Young people and students
Jing was 16 months old, just weeks ahead of playing make believe, running, jumping, and exploring. Only those developmental milestones she was on target for reaching, had to be delayed. The course of her life was about to make a detour that would alter her journey for a very long time.
Jing was born to parents who lived in a rural village of southwest China where central electricity and modern plumbing were unavailable. Meals were cooked over an open fire, that one fateful day burned much of the newly mobile infant’s body. By the time Jing celebrated her second birthday, she had already undergone three surgeries.
Her story traveled to the United States via the media and internet, and eventually led her to Cincinnati, one week past her second birthday in 2012, where she has been living with a host family and receiving treatment from Shriner’s Hospital for Children – Cincinnati.
Her injuries caused airway obstruction which made it difficult to stay asleep for longer than 90 minutes at a time. She had lost vision in one eye, and the Chinese hospital had fused the lid. Jing’s mouth was so contracted from scar tissue that she could only consume bottles of formula. Over the next year, Kevin Yakuboff M.D., FACS, FAAPS, surgically released Jing’s mouth and neck, which allowed her to enjoy solid food for the first time. (Meatballs were a favorite!) He corrected her eyelid for a more symmetric and balanced appearance. By her third birthday, Christopher Gordon M.D., FACS, FAAP surgically altered her jaw, a major advancement which opened her airways and allowed her to sleep through the night for the first time.
An ocean separating them, when it had become clear that it was in Jing’s best interest to stay in Cincinnati near to her medical team, her parents wanted that for their daughter, and Jing’s host family became her adopted family.
Enter Portrait of a Soul
It is children like Jing who give Cincinnati philanthropists Lee and Sue Schaefer purpose. Four years ago they founded Portrait of a Soul, a nonprofit organization which partners with elite artists to create beautiful, fine art portraits of children with craniofacial conditions or other differences.
“For a child, having a portrait of him or herself, tells them ‘you matter, you are important’,” Lee told me. “We had a little girl who looked at her portrait and said she couldn’t believe an artist touched that portrait 100,000 times just for her. Most of the kids want their scar showing but don’t always have to. We just want it to be a positive, uplifting experience for them. The fact that someone cares about them is what they walk away with.”
The first step is meeting with the artist to make sure he/she has a “heart for the project and the child”, something top on the Schaefer’s priority list. Once artists have been paired with a child, they meet and typically the artist will take a lot of photos before going into the studio to illustrate their interpretation of their subject’s soul. Children do not see the finished result until an unveiling event – usually some 4 to 6 months later. It is a process that forms special bonds. Lee and Sue, who have no children of their own, have been to numerous high school graduations, birth parties, plays and other celebrations.
Holly Schapker painted two portraits, one of which was just unveiled at the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati. “It is interesting that for so many years, I have been building my skillset and it feels like all my skills have been for this purpose. I don’t see a higher purpose as an artist,” she told me.
Jing loves art and reading, and panda bears. And, now, after the unveiling of her portrait by Tracey Ellis-Haynes at Shriner’s Hospital, the world will know that too (as a high quality reproduction will hang at Shriner’s Hospital and Jing has the original). “I love it because it has my stuffed panda, Xi Xi, in it. Then everybody can see her. I am proud because my artist did a great job,” she told me.
I asked Lee how their nonprofit has impacted him and his wife. “We are very humbled by it,” he said. We don’t want the project to be about Sue and me. This is our way of giving back. We have gotten more out of it than we ever thought. It is the neatest thing that we have ever done.”
You may find them dancing, sightseeing, hiking, tending to vegetables in a garden, or volunteering their time. One day they may be exploring Fort Ancient, the next they may be touring one of the local waterways on a pontoon boat. One day they may be sorting items at Matthew 25: Ministries, and another day you may find them giving of their time to a different organization. They may be checking out the butterflies at Krohn Convservatory, exploring one of Cincinnati’s parks, or learning about history or art in one of our area museums. Or they may be in the kitchen practicing their cooking skills.
One thing is for certain, the adults who participate in LADD (Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled)’s Community Connections Program are living fuller lives. They are surrounded by friends and a supportive network. They are learning more about this great region that all of us share.
LADD’s Community Connections is the only non-facilities based program of its kind in Cincinnati. In groups of 3 to 5 adults with developmental disabilities, participants choose places in our area to explore with one of LADD’s social guides. The Program reduces isolation and also provides an opportunity for participants to learn and strengthen life and communication skills, build confidence through decision making, and explore their own likes and dislikes.
Melissa Caywood once told me that, “Without it, I would be doing nothing. Community Connections keeps me busy and I like to be busy.”
Faith Maynard is program manager for LADD. “Part of this process of advocacy is taking stock of who they are – and what they want to accomplish by exploring what they like and don’t like in the world,” she explained.
I love that whole idea. In my work with the organization, getting an opportunity to tag along with one of the groups makes my whole week. These adults have become my friends. When they smile, I smile. When they they tell me about how their making a difference makes them feel good, it makes me feel good too. When I see the interaction between staff and participants, I am reminded of what working with heart is all about. When I see them out in the community, doing what all of us have a right to be doing, I think this is just as it should be.
Community Connections is about so much more than just an activity to occupy a day. It is about relationships being built and strengthened. It is about people who deserve to be included and valued, being included and valued.
One of the groups recently gathered at the Contemporary Arts Center to create handmade birthday cards for children at St. Joseph Orphanage. A few visitors of the CAC stopped by to help. Each card was personalized with stickers, drawings and messages.
“Our kids that stay with us love to receive cards to display in their rooms. Oftentimes they are in the custody of children services and the cards received from caring card pals will be the only cards they get. Knowing someone in the community cares enough to make a card helps them feel valued and special. Thank you LADD!,” Lisa Caminiti, community relations/volunteer coordinator for St. Joseph Orphanage told me.
And how did Community Connections participants feel about their gifts?
“I think it is going to make the kids feel good and it makes me feel good to do that,” Trip Huggins told me.
“It makes me happy to make the cards because I know I am helping someone,” Erin McDermott said.
There is something so uplifting about seeing the beautiful heart of a little child who already at a very young age knows and appreciates what it means to be kind to others. And behind that child is very likely adult role models from whom those values have been instilled.
Just recently they delivered filled boxes to Adopt a Book, a local nonprofit organization run by two teens and their mother, to be given to other young people without the means to buy their own books. It was an incredible gift; but what makes it even more so is the story behind that delivery.
It all began when plans were underway for Eva’s third birthday party. Kristin and Tim came up with the idea of asking guests to each bring a book or two toward the collection. It seemed like a perfect age and a perfect opportunity to be teaching their daughter a lesson in giving back.
Eva and her mom made a banner to hang above the donation spot, and thank you notes for their friends who pitched in. “Our hope was to collect 50 books or so. Given that we only had about a dozen families coming, we thought that was an ambitious but still reasonable goal to achieve,” Kristin told me. “We were blown away by their generosity. We collected nearly 230 books!”
And that wasn’t all. Eva and her mom spent an afternoon painting lots of pieces of card stock, transforming them with brilliant hues into bookmarks that would become part of their donation. “Eva picked her colors carefully and told everyone she talked to for the next week about how she got to make bookmarks for kids who don’t have books,” Kristin said.
Below is more of my conversation with Kristin.
Lisa: What are some of Eva’s qualities that you would like to share with us?
Kristin: Eva is an amazing littler person! She can be shy and slow to warm-up to people, but once you’ve made it into her inner circle, she will do whatever she can to let you know how special you are. She is very smart and stubborn. It amazes me how well she already knows her own mind at only three years old. There are so many things I could tell you about her, but it’s her kind and loving heart that I love most!
Lisa: Explain how this whole idea came about?
Kristin: My husband and I have always hoped to instill a sense of community and a spirit of giving in any children we have. We’ve both always made it a priority in our own lives to give back and serve our community when we can, and have both had wonderful examples of that in our own parents. Eva is at an age where she’s really excited about being “a big helper”. As she develops her own individuality, she is learning to be more independent. That newly discovered independence combined with her big heart make her incredibly eager to help others in whatever small ways she can.
As we are seeing this side of her personality develop, we thought she might be at a good age to show her ways we can be involved in our community and help others, so we decided to invite guests to her birthday party to bring a donation of some sort instead of gifts. We wanted to pick an organization we felt represented Eva’s interests, and something she could be excited about. Since she loves books and reading so much, we started looking for organizations that serve children and somehow foster learning, literacy, and a love of reading.
Lisa: Does Eva understand why she did it?
Kristin: We decided on Adopt a Book a couple months before the party, which gave us lots of time to talk about it and help her understand what we were trying to do. Because she has such a giving spirit, she understood pretty quickly and was excited about the idea of it. When we went shopping for books to donate, she helped pick most of them out. She tried to pick books and characters she knows her friends like because she thought other kids might like them too. When the party came, I heard her telling several people that we were going to take all of the books to kids who don’t have books of their own, which was pretty cool.
Lisa: As a parent, I bet you are very proud of her.
Kristin: Leading up to her party and after we collected all of the books, I was just so amazed by how much Eva understood our goal and how excited she was by it! I really wasn’t sure she would get it, and figured that this year it was more my husband’s and my project, and maybe next year she could be more involved. Boy was I wrong! From choosing the books we donated, to explaining our goal, to making the bookmarks…she was involved every step of the way!
The moment that really got me was after her party. We were opening the handful of gifts she’d gotten, and a few people had gotten her books in addition to the books they donated. As we’re sitting there looking at the books, she picked up a couple of them and took them to table of donated books. When we told her she could keep those books, she said “I know. I have lots of books. Kids who don’t have books can have these.” And they were pretty cool books!
For her to decide, completely on her own, to give away birthday presents she liked and would enjoy simply because she thought other kids needed them more was really amazing to me. It’s a side of her I know we will get to see a lot more of, and I think we have a new birthday tradition!
Last night, I asked Kristin to talk with her daughter about the meaning of their actions. She shared with me how it went.
Eva explained that the reason they collected books was, “because I like reading books and I want them (other kids) to like reading books too.”
The rest of Eva and her mom’s conversation went like this:
Kristin: “Was it nice of us to get the books for kids who don’t have them?”
Eva: “Uh huh!”
Kristin: “And why do we want to do nice things for people?”
Eva: “Because it makes them happy.”
Kristin: “Any other reasons?”
Eva: “Because when we’re nice to people, they get happy and feel good, which makes me feel happy too!”
Such a powerful lesson from an amazing little girl!
I have often said I am so fortunate that my work has introduced me to some pretty incredible people. Carol Stevie is among them. We came to know each other through my work on the Greater Cincinnati Planned Giving Council’s Voices of Giving Awards. A committee member, Carol had been my main point of contact for numerous years. Always appreciative, upbeat and welcoming, she was one of the reasons I looked forward to that project.
Carol was involved through her work with a Cincinnati nonprofit organization, Catholic Inner-City Schools Education (CISE), which supports the education of about 2000 urban students at eight Catholic elementary schools and several Catholic high schools. The CISE schools welcome all children, regardless of their religious backgrounds and economic circumstances. (Around 75% of the students at CISE are not Catholic, 83% are minorities and 93% are poor.) Carol worked there almost twenty years before her retirement, 8.5 years as its part-time associate director and 11 years as its first full-time director.
CISE was, and probably still is, her passion; although now, in her retirement she is enjoying spending quality time with her family – husband Richard, two adult daughters & spouses – Beth Walker (Tom), Laura Ash (Joe) and our four grandchildren Nathan, Evan, Ava and Eli. Retirement also gives me more time to pursue my love of travel and to plan our upcoming adventures. In the fall, she will be doing more volunteering.
Lisa: Tell me about some of what you are most proud of in life.
Carol: One of things of which I am most proud – in addition to my family – is having had the opportunity to work with CISE and have a positive influence on the lives of so many young people. The growth of community support of the CISE program over the past 20 years has been amazing. It was a privilege to work with the dedicated, hardworking CISE Board and staff, as well as with the principals, staff and faculties of the CISE schools. They are all so mission-driven and inspiring. In addition, I am in awe of the extremely generous donors who have done so much for the students at the CISE schools over the years because they feel committed to giving children the same opportunities that they have receive. Everyone involved with CISE shares the belief that education is the key to overcoming poverty.
Lisa: Where does that drive and passion come from?
Carol: My personal belief in the power of education was shaped by my mother. I grew up in East Price Hill and attended St. Lawrence School, now a CISE school. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to attend college and worked hard to provide for our family. My mother was insistent that my sister and I go to college because she wanted us to have more opportunities than she had. Mom went to work full time to pay for our tuition at Seton High School and to put us both through the University of Cincinnati. I am so grateful to her and have been inspired by her selflessness and by the great value she placed on education.
Lisa: Tell me a little about your philosophy on life.
Carol: I believe the reason that I was drawn to CISE is that we are all connected through our humanity. I love the following quote by Dr. Martin Luther King: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
Children living in poverty, or in need of tutoring or mentoring, are not relegated to certain neighborhoods. They are all around us. They could be our neighbors or someone living down the street. They could be a classmate to your child. Let’s face it, on any given day, any one of us could find ourselves in a situation of needing assistance of some kind.
I learned about a program in my neighborhood this weekend when I went to my local Kroger store. There in the parking lot was a group of youth and adults, including a Blue Ash police officer with a van that had its back end open. It was stuffed with bags of food, and I gave them one more.
They were collecting food as part of a Sycamore Township nonprofit organization called Operation Give Back that provides programs and services specifically to neighborhood students whose families are having financial hardship.
OGB’s signature program is its After-School Tutoring and Mentoring Program, working closely with the Sycamore Community Schools to identify students in 2nd – 8th grades who would benefit from academic support or assistance with other skills. Approximately 35 students per year are transported by Sycamore District Buses for 2½ hours of after-school tutoring, three days per week.
Additionally, OGB provides has a School Supply Drive and supplies over 350 students with a backpack, along with items from their specific school supply lists. The organization also has a food pantry, summer camps, health awareness programs, and a holiday store.