Co-op Christmas fun at Kraynak’s


This school year has been one full of changes.

Most of those changes are a result of wonderful life changes that have occurred in the last four months, but some of those changes bring feelings of loss as we look back on past years and acknowledge the transition we have had to make into a new season of life.

The end of a chapter is hard no matter how amazing the next chapter promises to be, and no closing chapter has been more difficult than that of our co-op’s dissolution.

It has been an unusual school year in that after a decade of our Wednesdays being committed to our co-op, we now find that day free from commitments. For years our week revolved around the planning, preparing and packing that was involved in this weekly activity. It was a lot of work in the beginning, when the kids were small and each of us moms were preparing for and then teaching 3-4 classes every Wednesday, but we did it because we loved it…

We loved the friendships we saw developing between our children.

We loved the amount of learning that was accomplished in one day.

We loved the experiences we could offer our children that can be challenging in a home school environment (like Valentine’s Day parties, yearbooks, and talent shows.)

We loved the hands-on learning that happened under the guidance of a teacher that wasn’t “Mom,” with classmates that weren’t siblings.

We loved the support we found in each other as we navigated the challenges of life with friends who soon became so much more than friends.

Co-op was the greatest blessing of my “home schooling” journey,

And my heart shattered a bit when we all realized that this season of life was drawing to a close.

Our children who were kindergarteners when this adventure began, are now graduating high school and the purpose that the co-op was created for had been fulfilled. We no longer needed to gather weekly to get assignments done and the kids no longer craved the Valentine card exchanges and Halloween parties. We knew the end had come, but none were emotionally ready to give up the connection that was such an integral part of our lives for so long.

So, we came up with a plan…

The plan was to meet twice a month for a social get-together with each co-op mom taking on the task of planning for a month of the school year.

This past Friday was the first of two planned outings for December.

IMG_4270 (2)

We met at Kraynak’s, a toy store/candy shop/garden center/gift shop/Christmas wonderland… in Hermitage, PA.

IMG_4258 (2)

“From September 10th thru December 31st, Imagine a world of make-believe with twinkling lights, glittering trees, and a magical array of life-like characters. “Santa’s Christmas Land” is a 300-foot, indoor starlight avenue of uniquely designed artificial Christmas trees. Each tree has a specific theme that is enhanced and complimented by surrounding scenery and a cast of life-like animated characters.”

IMG_4268 (2)

Christmas Land is comprised of different vignettes of Christmas scenes.

IMG_4260 (2)

 Music is playing and the smells of Christmas fill the hallway that guides visitors through the different scenes.

IMG_4257 (2)

It is magical and we look forward to seeing how the displays change from year to year.

IMG_4263 (2)

Everyone has their favorites,

IMG_4255 (2)

And it is a fun Christmas activity that is free to enjoy…

IMG_4273 (2)

(If you can make it through the toy store and candy aisle’s that you must pass to get to the displays.)

IMG_4284 (2)

It is actually a pretty brilliant marketing strategy,

IMG_4289 (2)

And we buy into it every year.

IMG_4272 (2)

And LOVE it year after year.

It was so much fun enjoying this Christmas tradition with our co-op family, and catching up after a month apart.

IMG_4276 (2)

We love our co-op family and loved getting to spend some time with our dear friends.

IMG_4278 (2)

Next activity on the calendar: Our annual Co-op Christmas party!!

A “Phipp’in” Good Time!


Last week we headed south to Pittsburgh for a field trip to Phipps Conservatory. We hadn’t visited Phipps for probably a decade so it was fun to have an excuse to go back. Beautiful anytime a year, Phipps is especially stunning during the month of December when the halls are decked for Christmas.

IMG_4243 (2)

“A green oasis in the middle of Pittsburgh’s vibrant Oakland neighborhood, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has provided a world-class garden experience to its visitors since 1893. Explore the beauty and wonders of nature at Phipps, encompassing 15 acres including a 14-room glasshouse and 23 distinct gardens. Experience industry-leading sustainable architecture and green practices, stunning seasonal flower shows, exclusive commissioned exhibits, renowned orchid and bonsai collections and more. This historic landmark is just a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh in Schenley Park.”

IMG_4240 (2)

We arrived, checked in, and were given our schedule for the day. The first hour was to be spent exploring the green houses with a self-guided tour. The second hour was scheduled to be more formal with a presentation on the Flora of Cuba and corresponding activities.

IMG_4089 (2)IMG_4081 (2)IMG_4096 (2)IMG_4116 (2)

We began our self-guided tour in the atrium where beautiful Christmas trees lined the stone courtyard.

IMG_4133 (2)IMG_4129 (2)

Turning left we worked our way through the various rooms, enjoying the Christmas themes that blanked each area.

IMG_3990 (2)IMG_4000 (3)

The décor was stunning and the magic occurring within the glass of the greenhouse shone all the more brightly framed by the falling snow outside.

IMG_4024 (2)

Everyone had a favorite room.

IMG_4011 (2)

Following in the footsteps of his Grandpa Rich, Rusty loved the cactus room:

IMG_4028 (2)IMG_4031 (2)

Grace fell in love with this beautiful room paved in stone that is frequently rented out for weddings:

IMG_4017 (2)

Molly had a hard time choosing a favorite, enthralled by the natural beauty found in each themed greenhouse:

IMG_4054 (2)

As for Tyler…

IMG_4015 (2)

Well, let’s just say this outing was NOT his idea of a good time. As we moved from room to room he would slump with fatigue and whine, “We already saw these plants.”

IMG_4063 (2)

Poor kid just couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for room after room of foliage.

IMG_4183 (2)

Thank goodness for the pockets of child-friendly fun scattered among the acres of plants that allowed Tyler to fortify himself for all the walking and flower gazing that accompanied a field trip to Phipps Conservatory.

IMG_4178 (2)IMG_4164 (2)IMG_4194 (2)

The miniature railroad display and play grocery store were among his favorites.

IMG_4037 (2)IMG_4042 (2)

While he played “grocery store,” I enjoyed strolling through the room checking out all the Christmas sculptures created from flowers.

IMG_4115 (2)

IMG_4140 (2)

For the second half of the field trip we joined other students and their families in one of the auditoriums for a presentation highlighting one of Phipps’s newest displays: “Tropical Forests of Cuba.”

We enjoyed a slide show introducing us to the habitats of Cuba, particularly the flora and fauna found in its tropical forests.

After an educational slide show we were taken to the Cuba room where the kids were set loose with scavenger hunt sheets and given 15 minutes to find the information missing from their sheets. The answers they found were then used to compete in a Cuba Jeopardy game.

IMG_4208 (2)

The kids paired off in groups of two, with Grace and Rusty competing against Molly and Tyler.

IMG_4237 (2)

This activity was more up Tyler’s alley and he loved the competitive nature of racing through the rain forest display in search of answers.

IMG_4234 (2)

After time expired, we walked back to the auditorium for the Jeopardy game where the kids had a chance to use their newly acquired knowledge of Cuba’s tropical forests to compete against the other students for bragging rights.

IMG_4217 (2)

The greatest take-away from the activity was probably the awesome conversation Molly enjoyed with the presenter following the game. Waiting until the crowds had left, Molly approached the young lady who had been our teacher and asked about her educational background and the life experiences that led her to this career. After speaking with Molly about different environmental science programs and possible directions that can be pursued, Molly left wanting to look further into environmental education as a possible narrowed focus to her environmental science degree, thus marrying her passion for nature with her love for people.

IMG_4205 (2)

We ended our day with a picnic lunch.

IMG_4001 (2)

It was a lovely day spent in an even lovelier place!

IMG_3975 (2)


A Gingerbread House Village



gingerbread house

Ever since our trip to Pittsburgh for Light-Up night (where we saw the gingerbread house village on display) we have been looking forward to creating our own gingerbread village.

IMG_3282 (2)

Gingerbread house decorating is one of our family’s favorite Christmas traditions.

Some years we bake our own gingerbread, some years we use graham crackers, and some years Mom shops online and finds pre-made kits on sale. This was one of THOSE years.

I purchased a variety of different “homes” and let the kids each choose their kits. Some of the kits I bought with certain children in mind. I was eager to see if I chose correctly when the time came for the kids to each pick their kit. This Momma nailed it and 3 of the kids chose the kits I had mentally picked out for them when I was shopping.


The combination of candy and creativity make this annual tradition a family favorite. This year was extra special, however, in that it was Brandon’s first time ever decorating a gingerbread house.

IMG_3931 (2)

The kids were eager to show him the ropes.

On Sunday evening, as part of Family Night, we prepped the table for our gingerbread house party and then waited for Grace to return home from church.

IMG_3920 (2)

Once Grace was home we gathered in the dining room and everyone got busy creating their candy cottages while Christmas carols played in the background.

IMG_3927 (2)IMG_3945 (2)

It was fun seeing how creative everyone was in their designs.

IMG_3918 (2)


The end results were charming and each creation was reflective of the designer who created it…

IMG_3944 (2)

Tyler decorated a Mario Brothers Castle:

IMG_3942 (2)

Ozzie’s creation was a snow covered cottage:

IMG_3947 (2)

Brandon decided to keep things traditional with his FIRST EVER gingerbread house:

IMG_3941 (2)

Molly decorated a Christmas train, complete with a fondant snowman as the conductor:

IMG_3952 (2)

Rusty’s gingerbread house was a charming little dog house:

IMG_3960 (2)

And Grace created her dream “Tiny Home” out of cookies and sweets:

IMG_3957 (2)IMG_3954 (2)

The result…

Our very own gingerbread village!

IMG_3964 (2)

This Place is a ZOO!


In honor of life at Patchwork Farm and the ZOO we lovingly call “everyday life” in the McCleery household, we decided to take a field trip over Thanksgiving break to the Pittsburgh Zoo.

IMG_3739 (2)

In the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving the Pittsburgh Zoo was offering free admission to all its visitors as a way of expressing gratitude to the people of Pittsburgh for their patronage.

IMG_3747 (2)

We decided to take advantage of this incredible deal and take the kids to the zoo for a day of free fun.

It was just what we all needed after a highly emotional holiday weekend.

The fact that all members of the family were able to visit made the day even more special.

IMG_3795 (2)

It was a cold and rainy day so we were one of only a few families visiting the zoo that day, despite the incredible deal of free admission. It was lovely to be able to meander along the paths without having to push through any crowds.

IMG_3757 (2)IMG_3758 (2)

Because of the chilly weather some of the animals were put away, but we enjoyed watching those whose thicker coats allowed them to stay outside and soak up the few rays of sun that were breaking through the clouds.

IMG_3754 (2)

Tyler, like the big cats, was unaffected by the cold as he enjoyed some time in the islands!

IMG_3804 (2)

We timed our visit just right and entered the elephant house just as bath time commenced. We took our place at the railing and watched with delight for a half an hour while this beautiful lady was scrubbed and shined.

IMG_3774 (2)IMG_3780 (2)

Many animals in the zoo were unaffected by the cold temperatures due to their inside habitats. We enjoyed visiting the monkey house because the hot humid interior temps allowed us to warm up a bit.

IMG_3800 (2)

As we moved from the monkeys to the aquarium Molly spotted a few exhibits that spoke to her tender heart. The first was a display of sculptures that an artist creates from snare traps, repurposing something destructive into something beautiful. The artist then donates the proceeds to help with the conservation effort.

IMG_3809 (2)

As we neared the aquarium Molly spotted another exhibit that spoke to her tender heart. This one was a sea turtle second chance facility where injured turtles are rehabilitated. After her summer trip to the Sea Turtle Initiative in Costa Rica she has a heart for these special animals.

IMG_3810 (2)

Then it was time for the PPG Aquarium. This was the busiest part of the Pittsburgh Zoo that day. It seemed everyone had the same plan for getting out of the cold rain and we found the crowds significantly denser within this building…

IMG_3819 (2)

But that didn’t affect our enjoyment of this beautiful aquarium in the least. The kids all enjoyed checking out the vast variety of fish, crustaceans, sea birds, and large marine predators that call Pittsburgh PPG Aquarium home.

IMG_3837 (2)IMG_3843 (2)IMG_3850 (2)

The sting ray tank was a family favorite as the kids jostled for a spot near the tank to pet these soaring skates as they flew by just below the surface of the water.

IMG_3860 (2)

From there we headed back into the cold to visit Brandon’s favorite zoo animal: the polar bear.

IMG_3863 (2)

Unfortunately he wasn’t out so we moved onto the sea otters who put on a delightful display of playful charm that kept us enthralled for 20 minutes. The kids laughed with delight at the silly antics of these personable critters.

IMG_3878 (2)IMG_3884 (2)IMG_3881 (2)

By the time we were done watching the sea otters it was time to start heading for the exit. Grace had work that afternoon and everyone was ready to warm up and dry off, so after a quick stop back at the tiger enclosure to get a photo of the tiger for Brandon (Go Beaver Falls Tigers!), we were gone.

IMG_3889 (2)

It was a wonderful day!

Thank you, Pittsburgh Zoo, for your generosity…

My “crazy zoo” had a delightful time visiting yours!



O’ Christmas Tree


Last Sunday our 13 foot tree was carried in, firmly secured in place, and decorated… bringing a festive air of Christmas magic to our living room.

After church, while the ladies prepared lunch, the men in the family wrestled the tree into the house and into place on the far side of the living room. Once it was standing in place, the boys held it steady while Toby screwed the tree stand into the ground and secured the top of our mammoth tree to the wall with rope. After previous years of midnight tree toppling’s we tend to be overly cautious with our anchoring strategies.


This year’s tree isn’t going anywhere!

Knowing that we were going to decorate the tree for our Family Home Evening activity, Grace went to church with us rather than to the YSA ward in Pittsburgh. We didn’t want to have to wait until she arrived home at 8:00pm to get this party started so she agreed to just come to church with us this week. It was so much fun having Grace home with us all day!

IMG_3724 (2)

After lunch Rusty and Brandon took on the task of lighting the tree. Up and down the ladders they went as they encased our fir in hundreds of lights. We were one step closer to completion.

IMG_3671 (2)

At that point we decided to take a break from the process and lay down for Sunday naps. We encouraged all the kids to rest for an hour and have quiet time in their rooms, even if they didn’t sleep. We knew that this beloved Christmas tradition would be fraught with high emotions and triggered memories, so I felt it important that we all embark on this activity well rested so fatigue wouldn’t unnecessarily magnify hard emotions.

It was a good call because some of my kiddos were negatively triggered by this Christmas tradition.

After naps the kids carried the bins of ornaments upstairs while I poured the eggnog…our traditional tree-decorating treat.

IMG_3703 (2)

Toby took his usual place off to the side as keeper to the ornaments. He pulled the boxes out one at a time, handing the ornament off to the owner to hang on the tree.

IMG_3675 (2)

When Grace was a year old we started a tradition in our family of exchanging ornaments each Christmas. This tradition occurs on December 23rd as Toby and I give a new ornament to each child (and to each other) that reflects a significant event from the past year or is simply reflective of that child’s interest or personality.

IMG_3709 (2)

It is a favorite tradition and the kids love looking through all their past ornaments and hanging them on the tree.

IMG_3718 (2)

Everyone has a favorite…

The plan behind this tradition is to be able to send each child’s ornament collection with them when they leave our home and establish a home of their own, giving them a nice start to their own tree.

For our adoption treasures there aren’t as many ornaments to hang since they haven’t been with us their entire life, so Tyler, Ozzie, and especially Brandon helped hang Mom and Dad’s ornaments.

IMG_3728 (2)

Brandon is thrilled at the prospect of getting his first ornament and wanted to know when he will get to open his ornament and hang it on the tree.

IMG_3722 (2)

It was a fun night but not an easy one for some of the kids. I found myself stepping away from the activity many times through the evening as I helped the child who was struggling at that moment process the memory, name the emotions, and journal the thoughts that were hitting them like waves, threatening to pull them under. Once that struggling child felt stable enough to rejoin the activity we would head back to the living room and enjoy a few minutes of fun before I left with another kiddo who was struggling. It felt like I was gone more than I was there for the tree decorating, but this is the reality of raising kids from hard places…

IMG_3696 (2)

The very traditions that bring joy and happiness to my un-traumatized kids, trigger my hurting kiddos. The holidays are a juggling act of trying to meet the emotional needs of one while trying not to trigger trauma in another.

I think this might be why I crash and burn from exhaustion every January!

We made it through the night with no major meltdowns or catastrophes. We managed the heightened emotions of the night and came through the event pretty much unscathed, and had this magical sight to enjoy as the fruit of our labors…

It is now beginning to look a lot like Christmas!!

IMG_3896 (2)


Christmas Cousins



IMG_3645 (2)

After a wonderful Thanksgiving with Toby’s side of the family, we headed to my parent’s house on Saturday. My sister and her kiddos had come into town to celebrate the holiday weekend with my parents, so we traveled west to join the cousins at the Homestead for an early Christmas celebration.

IMG_3660 (2)

Because my sister and her family call Northern Michigan home, they rarely travel after Thanksgiving, given the unpredictable weather of winter, so their annual trip south on Thanksgiving weekend is our last time to see the cousins until the Easter thaw.

IMG_3580 (2)

Unfortunately Tom, my brother-in-law, had to work, but we did get to spend the day with the rest of the Kirk clan, my parents, and G.G. (my grandma.)

IMG_3573 (2)

We arrived around lunch time. We headed for the big red barn where we were spending the day, and while my parents left to pick up lunch at a local pizza joint, we had the chance to catch-up with my Grandma while the cousins played.

IMG_3570 (2)

It was Brandon’s first time meeting some of these family members. He was a bit reserved in the beginning but soon warmed up to our crazy crew.

IMG_3657 (2)

When Mimi and Pop Pop got back with lunch, the food was spread out on the table and everyone dished up. We enjoyed a feast of pizza, wings, coleslaw and jojo potatoes. It was delicious and everyone ate until their stomach’s ached.

IMG_3584 (2)

After lunch we enjoyed the first game of many…

Everyone sat down in anticipation of our traditional White Elephant gift exchange. This silly game, put together with a $20.00 visit to Dollar Tree, always proves to be one of the highlights of the day. There is always much laughter as everyone battles for unknown tacky gifts wrapped in deceptively decorative packaging.

IMG_3593 (2)

After the drama of stealing and re-stealing the packages it is time for the big reveal when everyone finally  gets to see what it was that they were fighting so hard for. With the reveal came many more laughs, and that $20.00 investment proved to be the best money we spent. We laughed until our bellies hurt.

IMG_3615 (2)IMG_3611 (2)IMG_3616 (2)IMG_3618 (2)IMG_3605 (2)

The White Elephant gift exchange was followed by the real gift exchange between cousins.

IMG_3620 (2)

We used to handle the Christmas exchange with cousins differently…

Kelly would buy for and send gifts to all my kids each Christmas, and I would do the same for hers, but a few years ago we came up with the idea of letting the cousins draw names and buy for each other. They love it and it allows each of them to thoughtfully consider the personality, likes/dislikes, and preferences of one of their cousins, and then buy a gift that reflects that thoughtfulness.

We messed up the system a bit this year by adding  child #6 to the McCleery crew, making our numbers uneven to the “Kirk five.” Our solution was to have our four boys and Kelly’s four boys exchange names and then have my two girls work together to buy for Lydia and have Lydia shop for both my girls.

IMG_3639 (2)

The kids took turns exchanging gifts one at a time, then watching their cousins open the gifts given. The thought that was put into each gift was touching, with each gift perfect for the receiver.

IMG_3628 (2)IMG_3630 (2)

After the kids had opened their gifts, but before they all scattered, we gathered everyone for some group photos while all the cousins were together.

IMG_3648 (2)

The remainder of our day at the Homestead was spent visiting and playing games while the kids climbed hay bales, played touch football, had sword fights, played with the farm animals and enjoyed the blessing of family.

IMG_3659 (2)IMG_3652 (2)
IMG_3651 (2)

On November 24th Christmas came a little early to Wooster, Ohio…

How blessed we are!

The Hunt for the PERFECT Tree!


Thanksgiving was over, which means we had the go-ahead to dive straight into the Christmas season with gusto.

IMG_3427 (2)

Boxes of decorations were carried up from the basement, Christmas carols filled the house, and the first Christmas activity of the season was planned…

It was tree-hunting time!

Our annual trip to the tree farm to search out the perfect tree, cut it down, and haul it home, is one of my favorite Christmas traditions. I love bundling up in warm clothes, pulling on our muck boots and hiking through the rows of evergreens in search of the perfect tree.

For the last few years our annual hunt has occurred at Pioneer Trails Tree Farm, a tree farm 35 minutes away in Poland, Ohio.

IMG_3434 (2)

I was especially excited about this year’s hunt, because it was Brandon’s first time joining us in this beloved tradition. In fact, it was his first time cutting down a Christmas tree or having a live tree at all.

IMG_3528 (2)

We decided to go and get our Christmas tree on Friday morning. It was one of the few windows of time in the upcoming weeks that all eight members of the family would be home during Pioneer Trails’ open hours.

We drove over a bit early so we could be in the parking lot when the gates opened. Grace had work at noon so we wanted to make sure we had at least 45 minutes to find our tree before she had to leave for work in her car that she drove separately, leaving us to finish cutting down, binding, and paying for the chosen tree.

Our plan was to decorate it as our Family Night activity on Sunday evening, so Friday’s only task was to pick the tree and get it home.

Pioneer Trails has a seamless system established that makes the process easy and fun for families.

Step 1: Pick the TYPE of evergreen that best fits your family’s needs. They had 7 different types of trees on display with signs describing the traits of each type of tree. We were able to see and touch the branches of each type of evergreen, determining the pros and cons of each type. It was helpful to see them standing side by side, allowing for the best comparison.

IMG_3422 (2)

Once we had decided on what type of tree we wanted it was time for the next decision…

Step 2: Pick the SIZE of the tree you want. On a large sign posted near the tree display there was a map that indicated where on the farm to find the different types of evergreens. The map was color coded to show where to find the right sized tree for your home. We were looking for a tree that fell into the 10+ feet category so we knew we wanted to head to the orange areas of the map.


Step 3: It was time to grab a tree wagon and a saw and head out into the field.

IMG_3532 (2)

There are different options available for families to get to the four corners of the farm where their dream trees are located. There are tractor driven wagons, horse driven carriages, or you can simply hike to the patch of trees where your tree is planted. This year we opted to walk since the section we were “hunting” in was near the front of the tree farm,

IMG_3444 (2)IMG_3454 (2)

But we did stop at the horse-drawn carriage long enough to say “hello” to the beautiful horses that carry visitors around the tree farm.

IMG_3557 (2)IMG_3550 (2)

Step 4: Find the PERFECT tree. This is where all the diplomacy of a United Nations General Assembly comes into play as 6 children, with 6 distinct opinions, head out in search of the perfect tree. Once they find the tree of their dreams they then must sell  their siblings on their find.

After 30 minutes of walking, looking, hemming and hawing, we had narrowed a dozen choices down to 3. After a family vote we decided on this beauty:

IMG_3467 (2)

Step 5: It was time to cut it down! Brandon asked if he could take on this important job. Having never been involved in the process before, he was eager to be inducted into this beloved tradition. He shed his coat, got down on the ground, and began to saw. After a few minutes of sweat and labor, down it came…

IMG_3483 (2)IMG_3477 (2)


Step 6: The next step was to load it up. Using our tree wagon we worked together to load our monster tree onto the wagon.

IMG_3497 (2)

The kids took turns pushing and pulling it back to the barn.

IMG_3512 (2)IMG_3506 (2)IMG_3521 (2)

Step 7: Once we reached the barn, the staff took over. They shook the loose needles from the tree and fed it through the binding machine to wrap it up for an easier transport home.

IMG_3539 (2)

Step 8: The final step was to pay for our beautiful Christmas tree and stop for our traditional tree farm photo, capturing a special memory on film as we celebrated Brandon’s first tree-hunting adventure…

The first of MANY to come!

IMG_3430 (2)

Counting our Blessings!



IMG_3354 (2)

Four pieces of my heart!

We entered the Thanksgiving holiday with hearts filled with gratitude. We had so much to be thankful for and I was excited at the prospect of laying aside the busyness of everyday life and enjoying a long weekend with the people I love most.

We kicked off the holiday weekend with everyone at home. It was our family’s week to clean the church so we headed there first and following the old adage of “many hand make light work,” we were done in record time.

The kids were motivated to be diligent in the cleaning chores assigned to them. They were told if everyone could stay on task, work hard, and finish in a timely manner, we would go see a movie as a family. They upheld their side of the bargain so from church we drove to the movie theater where we saw “Instant Family.”

Since first seeing the previews for this warm-hearted comedy, I knew we needed to go and see it as a family. It was everything I hoped for and more! It ended up being a poignant and timely reminder of the loss, hurt and heartbreak that accompanies the joy of the adoption journey, as we headed into the emotional minefield of Thanksgiving.


Instant Family: When Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) decide to start a family, they stumble into the world of foster care adoption. They hope to take in one small child but when they meet three siblings, including a rebellious 15 year old girl (Isabela Moner), they find themselves speeding from zero to three kids overnight. Now, Pete and Ellie must hilariously try to learn the ropes of instant parenthood in the hopes of becoming a family. INSTANT FAMILY is inspired by the real events from the life of writer/director Sean Anders.

“Instant Family” exceeded all expectations. It was as though we were watching our life play out on the big screen as we watched the real life challenges that accompany foster care adoption play out before us. It was soon apparent that the writer/ director had walked this unique road of loving a child that joins a family out of heartbreak and heartache, because it was all very true to life.

We laughed and cried along with this family whose life was so relatable. I will warn that the PG-13 rating was fitting due to language and some sexuality, but we all left feeling these elements were justified and served a purpose. To not include the harsher, uglier aspects of adopting hurt children would do a great disservice to those who are fighting on the front line for those children who others have walked away from. To turn this story into a Hallmark movie would have been a dishonest portrayal of the foster care adoption journey. This movie did a beautiful job of taking viewers on the rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, losses and victories, laughter and tears that accompany families on the road  to adoption day.

We left the theater with all the kids talking a mile a minute about how perfectly wonderful the movie was. I heard comments like,

“It was so funny,”

“It was our life!”


“I think we need to adopt another kid…maybe a little girl this time.”

That last comment was spoken by Brandon. We told him we needed to get through his adoption before we talked about adding #7 to the family. He paused, considered this, and then asked, “Could we at least start praying about it?”

I love my kids.

I love how big hearted and selfless they are.

They have all adopted (pun intended) a “give until it pinches” mentality about giving to the less fortunate and those in need.

Despite the hard journey we have all traveled to give a family to three boys who were without the unconditional love of a forever family, and despite the fighting, hurts, tears, losses, ugliness and destruction that comes with helping a hurt child feel safe attaching to a new family, they continue to say “Yes, Lord. We will make room for another!”

Watching “Instant Family” with my own instant family, I was reminded of the emotions connected to the holidays. It was a timely reminder as we entered the Thanksgiving weekend and helped our three adoption blessings navigate the hard waves that crashed over them in the days that followed.

It was a highly emotional weekend as my babies struggled with feelings of sadness for loved ones gone and the loss of what could have been. Everyone navigated the weekend without any major blow-ups or outbursts, but the holiday weekend left us all feeling emotionally raw.

I was grateful for God’s hand in keeping us close to home.

Until a few weeks ago Thanksgiving was up in the air. We were uncertain where we would be celebrating Brandon’s first Thanksgiving with our family. The plan, prior to Brandon moving in, was to head east to spend Thanksgiving in Virginia with Toby’s mom and her sisters. Our plans had to change when legal restrictions and a scheduled court date kept us closer to home.

As much as we missed our time with Joy, being stuck at home ended up being a great blessing. 

The heightened emotions of Thanksgiving would have been much harder to handle if we were away from home.

Instead we joined Toby’s other side of the family, at his Aunt Beth’s house, for Thanksgiving dinner.

It was a good fit for our emotionally raw crew. The celebration was relaxed and low key. It was a day of celebrating the love of family, eating good food, connecting with family we don’t see often enough, and allowing Brandon to get to know more of his new family. It was just what we all needed!

IMG_3332 (2)

Almost time for dinner!


IMG_3339 (2)

The O3!


IMG_3349 (2)

Loving the looks of adoration. Tyler is a hit with his younger cousins.


IMG_3407 (2)

After the feast!


IMG_3402 (2)

Gunner reading the Thanksgiving story.


IMG_3412 (2)

Molly getting her baby fix!


IMG_3417 (2)

Then it was time to head outside for some Turkey Bowl fun!

IMG_3382 (2)IMG_3388 (2)IMG_3357 (2)IMG_3329 (2)

That evening we returned home to celebrate Ozzie’s “Gotcha Day” (which fell on Thanksgiving this year) with peppermint ice cream and homemade hot fudge.

IMG_3340 (2)

It was a day of giving thanks for the many blessings in our life…

And at the very top of our list of things to be grateful for:


Born out of love.


Pittsburgh’s Light Up Night


“Even though we haven’t carved into the Thanksgiving turkey yet, Pittsburgh kicks off the two month-long holiday season with Light-Up Night. Several trees scattered around the city illuminate at different times throughout the night, each giving way to a series of holiday-themed shenanigans. You’ll enjoy multi-genre music entertainment, explosive fireworks and creative ice sculptures that most certainly foreshadow your impending doom as an icicle deep into the city’s winter.”

IMG_3236 (2)

It has been over a decade since we braved the crowds to head downtown Pittsburgh for Light-Up Night, but we were craving an adventure, while simultaneously celebrating the fact that our Friday evenings are now free, so into Pittsburgh we went.

The crowds were as crazy as expected but resulted in a fun energy as we navigated the hordes of people downtown.

Light- Up night consisted of various activities occurring around the downtown area of Pittsburgh all at the same time. There was ice skating at the outdoor rink for $1.00 donation, a display of lifesized Santa figurines from around the world, a gingerbread house village, ice sculpting, various musical groups and entertainment, food vendors, a laser show and fireworks.

IMG_3235 (2)IMG_3250 (2)IMG_3254 (2)IMG_3259 (2)IMG_3278 (2)IMG_3282 (2)IMG_3288 (2)IMG_3296 (2)IMG_3294 (2)IMG_3303

It was a lot of fun and definitely got us excited for the Christmas season.

I only wish the girls could have joined us. They would have loved the Christmas magic that was in the air! Maybe next year!

How are you Spending your Time?




One of the classes I am taking as part of the Pathway program through BYU-Idaho, as I work toward my goal of obtaining my college degree, is a General Studies class. I have really enjoyed this class that focuses on strengthening study skills but also life skills. Some of the topics we have covered weekly have included goal setting, money management and time management. As part of our commitment to attend a weekly gathering with students participating in the same program, we are required to sign up to teach a class during the semester as the lead student. A few weeks ago it was my week to teach and my topic was “time management,” something I am personally passionate about.

After teaching the lesson I prepared to my Pathway peers, I decided I might as well take advantage of the time I had invested in preparing the lesson and get a “round 2” out of the lesson. On Sunday night we had  our weekly family home evening lesson on the topic of being good stewards of our time.

I began my lesson with an object lesson.

I had a large bowl of jelly beans.

I passed around the bowl of jelly beans with a stack of cups and asked each person to fill their cup with as many jelly beans as they wanted. There were only two rules…

  1. They had to take at least 1 jelly bean.
  2.  They couldn’t eat any of their jelly beans until the end of the lesson.

And then I showed this video:

As everyone shared their feeling about the video, I used a “How many days have I been alive?” calculator online to let everyone know how many of their jelly beans they have used so far.

I then asked everyone to count the jelly beans in the cup and consider what they would do if the number of jelly beans in their cups actually represented the number of days they had left on the earth…

Would that have an effect on how they spent their time?

As they pondered that question, I shared the following quote by Neal A. Maxwell:

“The time we have been given here on earth is only a very small part of our existence. We must understand our time here in the eternal context of the Plan of Salvation. The way we use our time will only change when the way we feel about our time changes. As children of God we are stewards of time and we will be held accountable for how we use it. The way we use our time will determine what we become in this life and in eternity. We can choose to spend our time or invest our time. By keeping the commandments and our covenants we invest our time in the promises God has given us. This investment will bring eternal rewards.

“Time is, for all of us, a gift from God. It is given to us as a part of our mortal stewardship”

With this quote serving as the foundation for the next part of the lesson, we had a mini financial lesson of the effects of spending vs investing. The kids reached the conclusion that money spent was money lost. It couldn’t be retrieved again. While money invested was money that kept paying dividends well into the future.

I then gave each family member an index card and asked them to count the jelly beans in their cup and write that number at the top of their index card, representing the number of days they have left here in earth. I then asked them, if that were true, how would they use the days they have left? Each family member was asked to thoughtfully create a list of how they would use their remaining days on earth.

The room fell silent as everyone began writing their thoughts on paper. It was a thought-provoking and powerful activity.

When everyone was done writing we went around the room and shared our thoughts.

Some of the items included on various lists were:

Spend time with family, travel, be easier on myself, serve others, face my fears, help people, apologize, give away my things to the needy, leave letters for loved ones, and pray.

We then analyzed our lists and weighed their value, pondering whether each item on our list was a way to “spend time” or an “investment” of our time. As we looked at the things we each wrote down, all were investments of time…activities that produced long term/ eternal dividends.

We ended our family night lesson with a game. Each player used the jellybeans in their cup, along with a stack of toothpicks, to build a tower. The rule was they had a set amount of time to build their tower, but didn’t know when their time would end. The goal was to build the tallest tower that could stand up independently…


Then the race began.


It was interesting to see each kid’s strategies, with some focused of making sure they had a firm foundation before trying to move upward, while others, in a panic of not knowing when the timer might “bing,” began building upward without having established a secure base…



A decision they soon regretted.

As they built their jelly bean towers we discussed the spiritual lessons to be found within the object lesson.


Rusty ended up the winner of the jelly bean race, but all  enjoyed the fruits of their labors. (There was a chocolate treat for those who weren’t allowed jelly beans due to braces.)


The lesson was a powerful reminder that our time on earth is finite.

We have no idea when we will reach the last jelly bean in our cup, so it is important that we invest the gift of time that the Lord has given us into those activities that have eternal value, rather than simply spending the minutes of our day on things that have no value…

For one day we will all stand before our Maker, and we will account for the way we used the time He blessed us with. Let us all take inventory of the way we are spending our time, and as we enter this holiday season may we prioritize the “important” over what some may consider “the urgent” tasks of the holiday season,

And invest in the things that matter most.