born, the cultural shifted from one where “breastfeeding was viewed as social norm to stigma.” She added that she feels the need to restore the social norm and send out a clear message that “breastfeeding is not disturbing; it’s beautiful.” Tseng, whose photo with her 19-month-old is also a part of the photo project, has since advocated for the local community, volunteered with local breastfeeding coalitions, and has helped launch the first photo project highlighting Asian-American moms breastfeeding. 

According to various reports, Los Angeles County is home to the largest Asian-American population in the U.S. “Almost half of Asian Americans in the San Gabriel Valley are limited English proficient, yet less than six percent of lactation professionals in Los Angeles County speaks an Asian language and prenatal medical visits offer little breastfeeding education using language-appropriate materials. These barriers greatly hindered Asian mother’s chance to successfully breastfeed,” according to a press release by BreastfeedingLA.

Amanda Reyes, one of seventeen Asian-American mothers featured in an upcoming photo exhibit that normalizes breastfeeding. (Photo courtesy Amanda Reyes/Photo by Elisabeth Millay/BreastfeedLA)

Asian-American Moms Participating in the Breastfeeding Photo Project 

Amanda Reyes, Criselle Cruz, and Iren Siosan, are three of seventeen moms participating in the photo project by the Asian Breastfeeding Task Force of Los Angeles. 

Amanda Reyes, who has been a registered nurse for over 10 years, shares that she is a mom of two boys. She and her son Alejandro were part of the Asian Breastfeeding Task Force Project, at the time when he was four months old. Reyes, who is currently in school obtaining her doctorate in nursing practice, says that both her sons were born premature. 

“My mother never breastfed and I was the first of my group of friends to have children. Because my babies were born so vulnerable, I wanted to make sure I gave them the best opportunity in life. I wanted to exclusively breastfeed so that they would have the best possible nourishment,” said Reyes.

Reyes felt she lacked the support for breastfeeding, so she sought out Facebook groups to feel less alone in her journey. She joined groups like “First Time Mommy Group” & “Le Leche League” until stumbling across the Asian Breastfeeding Task Force of LA and the Breastfeeding LA project and learning more about their empowering initiatives.  

Amanda Reyes, one of seventeen Asian-American mothers featured in an upcoming photo exhibit that normalizes breastfeeding. (Photo courtesy Amanda Reyes/Photo by Elisabeth Millay/BreastfeedLA)

“Initially, I struggled with my firstborn son to breastfeed but I powered through with the support of these mommy groups. I learned so much from other mothers. Breastfeeding was difficult but not impossible. Your body is going through many changes and challenges. I became a breastfeeding expert and with my second born son, breastfeeding was a breeze,” adds Reyes. 

Reyes feels that breastfeeding is still very much stigmatized, particularly in Asian-American communities, and that it is still not fully accepted in public. She was shocked to learn that Asian-Americans have the lowest rate of breastfeeding, so she decided to join the project to spread more awareness.

“I believe with the right support, tools, and resources; mothers can breastfeed their babies for at least the first year of life,” said Reyes. 

Growing up in a Filipino household, Reyes’ family often told her stories that if one was “formula fed” in the Philippines, it meant “you were rich” because you could afford formula, she shared. “Thus, giving your baby formula was a desirable method of nourishment,” Reyes explained, from the stories she was once told.

Reyes says that while her parents were very supportive about her breastfeeding, she noticed they would often still make comments like, “I don’t think the baby has eaten enough milk,” or, “how do you know you are making enough milk?” There were also times when her brother would make comments to Reyes, suggesting that she should “cover up” when she was feeding her baby, which she felt further stigmatized breastfeeding.

Amanda Reyes, one of seventeen Asian-American mothers featured in an upcoming photo exhibit that normalizes breastfeeding. (Photo courtesy Amanda Reyes/Photo by Elisabeth Millay/BreastfeedLA)

Reyes says her family unintentionally made comments like this, but that it inspired her to help bring more awareness and education about breastfeeding in the Asian-American community. “I would tell my family how breastfeeding is a supply and demand. If I want to make more milk, I need to continuously breastfeed my baby so that he stimulates more milk production.” 

At one point, Reyes shares that she would often go to nursing rooms in malls to feed her baby behind a curtain, but soon realized that her baby should be able to eat wherever everyone else eats. It was then when she felt like the only way to dispel myths and eradicate the stigma of breastfeeding moms was to feel comfortable in her own skin and feed her baby in public places, because it was her right to do so, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed.

“I started feeding my baby on open benches, in mall food courts, and even walking in a sling. No need to hide! Sometimes when I breastfeed in public I get mean stares but I don’t care. It’s my right and my baby is hungry.” 

Reyes believes that it is important to have photo exhibits such as the one put on by the task force to help set aside myths and encourage the public to understand the importance of normalizing breastfeeding and supporting moms. 

Reyes says some of the myths around breastfeeding include the idea that she won’t make milk if “her breasts aren’t big.”

“I have never had a large breast and people used to tell me that I won’t make milk if my breasts aren’t big,” said Reyes, who shares that both her premie babies were breastfed and both above average in the growth chart and strong after six months of exclusive breastfeeding.

“My milk was the best for them and their size alone proves that fact.” Reyes hopes that the public realizes how normal breastfeeding is through these photos that will be part of a historic exhibit she is incredibly proud of.

“I don’t want to hide in nursing rooms next to public restrooms anymore. I want to be free to feed my baby wherever and whenever,” said Reyes, who hopes the response to the photo project will be positive and support a rise in Asian-American mothers breastfeeding. 

Criselle Cruz one of seventeen Asian-American mothers featured in an upcoming photo exhibit that normalizes breastfeeding. (Photo courtesy Criselle Cruz)

“I hope that people realize that breastfeeding isn’t easy. It is work but it’s all so that your baby can have the best possible nourishment. That us mothers sacrifice and struggle to keep up this skill that should be a natural form of life. And if we had support and encouragement by everyone, especially the public community, maybe more mothers would breastfeed longer.” Reyes is honored to be a part of this project, alongside 16 other empowering women, she says.

“My friends all know that I am a strong advocate for breastfeeding and this project gives me the opportunity to showcase how proud I am to breastfeed my sons.” “I am so thankful that the Asian Breastfeeding TaskForce of LA and Breastfeeding LA came together to create this amazing exhibit. I hope we made an impact in our Asian community and empowered mothers to breastfeed and be proud of it.”

Criselle Cruz, a stay-at-home-mom and small business owner, says she first got involved with the Asian Breastfeeding Task Force of Los Angeles and Breastfeed LA after seeing a post on Instagram regarding a call-out for Asian mothers who breastfeed their babies. Interested and intrigued, Cruz reached out to them because of her ongoing advocacy for breastfeeding and passion for normalizing breastfeeding. 

Criselle Cruz one of seventeen Asian-American mothers featured in an upcoming photo exhibit that normalizes breastfeeding. (Photo courtesy Criselle Cruz)

As the mother of two sons, Cruz shares that she received a lot of comments from family members who have asked her why she was still breastfeeding her two-year-old son. 

“I just smile and say, ‘Yes, I am.’ I don’t have to explain it, I know the benefits of it and I’m lucky to have this luxury that many moms don’t have,” said Cruz, who stresses the importance of showing photos in the exhibit in the local community to help dispel myths and stereotypes about breastfeeding. “…It’s not shameful, it’s not ugly. I don’t believe it should be hidden or tucked away as it’s a part of daily life and it is such a great representation of motherly love,” said Cruz.

Iren Siosan, one of seventeen moms who will be featured in an upcoming exhibit by the Asian Breastfeeding Task Force of Los Angeles. Photo courtesy: Iren Siosan

Being a part of the group of 17 Asian-American mothers breastfeeding is tremendously empowering for Cruz as an Asian-American woman and mother, she shared.

“I am proud of the message we are sending out to the world and hope that it does incite change in the normalization of breastfeeding not only within our Asian American community but to all communities,” says Cruz.

Cruz hopes that people can see the beauty in breastfeeding without judging. She hopes the public will continue to learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding—both for the strengthened bond between mom and baby and the nutrients. “The nutrients, the antibodies, the time, the love and the care that mothers provide for their children through breastfeeding has long lasting beneficial effects for both child and mother, and I hope people see and learn that through this exhibit,” said Cruz.  

-This article appeared exclusively on Mornings with Moni.

-Written by Monica Luhar

The exhibit is open to the public daily 8:00am – 10:00pm in August at Live Oak Park Community Center in Temple City, and all weekdays 8:00am – 5:00pm at LA City Hall Breezeway in downtown Los Angeles. An opening event is scheduled on Saturday, August 3, 2019 from 3:00 – 5:00pm at Live Oak Park Community Center
More information here.

Featured

‘Infinite Well’: Women-Powered Podcast Shows You How to Tap into Your Intuition and Heal Yourself

Boss babe duo: Natalie Moore and Kate Sullivan, co-hosts of Infinite Well.

The concept behind Infinite Well came about from a series of conversations that Kate Sullivan and Natalie Moore had while on several peaceful strolls around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Both ladies met when they were Marriage and Family interns at the time, and they hit it off right away with their shared interests and fascination with mind-body connection and spiritual wellness. 

“We couldn’t wait to discuss all we had learned in the previous week about mental wellness, spirituality and holistic health, because we were so on the same page with our burgeoning interests. At one point, I looked over at Kate and asked, ‘Do you want to start a podcast?’” said Natalie. Of course, Kate replied without hesitation, saying, “I thought you’d never ask!” 

Natalie Moore, co-host of “Infinite Well,” and licensed marriage and family therapist. (Photo courtesy Natalie Moore)

The duo says Infinite Well refers to “the deep well of wisdom that resides within each individual.” With our minds constantly inundated by information, it can be difficult to come back to ourselves and tap into our full potential when we feel so stuck. Infinite Well refers to the act of living your best life, feeling abundant, and returning to the “life force within you that is waiting to guide you if you’ll just slow down and listen enough to be guided by it,” shares Natalie.

On the Infinite Well podcast, Kate and Natalie cover topics like burnout, choosing love over fear, feeling broken, or “comparisonitis”—feeling less than when we compare ourselves to others. The podcast is a way to empower both women and men to find balance in their lives while being mindful and present. The goal is to also encourage people to tap into our inner strengths and take care of our well-being before we can share our gifts with others, the duo explained. 

Aside from working one-on-one with clients as holistic psychotherapists and self-actualization coaches, one of the interesting and challenging aspects about co-hosting a podcast is that Kate and Natalie don’t always get to see how their audience or the individual they are speaking to is receiving or practicing what they say on the podcast.

“So it’s been a great test of leaning on our own intuition to simply share what’s true for us and trust that it will land how it needs to for the people who hear it,” says Kate. 

Kate Sullivan, co-host of Infinite Well, and self-actualization coach. (Photo courtesy Kate Sullivan)

Kate shares that as her master’s degree in psychology wrapped up, she was excited to begin training in healing modalities and soon discovered that much of what helped her heal and nurture her spiritual awakening wasn’t actually in the field of psychology at all. “It was in adjacent areas like nutrition, personal empowerment, spirituality, plant medicines, sound healing, and working with a coach.” Through Kate’s client work, she aims to support clients to self-actualize, realize their potential, and heal themselves to create the life they desire. 

Natalie has felt that Western psychology has explained how the brain works and how trauma and loss in our early relationships greatly influence our current day-to-day lives. But she also realized that Western psychology seemed to also be missing a few key ingredients for healing, such as connecting to one’s spirituality and understanding the impacts of diet and exercise on mental health, she explained. “That’s why it only seemed natural for me to integrate these aspects of total health into my therapy practice,” says Natalie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who started her journey and interest in psychology and yoga since the age of 16. 

Kate shares both she and Natalie have been often disillusioned by the idea that the medical establishment has all the answers to keeping us in good health, and that the educational system can teach us everything we need to know. Both she and Natalie believe that as individuals, we can find great input and wisdom from sources outside of us to inform our choices, and that we are in charge of our own health and our own lives, and that ultimately, the responsibility lies with us to be guided for the choices that are right for us. 

To expand into how to utilize our inner powers, the duo teaches techniques and mindful tools through their podcast. “Each episode is essentially our way of answering that question, and is an exploration of ways to tap into our personal power and internal guidance,” says Kate. Their hope is that listeners will take the ideas that resonate with them, and leave what doesn’t. 

“We share our personal experiences and those of clients as a way to reinforce the concept that even though this worked for us, it is always up to you to feel into it and take the path that will best suit you,” Kate added. 

What Natalie loves most about the work she does as a holistic psychotherapist is that she gets to learn more from her clients than they’ll ever learn from her. “[The best part] is waking up with the honor and privilege to help people on their journey of healing and self-discovery. I learn everything from my clients from how to listen deeply, to how to trust my intuition, to how to let go of judgment and how to be patient, how to hold and sit with pain, and how to draw out the wisdom and resilience within,” says Natalie.  For Kate, she loves that in her work as a self-actualization coach, she is a tool, and as such, she needs to keep sharp, keep learning, and care for herself so that she can best serve her clients. 

Beyond the podcast and their individual work with clients, Natalie and Kate have co-hosted women’s empowerment circles in the San Gabriel Valley. The ultimate goal, says Kate, is to build a supportive community and to restore to each participant the confidence that all the answers to our questions lie within ourselves. “By holding space for each other and witnessing one another’s truth with no agenda, no advice, no need to fix or change anyone’s mind, we practice the art of listening and being with each other in a way that is not often practiced or witnessed today. It’s an invitation to connect with a more feminine way of being and ultimately to bring our masculine and feminine energies into the correct balance for each of us,” says Kate. 

Natalie currently hosts six events per year for holistic wellness professionals in the SGV area through the Interprofessional Community of Pasadena. The goal of these meetings, says Natalie, is to foster deep connections within the healthcare community and to stimulate shared knowledge and inspiration and provide clients with the best care possible. “The group also intends to break the current paradigm of treating symptoms of disease and build a model of encouraging prevention and honors health of mind, body and spirit,” says Natalie. 

Kate leads similar personal empowerment workshops called Infinite Possibilities, which encourages participants to reconsider the “conditioned belief that life happens to us, and instead to recognize that our thoughts, beliefs, and actions from moment to moment actually create our life experiences, our health, income, and relationships.  “Within this new framework we take responsibility for our lives and are free to manifest a life in true alignment with our highest good and the good of all,” says Kate. 

Both ladies of Infinite Well hope to continue to inspire a community that wants to find the tools for tapping into their inner powers and letting go of limiting beliefs that may be detrimental to growth. 

“I hope you’re inspired to tune into our podcast, follow us on Instagram, attend one of our moon gatherings or get in touch with us to chat. We really are building a community of people who want to wake up to their full potential. If you’re into women’s empowerment (which if you’re reading this blog, I think you are!) you’re likely to resonate with our message and find something of value to apply in your life, career and relationships,” says Natalie. 

-Written by Monica Luhar, for morningswithmoni.com 

Follow Kate and Natalie: 

instagram.com/infinite.well/ 

Infinite Well iTunes Podcast 

Awakentheself.com

relationshiprefuge.com

Katesullivan.me

Featured

How a Haircut Strengthened my Bond with my Mom

I sat in a chair in my mother’s bathroom as a twenty-something South Asian woman, waiting for my hair to be cut and layered.

It was like Déjà vu of my awkward tween years when my mom would lovingly take the knots out of my hair with a comb while tears fell down my cheek. I remember how she’d apply strong Dabur Amla hair oil from the Indian grocery store to help calm my frizz. I’d immediately hate it because I knew my friends could smell it from a mile away. When she wasn’t looking, I remember taking a towel and wiping off some of the remnants of the oil to mask the smell before I got dropped off to school.

At 29, I didn’t think I’d still have my mom cut my hair, but then again, I didn’t think I’d be back living in the same childhood home where we used to rewind VHS video or wait for someone to get off the landline so we could use the internet. At 29, it was like I was still stuck in a time machine in the ‘90s. I assumed I would have moved out by now, perhaps started a family, and had a steady job. Instead, I was driving down the same streets I frequented as a kid.

A few weeks ago, my mom sent me a text that became nothing short of a sweet gesture: “Hi Moni, I can cut your hair if you’d like.” (I think it was also an excuse to spend quality time with me, which was nice because we hadn’t done that in a long time). I found that with my mom, it was so much easier to text than have a face-to-face conversation about certain things.

Her text took me by surprise because most of our conversations have always ended up being prolonged mother-daughter arguments and then brief make-up sessions with one of us sending cute heart gifs or links to cute dog videos.

Here I was, sitting in a chair in her bedroom bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror, wondering where the heck my twenties went while my mother examined her scissors and put her glasses on to dissect my damaged, coarse black hair. My nerves were just as bad as a first date or interview.

Mom knew I was going to get a professional haircut, but that I was on a tight budget and was probably looking to save every dime, with my persistent freelance job-hopping and figuring out my life in the midst of a career change.

I appreciated her thinking of me and doing something so intimate as cutting someone else’s hair. There was something powerful she was doing at that moment — it was a beautiful token of appreciation, of letting me know that I’ll always be her daughter: the awkward, lanky, Indian girl who felt uncomfortable in her skin for much of her life.

“Try to sit still,” my mom said, as I fidgeted in my chair in her bathroom. It was just like I was 10 years old again, dreading having a hairdresser snip my locks.

Mom had recently been watching a lot of YouTube videos on how to cut and get that desired layered haircut without ever stepping foot in a hair salon. I noticed her watching these videos with fascination, and I couldn’t help but feel happy that she found a new hobby. I was happy to be her muse.

My mom went out of her way to turn her bedroom bathroom into a hairdresser’s abode. She set her iPad near the sink, against the mirror, and paused the video after every snip. In the background, she put on some Drake in the background to mute out the awkward silence. Somewhere in between a close listening of Drake and the Youtube haircut tutorial, I felt a wave of closeness to my mom I hadn’t previously felt during my awkward teen, tween, and college years. I smiled and unstiffened my composure and tried to show a sense of gratitude as an adult.

Our mother-daughter relationship has always been rocky, ever since I moved back home a few years ago after a brief reporting stint in Northern California. Somehow we weren’t as close as the years prior. We occasionally hung out and even went to a Jhene Aiko concert together in DTLA, but I still felt a distance I couldn’t quite put my finger on. We drifted somewhere between me moving out and living alone in Northern California and then moving back home because I couldn’t support myself financially and I knew I wanted to be closer to family.

In the years since then, I always gave myself a hard time for moving back home and feeling as though my life was stagnating with random freelance writing gigs and no stability or 401k plan in place as I chased my dreams of becoming a journalist. But dreams don’t always pay the bills.

I watched as other friends moved into new homes, dealt with real adult issues, kids, and whatnot while I sort of just froze in time. I unfairly projected my own frustrations onto my parents and realized that I had some major soul-searching to do.

Moving back home, I initially couldn’t help but feel like I was thrust back into my childhood lifestyle — it was creatively stifling at times, and it felt like I was back home with an adult curfew.

I worried that I would get a midnight text from my parents, asking me about my whereabouts, or having to explain to a date that, “I still live with mom and dad” at home. I tried to mute these irrational worries and explain to myself that I’m a grown ass woman with a plan in place.

I would stare at the same Beatles poster that was planted on my wall and noticed the same tape that held it up during my high school years. It survived all these years, so why couldn’t I?

There were years when I dreaded going to South Asian weddings, baby showers, and other events simply because of the questions that would come out of an auntie or uncle’s mouths: “So when is she getting married?” “What does Monica do for a living?”

Of course, all these desi auntie and uncles become sorely disappointed when my parents happily responded and told them I’m a writer and not a lawyer or doctor like they had wrongly assumed.

Mom had an arranged marriage at the age of 19 in Karamsad, India, and dating was not an option for her in years prior. When she immigrated to the U.S., she became a stay-at-home-mom. As my brother and I became older, she started working retail at the now-defunct Montgomery Ward, to eventually shelving books as a library page, and then, 20 years later, becoming a library assistant and living her dreams despite the inner critic that told her she should have completed a college degree instead of getting married.

During my childhood, I remember my mom would take me to the public library and nurture my love for reading and allow me to check out as many copies of “Highlights” Magazine as possible. She instilled in me a love for the written word that is still very much alive today.

In elementary school, my mom made it a point to enroll me in every extracurricular activity and Girl Scout outing to help me get out of my shell. I was a shy kid who was not comfortable in her deep brown, eczema skin.

In middle school, I remember begging my mom to let me shave or wax my legs to get over the fear of undressing in the locker room and being stared at and teased. She let me know that I shouldn’t change myself or alter my body to make others feel comfortable. After much whining, my mom finally gave in and let me modify my body with a razor though she reminded me that I should never try to change myself to please someone else.

Throughout the years, although our talks never consisted of topics like sex or relationships, I respected my mother for looking after me and protecting my heart from potential heartbreak. I remember when we’d watch PG-13 movies, I’d feel so uncomfortable during all the kissing scenes that I’d close my eyes and semi-peek to see if the painful ordeal was over.

Mom even went out of her way to enroll me in afterschool dance classes at the school gymnasium even though I dreaded the thought of dancing in front of a stage. She even tried to help me assimilate with my peers and make me not feel like the only Indian American Brownie Girl Scout who went to a Spice Girls’ themed slumber party at my scout leader’s house and got singled out because I was the only vegetarian there.

Growing up in an Indian American household, I felt uncomfortable using the three words every other family around me seemed to use: “I love you.” Although my parents rarely uttered these words, they showed their love and affection in different ways — the kind that reminded me of my roots in the form of an Indian folktale right before my mom tucked me into bed. It was the type of love basked in Bollywood movie marathons, window shopping trips to the mall where my mom and I sampled chocolate and skincare products; or the kind where my mom tried to teach me how to make round rotis and not burn the house down; or the kind where she tried to soothe my tears when I had a major friend breakup.

With time and maturity, I grew to appreciate that I could still live in the same house as my parents as they started to age while having a separate life of my own, with no memory of my old life. It was nothing short of a blessing to be able to be back in my childhood home, as much as I felt stuck or like I wasn’t progressing career or relationship-wise. I felt a responsibility to be at home to support my parents even though I tried not to compare my life with those around me who seemed to have it easy finding long-term full-time gigs. I continued to live in the same city where I went to preschool, elementary, and high school.

I reminded myself there wasn’t anything wrong with nearing your 30s and still living in the same zip code from two decades ago.

Instead of giving myself a hard time about it, I eventually gave myself space to be appreciative of having a roof over my head and not feeling obligated to hit certain life markers or milestones to feel as though “I’ve made it.” Being back in my childhood home was in no way an indicator of my achievements or accomplishments. In many ways, it helped me have a better appreciation of the things I took advantage in my earlier years. I had a deeper connection to my city and an eagerness to learn about it decades later. Seeing it through 29-something-eyes is way different than before.

Mom parted my coarse, unruly hair in the middle, and asked me to check if it was centered. She massaged my scalp, took out her scissors, found her line of reference, and cut off the dead ends. It was like a beautiful cleansing ritual — one that shed off layers of my insecurity and the words or conversations I had always meant to say to my mom.

The layers of my hair looked feathery and wholesome — like a phoenix rising from the flames (as cliche as it seems). It was like I was a brand new person. The woman who gave birth to me nurtured me once more, using her hands to show appreciation for her daughter and love in a way that couldn’t be expressed in words. With every cut, I felt like every old part of my old self was being restored and nursed back to health. We didn’t exchange many words, as has been the case for many years. But at the moment, I felt a deep love for the woman who gave birth to her preemie child, weighing at three pounds, named after Nurse Monica at the Queen of the Valley Hospital in Covina, California.

My mom is in her fifties now, and there’s been plenty of times when we’ve been mistaken for being sisters. Hanging out with her now is a blessing in disguise. I remind myself that everything in this world is temporary, and we don’t know how long we have with our loved ones.

With all these experiences, I know my mother has always been my side. Getting a haircut at a salon just won’t “cut it” for me now.

-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni

*Post originally featured on Medium.

Featured

Palabras Bookstore: Promoting Cultural Representation and Diversity

With only five books on a shelf in an empty storefront and a heart full of literary and community empowerment dreams, Chawa Magaña launched Palabras, a bilingual bookstore and community events space in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2015.

“What I love most about Phoenix is the diversity that we have here and the strong sense of community, specifically in the downtown and south central part of Phoenix,” said Magaña, owner and founder of Palabras.

A snapshot of the bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

Magaña, a first-generation Mexican American born and raised in Arizona, was inspired to open a Latinx-woman owned bilingual bookstore because she was in part inspired by a traveling art installation, Librería Donceles. The installation was a Spanish language bookstore that made a powerful statement by making stops in towns with large Spanish-speaking populations, explained Magaña. “The statement was that these places should have access to books in the Spanish language.”

Magaña first visited the art installation while it was in Phoenix for a short time. The brief visit left a lasting impact on her. She was incredibly moved by the experience of seeing so many books in Spanish and also experiencing an inspiring poetry reading in Spanish, that she decided to do something to continue on with that mission.

“I agreed with the artist, Pablo Helguera [that] we should have better access to books in the Spanish language. I also thought we should have better access to more diverse books.”

Chawa and editors of Red Ink Journal of Indegenous Art and Literature. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

Growing up as a first-generation Mexican-American, Magaña saw how little was offered in the way of culturally representative literature and did not see herself represented culturally in the stories she was assigned to read in school, which was problematic.

“The literary canon lacks diversity and cultural representation… Not until college do we have the chance to delve into other cultures, and those classes are electives, not core curriculum classes.”

Magaña’s idea for a community bookstore continued to brew. She knew she wanted to create a space that was created by and for communities of color.

 “There are times that we can question the validity of what we are sharing based on our experiences of not having our culture or experiences acknowledged as valid by the mainstream media or even by our education in the public-school system. Or we can feel tokenized for the sake of an appearing diverse. At Palabras, you know you are valued and appreciated.”

After experiencing the art installation, Magaña became passionate about creating a space for bilingual books to thrive. She wanted create a visual, literary, and artistic platform where POC could see their stories come to life in a bookstore, and beyond the bookstore.

It was Magaña’s dream to create an inclusive community space with access to books in both English and Spanish to meet the needs of the diverse community. But beyond the storefront Palabras bookstore, there’s something beautiful happening, with community workshops, author talks, and open mic events to encourage diversity and cultural awareness.

The logo of the store. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

There are a variety of events at Palabras such as “POC it to Me,” which is a monthly open mic night featuring local POC artists including poets, musicians, storytellers and comedians. Other events include regular Sunday “Mindfulness Meditation sessions with Lavina Singh,” and a “Sexual Health Loteria” to spread awareness about reproductive and sexual health.

“‘POC it To Me is’ probably my favorite event because each one is so different and the feeling of love and support from the audience and vice versa is always so strong,” said Magaña, who says it’s always wonderful to see community members’ ideas come to life through workshops and events.

Although initially an event space, Magaña built the concept of the bookstore and word soon spread about what they were doing. The feedback was incredible, with people donating books and asking how to help, she said.

Shelves at Palabras Bookstore. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

“People started donating books in both English and Spanish and asking to use the space for events.” Magaña was elated and overwhelmed by the immense support from people in the community. It’s what kept her going throughout the years.

Today, the mission of Palabras is to provide a safe space and promote cultural representation and diversity through literature, language, and the arts.

“We do that through the books we carry and the events and workshops that we host.”

“Finding book donations at the front door of the bookstore when I was just starting out was really touching,” she added. She was also encouraged by the many people who came to visit the bookstore in its early stages, as well as those who volunteered their time and talents to help set everything up and keep the store running.

While most bookstores might have maybe a shelf of books in the Spanish language, Magaña says Palabras has much more than that. She acknowledges the difficulty of navigating and finding books that are bilingual, because most books are not typically in the format, because of how complicated they are to make, she says. She adds that most bookstores only carry a small shelf of books in the Spanish language, and that it is important to increase access to a variety of books in different languages.

“Kids books are much easier to find in bilingual format because the stories are short. Also poetry books because poems are usually short.” Palabras, does, however, feature books by a local bilingual publisher, Cardboard House Press. She explained that they take unpublished work from Latin American authors and translate the work into English to create bilingual poetry books.

According to Open Education Database, there are approximately 10,080 bookstores in the U.S and “independent bookstores may be making a comeback.”

Most recently, Palabras launched an Indiegogo campaign to expand community outreach and continue its mission to empower the community through artistic and literary expression access.

Palabras has become more than a bookstore, but also a safe space for POC. All photos courtesy Chawa Magaña.

In the future, Magaña hopes to expand Palabras into other locations and help provide access to diverse books to other areas in the valley and beyond. She believes it’s important to dispel myths of false narratives and to help others see themselves represented in the stories they read.

“That is why a space like Palabras is so crucial to enriching the lives of the community, by creating a platform where underrepresented communities can feel comfortable to share their stories, speak their truth and know that they are valued,” Magaña wrote on her Indiegogo campaign page.  

She hopes Palabras will continue to be a powerful platform where people can create what they want to see in their community and uplift the voices of those whose stories go unheard.

-Written by Monica Luhar, for Mornings with Moni

Featured

‘One-Eyed and Wonderful’ Barber Rachel Mayta on Self-Love and Breaking Gender Stereotypes

When she first started her career as a barber, several clients didn’t realize Rachel Mayta had a prosthetic eye until she shared her story as a survivor of childhood cancer.

She began the conversation by embracing her identity and feeling confident enough to post photos and videos of herself playing the ukulele, hiking, and singing, without her prosthetic eye inserted. She felt beautiful and whole again—like she had removed her inner critic and the voice that told her she couldn’t.

“I love being a barber, and I love that idea of being a one-eyed barber. It feels cool to me to have overcome some obstacles that two-eyed barbers would have never thought of, with hand eye coordination and depth perception skills that a normal barber would use in daily life,” said Mayta.

All photos: courtesy Rachel Mayta

In her early barbering years, Mayta admits she felt inexperienced and nervous, especially because she was styling and cutting hair with one eye, she shared. She wondered if others underestimated her talents or thought differently of her because of her one eye.

“Men’s hair leaves no room for error. If you mess just one thing up, you’ll see it,” said Mayta, who added that angles are important in hair design.

“When cutting hair, it’s important you see every hair that’s between short to long. Most people can see the difference when they are looking straight ahead at the client, but I really have to utilize angles and make sure that I look at the haircut from every perspective.”

Mayta learned to eventually put a pause to her negative self-chatter, and to believe in her talents. Instead, she saw barbering as a unique challenge and a way to express her creativity and embrace her identity as a “one-eyed barber.”

Rachel Mayta with her prosthetic.

“I loved the idea of being in a field that was once dominated by men. It took me a while to believe in myself—and I’m sure a few bad haircuts— to learn how to navigate men’s heads using one eye,” said Mayta.

There were techniques she used in her early barbering days to get the desired look, she explained. “I have other tricks I use to get the desired look, such as using white or colored combs so I can see the contrast of the hair, typical blending combs are black and without depth perception… Other things like doing my cross checking with the clients head at eye level ensured I was giving the best haircut possible.”

Mayta is passionate about being a barber and is grateful for finding a career that is equally fulfilling and helps people feel confident about themselves through something as simple as a hair trim or style.

Sometimes the conversations go beyond just the surface of hair, though.

“My clients talk to me about everything: from divorces, promotions, vacations, to illness or death in the family. And I love that my clients know that if they need someone to bounce ideas off of or just need someone to laugh with, then they can come to me. “

As a child growing up in Forest Grove, Oregon, Mayta recalls she was bullied in school because of her one eye. Kids were quick to point out her differences, but Mayta says she was mature about the situation and understood that there was probably a deeper insecurity issue with those who taunted and bullied her, and not herself.  She realized, at an early age, there was something beautiful about her being “one-eyed,” even though the journey to finding herself wasn’t always an easy and self-loving one, due to the lack of media representation and role models, she shared.

As she became a young adult, she started to feel self-conscious about her prosthetic eye. “I didn’t understand why I had to be the one who got dealt the hand that I did. It was early adulthood where I felt like my confidence had taken a huge step back.”

In retrospect, during her early twenties, Mayta says she often felt like she needed to hide the fact that she wore a prosthetic eye because of the way society celebrated and normalized the beauty of two-eyed individuals, she shared.

“I think the only thing that has changed since, is my attitude. The power of positivity is incredible. Your inner monologue and how you speak to yourself when no one can hear is life changing.” She started referring to herself as a “strong and beautiful survivor,”  instead of feeding her mind with negative energy. She said that this was the mantra that changed her life and allowed her to love herself from within.

From the experiences she encountered in her early childhood through adulthood, Mayta has felt like she’s had to make a conscious effort to educate people and use it as a conversation starter while dispelling myths and stereotypes about being “one-eyed.” Over the years, she’s been asked various questions about having one eye like how she can do things like drive, cut hair as a barber, paint, hike.

“While I do have to adjust many things in life to make up for loss of peripheral vision and the complete lack of depth perception, this is the only way I know.”

Childhood Cancer: Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastoma is the most common type of eye cancer in children, according to the American Cancer Society. According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, approximately 200 to 300 children are diagnosed with the cancer each year in the U.S.

Mayta says she was just 16 months old when doctors diagnosed her with retinoblastoma, a cancer in the retina of the eye. After her parents took her to the Casey Eye Institute at Oregon health and Science University, doctors determined the cancer was at a growing, advanced stage and would not be able to be treated with chemotherapy or radiation. Mayta said doctors determined that a full enucleation of the eye was the only treatment option that would spot the progression of the growth before it spread to her other eye or the brain.

I was so blessed and fortunate to have had cancer early enough to not have the memories that many other children fighting cancer have,” said Mayta, who aims to continue to spread awareness about childhood cancer while sharing the stories of other survivors of retinoblastoma.

Mayta says her entire family came together when they heard about the rare diagnosis.

“I was the first born for both my mother and my father, and so it was devastating to them both. They just tried to stay positive and kept telling themselves that everything would be okay.”

When she turned 18 months old, doctors removed one eye.  Most of Mayta’s post treatments included regular appointments with her ocularist. When she was younger, she’d feel a sense of uneasiness about wearing a prosthetic. “I used to scream at the top of my lungs when I could come in,” Mayta shared.

Beyond her childhood cancer diagnosis, Mayta wants to be known as someone who has a great sense of humor and enjoys expressing herself through art in any form. Since childhood, Mayta found comfort and freedom through music. Growing up surrounded by a family of talented musicians, Mayta felt encouraged and inspired to find her own voice and to not let her insecurities or inner monologue stop her from chasing her dreams.

Music quickly became her favorite way to express herself and feel deeply. When she was younger, she sang professionally for local community events and made it to the third round of “American Idol”—an accomplishment she is immensely proud of.

“I didn’t actually consider myself a musician until later in my teen years. My family didn’t know I could sing until I got into high school and joined the choir.”

‘One Eyed and Wonderful’

Today, Mayta runs an empowering Instagram page, One Eyed and Wonderful, where she posts encouraging messages and shares stories from men and women who have either lost an eye or have been survivors of childhood cancer.

“Being able to empower other people in my same situation brings me so much joy, it’s immeasurable.”

Mayta’s goal for the page is to create a sense of empowerment and awareness in the community, especially for those who feel they have to hide their prosthetic because of the fear of being bullied or treated differently.

“One Eyed and Wonderful is a space where people can come together and be open and honest. It’s a safe place for us to all share our stories and feel like we are part of a community of people who have been through similar situations.”

When Mayta first created the page, she knew there were many people like her who wanted to navigate their journey and benefit from the community. Whether it was someone who had lost an eye, or the parents of a child worried about the challenges their child may face— Mayta knew she had a calling to create a platform where people could ask questions and not feel alone.

Since creating the page, Mayta has received countless messages from people in various countries thanking her for creating a space where they can share their stories.

“I get messages almost daily from people who needed the community that this page has created. One of my favorite things that this page has produced is confidence.”

Mayta is happy to know that her platform has helped several individuals regain their confidence and feel less alone. Mayta shares the story of a woman she was recently in contact with, who mentioned that she never felt confident enough to share a full picture of herself on her Instagram page because she was embarrassed of how her eye made her look. But after following Mayta’s Instagram page, the woman felt more encouraged to share her story and post pictures of herself without her prosthetic. That healing exchange made Mayta feel immensely proud of her platform, and using her voice to inspire others to come forward, too.

“Eventually she had the confidence to post a picture of her smiling this big beautiful smile without her prosthetic in—a woman who had never been able to show her face. Always hiding behind her hair had come as far to make a post putting everything out in the open. This is just one way it’s helped one person.”

Practicing Mindfulness and Self-Love

Mayta shares that childhood cancer can manifest at such a young age, and that some survivors have no recollection of hospital visits, such as herself. Often, it’ll be the parents who will remember and internalize and carry on the traumatic memories of their child going through treatment for the rest of their lives, she shared. Mayta says she wishes more people would try to be more aware of people’s feelings: “We are all at different stages of healing and we are all affected differently by people’s words.”

There are still days when Mayta goes through a whirlwind of emotions and insecurities.

“Everyone has things they are self-conscious of. I try my hardest anytime I feel down about myself to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. I’ve had people over the years that have hurt me with things that they have said. But when you love yourself, and you give yourself so much positive reinforcement and you tell yourself you are worth it, then it’s amazing how the words and opinions of other become irrelevant because you know your worth and your cup is so overflowing with self love that that one drop of negativity doesn’t make a dent.”

-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni

Featured

‘Miss Marijuana’: Lifestyle Platform Sparks Healing Cannabis Conversations for Women

Shannon Ullman runs Miss Marijuana, a lifestyle site that aims to publish content that empowers women to share their experiences with cannabis for health and wellness purposes. (Photo courtesy: Shannon Ullman)

Shannon Ullman runs the lifestyle site, MissMarijuana.org, which focuses on content that normalizes cannabis use for women health and wellness, and encourages women to live empowered.

While working in the digital media industry and researching health and wellness content, Shannon Ullman noticed that the cannabis and CBD oil industries were really taking off and that “everyday women, ‘not just stoners,’ were using cannabis as part of their daily health and wellness routine.”

Ullman wanted to help continue the empowering conversation surrounding cannabis use for health and wellness purposes. She also wanted to create a platform that would help destigmatize cannabis through accurate portrayals and raw, real testimonials from everyday women.

She felt that it was unfortunate that some women who benefited from cannabis often had to hide their usage or keep it a secret because of the stigma and feelings of shame attached to cannabis. To encourage women to share their stories and positive experiences, she launched her own lifestyle platform, MissMarijuana.org, which normalizes and highlights the health benefits of cannabis for women.

“I thought, ‘why not create a lifestyle site that made marijuana use seem just as normal for self care as sitting in a bubble bath surrounded by candles?’”

(Edibles. Photo courtesy: Shannon Ullman)

For Ullman, the ultimate goal of the site is to empower women to share their stories, use cannabis to heal what ails them, and most importantly, to take away the stigma.

Miss Marijuana provides personal testimonies and stories that help people do everything from cook with cannabis, to accessorize with cannabis jewelry, to incorporating cannabis into their yoga routine. The site also aims to provide an uplifting space for women to explore their passions and continue to live empowered through side hustles, travel, and more.

“Readers can see how the plant can make sense for them whether they’re a professional, a mother, a student, or an athlete. And, by sharing the stories of other women, we can showcase how cannabis can actually help you get your normal life back after an injury, a chronic disease diagnosis, or a mental health battle.”

View this post on Instagram

Looking good. . . 📷 @ismokeseaweed

A post shared by Miss Marijuana (@missmarijuanaofficial) on

A large part of her site is dedicated to sharing real stories that showcase how cannabis has helped someone treat a disease or mental health issue, says Ullman.

“This way, other people who are suffering may feel brave enough to try cannabis to help themselves.”

The conversation doesn’t just stop on the website; Miss Marijuana has a growing following on Instagram. The content helps further answer questions or debunk common misconceptions about cannabis.

“We will continue to reach out to our social media community and encourage women to share how cannabis has helped them thrive.”

Ullman shares that she first became interested in the cannabis industry about three years ago. She initially started experimenting with cannabis as a young teen, but often had more bad experiences than good. “I would often get high and then feel really sick, with stomach aches, vomiting, and terrible anxiety. I smoked on and off throughout my teens and early twenties but after one too many panic attacks, I decided that it wasn’t for me.” Many of her friends used cannabis and she was always jealous of their ability to smoke, relax, and have fun. She saw the benefits, but says she wasn’t able to experience them at the time.

Miss Marijuana logo (Photo courtesy Shannon Ullman)

In her later teens, Ullman put cannabis on hold. During a short stint living in Colorado, Ullman rediscovered cannabis by visiting a dispensary and buying her first edible.

“It was really revolutionary to me that I could get such a controlled dose. I’ve traveled a lot in my life and visiting places like California, Colorado, and Amsterdam made me realize that there is no real reason why everyone can’t have access to cannabis. Watching the laws change and seeing where the industry was headed, I knew that people would respond well to a site like Miss Marijuana.”

For Ullman, cannabis has helped her learn how to relax and stop stressing out all the time.

One of the biggest myths surrounding marijuana, says Ullman, is that it makes you “lazy or too tired to be productive.” Another myth is that cannabis will always make you “high.” She would love to see and hear people talk more about cannabis, preferably in the same way they would talk about taking an Ibuprofen or an over-the-counter drug.

“I think there needs to be more resources and education for people to figure out how to use the right doses of cannabis so that they can function normally without being too high.”

CBD-laced items have been popping up everywhere lately. Most recently, the drugstore chain CVS announced its plan to sell CBD products in hundreds of its stores, according to a report by NBC News.

Shannon Ullman tries a CBD roll on. (Photo courtesy Shannon Ullman)

Ullman says CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound derived from the cannabis plant that works to reduce inflammation, calm the mind, relax the muscles, and promote healing. “It’s not psychoactive like THC, so you won’t get high. When choosing a CBD, I like to look for a product that is sustainably grown, organic, full spectrum, and third-party tested.”

Ullman shares that one of the biggest issues right now is deciphering genuine CBD from “the stuff that isn’t so great. I think it will become easier over time.”

Miss Marijuana is currently focused on sharing stories from women about using cannabis for pain management, chronic illness and mental health.

“People are super excited to share how cannabis has been helping them feel better and live normal lives. We also cover lifestyle pieces from CBD cocktail bars and cannabis retreats to decorating for the holidays using cannabis. Readers seem to be very into our content about using cannabis to heal.”

In recent months, Miss Marijuana has published various stories that spotlight women who use cannabis for different, personal reasons. For instance, a mom shared her experience using cannabis and CBD oil for her chronic illness, and a physician shared insight on why many people are turning to CBD oil for depression and mental health.

Photo courtesy Shannon Ullman.

Ullman believes that more women are increasingly moving towards cannabis for pain management.

“Women are incredible and we try to do it all. Sometimes we have to be great mothers, daughters, wives, and professionals all at the same time. People are always taking from us, and most of the time, we are happy to give, but women need to be able to give back to themselves when they need it most. Women are  natural nurturers so it makes sense that we would gravitate towards a plant that we can grow, tend to, and then use to take care of ourselves.”

Ullman says she hopes more people will feel inspired and empowered to share their stories about the benefits of cannabis for health and wellness.

“We can stick together and empower each other so that one day everyone can have access to this plant to heal.”

-Written by Monica Luhar, for Mornings with Moni

Featured

Biking in the SGV with Amy Wong: Through the Lens of an Environmental Justice Advocate

As a child, Amy Wong spent a great deal of time in nature. Many of her earliest childhood memories involved playing in the backyard with her grandmother and watching her plant a variety of Asian plants and fruits like jujubes.

Her grandparents are the root of why and how she began her journey community building and becoming an advocate for environmental justice in the San Gabriel Valley.  

Amy Wong, an environmental justice advocate and one of the co-founders of Women on Wheels. (Photo courtesy Amy Wong)

Amy also remembers the first time she rode a shiny red bike her grandfather lent her when she was in the third grade. Her grandfather always biked, walked, and took local buses to get around the neighborhood. It was the beginning of a deep-rooted passion for opting outside, says Amy.

“I remember literally crashing it against my neighbor’s car. It was definitely too big, and I rode it anyway, but that was part of how I learned,” said Amy, one of the co-founders of Women on Wheels, a project of Active San Gabriel Valley (Active SGV).

Eventually, Amy went on to get kid-appropriate bikes so she could practice biking around her neighborhood with her sister and father. Amy would ride her bike every now and then in middle school and high school until taking a brief hiatus when she moved to the Bay Area for her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley.

“My perception of biking has definitely changed over time. At one point, I viewed it as an unsafe recreational activity. Even though Berkeley is progressive in terms of being bike-friendly, I didn’t feel like I connected with the biking community there. In general, I felt isolated in the environmental community at Cal as a woman of color, I didn’t see many women of color biking either. I walked and took public transit often, and didn’t feel a strong desire to bike.”

It wasn’t until college when she started thinking critically about some of the issues plaguing local communities. She began learning about environmental justice and looked into ways she could spark change on the local level, through advocacy and education.

“Many of us in our communities depend on a bike to get to school, to get to work, and that’s the lifestyle…. I started seeing it as, ‘there are actually a lot of people in my community who rely on a bike for their main mode of transformation,’” said Amy.

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

She also started seeing it as more of an equity and environmental justice issue which inspired her to dive into her environmental advocacy work.

“I learned concepts like environmental justice—the fact that one can grow up in a certain zip code, be a person of color, and experience certain health disparities. So learning about public health in college really opened my eyes to these issues that I had never thought about in this context,” said Amy.

In college, Amy decided to shift from a science background to a focus on public health and the environment. She soon came to realize the technicalities of science weren’t fit for her and was yearning for something that would tie her back to her community.

“I wasn’t feeling that when I was in the lab and I was eager to explore other options. That’s when I took more classes in public health and the environment and that’s when I thought, ‘this is my niche and my thing. It not only talks about science but how it relates to community and health and the broader picture of quality of life in our communities.’”

After college, Amy moved back to her hometown of El Monte, California, in the San Gabriel Valley in 2013, and became reacquainted to her city’s local issues—everything from transportation to water access and more. She soon realized that there’s a huge biking infrastructure gap between the Bay and SoCal despite the fact that there are still plenty of people who rely on a bike every day in the San Gabriel Valley.

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

“When I moved back home, I noticed a huge difference. I was incredibly desperate to find like-minded individuals, the folks who also valued the environment and public health and those types of issues.”

Yearning for a sense of community and a way to get back to work on environmental issues, Amy Google-searched “Public Health San Gabriel Valley” and one of the top results at the time was a nonprofit organization called Day One, which builds vibrant, healthy cities by advancing public health, empowering youth and igniting change. She felt the mission spoke to her and decided to get involved.

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

Eventually, Amy volunteered for Day One and went on to work on a variety of projects and community-based organizations like Nature for All and Active SGV. Amy has also been part of a movement to work with youth and empower them to be advocates for public health policies. One of the greatest wins was being able to see her students advocate for a complete streets policy which was unanimously adopted by the city of El Monte in 2014, she explained.  

“Seeing that win made me really inspired to continue doing this work since I was able to see how we, as a collective, could advocate for safer streets. Safer streets for people who walk, bike, and take transit and not just cars. That’s very important work.”

In 2014, Amy also became one of the co-founders of Women on Wheels (WoW), a volunteer-run project under Active SGV that aims to empower women of all ages and abilities in the San Gabriel Valley to lead healthy, active lifestyles in a judgment-free setting.

Members of Women on Wheels (Photo courtesy Amy Wong)

Women on Wheels initially started because a group of female friends were also volunteering for Active SGV, and they realized there was a need for a space that was safe, and for women only, Amy explained.

“We noticed that in a lot of bike events… there would mostly be men biking in groups and we wanted to create a safe space specifically for women and women only so that they could feel confident and encouraged to ride without any pressure to go fast or to compete.”

The goal of Women on Wheels has been to empower women to join the movement and to view biking as a friendly, recreational activity that is approachable and fun, noted Amy.

“For us, it was important to maintain a network in which we could support women no matter what ability they are at for biking and that’s what we found was missing overall. Not only are there not that many bike groups, but in the SGV, to have a safe space for women biking, we didn’t know of any at that time. That’s why we started Women on Wheels.”

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

Community-building and environmental advocacy organizations like Women on Wheels (WoW) are important, says Amy, because there’s a need to feel a sense of belonging in your community while fostering health and wellness.

“What has been really meaningful is from being a stranger to biking in the SGV to now being someone who leads these rides and co-organizes with other women who feel just as passionate,” said Amy. Today, the bike rides inspire her to do more and continue creating safe spaces for women who might not be encouraged to participate in biking or maybe just need to get over that hump of doubt, Amy explained.

“I think seeing more women embrace that and feel more confident about biking and understanding what wellness resources are in the community that’s inspirational,” said Amy.

Women on Wheels. (Photo courtesy Amy Wong)

Amy shares that Women on Wheels is never about racing or competing, or having the nicest or fanciest biking gear. It’s just about going on your bike no matter your skill level and riding together, as a female collective. Many of the rides are beginner friendly and they range from 5-10 miles per ride. “We always encourage women to ride at events as they are.”

The bike rides are hosted every other month, and members need to provide their own bike or can rent one through the organization. “We try to make our rides really fun and to encourage women to explore new places they wouldn’t otherwise,” said Amy.

Amy says the group tries to be as creative as possible by incorporating and mixing activities like biking and then doing a yoga session or pilates in the park or having participants stop by a Farmer’s Market. The goal is to provide empowering events that connect women with activities they would do anyway, but through biking.

“That’s the theme of our rides. Women are riding to connect to nature, to their communities, to connect to wellness resources in the community.”

When she rides today with Women on Wheels, many of the same feelings she felt as a kid — the feeling of complete euphoria and bliss — come back to her. It’s what keeps her going.

Women on Wheels (Photo courtesy Amy Wong)

“It’s really fun and it does evoke a lot of the same feelings of childhood: The exhilaration of being fast and feeling like you’re flying. It still stays with me, but there are so many layers behind why we bike. In solidarity with so many of us who rely on the bike as a main mode of transportation, I also see it as an equity issue in terms of how our streets are designed,” said Amy, who simultaneously serves as a Planning Commissioner for the city of El Monte, California. “The way they are designed right now, there are some bicycle lanes, but for the most part, they are not connected in an integrated network that feels safe. There’s a lot of progress to be made on that front,” she added.

Moving back to her hometown of El Monte, California, was a decision prompted by the need to spark local change, give back to the community, and explore her San Gabriel Valley roots again and address environmental and transportation issues concerning the community.

“It’s been a very personal journey in terms of realizing my life meaning and what I find meaning is by helping or tackling these issues. There’s a stigma of it’s a shame to live with your parents or to not leave your hometown in the San Gabriel Valley, and I think it’s this unspoken thing where success is defined by how far you move away or if it’s in another major city.”

For Amy, she has found success right here in her hometown, where she is starting a grassroots environmental and community-building movement in her own, empowering way.

A Love for Nature and Environmental Justice

As an environmental justice advocate, Amy says some of the most pressing concerns, particularly in the SGV and LA County, are the following: 1. lack of park space 2. Air quality 3. Clean water access.

There are not enough parks or green spaces in our communities, argues Amy. She would love to see more green spaces in communities. “This is driven by facts and data from the LA County Parks Needs Assessment in 2016, which evaluated all 88 cities and unincorporated areas in terms of how many parks we have and how many amenities are available in those parks and from the report, we found that LA County is in general very park poor.”

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

Looking at El Monte, specifically, there are roughly only 0.4 acres per 1,000 residents, says Amy. “LA County, in general, has 3.3 parks per a thousand residents. On a county average, we as a city definitely need more parks and open spaces, and this ties into a sense of safety and more opportunities for recreational activities with families and residences. Park space is a high need.”

The other issue that Amy discussed is air quality. “We have the worst air quality in the nation in LA. Specifically, in SGV, we have helped install air quality sensors.” Amy shared that Active SGV recently purchased air quality sensors to measure the level of pollutants in the air, which then gets uploaded to a public website called purpleair.org.

She adds that the San Gabriel Valley is placed amongst a network of busy freeways, which host many trucks that drive for imports. “40 percent of them come from the ports of LA and Long Beach, and they have to get to other parts of the country through freeways. Many of the freeways in the SGV such as the 60 and 10 serve as those corridors for the goods movement.” Living near close proximity to freeways makes us prone to pretty bad air quality, she explained.

“The closer you are, there are higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Again, it’s a very high priority issue in terms of environmental justice. Air is necessary for life and for a lot of nature-based elements and it’s a shame if we don’t address these issues now,” said Amy. In her work through Active SGV and Nature for All, Amy also advocates for the protection of the San Gabriel Mountains, which was previously designed a National Monument under the presidency of former President Barack Obama.

Amy adds that the San Gabriel Mountains not only help provide a third of our drinking water in LA County, but they also provide 70 percent of LA County’s open space.

“All these environmental issues are interconnected and you can’t have one with another. With water, as you know, California is in a major drought and there’s a need to protect the water we currently have. We have had recent rains but much of it gets washed away into the ocean.”

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

Amy urges the need for systemic improvements and says that sometimes, people associate the concept of environmentalism or think about it only in terms of individual actions like recycling or reusing single-use items.

“What I’m really passionate about is looking at environmental issues at a systemic level and thinking, ‘how can we collectively do better in terms of protecting the environment’ and enhancing the quality of life for our communities, and to never lose sight of the people aspect.”

Amy hopes to continue working to create a healthy, environmentally sustainable San Gabriel Valley that addresses issues of equity and environmental justice.

“I truly believe women’s wellness and health is critical to ensuring we have that. I believe in a vision in which our communities have a high quality of life, access to parks, clean air, clean water, and everything I do is connected to that. That’s my personal thesis statement. That’s what I care about.”

-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni

Featured

Because of H.E.R.’s Jamilah Bashir on Teaching and Advocating for Children with Disabilities

All photos courtesy Jamilah F. Bashir.

In the fall of 2017, special education educator Jamilah F. Bashir attended a writer’s workshop and brainstormed ideas for a story about her sister, Aasiyah, who has an intellectual disability.

“I immediately thought about my sister, primarily our relationship as siblings.  You always hear from parents and guardians of children with exceptionalities, but not the siblings.  The siblings are affected just as much as the parents/guardians,” said Jamilah, a special education teacher in Pennsylvania.

Growing up, Jamilah often felt responsible for her younger sister and also shared moments of frustration, and later, deep admiration for her sibling.

She felt the best way to share her sibling’s story was through a book that would document their journey together and share some of the reasons why Aasiyah inspired her to find herself as an educator.

What later culminated through various brainstorming sessions was “Because of H.E.R,” a book where Jamilah discussed the impact her sister had on her life, and the many challenges and moments that strengthened the bond between sisters. In doing so, Jamilah hopes to inspire many others who share similar experiences and challenges caring for sibling(s) with disabilities.

All photos courtesy Jamilah Bashir.

Jamilah shares that her career as a special education teacher was first ignited by her little sister, Aasiyah. Growing up with a sibling with a disability inspired her to pursue education and advocate for the needs of exceptional children.

“Growing up with my sister made me more conscious of the education of exceptional children, especially exceptional children of color,” said Jamilah. “Initially I never wanted to be a teacher.  I had aspirations of going into the medical field to become a surgeon or a pediatrician.”

Growing up with a sibling with a disability, Jamilah often felt the need to look over her sister and help her in any way possible. “I always had to help her with everyday things, i.e. tying her shoes, bathing sometimes, looking out for her, etc.  It was very overwhelming for me because I felt like I couldn’t be a kid,” she added. Though in retrospect, it was often her younger sister who helped her discover and find herself.

There were also moments when she grew extremely overprotective of her younger sister because she didn’t trust people, and didn’t know if they were going to be patient with her sister, or make fun of her younger sister for having a disability.

All photos courtesy Jamilah Bashir.

“The most frustrating thing was helping her get dressed and go up and down the steps properly.  To me, it seemed simple routine tasks but she struggled buttoning things and tying her shoes, and going up the steps properly.”

It took a while for Jamilah to understand the bond she has with her sister is unique and irreplaceable, and that the moments of frustration were put there for a reason.

She learned many life lessons through her younger sister and grew to respect and nurture their sibling bond as she became an adult.

“As I grew into an adult, I learned that things are simple for some and not others.  I learned to have patience and to help her where she was not where I thought she should be. Furthermore, I learned to hold her accountable for what she could do and help her with her areas of need,” said Jamilah.

All photos courtesy Jamilah Bashir.

Spending her childhood with her younger sister also taught her a great deal about patience, compassion, and resilience. And over the years, they’ve maintained a wonderful sibling bond – one that involves many long conversations, movie-thons, and exploring new places to eat.

“Aasiyah has her limitations, but she doesn’t allow them to get her down, which has made me reflect on things I may complain about.”

Advocating for Children with Disabilities

A Native of Pennsylvania, Jamilah quickly fell in love with the field of education and knew she could make a positive impact on the lives of children with special needs. In 2006, she received her bachelor’s degree in special education and two masters degrees in education and educational leadership. Over the last 10 years, she has worked as a special education teacher in elementary and secondary schools. In 2016, she was honored by the United Muslim Masjid Women’s Committee for her work in the field of education. She was honored amongst other women, veteran educators and was grateful to be recognized.

“My mission is to support my students to help them reach their fullest potential.  I know how much help to give and when I need to pull my hand back. My hope for my students is that no matter what, they always do their best and utilize their coping strategies learned over the years to help them handle situations that don’t go in their favor.”

In her book, “Because of H.E.R.,” Jamilah emphasizes the importance of advocating for children with disabilities.

“If you have other children, they are affected as well by their exceptional sibling(s) and it is important to listen to and validate their feelings,” said Jamilah. She adds that after reading her book, she hopes people will learn that siblings are affected by their “exceptional sibling(s)” and that it is important to show them support, understand some of the struggles raising an exceptional child, and also letting them be able to live a quality life.

There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about exceptional children, says Jamilah. Some of these harmful stereotypes or misconceptions include the idea that they cannot learn or they will never have a good quality of life, she noted.

All photos courtesy of Jamilah Bashir.

Schools and districts can be more present and understand the needs of special education, or exceptional students, by understanding that there is no “cookie cutter solution or approach” to educating students, especially students with exceptionalities, says Jamilah. A huge problem that many schools in the U.S. face, says Jamilah, is the unfair disbursement of funds between districts that serve certain socioeconomic statuses.

“Many exceptional children require repetition of skills learned so that they don’t digress so they require specially designed instruction to help them grasp the content being taught,” said Jamilah, who shares that every exceptional child is different, as one individual might require a huge amount of support due to the severity of their disability, whereas someone else may not.

All photos courtesy Jamilah Bashir

Many children with developmental, intellectual, and physical disabilities are at increased risk of being bullied.

“Many exceptional children want to fit in and be treated and respected like everyone.  However, due to their limitations, the conversation may not match their age development and this can open the door to being teased or picked on,” said Jamilah.

According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.

“One district may have an array of services that are provided to exceptional students but at another district, they don’t have enough teachers or support for these students,” said Jamilah. She shares that she has experienced this gap first-hand working in an urban school district, and now, a suburban district.

Jamilah adds that teacher turnover rates and burnout are very real and that it is important to have support.

“Teachers are responsible for educating children and progress monitoring.  A special education educator has to teach children and be a case manager, which can be an overwhelming job because you have to teach, progress monitor students, and complete a mountain of paperwork.”

Sometimes paperwork can be one of the factors that might deter someone from the profession of special education,  along with not having support as a professional and for the students that one might service, says Jamilah.

All photos courtesy Jamilah Bashir.

Jamilah would like to see more districts support its educators by providing more aides and to have enough special education professionals to properly service the population of exceptional children. She hopes that more districts will also provide students and professionals with proper resources, service providers, interventions, and materials to succeed.

If special education professionals know and feel they are supported, perhaps more individuals might be more interested in the field, says Jamilah.  “However, the paperwork is a huge deterrent and there is no way to get around the paperwork.”

Through her work as a special education teacher and advocate for exceptional individuals, Jamilah imparts this advice:

“Always be the biggest cheerleader and advocate for the exceptional individual in your life.  For anyone who is caring for or is the sibling of someone with an exceptionality, I totally understand how overwhelming and frustrating at times things can get.  However, I want you to know and understand that it is a reason that exceptional person, that blessing was placed in your life. That exceptional person and those experiences can be prepping you for something that you will do later in life.  I never in my life wanted to be an educator. However, now I understand that my sister was placed in my life for a reason. She has helped me to become the educator I am today,” said Jamilah.

In regards to sisterhood and woman empowerment, Jamilah urges others to build each other up and support one another.

“There is room for everyone’s ideas and to get ahead.  There is no need to step on someone else dreams or tear down someone else.”

-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni

Featured

‘White Coats to Black Notes’: The Musical Doc on Breaking Barriers and Finding Yourself

Before becoming The Musical Doc, there was a time when Varshini Muralikrishnan felt like she was living her life on autopilot.

“I kind of put music aside. I stopped creating and composing. That was something that was very unnatural for me as a person,” said Varshini.

After finishing medical school, Varshini questioned her path and asked herself if she was running a rat race or actually catering to her identity as a person and pursuing what it is that truly made her heart sing.

“I think everything happens when it does for a reason. I needed to take the path of medicine and embark on that chapter in my life. I never regret that, because there are so many aspects of myself I’ve learned through that period of time. Living alone in a different country, learning a new language, studying complex subjects, experiencing life and death, and being away from everything of familiarity and the crazy school/work schedule, I developed discipline and resilience.”

45804866_2114470651952548_6937748994936274944_n.jpg
Courtesy Varshini Muralikrishnan / Photo credit: Alyssa Park

Initially, leaving the world of medicine was a tough call because she realized she had just gone through the long accreditation process and had worked for years to pursue this path.

“To invest time in something and then be like, ‘but this is not really what I wanted in the first place,’ it was mortifying to accept let alone share with anyone.” “It sucks to be like, ‘wow, I invested so much time into something which, well…that’s not what I was put on this earth to do.’”

Going through med school was all part of her journey to finding herself and owning her identity as The Musical Doc, the LA-based singer-songwriter and entrepreneur said. “I do not regret anything because I think it prepared me to walk this path towards my higher calling. There’s a lot of things I learned in that time. I spent a lot of time alone, so I had this whole studio set up in my dorm room where I started writing and just composing and having that alone time, learning to enjoy your own company whether that’s embracing your light or your demons..it’s an element that brings the truth of your existence and art to life.”

View this post on Instagram

I grew up learning and playing so many different instruments in various genres. I never realized how much all these diff sounds, techniques, and vibrations influenced the way I perceive music as a whole. This clip here was back in 2008 during my Med school days..music was my escape but also my reality. This was before the internet was poppin or really a thing. I used to vlog all my practice sessions, thoughts, etc. I spent so much time alone and isolated unable to express my creativity outside so I kept it all in and to myself..practicing for hours and nights on end…there were days I would literally scream and cry within because everything and nothing of my reality made sense…I literally felt like I was going crazy because I couldn’t let it all out. I vlogged to keep my sanity..yet never showed anyone. I composed entire scores, ballads, symphonies etc. I realize now it’s only when you are completely alone can you dissect the depths of your mind and soul..flash forward 10 years…I would have never expected to be living the life I am now. When I tell y’all I’m so grateful for every one of you for your love and support, I mean that from my whole heart. Because trust honey, I remember what it was like holding all that in and being told there was no place for me to exist artistically in this world. Love to you all ❤️ ______________________________________________________ #ChangingTrends #SingerSongWriter #Producer #WhitecoatstoBlackNotes #piano #Empowerment #studio #records #VoiceWithin #studioLife #live #keyboard #piano #TeamMelanin #korg #musician #Beats #vibes #vocals #macbook #guitar #midi #musicvideo #newMusic #femalepianist #reflections @korgofficial @apple

A post shared by The Musical Dōc (@themusicaldoc) on

After a series of various life events and hitting a place of absolute rock bottom—both mentally and emotionally—she realized it was finally time to rise above and that there was no place to go but up. Through the support of her brother, Varshini put her two weeks notice, dropped everything, and decided to move across the world to Chennai for which started out for a month but ended up becoming two years.

“Going to India that second time to do music, it opened an entire realm of existence in my mind and I would say that was the first step to finding myself and the entity, The Musical Doc,” said Varshini.

While in Chennai, Varshini spent her time singing for different films, doing various concerts and shows with her brother, renowned saxophonist Basanth Muralikrishnan under the banner “The BhaVa Network.” She then came back to LA to perform at the United Nations Headquarters in NY and to work on a “Bollywood Meets Cirque Du Soleil” production, where she was the only female musical director, she said.

Moving back to LA opened different opportunities for Varshini and solidified her reasons for pursuing music full-time. “Do I want to use my creative mind to sing what other people want me to sing, or do I take all these experiences and start opening up about my truth and journey? All of these things helped me find my voice again,” said Varshini.

The road to becoming The Musical Doc wasn’t always easy because there were moments when she was met with the pressure of upholding the model minority myth while simultaneously feeling the itch to break stereotypes and cultural norms.

“It was and still is a difficult task trying to explain to my family and community, I do music and the genre I do (hip hop and r&b) full-time. Culturally speaking, being a woman in the music industry from a cultural background I come from, there are so many hardships I had to deal with,” said Varshini.

IMG_4108.jpg

“There are so many factors beyond just creating art you have to figure out. Aside from all the questions, comments, and concerns from family/friends, you now have to figure out and think about things you probably would have never even thought about while working a ‘normal’ job. Truth is, we are the divergents–society doesn’t always celebrate us..but I believe that’s also slowly changing.”

Varshini says she always shows love and respect to her fellow creatives and entrepreneurs because she knows the struggle in both her internal and external environments.

“When you are putting a reflection of yourself into the universe, it means everything, there’s a lot on the line. Working towards a reality you hope to create while living and doing what you need to do in the now, that’s a very vulnerable space. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of hard work, and calculated risk to say, ‘screw the system, I’m going to do what brings my soul to life and still thrive.'”

Today, Varshini knows everything was a part of the journey and that her experience in medicine opened up her eyes as a creator, singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur.

In 2018, Varshini officially brought her brand, The Musical Doc, to life. She also dropped her first single, “Strangers” produced by Peter Madana which premiered on Dash Radio and was selected as “Track of the week” on BBC Radio, she explained.

“2018 was a year of building the foundations of my sound, style, content, and team. Yo, shout out to my whole team, they hustle so hard for and with me, I’m always been inspired by each and everyone. To do dope things, you honestly have to surround yourself with dope people. Synergy is everything.”

When she first came up with the idea for her brand, she got a lot of support but also a lot of concerning questions from folks who didn’t quite understand her vision. But Varshini stood true to herself.

“For me, I think one of my biggest things is the message of empowering your higher self and your true calling being true with your journey as a person. Nobody is perfect, I don’t care what race, religion, ethnicity…ultimately we are all human! And I think when people question—what’s the Musical Doc? That’s the direct line for me to connect and say, ‘join me in embracing all that makes us beautifully and unapologetically HUMAN.'”

“I’ve been through quite a lot in my journey thus far and I think music and art have always been the element that helped me express whatever it was I was feeling. I hope that in sharing my truth, it encourages people to stand up for themselves, to love themselves, to embrace themselves, so stand together, to cater to their mental, emotional, physical, spiritual growth and well being. I just want to attract dope energy and create a community where together we rise.”

IMG_7223.jpeg

The next single she is dropping later this year will be called “Melanin and Honey,” produced by AReddy and Peter Madana, which challenges stereotypes and the one-sided idea of beauty.

“I think being a darker skinned South Asian woman, there were a lot of notions or ‘ideologies’ that I was told or had grown up with and dealt with as a person,” said Varshini. She explained that during her time traveling around the world and working in India, she realized the extent of how darker skin tones and melanin still remains something that unfortunately continues to be taboo in not only Indian society but various cultures around the world, she explained. She aspires to show that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors.“I always say this: I aspire to inspire women, men, children, and empower people from all over the globe through education, awareness, and artist expression,” she added.

The Gig Economy and Being On Top of Your Hustle

Varshini is a multi-talented creator, artist, educator, musician, and entrepreneur. She acknowledges and understands that young folks constantly need to reinvent themselves, and sees a growing shift from the 9-5 lifestyle.

“Growth is the most important element in anything you’re doing. If you’re not growing, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing. There has to be growth. For me, the only person I’m in competition with myself. I’m always thinking how am I going to step it up more, how am I going to level up, what do I need to do to bring this to life?”

In 2018, Varshini decided to embark on another journey by receiving her credentials from Columbia Business school with a focus on digital strategies for business. The tools she learned through the program have immensely helped her connect with other creatives while learning more ways to push forth her brand and content.

“I have been and always will be a total nerd, I love learning. And honestly it’s something I genuinely enjoy; digital space, content creation, data analytics, and how do you push forth any brand? Studying the individuals and institutions that aspire to create their own culture as opposed to just following trends. There are so many creatives and it inspires me to learn how the market is moving in the realm of the digital world.”

Screen Shot 2019-01-29 at 9.19.15 AM.png

Growing up, Varshini says she saw her parents successfully build their empire from the bottom up, managing various careers as musicians, educators, and business owners. “I had a really good understanding about the business of music and the music business from a very young age from the homefront.”

On top of her music, performance, and managing a variety of businesses, Varshini currently runs her own center for Indian classical music and meditation and has also developed a student base teaching online classes as well. “I also work at a few studios where I teach western singing, voice culture, in various genres.” She also focuses a lot on business strategies and management for various industries on the social media front.

“Having multiple effective streams of income is important and I think with our generation we are embracing that more and more and it’s amazing because you get to optimize all your different talents, you spend time working on what you actually want to work on, and you have more opportunity to create, which is dope.”

Classical Indian Music Influences and the Model Minority Myth

Growing up in Los Angeles, California, Varshini immersed herself in a musical household. She spent her childhood learning classical Carnatic from her parents, who established one of the largest music academies in the U.S., she explained.

“I’ve always been around music, that was kind of the culture of my house. I had so many different influences. I trained in classical Carnatic music, sang in a gospel church choir, did drama and theatre, played piano, French horn, Veena, and basically any instrument I could get my hands on. I was always this weird kid, always humming with a bunch of melodies and sounds running through my head.”

Screen Shot 2019-01-29 at 9.21.39 AM.png
Courtesy Varshini Muralikrishnan/Photo credit: Popshift Magazine

Varshini shares that she identified with music as early as age two. She went on to play several instruments and even toured with her family members. “From the time I could start uttering words or clapping hands, I’ve always been learning music.”

For Varshini, music has always been a very spiritual and grounding experience. “Whether that’s creating sound or something like designing my logo, it’s something I’ve created from the depths of my existence and consciousness. It’s a manifestation from within.”

Varshini shares that Carnatic and Indian classical music really taught her the meditative and spiritual side of music and art. She says she was exposed to both Eastern and Western music and was rigorously trained in both worlds from the age of 2.

“I think as far as voice culture and everything, some of the things I’ve learned are techniques vocally from Indian music.” Indian classical music played a huge role in how she trained her voice. “If you want to look at it from a deeper perspective, it’s the foundation of my spirituality and how I internalize music. But also, from a more technical perspective, I think it’s something that serves a huge basis for how I sing in general.”

In her early years, Varshini was influenced by the model minority myth to excel academically and professionally. “I think that’s just something that always came from the homefront, in the sense of whether that was the community or society, or culturally speaking, that was something that was expected.”

“I wouldn’t say my upbringing was a typical Indian kid upbringing either because my parents also taught Indian classical music and are musicians. But at the same time career-wise, it was still [the idea of], ‘we want you to have a stable career path.’ I understand that from perspective our parents’ generation, they went through a lot. The first generation immigrant struggle is wow, I can’t even imagine that.”

img_7222

Varshini shared that initially, going into medicine was something her parents wanted her to do. “That’s where the cultural aspect of that comes into play. Growing up South Asian, you’re going to be a doctor or engineer. Initially, it was that.”

But Varshini was also heavily influenced to pursue medicine because she had learned about a major tsunami that hit Chennai and she remembers telling her parents she wanted to do something to help those affected. “I’ve always been an old soul since I was a kid. And so I got this fundraiser concert and raised $12K for tsunami relief and we donated that to a nonprofit. I was helping people rebuild their homes and livelihoods.”

Screen Shot 2019-01-29 at 9.21.14 AM.png
Courtesy Varshini Muralikrishnan / Photo credit: Samantha Sheldon

During that summer, Varshini visited Chennai and recalls seeing all the boats and housing made possible through the fundraiser efforts. “I was like, it really went to go help all of these people. We helped raise all this money through music. I realized my passion for people and health, and that I wanted to help and take it beyond. It was a very defining moment and I never regret it because the irony in that is it was music, this opportunity through music, to help people.”

Varshini says she never looks back with regret about her decision to give up medicine in pursuit of her true passion.

“Music brought me to medicine, and medicine brought me back to music.”

-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni

cropped-logo-3.jpg

Featured

‘Grief Comes in Waves’: A Daughter’s Story of a Mother’s Eternal Love

Andrea Barberio will always be her mother’s daughter. Every day that passes by is a reminder of the strength and resilience of her mom, a woman who spent her days smiling and laughing until her cheeks hurt. She was the kind of woman who made sure everyone lived each day like it were their last, says Andrea. 

“My mom had a hard life growing up, but she never showed it. Her dad passed away when she was five, and she lost her brother when she was 22, and then my grandmother. A lot of stuff going on when she was younger, but she always had a smile on her face and made others think positively about others,” said Andrea, 27, of Staten Island, New York.

image5

Nearly three years ago, Andrea was a few months away from graduating trade school to become an ultrasound technician, and her brother was also about to get married. Andrea was excited about the upcoming celebrations when things suddenly took a tragic turn.

Andrea’s mother had already suffered from an abscess in her breast for years that would go away and come back. “It wasn’t cancerous, but after years of it [abscess], doctors said to get it surgically removed along with getting a breast reduction that would prevent it,” said Andrea. 

Surgery seemed like the best option at the time to prevent it, though Andrea recalls the family often hesitated and put it off for a long time. She shared that her mother had bad feelings about the surgery and had been long postponing the surgery due to Andrea’s grandmother passing away a year before.

“After a year of my grandma being sick and passing, I had the loss of my mom coming on and that was the worst loss I had ever experienced.”

image7
(L-r) Andrea, her grandmother (who passed away the year before Andrea’s mom), and Andrea’s mom during the holidays.

Andrea shared that ironically, some of the lessons she learned during her time at trade school coincided with the illness her grandmother was going through.

“My grandmother practically raised me and was a second mom to me, and losing her hit me hard and my mom would tell me every day, ‘you are allowed to be sad, the world doesn’t stop. We have to keep going.’” 

In January 2016, Andrea’s mom decided to have surgery for the breast reduction and abscess with the help from a breast surgeon and plastic surgeon.

Andrea recalls that a few days before her mom’s surgery, there was a bad snowstorm in New York and her mom had gotten into a minor car accident on a Sunday, just before her scheduled surgery the week after. At the time, Andrea says her mom told her that she got “banged up a little” during the accident, but didn’t think much of it. Her family, still concerned, took her to the hospital to get checked out.

Feeling practically fine, Andrea’s mother decided to continue with the scheduled surgery a few days later. After undergoing the surgery, Andrea’s mother expected to endure a few side effects. She had complained of headaches but felt it was normal because she had just gone through surgery. “She was watching TV on the couch with my dad, and everything seemed normal. There were no signs of anything.”

image6

Andrea’s mom mentioned that she was feeling tired and would be going upstairs to go to sleep. Around half an hour later, Andrea’s dad went upstairs to check up on his wife but found her struggling in bed, unable to breathe properly. Andrea’s dad immediately called Andrea and she started to give her mom CPR before calling 911 and taking her to the hospital.

“Basically the aneurysm ruptured at that moment. But this entire time we had no idea it was an aneurysm,” said Andrea.  

At the hospital, doctors worked on Andrea’s mom but told the family she was unresponsive and that her heart was beating, but she was not breathing on her own.

“They put her in a medically induced hypothermic state. At the end of that period, they said she was brain dead and the choice was ours, whether we wanted to keep her on the machines or not and my mom has always said, ‘if I’m ever on machines, take me off,’” said Andrea.

“It was the hardest thing we’ve had to do, but I know my mom was a very independent and lively person and to keep her on the machines wasn’t an option,” she added.

Andrea and her family didn’t know her mother had suffered from an aneurysm until they received an autopsy which revealed that Andrea’s mother had blood clots and an aneurysm rupture. There were still many unknowns and what ifs that remained.

“Being in the medical field myself, we don’t know if an aneurysm had just been dormant or if it was a result of the car accident or the surgery,” said Andrea.

According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, women, more than men, are more likely to suffer from brain aneurysms at a ratio of 3:2. The Foundation suggests that early and accurate diagnosis is critical “because initial hemorrhage may often be fatal and cause devastating neurologic outcomes.

And according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “brain aneurysms can occur in anyone and at any age.” Additionally, a brain aneurysm consists of a “weak or thin spot on an artery in the brain that balloons or bulges out and fills with blood.” The NIH states that brain aneurysms are most common in adults ages 30-60, but are significantly more prevalent in women than men.

image1 (1)

Andrea says she feels as though grief comes in waves and that everyone processes grief differently. It’s something she discussed in depth in her blog post, “Grief Comes in Waves, and Sometimes Those Waves Knock Us Down.”

“With my mom, there really wasn’t any time to grieve because I was just finishing up with school. I was starting an internship, my brother was getting married in April and we had to get things together for the wedding. Everything just came one after the other,” said Andrea, who shared that she was in a toxic relationship at the time when her mom passed away. Her ex-boyfriend wasn’t the most supportive during her time of grief. “He wanted me to rush the grieving and complained to me wanting to spend time with my dad as opposed to being with him. I was really juggling a lot and I didn’t have time to focus on myself. I had to push through it and I became the mom of the house and had to handle things and put my emotions aside.”

After her mom’s sudden passing, Andrea was devastated. She started looking into self-help books for dealing with grief and also looked to the women in her life for support, strength, and guidance.

“My friends also really jumped into full force to help me with everything,” she said. In fact, one of her friends gave Andrea a mason jar filled with positive quotes for her to read every morning. Grateful for the positive messages, Andrea decided to make an Instagram account, @_morning_mantras_, to share the positive messages she had received with other women across the world. “I thought, if I’m getting these messages, other people can also benefit from these messages too.”

During her grief, Andrea also spent an endless amount of time on the Internet, searching for grief support groups when she finally encountered a Facebook support group called “Motherless Daughters” for the New York City chapter. She knew she was meant to join the group and help herself and others who felt alone in their grief.

While active on the New York City Motherless Daughters Facebook group page, Andrea later connected with two women—Nicole Smith and Audrey Giambrone– both of whom had lost their moms to pancreatic cancer and an aneurysm, respectively. After bonding with one another, the three girls decided to join forces to serve as admins for a Facebook support group page, Staten Island Motherless Daughters, to better serve the women of Staten Island.

“Nicole was the one to reach out to Audrey and myself. Nicole physically made the page, but the three of us run it, and we try to plan meetings.” Andrea shared that Audrey’s mother had an aneurysm before she passed on, and Nicole’s mother had pancreatic cancer and started an organization, Bella Lisa Pancreatic Cancer Foundation, in honor of her mother. 

image1
Audrey Giambrone, Andrea Barberio, and Nicole Smith came together to launch Staten Island Motherless Daughters, a Facebook support group for daughters who have experienced the loss of a loved one. They first bonded after communicating via an NYC Motherless Daughters Facebook group.

Though the three “sisters” have only met in person a few times in the last year, Andrea says they have a very strong and unique bond—the kind strengthened and shaped by loss.

“This kind of loss, it creates a bond between people,” said Andrea. “This all became a sisterhood between us. We created this page because a lot of the NYC meetings are in Manhattan, and it’s hard for women to get out there. It’s accessible, but it’s kind of the suburb away from the city.”

Within a few days of creating a similar page for the women of Staten Island, the number of member request increased to 400 and continues to go strong, nearly a year later.

“It’s upsetting to see this number of women share the situation we are in, but every single woman has something in common: loss,” said Andrea. “I still get members messaging us saying, ‘you don’t know how much this means to just have a place to go and talk about this where women understand me and there’s no judgment on how any of us grieve or feel.’”

image3

Andrea says she is grateful for the sisterhood between herself, Nicole, and Audrey, as the co-founders of the Staten Island Facebook page. In the short amount of time that they’ve known each other, they’ve really grown to understand one another on a deeper level, she shared.

“Women are extremely empathetic, especially when they have something in common. Think about how many friends you’ve made in the girl’s bathroom. When something as severe as mother loss happens, it’s practically second nature to understand a woman with the same loss and want to support her.”

Andrea is happy to be a part of a small, sacred place on the Internet where women in Staten Island can talk about how they feel without worrying about judgment or how to grieve. 

“We live in a modern time where everyone treats social media as a diary. We don’t understand how important it may be to someone to air their emotions to the public, and some people just may not be understanding of how important this can be. This is why this Facebook group is so important; there is no judging or eye rolling whenever someone posts about their feelings.”

This February will mark three years since Andrea’s mom passed. Today, Andrea continues to share her mother’s story while spreading awareness about aneurysms and navigating unexpected loss while practicing self-care to survive.

She urges people–particularly women, who are at higher risk for aneurysms–to get screened earlier on, especially if they have a family history. Andrea shares that she and her brother get tested yearly to screen for aneurysms.

Andrea is currently an ultrasound technician and works for a vascular surgeon in Manhattan, New York. In many ways, her work plays a key role in prevention and early detection of blood clots and other abnormalities. “We check to make sure the patients don’t have blood clots. I know day to day, it might not seem important, but for me, it’s my way to keep this from happening to someone’s family,” said Andrea, who believes her work is guided by the strength from her mother and a sign that she was meant to continue working in the medical field to save lives.

image (1)

Andrea sees a divine purpose in the work she does and is constantly reminded of her mom’s courage and wonderful sense of humor and thanks her for instilling the importance of family in her. “Everything I do is for her.”

It took 27 years for Andrea to understand not to take life too seriously, she shared. Every moment is precious, and every moment should be spent with a smile.

“It’s still something I struggle with. I think my mom really understood that you only have this one life and if you’re not living every single day how you want to live it and not smiling, it’s not worth it.”

Andrea says she is a huge proponent of self-care. It’s something she’s continually working on despite her busy schedule as a diagnostic medical sonographer. Andrea believes it is important that women stop, slow down, and listen to what we need instead of always being on the go and putting others first. “One common thing we speak about is, ‘how do we mother ourselves since our mothers are not here?’ I can’t just go and lay my head on my mother’s lap, so I think self-care is very important and our meetups and this group is self-care. It’s something that no one can stop me from doing and it’s a very important thing to do to survive.”

image2

Andrea credits her mom and grandmother, the two women in her life who raised her, for showing and paving the path for the woman she wanted to be.

“Even in their absence, I can still hear them giving me advice about things I should do. They are the ones whose voices will stay with me forever.”

-Written by Monica Luhar, Mornings with Moni 

Featured

Women-powered Studio Empowers and Trains Next Generation of Martial Artists

When they were 8 and 9 years old, Diandra Thompson and Liza Fernandez didn’t realize they would embark on a friendship of a lifetime on the karate mat, at a martial arts studio in San Francisco, California.

The duo never imagined the studio that shaped much of their childhood years would remain a permanent, symbolic place in their hearts as instructors and co-owners, nearly decades later. “It’s kind of like an out of body experience being in a place where we once practiced, and being here as [women] co-owners,” said Diandra.

In January 2017, long-time friends Diandra and Liza took over the studio as co-owners and renamed their childhood martial arts studio, FTK Martial Arts – San Francisco Kids Karate & Martial Arts.  

13932759_10210571877799701_2101443519667373497_n
Childhood friends and martial artist instructors Diandra Thompson (left) and Liza Fernandez (third, right) launched FTK Martial Arts Studio to pay tribute to their childhood studio and empower the next generation of martial artists. (Photo permission: Diandra Thompson and Liza Fernandez)

For many years, several friends, including their long-time instructor and mentor, Lama, urged Diandra and Liza to take over their childhood studio. 

“He sat us down and said, ‘you girls have been working it so long on your own, you might as well create your own identity, your own name, your logo,’” said Diandra. This January marks Liza and Diandra’s two year anniversary as co-owners. One of the main goals of their studio is to provide the same community and family-oriented feelings they themselves experienced when they were younger, says Liza.

“I get that a lot of people tell me some karate studios don’t give off that feeling or vibe. You just come here and do your business and leave, but we’re different. We feel family-oriented,” said Liza, who shares that she and Diandra always try to encourage the students in their martial arts classes that, “school comes first.”  

1660753_614164358638229_910666281_n.jpg
Some of the children who regularly practice at FTK Martial Arts in San Francisco. (Photo permission: Diandra Thompson and Liza Fernandez)

“We tell them we want to see their report cards and see if they’re doing well. [Sometimes] we stay after to help them with homework,” she added. 

Diandra says it wasn’t until she and Liza actually took over the studio nearly two years ago when they realized that there seems to be a lack of women-owned martial arts studios in the area. 

“Most people were welcoming, but we realized how much of a minority we were. In San Francisco, we are the only female-owned karate studio within a 20-mile radius,” said Diandra. When they did research on Yelp, they came to find they were the only women co-owned karate studio on Yelp that they knew of, said Diandra. 

“A lot of women don’t get respect in this field just because they are female. It’s not until we’re on the mat and you show up, and you’re consistent and they [recognize]. It’s kind of like that saying, ‘you don’t walk into the building with respect; you have to earn it,” said Diandra.

15622520_10211715246144916_5033573873621564504_n.jpg
Co-owners of FTK Martial Arts – Diandra Thompson (far left) and Liza Fernandez (bottom row, second to left). (Photo permission: Diandra Thompson/Liza Fernandez)

Diandra says she first got into martial arts when she was 8 years old. “I started watching ‘Power Rangers’ and that got me excited,” said Diandra, who shared that growing up in San Francisco, she was a shy kid in school whose parents pushed her to get out of her shell and try something new.

Diandra says she’ll never forget the day when her mom signed her up for Kenpo. “My mom brought me in and the instructor was standing at his desk, and I couldn’t look him in the eye. I was always looking down at the floor. He had me look up and said, ‘keep your eyes forward.’ It was always about reaffirming as a kid that you are someone special. Those are the type of things we pass onto our kids at FTK,” said Diandra.

Liza has a similar story, noting the influence of television shows and action figures inspiring her to take part in martial arts. “I was watching ‘The Karate Kid’ with my brother, and it was one of those things where I saw it and wanted to do karate. I told my mom and she signed me up that following Monday,” said Liza.

20292805_1373346309386693_5347001799919927367_n.jpg
FTK Martial Arts. (Photo permission: Liza Fernandez/Diandra Thompson)

Some of the fond memories Liza remembers during her early friendship with Diandra was when they would practice their forms with each other during class. Over the years, working closely with one another strengthened their bond and passion for martial arts. “One time, our instructor put us together to create a self-defense technique and we had to perform it. It was the first time we had to actually talk to each other,” said Liza.

Liza says throughout her years practicing Kenpo, she has noticed a dramatic shift in her confidence level and self-esteem.

“As a kid, I used to have low self-esteem. This really helped me become who I am today. My friends and family can tell there’s something different about me,” said Liza.

“I have people tell me, ‘I see the confidence radiating out of you.’ Throughout the years it’s definitely grown,” she added. Liza’s own self-transformation has inspired her to continue teaching martial arts and empowering the youth in San Francisco.

Liza said she’s heard countless stories from parents who have told her that many of their kids have been bullied at school, prompting a need for martial arts training and trauma-informed instructors, she says. 

“They don’t know what to do, so they bring their kids here and I tell them, ‘look, you first tell your teacher if there is any bullying going on. If that doesn’t help, this is how you defend yourself,’” said Liza.

Liza recalls one child who went to a school where he was bullied a lot. According to Liza, the student said he told the teacher, but the bullying persisted. That’s when his parents enrolled him at FTK Martial Arts.

“He defended himself against a bully and it made the bully realize not to mess with him anymore. Ever since that incident, he’s never been bullied again. His confidence has definitely grown,” said Liza.

14600969_10211715247184942_934533036398013414_n.jpg
Photo permission: Liza Fernandez/Diandra Thompson

Liza says when it comes to bullying, it’s very important that kids and parents report any instances to proper administrators and educators at a school. But when multiple attempts do not work out, sometimes the next step is incorporating techniques from martial arts and making youth feel empowered with the tools they need to protect themselves. The tools the kids learn on the mat are self-defense techniques when all else fails, she explained. It’s by no means harming others; it’s protection from a possible altercation and learning respect for one another on the mat, she explained. 

“We tell the kids that we are family, that we look out for them. I’ve had parents come up and thank us for introducing the little ones to karate, and some of the kids are not being bullied anymore,” said Liza.

Diandra also adds that karate is not about getting into fights or glorifying some of the things that depicted in fight scenes.

“We don’t train bullies here. It’s all about protecting yourself at all costs,” said Diandra.

While the martial arts studio is more targeted toward children and youth, FTK is slowly breaking into offering more family classes so parents can take classes with their child. FTK teaches students as young as age 4 to the oldest at age 15. Liza and Diandra are also hoping to offer more women and teen self-defense classes as there continues to be a growing need and interest, says Diandra.

“We always try to reaffirm, especially in little girls, that they can do anything the boys can do–that there’s no discrimination in this class,” said Diandra. “If everyone’s jumping over bags or breaking wood, you can do that too. You can hit just as hard. We reaffirm.”

When co-owners Liza and Diandra first started offering women’s self-defense classes, Liza says there was an overwhelming sense of women empowerment and unity in the shared space. It was exhilarating and humbling to see so many women support one another–whether they had taken a martial arts class for the first time or were curious. 

“Everyone got to tell their stories, why they were taking the class, and how they can improve in their techniques.  I’ve had a lot of people requesting classes especially for women,” said Liza.

1505509_614164371971561_1222485732_n.jpg
Photo courtesy/permission: Diandra Thompson/Liza Fernandez

Not only is there a growing need for martial arts, but there’s also a growing need for more martial art female instructors, says Diandra, who shares that she is happy to see more young girls getting into martial arts. She emphasizes, however, that there is also a need for more self-defense classes taught by females from a female perspective.

“While a man can say do this, and do that, as a woman, you [might] not necessarily feel comfortable with what he says all the time. When it’s coming from another woman, you [might] feel more comfortable. Once it’s coming from another woman, there’s a level of understanding of where she’s coming from,” says Diandra.

Growing up and taking martial arts classes under the tutelage of their previous Kenpo instructor, Diandra says they learned that they could do anything boys can do. As co-owners and instructors of FTK, both Liza and Diandra hope to continue to reaffirm values of confidence and empowerment in both boys and girls who come to their martial arts studio to learn and grow. 

“We always try to reaffirm and tell the boys that just because she’s a girl, doesn’t mean she can’t defend herself,” said Diandra.

“Some of our best fighters here are female so just because you are a girl, doesn’t mean you can’t knock a boy on his butt. A lot of the boys are scared of the girls because they are agile and move faster,” said Diandra. “I would tell a girl, ‘you never know what you’re capable of until you try. The fright only lasts a second.”

FTK hopes to continue to train the next generation of martial artists, equipping them with self-defense techniques, but more importantly, instilling in them a great level of confidence and compassion for others.

-Written by Monica Luhar

Featured

Kids First Project Empowers Youth Experiencing Homelessness Through Innovative Mentorship Programs

When Alisha Zhao started volunteering as a teen at a local family homeless shelter, she learned of an alarming statistic surrounding youth homelessness.

“I was really shocked to learn from the volunteer director the average age of a person experiencing homelessness in the U.S. is 9 years old. That statistic came to life when I actually started volunteering. I was shocked to see so many kids in the shelter, but also a range of ages; from toddlers to college-age young people. It was all across the board,” said 20-year-old Zhao, an undergraduate student at Stanford University. 

During her time volunteering at the shelter, she met Norena, a girl who was a year younger than her whom she identified similarly with in terms of interests and passions. Zhao quickly became friends with the teen and came to know and connect with her on a deeper level.

“As I got to know her, I learned all the obstacles she faced such as hour-long commutes because she had to go to a school across the river, she had to look after her brother, and she didn’t have time to do homework in the shelter.”

IMG_2653 (1).jpeg
Photo: Abby Carton / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

“It made me realize the privileges that I had, the little things that I take for granted,” added Zhao, who started volunteering with Portland Homeless Family Solutions at age 14.

Norena’s story touched her in a way that left a growing impact on the need to address youth homelessness and provide in-shelter resources and extracurricular opportunities for children and teens.

While simultaneously a freshman in high school, Zhao started a school club where she took what she learned as a volunteer and worked to raise awareness about the issue of youth homelessness.

Towards the end of her freshman year in high school, she began talking to a transitional housing organization and asked them what kind of activities they provided for children and if they needed volunteers. She soon discovered that the organization had unfortunately lost funding for children’s activities and they didn’t have the capacity to manage their volunteers.

IMG_2719 (1).jpeg
Photo: Abby Carton / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

“So that was kind of the point where I realized I needed to start a nonprofit. I did research and realized there were no services that directly brought weekly programs to shelters for kids experiencing homelessness in Portland, and there was also a big need because even though there is school funding for extracurriculars, youth experiencing homelessness face barriers to participation, including fees, transportation, and documentation.”

So in 2015, Zhao nurtured her idea and ran with it and launched her nonprofit, Kids First Project, which aims to bring programs and services to homeless youth living in shelters in Portland, Oregon. The organization understands the critical need for early childhood development and innovative programs to foster creativity and ensure that no child experiencing homelessness gets left behind.

Zhao’s nonprofit focuses on the acronym of HOPE: Health, Opportunity, Play, and Education. With its team of nearly 400 volunteers, “the organization aims to empower youth experiencing homelessness to reach their full potential and help break the generational cycle of poverty.”

Kids First Project provides in-shelter services and specialized programs for youth experiencing homelessness to participate in extracurricular activities while in a shelter.

IMG_2673 (1).jpeg
Photo: Abby Carton / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

“We also provide our volunteers, local community groups, and individuals the opportunity to turn their interests into a teachable curriculum to bring to the kids we serve in shelters.”

Some of the programs include peer mentoring for youth, arts and crafts, tutoring, poetry, and life skills.

“Early childhood development is so critical to someone’s life outcomes. What they do when they are a child affects their potential as an adult in terms of success,” said Zhao. She added that programs such as summer camps and other programs like sports programs and educational programs that help build social and cognitive skills are important for future success.

“Our programs try to fill that void. Our programs’ purpose is to bridge the gap between youth experiencing homeless and more privileged peers so they are still able to participate in programs,” she added.

Zhao says the goal of Kids First Project is ultimately for it to not be needed.

“It’s a hefty goal, but I think it can be done. Kids First’s plan for the future is to launch a nation-wide advocacy initiative to ensure that school districts and local governments are providing youth experiencing homelessness across the country with access to the programs and services they need.”

This past summer, Zhao shared that she was an intern in Washington, D.C. working on the law and policy side of homelessness. She learned that youth experiencing homelessness have a lot of obstacles and limitations such as lack of transportation and a lack of awareness by local school districts.

“So basically what we want to do is create a nationwide advocacy and pressure school districts and local governments to prioritize the issue.”

IMG_3358 (1).jpg
Photo: Abby Carton / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

According to the Portland Homeless Family Solutions, some of the causes of youth and family homelessness include lack of affordable housing, lack of a living wage, lack of affordable childcare, lack of affordable healthcare, persistent oppression, and discrimination, among other causes.

Family homelessness is rapidly increasing in Portland and other areas and shifting to the younger population, says Zhao.

“Because of this, the demographics of homelessness is younger and affects a lot of children. I think this is different from a hundred years ago when homelessness mostly affected older people. But because of the financial crisis, just like the immense inequality that exists in our country, ultimately it’s causing families to experience homelessness because of a lack of affordable childcare, healthcare, and it makes families more susceptible to experiencing homelessness.”

Zhao adds that there’s often a misconception and stereotype that “homelessness is a result of people being lazy” but that there are so many factors that can cause someone to lose their housing. “It ranges from mental health issues to something as small and simple as healthcare,” said Zhao.

As executive director of Kids First Project, Zhao also juggles undergraduate studies at Stanford. Earlier this month, she declared a major in political science with a minor in human rights. She says she has always been a proponent of experiential learning and applying what you know to make an impact in the community.

“Especially when you have the privilege of getting a higher education or a quality public education, you have a lot of knowledge, experiences, and a lot of skills to make a difference in your community through your own interests and that’s how I see Kids First Project. I love the work I’ve done alongside my team. As I’m getting more knowledge and experiences through my education, I’m able to apply that through my nonprofit,” said Zhao.

Loreal-Paris-WOW-Hero-Image-Alisha-Landing (1).jpg
Nilaya Sabnis for L’Oreal / Permission to use granted by Alisha Zhao

Most recently, Zhao was nominated as a L’Oreal 2018 Women of Worth National Honoree with the chance to win $35,000 for her nonprofit. If she receives the award, she will use it to expand services for Kids First Project. Right now, the nonprofit is concentrated in Portland, but with extra funds, Zhao and her team are hoping to not only increase programs but also expand to different cities like Chicago and San Francisco and use the funding to launch an advocacy campaign and provide more services and resources.

“Being a ‘Woman of Worth’ means a lot to me knowing that people believe in both me and Kids First Project. But it also is an honor to be in a such a supportive and empowering community of women making a change in their local communities and beyond,” Zhao told Mornings with Moni.

Zhao hopes to continue focusing on advocacy and bringing about change through outreach and policy.

“It’s getting people to be aware of the issue so there’s greater empathy and understanding, but it’s also getting people to advocate for greater resources for youth experiencing homeless so they are able to get the resources they need,” said Zhao.

Zhao hopes to see youth homelessness become a national priority. “I think that includes changing the dialogue, but also raising awareness and taking action.”

Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni

Featured

‘Lady & Little’ Captures the Spirit of Kindness and Mountain Life

 I met Milena in 2010 when we both pursued our degrees in literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine, School of Humanities. We’ve been storytellers for life, and we spent our college years immersed in the world of Joan Didion and Jon Krakauer-dreaming of writing stories that challenged the world around us and built positive connections with others. Milena has a very warm personality and I’ve always been inspired by her strength and compassion for others. She is a fierce mama, mom boss, and believer, and I am SO proud to feature her on my blog!

—–

Becoming a mother to two lovebugs has been the greatest blessing for Milena Enguidanos Gonzalez, owner and founder of boutique apparel shop, Lady & Little.  

“I knew since childhood that I wanted a family. I wanted to fall in love with someone and create this beautiful life with them,” said Milena.

But there was a time in Milena’s life when she wondered if she would ever get to be a mom after experiencing miscarriages.

“Both Bendelle and Everett are rainbow babies and I could not be more thankful for them in our lives. Motherhood is not easy, but they have been my biggest blessings,” she said.

randiMooney of grow lovely photography 6 .jpg
Randi Mooney of Grow Lovely Photography / Photo permission by Milena Gonzalez

“I prayed every day for Bendelle and then prayed that we would one day give her a sibling. Looking back on all the pain and loss, they were worth it all. They are so different from each other, but they are so good together. They love each other so much. And it’s funny because everyone says how much they resemble each other (they look more like each other than they do like us). Bendelle is so loving and didactic with her brother. Everett is the happiest little boy and admires her so much,” she added.

Growing up in Long Beach, California, Milena says she has always been a bit of a hopeless romantic. When she met the love of her life Aaron, “the boy across the street,” she knew there was something very special. Aaron and Milena noticed each other right away. Milena recalls doing some homework under a big tree in her front yard, while Aaron was washing his car. One day, Aaron mustered the courage to ask Milena for her number and the rest was history.

IMG_0543 (1).jpg
Aaron and Milena. Photo: Lauren Hurt/Permission by Milena Gonzalez

“We are both big dreamers and he’s my best friend. We love to be outdoors, explore, cook, try new things, and have deep conversations together after the kids are asleep. We love surprising our kids with fun activities and just enjoying the simple things, like a lazy Sunday at home with our family. I am most importantly a mother, wife, and believer,” she added.

When Milena moved to Idyllwild, California, in 2013 with her husband and pups, she had the itch to launch a creative small business that would allow her to both express her creativity and be a stay-at-home mom for her firstborn child, Bendelle, and later, her baby boy, Everett.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. We sacrificed a lot to make it happen, but in the back of my mind, I wanted to still have my ‘contribution’ and something that was my own. I was always thinking of ways I could do something while still being at home with our baby,” said Milena.

The idea for her shop, “Lady & Little,” was inspired by her little girl, Bendelle, and her fierce spirit and love for the outdoors. Milena knew she wanted to create a “mama and me” clothing line that would document the rollercoaster journey of motherhood and childhood. She also wanted to create a line that would “grow and bloom” as Bendelle grew and reached her milestone childhood years. A month prior to Bendelle’s first birthday, Milena decided to officially launch her small business in September of 2015. She initially launched it on Etsy and then her Instagram, Lady & Little.

“I’ve always been a creative person, so designing my own clothing seemed like a dream. I kept thinking about this business as a tiny seed – something that could grow and flourish alongside my own children,” said Milena.

View this post on Instagram

Holiday Catalogs have been emailed out!! 🙌🏼 (check your spam folder if you don’t see it!) . To kick off the most wonderful time of year, I’m sharing a few things about myself 😘 1. I’m Milena, the woman behind Lady & Little! I design and hand screen print each and every one of my pieces 💪 Like Moana, “I am self taught” 😉 2. I have 3 dogs, 2 kids (Bendelle & Everett) and 1 husband! 😂 3. I like my wine red and my chocolate dark with sea salt. 4. I actually love to run. It’s my “me” time and I love how strong I feel, especially after an early morning run (I also love to sleep in so sometimes this is a bit tricky 🧐). 4. I wear mostly pieces I make! I realized this after catching up on 4 loads of laundry last weekend 🤪 and realized I have a ton of L&L shirts. 5. I am obsessed with the ocean. The beach is my happy place and blue whales are my favorite animals 🐋 One time I saw a whale breaching at the beach in NJ and it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. 5. I cannot imagine my life without essential oils! Seriously, I have been won over 🙌🏼 6. I live in your typical suburban neighborhood right out of the movies and I totally love it. 7. Currently reading “girl wash your face”, currently watching “riverdale” on Netflix (just finished haunting of hill house 😱😱 so good!) and am excited to start binging on Christmas movies while I print holiday orders! 8. I love surprises 😀 but am hard to surprise 9. I’m a believer 🙏♥️ Jesus is my savior 10. My dogs are named Darcy, Bennet & Bingley . . . If you get this reference then we’re basically besties already 💁🏻‍♀️

A post shared by L A D Y & L I T T L E (@ladyandlittle) on

Milena says throughout her motherhood journey, she has learned a lot about patience, humility, and determination. She wanted to create a positive clothing line that inspired “ladies” and their “little” ones to explore and reach for the stars. She wanted mamas and littles to know that the opportunities are endless, and that imagination should always be nourished.

“I wanted to spread these little snippets of motivation and inspiration with other ladies and mamas. I want to create apparel with simple yet meaningful messages to lift you up and keep you going even things get tough and your patience is wearing thin. My hope is to instill the goodness of courage, kindness, hard work and fun into your little ones as well,” Milena wrote on her blog.  

The concept of launching a small handmade shop kept calling to Milena. During her brainstorming sessions, she contemplated making natural candles or experimenting with beauty products. But she kept coming back to the idea of learning how to screenprint clothing. She had to learn how to teach herself to screen print, which was initially very difficult. 

randiMooney of grow lovely photography 7.jpg
Randi Mooney of Grow Lovely Photography / Photo permission by Milena Gonzalez

“I didn’t have a teacher to show me what to do or tell me when I was doing something wrong. I learned through trial and lots of errors. There have been lots of mistakes and frustrations–even times where I wanted to quit. So many moments where I second-guessed myself,” said Milena, who shared that over the years of managing her own business, she learned a lot about problem saving and patience.

Through all the various challenges and milestones, Milena recently celebrated three years as a small shop owner and is very happy she followed her dreams and carved her own path–even if she had a few doubts and setbacks along the way.

IMG_0542 (1).jpg
Milena and her husband, Aaron. Photo: Lauren Hurt / Permission by Milena Gonzalez

“The stats are against us but I think perseverance is such an important quality. I don’t want to be that person who quits when things get difficult. I’ve learned so much about perseverance through my husband who is such a hard worker and inspires me so much.”

Milena has always had a deep admiration and love for the outdoors. She’s a hiking enthusiast and would often spend her time living that “mountain life” in her former home in Idyllwild, California.

Though she has now moved to a cul-de-sac in the suburbs, Milena has fond memories of Idyllwild and the isolated yet daring spirit of mountain life. It’s the place where she became a homeowner for the first time, a mother of two, and also an entrepreneur. She is forever grateful for the connections she made in Idyllwild and the time spent in nature, away from the busy city life. It helped ground her and create a space for her to explore her power as a mama, wife, writer, and entrepreneur. It also inspired her to take her mountain life experience and create positive and inspiring handscreen-printed tees.

“It’s such a small town known for its love of art, music, and exercise (hiking and rock climbing, primarily). There are a lot of creative individuals there but because it’s such a small town a lot of times I did feel a bit isolated (we were 5,000 feet up on top of a mountain). I loved the people I met there, the beautiful nature that surrounded us.”

In the virtual space, Milena grew a massive following on her Instagram page, Lady & Little, and was humbled and inspired by all of the positive feedback and interactions she had with mompreneurs. “I didn’t have a ton of mom friends when I lived in Idyllwild, so a lot of my mom friends were people I met via my shop on Instagram.”

“The Instagram community of small shop moms is incredible. I have befriended so many talented women who inspire me on a daily basis and show me what is possible if I keep working on this dream of mine. We work together and help keep each other’s heads up in moments of doubt,” she added.

Today, Milena is happy with the feedback she’s received from customers and has learned a lot about what it takes to run a solo business even though at times it can be isolating and challenging because she is a “one-mom-shop” business, she explained.  

“I was so afraid that people would complain about the processing time but my customers have been so incredible and supportive and I love that they understand that I am a one-mom-shop.”

One of Milena’s personal favorite classic Lady & Little tees is the “stay humble + hustle” design because it was one of the very first designs she came up with when she opened the shop. Other designs include the “Here’s to strong women” and “motherhood” designs. Since launching her line, she’s always thought about branching out and putting her designs on different things or wondering if she should be doing more to promote her business or stand out. But that’s when she takes a step back and realizes that she has to look within to find herself again.

IMG_0330 (1).jpeg

“There’s beauty in finding your niche. Maybe one day I’ll add mugs or hats or something else. I did wood signs for a while but my heart is with my clothes. Creating uplifiting pieces that people are eager to dress themselves and their kids in – that’s what it’s all about for me.”

Milena hand screenprints and designs each and every piece, which makes her line unique.

“I put so much of myself in all of my pieces. I hope people see the heart and passion I put in my brand. I want them to take away all the messages about hard work, kindness, bravery, strength and what beauty really looks like. I want them to be inspired by my fun and positive designs.”

Handwritten cards and packaging each order individually is one of the most exciting parts of Milena’s business. But it’s also the people she’s met along the way, that inspire her to keep going, she says. “The other small shop owners I’ve met and befriended are people I now talk to on a daily basis. My customers are the sweetest too. I love building connections with people and talking about motherhood.”

IMG_0474 (1).jpeg

When she’s not screenprinting or sending out final orders with beautiful handwritten cards to her customers, Milena always loves “winding down” with a glass of wine with her husband and soulmate, Aaron.

“I love hanging out with friends and family. We just became members at a vineyard down the road from us and I love spending an evening at the vineyard and playing with our kids outside while trying new wines.”

Most recently, Milena has also been very much interested in the healing power of essential oils and their therapeutic benefits. She decided to launch a separate Lady & Little essential oils Instagram account where she talks about the natural power of essential oils and holistic health, and how they help her and her family on a daily basis. 

“They [essential oils] have helped me become more control over my emotions and have balanced out my hormones, which was such a blessing I didn’t realize I needed. They help with my kids sleep and my anxiety. I was suffering from a lot of anxiety right before I joined Young Living and I feel like I have a lot more control now.

milena5
Bendelle, Everett, and Milena. Photo courtesy Milena Gonzalez

Milena also loves doing different outdoor activities and even though she doesn’t go hiking as much as she did before kids, she knows she is always a “mountain gal” and an outdoor enthusiast for life. Running has always been a huge part of her life. Whenever she makes time to run, she is so grateful and appreciative for it.

“I crave solo runs where I can work my body and clear my head when things get stressful. I enjoy a suspenseful romantic read and would love to be an author one day. It’s one of my dreams.”

With her love for motherhood and entrepreneurship, Milena is grateful for the life she is living and is always trying to find a way to engage in self-care during moments of deep solitude and solace.  

“I am obsessed with my kids and so in love with my husband and our family – even our three crazy dogs!! I love essential oils and use them for everything. I am very into natural living. We are always playing music – all different kinds – from pop to country to freestyle worship music. I love creating a fun positive space for my family, our guests, and myself. I really appreciate a relaxing bath, salted dark chocolate, dry, bold red wines, being by the ocean, a unique cocktail, an addicting series on Netflix, a satisfying book, and any kind of physical challenge where I know I am improving myself.”

-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni 

cropped-screen-shot-2018-08-31-at-3-51-02-pm.png

 

Featured

‘Turning Life Around’: A Survivor’s Story of Redemption and God’s Miracles

Elizabeth Quiroz, 33, never thought her life would turn around after spending much of her teenage and young adult years being manipulated and coerced into doing things she didn’t want to do.

She says God saved her and helped her get out of a situation she thought she couldn’t get out of. “God is so good.” 

Growing up in Sacramento, California, Quiroz was born into an abusive family where her father was not around and her mother would physically abuse her. She shared that she came from a family of drug addicts, alcoholics, gang members, convicts, and child molesters.

41393505_10156964157149467_477559655615168512_n
All photos courtesy Elizabeth Quiroz

When she was a teen, Quiroz suffered from suicidal ideations. She realized that many of her thoughts stemmed from the need to be loved by others, which she says she never received at home.

When she was 14, she was raped by an older man. “I didn’t know it was rape until later down the road.”

She shared that she kept saying “no,” but that he resisted and kept forcing himself on her until she said she finally gave up.

“I felt frozen. I liked him, but I knew I didn’t want to because it was uncomfortable.”

After being raped, Quiroz remembers coming home and getting into a huge fight with her mom, who lashed out at her and hit her with a leather belt, leaving welts all over her body, she shared.  

“When I came home after that situation, she was beating me, and I told her I was pregnant. I was just lying to her so she could stop hitting me. That’s the only thing that came out so she could stop hitting me,” said Quiroz. 

36363161_1872636093030781_2273057449374121984_n

Quiroz said she suffered from daily abuse and that every little thing would provoke her mother, who she says was probably drinking at the time.

“There were times when I came home from school and she would be angry for no reason. She was drunk so that could be a trigger on why she was angry and also she had been through so many traumatic events herself growing up.”

When Quiroz realized enough was enough, she called the cops and was referred to a social worker. Quiroz was later placed into the foster care system for a short period of time. When she was in the foster care system, Quiroz had a yearning to get out and find a way to live with her father in San Francisco. She wanted to give her family a second chance. 

“I was 15, and he [father] finally took me in. I knew he didn’t want to. He had a girlfriend, he was stable and I got dropped off at his doorstep and he had to take me in. He wasn’t present for me, and I was already suicidal.”

“I was broken by the time I got to him.”

During that time, Quiroz met an older man who promised her many things and lured her into a life of drugs and criminal activity, she said. They initially met each other in San Francisco and exchanged numbers. He told her she was his girl and made her feel special. 

“School wasn’t a priority. He wanted to be in my life and gave me compliments. I never got that, so it made me feel good.

When Quiroz turned 16, she decided to tattoo the name of her boyfriend and trafficker on both of her arms because she felt it would prove to him how much she loved him and trusted him.

41205932_10156964156739467_4056355830910418944_n (1)

“He told me, ‘if you love me and you’re my ride and die, if you’re my lady, then get my name on you.’ So I did. I was his girl, and he was mine. What I had to get was degrading. He told me to put property of, his name, and on my arm. He manipulated me to do that.”

Quiroz felt that getting the tattoo with his name was symbolic proof that she was going to be with him forever, and that he must love her because he had asked her to get that permanently etched into her arms.

Today, that tattoo has been covered up with a rose to conceal the name of the man who sold her for sex and trafficked her.

Covering up the tattoo doesn’t erase the pain, but it’s a step towards redemption and hope for Quiroz. 

42996752_143860546567864_7431316564894285824_n.jpg

Quiroz thought she was in love, so she decided to drop out of high school and run away with her 27-year-old boyfriend. When she turned 15, she got hooked on crystal meth and other drugs.

“I thought I was in love with him because he was a dad figure, he took care of me, he paid attention to me.” For many years, Quiroz was manipulated into doing what she thought was out of love. Her trafficker eventually made her hold onto his drugs in her mouth while he made transactions to drug addicts, she explained.

Her boyfriend/trafficker sold cocaine, crack, and various other drugs in San Francisco. “I was just broken and I wanted to be loved. I wanted someone to fight for me, I wanted that loyalty.”

41439803_10156964156959467_3350630418561892352_n

Once her boyfriend/trafficker gained Quiroz’s trust, she shared that he and another female began to “groom” her into human trafficking–and that’s when she realized she had no way to escape. She had accepted her fate at the time.

“When he basically had me hold onto his drugs, that’s when he started grooming me into human trafficking because I was holding his drugs and being groomed to sell drugs. So he said, ‘if you love me, you’ll do this.’ He needed me to sell myself to go buy the crack. It was like a cycle. I started selling drugs and my body throughout my adulthood because he trained me to do that.”

At 16, she was sold for sex, and Quiroz said she felt like she had no choice, that it was what she was supposed to do because she knew she couldn’t go back to her mom or her dad.

She didn’t have any place to go, and the only place she knew was with her boyfriend, who manipulated her into being with him and surviving by engaging in illegal activity. “It ended up becoming power and mind control.”

“I knew how to make money. I took it to my adulthood. I was getting money for him, and he was the one taking me to the projects and buying the drugs for us to sell. He brought me clothes just to get by. I didn’t care about the material things. I grew up in a poor environment, so I didn’t care about [fancy] clothes. I just wanted to be loved.”

Quiroz says for about seven years, she became a victim of human trafficking.

“I was exchanging something valuable for money and sex because I was brainwashed thinking that’s the only way I knew how to make money. Drug dealers, traffickers, and gang members groomed me and trained me to do it as survival.”

At 26, Quiroz became pregnant with her child. Throughout the pregnancy, Quiroz continued to use drugs and couldn’t stop.

“When I continued to use I finally gave birth but I got clean the month before I gave birth and when he [my child] was 3 months old I went back and sold drugs.”

But when she went back into selling drugs, she got caught and arrested, she shared. Quiroz says she has been in and out of correctional facilities throughout the years, but during her latest arrest, she had an epiphany to turn her life around.

God came to her to rescue her. 

When she phone called family from a holding tank when she was serving time in jail, she heard the sounds of her weeping child in the background and realized she couldn’t put her kid through all of the pain, addiction, and abuse she suffered. She served 18 months in jail and after that, she decided it was important to get sober and clean.

42838129_545136575937202_9216042765358465024_n
Elizabeth Quiroz and her family

Today Quiroz’s life is very different from the life she lived in her teen through adult years.

Today, she is an advocate for human trafficking survivors, a drug and alcohol counselor, and a wife and mom to five children. She is also on the Human Trafficking Task Force of Sonoma County, often speaking out about human trafficking and sharing her story to help others. She is currently studying full-time to get her AA in human services and social advocacy and behavioral sciences and is hoping to get her master’s in social work. Ultimately, her long-term goal is to be a parole officer.

“I’m also a Christian, I believe in God. I love God and give him the glory for my success.”

Quiroz is hoping to start a nonprofit organization that focuses on temporary housing for survivors of human trafficking.

“When we pull them out [survivors of human trafficking], they go back to what they know. If we have housing where we are teaching education, life skills, teaching them new stuff, they are going to want to turn their life around.”

As a survivor of human trafficking, Quiroz has a message for those who feel they cannot escape their current situation due to manipulation, fear or survival:

“If they’re going through human trafficking right now, they are worth so much more. They have so much potential and beauty, they don’t deserve to go through that.”

“I would encourage other people to just work as a team and work towards ending human trafficking because everybody has a soul and it’s not right to be sold.”

“We aren’t just items to be sold. We are human beings and we deserve to be loved. I want to say to victims or survivors they are not garbage, they are not damaged goods. They can still be redeemed and can give back and empower other people with their stories. Our past does not define who we are today.”

If you would like to contact Elizabeth Quiroz or learn more about her future nonprofit, please email her at vasquezelizabeth85@gmail.com.

-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni. Published October 2, 2018.

screen-shot-2018-08-31-at-3-51-02-pm

Featured

‘Mama and Me’ Clothing Line Shares the Joys of Childhood and Motherhood

IMG_4817

A boss babe and stay-at-home mama, Stephanie Martinez has always had a passion for matching edgy and chic design outfits with her one-year-old daughter and mini-me, Jade.

In 2018, Stephanie decided to kick her fashion game up a notch by launching Honey & Rose, a “mama and me” t-shirt line that aims to capture the joys and challenges of motherhood and all the cuteness and giggles along the way.

Honey & Rose provides a unique opportunity for mamas and their little ones to showcase and bond over matching t-shirts with empowering and cute sayings. “I think it’s fun to match clothes with your child and there’s not a lot of companies that sell matching ‘mama and me’ items,” said the 31-year-old mama. 

Through Honey & Rose, Stephanie hopes to get the message across that motherhood can be messy and difficult at times, but extremely rewarding as well.

“Motherhood is tough and there’s no ‘right way’ to do it, but I believe that as long as you are being true to yourself and put your kids first, you’re already doing a great job,” she said. “I like to post ‘real’ pictures of the not-so-perfect side of motherhood because it’s a reality.”

Stephanie, who grew up in Covina, California, recalls her early childhood and teenage years and how she always had a knack for exploring and creating new projects and items. In fact, her husband and high school sweetheart once bought her a sewing machine because she loved to make and create new things. “I made a bunch of random things, like curtains, purses, and headbands. So I knew from a young age that I wanted to be in the fashion industry.”

After graduating high school and marrying her high school sweetheart in 2012, Stephanie got accepted into the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) but was not able to attend because her family was not supportive of her pursuing a career in the fashion industry and she couldn’t afford tuition at the time. 

“So I switched to something that I could afford on my own and that would allow me to still be creative. For me, this was cosmetology.”

At the time, Stephanie enrolled in night classes for cosmetology at a junior college while working full-time at an office job she was not passionate about. But it was during this rocky time when she got the opportunity to explore new passions by working at a footwear company and designing shoes on her own terms—something she immediately fell in love with. 

“I was able to learn how to design, while still doing customer service.” Over the years, Stephanie created designs for Zoo York and Echo and had the opportunity to work for Sketchers designing their junior shoe line.

“I’ve always had a love for shoes, so I pretty much loved everything about working in that industry. The traveling it required for trade shows, being able to be creative, and working with friends were just a few reasons why I enjoyed it so much. It was definitely my dream job at that time.”

IMG_4539

After being in the footwear industry for over ten years, Stephanie decided it was time to explore other avenues, so she put her cosmetology license to use and got a job at a salon doing hair.

In 2017, her daughter, Jade, was born and Stephanie decided to become a stay-at-home mama and launch her own business, Honey & Rose, a year later. 

During the first year of Jade’s birth, there were many times when Stephanie and her husband spent a majority of their time in hospitals, anxiously waiting to hear updates from doctors about their daughter’s ailing health. Stephanie shared that Jade was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and severe acid reflux when she was a month old . She was also born with hip dysplasia which required her to wear a harness. 

“There was a lot of tears from her and us during that time because she was in a lot of pain and we couldn’t do anything to help her. Due to these conditions, we would see different specialists monthly for the first six months. We also had to schedule regular check-ups with her primary pediatrician,” said Stephanie.

After giving birth to Jade in 2017, Stephanie realized it was too difficult to juggle work due to Jade’s frequent doctor appointments and health challenges. Stephanie wanted to dedicate her time to being the best mama she could be during Jade’s critical, formative years so she decided to stay at home and care for her little one. 

“I decided it was best for me and my family if I became a stay at home mom,” said Stephanie. “I love being a stay at home mom and seeing all of her ‘firsts’ but I felt like I needed to challenge myself and just be creative again. Honey & Rose is exactly what I needed.”

Stephanie says she has always considered herself to be a strong woman, but that she believes that having a sick child has made her even stronger and tested her strength.

“Being a first-time mama is already stressful, but having a child with medical conditions on top of that was overwhelming. I found myself constantly (and still do) questioning whether certain behaviors were normal or a result of her health conditions. She’s doing so much better now, thank goodness! Now, everything else is like a walk in the park compared to those difficult times.”

Despite battling all these medical conditions at a very young age, Jade is strong, just like her mama. Her ferocious and lively spirit are what inspire and ignite Stephanie to keep creating a badass clothing and female-powered line that her daughter will be proud of.

3

“Jade has never let any of her health issues get in her way and you would never guess that she has medical issues. Her strength and personality definitely influence the designs for Honey & Rose. She is not a typical ‘girly girl,’ which is why most of our designs are a little edgy,” said Stephanie.

Today, Stephanie is even more excited to find that her small business has morphed into something bigger than just personalized and screen pressed tees. Honey & Rose also sells everything from toddler shoes to hats and more.

Stephanie misses designing shoes, so she’s recently decided to incorporate and apply her knowledge and fashion design background to create her own kids’ footwear collection for Honey & Rose.

“I took a little bit of something that I learned from all of the different companies that I worked for and used all of the creative skills that I gained throughout the years to launch Honey & Rose.”

Some of her recent toddler shoe designs include “Coco Black Cheetah” and “Coco Gold” sandals for kids in cheetah print and gold. All of the t-shirt designs for Honey & Rose are also created by and heat pressed by Stephanie.

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 10.25.35 AM.png

“I have to make time in my busy mom life to be a mama, create and make new products, ship orders, connect with our footwear manufacturers, and manage our social media accounts and website. It sounds like a lot and pretty overwhelming but I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

When Stephanie is not working on a new t-shirt design or toddler shoes for Honey & Rose, Stephanie enjoys yoga, going to the gym for a good workout, and doing DIY projects with her mini-me, Jade, and spending time with friends and family.

Stephanie says Honey & Rose is meant to be a fun fashion line that embraces motherhood through pop culture references and cute sayings that represent the many wonders of motherhood. She gets her shoe and clothing design inspiration from music and pop culture references (and even some Drake references). 

View this post on Instagram

Got an unexpected pic of our little model yesterday. Never knew a Costco wall would be a good background. 🤩 . You can grab your mini a Sorry shirt on our website link is in our bio. . We are always trying to grow our community so make sure you tag friends and family to spread the word about us! . . . #ionlylovemybedandmymommaimsorry #kidstyle #coolkidsclothes #kidsstreetwear #kids_stylezz #candidkids #kidstees #childhoodeveryday #toddlerlifestyle #futurefashionista #kidswithstyle #stylishkids #stylishbaby #mompreneur #momownedbusiness #kidsshirts #honeyandrose #kidstuff #kidslife #happykid #happykidsmodels #ig_fashionkiddies #fashionkid #kidswithstyle #toddlerfashion #toddlermodel #toddlerstyles #candidhildhood #childhood #supportsmallbusiness

A post shared by Honey & Rose (@shop_honeyandrose) on

“The shirts I create are a fun way to make great memories with your children. It’s so fun to wear matching shirts! I also like my designs to be relatable and relevant to what is going on in pop culture and music.”

Her line also strays away from gender stereotypes, and instead, focuses on designs and phrases that represent strong, fierce mamas and little ones.

“Shopping for Jade can sometimes be difficult because everything is so girly and pink. Jade is a unique girl with unique style. There are not too many items out there that fit her personality. So I was inspired to create a brand that I would put on Jade.”

Of all her designs, Stephanie is proud of her “Enjoy Motherhood” and “Enjoy Childhood” shirts inspired by the Coca-Cola font, which she says is made out of recycled material. One of the greatest moments she’s experienced through her business is the ability to give mamas and their kids the opportunity to bond and make long-lasting memories by sporting matching apparel, she says.

IMG_4872

“All of our shirts are American made and eco-friendly. Our supplier practices responsible manufacturing, which means that nothing goes to waste. All of the extra scrap material gets recycled and re-purposed into shirts and other products.”

Stephanie is all about elevating voices and supporting other women. Most recently, she has partnered with MomMarket, a mom-owned business that supports “mompreneurs.” “They host events that feature mom-owned small businesses, while also creating a platform for us to network and grow.”

She also frequently teams up with other mamas that own businesses through social media and says they often provide donations for raffles or giveaways that promote self-care and wellness for mamas. On October 14, Honey & Rose, along with other partners, will be doing a pop-up event in Pomona, California, to support the City of Hope and cancer research.

Stephanie considers herself a #bossbabe because she has carved her own path and never gave up her dream of pursuing the fashion industry and supporting other mamas who want to share the joys of motherhood through other creative outlets.

1

“I didn’t let anything or anyone get in the way of my goals. I go after what I want no matter what. And pursuing my dream of owning my own company while being a stay at home mom makes me a #bossmama! I love that I get to be creative while building a future empire for Jade. I hope that by seeing me be a #bossmama she will learn that she is able to do anything as a female.”

-Written by Monica Luhar @monicaluhar

screen-shot-2018-08-31-at-3-51-02-pm.png

Featured

‘Bathing Your Senses’ Through Forest Bathing with Jackie Kuang

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 2.48.42 PMAt her most recent forest therapy guided session in Monrovia Canyon Park, Jackie Kuang led her group on a peaceful, contemplative walk, inviting them to “bathe their senses” in nature and be fully present in the now.

The group spotted various animal beings and listened to the sound of a nearby stream and birds chirping before heading over to the waterfall at the end of the trail. The guided walk also consisted of a dumpling making session under a beautiful green canopy.

One of the key elements of a guided forest therapy walk, says Jackie, is community building.

“I’m honored to witness many people falling in love with or at least opening up to complete acceptance of themselves and others. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring,” said Jackie. “The dumpling-making after tea ceremony is my way of honoring my own Chinese cultural heritage and it’s so much fun for a lot of people.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 2.50.58 PM

Jackie feels at home when she immerses herself in the outdoors, cradled by oak trees while taking in the fragrant scents from leaves and flowers. As a certified forest therapy guide, she hopes to share her love for green spaces and help others to enjoy the benefits of immersing in the beauty of nature.

Nature has always been a great teacher for Jackie, and she hopes to share that experience with others through her forest therapy guided sessions. Jackie says she found herself drawn to “forest bathing,” or the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, shortly after she was forced to slow down from her routine after an injury, as she detailed in a blog post.

IMG_9074 (1)

“I believe that my body was so tired of rushing here and there nonstop that it literally forced me to slow down by letting me fall. I had fallen twice in less than two years and sustained severe injuries each time. As I was lying in bed this March recovering from my third and most traumatic injury, I had nothing else to do but to read and notice. From the bed my family set up for me in the living room, I could see my neighbor’s giant tree and that gave me much comfort. I would often watch the branches sway in the breeze or birds and squirrels play there,” Jackie wrote.

And sometime around Chinese New Year in 2017, Kuang said she began noticing and paying more attention to beautiful, graceful trees lining up Garvey Avenue in Monterey Park.

She remembers feeling a strong calling toward nature. She typed “trees” in Google search, not exactly knowing what she was quite searching for or what she was doing. “I just felt a strong yearning inside. How could I have passed by those trees so many times yet never truly noticed their magnificence?”

Kuang said the Google searches eventually led her to discover the benefits of Shinrin-yoku.

Intrigued by the practice, she attended her first ever forest therapy walk guided by her mentor, Ben Page. In July 2017, she attended a forest therapy guide training at Sugarloaf State Park, where she fell deeper in love with nature and met some wonderful mentors and kindred spirits during a week of intensive training.

It was then that she was inspired to complete a 6-month practicum and become a certified “forest bathing guide” through the Association of Nature Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.

Since August 2017, she has been leading regular guided forest bathing sessions in LA including LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens and Monrovia Canyon Park. She even guided walks in Mexico City, Beijing, and Xi’an when she traveled there.

“In Japanese, ‘Shinrin’ means ‘forest’ and ‘yoku’ means bath. So Shinrin-yoku literally means a forest bath,” says Jackie, who previously worked as a teacher, a translator, a CPA, and a health and wellness consultant.” 

IMG_2210

Jackie says a forest bathing walk is not a hike or strenuous fitness exercise. Rather, it’s a relaxing walk at a slow pace for 2-3 hours with many pauses designed to help engage your senses and immerse yourself in the experience and the present moment.

Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of forest bathing, says Jackie. To name a few benefits, forest bathing can significantly decrease ailments like chronic and excessive stress and can lower blood pressure, and boost immunity, according to the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. Another study titled “Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function” looks into how exposure to forest bathing can increase the number of “NK cells, the levels of intracellular anti-cancer proteins,” thus reducing the risk of cancer.

According to a study titled “Trends in Research Related to ‘Shinrin-Yoku,”  “Shinrin-yoku” was first introduced in Japan by the Forest Agency of the Japanese government in 1982. The study looked into the physiological effects of practicing Shinrin-yoku in a forest and controlled environment.

“‘Shinrin-yoku’ is considered to be one of the most accessible ways to get in touch with the natural world and to lower excessive stress to levels that are commensurate with what our bodies are ‘expected’ to cope with,” the researchers in the study stated.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 2.57.16 PM

Jackie reported that being immersed in nature has immensely helped foster her creativity and has even inspired her to write a few poems.

“None of that would have happened without deep immersion in Nature. And trees are great supporters and often give great counsel. One time I asked a Mother Tree for some advice and she told me, ‘Be persistent. Be patient. Be kind and generous. And listen deeply.’”

When she is not serving as a guide for forest bathing sessions in LA, Jackie spends her time with her autistic son, Chris, often taking him on forest bathing walks which he has grown immensely fond of.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 3.06.47 PM

“I see how his anxiety lessens and he becomes more relaxed and present. Plus, it’s so good to get a break from the constant stimulation of electronics so that there are real opportunities to connect with other beings in the forest like trees, flowers, birds, squirrels, the flowing water, and so much more,” said Jackie.

Jackie is also an advocate for parents with children with developmental disabilities. She is currently on the board of an organization called CPAD, Chinese Parents Association for the Disabled, where she helps organize activities and resource meetings for other families.

She also regularly volunteers on Fridays at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia, California, and is the organizer of a couple of meetups, one of which has grown to about 2,500 participants. She is also currently mentoring some forest therapy guides who are in the 6-month practicum training and will be guiding a forest therapy walk in Sweden this October when she travels there for pleasure.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 2.55.09 PM

Jackie shares that ever since she started on her path as a forest bathing guide, she’s become much more aware of reducing the carbon footprint and being more mindful about making different, more sustainable choices to protect the environment.

“I notice myself making different choices naturally since I started guiding the walks. I’m reducing my use of plastics by refusing straws or plastic forks at restaurants, by bringing reusable shopping bags to grocery stores, by choosing beeswax food coverings rather than plastic wraps.”

IMG_8840

One of Jackie’s goals as a forest therapy guide is for everyone to fall in love with plants and animals again, so we will all naturally want to protect them by reducing our carbon footprint, she says. “I remember hearing someone say, “‘you protect what you love.’”

Jackie has always felt more at peace and grounded by her guided walks.

“What I love most is that in my practice, nature connection and culture repair arise together. There is a mutual healing of the humans and the more-than-human world when we take time to slow down and interact with the beings in the forest,” said Jackie. “The forest is the therapist; a guide opens the doors. I feel privileged and honored to be a guide,” said Jackie.

-Written by Monica Luhar

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 3.51.02 PM

Learn more about Jackie Kuang and her forest therapy sessions here and follow her Instagram here. 

 

Featured

Artist, Teacher Liza Coco Draws Polygonal Portraits of Inspiring Women

IMG_2343 (1)
Artist and teacher Liza Coco experiments with polygonal designs. She is currently working on a portrait series featuring badass, inspiring women. Photo courtesy Liza Coco.

Liza Coco can spend up to 15-40 hours hand drawing intricate polygonal portraits of badass, inspiring women like RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Malala Yousafzai. Every new portrait has its own set of imperfections, but that’s precisely what draws Lisa into the technique. Instead of relying on 3D technology for her polygonal designs, Lisa prefers to go for the tedious route, testing her patience and focusing on the infinitesimal, organic details that add dimension and flair to her art.

When she was born, Lisa LaMontagne’s parents both struggled to come to a consensus on a name for their daughter. It was a tough match between Coco after Coco Chanel or Lisa.

“My father wanted to name me Coco after Coco Chanel, but my mom’s vote was Lisa. Clearly, mom won that fight,” said artist, mom of three, and art teacher Lisa LaMontagne.

Over the years, both of the nicknames eventually came together after Lisa’s partner lovingly called her “Liza Coco” one day. The name just sort of stuck and Lisa decided it would be amusingly appropriate to name her art business, Liza Coco Art.

Born and raised in Upstate New York, Lisa was always enamored by art at a very young age. She recalls spending countless hours laying on the floor of her childhood home, drawing characters from Sunday comic strips with a childlike glee in her eyes.

The mom of three says she owes her love for art to her high school teachers because they really helped hone in on her unique technique.

“They all helped me to appreciate art on a deeper level, taught me techniques that I still use today and taught me the importance of putting myself into every piece of art that I create,” said Lisa.

After graduating from high school, Lisa knew being an art teacher would be the perfect fit for her. In college, Lisa used every chance she could to create art. She reignited her passion for art and focused her energy on drawing and painting, initially using oil paints and sometimes dabbling with acrylics and the standard pencil on paper.

But after college and starting her career and family, she wanted to divert her focus to being the best teacher, mother, and partner she could be. This, she says, left little to no time to create her own art — something she yearned to bring back in her life. She realized that she spent a great deal of time teaching art to others, but didn’t have the time to draw for herself like she used to.

“The artist in me had gone dormant and I hated it. I made it my resolution this past new year that I would make time for me to create….I feel more myself, more confident in my profession, stronger as a woman and mother and proud of every piece I’ve completed,” said Lisa.

Part of her resolution this year was to push herself artistically and try to experiment with techniques that are different than what she normally is comfortable with.

“I usually create art just as you see it in a photograph and I wanted to deviate from that while still holding on to some aspects of it.”

So, she started doing more research with a focus on art styles, contemporary artists, painters, sculptors, and just about every other genre. But the one thing she kept coming back to was low poly art. “It’s an art form that is created using a 3D computer graphics that breaks down a form using simple geometric shapes placed side by side to create an angular often simplistic composition,” said Lisa.

Screen Shot 2018-09-04 at 4.30.15 PM.png
Photo courtesy Liza Coco/LizaCocoArt.com

Inspired and empowered by the look and design of the technique, Lisa tried to create some polygonal art of her own. Polygonal artwork is typically created using 3D computer graphics, Lisa explained. One of the things that’s unique about the Liza Coco Art collection is that she hand draws all of her polygonal artwork, which can be extremely tedious but rewarding. One of the challenges she encountered was how time-consuming it was to hand draw the artwork without relying on the ease of technology, she explained.

“Another challenge that I have is trying to make sure the lines are as straight as possible while doing them free hand. With technology everything is exact and there’s a crispness to that,” Lisa told Mornings with Moni. 

While Lisa appreciates the technology aspect to art, she tends to gravitate toward the organic process of drawing.

“I do like the organic way that I create the geometric shapes and the imperfections that go along with it. The texture that my process gives polygonal shapes adds such a wonderful dimension to my pieces.”

“When I create, I put my life on the paper, my time, my heart, my love, my worry, my anxiety, my imperfections,” said Lisa. 

Screen Shot 2018-09-04 at 4.34.06 PM.png
Photo courtesy Liza Coco/LizaCocoArt.com

So how does Lisa begin the process of outlining polygonal portraits? She typically starts her drawings by outlining the image or the person she wants to create, in a pencil sketch. She then outlines her design with a black micron marker.

“Once my outline is completed I freehand the polygonal shapes with a micron marker, which is somewhat nerve-wracking because I can’t erase any mistakes.” She adds polygonal shapes in various sections, coloring with Prismacolor Premium Colored Pencils.

“I fade the color from dark to light in each section of the polygonal shape. Once the entire image has color added I shade the image to make it look realistic, which is my favorite part because It’s when my piece comes to life. I then paint the background of the piece with black acrylic paint and find a quote to adorn the piece as the finishing touch.”

Currently, Lisa is working on a polygonal portrait art series featuring 12 strong, brave, badass, and inspiring women for an upcoming art show: Laverne Cox, Hilary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Obama, Angela Davis, Beyonce, Carrie Fischer, Coretta Scott King, Yoko Ono, and Frida Kahlo.

When she is not brainstorming her next polygonal art piece after teaching an art class for inner-city youth, she tries to spend as much time as she can with her three beautiful children and partner, Marcus.

IMG_4281
Lisa and her family. Photo courtesy Liza Coco.

“Being a teacher, mother, spouse, friend and artist is incredibly rewarding but also exhausting trying to manage it all. I refuse to do any work for school or artwork while my kids are awake, which leaves my nights full of juggling getting in time to do work for school as well as get some drawing done,” said Lisa.

For the past 12 years, Lisa has taught art at an inner city middle school. She stresses the importance of focusing on molding the whole child, not just a portion of them. This includes introducing art, or STEAM into the curriculum. Society often places a high value on teaching math and English so much so that art is often overlooked or seen as unimportant, explained Lisa.

IMG_0923 (1).jpg
(Photo courtesy Liza Coco)

“Giving students the freedom to be themselves is something we are seeing less and less of in the school system. We strive to standardize everyone by teaching them in the same way, grading them in the same way, testing them in the same way.” 

She adds that this mindset leaves out the individuality of all the students that grace the school walls.

“Art not only lets you express yourself, it helps strengthen your problem-solving skills, it helps you to personalize your learning, it helps you to look at the world around you with a different lens, it helps to build your self-confidence, it helps you to think outside of the box,” Lisa added. 

Lisa shares that she is incredibly inspired by her talented students and their out of box thinking.

“There’s a wonderful joy with the realness of middle school students. They definitely tell you how they feel all the time. They are always critical of themselves because so many people equate being an artist with drawing something perfectly.  It takes a while to break them of that mindset. But through doing that they grow in their self-confidence which is pretty amazing to witness a child’s face light up with pride when they’ve created something they are proud of.”

If there’s one thing she’s learned from her evolving self,  it’s being content with her art. Lisa says what she loves now more than ever is that she is content creating art for herself and that she doesn’t seek validation from others. 

“It’s just an extra bonus if people like it. I’m not creating [art] for anyone except myself and there’s freedom in that. The fact that people seem to really like what I create makes this whole journey an amazing one and I can’t wait to see where it leads.”

After a long day teaching her talented students and taking care of her kiddos, Lisa always tries to carve out some time to come back to herself and her canvas and draw.

Screen Shot 2018-09-04 at 4.31.00 PM
Photo courtesy Liza Coco/LizaCocoArt.com

Lisa says she has a strong desire to empower others through her artwork and inspire them to embrace their uniqueness and talents. She hopes that the artwork she creates can hang in someone’s home and perhaps serve as a powerful reminder to be their best selves in whatever way that might be.

“My art is inspired by people who have gone to great lengths and made great sacrifices to help change our world for the better. It is also inspired greatly by the power of words.  Words and people can help you through so many moments in life. They have the power to change your day around or inspire you to do something you never thought you would.”

-Written by Monica Luhar

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 3.51.02 PM

Follow Liza Coco on Instagram: @liza.coco.art and visit her website here.

Featured

Love is Sweet Events Wants You to Fall in Love with Yourself

IMG_3308
Photo Courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

Candace Lam had to learn how to fall in love with herself after experiencing one of the most difficult and career-defining moments of her life nearly 6 years ago. The power of love is what kept her grounded and ready to tackle anything in front of her with grace, sweetness, and passion.

In 2012, Candace founded Love is Sweet Events, an events and wedding planning company based in Pasadena, California. She launched her business shortly after losing a job and simultaneously planning her own wedding. 

“I was engaged in 2012 and while planning my own wedding, I actually got fired from my previous job because I stepped up to express my thoughts with my boss. At that time, I was feeling a bit lost because I needed money to pay for my own wedding and living,” said Candace.

Smokey-Hollow-Studios-Wedding-Deniele-Ben-00050 (1)
Courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

After sobbing for a few hours while stuck in LA traffic, Candace asked herself three questions she hadn’t asked herself before:

“What is it that I want?”

“What do I have?”

“What can I do with my gifted talent and turn that into something incredible?”

Candace feared she had to postpone her wedding date as the bills began to pile up after quitting her job. She had a few options: find a temporary job or take the time to look within and find a career she could fall in love with. 

“I thought I needed to hurry up and just get a temporary job, whatever could pay the bills. But instead, I chose to sit down, and give myself time to realize that it’s not the end of the world. Rather, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in life.”

AL-284.jpg
Photo Courtesy Love is Sweet Events

Candace knew she had a knack for planning and initiating creative projects, but never quite saw herself as owning her own business. Despite these doubts in her head, she decided to just go for it.

She tapped into her entrepreneurial talents and realized that she had always been meticulous about details and loved perfection and planning events. The one career that stuck out to her was wedding planning and spending her days surrounded by love. Candace seemingly eased into wedding planning with a love for all things sweet—it was like a match made in heaven. 

“I have always enjoyed planning special events, family vacations, and just planning things in general. I love seeing people’s reactions and love that I am literally changing their lives.”

IMG_3307
Photo courtesy Candace Lam, founder and CEO of Love is Sweet Events.

That same evening, Candace started doing research on how to plan her own wedding as practice before she got into planning weddings for others.

“I felt like once I was able to plan my own wedding, I realized I would be able to plan many more people’s weddings.”

She took some time to figure out how much was in her savings and whether she had enough funds to start her own company as a wedding planner.

AL-150
Photo courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

Candace spent nearly three months drafting and writing her own business plan, taking a wedding planning certified course, and branding and building her website. After the culmination of long hours and plenty of uncertainty and doubt, Candace finally established her company.

Since 2012, her company has been featured on prominent wedding blogs and magazines, and online wedding marketplaces like WeddingWire and The Knot.  

Carlos & Jessicas1352
Courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

Love is Sweet Events wants to remind clients that love always melts our hearts and is always sweet, says Candace. Wedding planning can be stressful, so Candace and her team hope to spread as much joy and love as possible during one of the most hectic but sweet moments. 

When it comes to wedding planning, Candace and her team are grateful for the opportunity to create a memorable experience for couples and their families. It’s often about the loving experience left behind — not the party favors, or even the cake, or the fancy arrangement and material items. It’s about the ambiance created by the team of planners who helped make a couple’s day extra special.

“It is something that they will remember for the rest of their lives because it is a special moment and a once in a lifetime moment,” said Candace. 

AL-72.jpg
Photo courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

This year, Candace and her team have booked approximately 40 weddings. Her clients are from all over Southern California – from the San Gabriel Valley to the Westside, Inland Empire, and Orange County.

Often the most rewarding part of the wedding planning process is when Candace’s clients recognize her team’s creativity and hard work, often doing a shoutout during a “Thank You” speech in front of all their guests, Candace said.  

IMG_9695.PNG
Photo courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

One of her favorite moments after planning a wedding is being able to witness the couple’s first dance and seeing the love in their eyes, says Candace. 

“I still find it a miracle to see two people are truly in love, the way they smile and look at each other, they promise to take care of each other because of love.  It is still melting my heart even if I have planned over 100 weddings already,” said Candace.

_F1A2924.jpg
Photo courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

Although wedding planning is a tough and stressful job, it’s still very much rewarding, says Candace. She thrives on challenges and enjoys collaborating with her team, clients, and vendors, making sure that everything is running smoothly before, in between, and on the big day so that the couple and their families can enjoy without stressing out about the little details. 

_F1A3178.jpg
Courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

Candace loves keeping up with the latest trends in the wedding world. Lately, she shares that she’s been seeing a lot more hints of gold and rose gold at wedding ceremonies.

“Instead of a big ball gown, the bride often chooses a simple lace wedding dress, and instead of three or four tier wedding cakes, they would rather just do a newlywed cake with one tier,” said Candace, who emphasized the minimalistic elements in weddings that still make a big statement.

Smokey-Hollow-Studios-Wedding-Deniele-Ben-00057.jpg
Photo courtesy Love is Sweet Events

When she is not planning weddings or scoping out venues and flower shops, Candace is busy spending time with her toddler son Casper, who loves to read and dance. 

“Casper is one of my biggest motivations. I tell him every day and night how much I love him, I explain to him that mommy goes to work and makes money for the family, and I always think about him.”

Candace says being a full-time mompreneur, wife, and wedding planner is a balancing act. “My focus is with my family and I try to spend as much time as possible with Casper by taking him to different museums and parks. Being a mom is already a full-time job and managing my own business (my other baby) keep my hands full every day, but I still enjoy doing what I am doing because I love my job,” said Candace.

IMG_7320.PNG
Son Casper and Candace Lam. Photo courtesy Candace Lam

A voracious planner and travel bug, Candace loves visiting new places and immersing herself in new experiences and binge-watching romantic comedies like “The Big Sick.”

Candace loves sharing her travel stories and is currently facing her fear of heights and swimming. Just recently, Candace went to Jamaica with her husband, where they went horseback riding along the coast.“My horse left the group, he had decided to jump into the water and started swimming.  I started getting nervous and asked for help!” She also plans to visit Peru for her birthday in September.

Another memorable traveling experience she recalls was when she went zip lining in Catalina Island with her husband. Unfortunately, she was stuck in the middle of the line for a long time, which scared her half to death. But at that moment, there was something beautifully calming because she realized that she stepped out of her comfort zone–much like what she has done launching her own business and falling in love with herself again. 

“Though these experiences kind of scared me, it doesn’t stop me from doing new activity.  I learn how to not get stuck at the zipline by adjusting my body a little bit better. I was so scared of water because I didn’t know how to swim, so I went ahead and learned how to swim while traveling to Cancun.”

C019F1D7-F6CF-4F88-9D0E-ED7271A51BD5-18200-0000092F5EDAAAAB_tmp.JPG
Candace and her family. Photo courtesy Candace Lam

Candace says as a wedding planner, her goal is to ultimately capture the sweetness of love on a couple’s special day, through careful selection, and meshing of personalities and different eclectic tastes to create a warm and welcoming ambiance on the big day.

“Love heals people. Love brings people together. Love is strong, and it can conquer fear.  Love brings hope to people and it can change people for the better. Love is joyful and when two people are truly in love, it is the sweetest thing ever,” said Candace. 

IMG_8270.JPG

Candace is grateful for finding a career that is fulfilling, rewarding, and challenging and encourages those who are in a creative rut to keep going and to create their own opportunities if they hit a brick wall. Every day is a learning opportunity and challenge, says Lam.

Carlos & Jessicas1746
Photo courtesy Love is Sweet Events/Candace Lam

“I am still learning in my current job, every single day the universe is giving me lots of opportunities to learn and shape myself to become a better person, a better Mom, a better wife, a better daughter, a better boss.”

Written by Monica Luhar

*All photos courtesy Candace Lam.

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 3.51.02 PM

Learn more about Candace and Love is Sweet Events here.

Featured

Kirtan with Kamini: A Spiritual and Meditative Journey

For musician and teacher Kamini Natarajan, kirtan, or community singing and chanting, has always been a deeply spiritual journey. The melodic sounds from the tabla and harmonium coupled with group chanting, singing, and meditation provide a sense of euphoria and natural high, says Natarajan. 

“It is a journey that is different for each one of us even as we sing and chant together. It leads and connects me with my innermost self and at the same time, healing and opening up my mind and soul for giving and receiving from the universe,” said the 43-year-old musician.

DSCF1516 (2).jpg

Every month, Kamini hosts “Kirtan with Kamini,” a community and donation-based kirtan in her hometown of Simi Valley, California. The kirtan consists of a blend of different voices, percussions, chants, and melodic instruments like the tabla, harmonium, and manjira that work together in unity to create a harmonizing wave of sound, said Kamini.

Meditation doesn’t come very easily to many people, says Kamini. That’s why she often encourages people to try kirtan as a way to meditate and look inward to stop the inside chatter.  

“It is hard to sit still and let your thoughts wander. Kirtan helps. When we actively sing, listen, and chant it, it becomes our thought. We replace our random mind chatter with chants and music and that is why Kirtan works,” said Kamini.

Kamini also believes in the power and science behind chanting and meditation.

“Group singing like kirtan has been scientifically proven to release serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine in our body and all of these chemicals and neurotransmitters are related with the feeling of happiness and joy,” said Kamini.

Kamini says she is grateful to find that many people often come back to her kirtan sessions because they notice substantial health benefits like better sleep, less stress, and overall happiness. Kirtan originated in India and is another means of connecting with the community through singing and chanting, says Kamini. 

DSC_8774 (1).jpg

The kirtans that Kamini sings are often based on an Indian Raga, which is the core of Indian classical music.

“Apart from the spiritual aspect of it, when we sing together, we connect with people–some of whom I meet for the first time. Kirtan creates this special community bond that I look forward to. Kirtan meetups make it possible to bring together people of all races, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientations. It is like a celebration of diversity in one way.”

Kamini’s kirtan sessions often start off with a delicious South Asian-style vegan potluck. This gives a chance for newcomers and regulars to get to know one another and converse over some good food. As her band sets up, they sit comfortably on a rug and recite “OM,” the seed one-syllable sound before reciting mantras and singing. 

Kamini says her kirtan sessions are open to all. Many of her chants and mantras are directed toward Hindu Gods and Goddesses, but Kamini says she also incorporates songs for world peace. “We do some Kundalini chants, some Buddhist chants. I typically do more Hindu chants just because I know more of them.”

Kamini launched “Kirtan with Kamini” in September of 2014 shortly after moving to Simi Valley. She and has since hosted 40 kirtans so far and there is always a growing interest for more meetups and kirtan sessions. 

“I believe in the power of culture, community, and collaboration. I am a strong believer in feminine power,” said Kamini, who previously lived in West LA. She found that there were plenty kirtans there, but when she moved, she couldn’t find any so she noticed there was a need to bring kirtan to Simi Valley. 

The Influence of Kirtan

Kamini was introduced to Indian classical music and kirtan when she was a child growing up in a small town in central India. She was even told that when she was an infant, she would often rock herself to sleep when she heard the sound of music.

During her childhood, Kamini lived in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarati, and Delhi, India, and moved around quite a bit. 

“Moving from state to state in India helped me and my older sister realize diversity and taught us to embrace new languages, culture and adapt to different ways of life. ” 

Her father worked as a technical consultant at different textile factories and her mother taught English at the school Kamini attended.

While growing up, Kamini really wanted to be an engineer and also a singer, so she studied electrical engineering simultaneously with music.  “I graduated in both during the same period of time. I worked as an engineer for some time period before coming to the USA,” said Kamini.

Her early introduction to Indian classical music helped her connect and better understand and celebrate both her Indian and American identities, she says.

“The chants and mantras that I learned as a little kid, connect me with my roots, and bring back memories of my grandmother, of my little town, of my past and connects them all with my present.”

She recalls one fond memory in particular when her neighbors across the street in a small town in Maharashtra, India, used to organize weekly Kirtan sessions at their home. She remembers attending them regularly with her mom and sister, singing for different Hindu deities. There was a sense of calmness and power being surrounded by positive female role models and Kamini knew she was meant to continue on in her journey with kirtan.

After marriage, Kamini moved to the U.S. in 2002 and began missing the community experience of kirtan and Indian classical music sessions immensely. She yearned for a community like the one created by neighbors and friends at kirtan sessions in India, and also struggled to understand and adapt to some of the new customs and way of life in the U.S.

“When I arrived, I was on a dependent H4 visa which at that time did not allow me to work or be employed.”

Kamini decided to enroll herself in a community college to take some extra courses and keep herself busy.

“The entire community college system was very new and different to me. I was in my late twenties at that time and there were kids half my age, so there was that challenge.”

There was also a language barrier that Kamini experienced. She also didn’t have a car, so she had to rely on LA’s almost non-existent public transportation at the time, she said.  

“In community college, despite me being the shy, awkward, soon to be 30-year-old, with a thick accent who could not understand any American euphemisms, slang phrases, the students around me were generally pretty good with me.”

Kamini often says that it took her traveling some 9,000 miles from India to LA to realize and appreciate what Kirtan is all about: the diversity of voices and the unity of individuals. 

“I started singing Kirtans back in India but as a musician, I always sought musical perfection. I always concentrated more on the technical aspect of it rather than spiritual. There was also that artist’s ego in me.”

Once she immigrated to the U.S., she began to have a deeper appreciation for kirtan singers here and how they tried to learn and embrace mantras and chants to really make it their own.

“I started realizing the true meaning of Kirtans. The more I sang kirtans, the more I realized it was not at all about musicianship. Kirtan is not a concert, it is not a performance. It is singing together and the ‘heart of singing.'”

kamini-web (1).jpg

When she first heard about kirtans that were hosted in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, she admits she was either annoyed or amused by these sessions because to her, she thought these kirtans were culturally appropriated by individuals who didn’t know about the history behind kirtans.

“I was annoyed because to me it was cultural appropriation–taking from Indian culture and making it sound fancy, totally mispronouncing words and chants, turning sacred music into a party, dance music,” said Kamini.

But Kamini also realized that she had to also let go of her judgments and be open to letting everyone enjoy kirtans by letting go of her limiting beliefs. 

“Who am I to judge whether someone is really trying or is just having fun? I had to let go of what I thought was right and what I considered wrong. I had to let go of my ego.”

Hosting regular kirtan sessions at her home has helped Kamini better understand the healing power behind kirtan, and more importantly, people. It’s also allowed her to be more open-minded and remove herself from the ego and judgmental thoughts.

“It has made me more aware of unity in diversity. It has made me more open as a person. It has taught me to let go and take it easy. It has taught me to go with the flow and that losing control is not as bad as I thought it was.”

She’s also learned how to embrace uncertainties either in life or during an unplanned kirtan session.

“I used to be somewhat of a control freak before kirtans. I am glad kirtan has made me more confident in dealing with uncertainties. I am also happy to have created this community through kirtan. I am glad that I am one of the very few South Asian American women to lead and organize kirtans in the U.S.”

DSC_8774 (1)

By day, Kamini works as an e-commerce manager for a vegan skincare brand and is a mom to a seven-year-old daughter. She also runs her own music school, records music, and performs with her world music band, Atmasandhi, and organizes Kirtan meetups.

Many people have asked Kamini why she decided to organize kirtan meetups and her answer is simple: “I want to be a strong South Asian American woman and role model for my daughter. I want her to know that she can do it all. I want her to know that ‘yes, it might be difficult to have two completely different careers while maintaining a good life-work balance, but we are capable of it.’”

Kamini has always considered herself to be a strong independent woman, and she hopes to pass along the lessons she’s learned to her young daughter, letting her know she can carve her own path. She also wants her daughter to know that women don’t need to sacrifice their dreams for the family and that they can live their dreams and take their family along with them on the journey. 

“I neither want her to think that getting married, becoming an engineer or doctor and having a kid is the goal of her life, nor do I want her to think that if she chooses to do just that, it is bad or any lesser. I don’t want her to believe in what I used to hear often back in India when I did not yet have her, sayings like, ‘having a kid completes a woman,’” said Kamini.

“I want her to know that it is okay for Mom to be the dominant person in her family. I also want her to know that, no, she doesn’t need a man to protect her or take the lead always or make all important decisions for the family.”

-Written by Monica Luhar 

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 3.51.02 PM

*The next Kirtan with Kamini session is September 8, 2018 at 7 p.m. in Simi Valley. For more information about Kamini’s music, visit her website. 

Featured

A Daughter’s Fight to Destigmatize Mental Health Issues in the South Asian Community

28958477_10102729830619571_1726468125894901760_oDimple Patel from West Chicago, Illinois, remembers the day she received an alarming number of missed calls at work eight years ago.

Earlier that day, Dimple went to the library to study for the GRE before heading to work later that evening. Her mom had called a few hours earlier, asking if she could pick up some medications from Walgreens.

“I knew she was having a difficult time, but I didn’t know it was that bad. She never once verbalized suicidal ideations,” said the 31-year-old therapist. 

When Dimple called a few family members back, they told her to leave work and immediately head home. 

“I was talking to a friend on my drive back, I kept saying, ‘I think something is wrong,’ but tried not to think about it as much.”

The drive back home took 40 minutes. Dimple had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach but tried to convince herself to stay calm. 

“In a matter of hours, my life flipped upside down—as if someone sucker punched me and ripped my heart out,” said Dimple.

Dimple said she was the last person in the family to find out that her mom had taken her life. It was a police officer who had told her the news that her mom died by suicide.

“All I wanted to do was cry. I just could not provide an explanation of what happened…you always hear about these stories, but when it happens to you, what do you do?”

View this post on Instagram

Day 13 of Mental Health Awareness Month! Today, it’s about my Mom! I want to share why I started Mental Health Bhavanas. It’s to share my mom’s story with the world. I want to address the shame and stigma associated with South Asian mental health issues. I believe the only way to create awareness is by speaking up and providing education to make it more comfortable to talk about these difficult issues. . . Happy Mother’s Day Mom! Sending you lots of love today 💕! I would give anything to see have you here, especially this week as Ankit and @aktap427 get married. The memories will always keep us close and no one can take that away. I just have realized how much I miss you as I get older and how much I need you. . Don’t ignore the signs of mental illness even if they are passive suicidal comments. I rather have someone hate me than not do anything if I’m concerned. As this is Mental Health Awareness Month, @mentalhealthbhavanas is posting daily. Your mental health matters. The shame and stigma is definitely present within the South Asian community, especially topics such as suicide. . . #southasian #southasianmentalhealth #southasianmentalhealthissues #suicide #suicideprevention #suicideawareness #mentalhealth #mentalhealthawareness #mentalhealthmatters #teampatel #afspil #afspnational #yourenotalone #crisistextline #mentalhealthadvocate @afspillinois @afspnational

A post shared by Dimple Patel, Psy.D. (@mentalhealthbhavanas) on

After her mom had passed, Dimple was devastated by some of the misconceptions and hurtful rumors in the South Asian community about her mom’s passing. These myths and hurtful assumptions prompted her to shatter the stigma of mental health through her advocacy and doctoral work later in her career.

“It just helped me realize how much ignorance is still out there. I truly saw the lack of education about mental health issues,” said Dimple, a doctoral student in clinical psychology. Next year, she will be working as a therapist with a focus on spreading awareness about South Asian mental health, she says.

12573048_10101663905312431_3902978179551939809_n (1).jpg

“My mom’s death also helped me hone in on what I wanted to focus on. It helped me see how big of an issue this was in our community,” said Dimple. “I remember when I had lost all hope of getting into my doctorate program. It was my mom that kept encouraging me to keep trying.”

In the South Asian community, mental health is stigmatized and not openly discussed or talked about because of the shame attached to seeking services, Dimple explained. 

“After my mom’s passing, I debated if I should share my mom’s story and my experience with it. As I reflect on the past today, I am glad I did. Unknowingly, I found what I was meant to do.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in five U.S. adults (44.7 million) lives with a mental illness. And according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. Additionally, Asian-Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services or support. 

Dimple remembers worrying about what others in the South Asian community were going to say because of the stigma and shame attached to mental illness.

“I was worried about what others were going to say. I lost my mother to suicide in 2011. I never publicly said my mother died by suicide. At the time, I actually did not know anyone else who had lost their parent to suicide. I felt so alone even despite having a good support system around me,” said Dimple.

15443035_10102077484875671_1472214911651536766_o (1).jpg

Dimple recalls that it took many years for her to realize that sharing her mom’s story provided an important and much-needed space for other South Asians to not feel alone and to know there are resources and support out there. 

Since the passing of her mom, Dimple has emerged as a mental health advocate in the South Asian community, inspired to tell her mother’s story and help others who are struggling with mental illness.

Dimple was recently nominated for consideration to the Board of Directors for the Illinois Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

“To be nominated is such an honor. Over the past few years, AFSP has become a big part of my life and it has given me an outlet to speak openly about suicide prevention without the stigma and shame that is often attached to it,” said Dimple. 

Dimple hopes that by sharing her mom’s story, she will work toward shattering the stigma behind mental health in the South Asian community and help make difference in someone’s life as a clinical psychologist.

In 2016, she participated in Deconstructing Stigma, a mental health campaign created by the McLean Hospital. The photo and story installation aim to help deconstruct and share the stories of those who have been affected by mental health illness.

In the campaign, Dimple shared her mom’s story in a piece titled, “In the South Asian Culture, We Simply Don’t Talk about Mental Health.” The story was featured on display at an exhibit at the Boston Logan International Airport alongside hundreds of others.

View this post on Instagram

Day 24 of Mental Health Awareness Month! This post is very special to me as I am currently in Boston and got a chance to revisit my exhibit! In 2016, I got to participate in a mental health campaign through McLean Hospital as the only South Asian participant. The campaign is called Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life! This campaign (https://deconstructingstigma.org/stories) means the world to me! I got to meet so many amazing individuals who were brave enough to share their stories with the world! Thank you McLean Hospital for letting me share my mother’s suicide story and addressing South Asian mental health issues. With this campaign, I was fortunate to write for the Huffington Post, Deconstructing Stigma: Confronting the Reality of Suicides in the South Asian Culture (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mclean-hospital/deconstructing-stigma-con_b_13752414.html). I could not have done this without the love and support from everyone! The reason I am so vocal about my own experiences with mental health and my mother’s suicide, is due to the stigma and shame surrounding these issues. When I lost my mom 6 years ago, I had no one to relate to. No one knew how I felt and I felt so alone. I did not know how to manage my feelings and her loss. Through the years, the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention – Chicagoland chapter allowed me to find my voice and how I wanted express myself. #TeamPatel has been going strong for 4 years and has raised over $11,000! This will be our 5th year walking and I will be posting about our fundraising very soon!! Thank you from the bottom of my heart! Sharing something this person is scary, but I hope you all will continue to support and follow #TeamPatel as we continue towards raising awareness for South Asian mental health and suicide prevention‼️ If you’re on Boston/flying through — The exhibit is on display at Boston’s Logan Airport, covers the entire 235-hallway that connects Terminal B and C on the Departure level. #southasian #southasianmentalhealth #suicideprevention #suicideawareness #mentalhealth #mentalhealthawareness #teampatel #afspil #afspnational #mentalhealthadvocate

A post shared by Dimple Patel, Psy.D. (@mentalhealthbhavanas) on

“It took me a long time to process that my mother’s death was a suicide. There is such a stigma about mental health in my culture. At first, I just did not know how to explain it, or even approach it. I felt like I had to hide behind the truth, as I ‘should not’ talk about it. It made me so angry,” said Dimple.

Earlier this year, Dimple launched a project on Instagram, @MentalHealthBhavanas, named in memory of her mom, Bhavana. The aim of this project is to raise awareness about mental health in the South Asian community and facilitate conversations, reduce the stigma and shame attached to mental illness, and provide education and resources. 

Prior to losing her mom at age 23, Dimple shares that she faced her own mental health challenges while in undergrad. But it wasn’t until her mother’s passing when Dimple began to really look at mental health issues within the South Asian culture and realized how mental health continues to be stigmatized and that more awareness and resources need to be made available in the community. 

Even from my own experience in college, as Asian-Americans we are expected to fit into the Model Minority Myth,” said Dimple.

View this post on Instagram

Team Patel at the @afspillinois 2017 Out of the Darkness Walk! . Want to be a part of the change? You have no idea how much of a difference it makes when you attend this walk even if you don’t donate. Change can only happen when you do something. So join me and help us make a difference with @afspnational! . Suicide prevention is my a part of my life now. I never knew how much it would impact me until I lost my Mom. At the time, I never knew how big this issue was within the South Asian community. However, through my clinical work, I realized this issue is universal. Suicide impacts us all. . So please be mindful of comments you make (e.g. ah I just want to die, kill me, shoot me…). It breaks my heart to hear that. I stop immediately and can hear it so clearly. And it just makes me sad. Think about what you say. Those words are powerful. . . #southasian #southasianmentalhealth #southasianmentalhealthissues #suicide #suicideprevention #suicideawareness #mentalhealth #mentalhealthawareness #mentalhealthmatters #teampatel #afspil #afspnational #yourenotalone #crisistextline #mentalhealthadvocate

A post shared by Dimple Patel, Psy.D. (@mentalhealthbhavanas) on

After a car accident in 2008 Dimple fractured her pelvis and experienced depression and anxiety. A few weeks into college, that’s when Dimple experienced her first panic attack. Over the years, and shortly after her mother’s passing, Dimple continued to struggle with mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

“I noticed myself sinking into depression. It felt like waves, up and down, but more down. I didn’t want to eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I hated being alone. I tried not to sleep as much because I would dream about her. I had such vivid dreams that she was still alive and we had to explain where she was and what happened. It was the only time I could actually feel her and I hated waking up because I didn’t want to be in reality.”

Dimple knew she needed help, so she went to a counseling center at DePaul University. It was there when she realized her true calling: serving as a mental health advocate in her community and helping others through their mental health challenges. 

29133631_10102729830799211_1708146817612382208_o (1).jpg

“Imagine if we openly were able to talk about mental health issues within the South Asian community? How many lives would we be able to save? How many individuals would seek professional services? Just what if…? We need to keep talking about these uncomfortable topics and bring awareness to them as well as providing psychoeducation,” said Dimple. 

Therapy allowed Dimple to rebuild her life and encourage others to seek help as well. Today, she shares that she has been more consistent with therapy. In a blog post with Brown Girl Magazine, Dimple shared her transparency about dealing with generalized anxiety disorder as a therapist.  

In 2014, Dimple organized “Team Patel,” a group of mental health advocates for the Chicagoland Out of the Darkness walk through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. #TeamPatel, an organized effort to raise awareness for suicide prevention, has raised approximately $11,000 so far to help shed awareness about South Asian mental health and suicide prevention. Dimple is currently planning the fifth year of #TeamPatel through the 2018 Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Community Walk on September 22. She is walking for her mom, Bhavana, and many other mental health advocates and individuals who struggle with mental illness. 

Dimple said before this walk, she didn’t share her mother’s story publicly with anyone for fear of the stigma attached to mental health in the South Asian community, she explained. But in organizing the #TeamPatel walks, she’s come to realize how powerful it is to share her mom’s story and help toward shattering the stigma behind mental health.

14517593_10101977305840261_3419296979392777204_n (1).jpg

“I did not share my story with anyone at first because I was afraid of how others would perceive this situation The stigma attached to mental health issues in the South Asian culture may prevent individuals from seeking professional help due to the cultural pressures and barriers against treatment,” said Dimple. 

Dimple said there are moments that reveal that the work she and countless others are doing is making a difference. Every time she shares her mom’s story, an individual from the South Asian community will reach out to her and open up about their own mental health challenges, she shared. 

She recalls how someone from the South Asian community recently reached out to her and shared how her brother had been drinking a lot and expressed suicidal ideations.

“She connected with me and finally got her family on board and she spoke to her brother and he has agreed to see a therapist. In that moment, I saw something different. I saw how much of a difference it made for someone else to know what I’ve gone through, my mom, and my clinical experience, even just briefly. I’m really happy that it did make a difference for someone else. That’s the main purpose of this,” said Dimple.

“You are not alone. We all go through something. I just happened to put my voice out there. It takes one person to step up and others will follow. I have had so many people reach out to me privately and share their stories. They appreciated knowing they were not alone and someone was talking about it.” 

–Written by Monica Luhar @monicaluhar 

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 3.51.02 PM

*“If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.”

*Dimple Patel is raising funds for the Chicagoland “Out of the Darkness Walk” supporting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, through her fundraiser, “Team Patel.” Visit the link here for more information or ways to donate.

Featured

Andrea’s Healthy Kitchen: Latina-Owned Organic Detox Juice Line

36223912_10155578977730777_2676141654817112064_nIn 2013, Andrea’s Healthy Kitchen was born out of a desire to encourage healthy lifestyle changes among friends and family. It was also an experiment to document her own personal health and wellness journey, says founder Tatiana Mejia Pacheco. 

Five years before she launched her organic fruit and veggie detox juice line out of her own personal kitchen in Rosemead, California, Tatiana struggled with many physical and emotional insecurities. There were moments when she lacked self-esteem and struggled to embrace the woman in the mirror. 

“My insecurities were not only physical. As a Latina immigrant, I felt disadvantaged, like it was a combination of a lot of things that made me feel less than others,” said Tatiana, noting that one of her insecurities before launching her small business was dealing with a language barrier after moving to the U.S. and learning English as a second language.

“I would say language was my biggest barrier because I came to use English when I was already an adult.”

There was also a period of unemployment that caused Tatiana to find other income revenues to support her family. She lifted herself back up again by diverting her attention to a journey of juicing and healthy, clean eating. These hurdles and setbacks are what ultimately led Tatiana to create Andrea’s Healthy Kitchen. 

“Unfortunately, I got unemployed for the third time in less than four years, so I got tired of depending on a paycheck. I didn’t know what to do to bring extra cash to my house, and at that time, I was on a new journey of eating healthy,” said Tatiana.