Ongoing Project


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.”

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!

This article appeared in the NY Times on February 3rd, 2010

From ‘Oprah’ to Building a Sisterhood in Congo

BUKAVU, Congo

Five years ago, Lisa Shannon watched “Oprah” and learned about the savage, forgotten war here in eastern Congo, played out in massacres and mass rape. That show transformed Lisa’s life, costing her a good business, a beloved fiancé, and a comfortable home in Portland, Ore. — but giving her a chance to save lives in Congo.

I found myself stepping with Lisa into a shack here. It was night, there was no electricity, and a tropical rainstorm was turning the shantytown into a field of mud and streams. Lisa had come to visit a woman she calls her sister, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old nurse.

Generose’s story is numbingly familiar: extremist Hutu militiamen invaded her home one night, killed her husband and prepared to rape her. Then, because she shouted in an attempt to warn her neighbors, they hacked off her leg above the knee with a machete.

As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldiers cut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”

So they shot him dead. The murder is one of Generose’s last memories before she blacked out, waking up days later in the hospital where she had worked.

That’s where Lisa enters the story. After seeing the Oprah show on the Congo war, Lisa began to read more about it, learning that it is the most lethal conflict since World War II. More than five million had already died as of the last peer-reviewed mortality estimate in 2007.

Everybody told her that the atrocities continued because nobody cared. Lisa, who is now 34, was appalled and decided to show that she cared. She asked friends to sponsor her for a solo 30-mile fund-raising run for Congolese women.

That led her to establish Run for Congo Women, which has held fund-raising runs in 10 American states and three foreign countries. The money goes to support sponsorships of Congolese women through a group called Women for Women International.

But in her passion, Lisa neglected the stock photo business that she and her fiancé ran together. Finally, he signaled to her that she had to choose — and she chose Congo.

One of the Congolese women (“sisters”) whom Lisa sponsored with her fund-raising was Generose. Lisa’s letters and monthly checks of $27 began arriving just in time.

“God sent me Lisa to release me,” Generose told me fervently, as the rain pounded the roof, and she then compared Lisa to an angel and to Jesus Christ.

Scrunching up in embarrassment in the darkened room, Lisa fended off deification. She noted that many impoverished Congolese families have taken in orphans. “They’ve lost everything,” she said, “but they take children in when they can’t even feed their own properly. I’ve been so inspired by them. I’ve tried to restructure my life to emulate them.”

Lisa Shannon with the Congolese Lisa named after her, and the girl’s mother.

Lisa Shannon with the Congolese Lisa named after her, and the girl’s mother.

It’s true. While for years world leaders have mostly looked the other way, while our friend Rwanda has helped perpetuate this war, while Congo’s president has refused to arrest a general wanted by the International Criminal Court, while global companies have accepted tin, coltan and other minerals produced by warlords — amid all this irresponsibility, many ordinary Congolese have stepped forward to share the nothing they have with their neighbors.

So Lisa is right that Generose and so many others here are awe-inspiring. Lisa tells her story in a moving book, “A Thousand Sisters,” that is set to be published in April. Congo is now her obsession, and she is volunteering full time on the cause as she lives off the declining royalties from her old stock photos.

She earns psychic pay when she sees a woman here who named her daughter Lisa. After we visited Congolese Lisa, I asked American Lisa about the toll of her Congo obsession — the lost business, man and home they had shared.

“Technically, I had a good life before, but I wasn’t very happy,” she mused. “Now I feel I have much more of a sense of meaning.”

Maybe that’s why I gravitate toward Lisa’s story. In a land where so many “responsible” leaders eschew responsibility, Lisa has gone out of her way to assume responsibility and try to make a difference. Along with an unbelievable cast of plucky Congolese survivors such as Generose, she evokes hope.

On this visit to Congo, Lisa is organizing a Run for Congo Women right here in Bukavu, for Feb. 28, with Congolese rape survivors participating. You can sponsor them at www.runforCongowomen.org. And one of those participating in the run, hobbling along on crutches and her one leg, will be Generose.

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.

Synopsis:
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!

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