Fat. Worthless. Not pretty.

Thousands of women from all walks of life tell themselves these words every day. “I berated myself every day for not being perfect,” summarized Caitlin Boyle, creator of the Operation Beautiful project and author of the newly released book Operation Beautiful: Transforming the Way You See Yourself One Post-it Note at a Time.

“I spontaneously scribbled ‘You are beautiful!’ on a scrap of notebook paper and stuck it on the mirror,” described Caitlin. When she realized how good the spontaneous act made her feel, she posted a photo of the note on her blog with a call for others to join the project. The reaction was quick and startling: emails flooded in from across the country, then across the globe. She received pictures of Operation Beautiful notes in Chinese, German and Spanish. She even received a photo of a note posted in a soldier’s barracks in Iraq. Soon after, emails began arriving from women who had found the notes. “For each woman, it seemed like the Operation Beautiful note was divine intervention. Women found an Operation Beautiful note when they needed it the most.”

Operation Beautiful has evolved into a volunteer grassroots movement to impact women’s perception of body image, health, and self worth. “I hope it helps readers realize how truly toxic negative self-talk is  — it hurts you emotionally, spiritually, and physically,” wrote Caitlin.

Participants send in photos and descriptions of their experiences to Caitlin, who posts new ones each day to http://operationbeautiful.com/.

“One day I made about 100 little slips of paper that said ‘Hey you, yeah you. You’re absolutely beautiful. Don’t forget it,’ and posted them in the bathrooms of my school. About an hour later, I found a girl sitting on the floor in a bathroom crying and holding one of the papers I had made. I asked her what was wrong and she said she’d never been called beautiful in her life. She couldn’t stop smiling.”

Operation Beautiful "protest" in Nevada

“I’m always looking in my mental mirror… Why can’t I have a flat stomach? Why can’t I have perfect skin? Why can’t I wear clothes that make me feel beautiful? I don’t want my daughters to see this… That’s not something I want them to learn. I don’t want them to learn to cause themselves pain on a daily basis by not believing in how beautiful they are… Operation Beautiful is, well, there’s no better, more obvious description than “beautiful”. I promise that because you ALL are so determined to help someone feel worth it and beautiful on a daily basis…I will help you by doing the same. I’ll be carrying around a post it pad wherever I go…”

Operation Beautiful note: "This # doesn't change who you are. You are BEAUTIFUL!"

“I’ve suffered from anorexia for five years. I was sexually assaulted three times in my short life. I’m only 18. I found Operation Beautiful on Facebook and it makes my day every time I visit it. I realize that it’s not worth hurting my body because somebody hurt me. I grow stronger every day because of the things I’ve been through. I’ve been told that I’m emotionally the strongest person some people know. I never used to feel that way. I’ve always told myself that it all was my fault. Thanks to Operation Beautiful, I realized I am not the only one going through these things.

Operation Beautiful note: "You have a beautiful smile!"

To accompany the book release, Caitlin is encouraging bloggers to write about issues related to self perception, fitness, and health as part of a “Virtual Book Tour” that will run August 2-7. To join the Operation Beautiful movement or explore the Virtual Book Tour, check out http://www.operationbeautiful.com.

Know a great volunteer or volunteer organization? Leave me a comment or email me through this link to let me know!

“My brother was in desert storm and the only thing he ever asked for was a Mother’s Day card for his wife,” said Rose Sliepka. “Until then I never realized how hard it is for them to get everyday normal things.” Then she heard a story about a soldier in Iraq, who wanted to send his children a package. “He sent the only things he had access to: a couple of band aids and some sun screen. His children were so excited to receive it because they got something from Dad who had been away for some time. It came from Dad, that’s all that mattered to them.”

“It made me think that there had to be something we could send the soldiers that they could easily send back.” Rose Sliepka owns and operates a  one-person engraving shop in California, and there she found her inspiration: “What soldier’s child doesn’t want a dog tag of their own, especially one like Mom or Dad wears?”

The project has slowly grown with the help of volunteers and support of military personnel. “[At first] people didnt trust us, didnt believe us, didnt think anyone would want to do this,” described Rose. One person at a time, the project has picked up. Major Matt St. Laurant sent tags to his three children. He was so impressed that he gave out 5,000 dog tags to soldiers in Iraq being treated by his combat stress team. Today soldiers take up collections to support Dog Tags for incoming soldiers. The engraving and mailing is supported by 20 volunteers. “At the beginning, I explained my idea to one customer.  She started helping.  One day an older lady came in to get a plate made for her husband’s flag case.  When she came back in to pick it up I told her she looked like she needed a project.  She asked what I had in mind.  She started volunteering and then brought a friend. .. After a story ran in the local paper a lady walked in and said she used to be a third grade school teacher.  She knew that three of her former students had been deployed and she wanted to help.  She and her husband still help 6 years later.”

Each Dog Tag is engraved “With love from Mom/Dad,” and lists the parent’s branch, location and year. Tags are available in English and Spanish. Dog Tags For Kids has shipped out over 500,000 tags, but thousands of military parents are waitlisted. While the Veterans of Foreign Wars endorses Dog Tags For Kids, the organization does not have any celebrity endorsements and runs completely on donations.

“Getting everything done is very time consuming and can also be emotionally draining.  Everything we do, we do for free.  We make/bag/pack/send the tags, we do our own fundraising.  We make special tags for fundraisers.  We set up tables at car shows, senior expos, anywhere we can get in for free.  It really is like having an extra full time job,” described Rose. “Even though it only takes 50 cents for the entire tag with postage, financing the project is always an issue… It would be wonderful if every deployed parent in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan knew this project exists and to have the resources to be able to provide tags to anyone that requested them.”

Asked what motivates her to overcome these challenges, Rose responded: “Do you remember the last time you got something from someone you didn’t even know? Something that you didn’t even know existed, didn’t know you needed but meant a lot to you? If we can make the military member or their child smile if even just for a moment, it is worth it. There is a quote:  ‘They may not remember what you said or what you did but they will always remember how you made them feel.’”

Rose receives proof of those smiles regularly: stories, letters and photos from soldiers and their families. “One of my favorite stories is about a 6 yr old who was so angry at his dad for deploying that he refused to talk to him on the phone.  Six and a half months, this guy called home every week and his son wouldn’t talk to him. The dad heard about our project and sent each of his kids a letter and a tag.  Christian got his tag, put it on and when he went to bed at night, took it off, kissed it and said “Good Night Daddy”.  His dad called 3 days later and Christian talked to him. I can’t even imagine what it is like to be half a world away and not be able to do anything to comfort your little boy.”
She regularly shares Christian’s story. There is also the 3 year old boy who wear his dog tag like a badge, whose mother wrote that “his face is worth every effort it took for his father to send it.” There is Olivia, a preschooler who received her dog tag as she was heading out the door to school and calls it her “jewel” and sat out of recess rather than take the dog tag off. There is the soldier who searched the items that Afghani vendors brought by every 2 weeks, searching for something appropriate to send his 4 year old son. “The guy would point to teapots and carpets and swords…. well, my son’s not sophisticated enough to appreciate those things. When I lost all hope, I got an email from Dog Tags for Kids.”

Rose is continually surprised by how Dog Tags has “gone so far and actually does change people’s lives.” Her advice to others looking to make a difference? “Don’t wait for someone else to do it.  If you have an idea and the ability to make it happen, how can you not?”

Last year CompStat logged 1,199 reported rapes in New York City. This year, there have been just over 600.

During the summer of 2004, a woman leaving a bar was abducted, robbed and raped. Another nameless statistic, but one that spurred two women to create an organization called RightRides for Women’s Safety. “We knew it could have been one of us, or one of our friends. We had to do something,” described Consuelo Ruybal, co-founder of RightRides.

For the first 18 months, Ruybal and co-founder Oraia Reid, herself a survivor of sexual assault, used their own cell phones and SUV to accept calls and provide safe rides home each Saturday night to women and transgendered women in North Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. They posted fliers in bars, clubs and subway stations to advertise the service.

Since then, RightRides has expanded; Zipcar sponsorship provides six cars, and hundreds of volunteers serve women and LGBT people in 35 neighborhoods. RightRides, a founding member of New Yorkers for Safe Transit, has teamed up with the Center for Anti-Violence Education to offer self defense classes, and offers Safe Walks on Friday nights to escort walkers home safely.

“Especially in large cities like New York, having a safe, inexpensive means of getting home at night is crucial to both a sense of self and community, as well as livelihood if one is returning from work,” commented Casey Dignan, a student at NYU and a RightRides volunteer. Casey and her co-RightRider, Derek Shiau, both heard about RightRides from people who had used the service. All RightRides teams must include at least one female; Derek and Casey frequently team together. “[As] a straight male, I am not the target candidate for Right Rides. But that does not mean I cannot agree and participate in volunteering,” said Derek.

Both Derek and Casey have been involved with volunteering throughout their lives. They each speak enthusiastically about their experience with RightRides: “It’s so great to make a personal connection with the riders,” Casey described. “It really gives me the impression that I truly helped an individual make it home safe. Perhaps I even changed their entire day, if they were having a bad one, or gave them a better impression of the city.” “My favorite part of right rides is definitely driving around the city and picking up new people,” agreed Derek.

“It’s made me much more aware of the dangers that other people in NYC face, and I feel incalculably more connected to a community, which is quite important in a city as large as NY,” added Casey. “10 million people can sound daunting, but if you can put a face on even a few… the city grows much more tangible.”

GlobalGiving is hosting a Facebook Photo Contest. The winning group’s photo will receive support for a project – ranging from reforestation efforts in South America to education initiatives in Ethiopia and support for low-income families in the USA.

To vote, log into Facebook and “like” Global Giving. Then click on the Photos Tab and you can explore the Contest Albums, which are divided by region. Vote for your favorite cause/photo by “liking” that photo.

The contest is open from June 1 – June 10. Vote today!

In honor of Memorial Day, I am re-posting this article about Any Soldier. Any Soldier is an amazing organization and I highly recommend checking them out!

It was March 26th, 2003. Army Sergeant Brian Horn, one of 1,000 soldiers, parachuted into enemy territory in Northern Iraq.

Five months later, Brian Horn was able to call his parents. Marty and Sue Horn had been sending their son an average of six care packages per week. So when Brian asked his parents to send more, “my wife and I thought he was kidding!” Marty Horn told me. “But Brian said, ‘no – its for the soldiers that don’t get any.’”

Brian Horn’s regiment spent nearly a year finding places to sleep on the ground or on their vehicles while behind enemy lines in Northern Iraq. From "Life in Iraq", Stars and Stripes' special report on morale. October, 2003, Jon R. Anderson, Stars and Stripes

Both Marty and Sue Horn had spent their careers in the Military, so they immediately understood what Brian was saying. Millions of men and women serving overseas never receive any mail. Besides often lacking basic necessities, these men and women have to cope with the harsh conditions of serving overseas without signs of support from friends and family back home.

The Horns developed the idea for AnySoldier.com during that phone call. Marty created a website that explained the project and offered Brian’s address – including the words “Attn: Any Soldier”. Brian would give these packages to the soldiers not receiving any mail. After his service in the Military, Marty had gotten involved in the still-young Internet. He knew how much opportunity the Internet offered, but even he was amazed at the results. “Within two weeks, we were getting flooded with email from all over the world. It was like an avalanche.”

The project’s growth kept up its tremendous pace. In January 2004, in response to many requests, the Horns opened up the project to the other Military branches. Within one year, they went from seven Military contacts distributing “Any Soldier” packages to 3,500.

“It just exploded. It literally took on a life of its own… Honestly, we started this as a way to help my son and his troops. Imagine camping – it’s hard enough to get stuff, imagine being one in a thousand guys who parachuted behind enemy lines,” Marty said.

The growth has continued. To date, AnySoldier.com – and its related websites, AnyMarine, AnyAirman, AnySailor, and AnyCoastGuardsman – have served over 1.4 million troops stationed in 22 locations. The men and women in service come from 51 states and countries – the vast majority from the USA, but also from such places as England, Italy, Germany, and Japan. Visitors to AnySoldier.com can search for contacts by service location, where the unit comes from, the number of males or females in the group (some supporters prefer to write to “Attn: Any Female Soldier”), and the number of times their address has been requested – among other options.

The response has overwhelmed the recipients, as well. AnySoldier updates from the men and women in service express gratitude, joy and awe at the support they receive. Unit leaders, in particular, write about the contribution AnySoldier makes to their troops:

Minnesota Unit poses with received AnySoldier packages. October 2009, Afghanistan. Photo used courtesy AnySoldier.com

“Thank you so much for your support… seeing the faces of my troops when they get to open a package is what keeps us going around here.”

“I have never seen anything like the love, appreciation and support that comes from the people who visit this site…I just want to thank you all once again from the bottom of my heart. So far I have been able to spread your love to 4 different soldiers of my platoon/battery and see the joyous looks on the soldiers’ faces…”

“Thank you so much for all the packages and letters… morale is up high. I can’t tell you enough how grateful we are. In my eyes you guys are the real heroes.”

AnySoldier has also offered support to wounded Marines recuperating from injuries; assisted in procuring and importing wheelchairs for crippled Afghani children; helped bring attention to and arrange shipments of much-needed medical supplies and textbooks for distribution throughout the Iraqi medical system; and many other projects. AnySoldier packages from supporters have also contributed to the distribution of toys, books, and necessary supplies to civilians living in war zones.

The first donated wheelchair Afghanistan, March 3, 2004 Photo used  courtesy AnySoldier.com

The first donated wheelchair. Afghanistan, March 3, 2004. Photo used courtesy AnySoldier.com

Unfortunately, the economy has impacted everyone. AnySoldier, a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, is almost entirely family-run and depends on donations. The last year has found AnySoldier in debt for the first time in its existence, and the family struggles to maintain all the aspects of the AnySoldier organization on their own. Not only are all the website updates done personally (all update emails by AnySoldier recipients are reviewed for security before being posted to the site), but the Horns try to stay on top of the ever-changing, often-confusing mail regulations for packages to Military personnel, offering guidance and recommendations on the website. Sue Horn also manages TreatAnySoldier.com, which prepares and ships packages for supporters who don’t have the time to create their own.

Support for the AnySoldier organization comes in many forms. A group at MIT created a Yahoo! toolbar that donates a few cents to AnySoldier for every search. The Combined Federal Campaign (catalog number 11993) has approved AnySoldier for their 2009 campaign, and a number of online businesses such as Amazon.com contribute a percentage of sales if you click through the link on the AnySoldier site, found on this page. Similarly, GoodSearch has teamed up with a large number of popular stores to donate a percentage of sales to AnySoldier. More details on these programs and other ways to support AnySoldier can be found here: http://anysoldier.com/OtherWaysToHelp.cfm.

Soldier in Afghanistan offers a Beanie Baby to an Afghani child. This Beanie Baby was donated by AnySoldier supporters. Photo used courtesy AnySoldier.com

Despite the difficulties, the Horns stay focused on the importance of what AnySoldier does. “It is a letter, maybe even in a box, addressed to a particular Soldier, Marine, Sailor, Airman, or Coastguardsman, that will change the day of that Warrior. I can tell you for a fact, that a simple act like that may not only save the life of that Warrior, but affects the morale of the entire unit,” said Marty Horn. Brian Horn affirmed:

“I couldn’t be any more proud to have been a part of such an honorable organization as AnySoldier.com… To have been able to distribute the mail personally as a contact to soldiers who get next to no mail at all and for that brief moment see the look of hope in their faces of good things to come. The hope that somebody out there does care. That somebody does in fact love them as they deservingly should be loved. The hope that some day their involvement in the fight on terror was to preserve those that believed in them so much through and through, until their fight was done. We fight so that maybe, just maybe your grandchildren won’t have to…”

“Heading to the airport to “save people” in Haiti (That’s what the kids think). One last check of my packing list: Mosquito net – check, DEET – check, waterless shampoo – check, flashlight – check, anti-malarials – check. Holy crap!!!! I forgot my blow dryer and curling iron!”
Facebook Status Update, February 24 at 6:51am

“Never underestimate the power of 35 seconds,” Dana Kollmann emphasizes. “In Haiti, over 233,000 people died, and countless more were injured or left homeless by an event that lasted only 35 seconds.”

Dana is one of 30 professionals who volunteered for the U.S. Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, known as DMORTs. These teams track down, identify and prepare the remains of disaster victims for burial. With over ten years of crime scene investigation experience in Maryland police departments, Smithsonian field work with human remains in cemeteries and museums around the USA, and several trips to work on mass graves in the former Yugoslavia, “I knew I had a skill set that would be useful to the team when I was deployed to Haiti. Now that I have returned, I feel that all of my career and academic choices played a role in preparing and enabling me to do my job to the best of my ability.”

“We spent the day trying to track down two particular Americans that are presumed dead, but their last known locations are in question… Tomorrow I think I’m slated for the Hotel Montana. We have identified or processed all of the bodies that were in storage, so we are ahead of the game and are now serving on field recovery teams. Anthros are needed in the field to determine ethnicity and assess the teeth for evidence of western dentistry. If certain criteria are met, the remains are brought back to the morgue. Otherwise they are released to the Haitian government.”
Facebook Status Update, February 28 at 7:59pm via Facebook for iPhone

Dana’s team began with a master list of missing Americans that included information such as age, sex, dental work, and other physical attributes. They then tracked down the last known location of the individual. Many Americans had been in the Hotel Montana when it collapsed, but others had been out and about. In some cases American remains had been taken to mass graves or burned or buried elsewhere. “We did everything possible to track down every American until their trail could not be followed any longer, or until we found them,” Dana said.

Ruins of a hotel. Photo Credit Dana Kollmann.

The team began with bodies “in storage,” already in the morgue awaiting identification. The heat and full body protective equipment they wore necessitated breaks every twenty minutes, when they would cool off, hydrate, and have their vitals checked before returning to work. When not assigned to the morgue, Dana and her teammates went on expeditions with the Army to track down Americans and recover their bodies.

“Wow…….television doesn’t capture an ounce of the devastation in Haiti. We worked at a location today where a man lost 12 family members when his home collapsed. We found 2. I’ll post some photos when I get home. Lots of irony…. market vendors hanging fruit from rebar sticking our of the pavement, people flying kites and having shoes shined and waiting in line to have car washed when the country is Destroyed.”
Facebook Status Update, February 26 at 10:21pm via Facebook for iPhone

Dana’s team struggled to cope with intense temperatures, awkward living conditions, and “the sheer magnitude of devastation and loss of life.” Their anti-malarial medications contributed to disturbing dreams, and they had limited access to medical personnel if an emergency were to occur. “I saw animals with amputations and unset fractures from the earthquake, families that had been wiped out, 7 and 10 year-old brothers that lived in the street because their parents had been killed,” Dana remembered. “I think most of us in forensics know that there MUST be an emotional detachment from what you are seeing and doing…We all had to maintain a sense of humor and keep a smile on our face, but it was never at the expense of a victim or a family. We primarily laughed at ourselves,” Dana described. “We joked about complaining to our travel agent about the accommodations and meals on our Caribbean trip. We laughed because the military failed to tell us the gum in the MRE’s was Exlax. I rolled my eyes because I had to learn the hard way it isn’t a good idea to walk and text while walking about 6 inches away from barbed wire.”

The Morgue. Photo Credit Dana Kollmann

The Morgue. Photo Credit Dana Kollmann.

Dana admits that “there are no strategies to deal with circumstances like those we encountered.” Humor, like any defense, cannot always win.  “In one instance… we encountered a 12 year old girl that had just been released from care. She had a broken leg and was going to walk “home” on crutches. Her home was over one-mile away and was straight up the side of a mountain. We wound up putting her in the Humvee and taking her home. We gave her rations of food and water and one of the other DMORT members gave her $20.00, which is a lot of money in Haiti. The military members then carried her into the residence and laid her on the sofa. I burst into tears.”

When humor fails, Dana finds comfort in the work itself. “I  seek solace in knowing that the work that we performed enabled a family to bring closure to the terrible condition of not knowing what happened to their loved one. It was a somber moment on base when, only a few hours after making an identification, we would watch the C130 take off en-route to Dover, carrying the body home to their family.”

“…This has been an eye opening experience. I have no reason to complain about anything in my life… I cannot imagine a “normal” day in my life consisting of peeing in the street, washing in filthy water, begging for food, living beneath a tarp, pleading for someone to buy a mango I picked from my tree, wearing clothes that don’t fit – if any at all… The weather has changed over the past few days and it is very overcast and has been raining at night. With the rainy season around the corner, the problems are only going to get worse. If you have it in you, think about purchasing a tent for distribution. One tent is a home for a family living beneath a piece of plastic.”
Facebook Status Update, March 7 at 9:09am via Facebook for iPhone

Tent City. Photo Credit Dana Kollmann.

Asked about the most frustrating part of working in Haiti, Dana responded: “Not being able to help the Haitians find their loved ones. We would have helped everyone if we could have.” Although Dana was unable to help the Haitians with her forensic skills, she has begun a tent drive. “I spoke with many Haitians through a translator and asked them what they needed the most. Tents were the most frequently requested item. USAID and some other organizations contributed a large number of tents, but there are many, many people still living without proper shelter. I saw people living beneath plastic that was tied to sticks. The rainy season has just begun in Haiti, so things will only get worse… One tent can be a temporary home for a family living on the street.”

If you are interested in contributing to Dana’s tent collection project, you can contact her at dkollmann@gmail.com.

To see the location of Dana’s base camp, use Google earth coordinates latitude N18 34.72 longitude W72 17.01.

This is a quick post to let you know that I am working on several articles. While my schedule continues to be busy, it is my goal to begin posting articles regularly again (although I will probably be unable to do them weekly). This project is very important to me and I’m going to do my best to keep it active. Keep checking back!