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We are the ones we have been waiting for

Beth ChurchillThis affirming and joyful statement resonates with me.

This period in my life has been a time of great change and even greater reflection. As a result, I have been thinking a lot about this statement.

As many know, I lost my sister three months ago after her four-year journey with brain cancer. This experience has left me feeling raw and vulnerable. But as many of you who've faced similar, dramatic life changes know, vulnerability creates openings for learning and growth.

What can we learn from a life well-lived? What do we carry with us?

My sister was an educator in Sun Prairie for her entire career. She taught children to learn. Perhaps more amazing than helping children grow, she built community. She understood that helping children learn and prepare for future successes does not happen in isolation.

The saying “it takes a village” affirms the notion that we are all interconnected, never truly independent, and we all benefit when the relations where we exist are engaging, healthy and in balance. That interdependency, that interconnectedness was primary to Carol's life, and —maybe it's genetic — it drives my engagement at work and in my community.

Having worked my entire career in one way or another in the areas of sustainable strategy, sustainable development, landscape architecture and resource conservation management, I have had the incredible opportunity to live out my passions through my career.  

Not all of us are so lucky.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, less than 30 percent of Americans are engaged in their jobs. I am humbled that my entire career path has been from one of engagement.

At an early age I knew I wanted to grow up to serve in “a purpose-driven life”. It all started with the Iron Eyes Cody commercial, the 1970 Keep America Beautiful public service announcement with the crying chief shedding a tear after seeing trash thrown from a car window. Every time I experienced his tear, I shed one, as well.

I was 9 years old. I felt our interconnection with nature so viscerally, and it's one of the reasons I am passionate about my role as sustainability specialist for American Family and my role as a sustainability strategist out in the community. Passion, purpose and a lot of self-determination have served me well during my 30-year career.

All of us have had the opportunity to witness the growth of information and evidence surrounding the environment. But it's not simply the information about the environmental challenges facing our planet that is most obvious to me. Rather, it is the interdependency of all aspects of our biosphere, from animals to plants to humans to local ecosystems to the global climate.

Change the balance of some plant life and that has impacts on animals, trickling to humans, the ecosystem and beyond. Change the balance of a social structure and it has the same impact. The loss of clean water directly impacts regional, national, and global health. Changes in ocean temperature influence weather patterns globally. While none of this information is new, what is becoming more obvious is the interconnectedness of all these pieces.

For me, my focus is to work hard on the changes I can make as an engaged person, family member, professional, community member and world citizen. I have always invested a good portion of my time volunteering in the community. I am also working on developing more mentoring opportunities. Ways to learn from others. Ways to collaborate. Ways to help others. I meet with a new person in the American Family community every month. I meet with a person in the regional community every month as well. I treasure every opportunity.

Keeping our connections engaged, healthy and in balance is often easier said than done, whether professionally, interpersonally or environmentally. It is, however, a challenge we all face and one that we all face together.

None of us are free-floating and independent islands. We are fundamentally interdependent on each other, our community, and our planet. The lesson is the same: we are in this together. Each and every one of us represents an aspect of the change we want to see in the world.

We are the ones we have been waiting for – there is no other way.

Play with your food! Bringing Fun Back to the Family Table

Play with your food!Elbows off the table, please. 

Must you chew so loudly?

For the last time - stop kicking your sister under the table!

Sound familiar? I may not have kids of my own yet, but judging by the outrageous amount of milk spilled at my dinner table growing up, I think you’ll agree that family mealtime is rarely a glamorous scene. In fact – it can be downright comedic. Do you have any funny memories from around the dinner table? (Mine is when an entire canister of parmesan cheese exploded on my Dad’s face – right after he had given me a stern lecture no less!)

When disaster strikes at the table or the kids’ manners leave you distraught, it’s easy to turn family mealtime into a battlefield. Because it’s one of the few times the whole family is together, the table can quickly become a hot spot for conflicts over manners, grades, chores, and the like.

While these discussions are important, experts agree that happier families strive to make mealtime as friendly as possible - and save the more serious matters for later.

Here are a few ideas to keep things fun at your family table.

  • Play restaurant: Transform your dining room into a five-star eatery. Light candles, turn up some jazz tunes, and have the kids design menus. Get the whole family giggling by throwing a dish towel over your arm and playing waiter – extra points for faking a French accent!
  • Combine dinner with game night: A little healthy competition over your family’s favorite board game makes for a memorable meal. Kids enjoy the departure from a traditional dinner, and by choosing non-fussy foods like paninis or quesadillas, you can focus on your winning strategy.
  • Have a celebration plate: Find a colorful plate and use it only on special occasions. Whether it’s a birthday, or a glowing report at parent/teacher conferences, the gesture is a simple way to make someone you love feel extra special during the meal.
  • Encourage storytelling: Just as important as it is to ask kids about their lives, hopes, and dreams, it’s equally essential for you to share your own. Talk about your family history, how you met your spouse, your dream job, or where you would love to travel someday. Stories like these spark entertaining conversations and help family members become comfortable sharing with one another.

How do you keep mealtime fun in your home? Share your comments below!

Back to the Family Dinner TableEditor’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.

A Food Blogger’s Journey: Celebrating the Family Dinner Table with Hmong Cuisine

Annie Vang and her family.My family and I came to the United States as refugees following the Vietnam War. I am Hmong and I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Four generations of my family lived in Laos, and before that my ancestors lived in China.

Growing up in Wisconsin, my mom and dad prepared countless home-cooked meals that we shared around the table. Having experienced hunger during the war, they always reminded us it was a privilege to dine together. Many Hmong relied on the generosity of others to survive, and my parents never forgot this – emphasizing the importance of family and sharing meals with others.

As a Hmong American woman, I embrace my culture and celebrate with my family every chance I get. When we have family gatherings or special events, women come together to learn cooking techniques from the elders. Most of our family recipes are handed down by word of mouth, so the only way to learn how to make a dish is to watch someone else prepare it!

Two years ago, I realized I wanted to share my passion for Hmong cuisine with other families – not just my own. I started my own food blog, and began shooting cooking video tutorials that I posted on my Hmong Food YouTube channel.

To my amazement, I was welcomed with open arms by the online food community. To date, my videos have been viewed more than 2.3 million times, and I have more than 12,500 YouTube subscribers. My Facebook page has over 13,600 likes and is growing. I also authored and developed an iPhone app, called Yumaholic, featuring my personal collection of Southeast Asian recipes.

What I have learned on this journey has tremendously impacted my life in a positive way. I was a girl who came from poverty, overcame obstacles, and beat the odds.

Every day I am amazed by the powerful love and support from both friends and strangers who have written to tell me my recipes have rekindled family memories and reawakened their passion for home cooking. I am so happy I am able to help others prepare meals for their family to enjoy at the dinner table.

I am living my dream -- inspiring others -- one delicious video at a time.

Back to the Family Dinner TableEditor’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.

Take time this month to recognize those affected by breast cancer

Kris StroedeImagine waking up, fresh from vacation, ready to start your first day back to work. Now imagine jumping in the shower and feeling a lump. That was me 13 years ago. 

Really? I don’t have time for this! I need to get my 7- and 3-year-olds ready for their day. 

I try to ignore it but the next day, there it is again.

I finally make a doctor’s appointment. As I am sitting in the waiting room I keep telling myself that I’m overreacting. I’m only 36 years old with two young kids. After an examination, the doctor tells me it’s nothing and I should use a warm washcloth on the lump and it will go away.

Really? I don’t have time for this!

After much conversation the appointment ends with me demanding a mammogram.

Mammogram was complete. But I could tell by the look on the technician’s face things were not okay. She recommends I make a follow-up appointment as soon as possible.

Really? I don’t have time for this!

But I had to take the time to deal with it, as I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within two weeks of my diagnosis I had to undergo a modified radical mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

I had to lean on family and friends to help me with my kids as I recovered. I had to let my mom mother me while I was feeling sorry for myself and tell me to fight and stop with the pity party.    

Later, I go to see my oncologist and am told I need chemotherapy.

Really? I don’t have time for this!

But the next six months changed my life forever for the better.

At my first chemo treatment I saw some very, very ill people. I realized that life is beautiful, and so is having family and friends to lean on and seeing my amazing boys grow up. That even bald was beautiful! Coming to work and being with my wonderful coworkers was a feeling of normalcy and just what I needed.

No matter how old you are, what your family history is, whether you are rich or poor, female or male, breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. Everyone knows or will know someone touched by breast cancer. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetimes. I was one of the lucky ones. Although my cancer was Stage 4, I caught it early enough to get the treatment I needed and beat it.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Talk to your family and friends about the importance of self-exams and encourage them to make an appointment for that mammogram they’ve been putting off.

Don’t let them tell you they don’t have the time.  

How to pick the perfect pumpkin for Halloween

How to pick the perfect pumpkin for Halloween.

My kids call me a genius. At least when it comes to carving pumpkins, that is.

Each year, we spend an October day carving up Halloween pumpkins for the front porch. But it doesn't take genius, really. You just need some creative ideas, the right tools and a steady, patient hand.

Oh, and the right pumpkins.

I didn't give much thought to picking the perfect pumpkin, but that's really where creativity meets function. You'll find as much fun -- or frustration -- based on your choice.

Here are eight of my tips for picking the perfect pumpkin:

Go early in the season. You'll find a better selection. It's that simple. And be sure to use locally-grown pumpkins whenever possible. It's good for the economy -- and the environment. 

Have a plan. Before you pick pumpkins, have a rough idea for what you're carving. Choose properly-sized pumpkins for the job you have in mind. That includes overall size (small, medium or large) and shape (round, tall).

Angry Birds pumpkinUse a pattern. My kids and I spend time searching for carving patterns (online and in stores -- including this Angry Birds pattern), and we work together to choose ones we think are creative and challenging, but meet our abilities. Using a pattern is OK!

Go big or go home. If you've planned an intricate, highly-detailed carving job, spend the extra money and get a big 'ol jack-o-lantern. It'll make for a little more work, but the finished product will be all that more impressive. 

Smooth it out. Look for smooth surfaces on your pumpkins. These make carving -- and the design prework (putting a pattern on the pumpkin) easier.   

Clean it out. This is my least favorite part of carving pumpkins, so I outsource it to my children. They get a kick out of rolling up their sleeves and getting a little slimy pulling the "guts" out. 

Clean it up. When you're finished carving, give your pumpkin a quick wipe-down with a damp cloth or paper towel to remove any leftover carvings. 

Light it up. Use an appropriately-sized candle (or light) for your creation. Make sure it'll last all night, or be prepared with backup candles. 

What are your must-haves for the perfect pumpkin? Leave us a comment. Oh, and happy Halloween!

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