Christmas Gifts

With the holidays fast approaching, people are trying to find the perfect gifts to give.  Some want to give a sentimental gift, others want to show their humorous side.  For many people this will be a chance to show how they feel about someone, and for others the gift they give will stylishly fulfill an obligation.  In any case, everyone wants to come up with a gift that will convey just the message they want to send.

Sometimes the memory of a perfect gift outlasts the given item.  The thoughtfulness or creativity that was woven into it inspires a happy feeling for years to come.  I recently asked a few women around the Chippewa Valley if they had any such gift memories to share.  Some had ones that warm the heart, and others had funny memories.  Here’s what they said:

Jan – One year when my sister didn’t have much money, I came downstairs Christmas morning, and her sewing machine cabinet was there by the tree. She wanted to give it to me for my gift, as she knew I loved to sew and didn’t have one. I protested, saying it was too much, but she insisted, a little teary-eyed. That was pretty cool.

Barbara – I grew up in a family where money was tight, and my mother made my clothes.  One year I begged for a robe I’d seen in the Sears catalog – it was beautiful. To my delight it was under the tree on Christmas morning, my first store-bought item, and I wore it until it was threadbare.  After my mother died many years later I was going through her things and found the pattern and some material from that robe.  She had secretly sewn it herself – complete with a borrowed Sears tag – so that I would have my dream come true.

Amanda – When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend of 18 months worked with – and probably begged – my mom to allow him to get me a kitten for a gift.  She was a sweet little orange kitty who lasted quite a bit longer in my life than my boyfriend.  He went on to date my best friend four months later, and now she’s his wife.

Ann – My sweetest Christmas gifts came from my husband.  Three weeks after we met in October 1991, he went to Texas for work and was already thinking of being with me at Christmas.  My gifts came from that trip – a stuffed armadillo and a Texas longhorn sweatshirt.  And yes, I still have them.

Glenda – One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received arrived under the tree the year my daughter was 11. It was in a huge box, and I couldn’t imagine what a child her age could afford with her small weekly allowance. On Christmas morning she could hardly wait until I opened the big package and then several inside it, each one smaller than the last, each individually wrapped. At last I came to a small ring box, and inside was a gold ring set with a tiny ruby — my birthstone. She had spotted it in the jewelry store window and saved every penny she had to buy it for me. The little girl is now 40, and the ring remains one of my most treasured possessions.

Pat –  My Aunt Pepper was known for giving meaningful gifts, but one year she shook things up.  She gave me a crazy brown and white purse made of fake fur.  Its strap was a chain.  I was grateful for the gift that had been chosen and given with love, but I wasn’t about to take it out of its hiding spot in the back of my closet.  A year later, I found it again and realized that my hip aunt had been incredibly fashion-forward and given me something that was indeed very cool.  It became my favorite purse.

No matter what the gift or who the giver, there are thoughtful and funny gifts that pepper our memories.  Maybe it’s a piece of special jewelry or a traditional gift that passes between family members. It could be a child’s hand-made treasure or a gift certificate for romantic dance lessons meant to rekindle a flame.  In any case, remembering these gifts recalls the affection we shared and inspires us to keep the tradition alive.

My own memory involved a gift that didn’t cost much but is worth its weight in gold.  My brother works in Los Angeles and knows that my favorite Christmas movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  Several years ago, a book came through his publicity office about the making of the movie.  He called Jimmy Stewart’s publicist and thoughtfully arranged to have it autographed to me.  In the movie, the actor’s tender character ultimately realizes how incredibly important each of our tightly interconnected lives is – a lesson worth revisiting at least once each year.  In my book he wrote:  “To Lesley – I send you all my best wishes and have a merry Christmas,  James Stewart.”  I wish the same for everyone.  Happy Holidays.


What is Thanksgiving?

Norman Rockwell did a pretty good job of showing just what the American Thanksgiving tradition should look like. In one of his most famous pictures, Grandpa looks on while Grandma sets an enormous turkey before him. Around the table generations of smiling family members await the moment when Grandpa will pick up the carving knife and begin the annual feast. It’s an image we know as Americans whether we have seen the picture or not, and we aspire to re-create it each year when our families gather and begin a celebration of abundance.

But in reality, it isn’t always like that. When I was in school abroad, I had Thanksgiving dinner in a swanky hotel restaurant. I’d saved up my British pounds for the special meal but was the only person in the restaurant aware that it was an important holiday and a time for turkey and cranberries; in London they couldn’t care less about an American tradition, but I was able to have a lovely baked Dover sole.

I shared this story with my friend, Ann, who laughingly told me she hasn’t had a traditional Thanksgiving since she’s been married. Her three middle- and elementary school-aged kids have never shared Thanksgiving with their dad. In Wisconsin Ann is known as a “hunting widow,” and there are women all over the state who nod and say that their life is the same. The men in their families are not sitting at the head of the table ready to carve a turkey on the Thursday holiday afternoon; they are sitting in a tree stand covered in blaze orange and waiting for a big buck to wander past. The women who share these stories at first seem subdued, but then a little smile creeps across their lips. They love it! Hunting widows relish the Thanksgiving holiday as a chance to gather with women friends, shop at wine sales and enjoy a week off from having their husbands at home.

At church I asked a friend who has traveled extensively if she has had any Thanksgivings that weren’t exactly “traditional.”

“Well, I’ve never had a Norman Rockwell experience,” Ruthie laughed. “I’ve had Thanksgiving in Venezuela three times, and the hardest part was finding the turkey!”

Her husband’s job had taken them to South America for three years where they celebrated with American expats and people from other countries who were interested in the tradition.

“Non-Americans are intrigued by the holiday because it isn’t religious and doesn’t require gift-giving,” she explained.

Twice Ruthie spent Thanksgiving in Copenhagen with her husband, a fan of pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, pumpkin pie filling is hard to come by in other countries, so he tried unsuccessfully to sneak a can through airport security on his way to Denmark. After a long explanation to the airport staff, he was let go – without the can of filling. Fortunately, there was a sign hanging in the Denmark airport advertising a shop that sold American foods. After a long train ride, a subsequent subway ride and a lengthy walk, Ruthie and her husband found the tiny shop. In it, there was one small shelf that contained mostly Pop Tarts – what must they think of American cuisine? – and a can of pumpkin pie filling. In Denmark, Ruthie explained, finding turkey was the easy part.

Pumpkin pie is, indeed, an important component of the Thanksgiving meal. In our home we have two different kinds. My mother prefers the old-fashioned variety, but my daughters have been turned on to a cream cheese type that is equally delectable. And pie isn’t the only dessert on offer. In years past, I have been invited to share Thanksgiving with close friends who recognized how difficult it was to be thousands of miles away from my California and Vermont family members. They took me in as one of their own, and when a birthday fell right on Thanksgiving Day, the birthday girl’s father and I spent hours creating a turkey-shaped birthday cake. We dipped cookies in melted orange-colored chocolate to make tail feathers and used an ice cream cone for a decorative hat. The masterpiece was ultimately presented with more fanfare than the poultry centerpiece had received.

Barb, a retired university professor, told me that she was surprised to find how many people are alone on Thanksgiving. In the first year after her divorce, she invited displaced students to her home to celebrate the holiday together. The students were displaced by distance that precluded their going home for a long weekend, so they joined together to become a family with whom they could share the holiday tradition.

Military service sometimes forces people to be apart at holiday times, too. Around the globe, American service people pull together on Thanksgiving to honor the holiday while their families at home lean on one another and create a new kind of family that celebrates with an empty seat at the table and waits for another year.

My daughters and I were invited to have Thanksgiving at the house of a Canadian family several years ago. The family had lived in the United States for three years at the time and was happy to share their traditions with us. Kady sewed turkey-shaped placemats, and her kids made decorative place cards. We talked and laughed and ate until we were stuffed. They had adjusted to our feasting tradition just fine.

“We celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada, too, but we do it a month earlier,” Kady clarified. “But this Black Friday thing? We definitely don’t do that!”

Ah, yes…the holiday tradition of shopping. In other countries feasts are shared in honor of the harvest, and celebrations are held in which gifts are exchanged. But is there any other country in the world where people cap off their holiday with a revered day of shopping? And Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without someone falling asleep in front of a football game – another sacred institution.

But shopping, football, feasting and hunting are secondary to the true tie that binds this holiday tradition together. Deeply tucked in between the Black Friday ads, reclined barcaloungers, recipe cards and hunting gear is the magic that keeps us celebrating this annual feast. Norman Rockwell captured one part of it in his painting, but he couldn’t encompass it in its entirety. Rockwell depicts family, the element that glues us together and packs the airports during Thanksgiving weekend, but family isn’t limited to the people who share a gene pool. Family includes all of the people with whom we share laughter, love and life. At Thanksgiving we honor the people who came before us and treasure those who have held our hands when we have faced life’s biggest challenges and enjoyed its smallest pleasures. It is said that we can’t pick our family, but the people who open their hearts and share themselves with us become a treasured kind of family that can be as strong and reliable as any genetic connection. At this time of year – no matter where we are – we welcome the excuse of a harvest feast to celebrate family – however we define it.  What a tradition!

Change It Up!


A little change in your pocket is a good thing, but a change of pace is equally important.  In order to keep things interesting, it’s important to consider changes that might open doors, provide serenity or lengthen your life.  Here are some ideas that might be just what you are looking for.

Attitude:          A positive attitude is key. Studies show that it takes less energy to smile than to frown and that pasting a smile on your face will actually release endorphins that will make you feel like smiling in your heart.

Diet:                You are what you eat, so eating junk food will probably make you feel like junk.  Spring is in the air.  Take time to head down to the farmers market and find some local produce to use in an easy recipe you find on line.

Body:               Your body is a shrine.  Keep it fit.  Bike or walk down to the market, call a friend and make a standing date for an hour-long sunset walk. Dedicate the extra hours of longer days to keeping up your shrine.

Spirit:               Twenty minutes a day of meditation can relieve stress and anxiety and make you better able to approach life’s challenges with calm and clarity.  But even taking a few minutes to notice the beauty of nature, take a breath of clean air or enjoy the gentle swaying of spring leaves can rejuvenate your spirit.

Perspective:    It’s easy to judge people, but why waste that energy? Catch yourself in the act of judging the people around you and try to imagine walking a mile in their shoes.  Trying to see through their eyes might inspire you to understand them – or at least to send them a little compassion.

Focus:              Life is busy.  Try to trim down the extraneous and focus on what is truly important. In most European countries, shorter work weeks and longer vacations are the norm.  There, people value human connection and quality down-time over elusive financial gain.

Location:         Play a game of “get lost.” Jump in your car, hop on your bike or lace on your shoes and go explore a part of town that you haven’t known before.  You might find a favorite new coffeehouse or discover a funky gift shop that strikes your fancy.

Habits:             It’s easy to forget how short life is.  Instead of thinking that you can’t do something or that you’ll get to it “someday,” embrace life right now.  Sign up for that French class, learn to throw clay on a potter’s wheel or buy a book and start doing yoga.

Noise:              Turn off the noise.  Don’t waste precious moments blocking out your thoughts or conversation with people around you by zoning out on the TV, Wii, iPod, computer, DS or other electronic device.  If you’re alone, grab a book, do a crossword puzzle or take a deep breath and listen to the birds outside.

Style:               Add a little zing to your outfit with colorful scarves and necklaces from across the color wheel.  Do some little unexpected thing with your outfits every day, and you will be lauded as a style guru.

Horizons:         Go farther afield than you ever dreamed.  Don’t have a passport?  It’s time to get one.  Save up for a trip to another country where you can taste food, hear sounds, meet people and experience a whole different way of life.  Savor the change.

The World:      Volunteer or donate your spare change to causes that will leave the world a better place than you found it.  Making a change in the lives of less fortunate people will not only improve their world but will fill your own emotional cup.

Undeez:           Our great-grandmas were right. Your skivvies may not be seen by anyone but you or an emergency room doctor, but if they are lovely, you will have a foundation of beauty.  You’ll approach your day knowing you are gorgeous from the skin out – and that can change your life.

School Conferences

The notice just arrived from school that it’s parent-teacher conference time.  Whether you greet the news with dread or enthusiasm, get ready to make some plans.  Across the country parents are gearing up to experience their first one-on-one interaction with the person who spends more waking hours with their child than they do.  Will the news be good or bad?  How will it reflect on them?  What can be done?

Lisa Brandt, a veteran kindergarten teacher in Eau Claire, Wis., has seen the panic in parents’ eyes when they arrive at their first conference.

“It’s important to realize that teachers are all on the parents’ side with the common goal being the child’s success,” says Brandt.

Aside from the fact that parents all spent 12+ years learning to respect – and perhaps sometimes to feartheir teachers, it’s time to redefine that attitude in an effort to benefit the kids.  Parents need to see teachers as useful partners who will help shape their children into the adults they will someday become.  Likewise, teachers view parents’ inside knowledge about their children’s abilities and personalities as the keys that will make teaching a much simpler task.  Brandt explains that one simple comment from a parent like, “Suzie’s best friend moved away last year,” might explain a whole host of behaviors and challenges that can be easily overcome by a teacher armed with this new insight.

Guy Granger, the father of two Seattle teens who is seasoned at this type of conference, says, “Most important:  Be pleasant and supportive.”  Being defensive about your child’s performance will only be destructive.  The value of this meeting will come from being constructive as you learn where challenges and growth areas lie for your son or daughter.

Make it a point to listen to what the teacher has to say.  He or she will have gathered work samples to share and will have identified some key elements to discuss with you.  Try to learn what the teacher’s goals are for your child during this school year, and feel free to share your own.  Be ready to take notes as you talk about one of your favorite topics: your child.

In order to prepare for a conference, make a list of points that are of concern to you and your son or daughter so that you don’t forget what to talk about.  The meetings are brief and fly by quickly, so be on time, come without children in tow if possible, and have your questions ready.  The National Education Association suggests the following questions as a place to start:

  • How well does my child get along with others?
  • What are my child’s best and worst subjects?
  • Is my child working up to his or her ability?
  • Does my child participate in class discussions and activities?
  • Have you noticed any sudden changes in the way my child acts? For example, have you noticed any squinting, tiredness or moodiness that might be a sign of physical or other problems?
  • What kinds of tests are being done? What do the tests tell about my child’s progress?
  • How does my child handle taking tests?
  • How can my child do better, and what can I do to help?

The teacher and student are only two corners of this important triangle.  At the parent-teacher conference, you will have an opportunity to find out how you can enrich and strengthen the learning environment.  Ask the teacher how you can participate with the class, volunteer in the school or supplement your child’s educational experience.  Exchange e-mail addresses so that you can quickly message questions or concerns whenever they arise.

The first parent-teacher conference of the year is an opportunity to set the tone for the months and grades ahead.  Make it positive.  Don’t worry that your child is a direct reflection of you and become argumentative.  Rather, make this the first step to being in constant communication with your child’s teacher.  Kids are smart.  If they find that the parents and teachers are all on the same page, they will sooner realize that school is important and requires their full attention.

#          #          #

How Was Your Day….?

How many times has a query about your child’s day been met with a glazed stare, shrugged shoulders or the one-word answer, “Fine.”  Getting into the mind of a child can be akin to breaking into Fort Knox.  There has to be a secret code, but what is it?  It seems impossible, but there are some sure-fire ways to engage your child and become privy to the goings-on about which every parent wants to be aware.

Plant the seed of communication before your child even knows what you are up to.  Make a routine of snuggling your daughter into bed with the lights out and whispering in her ear, “What was the best part of your day?”  Be sure to include asking about the worst part, too.  That might be the one part of the day she wouldn’t have told you about otherwise, perhaps the root of anxiety or unhappiness that you can then handle before it becomes a larger issue.  Offer your highs and lows, too, edited for young ears, so that she can see that everyone has ups and downs in life and that you value her enough to share yours.  You will soon earn her trust in return and be included in her private thoughts.

Joan Bohmann, PhD NCSP, is the director of professional standards and continuing professional development for the National Association of School Psychologists and a supporter of laying groundwork as soon as possible for family communication.

“If, during early school years, children know that the parent is going to ask what they learned today, it becomes a standard topic in which all are expected to take part.  Then the pattern is set for older years.”

Brittany Granger, a Seattle teen, is experienced in the communication battle between generations.  She suggests treating kids with sincerity.  If children feel belittled, they will withdraw, and if they feel threatened, they will hide truths and avoid any communication at all.

Says Granger, “Parents need to gain the trust of their child if they expect to be told anything.  They need to listen and respect the feelings and thoughts of the child.  Parents need to look at the situation, whatever it is, from the child’s point of view, be calm and respectful and not yell or swear.”

Bohmann agrees and adds, “Parents need to be careful to listen and validate the students’ point of view rather than jump in with the ‘right answer’ or ‘right way’ to think about something.”

Meet your son’s friends and teachers.  Volunteer in the school if you have time, and participate with class activities as often as possible.  Schools are constantly sending home announcements.  Scour them for potential conversation starters about upcoming projects, school programs, retiring teachers, peer successes and any other topic you can find.   Ask your son’s friends carefully placed questions, and the answers you receive will become conversation-starters to use at home.

A question that can be answered with a one-word answer most likely will be, so ask open-ended questions that can’t possibly be satisfied with a “yes,” “no-,” or “fine-,” answer.  Instead of asking how your daughter’s day was, ask about specifics.  Ask what kind of math problems she is working on, what she read during her free time and what exercises she did in gym class.  You’ll get short answers, but each will open a door to more questions.  Relate similar stories from your youth, and you’ll likely elicit questions that can easily be bounced back to her.

Consider your child’s age when you gear up for an after school-chat.  Younger kids will be open and eager to tell you about their day right away.  Parental attention at that age is key, and they’re ripe for conversation.  Tweens and teens usually need a little time to themselves before they’re willing to talk.  It’s better to let them come home and shift gears from school to family before you start asking questions.

Of older kids, Bohmann suggests, “Ask questions about the day while working on another task.  If the student helps set or clear the table, that may be a good time to talk.  Boys might do better while engaged in an activity such as shooting baskets or being active.”

In any case, you must be a super-sleuth to gather the tidbits that will point the way into your child’s mind.  Tiny clues about their life litter yours, and it’s your job to collect them.  The treasure you gain will be a life-long bond with one of the people you hold most dear.

#          #          #

Healthy Snacks

Whether it’s mid-morning, after-school or bedtime, growing kids sometimes need a snack.  Although it’s cheap and easy to grab a bag of chips, a cookie or a candy bar, the best choice is something that satisfies hunger while it meets the changing nutritional needs of growing children.

Elisa Zied, MS, RD, registered dietitian, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of Feed Your Family Right! (Wiley, 2007) points out that, “[Parents] need to focus more on calcium-rich snacks.”

As children grow, “calorie and nutrient needs increase,” explains Zied.  “Teens need more iron, girls because they menstruate and need to replace losses, and boys to support increases in lean muscle tissue.  They also need increased calcium as they develop peak bone mass.”

The challenge for parents is in how to meet the nutritional needs of their children while generating enthusiasm for healthy foods.

For fifteen years, Michelle Kooiker has been teaching elementary and preschool in northern Wisconsin.  Her struggle has been to entice picky eaters at snack time, and her creative technique seems to pay off.

“Sometimes kids are turned off by unfamiliar textures, so I ask them to break it down into steps,” says Kooiker, “the first of which is to ‘kiss it goodbye.’”

Kooiker’s method is to have a balking child bring a new food to his or her lips for a kiss.  Sometimes the taste on the lips is enough to tempt a bite.  Sometimes it takes longer to become comfortable with a new flavor and texture.  After a positive connection has been made to the food, she encourages a nibble.  Later on, she suggests a bite.  Before too long, the introduction is a success, and the child is picking up something new to “kiss goodbye.”

What defines a healthy snack food?

“Parents should think of snacks as extensions of meals and should include foods that fall into the key food groups:  dairy, fruits, veggies, grains, lean meats/beans,” says Zied.

Creative presentation is also helpful in selling these snacks to kids.  Peanut butter spread on celery with raisins on top becomes “Ants on a Log.”  Guacamole and hummus can be “Monster Mash” into which carrots, pita chips or jicama can be dipped.  Spinach and cheeses combine to make a great dunk for multigrain crackers and veggies.  Sweet dips are popular, too.  Blend honey with mascarpone, cream cheese or peanut butter and plunge sliced apples or graham cracker sticks into the tasty mix.

For the parent with little free time for whipping up specialty dips, low-fat pudding, chocolate milk and single-serving cheese sticks can provide a speedy calcium boost for kids.  If it’s your day to provide a snack for the class at school, bring yogurt.  Add a dollop of Cool Whip, and the kids have an activity food for stirring and cracker-dunking.  If there are 10 squealing tweens in your living room for a sleepover, sprinkle air-popped corn with tasty seasonings for their movie treat.

Avoid highly processed foods if at all possible.  Instead, buy fresh fruits and vegetables for easy munching.  Clean, slice and store them in a clear bowl in the refrigerator where they are easy to see and consume.  Sliced oranges are easier to approach than whole ones, and prepared berries are more fun to tackle than ones with stems.  A clear tray of carrots, cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber and broccoli with a tasty dip or salsa is a quick sell to hungry kids.

A good dose of fruits and vegetables will help keep kids hydrated, which is important in maintaining good health.  Water is the best drink for kids, followed by fat-free milk.  But a cup of 100 percent fruit juice per day or a sport drink from time to time can be a treat.

To be sure kids are hydrated enough, Zied advises that they have, “enough water and other liquids so that their urine is pale in color, not yellow.”  Deep color and odor indicate dehydration and disappear with the proper amount of fluid intake.

Include kids in their own snack selections.  Talk about food groups and healthy choices.  Include them in the purchase and preparation of their snacks, and lead by example.  A kid won’t choose sliced cucumbers if Mom is tearing into a bag of Cheetos.  Keep the experience fun, and don’t make snack-time into a food battle.  By being a positive role model, you will instill in your children life-long habits that will set them off on good, long lives.


 #          #          #


What About Education Budget Cuts?

School districts in every state are facing unprecedented budget cuts. Class sizes are on the rise while time in class decreases, and many schools are closing. The quality of education is in a downward spiral as districts fight to keep their lights on and classrooms supplied with minimum necessities.

The picture is gloomy, but there’s a lot you can do to help.


Before you can fight back, you need to understand how the structure works. Budget cuts are a national problem, but according to the Department of Education, only about 10 percent of elementary and secondary education funding comes from federal coffers. The rest comes from state, local and private sources, so there are 50 different structures for funding nearly 99,000 public schools, about 56 million students.

State funds are complex to understand and often have minimums and caps that vary from state to state. In Wisconsin, for example, the state spending cap has not kept up with inflation. This means an annual local referendum is vital to maintain the status quo, and these are increasingly difficult to pass.

Roughly 46 percent of funds come from local taxes that are based on local wealth. A difference of as much as $6,000 might exist between the amount spent on each student in an affluent district and those in struggling neighborhoods.

Calculate how much money your district needs to make ends meet, and set a goal. Research how voters turn out in your area, and gear your efforts appropriately.


There is power in numbers. In Eau Claire, Wis., pockets of disgruntled people who wanted to reinstate field-trip funding achieved success only when every PTA/PTO in town joined together. The same kind of organization and focus are necessary to pass much-needed referendums, but to raise funds and lobby your community in support of one, you will likely have to register with your state as a Political Action Committee – whether you are a group of two or 200.


Use catchy phrases, colorful photos and constant media attention to get people interested. Kim and Jim McNulty of the Stoughton School District in Wisconsin worked with four other couples to form Keep Improving and Developing our Schools, K.I.D.S. Their group created yard signs that called out, “Vote Yes for Quality Schools,” a phrase that yielded support for their referendum.

A bright, memorable logo, too, is helpful in burning your message into public minds. The Eau Claire field-trip group hung a sign from a school bus that read, “Pave the Way to Lifelong Learning.” Road sections were added as the fundraiser moved toward its ultimate goal.


Get the word out about your cause. The more your effort is in the news, the more support you’ll garner. Look among your team for a PR person who is skilled in courting the media, a graphics artist to create logos and an accountant to organize finances.

A website, Facebook and e-mail are essential to communicate your issue to the world and drum up help, but some voters still prefer to be contacted by print, radio, TV or phone. Door-to-door canvassing is also an effective way to gather support. Establish a presence at community events to educate your neighbors about your mission.


Bake sales and car washes aren’t enough. In addition to asking for general donations, research grants available for education funding and go to, where grant-writing is demystified. Donna Fernandez of SchoolGrants suggests creating a nonprofit education foundation to generate otherwise unavailable funds.

“Many grants that are not available directly to schools are available to nonprofits that lend assistance to schools,” said Fernandez.

Partnerships with corporate sponsors can be lucrative, too. Joe Sanfelippo, principal of Roosevelt Elementary School in Eau Claire, says a partnership with Nestle has funded his Reading Is Fundamental program and an after-school homework help program.

The Box Tops For Education program ( can supply up to $20,000 per school for coupons clipped from packaging. Among other programs are Kemps dairy products, which offer a Nickels for Schools program, and Campbell’s Labels for Education.

Local businesses, too, are eager to support education. Sanfilippo partners with a restaurant that shares 10 percent of its dinner profit on predetermined dates. Other businesses look for tax advantages by making education donations or matching funds.


Education Secretary Arne Duncan has estimated that as many as 300,000 educators in the United States will get pink slips this year. As you focus attention on your neighborhood or district, remember that a combined effort between schools, districts and states can change the crumbling structure.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has introduced the Keep Our Educators Working Act. By creating a $23 billion Education Jobs Fund, he aims to keep teachers, principals, librarians and other school personnel working through the budget shortfalls of each state.

“ Job losses of this magnitude would take a terrible toll on our education system, resulting in bigger class sizes, fewer program offerings and less time for students to learn in school. This would be a major setback for the nation’s economic recovery,” Harkin said.


Keep the Love Alive


The kids are bickering, the laundry is piled up and the dog needs to go out. The phone rings, the kitchen timer buzzes and your spouse walks in with a frown after a bad day at work. Sound familiar? What you two need is a good, old-fashioned date — a chance to leave the stresses of daily life behind and rekindle your romance.

Communication can easily break down between two people if they don’t catch up and share their feelings on a regular basis. Making time for a date can provide the focused time that is necessary to connect and nurture the person you hold dear.

Jake and Mary Farrell of Eau Claire, Wis., just celebrated their 42nd anniversary. They attribute the success of their marriage to regularly scheduled date nights that kept their romance alive and their friendship strong. Especially after children came along, they were determined not to view each other as “Mommy and Daddy” and forget that they were best friends first.

Instead, the Farrells explained to their kids, “You exist because we are. You are the culmination of our best efforts,” and off they’d go to strengthen the bond of their love.

Amy Pickens, M.A., of Your Place for Marriage Counseling in Philadelphia, Pa., agrees and goes a step further. She maintains that date nights are important because they offer an opportunity for couples to see each other through fresh eyes. Just as they did in the beginning, each person will put his or her best foot forward and be impressed with the other’s attempts to do the same.

Pickens points out that the positive feelings of love and affection that come from a date night will release “peaceful brain chemicals, including oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone.’”

“Studies show that loving, nurturing and harmonious relationships are associated with faster recovery from injury and illness, longer life expectancy and a decreased risk of depression and addictions,” explains Pickens. “So date nights are like a vaccine against and a cure for the boredom, stress and conflict between couples.”

The challenge is in making the time for the date. Both people need to make regular date nights a priority. Pickens recommends making one night each week a Date Night, “so that the cumulative effects of time alone are not lost.”

That may sound expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. To cut costs, trade date nights with friends so that neither couple has to pay a sitter. The night doesn’t have to be long, either. Go for walks, play cards at a diner, sit on a blanket under the stars or park like you did when you were dating. In any case, be creative. A drink or dinner out at a favorite restaurant is always fun, but a concert along the river, a tour of a local history museum or a visiting ballet can add variety to your dates.

Alternate who will decide on the activity, and then be enthusiastic about the adventure. If she wants to drive to a winery that winds up being closed, savor the drive. If he wants to take in a ballgame with thousands of screaming college kids, hold his hand. Remember, it’s not about the activity; it’s about your time together.

Be respectful of your partner’s interests. If you know that your spouse truly loathes a particular activity, then avoid it during this time to show how much you cherish your soul mate.

“Any date that violates the values of one or both people in the couple can make time alone a disaster,” warns Pickens.

Also, be sure you have time to talk on your date. A theater performance or a movie are fun activities for Date Night, but make time after the passive activity for conversation and laughter. A late-night decaf at a hip coffee shop or a cocktail at a swanky lounge would cap off the evening with an opportunity to rehash the performances and catch up on the week’s happenings.

No matter what, remember your goal: to keep the romantic fire kindled.

Says Pickens, “the best intention for a date night is to truly savor the deliciousness of being totally and deeply concentrated on each other.”

# # #