This article and interview first appeared in the July issue of Little Black Dress Group's GLOSS Magazine.
There are occasions in our lives when we have the good fortune of meeting people who are genuinely making a difference in the world, every day, without attention, accolade or reward. Sadly, those occasions are all too rare but when they do happen it is quite simply a privilege. When I deployed to East Timor in late 1999 on a humanitarian mission for CARE Australia, I met an incredibly humble, quietly spoken, hard-working, ridiculously smart Canadian nutrition specialist who had devoted her life to changing the lives of others. So, when I learned that this issue of GLOSS was to be all about ‘Game changers’, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to introduce you to a great friend of mine and real-time game changer, and there’s no better way for you to get to know her better than in her own words.
So, ladies and gentlemen, please meet Allison Tuffs.
CA: Hi Allison, tell us all about yourself.
AT: Well, I am a wife, a mother of three, a blogger, health and lifestyle coach, health enthusiast and a lover of travel. I’m from small town Regina, Saskatchewan where I was born and raised. I have a Bachelor and Masters of Science in Nutrition, an MBA from Herriot Watt and a certification in health coaching. I currently live in South Lebanon with my husband, family and two cats!
I grew up in Canada and lived a very conventional upbringing. My parents were homebodies and our holidays included camping and the odd visit to California to visit my mother’s family. I got the travel bug in my first year of University. My boyfriend, at the time, was travelling and he’d send me letters describing the most amazing places. I remember one photo from Morocco where he had a Monkey on his head. This sparked my intrigue and I just wanted to travel to see what he was seeing.
At that time, I was in Uni studying to be a Pharmacist. I was also studying Spanish as my elective. With the desire to travel and broaden my language skills, Spain was in my dream sights, but it was off the charts expensive and way out of my price range. But then, one day I saw a sign on a wall at university that said “study and learn Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala for 100 USD/week.” I ripped that sign off the wall and headed straight for the campus travel center!
I spent my summer in Guatemala and it changed my life. When I returned home I changed my study from pharmacy to nutrition. I wanted change the world through education and access to food and water. That summer had opened my eyes to a way of living that was diametrically opposite to anything I’d seen before. Cook once, eat twice or thrice, no refrigeration, little to no meat, beans galore, and stomach bugs from drinking dirty water and from eating vegetables washed in dirty water.
After graduation I moved on to grad school where my study took me to Indonesia to explore the cultural determinates of food choice and other behaviors in pregnant and lactating women. My research found that culture had a larger impact on food choice than health representatives. Amazingly, when food and medicines were given many women chose not to take them because of their values and belief systems.
From grad school, I landed a job with CARE Canada in East Kalimantan. Massive forest fires had destroyed crops and CARE ran a program to provide food and micronutrient supplementation to malnourished children. I was responsible for coordinating a survey of the nutritional status of children, liaising with the local government to provide aid and to follow the children post intervention to measure the impact of the program.
From there, I went on to work in East Timor, West Timor and Afghanistan carrying out nutrition assessments and implementing vulnerable feeding programs. I met my now husband, Vic, during this time and in the interests of protecting our relationship, I moved from working directly with vulnerable populations into providing logistic support for the UN Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor. Over the next 12 years I managed UN service and support contracts for food, fuel, water and support supplies in various countries. I’ve worked in many parts of the world from Sudan, Italy, Eqypt, New York, and most recently to Lebanon where we currently live. I’ve had amazing experiences.
CA: So, Lebanon. Why Lebanon?
AT: Why Lebanon? We moved here from Sudan where my husband and I both worked with the UN. The kids and I were in Khartoum and he was in Darfur. When we came to Lebanon it was to try to bring the family back together, which was not possible in Sudan. It took a few months, but in May of 2007 we were finally all living under one roof again. At the time our eldest was 4.
CA: Clearly you've followed a less than ordinary way of life and have pursued what many would consider to be a highly stressful and dangerous career path. Is it sustainable?
AT: I guess it’s been an unusual life, but it’s a life that fit my bill. Helping others, travelling the world, living in different cultures and being exposed to different languages. For me this life has been a dream come true. Sure, there has been stress. The kids and I have been evacuated due to fighting, airports have been closed, but dealing with car bombs, rocket launches and a strong military presence have become constants within our way of life.
I don’t consider it dangerous, yes there are risks but risks are a part of life. In my mind, we’re not special, all people have the right to live a life of freedom, be that access to a safe food and water supply or safety to send kids off to school. For some, this life is their reality. We’re lucky. As foreigners, if things get too hot we have an exit strategy. So, no I don’t feel it’s too dangerous.
Is this kind of life sustainable? In my opinion, yes, if you don’t have kids or you’re willing to send your children off to boarding school once they hit a certain age. When the kids were young it was about offering them an incredible life experience. However, as they’ve aged education becomes more important and it’s about making sure they have growth opportunities to become the best people they can be and have sufficient opportunities to determine their own paths.
CA: What is one event that changed the way you look at life?
AT: After two years in Lebanon we welcomed a new baby to our family. Life was good, we were together, we were doing meaningful work, and life was sailing along. Until, it wasn’t.
Almost 5 months after our daughter, Kateryna, joined our family she left us to be carried in our heart. Her death took our lives down a different path. I’d gone from looking to expand my career to honing in on what was most important to me – my family. Strangely, prior to Kat’s death I was happy but had never given enough attention to what was truly important to me. After her death, it was front and center in my mind. Losing a child to a heart problem made me extra motivated to provide an environment where the kids could thrive and have the best health possible. Spending time with my children and family and providing healthy nutritious meals suddenly became my focus. Plus, I was facing my own set of health issues related to stress and grief.
CA: So, what's next?
AT: When the kids were younger they were more oblivious to the conflicts. But now, the kids are aware of the subtleties of life like - why the shutters at the school are being closed, or why they’re not allowed to go out at recess, or why the roadblocks and security checks are backed up. This awareness is a stress for them. They’ve had a wonderful life. Their time in East Timor, Sudan and Lebanon has been very positive, but the time comes in life when change is required. It’s time to leave the happy fire behind. ‘Happy fire’ is a cultural norm and occurs in response to mourning the loss of a loved one or celebrating joyous events - like Germany winning their world cup game last night .
We’re moving on, though we’re not sure to where. Canada or Australia are on the cards. I’ve retired from the UN now and have come full circle in my career back to my nutrition roots and health coaching. I’ve lived life to the fullest. I’ve soared at the top of my game (UN Career), climbed out from the depths of loss and grief, and created a happy and healthy life for my family and myself.
As we transition our lives and my career, to have more time with the kids, and give them new opportunities, I remain true to my values of wanting to help others have access to food and knowledge. In doing so my blog ‘Up Your Energy’ offers health education and tools for overcoming life’s challenges and this, combined with my coaching and guidance, helps my clients to live energized lives where they are healthy and happy and free of lifestyle related disease.
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Chris is a contributing editor of GLOSS Magazine.