time dissolves, with a dog on the porch

Frankfort sunset, July 2015

I was sitting on the porch of our cottage outside of Beulah, reading a book about the saints, when up came a volunteer friend: a chocolate-colored lab, friendly as you please. He clicked across the porch, nuzzled up to me and put his head on my lap.
That’s the wonderful thing about dogs, isn’t it? They think you are the coolest thing in the world: “Hey there Mr. Man, you are so awesome! Would you mind petting me on the head for just a minute? That would be so great!”
So there we sat, Buster and me (he seemed like a Buster), him being petted, me petting him. I put down my book, as Buster was rather dominating my lap.
“Breakfast in 10 minutes!” Andrea called from the kitchen. Ah, 10 minutes. Such a nice long time. I closed my eyes, Buster under my hand, listening to the mid-morning countryside. Birds, the occasional faraway car, another dog barking, nothing. I immersed myself in the summer stillness. All motion seemed to have stopped. The very idea of 10 minutes seemed to lose meaning. It was just me and Buster, on the porch, while time took a break.
I have the idea you can slow time down if you make a point of it. Buddhist monks seemingly can bring it to a halt by slowing their heart rates in meditation. Buster was being my Buddhist monk here, inviting me to slow my mind down. Instead of racing ahead mentally to the next thing, I just sat there with this thing, this moment. The more I sat, the larger the moment became, swelling into the warming summer air. There was no next thing, except that invitation to breakfast, at some point.
There were other such moments in my long weekend with Andrea. Sitting on Frankfort beach, we huddled on a bench waiting for the sunset. It took a long time. Children ran by along the shore. Adults snapped memory photos. The waves whooshed in dreamily. Birds circled. Andrea and I sat there sleepily, as the golden sun sank ever so perceptibly toward the horizon, slowing all the world with its lazy splendor.
It would not stay so slow. Soon enough we were back in the rushing week, driving and working and taking care of the next thing and the thing after that. Things that needed doing by a certain time or else. Or else what, exactly? I guess we know. But what a life it would be if we could just let time dissolve into the still air, and let the deadlines wash away in the waves.

Frankfort dune grass

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

in the morning, when we rise … that’s the time I love the best

bird in my feederThese birds will not sit still for me. Or rather they won’t perch still on the feeder in my magnolia, just off the porch. It’s like they know I’m here with my phone camera trying to snap a picturesque shot, or maybe they think I want to literally shoot them. Finally I caught one in an unguarded moment. I out-waited nature.
This quiet natural world is so fresh today, the 29th of June. It forms a piece with last night’s twilight, when my street was suffused with a still, golden glow. Then, the air hung dreamily with memories of the day, the long morning walk with Andrea, the late-afternoon ice cream social busy with kids on bikes and neighbors yakking. Like the day just didn’t want to let go quite yet.
Now it is an air of gentle expectation that stirs around me, buzzing with birds, the soft whooshing of faraway cars, a wooly cat walking by. Lots of things could yet happen, but nothing is happening yet. Not for me anyway, on the porch in early summer.

Blue is the color of the sky, in the morning when we rise
In the morning, when we rise.
That’s the time, that’s the time, I love the best.

I used to listen to the song “Colours” by Donovan, on his 1965 album “Fairytale,” in the East Lansing apartment of my sister, Maureen, and her then-boyfriend John. Those were magic mornings, rich with the smell of fresh coffee, Maureen and John’s shelves of musty books, the mysterious cat Rowrbazzle, the hanging spider-plants and the owl-shaped candle-holder.
Other wonderful nuggets on that Donovan disc were “To Try for the Sun,” “Universal Soldier” and “Sunny Goodge Street.” But “Colours” had a special zest, a spirit of freshness and new life that stays with me to this day.

Green is the color of the sparkling corn, in the morning when we rise …
That’s the time I love the best.

Here I am in early summer, some 50 (!) years later, still humming the song and enchanted by the new life of this day. Who knows what it will bring? I only know what it gives me now: a soft breeze, the quiet stirring of expectation, and birds who won’t perch still.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

blessings for a day: donuts, kids and Marge

Marge introduces the Rev. Peter Omogo, who conducted Mass and danced with her

Marge introduces the Rev. Peter Omogo, who conducted Mass and danced with her

Community comes in many forms: parades, high school football games, music festivals. Today, I celebrate the community of Marge’s Donut Den.
I was down there this morning for the 40th anniversary of this beautifully bustling place on 28th Street SW in Wyoming. And there she was, Marge Wilson, the amazing woman who started this whole thing, smiling and surrounded by her loving customers.
A dance band was playing in the corner. A clown was making balloon animals for the kids. Customers were wolfing down donuts and coffee at 45 cents a pop – her original prices from 1975 – as well as a breakfast of eggs, hash browns and meat for whatever you wanted to contribute.
And there stood Marge, basking in the joy of the moment, grateful to God for her success in turning a humble donut shop into a community living room.
“Be Kind, Be Good,” reads a message above the doorway, and Marge is certainly that. Just ask the families who line up on Saturday mornings for boxfuls of donuts or custom wedding cakes. Or the young man she befriended in jail and now employs in the kitchen. Or the people in Nigerian villages who are drinking fresh water thanks to her Samuel Omogo Foundation.

Marge's Donut Den 3
As usual, people hugged her right and left. Also as usual, she introduced me to everyone she could, including the Rev. Peter Omogo, brother of Samuel Omogo, who died at age 47. Father Peter had conducted Mass that morning, in the bakery’s new reception room decorated with Paul Collins paintings. Now he was dancing to the band with Marge, and grinning ear-to-ear.
Marge and I go back a ways. I wrote about her Donut Den back in 1986, when I was a rookie reporter at The Grand Rapids Press. I was impressed immediately with her industry and generosity.
We reconnected in 2013 thanks to Anthony Torrone, whose book, “Anthony’s Prayers,” I edited along with Pat Shellenbarger, with photos provided by Lance Wynn. After Marge heard about the book, she contacted me and said she wanted to buy 500 copies to give away to customers. It was a joyous day when Anthony brought them to her and signed copies.
Since then, Marge has also bought and sold many copies of my book, “Faith on First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts.” She proudly tells customers that my column about her and Anthony is on page 12, then has me sign it for them.

A friend to the author, and to many, many others

A friend to the author, and to many, many others

It is not often one finds a collection of essays about spirituality and baseball on a donut counter. But in Marge’s community living room, neither Anthony’s book nor mine seems out of place.
I am grateful for the support and encouragement Marge has given me. So are the many people who have been touched by her kindness and goodness the last 40 years. The glazed donuts and apple fritters are what gets them in the door; Marge’s spirit is what brings them back.
It is thanks to people like her that we find community in this hard world. And boy do we need it, especially after the dark tragedy in Charleston this week.
“Bad things will come and go, but the truth remains,” loyal customer George Nobel told me, alluding to the church shooting. “This” — gesturing now to Marge’s crowd — “this is the truth.”
On this bright Saturday morning, Marge’s Donut Den was a true place of blessing. And my apple fritter was scrumptious.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

farewell to a friend and an educator’s educator

Mike's granddaughter Zoe beams with pride as he reads to her class

Mike’s granddaughter Zoe beams with pride as he reads to her class

I love it when life circles you back to meaningful people. I met Mike Paskewicz nearly 30 years ago when I embarked on the Class of 2000 series for The Grand Rapids Press. We reconnected when I joined School News Network and started covering Northview Public Schools, where Mike was superintendent. He retires this month. Here is a bit of our shared journey. 

It’s near the end of a math lesson at Grand Rapids’ Burr Oak Elementary, and first-year teacher Mike Paskewicz is upset. He’s just gotten a pink slip from the principal informing him he has been laid off due to budget problems, and may not be called back to teach in the fall.
“What’s the matter, Mr. P?” asks Rodney Quick, a student who often comes to school with a pet pigeon perched on his shoulder. “They just told me I’m not going to have a job next year,” his young teacher answers glumly. “Don’t sweat it,” Rodney says confidently. “You’ll be back.”
Paskewicz chuckles as he tells me this story, 40 years later. It’s just one of several tales he tells of students he taught that year, and he remembers all their names. He also remembers their stories, like the girl who had bruises on the back of her legs until he called the authorities on her parents.
I marvel at the clarity of his memories, yet I am not surprised. In the nearly 30 years I’ve known Mike Paskewicz, the superintendent of Northview Public Schools, I’ve seen how much Mike loves students – I can only call him Mike after all these years — and the chance to make a difference in their lives.
It is no different now, as he prepares to retire at the end of this month. He still fills his days working on students’ behalf, whether it’s reading story books to them or telling legislators to give them more support.
“That’s the best part of it, the kids,” Mike told me. “You get the opportunity every day to impact somebody’s life — every day.”
But this time, he really won’t be back in the fall. Forty years after stepping into that fifth-grade classroom in 1975, he’s amazed how quickly it has all gone by.
“I hope a few people remember I walked through their door,” he said. “Because they sure walked through mine.”
Getting In There with Students
He will be deeply missed in the 3,400-student district he’s led since 2009. When the school board hired Scott Korpak to succeed him, the incoming superintendent acknowledged the “sense of loss” the Northview community will feel. At an open house in late May, people waited in a Disney World-length line to say goodbye.
“He’s as quality a guy as you could ever work with,” parent Chris VanHoute told me in line. Added his wife, Kim, a district paraprofessional, “He gets right in there with the kids. He’s real.”
That’s one reason Mike has been an educator’s educator. He gets in there every week with students like Travis VanSetters, his witty “life coach” at North Oakview Elementary School, who inspired him to wear red tennis shoes as a reminder of his daily responsibility to students.
But Mike also gets into it with legislators, firing off emails that challenge them to correct funding inequities. He gets into writing his blog about his weekly visits to elementary schools. And he gets into huge reams of data to guide better teaching strategies.
His rare gift of enhancing education at the meta-level, while being able to joke with students and staff in the hallways, has served him very well at Northview, and at the three other school districts he has led.
One example: At the 40,000-student Adams 12 Five Star Schools district in Colorado, he supported a project to help young Hispanic students learn to write. They published a book of stories that found its way into the hands of Bill and Hillary Clinton, among others, and earned 11 of them $2,000 college scholarships.
If you want more examples, I can send you his resume.
I too will miss him, not just as an exemplary educator, but as a friend.

Granddaughter Ava also had the pleasure of Mike's story-telling

Granddaughter Ava also had the pleasure of Mike’s story-telling

Class of 2000 Started Our Journey
I met Mike in the fall of 1987, when he was principal of Fountain Elementary School in Grand Rapids. I was a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press, and asked him if I could do a series of stories on Fountain’s kindergarteners. I wanted to explore the educational and personal experiences of students scheduled to graduate in the year 2000.
He readily agreed. Thus was born the Class of 2000 series in The Press, which would continue every year until those students graduated – well, two-thirds of them, anyway. From the outset, I was impressed with how much Mike cared about those students, and how candid he was about both their talents and their hardships.
“Maybe that is where I found my voice for the value of public education,” he told me recently. “People need to know everything that goes on – not just the positive, and not just the negative.
“If we tell the true story of what’s going on in public education, it’ll bring more people to the table, to do what’s right for kids.”
Mike helped me tell that story about his students at Fountain, who came from a mix of middle-class and low-income families. He once told me about a boy who, after learning his mother was arrested for prostitution, took his younger brother and sister through a cemetery to their aunt’s house. The next day he took a test, and did well. But with a stable family, Mike asked, how much better would he do?
“Kids can be successful regardless of the at-risk factors at play in their lives,” he added, firmly.
A Long, Long Goodbye
Our winding career paths brought us back together two years ago, when I began covering Northview for School News Network. As ever, Mike has shared with me the hard realities of students’ lives, but also the delightful fruits of their growing minds.
Earlier this spring, he visited two particularly delightful children – his granddaughters Zoe and Ava, students at Kenowa Hills’ Zinser Elementary School, where Zoe invited him to read stories to their classes. He wore a cheerful-faces tie he had been given at Fountain, and talked eagerly with students about his favorite books (“Old Yeller”) and theirs.
It was plain to see the joy he takes in children, and in what he later called “the simple delight they have in everyday occurrences. If you remember to look behind the eyes of a child, you get that every day.”
At the open house some weeks later, in the Northview High School cafeteria, the joy he takes in teachers and community members also was evident. He’d been reluctant to make a big deal out of this. But his longtime administrative assistant, Deb Domine, who is also retiring, insisted. “This is not about you,” she told him. “This is about Northview. People want to say thank you.”
Boy, did they. For more than two hours people lined up to say goodbye to him, his wife, Ruth, and their children, Josh and Jade. Longtime Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler was among the well-wishers.
So was Travis VanSetters, his 7-year-old life coach. He was wearing his red tennis shoes, as was Mike, just like he does every Thursday. Travis presented him with a framed picture of the two of them, red-shoe-shod, and a sculpture of a tiny red shoe. Next to it were the words, “You went the extra distance for children.”
“Wow,” Mike told him, choking up. “I may have to come back every other Thursday just to see you.”
Knowing Mike, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did just that.

Mike's "life coach," Travis VanSetters, taught him the wisdom of wearing red tennis shoes

Mike’s “life coach,” Travis VanSetters, taught him the wisdom of wearing red tennis shoes

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

yes, great teachers do make a difference

Vicki Boase helps comfort an unhappy student

Vicki Boase helps comfort an unhappy student

This story, part of a yearlong series on poverty we are doing at School News Network, took me into the classrooms of two remarkable teachers in Grand Rapids. For a fuller glimpse of what they do there, you can check out the story package here.

The boy was not having a good day. A new student in Vicki Boase’s second-grade classroom, Ja’Quon sat scowling in his seat while other students were getting to work. Boase took him into the hall and had a talk. Later, she sat next to his desk to help him with his assignment, writing a personal narrative.
“Do you have trouble writing, honey?” Boase asked in a mild voice. “Why don’t you tell me what you want to write about?” Then, she did the writing as Ja’Quon began telling his story: “I read a book to my little brother. …”
In a high-poverty school such as hers, students often need such personal attention, said Boase, who teaches second grade at Palmer Elementary School in northeast Grand Rapids. Finding out the reason for the frown, and gently helping them with their work, may help children feel secure enough to focus on the paper and pencil.
“Really, they just need to know that you care about them unconditionally,” Boase said after class. “That no matter what they do, you’re on their side.
“That’s the culture we have here,” added Boase, in her 25th year at Palmer. “Making sure kids know whatever you’re dealing with at home, we’re going to do whatever it takes to make you feel included. Yes, we care about what you learn, but we care about you and what’s going on with you.”
That philosophy, coupled with high expectations and well-structured lessons, make teachers like Boase especially valuable in low-income schools, experts say. For students like Ja’Quon, an effective teacher can make a big difference in a struggling life.
High Expectations Lead to High Achievement
While schools employ multiple strategies to help students in high-poverty schools, the power of a single teacher to impact a student should not be under-estimated. Studies have shown effective teachers can significantly raise academic achievement, graduation rates and even lifetime income.
Highly skilled teachers can make a dramatic difference in closing achievement gaps, especially for low-income and racial minority students, said Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, director of policy and research for The Education Trust-Midwest.
“There’s not really a silver bullet,” Lenhoff said. “But if we were to point to one thing that would potentially make a huge difference, it’s getting more highly effective teachers in front of the kids who are furthest behind.”
Many of the practices of effective teaching, such as close tracking of students’ performance data and equally high expectations for all students, are being used at Palmer, one of the highest-poverty schools in Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Some 92 percent of its 300-plus students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. But Palmer scores above the average school in GRPS in standardized tests, and at the top for high-poverty schools. Further, in an annual survey of students, 95 percent of second-graders said their teachers are caring and provide challenging instruction.
Lenhoff lauded Palmer and other GRPS schools for making extensive use of data and taking several measures of teacher effectiveness. Highly effective teachers let “data drive their decision-making” for teaching strategies, she said, and expect the best from students regardless of background.
“Teachers who have a belief that all children can learn at high levels are more likely to teach all children at a high level, and not differentiate by race or income,” Lenhoff said.
A School of Many Challenges
Palmer School faces more than economic challenges. As a regional center for immigrant refugee families, Palmer hosts students from countries such as Congo, Bosnia and Myanmar, who speak close to a dozen languages. Half the staff is trained in teaching English-language learners.
The school does not meet these challenges on its own. Two church partners and the North Kiwanis club help with everything from clothing and school supplies to camp scholarships and tutors. It has an active parent-teacher group and a sense of pride as a neighborhood school.
And, crucially, it has teachers adept at working with immigrant students and those whose parents may not have money for a school uniform. Vicki Boase and Amy Topp, who teach second grade, both go “above and beyond” to help students, from closely tracking their academic progress to washing a dirty face, said Principal Angela Cook.
“They have a very gentle demeanor. They take the time to speak to students,” Cook said. When problems arise, “They help the kids think it through. They give them options.”
The two also dive deeply into test data to pinpoint students’ classroom needs, whether it’s helping a struggling student or keeping a high-achieving one from being bored, Cook added.
“They are doing everything they can” to help students grow academically, she said. “They’re one of the first two that are saying, ‘Hey, I’m not seeing what we need to be seeing by now.”

Amy Topp helps Keegan Rosses with his reading

Amy Topp helps Keegan Rosses with his reading

Classroom Lessons up Close
Their attention to individual students while keeping the whole class on task is evident in a visit to Boase’s and Topp’s classrooms. On one morning, both were teaching how to compare and contrast two similar stories. They asked students to think about the stories with curiosity, firmly calling the class to order when necessary.
In Topp’s class, students sitting on the floor talked about the similarities and differences between two books, “Anansi Goes Fishing” and “Dinner for Spider.” She wrote their examples inside bubbles on a white board, such as “Both about catching food,” then pressed them about the spider book.
“Are they really trying to teach second-grade kids how to catch food with a web?” she asked. “What’s the big idea?”
“There’s different ways to do something,” one boy ventured.
“Do you like that? Is that good enough for you?” Topp asked the students, who responded with thumbs up. She filled in another bubble.
After further questions, she has them pair up to write a “sequence” of the Anansi story. They fold four sections of paper, marking each with a sentence and illustration describing its progress.
Despite their white and light-blue uniforms, her 25 students are a colorful mix of ethnicities and cultures. Two girls wear Muslim head coverings. A boy working on a computer recently came from Congo. One student speaks a variation of Swahili. Topp respects their differences but has high expectations for all.
“Just look at the child, the individual: What do they need and what can we do for them? As a teacher, that’s what I do,” Topp said after class. “I expect a lot of them.”
Doing Whatever it Takes
Topp heads the school’s Student Success Team, which meets regularly to discuss students with behavior problems and families needing help. She has met over lunch this year with girls struggling with self-esteem, and incorporates yoga into her classes. That school-wide attention to the individual is modeled by Cook, the principal, who regularly reads with small groups.
Topp is keenly aware of the financial struggles of her students’ families, but doesn’t let that lower her expectations. In addition to homework, students are required to read 20 minutes a day, verified in a log.
“In many ways the cards are stacked against them,” said Topp, in her 16th year of teaching. “That doesn’t mean they can’t think deeply.”
In her view, school is her students’ job, and it’s her job to help them do it well.
“The high expectations combined with a loving, safe environment are the two key things,” she added. “I try to make sure they love me.”
Love and high expectations seem to prevail in Vicki Boase’s classroom as well. In 37 years of teaching, she has found them to be a powerful combination – especially among low-income students.
Since coming to Palmer in 1990, she has seen waves of families arrive from Vietnam, Bosnia and Somalia. She has seen a lot of working poor and single parents working third shift. But she has also seen families committed to their neighborhood school, and resilient children who can jump to a higher bar with enough support.

I'd like to have a reading corner like this in my house!

I’d like to have a reading corner like this in my house!

Love, Boundaries, Structure
“The big thing about working in a school with poverty is having a different set of eyes that sees beyond their academic record,” Boase said. “You have to know how to say, ‘What’s going on with you today?’ They might have heard Mom and Dad talking about how they’re going to pay the bills. They might be grumpy and might not come in having had a good night’s sleep. You have to see what’s going on in their lives.
“But for a lot of kids, it’s the safest place they can come to, where they feel like they’re cared for and loved unconditionally,” she added. “They need to feel like they can get grumpy and you’re still on their side.”
Students also need firm boundaries, however, and clear expectations for acceptable behavior, Boase stressed. She continually reinforces character traits long supported by the school community: respect, responsibility, caring, courage and integrity.
In class, she periodically retrieves the wandering attention of 25 students with well-worn catch-phrases: “Whole class, whole class, come back to me! Whole class, whole class, one, two, three!”
Yet on the whole the class was orderly this day, whether Boase was leading whole-class instruction with a projector and a microphone, or sitting on the floor reading with six boys. While she was doing the latter, a student teacher and an aide were working with other small groups.
Group Lessons, Individual Attention
It was part of a lesson framework called the “Daily 5,” where students have the option of five activities such as reading to themselves, read with another student or listening to someone read. Students are grouped according to their literacy needs. She alternates these small-group times with whole-class sessions.
On this morning, she had them write personal narratives about family memories. Armed with writing binders full of high-frequency words and more colorful “dollar words,” they learned about making transitions and describing details.
“When you write something, you want people to be able to see it,” Boase told them. “You really want to focus in with your binoculars to see every tiny thing.”
Emma Jackson intently described her Halloween costume. But Ja’Quon was having trouble writing anything, until Boase patiently coached him through it.
“See my writing?” he said to the boy next to him, proudly pointing to the piece he had written about his brother.
Ja’Quon returned to his previous school a couple weeks later. Boase was frustrated she didn’t get to work with him more, but hoped she had made a small contribution to his life.
“My hope is that his collective experience with the teachers in his life have made him feel valued, loved and capable,” she said later. “That’s the foundation of what we do each day.”
Boase plans to retire at the end of the school year, but feels blessed to have made many students feel valued, loved and capable.
“I just love looking in their eyes every morning,” she said. “I love making a difference.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

an American in England, dreaming


20130826_122711It’s very English out there in Grand Rapids today, cool, gray and drizzly. The kind of day that on the old island breeds chilblains, British reserve, cozy pubs and great writers.
It was this kind of day when my sister and I arrived in London two summers ago for a 10-day sojourn, sandwiched around a scholarly paper Maureen presented in seaside Brighton. I recorded in a journal our first morning in Hampstead, a delectable village north of London where you can easily kill hours on the wild natural expanse of Hampstead Heath.

A magical morning wandering around the heath. Runners, people w/ dogs everywhere. Huge old gnarled trees. Ponds, a man swimming the backstroke. Kites. Climbed Parliament Hill & saw the outline of the great city, slightly misty in the half-sun. Beautiful breeze up there. Felt perfect peace.

a park of perfect peace

a park of perfect peace

I’ve always felt perfect peace about England. Maybe it was falling in love with Petula Clark and the Beatles in my youth, followed by falling into the expansive worlds of Shakespeare and Dickens. I feel spiritually at home there. It is in fact my ancestral home, where in March 1807 a babe named Nimrod was born to single mother Catherine Honey in the Cornish coastal village of Tywardreath. The bastard Nimrod of Cornwall later came to Canada, where he fathered some children with wife Mariah and evidently mended shoes.
But back to England: They had elections there this week, with the Tories unexpectedly thrashing Labour, and the Scottish National Party proclaiming they aren’t done with that independence thing, not by a long shot. Reading about the elections, so short and cheap compared to our multimillion dollar marathons, took me back to that trip with my sister, and to my first trip there in 1976.
Way back then, I had literally dreamed about the green and pleasant land for months before going. When I flew in it still seemed like a dream, looking down at patchwork fields outlined by crooked stone fences. Much the same when I arrived with Maureen in summer 2013, whether sipping cider at the The Holly Bush Inn in Hampstead or gazing at the English Channel in Brighton, where young dudes played Ping Pong on the shore while massive, deep green waves sparkled like diamonds.


In the Lion and Lobster pub we saw a dad dine with his young daughter while their dog lounged under the table, and a waitress hugged an old standby at the bar. There’s a basic decency there that is characteristically British, and which Maureen and I saw play out more dramatically on a London subway.
A girl of maybe 7 years old hopped on the train just as the doors slammed shut. She turned around in panic and banged on the door with her palm. “Momma! Momma!” Her mother stood helplessly outside on the platform, and the train took off.
A family sitting across from us brought the girl to their side. “Don’t worry, we’ll get off at the next stop with you, and wait for your mother there.” Which they did, to the relief of everyone in the car.
Their small act of kindness stuck with me as much as seeing Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the glittering English Channel. Across the ocean and down through the centuries, it’s what connects me to the Brits, my own family and my spiritual home, be that here or abroad.




Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

from abuse to empowerment, dancing all the way

Alicia MonteithNote from me: For faithful readers who may have been wondering what I’ve been up to, when not writing for The Grand Rapids Press/MLive, here you go. I am one of five reporters for School News Network, which covers the students and teachers of Kent County public schools, and the magic they create in classrooms. Here is one of the more memorable students I’ve met. Like so many others, she inspires me with her courage and singularity of purpose. You might be surprised how many students like her are out there. I invite you to read about this remarkable young woman, and the many other students who give me great hope for the future. 

What a night it was. Cascades of glittering lights. Gorgeous gowns and snappy suits. Fine sculpted centerpieces on the tables. And two talented teens dancing elegantly as more than 200 guests watched.

The teens were Alicia Monteith and her brother, Alex, who are accomplished ballroom dancers. Alicia had organized this benefit event, called the Inspire Ball, in a beautiful banquet hall last November. The reason was simple but powerful: to help others who had endured sexual assault, as she had.
The ball raised more than $9,000 for the Children’s Assessment Center, a nonprofit agency that helped Alicia recover from being assaulted when she was 11 and to prosecute her abuser. With the ball and her previous benefit efforts, the Northview High School senior has raised $55,000 for the center’s work in helping child victims of sexual assault.
From victim of a traumatic event, Alicia has grown into an articulate voice for other victims and an advocate for breaking the cycle of sexual abuse.
“I want to help as many kids as I can,” said Alicia, 17, her soft voice belying her steely determination. “God made me strong enough to be able to tell (of the assault) in the first place. I think he also had it happen to me so I could help other kids.”
Not Just Surviving, but Thriving
The Inspire Ball was just the latest of Alicia’s fundraising efforts for the Children’s Assessment Center. Starting in July 2013 she began running in 5k races and soliciting sponsors. She quickly eclipsed her original goal of raising $1,000, the approximate cost of serving one child at the agency. By year’s end she had raised close to $14,000.
Alicia has raised more funds for the CAC than any other individual, enabling it to provide a full range of services to 55 children, said Executive Directory Pam Doty-Nation.
“We at the CAC are her biggest fans, not only because she has such a giving spirit but also the joy she brings as she thrives and grows beyond simply surviving,” Doty-Nation said.
Alicia has appeared on Maranda’s TV show “Where You Live” and was interviewed for a Grand Rapids Press story. By speaking publicly about her assault, she encourages other young people to report theirs, said her former counselor at CAC.
“The fact Alicia is willing to stand up and say ‘I survived this and so can you,’ it makes other children she comes in contact with a lot more likely to come forward with what has happened to them,” said Powers, now a therapist with Jenison Psychological Services. “I’m just incredibly proud of her. She didn’t just survive, she thrived.”
About one in four girls, and one in six boys, is sexually assaulted before her or his 18th birthday, but only 15 to 20 percent of them ever tell anyone, Powers said. Alicia dispels stereotypes of who sexually abused children are, she added, showing “It can happen to any child.”
Northview High School Principal Mark Thomas said he admires Alicia’s forward-looking focus and her choice to be an advocate.
“I believe that Alicia grows and helps herself through her service and leadership efforts,” Thomas said. “She is wise beyond her years, and her attitude is always positive and optimistic.”
Inspiring Others to Tell Their Stories
Alicia’s attitude is bolstered by a strong faith and close family. Her parents, Kip and Jennifer, have supported her public advocacy. Jennifer told Alicia she was concerned about the risks of going public, but said her daughter insisted, “I don’t care. It’s not about me. It’s about the other kids.”
“My daughter’s my hero,” said Jennifer, who also has spoken on behalf of the CAC. “I’m proud of her for being so strong, not pulling back and not being afraid. It’s incredibly brave, what she’s doing.”
Alicia said she was willing to be open about her experience “to give other kids the courage and inspiration to know it’s OK to tell their story,” and so they could get the help they need. “It is such a hush-hush problem that many people don’t realize how big of a problem it is.”
Alicia has publicly told her story of being sexually abused one night by an adult family friend. She said she didn’t tell anyone for nearly a year because the man’s daughter was “practically my sister, and sisters don’t take each other’s dads away.”
But after confiding in another friend, Alicia was persuaded she needed to tell someone. After talking in vague terms to her mother, she was eventually referred to the Children’s Assessment Center. It was there she first told a detective the whole story.
“That was the first time I’d really seen her smile in over a year,” recalled her mother. “She just had the biggest smile on her face, like, ‘Finally, I’m free.’”
Added Alicia, “There’s no words to explain how good it felt to not have to hold that in anymore.”
Planning on a Life of Leadership
In nearly two years of counseling at the CAC, Alicia went from being a victim to a survivor. The center helped her the most simply by listening, she said.
“Having someone listen to you, trust and believe you, is the biggest thing to help a victim,” she said, quietly but firmly. “That’s exactly what they do there.”
As Alicia prepared to testify in her abuser’s trial, Powers recalled, “She looked at me and said, ‘Susan, this is just awful. I’ve got to bring something good out of this.’ I said, ‘Alicia, you’ll find a way.’ And she did.”
Alicia later forgave her abuser — a key step for victims, she said: “I was able to step away and say, ‘OK, that’s in the past now. I can move forward.’”
After graduating from the CAC program, she resolved to give something back for all it had done for her and her family. In July 2013 she sent out letters to more than 100 friends and family asking them to sponsor her in a run per month, hoping to raise $1,000 by December. She got more than twice that in two weeks. Further donations included an anonymous gift of $10,000, through a family friend who had been abused without telling for 40 years.
Since Alicia began speaking and raising funds, several other abuse victims have confided in her including students. On a recent morning at school, a girl who was having problems with bullying gave Alicia a hug for helping her. “You’ll get through it,” Alicia told her.
After graduating this spring, Alicia plans to study nonprofit leadership and psychology at Grand Valley State University. She wants to head an agency that provides “a safe haven” for abused children and adults.
At the Inspire Ball, she told her story to the finely dressed guests. Her testimony was laced with biblical quotations, as when Jesus tells his followers that faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.
“My goal is to empower kids like me to become survivors,” she told the crowd. “Together we can save lives. Together we can change the world. And together we can move mountains.”
Then, to the sound of a standing ovation, she rushed off to change into her dancing clothes.


Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments