Wondering about mental and emotional health, education, and resources in different countries?

Meet Nancy Bartosz, a woman who is on a leave of absence from teaching in America to travel and explore mental health awareness around the world.

Mental health abroad: Iraq and Iran

Nancy with one leg in Iraq, and one in Iran, photographed by Muhammad Kurdy.

Teaching Traveling: Nancy, tell us about yourself.

Nancy: As someone who thrives on personal and professional change, my teaching career has taken many unusual twists and turns. I began my career 25 years ago as a kindergarten teacher.

I’ve since concluded that anyone who teaches five year olds has the professional skills to teach anything, as I have used what I learned there in other jobs including technology facilitator, instructional coach, high school assistant principal, and 8th grade Literacy teacher.

Lovely seaside views in Beirut, Lebanon.

Lovely seaside views in Beirut, Lebanon.

All of these roles have taught me that effective teaching centers on the basic principles of relationship building, connecting standards within project-based learning, and focusing on social emotional learning that supports academic achievement.

Traveling has always been deeply embedded in my teaching practice and I feel like I am better able to connect learning to the outside world when I have a strong connectedness that travel brings. Once I learned that I could pay into my retirement plan while away for a year, I was in, and I am currently on my second leave of absence from school to travel around the world.

A skateboard tournament in Kigali, Rwanda.

A skateboard tournament in Kigali, Rwanda.

TT: Amazing. Tell us more about your travels to explore mental health awareness.

N: During my recent years of teaching, I have observed the critical need for students, parents, and teachers to gain a strong understanding of how proactive mental health supports learning.

There have been times when I have felt helpless when working with students struggling with anxiety and depression because I wasn’t sure of the best ways to provide support that would have positive benefits for the long term. Understanding mental health has become a strong focus for me — and one that I have embedded in my current travels.

I am currently on a one-year leave of absence, partnering with a mental health education and suicide prevention organization called Hope for the Day to teach and learn about global mental health work.

Learning to make Global Mamas batik in Cape Coast, Ghana.

Learning to make Global Mamas batik in Cape Coast, Ghana.

Our mission is wide open — but generally focused on reducing the stigma of mental health conversations while partnering with both US and local agencies and people to create touchstones of hope in all countries I visit.

The journey has been rich with experiences that have expanded my personal and professional outlook on the world. While mental health outreach is a priority, and I have presented workshops to a variety of audiences, I am most excited about connecting with local artists who have shared messages of hope in their communities.

Instead of entering my travels with a specific agenda, my experiences now center on supporting the work of others who already have deeper understanding of local needs.

With crashing waves in Halat, Lebanon.

With crashing waves in Halat, Lebanon.

Throughout Africa, I was awed by street artists who created a beautiful collection of HOPE murals and felt humbled to participate in Uganda’s Afri-cans Street Art Festival. With help from friends at home, I have been able to support a variety of activities including a skateboarding competition in Kigali, Rwanda.

Currently, I am working in the Middle East, completing a series of visits to refugee camps in Northern Iraq and spending time with nonprofits organizations focused on mental health outreach for Jordanian orphans and Iraqi refugees in Amman, Jordan.

Sometimes, when seeing the world from the headlines, it is easy to form misconceptions and get lost in political agendas. Being able to interact with others on meaningful work reinforces my belief that the world is filled with marvelous people who I am hoping to meet. You can read some details in this Facebook group

Humbasha bread in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Enjoying some Humbasha bread in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

TT: So inspiring. How do you find your travel opportunities? 

N: My Hope for the Day team and partners from home, along with good old Google, have been my lifeline. Throughout the year, I will have five different friends meet me along the way which is very helpful for bringing outreach supplies. This has also been a great way to include students and friends from home as they have been collecting supplies and giving financial gifts for hope projects.

I have also learned not to be deterred when doors seem closed. To prepare for every leg of this journey, I begin by sending emails, Facebook messages, and tweets to like-minded mental health organizations and individual artists.

For every 20 messages I send, I often get only one response. However, in all cases, the people who have responded have been open-hearted and eager to work together. In fact, I have formed more than just work partnerships, I have made so many friends through persistent online research and communication.

Finding the right balance between planning ahead and being spontaneous is a constant challenge that probably means I am not getting the best airline prices or following the most efficient itinerary.

I had to just decide that I was okay with this. I also count on making good connections when I arrive in new countries and through my daily activities while experiencing a new place. For example, in both Rwanda and Ethiopia, I have met restaurant owners who supported my mission just by eating lunch at their places.

My main strategy is to tell everyone I meet that I am looking for ways to do good work with local partners. The more open I am to conversations, the more partners I meet.

A Sparrow and Rach original “HAVE HOPE” mural in Kampala, Uganda.

A Sparrow and Rach original “HAVE HOPE” mural in Kampala, Uganda.

TT: Yes! How did you find the money to fund your travel? 

N: Funding this year away was not a quick process. For the last four years, I have been mission-minded on this goal and have taken extraordinary measures to save money. While teaching full time, I also worked on weekends during the school year at the front desk of a nearby hotel.

There were many cold days when I woke up for my 6:15 AM shift that I questioned this decision, so I did a lot of self-talk and budget review to show that this work was making an impact on my overall goals.

I also tutored one time per week, was an Uber food delivery person in free hours, and rented out my condo for the last year before I left while being a bit of a vagabond while house sitting and staying with family.

I recognize that this wouldn’t work for everyone, but also know that not everyone wants to take a year off. I also am single and do not have children — which definitely makes my budget planning look different than most.

However, what I do believe is that living differently for these four years provided me with this opportunity and I hope to carry some of these same budget techniques when I return to support other big dreams.

Once I began working on outreach projects with local artists and organizations, I also made a plea to family and friends who might like to share gifts with people I meet. In this way, I have purchased supplies for murals and been able to fund some other small projects. In a small way, these gifts have also helped to develop international relationships and create an interest in the work being completed in each country.

Celebrating with a Halloween party at a local restaurant in Kigali Rwanda

Celebrating with a Halloween party at a local restaurant in Kigali Rwanda

TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.

N: In general, anyone who travels knows that “kids are kids” and the time spent interacting with them brought out my teacher’s spirit. While visiting an IDP camp center in Northern, Iraq, there were moments when I had time to just play… lifting a parachute overhead with screaming children and dancing to the silliest tunes. As the kids giggled and fought for attention, my heart smiled knowing that students at home might just be doing the exact same thing.

Specifically, Rwanda was a life changing place for me. While I arrived with just a basic knowledge of the genocide, I quickly learned about the powerful mental health implications of the hard work Rwandans have done to fight for forgiveness and healing.

Time and again, I heard stories of deep atrocities where people were pushed to move forward in forgiveness — fighting for themselves and the benefit of their entire country. I also met some of the “Rescuers” who put themselves at risk of great harm during the genocide to save others.

Their humble hearts and heroism were inspiring beyond words. Rwanda is a unique place that I will never forget because it changed so many of my ideas about the importance of explicitly facing trauma and the role of others in supporting healing.

Sharing hope and kites in Halabja, Kurdistan/Iraq.

Sharing hope and kites in Halabja, Kurdistan/Iraq, photographed by Muhammad Kurdy.

TT: So powerful. How have your travels impacted you?

N: The greatest gains I have had on my teaching have never been from professional development books or workshops. I have received the strong benefits on my teaching through interactions people from different cultures in the actual places where historical events have taken place.

Traveling also keeps me youthful and in touch with what is happening in the world. I am a 48 year old woman — hanging out with skateboarders, street artists, and breakdancers which I hope give supports a touch of cool factor with my students. Although saying “cool factor” might wipe out any hope of that.

Inspiring teacher traveling to explore mental health awareness around the world using the arts, education, and Hope for the Day to support emotional healing. #mentalhealth #education #travel #teaching

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Traveling in this manner has been invigorating for me, particularly related to interactions with young adults who are powerfully invested in helping others. It has refreshed my commitment to global partnerships when I return. I can imagine utilizing video co-teaching with some of the artists, poets, and leaders I have met to enhance my students’ understanding of the world and inspire their own desires to lead.

During this year, I have invited students to participate in a People Project where I provide a monthly theme and students create art, music, poetry, videos, etc. to support the theme. I would love if other schools wanted to get on board with this project and can happily share resources or communicate with interested teachers.

Sharing some insights about Hope murals and kite event in Erbil, Iraq.

Sharing some insights about Hope murals and kite event in Erbil, Iraq.

TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are curious about travel and mental health awareness?

N: While I am currently on a pretty grand adventure, I have learned that every single day brings me opportunities to travel — even from home. As a teacher, I am constantly reaching out to business and professional partners to work with my students.

I recognize that my role is not to be the “be all” for all of my students. It’s just not possible. But, I can bring the world into their view and connect them with opportunities beyond my own classroom walls.

Anyone reading this can feel free to reach out to me in the comments section below, or via my blog, here.

Taking a break with some new friends near the Iraq/Iran border.

With goat friends near the Iraq/Iran border. Photo by Iqbal Xafar Amin.

TT: Thanks so much, Nancy! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the Hope Travels journey with others. Even after years of teaching, this process is teaching me so much. There are so many people doing important work to highlight strategies for positive mental health. It is nice to connect and highlight their work!

    Reply

    1. Yay! I am looking forward to people connecting with you after reading this! I think this interview will resonate with many.

      Reply

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