The hardest part about starting this blog post has been the title.

There are posts that I write for me (most of them actually!), that serve as a good dose of therapy, where I can be myself, say what I want, and hopefully take something away each time I write.  It’s almost like a treat….like a gooey caramel centre, or gobs of sticky crimson syrup that dribble out from the dark, creamy casing that keeps the cherry honest.

I guess you’ve probably noticed that I like chocolate….and well, to say I like it, is a massive understatement!

I have stashes, backup stashes, excuses (I just need to nip out to the kitchen to grab a drink….of water….yeah…..and throw some morsels of ebony lusciousness down the hatch!), and even a plan of how to concoct some chocolatey goodness should there ever be a shortage. (A girl’s gotta be prepared!!).

And then there are times when I write with hopes that that information and feeling I’m putting out there will make a difference.  I want people to share in the emotional roller coaster to inspire them to break out from their everyday comfort zones.

Because being comfortable is safe, and easy.

Being comfortable is what we’ve done for centuries (don’t change it, it might not work, or might be…..gasp….uncomfortable!!).

Being comfortable puts us in a position where we are in the driver’s seat.  We feel we’re in control, and let’s face it, most of us love to know what’s happening one minute to the next!

And so, I’d like to share with you an experience I had while traveling in Vietnam with my family over the New Year……

As I recently turned 40, I put it out there that I didn’t want to receive any gifts, and that I would like to collect money to help a Special Needs orphanage that I had connected with in Saigon.  A turn of events would mean that I was unable to connect with that same orphanage once I reached Vietnam, but as the Universe put everything into place, I was led to just the right place, that needed just what I and everyone who had contributed had to offer.

As I walked down the picturesque streets of HoiAn, Vietnam, a young man painting a traditional hat caught my eye….IMG_4621

He got up briefly, and I noticed that he had a bit of a limp as he ushered me inside to take a look at the workshop.  Inside I met an amazing lady named Karen Leonard from Australia.  Karen has lived in Vietnam for over 11 years, and after making friends with some street kids when she first visited, she formed a bond that would have her create a humanitarian organization that aims to help those who are disabled by giving them the skills to create beautiful handicrafts that she then sells through her workshop located in  the picturesque town of HoiAn.

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I felt an instant connection with Karen and immediately inquired if she knew of any Special Needs facilities in HoiAn that needed help as I was finding it difficult to connect with the orphanage in Saigon and was keen to distribute the money to those that really needed it.  She informed me that most people are keen to come and see orphanages in Vietnam, but that it is the older children/adults that really get left behind as there is little to no support for them once they turn 16.  She mentioned that she had just started working with a homeless shelter for people with Special Needs and that they had very little.  I felt instantly that this was the place that we were meant to go.  So many people had been generous in Dubai, and I knew that they would not be let down by the fact that I could not contact the original intended destination, and that the plan had been altered.  Life’s like that sometimes……you just never know what you’re going to get (ahem…..cue Forrest Gump….).

It was decided that the money would be used to buy a much needed wheelchair, and that some additional money would be used to purchase boxes of simple craft supplies to provide a bit of joy for  these gorgeous souls who really have nothing other than each other to occupy their time.  Some crayons, coloring books, foam puzzles, and glue would bring them some joy, and I was really privileged to be able to deliver the goods myself alongside Karen and her amazing staff!

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IMG_5055The only way to REALLY get around Vietnam is by motorbike, and so on the bikes we hopped (pictured here is the lovely Karen Leonard!), and off we went!

Karen had mentioned to me that it would be best not to bring the children as it could be quite disturbing at the shelter.  As we had met a few days before the visit and discussed how things would go, I carried a little fear deep within myself of what was to come.  As many of you know, my daughter Ruby has Down Syndrome, and our journey together has been one of joy, pain, gratitude, and a constant hunger for anything that can improve Ruby’s lifestyle and learning experiences.  I feel we have been so very blessed in our journey with Rubes, despite all the challenges we have faced so far.  We have lived comfortably, with access to many great facilities and support of loved ones around us.  We are blessed, and we are abundant in the many blessings that come to us to help her progress.

I couldn’t help but harbor that feeling of fear as I envisioned poor living standards, pain, sorrow, and the prospect that there may even be some cases of encountering people that I may not have been able to face without breaking down emotionally.  I thought about it again and again, and in my belly was a hurricane of fear and anxiety, yet I had an intense feeling propelling me forward.  I had collected the money and things seemed to fit so perfectly.  Karen was trustworthy and had an established organization, and the shelter was in need of some basic supplies.  I cannot describe to you the feeling that pushed me forward, and once on the bike, I felt a sense of calm come over me.

“Find beauty where you don’t expect it to be, see beyond the exterior, feel beneath the surface…..”

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I cannot describe to you the sense of calmness, serenity, and peace I felt upon meeting all of the amazing people at the homeless shelter.  These people exude the most unassuming and beautiful aura of love that you will ever experience anywhere…..

They ranged in age from 16 to over 100 I am sure!  Most didn’t know what their conditions were, some didn’t even know their names or how they got there, but they all look out for one another, and their life is all they know.  They appear to have no expectations, and their gratitude was felt deep within my soul.

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As I walked around the shelter, I was greeted by many happy faces.  Lon was a lady I connected with straight away.  I had my camera clicking away, and it was apparent that there were some that were born to be in front of the camera!! It was interesting, an quite an intense connection when I realized how we are lead to certain moments in our life.

During our trip in Vietnam, Rubes had decided that she had a new way to pose for photographs which involved a hand signal and a funny face.  This was what most of her photo’s looked like during our trip….

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And then as if out of nowhere, this gorgeous lady appears, and I point my lens towards her and this is what she does….

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And as I look at her beautiful hands, I realize that she too, like my Ruby, has Down Syndrome.  I felt such a sense of connection with this lady, and it made me laugh when she pulled this pose.  It was as if Ruby was with me, telling me that I was in the right place, at the right time.

The shelter is very basic, and possessions are next to none.  Our boxes of crayons brought shrieks of joy, and a deep sense of calm as we laid out some plastic sheets to gather and color on.  You could sense that most of the patients were in a meditative state as they colored.  It was such a beautiful energy to be around, and not even the slightest bit of fear could have entered my being even if it tried.  The power of gratitude is strong…..

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But probably the most touching and heart warming experience came in that box of chocolates, right on the bottom row where you least expect to find it…

In the corner, peaking out from one of the rooms I spot a beautiful elderly lady all dressed in red woolies.  In her eyes I see a sense of desperation as she looks on to the younger bodies that fill the floor with their eyes fixated in their world of color and their intense desire to create and express through color.

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I walk over to her, and the only way I know how to connect is to give her a hug…..and then I feel compelled to give her a kiss.  I cannot describe to you the wave of emotion that overtook me as she started to cry the minute I made contact with her.

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I realized very quickly that her emotions were due to the fact that it was likely that no one had showed her any interest, and especially not of the physical kind in a very long time. The human connection was intense, and I immediately smiled and helped her to get down on the ground where I could show her the coloring books.  It was amazing to see when I handed her the crayons that she was beside herself not knowing what to do, and me not knowing if she had ever had this experience, or was it just that it was so long ago she was able to express herself in any way at all?

I quickly showed her how to color, and watched in amazement as, she began to color as if for the first time…

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It was beautiful, and the kind of experience that reminds you how fragile and pure life is.  We begin and end our journey in a vulnerable state, and never know what life will bring us.  When we asked this lady’s name, she could not remember.  She had no idea where she came from, or why she was even there.  It was through the simple act of putting color to paper that she was able to connect, and her message was heard loud and clear.

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It’s true that life is like a box of chocolates……some are oozing with caramel goodness, sticky fruit fillings, and the crunch of roasted nuts, while others are filled with surprises that are bitter, overly sweet, or full of sickly jellies that make our stomachs turn.

We are given so much in this life.  I hear so many people say that they wish they had time to volunteer, or that they wish they could find a charity where they knew the money was going to make it’s way there.

My message to you is this….

Don’t wait to make a difference in someone else’s life.  You can light up someone’s darkness by the simplest act of kindness.  When you travel, LOOK for opportunities to give back. The internet is a resource brimming with ideas and cries for help from those who really need it.  Set your intent to help, put it out there, and it will come together.  Ask yourself “How can I make a difference?” and the opportunities will come.

My inspiration came from a friend who had collected money for her birthday the previous year.  I followed that inspiration, and although my plan didn’t turn out exactly as I expected (as I thought the money would help a different organization), it brought me to exactly where I needed to be.  I am not a saint by any means, and neither are you….BUT we can make a difference in our neighborhoods, communities, in our schools, and on our holidays.

We CAN make a difference in the simplest way if we try.

Thank you so, so much to the people that donated money for this great cause.  The main purchase has been a wheelchair to replace the chair pictured below, which was a makeshift chair made out of a plastic garden chair!

IMG_5070Please take a minute to look at Karen’s amazing organization called Lifestart which helps people with disabilities to become self sufficient.  She has some amazing products on offer, as well as some amazing tours if you are heading to Vietnam.  You can also donate through her site, or purchase some products to help give back.

Forrest’s Mama was right when she said “Life is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get…”, but I believe it’s not what you get, but what you do with that goodness when you receive it that counts.

Visit www.lifestartfoundation.org.au to volunteer, purchase online gifts, book a tour, donate, or find out more about this amazing organization.

20 Conversations about
LIfe is Like a Box of Chocolates…

  1. Nikki Boucher Reply //

    What a gorgeous post Steph! An amazing, generous and unselfish thing to do! x

  2. Tessa Jonassen Reply //

    Wonderful to hear your story Stephanie and a soulful heart opening piece. Much love to you as you light up the lives of others.

  3. Kim Reply //

    Once again Steph you have touched so many souls through your words, pictures and actions! I cried twice while reading this touching story. We have a family memeber who is losing the ability to connect with us. This has reminded me how important a moment is, she may not remember in 5 mins what we just did, but if we connect for a moment and make her life special, make her happy then all our lives are touched. The other thing I noticed was the color in your photo’s, in their clothing, on the walls, the beautiful blue doors, a lady with painted green nails. Even the boys wore color. Something Wellington people could learn from!

    Thank you gorgeous lady xxoxoox

    • Nektar Reply //

      Thank you all for your beautiful and encouraging words!! It is an experience I won’t forget, and felt almost as though time stopped when I was there. Kim, I loved your comments about the colors…….I think it’s amazing you noticed, and took the time to really take in the detail of the photo’s….a real “in the now” kind of girl that you are!! I’m sure you connect in more ways than one with your relative. As you say, just making a small gesture can make such a difference. Who would have thought that crayons would bring such joy in this instance?? Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read my blog and to be part of my journey. I really appreciate it as I understand the constraints of modern life and limited time!! Love and light to you all!!! xxx

  4. karenleonard Reply //

    Hi Steph,
    What a beautiful blog. Thank you so much for writing with such insight and kindness.
    I am both constantly challenged and inspired by these gorgeous souls. Thank you so much for your support, it is sincerely appreciated by myself, the Lifestart Foundation team and all of those who we are trying to help to have a better life.
    Much Love,
    Karen

  5. Angela Brennan Reply //

    Amazing story Steph, you’re an inspiration to us all. I loved reading about the lady with down’s syndrome an how she greeted you. Great work, keep it up!

  6. emma Reply //

    Stephy, another awesome piece of writing. Made me ball my head off reading about the poor older lady who finally got some attention and got to draw on the colouring book. You are a legend.

  7. Kala Pierson Reply //

    Thank you for this look inside a Lifestart project! I’ve been curious about Karen’s projects ever since I randomly discovered them when I was Hoi An a few months ago.

  8. Olive Wagstaff Reply //

    Wow Stef, what an amazing story. You really are an inspiration. I’m in work and tears rolling down my cheeks!!! Amazing .. 🙂

  9. Deborah Thompson Reply //

    Amazing, wonderful, inspiring, touching…. so glad I met you through Twitter and had a chance to read your beautiful work. As others have said – you are an amazing lady. Congrats on being a human being we are all proud to know!

    • Stephanie Hamilton Reply //

      That is just the most beautiful comment, thank you so much Deborah for connecting! So glad you stumbled across my blog! Going to check out your site! You may be interested in my blog about Ethiopia as well, where 6 girls (including myself) handed out supplies to people in need while we travelled the country by 4 x 4. It was magic! Here is the link! http://nektar.ae/random/10-reasons-you-should-visit-ethiopia-now/

    • Stephanie Hamilton Reply //

      You’re welcome Maria! thanks for stopping by my blog, and the encouragement came for me during my visit in Hoi An in knowing that we are all the same when we connect. We all love to be acknowledged and LOVED. X

  10. Lilly Binns Reply //

    Hi Steph,
    I visited this shelter in December of this year and instantly fell inlove with all of the residents there! I volunteered there through World Challenge along with 15 others. It broke my heart leaving Lon!

  11. Lucy Fox Reply //

    hi Steph,
    I, like Lilly, visted this shelter earlier this year through world challenge. This blog brought tears to my eyes! Seeing photos of all the residants I became close to over the week I was there is so emotional. These residants are so amazing and its so awesome to see them happy! Especailly Lan.

  12. Shannon Fitzgerald Reply //

    Hey Stephanie! I went to this exact orphanage while on a trip with World Challenge. We worked there for a week straight just hanging out with the residents and helping out with odd job around the place. Since being home, I have been missing the shelter like nothing else. Seeing this post and all the photos felt like coming home. Thank you so much for sharing, all the best! xx

  13. Kelsey Rosevear Reply //

    Hi Steph, like some others that have commented on here I visited this orphanage about a year ago with World Challenge. They are the most beautiful people I have ever met. The lady who did the same pose as your daughter, she was attached to my hip the whole week I was there and I think about her so often, as well as all the other people in your photo’s, I remember each one and their characteristics that made me fall in love with them. Thank you for sharing this, I hope to reconnect with the shelter once I leave school and I’m glad I have the name of an organisation that might be able to help me do that, thank you again.

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