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30 Days of Thanks: Teachers are Heroes Among Us

30 Days of Thanks teachersUntil I was in college, school was easy for me. I didn’t have to work very hard to get good grades, and the only times I got detentions were for talking to my friends during class. So it came as a surprise when my two youngest kids started having trouble in school this year.

“Will had a bad day today,” said the email from my first-grade son’s teacher shortly after the school year began. I soon found out he was having a bad day nearly every day. He talked back to his teachers, refused to follow directions, cried when his team lost in gym class and walked around the room during music class. He’s always had a mind of his own, but this behavior was unexpected and unacceptable.

 I met with his teacher after school several times, and we came up with a simple reward system. I also took him to a therapist to see if he needs medication or another form of therapy. His teacher spoke with his therapist during her free time at school and completed a detailed questionnaire.

At the same time, my fourth-grader was struggling with problems of his own. He couldn’t make sense of what he was reading in his textbooks and was unable to work independently. He was also feeling sad and lonely because his best friend had switched to a new school this year. He doesn’t like to play sports, and all the other boys played kickball or football during recess, leaving him without any friends.

I contacted his teacher two weeks after school started to express my concerns. She told me that she and the other teachers in the intermediate unit were already aware of his struggles. They were spending extra time guiding Emmett through the directions for tests and giving him reminders to keep him on track. Together, we decided to start the lengthy process of having him evaluated for a learning disability. This meant documenting the issues and meeting with representatives from the school district several times before the school day started, plus keeping in touch with me on his progress. 

Our efforts have slowly started to pay off. Last week, they brought home their report cards, and Emmett has mostly B’s, a couple of A’s and only one C. He even started playing kickball at recess recently and has two new friends!

I credit his teacher for encouraging him and for pulling some of the boys aside and asking them to make him feel welcome.

Will is on track academically, and his behavior is starting to improve. He’s enjoying school more, and I haven’t had an email from his teacher telling me about a bad day in the past few weeks.

I am so grateful for the patience, kindness and support of my kids’ teachers during this very rough first quarter. Without the extra time they have spent, our kids might be headed down the wrong path. Instead, they’re back on track.

And that means everything to me.    

30 Days of Thanks: Strangers’ Kind Acts Still Shine Decades Later

30 Days of Thanks: Kindness of StrangersI was fresh out of college and heading to my first job in a community 30 miles away. With a tiny car – and even smaller bank account – I carefully weighed my limited options, finally deciding to rent a cheap trailer and complete the move in one haul.

Had I studied mechanical engineering rather than journalism, I might have realized a four-cylinder engine with 100,000-plus miles was not equipped to pull an overstuffed U-Haul on a hilly state thoroughfare. But the shoulder of Highway 23 was no place to be reevaluating my educational choices.

It was, however, the perfect spot to begin a crash course on the kindness of strangers.

During the next several hours:

  • An acquaintance of someone I’d literally just met helped me move some of my more valuable possessions to a secure location. (He didn’t seem the least bit irritated to be helping a naive young punk on a hot summer afternoon.)

  • A passing driver, noticing my plight, gave me a lift for a good chunk of my remaining journey.

  • A young man from France, traveling across the U.S. on a tandem bike, offered his empty back seat for the remainder of my course. (I still have a hard time believing this wasn’t a dream!)

None of these strangers had to help. In fact, I would have totally understood if they hadn’t. After all, they didn’t know me. There was no money in it for them. And they certainly had lives and plans of their own.

But they did help. Because they had compassion. Because they were able to put someone else’s needs in front of their own.

In a nutshell: Because they were kind.

While these voluntary efforts occurred more than two decades ago, I think of them often.

They’re a testament to the lasting power of a stranger’s kindness – and a reminder that I, too, am a stranger to others in need.

30 Days of Thanks on FacebookEditor's note: In the pursuit of our dreams, take time to thank the people who have helped you along the way. Take time during November to express your gratitude. For daily reminders during these 30 Days of Thanks, visit American Family Insurance on Facebook

Coming together to support our communities

United Way logoAttending the United Way of Dane County's annual celebration lunch on Nov. 21 reminded me of all that is right in our community. Hundreds of people came together to celebrate the success of this year's fund-raising campaign, and learn more about the causes and agencies the United Way supports.

Raising kids is hard. It's hard enough when you're in a home with two parents and decent jobs. It gets exponentially harder when you're a single parent, or living hand to mouth. The stories shared at the luncheon reinforced for me how the United Way supports the organizations trying to make it a little easier to help all children pursue their dreams.

At the luncheon, teen girls got on stage to talk about how they've used United Way-funded services. One had been sexually abused. Another was an immigrant from a war-torn country. Another needed extra tutoring. All had this in common: they have dreams -- to be teachers, to be counselors -- they're getting help through United Way services. And, they are succeeding.

I got choked up listening to their stories; feeling so grateful for the support our community provides the United Way agencies, through volunteering time, talent, and providing financial support.

The Dane County community raised $18.1 million for the United Way this year. It's an impressive amount for a community of 500,000 people.

At American Family, we're committed to protecting dreams. And that starts with inspiring dreamers. It’s a value our employees and agents live every day, and it's evident in our United Way support. I'm proud of our American Family agents and employees for leading the way this year in Dane County and across the country, contributing $1.2 million to United Way overall. And, more than 1,000 American Family employees donated time to the United Way Days of Caring.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for the support my colleagues and our community provide the United Way, and I'm so proud of all the young people who are working hard and taking advantage of the services from United Way agencies, so they are on a sold path to pursue their dreams.

30 Days of Thanks: The Power of Music

30 Days of Thanks - MusicIt all started when I was three or four.

That’s when the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and other musical giants wafted through our home, providing the soundtrack for my formative years.

And ever since, I’ve been deeply, madly in love with music.

To say I’m grateful for music is an understatement. From The Clash’s “London Calling” to Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” music has profoundly shaped who I am and what I believe in. Live concerts by U2 and Bruce Springsteen have been transformative experiences that still fill my heart with passion and excitement when I think about them.

I’m thankful for music in countless other ways, as well.

It’s like a good friend that inspires me, motivates me or brings a smile to my face whenever I want. Songs like Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” or Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” musically wrap their arms around my shoulders and make me feel good inside.

Music also is like a cultural passport that allows me to explore other parts of society or different countries around the world. When I listen to “The Best of Bollywood,” I close my eyes and imagine I’m walking down the streets of Kolkata.

Not only that, but music helps me achieve time travel. When I hear disco music, I’m instantly transported back in time to the 1970s.

And, you don’t have to be musically talented to enjoy music, or even perform it, as anyone who’s done karaoke can attest.

In mysterious and wonderful ways, music opens doors and builds bridges to other people. It has provided the perfect foundation for a number of friendships I’ve made through the years, offering common ground and shared experiences.  Music is a great equalizer, erasing socioeconomic differences, and it can even cut across political and religious lines. I’m especially thankful for that.

Music can give us hope, and inspire us to become better people. You simply can’t deny the transcendent, inspirational power of “We Shall Overcome.”

I’m deeply, eternally thankful for music. How about you?

30 Days of Thanks: Dad

30 Days of Thanks: DadWhen I decided to write a blog post about being thankful for dads, I asked my mom to help find a photo of me with my dad when I was young.  A few days after the request, she told me she was having a hard time finding one.

What? How can that be? I have so many great memories of me with my dad. How could it be hard to find one photo of the two of us from the days when my dad was the only man that mattered?

She told me there were photos of me with my other siblings along with my dad, or photos of me with both my parents, but surprisingly no decent photos of just me and my dad. Although I was initially disappointed to learn that, it made me realize what I knew all along.

Maybe there are fewer pictures because my dad was busy doing everything he could just BEING a great dad. He was juggling the responsibilities of me alongside my five siblings and numerous pets, not to mention my mom and a full-time day job. Throw in there some additional schooling while we were kids, and I wonder how he ever had energy to keep up.

But he did keep up, and then some.

No matter how long or busy his day was, or how early in the day or late in the night I asked, he was there. Sometimes being there meant helping me understand my often-procrastinated math homework (accompanied by a stern sentence or two about such procrastination, of course). Sometimes it was playing a little basketball or tennis. Sometimes it was giving me a ride to a friend’s house when I was too cool to hang out at home. And sometimes it was just hanging out, listening to his old records. (This also explains why “Wooly Bully” always reminds me of him.)

When he wasn’t doing all of that, I can only assume he was the one behind the camera, capturing all of the precious moments with the family he loves.

Maria Morris and her dadMy dad is the most patient, loving, intelligent and level-headed person you will ever know. He’s equally comfortable having a beer with you in the backyard or sipping a glass of wine at a black-tie event. He’s the kind of guy you can’t imagine would have ever had an enemy his entire life. He’s the person you know, even during your snotty teen years, is a man you will love, respect and admire for the rest of your life.

As an adult, my dad’s impact on my life has not diminished. Instead, it’s evolved into exactly what I’d imagine he wanted for me during those formative years. He is a constant influence, a little "Dad voice" in my head. Sometimes it manifests itself as my own voice when I tell my own kids to turn off the lights or direct them to something other than the “good printer paper.”

But more often, it’s the voice that guides my decisions, big and small, day in and day out. When I think I’m too busy to throw a football around with the kids, I think of that time my dad spent with me. When I think about a significant career decision, I try to imagine how my father would approach it. When I decided to marry my husband, you bet I made sure he was good enough to pass the Dad test.

And when I think I don’t have time to drive one and a half hours to hang out with my dad, I remember all of the time he spent making me who I am today.

I honestly don’t know the kind of person I’d be if I had a different father. As his daughter, I naturally possess some of his traits. But I also have the privilege of having grown up with him, which means learning from the best teacher on the planet.

And I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

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