Martin Luther King Community Caregiver Award Nominee

I was deeply honored to have been nominated for the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Caregiver award sponsored by Duke University Health System for my ongoing work with the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club. To be sure, this has been one of the most challenging undertakings of my life and one of the most rewarding.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUNZvHYEI_g

 

Over two years ago, when Toastmasters Area Director, Manu Laksmanan invited me to help with what he envisioned as a six-month project, I did not agree to do so because I thought there might be an award involved. I doubt that any of my fellow award nominees began doing the work they do because of an award incentive. We step up to this sort of work because, as Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”  I knew I had skills that could empower an otherwise seldom-heard part of the community to develop a clear voice and build the courage to speak up and step into a better life.

I would hazard a guess that few people could achieve an award like this alone. Thank you to my boss, Dr. Geoff Rubin for nominating me and for allowing me to flex my time two days a month, coming in early or staying a bit late so that I can take a longer lunch break to attend daytime meetings. Thank you to Dawson Riggs, President of Duke Toastmasters. Jeb Sturmer and  Manu Laksmanan fellow toastmasters who initially began this project with me and wrote letters of support. Thanks to my husband, John, who supports this effort in many ways. Very special thanks to members of the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club who also wrote letters of support: Chaplain Lynn Holloway, Tony Hairston our Vice President of PR, and James Davis Vice President of Education. Their enthusiasm and continuing growth as speakers and leaders, above all, keeps me energized for this project.

Like Dr. King, I have always believed that we are all connected. As he said, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” Our community, and indeed our world functions best when we empower all of our members to function at their personal best.

I have also found another great paradox to be true; in seeking to give, I have received. The Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club has inspired me as I repeatedly witness the incredible resilience of the human spirit and the transformative power of our shared stories.

As a Toastmaster, it was a particular joy to be nominated for this award which associates my name with that of the great American leader and orator, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If his legacy teaches us anything it is that we must all continue to work to help each other by whatever means and opportunities life presents us.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about opportunities to develop a strong self concept.

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Since September of 2014, I have been a volunteer mentor and club coach for the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club during two lunch breaks and two evenings a month.

At the very first meeting, I gave an evaluation of an ice-breaker (first) speech –and found renewed purpose! The speech was a heart wrenching tale of a shattered childhood, unsuccessful school experience, military service, lack of support after leaving the military, some bad decisions, failed relationships –and a new resolve to start over. I started my evaluation by saying, “Thank you for your service!” He held his head up and sat a little taller in his seat. I pointed out three things he had done particularly well; speaking without notes, speaking from the heart, and drawing us in with an engaging story. By then, he was beaming. Then I made one suggestion to engage more of the audience by moving around a bit. The look on his face was priceless. I had the feeling it was the first time he had ever received positive feedback from a teacher or boss or evaluator –in his life! It was that look on his face that sealed the deal for me. I was hooked on the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club at my first meeting.

In the year and half since that first meeting, I have heard countless similar tragic stories of lost opportunities, costly lapses of judgement and battles with depression and mental illness. I have gotten that same expression of elation and stunned disbelief in return for my constructive comments–over and over again. I keep going back because I am inspired by human resilience at every meeting and because the impact of my small effort is so immediate and heartwarming. I watch confidence grow and leadership skills develop. My heart cheers when I see the men improve.

From the beginning, our goal was to empower residents to take steps toward improving themselves and their career opportunities through the arts of public speaking and meeting leadership. I realized immediately how similar this was to the vision of Ralph Smedley who founded Toastmasters in a California YMCA in the early part of the 20th century.  His mission was to help young men improve their career prospects by teaching them to make better toasts at business luncheons. This was the one recognized way to assure career advancement in that era. Society has changed since then and so has Toastmasters! We seldom are called upon to give a toast at a business meeting these days, but a firm handshake and a clear response to an interview question are still valued skills.

Although we struggled unsuccessfully for some months to build a consistent evening meeting attendance, membership and enthusiasm gained traction after we began meeting as part of the Tuesday morning “Victory Class.” In this class, men learn to apply Biblical principles to their lives. Toastmasters became the second half of the class twice a month. One of my most memorable speaker evaluations happened in this class. A fellow named James Davis told a story about his life, delivering it with power and drama and lots of voice inflection. He ended by saying, “Here I am, 50 years old with no marketable skills.”

I was assigned as his evaluator that day. As an “icebreaker” speech, James had just delivered one of the best I had ever heard. He had a clear point and a logical progression to his story and his delivery contained a lot of the enhancements other beginning members struggle to implement such as vocal variety and appropriate hand gestures. I opened by saying, “Make no mistake. You sir, have a marketable skill!”

Several weeks later, I offered James a ride to a Toastmasters Competition in Charlotte. I think that was where the magic hit him. While watching those competitors, a fire lit in him and James saw something of his own life purpose. From that moment on, James Davis became the driving force for the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club, often assuming the role of Toastmaster (Master of ceremonies) at club meetings, encouraging new members to join while also working his way through the ten speech projects of the Competent Communicator Manual. It wasn’t long before he was elected Club President and led the club to charter!

Chartering was in important step.  Without a charter the men were not eligible to receive educational awards for their accomplishments or compete in speech contests. James has now completed his Competent Communicator award. And, two men, James Davis and Chaplain Lynn Holloway recently competed in an area speech contest!

For me, the experience has been nothing short of astounding. As Jeb Sturmer, another club mentor and a member of Duke Toastmasters Club has often said, “The men start at a very high level. They are all able to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, make a point and do it all without using notes!” But to progress beyond that point, to get to the level of competition speaking, like all accomplished speakers, they need mentoring.

Because the men are residents at the Rescue Mission, there are also a few hurdles this club faces that other clubs don’t. For one thing, the membership is fairly fluid, with new members joining and others leaving the group when they find work and move on. The other challenge is membership fees. Although members are encouraged to contribute to their own membership fee when they are able, most of the membership and chartering fees have been raised through donations. And that need will continue as long as the club exists. The Durham Rescue Mission has set up a special fund for the ongoing support of the toastmasters clubs and all donations clearly marked for that purpose will be deposited to that fund.

“To me, the most exciting thing has been watching men find their voice and then realize that their story of struggle has the power to lift up the brothers coming up behind them and give them hope.”

To continue, this very special club needs community support. Beyond financial support, we need a community to serve as a club core. These members would not only provide stability to this club designed to serve a transient population, but also much needed role modeling and mentoring. If you have been thinking of joining a toastmasters club, please consider the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club as your new home club! If you are already a Toastmasters Club member in the Durham, NC area, joining us as your second club will also help you to advance in speaker and leadership goals more quickly!

Meetings are held on the First and Third Monday at 6:30 pm in the second floor Victory Classroom of the Durham Rescue Mission.

The men at the Rescue Mission face many obstacles. A community who believes in them and is willing to help bring out the best in them is just the beginning of great things to come. I hope you will consider joining us in this very rewarding leadership opportunity.

Mailing Address
P.O. Box 11858
Durham, NC 27703

Visit us in the Victory Classroom 2nd floor 
Center for Hope and Healing
1201 East Main St.
Durham, NC 27701

1st and 3rd Mondays at 6:30 pm
2nd and 4th Tuesday at 11:00 am

 

Childcare is STILL a Women’s Issue in America.

As a grad student, working on a master’s in counseling psychology, I once argued that childcare was a couples’ issue, not a women’s issue. We had come a long way baby!  We were living in a new age: Men and women shared equally in domestic responsibilities –didn’t we?  

I was living the dream. In my first job out of grad school, I  earned $4000 more than my finance! Yes sir, women could compete in a man’s world!

My husband and I continued on for a few years in a fairly level field. And then he went back to grad school for a doctoral degree while I worked two jobs to pay his tuition and our living expenses.

Then, just before John’s graduation, our first son was born. No one told this infant that men and women share childcare responsibilities equally. He knew, right from the start that men and women were not created equally. He was committed to nursing and would have nothing to do with a bottle. He voiced his protests loudly and incessantly. In fact, once he learned to speak, son #1 articulated his preferences quite clearly, “Not you, Daddy; I WANT Mummy!” was his first full sentence. 

Still physically drained after a very difficult pregnancy and complicated delivery, I took a job as a research assistant for an injury study. Babies are only infants for a very short time, I reasoned. This break would present but a speed-bump in my career path. I went to the office once a week for a staff meeting and to gather up my case files for the coming week. I planned that I would interview patients over the phone while the baby napped. My son never got the memo. 

He had colic.  

He was active and very alert.

He did NOT nap!

EVER!

I interviewed patients while the baby nursed on my lap, played with toys I dangled in front of him or while pacing with the baby strapped to me in a sling.

Just as I was preparing to return to “real work,” my husband finished his doctorate and accepted a position–in Minnesota, a state where my counseling degree was not recognized as licensable. 

Without a license, the only jobs I could find paid less than the cost of childcare! I reinvented myself again as writer. It would only be a year to two, John said, ’till he got established. Then we would move back East. 

So, I managed to carve out a career that I worked around child care. I would put my son and my husband to bed and then “go to work.” I would work until I fell asleep at the desk or finished the assignment. I managed to publish a slew of articles and my first book came out. I had a lineup of book signing events scheduled and was on my way!  

And then we got the call to adopt our second son. They told us he was aged three and a half, but he came with a whole host of undisclosed special needs–one of which was that he was actually six. While I canceled my book tour, my husband took on more responsibility at the hospital and more patients in private practice and finished a national board certification in forensic psychology.

Son #2 and I played “doctor-of-the-day” seeking out an ever expanding array of medical experts to get his issues straightened out. It seemed that for every career step forward John made, I took three steps backward. Now 15 years past grad school, John made more than four times what I did so it only made financial sense that he left all these doctor and therapist appointments to me. In the first year, #2 had three outpatient surgeries requiring extensive day and night followup at home, and two hospitalizations requiring one parent to room-in for a week at a time.

Have you ever heard a sick or hurt child sobbing for his daddy? Nope, me neither. Though postoperatively stoked with pain killers, this child managed to repeatedly whimper the only English word he knew, “Mama!”

I continued the daily rounds of doctors, therapists and advocacy groups trying to get help. I researched and implemented every diagnosis and treatment plan. I lobbied against state budget cuts for special needs children’s programming. 

The urologist, engaged for #2 in the midst of a bladder stone crisis that we hadn’t been apprised of prior to adoption, said that I asked better questions than his medical residents. I should consider going to Medical School. He would write a recommendation. I was stunned. How would I pay for that?  And, if I couldn’t afford child care for a typical child when I was working, how would I afford child care for six years for a special needs child when I wasn’t working? 

I carried my laptop everywhere and wrote in waiting rooms and on playgrounds. I hired babysitters on an as-needed basis and led workshops for would-be writers on weekends when my husband was home, organized writing conferences and networked with writers around the globe. To keep my counseling skills active, I taught active listening skills to church outreach groups and taught parenting skills to mother’s groups. 

When the preschool refused to take #2 because of his by then well diagnosed multiple special needs, I agreed to sit in the hallway outside the classroom in case I was needed urgently. I sat on a classroom chair with my laptop for three hours every day, five days a week for two years because this child NEEDED to be in preschool more than any other child I ever knew. Still, I produced hundreds of articles for Harcourt Educational Testing.

And then we got a phone call that our daughter was waiting for us to fly to China to adopt her.

Unlike Son #2, this two-year-old child was physically sound, not a scratch or parasite or undiagnosed anything! But she was emotionally traumatized. For a full year she did not let go of me. She clung like a baby opossum. I wrote with her sitting on my lap, clinging to me and with my arms wrapped around her. She screamed in terror if I stepped out of view even for a second. I even learned to perform a full regimen of bathroom activities with a second person attached. We moved her toddler bed next to our bed because she would not sleep unless she was touching me. If she woke in the night and my hand was not on her she would have dissociative panic attacks that lasted hours and were loud enough to wake at least the neighbors if not the dead. 

I think now, that in my younger, less experienced life, that I had seriously miscalculated the impact of childbearing and child rearing on a woman’s life. Although I still believe, in an egalitarian society, it should be a couple’s issue, biology and the structure of the American workplace conspire against women to keep this a women’s issue. Not all women bounce back from life threatening complications of pregnancy able to plow fields the following day –or even months later. It was nearly a year after I had given birth before I began to feel “normal” again.

I know that other countries do a much better job of this. China, for example currently has a proposal under consideration to extend the mandatory maternal leave to 3 years. Onsite childcare and employer sponsored sick childcare would help nursing mothers and ease the separation of anxious toddlers and sick children who know “that mommy is just upstairs.” Mothers who know that if their child needs them, taking a break to stop down-stairs to the daycare center is a very real possibility. Such a scenario would be free them for real work-place productivity.

So, if it’s not too late, I’d like to take back that assertion about childcare being a couple’s issue. I concede that, in America, it is still very much a woman’s issue–though I wish it was a couples issue or even an issue that society and more policy makers as a whole took seriously.  

 

I’ve been thinking about privilege . . .

I’ve been thinking about the place of privilege in the career success formula.

My parents were first and second generation Americans. My father’s father had emigrated to the land of golden opportunity with not much more than a Catholic prayer book (now in the Ellis Island Museum) and a pocket full of dreams. They believed that if you worked hard enough in America, good things would come to them. My grandfather had worked in the steel mills of Johnstown, PA and farmed to keep his family fed. Having left abject poverty in rural Croatia, it was relative prosperity: steady income and good soil produced adequate nutrition and shelter for his family. He left seven children when he died. My father, the youngest, was twelve.

When his brother, my Uncle Jim returned home after WWII, he moved his mother and294238_10152875039585035_713893648_n-1 younger siblings to the New Jersey Shore where my widowed grandma could run a boarding house. My dad was a hard worker too and even at a young age, he found work on the boardwalk, sewing names on hats for tourists, and flipping burgers at a hamburger stand. He married his high school sweetheart a few years after graduation.

942249_10152875039910035_1271486173_nMom had wanted to be a nurse, but in those days, once she married, a woman was no longer permitted to be a nursing student. She left school to became a full-time wife and started right away making babies in true Catholic fashion.  I was born ten months after the wedding, thirteen months later came my first brother and 11 months later a second brother . . . and we kept coming  until there were six of us.

My dad continued to work; one job to feed the family and pay the bills and the second job to pay his tuition. At the same time, he attend night school, finally graduating with a degree in accounting when I was in third grade. We were never rich but he managed to build a successful practice despite some changeover in partners and a couple of bad business decisions. Despite setbacks that would have discouraged lesser men, he kept going, one step at a time, weaving the growth of a business and a family with his personal growth, pursuing the American dream. He finished his master’s degree after I (taking a more traditional college route) had already finished mine.

My dad was, I believe unique for his time. When I was in seventh grade, the leading partner in his firm died. In order to keep the business afloat, he sunk his limited personal assets into the practice. He told me this meant that he would not be able to help me with any money but that I must go to college. In order to do so, I would have to work hard and start my own savings for college. I would also need to remain academically strong so that I might qualify for scholarships. I worked part time from seventh grade onward. In the summers, I worked two or three jobs. I saved nearly every cent. In high school I took all the “hardest courses” and did not “waste time” taking study hall and maintained a B+ average despite working after school and on weekends. I also rose to the highest rank of Girl Scouts; First Class. I was vice president of the council’s senior planning board, student representative on the board of directors and a representative of the council at two national events. Though I won several other small scholarships because of this activity, I was dismayed in senior year that I had worked so hard–far harder than a lot of my classmates and had not earned a national merit scholarship. True, I didn’t have a straight A average as all of these students did. I could have lived with that realization until I discovered that  one person I knew, who took all the “easiest courses” including typing (which my dad considered a waste of time and talent) and was in no school clubs or after school community service organizations had gained a national merit scholarship! Clearly this scholarship was not about hard work. It occurred to me that winning was all about knowing the rules of the game. And, I had not known the rules of this game. If I had taken all the easiest courses, perhaps I would have maintained an A average, but I wouldn’t have gotten the most learning possible out of High School. And, in my father’s rule of life, that was the most important thing. That’s why, in college when I was on a scholarship that allowed me up to 20 credits per semester, I always took all 20 credits. Some people consider that academic suicide.  One can’t manage more than 16 credits a semester–12 if you are working! I always took twenty credits and I always worked. I wouldn’t have been able to finish two majors in four years if I hadn’t done that.

The messages I received as a child said that one should work hard, focus on the desired prize and delay all gratification until the goal had been reached. Once achieved a goal was celebrated briefly and then a new, higher goal was set. One did not spend money or time frivolously. For this reason, when I was twenty-one and presented with an offer by the Monmouth Council of Girl Scouts to chaperone a bicycle tour through Europe for the summer, I turned it down. To accept would have meant that I would have had to delay college for a year. If I didn’t earn my annual tuition each summer, I couldn’t afford to stay in school.

When I look back, I realize how little guidance I received from anyone who knew anything about higher education. My dad was my primary adviser and he was, in retrospect, more a graduate of the school of hard knocks than of Rutgers University. The career advice he gave me:

  • Learn how to type but don’t take a typing class or stenography class and never put on a transcript or a job application that you know how to type. If they know you can type they’ll never let you out of the typing pool. You’re too smart to waste your life typing!
  • You need to go to college to get a good job. I don’t want you to get married because you need a husband to support you.
  • Accounting is a good career for a woman–except during tax season.
  • Follow the money.  If they offer you a scholarship go to that school. If they offer you a better job in a different city, move.

In looking back over my career life and my choices of colleges and grad schools, I could certainly have benefited from some mentoring or at least guidance from someone who knew the rules of this higher education and career game. There are rules, but I am only now beginning to understand them. I have made many career missteps because I didn’t have the advantage of someone who understood what I wanted to do with my life, or appreciated those goals or had an understanding of the ways in which my innate abilities could best translate into a career.  There was no one who could offer solid advice on how to structure the steps of a career.

All colleges are not created equal. A scholarship does not guarantee a good or even an adequate education. As I reflect back on it, I think it might have been better to go into debt and come out of college having better career prospects and commanding a higher salary. I was accepted to Cornell and William and Mary but not offered scholarships, so I followed one scholarship after another, eventually completing my BA at St. Francis College in Loretto Pennsylvania and an M.Ed. in Counseling at James Madison University, Virginia.

I wonder sometimes how my life might have been different had I gone the more expensive route and attended Cornell or William and Mary without a scholarship. Would that have opened career doors I didn’t even know about? Would I have found a more informed mentor in one of these places?

I don’t think of this as anyone’s “fault.”  I was part of a new generation of women raised to believe, unlike our mothers, that we could have a career after marriage. Just because it was possible didn’t mean anyone had figured out how to make it work. The career rules that had worked for men do not work as well for women–especially when there is not yet an established infrastructure for balancing child care and the demands of a professional career.

I once toured Carl Sandberg’s home.  It was a foggy day and a pair of kittens played in the garden. I could envision, “The fog comes on little cat feet!” The guide showed us through his study to a high desk where he liked to stand to write.  I like to stand when I write!  She said that he also liked to write at night.  I love to write in the deep silence of night!  One of his wife’s chief duties, said the guide, was to keep the children quiet during the day so he could sleep. What I lacked in my writing career, I only half joked with my husband, was a wife to keep the children quiet while I slept!

Society, I believe, still needs to evolve in ways that better accommodates the needs of women in the career force. Girls need active mentoring that teaches them how to balance home and career worlds. This is far more complicated than the women’s activists of the 1960’s and ‘70’s might have led us to believe. The rules of this game are extremely complicated and often seem to contradict themselves.  Working hard is not enough.  Some women have concluded that there needs to be a choice between being a good mother and being a good employee. Many women have made the painful choice to be either a good wife or a good employee, sacrificing the joy of motherhood for the pursuit of a fulfilling career or choosing to devote themselves to a career over the satisfaction of raising a family. I believe this choice may be a real either/or reality for many women, but only because society has not yet provided the infrastructure to allow all women to be both–at least not simultaneously.

For myself, I opted for sequential achievement.  I had a counseling career for ten years, then opted to redefine myself as a writer while I raised children.  It felt like the only option that afforded me the flexibility to balance a career with involved mothering. Once the children were all back in school, though I continued to write, I also went back to a more traditional job.

Although women are no longer required to drop out of higher education if they marry or become pregnant, affordable child care still remains a barrier for many women. Live-in “help” remains a privilege of the most wealthy. Without adequate childcare, many working women, especially single mothers and those working entry level positions, end up trying to juggle at least three identities: career, wife and mother, housekeeper and cook, and all too often, especially for single moms, a second job to pay for the childcare. Flexible work schedules that accommodate family development need to be set in place so that parents of either gender who make use of this flexibility, do not feel singled out or deprived of promotions. Employer provided, on-site child care (including care for sick children) is a necessity if society is to equally value the contributions and honor the abilities of women as equal to those of men. Without this support, even the most skilled of women will remain trapped in unsatisfying, low wage positions. This seems to me a steep price to pay!  It means that the contributions of only half of society are valued. The full career potential of half of society is discarded as a means to enhance the contributions of the other half.

This is especially true for women who come from less privileged backgrounds. They begin with fewer support systems, little accurate guidance and fewer opportunities for advancement. Without education, they lack the opportunity to advance even if they possess innate abilities.  Without childcare, the addition of educational pursuits on top of the roles of mother, wife, worker, homemaker becomes unattainable except for the most determined of women.  Affordable, reliable, convenient childcare remains one of the biggest career hurdles for mothers.  It is really time that we, as a society provide the infrastructure to both empower women as workers and empower men as co-equal caregivers for their offspring.