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 in the morning the women have popped in to say hello and have 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.
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.
Their childlike enthusiasm was amusing.  
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 permission was granted the women shredded through every inch of 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. During this time of fellowship the women were given their last gift- a joyful, respectful, and safe Christmas.  
My program is 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 just 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.

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 delivered 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 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, the dowager climbed into the 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, and more importantly, her love of the water motivated the daily routine, but the dowager found no joy in rowing. You see, her talents and skills were lost in the fog many years ago. Her quest for clarity birthed distressing compulsion.

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 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 promising days the dowager would row to the middle of the lake and witness a clearing. Hopeful, she'd clutch the oars, relishing her small triumph as long as possible before sundown mandated her return to shore.  Most unfortunately, those favorable days were often followed by days of impenetrable fog. 

One morning, the dowager headed toward the boathouse and began her habitual practice of rowing shore to shore. It had been ages since she had last seen the blue sky.  It had been longer still since she had remembered to look.  

She didn’t return for the midday meal that day. The dull hunger pains couldn’t compete with the fog’s unyielding force. The dowager rowed and she rowed and was completely engulfed by the fog. The dowager never landed another shore.  

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, 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 gift that singleness is, it’s best to describe it in a way that doesn’t sound like a life threatening affliction. 

2.       The integrity of your advice is questioned 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 a 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 any and all men 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. 

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. If I’m gonna get on the dance floor when “All the Single Ladies” starts playing, that’s entirely between me and Beyoncé. 

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.   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.

12.   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 a terrible suggestion.  If I followed that line of reasoning my house would be empty and my shelves bare.

13.   Please don’t try to make marriage and long-term relationships sound like court appointed life sentences.  If it was really that terrible we’d all be starring in the next generation of Golden Girls together.

14. 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.

15. 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. 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.

Hear Her Roar

She wears her hair long and dark. She likes it that way; it’s feminine. Pink is her favorite color and adding sparkles only makes things better. She paints her nails every couple of days. She reminisces about last spring’s prom and talks about going again this year. Deep down she loves her little sister even though she finds her quite annoying. Oh, and boys bring out both her insecurities and excitement. She is a typical 16 year old girl.

She was riding along with me in the car recently. I was dropping her off after we spent the afternoon together. I entertained her request to listen to the top 40 pop radio station. She was telling me about how much she liked Lady Gaga’s new song “Applause” but disapproved of Gaga’s risqué album cover. She described the cover in detail.

The track changed on the radio. Katy Perry’s song “Roar” began pulsing through the speakers. Admittedly I started humming along and singing soon replaced my quiet drones. She followed my lead and I turned up the volume. In a loud-and-proud fashion we sang with enthusiasm. The words were lost to her, however. She made an attempt to recite the lyrics in time and in tune, but the best she could do was catch the line, “'Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar” as it cycled through the song.

All day she is defined by her 21st chromosome. She is told she will do less because of the number 21. She is told she will want less because of the number 21. She is told she will be less because of the number 21. Yet out of all the lyrics she could have remembered she remembered the words that defined her as more and gave her a voice- a fierce, roaring voice.

She is a typical teenage girl though her abilities are different. She likes pink. She idolizes pop stars. She wants to spend her evenings dressed up in sparkly gowns and makeup. She is hopeful her high school friendships will last forever. She rebels in her own way and keeps secrets from her mom.

In those ways and many more she is like any other 16 year old junior, but the world isn’t comfortable seeing her as average, ordinary, or typical.  They tack “special” onto her needs and onto her education. And although she is a special individual, it has nothing to do with her abilities. Rather, it has everything to do with the readiness to champion her own life even when there are few others that stand to help her.

Running River Piercing Arrow

Small bodied and tense, the little girl sat next to her sister in the canoe holding onto the yoke tightly. Her older siblings took turns paddling while her father sat at the stern guiding them. They glided past sandbars and followed the bluffs that kissed the river’s edge. The little girl was too terrified to let her eyes linger on the pores and creases of the bluffs, fearing the rock might collapse on top of her. She took a quick glance and then steadied her eyes on the tree line opposite the shore.   Adventures made her anxious, but she couldn't imagine a worthwhile afternoon without one.  
They paddled for a while longer. Her father described the kinds of monstrous fish that lived in the river and reminded them of the monsters their very own grandfather caught in those same waters. They spotted snakes and cranes, ducks and turtles. The little girl admired the cattails and the delicate lily pads that grew among the tangles of slimy seaweed. God has a habit of pairing the ugly and the beautiful together.
Stopping at a sandbar, everyone climbed out of the boat and the little girl tiptoed through the mucky shallows onto shore. The little girl, her three siblings, and their father walked along the water’s edge until they found a suitable place to swim. Their father ventured out first and dramatically and clumsily fell into the waves.   The river created hills and valleys below the water’s surface. The little girl and her siblings ran full speed away from the shore until the sand gave way to a drop-off and they splashed into the deep.
Exhausted, with wrinkled fingers and toes, the little girl retreated back to the sand island. While being warmed by the sun, the little girl and her siblings began digging deep into the sand. Their father joined them. His strong forearms made him efficient with the task at hand. He struck water first. Then one by one, the little girl and her siblings stuck water as well. Before long they created canals and watched the water pass from one pool to the next.

Though finally relaxed enough to enjoy riding in the canoe, the little girl couldn't wait for their journey to be complete. The side of the canoe bumped and scraped against the dock. Waiting for them on the whitewashed planks was the little girl’s mother and grandmother.  She was pleased to see them. Walking barefoot up the small hill, the little girl brushed the sand from her legs and feet.

The cottage stood atop the mounded earth, decorated with a scalloped-edged roof, red shutters,
and one simple red arrow. The cottage was a haven for the little girl on Sundays in the summertime. It was filled with antique dressers, lace curtains, old fishing nets, and arrowheads. And mounted on the walls were the monsters her grandfather and great-uncles had caught. The basement was musty and dark, and it housed tools and equipment the little girl had no business using. Even still, with the accompaniment of her brother, she loved to explore the murky space beneath the floorboards.

The little girl had been told stories about what the red arrow on the side of the cottage meant. It was a reminder of the brave men in her family who fought in great wars. She tried to discipline herself to remember that when looking at the arrow, but to the little girl the red arrow meant something different. It pointed her in the direction of future pilgrimages to the ever-changing islands and it pointed her in the direction of future adventures waiting to be had.