All Ages


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.

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Suzanne Woods Fisher had the house, the kids, the big backyard. Just one thing was missing.

But when Suzanne’s 8 year old son begged his father for a dog, his father replied, “Find a purpose for having a dog, son, and then we’ll talk.”

“My husband isn’t against dogs,” Suzanne explained recently. “He’s neutral about them, he wasn’t raised with them.”  Her husband thought that he had successfully ended the discussion, but he was in for a surprise. That same week, their son brought home a field trip permission slip to visit Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA. Suzanne immediately signed the slip and offered to chaperone. It wasn’t long before Suzanne and her family were signed up as Volunteer Puppy Raisers.

Reyna at 6 months, in her Guide Dog Puppy vest. 2009.

Puppy Raisers raise future Guide Dogs from the time the pups are 8 weeks old until they are 16-18 months old. During these months, the puppies learn basic manners and obedience, and are socialized to be comfortable in a wide variety of situations such as grocery stores, travel, restaurants, and workplaces. The puppies have vests similar to Guide Dog harnesses. “When the jacket goes on, they are working. When the jacket comes off, they are just dogs,” explained Suzanne. “There’s an etiquette to handling a dog in training. A lot of people can’t resist [petting the dog] – it’s always a good thing to ask ‘may I touch your dog?’. Sometimes the dog is too excitable and just needs to be working right then.” At times people are surprised by the places the puppies-in-training go to. “People ask ‘why would a blind person take a dog to a movie?’” Suzanne commented, “but blind people do all kinds of things – visit the symphony, go to a concert. It’s all part of conditioning the dogs.”

After the year of puppy raising, the dogs return to the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility to learn the specific skills they need to be professional Guide Dogs. The dogs that pass each phase of training are then paired with a visually impaired person. Each person and dog are carefully matched, and spend a month training together to become a true team. The Puppy Raisers receive regular progress reports throughout training and have the honor of formally presenting their graduating Guide Dog to its new owner at a ceremony.

“Its not an easy moment,” Suzanne admitted. She laughingly calls her family the “Schmaltz family” at graduations. But she compares it to dropping your kid off at Harvard: “so sad he’s leaving home but so darn proud of him.”

Suzanne and her family are now on their seventh puppy, Reyna. “There’s this hope and excitement, the possibility,” Suzanne described receiving each new puppy-in-training. Their first dog was a yellow Lab male named Arbor. Arbor was teamed with Jonathan, a 19-year old man who has Bardet-Biedel, a genetic disease that results in progressive blindness. From Jonathan, Suzanne learned how quickly having a Guide Dog can change the life of someone with visual impairment. “I received an e-mail from Jonathan’s mother the next day [after graduation]…  she wrote, ‘Jonathan took Arbor on a walk to see his friend, and I realized something. He hadn’t felt the confidence to walk to his friend’s house in years.’ When I read that,” Suzanne said, “loss became gain. It’s such a feeling, I’ve never forgotten it.” She remains in touch with Jonathan and is continually amazed at how much he and Arbor accomplish: “Those two have done more than most sighted people ever do. They’ve hiked the Oregon Trail all of the way [from Kansas] to the Pacific Ocean. Jonathan has taken Arbor deep sea fishing off the Florida Keys… The people we meet who are visually impaired and get a dog – they are the most amazing people. They really want a life, they want independence… every person I’ve met, I’m just amazed at what they can accomplish in their life with a great limitation of blindness.”

Guide Dogs for the Blind has improved the lives of thousands of visually impaired Americans like Jonathan since the organization was incorporated in May 1942 by Lois Merrihew and Don Donaldson. Merrihew and Donaldson began training Guide Dogs in response to WWII; they hoped to help the many wounded servicemen who were returning home without their sight.  Co-founder Lois Merrihew also has the distinction of being the first female licensed dog trainer in America, and being a part of the passing of Senate Bill #2391 which set standards for licensing of dog trainers and schools. Guide Dogs for the Blind celebrated their 10,000th group graduation in 2002.

Some members of the Contra County Guide Dog Raiser’s Club. 2008.

In addition to Puppy Raising, Suzanne has contributed to Guide Dogs for the Blind through volunteering with the newborn puppies, housing a breeder dog, and even offering her skills as a writer. Suzanne, a published author with numerous awards to her name, has donated all royalties from her recent book For the Love of Dogs to the organization. “It’s been a pleasure and an enriching experience – this is nine years now, and I just feel all the more committed to the organization,” Suzanne said. “I think the deeper you go, the more you find so many different parts of it. I’m so grateful to the people who are part of it. So many are volunteers [like I am].” She compares volunteering with Guide Dogs for the Blind to eating “a potato chip – you get started and you just want to do it again and again.”

Suzanne volunteering with newborn puppies, 2003.

There are a number of ways to volunteer with puppies from Guide Dogs for the Blind. Some volunteers co-raise; others take “starter puppies” for five months. Yet others volunteer as regular dog-sitters for their local Puppy Raising Clubs. Dog-sitting is a great way to “get a little taste of what it’s all about, get your feet wet,” Suzanne recommended. “It’s good to let it grow naturally and make sure it’s the right fit for you.”

“So many people make this organization successful,” Suzanne commented. “It really is a lovely part of humanity.” She’s found that Puppy Raising has helped her family grow, as well. “It’s brought us closer. We’re more tolerant, and more educated about visually impaired people… people who want a guide dog are so amazing, they are having this full life without the benefit of eyesight and it’s so inspiring.” She has also seen her children grow a greater “awareness of giving to other people with your spare time and energy.”

Of course, Suzanne laughs, another benefit to raising puppies is that “you just can’t take life too seriously when a puppy is charging through your house with a pair of someone’s underpants in her mouth.”

Click here to find a local Guide Dog Raising organization.

Oriole in her Guide Dog puppy vest. 2008.

For more information on Guide Dogs for the Blind: http://www.guidedogs.com/

For more information on Suzanne Woods Fisher: http://www.suzannewoodsfisher.com/

To check out Suzanne Woods Fisher’s book For the Love of Dogs on Amazon, click here. All proceeds go to Guide Dogs for the Blind.

All photos used courtesy Suzanne Woods Fisher.

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

It’s a cool, cloudy Fall afternoon. The sun is playing hide-and-seek, bursting through the clouds at odd moments. The farmhouse and its apple orchard look like a painting.

Then a friendly dog runs out, turning the painting into a scenic movie as she trots ahead of the car, glancing back to make sure you follow her to the parking area. Holly, a golden retriever-labradoodle mix, is used to guests and knows exactly where they are supposed to go.

The location is Hope, New Jersey. Longmeadow Farm – nestled in the Delaware Valley, not far from Jenny Jump Mountain – has catered to pick-your-own visitors since 1993, offering 13 varieties of apples, as well as pumpkins, raspberries, and flowers. Weekends are busy with visiting pickers, as well as those who come to buy preserves, honey, and craft items.

Today, though, Longmeadow Farm is hosting another sort of picking client: volunteers with NJ Farmers Against Hunger [FAH]. “We decided to work more closely with FAH this year,” Bradley Burke, the owner of Longmeadow Farm, said. “They’ve been here about every week since the beginning of September. They gather anywhere from 4-5 to 8-10 bins a week.” Each bin holds 1,000 pounds of apples.

Volunteers gleaning apples at Longmeadow Farm

The fresh produce doesn’t have far to travel. FAH is committed to providing the freshest, most nutritious food possible to those New Jersey residents who need it most. “Customers tell me ‘your apples are the best I’ve ever had!’” Burke commented. “Well, it’s because they are picked fresh off the tree. It’s weeks before you get the apples in your supermarket.” Those weeks leave fruit less tasty and less nutritious. But even supermarket produce often seems above the means of many New Jersey men, women, and children – let alone the means to get fresher, healthier local produce. According to recent estimates by the American Community Survey, approximately 8.7% of New Jersey residents lived below the poverty line in 2008.  The 2000 US Census – which found 7% of New Jersey households earning $10,000 or less – found that 9.2% of families with children under 18 lived below the poverty line. 10.9% of families with children under 5 years of age, and 7.8% of adults 65 and older, also lived below the poverty line.

Farmers Against Hunger began in 1996. Pam Mount, owner of Terhune Orchards in Lawrence Township, NJ, knew that some farmers arranged to donate their leftover produce to soup kitchens or local churches. She conceived of an organization that would build this practice into a statewide program. FAH now works with about 65 farmers throughout New Jersey, delivering approximately 1.5 million pounds of fresh produce each year to communities in need all around the state.

“There’s the part you can schedule, and the parts you can never schedule,” Judy Grignon, FAH Program Coordinator, described. “We have a specific route every Tuesday to certain farms, and they expect us… but there are a lot of variables. If the market is flooded with sweet corn, farmers will call us so that nothing goes to waste.”

Bradley Burke of Longmeadow Farm agreed: “There’s no benefit if the apples go to waste.” He also explained that the FAH gleanings directly help the farm. Any produce left on the trees or on the ground at the end of season can attract fungus and molds which could lead to a diseased orchard. Further, good fruit that has fallen from the trees but not harvested gets in the way of his pick-your-own visitors’ experience. But the major advantage, he summarized, is “that the apples don’t go to waste – if we can distribute them to needy people, it benefits everyone.”

Bradley Burke, owner of Longmeadow Farm, helps the volunteers glean produce for FAH

The produce harvested by FAH, with the help of approximately 1,000 volunteers each year, is taken to central distribution sites on Mondays through Thursdays. On a good day, the FAH trucks might carry 10,000 pounds of produce to distribute. At these distribution centers, local soup kitchens, food pantries, and community organizations each receive an equal share of the produce to take back and distribute in their communities. Weather permitting, local produce is available from June through December. During the remaining five months, several grocery companies support FAH by donating their excess produce.

Judy has seen the need for FAH grow as the economy has suffered. “The working poor make up the majority of our clients, senior citizens, people with disabilities. These days we see a whole new crowd of people come out for help because they haven’t been able to make ends meet and feed their families and pay their bills – there’s an increase in the number of people that are in need of help.”

John Malay of the Keep It Green Campaign described FAH as a “conduit”: “When farmers sell off development rights [given to them by the state], the money puts farmers in a much better financial position to be able to do charity and give back to the community – [FAH] simplifies the logistics of getting leftover [produce] to people who need it.” Ed Wengren, Field Rep for the NJ Farm Bureau, agreed: “It breaks a lot of farmers’ hearts to leave crops in the field like that. This program is very important.”

Volunteers bring their full baskets to Brian Strumfels, an FAH AmeriCorps volunteer, who adds them to the bins. Each bin holds 1,000 pounds of apples.

In recent years, FAH has grown to add an educational component for its clients. “We had a farmer donate about 8,000 pounds of acorn squash one time – and people didn’t know what it was or what to do with it,” Judy said. “That led us to come up with a Farmers Against Hunger cookbook and nutrition guide which is just based on New Jersey produce – apples to zucchini.” The cookbook includes nutrition information, storage information, and simple-to-prepare recipes. “The recipes are really basic because some of our clients don’t have a stove, and… [can’t afford] something that takes a bunch of ingredients.” FAH has also tried to educate its clients about nutrition: “We try to tell them why its important to eat more produce and to feed their families that way… we took direction from the people we’re providing food for; we noticed a lot of people eating fast food, saying they couldn’t afford produce. I went and bought 15 pounds of produce and it cost the same as one fast food meal for one person. So we made a poster comparing a hamburger, french fries and a soda – high in calories, fat, sodium – versus five pounds of potatoes, five pounds of carrots, and five pounds of apples – low in calories, cholesterol, fat, sodium – and we started showing people ‘look, this is what you can buy – spend your dollars more wisely.’” The chart was distributed to farm stands, partner organizations and WIC offices throughout New Jersey.

FAH is particularly aware of the importance of its volunteers at all levels, including farmers, volunteer gleaners, and New Jersey organizations and residents who help distribute the food. While John Malay described FAH as the “conduit,” Judy stresses that “farming in New Jersey is almost impossible because of the costs… Without the farmers, this program would not exist. Farmers in New Jersey are the most generous group.” Volunteer gleaners come from all walks of life, including student groups, Future Farmers of America, business groups, and even the communities receiving the produce. One such volunteer, Sylvia Roberts, both helps with the harvesting and distributes food: “Sylvia has taken on the mission for her community and shares the produce we give her with a low-income senior citizen building – there’s a whole network. If one organization has more food than they need, they pass it on. We all have a mentality of nothing going to waste,” explained Judy.

Sylvia, who lives in the Trenton area, expressed the importance of FAH to her community. “We, in our community, really need the help that [FAH is] giving to us. We don’t have just seniors – we have young people out here who don’t have work… and some have small kids… We really, really need the help – [FAH is] such a blessing to us and we really appreciate everything [they are] doing for us.”

For more information on Farmers Against Hunger, contact Judy Grignon at 609-462-9691.

All photos copyright Michal Rachlin

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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

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

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

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…”

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