Alumni Spotlight: Jill Grossman
Jill Grossman is an incredible alumni that embodies exactly what being a CCS Volunteer is about. Through her volunteer trip to Tanzania, Jill was deeply impacted by what she saw. Being exposed to such a different culture and having the opportunity to work with underserved populations sparked something within her. Following her CCS trip, she began researching how she could continue to make an impact, and worked to receive her Master’s in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and went on to work for an African Non-Profit. Her life took a turn soon as she was unfortunately diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis following a seizure in New York City. She did not let this stop her desire to help the world. After three years in remission, Jill has rounded up a group of supporters to go back to the place where she first volunteered with CCS, Tanzania, to hike Mount Kilimanjaro and raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society. We caught up with Jill to hear her story and see how it’s shaped her.
Tell me about your trip to Tanzania
Before I went to Tanzania, I had a very limited scope of what Africa was like. I sort of pictured the National Geographics, “save-the-children,” image of Africa. When I arrived in Bagamoyo, I realized how wrong I was. I was taken back by how truly beautiful and diverse the culture was. The CCS Home-Base is located on the Indian Ocean and it’s the perfect spot to watch gorgeous sunrises and reflect on the volunteer experience. Bagamoyo quickly became one of my favorite places in the world.
What was your Volunteer Experience with CCS like?
For my undergraduate degree, I studied education. This came into play with my volunteer abroad experience. My assignment was a Primary school. I was responsible for assisting to restructure the curriculum at the school, and I helped to make the classroom model more engaging for students. It was incredible because I got the opportunity to use the skills that I learned in my degree in such a meaningful way.
How did you grow from your experience?
This experience definitely opened me up to traveling by myself anywhere. It gave me the confidence to travel alone, and be more open to the world. It made me aware that I can explore and make friends wherever I go. It was also eye-opening in that it made me realize that I never wanted to teach in American classroom again. Being exposed to the different classroom environment in Tanzania, it showed how politics and bureaucracy really take a toll on American classrooms. In Bagamoyo, it was all about the pure teacher-student interaction which is the way that it should be.
What was your next step after volunteering?
After volunteering abroad, I was incredibly impacted by what I saw. I immediately picked up an additional degree in sociology with an emphasis in community development. I finished up with a double major in education and sociology. I was so inspired by the people that I came across, particularly a parent who resettled in Tanzania after the Rwandan genocide, that I went to Grad School for a degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. After my experience, I always wanted to end up back in Africa. I ended up working for an African Non-profit based in the United States and continued to study ways that I could make a difference. I moved to New York to study Global Development and Public Health at Columbia University. Four weeks after finishing that program, I had a seizure on the number 1 train in New York City. Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
What struggles did you face after being diagnosed with MS?
MS is a progressive neurological autoimmune disease that affects your brain and central nervous system. They call the type I have relapse remitting. A relapse is simply a flare of symptoms and new lesions in, and in my case, on the brain. Most of the time the relapse will subside and you will regain whatever function you lost, but never full. Two steps forward, one step back. It is also incurable. Since my first seizure, I’ve also been diagnosed bipolar as a byproduct of my MS. At the worst, I lost feeling in about 80% of my body. I woke up and couldn't feel anything. It was like someone shot me full of novocaine. At first, it was frightening, but it pushed me to be the exception and not the rule.
The diagnosis has changed the career path that I originally dreamt of. I am required to undergo a monthly chemotherapy infusion that isn’t available in many parts of the world, so I have to travel in limited time frames. Africa was no longer a possibility. But I’ve never been one to take “no” very well. In Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy I worked to regain what I had lost. While in recovery, I remembered a pact that I made with other CCS volunteers back in Bagamoyo, where my journey started. I made a pact there, with myself, that if I could get it back, and get to remission (unlike other diseases, remission refers to a stable or dormant period of time rather than a cure), I was going back and following through. There it became my mission to overcome this mountain, get back into shape and climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Despite everything, I always maintained my goal-oriented vision and focused on trying to conquer my obstacles. The struggles I faced just pushed me further to conquer my own mountains, and help others.
Tell me about MS Versus the Mountain
On January 8th, 2018, my team of four friends and I will be returning to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as a celebration of remission and my accomplishments; that I have MS but MS does not have me. We are raising money with a goal of $50,000 to donate to the National MS Society. I have so many supportive people around me that I could not embark on this journey without. There are so many people who are diagnosed with MS that need assistance and as many resources as they can get. There was a point where I needed them too. That’s why we’re donating all funds raised to the National MS Society, and showing the world that you can overcome any obstacles that you face.
After the climb, I’ll even get to visit with some former CCS staffers who now live in Moshi and Arusha.
Do you have any last words of inspiration?
Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Trust in your support groups and most importantly, yourself. Know that there are others that care about you and you have the ability overcome the mountains that you face in your life. Hazina Safari (“treasure the journey” in Kiswahilli).
“I climb because I can. I climb for all of those who can't. I climb for myself. I climb for a cure, not just for MS but for all Autoimmune Diseases.”
Jill will be embarking on her climb on January 8th, 2018. If you wish to support Jill and the MS Society, please visit https://msvsthemountain.com before February 1st, 2018 to find out more information and follow the journey on Twitter @hazinasafari