The OK Clean Water Project

I have written a few times about my bike ride across Iowa in July, 2004.  However, there’s a little more to that story I wanted to share.

When people heard I was doing the trip, the first question was usually, “Is it a fundraiser?”  As if saying, “Because why else would anyone choose to ride a bike 480 miles across Iowa in the middle of July?”

Well, this oft repeated question got me to thinking – why not make it a fundraiser?  It did not take long to think of the organization to which I would give my funds.

Eight years earlier, I was in the Volunteer Office at my alma mater talking to the Director.  She asked what my Spring Break plans were.  “Nothing really,” I said.  “Just going home.”

“Would you like to go on a service trip?” she asked.  I looked a little puzzled, but interested, so she continued.  “A student just dropped out and we need someone to fill her spot.  You’d be going to Vicksburg, Mississippi with Tina.  You’ll be staying with a sister there, but you’ll have to do some fundraising.”  As a student at a Jesuit university, I embraced the Jesuit ideal of “Men and Women For Others.”  I was an officer of the student service organization and this was right up my alley.  I told her that I was very interested and can’t recall if I ran it by my parents first or committed to it right then and there.

With just six weeks until our departure, Tina and I sat down to hash out our fundraising plans.  Tina was local, and so was the Gertrude Hawk Chocolate company.  We decided to roam the dorms one Thursday night selling candy bars.  We knew what we were doing, of course.  Thursday nights in the mid-nineties were “Must-see TV” nights on NBC.  Most every student was in the dorms  watching new episodes of Friends, Seinfeld, and ER.  Our plan worked.  We did most of our fundraising in a couple Thursdays.

In Mississippi, we worked and stayed with the spunkiest sister I’d ever met.  It wasn’t hard to tell Sr. Cathy was born and bred New York.  The names of all her successful GED graduates adorned the walls of her classroom at the Good Shepherd Community Center.  She didn’t beat around the bush when telling us about the difficulties her students faced.  Nor did she mince words when explaining how the Catholic folks down there said they didn’t really have a need for her, so she went to where she could help – regardless of the religion or lack there of.

While staying with her, we assisted in various parts of the center – day care, the clinic, after-school activities, and the GED program.  It was while standing outside in the play area one day that I a had my most interesting moment.  I was talking to one of the mothers who was just about my age (19).  She was surprised to learn I didn’t yet have children.  I explained that I wanted to finish school first, and then maybe I’d think about it.  She explained that down here, people have kids first and go to college if they can fit it in.  I was stunned.  Really?  The priority was having your own children over getting a college degree?  I know there’s much more to it than that, but as a naive 19 year old, I couldn’t believe the words I’d just heard.  The week we were there the newspaper had an article about trying to integrate the prom at a local high school.  They still had a traditional black prom and a traditional white prom.  I couldn’t believe I was standing in the United States and reading this.

In the evenings, Sr. Cathy showed us her city.  We rode a riverboat on the Mississippi with a captain who declared, “If the South ever rises again, I’ll rise right with it!”  We toured antebellum homes where I learned that “The War Between the States” was the “proper” way to refer to the Civil War.  We saw the lines on the cement walls near the river indicating flood levels.  And it was at Sr. Cathy’s dinner table that I decided eating crawfish was not worth all the effort.

I learned and experienced so much while in Vicksburg that I returned again the following year to work with Sr. Cathy.  We kept in touch and upon my graduation, she encouraged me to attend a yearly retreat offered by the sisters for post-college students.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I pulled up to the weathered three story inn on the Rhode Island Coast.  The sisters bought it in the mid-1950s when no one was buying anything on the hurricane battered coast.  You can see Block Island from the front lawn, and multi-million dollar houses all around.  This is the only piece of property the sisters own.  And, of course, they use it to serve others.  It hosts many retreats throughout the season and also serves as a vacation place for the hard-working sisters.

My fellow retreatants all had their own stories of how they first came into contact with the sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame.  And how they came to become a part of the community of friends of these women.  I forget the theme of that first retreat.  They change the theme every year.  But every year, it was exactly what I needed and to this day it’s where you’ll find me the first weekend in June.

By the time of my bike ride in Iowa, Sr. Cathy had moved on to become a principal of a school in NYC, and then onto Cameroon.  Though I rarely saw her, we kept in touch via e-mail.  And a few years into her stay in Africa, a woman I met on the aforementioned retreat spent four months volunteering with Sr. Cathy in Kumbo, Cameroon.  It was through her blog that I first heard about the OK Clean Water Project.

The sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame waste no time in addressing the needs they see in the world.  They started the retreat I attend every year because women they met while working at colleges lamented about the lack of retreat opportunities available after they graduated.  And when Sr. Cathy saw people walking miles to retrieve water from a polluted stream in Cameroon, collecting it in dirty jugs, she challenged people to respond.  Friends in Ottawa heeded the call, and in 2003 the OK Clean Water Project was born.  (OK standing for Ottawa to Kumbo).

In the Spring of 2004, I sent out letters to family and friends telling them of my bike ride and my desire to do it in order to raise funds for the OK Clean Water Project.  And when people asked if I was doing RAGBRAI as a fundraiser, I said yes and told them about the OK Clean Water Project.  I then asked if they wanted to contribute.  Thanks to everyone’s generosity, I was able to present the organization with $1400.

So thanks to all those who couldn’t see why someone would ride a bike across Iowa unless it was for a good cause.  I assure you, it’s a very good cause:)

Signs

A few weeks ago, I wrote about buying some of the first supplies for my Camino trip.  I still have not picked dates or solidified anything, but have had a few signs that my timing is perfect.

In yesterday’s mail I received the quarterly newsletter from the Congregation of Notre Dame.  My first experience with the CND’s was when I did a Spring Break Service Trip in 1996 in Vicksburg, MS.  A week working at the Good Shepherd Community Center with Sr. Cathy Molloy made me a lifelong supporter of these women and the work they do.  Sr. Cathy now lives in Cameroon and does amazing work on things like the OK Clean Water Project.   But prior to her leaving, she introduced me to other CND’s who have enriched my life.  I now participate in a yearly retreat run by the CND’s each June in Quononchataug, RI and had the pleasure two summers ago of being a volunteer cook at their retreat house for ten days.

Each season, I look forward to the CND newsletter.  I met many CND’s while cooking at the retreat house and have been invited to Golden Jubiliees where I met more of these incredible women.  So now when I open up the newsletter, I can see what inspiring things they are now doing.  Well, in this Spring’s edition there was a story about the Camino!  It turns out Sr. Ona walked the Camino last year.  And the best part?  She wrote a blog about it!  I spent this evening reading every post, and then sent the link on to my mother who, upon reading my blog, wondered recently what other kinds of blogs are out there.

Then, today, I was driving home listening to my Sirius satellite radio.  I’m no hard-core Catholic, but there’s a show on the Catholic Channel called Busted Halo that I’ve heard is quite good.  However, I’m rarely in the car when it’s on the air (7pm).  But tonight, I caught the introduction.  And guess what?  One of their guests this evening was someone just back from walking the Camino!  And not only did this guest write about it, but the group he was with even has some videos on their web site.  I have yet to watch these  because as I write this post it is nearing my self-set “turn off the computer” time (10pm).  But I will watch in the coming days I’m sure:)

I get lots of “signs” about things.  Call them whatever you want.  Some say coincidence.  But I’d rather like to think the universe lets me know when I’m on the right path.  It’s so much easier than feeling like I’m on my own:)

A Different Perspective

“I feel like those anemones in that vase over there,” said my piano teacher as she sat in her living room, her rolling walker off to the side of her chair.  I looked at the purple, red, and white flowers in the vase behind me.  “It’s like they’re imprisoned in that vase,” she went on.

“What do you mean?” I asked.  I had noticed the flowers last week when I visited, and thought how sweet it was for her husband to get them for her.  “Well, my husband got them and just stuck them in that vase – they look so cramped in there.  It makes me feel so bad, I took them off the coffee table and put them over there on the desk.”

I must insert here that I, not so long ago, would have done the exact same thing – just stuck some flowers in a vase any old way.  But I knew my piano teacher’s love of decorating and making things beautiful, so I asked, “Well, what would you rather they were in?”

“Oh!  I have this lovely pitcher, with a lip around it, and if my hands worked better I would cut the stems and lay them in there – there are spaces in the lip and when you put the flowers in, you can see all of them spilling out the sides and in the middle.”

“Well, I’ve got hands that work,” I said as I got up from my spot on the couch.  (We are good friends, not just student and teacher, so we take some time to converse before my lessons.  I call it my therapy session.  A lot of the time, we have so much to talk about we never even get to the lesson.)

“Really?” she asked.  “Of course!” I responded.  “If that’s all it takes to make you feel better, that’s easy for me.”

She slowly got up from her chair and wheeled her walker over to the steps between the living room and kitchen.  She put the brakes on the rolling walker, and then reached for the straight legged walker which she uses to get down the two stairs.  “You go first,” she said, ushering me into the kitchen.  “I think the pitcher is in the top of the closet.”

She stood in the middle of the kitchen watching as I filled the pitcher with water and a few ice cubes, instructing me to cut the stems at an angle.  As I placed each flower in the pitcher she said, “See how they just fall into place – they tell you where they want to go.”  She was right – it didn’t take much arranging at all.  The flowers naturally slid into position between each other.  When I was finished, we had a beautiful bouquet of color.

“Oh – now doesn’t that look so much better?” she asked.  She was right, of course.  They looked a hundred times better arranged this way than they did standing at attention in the cut crystal vase.  “Now we can put them back in the middle of the coffee table,” she said.

Not having practiced any of my piano pieces, I opted out of a lesson and we talked for another hour.  As I got up to leave, she thanked me again for helping her with the flowers.  “You made my day,” she said.  “I can’t tell you how much better I feel with those flowers looking so pretty now.”

Now some of you might say, “Can changing a flower arrangement really make that much of a difference?”  My answer is a resounding yes.  This wasn’t really about the flowers, of course.  It was about how such a simple thing – a change in perspective – can really turn a day around.

On Waiting

I’m not very good at waiting.  I’m an action kind of person.  If I walk into a store and the lines are super long, I’ll walk out and come by some other time.  I’m also not good at waiting to make decisions.  When I need to decide on something, I want to weigh all the options and then take action.  However, I’ve learned lately that if it’s something that doesn’t require immediate action, waiting is sometimes the way to go. Often because things tend to just work themselves out.

A while back I mentioned that NY State recently started requiring continuing education credits in order for physical therapists to renew their licenses.  As a non-practicing PT, I was saying that though I think the requirement is a good thing, I didn’t know if I wanted to spend the money going to courses to earn those credits just to maintain a license I may never use again – and have only used one year in the last ten.

Well, here’s a little update for you.  And a lesson in things working out with a little waiting.

When the issue first came up, I didn’t debate it too long as I have three years in which to get these credits and thought eventually I would get my answer.  My first answer came in the form of a web site.  I can’t recall how I found it or if someone passed it along to me.  Basically, you go on-line and read some material.  Then, you take a test, and if you pass you get a credit.  And it’s FREE.  They have ones you can pay for as well, but every month they post a few more free ones.  I figured I was all set.

Then, I read the continuing education requirement in a little more detail.  Turns out if you teach a PT-related course at the college level, it counts.  But it didn’t say which courses counted.  So I called New York State and asked.  Turns out I can get all my continuing ed credits for the teaching I’m already doing.  So not only do I get paid to teach, but I earn my continuing education credits without spending another dime.

So I didn’t have to decide if I’d pay for continuing education credits to keep my license.  With a little waiting, the decision was made for me.  So if you’re trying to make a big decision, ask yourself if it can wait.  Give it some time…and it just might resolve itself.

My “Impractical” Convertible

My father said I should think about buying a new car.  My current one was seven years old, and according to dad that was old enough.  However, my current car was the first car I had actually paid for with “my own money”  and I had never envisioned getting rid of a perfectly drivable vehicle.  Prior to this car, dad had provided us with what he called “kid cars” – old clunkers that got passed from sibling to sibling until they eventually died.

But he was right.  I bought this car when I was 23.  It’s time had come.  But like many Renaissance Souls I was overwhelmed with all the options.  Do you have any idea how many types of cars there are out there?

At first, I was practical.  I didn’t want a gas guzzler, so trucks and SUV’s were crossed off the list.  I didn’t want anything too expensive, so I eliminated those fancy cars.  I knew friends that had some bad experiences with certain makes, so those were out.  However, I still had a large list.

Then I recalled a trip I took with two girlfriends a few years back.  We all met up in Miami, rented a convertible, and drove it to and around the Florida Keys for a week.  It cost extra if we told the rental agency that all three of us were going to drive it.  So we just didn’t tell them.  But we all got to try it out, and I thought it was fabulous.

What about a convertible, I thought.  My heart jumped in with one word, “Perfect!”  I tested the idea out on a few friends and some relatives who knew cars and got some suggestions.   Then I did what any non-married Italian girl would do – I consulted with dad.

“Impractical,” he said.  “Why would you want a convertible?”

The only answer I could come up with was just because it would be fun.

“And what are you going to drive in the winter?” he asked.

“Convertibles can be driven in the winter!” I argued.

“You should get something more practical.  Like your sisters.  Get a Honda.  Nothing ever goes wrong with them.”

The logical part of me said, “Your dad knows a lot about everything.  Including cars.  He’s right.  Practical is the way to go.”  So I pushed aside my heart telling me to get a convertible and started to think about a Honda.

I debated between the two options for months.  I even called the guys at Car Talk and left a message asking if I should go with a practical Honda or an impracticable Beetle convertible.  They didn’t call me back.  But I knew what they’d say.  It was the same thing my heart was telling me.  “You’re thirty.  You have no kids to haul around.  Why not?”

I realized that for my father a convertible was impractical.  The man carries more junk in his vehicles than could fit in a convertible.  Papers would be flying out of the car as he drove down the road.  And you can’t fit a couch in the back of a convertible.  Between his five children moving and his wife’s love of finding antique furniture when they’re on road trips, he needs a car that can fit a couch.  That’s why mom has a Honda Odyssey even though her youngest child is 24.  And that’s why dad drives a Chevy Silverado.

I also realized that, though I liked to have his support, I really didn’t need it.  I was the one that was going to pay for it and drive it and going to live with the consequences if I made the wrong decision.

My mother had listened quietly to the debates between me and my father.  One day when dad wasn’t around and we were looking for something to do she asked, “Why don’t we drive down to the VW dealership?”

“Sure,” I said.  In all of this debate about cars, I had yet to actual test drive a single one.  However, the whole concept of a test-drive is a little odd to me.  You get in the car and drive it around for a few miles.  And that’s supposed to tell you if you like it?

Well, mom and I drove down and did our test drive.  A car is a car.  I wasn’t buying it for its “smooth handling” or “anti-lock brakes” or whatever else they say on car commercials.  I was buying it so I could put the top down!  It’s true I could have test driven other convertibles, but the fact is I wanted a cute one – not a sporty looking one.  And everyone knows that the Beetle is just about the cutest convertible there is.

The sales guy quoted us a price.  I said I knew nothing about prices, but I’d consult with dad.  Back at home, dad couldn’t believe the price I quoted him.  “No – can’t be,” he stated simply.  “It’s last years model, they’re trying to get it out of the showroom,” I explained.  “Well, I’ll just have to go down there with you and talk to the guy.  They wouldn’t sell it for that.”

As dad and I drove down to the dealership later that week, he told me to let him do all the talking.  One day, I know, I will have to buy a car without my father around.  But while he’s still here, I’ll watch and learn.  As I was showing dad the car, the kind sales guy from earlier in the week came out to talk to us.  I introduced them and dad hardly even greeted the guy.  “I understand you quoted my daughter a price on a car yesterday,” my father boomed, his arms folded, his head held high.  “Yes, sir, I did,” the sales guy replied.  “What was that price?” dad asked.  The sales guy told him the same price he’d told me and mom.  Dad didn’t let on his surprise that I was right.  In fact, he started negotiating lower!

And an hour later I was the owner of a Beetle convertible.

I might also note that every time I pull into mom and dad’s with the top down, dad says, “Man am I jealous.”  “It’s so impractical, though,” I’ll mimic.  “Yeah,” he says, “but that’s one cute car.”  With the excitement of a child asking for a trip to the ice cream store, he asks if he can drive it to run errands while I visit with mom.  I’ve even been woken up on Saturday mornings with a call from dad: “It’s gorgeous out there – do you have your top down?”  “I’m not even out of bed yet,” I’ll reply.  Some days I wonder who’s more excited about the car – me or my dad.

Writing for Public Consumption

On Christmas morning when I was seven, I received my first diary.  An avid reader, I loved the idea of writing down my own personal thoughts and what transpired during my days.

I never intended anyone to read the words I had written.  But my siblings apparently thought I had something juicy in there.  I had to change the hiding spot often so my siblings wouldn’t steal it. I recall the sinking fear as I looked in my hiding place only to find the diary missing.  I’d cry to mom and dad who would demand the culprit to come forward.  Upon it’s return, I tore open the pink cover and paged feverishly to my latest entries to recall what wisdom the guilty sibling had gleaned, hoping I didn’t say anything too mean about them.

Twenty-six years later, stored in my parents barn, is a twenty-two gallon plastic container filled with years of my thoughts.  Despite all these words written, I never considered myself a writer. Though I didn’t know the technical definition of a writer, in general I figured that they wanted their words to be read.  I didn’t.  Upon reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I felt such pity for the girl – she was just writing in her diary and someone thought it a good idea to publish it for all the world to read!  I was sure that wasn’t her intention.  I was so sure, in fact, that I wrote in the front of my diary that year that I did not want mine to be published ever.  But that the guilty sister who always stole it could have the honor of reading it upon my death.

No, I never intended my words to be read.  So when I found the John C. Campbell Folk School in the book “100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life,” I wanted to take a blacksmithing course.  When the catalog came, I skipped over any writing courses.  I realized there was one week in March that was a perfect time for me to go, so I flipped to see what courses were being offered that month.  The last one was “Your Life. Your Stories.”  Hmm. I loved our family stories.  And would love to get them down on paper.  They said beginners were welcome.  I never in my life thought I’d sign up for a writing class, but it was the one of most interesting to me on the page of courses being offered that week in March.

My fear that I’d be accused of being too young, of not having lived long enough to have anything to write about only proved partially true. I wasn’t the youngest – at 31, I was the second youngest in our class of eight.  And though no one said anything, I later found at that the woman who would become the most inspirational to me had her doubts about us younger girls when she first saw us.  She held her tongue on that, but thankfully spilled out her words of wisdom to us over the next five days.

When the youngest student in our class confessed to having a blog, we all asked if she could show us how to set one up.  And here’s the great thing about the John C. Campbell Folk School – the teachers modify things to fit student requests.  So all of us gathered around our fellow student’s computer one evening and she gave us an introductory blog lesson.

And here I sit, writing for anyone in the world to read.  This is what I love about life.  That you can change – or don’t have to.  And it’s your choice.  That you can say, “Never will I ever…” and then ten or fifteen or fifty years from now find yourself doing something you never said you’d do.  All because of a book you picked up from the travel section at the bookstore.

On Not Having the Degree

On NPR last November, they were interviewing a guy who made a documentary about what he called “the best high school in the world.”  As a math tutor who struggles to understand how it is that I have high school students who still don’t know their times tables, I was curious.

He said 85% of the teachers at this high school (a charter school in Tuscon) were not certified.  Most had a higher degree in their subject matter, though.  The chemistry teacher, for example, had a Masters or PhD in Chemistry.

When asked about their hiring practices the filmmaker explained that people that have that much education in a subject are usually enthusiastic about it.  He further went on that it was their enthusiasm for their subject matter that was contagious and made kids excited about learning the material.  The filmmaker said he himself got excited about Physics just during the filming of a physics class.

I would venture to say this is why the NPR show Car Talk is so popular.  Most of the people that listen to it have no interest in cars.  I sure don’t.  But these guys are so funny!  And they know their stuff!  They love doing what they do.  Their enthusiasm is infectious.  And their show isn’t just about cars.  They say, “if you have a question about cars, car repair, or anything else…”.  They settle disputes between spouses on if it’s better to warm up the engine before driving.  They responded to a college student who wondered if this was all there was to life.  My favorite was the girl whose car was stolen, returned, but infested now with black widow spiders.  They knew what to do.

Renaissance Souls have plenty of things we’re enthusiastic about – some for just a short period of time, some for much longer.  What we often don’t have are the degrees to “prove it” to some people.

But guess what?  A lot of times you don’t need the degree.  Or any background for that matter.  You just need some chutzpah, some networking skills and some infectious enthusiasm.  When I worked as a Park Ranger visitors on my tours would ask what my degree was in.  “Physical Therapy,” I’d say with a big smile on my face.  Oh how I loved that question.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a degree in outdoor resource management (I made that degree up….).  Or history.

I’ve worked for over 10 years as a math tutor without a degree in math or education.  Sometimes parents would ask if I had a teaching degree.  I said no.  But I said, “We’ll have one tutoring session, and then you talk to your child.  If they say I wasn’t helpful, you can leave – no hard feelings.”  Most parents were simply so thrilled to find someone to help their child when they couldn’t that they really didn’t care what my background was.  And the fact that I’m a young woman?  Well, that’s a great inspiration to high school girls.  I was golden.  Well, that and the fact that the students did improve:)

I work for a tutoring non-profit these days.  Prior to me, they only hired certified teachers.  I’m not.  But I got hired.  Why?  Because one of the main math tutors was moving away, and the owner prayed God would send her someone.  I called the next day.  She figured she’d take a chance.  This is my fourth year there. Right time, right place?  Destiny? Luck?  Personally, I believe what’s meant to be will happen.

I’ve done consulting for physician’s offices on their use of computer systems for billing, scheduling, and electronic medical records.  I have no degree in computers.  And prior to my first consulting job had no experience in the business end of healthcare.  Why did that first consulting company hire me?  They said it was because of a line I put in my cover letter.  I said how I couldn’t believe how cutting edge medicine was yet their computer systems were from the dark ages.  (Well, maybe I didn’t use those words exactly.)

I didn’t like the travel involved in consulting.  One of the practices I worked with said, “If you ever get sick of your job, you can come work for us.”  So, I resigned from consulting, drove cross-country, hiked the Grand Canyon, came back and called up the office manager.  I started as the receptionist so I could learn all there was about how this place ran.  When I got bored with that I convinced them they needed me as a billing manager, so I hired someone to replace me as receptionist.  All I knew about billing was that they had a lot of problems with it.  I didn’t know how to fix them.  So on every claim that wasn’t getting paid, I called the insurance company and asked why not.  Believe it or not, they told me why and what I needed to do to fix it.  Then, I called the computer system company we used for billing and said, “I need to resubmit this claim – how do I do it?”  I learned quite a bit about billing.

My father was not thrilled when his Masters-in-PT daughter was working as a receptionist at a doctor’s office.  But when I decided to move to Bethesda, MD and they offered to pay me to work from home, dad was blown away.  “So you sit at your computer in Bethesda, and work the insurance stuff for this doctor in Boston?”  “Yup.  In my pajamas if I want.  Anytime I want.”

If you’re saying that it’s just me, that I have some sort of luck, that you could never do this, then I give you this quote from Mary Kay Ash: “If you think you can, you can.  If you think you can’t, you’re right.”