Carolyn, the new girl on the block

I cannot get enough of the enthusiasm, encouraging spirit, and goodwill demonstrated by the people involved with Habitat for Humanity! Whether someone is on the giving or receiving end, there is an undeniable sense of compassion, pride, and appreciation. It’s an accomplishment that is not consistently found in other organizations. Many charitable organizations, by the nature of the issue they address, often work with clients who make it challenging for staff and volunteers to maintain their philanthropic vitality. Child advocacy groups, for example, frequently work with neglectful parents who honestly wish that you would go jump off a bridge and mind your own business. To make matters worse, most of these organizations have a terrible time recruiting and/or retaining volunteers. Conversely, Habitat for Humanity attracts a type of person in need who views the aid they receive as a miracle. They want to show their gratitude by being involved and are supported by volunteers who happily contribute a dumbfounding amount of time.

It is hard to stand for a policy or program that tries to assist a group of people who abuse or neglect the very system that selflessly works to help them (thank goodness there are those who see past the childhood baggage, poor influences, and addiction and move forward in spite of it). So, for those heavily involved in the nonprofit world, witnessing the success, efficiency, momentum, and realization of a problem solved is like the caffeine that keeps us going.

Again today, I met the soon-to-be-owner of the house I was taking pictures of. Carolyn was her name. She laughed when I asked her about the 400 hours of sweat equity she has had to put into the construction of her home. “I don’t know much. I think I sometimes get in the way.” Even if Carolyn is no master carpenter, the 2 house leaders, Donna and Chuck (sketched above), seemed happy to have her help.

Another happy Habitat day on Finzer Street.

It’s “welcome home!” for a new Habitat for Humanity family

8″ x 10″ oil on canvas, available for sale at Expressions of You Coffee Shop.
See all paintings available for sale.

This week I will be hanging around a few construction sites, places I typically avoid at all cost. It’s a different story when Habitat for Humanity is in charge. Although the start of my coverage of various Habitat projects was planned to start this Wednesday, I decided to get involved early by attending a house dedication on Saturday. This boy, who I later learned also lives in a Habitat house in the neighborhood, watched the ceremony from the sidewalk. He soon made his way inside along with the other guests to view the new home and greet his new neighbors.

Not often will you find as diverse a group as I saw at this dedication ceremony. A few of those in attendance were Muslim and Christian religious leaders (blessing of the home, check), a girls high school soccer team (landscaping, check), a group of African friends and family (gourmet lunch, check), a very handy, retired, white, female philanthropist (project team leader, check), and small army of devoted volunteers (completed Habitat for Humanity house, check).

The home owner gave an absolutely heart warming speech of gratitude standing above the crowd from his new front porch. He told us about his arrival to the US. Then, we learned that he is now working nights at UPS, earning a degree in sociolology, being a father to 2 sons, and until this day, had been putting in a total of 400 hours into the construction of his own home. He shook every hand and invited passersby on the street to join us for lunch.

There’s something about the double-handed handshake that exudes sincerity. You know the one, when someone shakes with one hand and cups the back of yours with the other. “I thank you very much,” was repeated by the homeowner with each shake like a broken record, but spoken each time as if it were the first.

World AIDS Day lands me at the mall

7″ x 9″ watercolor/pen and ink, $60 ($10 donated to the Global Fund).
See all paintings available for sale.

These days, “spare time” is not a concept I’m familiar with, which ensures that my trips to shopping centers are nearly non-existent. I had to sit in my car for a moment while I tried to remember which direction I was headed yesterday on a mission to find retailers selling (RED) items. In honor of yesterday’s World AIDS Day, I gave myself permission to visit the mall to snap pictures of the Gap’s “inspi(red)” shirt for this post.

The (RED) blog explains that, “(RED) was created by Bono and Bobby Shriver, Chairman of DATA, to raise awareness and money for The Global Fund by teaming up with the world’s most iconic brands to produce (PRODUCT) RED-branded products. A percentage of each (PRODUCT) RED product sold is given to The Global Fund. The money helps women and children with HIV/AIDS in Africa.”

(RED) is a great business approach to social activism that offers products in demand that in turn serve a greater good. There is an ocean of charities anyone can write a check to, but why not add some fuel to the flame by giving incentives to contribute by offering people something in return (like my artwork, wink wink)?

So, before you buy that new iPod as a Christmas gift, or get that new American Express card to pay for it, think about upgrading to the (RED) version.

Tags: , , ,

Even with options and knowledge, old habits die hard

I often stuff my own snacks in my bag when flying since it’s common knowledge that airport food isn’t exactly the epitome of healthful cuisine. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find several healthy options wedged between the usual type 2 diabetes inducing culprits at LaGuardia airport. I was able to get a fresh salad to order that was made in front of my eyes as I instructed the salad artist behind the counter on how to accommodate my quirky eating habits. I took my bowl of colorful nutrients and turned to the rest of the food court to head to my gate. I stopped in my tracks to observe a rather disturbing happening. Although there were multiple food vendors (several with relatively healthier menu items, and nearly all without a wait), McDonalds had a line that would make you think roaches had been crawling on their competitors’ counters.

Can anyone honestly plead ignorance these days about nutrition basics? Sure, I might give in when rushed and visit the Wendy’s drive-thru, but these people were definitely not in a hurry and were willing to needlessly wait for a Ronald McDonald start to their morning. It reminds me of the impact McDonald’s food had on Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me. The results of his 30-day-McDonald’s-only-diet were parallel to the effects pharmaceuticals have on the depressed. “I’m lovin’ it” applies to drugs and food; what’s the difference, right?

Do as you please; you’re a grown up. I’ve even gone to the grocery store with my dad’s list of Oreos, Doritos, and HoHo’s. He’s heard my spiel and is an informed consumer (and also has high blood pressure). What bothered me most was the young obese girl waiting in line with her equally overweight mother. Mom lovingly wrapped her arms around her daughter from behind while they waited. Does she have a clue?

Bowery Mission provides holiday meal to New York’s homeless

8″ x 10″ oil on canvas, $220
See all paintings available for sale.

The thousands of homeless New Yorkers must find Thanksgiving a confronting holiday. I suppose the saying, “things could be worse” is technically always true, but on a day when families gather around a table of lavish and indulgent dishes in the loving comforts of a home, being on the streets, cold, estranged, and maybe battling a challenge, such as addiction, is hard to swallow.Through my work and interests, I have learned a fair amount about homelessness, how people find themselves in such a predicament, policy, systems, and programs that address the issue, and ones that seem to enable it. I’ve heard multiple opinions about homelessness, but even those with little general sympathy have a heart for the percentage who truly are victims of circumstances, such as children. An organization like the Bowery Mission in New York City, serving thousands of homeless individuals and families in various capacities, would certainly have a wide array of clients for any interested volunteer or sponsor.

Although the Bowery Mission serves multiple meals to their clients everyday of the year, Thanksgiving is especially busy. I left the comforts of the Beatles’ musical words of happiness, an on-going supply of gourmet food, and great company to share the experience of Thanksgiving with the Bowery Mission’s 2pm dinner crowd. An enormous and flawless team of staff and volunteers in red aprons served food and love in a perfectly orchestrated masterpiece of goodwill. A young boy with a kippah served dinner to woman wearing a hijab, and a gray-haired woman brought a plate to a toddler, all inside a chapel-turned-dinning-hall.

I came back to John Lennon and Wi-Fi feeling a bit awkward about eating the gourmet cheese and dried fruit.

Just after the Thanksgiving feast, I’m reminded of world hunger

Wedged between modern towering structures facing the Hudson River sits a slice of Irish history that demanded a break from my walk in Battery Park this weekend. The Irish Hunger Memorial is a collage of lush native Irish flora, hard-edged design, and meandering walkways all hugging an authentic Famine-era cottage woven together to create a design “to raise public awareness of the events that led to the famine of 1845-52 and to encourage efforts to address current and future hunger worldwide.”

My sketch, from the interior of the memorial, frames one of many stones (this one engraved with a Formee’ Cross) which stands erect, mimicking the skyrises across the river in New Jersey. The oddity of thick grass and ancient stones among all of New York City’s visual frenzy contributes to a design that “communicates with the visitors on many levels, resulting in a powerful, yet flexible, framework within which to convey information encouraging action through commemoration.”
Designer Brian Tolle quickly redirected my attention from my rare morning off, back to my intent of being in New York at Thanksgiving – hunger. With that in mind, much of my focus this week will be on bringing you more artwork from the city revolving around that issue. Stay tuned.

Bourbon put to good use by supporting nature preserve

10″ x 10″ oil on wood panel, $200 ($50 donated to the Blackacre Foundation).
See all paintings available for sale.

“Green rolling hills and lush forests” – a description you would not find out of the ordinary when used to describe Kentucky. The majority of residents living in the state’s city centers, however, face a different landscape. “Urbanite” is being used in the bluegrass vernacular more and more as skyrises and contemporary condos sprinkle the cityscapes.

Amidst this growth, nonprofits such as the Blackacre Foundation are ensuring that the wellbeing and history of a piece of Kentucky’s pristine countryside, hugging Louisville’s boundaries, is preserved. The foundation places emphasis on environmental education and the heritage of its 271 acres. School kids are nearly as common as squirrels and robins since field trips are the focal point of its educational efforts.

The foundation was rewarded in ticket sales from a classy bourbon tasting at an appropriate venue, Bourbons Bistro. A bourbon expert/historian led a group of approximately 70 guests through a sampling of 6 high end bourbons, followed by a four course, bourbon based meal. Needless to say, the chic bistro was full of happy campers filled with warm spirits (both the emotional and liquid type).

Holiday season is off and running with charitable festival

6″ x 8″ watercolor $60 ($10 donated to Kosair Charities)
See all paintings available for sale.

Can you go wrong when a baseball stadium hosts a multicultural holiday extravaganza where parents can shop for holiday decorations while volunteers keep frosting out of their youngster’s hair in the midst building gingerbread houses? The owner of these pigtails would tell you, “No way.”

The holiday season, in all of its glitz and glory, had exploded into full force at the Festival of Trees and Lights, benefiting the neonatal unit of the Kosair Children’s Hospital. Who wouldn’t have a smile on their face when you’re a little person who can freely self administer sugar to the blood stream or a big person who can buy a handcrafted wreath for the front door?

Without a doubt, the event benefited a worthy cause. Kosair Children’s Hospital, with 87 beds, has a 96.3% survival rate of some of the most medically fragile infants. This illustration should give you a solid idea of their clientele. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Tags: , ,

Culinary genius helps raise money for March of Dimes

8″ x 10″ oil on wood panel
See all paintings available for sale.

Tomato and mozzarella salad in a martini glass to bourbon slushies, the signature chefs at this fundraiser for March of Dimes wowed attendees with tantalizing treats. Not a single guest was found without a mouthful, fork in hand, or jaw dropped at ballroom filled with cuisine as aesthetically pleasing as it was delicious. A few of the smiling faces in pristine white chef hats dishing out their masterpieces were Quang Dinh of Blu Italian Mediterranean Grill (one of his dishes painted above), Peng Looi of Asiatique and August Moon (as if one kitchen wasn’t enough), and Michael Crouch of Bourbons Bistro.

For once, the shame of gorging yourself on irresistible delicacies took a back seat to the pleasure in knowing that your ticket to partake in the gourmet feast was going towards efforts to combat premature births. Through research, education, community services and advocacy, March of Dimes is taking on the problem and strives to “improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality.” Many parents are surely thankful that the organization is working hard to prevent their child from being one of the unfortunate 1 in 8 who are too early.

Technorati tags: , , .

Looking for a home

8″ x 10″ oil on canvas, $200
See all paintings available for sale.

I tend to volunteer for organizations that deal with people in crisis mode. In contrast, yesterday I snapped pictures of volunteers with possibly the most relaxing and fun job of all time; pet entertainer. The title is actually “dog walker”, but essentially it consists of walking (or being walked, depending on size), playing with, petting, and in general, giving some much needed love to a full house of “homeless” four-legged residents.

The Kentucky Humane Society runs a tight ship that far exceeds its means. I was incredibly impressed by learning the private non-profit finds homes for 5,000 animals each year, all of whom are spayed/neutered, tested for diseases and parasites, immunized, evaluated and approved by an animal behaviorist, and implanted with a microchip. Somehow, all of this is possible for an average adoption rate of $135.

As I was chasing rambunctious kittens with a camera, uselessly attempting to make them pose, I watched a couple pick out a new addition to their family. The cat seemed to bond with the woman as if she had just come to pick up the lifelong companion after vacation. Here’s another success story that tempts me to take one home myself (don’t worry boyfriend of mine, I can see the look of fear on your face already).

Think Christmas guys; nothing gets you more brownie points than a puppy or kitten under a tree!
Tecnorati tags: , ,

A little used furniture goes a long way

8″ x 11″ oil on board, $200 ($50 donated to CRIS).

See all paintings available for sale.

Here is the final piece from this past weekend’s furniture delivering adventure (see the pervious post for more). Although our time spent was intended to specifically serve the Somali refugee clients of CRIS, we had enough furniture to spread the love to this American family of 5 living in the same apartment complex. It’s amazing how one church congregation’s junk can make a tremendous difference in the lives of 3 families, 125 miles away.

The mother’s boyfriend of the family above was in the process of moving out and taking most of the furniture with him. The family was incredibly grateful for the couch and chairs we were able to spare. The 11 church youth group members, 2 CRIS employees, and I received hugs, smiles, and on going words thanks from the families we helped. Manual labor and used furniture was the least we could offer these families coping with burdens ranging from poverty to being forced to leave a home and familiar culture.

If you’re interested in getting involved, here other national refugee resettlement organizations that would love your help.

Technorait tags: , ,

Somali Muslim refugees are shown a little love by Ohio Christians

I was waiting for the rain soaking us to the bone to change to snow as our group of 11 Akron Ohio church youth group members and 2 CRIS (community refugee and immigration services) employees fumbled our way up several flights of stairs with 2 truck loads of donated furniture. Thank goodness Somalians keep the heat cranked up while adjusting to the frigid November temperatures in Columbus, Ohio.

My Saturday entailed attending an informative meeting about the refugee resettlement process, delivering furniture to 2 Somali families (as well as a third American family in need of our surplus), and finishing up with a hearty meal at a Somali restaurant. Although certainly needed and welcomed, our day’s work hardly seemed to put a dent in the broader problem. Columbus is a new home to thousands of Africans who fled their native country left uninhabitable by civil war. Columbus has the second largest Somali population in the nation (about 45,000). Many arrive in the US speaking little English, often with several children, and unprepared to acclimate to the American culture. It’s a far from perfect system they are given to work with, but nonetheless, deep appreciation was was felt for our efforts to contribute a small bit of help and support. And no matter what momentous struggles are ahead of you, having a bed to sleep in verses the floor still seems make all the difference. For more personal stories and info check out this blog.

Tomorrow I will be working on a painting from this weekend’s activities so I will leave further details for that post. But I’ll leave you with this last sketch which was one of the highlights of my day. As we repeatedly walked past the home of the boy on the right (PJ), we stirred enough curiosity to get him, his 2 brothers, single mother, and aunt outside to watch. We ended up giving them several pieces of much needed furniture that honestly was more than the 2 Somali families needed. The 2 youngest boys were completely enamored with the us and especially the boy on the left (Michael), who was one of the youth group members from Akron. I snapped a picture of both them as PJ, without missing a beat, affectionately took Michael’s hand and vigorously tried to warm it between his own after Michael had complained that his hands were cold and freezing from carrying boxes and furniture outside in the elements. I couldn’t feel my fingers, feet, or the end of my nose, but the warm fuzzies were at least keeping my spirit dry and out of the cold.

Technorait tags: , ,

Did you pass a Cherokee Indian Chief on your way to the office?

6″ x 8″ watercolor, $60 ($10 donated to the Wolakota Foundation).

See all paintings available for sale.

Downtown and surrounded by office buildings; not a setting where you would expect to see a Chief Cherokee Indian fully outfitted in authentic clothing. Today was an exception. This week marks the Center for Interfaith Relation’s 11th annual Festival of Faiths. One of the many events scheduled for the festival was the tree planting ceremony I attended this morning, summarized in the Festival of Faith’s program as, “Many of the sacred mounds of the Cherokee in the area that is now Louisville were destroyed during building construction. Several of these sites are downtown. Chief Arvol Looking Horse and the local Cherokee and Iroquois communities will lead the tree planting in honor of Native People.”

Chief Arvol Looking Horse is quite the recognized leader as founder of the Wolakota Foundation, which has established spiritually grounded “programs for sustaining traditional teachings of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nation as well as researching and demonstrating practices for sustainable, ecologically-balanced living.”

An eclectic mix of participants (Buddhists monks to businessmen) gathered in a circle to watch the ceremony, which closed by the circle folding in on itself as one person initiate a chain by turning to the left and shaking the hand of each person down the line. A great way to start any morning.

Election day

8″ x 11″ oil on masonite, $200 ($50 donated to CASA).
See all paintings available for sale.

What a day it’s been! The polls seemed to have a steady flow of traffic. Fido waited outside my polling station in the rain this morning while its owner cast his vote.

Get all of the latest national news at CNN and local results here.

Technorati tags: Kentucky election, election, voting.

Highlights from the “Engaging Our World” conference

Whatever your social justice concern, you would have found educated voices speaking about it at the “Engaging Our World” conference. Paul Loeb, who researches and writes about citizen responsibility and empowerment, was a key guest speaker. Other participants included many faculty members at the University of Louisville, representatives from various nonprofits, and religious/spiritual leaders.

To squeeze in as much as possible, I brought along a friend to divvy up the workshops. Between the two of us, we heard panelists field questions on environmental issues (panelists sketched above), watched an Oxfam video presentation, learned about the cleft palate corrective surgeries that Dr. Mark Chariker performs (glad my friend was assigned to that one),

listened to representatives from “Women in Transition” explain how they help women rise above poverty (speaker and conference attendee sketched above), attended a lecture on Humanity and Sustainability, and created models of “ideal communities” with ACTIVE Living that best enable active lifestyles that fight obesity.

The conference planning committee didn’t just stop at booking knowledgeable speakers and organizing wonderful workshops. Everything was covered, down to the biodegradable, sugarcane fiber cutlery used at lunch. My friend took her knife back to Columbus to test the claim that it would decompose in her compost pile.

I left the conference feeling a mix of shock at the reality and severity of numerous looming issues while also inspired by the enthusiasm generated by the participants. Although possibly skewed since I am devoting an increasing amount of time to these issues, it still seems that many of these topics are gaining momentum and beginning to move mountains.

Technorati tags: Oxfam, Engaging Our World, social justice, Paul Loeb, University of Louisville