Awareness, Empathy, and Action: Turning a Decade Old Lesson into Reality

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How do you translate your travel experiences into something meaningful for those that aren’t on the road with you? Stormy Sweitzer drew on two powerful experiences to write an inspiring adventure book for young adults.

Here’s her story:

It was 1988 and I was mortified. I was on a tour of Soviet Eastern Europe and I had just seen my grandmother sneak food from a hotel buffet, wrap it in a cloth napkin and tuck it into her purse. But I will never forget the moment when I later looked to where she had just been “checking something out” and saw a man in a worn suit pick the familiar-looking napkin up off a ledge, open it, and eat the food she’d purloined.

She hadn’t been saving it to eat later; she was using the resources available to her to help a stranger in need. This was the greatest lesson I have ever had in the importance of awareness, empathy and action. This one experience led me to study abroad in both high school and college, and then join the Peace Corps after. This philosophy of awareness leading to empathy leading to action was slowly permeating every aspect of my life.  

Fast-forward to the present and another single experience changed the course of my life.

This time I was in South Africa shark-viewing with my husband, Will, and our friends. I was not OK with the idea of attracting sharks to the boat and I’m also not a fan of open water. But I had two choices: sit in the boat and watch fins break the surface, or suit up and jump into the cage where I could see the sharks under the water. So I suited up and positioned myself as far to the side of the cage as possible, where I’d seen the sharks swim around the boat.

Great White

Getting out of your comfort zone can lead to new awareness.

Within minutes a 14-foot great white nicknamed Bullet came into sight. I ducked underwater just in time. He swam so close that I saw his every tooth, gill, and scar. He swam by a few more times and I held my breath longer than I ever have just so the moment wouldn’t end.

In spite of my fear of the water and my conflicted feelings around disturbing the sharks, seeing this beautiful creature up close and personal in its natural habitat was one of the most awesome experiences of my life. I had never had any interest in sharks, but seeing Bullet changed all that.


Empathy leads to action.

For years Will and I had talked vaguely about writing a young adult novel. We had also read about the international shark fin trade and the issues behind why the trade exists. But our experience that day with the sharks made the statistics personal and brought our idea for a novel into sharp focus.

From there we dove (pun intended) into researching finning and the exotic animal trade. We versed ourselves in how the laws work (or don’t work), the drivers behind why the trade exists in the first place (cultural beliefs, financial gain, lack of jobs in poor communities, etc.), and then figured out how to communicate all of this in a story that kids would want to read.

The result is a young adult novel series called The Series Rouge Adventures. Our first book, The Drowning Shark, is based in South Africa and focuses on shark finning which inhumanely claims the lives of an estimated 100 million sharks each year. One of our readers called it a Jane Bondesque environmental spy thriller. We draw heavily on our own travel experiences to create curiosity about complex global issues in a way that hopefully inspires young people with a sense of adventure, empathy, and a desire to take action.


Once we had seen these beautiful sharks, it was impossible to close our eyes to the problems and injustices that still exist. It also made us question our role in perpetuating those problems. Since then our travels have been influenced by a desire to learn more about the exotic animal trade. We’re also interested in the role that economics plays both locally and internationally, the effects of corruption, and why good people do things that seem so out of character.

Much like my grandma that day in Eastern Europe, I’m simply using the resources available to contribute to the solution.

Learn more about Stormy on her website Me’tik Ventures, and follow her on Twitter.


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