Friday, February 8, 2013

Robert Cheffy Scholarship

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of my former student Robert Cheffy.  I somehow believed that Mr. Cheffy would beat the odds and rebound from his lung cancer, as he had from so many other adversities in his life, but that did not happen. Robert's celebration of life service at Veteran's Village of San Diego was a year ago.  I didn't share my thoughts about Robert at that service but felt compelled to do something to keep Robert's spirit alive in my heart. This spring the first Robert Cheffy scholarship will be awarded at Palomar College, a memorial to a remarkable person who impacted so many people in his recovery journey.

I first met Robert in 2008.  He was a student in two of my classes and later he worked for the AODS (Alcohol and Other Drug Studies) program as a student mentor. Every time I saw Robert he made me smile (even if I was irritated with him) I couldn’t help but turn my lips upward and grin. That was Robert’s trademark: making people feel happy. Robert had a charismatic character and a special gift of seeing the humor in any situation. When I visualize Robert, I see him wheeling his chair around campus greeting students and staff along the way, hearing him use his famous expression, “Don’t trip.” A couple things I learned from Robert during the past 4 years that I knew him.

Robert was devoted to his recovery. He worked really hard and he was brutally honest about his own journey.  Even when he was diagnosed with cancer and was prescribed pain medication, he was conflicted about taking the meds. I witnessed Robert make a “searching and fearless moral inventory”; he was not afraid to discover his liabilities and that willingness resulted in a growing self-confidence that guided him and inspired so many others.

AODS Mentors; Wayne, David, Jacob, Glenn and Robert (seated)

Robert was one of the most resilient people
 I have ever met. He had an inner strength that helped him withstand many of the negative effects of adversity. Robert had spiritual beliefs, which helped him to persist in surviving many challenging life circumstances (including addiction and loss of his legs). Robert had a conviction that his life had meaning. 

He retained that optimistic focus through the last time I visited him in November 2011, when he was still talking about finishing up his degree and working as an AOD counselor. It was incredible for me to witness Robert transform from a struggling and insecure student to become a successful intern and program graduate, and a role model who inspired others as a mentor and friend. 

It will be my great honor to award the first Robert Cheffy Scholarship at the Palomar College Honor's Night event in May.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thailand Tale: Part Two

December 2012
With 1,864 hairpin turns between Chiang Mai to Maehongson, I always opt to fly. The Nok Air flight was a quick twenty two minutes and  provided breathtaking mountain views. We had no trouble with Nok but some of our traveling  partners did experience canceled flights (if Nok doesn't get enough people on a flight it is delayed until later). I booked the Nok flight online and paid a nominal fee for extra baggage (limit is 15 kgs on Nok Eco).

Clean sweet air and pristine mountain views are the first things I noticed after landing on the small runway in the middle of town. Maehongson (MHS) is tucked in a deep valley surrounded by high mountain ranges and jungle, a land highly suitable for the training of elephants (which happened here in the not so distant past).  

This is my 10th humanitarian trip to MHS since 2006 and each time I come away with a deeper appreciation of this magical, off the beaten path province. To the average farang, life in MHS might appear sleepy and slow with no taxis or Starbucks to be found but plenty of dogs walking down the center of the road. Night life is limited but the evening market never disappoints for delicious snacks and unique handicrafts. People are friendly but apart from the hotels and higher end tourist shops, English is not commonly understood. The weather during our 10-day stay ranged from cool (50's) to very warm (80's) and at times required a light jacket. 

We stayed at the Panorama , a modest hotel which offered a clean room with breakfast and wifi ($20 for two people). Our Toys for Thailand (T4T) bilingual friend Dr. Jaroon Kumnuanta owns the hotel and allowed us to ship our toys and other donations there for distribution. The hotel is in walking distance of banks, stores and the site of our Small World Festival (that's why I stayed there). Some T4T volunteers booked at the The Fern Resort, the perfect jungle hideaway, where Angelina and Brad stay during their sojourns to the area. The Fern is a secluded eco resort a few miles outside of town; I would give it a high recommend. 

Margo, Kru Oy (purple), Sasha, Anouk with new culinary friends in MHS.
Our time in MHS was a nonstop adventure of meeting people and sharing meals (a cup of tea or a bowl of rice, it's all about the informal process of getting to know one another).  Despite the rough windy roads or the MSG laden food I often was subjected to,  I never stopped smiling. I was  delighted to be back on the mountain, visiting our remote village schools once again.  Not once did I have time to open a book or turn on the TV, we were on the go and in demand. Here's a sample of how we spent our days:

Maria at the Long Neck School. 

Sasha and I met with the Maehongson Education Association at Rajabaht University. I patiently observed for several hours as everyone spoke Thai. The group shared coffee/tea, snacks and lunch while discussing the Small World Festival. I smiled a lot, snapped photos and took breaks to walk around campus (where I was greeted by many students who wanted to practice their English with me.)

We drove up to Huay Khan, where our gracious host Kru Oy, Director of the school gave us a tour. The school children were so excited to see us and we relished our time playing with them and taking photos. T4T donated several items to Huay Khan and Kru Oy was most eager to let us know about her new request for toilets. Anouk (a T4T friend) did end up funding the toilet project which was around $600...It's hard to say no to your host's request. 

Sasha and I joined up with our Dutch friends (Anouk and Margo) and visited the Old Tiger School or Huay Suetao. This is the long neck village school where we had a playground constructed a year ago. On this visit Margo provided the school with funds for a school barber shop which will be the first for the village. After we drove high in the hills and distributed toys and clothing to some of the poorest families. I'm was amazed (once again) to see these impoverished people, who live without running water and refrigeration, owning a TV and satellite dish. 

Our trip to the remote Huay Pooling school  was rugged and full of surprises. Four of us made the trip, Anouk and Margo (bless their hearts) bounced in the back of the pick up for 3 hours. During that time we passed only an endless emerald jungle, arriving to find a crimson forest of poinsettia brushes lining the village of Pooling.

In the evening Pooling offers a spectacular night sky but not much else. The young teachers assigned to Pooling usually stay for the two years of their contract and move on.  After the 200+ residential students are feed and dishes washed there is not much to do. We wanted to have some fun with the kids so we hosted a dance, downloading dance tunes from Anouk's smart phone and using the school amp for sound. Despite our best efforts to arouse interest, only a few boys were brazen enough to dance, the other children were too shy (or tired). 

Our evening ended with the female teachers singing karaoke love songs and the male teachers drinking moon shine...after a while that got boring so I went to bed.  Sleeping in the primitive guest hut was a challenge as it was really cold night (4 blankets). The barking deer (and karaoke singing faculty) kept me awake. In the am,  we made our way to the kitchen for breakfast. The teachers served us for coffee and noted that a couple fish were in water earlier but not to worry they were removed. I share this story because T4T is providing Pooling with funds for a much needed water filtration system.  After a tour of the school and updates about their needs, we packed up and headed back making 3 other school visitations en route.

I have reached my 1000 words without finishing the best part of my Thailand Tale: Our Small World Festival. Part Three will highlight that joyous event that bought together 600 Tribal children into one global family.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Recycling love

December 9, 2012
Written at an Internet Cafe in downtown Bangkok
 As we were waiting in line at LAX taking photos Sasha and I wondered how all our toys would ever get to Thailand. Our luggage was well over the weight limit and included 140 pounds of stuffed toys. Divine intervention helped us get our booty through the Thai Airways check in and safely to Thailand, where Sasha’s brother (a Bangkok police officer) got our bags through customs with no questions asked.

Sasha with children from Kings School.

Bringing toys from the US to impoverished children in Thailand has been something Sasha (a Thai national) has been doing for decades. I become involved in her efforts after the Asian Tsunami in 2004.  Scribbling the words Toys for Thailand on a card board box and putting it outside my office at Palomar College to collect stuffed animals for tsunami orphans in 2005, I am amazed that today Toys for Thailand, Inc. is a non-profit organization with international support. Our humanitarian project has provided me with a sense of purpose and soul satisfaction that has gone well beyond any success that I have ever experienced as an educator.

In the past 7 years Sasha and I have made 13 trips to Thailand together bringing donated toys and dollars to help neglected children (first in the tsunami zone and now in the rugged north).  On many trips we were joined by friends and sometimes Sasha’s husband and daughter.
In the years right after the Tsunami the airlines were willing to give us complimentary cargo shipping, and in those glory days we would take up to 600 pounds of toys. You can imagine the logistics in getting all those boxes through customs and into the hands of children in remote disaster zones.  I’m in awe of what Sasha has been able to do in her efforts to support children in her home country and I feel privileged to be her partner.
We are certainly not alone in our T4T efforts, along the way a fascinating group of guardian angels have joined in…friends, family, colleagues and people who discovered T4T Online, on a poster in a Dr’s office, in a yoga studio or through our fundraising events (Taste of Thailand). Each trip we seem to expand a little bit more, gain credibility and donors. Our efforts have gone beyond bringing toys to providing direct support to Tribal schools: rice husking and soy milk machines, agricultural supplies, vocational training materials, telecommunication equipment, and water filtration systems…but it is always our recycled toys that children appreciate the most.
On December 24, 2012 Toys for Thailand will host our third annual Small World Festival in Maehongson, a magical place in the mountains of Northern Thailand. All the recycled toys that made their journey from the US will be at the festival ready for distribution. T4T has provided funding for six hundred children representing various Hill Tribal groups: Shan, Karen (White, Red and Black), Lawa, Lahu, Lisu, Hmong, and the long neck and long ears to come from their village schools to celebrate at the festival.

T4T volunteer Judy with Aisue.

All of the children attending the festival live in dire poverty, some abandoned, some orphaned but most from families that cannot care for them. These children do not have TV or Internet and most do not have electricity, refrigeration or running water. Despite different languages and cultural traditions, all the Tribal children respond impulsively with glee and excitement when presented with a toy.

Being a toy trafficker must be my calling on some karmic level. Putting a stuffed toy into the hands of a child who lives with few creature comforts and seeing their face light up with joy, is an experience you don’t forget. It melts my heart every time…the soft cuddly second hand toy provides an immediate source of tangible comfort to the child, a message from someone far away saying that you are not alone. Sasha calls it providing recycled love.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Doing my happy dance

Soon I will be partying with heartfelt abandon with Tribal
children and teachers on the Summit of Serenity.  
I'm doing my happy dance and feeling content, lighthearted and free. Such a sweet and often short-lived emotional state: happiness.  What provoked my cheerful mood is the realization that many of staggering stressors of this year are now behind me and there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

The semester will end in two weeks and shortly after my grades are posted, I board a Thai Airways jumbo jet for an 18-hour ride to the Land of Smiles.  After a few days of business in Bangkok we fly north to Chiangmai, my second home. Sasha (Thai friend and charity co director for those who may not know) and I will stay in Northern Thailand throughout December. 

The trip will be our 13th humanitarian trip together since 2006. 

Sasha and I will navigate (weather permitting) in four wheel drive vehicles using expert local drivers to take us down rugged mountain roads. Visiting village schools in Om Koi and Huay Pooling, where we have been many times before, we'll bring food to prepare a special meal for the children and teachers.  During previous trips spaghetti, peanut butter and jelly and tuna salad sandwiches were introduced, burgers are on the menu this year. Preparing food in places without refrigeration, running water or sanitary conditions (or can openers) is a unique challenge. Photos will be posted on  Facebook.

Our "to do" list while in the backcountry of Maehongson, Thailand includes contracting to build two school playgrounds and a water filtration system, buying vocational tools, gardening supplies and providing basic need items to select schools. We'll be busy from morning to evening just about everyday...but what a gratifying way to spend the semester break.

The highlight of our trip will be hosting the third annual Small World Festival (SWF), a national geographic type event that brings together hundreds of children representing nine different hill tribes. Our festival was created to inspire HOPE for children to express their tribal traditions and to be rewarded for their talents. The SWF is the favorite day of my year (Dec. 24), a soul satisfying time of celebration. 

It's a small miracle that our charity Toys for Thailand  (T4T) has been able to didn't look promising earlier this year. Upon returning from Thailand in January 2012, we learned that T4T, a project under the International Humanities Center (IHC), lost all of our funds...yipe, every hard earned donation dollar was lost when IHC closed their doors due to fiscal mismanagement. Toys for Thailand was left penniless and homeless (with no fiscal sponsor and therefore no way to do fundraising).

The reality of losing our project funds ($18,000) hit me hard and was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life... to explain to our supporters that their contributions were basically swindled. I was devastated and blamed myself (Catholic guilt, totally irrational but ingrained in my DNA).  The idea of starting our charity all over again from scratch was totally overwhelming and the thought that T4T should just call it quits was questioned often. 

Despite my humiliation and feeling like the Universe played some really bad joke on us...I (prayed and meditated) about what to do and something inside me said that I would get an answer soon. My instincts said not to jump ship but my ego demanded it was too much work to continue... I reminded myself how much I hate asking people for money. The next week I got my answer in the form of an email from an attorney friend of one of my colleagues. The attorney wrote that he was sorry to learn we lost our project funds and basically said that he would help us (pro bona) to become our own 501 © (3) organization. 

With a guardian angel sent to help, we worked together to create Toys for Thailand, Inc. After weeks of organizing documentation, writing bylaws, getting a board and officers to serve, our applications were sent to the IRS, State Attorney General and State of California.  The application to become a 501 (Form 1023) took me over 150 hours to complete, with 37 pages of was complex and confusing and completing it was relief but having it approved by the IRS made me do a happy dance for days! 

Toys for Thailand, Inc became an official non-profit and we are back in business. Solicitation letters were sent to our loyal supporters and the response has been positive. Our board met a couple times and decided to host on Open House. A successful fundraiser was held earlier in November and thanks to the volunteers who helped cook, serve food, wrap and sell gifts, we were able to reach our fundraising goal. Our project budget has now miraculously exceeded what is was
in our account before the IHC loss. 

Sasha and I will soon pack up our toys (as many as we can stuff in our luggage) and head back to Thailand. So I am doing my happy very relieved that the financial loss and the hundreds of hours of work to reinvent our charity efforts are now behind me.  I have learned to believe in divine intervention and forgive IHC for their actions. What was viewed as a bad joke is now understood to be a huge favor, closing one door so a better one could open. With that forgiveness has come a wonderful feeling of freedom and healing. It propeled me from a place of anxiety and distress to a state of joy and happiness.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mid Semester Mess

Piles of mess dominant my living space. 

On my desk, tables, garage, hiding in closets and even on the floor...stuff is piled up. A collage of papers, lesson plans and folders marked, "Pending, Pending Action Now, Important" are stacked in piles calling for my periodic review.

All the mess in our house has nowhere else to go. It can’t be cleaned out and is waiting to be recycled to other homes. Donation gifts for our charity donors, decorations needed for our fundraiser, papers that will ultimately go in a large plastic bag for the end of my academic career beach bonfire. Even the "dress up" school clothes in my closet must wait until May before going to the donation bin.

The overcrowded tables, closets, floors and desk and garage piles are playing tricks with my mind, I feel like mess. I absolutely hate clutter in my living space, it makes me feel bogged down, heavy, out of balance. 

Feng shui, I read teaches that clutter in the home causes depression and fatigue.  According to this ancient Chinese philosophy, any items that don’t belong on the floor will bring low and sad energy and if you want to boost your mood, move stuff off the floor. Yikes, no wonder I have been feeling stressed lately, there is a direct link between my mess and my mood.

In a world of pack rats and purgers, everyone that knows me would say I fall in the second category. My home d├ęcor is minimalist and I do my best to donate clothes, household items and just about anything that I don’t use on a regular basis. Two weeks after our nuptials, I recycled my wedding dress to the Goodwill. No need to hold onto material items if they have no future value. Some of my friends thought donating my dress was extreme, but I don't hold unto stuff just for sentimental value (most stuff anyway). I'll admit that in the attic I have a box of my old journal books and of these days I'll get around to purging that stuff, too.

William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Psychological attachment to stuff can be very strong, but I don't seem to have that gene. After my Dad died 12 years ago, I kept one item that was his, a red plaid flannel shirt that still hangs in my closet. I can honor my father's memory without keeping his things.

When I leave this world, I would like to exit with my personal possessions down to the bare minimum, like my friend Judy M. When she knew that she would not win her battle with cancer, Judy cleaned up her home and office and left town to live out her last days in another state. When her husband returned after Judy's passing he found only two brown papers bags in her closet. The bags were marked Goodwill; Judy had purged everything else.

The sheer volume of stuff in my living space right now is making me feel stuck. Somehow, I must manage to live with this cluttered chaos for a few more weeks. I also must remember what inspired all this mess in the first place. The clutter is a direct result of my charity work and assuming responsibility to host a fundraising event at our house. All the piles of stuff are for entertaining our donors and supporters and to recycle into donation dollars. Soon all the stuff will be distributed else where. 

In the meantime,  as a method of coping, I've decided to create two de clutter zones in the house.  In these rooms I will enjoy my welcomed order,  an oasis where no stuff is piled and the the space  is clear and the chi flows freely. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

My drug of choice: Pacific Prozac

Maria and Dan Circa 2008

The ocean is a mood elevator, a feel good drug that helps me escape the stress of my land locked life. 

Today Dan and I arrived at Cardiff Reef around 8 am with VG coffee, boards and newspaper in hand. It was a glorious beach worthy day, bright with sparkling sun and gentle lapping waves. On occasion a 4 ft. swell came through displaying the ocean's amazing power. 

The past few days I have spent far too much time indoors, overwhelmed with the demands of my life (as an educator and director of a charity group.) My mind has been racing with all the things I need to do: papers to grade, classes to teach, fundraisers to organize,  and donation dollars to solicit. With so many deadlines upon me, I decided the best thing to do was to get wet. 

A two hour play session in mother ocean was just what I needed.The combination of sun, saltwater and surf revived my senses, and reawakened my spirit. With every paddle stroke I could feel the stress hormones dissolve from my body. After catching a wave or two, I was pulsating with pleasure and proud of my accomplishment. All the things I needed to at home were now put in perspective. 

Dan and I left the beach today smiling at one another in a state of aquatic contentment. One of our local Cardiff Reef friends (a 65 year old chiropractor that surfs just about daily) dubbed the phrase Pacific Prozac. I’m borrowing it here for my blog. And it’s true that getting in the ocean to paddle, surf, snorkel or swim tweaks the same neurons that are stimulated by Prozac. A long paddle or playing in the surf is far more effective than taking a pill to perk up my mood. There is something strangely hypnotic about being near the ocean, it provides solace and never disappoints. 
We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.” – President John F. Kennedy
My love affair with the sea began a long time ago. The first time I experienced Ocean Pacifica, the largest body of water in the hydrosphere, remains firm in my emotional memory. It was when I was 14 years old on a cross country family camping trip. The details of that month-long family adventure are dim in my aging and overcrowded brain, but I remember vividly when our camper finally made it to Huntington Beach, California in July 1968. After spending hours in the back of the hot and crowded camper with my four younger siblings, I was eager to be liberated from that confined space. 
My first glimpse of the ocean on that afternoon took my breath away.  I gazed out from the shore and saw the water stretched as far as I could see, to the horizon. It changed color with the light and the color of the sky, from green to blue to gray. The ripples and waves were in continuous flow, surging and retreating, seagulls were crying in the sky, there was a distinctive smell (my favorite amora to this day) SALTWATER, a scent like no other. 

Without a moment's hesitation I dashed through the hot sand (fully clothed) into the undulating and inviting saltwater, feeling an overwhelming compulsion to get ocean kissed. I don't recall how long I stayed in the ocean playing in the sensual surf that day, but that was when my infatuation began, with what I affectionately call, Mother Ocean.

During that trip in the late sixties, my adolescent fantasy was to someday return to Southern California, find a blond surfer boy and enjoy an aquatic care free life together. It took me a decade to move to Southern California and another decade after that to find the golden surfer.  There were educational achievements like high school and college to attain, and financial obstacles to deal with,  emotional immaturities to overcome and addictions to conquer. 

In many ways, my life today is a manifestation of my adolescent fantasy. My fair haired husband and I live in Cardiff by the Sea, a charming town with two miles of pristine coastline. Our beach community is a place where you can wear flip flops all year long and if weather and surf conditions permit,  you can get a free dose of Pacific Prozac anytime you need it.