Global aid workers need aid, too

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and people across the U.S. come together to help each other and work toward solving our common problems, we’d like to pose the question: what exactly is social good?

Coincidentally… Welcome to Ideal-to-Real Updates, a series where we check in with idealists taking action on their good ideas to see what they’ve been up to and what gems of wisdom they’ve been learning.

Last July, we wrote about Shannon Mouillesseaux, a New York state native with a passion for international development.

At that time, she shared with us her idea for a penpal and travel exchange project that would match at-risk students in the U.S. with kids in developing or war-affected countries.

photo 5

Shannon with a family in rural Oman.

We recently caught up with Shannon again to ask about the status of that project, and what else she’s been up to in the past year and a half. She wrote to us from her current post as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) protection officer overseas, assisting refugees and helping advocate for those who are unlawfully detained.

Through the Idealist blog, I learned of a great project already underway, which has a strikingly similar objective and approach to what my project aspired to do. It’s called Project PeacePal. The executive director Sarah Wilkinson and I connected and have remained in touch to support one another. For one, I was able to refer another Idealist member who had connected with me, following the blog post, to PeacePal to assist Sarah with social media efforts.

Shannon would love to collaborate with PeacePal in the future, but she’s currently involved with all sorts of other projects: setting up iSurvived, an advocacy and support group for UNHCR staff who have survived trauma; creating a website to connect and support global aid workers around the world; and writing a children’s book series to encourage cultural and humanitarian awareness.

I am *always* working on what I call “my personal projects” on the side of my work. Most of them have a similar theme: to educate people about realities in the global South, advocate for aid workers, and help improve our development models and systems, which I think are largely outdated and in need of retooling.

I feel propelled to act on behalf of other humanitarian staff in order to better protect and support them. After all, how can we expect to be effective in our roles as development workers if we don’t first ensure that we are healthy and adequately supported? As the environments in which we work become decreasingly secure, our organizations need to take action to better prepare us, protect us, and support us. We each have a role in advocating for this, too.
Go Shannon! We’re rooting for you. Looking forward already to checking in next year.
If you’d like to help inspire young people around the world to become peace builders, connect with Project PeacePal. To learn about and support the international aid worker community, visit global aid worker.




Tags: , , , ,

Breaking new ground: How a Kansas City organization is helping refugees put down roots

This week’s spotlight: all things food.


Khadijo Yussuf, a graduate of New Roots, broke ground at her own farm site this past spring.
(photo courtesy New Roots Facebook)

Now that they’ve harvested the last of the tomatoes, the farmers at New Roots are spending the winter cultivating some of their other skills: driving, English, and small business management.

New Roots—a partnership between the food justice organization Cultivate KC and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas—provides refugees in Kansas City the space and resources they need to gain income and self-sufficiency for their families through farming.

Many refugees who come to the U.S. already have extensive agricultural experience, but lack the resources and language skills needed to set up their own farms.

New Roots runs a four-year program with 16 refugee families who are each given a quarter-acre of land to grow their choice of crops. They’re also given access to seeds, equipment, and other important resources like English language classes, help setting up bank accounts, and driving lessons.

Rachel Pollock, program coordinator for New Roots, says that six of their graduates have gone on to buy property and start their own farms.

One of her favorite success stories is that of Khadijo, a Somali woman who was relocated to the U.S. a few years ago. Women are especially well-suited for the program, Rachel says, because they’re used to working hard to provide for their kids.

After four years in the New Roots program, Khadijo now drives her own van to the market to sell the food she’s grown. A mother of six, she’s recently purchased a home with a vacant lot where she’s planted vegetables and fruit trees.

“She loves being able to raise her kids in the garden,” says Rachel.

While the learning curve is steep for refugees like Khadijo, they’re not the only ones who learn from New Roots.

“When our farmers sell their vegetables at the markets, it gives families here in Kansas City the opportunity to interact with people that they might never interact with otherwise—we get to bridge cultures both ways.”

The best part about working with refugee farmers, says Rachel, is the chance to offer homes and security to people who have felt unsettled for years.

“Being able to grow your own food is so important—especially for people who haven’t felt safe or felt self-determination over their lives in a really long time,” says Rachel. “Food is so tied into feeling like we’re home.”

Interested in refugee issues? Search Idealist for over 2,000 opportunities around the globe.

Tags: , , , ,

Try this! Blend cooking lessons with English language courses. Mix well.

The students of Cooking Up English are a real melting pot of languages and cultures.

The students of Cooking Up English fixing some kebabs for the grill. (photo courtesy Casey Smith)

The idea

Casey Smith marinated on the idea for a long time. It started when she was living in Santiago a few years ago with her husband and trying to learn Spanish. She found it was easier for her to pick up words from her Chilean cookbook than to remember what she was learning in her twice-a-week language class.

“The act of having to translate the recipe and actually cooking it and tasting everything—that really worked for me,” says Casey. “I found I remembered all those words. I could really connect with it.”

The flavors, the tactile experience of making the recipes with her own hands, the surprise and delight of her Chilean neighbors when they found out she was making their favorite recipes—it all helped her learn a new language and feel connected to her community while she was in a new place.

Back in her home of Austin, Texas, Casey found that there were a lot of people who were looking for a similar experience as they were learning English in the U.S. That’s why in 2010 Casey started Cooking Up English, a hybrid cooking course and ESL program, to help folks looking to practice their English while getting a taste of American culture.

The classes, which take place in a local church kitchen, are focused around different themes. Right now they’re offering a five-week series on American breakfasts. Later this fall, it will be comfort foods.

With a spatula in hand, students practice everything from food vocabulary to expressions like “eyeballing it” while practicing conversational English as they put together the dishes.

The course also takes students on field trips to the local farmers’ market where they can learn about healthy, local foods while practicing their English by talking with the vendors.

How you can replicate it

Since its start, Cooking Up English has engaged students from 14 different countries, including Colombia, Hungary, Iraq, Russia, and South Korea.

Some are visitors, some have recently moved to the U.S., but everyone wants to practice their language skills in a supportive, appetizing environment.

Casey Smith (center) and some of her students showing off their aprons.

Casey Smith (center) and some of her students showing off their aprons. (photo courtesy Casey Smith)

If you’re interested in starting a similar project in your community, here’s Casey’s recipe for success:

1. Be open and welcoming.

Your students shouldn’t be the only ones who are there to listen and learn. As a facilitator, it’s also important for you to have an open mind.

“When you’re trying to do cultural exchange and language learning, it’s important to be on the same playing field,” says Casey. “Try not to oppress your language on another person, but to really be in a receiving mode.”

Casey says one of the most surprising and wonderful developments from Cooking Up English has been the enthusiasm her students have had for sharing their own language and recipes. At the end of the American breakfasts series, for example, students stood up in front of the class to present a breakfast recipe from their own country.

2. Use existing groups to help spread the word.

Casey says one of the biggest challenges in getting Cooking Up English off the ground was getting the word out and letting people know it existed. To help with this, they tapped into groups that were already working with their target populations—churches, immigrant groups, other ESL programs, mosques, and temples—to help spread the word.

3. Use a model.

Cooking Up English now offers complete curriculum sets including five weeks of ready-to-use materials with vocabulary essentials, visual glossaries, student worksheets, and teaching manuals for each of their eight series.

4. Be prepared.

Even if you use the Cooking Up English curriculum kit to help get you started, it’s important to have your logistics figured out. Make sure you reserve a comfortable kitchen site and have between five and seven committed instructors lined up.

For each class, Casey suggests having at least two teachers working together. “It’s always helpful to have another set of eyes to make sure a cup of salt doesn’t end up in the recipe instead of a teaspoon.”

5. Celebrate.

At the end of the Cooking Up English series, Casey likes to put on a dinner party at a board member’s home. At one of these parties, a student from Vietnam told her that even though he had lived with his family in the U.S. for three years, it was the first party he had been to in his new country.

“He felt so special to be invited,” Casey says.“I encourage everyone to have an open table, an open mind, and an open heart. We don’t want any of our new residents to wait to be invited to be a part of our community.”

Want to use Casey’s curriculum to start a Cooking Up English chapter where you live? Get in touch with her directly at

Tags: , , , , , ,

How the Garden Library in Tel Aviv is growing community

Growing up with an Israeli mom and an American dad, I spent my summers in Tel Aviv and the school-year in New York.

South Tel Aviv was not an area we would frequent as a family. Distinguished by its proximity to the Central Bus Station – both the biggest bus terminal in the world and one of the most infamous urban planning disasters – the area is home to asylum seekers and migrant workers, many of whom who are transported there upon arriving to Israel.

Levinsky Park, only a few blocks long and wide, is a short walk away from the bus terminal. Walking home through the park with my sister Yael was consistently emotionally trying. People slept on and around playground constructs – huddled under plastic tarps to seek refuge from the rain – or just spent the day idling due to unemployment.

There is less homelessness now due to selective deportation, though the park remains the heart of the community of migrant workers and asylum seekers.

The communities that share this contentious space are vastly different linguistically, nationally, and culturally, though coexist due to affordability and circumstance. These qualities were what drew us to live in the neighborhood when Yael and I moved to Tel Aviv for our college studies a couple of years ago.

Moreover, these qualities are what inspired ARTEAM, an interdisciplinary art collective, to found the Garden Library in Levinsky Park in 2009, a beacon of hope amidst the often bleak landscape. A self-proclaimed “social-artistic urban community project,” the public library has helped transform the park, stitching together the disjointed, accidental community.

Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content

Photo credits: Tanja Rochow, Levinsky Garden Library, and Yael Krevsky.

Talia Krevsky is a former Idealist team member who went on to actualize her idealistic pursuits in the Middle East, where she recently completed her Masters in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. She is committed to contributing to the transformation, or evolution, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creatively and non-violently.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Help Shannon connect youth in the U.S. and Afghanistan

An ongoing experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Meet Shannon

Shannon Mouillesseaux is from a town in upstate NY that has one traffic light, one gas station, one grocery store, and one bank. “It is a rural community that, when I was growing up, was primarily inhabited by farmers and blue collar workers,” she says.

With few opportunities for high school graduates, Shannon had a fleeting moment when she considered joining the military in high school after being repeatedly targeted by recruiters. While some of her classmates opted to don camo, she realized the military wasn’t for her.


Faced with increasing college costs and decreasing economic opportunities, more and more teens are considering military service after high school: Photo via Creative Commons (Flickr user Frank Juarez).

Wanting desperately to study anthropology, Shannon instead attended university and spent her junior year in Nepal. There, she was exposed to the trafficking of women and girls, an eye-opening experience that was the catalyst for her eventual work with refugees at the United Nations.

Her experiences with displaced communities around the world have exposed her to the plight of those most affected by war. Yet, back home, she was struck by the (mis) perception that violence is the only answer to violence. After 9/11, Shannon frequently heard variations of the phrase “Let’s blow them off the map” in her hometown. When she would suggest engaging in dialogue as an alternative response, she often felt inaccurately viewed as anti-American.

“The fear that has arisen within our culture, leaving many people afraid to experience other countries and cultures for fear of falling victim to a terrorist attack is, for me, worrying,” she says.

The intention

Her solution to alleviating some of that fear and violence? Pen pals for the digital age.

Specifically, Shannon envisions a two-fold project for youth in the U.S. and overseas who may not have the opportunity to travel. The first component, which she would pilot in her hometown and in Afghanistan, would connect “at-risk American students of all ages via video conference with displaced communities abroad” throughout the school year. The second would send high school students to safe, developing countries during thesummer to help out with humanitarian projects. Ideally, this would happen after the children have established relationships.

Sometimes her work takes her to IDP (internally displaced persons') camps like this one in Kabul, where she hopes to pilot the program. (Photo via Shannon Mouillesseaux.)

By creating a link between communities affected by war, Shannon hopes this type of cross-cultural exchange will help young people understand each other’s lives better and ultimately contribute to promoting peace on an individual level – even when governments are at odds.


Shannon is still refining her idea. Here are some challenges she has identified:

  1. Working in an office with other collaborators would be one thing. Going at it on her own is very different. Without support and a more formal infrastructure, Shannon is unsure how to take the next step to give the project momentum.
  2. Getting the language right is critical. She’s concerned that the project might be seen by some in the U.S. as anti-patriotic.
  3. She has lots of questions about how to incorporate this into a school curriculum and, separately, the implications and logistics of sending teens abroad.
  4. Like most projects out there, finding the right funders is a challenge.

How you can help

Shannon would love to see this idea grow and succeed. Can you offer her any advice?

  • Are there similar long-term projects or programs that appeal to students of all ages?
  • Do you know of any projects or programs that could offer insights, best practices, and/or lessons learned?
  • If you are a student, parent, teacher, and/or refugee, what aspects of these ideas appeal to you? What concerns come to mind?
  • Regarding sending teens abroad: Does the program need to be entirely separate from the school system, so that the school is not responsible legally? If so, how can Shannon ensure that both she and the project are protected?
  • Do you know of a rural community that might benefit from this type of project?
  • What other funding sources might want to help get a project like this off the ground?
  • If you’ve successfully launched a project, what piece of crucial advice would you share?
  • Would you like to help?

Leave a comment below or send her a message through Idealist and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!


Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

Tags: , , , ,