My journey to the journey

They say that time passes faster as you age and I couldn’t agree more.

A year ago I was living in the Maya zone of Mexico eating fresh mangoes by the truckload and bumbling around with my newly acquired Spanish language skills (or lack of).

I took the plunge of buying a one-way plane ticket to Latin America after nearly seven years working in London. I had grown quite tired of city life and had become deflated about my ability to create change after a charity I was a trustee of closed. We’d lost a significant contract which pushed us into deficit and then, tragically, our CEO died of cancer. The closure of the charity put committed and talented people out of jobs and took a vital service for extremely vulnerable and abused women away. I felt like I had failed the women I was hoping to help and was incredibly sad about Denise’s death, she was and still is a huge role model for me.

I craved a new perspective, a challenge and an adventure and decided to make a change and indulge my love of travel for a while. My adventure started with some time exploring Colombia before I made my way to a job at Na’atik; a social enterprise language school in Mexico. When I got on the plane to Bogota, I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish and had no plan for how long I’d stay, but without much money in my bank account, I had never expected to be away for a whole year.

Leonie's Mexican team on a school excursion
With the Na’atik team in Mexico

Now I’m sat here one year after returning from Mexico and I’m feeling a little unnerved about where the last 12 months vanished to, so I felt the need to reflect on what has happened in that time…

Although in Mexico I was both physically and mentally far away – in a different time zone, in a place where the rain stopped the internet and scorpions appeared in your kitchen sink – I still joined the occasional conference call about a UK project called ‘The Big Journey’. At that time, my involvement in the project was voluntary and my enthusiasm to help stemmed from my participation in the Indian Jagriti Yatra, which I was lucky enough to join in 2015. I had found the experience to be so impactful for my personal development that I really wanted to work on delivering a similar experience for young people in the UK and felt there was a missing piece in the jigsaw of support that really introduced young people to different approaches for creating change. After many years working in the social impact space, primarily with the wonderful School for Social Entrepreneurs, I noticed that once you have a great idea, everyone stumbles across each other to support you, but there is little support available to help you arrive at that lightbulb moment.

When I dialled into the calls about The Big Journey from Mexico we made adjustments to a draft budget and speculated about the potential partnerships we could have. We considered which funders and partners might support our wild idea – a band of hopeful enthusiasts united behind a quirky vision! At that time it was a passion project and although I always harboured hopes that it would become a reality, it felt like a faraway dream.

Then, towards the end of my time in Mexico, a tragedy happened that impacted me in a really significant way. A colleague from the USA fell ill and over the duration of a week became incredibly disoriented and confused and went missing for 24 hours after getting lost in our tiny town. She was eventually found wandering down a highway about 25 km from our town in the midday Caribbean heat. She was hospitalised and put on an IV but shortly after that her condition worsened and she died unexpectedly of unknown causes, aged 35. That was just 7 weeks after she arrived in our town.

She was my neighbour and I’d eaten dinner with her at her kitchen table just days before she died. I also rode in the ambulance with her as she was rushed to a nearby hospital. On arrival at the Cancun Hospital, as the only English speaker in the ambulance, I greeted her confused and heartbroken mum at the hospital and proceeded to sit with her when the news of her daughter’s passing was confirmed. It turned everything on its head. I was devastated by what had happened and frustrated we had no answers or explanation about how or why she had died.

After that moment my overseas adventure suddenly felt hedonistic and selfish and I started to pine for my family and friends. But at the same time, going home felt like giving up and the only people in my network who knew Laurie and understood what had happened and what I’d seen were the people around me in my small Maya town.

After deliberating for a few weeks I took the decision to call time on my life in Mexico and come home.

Not long after I had made that decision, I got news that The Big Journey had been awarded enough funding to go ahead. I was delighted. Being able to make your passion project your job and utilise your experience, skills and network to bring a concept into reality was an exciting prospect that I couldn’t believe was becoming a reality for me!

Fast-forward another 12 months and here we are on day five of The Big Journey, or Drivers for Change as we now call it.

I can’t believe a year ago when I came home broke and mournful this was still just a concept and now here I am on an adventure with 80+ very real, beautiful and impressive people that all share our vision.

Drivers for Change in Bradford
Enjoying Eid festival in Bradford on day three of the Drivers for Change journey

I will never forget my time in Mexico or my experience as a trustee. Both of which were challenging but also happy, educational and humbling experiences.

Now on the journey, I can reflect that the process of creating something new – a charity, a journey, an opportunity –  has been incredibly healing.

The journey is now in full swing and my hope is that we can give everyone involved a new perspective, a challenge and an adventure because working on this project has taught me that you don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to find it!


This post is by our comms lead, Leonie. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonieJarrett.

You can read more about Denise, an incredible campaigner, woman and Leonie’s role model here.