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.