Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Project Pookie Launch" ~ Join Us For A Most Awesome Rummage Sale!

I’d like to tell you about my wonderful daughter, and ask everyone to stop by our “Online Rummage Sale” to help her achieve her dream.

Actually, first allow me to back up for a moment and say this: When I post here on my blog, typically I talk about the homeless and at-risk young people that are a part of my life. There are occasions, however, when I find it necessary to step back from all of that and focus on the needs of one of my own biological children. Now, for the first time, I feel the need to do that here online. One of my own needs a little help, and of course she is no less important that one of my “strays” (as I affectionately call them). This is not a negative situation I’m talking about, though. Quite the opposite! She has the opportunity of her lifetime in front of her, and I would like to help make it possible for her to grab it.

(If you’d like to skip the story I’m about to tell and just find out about our sale, go ahead and scroll your happy self on down to the last paragraph here.)

My daughter’s name is Kristen, but since she was about three days old, Kristen has been known as “Pookie” to those who love her. Many variations on this nickname frequently come into play: The Pookster, The Pookinator, and of course the simple “Pook”. Thus, we are calling this little half-baked idea of a rummage sale (yeah, I can admit that) – drum roll please – “Project Pookie Launch”.

Having been born into a family that loved and cared for her, Kristen has not experienced many of the disadvantages that my “strays” have dealt with, but that doesn’t mean she was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, and it certainly doesn’t mean she hasn’t struggled. Her father jumped ship when she was just five and she hasn’t seen him since, so she has grown up in a single-parent home. She’s had health problems for most of her life; I won’t waste too much space on that here, but suffice it to say that she missed a lot of school. She worked hard to keep up, though, and proudly became the first person in her family to graduate high school in over 40 years (yes, that includes me, but my life is another story). This was no small feat, either. In 2007, her junior year of high school, she was hospitalized and we almost lost her. This happened in her second semester that year, and yet she bounced back and worked hard and maintained all her credits. She went on to her senior year and graduated from not just any high school, but a rigorous prep school (listed in Newsweek Magazine that year as one of the top 4% of schools in the country). Did her Momma proud.

Now, let’s back up once more, because this matters: When Kristen was three years old, she took her first trip to Disneyland. It was her reward – for lack of a better word – after she recovered from surgery. This wasn’t because of health problems; she’d been mauled by a pit bull when she was two and a half. See, I told you she’s had a rough time of it!

Anyway, of course she loved Disneyland. Every kid loves Disneyland! But Kristen took a special liking to it, and she’s been passionate about Disney her whole life since. Whenever she’s had an opportunity to get to California, she’s had to spend a day at Disneyland (I don’t even know now how many times she’s been there). All through her teens she continued to regularly watch her favorite Disney movies (The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, in particular), she was the only high school student I knew who still kept her Lion King action figures on display in her room, and for her high school graduation gift she just wanted to go to Disneyland (that wish was granted by her grandparents). My point is that this girl loves Disney!

Pookie is now entering her third year of college, and this is where we get to the fun part of the story. After a long process of applications and testing and interviews, she has been accepted into the Disney College Program, where she will spend a semester working in the Disneyland theme park and taking classes through Disney University. Yay! Once this semester-long internship is completed, she has high hopes that she will be offered the opportunity to stay on with Disney and follow a career path that they’ll help her plan (this is something they do with their successful interns). She wants this very badly – as you can imagine – and plans to put everything she’s got into achieving her goal of a career with Disney. As her mom, of course I want her to reach her dreams and I’ll do everything I can to support her. Everything and anything I can!

But… You knew there’d be a “but”, didn’t you? It’s going to be expensive to get her to Disney. I suppose the word “expensive” is relative, and there may be some of you reading this who’ve had experience with the Disney College Program and did not find it all that difficult to send your bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young student off to seek their dreams. For our family, though, it’s quite costly, and as the time for her to leave draws nearer, it’s really hitting home with us. We are realizing that, without a little boost, we simply don’t have the funds to get her there with all the things she needs. Never ones to give up without a fight, of course we came up with an idea to raise the needed money: We’ll have a rummage sale!

Now, having a little bit of sense in our collective heads around here, we realized that we couldn’t have a successful “normal” rummage sale because this is Phoenix, and it’s summer, and it is approximately 386 degrees outside. Well, I exaggerate, but only a little bit. Anyway, we discussed this, and a light bulb flashed on above my head (I suppose it could have been a heat-related hallucination, but I like to think it was a light bulb, like in cartoons) because I had a great idea. We’d hold the rummage sale in my online booth! Open it up to the world! Local folks can rummage-sale-shop to their heart’s content from the comfort of their own computer screens and then just come pick up the items they’d like, and everyone else can order their items by mail.

Lots of stuff was donated and gathered from far and wide, as well as from right here at home. Items were sorted and dusted, treasures were inspected and photographed, stockings were hung by the chimney with… Wait, that’s a different event. In any case, we put lots of work into it (and are still working!) and now we have the booth loaded with all sorts of goodies. All the variety and different kinds of things you’d find at any “regular” rummage sale, and at genuinely low rummage sale prices!

And so, you are cordially invited to join us for the first, the one and the only… “Project Pookie Launch Online Rummage Sale”!

Here’s the info you’ve been waiting for:

From Saturday 07/31/10 through Saturday 08/14/2010, visit Rummage Rampage, my booth at Bonanzle. Browse the various awesome items and be thrilled at the amazing prices. Then shop, shop, shop! If you live in the Phoenix area, you can ignore the shipping prices shown and just pick your item up in person (if you want, that is). If you live somewhere else, you can select your items and have them mailed to you. In either case, please click on my profile when you arrive (it can be found in each and every listing and on the main booth page). That’s where you will find specific instructions on how to receive discounts, save even more money (gasp!), and possibly get lower shipping rates than those shown. And visit often during the sale dates, because we keep getting and adding more stuff!

See you there! I mean, see you here: Click Here To Visit Rummage Rampage ! J

Friday, July 30, 2010

Zach Bonner - A Twelve Year Old Inspiration!

I just read the greatest story about 12-year-old Zach Bonner and his walk across America (1,950 miles so far, and more to go) to raise money for homeless youth. What an amazing young man. I am in awe. There's not much I can add that isn't already in the New York Times story, so I just wanted to encourage everyone to read it.

Also, take a look at his web site, for The Little Red Wagon Foundation, which he founded when he was only six. The world could certainly use more Zach Bonners.

This is short, but I have nothing more to add; his story speaks for itself. Just kudos to Zach, and I hope everyone will throw some support his way!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Preparing to End a Life Chapter

I’ve been feeling a bit panicky lately over the idea of my daughter moving away, and over the last few days it has really been hitting hard. I think it’s because I sense the month of July coming to an end, and there’s something about the month of August that makes me feel a twinge of desperation. In August she leaves.

Naturally, as this time has been approaching, my mind has had a tendency to wander back over the years and examine her life – and my life with her – in not just a sentimental way (oh, that sentimentality thing is there, but it’s not the only thing), but sort of like I think an artist or an author might look over their work once it’s published or presented to the masses. Second guessing things that are too late to change. Questioning, and maybe sometimes rationalizing, and then repeatedly reaching the conclusion that it doesn’t matter now, what’s done is done. Did I do this right? Did I do that right? Was that the correct approach, the correct way to handle things, the correct message I taught? Did I do too much of something, or too little? Was I a good example? Did I do my job well?

When I reflect, as I am sure millions of moms before me have done in the same circumstance as their first baby leaves the nest, and I feel anxious about my self-evaluation, I just go back to asking myself the same question: Did I do the absolute best I could? I can honestly answer “yes”. And I may continue to pick at it like a scab, test myself, see if I am being really honest with myself, but the answer is still always “yes”. That gives me comfort. I did my best, and no one can do better than their best. So, whatever mistakes I may have made, whatever judgment calls probably should have gone differently in retrospect, whatever choices I might tweak just a bit if I had them to make again, I did do my best. And because I know that, and because I reach that same conclusion no matter how many times I repeat the questions in my head, and because I am secure in it, I can let her go out into the world and feel good about the kind of mom I’ve been.

But then there is this: What will I do without her?

This is, as you canprobably infer from my tone, my firstborn child. I had her when I was just twenty years old, and so it occurred to me – this is the one human being who has been with me for all of my adult life, day in and day out, always there. Her father, my ex-husband, left our family for good when she was only five years old and I was still carrying her brother. So, it was her and me. She was there through everything I’ve gone through, always there.

Now, I was fortunate enough (and I say “fortunate enough” rather than “smart enough” because I really cannot take credit for this – other moms in similar circumstances may not have been given the information I was lucky enough to have received) to know better than to lean on my child for emotional support when her father and I separated and I began the challenging life of a single mother. I’d read it somewhere, or heard it somewhere, or both, that you aren’t supposed to do that. I’dlearned, somewhere or somehow, that children in such situations need to know that you are strong and in control, so I let her see that I was strong and in control. Only in recent times, after she’d reached adulthood, did she begin to hear some of the stories of things I’d been through. She expressed shock at the crises and emergencies and traumas that had been going on right in her own home, with her own mom, while she was blissfully unaware. When she was surprised at these things, I was pleased at that response. It meant I’d done my job. I’d shielded her and protected her from the things that were not her job to handle. I am glad someone told me to do that.

As her departure approaches, though, and I look back, I realize something: Even when I was not leaning on her, she was holding me up. She didn’t even know – nor should she have – how much she was providing for me. She kept me busy and amused and entertained when she was little – kindergarten plays and Halloween costumes can be more therapeutic for a young and struggling mom than any of us may be aware of in the moment. As she got a little bigger, she absorbed from me and shared with me my absolute passion for the holiday season; it was she who was by my side on all of the days webaked cookies, through the tedious but wonderful tradition every year of stringing popcorn and cranberries and edible goodies into a garland to hang outside for the birds in our trees, through the annual hunt for just the right Halloween Tree (that’s another story), through the laughter and the crankiness that came along without fail each year as I covered our home in Christmas lights.

She became a pre-teen and we shared a love of movies, then she became a teen and the movies got better (ha ha). By then she could also tell me when the clothes I was wearing were totally uncool, even though I didn’t care. And she didn’t care that I didn’t care; she liked and accepted me just as I was, in my “mom jeans” and tee shirts, with all my quirks. She was able to teach me how to send a text message (although I only did it once). At age sixteen she shocked me by going into the kitchen and whipping up a batch of brownies that I could never in a million years have topped. I had no idea she’d been watching so closely! And also, I now see, I had no idea how much she was sharing with me, and how much she was growing into my friend.

And now my friend is moving away. She isn’t leaving me and she won’t stop being my friend, of course, but she won’t be sharing my daily life anymore. She won’t be there to tell me if that picture looks good by that door, or watch the bad TV shows that are our “guilty pleasure”, or step up and make her most awesome pot roast to feed the family dinner when I am too tired to cook. She won’t be quietly but firmly hushing the boys into another room when I have a headache (no one knows my headaches quite like she does) or sharing our favorite treat with movies - a big bowl of artery-clogging buttered popcorn with a large bag of peanut M&M’s dumped right into it. I feel the loss approaching, getting closer and closer, each time we do something together for what I fear – rationally or irrationally – will be the last time.

My home will never be empty, that I know. I have my son and my beloved “strays”, my foster son and my pseudo-daughters, and there will surely be even more of them to come. But none will ever be that person who was always there, through everything, keeping me company and being my companion. None will ever know me like she does.

You know what’s funny, in a way? My sadness over her leaving actually makes me happy at the same time. It means that I have managed to nurture the kind of relationship with my daughter that leaves this kind of hole behind when it changes and moves on, the kind of relationship that includes so many things worth missing. And that means they were worth having.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Our cat died today. Well, it's after midnight now, so I guess it was technically yesterday. She was old, it was time, and I guess there isn't really a lot to say. We knew it was getting close, and about four days ago she started to refuse food and water. She stopped purring when someone would pet her, but she still lifted her head to be stroked. For about three days she moved back and forth between a comfortable spot in the bathroom and a dark corner of the closet, but she would slowly get up and come to greet us when we'd come in the room. Clearly she still wanted to be touched.

Today (yesterday) she came out toward the front of the closet and just re-positioned herself there in the doorway. She laid down on her side, and she stayed that way all day. She "spoke" to my son once in the morning (her first and only little "meow" since this began), and then put her head back down. About five hours later he was sitting with her when she let out her last breath.

Here's what is interesting to me: This was my 20-year-old daughter's cat. My daughter has had her since she was five years old, named her after Josie and the Pussycats. Well, now my daughter is preparing to move away from home within the next few weeks. All the buzz around our house lately is about my daughter leaving, everyone is making preparations, everyone is talking about it. One thing she was concerned about was who would take care of her cat, and knowing the cat was old and might not live through the next six months (the earliest my daughter can come home again), worrying about whether she'd see Josie again at all. Well, Josie timed her exit just perfectly. It sounds dramatic, but it really was like ending a chapter in my daughter's life, and Josie's passing being the final closure to the final open plot-line in that chapter. Now my daughter can grieve, and in a few weeks move on to the next stage of her life - her adulthood and career.

Sad, and yet not sad. Two lives that were shared and then parted in an almost synchronized way. Maybe Josie knew it was the right time. That sounds silly, but I'm just saying...

R.I.P. Josie, you grumpy old kitty cat. You'll be missed, and fondly remembered.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Moving this to my new home here, originally posted on my blog on 07/05/2010:

This afternoon – and I don’t recall how it started – my foster son and I got into a heated discussion (not angry, just intense) over the issues of states’ rights, large central government and its boundaries, the American Civil War, property rights, “rule of law” vs. “might makes right” ideologies, the United Nations, politics, the threat of Iran, public schools, and a variety of other however-loosely-related (or not) topics. We went on for hours. I sometimes get frustrated at how darned argumentative he can be. Not that it isn’t interesting to have conversations with him, but he is relentless!

Now, I should mention that I’ve been really stressed out lately. Really stressed out. My hours at work have been cut, my online sales are way down, my ex-husband has stopped paying child support, and I’m not even sure how we are going to pay the bills this month. The dog needs dental work and he’s in a lot of pain. Our house has mice all of a sudden (great). Our roof needs to be fixed. My car started overheating, so I have nothing to drive. My son and I have not been getting along, which causes me so much lost sleep. My grandmother was recently put into a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, the family is all tense about handling her business matters, and everyone is at each other’s throats. I have prescriptions that I’ve been out of for weeks because I can’t afford to refill them. Our dryer is broken. I’m preparing for my daughter to leave for an internship in California, and although it is a wonderful opportunity for her, it’s going to be expensive to get her there. I could go on, and on and on. Stressed.

So, I started to get a little cranky during our discussion. He seemed like he wanted to go on forever. I was getting tired. This was getting on my nerves. Did he think I had nothing better to do? Did I care about the American South’s point of view during the Civil War right now, when I have so much to take care of?

I left the room to go get some work done. When I’d had a few moments alone, grumbling to myself about how irritating and opinionated that young whippersnapper could be, I suddenly remembered and was hit with a cold splash of perspective to the proverbial face.

I remembered when I first met this young man, when he first came to my home back in 2006. He was a high-school dropout, having barely completed his sophomore year, and not having even attended school for the early elementary years of kindergarten through second grade. He spoke street slang exclusively, and I couldn’t even understand half of what he said. He was a drug addict – heavily dependent on cocaine. He sold drugs to support his habit, and he also burglarized homes and stole cars. Although never really actively involved, he had been “jumped” into a gang. He came from a severely abusive home and trusted no one. He admittedly came to our home with the intention of continuing his “street thug” lifestyle, and using us for a place to live for as long as he could get away with it. When I tried to speak to him back then, he openly stated that he could not really trudge up any sympathy for the victims of his crimes, and he didn’t feel he had the capacity to care about people other than himself. He acknowledged having absolutely no ambitions for his life. In keeping with that goal – or lack thereof – he managed to get himself arrested on a fairly regular basis, and calls from the police became part of my daily life.

That was 2006. Now it’s 2010, and this young man is entering his third year at Arizona State University. He’s taking summer classes right now, wanting to stay on track after missing some credits his freshmen year. He has lived with us for four years (still here at the age of 20) and has been “clean” for over three years. There was one exception – a relapse in early 2008 – at which time he called me within minutes to come and get him, scared, not wanting to fall back.

He is respectful and helpful in our home, he writes letters to his former “homies” in prison, encouraging them to turn their lives around. He packs sack lunches with me and helps distribute them to the homeless, often being the “front man” for that sort of project because he is bi-lingual. He bought his own car, which he’s very proud of. He works with me at my cleaning job. Wanting to eventually be accepted to the Herberger School of Music, he takes music lessons – which he pays for on his own – from the best teacher he could find, and drives out to Grady Gammage Auditorium (across town from our house) each week for those lessons. He studies hard, practices hard, and is one of the most driven and motivated people I’ve ever met. He reads books – tons of books. He even reads the newspaper every day.

I thought about all of this, about the changes in this young man from then to now. Amazing changes. And I thought about how I could listen to him argue all day and I would not complain. He has opinions on Congress, foreign policy and whether Plato was a Sophist! How could I forget that at one time he had no opinions about anything? How could I have let it slip my mind that once he had not cared whether he lived or died from one day to the next, nor whether anyone else did? Once he owed a drug debt, now he owes the occasional late library fine.

If an opinionated and stubborn afternoon argument is the worst I get from this kid, I think we’re doing very well. I vow never to grumble about it again.

I Need To Put A Name On This Thing I Do

Moving this to my new home here, originally posted on my blog on 06/18/2010:

Okay, I’m looking for input, thoughts and opinions here. I need to give some form, structure, whatever – and a name – to what I do. Let me start by explaining what my life looks like, and hopefully you’ll get an idea of what it is I’m groping for.

First of all, I am a single mom. I have two children of my own, ages 15 and 20. I also have a 20-year-old foster son who still lives at home, as I am putting him through college. Beyond the presence of myself and my two biological children, the makeup of my household has always been rather “fluid”. I’ve always had a heart for teenagers and young people who don’t have solid and supportive families, and I often take them in when they need a stable home. My foster son, having been with us for almost four years now, has been in our home the longest. Over the years, however, I have had plenty of what I call my “strays” (they know I mean this term lovingly). My “strays” are kids or young people who may or may not have lived with us (most have for some period of time), and for whom I fill sort of a “mom” role, but with whom I’ve never had a legal or biological connection. My foster son is the only “stray” who ever became mine in a legal sense.

I have taken countless young people into my home for varying periods of time, from just overnight to months to years. Prior to my foster son, for example, I had a young lady who lived with us from just before her 18th birthday up until she was almost 21. As a matter of fact, as with most of the “strays” that I have bonded particularly well with, she is still a part of our everyday life – part of the family. She’s here for holidays and birthdays and family get-togethers, she’s here sometimes to do laundry or borrow the car, and she’s someone I can call on when I need help with something or can’t hang a picture straight on the wall. :)

You get the idea.

Anyway, there have been many in our home. Some remain part of the family, some do not. There are also those who have never lived with us, but for whom I’ve tried to be a source of support to the extent that I am able. There is one very young single mother, for example, that I have been working with for about six months now. I’d be happy to have her live with us, but I simply don’t have the room or the proper environment (too many college kids, too many dogs) for small children. You can read about her here: -afloat-562201/

When I am not directly busy with one of my kids or one of my strays, there are other things I do to try and help out the needy, homeless or neglected youth of my community. Some of the activities that I spend most of my days doing include the following:

• I solicit, gather and deliver items (clothing, shoes, backpacks, toiletries, etc.) for Tumbleweed Center For Youth Development (, where I’m on a first-name basis with many of the social workers and the “higher-ups”.
• I maintain a list of resources for youth who are homeless or troubled, and I post this list regularly on my local Craigslist site. The list includes my e-mail for those who might need some individual advice, so I also field those e-mails when they come in.
• I serve as a board member for a local charter school district. I’m not always popular there since I tend to stick up for the more “difficult” students. However, it’s me they often call for advice or input when they have a student in a “situation”.
• My kids and I occasionally work on “special projects”, such as making and handing out sack lunches, or “doing Christmas” for youth who don’t otherwise have a place to spend the holiday (you can also read about that on my blog, which I linked to above).
• Etc., etc., etc. – i.e. whatever I can do.

As you can imagine, all of this can get fairly expensive. When the costs aren’t direct and obvious ones, there are the costs associated with time away from work, gas for running around, etc. I’m just a single mom who works as a church cleaning lady, and although more hours and possibly other opportunities for work might be available to me, I have too much on my plate already and I have to keep my schedule flexible if I’m to continue doing what I do. The kids are my first priority. I make up for the expense of it all by supplementing my income with what basically amounts to a forever-ongoing yard sale (selling on Craigslist and my booth on Bonanzle) that is stocked by items that are either donated by friends and family who are supportive of my “cause” or items purchased at yard sales. I also keep my personal expenses very low. I can pinch Abe Lincoln right off a penny, my friends say. Ha ha! I clip coupons, I pick up most of our household items at garage sales, I don’t have luxury items like a cell phone or a pretty car, and I don’t wear anything that costs more than a dollar. For real, that’s true! LOL!

So, that’s my life. In a nutshell. Now, back to my original question/issue:

I feel like if “what I do” had some sort of a name attached to it, I would be able to do more. I’d like to possibly get a few other moms (perhaps empty-nesters with currently untapped mom skills and free time?) to perhaps meet with me regularly and help out with some of this stuff. I’d like to be able to solicit beyond my circle of friends and family for needed items. I’d like to set up a web site and/or a Facebook page to promote awareness of the issues of homeless and neglected youth, and to maybe publish a running “wish list” of items needed by Tumbleweed and House of Hope (another organization I believe in) and, frankly, to further promote my own online sales so that I can continue and possibly improve what I already do.

A name and some kind of at least loose organization, I think, would lend me a bit of credibility with which to ask for things. Social workers at Tumbleweed have told me from time to time that I should start a non-profit. I don’t think I want to do that, exactly, because the idea brings off-putting images to my mind. I do not want to be bogged down with paperwork and administration, and I don’t want my “strays” to become “clients”. My relationships with them are much more personal than that. Maybe my fears are ill-founded, though? If so, and if anyone reading has experience with this, I’m open to hearing your thoughts.

What I’ve really had in mind is something more like a “club” of sorts. A group where people meet regularly, and anyone can just jump in and help where it’s needed. But wouldn’t I have to register the name somewhere in order to legally own it? And surely the organization – in whatever form – would need to have at least some money to cover costs of activities, projects and whatnot? And, if so, would it not have to be set up as either a business or a non-profit? There come all my fears again…

And that, folks, is the issue that’s on my mind. I need to give “this” a form and a name, but I just don’t know what exactly it is I want or how to set it up and make it work. I don’t want to jump into something very formal and very structured. I basically just want to keep doing what I am already doing, but maybe with a little help from a few others, and with the credibility of a name. Can it be done? I am open to all thoughts, ideas, input and suggestions.

Thank you for reading, and for any replies!

Keeping The Lifeboat Afloat

Moving this to my new home here, originally posted on my blog on 05/18/2010:

This is my longest blog post ever, folks, so you might want to grab a cup of coffee. ;)

Normally I don’t come here and speak very specifically about any of the young people I meet and help out. That is because, as much as I would like to “show them off” or brag about how great they’re doing, many of them don’t like their stories to be shared publicly. So, I have made a sort of personal policy of not talking too much about them as individuals.

Today I am going to make an exception to that unwritten rule, because what I have on my hands here is an exceptional situation. The young lady I am going to tell you about is in dire need of help and support, much more than I can personally provide. I feel the need to share her story so that perhaps others will feel compassion and come to her aid along with me. I am being very straightforward in acknowledging that this is being posted here as a plea for help. Anyone who knows me or reads my posts will know that this is an unusual thing for me to do, but as I said before, the circumstances at hand are beyond the norm even for me (and I see a lot). All of that being said, because of the very personal nature of many things I will tell you about, I will probably delete this post after a period of time.

We’ll call her “Ti” (not her real name).

I first met Ti last Christmas, at a function that I put together for homeless or needy young people on Christmas Day (if you like, you can go through my previous blog posts to read all about that event). Since then I have been getting to know her, and her story becomes more and more heartbreaking as it is revealed in bits and pieces over time. To be honest, I might have thought she was exaggerating many things if I had not seen so much evidence to support her story. Not that I’ve asked her for such evidence, mind you. It’s just that every time I turn around it seems there is something – some document, some photo, a travel bag with airplane tags still on it, an overheard conversation with a relative, a comment from her son – that drives home the fact that the sad and frightening events of her life really did happen. Most of us, I think, would have collapsed under the weight of just a small portion of what Ti has endured.

Ti grew up in a family riddled with problems: poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse and sexual abuse, just to name a few. Her father is a violent alcoholic and her mother is a cocaine-addicted prostitute. From the ages of two to twelve she was sexually abused by a friend of her father’s. At twelve she rebuffed the advances of her abuser, only to begin acting out and become sexually active with boys – a predictable pattern of behavior for which she still harbors guilt, although she was only a child. Living with only her father at the time, as her mother was absent and in the depths of her addiction (her mother actually abandoned her as an infant and left he with her father, but did visit occasionally, during which times she taught young Ti to steal for her and also tried to sell Ti’s body for drugs), she was punished for her behavior by being thrown out of the home on a routine basis. At times she would turn to the care of her grandmother, and even after her grandmother was placed in a nursing home, the staff there would still allow Ti to come and stay with her when necessary. After her grandmother passed away, she began sleeping in a local park when her father would put her out. Try and really imagine that for a moment – she was sleeping in the park at twelve years old.

At the young age of fourteen, Ti became pregnant. Again, a foreseeable event considering her background combined with a lack of parental involvement. She gave birth to her son just after turning fifteen. On the day her son was born, her mother, who had recently re-appeared in her life, dropped her off at the hospital and went to get high. She never returned. Ti gave birth alone, without a parent or even a “labor coach” to hold her hand.

Deciding that she did not want her son exposed to the home life she’d endured, she ran away. From fifteen to sixteen she lived in various homeless shelters and transitional living facilities, and at sixteen she married in order to become emancipated, as she wanted desperately to detach herself from her troubled family. Predictably, this did not go well. Although legally emancipated, it proved difficult to leave the relationship and move into an apartment of her own due to her age. At eighteen, she left her husband and joined the army in hopes of providing a decent life for her son.

The military seemed a perfect option, a way to establish a stable life for herself and her son. However, someone needed to care for her son while she was at boot camp. Ti chose, against her better judgment but in a bind, to leave her son with relatives of her father who offered to take the boy in. After a period of time, though, rumors and rumblings began to reach Ti, word that her son was not being cared for. Although she was sending her entire military paycheck to the relatives caring for her son, the money was not being used for that purpose. Her son was being neglected, even going without shoes, while the family was partying and shopping the money away. Child Protective Services had even been contacted. Ti was given an honorable discharge and left the army.

Eighteen years old and now an adult in every legal sense, Ti decided that she did not wish to return to Phoenix and live in the same city as her family. Distance from them all seemed to be the best answer in her mind. And so she decided to build a life in Georgia, somewhere completely new to her and where she could start fresh with her son.

In Georgia, with money she’d saved from her last army paycheck, Ti was able to get an apartment and a job, and I believe she actually began to feel hope for herself. She was still a very young woman who lacked the benefit of any real parenting in her upbringing, though, and did not possess the life skills she needed to make healthy choices and to thrive in the adult world. She most certainly underestimated the costs of raising a child all alone, and she was ill-prepared to handle things like finances and parenting and most of the day-to-day “curve balls” that life throws at us all. She fell behind rather quickly, and her world became very shaky – a scary feeling for a young mom with no support system at all.

Ti was just the type who attracted people who want to use and manipulate. She joined a church in Georgia, one that to me sounds very cult-like. They controlled her through fear and intimidation, insisted that she get rid of her son’s toys (for instance, everything Disney was from the devil), and pushed her heavily to “tithe”, draining her of any surplus resources that might have made it possible for her to get ahead in life. Naturally, they were less involved and enthusiastic when it came time to return the favors, and she found that she could not turn to the church for help when she had needs. Fortunately she had the backbone to pull herself away from these people. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, though, as the old saying goes.

She met a man, of course. Those of us who are older and wiser would have been able to see what was coming, but she didn’t possess the sort of wisdom that comes from years of living, nor did she have a parent or a mentor to give her advice. This man wanted to date her, and he “seemed nice”. He stepped up and helped pay the bills, provided things she needed for herself and her son, and ultimately created a situation of dependency.

Ti was not completely naïve, especially since she’d been through so much already at her young age. She recognized that this relationship was problematic, even if she couldn’t quite articulate why; she simply knew this was not good. So, she began to pull away somewhat. She tried to stand on her own two feet, even tried to hide any problems or past-due bills from this man, not wanting him to step in and pay them (because he’d started to make it clear that she “owed him” now). Feeling entitled to his position of near “ownership” in her life, this pull-back made the man uncomfortable and he, of course, became more controlling and manipulative. When she could not pay her electric bill on time and he found out her lights were shut off, he insisted that she bring her son and stay with him. She reluctantly agreed, feeling that she would be an irresponsible mother if she did not take her son to the “better” environment. She also told herself that it would only be temporary, until she had received a couple of paychecks and she could pay her own utility bill. Naturally this man in her life was not going to pay the bill this time, because he now had what he ultimately wanted – Ti was in his home and living under his control.

The man, predictably, began to show a violent side, and he beat Ti when she argued with him. She was his now, he said, and he raped her repeatedly. Within a few weeks she discovered she was pregnant. Ti does not believe in abortion, which is what the man wanted. After an all-night-long argument wherein he intermittently beat her, held her with a gun, and demanded that she marry him, he finally gave her one last beating and threw her out of the house. Barefoot and tired, she walked three miles in the dark night of rural Georgia with her son until they found a place to sleep. In the daylight, they managed to find a ride back to her own apartment. She gathered some things, sold other belongings for quick cash, and just gave up and headed back to Phoenix.

In the Fall of 2009 she was back in Phoenix, back in the presence of the family she’d tried to escape. Like vampires, began immediately to try and find any ways in which they could use Ti for their own benefit. I fell comfortable in saying this because I have seen them in action with my own two eyes (it boggles the mind, really). They wanted her food stamps, they wanted her car, and they wanted her to “take care of” her mother, who was now beginning to pay the physical toll for her years of substance abuse.

To the extent that she could help it (she didn’t have the coping skills to entirely avoid their manipulation), she stood her ground and tried to take care of herself and her son. She got a job and an apartment. However, she was soon hospitalized for an extended period of time due to complications with her pregnancy. She lost her job, and while searching unsuccessfully for a new one, she began having to rely on charity organizations to pay her rent.

And this is the point in the story where I met Ti. On Christmas Eve, 2009, she called me after I’d place and ad on Craigslist inviting young people to my Christmas dinner (again, refer to my previous blog posts if you want to know about this). She had nothing for her son – no Christmas tree, no gifts, no special dinner – and she was concerned that he was now old enough at age five to feel the deprivation. She was in tears. I told her to come, not to worry, that Christmas for her son would be taken care of and he’d have a wonderful day. And he did. Thus began a relationship between myself and Ti that would overtake my life for the next five months. One that I do not regret, I must add, just to be clear.

Ti had a problematic pregnancy, and there was absolutely no way she could handle things alone. She couldn’t take care of her son by herself, yet she was afraid to have anyone find this out for fear that authorities would take him away. She had difficulty getting to and from doctor’s appointments, doing grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning. Reaching out to different charity organizations for help was a full-time job, especially in this economy where everyone else is also floundering and in need. Many organizations were simply tapped out on resources, others wanted endless interviews and referrals and hoops to be jumped through. Not that I blame them, mind you, but it was simply more than Ti could do. This became particularly difficult when she began to go into pre-term labor. A very common reply from charities was, “You must be willing and able to work in order to qualify for our program. Contact us again after the baby is born.” Others were more open to helping, but they needed her to set an appointment and appear in person. At this point, Ti was in and out of the hospital sometimes as frequently as three times in a single day (they’d get her contractions under control and send her home). Her longest hospital stay was about a week, but it was all spent battling contractions. Making and keeping appointments was simply impossible. I know this – I was there. I was the one trying to make all these phone calls and make arrangements for her, in-between holding her hand and saying “Breathe, breathe…”

At one point some charities were willing to meet with her in the hospital, but how does one interview a person whose only two states of mind are either “screaming” or “asleep from the meds”? Let alone the issue of having to provide requested documentation. And all the time, the clock was ticking on all of her personal matters. Her car insurance had expired and her license plates were suspended, her world crumbled, and she was evicted from her apartment. She had – quite literally – nothing and no one.

I began to spend all my time on Ti and with Ti. I was her support and her labor coach while in the hospital (at one time they were so convinced that the baby was coming that they gave steroid shots for the under-developed lungs, but fortunately labor stopped just in time to prevent a high-risk premie), and I was also taking care of her son outside the hospital, as well as arranging sitters for him when I couldn’t be home. I got him to and from school, washed his clothes, talked to his teacher about his homework, took him to the park (because, as you can imagine, he needed to release stress as well), and sent him to the movies with my college kids. “How To Train Your Dragon” made his day.

I was the contact person for all the resources we were trying to tap. I was running Ti’s errands, filling her prescriptions, trying to negotiate with her apartment managers, etc. When it became clear that eviction could not be avoided, myself and two friends moved her belongings out of her apartment and stored them in my late grandmother’s still-empty home (thank God that was available). I was exhausted and sleep-deprived, as the crisis state was non-stop. Sometimes I did not come home for days at a time; I slept in hospital chairs and even on the grass for a few minutes here and there out in front of the hospital, when I just needed air. I was also going broke because I gave my shifts away and wasn’t working. I was neglecting my own family and catching hell for it. Due to my own distraction, our water was even turned off (it’s back on now – don’t worry). I am not a wealthy person, just a single mom who usually lives pretty much paycheck-to-paycheck, and my own household was definitely suffering.

A tremendous amount of energy also went into fending off Ti’s parasitic family. While she was in the hospital, they would be – I kid you not – trying to get into her apartment to get the food out of the cupboards. They’d be calling her cell phone asking, “Why can’t we have your food? You’re in the hospital and they feed you there. Why can’t we have your food stamps? You don’t need them!” The calls were non-stop, twenty-four hours a day. They wanted her car, since she wasn’t using it. I found it noteworthy that her own mother could not find the time to spend ten minutes in the hospital holding her own daughter’s hand (she never appeared once for just a visit), yet she could be there in ten minutes to pick up Ti’s debit card and “borrow” her last twenty dollars. At least when I wasn’t there to put a stop to such nonsense, anyway. Finally, I consulted with the nurses and took away her cell phone (with her permission), and we unplugged the hospital room phone. All calls had to be directed to the nurse’s station, and from her family they only took messages. No, they would not go get her (yes, that was requested!), and a nurse was kept hovering nearby any time Mommy Dearest would make an appearance to cause trouble. Even still, Ti had to be medicated in order to rest, because her anxiety level was out of control as she worried about what her family might be stealing from her and her son while she was incapacitated.

Now please, dearest reader, do not think that I never reached out for help myself. Don’t have the impression that I have some sort of hero complex and believed I could actually do this all alone, nor that I didn’t realize it was irresponsible for me to neglect my own family’s needs. I held no delusions about the fact that I was in over my head, that I had given all I had to give and more. I asked. And I asked and asked and asked. I posted things on my Facebook page, I posted ads on Craigslist, I put the word out at the church where I work. I reached out and came back empty. I started, I will admit, to feel bitter and resentful. Where was the community? Where were all the people who, in theory, should “have my back” when I needed them? I don’t often ask – actually, I never ask, so I assumed that when I did ask, they’d rally around. Nope. This was not the end scene of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. I swear I could hear the crickets chirping in the silence that was my answer. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t mad.

Here is how it felt to me: Imagine that you’re floating down a river in a small boat, and you see someone drowning. Someone heavy, to heavy for you alone to pull into your boat. You reach out to them and grab their arm, but this pulls your boat down a bit, and water begins to seep in. At first you aren’t concerned, though. Other boats are cruising by, and you use your free arm to wave for help. As soon as you catch someone’s attention, you think, help will be on the way. But that’s not what happens. The other boats slow down or even stop, but no one is interested in being inconvenienced by your drowning person. As a matter of fact, as they float on past, they point out to you that your own boat is filling with more and more water, and they tell you that you should really let go before this person pulls you in with them. What are you to do? Let go and let them drown? Really? Besides, while it will be a huge setback if your own boat sinks, you know how to swim and you can get another boat later. You know you can recover from this, but your drowning person can’t. So, you take a deep breath and hold on, ready to go into the water if necessary. And all the other boaters float by and roll their eyes at you, telling you that you’re crazy for letting this person pull you down. After all, it’s really not your problem. It’s unclear whether they really don’t understand or just don’t care that this person really will drown if you let go. And so you do what you think is right and you take the criticism.

But I digress.

Ultimately I did not end up entirely alone in helping Ti. A friend of mine since childhood stepped in to share the burden. She’s a married woman, so she had to get the approval of her husband, but once she did so they moved Ti into their son’s room while he was at college. My friend also helped find a family that was willing to take Ti’s son into their home for the duration of his mother’s pregnancy. I was able to breathe a small but cautious sigh of relief. At least some relief. My friend suffered some consequences of her own as her family began to resent the very pregnant, moaning, floor-pacing woman in their home (my friend was beginning to feel the criticism, too). They were polite enough, but there was always the risk that they’d throw in the towel, so I continued to be the one to take the late night phone calls, run her to the emergency room when she’d start contracting, talk to doctors, fend off family, and all sorts of other various chores. Thankfully, my friend’s family held their patience until the end. Again, thank God.

Ti’s baby girl was born on Mother’s Day, healthy and weighing in at 7 lbs., 12 oz. It was almost funny how it worked out to be the final, climactic irritation for my own family as I spent Mother’s Day in the hospital with Ti rather than with my own kids. But what was I to do? Leave her there alone like her mother did when she was 15? No, my kids agreed begrudgingly, that would not be right. It didn’t change the attitude that was reflected in their faces, though. They will get over it.

The much-appreciated cooperation of Ti’s doctor and a hospital social worker kept her hospitalized for as long as possible while my friend and I found a place for her to go. My friend’s son came home from college for the summer, so his room was no longer available, and as much as I’d be happy to take her into my home, I have no place for someone with children. As of just a few days ago, Ti is living in a transitional living facility that opened their doors to her, so she now has a roof over her head and a safe place for herself and her children, at least for the time being.

And so it is time for re-building. I don’t even know if the “re” should be attached there, since Ti’s life was never really built in the first place. She began her existence in an unstable crisis mode and has been simply surviving ever since, truth be told. So, perhaps it would be better to say that now is the time for building. She’s still young – only 20 – and still has lots of years ahead of her to live a healthy and peaceful life with her children. But that can only happen if she’s able to build a solid foundation right now, and if she isn’t thrust right back out into those rushing waters from where she was pulled.

I have no intention of abandoning Ti now. However, I am literally tapped out. I am, for all intents and purposes, now the one in the water (as everyone predicted). But I am older, wiser, and more experienced in life, so I will have the strength to pull myself out. When it comes to helping Ti build her life, though, at the moment I’m not able to do much, and time is of the essence.

Many resources are now available to Ti that were inaccessible while she was pregnant. She can now honestly say that she’s willing and able to work, for instance, so some charity organizations will talk to her. She wants to take a CNA class and get her certification so that she can work as a certified nursing assistant, and I believe I will be able to hook that up with Tumbleweed Youth Development. It’s an eight-week class, and then she’ll be ready to job hunt in that field. She has food stamps, too, so both food and temporary housing are taken care of for now.

All that being said, there are still a lot of cracks to fall between. Her son has outgrown his shoes, her car still has suspended plates, and the place where she lives has no phone (so she can’t let the cell get turned off). There are resources for these kinds of needs, but they don’t necessarily work quickly. Even since she’s gotten moved into her temporary housing, I’ve had to drive her to WIC appointments and DES appointments, do her grocery shopping (she would have just borrowed my car and done it herself, but I have a broken seatbelt and can’t accommodate a baby car seat), and take her out to my late grandmother’s home to retrieve some of her clothing and possessions. These sorts of things have taken up the last week, leaving her no time to go visit and apply at any charities. She needs to do that, but the days are flying by fast, and she has needs that don’t wait. As much help as there is out there in the world of social work and programs, this young lady is not going to get ahead utilizing only those. She needs us, at least temporarily, if she is to succeed.

So, my purpose in writing this long, drawn-out story is to reach out to you, the community, one more time. If you are local here in Phoenix, we are trying to gather things such as diapers, shoes for her son, nursing bras and nursing pads, and even clothes for Ti (she doesn’t yet fit back into her pre-pregnancy clothes, but I think she will soon, so she doesn’t need a lot). There are no laundry facilities where she lives, so we are asking for pre-paid cards for Laundromats near the Sunnyslope area if possible. Obviously, though, the big elephant in the room is cash. We need to raise some funds to help get this young lady on her feet in a real way, and to help me be able to keep helping her. We will be holding an online rummage sale to raise funds, and any of you can request info on that from me, or I will post about it when it’s ready. We are doing it online because I already have a booth where I sell things online, so that was the most convenient place to set up a quick sale without having to procure a parking lot someplace. Phoenix locals do not need to pay shipping for items sold in this sale, by the way; a shipping price will be listed, but send me a message telling me what you want and you can come pick it up.

A note: It’s actually taken me days to write this, so the sale may be ready as soon as this evening.

And with that, folks, I will end this long blog post. Your coffee is probably cold now, anyway. Thank you for reading, and please contact me if you feel you can help.

Moms are people, too. I have bad days.

Moving this post to my new home here, originally posted on my blog on 03/01/2010:

I am in a bad mood today.

Actually, that’s probably putting it very lightly. I am downright depressed today, in a really dark place. These kids – these young people… They very definitely carry the power to let me down, to hurt me, to break my heart. Now, if I were a professional social worker, I would be trained to keep a certain emotional distance. But I am not, and do not wish to be, a social worker. I wish to be a mom to young people who need a mom.

I am the person they call when they need advice, or they need a ride because they’re stranded somewhere. I’m the person who helps them with college financial aid paperwork, if I have been so successful as to talk them into college. I am the one who helps with proofreading papers once they’re in.

I drop everything to run and get one of them when they are in a bad situation. I give them a place to sleep when they’ve nowhere to go. I cook for them, I do their laundry, or I at least provide a place for them to do laundry. I give them my opinion about what might be wrong with the garbage disposal in their apartment, teach them how to make a decent meal for themselves on the cheap, show them how to get a stain out of a carpet. I pack lunches, and run those lunches to them at school or work when they forget them.

When they get into trouble, or they’re already in trouble when I first meet them, I make sure they get to their court dates and I sit there with them. I explain why it’s important to be careful whom you associate with, and where you allow yourself to let your guard down and “party”; I tell them how to be safe. I help them make phone calls and ask the right questions when a personal business matter must be handled. I help them open a bank account if they need or want one, and I nag them about the dangers of over-using your debit card and not keeping track of your spending. I talk to them about what a credit rating is and how not to ruin it. When they get a car, I tell them how to buy insurance, and advise them to keep the registration, but not the title, in the glove compartment.

I loan them a vacuum cleaner, or a baking dish, or a wrench. They call me to ask how to make mashed potatoes or how to unclog a toilet. I sit up with them when they’re sick, and tell them not to take too much of anything that has acetaminophen in it. I put ice on their sprained ankles. I take them to the emergency room in the middle of the night when they are too naïve to realize just how sick they are. I stay and make sure they understand the doctor’s instructions.

Probably more than anything else, I spend time with them and talk. Sometimes it’s at the dinner table, and sometimes it’s when I’ve received a “drop everything because there’s an emotional crisis” phone call. We talk about boyfriends and girlfriends, interpersonal boundaries and self-respect, and relationships that aren’t healthy. We also talk about the ones that are healthy. We discuss birth control, responsibility, drugs, and consequences. Planning a life rather than simply rolling with the punches is a common topic. So are reality TV, nail polish, rap music (ugh), and skateboarding. It’s not always a conversation about something heavy.

Are you getting the picture? Are these the sorts of things your mom did for you when you were, say, seventeen to twenty-something years old? Maybe she still does some of them now. Imagine if you had never had a “mom” in that sense. Imagine your mother was either completely unavailable, in jail, battling (or not bothering to battle) her own substance abuse problems, or just simply didn’t care about you. I believe a mom is important, and not just to small children. And so, that is the role I play for those who need one. I usually enjoy it, but one must be willing to take the good with the bad. I know this. This is not my first rodeo, as Dr. Phil would say.

As I said earlier, if I were a social worker I would be keeping a professional distance. However, keeping a distance is exactly counter to what I try to do. These young people have run into lots of people in their lives who are often helpful, but there’s always that professional distance. You won’t have your social worker’s home phone number, and after 5:00 she’s off the clock. That leaves a gap, and it’s that gap that I try to fill. I’m a mom. It’s what I do.

Thus, I put my heart out there on the line. All the time. I can’t be what I want to be and protect myself at the same time. And so, sometimes I get hurt. Right now I am hurt. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. Each time, I go through a series of thoughts and emotions that make me doubt myself, question whether I am doing any good at all, and often feel like giving up. “Forget it,” I think. “Go get a mindless job at the mall and just take care of yourself. Live with your dogs; they’ll keep you company. Leave these kids to their own devices. You can’t save the world, anyway.”

Those thoughts run through my mind, I worry, I doubt, I lose confidence, I cry over my hurt feelings. And then, at some point, it always passes. I get back on my feet and recover my motivation and move forward again. After enough practice, I am learning to be aware, even while the emotions are churning, that it will pass. So, I just ride it out. My most important goal in this regard is just to avoid developing so much scar tissue on my heart that I cannot love anymore. They put me to the test, these kids, but I’m not ready to give in yet. Even if the temptations in my mind lean in that direction, I know it’s temporary.

Like I said, I’m in a bad mood today. It’s one of those times. I’m feeling sad and angry and resentful and betrayed. Some of the kids have hurt my heart. They’ve lied to me and betrayed my trust and used me, and – in my view – insulted my intelligence by thinking I would not catch on. It happens sometimes. That’s how it goes when you let yourself get attached. But I don’t regret it.

This will pass. Probably not today or tomorrow, maybe not even next week, but it will pass. I thought I would write about it, though, because so many of my blog posts are so chipper and happy, all about all the positive things that are going on and all the great stuff I do with these young people. To sit down and write on a day like this felt like the honest thing to do. Give the complete picture – just put it out there. I’m not a saint, I’m not a perfect mom, I don’t always do the right thing, and I don’t always get good results. This house does not always run smoothly, and it’s not without conflict. It’s certainly not without painful times.

Tonight I will get out of the house for a while. Probably drive somewhere and just sit with a coffee. Spend a little time alone – a precious resource in my life, that alone time. I will think about things; maybe I will make some changes to how I relate with the kids, and maybe I won’t. In any case, I’ll take a breather and get back on my feet. I do not know any other thing to do.

All About Christmas - Finally

Moving this to my new home here, originally posted on my blog on 01/23/2010. Earlier posts telling about events leading up to this Christmas project can be found here 'Tis The Season For Me To Lose My Mind, here Make A Charity Christmas Feel Like Home, and here Almost The Big Day... Almost Ready... So Tired!
So I have wanted to tell all about my Christmas “project”, and now here it is almost the end of January. I haven’t been able to sit down and write this until now, because just after Christmas it was as if an enormous metaphysical dump truck backed itself up (beeep… beeep… beeep…) and unloaded a big, stinking pile of family crises on my doorstep. I believe most of that has passed now, though, and the dust is beginning to settle. So, “better late than never”, and here goes…

I won’t waste a lot of space talking about what the “Christmas project” was all about, since I’ve talked that matter pretty much to death. So if you don’t know, you’ll have to refer to my previous blog posts. This is for those of you who have asked how it went, and I soooo want to tell you!

It was awesome. Amazing. Fantastic. Everything went smoothly and everyone had a great time. There were no problems, no conflicts, and no disasters. This came as quite a surprise to me, since that is not normal even for a regular day in my life (LOL), let alone a day when I’m clearly in over my head trying to pull something off.

The days leading up to Christmas, however, were anything but awesome and amazing and fantastic. Not that they weren’t rewarding, but they were exhausting. In the three days before Christmas, I managed to get a total of 7 hours and 45 minutes of sleep. But who’s counting?

It was really, really important to me that this feel like a “real” Christmas in a home, and not like some sort of charity function. Thus, I worked hard to convert the cold, sterile hall we were using into something as close to “homey” as I could get. I perused Craigslist and hounded friends and family for free stuff that could be used, and I drove all over the Phoenix area gathering up carpet scraps, decorations, furniture, paper plates, and so on. I would get my truck filled, then run to the church to unload so I could re-fill. It just so happened that I was always alone for these unloading sessions (no one’s fault, just that I always managed to fill up when everyone else was at work or something). That meant that I had the very special honor of lifting, hoisting, dragging, tugging, pulling, pushing and kicking a number of items, from small and manageable to ridiculously heavy and awkward, out of my truck and into the building all by myself. The grunting and occasional swearing involved was rather undignified, but no one needs to know about that. Ha ha.

Two days before the big event, with the proverbial clock ticking ever more loudly in my mind, I realized I couldn’t pull this off all alone and finally reached out for help. I put an ad on Craigslist (gotta love Craiglist) titled “Mrs. Claus Needs Some Elves”, and I got a lot of really wonderful responses. Ultimately, not everyone who offered to help came through, as is to be expected, but the ones who did were truly special people whom I feel privileged to have met. Some brought gifts, some brought food (a LOT of food, actually), some came over to the church at all hours of the night to help me decorate and move furniture and various heavy things around, and to contribute great ideas. All helped me keep things going smoothly throughout the actual “event”, and I am eternally grateful for that, since I rarely made it out of the kitchen on that day.

As all of these preparations were going on, things took some unexpected turns, and this project evolved into something slightly different from what I’d originally had in mind.

First of all, while I was getting a lot of responses to my plea for “helpers”, I was receiving surprisingly few responses to my “guest” invitations. I’d placed flyers at several locations that provide services to homeless teens, I’d spoken to several social workers who’d agreed to fax my invitations to other social workers in the field, and I'd placed ads on my beloved Craigslist. Still, the reaction was underwhelming, and I was starting to worry that I would have more helpers than guests! I decided to take a more direct, one-on-one approach, and I planted myself on the front porch of the Tumbleweed Drop-In Center (an old house in downtown Phoenix that serves basically as a daytime shelter where street youth can use facilities, do laundry, shower, etc.) for the afternoon on Christmas Eve.

For several hours, I hung out in front of the center and nagged the kids as they came and went. I had seen that my flyers were sitting on the desk in the front room of the house, so I grabbed a few and thrust them in the faces of young people, saying, “Hey! Do you have plans for Christmas Day or what? No? Then why don’t you come with us? Come on! I will pick you up and give you a ride! You’ve got nothing better to do, right? And the food will be awesome!”

Most of them eyed me suspiciously at first, seeming to wonder what might be in this for me, and why this was so important to me. They shrugged and gave non-committal responses. But after a few minutes, a young man named Don turned around, having overheard some of this talk that was going on behind his back, and said, “Wait… What is this all about?” I handed him a flyer, talked to him for a moment, explaining that this was “for real” and that nothing would be asked of them or preached at them or expected of them. I just wanted them to come and join us and relax for a day, have a good time, forget their troubles for a while and “kick back” with all the good food they wanted. He said, “I want to come. Can I bring someone?” Of course he could bring someone, I told him.

The “someone”, it turned out, was his wife, who was also present there in the house. Don, just in his early twenties, is married to a 19-year-old young lady, Carrie. Carrie is pregnant, in a wheelchair (I did not ask why), and lives in a women’s shelter apart from her husband. Unable to find beds in the same shelter, they sleep apart at night and see each other during the day at the Drop-In Center. There are many reasons for their predicament, some of which are the expected results of their own poor choices in their youth, and some being circumstances beyond their control, but I will go into that another day. For now, suffice it to say that Don proved tremendously helpful to me that day in convincing other young people that they should join us for Christmas. We sat out on that front porch and talked for much of the afternoon, and as I had to practically grab kids by the collar to get them to talk to me, Don would help “close the deal”.

I learned a lot that afternoon about why needy and homeless young people don’t respond as enthusiastically as one might expect to invitations such as mine. For one thing, they are somewhat suspicious of someone wanting to offer them something for nothing. More significantly, though, I learned that the idea of them having a nice Christmas was much more important to me than it was to them. These are young people who are struggling, often without the benefit of a solid upbringing that provides the tools and life skills necessary to avoid life’s most serious pitfalls, just to survive. In their minds, Christmas is just another day, and a nice meal with a few little gifts from some better-off do-gooders is not going to make any difference by the time they have to return to the shelter or the street that night. They have more important things on their minds, and they’re not losing any sleep over whether Santa brings them a stuffed stocking or whether they get any pumpkin pie. The singing of carols and the decorating of trees and the trimmings of the holiday are all just so much distraction and nonsense to them as they try to figure out where they will sleep, and how much more repair can stretch out the life of their worn-out shoes.

In the end, I think (and hope) that some of them saw things differently by the end of Christmas Day. While no one was so condescending as to act as if this event would change anyone’s life or circumstances, I do believe that some of these youth came away with the understanding that sometimes it’s good – when the opportunity presents itself – to let themselves relax and feel “normal” for a while. To spend some time just being able to set aside their worries for a bit and not feel like a charity case amongst people, but rather to feel like just another one of the people. If that makes sense. But I digress… I should get back to the story of how it all went down.

By the day of Christmas Eve, the donations of gifts were rolling in. A great percentage of the donated gifts, however, were toys for young children. Getting teenager-suitable gifts was quite a challenge. As a matter of fact, if there was any one disappointment I felt, it was that a lot of the gifts that were given to the teens and young adults were – frankly – kind of lame. At least there was something for everyone, though, and a few really good gifts among the mediocre; it was just something I learned from and decided to work on for next time. I was willing to accept the children’s toys because I knew that some of these young people had children of their own. What I’d never expected was that there would be quite so many toys, however, so that led to another last-minute decision that changed the course of things a bit. I decided to open the celebration up to needy families with children, and I placed another Craigslist ad.

Naturally, the phone rang off the hook. Unfortunately, I can’t afford a cell phone, so keeping up with the calls on my home phone along with incoming e-mails, all while running around with the aforementioned flurry of preparations, was yet another challenge. I had two kids (actually twenty-year-olds) at my house fielding calls, and I was checking my e-mail each time I stopped at home and also each time I went to the church. The church folks don’t know that I know the password to their computer – LOL – but it was lucky I did. Keeping up with it all was madness.

Several families called and e-mailed asking to come spend Christmas with us, and I had to start a note-taking system to make sure everyone had directions and a ride. One more thing to keep track of! I’ll admit I was starting to feel quite overwhelmed, but at this point I was running on adrenaline and had no time to even feel stress, which was actually kind of funny. LOL.

I was alone at the church and going over a list of last-minute grocery items that were needed in the late afternoon when the church phone rang. Assuming it was probably my kids trying to find me, I answered it. On the other end was a tearful young lady who asked for me, and when I identified myself, she blurted out, “I know you’re really, really busy and I am so sorry to bother you because I know you have a lot to do and you’re really busy, but do you think you could take, like, two minutes to talk to me?” I told her that of course I could, and I sat down. She told me that she’d called my house, and my kids (who later told me she’d been very emotional and so they’d told her the best place to try and track me down) had given her the number to the church and said I was probably there. She explained that she was 20 years old and single mother, unemployed, and was just devastated that she had absolutely nothing for her five-year-old son this Christmas. No gifts, no tree, no dinner, and no explanation to offer him that he would understand. He believed in Santa Claus, after all, and what could she say to him? She cried throughout the conversation and asked if she could please come with us for Christmas, and while repeatedly telling me how much she hated to beg, she wondered if we could provide a gift for her son. I calmed her down and told her that of course she could join us, that that was the whole purpose of what we were doing, and that we’d pick her up at home since she did not have a car. And I would make absolutely sure that her son got Christmas gifts. I hung up and added her name and situation to my notes, which were becoming a thick stack of paper.

As the hour was approaching when the stores would close, I had to leave the unfinished tasks I was working on and embark on the totally relaxing (not!) adventure of navigating the grocery aisles. I had a menu and a list of who was making what, but there were items needed to finish several of the planned dishes. I made it through my shopping just in time, checking out just as the lights were dimming with the hint that they’d like us all to leave so they could get home to their own families. Grocery stores are rarely subtle about these things, although I can’t say I blame them. After taking a few moments to help an elderly woman who spoke little English understand why hot cocoa mix would not work as a substitute for cocoa powder in baking a cake (lol), I was off and running again, heading home to my children who had not seen me all day. We had an obligation to be at my brother’s house at 6 p.m. (my little brother has always been a pain in my backside, and naturally had to be born on Christmas, so as to further inconvenience me every year for the rest of my life – LOL), and it was already past that. Ah, well. I had no time to sweat the small stuff. He’d tormented me as a kid, anyway, so if he complained that I was late for his birthday, I figured I would just threaten to put him back in the dryer.

We hopped in the car when I got home and made it – late – to my brother’s house. I had not brought him a gift, and told him I’d been busy and he was 38 years old now, so get over it. We spent the obligatory few hours there, with me spending most of my time running back to his computer to check my e-mails. They were still coming in, and all needed answering so that no one would be left out.

I arrived home around 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, only to turn right back around and run out. There was a woman who would not be able to make it to our celebration the next day, but her 8-year-old son still believed in Santa and she had no gifts. She was heartbroken at the idea of him waking up to nothing under the tree. My daughter and I put gifts together and delivered them to her home at midnight. The lady met me outside her house at my car, and she hugged me as she handed me a tiny wrapped package.

I unwrapped the package on the drive home. Inside was a lovely thank-you letter and a watch. It was not new, just a used watch, but a nice one and clearly something she’d given me of her own as her best gesture of gratitude. It was very sweet, and I am sure she will never know that it was she who made my Christmas, probably more so than the other way around. I get Christmas gifts every year, but it is not every year that I get to know that on Christmas morning there is a little boy who might have had nothing, but now gets to believe in Santa for another year. That’s priceless.

By the time I got home it was after 1:00 a.m. There was still much to do, and my house looked like a hurricane had struck it. Bags of donated items were piled all over the living room, the table was piled high with groceries, notes and to-do lists were scattered here and there and everywhere, and my kitchen was nearly impossible to find at all beneath the piles of rubble. I cleared some space and began washing, rinsing, chopping, slicing, and doing as much ahead-of-time food preparation as I could. I loaded pots and pans and cookie sheets and serving utensils into boxes and into the truck. I checked and double-checked lists, and loaded and loaded and loaded that truck. Somewhere around 4 a.m. I fell asleep. I don’t even remember where. Maybe it was the couch, maybe a chair, but certainly not my bed. I know I didn’t make it that far. LOL.

Somewhere around 6 a.m. on Christmas day I dragged myself up from wherever it was I’d crashed, and I stumbled around in a fog seeking coffee. I don’t remember if I ever found any. I do remember cursing the fast-food gods for not letting McDonald’s be open when I needed it most. I was temporarily determined to wrap my kids’ gifts, which I had not done yet. That idea lasted about 10 minutes, until I finally decided that I had too much else to do and it was a good thing I’d raised my kids to have a sense of humor. They woke up and my parents came over, as they always do on Christmas morning, and I tossed things at them as I rushed around still preparing for the rest of the day. “Here – I got you this. It’s not wrapped. Too bad. Hope you like it.” Ha ha. Since I am normally a crazy-perfect-Christmas-morning freak, my kids were pretty shocked, and they actually found the whole thing pretty amusing. Look at Mom – she’s lost her mind and doesn’t even care. LOL.

More mad prepping of dishes ensued, and I finally got loaded up for the last time and arrived at the church by around 11:00. I got straight to work in the kitchen, along with my father (who is a fabulous cook, although irritating while in the process), and I sent my mother to pick up the kids from the Drop-In Center.

Helpers began to arrive and put finishing touches on some things. The kids from the Drop-In Center arrived and I put them straight to work decorating the one Christmas tree that we still hadn’t gotten to. More and more people began to show up, some called needing rides, and helpers were sent to pick them up. A table was filled with snack items to keep people munching while we were still cooking. My son played the piano, and soon he was teaching another young girl how to play. The five-year-old son of the single mom who’d called me crying was playing with a toy basketball and shooting at the tiny hoop that someone mounted atop the door. Eventually a young man of about 21 began to play along with him, and they were having quite the good time goofing off together.

Folks were chatting all around me in the kitchen as they smashed the boiled potatoes for me and greased casserole dishes. Others disappeared into the gym behind the kitchen, arranging and sorting gifts. Some just circulated amongst the growing crowd and made people feel at home. My foster son played old records on the record player he’d brought and set up, and someone else fiddled with the TV and got a Christmas movie playing. There was a steady hum of noise – the chatting of people getting to know each other, the clanging of dishes, the laughter of children, the background sounds of music and TV. The older boys and young men found a basketball and went outside to play a game on the court in the church parking lot. My father snapped at my mother once, and I snapped at him to cut it out, and that the earth would not stop turning on its axis if the baked beans didn’t come out right. In other words… It felt just like any Christmas in any home with any family. I loved it.

I spent the entire day in the kitchen, really, so I had very little opportunity to actually see first-hand what was happening “out there”. I was busily cranking out dishes and then busily cranking out desserts, and it seemed that everything was getting eaten about as fast as I could get it out there. The only people I really got to talk to very much were those who came into the kitchen to chat, but that was okay since almost everyone did that from time to time. I got updates from my daughter on what was happening, who was flirting with whom (lol), who was wolfing down the corn casserole like it was their new favorite thing in the world, how the ball game was going, etc. The day flew by. I really mean that – I lost total track of time. My feet started to hurt and I got tired, but things were moving quickly and there was no time to slow down. I think I slipped away once to go to the bathroom, but even getting to do that was no small task.

By the time I got to leave the kitchen and sit down to eat some dinner myself, it was around 7 p.m. Everyone else was pretty much finished, but there were a few who nibbled and kept me company at the table for the few minutes I managed to stay there. I’d eaten a little less than half my dinner before I was called away and needed again. There was a mom who had asked if she could take home some leftovers since they had no food at home, and I helped pack up a box (we had plenty). There were people who wanted to say goodbye, and I politely chatted with them while my stomach growled and I ignored it (lol). There were a few who needed a ride back to the shelter in time to check in, lest they lose their bed for the night. I arranged for someone to drive them. By the time I got back to my plate, it was cold. That was okay, though. More than okay. I didn’t mind a bit.

There was some clean-up done that night, but a lot would have to be put off until the next day. When everyone had finally cleared out and I found myself alone, the exhaustion really hit. I took care of the most important stuff – covering and putting away food that needed to be refrigerated, rinsing dishes and piling them in the sink, taking out some of the trash. Then I sat down on the sofa and just enjoyed the peace and quiet and the flickering of the Christmas tree lights. I fell asleep on the sofa there for twelve hours.

In the end, I believe the head count for Christmas was around 50, with about (I’m guessing) 10 to 15 being helpers. Having worried about too many helpers for the number of guests turned out to be something I was all wrong about. The ratio being what it was contributed to making everything so nice. There were so many people, all strangers to each other, that one could not really tell who was there to help and who was there because they were needy. Thus, it just felt like one big get-together, and not a charity function. Exactly what I was aiming for.

I did not get very many photos, unfortunately, since I didn’t get out of the kitchen much, and I hadn’t planned ahead to assign someone the task of taking pictures. Another thing learned for next time. The few pics I did get are posted here. And since I’ve practically written a book in this post, I will just leave it at that.

So, that, folks, is how it went down. And to all a good night.