Get Unplugged

This weekend I attended my first retreat, hosted by A Mother’s Rest, in Afton, Virginia – at the Rockfish Valley Inn. Having never attended one, I was more than a little nervous about what to expect; and what, if anything, would be expected of me. I had been told not to worry, I could just chill in my room all weekend if I wanted – but I still had my doubts. Nonetheless I packed my bags, including books to read – my preference when afforded the uninterrupted time.

My first impression when I arrived was “wow, am I in the right place?!” The Inn is not far from the Blue Ridge Highway and Skyline Drive, as well as the Appalachian Trail and many more hiking areas – the scenery was breathtaking. I spent Friday night and most of Saturday by myself – seclusion helps me decompress.

Some of the other dads chose to go to Monticello and explore the surrounding areas – there was truly no agenda other than relax and recharge. It was, in a word, FANTASTIC! Eventually I emerged and met the other dads, and was reminded how nice it is to talk with people who “get it”; much is left unsaid because they’re living it too. We played cards and enjoyed a leisurely dinner on Saturday & Sunday night.

Breakfast items were provided, and there was no set time when everyone was expected to come eat. You could pop in and make yourself whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. Dreamers Merchant Coffee Company donated several packages – and if you’ve never had their coffee you’re missing out! I’m usually a whatever is cheaper in the store kind of guy; but now I’m a changed man. Cherry on top – Dreamers’ has an incredible mission; having been founded in the hopes of creating a job for the founder’s daughter with disabilities.

I cannot say enough about A Mother’s Rest, and the tireless work of Andrea Faris Roberts. I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt as relaxed as I do writing this, and I encourage anyone reading this to check out A Mother’s Rest’s home page. If you don’t have a family member with a disability, I’ll put even money on you knowing someone who does. From this dad’s perspective, I’m glad Andrea took up this challenge; and I will do whatever I can to help her get the word out.

 

It Takes a TEAM

I started with a new company a few months ago, and realized immediately I was not going to be successful on my own – to make the most of my skill sets I was going to have to rely on everyone else. Now for some of you reading this it may seem like common sense, but for the last year or so I had pretty much been left to my own devices – if I needed help I could ask, but it was easy for me to believe I was a one-man show. 

I think the same can be said as parents of children with disabilities (I’ve never been a parent of a child without, so I can’t say). We get really used to just putting our heads down and slogging forward, figuring stuff out as necessary; and often, like my wife and I did, splitting the responsibilities. This got us by, I don’t feel like my son suffered or wanted for anything; but in hindsight we certainly could’ve done more (isn’t that always the case?).

What I’ve learned over the last (5) years is this – yes, I can find a way to do just about anything on my own; but why should I?! Instead I look for an expert in whatever it is I need to do. For example, I had a friend help me teach him to cook and he’s now making himself dinner every night.

I also hired an advocate when he was transitioning from middle to High School. Not because I felt the school was trying to screw me over, quite the opposite – I’m a very passionate guy and I didn’t want to send the wrong message to the other members of the IEP meetings. I also had a hard time coming to terms with their recommendation that he should be in the certificate program (in school until 21) rather than earn a diploma. The advocate helped me work through this (although if I’m completely transparent I’m still finding it hard to swallow – although I believe it is the right thing to do).

These are just a few examples, and you don’t necessarily have to pay a professional. After all, there are a lot of people in this world and it’s likely someone else has lived through something that can be correlated to challenges you’re facing now. I’m not suggesting you put your business out there; but I do believe you should build yourself a core network of individuals whom you can trust, who can understand where you are and where you want to be. And be okay with this group changing over time, I think life has stages and we each pass through them at our own time and pace.

I learned this when I was stationed on my first boat (submarine, hence the pic); but somehow over the years I had forgotten. I’m betting many of you may be saying something similar – maybe from your time playing sports in school, or as a Boy/Girl Scout. It often seems easier to do it ourselves rather than asking for help; but the risk we run in doing so is not knowing what we could be missing. So next time you come across something that’s not in your “lane” take a moment and ask yourself – who do I know that I can reach out to. If no-one readily comes to mind, ask yourself, who do I know who seems to know “everyone”. I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t know at least one person like this, so I’m betting you do. If not, reach out to me – I’ll be happy to help you connect with the right resource.

You’re NOT alone!

Manna Food Center

Manna Food Center is a food bank headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland focused on eliminating hunger in Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s a little more localized than the non-profits I usually spotlight; but with something like eliminating hunger I believe it’s more effective to focus locally and spread.

Who They Are 

Manna Food Center is a food bank – they provide food to approximately 40k people each year; in addition to supplying soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters throughout the County. As a food pantry they’ve established distribution sites to enable those who need the help to readily access it. Before meeting with them I had no idea what the difference was between a food bank and food pantry – a food bank stores the food and products; the pantry is what actually distributes the food. A food bank could (and Manna does) supply multiple food pantries.

I was shocked to learn 1/3 of students attending public schools receive free or discounted lunches – because of how wealthy I’ve perceived Montgomery County to be. To be clear – Montgomery County is wealthy, but they also have a large population of seniors and those with disabilities who may struggle given the high cost of living and additional healthcare expenses.

What They Do 

Manna Food Center serves over 3,700 families each month! Rather than list out their strategic plan in detail, I invite (and encourage) you to read about it here. In brief, they have (3) priorities (from their website):

(1) Participant-centered & data driven program delivery

(2) Community Leadership & Advocacy

(3) A values-based business model that supports the people who make our work possible.

What Else Should I Know

They’ve repurposed an old school bus into a mobile kitchen and pop-up pantry; bringing nutritious foods AND providing the opportunity for those living in the communities reached to learn how to prepare them.

Manna doesn’t just provide a handout. They do their best to help those they serve understand the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices, provide them with the opportunity to do so and in many cases bridge the gap when families hit a rough spot; something I think all of us can relate to – even though maybe not to the extent we didn’t know where our next meal(s) were coming from.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Manna Food Center and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). All opinions and views are my own.

Because They Can’t! Wait, Can They?

As my son’s 18th birthday approaches I find myself reflecting on the significant independence he’s gained over the last (5) years. I remember when we were first told he had Autism, the doctors and teachers made it a point to ensure we understood he would likely plateau – and not to get too upset. Full disclosure – this happened over 12 years ago and I’m coloring what was said with what I heard/remember, so I own the fact this may not have been what they were trying to convey. But it’s what my wife and I took away, and it set a tone.

In the following years my wife and I allowed this to color our perception and interactions with our son – at first by doing things for him at the first sign of trouble, and eventually just outright doing it for him – not even letting him try. When my wife died my son was 12, and he literally did next to nothing for himself – to include toileting and bathing. This year he’ll turn 18, and he’s quite the independent young man. He makes his own dinner every night, puts laundry away, cleans up after himself and gives me a grocery list weekly – in addition to toileting and bathing himself.

I allowed a similar influence to shade my perceptions when I was in the Navy. I had been assigned to manage a shop of around twenty people in Air Department, and I was told nothing but negative things about them. Rather than ignoring these opinions, or at least taking them with a grain of salt; I went in fully convinced I’d been given the worst bunch of people in the Navy. Needless to say I turned into the worst boss I could imagine, I don’t think tyrant is too strong a word. To make it worse, I didn’t learn until it was too late – after I had transferred to another duty station.

My point in these trips down memory lane is this. I think we’re all guilty of acting on incorrect assumptions based on information provided. As a parent of a child with disabilities I struggle constantly to remind myself the diagnosis isn’t a rule book – it’s an identification for why he may have certain behaviors and challenges. It doesn’t mean every possible manifestation will apply, and even those occurring are definitively not able to be worked around.

Technology and medicine are advancing at an incredible rate. People who may have once been trapped inside their bodies are finding new ways to communicate – through organizations like VocaliD and devices like the Surface and iPad. They have wheelchairs allowing people to stand upright; and are developing exoskeletons to provide even more mobility.

Yet some of us still latch on to the worst possible scenario, telling ourselves nothing will help our child – they’re different. I challenge you to change this narrative, instead of focusing on what your child can’t do – celebrate what they can. And never stop trying, even if they’ve failed in the past. If you had a child without a disability I don’t think you’d give up, I think most of us would continue looking for tools to help them be successful. So why have a double standard?

Yes, there are things my son cannot do right now – and I will concede he may never be able to. The biggest example that comes to mind is driving; but self-driving cars are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Will they be affordable and commonplace in his lifetime – I have no idea, but I certainly hope so. I challenge all of you to revisit everything you don’t think your child/sibling can do; and think outside the box. What can you do to get around these limitations? I bet there is at least one thing you can change! Good luck.

Mind the Gap

How many people do you know who want to retire early, or leave their job for one reason or another? At first glance it seems like it would be awesome – plenty of free time, nobody telling you what to do, it’s like moving out of your parent’s house all over again! And I’m all for this, although I’ll be the first to admit early retirement just isn’t for me – at least not in the traditional sense. But I’m not discussing the pros/cons of early retirement – in the next few paragraphs I’d like to identify some things I think many of us overlook in our race to the finish.

First, and this is a biggie, health insurance. You are eligible for Medicare three months before your 65th birthday to 3 months after. There are some additional opportunities for those with disabilities, but let’s stick to this. If you retire before age 65, and you had been relying on your employer’s healthcare plan take a look to see what you’ll do when you leave. Does your spouse have a plan? Will it affect any of your children who may still be on your plan (under age 26 or disabled)?

I encourage everyone to make sure they (1) have identified what they’ll do and (2) are sure they can afford the option(s) chosen. It would be horrible to work off the premise you’ll use COBRA and then find out you can’t afford the premiums, or that it doesn’t cover you until you’re Medicare eligible. If leaving the work force before 65 is on your radar, healthcare should be one of the first things you consider.

Next – what are you going to do with all that time? For most of us work accounts for at least (8) hours, 5 days each week. Not counting travel time or other jobs (side-hustles) you may have. This time is occupied, even if only with “busy work”, not requiring much on your part to entertain yourself. What would 52 weeks of vacation be like for you? Could you afford it?

I urge you to consider this seriously, because I’ve heard several “rules” of thumb when it comes to retirement and I’m not fond of any of them. For example – the rule you only need 80% of what you’re currently making. This is a great rule IF, and only IF, you are in the minority of the population who is saving at least 20% of their income. If you’re not, why would you spend less when you have more free time? Sure, you may fill some of this time volunteering and with hobbies, but rather than just jumping right in try taking mini-retirements first – vacations without trips planned, because in most cases it’s not realistic in most cases you’ll be able to take trips each week – while spending what you’re spending now. 

Last, and not in any way least, understand your why. Are you doing this because it’s the “thing” to do, because you have a bigger vision you need time for, or because you want to relax and enjoy your later years? There’s no right or wrong reason, but the more connected to your why you are the more likely you’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.

And that’s the point I want to stress – no matter what you want to do, or why; if it’s important to you treat it that way. If you want 40+ years to yourself in retirement, make sure you have enough money to fund it – even if it means making sacrifices now. Only, if it’s what you really want they won’t be sacrifices; they’ll be steps on your journey to your ideal state.

If you’re retiring before Medicare eligibility, consider investing into a side account, at least equal to your current insurance premiums, to be drawn from later. If you want to live on a beach or in the middle of the woods, would it help to pay off your current mortgage to maximize the money available to purchase these cottages? Just food for thought, and don’t feel bad if you don’t have all the answers. Talk to your advisor(s), friends and family – use them as sounding boards (but not final decision makers). Look for those with similar goals and see what they did to accomplish their goal; or have done to put themselves on track. And learn from their mistakes – not reinventing the wheel goes for the bad as well as the good.

 

When Is Your “Independence Day”?

July 4th is Independence Day for those of us living in the United States, and it brings to mind thoughts of what independence means – is it the same for everyone; or, as I suspect, do each of us hold our own ideal close to our heart – perhaps never sharing?

Certainly, the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution mean a LOT to me, I’m proud of the years I served in the Navy; but I don’t consider myself truly “independent”; at least, not yet. In my mind I won’t be “independent” until I’m confident my son will be able to have a life worth living on his own – this should not be confused with “surviving”. Until this happens, he’ll be dependent upon me; which to me means I’m not “free”.

This is not a pity party or a complaint, but it is my reality – and I think for many of you reading this there is a similar reality. I think we plan our whole lives for when we don’t have to answer to anyone, when we can just do what we want when we want (well, I KNOW this was my plan). However, reality is seldom so black and white.

My “independence day” is on the horizon, and I have a strong belief I will live to see it – my son’s own independence continues to grow in leaps and bounds; and thanks to technology things we once thought would be insurmountable can either now be done, or will be achievable in my lifetime, without much more effort than it takes to open an app.

For those of you reading this – what does freedom mean to you? Are you doing everything you can to achieve it; or are you waiting for someone else to give it to you? If you’re waiting, don’t! To the best of my knowledge independence has never been achieved without a LOT of effort from those desiring it. I’m not suggesting you storm the ramparts or take up arms against the establishment; but if you don’t at least contribute the achievement of your goals will you truly value them? Heck, will you even recognize when they come true?

So set your sights on what freedom means to you, and map out a strategy to get there and get moving. If you’re fortunate enough to have achieved your freedom, extend a hand and help others – encouraging words go a LONG way, so don’t be shy or afraid to offer praise. Celebrate the little victories, and don’t let losses bog you down – learn the lessons they are meant to teach and forge ahead. Finally, remember it’s hard to know you’ve arrived at your destination if you’ve never identified where you are going.