Category Archives: Great Causes

Camp Jenny: How One Weekend Can Change Your Life

I spent this past Memorial Day Weekend eating mediocre food (no offense to those that prepared it…it was what it was), sleeping on essentially a piece of wood and feeling like I was never going to feel or smell clean again but it was the best Memorial Day Weekend ever!

I had the honor and pleasure to participate as a volunteer at Camp Jenny, a 4 day camp experience for students from F.L. Stanton Elementary School in Atlanta on the URJ-Camp Coleman property in Cleveland, GA. I made mention of it in a blog back in February after my daughter had won a film festival award for her documentary, Earning Jenny, about this absolutely amazing program. And as I said then, it was definitely a #ProudMama moment. (If you would like to view the video, please send a request by clicking here. I promise it is worth 7 minutes of your time.)Earning Jenny on Vimeo

So call me crazy but…I thought I really knew and understood everything about Camp Jenny after hearing all of my daughter’s stories upon returning home every Memorial Day Weekend for 6 years…all 4 years in high school as well as after her freshman and sophomore years in college. Seeing her go through the process of creating the documentary and watching the end result?…Honestly, I didn’t think it was possible to get any more emotional about it.

Clearly I was wrong because when the buses pulled up to over 270 screaming teenage counselors and adult staff (yes, that’s 120 more counselors and staff than campers) and those kindergarten through fifth grade kids are just in awe of what is unfolding in front of them, I became an absolute puddle of tears.

Camp Jenny Buses Arrive
My daughter did warn me. And so did all of the Camp Jenny leadership, especially during the 24 hours prior to the campers arrival. They also warned us that many of these kids have never left Metro Atlanta, some haven’t even left their neighborhood and most are more afraid of the woods than they are of the dangerous streets they cross every day to get to school.11329765_911385358903184_5085171261819523805_n

So it was our responsibility to make sure they all felt safe…

…from the time they got off the bus on Friday when many would be crying because they were homesick or simply afraid of the unknown

…until the time they got back on the bus on Monday when they would be crying because they didn’t want to leave after having so much fun or sadly, for some, because of the reality of what is waiting for them back home sets in.

David Haller, the first director of the program when it was established in 1988 and still a very active part of the leadership team, took us through it’s history on the eve before they arived and outlined the four simple yet powerful goals…Camp Jenny GoalsThere is no doubt we set the groundwork to meet #1 and #2 in the years to come. They already have 28 years of documented proof that they have, in fact, not only improved but drastically changed the direction of so many children’s lives, children that insist the days they spent at Camp Jenny between the ages of 5 and 10 gave them the confidence and strength to overcome the odds of growing up surrounded by things like drugs and drive by shootings, get through high school, go on to college and lead very successful lives.10931171_911388795569507_3987769863272336546_n

Think about it…even if one child earns the opportunity to go every year they will have spent a total of 24 days at Camp Jenny over the course of their elementary school years. So what if that one child goes on to get a full scholarship at Stanford and do stem cell research? Yeah, that happened…all because of Camp Jenny. Impactful for sure!10958795_911952175513169_4774674190361311500_n

I grew up never having to think for a minute whether there would be food on the table, clothes on my back and a roof over my head so there is no way I can ever really know what it is like for these kids on a day to day basis.  But I can certainly imagine it and that, of course, breaks my heart.

At the same time, my heart was overflowing with joy as I watched the kids learn something cool about science…

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Climb a rock wall for the very first time and get to the top…11068384_911388475569539_2827727956525761895_n

Participate in an activity about supporting one another…
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Run around on a big field of soft grass…barefoot…in bathing suits…getting soaked by buckets of water…11330047_911389688902751_672817623916480351_n (1)

And learn how to make superhero super muffins and fruit burritos…

11329905_911390268902693_6694378623161610065_nI spent two full days as a cooking specialist and while that certainly isn’t a stretch for me in terms of the skill set required, I really had no idea how exhausting it would be to have one group after another come through the tiny kitchen. I was so fortunate to have 3 younger staff members there to truly own it. They were absolutely amazing with those kids. If you are reading this Lexi, Daniel and Roni…thanks from the bottom of my heart. Even though it took for us to run out of butter for you to believe that the muffins would, in fact, taste better with mashed bananas as a replacement (and essentially cut all of the fat out of them), I think you are all SUPER! That said, remember…#mamaknowsbest 🙂20150523_110627

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t give a huge shoutout to all counselors who totally brought serious energy and enthusiasm to the activity. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to get excited about baking powder …but they did…and that filtered down to the campers for sure!

You know what else filters down to the campers? The theme chosen for the weekend. This year it was Be Your Own Superhero. They made it very clear to the campers that you don’t need a cape or a mask to be your own superhero but they certainly looked adorable “flying” around camp in ones made by their counselors and they got to decorate.11377395_911955328846187_2465898647680067151_n

And channeling their superhero powers…WOOSH!

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The counselors, of course, were all about the costumes…

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These are high school kids giving up not only their Memorial Day Weekend but also for a few seniors attending their graduation ceremonies. The co-directors, chosen by their peers via an election at an annual convention for the National Federation of Temple Youth – SAR and STR Regions, work tirelessly all year to make sure every T is crossed and every I is dotted.

Remember the goals above? #3, build a generation of young leaders, is absolutely in motion.

#4 from that list of goals? Improve our own lives? Well, I was on my way to dinner last night when I saw that my daughter had tagged me in a Facebook post. She rarely does that so I was obviously very curious and then cried as I read these words…

One final shoutout to my mom, Beth Blacker for going in my place. It meant so much to me that you were finally able to experience what it’s all about!

If that doesn’t improve a mother’s life I don’t know what will.

Actually, her being there with me next year would be a fantastic improvement. Unfortunately she couldn’t make it this year. She’s in the midst of working on her senior film thesis so college took precedence. Her spirit, though, was definitely felt and I’m thinking my name tag should have just said “Jamie’s Mom”…I can live with that!

Possibly the only thing that could improve upon my Camp Jenny experience and, in turn, my life would be to have my son and husband join me and my daughter and make it the ultimate family affair. I was so jealous of the other parents there with their kids. At various points in time I was definitely “adopted” by them especially these three families and I really can’t thank them enough.20150525_081556 (1)

The mothers all met at Camp Coleman and have remained friends through the years. Their children essentially grew up together despite living in three different cities and all very much embody what Camp Jenny is all about.

Suffice it to say Camp Jenny not only improved, but changed my life. My brain absolutely has not shut off since I left two days ago with thoughts of how amazing it would be if there could be hundreds of programs exactly like it around the country. I know some do exist but I’m hard pressed to believe they have quite the intensity I felt.

To all of those incredible children, I wish you a wonderful summer and best of luck earning the opportunity to be back for #CJ2016. For those that have “aged out”, as announced during the closing circle on Monday, you can return to Camp Jenny in high school as a counselor. So do what I’ve always said to my kids…make good choices and make your parents proud!

That’s it for now…#BlackerOut!

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Call Me Crazy, Great Causes, Life Lessons

Did You Hear The One About A Vegetarian Walking Into A Bacon Festival?

I am a vegetarian…well, sort of. I eat any fish or seafood so I guess that makes me a pescetarian, but meat and poultry products haven’t graced my lips since I was 15.

So why would a person who hasn’t touched the stuff in over 30 years want to go to a bacon festival?America Loves Bacon   4.11.15   Tampa FL

Call me crazy but…curiosity mostly…I thought it would be interesting to see who shows up both as attendees and vendors.

And I have to say, I was not disappointed. What can I say, I am easily amused.

Besides, I wanted to pay homage to the Spanish settlers who introduced America to bacon back in the 1500s. I made mention of this particular fact in my blog last week. By the way, did you know there are actually 5 ways to say bacon in Spanish?…

Uno…Tocino
Dos…Tocineta
Tres…Panceta
Quatro…Beicon
Cinco…Bacón

Hmmm…I guess we adopted #5 in English.  And suffice it to say, if you ever travel to a Spanish speaking country you can now feel pretty confident in ordering bacon properly…You’re welcome.

Full disclosure: This is where I have to insert the standard blogger’s thing that this is technically considered a “sponsored post”. I did receive 2 complimentary passes to the America Loves Bacon Festival  this past weekend at the Florida State Fairgrounds (thanks to a fellow member of Tampa Bay Bloggers, Carlos Hernandez of Carlos Eats)  in exchange for writing this, but anything to help promote things happening in the Tampa Bay community and satisfy my curiosity  I will happily sell my soul…ok, maybe not my soul…but you know what I mean. Carry on…

I obviously needed a sidekick of sorts to do all the sampling. I figured my 18 year old son or my husband would happily come along for the ride but they didn’t seem to share my curiosity for this particular field trip.

Their loss and my friend Ellen’s gain. I think her response when I asked her whether she wanted to go was “Shut up!”

I took that as a yes.

We actually had been at the Walk For Wishes that morning supporting another friend who has a son with neuroblastoma and had been a Make a Wish Foundation “wish” recipient last year.

Pediatric cancer survivors helping grant the next "wish"

Pediatric cancer survivors helping grant the next “wish”…     Our friend’s son is the second from the left

The actual walk took place along the just completed (but 40 years in the making) Tampa Riverwalk

Awesome photo opp along the Riverwalk

Awesome photo opp along the Riverwalk

…and then walked an extra 3 miles to and from the Tampa Convention Center to watch yet another friend’s daughter for a little while in a volleyball tournament. Ellen decided that she needed a little extra pre bacon festival prep so she ran up and down the steps outside the convention center just for good measure. She’s the one with her arms up in the air in case you can’t tell.

My friend Ellen during her best impression of Rocky before the bacon festival

Ellen doing her best impression of “Rocky”

By the time we got to the bacon festival, we were really hungry so we made a bee line for the first food truck we saw. Lucky for me it was The Maine Thang, a “pescetarian” based truck and we shared a lobster roll that hit the spot, albeit a very expensive one… $11. Yeah, as usual, I found the most expensive thing to eat in the whole place.

Good friends share lobster rolls

Good friends share lobster rolls

Worth $11? Does it really matter when you are hungry???

Worth $11? Does it really matter when you are hungry???

Onward and upward…

Ellen eyed the booth for Datz Dough, a South Tampa foodie mecca, where she claimed their bacon brownie “ridiculous”…as in ridiculously amazing.

Datz Dough Bacon Brownie

Before I could get a decent photo of the bacon brownie it went into Ellen’s mouth so that means I had no choice but to post this photo…sorry Ellen

Their bacon mac ‘n cheese, though…apparently not so amazing. She took one bite and asked for her sample ticket back. Fortunately, they didn’t argue with her and we moved on to The Madison Chocolatiers West and their bacon donut. Ellen claimed she was only going to take one bite so she could pace herself, but it seemed to have disappeared rather quickly.  I assume that means she liked it.

Madison Chocolatiers West Bacon Donut

This time I got a photo before a bite was taken.

As we meandered around to the various booths and food trucks, the lines were getting longer by the minute. Ellen, however, was clearly struggling with what to get with the precious remaining sample tickets. Then she stopped suddenly, looking intensely at the menu on the side of one of the food trucks and screamed…

"Shut the front door...deep fried bacon wrapped twinkies?"

“SHUT THE FRONT DOOR…DEEP FRIED       BACON WRAPPED TWINKIES?…           NO FREAKING WAY!”

Yes, all caps do emphasize just how excited she got, don’t they? I waited in line for almost 30 minutes for this…

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Is there anything they won’t deep fry or wrap in bacon?

 

while Ellen sampled these…

Bacon and onion perogies

Bacon and onion perogies

For the record, there were lots of people sporting some interesting articles of bacon inspired clothing/costumes including these guys dressed as slices of the stuff…

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Can’t imagine it really would have tasted very good Ellen!

and this one…

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Hehe…his shirt says boobies

but I kind of liked this one the best for it’s creative extension of the word “exercise”…

This is one giant stretch!

This is one giant stretch

Did I mention it was hot?

Like stupid hot…as in why are we walking around in the middle of the day when it is so freakin’ hot!

This is Florida in April after all and, yes, you literally could have fried the bacon on the pavement.

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But that didn’t seem to deter the thousands of people who showed up and, yes, that included a few protesters stationed right at the entrance/exit to the fairgrounds. I have to question if they thought there was any possibility they were going to convert a single bacon loving soul on their way in or out, but I definitely give them major props for trying.

What exactly is their end game at a bacon festival?

What exactly is their end game at a bacon festival?

When all was said and done, Ellen sampled 8 different things, claimed she was officially “over” bacon and was going home to have celery sticks for dinner.

The next morning she set me a text with the message “Look what Dave (aka her husband) is doing” and this photo…

So much for being "over" bacon

So much for being “over” bacon

That’s it for now…#BlackerOut !

Bacon Fact

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Filed under Call Me Crazy, Food, Great Causes, Tampa Bay

Give And Grub…Sticking It To Hunger…One Meal At A Time

Full disclosure: This is where I have to insert the standard blogger’s thing that this is technically considered a “sponsored post”. I did receive 3 complimentary meals and two t-shirts in exchange for writing this, but anything for a great cause I will happily sell my soul…ok, maybe not my soul…but you know what I mean. Carry on…

If you happen to be on my email list or follow me on social media, you may have seen…and even entered…the contest I was running a few weeks ago for a chance to have lunch with me.

Ok, look, I am not that full of myself to think anyone in Tampa Bay would enter a contest just to break bread with me. I mean, I like food, know food, create some pretty awesome food for family and friends, spent many years working in the food industry plus I do believe I have great table manners and can carry a conversation, but there’s no reason anyone would enter a contest for a free meal with me “just because”.

So what was the hook? Give And Grub, a joint project between Laser Spine Institute, Metropolitan Ministries, Feeding America Tampa Bay and Tampa Bay Lightning. This non-profit food truck hit the roads of Tampa Bay last fall with a mission and passion to help fight hunger with every meal purchased or even with a simple share of the hashtag #GiveAndGrub.

GiveandGrub_Badge_Blue

How smart is that?

Call me crazy but…most of us are on social media anyway so would it really hurt any of us to share this hashtag?

And we’ve all gotta eat! So if the food is good (and in this case it’s great…trust me) and the truck happens to show up right outside your office at lunch time, at a Thursday or Saturday Lightning home game, numerous events on any given night or weekend or maybe even the next wedding you attend (yep, they’ll do that), it’s kind of a no-brainer right?

And so far, this no-brainer has amounted to over 30,000 meals delivered to children in need.

I was originally supposed to experience Give And Grub as part of a Tampa Bay Bloggers event, a group I had only recently gotten involved with online. I was really looking forward to meeting some of my fellow bloggers in person before a Lightning game at the beginning of March to sample all of the truck’s amazing offerings, in exchange, as mentioned in my disclosure above, for us all to write a blog about it.

But that was unfortunately during my week or two of being out of focus and the email invite got lost in a sea of a bazillion other emails.

When I realized I had missed it, I reached out to the Give And Grub advocate that had arranged the blogger event, begged for forgiveness and a chance to meet up with the truck sometime in the near future. My wish was granted…and I could bring a guest to boot…woo hoo!

So last week I met up with the truck behind a large office building on Kennedy Avenue at the foot of the Howard Frankland Bridge. This is when I should probably mention the lucky winner who got a free meal (but we didn’t actually eat it together…more on that later) was Kim Kindle, a fellow Tampa Bay Blogger, who also didn’t make to the Lightning game a few weeks before, pictured below with me and some t-shirts we were given.

Crazy Maybe But Gets Give And Grub Tshirts

Tina Rose Hunt, the social media manager for Laser Spine Institute, was also on hand to give us a little background about Give And Grub. Suffice it to say, I was blown away by the information she provided including the fact that every Friday, Metropolitan Ministries delivers a package of 5 meals to every child (to consume at home over the weekend) at two area schools on behalf of the Give And Grub initiative.

They choose the schools based on the demographics provided through Hillsborough County’s Student Nutrition Services Free and Reduced Lunch Program, part of the National School Lunch Program which guarantees every school-aged child meals and snacks during any school day.

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Source: NSLP

Unfortunately, for many of the children who receive subsidized meals during school, once they get home dinner may not happen…or at least not one with significant substance. And while it is bad enough for them to have little promise of a balanced meal at home during the week, can you imagine going an entire weekend?

I asked Tina if they have instituted a cap on the number of free meals they are willing and able to give away and while the initial goal was set at 150,000 over the course of a year, they are considering making this a permanent project. In fact, they are looking to expand the concept to the locations around the country where Laser Spine Institute has other facilities. Obviously, the logical partnership would be if each of those markets has a hockey team so they can carry the branding of their Stick It To Hunger campaign but I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to come up with another clever tagline for any potential partner in those communities.

Anyway, before I knew it, I realized we had been talking to Tina for almost an hour. And after smelling the various foods being prepared and watching customers walk by with their meals that entire time, yeah, I was hungry. I was thrilled to find out I could order 3 meals to sample and, while I love me some good eats, clearly I wasn’t planning to eat it all nor was I about to let any it go to waste.

And by “it”, I mean the Bishop Bowl consisting of blackened shrimp wasabi caramel, saffron red beans, mango and plantains on a bed of cilantro rice…

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the Callahan’s Mac Slam, a combination of seared Kielbasa and caramelized peppers and onions on top of cavatappi pasta with a creamy boursin cheese sauce…

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the Hedman’s Steak Tacos loaded with marinated skirt steak and served with a roasted corn pico de gallo, chipotle ranch dressing and Tijuana rice…

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and finally the Cross-Check Sweet Potato Fries with not one, but two dipping sauces…marshmallow and caramel.

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I took it all to go and headed to Centre Club Tampa for, believe it or not, the monthly Food and Wine committee meeting. Yep, I strategically planned it so I could share my bounty and help spread the word to the various committee members. Sure enough, in the blink of an eye the food was gone! My work there…and now here…I believe is done.

Well, that’s not true because I want to make sure that if you are interested in having the Give And Grub Truck come to your office or event, please click here and fill out the request form. And don’t forget, simply sharing the #GiveAndGrub hashtag is the easiest way you can help support this incredible effort to fight hunger.

Ok, that’s really it for now…#BlackerOut !

P.S. In case you are wondering what my companion Kim on this mission ordered, here she is in all of her food glory with the Chicken Parmkos (named after the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos) which,of course, is a breaded chicken cutlet with house-made marinara and aged parmesan chese on a fresh Italian roll.

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FYI…I forgot to mention above that all of the menu items are named after Lightning players and others involved with the team. Seriously, now I am really done!

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