11 Days and Counting – Allison

It’s altogether possible that our team will be approached to appear in a major motion picture telling the story of our adventures in Africa. And, when the promotional people begin asking who should have the first action figure produced, I’m pointing to Allison.

Allison Witucki Russell is a quiet soul. Quiet, but not timid. Reserved, but not without opinion. When she decides to share, that moment is well worth waiting for.

1797473_850316691949_1029276132_nA native of Houston, Allison is very passionate about travel. However, she’s not partial to five-star hotels and the like. Allison and her husband, Dan, are outdoor enthusiasts. One of her goals is to visit every national park in the United States. She enjoys hiking, camping, and sailing and just about anything involving their dog, Brisbane. Allison is also a photographer and will be one of our primary sources for great pictures through our trip.

Allison is currently in the master’s degree program in the Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management program at Southern Methodist University. She earned her undergraduate degree from Saint Edward’s University in Austin, Texas with a focus on kinesiology.

Much of Allison’s youth was formed by her involvement in the Girl Scouts. A recipient of the Gold Award, the highest award in the Girl Scouts, she points to her participation and achievements in the organization as her inspiration for her passion to make a difference in the world.

Allison shared these thoughts, “Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, is one of my heroes. She was a powerful and inspirational WOMAN who worked very hard to foster peace and equality for everyone, while also creating exciting opportunities for women and girls. And she did it in a time when that kind of ‘behavior’ was not common in women.  She made a difference. Her legacy will forever live on in the hearts and actions of Girl Scouts across the globe. That’s pretty amazing!”

No stranger to making a difference, Allison has worked with a number of leadership organizations including the Girl Scouts, the American Red Cross, and Crisis Intervention of Houston.

It was her hope to make a difference that landed her a spot on the Africa team.

“Dr. Gilmore called me and asked if Dan and I would be able to be a part of this team,” Allison explained. “Right off the bat, Dan said ‘No!’  But something about this resonated very deep inside me. I knew this was the opportunity I had been waiting for. This was going to be a life-altering experience and I couldn’t say no to it. I put my negotiation skills to work. Soon, Dan and I agreed this was definitely something we wanted to do. Little did we know…and we haven’t even made it to Africa yet!!  I’m beyond thrilled to be a part of this team, to be presented with this opportunity, and simply to have this experience. And I feel extremely lucky that I get to go through it all with Dan. I am not blind to the fact that sharing this level of experience with a spouse is very rare and we are very grateful.”

Dan & AllisonAs we mentioned in Dan’s post, the Russells will celebrate their second wedding anniversary while in Rwanda.

I wouldn’t doubt if that action figure isn’t already in the works. On our team, one of our constant experiences is to hear Allison say, “I’ll do that.” She has already inspired greatness in packing and rumor has it that several team members may be retaining Allison to get their gear packed and stowed, as well. Allison also volunteered to pack the duffel bags we’ll be taking with all of the great things that have been donated for the refugees. And, she moved ahead on a late term project that we’ll be featuring in a future post.

Allison is a woman of action. With a heart as big as the outdoors she loves so much, Allison sets the pace for peacemaking for our Africa mission.

12 Days and Counting – Joey

[This guest post was a surprise in my email inbox this morning. Thank you, Robyn, for writing this and for the collaboration from the rest of the team. I’m a little embarrassed to post this on my own blog. But I’m going to take one for the team! Love you good folks! Joey]

Guest Post by Robyn Short

Co-leaders Joey Cope and Betty Gilmore taking a break from training with our mascot, Mazzie Star.

If you have been following Joey’s blog for some time, then you are familiar with his thoughtful and often humorous perspective on life. If you are a friend or family member of the “Africa Peace Mission Team,” then you may be getting to know Joey along with the rest of us. You see … like you, we experience the more personal side of Joey in his writings. In person, he is the quiet observer. When we read his writing, we understand the inner workings of his mind.

Joey listens. He watches. He takes notes. There is an African proverb that describes Joey well: “The fool speaks. The wise man listens.” And our Joey is indeed a wise man.

Like a patchwork quilt, Joey is our thread. He holds our individual layers together. We are a loud and boisterous group. We are full of strong opinions, as well as laughter and jokes. Individually, we are a mismatched and seemingly random collection of patches and color. Through his keen observations, subtle nudges and one-on-one counsel, Joey has softly and quietly woven our unique patches into a single, beautiful quilt.

Dan describes Joey well. “I think that Joey provides a soulful wisdom and real-life moral compass for our group. We would all be better mediators if we had ‘what would Joey do’ as personal mottos. In addition, Joey has the type of voice, knowledge and quiet charisma that makes one want to listen when he speaks; because you know he is worth listening to.”

It is no surprise that Dan thought of the “what would Joey do” phrase. Remember the WWJD lanyards from many years ago? Joey does indeed exemplify a Christ-like presence through his unconditional love and peacemaker actions.

Joey teaching us the importance of process.

Joey teaching us the importance of process.

Betty, Joey’s co-lead on this team, describes Joey as the team’s “father” because of his strength, ability to offer support and exercise discipline. Fathers lead; they offer advice; they demonstrate wisdom. Yes, Joey is our team’s father.

When I think of Joey, I think about his generosity of spirit, his tremendous kindness, and his ability to see the Divine in us all. Joey is a true peacemaker. His love for all God’s creatures, the two-legged and the four-legged, is experienced in his actions.

When Joey is not writing for this blog, working with the Africa Peace Mission Team or learning valuable lessons about love, compassion and collaboration from his guru Togo, you will find him at Abilene Christian University where he shares his knowledge and wisdom as the executive director of the Duncum Center for Conflict Resolution.

We are blessed to know Joey. We are fortunate to have him co-lead our team with Betty. But I suspect you already know that, because like us, Joey has blessed your life too and made your time on this planet a bit more precious.

13 Days and Counting – Credentials

When we start boarding the plane in just 13 days, airline personnel and government officials will be paying a lot of attention to our credentials. Boarding passes and passports will be the key items of the moment. And, even though a lost boarding pass or a defective passport has caused many a problem at the gate, those things aren’t nearly as terrifying as a lack of credentials in some other key areas.

Team4When Dr. Betty Gilmore selected her Africa team, she was looking for some specific characteristics. Fortunately, she had the advantage of having the SMU students in her classes. She had talked with each one, seen them interact with large groups, and read their assignments. Yet as well as she had come to know each and every one, there was something else she was hoping for — a dedication and commitment that’s a little hard to foresee.

An experienced hand at assembling student teams to travel to other countries, Betty knew, perhaps better than any of us, how much time and work would be required in preparing for this trip. Just as a passenger’s credentials are carefully scrutinized, Betty had to look carefully at each one of us.

Team3While the best case scenario would be a perfect fit, we all know it’s rare for that to happen when assembling a team. For a team to come together, it must experience struggle. People have to learn to deal with the blemishes. For in seeing the good and the bad in our mission partners, we begin to develop a real sense of the strength of the team. And, fittingly, we come to love and respect each other in a very special way.

In the day-to-day world, credentials are things that are earned. A degree, a license, an honor. We love people with credentials. And once credentialed, it does feel rather nice to have someone take notice.

On this trip, the hope of each and every one of us is that our special credentials are noticed by everyone we meet. Our special credentials will be well earned. We’ve worked hard. Yet, the magic ingredient is our willingness to stick together.

Team5When Betty, Robyn, Aaron, Malcolm, Allison, Dan, and I set foot in Africa, we want to be seen as a peace movement. Holding each other up, carrying each other’s burdens, looking out for one another, respecting each other. These are the credentials that will speak most loudly as we move together to train others and model peace.


14 Days and Counting – Fortnight

Fourteen days or, as they would say in days of old (or perhaps “olde”) —  a fortnight. That’s how long until Aaron, Betty, Dan, Allison, Robyn, Malcolm, and I leave for Rwanda. Despite all of our hard work, it doesn’t seem real that the trip is that close.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

In fact, it’s almost surreal. Surrealism is a genre of art where things take on dream-like qualities and often appear out of order and beyond their natural element. We have a little of that going on with this peace mission.

For months, all of us have been dealing with the concept of going to Africa . . . some day. At some point in the future, this will happen. And now, that some day, that point of time, is just 2 weeks away.

A lot will happen over the next 2 weeks. The other part of our lives will continue. We will go to work. We will do household chores. We will shop for groceries. We will go to the gym and exercise. Okay, some of us will go to the gym and exercise. Despite the fact that this really important journey lies just ahead of us, we will keep living our lives.

In talking with my teammates, I know that most have wished that life could just be put on hold. For 14 days, could the phone stop ringing, could the grass quit growing, could the world quit spinning? The focus of the last six months is looming. It’s more than looming, It’s leaning over and crowding out almost everything else.

Except it can’t. And we won’t allow it.

In a fortnight we will be on our way. But between now and then we’ll meet our obligations. We’ll relish every moment with family and friends. We will live the lives we already have. Why? Because this trip, this peace mission to Rwanda and Kenya, is now a part of us. Our adventure doesn’t start in 14 days. It began the moment God placed on our hearts the desire to share peace with others. Our experience in Africa will live on with us and shape us forever.


15 Days and Counting – Mascot

All great teams have a mascot. A mascot inspires. A mascot invigorates. Occasionally, a mascot just kind of lies there.

Meet Mazzie Star, mascot of the SMU Rwanda Peace Mission 2014.

When we see photographs of glamorous celebrities, we often wonder what life in the spotlight is like. Well, you won’t learn much about that from Mazzie Star. Sure, she’s the glue of our team and some say that we owe what we are today to her. But Mazzie just moonlights as a mascot.

In real life, she has important duties. During the day, she covers not just one, but two windows in her best friend’s house. From those vantage points, she has a clear view of two streets and a working knowledge of every neighbor and every other dog living within a half mile. But just because she knows them, she doesn’t let them off with the silent treatment. Mazzie Star barks.

You see, that’s her main job — warning Robyn of anything moving outside the house. Or, when the team is there, anything moving inside the house. And nothing can be said or done to dissuade her from her sworn task. Nothing. Except maybe a snack. Or a belly rub. But sometimes not even then.

Mascots are believed to bring good luck. And certainly Mazzie Star outshines any rabbit’s foot or four leaf clover. But dear Mazzie captures an even deeper meaning for us.

Mazzie1Finding common ground is a unique experience in teams with deep ties. When tension is a little high, a little time with Mazzie brings a measure of calm. When she’s not barking, she is the epitome of the non-anxious presence.

As a team, our tasks aren’t much different from Mazzie Star’s. Be vigilant. Speak up. Reassure. And, if appropriate, eat snacks.

Mazzie won’t be making the trip. Yet she’ll be in our thoughts. As we travel, we will follow her lead. We will be vigilant for each other. We will speak up when a strong voice is needed. We will reassure and comfort.

Undoubtedly, we’ll eat snacks. And we’ll stand together.