It was the Morning of December 24th

It was the morning of December 24th.  Glancing at the clock on the bottom of my computer screen, I was surprised by the hour- nearly 10:30 am and no one was stirring.  Usually by this time the women had already popped in to say hello and informed me of any new controversies. On this day, however, the house was silent and everyone was still tucked away in their beds.
Within a mere minute or two, I heard a soft knock at my office door. Finally someone was awake!
"Melanie, I'm wondering when we get to open presents." one of the women asked sheepishly.
You see, piled in the corner of my tightly packed office was an impressive mound of donated gifts.  Plush throw blankets, boutique cosmetics, handmade soaps, candy, and puzzles were all wrapped festively and awaited their new owners.
I answered, "When everyone else is awake."
My role is a strange role.  I supervise, I case plan, I problem solve, I mediate, I intervene, I teach, but more simplistically put, I mother a group of adult female offenders eight hours a day. My role was no different this day.  In fact, in many ways, I was more maternally motivated because I was privileged to give a gift many had never received before- a safe Christmas.
The woman left my office and no more than 30 seconds later I heard a yell, "Get ready, Susan*, we get to open presents!"
"I don't think Lucy* is up either!" another yell from another woman.
I couldn't help but laugh at their childlike enthusiasm.  
Most of the women weren't looking forward to Christmas. The holiday regularly triggered upsetting memories and cravings.  The season reminded them of the family, often their own children, they were separated from. 
A few minutes before 11:00 the same woman, with her wrinkled pajamas still on, her tousled hair, and a shy grin on her face, came back to my office.
"Everyone is up and they're waiting in the living room." she said in a controlled manner.
With a little help, I carried the red and white packages to the other room.  The women's eyes were wide. I placed the gifts in front of them.  It was easy to see all they really wanted to do was tear open their gifts, but they showed restraint. 
They saved me a spot and waited for me to sit down. I handed out the largest presents first because, even for adults, there's something very exciting about receiving a large gift. I informed them they could trade and swap their gifts amongst each other if they chose to do so. As soon as this permissive statement was given the women took no time at all to shred through the gift wrap. Each woman held up her soft, oversized blanket, admiring it.
"This is my color!" one woman shouted, clearly indicating she was pleased by her pick and had no intentions of trading.
"How did they know I liked blue?" asked another woman.
"Who do we thank for these presents?" questioned one woman thoughtfully.
The women opened the rest of the gifts with equal enthusiasm.  They passed around their handmade soaps, appreciating the unique fragrances. They instantly started to snack on the boxes of chocolates that were carefully concealed in other packages. Those women who received puzzles examined the intricate details and quickly requested help putting them together. They compared their lipstick shades and eye shadow hues. In this time of fellowship the women were given their last gift, a joyful, respectful, and safe Christmas.  
My job and the program where I work are polarizing. There are those who value the resources that keep women out of jail and there are those who do not.  There is no simple solution for the incarceration problem in this country, but there is a simple solution for the fear, hate, and ignorance that plague our nation. Love. I don’t mean the threadbare, trivialized version of love.  I mean the kind of love that is patient and kind. Love that isn’t envious or boastful or proud.  The kind of love that is honorable and selfless.  Love that holds no records of past wrongs and does not anger.  A love that seeks and praises the truth and is safe and hopeful.
So love each other this holiday season.  Love when it’s difficult and love when you’re bursting at the seams.

*Names have been changed in order to maintain confidentiality

2015 Christmas Letter

Another year is coming to a close and what a year it has been. As we reflect on the reason for the season, we can't help but recognize the blessings that have been bestowed upon our little family this year.

Franklin Hugo turns three just a few days before Christmas! Where has the time gone? This year Franklin has worked really hard to learn how to shake and how to stand on his hind legs.  We're just so thankful he has such drive and determination.  We're hopeful that in the coming year he'll finally learn the difference between sit and lay down.  So much to look forward to.

Franklin had a few unfortunate run-ins with the neighbor pups. We continue to encourage him and remind him that bullies never win.  Of course that's difficult for him to understand at his age, but Franklin has a good heart and is always looking to include his peers.

Franklin still has a fear of baths, vacuums, ear drops, the vet, the scent of wine/beer, small white dogs, and posing for photos. It's truly adorable and we relish the moments he barks uncontrollably or hides in inaccessible spots. Our hearts swell with pride.

Melanie has had a full year as well. She turned a whopping 30 years old!  She marked this milestone by buying herself an oversized slice of cake and making homemade candles using recycled wax.  She takes pride in the fact that at 30 she still uses hand-me-down kitchenware and only washes laundry once every two weeks.

In the last year, Melanie finished all ten seasons of Friends on Netflix. She also watched all the available seasons of Arrow and the Netflix original series Daredevil. It's been a good year for online streaming.

Melanie has been able to maintain a really great relationship with her dentist.  She's had teeth now for three decades and still doesn't have a single cavity (even though she started drinking coffee for the first time this year...another highlight!). Her dentist even suggested she have her picture taken for the Cavity Free Club at the clinic. We couldn’t be more pleased.

After being a licensed driver for roughly half her life, Melanie was incredibly excited to finally experience her first fender bender in 2015.  So much so, she got herself into second fender bender for good measure (side note: neither were her fault).  What a fun new adventure.  

As you can see, we have countless reasons to be thankful.  It's been a fulfilling year and we welcome 2016 with hopeful hearts.

Be blessed this Christmas season, we know we certainly have been.

It's True

We were talking about compassion.  Specifically we were talking about people who devoted their lives to compassionate causes.  Facilitating the conversation, my intern and I encouraged the women to think of people and organizations that worked thankless jobs in the spirit of helping others.  The women were then tasked with writing a letter of encouragement and appreciation to show their thanks.
Trying to get ideas flowing, I briefly talked about an organization close to my heart.  This organization’s mission is to bring awareness to, and inevitably end, modern day slavery by mobilizing ordinary, common-folk freedom fighters. At the mention of the word slavery a women questioned, “Slavery still exists?”
“Yes.” I replied plainly.
The woman needed more of an explanation, so I commented on bonded labor and forced labor. I talked about human trafficking. Some of the women acknowledged they had seen movies about women and children being stolen away from their families in other countries. Countries far away from here. At that, I felt compelled to bring the message closer to home and my pulse quickened at the thought of revealing a sad truth.
As I sat alongside the women, who in their honest desire to live survived years of trauma, and I talked about the clouded yet persistent slavery that perpetuates every day in this country. A cancer bolstered by the boyfriends who sell their girlfriends for a couple ounces,  by the dealers who keep their pockets full by holding threats over their “employees’” heads and by creating unpayable debts, and by people who buy sex for entertainment. These were familiar realities for many of the women. They represented various ages and backgrounds but all the women had one thing in common- they battled addictions and struggled against the shackles that followed.
The women digested the information. Some women verbalized their thoughts and some kept quiet. I turned my gaze slightly and looked into the eyes of a woman I knew had not only been a slave to her addiction but also a slave to men who’d take her body in exchange for taste of the drug she’d given herself to. I wondered what she was thinking and though she didn’t divulge much, she responded by simply saying, “It’s true.”
The women slowly made decisions about who to write their letters to. They wrote for several minutes, deep in thought. The woman, who understood bondage intimately, handed me her letter and left without saying anything more.  I looked at the envelope; it had been addressed to the freedom fighters. I swallowed and felt a knot it my throat.  She was free. She is free.

Slavery is the 2nd largest global organized crime, generating $150.2 Billion per year.
Nearly 1 in 5 victims of slavery is a child. The average age a teen enters the sex trade in the US is 12 - 14 years old.
There are an estimated 60,100 people trapped in slavery in the United States right now.
In 2013, the National Human trafficking Hotline received reports of human trafficking in all 50 states and DC.

February 27th is Shine a Light on Slavery Day.  Join the thousands of freedom fighters worldwide who will wear a red “X” on their hand in solidarity with the people who are still enslaved and the work that’s being done to free them.

Will You Join Me?

Will you join me?
We’ll find a place where the tales are peaceful and the heroes worthy.

You too must be tired of the hate our brothers and sisters incite.
We can escape this realm of confused enemies and conflicted allies.

Our trip will be direct.

A journey past injustice and a crossing at the edge of outrage.
Morality will be our compass and righteousness our guide.

Will you join me?
We’ll find a place where patience is pursued and forgiveness perfected.

You too must be tired of the selfishness practiced by our brothers and sisters.
We can explore together the enduring lands of humility and responsibility.

Our trip will be direct.
A roadway toward revival and a bridge of self-control.
Faith will keep us afoot and conviction will hold us steadfast.

Will you join me?
We’ll find a place where fear is captured and love reigns absolute.

You too must be tired of the indifference our brothers and sisters preach.
We can build a new home that houses wisdom and truth.

Our trip will be direct.
A stop at honesty and a bypass of ignorance.
Compassion will lead us and integrity will be our companion.

Won’t you join me?
We’ll surely meet trials and our travels will prove arduous,
But our trip will be wrought with pure intent.

Won’t you join me?
We may stumble upon frustration and our labored hearts may ache,
But the distance is necessary and the urgency can’t be ignored.

Won’t you join me?

I cannot stay after seeing what I've seen.
My place among this broken world has expired.
I am now due to live the fortunes granted by courage. 


Water's Widow

In the densely wooded grounds of a gracious estate, lived an accomplished dowager- a woman chronicled by her skills and talents.  She was capable in her earlier life, but now the estate that once aided the dowager’s independence caged her instead.
Each morning she walked through the overgrown foliage and below the thick boughs of the century old trees to reach the tepid lake’s edge. In her youth the water rippled and flowed as the surface reflected blue skies, but through the years the water dulled and brought with it an unrelenting fog.
In search of a clear skies beyond her limited, blurred sight, the dowager climbed into a rowboat docked along her boathouse each day. She rowed for hours and only came to shore for the midday meal and when the light began to fail. Family members assumed her love of the land, but more importantly, her love of the water motivated such a routine, but the dowager found no joy in rowing. You see, her talents and skills were lost in the fog many years ago, so she rowed out of a compulsory need to find the clarity that would bring back her former aptitude.

When family members inevitably prompted her with questions over mealtimes, asking about her time on the water and her walks through the woods, the dowager could never find the words to explain the terrible burden rowing had become. The intangible qualities that once filled her personhood- her talents, her skills, her congenial spirit- had abandoned her and left only a shell. Often the dowager chose silence instead of attempting to choose the right words in response.

Without ceasing, she made her trek through the woods and boarded her rowboat daily.  Some days the dowager would row to the middle of the lake and witness a clearing in the fog. Hopeful, she would remain in lucidity, relishing her small triumph as long as possible before sundown required her return to shore.  Most unfortunately, those favorable days were followed by days of impenetrable fog.

The dowager spent years rowing and eventually forgot what she was searching for on the water altogether.  Her family encouraged her to continue to row, because in their ignorance, they believed rowing defined her. 

One morning, the dowager headed toward the boathouse as usual and began her habitual practice of rowing from shore to shore over and over again. It had been ages since she last saw blue sky peek through the fog.  It had been ages since she remembered to look for blue sky.  It had been longer still since she had had a glimpse of her former life.  She didn’t return for the midday meal that day. The dull hunger pains couldn’t compete with the fog’s force. The dowager rowed and she rowed and was completely engulfed by the fog.

The dowager never landed another shore.  She was not only lost to herself, but she was now lost to the world as well. 

More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease
Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

In 2013, 15.5 million caregivers provided an estimated 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care valued at more than $220 billion.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive health condition in the nation.

Not only are women more likely to have Alzheimer's, they are also more likely to be caregivers of those with Alzheimer's.

In her 60s, a woman's estimated lifetime risk for developing Alzheimer's is 1 in 6. For breast cancer it is 1 in 11.

In 2013 my mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Growing up she attended every sporting event, sewed all our special occasion clothes (including but not limited to prom dresses, wedding dresses, and Easter dresses), she worked behind the scenes of musicals and plays, she gardened, she read, she cross-stitched, and she played the guitar. My mom no longer does these things; she is no longer the same woman who raised me. That is the cost of this disease.

Find out how you can support Alzheimer’s Disease research at

Photo credits: Rebecca Reale

Singled Out

Dear Married and/or Coupled Friends and Family Members,

It has come to my attention you are confused by my ongoing singleness. Though I appreciate your genuine concern, I do want to clarify that though finding a partner in life is something I look forward to, I’m truly doing okay on my own. To make things easier for our next encounter, I’ve created guidelines to consider before advising me on my love life.

1.       When trying to convince me of the legitimate gift that singleness is, it’s best to describe it in a way that doesn’t sound like a life threatening affliction. “Singleness can be caused by heart disease, heart attack, and/or lack of the cardiac organ, often known as THE heart. Treatment for singleness includes doctor-prescribed exercise, regular visits to dating websites, routine salon work, and a subscription to Better Homes and Gardens.”

2.       The integrity of your advice is put in question when you talk about the gift of singleness and in the next breath mention an eligible bachelor you’re acquainted with.

3.       Better yet, avoid talking about the gift of singleness altogether. I know it’s meant to be encouraging, but anxiety bubbles when I realize that due to my lack of contentment, this “gift” must surely be broken and in need of receipt and fool proof return policy.

4.       Please refrain from making crazy cat lady jokes. It’s not only insulting because it makes me feel like not having an active love life destines me for social awkwardness, but also, it’s insulting because if anything I’d be a crazy dog lady.

5.       Understand that just because I’m single doesn’t mean any and all attention from a man is welcomed. A girl still has standards.

6.       On that note, do not tell me it must feel good to have men honk and cat call while I’m running around town. There’s nothing alluring about a stranger shouting out the window of his car or slamming on his horn like I’m some sort of wildlife that stumbled onto the pavement. I dare you to ask me if I’m interested in dating you after that stunt.

7.       There really are days when a glass of wine at home is better than a mediocre date at my favorite restaurant.

8.       When at a wedding don’t look to me like it’s my obligation to stand in a group of young women and wait for flowers to be thrown in my face. One, if I’m gonna get on the dance floor when “All the Single Ladies” starts playing, that’s entirely between me and BeyoncĂ©. Two, if I wanted to compete with other women for trivial material possessions, I’d participate in the dreaded Black Friday each fall. So grabby.

9.       I don’t want to hear about your success stories or your friend’s success stories or your friend of a friend’s success stories with online dating. I’m telling you the man’s a creep with a girlfriend on the side, trust my independent investigative skills and let it go.

10.   It’s confusing when during one conversation you tell me to maintain my standards, but by the next you suggest I broaden my horizons because I may be too picky.

11.   This is an easy one. If you don’t find him attractive or interesting, there’s a good chance I won’t. Take a deep breath and admit your error.

12.   When I’m talking about my desire to be in a relationship I’m just looking for a listening ear. It’s advised you don’t provide advice unless it’s requested.

13.   Suggesting to hold off on buying that great new kitchen appliance I’ve been eyeing up because I could simply register for one when I get engaged is not a valid suggestion.  If I followed that line of reasoning my house would be empty and my shelves bare.

14.   Please don’t try to make marriage and long-term relationships sound like court appointed life sentences.  If it was really that terrible, my guess is we’d be starring in the next generation of Golden Girls together.  I call Rose

15. If there's a man in my life worth talking about, I'll tell you. You don't need to ask me if I'm dating someone new each time we meet.

16. There's nothing wrong with me. My identity is not defined by romantic relationships. My identity is defined by my faith, my family, and my passions. When the right person comes along, I'll welcome him gladly, but until then, I maintain that I'm exactly who I'm supposed to be in this moment in time.

I hope these guidelines will provide some basic framework for future conversation.  Wondering what’s left to talk about? Ask me about my job, my hobbies, even my dog.  I’m confident our next chat will be rich and inviting.


Your Single Loved One

Proof of the Extraordinary

I’ve recently been given the opportunity to take women who have hit just about every stumbling block in life-addiction, abuse, poverty- and support them through a life changing transition into sobriety and law abiding behavior. In preparation, I decided to Google the phrase “real women success stories.” I was hoping for inspirational testimonies from relatable women. Instead, I pulled up page after page of results listing weight loss programs and products.

(Before I continue, I do want to acknowledge that there are very admirable individuals who have taken on the difficult task of becoming healthier people.  There is reason to celebrate this feat.  My intention is not to belittle their personal achievements, rather, to argue there are far too many successes our world is altogether failing to recognize.)

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the results. It’s no secret that our culture, especially in the United States, measures success by external appearances and superficial qualities. Regardless of this well-known observation, I was insulted. Maybe it was the feminist in me, or maybe it was simply my disgust with marketing tactics that shame people using the guise of personal empowerment.  

Out of natural curiosity, I next typed in “real men success stories.” What I found left me both relieved and angry.  Men too were targeted by the same weight loss programs as women, though not as excessively. I was relieved because it revealed females were not the only gender feeling pressure to conform to such empty terms of success. I was angered, however, because as a nation we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that only certain successes are worthy of public praise.

I disagree with Google, or at least the relevance of the results it provided. If I’m charged with the responsibility of advocating for women in their pursuit of progress, I don’t want examples of the superficial. I want proof of the extraordinary resilience and determination of ordinary people.

Women who shatter the stereotype that engineering is men’s work and design bridges like the best of them are successful. Men who sacrifice every earned comfort to care for sick loved ones are successful.  Women who patiently teach and reteach children with autism how to socialize and communicate are successful. Men who guide the development of tolerance and diversity in our systems of higher education are successful. Women who travel half way around the globe to promote the unifying benefits of visual art are successful. Men who spend days on end in arid climates to drill water wells for those with access to none are successful.

These are the successes worthy of public praise. This is the proof of the extraordinary.