Tag: Empowering Women

Be Inspired ~ Voices From the Field

Read about HHI’s work and impact, from three different perspectives, from three different continents.

Our thanks to the women who shared their stories and to Laura Barker for capturing and writing them and Kara North for putting them into such a beautiful publication!

If you would like a copy of this booklet, please email us your name and mailing address. We would be happy to mail copies for free within the US.

Imagine… You Are This Young Mother

A story of Hands to Hearts International….

Imagine… you are a young mother, filled with love, excitement and pride at having your first child. You want the very best for your baby, for him/her to grow up healthy, educated and ready to be a positive member of your family, your community and our world. But, you yourself have never had more than a few years of education and you don’t even know how to read, though even if you did, there are no books available. Motherhood is supposed to be something women just know how to do, it is not given much thought, it is just done. On a day to day basis you struggle for basic subsistence, you live in a developing country, in an extremely compromised environment where food, water, and safety are a daily challenge.

You hear of a local woman who will soon come to your village to lead a Hands to Hearts International Mommy Training, and you have the chance participate. You join other mommies, and some daddies, and you all share in learning about the importance of early childhood development – cognitive, language, physical and social/emotional development. You learn with your baby, and the trainer uses your local songs, stories, games and dance to teach you these lessons. You also learn about health issues like hygiene, sanitation, breastfeeding, immunizations and your favorite lesson of baby massage! You begin to recognize that your baby is communicating with you all the time, even before they talk and when you notice this you become more and more successful in responding to your baby’s needs.

You leave the training empowered with the knowledge that the most important person in your baby’s life if you! And, that you have the power and the resources to support her to be more healthy – emotionally and physically – your everyday actions can build greater brain development, preparing your child for a lifetime of success! And most important of all, you learn that the most powerful tool of all is your LOVE.

One of the most powerful forces in the world has now been unleashed! And it is self-reinforcing, every time you love on your baby, they love you back – a positive self-reinforcement loop that grows stronger and richer, providing you both with greater emotional support and preparing your child to be a positive contributing member of a global society.

Voices From The Field: Part 3, The Mommies

A three-part series highlighting different perspectives of women involved with Hands to Hearts International.

Part 3: Ugandan community leaders Florence Okun and Norah Awio use the skills they learned during the HHI training when caring for their own families.

By Laura Barker

“To be a child in Uganda is not easy,” explains Norah Awio. Especially in the north, where decades of war have forced millions of people into refugee camps, being a child means having to endure countless hardships. Because “children. . . have no right to speak,” sexual and physical abuse is common. They work hard fetching water, collecting firewood, digging, and selling agricultural products. Their families often lack the funds or proper clothing to send them to school. In a place where “child labour is the order of growing up,” the education and training provided to parents and caretakers alike through Hands to Hearts is refreshing and widely welcomed.

Norah, 36, and her husband live with their five children and several more dependents in a modest one-room home in Kampala, Uganda. She works six days a week as a legal officer for the Locan Rebe Women’s Group, resting only on Sundays, when she attends church and catches up on housework. As a leader in her community, Norah works to mobilize women and tries to promote HHI training. It’s a difficult task, as many Ugandans are skeptical of help from outsiders, assuming it will cost them money to participate in their programs. But Norah knows firsthand the positive effects of HHI’s services and works to recruit more women whom she knows will also benefit. Although these women might initially be wary, once they attend the training, they too sing HHI’s praises. Some women can’t stop talking about it and soon begin to recommend HHI to their own friends and family members.

Florence Okun is another community leader and past participant of the HHI trainings. Her grown son is now studying at Makerere University in Kampala, but she continues to care for many people in her house: her brother, her mother who is paralyzed, and 8 other children that she has taken in. Some are orphans and others are the children of family members who are unable to care for them. “I decided to take some of these orphans because their parents are extremely poor and single mothers,” she says. “Secondly, I have a kind heart and. . . only one son.” Florence, 42, is also a member of Locan Rebe, a group formed by internally displaced women from northern Uganda “as a result of war and poor living conditions.” She is the Local Council 1 for her zone, a low-level government position responsible for general cleanliness in the area. In addition, she owns and manages a small hotel in the city.

Florence HHI’s new video – Share this YouTube with your Friends!

Like Norah, Florence is very appreciative of the early childhood development education she received through HHI and says she acts differently with her family because of it. She spends more time with her children, who are now more likely to tell her stories and bring their friends home. She learned that children develop all their senses as they grow and that they “require love, close attention, and encouragement by [the] parent.”

Norah, too, has learned to make more time for her children. “I used [to] think that giving children food was enough for them,” she says, “but during HHI trainings I learned that having time for your child [is] very important. . . and you become not only a parent to that child but also a close friend.” Because her work is exhausting, she never felt she had enough time to give to her children. But now she says she carries the younger ones around “with love” and chats with the older ones about how they feel and what is on their minds.

In addition to changing the ways in which they respond to their children, both Norah and Florence emphasized the positive change HHI has brought to their community as a whole. The women have become closer through discussions about the best childrearing practices. Being involved with Hands to Hearts, they said, has “restored their relationships.” “HHI brought oneness in our community,” says Norah. Florence agrees, concluding that “the level of love has increased.” In a country where the atrocities of war have touched the lives of every citizen, this is indeed a powerful statement.


“Children are the sum of what mothers contribute to their lives.”


Voices From The Field: Part 2, The Trainer

A three-part series highlighting different perspectives of women involved with Hands to Hearts International.

Part 2: From orphanage caregivers to mothers in the most remote villages in India, HHI Master Trainer, Sujatha Balaje, educates and inspires.

By Laura Barker

HHI Master Trainer Sujatha Balaje is a natural with children—she has been working with them all her life. Her mother runs a school and orphanage in Sujatha’s hometown of Chennai, India, a city of over four million people and the capital of Tamil Nadu State on the southeastern coast. Growing up, she helped care for the babies and worked part time in the kindergarten class. Her husband’s family also operated an orphanage in Chennai and it was through her work at this orphanage that Sujatha first became involved with Hands to Hearts International. When executive director Laura Peterson came to oversee HHI’s first training program at the orphanage in 2006, it was Sujatha who translated. More than her language skills, Laura immediately recognized the instinctual way Sujatha interacted with the children and her gift for working with people. She knew Sujatha was the type of person she wanted on HHI’s team.

Since February of 2006, Sujatha has been enriching the lives of hundreds of Indian women and caregivers and thousands of children through her dynamic training sessions on early childhood development. In her first year, she trained all the caregivers at the local orphanages and now leads four training sessions a month in rural villages in the remote Theni district. Because the women she serves live in extremely isolated areas, she is required to take several buses and sometimes walk several more kilometers to reach them. Trainings take place over two days and normally involve about 20 women at a time.

HHI’s program is designed to educate parents and caretakers on early childhood development and includes curriculum on cognitive, language, social, emotional, and physical development, responding to baby cues such as facial expressions and verbal sounds, and therapeutic baby massage. Sujatha masterfully weaves local songs, dances, and traditions into her agenda. “The purpose of the training,” she says, “is to educate mothers to understand the value of early childhood development . . . and to help them find the physical, emotional, and mental changes in their children.” She says her favorite parts of the trainings are the baby massage, songs and dance, and the focus on health and hygiene, an element of the program she herself designed. Sujatha is the star of HHI’s Baby Massage DVD in which demonstrates the massage techniques she teaches the women.

Traditional beliefs about education are slowly changing in India. While it was once common practice for parents to educate only their sons, now they are much more likely to send all their children to school. Sujatha praises the educational system in Chennai saying it is “considered one of the best in India” and also credits the Indian government with helping to change opinions on equal access to schooling by improving education across the board. Despite this progress, however, ancient practices still exist, though they differ from state to state, community to community and caste to caste. Mothers in rural places in particular have a tough time bringing up their children due to deeply ingrained gender bias for boys, a lack of education and health services, difficult environmental conditions, and bleak financial situations. It is Sujatha’s job to develop innovative and culturally appropriate lessons to give caregivers effective strategies for how best to nurture their children.

In the over four years she has worked for Hands to Hearts, Sujatha has had incredible success. Her effectiveness in the orphanages in particular is beyond compare. Despite the good intentions of staff members, the conditions in many Indian orphanages are tough. Most are overflowing with abandoned children who are still disproportionately female. Many of the children have disabilities or suffer from health problems. Staff members are poorly paid and receive little to no support and education. The combination of these factors can cause a deadly spiral, where sick children get sicker and overworked caregivers feel less and less competent.

Sujatha’s work teaching HHI’s program to the orphanage staff members, however, has had profound impacts. Children begin to grow and thrive and the staff begins to feel empowered, even bragging to each other about whose babies are gaining the most weight. Several months after facilitating training workshops there, several orphanages reported this astounding statistic: not a single baby had died since the training.

Even in very rural areas, word has spread of the program’s success. Once, Sujatha trained a group of tribal women with no prior education who had moved out of their cave dwellings only a few years before. Another time, a group of gypsy women requested training. The men in their group, although not actively participating, sat outside the circle to listen, prompting the local paper to write a story about this unusual event. In another tiny village, when more than 30 women showed up, Sujatha realized there was not enough room for all of them to gather in the small space provided, and talk began of canceling the session. The women were so excited about it, however, that they scrambled to find another option. The only solution seemed to be to move outside, so Sujatha ended up conducting her training right there in the middle of the street!

Sujatha has been an invaluable staff member at Hands to Hearts. She is so highly regarded that when HHI began a sister program in Uganda, Sujatha was invited to lead the pilot training sessions in Kampala. She praises the techniques employed by HHI saying, “The activities of HHI are different, more effective and more personalized for the babies and I am lucky that I was trained by HHI as I gained more knowledge about caregiving for babies and training the mothers to give care for their babies.” In just less than five years of training parents and caretakers, she has touched the lives of thousands of women and children, giving them practical skills to use in their daily lives as well as inspiration for the future. Although her job is one of service to others, her own life has been enriched through the process as well. She has an elevated status in her family and has earned enormous respect throughout the region, as community after community benefit from her work as an HHI Master Trainer.


Review Voices from the Field, Part 1 – The Donor

Coming Soon:

Part 3: Ugandan community leaders Florence Okun and Norah Awio use the skills they learned during the HHI training when caring for their own families

Voices from the Field: Part 1, The Donor

Voices from the Field

A three-part series highlighting different perspectives of women involved with Hands to Hearts International. Read their stories.

Part 1: Sasha Rabsey, a donor to HHI, went to Uganda to see first-hand how the program empowers the women it serves
Part 2: From caretakers in India’s orphanages to mothers in the most remote villages, Master Trainer Sujatha Balaje educates and inspires
Part 3: Ugandan community leaders Florence Okun and Norah Awio use the skills they learned during the HHI training when caring for their own families

Part 1: Sasha Rabsey, a donor to HHI, went to Uganda to see first-hand how the program empowers the women it serves

by Laura Barker

The most common sentiment Sasha Rabsey heard from the Ugandan women after their two-day training with Hands to Hearts International (HHI) was, “I will never be the same. My children will never be the same. We must teach this to all women.” Sasha, a donor to HHI, was invited by founder/director Laura Peterson to participate in HHI’s pilot program in Kampala, Uganda in February, 2010. What moved her most was that women’s lives will be forever changed by what they learned; the skills they acquired cannot be taken away, and will be passed from woman to woman, further enriching the whole community.

Interested in service-oriented organizations that target women and children, Sasha was introduced to HHI by a friend who told her it was “a sure thing.” She wanted to identify an organization led by someone who truly had a good heart, and immediately recognized that quality in Laura. When Sasha was invited to participate in HHI’s first trip to Uganda, she jumped at the opportunity. “It’s important to me to see the programs I donate to in order to get a deeper understanding of what they do,” she said. “I want to inspire other people to donate to small organizations, and seeing the program’s work in action gives me much greater credibility.”

Once in Uganda, Sasha spent her days participating in the HHI training sessions taught by Mukisa Lydia from Uganda and Master Trainer Sujatha Balaje from India. Lydia translated what Sujatha was saying and did a wonderful job making the women laugh. Together, they taught the participants baby cues (such as how to read the body language and facial expressions of infants) and baby massage, but most importantly, information on nutrition, health, and child development. The women in attendance those two days did not take this education lightly. Unlike American women, who often take learning for granted, Ugandans must struggle to receive an education. Children often go to school during the day, but are also forced to work all evening making money for their families by selling peanuts or other goods in the streets. The participants grabbed at the information and took notes throughout. They made a point to tell all their friends to come back for the second training session, to be held the next day.

Despite her fatigue, Sasha was asked to stay until the very end to lead the closing discussion on the women’s perceptions of their HHI training. This turned out to be a pivotal moment of her experience. “Not one of them criticized the program content, not even when probed. Americans would have been so quick to point out everything that was wrong. They didn’t say it was just ‘ok.’ They couldn’t control their enthusiasm.”


The women that HHI reaches in Uganda and India do not have access to many resources. They are good mothers and want the very best for their children, but the circumstances of their lives often prohibit them from being able to give their children opportunities. In Kampala, many people live in the slums, and women there often take care of a dozen or more children. Some of these children are their own, while others are grandchildren or the children of other family members who have died. However, even without money or extra resources, women here can make a difference in children’s lives simply by being mothers and caretakers. As Sasha talked to the participants during and after the training, this new found sense of empowerment was what struck her most deeply. Previously these women didn’t realize the importance of their role in their society, but left the training feeling excited and proud. What they heard from HHI was, “YOU have an impact on this child’s life!”

Since her trip to Uganda, Sasha has gotten involved in other international organizations, but says that Hands to Hearts will always be the model she uses when deciding where her money will go. “What Laura does is so amazing because it empowers women simply by imparting information. She’s changing the world, one child at a time.”

Its fair to say, that Sasha’s life will never be the same either.