Celebrating Family

Embrace what is special about you

LaTunja and her daughterMore than a year ago, I made the decision to change my hairdo. I never expected that this decision would have impacted my life. I mean, it’s not uncommon that a girl wants to change her look, right? For me, I wanted a change every two years or so. I would go to the salon and say, "I need a change," which meant that I wanted a NEW hair style that would make me look younger, jazzier, or (I'm embarrassed to say) like one of the celebrities.

So what was different with this decision? This decision would force me to embrace a part of me that I had altered for over 30 years… my natural curls. I was faced with this life-changing decision when my five-year-old daughter was learning to swim and she wanted me to practice with her. I couldn't. I would mess up my hair (shallow, right?). Well, I felt silly after a while and took the plunge, starting a journey that would challenge me to confront other areas in my life where I was not being "real" or authentic.

After taking that initial step, I decided to dig deeper and discovered that my life was centered around preserving an "image" on the surface and denying the essence of what made me special. The image of an iceberg is the perfect metaphor for this because all you can see is 10 percent of it (what’s above the water surface or "above the line"). That’s where I was focusing ALL of my attention. The reality is that 90 percent of the iceberg is hidden ("below the line").  Unconsciously, I was also hiding 90 percent of ME because I thought that sharing that part of me would cause people to think less of me at work and in my personal life.

In my career, it was crucial that I managed how others perceived me. Success was about being the best. From my personal appearance to my work – my goal was to be flawless. Failure was not an option.

But life happened! Life has a way of throwing you a curve to help you grow. How you react determines if you grow. For me, it was the premature birth of my daughter, Briana, who was born at 1lb and 10ozs. Welcoming a new baby is a special, life-changing event.  Briana’s immediate medical needs meant more than adjusting to a new schedule. The challenges we faced together helped me focus on the 90 percent – the part of me below the line.

I learned to be present, take risks and embrace who I am!

I also thought how these lessons will impact the future pursuit of my dreams. I can say that my life is richer now that I have changed my focus from myself to others. I now focus on the impact that I make each and every day. Every interaction that I have with another person will have a positive or negative impact; there is no such thing as a "neutral" impact.

So, I challenge you to be present in each moment. Next time you interact with someone — whether it’s in a hall or a meeting — ask yourself if this will result in a positive impact. Are you really listening to the other person, or are you distracted by other noise such as the next item on your to-do list? When you are present in the moment, your listening skills improve, your relationships blossom, and your life is enriched.

Today, I embrace and share who I am — all 100 percent.

Posted by LaTunja Jackson on Thu, Mar 20 2014 1:46 pmLaTunja Jackson is a sales director with American Family Insurance.

Wearing violet for Matt

Matt Dodge and his familyMatt Dodge is like the cousin you’re always glad to see at family parties. He’s positive, friendly, excited to see you and generally just full of life.

Matt, an American Family Insurance agent in Mason City, Iowa, woke up at the end of the 2013 with a lump on his neck. The diagnosis came fast and the news wasn’t good: Matt has Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It’s hard to even imagine the reaction a dad with two kids under the age of 10 has to that news. But Matt’s facing this challenge with the same humor and grace we’ve seen in him every day. His family has even started a Facebook group, Matt Dodge kicks cancer, to share updates about Matt on this journey, where people can wish him well, too.

For those of us who know Matt, news of his illness was a blow.

“Matt is a great agent and family man,” says his manager, Terry Bartels, who hired Matt as an agent right out of college. “He helps and supports everyone he runs across.  You don’t hear him say a negative word, and even during this fight, he is still thinking of things he can do to help others right now.”  

Matt’s part of a group of agents we at American Family call Agency Council. They meet a few times a year to share feedback from and give reaction to new ideas. It’s a tight group where new friendships have developed as agents and employees have had a chance to get to know each other.

Enter Cami Sagvold. Cami is an American Family agent in Moorhead, Minn., right next to Fargo. She’s gotten to know Matt through Agency Council, and when she heard in January that he had cancer, she wanted to do something to show support. This week, American Family's Agency Council members are meeting in Madison, and Cami rallied them to wear violet to show Matt they are thinking of him.

American Family Insurance Agency CouncilThere’s violet everywhere. T-shirts. Sweaters. Cupcakes with violet frosting. Violet-sprayed hair (and scalps, for some of the follicly challenged). Former Agency Council members are wearing T-shirts back in their offices.  And people are taking pictures and sharing them with Matt through social media.

Family is a big part of our focus. It’s times like these when you really appreciate one of the things that means – putting that extra effort in to show a friend you care. Well done, Agency Council.

And good luck Matt – your American Family is pulling for you.

Posted by Michele Wingate on Mon, Feb 17 2014 7:51 am

A dream comes true, another is born

Jaden GaultIt is hard to put into words everything I saw and how I felt watching my son, Jaden Gault from Monona Grove High School (in Monona, Wis.), play and compete at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, Jan. 4.

When we arrived at the airport in San Antonio the Sunday before the game, there were people there to greet Jaden with a “Gault” sign and a new letterman’s jacket.

His celebrity status was just beginning.

They quickly took Jaden from us and we were on our own, because he had things to do. He spent the entire day signing autographs and getting his equipment and gear for the game. My wife, Kari, and I also got some new gear. We received Dream Protector T-shirts from American Family, which was a major sponsor of the game. It was at this point when that slogan really started to hit home for us.

Jaden was understandably nervous coming into this week. He had never competed against kids with the combination of size and speed he would go against in this game. His nerves were quickly replaced by confidence after the first day of practice Monday. He did very well during the week, earning the starting left tackle position for the West team.

Throughout the week, when we had the chance to see and talk with Jaden, he continued to impress us with what he told us about his week. He talked about what the coaches were having him do, from a football perspective, and he would tell Kari about all the celebrities he had met that day.

There were hundreds of memories from the week that I could point to as my favorite. It could have been Jaden earning the starting spot or the daily positive mentions on Twitter about Jaden from national recruiting experts, or the two touchdowns that were scored running directly behind Jaden on the goal line, or Jaden being named a finalist for the Anthony Muñoz lineman of the year award (given to the top offensive or defensive lineman in the country).

It could have been any of these things, but the moment I will always remember was watching Jaden on the sidelines during the game, talking to uniformed Army soldiers, shaking their hands and thanking them for their service.

It was at this point I realized, not only have Jaden’s dreams come true, but mine have as well. Jaden had grown into the man I always wanted him to be. He is a great success, but remains humble and thankful to others who give him the opportunity to do what he does.

The week after returning from San Antonio, we signed the lease to Jaden’s first apartment on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where he will be an early enrollee after graduating from Monona Grove in December. He will start classes and join the Badgers for their spring conditioning and football practice and will play in the spring game in April.

Jaden has set a new dream to one day play in the National Football League. Kari and I will continue to do what we can to nurture and protect that dream. 

Posted by Matt Gault on Wed, Jan 15 2014 5:55 amMatt Gault is a computer support senior technician for American Family Insurance.

30 Days of Thanks: Cooking up Grand Memories

30 Days of Thanks: GrandparentsIt didn’t matter what day of the week it was - that cozy little kitchen always smelled heavenly.

My grandma – or ‘Gram’ as I lovingly remember her, was always cooking when I came to visit her tiny house on Pacific Street. Some days she would be standing over the stove flipping fragrant cinnamon-spiced crepes (nicknamed “penny rolls”), and other times I’d find her cranking an apple peeler to make homemade applesauce – the waxy peels falling to the floor with a light ‘thunk’.

Gram had a wonderful way of captivating you with whatever project she was working on when you arrived. Greeting you with a hug so tight you could barely breathe, she would waste no time involving you in her latest endeavor.

“Go out to the garden and cut me some chives for the soup” she would say in her no-nonsense voice, handing me pair of scissors, and shooing me outdoors as soon as I set my suitcase down.

Gram taught me so many things over the years – but I’m most grateful for our time spent cooking together.

Besides sharing ways to make my own kitchen smell irresistible, she helped me discover the simple joy of creating something with your own two hands. And today, when I pull out recipe cards with her wobbly cursive handwriting, I’m grateful for the sweet memories that come flooding back with each line.

Thank you, Gram. I miss you.

What are your fondest memories of a special grandparent? What made them grand?

30 Days of Thanks American Family InsuranceEditor's note: In the pursuit of dreams, take time to thank those who have helped you along the way. Each day during November, American Family Insurance will share ideas for showing appreciation for the people, things and events in our lives. We hope you use these 30 Days of Thanks as an opportunity to share your gratitude -- or even just take a few moments each day to reflect on everything good in your life. Visit us on Facebook during November for inspiration and ideas as we celebrate 30 Days of Thanks. 

Posted by Grace VanDeWeghe on Wed, Nov 27 2013 10:13 am

30 Days of Thanks: A life filled with teachers

30 Days of Thanks: TeachersI went through the gauntlet of third grade 18 years ago, but have yet to escape the happenings of a third grade classroom.

See, I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with a mother, Deb, who has spent her entire adult life molding the lives of third graders (not to mention my grandma and several aunts and uncles who also spent their working lives in classrooms).

Day in and day out, through good days and bad, my mom heads into her classroom with a purpose. She views each day as an opportunity to leave a mark on a young mind. That’s something she won’t allow herself to take for granted because she knows how powerful her job is and can be.

That’s how she’s operated for well over 30 years.

But those who didn’t see her outside of the classroom setting didn’t know her normal day of teaching wasn’t over when she left the building each day. Not even close.

When she got home, even after the worst days, she spent time teaching me and my younger sister. There were nights around the kitchen table when my sister and I would work on homework while my mom graded papers or updated lesson plans. If we had questions, guess who was always there with an answer?

One of the coolest times of my life was when my reading teacher was my mom. I spent 45 minutes in her classroom each day. What I remember most poignantly was how she treated me exactly as she treated the other 20-25 kids in the class.

I was at school to learn. When I was home I could be the teacher’s pet.

I’ve always been grateful for those 45 minutes in her classroom. Seeing my mom do what she loves and do it well molded the way I approached school for the rest of my academic career.

She taught me discipline, respect and compassion. She taught me never to give up on something. She taught me I had what it takes to do whatever I wanted to in life, and that I should never settle for anything less – all things I carry forward to this day.

When I found out I was rejected from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a senior in high school, I felt entirely dejected. Getting that note from the only school I ever wanted to attend could have taken a nasty toll on my confidence.

But without missing a beat, my mom was there to pick me up. She was there to teach me nothing comes easy in life, but everything is possible if you work hard and stay smart. After one year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I wound up at UW-Madison, where I graduated with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Guess who I said thanks to immediately after the ceremony was over?  

What’s also neat is I’m soon to be married to a first-grade teacher, who I’ve already seen impact the lives of many – both educationally and socially – in her two-and-a-half years in a classroom. Though we don’t have any children, I know for a fact there will be plenty of nights around the kitchen table where we all work on homework and educate one another, should that time come.

For that, I’m thankful the most influential teachers in my life were – and continue to be – at my disposal 24/7.

What teachers had the most affect on your life? 

Posted by Tom Lea on Mon, Nov 25 2013 9:55 amTom Lea is a strategic communications writer for American Family Insurance, who also spent seven years covering Wisconsin football and basketball.
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