Above: David, Shea, Wendy & Miller Ward in the Serengeti, Tanzania.
All photos courtesy of Wendy Ward.
All parents know the helpless feeling of watching their children struggle to comprehend and manage their own vast array of rapidly changing emotions. Especially in their teenage years…they lash out in anger when in fact they feel embarrassed or get jittery and overexcited when really they are feeling sad, and so on. Properly identifying feelings is the first and arguable more important step in managing and achieving emotional health and intelligence. Yet, as we all know, it’s often easier said than done.
In 2011, Darien resident and realtor Wendy Ward and her husband David began using Kimochis — a unique social, emotional learning program that features a plush line of characters each with their own emotions and personalities — to make talking about feelings a bit easier for their two young daughters. “Our girls immediately responded to the emotion pillows and fun characters and in no time we were having family discussions about everything from being fearful of change to setting boundaries and how to be a good friend and listener.”
Kimochis have been so successful that they are now being widely used as educational tools around the world and here at home in Darien. After Wendy introduced the program in 2012, Holmes elementary school is now using Kimochis at every grade level, and therapists at the Life Solutions Center are using them as well.
While the Kimochis were not what moved the Wards to travel to East Africa, the dolls ultimately became an important part of their journey. Wendy and David decided to travel to Tanzania show their children the world beyond Darien, to strengthen their family bonds with unique adventures, to renew their wedding vows, and to serve.
To design their dream trip that would combine wildlife safari with time spent in the villages serving local people, the Wards turned to Darienite Anne Wells, founder and director of the social organization, Unite The World With Africa. Unite’s mission is to advance health, education and microfinance programs across East Africa and a large part of how they do this is through their Unite Tours programs – which place American safari-goers in the field in uniquely meaningful ways.
“By combing traditional wildlife safaris with opportunities for personalized service, we are working to build an army of ambassadors for the Tanzanian people,” says Wells, who first lived in Tanzania in 1991 as a student of wildlife and human cultural management and later launched Unite in 2008 to “build bridges and transform lives.”
The Wards’ two girls, Miller and Shea, were at the forefront of the Kimochis lessons in Tanzania. “All the children – ours and theirs — loved it and were completely engaged and asking lots of questions,” says Wendy who is an award-winning realtor with Halstead Property. In a culture in which discussing one’s feelings and emotional health is quite rare and where such stressful circumstances as hunger, poverty, abuse, addiction and negligence are common, Kimochis could be helpful. In fact, the program was embraced by the Tanzanian teachers as welcome tools for their students. “We are working to raise tomorrow’s leaders,” says Modest Bayo, founder and director of the Tumaini Junior School in Karatu, Tanzania, “and it’s important they learn to manage their emotions, communicate effectively and be able to manage challenging and stressful situations.”
The trip to Tanzania with Unite was “truly life changing for each one of us,” says Wendy, and now she is teaming with Wells to introduce the “Speak Truth to Power” curriculum, a project of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, to a few of Unite’s partner schools in Africa.
Wendy is also working with Unite to launch a new series of African wildlife stationary photo cards, featuring Wendy’s images, along with a handful of other photographers, to raise both awareness and funds to purchase medical and school supplies.
Miller, 7, leading a class in Tanzania about Kimochis – a social emotional learning program being used in the Darien school system.