Sunday, April 23, 2017

Homer Found a Home

Marj's Signed Welcome and Blessing at Hartford Habitat's House of Faith Groundbreaking

Homer arrived quite unexpectedly at Rev. Marjorie Davis's home in early April. He was a fluffy little thing, cute and cuddly, in need of a home -- but what was she to do with Homer? How could she help him?

Marj is hardly what I would call a retired UCC minister. She's always working on some project, attending a workshop, or advocating a just cause. She's a good friend to all who know her here in Granby, CT. Like many in town, I have a shared passion with Marj. Ours is Habitat for Humanity -- she's a long-time Habitat advocate and donor. I fondly recall her participation in Hartford Habitat's House of Faith groundbreaking at the corner of the city's Case and Laurel Streets (Marj's parents, Swedish immigrants, once lived on Laurel). Habitat's House of Faith program is an interfaith collaboration where multiple faiths work side-by-side to build a new Habitat house.  During the ceremony's traditional board signing she inscribed her welcome and blessing to the new homeowners-to-be on one of the two-by-fours designated for the home's first wall. I have displayed a picture of it on my computer screen for inspiration ever since.

But Marj's question remained -- what to do with Homer? His arrival was a surprise. Would her home be the best place for him? He's awfully cute but, you see, Homer is a stuffed animal -- a puppy with the words Habitat for Humanity displayed on a bright green collar. Marj wondered if Homer would be better suited for a young child. It turns out Habitat for Humanity International sent Homer Marj's way as a thank you memento for her recent donation. 

"Hello, Don? This is Marj Davis" I heard answering her call. Quickly she explained Homer's arrival, and gently peppered me with questions to which my responses were equally quick: 

"Do you know someone who might like Homer?" "Yes."
"Does the family in the new Granby Habitat home have children?" "Yes."
"Do they have a young child?" "Yes, her name is Shelby. She's eight years old"
"Would she like Homer?" "I think so."
"Would you be a able to deliver him?" "Yes." 

I had been meaning to pay Ralph and Jaime Wyman a visit to see how they were settling in to their new Habitat house so Homer's arrival proved fortuitous. Soon I was at the front door of Wyman's West Granby home -- a home that they moved into just in time for Christmas four months earlier.

The Wyman's New Habitat Home

Shelby was away on a playdate when I visited, but Jaime and Ralph assured me Shelby would be thrilled with Homer -- just as they all are thrilled with their new home. Some school teachers had told me Shelby was a chatterbox who couldn't contain her excitement about moving in to her Habitat house while it was nearing completion last fall.

Shelby and Homer

When she returned home and saw Homer waiting to greet her, Shelby jumped with joy. So thrilled that she immediately wrote Marj a thank you note, and just as quickly dropped it in the mail at the post office across the street. Shelby's charming note included a drawing of her new home in which she and Homer are looking out the front window enjoying the view of their brand new world.

Homer found a home.

Thanks Marj.

Shelby's Thank You Note to Marj

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos of new Habitat home and Shelby courtesy of Jaime Wyman
Shelby's thank you note courtesy of Rev. Marjorie Davis
Photo of Marj's Signed Welcome by Don Shaw, Jr.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Earth Day 2017: Create a Habitat and Celebrate Nature

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (female, immature) feeding at our butterfly bush. They are attracted to colorful flowers, but it takes considerable patience waiting for the right moment to capture them in a photo.

April 22 is Earth Day 2017. It's a day to take action. It's a day to celebrate. It's a day to honor the movement that began in 1970 giving "voice to an emerging consciousness, channeling human energy toward environmental issues. " It's a matter of survival. Let's give thanks to all people around the world who do their part, big or small, in protecting our planet, and making it a better place to live for generations to come.

Preserving our environment is of paramount importance. It's an acknowledged fact that the Earth's climate is changing, it means we must take action to improve our world's quality of life for humans, plants, and animals alike by keeping clean the air we breath, the water we drink, and the soil that grows our crops. It takes commitment and perseverance to act responsibly, locally and globally. Even if our actions won't instantly reverse current trends, we must constantly pursue strategies that mitigate -- better yet solve -- the challenges, problems, and dangers we face ahead. Please take the time to learn the facts -- respect science -- and act responsibly.

To understand why preserving our environment is critically important, we need to take joy in what nature provides us every day. This year I'm celebrating nature in my "backyard nature preserve." It doesn't take much to set up your own nature preserve whether you live a rural, suburban, or urban area, and regardless if you own a plot of land or rent an apartment. It just takes imagination to attract and enjoy the flora and fauna, the biota, if you will, which is the animal and plant life indigenous to your surroundings.

My wife Peggy and I have lived on the same .6 acre plot of land in the same cozy cape for forty years in a typical old New England northern Connecticut town.  These days one might call it rural-suburban. We know we are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to live and raise our family here. That said, over the forty years we've lived here, we tried to make the most of what we have. We planted a variety of trees, shrubberies, and flower beds, plus a small vegetable garden, all to make the property our little nature preserve. It paid off. Now we have the good fortune of enjoying the trees and flowers, and the seasonal birds and butterflies they attract each year, with an occasional deer, bear or flock of wild turkeys, as well as the ubiquitous squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits.

So rather that write about the beauty of nature, and the importance of preserving our environment, which we cannot -- must not -- take for granted, I'm simply going to show a sampling of my photos illustrating the flora and fauna you can enjoy when you create your own backyard nature preserve; a preserve that, in its own small but vital way, helps preserve our precious environment.

Pileated Woodpecker

A Pileated Woodpecker and its mate paid us a quick visit to the giant White Ash tree in our back yard. I was fortunate to have my camera handy to capture pictures because they are very shy. Fortunately they didn't stay long, which was a good indicator that the tree offered no good source of insects on which to feed. A local arborist is working hard with root injected insecticide to keep the tree-killing Emerald Ash Borer away. 

A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk sitting on our split rail fence.

Beginning in the late fall and continuing to early spring, before the bears awake from winter torpor (if we're lucky - if not the bird feeders get destroyed) we keep the local birds well fed. We even have a window feeder, which is great entertainment, especially for our grandsons. We only use black oil sunflower seeds and suet. They are the surest ways to keep the flocks happy, and coming back. 

Downy Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

An Eastern Bluebird arrived on January 28

Northern Cardinal (Male)

Northern Cardinal (female) and Tufted Titmouse

Goldfinch (in its muted winter color) and White-breasted Nuthatch

Tufted Titmouse in the window feeder

A Wren house custom built by my good friend Vern

A sturdy, easy to maintain (note hinged bottom door for annual cleaning) bird house is an excellent way to keep small birds returning each spring to nest, year after year. If you have ever seen young chicks fledge their nest, you have witnessed the miraculous cycle of life continuing -- it's a leap of faith followed by a startling tumble to the ground where waiting parents lead an urgent flight into life.

Flowers attract all kinds of life -- especially bees, birds, butterflies, and admiring friends. Picking fresh flowers and arranging bouquets in vases allows you to bring nature directly into your home. Below are just a couple of flowers that spread color throughout our yard. If you are space constrained, try growing certain plants in appropriate sized planters or window boxes.


Hollyhock at sunrise

Hollyhock with morning dew

If you're of my vintage, you may remember the 1972 movie romance/comedy Butterflies are Free with Goldie Hawn and Edward Albert. If not, that's okay; you're probably just too young. I digress. However, while we may think real butterflies are free, many are endangered species struggling to survive in our changing environment, especially the Monarch.

Plant More Milkweed is a blogpost I wrote last fall. I encourage you to read it, and create a welcoming environment wherever you can. Butterflies add a special beauty to our lives, and you and I can make a difference.

Monarch Butterfly

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly

And as I mentioned earlier, the occasional deer, bear, or flock of wild turkeys pass through our yard. This deer stared me down, but by keeping still I was able to take this photo before it bounded off into the nearby woods -- nature photography takes patience -- lots of patience.

White-tailed Deer

On our patio a hungry American Black Bear cub sniffs on a tree where a bird feeder recently was hanging.

"In wildness* is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forests and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind." -- Henry David Thoreau,  Excursions

Let's all do our part to preserve and save our planet. Celebrate Earth Day every day!

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

*Thoreau wrote and meant "wildness." It is often misquoted as "wilderness." Think about it.

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Jody Made a Difference

Mary Joellen "Jody" Putnam
August 17, 1942 -- March 2, 2017

"Think about yourself and what you do for your community. You are making a difference by helping one or two even if you cannot help the whole community. Just pick one at a time. Remember you are making a difference." -- Jody Putnam

Mary Joellen "Jody" Putnam's philosophy recalls the last line of The Starfish Story, "It made a difference to that one." The story is about saving lives, even if just one, against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Starfish Story was a favorite of Jody's who would tell it often when people became discouraged.

Saving just one life makes a difference. A difference of ultimate significance to the one saved and the one who saved the life. It's the profound difference that a single caring and committed person can make in just one person's life, but in Jody's case she made a difference in the lives of countless people in need. Jody saved lives. It was her purpose in life. Jody made a difference.

For more than twenty years Jody worked voluntarily and tirelessly with refugees who resettled in the Hartford area from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burma, Iraq, Liberia, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, among other countries. Her life's purpose was devoted to helping people in need, selflessly and unconditionally.

Jody died peacefully at age 74 on March 2, 2017, after suffering a stroke in February. Hartford will miss her leadership, and the contributions she made creating a better life for many of the vulnerable and victimized people among us. Asylum Hill Neighborhood leader Jennifer Cassidy expressed her hope "that Jody's legacy inspires others to follow her lead. It's a path more of us must walk."

On March 25, an estimated 300 refugees attended a multicultural memorial service for Jody at Asylum Hill's Cathedral of Saint Joseph. It was a special day for the refugees Jody served to share their everlasting gratitude and respect.

After a warm welcome by Fr. James A. Shanley, Rector of the Cathedral, and an opening prayer by Fr. Michal J. Dolan, several refugees celebrated Jody's life by speaking in honor of her generous and welcoming service to their communities. They praised the hours she spent helping them enroll their children in school, access health care, navigate the social service bureaucracy, and complete seemingly endless but necessary paperwork. Included were the following representatives from Burma, Nepal, Bhutan, Liberia, Somalia, Syria, and Bosnia who spoke from deep within their hearts about Jody's service:
Tha Say Paw -- Karen/Burmese community
Padam Bharati -- Nepalese/Bhutanese community
Frederick Bohlen -- Liberian community
Ibrahim Abdule -- Somali Bantu community
Maryam Bitar -- Syrian Trinity College student volunteer
Gail BiscegliAis -- Community volunteer
Sabaha Alihodzic --Bosnian community 
As final speaker Sabaha Alihodzic concluded her tribute, she finished with the El-Fatiha, a fitting prayer from the Quran for the guidance, lordship and mercy of God.

Padam Bharati speaking on behalf of the Nepalese community

Karen Youth Community Chorus

Music by the Karen (Burma) Youth Community Choir filled the Cathedral with songs of peace and thanksgiving.

Jody's close friend and colleague Trinity professor Dr. Janet Bauer reminisced with me that "Jody was an extraordinary cultural navigator for so many Hartford families from different refugee groups in the post resettlement stage. They benefited from her philosophy that becoming self-sufficient sometimes required personal, one-on-one assistance, beyond the first several months, from other Hartford area residents like herself who were proficient in the language and culture."

Jody was an inspiration to many of Dr. Bauer's students as captured in the following excerpt from the tribute read by Maryam Bitar, a Trinity student volunteer from Syria:
"In addition to her impact on so many people from Hartford's refugee communities, Jody was also an inspiring mentor to many students who interned with her through Trinity College, as she provided support to refugee families. Jody embodied a philosophy of one-on-one support that meant students learned how to be compassionate and caring, to listen to what refugees said about their needs and in that way assisting them to become independent -- whether it took six months or three years. And beyond that, well, she remained a friend to everyone."

Maryam Bitar, Trinity College Class of 2016, reading her tribute to Jody

Other Trinity students shared their thoughts: 
"Jody's dedication to refugees in the greater Hartford area was profound and it left a mark on all of us as we carry her passion through our efforts to promote cultural competency..."  -- Daniela Santagelo Akaratovic, newly registered nurse working on refugee health issues, Hartford, CT
"Jody acknowledged every single person with a certain respect. Jody was so pure by heart and yet had strong opinions. Jody was unique. Just by observing her work and spending time with her for a couple of weeks I learned the biggest lesson in life. Acknowledge every person with all the respect in the world and help people without expecting gratitude. Be pure by heart no matter what you do or say..." -- Nina Pariahs Ziari, international student from Denmark, now working in refugee resettlement in Copenhagen.
"From Jody I learned that the world isn't always kind and that doing the right thing is often thankless. I will always admire her empathy and respect for refugees, and I will never forget the smiles she brought about when she visited people. I hope to one day have the effect on one person that Jody had on so many."   --  Jenna Carroll, now a law student at Fordham University perhaps one day doing immigration legal work.

After Jody's son Scott Ahlgren thanked everyone for attending the tribute for his mother and conveyed his family's gratitude, Lina Caswell, a former Hartford social services professional for whom Jody was a dear friend and mentor, presented Scott and Jody's other son, Steven, a City of Hartford Proclamation recognizing Jody's immeasurable contribution to improving the quality of life for the City's newest residents. Following Lina, Padam Bharati presented a certificate of gratitude from the Nepalese community honoring Jody's service.

Lina Caswell (l) presents the City of Hartford Proclamation to Scott and Steven Ahlgren. Padam Bharati (next to Lina) presented a certificate of gratitude from the Nepalese community honoring Jody's service.

In reflecting on the Jody's life, Lina told me that Jody's main motto throughout her work was to "treat people as friends, not clients, because when in need you go to your friends." In providing social services, the technique of being one's friend is unconventional, and not without risk, but "Jody always believed in meeting people on an equal footing." Her friendship approach was one of warm acceptance, fierce loyalty, and, when needed, frank honesty. As she reflected further on their years of service together, Lina said, "Jody did not romanticize refugees. She wanted to help them regain their dignity, not to be stigmatized by labels, to give them back their identity so that they may all be seen for who they truly are." Lina was impressed and fascinated that Jody always spoke first to strangers, never afraid to engage in small talk to help her see the stranger, the newcomer, as a new friend. "Jody's mission was to meet people where they are to help them move forward so that after a substantial initial investment of whatever was necessary to get them situated, coupled with positive experiences navigating the multitude of our society's systems, they ultimately would become independent and successful community members."

Sabaha Alihodzic delivering the EL-Fatiha prayer

After all the tributes and remembrances were shared on March 25, perhaps the most fitting tribute of all is that at least three refugee families have named a child Jody keeping her name alive in their communities.

Jody made a difference.

Donations may be made in Jody's remembrance to the International Rescue Committee: or 1-855-9RESCUE.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos of Jody Putnam and The Starfish Story are from the memorial service program. The photos from the memorial service  are courtesy of Dr. Janet Bauer.