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Aruba Change-makers

A trip that left me raw and inspired.

How was Aruba?

I have been asked this question so many times since being back. How to answer? Well it was great, it broke my heart, inspired me. I laughed, I cried, I left feeling raw, like someone uprooted me, shook me violently and then set me back down and on my way. It is such a hard question to answer, but before taking you on my journey lets start from the beginning. Below you will find a narrative of my trip, start to finish. Journal entries have been used to share the story, you will find these in italics.

October 6 2016

"I just put a deposit down for the 109 World Mission trip to Aruba! Wow, what a leap of faith. I have never been to Aruba, I am going by myself and I get to practice yoga with none other then @yogagirl !!! "

I was right, it was a complete leap of faith. I had known for a while that I wanted to participate in a 109 World Mission trip. When they announced that they would be hosting an animal rescue trip on their home island of Aruba, I was hooked. This mission trip was the mecca of mission trips. So many collaborations between non-profits that I held dear to my heart. Plus puppies and yoga! Who could resist.

To give you some background; 109 world is a non-profit started by Rachel Brathen, also recognized by @yoga_girl on Instagram. Rachel has been a huge inspiration to me for a number of years. I had the opportunity to practice yoga with her in SF, stood in line to get my book signed like a real fan girl should and have spent countless moments in tears hanging on every authentic Instagram post she has shared with her followers.

A few years ago her beloved dog Sgt. Pepper passed away and through the heartbreak she created a non-profit for animal rescue to honor his name. Can you see where this is going?

So, this mission trip was a collaboration between 109 World, Sgt. Peppers Friends and Island Yoga. Island Yoga is the studio that Rachel just opened in Aruba at the beginning of the year. The Aruba mission trip was unlike any others because all of these entities would be working together to host the trip. The participants would be going on a 109 mission trip, supporting Sgt. Peppers friends and Island Yoga would be hosting the entire trip! So again, puppies and yoga :)

As you can imagine, the interest level for this specific mission trip was on another level. When they announced it I actually emailed 109World, Sgt. Peppers Friends and Rachel to see if I could get any more details on when the trip would be available. I turned my Instagram notifications on, woke up every morning to check and see if it was posted. I even had all of my card information pre-loaded into the 109World site so that there would be no complications when it went live. Fortunately because of this I was able to get one of the first spots once it was announced! To give you an idea of how many people wanted to be a part of this- the group was originally around 25 and sold out almost instantly. They opened up more spots two separate times to make the grand total around 65 participants! The trip was at the end of January and now I had a few months so get myself ready.

"I booked the animal trip today. I am full of excitement and hope I know what I am getting myself into <3 Goodnight world XOXO"

January 24 2017

Day 1

"What a day. Today was the start of an amazing trip and it started off with an incredibly eye opening experience. Some of the girls and I walked into town before we were scheduled to meet the big group. Aruba is beautiful, 80 degrees, a slight breeze, a turquoise sea that melts into a deep blue sky and animals everywhere. Dogs, cats, puppies they are everywhere and so so friendly.

On our way back from town we were walking down the dirt path to our hotel. As we were about to turn the corner we all spotted a small black cat. The amount of animals walking near or around the road is alarming and we all noticed this particular cat because the contrast of its back fur next to the pale dirt road made it stick out.

As we watched in horror a large SUV came around the corner and hit the cat, killing it. It was horrific. Tears immediately began pouring down my face and even as I write this now, it is still so hard to think about. At that very moment I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

After decompressing in my hotel room it was time to walk over to Island Yoga for our welcome circle and practice lead by Rachel. I was still shaky and nauseous but also hopeful that I would have some positive impact during my stay on this beautiful Island. In my mind "Shit just got real".

"Wow I am here, I am actually here and it is amazing. We had our welcome circle and the whole room was buzzing with energy. There are some moments in life that will never be forgotten and tonight sitting in that room was one of those moments."

January 25 2017

Day 2

We started off Day 2 with an amazing smoothie, thank you @nourish.aruba. Followed by an amazing morning vinyasa flow, thank you @amrevandeberg. Followed by a meeting in the Luna Shala to go over the purpose of the trip, thank you @109world. I was able to learn more about 109 World and who was involved, so here is a bit more history.

109 world was founded by three powerful change makers, two of which are pregnant right now <3 Rachel Brathen is the founder of the non-profit and she works alongside her co-founders; Olivia Rothschild and Leticia Reyes. The team has grown and now also includes Sloan Gerritzen, Impact Maveric, as well as Tomas Pettersson and Linus Eliasson. Tomas and Linus are creative content wizards and many of the photos and videos shared in this blog are images taken by them. 109 World's focus is on the eight main "passions" that are dear to their heart. These include:

  • Animals
  • Education
  • Children
  • Environment
  • Food Security 
  • Well Being 
  • Water
  • Women

This particular trip was focused on animals but in the past year they have been to Nicaragua to supply water to a small town, Latvia to work with children and Ecuador to support towns that were devastated by the massive earthquake that hit.

Being that Rachel was in her 8th month of pregnancy, Olivia (also pregnant) and Leticia were the two spearheads for this trip. They organized everything and did a great job doing so. Because we were such a large group, we were split into 3 groups. Each group would have a different agenda for the day but every group would be able to experience the same activities. I was placed in group 1 and our first activity was an Animal Rescue. They were sure to warn us that it was not guaranteed that we would actually be able to see an animal rescue, well because who can predict when that will happen?! Fortunately, we were able to see a beautiful animal rescue and below you can read more about that.

Animal Rescue

It is a bit difficult for me to capture the emotion and feelings that followed the animal rescue. To me visuals and narrative are essential for capturing moments so I will include my journal entries and photo's to share the experience. 

"The circle of life - Today was a roller coaster of emotions happiness/ sadness/ excitement/ dread/ inspiration. The day started off with a rescue mission on the island. We arrived at a families house to find a ton of puppies full of fleas and ticks. They were crawling all over their faces and ears. The family was very compliant and let us take the dogs from the property. We rushed to vet (on a holiday) thank goodness he was on call. He was able to treat all seven and besides the fleas and ticks they were all in pretty good shape. While we were in the vet room, happy and full of excitement with the puppies, some tourist walked in holding a dog in very bad shape. She was emaciated, wounded and had barely any life left in her eyes. We called her sunflower because she had a collar full of sunflowers. The most painful thing to realize was that this dog had an owner at one point and their owner had completely abandoned her. She was a sweetheart even though she could barely lift her head. Her prognosis was not good, she would not eat, would not drink and had tumors all over her legs. She would not make it but her last moments were spent around compassion, around love and around people who truly cared about her. Now she has crossed the rainbow bridge. The circle of life ~ Today was hard but also inspiring. I am so thankful to be around likeminded people who have a true heart and compassion for animals."

RIP Sunflower​

"Life and Death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides" -LaoTzu 

Day 2-

The second day started with another morning circle. This circle was different though. Rather then the exciting buzz which filled the room the day prior, today a heavy sadness filled the air. Many of us looked tired, not physically but emotionally. The ending of the animal rescue day left some of us low and feeling hopeless, including me.

After the majority of us left with the excitement of the puppies a few members of the group stayed with Sunflower and the vet to see what her prognosis would be. It was not good. She had to be put down and a few of the volunteers had stayed with her while she crossed the rainbow bridge. They showered her with love and compassion during her final moments.  As tragic as this was it was also beautiful. Sunflower felt that she was loved, she did not have to die on the side of the road, cold and afraid. It was the silver lining.

We went around the circle and anyone who needed to have a moment was able to do so. We cried for Sunflower and we cried for the hundreds of other dogs who never got the chance to cross the bridge feeling loved. We cried, we hugged and then we yoga-ed :)

Animal Shelter

For my group Day 2 meant the animal shelter, so after our morning circle and some delicious avocado toast we headed off!

Here is some background on the Animal Shelter- The first animal shelter on the island was opened in 1950, it was located in an old reconstructed bunker at the airport. After many years it shut down and in 1986 the shelter was re-opened at a new location. From there it moved again in 1996 to the location where it stands now. This is the location we were able to visit. The shelter was strategically placed next to the "kill cage" and when I say strategically placed I mean they share a wall.

Here is some background on the kill cage- The "kill cage" or "kill bin" was implemented by the government to try to keep the stray dog/cat population at bay. It is a government funded program that was started years ago. What this means is that people can bring their unwanted dogs/cats/pets/strays/puppies to the kill cage and every 24 hours someone will euthanize all of the animals that were dropped off. Numbers online vary from 50 to 30 to 15 animals per day. While we were there they said there was usually an average of around 25 per day. The reason the shelter is strategically placed right next door is because every morning, depending on available space in the shelter, volunteers will go into the kill cage and save which animals they can. This often means the puppies because puppies are more likely to be adopted out.

Visiting the shelter and being around the kill cage was an experience I will never forget. Below are journal entries and photos of that day.

"What a day. I am angry. I am sad. I don't know how to feel. I am angry because I can't imagine how there is a human on this earth who can kill upwards of thirty animals a day. I am angry because that means that thirty people dropped off these helpless animals, knowing their fate. I am sad because these hopeless souls have no hope. Born to die. Bred to be killed after the cuteness of puppies wears off. I don't know how to feel because I know this is not an "Aruba" issue. It is everywhere. So many animals without homes, without the chance to have a full life.

Today we drove down to the shelter to visit the animals. We were told that the shelter was not ideal but it was a great alternative to its neighbor... the kill cage. My first thoughts after getting out of Dennis's car was ...wow... they were not kidding, the walls of each ​of the building ARE touching. How sick. Death sharing the same slab of concrete as the shelter, always a reminder of what is happening behind those walls. I wonder if the animals can feel it? I can feel it, so they must be able to feel it.

The shelter is a bright deep blue building, fresh paint with happy dogs and cats painted all over the walls. Once you enter the gate you see a huge mural that reads " We can judge the heart of a person by his treatment of animals" How true is that! Inside of the gate it is a surprisingly happy atmosphere. Puppies running all over each other, playing with each other, playing with the volunteers. Happy. The shelter is a pretty good site to see, you can tell they have put a lot of love into the building. While we were there a young man was repainting areas that had been worn by the sun.

The main volunteer explained that the best thing we could do is play with the animals and give them love. The volunteers are only around from 8 am to noon so they needed all the human love they could get. She also introduced us to three very small puppies. She had rescued them from the kill cage that morning, they had a brother who did not make it :( They were infested with ticks. Hundreds of them in their ears, paws, eyelids you name it. Some of the girls in our group spent hours picking the ticks out. The puppies looked so defeated. They had barely any life and just sat there looking at us, in a way, thanking us for helping them.

The afternoon went by quickly. I think we were all so thrilled to be playing with the dogs and cats. Everyone looked so happy, like we had all reverted back to childhood, chasing and playing with the dogs. The darkness of the building on the other side of the shelter stayed that way, on the other side. Like a dark, gloomy cloud, always there to remind everyone of why the shelter was so important. When we left we gave our last hugs, last kisses and left all the love that we could as we walked out the gate and drove away down the dirt road."

Beach Walk

"Tonight I participated in the largest dog walk in history! Ok maybe not history but with over 70 people and over 20 dogs it had to come close to record breaking :) We took a bus to a part of the island that I had not been to yet. The sand dunes. Acres of dunes, flowers, sand and of course the beautiful ocean. The dogs loved it! Well so did the humans! It was such a nice break from the heaviness that had set in from the first couple days. Rachel, Dennis and Ringo the pup were all there and there was something special about all of us together, enjoying the sun setting over the sea.

I had the pleasure of walking Xea. Her story is one of the worst on the Island and one of the worse cases of animal abuse I have seen. She was found with her siblings a week ago in horrible condition. Starved, open wounds, dehydrated you name it. Her "owner" left the island for holiday in NOVEMBER and left her 5 dogs locked up in her front yard. Meaning for 2 months they had no water and no food. The only food they had access to was the food that her neighbors had thrown over the fence. After discovering what was going on with these animals, all of the animal rescues on the island were demanding that something be done. The sad thing is that in this type of situation you cannot just break down the chain linked fence and rescue the animals because it is someone else's property. Instead, for three days everyone had to try to work together alongside the police to get justice and to get these poor animals out.

When they finally got approval to bust open the gate they had a hard task ahead. The team not only had to deal with 5 terrified animals but they were all in such grave condition that they had to be very strategic. Once inside they could see that they were completely emaciated, had open wounds from chewing on each other, no teeth from trying to eat rocks and they were all terrified.

The Sgt. Peppers group was able to catch 4 of the 5 and get them to the vet and to a foster home. The 5th sibling was actually caught the same day as our animal rescue so while the puppies were getting checked out we got to see her get processed by the vet. This intense rescue of the 5 dogs happened one week ago. One week ago!

Today Xea took her first group dog walk with us. She saw the ocean for the first time and showed us love and compassion. The perseverance of these animals floors me. I have such a huge respect for this small soul that has endured the worst of humans but still looked up at me with love while I walked her through the dunes. Today was a good day. Today gave me hope. XOXO "

Visiting the Children

" Education is our greatest opportunity to give an irrevocable gift to the next generation" -Ernie Fletcher

One of the activities that we participated in while on the island was to visit the schools and talk with the students about proper animal care. The animal issues on the island are interwoven tightly with the islands culture. Dogs have traditionally been used as a doorbell. Their purpose is to guard the house and if they are fixed how can they protect the family? Seeing animals on the side of the road, being hit by cars and having no home is part of the day to day life. Educating the younger generation is one of Sgt. Pepper's Friends goals. They bring the dogs into the classrooms, teach about loving and caring for the animals and teach them lessons that they can bring home and share with their families. While we were there we were each assigned a classroom to speak in. My group was assigned to a fifth grade class, ironically Melanie's fifth grade class. Melanie is one of the main animal rescue volunteers for Sgt. Pepper's Friends. Below is my journal entry for that day along with some great pictures of the kiddos.

"The love that these kids have for animals is so innocent, so genuine and makes my heart so happy.  

Today we went to the elementary school to speak with the children about animals. My group was assigned fifth graders which was a bit intimidating. Young enough that they soak up every word you exhale, but old enough that if they don't laugh at your joke..your left feeling like you were picked last in kickball. Luckily I brought my fancy Nikon camera and so I was dubbed "photographer lady" which was much cooler then anything I could have come up with on my own. 

We split into small groups so that we could talk to the kids about their pets. My group had quite the assortment; dogs, cats, goats, fish and a turtle. Their eyes lit up as they talked about Frank the turtle, Chimi the chihuahua and their old guard dogs. I realized that these kids loved their animals just as much as I loved my pets growing up. The disconnect was not with the love they had for their pets but more so with their reaction to the amount of strays and poor living conditions the dogs on the streets had. There was an underlying discrimination between their "pet" dogs and the "street" dogs. Their pets had water, food, beds, love and a home while the "street" dogs were scary, dirty and looked at as "less" than.

We talked about why there were street dogs in the first place and how it could be prevented. We talked about all animals having the same feelings whether they live on the street or in a house and we talked about how they had the power to prevent so many street dogs! Some of the kids had light bulbs go off, some of the kids looked at me like I was just a crazy photographer lady. All in all today was a great experience. After the past few days today was just what I needed. HOPE.

Final Thoughts

"I am sitting on the plane, back to America. I am feeling ALL the feels. Today in savasana I bawled my eyes out, I could not stop crying. Rachel came over to me, placed her hands on me and I just let it all out. I don't even know why at this point but I am sure the processing is yet to come. This was such a wonderful life-changing trip. 109 World did a great job planing the trip for us. Island yoga did a great job hosting us​. Olivia, Leticia and the whole crew are angels. They worked SO hard. Olivia was running around the entire time to make sure everything was perfect. I hope I have that kind of energy if I am ever pregnant. I can't wait to share my experience, I am definitely a 109er for life! I think I will talk to Matt about trading our vacations in for 109 trips. There were a few couples on the trip and they said that experiencing it together was an experience in itself. I feel like I will be processing for a while. And our next dog is definitely going to be from Sgt. Peppers Friends! Well off to sleep. Until next time..."

There was so many elements to this trip that were not included in this post. We had the chance to work alongside a beach clean up program and pick up trash. We volunteered at the Donkey Sanctuary and picked poisonous plants out of the area. We swam in the Caribbean sea and tried SUP yoga. You think yoga is hard? Try that shit on a paddle board :) I could write for days and days and days about this trip but to save you some time I've cut it down to the most memorable moments. I hope you enjoyed. XOXO

Cass

@greenieyogini06 / @bbg_yogicass

Acknowledgments

@109world // 109world.com

Rachel Brathen @yoga_girl - Role Model, Change-maker & cutest pregnant lady.

Olivia Rothschild @orothschild- Rockstar, inspiration & also cutest pregnant lady.

Leticia Reyes @leticiareyes- Leader, entrepreneur with the most beautiful soul.

Sloane Gerritzen @sloanes_yoga - Impact maverick, animal lover & most contagious smile.

Linus Eliasson @sodalime_ Creative content director, responsible for some of the amazing photos in this blog.

Tomas Pettersson- @sodalime_ Photographer & Filmmaker- also responsible for some of the amazing photos in this blog.

@island.yoga // islandyoga.com

Amelie Rehnvall - Manager of Island Yoga and owner to the cutest pups.

@Ambrevandeberg- Amazing yoga instructor, started us off most of the mornings with a great flow.

Nourish Cafe @nourish.aruba- Creator of the best avocado toast & green smoothies.

Brittany Waterhouse @islandsup - SUP yoga instructor, taught the most beautiful yoga class on the water.

@sgtpeppersfriends // sgtpeppersfriends.com

Melanie Uiterweer - Sleeps, breathes and lives animal rescue. An amazing angel.

Dayenne Munk- Also sleeps, breathes and lives animal rescue. Also an amazing angel.The island is so lucky to have these two.

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