Just Turn Around

Pippi Longstocking! If she had to pick one favorite book from her childhood, L. Marelle Camel would choose Pippi Longstocking. The adventures… The lack of supervision…

“I just was so taken by this little girl who was raising herself.” Marelle’s smile and tone revealing a bit of envy for the child who was free to get into mischief unchecked. “But also, I was kind of afraid for her because she didn’t have guidance.”

Since those early years, books have moved Marelle. And she wants them to impact today’s elementary aged kids too by presenting reading not as a chore, but rather as a world of exploration, learning and wonder.  Marelle cares about this so much that in early 2019, she founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Camel Kids Foundation.

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“It’s important for kids to really see themselves reflected in books,” she said. “We provide students with free books to introduce them to authors and illustrators and lead characters of color.”

Marelle says it is imperative for children to see books that have someone who looks like them on the cover.  “Especially in children’s books, picture books… that’s important for the little kids to see.

“I want to triumph all of our people of color who are authors because they don’t get a lot of credit. I want to introduce their books to kids.” That also includes illustrators of color. “I think that the children who are not of color can also benefit from reading a story by someone who is of color. Nine times out of 10, they have friends, schoolmates or playmates or people in dance class that are of color. And it’s important for them to know how to relate.”

Marelle knows stories can be formative, and they have staying power. Decades later, the thought of Pippi Longstocking still brings a smile to Marelle’s eyes. (The story was first published in 1945 by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, and it has been translated into 75 languages.)

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Now a 32 year-old actor living in Los Angeles, Marelle embraces all aspects of storytelling, and she has made a commitment to reaching young minds through books.

The mission of Camel Kids Foundation — which Marelle says is currently operating in Los Angeles and New York, and next in Atlanta — has two parts. One part: Visit schools to read and gift carefully selected books to elementary age children. The other part: The Snack Box Project: To provide classroom supplies for teachers and snacks for their rooms.

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An estimated 94% of all teachers buy classroom supplies out of their own pocket, and up to 13 million children nationwide go to school hungry regularly.

The struggle felt by teachers to provide for their students is a reality Marelle knows well. Her mother, Pearl, has been an educator for nearly 25 years. While teaching pre-K and kindergarten, Pearl raised three daughters alone: Marelle, Marelle’s twin sister Lynne Michelle (younger than Marelle by just three minutes) and their older sister Katherine (who is also an educator and teaches K2 at a daycare).

Homework and the Human Spirit

Growing up in Atlanta, Marelle learned the importance of education from her mother.

“She is an educator to the T. So if we didn’t have homework, we had homework. She would give us homework. And even if we did have homework, she would give us homework. Our summers were spent at the library.

“If one of my sisters or I even asked a question, like, ‘I wonder if there’s butterflies that have the same pattern…’ that would be a book report that we would have to do. If you asked a question, you would learn it. You know? And it would be all of us that would have to do that book report. So being the daughter of an educator is hard, but it’s good at the same time because you learn so much.”

Marelle and her sisters learned academic lessons from Pearl. But one of the biggest life lessons Marelle learned was this:

“My mother says, ‘Turn around, child. Just turn around.’

“A lot of people wait until they’ve got Oprah money or Obama money in order to be philanthropists. (My mother) says, ‘Turn around. There’s somebody behind you that could use your help where you are now. You are capable. You don’t have to wait until you have… money to be, like, now I’m going to donate. Or now I’m going to build a school in Africa. Or I’m going to build a school in Europe. You know, there’s something that you could be doing, someone who could benefit from you, if you would just turn around.’”

Marelle thinks about how an organization like the one she has founded today could have helped back then. “We struggled as a family,” she says. “And so now that I’m capable…. (You) can hear the echo. I’ve definitely got to turn around, you know? And help somebody else.”

Camel Kids Foundation primarily serves Title 1 schools, although not exclusively. The basic principal of Title 1 is that schools with large concentrations of low-income students will receive supplemental funds to assist in meeting student’s educational goals.

Learning to Live

After graduating from high school in Atlanta, Marelle left home for the first time in the name of study: to Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. There, she learned that being on her own wasn’t as carefree as it seemed for fictional Pippi Longstocking.

“I had a hard time my freshman year. Wow! I never realized my attachment to my mother until it was time to leave.” Four years later, she majored in Communications and went back to Atlanta to figure out what to do next. From age 21-24, Marelle would search.

“I found that period, that three year period, very hard for me. It was about discovering my identity and who I was as a person, who I was going to be, the things that I wanted to do, the things that I could do and how could I make my goals reality.”

It’s during those times of waiting or searching that we all find our spaces of grace and refuge.

“I did dance — ballet, contemporary and hip hop. I found a love for pilates and yoga during that time…. That was my release. That did … buy me some time and really helped me deeper discover who I was as a person. I’ve always been very creative, and dance is definitely a way to express myself.”

Through her yoga practice, Marelle says she found calm. “It was the stillness about it that really got me to hone in and focus, which I think is necessary as a young adult to have.

“I think that’s what really led me to just pick up and leave after I’d found my focus.”

Unlike that first goodbye when she left Atlanta for Oakwood University, Marelle was ready when she decided to move to Los Angeles to work in production and then pursue acting.

“Leaving the nest again wasn’t something that I feared. It was something that I welcomed. I was ready for change.”

Change Maker

Even as Marelle focuses on her acting career, her mission with Camel Kids Foundation is deeply rooted in family and tradition and turning around for the next person.

I wondered if Camel Kids Foundation had made its way to Pearl’s classroom.

“I go to her class whenever I’m in Atlanta and disrupt,” she laughs. “I teach (teach, she says, with air quotes) to the best of my ability!”  But those visits have been personal visits.

If Marelle brings Camel Kids Foundation to her mother’s classroom — to sit down with students and read to them about characters just like them — it will be a sort of coming full circle,  a circle which has her mother, Pearl, at its center.

Marelle has watched her mother teach and is in awe of the way she’s able to make connections with students and sees the light bulb moments when they’ve learned something. And there is reverence there, but not only that.  “I adore her.  She’s my heart.”

And it is really heart that is motivating Marelle’s movement — to see hearts, to open hearts and to nurture hearts. Perhaps so that every child will one day find it in their own  heart … to also… turn around.

To learn more, to donate or to get involved with Camel Kids Foundation, visit www.camelkidsfoundation.org and follow them on social media at @camelkidsfndn. Email, volunteer, donate, share. Portrait 1 photo credit: Kevin Richardson/Dance As Art. Portrait 2 photo credit: Kirk McKoy. My thanks for permission to use your beautiful work.

Hats Off

When I stepped inside Goorin Bros. Hat Shop in Chicago, there were hats on every table and every shelf — fedoras and flatcaps, baseball and bowlers. There, I met Tanya Jaramilla, and not unlike the establishment itself, she wears many hats: shopkeeper, wife, sister, student.

“I’ll be the first person in the whole family to graduate from college.”

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Tanya is 32 years old and approximately one year away from earning a Bachelor’s degree in Management and Communications from DePaul University.

Tanya’s grandparents came to the Windy City in the 1950’s from Puerto Rico on the promise of steady factory work.

“For my family, it was a BIG deal to finish high school.

“For me, I always wanted bigger and better and more.”

Tanya was certain she would go to college.

“I just didn’t know when or how or what that would look like. It’s really, really, really important that I get my degree and graduate — do the whole shebang!”

If you’re doing the math, you already guessed there was a detour after high school that Tanya will tell you was worth every minute and helped her become the person she is today.

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“I have no regrets, because if I hadn’t lived the life I already lived, I wouldn’t be living the life I have now. I run this fantastic little hat shop. The people that work for me are great, and the people that come and shop here are great. I’m doing school the way I wanted to do it, which is with all my focus and energy and attention.”

Straight out of high school, Tanya worked part-time at a Gap store and was soon promoted to a full-time manager position. What had been a balancing act between work and college tipped. “I did that for a really long time. And school just kind of fell to the back burner.”

Simultaneously, Tanya was in a long-term relationship.  About seven years later, and in a cloud of mistrust, Tanya’s relationship ended in a break-up that became a total life shake-up. She changed her job, her home, her city.

“I left and went to Vegas to live for a few months with my grandma, and that was one of the best experiences I ever had. I was able to connect with her on a level that I’d never done before.  We talked about her life, and I learned stories about her struggle.

“It really affirmed for me the decision that I had made to move on and change and do something that was right for me. So when it was time for me to come back to Chicago, I came back with a cleansed soul. I felt like a new me. I felt like the me that I was trying to get to for the last six or seven years, and it just never happened because I kept letting my comfort get in the way of it.”

Tanya says she wanted to do something important. Something that makes a difference. Something she could be passionate about. She found it in a non-profit organization called the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance.

“It was a little surreal at the beginning because I was so used to having to struggle. And having to overcome something.

“I started digging in. I started really working with the organization in the community.”

And she realized something.

“This is what I was supposed to do, you know? It was meant to be. I was meant to get to know these young people who have all of these aspirations but no real support or access to resources. I was able to provide that for them in ways that they never had before.”

Tanya remembers an inquisitive little girl named Susie. “She made me feel like I … showed her that you don’t have to succumb to the neighborhood that you’re from. You don’t have to fall into the traps that the community around you sets for you.

“That’s something I try to instill in my little sisters. They are young moms, and it’s a conversation that I’ve had with them over and over. You don’t have to settle.

“I was settling for a really long time.” She thinks back to that old relationship. “Once I finally broke free of that, it was really important for me to make sure they understood that their lot in life doesn’t necessarily have to be that. They can work harder, they can be better, they can do more, if they want to.

“I grew as a person from my relationship experiences, but also as a woman.”

Tanya says in her relationship, she had become someone other than who she wanted to be. “In order to fulfill someone else’s happiness, I was turning a blind eye. I was in denial. The biggest challenge for me: being honest with myself.

“Another thing I taught my sisters was that people will only do to you what you allow them to.

“If I continue to let someone treat me terribly, they’re going to keep treating me terribly. Because I’m not putting a stop to it. And I’m not ending it. It gives them the message that that’s ok. And it’s not ok.

When Tanya was 27, that year was filled with introspection.  “I did a lot of digging into myself and thinking and feeling.

“It wasn’t easy. I don’t think those moments in life ever are. But I think it paved the way for me to be the person I am today. I feel like I am much stronger. I’m more confident. I have a better view of what my future’s going to be like.”

A future that includes her new husband Sonny Jaramilla. They were married just last month.

“When I found him, I realized that all of the things that I had worked through and I had lived through … that was preparation for me to get my mind right and my head right and my heart right and my soul right, so that when he came along, I was ready.”

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It was Sonny who reminded Tanya of her dream of graduating from college. “He gave me the kick in the butt.

“He is the one who encouraged me to leave the non-profit so that I could focus on school without having to try and juggle the two.”

Tanya is not abandoning her mission of making an impact on the community. She’s investing in it through education. And going forward, she plans to find ways to give young people who are from low income neighborhoods opportunities to engage in the arts.

“I’m very urban. I’ve lived in Chicago pretty much my whole life. And I know the challenges that urban life can bring.  But I also feel like there’s some opportunity and some beauty in that.

“Everyone cannot live in Lakeview, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the neighborhood and the community that you’re in. It should still be safe, and it should still be beautiful, and it should still be full of life and creativity!”

And that is where Tanya says her future will find her.

But first, she will keep working toward the day when she dons the style-impaired mortarboard and turns the tassel from right to left.

After that, Tanya will be wearing a proud new custom hat, in a style all her own.