Saturday, December 15, 2007

If Every Day Was Just Like Christmas

Every Christmas, I drag out my Elvis Christmas record/tape/CD - depending on the decade - and listen to it over and over and over again. It's the only Christmas record - other than Disco Duck Christmas - my family owned. In fact, in general, my family didn't play records, probably because my dad was always singing and playing his guitar when he was home and my mom enjoyed the quiet when he was gone.

It sounds great - very Mayberry - to have a dad who sings and plays guitar. And it was cool - I love my memories of Dad sitting on the front porch after dark, playing still songs to the stars.

But it's also kinda annoying, especially if you want to have a conversation with the man, or ask him to play with you or any of the other things kids want from parents.

But I love that Elvis record. Absolutely love it.

In the title track, "If Every Day Was Like Christmas," Elvis ponders why we can't be nice and love each other throughout the year. Over the years, I've had different relationships with this question. I use to cry about it and think, "Yeah, it should be like Christmas all year - we should give people gifts and all that!"

Then it just seemed naive and trite.

Now, I'm rethinking it again after reading this Psychology Today article, "Surviving Holiday Hell."

I wrote about it last year, and decided to revisit it to see if there were any ideas for breaking negative traditions and creating new ones. As it turns out, the piece does offer advice about that, noting that when traditions become, essentially, dogmatic, no one enjoys them. They just soullessly go through the ritual - which is why it's a good idea to shake things up, particularly as life stages change.

For instance, if you've had the same Christmas morning ritual since your children were little, and now they're all teens, well, you should reexamine that ritual. It's probably no longer fun.

The article closes with this advice from some expert mentioned in the piece:
Better, he says, if we treat the rest of the year as if it were Christmas. And treat Christmas as if it were an ordeal. Cancel the big show. Don't bother smearing pate on the beef. Simply feed and nurture each other. Then no one will be disappointed.

I added the italics, because it really stood out to me as a way to rescue a holiday which, frankly, mostly feels like drudgery.

And I realized that part of the reason Christmas has been hard, too, is because we don't treat ourselves well during the rest of the year and it all comes to a head with the added stress of Christmas. In other words - we just notice at Christmas because all the bad stuff happens at the same time.

An example:
You have a problem saying no - to work, to your mother, to your mother-in-law and to your friends. All year, you're under a low-grade stress because of this, but generally, they don't all come calling at once and you manage. But at Christmas, they all put demands on you. And it's too much so you crack. "Enough!" You yell. "Why is Christmas so miserable?!?"

Well, clearly, if you'd had some boundaries in place and said no to some people all year, you wouldn't be under so much pressure now. Because they'd all know better and be used to your boundaries, plus you'd have a year of practice in for saying no.

You can apply this to just about any problem that 'seems' to be an issue at Christmas: Weight problems and overeating; overspending; poor organizational skills; an inability to delegate; poor household management - all come to a head during the holidays because you've added a deadline - Christmas - and pressed all the pressure points at once.

So: What if, next year, everyday were just like Christmas in that you nurtured yourself and your family - ahead of everyone else? My guess is, by the time Christmas did come around, you'd:
a. Know how to take care of yourself and your family so that
b. You'd be able to give more joyfully and
c. You'd know when to stop giving and start saying no.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Another Approach to Ending Hunger

Earlier, I shared how Harvest's Backpack Program is feeding children who might not get enough food over the weekend.

Mark Winne, the former director of the Hartford (Conn.) Food System and author of "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty," offers a very different take on food and programs like Second Harvest. In a recent Q&A with the Washington Post, Winne answered readers questions about his apparently controversial position about food banks:
What I am saying is that we cannot end hunger unless we end poverty; food banking as well as other antihunger programs do a good job of managing poverty by alleviating its worst symptom, hunger. While antihunger programs remain necessary for the time being, they have strayed too far from, and in some cases never acknowledged the need to end poverty.

From what he's saying here, I don't see that he's against food banks, per se. He - and others - just feel that food banks aren't the only answer, but too many people view them as the answer. Food banks were never designed to provide a long-term solution: They're to combat emergency needs, but increasingly, they've become the only solution.

Winne doesn't offer easy solutions, but he tackles some tough questions and he's raising touch challenges about what it will take to end hunger in our more-than-wealthy nation. He argues that it's going to take public policy - not just private handouts.

This piece doesn't yield itself to easy action steps, but here are the action steps I saw in the piece.

Make It Happen:
  1. Support food banks and other emergency programs, but realize they aren't an end in and of themselves. It's time the U.S. looked at long-term, real solutions, such as giving a living wage to all workers.
  2. If you work or volunteer for a food bank or soup kitchen, examine what government policies you can support that will create long-term, sustainable change for your clients. Winne recommends the Oregon Food Bank as a model.
  3. If you're involved with any charity, make sure the group empowers those it helps to be part of the solution.
  4. Winne urges that we "support community economic development strategies that will bring good paying job to poor communities."
  5. Winne also suggests communities work to establish new supermarkets in low-income communities. Local markets give people access to lower-priced and healthier foods, plus they create jobs.
  6. He also suggests supporting health care for the uninsured.
  7. Do what you can to establish or support job training programs for the unemployed.

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How to Join the Backpack Program

As promised, I emailed the national coordinator for the Backpack Program, Dave Blair, and he very kindly replied with instructions on how to find out more about programs in your area. If you've just joined us, you can learn more about how the Backpack Program helps feed hungry children when they're not in school.

Here's what he said:

America’s Second Harvest is a membership organization, and all of our national programs and services are provided through our Member Network of food banks and food rescue organizations. I recommend that you readers contact their local food bank and they will have more information about what is happening on the local level. Please advise them to follow these steps to identify the nearest America's Second Harvest Food Bank:
  • Go online to www.secondharvest.org
  • Enter your zip code in the “Find Your Local Food Bank or Food Rescue Organization” section of the homepage


You can also email him.

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A Backpack Filled with Food and More

Since I've become a parent, any story about children suffering causes me to cry. It's just unfathomable that we as a society should tolerate children being abused, neglected or hungry.

Okay - it makes sense to cry about something sad. So would somebody tell me why I teared up when I read this beautiful Shreveport Times story about a Louisiana program that makes sure children don't go hungry over the weekend?

No doubt you've read that for many children living in poverty, the only real meal of the day is often their school lunch. This is a real problem for schools, families and communities. Any parent can tell you that there are two factors certain to bring about a melt-down in any child, at any age:
1. If they haven't eaten in a few hours.
2. If they didn't get enough sleep.

If my daughter starts crying and throwing a tantrum, without fail, I can trace it back to one of these two things - and, most frequently, it's because it's because she didn't eat enough or has skipped a meal or snack.

To help, the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana also offers dinner for children in the Ingersoll Elementary School after-school program four days out of every week. According to the article, approximately 96 percent of Ingersoll's students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

But teachers soon began to notice that children were returning to school on Monday too irritable and tired. They were pretty certain those children weren't being fed adequately over the weekend.

The Food Bank obtained a
$10,000 grant from America's Second Harvest to start a new initiative called the BackPack Program. Each Friday, 85 children are given a backpack filled with seven to 10 healthy food items - all kid-friendly. They return their empty backpacks on Monday morning.

The school immediately noticed the students behaved better - decreasing behavioral problems for the school - and were more attentive Monday morning. The Shreveport Times quotes program coordinator Kimberly Page:
"If a child is hungry, you can't keep their attention. The only thing they're thinking about is what time is lunch? They're just acting better."
The Food Bank also has a unique partnership with the Shreveport Job Corps that ensures an additional 120 children are fed each day through another America's Second Harvest program, the Kid's Cafe.

Unfortunately, the grant - as many grants are - is only for launching the program. To keep it going for another year, the Food Bank will need to come up with $150 per backpack.

The article doesn't mention this, but this is a national program that originally launched in Arkansas, according to America's Second Harvest. It's offered in 39 states, plus Washington, D.C.. The program distributes up to 35,000 backpacks each week nationwide.

Donate to America's Second Harvest. Charity Navigator, which rates charities on their financial effectiveness and efficiency, gave America's Second Harvest four out of four stars. It also notes that only half a percent of their money goes to administrative expenses, 1.3 percent goes to fundraising, with a hefty 98 percent going to fund programs.

Make It Happen:
  1. Here's what David Blair, who runs the Backpack Program, had to say about how to make this happen in your community or how to support a local program.
  2. If you know of a child in need, help the child and family connect with these services. Remember, too, that behavior and attention problems could be an indication a child's nutritional needs aren't being met.
  3. Contact your local food back to see if there's a Kid's Cafe. These cafes often need volunteers to serve food or just help with the children. I found a local Cafe by just googling my city, state and "Kid's Cafe." My local cafe also needed donations of paper plates, cups, napkins and dinnerware, so you may be able to make a donation if you can't volunteer.
  4. Find out how many children are living in poverty and considered "Food Insecure" in your state by checking America's Second Harvest's Child Food Insecurity Statistics Map. Publicize these numbers by sharing them with friends, posting the information on your blog, writing a letter to your state and federal representatives, sending the stats to your clergy, a local columnist or reporter, or even putting them in your family holiday letter this year. While you're on the site, join the Hunger Action Center.
  5. Support expanding the bi-partisan "Simplified Summer Food Service Program."

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Children Learn When They Pick a Theme

Most schools - particularly in the primary and middle school level - do adopt themes or units for study and they use these themes across the curriculum - which, in English, means they use the theme in all classes and subjects. So, if you're theme is "the forest," you'd read stories about the forest in literature, study trees in biology and do some sort of tree-related math problems.

But the faculty at the Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery in Arnold, Nottinghamshire, had the clever idea of letting the children pick the theme. But I think the key difference is how far the teachers and the administrators take the theme.

This year's curriculum is based on Harry Potter. Now, they could just throw up some posters, call one grade Gryffindor and another Slytherin and maybe mention Harry Potter here and there. But they just went crazy with it. I'm completely inspired by how they're translating that in the classroom. They even have a math incantation the students say before solving problems - and of course, the kids love it and are actually learning math.

You can find a list of class lessons at the end of the Daily Mail article about the school. They even incorporated it into PE!

But has all this play and fun translated into a better school?

Yes. In fact, I'd call the transformation "magical." Previously, the school ranked in the nation's bottom 25 percent, but in the three years since the children started picking the curriculum theme, the school jumped to the nation's top 5 percent. Impressive.

It's important to note this isn't just about Harry Potter. It's about letting the children determine the context for their education. Past themes included the Titanic, Africa and Princes and Princesses.

Make It Happen:
  1. Share this news story with your child's teachers and school officials. Share this news article with other parents.
  2. Find out whether your child's school has themes or units and think of ways you can support the school in using the theme. Maybe there's a special presentation related to your job or some skill or talent that you could share?
  3. These things take money. Did you know in poorer schools, teachers often buy their own supplies and supplies for the children as well? Even if your child's school has tons of money, you homeschool, you don't have a child or your children aren't in school - advocate for school funding. So offer to organize a supply drive during the holidays for the school.
  4. If you're opposed to public education funding, consider this: Can everyone homeschool? Would private schools really be able to offer education to all the students now served by public schools?
(Story found via The Good News Network.)
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