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.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Even if vaccines do cause autism, they're the better choice

Typically, in today's modern world, terror does not strike a mother's heart when her child has a sore throat or cough or the sniffles. Sure, we worry, but not the kind of worry that 18th and 19th century parents felt.  Not the kind of worry you would feel if you had watched your mother, sister, and/or friend lose a child under the age of 5. Not the kind of worry you would feel if your neighbor had lost her whole family in a week to an outbreak of rubella or scarlet fever the summer before.

I'm a student of history. In early-modern times, child mortality was very high:  
  • In 18th century Sweden every third child died, and in 19th century Germany every second child died.  
  • Before the middle of the last century, diseases like whooping cough, polio, measles, the flu and rubella struck hundreds of thousands of infants, children and adults in the U.S.. Thousands died every year from them. As vaccines were developed and became widely used, rates of these diseases declined until today most of them are nearly gone from our country.
  • Nearly everyone in the U.S. got measles before there was a vaccine, and hundreds died from it each year. Today, most doctors have never seen a case of measles.
  • More than 15,000 Americans died from diphtheria in 1921, before there was a vaccine. Only one case of diphtheria has been reported to CDC since 2004.
  • An epidemic of rubella (German measles) in 1964-65 infected 12½ million Americans, killed 2,000 babies, and caused 11,000 miscarriages. In 2012, 9 cases of rubella were reported to CDC.*
  •  An English physician named Hugh Smith, cognizant of the staggeringly high mortality rates among children, showed that from 1762 to 1771 about two-thirds of children born in London died before the age of five years, and that about 75% of the deaths occurred before two years of age.**

The correlation between vaccines and measles is clear

The speculation that vaccines cause autism has been widely de-bunked so I won't even bother to rehash that. Instead, I pose the question - so what if vaccines did cause autism, or learning disorders or ADHD or allergies?  Wouldn't that still be the better choice than death?  It is likely that Mozart and Lewis Carroll were autistic. The Wikipedia list of famous people on the autism spectrum should remove any doubt that living with autism is a far preferable outcome than the return of deadly childhood diseases.  Autism means you are just different, not less than, and certainly not at risk of imminent death.

I would re-print this poem I read called "I Am Autistic. So What?" but I probably need permission so I am just linking to it.  It beautifully articulates how we unnecessarily stigmatize individuals with autism.  If that doesn't convince you, try this post on reddit about how much better it is to be autistic than to be an asshole. #IJS


*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
**Still GF 1931 The History of Paediatrics. Oxford University Press, London and Colón AR, Colón PA 1999 Nurturing Children, a History of Pediatrics. Greenwood Press, Westport.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What I Learned in the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring

On the 1st day of the week-long Portland University School of Social Work Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring, we learned that research shows that youth and volunteer mentoring relationships are less likely to close and more likely to persist when they exhibit the following characteristics and/or demographics:  
  • Being male (both youth and volunteers) 
  • Volunteers with higher incomes
  • Unmarried volunteers
  • Younger youth
  • Youth without risk behaviors and/or emotional problems
  • Girls living with single parent fathers
So basically, we can achieve higher retention rates if we find a bunch of single rich men and match them with kids with no problems.

Since that is never going to happen, :) we took a deeper look into what the research says about why matches close and how to mitigate the reasons in our own programming.  

When trying to avoid premature closure, it is helpful to know the predictors:  
  • Expectations: matches are more likely to close when the expectations for any one of the participants are not being met.  Understanding expectations for volunteers, youth and parents is important, but using training to continually check in on and shape expectations can be very effective. Change happens slowly, and the results of youth mentoring don't happen overnight.  Many outcomes are not even identifiable until mentees grow up.  Expectations need to reflect this. 
  • Long waits:  the longer a child waits, the more likely he/she is to persist.  Typically boys wait longer and their matches last longer.  This is not to say we should make kids wait, but to understand that the wait creates a deeper appreciation for the reward. 
  • Adaptability:  the more adaptable match participants are, the more likely they are to overcome match life cycle challenges. Training is also useful to emphasize the need to be flexible in the face of change, and when things aren't working the way a parent, youth or volunteer thought they would.  Adaptability is closely tied to good problem solving skills. 
  • Commitment:  obviously, it helps if everyone has the same commitment level, in any relationship. A process where match participants participate in an intentional and deliberate oral and written statement of their commitment to the rules of the program, like the length of the initial commitment, (typically 12 months), and the frequency of outings (varies), is significantly important. The specific commitments for each participant in the relationship should be clarified in the beginning, including parents.  This should also be repeated annually, or if there are problems with anyone not following through on the commitment. 
  • Socioeconomic differences: Match participants often have very different backgrounds and come from very different cultures.  Training is essential in helping volunteers understand the effects of poverty and trauma on families.
  • Understanding of child development:  The level of knowledge a volunteer has about the ages and stages of child development is a predictor of match longevity, which is why this is a critical training topic.  Training should include information about how trauma can stunt growth and development, preventing kids from being on track.
  • Communication:  Some people are natural communicators, but most of us don't do it very well - especially with people we barely know.  Frequent and thorough communication is essential and critically important in the beginning of the match, or during major life changes, in order for the relationship to continue to grow and thrive. 
  • Perceived need: Whether a volunteer feels like a Little needs him/her too much or too little, it can cause problems.  This is clearly also tied to expectations.  Volunteers should always know exactly why his/her child was referred and/or accepted in the program, and what the volunteer is expected to accomplish in the course of the mentoring relationship. 
One of my favorite notes I took during the Institute was this on "the most important things to watch for each match participant:" 
•    The Bigs' expectations for what will happen,
•    The Parents' commitment to making it happen, and
•    The Kids desire for it to happen at all.

If you have all of that under control, you're good to go. 

The following is an outline of the training we developed for match participants that is heavily informed by our attendance at the Institute. 

When a Match Closes
Closure, the process of transitioning or ending relationships, is a natural part of the mentoring life cycle. From an ethical standpoint, we know careful management of mentoring relationship closures is critical to ensuring positive outcomes for youth.

The Research
Youth mentoring research suggests that improper closure can be damaging for mentees. Both premature (early) match closure and failing to provide some sort of resolution or closure process at the end of a relationship both can have negative consequences.  These include: 
•    Becoming vulnerable to negative feelings resulting from poor relationship endings
•    Internalizing negative feelings like abandonment, fear, or confusion
•    Showing decreases in self-worth, self-confidence and academic self-efficacy
•    Even for mentoring relationships characterized as weak, closure may contribute to negative emotional outcomes for the mentees such as feelings of disappointment or anger. 
However, with agency support and proper notice of the timing of and reasons for closure, mentees and other members of the match may fare better in coping with the loss of the mentoring relationship.

Steps for Closure
Healthy closure provides mentees with an opportunity to reflect on their experience.  You and your mentee don’t want to miss an opportunity to thank each other for your time together.  If for some reason you think your match may have to close, look at the training schedule to see when the next Closure Training will be:  Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.  At this training, you will develop a plan that ensures your little has the best end result.  As often as possible, mentors and mentees should discuss memories of fun times they have had together and participate in a positive celebration that formally marks the transition in the relationship. Moreover, staff may gather information from matches that could be used to improve agency practices or guide future recommendations for match members. 


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Why I have 10 couches in my house

Recently it was pointed out to me that I may have a problem because there are 10 couches in my house. In my defense, I offer this explanation: It didn't happen overnight and it wasn't on purpose. 

Would you like one? 

There are 5 main reasons for this excessive couching. 

1. Space
2. Hoarding 
3. Time
4. Distractions 
5. Apathy/weakness

First of all, I have the space. My house is 4400 square feet with 3 living areas and 6 bedrooms. It seemed like a good idea at the time in 1998 to buy this house for a growing family of 4. At that point in time I think we already had at least 3 or 4 couches. We doubled our living space with this house purchase. There was so. much. space. We thought, "we'll never fill it all up..."

Secondly, hoarding tendencies are strong in my family. I was actually never a hoarder until I met my ex husband. He's a classic hoarder. We are divorced now but the kids tell me that he recently rented a storage unit for old newspapers and magazines. I think that's probably all I need to say, but really, I was a purge-cleaner before him.  After 20 years of marriage I was afraid to throw junk mail away, so I know you can see how impossible it would have been for me to get rid of an entire couch. 

So, since I've been divorced since 2011, why do I still have all these couches? I blame it on time now. I don't have the time to figure out how and where and where to get rid of them. So they sit in the rooms, taking up space. Also, I am so constantly distracted by a zillion other things.  I have so many better things to do than figure out what to do with a bunch of couches, that as we have observed, I have plenty of space for.  If I was being totally honest though, the real reason is simple apathy. If I was compelled to purge, committed to those couches taking up less space, lets face it, nothing could stop me.  They'd be gone. 

Update:  As of 2017 we only have 8 because we gave two to Goodwill, to make room for my granny's stuff when she passed. 

It's actually 5 couches and 5 loveseats


Friday, June 9, 2017

At Odds

I recently had a huge argument with a friend about poverty. He may never speak to me again. Seriously. It's been weeks. We used to at least text every other day. It's total radio silence. 

It started as a result of our local mayoral election. One of the candidates recently caused a stir with her answer in a debate to a question about poverty. My friend and I started out by discussing the role of religion in politics, since the mayor got herself in hot water by answering the question from a perspective of faith. Despite my friend being significantly more religious than I, we were in agreement that religion has no role in governance. So far, so good. 

The conversation turned to whether or not people who believe one way or another and/or participate in any religious activity are less likely to be poor. Again, harmoniously, we both agreed that was highly unlikely.

But then I asked this question: 

Me: "Do you want to cure poverty?"

Possibly assuming this was a rhetorical question, he answered this: 

Him: "Of course."

But I wasn't asking rhetorically, and so then it went down like this: 

Me: "Well, we know what the cure for poverty is."
Him: "What's that?"
Me: "Give people money." 
Him: "That's not a cure." 
Me: "Of course it is. Poverty means you can't meet your basic needs for food and shelter. If you give people enough money to cover those needs, they are no longer living in poverty."
Him: "We can't just give people money." 
Me: "Then you don't really want to cure poverty."
Him: <visibly annoyed>

This exchange represents the more civilized part of the conversation, which ultimately resulted in the actual physical slamming of my back door by a grown man who has lived for nearly half a century and has in 100% of all my other interactions with him behaved in a perfectly reasonable, rational manner*. But this topic clearly made him crazy. Or maybe my stance on it. 

When we ask "Should we give people money?" we get these questions and assertions in return: "Why?" "No one gave me money." "I work hard for my money." Or my favorite: "They'll just spend it."

Well, duh. 

That last one happened with my friend**:

Him: "They'll spend it on drugs."
Me: "I agree there are complications of poverty."
Him: "We should fix those."
Me: "We agree on this." 
Him: "But you still think we should give them money." 
Me: "Yes, so they are not hungry and homeless." 
Him: "But there are programs for that."
Me: "Do we know which ones work the best? Have they cured the problem?" 

And round and round. 

At one point we were talking about how much money I'd be willing to give them and how I could possibly get the majority of tax payers to agree to this. I probably went too sanctimoniously far when this happened: 

Me: "Shouldn't we give as much as it takes so that our fellow human beings aren't hungry?"
Him: "There's a judgement there that I'm ok allowing people to go hungry." 
Me: "It sounds that way to me." 
Him: "So while you work your ass off in your job, you're happy to just give people who aren't working, as much money as they need?"
Me: "Yes! How much money do we all really need? We all exist on this planet together. We have to help each other out."
Him: "You clearly were the kid in school who when the teacher assigned group projects you picked up the slack for the slackers who never did any work."  
Me: "What's wrong with that?"
Him: "Everything." 
Me: "And you were the insufferable bully who looked down your nose at the slackers making them feel even less capable and relevant than they already did." 
Him: "Yes and then I went to Business School and made a ton of money and you became a social worker and worry all the time about retirement." 
Me: <oh dear>

The last thing he said to me before the door slammed was something to the effect that I was idealistic, unrealistic, simplistic and stubborn, and that none of the problems I worry about will be solved with my attitudes. He's got a great vocabulary. And maybe a point. 

The next night I texted him this article and commented that I want people to be able to focus on making and achieving their life goals, but if they use all their energy on survival, when they lack basic dignity, when their life is reduced to a "hand out," how can we expect them to have anything left for strategic thinking? Especially if they didn't get the education they needed as a kid. 

No response. 

I tell myself that I can't really be friends with someone whose values don't align with mine, but this isn't really true.  For years I've skirted around the issues with friends. It might be that as I get older I'm less willing to compromise, to gloss over the things that cause social problems to persist so disastrously. When I was 25, I was sure that poverty and equality would be worked out by the time I was older. At 50, I'm shocked by the lack of progress and I'm afraid that for many of those years, I was part of the problem. 

So where do I go now? I was so sure that if we all came together we could find common ground and move forward, but values are strong barriers. If we can't even talk about the issues constructively, if the gaps between our values has widened so much that we are incapable of relating, where do we go now? 

I don't have any answers. For the past decade it's become increasingly clearer to me that the older I get, regardless of the more I learn, the less I actually know. 

I don't apologize for anything I said to my friend,  or about how I feel, but it seems pretty useless to even have the conversations at this point. 


*Except when massive quantities of alcohol were involved. 
**Or un-friend as the case may be. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

What iPhone addiction looks like in my teenager

This is the ugly story of iPhone addiction. It might sound somewhat tongue in cheek, but it's as serious as it can be.

The Intervention: it's Easter Sunday and Zoe comes downstairs to get her phone as soon as she wakes up. Even on Easter morning she has to have it close to her. At Grandma's house for Easter dinner the only time she's not on her phone is for the cash egg hunt in the backyard. I spend the entire day telling her to put her phone down. I can't even remember the straw that made me finally take it away, but that's when she went into full on addict asshole. Talking back, disrespectful, dismissive, contemptuous, the normal teenage BS, only much, much worse. My breaking point came when she ran out onto a 4 lane highway. As if she were a clueless toddler. She knew she'd gone too far as soon as she did it. We've now been a week without the phone. This is how that week has gone. 

The "I'm part of the Problem Monday Morning:" I have to fight the urge to give the phone back to her for the walk to the bus stop. It's a rule that she has to text me when she's on the bus. It's a safety thing. But after all, her sisters before her all survived the walk to the bus stop without a phone, so I conquer the fear. 

Monday afternoon: I have flown to St Louis and Zoe calls me from our home land line about 2 hours after her bus drops her off after school. 

Me: What's up? 
Zoe: Nothing. Just hanging out. How are you doing? 

Zoe hasn't asked me how I'm doing in weeks. Months. Clearly, she's feeling me out to see how likely it would be that is give her her phone back just like every other time. She doesn't ask. We have the best conversation we've had in a month at least. 

Tuesday, Day 2:  I don't get home til almost midnight. Zoë's sister says she hasn't asked for her phone. 

Day 3: I get home from work. Zoe is in the living room watching TV with her sister. I can't remember the last time she's watched the Disney channel. All the shows are new to me. I make dinner and listen to her commentary. Just before bedtime she comes into my room and sits on my bed. I can tell she wants to ask for her phone, but she doesn't. 

Day 4: She goes to her dad after school and I don't hear anything. 

The "Zoë's dad is also a big part of the problem Friday morning:" Zoe's dad texts me this: 

"Zoe got stung by a bee last night. She cried and wanted to call you but you've taken away her phone." 

Day 5, Friday evening: Zoe does her homework without being told too. She and her sister paint their nails. She cleans her room. We haven't argued all week. 

Saturday, Day 6: Zoe draws and writes all day. She and her sister set up the laptop she got for Christmas. No mention of the phone. 

Day 7: Sunday. Zoë's aunt asks when she will get the phone back. Zoe says she was going to ask for it "tomorrow." I swear she's almost relieved of the burden of it. 

Monday morning, Day 8: On her way out the door to the bus she asks if she can ask for her phone back. "It's been a week," she says. I say yes and tell her I've restricted all but her phone, text, and email. "We are going to ease back into using this phone and there will be daily limits and content limits." 

"Ok," is all she says. A week ago she would have protested vociferously. I think we've made major progress. But I am fully prepared for her to come home transformed back into addict girl. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sex and Misbehavin': Life is a Musical

I frequently tweet about how my life is a musical
In 1997, when my middle daughter, Lacey, was 3 years old, she was bitten by a dog in the face.  We spent 3 days in the hospital over Spring Break. It sucked, but we were really into a musical at that time, Evita, that helped us pull through the ordeal. While I had loved this musical for years, the film soundtrack had just come out with Madonna and Antonio Banderas, so I had just introduced it to the children. Lacey in particular, was enthralled.

For those of you not familiar with the music, here are the lyrics to "I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You," the song that 3 year old Lacey introduced to her nursing staff:  

"I'm not talking of a hurried night
A frantic tumble then a shy goodbye
Creeping home before it gets too light
That's not the reason that I caught your eye
Which has to imply, I'd be good for you
I'd be surprisingly good for you."

You can imagine that a 3 year old's diction is often not very clear, so it was a little difficult to understand what she was singing at times. Here's how that hospital scene went down in 1997:  

Lacey:  <sings over and over>
Nurse:  "What's that about tumbling in the night?"
Lacey's Father: "Denise, please make Lacey stop singing that." 
Me, to Nurse: "It's okay; it's a musical.  Music is art.  She's very advanced for her age."  
Nurse:  <looks worried>
Me, to myself:  <So I let my kids sing about whores and dictators. What's it to you?>*

It only got worse from there.  Turns out that there is a lot of sex and misbehavin' in musicals.  Over the past year or so in particular, there has been a lot of interest in a certain musical called Hamilton. This musical is filled with death, revolution, war, infidelity, murder, betrayal, arrogance, and despair. It makes Evita look like a Disney Channel original movie. #ImJustSayin'

Since 1997, our collective love of musicals has resulted in the evolution of a family that thinks nothing of belting out the lyrics to any musical song, like Light My Candle from Rent while grocery shopping in HEB, or singing about Agony from Into the Woods while eating hamburgers** at Willies, or trying to hit the high notes in Phantom of the Opera on a family vacation. 

I started writing this blog post in 2016 when all the attention to "Hamilton" was in full swing, but it took me this long to get it done.  We thought the collective excitement about Hamilton was a great opportunity to make recommendations of all of our favorite musicals over the years.  We've been fan-girling for 20 plus years and we have a lot of opinions, so here they are:   

Ariel, my oldest, was turning 9 in 1997.  She graduated college with communications and English degrees and currently works in the marketing department of a gaming company in Austin, Texas. This is her list of favorite musicals:
Ariel thinks that "Dr Horrible's Singalong Blog" should count as a musical as well.  

Lacey, the theater major, has a more extensive list. She currently works as a theater lighting designer in California at the Pacific Conservatory of the Arts.  When I told her I was writing a blog post and asked her her favorite musicals she sent this comment, and list:  "Just to name a few off the top of my head:"
Zoe, is currently 15, and of course was not even born in 1997.  This did not stop the indoctrination.  Zoe recently played "Olga, the Grand Duchess Katrina" in You Cant Take It With You in high school. She is my child most-inclined-to-become-a-stage-performer.  Her favorite musicals include: 
She is not a fan of Phantom of the Opera. ***

For what it's worth, my favorite musicals are from a different era.  When I think about the musicals that made a difference in my life as a kid, my list is: 
Then as an adult I'd have to list a few others:  

It was well after these that came the Rent and Evita and Mamma Mia shows that became the fodder for my kids' fervent affinity for the musical.  The kids have since made me a big fan of these classics: 
  • Anything Goes 
  • Into the Woods
One of the best things I got to do last year was see Shrek, The Musical at the Solvang Festival Theater in California, where Lacey works. Ariel made this video of her work. 

A typical tweet

*Lacey graduated from college with a theater degree about 20 years later.
**It was actually just me eating hamburgers, my kids are both vegetarians and aliens who don't like hamburgers  
***no haters, says Zoe

This post was edited by Zoe for "readability"

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Making Outcomes Really Matter: Paying For Success

In the late 2000's, my nonprofit wrote a grant in response to a Request for Proposal (RFP) by our state human services agency to provide mentoring services to at risk youth for the purposes of juvenile delinquency prevention.  Youth eligible for the program were selected based on criteria that determined their at risk status. For 4 years we provided these services to hundreds of children in South Texas, and thousands across the state. We had amazing outcomes: 98% of youth served statewide stayed out of the juvenile justice system.

Then the RFP for year 5 came out and youth mentoring had been removed as an effective youth development approach.  Hmmm. The approach that was 98% successful was no longer conspired to be effective?  I was confused.*  It took a while, but I finally got a meeting with the department to ask them why mentoring had been removed as an effective approach:

"Did you take the outcomes into account?" I asked. 

"No," they replied. "That has nothing to do with the creation of the new RFP." 

I was speechless. I have a hazy, surreal memory of them describing the research the PHD they had hired to write the RFP had been doing on evidence based parenting programming that informed the new approaches they wanted to try out.

That was a low point in my nonprofit career.  I felt helpless and hopeless.  I came closer to quitting than at any other time I had had to deal with this kind of self defeating situation (which actually happens all the time in the nonprofit world, unfortunately).  So, I read some books, sought out mentors, and signed up to chair the Advocacy Committee for The Nonprofit Council.

The nonprofit sector struggles to identify, define, demonstrate, measure and prove outcomes.  For such great success to be so summarily dismissed was heart-rending. In the for-profit world it's so much easier. The more money you make, the more successful you are.  The more demand for your products and services, the more you grow.  Demand for nonprofit services may very well be an indication of success but by no means determines growth or impact.  A lot of the time it makes us less successful as we try to stretch already stretched revenue to do more.

I hear more than ever now about how we need to improve outcomes, and it always makes me think of that RFP.  No one cared about the outcomes in that situation and it became a microcosmic illustration of the problem for me. It was particularly frustrating because there didn't really seem to be any real solution on the horizon. 

And then I heard about Pay For Success: an innovative approach for addressing persistent social problems.

I am so excited about this program.  I first heard about it related to a program in the UK that aimed to reduce recidivism - keeping people from re-offending and going back to prison after they had served time and supposedly been rehabilitated.  An enormous amount of money is spent on rehabilitation and yet recidivism remains alarmingly high.  The Pay For Success concept is to invest only in proven effective approaches and programs and only pay for success.  If your program doesn't do what you said it would, you don't get reimbursed.  I am reminded of my favorite saying:  "Don't confuse activity with achievement."  The nonprofit sector is filled with well meaning people running around doing things. It has only been important to "do good work" regardless of outcomes.

In the Pay For Success Model, it works like this: 
  • The funder invests in the organizations with the most effective models.
  • The organizations with the most effective models implement their programs and services, with results.  
  • The government pays the funder back with revenue that was saved as a result of effective programs.  
A real world example is of the Friends of the Children (FOC) Program that is attempting to interrupt the cycle of generational poverty. One of the ways they are doing this, for example, is to reduce the number of days that a child spends in foster care, thus reducing the cost of foster care.  The savings can be put back into the FOC programming for additional outcomes, and additional savings. 

This is scary for a lot of people. As you can imagine, it's a hard sell to ask organizations to spend money and risk not getting reimbursed for it.  This post is a really simple explanation for a very complex program, but that's the gist of if.  We cant' afford to spend billion of dollars every year in the social sector and not solve any problems.  Pay for Success is the wave of the future and I for one am thrilled!  You can read more about the pay of pay for success here

I'll be writing more about this in 2017 since the annual Issue in Profile event put on by the Nonprofit Council in October will feature a keynote on this topic.  Stay tuned.  
*I was also very pissed off.

** and drank wine.