Pam Hawn helps level the playing field for homeless kids

Click this image of the Hope4Communities website to learn more about this grassroots program changing lives every year.


Pam Hawn and her daughter Kaylie.

It was spring of 2009.  The economy was sinking and the Hawns’ pool service business was sinking with it.  “People were worried about feeding their children and keeping roofs over their heads.  Not about cleaning their pools or fixing their pumps,” Pam says.

Pam was worried, too.  She and Mark had a blended family of 3 school age kids.  Fall was approaching.  How would they afford the medical check-ups, backpacks, clothes and supplies of sending their kids back to school?

Pam had served homeless people, through her church, since she was 13—in NY, where she lived when she was young, and now in Sarasota, where she and Mark had met and settled.   She volunteered for a food pantry and a clothes closet and on Thanksgiving.

Pam was sitting in a Bible study class watching a DVD teaching adults to think outside the box.  She gazed out the window, distracted.  “I was stuck in my private pity party when I had a sudden wake up call.  What about the homeless moms and dads I serve?  If I was feeling anxious, how must they be feeling?  I felt like God was telling me to step in.”

Pam tried to argue with God.  It was too late in the season; there was no time to organize; she didn’t know what she was doing.  “If you’ve ever had one of those conversations with God, you know you lose.”

At first, she says, the project “felt like putting together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle without a picture.”  She started by thinking about what she did to get her kids ready for school.

Rows of backpacks ready for children.

She asked her home church to sponsor a day she called Back to School with Hope.  She invited agencies that worked with the homeless to spread the word.  The church recruited medical professionals and volunteers and gave out gift cards from Payless.   That day in August, about 200 kids and 200 volunteers showed up.

“I was standing at the front door with my pastor, watching.  My pastor asked: Did you have any idea it would turn out like this?  I just shook my head, no.”

Pam kept at it, serving more families each year.  Last August, in its 9th annual Days 4 HopeHope4Communities served 2,324 kids.  The program involved 31 churches and 13 campuses and took place over 3 weekends.  Most schools in Sarasota participated, and some in Manatee.

Hope4c consists of an army of volunteers on different levels—a working board of directors, liaisons in each specialty (medical, dental, photography, etc.) and coaches.  Last August, 3200+  volunteers pitched in.

Pam sees the Days 4 Hope as an opportunity for groups and individuals to get to know homeless families and develop ongoing relationships.  Hope4c trains  volunteers to make sure those relationships are  safe,  They teach volunteers not to share personal information such as their address or last name.  To keep their involvement generic.

Such as?

“What do you like to do?”

“”Dance.”  Okay response.

“’Where do you dance?”  Not okay.

The first year of Hope4c, Pam met a single mom, Susan, and her son Christoper, who was in middle school.  “When they walked into the church, Christopher shot me a dirty look.  It was obvious his mom dragged him there.”  The following Thanksgiving, Pam served dinner to Susan and Christopher and sat with them.  That Christmas, she dropped off a present.  The 2nd year, Christopher came “willingly” to the back-so-school program, but at Christmas couldn’t be found.

Pam later learned they were on the run to escape an abusive relationship.  When she heard they were back in town, she called.  She wanted to drop off a Christmas gift, a Bible.

“When Christopher saw me, he called ‘Miss Pam’ and came running up to hug me.”

The YMCA gifted Susan and Christopher a scholarship.  Christopher took part in the Kids Fit program.  He was invited to speak at a YMCA program.  Christopher graduated high school and joined the marines.  He and his mother still come and serve at Hope4c events.

Pam told me about Barbara Banks, a talented Sarasota photographer (you’ve seen her photos in my columns—here’s one example from last year), who volunteers at the Church of the Redeemer.  After kids receive free haircuts from professional stylists on Days 4 Hope, Barbara takes school pictures.  She photographed a young girl and offered to shoot one of the girl and her mother.

As the pair left, the mother handed Barbara a note.   “I’ve just been diagnosed with brain cancer and given 6 months to live.  My daughter doesn’t know yet.  This is the first photo ever taken of me with my daughter.”  Barbara kept the note as her screen saver on her iPhone.

“I get it now,” Barbara told Pam.  “It’s not about using the best lens or the finest paper and ink.  It’s about making a difference for the rest of a child’s life.”

At Laurel Oak Country Club, the ladies’ 18 hole golf group holds a fundraiser every Christmas.  Last December’s luncheon was organized by my friend Patty Chaplin, a fan of Pam and Hope4c.  (You met her last year, as well, in this column.)  I was unable to play that day, but to support Patty, I attended the luncheon.  As luck (LOL) would have it, I sat next to Pam.

Pam’s decision to work through her own personal crisis by helping others reminds me of something Oprah said at the recent Golden Globes.  When speaking about  trauma survivors, she said, “One trait they seem to share is the ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning.”

Thanks, Pam, for the brighter mornings, and futures, you’ve created for so many.

A girl admires the new look after having her new haircut.

Julie Taubman made the world a brighter place

Julie Taubman outside Detroit’s old train station.

Julie was a collage of contradictions.   A gourmand who loved Taco Bell.  A style setter who took labels off clothes and turned her twin sons’ baby teeth into earrings. A wealthy woman who cared about the underdog.  An architecture buff who prized dilapidated factories.  A talented photographer.  Consummate host.  And for me, a good friend.

Julie Taubman

Julie’s funeral took place on the birthday of her adored father-in-law Al.  (Sarasotans might recognize the Taubman name as the co-developers of UTC shopping mall.)  The funeral fell in the middle of my recent 4-day annual visit to Miraval Spa in AZ with my daughters-in-law.  I fretted over what to do.

Finally, I asked myself: WWJD?  I knew she’d say, “Are you kidding?  Stay with your family.”

Fortified with tissue, I live streamed the funeral.  Some highlights…

Big brother Duke Reyes referenced Julie’s decision to install lighting around the Yamasaki-designed sanctuary of Detroit’s Temple Beth El (where the funeral took place).  After, when Julie and husband Bobby drove by, she wisecracked, “I can’t believe it took a shiksa to shed some light on a shul.”

Stepson Alexander recalled his mother Linda’s insistence he eat healthy food.  When he dined with Julie for the first time, she asked if he’d like Taco Bell.  He said, “I began to think divorce might have its advantages.”

Julie and Bobby met on a blind date, Alexander said.  Bobcat (Julie’s nickname for him) confessed he’d been on about 50 blind dates.  Their son Theo (a magnate in the making) concluded, “That’s a 2% rate of return.”

Daughter Gogo (Ghislaine, 16) shared a letter she’d begun to her mother while she was sick and never had a chance to read.  With remarkable composure, she related how her mom taught her to “never second guess my gut.”

Gallerist Terese Reyes spoke of her aunt’s fondness for “weird” people.  Of  her  inclusiveness and creativity as a host.  Julie would seat the art director next to the security director from the Met, Terese said.  For her niece’s 30th birthday, Julie riffed off Terese’s long dark hair, hanging dozens of black wigs from the ceiling.

Rabbi Joey Krakoff recalled a time when the Taubman plane was grounded due to weather.  Julie jumped out, broke off icicles, and used them to make Bloody Marys.

A word about Julie’s personal style.  (Who am I kidding?  I couldn’t do it justice in 1,000 words.)  Until she underwent chemo, she had a mane of wavy red hair and long legs about which I once said, “God sometimes really gets it right.”  Her clothes could be oversized, undersized, torn, folded, twisted—always unique and quintessentially chic.  To her twin sons’ military-themed bar mitzvah party at an all-but-abandoned factory, Julie  wore a red fur heart-shaped shrug.

Julie’s Bloomfield Hills, MI, home overflowed with objects she prized.  A distorted portrait of her by world famous artist Francesco Clemente hung among many by less known artists, including Detroit’s Nancy Mitchnick.  Nancy told me, “Julie didn’t care what anyone thought of her taste.  When she loved something, that was IT.”

Julie left no surface unturned.  Art was everywhere.  Drawings even leaned against the wall under the powder room sink.  The ceiling of her living room was dotted with colorful “pills” by Cranbrook Artist-in-Residence Beverly Fishman.  (Julie was an avid Cranbrook supporter.)  With white sweeping roofs and curved glass walls, the dramatic home she and Bobby recently created in the Hamptons looks extraterrestrial.

Julie was more than a patron.  She was a photographer and historian.  She spent 7 years cruising around Detroit photographing old, crumbling factories and homes and getting those images ready.  (Off-duty policemen accompanied her in dicier neighborhoods.)  The result: a stunning (and heavy) book, Detroit: 138 Square Miles.  In her acknowledgments, Julie writes, “…listen to the stories only ruins can tell.  They tell us a lot about who we were, what we once valued most, and where we may be going.”

One of the many neighborhood photos in Julie’s book.

Spending so much time away from the D, I didn’t see Julie as often as I’d have liked.  (And she wasn’t big on email.)  But I treasure the times we did share.

Julie, Bobby, Gogo and twins Theo and Sebs visited our farm in NoMI in summer, 2013.   Julie mentioned she was working on a film about Elmore Leonard.  The  best-selling author of Get Shorty  and many other crime novels, Leonard lived in Birmingham, MI.  Determined to get him to write the forward for her book, Julie made several fruitless attempts.  She finally won Leonard over when she showed up at his door with his daughter-in-law and a half gallon of rose.

I mentioned my regret at never having met the famous author.  He’d—not surprisingly—become her friend.  She was working on a film about him.   It was typical Julie—to jump into something she knew nothing about and be confident she could pull it off.  Julie said Leonard dined with her family about once a week, on Thursdays.

I said, “If I were ever in town…”

One Thursday, on my way from the airport, I called.  Join us, Julie said.  Not only did I score a photo with the world-famous author, who died months later. I got to enjoy his and Julie’s sparring about politics over a delicious dinner. And I drove Leonard home.  My car reeked of smoke from Virginia Slims.  But it was Bucket List worth it.

Several years ago, before anyone realized Detroit’s cool factor, Julie scented its potential.  W Magazine did a fashion shoot in the D.  I wondered how on earth that came about.  I soon learned.  Julie was friends with the editor.

Julie was also close to gallerist Suzanne Hilberry and art critic Marsha Miro.  The threesome decided Detroit needed a contemporary art museum.  They made it happen.  MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit) began organizing radical exhibits.  That led to NY Times coverage.  Emerging artists started checking out the city, seeing the factory spaces available, cheap, and moving to town.  An exciting art scene began to thrive.

Malcolm Gladwell regards leaders as Influencers or Connectors.  Julie was both.

The last time I saw Julie, I had a chance to thank her for the difference she’d made in my once downtrodden hometown.  Her energy at that point was focused on staying alive.  But she heard me.  Julie was a catalyst not only for change in Detroit’s image, but in the way Detroiters feel about ourselves.

Recently Burton and I saw Paul Anka at the Van Wezel in Sarasota.  He talked about an encounter he’d had with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas.  Sinatra said, “Kid, you’ve written songs for everyone else.  When you gonna write one for me?”  That night Anka went back to his hotel room and penned the lyrics that sparked a resurgence of Sinatra’s career.  That song was played during the recessional for Julie’s funeral.  It was perfect for the occasion: “My Way.”

At one point, Julie was pondering a message with which to sign her book.  She considered using the phrase “Rust in Peace.” I don’t know how many books she signed that way.  (Ours says, “With much love and gratitude.”)  I do know this: Julie was a Supernova.  A dazzling star who burned out way too soon.

Julie, for those you left behind, you’ll forever be a shining, sophisticated, creative force for good.  In our hearts, you’ll never rust.

Karen Schloss Heimberg and many more help each other in the wake of California mudslides

You can’t see her Karen’s face in this photo, because she was too busy working when news photographer Mark Murray visited this construction site in 2010. At the time, she was all the way across the country in Massachusetts helping to rebuild an African-American church that was torched in a hate crime. Wherever she goes, Karen likes to work with a wide diversity of other volunteers. Her co-worker, at right in this photo, was the Rev. Hillary Chrisley, a United Methodist who also came from Santa Barbara.

“When something terrible happens, I’m not the kind of person to sit around,” Karen Schloss Heimberg says.  In 2001, watching the collapse of the Twin Towers, she switched off her TV and drove to a blood bank. In 2010, when three men torched a black church in rural Massachusetts, she traveled across the U.S. with others from Santa Barbara, CA, to volunteer for the work crew.

Karen and husband Richard run a construction company in Santa Barbara.  With the recent mudslide following the Thomas fire, the largest wildfire in California history, the Heimbergs were evacuated from their Montecito home.  They’ve been staying in a hotel.

Several days ago, employee Scott Van Pelt called.  He asked to borrow Richard’s truck.

“Sure,” Karen said.  “Why?”

Scott had spoken to a friend of a first responder.  The fireman said he and his colleagues had been getting plenty to eat.  But all carbs.

“These guys stay in top shape,” Scott said.  “I want to take them some fruits and vegetables.”

“I’m going with you,” Karen said.  A couple of hours later, they’d spent $1700 at Costco.  They dropped  off the produce with a band of firefighters who were “so appreciative.”

“I started thinking,” Karen says.  When Karen starts thinking, action ensues.

At first, Karen thought she’d continue to nourish the fire fighters.  She soon realized they were “inundated” with support.  Who else, she wondered, could use help?

She heard the Water District had a lot of “stressed” people working in the field to locate and fix water and power pipelines.  She learned the Sanitation District was working around the clock checking manholes and pipes, digging trenches.  Problems needed fixing before gas could be turned back on and toilets flush and residents return to their homes.

Karen had found a need.  A way to help. She put the word out.  Friends and strangers volunteered.  Karen developed a spread sheet of people willing to donate money, cook meals, shop for foods.  Her ad hoc group is now supplying healthy produce to about 70 workers in the water department and 20 sanitation workers.

She says, “I’m overwhelmed by the generosity of people willing to write a check to little old me.”

Wherever Karen see groups of workers, she stops to see if they’d like healthy produce.  The day we spoke she’d visited the LA county sheriffs’ department to say thanks and drop off carrots and tangerines for “people who are protecting our space.”

What a mess! That’s Anne’s footprint on the muddy floor as she slipped and slid to safety recently.

I learned about Karen from my sister, Anne, who visited me last week.   Anne has 2 homes in Montecito.  She’s trying to sell the one she shared with husband, Michael Towbes, who died last spring.  She moved into a smaller home in a gated community.  But gates have no respect for mud.  Anne woke up the morning after the rains and slid out of bed.  She evacuated by helicopter with little more than a nightgown and a pair of jeans.

Anne received an email from Karen.  It began: “Dear Friends, Thank you so very much for stepping up to help us help those who are helping us!  I would like to tell you what we are doing so you can feel assured that your confidence in me is well placed.”

The message details what Karen and friends are doing to provide healthy lunches to first responders.  I especially liked this part: “Today our dear friend (and plumber, Pacific Plumbing) made the most amazing vegetable barley soup, raw veggies and dip and loaves of French bread.  The soup smelled divine and was scarfed up.  They loved it and couldn’t stop thanking me.”  Karen mentions the Berry Man, who has been donating fresh fruits and vegetables.  He’s been doing this gratis, she says, “but that can’t be sustainable for his business, and he knows we are ready to chip in.“

Karen asks donors to include a card signed with their names, “so the guys know it comes from our community with love.”

What motivates Karen’s philanthropy?

Carl Laemmle (senior) was never afraid of a challenge, especially when it came to human rights. He disagreed with Edison’s early monopoly on American movies and went toe to toe with him to open up movie production for himself and other producers. When Nazi power was looming over Jewish communities, he personally saved 100s from the deadly threat.

“My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany.  He didn’t talk about it much but he did say one man saved his life.”  That man was Carl Laemmle, who sponsored the immigration of hundreds of families from southwest Germany, where her father lived.

EDITOR’S NOTE—It’s worth digressing a moment to honor this righteous soul. If you’re a classic movie buff, you will recognize the famous surname Laemmle but might not recall that there were two of them—and father and son both were movie pioneers. The senior Carl (1867-1939) was famous for taking on Thomas Edison’s early monopoly on silent films, a bare-knuckle fight between business titans in that era. The senior also worked with early stars, including Lon Cheney Sr. Then, Carl’s son, Carl Junior, was responsible for movies that regularly show up on TCM and other cable channels to this day. Carl Junior’s long list of great films includes the world-famous Universal monster series with Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy—a series that included Lon Cheney Jr.

When Karen’s dad died, she “took it hard.”  She wanted to “pay it forward.”  She decided to find and help sponsor a Syrian family to immigrate to North America.  She heard about a family moving to Toronto and spoke to Rabbi Arthur Gross Schafer about it.  He told her, “If you do it alone, you help one family. If you do it in a group, you teach others.”  She and Richard flew to Toronto to meet the family.  Along with two members of a Jewish temple in Toronto, they’ve been helping the family get counseling services and jobs, supporting them emotionally and financially for a year.

Karen’s efforts offer a glimpse into the grassroots way California neighbors have stepped up.   A silent auction raised money for  the Corey family, whose home was swept away.  Morgan, 25, and daughter Sawyer, 12, perished.  Twin sisters Summer and Carrie are in critical condition, recovering at the hospital.  A nightclub held an 8-hour benefit concert to raise funds for victims lacking insurance for their losses.  The Carlyle Salon will host a Day of Love, Feb. 5, offering free services for survivors.  Massage therapist Steve Shepard is giving free massages to displaced Montecito residents and first responders.  In Carpenteria, someone put  sunflower bouquets in front of their home for passersby to take for a suggested donation.

Anne’s working with a large group of volunteers on the Kick Ash Bash.  (Great name.)  On Feb. 25, this party is billed as “A Celebration of First Responders.”  Entertainers Kenny Loggins, Glen Phillips and Eric Burdon (of The Animals) and many more will donate their talents.  The Kick Ash Bash aims to raise $2 million to help finance firefighting and rescue equipment and help families of first responders.

The list goes on.  Neighbors helping neighbors. In some cases, neighbors with paws.  Anne told me about a local vet, Dr. Dave Dawson.  Unable to drive to his branch clinic in Montecito to rescue 3 cats, he rode his bike there and rode out with a feline filled backpack.

Nice to hear about people who don’t wait for the government to help them out.  They roll up their sleeves and do what needs doing.  Hopefully it won’t be too long before my sister and others can go home again and Montecito returns to the paradise it’s been.

Our dad’s last will and testament forgot something: his daughters

My father, Al Fuchs, and his sisters Libby (at left) and Miriam.

Death plays funny tricks on us.  Our responses aren’t always rational. But this story has a happy ending. So stick with me.

That’s my father at left in this WWII era photo.

My father had come back from WWII, where he navigated bomber planes over Germany.  He went into the blueprint & reproductions business started by his mother and then taken over by his father. Dad continued to operate Multi Color Co. in Detroit for his lifetime. By the time he died in 1989, the business wasn’t the success it once was. What money Dad had went to Margaret, his 2nd wife. My sister and I were informed of this in a letter from Dad’s attorney.

The letter was addressed to my sister. My name wasn’t even included on the envelope.

I read the will. No mention of Anne or me.

My best times with Dad were as a young teen. Some days in summer, Dad drove me to his office on Delaware in Detroit, in a building once known as Miss Newman’s School for Girls. I worked as a file clerk. Realizing blueprints were on the way out, Dad also went into the printed circuit business. Copper patterns on a sheet of plastic conducted electricity. I worked dabbing a medium over stray bits of copper. To and from work, Dad and I talked current events. We liked President Eisenhower. Hawaii became our 50th state. Dad took me to the Fisher Building and introduced me to the manager of Detroit Bank & Trust. (My dad knew the manager!) High ceilings, brass cages, marble floors? Awe inspiring. I got a little book to record my savings deposit. I felt so grown up.

When the nation had a cold, Detroit had pneumonia—a phrase familiar to every Detroiter. Dad suffered a lot from business reversals. When he converted to Catholicism, my sister, mom and I stayed Jewish. And, when he became divorced from my mom and subsequently remarried a nice Catholic lady, our lives veered apart. But we stayed in touch and, as adults, saw each other several times a year. When Dad came down with colon cancer, he was brave. Religion helped him. I visited often.

But back to the will.  And the good part of the story.

Anne thinks Dad once commented that our husbands would take care of us; so, he needed to take care of Margaret. Still, I wanted an official mention. Losing a parent hurts. Our rational minds don’t necessarily kick in right away. I was upset not to be acknowledged in the will.  Not a sentence about how our father appreciated us as daughters. No accompanying personal note of explanation.

I told Burton I wished my father had given us each a token, say $1,000.  Anne and I could have used it to buy ourselves something, like a bracelet to remind us of our dad.

Several weeks later, I still felt hurt. Vacationing in Palm Beach, Burton and I were out for dinner.  I brought up the gripe again. Shortly after, Burton excused himself. He’d be back soon, he said, and left the restaurant. He was gone a few minutes.

When Burton came back, he sat down and said, “When your father was sick, I went to see him.  He asked me to do  him a favor. He told me, ‘When the time is right, I want you to give something to Suzy for me.’ ”  He reached into his pocket and handed me an envelope.  Inside were 10 crisp $100 bills.

From left: Burton, my true benefactor, with our sons Andy and David (who are in the will).

I realized the truth. The gift was from Burton; the so-called favor for my father, from Burton’s imagination. I laughed and thanked the true donor and slipped the money into my purse.

“You just managed to turn a negative into a positive,” I said. “And the best thing about it: there’s more where this came from.”

Coda: I was determined to find the bracelet right away. We shopped jewelry stores the next day.  Anything I liked was too expensive. Burton advised waiting until we returned to Detroit where I knew some jewelers. Back in the D, I headed for Schubot’s in Troy. They were running a sale.  Jewelry was marked with colored dots. The color of the dot indicated the discount for each piece.  I found a sweet little bracelet with gold links and tiny sapphires and diamonds.  Owner Doug Schubot told me the price.

“Too expensive. I want a better color dot. I only have $1,000 to spend. It’s a gift from my father—sort of.”

“Burton will just have to chip in a little,” Doug said.

And chip in Burton did, more than a little!

Sorry to say I lost the bracelet in time, but the memory of my husband’s thoughtfulness was worth way more.

My senior citizen self understands my father didn’t mean to slight me. He had a legitimate reason to leave his widow everything he had. But a word to the wise. You, too, may have a good reason to omit someone from your will. If it’s someone you care about, let them know in writing.   It’s the last impression you’ll make.

Adventures and games bring family together

Grandkids prepare to put on a show.

I don’t fear heights.  But mechanical things?  Another matter.

Alexis on the zip line.

On New Years Eve day Burton and I drove 5 grandchildren to TreeUmph, a challenge course in Bradenton, FL.  I had long wanted to ride on a zip line.  This was my chance.

I didn’t realize the extent to which mechanical ability was needed.  I can barely open a wine bottle, no less comprehend 3 different devices attached to a harness attached to me, required to be hooked in specific order to other hooks that fail to operate unless properly installed.  All this to participate in hair-raising challenges which guides insist are safe.

I did not speed through the maneuvers.

Through the kindness of strangers, I eventually hooked myself properly to the first 3 challenges.  Balancing one foot on a swinging rod several feet off the ground and toeing the next swinging rod, I realized this was more than I bargained for.  All I wanted was to whoosh down a wire.

Burton had taken grandson River to the children’s course.  Granddaughters Alexis, Camryn and Lindsay and grandson Hunter had left me behind.  I scanned the tortures ahead.  The next challenge had an escape ladder down the side.  I took it, then asked directions to the big zip line.  Once I rode it, a red shirted guide warned, I’d be finished with the course.

Oh, darn.

The zip line launch platform towered above 3 high ladders.  Each time I changed ladders, I had to detach and reattach the confounding hooks.  The apparatus I wore added weight to the climb and had to be hitched up with each rung.  Like a lumbering tortoise, I persevered.  Reaching the platform atop the 2nd ladder, I muttered to a fellow climber, “I’m in my freaking 70s.  What am I thinking?”

“You can do it,” she said, as though encouraging a kindergartner to tie her shoes.

I made it to the top and, yes, hooked up the gadgets once more and sailed down 650 feet, admiring blue sky and fluffy treetops.  The ascent probably took 15 minutes.  The descent, maybe 30 seconds.  But it was 30 glorious seconds and proof I’m not as old as my driver’s license claims.

Bucket List item: check.

Camryn and her Snuggie.

It was the start of what proved a delightful grandkid-oriented last day of 2017. Burton stopped at Sam’s and gave each child $10 to spend.  Camryn, 11 (2nd oldest), found nothing she wanted.  I was proud of her for not blowing the money just because she could.  This is a girl who knows her mind.

She wanted a Snuggie (a soft blanket with sleeves), similar to one her older sister had.  Walgreens carried them.  Would Burton drive her to Walgreens?   Negative.  He was heading home for a nap.

Camryn turned to me and slung her arm around my shoulders.  “Gigi,” she said, in melodious notes approximating E and C on the musical scale.  “This would be great bonding time for us.”

Hook, line and sinker.

We bonded over the choice between ombre turquoise or plaid.  What joy to have one grandchild all to myself.  I marveled, as I have before over Pet Rocks or River’s current fave Grossery Gang collectibles (Horrid Hamburger, Putrid Pizza, etc.), at what unknown magic turns somebody’s crazy idea into a fad everyone wants and a gold mine for its creator.

Son David took advantage of our chaperoning the grandchildren  to go fishing with his old Berkley High School buddy Larry Leszinski.  That night David sautéed terrific triple tail he’d caught earlier.

Fischer with the Bingo trophy.

After, Burton, the family fun-meister, called several rounds of Bingo.  Grandson Fischer, 5, was the big winner.  His name will be inscribed on the family Bingo trophy.  Fischer’s victory marked a much better day than the one before when he  banged his head on a glass table, requiring a trip to the ER and 4 staples.  River took credit for his little brother’s Bingo victory.  He said, “Last night, after Fischer hurt himself, I prayed for him.”  (Godsign awareness  in the 3rd generation.  Yeah!)

All in all, a fine end to a year of Bucket List adventures, including renewing our vows for our 50th anniversary along with the whole family and visiting art destinations Crystal Bridges and Marfa. ‎

Kabbalah, the tradition of Jewish mysticism, refers to God by 72 different names.  Each name has a numerical equivalent.  One of those names, Chai, means life.  The number for Chai is 18, considered a lucky number.  When giving a bar or bat mitzvah gift, checks are often written in increments of 18, such as $180.

May 2018 be a lucky year for all of us.  Wishing you lots of Bucket List and family moments.  L’Chaim!

And, one last note! If you think every one of our hopes will turn to good luck, here’s my final “shout out” to the grandkids …

Despite Andy’s family’s encouragement, the Wolverines went down to defeat on New Years Day

In grieving her daughter, Beth Knopik finds a higher calling

Beth and Leanna.

Beth lost her daughter 5 years ago.  Leanna was 16.

Beth, from Sarasota, FL, has found a way to put one foot in front of the other.  “I feel I have to tell her story,” she says. That decision has brought Beth some comfort.

Beth has “shifted” her way of grieving by looking for God’s plan—a higher purpose in her loss.  “Every tragedy is an opportunity for growth.  Growth leads us toward enlightenment,” she says.  “I feel I’m being transformed as an instrument of God to help others.”

The whole family: Beth and her husband Steve with Leanna and son Rogers.

Even as an Instrument, Beth still responds as a mom. She  tears up talking about Leanna.

Beth spent the last month of her daughter’s life at her hospital bed, consumed by worry. After Leanna passed away, Beth saw no hope of escape from her grief. “Every day was hell. My biggest fear was I’d never have peace again.”

The day after Leanna passed away, Beth’s sister-in-law, Valerie, a Yoga teacher, offered Beth a private restorative session. During Shavasana, the cool down, Beth lay in a lotus position wearing headphones with the Om vibration. “For a split second,” she says, “I had a sense of peace.”  That momentary glimpse was “a sign of hope. Yoga was something I’d practice every day of my life if it meant I could feel peace again.”

Leanna was a terrific young woman. She was in the I.B. program at Sarasota’s Riverview High School. She studied hard. She played the piano and guitar and rowed and was a Black Belt in Tai Kwon Do. Involved in her church, she “had a passion for mission work,” her mom says. The summer before she died, Leanna spent a week at the Cabell-Lincoln County work camp in West VA. About 120 kids from different states came together to repair homes of poor people, rendering them “warm, safe and dry.”

“Leanna felt how powerful it was to work together for a common goal and in doing so became closer to God,” her mom says.

Though Leanna was determined to work at Cabell-Lincoln the next year, she didn’t feel well. Her mom took her to the doctor. He attributed Leanna’s symptoms to the flu and gave her permission to go. At camp, her symptoms worsened. Too ill to help on the job, she sat in the vehicle texting her mom: “I don’t know what to do.”

“Pray about it,” Beth replied. “If you decide to come home, I have a flight reserved for you.”

Leanna flew home on the second day of camp. Her mom picked her up from Tampa International and drove her straight to the doctor. He sent her to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Leanna’s vital signs were so weak she was airlifted to All Children’s Hospital in St. Pete. When Beth and husband Steve (CEO of Fl department store Bealls) left the hospital that night to drive to St. Pete, they saw the blinking light of the helicopter taking off from the roof.

“We never thought her illness could take her life,” her mom says. “But that helicopter ride was the beginning of the end.”

Leanna’s friend Christina at the ColdPlay concert.

Leanna and her best friend Christina Astore loved the rock band Coldplay. Their favorite song: “Fix You.” The Astore and Knopik families had tickets to a Coldplay concert in summer of 2012. When it became clear Leanna was too sick to attend, Christina wrote a letter to the band asking them to dedicate “Fix You” to Leanna. She received a polite response from the manager apologizing that they receive so many requests for dedications that they had to turn them all down.

On Facebook, Christina created “A Letter to Coldplay for Leanna.” Social media spread the word. Support for Leanna erupted. A friend of a friend knew a band member. Through the combined efforts of a few determined individuals, the band agreed to do “something very subtle; something only we would recognize,” Beth says.

Beth attended the concert with her son Rogers, then 13 and a musician, and their Associate Pastor, Clay Thomas, from First Presbyterian Church. Steve stayed at the hospital with his sedated daughter. After the first section of “Fix You,” singer Chris Martin said, “This song is for our friend Leanna.”

At the time, Beth told the Herald Tribune, “We stood in disbelief, screamed and then sobbed in each others’ arms.” Martin knew where Leanna’s family and friends were seated. He turned to them and put his hand on his heart. (Don’t even think about listening to the song without tissue.)

Beth recorded the performance on her cell phone, hoping to share it with her daughter. Leanna never got to see it. She died 20 days later.

Myocarditis, or inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall, is usually caused by an infection or virus. It strikes less than 200,000 a year.

Beth read A Grace Disguised; How A Soul Grows Through Loss by Gerald Sittser, a professor of theology who lost his wife, mother and daughter in a single car accident. She read it in paper form, using a highlighter. The book, she says, “saved my life.”

Beth still goes to church. “Everyone needs something to hold on to.”

This former commercial banking exec decided, “If there is something positive to be gained from the loss of my daughter, I want to know about it.” And so she’s becoming an author, writing Leanna’s and her story. “It feels like a calling,” she says. “It’s healing when you know you’re living your purpose.”

Leanna’s friends continue to support Beth by sending her texts saying how they felt Leanna’s presence through a song, a rainbow or a past memory posted on Facebook. Leanna’s boyfriend Josh Simon still visits, calls and sends Beth text messages. “We’ll forever be connected through our shared loss.”

Holidays are especially hard for those who’re grieving. A WSJ recent article, “Coping With Grief at Holidays,” reminds us to connect with a note or a call to survivors, mentioning lost loved ones by name. The article makes an important point: Families don’t want loved ones forgotten.

Beth hopes to “reach at least one person” with her story. I’m guessing she’ll surpass that number. Thanks, Beth, for reminding us of hope even in the midst of  family tragedies. Thanks for your courage and grace.

‘Fix You’ from Coldplay

For her generosity and participation, Renee Hamad shines in Sarasota

THE WHOLE HAMAD CLAN, from left: Michael Hamad, Pamela Hamad, Sam Hamad, Renee Hamad, Karen Hamad and Jon Yenari.


When I met Dr. Karen Hamad—one dynamic, determined, big-hearted gal—I wondered what sort of mother raised such a child.  So I tracked her down.  Turns out her mom created the mold. (In case you missed my earlier story about Karen, here’s a link.)

Renee Hamad with a camel friend during a visit to Dubai.

Renee Hamad preceded Karen in receiving philanthropic awards in Sarasota.  And she’s not just generous. She rolls up her sleeves.   Plus, as a mom, she raised two talented offspring.  Karen and son Dr. Michael Hamad, a music critic who also creates Phish Maps. (These intricate drawings involve music signs and notations based on the Phish rock band.)  Both kids check in with their mom  every morning.

Renee was a devoted corporate wife.  Husband Sam, a successful businessman, died at 66.  To cope, Renee enrolled in the Program for Experienced Learners (PEL) program at Eckerd College.  She had to start from scratch, as 2 years she’d spent earlier in Cairo weren’t accepted.  She attended classes at night, 2 courses at a time.  After nine years, she graduated with a B.A. in Human Development, the school’s first recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa Award.

If you’ve read Lucette Lagnado’s memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Renee’s story is similar.  The Perlo family was close friends with the Lagnados, also affluent Egyptians.  Renee’s father inherited a business that manufactured powders, such as talcum powder, then used to keep rubber tires from sticking together.

At 17, Renee attended the American University in Cairo.  New students were assigned a junior to help advise them.  On her first day of college, Renee spotted a handsome student “with a green sweater to match his green eyes.”  He was carrying a sign with names of 3 freshmen in Arabic; Renee was happy hers was one of them.   She asked him to help her with paperwork.  At the end of that day, Sam Hamad invited her to dinner.

Renee and Sam dated for 2 years.  When Sam graduated, he left for Canada to pursue a career in pharmaceutical sales.  They stayed in close touch.  In 1965, Renee and her family came to America.     Arriving in Boston, she worked for Prudential Insurance as a Girl Friday.  (An invaluable assistant, the expression–no longer p.c.– comes from the castaway Robinson Crusoe picked up on a Friday.  But you knew that.)

Though Renee’s parents disapproved of her relationship with Sam, love prevailed.  Sam obtained a visa to come and get Renee in August, 1965.  They married later that month.  Renee left her parents’ home with nothing but her handbag.  Sam took her to a department store to buy necessities.  They found a Justice of the Peace in the Yellow Pages.  “He was hard of hearing, mumbling our vows under his breath.  I  repeated them as well as I could, since I wasn’t savvy in English.”  The marriage lasted 43 years, until Sam died.

In 1969, Karen was born.  The Hamads had moved to suburban Montreal.  Then unable to drive, Sam often away on business, Renee took public transportation everywhere, baby in tow. Meanwhile, Sam rose  through the ranks of pharma companies Merck Sharp and Dohme.  He ultimately ran the international division of Bristol-Myers Squibb.

During Sam’s career, the couple moved 24 times.  Renee became “an expert at packing and unpacking.” She also learned to drive.  With each move, Renee considered it her “job to lighten Sam’s burden and take over the responsibility for settling the family in.”

After Sam retired, the couple moved to a large home in Sarasota.  Sam engaged in real estate development.  Trained as a child as a concert pianist, Renee began holding concerts in their living room.

Nini playing piano.

Her widowed mother, Nini, also a pianist, moved to  the family compound.  Nini & Renee began conducting concerts, raising money for local charities.  Nini gave free piano lessons to students age 3-93.

When Sam became ill, Renee took time off from school.  After he died, her mother advised, “It’s important to finish what you start.”  Renee resumed her studies.  At Eckerd, Renee became friends with classmate April Glasco. (Do you recall April’s story? Here’s a link.) A young, unwed, African-American mother from an impoverished part of Sarasota, April was determined to help her community.  Renee became v.p. of April’s grass roots organization Second Chance Last Opportunity.

And that’s not all…

Renee downsized her house but not her philanthropy.  She sits on the board of 12 non-profits.    “No isn’t part of my vocabulary,” she says.  “I have a soft heart for those less fortunate.”

Renee chaired the board of the Sarasota Women’s Resource Center for 6 years.  She personally distributed intake forms to women seeking help.  Renee and Karen raised enough money to fund 9 full-ride scholarships to Sarasota’s New College for girls from the Middle East.  During holidays, these girls live with Renee and Karen and their friends.  A fine cook, Renee prepares Middle Eastern dishes and speaks to them in Arabic.  “It makes them feel less homesick.”

When Nini turned 89, her students rented a hall and gave a concert in her honor.  One day soon after, Renee brought her mother lunch as usual.  When she entered the house, her mother was playing an “extraordinary” piece, by heart.  “’Ma, I never heard you play that before,” Renee said.  “She just smiled.  Her face was transformed.”  Minutes later, Nini died of a stroke.

As if Renee doesn’t have enough to keep her busy, she needlepoints.  Wall hangings, trays, pillows and rugs of her own creation line her antiques-filled Sarasota home.

She bought this house for the dining room wall, large enough to display her 9’x13’ tapestry on astrological signs, originally made as a rug.

But service to others remains Renee’s primary focus.   “I’m motivated, energetic and enthusiastic.  I try to deliver on my promises.  I avoid judging people.  When sad, instead of complaining I look to the less fortunate.  In a few words, I aspire to be like my role model, my mom, Nini.”

Brava, Renee, on such generosity and so much to be proud of.  Sarasota is  blessed to have you.

Renee’s glorious, hand-made wall hanging in her home.