Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Charity Navigator and My Daddy: Veterans Day 2015, Honoring All Who Served

Charity Navigator: Veterans Day 2015: Honoring All Who Served: Veterans Day, November 11th, is an annual celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism and  sacrifice.

What can I say more? My Daddy, veteran Carl H. Steffens, Sr. made the fortuitous choice to serve as a U.S. Navy pilot at Alameda Naval Base in the early days of Silicon Valley. Along with thousands of others who came in the late 1950s, these mavericks created and changed the world after their service with the advent of Silicon Valley. So very grateful to him for his sacrifice of four years keeping our country free and safe, and now to my son-in-law, Private Tom Ames, for his service in the U.S. Army.

Do an act of service today to honor our veterans and our active-duty service men and women! 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Soften a Heart with Kindness and Courtesy

So I adopted a dog two weeks ago, the same week that my youngest daughter, Gracie, married her best friend, Tommy. Which was the day before my son, Brody, and his wife, Laura, gave birth to their twin girls, Lily Maria and Charlotte Louise. Which was a few days before I purchased a home with my oldest daughter, Sheridan and her husband, Mike. Which was the same week my middle daughter, Meredith, was looking for an apartment so she could move out of her dad's place and adopt a pup of her own, a German shepherd named Rex. Which brings me back to the point of the story, adventures with my adopted rescue dog Rosie, formerly "Summer."

Now I have a whole new schedule. No more sleeping in 'til the very last second; there's a furry friend on the bed who needs to be walked before work. No more throwing the running shoes on right when I get home; dog has to go first or she flips out. It's okay, I will adjust and it's all worth it. Unless...I actually DO get flattened by a mountain bike on the trail next time we head that direction. Sheesh. The trail signs in the foothills clearly and graphically remind cyclists that walkers have right-of-way, with a reminder that bikers and horseback riders must yield. Rosie and I were minding our business, enjoying the crisp fall air along the pathways trail in Los Altos Hills, when without the slightest warning a headphone-clad, scruff-shaven mountain biker comes screaming down the hill. Not able to figure out his intentions, my adoptee and I freeze to stay out of his way--knowing that he is in the wrong. He glares at us, sniffs, and goes skidding sideways to avoid us by only a few inches. In a terrified squeak, I manage "hello," hoping to get at least an "oops" out of him. No way. He speeds up and I then I take license to squawk a choice derogatory term. For which I felt justified, until today. 

It was equally gorgeous outside, so Rosie and I had to partake of the trails again. Still gun-shy from the near miss on Thursday, we decided to try another route, where we were less likely to share the trail. Not so. This time, it wasn't a mountain bike, but SIX road bikes whizzing by on single track. I remembered the j--- from before and gave the first guy in the group a sneer, paying forward what the j---- mountain biker did to me. Hmmmph, I thought. I'll be darned if we get rammed off the trail again. 

Either they sensed my brush-off, or they were simply nice people--thank goodness. Each and every cyclist in the group as they went past said "Hello!" and "Have a great day!" Niceties like that, and the guilt came rushing in. By the third well-wisher I was smiling instead of sneering. That's all it took to restore my trust in trail cyclists again. The abruptness of the earlier encounter melted away and I felt quite cowardly for giving the rude guy a nickname. These six cyclists with their kind words and smiles softened my heart while traveling the trails. Rosie and I will remember this bright spot and use it for inspiration, hoping for the opportunity to make someone smile the way a group of six macho cyclists did for us in the hills today. 
Rosie the shelter dog takes in the stunning architecture and trails at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, CA

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Random Acts of Kindness at Thanksgiving

Palo Alto High School Random Acts of Kindness Club promotes gratitude at our decadent turkey feast and canned food drive for Second Harvest Food Bank. Photo courtesy of Hegene Lee
Palo Alto High School R.A.K. Club promotes the spirit of gratitude .
Photo: Facebook PALY ARK (Acts of Random Kindness) Club
Photo: Facebook Oakland Firefighters Random Acts (Non-profit Oganization)

Random Acts of Kindness Foundation gives us a new focus. 
Stressed about Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the holiday season? Try taking the advice of Random Acts of Kindness Foundation for #RAKFriday. So, to keep it simple you can do RAK any day this week! Palo Alto High School students celebrated with a turkey feast and canned food drive for Second Harvest Food Bank on Friday, which gave our Random Acts of Kindness (ARK) club a chance to promote gratitude at our school. Oakland Firefighters and Fenton's Creamery (best ice cream on the planet) in Piedmont, CA are teaming up throughout the month of November to promote acts of service to under-served groups in those communities. A Random Act of Kindness for which I am deeply grateful this week: My son-in-law's adoptive family has opened their tiny home for me and my kids to join them for a Thanksgiving feast, along with a myriad of other guests that will undoubtedly not even come close to fitting into the small designated space. We are grateful for open doors, and for truly open hearts!

Thanksgiving challenge: Instead of worrying about making Thanksgiving "perfect," or getting all the Black Friday deals to be conquered, focus on just one meaningful "RAK" to show gratitude this week. Some acts of kindness are small, some are immense; all will change our hearts.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A chance for good works: kindness needed in Silicon Valley

I said a wish and a prayer for the Indian tech worker, name badge still on, stuck in the middle of El Camino Real tonight. Especially memorable: the driver of a souped-up Mercedez-Benz blaring his horn as he turned in two directions at the stop light and screeched around us. 
"Agro" is what my angelic brother Carl says when a person rages irrationally. That's what the hothead in the slate blue Benz was today as I commuted home from the main drag near Stanford University. As you can see in the photo, a not-so-old Toyota had stalled and needed a tow. I was the lucky recipient of multiple honks and screeching tires as I didn't move fast enough to get out from behind said broken-down vehicle. 

Funny, yesterday on my way to work I noticed a car about the same age with flashers on, blocking a turning lane. Impatient drivers squealed around as the woman inside glanced in every direction pleading for help on her cell phone. In the old days, before we all had phones and other gizmos in our cars, people would actually offer to push a disabled vehicle to the side and out of traffic. Everyone in the jam would be ecstatic to have the barrier removed while the do-gooders could demonstrate their superhuman strength. No such luck this week for the two drivers in need of car repairs, Silicon Valley is in too much of a hurry. 

When my children were small I purchased a clunker VW Vanagon for $3000 and it was a dream come true--until the first break down, and then the second and beyond. I began to believe in angels when an elderly gentleman pulled over within a few feet of my van as it stalled on the freeway--me traveling pregnant with a toddler and a soon-to-be kindergartener. The flanneled retiree casually approached from his 1960s Chevy pickup, tow rope in hand! Like I said, that was the good old days. Thank goodness my son, who drives a late-model Range Rover and may someday need a lift, lives far away from our "agro" bunch here in Silicon Valley. He might just get a push instead of a blaring horn.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Give a Hand to Homeless: Bring Back Community Spirit to Silicon Valley

photo credit:

           I work in a high school that is located essentially across a swanky shopping center from a homeless shelter. The InnVision Opportunity Center is a local resource for families, and sometimes single individuals. Palo Alto is a magnet for people in need of shelter, with the train close by and more services available than the neighboring towns. If you were a woman in need, and could get no response from the folks at the shelter, what would be your next alternative to ask for help? Maybe Stanford Hospital, the police department, or even a nearby school?

            One late spring evening I stayed late to catch up on my work. It was the day after our school-wide service day, one of my signature efforts for the year. A former student poked his head in the door, introducing me to his girlfriend whom he was touring around his old alma mater. Then he said in passing, “And, oh, by the way, did you know there is a homeless lady down the hall in the kitchen?” The entire building was closed, except for a door leading from the staff lounge/kitchen to the lacrosse field where our team was playing. I took my time, because I wrongly felt that I had already done my duty by orchestrating the Service Day activities for hundreds of students and dozens of nonprofit organizations.

            But “the meek shall inherit the earth,” and I had no right to discriminate between this woman's situation and the needs of the organizations our students had worked to benefit. The thought that there was someone with no place to sleep that night haunted me out of my office and into the hallway of the Tower Building.

            “Hi, are you looking for someone?” I inquired of the unkempt middle-aged woman sitting at a table in the staff lounge.

            “Hi, I’m Colleen. I got turned away at the shelter and I’m looking for a place to stay tonight.”

            I stepped out of the kitchen, into the doorway looking onto the lacrosse field. Nightfall brought unusually crisp temperatures tonight.

            “I’m not sure if I can help, but I’ll try. Do you have any identification? A cell phone?” Colleen showed me the contents of her purse, which contained a passport, comb, and other items that looked of little use. “Hang onto that passport, it’s like gold for you right now.” Colleen told me she knew that it was her only worthwhile possession. She also explained that the reason she had no belongings was that she had gotten mixed up with a bad person and she had to flee. We talked about whether she needed to go to the hospital. She told me she had already been, and they had discharged her. At this point, I could tell she had mental health issues and I knew I was way out of my element. Colleen needed to get to a place where there were professionals who could counsel and guide her—not a high school staff member.

            In the end, I rallied two students, Audrie and Claire, by Facebook alert, as they just happened to be over at the lacrosse match. Claire is a regular volunteer at the shelter, so between her and the friend, and myself all calling shelters around town on a Friday night and wishing for someone, anyone to answer the phone—we finally found a place for Colleen. We loaded her into a taxi with instructions for the driver to call us when he had safely delivered her to the shelter downtown San Jose.

            We had given this tender woman our cell phone numbers, email addresses, but never heard from her after that chilly springtime evening. I was grateful that she didn’t have to spent that particular night outside—but regretted her problem wouldn’t be relieved with one taxi ride. There are others like Colleen, such as Cathryn, who came to the very same hallway exactly one month later. I have a story about Cathryn too, rolling her suitcase through the Tower Building. I tried to shy away again, but knew this situation was staring me in the face for a reason. By connecting mentally challenged and middle-aged Cathryn to a couple of fellow shelter seekers, I watched the spirit of community facilitate good works as the more seasoned pair warmly offered to escort Cathryn to the shuttle that would deliver her to a warm bed for the weekend in East Palo Alto.

            It’s a season away, and I think about these two ladies a lot, and the profound message affecting me, as with other experiences helping others from the shelter-seeking population. Silicon Valley didn’t used to be the way it is, with every man (woman) for himself or herself. I grew up here when we were buoyed daily by true community spirit.  I wish for that former sense of care, when the valley wasn’t driven by manic entrepreneurs in search of the next big idea. The first concept that helped us grow into what we’ve become started with welcoming all and taking care of each other. 

NEWS FLASH Fall 2014: Board of Supervisors takes action

Palo Alto's Downtown Streets Team Success Story!

Get Involved: Community Working Group with Opportunity Center, Palo Alto

Get Involved: Volunteer at InnVision in the Bay Area

LifeBuzz: They Asked Homeless People To Write Down A Fact About Themselves…

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mother and Son Good Works Challenge

There are so many stories I could have written over the past six months, but have been a little out of sorts. Last week, my newly-married son, Brody, and I had a really nice conversation over the phone about "transformational experiences." I had told him about a somewhat negative response I received from a twenty-something woman when I tried to inform her that we had almost crashed due to her malfunctioning car headlight. My intention had been to "help her," but she took offense and snapped something out of her window across a couple of lanes of traffic. The rest of the way back to my daughter's home, a half-hour drive in pitch dark, I considered this young woman's defensive response and how I might have made a difference for good, instead of turning the situation negative for both of us.

Brody and I talked about the ideal response to the headlamp situation, based on the teachings from his favorite coach Tony Robbins and on my goal of spreading goodness in the world--especially when things are not easy in my own life. So, here is our exchange, a mother-and-son challenge for each of us to handle an otherwise aggravating circumstance, and make it transformational for the person or people with whom we feel annoyed in the moment. We planned to have such an experience within the week, watching for a situation in which we would go the extra mile to create change.

First, Brody's story of transformation...He's a hip twenty-something, and I'm an English teacher--so I couldn't refrain from adding caps and punctuation. :-)

Congrats momma on a very good experience!!  I also had an experience at Home Depot. We were walking to get into the checkout line and noticed a couple of people that were in line got out of line and went to the self check out. When we got into the isle for checkout there were 3 young children counting change on the counter trying to buy candy. They were each going to make their own purchase with their own money which was admirable but the old familiar feelings wer boiling inside and I began to notice my mind wondering why they were doing this at home depot? why right now? This isn't a grocery store or candy store so why are they taking so long. And they need to be more considerate of people who were shopping at home depot for the right reason. But after noticing those thoughts and remembering our conversation I had two choices, do what the other people had done before me and angrily walk out of the line to the self checkout area or take the more difficult road so I decided to act quickly before I thought about it too much and so I told the cashier to put all of the candy the children were buying on our purchase and I would pay for their candy. It was gratifying to see the look on the kids' faces and I made sure to tell them that the next time they purchase candy they all needed to share the money they were spending because I had gotten there a little late and one of them had already purchased her candy. They were very sweet kinds and thanked Laura and me about ten times before running out the door and returning to their home which I hope wasn't too far away so they didn't cross any major roads. 

And next, Momma/Bina's...

I don't love going to movies alone, but realize I'll miss the good ones if I don't venture out. So, Friday night (date night, for some) I went to the late showing, of "The Hundred-Foot Journey." It was playing at a big complex with smallish inner theaters, and I was very happy to arrive early and spread out across a few seats with my purse and smuggled-in popcorn. The theater seemed like it was filling up, but there was still lots of room below the railing and walkway--closer to the screen.

Just as the trailers finished, a middle-aged couple stood near "my" row and the woman asked, "Would you mind moving down so we can take those 2 seats?" I looked down at all the empty seats below the railing, and looked at her date. He seemed a bit embarrassed that she was asking someone to move--after the lights had already dimmed. He just looked across the theater, and in the direction of the empty seats. She had a very insistent look on her face, and said, "I'll go blind if I sit down there."

I really, really wanted to say "No." But, I thought about our conversation, and knew I had to oblige--and find a way to go the extra mile here. So, instead of grumpily shuffling over, I looked up, smiled, and said, "Sure, no problem!" We all became very cozy in that row, with the guy right next to me wondering what had happened all of a sudden. :)

The next move could have been the real transformation, but I got shy and didn't do it. I thought, to meet the challenge I had with my son, I should offer them some of my smuggled popcorn. I thought about it a few times--so it was the right thing to do. But, no, I chickened out on that part. Instead, I opted for chatting with them at the end of the movie. It was a lot more coziness than I was comfortable with, but surprisingly I did regret not making the food offering. I'll have to try another challenge this week to get to that point, for sure.

Finally, Brody's wife Laura added this inspiring Facebook snippet today. 

I'm grateful to a son who created change within my own heart by talking about these ideas with me, and for being the mature, deep-thinking young man that he is. The challenge of looking for an opportunity set a positive, sweet tone for me during an otherwise difficult week. Thank you, Brody!