Author Archives: ktmccleery

Escaping to the Homestead

Standard

We find our summer flying by at a breakneck speed. It seems like just yesterday was Molly’s graduation, but the calendar says otherwise. Six weeks have passed since that monumental day and we are now halfway through summer and eight weeks away from Molly’s departure to Idaho for college. I find myself wanting to pump the breaks and slow down time. Since that is an impossibility, I find myself trying to steal moments of stillness whenever I can, soaking up the last of this season of “normalcy” before life changes once again and we find ourselves down two daughters: one to college and another to marriage.

This last week I was able to capture a day of memories to file away for future reflection when we escaped to the Homestead for a day of celebrations.

IMG_2309 (2)

My Aunt Denise was in town for the month, following my grandma’s 90th birthday celebration. Since Aunt Denise lives so far away, and getting to visit with her is a rare and treasured treat, we decided to squeeze in a visit before she had to head home. My parents invited us over for a Sunday dinner and a celebration of all the big events from the past two months.

Every few months we try to carve out an afternoon for Sunday dinner at the Homestead, and while there we celebrate all the big events of that quarter of the year. This visit we found ourselves celebrating Toby’s birthday, Father’s Day and Molly’s graduation, with Molly’s graduation being the focus of the day.

We arrived, after a 2 1/2 hour drive, to find the barn decorated and ready for the party.

IMG_2358 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy

Zach joined us, as he will soon be an official member of the family…

IMG_2290 (2)

97 days till they say “I do!”

We enjoyed a yummy picnic lunch in the barn.

IMG_2322 (2) - CopyIMG_2310 (2) - Copy

It was warm, but the open doors provided a breeze, helped along by a couple box fans.

IMG_2326 (2) - Copy

When Lunch was over, Molly was presented with her graduation gift from Mimi and Pop pop. Following tradition, they presented Molly with a hope chest. It was a beautiful Lane chest from the 1940’s. It is to be used by Molly to start collecting goodies for her future home. It was a beautiful gift with a beautiful purpose.

IMG_2333 (2)

Inside the hope chest they included Molly’s bag of letters.

When my children were very small my mom came up with the idea of having a letter bag for each of her grandchildren. As the kids drew her pictures or sent her letters through the years, she would collect them in their letter bag. At graduation, they give the bag of letters back to that child to read through and enjoy.

Molly, being the resident letter writer in the family, had a full bag of sent mail to look through and enjoy.

IMG_2339 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy

What a delightful trip down memory lane it was, as we enjoyed her earliest years of artwork and phonetic spelling.

IMG_2352 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy

After we exchanged gifts for all the loved ones we were celebrating, the remainder of the day was spent enjoying the magic of the Homestead with it green vistas, grazing animals, and peace.

IMG_2304 (2)

The kids had fun driving around the golf cart that was recently purchased to help G.G. move around the farm,

IMG_2296 (2)IMG_2368 (2) - Copy - Copy - CopyIMG_2363 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy

And we all enjoyed playing games as a family.

IMG_2372 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy

Life doesn’t allow us the time we’d like to visit family. Often it is months or even years between our visits, but when we are granted the rare gift of an afternoon together, we fill it with a month’s worth of fun!

IMG_2324 (2) - Copy

Here’s to the stolen moments of life that make life worth living!

Land of the Free because of the Brave!

Standard

4th-of-july-quote-1

Nothing brings the summer feels more than the 4th of July with its cookouts, swimming, and sparklers.

I love the 4th of July. It is one of my favorite holidays. My patriotic heart swells with delight at the sea of red, white and blue and the patriotic music that becomes the soundtrack to the day.

Typically our 4th of July involves a trip down to Pittsburgh to participate in the festivities leading up to an always amazing fireworks show. We love the celebratory air that accompanies the experience and there is no better fireworks show  in the area than the one put on by the city of Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately, this year we had to switch up our traditional 4th of July plans. My busy kids, with their  very full schedules, made our traditional trip to Pittsburgh for fireworks an impossibility, so we needed to come up with a plan B.

Since everyone was free the first half of the day so we decided to enjoy our family time in the morning before everyone headed in separate directions for the afternoon. We decided to head to Moraine Lake for a picnic.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shinning. It was warm enough to make swimming a delight but not so hot as to make a picnic miserable.

Grace invited Zach to join us, bringing our numbers to seven, in the absence of Rusty, who was spending the week at Scout Camp.

We found that we were not the only ones who thought a day at the lake was a good idea. We found the lake hopping with visitors,

IMG_2232 (2) - Copy - Copy

And it was easy to see why…

It was a practically perfect day at the lake!

IMG_2241 (2) - Copy - Copy

We found a spot and settled in for a relaxing afternoon. Tyler and Braden headed straight for the water where they spent the next three hours tossing the football with other kids in the lake before breaking for lunch.

IMG_2249 (2) - Copy - Copy

Toby found a spot of shade where he enjoyed simply sitting and relaxing with a magazine…a rare and treasured treat for my love who works hard every day from dawn to dusk.

IMG_2233 (2) - Copy - Copy

Molly, who has also been working hard, juggling daily shifts as a waitress at Eat n Park, enjoyed the gift of rest as she lounged in the warmth of the sun, eventually succumbing to the sandman.

IMG_2252 (2) - Copy - Copy

In between the trips to the water, everyone enjoyed a picnic lunch and the company of family, while overlooking a stunning vista.

IMG_2229 (2) - Copy - Copy

By 4:00 pm the grey clouds began to roll in, warning of the impeding storm. We packed up our gear and headed home so everyone could get ready for their evening plans.

We did make a quick stop along the way, however, at The Snowman.

IMG_2256 (2) - Copy - Copy

Toby treated everyone to a snow cone, which was a perfect conclusion to an already perfect day.

IMG_2270 (2) - Copy - CopyIMG_2262 (2) - Copy - Copy

When we arrived home Molly prepared to join up with friends from church for an evening of board games and fireworks in their apartment parking lot.

received_2439271882778192

Grace and Zach headed downtown Pittsburgh to enjoy an epic fireworks show from the top of Mt. Washington,

received_464560910997067received_853260658388679received_326810271542209

And Braden prepared for his work shift from 6:00-10:15. Because Braden would need picked up from work at the same time most firework shows were occurring, Toby, Tyler and I stayed home and enjoyed a movie night until it was time to get Braden.

It wasn’t our typical 4th of July celebration…

“Typical” is no longer our “normal” with kids growing up and making their own plans, but it was a wonderful day nonetheless.

How grateful I am for all this day offers us: a chance to celebrate the freedoms we enjoy, a chance to honor those who made those sacrifices possible, and the chance to do so with the people we love most.

freedom

 

Summertime Livin’

Standard

summer

We find ourselves fully emerged in summertime livin’, complete with cook-outs, trips to the pool, travel and activities that only roll around this time of year. This week we find ourselves down one child as Rusty heads off for a week of fun at Scout camp. Scout camp is always the highlight of Rusty’s summer and this year will be his final year. Last weekend was spent preparing and packing for his 4:45am send-off on Monday morning.

In addition to packing and juggling multiple work schedules, we were able to carve out some summer fun in the midst of the craziness.

Our weekend began on Friday with Grace and Molly both taking the day off work so that we could travel two hours to the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania to join up with 100+ teenage girls and their leaders at Girls Camp.

IMG_2167 (2)

This year marked the first year in 10 consecutive years that we wouldn’t be at camp for the week. In the past I have served as the leader over the 17/18-year-old graduated senior girls. It has been an assignment that I have loved, but this year, given the precarious nature of things at home, I simply didn’t feel comfortable committing to a week away at camp when I was asked a few months ago. It was with such mixed emotions that the girls and I declined to return as camp leaders, so when we were asked to come to camp for a single day to teach one of the spiritual focus lessons, we were thrilled!

It was the best of all worlds. We got to get our taste of camp and the special spirit felt there, in a way that was manageable to the family as a whole. We spent the weeks prior to camp pondering possible directions we could go on the lesson topic we were given. We were asked to speak on the topic, ““If you don’t have the Spirit of the Lord, you can not stand.”

Inspired by handouts we found at Dollar Tree, we built our lesson around a flamingo theme and how we can be like the flamingo and stand tall. We each took a portion of the lesson to teach and Grace signed to the song, “I Will” by Hilary Weeks.

IMG_2160 (2)

It was such a joy stepping back into camp and seeing so many familiar and loved faces. After our lesson we stayed to watch the slideshow of all the week’s activities and joined the campers for dinner before trekking back home.

IMG_2174 (2)

Saturday was a busy one with everyone working except Grace, Tyler and I.

It was $1.00 ice cream day at Handel’s, the ice cream shop where Rusty and Braden work, so it was an “all hands on deck” day for the staff.

Screenshot_20190629-114334

Rusty and Braden worked back to back shifts mid-day, so while we were in the process of dropping off one and picking up the other we stopped to take advantage of that awesome deal!

IMG_2201 (2)

Is there anything better than ice cream on a hot summer day?!

IMG_2203 (2)

From there Molly headed to work at Eat n’ Park.

Molly has been working like crazy this summer, trying to earn all the money she needs for her upcoming year of college. Her hard work has paid off as she is almost to her goal. It hasn’t been easy, though. Molly works almost every day of the week, with the exception of Sunday, often being assigned shifts that have her on the floor from 6:00pm to 4:00am. Eat n’ Park has recently lost key staff members, leaving those who are still there hustling to cover all the shifts. The blessing is that Molly will have no trouble reaching her monetary goals, but the poor thing hasn’t had much of a summer break.

In the afternoon, Tyler and I headed to Zelienople for his weekly equine therapy session at Glade Run Adventures. Since Braden was working, Tyler got to enjoy an individual session without Braden. Because of this, Tyler was put on Leo (the tallest horse at the stable and typically Braden’s ride) to see how he would do with a more advanced horse.

IMG_2175 (2)

It was an exciting day as his equine therapist, Ashley, let him canter Leo for the first time, unassisted.

IMG_2192 (2)IMG_2194 (2)

Tyler did amazing!

It is so exciting to see his growth since beginning equine therapy…both emotionally and in the area of horsemanship.

On Saturday evening we decided to tackle one of the items on the family’s summer bucket list: A Drive-in Movie!!

We have discovered that the stage of life we find ourselves in makes it challenging to get everyone together for family activities. With 5 family members working, 2 going to school, and multiple commitments in the areas of family, friends, church callings, wedding planning, college preparations, etc. we tend to pick a date and time when the largest number of family members can attend, and schedule that way.

Sunday is our one day of the week where everyone is home in the evening, as all have committed to not work on the Sabbath, so that is the day for worshipping together at church and enjoying family time at home. It is also the day we sit and calendar out our week so that everyone knows what is on everyone else’s agenda. It is a necessity for our large, busy family. Last Sunday, as we planned out our week, we decided we would go to the drive-in on Saturday night. Molly, unfortunately, had to work, but everyone else was free.

Grace invited Zach to join us. We met up at Dependable Drive-in at 8:00pm to watch a back to back showing of Toy Story 4 and Aladdin.

IMG_2214 (2)

After finding spots side for our car and Zach’s, we set up our chairs.

The boys brought a football, in anticipation of the one hour wait until showtime.

IMG_2219 (2)

It felt like summer, surrounded by the smells of the concession stand,

IMG_2225 (2)

And the sounds of parents visiting and children playing, as we waited for the movie to start.

IMG_2221 (2)

As dusk rolled in the screen came alive with the sounds of the national anthem.

IMG_2220 (2)

Everyone got settled in their spots, prepared for 4 hours of movie-watching fun.

Both movies exceeded my expectations. They were both wonderful and we enjoyed them immensely…

Well, most of us did. Tyler was fast asleep by the time the second movie, Aladdin, began to play, but the rest of us made it through the double showing and had a wonderful time.

I love the not-so-lazy days of summer!

 

Celebrating at Pinball PA

Standard

pacman

Last week marked our annual trifecta of celebrating Toby.

Each year, over the course of seven days, Toby is celebrated three times. First for being a father, second for being a husband, and third for escaping the womb (as cousin Mark would say!)

Father’s Day, our anniversary and his birthday all fall within days of each other and offer us the opportunity to have a week-long celebration of the man we love.

Resized_20190621_200129_01~2

We were able to escape for a few hours and enjoy a yummy anniversary dinner…22 years, baby!

On Saturday we made plans to do something fun to celebrate the man who sacrifices and does so much for our family. We were looking for a unique experience we could enjoy together that would be especially enjoyable for Toby. Grace suggested a visit to Pinball PA, having recently been introduced to this little known gem on a double date.

Pinball PA may not look like much from the outside, where it sits in a strip mall, nestled among other stores in Aliquippa, PA,

IMG_2045 (2)

But we soon discovered that looks can be deceiving.

We stepped inside, blown away by the pinball/arcade mecca that lay within.

It was like stepping back into our childhood as we viewed rows of vintage arcade games from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

IMG_2094

Rather than having to tote around a sock full of quarters like we did 30 years ago, Pinball PA has their machines set up for free play. Guests pay an entrance fee and then have full access to all the pinball machines and arcade games for two hours. We were able to take advantage of our numbers and pay for a group rate rather than paying as individuals. It worked out to be $10.00/person, which we found reasonable for the experience it offered.

When guests first walk in they are treated to a mini “museum” of arcade history,

IMG_2048 (2)

Complete with a running slideshow that was interesting to watch.

IMG_2092 (2)IMG_2088 (2)IMG_2087 (2)IMG_2086 (2)

As I stood and watched the slide show, everyone else scattered, eager to get their gaming on!

IMG_2077 (2)

Pinball PA boasts the largest collection of vintage arcade games and pinball machines in the world…and they were not kidding. It was like a warehouse of arcade history with aisle after aisle of machines set up side by side.

IMG_2112 (2)

The outside walls were lined by pinball machines which everyone enjoyed playing.

IMG_2060 (2)

I was especially smitten with their oldest pinball machines which were as charming to look at as they were fun to play. I would love this beauty in my living room!

IMG_2133 (4) - Copy

In the center of the arcade were hundreds and hundreds of vintage arcade games.

IMG_2065 (2)IMG_2136 (2) - Copy - Copy

Toby and I enjoyed stepping back in time, playing the games that were staples of our childhood,

IMG_2096

 

While the kids enjoyed becoming acquainted with the pixelated graphics and more challenging maneuvering of old school games.

IMG_2106 (2)

Thier only references to this style of gaming were thanks to the movies, “Pixels” and “Wreck it Ralph,”

IMG_2056

Which they continued to reference with delighted enthusiasm throughout our visit to Pinball PA.

IMG_2123 (2) - Copy

We all had A LOT of fun, but no one had more fun than the birthday boy himself, who for his 44th birthday got to reconnect with his 10-year-old self for some 1980’s fun!

IMG_2072 (2)

Happy birthday/ Father’s Day/ Anniversary, Toby! We love you!

9 Decades of Life!

Standard

EPSON MFP image

In my life I have been incredibly blessed to be surrounded by women of character and of influence. These women are responsible for a wonderful and magical childhood, but are also largely responsible for the woman I am today.

At their knees I learned the most important of life lessons.

I learned how to love, how to serve, and how to care for my family.

I learned the importance of creating memories and carving out time for fun.

I learned that laughter is one of the greatest antidotes to hard days and that hard work pays dividends.

I learned that life is a grand adventure, and when it comes to the twists and turns on the road of life, we can either fruitlessly resist or lean into the bends and enjoy the ride.

I learned that there is something to be learned from every experience and every person we encounter in our travels.

I learned that family is everything, and as long as you have that you will always feel wealthy.

One of the greatest influences in my life has been my father’s mother, whom I refer to often in the blog as G.G.

G.G. just recently moved closer when in October she sold her home in Florida to move closer to my parents in Wooster, Ohio. Although the craziness of life has kept us from visiting as often as we’d like, we are so grateful to have her close by and a regular fixture at all our family gatherings at the Homestead.

This month was a big one for G.G. as she celebrated her 90th trip around the sun. As vibrant and fun as ever, I can only hope to live my life as well as she has.

IMG_1986 (2)

In honor of her big day, plans were in the works months prior to plan a celebration worthy of the birthday girl. My parents, along with my Dad’s three siblings and their spouses, made plans to celebrate this milestone birthday in style.

IMG_1969 (2)

The plan was for everyone (Andy/Jane, Denise/Jack, Jill/Paul, Marty/Fran, and my sister Kelly) to come into town for a week of reunion fun with the planned activities coming to a peak on Thursday night with a celebratory birthday dinner at the Olde Jaol Restaurant.

IMG_2043 (2)

Prior to the birthday party I was recruited to take on the task of creating a scrapbook for the birthday girl. Months prior to the event I began the project by sending out letters to friends and family requesting birthday letters for grandma. The letters came rolling in and I had a blast reading the memories recorded by all those who love her and whose lives have been touched by hers.

My own sweet memories of her loving traditions that helped mold for me a magical childhood were echoed in the letters from others. I found as I compiled the scrapbook, my love, admiration, and appreciation for my grandmother grew even more, and it was a joyful project to undertake.

IMG_2011 (2)IMG_2020 (2)

Last Thursday was the big day.

Following a shortened day at work, Toby arrived home with enough time to change before we made the 2.5 hour drive to Wooster, Ohio. There we joined family for G.G.’s 90th birthday dinner at Olde Jaol Resturant.

IMG_2023 (2)

This historic gem, located in downtown Wooster, was a perfect place to have such a special birthday celebration. The restaurant, converted from the old city jail, offered a charming atmosphere to compliment a delicious meal…probably the best food I have ever eaten!

IMG_1972 (2)IMG_1975

IMG_2006 (2)

There we were joined by my parents, out-of-town family,

IMG_1989 (2)

And of course the birthday girl, who thanks to gifts from Jane and Andy’s puppies, was decked out for the occasion in “90th birthday” bling.

IMG_1985 (2)

IMG_2004 (2)

That evening we enjoyed an amazing meal and even more amazing company as we gathered together to celebrate the life of a woman whose life has touched so many for the better.

IMG_1991 (2)

Gifts were given with loving consideration and each gift was an expression of love.

IMG_2031 (2)IMG_2034 (2)

Then we presented G.G. with the gift from the entire family…the compilation of love letters from friends and family near and far. As she read through the memories that had been penned, it was a confirmation of the impact one soul can have on the world.

IMG_1997 (2)

So often we move through this life doing the best we can, wondering if our feeble attempts are making any difference at all. It is easy to become focused on our failures or the struggles that dot our existance, and we lose sight of the big picture and the trail of blessings we leave in our wake…

Blessings that make this world a brighter and better place because we are in it.

IMG_2028 (2)

The scrapbook of letters served as a testament to the impact one person can have.

What a life G.G. has led these last 90 years!

How blessed we all are to be a part of that life!

 

The City of Brotherly LOVE

Standard

Following our trip to the Kalahari Resort in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, we decided to take a little detour before heading home. Our detour required a south-easterly jaunt to get to our desired destination…

Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly Love!

philly

We didn’t have a lot of time to spend in the city, as three kids had work at 6:00pm and we had a 5 hour drive to get home, but we wanted to make this stop a priority.

Gracie, our eldest daughter, will be marrying her true love on October 17th. They have decided to be married at the Philadelphia temple of our church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

received_2362840320705799

It was important to Grace that her siblings visit her wedding location prior to the big day. Much of this was for the benefit of Tyler and Braden who struggle with the unexpected and unknown. She knew that visiting prior to her wedding day would alleviate some of the emotional angst connected to her getting married and leaving home.

IMG_1904 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy

It was a blessing. Grace was able to share her excitement of her upcoming nuptials with her family while also walking the boys through what they can expect that day. She was so sweet, asking for their input on decisions like the best locations for photos and what flowers would be pretty in her bouquet.

received_399507523990495received_905851859760859

The visit was a blessing for the entire family as we all were strengthened by the spirit felt on those temple grounds.

IMG_1914 (2) - Copy - Copy

And Gracie just glowed with anticipation as she imagined what her wedding day would be like.

IMG_1917 (2) - Copy - Copyreceived_624017224777530

By the time we left the Philadelphia temple we just had two hours left in the city before we needed to get on the road. Molly, Rusty and Braden were all scheduled to begin work at 6:00 pm, so we did a speed tour of Philadelphia sites that we didn’t visited on our last trip to the city.

Our first stop was the “Rocky steps,” located in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous by the film scene from the movie, Rocky.

philly2

Toby opted to do a drive-by and drop us off rather than try to find parking,

while the kids ran the 72 steps that made the site an iconic tourist spot in Philadelphia.

IMG_1935 (2)

I did not run the steps, but did walk then so as to take in the view of the city from the top,

IMG_1944 (2) - Copy - Copy

And capture this memento of their Rocky moment:

IMG_1942 (2)

A quick stop at the Rocky statue and then we caught our Uber (aka: Toby) on his fourth loop around.

IMG_1947 (2) - Copy - Copy

We decided with our remaining time in the city that we would head to Reading Terminal Market, per Gracie’s suggestion.

IMG_1950 (2) - Copy - Copy

Here is a little background information on this iconic Philadelphia site:

Reading Terminal Market is an enclosed public market located at 12th and Arch Streets in Center City Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It opened originally in 1893 under the elevated train shed of the Reading Railroad Company after the city of Philadelphia advocated to move public markets from the streets into indoor facilities for both safety and sanitary reasons. The Reading Railroad Company owned and operated the market space until 1976 when the company liquidated, leaving the market without its parent company and foot traffic from the train. Presently, it still occupies the ground floor and basement levels of the Reading Terminal’s former train shed which is now part of the Philadelphia Convention Center. Vendor stalls occupy the ground floor with entrances on Filbert Street to the South, Twelfth Street to the West, and Arch Street to the North. The stalls are arranged in a grid pattern with an open area in the center with tables and seating. Over one hundred merchants offer fresh produce, meats, fish, artisan cheese, groceries, ice cream, flowers, grilled cheese, baked goods, crafts, books, clothing, and specialty and ethnic foods.

It was a very cool place with its bustling atmosphere, sights, and smells. Had I not been trying to keep six other people in my sightline, while making sure everyone stayed regulated in this highly chaotic and stimulating environment, I probably would have enjoyed it more,

IMG_1962 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy - Copy

But if I am being transparent in my recollection of the experience, it was my idea of a living nightmare. (Just keeping it real)

I found everyone’s assessment of the experience fascinating as we took in the energy of the space. The introverts of the family began breathing quickly taking note of the closest emergency exit and desperately seeking out a corner to hole up in, away from the bustling crowds.

My extroverts, however, came alive, energized by the crowds and social atmosphere of the environment.

IMG_1963 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy - Copy - Copy

I found all family members landed firmly in one of two camps. They either LOVED Reading Terminal Market or HATED it.

IMG_1960 (2)

The one thing we could all agree on was how delicious the food was that was sold there.

IMG_1953 (2) - Copy - Copy - Copy

We decided to make the experience authentic by eating lunch there. We found the prices to be reasonable and the choices were abundant. Toby split the group in pairs of two and sent them out with money in hand to each buy  what they wanted for lunch. The kids loved the freedom of picking their own meal and liked being able to be as daring (or not)  as they liked in their food choices. There was something for everyone!

I opted to sit and save a table, having discovered an elusive find in seven free chairs around a reasonably clean table.

From my spot, back against the wall, I was able to observe the “dance” of the market from a place that felt much less overwhelming, and actually enjoyed it. It was fun to “people watch” once I was out of the stream of moving people, and the activity was pleasant when observed from the outside looking in.

We enjoyed a delicious and unique dining experience before jumping back on the turnpike for home. It was the quickest Philadelphia tour ever, but we fit a lot of fun and special family moments in our three-hour morning there!

IMG_1967 (2)

Kalahari Adventures

Standard

IMG_1841 (2)

Following the Pennsylvania SWAN awards banquet on Wednesday night, we were invited to stay at Kalahari Resort for the next two days and make a family vacation out of the event.

IMG_1698 (2)IMG_1761 (2)

As if the award recognition wasn’t enough, we felt absolutely spoiled rotten by this special gift.

IMG_1858 (2)IMG_1869 (2)

Thursday and Friday were spent connecting as a family, playing as a family, laughing as a family, and enjoying a respite from life.

IMG_1802 (2)

The kids loved the abundance of water slides available at “America’s Largest Indoor Water Park.”

IMG_1780 (2)

Some of the slides were familiar, having ridden the sister slides at the Sandusky, Ohio Kalahari Resort,

IMG_1808 (2)IMG_1845 (2)IMG_1854 (2)

While other were unique to this particular park.

IMG_1821 (2)

When we weren’t off sliding, our family could be found enjoying the lazy river or the wave pool.

IMG_1817 (2)IMG_1815 (2)

Braden and Tyler were particularly fond of the basketball pool with its abundance of basketball hoops and balls.

IMG_1800 (2)

Many hours were spent in that pool bonding as biological brothers. The genetic connection is clearly evident in these two natural athletes who are more comfortable competing with a ball in hand than doing anything else.

IMG_1793 (2)

We also enjoyed the outdoor hot tub. The combination of warm water, cool breezes, summer sun, and gorgeous views brought home that vacation feel. It was lovely to sit and soak while visiting as a family, knowing I had nothing else to do for the next 12 hours.

IMG_1871 (2)

Our two lazy days also allowed for me to have time to sit and read a novel and allowed Toby a much deserved nap…two luxuries that have become a rare treat in our lives recently.

IMG_1824 (2)

 

It was a lovely luxury to let go of a month’s worth of worries and heartache and simply be present in the gift of today.

IMG_1875 (2)

It was a blessing to be still and simply breathe, soaking in the blessing of our mini vacation, and praising God for restarts and reconnection.

IMG_1879 (2)

IMG_1868 (2)

That is what this time away was for our family. Tucked away in the gorgeous greenery of the Pocono mountains, we found the peace that had been so hard to grab hold of for the last two months. Somehow stepping away from outside influences we were able to remember what this journey was all about.

IMG_1768 (2)

It was a breakthrough experience for our child who had been pushing hard against the connection that he has fearfully been fleeing from since Mother’s Day. I’m not sure what clicked internally but amid the splashing and sunshine and celebration of adoption with hundreds of other families much like ours, he found some peace…

At least for the moment.

IMG_1786 (2)

And that was the greatest gift of all.

Celebrating Permanency with SWAN

Standard

“It is with feelings of gratitude and humility that we stand up here tonight and accept this award. Many thanks to the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network (SWAN). Permanency is a journey that requires the support of a village. We are so grateful for our village of support, particularly our caseworkers and dear friends, Lisa, Raquel, and our amazing Second-Chance family.

We are often asked by friends what skills or talents are needed to be a foster or adoptive family. That always makes us laugh, because nothing makes you more aware of your complete lack of skills and talents than foster care adoption. In reality it is a humbling journey of self-discovery as you realize how little you actually know. This walk is unique and as a result each approach must be unique. There is no tried and true method, no fail proof system. It is a lot of trial and error and trusting your gut.

But I think there are certain character traits that are seen consistently in families that have chosen to walk this road.

SWAN families tend to be “big picture” visionaries. They recognize that sometimes they must choose to close their eyes to the small irritations and unimportant annoyances for the sake of the more important stuff.

SWAN families are tenacious. Like a Pitbull on a bone, they will fight relentlessly for their kids, advocating at every turn to get them what they need and give them the life they deserve.

SWAN families are adaptable. While not always born with this trait, it is one quickly learned in the trenches. Raising children with individual trauma histories, personalized triggers, and unique needs, means being willing to make adaptations on the fly. They are pros at coming up with a solid “Plan B.”

 SWAN families laugh together. They soon discover that this road is not without struggle and many days will lead to a place where one must either cry or laugh. And while crying can be cathartic it does give one a terrible headache, so they laugh. They laugh at the absurdity found in the everyday wrestle of growing a family.

And finally, SWAN families love fearlessly. They choose to not guard their hearts or hold back when it comes to loving kids from hard places. They know that parental heartache is a risk of helping kids heal and learn to love again.

I would venture to guess that those same traits that are seen in the families who adopt foster children are the same traits seen in those workers who are fighting on behalf of those same children.

We are incredibly grateful for those of you who are on the front lines, listening to the hard stories, showing up day after day, climbing into the trenches to fight for every child’s right to go to sleep with a full belly, to be tucked into clean sheets and a warm blanket every night, to have a table to do homework at and parents who love them enough to nag them to do their homework.

We believe every child deserves to be safe… And every child deserves to feel safe.

We believe every child deserves to be loved… And every child deserves to feel worthy of love.

We believe every child deserves to know that they will wake up tomorrow…

And every child deserves to dream big dreams about their tomorrows.

These are basic human rights, but they are rights many children would not have if it weren’t for you child advocacy warriors who choose to keep showing up, day after day, fighting those hard fights and being a voice to those children who do not have a voice of their own.

So, whether you are here tonight because you are fighting the hard fight in Harrisburg, or here because you are fighting for the kids in your communities, or here tonight because you are a family fighting for the future of kids that live under your own roof…Thank you.

You are fighting for the greatest of all causes!

Like you, we believe every child deserves a family…

And every family deserves a child like the ones you have met tonight.”

IMG_1751 (2)

These were our words as stood in front of hundreds of other adoptive families, social workers, agencies and law makers at the 27th Annual Pennsylvania Permanency Conference this past Wednesday.

The entire experience was surreal and incredibly humbling, beginning with an unexpected call from Harrisburg, back in March, informing us that our family had been nominated and chosen as one of six families to be recognized as adoptive family of the year at SWAN’s annual conference. 

We later found out that it was Raquel, one of our AMAZING social workers that came into our life with the placement of Braden in our family, who wrote the state to nominate us.

We were beyond touched that she thought enough of our family to nominate us for such a special award. Later, when I had the opportunity to read the words she penned about our family on the application, I was moved to tears.

When the call came informing us of the award, we were invited to attend the permanency conference to receive it in person. They informed us that this year’s conference would be held in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania at the Kalahari Resort. They informed us that a suite would be paid for as part of the awards ceremony and our family was invited to stay and enjoy the indoor water park as part of the celebration.

Needless to say, everyone was very excited. The only damper on our anticipation of the day was the realization that Ozzie would not be allowed to join us for the ceremony. The facility he is currently receiving therapeutic care at didn’t feel he was ready for a trip off campus.

But Raquel video taped us receiving the award so that we could share the experience with him. This was, after all, an award for the whole family.

We arrived at Kalahari at 1:00. We had previously visited the Kalahari Resort in Sandusky, Ohio, but this Kalahari was nearly double the size. The kids had a blast exploring the property and checking out the resort while we got checked in.

IMG_1701 (2)IMG_1713 (2)

IMG_1702 (2)IMG_1764 (2)

Then we headed to the suite that was booked on our behalf. The Statewide Adoption Network covered the cost of our first night’s stay, and then our adoption agency, “Second Chance Inc.- Kinship Care,” graciously asked if they could gift us with a second night’s stay. It was just that…a gift. An incredible gift of love for our family.

IMG_1667 (2)

The African theme carried into our bathroom with our hand towel folded as an elephant…so cute!

IMG_1665 (2)

The view from our suite’s back patio. It is so pretty here.

IMG_1839 (2)

Wednesday night was the banquet. As award winners, we were invited to join the other five families at a pre-banquet reception to mingle and get our photos taken with state representatives.

IMG_1728 (2)

All dolled up for the occasion, we snapped a few photos of our own before going in.

IMG_1716 (2)IMG_1719 (2)

Once there we enjoyed hors d’ oeuvres while waiting for dinner.

IMG_1722 (2)

Then we were escorted into the banquet hall where we joined 500+ other guests for a delicious meal.

IMG_1749 (2)

IMG_1746 (2)

At our table we were joined by Lisa, Braden’s social worker who fought so hard on his behalf and tracked down every lead in an effort to find his biological siblings. It was her relentless efforts that brought him to us and made him our son.

IMG_1733 (2)

We were also joined by Raquel, Braden’s pre-adoptive social worker, who has been nothing short of amazing in tracking down his past history and building for him a life book of his journey. As the one to nominate our family, she and her son joined us for this special honor.

IMG_1742 (2)

After dinner it was time for the award recipients to be recognized.

IMG_1740 (2)

How humbling it was to stand among such child advocacy warriors and have our meager efforts highlighted. One of the women who was also honored was a window who has been foster mom to over 250 children in her 30 years of fostering. At 76 she is in the process of adopting another teenage boy. It is astounding. I look at individuals like her and it lights a fire in me to do more. There are so many children who need a home and not nearly enough families willing to take a leap of faith. 

It was with great humility that we stood among those faith-filled giants who have made loving children their life’s work. 

So often this road of loving kids from hard places can tear you apart. It can be exhausting, devastating, and often thankless. You wonder if you small effort is making any difference at all, and it is not just the adoptive families that struggle under this weight of responsibility. It is everyone that is working for this cause. The agencies, the advocates, the CASA workers, the social workers…each and every one of them are choosing to climb into the trenches day after day, and fight the very hardest of fights, because no cause is more worthy of our time and effort than this one…

Giving every child who needs and wants a family, the chance to have a family.

IMG_1756 (2)

It was an amazing night for our family…

IMG_1830 (2)IMG_1831 (2)

Certainly one we will never forget!

IMG_1837 (2)

We were humbled to be recognized,

And honored to stand among so many with a similar heart for adoption. 

We feel incredibly blessed!

 

A Gift of Love

Standard

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

IMG_1659 (2) - Copy

I knew I wanted to do something special and personal for Molly’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 language that speaks to her heart is “words of affirmation.”

IMG_1657 (2) - Copy

She is much more affected and moved by gifts that are homemade, personal, and sentimental. She would much rather receive a heartfelt letter or a sincere compliment than a new outfit or gadget.

IMG_1648 (2)

Knowing that her primary love language is words of affirmation, and knowing that  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.

IMG_1647 (2)

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 Gracie’s high school graduation when we gifted her with a collection of love letters from friends and family. In those letters we all shared with her the great impact she had on all of our lives and shared stories of our favorite memories.

She was moved to tears.

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 Molly 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 Molly 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 Molly to treasure into the future.

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

IMG_1654 (2)

Each note was so different and so perfect.

IMG_1655 (2)

On Saturday night, following graduation, we joined friends for dinner at Plaza Azteca.

IMG_1589 (2).JPG

It was so much fun celebrating our graduating seniors with tableside guacamole and delicious Mexican fare.

IMG_1593 (2) - Copy

While there, the Hudaks presented Molly with a special, personalized necklace filled with charms reflective of Molly. This was the same gift Grace, Olivia, and Tatum received for each of their graduation gifts from Lana and Woody. Now these four best friends are sporting matching bling.

IMG_1606 - Copy - CopyIMG_1604 (2) - Copy - Copy

IMG_1607 (2) - Copy - Copy

Braden wanting to get in on the photo action. 🙂

Then we presented Molly with her graduation gift from us…and from all of you.

She was touched by the great outpouring of love and care.

IMG_1599 (2)

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.

IMG_1596 (2)

Thank you for your gift to Molly…

Thank you for loving my baby girl!

The day ended with a recreation of a beloved photo from two years ago,

And some celebratory fun at the hotel:

received_2283898251883925received_440542436731277

What a perfect conclusion to a very special day.

Molly’s Graduation Day!!

Standard

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

It was the day Miss Molly walked on stage, dressed in a cap and gown, and graduated high school.

I’m not sure how it is that we arrived at this day so quickly. It is as if I closed my eyes for a moment and my wild child had grown from a “character,” who would smuggle dead chipmunks home in her Dora the Explorer backpack and climb onto the roof in the middle of the night, into a woman of great character. There were a few years there that I didn’t think I would survive Molly’s pre-school years; certain she would be behind bars by age seven. She was my feral child, content to live in the woods, build fairy houses, and fill her pockets with frogs. There was no rule she wouldn’t break and no boundary she wouldn’t test. Her passion for life and her impulsive nature kept life interesting. Our life revolved around coming up with a security system that would keep her safely contained in her room while we tried to sleep at night. She was the child who had to be walked on a leash in public and who charmed the socks off everyone she met by her ever-absent filter and unique perspective on life.

She was our quirky little bird, with a bigger than life personality and a heart that stretched to each corner of the globe.

Over the years the impulsivity waned and her willingness to obey improved, but her sunny disposition, fierce determination, love for nature and animals, and her heart for others and God only grew. She is now ready to leave the nest. She can finally be trusted to leave my sight without walking into traffic.

Well, sort-of …

And Saturday was the big send-off.

After years of parenting, redirecting, teaching, loving, redirecting, supporting, guiding, and redirecting. Our sweet Miss Molly did it…

What a blessed day it was!

It was an action-packed day that began at 10:30 am and stretched to 3:00 pm, packed full of graduation day activities.

Unlike a local high school that might spread graduation preparation over a week’s 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 friends for breakfast.

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

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. Molly was sent to get in line to receive her senior gift bag which contained a complimentary yearbook and a 21CCCS alumni t-shirt.

IMG_1374 (2) - CopyIMG_1454 (2) - Copy

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.

IMG_1417 (2) - CopyIMG_1458 (2) - Copy

While we were eating and visiting, Molly, Tatum, Caleigh, Annaliese, Irvin and the other graduating seniors were kept busy behind the scenes.

IMG_1401

IMG_1399 (2) - Copy

First, they got fitted for their caps and gowns.

IMG_1396 (2) - CopyIMG_1382 (2) - Copy

IMG_1445IMG_1446

After hugs and a few tears,

IMG_1402 (2) - CopyIMG_1413 (2) - CopyIMG_1421 (2) - CopyIMG_1423 (2) - CopyIMG_1424 (2) - CopyIMG_1427 (2) - CopyIMG_1429 (2) - Copy

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.

IMG_1437 (2) - Copy

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.

received_452140888914570

While we waited in the cafeteria, the other kids kept busy enjoying the delicious spread of food that was provided and playing card games that I had packed in my purse.

IMG_1420 (2) - Copy

It was soon time to head to the auditorium for the commencement exercises. Rusty was asked (as a member of National Honor Society) to stand at the door and hand out programs.

IMG_1465 (2) - Copy

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

The students walked in and the tears began.

Our girls looked so grown up and pretty.

The students were seated on stage and the school principal stood up to welcome the families and introduce the speakers. Molly was one of four students who were chosen to speak at graduation.

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

IMG_1492 (2) - Copy

Next it was time for the presentation of scholarships.

At 21st Century Cyber Charter School the teachers have a long-standing tradition of presenting five 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 in-service days, which they will use to raise money to help fund these scholarships. This year they raised $5,000, enough for 5 students to each be awarded a thousand-dollar scholarship.

The teachers of this school are incredible and are at the heart of why this school shines brighter than the rest. Each of my children have been blessed with incredible learning coaches who have been a perfect fit for that child to grow and find success through this cyber school model. I feel like over the last 6 years so many of the staff at 21CCCS have become more like family friends through their interactions with our family.

 

These relationships that develop over four years of working side by side as student, parent, and learning coach, are what make graduation days bittersweet. Molly was blessed with a very special learning coach in Mr. Winterode.

IMG_1526 (2)

His patient reassurance and constant encouragement was just what Molly needed to overcome her own insecurities about her learning disabilities and finally see how capable and able she is.

IMG_1525 (2)

She blossomed under his care and his homeroom soon became the envy of the school with its fun banter and great group of students that called themselves “Coach’s Doghouse.”

IMG_1549

I could share stories like this about all the teachers we have gotten to know through our time in the school. 21st Century Cyber Charter School is unique in the experience it offers and I have tried to put my finger on the exact formula that sets them apart from other cyber schools. I think it comes down to this: Their standards are high. They know and appreciate the worth of a good teacher, a good staff member, and a good cyber schooling family. They hire the best and then treat them like the best. The teachers love what they do. They feel appreciated. Because those at the top treat their most valuable asset with respect and appreciation, the entire vibe of the school is uplifting and supportive and positive. The joy and enthusiasm of those teachers then trickle down to the students and families under their care, making everyone excited to be part of something so uniquely special in the world of cyber schooling options.

IMG_1563 (2)IMG_1567 (2) - Copy

How blessed we feel to have been led to this educational gem six years ago.

Next, we watched as they handed out the scholarships for greatest academic excellence to the student with the highest GPA, 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 Molly’s name!

IMG_1500 (2) - Copy

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 something right these last 19 years. I remember being a young mom and praying over that little bundle 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.”

God has been merciful.

This is the same scholarship that Gracie was gifted with her senior year. Once again we were moved by the honor they bestowed on Molly when she was chosen by the teachers at 21st Century Cyber Charter School as the second McCleery to receive this special scholarship.

IMG_1583 (2)

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

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.

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 a 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.

It was time to celebrate!

IMG_1519 (2) - CopyIMG_1524 (2)

IMG_1535

IMG_1562 (2)

It was a joy to see how happy Braden was for Molly on her special day. ❤

IMG_1571 (2)

Sweet friendships created at 21st Century Cyber Charter School.

IMG_1577

Molly did it!

IMG_1510 (2) - Copy

Tatum did it.

IMG_1506 (2) - Copy

IMG_1555 (2)

Annaliese did it.

IMG_1514 (2) - Copy

Caleigh did it.

IMG_1518 (2)

We did it!

IMG_1528 (2)

Congratulations, ladies. We are so proud of you!

IMG_1542 (2)

What a beautiful journey it has been!

graduation

A recreation photo of Grace and Olivia’s graduation day.

IMG_1539 (2)

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

FB_IMG_1560088700784