Sharing interests. Enriching skills. Building friendships. Discovering connections. If someone had told me there was an organization that would provide all of these enriching experiences—as well as help families around the world understand the pandemic—I wouldn’t have believed them.
“What an over-promise!” I would have said. “How can one organization do all that?”
Truth is, I don’t know how Open Hearts Big Dreams can do all that. But it certainly does. I have experienced all of those wonderful benefits since I’ve become a volunteer for the organization’s Ready Set Go line of books.
As a published author of books for children, I wanted to do some volunteer work that would share my writing and design skills and help others make their storybook visions real. When my colleague, Jane Kurtz, invited me to an event sponsored by Open Hearts Big Dreams in Seattle, WA, I discovered a cross-cultural community of warmth and intelligence, energy and optimism. I ate some tasty injera. I learned more about the organization, and its initiatives to increase literacy in Ethiopia.
This seemed like a wonderful community to be part of. So I volunteered to be an editor and coach for Ready Set Go Books. I work with men and women who have lived in Ethiopia and want to share their personal and cultural stories with children. This is where “sharing interests” come in. We all share a love of children’s storytelling.
I believe all people are storytellers. We can’t get through the day without sharing a story in some form, whether it’s telling your family about your exhausting day or explaining to a clerk why you need to return an item. But writing is a type of storytelling that requires a specific set of skills. And writing picture books requires a specific understanding of how words and pictures work together on the page.
First, I meet with these novice authors and discuss their goals. We wrestle with getting their concepts from floating notions to words on the page. I help them shape actions into plots and craft inviting introductions and satisfying conclusions.
In the process, they see their original creative flashes turn into concrete picture books. As they learn to be more independent in their own writing, I always learn new things, too. New things about how important it is to put your own spirit and voice into a story. How you sometimes need to stick to a rigid structure when you write a story, and sometimes it’s wonderful to break out from the expected mold.
Over time, I’ve watched these novice authors expand their writing skills—and I’ve honed my own writing technique, too.
In the back-and-forth process of wrestling with story ideas, I have become friends with all of the writers I worked with. As we discuss and revise the stories that are based on the memories and experiences of Ethiopia, I get to know about their histories and their families. As we wrestle with theme and plotting and character, I get to know their dreams, their goals, and the personal experiences that shaped them. This is how I’ve built friendships with each of the writers I’ve coached through Open Hearts Big Dreams.
One of the writers I’m working with is Hanna Demeke. As she was polishing up a heartwarming picture book based on her relationship with her father, I happened to mention my current book, COVID-19 Helpers. In COVID-19 Helpers, children gain an understanding of the disease and best-practice behaviors in a simple, colorful, and ultimately reassuring story.
I mentioned to Hanna that the book had won an award from Emory Global Health Institute. I knew she lived in Atlanta, but I did not know she had graduated from Emory. Hanna told me that she had seen the COVID-19 Helpers book when the Emory alumni newsletter announced the winner for the children’s book competition. “But I did not expect to meet the author of the book!” she said.
The character in the story we were working on grew up to be a nurse, and I knew that Hanna worked as a nurse. But I did not know that she currently works as a nurse consultant at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is involved in the COVID-19 pandemic response.
We were amazed at all of these intertwined connections. And I was amazed that Hanna suggested that she’d like to translate my book into Amharic. The publisher agreed—and agreed to make the Amharic ebook available for free to all readers.
Helping children understand the pandemic
As of this writing, COVID-19 infections are going down in the US, but are rising in Ethiopia. So this story can help families there make sense of the pandemic and talk about this worrisome topic in words and pictures that kids understand.
Appreciation for a valuable partnership
From my partnership with Open Hearts Big Dreams, several new stories for Ethiopian readers are now available on Amazon. And more are to come! It’s also allowed my timely book about the coronavirus pandemic to reach children in Ethiopia.
The organization has indeed opened its heart to me, and has allowed so many writers to reach their dreams.