Monday, December 1, 2014

From horror to help: an opportunity for change

About a month ago, I took a big change, a big chance, and published my own personal story with bullying in the Edgerton Reporter. It was something I shared with very few people, but I felt like it was time to share my story. I did it in the hopes that my story would be able to help someone else, let them know they are not alone. I also wanted to give them hope.

My life is not perfect, and the effects of the bullying and abuse I experienced still linger today. Chances are they will always be with me, but they do not define me.
About a week ago, a man stopped in the newspaper office. When I looked up, my boss was waving me over. She said the man’s daughter was special needs and was being bullied. After fetching a copy of my article for the man, I took a few minutes to talk with him and find out the situation.

It turns out that his 14-year-old daughter is going through a rough time. Like me, she has epilepsy (the special needs part). Like me, she is having problems at school and is being bullied. I spoke with the father for a while and said if he wanted me to, I was willing to speak with his daughter, and he seemed very receptive to it. He thought it would be really great for her to speak with someone who went through the same thing, came out on the other side, and is not a parent or authority figure.

This is exactly the kind of effect I hoped my story would have. This is why I spoke out, why I went public with my story. Many times, reporters respond to what has already happened. I feel incredibly blessed that I can potentially have the opportunity to be on the front lines, to potentially be a force of good in a young person’s life.

As her father was telling part of her story, I was thinking, “My God, this girl is a young me.” I could not ignore the similarities, even down to the epilepsy diagnosis. I know I can help this girl. I gave the father my name and number, and am hoping he will call me. Of course he also knows where I work, so I am not too worried about him losing my number and not knowing how to get ahold of me. (;

I am hoping that this is just the beginning. Stay tuned....

My story can be found here: 
Part 2:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Small gesture, big change

This post is long overdue, but since we have just celebrated Thanksgiving, I wanted to share this story because it really is so important. Even if you do not think you can make an impact, a small gesture can change someone's world.

In the past four and a half months, I have gone through a few setbacks: a head injury/trauma, family drama, the death of my grandmother, followed by the end of my relationship six days after the funeral, a suicidal friend and another friend going through a challenging time. The week of Nov. 10 was a rough one. I worked long hours, made a big mistake and went through hell while trying to secure my replacement phone through LifeProof, to no avail. Suffice it to say, when I left work on Friday, I was not in a good mood. The stress of the past months, and especially the past eight weeks, has been pretty brutal.

Around 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 14, I remembered that I had signed up to ring bells for the Salvation Army at Pick ‘n Save in Stoughton. Although I was really exhausted from the past week, there was no chance of me missing my 6-8 p.m. shift. I packed up at the office around 5:30 and made the trek to Stoughton.

Ringing bells was probably the best thing I did. Even though it was the first day of the Dane County Red Kettle Campaign, people were so generous. About two of every three people put something in my kettle. It might have been a few pennies, or a few bills, but most people put something in. And with every donation, I felt myself getting happier. The sadness inside me lightened and a smile spread across my face. It was not a fake smile, the one you put on to show the world, but a real one. The kind of smile that you only get by helping others and a cause much greater than your own.

Me with my Good Samaritan, Mitchell.
Twenty minutes before my two-hour shift ended, my day changed. One of the young cashiers, Mitchell, came out and gave me an individual bottle of milk and a pack of double-stuff Oreos. He thanked me for ringing the bells and went back to work. It seems like such a small gesture, the items probably cost about $3, but it totally changed my day. Tears came to my eyes as I was touched my the simple, selfless gift. After my shift ended, I turned the bells and kettle in and proceeded to tell the store manager about the kind gesture one of his employees made. I also took the time to thank the young man, who is a sophomore at Stoughton High School.

He said growing up, the start of the bell ringing marked the beginning of Christmas, and he just wanted to thank me for ringing. I told him how much his simple gesture meant to me. What really touched me is the simple, yet thoughtful gesture from someone so young. It warms my heart to realize the next generation has kind and thoughtful people. You don’t have to make a big gesture to change someone’s life. Indeed, it is the small things that mean the most. I am not sure if Mitchell realizes the power of his actions, but his gift had the power to change my day and my outlook.

As my shift came to an end, another young store employee tucked a couple bills into my kettle. Although I have been ringing bells for four years now, the kindness, support and generosity that I witnessed that day blew me away. The people of Stoughton - young and old - have huge hearts with a large capacity for love. I cannot wait to return there. Although I walked into the store feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I walked out with a smile and a spring in my step. It is true what they say: when you help others, you help yourself.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Performing in New York City

Talk about amazing. Yes, Monday, Nov. 10 got off to an early start. I chose to forsake the hotel breakfast at 5 a.m. and get an extra hour of sleep. The bus indeed left at 6 a.m. as the Edgerton High School band and choir students had to be in Times Square at 7 a.m. Rehearsal for the Band of Pride Tribute began at 7:30 a.m. sharp, with the performance beginning at 9 a.m. It was not what I was expecting.

All of the high school students, and I do mean ALL - from each of the 10 bands across the country - wore a white Band of Pride Tribute sweatshirt. Was that confusing? Yes, indeede do. Good thing I was traveling with the band and choir then or I might have gotten lost.

Imagine, students from 10 bands across the country all converging on Times Square to simultaneously perform patriotic tunes honoring our nation’s veterans. Approximately 100 of those students are Edgerton High School Choir students. The only choir in the nation selected to perform, the bands ceased as their voices lifted and they sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

In addition to honoring the nation's veterans, the 2014 Band of Pride Tribute marked the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam Conflict, a fact which hit close to home for some students.

“I think that this trip was absolutely wonderful, especially because of the fact that it was honoring the Vietnam War-which is where my grandpa fought and died,” Grace Reinhart said.

“Honoring the veterans was amazing because my grandfather died on duty,” Danielle Erb said. “This was so amazing and something that I will never forget.”

“Coming from a military family myself, it really hit close to home. This was an extraordinary trip to be on, and I am glad to be a part of it,” Kaleb Dix added.

The musical honor continued on Veteran's Day, when Edgerton students assembled to march down New York City's 5th Avenue. Students from across the country were not the only ones who showed up to honor the nation's veterans. The parade boasted 20,000 participants from veteran and service organizations, military groups, musicians, even Miss New York Jillian Tapper, who wowed the crowd with her baton twirling skills.

The Band of Pride Parade was more than a form of national entertainment. While the parade participants were assembling, local veterans were being honored in nearby Madison Square Park.

“Today we are here to pay tribute to America's veterans, the brave men and women who served in the military in war time and times of peace. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the writing of the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' 'Land of the free, home of the brave' is the ideology this great country was founded on,” said Wounded Warrior Project CEO Steven Nardizzi. “But I like to say that phrase a little differently. We are the land of the free because of the brave. Because of all of you here today. That is why today and every day we need to salute the service men and women who protect and preserve our way of life."

Wounded Warrior Project is an organization that supports wounded veterans in many ways. The Combat Stress Recovery Program addresses the mental health and cognitive needs of warriors returning from war. Soldier Ride is a four-day cycling opportunity for wounded service members and veterans to use cycling and the bonds of service to overcome physical, mental or emotional wounds. Wounded Warrior Project also offers educational programs, information technology training and employment assistance service to encourage economic empowerment for warriors.

“It is an awesome and humbling responsibility, but one we readily accept because this great country and the freedoms we enjoy are only possibly through the service and the courage and the sacrifice of our veterans,” Nardizzi concluded. “We live in the land of the free because of the brave. As American citizens, we are all responsible for helping our veterans - no matter what their injury - successfully reintegrate into their community. Today and everyday, let's let our veterans know that we remember and appreciate them because the greatest casualty is being forgotten.”

As the 95th annual Band of Pride Parade began, Edgerton High School student waited patiently to make their entrance behind the U.S. Army Band. First the Edgerton Color Guard, twirling the silver and black banners, followed by the band. Although they did not sing in the parade, members of the Edgerton High School Choir marched behind the band. Sixteen students were offered banners to march with, while other choir students teamed up to carry a large American flag down the street.

“One of my favorite moments was when we began the parade, we turned the corner onto 5th Avenue and saw the streets lined with thousands of people as far as the eye could see,” Skifton said. “People were yelling to us things like 'Welcome to New York,' 'Thank you for coming,' 'Go Packers!' and 'Go Badgers!' I also loved the looks on their faces everywhere we went.”

The importance, honor and pride of having the opportunity to honor the nation's veterans was best summed up by Edgerton High School student Alex Schmidt.

“New York City was one of the best experiences of my life. Representing our State of Wisconsin (and) honoring the veterans who protect our country was amazing, and nothing could ever beat that,”

Monday, November 17, 2014

Touring New York City

OK, so I am just a little behind on blogging about Edgerton High School’s New York City trip. But with everything that went on, I have been a little overwhelmed. The second day of the trip, Sunday, Nov. 9, included a bus tour around New York City and stops at Central Park, Conservatory Gardens and a visit to the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon.

Selfie with a street performer at the Strawberry Fields Memorial
There was a really neat moment at the Strawberry Fields memorial when the Edgerton students sang along with a street performer, then decided to take an epic selfie with the man.

Central Park was absolutely beautiful, although an hour is not enough time to really do it justice. As a photographer, my eye was drawn to the natural beauty of the spot. It is hard to imagine a serene, beautiful and wide open area like Central Park in the middle of a city which boasts a population of more than eight million people. And yet, we had a leisurely stroll and a beautiful day.

Conservatory Gardens was another breathtaking spot. We had but 15 minutes to check out the three separate gardens, which included fountains, trees...and tons of flowers. If I had more time, or if I lived in New York City, I could totally see myself going there on the weekends, sitting on a bench and reading. I did my best to capture the scenery, but it is just not possible to totally capture the beauty.

Allison Miller, Nikkia Johnson and Emma Tinoco at Conservatory Gardens.

After lunch at Shake Shack in Grand Central Station, it was off to see the Broadway production of “On the Town.” We were not disappointed. The singing and dancing was exquisite. I could tell immediately that the female lead had a strong dancing background. As it turns out, it was her Broadway debut, but she had indeed danced with the New York City Ballet. I must admit, I had no idea that those Navy guys were such good dancers. (;
Rockin' at Hard Rock Cafe
Dinner was at Hard Rock Cafe. The students ordered in advance, and rather than wait around and see if I could get a meal, I took the opportunity to take some night photos around New York City. I stayed within a few blocks of the restaurant, but I could not miss how alive the city became at night. And upon returning to the restaurant, I of course had to get my own picture in the iconic establishment. My inner rocker insisted.

The night ended “early,” as we returned to the hotel at about 8 p.m. That was mainly because Monday started bright and early, with our bus leaving the hotel at 6 a.m. That is when the real work will begin, with the students performing in the Band of Pride Tribute in Times Square.

Stay tuned....

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Touchdown in New York City!

Students re-enact Titanic on the ferry
It is about 11 p.m. over on the east coast, and I have to be up at 5 a.m., so this is going to be brief. On Friday, Nov. 7 at 1 p.m., Edgerton High School Band and Choir students departed for New York City. Last summer, Edgerton High School Band and Choir directors Valerie Gaffney and Kristin Skifton announced that their students had been selected to participate in the 95th annual Band of Pride Tribute and Veteran’s Day Parade.

The Edgerton community has rallied around the group, and the support was unbelievable. The $16,000 needed to purchase new choir uniforms was raised in a matter of weeks. And within the last year, donations totaling more than $80,000 for the trip have come flooding in. The Edgerton School Board approved more than $50,000 alone in the past two months. So when the students were boarding the bus to leave, it was no surprise that the community turned out to send them off. Students at the elementary school created handmade signs, and parents lined the streets to wave as the buses departed. Edgerton VFW members performed a gun salute before the buses left. The Depot Cafe wrote a message in chalk on their outside board, wishing the band and choir luck.

Me in front of Lady Liberty
Arriving in New York was a rather long affair, almost 19 hours (not including going forward one time zone). There was no rest for the weary, however, as students and chaperones needed to leave quickly to board the ferry for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Our Lady of Liberty is more than 300 feet tall. If you take the ferry past, she looks pretty tall, but for the first time, I docked and was able to walk around. And in person, she is a very imposing and proud woman. Taking pictures of the students with our Lady in the background was fairly challening, partly because there were so many people and partly because she was almost too large to get in the same frame. We had a half hour before we had to leave, so there was no time to walk inside the statue. I’ll save that for next time. We were supposed to make a stop at Ellis Island, but time was of the essence (and we missed an earlier ferry) so we had to skip it. I’ll have to save that for next time.

From there, it was time to catch a subway to Little Italy/Chinatown. We enjoyed a delicious pasta dish and dessert before making our way to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

I was there in April 2013 and saw the memorial pools, but the museum was a different experience. As I wandered through, it all came flooding back, and tears filled my eyes, although I kept them from overflowing. The video of the planes flying into the towers was horrifically mesmerizing, but what really got to me was a picture of three medical professionals. They had rushed to the scene and were prepared to help with the mass injuries that were expected....only they never came. Stretchers outside a nearby clinic remained vacant. There was no need for them. There were very few wounded from the collapse of the Twin Towers, and many dead.
The 9/11 Reflective Memorial pool at dusk
It was a history lesson for many of the students. As freshman to seniors, they would have been 2-5 years old when the terrorist attacks occured, much to young to really know what was going on. Touring the 9/11 Memorial Museum helped them understand. The videos, audio clips and artifacts can make it real for anyone. There were firefighters in the building helping evacuate people when the towers collapsed. One of the displays was a fire truck, half-crushed from the collapse.
By the time the group, including myself, checked in at the Hilton Hotel in New Jersey, it was around 9 p.m. I cannot speak for the students, but I was feeling pretty exhausted. Being on a bus for 20 hours and then touring for 12 hours? Sunday was going to be another busy day.

The half-crushed fire engine ladder truck

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Beating My Bullies (Part 2): The Road to Recovery

Yesterday I posted the first part of a story that ran this week in the Edgerton Reporter about the abuse and bullying I went through as a child, and how it affected me as a teen and adult. This is the second part of that article, my message to others, especially today's youth. Please read it and share with someone you love: a friend, sibling, your children, grandchildren. I became adept at hiding my pain, and by sharing, you may be helping more than you know.

A roller-coaster ride
During the past 10 years, my life has taken ups and downs. The depression I first swallowed in middle school as a result of bullying came back in waves. I still struggle with self-image as a result of the bullying I went through. It is hard for me to form relationships, hard for me to trust men. I have been lied to, manipulated and abused.

Myself at 19, as a freshman at UW-Whitewater
Bullying is a poison that can seep into the soul, leaving behind mistrust, self-doubt and self-loathing.

Three years ago, I re-discovered a gift given to me by a Secret Santa when I was in college. It was a refrigerator magnet with a quote by Souza:

“For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one. Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”

The message hit hard. I realized that if I wanted to be happy, I had to do things that made me happy. I had to stop waiting for happiness to arrive and appreciate the blessings I was given and greet each day with a smile. If I let what other people think of me define me, I will never be happy.

As an adult, I have turned my back on the traditional conventions of society. I have gone out in public wearing margarita sunglasses, donned a purple 'fro and tutu for a 5K race, of which my friend and I were the only ones in costume, and experienced the joy that a game of laser tag can bring.

Dash for Diabetes in May with my friend Nicole
The effects of being harassed and abused in my youth still linger. I still struggle with self-confidence, still want to be good enough for someone to love. I will most likely battle those insecurities for the rest of my life. But I no longer allow other people’s judgements and perceptions to define me.

My story is one that I have shared with just a few, until now. We are living in an age where bullying can spread outside the classroom and onto Facebook and other social media platforms. We are living in an age where secrets can destroy lives, and where teens have taken their own lives as a result of bullying.

As a reporter, I get to share stories of triumph, tragedy, love and loss. I also know that I am not alone. My message is for today’s youth, who are not only growing up and learning who they are, but who are doing it during the age of social media.
A message of hope and healing
As you grow up, there will be people who will try and tear you down, who will tell you that you are not good enough. A part of you will believe them, and happiness will seem a far goal. You may feel like you are alone during this struggle, but you are not. There are people in your lives, parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, neighbors, who love you and will be there to help you, if you have the courage to reach out and ask for help. I made the mistake of not going to my parents or other adults for help. I struggled in silence. I hope others can learn from my mistakes.

There is beauty and blessings in the world around you, and you can find peace in your gifts. You might be the next Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Brett Favre or Selena Gomez. Whether you can wax a verse like Shakespeare or just enjoy the simple, yet majestic beauty of a colorful sunset, find happiness in the world around you. Embrace your gifts and enjoy the beauty you contribute to the world.

The wise words of Souza struck a chord and changed my life
Bullies gain power when you give up. Do not grow up with your eyes cast downward. Just like you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take, you may miss a great opportunity when you avert your eyes from the world around you. A genuine smile can be your greatest defense. I have had challenges thrown my way, but today I know that even in my darkest moments, love and hope are always possible. Your life is what you make it, and the only power someone has over you is the power you allow them to have.

Happiness begins with you. Focusing on the positive can be challenging, especially when the negatives seem to loom over you. But if you embrace life’s treats, your own gifts and love the life you have been blessed with, the sorrows will seem less ominous and no bully can keep you pinned down.

You will find that life is a wonderful and precious gift. You are not wasting space, and the world will not be better off without you. You have the power to impact the world and your community in wondrous ways. You do matter, you have worth and you are loved. You are perfect just the way you are, and your life brings happiness to other people.

You are not alone. 

The issue of bullying is very near my heart. If anyone has questions or would like to speak with me, I can be reached by email at

-Thank you for listening,
Rachel Anne Wittrock

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Beating My Bullies (Part 1): Living in Fear and Darkness

I made a very personal decision recently and decided to publicly speak about my personal experiences with bullying, anorexia and depression. The following is the first part of the story that I published in this week's edition of the Edgerton Reporter. I will be posting the second half tomorrow. I hope you help me by spreading my message. As difficult as it was to put everything down in print, I feel it is my duty. If just one person is helped, it will be worth it.

October is the month of spooks and ghouls, breast cancer awareness and visits to the pumpkin patch. It is also National Bullying Awareness Month. Bullying is something I am all too familiar with. As a child, I lived in fear of my classmates. Being the lone Catholic in a Lutheran school is not a fun position to be in.

Darkness and despair
I was fed mouse, under the guise of whipped cream, during a birthday sleepover for one of my female classmates. My hands and feet were bound during my sleep, and my classmates laughed when I woke up and was less graceful than usual.

If it was not the girls teasing me and making jokes behind my back, the boys were there to physically assault me. I was punched and kicked on an almost daily basis, never hard enough to bruise, but it hurt all the same.

My senior picture, one month before school started
One day, after being punched and kicked repeatedly by one classmate, I returned to my classroom in tears. When the teacher asked what was wrong, I told her what transpired. Her response? She could not believe me because she knew there was friction between the male student and I, but she could not believe him when he said he did not physically hurt me because he was always getting into trouble.

My personal possessions were destroyed or hidden. I had to return home one cold winter day without a coat after someone stole it from my cubby. My parents were forced to purchase a second winter jacket for me, and that one also disappeared. Both were eventually “found” by a classmate, but no one knew how they were “misplaced.”

I was 13 the first time I contemplated ending my life. With no friends and no teachers taking my side, I lived in fear when I went to school. I had nightmares about being beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead. I was ridiculed on an almost daily basis and told that I was retarded, fat, ugly and no one would ever love me. After three years of fighting, I began to believe the mantra. I had no self-confidence and began to believe that the world would be better off without me. I was just wasting space.

My Catholic upbringing and the belief that I would burn in hell for the rest of my life is what saved me and kept me from ending my life. Fear can be a strong motivator. But happiness eluded me.

Welcome to the jungle
I found a piece of happiness in the bigger pond of high school. I was still teased, but thankfully not beaten. I made friends and found inclusion in my high school’s band program. And yet, at the back of my mind, the bullies were still winning. If a relationship did not work out, I thought it was because I was not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough.

My senior year of high school, the depression hit hard. My boyfriend was distant, and I was determined to earn his love. How? By being a better athlete, musician and student. I improved every single one of my cross country meet times and threw myself into my music. I earned three bids to State Solo and Ensemble, and three more state first place medals.

Come track and field, I left it all on the track, PRing by 20 seconds in the mile run during my first meet of the season. But it came at a cost. I became anorexic at the start of the school year. I would eat lunch with my friends, and clean off my tray. But 50 percent of the time, that was the only meal I ate all day.

My depression led to anorexia, and I dropped 30 lbs. in 7 weeks
I weighed 170 pounds at the start of the school year. By Thanksgiving, I had dropped to 140 pounds, and everyone told me how good I looked. On the outside, my life seemed perfect. But inside the bubble, it was dissolving into madness.

Consuming maybe 800 calories a day and being a three-sport athlete do not mix well. I came close to blacking out when sitting in class, and I was sick for most of the year. I would retain a common cold for three weeks, be “healthy” for a week, and then catch another bug. By denying my body of necessary nutrients, I was impairing my body’s ability to fight off infection and illness.

What saved me, of all things, was the dissolution of my relationship. After everything I tried and went through, my efforts were not good enough. That is when I took a good look at what I was doing to myself, and realized how toxic the relationship was.

Although my eyes were opened to the form of self-abuse my depression had taken, my dark cloud was still hovering. My road to recovery was just beginning, and it would be years before I would once again bask in the sunlight.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces

Signs...some people look for signs at every turn, while others believe that fate will have its way, no matter how observant you are. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and that God sends you signals when you need them most. Yesterday, I received a much needed signal.

Those who know me best know that the past few weeks have been pretty rough. The stress of losing my grandmother and being betrayed by someone close to me have taken their toll on me. Emotionally, I am completely drained, and my patience is shot. It is hard to get up in the morning to go to work, all I want to do is just stay in bed and not do anything.

I look forward to the weekend to escape from the rush and just relax. Yesterday, however, there was no time to relax. My co-worker was at home with his family to celebrate his son’s first birthday, which left me as last reporter standing. And with Olson’s Mud Run, the Edgerton Quilt Show and The Piano Men concert all taking place, my weekend was going to be quite busy.

I stopped by the Edgerton Quilt Show at 10 a.m., and of course forgot my camera. So I spent a couple hours looking and making notes of what I wanted to get pictures of when I returned. Around noon I headed home for lunch. After that, I went to Olson’s Mud Run and took photos for about an hour before returning to the quilt show to take pictures.

By that time, I was pretty exhausted and wanted a nap. However, I had to head back to Olson’s Mud Run to take more pictures, then return home and get ready to attend The Piano Men concert. All this running around was draining.

As I was driving back to Olson’s Mud Run, I was stopped in my tracks. Right before me was a vision in orange and red, a majestic tree with leaves of flame. What really struck me was even though the tree reached tall and proud into the sky, very few of its leaves had fallen. Unlike some of the trees next to it, there were no large bare patches.

The tree that stopped me in my tracks

Even though time was of the essence and I still had a lot of work to do, I knew I had to stop and take a picture of this tree. I pulled onto the side of the road and crossed the street to get a picture of the fiery foliage.

Same tree, different view
As I walked around the tree, I noticed something. I was immediately drawn to the red and orange, but the view from the opposite side was a vibrant yellow.

Upon closer inspection, I spotted green and yellow leaves, even Wisconsin trees love the Green Bay Packers!
Even nature loves to cheer "Go, Pack, Go!"
Before I knew it, I had spent 20 minutes photographing this one tree. I was calm and relaxed and my stress levels had decreased. This tree was more than just a tree, it was a sign.

It was a sign that in my hectic life, I needed to slow down. Whether it is stopping and smelling the roses or stopping and enjoying the fall colors, there is always time to take a breather.
Beautiful fall foliage
By taking the time to explore the tree’s many angles, I discovered there was more to the tree than first glance. Had I not stopped to take a picture, all I would have seen was that first passing glance. Beautiful yes, but it was just a part of the story. There is more to life than initial meetings and first glances.
Stop and smell the roses...err appreciate nature's beauty

It is not often that I see something that stops me in my tracks, that makes me stop everything I am doing. That is my fault. I spend so much time rushing from one thing to another, I do not spend time just looking. That tree was more than a sign, it was two-part lesson.

Fiery beauty close to the sky
Lesson 1: Slow down. Life can get hectic, but do not be so busy that you let the simple joys and beauty pass you by.

Lesson 2: Dig deeper. Explore things from all angles. What may appear beautiful or unique from one side may look different when viewed from another angle. Viewing something from another angle does not make it less beautiful, you just appreciate and value it even more for its unique traits and characteristics.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The small gift that saved my life

The journey of one’s life is a rocky one. There are times when everything seems perfect and you are floating on cloud nine. Then things begin crashing around you, and you wonder if you will ever be happy again. 

UW-Whitewater Track
My childhood was a rocky one. I was abused by my classmates in middle school. A Catholic in a Lutheran school can be very lonely, and I came to expect punches and kicks instead of helping hands. I was the black sheep in the herd, and spent most of my middle school years very lonely and scared. 

When I got to high school, things were good for a while. But peer pressure began to cave in my senior year. In a desperate attempt to win the love of my boyfriend, I strove to improve every aspect of my life, from music and athletics to academics and my personal appearance. It took a toll and I became anorexic. I again felt alone. I was that insecure middle school girl again, desperately wanting to fit in. Life was dark, and I contemplated suicide, not for the first time, and not for the last. I never followed through on my dark acts, but I felt very isolated, lonely and unloved. 

I found a ray of hope in college, made new friends and finally felt accepted, just the way I was. By that time I was no longer anorexic, although I was a size 8 for the first time in my life. I still had the body of the anorexic I left behind just a few months prior. 

I made it on my university’s track and field team, and during the Christmas season, we participated in Secret Santa. My Secret Santa, who I have since forgotten, gave me a refrigerator magnet with a quote about happiness on it. I promptly put in on my fridge and forgot about it. Although I moved around a bit in college, I never lost that magnet.

Relationships took their toll on me. I dated a guy who used me and forced me to do things I did not want to. I did my best to forget. I dated another guy for 16 months. We had our ups and downs, but when the relationship failed, I fell to pieces. I did not want to live anymore. My depression came back in full force, along with the suicidal thoughts, the sense of hopelessness and despair. I was diagnosed with insomnia and had to drop out of college for the remainder of the semester. 

A few weeks later, the boyfriend and I got back together. I was happy, but had a hard time trusting him. Then a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver. The waves of anger poured over me, pain, loss, grief, despair. I fell away from God, thought he was evil. Four months later, my relationship fell apart for good. 

When I graduated college, I was lost. I remember thinking “When will my life turn around? When will I be happy again?” 

Then during the summer of 2011, I was walking through my kitchen and something made me stop and look at a magnet on my fridge. It was that same magnet that I was given more than six years ago in college. 

“For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin-real life, but there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one. Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” - Souza

The $3 magnet that saved my life
Although I had it for years, I never really read it until that day, really absorbed the truth of those words. When I did, my eyes and mind were opened. I needed to stop waiting for God to make me happy, stop waiting for things to be perfect. Things were never going to be perfect, and happiness would never arrive. Happiness had to be made, be found. If I wanted to be happy, I needed to stop waiting to be happy and instead do things that made me happy. It was my job to make myself happy, no one else’s. 

That magnet probably cost about $3, but it gave me my life back. My perspective shifted. During the past three years, life has been pretty rocky. I have been lied to, mistreated and manipulated by those of the opposite sex. There have been points where life was pure hell, and financial stress caused by my last job took its toll on me. I learned - again - that I should avoid roommates at all cost. 

And yet, even when things were bad, I still found ways to be happy. I tried my hands at equestrain vaulting, went skydiving, rappelled down a 13-story building and even participated in a military workshop, where I was able to drive a $250,000 piece of military robotics. Life was not perfect, but the burden I had carried with me in my youth was lifted. 

I learned a lesson that many people learn much later in life, or never learn at all. Life will throw you curve balls, hard balls, and maybe even a couple bowling balls. You will get knocked on your ass. There will be pain. It will not look the same to everyone, but you will get knocked down and collect a few bruises. If you dwell on the pain, you will be miserable. You will get lost in the abyss. 

I wish I could remember who my Secret Santa was all those years ago, wish I could thank her and tell her how much her gift meant to me. It was a few dollars for her, but it gave me my life back. She was my angel, and her gift saved my life.

The key to happiness is not having a perfect life. There is no such thing as a perfect life. It is finding the beauty in the world and appreciating your blessings. It is doing things that bring you joy, doing things that make you marvel at the wonders of the universe. It could be running a 5K where you get hit with bright color bombs, scaling a mountain or even just enjoying a beautiful aria. Whatever makes you happy, embrace it. 

And whatever you do, remember “Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”

Monday, October 13, 2014

27 Highlights of my 27th year

Well, it has been quite a year. I have really enjoyed being 27. After all, it is not every day that you turn three cubed! The last time I was an age cubed was my golden birthday (8), and I will not be an aged cubed again until I am 64! 
I turned 28 on Oct. 8, and as I was reflecting on the past year, I wanted to share some of the amazing and fun moments during by three-cubed year. There was laughter and tears, but at the end of the day, it realy is a wonderful life. 

1. Climbing my first mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro. Along the way, I learned a lot about myself, God and teamwork. I did not make it all the way to the summit, but ascending to 16,404 feet is not bad for my first mountain climb!

The Mt. Kilimanjaro group on our last day.
2. Travels in Tanzania. I spent three wonderful weeks in Tanzania, assisting the locals with medical and educational mission work. I worked in the New Life Band School, a local birthing clinic and even sat in on two medical workshops. 

3. Meeting my student, Onory Godfrey. I have sponsored Onory’s education since August 2013. A future educator, it was good to hear about how hard he is working at his own education.

4. Going on my first safari. I spent two days on safari at Lake Manyara National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. I spotted a baby elephant, giraffes, cape buffalo, lionesses, baboons, various birds, hippos, zebras, wildebeest and even blue-balled monkeys.

5. New friends. My Tanzanian friends taught me about life, friendship and appreciation for the simple things in life. So often I sweat the small things, but the truth is, my life is pretty great. If people spent more time being happy with what they have instead of focusing on what they do not have, the world would be a happier place.

6. Ugly Sweater Run. My sister and her family joined my friends and I at the Ugly Sweater Run last year. For the first time, my dog Artemis was able to run with me. He sported his own ugly sweater and ran by my side. We ran into a couple other dogs wearing the exact same ugly sweater as Artemis, and had a couple “Who Wore It Better?” moments. 

7. Shopping for my ugly sweater. My friend Chris Rogers joined me during the Ugly Sweater Run as well. We had a hilarious time shopping for our ugly sweaters at Ragstock in Madison. I could not stop laughing as we browsed the racks looking for the most hideous ugly sweaters we could find. 
Artemis, me and Kaity Klemp at Run, Santa, Run

8. Run, Santa, Run. I joined team Cole and the Gang for Run, Santa, Run last December. While I always enjoy running with them, I was blown away when I ran into my friend Katie Klemp at the start of the race. I had a little skirt mishap at the start, but caught up to her soon. We finished the race together, two elves in a pod. Artemis again joined me, this time wearing a Santa hat.

9. Losing my apartment and work keys. My New Year’s Day began on a rocky start. And while losing one’s keys for three days may not sound like it belongs on a Best Moments list, finding them using a rented metal detector was pretty bad-ass. 

10. Tough Mudder. After three years of wanting to participate, I finally completed Tough Mudder Wisconsin on Sept. 7, 2014. I survived Electroshock Therapy, Arctic Enema, 12-foot walls, mountains of mud and more. Definitely the hardest 11.22 miles of my life, but I am proud to say I am Tough Mudder Strong!

11. Bad-ass might be the word of the year. I spent Valentine’s Day at the Deerfield Indoor Pistol and Archery Ran
Target practice with a Tommy gun on V-Day.
ge. While other people were spending the day with loved ones, I celebrated the 85th anniversary of the Valentine’s Day Massacre with some target practice with a Tommy gun at the range. 

12. Mohawk for Mudder. If you are going to be bad-ass, you need a bad-ass haircut. During Tough Mudder, the BIC company was doing mohawks for Wounded Warrior Project. Each haircut was $10 to the non-profit, with a goal of 10,000 mohawks and $100,000. It was a little nerve-wracking to see my shoulder length hair chopped off, but I totally rock the mohawk!

13. New love. At the end of January, I was introduced to a former Army recruit. We had virtually nothing in common, except for a love of Volbeat, but enjoyed each other’s company. Ultimately the relationship did not work out, but I enjoyed a few very happy months, and I wish him the best.

Seeing Volbeat in concert in LaCrosse
14. A Warrior’s Call. My love of Volbeat was cemented in April when Leo and I traveled to LaCrosse to see them perform in concert. My ears were ringing for a couple days afterward, but nothing beats being down on the floor, about 15 feet from the stage, when the band is playing “Lola Montez.” 

15. Musical Horns. Waiting for 45 minutes to leave the parking lot after the Volbeat concert might seem like an inconvenience, but I was very amused when I heard four or five cars honking “Jingle Bells,” round robin style. Sometimes the small things in life can bring much pleasure. 

16. Em’s Treats. The ice cream man comes to town. Speaking of simple pleasures, the child in me was delighted when a local couple opened an ice cream truck in Edgerton. Hot summer days were just a bit cooler when I heard the chimes announcing Em’s Treats was coming down my block. Sometimes it was a Choco Taco, other days I craved an ice cream Twix, but either way, the tasty treat made my weekends better. 

17. Concerts in the Park. Once a month during the summer, Edgerton hosts Concerts in the Park at Commons Park. The last one in August featured a big band group, and they ended with “Sing, Sing, Sing.” So what that I was there for work and the horns were a swinging from side to side. My camera goes down and the dancing shoes come out when the band is playing my song! 

My neuron
18. The Neuron Project. At the end of January, I attended my first Lily’s Luau in Madison. While I was there, Lily’s Fund for Epilepsy Research announced the Neuron Project, an art installation at UW-Madison that raises money for epilepsy research. I saw the design and knew I had to be a part of it. I purchased a small neuron for $1,000, to be paid off during a 2-year period. It is absolutely stunning. As someone who was diagnosed 25 years ago with epilepsy, it is very close to my heart, and I am honored to be part of something that is a symbol fo beauty and hope for future generations. 

19. Rotarian Rachel. A few months after moving to Edgerton, I decided to join the local Rotary group. Although attending the Tuesday meetings at noon can be a challenge with my schedule, being part of Rotary, especially on behalf of Hope 2 Others, gives me a sense of purpose and pride. Helping others brings me much happiness. You really do get more than you give.

Dash for Diabetes with Nicole
20. Dash for Diabetes. I will admit, I am not much for the “normal” races, the ones without mud, electricity or obstacles. But in support of the local Edgerton Lions group, I signed up for Dash for Diabetes in May. The 5K race is pretty straightforward, but Nicole Matts Jackson and I strutted our stuff. We donned purple tutus for the race, and I also wore a purple fro and moustache sunglasses. Not only did we look absolutely FABULOUS, but I happened to win my age group! It just goes to show that you can be stylin’ and fast! 

21. Olson’s Mud Run. Last October, I attended a local event called Olson’s Mud Run. Hosted by Tom Olson, it brings together big trucks and mud, lots and lots of mud. During last year’s event, I even got to ride in one of the trucks. We got stuck right away, but it was a blast! On top of that, my photo collage of the event earned Honorable Mention during this year’s National Newspaper Association contest. The event will take place again this Saturday, Oct. 18!

22. Oh, What a Night! As part of my 27th birthday celebration, my parents took me to see Jersey Boys in Madison! A tale of triumph and tragedy, fame, fortune and loss, the songs were expertly performed and we were tapping our toes along with the music of Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons. 

23. A Night of Giving Hope 2 Others. The event came together very quick, in a matter of a couple months, and the end result was an elegant affair. African dancing and music, food and we raffled off two beautiful gemstone pendants. I spent the entire evening taking photos and making sure everything ran smoothly, but I did get to enjoy one glass of champagne and some of the food. When I die, I totally want to be buried with Africa meatballs and bacon-wrapped dates.

24. Burpee 5K. Lord knows I like to challenge myself. On Sept. 21, just one day after completing my fourth Rockman Challenge triathlon in Watertown, I participated in the Burpee 5K. Team Cole and the Gang met at the Oregon High School track and collectively did 3.2 miles of burpees. I personally did 3/4 of a mile of burpees. For someone that struggled to 25 of them during a workout for our Mt. Kilimanjaro climb, doing burpees for two hours straight was pretty brutal. And yet, it just goes to show there is nothing I will not consent to do, and my body has been very agreeable with these crazy challenges of late. 

Axe-throwing with Leo
25. Monet to Gogh. Anyone who has seen my drawings knows that I am not an artist. Yet when Janesville artist Valerie Saxer held a Monet to Gogh painting class at The Depot Cafe, I was all over it. As a result, a painting of “Starry Night” is now proudly hanging in my living room. It just goes to show that with a little patience and guidance, the inner artist in all of us can be released. I had to miss the second class a couple weeks ago due to work, but I am hoping I can attend another one in the future.

26. Axe-throwing. Just because I have to work does not mean it cannot be fun. While covering the annual Tobacco Days festival in Edgerton at the end of July, I tried my hand at the axe-throwing competition. I was not one of the finalists, but I had a blast chucking axes across the grass. I think mine made it 77 feet, while the top female was more than 100 feet. Life is about trying new things, and when you can throw axes with your friends, all the better! 

My new car, a 2014 Ford Escape!
27. Vroom vroom. I hit a major life milestone, just 12 days before my 28th birthday, when I purchased my first car! I am the proud owner of a 2014 Ford Escape, that had all of 37 miles on it when I drove it off the lot. I first talked with my parents about purchasing a new car in 2010, but until I got my job with the Edgerton Reporter in August 2013, buying a new car was out of the question. But my current job has given me financial security and peace of mind, and I am so excited to finally have a car all of my own!

The past year has been filled with excitement and new adventures. While I know I cannot afford to travel to Africa every year, I am determined to continue breaking outside of my comfort zone and try new things. I already started my 28th year with a high-flying hang gliding adventure. In the meantime, I know that “My future is so bright, I gotta wear shades!”

Saturday, July 12, 2014

My final day in Tanzania

Well, this is it. My last day in Tanzania has come to an end. I accompanied Karen Klemp, Nancy Comello and Amy Martin to the mother and baby clinic in Arusha today. The three of them hosted another Healthy Births and Babies and Helping Babies Breathe class. 
Practicing newborn resuscitation during Helping Babies Breathe

The classes focused on some good birthing positions, some complications that may arise during birth, such as shoulder dystentia, what to do if the umbilical cord is wrapped tightly around the neck, and what to do if the baby is not breathing.

Amy, Karen and Nancy stressed the importance of not cutting the umbilical cord right away. Leaving the cord attached for a minute or two after birth can prevent anemia in the first 6 months. They also told the gathered midwives that putting the baby against the mother’s skin helps keep the baby warm. Two very simple things, but they can make the difference in a young baby’s first moments and days of life. 

The second part of the class focused on what to do if a baby is not breathing. Amy told the midwives that if a baby is born and starts crying, that is good. But if the baby is not crying, they should clear the mouth of mucus and dry it. If the baby is still not breathing on its own, they should start doing newborn resuscitation, or rescue breaths. 

With about eight practice babies available, each of the 15 midwives in attendance was able to practice the skill. This is just the first class the trio will be hosting. They are planning to return to the clinic on Monday before they travel to Dar es Salaam, where they will host similar classes.

The graduates with Leah Narans (left) and Karen Klemp (right)
After the classes and lunch, we headed back to Eliza’s. Jane and I are sadly flying out tonight, and we needed to finish packing before heading to Ondo’s for the graduation ceremony. Leah Narans’ Medical Sciences and Lab Skills students successfully completed their five weeks course, and we had a fun ceremony to recognize their success. Leah said with all they learned during her class, they would be ready to draw blood at a hospital. What a blessing it was to have her volunteer her time and her summer to teach the students skills that can translate into a profession.

Speaking of students, I was finally able to meet the student I sponsor, Onory Godfrey, the other day. I began sponsoring his education at the New Life Band School last August, and my parents agreed to split the cost of his education with me this year. He is doing very well in school and would like to one day become a teacher. My parents sent me with a Brewers hat and Packers shirt to give him, and he loved the gifts. 

There is a very distinct difference between high school students in America and those in Tanzania. In the United States, high school students usually graduate at age 17 or 18. The average age of a graduate at the New Life Band School is 19-24. That is because their education may be interupted. If a student cannot afford to go to school, they may have to take a year off before they can find the funds. The big thing is getting good grades to continue their education. 
I have traded phone numbers with my student, and I hope to stay in contact and hear about how his education is going. 

My student, Onory Godfrey
Here I am, sitting in the Kilimanjaro Airport with Jane Krogstad, and I cannot believe that my two and a half week trip is at an end. It has been an amazing experience, and I am very sad to be leaving. I know I must return, but I am afraid that I will not see my own country the same way. 

Everyone in Tanzania is so happy, so cheerful, and they do not have the same opportunities I do as an American. At the same time, it seems like the people of Tanzania are happier than many people in America. 

Well, our flight from Kilimanjaro to Istanbul will be departing in about an hour. We have about a 3 hour layover in Istanbul before the final leg back to Chicago. Even though we fly out at 2:10 a.m. on Saturday, July 12, we will be arriving in Chicago by 5:30 p.m., and I should be back in Janesville by 8:30 p.m. World magic, I like to call it. 

To everyone who has followed along on my journey, thank you. I have immensely enjoyed my trip, and am glad to be able to share a bit of it with all of you. I know it is not a matter of if I will be back, but when. My goal? Summer 2016!