Mother-Daughter Activist Duo Discover That Life is a Journey of Passion and Purpose
After discovering that her 9-year-old daughter Hudsyn was unhappy attending traditional school and that her “spirit was melting,” Erin Toppenberg decided to offer her daughter home-based ‘lifeschool,” the ability to choose how and what she learns based on what is in her heart. Through their non-profit organization, The Waterbearers, the mother-daughter activists take humanitarian journies and travel the world, raising and funds and awareness for people who do not have access to clean drinking water.
Hudsyn: I was born into a family of activists, both my mom and dad try to make a positive difference in the world through various charities. I had to find what I was really passionate about and then I found the causes I’ve adopted, such as clean water. After going on a trip with my mom and seeing first hand the dirty water that others have and how it was getting them sick, I wanted to work in this field, also, and make others aware of this issue. I used to think everyone was able to go to their faucets, turn it on and have safe water. Now I know that hundreds of millions of people do not live like this. I believe that having clean water is not only an important part of life but also a human right. Knowing about this has led me to learn about the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, which has lead to me finding other things I’m passionate about, such as civil rights.
Erin: When Hudsyn told me that her spirit was melting in school. I knew that I needed to make a change for her, as I felt the depth and truth of her words deep within my own spirit. However, what alternative schooling options were available? Private school? That did not seem like a fit. Homeschooling? I did not think that I was qualified to be her teacher, nor did I want that role, I wanted to be her mother! I knew that I could not in good conscience send her back into third grade at 8 a.m. every morning and pick her up at 3 p.m. knowing that she was ‘melting” on a soul level, but the leap was big for me as to what the next right move would be. Nonetheless, I knew in my heart the right move was to jump into the unknown for all of us, a complete leap of faith!
Hudsyn: Politics aside, If you want to get involved in activism, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. As a family, you should follow your heart and find what you are passionate about. The things that you naturally care about can inform your giving and activism. You can start to learn more about topics and issues that are close to your heart by researching them and looking for ways to get involved. My mom has taught me it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you give, and it doesn’t always have to be big things that you are doing or giving. I went around my neighborhood and put up signs about SeaWorld after watching the documentary Blackfish. It didn’t cost much; all I did was write something and tape it to a post. Activism doesn’t mean going to Washington D.C. to protest; it can be a small act that is impactful. Activism is literally my school every day, and I love it!
3. Your family made the decision to pull Hudsyn out of traditional school and opt for a new form of learning that you call “lifeschool.” How did that come to be? How do you define “lifeschool” and what do you think other families can learn from your experience?
Erin: This was indeed a big leap, considering that I had only known going from grade to grade as a child, aspiring to be in National Honor’s Society and beyond. As a child, I remember my parents were all too proud of my academic success and that was always the first thing they would share about me, like, “Did you know that Erin has straight A’s?” I thought, like everyone else, that you go from elementary to middle to high school, and then eventually college and off to get a job and get married, and if you had good grades, your journey was somehow more shiny and secure than others. I was comfortable with this path as it is the road we all take or perhaps better known as the road of least resistance. To jump ship at third grade was definitely a crazy leap of faith to me internally and to my family.
As it turns out my friend (also named Erin) who was a teacher was back in town from Thailand where she had started a school 10 years ago. We happened to have a planned meet-up around this existential crisis time for my family. After sharing what Hudysn was going through, she agreed to help us set up a homeschool learning environment for Hudsyn as she would be home for a few months before going back to Thailand. What blossomed was something I recognized very quickly as a truly amazing and inspirational environment of learning! Hudsyn was not only happier and devouring information but her heart and spirit were returning to vibrant colors. Hudsyn was always a smart kid, beyond expectations in school. She was not a kid who was behind who didn’t like school because she didn’t understand concepts. She wanted to learn about things she cared about, like why others did not have access to clean water. Once she was free to learn. After listening to the voice of her heart, she went after her passions of human rights, paleontology, history, writing, and drawing. Coming home and seeing her outside reading and creating under a tree was both my indicator of her wellbeing and her thriving spirit (the laughter also helped!). She was free to learn, not shackled by a system that needed her to fit into a certain profile and achieve a certain test score.
Pretty soon the, what we call, the pillars of “lifeschool” evolved with Erin’s help as they began to refine what it was that was happening under the oak tree, and how it could guide us all forward. The concept and keys of “meeting with experts” and “feet on the ground” has been a game-changer in terms of how this life school learning path has been unfolding and how learning takes place. To know that you can reach out thoughtfully to someone whom you admire or know has wisdom and insights on things you care about is so empowering. To realize that there is value in everyone’s story and how bearing witness to others is such a powerful way to connect. She has been able to meet incredible people and hear their insights and take those in to inform her and others. She learns project management–because each request for a meeting takes research–preparation, and planning. To be able to travel with me more on clean water projects and to know the value in helping others, and receiving from them things not taught and understood through pages in a book, but by looking in another’s eyes and hearing their stories so you may share their voice and needs. These are all skills I wish I had been taught at an earlier age! I see the value now so vividly in letting Hudsyn be the leader of her education while giving her a real-life context.
Hudsyn: ‘Lifeschool’ came to be after I went on a clean water trip with my mom. I got back and I felt like my teacher just kept giving me the school work I missed. It was like the work I did on the trip wasn’t important and that school work was the only thing of any value. I talked to my parents, and they seemed okay with the idea of me having a different learning experience. And that’s how ‘Lifeschool’ came to be. Lifeschool includes going to a creative academy two days a week, learning music, video and photoshop skills, and having a teacher come to my house. We created four keys to lifeschool, which help guide my education. The keys are Meeting Experts, Feet on the Ground, Researching, and Taking Action. I know that not everyone can do exactly the same thing as I do, but families, no matter where, can sit down and talk about current events and human rights. Knowing about hardships that others face and wanting to help serve is really the spark that started Lifeschool.
4. The world we live in today requires more out-of-the-box thinkers like yourselves. How do you keep challenging yourself to think differently? How do you hope your family will continue to evolve on this journey?
Hudsyn: What I think we need are more people and families to follow their hearts and passions, and perhaps think less! Because I’m not in traditional school, I’m fortunate to be able to choose how I learn and what I learn based on what is in my heart. I watch a lot of Ted talks and documentaries about things I care about. I also like to keep up with current events. I have found some really cool key resources, one being Democracy Now! It is an organization that shares news stories, and interviews in short inspirational ways. I watch it regularly, and I highly recommend it. I think its good to learn from many different resources and people can be one of them. The first person I ever interviewed was Wes Clark, Jr. As someone who cares about clean water, I was keeping up with Standing Rock last year. I saw a video of Wes apologizing to the Native American elders for what our country had done to them. It really touched me, so we reached out to him to see if he would be open to speaking with me and he agreed to. Interviewing Wes led me to interview many more. It was a valuable experience, as I learned a lot from him.
5. Have these experiences and decisions brought your family closer? How so?
Erin: Life is a journey of freedom, expression and exploration. I don’t want my daughter to be anyone other than who she is meant to be. I feel as her mother, it is my job to provide fertile soil for her heart’s blueprint to reveal itself, not to provide a rigid path that is laid out. She is an old soul who has come in fully loaded and coded for her mission, as I believe all children are. She is not unique, but perhaps her unique life school journey is reminding us all (myself included ) that we are all destined for different fates and journeys and just how right that is. Freedom is the power to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. Through Hudsyn’s love and her spirit’s request, she has liberated that essence for our family in what this life and the learning journey can look like.
Hudsyn: Yes, I think that we have become a lot closer as a result of my alternative schooling. As a family, we talk about current events and issues a lot more, and I get to understand everyone in my family’s points of view on different topics. I spend more time with my Mom as I get to travel with her more. As a few examples, we’ve been to the United Nations twice, we went to see Maria Shriver and Gretchen Carlson speak, and we have taken four more clean water trips into the Amazon. I have flexibility to allow for me to be learning in the real world and not just in a classroom seven hours a day away from my parents. I know that not everyone can make these choices or trips, but I am so grateful my parents supported my choice to leave public school. I feel like my life is more enjoyable, authentic, and will be more impactful.
To learn more about The Waterbearers: go to thewaterbearers.org.
Erin and Hudsyn Toppenberg was honored as “Architects of Change of the Week” in the Mother’s Day edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.