365Z Honors Ford’s Acts of Kindness

24 Jul
Brittany with late brother Zach, the inspiration for 365Z.

Brittany Ford with late brother Zach, inspiration for 365Z.

One day last week, my California friend Charmaine Coimbra, a Friend of the Elephant Seals, woke my blog from its eight months of book project-inspired hibernation with her column about volunteerism in her local paper, the Cabrian Times. The next day, I opened my own local paper, the Telegram, to discover former student Brittany Ford and her family featured in Telegram Towns. The Fords were there because of their work with 365Z – an organization the Fords created to honor the many acts of kindness of Brittany’s dearly departed brother Zachary.

While the newspaper article focuses on all the recent accomplishments of 365Z, Serving the Story talked in depth with Brittany about her brother, loss, and how to help people heal through yoga in an April 15, 2014 entry, “Kindness in Unkind Times.” The work of 365Z also came up when I talked with Joe McDonough about how the loss of his son to leukemia led to the family forming B+, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families of kids with cancer.

That second conversation occurred in a coffee shop in Newark, Delaware, on the second day of last year’s three-month-and-a-week community service road trip. I made the contact only because of Betsy Price, a friend who I hadn’t seen in 16 years; she also was kind enough to host me on my first two nights on the road.

I mention this because acts of kindness such as this occurred again and again on my journey; my nearly 12,000 miles of driving alone were dwarfed by the enormous gaps between my volunteer opportunities, putting my project at risk again and again. But those voids were filled, again and again, by suggestions from folks I met along the way – performing their own acts of kindness by pointing me to like-minded folks in the next town down the line.

Here’s hoping that more and more people respond to the message of 365Z, in the spirit of Zachary Ford.

Charmaine Has Her Reasons

23 Jul

E Seal Charmaine 6-25-14

Editor’s Note: Charmaine Coimbra is not only an official Friend of the Elephant Seals of Cambria, California, but also a friend of last year’s community service road trip. She recently quoted me in her volunteerism column for the local newspaper, The Cambrian; the column also includes 10 reasons to volunteer. You can read her column here — and below you can read more about her reasons in an adapted excerpt from my manuscript about the road trip.

A year and a month ago, I’m driving up California Highway 1, following my friends Ted and Chella up the gorgeous two-lane alongside the sea from San Luis-Obispo to Monterey. We’ve agree on three places to both pull over, but we’re such creatures of habit, I could’ve predicted the first just based on past history — the Elephant Seal Beach near Cambria.

By the time we get there, in one of those crazy California coastal shifts, the weather has changed from sunny with a gentle breeze to a light fog being blasted over us by stiff winds. A local woman who knows the ways of this weather, the volunteer ranger is well-prepared; Charmaine Coimbra is bundled up in a purple hooded jacket, beneath which is tucked a round-hat that comes down to her side sunglasses, leaving only her pink cheeks, chin and lips exposed. I see so little of her, I don’t know if I’d recognize her indoors.

Even her voice is altered; she’s practically yelling above the wind to answer the questions of the hundreds of tourists who have pulled over to gawk at the scores of elephant seals, who have traveled a long way themselves. They migrate clear from Alaska every year to mate and mote. The first, with all its raucous competitiveness, is over – but the second is still in progress. As the massive seals loll side by side in the sand, even in the grey light, it’s easy to see the golden brown outer coat peeling away to expose grey slick flesh beneath. Most rest, but a few flap about a bit, and two young bulls rise up and play-fight, emitting a few deep howls in the process, practice for mating seasons to come.

E Seal 2 6-25-14

While many of the seals are so inert as to appear dead, Charmaine proves quite lively. She gives me a new appreciation for what they seals have gone through to get all the way down here every year. During their long landless swim, they lose bone density; the prolonged time on this beach rebuilds their skeletal support. Paradoxically, this healthy instinct comes at the expense of exercise – so they also fast. They thus adjust diet for their exercise level – which is one way that even the two-ton elephant seal has healthier habits than this human.

Charmaine tells me that she didn’t wait until retirement to start volunteering – her career in community service began at age 3, when she accompanied her father in tap-dancing to “Me and My Shadow” at a Grange fundraiser. She’s been involved in various forms of volunteer work in the decades since, and upon retirement, it didn’t take long for her to focus on her beloved elephant seals. “I’m a California girl,” she tells me, “and I love the sea.”

When I line her up for a picture, and she jokes about not exactly looking her best, a woman behind her interjects, gesturing toward the seals. “Hey, don’t worry – we all look beautiful compared to these guys!”

Charmaine doesn’t exactly rush to defend her seals’ attractiveness. When I ask if she has a favorite, she laughs.

“To tell you the truth, they all look alike to me!”

Charmaine is more helpful than she knows. When this tandem drive up the central coast is over, Ted and Chella will head back south, and I’ll be on my own again, with very few friends waiting to see me on the way home. But Charmaine reminds me of all the trip’s earlier blessings, all the conversations with strangers who come something like friends, sharing one of the best sides of their selves – their desire to serve something larger than themselves. And while those encounters are fleeting, sometimes something sticks. Within 24 hours, Charmaine will friend me on Facebook, setting the stage for her to treat me, along with her other Facebook friends, to a steady stream of wondrous scenes from California Highway 1.

My Fellow Writers

6 Nov
Three of the homes built by Brad Pitt's foundation in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward.

Three of the homes built by Brad Pitt’s foundation in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

I hustled into the downtown Starbucks and hunkered down in a plush leather seat in the corner – between two windows, back to the wall, an abundance of space between me and the nearest customers. For all these reasons, and because of superstition based on past performances, this was my lucky writing chair – and today I was going to need all the luck I could get.

It had been one of those weeks when the writing came anything but easily. I was working on a book project about my community service road trip, and right now that means writing about my visit to New Orleans. Normally New Orleans is a pleasant enough direction to let my mind wander, but now I’m struggling to shape all the good times into a coherent series of chapters, built on interviews only partly transcribed and facts only partly gathered.

Given that problem, it was understandable that my Thursday off-campus was not going to yield the explosion of memorable prose I’d been praying for this week. Instead, a review of what I’d written revealed that my entire plan for New Orleans was wrong – what I thought was one chapter needed to be two. Worse, one reason it needed to split in two was that one of the agencies merited more research, including more interviews that, of course, I’d then have to transcribe. An hour into my would-be writing session, I accepted this. I sent an email to one agency – the New Orleans Musicians Clinic – asking for things as large as setting up an interview and as small as the architectural style of the agency’s offices.

So fine. At leaset now I could move on to my half-chapter about Common Ground Relief, set up in the Lower Ninth Ward so severely flooded by Hurricane Katrina. A description of the environmentally correct – and festively colorful – homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation should be easy enough to turn around. Only a quick bit of on-line research quickly revealed a New Republic article about criticism of Pitt’s noble effort. (Sigh.) The clock told me I was running out of time. My writing self would have to rush to my 3 p.m. Thursday volunteer gig without the satisfaction of closure.

At least I could take a break from the writing.

ACE chalk 9-25-14

Again, I was wrong. When I walked into the basement classroom of African Community Education, it wasn’t long before I was pulled – with gratitude – from a student’s high school algebra assignment to two people working on my writing –which, until my ill-fated trip to Starbucks, I considered my forte. In a new twist, I was tutoring two students at the same time, about two very different assignments. The young writers sat opposite me; I moved back and forth between them, feeling like the pedagogical version of a bartender. (“Ma’am, can I freshen that essay for you?”) The multi-tasking reminded me of my earlier frustration at the coffee shop; what could possibly come of all this hopping back and forth.

Only I felt more locked in to their respective missions than my own. Maybe it was the knowledge of what these students – African refugees who endured difficult transitions to America after even harder lives in conflict-ridden homes abroad – had gone through just to be here today, gamely seeking to climb another rung in a ladder I’d never even had to negotiate. Or maybe it was my thwarted desire to complete my own chapter earlier. I was urgently concerned that someone finish something today – and, given what was at stake, I’d rather it be them. I felt we were nearing the goal – only then the girl, a senior from the Central Republic of Africa, threw me for a loop. She was two paragraphs from completing – only now she was doubting the validity of her assertion two paragraphs earlier. She shared with me her new insight, and I had to agree, but I feared for her, just the same – this was looking to be her version of my Brad Pitt boondoggle. I wanted to spare her – who only began learning English four years ago – my rhetorical lostness.

But listening to her, I had to agree she was right – and I could only cheer her on as she erased half of the second paragraph and rewrote it in her careful pencil, a handwriting I could never duplicate at any age. She moved on from there, consulting me on every sentence, but every idea her own. She finished only a half hour after her male counterpart, who only had to write one paragraph. That left time for her to tell me about her home country, her schooling, and her plans for community college. She and walked out at the same time, hung with the kids waiting out front for their rides home after a long day of schooling.

My earlier frustration seemed to have dissolved into the cool misty night air. Sure, my work will be harder to complete – and yet my professional path is so much easier than the series of obstacles these kids have hurdled. One possible conclusion of such volunteer moments is the familiar one we may experience when we look in a bathroom mirror and say, “Hey, stop yer whining.’”

But that has a negative spin, as if I’m supposed to pity the lot of these kids compared to my own. It doesn’t ring true to what I really felt – inspiration. How, after all, could we not be inspired by a group of motivated immigrant kids, earnestly writing their way sentence by sentence into a new language in a new country? The next time I struggle to push through to the end of a chapter, I’ll remind myself of these young writers – making their own luck, regardless of the chair life gives them.

It Takes All Kinds

28 Oct
Though from opposite ends of beauty scale, horse and pig both have their place at Return to Freedom wild horse sanctuary.

Horse and pig both have their place at Return to Freedom wild horse sanctuary. 


So, sure, my blog this time at Verge Magazine isn’t about pigs, or horses, or my week at Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary near Lompoc, California. And, OK, my blog at Verge Magazine has a different title and photo – if only because I didn’t think of this until after the deadline.

But if you happen to read the Verge blog, I think you’ll sense the connection.





Back to School for ACE (and Me)

28 Sep

ACE chalk 9-25-14

Marie Ebacher leads me up the stairs, down a hall and into a classroom. I see several children, all African immigrants, working quietly on homework as a veteran teacher, Gladys, observes them.

“This is basic math,” says Marie, a student of mine back in her Assumption College days. “So you should be able to do it.”

Marie’s not trying to be ironic, or reveling in some “the student has become the master” moment – although that is certainly the case this afternoon, my first as a volunteer tutor for African Community Education. Instead, Marie, ever considerate, is merely addressing the anxiety I’d expressed an hour ago. An English professor by trade, I had made it abundantly clear to Marie that I was among the math-impaired. This was at least a little hypocritical: As the director of Assumption’s Community Service Learning program, I constantly utter the cliché about the value of “getting out of your comfort zone.” I can’t help smiling at the irony that now it’s my turn. I’m a sucker for poetic justice, even when I’m its victim.

I settle down next to a slender African girl in full Islamic garb, from the scarf on her head to the ankle-length skirt – the same clothes she wore on the basketball court when I was happily helping her shoot, something I could teach without fear of unwittingly undermining her academic future.

Now, though, I am staring at a worksheet of 20 or so numbers, most of them in the millions. Her job was to identify the slot in which a certain digit rested. For instance, if asked where the “7” was in 1,407,429, she was supposed to say the “one-thousand” slot. Marie was right – I could do this – but that begged other questions. For instance, what was the exact title of each slot? I don’t want to be just guessing its name, only to find out the hard way that her teacher has a different lingo. She allays this anxiety by producing a second sheet listing the terms.

Then there was the deeper question: How do I know what I know? Back in the early ‘60s at Northington Elementary, was this how I learned that the thousand came before the comma? As far as I can tell, this fundamental knowledge was just downloaded into my brain from The Cloud. (For certain, clouds were involved, if only in my memory.) I’ll never know. But my new friend helped me get past these issues; before long she had completed the entire sheet, and it was time to go back downstairs to a group activity.

Marie Ebacher at commune in Senegal.

Before becoming a Commonwealth Corps Service Member on the staff at African Community Education, Marie Ebacher learned about Africa firsthand.

The next morning it was my turn to be tutored. Colleagues Sarah Cavanagh and Jim Lang met me at NU Café for the latest meeting of our writing group. Each of us are working on books, and their manuscripts are in one way or another about the psychology of learning. Sarah’s is particularly intriguing, since she’s a professor of psychology – which I might’ve majored in if not for, yes, that whole math obstacle. Somewhere in our discussion, it comes up that emotional engagement enhances learning – and that learning, even when you potentially ruin it by making it your day job, can be pleasurable.

My mind flashes back to the afternoon before at ACE, a classic example of both. It doesn’t take long to get emotionally involved with kids period, especially immigrant kids who have come so far just to be here – and yet, in many cases, have so far to go in terms of catching up with lifelong English speakers from homes more affluent than their own. That emotional desire to connect started with me asking them to educate their tutor – before the official tutoring period started, several of them politely pointed out in a textbook where they were from in Africa, reminding me how little I knew. Just knowing I was about to start volunteering, I automatically read any news about Africa with heightened interest.

That’s certainly incentive enough to volunteer. But then there is the pleasure of learning – and not just book-learning. There’s learning how to decode homework assignments by teachers I’ve never met, working at grade levels I’ve never taught, in methodologies of which I’m largely ignorant. There’s learning even more respect for the teachers, the tutors, and most of all the students who are striving to put together those basic building blocks I’ve long ago forgotten. There’s learning how to listen – a task complicated by my hearing, not as good as it used to be, and by our distinctly different accents. Learning the New England spin on English is challenge enough – now they have my Southern accent thrown into the mix. There is learning to focus and concentrate amid distraction – a challenge that the student occasionally meets more effectively than the tutor, glancing at commotion elsewhere. By the time my Thursday debut at ACE rolled around, I had taught four college classes and two independent studies, and yet my time with my ACE students may have been my most intellectually engaging hours of the week. And now, even as I write this, I’m fascinated with how I can become better at it.

I chose ACE after this year’s cross-country, community service road trip, finding that after all my much-varied volunteer gigs, what I most wanted was a chance to connect with people different than myself, doing something that I was both good at and, at the same time, not so good at. Something in which the clientele and I would not only grow closer ­– but grow together.

Thanks to the good folks at ACE, that search appears to be over.

The Vulnerability Trip

19 Aug
The Roadrunner in Ft. Stockton, Texas seems to suggest I get right back on that road to El Paso.

Coyote or not, the Roadrunner seems to suggest I get right back on that road to El Paso.

I’ve now been back in Worcester for a month, but the blogs from Road Trip 2014 just keep on coming  at Verge Magazine. Since I’ve agreed to not duplicate material between blogs, here I’ll only provide the link to my latest piece for Verge – “The Vulnerability Trip.”

Much more to come here in the coming months – but in the meantime I recommend Verge as an excellent source of insight about service and study abroad.

Down the road … if only the road to Starbucks.



Dave Eggers, Glide, and Unconditional Love

22 Jul
Dave Eggers, writer and advocate. (Photo from Huffington Post.)

Dave Eggers, writer and advocate. (Photo from Huffington Post.)

Dave Eggers has long been one of my favorite American writers. His innovative, funny and moving memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer. His first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, was about an attempt to give money to deserving people around the globe. His second novel – What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng – was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. He wrote the screenplay for Where The Wild Things Are. He’s founded magazines in print and on-line, chronicled injustice in nonfiction, and even founded scholarship programs.

I’m not writing about any that.

Instead, I’m focusing on two paragraphs of a preface Eggers wrote on behalf of Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani, for their latest book, Beyond the Possible. Williams and Mirikitani have appeared in this blog recently; the couple have been at the helm of Glide in San Francisco, blending their spiritual conviction and artistic talent with inspired leadership and social outreach. Glide is legendary not only for its Sunday morning celebrations, but for its extensive outreach among the homeless and others on a wide variety of fronts in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. If you visit glide.org, you’ll see that two of the key phrases for Glide are “radical inclusiveness” and, even more daunting, “love unconditionally.”

In the preface, titled “Unconditional Love,” Eggers springboards off a Glide sermon to pose the question, “If a church can keep its doors open and lights on, accepting all at all times, could we? Could an individual person keep his or her own lights on, their arms and doors open, at all times?”

Eggers’ answer? “It’s hard, that’s for sure. It’s really damned hard. There’s always someone who annoys us. For some, there are Republicans. There are white people, brown people, black people, Asians. There is always someone who is in our way or whose ancestors oppressed our ancestors, or stands for something we don’t like, or seems to be standing in the path of progress. The wealthy. The homeless. Tourists. Industrialists. Real estate developers. Hippies. It doesn’t matter, but you know what I mean. Wherever you are, there is someone who is unwelcome.”

I came to Glide after almost three months on the road, much of it a journey not only across America, but at least a little deeper into efforts to help those in poverty. In that limited voluntourist way, I’d worked with the homeless in Tucson and Santa Barbara before I even got to San Francisco. Just whistle stops, but enough to make an impression. In all that time, working alongside veterans, I got marginally more at ease with relating to the homeless moving through the food line; I could joke and make conversation matter-of-factly.

Yet as I cracked open Beyond The Possible, I knew I was still just working on the homeless part. And here Eggers was, reminding me that once I got past all the fears waiting to ambush me from somewhere in my white middle-class subconscious, once I got past the popular prejudices that the homeless are all mentally ill drug addicts and/or alcoholics who reek of the streets, once I got past the fact that the particular person I was handing a food tray to might be all of those things, and nonetheless still worthy of respect and kindness, once I got past ALL of that – well, then, I was going to have to turn around and love an insensitive, entitled person who hadn’t learned any of those lessons and didn’t care to learn any of them, and who, seemingly secure in their willful ignorance, would happily slash funding for the programs where I volunteered.

Eggers is right. Unconditional love is a tall order. I don’t think anyone I know would say they’ve even come close, even for a single day.

But does that mean we shouldn’t try? For, Eggers concludes, “there is Glide, with its dozens of empowerment programs, its doors open and its lights on. There is Glide, built by Cecil and Janice and nurtured into the future by the Marks and the pastors, by the staff, by the young people, and by the thousands of members who are poor and rich, black and white and brown, well-fed and hungry, clean and unclean, on their way up and on their way down, devout or full of doubt – all welcome, all equally necessary, all equally valid, all offered Unconditional Love. It’s a radical idea, but the only one that makes any sense at all.”



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