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.
The family dinner table is where I learned to dream.
Often, when friends came over they expressed surprise that we sat down as a family for dinner. It didn’t happen at their houses, and they really liked being part of the ritual at our house. Years later, they bring it up at reunions or around town when they see my parents. My mom even got a note on Mother’s Day from a friend of my sister’s, saying how much she’d appreciated being welcome in our family during those times.
The trait I most admire in my parents is that they encouraged each of their four children to identify our own dreams. And it started at our family dinners. My siblings and I talked about school, sports, theater and our friends. Whatever we said we wanted to do, my parents built us up with positive comments, making us feel like we really could do anything we set out to do.
That encouragement has continued all our lives.
At the Easter dinner table, when I was 28, I announced I was quitting a really good job to return to graduate school full-time, and my parents’ support and encouragement gave me confidence that I was on a good path.
The conversations and inspiration that take place around the table have measurable value to children. Children who regularly eat dinner with their families do better in school and are less likely to use tobacco or alcohol.
That hit home for me recently. I unexpectedly worked much later than usual one night, arriving home around 7 p.m. My husband was gone for the evening, and I thought our teenagers would have had dinner already. They hadn’t. They’d waited for me so we could eat dinner together – that’s how much they value our time together at the dinner table.
I was completely in awe of how important this nightly ritual is to them.
At American Family, we’re focused on building a community of dreamers. Building the next generation of dreamers starts at the family dinner table. That’s the reason behind Back to the Family Dinner Table, which kicks off this week.
Through Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, we’ll be sharing family favorite recipes – and the stories behind them. We’ll also give your family tips for getting organized and suggestions for involving everyone in meal planning and cooking.
We’re partnering with cooking blogger Isabel Laessig, whose mission on her website, familyfoodie.com, is to bring back Sunday supper around the family table in every home. Isabel and her network of bloggers will partner with American Family and share ideas for easy and fun, family-friendly meals – including hosting a Google Plus Hangout and Twitter chats this fall.
American Family wants your recipes, too. Go to our entry form and enter your favorite family recipe – and you’ll be eligible to win prizes to help bring your recipes to life. We’re also gathering everything (recipes, tips and more) into an electronic cookbook, which we’ll share with our customers and everyone who shares a recipe.
Of course, when we talk about “family” dinners, we know a person’s family is really their network of support, no matter what form that takes. We’ll celebrate that with additional blog posts here on Dream Protectors, recognizing “family” goes well beyond the traditional idea of parents and kids.
I hope you’ll join us by trying new recipes, sharing your stories, and focusing on bringing your family back to the dinner table.
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 e-book.
Most days, I bike to work. By bike, I mean the motorless kind. In addition to saving money on gas, reducing wear and tear on my car, and having a greener footprint (I now drive about 5,000 miles less per year), I’ve discovered my bike is also my personal time machine.
First, my bike saves me time.
Riding to work blends my commuting and workout time. By blending exercise and commuting, I actually get about an hour back in my day! How’s that for quantifiable impact!
Second, my bike gives me time.
Being on a bike twice a day gives me more time outside, feeling the sun (or rain) on my skin, smelling the grass, the trees, or farmers’ fields. I also hear birds and frogs that I can’t hear when I’m in a car. This outside time is precious to me.
If you practice mindfulness or other kinds of meditation, you know being attuned to your senses is important. Riding a bike like I do is a gold mine for the senses.
I also get more time to connect to others. On a bike, it’s easy to pull over and chat with anyone including neighbors, fellow bikers and even the crossing guard I see every day on my way to work.
Third, my bike itself is from another time.
Heavy, solid and with a smooth ride, my Reagan-era mountain bike is “more Harley-Davidson than Trek,” according to the guy who sold it to me.
Finally, my bike takes me back in time.
Bike riding is making me younger. Maybe not literally, but riding has changed my appetite to be more in line with a person half my age. On really challenging days, when the wind is strong or snow is on the ground, I get an awesome workout and lots of fresh air. On those days I feel like I’m 20 again.
And on those nights, I’m asleep in no time.
Editor's note: The League of American Bicyclists has named American Family Insurance as one of 400 Bicycle Friendly Businesses nationwide.
I never tire of the view at our headquarters in Madison, Wis. The surrounding landscape features wildflowers, stone walls, seating areas and a pond. These gradually change over to oak woodlots and large grassland areas.
When our facility was built, the intent of the grasslands was to transition to outlying natural areas and keep expenses down by reducing the costs associated with large well-groomed lawns. It turns out these tall grasses are an ideal habitat for nesting grassland birds. An employee discovered this 20 years ago when he spotted a Dicksissel living in the grasses.
Knowing this, American Family decided to strike a balance between economic development and land resource protection. We realized we have an opportunity to protect and restore diverse plant and animal species on our lands.
As an example, we found that simply by delaying the annual mowing of our meadow until mid-August, the Dicksissel – whose population has been steeply declining – could successfully raise their young.
Our land use plan has three goals:
- Research existing habitat and wildlife.
- Implement land-management practices to support habitat-enhancement strategies.
- Promote employee and community involvement.
Since then, some of our land-use achievements include:
- Installation of a native prairie butterfly garden.
- Restoration of oak woodlots to oak savannas.
- Conversion of several acres of non-native plants to native species.
- Pond management for habitat diversity.
- Installation of a 34 bluebird nest boxes.
It’s been a gratifying experience. Some of the most rewarding compliments on our land use come from customers. One guest said that after discovering American Family’s dedication to responsible land management, he would definitely remain our customer. He was an administrator at a local college and was so impressed with our land use plans that he asked if his facilities team could contact me for more details!
I also received a similar compliment from a customer who is an employee with the Wisconsin DNR. She said, “I am so thrilled and impressed to discover I have been doing business with a company that truly cares about the environment.”
At American Family, it’s rewarding to know our good stewardship isn’t just a financial way of life, it extends to our land resources as well.
Editor's note: Learn more about the environmental sustainability efforts at American Family Insurance on our website.
I don’t hike as much as I’d like to these days, but I carry fond memories of hiking with my daughters when they were children and a special hike with them years later.
One special spot is Devils Lake State Park near Baraboo, Wis. Despite its name, it’s a heavenly place. Devils Lake offers miles of hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty, so there’s something for just about everyone.
I have three specific hiking memories that come to mind.
Hiking memory No. 1: During a weekend camping trip there when the girls were ages 4 and 8, their mother and I took them on a hike all the way around the lake. I can’t recall the exact distance, but it’s about three miles or so. I recall being quite proud because they made it all the way without whining or asking to be carried.
Hiking memory No. 2: A few years later, my older daughter accompanied me and a friend on a hike along the East Bluff trail heading south from the north end of the lake. Somewhere along the south face of the East Bluff we unwittingly got off the trail and ended up climbing down through some big boulders for a while. It turned out to be a little dangerous, to tell the truth, especially for a 10-year-old. But we were unscathed and lived to tell about it.
Hiking memory No. 3: When my younger daughter was about to head off to college in another state, the girls wanted one last day of adventure with their old man. They realized this rite of passage meant the opportunities for this kind of activity would be limited as they moved along in life, living in different states, pursuing their own careers, etc. So off we went to Devils Lake. We hiked there and then headed for nearby Phil’s Woods, a small park named for Phillip La Follette, a three-time governor of Wisconsin. We had never been there before, so we combined a new experience with a familiar experience that day. It’s one of my favorite memories.
So make the most of your summer. Get out there and hike. You’ll get some exercise, see some sights, flirt with danger and create some great memories. And it always helps to stay on the trails and dress appropriately to keep ticks and other bugs at bay.
Editor's note: Where are your favorite places to take a hike? Leave a comment, or visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page today and throughout the summer. Join the conversation by checking out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.