Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Getting My Daily O.A.T.S

Photo courtesy of O.A.T.S.
I love horses. They are fast, strong and beautiful, and I've been lucky enough to enjoy a few rides at my great uncle's home, with a few trail rides thrown in elsewhere. For the most part, I've loved it, but I've also had some bizarre experiences with the powerful animals.

At 16, my parents took my cousin and me to Glacier National Park in Montana for a family vacation. White water rafting, hiking — and of course — horseback riding were all part of the experience.

Once on my horse though, it was evident that he had taken in air before he was saddled. Not wanting to be a pest, I clenched my thighs and attempted to stay center. About forty-five minutes into the trail we had passed picturesque views of mountains, valleys and streams. We rode single file along a narrow strip that hugged the side of a mountain. And that's when the saddle went sideways — and me with it.

I gasped.

My cousin, who was ahead of me, turned back.

"Valerie, you are going to DIE!" she screamed. The trail leader stopped immediately and came to my rescue. Even after he tried to remedy the saddle though, it never did get tight.

Another time, my husband and I went trail riding near Port Austin. God bless Rob, he didn't stop sneezing the whole time. He also never received any instruction. When we signed up, he selected "beginner" rider, while I selected "average." He was provided a stool to mount his horse, and that was the extent of his training. We went off with a group, assuming that the man in front was the trail leader. Not ten minutes into the ride, a pudgy kid donning a helmet was bucked off of his horse. That's when we learned that a twelve-year-old boy was the leader. At this time, my saddle became loose again (am I cursed?) but now, I was able to dismount and tighten the damn thing.

My latest encounter was during a volunteer experience at Hess-Hathaway Farm Park. After signing a waiver, I was asked to brush and clean the hoofs of the horse. After being told that I needed to show Champagne that "I was the boss," the farmer also added that she had been bitten pretty hard by the pretty palomino. No thanks.

This week, I will take on horses again, but I am more comfortable knowing that I will be with trained professionals. O.A.T.S. — Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles — is located in Clarkston and works with disabled individuals through riding and related activities. On Friday, I will help with camp preparations and feed the horses. This will allow me to get some background on the camp so that I can actually help out in the morning with riders the next week. This will be the first back-to-back gig I'll be doing, but it seems like such a great organization, that I can't pass it up.

To learn more about O.A.T.S., visit http://www.oatshrh.org/

Monday, July 26, 2010

Red sky in Morning — You Know the Rest

Volunteers James Helmuth (back row, from left), Kayla Varney, Alyssa McFall, Carla Smith, Kara Brook, Rob Hamilton, Jack Toliver and Carol Ralston (front row, from left) and Darlene Toliver.

Rob and I were greeted with a brilliant, golden-red sunrise Saturday morning at the early hour of 5 o'clock. We reluctantly got up and started to pack for our day volunteering for the Rural Pearl Scenic Bike Tour.

Before we left, we checked the online weather radar, which didn't add to our enthusiasm. The screen showed a huge green mass making its way to our area. The old saying, "Red sky in morning, sailors take warning" made its way to my lips.

Despite the weather warnings, we grabbed some rain gear and headed to Oxford.

Like most events, this was just a bit disorganized as we waited for everyone to arrive. But soon enough we were unloading supplies. Rob and I started cutting up bananas and filling bowls with fruit for the hungry riders. Then, we stuffed the goodie bags with magazines and maps as sprinkles dropped onto our heads, making the cardboard boxes mushy.

Though the weather did not look promising, many riders were still coming out -- more surprising was the amount of riders taking on the challenge of 48 miles. Luckily, during our three-hour stint, the rain had held off.

Money raised from the tour goes to help fund programs for the The Oxford /Addison Youth Assistance. A variety of programs are offered, including one-on-one mentoring, parenting classes and a youth summer garden.

Darlene Toliver, secretary for the organization, looks every bit as sweet and kind as a grandmother could be, and she is.

Three years ago, her granddaughter was having difficulties dealing with her parent's divorce, and she began acting out. She was directed to the youth assistance, and now at 12 is an honor student.

"Three years ago we were having problems," she said. "And now, she's turned her life around. I feel like I'm helping give back because of my grandchild, but I think I would've done it anyway.

"I've been very lucky," she added. "We've been here for thirty years, and it feels good to give back."

In between registering riders, she chats with the other volunteers. One, Carla Smith of Oxford, who also wanted to give back to her community as well as meet new people. There were also a lot of teenagers helping out — the volleyball team, and a young student who was applying for National Honor Society.

Rob and I also had the benefit of meeting some bike enthusiasts, who encouraged our own love of the sport and gave us helpful hints. Now, we're excited for next year, because we want to ride. For this evening though, I will settle on twenty miles in my new, snug bike shorts.

To learn more about youth assistance programs offered in the Oakland County area, visit http://www.oakgov.com/circuit/division_committee/local-ya-offices.html

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rising before dawn

Tomorrow will be a day of endurance and determination -- just not for me. Along with my husband, I will volunteer at the Rural Pearl Scenic Bike Tour. The tour raises funds to help local youths by sending kids to camp and providing them with skill-building opportunities.

Bikers can take on 15, 38 or 48 miles along the trail.

I love to bike, but I've never been in anything like this. Rob and I will be calling it an early night; we have to be up by 5 a.m. in order to get to Oxford at 6:30. I'm not thrilled to leave the house before the sun makes it's way to my window, but it sounds like a cool event. We're going to help with set up, registration and water breaks.

Serious naptime will be in order tomorrow when we get back!

Hopefully, the rains that have been pounding our area will subside. Have a great weekend out there and do some good!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Back in the Barn

Debbie Kayga (left) with Amanda Hotchkiss in a booth overlooking the youths.

Monsoon-like storms had me crawling along Andersonville Road trying to get to the fair. I had left work late, and was afraid I wouldn’t make it in time. I didn’t have to worry.

When I arrived at the fairgrounds, festivalgoers were waiting in the activity building until they got the “all clear” over the radio. Waiting gave me the opportunity to chat with a handful of mothers who volunteer by navigating parking. They were actually working for compensation for their kids who play in the Holly band. Nearly 160 parents take time out of their lives to help out both the fair, and their kids.

Teri Mills of Davisburg has a 16 year old and 12 year old in band. Both of her kids were helping out too.

“I absolutely love to come out and do this,” she said.

After waiting for close to an hour, I knew it was a bad sign when a line of beat up cars started making it’s way toward us. The demolition derby had been canceled. Not to worry, after the rain cleared, I was escorted up to the offices to meet with director Jackie Scramlin. No derby, but still work to do. I was back to the barns.

After dubiously scanning my peep-toe, raspberry shoes, Debbie Kayga led me into an office overlooking an arena.

“Sorry, I really wasn’t expecting to be in a barn,” I said, feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

Debbie didn’t really seem to care; she was drenched and needed to dry off. While she got ready she had me number different colored squares of paper on which judges would score the kids for the Showmanship Sweepstakes. This is what the fair is really about for a lot of people. Kids show off what they know about animals, and have to present them in a formal way and answer questions. After chatting with one mother, I become immediately impressed that her children are up in the early a.m. in order to take care of their animals. I may come off like your grandmother, but it’s nice to see youths being productive.

Nearly everyone at the fair is a volunteer. Amanda Hotchkiss was clerking, which essentially means she makes announcements and keeps the schedule on time. She also has to quickly tally up points. She brought a calmness over the whole event, which had become chaotic with the time change due to the rainstorm.

“I just feel that 4-H was such a big part of my life,” she said, adding that it teaches leadership skills and responsibility. “It’s wonderful for the community.”

Debbie definitely appreciated Amanda’s help, “Amanda is the best! I couldn’t do it without her.”

I wouldn’t say I was totally helpful, except for about ten minutes where I had to call kids names off and give them their numbers. I hung out for a while, watching the kids, but it was getting late, and I had to eat a lot of food off of sticks in order to really appreciate the fair experience. I did get to ride on the Ferris Wheel with Rob, and I fully appreciate how many people it takes to make the Oakland County Fair possible.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Smashin' and crashin' at the Oakland County Fair

Check out the Bump and Run, 4 p.m., Sunday (courtesy of the Oakland County Fair).

So, vacation was nice, but it's time to get back to business — and that business is destruction.

At the end of last week, I got a phone call from Jackie Scramlin, director of the Oakland County Fair. She wanted to know if I would come out and help take tickets for the demolition derby. I can't remember the last time I went to a fair — I certainly couldn't drive myself at the time. And I've never been to a derby of any kind, so I'm not really sure what to expect. Taking perfectly good cars and smashing them up doesn't really appeal to me, though I am interested in people watching.

Fairs in general, however, hold a dear place in my heart. Growing up in a small Northern Michigan town, I couldn't wait for August when the fair hit our neck of the woods. We didn't have sports arenas, big concerts or malls — yeah, we were in the sticks.

Now, the big event conjures up images of screechingly fast rides that send my head and stomach shuddering, homemade pies made by grandmothers, and barns full of blue-ribbon bedecked animals. But one day will forever remain vivid.

My grandparents, whose typical adventure was to take me from yard sale to yard sale, offered to take a friend and me to the fair for the day. Instead of looking at dusty lamps, this was a grand opportunity for fast rides and deep fried dough!

When we arrived at the grounds, my grandparents patiently walked alongside of us as we waited in lines for the bumper cars and Ferris wheel. We tried just about every twirling and spinning attraction that we were tall enough to ride on. And when heat waves started rising from the ground, we knew it was time for lunch. Instead of getting something from a vendor, or hitting up a church-run buffet though, my grandfather headed over to the cattle auction.

The plan was covert, resembling a CIA op Northern Michigan style. My grandparents were going to pretend to look seriously at cattle as bidders, but never actually be the highest bidder. Why you might ask? The answer was simple — the auction offered a bevy of barbecue food for interested buyers. I eyed a large vat of cold, sloppy coleslaw that sat on a picnic table among the other foods. I wanted to die.

Luckily, my grandmother who did not want a life of crime, pleaded with my grandfather.

"Bob, what if we get caught?" she asked.

After a bit more arguing, my grandfather looked at us and figured we'd rat him out.

"Alright, alright," my grandfather conceded.

Instead, it was decided that we would go to McDonalds. This too, was rare in my family, who considered salad a suitable snack.

As we approached the drive-thru, I thought of Big Macs and chocolate shakes. But my plans were soon thwarted. Instead, my grandfather bought thirteen, thirty-nine cent hamburgers.

"They're real small," my grandma assured me.

Mortified, my friend and I hit the floor of the back seat and giggled. After the voice from the speaker repeated back the large order, we were soon handed our meaty meal. Looking back, it was a great day, regardless of my grandparent's unique tactics to save a bit of money.

I can't help but get a bit giddy for tonight. Will I feel nostalgic? Will I get to ride on a Ferris wheel with my husband while we nosh on an Elephant ear? One thing is for certain: I will not eat at a cattle auction and I will not be hitting up any fast food joints.

For more information on the Oakland County Fair, visit http://www.oakfair.org/

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Yay for Vacays!

Lounging on the shores of Lake Michigan, hitting the pavement with my new bike and taking a hike through a wet forest were just some of the things I did on my short vacation in Northern Michigan to visit friends and family.

It's my week off from volunteering and a bit of time off from work. I've enjoyed a few days without a computer and cell phone. It was a busy four-day weekend, and though I'm back to being a cubicle rat, it's only a short week. The time away was needed, but I can't lie, I'm already looking forward to a full week in August.

While I was taking advantage of the northern wooded landscape, many vacationers took time off to help others on volunteer vacations. Some go with churches on two-week mission trips, while others sign up with companies or touring businesses.

Type "volunteer vacations" in Google, and nearly a half-million websites pop up. Volunteer vacations, or service trips, almost always cost money. Volunteers can sign up for a couple of weeks to a couple of months either in the U.S. or abroad. Whether it's teaching English, building schools or gardening, there seems to be options for just about everyone.

I've heard and read positive and negative comments about volunteer vacations. Some think companies don't really aim to help the people, but rather push their own agendas while collecting tourist dollars. Others chime in that giving up two weeks is just a way to feel like a "do gooder." Yet, others have personally told me how enriched they feel by going on such trips.

I've written stories on high school students who gave up spring break to make a difference — one group that went to New Orleans after the hurricanes. I am thoroughly impressed when teenagers choose to do something constructive with their time off, rather than partying in Palm Springs. My generation may get flack for being technology obsessed and self-absorbed, but there's a large portion making the world a better place.

I've often thought that taking a service trip vacation would be a good option for my husband, but as of now, I don't get a lot of time off of work to do this, and we don't have the funding either. But hopefully, in the future, we will be able to see a different part of the world while making it a little bit better.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Just a Walk in the Park

Shalina Harris with her sons, Semaj, 3, and Damon, 13.

Children sat on picnic tables, digging through paper bags and munching on pizza while a small line formed underneath a shady tree. Members of the United Faith General Baptist Church in Pontiac and Dubrae Newman of the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency were passing out bagged lunches to the children, some of whom kept coming up to see if there were leftovers.

Many of these children receive free or reduced lunches during the school year, so when summer rolls in, the U.S. Department of Education continues to provide the meals with area partners. OLHSA has 42 sites, many of which are in Pontiac.

As I watched these children look for more food, and grab at a plastic cup of fruit, my heart ached. And as I write this now, and stare at my uneaten bagel, I feel worse.
Many of the kids have been coming for years, and Dubrae knows them by name.

"Hey, how you doing? Where's you're brother?" he asked one child.
"Summer school," replied a young girl with braided hair, which seemed to be a common answer.

Many of these children rely on these meals.

"If it wasn't for these lunches, these kids would be hungry," sad volunteer Roberta Rhinehart. "A lot of the time, they want seconds."

The volunteers, from both Pontiac and Waterford, come to this park Monday through Friday to pass out the lunches. They chat with the kids and parents, and pick up the area. Last year, they passed out 65,000 lunches, and Dubrae expects that number to rise.

Many children came to the park alone, some had parents with them.
Shalina Harris brought her sons Semaj and Damon.

"I think it's a good program, and it helps a lot of people out," Shalina said. "This helps us save a little at home."

Needless to say, times are tough in Michigan, and cities like Pontiac fair badly in comparison to the rest of the county.

Damon, who likes playing baseball, said the food tastes just like it does at school. Remembering my own hot lunches, I wondered if that was a good or bad thing. But the pizza didn't look as bad as it did during my cafeteria days.

My contribution for the day was to count off how many lunches were taken. This day was less; I marked off 45. After I was done with that, I started picking up trash in the park. In my black kitten heels and a pair of latex gloves, I chatted with the women about why they volunteer, and about the city in general as we threw trash in a black plastic bag.

A week ago, the volunteers cleaned it in preparation for the summer lunch program, and found knives and broken bottles. I surprisingly, still found a lot of broken glass. I was told there used to be a basketball court, but the city removed it because people continued to smash glass bottles on it. Pontiac gets a bad rap for a lot of things. But in part, it's understandable. While we picked up discarded wrappers, bottles and glass, some parents sat on benches yakking on their cell phones. This is where they live. This is where their children play. Yet, some seemed oblivious. Or perhaps they take no pride in the city that has done them no favors.

Thankfully, services like OLHSA strive to ensure that children will have it a bit easier. I know parents struggle, and some are just doing all they can to keep their families together, but I can't help thinking that these children deserve better, and I doubt I will forget the image of a little hand reaching into a nearly empty crate for a cup of fruit.