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Hiding the Coffee Beans

These past few days have brought a much needed respite from travel and hectic schedules. It has been wonderful to settle more into the Nadiya Headquarters in Zaporozhye. Across the week, I've been learning much more about my purpose here this summer, my major projects, and role in this incredible organization. The express microloan project is beginning to take shape, and it has been an exciting process to help formulate the program design and implementation processes. It has also been exciting to learn more about the details of the finance and banking industry of the Ukraine. The pockets of technology and advancement are distributed in ways that are surprising and complex in their own right. What has been most exciting is planning for the integration of client's needs, perspectives, and requests for the program. There are infinately more things to learn about INGO's in microfinance than any book could teach. I realize more each day of the value and worth of this experience.

Aside from the work I have been doing with HOPE, I have had a wonderful time this week of strengthening friendships. The friendships I have here are already deep and sincere. On Monday night, Ashley and I spent the evening at Olga's house. Her mother in so many ways reminded me of my own - it was so good to have a taste of home. She was full of hospitality and love - ready to share the best of what she had with her guests, and honored to have friends in her home. She was friendly, warm, and excited to learn all she could about us and to become good friends. Much of the night was filled with sharing stories of our lives, and moments of jokes and unexpected humor filled what was in between. One of the most unforgettable moments was sharing chocolate covered espresso beans with Olga and Valodia. While coffee is widely available in the Ukraine, tea is preferred. Americans, in the eyes of Ukrainians, are obsessed with coffee. No surprises here - I have my own growing obsession for these caffeine filled wonders. In broken English, Valodia pointed to the chocolate covered beans and asked if they were coffee. Ashley and I of course confirmed that they were, but little did he know that he was not biting into coffee flavored chocolate, but rather chocolate covered espresso beans. His face was one of horror, quickly concealed by polite delight. Ashley and I lost it completely. He was confused as to whether to continue chewing the beans or spit it out as we do cherry pits. It was hilarious. As we left for the evening, he said he was happy for his new American friends that hide coffee beans in chocolate. I will never be able to do full justice to the story!

Yesterday was - wait for it - my 26th birthday. I rarely make any to-do about my birthday. In fact, had Cindy (Director of HOPE's Tomorrow Clubs) not asked our entire party last week when our birthdays were, I would not have said a word. For me, what is important is that Travis remembers and that I can share it in some small way with my family. But small birthdays are unheard of at HOPE! And so I was blessed yesterday with one of the most memorable and celebrated birthdays I think I will ever have. The day started with Travis calling me early in the morning to wish me a Happy Birthday and an incredible walk with Ashley to the office. A productive meeting filled most of my morning, but when I returned to the office, two Ukrainian cakes were waiting and roses with blessings and verses tied to each. One rose was for my family, another for my marriage, another for my faith, another for my work, and so on. It was amazing. From Nadiya, a mug with tulips (my favorite flower) and animal crackers (my favorite indulgence these days!). After work, Ashley and I went to Paul and Cindy's to celebrate with Paul, Cindy, Andre, and Ira. We had a wonderful dinner (Cindy is an amazing cook - I'll definitely be bringing home recipes from her!), time to sing and talk together (singing is a huge part of time spent among friends here), and as a special treat - Cindy is doing our laundry for us. Now you must understand, laundry machines are few and far between here, so to have machine washed clothes is quite a luxury! I was given incredible sandles, a tote bag, an umbrella (a necessity I forgot!), and a flashlight (also a necessity I forgot and important as I love walking the city!). One of the most precious parts of the day was recieving some of the most sincere and warm birthday wishes I ever have - both from the states and here. From friends here, the wishes were warm, sincere, and deep - to grow in Christ and to feel the light of God's face this year. The wishes were at once personal, genuine, and loving. And I realize even more how blessed I am to be here, and how much I am falling in love with the people I work with, the people I work for, and this country.

Today brings more meetings, more steps on this exciting project, and an opportunity to work more with the Kiva partnership. I think often interns are unable to see and feel the fruits of their labor. I feel that I am already seeing the fruits of mine and will be fortunate to see a project come to completion and implementation. In so many ways, this is the right place to be and I could not ask for more from this experience.