Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Earth Day" Year 'Round

On April 22nd, we celebrated Earth Day in many areas of the country. Many people practiced clean environmental strategies by reducing, reusing, and recycling. Some rode their bikes to work; others even stayed home to work. This week on Thursday, May 14th, is "Bike to Work Day" in the Bay Area, another chance to serve the community at large by reducing hazardous emissions in our atmosphere. To further improve the environment, two very energetic and ambitious Palo Alto High School students have dedicated their spare time this school year to environmental awareness year round.

Mike Abrams and Renee Singh, both high school freshmen, launched an effort "to increase ecological sustainability within every PALY classroom." They approached me several months ago with the goal of providing donated plants for the school. I must admit that the plan seemed like a bit of a reach given the state of the local economy. However, after their concerted efforts working with several nurseries and suppliers, they have now succeeded in placing thirteen plants in the science classrooms and offices. This has not been merely a one-day event, but a weekly focus with a purpose.

Mikey and Renee recently shared their story with me:
"Renee and I were inspired to create the Paly Environmental Initiative after spending a few months at PALY and seeing just how much the school as a whole needed to environmentally improve. We wanted to look for ways to better air quality in the classrooms first, because we thought it would have the greatest impact on our student body. After researching ways to clean indoor air, we found out that certain indoor plants can alleviate pollution from airborne bacteria and computer debris. After further research, Renee and I started the PEI, and went from nursery to nursery asking for plant donations. And now, 23 teachers in 4 departments have cleaner classrooms. In the future we will continue to expand this project and develop new ones - some of our ideas include a "plant-a-thon" to put more trees in the campus and solar paneling PALY."

It is a joy to watch hundreds of students at our high school become passionate about a cause and dedicate their time and resources to serving the community in ways that really make a difference. Thanks to these caring freshmen, our classrooms will be cleaner and even more aesthetically appealing. They even have a lunchtime maintenance plan of watering in the Science and History departments every Tuesday, and in the English and Math departments on Wednesday. Obviously, these aren't your average students "hanging out" during lunch. They fit right in, as this is not your average school. Go Mikey and Renee!

Interested in making a difference in the environment?
  • San Francisco Bay Area Bike to work day: May 14, 2009. Link: http://www.sfbike.org/?btwd
  • Earth Day Activities and Events: http://www.earthday.gov/
  • Start an environmental club in your school or community

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Robert and The Key

“What Would You Do if A Giant Lived in Your Town?”
~Annell Williamson, 1992, as written in a letter to her son Cory Williamson.

What would you do if a Giant lived in your town? Would you run and hide or be afraid? Or would you wish he did not live there and he was dead. Would you throw rocks at him to try and make him leave r even try to kill him before he got mad and smashed your town.

It would take a lot of courage, but if a Giant lived in my town I would very quietly sneak up to his doorstep and leave a plate of cookies. BIG giant cookies with a big note that said, “TO THE KIND GIANT!”

He would find the cookies, look at the note and say in his big deep voice, “Hmm, kind giant? Cookies for a kind giant?”

Every day, on my way to school I would walk by the Giant’s big house and when I saw him in his big yard I would wave and yell, “Hello kind Giant!”

He would wave back and think to himself, “KIND GIANT? I am a kind Giant?”

On Saturday I would go to the Giant’s house to visit him and I would ask the Giant if he would be my friend. He would say, “Yes, I will be your friend because I am a kind Giant!”

Then he would pick me up and put me on his shoulders. I would feel so tall! We would walk down through town waving at everyone--the kind Giant and me. I’m glad I have a Giant that live in my town. Especially a kind Giant.

Last week, during one of my substitute teaching assignments as a PE teacher I discovered that one of the students in my class was the same one who had a very hard time cooperating in the special education classes where I had been scheduled the week before. He is one of those students who can bring entertainment value to the rest of the students in class, due to his disruptive humor. When I was "Robert's" (name changed) teacher in Special Ed, out of desperation I incorporated my mother's advice of "accentuate the positive." She spent thirty years teaching, mostly in the Special Education setting, so her wisdom carries a lot of weight. I guess my earlier acceptance of Robert paid off; he wasn't able to blend into the PE activities, but he did find time to do a good deed during class.

All of our teams were playing "ultimate frisbee," and Robert discovered that the other students weren't including him. I worried that this would set off his reaction of wreaking havoc on the field. He ended up going onto the track and talking with another student who was also being left out. If I had been his regular teacher, I would have required him to stay in the game. But a quiet Robert is an accomplishment. I kept checking in with him and talking to him in a friendly voice. Toward the end of class he asked me if I had lost a key? I looked in my pocket, and sure enough my car key was missing. I had taken it off the cluttered keychain to fit into my pocket, so it made no noise when it fell out onto the football field.

Robert was elated that he was able to make a positive impact for me that day. I gave him my sincerest appreciation and explained that he saved me an entire afternoon of searching all over campus to be able to drive my car home. He reminded me, "Most students around here would have thrown that key into the bushes, you know." Although he spoke the truth, I was proud of him that he chose to make a difference for good, and not to behave like "most students”. People generally rise to our expectations; I'm very happy that my mother taught me to expect the best, even from students like Robert. We may not know why people act out or seem to cause trouble all the time, but with our nurturing words we can bring out the good in those around us.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Power of ONE

Recently, Erika Ji, Jess Brooks and some very driven and talented Key Club members at our high school launched a fundraising campaign for the organization One Dollar for Life. This is a nonprofit specifically designed to give teenagers an outlet for giving, by making hundreds of small donations in their schools. Where most charitable organizations focus on large gifts to maximize efficiency, “ODFL” has targeted this population of young donors to give just one dollar at a time. Their website, www.odfl.org, lists such accomplishments as these among others:
• “Bought 2 milk cows for an orphanage in Kenya in Spring 2008”

• “Collected and sent 452 bikes to Africa in Spring 2008”
• “Constructed a new 3 room school in Nepal in Summer 2008”

Last week I noticed that most classrooms at the school now boast a small cardboard box with the ODFL logo to remind students that they each have the power to make a difference by contributing just ONE DOLLAR toward these worthy projects. I hope some will choose to contribute more; but if each and every student were to follow through with this request, over $1800 dollars could be raised in ONE MONTH very little sacrifice. The Salvation Army is another charity that relies on our small donations. During the last two holiday season’s I decided I would give a dollar each time I passed the kettle. I estimate the total spent was about twenty dollars; what would happen if everyone gave a little each time? That is the synergistic power of one: the combined total effort is greater than the sum of all parts. The power of one can accomplish good works in the world community.

The value of one also translates to incredible contributions of time. Working in a school environment, I have learned the value of ONE MINUTE: a thank-you email, a helpful post-it reminder to a colleague, a phone message picked up even though I feel too busy. When put into perspective, the good that I have witnessed our dozens of volunteers accomplish in ONE HOUR is far-reaching: copies made and distributed for a teacher, the secretary’s desk manned while she takes a lunch break, books organized and re-shelved at the library. Children, teenagers, and adults can all adopt this concept of one-hour volunteering. How much good can come of consistent charitable service for one hour, ONCE A WEEK for ONE YEAR? Fifty-two hours of positive energy is bound to have a lasting effect somewhere.

Another observation on this tiny little number is the sharing of ONE IDEA, an effort that takes minimal time and exertion. Plant a seed and someone with the necessary resources is bound to latch on. My friend Carolyn shared such an idea as we planned a collaborative humanitarian project with our church group last fall. Many years ago, she had worked on a team to produce painted canvas wall hangings for orphanages in under-devoloped countries. Another member of our group, Megan, was deeply touched by this concept and quickly took the reins. Not only did she design and execute the completion of five brightly painted and quilted wall hangings at our event; she has continued to work on ten more with friends and neighbors in her home over the last several months. She even brought them to the high school, where the Youth Community Service club joined her for a fun afternoon of painting these whimsical works of art.

If Carolyn hadn’t shared this ONE IDEA last fall, we would have all missed out on a chance to make a difference for children who have so little. If the school volunteers were not able to spare ONE HOUR during their week to help teachers and staff, we would never understand the caring and support that exists in our community. And if the students were unable to spare ONE DOLLAR to help the international causes sponsored by organizations such as One Dollar for Life, we would never fully comprehend the impact of our collective efforts. If we desire to leave the world a better place, we must never underestimate the power of
one in our daily lives.

Interested in running a fundraising campaign in your school?
Check out this link for humanitarian projects at One Dollar for Life: http://www.odfl.org/

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thank You: The Ripple Effect

Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash, and it is gone;
But there’s half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and
Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the
And there is no way of telling where the end is going to

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: just a flash and it is
But there’s half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and
Bearing hope and joy and comfort on each splashing,
dashing wave
Till you wouldn’t believe the volume of the one kind
word you gave.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: in a minute you forget;
But there’s gladness still a-swelling, and there’s joy
a-circling yet,
And you’ve rolled a wave of comfort whose sweet music can
be heard
Over miles and miles of water just by dropping on kind

~James W. Foley

Monday evening I sat down to write and discovered a writer’s worst nightmare: I didn’t have anything to say. Though I was in a happy mood, I couldn’t think of a single good deed or act of kindness observed from the day’s events. Then I remembered the first thirty minutes of the morning. I arrived at work and checked to find out who were those responsible for a wonderfully elaborate, decorative, and entertaining dinner party/baby shower we had all attended on Friday night. I sat down to shoot off an email to let them know of my appreciation, but I was too late. One of the hostesses, “party-planner Jenny,” who had worked many hours to plan and execute the affair, beat us to the keyboard: “Thanks for making Friday night and Kim's baby shower so wonderful. I thank you each for your contribution to the party, for your participation and for your good cheer. It really was an extra beautiful party and fun had by all. We are a great team.”

I thought Jenny had dedicated enough of her time to planning this event that we should not only give her thanks, but maybe even an extra day off. Here she was first thing Monday morning thanking the guests, most of us who simply brought a dish to share. I hurried to get a word in: “I sincerely appreciate all of your work to provide a wonderful evening on Friday night for Kim's shower. I enjoyed celebrating the pending arrival, and I especially appreciated a chance to get out and to be in the company of so many interesting and wonderful people in our department. Thanks for your generosity!”

Minutes later, Alice, the gracious provider of a museum-quality venue (and who undoubtedly the one who stayed up late cleaning up after we went home), added her words: “The party wouldn't have been what it was without all your help! What a great combination...yummy food, fab flowers, sweet decorations, delish desserts, great games, pretty cute and educational presents, and good old-fashioned fun. We missed those that couldn't come and appreciate their additions, too.” Within one hour of the week starting, we were in the midst of a “thank you shower,” and it was fun!

The notes of gratitude continued from Jacquie: “My sincerest thanks to the organizers of the event...and what an event it was!” Then Margo chimed in: “Thanks to YOU Alice for the great hosting - your house is lovely and it felt like dinner at a fine restaurant - thanks to all for such great food. Thanks also to Sandra for organizing the fun games (no thanks to Susan for being such a trivia whiz!) and special thanks to Kim for giving us such a fun reason to celebrate!”

While studying at John Robert Powers finishing school as a teenager, I was taught that we should always send thank you notes within twenty-four hours of receiving a gift or after having been hosted for a meal in someone’s home. I have procrastinated my expressions of gratitude many times in the past due my inability to slow down in the fast lane of life. These ladies have all taught me, and continue to remind me, of the kind deeds that can have a ripple effect like the pebble in the water. Putting a party together was their gift to me; the ripples of good will continue in our department as we share in the spirit of thanks.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What's the Rush?

I think my mom would say I was born to worry and hurry. I've always put too much pressure on myself to overachieve, whether or not there is a payoff. For some strange reason I've felt the need to go faster and try harder. I left work on Friday afternoon with quite a few errands to run, all before a dinner party which was to start at 5:30 p.m. In my typical fashion, I had the post-it note in hand and the two-hour time window to finish four hours of running around. The rest of the valley must have all felt the same way, because everywhere I went there was a traffic jam, from Costco, back to the school, to the post office, then the grocery store and home to get ready and make a special salad for the party.

Maybe you had a relaxing afternoon on Friday. If so, send me some pointers. At Costco, I felt trapped in the parking lot due a blocked intersection and pedestrians in the middle of the lane. I was twenty minutes late to pick up the girls after choosing to go the wrong way--right into a construction zone on the main drag. I dropped off the girls then tried to quickly finish the errands, but of course, more traffic. By the time I made it to the post office, I realized I only had one hour to pick up mail (after waiting in line!), purchase supplies at the market and make the salad, and then freshen up for the party. A wave of anxiety washed over me. There was no way to succeed this afternoon; I had once again taken on too much in too little time.

As I quickly leafed through the mail stack, several others waited to use the new "APC," or automated postal center, the self-service machine for mailing packages. There was a woman who seemed uncomfortable with this new method and she needed to ask for help. She and I both sensed the next customer breathing down her back, ready to leap at her turn. Then the confused lady surprised me in a very kind way, reminding me that life doesn't need to be so frantic all the time. She stepped aside and looked at the hurried woman with her bundle, "Why don't you go ahead? I can tell you're in a hurry and it's going to take me awhile." She wasn't giving the second customer a guilt trip; her sincerity was apparent. The lady sounded a little uneasy but replied, "Are you sure? Well, thank you very much." She processed her package and was out the door in minutes.

There were at least three people affected in this instance between the two customers and myself. It slows us down when someone gives us their place in line, even if we are being a little less than polite. And those in the room notice both behaviors for better or worse. The gentle woman changed my demeanor from frantic to subdued, as I contemplated how many of us often go faster than we should during the day.
Feeling as if I had just taken a muscle relaxant or something, I proceeded to the grocery store in search of shrimp and avocados

I neared the intersection before the market, and an elderly couple shuffled through the crosswalk, the woman's arm linked through her partner's as if holding him up. I stopped to let them across, and a white Yukon revved it's engine behind me suggesting, "Green light, let's go!" I felt a sense of awe and reverence for this couple while pausing to observe. As I inched forward, the Yukon screamed through the light to let me know I had held him up. I didn't care, I had switched from hyper-speed to stop-and-smell-the-roses.

Thankfully, the sense of anxiety I had felt earlier did not return as I grabbed the groceries and returned home. All in good time, the salad was made, makeup reapplied, clothes changed, and I picked up my co-worker to drive to our party. She had a hectic afternoon as well, so we arrived a little late. As our hostess opened the door to greet us, I thought of the APC customer who gave way to another, and of the sweet ninety-year-olds crossing the street. Instead of feeling stressed out at being late again, I could not help but smile as I joined my friends in a carefree celebration of a pending baby's arrival. Thanks to one small act today, my outlook was changed. Life is good.

Cool Service Tips:
Want to switch from hyper-speed to stop-and-smell the roses?
  • Leave a flower on a friend's car or doorstep. (Important: never tell who did it.)
  • Make a conscious attempt to hold the door open for the person ahead of you or behind you, even if it takes an extra few seconds. (Remember to smile, or this will backfire.)
  • Go ahead and give the other car plenty of room to merge in front of you. (It's not a race.)
I'm not an expert, but these things all worked last time I tried them... Bina

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Best Medicine

I have never been good at remembering jokes. When we were little, my brother Carl would have me in stitches with his “Sandler-esque” humor. Unlike his older sister, he never forgot the punch lines. I like to tell self-deprecating goofy stories, but jokes are not my strength. On the other hand, Frank, a checker at our neighborhood market sees me coming. I try to avoid him because I know he’ll try to make me laugh, and purchasing groceries isn’t supposed to be that funny. Yesterday I realized I was in the wrong line when I looked up and saw him, but I didn’t want to be rude so I just looked down as he told the customer in front of me another corny joke. “What’s the deal with this guy?” I thought. “He’s slowing down the line with his chit-chat.”

Next, it was my turn. I looked around and saw no customers at the other register, but it was too late to make a run for it. “Here we go again,” I said to myself. It was the old joke about the plane taking off and crashing right on the border between two countries, and with this dilemma where should they bury the survivors? (Punch line: survivors are not buried—duh). Frank spiced up the details with a very emphatic fact: “They were serving chicken cordon bleu on board.” (Huh?) The joke would have made me snicker faintly out of respect at a party, but suddenly I considered the fact that I was standing in a grocery store checkout line with this guy trying to make me laugh, and Macy, the bagger, arguing with him about his poor delivery and the fact that it was really “her joke” in the first place. That’s when I started to laugh. I mean, really, when was the last time the grocery store checker tried to entertain you? I was still giggling on my way out to the car, and it didn’t even bother me that there was a squished tomato all over of the bag, inside and out! This is the same market where another checker and I celebrated his son’s home run last Saturday, so it's obviously a different kind of store.

For those of us who tend to take life too seriously at times, there are people in our midst who can help us stay just a little off balance. My coworker Meri is another such being. She happened to be wearing a heart monitor under her striped sweater today for a routine medical test. We ate lunch in a nearby restaurant, and someone’s cell phone rang with a beeping tone. Meri said, “Oh dear, am I beeping?” I tried to keep a straight face, “Are you supposed to beep?” We both started cackling that maybe she was in need of medical assistance and it was good that we were at least near a hospital. Meri is in good health, thank goodness, but we enjoyed joking about the adhesive sensors poking out from her shirt all day—she looked like she had escaped from her hospital bed. I’m thankful Meri likes to laugh.

My daughter Sheridan also has the laughter gene. I know she didn’t get it from me, but it’s rubbing off over time. She’s even started her own blog to lighten our hearts. Lots of funny stories are on their way. She is the ringleader of the three girls, so when they get started, watch out! Sometimes Brody and I just stand back and call them “The Three Stooges.” Laughter is their common language, and they speak it frequently when they are together. They try to teach me this “giddy teenage girl” dialect. The only time I remember succeeding in their league was a few years ago when we were attmpting to catch a bee in Sheridan’s room. I kept swatting and missing, with the kids screaming out the transient location of the pest. After several attempts, I fell into a heap on the floor and we laughed until tears started flowing. Fortunately, it doesn’t take a bee, a heart monitor, or an old joke to get these girls started. All they need is a few minutes in the same room. Maybe that’s a privilege of youth, but it’s refreshing to know that characters like Frank the checker, Macy the bagger, and Meri the teacher can also remind us that it’s okay to look for laughter in our days.

Cool Volunteering/Community Service Tip:

If you like to tell stories and jokes, or if you just like to make others smile...

1.) Spend some time volunteering in a local convalescent home or assisted living facility. They love to have people from the community visit. Contact the volunteer coordinator to schedule, whether just once or on a weekly/monthly basis.

2.) The clown lives! Check out Ronald McDonald House Charities for great volunteering opportunities near you: http://www.rmhc.com/how-you-can-help/volunteer/