Friday, December 31, 2010

Miracle on...22nd?

Growing up, I had heard about the "Miracle on 34th Street," but it wasn't until yesterday that I came across the one on W. 22nd.

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a story about two men who mistakenly received hundreds of letters addressed to Santa at their NYC apartment. They still can't explain how their address was confused with St. Nick's, but the pair didn't let the mix-up ruin the children's Christmas. They mobilized their network of friends and co-workers to respond to the letters and give the kids the Christmas they asked for.

While they couldn't answer all of the requests, they made a difference for hundreds of kids who wouldn't have had a Christmas otherwise. I would highly recommend watching the clip for the whole beautiful story.

What would you do if those Santa letters mysteriously arrived in your mail box? I'd like to think I would do something similar, but it's hard to know for sure. One thing is certain; the selfless giving of these two men is extremely touching. Though Christmas day has already come and gone, the Christmas spirit lives on through their generosity.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The holiday season

After nearly a week of blog silence, I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas! My holiday season consisted of 4 family Christmases over the course of one week, not to mention the holiday work parties thrown in for good measure. I very much enjoyed seeing family and exchanging gifts, but all of the holiday hustle and bustle was just a tad bit stressful to manage, especially with multiple families and work schedules to accommodate.

My favorite Christmas celebration this year was the one spent at home with my husband--our first married Christmas. As nice as it was, it certainly wasn't your traditional Christmas! Taylor worked overnight on Christmas Eve but we still wanted to establish some sense of tradition and open our gifts together on Christmas morning. So around 6:45 a.m. I woke up extra early to cook a big pancake-bacon-egg breakfast (which I have never done before), light the Christmas tree, and get everything ready. Taylor arrived home from work about an hour later, and we quickly ate breakfast, chatted about his shift, and opened presents before the drowsiness set in. Taylor gave me a lovely Eucalyptus stoneware bowl and a cool old ladybug brooch, and I gave him an ice cream maker attachment for our stand mixer and a Dremel rotary tool kit. By 8:20 a.m., Taylor couldn't keep his eyes open any longer, so he made his way to bed while I cleaned up all of the dishes and packed up the presents for the next party. Then I took a nap until it was time to leave for Urbana in the afternoon. Less than 24 hours after arriving at my parents' house, we found ourselves back in Cincinnati so that I could make it into work on Sunday evening. Talk about a whirlwind!

It might not have been the most traditional Christmas Day scene, but it ended up working for us. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I was worried about all of the details and how everything would come together--that our Christmas would be ruined from our jumbled schedules.

But now that it's over, I wouldn't have had it any other way. I started a Christmas Journal so we can look back and remember this and future Christmases for years to come. It wasn't perfect--what holiday really is?--and that's okay. As I reflected on and wrote about 2010, I realized just how fortunate I am not only for my beautiful gifts from family and friends, but for my wonderful husband, adoring kitties, and a house full of love.

I hope the magic and love of the season linger into the new year for you and your family, too!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Greenery in the scenery

Though it's hard to believe, it's already Christmas Eve in our first house! It seems like just last week we were signing hundreds of papers and carrying all of our boxes into our empty house. Now it's December 24th and we've been here for nearly seven months.

When we were buying our house, I daydreamed about all of the things that would make our house a home. I pictured growing vegetables in our garden, painting every room in our house, chatting with our neighbors in the driveway, participating in trick-or-treat night in our neighborhood, and decorating for Christmas, namely with a wreath on our door. I don't know what it is, but every time I smell fresh evergreen, I feel an immediate sense of comfort, security, and warmth. I know I'm home.
Our fresh wreath is a tradition I hope to continue for many years in the future. We sure have come a long way and we have so much to be thankful for, including our Christmas wreath!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fight hunger in our community

This morning I received an e-mail from Tina, the executive director at Shared Harvest Foodbank (where I used to be a VISTA, remember?), about a social media campaign to support agencies in the Cincinnati-Middletown community. According to Tina, Shared Harvest Foodbank is competing for a portion of the Walmart Fighting Hunger Together Facebook Challenge Grant, in which metropolitan communities across the country rally to get the most votes on Facebook for their community. The winning community shares a $1,000,000 grant, with five runners-up each sharing $100,000.

There are 100 metropolitan communities in the running for the grant money, and the Cincinnati-Middletown area has moved from 60th place to 33rd in just seven days. Tina says we need at least another 30,000 votes to move to the top, and that's where you come in.

If you are on Facebook, all you have to do is click here and press "Like" for the Cincinnati-Middletown community. That counts as your vote for our community. Easy, huh? Then we need you to spread the word and tell all of your friends--you can post the link on Facebook and have all of your friends vote, too.

Please help out our community by voting! It's so easy, and only takes about a minute to do. We all see these social media campaigns and think how great they are, but then we end up ignoring them and don't take action. Don't let that happen to you this time! Make sure your vote counts by December 31st.

Participate, get involved, and help strengthen your community--PLEASE and THANK YOU!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Giving gifts

I am pleased to announce all of my food dishes made it to all of those holiday parties with no spillage. (At least not that I noticed! Sorry, Taylor.)

Now the next item on the holiday agenda

I know that Christmas is not about giving gifts. It's about sharing joy and giving thanks with friends and loved ones. For some, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ who saved the world from sin and despair. So why is it that so many of us end up focusing on the season's materialism instead?

I'm guilty of this, too. Last year Taylor and I had hardly any money so we made the majority of our gifts. And you know what? That was okay. The gifts ranged from homemade magnets, to personalized calendars, to jars of homemade cookie mix, to crocheted scarves (lots and lots of scarves). I really liked giving these gifts because they were meaningful and personal. The recipients knew a lot of time, thought, and love went into the gifts if not a lot of money.

This year, I was in graduate school and Taylor was working an average of 50+ hours a week throughout November and into December. This year we didn't have nearly as much time, but we certainly had more money, so our gift-recipients are getting stuff we bought. I still think the gifts are special but they certainly aren't as meaningful as something handmade.

And of course, the more focus there is on store-bought items, the crazier this season gets.

"Do we have enough presents?"

"Did we spend enough?"

"Is this gift good enough?"

These are questions I've been asking all month--I've definitely been stressing out over our gift-giving tradition. And I bet I'm not the only one. Anyone else out there stressed out by this holiday ritual? Look at all of those hands.

I've heard some great remedies families employ to curb the stress of the season. Some families opt out of gift-giving all together, deciding to sponsor a family in need in the community instead. Others donate money to a charity in honor of their family instead of spending money on material gifts. And others pool their money to provide a meaningful experience for the family, such as a vacation, instead of filling each others' homes with more goods, more clutter.

These are all great ideas, but some families just can't part with the idea of giving gifts. And that's okay! Instead of buying another pair of socks or another knick-knack for the house, though, maybe you want to go the homemade route. Here are 34 ideas for some personal, handmade items that are sure to be a big hit. And here are gift ideas for the social justice-minded individual wanting to make a difference in the world.

Maybe your holiday shopping is already finished for this year, and it's too late to reconsider your gifts. But remember these tips aren't just pertinent for the holiday season. We give gifts all year round--for birthdays, weddings, showers, anniversaries, etc.--and we tend to stress out at each of those happy occasions, too. It's something I'm definitely going to keep in mind as we head into 2011!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday party animal

I have 3 Christmas parties in 4 days. All require some kind of pot luck food dish, and all are at least 45 minutes away from home. Ack!

Today was party #1 at the Oxford Community Counseling & Crisis Center. Because I signed up to bring a dessert, I decided to make an easy, yummy favorite recipe in our house--lemon bars. Fortunately, I was able to make the dish ahead of time last night, but I wasn't able to guard them from my hungry husband when he came home from his shift at 4 a.m.! Still, most of the lemon bars successfully made it to the party, and we all had a great time chowing down on the spread of food.

Tomorrow is party #2 with my mom's side of our family. This one requires a 1-hour and 45-minute drive to Urbana, and I agreed to make a hot dip for crackers and chips. Hmm...I didn't really think this one through... Ultimately, Taylor and I decided to mix up some artichoke dip tonight and bake it when we arrive in Urbana tomorrow.

And the third party is on Monday with the House of Peace staff. We were asked to bring our favorite recipe along with the recipe card and a $5 gift to share. Well it just so happens one of my favorite recipes is turkey pumpkin chili, which is what I signed up to bring. As delicious as it is, it's not the easiest to transport to a party 45 minutes from home. Didn't really think that through either. Still, I am sure it will work out and will be as fun and delicious as all the others!

The holidays are a time for lots of celebrating, lots of eating, and lots of time together. In other words, I've got lots of good times ahead in the next week!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stressed out students

Today Taylor came across a very interesting radio show on NPR about the stress students experience in the American education system. Vicki Abeles, a filmmaker and mother of 3, created a documentary called "Race to Nowhere," which captures the stories of students, parents, and teachers caught in a system the demands educational quantity over quality. Essentially, the American educational system is test-oriented and not centered on the student's whole development.

This perspective is particularly interesting as world education reports show students in China and other Asian countries are out-ranking their American peers, who were deemed "average" in most recent studies. Policymakers believe this is evidence to push students even harder with longer school days, longer school years, more extra-curricular activities, and tougher assignments and classes.

But at what cost? Students are stressed out and crumbling under the pressure as they desperately try to keep up. They are loading up on college prep courses and filling the rest of their schedules with sports, arts, volunteering, etc. There is little "free time" for students to learn through play and discovery, and students are missing out on their childhoods. As a result, students are not prepared for the "real world." Abeles says it best with this statement:
“I think today’s system isn’t generating kids who are independent thinkers and ready to contribute to the world,” Abeles says. “So I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are wanting to create a generation of test-takers and resume-builders, or do we want problem-solvers and life-long learners and healthy young adults.”
If you click on this link, you'll find the complete radio show on this topic, as well as the trailer for the film. I haven't seen the movie, but from what I have heard, read, and seen, it's definitely worth a look. As a high-performing student myself, I know firsthand the pressures kids in America experience in the schools in the race to "get ahead." In fact, I recently wrote a post about this very issue as an adult in graduate school! As much as I say I am going to relax and let myself off the hook, the reality is I am pushing myself just as hard as I did in high school and college.

Good grades are certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but they aren't the only indicator of success, as they only measure one aspect of a person's intelligence. We need to realize test scores and grades aren't everything, and adjust the way we structure our educational system accordingly. After all, what good are straight As if you can't think critically and creatively to function in the "real world?" The grade at the end of the term isn't nearly as important as the knowledge I have gained, and I need to keep that in mind as I approach the winter quarter.

Now if only I could get the scholarship people to recognize that fact...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cinci Christmas

In our continued quest to fully experience our first official Christmas as Cincinnatians (read about our first adventure here), my best friend and I journeyed to Fountain Square on Saturday night for the annual Macy's Downtown Dazzle in which Santa rappels down the side of the Macy's building.

It rained pretty much all evening, and we were uncertain about weather Santa would "fly" due to the weather, but we decided to brave the elements and go anyway. After all, Santa is only scheduled to appear on the roof of the building 3 times this month, so we didn't want to miss him.

We left with plenty of time to navigate all of the one-way streets and find parking downtown. When we emerged out of the parking garage, we were greeted by this lovely figure on Fountain Square:

And this majestic Macy's tree at the U.S. Bank Ice Rink:

But the best sight of all was Santa, Rudolph, and a little green elf rappelling down the side of the Macy's office building. They broadcast the action on a big screen above the square, which is what my BFF photographed in this shot:

Can you believe Rudolph is going down head-first? They were all little daredevils, doing flips and hanging upside down along the way, and it was a lot of fun to watch! When they reached the next rooftop, there was a big, spectacular fireworks show to end the night, even in the rain.

Afterward, we walked a block or so to the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza to see the gingerbread display, and a couple of blocks in the other direction to the Duke Energy Building for the model train display. And by that point we were rain-soaked and ready to leave for dinner at Frisch's in my neighborhood!

Despite the rain, a lot of people came out to see the show, and it felt really good to be part of a community in a big city. We also learned more about what the Central Business District has to offer and we plan to take part in the downtown hustle and bustle for a little Christmas shopping this week.

If you are in the area, I would highly encourage you to make your way downtown for these holiday events. Santa will make one more appearance on the roof of Macy's next Saturday, and the other sites last all month long. All of the links in this post contain information about each event, and they are all well worth the trip!

A special thanks to my dear friend for the use of her photos for this post (and this post)!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

TV Land Transformation

After sharing our office and dining room transformations, as well as my dresser renovation, I might as well share our latest decorating update; this one is in our living room. First, the drab before shot taken just a couple days after we moved in:

Note the little red end table is a hand-me-down from Taylor's parents, and while it's solidly built, it doesn't quite work as a TV stand. So earlier this week, we journeyed to IKEA for a new look. And this is what we came up with:

The TV stand is made of solid pine and is the same style as a coffee table we bought from IKEA a few months ago. On Thursday night I finally managed to put the TV stand together and I did it all by myself. It only took me 4 hours and 3 tries, but I finally got it.

Okay, actually, I only managed to get to step 34 out of 35 before giving up and waiting for Taylor to get home to put on the finishing touches, aka the drawers. Still, I am mighty proud of my handiwork. If you've ever put a piece of IKEA furniture together, you know the directions contain no words, only pictures, which aren't always the easiest to decipher.

Here's a closer look at the 'after' shot:

Oh and in case you were wondering about the cast iron on the staircase, that's where we are hanging our stockings this year, considering we have no mantel or fireplace. The little green stockings are for Thelma and Louise.

Slowly but surely we're making little changes around here, which are adding up to make a big difference in our home!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday in Lights

On Wednesday night I attended my second annual Holiday in Lights tour at Sharon Woods in northern Cincinnati. Last year I went with Taylor and my parents; this year I spread the cheer by taking my best friend through the display.

But display doesn't even begin to describe it. Holiday in Lights is a paved, mile-long trail with all sorts of little lighted figures dotting the path. 120 lighted scenes to be exact.

For instance, here is a charming little scene of two elves decorating a Christmas tree:

The lights moved to show the elves picking up ornaments from a box and throwing them onto the tree.

The displays were also clever. Here is a play on the Goodyear blimp, which we photographed as an homage to my husband's childhood hometown of Akron, Ohio:

Cute, eh?! And then some of the displays were just plain weird. Like this little guy:

His friend Godzilla was also nearby. Not exactly the type of scene you would think should be depicted in Christmas lights, but hey, it works!

Holiday in Lights was international, too, with many bright holiday greetings in lots of lights and languages. Here are a few of my favorites:

Dutch Santa, complete with wooden shoes, is probably my favorite scene on the trail, largely because of my husband's Dutch heritage (which he is very proud of, I might add).

Holiday in Lights at Sharon Woods is a fun tradition I hope to continue every year I'm in Cincinnati. If you live in the area, I would strongly encourage you to get out in the community and see it. You pay by the car load, so pack your car full of family and friends and head on over for a great evening. If you click on the link above you can even print a coupon for $2 off!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dining room re-do

As you might recall from my 200th post, goal #5 on the list was to continue the process of making our house a home through home renovation projects. So I thought I would share our most recent renovation endeavor in our dining room.

Back in September, Taylor and I removed the carpet, tack strip, and staples from our office floor just hours before my first class of graduate school. So we thought it would be fitting to remove the dining room carpet just hours after my final exam on Monday evening.

Let's start with the very first before shot, taken just a couple days after we had moved into our house:
Certainly not much to write home about, but after a little paint and some new furniture, the dining room was starting to take shape:

It's hard to see in pictures, but there were numerous old pet and food stains from the previous owners and no matter what we try, we can't seem to remove them. So the only way to take out the stains was to tear out the carpet.

It was a bit of a process but we tackled it together with teamwork. Taylor cut up the carpet, I rolled it up and took it to the basement, and then Taylor got to work pulling up the tack strip and I removed the staples from the floor. Before long we ended up with this:

What a big difference! We did find a few damaged boards from old termite damage, but we can replace those. Soon we'll finish this project by painting the trim and chair rail, adding a filler piece to the baseboard to fill the gap the carpet left, and ultimately sanding and refinishing the floor. Until then, this is the after shot:

What do you think? Do you prefer carpet or hardwood floors in your own home? I think it's clear where our preference lies!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Baby it's cold outside

Today marked the first official snow fall of the season! It snowed overnight, through the morning, into the afternoon, and the flakes are still falling as I type this tonight. The ground is still fairly warm, so only a few inches are sticking, but still it makes for a beautiful scene outside our window. This is a view from our kitchen (note the difference a couple of months makes):

As temperatures dip into the 20s, our impending heating bill has been increasingly on our minds. We've never had a gas furnace, so we're not sure what to expect, but we're bracing for the worst. To help lower our utility costs, we're doing the following:
  1. Turn down the thermostat. Most of the time you can find ours set somewhere between 68-72 degrees, depending on the time of day and whether or not we're home.
  2. Dress in layers. Because we don't live in a sauna, we are sure to have a sweater or light blanket near by whenever we're feeling a little chilly. This prevents the urge to crank up the heat.
  3. Close off unused rooms. We have one guest bedroom that is rarely used, so we see no point in heating it all the time. The floor vent in that room is closed off, and the door remains shut.
  4. Insulation. We live in a brick house built in the late 1940s, so there isn't a whole lot we can do about our walls, but we can insulate our pipes. Taylor wrapped the hot water pipes in our basement in foam so that they would keep their heat longer.
  5. Seal drafty doors and windows. We were lucky our house had all new windows when we moved in, but we recently discovered one drafty old door in our kitchen. Taylor lined the door with this clear, gel-like "Seal 'n Peel" stuff, which as its name suggests, seals the door for the winter and can easily be peeled away in the spring.
We'll have to let you know how well these tips work when we get our first big heating bill this month. Until then, we do have one more strategy for keeping warm this winter.

6. Keep the floor vents clear to maximize air flow. That includes all furniture, rugs, and other obstructive objects:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The end is near!

It's hard to believe that ten weeks ago today marked my first day of graduate school. And yet, here I am, almost on the complete other side of my first quarter of my MSW program. Tonight was my last class of the quarter and next Tuesday I'll take my last final exam to officially end the quarter.

I thought it would be fitting to do a brief recap of what I accomplished this quarter. Let's see how much $4,412 gets you in the School of Social Work:
  • First and foremost, I secured my internship for the next 5 quarters at Santa Maria Community Services. Read about that process here, here, and here.
  • I took a ten-hour online course on Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Theory and developed a set of therapy sessions using the TF-CBT method for treatment of a hypothetical rape victim.
  • I analyzed and wrote about the role the media plays in perpetuating crisis in our daily lives.
  • I learned several different approaches to crisis intervention with a variety of people in a variety of situations.
  • I researched and created a presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of the Over-the-Rhine community in Cincinnati.
  • I researched the topic of same-sex marriage and presented it as part of a larger project on GLBT clients and how their issues pertain to social workers.
  • I interviewed a key staff member at Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and wrote about the advocacy services they provide in the community.
  • I researched and summarized a qualitative community study on community-based loans for expectant mothers in rural Nepal.
  • I critiqued a news article that surfaced around the mid-term elections this fall on the Obama Making Work Pay tax cuts.
  • I researched and critiqued a journal article describing culturally competent strategies for use with African American rape victims.
  • I interviewed my nine-year-old friend to learn about developmental tasks and the psychosocial crisis of middle childhood.
  • I wrote a final paper about the experiences of a member of a racial minority group and how they have affected his human development.
  • I researched, wrote, and presented my first ever policy brief. The topic: Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
  • I took 3 regular in-class exams; one open-note, open-book final in-class exam; and 4 online exams.
So there you have it. One quarter's worth of work--and that's just the big stuff. This isn't counting the hundreds of pages of reading or the countless hours of studying or the endless nights spent staring at the computer screen. I can't say I've loved every minute of it, but I certainly have learned a lot.

Now for a well-deserved break and a little R & R.

Friday, November 26, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was delicious! Taylor and I went to my parents' house for turkey and all the trimmings (including that ice cream cake I told you about here!) I contributed by signature turkey pumpkin chili dish, which people actually ate! I couldn't have been happier.

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, we can officially look forward to Christmas! My parents are loaning us their 7-ft. Christmas tree until we can purchase one on clearance after the holidays. (We also have a small 4-ft. pre-lit tree that Taylor's parents gave us last year.) It's our first Christmas as a married couple and our first Christmas as homeowners, so I wanted to celebrate in style. I could hardly wait to decorate the house upon arriving home last night!

Thelma was particularly fond of the decorations:

Each branch was color-coded, so we got to work on sorting and inserting the right branches into the right area of the tree:
Finally the tree was assembled, but we needed lights. My parents had given us two strands of multi-colored lights with the tree, but we were going for a silver and white theme this year, so they weren't going to work. Instead of calling it an evening and getting the lights later like a normal person, I threw on my jacket and dashed out to Wal-Mart at 9:30 p.m. in a torrential downpour to pick up some lights so we could finish the tree.

Before long we were back in business, and we had even managed to put up some ornaments:

You'll notice they aren't all silver or white (some were just too meaningful not to put on the tree!) but for the most part, we followed our theme. Last weekend we went to Crate & Barrel to get some special "Wessels' First Christmas" ornaments, and naturally they were the stars of the show:

Some of the ornaments were so pretty that we decided to share the love with our entryway mirror all season long:

And we would be remiss not to spread the sparkle to the other areas of the house. Here's a glimpse of the dining room table (as seen in the background of the above Christmas tree picture) complete with silver ball ornaments:

Even though I love our festive decorations, we aren't losing track of the real meaning behind the holiday. We have so much to be grateful for, including our warm house, complete with sparkling Christmas tree and blossoming traditions.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy birthday!

Today, November 23rd, is the 23rd anniversary of Taylor's birth. However, because Taylor worked overnight last night and spent most of the day sleeping (and because I worked in Oxford today to finish up the grant from last week and then had class this evening), we knew we weren't going to get to celebrate in the traditional way today.

Which is why we deemed this Birthday Week! We kicked it off on Sunday with a small party with Taylor's parents. I made my first double layer chocolate cake with peanut butter icing (Taylor's fave), and ended up with a huge mess on my hands. Literally. The cake collapsed in several spots around the edges and ended up looking like a mudslide before he had even blown out the candles (all 23 of them!)

Taylor opened presents from his parents (shop-vac, winter coat, clothes) and presents from me (electric shaver, Foo Fighters CD, and subscription to This Old House magazine) and before long, our living room was covered in wrapping paper and boxes.

The cats wasted no time in enjoying the house in this condition:

Louise hopped right in the box and made herself at home.

Thelma thoroughly enjoyed making the wrapping paper crunch under her feet.

But the birthday fun doesn't stop there. Tomorrow night we'll celebrate with my parents in Urbana with cupcakes and presents, and Thursday (Thanksgiving Day, of course), we'll celebrate with my extended family with, get this, a homemade ice cream cake. I know.

So Happy Birthday-week, Taylor! Hope it is as wonderful as ever.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

General Grant

I'm back in the saddle as a grant-writer! A couple of days ago the Director of the Rape Crisis Program emailed me about my work for the week. Instead of data entry, she asked, would you be interested in helping us write a grant?

Ummm chya!

So the next day when I arrived in the office, I found the grant proposal guidelines, sample grant narratives from previous grants, and a note with instructions. I was all set--I hopped on a computer and got to work.

At first I spent most of my time sorting through previous grants and locating their electronic version on the computer. There were certain parts of each grant that would work beautifully in this one, so I was just in the compiling phase. Before long though, I had reached 7 pages--more than double the maximum length of the proposal. I trimmed it down, cringing every time I had to cut a solid statistic or a persuasive emotional appeal, but I still can't get it to less than 4 pages. I will be returning next week to tidy that up.

As much as I love this added responsibility of grant-writing, it's a terrifying job at the same time. Granted (ha!), this grant request is for less than $10,000 to a foundation I am very familiar with from my last spell of grant-writing during my VISTA days. But every dollar is crucial to the future of the program right now.

If you recall, the Butler County United Way recently cut all of their funding to the Rape Crisis Program and other mental health agencies, choosing to focus instead on job-training programs. As terrible as it is to lose a funding source, this loss packs a second punch. Without that funding, the Rape Crisis Program can't provide the necessary 25% cash match for their federal and state grants. Losing UW funding potentially equates to losing nearly all of your funding.

We can't count on Butler Co. UW to reinstate their financial support of our program in future years, so we have to figure out a more sustainable solution for future funding cycles so that we can hold on to our federal grants. At this moment, though, we're scrambling to make up the immediate loss with one-time emergency grants from other sources, like the area community foundations and benevolent groups.

So that's where we are. By helping to write the grant narrative for one of these potentially program-saving grants, now more than ever before I need to get this right! The grant is due next month, so we won't know for a while whether it was accepted, but I'll keep you posted.

And if you happen to know any wealthy donors looking for a worthwhile project in which to invest thousands of dollars, we've got just the program for you!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kitty therapy

In all the 200+ blog posts I've written, I don't think I've mentioned much about two members of our family: Thelma and Louise.

Thelma is the white calico on the right, and Louise is the gray tabby on the left. We adopted them from a friend of ours who was moving to a new city and could not bring them along to his new apartment. He sent a message out to his friends to find a new home for his cats, and from the minute I saw their picture, I immediately loved them. By May 25, 2010, Thelma and Louise came to join us at our apartment in Fairfield for a few days until we moved into our house on the 29th.

It didn't take long for them to settle right in. Both cats are 15 years old and came from the same litter. Louise has a few health problems, but overall both cats are happy and full of mischief. They are amazed by the refrigerator:

And the kitchen table and the food that magically appears there:

And the cozy warm floor vents. This may be one of the reasons our heating bill is so high--Thelma blocks all the warm air from entering any of the rooms!

After long, busy days away from the house, we look forward to coming home to cuddle with our kitties. They seem to have powerful calming powers--no matter what has happened that day, petting our kitties always makes me feel a little better. Call it kitty therapy, but it works! We love our cats like members of our family and I couldn't imagine our lives without them.

Under pressure

Every once in a while, you hit a week or two of life that is just...hectic. You know what I'm talking about--the times when it seems like everything is happening at once and you're unsure how you're making it day to day, moment to moment.

Well, I'm experiencing one of those times right now. And I don't anticipate it ending until, oh, December 7th.

Yep--graduate school is intensifying as we approach the last two weeks of the quarter. As cliche as it sounds, it really is amazing to think how fast this quarter has gone. But before I can celebrate the end of my first quarter of graduate school, I've got to get through final exams, final projects, group presentations, and final papers galore. I won't list everything that is due in the next two weeks--I'm not sure even I could handle that right now--but know that it's a lot.

Actually, I should clarify. It isn't so much the amount of work due that is overwhelming. In fact, each assignment is pretty manageable on its own, and with a little time management magic, I should have no problem completing everything. What's overwhelming is the pressure I put on myself to excel.

For those of you who have known me through grade school and college, this isn't a shock. I was Valedictorian of my high school class, and I graduated summa cum laude with my undergraduate degree. I've always been a bit of a perfectionist, and grades have always been "my thing." I pushed myself in high school to get top grades to get into college, and I pushed myself in my undergrad to get top grades to get into graduate school.

So why am I pushing myself now? After all, as long as I maintain a B average, I can keep my financial aid and I'll graduate with my MSW degree. I can coast through the program and I'll be a social worker like any of my peers.

But I just can't do that. I can't bring myself to cut corners and take shortcuts because I really want to know this stuff. I want to learn it and internalize it so that I can be a knowledgeable, well-rounded professional. I figure if I am putting this much time and money and energy into this right now, then I should probably have something to show for it more than just a piece of paper at the end. Lastly, and perhaps the most self-centered reason of all, I don't want to look bad! I genuinely want to earn the respect of my professors and peers as I progress through the program; I don't want to be known as a "slacker" student right out of the gate!

So I'm setting the bar for myself this quarter, and I'm setting it high, even by my own standards. And as a result, I can expect more than a few late nights over the next couple of weeks (okay, let's face it, years) while I work toward this degree. What I need to keep in mind, though, when I am feeling like this--aka overwhelmed--is that I am doing my best and that's all I can ask of myself.

That, and, it'll all be over in a few weeks. No matter what happens, it'll all be over on December 7th and THEN I can relax!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Nina, the Pinta, and...

The Santa Maria!

Silly me, not that Santa Maria--this one:

That's right--I've officially accepted and confirmed my MSW internship placement at Santa Maria Community Services! As of January 2011, I will be spending 16 hours a week at the organization, learning all about administration and the joys of social work. Until then, I know I've made a great choice, and I'm so excited to get started soon!

Ship image borrowed from
here, and logo image borrowed from here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Decision time

Well, I'm in a pickle. A good pickle, but a pickle nonetheless.

After a month-long interview process consisting mostly of waiting, I've been offered two internships for my MSW program. And now I have to pick-le one over the other. (Yes, contrived pun intended!)

In all seriousness, though, this is a tough decision for me. The School of Social Work matched me with my top 2 agency choices for interviews. One agency is in my neck of the woods and offers a ton of different services in the community. They have great community partnerships with lots of potential for admin experience, and my supervisor is absolutely fantastic. I would have a lot of guided autonomy, which is something I particularly value. I know that I would enjoy the next 5 quarters there and I would have plenty of opportunities for growth and development in many different areas of social work.

The second placement option is within a huge organization. It is internationally recognized and receiving a lot of funding attention right now. They are a top-notch future employer around the world, which is something I need to especially consider in the midst of a crappy job market and recession. They offer primarily medical-based services, and I my internship would really challenge me both emotionally and professionally. Despite being an admin position, though, there is more of an emphasis on direct practice in the medical setting, which has its advantages and disadvantages for my professional development. While I want to be a well-rounded social worker, I don't want to lose focus of my specialization.

So as you can see, I have a critical decision ahead. Taking a strictly logical, pro/con approach isn't particularly helpful, and making the decision purely on emotions isn't advisable either. To further overwhelm me, I just received a call from the field placement coordinator at UC for my decision (due to aforementioned scheduling delays, I am one of the last people to lock into an internship). I told her I still wasn't sure what my choice would be and that I needed more time. But after talking through both options, she expressed concern over my second internship offer, saying that she needed to make some calls and get back to me before I make a decision.

Umm, okay? Maybe this decision isn't so difficult after all.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Greatest weakness

Last week I had my second of two interviews for my upcoming internship through my MSW program. As often happens in an interview, the interviewer asked the classic interview question: "What do you consider your greatest weakness?"

Of course, there are many ways to answer this question, but generally you want to pick something that could be perceived as a strength. After all this is an interview and you're trying to market yourself for the job. If you start ticking off a long list of faults, you're likely not to get hired. Duh.

In my early interview days, I thought this was the trickiest question and would rehearse my answer over and over in preparation. When I was in high school I used to bat my eyes and say:
"I think my biggest weakness is that...well...I just care too much! tehehe!"

And in college, I would say something along the lines of:
"Sometimes I think I work too hard. I guess I'd say my greatest weakness is that I am a perfectionist."

These answers aren't particularly awful. After all, I did exactly what I was supposed to do-- I provided a weakness that was really a strength in disguise. The problem was, though, that there was no disguise!

More often than not I would get the job/scholarship/position/etc. But it was all so cliche. I felt like I was just memorizing and reciting interview catch phrases--that I was essentially absent from the whole equation. It was all so mechanical.

I've been more cognizant of this lately, especially after completing many interviews for jobs earlier this summer and now again for my grad school internship. My general goal has been to be more genuine, more memorable; to be less predictable; to be myself. And in an interview process, that includes coming up with some more original answers to the classic interview questions.

So in my most recent internship interview, when I was asked about my greatest weakness, I answered honestly: "I take things personally. If something goes wrong or I fail at a task, I tend to really internalize that."

One reason this particular weakness came to mind (because I certainly have more than one weakness!) was a very difficult day at the House of Peace last week, just one day prior to my internship interview. The work shift consisted of two problematic residents getting very upset over something considerably trivial. Due to their behavior, the women were eventually 'departed' (or asked to leave) shelter. In the hours leading up to their departure, I absorbed a lot of obscenities, intimidating gestures, and overall hostility from the women. I knew that they were upset about their circumstances, but it sure did feel personal when they were aiming those outbursts in my direction. It was a really tough situation, and my stomach was in knots even after I had arrived home for the evening.

And perhaps worst of all, I felt like I had failed these two women. Most of the residents who come through our doors get back on track. They find permanent housing, get connected to counseling and other general resources. They move forward. So when these two residents weren't accomplishing that, I took it personally. I was unnecessarily assuming responsibility for their unruly, inappropriate behavior, and neglecting to see their role in the situation.

I ended up telling this story in my interview to better demonstrate my point. But I didn't just leave it at that. I explained that this is something I'm working on by reaching out to coworkers and superiors to process and improve upon my experiences, and to stay grounded in reality. And if the day is just super overwhelming, as some days in social work inevitably are, I am learning to utilize better coping skills to decompress and move forward. Last week when I got home, I took a shower, changed into pajamas, and crawled under the covers. I just needed a quiet place to breathe and relax for a while, and after a half an hour or so, I was recharged and ready to enjoy the rest of my evening.

I really don't know how my interview answer was perceived. I'm hoping that because it was personal and real, that it was also memorable in a good way. Every social worker has bad days, and hopefully my response was something my interviewers could relate to. I guess I'll find out tomorrow when I'm offered the internship or not! We shall see.

Anyone else out in the blogosphere have a "greatest weakness" they'd like to share? I mean, really, how DO you answer that question?!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Workin' it out

I've just passed the half way point of the quarter and I have a wonderful milestone to report: I'm finally work-studying!

As you might recall, I was awarded $3,000 of financial aid for the academic year through the federal work study program. That means that I can work a few hours each week in exchange for the financial aid. The money is paid directly to me just like a regular paycheck, with the federal government paying 75% of the wage and the employer paying the remaining 25%. Once I've earned $3,000, the award is maxed out and the employer would have to pay the full wage for continued work.

Unlike other universities, UC collaborates with non-profit organizations in the community to extend the perks of federal work study employees to their agencies. Earlier this summer, I applied for a work study position at a local non-profit, was hired, but with less than a month before school started, the agency mistakenly gave my spot away to another student. I thought my precious work study award was lost forever, until I got a little creative.

I approached the Butler County Rape Crisis Program, with whom I have been volunteering for a year and a half, about using my federal work study award to work for their agency. One woman had recently retired and many of the staff shifted positions, leaving the Program Assistant position vacant. Due to budgetary constraints, the staff intended to leave the position open, but still needed help completing some of the routine office tasks. And due to my time constraints, I wasn't looking to work too much, but still wanted a small, flexible position with a few regular hours each week.

You can see where this is going. The RCP liked the idea of utilizing the work study award to fill a few hours of the vacant Program Assistant position, and diligently worked with UC for more than a month to hire me. From my perspective, it's a win-win situation: they get a part-time Program Assistant at a fraction of the cost of a "regular" employee, and I am able to access my financial aid!

I've been working in this position for a couple of weeks now, and I love it just as much as I thought I would. My job mostly involves data entry, as well as a few other projects as needed. I process the paperwork from all of RCP's hospital accompaniments, legal cases, and hotline calls--meaning every case of sexual assault that an RCP staff member or volunteer handles now comes through me. At times it can be a little overwhelming to bear witness to all of that trauma, but the staff is so emotionally supportive that I have adjusted well to the position.

My hours are flexible (which is a MUST for this grad student) consisting mostly of Fridays in the Oxford office. I share workspace with the Volunteer Coordinator who works part-time and usually has Fridays off, making it easy to access the databases from a shared computer on those days.

And in case you're curious about what that workspace looks like, at least from the outside, here it is:

The windows on the left side of the second floor belong to our office. There are stained glass windows on the side of the building and an awesome attic upstairs, complete with hardwood floors, wood-paneling, and built-in window benches. Cool, huh? I like it there a lot. Nope, scratch that, I love it! I'm a lucky lady to have this opportunity to work in such a great place, inside and out!

Image above borrowed from the Community Counseling & Crisis Center. Isn't it gorgeous!?

Monday, November 1, 2010


October 31st marked an important day at the Wessels' house: Trick-or-Treat night!

I've been pretty excited for this day for quite a while now. And it's not because of all the leftover candy--although that does play a small part, let's be honest--it's because of the sense of community and belonging that trick-or-treat night invokes.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I grew up in Urbana, Ohio, in the house where my mother grew up (click here to link to my dad's webpage for an image of that house). I lived there all my life before attending college, so I have a lot of fond memories of that house and surrounding neighborhood, especially at Halloween. For instance, here's a picture of me as a young pumpkin:

And see that big yellow bowl full of candy? That has been THE candy bowl at my parents' house for as long as I can remember. Years later when I was too old to trick-or-treat, I would join my mom on the porch steps to pass out candy from that bowl. It was so much fun to see the kids from the neighborhood dressed up as princesses and pirates and pumpkins, and enjoying the same neighborhood tradition that I had loved for so many years.

(Oh, and this trip down memory lane wouldn't be complete without this darling photo of a certain young blond Lego I happen to now be married to):

Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, the sense of community that trick-or-treat night creates in a neighborhood. Ever since leaving Urbana in 2005, I've had a hard time defining what it means to be "home." I've lived in college dorms and crummy apartments for the past five years, many of them not big trick-or-treat zones for the kids from the community. I haven't known my neighbors and I haven't really felt a part of the place where I've lived. So ever since last February when Taylor and I decided to move out of apartment housing, I started picturing all of the things that I would love about living in a real house. I thought about having a garden, having a basement, having neighbors that care about each other. We chose our house because we liked the neighborhood, and we have enjoyed getting to know the people who live here. So you can imagine our excitement to finally a be part of the trick-or-treat tradition, or in other words, to be a part of the community.

Of course, there's no trick-or-treat fun without candy. And we were prepared. I was tempted to buy the cheap stuff in an attempt to be frugal, but Taylor said, "No! It's our first Halloween, and we're going to do this right." We picked out three big bags of candy including highly-coveted M&Ms, Twix, Nerds, and the like. Here's the bowl along with the vintage pumpkin on loan from Taylor's parents:

At 6:00 on the dot, the church bells chimed and the kids and parents started to emerge into the neighborhood, ready for a fun, candy-filled evening. Here are some neighbors we met last night who live up the street from us:
And here is Taylor, enjoying a random bowl of soup while we waited for our first trick-or-treaters:
Don't worry, I gobbled down my soup much earlier so that I would be ready:However, I was only able to participate in the first hour of trick-or-treat at home before heading to work until midnight at House of Peace, where the fun continued with the residents and their kids, too. The shelter provided transportation into safe neighborhoods for the families to partake in area trick-or-treat festivities, and even provided costumes for the kids who didn't have one. Earlier in the weekend, the Children's Coordinator hosted a Halloween party complete with pumpkin-carving and goodie bags. It might not seem like a big deal, but Halloween was a great opportunity for the residents to re-build their sense of community in a safe environment. And that's pretty meaningful.

By 1 o'clock in the morning, I was home again, eager to hear the stories from the last hour of trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. Despite getting first dibs on the leftover candy, Taylor and our kitty Thelma were just too tuckered out to talk:

What a night! Not too shabby for our first Halloween in the neighborhood, if I do say so myself.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

200th in two

This is my 200th post on this blog in two years (well, more like 15 months, but you get the idea). It seems like only yesterday that we were celebrating 100 posts together last January during the Shared Harvest food drive season! Good times. To celebrate this momentous occasion, I thought I would talk a little about my goals over the next 200 posts.

So here goes:

1) Relax. I imagine I will still be in graduate school, plugging away on my Master of Social Work degree by the time the blog odometer hits 400 posts. So over the next two years, I aim to breathe a little more.

2) Make time for fun. Pretty self-explanatory, but I am realizing that without scheduling regular breaks with the people I love, I am setting myself up for severe burn out! That's a no-no.

3) Be active more regularly. I struggle with this one. If you recall last year I wrote about a similar goal to take better care of myself by increasing exercise and healthy eating. But after my wedding and our move to Cincinnati, I've definitely fallen off the health wagon. Of course, one of the perks to being in graduate school is "free" access to the spaceship-like recreation center on UC's campus. With a little motivation and luck, I'll be back in a good routine (and shape) in no time!

4) Leave work at work. I work in a high-stress environment, at least on some days anyway, and I've found it easy to carry the stress and pain from the women at the shelter home with me. Thanks to my experience as a Rape Crisis victim advocate, I am getting better at leaving it behind, but there's always room for improvement.

5) Continue to make our house a home. In the 5 months we have lived in our new house, Taylor and I have tackled a variety of home improvement projects. And it has become addicting! We have a lot of grand plans for our place, and I hope to share more of those 'before and after' posts with you.

6) Re-organize this blog. As my faithful readers know, a lot has happened over the past two years in a lot of different areas of my life. I am thinking about reorganizing this blog to better capture my story and the things that I care about. And maybe include more pictures in my posts. What do you think? Any ideas?

Thanks again to everyone for hanging with me for the past 200 posts. Stay tuned for more adventures, more pictures, more soapboxes, and more stories from the life of a social changer!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Extreme Makeover: Basement Edition

Lately our weekends have consisted of a lot of work. All of my hours at the shelter have fallen on Saturdays and Sundays, and Taylor has logged plenty of weekend hours in the ER. That leaves little time for weekend projects together at our house, but that hasn't stopped us from getting stuff done! We just utilize what little weekday time we have to tackle some of the projects on our list. (Check a couple of those out here and here.)

Anyway, last Tuesday Taylor had some time off so he decided to redo half of our basement floor. Our furnace, laundry machines, water softener, etc. are on the other side, so we thought we'd start with this side first. First Taylor swept, brushed, scraped, vacuumed, and mopped the floor to take up all of the old flaky paint chips. Here are the before shots:

Next, Taylor primed the floor with a water-proofing sealant. Our basement has been remarkably dry, and we want to keep it that way! After the primer dried, Taylor painted the floor:

And once the paint dried a couple of days later, Taylor and I constructed some new shelving units and started organizing all of our stuff. We even carved out a little gift-wrapping station for the approaching holiday season. Here are the after shots:

There's still a little bit to do, but we are so glad to have this project pretty near complete! It feels great to get organized and better utilize our space. It's just another step in turning our house into our home.