Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pour me a drink, my kid is turning 30

The first picture of Ariel

In March 1988, I was a 22 year old pregnant military spouse living in Alamaogordo, New Mexico.  I remember it like it was yesterday. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

I only lived in Alamogordo for a few weeks, just long enough to finish gestating and give birth to Ariel Marie, 9 lbs 1 oz, 21 1/2 inches long, and perfect. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

We moved on to Clovis, New Mexico only a few months later, where we learned to cope with the smells of herds of Texas cattle and the sleep deprivation of having a newborn. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

When she was 9 months old we flew to live in England. When we came back to the states she was 3 and spoke with an English accent.  

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

When she started Kindergarten we were living in Lubbock, Texas, and her beloved sister, and playmate, Lacey, was born. 

Pour me a drink, THAT kid is turning 25 in June! 

In middle school Ariel refused to go to her Confirmation and started reading Ayn Rand and Ann Rice. She was my first, and I had no idea what I was doing. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

In high school she cried before and after debate tournaments and became editor of the school newspaper. She looked like a fashion model in her prom dresses. I had no idea what I was doing. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

Trinity University awarded Ariel the President's Scholarship and she double majored in English and Communications. I thought maybe I'd done something right. 

Pour me a drink, that kid is turning 30. 

I knew day would come when she would move away but I wasn't expecting the news that it was 1,111 mikes away (I looked it up). She went off to Ft Lauderdale, Florida to be a newspaper reporter. 

Pour me a drink, my kid is turning 30. 

When she moved back home 4 years later she told me that journalism was dying, and she was depressed. I had no idea what I was doing. 

Pour me a drink, my kid is turning 30. 

Ariel proposed to her fiancé this past year and they're planning a wedding for April 2019.  They live and work and play and travel together. Her birthday is today and she is in Nevada at a conference for her work in the marketing department of a gaming company. 

Pour me a drink, my kid is a beautiful, accomplished young woman turning 30. 

Make it a double!  I hear 30 is the new 20. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Prevention is Hard: A prison pipeline story

For over 20 years I have been working in the nonprofit sector youth development space.  Over that same span of time my brother has been working in the federal prison system.  He says his side is winning. 

What he means by that is that he wins in the revenue department.  His system is more well funded than mine. Way more.  He recognizes this despite the fact that he is constantly lobbying to stop cutting federal funding for the prison system.  So here we both are:  Me struggling to find revenue to keep kids out of prison, and him struggling to find revenue to adequately care for them when they ultimately get there. 

Isn't that a happy family story?  

My brother (left) in a picture not involving work. #gospursgo
We came to this realization sitting around a bunch of beer coolers in a parking lot about 7 or 8 years ago.  The story is fuzzy in my memory* except for that vivid illustration of the consequences of a lack of funding for prevention in the youth development space.  My brother's union had a conference and the hotel they stayed in was right across the street from my nonprofit.  They basically packed out the hotel and one night they brought a barbecue grill across the street, and the prison guards and social workers had themselves a party.

We told them about our waiting list of kids needing mentors.  They told us about guard to prisoner ratios and how often that rule is broken. We talked about the challenges the kids in our program face, and how long they stay on the wait list; some til it's too late.  They were familiar with the dysfunctional cycles that plague the families of kids who end up in jail; they knew how common it was for multiple family members to all end up in prison.  We talked budgets and they laughed at ours (around $2 million).  They said the cycle of incarceration was inevitable and it was "nice of us" to try - but we would lose way more often than we win. As the beer flowed, they even laughed at us a little for even trying.

It's not a question of can we prevent kids from going to jail?  At my nonprofit we know that mentoring works.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that it does. But as I wrote about before, outcomes don't really matter in the current system.  One of the craziest things I have ever experienced in my professional career was when a state government department-head told me that it didn't matter that we were 100% successful in our program, and that had nothing to do with being funded.

A year or so ago we got a list of kids from our local probation department referred to us for mentoring services.  They were all between the ages of 14 and 17.  Most of them were already in our system - un-served back when they were 7,8, or 9 - what we called "file closed, unmatched." They were unmatched because we have around 1,000 kids on the wait list all the time and never enough  funding to meet the demand. You have to wonder if those 7,8 and 9 year olds had had mentors back in the day, would they have gone down the same path?  Probably not. 

Recently I spoke with a juvenile court judge and told him that getting kids in our program graduated was not a challenge.  He said that "can't be true," or he "would have heard about it.**  Why is it so hard to believe?  Because it sounds too easy?  Well, it's not easy. Running a quality mentoring program is very difficult.  Human relationships are complicated, and a quality mentoring program is a massive challenge to implement.  Part of the problem is that many mentoring programs are not quality, don't even track outcomes, and everyone assumes we are as marginally effective as they are, if at all.

Prevention is hard to measure. It's a challenge to prove that something that didn't happen might have happened if not for that intervention. But preventing the problem from happening is arguably less expensive - and easier- than fixing the problem once it's occurred. Those teenage boys referred to us from juvenile probation are now criminals.  Changing who they are now is a far greater challenge than teaching them to avoid that path when they are 7, 8 or 9. 

Just when we thought the situation couldn't get worse, along came the proliferation of for profit prisons. That's one way to solve a problem. There's no doubt in my mind that decreasing funding for juvenile delinquency prevention is related to the increase in for profit prisons.  When the future is all about keeping beds filled, why in the world would we invest in preventing it now?

So what's the point of this post?  I'm not sure, but I wrote it while on vacation from my nonprofit work.  The lack of investment in the prevention of juvenile delinquency weighs on me. One of the ways I cope with things that bother me is to write them down.  It doesn't solve anything but it tames the chaos in my brain, perhaps preventing madness. The situation is enough to drive anyone crazy, so you never know. I'm pretty sure that it would cost more to admit me. 

*there was a LOT of beer
**as if I have the funding to make sure everyone hears about my program! Can you say "nonprofit overhead?"

Monday, March 12, 2018

Prevention is Hard: The story of a glucose monitor

When I was pregnant at the age of 22 I had gestational diabetes.  They told me that it goes away most of the time after delivery, and it did. It came back 5 years later with my second pregnancy but went away again.  However, I started having higher glucose tests at my check ups than I had post pregnancy before, and when I had my third child in 2002, the diabetes stuck.  A lifetime of preventing pre-diabetes from becoming full-fledged diabetes began about a year later, and I have been swimming upstream against a health care system that refuses to prioritize prevention ever since.

During my 3rd pregnancy I was given a glucose monitor.  This is an amazing little device that tells you what your glucose levels are any time you prick your finger and feed it a drop of blood.  It's used to monitor sugar levels for the purpose of learning how to control them.  It was very hard to get one a year after I had my baby.  I wished I had kept the one I had during my pregnancy, but I thought the diabetes would go away.  I probably wouldn't have been able to get the lancets and tests strips anyway though.  As I watched my glucose levels rise and fall at appointments from 2003-2009, I asked several times for a monitor but was told it "wasn't necessary at this time."  In 2009 my A1C* went over 6.

I was determined to beat the evil diabetes and knew from pregnancy that I had the willpower to control it with diet and exercise. I read everything I could find about nutrition and glucose. I lost 40 pounds in 3 months and kept it off for over 5 years.  My glucose stayed steady at 5.  In 2014, I started gaining weight but couldn't figure out why. Over the next 2 years I gained about 30 pounds, kicking and screaming all the way.  I thought it was the infamous "metabolism" slowing down as I aged, but it turned out to be a non-functioning thyroid covered with polyps that may or may not be cancerous,  which I had hastily removed. 

It wasn't until 2016 when my A1C went over 7 that my insurance finally approved nutrition education that I no longer needed because I could have by then taught the classes. I asked for a glucose monitor again but they told me to "just go to the classes" because "the key is eating the right foods." I told them I was eating the right foods. They were skeptical. I asked if the thyroid problems could be causing my high glucose levels. They said no.  This turned out to be false. 

In 2016 I started seeing a glandular disease doctor to monitor my thyroid medication.  He became very interested in my diabetes problem and told me I needed medication.  I told him I could control it without medication and he told me all about how my organs and my eyesight would suffer if I didn't follow his advice. I drove home feeling defeated. I had lost the battle.  I was officially diabetic.

I had two choices:  Give up, take pills and go eat ice cream, or go see a different doctor.  I chose door number 2 and finally! found a doctor who gave me a glucose monitor.**  From February 2017 to June 2017, I lost 30 pounds and my A1C went from 7.1 to 5.3.  My doctor was so excited that she could not stop smiling. Seriously, she was just gleeful.  I don't think they see a lot of diabetes reversal.  I told her it was all the monitor. It is the missing piece in the Glucose Wars because it gives you the intel you need to understand what effect any food you ever eat has on your body.  It also helps me see the relationship between food and exercise.  For example, I can eat ice cream*** and then go for a walk and then test my levels 2 hours later.  If I test high I either ate too much ice cream or didn't walk long enough, or a combination of those factors that I can play with next time.  I can also monitor the effect my weight has on glucose levels.  I know that if I go over 150 lbs, my glucose levels will go higher than if I stay under 150.  It's a very powerful tool.

If I'd been able to get a glucose monitor in 2009, this would be a very different story.  I don't think  my A1C could have ever gone so high.  I honestly don't understand the reluctance to give them out, and it wasn't just the insurance - the doctors weren't supportive either.  Everyone was far more interested in prescribing medication that chemically lowers glucose - medication that can have the some of the same side effects that my doctor told me would happen if I continued to refuse medication! How freaking confusing.

I know the journey isn't over.  Stress can cause my glucose to rise even if I am doing the right things with food and exercise.  I saw that when I had the thyroid problems.  And controlling my weight is hard too, which probably does have something to do with metabolism over the age of 50.  But I feel that much more confident in my ability to win the war, now that I have the right tools.   The moral of this story is that prevention may be hard, but not necessarily for me now.  

*A1C is the number that measures your average glucose over the paste 3 months
**and an insurance company!
***it's usually not ice cream, it's way more likely to be mac-n-cheese or a hamburger

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Volunteering is good for your health

Having worked in the nonprofit sector for well over 20 years, I’m familiar with the concept that volunteering is good for the soul, but I recently came across an article describing the effect of volunteer work on PTSD veterans that just blew me away.  I was researching for a presentation I did for the Women in Finance about how beneficial it can be to volunteer.  Everyone knows it usually feels good to give of your time, but do we really understand the depth of the benefit?

A national survey on volunteering found that an overwhelming majority of volunteers reported feeling mentally and physically healthier after a volunteer experience, and that volunteers have better personal scores than non-volunteers on measures of emotional well-being including personal independence, capacity for rich interpersonal relationships and overall satisfaction with life. This survey found that:
  • 76% of people said volunteering made them feel healthier
  • 94% said volunteering improved their mood
  • 96% reported volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life
  • About a quarter reported that their volunteer work helped them manage a chronic illness by keeping them active and taking their minds off of their own problems
For those of us who have spent time giving back to the community or helping further a cause we believe in, those findings may not be surprising. It's not hard to believe that that helping others makes you feel good, but did you know that it can also help you live longer?

Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in the south of England analyzed data from 40 published studies and found evidence that volunteers had a 20% lower risk of death than their peers who do not volunteer. The study also found that volunteers had lower levels of loneliness and depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being.

Have you ever heard someone say that they often get more out of a volunteer experience than they gave?  It's because volunteering is just plain good for your health.

Evidence of volunteerism’s physical effects can be found in a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in Psychology and Aging. Adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. High blood pressure is an important indicator of health because it contributes to heart disease, stroke, and premature death. This study also found that:
  • 78 percent of volunteers said that volunteering lowered their stress levels.  
  • Mentally stimulating activities, like tutoring or reading, might be helpful for maintaining memory and thinking skills.
The study I came across involving veteran's mental health was very impressive:  Participants showed lower rates of PTSD and depression after taking part in a 6 month volunteer program. They volunteered 20 hours a week for The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit that deploys veteran volunteers on specific projects for up to six months. The results are amazing: 
  • Before volunteering, more than 50 percent of participants said they had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 23.5 percent reported symptoms of depression. 
  • By the program’s completion, only 43 percent showed signs of PTSD and just 15 percent still had signs of depression.
“All veterans in the service program showed improvements in overall health, mental health and social functioning,” said Monica Matthieu, lead researcher and Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Saint Louis University.  Matthieu said at first she was skeptical that volunteering could decrease symptoms of PTSD, but the data is beginning to sway her.

If anyone ever needed another good reason to go out and help others, all the research showing the  health benefits for volunteering should cause a rush on nonprofits everywhere.  Get out there!  You'll be happier and live longer.  Bonus!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Kicking Off the Mentennial

In honor of San Antonio's 300th year celebration, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas has kicked off a "300 Men" Campaign to recruit 300 male volunteers to become Big Brothers to kids on our wait list.

The campaign kicked off on New Year's Day and will run until Father's Day, June 17, 2018.  There are hundreds of boys on the wait list to get a Big Brother.  We hope to find mentors for 300 of them in honor of the Tricentennial. As we say in my home and in my office:  Any excuse for a celebration is a good excuse, but this is a really good excuse. 

My 15 year old, Zoe, created the portmanteau, "Mentennial" to describe this campaign. A portmanteau is a linguistic blend of words.  Zoe, like her sisters, is a wordsmith.  There is a great need to recruit more men.  Men don't heed the mentoring call to action as quickly or in as great many numbers as women do.  This leads to the following inequity in making matches  in the BBBS program:

  • 70% of kids who apply or are referred are boys
  • 30% of the volunteers who sign up to be Bigs are men
This results in a lot of "cross-gender" matches between Big Sisters and Little Brothers.  Don't get me wrong - these are some great relationships.  I had a Little Brother for many years, and we had such good times together and made lots of great memories over 10 years.  But boys need men as role models too, especially as they grow older.  When my Little Brother because a teenager, there were many times I though he could really use a Big Brother.  It's important to have someone who looks like you to look up to and emulate.

Therefore, it is even more important that we recruit Hispanic and African American men to be mentors because the majority of our boys are Hispanic and African American. The strategic plan developed by San Antonio's "My Brother's Keeper" Steering Committee states that:

"The staggering reality that young men of color are more likely to lag in reading proficiency, be expelled from school, or drop out of high school. Young men of color are more likely to be unemployed, enter the criminal justice system, and be victims of violent crime." 

This is called the Opportunity Gap, and it is exacerbated by the Mentoring Gap. A study commissioned by MENTOR conducted by Civic Enterprises in association with Hart Research Associates,  found that there are 9 million kids in our country growing up without any mentors. That means that 1 out of every 3 young people do not have the support of a positive caring adult . They lack the support many of us relied on as youth.

The findings of this study show a powerful mentoring effect as demonstrated by the life experiences of the young people surveyed and mentoring’s link to improved academic, social and economic prospects. If harnessed, this mentoring effect has the potential to help meet a range of challenges and strengthen our community and economy. Everyone knows that what kids need to succeed is access to positive role models and mentors who help them overcome the challenges of childhood and become successful, contributing members of society.  

Ways To Help
  • Sign up to mentor
  • Share this blog post
  • Share this 1 minute video:  Be a Big Brother
  • Share pictures from the video (below)
  • Tell a friend abut the campaign
  • Use the hashtags #300Men #300MenCampaign #tricentennialsa2018 #realmenmentor #mentoringmatters #whomentoredyou #sa300 #celebrate300 #satx
Also, there are Prizes! 
Men who sign up to become mentors (aka "Bigs") between New Year’s Day and Father’s Day will be entered into a drawing with a chance to win prizes.  Drawings will be held at the end of each month and on Father’s Day. Below is a sample of the prizes we have acquired so far:
  • A signed Tony Parker jersey
  • An all-team signed Spurs basketball
  • 2 game tickets 
  • A night stay at El Tropicano
  • Free Krispy Kreme doughnuts 

Our campaign will be more successful the more people we get to help spread the word. 
Here's to a successful campaign!

Previous posts I have written on mentoring:

Saturday, December 23, 2017

What will I do with myself after 32 years of parenting?

This holiday season my youngest child is 15 years old, and while I've had a long satisfying parenting run, I've been feeling a little wistful these days because I feel her childhood and my role in it, coming to an end. 

Everyone knows about empty nest syndrome. I never thought it would strike me. I've been waiting 30 years to have an empty nest. After a lifetime of nurturing I couldn't wait for the time when I didn't have to attend to the pressing needs of growing humans on a daily basis. 

I know that parenting never ends - my 2 oldest are in their 20's, but it's a different kind of parenting when they become adults. It's more like advising. Listening, watching and just being available.  You still worry, but for the most part they figure it out and do ok. And they do cool things all on their own. 

I started parenting early at age 22, but I eased slowly into the bigger family thing. So, I never had 2 kids in diapers at once - or two kids in the same school. My 3 kids are 14 years apart, so my oldest didn't have a sibling until she was a kindergartner, and she was 14 when her youngest sister was born.*

This span has resulted in my experiencing 10 years as a high school parent. High school was long and hard enough when I was in it myself - but to watch 3 teenage girls go through what teenage girls go through in high school for what will ultimately be 12 years - well you can imagine the anxiety. 

I'm so excited to see what Zoë does next, but what will I do the day she goes to college?  I picture myself having the house to myself. Working late and not having to worry about picking her up or making dinner. Doing whatever I want on the weekends. But instead of feeling relief, the relief I was always sure I'd feel, I feel wistful. Maybe it's a grass is always greener thing? 

But after parenting for so long, after being engaged in the most important thing any human can ever do - successfully nurture another human into adulthood- what will be the point of my life? Anything else I could possibly do would pale in comparison. And there are apparently NO grandchildren on the horizon. Sigh.  

I've really been enjoying the 2 older girls as adults lately though. We have a group text in which we share funny stories and perplexing questions. They are both happy in their lives and careers. It's fun to watch them with their younger sister too. They are 3 Musketeer-like. The bond is strong and sweet. I am an observer of the sisterhood, but I still feel participatory because I'm still raising Zoë. Once she leaves, will I just be on the outside? 

Maybe I'll finally think about finding a man and make everyone that's asked me about that in the last 10 years happy. 

Ha! Doubtful. 

Yesterday, my oldest got engaged, and so it goes on, the cycle of family. They say they probably won't have kids, but who knows, really. It would be nice to have the fun of grandkids without the overwhelming responsibility of parenting. 

Maybe I'll just get another cat. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

I was Principal for a Day

Today I shadowed an elementary school principal as part of a district-wide "Principal for a Day" program engineered by San Antonio Independent School District superintendent, Pedro Martinez. I got to spend several hours following around Principal Cynthia De La Garza, of Collins Garden Elementary School, on a beautiful brick campus over 100 years old.  The day was superbly coordinated with precision and rigor even when something unexpected occurred. I was impressed.

It was Awards Day, the 1st nine-weeks grading period having just ended, so I got to stand on stage for 3 different awards presentations, shaking students' hands and giving out ribbons for perfect attendance, good citizenship and honor roll. The school has over 500 students enrolled and today's awards went to Kinder, 1st and 2nd graders.  The 3rd, 4th and 5th graders get to walk across the stage tomorrow - I almost wish I could go back for it.  ;)  Nearly every student got at least one award, so I reckon  I said, "Congrats!" "Good job!" "Nice job!" "Way to go!" or "Felicidades!" at least 200 times, but it was great because they were all so adorable.  The ones who were star struck looking out from the stage at all their classmates and parents in the audience, the ones beaming with pride, grinning ear to ear, the ones who were clearly embarrassed at the attention, and the ones too shy to make eye contact.  Rituals like this are so important.  Like Principal De La Garza said to the parents who attended today's ceremonies, precious memories were made today.

Attendance is a big deal for a principal, representing dollars for the school in the form of an allotment of revenue based on average daily attendance, along with the obvious fact that kids can't learn if they aren't present.  I was very impressed at how quickly the school knew its daily attendance after the bell rang:  Only an hour or so into the day they knew they were at nearly 97% attendance.  Only a handful of kids were absent, and 4 of them were from the same family - making it easier to find out what the source of the missed school day was.  Visits are planned to the homes of kids later in the day if no one responds to a phone call explaining the absence.

I could go on for paragraphs about everything I saw and heard during my informative job shadow, but I probably need to get back to my real job, so I've provided a quick summary of the highlights below: 

Schools continue to hone the task of feeding hungry kids:  One of the first surprises I got came right at the start of the day when I learned that breakfast is served directly in the classroom immediately after the bell rings for school to start.  The principal explained that this practice ensures that all kids get to eat, not just the ones who get to school early, and it also provides a way for them to track who eats and who doesn't.  I thought for sure it would make the start of school hectic and unproductive, but they've got the organization of it down to a science and the kids ate pretty quickly and got to work.

Technology is a challenge:  I couldn't believe that teachers are using old transparency-like machines to project images and documents on the wall.  I didn't expect state of the art digital equipment exactly, but I would think they would have something a little more up to date.  One of the machines I saw a teacher using looked like something my nonprofit threw away last year when we moved.  We hadn't even used it in 15 years.  On the one hand, I personally think kids today need fewer devices in their hands and less screen time overall, but what I saw in the school was a lack of the basics of technology that could help teachers be more effective and efficient.

Innovation is all around:  From the Pre-K  program located directly on their campus, to the master level teacher - an amazing concept if you haven't heard of it, to the dual language curriculum, innovation is thriving all over this school.  Principal De La Garza is determined to get her kids test scores up, and she is driving change and excellence through innovation and a deep belief that inspiring a love of life-long learning will spur her kids to greater educational outcomes.

The principal doing morning announcements
Some things never change:  Two foundational elementary school components were comfortingly and firmly in place, the library and morning announcements.  My favorite part of any school is usually the library and I wasn't disappointed at Collins Garden.  I met their new librarian and her passion and commitment to reading, the bedrock of educational success, was evident during our conversation.

I also learned that the school partners with the San Antonio Youth Literacy program and has reading buddies for struggling second grade readers.  #love

Morning announcements was the first treat of the day - I love to see kids leading and taking ownership like that.  I got to do the Pledge of Allegiance and lament the fact, once again, that since I didn't go to Elementary school in Texas, I have never learned one word of the pledge to the Texas flag. #shhhdonttellanyone

I don't know how a principal manages to focus on education:  Between the boys's bathroom door getting accidentally locked, the AC not working in the preschool, finding batteries for a microphone, and parents showing up without ID for the award ceremony, a principal's job is to wear many hats that require troubleshooting a variety of issues all day long.  It's easy to see how hard it must be to focus on the monumental task of facilitating the capacity of 30 teachers to work effectively with over 500 students. My hat is off. 

Last note:  Sadly, I didn't get to stay for the visit this afternoon of "MacGruff the Crime Dog", in celebration of Drug Free Red Ribbon Week.  Maybe I will go back on Friday with my crazy socks on. As gracious and welcoming as I am sure Principal De la Garza would be, I guess I need to get back to the world of mentoring though.

The garden the students made at Collins Garden
*I remember wishing I could win the Perfect Attendance Award when I was in elementary school.  My school only awarded this coveted honor once a year - at the end of the year.  I never made it all the way through a school year without missing a day.  There was the year we got chicken pox, and the year we got lice, and I had horrible ear infections pretty much every year, but for the most part I attended school regularly and was a good student.  Honor roll was no problem for me, but I wanted that perfect attendance ribbon something fierce.  So I think it's pretty awesome that the system has evolved to where this award is given every nine weeks, making the feat more achievable for everyone.