If You Plan to Have a Blast this 4th of July, Put Safety First

As a 14-year-old looking to blow off some steam – and blow up some stuff – I feverishly pedaled home from my buddy Eric’s house, where I’d just obtained a “massive load” of firecrackers, a mere portion of the cache he was selling off to our group of friends.

I couldn’t wait to get a book of matches and let the explosive adventures begin.

Looking back, I’m lucky I survived that summer with all ten fingers intact. Far too often, especially around Independence Day, the news is filled with stories of firework fun gone awry.

The sad thing is most of these mishaps are preventable. All it takes is some common sense, like the tips listed below.

Whatever your holiday plans, please be safe and follow all local laws.

As for me, I’ve long since traded in my matchbook and firecracker stash for a comfortable lawn chair and a beautiful view of the community pyrotechnics display.

Happy Independence Day!

Editor's note: Read and share our firework safety infographic and keep this Fourth of July holiday a happy and safe one. 

Firework safety infographic

Home, Sweet (Automated) Home

home automation

I’m convinced that insurance will continue to evolve.

In 2008, I was part of the team that launched the American Family Insurance Teen Safe Driver Program. A small device allows parents to review risky driving behaviors and coach their kids, at exactly the right time, to reduce the habits that lead to accidents. I spoke with parents who were adamant that this program, and American Family, had played a crucial role in protecting their son or daughter’s life.

This year I will help manage the home automation accelerator in partnership with Microsoft. This exciting partnership was announced last week.

Home automation holds even greater potential to positively impact our customers and change the dynamics of insurance. Connected smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors can alert owners of a potential problem before the situation gets out of hand. Water sensors can detect a leak before the entire basement is flooded. Controlling lighting on a schedule or from your phone can help with energy savings in addition to providing added security when on vacation. Connected thermostats can save energy and potentially provide advance warnings before a pipe bursts. Sensors can detect motion, clogged dryer vents, moisture under the roof and prevent all sorts of problems.

In the past, insurers like American Family could only react after the fact — and write a check to cover the damages.

The data being created from the Internet of Things holds incredible potential for those who are able to decipher the signal from the noise — and do so responsibly.

Anonymous data from the Nest Protect (a smoke and carbon monoxide detector) is showing that carbon monoxide leaks are more frequent than previously believed. This data could help experts better understand why and how leaks occur. As more data is collected, more insights are possible. Consumers will expect more transparency from insurers, and companies that provide a clear value in exchange for data will win in the long run.

I first heard about this powerful idea of proactive protection from Vice President Telisa Yancy and my peers in Marketing. Home automation can make this concept a reality. By providing customers with technology upfront, we can prevent some accidents from ever occurring.

For the 10 percent of our customers who experience a claim each year, we’ll still be there for them as we always have. But for the 90 percent who don’t have a claim, we’ll have the opportunity to assist in the development of technologies that can provide them with safety, home accident prevention and convenience. At the same time, we'll improve our company’s value proposition.

Today, most people try not to think about insurance. It’s what is called a low-engagement category. Insurance has the potential to be something different. Something more.

While the home automation market is still in its early stages, I believe American Family is positioning itself to be in the driver’s seat.

Editor's note: Startups can apply now for the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator in partnership with American Family Insurance. Ready more about on our website

No One Should Suffer in Silent Sadness

No one should suffer in silence.On Jan. 8, 1996, at the ripe old age of 12, I decided to end my life.

Obviously, attempting to end my life didn’t work out so well. All I got out of it is a terrible memory of that day and a weakness on the right side of my body. As if that wasn’t enough, it also came with a side of guilt for putting my family and friends through such a horrific experience.

From that day in 1996 until February 2013, I silently suffered from depression.

Why suffer for so long? People who know me would probably say it was my stubbornness. Truthfully though, I was embarrassed. I’d been given the gift of life and should be grateful for it, right? Problem was, I didn’t think I should’ve been spared and was bitter about the gift I had been given.

Then February 2013 came, and frankly, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. This time though, being older and wiser, I reached out for help. It wasn’t easy, and I was still embarrassed that I couldn’t figure it out on my own.

My first step was to get a primary care physician who would “approve” me seeing a mental health professional.  I soon had an appointment with both a Psychologist and Psychiatrist.  After a week of being poked and prodded and asked countless times about my feelings, I had my best night’s sleep in years.

Lucky for me, the psychologist was amazing and we hit it off right away.  I trust her completely, which is important because I had previously seen a different psychologist I had a hard time relating to.

A new fear gripped me, though. What was my mom going to think? I dialed her number, chit-chatted about the weather, work, upcoming vacations, my dog, my cat and my husband – anything to avoid the real reason for my call. Then I blurted out, “I’ve been really depressed for 20 years. I’m taking antidepressants, and I’m seeing a psychologist!”

What happened next surprised me. “That’s so great!” was her response. I was puzzled. Here I was, the biggest failure in the world who can’t do a simple task like “be happy,” and my mother is proud of me? She was and still is proud of me for recognizing I needed help and not being afraid to ask for it.

That first step was the hardest and took me 20 years, but it was the most rewarding.

So how am I doing now? Every day is different.  I’m learning to stop the blame game with my 12 year old self, accept that I can’t change the past and move on. Good days now outnumber bad days.  It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, but I’m learning to recognize my triggers so I can stop the downward spiral before it starts. To be honest, it’s a lot of work and not easy, but it’s better than being depressed all the time.

Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, and in my case, was completely preventable. If you or someone you care about has symptoms of depression, talk to someone.  Seriously – anyone.  It’s much better than suffering in silence.

There are many resources available including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, your primary care physician or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also contact http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/ for information on other mental health issues.

Having a safe place where I can talk openly and honestly about my struggles literally saved my life. It can save yours, too.

I speak from experience when I say if you’re struggling with depression, don’t be ashamed.

Reach out. Ask for help. 

Family Favorites Turned Healthy: Grilled Pizza With Tomato, Basil and Prosciutto

Grilled pizza with tomato, basil and prosciuttoToday I wanted to share with you one of my all-time favorite meals to make in my home: pizza! There’s a reason why pizza is such a classic dish: it is definitely a crowd pleaser. You might be thinking pizza is an unhealthy choice for a meal, but fear not! Creating homemade pizza with fresh and healthy ingredients can make it a great (and fun) choice for dinner.

The pizza I am presenting today is one of my go-to classics. For me simplicity can be beautiful, and pizza with fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, and fresh basil cannot be beat! This pizza happens to be topped with a few strips of prosciutto, but that element could be left out for a vegetarian version. The other important element of this pizza is that it is made on the grill, which makes it a perfect summertime treat! There’s no need to overheat your house by turning on the oven, plus the grill imparts a great flavor on to the dough.

So ... how do I whip up a healthy pizza at home? I have a few tips to make it an enjoyable and delicious process! 

  • Make it a family affair! Cut balls of dough into individual pizza sizes and let everyone build their own personal pie. Each person can roll their dough, add toppings as they choose, and the entire process of creating dinner can be spent alongside family and friends!
  • Set up an ingredient bar. Chop a variety of fresh vegetables to set out (bell peppers, onion, broccoli, zucchini, artichokes, etc.) and make sure to load them on your pizza generously! Experimenting with new flavor combinations can be fun.  You can always create a half and half pizza to try something new, but have a go-to classic ingredient combination for the other half. 
  • If you want to add meat to your pizza, opt for some leaner options! Turkey pepperoni, turkey sausage, and chicken sausage are a few to consider. 
  • Pizza doesn’t always have to pair with Italian flavors. For instance, you could incorporate some Mexican flavors by topping your pizza with cheddar cheese, corn, bell pepper, green onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. You could even add slices of fresh avocado or a dollop of guacamole on top before serving.
  • Serve a salad. Pizza and salad are a match made in heaven, and can help boost your veggie intake for the meal. Plus, if you create an ingredient bar, your salad is almost fully prepared for you. Throw any leftover chopped veggies into your salad bowl for an extra punch!

So, do you think you’ll be trying out a homemade pizza soon? What are your favorite healthy ingredient combinations?

Grilled pizza with tomato, basil and prosciuttoGrilled Pizza with Tomato, Basil, and Prosciutto


Pizza dough (make your own or purchase store bought)

3 tbsp marinara or pizza sauce

3 medium vine ripe tomatoes, sliced into rounds about 1/4 inch thick

4-6 oz fresh sliced mozzarella

3-5 thin slices prosciutto di parma

Fresh basil leaves, cut in a chiffonade


1. Preheat your grill to around 500° F. As it is heating up, stretch/roll the pizza dough to about 1/4 inch thick. I like to roll my dough with a sprinkle of cornmeal! Place on a baking sheet or other surface to transfer to the grill.

2. When the pizza dough is rolled out, carefully slide it directly on to the grill grates (you can spray the grates with a bit of nonstick cooking spray if desired). Close the grill lid and let the dough cook for about 5-6 minutes, until the bottom of the crust is golden and some char lines can be seen. Transfer the dough back to your baking sheet, but flip the pizza crust so the bottom that was touching the grates is now facing up.

3. On the turned over pizza dough, lightly spread the marinara sauce, then top with the sliced mozzarella and tomato rounds. When this is complete, transfer the pizza back on to the grill for an additional 3-4 minutes, until it is cooked through to desired levels and cheese is bubbly.

4. Remove cooked pizza from the grill and on to the baking sheet. Top the pie with slices of prosciutto and sprinkle with fresh basil leaves. Slice into pieces and enjoy!

Declare Your Dream – Then Get Busy Achieving It

SOPHIE'S SQUASHI’ve always wanted to write books for children.

It just took me a while to get around to it.

I don’t think that’s so unusual. Pursuing something you desperately want is scary. What if your best efforts aren’t good enough? What if your plan doesn’t work? What if you … fail?

It can seem easier to lock your dream away. Convince yourself it’s a foolish wish. List the roadblocks keeping you from reaching it. Focus on the many tasks you should do instead.

But your dream is still there, in its secret room, waiting for you to visit. And, if you’re lucky, it nudges you occasionally.

For me, that happened each time I read my children a story, visited the library or passed a bookstore. And each nudge seemed stronger than the last.

Finally, my dream poked me so hard, I had to pay attention.

Then it asked one question: “What will you most regret not having done when you’re 80?”

The answer was obvious. Once I admitted my dream, I knew I had to get serious about achieving it. Even if that meant failing.

I’ve been described as tenacious, and I knew I’d have to bring that quality to this quest. So I:

  • Read. I became my local library’s best customer. I checked out every picture book ever written by my favorite authors. Then, I dedicated chunks of time to reading and studying how those books were crafted and why they worked.
  • Wrote. I stopped watching TV and devoted that time to writing. Because I was reading the best of the best, I could see my efforts didn’t measure up. So I kept working.
  • Researched. I knew I didn’t know how to write a picture book worthy of a well-known, traditional publisher. So I got online and, using Google, learned about critique groups and writing conferences I could attend, and common beginner mistakes I could avoid.

All this work – done mostly in the evening or early morning – made me smarter. When I thought my stories that were ready, I submitted them to publishers using everything I’d learned about the right way to do it.

And I got rejected. Repeatedly.

It wasn’t fun getting form letters saying my manuscript wasn’t accepted, but I knew it meant I wasn’t good enough. Yet. So I kept reading and writing and researching.

Through it all, my husband and family were my biggest fans. In fact, my husband told me, “I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of you. You know what you want, and you’re working for it.”

So my first “yes,” which came after four years and 126 rejections, was that much sweeter.

Now, I’m where I longed to be. My first book, SOPHIE’S SQUASH, was published by Schwartz & Wade last year to very positive reviews. It’s won several honors, including the Golden Kite Award for best picture book text. And, I have six more books under contract that will come out in the next few years.

But I’m not one to coast. I’m always working on something new. Now that I’ve reached my first set of writing goals, there’s a whole new set to achieve. Because my dream isn’t locked away in a secret room anymore. It’s enjoying all the fun and freedom it always deserved.

I hope your dream gets to do the same.

Editor's note: How do you overcome obstacles and get support for your dreams? Leave a comment, or share your #ChooseDreams story with on Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus. We might just feature your dream in an upcoming Dream Protectors blog post. Long live dreams! 

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