Mom Talk: Why I Chose #Vanlife For My Son and I
Written by BIONCA SMITH
Photography by Photograph courtesy of Bionca Smith
Today’s Mom Talk comes from a seriously inspiring mama. Bionca Smith grew up in poverty, and was relentlessly teased for her acne and for having less than her middle-class classmates. When she became a single mom, she vowed to do everything to provide a good life for her son. She was living in the Bay Area, making good money, and striving to keep up with the Joneses. But when she came up against another bully at work, and realized her son was struggling at school, she decided they needed a dramatic change. She sold all their belongings and bought an Econoline camper van. That was more than two years ago. Now, she and her 10-year-old son Carter speak to schools across America on how to stand up to bullies, how not to be a bystander, and how to spread empathy and kindness to others through their nonprofit Bully Barricade Foundation. Read on for more on why and how she took the leap.
As a single mom in the Bay Area, I was working long hours to try to maintain a lifestyle I thought I should be striving for, but deep inside, I didn’t feel fulfilled. I was sacrificing vital time with my son Carter, who was struggling in school, and didn’t feel like I was living out my purpose.
With a modest upbringing in urban St. Louis, my family never had the means to travel, but both my son and I wanted to see more of the world. I wanted him to touch the dirt, climb the mountains, and play in the ocean, but was feeling boxed in by the pressure to keep up with the Joneses.
Carter was on the verge of failing second grade—which we later learned could partially be attributed to his difficulty concentrating in a typical classroom due to his ADHD—and my debt was piling up.
So, in 2017, we took a major leap. I sold all our belongings, enrolled Carter in a tuition-free online public school called Connections Academy and began our globetrotting adventures. The world became his classroom. Now, he can learn about geology hands-on at places like the Whitewater Preserve, study math while waves crash in the background, and still get a world-class education with state-credentialed teachers via our Wi-Fi connection; while I can explore my entrepreneurial passions.
Our 1989 Ford Econoline is our home, but it’s also a symbol—the all-inclusive place where we can have the freedom to express ourselves, learn, grow, and get our organization, “Bully Barricade,” off the ground.
Carter and I have both experienced forms of bullying, but Carter was much better at letting it roll off his back. Perhaps it was the meditation I started teaching him at three years old (he now meditates more than I do) or maybe it was through modeling a calm and solution-oriented co-parenting relationship with his dad. Whatever it was, he’s developed an ideal mix of assertiveness and empathy that allows him to mitigate conflict with his peers, or really anyone, with impressive maturity.
For me, it wasn’t so easy. From first grade through high school, I was absolutely tormented by bullies. In middle school, I was regularly beaten to a pulp by female classmates at the bus stop, while other kids circled around, egging them on or simply doing nothing. The next day, I’d get teased even more for being a “punk,” and not defending myself, but I was taught not to hit kids back. As I walked the halls, they’d call me “big-lipped, bumpy-faced Bionca,” because of my chronic acne, and if I tried to cover it up with makeup, they’d make fun of me even more.
The constant threats to my safety and insults on my appearance wreaked havoc on my self-esteem and confidence. I thought the only option was to ignore them and make them feel like their taunting didn’t impact me, but it really did. I was afraid to walk in the halls. I was afraid to look people in the eye. And I was afraid to raise my hand in class when I needed help, or even when I knew the answer, as I didn’t want to draw any extra attention to myself. When I told on my bullies, it only got worse, as they would find somewhere off campus to beat me up even more. I was miserable to the point of suicide, and the only thing that stopped me was a fear that I’d fail at pulling it off, and imagining the pain I’d cause my siblings.
In college I was a Court Appointed State Advocate (CASA) and early in my career I had the opportunity to volunteer with troubled youth at an alternative high school. Through both experiences, I saw kids who were marginalized and traumatized, who were both victims and perpetrators of bullying, and it brought me back—back to my own terrifying days in school. It dawned on me: what could have helped me when I was in that position? How could I have asked for help in a more discreet way, and had the confidence to stand up for myself? Furthermore, how could I help create safer spaces for kids today where they find resolutions and feel empowered to step in and be more than just a bystander?
From that evaluation, the Bully Barricade Foundation was born. We’re a small, but mighty, nonprofit organization that meets with students between the ages of 5 and 18 to demonstrate how to handle challenging situations with individuals, and create solutions that lead to constructive outcomes with the usage of theatrical arts. I talk to students about my experience with bullying and what kids can do if they’re being bullied. I also provide actionable steps for how to react when you see bullying happen to others, and how to be empathetic to your peers, even if they’re doing the bullying.
Looking back, I have realized that many of my bullies were hurting just as much as I was and projecting their pain onto me. I wholeheartedly believe that if we want to make an impact in stopping bullying, we need to teach conflict resolution and empathy for all parties involved, and push down the walls of social divisions that foster a bullying culture.
Carter and I couldn’t be happier living in our old van. It shapes the way we connect with people in a more meaningful way, and we give back to many of the communities we pass through. Carter is just as passionate about philanthropy as academics and while living the van life, he has maintained top grades. His intellectual growth has absolutely blossomed since we began this journey, and he expresses his gratitude and excitement for the lifestyle we now live on a daily basis. Plus, we are able to inspire thousands of people via our YouTube channel and Instagram page, where we have built many strong friendships, both online, and in real life.
Together, we’re on mission to spread mindfulness, self-awareness, and courage to America’s youth, and are grateful for any opportunity to make an impact, wherever the road takes us.
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Bionca, thank you for your work! I love your story (and your name). One question: How did you teach meditation to your son and such a young age? My son is almost five and I would love for him to start meditating – but I have no idea how to start teaching him… Thank you!
Hi Sara, Great question! What I did was allow him to model my behavior for 1 minute to five minutes at a time. Then I broke it down to him how wonderful it can be to stay still sometimes and relax as a calming technique. I eventually incorporated beautiful music and now he meditates more than me. lol