Hello from the New Kid on the Blog

What I’ve learned in the short time I have been associated with the people here at WAFA is that they have a clear vision for a bright future.  They bring with them care, compassion, altruism, and heart.  Everyone here has a big, big heart. They share a need to see change in the world, to learn about people who can make that change, and to celebrate them.

Everyone inmyself 1987-Facebook 1volved in WAFA is a volunteer—there are no paid positions.  It’s a small international group of people brought together by a common ideal. An enormous amount of time and effort and money has been spent by all in brainstorming, organizing, building a stunning Web site, collaborating with many people from around the world to set up the awards show, the entertainment, the presentations, all for the cause of the common good, and to make better lives for those people who are struggling day-to-day for the simple things in life that we take for granted: healthy food, breathable air, and clean water.

In my blog, I hope to bring to you the exciting news for the 2016 . . . (read full article).

“Pieces” by Donald Stidham

Final Pieces Cover 3

(Note: This book is the first editing project I took on. The reviews on Amazon reflect the first time the book was posted on Kindle.  I’ve since gone over the manuscript again.  Aside from a few missing hyphens, I believe this copy falls inline with a good reading copy.)

   A breeze moved along the interstate.  Trees and grass bowed in respect while cars and trucks of every size ignored its existence.  The wind flew around and over boulders as animals and critters scurried about.  It found a pond and glided across the glassy surface, disturbing a cluster of dragonflies.

   She kneeled in the grass with her hands on her legs.  She bent forward and tried to catch her breath.  A single flower lay by her knees.  Its yellow brightness stood out against a small, white cross that stood beside it.  She ran her fingers down the wooden memorial and dropped her head.

   The breeze wafted from the woods and nudged at the yellow flower, rolling it over.  The flower yawned at the touch.  The breeze blew harder until the flower touched the girl’s knee.  She picked up the kingcup and stood it against the cross.

   Tears streamed down her cheeks with memories of excitement and love.  She wanted to scream and release all the agony held inside, but could only muster whimpers.  She fell forward and kissed the ground.  She welcomed the loneliness that had become a part of her soul.

 

PART ONE

Chapter One

“Mr. Aames?  Hayden, are you with us?”  Mrs. Prescott, the twelfth-grade honors English teacher asked.

“I’m sorry.  Yes.  What was the question?”

The class laughed.  Eric, Hayden’s best friend, nudged him on the shoulder.  Hayden’s face began to glow red, but then he realized he didn’t care what the others thought.  He sat up straight at his desk and folded his hands together.

“Nothing specific—I just wanted to make sure you were paying attention.  You’ve been drifting off lately into a world the rest of us might be interested in.  Is there anything wrong?”

“No, ma’am.  You can continue with your ever so interesting lecture.”

Sarcasm rang in his words.  The class laughed again, which brought a visit to the principal’s office.  Hayden shoved his English book into his backpack and left the room.  He stopped by the bathroom on the long walk.  The boy’s room smelled of urine and bleach.  The camera facing the bathroom entrance was meant to scare off any students who wished to smoke or hide out during classes, but the small device had little effect.  A clean white sink hung below a small, water-spotted mirror.  The reflection disgusted Hayden on several levels.

“What’s the point,” he said to himself while shaking his head.

He pulled out a small knife that he kept under his belt.  Bullies in junior high had influenced Hayden to carry a weapon even though he never found the courage to use it.  He opened the three-inch blade and put it to his wrist.

Before sliding the blade, he looked back in the mirror.  His black hair, which wasn’t black enough, hung past his eyes.  His blue eyes were barely seen, but didn’t have enough life in them.  His slender frame was complimented by a button-down white shirt and black slacks, but the hidden muscles would never be grand enough.  All imperfections screamed for him to create a river of blood from his palm all the way up his forearm.

A toilet flushed, which startled Hayden.  He frantically closed the knife and shoved it in his pocket.  He turned on the water and silently scolded himself for being so dramatic, just to stir his own emotions.  Hayden would never slice open his own skin.  Principal Kroger stepped from the stall.  He adjusted his belt before seeing the present student.

“Hayden, how are you doing today?”  His deep and friendly voice offered trust.

“Fine, I guess.  I was just on my way to see you, sir.”

“Why?”

“I wasn’t paying attention in English.  I made a derisive comment about Mrs. Prescott’s lecturing methods.  I don’t see why the adults can’t joust in conversation without immediately taking offense and sending the kids to you.  Don’t you get tired of seeing us for such mediocre complaints?”

“Yes, sometimes, but order has to be kept,” he sighed.  “Some teachers are just like kids themselves, and then some students are more mature than teachers.  Take Coach Adams for instance…that goofball would be out of here if he didn’t know how to coach a three-point shot so well.”

They both laughed.  Kroger thought his joke was authentically funny, but Hayden was laughing to keep the focus off his earlier mistake.  He played psychologist with the principal, hoping it would work in his favor.

“Hayden, your grades seem to be slipping slightly.  Up until this semester, you’ve had straight A’s, but you received B’s in two classes.  Don’t be alarmed, but I like to keep a close eye on students that I believe have great potential.  Is something going on at home that you want to talk about?”

Kroger finally started washing his hands.  Hayden made a point to notice and did the same.  He hoped Kroger would see that he followed by example and would assume the good trait outweighed any bad ones.

“My seemingly melancholy demeanor does not start at home.  Nothing starts at home.  Dad is always away on business, and Mom is doing the usual juggling of responsibilities.  Xbox online keeps me company most of the time when I’m not studying the arts of life.  Most of the time, I feel like I’m stuck in neutral.  The world is certainly not pushing me into drive like you guys promised it would.”

“Well, I can see why Prescott sent you to me.  You have an underlying sarcastic tone, but nothing too rude.  One might even consider it humorous.  Just promise me, you will try to bring those B’s up to A’s.  You have potential.  When you get out of this sheltered world of public education, you’ll need all the options you can get your hands on.  As far as the world is concerned, it pushes us all.  You have to find the right current and dive in.”

He patted Hayden on the shoulder and left the restroom.  Hayden heard the words that were spoken, but only a few hit their intended mark.  The metaphor of a surging river stuck with him.  He splashed water in his hair and slicked it back—glancing in the mirror.  Hayden brought his hair back down to cover his eyes.

“Suck it up, coward.  You’re acting like a girl.”

In his mind, his reflection made an obscene gesture as he sauntered back to the classroom.  He opened the door and rejoined the class by taking his seat.  The other students wanted to know if he had gotten in trouble.  Eric nudged at him, but he kept his focus on the teacher until the end of class.

The dismissal bell rang.  Hayden and Eric started their usual walk home.  They watched different students gear up on their methods of transportation.  Skateboards flipped through the air, Rollerblades slid across the concrete, trick bikes rode on one wheel, and sneakers danced around bouncing basketballs.  Hayden classified each group in his mind and placed himself outside of them all.  He was one of those who liked solitude while choosing not to own a vehicle.

Eric’s two-story brick house came first.  His mom moved in a stooping position by the flowerbed and waved at Hayden when she noticed them walking up.  She greeted him, but all Hayden saw were the tops of her large breasts peeking out of her tight pink shirt.  He mumbled to himself and walked off.  After fifteen seconds, sure that Eric was inside the house and his mom was gardening again, he glanced back to see if she was bending over.  She was, which brought a smile to his face.  He felt the ridiculous grin and immediately stopped.

 

Mike Devlin’s Oasis in the Camden Food Desert

 

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The Camden Children’s Garden’s display at the Philadelphia Flower Show Photo Credit: South Jersey Magazine

A food desert is a place where there is no access to fresh, healthy produce or other foods. There are two types of food deserts in the U.S.  Urban food deserts are low-income areas located in the city that have no access to a grocery store, which sells fresh food within a mile of where someone lives.  In rural food deserts, the area expands to a ten-mile low-access area, which has no retail store with fresh food available. These figures are determined by census tracts.

The USDA states that 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts.  More than half of those are low-income, which also means they may not have readily available transportation to travel to where there is fresh, healthy food. An additional problem lies in the availability of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, which are more readily available, and could be contributing to the obesity and health problems of our country.

To see where these food deserts are located, go to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas.

One of these places is Camden, New Jersey — noted at various times to be the poorest city in the country and/or the most dangerous. It is also noted as being one of the nine worst food deserts in the U.S. There’s one social entrepreneur who has been trying to change that. It’s been a 30-year quest that Mike Devlin has been on to provide Camden residents with fresh produce. And, it looks like things are starting to turn around.

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2014 Philadelphia Flower Show Camden Children’s Garden – Photo Credit: Dyogi

Devlin, executive director of Camden City Garden Club, founded the organization in 1985 with his wife Valerie. He has worked tirelessly, turning empty city lots into community gardens so that people can have fresh vegetables.  So far, there are 130 of these gardens throughout the city, and a study by the state of Pennsylvania found that  having produced the equivalent of $2.3 million in food for 2013.

Many offshoots of the Garden Club were born including Camden Children’s Garden, Community Gardening and Greening, Grow Lab, the Community Youth Employment Program, and the mobile market — a truck filled with locally grown fresh produce offered to Camden residents at reasonable prices.

 

At-Risk Youths

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections report for 2012 – 2022, “Occupations that typically require post-secondary education for entry are expected, on average, to grow faster than occupations that require a high school diploma or less.” About 20.4 million new jobs will be available over this period. The report goes on to say that wages are higher for those with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees — averaging about $60,000 a year. Yet, it is estimated that 14 million of these higher-level positions will go unfilled due to the post-secondary educational requirements.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a large part of the population that is being neglected and ignored in our society.  It is common knowledge that low-income, urban young adults will never have the chance that their middle- to upper-class peers do when they graduate high school. Problems dealing with violence in school, problems at home, money issues, hunger, suicide, gang-related killings and substance abuse all weigh in heavily on these children in America. Sometimes just surviving day to day is all they can manage. Possibly one in three of these youths could end up with hood disease — a moniker given to inner-city kids with PTSD. If they do survive school and graduate, the employment prospects are pretty grim. According to Huffington Post, “Almost 6 million young people are neither in school nor working.”

It’s almost ironic that so many jobs will be available, but many young people remain unemployed for lack of qualification and/or training. So many are hungry for a chance, eager to make a place for themselves in the world, yet there is so little opportunity afforded them.

However, there is a chance for some through the social entrepreneurial company Year Up.  This organization understood that these young people could rise to higher expectations if the right situation presented itself. Flyers were sent out, inviting at-risk youths to apply.  The offer was this: Have a high school diploma or GED, show up for one year, learn skills in the financial field or in IT, get up to 23 college credits, and a stipend for expenses, work one-on-one with a mentor, and possibly hold an internship with a major company.

Social workers are on staff to help with private issues that may be insurmountable for someone so young; social skills in the workplace are taught so that the students will be able to function in a business social environment with grace and diplomacy.

The company has had spectacular results since it opened in 2000. They have served 8,500 young adults, and have provided interns for 250 corporate partners. Eighty-five percent of graduates are employed or attending college within four months of completing the program. Employed Year Up graduates earn an average of $15 per hour — the equivalent of $30,000 per year, and go up to $50,000 a year or more.

Companies like JP Morgan, which were once reluctant to take on these newly trained interns, are now eager to have them on board, and pay up to $23,000 for each intern at their company. Other corporate partners include Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Boston Children’s Hospital, American Express, The Huffington Post, Twitter and many others.

The “Each One — Teach One” Model

There is an incredible place in the United States, where some people are able to leave the depths of their despair, which has become the cyclic norm in their lives. These are murderers, thieves, people who sell their children for a fix, those whose lives consist of bouncing in and out of prison for ten or twenty years — or maybe for life. If they are some of the lucky few of the roughly 2.4 million people incarcerated in America, they’ve heard of a place where people can change, live a life of prosperity, and join the ranks of what might be construed as a “normal society.” This idea is only a fantasy to some of them — an unknown place over the rainbow because their version of normal is only what they’ve known their lives to be thus far.

This special place is called Delancey Street, “Where Hitting the Bottom, Begins the Climb to New Heights.” Mimi Silbert, CEO, president and founder, is a powerhouse of positive energy that she shares with everyone she meets. She has helped over 18,000 people overcome poverty, crime and substance abuse addiction through her working business model. There is no paid staff at this two- to four-year program for the underprivileged, and it is considered the most successful rehabilitation program in America.

Silbert came up with the idea when she worked as a prison therapist. One of the appreciative inmates stopped her on her way out the door one day and said that her advice was so helpful. Silbert’s philosophy is simple: she believes that there aren’t any bad people and there aren’t any good people — people are a mix of both. It is that positive belief that all people can pull themselves up, learn family values, learn cooperation, respect, and the skills needed to work within a society, that makes her model successful. They learn how to be positive team players. As soon as they walk through the door, they are told to leave their past behind because they are now working toward their future and their success.

The Delancey Street Foundation has a 91 percent success rate with six campuses across the U.S. To achieve this rate of success in a place with no help from the government and no paid staff, Silbert starts her program by teaching the basic skills: reading, writing, arithmetic, social interaction, and most important self-respect. She says, “It takes about two years for someone to stop judging and hating themselves, and believe they have actually earned who they have become.” They have to get through high school exams, learn three marketable skills, and it takes about four years to go through the whole program. Many of the graduates ask to stay on.

The question might arise, how does someone train more than 18,000 people without paid employees? Silbert started her project in 1971 with just four people in an apartment, a 1,000 loan and an idea based on cooperative family-type principles. People who held jobs outside the home would contribute money to the business. They carried that idea further; if someone could cook, they would run the kitchen; if someone knew construction, they would be in charge of building and fixing things, and so on. As they brought in more people, those who were established in the program would teach the newcomers. Those people would teach the next group that came in.  Within two years, they were able to buy their first building in the poshest neighborhood, Pacific Heights, and had 80 residents all living together and helping each other. Because of their locale, there was a problem with the neighbors who weren’t so keen on having criminals living next door. Silbert solved the problem by starting a neighborhood watch and volunteering the services of the residents living there — crime levels dropped. The building was remodeled by the construction crew to keep property values current or better. To raise funds for the reconstruction, the group sold raffle tickets in the neighborhood promising they would “not move next door to you.” Almost 20 years later, when they finally moved to their newly self-built housing on the waterfront, their humor and good neighbor attitudes had won everyone over, and the Pacific Heights neighbors were now sorry to see them leave.

Silbert’s model works because she focuses on what people “can do” not what they’ve been through, how they were raised, or where they’ve resided in the past for whatever crimes they may have committed. All that is left at the door when they step through the portal to this new world that they have only heard about or have seen on TV. They learn that they can change, they can trust people, and they can be responsible, which in turn builds self-respect and self-esteem based on whom they have become.

The Delancey Street project has grown through businesses run by these people who once felt they had nothing to contribute. The cornerstone business was a fine dining establishment. The community has grown to include a café – bookstore, catering, private corporate car service, digital printing, specialty advertising, handicrafts, landscaping, a moving and trucking company, a paratransit service, a movie screening room, and selling Christmas trees and a decoration service.

Foundation is the perfect classification for this business. How many lives have been changed by the strong foundation that Mimi Silbert has provided for these individuals?  How many more of the 2.4 million people, struggling in a life that seems devoid of hope, could be changed by her model project?

Tiny Homes for the Homeless

Brian Reynold's Photo for Kloehn

Photo Credit: Brian Reynolds

There is an estimated 1,750,000 people with no place to live as of June of 2013 in the U.S. Think of how their lives would change if they had a little house to come home to every night—a place of shelter from the weather, protection from thugs on the street, and some place they could call their own. This is the dream of artist-architect Gregory Kloehn.  He builds little tiny homes for the homeless. Featured on Rachel Ray, Inside Edition and Huffinton Post, Kloehn got the idea from his own challenge to renovate a dumpster to live in. The adorable dumpster is fully functional with a kitchen, bed, potty, shower, a deck up top complete with umbrella, and an awning.

Building the dumpster kindled the joy he had as a child building his creations.  Kloehn writes,

There is a spontaneity and playfulness in making small homes that traditional houses do not offer.  It reminds me of making forts as a kid, no city planners, no architects, no crews, no bank loans, just my ideas and my hands.” His love of helping people was naturally the next step in this passion of his. He started building tiny homes for homeless people in his neighborhood.

Tiny houses are not a new concept in our culture. With real estate far out of the reach for the average person now, people are looking for alternative housing ideas. What sets this idea apart from an average tiny house is that they are given away for free to the people in our country who need the most help. Here are some thoughts from Kloehn on why he is so excited.

Tiny houses are striking a number of cords in our society. They are not just homes but fast becoming a lifestyle option. They are, usually, (but not always)  cheaper than regular homes, giving more people the opportunity of ownership. By skipping the traditional 30-year mortgage, perhaps the tiny home movement could even reshape the way we think about work and what we want to accomplish with our lives.

The tiny home movement is also embracing and mixing all forms of new and old technologies, making them hotbeds of ingenuity, creativity, and environmentalism. Small spaces means that it’s easier to power an entire house with the sun or wind, and water can be collected, used, used again and reused with simple catch and filtration systems. Even black waste can be turned into methane and/or composite for food production. From the loner in a simple tipi, to the high-tech self-contained living pod, the tiny homes have something for everyone.

Many of the tiny homes are on wheels or small enough to be moved with relative ease. I think this degree of mobility is one of the most revolutionary aspects of the tiny home movement; what if you bought or built the home you wanted, then rented the land. Your customized home could follow you wherever you needed to be. If you built a home that followed you throughout your life, I bet you would be a bit more thoughtful in your choices.

With these little houses for the homeless, portability is essential because the city will make a homeless person move every few weeks. You can see the wheels in the photo (above) from photographer Brian Reynolds.

Another perk to this tiny home project is that Kloehn is cleaning up his neighborhood by working almost exclusively with recycled materials. He uses abandon wood, bed frames, futon frames, solid doors, auto glass … anything that might work to build up a tiny house. Most of the items are found. Some of them are donated by businesses. For the parts that can’t be found through recycling, Kloehn is relying on donations from the public. He’s hoping the idea catches on so that other people will build homes for the homeless. With this idea in mind, he is willing to travel to teach workshops on how to build these for anyone who wants to help. They only take a little more than a week to construct.

It might not be a perfect solution, but one thing is certain, social entrepreneurs like Kloehn are going to have some of the answers for the problems that have been plaguing our society. It is these creative minds with a strong educational background who are going to bring back the hopes and dreams that seem to have slipped away for a great deal of people in our country. Wouldn’t it be great if Landesa could find some micro-acreage for tiny homes, and if HandUp could help with supplies, and if Kloehn’s tiny houses could be established then … maybe, just by having a place to put their heads at night,  a place to keep warm on a cold winter’s day, a little place they could call home—these forgotten people in our country wouldn’t feel so homeless anymore.

 

Solving Poverty? Give them a HandUp!

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Rose and Bobby – Photo Credit: https://handup.org/

On Martin Luther King Day, January 20th, 2014, the federal government organized its volunteers for the National Point in Time Count of People Experiencing Homelessness.  With an estimated 1,750,000 people with no place to live as of June of 2013, this is a momentous and difficult task. How do you count someone who has no place to go for resources, shelter, or food on a regular basis? According to the Web site Statistic Brain, homeless people have an income averaging $345 a month, 44 percent were working, 28 percent did not have enough to eat on a daily basis, 30 percent were homeless for two years, and 38 percent were families with children. How can these folks be helped when there are so many?

People do want to help. There’s just so much fear involved when passing a homeless person on the street. If you give money, is that going to drugs or alcohol? If you do give them cash will they try to follow you home, hurt you, or stalk you? There is such a stigma of safety involved plus effort, time, and bother it will cause that people just give up.

One day in winter, Rose Broome was walking past a homeless woman lying on the street. Her heart went out to the woman. Wanting to do something, she helplessly looked at her phone and wondered why there wasn’t someone she could call to give this woman shelter or some warmth. She went back home and brainstormed with her friend Zac Witte, a tech guru, about what they could do about it.

Together they formed HandUp—a safe online environment where people who do want to help and make a difference can. … On the site, each person is profiled with style and dignity in a short bio and picture with a short list of what they need to make their life better. Sometimes this need is as simple as a coat, food, or money for transportation to get to the doctor’s. Others need assistance with medical, dental or glasses. The donor can scroll through all the pictures on the front page or members’ section to decide whom they want to help. Click on their picture, there’s a section which shows donations plus any updates in their situation from the contributions they’ve received. HandUp works directly with local community action organizations, which provides the items requested from the donations on the HandUp site. Cash is never given directly to the individuals.

This system works because it is safe, you can see who is in need, the giving is transparent, the results are posted through updates, and the person helping gets the gratification of knowing that the money donated really did produce positive results. Donations range from $5 to $1,000 or more. Recently, they have added Bitcoins to the options for donating.

With 100 percent of the donations going to the members, I asked Sammie Rayner, in business development at Handup, how are they staying in business and how are they going to expand? Her answer:

We’re committed to having 100% of donations go directly to HandUp members, so we don’t take a cut. Our nonprofit partners also can use the service free of charge. So there are no subscription fees or charges to the member, nonprofit partner, or donor.

But we offer donors the option to tip to cover HandUp’s operations costs, and about 90% of our donors do so. This results in about 8% of all incoming donations going to the company. For funds coming from our corporate partnerships, 10% is automatically designated for support. And since we are a tech platform with a partnership model, we are in a unique position to have and continue to maintain very low overhead and operational costs as we scale.
Profiled in Forbes, CNN, NPR, and other major media sites, this company is going places. Education is a strong point when running a business. Broome’s solid educational background helped in getting this social entrepreneurship model off the ground. She previously worked at Stanford State University as a grad-student teacher, and in research as assistant to a department head at Stanford. Witte’s tech background was essential in the professional, clean design and functioning of the site. Starting this venture, HandUp joined Tumml—a seed-company accelerator—to get them off the ground. It’s their dream that the company expands to help people in need all across the country.

NOTE: Congratulations, HandUp!  In 2015 they reached $1 million in donations!

Check it out!  http://blog.handup.org/posts/looking-back-reaching-1-million-donations-in-2015