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Mary Biever | One Writing Mother |

Please help Harrisburg Illinois Appeal FEMA’s Denial of Disaster Funding

Harrisburg IL devastated after an EF4 tornado. Photo by Jordan Vandenberge

Caveat with this blog: tonight, I’m one angry writing mother.

Why? FEMA denied disaster aid to Harrisburg, Illinois.

Disclaimer: I was born in Carbondale, Illinois and grew up in southern Illinois. The part of Harrisburg, Illinois that was flattened last week by an EF4 tornado is in the part of town where I spent my teen years cruising up and down the street with my friends, hoping we might meet a car full of cute guys.

In a 3 day period when our area was inundated with tornados, Harrisburg got the brunt of early storms. 7 people died. The people and homes in the tornado’s path didn’t stand a chance as it flattened their town.

Does a tornado have to flatten a bigger community to be considered for FEMA aid? Should Harrisburg have been located next to Chicago, home of our sitting president to get aid instead of being in a forgotten corner of the state that’s ravaged by a state economic crisis?

Though I am now a happy Hoosier, my heart breaks for my southern Illinois friends. If you know ways anyone can help them appeal this FEMA ruling and get disaster aid that’s desperately needed, please comment below.

This haunting photo, taken in the tornado aftermath, haunts me on multiple levels. A replica of Mickey Mouse leans against a storm-damaged home. It looks like Mickey is searching for the American dream.

Aftermath of tornado devastation in Harrisburg IL. Photo by Jordan Vandenberge

When I was a girl growing up in southern Illinois, the big picture book on our coffee table was the story of Walt Disney, and that same image of Mickey was in 3-D relief on the book’s cover. I often looked at the picture of Mickey and saw in it Walt’s quest for the American dream. That dream is a little harder to grab for some in southern Illinois. They have hearts as big as the Midwestern prairie and are willing to work hard, but the sad state of the Illinois economy makes it harder for them to capture just a corner of the American dream. And now, after an EF-4 tornado, without FEMA help or help from somebody, their recovery is going to be a lot tougher.

My question to the FEMA bureaucrats who approved disaster aid in other areas ravaged by last week’s storms and apparently didn’t think this corner of the damage mattered, I can only quote George Bailey about those who will suffer as a result:

“They do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”

If you know other ways we, as individuals can help this community that apparently isn’t big enough to matter to FEMA, please share them.

Follow up blog: How to Help Harrisburg, Illinois.

Why We Help With Disaster Recovery

A news story tonight, of how people rallied to rebuild a home for a Harrisburg, Illinois, single mother who lost everything in tornado and had another baby this week, made me cry. The mother said she didn’t know how, but she said, “One day I will do something like this for another family.” I knew part of what she felt and thought back to my own reasons for helping with disasters.

Losing everything changes your whole world.  At those darkest moments – in our case, as we wore borrowed clothes in church the morning after our home and business burned 11 years ago, we had no idea where we would go or what we would do. And we had 2 young children.

Friends, some we knew well and some we didn’t, all helped us in incredible ways. Several put their own lives on hold to help us when we need it the most. I don’t know what we would have done without them.

Though I describe it in more detail in my book, He Uses It For Good, there are some ways people helped I will never forget:

  • When we had 15 minutes to clear our home and office after the fire, friends helped us carry and drag our business equipment up what had been basement stairs to save what we could of our business.
  • Later that night, as I sat at a pharmacy waiting to pick up a prescription, in my smoked clothes, I burst into tears. A woman sitting beside me, who didn’t know us, handed me a $20 bill and told me we needed it more than she did.
  • Friends helped us with housing and childcare in the months that we rebuilt.
  • Friends worked with our church and helped set us up in a temporary apartment and collected enough dishes and groceries to set up temporary housekeeping.

I honestly do not know what we would have done without the help of friends, family, and strangers. There is no way I can ever repay those who helped us. All we can do is pay it forward. Maybe we can’t save everyone or end world suffering. But if we each help how we can, great things will happen.

I helped what I could when others suffered loss. In my heart, I knew when my kids were grown I would do more.

That day hasn’t yet arrived, but I’ve started preparing to volunteer with the Red Cross. They do an excellent job of training disaster volunteers in advance so they are prepared when disasters happen.

If something horrific happens in our area, if you want to find me, I’ll be at the Red Cross helping where needed.

Helping with a disaster isn’t glamorous. It may involve:

  • setting up cots in a shelter
  • delivering water to a shelter
  • answering telephones
  • responding to queries.

As I’ve met other volunteers, I’ve met some with stories like mine, who are paying forward help we were once given.

In my case, when that call for help comes, I feel like a rush like I’m one of the stormchasers in the movie Twister.  As I look for some way to help, I hear the voice of Mordecai in the Old Testament story of Esther, when he tells Esther her life has been preparation for such a time as this. I know my own life experiences prepared me to help others in such as time as disasters.

I can now do this for other families when needed.


A 4-H Remixed Recipe Challenge

When I say “I have a dream,” my husband cringes because it often means some massive new project. Well, this time, I was in a dream and it inspired a vision of a new 4-H project: Remixed Recipes. The purpose of the project would be to take old family recipes, analyze their nutritional content, and remix them with changes so they are healthier and provide more nutritional value.

Back story? As our 4-H leaders were recently preparing box lunches for a meal (described in my Box Lunch Balancing Challenge blog), I pushed and prodded more nutrition in each lunch. The president of our 4-H leaders told me as we prepped lunches she had a dream about me the night before.

She dreamed that I started a new 4-H project to encourage healthier eating. In her dream, she saw the project rules:

  1. Members would take a family favorite traditional recipe and analyze its nutrition content.
  2. Members would then replace or add 3 ingredients to make it healthier to eat. They would analyze the nutrition content of the new recipe.
  3. Members would prepare a sample of the new recipe for judges to try and would exhibit the old recipe, with the new one.
  4. These recipes would be kept and accumulated each year so as members continued in the project, they would have a collection of healthier alternatives to family favorites.

This has real potential to be a great 4-H project. Since I’m already covered up as superintendent of 2 project areas (creative writing and robotics) and assistant superintendent of a 3rd (computers), I don’t have the time to make this dream a reality.

In order for it to happen, in our county, we would need to find a superintendent and then work through a process of project review to add it.

Since I was “in a dream,” I now “have a dream” to make this a reality and am looking for someone to shepherd it through the 4-H project process for Vanderburgh County, Indiana.

Then, this morning, national 4-H tweeted about a comparable opportunity. The CDC has a new Recipe Remix tool to remix your favorite recipe.  I asked if there were any counties running this as a project. They said no. Challenge accepted.

  • Can we find someone to make this project happen in our county?
  • If you’re in 4-H in a different county, why don’t you try to make it happen in yours?

In 4-H, we are working to foster a revolution of responsibility, where our young members learn responsibility by doing projects and accepting challenges.

Maybe it’s time as 4-H leaders we start another revolution: a Revolution of Responsible Eating.

How to Make Leftover Freezer Soup

A few leftovers frozen over time can make a wonderful soup. I keep a large margarine container in my freezer that is labelled “soup.” As we eat different meals and vegetables, if there are a few leftovers that aren’t really enough to serve an extra meal, I put them into the soup bucket. When the soup bucket is full, it’s time to make vegetable soup.

The advantage is that it creates a simple base for any soup and reduces food waste. In addition, it saves time in putting together a large pot of soup. Because the leftovers may have been cooked with spices, I don’t add any seasoning to the soup until everything is combined together and I can taste how the flavors have blended.

Today’s vegetable soup bucket included leftovers of roast beef, chicken, broccoli, onions, peppers, green beans, and more.

Freezer vegetable soup recipe

The recipe for each freezer soup varies according to whatever ingredients are on hand. Today’s version:

  • soup bucket of leftovers
  • 3 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 1 cup leftover green, red, yellow, and orange peppers that had been sauteed
  • 1 lb. ground beef, cooked and crumbled
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 6 tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can chili beans
  • 1 can peas
  • 1 can corn
  • 1/4 head cabbage, chopped into slivers

Today’s batch is about 4 quarts of vegetable soup. After everything simmers and blends together, we have soup for dinner.

My Box Lunch Balancing Challenge

Can food providers provide healthier food options that are affordable and that people will eat?

Vanderburgh 4-H Leaders addressed that challenge this weekend as we provided box lunches for Startup Evansville, a weekend activities to encourage business startups. We needed to provide easy to eat box lunches for participants.

In our county, to help cover the cost of project manuals for 700 4-H members, leaders volunteer to cater fundraisers.

As 4-H Leaders, we are fully committed to teaching youth to make healthful choices.  With this box lunch gig, the question presented itself: will we practice what we teach? If so, how? What will people eat?

The USDA may technically identify a pickle spear as a vegetable (no wonder those school burgers included pickles), but they are a nutrient detriment that adds salt to the diet. So we shopped and bargain hunted, still including some traditional options. Our final decisions?

Day 1 lunch:

  • Hoagie turkey, ham and cheese sandwiches
  • Potato chips
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Organic spring mix lettuces
  • Veggie packs with broccoli, grape tomatoes, celery, and organic carrots.
  • Apples or bananas

Day 2 lunch:

  • Turkey and ham wraps with cheese and organic baby spinach on artisan whole wheat tortillas
  • Potato chips
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Veggie packs with broccoli, grape tomatoes, celery, and organic carrots
  • Apples or bananas
We also included additional trays with extra tomato slices, cucumbers, and green peppers in case anyone wanted to add them to their sandwiches.

After delivering the second day, I stayed to observe participants eating. What foods would they eat? Which would they skip?

They ate the vegetables. (and the chips, cookies, and wraps) Not everyone ate everything, but most of the participants did eat vegetables when offered them as an alternative. Several also chose the fruit.

My challenge to you: if you organize a meal or event, add at least 1 additional fruit or vegetable into the menu.  And add 1 more vegetable a day to your own plate, at each meal.

Comment below to share how you meet the balanced box lunch challenge.

The USDA has ideas on how to incorporate more vegetables into your diet if you need it.

Bottom line: we can balance the traditional box lunch without breaking the bank.


Crying For Our Children

I saw a father sobbing over his child’s heartbreak.

As a parent, we know in our heads that the challenges our kids overcome build their character and develop their empathy.

That doesn’t matter one bit when in our hearts we feel their pain. Not the pain of a hangnail or an inconvenience. But the pain of heartache, disappointment, and loss. We would absorb every gut punch and take it tenfold if it would save their heartbreak.

Life doesn’t work that way.

The father – or the mother – who is sobbing has already given their kids the great gift of all: love.

When our kids know they are loved and we are there to comfort and encourage them, they have a well of strength that will carry them through the heartbreak.

As I saw the father crying over his child, I had a different perspective. My own father never cried over me and never will. I will never know unconditional love and support from him.

My husband and friends have stood in that gap for me.

Our youth need more mentors. I know many young people who have dad gaps like I do. If we want them to flip their childhood scripts and build better lives, it’s going to take responsible adults to mentor and encourage them.

The risk of mentoring young people – both those with parents and those without – is that we too feel their pain.

Would that all young people had a host of friends and family to watch over, encourage, and occasionally cry during their life journeys.

And a warning to the young people I’ve taught, tutored, or worked with as a youth leader – you have a cheerleader in your corner, ready to cheer and rejoice your victories and to cry and pray over your sorrows. For a lifetime.

For Those Who Mourn

In a terrible moment, lives change and worlds turn upside down. Tragedy strikes, time stops, and it seems as though the earth under our feet has crumbled.

When we see those tragedies happen to those we love, we struggle to find the words and know what to do. So all we can say is we’re sorry, we’re praying for you, we’ll do whatever whenever we can to help you.

Evansville, Indiana may be bigger than the town of 6,000 where I grew up, but it’s really a bunch of small towns all sewn together by road maps. We have many ties and love our neighbors. At least most of them.

I struggle to find words this morning to comfort those who mourn and just wanted to share the words of my friend Bill, Evansville Watch, that he posted on Facebook:

Life can change in an instant. Tonight’s tragic accident is a reminder to us all of that fact. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the fallen firefighter, to the injured firefighter and to their family and friends. To the McCutchanville Fire Department family, please know we are praying for each of you. We can’t begin to understand your pain but as a community, we mourn with you. So often we lean on your shoulders as you help us through life’s tough moments. Please feel free to lean on us now..we are here for you.

I know that any firefighter across the country that hears of tonight’s tragedy will feel a pain in their heart too. They are part of one big brother and sisterhood and when one hurts, they all hurt. As I said the other day, these guys and gals walk into places you and I run from. They are our everyday heroes and when a tragedy like this strikes, it deeply affects us all.

We pray for the fallen firefighter..we pray for the injured firefighter..we pray for their families and friends..we pray for each and every one of you. 

May God be with you.
May God bless you all.

Bill, Debby, Jaga, Richard, Kristi and
the 16000+ members of EvansvilleWatch

For those who mourn, our tears join yours. You are lifted in prayer.

Please know that those who love you will do whatever we can to help you during this terribly tragic time.

Top 10 Things You Can’t Give Up for Lent

Ash Wednesday is here again. I enjoy the seasons of the Church Year because the feasts of Easter and Christmas are sweeter when we have a quiet, reflective time to balance them. That, for me, is the meaning of Lent.  When we give up something for Lent, we consider carefully. Here is a list of top 10 things we can’t give up:

  1. School. When my son was younger, he always asked for this one. I always told him no.
  2. Chores.  He tried this one too, with the same answer: no. (By the way, if you think kids who grow up on farms benefit from helping on the family farm, the Dept. of Labor is trying to regulate them from doing this. Public comments have been requested by the Dept. of Labor.)
  3. Animal Care.  Yes, the litter box must be cleaned during Lent. Animals must still have food and water.
  4. Musical Instrument Practice. We paid for the instrument, we pay for the lessons, and you WILL practice!
  5. Paying bills. Mortgage companies, utilities, and banks will not buy this.
  6. Exercise.  Not an excuse. Keep on moving!
  7. Things You Don’t Have or Do. As my daughter said,  “You can’t give up Playstation 2 if you have a Playstation 3.”
  8. Bathing and Personal Hygiene. Once upon a time it might have been ok to take one bath each winter. Queen Elizabeth I may have bathed only once every 6 months. No longer in style.
  9. Laundry.  40 days is a long time to wear the same clothes. Or to have that many different outfits to wear.
  10. Cooking. I have been tempted to take a Lenten holiday and quit cooking for my family. They can cook for themselves. However, someone is going to have to prep the meals.

Bottom line: what we give up for Lent is something that distracts us or is bad for us. I’m thinking of giving up second helpings and am still thinking what else to give up.

The other part is if we give something up, we also need to add something – to add something positive to our lives.

Yesterday was Fat Tuesday. So today, we begin Lent so we can reflect and be best prepared to celebrate the Holy Triduum, concluding in Easter, in 40 days.

Give Health a Chance

A week's produce share from Seton Harvest, a CSA in Evansville, Indiana.It’s 2012, and we know what it takes to have a nutritious diet. Whether you put those choices into the food groups I grew up with, or the pyramid, or now the plate, the basics are the same. A varied diet that is low in fat, high in fiber, and full of fruits and vegetables is good for you.

So how do we get that people don’t know what nutrition is? We were all taught it in school. We see it on TV. It’s in newspapers, on the web, and in magazines all the time.  Yet I still go to the grocery store – whether it’s the low budget no frills store or the high end suburban grocery store – and see the kid who only eats chicken nuggets made of cut up processed chicken parts which could conceivably include bones, fat, dyes, breading of who knows what, and any semblance it once had to real meat is now gone.

Or the other choice is a pre-packed lunch box because we are incapable of putting together cheese, crackers, and a cookie all wrapped up in an MSG high calorie package with a cholesterol bow on top.

We don’t want to know. We want to live in a world of denial where:

  • Eating a pickle spear counts as a vegetable because once upon a time part of it was a cucumber.
  • That ketchup packet in the drive thru counts as a vegetable serving.
  • French fries count as a double vegetable because we super-sized the order and threw extra salt on top.
  • We justify fruit drink as a fruit because it’s the color of a fruit and has fruit in its name.
  • We say we can’t afford healthful food choices when a grocery card is full of sodas, snacks, box mixes, frozen snacks, and more.

Bogus. We know better. Isn’t it time if we are going to make bad choices for our menus that we just own them and say, “I know these food choices will boost my cholesterol, make me gain weight, suck the nutrients I do eat from my body, and shorten my lifespan, but I don’t care.

I deserve better, and so do you. Try a single baby step. Swap out a single snack for a vegetable. Next week, make it two. If we plan menus for our families or for others, work twice as hard to give health a chance.

Warning: if I cook a meal for you or help you plan an event, I’m going to ask, “Where’s the food?” And that is going to mean real food, as in original source fruits and vegetables.

I’m doubly determined because last year my town was highly ranked for its obesity rate. Like others concerned in my community, I’m working to do my part to knock down our rating and build the fitness of our community.

All I am saying is: give health a chance. I know that if I want there to be health in Evansville, I have to let it begin with me, and my own dinner table.

Won’t you join me?

Search Your Colleges. Then Search Again.

If you have teens going to colleges, search their social media footprint.

For years, I’ve told my social media classes that colleges and scholarship committees do social media background searches. Now, as the parent of a graduating high school senior, I see the ways they use social media to better communicate.

When we tour a campus, I now tweet about it to see if their college administration is listening. So far, half respond. I want my teens to learn to use social media well. If a college leads by example, monitors their own Twitter presence, and replies to my tweets, that’s a plus in their favor. For the colleges that don’t, it’s a potential red flag.

My most amusing moment was at a college day when I checked in on FourSquare and watched the Admissions reception table. I stood by the side and noted when one of the admissions counselors saw the Tweet on her phone. She immediately tweeted on behalf of her college’s admissions office. Then, she grabbed the counselor next to her, they looked me up, and then I could see their scanning the room to find me. I said nothing but nearly exploded with laughter the moment they saw me. Neither of them said a word. But later that day, one of them asked, “Do you use Twitter?”

Answer: “Yes.”

I was impressed with the school that gave their scholarship weekend a Twitter hashtag to see if any students tweeted about it. And I enjoyed the professors’ banter with that hashtag. About half the colleges she has applied to have made creative use of private Facebook groups to better communicate with students and their parents. (And you know that means they are also screening students and their social media profiles.)

Now, I see it’s also important to flip the search. Last weekend, I started a Hootsuite page to search  my daughter’s top college choices.

What’s being tweeted about my daughter’s prospective college choices? Who is tweeting about them?

Here’s what I’ve found in 3 days:

  • One college is under pressure to drop certain majors because of declining enrollment. I checked my daughter’s department and preferred major, and it’s not on the list.
  • One college has just had student protests because of a professor’s ill-advised, inappropriate use of Facebook.
  • Some colleges tweet links to their research studies.
  • Lots of students love their college’s sports teams and live tweet during games. And they hate it when their teams lose.
  • Some professors require students to tweet and do an excellent job of engaging students in online conversations.
  • Some colleges promote their career fairs via Twitter. (a very good thing)
  • Some college students blog about stupid things their classmates say in class.
  • Some college students hate the cafeteria food. (Imagine that.)

Colleges do social media background searches to see if a student’s test scores, transcript, scholarship essays, and interviews reflect what the students say and do on social media. I think that’s a good thing.

Parents need to do social media background searches on prospective colleges to ensure that the gorgeous brochures and weekend tours match what is happening on campuses.

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