Mom always said don't talk to strangers. But what if mom was wrong?
That's what Eustis artist and photographer Kristen Wheeler is about to find out when she embarks on a trip to West Africa with a movement called I Talk to Strangers. It's a concept that provokes lots of questions.
"Well, talking to people I don't know, in Ghana of all places," Wheeler replies.
Wheeler was shocked to find out she had won a contest spearheaded by Titusville entrepreneur Robbie Stokes Jr., the brainchild behind I Talk to Strangers. The movement seeks to inspire people to talk to each other face to face. The prize is an all expense paid trip to Ghana with Stokes.
"I saw the name of his movement and his website 'I Talk to Strangers' and I thought how interesting." said Wheeler. "And from the very beginning I kind of knew that that's what I was supposed to do."
Wheeler, who traveled to Burkina Faso in 2009 on a mission, knew a second trip to Africa could be life changing. Her first trip left a deep impression. From a missionary's grandson to a little girl with a cleft palate.
The girl has been shunned by the community, but befriended by Wheeler's group. They gave her a lollipop. She was cautious at first.
"But then she had this huge smile on her face even with the cleft palate and all her teeth showing," Wheeler recalled. "That really impacted me because it was her that I started drawing again. I took that back to the mission house and I drew her off of my camera. I drew her picture."
These strangers inspired Wheeler to enter Stokes' contest at the very last minute, expressing how strangers have changed her life in a documentary style video. She explained how it affected her business and her art. Stokes chose Wheeler's video from dozens submitted worldwide because, he said, it struck a nerve with him.
"Kristen submitted her video and I was completely moved by both her artistic vision and her genuine curiosity of wanting not to just be a part of the movement but wanting to go to Ghana and experience and really take back all the beauties and the treasures of the country, said Stokes.
Stokes said that people are so impressed with his mission, they give donations and buy his T-shirts to help support him. The trip to Ghana is sponsored by a landowner who is putting the pair up, free of charge.
"He's trying to change the focus from judging people when you first meet them or when you first see them from 'Oh he is a stranger to me, I don't want to talk to them. I don't want to have anything to do with them,' to changing that and finding common ground," Wheeler said.
The two, who have never met, will embark on the trip of a lifetime in March and be strangers no more.
On the web: http://www.italktostrangers.com