Cambodia is calling

Facebook reminded me today that six years ago I took my first international trip by myself. I was 17, my family was living in Ecuador and I was coming to visit a college in the Chicago suburb of Bourbonnais.

It was a mild winter, but the snow on the ground was the first I had seen in five years. I think I slept in the winter coat I borrowed for the trip. Somehow, even with that experience, I still decided this was a good place to go to school and eventually stay.

After five years of living in “Chi-beria,” I’ve adapted to negative wind chills, multiple feet of snow and the sun setting at 4:30 p.m. from November to February.

And just about the time I’ve adapted (this winter I only used my winter coat a few days), I’m embarking on another solo international adventure: This time, I’m flying across the Pacific Ocean to the small Southeast Asian country of Cambodia.

Come Saturday about 1 a.m., I’ll be crossing the International Date Line. That’s 5 p.m., the day before, for us Chicago-landers. It’s a 22-hour total trip; the first flight is 14 hours long and the eighth-longest flight you can get out of O’Hare, according to

Which has me reflecting on how important it is to intentionally explore new places, cultures and ways of thinking.

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A forced adoption, a reunion with Mom

It was a hot day, almost reaching 100 degrees, when 17-year-old Theresa Benoit Ciaccio walked herself into St. Vincent’s Hospital for Unwed Mothers in the summer of 1945.

Now 88, the Bourbonnais resident still recalls that being pregnant and unmarried from a large Catholic family meant keeping her baby was not an option.

Ciaccio and the father of her unborn child tried to marry; they even made it to the church before her brother and father stopped the ceremony.


“We were kids, I was a kid,” Ciaccio recalled. “No job and too young, they said. I did the best I could. I didn’t have a husband so I didn’t think I could raise him.”

At seven months pregnant, she was sent to St. Vincent’s, an orphanage and hospital where girls often put their babies up for adoption in those days.

Her dad drove with her, but wouldn’t go in.

“I walked into the hospital myself with my suitcase,” Ciaccio said. “Just walked in. Kind of crazy. Kind of scary.”

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What a Manteno church is doing to help a Syrian crisis

They’ll probably never meet.
Even if they could, they don’t speak the same language, eat the same food or pray to the same God.



But for a couple dozen church members from the Manteno Church of the Nazarene, and about 60 Syrian refugees in a north Chicago neighborhood, that doesn’t really matter.

About 7 p.m. on Friday, Fadia Mabus, her 5-year-old son, Sam, of Bourbonnais, and friend, Emily Linton, of Bradley, carried trash bags filled with hand-knitted scarves and hats for refugees who are living through their first Midwest winter. Prayers still were echoing as they walked up through the halls of the Muslim Community Center in Chicago, into a room easily 70 degrees; everyone was wearing winter coats.

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Crepes, cookbooks and a movie

A recent trek through the streets of Lincoln Park yielded the discovery of La Creperie — a French hole-in-the-wall staple in that neighborhood.

It’s located in an area bursting with eclectic bars and restaurants. Still, there’s a certain magic to La Creperie. There’s a deep sense of nostalgia and culture permeating from the very walls, covered in French posters from baseboard to ceiling. The floor of the long, narrow space is original wood from when the building was a farmhouse.


And it’s crowded, but in the best, homey way. The co-owner and founder, Germain Roignant, is originally from France — and the place has all the romanticism of the country. In a low-lit corner, a couple has their first date. Around a family-style circle table, parents and their children converse in French. Waiters weave in and out of the cafe tables, greeting the regulars.

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Born with the wanderlust gene, she’ll show you Chicago

I took my first international flight at 10 years old. My family flew from St. Louis to Newark to Miami to Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, two small tropical islands but one nation, off the coast of Venezuela.

Twelve hours, an inspection by drug dogs in Miami, a semi-militant immigration line and 80 degrees warmer later, we arrived at our destination. I still remember standing outside the airport, sitting on my suitcase while we waited for our ride.

I couldn’t take my eyes off anything.


Now, more than 20,000 miles and six countries — all before the age of 23 — that awe at discovering something new has turned into an insatiable desire to go.

I’ve bussed through South America, and repelled off cliffs and scuba dived off the coast of the Pacific Ocean. I’ve criss-crossed the U.S. on road trips, from Massachusetts to Texas to Georgia to Colorado, the highlight of Kansas being a prairie dog museum. In 2012, I was on one of the first mission teams into Cuba after Raul Castro began allowing Americans back in the country.

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Kankakee museum searches for stories of families that immigrated here

“Que es lo que mas le gusta de vivir en Kankakee?” Lorenia Lara asked the gathering of about 10 on the fourth floor of the Kankakee Public Library last Thursday night. “What do you like best about living here?”


“Kankakee has been good to me,” Jose Martinez replied. Martinez, of Limestone, and one of the four owners of Martinez Tacos, immigrated from Mexico in his 20s, found a job and raised his family here. He picked up English and construction skills on the job, burrowing 25 feet under the ground in many local subdivisions to lay plumbing lines.

The next question — about difficulties living in Kankakee — garnered other responses.

“I came and it was cold and I was pregnant,” recalled Angelica Martinez, of Kankakee. “I was closed in at home and couldn’t work or do anything. If you’re not used to that, it’s really ugly.”

The group, speaking in their native language, quickly began reminiscing as old friends do — about when Martinez Tacos in Kankakee was one of the first Hispanic restaurants or grocery stores in the area and how teenagers used to walk with their dates by the train depot.

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Al Ver Necesidad: Incorporando a las Jovenes Embarazadas en Familia

El artículo es un parte de un serie más profundo 
desarrollando la tema de adolescentes embarazadas 
en Ecuador. Lee más sobre el proyecto aquí.

Por la noche puedo escuchar los sonidos de bebés: balbuceando, tosiendo, riendo o llorando. Escucho a sus madres susurrando dulcemente, “Te amo. Te quiero.” Y son comunes los sonidos de biberones, eructos y canciones de cuna.

Las madres con quienes estoy compartiendo mi habitación son similares a las de mi país. Se despiertan temprano, bañan a sus bebés, trapean el piso, cocinan la merienda, lavan la ropa, y tienen fiestas de cumpleaños.


Estas madres también son estudiantes y al mismo tiempo que cumplen con las responsabilidades propias de su maternidad: deben hacen tareas escolares, compartir quehaceres domésticos, y ocasionalmente compartir reuniones con sus familias.

Cabe recordar que las edades de estas madres no sobrepasan los veinte años.

Con la tasa de jóvenes embarazadas más alta en América de sur, el problema de la salud con respecto a la educación reproductiva y sexual está creciendo significativamente en Ecuador.

“Casa Elizabeth” es una casa para jóvenes embarazadas y para sus bebés. Está ubicada al norte de Quito, la capital de Ecuador, una ciudad bonita y rodeada por montañas.

Las personas que visitan “Casa Elizabeth” se impactan con el color rosa pastel de la pared, la música de una radio que permanece encendida y cuyos ritmos se confunden con el llanto de los bebés y con el ruido estrepitoso que hacen los niños al correr por la casa.

En “Casa Elizabeth” viven cinco chicas. Esta casa, actualmente está dirigida por la “Familia de la casa:” compuesta por un matrimonio Cristiano y sus dos niños; de cinco y un año respectivamente.

En total son cinco chicas jóvenes, dos recién nacidos, dos bebés un poco más grandes, una nena pequeña, y un niño muy activo de cinco años. A este grupo se ha integrado una estudiante con serias aspiraciones de ser periodista, realmente todo esto representa una combinación de “ Mi Boda Griega Grande” y “19 Niños y Subiendo.”

En medio de este torbellino, se puede percibir un gran sentido de familia entre todas las chicas que habitan en esta casa.

“Nuestro enfoque es amar y cuidar a las chicas para que ellas tengan un encuentro con Jesus,” dijo Elisa Brown, Directora del Comité “Casa Elizabeth.”

“Las personas siempre quieren brindar cariño y amor a los bebés, pero no sucede lo mismo con las jóvenes que han incurrido en errores, esta es una dificultad y quisiéramos cambiar la situación, dando la posibilidad de que estas chicas se incorporen a una familia.”

La tasa de fertilidad es drásticamente más alta entre las personas de escasos recursos que entre las personas adineradas, la relación es de 4 a 1 respectivamente.

Con la tasa de jóvenes embarazadas más alta en América de sur, el problema de la salud con respecto a la educación reproductiva y sexual está creciendo significativamente en Ecuador.

El Reporte Nacional del año 2013 mostró que hay 81 nacimientos por cada 1,000 chicas, cuyas edades fluctúan entre los 15 y 18 años. Estos nacimientos muchas veces son el resultado de una insuficiente educación sexual y reproductiva, el producto de un abuso, o el resultado de estereotipos culturales que generalmente atribuyen las culpas a la madre y justifican las fallas del padre.

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 12.01.44 PM

1 en 5 mujeres en Ecuador tiene su primer hijo antes de tener 18 años.

Un reporte del año 2007 de la UNICEF puso en evidencia los porcentajes de jóvenes embarazadas especialmente en América del sur y el Caribe, lugares en donde estos índices se están incrementando de manera vertiginosa. Ecuador tiene un registro muy alto de mujeres embarazadas, cuyas edades son inferiores a los 19 años y es preocupante la rapidez con que este problema se está propagando. Un estudio realizado en el año 2004 por parte del Centro Ecuatoriano para la Prevención y Control de las Enfermedades, mediante una encuesta de la Salud Reproductiva Internacional, mostró que en Ecuador por lo menos una de cada cinco mujeres tiene su primer hijo antes de cumplir 18 años.

Es una pandemia que impacta a las clases socioeconómicas con mayor nivel de pobreza en el país. El embarazo precoz está relacionado con la carencia, la vulnerabilidad, la prematura deserción escolar, y la desventaja económica.

El mismo reporte de la UNICEF mostró que la tasa de fertilidad es drásticamente más alta entre las personas de escasos recursos que entre las personas adineradas, la relación es de 4 a 1 respectivamente. Reportes actualizados muestran que esta inequidad se ha agudizado en los últimos quince años.

Al ser conscientes de las estadísticas, cuyos resultados son alarmantes, Inca Link inició un proyecto orientado a paliar esta situación.


“Sentimos desde inicio un llamado para ayudar a las jovenes embarazadas. Creo que el sistema medico abusa de esta situación porque ellas desconocen su propio cuerpo,” dijo Brown. “Al principio, yo iba a hospital para quedarme con ellas [porque estuve tan apasionada por ayudarles].”

Ahora, “Casa Elizabeth” se enfoca en una ayuda absoluta, es decir se preocupa de la salud física, mental, económica, académica y espiritual de las jóvenes que acoge y a la vez de sus niños. “Casa Elizabeth” orienta su trabajo a la solución de este problema social.

“No somos una institución en donde se entra y se sale; formamos una familia,” dijo Brown.

Las siguientes historias son las de esta familia: las de las cinco chicas quién viven en esta casa. Sus historias representan a las historias de muchas jóvenes en Ecuador — chicas que se encuentran como madres en medio de las desventajas social, cultural y económicas.

Lea al próximo blog en el serie aquí.

In the Face of Need: Introducing Girls to Families

This article is a part of a larger series on teen mothers in Ecuador.
Lee el artículo en español aquí. 

At night I sit in bed listening to the sounds of babies gurgling, coughing, laughing, and crying; to mothers whispering, “Te amo. Te quiero;” to bottles and burping and lullabies.

The mothers I share a room with are like any living in the U.S. They wake up early, give their babies baths, mop the floor, cook dinner, do laundry, and have birthday parties.


But these mothers also go to school. They have homework. They share chores and only occasionally see their families.

And, these mothers are less than 20 years old.

With the highest teen pregnancy rate in South America, the issue of reproductive and sexual health has become increasingly important in Ecuador.

Casa Elizabeth, a home for pregnant teens and their babies, sits in the north of Quito, the beautiful, mountain clad capital of Ecuador. Visitors walk in the door and are instantly assaulted by bubblegum and hot pink walls, the radio singing Jesus Adrian Romero, and babies crying or toddlers running.

Five girls and four babies currently reside at Casa Elizabeth, along with the “house family:” parents, a five year old, and a one year old.

That makes five teenagers, two newborns, two babies, a toddler, and a five year old. Add one aspiring journalist and you have the perfect picture of My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets 19 Kids and Counting.

In the midst of the chaos, there is a real sense of family among the girls in the home. “Our focus is on making sure those girls are loved, cared for, and have an encounter with Jesus,” said Elisa Brown, Casa Elizabeth Founder and Board Chair.

“Everyone loves on babies, but loving on teen girls who have made mistakes is hard. We wanted to introduce these girls to families.”

Girls from the poorest fifth of the [Ecuadorian] population are four times more likely to become pregnant than those in the richest fifth.

With the highest teen pregnancy rate in South America, the issue of reproductive and sexual health has become increasingly important in Ecuador. The 2013 National Reports state that there are 81 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 18, often resulting from a lack of sexual and reproductive education, abuse, or cultural stereotypes that often place blame on the mother instead of the father.

1 in 5 women in Ecuador have their first child before the age of 18.

1 in 5 women in Ecuador have their first child before the age of 18.

A 2007 study by UNICEF showed that teen pregnancy rates across the South American and Caribbean region are increasing rapidly; Ecuador has the highest increasing rate of those under the age of 19. A study by the Ecuadorian Center for Disease Control Prevention and the International Reproductive Health Surveys in 2004 showed that at least one in every five women in Ecuador have their first child before the age of 18.

It’s a pandemic that hits the poor of the country hardest and has been linked to increased poverty, vulnerability, early school dropouts, and economic disadvantages.

The same UNICEF study showed the fertility rate is drastically higher among the poor as compared to the rich, “Girls from the poorest fifth of the population are four times more likely to become pregnant than those in the richest fifth, and recent research shows this inequality has become more accentuated in the last fifteen years.”

After becoming aware of these startling statistics, Inca Link began looking for a way to help in the face of this increasing need.


“We felt early on a call to pregnant teens. I think the medical system abuses them, and they have so little information about their bodies,” said Brown. “At first, I’d just go and be with them in the hospital because I was so passionate [to help them].”

Now, Casa Elizabeth tries to help the whole person, focusing not only on physical health, but also on the mental, economic, educational, and spiritual, trying on a small scale to address a much larger issue.

“We’re not an institution they go in and out of; we’re a family they become a part of,” said Brown.

The following stories are those of this family: five girls who live in this home. Their stories represent the stories of many young women in Ecuador — girls who find themselves mothers in the midst of social, cultural and economic disadvantages.

Read the next blog in the series here

Existing in humanity

I spent this afternoon transcribing an interview I did six months ago in a quiet mountain suburb in Quito, Ecuador. I was speaking with a fifteen-year-old girl (we will call her Yamileth) who had an eight-month-old son and was living in Casa Elizabeth, a home I have talked about frequently in other blog posts. That afternoon, she told me about her family, her life, her high school classes and her dreams for the future.


I’ve sat here this afternoon 2,000 miles away in a Starbucks. And I can’t get one simple sentence she said out of my head, “I never thought [before coming to Casa Elizabeth] that the love of God existed in humanity to help those who are ‘condemned.'”

Later this week I will share more about Yamileth’s story, but for now I will simply say, she found in Casa Elizabeth a group of people that gave unconditional, unconservative and uncondemnatory love to a pregnant fourteen-year-old.

I never thought [before coming here] that the love of God existed in humanity to help those who are ‘condemned.’

And isn’t that what God’s love should be? Every time I reflect on my summer in Ecuador I am overwhelmed by the truth that it is the radical, incomprehensible love of God existing in ordinary humans that makes all the difference. In the down-on-their-luck, victims-of-society, least of these.

But also in me.