Kid Abolitionists Read 1,000 Books

I have two fairly normal, grade school-age American kids. They like Legos, comic books, candy, screens, The Dollar Store, terrorizing each other, and avoiding all manner of hard or boring work. They daily need reminders to be polite, generous, grateful, and diligent.

They have kind of a weird mom. One who spends her summer trying to sneak into their Red, White and Blue childhood colorful, abstract concepts like justice, abolitionist, commitment, overcoming obstacles, compassion, slavery, bystander, educational equality. At the same time I worry that both my kids will end up in therapy because they haven’t yet been to Disneyland.

Can you feel my angst?

My friend Heidi and I lead book clubs for kids and moms during the summer in which we attempt to impart these lofty ideas to five-to-ten year-olds.


We are educators and enjoy the challenge of making the abstract concrete and empowering children to learn and impact their world. This is what teachers do. Likewise, we ourselves never want to stop learning and impacting our world!


At the beginning of the summer, Heidi and I met and discussed how to help our book club kids’ hearts and heads get smarter and do something to help raise awareness about modern day slavery and funds for International Justice Mission.

The book we read with the boys this summer was “Snow Treasure” by Marie McSwigan.

Snow Treasure

In this story, children in Norway during WWII secretly transported over 1,000 bricks of gold bullion on their sleds past Nazi soldiers to a hidden ship ready to embark for America. It took the cooperation and teamwork of the entire village to ensure that the gold made it safely to America, away from the Nazis’ knowledge and hands. The book was full of Big Ideas like teamwork, bravery, commitment, perseverance, creativity, and sneakiness.

In book club, we set a big goal: Reading 1,000 books together as families during the summer. Stacking up (figuratively) 1,000 bricks (of the literature type) required teamwork and effort. The idea was to raise awareness and challenge friends and family to support our fundraising campaign.

book poster

On the other side of the world, on Lake Volta in the African nation of Ghana, there are thousands of boys who are trapped in slavery in the fishing industry. Just this year IJM started its first rescue operations and is in the process of working with the government and local law enforcement to put an end to impunity for slave owners. Putting slave masters behind bars prevents the continuation of the slave trade on Lake Volta and shows that justice for the poor is possible.

Latest figures from the Global Slavery Index reveal that there are an estimated 36 million slaves in the world today – more than at any other time in history. IJM has operations and casework all over the world, but it is these boys in Ghana that our book club has chosen to learn about, pray for, and advocate for.

The abstract became concrete to me and my kids when we read about the first rescue operations on the Lake last March. This summer we retold the story at book club using Lego minifigures. We showed the book club kids the note signed by IJM’s Office of Investigations for our book club’s advocacy and support: “Your encouragement means the world to us and to those living in freedom because of you,” they told us.


I love looking for and strengthening the connections between my little family and community and the wider world. A thousand gold bricks, a thousand books, a thousand dollars, a thousand prayers, a thousand slaves, a thousand ways a person, even a child, can make a difference.

1000 book challenge

On August 18th, I was a little worried we wouldn’t reach our goal – we were barely halfway to 1,000 books. I should have known that procrastination and fighting for justice are not mutually exclusive. By the end of August, we surpassed our goal of reading 1,000 books and surpassed our fundraising goal of $1,000.

Then, we celebrated. I have found that joy is a fruit of doing justice. Gary Haugen, President of IJM, once said to an audience of aspiring abolitionists, “Jesus wants to give you five things: extravagant compassion, moral clarity, sacrificial courage, persevering hope, and refreshing joy.” When we move in obedience to him, God has a way of showing up and moving in power on behalf of the powerless and oppressed. He multiplies our small offerings and equips us for the journey. It is only natural to celebrate and give thanks together when we see him move and big challenges are overcome.

A group of book club families and others who support our book club gathered together this month to celebrate meeting our reading and fundraising goals. We also invited Mike Hogan, an IJM director who lives locally.

Mike gave us a snapshot of IJM’s work around the world, and the many different types of people who skills and passions are needed to make the organization function (he all but guaranteed future jobs at IJM for our book club kids). He passed on greetings from the Ghana team who had seen our video last year, and gave us updates about their ongoing casework.

Currently, IJM’s focus in Ghana is to strengthen its ties with local and national law enforcement, help shape government policy, and restructure the justice system, so that Ghanaians themselves can bring rescue and justice to their own people. Based on IJM’s successful interventions in other regions of the world, it is estimated that the system of slavery on Lake Volta could be completely eradicated within the next 10 years.

Mike introduced us via a photograph to Benson, the Ghana team’s aftercare director who ensures that every child rescued from the lake is brought to physical, emotional, and spiritual health, educated, and when possible, reunited with family.

Mike concluded by giving the kids some action steps. He told them that one of the most powerful things they could do to bring an end to slavery is to tell their story. He encouraged them to tell friends and family about slavery in Ghana and what their book club is doing about it. Simple advocacy of regular people telling their story builds and multiplies awareness, which in turn becomes a grassroots movement that becomes loud enough to draw the attention of legislators, corporations, and philanthropists.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 1.54.22 PM

Ellie took his words to heart. That night after we came home, her fourth grade homework assignment was to write for 20 minutes on any topic of her choice. She chose to write about what she learned from Mike about slavery on Lake Volta. The next day at school, she volunteered to read her paper aloud to the class.

The words we speak, Mike told us, will have an even greater impact that the dollars we collect. I pray that these kids bravely use their voice and their pencils for good, for the rest of their lives.


We did end up collecting a few dollars for IJM, however. As of today, our fundraising total is $3,075 – three times our goal of $1,000!

And reading 1,000 books is not a bad way to spend a summer.

Mike asked the kids if they had any time to play with all that reading. Of course, they reassured him. They are just normal American kids. But they are also kids who want to make sure every child, everywhere has opportunity to read and play.

boys book clubgirls

They are abolitionists.

1000 books



7,430 Thankful Thoughts

There is a poster on the wall of a 4th grade classroom at York that caught my attention a couple years ago:

Watch your thoughts; They become words.

Watch your words; They become actions.

Watch your actions; They become habits.

Watch your habits; They become your character.

Watch your character; It becomes your destiny.

The message is both unsettling and hopeful – the idea that thought upon thought, action upon action can build into something as momentous as character and destiny. It makes me wonder, what kind of words and actions are on repeat around here?

The last few years I have been trying to foster the practice of gratitude. Knowing what the Bible, what research, and what wise, joyful people I know have to say about the positive impacts of gratitude gave me plenty of motivation to work on this.

In Ann Voskamp’s blog and her subsequent book, One Thousand Gifts, she described a challenge someone gave her to chronicle one thousand gifts in her life – things she was thankful for. The book is the outcome of that practice. She discovered that giving thanks for the life she already had – from the mundane, to the beautiful, to the hard and ugly – caused joy to invade heart and pointed her to God’s grace.

Four years ago this month, I started keeping my own list of thanks. I had already established the habit of rising every morning at the same time each day, before the rest of my family. Along with my cup of coffee, Bible, and prayers, the numbering of thanks began to repeat, day after day. I would reflect on the previous 24 hours, and as events, people, things, and words flashed by, I’d recognize the goodness they added to my life, and gave thanks to the Giver. I wrote them down, starting with number one.

After a short amount of time, I started noticing the gifts while they were happening instead of just remembering them the next day and realizing they were gifts. I’d hear little words and phrases spoken between my kids and delight in them. I’d see a pile of laundry overflowing and thank God that my family is always amply clothed. I smiled when I realized that we were out of milk because I knew how easy it was to hop in the car and pick up a gallon at the store.

When my life looked and felt like this, I could give thanks:


This is not an uncommon scene in my kitchen. Why don’t I close cupboard doors? One of life’s mysteries. And in case you’re wondering, that is a bird’s nest in a tin pan in the bottom left corner.

My messy house, my chattering children, my husband, home later from work than I anticipated, were all numbered in my journal, and gratitude and joy slowly pervaded my character.

As of this writing, I have logged 7,430. Four years of counting and thanking, sometimes two or three a day, sometimes long lists, some days skipped entirely. Number 7,430: “John and Ellie exercising in the kitchen.”

Over the years, I have also attempted to cultivate gratitude in my kids, but honestly, it’s hit and miss. We have written things we’re thankful for on cut-out leaves and hung them on a tree, we have written things on cute post-its and stuck them on the window, I have encouraged my insomniac daughter to think of 20 things she is thankful for while trying to fall asleep, and when my son was having some rough days at school I encouraged him to hold up his hand, fingers spread and count five things he is thankful for whenever he felt sad. Extended family members joined the conspiracy and designed a game around the dinner table, seeing how quickly we could list 64 things we are grateful for (five minutes). I still hear a lot more grumbling than thanksgiving from my darlings’ mouths, but hopefully they are hearing the opposite ratio coming from mine.

I love that we have a holiday whose very name forces us to think about gratitude and the giving of thanks. Like New Years, this is a good time to begin or renew a pattern of thoughts, words, and actions that form a habit and cultivate character. Plus it’s just plain good for the soul and the souls of those around you.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Heroes from Haiti

I enjoy epic stories with strong, heroic characters who battle injustice with love, sacrifice and perseverance. One of my favorite books is Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”.  After the movie came out, I had a “Les Miserables” Pandora station playing so frequently in the house that my kids came to know the characters and plot quite well.

(Around that time, curious about my son’s perception about gender roles, I asked him what he thought a man does. He responded, “Helping people who are in trouble.” Then I asked him what a woman does: “Watching movies about Jean Valjean.” Hmmmm…)

Jean Valjean

I do love me a good hero, and I enjoy introducing my kids to heroic men and women from literature, history, the Bible, and current events. We talk about the character traits they demonstrate and how their actions in the face of adversity established justice, love, or peace in their time and place.

A couple weeks ago, we had the opportunity to introduce my kids to real, live heroes. These heroes are not famous by the world’s standards. They are known and loved mainly by a people who live in a place with no electricity or internet connection and who likely can’t read or write (but their children are learning to).

Meet Johny and Rosadite. They live in Haiti.  They came to visit their partners in the United States, including the church my family attends.

We had the tremendous privilege of hosting Johny and Rosadite in our home for the three days they were in the area. Our job was to provide a place to sleep, food, and transportation to various gatherings. Their job was to share with people about their work in Merger (pronounced mare-ZHAY), where they planted a church and started a school.

Merger de Sibert lies about 7 miles from Port-au-Prince. It is a poor community of about 3,000 which fell into desperate conditions after a sugar cane company (which had provided jobs) closed in 1992. Today there is little to no electricity, telephone, clean water, bathroom facilities, or adequate housing. The majority of the population are children and youth who are unable to afford schooling.

Merger kids 2

Children in Merger with their homemade toys

Merger kids

Johny and Rosadite first visited Merger in 1996 and were impacted by the economic and spiritual condition of the people. They began a long process (which included doubts, disappointments and frightening opposition) of building relationships, planting a church, partnering with organizations for community development, and starting a school for the uneducated youth of the area in 2005. In 2009, Glenwood Community Church in Vancouver, Washington started the Merger Student Sponsorship Program, providing financial stability to the school which has grown to close to 400 students today.

Johny's Schoolbus

Johny as “School Bus Driver”, taking students home after school

Merger classroom

Johny and Rosadite were with us just a short time, but it was so full of activity and potent conversation that by the morning of their departure, it seemed like a month had gone by. I felt like it was raining gold and I didn’t have a bucket, and many words and moments slipped from my memory even while I strained to hold on.

Here are some gleanings God allowed me to keep from our short time with our Haitian heroes:

~ Throwing rocks in the “ree-vah”.


~ Johny’s laughter. He finds joy in every little thing. He even laughs as he describes Merger’s needs, his inability to provide for them all, and his trust in God’s provision.

~ The focus and concentration and time required for every conversation. Johny and Rosadite are learning English and communicate word…by…word… in thick accents. We had fun helping them with pronunciations (“honor” vs. “owner” cracked them up), and using gestures or long explanations to determine unknown words.

~ Johny receiving calls all through the day from people in Haiti, who know him to be a person of integrity who will help them if he is able.

~ Cultural differences in adhering to schedules. This was a challenge for us to navigate as we were responsible for delivering them to events at our church, which in the typical North American fashion, schedules its services and activities down to the minute.

~ On more than one occasion, worried at our lack of adherence to the “schedule”, I walked by the bedroom where they were staying, wondering whether to interrupt to tell them it was time to eat breakfast or go to another meeting. I would catch a glimpse of one of them kneeling in prayer in front of the window overlooking the river. Yes.

~ Listening to them answer questions from children at church on Sunday morning about life in Haiti and the school in Merger.

(Following the Sunday School Q&A, Johny asked Jack why he did not ask them a question. Jack told them he already knows everything about Haiti because his dad went there. More laughter.)

~ Taking them to lunch at a restaurant known for its “Never-Ending Pasta Bowl” – a concept they could scarcely wrap their minds around, not to mention the never-ending salad bowl and breadstick basket. This provoked another round of delightful laughter, despite the irony that we were dining just 24 hours after they had told the Sunday School children about the importance of the lunch time meal students in Merger receive during the school day – the only meal many of them will eat. Yeah.

~ Johny and Rosadite’s loving banter – these two are dear friends and depend on one another in everything.


~ Johny thanking us and thanking God in prayer for our willingness to be “tools in God’s hands” and feeling so unworthy of that description.

~ Our very clean bedroom – there is nothing like inviting guests to share your space for getting a room tidied up.

~ A few days after they left, Jack was reading (for the thousandth time) his book about volcanos and earthquakes. Suddenly he dramatically collapsed on the floor: “Mom, do you want to know why I just fainted? I just read that there was an earthquake in Port-au-Prince!” I love that he has a connection to this special place now. (This was one of the more accurate observations Jack made about Haiti. He also spotted Haiti on a map – an island in the Caribbean, and inferred that it was a land of pirates and treasure.)

These two are heroes – they are truly tools in God’s hands in a desperate place. They are educated, they have North American connections, and they have personality and people skills that draw others to them. Yet they chose to stay – not just in Haiti, but in a place with much darkness and little hope, even by Haitian standards.

Johny and Rosadite 2I love this photo of them, wearing our shoes for the trek down to the river. It makes me imagine what it would be like to step into their shoes, walking the dusty roads of Merger, where they pour themselves out in a place of immense need from a well of immense faith and grace from God their Father. Their stories of Haiti reminded me again and again of the overwhelming material poverty there. But God’s faithfulness has enriched them with a spiritual wealth of trust and joy beyond anything I typically see here in North America.

Here in the land of never-ending pasta bowls, it is easy to forget the Source of every good thing. Our well of faith and gratitude becomes as parched and dirty as the water supply in Haiti. I am thankful for Johny and Rosadite and their souls brimming with never-ending faith. I have not had the opportunity to walk in their shoes, but their three days walking around in ours left us just a bit fuller, expanded my imagination and hope for Haiti, and forged a friendship that crosses a continent and ocean.

 But even if I am poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

Philippians 2:17-18

Camping is Good

Homebody. I first remember this description applied to me around the age of 5 or 6. That was probably the age when my mom started having to beg me to accept friends’ requests for play dates when I would really rather just stay home. Now, 30 years later, I have a few stamps in my passport and I enjoy gatherings with friends, but I am still a homebody at heart.

However, summertime is when my husband pulls out maps and the number one question that gets asked in casual conversation is, “What are you guys doing this summer?” (AKA: “Where are you going this summer?”)

I tend to wander through June in denial, counting jars for jam making, working on my vegetable garden, planning the summer book clubs, enjoying our early summer visits to the Washougal River. I love it when school gets out and the kids and I have wide open weeks to pick berries, visit the library and log minutes for the summer reading program, attend swim lessons, engage in the annual assault against wildlife in my garden, host book club, and best of all, run down the short switch-back trail to the river that borders one end of our property. I love summer. Let me clarify: I love summer here at home.


However, I am writing this post because it is intended to be a message to myself: Camping is good. Traveling is good.

We just returned from a 6-day jaunt through Oregon. Most of the week we were camping at Crater Lake National Park. We stopped to check out waterfalls, interesting bridges, lakes, and an obsidian-laden lava flow on our way there and back. We listened to audiobooks and passed around water bottles and snacks in the car.

I'm pretending I'm a hobbit, making the dangerous journey through Mordor. There is even little Gollum behind me.

I’m pretending I’m a hobbit, making the dangerous journey through Mordor. There is even a little Gollum behind me.

But the highlight was Crater Lake. It was as blue and clear as the postcards and Oregon license plates promise. John loved the geological formations surrounding the lake. Jack loved Phantom Ship and Wizard Island.

Phantom Ship

Phantom Ship

We met up each day with some good friends who were at the same campground and since the kids were so busy chatting and playing and imagining, nary a complaint was heard during the less comfortable hikes UP trails or the long delays waiting for meals. After definitively stating I WOULD NOT swim in Crater Lake (it was supposed to be icy cold), the 90-plus degree heat and a 2-hour boat ride convinced me otherwise and I dipped in. We took a sunset hike up to a fire lookout and watched the lake disappear into darkness while the sky paraded orange, pink, and purple streaks on the opposite horizon.


Our friend Allie, braver than 3/4 of my family, jumping off a cliff-like perch into the blue waters.


We were together as a family all day and we lined up like sausages in the tent each night. John was the master of setting up, taking down, and cooking and cleaning (part of his sinister plan to keep me camping, summer after summer). We ate “camping” foods like Fruit Loops, foil packet dinners, s’mores, and Top Ramen. John grew a thick layer of facial hair and made me french press coffee every morning. I eventually got a shower.


Yes, camping is good. It is good to be away from schedules, internet, electricity, phones, responsibilities, rooms, and interests that separate our family at home. Dealing with dirt, bugs, and greasy hair is an opportunity for character growth. Seeing breathtaking sights that are only one state away is crazy lucky. Watching my children delight in the beauty of nature and seeing their strong bodies and nimble minds explore a new landscape is good.




Coming home again is also good. But hopefully this post to myself will remind me next June (or possibly again this summer) to look upon an opportunity to ride away with my family with eagerness and joy.



P.S. To the future Jenae, worrying over her vegetable garden while vacationing in mid-July: It will be just fine. The sprinkler/timer system works perfectly, and there may be four little Sun Gold tomatoes, three fat zucchinis, and a smattering of perfect green beans ready to harvest upon your return.

Dad’s Guitar

Whenever I hear an acoustic guitar, I’m a little girl again.

My childhood had background music. Every single day, after the dinner dishes were cleared, I would hear the familiar clack of a metallic latch on a hard plastic case, the settling in on a favorite chair, and then a few moments later, the music. Strumming, fingerpicking, familiar melodies and improvisations. Sometimes a quiet humming along, sometimes the deep bass singing familiar lyrics, and often no words at all – just the vibrations of strings touched by very familiar, very thick, calloused fingers. The house swelled with melodies of Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Paul Simon, old camp songs, hymns, love songs, nursery rhymes, and whatever favorite chorus or popular music my sister and I were enjoying at the moment. Mandolin and banjo made occasional appearances, along with a selection of whistles and harmonicas, but always, always the acoustic guitar.




Maybe I’m partial to acoustic guitar because of its constant presence in my childhood, but don’t you think it is matchless in its ability to evoke simplicity and calm? It was our home’s natural remedy for hyperactive toddlers, sleepless children, confused pre-adolescents, stressed and sullen teenagers, and hormonal women. It was the real dessert at the end of family gatherings for holidays and birthdays. It did not interfere with the reading of one’s book or doing one’s homework. It was not embarrassing to bring friends into that melodic space. Dad and his guitar made many hearts glad and bellies laugh and souls rise in worship.




In my memory, my mom never sighed heavily or looked pointedly at my dad as she began the evening’s work of dishes, cleaning up and directing children to bed or to homework. She let him play.

Was Dad disappointed when neither of his daughters picked up the instrument and joined the Donahue family musical heritage? If he was, he never showed it. It would be his son, the surprise baby who made his appearance when the girls were well into the moody years, who would follow the muse.




Now father and son (when son is home from college) sit together in the living room. One with a mandolin or banjo, and the other with the acoustic guitar, of course, and the grandkids gather round. Little guitars, maracas, and whistles are grasped by little hands, and the now very mature and never moody daughters belt out:

One day I went out swimmin’, where there were no women,

Way out by the sea!

Seeing no one there, I hung my underwear

Upon a willow tree!

I dove into the water, just like Pharoah’s daughter

Dove into the Nile!

Someone saw me there and stole my underwear,

And left me with a smile.



Thank you, Dad


* Photos by my sister, Katie Jenks