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Before I tell you about my amazing experience volunteering as a photographer – yep, a photographer – at a local event for individuals with multiple sclerosis, I want to do a shameless plug for two volunteering opportunities that are coming up…and I need you to come out and volunteer.

Servathon DCOn Saturday April 16th Team Year of Giving will help Greater DC Cares.  We’ll most likely be assigned to a local DC school or public park.  Click here, sign up and choose to join a team.  Then when prompted with the list of available teams, scroll down to the bottom and you should find Team Year of Giving!

Hands on DC Work-A-Thon: Similar to Servathon, this is a large city-wide initiative that focuses on improving DC Public Schools.  Click here to join…be sure to join Team Year of Giving!

 

Dr. Byrne, who turned 60 on this day, spoke to the audience on the power of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Speaking of volunteering, my most recent volunteer outing was with the National Capital Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis SocietyA Day of Healing was a half-day program that was offered, free of cost as I understand it, in conjunction with the local YMCA for people in the DC area living with MS.  An autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, MS affects approximately 300,000 people (mostly women) in this country.

 

I arrived a few minutes late, having promised earlier that I would arrive by 10am.  I somehow got stuck in the middle of a road race and couldn’t get unstuck for about 30 minutes.  Thankfully I had given myself plenty of time to get there.  When I finally did arrive I was greeted by Emily, a senior communications manager for the MS Society.

 

Adaptive yoga was a popular session

The day’s program started with a light breakfast, followed by an opening ceremony and group meditation led by Dr. Hugh Byrne who is an expert in mindfulness – the art of bringing a direct, non-judging awareness to our own experience, moment-by-moment.  I think this is mostly done through meditation, but it seems clear that you can do this throughout your day as well.

 

I was instructed to try to get some photos in the opening session of Dr. Byrne speaking and leading the group meditation.  First of all, I got to tell you that Dr. Byrne is your man if you want to meditate.  I wasn’t even really trying to meditate, remember my task was to capture images, and I was like a baby being lulled to sleep by his calm British accent.  But no time to relax, I have to get some photos.

Photographing people meditating is really awkward…second only to covering a funeral probably.  You have a sea of attendees all motionless with their eyelids closed; resting like heavy clouds.  The worst thing probably, besides the occasional hotel staffer who would make some noise, was the sound of me snapping pictures!  Anyway, I tried to be respectful and got through the session.  I don’t know if they will be able to use them though because basically it looks like an audience full of bored attendees who have fallen asleep!

 

Art proved to be a very relaxing activity.

Later the attendees had the opportunity to attend two of three break-out sessions that focused on yoga, nutrition and art therapy.  Somewhere in the mix there was a lunch too where Dr. Byrne would deliver the keynote address and talk about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and how it can positively affect those living with MS.

 

I weaved in and out of the break-out sessions trying to get good photographs despite the blah yellowish-gold colored rooms that were backdrops to the images I was to capture.  What is it about hotel conference rooms that dictate that they be painted this terrible color anyway.  All the while I have to be mindful of those with an orange circle on their badge.  That meant they didn’t want to be photographed.  Don’t tell anyone, but I’m color- blind.  But I did the best I could!

 

Some people literally rolled up their sleeves and got dirty too!

Back at the lunch I set down my Nikon for a while and enjoyed the spread of food (who says there’s no free lunch!) and concentrated on Dr. Byrne’s presentation.  Let me tell you that I am not someone who is into meditation and yoga.  The only thing worse than sitting still for me is sitting still and getting blood work or a cavity filled (sorry Dr. Robinson!)  But I will say that I really enjoyed Dr. Byrne’s presentation and did allow myself to relax some too.

 

According to our keynote speaker, subjects in a recent MBSR study reported improved memory and empathy while reducing stress.  Now what was really astonishing was that when they did MRIs of these individuals the participants in the MBSR program showed increased brain density in the areas that deal with cognitive learning, compassion and introspection.  Furthermore they experienced a thinning of the brain matter that relates to stress and anxiety.  Nobody in the control group experienced such changes.  Now that is pretty phenomenal.  You might make me a believer out of this after all.

 

Adaptive Yoga Session

There were other impressive studies as well such as one done by researchers at UCLA that showed a slowing of the progression of HIV in patients who practiced MBSR.  Dr. Byrne, who was celebrating his 60th birthday on this day, left us with one clear message:  “Attitude is everything.”  What is the attitude that we bring to our current situation?  I am a big believer in the power of positive thinking and attitude and couldn’t agree more with his emphasis on this point.

 

If you would like to help the MS Society by volunteering or making a donation, please visit www.nmss.org.  And for those of you in the DC area, come out and join them at Walk MS on April 9, 10th and 16th.  Click here for more details.

 

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Blog post by Maria D., a Kindness Investor from Washington, DC.

Photo: Maria D.

Meet Alex.  She’s a vibrant, young woman, full of life and energy.  She’s lived in Australia, Oregon, Chicago, and attended undergrad at Northwestern.  Alex has a passion for grapes, which is what has led her to her current gig as Director of Marketing and Communication for Washington Wine Academy, based out of Arlington, VA.

But it wasn’t a smooth transition – she was an unemployed, “freaking out” new graduate “loafing” around Oregon and came to VA on a whim to take a wine certification class after working at Winestyles in college.  Her instructor at WWA saw something in her that he wanted to snatch up, and hired her back in April 2010.

Alex’s gamble of moving out East from Oregon seems to have paid off as she loves her job – wine, people, events, what’s not to love?  Which brings us to her $10.  She knew immediately how she’d be spending it: “mmm, a giant coffee and a breakfast sandwich” while working her company’s event this weekend, a 1K Wine Walk.

When I asked her if she needed anything, she quickly responded, “No thanks, I’m perfect!  Well….(she hastily recanted) I could use an extra day before Monday!  Can you guys help me with that?”  Probably not…but thanks for your infectious smile and boundless energy, Alex!

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Today marks the first day of giving for our newest Kindness Investor from Seattle: Petra.   I spoke to another future Kindness Investor earlier this week.  His name is Michael B. from Connecticut and he will start his week of kindness investing on January 5th.  Slowly I am getting people to join this movement; a seven-day, seventy dollar investment that has the power to change an unemployed person’s perspective on life through kindness.  If you or someone you know are out of work and want an opportunity of a lifetime, drop me a line.

Today’s recipient is one whose story touched me tremendously.  I was in Manassas, VA visiting my good friends Thomas and Tressa.  It was their beautiful baby girl Tegan’s first birthday.  Well, I guess she already had a birthday last year…a real birth day…anyway she turned one!  While I was there I met a friend of theirs named Jen who teaches at the same school where Tressa teaches.  I decided to give her my $10.

Our conversation was quite typical at first.  We talked about her job as a high school biology teacher.  I learned about her experience volunteering in Ghana with an ophthalmologist.  “I did eye exams and distributed glasses to local communities,” she explained.  “It completely inspired me!”  It inspired her to pursue other dreams and that is why next year this 30-year-old Pittston, PA native will leave her lesson plans on photosynthesis and Mendel’s heredity research for a new career in medicine.

It’s not a surprise that Jen is going back to school when you learn that she is the faculty member that overseas homecoming, student council, prom, quiz team, etc.  Yep, she’s definitely an overachiever.  My friends tell me that she is a karaoke wiz too!  “I know the lyrics to just about any song from the late 80s and early 90s,” she says beaming.

Then I asked a question that completely changed our carefree conversation, “Are you married, do you have kids?” I asked.  There was a brief silence and she responded that she was a widow.  I offered my condolences and she explained that her husband, Army 1st Lt. Todd J. Bryant, was killed on October 31st of 2003 in Fallujah, Iraq when an improvised explosive device (IED) hit his Humvee.  The 23-year-old was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas.  A graduate of West Point Military Academy, Todd’s death came just 52 days after being deployed or as Jen put it to a journalist once, “55 letters later.”  “And we were married just ten days before he deployed,” she told me managing to keep her composure.

She shared with me the moment that she learned the news.  “I was teaching at my school,” she began to say, “when I was visited by an Army general and chaplain…”

I was speechless.  I just wanted to give her a big hug.  In a matter of minutes I felt like I knew Jen for years rather than the handful of minutes we had actually spent talking to each other.  And although I never met Todd, I can assure you that he was nothing less than extraordinary.

I have to be honest I couldn’t stop thinking about Todd when I got home later that evening.  I had so many questions and turned to the Internet to find out more.  He quickly becomes more than a casualty of war but a bright young man who liked In-n-Out burgers and making people laugh, who dreamed of raising a family with his soul mate and pursuing a career in government where he could effect real change in our country.  He was a husband, a son, a brother and a friend.  He would have been my friend.

There were also comments from those who never knew Todd but reached out to pay their respects to a family that understood the meaning of  service.  Todd’s parents were former military officers and his brother Tim is currently a Lt. Col in the U.S. Marine Corps serving in the Marine Expeditionary Unit  and sister Tiffany, a 2000 graduate of West Point herself, served as a Captain in the Army before becoming a teacher.

You’ll even find a hard to put down book entitled In the Time of War by Bill Murphy, Jr. that focuses on Todd and his fellow graduating class from West Point.  I got the book and have read several chapters already.   It has several heartfelt excerpts of letters that Jen wrote to her husband and Todd’s farewell letter to Jen.  I can’t remember the last time I cried from reading a book.

It was fitting I thought that she decided to use the ten dollars to buy items for a care package that the student council members at her school were preparing to send to troops stationed overseas for the holidays.

Todd J. Bryant 1/14/80 - 10/31/03

We live far away from places like Fallujah, Iraq and Helmand Province, Afghanistan and sometimes we take for granted the sacrifices our brothers and sisters in uniform make for us.  I dedicate this blog post to the memory of Todd Bryant and encourage you to take a moment of silence right now and pay your respects to Todd and all of those who have lost their lives serving their respective countries.

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Did you participate in Pay it Forward Day yesterday?  I did…I gave $10 to Rachel, a 22-year-old who just graduated from American University with a degree in graphic design and photography.  Here story coming on Day 352!

Today…we travel south to the picturesque town of Charlottesville, VA.  The town of 50,000 is located smack in the center of the Commonwealth of Virginia along the Rivanna River, a tributary of the James River.  It’s about 120 miles from Washington, but somehow we took the most backward way possible and spent 3+ hours getting there.  

So my brother, sister-in-law and I were going to meet up with my cousin Doug and his daughter Chelsea…what does that make us, cousins once removed, second cousins, anyway.  My dad also drove down from Pennsylvania.  Chelsea is a graduating high school senior and is scouting out colleges which landed them in at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  They live in Colorado so we don’t get to see them that often, although come to think of it I have seen Doug three times this year, but anyway, you get the point.  They come in to town and we all thought it would be a good idea to meet up.  And my cousin Dianne was driving in the next day too.  It was fun spending time with family.

Anyway I found a family having a picnic lunch – it was a perfect afternoon for that – right on campus before the football game. 

Tyler is a freshman at UVA and his family is down visiting him from Northern Virginia…close to DC.  He grew up in Herndon, VA…I also lived in Herndon for a while.  Small world.

The 18-year-old economics major says that my cousin should choose UVA.  “It’s great here,” he said as he helped himself to some potato chips, “freedom is the best part!”  I can’t think of a more beautiful place to explore that freedom.  The campus is stunning.  The town is quaint and charming.  “And we’re in the top 5 in the country for soccer,” Tyler adds.

I felt a little like I just crashed their family picnic…which I did, so I tried not to stay too long.  I gave Tyler the money and he said he was going to buy some music with it.  “Probably some punk music.  My favorite band is Sonic Youth.”  

Tyler and his family enjoying their picnic.

Before I left he did have something for me to add to the Lend a Hand initiative.  “I could use an internship in the DC area for the summer.”   Hopefully somebody will see this and give this promising young man a chance.

On Tuesday I got this update from him via email:

I ended up ordering one of my favorite albums- “Psychocandy” by The Jesus and Mary Chain. I’d never gotten around to buying a physical copy of it before.” – Tyler S.

He won’t be able to make the Year End Celebration because he has a final exam that day.  Although we’ll miss him, it’s probably a wise decision.

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I was attending a training seminar at the Hilton Hotel near the King Street Metro in Alexandria.  I had some roof leaks the night before during a heavy downpour and I ended up getting no sleep.  I arrived right at the time it was starting.  Hmmm…do I sit at the front and hope that helps motivate me to stay awake, or do I try to hide in the back, I thought.  I chose the front, although that ended up being a poor choice because I ended up surrendering at points to the inner need to sleep.  

I felt terrible…I was really interested in the subject matter but I just could not fight the narcoleptic impulses that pulled my eyelids downward.

Tiffany sent me this photo of herself.

The person sitting next to me at the conference was Tiffany.  She works as the Director of Philanthropy at a VA based nonprofit.  Originally from the DC area, Tiffany moved to Alabama for three years but returned recently.  “My parents and two brothers live here, so it’s nice to be back in the area,” she told me.

We chatted at the breaks.  She even offered to nudge me if I slipped into a slumber.  At the end of the day I asked her to take my $10.  She did and the fun began.  We talked about a lot of things; however, the thing that I could not get past was her unique obsession with hedgehogs.  Yep, hedgehogs.  Now, I think people often interchange hedgehogs and porcupines, but I’m going to assume that her infatuation is in fact with the hedgehog (Erinaceinae).

She has a hedgehog collection which started on a missionary trip she took with her father to Romania.  “This guy had 200 figurines and he gave me one,” Tiffany recounted.  She’s got them from about 20 countries although she was quick to point out that, “There not on display!”

It gets better though.  She later bought a live hedgehog in North Carolina and named him Darcy after the Lost character.  Well, this gets fuzzy (no pun intended) here but she transported Darcy to Virginia which may or may not have been legal.  I did a little research and found that there are about a half-dozen states that do not allow hedgehogs, however, I didn’t find anything related to Virginia or North Carolina that prohibits them.  THEN she decides she has to sell little Darcy and sold him on craigslist!  Well, before you go commenting that you can’t sell animals on craigslist, there is a little loophole.  She actually didn’t sell Darcy, she sold the cage and accessories and gave Darcy away to a veterinarian student.  I hope they didn’t use Darcy for lab work.  Tiffany had thought of this as well.  “There was one stipulation, no dissecting,” she told me.  

Hedgehogs apparently make good pets.  “You don’t have to walk them,” she said.  “And he was really cute and stayed up while I studied, they’re nocturnal, and he would run on his little wheel.”  The drawback she told me was that her clothes started to smell like hedgehogs.  She smelled fine when I met her though!

Tiffany has crossed paths with hedgehogs in other periods of her life.  Her sorority “little” had one too!

In all fairness, let me tell you that Tiffany is totally normal and even told me that she doesn’t know why she thought of the hedgehog when we were talking.  It definitely made for an interesting and educational chat though!

Oh, and remember that trip to Romania where the whole thing started, that was through Oakseed Ministries.  They help abandoned children and the poor throughout the world.  Tiffany donated her $10 to the organization.

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Hey, so yesterday I totally screwed up on my twitter account.  I thought I was sending a private message and apparently I broadcasted my mobile number!  Ooops.  Thankfully LilaScot noticed it and sent me a message to let me know.  Thanks!  I got it taken care of now.

One of my favorite pubs, Ireland's Four Courts in Arlington, VA. (photo: Reed)

So today you are going to meet five amazing, intelligent, beautiful people.  With a description like that they could only be one thing…that’s right Steeler fans!

Dave, Julie, Cathy, Scott and Brandon were all watching the Steelers game at one of my favorite pubs: Ireland’s Four Courts in Arlington.  All of them but Brandon were clad in their Steeler jerseys and shirts.  If any of you are wondering what to get Brandon for the holidays, I’m guessing that a Steelers jersey would be much appreciated!

Some of them live here in the DC area, others live in Pittsburgh and Cathy came all the way from Panama City. 

From L-R, Cathy, Scott, Brandon, Dave and Julie. (photo: Reed)

I tried to figure out how everyone knew each other.  So Dave and Scott went to middle school together at Eden Christian Academy.  Julie and Scott are dating and I think Cathy and Dave are too….they actually met playing World of Warcraft online.  Hey, maybe Ashanti will meet someone there too….he used to be a big fan of the online game. 

I commented on Brandon’s hat and learned that he actually bought it in Germany.  “So I was there for Oktoberfest with Julie and Scott,” Brandon told me.  “I have a big head and it’s not easy to find a hat that fits…so when I found this one I got it!” 

All five of my new Steeler friends agreed to put their $2 share of the $10 toward their bar tab. 

I offered to put something on the Lend a Hand section for any of them and got some interesting requests.  Cathy would like to meet the Steelers’ all-pro safety Troy Polamalu.  In fact she said that she bought Head & Shoulders 2 in 1 shampoo just because his commercials for it!  Advertising works.

Brandon would like some help finding a job as a research analyst in the criminal justice field.  The 25-year-old lives in Northern Virginia and has a degree in public policy specializing in criminal justice. 

My new football friends hanging out at the Four Courts. (photo: Reed)

Dave joined in and said he would like some Steeler tickets!  And if you donate some tickets to Dave, add an extra ticket for me!!!  I’ve never been to a game in Pittsburgh.

Well the Steelers went on to trounce the Browns 28-10.  Hey, catch the Steelers this Monday night take on the Bengals!  I’m thinking about going to the Pour House to watch the game if you are in the DC area and want to join.  Who knows, you might even get ten bucks!

UPDATE: 11/20/2010

I just got an email from Cathy…I was right, they are dating, in fact they are engaged.  And guess what, she told me that Julie and Scott have just got engaged as well!  Congrats guys!

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This Sunday is the 10th of October.  Inspired by the Year of Giving, a guy named Howard Wu created an event, Give a Stranger 10 Bucks Day.  Howard thought that the perfect day to do this would be October 10th since it is 10/10/10.  Why not join me and Howard and give $10 away this Sunday.  Click here to go to Howard’s event page.  Like the Worldwide Day of Giving, I encourage you to leave comments here or on the Facebook page about your experience.  Good luck!

Ernest has been out of work for nearly five years. (photo: Reed)

On Day 280 I saw Ernest holding a sign on the side of a very busy intersection in Virginia.  Born in Alexandria, VA, this 51-year-old used to work for the Alexandria School Board, but he has been unemployed for the past five years.  He now lives in motels.

“I started panhandling about a month and a half ago,” Ernest tells me.  “I was working on and off for a moving truck company.”  Now he stands on the corner of Lee Highway and Fairfax Road holding a sign that says, “I am homeless.  Does it hurt to give to someone in need.  Please help me if you can?  God bless.”

He says that on a good day he brings in about $90.

Now divorced, Ernest has a 30 year-old-son, two grandkids and three stepchildren.  “I try not to be a burden to any of my kids.”  He says that some people he knows don’t know that he is homeless, but admits that “the truth will set you free.”

“I’m not learning too much out here,” he confesses as a pick-up truck whizzes by him pushing him up against the guard rail.  “You get all kinds of people out here.”  A lot of people show him compassion and offer him some help, but others taunt him.  “You know some guys say stuff like, ‘Hey man you look healthy…get a job!’  I’m like, at least give me a smile or a wave or something.”

He says that it is really hard for him right now.  “I would much rather have a job.”  He would like to find work as a handyman, custodian or maintenance man.   

Although he says he is not learning much, I did find one thing he has learned.  He figured out where the best corner to stand was.  “I used to stand across the street and a few other places, but this has the most traffic,” he explains.  I was shocked that he chose the spot he did because there was only about 18 inches between him and the passing cars.  I jumped over on the other side of the guard rail while I spoke with him because I didn’t feel safe standing where he was.  

Ernest put the $10 I gave him toward the cost of his room that night.

Ernest used the $10 to pay for a motel room that night. (photo: Reed)

Before leaving, we swapped telephone numbers in case someone reading this would like to contact Ernest about a job.  I learned that in Arlington County if you fall below a certain economic indicator the county supplies you with a cell phone and a basic minutes plan.  This gives homeless individuals like Ernest a way for family, friends and potential employers to locate them.  Awesome!

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