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Earth's Ode: Post-Pandemic - How Work-Trade Saved my Life and Helped me to Learn to Love the Earth and the Outdoors

By Georgia Antonia Lewis

In 2020, I made the choice to pursue work-trade*. Through that decision, I found the strength to save myself:  all as a freshman at UCLA in the midst of a global pandemic. That first quarter, I was deeply struggling. I struggled with depression and anxiety, and it was not uncommon for me to be met with a month-long period of immobility particularly as I looked to visualize a world that I belonged and deserved to live in. It was a week before finals when we got the notice to head home. I was in lock-down celebrating my 19th birthday in the bedroom where I had battled many of my demons. I needed to find a way to cope and manage like hundreds of millions of others.  

And I had started the year with the sudden departure of my uncle which left me reeling, a jarring and violent loss. Just a week before my freshman year, he had tragically taken his own life. Despite my outward appearance of academic and social prowess, I found myself adrift, disconnected from my surroundings. Despite the abundance of love from family and friends, the privilege of a roof over my head, access to therapy/medication, higher education, and basic needs, I struggled to find purpose and meaning.  I however found a mission in my uncle's own passions. He possessed a remarkable green thumb, a skill he honed as a botanist. 

My decision to leave school and explore work-trade was driven by a desire to fully embrace the living world around me. 

My time at Hāna Tropicals (a tropical flower farm) was transformative, brimming with challenges, novelty, and profound emotions, intertwining with newfound wellness frameworks and friendships that would last a lifetime. With the sunrise, I stirred, finding sleep effortless at dusk, a contrast to my usual struggles. I embraced tasks unfamiliar to me: wielding a chainsaw, taming weeds, nurturing permaculture gardens, and harvesting produce. I immersed myself in the rhythms of farm life, from mulching to composting, from caring for livestock to selling at the local Farmer’s Market. 

In this sanctuary of Hāna, I unearthed a newfound self-acceptance, guided by the land's embrace. 

Amongst the vibrant biodiversity, I shed the constraints of my former self, allowing the earth to relieve me of past insecurities. I surrendered to the whispers of nature as the night's unrest dissolved with each passing day. Despite the initial discomforts of embracing work in the outdoors, I found solace in a community bonded by transiences, chance, and unknowns. Recognizing my role within it, I became determined to understand how this experience reshaped my perspective, offering hope as I navigated my way out of despair.

After a year of immersing myself in work-trade, I was able to return to school with a fierce determination. I was fueled by a desire to defy the moments of self-doubt that once haunted me. I teetered on the edge of desperation, wondering about those without access to the resources I had. What about them? What was it about work-trade that pulled me back from the brink? I sensed there was a profound truth waiting to be uncovered.

Back in Westwood, I encouraged myself to apply to an honors program in the Anthropology department which funds ten students to do ethnography work with the goal of producing a thesis at graduation time. I applied with a basic research proposal outlining my experience with work-trade and the questions I had regarding its impacts on those who do it. Flash forward to approximately three years later, I find myself in a position to share this story with an audience. That audience has been growing. 

From sharing the anecdotes about my gap year to crafting my thesis, "Navigating Liminality in Paradise: Seeking Well-Being Amidst Maui’s Disintegration" — which includes reflections on the tragic 2023 Maui Wildfires — through my new associate role at JCI Worldwide, I continue to learn the power of storytelling for change

This is my ode to the Earth. I've surrendered to its wisdom — the soil, the wind, the trees, the bees — guiding and teaching me. Hāna remains etched in my soul, a testament to the resilience of nature and the transformative power of embracing the unknown. As I prepare to graduate this June, I embrace the earth and the outdoors in Los Angeles, seeking alternative wellness avenues. 

My goal: to share my journey and frameworks of self-discovery, offering hope to others. 

*Work-trade, is a program between host and participants wherein volunteers exchange time and skills for accommodations (i.e., room & board).


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