The Elephant Sanctuary

year 2, week 33:  this week i'm gonna... save elephants

Tarra the elephant was born in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1974. When she was six months old, she was brought to the United States in a wooden crate via cargo plane. She was sold to a tire salesman in Southern California who kept her in a delivery truck. Shortly after Tarra’s arrival in the US, the Asian elephant was declared an endangered species, and all future importation of Asian elephants into America was halted. 



At two years old, Tarra was purchased by Carol Buckley. She was trained to perform, give rides, and became known for roller skating and painting. Carol and Tarra traveled around working in circuses, amusement parks, zoos, on TV, and in movies for the next two decades. In 1995, Carol decided that Tarra and other elephants deserved a different life. She partnered with Scott Blais to found The Elephant Sanctuary, and Tarra became the first resident.

Elephants who have lived their lives in captivity have an opportunity at The Sanctuary to live in an expansive habitat that allows for a range of natural behaviors. Many of the elephants suffer long-term health and behavioral issues common to elephants that have spent their lives performing, such as tuberculosis, obesity, arthritis, aggression, and captivity-associated stress. Because elephants have complex physical and social needs, successful outcomes are measured not only by the elephant’s physical health, but also their social, behavioral, and psychological well-being. 

Tarra has been at The Elephant Sanctuary for 21 years. She has welcomed many of the newly retired elephants, trumpeting and spinning excitedly as the transport trailer arrived at the barn with a new resident. Caregivers refer to Tarra as a social butterfly -- an elephant that seeks out all the other elephants in the Asia habitat for visits and companionship. It is common for Tarra to walk miles on any given day to visit other elephants or to explore on her own.  

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The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee exists to provide captive elephants with individualized care, the companionship of a herd, and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their well-being. They seek to raise public awareness of the complex needs of elephants in captivity and the crisis facing elephants in the wild.

Since 1995, The Sanctuary has provided refuge for 27 elephants who are retired from zoos and circuses. There are currently 10 elephant residents with room for more. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee began on 200 acres and has grown to three separate and protected natural habitats spanning over more than 2,700 acres.

In the wild, elephants are migratory, walking many miles each day. They form intricate family structures and grieve for their dead in a complex way. They show humor and express compassion. The reality of their lives in captivity is that many are in chains for 18 hours a day and controlled by fear and intimidation. The Elephant Sanctuary’s mission is to give elephants the freedom they deserve.

Sissy with her tire

Sissy with her tire

The Sanctuary’s expansive habitat areas allow elephants the freedom to choose where, how, and with whom they spend their time. For some elephants, socialization comes slowly. At The Sanctuary, each elephant is afforded the space to build relationships at their own pace. 

After a few months at The Sanctuary, an elephant named Sissy found a lifelong companion. Captured in Thailand as a calf, Sissy spent three lonely decades as the focal point of a zoo in Gainesville, TX, surviving a record flood after being submerged for a day and a half with only her trunk above water allowing her to breathe.

Sissy was eventually moved to the El Paso Zoo. Her condition was videotaped and leaked to the local press. The El Paso community spoke out, and the decision was made for Sissy to be retired to The Elephant Sanctuary.

Winkie and Sissy

Winkie and Sissy

Sissy arrived on January 26, 2000, joining Tarra and four other elephant residents. Reserved and cautious at first, Sissy carried a tire with her for security everywhere she went, a behavior left over from the many years she spent alone at the zoo. Sissy soon began to venture farther out into the habitat, socializing with the others. A few months later Winkie arrived, and the two became fast friends. One day, Sissy finally put down the tire. Although she periodically will interact with tires when used as enrichment, she no longer requires one for security. She is safe.

Notes for this week:

  • World Elephant Day is August 12th!
  • Our collective givetwig donation will feed all ten elephants at the Sanctuary for two days.
  • For more information on The Elephant Sanctuary, please check out their website.

this week i'm gonna donate to The Elephant Sanctuary.

please share the givetwig awesomeness!

Ewaso Lions

year 2, week 32:  this week i'm gonna... save lions

Among the Samburu people, a pastoral tribe of north-central Kenya, warriors have traditionally hunted lions to prove their bravery or to protect their cattle, which form the basis of wealth and social rank in the community. But for nine years now, Jeneria Lekilelei, a Samburu warrior, has been doing the opposite, working to protect lions from being killed by his own people.

Jeneria Lekilelei (photo credit: Kris Norvig)

Jeneria Lekilelei (photo credit: Kris Norvig)

Lekilelei, age 27, dropped out of high school many years ago for lack of funds and most of his adolescent years were spent herding the cattle within the Westgate Conservancy of Kenya. In 2008, when he was 19, he joined Ewaso Lions, a conservation group based in the Conservancy, as a field data collector. At the time, he knew nothing about lions and found the idea of protecting the large carnivores shocking.

Founded in 2007 by conservation biologist Shivani Bhalla, Ewaso Lions works to protect Kenya’s wildlife by involving communities in solutions that promote peaceful coexistence between people and wild animals. According to Ewaso, Africa’s lion population has declined by some 90 percent over the past 75 years, primarily due to loss of habitat and human-animal conflict. In Kenya, there are fewer than 2,000 lions left. 

Bhalla quickly realized that understanding lion movements throughout the park and beyond was essential to the conservation work. “We’d see lions, then they’d disappear. Clearly, they were going outside the park,” Bhalla says. In need of more information in order to create solutions for protecting lions, she shifted her focus from the park to surrounding community lands.

photo credit: Ewaso Lions

photo credit: Ewaso Lions

Lekilelei came up with the idea of recruiting more Samburu warriors to expand Ewaso Lion's fieldwork program. Nobody, after all, knows the landscape better than they do. 


Ewaso Lions is dedicated to conserving lions and other large carnivores by promoting co-existence between people and wildlife. They work hand-in-hand with local communities to provide education, training, and improved conservation practices that help people and wildlife. Ewaso Lions uses sound science to help guide the long-term conservation of lions across community conservancies and protected areas in northern Kenya.

To learn more about Ewaso Lions, please check out the video below:

In 2010, Ewaso Lions established Warrior Watch, a program of about twenty Samburu youth engaged as ambassadors for wildlife. The warriors are trained on how to identify individual lions, monitor problem animals, collect data, and conduct wildlife surveillance through GPS, camera traps, vehicle patrols, and old-fashioned tracking.

Warriors on watch (photo credit: Tony Allport)

Warriors on watch (photo credit: Tony Allport)


Dressed in their traditional attire and beaded jewelry, the expanded team of warriors conduct bush patrols every day, liaise with herders, carry out anti-poaching work, and spread conservation awareness in what has become an extension of their traditional role as guardians of the community. In return, the warriors receive stipends, meals, and basic education (since many of them did not complete school).  

Samburu warriors attend classes through Ewaso Lions (photo credit: Ewaso Lions)

Samburu warriors attend classes through Ewaso Lions (photo credit: Ewaso Lions)

The warriors have developed a special bond with the lions of Samburu. Lekilelei says, “Any time I lose a lion, it's like losing a member of my family. If there are no lions in Samburu, then there is no more life." Now serving as the field operations and community manager, Lekilelei participates in discussions with the local elders who are the decision-makers of the community. Lekilelei and the Ewaso team also interact with women and children who have historically been left out of the conservation discussion.

“I am very proud to see how we have changed the whole face of the community towards conservation,” states Bhalla. “Warriors who were hunters or killers of lions have become conservationists.”

 photo credit: Ewaso Lions

 photo credit: Ewaso Lions


Story sourced from Earth Island Journal, Samburu Warriors Are Safeguarding Kenya’s Lions, by Kari Mutu, January 30, 2017

Notes for this week:

  • World Lion Day is August 10th!
  • Our collective givetwig donation will sponsor a member of Warrior Watch protecting lions for a year.
  • For more information regarding Ewaso Lions, please check out their website.

this week i'm gonna donate to Ewaso Lions.

please share the givetwig awesomeness!

Room to Grow

year 2, week 31:  this week i'm gonna... break the cycle of poverty

Julie Burns, Founder of Room to Grow

Julie Burns, Founder of Room to Grow

Julie Burns was working as a therapist in the child and adolescent division of the Karen Horney Clinic in New York when she sensed she could do more to help troubled families. “I wanted to reach families before the problems emerged,” she explains.

Julie could see that the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive issues she was treating had their roots far earlier in life. She wondered what was out there to help new mothers, especially those facing the myriad of obstacles that accompany poverty. It was 1996, and she was surprised to find few social services available for low-income families with children 0 to 3 years old, a critical age range that researchers say is key to a child’s later development.

A seed was planted and an entrepreneurial side she hadn’t known she possessed began to emerge. “I saw that I could really fill a niche,” she recalls. “It seemed like a perfect opportunity to provide material items and all of the parenting support as well."

Julie set to work. In 1998, she opened Room to Grow, an organization providing early support to families of babies born into poverty. Within a year she was serving 100 clients by herself in a donated East Harlem storefront space. Today, Room to Grow works with over 700 families at its locations in New York and Boston. Many are single mothers and all live at or below the poverty line.

Room to Grow's unique model combines counseling and material goods to foster both child development and parenting skills. The material goods serve as prompts for the long-term guidance.

“We’re not just providing books,” Julie explains, “we’re teaching parents how to sit down and read with their children. We’re not only providing bottles, but teaching about healthy nutrition, and talking about what it means to sit down with your child at mealtime and make that a positive experience.”

Story sourced from, "Room to Grow", by Sandra Larson


Room to Grow is dedicated to enriching the lives of babies born into poverty throughout their critical first three years of development. Parents are referred to Room to Grow by a network of prenatal programs assisting low-income families. Upon their referral, families visit Room to Grow's warm and inviting space once every three months from just before the birth of the baby until their child turns three. During their one-on-one appointments with Room to Grow staff social workers (typically lasting two hours), parents receive developmental information, customized support, and all of the needed baby items to ensure a healthy and secure start for their child. 

Room to Grow's clinical philosophy is to serve families with dignity and respect. Their Family Center is designed like a boutique and is integral to their efforts of providing a warm, welcoming, and dignified experience. 

To learn more about Room to Grow, please watch the video below:


Juliana is one of the many parents supported by Room to Grow. She grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico and had an emotionally and physically abusive childhood. Wanting a better life, Julianna moved with her boyfriend to Boston. When she became pregnant, she and her boyfriend were scared and had no family to lean on. 

Determined to give her baby a better childhood, Julianna was grateful to be connected with Room to Grow. During her visits, she received all the material goods she needed to keep her son, Jorge, safe and healthy, including a car seat, pack and play, clothes, toys, and books.

At 18 months, Julianna’s social worker, Rebecca, observed that Jorge’s speech was developmentally behind. Rebecca referred Jorge to Early Intervention, through which he started seeing a speech therapist weekly. Julianna absorbed the information she received from Rebecca about the importance of language development, reading to Jorge daily. Now, at 24 months, Jorge is beginning to speak.

“The depth of support Room to Grow gives to each family is truly exceptional," states a Room to Grow social worker. "Our two-hour sessions allow us to take our time and work through topics, and having a three-year relationship with the parents enables us to become a team, working together to create the best possible environment for the child.”

Notes for this week:

  • Did you know that according to the Center for Disease Control, the most common birth month in the United States is August? Over 358,000 American babies were born in August 2016!
  • Our collective givetwig donation will sponsoran introductory visit for a mother in their third trimester of pregnancy, postpartum assistance, and a year’s worth of books for a family.
  • For more information regarding Room to Grow, please check out their website.

this week i'm gonna donate to Room to Grow.

please share the givetwig awesomeness!

Comfort Zone Camp

year 2, week 30:  this week i'm gonna... help grieving kids heal

Founded in 1998, Comfort Zone Camp was once based exclusively in Richmond, Virginia, offering regular bereavement camps for children who would travel from all over the country to attend... until one unimaginable disaster helped crystallize their mission. On September 11, 2001, terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands; the people at Comfort Zone knew they needed to reach out and help.

Within just a few months, they had prepared a special bereavement camp weekend for children who lost a parent or loved one in the Twin Towers. They took that camp to New Jersey, bringing their much-needed services to an area still in shock.

One of the campers was Katie Lalama, who was just 7 when her father, Franco Lalama, died in the World Trade Center. Fifteen years later, Katie enthusiastically volunteers for Comfort Zone, noting that she's attended "pretty much every camp, every year," since that first New Jersey weekend.

"If there's one word to describe it, it's clearly magic," Katie says. 

Katie herself is a success story of Comfort Zone. "After my dad passed away, I was very angry," she explains. "I didn't know how to handle my emotions, and the only way I knew how to channel it was through anger." Comfort Zone left her "a completely changed person," better able to work through her emotions and express her grief.

Katie Lalama (far left) volunteering with Comfort Zone Camp

Katie Lalama (far left) volunteering with Comfort Zone Camp

"Every part of it is special in every single way," states Katie. "Every activity you do revolves around grief, and a lot of times you don't realize it until after. It's amazing. Once you experience it, it's unforgettable."

Katie, now 23, is a recent college graduate and is starting her first job in the adult world. She's working in the nonprofit sector and eagerly awaiting the weekends when she can participate in new sessions of Comfort Zone Camp as a Big Buddy. "I always loved helping people," she says. "That's always what I wanted to do."

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The mission of Comfort Zone Camp is to help grieving children discover their capacity to heal, grow, and lead more fulfilling lives. Comfort Zone Camp offers programs that transform the lives of children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or legal guardian. Studies show that children who are left to handle grief alone are five times more likely to die by suicide^, nine times more likely to drop out of high school^^, ten times more likely to engage in substance abuse^^^, and 20 times more likely to develop behavioral disorders^^^^.

Comfort Zone Camp is working to break the emotional isolation that grief often brings with free programs, including camps, that incorporate confidence building programs and age-based support groups. Comfort Zone Camps are offered to children ages 7-17, with a young adult camp for ages 18-25, and 1-day programs for the entire family.  Their programs are held year-round across the country.  

To learn more about Comfort Zone Camp, please check out the below video:

Sources: ^USDHHS, Bureau of the Census, ^^National Principals Association, ^^^Rainbows for All God’s Children, ^^^^Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

An essential part of the Comfort Zone Camp model is pairing each and every camper with a Big Buddy who is individually chosen to be a perfect match. Big Buddies are adults (like Katie) who have been thoroughly screened and extensively trained. Many have experienced loss themselves.

Big Buddies help their Little Buddies in many ways as camp unfolds, but one of the key things they do is demonstrate how to talk about their grief. The Big Buddies will be the first to step up and share, modeling to the surviving children how to share their stories. After hearing their Big Buddies speak, the children are better prepared to share their own grief in a healing circle.

As CEO and Program Director Alesia Alexander puts it, Grief teaches us the secrets of our heart. I read this somewhere years ago when I first started this work.  It is something that I have kept in my mind as a reminder of how transformative and important this work is that we do with young people and families living with loss. I am always in awe of the courage that our kids and families display in and out of program as a part of their grief journeys."

Notes for this week:

  • International Day of Friendship is July 30th!
  • Our collective givetwig donation will sponsor a weekend camp for a child who has lost someone close to them.
  • For more information regarding Comfort Zone Camp, please check out their website.

this week i'm gonna donate to Comfort Zone Camp.

please share the givetwig awesomeness!