Reasons to be Thankful

It’s that time of year when we reflect upon all the blessings in our lives. While the “thankful” part of Thanksgiving seems to have taken a back seat to football, Black Friday specials starting in the afternoon and a general sense of malaise, it remains an important holiday in our American culture. It makes us stop whatever we are doing and think about all that we have, not what we don’t. Which is kind of an oxymoron with the commercialization of Christmas right around the corner, encouraging people to overspend, over consume and be sure to buy presents for themselves while shopping for others. With that in mind I started thinking about what I am thankful for this year, which by the way for reasons I will keep private, has not been an easy year. Nevertheless there is much for which I am grateful; here are a few of them:

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Family. We don’t always agree nor do we see each other much due to living all over the country. Even so, they are mine and I love them.

I’ve always looked at life through my own pair of rose-colored glasses. From an early age, these special glasses instilled in me the ability to see the proverbial “cup” as half-full, even when it isn’t. This is the source of my optimism.

I believe that people are essentially good and have good intentions, though their behavior indicates otherwise. Call me a Pollyanna. This viewpoint gives me an unwavering capacity to recognize the best in every situation, to be able to find the silver lining. It is that silver living that gives me hope for humanity.  I trust that a good heart will always prevail over one full of deceit or venom. Karma has a way of evening out the playing field.

Call me naïve — I’ve always maintained that given a choice, people will do what is right. Time and again I have witnessed the opposite; even so, that does not dampen my faith in humanity.

Taking the high road is always the best route. There’s something to be said for civility, grace and treating one another with the utmost respect, which these days seems to be a lost art. Even so I think it’s the best way to travel.

Trusting gut instincts and a keen intuition. Everyone has these abilities; we are all born with them. I am incredibly grateful that mine are still intact because they never fail me when I listen to them. If something feels wrong it’s because it usually is.

We all have voices in our heads, they are our conscience. I listen to mine, because my conscience usually perceives danger before I do; it’s sort of a warning signal. Those times that I’ve ignored my conscience, hoo-boy, have I gotten into a boatload of trouble.

I am thankful for the simplicity in my life, a conscious decision I made several years ago. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that life really isn’t that complicated unless you make it so. These days I make a daily effort to reel in what is simple and plain to the eye because that is the soul of a life worth living.

In closing I leave you with this — many years ago I read a quote by Maya Angelou. In paraphrasing she said ‘you may not always remember what someone did, you may not always remember what someone said, but you will never forget how someone made you feel.’

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Wishing all of you a safe and grateful Thanksgiving.

Until next time,

Jeffree Wyn

Creating Horse Whisperers

VR Small girl and horseHorses: What majestic, elegant creatures of beauty and grace. And in thundering herds, what power and strength. To be able to communicate with a horse eye-to-eye and with a whisper, using only slight movements to direct motion, demonstrates a gift of true mutual trust. Now, imagine being a child who has had more than their share of problems or hardships, looking up at a large horse and being able develop that relationship and mastery. Talk about a confidence builder!

Okay—a Horse Whisperer is technically “a horse trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the horse, based on modern equine psychology”. It takes years of experience to attain that level of expertise, and we all know that is beyond the scope of a young child. Perhaps the terms “friend, buddy or pal” are more appropriate. In any event, learning to bond with a horse comes with lasting life lessons.

There is a place where kids are experiencing that important outcome: Victory Ranch, Inc. in San Jose, California works with kids 8 to 16 years old to help them grow and develop life skills. These are neglected or abused kids, some suffering from depression or addiction, perhaps from broken homes or live in foster care. Some are kids who could use a helping hand and some positive goodness to keep them out of the juvenile justice system. In general, the emphasis is working with disadvantaged, under-served, at-risk, neglected, abused, and low-income youth, that include foster, adopted, and siblings of kids with life-threatening illnesses. Oh, did I mention—there’s no charge for the kids participating in the program?

VR Doug instructing with horseDoug Hutten founded Victory Ranch, Inc. in 2006. He started riding horses at age 6, and his adult equestrian experience spans over forty years which includes avid trail riding, competing, stable management, training, volunteering with special needs organizations, writing for Western Horseman Magazine, working with various equestrian Search & Rescue Teams in two states, organizing and managing a PRCA-sanctioned event, and Charity-Celebrity Trail Rides. In other words, he knows his way around horses.

VR Grooming

He has been involved numerous Horseman Associations and charitable organizations for a long time, giving back to those who need assistance. When he witnessed the great number of troubled kids in the Bay Area, he put his knowledge of horses into focus, and knew he could put the two together to create positive behavior changes. Doug realized that kids talk to dogs; if he could get them to feel safe and open up by talking with horses, only good would come of it. He was right.

One success story is Nick Campbell, now 20 and a student at UC Davis. He was just going into high school in 2009 with a lot of extracurricular time on his hands when he entered the program. “My main job was to help muck out the stalls, groom the horses (and bathe them when the weather permitted), exercise them and keep them in practice with Doug’s style of horse training. It’s very important to be constantly making sure that they know their roles and how to behave on the ground, as well as while being ridden.”

The Kids & Horses Education Program (KHEP) is a 5-week after-school and weekend education program which creates positive behavioral changes in almost every child enrolled. Participants engage in tasks with horses that are fun and facilitate communication and teamwork. The horses themselves encourage cooperation and creative thinking, and are capable, sentient mental health team members providing non-judgmental feedback to the kids.

The staff members are certified in utilizing horses in therapy, and when a child needs special help, the Ranch also offers Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) utilizing qualified mental health/clinical professionals. The kids are continually monitored by staff who employ program evaluation, questionnaires, and applied observational field research to help measure their progress.

VR kids muckingDoes it work? Oh, yeah, and very well. Kids learn that they can influence something larger than themselves in a positive way, making them feel better about themselves. The conclusions validate that the goals of the KHEP Program (improved life skills – self-confidence, team work, social skills, personal achievement, focus/follow directions, communication skills, and knowledge of horses) are improved/achieved in the majority of students.

As Nick says, “I became a much harder worker because of VR, and a lot better at time management.”

And when a child graduates from the program with a certificate, they are designated “Buckaroos” (467 total graduates to date) and are invited to return to help mentor the younger first-time participants in future sessions. Not only is it fun to help out, but the positive messages are reinforced while developing leadership skills.

Returning as a Buckaroo, Nick recounts, “During the programs for the foster children, my job was to support Doug and Pat as a kind of teaching aide. I had gone through the program as an observer, so I knew the structure. I helped teach the skills the program tries to impart to the kids, and made sure that everyone was kept in the group. The kids were not allowed to be with the horses by themselves, a volunteer or leader had to be with them at all times, especially when they got to be on the horses.”

What’s next for Victory Ranch? With as many children in the Bay Area who really need the kind of positive help the Ranch provides, the natural course is to increase the number of sessions to accommodate as many as they can. They also want to start a program for the Horsemanship Merit Badge for the Boy Scouts, Varsity Scouts and Venturers. And then there’s the planned expansion into the critical need of serving returning Veterans suffering PTSD. By mirroring the efforts and success they’ve had with the children, translating the horse therapy to the Veterans is sure to have a profound effect.

VR Doug instructing with harness

Would Nick Campbell recommend Victory Ranch to parents of deserving kids? “Definitely, seeing the way that shy, reserved kids start the program and end up with friends and skills that allow them to be social is amazing. A lot of the kids can’t work in group because of shyness or anxiety in the beginning, but they really open up through working with the horses and with other kids in their situations.”

VR Group ShotOf course operating as a non-profit, funding the Victory Ranch programs has always been challenging. Fortunately several foundations and corporate sponsors of note have seen the benefits their support has made (see the website for their list). An endeavor that includes 23 staff and board members (mostly volunteers), the need is constant to make sure that there are enough funds available to feed the horses, pay the rent and provide the free service they do so well. And to ‘take it to the next level’ with additional services, fundraising activities takes a bit of their time and attention. You can learn more about Victory Ranch by visiting the website. If you can help the Buckeroos in any way, I’m sure they would appreciate your interest.

By the way, although they call the graduates “Buckaroos” I prefer the term “Horse Whisperers”. It better demonstrates the magic that happens at Victory Ranch.

 

Knitted Knockers to the Rescue

If the title of this post made you smile, it should, because it’s about a very cool enterprise that is improving the lives of thousands of women. KnittersWomen like Ruthie in Vancouver, Washington who underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer in May 2014. Six weeks after her surgery she began seven weeks of radiation, followed by chemotherapy for one year. Yes, she lost her hair and eyelashes, as is typical with chemo, but it saved her life. Like most women who undergo a mastectomy she received a prescription for two prosthesis. While she was happy to have them she says she immediately noticed how heavy they were, and hot when she wore them. She accepted that would be the burden she would bear for getting a second chance at life. Then, a friend told her about Knitted Knockers. She went onto their website and found that they were available for free. That’s when her life changed.

“The Knitted Knockers arrived fairly quickly,” she says, “and they are a dream to wear. They are light and give a woman the curves that she should have. They’re filled with yarn. I wear them inside my regular bra and my look is quite natural. It is pretty emotional when realizing that some woman made these for me.” Ruthie says that she especially appreciates how the organization is helping countless women regain their feminine looks and giving them peace.

Barbara Demorset - Knitted Knockers

So who are these Knitted Knockers folks giving breast cancer survivors their dignity back? Barbara Demorest runs the organization. They have one function – to provide special, handmade breast prosthesis for women who have undergone mastectomies. Their mission is one near and dear to Barb’s heart. In 2011 she was told the dreaded news that she had breast cancer and would have one of the 50,000 mastectomies performed every year. Like many who undergo a mastectomy she didn’t know what to do, how to dress to look “normal” so she could return to work. When she learned that she couldn’t put anything on her scar for six weeks post surgery, she cried for the first time. The following week at her doctor’s office she perused a brochure for a silicone prosthesis. When her doctor walked in and saw her reading the brochure he told her that most women don’t like them due to their heavy weight, expense and how hot they feel. Asking her if she knew how to knit, the good doctor showed her a photo of a “knitted knocker” and a website where she could get a pattern. Barb contacted a friend who was a knitter and asked her if she would make her one. The following Sunday her friend handed her a Victoria’s Secret shopping bag; Barb raced into the church bathroom and put one in her bra. She remembers the moment well.

“It was fabulous! It was light, pretty, soft and fit my own bra perfectly. I knew right then that I wanted to make these available to other women going through the same situation.”

Barb immediately sought out the young woman in Maine who had named them after making some for herself, to find out if she could use the name and share the knockers freely with others. The young woman was thrilled to pass the baton. From that seminal moment Knittedknockers.org was born. Barb began simultaneously reaching out to women who needed them and to knitters to make them. Her mission mushroomed. These days 130 groups in 49 states and nine countries are registered with Knitted Knockers, Knitted Knocker volunteersproviding free Knitted Knockers to any woman who needs them. She isn’t sure exactly how many have been distributed because they provide to the groups who in turn knits for their own communities, but figures it’s around 20,000 Knitted Knockers to date. She does know that their pattern has been downloaded off the website over 100,000 times and that the videos have been viewed over 98,000, so probably more, a lot more. Each week Barb and her helpers meet in Bellingham, Washington to stuff, process and fill the week’s orders that come in off of the website. As of this juncture they’re sending out about 100 orders per week, though some weeks they’ve processed as many as 200 orders, and one week they processed 480.

No doubt you’re wondering how do people who need them, and people who want to make them, find out about the organization. Barb works with many physicians across the country, providing brochures and sample knockers free of charge so they can do for their patients what her own good doctor did for her. As for the knitters? Well, they’re like all good people everywhere. Once a few in the knitting community found out about it, word spread and it keeps spreading. Knocker Knitters continually register on their provider directory, happy to a breast cancer survivor and spread a little goodness.

Want to learn more about KnittedKnockers? Visit the website or you can watch this short video that ran on Business Insider. It’s been viewed over 900,000 times.

 

The Jelly Girls

When inconcJelly Girls Marjorie and Debbieeivable tragedies hit two friends just months apart, it was their art that brought them through their shared grief and back into the light. Silk painting artist Marjorie Pezzoli’s 19 year-old daughter died in an accidental drowning at La Jolla Cove in January of 2013.
Five months before, the boyfriend of glass artist Debbie Solan committed suicide; Debbie found him. Where do you go after that? How do you move on and get our life back? Can you ever really get your life back as you knew it?

Marjorie and Debb were already working on a fundraiser, Palette to Palette, sponsored by the San Diego Visual Arts Network (SDVAN) and San Diego Synergy Art Foundation (SAF). Proceeds benefitted an arts education program at Kimbrough Elementary School, in collaboration with Feeding America San Diego and Young Audiences, as well as ongoing programs of SDVAN and SAF. All very noble, and a distraction, but hard to see the good when tragedy has just taken your joy away. Marjorie and Debbie powered through it as best they could for the greater good, to improve the lives of others.

The diversion of another project probably helped too. They were deep into Sea Changes, part of “The DNA of Creativity”, an idea fostered by SDVAN founder, Patricia Frischer. The endeavor brought together the arts and science, usually an incongruent alliance. Not so, in this case. The four projects sponsored by SDVAN involved 40 artists, scientists and educators, all bent on finding ways to showcase art and science together. Each team’s mission was to cultivate an understanding of issues affecting the ecosystem and to prompt innovative, positive change or at least get people to think about the issue. A tall order I’d say.

Creative minds that they are, Debbie and Marjorie Jellies in Santa Cruztook the idea to a whole new level. They wanted to address the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans and bays. I suppose you just have to be an artist to come up with what was eventually dubbed “Jellies Forever”, a brilliant exhibit in the Museum of Monterey using donated plastic grocery bags, painters’ tarps and salvaged plastic wrap. Their exhibit featured life-like jelly fish hanging from the ceiling. Life-like until you took a closer look and realized you were looking at plastic. Though they intended to install six to eight jellies, they ended up spending two days installing 33 and along the way Debbie and Marjorie were dubbed the “Jelly Girls”, a name that stuck.

Why creaJelly hanging in the museumte plastic jelly fish? If you’ve spent any time at the beaches or on the water you know how sickening it is to see the water teeming with garbage. Many people don’t realize that much of this muck lays underwater plaguing our oceans and strangling sea life; we see a minuscule portion that floats on top. It’s ugly, it’s an infestation. The exhibit ran from March 2014 until early August of that year. The “jellies” as they have come to be known, can still be seen on display at the Santa Cruz / Monterey Bay Exploration Center as well as in Fusionglass Co, a La Mesa gallery, owned by Debbie Solan and artist Paul Fernandes.

But lest you think Fusionglass is a typical gallery, think again. Started in 2007 the little gallery holds special events year round and sells Marjorie’s beautiful painted silks and Debbie and Paul’s glass work, each piece a true work of art. And classes, lots and lots of classes, such as a series called Ladies Night Out where students learn to make their own stunning glass jewelry. (Note to self: gotta sign up for one of those classes.) Fusionglass was a bonafide lifesaver for Marjorie.

“Fusionglass saved my life,” Marjorie says. “This place kept me going.”

Which brings us back to the question of how a person moves on after going through an unthinkable tragedy? Debbie says that when a person goes through a something horrific that it’s essential to concentrate on Post Traumatic Growth, PTG, not the stress of PTSD. “You find a new way of living after you’ve experienced a tragedy,” she says, alluding to what she and Marjorie endured. “You choose how to deal with it, how you get through it.”

It’s still hard for them, how could it Jellies on the Ceilingnot be? No doubt their bond and strong friendship has given them the resiliency to muscle through the emotional and psychological difficulties together, to the next chapter of their lives. Marjorie states that going from one creative endeavor to the next motivates her to get through her days, weeks and months, allowing her to function and to live. She recently received a certificate from the Teaching Artists Institute; now she teaches art to small children, and when she can, connects her lessons to the work of the ocean and the Jelly Girls because the Jelly Girls has become about more than an exhibit.

These days the two dynamic women say that the term has evolved into defining someone who gives back to the community, who creates beauty from materials on hand and who inspires others to care. In other words, thinks outside of herself, thinks of the good. Considering what these two women went through, it’s remarkable that they were able to pick themselves up and find a way out of the sorrow and melancholy that accompanies grief. They did it through their art, through their friendship and through finding a path back to the light when life threw them one of the worst curve balls imaginable.

For more information on them, contact Marjorie, Debbie and the Jelly Girls by clicking on their names to link you directly.

 

Beating Alzheimer’s

JamieSeven years ago Jamie Tyrone of Ramona, California seriously thought about taking her own life. To look at this 55 year-old attractive, intelligent, savvy woman full of kindness and grace, you can’t help but wonder why. It seems hard to believe because she has a loving husband and family, friends who think she walks on water and a positive outlook on life. But seven years ago the world came crashing down on this retired nurse.

Since childhood Jamie has witnessed four family members develop and die of Alzheimer’s disease, and then in her adult years her father developed it. Once again she watched a loved one fight, but lose his battle with the brain-ravaging disease. At the time she never thought that she too could be afflicted by the devastating, fatal disease. She didn’t get the genetics connection. Then she participated in a research study to find out her risk for another, unrelated disease. She was shocked to learn that she has two copies of the ApoE4 allele gene (one from each side of her family), which puts her at a 91% risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. She is part of an exclusive, albeit unwanted, club; only two percent of the population inherit two copies of the ApoE4 gene. Developing Alzheimer’s is pretty much a foregone conclusion when you find out something like that.

Jamie’s life came to a halt as anger, despair, fear, and anxiety consumed her. She describes that time as living in a deep, dark hole. Her chances of developing Alzheimer’s is 12 times more likely than the general population; she is also at a very high risk of developing early Alzheimer’s, which usually hits before the age of 60. She had good reason to be depressed. She shut herself off from her husband and everyone else. She began drinking excessively; her anger took a toll on her marriage. Then her husband, Doug Tyrone, an executive at Scripps Health, said “Enough”, telling her that she had to figure out a way to deal with the risk and depression before it destroyed what was left of their marriage.

Jamie knew he was right and that he was giving her a wake-up call, one she couldn’t ignore if she was to save her marriage, and herself. She pulled herself up out of her black hole and pushed herself to get help. She learned that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition brought on with finding out her double gene status. She made a decision. Rather than let herself be consumed by both her probability of developing Alzheimer’s and the PTSD that was ruling her life, she went into therapy, leaned on friends and family and turned to science. She joined a program at the Total Health Center in San Diego led by Dr. David Clayton; a program shaped by a study out of UCLA that showed lifestyle changes can reverse memory loss in dementia patients.  At Dr. Clayton’s urging she began a Paleo diet, began taking numerous supplements, and exercising both her body and mind. She also began volunteering as a lab rat, knowing that her unique gene status could help researchers learn more about the disease and find a way to either stop or prevent it. She joined a long-term study at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix. She spends three days every other year undergoing brain scans, cognitive and memory testing. Jamie also agreed to have her brain donated and autopsied after she passes.

While that seems like a lot of change, Jamie wanted to do more. In 2012 she founded a non-profit group, Beating Alzheimer’s By Embracing Science (BABES), to raise money for research and to educate the public about the insidious disease. Has all this activity helped? Jamie says that making personal changes and founding BABES created a renewed sense of direction and purpose that soothed her wounded soul. Even though she knows that her efforts will not likely save her own life she is content knowing that she is helping others. I’d say that’s about as good an example of The Goodness Principle as I’ve ever heard.

If you met Jamie, who can only be described as giving and loving and compassionate with a smile that lights up the dimmest room, you would never imagine that this woman once stood precariously at the brink of suicide, ready to give up. Maybe it takes standing at the brink to find one’s purpose after learning your future is paved with heartache and uncertainty. For Jamie that brink pushed her to find her purpose, to find her future and at least for the present, a way out of quagmire.