Sharing Stories, Shedding Light

Everyone has a story to tell. We move through life accumulating trauma and triumphs that eventually mold us into the person we are today, and someone out there needs to hear about it. We spoke with four very different people — a high school student who founded a girl’s organizations, a burn survivor who turned to painting to heal, a college student who showcases the abilities of people with disabilities, and a sexual assault survivor who found peace connecting with others. Each are advocates in their own right and are encouraging others to push past their own difficulties.


A Girl Who Will Run the World

At age 8, Poland-born Zofia Kierner started donating books so kids in Central Eastern Europe could sharpen their English language skills. At 16, she’s running a foundation that supports young women, despite the setbacks she’s experienced. 

Zofia Kierner is a force. The 16-year-old strikes us as more of a scrappy, young CEO than a high school student, and that’s likely why she’s had so much success founding a nonprofit that helps build the confidence and English language skills of girls in Central Eastern Europe, while also giving them a platform to use their voice. 

Kierner, who was born in Poland and lived in Finland before moving to Redmond, started collecting books when she was 8 years old to help students in Poland learn English. While living in Finland, her family would return to Poland every summer, and one year, her parents enrolled her in a Polish school to see how well she would do. 

“I surprisingly did better in Polish than I did in English, even though I didn’t learn Polish in a Polish school, and that’s because of the way English was taught. It was so grammar-based,” Kierner said. “I didn’t know what tenses like present and perfect were, but that’s the way the system teaches them to remember everything. You’re given a list of terms that everyone has to memorize without really understanding how to apply it.”

The students were learning from old, black and white textbooks, so Kierner started donating children’s books to schools each time she returned to Poland. Reading picture books helped her learn English when she was young, and seeing the smiles on students’ faces when she brought the books made her realize what a need this was. 

Kierner moved to the U.S. and entered seventh grade, and she immediately noticed one key difference in the setup of the U.S. educational institutions — presentations. Much of Kierner’s learning was based around group projects and presentations, and she thought about the students back in Poland. In order to pursue opportunities outside their home country, they’d need to master the English language, which would be hard to do given the way they were learning it. 

“If you don’t know the language, think about how hard it would be to travel, or get a good job, or get out of the country and be able to pursue a career internationally. You have no opportunity for that,” she said. “Many studies are done in English, and many publications of important scientific studies are done in English, and without access to the language, you can’t utilize the resources that would be available.”

After three years of planning and getting the proper paperwork, Kierner launched Girls Future Ready, a multipronged foundation that connects girls in Central Eastern Europe with English speakers in the U.S. The foundation went live this year and is essentially broken up into four departments: book collection and donation, teaching English via pen pals who connect over email and video chat, an online platform where girls in Central Eastern Europe can share their stories and projects, and a Polish-based conference that aims to launch the ideas of girls who will pitch their projects with the opportunity to work with industry experts. 

Though the foundation’s programs are vast, they all work toward a common goal of lifting up girls and young women to embolden their confidence and bolster their English. Foundation staff queried boys and girls in Central Eastern Europe and found that 98 percent felt confident enough to travel, but only 20 percent felt their English skills were strong enough to eventually hold an executive position. Kierner said some families will pay thousands of dollars so their children can have English tutors, while Girls Future Ready’s English pen pals are free. Every English speaker paired with a girl in Europe volunteers his or her time, and the learning happens over casual conversation.  

The foundation has had quite a lot of success, and over the last eight years, Kierner has collected and donated 20,000 books. The one major barrier she’s experienced, however, hasn’t been the red tape of government institutions or recruiting volunteers — it’s been getting adults to take her seriously. 

“The amount of support that I’m getting is tremendous, but the amount of emails and follow-ups that I have to send to people is really dragging us down, and it’s creating a barrier between young people and adults, and it’s stopping any projects young people might have,” she said, adding, “I’m working three times as hard to get half as far.”

When reaching out to her legally aged counterparts, a common response is no response, Kierner said, or people tell her to reach out again when she’s older. 

Generation Z, the generation born in 1997 and beyond (according to the Pew Research Center), is mocked for being lazy and attached to devices, Kierner said, but if young people are trying to give their ideas legs, they’re often met with resistance. 

“We’re a smart generation. We’re a persistent generation. We won’t settle for a ‘no,’” Kierner said. “We won’t settle for a shut door. We’ll find a way to go around it. Something I’ve noticed about Gen Z is that we’re confident in our skills, and even though it takes us more time to get to you, we will get to you eventually.”

If anyone who’s reading this has felt a similar discouragement, Kierner recommends persistence, having credible sources, and rock-solid arguments for your cause. 

“If you really believe in what you’re doing,” she said, “people will sit and listen to you.”

It’s hard to say what Kierner would be like had she remained in Poland. Her English certainly wouldn’t be as strong, she said. With her bubbling willpower and confidence, however, we wouldn’t be surprised if she would have found a window to crawl through, if her schoolwork wasn’t strong enough to support her learning needs. And that’s precisely what Kierner is offering other girls in that region — a window of opportunity for a stronger foundation and, hopefully, a more promising future. 

Obstacles be damned, Kierner is forging forward.


Creating a New Language on Canvas

Burn survivors are rarely seen in art, said Seattle resident Grace Flott. After surviving a devastating fire, she turned to painting as a way to heal, and now she wants to amplify the visibility of others.

It was around 1 a.m., and Grace Flott and her friends were getting ready to leave a small house party when they heard an explosion. It was 2011, and Flott was hanging out with a group of other international students who were studying abroad in Paris, and it was the first time she’d been to this apartment. 

Someone opened the front door to see what happened, and a plume of hot, thick smoke rushed the room, snuffing out the oxygen. 

“Things became extremely chaotic, like instantly, and I basically thought I was going to die,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t see very well; my eyelashes burned off. … My clothes were starting to burn off. Some of the burns on my back, you can actually see the outlines of where my (tank top) was.”

People started jumping out the window of the fourth-story apartment, and when Flott instinctively followed them, she said she just wanted a couple more breaths of air — to live for just a few more seconds. When Flott woke up behind the building, she had second-and-third-degree burns on nearly 50 percent of her body from the inferno of smoke and a broken back and ankle. It took the EMTs a while to get to her because of where she’d fallen and because the inaccessibility of the streets in the centuries-old, low-income neighborhood made it difficult for the fire trucks to reach the enflamed apartment building. 

It wasn’t until later, when Flott was in the hospital, that she learned two of her friends had died. Five people in total were killed, and more than 50 were injured. Officials determined an arsonist had set the fire but were unable to determine who, she said. Had simple reinforcements been installed — a locked entry to the building, smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and fire escapes — the outcome might have been much different.

Flott spent about three weeks in a hospital in Paris until she was stable enough to return to Seattle on a medical flight to Harborview Medical Center. She spent another six, painful weeks undergoing treatment at Harborview. 

The smoke from the fire caused serious damage to her lungs, so Flott had a tracheotomy that allowed her to breathe, but she couldn’t talk. Post-traumatic stress disorder also affects the parts of the brain that allow you to verbalize what you’re feeling and experiencing, according to the National Institute of Health, so after leaving the hospital, Flott started drawing to help her process what she’d been through. 

As she worked through her pain on paper, Flott developed this entirely new, visual language. Her early artwork after the fire is really expressive and abstract, mostly scenes from the night of the fire or the people connected to it. It’s hard to explain with words what it feels like to survive that kind of trauma, Flott said. Only people who have faced death understand. But art has allowed her to speak without saying a word. 

In 2015, four years after the fire, Flott enrolled in the Gage Academy of Art, a rigorous four-year, skills-based program where she learned the classic and modern techniques of drawing and painting. Her skills progressed quickly as she developed the ability to paint realism from live models and still-life objects. Her work is exquisite, so rich with layers of color that you can’t fully appreciate it unless it’s right in front of you. 

An ongoing series called Still I Rise — the title borrowing from the mythology of the Phoenix rising from the ashes — depicts her experience as a burn survivor. On the surface, some of her paintings appear a bit lonesome — an empty wheelchair positioned by the window in a bare, cream-colored room, a pair of crutches and back brace leaning against the wall, and a woman in a hospital gown peering out an oversized window in the sanitized hallway of an empty hospital. But really, they represent hope and honor the medical devices she temporarily used during her healing. 

One of the paintings in the series is a self-portrait. Leaning gently against an easel, Flott stares confidently at the viewer. Her burns are the most visible on her arms, and in the portrait, they’re exposed by a black tank dress. 

“I primarily work from observations, so I was standing in front of a mirror for hours and hours to do this painting,” she said. “A lot happens when you have to do that. At least for me, it’s important to be really truthful in how I describe things, so I was trying to describe myself in as much detail as possible. Every shape of your body is really challenging, and especially painting my arms with the burns. I totally didn’t expect it, but I started tearing up. I feel like it unlocked this part of me that I didn’t know still needed to be healed.”

When Flott showed her portrait at an event at the Gage Academy of Art, a burn survivor told her it really resonated with her. Flott’s scars are part of what make her human, she said, and people need to see it. 

Flott graduated from the program this summer, and she wants to paint more portraits of people who’s bodies don’t fit within the mainstream beauty ideals. 

“I feel like we carry our stories on our bodies, whether it’s good, bad or whatever — if it’s your laugh lines or your weird birthmark or scars or wrinkles,” she said. “Painting people is what I love, so that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”


Raising Awareness Through Visibility

Kirkland native Kobey Chew has spent his whole life advocating for himself and others simply by living his life and proving how able-bodied people with disabilities can be. 

Kobey Chew has spent much of his life surprising the people around him. He played on a baseball team; worked as a Senate page; and, by most accounts, can do pretty much anything everyone else does. 

A Kirkland native, Chew was born prematurely, with shorter arms and clubbed hands, and has spent his whole life proving how able-bodied people with physical impairments can be. In fourth grade, he self-published a book that shows a day in his life: brushing his teeth, solving math problems, playing dodgeball — all the things his other classmates are doing, sometimes just a little differently. 

 “To be completely frank, I just kind of got annoyed with people asking me (what happened to my hands),” Chew said. “I figured, if I write this book, I can be like, ‘Here. Read the book.’ Right after I wrote it, I did a short tour of my school and actually read it to a few different classrooms, which was pretty fun.”

Global HELP, a Seattle-based online medical library that focuses on children’s health in underserved communities, decided to publish his story and distribute it worldwide to help dissolve some of the discrimination and misconceptions people with disabilities face in other nations. Chew connected with the organization through one of his doctors and wrote other materials for them that focus on his accomplishments rather than obstacles he’s overcome. Like other people with disabilities, Chew advocates for himself and others, but most of this work is done by just living his life. 

Earlier this year, Chew was honored with a prestigious Prudential Spirit of Community Award that selects one high school and middle school student from each state. He and another Eastside award-winner were flown to Washington, D.C., and congratulated by actress Viola Davis for their work. Chew has been volunteering for as long as he can remember, from neighborhood cleanups to his work with Global HELP to serving on Kirkland’s youth council and park board. 

His family has always emphasized community service. When he was born, he spent two months in the hospital, and people brought nearly 200 meals to his family to help support them during that time. 

“I always knew that volunteer service definitely has a direct impact on people,” he said. “And seeing as I always had people who would look out for me and my community, I really wanted to give back to the same people who had been there for me.”

His widespread volunteering has made him something of a public figure in the community, and says he hasn’t experienced much overt discrimination. Occasionally someone will approach him and say they’re impressed by how much he’s been able to accomplish, considering his disability, which is a bit of a snub, he said. Or, every once in a while, someone will assume he has mental impairments as well. 

“We live in a really tolerant and inclusive area here on the Eastside, and I also realized — you know, my dad’s family was originally from China — and if I was born in China, I’d basically be a recluse right now,” Chew said, with a laugh. “I realized how fortunate I was that I happened to be born in this area.”

But not everyone is born in a place where society allows them to live out their lives like other people. The newly minted high school graduate and freshman at University of Washington wants to be a spokesperson for Global HELP, so he can continue educating the world about people with disabilities and erase the stigma that comes with being physically different. Because of his hands, some rush to his aid in an effort to be helpful. People with disabilities encounter this often, and Chew has some advice.

“Clearly there are many differences in how persons with disabilities complete tasks and go about life,” he said. “With this noted, to make a presumption to each individual’s capability often varies within the spectrum of disability. With such a variance to what impairment each person with a disability has in their life, I would recommend asking if the individual needs assistance at all, which is often not even the case. This avoids having an overbearing and paternalistic mentality to each individual, but also shows you are genuinely willing to assist if needed.”


Breaking Free from Trauma

For the last roughly 10 years, Anne Lauren has been dealing with trauma that will affect her for the rest of her life. Once she started sharing her story, she realized community is key to healing.

When Anne Lauren went off to college in 2004, she hoped it would be the time of her life. 

Instead, she was surprised to experience triggering symptoms: She felt fearful of walking on campus alone at night; was disinterested in the party scene, which often normalized the objectification of women; and began having recurring dreams of being raped. 

Severe depression and anxiety followed — adding another heavy layer of mental agony that caused her to suddenly burst into tears or wake up in a rage for no known reason. It wasn’t until she studied abroad in El Salvador during her junior year that she began to identify some of what she was feeling. 

“I had an incredible experience, because all of a sudden, I was in a community where it was OK to suffer,” she said. “They’re a country that has survived lots of trauma, and they’d share their stories, and I could feel this connection. I couldn’t understand emotionally, but I could relate to them in a way I didn’t understand as a white girl from Newport Beach (California).”

But when she returned home, she found that her family system was not a safe space to share her feelings. The physical and psychological stressors dominated her daily life, and her body and brain began to shut down. 

She started seeing a therapist, who taught Lauren the need to create boundaries. When she went to graduate school in 2009, she began working with a spiritual director who noticed a pattern of emotional distress that surfaced when she returned home for the holidays. So, she stopped going home. After about a year of not seeing her family, repressed memories of incestual rape from her childhood resurfaced.

Lauren thinks she was about 2 years old when family members started sexually assaulting her, and she wasn’t an isolated target. When she confronted her family about the abuse, she was told numerous stories by others about how they too had been abused, and it became clear this was a generational problem of sexual violence, but little was being done about it. 

After the memories came back, Lauren created space from her family.

In time, her physical and psychological symptoms came into focus, and she learned the abuse resulted in Complex PTSD: a developmental form of trauma. People who have it were trapped in states of violence for extended periods of time. The brain has a hard time processing trauma, and in Lauren’s case, it stopped moving her traumatic memories from her short-term memory into her long-term memory, so her brain continued sending signals that she’s in danger. 

She explained that emotional triggers aren’t always caused by encountering stimuli that mirror sexual abuse. Sometimes all it takes is someone looking at her the wrong way or being afraid of making a mistake. 

“I have really strong emotional reactions to everything, and understanding why I have those reactions helps me be compassionate with myself,” she said, “And it’s empowering. My brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do to survive, so instead of thinking I have a mental illness, it’s like, no, I have a lot of mental strength. My brain has survived a lot, and these triggers are just the brain communicating to me that something is wrong.”

For the past roughly 10 years, Lauren has been learning how to heal with acupuncture; herbal remedies; dietary changes; exercise; and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a form of therapy that, simply put, helps people reteach themselves how they think and feel about a traumatic experience. 

Lauren went on to work in interior design but was in the midst of a career change when the #MeToo movement caught fire in October 2017.

“In rape recovery, there are so many narratives about how it’s going to take your whole life to recover, and I think the reason for that is because we’re all journaling alone in our closets,” she said. “Although journaling is an effective tool, it’s not nearly as effective as sharing openly about what happened.”

She wanted to share her recovery experience with survivors to give them hope that healing was possible, so she started Blue & Lavender as a blog and began connecting with other survivors. In October 2018, while moving to Washington for a fresh start, she built Blue & Lavender into a trauma recovery collective. 

It became a platform where she and other trauma survivors could share their stories, learn about resources, and connect with each other on a digital platform. Although resources are available to rape survivors, many cater to recent victims. Lauren wanted to create a space that could also help people suffering from decades-old trauma. She didn’t realize how many needed this kind of outlet and form of support until she was there to offer it.  

A couple months ago, however, Lauren went to a retreat for female childhood sexual assault survivors, and the organization was everything she wanted Blue & Lavender to be. That experience felt like permission to close her organization and allow herself to build a life outside of her trauma. 

While being photographed for this story on a sunny day in July, Lauren waited on a bench by Heritage Hall in Kirkland and noticed a plaque that read, “Honor your past,” and felt it was the perfect way to find closure. She’ll never get an apology from her perpetrators, so she had to create it for herself. Lauren encourages all survivors to seek healing, no matter where they’re starting from. She hopes every survivor can reclaim their story. 

“A part of my truth is that I’m an incest survivor, but the truth of who I am is so much bigger than that,” she said. “I’m looking forward to learning more about that truth now.”

Sexual Assault Resources:

RAINN, rainn.org

National Sexual Violence Resource Center, nsvrc.org

The Younique Foundation, youniquefoundation.org

Men Can Stop Rape, mencanstoprape.org

You can reach out to Anne Lauren at anne.m.lauren@gmail.com.

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is an assistant editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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