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!


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.”

I recently interviewed Jason Zigmont, volunteer fire fighter and founder of VolunteerFD.org, a resource for volunteer fire departments across the country.

What made you decide to start VolunteerFD.org?

I started VolunteerFD.org in 2002 to provide a resource to bring volunteer departments together.  In traveling around the country I found that while the location changes, many of the problems in the 25000+ volunteer departments across the country were the same, which meant we could all grow by sharing our problems and solutions.

How long have you been involved with volunteer firefighting?

I have ‘officially’ been a Volunteer Firefighter for 15 years.  I say officially because I grew up in the fire service.  My father was Chief of the Kensington Fire Department and my mother loves to say I responded to my first call during Storm Larry as she was 9 months pregnant with me and providing food and shelter during the storm at the department.

What got you involved with volunteer firefighting?

It was definitely the family connection and wanting to help others.  I follow a saying by Zig Ziglar: “You can have everything in life you want if you just help enough other people get what they want.”

What is it like to be a volunteer firefighter?

We spend a lot of time training, raising funds and doing the ‘less glamourous’ stuff of running an organization.  Fire safety initiatives have lowered the amount of actual working fires so they are few and far between, but we always need to be ready.

VolunteerFD.org focuses on Bylaws, Fund Raising, Grants, Recruitment and Retention, Standard Operating Procedures/Guidelines, and Training. How did you choose the specific topics your website covers?

I choose the topics based upon talking with departments across the US and emails I receive.  I seem to get at least one email everyday from a department that either has a problem or has had a great success.  Sharing this information is key to everyone growing and improving the service as a whole.

What is the most important message you would like to give fellow volunteers?

Volunteers need to share their problems and solutions to ensure we all can learn and improve.

To learn more about VolunteerFD.org, check out http://www.VolunteerFD.org.

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

We’ll be returning to regular articles next week! In the interim, this is a wonderful discussion of how a volunteer project/organization can grow. Watch the video, or read the short writeup below. The video is 25 minutes, but highly entertaining and informative.

Dave Eggers, a writer, heard a lot about the challenges of teaching in city schools from his teaching family and friends. In particular, they stressed the need for one-on-one attention to help students with their English and writing skills.

Eggers and his colleagues came together to create a unique tutoring center in San Francisco – located in a pirate supply store and connected to a magazine editing office – that offers free one-on-one tutoring. The project has grown to help thousands of kids each week, host daily writing field trips, run an in-school writing lab, and guide students in writing and publishing books. The tutoring center model has been replicated in Brooklyn, L.A., and other cities in the U.S.

The volunteer core has likewise grown, starting with 12 and quickly growing to 1,400.

This project has led to a website, Once Upon A School, which challenges and guides individuals and groups in to engage with their local public schools and create positive change.

“It can be fun. That’s the point of this talk – it needn’t be sterile. It needn’t be bureaucratically untenable. You can do and use the skills that you have. The schools need you. The teachers need you. Students and parents need you. They need your actual person. Your physical personhood and your open minds and open ears and boundless compassion. Sitting next to them, listening and nodding and asking questions… Some of these kids just don’t plain know how good they are. How smart and how much they have to say. You can tell them. You can shine that light on them one human interaction at a time. So we hope you’ll join us.”

For more information on projects to support your local public school, check out: http://onceuponaschool.org/

For more TEDtalks, check out: http://www.ted.com/index.php

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

Steve Larosiliere had his life-changing moment in Vancouver, looking out at the mountains at the end of a snowboarding trip. “On my last run of my last day, I thought about my 18-year-old mentee… he spent a better part of 14 years of his life in over 100 foster homes in New York City. He never left his neighborhood, never saw other parts of his city or did anything active. I thought, ‘if he saw these mountains he would lose his mind.’ He would be in complete awe and I knew he would love it.”

Just a year before, Steve had left his job running a successful marketing business to work for Mentoring USA in New York City. In that year Steve had helped build Mentoring USA into New York City’s largest site-based mentoring program. He was contemplating his next career phase when the idea came to him: What about a snowboard mentoring program? The idea developed quickly: Pair mentors and under-served youth to go snowboarding together. “Ideally they would both be beginners so that they could see each others’ strengths, weaknesses, fears, and joys over the course of a snow season,” Steve described his thoughts. “They would develop a strong connection and bond and as a result have a better relationship. They would acquire resiliency, determination, and success while snowboarding.”

Steve decided to make it happen. That Fall, he left his job and a long-term relationship, sold most of his possessions, and moved back in with his family. He had enough money and consulting jobs to last him three months. With the help of friends and supporters, Steve raised money, arranged for supplies, recruited volunteers and developed a life skills curriculum that taught kids how to set goals, overcome obstacles, and develop positive relationships. The first program participants came from Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan. The program, named Snow Mentor, launched in January 2005 with nine mentoring pairs. Over the next few months, Steve and his new partner, Sal Masekela, created an umbrella organization named Stoked Mentoring that would make all action sports accessible to inner-city youth.

Stoked Mentoring grew quickly; within a year, they had expanded from just snowboarding to a year-round program including snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing. A year later, they added a Los Angeles program. Stoked has since added an after-school program focusing on career skills, an action photography program that ends in a personal art show, and a workshop focused on building female participants’ self-esteem and self-confidence through action sports. Stoked, although still a mentoring-based organization, now considers their focus “youth development in the framework of action sports culture.” In other words, they are here to create Successful Teens with Opportunity, Knowledge, Experience & Determination (STOKED).

“Instead of being an inner city high school dropout, they can be a snowboarder from the inner city who wants to work in advertising, has a mentor, and is a high school graduate,” Steve explained. “Action sports are the perfect framework for allowing various forms of self-expression, creativity, communication and interpersonal skills. Action sports teach healthy risk taking, perseverance, resiliency, and working hard for what you want – be it designing a skateboard, riding a wave, or doing well in math.”

Stoked Surf Mentor participants

Participant comments bear him out. Ontae, who is in the Surf Mentor program, has learned better coping skills from surfing: “Every time there’s something like an obstacle… don’t look at it as something big. It’s just a wave, you ride it.” Leti, in the Skate Mentor program, has found both support and inner growth through Stoked: “I can open up with anyone [in Stoked] because it’s almost a family now, and we can easily trust each other. [From being in Stoked] I learned that I trust myself, I learned how to listen.”

NYC Snow Mentor Participants. 2009.

“In 5 years, we’ve worked with hundreds of youth in New York and L.A. and taught them valuable life skills in the process. Life skills such as goal-setting, networking, trust, patience, and how to overcome obstacles… There is a generation of 12-21-year-old at-risk youths who are growing up without options in life,” Steve wrote in The Huffington Post. “Many of them come from single parent households, live in low income communities, and have no skills to contribute to their community or their family. Often times, because of the lack of stability, family structure, and positive roles models, these youths turn to crime, gangs, and drop out of school because of lack of options. Programs like Stoked get kids out of their neighborhood for a day, surround them with positive role models for a year, and give them the resources to think and dream big for their life. Our aim is to pass on hope and opportunity to these kids so that they believe in a having a better life. They not only believe it, but they end up becoming the people they set out to be in our program.”

“What if someone told you that you could save the world by skateboarding?” the Stoked website challenges. “It’s really easy to live in your box or within your block,” expounded co-founder Sal Masekala. “But if you have got the stones to step out of that and try something new and become a part of Stoked… a kid’s life could be enriched in ways that he doesn’t even imagine… not to mention he’s not going to have more fun at anything else that he does than being a part of Stoked.”

Check out Stoked at: http://www.stoked.org

To follow Steve Larosiliere on The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-larosiliere

All images used courtesy Stoked

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

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

“Without a doubt, Tuesday night is my favorite part of the week,” Avishua Stein, age 15, told me. “The overall feeling of being there makes me feel amazing,” agreed David Storfer, age 19, a fellow Chabad Teen Network member.

These teens – on average 25-30 each week, with an overall membership around 100 – meet weekly, led by Rabbi Michoel Goldin, to hang out, eat pizza – and volunteer.

“I started off with six teens – two I knew, and they brought friends. They were shocked, excited, they had never seen something like this. A Rabbi to them is this big guy who doesn’t really relate down to their level, talk their language.” The teens testify to Rabbi Goldin’s skill: “Michoel Goldin is such an amazing person. He really is the cause for teens wanting to do good deeds, and feeling great about themselves afterwards. He is the reason for the good feelings, good times, and strong friendships that come from doing good,” said Yona McGraw, also age 15. Avishua Stein put it simply: “He’s the coolest Rabbi ever.”

Their volunteer project locations agree: “Rabbi Goldin is awesome, has so much energy,” said Sharon Horn of the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities (JADD). There is no lack of praise for the teens, either: “The thing that’s so beautiful about it is they bring inclusion into the community for these people [living in a developmentally disabled home]… Everyone benefits – the teens get to understand people that are different and have challenges, and the people who live in our home are shown that people are interested in them,” continued Sharon Horn.

Chabad Teens with children at an Englewood homeless shelter.  Photo used courtesy Michoel Goldin.

Chabad Teens with children at an Englewood homeless shelter. Photo used courtesy Michoel Goldin.

“They were wonderful, they were exciting, they were fun – they were great. They were lovely people, the kids loved them and so did I,” said Nancy Woods of the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County, where the teens ran a carnival for homeless children, complete with a cotton candy machine and prizes.

The children’s carnival has been David Storfer’s favorite volunteer project so far. He’s had amazing times with all of the projects, though. “We were visiting folks in the hospital and giving them Rosh Hashana [Jewish New Year] gift baskets and prayers. While we were there this one patient asked me and one of my friends to see a dance because she heard we were really good. So on the spot me and my good friend Phil just started dancing together to absolutely no music and we looked ridiculous but the smile on her face and the joy in her heart made it one of the best experiences of my life!”

Chabad Teens making Jewish New Year cards with developmentally disabled=

Chabad Teens making Jewish New Year cards with developmentally disabled residents. Photo used courtesy Michoel Goldin.

It’s these relationships – with one another, and with the people they help – that keep bringing the teens back. “I got involved with Chabad through some friends, and I’m glad I did because it really transforms you, and makes you think about all the things that you could do to make different people smile, for different reasons,” Yona McGraw explained. She continued, “I go to Chabad because of the people- those whom you work with, and those whom you work for… When you go to Chabad for the first time, you’re welcomed warmly by people your age, your peers, who are there for the same reason as you are. You become so close to these people, and you have fun with them, while brightening someone’s day, who might not have had their day brightened in a long time. It’s hard to explain, as you can see, and maybe imagine, because it’s just such a great feeling. Chabad is a great place.”

David Storfer agrees, and also sees Chabad as a way of developing a lifestyle: “I do Chabad because I think if teens get involved with chessed [acts of kindness] now it will become a very normal part their everyday lives and because of how our joy makes others joyful – it’s just so contagious!”

Chabad Teens distributing matzah at Hackensack Hospital. Photo used courtesy Michoel Goldin.

Chabad Teens distributing matzah at Hackensack Hospital. Photo used courtesy Michoel Goldin.

Rabbi Goldin hopes that all the teens will come away with this lifestyle impact: “The goals are to make the world a better place and to instill self-esteem. One day [these teens will] grow up and create their own clubs or somehow inspire others and create this chain reaction.”

For more information on the C-Teen Network, go to: http://www.chabadhouse.com or contact Chabad of Teaneck at: 201-907-0686.

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

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