A Day At The Zoo Instead Of The Office

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending my workday doing community service. My company allows each of us to spend two days a year working in the community with our workgroup. It was one of those rare, perfect days in October. The temperature hovered around 60 and the clouds cleared up early to reveal a sunny day. My team was at the zoo to help keep the magic of “zoo boo” going. We had done it once before and had built an exhibit of camels out of pumpkins, gourds, metal stakes, and paint. We anticipated something similar this year.

zoo boo polar bearAs we gathered with a larger group from our company we were told that the pumpkin truck was on its way. In the meanwhile, we put on rubber gloves and eyed all the carved pumpkins circling various areas of the zoo. We discerned which ones were not going to make it through the weekend and, after removing the candles, dumped them in the back of a truck. In the end, fewer than 10% were left. We thought maybe they’d have us carve replacements next, but there was more back-breaking work to do first.

The pumpkin truck arrived and we unloaded pallet after pallet of 30-pound pumpkins onto the ground. I may never need to do another lat pull or squat again…Next there were more rotten jack-o-lanterns to dispatch. Midway through that, my team got pulled off to “sort apples”. This sounded a lot cleaner than our current assignment, so the five of us gals volunteered.

When we got to the apples, we saw four pallets piled 8 feet high with boxes of apples. Our mission was to take them, box-by-box, and take the dividers out so that the apples were loose in the boxes and not packed in layers. Somehow we were to believe that our efforts were important so that the volunteers who handed them out to the zoo boo revelers could manage the task more easily.zoo boo--joey

We came up with a method that allowed us to manage the task as quickly and efficiently as possible, but the hard part was hauling 40-pound boxes of apples up a little wooden staircase to a platform behind the truck where they were to be stored. We finished-off the first pallet and then cried uncle. Another team could have the pleasure of tackling the next pallet.

By this time we were sore and hungry, so we took a lunch break. We had an enjoyable lunch outside, probably the last al fresco lunch until next year. Much refreshed, we headed back for the zoo. We had apparently gotten ourselves off of the normal schedule because we couldn’t find the rest of the group who must have gone to lunch later than we had. So, of course, we wandered all over the zoo looking at the animals (um, for the group), and were delighted to see a polar bear up-close-and-personal and the zoo’s lone joey of the year peaking his head out of his mother’s pouch.

20131017-170321.jpgFinally, we headed back to the pumpkins and were able to help replace the many rotten jack-o-lanterns with some of our own. I am no artist, but I was pretty happy with my creation which was an homage to my favorite non-profit.

Find the Joy in the Journey…do something different once in a while!

Related Post:

Stewardship—Time, Treasure, and Talent

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I Have a Tote Bag Problem

Some people have a shopping problem…I have a freebie problem. If it’s free and someone is handing it to me, I feel compelled to take it whether I need it or not. The freebie of choice, lately, seems to be tote bags. I have dozens of them and I rarely ever use them. Many of them are reusable shopping bags and I feel guilty for not using them. Due Tote bagsto my organized mud room, I have a place to store them, so there they set.

I do most of my shopping close to home and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen anyone using their reusable shopping bags. Twenty miles away is a town that tried to outlaw disposable shopping bags. Whenever I’m there, I see a lot of people with either reusable shopping bags or even toting their own little shopping baskets. I’m pretty sure, however, that most people there still use the disposable plastic bags for most of their purchases.

Given that I have such a wealth of tote bags, however, I’ve been thinking that I should use them and give up on paper and plastic disposables. I do recycle all of my bags, but not needing them would be even better. I have tote bags that advertise for specific stores, like Target. I have this one that I got at a wine shop in the town that wanted to ban the disposable bags. It’s a lot more functional than a thin, plastic bag and because of the dividers, no double-bagging is necessary. Wine tote bag

The only shopping totes that I use on a semi-regular basis are the bags for Costco. Costco doesn’t have bags, so you either use a leftover cardboard box, or bring your own bags. I paid for these bags…so maybe that is why I use them. I even considered buying a second set of Costco bags that are insulated, but resisted. It’s a good thing too, because I’ve gotten an insulated, zippered tote from each of my annual fishing trips,  and my third one is tomorrow!

I wonder how the baggers feel about touching the reusable bags. They don’t seem particularly washable, so I imagine they could get pretty gross after a while. That has actually inhibited me from using them…I feel like it would be an imposition to ask someone to handle my used shopping bags. It’s one thing, as at Costco, where you do your own bagging…maybe I’ll start by using the self-check-out at the grocery store.

Two years ago, I gave up bottled water for day-to-day use. I survived.  Perhaps it is time to give up disposable shopping bags…I don’t even have to make any investment as I already have dozens and dozens of bags!

Find the Joy in the Journey…and know when to use it or toss it!

TEDx—This Year Was Even More Awesome!

Last year I wrote, TEDx—My Yearly Dive Into Big Ideas. I was so inspired by the talks and performances that day and the other times I’ve been privileged to attend a TEDx. This year, was different. The event was purposefully smaller. Ironically, the smaller group contained people I know, whereas I’ve only known one person at one of the previous events I’ve attended.

I met a person from my company first thing in the morning. We made some connections of who we both knew and chatted briefly throughout the day. At previous events, if I met a person early in the day, I rarely spotted them in the crowd for the rest of the day.

This time, I knew one of the speakers and had been the one to encourage her to apply. She is the executive director of a non-profit where I serve on the board. I was overjoyed to hear her speak and to learn afterwards that her talk elicited the most contacts from participants and e-mails from people who heard about it on Twitter and Facebook. The organization is making a move into the city and everyone wants to be a part of it!

I got to know someone I’d met briefly once before and spend time talking with her about my 50by50 and about my novel. She told me she wanted to know more and that I was an inspiration. Wow! That was incredibly inspiring to me. After a day filled with creativity I was feeling a bit lacking in creative power when I realized that this blog is more than the words I publish, it is a creative project of my own. That thought lifted me up considerably.

I finally met my only Facebook friend who I’d met through another Facebook friend, but never met in person before. What a world we live in when you can make friends without ever meeting. He was a strong, if critical, supporter of my blog in the early days. He challenged me to define myself and I am better for it. I, in turn, challenged him to find the redeemable in our city and I think that by attending TEDx he saw what I see…a great number of enthusiastic supporters who are actually making the city better while everyone else just talks about it.

Although I don’t think it was intended, a theme emerged among the many speakers…that theme was to stop waiting for the right moment and just start doing what you want to do now. Do you want to start a non-profit? Write a book? Start a business? Volunteer your time? Whatever it is, don’t wait. There is no perfect moment. Don’t go through life thinking you’ll do something when you finish school, when your kids are grown, when you retire, when you’ve learned more about it, etc.

We went on a “field trip” to an old, neglected building in the city. Three very busy men had wrangled for 5 years with the city to purchase it and in the last year, had cleaned it out, made it much more structurally sound, and renovated the exterior. We walked through four floors of decrepit building, seeing the evidence of grandeur in partial moldings, a few remaining light fixtures, high ceilings, and the many beautifully-shaped windows. We heard the history of the building and learned of the plans to turn it into a useful building with restaurants, offices, and even a small museum about the building’s history.

As we made our way back to the main venue, I didn’t want the day to end. There was a party afterward, but I had to go pick up my daughter and could only stay for 15 minutes at most. It didn’t seem worth it. When we returned, however, I changed my mind. In those 15 minutes I made a new connection, a woman who lives in the city and blogs about raising her family there. She also told me she loved the non-profit I was involved in and wanted to volunteer. So now I can make that connection on her behalf.

I left floating on a cloud, buzzing with ideas and energy. I realized that I actually did get started on my dreams and stopped waiting for the perfect moment. Now I am ready for another year of creativity and productivity. I can’t wait for TEDx 2013!

Find the Joy in the Journey and find the people and places that re-energize you and help you find your purpose!

My Top Five Reasons for Volunteering

It is better to give than to receive

There is no shame in needing help and asking for it…but I seem to be incapacitated when it comes to asking for help. I do it, and then I feel horribly guilty the whole time. I don’t usually give back to the same people I ask to help me. I think that’s where the guilt comes in…but I love the concept of “paying it forward” and I often help out in many different ways and I believe that in the end, we are all supposed to ask for help humbly and give help generously.

Even though I’m completely out of shape physically, I can still rake leaves or wield a paint brush

Through team-building exercises at work, I can spend two workdays a year volunteering in my community with my coworkers. Usually this ends up being physical labor. I’ve raked leaves out of the pedestrian areas at the zoo, I’ve painted over graffiti in a gang-challenged neighborhood, and I’ve washed windows at a historic landmark. All of these ways of giving back to my community are purely physical…they are the time element of time/treasure/talent…

Using my business experience adds real value to a small non-profit

Hey, I’ve worked for 23 years at a top corporation and, believe me, accolades and kudos are hard to come-by no matter how good you are or how hard you try. But when you sit on the board of a non-profit, you find many people burning with passion for the mission, but with not a clear idea how to translate that into a viable business model. Often you find the false concept that a non-profit is not a business…but of course it is; the financials must be in proper order to protect the integrity of the organization and ensure it has the funds to pursue its mission.

To raise money for a worthy cause

I recently put out an appeal to my friends and family to support an organization that provides tutoring and writing support for children…and I was so happy to find a ground-swell of support to join me in raising funds. I had to put myself out in front of a crowd at a local bar, wearing a fake mustache and attempting to spell impossible (and, might I add, mis-pronounced!) words. I totally failed at the spelling! I totally succeeded in the fundraising. Please keep in mind that your donations, most of them in the $25 range, are incredibly important to small, non-profit organizations.

To support an idea that I am passionate about

I have many, many passions, and I have only scratched the surface on the number of organizations that I would love to support with time, treasure, and/or talent. I’ve been on the boards of two wonderful organizations, both involving children’s education. The first is a private school that dedicates itself to the talented, creative, and gifted children of the community. I live a bit too far to have sent my own children to the school, but I have and continue to struggle to find appropriate educational opportunities for my children. I found it immensely gratifying to see this organization through its infancy and past normal and not-so-normal financial hurdles to self-sufficiency.

The second organization, where I am in my last year before I’ll be term-limited, supports creative and expository writing for children 6-18 and provides support to teachers in the classroom and after school tutoring, among other things. This place engages, even mesmerizes children. Kids who have given up on society have found a voice and a way to express it through this non-profit. I am inspired by the kids and I am inspired by my fellow board members, some of whom are published authors (yes, this blog-writer has wanted to be a “real” writer since I was 6…this association is heaven to me!)

So, I suppose I could go on and on about stewardship, but this much I know to be true…if you give of yourself, your time, treasure and your talent, you will find…

The Joy in the Journey!

My Next Big Thing

I’m perpetually coming up with BIG ideas that I think will change my life. I have them frequently, and usually, I forget about them just as quickly. Some require a lot of money that I don’t have or expertise that I lack and am not really willing to obtain. Sometimes, the idea is a great BIG idea, but I realize it’s just not for me. Lately, though, I’ve been having a lot of these BIG ideas and I feel like at least exploring some of them further. I find myself getting older and knowing that in 10 years, for example, I’ll be done raising my family and I may find myself on the other side of retirement from my current job and career. So, as I ponder these BIG ideas, I find myself giving them a little more attention than I would have even a year ago.

Now, there have been ideas in my past that I did pursue even when it seemed a bit out of my league. I went back to school and got a master’s in manufacturing engineering even though I didn’t need it for my job. I pursued a job in lean manufacturing at work, with that recent masters in my back pocket, even though it meant pushing my personal envelope REALLY far when it came to public speaking. More recently, I started this blog, I started training for a 5k, and I committed myself to getting my first novel out of my head and onto paper. It feels really good when I actually take the plunge and pursue one of my BIG ideas!

In the past, I’ve gotten immersed in a number of things, things that made me realize that “flow” really exists…but they’ve been things related to my own well being, or the well being of an immediate family member. You can peruse my library and find great swaths of non-fiction books related to some of these topics as I immersed myself in the literature in an attempt to develop understanding and knowledge that would help me navigate otherwise unknown waters.

Water…that is my next BIG idea. Of course, water is in the news a lot, so it’s no surprise that I’ve been more and more aware that water is starting to become a big issue and that some alarmists claim that World War III will be fought over water. I sit in the basin of the Great Lakes and know that I am in an area that will be the last hit by any water shortages, but already we are an area in the midst of the controversy.

Today I read an article in my local paper about Charles Fishman’s recent book “The Big Thirst: The Secret life and Turbulent Future of Water.” The quote from the book that really struck home with me was,

“there is no global water crisis, because all problems are local or regional, and their solutions must be local or regional…The water problems of Barcelona cannot be solved by conservation in New Orleans or Bangalore…”

The article goes on to talk about how my region, a water-rich region, should not be focused on exporting water, but on exporting water expertise. And then my AHA moment and my BIG idea. Yes, I should become just such a water expert! I should contribute to something new in the science of water whether it is in the science of conservation or reclamation…or something in between. After all, the water isn’t disappearing…it’s just not available in all the usual places and it’s showing up where it’s not wanted.

Today, I also read an article in the December issue of Discover entitled, “The Future of Water” which showcased the issue primarily from a policy perspective. Now, the policy perspectives were all over the map, but I think this is also an area that I need to understand if I’m going to go whole hog and immerse myself in this important issue…So it goes.

I can’t say, that this new BIG idea is more important to me than literacy, as I wrote about in My Dearest Cause—Literacy, but it is an area that I intend to explore. An area I intend to see if my (ok, very old and unused ) education in chemical engineering may lend some credence and expertise to some innovative ideas.

The Charles Fishman book, “The Big Thirst: The Secret life and Turbulent Future of Water” is now on my official 50by50 list of books to read…and you’ll hear more from me later as I wrestle with my role going forward…whether it be advocate or inventor, I do want to be part of the solution!

Find the Joy in the Journey and find your own unique ways to give back!

My Dearest Cause–Literacy

In Ten Things I Know To Be True, I mentioned that I have a dearest cause:

Reading is fundamental. It is the bedrock of education. It is the bedrock of employability. It is a window into the world and into the imagination. It is my dearest cause.

I have multiple “causes”, and most revolve around children, education, and the arts. But you can’t get more fundamental than reading. The largest literacy program in the USA is called Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF and was founded in the Seventies when I was a little girl. I didn’t mean to play off of that organization’s name, but it’s too true to avoid.

Now, everyone (I hope and pray) has a cause or two or more which moves them to give back to the community, regardless of their own circumstances. Which is not to say that we all have the same cause, nor should…there are so many to go around! Besides, there’s nothing so tiresome as someone who thinks that the best thing they can do for their own cause is convince everyone they know to embrace it too…no, better is to seek out a cohort that already loves your cause and dig in!

So, when I was 25 with two college degrees and no job in sight, I decided to do some volunteering. I volunteered to do people’s tax returns, which was apt since I’d recently taken a graduate course in business school in personal and business income taxes. I felt needed and very capable. It was enjoyable for me to help people, who for the most part, needed their returns done in order to claim the earned income credit. The IRS trained me, and for one tax season anyway, I felt useful. But, I needed something else and found an adult literacy tutoring group. I dutifully attended a day-long training class and collected my workbooks and other teaching materials.

Soon, I was matched with an adult in need of literacy tutoring. One dark evening I found myself in an unlighted parking lot of an uninhabited hospital wing in my downtrodden town. There, standing in the lot was the scariest person I’ve ever encountered. His red hair was pulled in fits upon his head. His pale, freckled face looked like it had seen the wrong end of a knife fight on a regular basis. He was short and stout, solid muscle. We walked into the darkened hallways and chose an exam room for our tutoring session.

Now, I’ve read that truth is often so much stranger than fiction that you have to soften it up or no one will believe it…but truly, in late 1988 this really happened. An unaccompanied 25 year old woman was directed to meet with a rough and tumble 28 year old man in an uninhabited hospital building in an exam room for reading tutoring. Thankfully, Tim turned out to be a sweet man with a sincere desire to learn to read.  When I left him for good eight weeks later, he was the same…and just as illiterate.

This was a real challenge and lesson for me. Tim obviously had severe learning disabilities and I was ill equipped to even address the fact that my tutoring could not be successful. He had a lovely and literate girlfriend, whom I met one day when he needed a ride to tutoring. They lived in her tidy trailer with their baby twin boys. She obviously knew the benefits of having a partner who could read, and therefore have an opportunity to contribute to their economic success. Meanwhile, she tidily kept her interests separate from his.

One of his goals was to spell the name of his oldest child, Crystal…or maybe that was Krystal. Now, Tim could recite his ABC’s, but he had no idea that the song was connected to letters. He did know the sign for K-Mart, so I hopefully asked him if his daughter’s name started with a C or a K…K, like K-Mart. When I finally discerned that the K-Mart sign wasn’t made up of letters for him, and that he didn’t even recognize the “K” in the sign…I knew two things. I knew that somewhere in his mind, he did understand that symbols (the K-Mart sign as a whole) represented things (in this case, the store) and therefore with the proper help, he could learn to recognize that letters represented sounds and those sounds could be strung together into simple words and sentences. I also knew that I did not have the capacity to help him.

I’m afraid my soft exit from his life was being offered a job…one I still hold over 22 years later. It was my economic salvation and my gentle exit from Tim. I have no idea whatever became of him. He had a job as a dishwasher at a very nice hotel. I hope that he was able to get proper help with his learning disabilities, but even with the loving help of his partner, I know this isn’t particularly realistic. He’d be 50 now, with three grown children or maybe more.

So, I am no teacher! I never thought I’d make a good one despite my mother’s vision of me as an English professor! But I’m a good business woman and I now do my literacy volunteering at the board level. Others, far more talented than I, tutor the youngsters and I help to ensure that the organization stays solvent and has proper policies and procedures to smooth the daily operations and provide for the future.

And now, for my latest challenge…to take an active role in growing our organization into a city where 47% of adults are functionally illiterate. How do I even begin to absorb that fact? I cannot. This city has, arguably, the highest unemployment rate in the nation. There is no way to improve that without improving literacy. No political movement and no cry of racism will do anything but set match to gasoline. What’s needed is a clear-eyed approach to teaching adults and children to read. The school system is a shambles. The city government is reeling with past corruption. It is the grass-roots, non-profit efforts that will turn this city around. And I, as one, will likely NOT be in the trenches…that is not where my talents lie although my heart is there. No, I must find a leadership role where I can find a way to join efforts with the amazing network of existing non-profits and weave relationships with foundations and universities and volunteers…and I will.

Find the Joy in the Journey and find the humility and grace in knowing how best you can give back.

Stewardship–Time, Treasure, and Talent

I’ve been thinking a lot about stewardship lately and how it can take many forms and can compete for my attention and resources in conflicting ways. When I think of stewardship, I think of taking care of the earth, of taking care of humankind. Those are the big things, but I also think of taking care of my body, taking care of my family, taking care of my home. I think of being a small being on a big earth for a short time…and leaving it a better place than I found it. I think about my 50 by 50 and wonder how stewardship fits in. I feel that when I am older, and retired, I will have more time to give. I hope that I will have more talent to give too, assuming that I will maintain my mental faculties and continue to learn. I hope that I will have more treasure to give too, with the big expenses of my life behind me.

I started researching stewardship and was soon lost in a review of a book that advocates that employees steward their companies and the more I read, the more ludicrous it sounded. Stewardship isn’t a management tool to get your employees to work harder for fewer rewards. That really turns the concept of stewardship on its ear as a way to coerce work out of others. This is not to say that I don’t believe in stewarding my company, in small ways anyway as I work at a big company. And it’s not to say that companies don’t have their own stewardship responsibilities. Stewardship comes from the heart and while it lends itself well to companies caring for their employees and the environment, it does not fit well as a productivity tool.

No, no, no! Stewardship is what we do of our own free will to take care of what is entrusted to our care. I see stewardship in my life in many dimensions. I grew up in the seventies watching public service announcements where detergent bubbled in streams adding flora and fauna-killing phosphorous, where a proud Native American cried at the trash littering mother earth, and where man’s pollution was causing climate change in the form of global cooling. We’ve come a long way as a nation since then, partly spurred by such ads (although, the flip-flop from man-made global cooling to man-made global warming is nonsensical somewhere along the way…).

I am chronicling my struggles to do the best for myself and make improvements in my home and family life, but so far I haven’t touched on my other stewardship endeavors. When I was growing up, volunteerism wasn’t emphasized by my family or by my school. It wasn’t particularly popular in college either. So, I really got a kick-start by my employer! Now, it’s all the rage to have kids volunteering from elementary school onward, and I think that’s great. For me, it is something I came to as an adult.

I started out logging 16 hours a year through “related work group” volunteer efforts. We go out as a work team and spend 8 hours at a local charity. Often we are doing very mundane work like yard work or cleaning. Once I worked painting-out graffiti in an area of the city where gangs liked to tag the local businesses. I spent a few volunteer days at a non-profit that re-uses industrial scraps to create art workshops for school children. I’ve raked leaves at the zoo, painted rooms in a half-way house, sorted scraps, washed windows, sorted donated clothes, and myriad other menial tasks.

Beyond donated time, however, there are two other formal components to stewardship as it relates to charitable works. Talent and Treasure are also valuable contributions to stewardship. The more I reflect back on my growth in these areas, I realize that once again my company led me to both. From a treasure perspective, my company pioneered the United Way and employee giving. So, I started my philanthropic giving through employee payroll deductions to The United Way. I’ve gone way beyond that since, but it is what got me started. Now, I get a huge stack of solicitations every December and I don’t know where to start. Frankly, the end of the year is when I have the fewest resources for charity. I must have given to each of these organizations at least once, and having been on the asking side of the equation, I know why they persist. Although all non-profits seek an angel investor, they get a very significant portion of their funding from the $10 and $25 gifts of their smallest donors.

I also got my start in the “talent” area from my company. A non-profit that was dedicated to finding working professionals to join non-profit boards was sponsored by my organization for a “lunch and learn” on non-profit boards. I was immediately smitten and using their tools quickly matched up with a local non-profit. I served on their board for 6 and a half years, only leaving due to term limitations. I truly saw the impact I made on the organization and although I spent anywhere from 5 hours a month to 40, it was all worth it. I left it in a good place, poised for growth. I love watching it thrive!

About a year after joining the board of my first non-profit, I joined the board of another. I’m still a member and we are talking about exciting things to come! I see a future for my “talent” input, as well as time and treasure.  And as I look into the future, I have time to ponder what my stewardship will look like. I like the idea of focusing on one thing and giving my all to it, maybe even founding my own organization.  And there, amidst the hard work, the rolling-up-your-shirt-sleeves grittiness, the doing more with less, out-of-the-box problem solving, and all else that goes into volunteering, there is ultimately joy in knowing that you made a difference in the world.

Find the Joy in the Journey, giving back what you can in time, treasure, and talent.