30 September 2011

Turning Bad To Good, Then Paying It Forward

And this is part three, the final flashback.  Rock. On.

When I first started traveling and meeting young people, I was shocked by the power and spirit of our youngest Venturers – 12 and 13 year-olds who were articulate, passionate and driven. Now, 10 months later, it seems more like the norm, especially up North. First it was Jessica in Seattle and now it’s three young women in Burnsville, Minnesota (just south of Minneapolis/St. Paul) who have turned their own life struggles into positive change for their communities.

We braved the cold (do you think you know what cold is? Well, unless you’ve been to Minnesota in the winter, complete with blistering wind, I’m going to have to say you don’t) and headed south to The Garage, a Burnsville community center where middle school and high school kids can hang out, hold group meetings, get homework, play video games and throw their own concerts, all entirely free. The center itself was a perfect model for what every community in America should be doing to support at-risk youth; give them a safe space to interact and express themselves in a positive manner.

Minutes after walking through the doors, multiple people approached us with questions and inquiries about their soon-to-be Ventures. The local reps were local celebs, with information they sought. I kept hearing, “I want to start a program for this and I need that,” and “I have this idea but I don’t know what to do next.” I sensed this general attitude among people at The Garage that doing something positive for their community was less the exception and more the rule. “Oh yeah, everybody is in something that does good stuff,” one girl told me. “Why wouldn’t we be?”

After fielding a solid 30 minutes of questions I sat down with three of the local superstars to learn more about their Ventures. The first, Latinos Unidos, was a group set up to offer an outlet and community support for Latino youth in the community. “It’s a great way to build a sense of togetherness and understanding between us,” the current leader told me. “I think it’s so important to have that outlet, and I want to give that to people here.”

The second, called Girl’s Support Group, was set up for young women in the community to have a place to air their problems and differences while offering a safe space to share their own personal struggles. “I’ve been through a lot – probably more than most 30-year-olds and I’m only 12. I had so much anger and I needed an outlet – a place I could share what I was bottling up inside. This lets me do that, and it feels good to offer the same to the rest of the girls here. We do our best to avoid drama, but hey, we’re teenage girls. It’s normal,” she said. “At least this way we’re dealing with it.”

The third, formerly called Show Stoppaz (they are currently coming up with a new name and seem to be working through a Prince-like state of “formers” and simple, “the group”) came around to offer a positive outlet for young girls and boys to both express themselves and gain ownership over something. “I’ve been through a lot too,” the current leader said, “and the only time I felt happy for a long while was when I was dancing. A lot of other people around here feel the same way, and it also just feels good to be looked up to by people and know that what I’m doing is helping them.” Their next goal? Start competing across the state and across the country.

More than anything, The Garage shows exactly what happens when you tip the attitudes of an entire community. Expectations change and young people respond, demanding more of not just themselves, but everyone around them. Indeed, it has definitely become a culture of positive action, and I hope it serves as inspiration for other groups to give youth the same opportunities.

29 September 2011

Seattle Supersonics? How About SuperChangemakers?!?!

Part two of a three-part "young people are still awesome" series.  This kids are AWESOME!

Corny, I know, but pretty darn true. Malena and I just wrapped up three days in the Space Needle City (you know, it’s not that tall…), complete with delicious pasta, a visit to Pike’s Fish Market (they really launch those fish), lakes, trees, mountains, general fantasticness (can you tell I liked the place) and some absolutely incredible teams.

The first was started by a college fraternity called Sigma Beta Rho. They’ve partnered with the city’s homelessness reduction team to support those individuals most in need ofassistance and activity. The agency places mentally and physically handicapped homeless men and women in subsidized housing where they pay a fixed portion of their Social Security benefits toward rent, allowing them to live the rest of their lives in dignity. Still, these individuals lack a great deal of activity in their lives.

Sigma Beta Rho decided to fill that gap by developing community gardens at a number of these facilities across the city. Last year brought one garden and this year they’ll be expanding to five locations, engaging over a hundred college students in their organizations and hundreds of the community’s residents!

The second team, Kill The Chill, has partnered with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission Homeless Shelter and Rehabilitation Center to provide hand-made scarves and hats to the residents in what has become Seattle’s coldest month – February. “We really saw how donations poor in during Thanksgiving and Christmas but once New Year passes, we seem to forget that there are still people in need. We’re working to fill that gap,” said Julia, the organization’s Director, who also serves as the Key Club President at her high school. So far they’ve donated over a hundred scarves and are planning a round of hats next. “It’s just the right thing to do,” the group explained.

Our final Seattle visit was with a group called Richard’s Rwanda. Started by 12-year-old Jessica last November, Richard’s Rwanda raises money to pay for tuition, books and clothes for girls in Rwanda who suffered from the 1994 genocide. A man named Richard stayed with her family last summer while doing fundraisers in the Seattle area and Jessica was moved by the stories of young girls in the country who did not have access to education. “I just felt like I had been so lucky my whole life, and I wanted to do something to give young women in Rwanda a chance at being powerful leaders in their country,” Jessica told me. So far they’ve raised $7,000 through fundraisers and bake sales.

We actually stopped by one of these fun-filled affairs. Imagine six 12-year-old girls behind a table covered in cookies, brownies and lemon bars selling for a cause, one of whom was sipping Tab. I mean, Tab? I thought people stopped drinking that in 1986. Their pitch? “Would you like to buy a cookie and support young girls in Rwanda who suffered from the genocide?” How does any decent-minded person say no? Jessica will be returning to Rwanda in August to hand-deliver the money she has raised so far. Her next target? “I want to build a school for girls in the capital city. We’ll get there. I’m confident we’ll get there.” Oh yeah, did I mention she’s twelve?

On to Missoula, Montana next – a pit stop on our northern crossing…more soon!

-Kyle Taylor

28 September 2011

Valentine’s Day On The Bay

I just discovered three very old blog posts (circa 2007) that seem to have never been published!  They are from my epic road trip across America with Malena (pictured) on our journey to document the incredible world-changing ventures of young people across America.  It may have been four years, but the stories are still super inspiring!  Enjoy!

The big February 14th extravaganza started with a catch-up morning and drive into San Francisco from Berkeley. That was, of course, after we went back to Benecia High School so I could pick up my computer power cord I had left there the day before. So far I’ve forgotten an audio cable at a school in LA, my power cord in Benecia and my retainer at the La Quinta (which I later remember and recovered). ON. A. ROLL.

We decided to celebrate the big day by heading to the Golden Gate Bridge to take in the view and “light” sea breeze (read: howling winds that almost through us into the water). It was quite the little photo shoot.

From there it is on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Trasit) and out to Oakland to meet with SHATO, another SAGE team who has launched a computer technology assistance program that works to maintain and expand technology opportunities in high schools throughout Oakland. They do troubleshooting, train teachers and even build computers, all for the sake of making sure kids in their community are tied into the information age. Just as a sidebar, they showed up DRESSED TO IMPRESS – suits, ties and skirts. I felt like I was at an IBM conference.

What’s so inspiring about their work is that they’re taking action in a community where change and action aren’t exactly the norm – yet. Oakland, as they told me, is one of America’s most struggling cities, and “kids don’t think good stuff is possible for them, so they don’t try hard and they don’t believe they can do better.” Their technology teacher new better and challenged them to push the envelope. “It all started so we could prove him wrong, and now we all believe we can do better. Two years ago college wasn’t something we talked about, and now it’s like, ‘where are you going to college? It’s real. It’s a reality.”

Talk about the power of being a changemaker! Not only are they are impacting their schools, fellow students and communities, but they’ve changed their own attitudes and redefined their own futures. It don’t get much better than that.

Ok, north we go – My friend’s Llama farm in Oregon is our next pit stop. Woo!

26 September 2011

America the Beautiful

I spent just under a month in America this last go around.  For the first time ever I genuinely felt like a visitor.  I think for the most part that feeling has come from watching the political unravelling of what was once the world's beacon of democracy.  Crowds cheering at the mention of executing hundreds of people in Texas, presidential candidates suggesting they will roll back civil liberties that have already been granted, politicians holding the future of America hostage to score some points with their base while letting the nation rot in financial turmoil.  It was all just way too much for me and I felt like, from abroad, I didn't even recognize my own homeland.

Thankfully, an adventure criss-crossing from north to south and east to west by plane, train, and convertible mustang reminded me of just how "American" I am with regular glimmers of hope in an otherwise depressing scene.  For the first time I got a real look at the Statue of Liberty and was reminded of its brilliant inscription:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

I thought to myself, "now THAT is America."

  There was the natural beauty of Utah and the downhome charm of the wild west.  Lovely people of all shapes, colors, and sizes who would go out of their way to say hello and lend you a helping hand.  That too, was my America.

I stood at the steps of the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. days after its opening and was reminded of America's ability to change because of our American ability to come together, to protest, and to voice our opinion.  Once again, my America.

I watched a good friend take center stage in a brilliant and compelling dance production that merged politics, classical art, and modern movement into a spectacular piece of performance art in a way that only America could do.

Finally, I sat and watched two very close friends marry set against the backdrop of magnificent Santa Fe, New Mexico thinking to myself, I can be certain that in America, equality for all will come because progress is inevitable and we have never been a nation that steps backward.  It gave me hope that perhaps someday in the future I would once again recognize my country even from the other side of the world and be able to cite it as an example of how to do things well.

As I was sitting in the airport waiting for my onward flight to China a news clip rolled about the just-happened Republican debate.  The looney unchecked statements, the frightening backwards positions on equal rights, and the blatant lies were blasting through and all I could think was "what America do these people live in because it's certainly not the one I just spent a month visiting."  The hate, the anger, the discrimination, and the stupidity were downright frightening and quite frankly, I've had enough of it.  It's time to save our country from the onslaught of absurdity, the doom of stagnation, and the era of praising ignorance.  It's time to take America back.  BRING IT.

On a lighter note, you can find all my pictures on flickr here:

New York City, Utah, Washington DC, Santa Fe, Justin Giles' Soul Escape Starring Amy Nadeau


Kyle Taylor

Read more at kyletaylor.com

23 September 2011

A Very San Fraditi Birthday

The entire America experience finished by surprising dear Aditi in San Francisco for her birthday.  This wasn't any old surprise party!  I was supposed to be in China but instead popped out of the kitchen at the last minute.  Sarah was supposed to be in New York but instead appeared at a bar out of the blue.  Mariel was supposed to be in Philadelphia but instead lined up to buy a cookie behind her.  Once again, it was no single-evening affair.  The party spanned four days, five venues, and once again included a convertible mustang (for the wine tasting and scenic coast drive, naturally).  There was also the obligatory "Kyle Taylor/Aditi Fruitwala looking ridiculously happy in the kitchen at a house party" photo taken (see below).

The other brilliant thing about spending a few days in San Fran was that it reinvigorated my belief that there is something left in America for me.  While LA, Utah, NYC, DC, and NM were wonderful, none of them felt like they could ever be home.  SF, however, felt easy, comfortable, and like it could be a potential "fit."  Now that felt nice.  So alas, maybe there is some America in my future!  In the meantime, it's just mustangs and memorable moments.


Kyle Taylor

Read more at kyletaylor.com

22 September 2011

Chinese Washing Machine - 1, Kyle - 0

Okay seriously, why are there so many buttons on this thing?  If I push the green one my t-shirt goes swimming.  If I push the pink one a clock races through the air, wind trail marks and all.  If I push the blue one my t-shirt appears to be placed in a hermetically sealed bubble for safe keeping.  The only words in English on the whole control panel read "Fuzzy Control," so that's a bonus.  WHY IS THIS SO HARD?!?!


Kyle Taylor

21 September 2011

Gunjax Gets Hitched in Santa Fe!

I realize it has taken me forever to actual get on writing about my month in America.  I've decided to sum it up in three blog entries, with this being the first.  It was absolutely a highlight of my time in America - celebrating the brilliant union of Max and Gunjan (or as Gunjan refers to it, "when my parents pass ownership of me on to my husband").  It was a four-day affair that started with a dinner party way out in Taos, New Mexico at Max's uncle's compound, continued with a rehearsal dinner and drinks in town, crescendoed with the big day and outdoor all-night party in the middle of nowhere, and finished with a tasteful all-you-can-eat champagne brunch at a winery outside of town.  Did I mention that all transport took place in a Ford Mustang convertible?  How on earth could it get any better?

Here's a quick link to all the photos from the four-day extravaganza.  Enjoy!


Kyle Taylor

Read more at kyletaylor.com

20 September 2011

UnTour Shanghai Is All The Rage!

I've just landed in Shanghai and found two very happy, very committed, and very successful friends who were featured - that's right, FEATURED - by CNN for escaping the recession by moving to China and starting a business there.  How cool is that?

They have started a brilliant culinary and running tour company called "Untour."  I highly recommend a visit to their delicious website and if you ever find yourself in Shanghai, drop them a line.  The noodle tour is just DIVINE.

Big congrats Kyle and Jamie!


Kyle Taylor

15 September 2011

Team Black Dog Does China: Day 5

Waking up today was somewhat bittersweet. Yes we got to take on another spectacular section of the Great Wall but today would be our final encounter with it's wonder, majesty, and all-around awesomeness. Were we really nearing the end already? It had all been moving a bit too fast for our liking.

The bus dropped us in the heart of a small village right at the base of the hill, which looked far more like a mountain. From there we walked upward. And upward. And upward along a skinny paved path that seemed to tilt upward at roughly, say, an 87 degree angle. Little trucks and tractors zoomed by, raising the question of whether or not it would be alright to hop in back and ride up to the wall itself. "No," we said. This is a charity challenge and we are here to kick some great wall butt for Black Dog!

The paved path devolved into an off-road slippery, rocky track that the group had nicknamed "goat tracks." Still, upward we went deep into the fog (or smog, no one can be sure) for a solid 90 minutes before catching our first glimpse of the wall itself. It wasn't a slow and steady appearance either. Instead it was more of a BOOM, there is the bloody Great Wall of China!

We ducked through a small pathway and up onto the wall itself. As Unfazed Beauty (Vicki) turned her head to see the stairs that meandered up and over the ridge ahead she turned to me and said "Kyle, what are you trying to do? Kill me?" Actually, she said something entirely different but I can't reprint it here. In fact, it can probably never be reprinted anywhere ever but you catch my drift.

The rest of the group had begun their upward sojourn of what we would soon count to be just over 1,000 steps in total, climbing from 500 meters to 1,000 meters above sea level! Now let me break this down for you. That is the equivalent of climbing the staircase of a 100-story building. How is THAT for exercising your mood?!

The look of relief, success, and sheer joy on the team's face at the top was incredible. It felt like a serious success and the entire team - Amy, Tracy, Libby, Jules, Geraldine, Hayley, Stef, Sam, Nick, and Vicki all looked so relieved, so happy, and so sweaty. My goodness it was humid! Naturally, Vicki our Unfazed Beauty still looked as if nothing had happened.

From there it was up and over an even higher ridge, down a bend, across a valley, and up to another tower perched at the highest point of this section of the wall. This last spot offered some of the most spectacular views of the Great Wall on our entire trip and it was the perfect place to begin our decent, which was a slip-sliding good time. A recent rain storm had left the track quite slick, which left Libby on her bum more than once. Meanwhile, Stef continued her trend of odd short-term injuries. First it was a mosquito bite on her face. This time around it was a fire ant bite to her right thumb. Don't worry, she recovered just fine! Special shout out to Jules, Libby, Nick, and Geraldine for doing an incredible job of supporting Amy (our Barbie girl scared of heights and descents) all the way to the bottom. We really have become a team and it just feels great!

At this stage we had been walking just under 7 hours. Nearly the entire group opted to continue on another two and a half hours to another section of the wall, where they rock-climbed up and on to a very unrestored and very remote section of the wall before descending back into the valley and into our guesthouse.

Tonight would be our furthest departure from our creature comforts. No hot water, no western toilets, no air conditioning, and no towels (oops, we forgot those too!). Thankfully, the beer flowed freely and we were able to both make and devour our very own egg and chive dumplings!

The evening brought about fantastic discussion about our favorite travel spots, our least favorite travel spots, stories of love and broken hearts, reflections on enduring relationships, wisdom from the more experienced to the less experienced, and reminders of our seemingly never ending stream of inside jokes. This element of familiarity and fast friendship is probably my favorite aspect of our Inspired Adventures. You can take 10 near strangers, chuck them in a foreign land together, and within days they will think like a team, act like a family, and joke like lifelong friends. No doubt there will be plenty of post-trip reunions happening. I believe the first is already set, as Vicki has invited all of us out to her place for the weekend. Get ready John, Alex, and Emma. We are coming!!!


Kyle Taylor

Location:Fanqi Hwy,Beijing,China

14 September 2011

Team Black Dog Does China: Day 4

If I had to pick a theme for the day, it would be stairs. Stairs up, stairs down, just endless stairs. We awoke prepped for a recovery day of 2-3 hours trekking through the core of Jishanling great wall - a section known for it's steep inclines, plunging descents, and incomparable beauty. A big breakfast of tomato, spam, toast, and eggs left us all wanting though the genuine real-deal espresso machine meant there were 10 very happy, very energized Australians fully caffeinated and ready to climb.

It's difficult to describe what slogging up and down the great wall is like. I take that back. It's actually quite easy. Imagine you are on a stair master climbing up and up and up yet feeling as if you are not really getting anywhere. Now make those steps going both up and done at random intervals. Now make them 60 centimeters tall. Now do that for 5 hours. BOOM, you are ready to take on the great wall!

Thankfully, we had two major advantages today. The first was a group (read: army) of Finnish tourists all kitted out with poles, gloves, bladders, hats, wicking shirts, and so forth wandering aimlessly along one tenth the expanse we were covering. They were truly living the saying "all the gear, no idear." They made us feel even more awesome. After all, we had none of the gear and no idear. At least we're honest.

The second was a genuine army of Hubei farmer's wives who fawned, fanned, and in some cases carried us up, over, around, down and through the day's trekking. They. Were. Legendary. Su-li found our Julie and that became a whole thing: " You are Julie? I am Su-li! No way! Giggle giggle giggle." When we came up short, a few of us would share a local. No pair of us got closer that dear Vicki and her lady friend Julong.

Julong spotted Vicki early on, honed in, and spent the next three hours sweet talking dear Vicki with a helping hand, regular fanning, and colorful chatter. By the end she was calling Vicki her zui pengyou, or very best friend. Before long they felt like part of the group; old friends you share a laugh with over a leisurely stroll along China's famed Great Wall.

Our trekking ended before lunch. We quickly showered and packed, ate lunch with the same local family we had dined with the night before, and hopped on the bus to zoom onward. This afternoon we had a few hours of free time, which found the now well-trained group wandering around the hotel aimlessly asking me "Kyle, what do I dooooooo??? I don't know how to plan my own time now. Entertain me Kyle! Entertain me!"

We finished the night with yet another incredible dinner, wonderful conversation, and a game of spoons. Word to the wise: don't play spoons with a group of high-functioning type-A charity challenge participants. It can lead to minor flesh wounds, hurt feelings, and someone laying bum-up on the floor after having been thrown from the circle while searching for a spoon. And that's before the game even starts!

Todays special shout-out goes to Stef, who pushed through despite a very swollen good knee and used a bag of frozen dumplings as an ice pack in the absence of the real deal. Doing it all for Black Dog! Onward to our longest and most intense trek tomorrow. GO TEAM!


Kyle Taylor

Location:Mutianyu Rd,Beijing,China

13 September 2011

Team Black Dog Does China: Day 3

As we entered day three, we knew it was about to get serious. Day 1 Wass Beijing, day 2 was our intro to the wall, and day 3 was the real deal: 16 kilometers, 6 hours, 12 people, and 1 incredibly flavorsome satchel of crackers each.

We began by crisscrossing through corn fields as we wound our way up the steep path leading to the Great Wall. Our trek today began on a less restored (read: barely there) section of the wall that is nearly 500 years old. The off-road hiking was tough, with steep inclines and slippery rocks courtesy of a rain storm the day before.

The gang took it in stride, with Vicki continuing her trend of looking perfect regardless of the intensity of our trek, the temperature, or the humidity levels. Stef and Geraldine stayed close together while Julia, Amy, Tracy, and Libby fleshed out the core portion of the group. Both Hayley and Sam (who somehow managed to misplace her boots in a bout of bijou-induced frolicking the night before) trekked right up with our local guide. Pictures were bountiful though it seemed the intensity of the walk combined with misty weather did encourage a touch more focus on the steps ahead.

While everyone did a fantastic job and stuck together, a special shout out goes to Amy who, with the help of several fellow trekkers conquered her fear of heights and kicked some serious great wall booty today. Her nickname is Barbie and we came up with our own rendition of Barbie Girl in her honor:

I'm a Barbie Girl, in a China World
Conquer the Great Wall, Know That I Won't Fall!

A final shout out goes to Nick (doing his J'amaie from Summer Heights High impression here) who entertained us for hours on the bus with his brilliant iPod-assisted versions of Defying Gravity and Grease Lighting. You sir, are a legend. We are all geared up for tomorrow!



Kyle Taylor

Location:352 Provincial Rd,Chengde,China

12 September 2011

Team Black Dog Does China: Volume 2

Our second full day together at Team Black Dog brought loads more memories, laughs and, of course, PICTURES. Naturally, Vicki (aka Unfazed Beauty) showed up to breakfast looking far too put together for someone about to trek across the Great Wall. After taking on the elevator crowds of the Dongfang Hotel (2 elevators, 500 tourists, the same departure time), we slowly pulled away from the curb and out of bustling Beijing.

You can literally watch as high rises melt away to low rises. The low rises disappear into single-story shops which, before long, devolve into rolling fields, dirt roads, and a return to a more traditional take on modern China. The fact that these two elements of the same society coexist mere miles from each other is not only fascinating but a welcome reminder of just how complex China really is.

Our lengthy bus journey was filled with the sounds of snoring (thank you Amy and Libby), eating (Thank you Geraldine and Julia), political commentary (thank you Stef and Sam), and long drawn out rounds of innuendo involving a camel bak bladder, a new hose, and an unlit mouthpiece that just needed to be sucked on a little bit harder (thank you Vicki).

We toured the Qing tombs, we ate a bountiful lunch, and we determined the best formation from which one can take a picture of someone taking a picture of something taking a picture of someone before finally reaching the wall in the early afternoon.

Just as I had experienced with every person I have ever taken to the Great Wall, jaws dropped, eyes widened, and everyone was incredibly overwhelmed. No photo I have ever seen does the Great Wall justice and to this day it remains the most remarkable site I have ever seen.

We proceeded to snake down it's craggy spine deep into the valley then back up again before finishing our several-hour walk at our hotel - a maze like structure nestled in the foothills alongside the wall itself. Our evening finished with a delectable dinner at a very local restaurant just near our hotel. Both on the way there and on the way back, I hid in the shadows of our building and scared the living daylight out of Vicki. Sometimes, it's the little things. More soon!


Kyle Taylor

Location:305 Provincial Rd,Beijing,China