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How to Make Busy Boards for Toddlers

I came across the idea of a busy board one day on Pinterest. In short, what I saw was different things for a toddler to play with on a board, such as door latches, zippers, velcro, etc. It seemed like a great idea and an easy project for my husband and me to tackle! We did end up making two boards (one for each toddler) that were virtually identical except for colors and slight differences on the layout. I am going to break down element by element how we ended up constructing it and how the toddlers liked it!

Tools We Used

I will admit, using power tools scared me a bit on this project. Prior to the project, I had a little bit of experience with drills, but that was about it. That said, I wanted to use tools that were fairly easy to use.

Drill

We used the drill to make holes where we needed them and also to add screws where needed.

Circular Saw

We got one big board and had to cut it in half to make two smaller boards. This was much easier than having to saw by hand!

Router

Router in use by Kristina while making busy boards for toddlers

Post Router added to the aesthetic of these busy boards for toddlers
Top photo is me using the router, bottom photo is the finished edges

Coming from a family of computer techs, the first time I heard this term, I thought this had something to do with Wi-Fi. In terms of woodworking, a router can cut and smooth out edges. Different attachments can make different designs. The boards were so much prettier than just plain slabs of wood after using a router!

Materials

Spray Paint

We wanted the boards to be a pretty color! We used two coats of paint on all wooden surfaces.

Mod Podge

This is something that I ran across while researching busy boards. In short, it can be used as a non-toxic top coat and also as an adhesive. There were stickers and glitter that we put on the board that we painted over with the Mod Podge. It made those materials a little more flush to the boards they were on so little hands couldn’t pull them off!

Zipper

This was one thing that inspired the busy boards in the first place. Our babies loved zippers, especially when getting into their pajamas at night. 

Velcro

Velcro was another thing that inspired the busy boards. The particular velcro we used is a single double-sided strip with one side being coarse and the other side being soft.

Upholstery Tacks

This is what we used to attach the zipper and velcro to the board. We were able to do this by hand, but it may be easier to use a rubber mallet or hammer in some cases.

Door Knob

The particular door knobs we used on our boards were dummy knobs that actually don’t turn. It came in three pieces and just needed to be screwed on the surface.

Tap Lights

These actually turned out to be the big winners of the boards! This was the first thing that both Elle and June gravitated toward. Even when the boards are sitting in the hallway while not in use, Elle and June like to run by the boards and tap the lights!

Door Latch

The particular kind we used could be screwed on the board. This also is pretty self-explanatory for the use — Elle and June like the noise the chain makes for now, but they can work on their coordination later on when attaching and detaching the chain.

Drawer Handles

This is what we used on the little doors on each board. We used a traditional handle for one door and a knob for the other. We used the drill to attach them to each door.

Key with Carabiner

We just got some pretty uncut keys from the hardware store. The carabiners that we used have a screw closure so we don’t have to worry about anything breaking or pinching fingers.

Busy Boards for toddlers
Finished busy boards

Elle and June love their busy boards! The biggest winner of all is the tap lights. They love doing “drive-bys” when running down the hall where we keep the busy boards. We left enough space between some of the elements to add more in the future. We hope to find fidget spinners that are toddler-appropriate and possibly cheap calculators so they have buttons to push.

Let me know if you’ve made your own busy boards. I would love to see them!

Involving Family Members in Pandemic Activities :: Let Them Teach a Class!

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Covid has many of us spending more time at home than ever before, and we’re less busy than we used to be with fewer activities to keep our kids entertained. Add in the fact that seeing family members (especially those who live out of state) has become more difficult and risky, and you have a recipe for boredom and isolation for everyone. 

While we don’t know what our decision will be next school year, we chose to homeschool our kindergarten-age child this year. Due to the pandemic, I know many families have chosen the same or are completing public school virtually. And even for those families whose kids are attending in-person school, other activities and visits with family members have become less frequent depending on individual health situations.

My family has found something fun and educational (win-win!) to help with boredom and to increase family interactions. I wanted to share in case your family might also find this to be a fun, unique, and educational opportunity for your kids. (However, I can’t take the credit, as this idea was suggested to me by my son’s therapist.) Also, let’s face it — another school shutdown is a definite possibility in the winter, so this could come in handy for families who are possibly faced with another extended period with no in-person learning. 

Try a grandparent class!

Twice a week, my son’s grandparents hold a “class” for him. Yep, they are his teachers during these classes — but it’s a lot more fun than it might sound. Classes are usually focused on making crafts, simple educational activities, or physical education. You might be thinking, “How does that work?”

We simply use FaceTime on my phone (I’ll be investing in a tripod soon!), but you could also use Zoom or a variety of other video communication outlets. Each week, we set a time and a class theme. For instance, my son’s grandmother calls her class “Mimi’s Craft Class,” and she plans out a simple craft for them to do together during class. She tells me the supplies needed and we get them ready before class. Then, when class begins, my son’s grandmother walks him through the craft (when to cut, glue, what to draw, etc.). She has all the supplies on hand, as well, so that they can do it simultaneously. My five year old absolutely loves this, especially because he loves crafting right now. An added benefit is that he gets to chat and interact with his grandmother during class — they are bonding and connecting more and he’s learning more about interpersonal interactions (he’s on the autism spectrum, but this is beneficial for any child!).

virtual classes led by family members during the pandemic
My son participating in “Mimi’s Craft Class.” We don’t have a tripod yet, but that would be extra handy!

My son’s grandfather used to be a physical education teacher, so he has held a kindergarten PE class for him: “Pop-Pop’s PE.” He walks him through exercises that they can do together. So easy and fun! Any grandparent or family member can do this. No PE background necessary! 

Crafting classes, PE, and simple educational assignments are probably fun and easy for most grandparents (or aunts, uncles, etc.!) to plan and do with your children. A simple cooking class could also be fun! For older kids, maybe something like a “book club” with a family member could be engaging, or learning unique skills from family members, like knitting.

One simple fall craft my son and his Mimi recently did together: a finger-painted tree!

Be consistent. Treat it like a real class!

I think the key is to make it consistent. Keep a class day and time, even if it’s just once every week or every two weeks. Kids will likely get excited when their family member “class” is coming up! It’s a great way for parents to take a break from teaching, for kids to spend special time with family members, and for them to have fun in the process (and maybe learn some new things, too!). My in-laws always look forward to these classes, and it gives them special time with their grandson. For families who don’t think a regular class is feasible, with the school holiday breaks coming up, this could be something fun to try out a few times during that period.

Do you have any other fun ideas for a family member-led class for your kids? Please share!

Ask the Experts :: Ascension St. Vincent’s Answers Your Questions

We partnered with Ascension St. Vincent's for this article. It is sponsored content.

If you’ve been following along for any amount of time, then you know Birmingham Moms Collective hosts the Bloom event each year for new and expectant moms. But it’s 2020. And virtually everything about this year is different, am I right? Bloom is no exception. Due to pregnant moms being higher-risk and due to social distancing guidelines, Bloom 2020 went virtual. In case you missed it, catch up here

We partnered with Ascension St. Vincent’s (“where babies come from!”) where they recently answered many of our readers’ questions surrounding the birth experience and caring for a newborn.

Labor and Delivery

Epidurals

Many mothers-to-be have questions surrounding the “dreaded” epidural! I never wanted to ask questions beforehand about it because I figured ignorance is bliss, right?! But for those who want to know, Ascension St. Vincent’s is happy to reassure anxious moms.

Katherine Thompson, a certified registered nurse anesthetist at Ascension St. Vincent’s calms mothers-to-be by letting them know it’s a very routine procedure. It is something they do all day, every day. Did you know Ascension St. Vincent’s never uses students or anyone new to administering epidurals? They employ a team of experienced nurse anesthetists whose main goal is making moms comfortable.

Often moms are concerned there will be long-term side effects or back pain from the epidural. That is extremely rare. Many times when postpartum moms come in for their checkup and complain of back pain, it’s usually due to the delivery itself or from hauling around that carseat everywhere!

The benefits outweigh the risks of an epidural, but if you have any further questions or concerns, check with your doctor.

Breastfeeding

When recovering from giving birth and dealing with severe lack of sleep, breastfeeding is often the last thing on a new mom’s mind. And many newborns don’t latch well, are too sleepy, or are generally uninterested in nursing at first. Thankfully brand new babies don’t require much milk those first few days, which allows moms time for their milk to come in.

Increasing Milk Production

Heidi Powell, a registered nurse and lactation consultant at Ascension St. Vincent’s has seen it all and is here to help when you’re in the hospital and once you’re back home. She even has advice for increasing milk production as well as what to do if one of your breasts produces significantly less milk.

The more often you stimulate the breasts (nursing or pumping), the better. For example–in the beginning–aim to remove milk 8-10 times per day for 15 minutes as opposed to pumping 4 times a day for 30 minutes. The frequency trumps the duration. And if one side seems lacking, start each nursing session at that breast. Once you switch sides, continue to stimulate the “slacker breast” with a hand pump or pump an extra five minutes each time. Uneven milk production is very common, but these suggestions can help even out the difference.

Diet

Diet is important, too. New moms need to make sure they are eating enough calories and drinking enough liquids to keep up their milk supply. Adding oats, papayas, and brewer’s yeast to your diet can help as well.

Sleep

Sleep . . . oh glorious, elusive sleep! Most parents are counting down the months until their baby sleeps through the night. In the meantime, Dr. Max Hale, a pediatrician within Ascension St. Vincent’s, offers great sleeping advice for your newborn.

Back is the Best

All new parents want to make sure their babies are sleeping as safely as possible. Dr. Hale says putting your baby down to sleep on his or her back decreases the risk of SIDS by 35%. Also be sure to remove everything else in the crib including blankets, stuffed animals, toys, and bumper pads. Babies can gravitate toward those objects and get stuck, unable to move away and breathe.

Co-sleeping

Co-sleeping, while it sounds appealing when new parents are so tired, is another no-no. Babies need to sleep alone for their own safety.

We’re thankful Ascension St. Vincent’s continues to provide excellent care for moms and babies today and every day!

 

COVID Chaos Changed My Children’s Perspectives for the Better

Birmingham’s Rotary Trail entrance decorated by local florists

I turned around from the driver’s seat and looked at three flushed sweet smiling faces in the back of my car. We had just raced into the school to grab all our books to start teaching from home. COVID-19 concerns had forced school closures and we were now one of literally millions of families who faced a lot of unknowns.

As an owner of a small business, I began to quickly prioritize how would I support my employees, serve my clients, and care for as well as teach my three small children: Caroline (10), Lily (8), and Harrison (5). Speaking with other working moms and female friends, I quickly learned that all our homes had become funnels of distraction, making it even more challenging to focus on any one thing. Trying to be productive at home — with family members twirling in here and there, school papers flying, computers and tablets out on demand, and phones running with online classes — requires high-level concentration. Turns out, our homes are were not set up for managing this new type of whirlwind.
One day I received an email from the CEO of one of my company’s clients. He was kindly checking in to see how our team was doing during all the corona pandemic confusion and he ended his email by asking, “Holly, just curious what have you been learning through all of this?”

“Learning . . .” I thought. “I’ve been doing a lot of teaching and attempting to manage chaos!”

Reminding my fourth grader how to tell the difference in pronouns and synonyms, reviewing my second grader’s multiplication facts, patiently tracing my four year old’s first and last name neatly, educating my husband on how to place a Shipt grocery order, and guiding clients through crisis communications had been the order of the day.

I was working late into the night to answer emails in a timely manner and tackle business projects. I was surviving, trying to keep my head above water with a list a mile long, but as I sat and stared at my client’s email intently, it convicted my heart. When my kids think back on this time in 10 years, would they remember my husband and me spatting about whose turn it was to fix their three homemade meals? Would they remember their parents complaining how much we had lost in our retirement fund or hushing them constantly while we participated in endless Zoom work meetings?

I really hoped that would not be the case. I realized I still had time . . . not to instruct them but for all of us to learn.

I have always been a “teaching moment” type of mom, but I stepped back and realized crossing off tasks, pushing through submitted work to school, and trying to create a structured environment really had turned into barking off “to-do’s”. My efforts may have resulted in some normalcy; however, they were not making the kind of moments I really wanted to create.

Little by little, I asked my kids to watch what was going on around them in their small circles. I told them to write down what they were observing, what others may be feeling. I took the focus off pressing our family forward to an unknown corona ending and took a telescopic dive into asking my kids lots of questions.

My oldest observed that although it was difficult not being with her friends temporarily, it was much harder for a close peer whose family was in the process of moving to a new city and never got to finish out this school year. Her heart hurt for this dear girl because she would not have the opportunity to be celebrated at school with lots of hugs and bittersweet goodbyes. Now, instead of Caroline being focused on herself and her disappointing COVID version of a spring ballet recital, she began to create ways to express to her friend how much she would be missed once she had moved.

Birmingham Ballet’s Outdoor Recital at Aldridge Gardens

My middle child, Lily, watched intently on social media for her tumbling gym to get the green light to reopen. The nightly updates from the owners on Facebook ended in disappointment week after week. My husband and I made it a point to be off our phones and computers so she could watch each time her coaches led Bible studies and, most importantly, shared their hearts on social media. She was glued and soaked it all up like a sponge. The happy child who never shed a tear, cried with them and for them. We had long discussions about running a family business and the government’s role in a health pandemic — heavy stuff for an eight year old. She now looks up to these leaders in her life in a new way.

Lily with her Coach Britten Blackburn after gyms opened back up in Alabama

My four-year-old son, Harrison, who was thriving on running in circles around our kitchen island, ended Skype calls with his teacher saying, “I hope my teacher knows how much I miss her, I know she misses me. I am going to make her a letter and mail it.”

Their observations, combined with down time to watch and listen to the world around them change, drastically transformed their tender hearts. Our prayers at night before now had always included endless “thank yous” for blessings from the day; however, their evening “tuck-in discussions” became longer, focused, and more thoughtful. They asked questions about the restaurant owner who greeted us on the sidewalk while walking by with a plea to please order “to-go” or he may have to close his decade old family business. They shared thoughts about the much-loved babysitter who could not participate in her college graduation.

A transformation slowly occurred; the theme of their nightly prayers changed from them to others. My husband and I were not purposefully training them how to feel or what to say — they were learning by being in a quieter environment and experiencing what others were facing, handling, and conquering. More than achieving good grades during homeschooling or providing our kids with the false feeling that things are fine when they are not — they have watched real-life truths unfold at a young age.

When you live through something not only looking inwardly but at how others around you are affected, you truly learn. Because of the COVID pandemic, my children have gained a new perspective that they will share with generations to come, and for that I am grateful.

Blending Festivals :: Spreading Joy and Acceptance Through Diwali and Christmas

The smell of incense sticks lingering in my house. My mom drawing a beautiful rangoli — “floor art” — at the entrance of our house, draped in her new sari gifted by my dad. Lantern and oil lamps adorning the streets on a full moon night. We are celebrating Diwali — the festival of lights, the triumph of good over evil. I cherish my childhood memories of those festivities.

It has been little bit over nine years since I have moved to the United States. And since then, Diwali has never been the “Diwali” from my childhood. Diwali is quite a small affair here, visiting the Hindu temple and having a get-together with friends.

This time of the season, I wish I was back home. But I am home — this has been my home for nine years. I got married here and my twin daughters were born here — this is their home, their normal. I could either ruminate on what I am missing or create beautiful memories for my daughters, with my daughters, which may be different yet will be the new normal that we celebrate.

My daughters with their tiny hands hold the strings of lights while my husband hangs them all around the house. They sit quietly in a corner wearing their ethnic dress sent by their grandparents, watching me light the clay oil lamp at the entrance of our house welcoming Goddess Lakshmi. They wait patiently at the kitchen while the Gulab jamun cools down. “You look like a beautiful mermaid when you wear a sari,” my daughter Teesta compliments me.

diwali

We use English at home; hence, I translate “Happy Diwali” in Hindi — “Diwali ki Shubhkamnayein” — for my kids and they hug and exclaim in enthusiasm. These moments make me nostalgic for my past and offer the opportunity to let my daughters experience some of what I experienced as a girl.

As their mother, born and raised in India, it is my responsibility to guide my daughters to absorb Indian culture and tradition despite knowing that they will never live in India and they will blend it with their American upbringing.

Christmas is celebrated weeks after Diwali. My daughters, Teesta and Torsha, are first-generation American, and I insist on celebrating the holiday season with similar enthusiasm – adorning the mantle with red and white stockings, baking cakes, and sending out holiday cards to friends and family, decorating our Christmas tree, and waking up with the excitement of unwrapping the gifts underneath the tree.

christmas

“Jingle bells” and “Let it Snow” play in a loop in the car as we drive to take pictures with Santa and then come home to a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows. Although they are two mischievous, naughty girls, we hand them their “good girl” Christmas gifts from their wish list with a promise they will be good next year.

We do not have to be selective about which festival brings us more joy. These two seemingly different festivals, celebrated just weeks apart, give me a chance to teach an important lesson of tolerance, to spread joy and love, to embrace the custom and tradition of their Indian roots, and have similar vigor and vitality for Christmas.

When You Miss the First Four Years . . .

When you miss the first four years of your child’s life, you might look at things a bit differently . . .

You might order four little birthday cakes, light a bunch of extra candles, and sing for every single birthday you didn’t get to sing for.

Older child adoption - making up for lost time with birthday cakes for all the birthdays missed

You might decide to do “half-birthdays” to make up for all the celebrating you missed in those early years.

Older child adoption - making up for lost time by celebrating half birthdays!

You might become that “matchy mama” that you never thought you’d be — on vacation and in Christmas jammies and even on a random Tuesday — because it makes your little one smile SO BIG!

You might have too many photo shoots, and take a million photos and videos of your own . . . you might even fill up your iPhone and computer with memories — because it feels like they’re growing up too fast, and you don’t want to miss a single moment now that they’re here!

You might still pick up and carry your child when they ask at six . . . seven . . . almost eight . . . (I will do it until I physically can’t anymore!) because you didn’t get to hold them as a baby. You might still rock them to sleep in a rocking chair — even if their feet are hanging off the side . . . because there’s no such thing as “too old for that” or “too big for this” when you missed their first four years. 

When you adopt, and you miss the first few years of your child’s life . . . you’ll still have moments when they drive you crazy. You’ll still have times when you need a break, need some quiet, need some space. But you will never take for granted the fact that they’re finally home with you.

You might get choked up when you see a mom with a baby or a toddler. There will be days when you grieve the ages you missed. You might feel like less of a mom when the other mothers talk about the stages you missed. But you aren’t, Mama . . . you aren’t. Because you are doing all you can to make up for those lost days. 

When you miss the first few years of your child’s life — be sure to hold space for yourself and for them when both your hearts ache. Let the tears fall — over the ouchies you didn’t get to smooch, the hard days without your hugs, and the lonely nights you weren’t there to hold them. And then squeeze in some extra kisses and snuggles whenever you can.

I will never get over the days I missed with my little darling, and I’ll never get them back . . . but I will do all I can to fill the days we have together with LOVE. 


Adoption of a child over the age of 2 is considered an “older child” adoption, and it’s something many adoptive parents shy away from. We brought our darling girl home from Thailand exactly one month shy of her 4th birthday. While it was a hard transition, it was also the best choice we ever made! Grief and trauma are part of every adoption (no matter the age), and while I wish we didn’t have to miss a single moment of our little girl’s life, I am so glad we said YES to adopting her. It takes my breath away to think of what we would have missed without her in our lives! She is brilliant, brave, funny, kind, compassionate — and has the BIGGEST heart. I feel so grateful to get to be her mama! 

Are you considering an older child adoption? November is National Adoption Month! Take a look at Heart Gallery Alabama or reach out to Agape here in Birmingham if you are; or visit Adopt Us Kids for a national resource. Considering the international adoption of an older child? Holt International is a wonderful agency that brings families together around the world. Don’t forget to find a TBRI trauma-informed adoption counselor to support your family through the process (especially post-adoption), and check out Empowered to Connect for the very best adoptive parenting resources!

Experience the Magic with E.L.V.E.S. :: Birmingham Children’s Theatre’s Virtual Interactive Holiday Show

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While 2020 has brought lots of disappointments, cancellations, and changes for our kids, Birmingham Children’s Theatre has more than made up for those with its latest offering: “E.L.V.E.S. The Experience” interactive holiday show!

We watched it last night as a family, and can I just say, it was one of the highlights of this entire year. My kids were blown away by the “magic” and are still talking about it nonstop.

Tell Me More!

“E.L.V.E.S. The Experience” is an interactive theatrical Zoom show featuring two funny elves, JoJo and Francis. They guide your kids on a virtual adventure in the North Pole. But something suddenly goes wrong and Santa’s reindeer, toy-makers, and the naughty and nice Christmas list all go missing! 

The elves need your kids’ cooperation to find the missing items and help save Christmas!

E.L.V.E.S. The Experience is an interactive holiday show hosted by Birmingham Children's Theatre via Zoom.

Pre-Show Parental Prep

Once you purchase tickets, Birmingham Children’s Theatre e-mails you a list of items to gather and set up before logging into the show. It took me about 10 minutes to gather and set up everything.

I sent my kids into another room so I could set up the props in various locations like the e-mail said, so as not to ruin the magic and surprise factor for them. It included things like putting a box outside the front door with one green item and one red item from your home and placing a hat in your freezer.

Funny story: another one of the directives is to put something jingly in the oven that the elves “magically” put there for the kids to find later. I hadn’t mentioned that particular directive to my husband and had placed two jingle bells on a cookie sheet for my kids to find at the right time.

During the show, I noticed my husband in the kitchen preheating the oven for our dinner. I freaked out, my arms flailing, and I’m mouthing in a loud silent voice, “TURN OFF THE OVEN!!” I was dying laughing, he was thinking I’m crazy, but I knew nothing would ruin the magic faster than my kids opening up a hot oven to find melted jingle bells! So keep an ear out for anyone else in your home tampering with the magic!

Truly a Magical Experience

This was hands down the highlight of the 2020 Christmas season. I haven’t seen my kids get this tickled and excited about something in a very long time. Every time they were sent on a quest by the elves around our house and discovered the pre-placed items, I heard more giggles, more squeals, and more delight than I could ever have imagined!

At the end of the show, JoJo and Francis thank the kids for helping them save Christmas and promise to leave them a little thank you gift under the tree in the morning. Parents can wrap up a little toy, candy, stickers — really anything — to continue the magic. I just wrapped up some sticker sets with a tag from JoJo and Francis, and my kids went wild this morning.

Overheard Throughout the Performance:

“Hey! The elf knows my name!”

“This is SO magical!”

“How did they do all this magic?!”

“Wow! That’s some magic!”

“This is the magical-est night!”

“Can we do this every year?”

E.L.V.E.S. The Experience - it's magical!

I’m thankful for Birmingham Children’s Theatre thinking outside the box to keep children entertained, engaged, and inspired, especially in this heavy year. Tickets are going fast, so head to their website and grab your tickets today!

Home for the Holidays :: How We’re Staying Healthy and Safe

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2020 can be recorded in history as “a time to remember.” Never did we think back in March of this year that we would still be talking about and navigating through an environment that requires us to “mask up” everywhere we go. And now that the holiday season is upon us, we’re having to figure out how to “celebrate” the most festive time of year.

I recently went into the bank. The teller asked me, “All ready for Thanksgiving?” and immediately an overwhelming feeling of confusion and panic took over me as I realized that Thanksgiving was just over a week away. Not a single plan had been made as to how we would “celebrate” through food and then eventually with gift-giving for Christmas and ringing in the New Year.

Don’t be too quick to count out a virtual holiday.

Yeah, I know! We’re all so sick of logging into Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. But hey, it’s worth it to be able to see family. Our family dinners typically start at the same time every year; 2:00 p.m. is our magical time of day to gather and eat, so why not just add a camera, cellphone, or tablet to the mix? Plan your family feasting time, create an invite, send it to your family members, and have everyone log in. Family prayer, my uncle’s corny jokes, and time together will still happen. Everyone will be safe inside their homes, enjoying their favorite foods and family time. We’ll even consider playing some fun games, like Head’s Up, charades, and Pictionary. Consider creating a Kahoot account and have everyone join in electronically for some fun holiday trivia. 

Let those creative vibes take over!

We’ve managed to be creative and go with the flow for the last eight months, so let’s just keep those fun juices flowing. Even consider a menu challenge or “food war” among each household. Before your virtual gathering, assign each household a theme or cuisine and share your highlights from food prepping and tasting. And don’t forget to share those family stories. Hearing about how far Grandpa Joe had to walk to school when he was growing up or how Great Aunt Joyce made her sweet potato pies, can’t be forgotten.

Last, be sure to snap a quick picture of everyone’s smiling faces. Having a keepsake from this experience is a must. I’m hoping this will be the first and last year to celebrate in this style.

Incorporating this idea into our holiday schedule will help keep our family healthy and safe, as well as give us the chance to see each other, even if from a distance. In time, life will return as we once knew. Warm hugs and physical time together will make a comeback. But as for now, we’re having fun figuring out how to celebrate the holidays the safe way.

Giving and Growing :: How Our Teens Serve the Community During the Holidays

teens serving during the holidaysIt is the season of giving. But, when you have little kids it is easy to get so caught up in their Christmas lists and the “it” toy. Often, I would lose sight for a moment of the “reason for the season.” How do you teach thanksgiving and generosity and service to your kids? How do you explain those who are hurting and in need? I was never good at explaining that there are families needing help to provide food for the holiday meal, let alone bikes, dolls, socks, and coats.

We all try to lead by example. There are plenty of opportunities for families to serve. It can be with your church, workplace, or local nonprofit. We can make service a regular and important part of the holiday festivities. It’s wonderful for little ones to fill a shoebox to send overseas. My kids would eagerly grab change to drop in the ubiquitous red kettle. How do these lessons translate to our tweens and teens? Opportunities for serving change as they grow up, and the lessons learned do, too. 

More Needs Than Ever

The Salvation Army has anticipated they will need to serve 155% more people in 2020 than in past years. Unemployment is up, and uncertainty is too. At the same time, many non-profits, churches, and charities report they are seeing donations decline. The holidays can be a hard season for so many even in “normal” times. 

I am very fortunate to have two unique and special charities in our community that my kids get to be a part of. They are guided by adults, parents, and teachers but are fundamentally led by our teens. Through these programs, young people have learned that it truly feels good to give. Even more so when you have a connection to those you are giving to, either by giving directly or knowing the money you’ve raised is being used to help families in your own school system. 

Christmas Visions

This year the Gardendale High School student council is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Christmas Visions program. The program serves Jefferson County Schools students, and this fundraiser is based in Gardendale. It is the only program of its kind that serves to meet the needs and wants of students enrolled in a Jefferson County school. Over the years, the student council-run program has set higher and higher fundraising goals. They consistently meet those goals and thereby provide roughly 200 students in need with their full Christmas wish lists. Once the financial goal is set, some sponsorship and business donations are made, but the vast majority of the monies are raised by the students. Shirts are sold to the student body and community, loose change is collected, and classes compete to raise the most money.

The classes have gotten creative this year, having to work within Covid guidelines. A car wash recently raised over the $500 goal in donations. A community yard sale is planned as well as a cow patty drop! Mandi Adams, the faculty advisor, said that every school she contacted made requests this year. This is an increase over last year, and she reports the economic effects of the pandemic are a likely reason for the uptick. Individual school counselors submit the lists of needs and wants from the students. The lists are then anonymized and passed to the student shoppers. The students get to spend those generous donations making Christmas wishes come true. They shop for one day, gathering first the needs and then the wants of each child. 

Mrs. Adams says that it makes an impression on the teenagers when the wants and needs iare often the same things — a warm coat or a certain special snack . . . Items that many students would take for granted. Students give and serve selflessly year after year. These typical teenagers are so affected by the needs of their neighbors that they often continue to work to raise money after graduation. Some even return to the school on their Christmas breaks from college to help where they can. Young people, giving to strangers in need. Helping in their community generously, selflessly, and without question. 

RAK Bham

A “Random Act of Kindness” can inspire, encourage, and bless others. But what can youth do to show kindness in tangible ways that can bring a sense of purpose and love for your neighbor in our kids? When Shea Miller’s oldest daughter was in middle school, the concept of “Random Acts of Kindness” was becoming something of a movement. After some thought, they designed a t-shirt to sell with the tag line ”Be nice BHAM” and used the profits to randomly bless others. They would give a waitress a generous tip, pay for groceries, or buy a meal.

Over the years, the movement grew in the Gardendale area, and middle and high schoolers started to get together, selling shirts designed by Miller and then using the profit to buy gift cards. On a designated day in the holiday season the groups will pass out the gift cards to shoppers at the local Wal-Mart, Target, or grocery stores. Many charities focus on those with a specific need, but since we can never know what people are going through, RAK Bham is more about showing kindness to strangers in the moment and paying it forward. 

Making Service Part of Life

Having teenagers is hard. Raising caring, thoughtful, appreciative, generous, and selfless young people is a tall order. As parents we lead by example, of course, but those who surround our kids have influence too. One key to encouraging service is making giving a part of the community and part of their high school experience. Also, letting them know that they can take pride in fundraising and organizing. They will have ownership in a common good that builds kindness, generosity, and caring. Young people are investing in a better future and setting an example as well.

As our kids grow, it’s clear that charity work can be a benefit to a college application or resume, but these service opportunities are so much more. Both Mandi and Shea shared with me that the kids involved in these programs truly see miracles. The miracles that loving kindness and thanksgiving can bring, in our communities and beyond. 

If you are interested is starting a RAK group in your area, visit their Facebook page

If you feel led to give to Christmas visions, there is a gofundme set up for donations. Learn more about the program here.

Grief During the Holidays :: Life After Adult Sibling Loss

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It seems the holiday season is upon us in full force yet again. There are so many things I love about this time of year, from the food to the family time to the special church services; however, the holidays also bring back the now familiar pangs of loss.

Sibling Loss

My family at my wedding in August 2011. Photo courtesy of Jessica Wright Photography

Losing an adult sibling is a lonely thing. It’s lonely partly because it’s not discussed as often as many other losses, but there are so many different types of relationships between siblings that it’s hard to discuss it accurately for everyone, anyways. I lost my older brother, Daniel, in January of 2012, at 26 years of age to cancer. He was just 3.5 years older than me, and we were always close. We even willingly lived together when were in college! Needless to say, continuing family traditions when such a big part of the family is missing is not an easy thing, so holidays can be difficult around here.

I remember going Christmas shopping when I always bought gifts for my mom, my dad, and my brother. I remember having small, immediate family Thanksgiving meals with a random assortment of sides because Daniel was such a picky eater. Now, I shop for one less family member at Christmas. We have a traditional Thanksgiving meal every November. His birthday comes and goes without a phone call or silly Facebook post teasingly calling him “Gramps.”

My kids will create their holiday traditions without ever knowing one of the most important people in my life. November and December are rife with emotions for me, but after eight years, and with God’s grace, I am getting better at handling them.

Acknowledging Pain

Grief during the holidays -- sibling loss
My brother’s headstone. The quote is his own.

I think one of the most important things to know when dealing with loss is that grief must be faced. Many years on the first day of December, I will make time to acknowledge what is missing and let myself feel my emotions deeply. (Does that basically mean I let myself have a good cry? Yes, it does. It’s cathartic and running away from emotions only makes them worse in the long run. It can also harm overall physical health.) Living in denial of deep sadness makes everything harder than it should be, and it robs the present of the joy of happy memories.

Saying and hearing my brother’s name is also beneficial. My family doesn’t shy away from talking about him at our yearly holiday gatherings. We don’t ignore his birthday. We don’t pretend the gaping hole in our family isn’t there. We talk about him like normal. We acknowledge the meal we’re having is absolutely not what we’d be eating if he were still here. My parents keep many pictures of him around, and my girls already know who their Uncle Daniel is, even though they will never get to meet him on this earth. Thankfully, I am able to use that opportunity to talk to them about heaven and how comforting it is to know that he’s happy now even though we miss him.

Recalling Good Times

Performers at the Annual Daniel Helton Memorial Scholarship Benefit Concert in 2019.

One of the most beneficial things for me has been our annual fundraiser for the scholarship that has been created in my brother’s name, given out annually at our high school. On the Friday night after Thanksgiving, Daniel’s musical family and friends all get together and perform in remembrance of him. It’s tremendously comforting for me to be in a group of people brought together by little more than our shared grief. I know that I was the only biological sibling Daniel had, but seeing our friends, especially those who were close to him, helps me feel less alone.

I know that scenario isn’t an option for many who’ve lost siblings, but being around his close friends has been one of the best ways for me to vividly recollect the many good times we had together. I highly recommend connecting with friends of someone you’ve lost if you need help celebrating the life you had before their death.

Celebrating Advent

Photo by Gareth Harper on Unsplash

One last thing I do every year is meditate on the meaning of Advent. As a Christian who has always celebrated Christmas, it’s taken me until my adult years to fully appreciate the season leading up to Christmas Day, known as Advent. This is a season that focuses on fostering a deep longing for God to make all things right, and as someone who has lived through intense grief, this desire is something I intimately understand. So, this holiday season, I will help cook a Thanksgiving meal full of expected dishes. I will shop for my loved ones and probably find the perfect gift for a brother I no longer shop for. I will sit with my grief and acknowledge a birthday that isn’t coming. Most important of all, I will look to the One who brings joy to this world and remember the true reason for this emotional season.

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