Monthly Archives: June 2017

Finding hope at the Scottish Rite Cathedral

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The Scottish Rite Cathedral was our home away from home for many years. It became the answer to our prayers when Grace and Molly were diagnosed as Dyslexic in early elementary school. Both were struggling academically and as we prayed for answers as to best help them we were led to the Children’s Dyslexia Center of Western Pennsylvania.

It was here the girls found the missing keys to understanding the mechanics of language.

It was here, using an Orton-Gillingham program, that my girls learned to read.

It was here, under the instruction of some awesome tutors, that my girls came to believe that they were not stupid, but that their brains worked differently than their peers. They learned they too could find academic success, it just required a different approach and a lot of perseverance.

The Children’s Dyslexia Center of Western Pennsylvania is outstanding and is completely free to families of students who have a diagnosis of Dyslexia or reading disability. Sponsored and funded by the Scottish Rite Freemasons, this center offers the best therapeutic reading approach for Dyslexic students that is available in our area. This is an incredibly charitable undertaking, as the tutoring cost per student/each year is $5000.00…all funded by this nonprofit organization.

This means we have been beneficiaries of over $25,000.00 of free Dyslexia tutoring over the past decade…

And now we find ourselves here again.

Once again we find the answer to our prayers at this lovely, old building in the heart of New Castle.

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Last fall, after getting the results of Tyler’s most recent testing numbers for his IEP team, I felt prompted to send his file over to the director of the Children’s Dyslexia Center to see if he would qualify or benefit from their method of tutoring. I soon heard back that not only did he qualify but he was an ideal candidate.

We were put on a waiting list, hoping for an opening in the upcoming year.

Because this center is in such high demand,

AND because of the fact they have a limited number of specially trained instructors,

 AND because students remain in the program for two to three years,

there is a waiting list to get in.

This week we got the call we were praying for.

At 8:45 am on Tuesday morning the director called and said they had a spot open unexpectedly and if we could be there in 30 minutes Tyler could be tested and begin the summer session with the tutor that just became free.

Needless to say, we raced over. Un-showered and looking a little worse for wear, we went, grateful for the opportunity, desperate to not lose our spot.

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When we walked through the doors it was like stepping back in time. Nothing had changed. It looked the same. It smelled the same. I think even the magazines were the same. 🙂 

Last time we were here my girls were Tyler’s age. I remember Rusty playing in front of the giant mirror, as I tried to keep him occupied while the girls met with their tutors.

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It was like stepping back into a sweet memory.

This place was such a great blessing in Molly and Gracie’s lives.

I pray it was be an equally great blessing in Tyler’s life.

This now means our Tuesdays and Thursdays are crazy days…but full of activities that are blessing and benefitting Tyler, and giving him the extra help and support he desperately needs.

We leave the house at 8:30 am.

Tyler has tutoring at the Dyslexia Center from 9:00-10:00 am.

Then we drive 45 minutes to Beaver Falls were the boys have back to back therapy sessions from 11:00- 12:45 pm to work through their past trauma with their therapist, Miss Tina.

Then it is 45 more minutes of driving as we head to Wexford for another hour long tutoring session with a Barton trained reading specialist (Miss Jan) who Tyler meets with from 1:30-2:30pm.

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After all that running the boys are rewarded for their hard work with a picnic and playtime at the park before we head back home at 3:30 or 4:00 pm.

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It makes for a LONG day.

By 3:00 we are all spent, especially Tyler who says that his brain hurts by the end of it all,

But we are making huge strides and working toward good things,

Which makes the craziness worth it.

How grateful I am for answered prayers!

A Secret Shopper

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The girls continue to be gainfully employed,

despite a rough beginning and some unfair persecution at the start.

But I am proud of them and the sterling character they showed that drove them to stick with it and prove their worth as employees.

It has been a hard, but worthy  lesson on what it means to be a good employee, how to work with people you don’t agree with, how to be effective communicators, and how our character speaks louder than any verbal argument.

Their diligence, tenacity, and choice to work through the struggles at work, rather than take the easy way out and just quit, has been the catalyst for many good discussions and powerful life lessons. We are proud of them, and because of their actions they have cemented their positions at work as employees who can be trusted, depended on, and who go the extra mile.

Molly had the opportunity to really shine two weeks ago when she was asked to step out of her comfort zone and take her first solo shift. She was a nervous wreck, having never worked a closing shift by herself before. Normally there are two employees to juggle the evening shift’s tasks of pretzel making, cleaning, waiting on customers, taking phone orders, and closing out the cash register at the end of the night.

She had a busy night but somehow managed to complete all that was asked of her, and do it well, evidently.

While working that solo shift she waited on a secret shopper.

She did not know it at the time.

Secret Shoppers are hired by the company to secretly rate different categories of their experience as a Philly Pretzel Factory customer. They rate everything from the quality of the food, to the cleanliness of the shop, to the friendliness of the employee who waited on them.

The results are then reported back to Philly Pretzel Factory headquarters where the reports are used to rank the different stores in the area and give feedback to management on what they need to improve.

Molly’s boss received the result of the secret shopper survey and called Molly right away, excited to share the news that Molly had received 100% in every category, a feat that has only happened once before in his decade of ownership over multiple stores. As a result their store is now ranked #1 of 161 Philly Pretzel Factory stores in the area.

What did she do that set her apart?

Besides doing what is expected of her as an employee, things like rotating the product so it is always fresh, keeping the store clean, and offering extras…

What set her apart was common kindness.

The secret shopper noted her eye contact, her quick smile, her kind words, her willingness to engage in conversation and ask them how their day was.

 She was just being Molly.

She was just treating her customer how she would want to be treated.

She was just being decent.

But I guess in a world that is starving for kindness, connection, and basic human decency, her character shined.

We are so proud of her…

Not for the accolades or the recognition,

But for being the kind, sweet human being she is, even when she doesn’t know others are watching.

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Especially then.

 

 

Girls’ Camp 2017

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The theme for Girls’ Camp this year was,

“Just Ask”

and is based on the scripture …

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The activities, focus classes, firesides, and devotionals all revolved around the invitation to, “Just Ask.”

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Tuesday through Friday the theme was broken down to the more specific challenges of

Tuesday: Just Ask for Friendships

Wednesday: Just Ask God

Thursday: Just Ask for Strength

Friday: Just Ask to Know

The theme was inspired.

Youth and leaders alike were invited to be still, call out to their Heavenly Father, and lay the hidden prayers of their hearts at His feet,

And “Just Ask.”

Girls Camp is a program in our church that takes girls (12- 18 years old) away from the noise and busyness of everyday life, into the beauty of nature for a week, to learn, build friendships, commune with nature, and connect with God.

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This year we had around 100 teenage girls and 25 adults at Laurel Hills State Park for the week.

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This year was my 7th year returning as the level leader over the 7th year girls, otherwise known as Junior Camp Directors (JCDs). These young ladies are our oldest group of campers, having just graduated from high school. Their final year at camp is unique in that it is not a church designated level with a set of certification goals, like the younger campers have.

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Rather, these young ladies serve as quiet, behind the scenes, good will ambassadors around camp, silently serving and blessing others at camp and bringing a sense of unity and connection to camp through daily activities, acts of gratitude, and service projects they plan.

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They also run the camp store. At our camp we have instituted a token system used to encourage kindness, selflessness, and goodwill. When girls are caught in good works they are rewarded with camp tokens that they can spend at the camp store. The JCDs head up this program, making purchase decisions for the store, pricing items, and managing the “economy” and flow of “money” around camp.

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I adore this assignment and really feel blessed to get to work with this special group of girls.

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This year both my girls (Grace and Molly) returned to camp as well. Last year Grace served as one of my JCDs so last year should have been her final year, but because of being held back in school when she was young, she ended up serving as a JCD between her junior and senior year of high school instead of after graduation, so she asked if she could return in some other capacity.

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She was invited to return as a level leader assistant, helping with the 2nd years girls with Tanya, a friend of ours.

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It was a bit surreal watching her step up and serve as a leader…an equal. She rose to the challenge beautifully and had a blast. It was a bit surreal watching her from a distance as she helped shepherd 28 13-year-olds, leading, comforting, and teaching them. When did my baby grow up to be such a competent woman?!

Each level also had their own theme that they used to distinguish each level from each other. My JCDs’ theme were The Incredibles with the tagline:
“Be Incredible!”

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Gracie’s level embraced the Peter Pan theme of “All you need is Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust.” Their theme carried over into their cabin decorations as their four level cabins were decorated as the Pirate, Indian, Fairy, and Lost Girls cabins, with corresponding decorations.

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 They were so cute!

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Molly also returned to camp this year as a youth leader. This is her 6th year of camp and she was assigned to be a youth leader, helping with the 3rd year girls. This meant she helped her level leaders with teaching certification over camp skills like fire starting, orienteering, hiking, and protecting the environment. She was also assigned 3 14-year-olds that she was personally responsible for keeping track of and connecting with during this week at camp. She took the responsibility quite seriously, planning fun pillow treats and special surprises for her girls.

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Our time at camp was spent learning outdoor survival skills and being strengthened spiritually through a series of awesome focus classes on things such as: how to receive personal revelation, how to be a friend to yourself, how to be a friend to others, and how to receive answers to your questions.

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The week was also spent giving the girls opportunities to serve others. In addition to small service opportunities around camp, the girls had the opportunity to participate in two large service projects.

The first was building benches for the camp rec hall. Our awesome camp director had done the leg work, putting together bench parts that the girls assembled, sanded and painted…gifting the park with some beautiful new seating.

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The other HUGE service project we participated in, one that we offer the state park every year, is the weeding and mulching of the beach front. This is a huge undertaking, one only made possible by our vast numbers. This year our beach service project took place on Thursday, and we were blessed to have nice weather. For 3 hours, the girls and leaders labored, weeding and mulching, providing the state park with 300+ man hours of service.

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But it wasn’t all labor and sweat. There were also many opportunities for fun and friendship building.

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Following the beach service project, the girls enjoyed an afternoon at the beach to swim, relax and enjoy the boats and paddle boards.

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In the evenings, the girls gathered around the fire for campfire singing and s’mores.

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One evening the girls enjoyed a variety of “night games” like “Hit the Dirt” and “Beavers and Castles.”

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It was a wonderful week. There were a few hiccups, as there always are at camp, but the blessings outweighed the burdens, tenfold.

It was just where I needed to be this last week,

And I am so glad I got to be with my girls.

Girls Camp is my happy place,

My quiet place,

My searching place,

My renewing place.

It was a good week.

“Be Still and know that I am God”

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On Tuesday morning I woke to the sound of the birds greeting the rising sun and the trickle of water running off the eves of my cabin,

warm and content beneath the heaviness of my sleeping bag,

feeling embraced by the sweet spirit that permeates Girls’ Camp.

Girls’ Camp is a place of refuge and rest for this weary traveler.

For those who have never served as a Girls’ Camp leader, that statement may sound contradictory…especially if you had walked into my dining room three days ago and saw the piles and piles of packing, shopping, wrapping, writing, creating and organizing that go into being a level leader at camp.

It is a lot of work that is months in the making,

And the process of bringing the vision of camp to life is laborious,

So, what do I mean?

 I mean camp is my port in the storm.

I feel this way every year,

But it has never been more needed than it is this year.

It is a place where I can be still.

Not physically, mind you…but emotionally.

Away from the frantic pace of everyday life. Away from the feelings of worry, hopelessness and the weariness of everyday trials, I find rest.

There is something special about the camp atmosphere.

Something special about the people who return year after year.

Something special about these sweet 12-18 year old young ladies who, too, discover a special spirit found intermingled within the lessons on fire starting and first aid.

Something special about the contagious displays of good works and kind words that makes one feel as though they have stepped away from the world for the week and have elevated to a higher plane.

It is a place that has become my annual sanctuary and retreat from the hustle/bustle of life and the place where I can drink deep from the well of renewal. It is my place to reorient my compass and take note if I’ve gone off track. It is my place to talk to my Heavenly Father, pour out the burdens of my heart at His feet, and hear His answers to my struggles.

It is my place to answer His challenge:

“Be Still and Know That I am God.”

I am empty.

I came to camp weary to the marrow of my bones,

With a dry, empty well…

Hungry for His peace,

Desperate for His strengthening power.

I came to commune with my God.

I came to be fed.

And I have been.

It was a wonderful week.

Oh, how I love Girls’ Camp!

 

Happy Father’s Day…Birthday…Anniversary, Toby!

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The third week of June contains the “Toby Trifecta.”

It is a week of celebrating the most important man in our lives.

It is the week of the year that Toby’s birthday, Father’s Day and our anniversary all hit…

and this year I won’t be there to celebrate it.

Every summer for the last eight years the girls and I head into the Laurel Highlands area of the state to participate in Girls Camp, a weeklong summer camp through our church. It is always one of the highlights of our summer. I love getting that week with just my girls and love the special spirit and camaraderie that is found only at Girls Camp. For the last seven years I have been the 7th year leader over the 18 year old girls that will be leaving for college in the fall. This year is no exception and I can’t wait!

Usually Girls camp falls the last week of June/first week of July, but this year it is a few weeks early. As a result Toby will be celebrating his holiday trifecta with just Rusty and Tyler.

Yesterday we had a special “speed dating” version of the upcoming week so that we could celebrate with Toby…cramming three holidays into a Sunday afternoon.

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We began by waking Toby up to his Father’s Day celebration with donuts and strawberry rolls. He had been up all night, sick as can be, so he graciously said “Thank you” and then pushed the sweet pastries as far from him as possible. We then gave him his Father’s Day gifts before we left for church. All the kids rose to the occasion and came up with great gifts for Dad.

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Then it was time to dress for church. Toby stayed home, and then Tyler joined him at the last minute when he went into shutdown mode. Tyler is having a hard time lately with everything going on with Ozzie and the increase of stress and tension around the house as a result of Ozzie’s struggles. The result has been more frequent shutdowns where he “freezes up.” We then have to help him regulate, bring him down from his fight/flight/or freeze state, and walk him through processing his emotions. There is no hurrying through the process. It can take up to an hour to get Tyler regulated when he shuts down, so Toby was left to deal with Tyler’s breakdown and I took the other three kids to church.

When we returned home we began dinner preparations for Toby’s celebratory dinner. We made sticky bun sandwiches, couscous, Caesar salad, and had lots of fresh strawberries.

While I cooked Toby and the kids kindly loaded my van with everything for a week at camp, beating the torrential downpour that followed, by mere seconds. But we made it and now that that huge chore was done we could relax and enjoy the rest of the day.

Then it was time to begin celebration #2- Toby’s birthday!

Gifts were brought out again, this time for his birthday. Once again the kids rose to the challenge beautifully. It is always fun to see what they pick for Toby and what they think he will like.

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This was Tyler’s choice. He thought Toby would prefer Monopoly Jr. to the real Monopoly…and he might just be right! It is bound to be a shorter lasting game!

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Grace decorated a new pillow case for Toby: “I don’t snore. I dream I’m a motorcycle.”

I bought him gift cards for dinner and a movie so that Rusty and Tyler can take him out for his birthday since I won’t be there.

In the evening we pulled out one of the games he received as a gift that day to play as a family. The game is Brain Games, a logic/problem solving game based on the Netflix show we love to watch as a family that explores the human mind and how it works.

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It was a lot of fun. There are four areas of challenge cards: visual puzzles, logic, word puzzles, and mind and body challenges.

 

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Toby and Molly in a head to head challenge. They had to stand up without touching the door or moving their feet.

 

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Grace trying to accomplish the challenge of drawing a circle in the air with her left hand while drawing a square in the air with her right.

We all really enjoyed it,

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Even Tyler got into it and had fun problem solving.

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The night ended with Toby’s birthday cake.

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When I return we will celebrate our anniversary of 20 years! How can that be?!

It was a good day. Maybe not ideal. We certainly would have preferred to spread the celebrating over a few more days, or to have had all our children there to celebrate Toby, but we made the best of the circumstances and hopefully, despite the less than ideal situation, Toby felt loved, honor and cherished…because he is.

I truly won the life lottery when God brought Toby into my life.

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A couch packed to capacity with LOVE!

Happy Father’s Day, Birthday, Anniversary…Toby. I love you to the moon and back!

 

A Sweet End to a Bitter Beginning

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Sometimes I feel as though my life has “Multiple Personality Disorder,” with multiple lifetimes occurring at the same time under the umbrella of one life.  

(Let me reiterate: My LIFE,  not my child)

Much like made for TV character that transforms from controlled to chaotic, kind to cruel, joyful to drowning in despair, our life has evolved into a hair raising, out of control ride…

Stable one minute,

 completely derailed the next.

We find ourselves living in a constant state of hyper alert watchfulness.

We spend the minutes of our day always assessing, monitoring, and anticipating what sight, smell, sound, thought or memories will transform our life from calm, controlled and happy, to raging, fearful and hopeless.

It is a hard way to live, and the effect of past traumas on my already struggling son, can result in a whole family in crisis.

The last 24 hours have been surreal, and as I sat down to record the reality of our life  I debated breaking the happenings of the last day between two blogs, one reporting the good and the other reporting the struggles, but I stopped myself. Our life can not and will not be compartmentalized. As much as I crave the order and control of defining my days in the black and white categories of “good days or bad days,”  the reality of our life is that most days are a messy mix of trauma driven struggles and merciful moments of goodness and joy.

This particular pocket of time began Friday night with heartache.

We are all living out the effects of the early childhood trauma that has reduced my once happy boy into a child filled with despair and hopelessness.

At the root of Ozzie’s hurt is a deep-seated belief, a belief that was planted in his tender soul by abusive parents from the time he was small, that he deserves the abuse he endured, that he is not worthy of anything better, and  as a result he has decided he will sentence himself to a life of hurt and abuse if no one else will meet that request.

“What won’t you just punch me?” he will yell in desperation,

“I just need someone to hurt me!”


When those desperate requests are answered with tokens of love, nurturing acts, and additional support, he lashes out in desperation, hurting the very people who are offering him a safe harbor from the pain.

His behaviors have escalated.  

His desperation has increased.

He is determined to hurt.

He is terrified of being loved and will do anything to keep the thing he fears most, attachment to his adoptive family, at bay.

He is drowning in new flashbacks of horrific acts of abuse and is desperate to quiet the voices in his head.

 All he wants is a way out.

All I want is to keep him safe.

So my life has become a 24/7 vigil, as I work to protect him from himself. Every possible threat has been locked up, and cameras have been installed around the home, allowing for extra eyes of protection on him at all times. I don’t walk away. I don’t take a break. I am on guard. Fighting for this child who can’t fight for himself.

Things escalated to a new level last Friday when he wrote out a plan of how he was going to take his life.

Back to the Emergency Room we went.

Back to be assessed and monitored.

Back to inpatient care for another stay and another shot at stabilization.

By the time the ambulance arrived to take him back to the juvenile mental hospital that he was discharged from just weeks ago, my heart was heavy… heavier than it has ever been. There I stood, staying goodbye to my child who looks and acts more like a ten-year-old than a 13-year-old, in the hallway of the ER at 4:30 in the morning, weary.

So weary of the fight.

So weary of the battles.

So weary of the constant vigilance.

So weary of trying to hold onto hope in the midst of hopelessness.

So weary of trying to keep my family intact in the midst of constant battles against the trauma of Ozzie’s past.

So weary of smiling through the tears and finding the good in an absurdly bad situation.

So weary of being the Mom…the one who must remain hopeful, positive, optimistic and strong. The one who must help everyone else ride the waves of RAD and help the other children process the secondary PTSD occurring in the home. Being the one who must help create normalcy for the rest of the family in a situation that is anything but normal.

But weary or not, we go on.

I climbed into the car, exhausted down to the tips of my toes, drove home and crawled into bed to get a few hours of sleep before a new day began. It was going to be a full day of packing for Girls’ Camp (where I will be serving as a level leader over the 7th year girls) and then our annual strawberry picking, because despite how crazy the night was the dawn will come and the show must go on. There are other people in my family who need me, so I wake up day after day, and keep on keeping on…

Praying for strength.

Praying for grace.

Praying for hope.

Praying for wisdom.

Praying for the capacity to forgive…

And praying that there was a caffeinated Diet Coke in the fridge to fuel my efforts. 😉

From suicide watch to strawberry picking in a 12 hour stretch…

because that’s how we roll.

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Did I mention my life has Multiple Personality Disorder?

Over the last 7 or 8 years we have enjoyed the annual tradition of going strawberry picking as a family. It always seems to fall on the Saturday before Father’s Day, resulting in many strawberry themed treats for the day.

When we moved into this house we were introduced to Catalpa Farms by friends, when they invited us to go pea picking with them one year.

Since then Catalpa’s has been our go-to “you pick” farm in the area.

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Saturday was chaos (understatement of the year!) and really not the ideal day to go berry picking, but knowing the unavailability of free Saturdays for the next two weeks, and knowing how short-lived strawberry season is, it was now or never.

So, after a hard, traumatic previous 12 hours, we rallied as only the McCleerys can, gathered our strawberry boxes, and headed to Ohio.

Grace had spent the day working, while Molly and I packed and prepped for Girls’ Camp. At the end of Gracie’s shift, we drove over, picked her up, and drove out to Catalpa’s for some strawberry picking.

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Since we arrived at 4:00 in the afternoon, there was no one left in the field (pickers or field bosses) so we had free reign to pick anywhere we wanted in rows 1 and 2.

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We are accustomed to arriving early in the morning with dozens of other families and being given a small stretch of field to strip clean. It was kind of fun to be able to roam freely and have the farm to ourselves.

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Since Ozzie was back at the hospital, it was just the six of us picking. We knew we only had an hour until closing so we made quick work of berry picking.

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The job moved at a much quicker clip than usual, with the freedom of being able to move around the field, searching for untouched patches thick with strawberries.

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What a beautiful crop they had this year. The strawberries were large and sweet…a rare combination.

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One of the many reasons we love this “you pick” farm is because of their encouragement to “eat as you pick.” The kids love biting into sun-warmed, just-off-the-vine berries. It becomes a “one for me, one for the basket” dance of indulgence as the strawberry cartons slowly fill.

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We did well. In our hour, we managed to fill 24 quarts to overflowing…

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And I felt my heart lightening and my soul healing a bit under the rays of the afternoon sun.

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We finished at 5:00pm and headed back to the front to pay and treat ourselves to our traditional berry picking reward for our hard work: homemade strawberry slushies.

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Made from crushed ice and their home-grown strawberries, this sweet nectar of the gods is incredible…a perfect way to end our strawberry picking fun at Catalpa Farms!

Then it was back home for hours and hours of cleaning, hulling, chopping and canning of strawberry treats for us to enjoy in the upcoming year.

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From heartbreak to happy moment,

The tides turn as quick as that…

All within 24 hours.

A sweet end to a bitter beginning.

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Olivia’s Graduation Gift

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Miss Lana hit it out of the ballpark and won major “mom points” when she gifted Oliva with a night away with her best friend as her graduation gift to Olivia…

And my girls were recipients of Olivia’s good fortune.

The talk began months ago when the girls began discussing  how much fun it would be to get a hotel room and have a spa/shopping night away after graduation.

Miss Lana decided to grant Olivia’s wish as her graduation gift. There was talk about whether this special night would be reserved just for the two graduates, Olivia and Grace, or whether they would invite their two little sisters to join them. In the end Olivia decided if a party of two was fun, then a party of four was even better!

The preparations that led up to this night away began weeks ago as the girls started making plans. They decided to have dinner at the hotel and bring all the makings to fix the food in the kitchenette that was in their room.

They knew they wanted a spa-like experience and planned accordingly, packing things like face masks, cucumber slices, sparkling flavored waters, and the ingredients to make bath bombs.

Following in the tradition of their mothers’ annual scrapbooking weekend, they decided they would all exchange goody bags and gifts with each other.

In the end Miss Lana’s packed van looked much like it does when we go away scrapbooking…filled with clothes, food, craft supplies, and gifts for each other. These girls have learned from the best! When we go away we do it right!

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The girls began their night away on Wednesday afternoon when Miss Lana dropped them off at their fancy hotel room for the night.

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The hotel was located next to Grove City Outlet Mall, allowing for some fun shopping and retail therapy, in addition to all the fun activities they had planned for in the room.

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They began their adventure by exchanging patches. Each girl was instructed to bring a denim shirt and 6-9 patches to exchange, that were reflective of each friend. It was fun to see what each girl picked for each other. The patches were exchanged and fastened on, creating fun “matching” tops for them to wear shopping the following day.

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Then they headed out to do a little exploring before dinner,

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With a swim in the pool,

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Some fun at the gym,

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And a stroll over to the mall.

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Then it was time for dinner. Their hotel room had a fun kitchen and dining area in the room which allowed the girls to make a fancy dinner with the food they brought and sit down for a nice meal together.

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They made Chicken Caesar Salad, mashed potatoes, fiesta dip and cookie dough dip.

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After dinner they exchanged their gifts.

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Each of the girls was incredibly creative.

Grace made custom mugs using a technique she found on Pinterest with nail polish, and filled them with socks, and manicure supplies.

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Olivia made homemade pillows for each girl that were decorated with a quote they are known for saying.

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Tatum got each girl socks, a cute water bottle filled with candy, and hand sanitizers that attach to their bags.

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Molly also bought each girl a pair of socks, as well as lotion and these cute inflatable floating cup holders for the pool…which they tried out in the tub.

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Then it was time for spa night to begin.

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They began by making homemade bath bombs which were used in the tub to soak their feet.

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Then it was time for face masks. Tatum picked up funny emoji face masks for each girl to try.

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Then it was time for facials.

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The next morning the girls were up and moving by 8:30 am, so as to enjoy the complimentary breakfast offered by the hotel,

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as well as get in a little swimming before it was time to check out of their room.

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The manager was kind enough to allow them to stow their gear in the office while they went shopping at the outlet mall for a few hours before Miss Lana was scheduled to pick them up.

At Grove City Outlets they found some incredible deals and had a blast shopping at stores like Rue 21, Claire’s, Bath and Body Works, Fuzziwig’s Candy Factory, and Peace Love and Little Donuts.

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It was a epic ending to an amazing 24 hours.

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Happy graduation, Olivia!

Thanks for sharing your gift with my girls!

 

 

Gracie’s Graduation Gift

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Once Gracie had received her diploma it was time to present her with her graduation gift.

I knew I wanted to do something special and personal for Gracie’s graduation gift. She isn’t a girl who puts a lot of value in material possessions. Gifts are not her love language. The love languages that speak to her heart are quality time and words of affirmation. She is much more affected and moved by gifts that are homemade, personal, and sentimental. She would much rather receive a heartfelt letter or framed photo than a new outfit or gadget.

Knowing that her primary love language is quality time, and knowing that because many of the people who mean the most to her wouldn’t be able to actually be with her on her graduation day, I thought a scrapbook of letters would be the next best thing.

The words penned by loved ones would serve as a meaningful testament of their love for her.

The last time I created a gift like this was for my grandfather’s 90th birthday when we presented him with a collection of love letters from friends and family. In those letters we all shared with him the great impact he had on all of our lives, how he had touched us and molded us into who we are today, and shared stories of our favorite memories.

He was moved to tears.

When I became young women’s president at church I stepped into a long standing tradition of the presidency gathering letters written to our graduating seniors (by their friends, teachers and family) that were compiled into a book that they could take with them to college.

Since that time that tradition has died away, but I knew that I wanted Grace to receive her “senior book,” so I decided to resurrect the tradition personally for each of my kids when they graduate high school. Grace was my first recipient.

A few months ago I sent out form letters with self-addressed return envelopes to all our family, family friends, previous school/co-op/church teachers, tutors, coaches and church leaders, asking them to write Grace a letter sharing their memories of her and words of advice that she could take with her as she ventures into her future.

The response was amazing and full of love. Dozens of special people from her life took the time to sit and write Grace a personal letter.

As the envelopes began trickling into my mailbox I was able to sit and read your words of love. I secured each note into a scrapbook to preserve these special words for Grace to treasure into the future.

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Each letter was placed with love and adorned with papers, stickers and photos, reflective of the letter and the author of the letter.

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Each note was so different and so perfect.

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On Saturday night, following graduation, we took Grace out for dinner and presented her with her graduation gift from us…and from all of you.

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And she too was touched by the great outpouring of love and care.

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This humble book is worth more than the greatest of treasures, containing priceless words of advice, sweet memories to reflect back on, and words of love from the people who have helped mold her into the young lady she is today.

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Thank you for your gift to Grace…

Thank you for loving my baby girl.

Graduation Day!

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Saturday marked the end of one journey and the start of the next one.

It was the day my first born walked on stage, dressed in a cap and gown, and graduated high school.

It was an action-packed day that began at 10:15 am and stretched to 3:00 pm, packed full of graduation day activities.

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Unlike a local high school that might spread graduation preparation over a weeks’ time, 21st Century has to make it all happen in one day. Many of their families have traveled far distances to be there and are only there for the day, so all the activities that lead up to graduation day for seniors must fit into one five-hour period.

But they orchestrated what could have been pure chaos, beautifully.

We woke early Saturday morning and went down to the lobby of the hotel to meet the Hudaks for breakfast. We knew better than to dress everyone before we ate, so it was breakfast first, followed by everyone getting dolled up in their Sunday best.

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Then it was off to the local high school where our charter school was holding the commencement ceremony.

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We arrived to find what can only be described as a “well-oiled machine.”

We were greeted and welcomed at the door by teachers and directed where to go. Toby had Gracie’s school laptop and was sent in one direction to get in line to return it. Grace and Olivia were sent to get in line to receive their senior gift bags which contained a complimentary yearbook and a 21CCCS alumni t-shirt.

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While the seniors were off preparing for graduation the families waited in the cafeteria where the school had catered a lunch for the families to enjoy while they waited for the graduation ceremony to begin.

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While we were eating and visiting, Olivia and Grace were kept busy behind the scenes.

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First, they got fitted for their caps and gowns. Lana and I stepped in to watch the process and that is when the emotions fully hit. Watching our babies have their graduation caps pinned to their heads made it all real. Lana expressed my emotions best when she said, “How can this be? I just brought her home from the hospital yesterday.”

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Then Grace and Olivia donned their National Honor Society medallions for being members of the NHS presidency.

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After hugs and a few tears, we let them move on to their next station, “graduation photos,” where they had a professional photographer taking graduation portraits of each senior in their cap and gown.

Once each senior moved through the line it was time for the graduating class to do a few practice runs before the actual ceremony began.

While we waited in the cafeteria the other kids kept busy with the photo booth,

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Playing games on Toby’s phone,

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Napping,

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Playing card games,

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And visiting with their teachers.

Each of the kids wanted to get a photo with their learning coach.

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Ozzie and Mrs. Scarpignato

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Molly and Mr. Winterode (Coach)

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Rusty and Ms. Heleniak

We have been blessed with such awesome learning coaches over the years at this school, so perfectly fitted to each of my kids’ personalities and exactly what each has needed to find success.

In fact, Gracie really credits her first learning coach, Mr. Dolan, who has since moved away, as the catalyst for her success in high school and the reason she wants to be a special education teacher. She has personally experienced the impact an invested, caring teacher who believes in you, can have on the life of a student with a learning disability, and wants to pay it forward and have that same impact on another student like herself.

When Mr. Dolan moved away Grace was crushed. But God knew what he was doing and He sent what Grace needed next in the form of Mrs. McGuire, her learning coach for her remaining two years in the school. Mr. Dolan helped Grace see the ability within her disability and helped her believe in her capabilities…just what 9th grade Grace needed. Mrs. McGuire stepped in and was the catalyst for dreaming big dreams and showing Grace that she could do anything she wants with those abilities. Both were powerful influences in Gracie’s life when she most needed to learn those lessons.

Grace received the thrill of her life on Saturday when both of her learning coaches came to graduation. Mr. Dolan, who now lives out of state, surprised his graduating students by showing up for their special day.

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Grace was moved to tears to have both of these important people there to celebrate her achievement. She never thought she would see Mr. Dolan again and now Mrs. McGuire will be leaving the school to follow her husband across the country to California. What a gift Grace received in being able to share this moment with them before they all go their separate ways!

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It was soon time to head to the auditorium for the commencement exercises. Tatum, Lucas and Molly were asked (as members of National Honor Society) to stand at the doors and hand out programs.

We picked up our programs and waited for the ceremony to begin.

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The students walked in and the tears began.

The girls looked so grown up and pretty.

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They were seated on stage and the School principal stood up to welcome the families and introduce the speakers. Grace was the first of three students who were chosen to speak at graduation.

Here is what she had to say:

“In 1986 a man by the name of Robert Fulghum published a piece of prose titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” This humorous, yet insightful, piece of literature revealed that the most important life lessons do not happen at graduate school but in the sandbox of our childhood. Following Mr. Fulghum’s example I would like to summarize the lessons I have learned these last four years in a piece I call, “All I really need to know I learned at 21st Century Cyber Charter School.”

Here are some of the life lessons I have learned:

·         I learned that the teachers want to be your friend. From your very first orientation day they wanted to get to know you. They wanted to know your likes and dislikes. They didn’t just want to be your teacher but also your ally. In life, we all need allies.

·         From Ms. Cloetingh I have learned that sometimes you just have to sit down and paint. Einstein said, “Creativity is contagious.” At 21st Century it is a downright epidemic! Between mural club, the art and literary magazine, and a variety of music and drawing classes, creativity flows through the veins of this school, teaching students how to share their soul with the world.

·         I learned that having one person believe in you and your ability can change you. Mr. Dolan was that one person for me. Mr. Dolan used to be a teacher in this school. He believed in me and my abilities, which helped me believe in myself.

·         I learned that there is a leader within all of us. As a student with a learning disability I never thought I would be accepted as a member of National Honor Society, much less serve as president of National Honor Society my senior year. It is through the support of great teachers and the belief I had in my own abilities that I discovered a leader within me that I didn’t realize existed. There is a leader within all of us.

·         I learned that raising your hand, multiple times in a row, while in the VO won’t help you get help any faster. I bet many teachers can attest that they can often hear the sweet music of the many hands of students being raised. As students, we had to learn how to be patient, but we also learned we would always get the help we needed. We must find the right balance of patience and self-advocacy as we seek out the right people to support us in our journey.

·         I learned that untraditional friendships can often be the best kinds of friendships. I find it funny when people have the misconception that cyber school students are backwards or unsocial just because they don’t interact with their peers face to face in a traditional classroom. The friendships I have made with fellow students and teachers are not only authentic but deep and meaningful. It may not be a traditional way of making friends, but the friendships I have made at 21st Century mean the world to me.

·         (Signed in American Sign Language) I learned that it takes courage to pursue your passion. Mrs. McGuire really helped me learn this. She helped me have the courage to pursue my own passion for American Sign Language. This fall I plan to begin school to become an American Sign Language interpreter.

I started attending 21st Century Cyber Charter School in 9th grade. I have been in this school for four years and have loved every moment of it. Some might look at this day as the end of a journey when in reality it is simply the start of the next great journey. By taking the lessons we’ve learned within the cyber walls of this school we are equipped with the life lessons needed to go forth and make an impact on the world. Today we celebrate where you have been and where you are going. Happy Graduation Day!”

And this Momma and Papa couldn’t have been prouder. Our baby may be all grown up, but what a beautiful young lady she has grown up to be.

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Next it was time for the presentation of scholarships.

At 21st Century Cyber Charter School the teachers have a long-standing tradition of presenting four students from the graduating class with scholarships from the school. These scholarships are not funded with school budget money, but rather are funded solely by teacher donations. Throughout the year they will have events at the school for staff, like special breakfasts during inservice/training days, which they will use to raise money to help fund these scholarships, in addition to cash donations by the teachers. They try to raise $500.00 for four chosen students but this year were even more generous and raised $750.00 for four students.

The teachers of this school are incredible and are at the heart of why this school shines brighter than the rest.

 

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Mr. Winterode, a favorite teacher at the school!

 

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Ms. Cloetingh, Grace and Olivia’s mural club teacher.

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Mr. Dolan, Gracie’s 1st learning coach.

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Mrs. McGuire, Gracie’s 2nd learning coach.

There are four scholarships given to four students that best exemplify the four pillars of National Honor Society. One scholarship for academics, one for leadership, one for service, and one for character.

We watched as they handed out the three scholarships for greatest academic excellence, the Eagle service award for the student most service minded, and the leadership award. Then it was time for the scholarship awarded to the student that shows the most exemplary character, as voted on by the teachers of the school, and we heard them announce Gracie’s name!

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We had no idea that she would be a recipient of one of these scholarships, and for me that was the acknowledgement that we, as her parents, have done right these last 19 years. I remember holding her as a baby and speaking to God during one of our middle of the night gatherings between Grace, God and I. I remember praying over that  little bundle I held in my arms and saying to God, “It matters little to me that this child grows up to be exceptionally pretty, or smart, talented, or gifted in the areas of music, art, or athletics…as nice as those traits might be. What matters most to me is that I raise a child who is known for her kindness, her selflessness, and her goodness. Help me to raise a woman of character.” And God has been merciful. He has answered my prayers. How blessed we are by this sweet girl! God is good.

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Then it was time for the diplomas to be handed out. The students were called to the front of the stage one by one.

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Once everyone had received their diploma it was time for the traditional turning of the tassels, signifying the transition from high school to life beyond.

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And it was done.

13 years of hard work, sleepless nights, advocating for her needs, teaching and reteaching tough concepts again and again, endless fieldtrips, Dyslexia tutoring, IEP meetings, 3 schools, and the culmination of the decade of my life’s work came together in that moment as we watched our baby girl walk down the aisle with diploma in hand.

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A diploma hard earned by both student and teacher! 🙂

It was time to celebrate:

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She did it.

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Olivia did it.

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We did it!

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Congratulations, ladies. We are so proud of you.

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What a beautiful journey it has been!

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We can’t wait to see where God takes you next!

Plaza Azteca

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Following the end of the year bowling party and prom we decided to take Grace and Olivia out for their graduation celebratory dinner.

Graduation was the following day and all the festivities would stretch from 10:15 am to 3:00pm. Because Olivia’s dad had to leave for a work trip Sunday morning at 3:00am, we knew they would have to leave immediately after graduation to head home, so we decided to have our graduation dinner the night before graduation.

We left the bowling party, picked up the girls from Whitford Country Club,

And then headed over to Plaza Azteca, a Mexican restaurant many of the teachers recommended for an excellent Mexican dinner.

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One of the menu items they insisted that we try was the homemade guacamole that the staff make tableside.

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It was like dinner and a show…

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And the end results were delicious! Some of the best guacamole I have ever had.

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While waiting for our food to arrive the two seniors opened their graduation gifts. For Olivia, we created a “School is done, let vacation begin!” bag of beach treats in a beach bag.

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The Hudaks bought Grace a beautiful charm necklace that holds mementoes reflective the wearer.  Olivia has one too and Grace has always admired it. In the clear locket were charms representative of Grace like an ASL “love” charm, a cross, FAITH, and a graduation cap.

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It was a delicious dinner. It was fun to visit, reflect on the fact that tomorrow is graduation, and hear all about prom.

It was a lovely way to celebrate an amazing journey…

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And to celebrate it with our best friends only made it all the more special!

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How blessed we are!