20 Things for which to be Grateful – even in 2020

20 Things for which to be Grateful – even in 2020

The holidays are going to be very different this year. That’s okay. Taking on a perspective of gratitude for all that we do have – even this year – can go a long way toward improving our mood. So here’s what I’m grateful for in no particular order.

  1. Family. While we may not be able to spend this holiday with all of them or maybe any of them, if they’re still in our lives, that’s something to be downright joyful about! Those of us who know the heartache of loss, know it’s not worth endangering the lives of our loved ones, to share a holiday meal or even a long weekend. There are 365 days before next Thanksgiving and 52 weekends. When it comes to family, I think everyday should be Thanksgiving! 
  2. Friends. Just because we haven’t seen as much of our friends over the last 8 months as we’ve wanted too, they are still there for us.  They are a phone call, a FaceTime, a text message, or a social media post away. I think one of the good things that has come out of the pandemic is that I’m no longer taking even the smallest interactions with friends for granted, and I’m making an effort to reach out as often as I can.
  3. Neighbors. With everyone working from home, I feel like I’ve gotten to know our neighbors better and I’ve seen many of us come together for one another – at a social distance and with masks of course!
  4. Health. Right now this can’t be overstated; heath is everything. If you are healthy right now, and also fortunate enough to not have any underlying conditions compromising your immune system, express gratitude for that!
  5. Adequate healthcare. Even if you’re healthy right now, not know how you will handle medical expenses should an issue arise can cause a lot of anxiety. I don’t have employer-based healthcare, and have been getting it through the Healthcare Marketplace since 2018, when the COBRA from my last job ran out. As precarious as that has felt in the past few years, it’s something and for that, I am grateful.
  6. Medical science. This is the only way out of this pandemic. The fact that two companies in the US and more globally are on the verge of having an effective vaccine so quickly is monumental. When we are back celebrating with family and friends next year, it will be because we relied on science. 
  7. Ability to exercise. Walking the dog is something I look forward to! I am thankfully every day for my ability to just get out to do that. My ability to run is the proverbial icing on the cake. This simple act of putting one foot in front of the other over the course of a few blocks or a few miles helps maintain physical heath and mental health; two things that cannot be taken for granted. Ever.
  8. Adequate nutrition and housing. We often take basic needs for granted. Most of us have a roof over our heads and food for Thanksgiving weekend and beyond. In Cook, Lake, and DuPage Counties here in Illinois, while 12% of the population lives in poverty, another 30% have household incomes below the survival rate (for my NJ friends, your numbers are very similar). Read about the ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed) population and see stats for your area HERE.  
  9. Internet access. One thing we learned from the pandemic was the importance of internet access because it’s what has enabled us to work from home, created a space for online learning, and has been a vehicle through which we have maintained contact with family and friends. But simply logging on was not an option for everyone and the “digital divide” came into view (review #8). You’re reading this because you have internet access.
  10. Smart phones. I couldn’t even begin to imagine WFH or online learning with everyone in the household vying for time on a shared landline – but just a short 20 years ago, for the majority of us, that would have been the case. 
  11. Zoom. Throughout this ordeal, I have often thought about how much more difficult things would be without some of the modern conveniences like the internet and cell service as I stated in #9 & 10. At least for me, Zoom was the new thing! I had video calls via zoom in the past, but had not embraced it the way I have in the past 8 months. I find it’s much easier to use than Skype and more adequate than FaceTime. 
  12. Freedom of expression. We are lucky that we pretty much have the ability to express our opinions, our passions, and who we are. While I’d like to see more people take on the responsibility that goes along with it, we still have that freedom.
  13. Activists. One of my favorite quotes is from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” While a good number of us voted, a much smaller group of people mobilized Get Out The Vote efforts, and created awareness for important causes. After the Women’s March almost four years ago, I wrote specifically about the efforts of thoughtful, committed women.
  14. NGOs. That is Non-Government Organizations, the organizations that help organize and fund the activists. While elected officials can dismantle important programs, it’s the NGOs that keep important efforts at the forefront. Organizations like Greenpeace, Amnesty International, The Nature Conservancy, The ACLU, Equality Now, Rotary International, and United Way are just a few examples.
  15. Spotify. Music really has a way to brighten my mood. I have playlists called hugs and Mary Sunshine and the songs they contain give me all that and more (next week I’m going to write about the positive affirmations in the music we listen to because there is just so much more I want to say). I mention Spotify here specifically because I love that it’s an affordable, easy way to keep up on the latest music and listen to old favorite too. 
  16. Sunshine. I am so grateful for the sun whenever and where ever it makes an appearance. Sunny days this time of year are limited, so I try to not take them for granted. 
  17. Education. Even if you only graduated from high school, you have the ability every day to learn something new. See #9. My dad always said, “If you can read, you can…” followed by what ever it was I was struggling with at the time. So I’m grateful for my ability to read and therefore continue to educate myself.
  18. Motivation. It’s hard sometimes, especially these days, so when it comes I go with it and I’m grateful for it.
  19. Inspiration. There are so many inspiring people in this world. People in my neighborhood overcoming challenges, so many ordinary people throughout the world achieving greatness.
  20. Assets. We all have them. Yes, that may mean financial savings, a nest egg, or owning your own home, or having stuff. To me, assets are everything. All of the things in my “tool kit” – pretty much everything listed from 1 – 19 above. Assets are everything we collect throughout our life designed to make things easier: a network of supportive people, coping skills, talents, and abilities – and maybe a little bit of stuff

I’d like to challenge you to make your own list of 20 things. If you can do it, you are truly blessed and have a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. If you can only state one thing, focus on that. Life isn’t always fair or joyful. It wasn’t meant to be. Life however can certainly be better if we remember to come at it from a place of gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving.

Vernon Hills, Illinois. November 2020.
More than Virtual: the 2020 Chicago Marathon

More than Virtual: the 2020 Chicago Marathon

Last weekend was Chicago Marathon Weekend. Although not really. There was no Expo at McCormick Place. There was no gear check, no crowds of runners with nervous anticipation along Columbus Drive. There were no start corrals, or music or cheering fans. Another cancelled event. Another reminder that this is a year like no other.

Although for many in this city, race day gear was still laid out before an early bedtime, alarms sounded in the darkness, and without any fanfare they began a lonely 26.2 mile journey on a course of their choosing. They were the committed – committed to their goals, to their training, to the charities and personal causes from which they found inspiration. And they got it done.

I watched in awe as I saw people I knew complete long training runs for this race that was going to be far from their vision when they registered close to a year ago. Last year, I wrote about my immersion into the Chicago Running Community in 2019 and how special it was to be part of that community as we all trained together. We’re all in it together was the theme of several blog posts last October.

Togetherness was energizing. Imagining a virtual race of that distance was difficult for me. I wondered to myself throughout the summer what it would have taken to keep me engaged. After all, it was the people that got me up at 4am on Saturday mornings for long training runs. It was knowing I was going to be part of a movement more than 30,000 strong.

As I watched the 2020 race weekend unfold, I realized just maybe the experience would be very special nonetheless. The personal fans along the course were still there. Families and friends donning masks for safety packed personal finish lines and held a tape for their runner, who in a race against only themselves, would break it as the lead runner.

Organizations like CARA, staffed hydration stations along the lakefront all summer long and on race weekend to provide support. Running groups like 3Run2 assembled (social distant) cheer squads at the intersection of their members’ routes to share that race-day energy for which they are famous.

As Strava recorded the mileage and the times, it became apparent that there was nothing “virtual” at all about this 26.2 mile journey that countless Chicagoans made last weekend. It was their race, their marathon, their achievement. And it was epic. It’s a story that will be passed down for generations as we talk about our resilience: “In the middle of the pandemic, your great-grandmother ran a marathon.”

Congratulations to all of you who got it done! You have an achievement like no other of which to be very proud.

Solo Run. Vernon Hills, Illinois. October 2020.

I’m worried

I’m worried

Christmas is three months away. We are finally heading into the last quarter of 2020 and I have some deep concerns about where we go from here. For perhaps the first time in my life, my superpower of being able to roll with the punches, is feeling greatly challenged by the antagonist’s evil forces.

Another day working from home. That, I don’t mind. There are valuable resources of time and money being saved by not having to commute and being able to eat lunch at home. I am no longer a working mom of a school aged-child, so there is some peace found in my current situation.

I think back to the challenges I had as a working parent – back in the days when parents went to work and children went to school. I can’t even begin to imagine where we’d be in this. Even if your child is given an opportunity to attend school in person, it’s still a challenging environment, and parents are still worried about contagion.

Although we are the lucky ones. We are healthy. So far, our families and friends have escaped the worse of the pandemic and its collateral damage. We are employed. We have roofs over our heads and the bills are getting paid. That is certainly not the case for everyone. There is also that nagging question of will it last?

Then there is the divisiveness that rules our country and has trickled down into the crevices of our small communities. Fueled in part by social media as angry white men and suburban soccer moms shout insults and death threats from the security of their keyboards.

Some question whether elected officials have our best interests in mind, whether police officers are truly committed to protecting all of our citizenry, whether our country’s president understands the constitution he swore to uphold, and whether the judiciary will side with the rule of the laws set forth by previous courts.

Some see it differently. They may feel disenfranchised; they may believe something is being taken away from them or that America took a wrong turn somewhere, and this current state is somehow on course to right that wrong. People, who it would seem, have a very narrow view of what it means to be responsible to others.

And here we all sit. Waiting for November 3 like a ticking bomb we are powerless to defuse. 

As if a global pandemic, ensuing financial downturn, and a combusting heightened intolerance for inequality wasn’t enough. On top of trying to imagine how we all come out from under this burden, we are still victims of our own lives. The day-to-day stuff we always worried about.

For me, this time of year especially, it’s some form of PTSD because of my own experiences (the anniversary of my husband’s suicide is October 6), and I know we all have our own challenges to bear, behind, and perhaps escalated by, the obvious universal social ills. From what I’ve witnessed and discussed with friends, it’s taking a huge toll on everyone’s mental health.

I don’t have a conclusion or a collection of steps we can take to feel better about any of this. This was all just an observation. I think all we can do at this moment is simply pause and acknowledge there’s a problem. Maybe next week we’ll be in the right frame of mind to talk about how we’re going to make it through what remains of the year.

Destination unknown. Vernon Hills, Illinois. September 2020.
Why United Way?

Why United Way?

Bergen County’s United Way (BCUW) in New Jersey is where I started my non-profit career 24 years ago this month. It turned into my longest tenure at a job, and I have often wondered why I left.

The experiences I had in the non-profit sector, the people I encountered, and the impact on numerous causes I feel I had post BCUW, proved to be extremely rewarding. So, no regrets. Although now having an opportunity to once again be part of the United Way’s work here in Chicago is truly satisfying.

United Way, for over 100 years, has been helping people and making communities better. United Way convenes other non-profits poised to tackle the issues unique to each community, fosters collaboration to solve problems, and raises the resources needed.

It’s never one issue, one disease, or lack of investment in a single area that causes deterioration in the quality of life for some. And this is why the United Way’s collaborative approach is so needed.

The United Way network is made up of nearly 1,800 autonomous 501c3 organizations, each governed and funded locally. The network spans more than 40 countries and territories and 6 continents. It serves 61 million people across the globe, fueled by 2.9 million volunteers and 8.3 million donors (United Way Worldwide, click on link to find the United Way that serves your community).

I felt very fortunate to be working with United Way in the suburbs of New York City on September 11, 2001 and the days, weeks and months that followed. Our response to our community in crisis was important work that gave me a sense of purpose.

Now here in Chicago, amid a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected our country and more accurately has disproportionately affected low-income families, I feel I can make an impact.

Each local United Way knows it’s community, it’s resources, and what it needs to thrive. United Way is uniquely positioned to bring together community-based non-profits, government leaders, businesses, and individuals to tackle issues.

The United Way of Metro Chicago (UWMC) has been focused on two areas:

  1. Programs and Partnerships that work across our region to provide for the health, education, financial stability and  crisis intervention for our most vulnerable residents;
  2. Neighborhood Networks which focuses our work on a number of targeted neighborhoods.  

39% of households in Cook County struggle to meet their most basic needs. In Lake County it’s 32%, and in DuPage County 30% of households are classified as “ALICE” – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are the families of four with household incomes less than $28.57 an hour. This is 2017 data, so well before the pandemic.

“ALICE households are the backbone of our communities, working hard but forced to make tough choices, such as deciding between quality childcare or paying the rent, which have long-term consequences not only for ALICE, but for all.”  

(LiveUnitedChicago.org)

Through our Programs and Partnerships, UWMC is committed to…  

…improving access to quality health care by supporting organizations that help people navigate insurance options and connect them with primary care physicians, preventative programs and mental health services.

…ensuring all kids have access to quality pre-K and after-school enrichment programs, prevention interventions, and physical and mental health services.

…increasing financial stability by focusing on job training, financial literacy and tax assistance for residents who need it most.

…working with social service providers to ensure fundamental needs are met—such as food, housing and safety from abuse. 

This is also the population hit hardest by the pandemic. Job loss. Inadequate nutrition and healthcare. Lack of resources for children’s online learning. Lack of childcare for essential workers. Fear of eviction.

United Way of Metro Chicago in partnership with the Chicago Community Trust and the City of Chicago created the Chicago COVID-19 Relief Fund and began making grants before the end of March. In the first three months of the pandemic, thanks to the generosity of foundations, business, and individuals like you, close to $25 million was dispersed to our non-profit partners doing the work on the front lines. For more on the Chicago Community COVID-19 Relief Fund, click here.

One remarkable initiative coming out of the COVID-19 response is Chicago Connected which will assure that Chicago Public School students have high-speed internet access. Not just for the duration of the pandemic but for four years! The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the city’s digital divide and this program will give students the ability to participate in remote learning and increase their digital literacy. For more on this program, click here.

We were able to respond quickly to this crisis because of the work we were already doing within our partnerships and neighborhoods across the city.

Since 2013, our Neighborhood Network approach has been helping targeted neighborhoods solve problems. There are currently ten Neighborhood Networks each led by a “Community Quarterback” – a lead agency already working within the neighborhood with an understanding of the needs and how best to create needed change. 

It’s a “for and by the community” approach that empowers neighborhoods to create the kind of place they want to live and work. United Way provides the resources. We don’t tell them what to do. Only they know what’s best for their community.

“As Chicagoans, we have a great love for our neighborhoods across the city and suburbs. There is plenty to celebrate, but the zip code you live in can have a significant impact on your access to opportunities. By tackling issues—neighborhood by neighborhood—we can stabilize our community and improve the quality of life for all our neighbors across the entire region. A community-led approach, supported by both the public and private sectors, will help ensure all residents can thrive.” 

(LiveUnitedChicago.org)

The United Way’s ability to create stronger neighborhoods, and respond to our neighbors in crisis, is limited only by the resources we can raise. This is where you come in. We cannot do it without the generosity of our communities. When United Way comes to your workplace this fall, please be as generous as you can be. Your neighbors need you!

THANK YOU!

The Best Summer Ever! – that wasn’t

The Best Summer Ever! – that wasn’t

The plans were hatched during the winter break. Summer 2020 was going to be the best summer ever. Two young women halfway through college were going to spend the summer in Chicago living on their own. The apartment belonged to one; her roommate would be moving out at the end of the semester. It was located just a few short blocks from Lake Michigan and about a mile and a half from the beach!

Her friend was from back home – New Jersey – and was at college in North Carolina, so they didn’t see each other much anymore. Unless you count all the FaceTime calls and snapchats and whatever else it is the kids are doing these days to stay in touch. This summer was going to make up for that! 

The calendar was beginning to fill up with concerts and other plans. And of course there was Lollapalooza, the four-day music festival in Grant Park they had been attending together for the last four years. Year five was going to be monumental they mused across cellular service more than 800 miles apart. 

One secured a job at a Chicago concert venue where the hours were limited, but the tips were excellent. And of course there were perks! Her friend was looking for a job in Chicago too, so there wouldn’t be too many financial limits on all they dreamed this summer could be.

I wasn’t privy to all the plans. I’m the mom of one. I had my own aspirations of what this summer could hold for my girl and her friend, and I was hoping that at times they’d let me crash the party – or at the very least, ask me to drive them somewhere. The only small piece of the puzzle was getting buy-in from the friend’s parents and I was willing to help with that. 

Everyone ignored the signs that 2020 was going to be different. I did deliver a bunch of paper goods, non-perishable food items and frozen dinners to fill her freezer at some point in February just in case this virus they’re talking about had her stuck in her apartment for two weeks.

By the week of March 8 though, COVID-19 was here. Their colleges were beginning to plan for online learning that would begin after spring break. The NCAA announced that the spring season for all sports would be suspended. She talked to her friend on Thursday evening. She played varsity lacrosse for her university and this left the team wondering how they would navigate their future as collegiate athletes.

That was the last time they would speak. In the early morning hours of March 13th, something went terribly wrong for seven college athletes. It would change their plans forever. Summer 2020, for my girl, would become something to get through. There was the weekend back in June when she imagined her friend would have arrived. There were dates of cancelled concerts; Lollapalooza weekend being especially hard. There was no job anymore. No FaceTimes. No snap chats.

Her new roommate moved in last week. I won’t be spending as much time with my girl in the city as I did all summer long. I’m usually one to hold on to summer for as long as I can. This year, I’m prepared to close the book on it now. Summer 2020 left us with a reminder that nothing is ever certain. “These uncertain times” are really all of the time. 

Still, we make plans and courageously move forward into the unknown.

One, moving forward. Navy Pier. Chicago, Illinois. July 2020.