5 Ways to Turn Challenges Into Opportunities

What living in Zambia has taught me about facing difficult situations

2017 has been a big one for me! It was my first full year living in a different country and culture. And I have had my fair share of challenges big and small. Looking back, I have learned a lot about how to approach these tough situations. And below lies a few insights for the road.

For the record, this post is just as much for me as for you. A little encouragement to us all. I have learned a lot this past year while living in Zambia, but boy do I know I have a lot more to learn. So cheers to you, cheers to learning, and cheers to taking on the challenges that are going to come at us in 2018!

Tips for facing challenges:

The thing is that our solutions to problems are usually not the only way. Our solutions all depend on who you are and how you grew up, your personality, your culture, your economic status, your education level. So one of the very first things I learned to do here was ask my friends what they would do in a situation. One day, my beloved sandals from Target broke. They literally fell off my feet in the middle of a mission trip with our gap year students. Back home, I would just get new sandals. But at the time I was pretty far from any mall and I am also reluctant to buy shoes here because the quality is not always the best. So I asked my friend what I should do. “Oh just take them to the cobbler guy on the side of the road.” So I walked to the little shops still with no shoe on my right foot and found the man with used shoes lined up outside his door. “Odi,” I said (which is the equivalent of “knock knock”) as I entered the tiny dark room only big enough to hold the man and a sewing machine. “Would you be able to help me fix my shoe?” I said as I held up my dangling Target sandal. Without a word, he took it, motioned for me to take a seat, took out this long thick needle and some large thread, and he stitched it up in less than 5 minutes. When he gave it back to me, I turned it over in my hand. I could barely tell it had ever been broken. And it only cost me $2.

Youth Camp Gets Real

Teenagers are teenagers no matter where you go in the world. There will be boy-girl drama, family problems, girl fights, and school issues. And while living in a different country and culture can be quite overwhelming at times, doing youth work here is like slipping back into an old pair of shoes. It feels natural and familiar.

This past week, we had 150 teenagers flood our campus for our yearly December youth camp. I registered campers, printed name tags, coordinated small groups, led an afternoon of team-building games, and supported our student leaders. Every day I went to bed more tired than the day before. But every day I also went to bed knowing more and more why we do this camp. It all came to a head mid-week when we had something called “family time” where all of the leaders got up on stage and the campers could ask us questions about life. Simple enough but it quickly turned very real.

“What challenges did you face as a young person?”

I thought back to my time in high school as I looked out at the crowd of faces that earnestly wanted to know the answer. “My biggest challenge as a teen was not resisting temptation to do things I should not be doing like having sex or drinking. My biggest challenge was loneliness. I felt like I did not have friends and that the ones I did have did not really know me. I became depressed and no one knew. That time also translated into an attitude of very low self esteem that I am still trying to heal.”

One girl off to the side of the auditorium raised her hand, “How did you combat that low self esteem?” I could see in her eyes that it was not just a question. She knew what it felt like to not believe she is beautiful or capable.

“I know what that feels like. To be so low that you feel like you could never believe in yourself. I remember a specific day when I was 20 years old sitting by a lake in the States and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t go on thinking so little of myself. I know in my head that God thinks I am worthy and beautiful and just plain awesome, but I just do not believe it myself.’ But you know that you change your patterns of thinking by the things and people you have around you. So I decided to just swim in these truths that I did not believe and maybe just maybe it would sink in. So I wrote ‘You are Beautiful.’ On a note card and placed it smack dab in the middle of my mirror so that I would have to see it every morning. And you know what, it slowly worked somehow. At first I would look at it and say ‘yeah right.’ But the next day I would be like, ‘yeah right…?’”

The session went on with question after question. How do you deal with anger towards a mother who was never there for you? What do I do if I feel crippled by depression? How do I relate to my family that has such an unhealthy dynamic? As I sat on that stage, my heart just broke. These teens are hurting and have the weight of the world on their shoulders. And after that night they go back to their hard realities. But the thing that we ARE able to offer is reassurance that they are not alone and a hand to walk along with them even after camp ends, whether that is physically us or directing them to supportive communities.

FAQ: Questions I Get Asked a Lot

FAQ: Questions I Get Asked a Lot

I am a youth worker with a gap year program in a city called Ndola.

Youth work is a funny thing because it is so relational and flexible. But here’s a typical day in the gap year program:

5:30am—lead yoga/jogging

8:00am-12:00pm—homemade bfast cuz mornings are my freetime while the students are in class and I am a sucker for brunch

1:00-4:00pm—afternoon skills with the students like art, swimming, and children’s work

6:00pm—dinner. The students make their own dinner as a group and I love chilling with them while they cook around the charcoal

7:30-10:00pm—after-dinner programs which vary by day. Book reflection, mentor groups, game/movie nights, etc.

10:00pm lights out and I crash!

Even though my day is full of activity, I view my biggest and most important job as pouring into the students. And that happens in the little moments. The moments I am frustrated and tired, or the ones I am excited and engaged. It is the most fun and challenging job in the world!

Though it is not as common in the US, abroad lots of students will take a break between finishing high school and starting university and/or work. We have crafted a specific program that utilizes this time in Zambian students’ lives to help prepare them for university and beyond! It is a mix of academic and practical skills, helping them discover their own strengths and passions so that they will thrive.

Yep.

But you aren’t at a bible school or evangelizing on the street or even teaching English?

You would be correct.

My take on things is that there isn’t really a line between God-stuff and not-God stuff. It is all just life. I believe there is a God and He is big and loving and confusing sometimes. Without getting too far into the philosophy of it all, I feel loved by God and so I love others in what I do. A lot of the “reaching out” Christians have done in the past has been alienating, drawing a line between us and them. I don’t see Jesus like that. I see God as wanting us to flourish and that flourishing is what we are working towards in Zambia.

Your gifts actually have a very short trip: your wallet, to my sending agency in the States, and then to me in Zambia. Done.

My sending agency SAMS takes 15% off the top to cover expenses and trainings. But I will vouch for them and say that they do a lot with that little bit. When it gets to me, your money facilitates the part of the gap year program that I am able to lead. I could not do my job without you backing me!

All that to say: when you donate money to the work I do in Zambia, you are directly investing in my students’ futures!

If you have any more questions about how the gifts are used and how it impacts the students, feel free to email me at aprilsylvester@sams-usa.org. I am an open book. 🙂

Okay so not many people actually ask me this, but I know they are thinking it. There’s a lot of good work going on in the world. Why give to this one?

This is what I say: There is a HUGE need to pour into the upcoming generation in Zambia. Being a teenager is hard anywhere, but the stakes of messing up while trying to discover who you are in Zambia are high. In a country with so many young people (50% of the population is under 15!), we cannot afford to have so many teens that are struggling with addiction and dropping out of school because it will result in an even weaker country in the future. The youth of Zambia deserve to be loved and poured into so that they can become solidly grounded, empowered to lead and change their own country. And that is our specific aim at the gap year course.

No. Not many people do these days.

I Don’t Deserve This

It has been a long day. Two phone meetings, two in-person meetings, and a session of fundraising class. This season of my life is sending letters, emails, messages, texts, meeting with people, spreading the word about what we do in Zambia, and asking people to partner with me by praying and giving financially. It is a huge task! My monthly budget is $2000 per month (including everything like insurance and social security and pay check) in order for me to be able to work as a relational mentor to these students in our gap year program. And I have over 45 people giving to make that happen.

I sit over a cup of strawberry kiwi tea with a wonderful lady from my mom’s small group from church. And I just shake my head. What has been running through my head all day comes out: “I don’t deserve this. I definitely believe in the work I do in Zambia and I truly think it is filling a huge need. But every time someone offers to commit to take time out of their busy lives to pray for me or when they commit to giving money every month out of their hard-earned paycheck, I just can’t believe it.”

She smiles and says, “Of course you don’t deserve it. None of us do.”

I stopped to sip my tea. 

Okay let that sink in. We are not able to do what we do–working in Africa or not–because we deserve it. All of us have been given gifts. (Start with the gift of life and just continue on from there.) We are creatures that mess up and hurt each other but we still get showered with gifts from some unfathomable Love. Honestly it defies reason. 

And I know I am not perfect. Yet through the generosity of other people, God is giving me all that I need to be able to live and work in Zambia. 

I don’t deserve it and neither do you. We don’t deserve any of this crazy amazing life God gives us. I just get a more tangible bottom line of knowing exactly what those gifts are that I am given. Two thousand dollars per month, lots of prayer, the opportunity to influence Zambian teenagers, and some amazing partnerships to be exact.