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

“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

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


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

What made you decide to start

I started 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. 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, check out

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:

For more TEDtalks, check out:

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

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:

For more information on Suzanne Woods Fisher:

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!

Two three-year olds bounce around, hugging people’s legs and demanding to be picked up. Other children, wheelchair-bound, smile at or laugh with the volunteers scattered around the room. A two-year old boy climbs up to reach the cookie cutters spilled across the table before a volunteer scoops him up in a hug. Sally Sunshine, the group leader, is setting out stickers, markers, and strawberry jam. Finished setting up, she turns to help an eight-year old boy color his very own chef’s hat. He can’t speak, but his face lights up as she talks to him and helps him hold the marker. It may be raining outside, but inside the mood is as bright as the yellow shirts the volunteers wear.

Sally Sunshine found her calling in, perhaps, the oddest of places: a jewelry store. Popular jewelry designer Helen Ficalora has created charms benefiting several non-profit organizations.  “I went into the store to specifically purchase one thing and left with a laundry list of causes to research,” Sally told me. One of those causes was Project Sunshine.

Sally Sunshine and other Project Sunshine volunteers

Project Sunshine empowers a dynamic and dedicated corps of over 10,000 volunteers to bring programming – recreational (arts), educational (tutoring and mentoring) and social service (HIV and nutritional counseling) – to over 60,000 children facing medical challenges and their families in 100 major cities across the United States and in five international satellite sites: Canada, China, Israel, Kenya and Puerto Rico. These programs range from arts and crafts, cooking and tutoring to spa programs for parents, reading programs, and mural painting on hospital walls.

“After completing Project Sunshine’s volunteer training, I volunteered at a variety of programs and really fell in love with Project Sunshine’s motto of ‘Bringing Sunshine to a Cloudy Day,’” Sally said. “It’s so simple yet it has such a huge impact.”

Since then, Sally has volunteered regularly with Project Sunshine, donating a few hours each month to plan and run programs for children and families living with medical challenges. “When I first volunteered in a facility that housed very sick, medically fragile children, I left the facility feeling drained and defeated, questioning whether I would return,” Sally told me.  “Instead of letting my fear get the best of me, I returned month after month until I realized that one child who could not communicate verbally knew exactly who I was and smiled a big smile when asked if he was happy to see Project Sunshine.  All of the free time in the world could not take the feeling of accomplishment and pride that I felt in that moment.”

Sally Sunshine and other Project Sunshine volunteers at a Project Sunshine 5k walk/run

Sally leads a Union Square, NYC chapter that runs a monthly Sunshine Chefs program for children at Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center. The children – of all ages, some at the hospital for a short time and others for months or even years – decorate chef hats and aprons, and prepare food. Even those children who can’t eat love helping prepare and then playing with the food.

“The Sunshine Chefs program not only offers our children a wonderful sensory experience but also gives them the ability to help prepare their own food which is an uncommon opportunity in a facility like ours,” Kristin Smeallie, Seton Pediatric Center Recreation Coordinator, commented. “The volunteers that work with our children are amazingly sensitive and are always excited about the activity, which is such a positive influence on the children.”

Volunteering with Project Sunshine has opened Sally’s life to possibilities she might never have considered otherwise. “I had complete tunnel vision from high school through college creating only one end result [working in law].  I never went out and researched employment possibilities or tried to find what I was truly passionate about.  I only recently discovered social responsibility and its importance in the work place.  Had I heard about or studied such a concept earlier, I believe my path would have been much different.” Sally is now actively pursuing a career in the non-profit sector. “I would like to be in a position where I can work with and give back to the community, which I believe is extremely important… Being a chapter leader has given me the insight into the responsibility, initiative and level of coordination that goes into the execution of these programs. In a downturned job market, this is my way to ‘work’ in a field that I feel at home in, and truly believe in.”

“Sally embodies all the characteristics of what Project Sunshine looks for in its volunteers,” praises Naomi Remis Sugar, Associate Program Manager at Project Sunshine. “Sally is organized, dedicated and most importantly, passionate about spreading Project Sunshine’s mission and programs to children and families living with medical challenges. Sally not only inspires the children to release their inner joy, but also inspires the volunteers to give from their hearts and truly spread the sunshine to those in need.”

Sally’s advice to others? “Find a cause that you are passionate about and make it your own, because you will take so much more away from your experiences.”

Project Sunshine charm by Helen Ficalora. The charm is available in both silver and gold here:

For more information on Project Sunshine:
For information on Helen Ficalora’s jewelry and charms:
Volunteer photos used courtesy Sally Sunshine

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

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 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, – 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 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

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

“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

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

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, 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 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:

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

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

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… 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!