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Monday, March 30, 2015

My Head Start

--> I began today by witnessing an Oklahoma sunrise from an airplane.  It was beautiful.  It was a blessing. 
My passion for traveling and seeing new places was cultivated not long after my passion for wanting to help underprivileged children - when I was just a kid myself.  I had as close to an ideal upbringing as you can have, but something in me was stirred by the thought of a population of children who were downtrodden and starting out with less than what I had.  Why should they have any less than I?  At age 12 I decided to go in to a field that would benefit children and families.

At age 13 I took my first plane ride to Florida.  I fell instantly in love with experiencing the different way of life and culture there.  I was invigorated by seeing our great country from 30,000 feet, tasting new cuisine, and taking part in other's people's customs and rituals.  From a very young age the human mind was the most interesting thing in the world to me and while other children in middle school and high school were reading mostly teen magazines, I was secretly looking up subjects in encyclopedias and practically memorizing a book of behavioral health disorders.  I think one of the biggest reasons traveling intrigued me so, was that I loved to study people and what created their personalities and habits.  I loved to analyze which aspects were environmental and which were genetic.  I loved the way being from one region or another could shape everything about the humans there.

Such as it is with so many people, my big career plans veered off course.  My dreams of being a child and family therapist were shattered when I finally came to the realization that I would never have the capacity to separate myself enough, emotionally, from my clients to perform those duties.  I left college in the middle of my sophomore year, and  by age 23 I found myself to be a young single mother working in a small child care center in my hometown, very far away from my initial goals for myself.  I ended up in child care quite by happenstance, wanting to be able to work where my children were spending the majority of their days.

I remember distinctly, though, the moment I realized that I had fallen into the career path I was supposed to be in.  I happened to be  cleaning a bathroom at that moment.  I was cleaning and thinking and it dawned on  me that I loved what I was doing. I loved the capacity that I was able to work with the children in my care and I very deeply believed in the difference we were able to make for them in those early years.  I also saw the difference I was able to make by forging relationships with the families of those children - the load it took off their shoulders to be able to truly believe in the quality of care their child received while in the parents' absence.  It was admittedly difficult for the pride of a straight A student who had dreamed for over a decade of a reputable career as a child psychologist to take on a servant-hood role as a child care provider. But, pride or not, the feeling that I was right where I was supposed to be and was making a difference in the lives of children was worth more to me than my pride.  And, while I knew there was a general lack of respect for child care workers to be seen as professionals, I set out to disprove that misconception and strove to do my best at every aspect of my profession - even cleaning bathrooms.  Because ultimately, the cleanliness of a bathroom was still contributing to the health and well being of the children.

There were times along the way, as I dreamed of finishing the degree I started and watched my peers slowly graduating college and starting their lives off on much better footing that I had, that I thought, "Why me?"  Why was I the one who ended up pregnant in college and looked down on by everyone?  As if I was doing anything that 95% of college students weren't!  As much as I adored my own children, parts of me were bitter about the hand I'd been dealt, especially in moments when I sat and tried to decide which bills to pay and which bills could be put off a little while so I could buy them food.  Especially in moments when I'd run in to someone at the grocery store who was just home visiting for the weekend and we'd quickly run out of things to talk about as I pacified my small children in the cart.  Things seemed unfair sometimes.

It wasn't long, though, before the reason for my struggles became evident in my career.  I moved up the supervisory path fairly quickly.  I don't believe that is because I was the greatest teacher in the world or because I was necessarily the best at what I did.  I think, more than anything, it was just because of the passion burning in me for my job.  Working in a classroom of 3 and 4 year olds was never "just a job" to me or a "stepping stone" to something else.  It was very truly something I loved to do and something that made me get out of bed every day excited to go to work.  It wasn't always easy and it had moments that weren't especially fun.  (I.E.  No one really enjoys cleaning up puke or working 11 hour shifts because someone called in.)  When I touched a single mother's arm who was dropping her child off in the morning, and was clearly upset, I was able to look in her eyes and with all sincerity say, "I know how you feel, and I promise it gets better!"  Had I not had my own life experiences to pull from, I would not be near as good at my job.  I never ask, "Why me?" now.  I know exactly why.

My years in early childhood eventually led me to finishing my degree and accepting an administrative position in a Head Start program.  My son had been in head start for a year, so I was vaguely familiar with it, but once in the door I realized I had a lot to learn!  I also realized that all my years and experiences had led up to this.  The passion to help children and families was a perfect fit for everything that Head Start stands for.  And, now, after almost 3 years, Head Start is in my veins.  I believe in it.  I believe in everything it stands for and I believe that every day when I go to work I'm making a difference.  I didn't leave the classroom to be an administrator because I was "burned out" or tired of teaching.  It was actually a hard decision for me because there is almost nothing I love more than a good conversation with a preschool age child.  I left because I realized the difference I could make would expand from one classroom a year to hundreds of children a year.  (Those are some wise words from my director.)

So, now, here I sit in a hotel in downtown Washington D.C., in front of a window overlooking a bustling street outside.  The energy here is palpable and it feels like a place where change is possible and you get a sense of the great things that have happened here in our nation's history.  In my  career I have been so incredibly blessed to travel all over the country to trainings, coupling two of my great loves - learning about child development and seeing new places.  I've had the great privilege to travel to Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Shreveport, and various other places in between.  This is my second time to come to D.C. and this year I have the unprecedented experience of being here for the National Head Start Association Conference while we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Head Start.  As much fun as traveling is, I also feel the weight of the responsibility that comes along with that.  The resources it takes to send me here can't be wasted!  I have a duty to learn all I can and bring it back and translate it to my program back in the mid-west.  I am honored to be chosen to take on that responsibility.

I know this job will never translate in to great wealth for me, monetarily speaking.  But, I guess if money is what drove me I'd not be here to begin with.  And, this will never just be a job to me, anyway.  It is my life's work; it is what I've dreamed of doing since I was 12 years old - just in a different capacity than I had planned.  As much as I hope I've been and will continue to be a blessing to other's lives, even if indirectly, I know that this career has shaped me and blessed me more than I deserve.  I know as I enter the conference tomorrow, I will be overwhelmed by the number of people just like me, who represent hundreds more, who have devoted their lives to this cause.  Many, of whom are a product of this agency we call Head Start.  I know no matter where life leads me from here on out, I will continue to advocate for and support this program because I've seen first hand how many lives it has shaped - including mine.          

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Tummy Time

By the age of 23 I had 2 children, countless stretch marks, and fairly low self esteem. There weren't many people my age who could sympathise with being a single mom or having had an 11 pound, 2 ounce child that left my body anything but bikini friendly.
6 weeks after giving birth to my 2nd child, I had lost every ounce of my pregnancy weight plus some. However, I was left with extra skin that had been stretched to its max just sort of hanging there around my midsection. My belly button, which had once been pretty cute, was now moved around and strange looking. As vain as it makes me sound, I hated it. So much so that at 23 years old I quit looking at my stomach at all, and I really didn't touch it either, if I could help it.
The thought that another man would ever accept my -what I considered- disfigurement was far fetched in my mind and the thought of unveiling something that I wouldn't even look at myself was basically impossible to fathom. That's why the moment my now husband first touched my stomach is etched so deeply in my memory. I vividly recall the tears streaming down my cheeks as his hand caressed the soft, scarred skin and told me I shouldn't hate it. That I had two beautiful children because of it. His acceptance went a long way towards my own, but I still averted my eyes after I got out of the shower or changed.
My third baby caused little to no further "damage." What's 7 pounds after you've already done 11? Still, I hate to admit that I literally went years never looking at my stomach in the mirror and taking care not to really touch the track marks and lines in my own skin. It repulsed me.
Now, let me illustrate for you the amazing, beautiful way God loves us. The way he reaches us with his love, on our level of understanding. You see, touch is my love language. I'm a hugger - a "patter." If you've known me long, you know I just want to cuddle everyone I care about. And even though God can't physically touch us, I believe he uses other people to express his love for us sometimes.
My third child is obsessed with my stomach. Obsessed. It started when she was an infant. When I'd nurse her, she would softly rub her hand on my stomach. Pretty soon she found my belly button, and that became the equivalent of a security blanket for her. After 6 years, she still goes to sleep with her finger in my belly button. It's the weirdest, most hilarious thing, but that's what she does! She's always loved to rub and pat my tummy. Now that she comes up to about my midsection, she puts her head under my shirt so her cheek can rest on my stomach. It's funny and we all tease her about it now, but I realized one day it was God's way of making me finally accept my stretched, scarred stomach.
Do I believe God loves my stomach? Yes, I do. Why wouldn't he? Why wouldn't he be proud of the battle scars I carry now? If there's anything I can say about myself, that I've done well, it's that I've nurtured my babies. I painstakingly brought all 3 of them into this world, willingly sacrificing my self and my body to ensure they were safe and healthy. I gave up coffee, refused to even take Tylenol, laid for months on my left side every time the doctors put me on bedrest, and refused to do anything I thought might harm them at all. From the moment I found out about each of them my life became all about their life. Inside my "disfigured" middle, I took on the task of nurturing and growing the three little blessings God gave me. And the last one he gave me, he's used her to make me appreciate my tummy just like he does. My stretch marks are proof of the amazing things I've done with my body. I laid on my left side for over 10 weeks, getting up only to shower or use the restroom, in order to grow that 11 pound baby boy and keep him safely inside my womb until he was ready. That was hard! It was painful and long - but I'd do it again for any one of my children in a heartbeat.
When my little girl's fingers reach for my tummy in the middle of the night, I smile.  When my husband's strong, warm hand finds my stomach in the middle of the night, I no longer cringe and hold my breath. I smile. That stomach gave him his 3 beautiful children - my greatest life's work. And, now, I look in the mirror and instead of being disgusted with what I see, I smile. I see the reminder of one of the things I'm most proud of in my life, and tangible proof that my body did something miraculous and amazing 3 different times. How could I hate that? Media and society tell us to hate it. They tell us we need to look perfect, erase all the damage, and fix all the imperfections. But, I know someday years from now when my children are grown and giving birth seems like it was just a long ago dream, I'll look in the mirror and see the proof of what I did. And, I'll smile.


1 Samuel 16:7 NIV:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”


Saturday, March 7, 2015

And Sometimes You Win


I did not grow up around livestock. I was never in 4H or FFA. Until I married my husband, I never even owned a pair of cowboy boots. When my 14 year old daughter was not quite 9 and my husband started talking about her showing cattle, I had no clue what we were about to embark on. When he mentioned buying her a calf, I cocked my head towards the 90 acres of pasture in our backyard with cattle grazing on it, and asked incredulously, "Why would we buy another calf? Don't we have enough?" He laughed at me. Those weren't "show" calves. What?!
So, his dad bought her a calf. Her name was "magic sis" and she was like a giant puppy dog, but as she grew it was scary to watch my little girl handling this giant animal. We borrowed a big, heavy "grooming chute" and an old blow drier from some family friends. And, I just still didn't get it! I had no clue what went in to all this and was honestly a little resentful of the amount of time and money this project seemed to be "taking away" from my family! Why on earth would you need to blow dry a calf's hair? There were tears and frustration as I explained to my husband that his daughter who had never led a cow around with a rope was bound to be scared. He had to learn to cut her some slack and I had to learn to let go some. She had to overcome her fear and trust this very large animal she was dragging down the road with a halter and lead rope. I was in awe as I watched my prissy little girl shoveling cow manure - something I never dreamed she'd WANT to do. But, she did!
Her first two years went pretty well and she enjoyed showing. I started learning what it was all about and began to gain an appreciation for what my daughter was experiencing. Not just what she was learning about agriculture, but about responsibility and hard work.
Her second calf was as gentle as the first. I remember sitting in the stands at her regional livestock show, pride radiating off my face as I watched my 10 year old leading her Heifer around the arena, when suddenly a dog barked and spooked her calf. Her calf bucked - something we'd never seen her do - and wanted to try to run. Sissy (That's what we call our daughter) held on to her, and fell down. It looked like she almost flipped as she fell, and I was on my feet! I was ready to run in the ring and save her, but she found her footing and lifted her Heifer's head, steadying the calf and slowing it back to a walk. As her mom, I could read the panic on my daughter's face, but she kept going. She finished showing her animal, and then as she walked out of the show ring, she burst in to tears. I think that moment was when my appreciation for livestock showing truly began. I watched my 10 year old exhibit some very adult behaviors in the face of a scary situation. Her hands were rope burned from hanging on, but she did hang on, and she was scared to death, but she didn't give up! She finished the job and waited to have her reaction when she was done. I was officially impressed.
Sissy's third calf was from better show cow genetics than the first two, but it was crazy. Seriously, just pretty nuts. The fourth one, which my father-in-law and husband had raised through artificial insemination, was even worse than the one before. She was a giant red Heifer named, "Daisy." She was pretty! But, Sis was already gun shy from the year before and Daisy was not to be trained! She kicked, bucked, head-butted, and used her excessive force on anyone who tried to mess with her. Seasoned cattlemen refused to work on her leg hair before a show, knowing they'd get kicked in the face. It didn't matter how much we worked with her. She grew to be a huge Heifer, too! I was officially scared to death of her after a couple of run-ins and so was Sissy. But, after putting in a year of work towards a livestock project, do you throw in the towel? I had watched my daughter feed and care for this calf for months, through a hot, drought-filled Summer and cold winter mornings. I watched her cry in show rings, let go of the lead, plead with her dad to come in and save her. I watched her pride break and her spirit tire. But, when we told her at the end of the season she didn't have to show her at the county and regional shows (you see, you can't just pick another animal, you have to show the one you nominated earlier in the year), she refused. She showed her anyway. And actually did pretty well with her! But, I could tell she wasn't having fun anymore. I, for sure, wasn't.
Then came the fifth heifer, "Glimmer." She was probably the sweetest one we'd had and, that was our goal for Sissy, whether we won or not, just to get an animal she could work with. But, poor Glimmer didn't end up being much to look at (we couldn't get her hair to grow - which is super important for show cattle) and never won anything at all. That winter was rough, and I watched my kids come in so many mornings literally with icicles on them from going outside before daylight to feed, hay and break ice. I also watched Sis walk in to the show ring every time and lose. And, I could see the last 3 years wearing on her. So, after that season I asked her, "Sis, do you still want to show cattle?"
At first she lied and said, "yes." But after further prodding (see, moms know when further prodding is needed), she tearfully admitted that she didn't like it much anymore but she was afraid to tell her dad - afraid it would break his heart. When I asked if she might want to try a different animal, she told me she wanted to try showing a pig. We addressed the subject with her dad with much finesse, since cattle showing was his first love. I had to explain to him that I didn't think she'd stick with showing if we kept up the cattle thing, and if we wanted her to stay in ag, he'd have to be open minded and listen to what SHE wants to do.
Needless to say, we bought pigs this year. We altered our show barn and jumped in to the swine business. Now that I'm not so scared of being kicked, I have taken a more hands-on approach. Instead of watching from the stands, you'll find me behind the ring in my rubber boots, with mud and pig poo all over them. We didn't have a lot of success at the smaller jackpot shows this year, and we have had to learn a lot and rely on other people to teach us what to do, but we've had a lot of fun! And my cattleman husband has become quite the pig enthusiast.
This year Sissy got reminded of what it feels like to win. She got 2nd place in her class at the County and Regional show with one of her pigs. She got 3rd place with the other at Regionals. She made the premium "sale" (which is always our big goal) at both shows! That's never happened for us in the 5 previous years! May never happier again!
I stood on that same ground where 4 years previous I'd watched my little girl get flipped around by her cow, and I watched her make the top three in both of her classes (out of 15+ in a class). I listened to the judge commend her showmanship and I watched 6 years of blood, sweat and tears pay off for her finally. I saw her pride back intact and the determination on her face.
I don't resent the time showing takes away from my family anymore. Because I finally learned that it doesn't! Yes, my husband and kids sometimes don't make it in the house until dinner is cold - sometimes I'm out there with them, sometimes I have to be inside making sure our house doesn't fall down around our ears. But, either way, I now appreciate this so much. I appreciate what my kids are learning. I appreciate the people they are becoming. I appreciate the person my husband is because be was raised in this. I appreciate the group of people we are immersed in who are so willing to help and encourage. I appreciate that because we are new to the "pig barn" and were confused about when to be there to clean up, someone else cleaned our pin for us. I appreciate our ag teachers who devote countless hours of time away from their own families to teach our kids, even the 4H kids who aren't even on the high school ag team yet. I appreciate the parents who's kids are not in school anymore, but they still show up and support the kids still in it. I appreciate the businesses and community members who spend money and time to help these kids out. I appreciate that my family is learning what it means to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves - I hope my kids learn to pay forward all the support they've been given. I hope they learn from the amazing examples of integrity all around them.

And, I know they're learning this: Sometimes you lose. But, you work hard, do what's right, and treat others well. And, sometimes... Sometimes you win!