Changing Four Lives: A Scholarship for a Dear Friend in Need

Meet Erick.

Erick with his sweet daughter, Kamila.

Erick is a police officer in Guatemala.  I met him when he was the police escort for the humanitarian medical team I traveled with to the jungles of Guatemala to do free surgery for people in need last year.

Well, obviously I didn’t personally do the free surgery.  These people weren’t that desperate.  

I just invaded everyone’s space with my camera during the surgeries.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Right when I met Erick, I felt like I already knew him  -- it caught me off guard how familiar he felt to me, actually.  Insert your own spiritual philosophy here, but I feel like I knew him before this life.  I was all the more caught off guard when he volunteered the same feeling.  Talk about a trippy... trip.

Hahaha, “trippy trip.”

A very bad picture of both of us, but it's the only one we have together, so there ya go.

Since traveling to Guatemala, I have gotten to know Erick and his sweet wife Elisa very well.  They speak to me every day because they know I'm trying to become fluent in Spanish, and they want to help me, because they authentically love helping people.  I’ve spoken to their friends.  Always the skeptic, I’ve concluded there is no doubt that these are good people.

I’ve heard stories about Erick -- some he doesn’t know that I know -- about how he worked tirelessly in the mud to rescue families during a hurricane, and how as he pulled children’s bodies out from the rubble, he immediately prayed for each of them.  

Guatemalan police pulled many bodies from the rubble of Storm Agatha.

The storm devastated much of the third world country.  Many people did not survive.

He is an intelligent, hilarious, good man who asks for nothing for himself (except to drive my drone someday -- he is fascinated by my drone, hahaha).  Elisa volunteers regularly at her community’s church and welcomes people in need with open arms.  She, too, is humble and never asks for anything.  Their children are sweethearts.

Erick and Elisa -- amazing human beings

In Guatemala, unless you are born with wealthy (and often corrupt) connections, it is very difficult to find opportunities to excel and provide for your family.  It’s difficult to find a job that pays enough to survive -- let alone go to school and further a career.  Many of them live in huts or cement blocks -- all the things you might expect from a third world country.

As a full-time police officer in Guatemala, Erick is paid around $600 a month. Let me repeat that -- $600 a month. That blows my mind.  In order to make even that $600, Erick has to work a 12-hour bus ride away from home.  He sleeps at the police station for about 8 to 10 days in a row and returns home for a couple days at a time to see his family, and then repeats the process.  And while expenses in Guatemala are not the same as they are here, they are actually not as different as you might expect, and that $600 is not much at all for a family of four.

Guatemala’s working class, including its police officers, legitimately live in poverty.  

Click here to help.

I got to film some of the local kids on my trip, and I loved them to pieces.

To add to it all, a few years ago, Erick and Elisa were struck with further financial hardship when a family member they trusted unexpectedly robbed them of the savings they had -- they were victims of awful luck.  And after telling me the story, Elisa firmly declared “I was angry and so upset, but I knew I needed to forgive [the family member].  And so I did.  Even though we don’t have money, we have peace.”

As I’ve gotten to know Erick, I have come to believe that all his desires in life center around making other people happy -- especially his family.  He sees his girls growing up and understandably desires opportunity for them.  And rather than join some of the corrupt ranks of Guatemala’s dark side and lie or steal or cheat to provide more for his family, Erick chooses to work hard and have faith that his God will provide.

That’s where we come in.

Their daughters: Kamila and Crystal.

One thing that can help Erick is a promotion -- that would likely allow him to live at home and be able to watch his daughters grow up, instead of a 12-hour bus ride away.  It would also mean digging out of the financial pit they’re currently in, and provide more opportunities for his daughters.

In order to be promoted, Erick needs to enroll in the local university, which he has a strong desire to do.  But unlike the nation I am so blessed to live in, there are no scholarships or financial aid programs available to Erick.  And even though university enrollment is comparatively cheap to what I’m used to, every dollar he pays out of pocket toward his education increases the chance of skipping lunch that day.  He just doesn't have the means.

Seeing this family struggle breaks my heart.  And while I hate asking for money more than I hate when hangers in my closet get tangled up and all my clothes fall on the floor (a first world problem that I’m embarrassed to say turns me into the Hulk -- minus the muscles), the pain of not helping this sweet family is far greater.

I’ve run the numbers, and for $5,000, Erick can attend his local university for the full four years.  He can earn the degree he has his eye on. He will be eligible for promotion.  And most importantly, he can live in the same house as his family.   

$5,000 can change four lives.

I think I spent $5,000 on books alone when I was in college.

And let's be honest. I’ve probably spent $5,000 on total race entry fees since I started running.

Wow… I feel… just wow.

This $5,000 also supports putting honest people in governmental positions in the country of Guatemala.  It teaches a willing, hard-working man to fish, who will no doubt use his blessings to bless the lives of others.

Erick and the other officers at his station threw a party for the "poor kids" in the neighborhood.

By the way -- He has no idea I'm doing this, so on the off chance that we share a mutual contact, please don't let the cat out of the bag (dogs are ok). You'd be surprised -- I just found out that my husband goes to school with his niece. It's a small world after all... la la la la la... sorry about that.

I know there are millions of people in Guatemala, many of whom are worse off financially than Erick and Elisa.  I’ve met some of them.  But I personally know this family, and they are at least as deserving.  This family is the one I go to sleep wishing I could help.  

I’ve done my research and tested money transfers and I feel I know how to safely ensure funds are used properly.  Rest assured, I will monitor and control all the financial contributions, so as long as you trust me, you can know that your donation is going to a good place.  All contributions will go directly to this cause -- I obviously won’t take squat.  I’ve got my own student loans to pay (or I’d probably just hand over this whole donation myself), but I also don’t make $600 a month, so I’m good.

If we are able to raise more than $5,000, that money can be used to pay for living and additional school expenses -- there is still need beyond our goal.

But as I promised, if we can reach our goal of $5,000, I will literally tie 25 balloons to myself, climb to the tallest peak at Peter's Canyon on a crowded Saturday morning, and do the Thriller dance in front of a video camera.

If we raise $10,000, I'll post a fully edited pro music video of this disaster on YouTube.

So if you can spare any amount -- great or small -- whether you have a desire to be an answer to prayers, or just want to watch me make a full-on public mockery of myself -- I thank you so humbly for your support.

Thank you for helping me change lives.

Friendship Fail: How Acting on Accidental Stalking Creeped Out a Complete Stranger

"Hey, look at that license plate frame in front of us," my husband Spencer said from behind the wheel. 

I glanced up from the passenger seat and sat up straight.  "What the heck?"

"What's the problem?" he asked.

"It's that car again!"

There was no mistaking it. 

You see, for weeks, at different times of the day and in different parts of Orange County, I had begun to notice myself driving behind the exact same car: a red Honda Accord station wagon.

It was like a ghost car that kept showing up out of nowhere.

I remember the car specifically because not only are Honda station wagons rarely seen around Orange County, but it also had a very distinct license plate frame that got my attention the very first time I was behind it at a stoplight.

The frame read "Winning Group of America - Run USA."

I thought, "Ooo, sounds interesting.  I wonder what that group is.  It must be some fun running club, or a running store, or maybe these license plate frames are only given to US Olympic athletes..."

My detail-oriented mind joined forces with my over-active imagination to list out the possible reasons in my head for having such a license plate frame.

And because I prefer to torture myself these days with the pastime of running, I took a special interest in the frame's advertised subject.

But not enough to give it another thought once the light turned green.

Until.... dun dun dun.... 

A few days later, I looked up and saw the exact same car ahead of me at a different part of the day.  "Weird," I thought, followed by more pondering of this Run USA Olympic athlete who must have at least a bronze medal.

Or possibly silver.

And it wasn't lost on me what coincidence it was that I had seen the exact same car in front of me again, at a completely different part of Orange County, at a completely different time of day.

But then I shrugged and kept driving, and eventually traffic separated me from the mystery runner behind the wheel of the red Honda.

But then, a few days later, I found myself driving behind the exact same car.  Then again, a few days after that.

Then three more times in the same week.

Now, think about this.  There are millions of people in Orange County, and hundreds of thousands of people within an immediate few mile radius from my house alone.  We don't have empty lots here -- we'll put a house or a taco shop on any pile of dirt, if city ordinances will allow it.

And just about every post-16-year-old around here owns a car.

There are so many cars in this county, that our freeways are better known as parking lots.

So, then why was I running into the exact same vehicle, not once, not twice, but half a dozen times in just a matter of days?

Was it some sort of fate?

No, Jolie.  That's how weird people think.

After multiple run-ins with this car, I finally brought it up as a dinner table conversation topic.

"So... there's this car I keep seeing on the road... it's weird...." with my sweet husband taking enough of an interest to validate me until I changed the subject.

Cut to -- a couple days later, we were both in the car together when we ended up behind none other than the red Honda station wagon again.  

After having a conniption fit full of "What the heck??s," I did what any normal accidental stalker would do.

I pulled out my cell phone and took a picture:

The Run USA car.

"Can you see who the driver is?" I asked.  But before we could make out any details in his or her silhouette, traffic separated us. 

But then the very next day, on the way to work, I was flabbergasted to find myself again behind the exact same car.  And like a total-wanna-be-detective-who-is-really-just-a-weirdo, I managed to pull up next to it at a stoplight just long enough to get a glimpse of the driver.

She was a petite Asian with long hair.

Ah ha!  I finally had a face to go with the license plate frame.

But... she was pretty short for an Olympic athlete...  She must just be really fast.

After all, she pulled ahead of me when the stoplight turned green.  


I couldn't wait to tell my husband I had discovered what the mystery driver looked like.

Before I got the chance to, however, I was driving the 12-ish miles home from work that very same day in crawling traffic on the 5 freeway, when the car in front of me decided to merge into a neighboring lane.

Imagine my surprise when it revealed the new driving neighbor directly ahead of me...

The red Run USA Honda.


Twice in one day?

I looked around me.  There were hundreds to thousands of cars within my eyesight.  The statistical probability of me ending up directly behind this same vehicle both on the way to work and on the way home from work in the same day had to be next to zero, not to mention all the other times I had driven behind her in the past few weeks.

This needed to be a story problem in some college statistics book.

Officially creeped out, I continued to drive home, unable to keep my eyes off the red Honda.  About a mile before I got home, I saw her turn into nearby a neighborhood.

Great.  Now I knew where she lived.  This was weird.  

When I got home, I opened the door, dropped my purse on the table, and announced "She's Asian!"


"The Run USA driver girl.  I saw her both to and from work today.  I know what she looks like, and I know what neighborhood she probably lives in."

I paused.

"And I sound like a total stalker."

We laughed.

I thought a moment.

"Ya know, maybe I should try to meet her."

Spencer searched my expression to see if I was serious.

"I mean, she doesn't look like a scary person, and I don't look like a scary person.  What if the next time I see her drive into her neighborhood, I just happen to drive that same direction?  It's a pretty stalker-esque thing to do, sure, but maybe we all need to be a bit more friendly to each other and take a bit more risks.  We already must have running in common -- what's the harm?"

Kumbaya for my air-tight logic.

So right then and there, I decided that if I ever saw her drive into her neighborhood again, I would try to meet her.

Honestly, in that moment, I figured the chances of me seeing her turn into her neighborhood again were slim, so I wouldn't ever actually have to stalk her.

But no.

It was two days later.


I was driving home from work, when I was mortified to see none other than that red Honda station wagon with the Run USA license plate directly in front of me.

In my mind, I had made a commitment I couldn't back out of now.

There was no turning back.

Sure enough, the red Honda turned into the same neighborhood I had seen it enter before.

Only this time, a silver Tacoma also turned right behind her.  

My silver Tacoma.

She took a left into a residential neighborhood, and my silver Tacoma also took a left.

Stalking in action.
She slowed down, and I got nervous.  "Ugh... she totally sees me following her... I'm such a psycho."

Another left.  Then she began to parallel park her car on the curb in front of a house.

I did not look at the house.

Knowing what the house looked like felt like diving too deep into stalker territory.

Instead, I just pulled up next to her and rolled down my window.

With the most overly-friendly, unintimidating voice and face I could muster, I said, "Hi!"

She looked up at me, understandably confused.

I took a deep breath and continued.  "This is going to sound really weird, cuz it is weird, but I live in a nearby neighborhood, and I have coincidentally driven behind you about a dozen times, so I told myself that if that ever happened again, I would introduce myself and say hi."

She just stared at me.

I tried again. "Umm... I'm actually a runner, and your license plate got my attention."

She finally spoke.  "What?"

She had a very strong accent.

Oh no.

This interaction was going to be weird enough without any sort of language barrier.  If she had trouble understanding English, then there was no saving it.

"Are you a runner, too?"

She clearly did not understand what I was saying.


I tried again.

"Do you like to run?  Your license plate says 'Run USA.'"

She paused.  "Huh?"

"I'll show you."  I hopped out of my double-parked vehicle and walked around to the back of hers.  I pointed.  "See?  Run USA."

She looked at it for a moment.  "Oh... no, I don't know that."

My heart sank.  "Oh... the frame maybe came with the car?"

More staring.

Awkward times twelve.

And in this awkwardness, apparently I was accidentally taking selfies of myself...

Accidental selfie during our awkward conversation.
Accidental selfie via my phone during our awkward conversation.

One more try.

I reached out to shake her hand.  "I'm Jolie.  I have a running blog, which is why I wanted to meet you."

And none of this makes any sense to you, I thought.

"I promise I'm not as creepy as I seem," I awkwardly explained.

In a brief, unclear conversation, I gathered her name was something like Katzco (though it sounded like Costco), and that she moved here from Japan less than a year ago.

Great.  You haven't even been here a year yet and some random American followed you home.

Welcome to the home of the brave.

I wanted to pull out my phone and show her pictures of me doing normal, nonthreatening things, like working at Disneyland or something -- anything -- to prove I wasn't going to show up on her doorstep at 2am, but there was no time.  Suddenly my objective had gone from "making a friend" to "preventing this poor stranger from having nightmares for the rest of her life."

Abort mission!

She opted out of taking a selfie with me.

What a shock.

I finally freed her from our conversation, and openly mocked myself on the drive home.

She hadn't even been a runner.

She barely spoke English.

My "fun" idea of throwing caution to the wind only ended up making a stranger throw caution into everything she does from now on.

And "Run USA"?

Well, I finally went home and Googled it.  Guess what it is?

A really terribly-named tiny little used car dealership in Los Angeles.

Perhaps I should have Googled it earlier.

How to Protect Yourself from Weirdo-Creeps While Running Alone

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I'm a bit of a safety nut.

Even my dogs wear seat belts.

My dogs wear seat belts
JPeg (left) and Comet (right)

Shut up.

And with all my safety-nuttedness, I couldn't help making a video about a unique running safety product...

And for all you doubters, my husband had no idea that wake-up call was coming.


Anyway, when I surf the web looking for "runner safety," cuz that's the kind of stuff I surf the web for, I often see the exact same advice:

Don't. Run. Alone.

Ok. Sure -- no problem.

If I were a wildebeest.

These things took out Mufasa.

As much as I appreciate that advice, I am not fortunate enough to have a plethora of nearby running pals with a remotely similar wacky schedule or training plan.  

I used to have one of these friends, but then he packed up my safety dreams and moved away, leaving me alone to fend off random weirdos.

With my running buddy, Greg, during the 2013 Disneyland Half Marathon (before he moved away - booo)
With my running buddy, Greg, during the 2013 Disneyland Half Marathon (before he moved away - booo)

And we all know there are weirdos out there.

I once had a stalker who wrote letters to my dogs.

Which is much weirder than putting them in seat belts.


And then, there are all the terrifying stories you can find online -- like the murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King, who was attacked while running in a park near her home in San Diego.  Or the terrifying story of a woman who barely survived an attack while she was running in Hawaii. Washington DC even has a map that shows each place a runner has been attacked in the region -- there are dozens of orange markers over a simple 4-year period.

Not cool.

So what do us women runners do?  Heed absolute safety and never run alone?  Perhaps.  Though, if we all heeded absolute safety, then we really couldn't ever get into a car.  Or eat a donut.  Or pet a scorpion.

And then there's the gender equality part of me that gets a severe eye twitch when I'm told I can't do something because A. I'm a woman.  And B. Men won't let me.

Don't get me wrong -- Not all men are creepazoid attackers of women.  Most men out there would probably be more likely to rescue someone who was attacked, and I love them for it.  But the fact remains that when I'm out there running alone, I'm usually not keeping a cautious eye out for a Jennifer or a Brittany.

For me, the answer lies in balance.  I won't be a person who says you should or shouldn't ever run alone, but I will say that those of us who choose to do so, need to be smart about it.

And here's how.

How to protect yourself from weirdo-creeps while running alone

Run in Well-Populated Areas

If you can see multiple additional runners, walkers, drivers, or cyclists at any given time, you're probably on a pretty good path.  The chance of every person in sight being a weirdo-creep is pretty slim, so if one of them is one, having other people around may deter the punk from making any bad moves.  Not to mention you have a higher chance of getting help from others if something were to happen.

This path was not well-populated, unless you count the two hungry vultures sitting on the rail...

Running near vultures.

Mix up the Routine

Don't be predictable.  Try to run different locations on different days or during different hours.  If stalker-McGee doesn't know when you're going to run by the orange tree, he won't know when to go out and "pick oranges."

Bring Pepper Spray

Carry it with your thumb on the trigger.  I like to aim and shoot at random tree trunks for practice.

pepper spray for runners

Be Suspicious of Everyone

This probably sounds really pessimistic, but I think it's essential.  Whenever I'm running alone, I suspect every male I see to be a potential attacker.  I confidently make eye contact with each passing person, and make sure it's clear to them that I am not a passive runner. 

I'm a friendly runner, so I'll probably nod or smile at the same time, but I do it from a safe distance with an obvious finger on the trigger of my pepper spray.

Some guys really get the message and quickly reciprocate with an over-friendly anxious wave of surrender, as if to say, "I'm a good guy -- please don't spray that in my face."

It's similar to being a defensive driver.  To be prepared for that one idiot who gets behind the wheel after drinking a bucket of vodka, you need to assume that everyone around you could potentially be that person.  

Defensive running in action
Awkward below-chin angle of defensive running in action

Don't Blast the Music

If you wear headphones, try wearing them in one ear, or turn the volume down enough that you can still hear what's going on around you -- Whatever you need to do to be able to hear an approaching attacker.  

I listen to podcasts or audiobooks ('cuz I'm a nerd) in loosely-fitting wireless headphones, which allows me to easily hear the world around me.

Use GLYMPSE on Your Cell Phone

I know, I know.  My phone is the size of a Bible, too.  But it is totally worth bringing it along, not only to call for help if needs be, but because of this saweet app called...

Glympse GPS app for running

Using your phone's GPS, Glympse sends out a live map of where you are and how fast you're moving throughout your run, so people you trust can track you.  It is awesome.

Glympse app in action
Watching my brother run with Glympse

Every time I go running, I activate Glympse and send a notification to my husband and siblings to track me.

It is so detailed that my brother once noticed I was stopped in a random place, so he texted me to make sure I was ok.  Love that.

Stay Away from Possible Hiding Places

I steer clear of buildings (even bathrooms if they lack people traffic), bushes, trees, ditches, or anywhere Steven King could have hidden a creepy clown.  It lessens the chance of a surprise attack, as well as the chances of being dragged somewhere out of sight.

Ditches + bushes + no one in sight = scary

Run with a Dog Bigger Than a Hamster

He doesn't know it yet, but my eight-month-old whippet is four months away from being my new running buddy.  

Attackers are less likely to go after you if you have a canine companion by your side that is large enough to literally take a bite out of crime without being air launched by the flick of a finger.  Not to mention dogs can bark loudly and draw attention to a scene.

Psh, cat people.

Fight Back

If a nightmare attack does come, experts say that you need to fight back -- immediately and violently.  Aim for the eyes, throat, knees, stomach, groin -- anything that will debilitate the attacker for just enough time to allow you to escape.

Be prepared with a response in advance so that you instinctively take action should that terrifying moment come.

Other Safety Products

Just like the alarm I showed in the video review, there are other products created with the goal of making women safer while they're running alone.  

There's this "Go Guarded Self Defense Ring," which might need to be my next purchase...

Or the "Tigerlady Self-Defense Claw," which looks pretty bad-butt (that's Mormon-speak, but not really).

Whatever your choice, if you decide to run alone, just make sure you're prepared for the worst.  And then we'll hope it never happens.

Or just wear the Tigerlady because it'll make you feel like Catwoman.
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