Millennial Life, September 2016

Abby Ter Haar Understands the Importance of Engaging In the Broader Global Conversation

by Trapper S. Kinchen
Ter Haar visiting Amer Fort in Jaipur, India.
Ter Haar visiting Amer Fort in Jaipur, India.

Millennials have the power to change the world. But like pebbles on a beach, we sometimes lie motionless while the tide of life knocks us back and forth. When that happens, our trepidation and self-consciousness render us helpless, and we begin to feel incapable.

It is only when we reconcile our faith with our shortcomings that we can reach beyond ourselves and make a difference in other people’s lives. However, that is not always easy. Life is a steady stream of potential letdowns and obstacles, and it takes faith and tenacity to tackle the hurdles head on.

Abby Ter Haar is a typical millennial. She jogs for fun, has ambitions of attending graduate school and is busy trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. But, beneath that veneer of normalcy bubbles the spirit of a woman set on making a difference.

Ter Haar is one of 7 million Americans and 147 million people worldwide who suffers from alopecia areata — an autoimmune skin disease that results in varying degrees of permanent baldness. For 17 years, she has lived without a single strand of hair on her body. According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF), the disease’s trigger is unknown, and there is no effective treatment to combat its symptoms.

Ter Haar has lobbied congress alongside the NAAF to help increase awareness and funding for alopecia research since she was 8 years old. Despite the challenges of her disease, she has taken up the mantle of activism and steered clear of bitterness. “I can see how God used [alopecia]. I wouldn’t be the person I am if it hadn’t happened to me,” she said.

Hair loss can be emotionally crippling for alopecia suffers. They sometimes become reclusive and detached from their careers, friends and families. For those people, having a wig to wear often means the difference between psychological healing and emotional collapse.

However, wigs are not always easily accessible. “Wigs are super expensive. They can be thousands of dollars and only last for two to three years. One of the things we’re lobbying for is Medicaid funding for wigs,” Ter Haar said.

1570Meanwhile, some people with alopecia quickly come to terms with their hairlessness and do not feel the need to hide it. Ter Haar only started wearing a wig when she was 19, and even then it was a spur of the moment decision.

Ter Haar admitted she partly started wearing a wig because of the social pressures she faced in college. “It hasn’t always been easy. I struggled a lot. It’s important that people realize that. There were days when I couldn’t go to class because I was crying,” she said.

She studied at Texas Christian University — a campus with less than 10,000 students — and occasionally her schoolmates made cursory judgments based on her appearance. It was entirely different from her experience in high school, where everyone understood and accepted her disease. “College was the first time I really noticed people treating me differently because I looked different,” she said.

Now a college graduate, Ter Haar takes life as it comes. Some days she is fully confident. Others, she needs a little self-motivation to get going. “Everyday can be different. Sometimes you feel totally fine, but sometimes you can feel awkward,” Ter haar explained.

Ter Haar is a poised woman whose outward beauty is enhanced by her bubbly personality and energetic charm. Nevertheless, it has not always been easy to reconcile her alopecia with self-assurance. “It’s taken me a long time to get here. I’ve had to make my own way,” she said.

Her advice for someone facing an obstacle, physical or otherwise, is to keep your eyes on the bigger picture. “If you have to go through things like that, face adversity of any kind, you’re a stronger person when you grow up,” she said. “You don’t see it when you’re 12, but as you grow you’ll realize you’re more resilient and can handle bigger problems.”

Ter Haar lobbying for alopecia funding on Capitol Hill.
Ter Haar lobbying for alopecia funding on Capitol Hill.

Ter Haar’s alopecia helped foster her unique strength and confidence, and it helped her realize the importance of giving back. During her last year of college, she wound up going to India to teach English at an all-girls school. There she was faced with a patchwork of complex cultural hurdles, which she navigated bravely.

With only a basic understanding of the local language and Indian social norms, she tried to have a positive impact on her students’ lives. Ter Haar has a passion for women’s rights, and India became a place where she could actively engage in discussions about international public health. “There are a lot of issues for women in India. For example, there’s a huge sex-selection abortion problem,” she explained.

While abroad, Ter Haar spent her time working hard to effect positive social change. Part of her effort was based on empowering local girls and women to take advantage of the new opportunities slowly becoming available to them. “We made this really cool video for International Women’s Day. It was a great conversation to start. That was probably my favorite thing we did,” she said.

She was always sensitive to the social nuances that separated Indian culture from her American point of view. Ter Haar focused on encouraging kids to think about the world differently, and helped them consider fresh perspectives. She never told people what to believe, only encouraged them to engage in the broader global conversation.

It has been a few years since Ter Haar last lived abroad. Since then, she has worked on bringing awareness to disenfranchised groups, volunteered for nonprofits and focused on building her skill set. After Labor Day, she will be heading back to India for 10 months.

Ter Haar said she looks forward to taking part in the dynamic progress sweeping Southern Asia. Indian millennials are actively working to better their communities, despite facing powerful financial and social barriers. Many of them come from extraordinarily poor socio-economic backgrounds but manage to start some of the world’s most innovative nonprofit organizations. “It’s really inspiring. Things are changing so quickly,” Ter Haar said.

Ter Haar with her students at Lady Irwin Senior Secondary School in New Delhi, India.
Ter Haar with her students at Lady Irwin Senior Secondary
School in New Delhi, India.

It is increasingly important to make an effort to explore the world around us, even if that means simply interacting with people from a different part of our city, parish or state. “Getting outside our own comfort zone is really important, because it helps us understand ourselves better,” she said.

Now more than ever, we need to engage with one another. Most of the social antagonism battering the globe is the direct result of individual complacency. “Especially in the current political environment, a lot of the conflict comes from us just not getting out of our personal bubbles,” Ter Haar explained.

Volunteering is a brilliant place to start if you are interested in reaching out to your community. For those looking to have a positive impact, Ter Haar suggests doing some research on local charitable organizations. “There are a lot of great nonprofits that work in Baton Rouge,” she added.

For Ter Haar, charity work is not about receiving recognition or praise. Her philanthropy is based on meeting people exactly where they are and loving them. “If we remember how Jesus treated people, it makes it easier to want to work with everyone and see their point of view,” she said.

As the surge of life’s difficulties rolls over us, we must strengthen ourselves with resolve, stand firm in the midst of the fray and press forward. God has supplied us with the power to overcome every challenge, but we have to be willing to use it. He has called us to reach beyond ourselves and engage with the world around us – all we have to do is embrace our potential and put it to use.