Rosie’s Book Club: Front Porch Reads

This summer we took part in the summer reading program at our local library. The program at Capital Area District Library in Lansing allowed toddlers like Rosie to trade in minutes spent reading, book reviews and learning activities for points. With enough points, she earned prizes like a new picture book and some very sparkly cat ears. Needless to say, she was thrilled.

We love reading in every season, and so I thought I’d share an updated list of some of Rosie’s current favorites. This is our list of Front Porch Reads.

Leila in Saffron, by Rukhsanna Guidroz and illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova

I have to be upfront about the fact that Dinara Mirtalipova is my favorite artist on Esty/Instagram and I want to wallpaper my house with the pages of this beautiful book. That said, Rosie loves the story and the colorful illustrations, too!

This is a lovely, sweet story about a young girl, Leila, who is learning to appreciate who she is, told through the journey of a Friday night dinner at her Naani’s house. The stunning book has a glossary of words in the back to explain some of the Pakistani foods or phrases used. Oh, and have I mentioned the illustrations are gorgeous?

Lola Reads to Leo, by Anna McQuinn and illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw

This was gifted to us as a welcome-baby-Walt present, and it quickly became a favorite in our house. There are a number of Lola books, also available in Spanish, which Rosie reminds me every time we get to the photos on the back of this book, saying, “We have to get all these other books!”

A warm, friendly look at welcoming a new sibling into the family, there are a couple of things I find extra special about this one:

  • It’s full of fun, realistic touches like the baby crying a lot, breastfeeding, potty-training, a messy house — plus, the Mom always has a cup of coffee nearby. Rather than glossing over these parts of having a new baby, it celebrates them.
  • The Mom and Dad in the story both do a lot to take care of the kids and the house, including shared responsibility for diaper changes, laundry and dishes. A family is a lot of work, for everyone!

Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers and illustrated by Marla Frazee

This has been one of Rosie’s favorites forever, and continues to top her list of “ones to bring in the car” to this day. We have one hardcover and one board book edition of this rhyming gem. When we first got it, Rosie was one with the babies in the book, clapping when they clap, her toothless grin matching theirs. But now she remembers the words and exclaims “they’re so cute!” as she “reads” the book to herself in the backseat.

The illustrations are so sweet, and do a great job depicting many different-looking babies and families, all appreciating their babies “…just as they are!”

So, what are your front porch reads? Backyard reads? Wagon/trailer/tent/picnic table reads? We’d love to hear!

Magical Book Nook Renovation

Our 100-year-old house has, surprisingly, a lot of closets. In our daughter’s room she has two separate good-sized closets, each one boasting a lovely mustard yellow shag carpet that isn’t found anywhere else in the house (thankfully). We decided as a maternity leave project to turn one into a book nook — and it became one of my favorite home renovations we’ve done so far!

Baby Walt was one week old when Ben started tearing out the carpet. Then we spent a long time discussing what we wanted the book nook to look like. We settled on a cozy, comfortable vibe with a place to sit or lay down, and plenty of storage for books and toys.

In the spirit of transparency and to remind you that HGTV makes all of this look really simple and carefree, our project hit a setback when demolition in the closet disrupted a small family of bats who were living in our attic. They did not appreciate the loud hammering sounds in the middle of the day (sleepy-time for them) and expressed their distaste by somehow entering our upstairs and scaring me half to death. Yes, we’re all safe from rabies and yes, the attic is now inspected and sealed from future bat visitors. My nerves may also recover…someday.

Anyways, back to work! Ben built a bench seat, with two large shelves underneath. We chose a neutral blue paint for the walls and stapled a fuzzy rug to the floor with a thick mat under it as if it was carpet, so it’s very soft and comfortable. The best items we added were several long strings of twinkle lights along the sloped ceiling, which creates a starry sky effect and truly makes the space feel magical.

Rosie loves her new closet, and spent most of the reveal day just spinning in circles, screaming “TWINKLE LIGHTS!”. Honestly, we felt the same. She especially loved sharing the room with her cousins — they had a crazed giggle fest in there and begged to have nap time all together inside. That seemed unlikely to be very restful, but sure to be a blast.

Next project on the list is a big master bedroom/bathroom renovation, hopefully with a similarly fabulous final product, and zero bats!

Today is my last day of maternity leave

Tomorrow I go back to work. Looking back over the past three months, some of it is a blur. 

  • You came earlier than we had planned and you came by surgery, which I had not wanted. You spent 36 hours in the NICU, which was difficult in a way I could not have imagined. I have so much new empathy for NICU parents now. You are warriors.
  • My head hurt, and my stomach hurt, and my stitches hurt, and my breasts hurt, for days.
  • I started to heal, but didn’t sleep for more than a few hours most nights, for days. Then weeks. Then months. 
  • I fed my baby from my own body, checking latches and swallows and diapers to make sure he was getting enough, and that I was doing enough. 
  • My husband went back to work and I faced long days alone with this new baby, a stranger, and my toddler. We figured out where he fit into our routine and where we had to change our plans to suit him. We brought to our favorite places in the park and our neighborhood, and he slept his way through it all only to tell us all about it later, usually at about 3:00 a.m.
  • We had few visitors these first months, because of the pandemic and because of winter. But spring started to show its beautiful face, with walks among flowering parks and dinners on the front porch on warm afternoons. 

Suddenly here we are, three months later, and tomorrow I go back to work. Looking back over the past twelve weeks, some of it stands out sharply in my memory. 

  • You looked like your big sister from the start. The same dark hair, furrowed brow, big round eyes and quickly growing cheeks. 

I’l never forget the moment your sister met you.
She ran to you and wrapped your tiny body in her arms and grinned.
You are hers, just like you are ours.

  • The first morning we were home, my husband brought home coffee and donuts and we all ate them together in our bed. 
  • One evening I was in too much pain to come downstairs, and my toddler said, “I feel sad.” She’d never voiced that feeling before, and I cried, too. 
  • The first day I had both kids to myself, their naps overlapped by eight minutes. I felt like a champion. 
  • We had video calls with family and friends daily, sharing glimpses of this new person we’d created. I was often shocked at the state of my hair or the bags under my eyes seen in the tiny video of myself, but I was too happy and proud to care. 
  • My son gained five pounds between his first two doctors’ appointments and we celebrated with drive through french fries. I’m just saying, that may be the key to producing good milk — kidding! 
  • While I beg him to sleep, I rock him in my arms and sing every line of every song from every Broadway show I can remember, of course including my starring role in Anything Goes in high school.
  • When he’s hungry and crying, I feel his little body melt into mine as I pick him up. He knows it’s me and he feels at home in my arms. 
  • When he looks into my eyes and smiles for the first time, it’s the absolute best feeling in the world.

Maternity leave is no vacation. It’s a time to heal, recover, learn, adjust, and grow. There are parts you’ll barely remember once they are over, and there are moments you will cherish forever. 

So tomorrow when I go back to work, I’m bringing all these moments within me. I’m returning a new person, inside and out. 

I’ll be there in the morning. But for now, I have a baby to rock and some show tunes to sing.

This one’s for you, forgotten coffee cup

Coffee mug left on the counter

Every morning I make a cup of coffee. Rain or shine, work day or weekend, I look forward to that morning boost every day. I drink it with a splash of cream so it ends up a wet sand color, and from that first toasty sip, I’m in love. But since becoming a mom, and especially since working from home during a pandemic, I’ve begun to neglect my daily mug of joe. 

Instead of reveling in the warm deliciousness, I reheat it over and over again. I find it in the microwave, cold and alone, hours after I meant to drink it. My reflexes have improved as I snatch my coffee a split second before my daughter crashes it off the counter, coffee table, or fireplace mantle. Even these near-death experiences for my dear java have done nothing to rekindle the connection we once shared. 

But today, as I finished the chilly sips of my morning cup at around noon, I realized something: the things that steal me away from my warm coffee are some of the things I love most:

  • A voice begins singing at 7:15am — straight from asleep to the middle of a melody, my little songbird is awake. I put down my freshly-brewed cup and head upstairs. 
  • Back downstairs, I’m almost late for a Zoom meeting for work, so I quickly get out the Play-Doh in hopes of maximizing self-guided entertainment during the meeting. I log on and realize my coffee mug is still on the kitchen counter, and I’ve already turned my camera on. Sigh.
  • Time for a quick reading break. I reheat my cup, place it on the aptly named coffee table and we dive into some Richard Scarry. Between animated voices and “me do it!” page turns, the drink sits untouched, but thankfully un-knocked over, on the table.
  • During lunch we often take a walk to the park down the street. I think about transferring my now twice-reheated coffee to a traveler mug, but I know I’ll need my hands free for grasping tiny fingers as we cross the street, pushing swings and holding the pine cone treasures we accumulate along the way.
  • Hours later, I go to microwave something for dinner and find my coffee cup, with just a few gulps left, still bidding me “Rise & Shine” at 5:45pm. I laugh and chug the final sips over the sink while my daughter twirls and jumps around the kitchen for her personal dance party. Honestly, it tastes pretty gross at this point, but I feel like the poor cup has earned it — and so have I. 

And so every day contains at least some of these dilemmas, and my coffee and I don’t share the special moments we once did. But as I look back on what keeps me from my coffee, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

So raise your forgotten mug with me, if you can find it, and let’s appreciate the relentless, exhausting, adorable, amazing distractions in our lives. These are the things that I want to remember, after all, long after my coffee has gone cold.

I Didn’t Read 20 Books in 2020

At the end of December 2019, I made a list of 20 books I had hoped to read in the new year. The book list I curated had a bit of everything: memoir, self-help, fiction, and one graphic novel. My choices ranged from authors I already liked, to famous figures I wanted to learn more about, to books that topped Goodreads lists or recommendations from friends and family members. I wanted to grow in my knowledge of societal issues, exercise my imagination, laugh and cry and have interesting topics to discuss over coffee with coworkers or dinner with friends. 

And then 2020 happened. COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown, quarantine and social distancing measures took away all coffee dates, dinner parties and, quite frankly, most conversations on all topics, interesting or otherwise. I didn’t fly to New York City to celebrate my dear friend’s 30th birthday. I didn’t leave my house for a week — and didn’t find that odd. I didn’t hold my nephew for months after he was born. And I didn’t read 20 books in 2020. 

toddler reading in chair

So what did I do in 2020?

I worked my full time job from my living room, family room, kitchen table and sometimes front porch, all while taking care of my toddler. 

I helped my husband demolish and then design and rebuild our entire kitchen. 

I went through a miscarriage and then six months of another pregnancy — with just 10 more weeks to go!

I spent time at our neighborhood park almost every single day. 

I cooked delicious meals with homemade bread — and also ate Little Caesar’s too many times to count.

I went on lots of walks with friends, often with masks on, catching up loudly from across the lawn. 

I leaned on people to help me more than ever before. We wouldn’t have made it through the year without family and friends stepping up to support us.

I slept in a tent in my parents’ backyard for Walter Family Camp. 

I started a blog. 

I helped create a weekend Bible study for working moms at my church.

And I read dozens of books to Rosie, dozens of times, with silly voices and train sound effects. It’s been so fun to see her grow in her love of reading. She has favorite books and will “read” to herself for minutes on end. 

Let’s be better at celebrating small things

So I didn’t read 20 books in 2020. But I am proud of what I did do. I learned about myself, tried new things, was vulnerable with people, and spent a whole lot of time playing with my daughter. These are things I wouldn’t have necessarily gained from reading 20 books. 

This year has been hard on all of us. We have had to cancel things we looked forward to, and adjust to completely new methods of work, life, etc. Some of us have lost loved ones, and all of us have longed to be together with people we miss. As we look back on our resolutions from a year ago, it’s easy to feel like this these past 12 months didn’t bring us anything good.

But I encourage you to look back on the year and think of what you have accomplished. Not what you planned on or hoped for, but what you did and what you learned, in spite of everything. What is something small that you didn’t do, know, or appreciate before this past year?

Let’s all resolve to be better at celebrating small changes, new recipes tried, multiple Taylor Swift albums released, and other little things that help us through each year — not just 2020. I know I’d love to hear your list! 

P.S. My short, but sweet, 2020 book list

1. One Day by Gene Weingarten
2. The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton
3. The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davis
4. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
5. They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
6. Risen Motherhood by Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler
7. Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison
8. What is a Girl Worth by Rachael Denhollander
9. I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom
10/11. Ben and I are reading Harry Potter out loud, and this year we finished The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire.

Renovating a broken kitchen with a broken heart

Early in 2020, my husband discovered mold in our kitchen ceiling. In March, I discovered I was pregnant with our second child. The kitchen renovation is now finished, but the baby didn’t make it to the second trimester.

In the first week of lockdowns and layoffs from COVID-19, we tore down a wall to make room for more counter space. My sister moved in for a few weeks to help take care of our rambunctious toddler and we celebrated Easter and birthdays together as a small, quarantined family. Then, around the fourth week of lockdown, I had a miscarriage.

It was a horrible time. We were trapped at home, afraid of everyone at the store and unsure when we would go back to work or normal life. With no running water to cook or clean with, I resorted to washing our crockpot in a shallow bathroom sink. At the same time I was crying and bleeding, when all I wanted was to have good news to share with the world, that a new baby was joining our family.

There were some very sad days where I stared at my empty walls and thought about my empty womb, and wished things were different.

A few weeks later, the renovation turned a corner. Instead of tearing down, we began building up. New walls, cabinets, and lights were installed. You could see a frame of the beautiful new space it would be.

My heart was taking longer to turn around.  The grief and loss felt unfair and without reason. I knew how much joy my daughter brought me every day, and I couldn’t understand why God would rob me of doubling that. But God continued to put on my heart something I wrote down in a journal hours before confirming the miscarriage:

my dear baby,
I so badly want to see your face, hold you in my arms, and know you. But I have faith that God sees you, holds you, and knows you — and He does the same for me.

So I clung to that word and moved forward. I kept working from home, taking care of Rosie, and watching in amazement as my husband and father-in-law made walls appear in a single day. We had appliances again! Soon — relatively speaking — my husband was installing drawer handles, a shiny green backsplash, and decorative shelves. Our kitchen was once again useful and inviting.

We planted a tree in memory of our lost baby, one that will flower in the spring a year from when the miscarriage happened. We only told our families and a few close friends, and they grieved with us and lifted us up with pizza and hugs and flowers and kind words.

Months passed, and I found out I was pregnant again. Rather than excitement, I felt cautious and hesitant. The weeks passed by and I continued to be pregnant. I made it through the first trimester, and at 19 weeks we saw our beautiful little boy squirming around and hiding behind his hands while the ultrasound technician tried to get a good photo for us. We never got to see the baby we lost, or know anything about him or her. Finally, this next new life inside me began to feel real.

We celebrated our new kitchen by baking bread and cookies and making homemade calzones. As COVID restrictions continued, we made snacks and dinners and carried them outside to share with friends on the front porch or on the lawn. I marveled that just months ago we had nothing but studs and insulation, and now we had a beautiful new place in our home to enjoy.

Today, I sit at our new counter, looking at our finished kitchen project and feeling little fluttering kicks in my belly. I try to think of how I’ve been changed by this experience. Unlike the kitchen, which gets a “wow” reaction from every person who sees it, the transformation within me has been more subtle.

I now know a kind of pain and sadness I never did before, one that is unfortunately shared by so many. Often I catch myself complaining about the trials of taking care of a now two-year-old, and realize that someone else is longing for the chance to do these tedious tasks for their own child someday. On good days I look at strangers in the park or around town and think, you are a miracle! Do you know how many things had to go right for you to exist?

I am so thankful for my beautiful girl, who gives big kisses and is learning new words every day. I’m thankful for the little boy growing inside of me, for every day he is in there and for, Lord willing, many many days on the outside, too. I’m blessed with a supportive husband who literally built me my dream kitchen, and for the family and friends who helped us through our hardest year yet.

The kitchen is done, but I’m still a work in progress. And that’s okay — we all are. The women who shared their stories of loss with me encouraged me in ways I can’t express, and I wanted to share my story with others.  We’re so excited about our new baby, but he’s not the whole story.

The kitchen is new, but we are, too.

What do you believe, and what will you do with that?

A few months ago I was chatting with my Grandmother, whom I affectionately call Gma. If you don’t know my Gma, she’s a feisty, independent lady with a quick wit, great taste in books, and a fondness for Culver’s fish sandwiches. The daughter of Polish immigrants, she became a single mom in the 1960’s, raising her two daughters while teaching English in Detroit Public Schools. Throughout her life she has fought for justice and equality, from pushing back against gerrymandering to teaching refugees sewing skills. She knows the things that matter to her, and she lives her life accordingly.

So back to our conversation. We were talking on the phone, because sadly I’ve been unable to see her except from outside her window since the COVID pandemic began. In the middle of our catchup about Rosie’s newest words or what new style of mask she’s trying out — she’s sewn many hundreds of masks for her fellow assisted living residents and staff — she abruptly asked me this question:

What do you believe, and what will you do with that?

The question caught me off guard, and I didn’t have much of an answer at that moment. I stumbled through something about how I’m trying to balance being a mom and doing my job, and that I want to have more intentional conversations about racism with my family and friends in light of current events.

We quickly wrapped up the conversation, but after hanging up I remained stuck in my seat, struck with the depth of her question and my lack of an answer. In the weeks since that phone call, I’ve found myself coming back to it again and again.

I think in this particular political and historical moment, I see a lot of what my friends, family, and total strangers believe. I see it on social media, on the news, on billboards and front lawns and on hats. But what I don’t see a lot is what they will do with that belief.

We all are shouting from the top of our lungs about what we care about. I love refugees! I hate abortion! I want medical freedom! I want a better education for less money! I want to keep my guns! But I’m not seeing what people are doing to live out these desires, to make these changes happen, to act on their beliefs. I’m not even seeing it in myself. Yes, we can vote in a way that makes sense according to what we believe. But then what?

So what will you do?

I want to challenge you, as I am challenging myself, to do something about what you believe.

First, make a list of three things you have recently discussed/posted about online/argued over with someone. Take a hard look at that list, and then for each of those three things, brainstorm two ways you could take actual physical action on the belief you hold about that thing. An example, by me:

I care about refugees finding a warm welcome, safety and success in their new American homes. As of last week, the refugee resettlement program in the U.S. has been limited to 15,000 people for 2021 — a historic low.
BUT there are still refugees in the Lansing area who have resettled here in recent years. I can do the following to act on my belief that refugees should be welcomed to this country:

1. Frequent a refugee-owned business. Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant is a favorite of mine in Lansing and they’re currently open for takeout.
This is easy.

2. Reach back out to my friends at St. Vincent Catholic Charities, who resettle refugees in Lansing, and see if they currently need any help. I volunteered with them for a number of years, but it’s time to get back into it.
This holds more risk, because I’m already overwhelmed with work and parenting and life. What if they ask for a portion of my already limited time? But if really believe in this, I need to take action.

See? That wasn’t so hard. After you make your list of three things and two corresponding actions for each, I challenge you to share your list with one person — as I am sharing it with you. That way you have someone to hold you accountable to follow through. If you need someone to share your list with, please share it with me!

It doesn’t matter to me what your belief is, or how it may differ from mine. What I want is for each of us to think more creatively about how our beliefs matter, and what our actions say about what we believe. If we all took responsibility in a local, tangible way, I think we would find so much more satisfaction than in endless Facebook comment battles or snide comments behind each others backs.

My Gma in her 80s says at the end of that same phone call that she’s moving slowly from nerve pain and getting little accomplished on any given day. But she’s still spending her time sewing masks and giving them away — taking something she believes in, and doing something about it. What’s my excuse? What’s yours?

How to support the teachers in your life

When I was eight or nine years old, I loved playing “school” with my younger sister. My best friend Angie and I would spend hours creating worksheets and lessons for my four-year-old sister to complete, with time for recess and naps in-between. We must have done a pretty good job, because two decades later, my sister is a fantastic teacher in downtown Detroit!

Something about that love for school has stuck with me, too, as I work at a university and have found myself surrounded by teachers in my family and circle of friends. I learn a lot from them, and not just new vocabulary words from my English teacher sister. I continue to grow in my respect for the work they do while meeting complicated state and federal policies and expectations. And I have grown in compassion for the mental, physical, and emotional effort they put into their jobs — all to do the best they can for their students.

This week a number of my teacher friends and family members head back to work for a new school year. Given all the changes and challenges of 2020, I feel like they need more support than ever. So, I reached out to a number of the teachers in my life and, with their help, compiled this list of ways to lift up, encourage, fight for and be there for the teachers in your life.

1. Listen without judgement or assumptions

The teachers in your life want to be able to talk frankly about some of the frustrations or difficulties in their work without it seeming like they hate their jobs or want to quit. Especially at the beginning of a school year — and even more so in a year full of unknowns like this one — teachers want a listening ear and someone to ask, “how can I support you?”. Then, ask the same question a week later to follow up!

2. Show up and support when you can

My mom and sister both run drama programs at their schools, and in a normal year we make an effort to attend their spring productions. We love seeing the results of their hard work and creativity, and the kids love larger audiences!
Often teachers have to pay for school supplies in their classrooms, or they fundraise for it. If you have the financial means to, support your friends and family on their project on DonorsChoose (a website devoted to helping connect teachers with funds), or ask them what their students need this year.

3. Be an advocate for educators and education in your community

When you’re speaking with people, posting on social media, or voting, keep in mind not just the students, but also the teachers affected by local, state, or federal policy changes. Make sure you are informed by multiple sources and that you have made time to speak with actual teachers and understood what they are facing on the job and in the classroom. On an even smaller scale, build respect for teachers in your own home — help your own kids value their teachers and their work.

4. Understand this year isn’t easy for them, either

All of the teachers in my life are struggling with the many changes to what this school year will look like. The online teachers will miss seeing your kids in person, they are worried about the English language learners they teach being able to keep up virtually, and they are mourning the loss of things like choir performances or even opportunities for students to turn to one another and have a discussion. Other teachers are nervous about getting sick, or seeing their students get sick, or juggling in-person and online teaching at the same time. One teacher said she feels like everyone is a first year teacher again this year. So have patience and remember that you aren’t homeschooling alone — they are working hard and using all of their training, tools and creativity to make this work for your child.

Of course, there are other ways to support teachers in your life beyond these four. Bring your teacher friend a hot meal one evening during the first week of school. Send your teacher friends a text full of education-themed emojis (there are so many folders, books and paperclip options!) and best wishes for this new and wildly different year of teaching.

Let’s make sure our teachers know we are with them.

Host family camp in your own backyard

We just spent a long weekend camping in my parents’ backyard. Like, really camping. We’re talking sleeping in tents, grilling our meals outside, wearing sports sandals and getting cool farmer tan lines — the whole thing. Before COVID-19 hit, we had planned to rent a cabin by beautiful Lake Michigan as a family. But with that option removed, we had to get creative. With seven adults and five kids under age seven, we worked hard to plan a camp experience everyone would enjoy, and I wanted to share some of our ideas in case you want to give it a try yourself!

the backyard

If you can, try to recreate a camp setting in your space. For us, this meant picnic tables, a fire pit, and building a new playground set together. It was extra fun building the play-set together, because it was a group effort with a result that will be used and enjoyed for many years to come. We hung a tire swing and set up camp chairs of all sizes, as well as an inflatable pool that may have pulled double duty as a bathtub one night.

We slept in tents, mostly, but there was the option of going inside for those who got too cold, too hot, or found one too many earwigs in their tent. And of course, people could go indoors to use the bathrooms, or to microwave popcorn when our bonfire-popcorn went up in flames.


With two teachers in the family, we had access to a lot of craft materials and even more creativity when it came to activities. We tie-dyed t-shirts with a family camp logo for everyone, from my 60-year-old dad to my three-month-old nephew, and all wore them together on the last day. My husband made a scavenger hunt with rhyming clues leading to a “treasure chest” full of fruit snacks, stickers, and dollar store trinkets. We filled 150 water balloons (the old-fashioned kind that you tie one-by-one) and played games all together — duck duck SPLASH was an especially big hit. We did venture off-site one day for a trip to a local park with a lake and small beach, where we took the kids out for a canoe ride and swim. You can’t have a Michigan summer camp without that!

that’s what family does

Something really special about family camp was sharing life together for four days in this unique way. We shared the load of childcare, cooking, cleaning and emergency trips to the store for supplies. I wouldn’t even see my toddler for an entire afternoon, but I got to play word games with my older nieces, change my nephew’s diaper while his mom chopped onions for kebabs, and witness my brother smash a water balloon on my sister’s head. It was a lot of work, feeding 12 people at each meal and keeping the four walking children safe during s’more making. But it was the sort of work that we all were happy to take on together.

In all, family camp in the backyard was a huge success. With a little planning and creativity, and a lot of water balloons, you can make some great memories right outside your back door.

Making a difference in your city (during a pandemic)

Last fall, long before we were all at home baking bread from scratch, I stumbled across an advertisement for the Lansing Citizens Academy. Drawn in by the cute new Lansing city logo and the name, I submitted an application and soon found out I was accepted!

I spent the next three months attending weekly civic engagement sessions with two dozen fellow Lansing residents, learning about how the city functions, meeting local government officials, and getting an inside look at places like the fire station and the Board of Water and Light grid control room. We met for two and half hours each week over dinner, conversation and presentations. It was a big commitment, with a full time job and a 10-month-old baby at home, but I met interesting people, learned a lot about my chosen hometown, and was challenged to get more involved as a citizen.

Here I am posing with Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and my daughter at the Citizens Academy graduation ceremony.

Attending the Lansing Citizens Academy helped me think of my city and my neighbors differently. I saw how important it is to be involved in your community, to speak up on things that matter to you — and that city employees are there to listen. I realized how my profession (working at a local university) isn’t like everyone else’s, and that we can learn from the worlds we each inhabit, at work or otherwise. I recognized that my neighbors and I are on the same team, desiring to make our city a better place to live for our families. I left the program inspired to get involved, join some local commissions, and be a better citizen.

Then, COVID-19 happened. All my big plans of attending planning meetings to save my neighborhood pool and getting to know neighbors at community events were halted by social distancing and state-wide safety measures. I started this blog as one way to connect with my community, but I have been unsure how else to move forward.

I saw that the Lansing Citizens Academy is accepting applications for the 2020 program, and reached out to their coordinators to see what they’re doing differently this year and what exactly citizen engagement can look like in the middle of a pandemic.

The very kind DeLisa Fountain, Interim Neighborhood Resource Coordinator for the City of Lansing, chatted with me, and here are a few updates that I learned:
1. Participants will be required to wear masks and check temperatures before sessions begin, and sessions will be offered virtually as well as outside or at large enough classrooms to maintain physical distance;
2. there will be 11 sessions instead of 10, to accommodate a session focused on the Lansing Police Department. The LPD has its own Citizens Academy, but this session will be a great intro to that opportunity; and,
3. the City is working to increase diversity in the experience by choosing minority-owned caterers for the refreshments offered at Citizen Academy sessions, and encouraging participation from the refugee community in Lansing.

I asked DeLisa, what community engagement is possible when it feels like everything is cancelled?

She responded that though many things are cancelled, there are so many great conversations are going on. You can still attend virtual City Council meetings, share a public comment, talk to your representatives and find out what they are working on. Boards and Commissions can seem scary at first, but they are open and would love your involvement. Meetings are currently being held on Zoom, so it’s an easy time to jump into things.

“It’s so easy to impact things, but we don’t think our voice matters. We think of the City as huge, but it’s all these little pieces that go together to make City Hall work, and it can’t work without residents and resident civic engagement.”

DeLisa Fountain, City of Lansing

I left my conversation with DeLisa feeling inspired to get back to work in being an involved City of Lansing resident — will you join me?

Applications for the 2020 Citizens Academy close at 5pm on July 31st. Apply now!