So, enough about me and matters close to home. Today I'm taking you on a journey to the beautiful land of South Africa to meet a wonderful, inspiring woman - Heather Costaras. I mentioned Heather in a previous post but didn't have the time to go into detail about her amazing work. Today I do. Heather is a social entrepreneur, artist, activist, author, songwriter, singer, speaker, wife and mother, amongst other things. In 2007, Heather threw in her job as a business owner and full-time graphic designer and founded The Beautiful Life Project, an organisation that aims "to encourage, inspire, motivate, empower and challenge women and girls - from all backgrounds and all walks of life - to embrace their beauty and to unconditionally love, nurture and nourish themselves." On her website, she goes on to say: "We want women to understand that they’re precious, priceless beings created by God - that they’re worthy, beautiful, exactly as they are right now!". These sentiments and the ethos of Heather's project are exactly in line with this blog and my Just As I Am challenge, which is one of the many reasons why I think Heather is so fab. You could spend hours on Heather's website but if you want to read her honest, moving story that charts her struggles with her image, weight and self-esteem and how she came to understand she was enough, just as she was, it's here.
Heather has followed her heart and followed her dreams in an inspirational way. Those dreams have taken her to some amazing places with stunning results that have impacted the lives of many. In 2009, she helped create the Tapestry of Dreams project that took 10 women from a poor community in Kwazul-Natal, a province of great beauty but also extreme poverty on the east coast of South Africa, and turned them into catwalk models, for a day. The aim of the project was, in Heather's words, to let the women's life "shine", to help them to see their true value and their worth. The women - some of them HIV positive, others carers of AIDS orphans or younger siblings - were chosen not only for their powerful stories but because they were actively engaged in their local community. They were taken to Johannesburg and given VIP treatment. They stayed in a top hotel, were pampered, had their nails and make-up done and were clothed in dresses designed exclusively for them by the likes of Vivianne Westwood. The women then took to the catwalk on a gala evening of music, fashion and African culture. Below is a beautiful, 10-minute promomotional video for Tapestry of Dreams, featuring Heather and some of the women.
There's also a step-by-step account of how the event was put together on this Tapestry of Dreams blog and a powerful photo documentary of the gala evening below:
Just writing this and remembering Heather speak about this project when I met her last year, I'm moved by her commitment, her compassion and her spirit. Take a look at her Beautiful Life website to see all the other inspiring activities she's involved in.
I met Heather in Africa last August. We were room mates for a week. We were both taking part in a one-week trip to Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, organised by Could You?, a New York-based non-profit organisation that takes professionals on a week-long immersion trip to Mozambique to help them discover ways in which they can use their gifts and talents to impact poverty, in Africa, at home or elsewhere in the world. Christine Garde, executive director of Could You?, is an amazing woman in her own right who's passionate about making the world a better place. She doesn't just talk the talk, she walks the walk. Likewise, Could You?'s Africa director Tracey Webster, who like Heather is a social entrepreneur, is bubbling with energy and ideas about how to bring about change and has already achieved so much in her 40 years.
On the Could You? trip, we were exposed to Mozambique's extreme poverty but also to great opportunity. As a journalist who'd reported from post-quake Haiti, post-tsunami Sri Lanka and who'd lived in Mexico and Brazil, I'd seen a lot of poverty, suffering and hardship and was probably a bit immune. But I still came away from that trip profoundly moved - moved by the energy and generosity of the Mozambicans who were trying to make a difference in whatever way they could, and moved, in a big way, by the experience of connecting at a deep level with the women on the trip through the sharing of our life stories - our hopes, our dreams, our joys and heartaches (Just adding here, after posting, that Could You? trips are generally mixed but ours turned out to be all women, despite efforts by Christine to get some men along!). It was that experience that opened my eyes to my own passion for storytelling, for telling my story and the stories of others in a way that hopefully, somehow, will help someone. It was probably that trip and that experience of connecting with so many fabulous women that prompted me, in a roundabout way, to start this blog. I may not be impacting world poverty today but what I'm passionate about is poverty of spirit, particularly amongst women. Just like Heather, I want to live my own life to the full - without the self-condemnation, self-doubt, negative self-talk and so on - and I'd love the same for others. That's my African dream.