Decorating handbags, Patty Elzinga makes lemonade out of lung cancer

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books. I would add: “Oh, the people you’ll meet.”  Such as Patty Elzinga, my latest discovery. I was taken with her upbeat outlook and the parallels in our lives.

Patty with her husband Bob.

The Sarasota Art Center Fabulous Arts Boutique, several weeks ago, produced 2 bonuses. At a jewelry display, I pawed through a basket and found and bought new favorite earrings—brass, hand cut, bent and etched with turquoise. That night we dined with Linda and Bob Salisbury. Linda’s an artist friend with whom I attend boot camp. She influences me to execute deeper lunges. She must influence me  aesthetically as well. She’d visited the SAC boutique before I did and also looked at thousands of pieces. She showed up at dinner wearing a new pendant—the match to my new earrings.

But I digress.

The main bonus came from a booklet on artists included in the boutique. I noticed  Patty’s bio.  She owned and ran hair salons and spas in mid-Michigan but stopped working the day she was diagnosed with lung cancer.  She turned the business over to 3 of her grown children who were already working there. To keep busy during chemo, Patty started embellishing handbags.

I shot Patty an email. Turns out she and husband Bob live in Lowell, MI, a small town near Grand Rapids. They spend winters in Venice, just south of Sarasota. Patty and I met for lunch at Sarasota’s Phillipi Creek. As good as my blackened grouper sandwich was, Patty was better.  She’s my wise, wacky, creative new pal.

Coincidence #1: We were diagnosed the same week in July, 2004.

One of Patty’s embellished handbags.

Coincidence #2:  I advise cancer patients to find a project to occupy them during chemo.  Patty taught herself to bead and began embellishing purses.  The practice has turned into a business.  She creates custom bags for others.

My chemo project was skimming my old handwritten journals and typing entries about our sons into separate files. Along with invaluable Denise Tietze, our then exec assistant, I created separate journals for our sons: their youth through their mom’s eyes. The project had an unexpected benefit. I saw how much needless time I spent worrying. 90% of what I anguished over never came to pass.

Coincidence #3.  Our farm in Charlevoix, MI, is near Friske’s Farm Market, formerly Elzinga Farm Market. Over the years, we stopped at Elzinga’s to buy cherries or cider—whatever was in season. The Elzingas named a beach on Lake Michigan where we enjoyed summer picnics, including watermelon seed spitting contests. (Watermelon seeds? This was a looong time ago.)  Bob’s a distant relative of the NoMI Elzingas.

Coincidence #4:  Patty once worked in fashion. I worked for 3 Saks stores and was a journalist with Women’s Wear Daily.  Early on, Patty owned a ladies’ fashion shop. Returning from a buying trip, she visited a new discount mall.  “I saw the writing on the wall,” she says.  “I couldn’t begin to compete with the prices.”  She put everything in her shop on sale and converted the space to a nail salon.

After staying home to jumpstart 4 kids, Patty and oldest daughter Heidi Christine opened Heidi Christines, a hair salon in 1987.  Their original 2 chairs have turned into a thriving business of 2 salon/spas with 16 chairs in one, 12 in the other, in the affluent towns of Ada and Caledonia, near Grand Rapids, MI.

One of Patty’s favorite photos with her husband Bob.

Coincidence #5:  Patty was so terrified by her diagnosis (lung cancer, 2B, with lymph involvement) she asked her husband Bob to take over her case. I was so terrified by mine (uterine cancer, stage 4, pelvic spread), I asked Burton to take over mine. In both cases, our husbands were diligent and devoted. Almost 14 years later, Patty and I are still grateful. And still around.

Coincidence #6:  Patty and Bob and Burton and I bought places in Florida after we were diagnosed.  Burton and I, in Sarasota.  Patty and Bob, in Venice.  The plan for  their Florida villa: “Bob and I would enjoy each other until I died.  I didn’t die, so we bought a bigger villa.”

Coincidence #7:  We both sought out and were strengthened by survival stories from others.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Coincidence #8:  We both wrote books about our experience.  Hers, Over My Dead Body, is more of an informal thank you to those who supported her and a remembrance for family and friends.

Patty did one thing I wish I’d thought of.  She adored her internist, Dr. Joan Medima, who first diagnosed her. Before her treatment began, Patty wrote her internist  a letter. In part, she said:

I have loved being your patient and having you as a part of my life. I am a better person because of it.  Thank you for being you! I’m sorry you had to bring me the news you did. I know what you had to go through to do so. Wherever I go from here, it will be easier knowing that you are on my team.

I, too, appreciate my internist, Dr. Gordon Moss, who first diagnosed my problem. Also, my oncologist, Dr. John Malone at Detroit’s Karmanos Cancer Institute. I dedicated GodSigns, my memoir about my recovery, to him. He never got to read it. He died from a staph infection before publication.

Coincidence #9:  Patty and I were supported through our ordeals by our faith. Patty writes, “It’s good to be carried by God.  All my life I have had to be in control, and it often didn’t work well.  Giving up and letting God’s will be done is much easier.  Why didn’t I think of this before?”

Aside from creating bags and jewelry, Patty paints.  She’s taking a class to learn to paint portraits and has done images of all of her grandchildren. She downplays her ability. “I’m not good but I’m close.”  She’s most actively creative while dealing with health issues. A reformed smoker, she’s now in and out of the hospital with COPD and emphysema. She keeps her beading supplies organized in plastic bags. They’re ready to go if and when she requires hospitalization.

In her book, Patty provides a bullet list of advice for her grandchildren. One entry sums up her attitude. “If you wait for your ship to come in, it will sink in the harbor. Swim out and get it!”

Thanks for sharing your story, Patty.  Keep swimming.

Patty’s grandchildren displaying the portraits she painted of each one.

Keith O’Neil helps the Indiana Colts win a Super Bowl, then tackles an even bigger challenge: his bi-polar disorder

Keith and Jill O’Neil on the field celebrating the Indiana Colts’ victory in Super Bowl XLI.

Keith was a tough kid and mediocre student.  He was raised in a family of athletes, including his dad, Ed, who played for the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots.  His brother and brother-in-law were football stars, too.  Keith gave football everything he had, even at practice.

While others might sometimes slack off, he says, “I went 110 percent on every snap, every practice.”

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Keith’s frank and compelling memoir, Under My Helmet, focuses on his football career and subsequent bipolar diagnosis.  He shares fascinating insights about the process of going pro.

I knew that no one hustled more than I did. I had to: I played linebacker in college at 6-foot, 225 pounds, significantly undersized for a linebacker in the NFL. I compensated with speed and instincts.” And this:  “Rookie camp is really a tryout but no one calls it that.  ‘Camp’ sounds less threatening, though if you don’t do well, you won’t get asked to attend the main camp.”

Keith became a special teams member and sometime linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys and Indiana Colts, the latter winning a Super Bowl Championship. He played for top NFL coaches Bill Parcells and Tony Dungy.

Though my son Andy once co-captained Cranbrook’s football team, I was his mostly clueless best fan. Who was actually carrying the ball? Why was one play flagged and another not? For clueless spectators like me, Keith’s book sheds light.

Overcome with anxiety after 4 years in the big leagues, Keith quit. In past years, he’d  had acute insomnia and unpredictable outbursts. “At times, I knew something was up with me mentally… I never got to the root of it.  At least in my family, we didn’t talk about mental issues.”

He writes about his close knit Catholic family and his admiration for his father, who after retiring as a player became a coach for college and high school teams.  He writes about unexpected breaks in his own career.

“You never know,” my father had told me, when he encouraged me to stick it out the beginning of junior year of college, when I was all set to transfer because I had been passed over for a starting slot.  And then the guy in front of me breaks his leg.

“You never know,” The Dallas Cowboys scout told me after he spotted me at a game, … even though he was there to scout a player on the other team. And that’s how I ended up in the league. 

“Your beautiful, amazing wife gives birth to a beautiful, amazing boy—a miracle to begin with, even more so when you consider the miscarriage she went through, followed by a year of not getting pregnant—and you figure it’s got to be the best thing that ever happened to you, right?

“You never know.”

Keith’s mood spirals down.  He attempts suicide and lands in a psychiatric hospital. He writes about  years of ineffective or harmful meds, about finally finding a psychiatrist to whom he relates and a cocktail of drugs that works for him.

“Almost everyone in the bipolar community has medication stories to share.  Each individual must go through the grueling process of finding a combination of drugs that works for him or her.”

As I was working on this column, the sports section of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran this headline: “Former QB Rypien struggled with depression.” The AP article, from Spokane, WA, reports the former Super Bowl MVP’s suicide attempt. Rypien suspects his destructive behaviors stem from brain damage from the sport. Like Keith O’Neil, Rypien says, “My story is impactful because people see me in a different light.  I want them to see me in an accurate light.”

I turned to my Online Bible, Wickipedia.  The first paragraph of the first citation: “Professional footballers suffer more from symptoms of depression and anxiety than the general public.”

I met Keith at a fundraiser for Compeer, an international organization which teams mentally challenged persons with mentally sound ones.  This buddy system helps the more challenged partner feel less isolated and provides rewards to his or her partner as well. My dear friend Lynn Buehler directs  Compeer’s Sarasota office. Another friend, Bunny Skirboll, founded Compeer. Keith serves on the Compeer Board.

In his keynote address, Keith mentioned his gratitude to his “beautiful wife Jill.”  After, I sought Jill out  and agreed with his assessment. Caregivers can be the unsung heroes of health crises.  Unlike a physical problem, usually openly acknowledged, a mental health crisis is often kept secret.  Considering the potential for shame and stigma, mental health problems might be even harder for the caregiver. Jill, too, went through a period of depression.

What kept Jill going, she says, was Keith’s desire to get help. Jill’s a nurse, empathetic by nature.  But she knew nothing about mental illness. “I went through a steep learning curve,” she says.  “Keith was scared to death.  I was, too.”  Plus, they were both still grieving the loss of their first pregnancy.  Jill credits “faith and family” for getting them through those first months.

Keith, Jill and their sons.

Two successful pregnancies followed, as did two healthy boys, now 5 and 2.  But Jill says being a new mom as well as coping with her husband’s diagnosis was a challenge.

“We’d come off such a high—Keith’s football career, getting jobs, settling down.  I had to learn about and manage Keith’s illness AND take care of a new baby.  I’m a perfectionist, very detail oriented.  I had high expectations for myself as a mom.  The chaos in our lives was tough.  Not knowing what our lives would look like.  For me, it’s still raw,”

At the end of Keith’s book, he mentions an upcoming 10th reunion of the Colts’ Super Bowl victory.  He’s “not sure” if he’ll attend because “I don’t want to be seen as the sick one.”

I ask: Did you or didn’t you attend the reunion?  I high-five Keith when he says they did.  Jill encouraged it.    “What they accomplished should be celebrated,” she says.  “I told him if we went and it was stupid, we wouldn’t have to go to the 20th.”  They both had a fine time.

Keith has come to accept the way he is.  He writes, “Knowledge is power.  When I think back to the undiagnosed me, I see not only a very anxious, troubled person but a very confused one.  I had no idea what was going on.  That makes the terrible feeling so much worse, like you’re in a dark room, only you can’t feel the floor or the walls and you’re not sure if there’s a ceiling or any way out.  Now, at least, I understand why I am the way I am.  That brings me peace.

“At the same time, the label of being bipolar– having bipolar—and knowing I always will be can bring me down.  It’s not all gone.  It never will be.”

Keith began his talk at the Compeer luncheon with some startling statistics.  1 in 5 Americans has a mental health disorder.  1 in 5 people who are bipolar takes his or her own life.

Click the logo to visit Keith’s website.

Keith started the 4th and Forever Foundation to bring awareness to mental health and fund research for mental illness.

Thanks, Keith, for the courage you’ve shown in sharing your story.  For the hope you bring to others.  Thanks, Jill, for your remarkable support.  May you both continue to see, and shed, the light.

A retired Marine, deputy sheriff Ray Pendleton takes a spiritual journey into Judaism

Ray Pendleton at the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem during his recent visit.

I don’t know too many Marines who become sheriffs who become Jewish. Okay—I don’t know any. 

When I heard about Ray, I had to meet him.  Thus I found myself at Starbucks, sipping a frappuccino with a mild-mannered guy who can be tough when need be—and a recent landsman (Yiddish for fellow Jew).

For 20 years in the Marines, Ray was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and at camps in CA and NC.  He was a small arms and drill instructor and assistant game warden. In ’96, he left the military, enrolled at the U of NC and earned a degree in criminal justice. From childhood in Sarasota, Ray also had a sensitive side and enjoyed the Ringling Museum. Later in college he got a special kick out of his art appreciation class. His teacher, who’d been with Sarasota’s Ringling College,  showed slides of artworks Ray recognized.

Ray Pendleton ready for his day job in his sheriff’s department uniform.

In 2003, Ray joined the Sarasota Co. Sheriff’s office patrol south desk in Venice, FL. He fields calls on assaults, theft, threats, burglaries and scams.  He especially enjoys helping elderly fraud victims recover money stolen from them. One hysterical woman came in and said she’d just wired $4,000 to a scammer. Ray got the receipt, called Western Union’s fraud line and canceled the transaction.

His success that time was rare, Ray says. “Most victims wait too long to ask for help. Many elderly victims of sweepstakes scams are so convinced they’re winners they keep sending money even after I warn them everything the scammer told them was a lie.”

Ray’s parents and grandparents practiced Christianity. As an adult In Sarasota, Ray attended an evangelical Christian church. His daughter, Rhea, thought her father should broaden himself. For one birthday, she gave him a Tanakh, which he recognized as books from the Christian Old Testament he had known. Reading it, Ray decided to attend nearby Temple Emanu-El.

“I really enjoyed that,” he says.  “Especially the music.”

Ray’s first Jewish service was on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. He went to church as well that weekend and was surprised there was no mention of the Holocaust. Ray continued to attend Sabbath (Friday night) services. “I sat in back so if I made a mistake, I wouldn’t embarrass myself.”  He stayed after for the Oneg Shabbat, or social hour.  Renee Gold, past president, Michael Richker and other temple members befriended him.

Rabbi Brenner Glickman suggested Ray attend conversion classes. In 2015, Ray and 2 others dunked under water 3 times as part of the conversion ceremony. Siesta Key’s Gulf of Mexico was  the mikvah, or ritual bath. The service was attended by Ray’s daughter Rhea, whose gift inspired the moment, and many friends. Maggie Mandell and Anthony Koliday converted as well. Maggie and husband Brad welcomed everyone back to their Siesta Key home to celebrate.

Ray’s colleagues are supportive. They’ve volunteered to cover his shift so he can attend Friday night services. One fellow deputy is Jewish.

Traditionally, the Jewish religion doesn’t proselytize. For centuries, antisemitism was so prevalent that Jews in many parts of the world had to practice in secret if at all. In some places, conversion was illegal. Even today, most conversions derive from  interfaith marriage.  Hence my surprise at Ray’s story.

Ray describes his wife Lee, also raised Christian, as “agnostic.  A great person though not religious.”  Lee works in custom cabinetry as a designer/estimator. Lee neither encouraged or discouraged his conversion. “Her attitude was I should do what I want:”

Ray has helped develop a security program for the temple. He researched online what other institutions were doing came up with a plan for dealing with an active shooter incident. He joined the security committee at the temple. “Houses of worship are different than other places groups gather. Synagogues and churches are supposed to be open and welcoming, places you go to forget the craziness in the outside world.”

Rather than metal detectors and wands, the temple uses “reasonable precautions.” They contract with a private security company and off-duty sheriff deputies. During services, a guard is on duty in a marked car with lights flashing. Fourteen temple members, men and women, are Shomers (watchful eyes), responsible for noticing anything suspicious.  Ray oversees them.

Ray getting into his special uniform as a volunteer with the Israeli army, helping out at a base in the Negev Desert.

Ray is just back from 3 weeks in Israel.  He volunteered with Sar-El (Volunteers for Israel) on an IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) supply base, helping to inventory equipment for reservists.  He also volunteered to raise the flag in the morning.

“It was an honor to raise and salute the Israeli flag, the symbol of an amazing country and people. The flag represents not just a 70 year history, but the struggle of a people to be free and secure.”  Each morning after the flag raising, the 12 volunteers in his group were led by their two IDF group leaders in singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.  (Hatikvah is Hebrew for “The Hope.”)

Ray spent a 3rd week touring Israel. A favorite visit was the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. He toured both the Jewish and Arab sides with a Palestinian guide, ate falafel from a street vendor and drank “the best coffee in Israel.”


Ray doesn’t find his conversion as remarkable as I do.  Seeking some deeper meaning, I ask: Why did you start attending Jewish services in the first place?   He shrugs and says, “I really don’t have a coherent answer.  It’s just how it worked out.”

Glad it did, Ray.  Thanks for your service.  And for attending ours.

After shooting his age many times, Conrad Freeman’s latest par is Parkinsons

Conrad Freeman relaxes at the fire table on the lanai with Dakota


Conrad and Linda Freeman show off a whopping pike caught in northern Ontario.

One of my heroes in Florida is a man nicknamed Connie, a master of challenges on the golf course.  Now 80, he’s shot his age or better 75 times.  In light of how he’s handling his latest challenges, he’s an even bigger hero.

Having played golf for most of my adult life, I can confirm how hard it is.  Unlike tennis, where an orb blasts toward you or just pops over a net, requiring you to run and dart and lunge, the golf ball just sits there.  Granted wind, water and sand add trouble, but the golf ball waits patiently.   Nonetheless,  striking that 1.66” round missile is beyond confounding.  I was consoled to hear Conrad admit, “Golf’s the hardest game in the world.”

For most of his life, Conrad has managed to romance a golf ball the way Richard Gere romanced Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.  Conrad first shot his age at 66. (The youngest golfer ever to accomplish this was 59; the oldest, 103.)  In April, 2004, Conrad scored nine birdies in one round for a 65!  (7 below par)  Conrad was club champion at Laurel Oak Country Club in Sarasota “8 or 10 times.”  (I can give you chapter and verse of the one time my team won the ladies draft.)  Conrad won an international tournament on the torturous Tom Lehman-designed “Teeth of the Dog” in the Dominican Republic three times.  (He and wife Linda also won a couples tournament there.)

Oversized drivers are the norm these days. Some come with threatening names like Epic and Rogue. Conrad claims he owned the first oversized driver. At 18, he and  friend Tom Eidsvold, 15, played in a week-long tournament at Alexandria Golf Club in MN.  They slept in their car and cleaned up by diving into a lake.  Conrad stored his driver in the trunk.  One night it rained.  The club got wet and swelled up.  It was the only driver he had.  He used it to finish the tournament.  (But no W.)   He and Tom grew up and joined Alexandria and still play there together as they do at Laurel Oak CC in Florida.

Conrad’s sons and grandsons all love golf.  Grandson Will, 17, plays in tournaments around the US and  hopes for a college golf scholarship.

Conrad’s dad introduced him to golf, age 10, at Alexandria GC near his home in Morris, MN, a town of 4000.  Conrad was hooked.  He played for his high school golf team at Pomme de Terre, a public course—and the only course in town.  He won “many” small tournaments around the state, a lucky thing since, as he recalls, “I needed the money.”  He earned around $100 per tournament—“pretty good money back then.”  He also loved basketball.  At 17, he became an All-Conference basketball player in MN.

Conrad’s grandfather, an immigrant from Iceland, was a farmer.  He lost his land in the Great Depression and got a job auditing banks. Along with his grandfather, father and brothers, Conrad purchased a small bank in 1945. Ten years later Conrad bought the family out. He continued to run the bank along with Linda and his 3 sons, commuting 50 miles a day. Linda planted flowers and opened accounts and  became a securities broker. They sold the bank in 1995.

Son John Freeman and Conrad frying walleye caught by Conrad and Linda in Canada.

Conrad and Linda have been married for 30 years.  It’s a 2nd marriage for both.  When they first wed, Linda, who loves to fish, promised to learn golf if Conrad would take her on 2 fishing trips a year. They’ve enjoyed each others’ passions ever since.

About 10 years ago, Conrad could no longer execute the chips and putts at which he once shone.  He began having trouble with balance. The couple saw several specialists, but it was about 5 years before a true diagnosis was made. Conrad has Parkinson’s disease. He still loves and plays golf but has eased up on his personal expectations. Though he doesn’t have the typical tremor, he has trouble walking and sometimes stumbles. (Being tall, he has farther to fall.)

Conrad and Linda have faced this challenge together. He says, “I couldn’t do this without Linda.”  They have joined Parkinson Place in Sarasota, a multidisciplinary care center started and run by Marilyn Tait, whose late husband had Parkinson’s. The center offers 80 free programs a week in exercise, nutrition, voice, care giving, etc. Conrad attends regularly.

Parkinson’s patients tend to lose their ability to project their voices. Conrad’s  Loud Voice classes paid off last fall. He and Linda had driven 500 miles to Red Lake in northern Ontario to catch lake trout that spawn in the shallows in fall. It was so cold and rainy that for 3 days they couldn’t fly to Sandy Beach Lodge on an island where they always stay. They consoled themselves in the nearby mainland town’s only pub.

One night in the pub, a young man Linda describes as “in high spirits” noticed Conrad’s t-shirt.  It bore the phrase UM YA YA, the official cheer for St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, which Conrad attended and still supports.  The young man, wearing what Linda calls a “ratty” t-shirt, said to Conrad, “Man, I love your t-shirt.  I really love your t-shirt.”  He repeated his compliment several more times, then suggested to Conrad that they trade.   By that point, Linda recounts, everyone around them was listening.

Conrad, who wore a second t-shirt underneath, stood up, took off his shirt and handed it to the young man.  He said, “If you’re going to wear the shirt, you’ve got to know the fight song.”  Using the loud voice he’d practiced at Parkinson Place, Conrad belted out the entire song.  “A huge cheer erupted at the end,” Linda says.  “Somebody sent over beers.  People clapped Conrad on the back, saying, ‘Good job, man!’”

I know firsthand how tough Parkinson’s can be.  My sister Anne and I watched our mother decline from its complications, afflicted by tremors, mood swings and confined to a wheelchair.  But Conrad and Linda are doing their best to understand, deal with and rise above the symptoms.

Linda says, “My nursing skills have kicked up a notch.  But the disease has brought us closer together.  We’re really a team.  Conrad’s disease is a lesson in life.  We never know what the future holds.  Up north, some of Conrad’s golf buddies don’t play with him anymore.  Others do.   They realize it’s about being together, not about winning a dollar.

“I’m so proud of Conrad.  He keeps on plugging, moving forward.  He gets frustrated sometimes, but we can talk it through.  We find something to laugh at every day.  We take pleasure in little things, like sitting at the fire table on the lanai with a drink or at the fire pit at the lake with the family.”

Burton and I were lucky enough to enjoy that fire pit a few years back.  At a birthday party for Conrad, we savored a Freeman fish fry.  The appetizer was crisp bacon strips fried in a huge pan over an open fire; the main course was Freeman-caught fresh fish, fried in fat left from our bacon orgy.

Now Conrad has bigger fish to fry in the health department.  But Linda says, “Conrad doesn’t let his disease define him or defeat him.”

I should say not!  A couple of weeks ago, Conrad played in the Laurel Oak Cup golf tournament for Special Olympics. He teamed up with son Stefan, grandson Will and BFF Dave Battey.  Daughter-in-law Michele was their scorekeeper.  The team won 2nd low gross.

Keep swingin, Conrad.  You have a Connie’s Army of fans cheering you on.

Stefan, Will and Conrad enjoy winning 2nd low gross in the recent Laurel Oak Cup golf tournament for Special Olympics.



Ted Klontz on the surprising truth: Something you do today might be exactly what someone else really needs!

A NOTE FROM SUZY FARBMAN—I often write columns about people who make a difference for others. Psychotherapist Ted Klontz made one for me. He was a lifeline when I was in crisis. Recently, Ted’s been conducting seminars in listening. I hope to attend one before long. Enjoy the following excerpt from Ted’s current newsletter about individuals who’ve made a difference for him.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
William James

Act as if …

Ted Klontz. (Click this image to visit his website.)

by Ted Klontz

A young man I’ll call Carl who had just completed a listening seminar I’d conducted for the Gates Scholars at Cambridge University, came up to me after most of the other participants had left and said, “I just want you to know that last year, when I attended the workshop that you did here, it changed my life. This workshop has saved my life.”

I was surprised and shocked. I thanked him for letting me know. He then turned away and left.

Though nothing more was said, I had a sense that I knew exactly what he meant. I have had a few of those moments in my life:

  • When one of my college professors, Mr. Stouffer, encouraged me to apply for a graduate scholarship, which I was lucky enough to receive.
  • When another college professor, Mrs. Johnson, said to our class about me “Class, I think you are looking at a United States Senator in the making”.
  • When Father Leo Booth, while delivering a talk to a thousand people, wandered down the aisle of the auditorium, stopping when he got to me, looking me straight in the eye, putting his hand on my shoulder and said as if I was the only one in the room, “You understand that religion and spirituality are not the same thing, don’t you?”
  • When a Lakota man came up to me after one of my presentations, took my hand and said, “We believe that every time and everywhere a person feels connected, to anyone or anything they are in a spiritual moment.”

Every one of those moments was life-changing. Gave and saved my life in one way or another.

I intuitively knew that Carl was telling me that he had experienced one of those moments. That’s all he needed to say. I know sometimes there are no words to describe those experiences. The focus of the workshop had been on listening. Carl had practiced listening and had been listened to in deep and meaningful new ways. A woman I have never met but quoted often, Mary Lou Casey, once said that what people need most is a good listening to. I believe that. I try to practice that. In other words, we are not broken, so we don’t need to be fixed and we are not sick, so we don’t need to recover. We are human beings having a human experience.

If you have been following my musings as of late, you know that I have been challenged on how to be more of a solution for the difficult times I believe our country and world are experiencing.  Conducting different kinds of listening workshops is one of them (most are free, costs underwritten by the Reid Family Foundation). I’ve struggled wondering what effect my doing so little compared to what needed to be done, could possibly have.

This young man, a future leader of his country, reminded me that those people (a few mentioned above) who had touched me had no way of knowing the effect of what they had done. So, if he had decided to choose life because of some experience I was able to provide, maybe that is good enough. But I was to receive more.

Following the workshop, I was invited to be a part of a small audience to hear a presentation by a representative of the Gates Foundation. The title of the presentation was “What If Gender Equality Could Change the Face of Poverty.” As I sat waiting for the presentation I will admit to some skepticism as to what I was about to hear. What turned out to be the purpose of the gathering was the unveiling of a new Gates Foundation world-wide initiative. During that presentation I heard of the multiple scientific research studies showing evidence that as gender equality moves towards reality, the levels of poverty in study after study, diminished in significant ways. Pulling all that data together and creating a strategy to support and enhance those programs is the initiative the Gates Foundation will be pursuing. I found the presentation to be surprisingly inspiring and hopeful. It took me out of my micro-world into a space that gave me hope for my and my grandchildren’s world.

These are people doing things, real things, to make a difference.

The speaker was asked about the current climate in America: the apparent hostility for such concepts of gender equality at the highest levels; a climate that is given credit for the spawning of the recent mobilization in America and across the world, of the “Me Too, “Times Up”, “Black Lives Matter”, and “No More” movements. In response, the speaker reminded the audience of Melinda Gates’ comment that “just because it is hard, doesn’t mean we aren’t going to make it happen.”

After the presentation there was a reception. The speaker was told by one of my workshop’s students of an exercise that they had done in my workshop. The speaker commented something to the effect of “I love that idea, I want that to become a part of our process”.

So maybe, sometimes, even little people like you and me, can make a difference to the big picture that we can’t imagine being able to do. So, keep plugging away. Brighten the little corner where you are. One can never tell where that light will light. Being the Mr. Stouffer, the Mrs. Johnson, the Leo Booth for someone who needs one. Saving someone’s life perhaps.

Mark Francis helps challenged children succeed

Mark Francis with family and friends getting ready for a football game. (Mark is the tall one!)


Mark Francis holds “Expanding Boundries,” a painting by Toma Yovanovich commissioned by the Division of International Special Education & Services (DISES).

Flying from DTW to TPA*, a man sat next to me in a window seat, economy comfort.  A world traveler, he was hoping for an upgrade. No wonder—he was 6’5”.  As luck would have it (mine, not his), no first class seats were available.  I got to meet an interesting guy.   And learn a little about educating special needs children.

Mark’s story is one of hard work, being in the right place at the right time and seizing opportunities.  It reminds me of a legend in our family.  40-some years ago, my husband was in the Palm Beach airport. From a payphone, he called his uncle Max, who lived nearby, to say hi.

“Burt, I hear you’re doing great,” Max said.

“I’ve been lucky,” Burton said.

“I want to tell you something about luck.  This is important.  Write this down.  Do you have a pencil?”

Burton said no.  Max told him to find one and come back.  Burton left the receiver hanging, ran to the gift shop, bought a pen and paper.

“Okay, Uncle Max.  Got it.”

“Here’s what I want you to know about luck,” Max said.  He paused for dramatic effect.  “Luck is on the side of the able navigator.”

Burton and I have quoted Uncle Max ever since.

Mark Francis would likewise prove an able navigator.  He grew up “an inner city kid” at 6 Mile and John R in Detroit.  (I know the neighborhood.  Teaches you to be tough.)  He served in the Army, got out “with not much direction,” went to community college on the G.I. bill.  He became a social worker, working with special ed students.  At the time, kids with IQs from 35 to 70 were deemed “trainable.”  (Today termed “moderate.”)

“I fell in love,” Mark says.  “The kids were so genuine, so honest.  If they loved you, they LOVED you.”

9 years later, Mark went back to college to get into administration.  He soon became principal of a special ed center in Michigan.  The center received awards for innovative programs.  One of which he’s especially proud: His center was the first to get a special ed student admitted into community college…

Timmy was in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy.  He wanted to go to the college his brother had attended.  He was denied.  Mark protested, “He has a paraprofessional with him.  Nothing forbids it in the rules of admission.”  Mark recalls, “We went round and round.  Finally, I said, ‘Either you can try admitting him or we can take it up with the Office of Civil Rights.’”  Timmy was admitted.  (After a semester, he chose not to go back.)

Mark continued in administration.  9 years later, hoping “to have a bigger impact,” Mark became county director of special ed for Lewis Cass, Michigan’s “smallest, poorest district.”  But he was living away from home.  His 2 daughters were in middle school.  “They needed their dad around.”  He moved back home and became director of student services for a district near Flint, MI.

Mark’s next post was a giant leap.  He became Director of Special Ed and oversaw funding for Wayne County, then the 17th largest education district in the country.  Federal funds of about $.5 billion ran through his offices.  He planned to retire 2 ½ years later at 55 and work on a golf course.

In 2010, preparing to retire, he attended a conference on exceptional children.  He sat in a board meeting.  “I’m probably ADHD,” he says, “so I wasn’t listening.”  He noticed a mention in the conference program of a session that seemed intriguing.  He left the meeting to attend a discussion about international work.

“Wow,” he thought.  “This is what I want to do.”

While working in Tobago, students showed Mark how to play the steel drums.

Mark joined the Division of International Special Ed and Services (DISES).  At the end of the week, he went home and told his wife, also a special ed administrator, “I’m going to Latvia.”

“Where’s Latvia?” she said.

Mark boned up on Russian phrases and left for Latvia.  “I knew nobody and nothing.  I realized Latvia had declared independence but didn’t understand they hated the Soviet Union.  They’d passed a law that to move to a new job there you had to read and write Latvian.”  (He didn’t.)

Mark attended his first international conference.  The ministers of education and their staffs all wore headphones for translations.  “It was a turning point in my life as a professional.”

After, Mark noticed a man from Jerusalem who was DISES president.  He’d been a resource at the conference.  Mark sent over a drink, “not realizing he was a Buddhist and didn’t touch alcohol.”  The man came up to him.  Mark expressed interest in DISES.  Later that year, Mark was asked to become treasurer.  “Of course,” he said.  (Today Mark is president.)

Mark now runs his own consulting company, FYI-CSI (Francis Young International—Consultants in School Improvement).  Company motto: “Our passion and mission is to educate all children.”  Mark has traveled to, trained and influenced special ed policy in Kuwait, Tobago, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Jamaica and Bulgaria.  He’ll visit South Africa this summer.

The toughest part of Mark’s job?  While he works with bureaucrats to change policy, when governments change, policies change.  Hard won programs get dropped.  The best part? “It’s cool meeting people all over the world who will be friends for life.”

Mark’s youngest daughter is getting her PhD in physical therapy.  She’s headed to a mission in Haiti.  “She sees how much I love to travel.”

Does he recommend a career in special ed admin?  “When I worked in the schools, I always told people, ‘If you’re getting into this as a power gig, you’re in the wrong place.’  You end up apologizing for things you had no part of.  If parents had a bad experience fighting with a school, they may not trust you even though you had nothing to do with what happened.  I tell them, ‘I’m sorry for what you went through.  Help me understand how we can move forward for your child.’”

On the other hand, the rewards are significant.  “I always get more from the kids than I give.  I’m blown away by how hard they work to do things the rest of us take for granted.  Balancing a check book, going for a walk, cooking dinner.  I watch how they struggle and persevere.”  Mark, an athlete, has coached Special Olympic athletes in basketball and hockey.  “They worked as hard as I did or harder to succeed.  Many got as upset as I did when they lost.”

Rewarding experiences?

“As a principal, I never believed in suspension.  When there was a discipline problem, I detained students in my office and stayed with them.  One boy I sat with for 4 hours kept saying, ’You suck.’  A couple years later, I was in a local grocery store at night.  A tall young man with shouted, ‘Mr. Francis.’  I was worried he meant to jump me, but he said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’  He was the boy from my office.  He introduced me to his fiancée and told me he’d started his own landscaping company.  It was great seeing how he’d turned his life around.”

Mark worked with the late mother of a cognitively impaired young woman who still keeps in touch.  His student has grown up and married.  She reaches out to Mark on FB messenger on the anniversaries of both her parents’ deaths.

In the 1990s, in a move called deinstitutionalization, many psychiatric facilities around MI closed down.  They were replaced with community mental health services, shifting costs from state to federal budgets.  Mark says interest is growing in reopening long-term residential facilities.  “We can’t just keep throwing persons with mental health issues into prison where they become either victims or perpetrators.  Prisons don’t give support.  The homeless can’t get help.  Vets with PTSD are struggling and often homeless.  Mental health hospitals, if run correctly, are a better approach.”

Working with behaviorally challenged children can be difficult, Mark says.  “We are human beings with our own issues.   But we need to try to be consistent, especially with tough kids.  Listening is just as important.  These kids often lack effective strategies to deal with their problems.  I work with staff to help them read between the lines.  Children with behavioral issues often bring anger to school  but don’t have the communication skills to tell us what’s really bothering them.”

Thanks, Mark, for being an able navigator in challenging waters.  For making the world a more comfortable place for all children.

*Detroit to Tampa

Graci McGillicuddy envisions kinder, gentler foster care

Graci always loved to care for children. She’s the big sister pushing her little sister’s stroller in Bogota.

The foster child system has problems. That’s widely acknowledged. But why would a perfectly comfortable couple who live in a beautiful home with well-adjusted and happy children and grandchildren care about what happens to foster kids?  And put their money and energy where their hearts are?

A model of the Campus.

That’s the question I posed to Graci (rhymes with posse).  She and Dennis McGillicuddy are spearheading the All-Star Children’s Foundation Campus, “a refuge for children, a place where healing occurs, hope is restored and spirits are renewed.”  Through innovative science-based research, the Campus of Hope and Healing aims to change the way foster children are treated in Sarasota and around the country.

Part of the answer is gratitude.  Gratitude for the way Graci was raised by “amazing parents who led by example.”  The way she, in turn, raised her children.  Part of the answer is her background as a teacher.  And part is a great big heart.

“Integrity is my driving force,” Graci says.  “My father always said: honesty is like pregnancy.  You are or you’re not.”

While Graci enjoyed “an idyllic, principled childhood,” she considers growing up today “more difficult.”  She blames the breakdown of the family, increased media exposure to violence and gratuitous sex, and the Internet.  “My kids grew up with The Brady Bunch, Ozzie and Harriet, Mary Poppins, Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo.  Where are they now when we need them?”

Daughter Aly’s a stay-at-home mom.  Aly has horses which she uses to help disadvantaged kids, including football players, with brain damage.  Son Dennis Jr. is a senior scientist at the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  He’s an expert in open ocean algae and red tide.  His mom, with characteristic wry humor, says, “I keep his PhD thesis in our guest bedroom in case any of our guests forgot their Sominex.”

Graci was born in Bogota, Colombia, where her father was a successful distributor of GM products.  “When Castro started practicing guerrilla warfare, cars were being overturned and there was violence in the streets,” the family moved to Barranquilla, Colombia.  A week before Graci’s 10th birthday, the family left Barranquilla.

Their American school only went through 8th grade.  “Our parents would have had to send us to America to boarding school during our formative years.  They couldn’t do that.  We left everything behind to start a new life in America.  Our dad tried to be frugal until he could find a job or buy a business.  Hence our meager home, but one full of love and hope.”  (Her dad did buy a business and flourished.)

Graci and Dennis in 1962.

Graci graduated from public school at 16.  She and Dennis met at the U. of Florida at the beginning of their junior year and married at the end of that year.  “We were 20 going on 14.”  They both finished college and Dennis attended law school.  Graci taught school and went to grad school.  She became a stay-at-home mom 2 years later when Dennis Jr. was born.

As a young teacher in the small town of Brooker, FL, Graci drove 26 miles each way to school.  She taught 7 6th graders and 15 5th graders (fewer during strawberry picking season).  Students’ IQs ranged from 80 to 130.   “Every day in that 4-room school house was an opportunity to make a difference.”    When one student had trouble seeing the blackboard, Graci asked a visiting nurse to check his sight.  After testing almost legally blind, he got glasses.  “He showed a 100% turn around.  He didn’t know he couldn’t see.”

How did she manage to teach such a diverse group?    “I invented as I went along.”

Since many students came from homes with no electricity or water, no less TV or newspapers, she brought papers and periodicals to class.  Many had never seen an escalator or elevator.  Graci took them, 2 at a time, to the public library or the local department store.  “Every day was a wonderful challenge.  How could I prepare them for life?”  She invited students home for dinner.  “When we sat down, Mr. McGillicuddy pulled out my chair.  And he didn’t start eating until Mrs. McGillicuddy did.  It’s so important for adults to realize children model everything we do.”

For 2 boys with low IQs, she gathered job applications.  Filling them out was their reading homework.

When her students had trouble understanding fractions, Graci brought in Moon Pies and M&Ms.  She cut the Moon Pies into halfs and eighths.  She asked, Who wants one-half of a Moon Pie and who wants one-eighth?  Everyone chose the latter.  “When they realized they had to share their candy with 8 students, it was amazing how quickly they got fractions.  Every day was rewarding as I saw the light shine in their eyes, feeling accomplished.  I think of my kids often and wonder where they are now.”

Looking back, Graci says, “At the time I had no idea what I was doing.  I had to think creatively. Now I see I was role modeling my parents.  They never told me what to do.  They led by example. They showed me my talk and my walk must be the same.  I never wanted to disappoint them.”

In a 1986 case that received national attention, 18-month old Shannon Nicole Cook was found beaten to death outside a rural hospital near Florida’s Gulf coast.  While hers was one of about 135,000 child abuse cases in the state that year, the story shocked Floridians.  Graci was so moved that instead of jewelry for her birthday, she asked Dennis to donate money to help spare other children.  She committed herself to being a voice for children.  She’s been that voice ever since, serving on local and state boards advocating for abused children.

Graci and Dennis teamed up with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to form the All Star Children’s Foundation.  All Star purchased property for a “campus of caring” in Sarasota.  Annually, up to 100 children from disrupted families will be able to live with their siblings and recover from trauma in a residential setting.  The McGillicuddys hope the effort will become a model for foster care everywhere.

Graci offers some startling statistics.  400,000 U.S. children are in the foster care system.  Every 10 seconds, a report of child abuse occurs.  80% of prisoners were abused as children.  77% of children who die from abuse in Fl. are less than 4 years old.  50% of siblings are separated due to a shortage of foster care homes.  70-80% of children involved in human trafficking were in foster care.

When children are first removed from home, it’s a “very traumatic time,” Dennis says.  The campus of caring will provide a facility to nurture children until they’re ready to return to their parents or be placed in a more permanent foster home.  Through John Hopkins, All Star will benefit from the latest brain research and provide tools to follow children in the foster child system. The McGillicuddys are actively seeking donations for the All Star Children’s Foundation $13 million campaign.

Graci and Dennis don’t just give generously but show up at fundraisers around town.  Though they keep a lower profile, Dennis is part of the Mack family, Florida’s version of royalty.  (Ancestor Connie Mack was a pro baseball player and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, with 5 World Series.  Mack relatives served in the U.S. Senate and Congress.)   Dennis, who was in cable TV, and Graci favor organizations involved with education and with Sarasota’s bustling live theater scene.

When this dynamic couple  makes up their minds, they make things happen.  As Graci puts it, “When it comes to something I care about, I really want people to be engaged with the vision and the mission.”

Graci’s background as a daughter, a teacher and mother energizes her passion.  Her coffee mug reminds her of her purpose every day.  It’s printed with Gandhi’s words, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Research shows childhood experiences affect brain development.  With proper care, the effects of early trauma can be overcome through neuroplasticity, the ability of brain cells to change.    If Graci has anything to say about it, problems like the recent disaster in Parkland, FL, will diminish.  God willing.

For more information, go to AllStarChildrensFoundation.Org.

Thanks, Graci, for caring.  And sharing.

Graci, Dennis and their family today.