Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy 9th Birthday to my Beautiful Daughter Who Doesn’t Share My DNA But Shares So Many Other Things

As my little one completed her 9th trip around the sun, I find myself considering how much we credit to DNA.  This is something my daughter and I don’t share.  And because of that, our difference are pretty obvious.  She is petite; I am tall.  She has brown skin; I have white.  My hair is wavy blond and eyes are green; her hair is curly black and eyes just this side of black.  
But we have a lot in common too.  Is it nature?  Is it fate? Or is it some combination of things I can’t explain?  Whatever the reason, we enjoy sharing these special connections.

We LOVE experimenting with hair and clothes.  I recall all my crazy hair styles and outfits from my youth as I watch my daughter follow that path with her own exploration.  I have become the hair model for many of her efforts.  We also found her a hair model doll which I would have loved to have when I was a girl.  Her style is a bit more dance diva where mine was eclectic model.  But our goal to use our hair and clothes as a means of expression is the same.  I chuckled in appreciation recently when I saw she had used scarves to create a long thick braid tied around her high pony tail.  We make a funny sight as she will happily do my hair in all place including public ones like a basketball game.

We value peace and inclusion at a cellular level.  Leyla and I both want to make people feel welcome and included.  We like to have everyone get along; whether it be family or friends. This is often easier said than done.  When our efforts aren't successful, we take it personally.  We then talk about how the other person might have viewed the situation and what we could do different next time.

We ADORE animals.  We love them, whether it be our beautiful papillions, our conure, the cats that wander through our yard, or fish in our pond.  I had a zoo's worth of stuffed animals of all kinds as a child and Leyla has topped me.  There is barely room for her little body in her bed.  We watch animals shows on TV.  On safari in Kenya, we were both enthralled with getting to jump into the scenes with these most amazing creatures in real life (except for the time when the monkeys came to "share" our hot chocolate or the lioness seemed like she was going to "join" us in our vehicle because we got too close to her and her baby).

We strive to interact above our linear years.  I was called wise beyond my years as a kid.  I enjoyed adult conversations and hanging out with older, either in years or life experience, people and exploring deep topics.  This desire is heightened for Leyla as the youngest with quite the gap between her and her brothers.  She also has had to make sense of a complex life situation which I think has increased her desire to gain insight into the WHY of human choices and behaviors.

Dancing makes us happy.   Somehow moving to music always made me feel free and fluid and like anything was possible.  I see the same for Leyla although she has physical gifts I never did as she demonstrated when she showed me the coffee grinder in motion after her first hip hop class.   A dance party with the Echo playing our favorite tunes is a great bonding time for us (and I am sure a good opportunity to chuckle for anyone watching).

We laugh with abandon. Laughter releases all this joy.  I find it infectious and great anecdote to when there is nothing left to say, either because we are joyful, mad or sad -- and words are wholly inadequate.  We laugh together at all the silliness we see, to get out of a funk, to release the emotions of a hard talk or experience.  A long tight hug after is extra special.

We sense we are destined for something and feel the weight of that responsibility.  I didn’t know what or why but I thought there was something I was supposed to do which led me to found Open Hearts Big Dreams Fund to help kids in Ethiopia.  I am still not quite sure what else but I still have that feeling.  I knew Leyla shared it when I saw her choose “So you want to be president” to watch over and over.  And when she shared her aspirations, the literal brother quickly pointed, “You can’t because you were not born here.”  Without missing a beat, she said, “Then I will be president of Ethiopia.”

We own our power.  Autonomy is important to me along with making my choices and forging my path even if they aren't the traditional or expected.  When Leyla was 2-3, her eldest brother was teasing her.  I saw her pull over a stool and climb on it.  She stood up so she could look him in the eye.  She then pointed her little finger in his face and told him emphatically,  “You are not Mom.  You are not the Truth.  And you and not the boss of me!!”  He fell over laughing at her serious face and tone so she added, “And this is NOT funny!”

I was awed by that statement which packed so much into a few short sentences.  Her dead serious passionate delivery made it even more powerful.  I have shared the story a few times, sometimes in earshot of Leyla.  When she was “great kid” at school, she wanted me to tell that story for the piece where parents provide a little of their insight which surprised me a little.

And we are the only two in the family who love sushi -- selfie at a favorite local place

So Happy Last One Digit Birthday, my beautiful, inside and out, daughter.  I look forward to continuing to learn from our differences and to our similarities!  You have enriched and brightened my life beyond words.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Happy Birthday Happy Homecoming 2016 -- A Year of Milestones and Transitions and Growth

This has been a big year.  Michael and I celebrated 25 years married.  This homecoming and birthday celebration marked a half century on this earth for me – wow, where did the years go?! And in the fall, I brought our eldest to college.  Another reminder that time flies as it seems yesterday he was a tiny baby.  It was the first time since Leyla joined our family on my birthday eight years ago, we would again be a family of four for our day to day.  

The milestones and transitions of this year impacted us all; Leyla was no exception. Her eight year old self is a wonderfully complex human being.  Looking back at her development in the last twelve months showed huge growth and provided opportunities for introspection to me.

At her first ever photo shoot for an Amazon Toy Campaign

She learned growing up involves loss.

Leyla took her big brother's departure to college hard as they have a special bond.  She told me soulfully, “I am SO sad he is leaving.”  I empathized and reminded her, “We are all sad, sweetie, but this is a good thing and part of your brother growing up.”  She looked at me like I totally missed the point, “Well, I had the LEAST amount of time with him.  You and dad got 19 years, Damian got 15, and I only got 8.”  I didn’t have a good response to this poignant display of her new math skills. So I settled for giving her a big hug which comforted us both.
Leyla getting to visit big brother at college

She grew as a teacher and a learner.  

One day, she talked to me about issues she had at her school with her classmates. We walked through the specifics and some of the strategies she might try to get a different result.  Some involved how to balance when to hold her ground and when to compromise; a tricky balance for me too.  She shared a few days later, “Thanks so much for your advice.  It all worked out great. I really appreciate you talking it through with me.”  This was not the report back I expected from my second grader. But I am learning nothing is as I might expect with her. And she reminded me of how empowering it can be to be given another perspective and some new strategies to try.

She broadened how she identifies her complex identity.  

She LOVES being Ethiopian.  Going to ECA culture camp is a yearly highlight. But she is also proud to be Greek (via Dad) and they enjoy special delicacies together like dolmades.  She also loves being Dutch (via Mom) hanging out with Oma and Opa and learning their native language lullabies.  She is modeling how embracing a culture doesn’t mean excluding others.  She is naturally inclusive which is inspiring to me.
Hanging out in Denver with Oma and Opa

Her relationship with her hair and mine evolved.  

She rocked her first set of braids which she adored.  She then missed her curls and was glad when they were released as we undid the braids.  She loves playing with my hair and her dolls'.  I think my hair is fine.  I always had hair envy for those with thick long hair.  But she thinks my hair is wonderful.  She adores styling it. I get almost as much hair attention as her dolls.  She practices creating braids and other fun, funky styles – most I cannot wear in public although she wants me to each time.  She has helped me to model what I always tell her.  “Your hair is perfect for you.”  And so I am coming to accept mine is also perfect for me.

Rocking her braids at an Ethiopia Reads Fundraiser

She modeled how to expresses gratitude and make people feel seen.  

Her approach reminds me of the power of being grateful for what is good and pure in my life. The simplest gestures can hold so much power.  I can always find something good in every interaction but I need to develop the discipline to make it a focus.  She has a natural ability to find the good in situations without ignoring the challenges.  This is an art.  She will thank people on a regular basis for the smallest of gestures and try to genuinely connect with them.  You can see the impact as their faces light up.  When I was at a recent fundraiser, a friend noted, I asked her, “How are you, Leyla?”  And she responded, “Great.  And how are YOU?”  The later part being what she found more surprising.  

Celebrating after her first hip hop performance

She experienced death as an intricate part of life.  

With the unexpected passing of her beloved pup Bella, she experienced all the stages of grief.  Disbelief: “I am waiting for her to just come back?”  “Do you think she is hiding?”  “I dreamt she was still with us”; Anger: “What is the point of living if we are all going to die anyway?!”; and finally Acceptance: “I am glad we had the time we had with her.”  And she embraced our new pup Beau with the same reckless abandon.  She makes the expression “loved to death” come to life.  She opened her whole heart fully willing to risk the pain and loss again.  She also held on to the love she had for Bella keeping a little stuffed animal of the same breed on her dresser.  When she found out a neighbor lost her dad, Leyla sat down and wrote her a note.  She then hand delivered, compelled to offer comfort.  She was rewarded with a card in the mail which laid out how much this person appreciated her gesture.  I was reminded me the power of sincerely reaching out whatever the age or situation.

Doggie days at Amazon with little Beau

Thank you sweet daughter for providing me (and your dad and brothers) so much joy and love and learning!  Your life is complex and not without its share of unanswerable questions and undeserved pain. Yet you move through it with such grace and wonder and dignity.  


Looking forward to another amazing year with you!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

An Exciting New Chapter for Open Heart Big Dreams Fund: Supporting Literacy, Education, Leadership Development to Equalize Opportunities in Ethiopia

When we brought our little girl home from Ethiopia in 2008, we committed to her and ourselves that we would make a positive impact in her birth country.   
Leyla arrives in Seattle on my birthday 2008
And with her substantial involvement, we are thrilled to share we have done just that and are ready to do more.  We started by donating books and then funding a library in Bahir Dar, her birthplace, which we have been able to visit twice so far.
Visiting the site of the Bahir Dar Library in 2011
Dimitri reading to Leyla in the Bahir Dar library in 2014
Leyla with the plague in her honor in school "February 23"
Then we took a big leap of faith and launched our first OHBD event on a wing and prayer plus an amazing network of support.  I remember waking up the morning of gala having just had a nightmare no one showed up.  But thankfully, people who cared about kids in Ethiopia showed up.  In fact, so many we had to turn some away; all with Open Hearts to support Big Dreams for deserving children. 
Thank you card front for OHBD 2011
And they continued to show up in bigger numbers each subsequent year growing OHBD to an event that consistently raised over $100K.
With Jane Kurtz (Advisory Board Member) OHBD 2012
Leyla wants all kids to get to go to school OHBD 2013
Thank you card back OHBD 2013
Our goal with this event was to create a predictable source of funding to one organization, Ethiopia Reads.  It was doing great program work in country but every year required many people taking on small fundraisers.  We worked with Ethiopia Reads to test other vehicles, on-line and family friendly events, plus provided strategic advice and guidance.  As we grew and raised close to half a million dollars in total, we realized we needed a different structure to continue to increase our impact beyond one organization and one event.
OHBD 2014 with Betty Gronneberg (Advisory Board Member)
Leyla speaking for up for kids and education OHBD 2014
My husband Michael and I, with the support of a talented group with HUGE hearts, are now ready to take these efforts formally to the next level.  Through doing so, we hope to dramatically increase our reach.  So we took another leap of faith and created a stand-alone “Open Heart Big Dreams Fund” Not for Profit.  (I  have heartd from some who thought this was already the case.)  
OHBD 2015 -- Family Affair -- everyone is growing up; both Damian and Leyla spoke
We want to support more good work being done for kids in Ethiopia by organizations like Ethiopia Reads, Seeds of Africa and International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia, each founded by one of our Advisory Board Members.  

should NOT depend on where you are born

The need and opportunity is greatEthiopia’s population is 44% children ages 0-14 (43 million out of 97 million total).  Only 5.5% of children attend pre-school or kindergarten.  Only 68% of ages 7-12 attend primary school.  Adult literacy stands at 49% with men at 57% and women at 41%.  Only 7.5% of the adult population have any post-secondary education.

Currently we have an amazing board, advisory board and volunteer base who has signed on with us to get started on this important work.  We will feature their stories in the coming months - each is inspiring!  Our 5013c paperwork is submitted, our website in development, and Yeggy Michael, long time supporter and amazing artist, is designing our new logo.  
Yeggy Michael at OHBD 2013
Our target “customer” is the small to medium sized not for profit (501(3)(c) working in Ethiopia focused on literacy, education, and increasing leadership capabilities.

Our Mission:
Inspiring and enabling youth, their parents, their communities and the organizations who serve them by providing literacy, education, and leadership opportunities.
We plan deliver against the mission in three ways:
  1. Raising funds and providing grants to organizations for projects that deliver these services in Ethiopia.  They will need to meet specific criteria including working with local populations, impact, sustainability, and collaboration.  We are targeting one large event as we successfully done previously (raising over $450K over the last 5 years, $100K or more the last three), and testing 2-3 other models including on-line.
  2. Sharing expertise, best practices, and resources for 1) fund raising through traditional donations and commercial efforts, 2) creating and running this type of not for profit focused on areas they can benefit from traditional small business approaches and the use of technology, and 3) volunteer and donor recruiting and relations.
  3. Connecting volunteers (board and project based) with the organizations we support who need them.
Our initial focus will be raising fund and providing grants.  We will share expertise, best practices and resources opportunistically as we build up on webpage content through our board and volunteers as well as those associated with the organizations we support.  We will begin to build out a platform to connect volunteers with organizations and projects likely end of 2017 or early 2018 although we will be opportunistic there too.

We want to take the best of business and technology to increase impact and drive collaboration. We are excited for the future of these new efforts and the futures of the kids they will support.  Thank you all for your amazing support, friendship and inspiration.  We look forward to seeing that continue in this new chapter.
Leyla and OHBD Fund Board Member Rajitha Boer at Efeste kick off event 2016
Selam!  Onward!!