Friday, December 25, 2015

Spreading Christmas Cheer: Our Adopt-a-Family Adventure

We adopted 7 families for Christmas. It was too hard to choose just one so we had the idea to adopt several families in honor of our own family members. This probably wasn't the optimal year to have taken on such a huge project because my energy levels haven't yet returned to normal following my surgery, but my girls were amazing on this project! This is the story of our experience.

I described in my previous post, Sharing Leads to Caring, that the decision to adopt a family for Christmas was motivated by my 13 year old. The craziest part of this story is that we waited so long to get started shopping that Zoe had already gone to her dad's house for the holidays by the time we got down to it. Ariel and Lacey really enjoyed shopping and wrapping and Zoe did get to go with us on a few deliveries. Here is the story in pictures: 

There are 19 kids in the 7 families we adopted. Several of them liked to draw so here we are getting sketchbooks and drawing pencils. Ariel has the kids' lists. 

The first night we were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the task and Ariel and Lacey spread everything out in the guest room to get a handle on what we had to do to make deliveries by Christmas. The cat laid on everything and Lacey worried someone would be allergic to cats. 

One of the girls, age 12, wanted a bow and arrow, and we are fans of Katniss girl power so that was a priority. We adopted this family in honor of my brother, Uncle Lance. 

It wouldn't be Christmas without a trip to Gamestop to buy used PS3 and PS4 games. There were several boys who wanted games, including one who's been given a system, but no games. 

We all love a girl who loves to read and asks for a specific series.  We adopted this family in honor of my nephew Trey and his wife, Kristina. #afterourhearts

A boy who likes card tricks and magic will probably appreciate a Star Wars stocking filled with candy too. We adopted this family in honor of my sister, Aunt Ali. There were 2 boys and a girl in this family age 12, 13 and 15.  

When a 12 year old wheelchair bound boy asks for cologne, you have to make that happen for him. We adopted him and his sister -who "does not like Barbies" ;), in honor of my Grandmother, Marie.

Before the wrapping session. Ariel and Lacey were very concerned about sibling parity. All the families we adopted are surviving on less than $15,000 a year and we wished we could have done more. 

The first 2 deliveries ready to go. It took 3 days to make all 7 deliveries. We didn't get lost once but we went to every corner of the city. 

There were 2 girls and a boy in this family. We got all the kids stockings filled with candy.  

Lacey fills out holiday cards for the parents and caregivers for the HEB Gift cards we got them. 

Lacey hands out stockings to her sisters. The deliveries were quick - in and out of the homes. We met some wonderful people and a truly adorable cat named Duncan. 

Making a delivery to the family of 4 kids aged 8-14 that we adopted in honor of my parents, Rich and Peggy (Grandma and Granddad).  

This was the only family that asked to take a picture with us. We adopted them in honor of my brother and his family: Aunt Lyn, Andrew and Marilyn. 

Empty bins means Mission Accomplished! 

The mini photo albums we made of the experience that we gave to our family members, with info about the kids' Christmas wishes, our shopping and delivery experiences and pictures. 

My favorite pic: Lacey and Ariel putting the perfection finishing touches on the sponsorship story books. 

We decided that we will definitely do this again next year, but definitely not as many families. ;)  The kids are hoping we can adopt the family of 5 kids we sponsored this year in honor of my brother, Uncle Richard and his family again next year! 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sharing Leads to Caring

My youngest child, who entered her teenage years at warp speed, flipped off her bus driver last month and got sentenced to 2 days of after-school detention. After we managed to successfully overcome her father's legal objections to these consequences (footnote* below), she served her time, but the whole ordeal clearly had little impact.

I was particularly disappointed in her behavior as it came immediately after a conversation we had had about respecting authority and being kind to others. Seeing as how shooting the finger is commonly accepted as both mean and disrespectful, I can only assume that her assurances of understanding during our conversation were a total sham. 

Since my older two girls, at 22 and 27, have already passed through their tumultuous adolescence, including the horrific "Mom is a hopeless idiot only worthy of a teenager's condescending pity and fervent scorn" period, I often turn to them for wisdom. When I brought up this incident, which we now refer to as #FingerLawGate, I found they had already been discussing it, and had arrived at a conclusion:  Zoe needs to learn how to give a crap about someone besides herself.  

In an instant, I knew they were right. Periodically, I look over the 40 Developmental Assets Checklist to see where Zoe falls. She's very well taken care of, resourced and privileged, so I don't generally worry too much. But a week before #FingerLawGate I had attended a training on the Assets and it struck me that her exposure to opportunities to really help others was very limited.  I've always taken for granted that my kids have this exposure, given my work in the nonprofit arena. Ariel and Lacey really lived the Big Brothers Big Sisters experience alongside me. They went to all the activities we planned for the kids and volunteers. That was back when I was working more directly in the program, but these days my job is much more administrative. Hence Zoe has learned all about how to ask people for money. She could grow up to be a great fundraiser with her excellent communication skills, thick skin and persevering nature.  Also, as I've gotten older and more attuned to the need for work/life balance, Zoe has had less and less of my job inflicted on her. This is not necessarily a good thing. 

So, my older girls had already decided that Zoe needed more opportunities to care for others outside of herself and her family and be exposed to those less fortunate than she. We discussed a few options and landed on adopting a family for Christmas. This idea just filled me with joy and I don't understand why we haven't done this before!   I researched it online because I know there are lots of great holiday assistance programs out there. In the end, though, we decided to adopt a Big Brothers Big Sisters family, because many of them don't get enrolled in time in holiday assistance programs. Big Brothers Big Sisters doesn't have a holiday assistance program per se, but it has lots of families who could use help. 

I will share in a future post about our experience adopting a family! Happy Holidays! 

Here is a list of organization's that have Adopt a Family opportunities for anyone who is interested. 

  1. Family Service Association Adopt a Family Program 
  2. Angel Tree 
  3. Elf Louise 
  4. Blue Santa
  5. Here is a great post by San Antonio Mom Blogs on Holiday Opportunities for Families to Volunteer

This cartoon exists on Google, so maybe this happens more than I realized. Thank you #stillnotok

*Her dad called the middle school principle to insist that Zoe was not on school grounds when she flipped off her bus driver, having exited the bus in our neighborhood before bringing out the finger. Therefore the school had no jurisdiction to punish her. He has to constantly demonstrate what a clever lawyer he is never mind what kind of parent. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It's Time to Shoot up the Cat

It's been a year now since our 12 year old cat was diagnosed with feline diabetes. The diagnosis followed some really weird behavior from what had previously been an extremely low maintenance cat. Atlas had always been very self sufficient, determined to have as little contact with humans as possible. Literally all he required was readily available clumps of dry Meow Mix* and monthly litter box tray changes. Sometimes I didn't see him for days, which is impressive for an inside cat. Our house is 4400 square feet, with 6 bedrooms, so his habitat was expansive and time consuming.  He was always on the prowl, but nearly invisibly. 

I completely misinterpreted the first sign that something was wrong. The litter box no longer seemed to work very well. I absolutely loved the automatic Scoop Free Litter Box. The original purchase price was a little steep but it was worth it's weight in gold. A 3 months supply of litter trays with crystals arrived by mail and once a month I pulled out the old tray, threw it away, and slipped in a new one. It was low maintenance at its finest. But last summer, it started to smell. After checking out the mechanism of the contraption I decided it was old and a little rusty so I bought a new one, but the same thing happened. This time I decided that the trays of crystals were no longer as effective because a new company had taken over.

Over the next few months I spent a small fortune buying trays of crystals which eventually only lasted for less than a week as opposed to 30 days previously. And then Atlas started peeing on floors and furniture. He also became clingy, the weirdest part of all.  It was all a nightmare. It took forever to diagnose but long story short, he was diabetic and had been drinking inordinate amounts of toilet water and over saturating his litter box.  Part of the reason I finally figured it all out was that he was having trouble jumping up on the toilets.  We always knew he was doing it (making sure the kids closed toilet seats was on my list of priorities for about the first 5 minutes of parenting).  His access to the water source of 4 toilets in the house masked how much water he was actually drinking. 

My poor kitty was a mess:  the following me around, the meowing, the weakness in his back legs, his trouble jumping on things and all the urinating everywhere. Famously, I just thought he was getting old (that seems to be my go-to diagnosis for everything), but finally a 2nd blood test at the vet ($$$) exposed the glucose problems.

Everyone thought I was crazy to take on injecting insulin twice a day into a cat. The expense! The inconvenience! The futility! And believe me, I thought it was crazy too, but did it anyway. It was hard at first, especially all the vet appointments, which Atlas despised with a deep, deep vicious passion. The vet techs eventually stopped trying to treat him and had to call me in to take him away.

Apparently some cats are like this at the vet
Atlas is more like this

But slowly over the past year, it started to come together.  It took a year to get all of this under control: 
  • The Schedule - setting a time to give an insulin injection to a well fed cat at the same time morning and night with my schedule continues to be the biggest challenge. The iPhone alarm helps a lot. 
  • The Helpers - at first I tried to do it all myself but eventually I roped in neighbors and friends.  Everyone is now trained to shoot him up.  They are always surprised at how little notice he takes of the needle. 
  • The Vet Visits - we had to stop these even though the vet is not happy to keep dispensing insulin without directly observing the patient. The point of the visits was to monitor glucose levels to see if the insulin was working but since Atlas freaked out every time, it was impossible to get good readings.  And it was miserable for all involved. 
  • The Food - at first I was buying the very expensive dry diabetic food at the vet and forcing it on him. This made him a sad cat.  Eventually, we researched the best reasonably priced wet food we could buy at HEB and now he is a much happier cat.  Its not what the vet recommends but it seems to be working. 
  • The Groomimg - he'd stopped grooming so he was covered in mats. I found an awesome groomer who does house visits. He only bit her once and she only nicked him slightly but everyone considered it a success. 
  • The Insulin- the first vial I bought cost $137 and was supposed to last a year but only lasted 30 days.  The dosage increased 6 times while we were doing blood tests and I just couldn't afford it so the vet found a dealer (I guess) who provides me with insulin pens that last about 30 days for $30.  Walgreens interrogates me every time I go in to buy 100 packs of syringes. 
  • The Litter box - Tragically, I had to retire the automatic litter box.  This is much more of a pain than shooting him up twice a day. 
  • The Downstairs Confinement -  We slashed Atlas' habitat by 50% by blocking off the stairs and moving his new box downstairs. This helps in finding him. 
We knew it was all working when he started to jump up on furniture again, and now he is almost back to his normal self.  Only more social; we like to think it's appreciation. His back legs are straightening and his all consuming thirst has subsided. Yay insulin!!!

Actually we think he's just indestructible. 

Trapped! The Grooming. 

me and my baby

the faces of Atlas...all look pretty much the same


*Apparently Meow Mix practically causes diabetes in cats but no one freaking told me.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

From Me To You is back for the Holidays!


Have you ever taken your kid to the store, pretended not to "look" while they picked out your gift AND while you stood in line and paid for it, then went home and wrapped it yourself?!  I know I have, but there is no need for that anymore!

Back for its 3rd year, the Big Brothers Big Sisters holiday gift store for kids, From Me To You, opens December 5th!  The concept is simple: parents sit, relax, watch Christmas movies and drink hot cocoa while their kids shop, assisted by helper elves, in the store where the gifts are displayed on shelves.  Parents make a donation which the kids use to select gifts for mom, dad, grandparents, siblings and friends.  They leave the store with a backpack full of under the tree ready wrapped gifts. All proceeds benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters, a proven youth mentoring organization that provides role models for kids facing adversity.   

the Grand Opening!
is Saturday, December 5 from 1:00 - 5:00 pm

at 202 Baltimore Ave. | Near the intersection of McCullough & N. St. Mary'

Store hours will be after school and weekends through Dec. 20.  

Call 210-225-6322 for more details.  

Click here for the story of the store's beginnings.
And here for the two posts my dear friend Colleen Pence of San Antonio Mom Blogs did about the store in 2013 and 2014.    
Check it out on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website and Facebook page for more information. 
Wrap presents and take pictures with Santa!
Browse the shelves with a helper elf. 
Free hot chocolate!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Tomorrow, I'm on the Table! #eek

At the ripe old age of nearly half a century, I'm about to have my first real surgery, and under the surface, I'm a basket case. I say "real surgery" because I've gone under the knife 3 times before, but it was for C-Sections, and there was no anesthesia except for the first time when I was 22 and I can't even remember back that far.

I'm terrified of all of it. From the initial diagnosis to getting cleared for surgery, it's been a quiet nightmare in my head.  The health care system is a giant, cold, complex, antiseptic, uncaring, set of people, machines, tests and tubes, waiting rooms, paperwork and bills that make me feel powerless, confused, undecided, frustrated and fearful at best. 

The doctors no longer look at you when they meet with you. Their attention is actually only 5% on you and 95% on the laptop or tablet or PC that they tap at and type in incessantly while you talk, hoping they'll actually make eye contact, and pay attention. They ask the same questions you've already been asked when you called to make the appointment, when you checked in with the receptionist, and when you were seen by the tech. They all tapped and typed in your answers as well, so you wonder, eloquently, in your head: "WTF?!" 

Everyone outside of the health care system has advice. Contradictory advice. The hardest to hear is the advice that this could all go away if I just had more of a commitment to alternative therapies like diet and natural supplements and meditation and whatever else. So let me get this straight:  I'm pretty much putting up with all the machines and the tests and the tubes and the bills and the impending surgery, and you're saying that I just need think my way back to health with positive thoughts and herbal tea? Of course then I was wishing that it were true so badly that, hopeful goofball that I am, I actually googled it. However, I concluded that I'd be dead before I figured all that out. It takes major research and commitment. There's a mineral or a food and/or a vitamin with potential healing properties for every minute of every day and every ailment known to man. I know everyone means well, and I really appreciate the concern.  I never know what to say to people when something like this happens, so I'm just glad people care enough to say anything. 

My favorite parts of this horror story so far have been the very beginning, "Getting the Diagnosis," and the most recent phase, "Getting Cleared for Surgery." 

The Diagnosis:
Me, at work, in the office kitchen, answering an unknown number (Never a good idea, am I right?!) on my cell phone: "Hello?"
Doctor Office Clerk: "Ms Bankhurst? 
Me: "Yes?" 
Clerk: "We have the results of your biopsy, and it's not good news. It looks like it's cancer." 
Me: "Looks like?"
Clerk: "The doctor is referring you to an endocrinologist." 
Me: "What exactly does 'looks like'  mean?" 
Clerk: "Do you have a pen? I have the number for his appointment line." 
Me: "Gah." 

The Clearing For Surgery Call:
Surgery Scheduler: "Ms Bankhurst? 
Me: "Yes."
Surgery Scheduler: "We have the results of your pre-op EKG. It's abnormal."
Me: "What does that mean?"
SS: "The doctor wants me to ask you a few questions to make sure you don't need a cardiac clearance for surgery. Do you or your family members have a history of heart problems or diabetes? Do you get short of breath running up the stairs?" 
Me: "Yes."*
SS: "Ok, I'll get back to you." 

The Next Day:
SS: "You're cleared for surgery." 
Me: "But what about that abnormal EKG?" 
SS: "The doctor says it's fine. Those things are not always accurate." 
Me: Gah.**

So, the end result of this 4 month journey is that tomorrow morning my thyroid is going to be removed. You can't live for very long without a thyroid, so I'll have to take thyroid medication for the rest of my life. Of course, since my thyroid has, (so I'm told, very scientifically, "worn out,") I'd have to take medication for the rest of my life whether it's removed or not. Either way, when the zombie apocalypse happens, I'm screwed --unless I've managed in the meantime to hoard a giant supply of synthroid. 

I know so much more than I ever wanted to know about the thyroid and how mine's failure to produce a hormone is probably responsible for a whole host of symptoms*** I've been putting up with for at least a year.  On the positive side, the meds will hopefully result in a reversal of those symptoms, but on the negative side, I'm having my throat slit open in the morning to find out for sure if it is actually cancer and if so, what kind and how far advanced it is in my poor worn out thyroid gland. 

People have been asking me how they can help, and I've decided that maybe scarves will help. I've never been much into that accessory, but if I (and my possibly abnormal EKG heart) live through this by-all-accounts-routine neck slicing tomorrow, I think I see lots of them in my near future.

How I will be feeling in the morning

*SS is the 5th person to ask me this question in this practice and I heard him typing and tapping away too..." 

**I've had heart palpitations since that day. 

***dry skin, weight gain, hair loss, and a bunch of other stuff I thought was just all about getting older.

Friday, November 13, 2015

25 things you don't get from an "overhead" percentage

On Tuesday, November 10th, published a post entitled, "Records:  Salaries and expenses of San Antonio nonprofits and their CEO's." The purpose of the post was supposedly to inform potential holiday season donors about how the 28 featured organizations were spending the donations they receive.

My organization was featured in that post, and in the 48 hours that followed I got all kinds of messages basically expressing this: "OMG, did you see this article (with a helpful link)?"  I made the BIG mistake of reading the comments on the article.  Here is a sample of the most offensive ones:  
  • Most of the leaders of these non-profits are thieves. They have a cushy job with little oversight. These people are scum and will never get another penny from me.
  • If the non-profit execs want to continue to rape the public they need to move into the private sector.
  • Discouraging thing is all of the thousands of hours volunteers give to these charities, feeling good about helping, and the CEO's are in it for the big money.
  • The head of the Food Bank makes well over 300k per year. Obscene. I had been a donor for years, but I will not give one more penny.
  • … more than $300,000 to run the Food Bank? Basically a grocery store that exists (thankfully) to feed poor and destitute families? That's a bit much, folks.
  • Then they have the audacity to look you in the eye and ask you to give !!! **
Then I made the bigger mistake of getting caught up in trying to respond to all those comments. As I was driving to work today I was thinking about how sad it is that that post really did nothing at all to  adequately  inform potential holiday season donors about how the 28 featured organizations were spending the donations they receive. So, I thought I would list a few of the most important things anyone should know about my organization that I wish the media would do stories about instead. 

25 Things You Don't Know from Overhead, Salaries, & Admin %'s:
  1. How many kids are on our waiting list
  2. How long they have to wait
  3. The challenges they face on a daily basis
  4. How many volunteers we recruited
  5. How long it takes us to process them
  6. How many training sessions we did
  7. How many background checks we did
  8. How many references we called on volunteers
  9. How many home visits we made
  10. How many kids we serve
  11. If those kids do better in school
  12. If those kids are skipping school
  13. If those kids will be promoted to the next grade level
  14. If those kids are saying no to drugs, alcohol and tobacco
  15. If those kids got in trouble with authorities
  16. If those kids will graduate from high school
  17. If those kids are going to college
  18. If those kids are employable
  19. What the kids do with their mentors
  20. How many fundraisers we held
  21. How many donations we received
  22. How many staff we have
  23. Anything that we spend money on besides a CEO
  24. How satisfied anyone is with our services
  25. If we are moving the needle on any social problems our mission is intended to address
What Little You Do Know from that post:
  1. The Annual revenue of organization
  2. The CEO's Salary (the post doesn't say, but the numbers are actually salary and benefits added together)
  3. The Percentage of revenue classified as administrative
The question I am left with is: Which of all of these things would you really most want to know in order to make a decision to donate?  

You can donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters here.  Take it from me, the proud CEO and visionary leader of our mentoring movement, your investment in our organization will be a sound one. 

**I sent that one a donation link. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A few words in defense of Halloween

There are a lot of pumpkins in my house
Since my kids have grown up surrounded by my love for the spooky, they're always baffled when someone disapproves of Halloween. Throughout the years, they've all had friends whose parents don't allow them to observe Halloween. I've always felt so sad when this happens:

Me or my kid: "What are you gonna be for Halloween?" 
My kid's friend: "I'm not allowed to dress up." OR "My family doesn't do Halloween" 
Me: "Boo." (With all due respect). 

The various reasons given for this boycott over the years have also always been baffling to me: 

1. Halloween encourages involvement in occult activities, witchcraft. 
2. It's the devil's holiday. 
3. It's pagan worship. 
4. It exposes children to evil and hell and other dark things. 
5. The bible says to avoid dark, voodoo magic. 

It's been a while since I or one of my kids had one of these kinds of experiences, I think because my youngest is 13. This happened more frequently when they were younger. But it happened again recently, so I googled it to get more info. I'd never really researched it before, and oh, my!  Some people are very serious about these things. They really do believe that if they allow themselves or their kids to participate in Halloween, they will be in danger of going over the dark side. It's perceived as a real threat. 

So, a few words in defense:  For my family, Halloween is about candy and costumes, and decorating and parties. It's about laughter and friendship. It's about tradition and sharing. It's about imagination and creativity. It's about hours spent thinking about what to dress up as and then putting the costume together, together. It's about the warmth of lights and candles. It's about posing for pictures and framing them. It's about silliness and smiles, and make-believe and adventure. It's about recreation and relaxation, and community and camaraderie. And all this is why we've stretched the celebration and observance of what used to be one night, October 31st, into a whole month-long treat! 

I want to be clear that I'm not making fun, trying to change anyone's mind or judging in this post. I respect other's points of view. I especially know how hard it is to raise kids, and I'd prefer parents to err on the side of caution any day.

But I want to assure all Halloween phobic parents out there that none of your fears actually come true. My kids have tried. They've tried to conjure up spirits and cast spells and commune with witches and enter the dark side. They've tried every form of magic, voodoo, and ouji board machinations they can think of. They are really smart kids, ingenious really, so I think that if it were possible to go over to the dark side, they would have achieved it. But, alas, for them, on November 1, they are still the same old goofy kids they were before. Except a little happier, and maybe, just a little magical. 

There is nothing dark or evil going on here
Read more about the Barkhurst Halloween here:  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Missing the Point

Back in July I went to San Francisco and while I was there, I decided that I need to write a book. The purpose of the trip was a conference through the National Council for Community & Education Partnerships for a college/career program called GEAR UP. My nonprofit is a GEAR UP partner with our local school district. We work with 360 students to help them navigate all the challenges on the path to graduate high school successfully. There were lots of great workshops at this conference, but 2 particular sessions back to back, got me all fired up. First was (yet another) session on "Parent Engagement" followed by a session on how to “revamp, renovate, and reinvigorate,” the educational system in America. I couldn’t stop thinking that the presenters in session 2 were missing the whole point of session 1: without parent engagement, the system is nearly always going to fail. 

During the system revamping session we heard a lot of theory. We heard about lots of books and research into how students succeed or why they don't. We heard about promising programs and approaches to engage and motivate students. In the end I was left with the nagging suspicion that they were all ignoring the root cause problem of inadequate parenting. For decades, the education system has been swimming upstream against a current that is going to take it completely down eventually unless something changes positively with regard to this root cause.   The entire education system teeters on the premise, once valid, that parents will get their kids to school. That parents will ensure kids study. That parents will insist that kids respect their teachers. When the system breaks down, it's because the parenting linchpin is faulty. The system can work and work and work and theorize and pilot and innovate itself to death, but until it accepts that it can't work around the broken parenting system, no real progress can be made. Only band aids will continue to be put in place, often expensive band aids.  There are no true answers that don't involve proper parenting, unless the next step for the education system is to evolve into a 24/7 boarding school. 

There was so much PASSION at the conference around helping kids succeed in school and life. And so much talk around about how to work around inadequate parents. Most of the many "parent engagement" workshops I have attended over the years are historically weak, and the efforts ultimately futile because the goal with parents isn't ever to teach them how to be good parents, but how to do specifically what the school wants them to do for their kids at a moment in time. We want to give parents tasks instead of tools.  And we don't start early enough to teach parents how to be good parents.  The current drive for more pre-K programs is a painfully inadequate response to all the not-ready-for-Kinder 5-years olds showing up in public schools.  In a few years we will start to look backwards even more to develop a program in response to all the 3 and 4 years olds showing up not ready for pre-K.   

We've let the education system get this bad by refusing to accept that the root cause of student failure is actually insufficient parenting. It's not the teachers, or the textbooks, or the facilities or the school polices or student motivation that is the real problem. If we resourced all the reasons parents lack parenting skills at the same level that we have endlessly and fruitlessly resourced the education system, things might be different. Why don't we see this?  This is what I need to research and think more on, but I suspect it is a combination of helplessness and judging.  We develop school based programs because we can control what happens in the school.  We don't develop home based programs because we have so little control over what happens there.  Control and access.  Plus we tend to ruthlessly judge poor parenting - as if everyone should just know everything the minute that baby arrives. 

Shortly after I attended this conference and was struck by a desire to learn more about the breakdown between parenting and the education system and write about it, I saw a video on Facebook called “Technology has high jacked family dinnertime. Watch Pepper hacker reclaim it.” Basically, the parents in this video appear to have no authority over their kids’ use of smart phones and tablets at the dinner table so they must resort to using a device that surreptitiously interrupts service - a device disguised as a pepper shaker.  Pepper shaker as parent.  It is no wonder that schools are having to feed, clothe and discipline kids today.  If parents can’t make kids put away their phones during dinner, how can they be expected to make them do their homework?  Or even go to school at all?  If this is the future of parenting, America is doomed. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Who Mentored You?

Think back to your childhood.

Who Mentored You?

Big Brothers Big Sisters is betting that you have stories to tell.  Maybe it was a parent or grandparent who helped you navigate the challenges of childhood.  Maybe you had a teacher or counselor who was instrumental in your development.  Or a coach, or someone in your church, or your Boy Scout or Girl Scout Leader was there when you needed them.  Or your Big Brother or Big Sister.  Maybe you had multiple mentors.  No one does it alone.

In celebration of Big Brothers Big Sisters' move to its new South Texas Mentoring Resource Center in early 2016, we are hoping that you, and everyone in our community, will celebrate with us to identify and commemorate the people who helped you get where you are today.   

It's easy, just post a few words, a picture or a video to a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and use the hashtag #WhoMentoredYou.  If you are friend-ed to or follow Big Brothers Big Sisters, you can also tag us @BBBSST on Twitter or Instagram, or on Facebook where we are BigBrothers BigSisters.   If you're not on any of those social media sites, post anyway to honor your mentor and use #WhoMentoredYou.  We'll be looking for stories everywhere.

Personally, I have so many mentors to honor.  I wrote a blog post Allies in Life in 2013 in recognition of everyone who was instrumental in helping me graduate from college.  The first person in that narrative, other than relatives, who was instrumental in my academic development was my 5th grade English teacher.  Here is my post to him:

I will never forget my 5th grade English teacher.  The picture below is of a paper I have kept for almost 40 years.  Any mentor who has ever wondered if  he or she could ever have an impact on a kid, take note of the the 4 words written by my teacher at the end of my story that affected me so deeply:  'This is the best!"  

The first page had another note at the top of the page:  "See Me!" it said, and I thought I was in trouble for using my mom's steno pad to do my homework on (I never had "real" notebook paper).  After class I went up to him and he flipped to the back of the story and told me that my story had "wonderful dialog" and "extraordinary punctuation" and that I was "definitely a writer!" Oh joy, oh happiness, and what confidence this gave me! 

Your story does not have to be as long as mine, or it can be longer.  We just hope you'll share it.   So, to recap: 
Preserve the legacy of your mentor by writing a few sentences, post a picture or video from then or now of you and the person who you couldn't have made it without.

2.  POST THOSE STORIES on your favorite social media site using #WhoMentoredYou

3.  WE WILL COLLECT YOUR STORIES and show them at the Grand Opening of our new home!  Each mentor's story, photo, video will be included in a commemorative video and anyone who posts a story about his or her mentor will be invited to our opening night party!

For more information call 210-225-6322 or email or visit this #WhoMentoredYou link on our website.   

Monday, September 7, 2015

Recruiting Youth Mentors

People are always surprised when I tell them that if we had the funding, I have no doubt that we could recruit 30,000 one-to-one mentors for the kids in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.  My certainty is always met with major skepticism, but there 2 main reasons that I know this.  One, over 20 years experience working for youth development programs that utilize one-to-one mentors, including 2 different Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies, and two, the fact that I haven't left the agency after learning some valuable lessons over the years.  Too often in the nonprofit world, turnover leads to valuable brain drain, especially in the area of program improvement, but that's a whole other blog post. 

As I have written about before in The Mentoring Gap, core to the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters is an ability to recruit volunteers to serve as mentor “Bigs.” This is an organization that would be 100% unable to carry out its mission without thousands of volunteers.  Today we support over 3,000 volunteers as mentors, each of which works with one youth,* and meets face to face, regularly and consistently, for an average of 16 to 24 months.**  We firmly believe that our community is filled with more potential mentors ripe for recruitment, and that we have the knowledge, skills and experience to effectively attract, screen, train, and match as many of these individuals as we need, to work with at risk youth. People want to volunteer, and mentoring is an attractive option.

The problem, as we see it, is not a lack of volunteers, but rather a lack of expertise in volunteer recruitment.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas has this expertise. Over the past several decades we have honed our recruitment techniques to the point that we actually bring in more volunteers than we can effectively process. We are at the point now where we need to secure the funding to hire more staff to work with the thousands of volunteers we can recruit if we are going to scale up. 
As the premier youth mentoring organization in the country, we partner with quite a few other mentoring programs.  Their number one struggle is always recruitment.  They can "never find enough mentors," they tell us. We have the following advice.  This is how we do it:***

8 Mentor Recruitment Tips:

1.  Hire recruiters who have no other responsibilities in your organization. If you were a business and wanted to sell something, you wouldn't even think of not having dedicated salespersons. 
2.  These recruiters can be either full-time or part-time, but the key component is that all of their job responsibilities pertain to recruiting mentors.  Volunteer recruitment is hard and it's pretty common to get diverted by easier to fulfill job duties. 
3.  Set a goal for the number of mentor inquiries each recruiter should generate each day/week/month/quarter and hold them accountable for the numbers.  Of course, the goal should be achievable and if your organization has no history for that you'll need to do some research. 
4.  Review all the outreach efforts they engage in regularly to determine the ones with the best return on investment.  Understand that activity doesn't always equal achievement.  Not all volunteer fairs are created equal. 
5. Don't get caught up in messaging and materials. Hours spent creating a fancy brochure are better spent on outreach. There is no magic tool that will bring the volunteers flocking in the door that is any more effective than your recruiter's business card.
6.  Never stop recruiting during the life of your program.  The day you think you've recruited the last mentor you need is the day one of them gets a promotion at work and moves to Portland.
7.  Know what the other volunteer opportunities in your organization are in order to communicate that to potential volunteers who are not yet ready to take the one to one youth mentoring plunge.
8.  Keep track of anyone ever interested in participating.  It's much easier to convert a formerly not yet ready potential customer than to generate a new one.   

After I have managed to convince someone that we know how to recruit a surplus of volunteers (usually by saying that we have the names and contact information for over 300 who are actively in our enrollment process today and another couple thousand who were not able to commit at the time they inquired), I am always asked the question:  "Why don't you give away the volunteers you can't get to right now?"  That's a really good question, which I will answer in my next post:

Why It's so Hard to Retain Mentors!

Take a look at these great recruitment PSA's:  Wise Big Sister  and  Big Brother Advice 



* A few select Bigs have more than one "Little" but their matches are still one to one.  Usually the first Little moves away but they still keep in touch, or he/she gets older and too busy to meet regularly, or the Big/Little are in two different mentoring programs.

** 16 months average for sit-based mentoring programs and 24 months for the community based mentoring program.

*** Unfortunately, our advice is almost never followed, usually because of funding or priority issues.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Nonprofit Catch-22

Those of us in leadership positions in the nonprofit world often get advice that we should run our organizations “Like a Business.”  More often than not, the person giving us this advice really has very little to specifically recommend.  If we press them, we hear that we should: 
  • “Be more efficient” and, 
  • “Lower our overhead.” 
When asked how we can achieve these economies, we are inevitably advised to:  
  • “Get volunteers to do back-office functions like HR or IT services”, and/or 
  • “Ask for in-kind donations for things like space or computers.” 
This phenomenon is called the Nonprofit Catch-22:  When a nonprofit is instructed to be more like a for-profit business by utilizing essentially nonprofit practices that no self-respecting business would ever implement if it had any intention of doing well or growing.

At my nonprofit we often sit around the lunch-room table pondering what we would do if we were, in fact, a for-profit business.  We know that we are not a revenue producing enterprise with profits available to invest back into our business model.  We know that we serve low income families, an overwhelming percentage of which have incomes less than $10,000 a year.  We know we are totally dependent on donations that as much as possible must go straight to our clients.  So we realize these revenue dreams are pipe dreams* but that doesn’t stop our wishing and hoping.  

     So here is our list of the Top 3 Things we would do if we had the revenue to do it, with no one constantly harping on us to keep our admin/fundraising percentages so cripplingly low: 
  1. Aggressively Drive “Sales:" We would fill our offices with an ever-growing group of exceptionally talented sales staff who would recruit thousands of volunteers and solicit millions in donations.  We would pay them more than our nonprofit competitors and as much as any for-profit business in town.
  2. Fiercely Advertise the Need & our Outcomes:  We would plaster our brand all over town.  We would create amazing marketing campaigns that would make us the Nike of youth development services.  This would generate thousands of volunteer recruits and millions of dollars in donations. 
  3. Innovate with Wild Abandon:  We would direct a huge percentage of new revenue into program improvements, enhancements and innovations that resulted in 100% effective mentoring relationships for all kids in our community.    
All of this activity would result in our organization moving the needle so quickly on building the assets youth need to grow up successfully that within 2 generations we will have put ourselves out of business and then go on to solve an equally troubling social problem for another nonprofit cause.  

We know that “the problem is massive in scale and we are tiny up against it,” but we also know that only the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who can actually do it.  


*Pipe Dreams, that is, until we figure out what our Girl Scout Cookie is....

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Lisps, Public Speaking and Braces

March 2015
You may have heard that people fear public speaking more than death. Well, I can attest to the truth of that. Let's face it, most of us don't think that death is imminent. For most of us it's not, but put us on a stage and ask us to speak, and  theoretically we wish for death instead. Or at least to be spared the horror that is public speaking, a fate perceived as worse than the sweet release of death.

Not only do I totally relate to this fear of speaking in public, but for me it has had even more negative historical connotations. When I was a kid I had a lisp. In elementary school I took "speech classes." This means that not only was I made fun of for the lisp, but also for the fact that I got taken out of class to "go learn how NOT to be a retard." These are vivid childhood memories. Kids are assholes. 

I worked really hard in speech class and eventually learned how to properly pronounce my "s's" and "th's" - for the most part. I developed a couple of fun facial tics in return, but it was a good trade.(1)  I slipped up every now and then- most often when I was excited or angry or talking fast, which I do in general. When my ex-husband and I would argue, I would inevitably lisp at some point and he would seize the opportunity to make fun of me.(2)  Sometimes this would make me laugh but more often than not it would just totally piss me off. I don't think most people noticed the slips, though.  It wasn't something I really shared, or talked about day to day because in my life I've traditionally just moved on from one challenge to another without time for looking back. 

In high school I got braces and for the first year (of 5 years of braces) it was pure torture. Believe me, I was very grateful that my parents were able to afford those braces because I a) wasn't sure they could afford them, and b) I had every reason to believe that that the braces were going to transform me from "Snaggletooth-Vampire" (3) into normal person. But anyone who's had braces knows the indignity of trying to figure out how to wrangle your lips around those metal brackets every time you open your mouth without spitting all over yourself or someone else. Add Recovering-Lisper to the mix and it can spell disaster. Although I often felt as if I'd regressed to the first grade, in the end I managed to muddle through it. 

In a stroke of bad luck, however, this past winter I got the news that I needed more orthodontic work as I approached half a century.(4)  At first I was reluctant. 

Dentist: "Perhaps you should see an orthodontist."
Me: "No way."
Dentist: "It could help with..." (Suffice it to say the list is long).
Me: "No Way in Hell."
Dentist: Shrugs and instructs his assistant to "give me literature." 
Me: "This is not fair." (5)

My excuses were numerous and compelling: It's a pain, it's expensive, my problems can't be that bad. Zoe might need braces soon! But I finally agreed to do it when I found an orthodontist who promised me we'd be done in less than 12 months. And the insurance would cover half! So, this past March I got the "Uppers." 

It's been Hell.  

Which brings me back to the public speaking. Something I've dealt fairly successfully with is the fact that there are lots of public speaking requirements in my job. Over the years I've managed to maintain control of the overwhelming fight or flight response that takes over my body whenever I step up to the podium, onto the stage, or worse in front of the camera. A fear, which I may remind everyone is shared by like a gazillion people. 

I've researched and used all the techniques: being uber-knowledgeable and prepared, rehearsing until I've practically memorized the material, picturing the audience naked. I had even progressed to the point that in certain situations I could "wing-it."  This was victory indeed. 

I don't usually share with people that I am a) prone to lisp, and/or b) that I fear public speaking. Life has taught me that  admitting to a weakness is usually unnecessary.  But these late in life braces have pushed me to the edge. This sucks. 

I dealt with the fear of getting up in front of people (which started over 20 years ago when I was called on for the first time to do it, with no warning, omg) the same way I dealt with the lisp/speech therapy:  I worked at it. I took it one step at a time. This is why most people don't know about the crushing fear when they watch me at a luncheon or see me on the news. But lemme tell you: however irrational it is, it's there. It's an on-going process to conquer the fear. The fear that I'll slip up and lisp. The fear that I'll slip up and lisp on stage or on camera. My relatively normal fear of public speaking magnified 10 times over by the risks of the speech defect and the imitations of the speech therapy. That I thought I'd had under control. 

Until March of 2015, as I'd said, I'd been dealing with it. Even winging it. But the new braces, and the associated need to figure out how to properly wrangle my lips around those metal brackets, once again, in order to form ANY word, has me nearly unhinged. All my coping mechanisms have fallen by the wayside. I've taken to delegating the responsibility. I'm having a hard time even smiling for the damn camera- for a picture for the love of God. It's ridiculous! 

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. A few days ago I had an appointment with my orthodontist (6) and he spoke these sweet, sweet words: "I think we're almost done here." 

Me: "We Are?! Really?!" 
Orthodontist:  Nods sagely.
Me:  "Squeak!"

Yes! He had me make an appointment, so in 20 days I am scheduled to get the  "Uppers" off. This isn't the end of the story of course. Although the evil "Uppers" are soon to be history, and I will then enjoy 9 glorious brace-free days, I still have to get the "Lowers" done. 

But, whatever. I'm concentrating on looking forward to those 9 brace free days. I should schedule a bunch of speaking events. I'm thinking that the "Lowers" can't be anywhere nearly as bad as the "Uppers." The "Lowers"  have gotta be better. Right? Right....?!

Say Cheese! 

(1) Most notably my sexy Elvis-type-sneer when I'm self conscious or nervous or even thinking hard. 
(2) Reason #101 he's an "ex"
(3) Kids are assholes
(4) 50 is the new 25 
(5) My Family Law Attorney: "Life is not fair." He wasn't actually there, in my dentist's office but I automatically hear him now whenever I reflect on the unfairness of life. That was his go-to response as he cashed my checks. 
(6) I plan to reveal his identity after it's all over...