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Sometimes I don’t realize just how sheltered my children are.

My mom and I took the boys to Washington DC for a few days over their Spring Break. It was a great trip to a truly beautiful city, one the boys tackled with gusto on their Razor scooters as they weaved in and out of traffic on sidewalks and streets and covered a full seven miles on one day and six the next, my mom and I speed walking behind them. They loved the carousel and the Spy Museum, were massively disappointed that the paddle boats on the tidal basin were closed due to wind, and had mixed reactions to the war memorials. Braedan was old enough to be awed by the awe-inspiring list of names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, asking over and over again, “All these names, mom? All these people died??” Austin, only six, tugged on my hand and whined, “Can I ride my scooter now? Can I ride my scooter now?” as we tried to quietly pass those visitors running their fingers over the names of their loved ones.

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But the single thing that defined our trip above all else was Braedan’s reaction to the homeless people. He noticed them our very first evening, as we walked back towards our hotel after a nighttime viewing of the White House. There were three, huddled under blankets in the entryway of an office building, and he was stunned. I hadn’t realized before how infrequently we walk the streets of our own downtown and see anyone begging (not that they don’t exist in Cleveland, it’s just that my kids aren’t there to see them). He stopped immediately to question us and then eyed the bag I was carrying with the desserts my mom and I had been carefully saving til later. “Do you want to give one of these?” I asked, somewhat begrudgingly. But I forgot my sweet tooth as I watched Braedan rush back with a plastic fork and a slice of cheesecake to wish a homeless man a Happy Easter. “I get lots of treats for Easter,” he announced to us with a proud bounce in his step. “I told him this was his Easter treat.”

He was not so easily satisfied in his quest to make a difference though and began carefully planning what he would order in restaurants to ensure he had leftovers appropriate to give away. He would usually scope out the scene outside the restaurant prior to entering to determine exactly who he would return to with his take-away box (somehow, “doggy bag” just doesn’t feel right in this context). This became the main topic of our conversations as well, as Braedan asked careful and impressively mature questions on the subject at every meal, including “Are homeless people educated?” and “Where are their families?” My mom and I spent a lot of time talking about the many complex reasons people become homeless, the services available to them (especially for those with children), as well as the many issues to be addressed when trying to “solve” the problem. We covered everything from affordable health care to jobs with a living wage to access to high quality education, plus mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and poor personal choices.

Looking to the future, he announced that after he makes millions of dollars for the app he’s planning to design (what this million-dollar app is going to do, he has yet to explain), he will give all that money away to homeless people. I tried to bring him back to the present by suggesting he use his role as a student council member to organize a school food drive, which he eagerly jumped on . . . until I told him there are homeless people and food kitchens in Cleveland too. “No!” he said with certainty. “I want us to collect canned food and send it to Washington DC!” Humph, I guess we need to head to downtown Cleveland and stroll the streets one of these nights. Under some bridges might help too.

One evening, after he gave his leftovers to a woman smoking a cigarette, which I commented was one possible reason people may choose not to donate to her, he said, “Yeah, but mom, even people who make bad decisions deserve food.” As for my job as a bleeding heart liberal mother, I have two words: mission accomplished.

I know many of you, like me, have felt hopeless in the face of such tragedy. Wondering what you can possibly do to ease the pain and suffering of the families in Newtown. The answer, sadly, is little. There are no words strong enough to bring their children back, no teddy bear that could replace the joy of a brother or sister, no flowers that can bring beauty back to these dark days.

But there are things we can do. Even if we can’t take away what happened last Friday, we can work this day and every day, to ensure nothing like this happens again. I know that sounds like talk, just happy hopeful words that pundits and politicians like to use when we don’t know what else to do. But I really believe that kindness matters. And that kindness can make the world a better place.

I’m not going to get into gun control, which I happen to believe is (and always has been) an absolute necessity, nor will I specifically address access to mental health care, although I think it’s pretty obvious our society has failed on that front. But I will share Ann Curry’s plea that we all engage in 26 Acts of Kindness. I’m calling for 27 acts, because as much as we want someone to blame and as irresponsible as her gun ownership may have been, Nancy Lanza was nonetheless a victim. And besides, one additional act of kindness can only help.

Here’s a link to some of the things people have been doing, some specifically related to Newtwon, such as calling the local coffee shop and paying for 100 cups of coffee with your credit card. But many of them are more local, donations made to local organizations, paying the toll for 26 cars behind you on the highway. They speak to the inherent kindness in people and they give us hope and provide light in the darkness.

This afternoon, my boys and I are buying 27 canned goods to donate to the local food shelter. We’re sending some extra money to the Hurricane Sandy relief funds. We’re gonna squeeze some extra time out of our very packed weekend to make and deliver breakfast to the pediatric oncology floor at the hospital, for those families who stuck there instead of home for the holidays. We already have and will continue to provide Christmas presents for a family we know who have struggled mightily over the past year. And we will make and mail 27 snowflakes, inscribed with wishes, to the Connecticut PTSA who is collecting snowflakes for Sandy Hook, in an effort mighty similar to Austin’s wishing stars.

It doesn’t take away the hurt, it doesn’t bring children back to life. But, in our own small way, as we begin the shortest day of the year, it lights the darkness. We can each light the darkness.

I’m still here . . . just have been ridiculously busy, mostly with school-related stuff.  Too many balls in the air right now, that’s for sure. But anyway, looking ahead to my busy winter season, I invite you all to start thinking about that other month in which childhood cancer is pushed to the forefront of the public conscience . . . March.

I will again be hosting a St. Baldrick’s head-shaving event for young people in our community on Sunday, March 10.  I welcome the participation of any and all of you and hope that those kids who shaved last year want to do so again and have inspired their friends and classmates to join them.  I’d been hoping to convince the counselor at Fairfax to adopt St Baldrick’s as our school’s charity for the year.  Unfortunately, I discovered that the entire district has committed yet again to the Pennies for Pasta fundraiser run by The Olive Garden.

Let me vent for a moment about this particular effort, promoted heavily to schools through the restaurant’s marketing team. The monies ultimately go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a worthy cause no doubt. But, despite some valiant searches through GuideStar and Charity Navigator, I can find no reports on exactly how much of the money goes there and how much stays with The Olive Garden. Maybe I’m being cynical and maybe they just hand all the donations over for the greater good, but the very name Pennies for Pasta bothers me. The idea is that students bring in their loose change (pennies) and the class who raises the most money wins a catered lunch by the restaurant (pasta). Of course, the prospect of sitting down with table clothes and real silverware in the classroom is exciting for kids and everyone likes a little motivation. But it also teaches kids that you only give when you get something in return.

One of the things I love about St Baldrick’s — and that I think proves meaningful to young and old alike — is that there are no prizes. Sure, you get a t-shirt and a button, but that’s not the same thing (and those serve to promote awareness not just of the organization but, more importantly, of childhood cancer).  Instead, the children who participate in these events learn that no matter how young they are, they have the power to make a true difference.  They can sacrifice in ways that (some of) the grown-ups around them are unwilling to do. That’s quite a powerful realization: I can change the world, I have impact. Not because I found some spare change in my couch cushions and won a prize, but because I gave something real, a piece of myself, and expected nothing in return.

Of course, the truth is that these kids get a lot in return and for good reason. They feel like they’re part of something important . . . because they are. They’re celebrated in their homes and schools and local media for their bravery . . . which they display in all its glory. They’re praised by their teachers and classmates and friends and families as heroes . . . because they are.  No noodles necessary.

 

There’s more, more, more from yesterday.

St. Baldrick’s has hit the $15 million mark and our kids are there to help celebrate. Check out their picture and a sweet little tribute to our sweet little Leah here. It’s impossible to expand the size of photos on their website, so here it is for you:

I forgot to thank the incredible crowd of supporters and cheerleaders who came out on Sunday, sacrificing the glorious weather outside to sit and cheer and laugh and cry for our shavees inside instead. You really helped make it feel special for everyone involved and gave the nervous kids (and adults!) a little boost.  I love these shots:

And people were indeed nervous. The images I posted yesterday showed mostly happy, eager faces, but there were some looks of hesitation, “What have I gotten myself into?” and downright terror. Which should remind us all that courage is not defined by the absence of fear, but by being afraid and still doing what’s right.

But no matter the butterflies in stomachs or hair in eyes, they all got up there and they all followed through.And they were all smiles afterwards:

I’m fairy certain there was not one person in that room, especially not one girl or woman, who didn’t wonder to themselves, “Do I have what it takes? Could I actually do that?”

But fifty people had what it takes and here’s what they accomplished: Our event has raised more than $31,500 as posted online right now.  We have about $2,000 in checks that will be mailed in later this week. And, because it’s not too late to donate, I do believe we will end up breaking $35,000. Which, considering my initial event goal of $10,000, is pretty remarkable.

Some of you have apologized for not raising “enough.” Perhaps this is my fault because I spent considerable time on Sunday congratulating those shavees who had raised really significant amounts, like the first grader who brought in more than $1,300 in all of eight days. But I really and truly mean it when I say that every dollar counts. I’m going to steal something I read recently on St Baldrick’s Facebook page, credited to a shavee in Greensboro, NC: “I know my small contribution may buy the petri dish that holds the cure.” Somebody needs to pay for the little vials and droppers, the gloves and the swabs, heck even the coffee that keeps the researchers awake. So whether you donated $10 or $1,000 and whether you raised $50, $695 or $3,217, you have put us one step closer, one petri dish closer, to a cure for childhood cancer.

And that is what it’s all about.

The transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas seems to get shorter and quicker every year. So now that we’ve all moved on to the next big thing, it’s time to think about giving.  Every year, I encourage my kids, with limited success, to weed out their toys to make room for the inevitable mass of new ones. And this year, we have lots of good options for what to do with all their extra stuff.

First (and this one is just brilliant), The Smead Discovery Center at the Natural History Museum is accepting broken plastic toys — yes, that’s right, all those tiny broken pieces that have no home or game parts with no game, the junk that clutters up the bottom of toy baskets and drawers in every room in the house.  They’ll take it all, more than just the action figure parts they accepted in the past, as long as it’s smaller than 12 by 6 by 6 inches. They then send them to the Toy Lab in Cincinnati where kids make them into new toys in an arts and science lab (how cool is that?).  But they’re only accepting donations through November 30, so get busy.

Next, two lovely organizations with which I’m affiliated are having toy sales next week.  Both Family Connections, where I sit on the board, and St Paul’s Coop, where Austin attends preschool, will be collecting new and gently used toys and baby gear over the next week.  Check out their respective websites for all the necessary details: Family Connections and St. Paul’s.

And finally, the one I am most excited about: Go Public! Great Schools Are Everybody’s Business, which is a grassroots movement to foster stronger ties between Cleveland Heights-University Heights community and the public schools, is having a learning material toy drive.  The motivating idea behind this is that children can’t learn if they don’t know how to play and they can’t play if they don’t have the right toys.  As I’ve mentioned,  a significant percentage of the students in CHUH schools live in poverty and I’m certain that few of them have appropriately educational toys in their homes.  I’m not talking just about flashcards here, but books and puzzles, legos and building blocks, art supplies and board games, anything that requires imagination or creativity.

The counselors at each of our seven elementary schools will identify the 10 to 20 neediest families in each school, who will then receive a box of gently used and/or new toys to take home before the holiday break. If you have anything to share, please consider this opportunity as it has an immediate positive impact on the identified students and their entire families. For those of you who think your materials would be too young for elementary students, everything will be sorted into age categories, including pre-K and K, which will be hugely beneficial for the younger siblings in our students’ homes.

There will be collection boxes at all seven elementary schools and Coventry from Monday December 5 through Friday, December 16.  I spent hours and hours today going through all the various baskets and containers that store toys (and bits of broken plastic) in our mudroom, living room, both boys’ rooms, and the third floor playroom. I weeded, sorted, repaired, repackaged and boxed up a storm.

It was much-needed and very satisfying and, most importantly, can truly make a difference to a child in need.

This was the day last year when . . . oh no, don’t worry, I’m not going to replay every miserable moment of last winter. If you want to walk through that heartache and misery all over again, you can scroll down to “Archives” on the left and click December 2009.  In the meantime, I have a somewhat lighter story to tell, still replete with drama and suspense.

Braedan had an appointment with the psychologist this afternoon and Austin was scheduled to have labs drawn. After about five hours of nonstop snowfall, I briefly considered canceling but figured, “Come on, it’s Cleveland, I’m used to snow.  We can surely make it the three miles down to the hospital.” I was largely motivated by the fact that Austin and I had baked zucchini muffins and pumpkin bread to bring to the families on the oncology floor, along with fresh fruit and coffee, for breakfast tomorrow. Plus I was finally going to clear all the donated toiletries out of my mudroom (even my mudroom gets cluttered) and deliver them to the Ronald McDonald Family Room.

So we bundled ourselves in snow gear and picked Braedan up from school fifteen minutes early (mostly so we wouldn’t get stuck in the mad rush of parents swooping in to rescue their children from the first major snowstorm of the year) and down we drove.  It was slow going, visibility was negligible but it wasn’t rush hour or anything (foreshadowing, foreshadowing) so we made it just fine.

Braedan had a great session, Austin’s hemoglobin has actually gone up a tiny bit instead of down, delaying the need for a blood transfusion yet again, renal numbers held steady and all was well.  We lugged suitcases and backpacks full of goodies clear to the other side of the hospital (Braedan: “This place is like an underground city, Mom.”). The nurses were thrilled, happy to see their healthy, thriving little ex-patient. We chatted and wandered around the halls hanging up signs announcing the breakfast, when someone asked us how we planned to get home. Well, drive, . . . how else?

Then the nurses pointed to the line of cars sitting dead still on the road, not having moved for nearly an hour despite ambulances coming through in both directions. Total and complete gridlock. The line out of the parking garage alone would have taken more than an hour. So I fed the boys some high-sodium junk in the cafeteria, unloaded as much gear as possible into my car, piled on extra layers of clothing . . . and off we walked.

Thankfully, my parents live about halfway between the hospital and our home, so it was less than two miles but solidly uphill and through a full ten inches of snow. But my boys dug deep and turned the whole thing into a wonderful wintry adventure.  Austin needed to be carried on and off (mostly on) but Braedan didn’t complain even once, except when I tried to enlist him in a rousing rendition of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. Even Austin, safe in my aching arms, was smiling and catching snowflakes on his tongue.

We arrived after 45 minutes of hiking, tossed our pants and socks in the dryer while we warmed ourselves with hot chocolate (them) and wine (moi).  Mark had driven about five miles in two hours before finding a place to stop and eat while waiting for the traffic to thin.  We were all home and ready to plow the driveway before 8.

The little beans are sleeping soundly in their beds, the snow is still falling outside, the families at the hospital will fill their bellies with homemade treats tomorrow and I will return to find my car in the parking garage, where, as Braedan noted, “it’s used to sleeping.” Better than last year, that’s for sure!

Thanks for all the responses to yesterday’s post.  First and foremost, I am no saint of a mother. Not at all. I’m impatient with my kids and short-tempered and have learned (the hard way) that screaming, “BE NICE!” is not the most effective parenting technique.

But I am quite pleased at the number of people I’ve talked to in the past twenty-four hours who’ve said that they’re now inspired to do something similar this holiday season. I told the boys this afternoon about friends who’ve heard they’re buying gifts for others and now want to do the same. So instead of just bringing Christmas (or Hanukkah) to two children, they’ll be responsible for bringing Christmas (or Hanukkah) to many. They thought that was pretty cool.

Austin is so into collecting money for our Providence House boxes that we used the extra hours of sunshine this afternoon to clean out my car (waaaay overdue), finding another $1.58 in sticky coins. And Braedan is positively wowed by the fact that we might round up an entire hundred dollars. We’re gonna cut coupons as an additional lesson in stretching our money as far as possible to have the biggest impact. Of course, I’m not actually going to bring all our change to the store — no matter how great a lesson that may be, I’m just not willing to do it.

I called Providence House today to see if they would take used shoes or clothes and they said no, only new, which is sort of a bummer but also understandable. She did say they would take books, puzzles and educational toys or games if they appeared new (of which we actually have a few). But mostly, we’ll be buying basics like diapers and baby food. If any of you want to add a few small items to the boxes, you can just drop them off at my house or bring them to me at school or wherever you see me before December 10.  I know it would seem silly to drive all the way down there to deliver a single bottle of laundry detergent, but if we work together we could make quite a significant contribution . . . and quite a significant difference.

Speaking of collecting and delivering small items, I have another amazingly simple idea. When we were in-patient, I was lucky enough to shower at home almost every day. But for most parents, you’re stuck in the hospital, far from home, often having arrived with little warning and little packing and perhaps no toiletries.  The floor staff provides toothbrushes and mini toothpaste, plus soap and baby shampoo, but that’s it. And I, for one, can not wash my hair without conditioner. It’s not about vanity — it would simply get too tangled to pull a comb through (and okay, it’s a little about vanity — you already feel awful, no need to look awful too).

So I spoke with a woman today at the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Rainbow.  This is a volunteer-run space with computers and massage chairs and old magazines where parents can unwind or take a small break from the exhausting work of watching over their sick child. They have free bagels and coffee and an always-full basket of candy to choose from. So I asked the woman if they would keep a basket of sample-sized toiletries for parents to take when necessary. She was thrilled and said they’ve had one in the past but it’s not currently stocked.

Soooooo, if you have any hotel shampoo (and conditioner!), lotions or soaps or even those samples you get when you buy make-up at the department store, bring them to me and I’ll put together a basket for the hospital. It’s such a tiny gesture and seems so minor, trite even, in light of what these parents are dealing with on any given day, but it’s nice to be able to wash your hair and even nicer to indulge for a brief moment.

I hope I can continue to inspire you. As so many of you continue to inspire me. Thanks and giving all around.

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