The joy of being an educator is unmatched. Ours is a career where not only do we impact today, but everyday through our words and actions we shape tomorrow. In the present, we see how big of a difference our students will make because there are the times when students simply blow you away with their talents, thoughts, skills, and kindnesses. One such moment with the latter recently, humbly left me in tears,speechless. Some of “my” university seniors came to the realization that our sweet boy would be a senior just like them. Understanding that the year would be bittersweet for me, they decided to put together an amazing tribute that resulted in remembering Reed by honoring one of his favorite groups of people. With the support of a grant through Modern Woodmen and resources from the campus Veteran’s Organization, a graduation project for him which truly touched my heart materialized. The letter that follows accompanied 27 blankets shipped to Marines serving overseas. The email which follows that left our whole family in tears as we realized that Reed’s story continues to touch the lives of others.
Dear United States Military Personnel –
What you see before you is a few yards of fleece, lovingly cut and tied together to keep you warm. If that is all you see, then we have failed in our mission, not only to help keep you warm, but also, in sending much love and prayers for your safety interwoven into its very fabric.
I wanted to share with you a bit about these blankets and how they came to you today. Just know that many hands and hearts went into the creation of these packages of comfort sent from home. There is a veteran of Desert Shield/Storm who married a teacher and they had a big family. The oldest of their children came into the world about as patriotic as Uncle Sam. As he grew and matured, his love for country expanded. So much so that when war protests in their town grew from objecting war to saying bad things about service men and women, he begged his parents to not drive by that corner of town anymore. Then the unimaginable happened. One of their own – a local soldier – died and the name of a different city street was going to be changed in this hero’s honor. Every day that little boy asked his parents to drive by that same street to see if his hometown lived up to their promise to honor and to never forget. That young man continued to grow in his love of country and patriotism through Boy Scouts.
Unfortunately, the boy’s story ended abruptly when a tragic school bus crash happened. The young man died at only 12 years old. If he were alive today, he would be 21 years old and a senior in college. This is where the blankets start to come in.
Let me introduce myself, I am that young man’s mom and I also happen to be an education professor at Southwest Minnesota State University. The EMSP (Education Minnesota Student Program) wanted to complete a community service project for you (while you are fighting for our safety), and a few of the students somehow realized that although the picture of my son, Reed, that is frozen in time is a 7th grade football player, he was actually their age. Unbeknownst to me, they decided that their teacher (me) must have mixed emotions watching them get ready to graduate when I wouldn’t being doing the same for Reed.
This is how Project Reed began and how these blankets were created. My students created this project in your honor as my son’s “graduation project”. The other details were we applied for a grant through the Modern Woodmen organization and through some amazing couponing skills our efforts multiplied and blossomed.
Wherever you are today, just know that while this looks like some fleece tied together, your blanket represents many hands working together, many prayers uttered for you, and a whole lot of love wrapped up in this bundle.
We are thankful for you. May God keep you wrapped in the warmth of his love, but more importantly nestled in safety.
Our prayers are with you!
Kandy Noles Stevens
Good Morning Kandy,
My name is CP. I am currently on active duty with the United States Marine Corps, serving overseas. The reason I am emailing you is because a bunch of us over here received the blankets that were made in remembrance of your son, Reed. The blankets are much appreciated and just know that the story you enclosed with the Education Information and Blankets, has touched hearts literally around the world. I have no doubt in my mind that your son is looking down on us giving us the prayers and all that we need to keep us safe, guiding us in the right direction over here. This really hit home for me when I read your letter especially because I just happen to be from Minnesota myself! I grew up on my Family Farm just outside of the small town about 45 minutes West of St Cloud. I have been in the Marine Corps now for about 3 ½ years and will be looking to get out and be back home somewhere around mid-August for good then I am going to pursue an education of some sort. Have not put a whole lot of thought into it yet but I definitely want to utilize my GI-Bill as well as any state benefits that I may be eligible for as well; and it sounds like I just may have found the right person to help me out with that! But all business aside I just wanted to say thank you to yourself and all of your students for all the thoughts, prayers, & gifts that have been brought to us over here in the Middle-East. Your son has touched many Marines hearts over here and will continue to do so for many years!
And for “our Marine”, we are praying every day for his safe return so that the story can continue and write more tales. In the days where you question whether what you do matters, just know that the life of one young man has created gigantic pond ripples, or maybe tidal waves, in God’s love story for us all. And for that we couldn’t be more thankful.
To The Laker Girls:
Last weekend, I along with countless other fans watched you do something that we will all remember for a long time. You won a first round playoff game in what some considered an upset victory. Almost immediately afterward, as it was reported who your next opponent would be, savoring that moment’s victory fell to murmured doubt. Oh, they are really good. I guess we better enjoy this. That team is excellent. It is unlikely many teams can beat them.
I would be lying if I didn’t entertain that thought too. It was years ago, but I still remember when the seniors played this opponent in 4th grade. A short text exchange with my cousin gave me a complete attitude adjustment. Before I share what she wrote, I want to share her credibility just so you understand that what she says matters. Growing up in a small town about the size of Cottonwood, she went on to play basketball for a Division I school and became a championship winning coach. She’s more than just an “auntie” to our Sister. She’s a student of the game and she’s a super fan. Her words took my breath and my doubt away.
Remember Goliath fell to David.
So simple. So true. Her words changed everything.
I have watched this season filled with sadness for what could have been, possibly what should have been. There have been times when as a team you have been filled with doubt. Coaches doubting players, teammates doubting each other, and players doubting themselves. I’ve seen injuries sideline careers, and at times, I have seen moments to build each other up, quietly slip away. This is not what champions are made of, but if you examine your hearts for one minute, you know that it doesn’t represent who you are, or more importantly who you can be. I have known for a long time that you could all (individually and collectively) be so much more. Inside each of you lies the heart of a champion. Now it’s time to let the rest of the world see what your mommas have known all along.
Remember Goliath fell to David.
Right now is your moment to shine. Today is the day to think of each other not as a group of individuals, but as one unit. One team with one heartbeat. Now is the time for the whole to be better than its individual parts. Believe that every person on that court is a part of the dream and that she will be successful. Today is the day to know that the talents hidden in each of you fit like pieces in a puzzle to contribute to the whole team’s success. Every breath you take today from now until you step off that court tonight needs to be one of “I BELIEVE”. Today is the moment to make sure that you give it all you’ve got not because the end might be in sight, but because a championship is yours for the taking. Go into this game believing, why not us! You have the talent, and I believe that we only saw a glimpse of the drive you have to win in the so-called upset victory on Saturday. Unleash that beast and . . .
Remember Goliath fell to David.
And just in case you have forgotten the story, David took 5 stones to fight the mightiest warrior in the land. Many doubted him too. But the key thing is – David never did. In my heart I am proclaiming that instead of 5 stones, there will be 5 girls at any given point on that court tonight to help Goliath fall.
It’s no secret that I am not a fan of February, but always feel guilty for that declaration because our College Guy (the erstwhile Boy Wonder to me) came into the world in the same month. His birthday falling just a few short days following our family’s worst day. I will never forget having to celebrate his 11th birthday in intensive care. Born in one of the worst winters this Southern girl has ever experienced, the weatherman threw hot water in the air and watched it freeze before it hit the ground the day he was born. Although no one would agree to my terms in my heart I think the calendar should be divided into “Grief Riddled February” for the first nineteen days and the remaining ones (depending on the year) can be “We Survived February” where we can celebrate our son’s birthday without the shadow grief clouding everything.
A few days before Reed’s heaven anniversary date my heart broke again when I learned that College Guy had a very important and unbreakable commitment that he could not skip on his birthday. I know he’s really perceptive, but I don’t think that he noticed the tears which I swiftly wiped away at our favorite burger place. His announcement was the one that I knew would be inevitable at some point, but I wasn’t prepared nor ready to not spend time with our son on his actual birthday. I don’t ride rollercoasters in real life, and this emotional one was proving almost too much to bear.
Of all of our children, he has always been the hardest to shop for, because he is honestly grateful for anything. Ask for a wish list, and he will respond with “I have everything I need”. This year, however, I was ready with a plan. Okay, it was almost two years in the making, but I, at least, was ready.
He had been saving his favorite shirts since fifth grade which ironically was the same year that everything changed in his and our lives. For high school graduation, we gave him a trip of his choosing and a promise to create a quilt out of those t-shirts he had meticulously saved.
Sadly, like many things in my sewing room this project became another PH-D or Project Half-Done. I finally decided that my 2017 Craft Resolution would be when I have time, I will devote myself to getting some of these PH-D’s done and I won’t buy any new craft projects, I think. So far, I have remained steadfast with that resolution. The timing of finishing the quilt coincided with College Guy’s birthday; so I knew I had the perfect gift for the guy who rarely, if ever, wants anything.
The conditions were not ideal as we unfurled the quilt in the restaurant’s parking lot in order to snap a picture. You could tell he was revisiting old memories as much as I was. When life gets in the way of living, you can often lose sight of the trees in the forest. So it was with the quilt, as the significance of some of those old shirts hadn’t really sunk in. Standing in the parking lot, they came rushing back and in those memories came the reminders of some of the most amazing ways people loved and supported our little guy, now all grown up.
There are camps, mission trips, Boy Scouts, 4H, family Christmases, and school memories stitched into that quilt. And then there is the one from his experience with the drumline when the band director from a neighboring school heard that our guy couldn’t play football so he invited him to join his group for some amazing beats. One proves that love extends beyond school spirit because it came from the head coach of an opposing team who poured out kindness after kindness for our son. One represents all the responding units who came to help the day of the bus crash. Another is a word that was used to describe our son because he embodies courage in the face of adversity.
But sprinkled in a few squares on the quilt are odd shaped green pieces of t-shirt now appliqued onto denim from the cast he never had. After hearing that he was hospitalized with a broken leg, his sweet 5th grade classmates sent notes of encouragement saying they couldn’t wait for him to return to school so they could sign his cast. We had to burst their bubble by explaining the kind of broken bones he had couldn’t be cast and required major surgery with pins and plates. Some sweet soul decided that if these kids wanted to sign a cast, they would just make a substitute. A t-shirt was purchased in his favorite color and every child in the class signed it.
I am no expert quilter, and honestly if you saw the tears I shed out of frustration when binding this quilt you would wonder why I even make quilts at all, but I have to believe this is the first quilt in history that has a cast sewn into it.
More than that, all of those special memories remind me of God’s promises to love and support our family, including the birthday guy. The remembrances of that love shared through incredible and amazing folks helped me to endure this February.
And for that I am incredibly thankful!
Dear Reed –
Just when I thought I was going to be able to get through this month without so much pain, February happened last weekend. Ever since that moment standing in the Children’s Hospital last Saturday, all the pain came rushing back and all the memories were just waiting to come pouring out of my heart and my eyes. For the last week, everything seemed to hurt for both Dad and me. Losing you was more than we thought we could bear.
I see all the amazing ways that your friends and classmates are going out in the world (getting married, graduating from college, or in some cases both) and my thoughts swim in a numbing sea of “What would he be doing today?” I try so hard to protect myself from questions that cannot be answered, but on occasion my dreamer tendencies get the better of me. Sometimes when it is just me and the dogs at home alone, my imagination creates a knock at the door and when I open it, you and Jesus have come to spend the afternoon with me. We laugh and cry but mostly, I just hug you both.
It is in those moments I long for heaven to come close – even if for a fleeting moment.
This last year has been a whirlwind for us all. Dad is now a deacon at the church, which keeps him really busy. Sawyer is thriving at college both as a student and as a leader. Sister is a senior now planning her next steps, and Sally is a 6th grader growing up before our eyes. Just like a momma’s heart always has room for one more, I have been going in multiple directions to feed both my mind and my soul. No matter how busy life becomes every day in each of our heartbeats, we carry you and all the memories of the way you loved us.
So as this week has unfolded, my heart has longed for the love that you embodied when you were here on earth.
When the pain of facing a day was too much, that love came pouring in. Wanting to be cloaked in my tears, love gave me the strength to keep going as text messages filled my day with encouragement. My heartache found solace in cards and flowers that arrived unexpectedly. The family we created stepped in to love Sister at her last home game – another milestone that passes without you. Tears of gratitude filled my eyes as a sweet little girl, a sister of one of Sal’s teammates, snuck little love notes into my teacher bag at the basketball tournament. The hugs and virtual hugs envelope me with a sense of peace and a comfort knowing that tomorrow is going to be okay. In each act of kindness and remembrance, we feel the love ripples that your heart made in this world and we are reminded how deeply we are cherished. Do these amazing friends know they are an extension of those ripples and a symbol of God’s never ending grace?
Even though, we know we can do tough things, there are moments when “warrior on” seem too hard. The scars of all we have lost seemed exposed as we opened our eyes today to the uncertainty of grief. God has collected all my tears in his bottle and perhaps for one small sliver in time, he allowed us a glimpse of the divine. What happened in our neighborhood this morning was more than magical, it was miraculous and precisely the thing we all needed to make it through this day.
Surrounded by the love of many and serenaded by heaven’s messengers, we know heaven came really close today. And I will be loving you every day until I can hug you again.
Note: The cardinals are singing in Reed’s garden over the tree house that love built.
In my last blog post, I revealed my kryptonite: not enough time. Sometimes I have discovered that many things in life can be both a blessing and a curse. Recently, not enough time seemed to fall into both categories for a bit. One of my best friends texted me and gently asked, “How you doing, momma?” My response of being a little overwhelmed with all the demands for my time gave her the perfect opening to ask what her heart really wanted to know.
It’s February. Is the schoolwork keeping your mind so busy that your heart hasn’t had time to make that connection?
I assured her there was balm and blessing in being so busy that you felt like the man in the donut commercial. A little manipulation to the phrase “time to make the donuts” would aptly describe my life in the hamster wheel of teaching and learning. And somehow my own personal busyness has resulted in the blessing of my heart not pining for the days to rush ahead so that I could say I survived the second month of the year again.
Although I hadn’t really acknowledged my feelings until the text exchange, keeping my mind busy definitely has kept my heart distracted.
That was until . . .
Over the weekend, our youngest had a basketball tournament far from home requiring a stay in a hotel. While relaxing between games, we just needed some down time from the rushing whirr of the previous week and we mindlessly flipped on the television. The pre-programmed starting channel was tuned to The Weather Channel which was airing a top ten series about America’s most destructive storms in recent years. One of those was a dark and ominous wall of swirling dirt in the southwestern United States. The middle of the day storm turned the area black as night and appeared without much warning.
Little did I know a small act of kindness a few hours later would do the same to my heart!
As we were wrapping up supper, we decided to sneak away to the hospital where our boys were taken after the bus crash. We have a legacy program there in memory of Reed where we give stuffed cheetahs (his favorite animal) to the surviving siblings of any other child who passes away at the same hospital. We also provide a baseball card sized note with each cheetah that tells about Reed’s life. The last cheetah delivery, we were short cards, and it is a big deal to me that the cheetahs have those cards. Not to draw attention to us, but so that Reed’s name is continued to be heard and spoken.
When we arrived at the hospital, we stopped at the information desk to try to ascertain where we should deliver the cards because we knew it might be different on the weekends. The operator put us through to the Children’s Wing, and it was decided that we should bring the cards there.
I should have politely declined, because my heart didn’t know what was coming. The day, unseasonably warm, but gray and rainy, provided the perfect foreshadowing of February lurking right behind the locked wing. As soon as we walked in, everything – all the sights, the smells, the memories, the pain of when we first arrived there nine years ago – came flooding back in. February pounced on us like that wall in the weather documentary a few hours earlier.
My heart beat so hard and fast, feeling like it was trying to protect itself by jumping out of my body in the hopes of not having to relive that all over. We have been back to the hospital over the years, but something about that day so close to Reed’s heaven date was just too much. My stomach churned, my knees grew weak, and my words became slurred as my mind tried to protect me from all the emotions. My arms ached to hug the boy who gave the best sneak-up-behind-you-hugs ever. Suddenly my soul went into overdrive wanting to protect and shield my children from all the hurts, knowing full well that my superpowers would not be enough. Yet in the midst of it all, clinging to the hope and the promise that Jesus always is.
We were well into the parking lot before I had the courage to ask my sweetie if that was as excruciatingly hard for him as it was for me. No real words were spoken by either of us, just a few shed tears as we embraced in the drizzling cold, gray rain symbolic of the life we never envisioned for ourselves. We had both rode grief’s crazy roller coaster even though we didn’t realize we had bought a ticket to ride that day.
Our hearts are still broken, but we know that February doesn’t win. Daily we receive encouragement from those who understand the aftershocks we feel each year. The hugs, the messages, the prayers and the just simply showing up mean more than I could ever explain. We know that God has promised to collect all our tears in his bottle and to shield us under wings. That hope and promise comfort us. And sometimes, even though February happened, we can feel God a little closer and for now knowing Reed is with him while he holds us tenderly is more than enough.
Okay, that title is a little misleading, because the official name of what I am dreaming to possess is an eight-sided tam. Now, I am guessing that many of my readers are even more confused; so, I will do my best to explain.
A few have sent me messages that they are missing my weekly blogs. Truth be told, so am I. Even though I like to pretend that I am a superhero, I do have my kryptonite and that is the length of the day. I can only squeeze so much in. There have been quite a few changes in my life in the last six months and those changes have impacted my blogging schedule.
I am still teaching at the local university where I adore my students and my colleagues. As I have already shared, my book was released but the publishing company wanted to wait until March for the marketing campaign. (Darn elections and holidays!) So I am guessing that being an author will have an impact as I have more speaking engagements coming in on a regular basis. Above all else, I am still a momma and my children’s schedules always keep me on my toes and my house a little bit messy.
With mothering, speaking, book authoring, and teaching, you might think I have a pretty full schedule. Anyone who really knows me can see what happened – I decided to throw one more thing in there. As my youngest jokingly says, I threw “student-ing” into the mix.
For many years, I have wanted to pursue my doctorate. This isn’t exactly a secret because I have shared on social media, but I have not written about my endeavors here yet. Becoming a student again was too tender, too precious to put into words. I needed to fully breathe it in myself before I could share the goodness of my adventure with all of you. But something happened in the last week that really took my breath away.
I received an email from one of my science method students. What started out as an emailed assignment became so much more. Rarely do I offer extra credit, but the movie Hidden Figures was just too good of an opportunity for my students to pass up. I believe future science teachers truly need an understanding of the contributions of scientists throughout history to appreciate those efforts. During our exchange, my student acknowledged how much she owed to the women who blazed a trail before her and then she thanked me. I shared if you only knew my story.
On the first day of high school physics, my teacher announced to the class. Gentlemen, we are going to have a great year. Ladies (there were three of us if memory serves me correctly) not one of you will make it through this course. I was heartbroken and fuming. That marked the first time in my life where someone told me I was “less than”. My original dreams didn’t include being a scientist until someone told me I couldn’t. For the record, I was the only girl who stuck with it.
In my heart I always knew I would become a teacher, but my path to obtaining a teaching license wasn’t a linear one. I became a scientist first. A chemist actually. I worked for the Department of Energy and loved it, but deep in my soul, I wanted to be the bridge for all the other young girls in the world to show them that they too could become scientists, mathematicians, and engineers or anything else their hearts desired. The decision to be a science and mathematics teacher was an easy one for me and I have never looked back.
There is a movement going on Twitter right now, because very few people can name an actual scientist despite the desperate need for STEM professionals in our ever changing world. The hashtag #ActualLivingScientist is pretty spectacular and I am enjoying reading and sharing the work my fellow scientists do. The world needs role models and these men and women are showing there is so much more to the world of science that what students see in textbooks or in movies.
Science and teaching. Education and mathematics. These are the things that keep my mind really busy most every day. My heart keeps busy with other things, but I go through the world looking at it with the mind of the curious.
Some in my life just look at me and shake their heads because I bring homework everywhere. Sitting in the stands cheering on my daughters while my lap is busy with textbooks to read, papers to write, and projects to complete. You will never hear me complain though. I might shed a few tears and lose a little sleep, but I am getting to do something that is denied to countless girls and women around the world.
I have the opportunity to learn and for that I am truly grateful.
My student wanted me to know that she appreciated all the ways I give back to my students in class and outside and for the ways I helping to make their future better. I shared with her that while I didn’t have to take an oath to become an educator, I felt it was my duty to be a force for good. Then I shared how much learning means to me. In my immediate family, I am one of the first women to earn a bachelor’s degree and the first woman to earn a master’s degree. For my people, I am blazing a trail as the first person to earn a doctorate.
I have a lot of people counting on me. So, when my blogs grow a little farther apart at times, know that right now, I am trailblazing, working on someday adding a few more letters to my name and for the right to wear a jaunty chapeau. But more importantly, to shine my beacon of light for all the little girls in my life so they believe their dreams are achievable too!
So much of today’s technologically advanced world is designed to remind us of what we don’t have. Advertisements for everything under the sun – including peace, if only I would buy the organizing package, flood my inbox daily. My eyes are constantly bombarded with all kinds of enticements, for things I don’t even know how I would use them if I owned said item, but mostly the constant deluge is a persistent reminder to be discontent. The reverberating message -the grass is always greener somewhere – is disheartening, but more so has the underlying intent to choke out life and spread discontent in every corner and crevice of my existence.
Oh, I have fallen into the trap one too many times, because on days where the only prayers I have to offer God are tears, just buying something to brighten my corner of the world seems so appealing. As does anything that helps me deal with the clutter of my life. Numbing the pain in retail therapy is very alluring as deep in my heart I wish for Calgon to take me away. But time and again, I have learned that it is not now nor never will be material items that soothe all the hurts or that take away stress or pain in my life.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a little purchase, like flowers in the gray days of winter, brightens my world. And I can never discount a glass of sweet tea with extra, extra ice to remind me of the far away place from where I came.
What I have learned about contentment and joy and comfort comes from a place of deep gratitude. I was once asked if I wanted to draw a line in the sand and tell God I had had enough. My honest answer was “No”. I do realize that as bad as things have seemed in my life, there is ALWAYS somewhere in the world some who have it worse than we do. Just being thankful for what I have helps me find contentment and rarely comes from counting blessings of material things. Admittedly, I am incredibly thankful for comforts that much of the world doesn’t have.
Often times from the outside looking in, others marvel at my family’s story, but I know the truth behind the mask of strength. There is one unshakeable and unfathomable truth – we are loved. God’s amazing love flowing down in creation and in acts of kindness by friends and family and sometimes by strangers, who become friends.
Every day we have a chance to repay these kindnesses, not in the physical sense, because we would never be able to do that, but by living lives deeply rooted in gratitude. Every day we choose to be thankful despite the hardships that come our way. No matter how awful a situation looks, we have all received the greatest gift of life in Jesus Christ. No one in my family forgets that. It simply cannot be diminished. Life can be hard and full of struggle, but Jesus is so much bigger than all of that.
Just the other day I was reminded of how much gratitude can reframe everything. The last few years have been incredibly difficult for our Sister, as she has had to deal with injuries, health issues, and lack of support and understanding. On the latter, I have been dismayed and disgusted. Being disappointed in the actions of others is a greater blow to my heart’s contentment than not having the latest new gadget. I have learned too that this is a ploy to isolate rather than to bind hearts together. Then something happens and my eyes get a realignment focused on the God who has seen it all. In those moments, a heart that chooses gratitude always finds a way to do the right thing even in a tempest tossed.
Sitting quietly, without fanfare, on my desk was a letter seeking a stamp. Our Sister took time to write to her ligament donor to just say thank you. Melt this momma’s heart. In the sea of discontent, her words reminded me of all the ways we have been loved. It was a heartfelt letter to the family of a stranger, who like her brother gave the gift of life. The words she carefully chose were uplifting and honoring. After sharing a bit about herself, she wanted them to know how much their gift meant as she was able to play basketball again, while also acknowledging how incredibly hard it is to lose someone you love. Somewhere in the world a family will receive this letter. Who knows? Their hearts might be needing a little boost, a sign of God’s love that they nor the loved one has been forgotten.
When they receive that letter I hope they know that there is one family, particularly one girl, in Minnesota who is filled with nothing but love and gratitude for the gift they chose to give her. Because there isn’t a time that she laces up her basketball shoes, or any shoes for that matter, that we don’t remember the incredible and agonizing gift they gave. We know the taste of that particular pain, but we take comfort knowing that out in the world there are others who received the gift of life because of our choice to honor Reed’s wishes.
Pain and comfort co-mingled, light in the darkness always shines the brightest. In the quiet moments even amid the chaos and trials of life, those broken but not beaten hearts remember choosing gratitude leads to a road paved with joy unleashed.
*Special thanks to Roger Schroeder of phot*agape for the amazing photos, but mostly for his unending friendship to our family.