Thursday, February 21, 2019

Boys and Books

I have been running to catch up with my own life for what seems like a very long time. Just ask my husband. My life has been exceptionally chaotic lately, to the point that my volunteer hours as a Project Armchair reader have suffered. And, oh how I have missed it. Nothing feels quite right when I don’t have time to do the thing I love best.

I pulled into the parking lot of a local homeless shelter yesterday and smiled. Finally! I was armed with a wide array of upper-elementary books. Books the older boys of the after-school program had requested the last time I read there. (SIDE NOTE: Shout out to their teachers who helped them discover their own “reading territories” - books that kids are naturally drawn to).

It was sweetly calm when I entered the large room where the kids spend time until parents can pick them up. There were kids at long table working on puzzles or crafts. Others lounged in comfortable chairs. The workers looked in my direction and smiled warmly.

As familiar young faces ran to greet me, I hugged each one that stretched out arms for affection. Others stood shyly at the perimeter and waited. They soon directed their attention to my rolling crate. The one filled with what they were REALLY excited about… my books. A tall kid just to my right asked without preamble, “Do you have any Dog Man books?” “As a matter of fact, I do,” I responded with a broad smile. “But you’ll have to wait your turn.” His shoulders slumped a little, but he followed me dutifully across the room.

I (vainly) attempted to have the children take turns choosing a book and sitting beside me while I read their choice to them. But no matter how many times I asked them to stand back and wait their turn, they continued to crowd around the rolling treasure box of coveted books and to search longingly for the perfect choice. I finally gave up shooing them off and had them sit around me on the floor as I read every book to every child. They were like hungry little birds, absorbing every word and feasting on the bright illustrations. They laughed at funny pictures and nodding knowingly at familiar connections.

The Dog Man fan eventually had his turn to choose one of several from the series. He gratefully accepted his treasure and disappeared. Soon another middle school-aged boy appeared and asked for a book. Then another. Apparently, word travels fast where graphic novels are concerned. I packed up the remaining books, put on my coat and turned to leave. Then my heart constricted and melted into a gooey mass. Lounging on chairs and stretched across the sofa were boys in big bodies devouring their new books. They were aware of nothing around them. They were utterly and contentedly lost in their new books.


This is what it is all about.

This is what the volunteers of Project Armchair have set at their primary goal. Kids in crisis finding a moment’s reprieve from challenging circumstances through the pages of a really good book.

In my doctoral studies, I came across the story of a young woman who spent most of her growing up years in transience. Homeless shelters were a natural part of her environment. She longed to escape from the cycle of poverty and was naturally intelligent. She recounted in an interview how she would read any and everything that she could get her hands on, including cereal boxes, and old copies of Readers Digest. Books, she claimed, were her escape.

I witnessed echoes of that yesterday. Shelters are not beautiful places to live. Life is hard when you are transient. I mean HARD. Fear, stress, and chaos are the norm. If Dog Man can relieve a little of that for a few brief moments, then I am a happy camper.

Oh, and Khadijah Williams? The girl who read cereal boxes when there was nothing else available? She ended up at Harvard. You can read more about this inspiring young woman here:

Monday, January 29, 2018

One Thousand

After the hellacious pace of my last doctoral semester, life has fallen into a pleasant rhythm of schedule for me. When most teaching days end, I head to the hospital or one of several local shelters to read for an hour, or so.

Today I stepped out of my car, hoisted my bag of books over my shoulder, and stepped into the shelter. I smelled dirty diaper right away. A good sign that I would find at least one child to read to.

I found three. Three of the darlingest cherubs ever. Chubby cheeks and big sparkling eyes. These children are strangers to me and yet they run immediately in my direction, without the slightest hint of shyness, raise chubby arms in the international sign to be picked up, and lay downy heads onto my shoulder. My heart melts instantly.

I find a place to sit where all can see the book I am about to read. I choose “Don’t Press the Button” by Bill Cotter. All three clamber to sit beside me, or on my lap. Don’t Press the Button is read-aloud gold. It’s funny and fun. By the second page, my audience is roaring with approval and deep belly giggles. They obediently press the button upon command and hearty laughter fills the room like shafts of warm yellow sunshine. I’m pretty sure the one on my lap is the one with the dirty diaper, but I don’t mind. The joy on these little faces is worth any momentary olfactory offence.

A parent is laughing, too. I find age-appropriate books for each child and read them aloud. He and his children gratefully accept their books and he promises to read them all again before bed tonight. I smile with satisfaction. This is exactly my hope each time I read to a child. I hope that the book I hand them will be read multiple times. So many times that the edges get tattered and the pages frayed. I hope that the children will memorize the pictures, know the words by rote memory, and have them spring to conscious memory at odd times in their adult lives, as the favorite books from my own childhood do. I hope that the parent reading will grow weary of reading them over and over, (and over and over).

I hope that the laughter and joy of a silly book with bright colors and mischievous characters will burn indelible neural pathways into those little, developing brains, and create a lifelong love of literature. I hope that their vocabulary warehouses will grow and that early reading skills will take root.

I hope that all of them will think about me in the coming week and look forward to my visit next Monday, eager for another book.

I hope that Project Armchair can give many books to these beautiful children over the course of the next weeks, and possibly months.

I hope so much for these children, and those like them.

I hope.

Project Armchair hit the thousand mark at some point around the end of 2017. One thousand children read to and one thousand books given away. That number may not seem significant to you, but it is staggering to me. If you packed one thousand children into a single facility, it would seem like a whale-of-a-lot of kids. If you stacked one thousand books on top of one another it would be an impressive structure. One thousand is a LOT.

I could not possibly reach that many kids by myself in two years. It is the faithful army of teacher-volunteers that show up on the pediatric floor at the end of a long workday, or selflessly sacrifice a Saturday morning. I am so grateful for their service. And humbled by the donations of books that find their way into our coffers.

It all makes what happened today possible. Precious children, cooped up in a shelter, or confined to a hospital bed, get a moment of reprieve from trying circumstances through the magic of a really good book.

I was reminded today that it is all very much worth it.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Project Armchair is Growing

Sometime in the late summer of 2016, I placed a call to a friend and fellow teacher in Fargo, ND. I explained the concept of Project Armchair; that we are certified teachers who read aloud to children in crisis, and her asked her if she knew of any teachers that might be interested in doing the same thing in Fargo. Coincidentally (or not), she was at that very moment sitting in a literacy conference with a roomful of colleagues. She asked around, and found several interested. Of that group, a wonderful and radiant teacher, named Deb Shasky, stepped forward to be the lead person for the Fargo area. None of this would have been possible without Deb’s passion and enthusiasm for reading to children in crisis.

And so it began.

Since that day last July, there have been a few bumps and hiccups to get a Fargo chapter launched, and the home chapter board of directors has spent many hours carefully considering how best to proceed. But it is with great joy that I share that we are well-ensconced in the Fargo Sanford Children’s Hospital. Volunteers and administrators seem passionate about the value of our presence there, and I know the Fargo chapter is in capable and talented hands. I want to thank Fargo’s volunteer team for the many hours they have invested in hospital training and meeting with me to get started. Deb Shasky, Nancy Frosaker, Morgan Pandolfo, are hard at work to fulfill all Sanford training requirements, raise funds to purchase books, and recruit fellow teachers so that there is volunteer reading to hospitalized children as often as possible.

I believe with my whole heart that great things are going to come of a Project Armchair presence in the city of Fargo. Sanford has a magnificent, shiny new hospital (pictured above), which just opened within the last two weeks. It is truly beautiful. And Project Armchair will be there to help lighten the load of suffering with the words and illustrations found in quality children’s literature, the comfort of a caring adult reading with enthusiasm, and the gifting of the book to remind the child over and over of those precious moments of reprieve. I have witnessed the power and magic of this very thing hundreds of times in the last two years.

If you would like to help the Fargo chapter achieve its goals of putting books into the hands of hospitalized children – and a hospital this size will go through books very quickly – please visit the wish list and donation tabs on this blog for more information.

Welcome to the Project Armchair family, Fargo!!

Srategy planning with Nancy Frosaker and Morgan Pandolfo

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Her Face to the Sun

You met my friend, Kelsie, here in this blog a few weeks ago. She was homeless and in a very bad place; physically, emotionally, and mentally. She and her young children fled an abusive relationship and found themselves bouncing from shelter to cheap motel to shelter. Our paths intersected coincidentally (or not) in the aisle of a local store. That is where we picked up the thread of friendship that had been dropped last fall. God directed both our paths to the same store, on the same day, and at precisely the same moment. We both fully believe that. After hearing her story during that encounter, I promised her I would walk her journey at her side. It has been an honor to do so.

Without transportation life is doubly hard. If you don’t believe that, try getting a handful of young children to a store, or a doctor, or any place, without a car. It’s like herding fire ants. It’s crazy-hard. I brought Kelsie’s plight and immediate needs to you, my readers. I could not help her if I could not transport her. And I could not transport her without car seats for her young children.

And so, shortly after reconnecting with Kelsie, I put out a plea on Facebook for used and forgotten car seats, thinking that surely someone within my realm of influence had child flotsam floating around dark and dusty garage corners. I was unprepared for your response.

Within minutes of the post, I received texts, private messages, and post responses, all volunteering to donate a car seat (or two). Some of them were used, but others were brand-new, straight from the store. I had one seat travel from from farm owner by school bus, to teacher that drives by my house everyday – a beautiful network of small town ingenuity and compassionate resourcefulness. I soon presented Kelsie with enough car seats for all her children, and my aging van, Goldie, unaccustomed to young children or their paraphernalia, was bursting at the seams with both.

But there is more to Kelsie’s story that I think you should know. She has granted me permission to share, hoping that someone else will be encouraged to keep moving forward, no matter how dark their night or difficult their path.

About a month ago, illness hit her young family, hard. I picked them up for church on Easter Sunday and noticed one of the girls was shivering. Later Kelsie reported that her daughter had thrown up after church. Kelsie sheepishly asked if I could help her with laundry money. She didn’t have the seventy-five cents required for the shelter washing machines and little Lisa had soiled everything.

A couple of weeks later, Lisa climbed out of bed in the morning and could hardly walk. “Like Bambi right after he was born,” was Kelsie’s description. The next day it was worse. She told her mother that her legs didn’t work and urinated on herself without being aware of it. Frantic, Kelsie found a ride to the ER and doctors began an exhaustive round of tests. I got a voice mail on my phone mid-afternoon asking for prayer for Lisa and a rundown of what was occurring.

I headed to the hospital after school and found them in the ER, waiting for test results to trickle in. The team of puzzled doctors finally decided to admit her for the night and run more tests the next day.

Because the shelter has strict rules about residents babysitting for one another and Kelsie has no outside support network, her other children ended up spending the night at my house. My amazingly wonderful husband helped me feed, bathe, and rock to sleep a houseful of precious, confused, hungry, frightened children. It would be an understatement to say he and I had sort of forgotten how chaotic caring for young children can be. But we all survived and I safely delivered them back to their grateful mother the following morning.

A huge shout out is warranted here to those that helped on that busy night. There were nurses that packed supplies to help out for the night. There was take-out dinner picked up by my son, Cody. And there were shelter friends that grabbed fresh clothes for the next day. I am happy to report that Lisa is now recovering and will begin physical therapy soon.

Life is so very hard when you are homeless. Unless you have lived it, you have no idea. I didn’t. I still don’t. But I have viewed it through Kelsie’s eyes and am staggered by her struggles. Imagine your own life without the “luxuries” of stable shelter. Or income. Or transportation. Or laundry facilities. Or family to support you. Imagine. Then thank God that you are so richly blessed. Take nothing for granted.

Kelsie is beginning her climb out of her dark valley of despair. There is no easy or quick fix. But she is trying. Everyday she moves forward a little more. In spite of the dark tunnel Kelsie has been in for the recent past, good things are beginning to happen for her. She has come to the attention of shelter administrators for the comprehensive and responsible way that she daily cares for her children. They have added supports for her that will help her get into housing and receive childcare help. Best of all, she is enrolling in a local state college to begin nursing courses.

I could not be more proud of her.

My husband and I live in a farming community. My absolute favorite crop is sunflowers. A field that stretches to the horizon with blazing yellow flowers under a blue sky is a breathtaking sight. You already know that sunflowers are so named because the flowers literally follow the path of the sun each day. In a phenomenon called heliotropism, the young flower heads face the sun at all times in order to maximize photosynthesis.

My friend, Kelsie, also faces the light. She is resolute and brave. Her face is to the sun, her back to the dark. She remarked to me not long ago, “I don’t feel lost anymore!” She hopes to inspire others. She doesn’t realize she already has.

Allowing your life to intersect with another’s is a stewpot of emotions. It is joyful, messy, achingly raw, heartrending, inconvenient at times, and the greatest blessing imaginable. It is looking beyond your calendar of soccer tournaments, church functions, daily work, idle shopping, and sterile charitable giving. It is removing the manhole cover off the sewer under your feet and realizing that beneath the pristine street is a river of devastating poverty, disappointments, abuse, and loss of hope that stagger the victim and cause them to lose a faith in humankind. It is fear, and frustration, and the stench of deprivation of basic needs. It is children who have no choice in any of it and learn to stress about things that only adults should have to think about.

But there is also kindness, hope, and remarkable courage. I have seen the homeless give to others sacrificially. I have witnessed a brand of grit you and I are unfamiliar with. I have wept at dogged determination to move forward and create a better life. Sometimes they just need someone to walk beside them and remind them in which direction to find the sun again.

I must end this by thanking all of you that poured your love on Kelsie, a stranger, with gifts of car seats and cash. She couldn’t believe that others would do something so unexpected for her. And now with her new apartment ready for occupancy, she is being showered with household items, again by people she does not know. People who spur her to keep climbing.

You have helped restore her faith in humanity, and her faith in God.

You are my heroes. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Meet Me at the Moon

I read a book last night to a tossing preschooler. Its literary characters included a best-friend giraffe, a gigantic moon over the savannah, an adorable baby elephant, and his worried mama. Meet Me at the Moon by Gianna Marino lay at the bottom of the stack I pulled from the book cupboard. The dust jacket described the story as, “A young elephant learns that his mother’s love is everywhere and enduring.” I was hooked before I read the first word.

When I gently knocked on the door of Room 652 and heard a soft, “Come in,” I opened the door to a young patient whimpering and tossing about in her bed, her pink-casted IV port trying frantically to keep up with the waving arm.

I introduced myself and asked if she would like me to read a story to her. Her mother smiled tiredly and said, “That would be lovely. Maybe I can close my eyes for a moment. We didn’t get much sleep last night.” Without waiting for a response from me, she moved to the recliner by the door and allowed her heavy eyelids to close.

I settled myself by Miss Restless and showed her the cover to the richly-colored book in my hand. The waving arms stopped and she tentatively touched the cover with her uncasted hand. I began reading in soft tones, both for the benefit of the mother, and also to soothe my little reading buddy. The lights were dim and a hush descended in that hospital room. The restlessness ceased and for ten quiet minutes, or so, the only sounds in the room were the lilt of my voice, and the soft, engaged remarks of the child.

The book was enchanting. A worried mother elephant knows that the rains need to come to the drought-stricken savannah in order for life to exist. In a tender exchange between she and her child, she pledges her love and affection, and sets off for the mountain to ask the skies for rain. As I read, I thought of the parents of the children I read to. This tired mother. The other parents in rooms up and down the corridor. The anxious homeless families I know. Such challenges they face! And yet, they go to remarkable lengths to care for the needs of their children. Love is an amazing and powerful thing. Unquantifiable and a little mystical.

When we finished our story, Mom opened her eyes and thanked me for the small break. I smiled and left, but as I stood outside the door preparing to enter another room, I heard wails behind Door 652. I quickly chose a second book for the child, knocked again, and slipped inside. The tiny girl’s symptoms had spiked suddenly and she was miserable. I laid the second book on the side table and the mother gratefully thanked me. “And thank you for the first book. Elephants are her favorite,” she remarked with gratitude and a touch of awe in her voice.

I stood outside the room with the inconsolable child and weary mother and smiled with wonder. A tiny miracle. A book I nearly passed over was the very one that grabbed and held the attention of a miserably ill child, giving her bone-weary mama a much needed break.

“When the night sky is bright, Little One, meet me at the moon, where the sky touches the earth. I love you, Little One.”

To every mother tonight nursing a sick, miserable child, or wondering where your next meal will come from, may you be blessed with rest, peace, and courage…

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Remember Her Name

Her name is Kelsie. It isn’t really, of course. I cannot divulge that here. But for the length of this post, her name is Kelsie.

Remember her. She is your neighbor.

How we met is irrelevant. God crosses paths in his own beautifully creative way.

She was alone, afraid, and desperate.

Even as she shared her story of heartbreak and abuse with me, I could feel an imprint, like a child’s hand in clay, pressing hard on my heart.

So many children to care for and no one to turn to. No support system. No family. No church. No neighbors. Few friends.


Let that word, with all of its oppressive darkness, sink in.

That imprint…

I felt it when the dinner hour rolled around each evening and I knew hungry children would be looking to their mama for food. I sensed it when I knew things were supposed to fall into place for her... and didn’t.

She didn’t have bottles for the baby or even the $1.75 to ride the city bus. Nothing and no one.

I brought groceries and Happy Meals and toothpaste. I shopped for items that could fit into the tiny frig in the shabby motel provided for them by a local charity until a shelter spot could be obtained. You would have as well. You know you would have. You don’t look NEED in the face, then turn away and shout, “Good luck!” over your shoulder.

When I arrived with supper or other items, toddlers swarmed around my legs and lifted tiny arms to be picked up and held. So precious and beautiful, these confused babies.

I taught them Wheels on the Bus and even the tiny ones would put chubby fingers to lips and mimic my “shh, shh, shh,” then squeal, “AGAIN!” when I finished.

The mother, so discouraged and emotionally beaten down. Sick with worry and fatigue. Desperate to meet the needs of her hungry, growing children. Waiting, waiting….

For what??

A spot at a shelter? Not much to hope for there. Little privacy. Fear of violating shelter rules and being escorted out the door only to be out on the streets with no backup plan.

The existence of the homeless is a daily grind. The stress is constant. It eats them from the inside, out. Young children grow old quickly and assume the role of family guardian. Those most vulnerable worry constantly about what each day, and worse yet, each night will bring. Will they have a roof over their heads? Will they have food in their bellies? Will they be warm?

I have heard these words from the homeless, themselves. It is an agony of soul that consumes the will to move forward. HOPE fades into a dull, near-forgotten dream.

I must confess, I am discouraged at the lack of services for people like my friend. In polite circles we shrug off the “homeless problem,” our consciences’ salved by the knowledge that there is a local shelter.

I’m sorry, have you been there? Do you know what it is like to step into that world? If you have preconceived ideas surrounding the whys and wherefores of transience, I gently advise you to not judge unless you have walked in those shoes. God forbid you should ever have to.

Take a long look at my friend, Kelsie. Remember her name. She lives among us.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Gatekeepers of Hope

It has felt of late that the world has gone a little mad. I mean truly. Terrorists plowing into crowded streets with trucks. Mass shootings that seem almost commonplace, anymore. Demonstrations for and against people, policies, and pipelines. (I work just minutes from the Dakota Access Pipeline brouhaha). I can hardly stand to view my social media newsfeed some days. There seems to be a lot of anger, angst, and unhappiness out there.

I sometimes allow myself to stand atop a hill of conjecture and look toward the future. What will the next ten, twenty, fifty years bring? What kind of world will my children and the grandchildren I do not yet know, inherit? Will they enjoy the same giddy freedoms and luxuries as I have enjoyed?

I will admit that in the dark closet of my deepest thoughts, I have wondered…

Today I regained a glimmer… no, a beacon of hope. Hope that the world is, indeed, in capable, sensible hands.

At the end of my school day, four beautiful, smiling, confident young women paid me a visit at my office. They are students at a local, private university, and members of an elite campus group, the Emerging Leaders Academy. I received an email last fall telling me that they had chosen Project Armchair for their service project.

They invited me to speak to their group on campus. October 31st, Halloween Day. I walked into a college classroom filled with young, eager, intelligent people. As I began to open my chest and lay my beating heart on the podium, those young adults listened with rapt attention. As I shared my passion for kids that suffer in one way or another, and the magic a book brings to brighten a day, they nodded, absorbing my every word. And when I was finished, they asked questions and wondered aloud what they could do to help.

These young Millennials do not match the angry stereotype that has filled my television screen as of late, and clogged my Facebook newsfeed.

They are passionate, yes. But passionate about the needs around them, minus the vitriol. Passionate about people. Eager to make a difference. And like me, they believe that the best way to bring about lasting change, and make an eternal, positive difference in the world around them, is to meet needs one person at a time. Build bridges of humanity that looks suffering square in the eye, and says, “I see you. I believe in you. I’m here to lend a helping hand.” You cannot legislate morality or kindness. It must spring organically from within the heart and soul of the individual.

These kids…

What did they do? They went to work and organized a book drive at our local Barnes & Noble. They contacted the local television stations, who came out to interview them. They called parents, who called others. They printed flyers and pressed their advisors for advice.

And they did an amazing thing.

They brought seven brimming, beautiful boxes of brand new books to my office today. Over three hundred books. And a couple hundred dollars in gift cards as well.

They did it for the children in crisis that they had fallen in love with on Halloween day. The children who sometimes suffer terrible, unimaginable things. The children, who in spite of their circumstances, find something to smile about in the colorful pages of the books my volunteers read to them. The children that have stolen my heart. And now the hearts of an elite group of future leaders.

I hate to break it to you, University of Mary, but these students of yours are not emerging. They ARE leaders. They are changing their world as fast as the ideas and resources come to them.

They changed mine a little bit today.

I confidently hand the future to them. They will care for it well. They are my Gatekeepers of Hope.

I fully believe they will do great things…

Group Members:

Erica Binegar
Bridget Redder
Taylor Peterson
Megan Hardy
Krista Kreidt
Jessica Griebel
Claire Wurzer
Meriel LaForce
Grace Gauthier
Sarah Kovash

P.S. And if you see Sarah K., give her a hug ;)