Maria Atkinson is an award-winning, missionary photojournalist who has worked for various non-profit organizations in the United States, Lesotho, South Africa and Haiti. These efforts have fought the injustices of human trafficking, given a home to the orphaned, and brought aid to those living in extreme poverty.
In conversation about her life and how she defines mindfulness, Maria candidly speaks about her passion projects, her mission to bring restoration, healing and empowerment to young women in Haiti and her next steps post graduate school.
Thanks for joining us, Maria. First, I’d love for you to tell us a little bit of your background, and how you ended up living in Miami.
First, thank you for allowing me to be a part of this project with such an ethical and beautiful brand as ILERA. Truly honored! It’s funny when people ask me where I’m from because I’m kind of from all over! I was born in Virginia Beach, VA and my family moved around before ending up in Oklahoma City, OK in 1999 when I was eleven. That’s where I more or less “grew up” as I lived there for fourteen years. After college I knew I wanted to work internationally and after traveling to Europe and Africa, I landed a job in Haiti in 2013 where I would spend the next five years. I ended up founding an organization called Jasper House Haiti in 2015 as a transition home and education center for women who have been identified as survivors of abuse, violence and exploitation. However, over the past two years I realized the sheer necessity for an increase in mental health awareness and understanding so I began pursuing graduate school. Fast forward to 2018 and I moved to Miami, Florida to attend Barry University getting my masters in clinical social work. I plan to stay in Miami upon graduation and work as a therapist while still providing education and resources for my staff in Haiti.
What are the habits you have curated to maintain a healthy lifestyle?
In 2012, I first discovered essential oils and the severity of the toxins we put in our bodies daily. I began pursuing a non-toxic life by incorporating natural, organic products from cosmetics to deodorant, shampoo, soaps, cleaning supplies and even the food I eat. Today my lifestyle is one that is based around health and wellness in every aspect including mind, body, and spirit. Yoga, communing with nature and taking time for soul practices such as reading and journaling are all a part of my daily and weekly routines.
What are a few of the major lessons you learned while living abroad, in Haiti?
If there’s anything I learned it’s the importance of cultural humility. As an outsider there was so much I had to learn while living amongst a culture and communities so different from my own. I had to humble myself and realize that building relationships and allowing the people around me to teach me was far more important than any personal agenda I had. Flexibility was another major lesson. Life, especially abroad on an island that does not move on North American time, taught me to go with the flow and take life as it comes. Things will rarely go as planned and it’s important to be flexible and roll with the punches that life tends to throw.
What pieces of your mother’s culture have you found infiltrated into your life?
My mother is Puerto Rican and that heritage has encompassed my life through music, dance, and food! I grew up eating rice and beans and plantains, dancing to Spanish music and watching telenovelas with my mom. Spanish culture embodies family and a sense of closeness and belonging, as well as how to be a strong, independent woman. All of these values have deeply shaped me into the woman I am today.
When did you find yoga? How has it changed you?
I took my very first yoga class in 2011, however, I did not begin to incorporate it into my life until 2013. Yoga has been so influential in helping me become not only a more grounded and centered person, but it has helped me overcome some very dark times in my life when I struggled with major anxiety. Yoga has helped me channel an inner strength that was drowned out by distractions and noise.
Where do you find inspiration?
Oh goodness, what a question! I am inspired by so many things. But firstly I’d have to say I am ironically inspired by need. When I see ways that my gifts and abilities can help others I’m inspired to action, I’m inspired to write, and I’m inspired to encourage and speak into their lives. I’m inspired by passionate people who are using their lives to truly make an impact. People who I can look up to who motivate me to strive to be all I can be.
What do you do to stay mindful and focused in your daily life?
Yoga, deep breathing exercises, walks with my dog, journaling, going to the beach. To name a few.
What is one thing you did as a child that you would love to find your way back to?
I used to write creatively all the time. I would think up short stories, or even ideas for novels and create these beautiful and imaginative worlds I would translate onto paper. Writing is actually my very first passion and one I want to give more time and energy to.
What is one piece of advice you would like to share with our community?
Stay true to yourself. In this world there’s some much homogenization of culture and people are losing that true sense of identity and individuality. There are so many things that make you uniquely you. It’s beautiful and attractive to confidently stand out as a person of confidence with a sure sense of self.
How do you define beauty?
Sincerity. Raw. Pure. Natural. Kindness. Laughter. Wisdom. Generosity, and truly loving others. Beauty is what you carry in your soul, which reflects outwardly. Anyone can be attractive, but true beauty radiates from within.
What products do you use in your everyday skincare regimen?
Lately, I’ve been using ILERA's detoxifying face wash as my cleanser and I am loving it! Moisturizing is essential for skin care. I prefer organic, natural oils such as coconut or moringa over creams and lotions.
How can people learn more about what you’re doing?
Facebook: Jasper House Haiti