Seek the beauty in the storm

So … winter.
 
I’m not a big fan.
 
I’ve lived in warm areas and I’ve lived in cold areas. And given the choice between 100 degree weather and 20 degree weather, I’d choose the 100 degree weather almost every time.
 
Something about snow makes me nervous. Driving on snowy roads and walking on icy sidewalks, plus the fear of being snowed in, has me stalking the weather forecast, desperate to see when I can expect above-freezing temperatures to melt it all away.
 
So, naturally, we moved to Colorado this year. Because life.
 
This week, I knew a storm was coming. I braced myself for the cold and the snow. I made my grocery list and planned activities that could be done in the house if the roads were unsafe for a day or two. And yesterday, I headed out to buy some fresh produce as the snow was rolling in.
 
I made my purchases, loaded my groceries into the trunk, jumped (shivering) into the car, and saw this.
 
And it took my breath away.
 
Somehow, in the midst of my fear of the storm … I forgot to look for the beauty.
 
What a shame.
 
I am so grateful for the lesson that I was taught yesterday.
 
Friends, even if you are in a stormy season of life … even if you find yourself desperately wondering when the sun will come out to melt your troubles away into nothingness …
 
Seek the beauty.
 
Even if the sun is not shining, there is always beauty to be found in the storm.
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Word of the Year – 2017

Somehow, 2016 is already gone. And last night, I began reflecting on my habit of choosing one word to focus on each year, rather than choosing resolutions. Because I have never, ever stuck to a New Year’s resolution. But one word to focus on all year long – that’s what works for me.

2017

As I thought about this last year, though, I was feeling discouraged. Frankly, I struggled with the word I chose in 2016. It truly wasn’t until December when I felt like I had begun to succeed at my goal for the year. I was feeling discouraged and frustrated.

But this morning, I realized something.

It’s not bad to set a goal that you struggle with all year. In fact … that seems to have been a perfect goal for me. I worked, I struggled … and at the end, finally, I made progress.

So now a new year is here, and it’s time for me to choose a new word. As with previous years, I gave it a lot of thought, but there was really only one word that kept coming back to mind. A word that emulates not just how I want to feel, but the light and hope that I want to project.

Joy

This year … I choose joy. I choose not to wait for happiness to come to me, but to find it. I choose to more fully seek the sunshine and keep my back to the shadows. I choose to live in a way that shows others that life is good, that happiness is possible, that hope exists.

In 2017, I choose joy.

What about YOU? What are you choosing this year?

Happiness can be found …

One of my favorite pictures from our recent trip to Harry Potter World, and one of my favorite J. K. Rowling quotes.

Thank you for helping me light up the world, one act of kindness at a time.

Happy Halloween!

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The Teal Pumpkin Project

So … Halloween candy. I love it.

One of my favorite childhood memories is coming home from Trick-or-Treating, eagerly spreading my candy out on the floor, and beginning The Great Candy Exchange with my siblings. And now, as a mom, I love to watch as my kids do the same. (And I might or might not – but definitely do – issue a Mommy Tax, to be paid in the form of chocolate.)

But for kids with food allergies (and according to FoodAllergy.org, that’s one in every 13 kids in America), it’s a little tougher. To look through your Halloween candy and realize that you can’t eat most of it … well, that’s a bummer. And while there’s not much I can do long-term to make life easier for kids with food allergies, I was thrilled to find a way to make Halloween a bit more magical for these kids.

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The Teal Pumpkin Project began three years ago. The idea is simple: put a teal pumpkin on your porch, or tape a sign onto your front door. This tells parents that you have non-food prizes to hand out. And kids with food allergies (or diabetes, or other dietary restrictions) get a small prize instead. Fun. Easy. Cheap. What’s not to love?

If you’d like to participate this year, there are several ways you can do so!

– Spread information in your community. Share this post with your neighbors. Print off a sign explaining what the Teal Pumpkin Project is and place it somewhere prominent. Start chatting with people and spread the news! Since this is project is new, most people (including parents of kids with allergies) haven’t heart of it.

Print off, or paint, a teal pumpkin. I went to Michaels to buy some spray paint and was able to find my cute already-teal pumpkin for under $5.

– Hand out prizes! This can be easy and cheap. Glow sticks, small party favors (mini Slinkies, whistles, etc.), bubbles, stickers, or (if you’d like to spend a bit more) small cars or dollar store dolls. There are tons more ideas on the Teal Pumpkin Project’s website.

That’s it! Such an easy way to make Halloween safer and more fun for the kids in your neighborhood who have food allergies. Are you in?

How I packed 100 School Supply Kits for $100

If you’ve been around here for a while, you know how much I love Operation Christmas Child. This year, for my 32nd birthday, I will be packing 32 shoeboxes to donate. And since I am lucky enough to live near a processing center, I will be able to volunteer as a shoebox inspector. Which sounds boring, but it is honestly one of the highlights of the holiday season for me. A room full of people, who love the same thing I love, all united to serve children we have never even met … it’s magical.

Last year, I learned something new. Many of the shoeboxes that are donated have items that need to be removed because they are not on the approved list. (Mostly things that might leak or delay the boxes as they go through cutoms, like liquids and food items.) And since it would be really sad for a kid to open their shoebox gift and find it half empty, the processing centers accept donations of “filler items” – things that the volunteers can quickly grab to add to the boxes to make sure that they’re all full. So this year, I had a crazy idea. Why not make some extra school supply kits? Specifically, in addition to the 32 I was making for my own boxes, I wanted to make 68 more, for a grand total of 100. It was a huge goal, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it. But I was … and I did it for $100!

Now, this isn’t going to be a post that you can read and say, “I can go to that right this minute!” This project was many months in the making. But I’m hoping that I will give you some ideas that can benefit you for next year … and maybe even an idea or two that you can use to donate a little bit extra this holiday season!

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So here are my frugal shopping tips:

  • Clearance. Seriously, this is my #1 tip. Learn where the clearance racks are at every store that you shop at, and use them! I have learned, among the 4 Walgreens stores near my home, which one has a manager that often marks things down 90%. I have bought cute pencils for 2 cents, hilighters for a nickel, 9-packs of fun erasers for 20 cents, and much more. When my local Target stores hit their best school supply clearance of the year – 90% off, including many Dollar Spot items that were selling for a dime – I went to three different stores and I stocked up. (I do this after every holiday when they’re marking down their seasonal items.) And randomly in the spring, I was at Office Max when I noticed that they had boxes of 60 pens marked down to 52 cents! That’s less than a penny per pen!

Packing 100 school supply kits for $100

  • Supplement your budget by earning gift cards. If you have a little bit of free time, try mystery shoppingShopkick, or Swagbucks. These are all programs that I use regularly, a few minutes at a time, that allow me to earn gift cards to stretch my budget. I often cash in for Target gift cards since that’s where I do a lot of my clearance shopping.
  • Shop the sales. This seems pretty obvious, but it’s worth a reminder. I often hear people say that they get the best deals by just going to Walmart and the Dollar Tree. And if you’re in a hurry, go for it! But it is definitely not the cheapest way to shop. During back to school time, I carefully watch the store ads, and I am able to beat Walmart and Dollar Tree prices on almost everything. I had awesome luck with the penny deals at Office Max this year, and there were lots of great sales at Staples and Walgreens as well. And there were times when I could earn rewards for buying things I needed to purchase for my family anyway (like ink and copy paper). I would purchase those items, then use some of the rewards I got back for my school supply stash (such as good kid scissors for a quarter, and the penny items like packs of pencils and glue sticks).
  • Ask for help. To be honest, I am new in this area and don’t know a ton of people yet. But I reached out to a few families and invited them to come join me to assemble these school supply kits. They were happy to help, and we all had a fantastic time. I had all of the supplies purchased anyway, but if you are just starting out, feel free to ask people to bring a few items! People typically want to help, and this is a great way to make more than you’d be able to on your own.
  • Get creative. I really like having some kind of container or pencil case for each shoebox. I was able to get some pencil boxes for a penny at Office Max, and I found some “slider boxes” on clearance at Target, but I didn’t have anywhere close to 100. So I got a bunch of Hefty slider bags (free, with a rebate), scoured clearance racks for Duct tape, and my helpers and I made all of the bags we needed!Packing 100 school supply kits for $100

So that’s it – and look at this beautiful pile of school supply kits. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be able to give a small gift to 100 kids that will hopefully be both helpful and fun, and to have been able to stick to my budget. This has been so much fun to do! Now time to move on the the next stage – shoebox wrapping. Wish me luck!
100 school supply kits for $100

Thank a Bus Driver – Ideas, and a Free Printable!

For the majority of my life, I have worked with children. I was babysitting by the time I was in middle school. By high school, I was tutoring. I majored in Special Education and have taught children at school, at Church, and in my own home. I have been around kids a lot. It can be fun. It can be rewarding.

And it can be absolutely exhausting.

So I try very hard to support teachers whenever I have the opportunity. But recently, it hit me. I thank teachers, aides, specialists, principals, and secretaries.

But what about the bus drivers??

a-simple-act-of-kindness-getting-to-know-the-bus-driver

My kids are new school bus riders. And oh, am I grateful for that privilege! My town has had a lot of construction recently, and the bus saves me more than an hour each day of sitting in my car. For someone who doesn’t enjoy sitting in a car, this is a BIG deal. But I hadn’t given any thought to the drivers when I thought of holiday gifts, appreciation gifts, or really anything extra. These are wonderful people that get up every morning and patiently sit through traffic with a bus full of children. (I am cringing just thinking about it.) Time to thank them!

So I did what I do when I need ideas – I took to the internet. I found this fun “getting to know the teacher” printable that I sent with my kids at the beginning of the school year, but I didn’t find anything that really worked for bus drivers. So I designed my own! Please note that if you have any kind of design skills at all, you might laugh at my simple little printable. I have no skills in this area, y’all. But since I made it for my own kids, I thought I’d share it with you.

free-printable-getting-to-know-your-bus-driver

Kinda cute, huh? If you’d like to download it, just click here! (It is saved as a Word document – if you have any trouble opening it, please leave a comment and let me know and I’ll see what I can do.)

(And if you want to make it even cuter, I found these cute, free printables that say “Thank you for going the extra mile”, but I already had a bunch of tags, so I went with what I had.)

If you or your child ride a bus regularly, have you taken a moment to thank your bus driver for doing an important, but often thankless, job? I personally like giving small gifts, but I want them to be personal and meaningful, which is why I’m sending this printable with my kids. But if you just want a quick ideas – or if you have rotating bus drivers – here are some more thoughts for you!

  • Bring a treat or pack of gum to hand to your bus driver. Last week, we got a dozen donuts. I had one packaged individually and sent it with my kids to give their bus driver. The report back: a very excited and grateful driver!
  • Buy a small gift card for a local fast-food restaurant so the driver can pick up breakfast after hjis or her shift is finished.
  • Check out Pinterest for ideas – I have a few saved on this board to get you started.
  • If you have an awesome driver, find a way to report the great work to his or her manager! Call the bus depot and leave a report. Most calls are NOT compliments, and managers are typically thrilled to receive positive feedback.
  • Just say thank you, and teach your kids to do the same. As I watch children enter and exit the bus, most don’t even look at the bus driver. We all need to be noticed and appreciated, and this is a great and simple way to start.

Those are my ideas for you. If you have any for ME, I’d love to hear them! Thanks for reading!

Stretching Your Donation Budget: Mystery Shopping

A few weeks ago, I decided to try something that I’ve been curious about for a while – mystery shopping. The idea has intrigued me for years, but when my kids were tiny, I was intimidated by the thought of managing my kids while trying it out. But now that they are a bit older and I have some more free time, I decided to go for it, hoping that I’d earn some extra gift cards for my “donate fund”. So this month, I tried two different mystery shopping programs. I’m still waiting on payment for the first one, but the second was amazingly easy, and I have earned $25 so far. So I thought I’d share details in case you’re interested in expanding your budget, too!

Mobee is a mystery shopping company is really simple to navigate. All you need is a smartphone and their app. That’s it! You find jobs, take pictures, do reports, and earn (and redeem) gift cards all through this app.

Basically, here’s how it works. You download the Mobee app. Open it up, look at the map of your area, and see what mystery shop jobs are available. (Note: in my area, most jobs seem to be released on Wednesdays at noon, so if there isn’t anything right away, just wait a few days). Jobs that are available show up as an orange dot, and jobs that will be available soon appear as a grey dot. If there is an assignment near you that looks interesting, just head over and accept the mission, complete the task (usually 10-15 minutes, answering questions and taking a few pictures with your phone), and get paid! Your money posts to your account as soon as your task is reviewed – in my experience, typically in two business days. Reward opportunities include gift cards to Target, eBay, Old Navy, Walmart, iTunes, and more. (You can even use your rewards to make donations to organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project and Ronald McDonald House Charities.) When you redeem a gift card, it is emailed to you instantly. Just open the email and have the cashier scan the barcode at checkout. I’ve done it twice this week and it worked perfectly!

A more of my honest thoughts …

Cons:

– You can’t save a job for later, and you can’t accept it until you’re at the location. If you’re out and about and shopping, or if you live near a lot of stores, it works great. If you live in a rural area and would have to drive a long way to do a mystery shopping job, it might be pretty tricky.

– The pay isn’t a ton. Most jobs range from $1.50 to $3.50.

– Since most jobs (in my area) are released at the same time, by the time I do one or two, the other jobs are usually taken up, so I can only complete a few jobs per week.

Pros:

–  Although the pay isn’t very high, it’s pretty good when you consider how fast the jobs are to complete. If I can earn a few dollars in ten minutes by answering questions about a store I shop at anyway, I consider that a good use of my time.

– You usually don’t have to spend any money. A lot of mystery companies require you to buy something, then you wait to be reimbursed. Most of Mobee’s missions do not require a purchase, and if they do, that is clearly stated before you begin. I recently had a mystery shop at a store that required a $2 minimum purchase, and the pay was around $3.50. I looked at that store’s ad and found something on sale that I needed to buy that week anyway, so the job was totally worth it for me.

– They offer bonuses. Right now, you earn an extra $1 after your first trip, $2 after your third, $3 after your seventh, $5 after your fourteenth, and $20 after your thirtieth. There are also store-specific bonuses. As the first jobs take a bit longer than later ones (because you’re getting the hang of the program), it’s nice to have little bonuses to make up for the extra time. They also give small bonuses for things like your first visit to a store, or for traveling outside your normal area.

– The rewards are instant. This was SO helpful to me this week! I had already earned $25 and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it yet. But I was lucky enough to stumble across a bunch of 90% off clearance at Target this week, so I started cashing out my rewards. This morning, I redeemed a $10 gift card and gave myself a challenge: how much could I buy with that $10? Look at the haul I was able to get! (This is why I bargain shop!)

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(Guess what schools need? School supplies. Guess what women’s shelters need? School supplies. Guess what adult ESL classes need? School supplies. I could go on and on … but seriously, almost every organization that I’ve donated to needs school supplies. This is a fantastic time of year to shop! You can donate these things right away, or do what I do – start a “donation stash” that you can draw from when you find out about a local organization that needs some help.)

If you’ve decided you’d like to try Mobee, just go to the app store and download it! And right now, they have a refer-a-friend promo. If you enter my code (5DQG) when you sign up, we’ll both get a bonus $3 when your first mission is approved. Which, if you shop the way I shop, means we can both get a pile of stuff that looks like this:

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So have fun mystery shopping!! Be sure to let me know if you have any questions, and if you’re able to donate some cool stuff with your Mobee gift cards, come back and share with us!

(Note: this isn’t a sponsored post. The cool people at Mobee have no idea I’m writing this. I was just really excited to find such an easy way to earn gift cards and wanted to share. And if you happen to use my referral code when you sign up –  that would be awesome! Thanks!!)

Practice Compassion

From Trash to Treasure: A DIY Dog Toy from Old Shirts

Around two years ago, I stumbled across a fun tutorial: making dog toys from old shirts. Let me make something clear: I am NOT particularly crafty. I like to experiment and try different things, but it’s not an area where I have a lot of natural talent. But I decided to give these a try. I had lots of friends help me. And we made a big pile of dog toys to take to our local pet shelter before Christmas. They were thrilled with the donation – they told me that they had had a Girl Scout troop donate them the previous year, and the dogs LOVED playing with them and chewing them.

Shirts to yarn to dog toys

Fast forward to this week. I have an exciting new opportunity at my Church. Twice a month, I get to help run an activity for 8 and 9 year old girls. Although sometimes we will do things just for fun, our focus is on helping these girls to learn, to grow, and to look outside themselves to serve others. This week was the first activity that I was in charge of, and this immediately came to mind. If you need a Scout or youth group activity, if you are an animal lover, if you have some old clothes that you don’t know what to do with – here is a great project for you!

All you need are some old shirts, scissors, and the ability to cut and braid. When I say old shirts … I mean REALLY old shirts. Do you have any that are so stained, pilled, faded, or torn that you hesitate to even donate them? Perfect! That’s just the kind you need to make a perfect toy for your dog – or, as we did, to donate to animals in a shelter. (A simple craft that makes a free service project – I’m in!) So grab an old shirt or two, and let’s go!

From trash to treasure- A simple DIY dog toy using old t-shirts

First of all, we make “yarn” out of our shirts. Why don’t we just cut them into strips? Well, you certainly can, especially if you’re making tiny toys. But remember that the fabric will be significantly shorter after braiding it, so just cutting the shirt into strips doesn’t give us much to work with. By making yarn, you have a lot more flexibility in the sizes of toys you’re going to be making.

So get your shirt, lay it flat on the counter, and cut it up! You want your strips to be roughly an inch apart from each other. IMPORTANT: do NOT cut all the way through. Stop cutting about an inch from the top.

Transforming a shirt into yarn

This is the part that seems tricky, although it’s really not. Once you’ve cut the shirt all the way up to the armpits, you need to start the yarn process. To begin, go to the very top of your first strip. At an angle, cut across the first strip all the way to the end. This breaks loose your chain. Then open up the top of your shirt. See how the cuts are now at an angle from each other? Just cut (at an angle again) from one slit to the next. And you’ll see that your shirt begins to coil – instead of strips, you have yarn. Cool, huh?

Uncoiling the yarn

Just keep cutting and coiling (I stop about halfway through to roll my yarn into a ball so it doesn’t get tangled) until you get to the end.

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Now here’s where I kinda wing it. When you get to the armpit part, you can cut the rest into strips, or call it a day and throw the top out. But I have found that it’s really easy to just grab the top piece and continue to spiral cut my way around the shirt. When you get to a corner, curve around and keep going. When you’re done, you just need to trim the corners off of your yarn. I am able to cut an entire shirt into one huge piece of yarn, and I only end up with a few little scraps.

Turning the top of a shirt into yarn

When all your shirts are cut up – time to braid! You can experiment with lengths and thicknesses. I found that braiding six strips together makes a small braid that is perfect for puppies and tiny dogs, while braiding twelve strips makes a good thickness for bigger, older dogs. My girls had fun experimenting with loops at the end (for tug-of-war), mixing colors, and trying different lengths.

If you want to be really crafty, you can use almost any fabric! Someone donated a sheet to our project, and I cut it into big strips. I even used the bottom of my daughter’s jeans to make denim yarn! I hacked at the knees (where the holes were) and folded up the cuffs to make shorts for my daughter. And then I took the bottom pieces and treated them just like a shirt. I loved the denim yarn – this is perfect for dogs who really like to chew.

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So there it is! Trust me when I say if I can do this, you can do this. And so can kids! I found that some of the 8-year-olds struggled a bit with the cutting-at-an-angle part, but with a bit of adult help, all of them were able to do it. And they LOVED working together to braid. So if you’re looking for an activity to do with a group of kids or teenagers, ask people to give you their oldest shirts, grab some scissors, and start cutting! The dogs at your local animal shelter will thank you.

Finished dog toys

 

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year!

Okay. Maybe it isn’t ACTUALLY the most wonderful time of the year. But it’s one of my favorites? Why?

SCHOOL SUPPLIES ARE ON SALE!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This girl is really weird.” Well, yes/ I am. But mostly, I’m thrifty. I love being able to donate items to people in need. School supplies are needed by SO many different people and organizations. And this is the time of year to stock up!

I have already been hitting the sales for Operation Christmas Child. This year I’m packing 32 shoeboxes, so I need to stock up. But as I have been shopping, I’ve been picking up extras. Pens on the clearance rack for less than a penny each? Bought hundreds. (Okay. Over a thousand. Ahem.) “Penny deals” at Office Max? I shopped the sales for my kids’ school supplies, then bought items at a penny apiece for my shoeboxes. And always, I felt the need to grab more. I just wasn’t sure why.

But this week, someone reached out for help on my neighborhood’s Facebook page. Her husband’s work is arranging a school supply drive for an elementary school in an underprivileged area. It immediately caught my eye, so I offered to help a bit. And as I researched the school, it caught my heart.

Y’all, there are over 40 languages spoken at this school. 40!! Can you imagine sitting in a classroom where no one else speaks your language? Can you imagine being a teacher, knowing that you cannot communicate with your students (or their parents)? Can you a school where 95% of the students are receiving government assistance, and likely cannot afford the very basic list of supplies that the school has asked for?

Within 30 minutes of my home, kids know that they are going to be headed back to school empty-handed.

That is not okay with me.

And suddenly, I knew why I’d had the feeling to buy extras.

I bargain shopped a bit more. I price matched. I told managers what I was shopping for and politely asked if I could go over their “item limit”. And this … this is what I was able to do with $35.

Donating School Supplies on a Budget

 

This isn’t extreme couponing. This didn’t even take me that much time. I just shopped smart, I kept my eyes open for clearance deals and great sales. And hopefully, this labor of love will be a blessing to dozens of kids.

As I was pulling together my donations, I thought of the teachers who taught in this tough enviroment. And suddenly, I wanted to do something for them. And although it’s simple, this made me so happy to do. I looked on the school’s website and counted the faculty and staff (because those aides and those specialists and those secretaries – they deserve our thanks, too). Then I bundled up my school supplies into little gifts. Such a small thing, but hopefully enough to let these wonderful people know how much they are appreciated. These little bundles, along with homemade cards that my kids and I put together, will be waiting for them in the teacher’s lounge.

Simple gifts for teachers

Whatever your circumstances, can I encourage you to consider joining in my school supply challenge? Whether that means picking up an extra package of glue sticks on sale, or hopping from store to store to stock up – whatever you have the time and the means to do – there is always, always going to be someone who needs your help.

So get out there and do some good today.

Serving with School Supplies