Tag Archives: memories

A “Plan B” Birthday

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It seems, despite all our best intentions, rarely do “Plan A” days materialize.

I’ve come to realize (and am working on accepting) the fact that we are “Plan B” people.

This isn’t by choice but it does seem to be an ongoing trend, and as a result we have gotten pretty good at rolling with the unexpected and embracing “Plan B” with a smile and a sense of humor.

Tyler’s 12th birthday was a “Plan B” sort of day.

We had such grand plans. After being rained out of our last visit to Kennywood we made plans to take advantage of our raincheck tickets and return for Tyler’s birthday. It seemed a perfect plan. The day prior was Brandon’s placement hearing so we thought it could serve as a celebration of Tyler’s birthday but also of Brandon’s placement. We even made plans to meet up with Tyler and Brandon’s little sister at the park after her half day at school.

Well,  all those grand plans came to a crashing halt when we received the unexpected and disappointing news that Kennywood was closed for the day. The day prior was the last day they were open during the week and they had shifted to “weekend only” hours.

Disappointment spread through the house at this news, but in true McCleery fashion we began brainstorming a “Plan B.” We already had the schedule cleared for the day. Everyone was off school and work and practice. Tutoring and therapy had also been cleared for the day. It has been so long since we had a wide open day ahead of us, with all family members present, and zero commitments, that we decided to take advantage of it and take a little day trip for Tyler’s birthday.

The older kids were already committed to volunteer at Ready Yourself Youth Ranch so we knew we wouldn’t be able to leave the house until 9:30 am. They have been volunteering twice a week for a year, and really enjoy the time they spend at the ranch twice a week caring for the horses, that they aren’t even fazed by the 6:30 am start time. Brandon has begun joining them in this volunteering opportunity and loves it as well.

One of our family’s birthday traditions is to wake the birthday child with the birthday song and a cupcake. The entire family gathers, the candle is lit, and the family bursts into the birthday child’s room in loud and enthusiastic song…

Setting the celebratory tone for the day.

When we told Brandon about this tradition and began preparing the cupcake at 6:00 am (so the kids could participate before going to the horse farm) he looked incredulous.

“So, we are going to purposely wake up Tyler at 6:00 am, sing to him and give him a cupcake…How is this a good idea?!! Why would you choose to do that?”

His facial expression made me laugh, and Toby’s look of “Yep. I’ve been making that point for years,” killed me.

But the smile that comes with this special birthday tradition makes the hours of lost sleep worth it. (Not everyone in the family would agree!)

When the older four kids returned from the horse farm we decided to let Tyler check out his  birthday table:

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And open his gifts.

The theme was built around our gift to Tyler. We decided to get him a basketball hoop for the driveway. It was Tyler’s 12th birthday gift but is really a gift for the entire family. We thought it would be a nice bonding activity for the kids, particularly Tyler and Brandon, but also would be another energy-burning coping activity for hard emotions. Some of my kids respond better to increasing energy to burn-off anxious energy rather than calming/quiet activities. The trampoline is our #1 tool for those kids but the basketball hoop will be an awesome alternate coping skill.

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He was thrilled!

The kids then took turns giving Tyler their gifts. I always love watching the kids prepare for a sibling’s birthday. Whether it was watching them shop in their own toy boxes when they were little, making homemade gifts as they got older, or using their own hard-earned money now that they are gainfully employed, much love and thought is put into the gifts they give.

It was especially touching watching Brandon work for Toby this week, earning money for his efforts, so that he could buy Tyler an extra special birthday gift. After years of not getting to celebrate his siblings’ birthdays he wanted to get something extra special for Tyler’s birthday. Their shared love of football led him to buy Tyler a football jersey (with some help from me.) He knew exactly what he wanted and purchased the jersey of Tyler’s favorite player.

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The other kids did equally well in their gift giving and Tyler was spoiled rotten by his big brothers and sisters.

 

Perhaps his greatest gift of the day, however, was having Brandon there to share his birthday with him after years apart, and knowing that his biological brother will soon be part of his adoptive family… his forever family.

After gifts were opened we headed out, driving north. We weren’t sure what we were doing, we just decided to head up to Erie and see what adventures we could fine. There was something a bit thrilling about the lack of planning, knowing we had an entire day ahead of us to explore and make memories as a family.

It was a beautiful day…sunny but cooler…a perfect day for a road trip!

When we arrived in Erie our first stop was Sara’s for lunch.

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During past visits to Presque Isle we have passed Sara’s and admired this fun, kitchy diner from a distance but had never stopped in. We decided Sara’s was a perfect place to dine for Tyler’s birthday.

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We enjoyed the fun atmosphere and delicious food. We will definitely be returning!

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After lunch we headed into Presque Isle State Park to enjoy an afternoon of swimming in Lake Erie.

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For Brandon, who had never been swimming in waves, and had never visited the ocean, this experience was particularly thrilling.

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The waves were about three feet high that day, giving the lake a distinctly ocean-like feel and making us all feel as though we were swimming at an Atlantic beach rather than Lake Erie.

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It was a delightful afternoon. Toby and I enjoyed some uninterrupted adult conversation as we lounged on the beach watching the kinds splash in the waves.

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The kids enjoyed an afternoon of playing in the sand and body surfing the waves of Lake Erie.

Tyler’s birthday celebration concluded with a trip to Waldameer Park, located just outside Presque Isle on Lake Erie.

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This was our first visit to Waldameer Park, but had heard many good things about it from friends who have visited many times.

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The park had a charming, old-fashioned feel that reminded me of our family’s favorite amusement park, Idlewild.

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The winding paths, tree covered benches, and old-fashioned décor gave the park a fun, vintage feel while still offering modern, thrilling rides for older kids.

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The kids had a blast and it was a perfect way to end Tyler’s special day.

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The baby of the family is now 12!

 

Treasured Memories at Living Treasures

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Ever since our visit to the subpar animal park we visited while in Virginia I had been itching for a visit to Living Treasures Animal Park. With Brandon visiting for a few days we thought it the perfect excuse to visit.

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It is a bit of a tradition in our family. It seems with pre-placement visits with both Tyler and Ozzie, Living Treasures was on the agenda and one of both of their first memories of time with our family. I treasure this because Living Treasures holds a special place in my heart and has since I first visited almost 2 decades ago. It was our go-to outing adventure with the older three when they were too little for the miles of hiking at the zoo, and as a result I feel a sense of nostalgia when I enter its gates.

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Having special “firsts” memories of Ozzie and Tyler there, when they first entered our lives as 6 and 10-year-olds, makes this place all the sweeter.

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Now I will have equally sweet “firsts” memories of Brandon strolling down the same gravels paths that have been the source of much joy as a momma.

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We arrived and purchased some feed buckets and carrots and headed to the deer yard:

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The wonderful thing about Living Treasures that sets it apart from larger zoos is the proximity to the animals and the opportunity to interact with the wildlife so closely.

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The chance to feed animals from the palm of our hand or through a gravity fed feeding tubes produced larger than life smiles and numerous giggles.

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Everyone has their favorites whom they have come to know and love over seasons of visits.

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The giraffes are always a hit!

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Another favorite area is the goat pen/ nursery area. This area has changed a lot in the past decade. It used to be on large pen with goats and baby animals running free. It was fun to navigate your way through the chaos of tongues and fur as critters fought for attention.

Unfortunately this area is now very tame (thanks to liability risks I’m sure) with only a small petting area for the goats…

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And a separate pen for the babies of the park.

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Despite not being able to climb in the pen with them and “shnuggle ’em” like I’d like, we still had a wonderful time getting kisses from these ADORABLE slime monsters.

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The kangaroo/wallabies yard is another favorite area of the park due to the incredible fertility of the mommas that call this area home.

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It seems each and every one of them have a leg or two sticking out from her pouch. If one lingers long enough a baby sometimes will pop its head out to say “hello.”

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Tyler’s favorite section of the park is, and always has been, the aviary. Here the kids purchased a small container of seed to split. That $1.00 purchase provided a good 45 minutes of entertainment as the kids lured in these flying beauties with a sprinkling of seed on their hands.

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Turns out the seed wasn’t needed…

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The colorful string bracelets that adorned their wrists were the real bait!

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It was such a delight watching the kids find such delight in the animals and in each other’s company. It was fun to hang back and observe as our kiddos shared a beloved family tradition with Brandon,

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And an even bigger joy watching him let down his guard and just be a kid…

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Something he hasn’t been able to do for a long time.

Another special day for this momma’s “Living Treasure memory book!”

 

Kennywood Delight

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Last week our kiddos experienced a staple experience of Pittsburgh children…

A trip to Kennywood Amusement Park.

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Although now in their late teens, my three oldest kids hadn’t experienced Kennywood Amusement Park firsthand (with the exception of a visit when Grace was a toddler.) We have always been loyal Idlewild enthusiast, taking advantage of their annual “Carload Days” that allows our family to visit once each summer for a fraction of the cost of typical amusement park tickets. At a cost of $45 a ticket for a day at Kennywood we’d never felt that the park justified the cost, but when Toby’s coworker invited us to take advantage of discounted tickets through his wife’s place of employment we decided to take him up on his offer and give the kids their first taste of Kennywood fun.

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Since Brandon was staying with us we invited him to join in the fun.

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Brandon and Ozzie were the only ones who had visited the park before, both of them with previous foster families, so they eagerly let the kids know what to expect and what rides they could look forward to.

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We arrived as the park opened, taking advantage of the low crowds at the start of the day to ride some of the bigger thrill rides and roller coasters.

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In our group we have a wide range of likes and dislikes in regards to amusement park rides. We have some that will ride anything. Others that prefer spinning rides but hate anything that drops from a high height. Then there are those who love roller coasters but get sick on rides that spin. The nice thing about this park was that there truly was something (many somethings) for everyone.

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As the lines began to grow longer for the roller coasters, we moved on to some of the smaller rides and had fun riding as a family on rides that appealed to everyone.

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Around noon we met up with Toby’s friend, Fernando, and his wife and daughter for lunch. Included in the cost of our discounted tickets was a catered lunch compliments of the University of Pittsburgh (Anastasia’s place of employment.)

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We enjoyed a delicious buffet of BBQ pulled pork, chicken, hot dogs, coleslaw, rolls, watermelon and salad. It all tasted delicious and it was so nice to sit and rest in the shade of the trees while filling our bellies.

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Then it was off to more rides!

Following lunch we chose some of the tamer rides and attractions to ease our stomachs back into ride mode.

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It was a hot day and by afternoon we were all feeling a little wilted. We found ourselves near the Pittsburgh Plunge, a water ride that sends off a huge wave of water that soak spectators standing too close.

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Some of us took advantage of the next wave, cooling off a bit as we waited for the 5 braver members of our crew who chose to climb aboard Black Widow to cool down by soaring through the sky on that spinning, swirling thrill ride.

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As dinner time neared the sky began to darken. I settled down at a covered table to wait while the rest of the family got in line for The Exterminator. That turned out to be the best decision of the day. The sky soon opened and crowds of people, including my family, made a run for the covered tables where we all were trapped for the next 90 minutes while the sky provided a brilliant light display and the clouds dumped buckets of water.

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I was grateful we nabbed a table before the crowds descended. The kids kept themselves entertained with coin spinning challenges as we crowded around the table.

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Soon the worst of the storm had passed, though the rain continued, so the kids moved out from under shelter to play in the puddles and create their own fun since rides were all shut down due to weather.

We waited, hoping that the rain would soon pass, rides would reopen, and as a result of patiently waiting out the weather, lines would be considerably shorter once they did reopen. Instead, an announcement was made that the park would be closing due to weather. After the initial groans of disappointment we realized that what might appear to be bad news was in fact great news because with the early closing came “rain checks” issued to each guest to return for free another day…

Which meant for the cost of our discounted tickets we would be getting almost 2 full days of fun instead of one. It was decided that we would return again for Tyler’s 12th birthday in August with Brandon joining us for another round of Kennywood fun!

It is true what they say…

Every cloud DOES have a silver lining!!

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

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On Tuesday Grace and I headed over to the movie theater to enjoy a noon showing of a film we have both been eagerly anticipating for months:

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Knowing the boys probably wouldn’t enjoy this documentary on Mr. Rogers, we decided to make it on of our girls’ week activities. We were doubly excited for this particular viewing because we were watching it from the comfort of Robinson Cinemark’s luxury loungers. I had never experienced anything like it before. Leather recliners had replaced the traditional upright movie seats and each chair came with a tray for those who opted to order dinner from the concession stand. Talk about fancy shmancy! And all for the discounted Tuesday price of $5.25 per ticket!

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Grace and I found our seats and settled in for the show.

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Fred Rogers is one of my personal heroes. I loved him as a child but as an adult, especially as the mother of hurt children, I look to his example as the epitome of powerful parenting, loving acceptance, and Christ-like living.

The older I get the more I desire to be a “Mr. Rogers” in a world of chaos, unkindness, judgement, and cynicism.

It has been said that Mr. Rogers often carried around a note in his pocket that was given to him by a friend of his who was a social worker. The note read, ” Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” He carried these words with him as a reminder of that truth and his life was a reflection of that philosophy.

Mr. Rogers was my childhood friend. Every day during “arsenic hour,” as my mother called it…that fragile hour before dinner when everyone was hungry and tired and emotional..my mom would place us in the care of Mr. Rogers while she went to get dinner on the table. She walked away knowing that we were in good hands and for a half an hour we learned the most important of life lessons.

From our television neighbor I learned some of the most powerful and poignant of life’s lessons…

1. I learned the key to success:
“There are 3 ways to ultimate success. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

2. I learned what it meant to be a hero:
“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”

3. I learned the value of play:
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves we are helping them to feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit.”

4. I learned the power of words:
“Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person…One kind word has a wonderful way of turning into many.”

5. I learned that it takes a neighborhood:
“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It is easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

6. I learned that we are important:
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

7. I learned that love is a choice:
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

8. But the main lessons I learned as I sat and watched him change his shoes were…   I had value, I was loved, and I was okay just the way I was:
“I am just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us, and I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger…I like you just the way you are.”

What a profound lesson. I think the greatest lesson I have learned during this adoption journey is the importance of loving people (particularly children) as they are, rather than trying to make them into more “loveable” children.

It is a lesson that so many need to hear. Your value has nothing to do with what you have, how you look, the choices you’ve made, the life you’ve lived, or the talents you possess. Like Mr. Rogers would say, “You have value because of who you are.”

“It’s you I like.

It’s not the things you wear,

it’s not the way you do your hair.

It’s you I like…”

Soon the lights dimmed and everyone’s favorite Pittsburgh neighbor appeared on the screen.

“From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes an intimate look at America’s favorite neighbor: Mister Fred Rogers. A portrait of a man whom we all think we know, this emotional and moving film takes us beyond the zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe, and into the heart of a creative genius who inspired generations of children with compassion and limitless imagination.”

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It was amazing and moving and Grace and I both left the theater inspired to be more, to do more, and to love more..

In a world filled with judgement and hate let us be a loving light of acceptance.

Perhaps we all need to ponder on the wisdom of Mr. Rogers more often. The world would probably be a much nicer place..

“Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.

Since we’re together we might as well say:

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Won’t you be my neighbor..”

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Grace posing with the Mr. Rogers memorial statue in Pittsburgh on the 4th of July.

The Best of the Best

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As I consider Father’s Day I can’t help but focus on the blessing of good men in my life, men that have offered glimpses of the divine character of my Father in Heaven by the way they have lived their lives.

As I consider the blessings of a loving father, two incredible grandfathers, and a father-in-law who treated me like a cherished daughter, I recognize I have been blessed more than most.

Despite being imperfect beings, they were able to show me perfect love.

Through their noble callings as fathers and grandfathers I was able to gain a better understanding of my Heavenly Father’s unconditional love. From these men I learned lessons of sacrifice, diligence, forgiveness, gentleness, meekness, strength of character, and kindness.

I also recognize that  many aren’t blessed in the same way and the absence of a loving father can affect one’s acceptance of a Heavenly Father that loves and cherishes them unconditionally. I have seen it in my own adopted sons, both of whom were born of men who were anything but loving fathers to them. Men that put their own selfish desires and dysfunctional needs ahead of their children, leaving them with scars that may never completely heal.

Then I look at my husband and how his relationships with Grace, Molly and Rusty have allowed them a glimpse into the divine nature of Heavenly Father. His example exemplifies all that is good and loving about God, and by watching their earthly father love so selflessly, my children have come to know and trust in a loving Heavenly Father.

How blessed I am to have married a man so selfless, so kind, so humble and giving. He gives all, asking nothing in return, putting the needs of others ahead of himself and does so with a smile and generosity of spirit that I find humbling. When I look at Toby I see the character of his own earthly father shining forth. Like his father, Toby is gracious and selfless, opening his heart and home to all, never thinking of himself, and leaving all those he speaks with feeling loved and valued.

There is no better example of this than his choice to open his heart and home to two boys who were in need of a father. Choosing to step away from the comfort and ease of the life he was living, he chose to travel the harder path in his desire to follow Christ’s example and obey the divine calling God laid on his heart. It has not been an easy road, but not once did Toby pull back or walk away from this hard road. Rather, the tougher the behaviors, the closer in he moved, driven by a conviction that every child deserves a safe and loving family…every child deserves to be loved.  Through his Christ-like love our two youngest have been given a second chance to experiencing a father’s love. What was stolen from them in childhood is being redeemed with each word of acceptance, each affirmation, each act of forgiveness, and each loving embrace. Through Toby’s example my boys are learning how a real man loves and are slowly discovering their divine worth as a child of loving Heavenly Father.

Last Sunday we celebrated Toby.

The kids had big plans for Father’s Day, plans that began with breakfast in bed…

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And concluded with a special dinner after church.

In between, we enjoyed naps, gifts, and a fun Father’s Day activity.

The kids each made or purchased a special Father’s Day gift for Toby, but my gift was more of an experience than a tangible offering.

A few weeks ago, while shopping for Girl’s Camp supplies at Pat Catans Craft store, I discovered Goblies, throwable paint balls. I knew at once that they had to be this year’s Father’s Day gift.

I knew Toby would love it but also that it would be an awesome, laughter-inducing, memory-making, stress-relieving activity for the younger boys who sometimes struggle with hard emotions on these memory-connected holidays.

I purchased a bag of Goblies in seven different colors, so we could each have our own color to mark one another, leaving undeniable evidence of our success on each other’s shirts.  I also bought inexpensive white t-shirts for each member of the family and wrapped them all up in a box for Toby’s Father’s Day gift.

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On Sunday afternoon, following a Father’s Day feast and a long Sunday nap, we headed outside to make some special Father’s Day memories in the form of some messy fun.

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Pick your ammunition!

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It was a blast!

 

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Let the battle begin!

 

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Oops!

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The paint began flying! Each paint ball was filled with liquid paint that splattered when it hit a surface or was squeezed in the direction of a family member.

 

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Tyler loved it.

 

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In fact we all did!

 

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The carnage was colorful…

 

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…and slimy!

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Yes, it was as fun as it looks! A perfect family fun night for the perfect Dad.

 

How grateful I am to be married to a man who loves me and my children so fully. How grateful we all are for his unconditional love, his huge heart, his wicked sense of humor, his adventurous spirit and his enduring commitment to his family.

 

Happy Father’s Day, Toby! We love you bunches!

 

 

A Greatest Showman Sing-Along

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Friday was the evening of the much anticipated Father/Son campout with our church. I say “much anticipated” with a tongue-in-cheek twist as it is much anticipated by some in our family while stoically endured by others (ie: Toby.)

This year was particularly rough, as it rained buckets for most of the night and the boys were forced to camp out in the van rather than a tent. They also had an extra early morning with Rusty (and Molly) signed up for SAT testing that required a 7:45 am arrival. The result of all those factors was minimal sleep for the boys and Toby returning home wondering yet again why he makes the effort to attend each year and pledging once again that this year is the last year….

But I know Toby, and next year’s father and son campout will roll around and he will once again selflessly submit to another sleepless night, as is tradition, for the sake of making his 3 boys feel loved and valued…

Which is one of the million reasons I adore this man!

Typically, while the boys are enduring a sleepless night of rain and mosquitos, the girls and I enjoy our own traditions while taking advantage of an entire night with no boys in the house. Our traditions tend to revolve around at home spa treatments, chocolate, and chick-flics. This year, however, adult responsibilities meant I was down a daughter since Grace was scheduled to work, but rather than let it put a damper on our evening I made special plans for just Molly and I knowing that in a few weeks Grace and I will have an entire week alone at home alone while everyone else is engaged in summer plans.

I began searching for a fun activity that Molly and I could enjoy together when I stumbled across a fun event occurring at the historic Strand Theater in Zelienople. Here is a little background information on this neat place where Molly and I enjoyed our girls’ night out:

HISTORY OF THE STRAND THEATER

The Strand Theater was constructed and managed by Gioachino and Rosalia Sapienza in 1914.  Gioachino and Rosalia were Italian immigrants seeking a new life and new opportunity in America and Zelienople.  In order to blend in with their adopted community, they became known to friends and neighbors as Joseph and Rosalie.  Joseph originally wanted to build a fruit market, but the local banker convinced him that the town really needed a theater.  So two-thirds of the structure was dedicated to The Strand, and the remaining third was Sapienza’s Fruit Market.  The Strand featured silent films with live piano accompaniment as well as Vaudeville-style shows on its small stage.

In 1939, The Strand underwent its first major renovation and the structure was dedicated entirely to the theater, albeit with a nearly exclusive focus on the motion picture medium.  Joseph moved his fruit market across the street into what is now ‘The Silversmith Shoppe’ and a tax preparation office.  But the ‘Sapienza’ name is still emblazoned across the top of the building’s facade. 

The Strand thrived as a social center for Zelienople and Harmony for decades, providing a destination for families to escape the drudgery and routine of rural life and to meet and enjoy a night’s entertainment. But The Strand began to struggle when multiplex cinemas began dotting the suburban landscape.  The theater became more of a drop-off point for parents to leave their kids for an afternoon matinee.

But with increased pressure from the onset of the Multi-Plex and VCR era, The Strand could no longer compete. One night In the early 1980’s, The Strand closed its doors and they have not been open to the public since…………………………….until now.

There have been a variety of suitors for The Strand over the years. Developers and private investors considered making use of the building for everything from a mini-mall to a dance school to a dinner theater. As recently as Fall, 2000, the FBI considered The Strand for use as a field office. However, the extensive cost of buying and renovating the building has kept potential developers away.

The Strand Theater Initiative was created in 2001 as a non-profit corporation to save the venerable old theater from the wrecking ball, with the goal of reviving The Strand as a cultural, education and community outreach center.  Through private and public financial support, The Initiative purchased The Strand in 2002 and completed an exterior renovation in January, 2005. 

The event we attended there was for the showing of The Greatest Showman on the big screen, but this was no ordinary night at the movies. The Strand Theater was offering a sing-along version of one of our favorite movies, complete with the words to each song highlighted at the bottom of the screen. I knew that it was going to be a night to remember and I was right!

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Molly and I left for Zelienople soon after the boys headed out for their camp out. After a stop for Chinese take-out we drove to the Strand Theater, making sure we arrived in  time to collect out $5.00 tickets from “will call,” and with enough time to soak in the atmosphere of the historic theatre before the house lights dimmed.

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We found the interior of the theatre as charming as the exterior and were delighted at the opportunity to sit in the balcony.

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The movie was as wonderful as the first five times we had seen it but was even more magical thanks to the addition of 100 voices joining the characters on screen in song as we belted along to our favorite tunes.

Molly was all smiles and I couldn’t help but marvel at the magic found in that moment as we sat in the dark and I listened to her sing along with the voices around me.

We loved The Greatest Showman the first time we saw it in the theater for my 40th birthday, but that was nothing compared to this experience. It was awesome…a special memory I will forever cherish with Miss Molly.

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Grace and Olivia’s Senior Prom

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Friday morning Grace woke with excitement coursing through her veins. It was Prom day!

We have cyber schooled our children for 12 years and the most common question asked after, “What about socialization?” or “How can you stand having your children home all day?” is:

“Don’t you feel like your kids are missing out on the best parts of school not being in a traditional brick and mortar school?”

And I have always been able to answer, “No,” because I don’t. God called us to this model of schooling for our children, and it is the best parenting decision we ever made.

I have felt that through this model of schooling we have really gotten the best of both worlds…all the best parts of homeschooling and the better parts of public schooling.

Through our awesome co-op group, we have been able to compensate for those parts of the public-school experience that they might have missed in their early years like talent shows and holiday parties, Valentine exchanges and field trips.

Our transition to 21st Century Cyber Charter School four years ago was really the missing piece in rounding out our cyber schooling experience. At this school, my older kids found a college preparatory learning experience that mimics a post-secondary learning environment far more effectively then what we saw happening in our local public school.

“But what about prom?!” a young girl from church asked us a few years ago, “Your poor kids won’t get to experience prom!”

I tried to explain that I really didn’t place a lot of value in the prom experience, especially knowing how little of value is found at a high school prom, but I understood what she was saying. She felt it was a rite of passage my kids would be denied.

We didn’t know if prom was in the cards for my teenagers but weren’t concerned given the fact that through our church they have been able to participate in a Spring Formal each spring since they were 14, which offers all the fun of prom without the filth found in some of the local schools’ proms.

But as the end of the school year came closer Grace received information about 21st Century Cyber Charter School’s prom. They hold it the Friday afternoon before graduation so families already in town for graduation don’t have the added burden of two trips.

In the months leading up to prom the seniors began submitting ideas for the prom theme. It would be held at the local country club and the senior class eventually voted a masquerade theme for senior prom.

Grace decided that rather than spending money on a formal prom gown that she will never wear again, she would instead wear the same dress she wore to Spring Formal… her custom-made Downton Abby dress she received for her 18th birthday. (Beautifully made by my dear friend, Wendy.)

Since it was masquerade themed Grace and Olivia decided they would each make their own mask, rather than buy one.

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The mask reveal!

Both girls decided to coordinate their masks to their dresses. Using leftover fabric left from her dress Grace made this beautiful mask that matched perfectly! Olivia created a mermaid themed mask that matched her and her dress perfectly.

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The one thing that doesn’t work out quite so well with a cyber school prom, especially when your school is located 5 hours away, is asking a date to prom. You can’t exactly invite a boy to prom, ask him to travel across the state, and book a hotel for a night or two, just to escort you to prom. 😊

But it didn’t matter to Grace. The Hudaks were staying at the same hotel, and I don’t know that there is anyone else Grace would rather share this experience with than her best friend, anyway.

An hour before they had to leave, Grace and Olivia met in our hotel room to begin getting dressed and dolled up.

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The end results were beautiful!

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What lovely young women they both are.

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A friend shared this quote in the graduation letter she wrote Grace and I think it perfectly exemplifies both these young ladies:

“She was beautiful, but not like those girls in the magazines. She was beautiful, for the way she thought. She was beautiful, for that sparkle in her eyes when she talked about something she loved. She was beautiful, for her ability to make other people smile even if she was sad. No, she wasn’t beautiful for something as temporary as her looks. She was beautiful deep down to her soul.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

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After a few pictures, we dropped off these two prom princesses at their senior prom and headed over to the bowling party where the rest of the family was spending the day.

It looks like Grace and Olivia had a wonderful time at prom. Here are some of the pictures they took:

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The venue was beautiful!

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Grace and Olivia with Ms. Cloetingh, Olivia’s learning coach and the girls’ mural club teacher.

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Great food and lots of dancing= Awesome Prom!

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Both girls with their learning coaches. Love all four of these pretty ladies!

 

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The girls enjoyed the “Make your own mocktail” station.

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And then there were ice cream sundaes for dessert…Yum!

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Happy Prom!

 

Almost there, ladies!  Graduation is just 24 hours away!

Riding the Waves

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Wednesday was the last day of our “beach vacation” before heading back toward Philadelphia for end of the school year fun and graduation activities.

Everyone was thrilled that the sun returned for our last day at the beach. After two cool, grey days, the sun, blue skies, and slightly warmer temperatures had returned.

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*Photo credit: Grace McCleery*

Our crew was split into two crews: Toby and Tyler were on a charter fishing adventure while Grace, Molly, Rusty and Ozzie were home with me. After a morning filled with necessary last day of vacation chores like laundry and packing, we packed our beach bag and sand toys for an afternoon at the beach.

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We arrived to discover we had the beach to ourselves. The sun may have returned but I guess other vacationers felt that a high temperature of 62 degrees was still too cool for a day at the beach. The only other people we saw all day were a few older women walking the shoreline looking for sea glass.

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It was by far the most relaxing day of the trip. I was able to lay with my face angled up toward the sun, and soak in some much-needed vitamin D.

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*Photo credit: Grace McCleery*

The kids also enjoyed a day with nothing to do and spent their time looking for shells and sea glass, flying kites, sunbathing, reading books, and making sand castles.

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*Photo credit: Grace McCleery*

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They even braved the cold North Atlantic water, made all the cooler by two days of storms and rain, and played in the ocean.

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The waves were unbelievable and created hours of fun as the kids dove, splashed and jumped through the crashing waves.

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Those same waves that were bringing such joy to our group on the beach were making life miserable for our family members out on the ocean.

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Toby and Tyler’s charter fishing boat left the dock at midnight with Toby, Tyler, Mark (Toby’s cousin) and 20 other people aboard. Within minutes Toby and Mark knew they were in for the ride of their lives.

 

The first 6 hours on board were spent sleeping while the boat made its way 40 miles offshore. There was a bunkroom available so that everyone could get a few hours of sleep before the fishing began. Tyler fell asleep right away, making himself at home and comfortable…so comfortable that he ended up rolling from his bunk to the man’s bunk beside him and laying sideways across the stranger. The stranger quickly moved to a new bunk far away from our little “roller and flipper.”

Toby did not sleep so well. The waves that were so much fun for us at the beach were making life rough for those on board. Those 10-15 foot waves were tossing their boat like a cork, causing those trying to sleep on the bunks to become airborne, lifting off their beds with the sudden drops between waves.

The result was two very seasick family members…and neither one of them was Tyler. He was immune to the tossing and turning. Probably because the way he moves through his day is so reminiscent of a storm at sea. His little body is accustomed to sharp turns, sudden drops and unending movement.

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While Toby and Mark were losing their last meal, Tyler was stuffing his face with snacks and treats.

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At 5:30 am the boat dropped anchor at the first of 4 fishing spots. Having not slept at all, Mark and Toby began fishing. Tyler slept in until 8:30 am.

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It was a rough trip for Toby. The fishing wasn’t great for him and he felt horrible the whole time, but Tyler LOVED it. Tyler loves fishing anyway but the experience of being out on the ocean in a big boat, experiencing all that goes with a charter fishing experience, was heaven.

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He loved the fishing but also loved watching the other men reel in huge cod, ordering food from the boat’s café’, and walking around the upper deck. It made the entire experience an adventure for my young fisherman.

While at sea they also had the unique experiences of boating through a shoal of red squid in the middle of the daytime…an experience usually only reserved for nighttime.

They also passed by a pod of migrating humpback whales…What a thrill!!

Tyler was the only kid aboard and everyone was very kind to him. He loved visiting with the cook who made him a hamburger. Another woman gave him some candy, and a gentleman that had a nice bit of luck fishing invited Tyler to real in one of his big catches.

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In the end Toby had five catches and Tyler caught one eel.

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I am sad Toby and Mark’s experiences weren’t better, but am happy Tyler had such a positive experience and that he got to do it with his Daddy.

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That evening Mark came back to the rental house with Toby.

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Mark’s wife, Faith, and his two daughters also drove up and joined us for a pizza party. It was sweet of them to make the 1 ½ hour drive up to spend the evening with us. It was so much fun. The kids loved hanging out together and we had a great time visiting and catching up. Our families get along so well and always have a great time when we get together. It was a perfect way to end our time at the Jersey Shore.

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Tomorrow we head inland for 3 days of graduation fun in Downingtown, PA!

What a Trip it has Been!

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It was almost 10,000 miles.

We traveled through 22 states.

Over the period of 7 weeks.

We visited 13 National Parks,

and hiked miles and miles of this beautiful country.

Brand new shoes, purchased at the start of the trip,

were worn clean through by the end.

A walking testament to all that was seen and done.

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For those who have forgotten or our joining us more recently, here is a recap of where we have spent the last 50 days.

Day 1: Travel to St. Louis, Missouri with a stop at the Columbus Zoo.

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Day 2: Tyler’s 10th birthday! Explore the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri

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Day 3: St. Louis Arch

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Day 4: Tour Hannibal, Missouri. Home of Mark Twain.

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Day 5: Drive to De Smet, South Dakota

Day 6: Tour Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homestead and then on to Mitchell, South Dakota to see the Corn Palace.

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Day 7: Visit 1800’s town, South Dakota.

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Day 8: A stop at Wall Drug and a visit to Badlands National Park.

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Day 9: Day 1 in Rapid City, South Dakota: Bear Country USA, Storybook Island, the Dinosaur Park, and a chuck wagon dinner.

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Day 10: Wildlife Loop at Custer State Park to see the world’s largest free roaming buffalo herd in the morning and then a visit to a mammoth fossil dig site in the afternoon.

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Day 11: Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.

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Day 12: Check out Devil’s Tower.

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Day 13: Day 1 in Yellowstone National Park

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Day 14: Day 2 in Yellowstone National Park.

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Day 15: Visit Grand Tetons and go swimming in hot springs.

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Day 16: College tour of BYU Idaho.

Day 17: Visit temple square in Salt Lake City, Utah and swim in the Great Salt Lake.

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Day 18: College tour of BYU in Provo, Utah.

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Day 19:  Travel to Yosemite National Park.

Day 20: Visit Yosemite National Park in California.

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Day 21: Visit Sequoia National Park, California.

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Day 22: A day swimming in the Pacific Ocean at Newport Beach, CA.

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Day 23-27: Disneyland, California. This was the big surprise of the trip. The kids just found out the day before we left.🙂

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statue at Disneyland California. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

Day 28: Las Vegas. Tour Hoover Dam.

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Day 29: See the sites of Las Vegas.

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Day 30: Another (unexpected day) in Las Vegas.

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Day 31: Visit the Grand Canyon.

Day 32: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

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Day 33: Arches National Park, Utah.

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Day 34: Visit Mesa Verde National Park to see the cliff dwellings and stop at Four Corners monument.

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Day 35: Visit Petroglyph National Monument.

Day 36: A stop in Roswell, NM while driving past on our way to Carlsbad Caverns.

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Day 37: A cave tour of Carlsbad Caverns with my brother, Travis.

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Day 38: Drive all day to Branson, Missouri. (See David and Jen along the way)

Day 39: Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.

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Day 40: Second day in Silver Dollar City.

Day 41: Explore Branson, Missouri and tour the Titanic Museum.

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Day 42: Branson, Missouri.

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Day 43: Rusty’s 15th birthday. Spend the day in Marceline, Missouri, home of Rusty’s hero: Walt Disney.

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Day 44and 45: Visit Mimi Joy who is serving a mission in the Independence Missouri mission.

Day 46: Visit Nauvoo, Illinois.

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Day 47: Drive toward home.

Day 48: Home Sweet Home!

For 7 weeks our family 0f seven lived in our converted school bus which was lovingly named, “The Rolling Gnomes.”

We slept, ate, did school, and traveled together in 280 square feet.

For 7 of those days our 280 square feet felt like 20 square feet as we lived without the boys’ ADHD medication thanks to restrictive state laws regarding controlled medications.

Our little bus climbed mountains almost 10,000 feet high feet and at Carlsbad Caverns we explored 750 feet below the earth.

We crossed wind swept prairies, majestic mountains, mighty rivers, and desolate deserts.

We made it to the Pacific Ocean and then turned around and drove back home.

Along the way we gained a greater appreciation for our country, and a greater connection as a family.

As a family we grew and learned lessons about ourselves, about our nation, and about each other.

We learned:

About the incredible natural beauty found in the United States of America and gained a greater appreciation for the conservation efforts that have preserved this country’s natural beauty.

On the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service we were able to explore some of the prettiest sites we have ever seen.

In the NPS’s “Find Your Park” campaign we each found “our park…

each of us falling in love with certain areas of the country and the beauty found there.find-your-park

Here are our “Find your Park” National Park choices:

Toby and Grace’s favorite national park was Grand Tetons National Park.

Rusty’s favorite was Arches National Park.

Molly’s favorite park was the Grand Canyon.

Ozzie loved Mt. Rushmore.

Tyler’s chosen park was Badlands National Park.

And my personal favorite was Devil’s Tower.

Some favorite stops included the City Museum of St. Louis, Silver Dollar City, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead, Titanic Museum , 1880’s town,

and of course, Disneyland!

We fell in love with the Black Hills of South Dakota,

and were little impressed with Nevada and California.

But the greatest revelation that came from our travels was how good the people of this country are.

We met some of the kindest people in our travels, and in all our interactions with thousands of strangers we had only one negative experience.

It was reassuring and empowering to see the goodness that shone forth across this great nation. In an era of sickening news reports and political filth, it is easy to assume that the loudest voices, the ones highlighted on our evening news, represent the majority of American opinion.

But I have found that to not be the case.

The people of this country are good…no, great.

They are moral, and kind. They are friendly and helpful.

They are proud people who love their country and long for its leaders to raise their standards and be better.

On this trip we made many new friends and the experience lit a flame of hope in me that despite the immoral, disgusting, self serving faces seen clamoring to be the representative and voice of the American people,

the people of America are so much better than the faces that represent them.

As we traveled I fell in love with my country and came home with a renewed spirit of pride in our history, our culture, and our citizens.

Through this experience I discovered a buried gypsy within my soul that fell in love with the simplicity of tiny house living and the life of a nomad.

It is good to be home…

To see the people we love.

To soak in a bathtub rather than shower in camp showers.

We loved being reunited with our animals,

But I’m already missing life on the road and look forward to seeing where the Rolling Gnome bus takes us in the future!

Thanks for traveling with us.

It has been a grand adventure!

Walt Disney’s Hometown

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“A Dream is a Wish you Heart Makes”

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Rusty had dreamed of visiting the hometown of his hero, Walt Disney. This trip afforded us the opportunity to take him to Marceline, Missouri on his 15th birthday…

A  magical way to spend his special day!

The United States has three permanent museums devoted to Walt Disney. Each is terrific in a different way. In San Francisco, the Walt Disney Family Museum is the most spectacular—a real “E” ticket. In Central Florida, Walt Disney, One Man’s Dream, a “must see” attraction for Disney fans at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, is the most convenient to visit—at least if you’re a Walt Disney World guest. And somewhere near the center of the continental United States, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum is the most personal.

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We drove into Marceline, Missouri (pop. 2230) on Monday morning and discovered a small Midwestern town that seemed trapped in time, looking much as it might have when Walt was a young boy walking down Main Street with his mother.

We arrived at the museum to find a lovely, older woman watering the flowers in the beautiful garden that sits beside the old train depot where the museum resides.

She sadly informed us that the museum was closed on Mondays. What a disappointment! We were so looking forward to this special birthday experience for Rusty.

She encouraged us to return later in the week when we were passing back through, but told us that there were other Disney sites that we could see around town, despite the museum being closed.

We decided to do just that and then return on Thursday (as we headed to Nauvoo, Il.) and visit the museum.

This woman is one of many volunteers that run the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. She also happened to be one of the volunteers that personally knew Walt Disney and his family when they lived in Marceline.

It was thrilling to hear her share stories of Walt and his life when he called Marceline home. She graciously stood outside the museum and spoke with us for 30 minutes before she went inside to get a map of Marceline, marked with the various Disney sites, to guide us around the town.

Our first stop was the Zurcher building on Main Street. Behind this building was a huge Coca-Cola sign that was there when Walt was a child. This sign became the inspiration for Coke Corner in Disneyland. A few years ago this mural was uncovered when the building that was built around it was torn down. The paint was so worn and faded that the original Coca-Cola sign was barely visible.

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When Coca-Cola heard about this old sign painted on the brick wall of Walt’s hometown, and heard about its connection to Disney, they sent painters to Marceline to refurbish this historical sign for the city.

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The CEO of Coca-Cola then had it photographed and turned into a Christmas card which he sent to the Disney Company for Christmas that year.

As we walked along  the Main Street of Marceline we caught glimpses of what became the inspiration for Main Street USA in the Disney Parks.

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Main Street USA

Walt made the decision that every visitor to Disneyland would walk down Main Street USA, inspired by his hometown of Marceline, Missouri.

Today, you can shop at Murray’s Department store, at the same location for over 100 years (and also the store where Walt purchased his first pair of engineer overalls), and visit other quaint shops on the “original” Main Street USA.

Have lunch in the same building Elias Disney served an oyster dinner to local farmers in hopes of organizing them inot a union.

Stroll past the Zurcher building and see the original Coke mural that inspired Coke Corner at Disneyland.

See specially designed street signs that were personally dedicated by Mickey Mouse

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On Main Street we also discovered the Uptown Theatre. A very special place in the Disney Story:

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From there we drove over to Walt Disney’s childhood home.

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Walt’s family came to Marceline when Walt was only 5 years old. They moved from Chicago in an attempt to keep Walt’s older teenage brothers out of trouble and live a simpler life on the family farm.

Walt’s father purchased a plot of land from his brother who owned land in Marceline and they proceeded to build a home and establish themselves in this small, Missouri town.

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Walt lived here from age 5 to age 9. While not a long period of time, it was a time that greatly affected his life. In fact he has often said this about the town of Marceline:

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Walt Disney’s childhood home is now a private residence, closed to the public. And while visitors can’t go inside there is a sign marking the home from the outside.

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Behind this home sits another important part of Walt’s time in Marceline. This area is opened to the public. Just past Walt’s childhood home sits a small parking area with this sign:

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It was down a grassy path that we found Walt’s Dreaming Tree.

. Daydreaming under this tree, a young Walt would observe the nature surrounding him. He later called these adventures “belly botany” and drew from these moments in his early works. He apparently never outgrew his need for inspiration from his favorite spot. On trips back to Marceline, Walt always put aside time for reflection beneath it, spending hours alone with his thoughts, back under his Dreaming Tree.

The Original Dreaming Tree, the place where Walt sat as a boy and let his imagination take him on incredible adventures, was hit by lightening a few years ago.

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Instead we visited the Son of the Dreaming Tree, a sapling planted from a seedling of the original Dreaming Tree with soil brought from Disneyland and water from Disney World.

As we walked along the grassy path to Walt’s barn we passed signs that gave us even more insight into Walt’s childhood there and the significance it had in his later life.

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In the barn, also known as Walt’s Happy Place, visitors are encouraged to sign the walls and leave messages of love and hope.

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By his own account, Walt’s happiest childhood memories were of his time in Marceline and the family farm there. Walt and his sister Ruth spent many happy hours playing in the Barn. Visitors from all over the world have come to Marceline to spend time at “Walt’s Happy Place”, located in its original place on the Disney family’s old farm in Marceline.
Visit this very special Barn, which was rebuilt by volunteers in 2001, and leave your mark among the thousands of signatures, messages and memories already there to share with the rest of the world. There’s no doubt about it, when you come to this Barn, you’ll feel a special heart connection to Walt.

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It was incredibly moving to read the words of previous visitors and witness the profound effect this humble, inspiring man has had on so many lives.

On Thursday we returned. We arrived as the doors opened and told the volunteers about our attempt to visit on Monday for Rusty’s birthday. They kindly gave him this pin as a special memento.

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The visit to the museum began with a guided tour of the first floor, where the volunteer walked us through the story of Walt’s life in Marceline, beginning with his childhood in Marceline and ending with his visits back when he was an adult.

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The museum is housed in the town’s old train depot. A fitting location for Walt’s museum since he was an avid fan of trains his entire life. In fact one associate said, “Walt got more joy from hearing the sound of a train whistle than he did from an arm full of Oscars.”

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Later in life Walt even built a miniature train track around his California home for his daughters.

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In the museum there are 3,000 artifacts from Walt’s life,

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including…

His elementary school desk where he carved his initials WD:

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A car from the Autopia ride he had built in Marceline for the children of the town:

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The Mickey Mouse flag he donated to be flown on the flag pole of the local elementary school:

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The recording he made from the interview he did with his parents at their 50th anniversary party:

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The first Mickey Mouse dolls:

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and the TV he bought for his sister.

When he invited Ruth to the opening of Disneyland she informed him that she didn’t like crowds, so he purchased a TV for her so that she could watch the opening ceremonies from the comfort of her own home:

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The first floor is filled with Disney movie memorabilia, hand written letters by Walt, receipts, and other family heirlooms. It really is a treasure for Disney fans!

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Upstairs contains a replica of Walt’s front porch and the story of him convincing his younger sister to paint the house with tar,

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A replica of his childhood classroom,

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a piece of the original Dreaming Tree,

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and a miniature model of Disneyland.

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We fell in love with Marceline, Missouri and made some magical memories in this place that was the root of  so much Disney Magic.