Traveling Stories Build Literacy One Book at a Time

traveling-stories-storytent

If you live in the San Diego area, or some other regions, and you’re a frequent visitor to Farmers Markets you may have noticed a tent full of children listening intently to an adult or another child reading a story from a book. If you stepped closer you probably saw the mesmerized looks on the children’s faces as they soaked in the words and tales taking them to places they can only imagine.

Many of the children who visit the StoryTents are refugees whose families fled their war-torn home countries; children like seven year-old Abdullah and his four year-old brother, Abdulramah, who escaped Iraq in the fall of 2015.  Such children are fairly commonplace in this nirvana on the sea. San Diego absorbs approximately 3,000 refugees a year, many from Iraq seeking a better life, a safer life for their families.

traveling-stroies-abdullahWhen the boys’ family arrived in the U.S. the children didn’t know a word of English. And it didn’t help that the boys were exceedingly shy. The boys’ mom said that leaving friends and family in Iraq was hard on the brothers, sadness often filled their days. She told a friend who had also escaped Iraq years earlier about her boys’ difficulty with adjusting to life in America. The friend told Mrs. Aleze about the StoryTent at the Farmer’s Market in El Cajon, a small city east of San Diego. Mrs. Aleze took them to the Thursday market, found the tent and the boys sat down to listen to a story being read. For the first time since their arrival on American shores she observed a spark of happiness. No matter that they didn’t understand English, the boys were hooked. After that first visit, their mom made sure they attended every week and their perseverance has paid off. Over the past year Abdullah not only learned to speak and read English, he now insists on reading aloud to the adult volunteer and the other children.

So who started these StoryTents? The literacy program is the brain child of San Diegan, Emily Moberly. When she was 22 she taught English in a bilingual high school in Honduras. She discovered that the kids didn’t read books; she soon figured out why. There traveling-stories-emily-moberlywere few, if any, resources for kids to procure books. The town had just one insufficient library that rarely opened and a small, equally insufficient bookstore. On a visit home she bought as many books as she could stuff into her luggage, returned to the Honduran school and started a library. Over the next few weeks and months she watched the students connect with the books; she observed them fall in love with reading. Emily returned home and never forgot how unlocking the world of books to non-readers opened up a new chapter in kids’ lives, exposing them to new ideas, observations and insights. She decided to do the same in her home city, though not as a permanent structure. In 2010 she founded Traveling Stories as a 501c3 nonprofit operating primarily in farmers markets. Why tents?

“A tent allows us to be mobile and to fit in easily at a farmer’s market or other community hotspot. We want to make reading a part of everyday life,” Emily says. “We want to make reading more visible in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Kids in these neighborhoods have access to books through libraries and schools, but still the fact remains that 82% of low-income children in America are not reading at grade level by 4th grade.”

Emily is definitely onto something. According to the Literacy Project Foundation 50% of adults cannot read a book written at eighth grade level. 45 million adults are functionally illiterate. Among the 20 highest income countries the U.S. ranked 12th in literacy. That’s pretty astounding for a country as big and as sophisticated as the U.S. To combat illiteracy in adults, it must start with children; Emily gets it.

“Traveling Stories helps kids develop strong literacy skills, confidence in their ability to read out loud and a love of reading,” she says.

She chose the farmers markets because she saw that kids needed one-on-one reading support with people who love to read. She noticed children accompanying their parents to travelling-stories-taythe local farmers markets and decided to try out a tent at the City Heights farmer’s market in 2011. It was a huge success. Now they’re in markets across San Diego, in Long Beach, Turlock, and Canada with plans to expand to more communities in San Diego over the next five years which Emily surmises will enable them to reach 5,000 children, turning them into better readers. After that they plan to go nationwide.

Emily spends much of her time raising funds as it costs about $20,000 to operate each tent per year. Between private and corporate donations, special events, sponsorships, grants, merchandise sales on their website and in-kind donations, so far they’re making ends meet and building for the future.

“That’s how we’re able to serve 40-plus kids every week at every StoryTent,” she says.

These days the StoryTents pretty much attract their own following, occupying the same spots week after week, making it easy to find them. Plus there’s an incentive. When children visit a tent, they pick out a book and read it aloud to the adult volunteer who traveling-stories-girlsfollows up by asking questions that help the child build reading comprehension and crucial thinking skills. The children earn a “book buck” for every book they read. For particularly long or complex books they can barter with the volunteer for extra bucks, which can be used to “buy” prizes (like the in-kind donations). Not only do the kids learn invaluable reading and comprehension skills, they’re also learning basic finance. Earn a buck, spend a buck. Pretty basic stuff and pretty darn smart.

Interested in visiting a StoryTent or volunteering? Click here here to learn more.

 

Texas Wonder Woman

TWW Ricki 2You’ve probably heard the phrase, “she be small, but she be mighty”. That pretty much describes Ricky Polcer of Tyler, Texas. Though a woman of small stature, that has not deterred her from finding needs and filling them. Like others profiled on this blog, she radiates goodness.

Her story begins with quilts, simple quilts that comfort people across the United States. She learned the craft from her aunt who taught her how to piece together fabrics at the age of eight. She didn’t get serious about quilt making until her retirement from the civil service in 2001 and then she began making quilts and more quilts and yes, more quilts. To date Ricky has made over 1,120 quilts since she hung up her day job and began using her talents for helping others. Of course you must be wondering what one woman needs or does with 1,120 quilts. Charity. She makes quilts for charity. And are they grateful!

Of that mind boggling number she has made and donated 146 quilts to the National Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study Quilt Project that provides lap sized quilts to TWW quiltspatients who participate in Alzheimer’s research. Her father suffered from Alzheimer’s for over 10 years, the last eight months in a coma, and knew well what patients and their families endure. She says she makes quilts for the project because “it’s one way I can give back in his memory.”

Ricky also sews for the Quilts for Kids chapter in Austin, Texas, an organization that provides quilts to children with life – threatening illnesses and children of abuse. Ricky’s says “I love knowing I’ve provided someone with warmth and love, giving throughout the year, it’s a good feeling.” She had made and donated 982 quilts to QFK to date.

Those child and teen quilts go to a variety of local kids’ causes such as CASA, (Court Appointed Special Advocates), for newborns to teens aged 18, who are removed from their homes due to neglect, abuse, parent incarceration or death. Another group that receives her quilts is Hospice Austin for newborns to kids up to 18 who are either a Hospice patient or have an immediate family member in Hospice. A third organization who receives her quilts is the Dell Children’s/Ronald McDonald House for children undergoing long term treatment for a life altering disease or condition.

And then there are the girls at New Life. These children aged 11-18 have suffered the unfathomable: severe physical, sexual and mental abuse.  The girls who live in and go to school at New Life undergo psychiatric intervention to turn their tumultuous lives around. Many are suicidal when they enter New Life.  My gosh, what do you do for a kid like that? Ricky knows; she has made a bunch of quilts for the girls as well as 288 pillow cases that the girls received at the holidays. To give the girls something fun to purchase in the New Life facility store, she whipped up 104 cosmetic bags that they girls can “buy” using good behavior points that work like money.  To make sure there was makeup the girls could buy to put in the cosmetic cases Ricky purchased 200 e.l.f. cosmetics to line the store shelves. She also made 36 fleece throws and 153 totes the girls can purchase in the little store.

TWW two pupsDoes this woman have a heart as big as Texas, or what? She makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker especially because that’s not all this spunky woman does. Ricky is as passionate about her other “hobby” as what she sews for those in need.

Since 2007 when she took in her first greyhound and got involved with Greyhounds TWW Ricki & pupsUnlimited of Dallas, Texas she has been fostering and adopting the elegant former racing dogs. To date Ricky has fostered 10 “greyts” with medical issues, and adopted eight. At this time she cares for two greyts, an eight year-old named Jinx and seven year-old Manuel. To be expected she sews for the dogs too, items like fleece belly bands to keep male dogs from marking the inside of a house. The woman’s energy knows no limits.

I’m not sure that this dynamo eats or sleeps, how else does she do it? I imagine that joy and the elation of giving back plays a big part. When asked her favorite part of quilting she answered, “I treasure the quiet time with my greyhounds at my feet helping.” For Ricky, quilts and greyhounds go hand in hand. Quilts and greyts, what a sweet combo.

Do you know of a selfless hero or heroine like Ricky Polcer in your town? If so, I’d like to hear about it. Please leave a comment below.

 

Cool Kids Chillin’ in Buffalo

Chill Kneeling with kidsIt’s summer, it’s hot and muggy, and it’s impossibly hard to cool down, especially in the inner city neighborhoods. Then a guy comes by on a bike, an ice cream bike, and relief is within reach, except for one little problem. You’re a kid whose family hasn’t much, even enough for an ice cream. So you stand to the side and watch and salivate and wish you could have an ice cream.

This scenario is not so unusual and it’s why I particularly love what James Karagiannis of Buffalo is doing for kids in his community. He’s the perfect example of how one person can generate a smile in a second and make a difference.

In his upstate New York hometown locals know James as the Ice Cream Dude, and what a dude he is. In 2007 he started a bicycle ice cream business, sort of like the ole musical ice cream truck, only it’s a cart of frozen treats connected to his bike. He doesn’t charge a lot for his ice cream novelties, just a buck a piece, but for some kids who have nothing, even that is too much. From the start he encountered a dilemma—how to help out these kids without giving them a handout.

He says that “one of the hardest parts about being an ice cream dude is seeing the disappointment on a kid’s face when all of their friends buy ice cream but they’re left out because they don’t have a dollar.”

While he says that he has the latitude to give away freebies he can’t afford to give to every single person. “Trust me, we get asked a lot!”

Chill James and more kidsHe adds that he doesn’t like just giving something away to a kid “without at least trying to teach a lesson. We’re in these neighborhoods every day and are a part of these kids’ lives; we have the responsibility to be positive role models.”

He came up with a way to teach them a lesson while being a positive role model and giving them the ice cream they want. He makes them earn the ice cream by answering questions, a quiz.

“They love questions,” he says “and I love that I’m teaching them things. I would have been a teacher if I wasn’t an entrepreneur.”

James makes it fun while making the kids feel that they earned their ice cream, which he ensures they do.

“I let them choose their subject, but often times it’s easiest to pull a dollar out of my pocket, tell them I’ll give them the dollar if they can tell me the city it was printed in. I give them clues, for example, San Francisco would be ‘there was a gold rush here in 1849.’ They can’t figure that out until I have them draw the connection between the football team and the meaning of 49ers.”

Answering questions doesn’t always work out for every kid, so he came up with another idea. “If they want a free ice cream, they’re going to have to write a thank you note.”

And boy, oh boy, have those kids been writing thank you notes! James thought that the thank you cards would be a nice because he personally appreciates personal thank you cards, something you don’t see much these days. A lost art.

“For years people have been giving me a few bucks to buy ice cream for the next group of kids I see. I thought the thank you cards would be a nice gift for them while teaching the kids in the process.”

Another reason he decided to have the kids fill out the cards is because the people who donate money never get to see the joy on the children’s faces when he gives out the treats. The cards work both ways.

Chill TY postcards“Now there’s an opportunity to put a smile on someone’s face and receive one in return,” he says.

The process is pretty simple. For anyone who donates he has the kids write thank you notes, which James mails to the donors. The thank you notes do just as much for the donors as the kids.

“Maybe it arrives in your mailbox long after you’ve forgotten about it, maybe it arrives on a day you could use an extra smile.” James just loves the idea of helping the kids and showing them how they can express appreciation.

Oh, and I almost forgot, he’s so humble all he sees is the goodness in others. When asked what’s his favorite part of the job he said “when a kid who only has $1 offers their ice cream to a friend, sibling, or parent. Totally selfless. I always buy those kids an ice cream.”

James says that there are eight of them on the ice cream bikes and each of them does something extra for the kids. All of them have the kids fill out the thank you cards, but each has an extra thing they like to do with the kids. James asks questions and sometimes races his bike with them.

“Rex likes to shoot hoops with the kids. He gives them a freebie if they make a three point shot. Jerrod likes to do science experiments.”

Chill girls with ice cream mess

Ice cream on a hot, sticky day, giving back, and having fun in the process, ah, life is sweet, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Be sure to check out the Ice Cream Dude’s website and Facebook page to see more photos and videos. And if you’re feeling inspired and want to support the ice cream fund, it’s easy.

What do you think—is James’ idea cool or what? Leave me a comment.

 

 

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.

 

A Million Pillowcases

It started as a simple idea and grew into a passion, a movement to make a difference one pillowcase at a time. In 2010 the magazine, American Patchwork & Quilting, issued a challenge to the quilting community: Make 1,000,000 pillowcases and donate them to charities in their local communities. If you know a quilter, then you know that quilters take challenges very seriously and boy did they take on this one.

Why a pillowcase? It seems pretty basic, right? It is, but to someone who just lost their home in a fire or to a teen moving from one foster home to another or to a child undergoing cancer care in a hospital surrounded by sterile white everything to a homeless veteran or to a woman seeking respite in a domestic violence shelter, a colorful pillowcase can mean the world. It can mean comfort. It means that someone cares.

The project took off and it’s still going strong. As of the 24th of March 2016 countless groups around the country have made and donated 663,684 pillowcases to their local charities (donations are reported and the magazine keeps a tally on their website). So who are the people who make and donate the pillowcases? They are individuals, groups, organizations and children. One group in Bloomingdale, Ohio, led by Mary Albaugh, illustrates the deep commitment these sewing volunteers make to the project.

In 2013 Mary lost her mother to accidental death in a nursing home. That was bad enough, then there were birth complications when her granddaughter was born. Little Karly Jean survived but it left Mary in a distressed state of mind. When her son told her to “get a life” she knew she needed to do something productive. She had heard about the pillowcase challenge and decided to start sewing. And she did. She sewed and sewed and sewed. Before long she had made 350 pillowcases; she donated them to Pillows of Hope for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. As much as she liked making the pillowcases she missed the camaraderie that comes with sewing in a group.  Then she did something she had never done before – she founded a ministry, called Amazing Grace Pillowcase and launched it on Facebook.

On a Friday the 13th she scheduled her first “sew-in” at a local training center. Despite horrible weather, construction in the parking lot that forced everyone to park far away, and difficulty finding the sewing room at the center, over 30 women showed up to sew. By the day’s end the group had made 137 pillowcases. Mary said it’s a prime example of “If you build it, they will come.”

Mary fondly calls the volunteers her “sewing angels” because they bring joy to others, one pillowcase at a time. This humble group has made and donated well over 5,500 pillowcases as of this writing. If you ask Mary, she will tell you that they don’t just make  pillowcases, they’re an act of love and a symbol of hope.

Then there are the kids, lots and lots of kids who have taken to this project like the proverbial bee to honey. In 2015 Mary began holding events for kids to sew pillowcases for sick children in hospitals. Kids like Girl Scouts, 4Hers, and children inspired to learn to sew, if they don’t already know how. Even little ones in kindergarten. Kids who jumped at the opportunity to do something to help a sick child. Kids like Mary’s granddaughter, Karly Jean Otto, who at five years old made her first pillowcase (see this cute photo).

And Amanda Boring, an incredibly generous child. After attending sew-a-thons for the 4H and Girl Scouts, Amanda was so inspired that she saved her own money, made from doing chores around the house. She bought patriotic fabric for Amazing Grace Pillowcase, instead of spending it on clothes for herself. And there are others like Owen and Tina, grandchildren of one of the sewing angels. I don’t know who gets more out of these acts of love, Mary, or the kids who relish the opportunity to help other children. The kids certainly understand the significance of their efforts.

One time after finishing two events Mary asked the group “What did you learn from this experience? What did you use to help make these pillowcases?” A shy little girl raised her hand and said, “We used our hearts.”

Mary is incredibly proud that the kids get it, that they understand how good it feels to give to someone in need, to give back. Yes, they get it and so do the adults. They sure know how to raise good kids in Ohio, they sure do.