Saturday, December 11, 2010

UNDERDOGS: The Story of a Successful Public School

I am proud to be kicking off fundraising for my first feature-length documentary project, "Underdogs," which follows a public school in Newhall, CA (outside of Los Angeles) over what should be a monumental school year this year.

The school is considered a classic "school of poverty." It should be failing, like so many other schools with similar demographics, but the students, staff and administrators at McGrath Elementary School have created a culture of success. This year they want to do the unthinkable -- have 90% of their students score as proficient or advanced on the state's standardized tests. The 6th graders at the school set this goal. And, they're inviting President Obama to go to the movies with them next year if they achieve this goal.

The students are at the heart of the film. I'm enjoying getting to know them through the editing process and am proud of the filming that Ramon is doing on the project and of the teaching he is doing, as he is teaching filmmaking to students at the school.

Ramon and I are very proud of this project and are working very hard, but we need your help. Every dollar counts! Go to to find out how you can help, what you can gain for supporting the project -- AND TO SEE A 7 MINUTE VIDEO EXCERPT FROM THE FILM.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

More Than Enough - The Power of Giving: One Child, One Dollar

One of my fondest memories of the after-school program I used to run was the Alice in Wonderland Tea Party at the after-school program I run. There were cookies, cupcakes and pizza slices being sold. There were "mad hats" being made and other art activities. The goal was to raise money for clean water in Burkina Faso (a small country in Africa). 

The students hoped to raise $250, which would provide a toilet for students at a school in a small country across the world. When, the activity booths were closed, and the cookies and cupcakes and pizza were gone, everyone gathered in the cafeteria. I proudly announced that we raised $225. After the claps died down, I heard a small voice.

"Miss Jen, here," came the words of a little boy, who extended his hand and offered another dollar. Then, another student raised their hand and offered up a couple more dollars, then another and another and another. $5 here, 35 cents there, and on and on and on.

I was noticeably moved by this generous act of students, who know all to well the value of a single dollar. (This boy himself often came to school in ill-fitting, tattered clothing, yet had been moved by the needs of other children across the world who had no running water or toilets).

Later, when I had a chance to count what was given in that final burst of generosity (where the students were not receiving activity tickets, cookies, cupcakes or anything else in exchange for their money), I counted $41, and that didn't include the change.

$41 more dollars, which all began with 1 student and $1.

In my mind, I heard Margaret Mead's words: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens (or kids -- my addition) can change the world..."

And I added my own: 
 "Never doubt that a simple, single act of kindness is too small. Indeed, it may become more than enough."

Do you have a story about kids making a difference? Please share it! I'd love to hear all about it. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Abundant Living #2: More on Conscious Consumption (or Non-Consumption) - Five Non-Vestments + Five Potentials

As a conscious consumer, I'm also mindful of NOT spending money on things that I really don't need. Here's five things that we often "think" we need, but really don't. 

1. Cable/TV - we don't have any type of TV service. This is great, primarily because it means the "one-eyed baby-sitter" is not just always on, but also because it makes me really consider more deliberately the media I consume. Between and, I typically catch the few TV-related things I might be interested in and avoid the rest.

2. Baby "gear/toys" -- I'm not really into crowding our house with baby stuff. We've been blessed to be given a lot of stuff from friends (hand me-downs and new). Plus, babies are innovative. Sky doesn't really need a lot of toys. The box that my Toms shoes came is very entertaining, as are diapers (clean ones of course), measuring cups, an old remote control, etc.

3. Morning coffee -- I make it at home, instead of getting elsewhere. It saves money and is, usually, just the way I like it.

4. In that same vein - "grab-it-on-the-way breakfast" (AKA take out breakfast) -- which typically means a bagel or muffin (I used to do this). Now, I make breakfast at home. It's healthier, less caloric and sugary, gives me a much better start to my day and saves money.

5. Accessories and excess clothes -- I'm very basic when it comes to fashion -- always have been, always will be. I prefer good finds at a thrift store -- better for my wallet, better for the environment, better (typically) for the cause the thrift store supports (in most cases), and (at times) more unique. Also, regarding accessories, now that I have a baby, I really am glad because the few "nice" things I did have, Sky has broken, spit up on, etc.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Abundant Living: A Commitment to Conscious Consumption

In my commitment to the good long road, I strive to be a conscientious consumer and to consume as little as possible (sometimes successfully, other times, not so successfully), to reuse as much as possible, and to be generous and giving, even with a limited income. Here's my Top Ten "Investments."

10. Toms Shoes - Pregnancy did a number on my feet and shoes, so after I had Sky I invested in a new pair of shoes. This time, Toms Shoes, which I have found to be quite comfortable (physically and mentally - knowing that my purchase meant that a child would also now have a pair of shoes). I also purchased a hoodie from Tom Shoes, since pregnancy had broken the zipper and several seams of my previous hoodie. (I now have my second pair of Toms Shoes).

9. Books - Two specifically that I want to mention: Yoga Mom, Buddha Baby by Jyoth Larson and Ken Howard, which I purchased at the local thrift store and True Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. I didn't purchase True Love for myself. It was a gift from my brother, Kyle, but I have purchased it for 2 friends, so far. You can buy it at amazon or Barnes & Noble, or straight from Parallex Press. Here's a review.

8. Abundant Harvest Organics (a weekly box of locally-grown, organic produce - I typically only need to buy it once or twice a month. I"m supporting locally farmers and getting organic food at a great price). You can read about my recent cooking experiments with this produce on my other blog, Cooking With Love.

7. American Red Cross Donation for Haiti, Donation to a Birthing Center in Palestine, Food Purchase for items to give to the local food pantry, etc.

6. Train Fare - to meet a friend Downtown rather than guzzling gas and adding to LA's notorious traffic problem.

5. Plane Tickets - to Boston just after Christmas (the reason was unfortunate, Ramon's father's funeral), but the trip (with Sky) was a beautiful opportunity for reconnections with family and friends and also (for my grandmother's funeral) to Kansas in April. This weekend I'm going to Chicago to be with my family for my mom's 65th birthday.

4. Compost Bin -- will save money, improve our soil at home and reduce our waste.

3. Sustainable kitchen items - Pyrex glass food containers, a reusable coffee filter, wood cutting board and reusable water bottle.

2. Reusable baby items - G Diapers, cloth nursing pads and such.

1. Fabric - for a sling my mom made for Sky (see below); extra fabric was used for pillowcases (that double as bassinet sheets) and for a boppy case.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Brushes #1 - "Fingerpainting" by Baby


About the Artist

Wild Thing was born on November 7, 2009. He shows great promise as an artist with his work reflecting his fun-loving nature and ability to bring a smile to the face of all he meets. His talent as an artist must be related to his regimented lifestyle. For example, while Sky enjoys tasting everything, he maintains a very strict diet (milk only, please) and takes frequent naps throughout the day. He also sticks to a regimented exercise routine that includes rigorous leg workouts with lots of kicking and jumping, yoga at the exclusive MomBa studio in Val Verde, and power walks with his personal trainer, Jennifer. In addition, he studies dance with private dance instructor, Ramon. Aside from visual arts, Sky's artistic interests also include music. He can often be heard singing (in a crooner style) and enjoys playing a keyboard that was specially designed for him. He even plays it with his feet. Intellectually, Sky's endeavors are impressive. He loves books and is currently learning two languages. We hope you enjoy this inaugural artistic work that was made at an exclusive art studio in Santa Monica under the patronage of Danika Sudik and Tom Burmester.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rays of Sunshine (AKA Hope)

My last blog was all about obstacles and roadblocks, and the importance of remembering to breath and of not forgetting that the road is good, even when there seem to be lots of roadblocks and obstacles getting in the way. Not long ago, that is how things felt for our little family -- as if there were just lots of roadblocks. 

We were frustrated that we were working to do so much good and yet kept butting up against such challenges. Then, as Ramon says, we started to see little rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds. We were told that the landlords were selling the house we lived in and so we started looking at apartments. It was cloudy indeed. Yet, a single ray broke through the clouds as we started thinking that maybe we could buy the house. We got the list price. We ran the numbers. It all made sense. We could buy the house we were already living in. 

We made an offer and then had to meet a counter offer (that raised the price very little). Today, the real estate agent called and told us that the owners had signed. The rays got brighter. However, this morning my grandmother passed away and the sky literally was cloudy outside. We had known this day was coming. She was 88. My mother had been there for 2 weeks, but was back in Texas when it happened. However, the chaplain had just been with my grandmother -- there's a little ray. 

My mother, of course, is grieving as anyone would who loses a mother. Yet, all three of her children and their spouses will be able to be together on Easter weekend for the services. I see more rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds. My brothers, Kyle and Brent, have not yet met Sky, so I am very glad that they will be able to do so and that Sky will also get to meet Deb and Hayley (Brent's wife and step-daughter), as well as his Great-Uncle and, I'm sure, lots of other extended family. It is not whether challenges and sadness and loss will come into our lives. It always will, but I believe there is always a ray of sunshine (aka hope) if we look for it. I know others may disagree, but finding the sun amidst (or hidden behind) the clouds is the only way I have ever made it through a rainy season.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Good Long Road: Overcoming Obstacles

My brother, Kyle, came up with this name for my blog. In fact, he set up the blog for me when I was embarking upon the journey of my Run for Peace just about 3 years ago.

It is an appropriate title/theme, for the blog and for life, I suppose. For it is a good, long road. At times, it seems, that it is a very, very long road and that certain stretches are particularly treacherous with road blocks all around that constantly block the path. It is at these times when I find that I most need to remind myself that Peace is Every Step, no matter if that step is small or even backwards. I have to remind myself that I do "Run for Peace" or, as the case may be, walk/crawl/dig/scramble and fall (flat on my face - particularly when I might forget that peace is every step.) I must remind myself to always keep the Peace part front and center. If I falter and if I lose my way and if I am not promoting peace with each step and each action, I must learn to stop and breath and find the center point again -- the point that allows me to regain my focus.

In running, if you aren't breathing properly, it doesn't really work. You might be fine for awhile, but eventually you will have to stop, your side will hurt, your lungs burn, your breath will get shorter and shorter and you won't be able to run anymore, sometimes it gets so bad you can't even walk anymore. Life is like that too. If we don't breath. If we don't center ourselves. If we don't cleanse our bodies and hearts and minds by bringing new oxygen in and releasing the bad, the old, the used, the negative, we won't get very far. We'll find that the road is neither good nor long because we're just walking in place or standing still while life passes us by. Often, we expend a lot of effort, but go nowhere. So, we certainly can't navigate or climb over or go around any obstacles -- the breath is all wrong and the energy is not there. The road just feels long, not good.

Just long. I'm trying, though, to look harder and to breath deeper. To realize that next to that roadblock, or the several roadblocks that keep getting in the way, there might be a single, beautiful red rose or an orchid that is starting to blossom or a tiny ladybug crawling along the path. These simple pleasures--a baby boy sleeping on your chest, a friend who listens, a stranger who offers a smile, a cup of tea or coffee made with extra care--these, along with a few cleansing breaths, can give a new perspective and can grant new energy, so that the roadblocks, though they may still be there, don't look so intimidating, don't seem to big, and might even begin to look like opportunities for creativity, for new ways of thinking and doing, for new partnerships that will get us past them.

Yes, the road is long. Yes, it can get clogged. It can be treacherous. It may even seem impossible. But, the road is also good. That fact just may not be so obvious. And it's okay to stop for awhile and take a break, take a breather, and mourn the challenges, before putting our running shoes back on and logging another mile.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

First Family Photo - 10 Years Later!

10 Years

Ramon's Birthday is today. Ramon is my life partner, work partner and, now, parenting partner. We have been blessed with more than 10 years together. Today, I am listing 10 wonderful memories from our life together in, more or less, chronological order

10. Our trip to Alexandria in 1999, which was when we first expressed our feelings for one another.
9. Spending Christmas together in Bethlehem, also in 1999.
8. New Year's at the Pyramids in Egypt 1999-2000.
7. Thanksgiving - 2002
6. My graduation from Harvard - I couldn't have gotten through it (or in) without you (June 2003)
5. Going to Fenway (in particular Derek Lowe's no-hitter), but in general this one represents all of the memories in Boston and my gratefulness to Ramon for sharing his city with me.
4. Running together at the park in Brockton - I loved doing that. (2001-2002) and the burgers and sausages you cooked for my "30"run (2007)
3. Our first Christmas with Sky (2009)
2. Our trip to the park - Dec. 2009 (first family photo)
1. Sky's birth, of course (Nov. 7, 2009)

On his birthday, I wish to Thank Ramon for sharing so much with me and I would like to encourage all of you to thank those special people in your lives and to treasure each moment you have with them and not just the "top" memories.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I know that we don't know enough - the power of meditation

Oprah: What do you know for sure?

Nhat Hanh: I know that we do not know enough. We have to continue to learn. We have to be open. And we have to be ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher understanding of reality. When you climb a ladder and arrive on the sixth step and you think that is the highest, then you cannot come to the seventh. So the technique is to abandon the sixth in order for the seventh step to be possible. And this is our practice, to release our views. The practice of nonattachment to views is at the heart of the Buddhist practice of meditation. People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don't suffer anymore.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who is largely responsible for this entire blog and the actions connected with it, was on my mind and his teachings on mindfulness and deep breathing flowed through my day. In the morning, I noticed that my friend (and fictive brother) Chris had posted a link (on facebook, of course) to Oprah's interview with Thich Nhat Hanh. I did not, at that time, read the interview. I have only just read the interview now. But, I have read several Thich Nhat Hanh books over the last 7-8 years.

At the after-school program, two students had a difficult day today. As I was dealing with the students' anger and pain, I thought of Thay, the Vietnamese word for teacher, which Thich Nhat Hanh is often called. In thinking of him, I led these students through deep breathing. One of the students, the one who was hurting, was effectively calmed by the time we got to the tenth breath and discovered that she wasn't really hurt that badly (which I knew to be the case) and ran off to her class. The other student, who struggles daily with his anger and frustration with the world around him and with his peers, tried the breathing exercise with me.

It was more difficult for him. Tears filled his eyes. His reasons for being angry kept rising to the surface. I realized that deep breathing would not be enough and thought of Thay's walking meditations. He had so much angry energy. So, I had this student walk with me to the copy room - taking five steps for each breath in and five steps for each breath out. Pretty soon (after about 20-25 steps) he was completely calm and eagerly shared everything he knew about prehistoric tigers and birds (which is a lot by the way).

It was an interesting experience because I have often thought that I would like to institute/integrate meditation into the after-school program, but had felt overwhelmed as to how to do it. Did I need a specific teacher? Where would we get the funding? Would the students respond well to it? Etc., etc., etc. Today, I realized how much I was overcomplicating things. I don't need a meditation "class." I just have to recognize the opportunities when they arise and share meditation practices with the students. Thank you, Thay for all of your wonderful teachings. Thank you, Karen for introducing me to Thich Nhat Hanh's work and for the opportunities you have given me to hear him speak in person. Thank you, Chris, for posting this interview in your Facebook status. Thank you, Kyle for your practice and commitment to mindfulness as it reminds me, on a daily basis, to continue down the Good Long Road.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Heart

Clearly, I am not that great of a blogger. I go way too long between posts. Life can do that. I decided last fall, though, to focus in on the theme "Ten," which is significant to my life. As I mentioned before, I just celebrated 10 years with my amazing life and work partner and, now, parenting partner, Ramon, and I have a film project entitled "Ten" that I would love to get myself together and bring to fruition.

Now, about 5 months after my last posting (that's half of 10), I'm back with 10 things that nurture my heart (in no particular order). Ramon and I don't exchange gifts at Valentine's Day. We do, though, work on valuing, loving and appreciating one another 365 days each year. So, this posting is my only act in recognition of Valentine's Day.

10. My family (Mom, Dad, Kyle, Brent, Ramon, Sky, etc.)
9. My work - I love nurturing and encouraging young people . I don't always have all the answers regarding what the students I work with need, but my mantra is always -- when in doubt, give more love (also my parenting motto).
8. Ideas - whether I find them in a book, in a conversation with a friend or family member, in a song, in the joy on Sky's face when he discovers something new
7. Music - listening to it and, definitely, playing it. On Tuesday, I was playing the piano with Sky in my lap and he starting cooing along. My heart certainly got a little bit stronger on that day.
6. Fictive Kin - all of the wonderful people who have been in my life and supported me as if I were family, despite the lack of any "blood" connecting us
5. A good meal with friends or family. I love cooking (in fact, I'm starting a new blog, ironic since I'm so bad at updating this one. It's called Cooking with Love. I believe food (and breaking bread with others) can warm the heart and soul. I recommend reading Roger Ebert's blog about meals. It captures the value of breaking bread with others, though he himself can no longer eat.
4. Yoga with Sky - I'm sure avid yoga practitioners would find our routine lacking in its accuracy as I don't really know that much about yoga and only really started doing it when I was pregnant, but Sky and I love it.
3. Sky
2. Sky My goal was to post Top Ten Lists (not like David Letterman's). This approach was supposed to get me to write more often. I actually had notes on lists, some completed lists and some partial lists in my journal (my goal was to post, of course, every ten days). Well, during the busy month of August, I lost my journal, which as anyone who has ever lost a journal knows, is a pretty unfortunate thing.

1. Sky

So, maybe I'm cheating by listing my son, who is now just over 3 months old, 3 times, but he nurtures my heart and fills my life with joy in a way that I can't put into words. I feel so blessed to have him in my life. He represents so much possibility (hence the name Sky) and contains within him, Ramon and I believe, pieces of those we love who have passed on. Thus, he represents so much that I think listing him more than once is only appropriate because it is also a way to list those individuals and to reference the possibilities, hope, and peace found in my 12 pound bundle of joy