(Bridgette is a Binghamton University MSW student)
ABCD to Promote Social-Emotional Wellbeing for Youth in Malawi
I feel excited and anxious. Concerning the actual trip—Malawi, Africa: here I come! I anticipate a life-changing experience; seeing a part of the world on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. As I pack, my excitement gains momentum and yet the feelings are bittersweet.
I realize the course title encompasses social-emotional wellbeing for youth and the anxiety I’m experiencing is directly linked to the social-emotional wellbeing of my daughter. She is seven, and while we made the decision together for me to travel to Malawi, I’m already beginning to miss her, wondering if this decision was appropriate. She stays at her father’s Monday and Tuesday nights so I don’t see her right now as I prepare for the trip. I am already missing her. This is undoubtedly one of the largest hurdles I’ll face in this experience.
A total of 15 days; I’m absolutely positive we will both survive. I contemplate that the children in Malawi are orphans and no longer have at least one of their parents, if not both. Suddenly, I understand what a great privilege I have; both of us alive, loving each other. I know that the odds are in our favor that, following the trip, we will reunite in joy and share our stories of when we were apart. I intend to keep a journal on the trip and purchased matching journals and pens to keep us connected.
Some of the broader issues that arise for me right now are the feelings I will face when saying goodbye to my daughter on Thursday, as well as saying goodbye to the citizens of Malawi that I meet, two weeks from now. Human interactions are rich with social-emotional bonding, and separating these bonds creates a chasm of anxiety. Losing a parent, or both, must completely trivialize the concept of education and career. Deciding “what to be when you grow up” when you’ve already lost significant people in your life potentially creates feelings of inconsequentiality.
As someone working in public service, I should consider my approach. Sweeping in with gusto and bravado to “help” may translate as callous and lacking empathy. Empowering children to take hold of their future is essential; however, recognizing how much they have survived and how emotionally mature they may feel, is vital. Consequently, working with Malawi’s youth may require a unique approach. A gentle approach, a respectful approach, an approach customized to consider the perspective of the child who has experienced far more than initially anticipated.
And so, coming full circle, I must apply this same approach to my daughter when I separate myself from her for this trip. I must kneel, make eye contact, and tune-in to the experience from her point of view. I must be sincere and direct, explain to her my purpose and thoughts, and receive her social-emotional input equally. I must reassure her, and myself, that together, even apart, we can do anything we set our minds to. Likewise, I must maintain the bonds I make with the people of Malawi, through letters and media. Through our connections we will empower each other to create a better world within which we live.