Wanderings...(formerly Camper's RVue)

2014, my 10th year on the road, will test both me and
my road-weary RV, Tillie, still chugging along with
177,000+ fascinating miles.
This eclectic blog provides therapy for me and hopefully food for thought for my cyber-readers. Thanks for joining me!....D

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What Does HEAR US Do?

A good friend asked a legitimate question: What will HEAR US do with the money you're trying to raise
I looked at our website, as if for the first time. Even though I created it. Hmmm. The mission statement,
The HEAR US mission is to
...give voice and visibility to homeless children and youth...
produces poignant films and books that are used by educators, social service personnel and other audiences to call attention to the invisible crisis of millions of families with children and young people who struggle without a place to call home;
>addresses audiences at conferences, university and college students, and a variety of gatherings to foster a greater understanding of homelessness;
> facilitates media connections for homeless families/youth, and is quite active on social media, shining a light on the need to repair the torn safety net that leaves millions--babies, toddlers, school kids, teens and young adults, and adults-- on the streets.

This gets at the general idea of what we do. And I have always been reluctant to be specific, for good reason I think.

To better understand, let me explain one thing. HEAR US Inc. (www.hearus.us), a national nonprofit, is a VERY unique nonprofit. I've been part of the nonprofit world (my bio, PDF) since the mid-80s. And I know that mission statements and goals/objectives are part of the landscape of the millions (?) of nonprofits scrambling for support. But, HEAR US is different. How?

Well, pretty well no one does what "we" -- I, the sole employee -- do. Having spent more than the past quarter century working with homeless families, youth and adults, I've heard bazillion times some form of: Homeless kids (families)?? I didn't know we had any! ... Aren't all homeless kids in foster care? ... They just live in big cities, like NYC, Chicago... and so on. HEAR US responds to that significant gap in awareness in a variety of ways.

I've worked very intensely with schools grappling with the reality of homeless students in their midst since way back in 1990. I've advocated with countless families/youth so they could get into school. I've seen educators' lack of understanding. And I've been deeply involved with successful efforts to change laws to better serve homeless families and youth.

And I chose to toss my life to the wind in 2005 (the year HEAR US was formed) to make sure more people, especially school personnel, would have more awareness of and sensitivity to kids and families in homeless situations. And in the process, to be flexible enough to be involved with relevant advocacy efforts, respond to a local crisis, or lead the charge for an invisible, essential cause.

I sold my townhouse and got rid of most of my stuff, purchased (with my own funds) a small motorhome to serve as my home/office/wheels, and set out to do what I had never done before, make a documentary of kids sharing what their experience of homelessness was like and what school meant to them. That film, My Own Four Walls, is now the best training film ever for schools. (the 4-min trailer, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbSgzEQJXs8 )

Because of how things work, I was able to connect with Professor Laura Vazquez, a documentary maker at Northern Illinois University. She and I teamed up to make the feature-length documentary, on the edge: Homeless Families in America,  which has won many film awards and has been shown on PBS.

I've made lots of other short films, too many to mention, that help homeless kids and families. I've given countless presentations from Congress to Cub Scout leaders. I've advocated for families who've contacted me with a problem related to their homelessness that no one else seemed to be able to help with. I've rattled cages of politicians and policymakers. I've "comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable"  by my writing, my social action, and my presence.

It's not quite as haphazard as it seems. It's just hard to know how to say what this matching grant of $10,000 will be used. My board will tell you I'm frugal to a fault, so it won't be wasted.

It will keep me doing what I do...being that sometimes lone voice in the wilderness that is focused on making sure homeless kids and families don't get lost in the shuffle. My entire being is dedicated to that. And I "suffer" for taking the unconventional path of not having a well-defined, specific mission statement.

But those who know me know I won't give up doing what I'm doing or let myself be defined by a funder's priorities (when they differ from our mission). To sum up, what the money will do will help me continue to

  • Advocate
  • Chronicle
  • Educate and otherwise 
  • Respond 

to poverty issues as they affect the millions of homeless children and their parents/guardians, and unaccompanied youth who are too often invisible and underserved. That's it! I'm an ACER!

And I'm deeply appreciative of the people who continue to believe in what I do...because it's a mission bigger than me. Without you (that supporter who believes in me), I am nothing.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Water, Water Everywhere...Connects Us

Drip, drip, drip from the showerhead that I turned off. I’m far enough away from the damned Dan River, teeming with coal ash untended, but that catastrophe drips from my showerhead.

I feel connected, painfully so at times, to people I don’t know, like the thousands of water-abused Charleston, WV citizens, or the folks downriver from the latest—but not last—enviro-disaster on the border of NC and VA, those poisoned by the wanton release of highly toxic coal ash on the Dan River; or the millions of invisible homeless kids and adults, some of whom I’ve encountered through my HEAR US journeys, many more I’ve not. I could go on and on and on….

What good does it do to connect mentally with the suffering of others?

For me, such connections can lead to my development of empathy, a trait cleverly presented in this short, delightful KarmaTube video.

Such connections keep us, well, connected, rather than isolated and smug. Empathy, much better than sympathy, requires work, as I’m reminded of all too often.

My shower-meditation is one way I exercise my heart. I try to become micro-aware of a few common things in my daily routine and mentally connect with the people responsible—the person in the (likely) sweatshop who sewed my jeans, the farmworker who picked the mangoes I enjoy, the steelworker who processed the stainless steel that became my coffee pot.

The ills of our modern world can topple even the hardiest soul. My work over the years with homeless families, youth, and single adults has, I hope, ground down the nastiest parts of my personality, leaving a coarse, but improving, sense of compassion, or so I’d like to think. Listening. Seeing. Weeping. Laughing. Fuming. Writing. Filming. Photographing. Thinking. Never enough. But if it’s all I can do, I’ll do it.

As I shove off from a working “sabbatical” spent with my wheels parked for most of the past 3 months, I know I’ll be immersed in the equivalent of toxic ash spills. My mettle will be tested. I will massage my empathic abilities. I will aim my outrage at injustice to those who disregard the humanity of the have-nots.

I know we as society can, and must, do better. But that boils down to me. I must do better. With the steady drip, drip, drip of compassion from deep within, I’ll connect with those in my path, doing whatever I can to ease the injustice of poverty. That’s my plan.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Not My Problem Mentality vs. Compassion

Having spent more time in brutal winter weather zones this year than I have since I bolted out of Illinois in 2005 for my nomadic life under the HEAR US banner, I am getting the reality therapy that millions of others regularly cope with during these blasts of winter.

I haven't forgotten what it's like to gasp at the subzero temps that get bolstered by north winds. Well, I sorta forgot, but my trip to MN in early December cured my amnesia.

What lingers in my frost-bitten head, however, is the awareness that I have so much when it comes to options for escaping winter's brutality, and so many have so little.

My house-on-wheels, aka Tillie, is a fine way to live small, except for the extremes of heat and cold. Though I'm parked at my sister/brother-in-law's house in the mountains of western NC, I'm still sleeping in Tillie, Maybe it's just a meager attempt at solidarity with the freezing masses. I could sleep inside. But the discomfort of the cold mornings when I have to crawl out from the warm down comforter keeps it real for me.

I find myself wondering about the millions of households struggling to pay for heat in its various forms. I know even more households have scant protection from the various forms of "polar vortexes" that vex us. And then we have the millions of kids and adults with no place to call home. Sigh.

Solidarity breeds compassion. And for sure we need more compassion. How do we get that? Well, this recent post, Cultivating Compassion, offers suggestions. One in particular that I like is mindfulness:
Fortunately, we also have the skills to reconcile the old brain with the new. One of them is a technique that we call mindfulness—moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts and feelings. That is, we have the capacity to be aware of awareness, and to simply observe and become familiar with the tricks our minds play on us.
Take the cold as a practical example. Can mindfulness bring the realities of others' sufferings closer to our hearts? I'd like to think so. And it leaves plenty of room for action--whether it's donating gently-used coats to a local shelter, sharing soup with an elderly neighbor, paying a family's heat bill for the month, or being nice to a worker who spends too much time in the weather. On our HEAR US website, we have a Compassion Epidemic  section with all kinds of suggestions for extending compassion beyond your doors.

I'm more than anxious for winter to take a hike. But I'm trying to "woman-up" to the reality that chills my bones. I'm not suffering, but many do. My challenge--what am I going to do about it?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Take Heart: Hidden Champions Everywhere!

I just finished looking through a photo book tribute done for a friend of mine who retired as principal from an alternative school. She's pretty humble, so I won't name her. I was blown away by the accolades. But, knowing her, she deserved every one.

Having explored the book her staff gave her as she finished 15 years at the helm of the school that provided the last hope for kids in their community, I easily surmised that this was the place the "unwanted" students could feel at home, and perhaps gain the skills and confidence to succeed as adults. My friend probably had lots to do with the caring and compassionate environment, drawing out the best from staff and students, much like...

...the dedicated homeless liaisons at school districts across the land. One huge perk of my nomadic lifestyle under the HEAR US banner is getting to meet hidden champions who pursue the impossible on behalf of invisible homeless students. I've seen liaisons do everything from begging for prom fixings for a student who's made it that far to schlepping the flat-tired bicycle home for repair, and much, much more.

Having directed a large homeless shelter for many years, I witnessed countless mostly invisible kindnesses extended to society's throw-aways. And lest one think that the kindness was a one way street, think again.

The goodness and generosity from "have-not" to have-not, or to "haves" was a constant joy. "Here, you've got to walk further than I do to get to work. Take my gloves." Or, "I saw them giving away boots at the soup kitchen today. You were at school, so I grabbed you a pair." Or, "I'll go with you to the doctor's so you don't have to go alone." Or "Let me carry that box for you, Diane." You get the idea.

With the spate of news stories about ugly deeds and cruelty as daily fodder, it's easy to forget that goodness and kindness is prevalent. My experience tells me it is. I just wanted to reassure you...

...and to thank you for whatever ways you bring goodness into this hurting world. And to thank you for your immeasurable kindnesses shown to me, your support of HEAR US, and your interest in this crazy work of mine.

I'm not much for the holidays. I guess I got burned out on piles of Barbie dolls showing up after a long day preparing for a festive shelter Christmas Eve. I get the underlying meaning, and I do celebrate the birth of goodness in our world everyday. If you're one of these hidden champions, I offer my humble thanks.

You know the meaning of this simple, profound quote by Buddha:
If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.

Monday, October 14, 2013

No Shortage of Wisdom From Those Who Know

Lacking the time and inspiration to develop my own thoughts for this blog, I was bailed out by a single mother from Maine (with help from Wikipedia). With the government shutdown (why do I always insist on putting an "i" instead of "u" in the word shutdown?) in week 2, with no hope in sight, I'll share her words. Diane

"Social security" is a *universal* coverage, greatly expanded since the creation of the program as a response to Depression in the '30's. In the early days, only white men were 'entitled;' since the 50's, women and minorities were no longer excluded and also began receiving benefits. The *whole point* was to limit what were seen as dangers in the modern American life, including old age, *poverty, unemployment, and the burdens of widows and fatherless children.*

Regrettable, the still sexist language; 'widows' and 'fatherless' recall social meanings from the 30's, before eligibility became universal, back in the days when only the (eligible) white men were working, to bring money home to the wives and children. These days we can add 'single mothers.' In most cases, gender matters: the appearance of children affects the people in charge of their care (generally women), in ways that usually mean less time available for income producing work.

While the governmental administration of taxing and benefiting workers is problematic in nightmare proportions, it's nothing like the nightmare people face who find themselves in circumstances that require receiving 'benefits' of assistance for food and shelter.

Words have meaning.

A nation may hope to achieve 'social security,' and will never achieve it by belittling the less fortunate and scrapping for resources rather than sharing the bounties.
Poverty is the enemy, not the people who suffer it.
Poverty has no rightful place in the great nation striving to protect itself with universal coverage created expressly to share the benefits of capital.
Just my two cents.
Shared in a neighborly moment.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

What's Missing? One Key Indicator to Heed...

I'm getting ready to swing out on my 9th round of travels since I started HEAR US Inc. in 2005 to give voice and visibility to homeless children and youth. I've heard and seen lots in these 168,000+ miles. Recently I figured out one thing missing, a very revealing absence.

Smiles. OK, call me crazy but I look at people as I pass by on my mostly backroads' travels.

Elderly man walking out to get his mail. Frowning. Woman on mower. Grimacing. Mail carrier. Numb. Woman driving convertible. Wrinkled brow and downward mouth. Truck driver. Tight-lipped with a cigarette hanging out. Woman pushing baby stroller. Lost. Teen scooting on a skateboard. Isolated. Bicycle rider. Another world.

Interesting but impractical would be to stop and ask my non-smilers how things are going. I'd imagine I'd get an earful. And I don't need any more downer-stories. Working in the field of homelessness, as I have for the past 30 years, gives me enough sadness for a lifetime.

Walking on streets of mega-cities and mini-towns, I've also tried the look-people-in-the-eye gauge to see who makes eye contact and who practices "custody of the eyes." Smaller towns, by far, have people more willing to make eye contact.

Same too with the old-fashioned habit of waving. As a kid, my family had small boats and we spent tons of time traversing canals around Ft. Lauderdale and Pompano Beach, FL. We always exchanged waves with other boaters. Not so much now from what I've seen.

One exception to the waving phenomenon, on the highway, was a stretch of road in southern Nebraska. It was the 1-finger wave, steering wheel hand, kind of a "hey" in a laid back farm country kind of way that gave me something to look forward to on those rare instances when my path crossed another's.

But I've made another fascinating observation: those with the least going for them are the ones who both smile more and respond to a smile. Families and youth without homes, as well as the men and women on the streets and in shelters, seem to recognize the one gift we all can share no matter a person's financial standing.

Yeah, I know. People don't have a lot to smile about. Well, on one hand, I agree things are really tough and our human spirit is being daily tested. But on the other hand, after spending 3 weeks in Tanzania this summer, I also saw a lot of smiles from people who, by our 1st world standard, have very little. Abject poverty was the norm. Grueling living conditions were widespread. Creature comforts as we know them rare.

Not sure what I can extrapolate from all this except to remember that we all have the ability to convey a smile. And the smile, especially when combined with a kind word or two, is a potent tool for creating a wisp of happiness, when woven together wisp-to-wisp will make a full-fledged happy moment...which causes more smiles.

Join me on my travels. Well, at least follow along on Facebook. I'll friend you unless you're an unrepentant ax murderer. And if our paths cross at an event (sign up for our free 1x a mo. newsletter to see where I'm headed), come give me a smile. I need all those friendly looks I can get.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gratitude--Third World Inspired

My somewhat simple lifestyle, for the past 8 years in a 150 sq. ft. motorhome, should have prepared me for the "lacks" on my recent 3-week sojourn to Tanzania. But I found myself in awe that people across this charming country have little in the way of reliable electricity and water.

Doing without sure made me treasure the abundance I experience here in the good ol' US of A.

Understatement. For sure.
Tanzania, in eastern Africa, is a fairly civilized country. The jarring frenetic pace of their commerce system doesn't compare with our mega stores. Shopping takes on a whole new meaning. So does driving. Road conditions are, well, Third World. Translate hazardous, extremely so.

But at the heart of my experience was the beauty of the people and the unbridled hospitality we were shown. My travel-mates Helen and Julie and I were treated like royalty. Our friends in TZ, Sister Afra and Upendo, made sure things were smooth. They went above and beyond, including making sure our travel was in a sturdy vehicle rather than chaotic public buses.

One purpose of our trip was to explore the work that our nonprofit organization Friends of Imiliwaha NFP has been supporting. Sister Afra, who received her undergrad and graduate education at Benedictine University in Lisle, IL, is overseeing a monstrous project--the building of a school so she can provide quality education and services to children in Sumbawanga. Here's a 5-min video I made about those efforts.

Let me blast a few stereotypes that I held:

  • Mosquitoes would be rampant. Minnesota style. Not. At least not at this time of year, their winter, a drier time. And it depends on where you are in the country. (Was this a plot by the medical world to sell expensive medication and shots?)
  • Heat. Ditto the time of year element. We were a tad chilly some nights and early mornings. Frost covered the ground one morning.
  • Desert. Nope. Most of the countryside we visited looked like scenic northern Wisconsin. 
  • Education. It's way more important than I imagined. Neighborhood kids poured into Afra's informal winter break classes to learn the alphabet, among other things. 
I've found myself saying that this trip was "life-changing." I suspect that will become even more true as the weeks and months pass. I think back to a trip I took in high school, almost 50 years ago, as an exchange student. I spent 3 weeks in El Salvador. I still can count on that experience as a life-changer, although it didn't do much for my Spanish language skills.

Hordes of media followed President Obama's recent trip to Tanzania. I suspect none of the crowd saw what we saw. Certainly this country, with abundant resources and needs, will fall out of favor of the mainstream press. I posted this blog about his visit and ours in my AlterNet space.

Now I need to get back to my challenges of HEAR US, my domestic nonprofit organization. Poverty abounds on both sides of the ocean. And my firsthand experiences of life without will keep me fighting for those who can't escape the chains of poverty. 

Let me offer you a souvenir as I end this little post: Take one thing in your life that's a constant--it can be as simple as your morning coffee or your drive to work. Imagine how that one element happens--all the people that make it possible for you to enjoy whatever your thing is. Appreciating the abundances in our lives will fuel our efforts to level the playing field for those who struggle to survive. 

See. I just increased the value of your day.