Sunday, February 16, 2014

I Should Have Painted My Toenails For My Volunteering

I remember my first full-time job out of college. Switching from a pre-employment teacher for at-risk teens to a grant writer for the same non-profit organization, I had a lot to learn. High fives morphed into handshakes, pants now required a blazer with matching socks, and instead of mastering teenage street slang, marketing jargon infiltrated my vocabulary. As with my students, I had to be on high alert: One day a photographer from a national organization might need an escort to take pictures of the youth businesses while the next day a community investment team from Bank of America could decide to check in on the accuracy of the organization’s outcome reporting, in-person. On other days, trapped at my desk, I would type success stories and reports for hours on end, daydreaming of slippers and sweatpants.

Each morning I would watch in amusement as one of my bosses arrived, hopping out of her car dressed in brown boots, a hipster skirt, and kitschy earrings. This staff member was ready to teach, relate, and engage with her teenage students. Why couldn’t I be more like that once again? As a main program supervisor, her job also required upper management meetings and tours with funders. Yet, with a closer glance into her car, a pantsuit hung in the backseat.

“Always be ready for anything. Today could be the most important, surprise meeting of your life. You never know what role you will need to play but be ready to have fun and also impress,” she said.


Sometimes you have to be prepared to meet Darth Vader, even at the Florida Children's Hospital.

So last week as I found myself standing barefoot on a pile of cold sand in a classroom with five youth at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office with my toes looking like a hot mess—unkempt and without the usual sparkling polish—I remembered my boss and her pantsuit. I had arrived to volunteer with The Literary Alliance in my typical uniform: jeans, glittery shoes, and my L.A. polo, but I was not prepared for the day’s beach shoot. My ugly feet were going to be on YouTube.  

“Ugh, I wish I painted my toenails today,” I jokingly grumbled as I pulled off my shoes in disbelief at the scene before me. 

My jagged-mountain shaped toenails were stained red from their Christmas-time appearance. Blisters proved I had run quite a few miles that week. Lets face it: These bad boys screamed, “Ewwwwww!!!” What were the chances this small embarrassment could be happening to me? Volunteering with the creative and determined President of The Literacy Alliance, Diane, the odds were not forever in my favor. I should have known. How did I get here?

Bringing the beach to the inner-city, Literacy Alliance style.
The Eugene Gregory students—teenagers who have been removed from the traditional school system due to expulsion, suspension, or who are on conditional release or probation—gather every Friday afternoon in the Sheriff’s Office conference room to create video puppet shows. Sometimes the teens perform previously written stories such as those by author Jan Thomas. More recently, we’ve added a writing component where students create their own stories, paint the backdrop, and pick the puppets they wish to use. The Friday before our barefoot filming, students wrote a Valentine’s Day themed script with the goal to teach young viewers the meaning of word play. Using the letters in ‘Valentines,’ the two main characters, Danielle and Josh, would bend over on their beach walk and write smaller words in the sand. The students surmised that we would provide an ocean backdrop and use cardboard letters to provide the illusion of drawing in the sand.  The skit would consist of puppet people with a few animals.

After reading over Eugene’s script, Diane had bigger, more impressive plans. Upon arriving at Eugene the following Friday to film the story, she took a few volunteers out to her car. Touting recycled cat litter tubs piled high with real beach sand, we stared in disbelief. Throwing down a towel and shower curtain on the carpet, students made a sand pile against the wall to recreate the beach. (Thankfully, we spotted a vacuum cleaner in the corner.) Diane also gave the students the option to use people puppets or real feet. Feet trumped puppets. As the only girl that day—the students’ attendance varies based on behavior or placement back into school—I, well my feet, had to perform. Off came the shoes. Out came the disgraceful toenails. If the teen next to me could do it in front of his cool friends, I could too.

The set of Valentine's Word Day by the Eugene Gregory students.
We successfully shot an extremely adorable video, Valentine's Word Day. As we wrapped up the final scene, I looked around at the students' smiles. I just had to laugh at the ridiculousness and fun of it all. Here I was standing in a room in the middle of the Sanford Sheriff’s Office, barefoot on sand with students who may have not initially made the best life choices. We were all enjoying our task, working hard, and learning from each other. All of this was for the better good of promoting literacy and improving people’s lives. When I got home, I wanted to tell everyone about my afternoon.

I love volunteering with the Eugene students. I love the synergy that comes from everyone’s ideas, even if that means that sometimes my shoes have to come off and I have to let down my guard. More importantly, I am inspired by the dedication of everyone involved; people so committed to programming that they would think to borrow sand from a neighbor to bring to life these teens’ imaginations. I am inspired by students so dedicated to the program that regardless of tough guy (and sometimes gal) street appearance, they are willing to caw like birds and talk in funny voices in order to provide educational entertainment on YouTube. I am inspired by the teachers who work with them every day, permitting these students second and third chances. 

The greater lesson is not that I need to keep a bottle of nail polish in the back seat of my car—although I will not lie, I painted my toenails that very night—or that you need to know which one of your neighbors has spare sand lying around the yard. OK, maybe that helps. However, the pantsuit I carry with me at all times is an open mind and heart, a friendly smile, and passion. In the role of teacher, mentor, and volunteer, those are the skills that I wish to impress with. Just like my grant-writing job, every time I volunteer, I never know what to expect. But I’m ready because I carry with me a very stretchy, multi-colored pantsuit.

We'd love to hear your pantsuit story!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Help?! Yes, please!



I was taught at an early age the importance of helping others. My mother showed me by example how rewarding it was to embrace somebody who needs a hug, feed someone who is hungry, or listen to a friend who needs a crying shoulder. It's a lesson I have written down in ink in my "book of life". I believe this knowledge has made me a better mother, a better wife, and friend. It never crossed my mind, however, that to be a better person I also needed to learn when it was "me" who needed the help. I thank motherhood for teaching me that one. It all started about two months after I brought my twin babies home. I was now a mother of four, ready to take the bull by the horns like a champ. Or so I thought … 

I knew something wasn’t right when the nights I spent smiling became fewer than the ones I spent crying. When during the day, I spent more time feeling guilty about the things I forgot to do or didn’t feel like doing, than enjoying the good moments that WERE happening. I was overwhelmed. I missed dentist appointments and fed my children frozen pizza for dinner; work was behind, and I didn't have a creative cell in my body to come up with a new product. I couldn't begin to remember the last time I had actually kissed my husband good night, much less the last time we made love. As I woke up in the middle of the night, for the 5th (or maybe it was the 6th) time trying to decipher whose turn it was to feed, I felt powerless and incompetent. I felt I was failing my children as a mother and my husband as a wife.  Most of all I was failing myself. I couldn’t keep up with anything while other moms seemed to be able to do it all and look put together while doing it. 

Everyone insisted I was overloaded and just needed to stop being so hard on myself and let people help. In my eyes, I wasn't being hard enough. I needed to get my act together! After all, I had four wonderful and healthy children. Not one sick child. My older children excelled in school. And, as far as newborns went, the twins were not that bad. I had an amazing husband who would come home from work and do whatever he could to help me. I was very blessed. Yet, when I looked around, all I could see was an unkept house, appointments I had missed, craft projects I never managed doing with the girls, and recipes of healthy meals I hadn't prepared for them. I felt sad and incredibly guilty. 

I went to bed every night saying the next day would be different; that I would pull myself together. I really felt I could. Until the next morning, when the sun would come up and I would realize I had slept less than 3 hours, AGAIN. That everything was there to be done and I just didn't have the desire or energy to do it. My husband told me I needed to breathe and let people help me. But how could I? That’s the reason I stayed home right? To take care of our children and our house. Not for somebody else to do it for me. I was supposed to be the helper; the one who saw to THEIR needs. I was the one not volunteering to the PTA, or calling my friends to check on them. I was the one who was failing in providing help. Guilt was this spiral staircase in which once I fell, I could not see where the first step had been nor where I was going to land. 

One day I woke up and realized I was missing life. I was missing my family. I was so busy feeling guilty and overwhelmed that I wasn't enjoying the little things. I was going through my days without feeling the joy of my babies' first smiles. I was listening to the voices in my head saying I wasn't good enough instead of listening to Maya reading her first words. I missed BEING body and mind with them. I knew they were missing me too. I needed help; not because I was weak but because I wanted us to be happy again. So I began to say yes.

I began to accept my father-in-law's offers to pick up the girls from school on occasion so that the twins could have a proper nap. I said yes when a friend offered to bring us some dinner. And when Josh asked if we could have somebody help with the house, I said yes. It had taken me months to accept the help and it took me several more to stop feeling guilty about getting it, but eventually I did. Funny thing is that my days were still full to the rim. I still had babies to nurse, diaper, bathe, play with, and read to. I still had children to drive from one place to the other, homework to help with, my store and business to take care of, food to prepare and "parenting" to do. I had meals to prepare and laundry in the hampers, but the help was definitely taking the edge off. And for that I was ever so thankful. 

Now I was able to enjoy playing games with the girls instead of laundry. As I nursed my babies, I didn't focus on the pile of dishes sitting on the sink, but instead on the expressions and details of their faces. I was able to sit with my husband and enjoy some tea after the children were in bed without worrying we should be mopping the floors instead. I went to bed feeling accomplished, not guilty. And when the midnight cry for nursing came, I was tired, but ready for it. And all because I said, "Yes, I do need help."

I learned that sometimes we are so busy trying to be and do it all that we forget we might be better people, better engaged, better focused if we DON'T do it all. If we just accept that sometimes we alone are NOT enough. I learned I need others just as much as others need me. I had long been schooled on being a good person and helping others in need. Life finally taught me that it is ok to be on the receiving end as well.