The New M.O.B

It’s October and I realized the other day that I hadn’t yet written about my favorite new thing going on this year – the Men of Binghampton (MOB) Group.

No, not “MOB” like a new gang, calm down. One of the most surprising stereotype-busters I saw last year was the number of dads involved in their kids’ lives. It’s inaccurately publicized that in urban communities, at least statistically, fathers aren’t living in the home with their children. Naturally, then, when I rolled up at the school, I didn’t expect to see any men around. Well, it’s been about a year and a half and I’ve learned that (like in most cases) things aren’t quite as they seem. There are a lot of dads who are around, involved and engaged in their kids’ lives. It might not always look like the “traditional” family model, but then again, the suburbs don’t look that way anymore either (maybe externally, but you get the point). Last May, as I talked with some of them, I sensed a shared desire to change the downward-trending numbers of involved dads in the neighborhood. There was a sense of urgency in stopping the growing number of high school dropouts, gang members, drug dealers, etc. As I started asking men what would help this actually happen – the unanimous opinion was that men needed to band together to show the young men a better way. So, in August, we started the “Men of Binghampton.”

Our October MOB meeting was awesome. We’ve started having meetings once a month, trying to connect dads/involved men/good role models together. Initially it aimed just at father figures, but it’s shifted to all men trying to be good examples in the community as we’ve seen what it could be. Our hope is to rally the “good guys” in the community together to be more visible and influential in their kids’ lives as well as in our neighborhood. It’s no small task, as there are not many dad’s names even LISTED on the school directory. Certainly there are some great dads that probably aren’t listed, but for sake of comparison, in talking with an administrator I worked with at a school in Germantown (wealthy Memphis suburb), there were dads listed for about 98% of their kids. Cornerstone/Lester is currently at about 20%. Our prayer is that by gathering and mobilizing the dads, stepdads, grandpas, uncles, etc who ARE there, other men in the community, and more importantly, the young men in the community, would take notice and begin joining together to man up and transform an entire generation. We’re currently in the process of laying out a plan to give exposure, experiences and role models to our boys that will help them make the transition from boys to men in the right way.

Our November meeting will be planning out a year of father-son activities and topics to be discussed at MOB meetings. I will keep you posted on how this thing progresses, but the possibility (and we DO believe it is possible) is that an an entire generation would begin to reverse the trend of fatherlessness in our neighborhood. Please pray that it will bring confidence, enthusiasm and ultimately a greater understanding of our Heavenly Father and His love for His children!

Down on the Farm

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Yesterday was our first after school field trip – we piled onto the “I am Binghampton” bus and journeyed a whole 1.1 miles from the school around the corner to the Urban Farm on Waynoka Cove.  You can read about the Farm on their Facebook page, but in a nutshell, it’s a 3 acre farm that replaced an abandoned apartment complex that had become a haven for drugs and crime.  The farm sources local markets (including the BDC’s own Urban Farms Market during the summer) and is almost always hosting groups who are helping serve or learning how to grow their own food.  The field trip was the first installment of what will be monthly trips there with the after school garden club.  

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The garden club meets every Thursday afternoon in the Carpenter St. Community Garden.  The guys from the Farm come help with planting and building boxes, but all of the growing and upkeep is done by residents on the street (including us).  The kids who come on Thursday afternoon have their own 4’X8′ boxes which will be planted with winter crops next Thursday!  

Our time at the farm was great – Jake Wiig (sadly not related to Kristin Wiig) is an intern at the farm this year through the SOS Academy.  He spent time growing up working on a farm in Nebraska and loves kids.  Jake toured us around the farm and explained everything from why certain things were planted in certain places to how they harvest chicken eggs.  We finished our time with a snack of fresh picked vegetables and herbs from the farm – a tomato, some sweet purple hull peas, mint, basil and an herb whose name I can’t remember that smells like lemon.

It was a great experience for our kids.  Some of them were super engaged and asked tons of questions, some just followed the group around mesmerized by all of the different sights and smells.  While talking to the kids on the way back to the school I was struck by how great the experience was, even for those who didn’t pay much attention.  It was something completely out of the normal afternoon routine for them – some head home to a parent, some with siblings and some hang out with friends until parents are off of work for the day.  Sometimes trouble finds them, sometimes they get bored and go looking for trouble (most of the time not) but today they were farmers.  

The big move!

We are thrilled to finally be home!  The house is everything we thought it'd be, but the neighborhood has been even better than we could've hoped.  We have felt like part of the family.We’re finally in the house!  After 8 months of watching this thing go up, it’s amazing to be walking the halls, sleeping in the bedrooms, etc.  Of all the things we knew to expect, the one thing we could not have anticipated is the way we were welcomed to the street.  In 3 weeks of living here, we’ve met more of our neighbors and felt more a part of the neighborhood than we did in 2 years of living out east.  There are plenty of challenges – our street is home to 8-10 abandoned properties (depending on how you define ‘abandoned’) where it’s not uncommon to see boarded up doors/windows pried open.  We’ve affectionately nicknamed Carpenter St the home stretch of the ‘Binghampton 500’ because of the wild drivers who speed up and down the street – and yes, our street IS home to the neighborhood elementary school.  Luckily, due to lots of petitions and phone calls from neighborhood leaders and neighbors on our street, speedbumps are scheduled to be installed next month!

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Uncle Trey came to visit us the weekend after we moved in!  Trey Jackson, founder of Out of the Shed Designs is a really good friend of ours – we worked together when I first started traveling to Memphis for Booster 3 years ago.  Trey is one of the few people I’ve met who is able to study something for a time and completely master it.  His most recent mastery is in the carpentry/woodworking department.  A few months back, Elizabeth noticed a kitchen table on Trey’s Instagram feed – she showed me and asked “Did Trey make this?”  “There’s no way” I replied (what a great friend I am).  Turns out he did.  We asked if he’d be able to make one for us and he kindly obliged…and killed it.  Trey brought pieces up saturday afternoon and he and I put it together.  Finished product is above, and it looks even better in person than it looks in the picture.  If you want Trey to make a table for you, click the link to out of the shed above and get more information…plus a portion of each kitchen table sale goes to support our work in The Hamp here.BDC10yearparty

One of the highlights of our year was the BDC 10th year anniversary celebration in Howze Park (across the street from the house).  The BDC has been doing economic, social and spiritual development in Binghampton for 10 years now.  They’ve helped raise and reinvest $8 million back into the neighborhood aiming primarily at providing affordable, clean, well-made places to live.  In recent years, they’ve expanded to take on opportunities like my position as well as the Job Training Crew (who built our house) among many other people-oriented initiatives.  The night was full of food, a parade, great music by neighborhood musicians (shout out to Terence June Gray!) and capped off by a fireworks show.  There were around 500 people there at it’s peak, a great family night!

Update! MTRCamp and some new house pictures!

One of the kids' favorite characters in camp is the "FitNut"

The Fit Nut – a crowd favorite at camp.

We’re off and running with MTRCamp!  I previewed this in our last post, but MTRCamp is an academic enrichment camp being held at Cornerstone Prep and put on by The Memphis Teacher Residency.  23 college/high school staff from all over the country have moved into the neighborhood for the summer with the goal of helping students grow in their love for learning and generally just have an awesome last month of summer.  My role specifically is managing all aspects of the character education and entertainment (DJ’ing).

Students rotate through Math, Reading and Character classes each day - the goal is for students to grow one grade level in math and reading by the end of camp.

Students rotate through Math, Reading and Character classes each day – the goal is for students to grow one grade level in math and reading by the end of camp.

What has been incredible to watch at camp is the college and high school students (who had one week of training) teaching difficult concepts in a fun way.  This sounds like a simple thing to do, but it is incredible difficult to keep a room of 6 year olds engaged for 40 minutes of math…in the summer.  Not only are our students having fun, but they’re learning AND retaining a lot of information!  Our character material was adapted from curriculum called “Integrity Time.”  We’re not teaching “Christian lessons” each day, but we are teaching truths rooted in Biblical principles that we hope are catching on in our kiddos.  It has been fun talking with parents this week, hearing them rave about how much fun their kids are having as well as what they’re learning.

After lunch each day students rotate through 3 stations of recreation - today's cafeteria rotation was parachute!

After lunch each day students rotate through 3 stations of recreation – today’s cafeteria rotation was parachute!

Another awesome facet of the program is the rec time each afternoon developed by Cornerstone’s PE Teacher, Coach T.  It’s fitness-oriented, so every afternoon kids are getting 2 hours of exercise, but having lots of fun doing it.  They do everything from circuit training to basketball to Tae-Kwon-Do.  It’s great.

Flooring is done at the house, appliances set to be moved in soon and we will be moving in next Friday!

Flooring is done at the house, appliances set to be moved in soon and we will be moving in next Friday!

Here’s a picture of the finished flooring in the kitchen of the house! We could not be more excited about the move.  The house has seemingly “all of the sudden” come together.  More than anything else, I cannot speak highly enough of the craftsmanship of the house.  Chris and his crew have blown us away.

The crew has been killing it at the house - here's a shot from the kitchen when flooring was going in.

The crew has been killing it at the house – here’s a shot from the kitchen when flooring was going in.

The house is 9 days away from being done!

The house is 9 days away from being done!

 

Summer

photoWell, folks, it’s been a really long time since I’ve written.  For that, I apologize, but hey – we’ve been a little busy…what do you want from me??  There’s been lots going on and despite my absence from this page, a lot to write about.  I figured the best way to cover everything is to give a summary of everything now and expand on each story in the coming days.

Family Summer

First, we’ve been trying to take full advantage of a month that was not quite as busy as the norm.  That changes today (more on that in a minute), but from the end of May until now, we’ve been trying to relax when we can and spend more time together as a family.  The two biggest highlights have been visiting family that we don’t get to see as often as we’d like.  At the beginning of June we got to spend a week with my family near Clemson, SC where they live.  Because pictures are worth 1,000 words, I’ll spare you the words:

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About three weeks ago, my sister and her husband welcomed twins to their family in South FLA via adoption!  We were extremely sad to lose Sawyer after 3 days on earth with us, but are also jealous of the company he’s now keeping. We’re also overjoyed that Henry has been doing very well and is home now.  We took Noah with us on the 15+
hr drive to Jupiter to say goodbye to Sawyer and get to meet Henry for the first time.  It was a roller coaster of emotions but a sweet time with my family.

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MTR Camp

This summer, for the first time in history, the Memphis Teacher Residency will be putting on an academic enrichment summer camp at Cornerstone Prep (the school I work with)!  There are a lot of different parts I’m playing at the camp each day, but creating the camp’s character curriculum and thinking for spiritual development of the summer camp staff are the main ones.  It’s going to be incredibly fun for the kids (and us) and I can’t wait to get started with it!  Learn more about it at memphistr.org/mtrcamp


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The House

The house is nearing completion!  Doors are hung, cabinets are in place, sinks, tubs, etc are being installed as you read this.  We’re looking at the end of July/early August as a projected move-in, so keep your dollies and work gloves on standby for the big move!

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The Carpenter St Art Garden Movement

I use the word movement almost sarcastically, but for those of you keeping up at home, our good friend Erin Harris has been using her skills and passion to teach art to kids and creating two incredible spaces for kids to have artistic and creative freedom as well as a safe place to hang out on our street.  It started with the Art Garden and has now spread down the street a few houses to a neighborhood-run Fruit/Vegetable garden.  More on this soon as well, it’s becoming one of our favorite things.

Mr. Bowen the Book Man

One of the great injustices found in urban poverty is the lack of high quality education.  This is obviously a touchy issue because generally you have very well-intentioned people working in broken systems.  So what do we do when we find ourselves in communities where children are interested in reading but don’t have easy access to books?  Our kids have no idea because we have Mr. Bowen.  Mr. Bowen’s passion is getting kids books, and I’ll tell the story this week of how he’s making it happen in the Hamp with “bookhouses” all over the neighborhood.

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It’s great to be back in the saddle of writing again and I’m really looking forward to sharing some of these incredible stories!

Feel free to leave a comment and cast your ‘vote’ for which story I write about next!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update from Serbia!

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Greetings to everyone from Opovo, Serbia! Opovo is about 40 minutes outside of Belgrade (shown in the picture above) which is the capital of Serbia and former capital city of Yugoslavia. As I mentioned in the last post, we are teaching at a school that was established by British missionaries more than 17 years ago and handed over to Sladjan (whom we were with the other night) 11 years ago. Sladjan and his family are currently in the states at St. Jude with their daughter Sara who has brain cancer. In his absence, Riste, probably my favorite guy here, is running the school. I wanted to share a highlight or two from our time in Budapest and then give an update from our first day here in the HUB (the school).

If you follow me on social media (Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) it seems we’ve been on vacation so far. We stopped in Budapest, however, to visit a dear friend of Downline and pastor of Danube International church in Budapest, Ronnie Stevens. Luckily for us, a member of Ronnie’s church and director of operations for the Hungarian chapter of Campus Crusade, Ishtvan, volunteered to show us Budapest and give us historical background of nearly every significant place in the city. It was incredible. Here’s a few highlights:

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We literally got off the plane (after 30 something straight hours of traveling), piled in a van and headed straight to the Dohány Street Synagogue. It’s the largest in the world (seating capacity). It’s also incredibly beautiful.
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In a courtyard behind the synagogue is one of the most moving memorials I’ve ever seen. It’s a memorial to all of the Hungarian Jews who died in the Holocaust, many in the Dohány St. neighborhood, which was converted into a ghetto by the Gestapo during WWII. Each individual leaf is inscribed with a single victim’s name.

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The next morning we were taken to Heroes Square, home to the National Museum of Fine Art and lots of beautiful monuments to those who’ve fought for Hungary over the years (the 1,020 years it’s been a country). Jane Stevens, Pastor Ronnie’s wife, took us on a personal tour of the art museum. It was incredible.

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20130415-133840.jpgWe walked several miles that day, endingy on top of the mountain where the President of Hungary’s house is, as well as one of the oldest villages in the city. There were a few amazing things to see, including a WWII monument and some incredible views. The holes in the WWII monument were bullet holes from the war that were never repaired as a constant reminder to the people of the cost of war.

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The next morning we worshipped with the faith family at Danube International Church, hopped in a 16 passenger van and started the 6hr drive from Budapest to Opovo. We are incredibly grateful for our brothers and sisters here. We arrived at 9:30pm only to have students and staff take our bags for us and lead us to the dining room where a hot meal was waiting for us.

We’ve had 5 hrs of teaching so far and it’s been great – lots of positive feedback from students and great conversation surrounding our teaching topics so far. We’re just getting started and excited to see what The Lord does with the rest of the time we have here!

You’re going to Siberia?!

Last year I had an amazing opportunity to travel with a team of people to Serbia (commonly mistaken in print for Siberia, which is nothing like Serbia). We taught at a Christian College of sorts, an evangelical training center – the only one of its kind in the entire Balkan region.

My good friend (and former co-worker while still in Auburn) Jamie Trussell led the trip and we all had a great time. I’m on a plane now headed to Serbia again with Jamie (and his new bride) and a team of 8 others. Couldn’t be more excited! Stay tuned for some stories!

Also, please pray for us as you think about it. Serbia’s not the most welcoming place for evangelical Americans (not hostile, simply unwelcoming).

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What I do (Part 2/3)

Coordinating Volunteers/Special Events

As I mentioned in the last “what I do” post, one of the other things I get to do is coordinate volunteers and special events from time to time.  One of my favorite events of the year so far was over the school’s Spring Break.  We had 20 students travel 16 hours in a bus from Howard University in Washington DC (one of THE top Historically Black Universities in the country) come spend their spring break putting on a tutoring camp at the school.  I would like to point out the impressiveness of this – in case you missed it, I said we had 20 college kids that chose to spend their Spring Break tutoring elementary school students instead of…what college kids “normally” do on spring break (see below).

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Wild and crazy spring breakers

 Let me also point out that that the 20 we had here were not duds – these were incredible, talented people whom I fully expect to see changing the world 10-15 years from now.

I started each day with a discussion on different topics pertaining to the work being done that week (education reform, community development, when helping hurts, etc). I was moved by these discussions each day – it blessed my soul to hear from and learn from people with different upbringings and backgrounds than me.

The highlight of the week for me was came on our first day – the first student to arrive was one of my favorites, and it was his birthday – the welcome they gave him was unplanned, yet will be unforgettable for him – here’s a 30 second video of it.

One final note – one of the most incredible things about the week was the impression our kids left on the Howard Students.  EVERY Howard student walked away amazed at the intelligence, resilience and swagger of our kids, while EVERY one of our students walked away with a new role model who looked like them and is excelling at the highest level of academics. It made me SO proud for people from outside Memphis to see how much our kids and our community have to offer.

We finished the week with a big workday in the Carpenter St Art Garden and Carpenter St Community Garden.  Can’t stop thinking about the impact made that week on both the Howard AND Cornerstone students and the hope of how much more we could do next year with ANOTHER Howard group back (I’m looking at you, Howard Students)!

Here’s a few pictures from the week:

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Wood tiles made by Howard/Binghampton students – these hang on the fence of the garden.
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Tutoring 

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Students took wood scraps from another project and rearranged them to spell “Binghampton.” Our kids are now working on filling in the background with paint-handprints.
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The Howard/Cornerstone Alternative Spring Break Squad


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Our garden construction crew

Learn more about Howard’s Alternative Spring Break here, here or here.

3 Beautiful Years

IMG_5368March 22nd is extremely special to our family.  It was on this day 3 years ago that we got 2 phone calls: one letting us know that we were officially on the waiting list to adopt transracially from Memphis – and a second (6 hrs later) letting us know that we’d been chosen by a birthmother to be Amos’ parents.

He was born the next day.

Evie was born 8.5 months later, Noah came 2.5 years after that.

What a crazy, beautiful life we lead.

 

Why are you here?

As 2 white people who grew up in majority white suburbs, we get the question a lot: “Why are y’all moving here?” It’s a valid question, I mean, we stick out like sore white thumbs in our side of the neighborhood. For those of you who might be wondering the same thing, here’s why we’re here…

We were introduced to Binghampton (pronounced bingHAMPton), a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Memphis, TN a little over 3 years ago.  We were living in Birmingham, AL and the company I was working with (Boosterthon, an event based company that serves elementary schools in various ways all over the country) took time each summer to come together for company-wide service projects focused in a city where we had school partners.  Summer of 2009 was the Boosterthon trip to Binghampton.  We spent time that week putting on block parties, helping landscape yards, doing home repair and connecting with some great people doing incredible work (you can see a ‘highlight’ video of the trip here).  We met BC Chamberlain and his family that week, a white family with 3 young children living in Binghampton doing youth ministry.  Meeting the Chamberlain family ruined us in a good way.  We were so attracted to what they were giving their lives to – and began to feel the pull to give our lives to the same kind of work.

ImageLiz and I hard at work 3 years ago – Ironically, where we were standing in this picture is 2 houses down from a family we are now very close friends with.ImageThis is Ms. Jeanita (Asst. Director of the Lester Community Center) making her grand entrance at the Lester Center Day Camp’s block party – see the excitement in her eyes? That’s because she was about to high-five me.

It was in Binghampton Elizabeth and I also felt God’s call to adopt from Memphis.  This is a longer story that I will probably write about later, but 8 months after our Binghampton trip, we were back in Memphis meeting our son Amos.

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While in town for the adoption, I was offered the opportunity to take over the city of Memphis for Boosterthon.  2 weeks after arriving back home in Birmingham with Amos, we found out that our daughter, Evie, was on the way (completely unexpectedly, I might add)!  8 1/2 months later, we had 2 children under 9 months old and were planning to uproot and move to Memphis for work.-89

As we settled into life in Memphis, we started to make friends in Binghampton.  More and more, as we spent time there and became more familiar with life in the neighborhood, we began feeling not just a pull, but a leading from God to move our family there.  I had long since dreamt of working in a school setting that would allow me to mentor young boys, host special events for children and provide exposure to and experiences in areas of life that were not readily available within the four corners of most urban Memphis communities.  As the Achievement School District (read more about the ASD here) began to establish itself in the state of TN, Cornerstone Prep School was designated to take control of the historic Lester School in Binghampton.  Conversations began early on seeking to find someone who could start and develop after school programs at the new school.  This person would also parter with other community organizations to find volunteers and unique opportunities to serve the students of Binghampton.

Did I mention that we found out we were pregnant again in the midst of all this chaos?  Well, we did.  Back to the story…

After hearing about the opportunity in Binghampton, I couldn’t sit still…or sleep…or think about much of anything besides how much I would love it.  At the end of an extensive 6 week interview and “audition” process, I was hired to be the Family Advocate for the Binghampton Development Corporation.  I would work in the school each day doing exactly what I’d been dreaming of doing – pouring into students’ lives, hosting special events, building relationships with families and coordinating after school programs.  There was only one stipulation – the family accepting this position would be moving into a house that was to be built across the street from the school.  More on this in the next post…

A few days after being hired, we welcomed the 3rd child in less than 2 1/2 years into our home – here’s Noah and LizIMG_2744

It was a crazy season of life for us – one we’re thankful for – but ok with not replicating any time soon! I’m 7 months in at this point and I am completely overjoyed to be in this position.  I love these kiddos and love being a part of their lives.  They are smart.  They are hilarious.  They are resilient.  Some live in conditions I’ve only seen equaled in our time in Haiti and yet you won’t hear any complaints from them.  Binghampton is a proud, fiercely loyal community that loves their children and Elizabeth and I are humbled to be beginning our life here in “the Hamptons” alongside so many wonderful people.


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I’ll talk more about the house and what I actually do day to day as well as introduce you to some of the amazing people I get to work for and with in the coming days, but don’t worry – not all of our posts will be this long (ok, ok – for those of you rolling your eyes, I’ll concede that some WILL be this long).  Love and appreciate you all!

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