Twelve years ago, I stepped out of my comfort zone and traveled alone to a place with the kind of reputation that would keep many people away. It was a risk that turned out to be life-changing.
I went to help build a home for a family in Juarez, Mexico, after reading an article about an organization called Missions Ministries, and decided to participate.
The entire family of seven had been living in a pallet home, barely the size of my youngest son’s bedroom. There were gaping holes in the roof, and the walls and the floor were made of dirt. The family had five children, the youngest only three weeks old. The mother was using a cardboard box as a crib for the baby, and the rest of the family slept on pieces of Styrofoam laid on the floor. There was no running water or electricity.
Children could only go to school if they could afford the required uniform. People in the community who were fortunate enough to find employment often made less than $1 a day.
The experience opened my eyes to a whole new world and gave me a new appreciation to the many blessings I take for granted every day.
The following year I took my somewhat reluctant husband with me. The year after that, we brought our then 4- and 6 year-old sons. We continued to go each year, bringing more and more family and friends. Our third son joined us when he was only 2 years old.
During the last decade or so, we have been privileged to build many, many homes. In addition, we helped build a library, provided many community outreaches and helped distribute donated food, medicine, school supplies and clothing. We have sponsored a student for the last four years and have had a couple of opportunities to visit her when we were in Juarez.
We’re also involved with a continuing Christmas box outreach. Every year we distribute empty Tupperware boxes with packing lists for different ages of children to family, friends, coworkers and members of our church who support the work we’re doing. We ask them to shop for their “assigned” age/gender child and pack the boxes with items such as soap, toothpaste, underwear, gloves, small toys, etc. Before Christmas, we drive down to Juarez with hundreds of these Christmas boxes for the children in the community. These children would otherwise not receive anything for Christmas.
Our travels to Juarez have given us a meaningful perspective on how fortunate we are to have roofs over our heads and meals on our table every night. It has taught my children the importance of volunteering and giving time to others. Finally, it has been a launching pad to other opportunities to volunteer in our own neighborhood and community.
As I watch our sons head off to school this year, I reflect not only on how many blessings I take for granted but also on how blessed our family is to have discovered the joy that comes with helping others when and where we can.
It’s the subject of movies and TV shows. Songs and books are written about it, and families look forward to it.
“It” is the great American road trip! We’re happy to report that road tripping is alive and well and still making memories to last a lifetime.
During the summer, American Family Insurance began putting together Dreaming of The Road, an e-book planning guide about road tripping. We included games to play, road songs, suggestions for getting your car ready, ideas on keeping young children entertained and tips on safe traveling.
The best part though, came from our customers. We asked people to take their own “road trip” down memory lane and share with us their favorite road trip stories. Our plan was to include as many as we could in the book. Frankly, we were overwhelmed by the responses. It seems everyone, no matter how old they are or where they live, has a great story to tell gleaned from miles of rolling down the highway.
We received tons of entries. There were stories of love lost, re-found and re-kindled; crossing things off of a bucket list; and final memories of a now-departed loved one.
We received stories that restore your faith in people; about building strong family bonds; and how a new sense of inner strength was discovered. Some of the entries we received were touching to the point of tears. Others brought a smile and laughter. A big thank you to everyone who shared their stories!
The e-book is now complete! Download a free copy of Dreaming of The Road here. It’s designed to be read on desktops, tablets and smartphones. Or, you can print a copy and throw it in your glove compartment to help plan your next road trip. Who knows what new memories you’ll make when the open road calls?
I look at holiday dinners as an endless gift exchange – but probably not in the way you're thinking. Instead of presents wrapped in paper and topped with bows, holiday gatherings offer the gift of refreshment and a welcome contrast to the busyness of life.
Not just Christmas or Chanukah, but any holiday dinner has gifts to open. I’m thankful we don’t have drive-through holiday dinners. That would be like fast-forwarding through life! From the beginning to end of holiday gatherings – let’s take time to unwrap different these gifts together.
What’s your favorite gift?
I enjoy seeing the theme and twinkling lights and decorations throughout the house, the flower arrangement on the table, and the hosts dressed in themed attire, like lederhosen from Germany or African tunics from Tanzania. Your hosts may have been inspired from a vacation or a mission trip to a foreign land.
I grew up in a family that celebrated the holiday the same way every year. The decorations, menu and music were all the same. Now it’s fun to be a part of a family who is more creative -it is such an inspiration. What themes have you planned for your holiday dinners? I think of the theme as the ribbon on the gift tying all of the festivities together.
Now it’s time to open the box – perhaps the invitation itself was the best gift because you are a dinner guest in a new season of life – away from home, a freshman away at college or new to the area. Greeted by smiling faces for a fun afternoon together, being included in the festivities, it’s a treat to be served a home-cooked meal and sent home with leftovers to break the monotony of microwave dinners and PB & J. When I was single it was fun to invite friends and neighbors from different generations and international students to holiday dinners. The gift of fellowship, conversation, laughter and memories can bring value beyond words.
Are you surprised and delighted by the delicious meal, thoughtfully prepared down to the last detail?
With the savory smell of the peppercorn gravy for the Beef Wellington or perhaps it’s the buttery, melt-in-your-mouth creaminess of Great-grandma’s corn casserole (as you try to ignore the calorie count…)? Or perhaps the sounds of “mmmm…” when the guests taste the dish you brought to pass?
In many ways it’s the food that brought us together, and each time we share a meal we are sharing a part of ourselves and our traditions. What’s the origin of your favorite holiday recipe? Do you feel like you are creating a gift when you make a holiday meal?
As the celebration goes on after the meal, we play games, tell stories, and take a long walk in the woods to work off the big dinner. I like to think of these activities like the nested gift boxes inside of each other. We often play a silly game that generates laughter.
At Easter, for example, it’s Peter Rabbit. Adult guests sit in a circle, and the story is read aloud very quickly. Each time Peter Rabbit’s name is spoken, we have a bag with a secret prize that we must quickly pass to the right. You can shake and squeeze the bag, but it’s hard to tell exactly what’s inside. And when the story is over and you’ve heard Peter Rabbit for the last time, the bag you’re holding contains your gift. Surprise – it could be one of Great-grandma’s pink, feathered pill hats, or bubble bath and candy.
Although you wouldn’t want to miss the celebration altogether, maybe it was your turn to work this year as a nurse in the ER, the policeman on his beat or the tireless voice in customer service. Aside from leftover food, you got a different kind of gift this year – since it is better to give than receive.
With all the gifts opened, and the food savored – you’ve come to realize the best gift of the day is the entire package – quality time together with family and friends.
Share the gifts you unwrap at your holiday dinners in the comments below!
Editor’s note: We want all of you to celebrate the family dinner table. American Family is partnering with FamilyFoodie.com to create an e-cookbook to inspire families to come back to the table, and we need your help! Share your recipes for your chance to be featured in the cookbook by submitting a family favorite recipe here. You will be entered to win one of six $100 Williams-Sonoma gift cards. One lucky entry will win one valued at $500! When the e-cookbook comes out later this fall, you’ll be among the first to receive a copy.
My daughter, Kailey, was just six years old and learning to ride a bike without training wheels when her father passed away.
He had a high-risk job as a federal law-enforcement agent involving a lot of overseas travel. While life-threatening danger was always part of his job, he died unexpectedly of heart disease. He was only 46.
His death was a complete surprise. He worked out regularly, ate healthy, and had annual physicals. He had never been diagnosed with any heart conditions and never showed any signs of heart issues.
Unfortunately, he didn’t believe in life insurance.
Every time I brought up the subject, he didn't want to talk about it. Although we divorced the year before his death, part of the agreement was that he purchase life insurance for Kailey’s financial support in case of his death. Knowing his beliefs, I didn’t force the issue.
When he passed away, Kailey received some funds from his life insurance and 401(k) through work. These have been invested and will help pay tuition when she goes to college. Fortunately, we don’t have to use this money for day-to-day expenses.
As an insurance agent, this has shown me personally how important it is to consider rising college costs when families calculate their future financial needs with respect to providing financial security to their family.
I’m even more passionate when I think about the future and not just the present. According to the College Board and a May 13, 2013 New York Times article, tuition and fees at state colleges increased 72 percent – 29 percent for nonprofit colleges – from 2001 to 2011. If something should ever happen to a parent who plans on sending their children to college, a well thought out life insurance plan can help their family realize that dream.
No life insurance policy can replace the loss of a loved one. It can however, replace their earning power to ease future financial challenges.
For the sake of your family’s future plans and dreams, talk about life insurance today. Eight years ago, I learned the hard way that tomorrow may be too late.
It’s a typical night after work. I go home briefly, pick up my son, and then rush to get him to baseball or another activity. On another night, I might be rushing to a parent/teacher conference, or to finish some errands. On the weekends we are often traveling to see family, or at an event for one of our children. Sound familiar?
The reality is that most families are on the go. This can make mealtime challenging - especially if you aren’t at home to eat together. Dining out frequently gets expensive, and depending on the choice of food, it can be unhealthy. When we stopped to look at what we were spending on eating out, it really hit us that we were wasting a lot of money! So - we took action and turned things around.
Here are some things my family did to change our old habits and become more prepared for meals with our busy lifestyle. Even when you are short on time, you can still eat together and make healthy choices!
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!
Preparation is key. We make the menu and prepare food a week or two in advance. I buy fresh meats and veggies and then assemble simple freezer bags filled with the ingredients. Everyone participates in the process, so even though we can’t always eat together, we still get to have fun in the kitchen as a family. We play music and the kids love to use the scale to weigh out the meats! The bags go into the freezer and then we take them out as needed.
Use the crockpot!
Crockpot meals save so much time. You can find blogs and websites that are devoted entirely to crockpot cooking. Before you go to bed, put your ingredients into the crockpot and turn it on. In the morning you will have a home-cooked meal that is ready to go. Pop the crock in the refrigerator and heat up your meal when you get home, or freeze portions of the meal to save for another time.
Take it to go!
Buy easy finger foods such as nitrate-free sausages or brats, cheeses, fruits, and veggies and make kabobs with them. You can also cook chicken breasts and cut them into strips. Be adventurous!
Keep a cooler in your car to store your snacks, and pick up a bag of ice along the way. You can also buy natural fruit juices and add protein powder or gelatin to them for extra nutrition. Store some stainless steel water bottles in your trunk to fill with water for drinking or washing up.
Editor’s note: Share your favorite family recipes on our entry form, which you can find on the American Family Insurance Facebook page. We’ll include some select recipes and stories in our upcoming Back to the Table electronic cookbook.