Friday, June 26, 2009

Why Don't We Volunteer? The Dare to Care

Get Involved! Volunteer! This administration's determination to address recession fallout spans beyond the reach of bail out dollars, and into old fashioned barn-raising, with a passionate call to service. The United We Serve campaign challenges all Americans to make a difference by doing "good" in their communities for 81 days, from June 22 -- September 11 and beyond.

"Make Volunteerism and community service part of your daily life, and part of the life of this nation," invites President Obama, "And I mean everyone."

It sounds good, right? But wait! I can hear the excuses buzzing already: "Well, umm, ahh, you know, the new episodes of WipeOut are coming on, work is so busy, summer is hectic, and money is tight - I just can't get involved." Sound familiar? Why don't we volunteer?

Here are some of the top reasons:
Not feeling qualified- "I don't know what to do."

Worried you will be sucked into paying a lot of money-"I can't afford to donate."

Afraid it will take too much time- "I am over committed right now as it is."

I have small kids and can't get away- "My giving bone is stretched to the max."

Not knowing where to go or what cause moves you- "Soup kitchens are not my thing."

Maybe we don't volunteer because of the WIFFM (What's In It For Me?) factor. Here's a reframe: does feeling happier, more contented and satisfied with your life intrigue you at all? Plenty of studies have shown those who volunteer actually have improved health, and trigger the same dopamine pleasure bath as when we eat our favorite foods or have sex with the one we love.

Yet most of us walk down the streets, lattes in hand, self-absorbed in our tweets and general activism apathy. Despite compelling evidence, I highly doubt swarms will start filling the streets with t-shirted volunteers, just because the President says we should. We have to feel a calling. We have to be pulled. Bottom line, we have to care.

Maybe Obama understands this, and created this volunteer "challenge" to get us out of the drone zone, and rolling up the proverbial sleeves. A fantastic start -- are you moving yet? Obama may call it United We Serve, but I am going to put out a "Dare to Care." Come on, give your time to someone or something that needs help this summer- I dare you!

Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist), Google, UCLA, YouTube and others have collaborated on a web site called All For Good to help Americans overcome our volunteer objections, and make it happen in a big way. If you don't feel qualified, you will quickly see that even picking up trash counts, and any toddler would be proud to join in. Many options do not require any money, and even a small amount of time makes a huge difference. The site offers categories of potential interest, like Nature, Education and Health, with direct links to local opportunities in your neighborhood. No more excuses!

Here's some of the WIIFY (What's In It For You) in volunteering:

  • Meeting people you never would have met. Volunteering offers a vital experience of putting roots in the ground. Feeling a part of something larger than ourselves can transcend the heavy emotions of isolation and loneliness -- even once a month makes a difference.

  • Gaining Perspective on Your Own Troubles. No matter how hard life can be, there is always someone worse off than you are. Getting out of our personal mire for a while is healthy and therapeutic.

  • Having Fun! A non-profit in my area recently held a gigantic tag sale to raise urgent last minute funds, as well as to put household items in the hands of those who need them. Our format was unique: nothing had price tags, and no haggling. Everything was to be taken at will, and donations given by choice. Guess what? We raised far more than we imagined, and everyone walked away feeling good about it. Was it a lot of work? Yes. The volunteers were exhausted sorting mountains of stuff, eating cold pizza for dinner, drinking wine in paper cups, and all the while laughing our heads off. Who won? We all did.

If formal volunteering is not possible or of interest, does this mean you can't "dare to care?" How a about applying the President's challenge towards the daily with our families, friends, neighbors and co-workers? Make each day an opportunity to connect with someone in pain, lend a hand before being asked, or spread some joy in the daily doldrums.

Here's how you can be in service every day, without joining any organization at all:

  • Deliver dinner to a friend or neighbor in need; even a rotisserie chicken and bread is great.

  • Offer to baby sit a new mom's kids for an afternoon, and give her20 for a manicure and a Starbucks.

  • Mail a card once a week with a heart-felt message. After all no one sends anything to us 'snail mail' any more.

I would like to attribute this last idea to Bill, a stranger from Puget Island, WA, who sent me a card, out of the blue, this month. I was sure it was junk mail. Inside, Bill wrote that he read a few of my columns, and told me to "keep it up - you are doing important and good work." Bill tries to send a card every single day to someone who has touched his life, and ended the card with, "I know it sounds kinda goofy, but it helps me flourish and spreads gratitude."

I loved the simple idea of sending a card to a stranger. That is daring to care. That is a call to service. That is volunteering to make a difference in someone's life. Am I someone in need? Sure, I'm human, and we all need each other.

Marilyn Mock is someone who "Dared to Care," in a big way last year, when she saw a sobbing woman about to lose her house at a foreclosure auction. Gripped by fate, something made her raise her hand, and win the bid for $30K. Marilyn then turned around, and gave the house back to the crying stranger, assuring her to repay as she could. That single act has transformed Marilyn's life into creating a non-profit to help thousands of others called The Foreclosure Angel Foundation.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

No Child Left Behind = All Boys Left Behind

Let's play a little game of make believe shall we? Let's play "house" - and pretend to be a typical American family about five years from now- say in 2014.

In this scenario, Mommy is a CEO, serves on several Boards of Directors, and had her two kids in her late thirties. Daddy is at home full time, cooks dinner, coaches soccer and helps with homework at night. He dropped out of college, after struggling through high school, and can't find a well paying job to justify their childcare costs.

In our make believe game, there are two children. The daughter is getting all A's in school. She is the teacher's pet, class president, plays sports and is in honor's classes. The son likes sports, but hates most subjects in school, struggles with ADHD, and is fumbling. Both have the same amount of attention and opportunities at home, yet the daughter is going to Harvard and the son is going to Community College.

Now, before you get hot and huffy here about gender sexism, bear with me. This scenario is not far from the truth for our upcoming leaders of tomorrow. Since the 1970's feminism has opened up unparalleled opportunity for women to move forward in education and business. Is it perfect? No, but today's daughters are breaking glass ceilings and blazing trails.

However, there are glass shards and dead end roads being inadvertently left for the men, and the boys. In the past ten years or so, the world of education has changed dramatically. The "No Child Left Behind Act" has been a disaster, and instead has turned into "All Boys Left Behind." Our nation's boys are not just slipping through the cracks, they are washing down the Grand Canyon without a paddle, and something must be done about it.

Peg Tyre is author of the book, The Trouble with Boys, a #1 best seller, coming out in paperback this summer. Tyre spent five years researching the current education system from every demographic. She has a powerful, unrelenting story of how our young men are struggling, and describes a giant education gap that will affect every level of American life, in a very short period of time, as these kids grow up.

Currently, boys are being "expelled" from preschool four times more than girls. They are 60% more likely to be held back in kindergarten, and twice as likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities. Only 43% of young men are enrolled as undergraduates in college, girls are taking more AP classes in high school, and dominating as school valedictorians. In fact, a "dirty little secret" at many colleges and universities is the unspoken "new gender gap." Boys are being admitted to colleges with lesser qualifications than girls to keep the gender balance.

Even though the IQ levels are the same, boys are disengaging from the educational process from their very first moments in a classroom, and steadily falling behind with each passing year. Today 72% of girls and only 65% of boys are graduating from high school.

For struggling families, the child who does the best in school is the one who will be pushed the hardest - nowadays it is invariably a girl. This trend is a massive reversal of forty years ago, where the academic career's of the boys was pushed at the expense of the girls. How can we keep the scales balanced?

Tyre states:
"In some ways its nice to see women on top. But we have to ask who is going to bring up the children and who are these educated women going to marry? In America there are 2.5 million more girls than boys in college, and women tend to marry men of the same level of educational attainment."

If the pipeline that is sending our boys up through the education system is damaged, the catastrophic recession is smashing the other end of the pipe as well- leaving scores of men unemployed, depressed and unsure of where to go next. Statistics show nearly 80% of those losing their jobs from the recession are men. Many of them are helping out at home, and redefining the meaning of "stay at home dad."

Does anyone see the connection here? In our recent lifestyle of 80 hour work weeks, an average father currently only spends 30 minutes a day with their sons. Maybe our struggling boys need their struggling dad's. Maybe both their lives need to be filled with a little more wrestling, games of Spiderman and comic books, instead of endless meetings and boring classroom droning.

Jeremy Adam Smith has written a new book, The Daddy Shift, just released for Father's Day. Smith, a staunch profeminist, spent a year with their infant son as the primary caretaker, and writes a very intelligent and engaging blog called "Daddy Dialectic". He offers a positive spin on the profound importance of men being at home as transforming bread winning into care giving.

"Many fathers feel helpless, useless or in the way, when instead fathers can serve as a bridge between the mother and the rest of the world," said Smith. "It is time to come up with a whole new set of rules."

Smith feels that hands-on dads handle stress better when facing issues of unemployment.
"Taking care of my children is the toughest challenge I ever faced, but facing it strengthened me and enlarged my life, and critically, it has helped many of us to survive unemployment,"
Smith said.

I asked Smith if he has noticed any differences in how he parents vs. his wife's style.
"Primarily, I think there is not a huge difference between men and women as parents," he begins. "However, I do think father's wrestle more, and while many assume the maternal style is the gold standard, running around playing octopus is how we have fun and relate to each other."

I have great faith that having more men at home can help bring that critical masculine energy back into the nucleus of the family- there may be more sword fighting, squirt guns, and more hours of farting than flash cards. If boys can be empowered by men at home, ideally their ability to perform in school will increase. If more men are paying attention to how their sons are being taught and the obvious deficits they are facing, motivation will occur to take action and address their specific needs.

Let's hear it for the boys. How are your boys faring in school? How are the men out there handling the juggling domestic home front? Let's start a dialogue and your comments are warmly welcomed!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

8 ways to Kick an Online Habit & Start Socializing

I don't know about you, but to me, June equates to being outside. Weddings, graduations, picnics and parties; its as if we are all coming out of our winter hibernation, basking in the sunlight, and feeling eager for some old fashioned socializing. Yet, is a little blinking screen or buzzing hand held device getting in the way of truly being present and available?

Do you have a rich social relationship with your iPod, or spend vast amounts of time typing witty quips on Twitter? Do you have carpel tunnel wrists, and texting thumbs? Do you email your neighbor a question, instead of walking outside to ask, or Facebook your kids when they are in the next room? It's an Online Rut! I know I am ready to ditch my keyboard for awhile, and put my fingers in the sand instead.

Ironic that our modern times require scheduling to engage in the simple joys of life, yet it is critical to focus on neglected friendships, reconnect with significant others, and create quality time with the family, to balance our modern cerebral lifestyles. Two weeks ago,I offered up the top ten positive emotions as a way to start lightening up the Inner life. Last week, I discussed the concept of Curiosity and how it can be used as a tool to propel us forward in life.

This week, the focus is to put positive emotions and curiosity to work in expanding or developing a tangible community around us. Ask any researcher in the social sciences, and they will agree, those with strong personal friendships are the happiest and healthiest.

Dr. Henrie Weisinger contacted me after last week's column to share interesting work he has conducted using the power of curiosity, and other basic instincts to enhance our relationships. His new book, The Genius of Instinct is an excellent compliment to the running dialogue. Dr. Weisinger writes:

To Act Curiously is another way of saying "explore and investigate." These behaviors bring your curiosity instincts to life. One way is to engage in novel and fun activities. Novelty arouses, and fun makes changes pleasurable. Together, these factors make it easier for you to get out of your comfort zone, explore and create.

I love this idea, and believe one of the best examples of balancing healthy social relationships is with President and Michelle Obama. The level of "social normalcy" they are determined to bring to the White House is beyond impressive. They are literally creating a new paradigm for what it means to be in power, coupled with unprecendented access, and setting examples of how to relate to one another in daily life.

If the leader of the free world can show up in jeans and sneakers to cheer on his daughter at a soccer game, deliver a landmark speech to the Muslim nation, and take his wife on a date within a week's time, I think the rest of us can conquer our "to do" lists, and find time to enjoy the ones we love in special ways too. No excuses!

Here are eight ideas to tempt you away from your desk, or hand held devices this June, and into an environment sure to brighten your day, awaken your curiosity, inspire positivity, and bring you closer to those most important in your life:

1. Have a Date Night. - It's Hip! Follow the Obama trend and have a date with your partner regularly. Make a pact not to talk about work or the kids, and instead tell funny stories, read poetry, reminisce about when you met, and pay each other at least five compliments before the night is over.

2."Thorns & Roses" at Dinner - Another White House Tradition! At your evening meal, have each person share one "thorn" or tough part of their day, and one "rose" or great part. It's a fantastic tool for couples or families to frame a lively conversation.

3. Get out the Board Games - Make one evening per week a "No Screen" evening, or maybe just a "No Screen HOUR!" Dust off the old Scrabble game, chess board or deck of cards. I guarantee an evening of easy laughter and comfort down to your toes.

4. Take a Walk Each Day - Even if you have to get up early, like Michelle does for the morning dog walk, or late in the evening as President Obama does, taking a 15-20 minute walk is a medicine like no other. Dog or no, it is precious time to be alone, talk out loud, breathe fresh air and notice the simplicities of Nature.

5. Start a Regular Neighborhood Pot Luck - Rebuild a community in your own backyard. Call your neighbors and invite them to meet to a weekly or bi-weekly BBQ. Meet at a local park, or take turns hosting. Some ground rules: no excessive cleaning or cooking! Setting a regular date makes things easier, and allows a chance to include folks you may not know very well. It is always a great time - rain or shine!

6. Plan a Meaningful Event for Someone Who is Struggling - Invite a small group together to help support a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer, lost a loved one, or is just feeling blue. Create a special gift everyone can contribute to, as a keepsake and reminder of your collective love and support.

7. Take a Class -
Check out the local community center and enroll in a short class that is new to you: yoga, painting, sailing or photography. Its a short commitment, and a great opportunity to meet new people, engage your curiosity and push everyday stress aside.

8. Volunteer - Anyone can spend an afternoon helping stock cans at a food bank, sorting clothes at Good Will or reading to children at a city elementary school. What you receive is always more than you give.

So, how 'bout it readers? Ready to ditch the keyboard and come out to play? Drop me a comment or two before you go, and have a great time! To receive weekly updates of my Sunday column, click on the "Become a Fan" button.