Saturday, February 27, 2010

Behold What Love!

This past week Jerry and I were invited to St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Boerne (pronounced “Bernie”) to be part of their Lenten program.

Tuesday of course was the big sleet and snow day, but Wednesday dawned sunny if not warm and after a busy morning of meetings we finally broke away and headed out to the Hill Country.

We had checked into the La Quinta and were headed for the car when we ran into Fr. Ned paying for our stay at the lobby counter. Seems the youth of the parish had maxed out the credit card over the weekend so he’d brought over a check. He and Jerry confirmed directions to the church and we went our separate ways.

We drove out to Bandera to check out a few dude ranches, (we don’t have enough to do here at the Ranch so we’re looking into the dude ranch business). Back in Boerne we found the church and joined the congregation in the parish hall.

A group from St. Helena’s had come out to the Ranch to work in the greenhouses and the tree farm in ’07. They’d been so impressed they’d brought a group of kids to help out at Ranch Camp in ’08.

As we sat down with our gumbo and salad at a table a woman turned to me and said, her eyes shining, “His week at camp turned my son into a new person.”

I remarked on how being around our campers and residents can do that. They invite us to share a world where our assumptions are routinely turned upside down.

Later, during his talk, Jerry shared his personal journey to faith after Kelly was born.

Kelly certainly turned our lives upside down! We had the family almost grown, and here came a new baby. Our three girls were bright and accomplished, and we didn’t know what even to expect from the new baby. We didn’t want what we’d got, but discovered that we’d been given a huge gift and fell madly in love with her.

And wasn’t that a lot of what Jesus said—that business about the last being first? Wasn’t he always turning things upside down? If the honored guests don’t have time to come to the party, then party on with the ones who do!

The folks at the Lenten “party” were visibly moved by Jerry’s story, and frankly, so was I.

It’s the story of a man who didn’t want his life to change and of all the frightening and wonderful things that happened when it did.

And it's an old, old story indeed.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"This is me"

This morning we had a few visitors who braved the sleet and snow to visit the Ranch. When we entered the Learning Center Chris, as he often does, approached them clutching his photo album.

He proffered the album to a woman in the group, and she asked his name. “Chri-to-pha,” he answered and immediately opened the album and pointed to a picture of himself as a baby. She admired this and other pictures as he pointed out and named “Mommy,” “Dad,” “Nana,” and “Brother Andy.”

I often think of how we go through life finding different ways to say to the world, “Here I am. I exist. This is me.”

We interweave the threads of our lives with those of others to create a pattern like no other, one that proclaims, “This is who I am.”

This is what I see Chris doing when he appears with his album, and I am pleased that the visitor sees its importance and hangs back from the rest of the group to spend a few minutes learning about Chris and who he is.

So often volunteers are eager to “do things” for our Ranchers, and Lord knows we appreciate the things they do. But more precious still are those who sit down and make the effort to get to know them, to struggle with their unclear speech, and to wait patiently for the elements of their story to come together.

And isn’t that what we all really want?

More than wanting someone to “fix” something for us, we want them to hear us, and acknowledge what they’ve heard us say. It’s the “I-Thou” that Buber talked about.

You are the witness to my life, and I am the witness to yours.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Yesterday I took daughter Kelly to Wal-Mart to buy a new dvd player since hers had broken. (In case you weren't aware, an emergency of the first order!)

Half-way there Kelly asked me, "Why are we eating so healthy?" 

So we started talking about weight, and health, and exercise--not for the first time by any means.  Most of our residents struggle at least some with weight issues, and it poses a real predicament for us.  On the one hand, as adults they should have a significant degree of choice in this most basic human activity.  On the other, we're charged with exercising judgement and care when they can't (or don't want to) over things that impact their long-term health.

I recall a former case manager, Stephanie, who visited a diabetic camper who'd had to leave camp early because we couldn't control her blood sugar.  Stephanie has the world's softest heart, and she drove a considerable distance once the session was over to check on the lady, who weighed about 300 pounds and lived alone in a small apartment.  When Stephanie returned she said, "Judy, it just broke my heart.  Her whole house is crammed with candy and cookies.  Nobody's helping her control this disease."

During followup, she learned the camper did not have a guardian, and that her service coordinator had determined that they had no right to intervene.  The camper's right to choose the food she put in her mouth trumped the agency's duty to ensure her long-term health and well-being.  They did all the right things--training sessions, counseling, and education--and didn't feel they had any options to do more.

We run into the same issues with our guys.  (Oh heck, let's face it, we run into the same thing with ourselves.) 

But we're not giving up.  We're planning a major assault on fat and flab here at the Ranch, for everybody, not just the Ranchers.  We're writing grant proposals and talking to Weight Watchers and personal trainers.  We're investigating every nook and cranny of the Ranch and our activities to log where the extra calories come from, and determining how to limit them.

There has to be a way, and we have to find it.  People with Down syndrome are at high risk for diabetes and Alzheimer's, both of which can be influenced by proper diet and exercise, as can most disorders affecting the human condition.

 I'll be reporting on our progress.  Wish us luck.

Food images courtesy of Google Images

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Good Dog

“Lord, make me the person my dog thinks I am.”

Recently we got signed up on our vets’ web site. Dan and Sally have taken care of our horses, dogs, cats, goats, and pigs since the Ranch began. Suddenly there they all were, lined up on my computer. Many of them are gone by now, the cats mostly to coyotes, the dogs to various ends (including one to Dan and Sally), so I needed to delete their names. When I came to Dusty, I began to cry. Dusty died just before Christmas 2009. Following is his story.

He came to us in the Christmas season, and he left us in the Christmas season.

His name was Dusty, and he was a good dog.

We are devastated beyond understanding. It’s not that we didn’t know the time had come. He was blind, deaf, and covered with tumors under his shaggy, matted coat. He could barely make it the few inches over the doorstep to come into the house. But if he sensed your presence by touch or smell, he still managed a tail wag and a little shiver of delight.

On Christmas Eve of 1994 Jerry brought Dusty home as a surprise for Kelly, then ten. He excitedly called me to come out to the car to meet the newest member of our family. But as I reached out to pet him, he startled and snapped. Sadly, we made plans to take him back to the pound after Christmas.

We hid him in our bedroom, and he cowered under the night table. I sneaked him out to go to the bathroom after Kelly had gone to bed. He did his business and headed back to his hiding place.

Christmas morning the whole family arrived early. I’d taken Dusty out before they arrived and in all the confusion hadn’t thought of him since. Later on that morning, after the turkey was on and the mess of wrapping paper cleared away our three-year old granddaughter was put to bed for a nap. A short while later she emerged from the bedroom beaming. “Nana,” she exclaimed, “I found a puppy!” And there was Dusty, happy as anything, and ready to join our family, for better or for worse.

Now, 15 years later I knew the old boy didn’t have much time left, and expected that any day I’d return home to find him lying peacefully in a favorite spot in the yard. I wish it had happened that way.

Instead, one evening when I went to look for him to give him his supper he was nowhere to be found. I called and called, knowing it was futile because he couldn’t hear a thing. But he did that sometimes, wandered away investigating some interesting smell, only to return to his doghouse on the porch for the night.

Long before dawn I got up and went to the office for a few hours. The weather had changed, and the day dawned freezing cold and very windy. When I returned home, was horrified to see a dark shaggy shape lying still under the Carolina jasmine as the wind blew the branches aside. I ran over and fell to my knees.

As I feared, it was Dusty. I ran to get a blanket and transferred him onto it to bring him inside. I piled covers on him, my heart breaking to think he’d been lying only feet away from his beloved warm spot by the front door through all the long cold night.

He was clearly near death.

Hysterical, I called Jerry. “Our good boy is dying,” I wailed. He hurried home and together we sat beside our old friend, counting his slowing breaths.

Mid-morning I had to leave to meet a visitor and give her a tour of the Ranch. I arrived with eyes so swollen and face so red that I had to explain what was going on lest she think me either deformed or a madwoman. A bit later, as she was leaving, Jerry found me and said Dusty was gone.

We went to find Kelly, who was with her friends at the Learning Center, and broke the news. She wanted to see Dusty, so Jerry took her to the house. She cried and sat beside his now-still form, and leaned over and kissed him goodbye.

We buried him in the front yard, close to the house. Weeks later we still cry. We’ve lost a lot of dogs in our lives. But Dusty was special.

I have grieved as much over Dusty as over much-loved family members. He was a friend, and worthy of the name.

And we will miss him forever.

I Love You!

I brush past Sterling, who’s mucking out a stall, headed toward the main office with some important paperwork.

“Hellooooo, Judy!” he calls. “I looove you!”

I keep on walking raising my hand up with the sign for “I love you” for him to see, and smile to myself.

Jerry’s always telling Sterling, “You don’t always have to say you love people, Sterling. It’s ok just to say hello.”

Oh yeah, we struggle with “appropriate behavior.” We discourage random hugs. We do the Circles curriculum so Ranchers can see who it’s ok to hug, and tell them you love them. Those people are in the inmost circle, in the purple circle. (Other circles have varying degrees of distance. When a Rancher is really ticked off at another, he’ll say, “OK, you’re not in my blue circle now. You’re in my yellow circle!”)


Problem is, our Ranchers with Down syndrome have really big purple circles, and they're really crowded.

Plus I’ve known Sterling since forever, met him as a three-month old, wrestled with him when he came to camp as a rowdy ten-year-old, have traveled with him on many a road trip. He’s my daughter Kelly’s best-friend-boyfriend-fiancĂ©, a handsome dude with an impish smile.

Definitely in my purple circle.

So I claim love-you rights and hugging rights, any time, any day.

Here's wishing you a Happy Valentine's Day with the folks in your purple circle!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine Volunteers

It’s Saturday, and three young boys stand outside my office window in the dank morning chill debating the best way to transport cedar fence posts to where their dads are digging holes to construct a decorative fence for our new miniature horses.

Our Oklahoma valentines from Sunnybrook Christian Church in Stillwater are back!

They almost didn’t make it, scooting past the Dallas area, barely escaping the clutches of the worst of the huge snowstorm that paralyzed north Texas. Most of the trip was made at 40 mph.

But make it they did, arriving right on time Thursday evening—some 45 souls all in all, of all ages.

This is their second mission trip to Down Home Ranch. Last year they gave our bunkhouses and Pavilion bathrooms a face lift. This year they’re sewing drapes for the craft and resident meeting rooms, building a fence for our new miniature horses, and working on the Village lamppost project.

For the Ranchers, it’s a heart-warming visit. Our guests have arranged craft projects to do with them, and are providing dinner three nights in a row, concluding tomorrow with, natch—a Valentine’s Day Party. And we do love a party!

We simply couldn’t have built the Ranch without churches and church-going people. St. David’s Episcopal of Austin gave us money to install our very first septic system way back in 1991. (Jerry used to cringe when I brightly told members of that august congregation, “We think of you with gratitude every time we flush!)

Blythe Island Baptist from Georgia came all the way here to build our beautiful horse barn, framing it up in a week during a punishing September heat spell, then returning later to help finish the job.

Countless other churches and church groups have contributed over the years—Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Methodists, Catholics, Quakers, Presbyterians—the whole Christian church spectrum plus a sweet little bat mitzvah group of Jewish girls.

One thing we always hear from our volunteers is how blessed they feel to be able to contribute to the work we do and to get to know our Ranchers.

As for us, our gratitude knows no bounds. They’ve finished out our houses, built our fences, repaired our machinery, planted our poinsettias, dug out our gardens, and done everything else imaginable.

And they’ve also prayed for the Ranch, and for us, and for those in our charge.

And that has made all the difference.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back to Real Life

We’re back from our cruise on the Carnival Ecstasy to Cozumel and back! Had a great time, but now are having to get used to making our own beds, cooking our own food, and running our own karaoke machine again. Bummer!

Everyone, staff or Rancher, has a special memory of this year’s trip—Kyle dedicating a song to Alaina on the karaoke stage and then sweetly singing it, or our three decidedly non-hirsute contenders in the Hairy Man Contest (who were the crowd faves anyway).

For me, same as last year and the year before that, I carry away the memory of the unfailing graciousness and helpfulness of the on-board staff and crew.

Yes, I know they’re chosen, hired, trained, and paid to be accommodating. But really, who in the hospitality business isn’t? I’m still impressed.

We’re a high-maintenance group overall, with picky eaters, endless financial matters to negotiate, lost key cards and other little setbacks. And we’re not big spenders. Cruise lines depend on on-board sales to make a profit, and would go broke in a flash if they relied on the likes of us to buy enough jewelry and drink enough liquor to keep the fleet afloat.

Yet we were (and always have been) genuinely and happily treated like royalty by everyone, from the bursar’s office staff to the cabin stewards.

I noticed an article titled “Treat Your Family Like a Customer” in a business magazine shortly before leaving on the cruise and immediately thought “not!” But now I wonder: What would happen if we treated not just family but everyone the way we were treated by the Carnival staff?

Would the world be a better place or a worse place?

If nothing else, I think it’s fair to say at least some of the crew we met on-board weren’t feeling quite up to par, or were preoccupied with some worry, or were just plumb mystified by some of the behavior they had to witness or deal with.

Most of them spend nine consecutive months a year away from their homes and families caring for strangers on a large floating hotel. A lot of people could work up a pretty good grudge over that, I imagine.

That’s why I insist on the “recommended” gratuity (at a minimum) due each Carnival employee be paid by each person representing Down Home Ranch.

Not only do they rely on it, they more than deserve it for showing the rest of us how to make the world a better place.

So congratulations, and thank you to Carnival Cruise Lines, and all who work aboard the good ship Ecstasy.

You made our dreams come true.