Hope for the Holidays

My organization, Community Action Partnership, runs more than twenty programs and services for low-income families throughout the year.  This year, I was asked to take the lead on our school supply distribution and holiday programs.  I loved being part of collecting donations of backpacks and school supplies to help kids get a solid start to the new school year.  We were able to give out over 2,000 backpacks to kids in need this year.  The community response was incredible.  We were even able to give older students scientific calculators.  It was such a cool thing to be a part of.

Backpack donations for 2018 Project Student Success

Now the holiday program, Hope for the Holidays, is in full swing.  Through this program, donors can “adopt” low-income and homeless families and shop for them based on wish lists that they submit.  Donors can also “adopt” a senior this year, and can also donate new toys for kids.  Hundreds of families sign up for this program every year, and every year donors step up to meet the needs of all of these families.  Basically, our community is amazing.  I’ve always loved this outpouring of generosity.  But this is the first year I’ve had much to do with the client family side of the program.

Gary Scott Jen reading '91
My dad, my brother, and me at Christmas a million years ago (1991 probably)

I’ve always thought it was so wonderful of donors to adopt these families so that kids can have a nice holiday.  I never gave much thought to the adults in the families.

Today, I’m spending my day going through wish lists submitted by the families and getting them ready to send to donors.  And I am struck again and again but the love and care that goes into these lists.  These parents are often homeless, in crisis, wondering where they will find the next meal for their kids or how they will keep the heat on or make this month’s rent.  They are dealing with things that would break most people.  But they take the time to fill out these wish lists.  They find a way to get to our office to sign up.  The love and care that is evident in these lists is so humbling.  These parents are so connected to their kids.  Each wish list reflects the hope that they have for their children, their desire to protect their children from the stresses that they are facing.

This program is more than a nice thing to do at the holiday season.  I thought the program name, “Hope for the Holidays” was just a nice alliteration.  It isn’t.  This program truly does represent the hope that these families have.  The hope that next year will be better.  The hope that children will find a safe future for themselves.  The hope that even if it is just for one day, troubles can fall away and be replaced by children’s smiles and joy.

I’m grateful to these families for reminding me what the holidays can be.


For more information on CAP, Hope for the Holidays, and how you help, go to www.capagency.org.

Oh honey…

I recently had my first experience in having my own intern, which was educational for (I hope) both of us.  This was a young woman who had been interested in volunteering with my organization, but since she was in school, we agreed to call it an internship.  I was thrilled to have help!  Running all marketing and communications for an organization on your own can be a lot some days.  Most days.  So I was excited.

My intern was very quiet but enthusiastic.  As she was planning to be around for a while, I created a curriculum and outcomes that we would be working toward, which would encompass a wide range of communications skills and duties.

About a month into the internship, I asked her to help me with making follow-up calls to businesses and community partners from whom we were seeking donations.  This did not turn out to be her strong suit.  The day after her first attempt (during which I was on hand to help,) I received an email from her stating that making phone calls was not the kind of experience she was looking for. She continued by saying that she plans to go into event/advertising and felt that doing the social media posts was a better use of her time.  We weren’t paying her or anything, so that was fine.  I was happy to let her work on what she wanted.

I had also asked her to outline some of her career goals so that I could make sure the experience she was receiving lined up.  She plans to become a business owner, doing events and advertising for herself and her business.

Another month or two into the internship she decided she didn’t have enough time and resigned.

So that was that saga.  The point of this post however, is this: Oh honey.  It’s cute you think your life is going to go as planned.


My senior year of high school, I knew I was going to be a French teacher.  I went to college for Political Science.  I knew was going to be a lobbyist and live in DC.

Baker 3
Yeah, didn’t use that degree either.

I graduated and went to grad school for Religious Studies.  I knew I was going to be a professor.  So I went and got a Master’s with the intention to get a PhD.  Due to academic burnout and a lack of funding, that didn’t happen either.  Then I got an MBA in Human Resources and knew that was going to be my career.  It’s been three years now and I have zero intention of going into Human Resources.  This may sound a bit haphazard, but it really came down to taking the opportunities that presented themselves.  I love where I ended up, but I didn’t specifically plan or prepare for it.

Dressing up as Professor Trelawney does not help you predict the future

I was able to take the opportunities that came along because I said yes to a variety of experiences and opportunities before that.  My haphazard education allowed me to develop an ease in writing and an ability to speak competently and confidently to a wide variety of people.  My varied job experiences (camp counselor, ice cream scooper, dance teacher, preschool teacher, child care worker, hotel front desk worker, volunteer coordinator, cafeteria worker, bank teller, admin assistant) each taught me something different, and I’m grateful for all of it. Even working as a bank teller for Wells Fargo, which wasn’t stellar, taught me that I truly hate sales.  But it also taught me how to be salesperson, a skill that has come in handy in other (more ethical) ways.

So, dear intern, I would encourage you to reconsider next time you turn down the opportunity for experience, even (especially) one that takes you out of your comfort zone.  Do you imagine you will never need to call a stranger and ask them for something?  I can tell you right now that running events and advertising involve a lot of cold contacts.  Experience is experience.  You never know when you will need it. You’d be surprised what kinds of skills might come in handy.   Life will most likely not go according to your plan, not exactly.  I hope that life goes so much better than you could have ever planned for, and that you have been open to all the things that will prepare you for it, despite never knowing  precisely where you’re heading.


Marathon Motivation

I might be too happy to run a marathon.  Yes, I think that might be the issue.

I’m registered to run my second marathon in October, the Twin Cities Medtronic.  I ran the Chicago marathon back in 2015 and frankly, training went a lot better that time.

My dad checking on me at mile 13 of the Chicago Marathon

I was also in a very different place in my life three years ago.  My husband and I had been separated for a few months, I was living by myself for the first time in my life, and I was doing a lot of work on who I was and who I wanted to be.

I named him Rexacoricofallapatorius.  I get loopy when I run.

Getting up to run at 5:30am every morning seemed to come naturally at the time.  Running was wonderful therapy, gave me time to think, time to escape.  I got to explore Minneapolis in a new way as I ran all over town.  I named a metal dinosaur in a yard along my route.  I was pretty fond of the big fella.  Running was something that was purely and wholly mine.  It was healthy, it made me feel better, and it reminded me I could do more than I believed was possible.  Running helped me to heal so that when my husband and I reunited, I could be a support to him through his healing.

This time around, I am incandescently happy most of the time.  Overwhelmingly content.  I love my work and what I do.  I love the volunteer work I do.  I have great friends that I love to spend time with, and my relationship with my husband is better than I ever could have imagined.  So what the heck do I need to run for?  Yeah yeah, it’s good for me, cardio, fitness, blah blah.  A marathon seems like a bit much.  What is actually keeping me going this time around is who I’m running for.

A CAP Client and her son coming home for the first time

I’m running as a charity athlete for the CAP Agency, the organization that I work for.  I’m running to raise money so that CAP can continue to help people in poverty find their way out.  My life is pretty darn good.  Other people face obstacles every day that I cannot possibly comprehend.  What I can do is run.  I’m working to raise just $1000.  It isn’t really that much.  But $1000 is enough to house a previously homeless family for a month.  It is enough to feed a family, to provide emergency childcare to mothers escaping domestic violence, to provide meal for six home bound seniors for a year.  The good that can come from this marathon will impact the lives of people in need right here at home.


I think that’s more than enough to make me get off the couch.

To donate to my fundraiser, go to gofundme.com/capmarathon.  No matter the amount, your donation makes a difference.  Thank you.

Hope for the Future: Youth in Government

On a frigid day in early January, a sixteen year old girl trotted up the steps of the state capitol in a very professional and not at all warm skirt.  Inside the Capitol, the committee, court, and legislative rooms and offices had been taken over by high school students from all over the state.  It was Youth In Government weekend in Minnesota.


Minnesota YMCA Youth in Government is a youth-led, experiential learning opportunity that involves 2,500 middle-school and high school students each year. It is a nation-wide program, active in nearly 40 states.”  Started by the YMCA in 1936 in New York, the first Minnesota YIG Model Assembly was held in 1946.  This weekend saw over 1,400 students from all over Minnesota gathered in St Paul for the State Conference. Students in grades 8-12 are able to participate at various levels in the program. “Minnesota is among the top programs nationally in terms of quality and number of students involved. 60% of participants and 55% of youth program leaders are girls. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of all eligible students return the next year. Minnesota YMCA Youth in Government builds a sense of responsibility and passion for issues, the desire to make a difference, citizenship skills and values in the lives of teens.”


I first learned about YIG when I was in 8th grade and some delegates came to speak to my civics class.  In 9th grade, I was a participant.  I am truly sorry to say that I remember little of it, as a boy I liked happened to be in the program with me and I was rather distracted the whole time.  I am pleased to say that most other participants had more focus than I did.  What I do remember was being in awe of the immense process that is our government.  I remember listening to bills being presented and hearing my peers debate them with poise beyond their years.  I remember having to navigate St Paul on my own to get lunch and dinner every day, and being responsible for getting myself to all of my meetings on time.  Quite the experience for a fifteen year old.

Today, I had the opportunity to step inside YIG again for a few short hours.  As a community Board member for the River Valley YMCA, I was invited to take a tour of the program in operation this weekend at the Capitol.  Our tour guides were our youth Board members, Sadie and Grace, who are also YIG participants.  They completely blew me away.

These two young women guided a group of adults through the State Capitol, answering questions about the program, their involvement, and what it has meant to them.  Their poise, confidence, and intelligence were surprising and inspiring.  Is it weird that I want to be more like them when I grow up?


I asked Sadie what had interested her in YIG in the first place.  She had two older brother who had participated in the program, and she was struck by the changes she saw in them every time they came home from the program.  She could tell they had grown more confident and were happy.  She joined the program in 8th grade “because they wouldn’t let me yet when I was in 7th.”  This is her fourth year in the program.  She sits on the Commerce Committee and is running for an elected office, which she would then hold next year.  I asked her if the program had changed her ideas about what she wanted to do with her life.  She replied that it had, though she wasn’t totally sure what she wanted to do yet.  But YIG had taught her a lot and expanded the possibilities for her.  “It’s given me a lot of confidence in myself and given me networking skills…because with running for things you have to network…it’s a lot, running a campaign is a lot, but it has given me a lot of skills that I don’t even realize.”

Orville Lindquist, State Program Executive for the YMCA YIG Program, has been with the program for over twenty years.  He told our group that when he started out with the program, he thought he was teaching kids about politics.  Over the years, he has come to realize it is much more than that.  These students come to YIG and learn how to speak respectfully with each other, how to listen to each other’s ideas and opinions, and how to be successful adults.  As he put it, many of these students have never had to share a room, have never been responsible for getting themselves out of bed on time in the morning, and have never had to manage money on their own.  At YIG, they have to do all this and more.  They have to do their homework on bills or trial cases.  They have to dress professionally and be on time.  They gain confidence in public speaking and in themselves.

A lot of time, staff, and resources go into making this program a success.  The YMCA is dedicated to being open to all students, regardless of family income levels.  “The YMCA does not turn away participants based on ability to pay the full tuition.” Students are able to apply for Thrive Scholarships through the YMCA as well as for financial assistance through the YIG program itself.  One Thrive student had his bill pass while we were there.  He was ecstatic and already preparing for the next speech he would have to give. These scholarships are made possible though donations to the YMCA.  Youth in Government is one of many programs run by the Y that go beyond the four walls of a gym.  If you aren’t familiar with them, I highly recommend going to www.ymcamn.org to learn more.  The YMCA is not just a fitness center and a pool.  It is an organization truly dedicated to helping the communities and supporting and developing youth and families.  I was blown away by the Youth in Government program and deeply grateful for the opportunity to see it in action once again.


The Community of Community Theater

This past August, I found myself on a middle school stage, auditioning for my first play since 2008.  The play was “Harvey,” by Mary Chase, and I still couldn’t quite tell you what had made me decide to audition.  I had found out about the Prior Lake Players community theater organization through work.  The Players had donated proceeds to our food shelf the previous season.  I was familiar with the play – well, not just familiar, I adored both the film and stage versions.  It’s tough to beat a Jimmy Stewart movie, and the character of Elwood Dowd was one of my favorites.


Anyway, I auditioned.  I wasn’t nervous.  I didn’t have any particular stakes.  If I got in, great!  If not, it’s not like I had lost anything. I hoped I would get in of course, but wasn’t pinning any big dreams on it.

Me as a pie server in Beauty and the Beast

Then I left the country on vacation for a couple of weeks.  I got the email saying that I was being offered the part of Nurse Kelly while I was in Norway.  And just like that, it was the biggest deal in the world to me!  I accepted the part right away.  I was so nervous and excited.  I hadn’t been in a play in almost a decade, and the last part I had played was a pie server in Beauty and the Beast.  I mean the actual utensil, not someone who served pies.  That had been in community theater back in college.  I had never had this large of a part or this many lines!  I had an actual character!  With a personality!

Right after Labor Day, rehearsals started.  We all stumbled through our lines, literally stumbled through blocking the movements on stage, and introduced ourselves to our fellow cast members.

The community created around a show is an odd thing.  You are thrown together with this group of people, with no say in who your fellow cast members will be.  Sometimes cast members know each other, but I had never met any of them before.  And it starts of very professionally.  You show up, you run the scene, you work out the bugs.  Slowly, you might start to have side conversations when you’re not on.  You find out what people do for a living, what their theater experience has been, which musicals they love and hate.  It’s a group of theater lovers.  Musicals come up a lot.

Then, you start rehearsing with the set, and with props, and pieces of costumes.  It starts to take shape.  And you are truly in this world belonging exclusively to the cast and crew.  You sit around together in between scenes or when the directors are arguing over a bit of blocking.  You might have things in common with your cast mates, you might not.  But you find out you like each other.  In this weird little world all your own, you become family.  You joke and laugh hysterically at things no one else would find funny.  You become a family.

I have never experienced anything else like the community one finds in theater.  These people, who a couple months ago I didn’t know at all and who I hadn’t specifically chosen to spend time with, are now dear friends.  They are hilarious and odd and wildly goofy.  I have no idea if I will keep up contact with them once this show is over.  People tend to go their own way.  I’m sure we’ll check in on Facebook now and then.  I hope for more concrete friendships though, with at least a few.  My female costars especially.  Girl friends are frightfully important, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I will never have too many.

Community theater is a funny thing.  We spend hours upon hours of our lives for weeks rehearsing for a show.  We do not get paid.  We do not perform before enormous audiences.  We do not get famous.  We are all there simply because we love it.  A shared love for theater.  Yeah.  That’s more than enough to build a community on.


The Inner Beauty of Girls

Last Monday, a group of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade girls were learning about inner beauty.  While running laps.

These girls are part of a team for Girls on the Run.

Girls on the Run is a non profit organization founded in 1996.  The organization’s mission is to “inspire girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.”  Over the course of ten weeks, girls and their volunteer coaches meet twice a week to run, play games, and prepare for life.  The proven curriculum covers topics like peer pressure, making and maintaining healthy friendships, expressing emotions, dealing with bullies, staying healthy, and making a difference.  At the end of the ten weeks, the girls, with an adult running buddy (a parent, teacher, neighbor, etc) participate in a 5k just for them.  Last Spring’s Girls on the Run Twin Cities 5k had over 3,000 runners.

One of the girls, a very squirrely one, had sprained her ankle at soccer over the weekend and was not able to run laps.  This was a bit worrisome to her coaches, as running laps was usually 100% necessary for this girl to burn off enough energy to listen to instructions and not distract her teammates.

The lesson that week began with all of the girls being given a piece of paper with a list of adjectives and some blank space to write.  The girls were asked to take a few minutes and write down the qualities that helped to make up their inner beauty.  They wrote down words like “kind,” “funny,” “smart,” and brave.”  The team then talked about which was more important, inner or outer beauty.  They talked about which was easier to change and control.  The girls decided that inner beauty was easier to control because you can’t always change the way you look, but you can change how you choose to act.  Pretty good for a bunch of 10-year-olds.

Girls on the Run Coaches go through thorough training every year on the curriculum, how to build relationships with the girls and how to encourage friendships among the team.  

After the initial activity, the team went outside to the soccer field and warmed up.  The warm-up consisted of out and back sprints.  After the first sprint, the girls shared with one teammate what some of the qualities were that they had written down.  After the second sprint, they shared their qualities with two teammates.  After the third sprint, they shouted what gave them inner beauty to the world.

Each lesson in Girls on the Run consists of an introductory activity, followed by a warm-up that builds on the day’s theme.  The girls then stretch, choose their lap goals for the day, and begin to run their laps.  After up to 45 minutes of running, the girls cool down and wrap up the lesson.

For this lesson, the girls were given the name of one of their teammates to think about as they ran their lap.  At the end of each lap, they would take a moment to write down on notecard with that teammate’s name a quality they felt that teammate expressed.  Then they would receive a new name to think about for their next lap.  As the girls chose their lap goals, the coaches checked in with the injured girl.  On her own, she came up with a creative way to still participate in the lesson and support her teammates.  She would spend the lap time writing down qualities for each of her teammates on a poster along with their names.  She also volunteered to help the coaches and girls keep track of laps for the day.  As the team ran their laps, the coaches watched the notecards fills up with the beautiful qualities these girls saw in each other.  The injured girl filled an entire poster with these qualities, then cheered her teammates on as they ran, telling each of them how amazing they were and that she knew they could keep going!

At the close of each practice, the girls and coaches give each other “Energy Awards.”  A girl nominates one of her teammates, who stands in the middle of a circle formed by the team.  The nominator tells why she thinks the girl deserves an energy award.  The reasons range from “She ran my laps with me” to “She kept going even when she was tired” to “She encouraged me to keep going.”  The team then does a cheer just for that girl.  

As the girls finished their laps and prepared to head inside, holding their new notecards filled with the beautiful qualities their teammates saw in them, the coaches noticed something.  The girls were being kinder to each other. They were offering to help each other with bags and water bottles.  They congratulated each other on laps.  They thanked each other.  They held doors for each other.  They listened to each other during the wrap up.  This was different.  This was a change even from the beginning of practice that day.  And all it took to create this change was forty minutes of focusing on the inner beauty they saw in themselves and in their teammates.  The energy awards were flying that practice.  All the girls wanted to thank or recognize someone else on their team.  As parents came to pick up their girls, the kindness continued.  The girls hugged and said goodbye for the day.  The coaches just stood there and smiled.

Imagine what a world full of Girls on the Run could look like.

For more information on Girls on the Run, including how to become a volunteer coach, a donor, or a Solemate Charity Runner, how to sign up your girl, and more, visit www.girlsontherun.org/

Photo credit: Kathleen Cannon