Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Veteran Voices from LifeBio: Walter Allsop's Story

By Walter Allsop, Claremont Manor Retirement Community

My name is Walter Allsop, and I was born in 1928. I served in the Navy as a Seaman 1st Class on the Aircraft Carrier USS Valley Forge CV-45.  

I had graduated high school mid-term, and I was working part-time in a machine shop and also delivering by motor scooter for a drug store. I chose to enlist because I wanted to be in the Navy, mainly because my father had been. Older friends from school felt the Navy had been the best choice for them, as well, so in April of 1946, I enlisted in Los Angeles. My parents took me to the “Enlistment Ceremony" at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, which had a large class. From there, we were bussed to the San Diego Naval Base for training.

Boot camp and training sure was a new way of life for me! Every day was different, but always regulated. We were tested for water safety, up early, and participated in military drilling. I had a short haircut, which led to sunburn on my nose and ears. I missed home and my girlfriend, Mary. I also missed my car, which I had given to my brother. The food was plain, and some days better than others, but we had little choice. The barracks and routines were preparing us for military life. There were no weekend passes until toward the end of training.

Finally, the long hours of basic training ended. We left by train for Rhode Island (by way of Mexico and Canada). There was no travel priority for a troop train, and it took almost a week. There were no showers or bunks, and the food was brought aboard on certain stops.

Everything was new to me on the East Coast. I felt the "Petty Officers" in the First Division were fair and reasonable, resulting in a "tight-knit" group, and I made lasting friends. We went to New York many times on "leave" from Philadelphia. We saw the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, and much more. Often at the movies, there would be entertainers on stage, such as Billie Holiday.

An amusing incident comes to mind. Several of our group were returning to the ship from a "Night on the town." One of our group wanted to bring liquor on board with him, which was strictly against the rules. Bradley was ordered to throw the bottle overboard. He quickly removed one of his new shoes and threw it over. The officer on duty didn't see the shoe go, but heard the splash. He took it to be the liquor.

While waiting for the Valley Forge CV-45 to be commissioned, I had three weeks of leave, and I sent for Mary to come to Philadelphia, where we were married. After our wedding, we stayed in Philadelphia. We often had friends from the ship visit us to play cards and join us for dinner. My friends were as anxious to start the cruise as I was.

Once underway, I was so impressed to be onboard this huge carrier as we went through the docks! I had been trained in firing the 5" cannons in the “Gun Tubs,” which needed to be removed for passage. We were on the way to San Diego. As soon as we got there, I was taken off the ship and sent to Balboa Naval Hospital where I had surgery on my knee. It wasn’t long until I was aboard the next ship leaving San Diego for Hawaii to rejoin my crew. Arriving in Hawaii, I could see ships that were sunk in the bay, and there was much destruction. From there, our ship was soon headed for the Panama Canal.

I wrote many letters home to my parents and Mary. I gave them much information about the Valley Forge maiden cruise: a good will cruise around the world. There have been three Valley Forge Aircraft Carriers. I have a "plank" from the flight deck of the original ship that I was on. 

I was discharged in February of 1948 at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. I flew home from Hawaii to San Francisco for it. Mary had found an apartment; and there was so much to do: start school, work, and family. After I left the service, I returned to work at the machine shop. I entered John Muir College, graduated, and applied to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and was accepted. I applied to USC, using the GI Bill of Rights, and I stayed in college until I received my master's degree. 

Mary and I went on to have two daughters, and now we have eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren!

-Walter Allsop, Claremont Manor Retirement Community

LifeBio is an engagement program that captures cherished memories and lasting legacies through storytelling. Since launching in 2000, LifeBio has helped 20,000 people tell their life stories through autobiographical tools and services for all levels of care. LifeBio uses technologies as mediums to help individual document their stories in an easy and unique way such as tablets, web cams, and audio and video equipment. LifeBio has been a partner with Front Porch since 2009. For more details, check out LifeBio’s Impact Story on the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing (FPCIW) website.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fresh Ideas: Innovation and Collaboration in Action

Fresh - new, additional, further, invigorating, newly created, harvested, bold, cool. These are powerful, inspiring words not to be taken lightly. This is why at Front Porch we call our annual program Humanly Possible® “Fresh Ideas.

The Humanly Possible® “Fresh Ideas” Action Projects begin by gathering each mind in each department throughout the entire organization to brainstorm how to improve our services to those we serve inside or outside our communities. Themes vary by year. The focus for 2017 action projects was to “inspire engagement to those we serve inside or outside our communities.”

From the Front Porch Humanly Possible® handbook …

“Today, more than ever, we need every mind, every discipline, every level of our company working together on what’s possible, what’s achievable, and what’s next. Because, no matter the job title or department, each person is a wellspring of experience, insight and possibility— and a crucial contributor to every challenge and opportunity we confront and embrace.”

“Fresh Ideas” empowers our greatest resource – our people – and builds upon the innovative spirit that has long existed through out Front Porch. When everyone has a voice in giving ideas and choosing an idea, support, buy-in and excitement occurs.

“Fresh Ideas' encourages us to come up with solutions,” said Paulina Zarzuela, an LVN at Kingsley Manor. “We come up with unique and different ideas to help residents and employees.”

After getting feedback from meaningful conversations with a sampling of those who may have a stake in or be affected by the project, each department’s project is put into action. In 2017, Front Porch departments created 53 “Fresh Ideas” action projects.

“Fresh Ideas” are more than just implementing a project. “Fresh Ideas” are about collaborating, sharing and learning from one another. “Fresh Ideas” projects have potential to bubble-up and expand by being replicated in another department or at other Front Porch communities.

Built into the process is providing multiple venues for the “Fresh Ideas” to be shared. Each community holds a “community share” where all staff and residents can see displays about each of the projects and makes inquiries. Department teams and residents learn what other teams worked on and what the motivation was for their “Fresh Idea.” At the Carlsbad By The Sea community share, residents learned how the housekeeping team began a creative and informative way to introduce new residents to each housekeeping team member. Each team member completes an information card with his or her name, where her or she is from, how long he or she has been at Carlsbad By The Sea and his or her “heartfelt why” they do what they do. All cards are displayed together like a family tree in the hallway by the housekeeping office. A new resident receives a copy of the card with his or her assigned housekeeper. 

At the Walnut Village “community share” residents learned how the dining room partnered with the church next door to help feed low-income families within the outside community. Staff at Walnut Village cook, transfer and serve lunch to 40-80 people at the church monthly.

At the Sunny View “community share” residents learned how the maintenance department, to improve work order communication, started using door hangers with “Work in Progress” on one side and a service log on the other side.

As a culmination, Front Porch hosts a “regional share” event where representatives from each Front Porch department gathers to share its “Fresh Ideas” with one another. Presenters and participants include team members from all parts of the organization, including cooks, directors, housekeepers, presidents, transportation coordinators and CNAs. Frequently the presenter is a team member who helped implement the “Fresh Idea” and may have even come up with it. That ownership, pride and enthusiasm emulates through them and becomes contagious. 

Some of the “Fresh Ideas” community team members learned about included …

The Claremont Manor dining room team hosting a food show for residents with 30 different items to sample from food vendors. “This proved such a success with our residents that we plan to have this as an annual event,” said Wayne Scott, dining services director at Claremont Manor.

The Front Porch Home Office finance team provided its services of free gift wrapping for the
residents for the holidays. One December afternoon, the team visited Kingsley Manor with all supplies for a wrapping station. Residents brought gifts to be wrapped, and the team also picked-up and delivered the wrapped items back to some residents’ accommodations. “Residents appreciated the gift wrapping assistance and continue to talk about the joy of interacting with the Home Office team members,” said Lexie Alexander, director of resident services at Kingsley Manor. The residents who didn’t receive wrapping assistance still enjoyed the cheerful visit during the holidays.

Bold, new and cool projects are all around but more importantly, presenters talked about how inspiring projects were and how much fun they had implementing them. High-fives literally all around at the “regional share.”

The “regional share” involves more than celebration and a notepad filled with inspiring ideas. At Front Porch, We Take Action!

The “regional share” concluded with each community gathering together to commit to bringing back a new “Fresh Idea” to its own community. Huddled together each team member shared his or her top three and why they could be a good match for his or her community. Debates, discussions and voting occurred to choose one “Fresh Idea” to commit to. Each community stood up to proclaim the “Fresh Idea” that it would take back to bloom at its community - as imitation is the highest form of flattery. 

Some of the “Fresh Ideas” chosen to imitate and bubble up through Front Porch included …

Carlsbad By The Sea’s “happy stairwell.” Ignited by residents’ requests to have more interesting stairwells, Carlsbad collected inspirational quotes from residents to enliven the stairwell. Ashley Parker, a driver at Carlsbad By The Sea, shared, “Implementing the ‘happy stairwell’ resulted in residents and staff using the stairwells more often. A nice bonus for getting some steps in.”

Walnut Village’s “non-contact boxing” was targeted for residents with Parkinson’s disease but open to all. Initiated by Emmanuel Solis, a Wellbeing Coach at Walnut Village and a boxer himself, boxing workouts improve balance, improve hand-eye coordination and decrease reaction time; a perfect fit and meaningful for residents with Parkinson’s disease. “All we had to do was purchase boxing gloves and hit mitts. Let’s just say it’s been a ‘hit’ with the residents,” said Ryan Fillingane, wellbeing director at Walnut Village.

Kingsley Manor Care Center’s “music in the shower” for care center residents who have anxiety when bathing. A “Fresh Idea” inspired by a CNA involving the life enrichment team, CNAs and residents collaborating to create individualized playlists for each resident in the Care Center. Using a digital music player and a waterproof carrier and speaker, residents can listen to their favorite songs while bathing. As Ripsime Janikyan, director of social
services, admissions and marketing at Kingsley Manor Care Center, shared, “The individualized music helps residents remain calm. We have seen a huge difference in our residents.” Ripsime continued, “A long-term resident who had high anxiety when bathing now talks about her childhood and how her mom used to always sing the song to her.” 

As per the Front Porch Humanly Possible® handbook, “The world today is filled with zillions of mindboggling examples of our collective ingenuity and perseverance. And almost every discovery, invention, development and advance began with a ‘what if’ moment—a glimpse into what could be … It is up to us to see these challenges as opportunities, and rise to the occasion.”  

“Fresh Ideas” brings a breath of fresh air to Front Porch. The possibilities, those “what-if” moments, are limitless. “Fresh Ideas” provide energy, excitement, vigor to team members, but the true gift is improving the daily lives of the remarkable people we are honored to serve.


Thursday, May 10, 2018

Mom’s Lesson: Balance in the Checkbook of Life

Solace for this writer when she and her husband fell on hard times
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell for Next Avenue

I’m spring cleaning my office and desk when I come across my mother’s checkbook in one of my drawers. Mom’s been gone over a decade. The account is long closed and I’m in purging mode, so I contemplate putting the checkbook in the shredder.

But I can’t seem to let go of this meaningful memento of her once-ordinary life because of the vital lesson it symbolizes for me.

Buying Gifts for the Family

A cartoon caricature of an older woman smiles from the checkbook cover as a bubble over

her head exclaims: “Stop me before I shop again!” I smile, remembering how my mom loved to shop, especially for gifts for her family.

A widow on a modest pension that she received due to my dad’s career working on the railroad, Mom began shopping for the next Christmas year as soon as the current one was over — always seeking out bargains for the perfect presents. This was the only way she could afford to buy for her three adult daughters and our extended families. We begged her to stop buying presents, but it was the thing that gave her the greatest pleasure.

Mom was meticulous about balancing their checkbook, always making sure it had $50 extra that wasn’t counted in the balance — just in case.

Mom maintained the household finances and was meticulous about balancing their checkbook, always making sure it had $50 extra that wasn’t counted in the balance — just in case.

My dad passed away in 1981 at 58, just as my parents were about to enjoy more financial comfort with an empty nest. At 64, Mom went to work as a pharmacy cashier, where she was able to earn enough to maintain her own apartment and independence. After she began drawing the Railroad Retirement pension, Mom continued working as long as she could, using that “extra” income to buy gifts and indulge in her hobbies, weekly hair appointments and an occasional new outfit.

The Genie in the Bottle

So now, to us.

My husband, Dale, and I grew up in the same working-class neighborhood. We were both taught a strong work ethic and that the most important thing we have in life is our good name. We were cautioned not to ruin it by getting into debt we couldn’t handle. This philosophy worked well for us — until the Great Recession.Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell and her mom

That’s when Dale was laid off from his job as a diesel mechanic and my freelance-writing business was sent into a tailspin.

We went through our emergency fund within a few months. Living in a small Arkansas town, my husband had few opportunities to find a job paying close to anything like he’d been making. He ended up working two full-time jobs for minimum wage, $7.50 an hour. It still wasn’t enough to cover our modest expenses, so we began using credit cards as a means to survive. Soon, debt collectors began calling; we then refinanced the mortgage and took advantage of a loan modification on our truck.

Through those rough 18 months, I would sometimes open the top desk drawer, pull out my mom’s checkbook and rub it. I thought of all the financial hardships she’d endured: After my dad died, mom was forced to close her new craft business and sell the larger dream home they’d been able to buy two years prior. She needed money to pay their debts and live on until she could draw that pension.

Like a genie in a bottle, as I rubbed that checkbook, my mom’s can-do spirit would jump out at me. “Life is always about balance, in every area,” I remember she had told me.

What My Mom Did to Survive

Her voice kept me going through the hardest of those months. Still, at the end of our hardship in the spring of 2010, Dale and I thought of doing what my mom had done to survive — sell our house. Like her, we didn’t know where we would go or what we would do, but we felt crushed by the long hours of work and the debt. We made an appointment with a Realtor.

The day before that appointment, Dale was called back to his job.

Unlike my mom, we were fortunately able to hold onto our greatest asset, our home and land.

As the economy recovered, so did my freelance business. Today, we still have some of the credit card debt we racked up, although we’ve made progress reducing the balances. Dale was finally eligible for his company’s matching retirement plan last year, so we’re hoping to rebuild some of the savings we lost.
Living Mom’s Lesson

Like many Americans, we’re nowhere near where we need to be financially. But — thanks to Mom’s advice — we’re doing the best we can by balancing work and life, and trying to save a little along the way. Now in our 50s, nearing the age my dad was when he died, it makes me anxious that one of us might not be able to work before we’re able to pay off the house and most of our debt.

I’m holding Mom’s checkbook in my hand, as I contemplate what to do with it.

I close my eyes and see Mom’s tiny 90-pound frame standing in front of me at the grocery checkout line, writing a check as the cashier waits patiently. Long after most people had giving up checkbooks for debit cards, Mom clung to hers. It was comforting; her careful penmanship told her the checkbook balanced, no matter what, and it always had that little extra — just in case.

I hear her words again. I smile, returning Mom’s checkbook to my top desk drawer. Life is all about balance, even when you’re in the mood for purging.

Our financial future is still uncertain, but Mom’s checkbook still has that little something left in it I can cling to for comfort — that genie that brings her voice back to me when I need to hear it the most.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Giving In to the Coloring Craze

Credit: Thinkstock
Why am I spending so much time doing something that may be a waste of time?

By Jill Smolowe for Next Avenue 

“So, be honest,” I say to my husband. “Is this stupid?”

I’ve just shown him my latest masterpiece, a mandala [an Indian symbol representing the universe] that swirls with a rich assortment of colors. After oohing and ahhing appropriately, he says, “No, it’s not stupid. I think it’s a pleasant way to pass time.”

“Nothing more?”

For my 61st birthday, my husband gave me an enormous cache of gel pens that initially made me cringe. Too much, I thought.

“Nothing more.”

This is what I dread. I am wasting time. “No aesthetic value?”

“No, but that’s not why you’re doing it.”

He reminds me that, having acted on my curiosity about the
adult coloring book craze sweeping the country, I find the activity relaxing, absorbing and an antidote to stress. He doesn’t understand my problem.

“You play Words With Friends. Why is this any different?”

Because it is, I insist. Fun apart, word games can help build vocabulary (dutifully I look up words I don’t recognize — then promptly forget them), ward against Alzheimer’s (maybe), keep my mind active.

They are, in a word, productive (sort of).

“Why do you have to accomplish something?” he presses. “Does coloring quiet your mind?” Yes.

“Is a half-hour of meditating wasting time?” No, not at all.

Being Here Now

Meditation helps me to focus. To immerse in the now. Which is what this coloring stuff does, too — to my surprise and delight. I haven’t had an outlet for my virtually non-existent art skills since elementary school. Painting, ceramics, needlework, none of it has attracted me. But this I really enjoy. The world recedes. Time flies by.

So why am I having trouble accepting that coloring mandalas with Magic Markers and gel pens is a legitimate way to spend my time? Sitting out on my porch, I become so absorbed in the challenge of finding new combinations of colors that at times I enter the complete immersion state known as flow — an experience that, until now, I’ve been able to achieve only when writing. That, in and of itself, suggests the exercise is worthwhile.

Yet I still can’t quite accept that it’s perfectly OK to spend time coloring. An hour here, two hours there. Never mind that it provides me with an excuse to dip into music I haven’t listened to in ages (Diane Krall, Van Morrison, Bob Marley). Surely there is more value to this than I realize.

Consulting a Color Expert

Seeking explanation, I invite Amy Wax to lunch. The author of Can’t Fail Color Schemes, Amy is a color consultant whose company, Your Color Source Studios, helps people select colors for the interiors and exteriors of their homes. When I tell her, a bit red-faced, about my new coloring habit, she lights up with pleasure.

“Coloring brings out our creative side,” she tells me. “There are no rules. It allows you to push limits.”

Though I like the sound of this, I remain skeptical. I’m just coloring inside of someone else’s lines, I say. I mean, it’s not really mine. Is it any more creative than, say, doing one of those paint-by-numbers pictures we used to do as kids?

“It is,” she says firmly. “Those pictures, they all look the same. These mandalas of yours, you made the choices. You’re creating this. No two are the same. That’s what makes it art.”

Art? Come on.

What Is Art?

“Art is a lofty term, but it’s appropriate,” she says. “You’re taking something two-dimensional and creating an illusion of three-dimensionality with the push and pull of the colors.” Think of it as collaborative, she says. Though someone else did the design, “It’s still yours.”

She points to my small assortment of completed pictures. “People are afraid of too much color. Once they take the baby step, they want to explore,” notes Wax.

Yup. With each successive mandala, I’ve incorporated more and bolder colors. Then, for my 61st birthday, my husband gave me an enormous cache of gel pens that initially made me cringe. Too much, I thought.

Not true, I quickly learned, as I began to experiment with the effects I could get from so many different shades and tones.

“I find it almost mathematical,” I say to Wax. “I feel instinctively that if I’m going to make all these colors work together, there has to be symmetry.”

“The mathematical part is what makes it succeed,” she explains. “You’re creating a world of balance.” Up the road, she suggests, I might want to experiment with asymmetry.

Hmmm. Hadn’t considered that.

“Look, playing with colors is whimsical,” she says. “It’s freedom to express yourself. It’s a tool to enhance visual awareness.”

All good, I allow. But in the end, jeez, I’m just coloring in a coloring book.

Wax laughs. “I feel the term ‘coloring book’ is holding you back. A coloring book is, by definition, juvenile. What you are doing here is not juvenile.”

The Precious Present

I pull out the three (yes, three!) books that I’ve purchased. Only one owns up to being an “adult coloring book.” The other two bill themselves respectively as “color art” and “color pad therapy.” Perhaps anticipating resistant types like myself, one of the two showcases a higher purpose in its subtitle: “anti-stress coloring pages.”

Recently, I read that some psychologists recommend coloring as therapeutic for grief, as well.

“It’s inspiring creative parts of you that have been dormant,” Wax says. “You’re getting something from this, which is why you keep going back to it.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But. I’m still a 61-year-old woman sitting on my porch coloring pictures with a proliferating assortment of markers and gel pens.

My 22-year-old daughter, blessed from birth with artistic ability, rolls her eyes when I share my doubts. “I can’t believe you think that way,” she says. Supportive of my new hobby, she has no patience for my reservations. “You enjoy it. That should be enough. Just keep coloring. Don’t ruin it for yourself.”

She’s right, of course.

But in case I didn’t internalize her wise admonition, a few days later I come across this from spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in his 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. “You are present when what you are doing is not primarily a means to an end (money, prestige, winning) but fulfilling in itself.”

Even I can appreciate that being present in the moment is a beautiful thing.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Lewis MacAdams: Always Searching for the Impossible

“If it’s not impossible, I’m not interested.”

It’s a phrase that Lewis MacAdams, poet, journalist, filmmaker and activist has become known for over the years. Often repeated by friends and fans, it’s made its way on to tee-shirts and is now forever etched in the base of a seven-foot sandstone sculpture of him overlooking the Los Angeles River - his muse and mission for more than 40 years.  
Lewis’ relationship with the LA River dates back to 1985 when an impromptu stroll along its banks led to a vision: that the concrete entombed waterway could once again become a flourishing oasis for wild life and recreation.
“Essentially, I asked the river for permission to speak for it in the human realm and the river didn’t say no,” Lewis explained.
Since then, Friends of the River, an organization he co-founded, has made significant strides toward returning the river back to a more natural state. “Friends” organized river clean-ups days, community events and has advocated for improved water quality, development of surrounding green spaces and increased neighborhood access.
“An unexpected pleasure has come to me knowing just how many people have responded over the years,” Lewis said. In 2017 Friends of the River mobilized 10,000 volunteers to help remove 100 tons of trash.

Lewis’ inclination to tackle the seemingly “impossible,” however, did not start with his mission to revitalize the 48 miles of winding concrete, but has been a guiding principle since childhood, as the son of Civil Rights activists growing up in a sleepy town in west Texas.
Along the way he’s penned dozens of books of poetry, co-directed the documentary What Happened to Kerouac? and has been a contributing writer for Rolling Stone, the LA Times, and Men’s Journal. He is also the acclaimed author of The Birth of Cool: Beat, Bebop and the American Avant Garde. He is currently 200 pages into a memoir project, Poetry and Politics, which he’s working on with historian Michael Block.
At Kingsley Manor Retirement Community, a community that attracts many artists, intellectuals and like-minded lovers of the “impossible,” he’s found many kindred spirits, including a few fellow river enthusiasts, who share his desire to connect regularly with the thriving metropolis all around.

His favorite spot, naturally, is Kingsley’s rooftop deck which he visits on a daily basis to take in its expansive view of the city. From the Hollywood sign to the Library Tower downtown to the Pacific just on the horizon, it’s a vista which, like the river, reveals itself slightly differently every day: magnificent, impossible and ever-inspiring.

Friday, April 20, 2018

How I Finally Found the Right Volunteer Experience

Giving back isn’t always as simple as it sounds, but it's worth it

By Jill Smolowe for Next Avenue

Credit: Getty ImagesMan using computer keyboard, close up

In 2011, social entrepreneur Nancy Lublin had an aha moment: Millennials don’t dial into help lines when they’re in crisis because they hate speaking on the phone. Two years later, Lublin launched the Crisis Text Line, a 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline that enables people to reach out for free help via text messaging — a communication comfort zone for people in their teens and 20s. Plainly, it was an idea whose time had come: In just three years, the hotline’s crisis counselors have exchanged 28 million messages with texters nationwide.

When I first read about the Crisis Text Line, I was instantly interested. Its focus on helping young people in a moment of distress promised to make good use of skills I’d developed as a grief and divorce coach. Couple that with my ongoing search for a satisfying volunteer experience, and it seemed like a slam dunk…

…until I thought about the texting thing. That conjured visions of me tapping out typo after typo with my too-big thumbs on the too-small buttons on my cell phone (a device with which I hardly have a love relationship). I took a pass.

Try, Try Again

As I continued to look for a volunteer opportunity, I was surprised to discover that it’s not so easy to find an outlet that tidily matches the skills and passion you have to offer with the needs of an organization.

One friend told me that she knocked on non-profit doors for years trying to find an outlet for her environmental interests, only to come up empty-handed. Another friend who wanted to do advocacy work for homeless dogs found that the free offer of her time was not enough to get her phone calls returned.

Over the next eight weeks, trainers armed me with a canny array of skills for guiding people through a moment of crisis.

Some of my own efforts proved discouraging. A group that works with grieving children put me through a day-long training, only to notify me that my services wouldn’t be needed at an upcoming weekend-long event. A mentorship writing program that pairs high school girls with professional writers put me on a wait list. Given that I don’t have two heads, do have good manners, and offer a professional track record in both the writing and grief-work fields, I suspected that I was an older candidate than either organization was seeking.

Age proved a non-issue when I signed up for a tutoring program. My fourth-grader and I hit it off from the get-go. But he was a bright 10-year-old boy who didn’t actually need tutoring. Each Wednesday we’d tear through his (boring!) assignments, then play games. Mostly, he kicked my butt at chess. Often our time together felt more like babysitting than “giving back.” (And, ahem, my math skills were not always terribly useful to him.)

A New Approach

Around the time his school year was winding down, my daughter returned from college, absent her cell phone, which mistakenly had gone home with another student. Given my daughter’s 24/7 texting habits, I assumed that retrieving her phone would be a priority. To my surprise, she was actually enjoying the time untethered to a phone. To my greater surprise, that freedom hadn’t cut her off from exchanging texts with her friends.

“I do it on the computer,” she told me.

Subtext: Duh.

Valhalla! Texting via computer would mean a full-size keyboard, a big monitor and none of that annoying thumbs-only stuff that, for me, produces more typos than real words.

Quickly I found my way to and clicked the “Apply Now” button for volunteers. After clearing the assorted hurdles (including a criminal background check and references from two people) and making a yearlong commitment to handle calls four hours a week, I was assigned to an online training pod.

Becoming a Volunteer

Over the next eight weeks, trainers armed me with a canny array of skills for guiding people through a moment of crisis. The focus was on helping people shift from the heat of despair or upset to a place of cool and calm. The list of potential issues we could expect to encounter was formidable, among them suicide, self-harm, sexual abuse, LGBT bullying, eating disorders and homelessness.

No matter what the crisis, the Crisis Text Line approach was clear: you’re not here to solve people’s problems. Rather, you’re here to listen to them, to validate their pain, to remind them of their strengths, then to work with them collaboratively to identify a goal that will help them to keep moving in a positive direction when the texting conversation (convo, in crisis counseling lingo) ends.

In a nutshell, the text line was offering training for a skill that I hadn’t realized could be taught or enhanced: empathy. Armed with a particular style of questioning and response, it was possible to guide texters away from feelings of extreme distress. The hotline’s data backed that up: while some 70 percent of callers open conversations with dire statements (“I’ve lost the will to live,” “Suicidal feelings,” “I’m overwhelmed and want to die”), only 1 percent require intervention to halt a suicide attempt.

Six months later as I near the 100-convo mark, texters who write, “I’m trying not to cut myself,” no longer throw me. (Tip: Try drawing on your skin with a red marker, then tracing the lines with an ice cube. It “bleeds.”) I’ve yet to encounter any of the one-percenters (roughly 10 texters a day) at imminent risk of taking their lives. But I’ve shared the joy of other counselors who, in collaboration with a supervisor, have mounted successful rescues by tapping into local resources.

A Satisfying Experience

The Crisis Text Line platform is mindful of how intense these conversations can be for volunteers. Though everything is done online and I work from home, supervisors are always available to guide. And there is a chat room counselors can turn to for instant advice from other on-duty counselors while handling a difficult conversation.

In another chat room, counselors can take a breather. There, the messages are always supportive and lively. Given that 77 percent of the hotline’s 2,800 active counselors are between the ages of 18 and 35, favored discussion topics run toward cats, holiday plans and grad school applications.

For the 117 crisis counselors who are over age 55, such dialogue offers a delightful window on Millennial interests and preoccupations. The actual crisis conversations provide a sobering window on the stresses young people face today. “Volunteers over age 55 make exceptional crisis counselors,” Lublin said via email. “Through lived experience, they are (not surprisingly!) committed, highly empathetic and strong active listeners.”

As I pass the halfway mark of my first year as a volunteer (at year one, I get a text line sweatshirt. Woohoo!), I feel that it was well worth the hunt to find a volunteer experience that engages my heart, mind and skills. If you, too, are seeking a satisfying volunteer activity, please trust there are people and causes out there that need your time and experience. Just be forewarned: it may take some trial and error to find what you’re looking for.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Parkinson’s Won’t Keep Kingsley Manor Stand-Up Comedian Down

“Did you hear the one about the man who robbed the bank in a wheel chair? He made an easy escape because the security guard jumped up to hold the door open for him.”

From anecdotes about bank robbers who slide past bank security in their wheelchairs to observations on by-stander’s reactions when one takes an unexpected fall, comedian and Kingsley Manor Retirement Community resident Mark Siegel has an unusual, and possibly unique, source for much of his stand-up routine: his Parkinson’s disease.

“I figured if I’m going to get on the stage people are going to wonder why I’m talking soft and slurring my words,” Mark said. “I decided I’d talk about the Parkinson’s at the beginning and see where it goes. I think I got a good response.” Siegel has been living with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that often affects speech and movement, for the past 18 years. But Mark doesn’t let a disease get in the way of good “shtick.”

After a long career as a communication officer for a labor union, he decided to pursue his childhood dream: comedy. One night after watching a friend perform at an open mic, Mark had a revelation.

“It’s not that hard,” he said. “There’s little risk involved other than a little humiliation.” He signed up for a class and eventually testing out his material at open mic nights. So far he’s played to crowds at The Comedy Store, Flappers and, of course, Kingsley Manor. He has been performing for about a year and a half.

“He gets some pretty good laughs,” said Kingsley Manor’s Life Enrichment Director Viktoria Selmser. “He’s not afraid to put himself out there.”

He chose Kingsley partly for its great location. He loves having ready access to all that the city has to offer, including the local comedy clubs.

Mark appreciates the personalized and respectful care he receives for his Parkinson’s at Kingsley. “There’s a balance between privacy and having somebody there to help you. Kingsley gives me exactly what I need.”

But the thing that’s surprised him most are the relationships that he’s developed at Kingsley. “Of my closest friends, one’s a dancer, one is a poet and another is in publishing. They give me the extra push to do something positive and creative,” he explained.

Mark finds having friends and neighbors with common interests helps keep him engaged with his pursuits. “It gives you the extra push to do something,” he explained.

He encourages others with Parkinson’s to figure out a way to explore those things that interest them.

In addition to participating in regular dance and exercise classes offered at Kingsley, Mark runs a political discussion group and is very involved in the Parkinson’s Community LA, an organization which raises money for home care, exercise programs and transportation services for individuals living with Parkinson’s.

And just in case you were wondering … “After the robber escaped from the bank, a police helicopter spotted his wheelchair abandoned in an empty lot. He figured he could elude police by switching wheelchairs,” Mark quipped.