Roasted Beet Mac n’ Cheese

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This creamy roasted beet mac n’ cheese is the perfect alternative to regular mac n’ cheese, and it adds a serving of healthy veggies to a normally decadent dish!

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I know the color of this pasta is absolutely crazy and a little off-putting. I mean, it’s pink. But I promise you, it’s only pink from the beets. No weird food coloring or fake additives. My friend so lovingly called it “pepto” pasta, but I promise, it tastes nothing like pepto. I would know, I’ve been straw-feeding myself that stuff for about 2 days now.

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I don’t know what happened, but I’ve had a horrible bug since yesterday. I’m praying it’s a 24 hour thing because I don’t have time to be bed-ridden. I’ve got a bunch of work to do today and we’re going to Charleston this weekend. I refuse to be sick in a place where the temperatures are above 75 degrees, there’s a beach and ready access to a boat. Plus there’s shrimp n’ grits to eat, gin to drink and Lily Pulitzer to buy.

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Everytime we go to Charleston, it gets harder and harder to leave. The warm weather, the beautiful architecture, the cobblestone streets and wispy willow trees. I feel like I’m in a Nicholas Sparks movie whenever I walk down King street. I’ve loved the city from my first visit in college. Luckily we visit 3 – 4 times a year, but that’s not enough. We need to move there. I need to have an old Charleston home with a beautiful porch on the side. I need to have a beach that I can drive to in 10 minutes time. I need to walk down the street and see men wearing bow-ties and hear the sweet sound of southern accents. When I close my eyes and think of my happy place, it’s almost always Charleston.

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This is why I can not be sick this weekend. So I’m powering through today by skipping any food that has flavor. Mmmmm, toast with seltzer water. Can’t wait! (Runs and cries into a blanket).

Roasted Beet Mac n’ Cheese

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CLICK HERE FOR THE PRINTABLE VERSION OF THIS RECIPE!

Serves about 8. Recipe adapted from Tablespoon.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2/3 pound rotini noodles
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 small-medium size beets
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 1 3/4 cup low-fat milk
  • 1/4 cup light cream
  • 1 cup part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • 3/4 cup part-skim cheddar cheese
  • Salt and pepper

Directions: 

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place the beets in a 9 x 13 glass dish and drizzle with olive oil. Bake for about 28 – 30 minutes, or until softened. Let cool slightly. With gloves on, peel the beets and chop into pieces. Place the beets into a food processor and pulse until pureed.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. Add the rotini and cook until al-dente, about 8 minutes. Rinse in cold water and set aside.
  3. In a large skillet, melt the butter. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 2 – 3 minutes. Add flour and cook about 2 minutes. Add the milk and cream and whisk until thickened, about 4 – 6 minutes. Add in salt, pepper and beet puree. Stir to combine. Remove from heat and stir in cheeses.

Nutritional information per serving:

Calories: 314.3
Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 26.2 grams
Fiber: 3 grams
Protein: 14.23 grams
Weight Watchers Points: 7

Reigniting the Spark

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Since returning from Thailand, I’ve been feeling like a fish out of water. I walk around like I’m a stranger in my house and hardly recognize the person staring back at me in the mirror. When I sit down to write, none of the words that pop up on the computer screen feel like mine. I’m exhausted and unmotivated. The passion I had on the trip has vanished. I’ve been thrown back into my normal life, back into the depths of the ocean and it’s like I’ve completely forgotten how to swim.

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I’m at this weird place in my life where I’m not sure what I actually do for a living or what I want to do for a living. I love to cook, but I’m not a chef. And to many people in this culinary world, not having a white jacket limits you from running a kitchen and having a successful restaurant. I’ve fallen in love with photography, but I don’t feel like a photographer. I write for a living, but it’s not the writing I set out to do when I studied fiction and poetry. If you add up the sum of my parts, you don’t get a clean and even number. It’s hard to really figure out who I am and who I want to be when I’m juggling three very different, very complicated personalities.

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It wasn’t always like that though. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a serious writer. That’s it. I wanted to live in small walk up in Brooklyn (before it was “cool” to do that) with long tapestries on the wall. I’d have an eccentric, sexually confused roommate with jet black hair who said things like “You can’t begin to appreciate the works of Kafka until you’ve read him in two languages,” as a cigarette dangled from her fingertips. I envisioned my days would be spent writing novels and poetry on a laptop with bumper stickers on the back of it as I sipped black coffee, overlooking the Manhattan skyline. My books would have deeply troubled, substance abusing protagonist, one who struggles to find her way in the cold, dark world. I never thought, in a million years, my late twenties would be spent writing about homemade Twinkies and the power of chia seeds.

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I don’t know what happened, but in the 4 years I’ve been professionally writing, I’ve completely lost my spark. But you already know that, I wrote a giant post about how I’m no longer a food writer. But, the ironic thing is, that’s the only writing I actually do anymore. I spent last night re-reading some of my earlier (ages 19 – 23) poetry, stories and papers and could hardly believe those powerful words came from me, the same person who just spent an hour writing out a recipe for homemade marshmallow fluff. I don’t know what upsets me more, that I stopped writing with so much passion or the scary fact that I don’t think I have any more of that raw passion left. I’ve become so complacent and comfortable in my food writing that I forgot how to write about anything else.

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And that’s not just bad for the girl in me who wants to be a writer of meaning, but it’s bad for the girl who dreams of moving to Paris for culinary school and owning a successful restaurant, too. In a way, when I lost my spark with writing, I lost my spark with cooking and baking as well. When I stopped pushing myself with my food writing, I also stopped pushing myself in the kitchen. I fell down a road of “what’s easier is better.” I stuck with the same ingredients, the same boring adjectives and adverbs. I quit writing down the crazy ideas that came to me and stuck with the ones I knew were quick and easy to make. I stopped trying to be creative and stuck with being “just okay.” I become a person who just goes through the motions of life and doesn’t actually live.

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What woke me up from my own self induced coma was my time in Asia. That’s why I wrote that post about change as soon as I got back. For the first time in months, I actually recognized the person staring back at me in the mirror. I actually felt like the person I used to be. I actually felt that spark that had since dulled to almost nothing. For the first time in months, I actually felt alive. And as quickly as it came back, it went away as soon I fell back into the dark hole I dug for myself before I left.

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I need to find a way to find my passion again. Even though I’d love to, I can’t afford to go on these epic trips every month just so I can feel alive again. Even if I could, that’s not an attainable lifestyle. I can’t run away and chase my wanderlust every time I feel like I’m sinking into a hole of depression and confusion here. I have to find a way to reignite my passion for food, for writing and for photography in my own backyard. I can’t just live for my trips, I have to live for me. If I really want to be a chef, I have to push myself in the kitchen again. I have to tackle recipes that scare the shit out of me and buy ingredients I’ve never used before. If I want to be a successful writer, I have to really write. I have to dig out all of those scary, raw emotions I’ve pushed down and bright them to light. I have to tell the stories I’ve been hiding from the world. I have to find those deep, dark feelings I had when I was younger and put them to good use.

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Photo by Kate Sioban Havercroft. 

And if I’m going to be a successful person, one whose happy in her own skin, her own marriage and her own mind, I have to be honest and responsible. I have to be vigilant in my quest to stay alive and make my dreams come true. Because what’s the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something incredibly remarkable?

Spicy Buffalo Steak, Ramen & Snap Pea Stir Fry

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This spicy buffalo steak, ramen & snap pea stir fry is a great one pot weeknight meal when you’re craving some Asian flavors!

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Buffalo steak is my jam. It’s probably the best thing to happen to my kitchen since homemade dinner rolls. I had it for the first time last year and I was blown away by how much flavor it had. Plus, a 3.5 ounce serving of buffalo steak has less than 5 grams of fat while the equivalent serving of regular beef has about 16. Plus, there are 100 less calories per serving in buffalo than beef. I’ve raved about buffalo before, in these amazing burgers, so it’s no surprise I’m lushing over it again.

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I’ve been craving Asian food since I got home from Thailand, which is funny because I was pretty over it when I was there. That is probably because I got sick almost every single day. I loved every second I was there, but I’ll be honest, the whole getting violently ill after every bite wasn’t as fun as the rest. That was the least fun 7 pounds I ever lost.

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But that’s not something you want to read about, right? Let’s talk about something far more appetizing, like this one-pan buffalo steak, ramen and snap pea stir fry. Yes, it can be made in just one pan. Which, given my aversion to doing any sort of dishes, is pretty freakin’ phenomenal.

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Not only is this easy to make, it has two of my very favorite ingredients, buffalo (but of course) and ramen noodles, sans the sodium filled packets of “seasoning.” I hope you know that I said that entire sentence in a Louisiana accent. I’m so uninspired to write today so the only excitement I can put into my words is a fake southern accent. Please, other writers, tell me this is very normal.

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I think I need a barrel more of coffee to get through the rest of this day. As you can tell by this ridiculously scattered and nonsense post.

Spicy Buffalo Steak, Ramen & Snap Pea Stir Fry

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CLICK HERE FOR THE PRINTABLE VERSION OF THIS RECIPE!

Serves about 4 -5. Recipe slightly adapted from My Recipes.
Prep time: About 10 minutes
Cook time: 10-15 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 2 blocks of ramen noodles, seasoning discarded
  • 1 pound buffalo sirloin steak
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound sugar snap peas
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped cashews
  • 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons crushed red pepper
  • 2/3 cup cilantro
  • Salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat the broiler to high. Lightly grease a grill pan with nonstick cooking spray. Liberally salt and pepper the steak on both sides. Place on the grill pan and broil for about 6 – 7 minutes on each side for a medium rare steak. Let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.
  2. Bring a pot of water to a rapid boil. Add a dash of salt. Place the peas in the water and boil until soft, about 5 – 6 minutes. Rinse and set immediately over an ice bath.
  3. Cook the ramen per the instructions on the back (4 minutes microwaved on high). Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and snap peas and cook until softened, about 2 – 3 more minutes. Add in the noodles and sliced steak.
  4. Whisk the flour, soy sauce and broth together. Pour the mixture over the ramen and steak noodles. Add red pepper, black pepper and chopped cilantro. Heat another 2 minutes, or until sauce is cooked through.
  5. Garnish the top with chopped cashews and additional salt and pepper to taste.

Nutritional information per serving:

Calories: 309
Fat: 16.2 grams
Carbohydrates: 25 grams
Fiber: 4.5 grams
Protein: 16 grams
Weight Watchers Points: 8

Coconut Blueberry Banana Bread

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This fluffy and luscious coconut blueberry banana bread is the perfect snack or breakfast bread for any day of the week!

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28 is a weird, weird age. In a year and a half, I’m going to be 30 and I’m about as prepared for that as I was when I was 23.

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I’m not good at being a grown up. I hate paying bills, doing dishes, making the bed. I hate have healthy “power” smoothies for breakfast. I hate having to put on pants to go to the grocery store. I absolutely hate having to budget for things like a new vacuum cleaner. I hate dusting, investing and paying for medical insurance. I don’t want to do any of it.

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I am so much better being an early twenty something. I’m very skilled at staying up all night, drinking energy drinks for breakfast, having cupcakes for lunch and having my parents pay my rent. I’m really, really good at not having to pay for groceries or living expenses. I’m also very good at happy hours, week-long spring breaks in Florida and eating ramen noodles for dinner. These things I can handle. Plus, 23 year old Claire weighed 20 pounds less than 28 year old Claire, so clearly I was doing something right back then.

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It’s just a weird age too. I’m still trying to figure out my life path and figure out what I’m going to “be” when I grow up. I’m comfortable financially in my own life, but once we start having kids and buying a house, well, things are going to change drastically. I’m at that age where I have to start thinking about expenses like kids, houses and preschools. So many of my friends are such adults, with their own homes and babies, and I feel like I’m at least 10 years away from looking anything like a real, responsible adult.

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Which is okay, right? It’s okay to still be “figuring myself out” at 28, right? It’s okay to still shop at Forever 21? Still okay to have wine and cheese for dinner because I just don’t want to eat vegetables? And it’s definitely okay to eat a loaf of this coconut blueberry banana bread for breakfast in leu of a healthy smoothie too, right? (Just say yes so I can feel slightly better about being clueless in the adult department, please).

Coconut Blueberry Banana Bread

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Serves about 8 -10.
Prep time: About 10 minutes
Cook time: About 60 minutes

Ingredients: 

For the bread:

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup smashed bananas
  • 1 cup blueberries
  • 1 cup light coconut milk
  • Dash of salt

For the topping:

  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter

Directions: 

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a standard size loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, beat the applesauce, brown sugar, bananas, white sugar, eggs and vanilla together until combined. In another bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder and dash of salt together. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, alternating with the coconut milk. Stir to combine. Carefully stir in the blueberries.
  3. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf pan. To make the streusel topping, cut the brown sugar, flour and butter together using a pastry knife. Top the bread with the streusel topping.
  4. Bake for about 55 – 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool a few minutes then remove from the pan.

Nutritional information per serving:

Calories: 400
Fat: 8.3 grams
Carbohydrates: 54 grams
Fiber: 2 grams
Protein: 6 grams
Weight Watchers Points: 8

The Giving Lens Thailand: My Time at COSA

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This post has been started a total of 6 times. I’ve sat down to my computer, with a big cup of coffee, on 6 identical mornings, each with the intent of writing about my short but incredibly beautiful time at COSA. And each time I’ve written two sentences and stopped. I’m not one who often struggles with words, but these ones were stuck inside of me. And when I did try to put them down onto paper, they came out jumbled, like a set of mismatched alphabet magnets on a stranger’s fridge. And instead of pushing through, I stopped. That’s why this post has been started 6 times but never finished. I couldn’t find my story amongst those jumbled words.

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I don’t know what’s different today, but the words are mine. They are coming out in sentences I recognize. They are throwing themselves on paper faster than I can physically write them. I think sometimes you just need to give yourself time to make sense of what happened, especially after such an incredibly moving experience. You have to let the words come to you, bubble up to the surface when they’re ready, not when you are. When you’re a writer, you are at the whim of words and emotions and fear, and most of the time you have no say as to when those will be ready to convey. So, my words are finally ready and I just hope they do the whole thing justice.

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I think one of the hardest parts of getting this on to paper was that I wanted so badly to tell the stories of these girls. But when I sat down to write them, nothing came out. Probably because they aren’t my stories to tell. The only story I can tell you is mine, the one I formulated after 2 days with the girls at COSA. To many of you, that’s not the story you want to read. But it’s all I got.

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COSA is non profit dedicated to preventing sex trafficking and human exploitation in Thailand. They provide shelter to girls rescued from high risk areas of Northern Thailand (specifically the hill tribes) and give them a place to live, education and safety. It was started by Mickey Choothesa, who was born and raised in Bangkok, but later moved to the US. He made his living as a photojournalist who saw the effects of human trafficking first hand, which is what pushed him to start COSA in 2005. You can’t help but feel inspired when he talks. He puts everything he has into making sure these girls have a future, making sure they see themselves as strong, beautiful and powerful. He isn’t just the founder, he’s “uncle Mickey,” the pseudo-father to all 35 girls on campus. He loves each and every one of them as if they were his own daughters.

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Photo by Nancy Harvey Arehart. 

When we first pulled up to the COSA campus, I had all of these ideas as to what it would like. The rooms would be dark, the girls fragile and scared with vacant eyes. No sounds of laughter or joy, just quiet, scary stillness. What we saw was the complete opposite. All I heard was the familiar sound of pots and pans clamoring together, the dull murmur of people talking and the bursts of laughter from the girls rooms. It felt like a home immediately, which is why I think the girls are so happy there. It sounds ignorant, but happiness isn’t what I expected at a place that is home to girls who have experienced hell on earth.

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Before I get into the experience, I have to give a little insight into the project. The Giving Lens is an organization that uses the power of photography to make a difference in impoverished countries. They put together about 8 – 10 trips a year where they take teams of 7 – 15 photographers to a small & “grassroots” NGO in a third world country. The point of the workshops is to teach the children at these NGOS photography through the use of donated cameras. The main goal, I think, is to let these kids express themselves in an artistic way. To tell their story through photos they take. It’s a very powerful, moving concept and seeing it firsthand just further shows how much just one camera and one photo can change the lives of so many. Before this trip, we rounded up 27 gently used digital cameras that we could use during our weekend workshop and then donate to COSA so the girls could continue their pursuit of photography.

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Our first day at COSA kicked off with a scavenger hunt. Each of the 7 women on the Giving Lens team was paired with a teenager who lives on campus. We gave each girl a camera, a list of 30+ items to photograph, and we tagged along as they started taking pictures of any and everything they could that matched the items on the list. I was paired with Nook and I don’t think I could have been paired with anyone more perfect for me. At first meeting, she was quiet and shy, plus a little reserved. But after about 30 minutes, you could see the shell start to crack around her. She started laughing more, jumping in front of the cameras of her friends and taking goofy selfies with Ning and Yui. After spending the better part of an hour with her, I noticed one very strong commonality between us, she felt more confidant in front of the camera. Even though I take photos for a living, I never quite feel like I belong behind the lens.

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After their photo hunt, the older girls went to English lessons (which take place every weekend) and we were paired with two of the younger girls to shoot with. I was given Bow and Kanikar. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with a smile more contagious than Bow’s. Her face illuminates when she laughs and you feel like you’re orbiting the sun when you’re with her. Kanikar, like Nook, is more reserved, but still very caring. I could tell she was really thinking about her photographs, really thinking about the right things to say and do. It was such a difference walking with the younger girls because they wanted to take photos of EVERYTHING. They not only took one photo of each item, they took 5. Then when the hunt was over, they ran away with the cameras, filling the memory card with funny poses and out of focus selfies. I loved looking through the photos as much as I loved taking them.

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Our second day at COSA was more focused on seeing what their lives were like everyday. In the morning, we took our elder girls around the campus and adjacent town so they could show us what a normal day for them looked like. I noticed Nook was so much more interested in being the subject in photos versus being the photographer, and that’s perfectly okay. I’m pretty sure she shows up in every single one of their photos, smiling, photo-bombing, doing cartwheels. She may be shy in everyday life, but this girl comes alive when there’s a camera on her. It was fun to watch her confidence blossom when she was the center of attention for a minute.

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Sadly Kanikar couldn’t join Bow and myself for our second day scavenger hunt, but I think Bow took enough photos for both of them. On our walk to the temple and into town, she’d stop every 50 steps to get an up close photo of a flower or to get the disappearing shadows of the people in front of her. At the temple, she spent 20 minutes trying to get the right photo of the ornate walls outside of the door. Her eyes would scrunch and her lips would part as she concentrated on finding the right focal point and light source. But as soon as she had it, her face would erupt into a smile or laugh when she noticed I was watching her. As much as she loved being behind the camera, she radiated in front of it. The girls spotted a few young puppies in front of the temple and she loved having her photo taken with the sweet pups. Just thinking of her smile melts my heart.

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After the scavenger hunts, we spent our last few hours on campus taking portraits of the older girls. We asked them to write what they wanted to be when they grew up on the chalkboard and then pose in front of it. From chef, to teacher, to nurse and translator, these special girls lit up when they talked about what they wanted to be. It was a very raw, very emotional moment. I didn’t know whether to cry or to smile, so I did both. I like to think that our time there only further inspires these girls to chase these dreams of theirs and change the world.

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What made my time at COSA so meaningful wasn’t just the moments spent privately with Nook, Kanikar and Bow, it was the time we had with Mickey, the volunteers who spend months with the girls and the Operations Manager Steve, who gave up everything to help make this place a home. It was the incredible meals we shared with the girls that were still some of the best food I’ve ever had.

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It was every gut-wrenching laugh and inside joke I shared with 8 of the most talented, gorgeous and compassionate women I could have ever traveled with. It was every beautiful picture I took with the new knowledge I learned from Kate and Nicole. It wasn’t just one thing that made my two days at COSA so impactful and meaningful, it was everything. The weekend not only changed the way I photograph, it changed the way I live. And I’ll always be forever grateful to TGL for opening my eyes and showing me the world through an entirely new lens.

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(Photo by Nicole S Young)

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