Attending 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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.