In 2006, after teaching for two years in a mainly Hispanic community in Washington, DC, I was inspired by my third grade students to explore the countries they had once called home. In a quest to be a more authentic teacher to them, and to speak fluently with their parents and grandparents, I moved to Panama to volunteer for UNICEF.
My job for UNICEF, in retrospect, was very similar to teaching. I traveled around Latin America and the Caribbean meeting with children and adolescents living in exclusion, and listened to their stories, and writing about them for UNICEF.
The kids I met were living in extreme poverty: some didn’t have access to school or clean water, and far too many were HIV positive. But, they all wanted similar things: the chance to live a healthy, productive life. And they all wanted to tell their stories and have them heard.
My lean in moment came on a clear October day in 2006 when I attended a UNICEF-sponsored conference for women and children living with HIV. In one day the whole trajectory of my career, and my life, changed.
A young, beautiful mother, Ana, spoke at the conference. She was only 17 at the time; her curvy body cradled her new-born daughter. Her looks were striking, but it was her words that were mesmerizing.
She stood solidly in front of a packed ballroom of advocates, UN workers, and government officials and bravely stated: "We are not dying...we are living with HIV."
I was so moved by this young woman's optimistic, resilient outlook, despite her hardships, that we began meeting daily and I listened to the details of her life. Ana was born with HIV. Her mom, dad and sister had all died by the time she was in the sixth grade. After their deaths, Ana faced abuse and neglect from the family members she trusted most. At the age of sixteen, she was forced to drop out of school after having her daughter.
Despite all of this, when I met Ana, she was not bitter, or living with anger.Ana had taken the proper precautions and her baby was HIV-free; she was living a healthy and happy life.
The more time I spent listening and documenting Ana's story, the more I knew that her’s was one that needed to be shared. And like all the kids I had met, Ana was enthusiastic about telling her story, and advocating for the millions of kids living with HIV who don't have a voice.
That one serendipitous meeting changed my life. Ana taught me more than any person has or probably ever will. She taught me how to use my voice to make change, how to live in a way that matters, and more than anything how to listen.
From Ana, I understood the power people's narratives have to make a difference. Even then, I never anticipated becoming a journalist. After moving back to the United States, I went back to teaching.
But, after appearing on the Today Show twice, for Ana's story and another book I wrote, I was asked if I'd consider becoming a correspondent. At the time, it seemed ridiculous – I was a teacher and a writer; I barely watched television. But, after a year of thinking, I realized the incredible honor it is to share people's stories in an authentic, honest way.
And I knew if I didn't try, I'd always regret it. Almost three years later, I've reported from Haiti, Ethiopia, Honduras and Guatemala. I've been to nine National Parks and have met teachers, principals, authors, athletes, advocates and community leaders, all who have incredible stories to share.