Thursday, October 29, 2009

Walk in someone else's shoes

After having knee surgery on Friday, I was unsure whether or not I would be able to make it to the Steve Martin concert at the Meyerson on Tuesday night. As the day grew closer, I began to regret not purchasing tickets. I grew up on bluegrass and really wanted to be a part of the CDM event.

As luck would have it, a friend came by my house Tuesday afternoon and said he had three extra tickets. Figuring that was a sign, I called a couple of friends and decided to venture out. Another friend had assured me the Meyerson had wheelchairs available and encouraged me to use that option (especially since I had not gotten approval from my doctor to be out and about just yet.)

We arrived, explained the situation to the lady taking tickets, and requested a wheelchair. She was very kind, immediately requesting a wheelchair from the man sitting behind her, who was obviously waiting for just such a request. He, too, was great. He quickly wheeled a chair over to us and offered to keep my crutches, saving us inexperienced people the trouble of maneuvering with two bulky items at the same time.

With Tameshia pushing from behind, we followed the lady’s instructions to go up the elevator to our designated seating area, where we were assured there was wheelchair seating. As the elevator opened, another lady in a wheelchair came out. We exchanged greetings and she told us she’d see us soon. We weren’t sure what to make of that, but proceeded into the elevator anyway. The nice gentleman (another Meyerson employee) helped us not get trampled as the elevator loaded and proceeded to take us to the wheelchair level.

As we left the elevator, we were all a little confused as to where we were supposed to be going. Sheri (the other person in our party) ventured off to find an usher. (Why is it that ushers are only available when you *don’t* need help?!) Sheri emerged from inside the seating area, an usher trailing her with a walkie talkie.

As the usher was calling around asking people where wheelchair patrons should be seated, a friend of mine walked by, noticed my dilemma, and came to commiserate with our frustration. “We had the same problem!!” she exclaimed, obviously more than a little upset. She went on to tell me that her boyfriend’s father had been sent on the same wild goose chase to find a seat. It was then I recalled the lady in the wheelchair getting off the elevator telling us she'd see us soon. She was obviously trying to tell us she had already experienced the run-around of going up and down the elevator to places that didn't exist.

As the lights flickered to signal the show starting, we hurried to try to get back down the elevator to the place they had re-directed us. With Tameshia’s patience in wheeling me around and Sheri’s persistence in asking everyone where we were supposed to be, we finally reached our destination. We were about to get settled in…only to discover that only one person can sit beside the one in the wheelchair. Sheri, ever so graciously said she would return to our original seats in the GT section, two levels up, by herself.

Though the show was wonderful, I sat through the first 30 minutes or so of it frustrated by what had just happened. I had coerced my friend, Sheri, to come to a bluegrass concert (not necessarily her favorite), only to end up two tiers away from her. I was also irritated thinking about what I’m sure wheelchair patrons experience on a regular basis. But more than anything, I was irritated that someone in a wheelchair would have to deal with that kind of run around in a nationally recognized theater like the Meyerson! How can a place that has that many events...and I'm sure at least a few people in wheelchairs every evening...not train their employees to know where people in wheelchairs should sit??'s as simple as giving every new employee information on where the wheelchair section is!

I did not intend for my last minute decision to attend the concert to be a social experiment. I wasn't trying to walk in someone else's shoes. But, quite honestly, I’m glad it ended up that way. I know my situation wasn't extraordinary or different from others'. And I know it could easily be fixed if we started thinking of others who may have different situations from our own.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dallas South News' Junior Reporters in training

Dallas South News' founder, Shawn Williams, conducts a Junior Reporter class at our After-School Academy every Thursday. He's working toward getting them to the point of being able to post articles on the Dallas South News website.

Last Thursday I met up with Randy after he won the "Junior Reporter of the Week" award. He was so proud! The kids had been learning about asking open-ended questions.

This Thursday, the kids began working with the Flip video cameras. As far as I can tell, the kids had never worked the video cameras before. You can hear Shawn instructing them in this random video below:

But, as we know, kids are quick learners. After a few simple instructions about how to work the Flip video camera, the kids quickly moved to interviewing each other. Shawn was impressed that the open-ended questions lesson had stuck. Kwane, interviewing Lewis here, was awarded the "Junior reporter of the week" this week. Check it out. I think you'll understand why:

I couldn't resist posting Ishmael's interview. I love his beginning answer, "I go to school. I get a good education." Toward the end he explains what he does to get that good education. He's already preparing, whether he knows it or not, to be a great college student!

Keep an eye out for more from these Junior Reporters.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Best Boss's Day ever!!


The loud rap on my office door startled me.

I was closed off from the world, working hard to get several things done and was so engrossed that I didn't expect the knock.

Once I reached the door, though, no one was there. Instead, there was a styrofoam ice chest and a gift bag.

Completely surprised, I began reading the cards. Tameshia and Danielle (the culprits) came back from around the corner laughing at their ability to sprint down the hall so they wouldn't be seen.

I'm having surgery on Friday. Were they sending me well wishes before I'm out for a couple of weeks??

Nope...Friday was Boss's Day!

Wow! I had no idea!

They gave me the coolest cards, an amazingly cool coffee mug, my new favorite book (I Like Myself!), a photo book, and some grapes to munch on.

I was completely blown away. Especially considering that the only way I can be a great boss is because I have great employees.

Thank you, Danielle and Tameshia, for making my day GREAT!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Junie B. Jones, meet your counterpart

Friday afternoon, I ventured down to the After-School Academy to say hi. As I walked in the door, Hayzul jumped up, waving her arms in uncontainable excitement...then composed herself as she realized she needed to greet me first.

She composed herself long enough to look me in the eye, give me a firm handshake, and say, "Good afternoon, Ms. Janet." Then immediately started waving her hands excitedly, with her eyes squenched in excitement, and mouthing the words (that would have been a screech if she had allowed sound to come out), "We're going to see Junie B. Jones!!!!!!!!"

I love exposing kids to new opportunities. I love when they get excited as they discover something they'd never been exposed to before. Because of the Free Night of Theater offered by the City of Dallas we are able to do this with the kids.

Hayzul has been with me before so she knew what she was getting into...and she couldn't wait! We carefully chose our seats and Hayzul settled in. I watched her throughout the play. About a quarter of the way through the play I realized why Hayzul loves Junie B. so much. Hayzul *is* Junie B.!

Hayzul was so into the play, I don't even know if she realized she was rolling her eyes and sighing when Junie B. got sent to the principal's office for "no apparent reason" if she, herself, were the one marching to the office. I watched Hayzul growl in frustration and exasperation at Junie B.'s best friends. (I got the feeling that Hayzul felt she was watching her life being acted out on stage).

It was a great evening that we topped off by stopping by 1/2 Price Books. I had to find her an Anne of Green Gables book. I'm guessing Hayzul will be able to identify with "Ann with an 'e'" pretty well, too. She said she was going to start reading it this weekend. I can't wait to hear what she has to say.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Get out of your suits and come help!

I was unable to attend the Jim Wallis luncheon event last week. But I was told that Brittany, a college student who grew up in the Roseland TownHomes, had some well-spoken, but fairly harsh words for the people in the audience. "You need to get out of your suits and come down here to help. There are kids like me who want to do something and we need your help."

I'm glad Brittany said what she did.

Growing up in Roseland and the inner city, what Brittany understands is that the people who have the most resources, contacts, and connections do not and cannot feel her pain, know her dreams, or celebrate her successes. They can't because they don't know her.

Nearly every day I'm told that in order to get funding, we need "outcomes." Outcomes have always frustrated me. I see large organizations get amazing grant dollars...not because they have created a great program, but because they have learned how to write outcomes down on paper in a concise way that look good. I have listened to organizations tell me that they don't care if the kid stays at their program that day, but they want to make sure and count him/her so they can keep their numbers up for their reports.

Outcomes frustrate me.

As a director, my job often keeps me in the office writing grants, figuring out ways to write down on paper what we do, and writing endless charts about what we're going to measure. Just about the time I think I've got a handle on everything needed, I get a new email asking for more "stuff."

Over the last three weeks I have helped create two new educational programs--a library/bookstore and a Teen University--in the Roseland addition to our already existing After-School Academy. (our Digital Connectors program will be starting soon!)

I am giddy with excitement as I watch Katrina (Roseland Library/Bookstore) teach the kids that visit the library how to greet in sign language. I have watched her gather a small group of kids together as they take turns reading a magazine together. I listened to a parent walk by the library/bookstore and ask Katrina if she would be open that day because she was watching three extra kids for the day and wanted them to have something to do (Katrina said people say stuff like that to her all of the time). I have received excited text messages from Katrina on Saturdays telling me how kids showed up all day to read and participate. And I can't help but be excited when she tells me how kids are scrambling to buy the books she reads to them.

I am in awe of Terrence's (Teen University) ability to draw in the Roseland teenagers. So far he has drawn about 20% of the 12-18 year olds in Roseland (which amounts to about 29 teens). I absolutely love walking upstairs to the Teen University unexpectedly and see Terrence sitting on the couch with a couple of them, helping them do their homework, while a few others are on a different couch looking up words in the dictionary. At the other end of the room there are kids playing Scrabble, and still others inquiring about colleges.

My heart warms as Danielle (After-School Academy) updates me on the daily activities and little progresses of the kids. I've seen some of our biggest challenges walk into the garden and completely transform as they dig dirt, water the garden, and check out the vegetables they've grown. I get excited watching Shawn working with our junior reporters, thinking that they will be writing for Dallas South News soon. I love walking in and seeing all of the kids busy on the computers working away.

The reason I get frustrated with outcomes is not that they don't exist in our programs; it's that "outcomes" cannot be written on a sheet of paper. Our "outcomes" are often not represented by a sharp increase in their reading or math scores. Instead, it's what we see and observe. It's the smile on Fred's face compared to the angry, furrowed brow when he entered the program at the beginning of the summer. It's Kevin talking through stuff instead of getting mad and refusing to talk to anyone. It's seeing the light switch go on in Raymond's head as he figures out how to ask a good open-ended question. Outcomes and improvement is different for each child.

I try to think of the kids in the After-School Academy like I would my own children. My parents let me try things out. They knew that letting me explore baton twirling, Future Business Leaders of America, choir, piano lessons, etc. would lead me to finding myself. I learned to discipline myself to work toward goals with the things I loved. I learned to value playing the piano, but also learned that practicing every day was not how I wanted to spend my time. If I didn't make huge gains, my parents didn't withdraw me. They expected me to do my best.

So, I want to encourage people to come be a part of what we're doing. Come see what the kids are doing. Come garden with them. Come work with them on a designated project. Watch the change for yourself. In Brittany's words, "Get out of your suits and come spend time with us." The outcomes that exist when you least expect it and are so much better than what's on paper.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Education and focus through the community garden

As I sat in my office trying to produce outcomes and documents, my phone rang. From the other end of the building, Danielle asked, "Are you going to come see the garden?" and then strongly encouraged, "You really need to see this garden!" I grabbed the camera and quickly went to the garden so I wouldn't miss the kids working.

As I rounded the corner to the garden, I slowed. I could see Ladaysha working so intently with Ms. Susie and I didn't want to miss that moment. I took a few pictures through the bars of the fence just in case they got distracted by me...but it didn't matter. Ladaysha was busy trying to cut the string that would hold the tomato stakes she was putting up. I overheard her say to Ms. Susie, "Man, this takes patience!" I snapped a few shots and then turned to see Niemen.

Niemen has become a favorite of all of ours, but he does present us with many challenges. Yet, Niemen was so intently working on pushing the new thermometer/rain gauge into the ground, he didn't see me either. As I watched, he knelt down to the ground and began packing the dirt around the bottom so it wouldn't accidentally tip over. After getting a few shots, I approached him and asked him to tell me about the garden. His sly little smile told me that he was really enjoying himself.

Ladaysha and Niemen are two of our "Garden Apprentices." Ms. Susie (Gleaning Network of Texas) has been absolutely wonderful! She comes every other Friday to do a Gardening class with the kids...but probably 2-3 times/week she pops in to grab a few Garden Apprentices to help chart the garden's progress, water, pick vegetables, and teach them how to do regular maintenance work.

As I walked around the garden, the Ladaysha and Niemen showed me the black-eyed peas, tomatoes, bell peppers, and jalepenos that are growing. You can see in the videos below that we still have a little work to do on telling the difference between the different vegetables (Niemen had me convinced that the bell pepper was the jalepeno!), but they are quickly becoming expert gardeners. Sometimes the foundations kids need go beyond reading, writing, and math.

Check out the two videos below to see our garden and what the kids are learning: