Archive for April 2009

My husband, Jeff, is a fighter. He fights for what he believes in, and who he believes in, especially our son, Sage, and others with special needs.

Jeff has been the head swimming coach at Vinton-Shellsburg High School for the past several years. It has become something he loves and believes in. When the boys’ program came up on the chopping block due to budget concerns within the district, you just knew he wouldn’t go down without a fight.

He gave a passionate plea to the school board, citing all the reasons the program should be saved. It wasn’t until the end of his presentation that the unconvinced members (read: rubber stampers) perked up when Jeff offered to coach this next season for $1 to save money.

The issue again come up at Monday’s board meeting and the motion was made to save boys’ swimming as long as Jeff was not paid. Not even that $1. Jeff saw it as a victory for the program and the swimmers. I saw it as just one more thing we would have to contend with next winter when Jeff will be student teaching – without getting paid.

While Jeff’s insistence to fight to the end for what he believes in can be one of his most irritating traits, it is also one of his most endearing. It is why I am proud he is my soul mate and father of my son.

Here are his thoughts on the future of the Vinton-Shellsburg boys’ swimming program:

(the embedding has been disabled, but you can get to the YouTube video by clicking on this)

I’ve been watching American Idol since its first season in 2002. I was pregnant at the time my favorite contestant, Kelly Clarkson, won (I try to tell my son that he should like Kelly because of this, but he doesn’t seem to care).

The majority of contestants that grace the American Idol stage are young, attractive and do have musical talent. By the end of each season, the stylists have done their magic and have made the contestants into heartthrobs. Last year, I didn’t give David Cook a second look in the beginning, but by the time he won, he was on my hottie list (still is).

A couple of weeks ago across the pond a new star emerged from an audition on Britian’s Got Talent.” Susan Boyle is a sensation primarily because she doesn’t look or act like one.

When Boyle, the 47-year-old unemployed woman from a village in Scotland, walked on stage, nobody in the audience gave her a chance. You see, Susan is rather, uh, frumpy. A little too short and plump with bushy eyebrows and frizzy graying hair, Susan doesn’t look like the next Kelly Clarkson.

Audience members were seen rolling their eyes when Susan told the judges she had never been given the chance to be a star and she wanted to be the next Elaine Paige. The judges, including American Idol’s Simon Cowell, looked they were bracing for the worst 3 or 4 minutes of their day.

Then Susan began to sing. Once the first line of “I Dreamed A Dream” from “Les Miserables” came out of her mouth, everyone in the music hall was stunned. Out of this frumpy-looking woman came the most beautiful voice. The look on the judges’ faces was priceless. They, too, didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. By the end of the performance, everyone was on their feet, cheering.

“I know everybody was against you,” judge Amanda Holden. “This was the biggest wake-up call ever.”

Susan has since become a worldwide sensation, thanks to postings of the video on YouTube. I first watched the video over the weekend. It literally gave me chills.

If you haven’t seen the entire video (which would be surprising considering it has more than 41 million views so far), please watch it. It’s absolutely inspiring to see somebody go from ridiculed to loved within 6 minutes.

You go, Susan Boyle! You are the ultimate frumpfighter.

Marian Wright Edelman has always been on a mission to prove doubters wrong. When she was growing up in the South in the ’40s and ’50s, everything around her said she wasn’t worthy as a black child, especially a black girl.

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman

“But I didn’t believe it and my parents didn’t let me believe it,” she said Thursday at the Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference at the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center.

With her family’s support, she continued her education and graduated from Spelman College and Yale Law School. She was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar and directed the NAACP Legal Defense Fund office in Jackson, Miss.

Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality for all, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973. It has been her life’s goal to see all children are given a level playing field.

While the country has come a long way since the segregation of the ’50s and ’60s, there still too many children in poverty and uninsured.

Here are some facts provided by the Children’s Defense Fund’s Health Coverage for All Children Campaign:

  •  9 million children in America are uninsured. A child is born uninsured every 39 seconds.
  •  Currently, approximately two-thirds of the uninsured children are eligible for health coverage under Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) but are not enrolled; excessive enrollment barriers are often the cause.
  • In January 2009, Congress acted to expand CHIP and enroll more children in coverage. This legislation was necessary to prevent more children from losing health coverage in the economic downturn, but it still leaves 5 to 6 million children uninsured.
  • Children are subjected to the “lottery of geography” – whether they get coverage and what kind of benefits they may receive depends upon the state in which they leave.
  • Roughly 800,000 pregnant women are uninsured.
  • Approximately 28,000 children die each year in America before their first birthday – ranking the U.S. 25th among 30 industrialized countries.
  • Almost a quarter of 2-year-olds are not fully immunized.
  • The majority of uninsured children live in two-parent families:
  • Almost 90 percent have one parent who works.
  • Almost 90 percent are U.S. citizens.
  • Health insurance premiums for families have risen more than three times as fast as wages since 2001 at the same time that fewer employers are providing coverage for employees.

To reverse this trend, as well as the “cradle to prison pipeline” in our country, Edelman says every child and pregnant woman should be guaranteed comprehensive health and mental health coverage.

“It cost so much more to detain children than to provide mental health services,” she said. “America has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest jailer. If we don’t think this has anything to do with us, we need to change our thinking.”

The country needs to invest money on prevention and early education to prevent money spent on incarceration, she said.

Edelman believes adults need to set an example for children, including instilling a sense of family, community and self.

“We don’t have a children problem, we have a profound adult problem,” she said.

Although poverty is a problem, “affluenza” is just as damaging to our youth, she said. “People have too much worth too little. Children learn from us.”

Edelman doesn’t comprehend how the government can’t support comprehensive health care, but can dish out $700 million to bail out failing banks. “We don’t have a money problem in this country, we have a values problem,” she said, prompting applause from those in the audience at the conference.  

Health care and prevention would be less expensive for taxpayers than treating a child in the welfare system. When poor children are hospitalized and possibly die from seemingly simple medical issues, such as a tooth abscess, the cost to taxpayers is about $250,000, she said.

She praises President Obama’s proposed budget which includes health care reform, early childhood development and tax credits for low-income families.

“This is the most sympathetic budget we’ve ever seen,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with setting priorities.”

The reverse the facts and guarantee every child and pregnant woman has comprehensive health and mental health coverage, the Children’s Defense Fund believes any health care reform legislation must include these principles :

  • Coverage Must Be Affordable. Establish a national eligibility floor of 300 percent of the federal poverty level for all children and pregnant women, with an affordable buy-in based on a family’s income for those over that income level.
  • Benefits Must Be Comprehensive. Guarantee every child access to all medically necessary services to maximize a child’s health and development. 
  • The System Must Be Simple and Seamless. To ensure children get enrolled and stay enrolled, simplify the application and enrollment process to make it easy for all children to get covered and stay covered. This must include eliminating known barriers to enrollment and instituting automatic enrollment of eligible children.

For more information about the campaign, visit

An open house for a proactive parenting program will be held from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16, at the Resource Center on the second floor of St. Luke’s Hospital, 225 12 St. NE, Cedar Rapids.

According to program coordinator Craig Meskimen, Teaching Interventions to Empower and Strengthen families, or TIES, is a positive parenting program for children between 18 months and 6 years old. What makes the program unique, he said, is that parents and children go through the program together.

“Parents don’t just drop their kids off,” he said.

Parents are taught eight strategies focusing on positive interaction with the child. Parents need to tell their children what they are doing right rather than what they are doing wrong.

“If they are sitting and being quiet in church, tell them exactly what they are doing right,” Meskimen said.

All eight strategies will be taught at four stations during Thursday’s open house. The goal is to control disruptive behavior before it begins with positive reinforcement.  

TIES is the result of a partnership of the ABBE Center for Community Health, Grant Wood AEA, Healthy Linn Care Network, Mercy Medical Center, St. Luke’s Hospital and Linn County Community Empowerment.

It is offered at no cost to parents but has a payback system – as parents learn the program, they then teach other parents.  

Although the program was developed in 1969 in Tennessee to treat children with Down’s syndrome and those on the autism spectrum, Meskimen says there is no minimum or maximum behavior for a child to be involved.

Children in the program range from “whiny” to destructive, he said.

The program works with parents and children on an individual basis, depending on the child’s behavior. The behavior is targeted and the parents need to realize how to control that behavior, Meskimen said.

This TIES program is the only one in the Midwest. It has been available to Eastern Iowans since Oct. 13 and has received a positive reception, Meskimen said. The evening program is full with a waiting list and the daytime program has a few spots left.

“Parents are here because they want to be,” Meskimen said.

For more information, call (319) 558-4861.

When I was a kid, Easter was always a packed (yet wonderful) day. All of my grandparents lived in Kanawha, Iowa, about three hours from my hometown Williamsburg. We got there on Saturday because the sunrise service at my paternal grandmother’s Lutheran church started at 5:30 Easter morning.

My grandparents, Harold and Nettie Assink's house in Kanawha, Iowa.

My grandparents, Harold and Nettie Assink's house in Kanawha, Iowa.

There was a breakfast served by the church’s youth group who led the short service depicting the empty tomb from which Jesus had risen. After breakfast and visiting with my parents’ friends, we would go to my maternal grandparents’ house just a few blocks away and wait for the service at their Christian Reformed Church to begin at 9:30 a.m.

I do recall being rather sleepy many times during that service but the beautiful music and inspirational Easter message kept me awake. After that service and more visiting with friends and relatives, we went back to Grandma and Grandpa Assink’s house and prepared the Easter feast. And what a feast is was. Three or four courses. Salads. Desserts. Meat and potatoes.

Before the day was over, we headed to my Grandma Asbe’s on the farm and had another feast. It did not matter how much we ate earlier in the day, we all seemed up for more great home cooked food.  It truly was one of the most filling days of the year.

Things have obviously changed since I was a kid. Grandma Asbe died in 2000 and the farm was sold. Grandpa Assink died in 2004 but Grandma Assink stayed in the big yellow house on Main Street.

What my grandma's house looked like in the final stages of moving.

What my grandma's house looked like in the final stages of moving.

But the three-level house became just too big for her with the washer and dryer in the basement and the bedrooms and bathrooms on the third floor. So she made the decision to move into an apartment which could better suit her needs.

Last weekend was the monumental moving day. My parents and aunts and uncles from all over the country were there throughout most of the week, helping transfer 56 years of life in one house – 56 years. Three of my grandparents’ five daughters knew only that house as their parents’ and all of us grandkids knew no other.

My grandpa's hats, just as he left them, in an upstairs cabinet.

My grandpa's hats, just as he left them, in an upstairs cabinet.

I didn’t know how emotional I would be seeing it for the last time. In the past decade I didn’t go up there that often – once a year at most. I also knew it would be best for my grandmother to live in a single-level place close to some of her friends and family.

But when my brother and I walked in the house last Saturday, it was a jolt. Only the piano, dining room table and assorted boxes and piles of memories remained. Upstairs, I looked through the closets and built-in cabinets, snooping like I always did. In one cabinet sat my grandpa’s hats, untouched since before he died. In the basement grandpa’s woodworking bench remained as he left it. Grandma’s canning jars were lined up on the shelves, amazingly void of any dust.

Grandma Assink, always the character, enjoying pie in her new apartment.

Grandma Assink, always the character, enjoying pie in her new apartment.

As I walked through the house one last time, I thought of all those Easters and Christmases filled with love and laughter. My generation now has families and our kids are the same age we were while traipsing through grandma and grandpa’s house. I hope the people who end up buying the yellow house keep that family tradition alive. They have big shoes to fill. Just remember: the yellow house has been filled with children, music, food, love and laughter for more than 50 years. Please don’t let it be lonely for too long.

If there is any other mother in the world who is beaming more than me tonight, I would like to meet her and swap stories. Here’s mine:

Tonight was the spring music program for the kindergarten classes at Tilford Elementary in the VintonShellsburg School District. My son, Sage, has been preparing for this concert for months. He sings the songs in the bathtub and plays them on his keyboards.

My son Sage, in the yellow shirt, having a great time at his music program.

My son Sage, in the yellow shirt, having a great time at his music program.

There’s never been any doubt he loves music and has a beautiful voice. However, Sage’s issues with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (on the autism spectrum) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have made any day care or school program an adventure. I’ve never been to a program where Sage stands still, doesn’t need an aide or even participates.

Until tonight.

I’ll admit I was a little (OK, a lot) worried about how Sage would react to standing on the risers for 45 minutes in front of an audience in the auditorium. He told me his music teacher has been instructing him to stand in place and not walk from riser to riser. Apparently, this has been a problem during rehearsal. I, too, have been telling him to sing pretty and stay on the riser.   

But I’ve been through this before. Sage will sing his songs all the time at home and constantly talk about the upcoming concert, only to be instantly distracted when the program begins. However, the moment he stood on the riser tonight, I knew it was different.

He stood there, straight and tall with his arms to his side, with a huge smile on his face. He sang the words to every song with unbridled joy. He did the moves and danced at the right time with his classmates. And he managed to bring tears to his Mommy’s eyes. I, too, was smiling through the whole show. I wasn’t my usual tense self hoping for the program to end before Sage ran off.

No, I was a proud Mommy, thrilled to see my son focus enough to enjoy himself doing the things he loves the most – singing and dancing. I used to be wistful during children’s programs at church and school, wondering if my child would ever be able to participate. Now, I can’t until the next one.

Thanks, Toots. You’ve brightened by day. And my life.

Richard Dedor led a workshop about focus at the 2009 Beyond Rubies Conference in March at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. Here is what he says about focusing on yourself:

By Richard Dedor

Richard Dedor at Beyond Rubies

Richard Dedor at Beyond Rubies

My first session at the 2009 Beyond Rubies Conference is by far my most popular and the one I enjoy the most. It focuses around the general idea that you as an individual need to make sure you focus your energies in the right place: on the things you’re passionate about. Those can be anything from writing or reading to working out or to playing with your dog. With our busy lives, we often cut out the things that truly give you energy and that fuel your fire for life. It’s time to take that back. It’s time to re-focus your energy towards your passions. It starts now.

The first thing you have to do is find your passion. What is it? What do you love doing? What do you want to be doing more? For me, the answer is I want to be doing more painting. I haven’t been motivated the last few weeks, but the painting I am on right now is almost done. I just need to get up and do it. Finish it. Focus on the passion. Once you have that, immerse yourself in it. Make it yours. Make it a priority.

Once you have your passion in mind, you have to organize your life to make the passion a part of your life. “Not enough time,” is no longer an acceptable excuse. This is your life; you need to take control of it!

The most challenging aspect of taking control of your life is focused around the essence of compassion. This is a huge factor impacting success in your life and in the world at large. Not only do you need to be compassionate towards your own life, you have to be compassionate to those around you. It’s about offering a helping hand when you can. Spreading encouraging words and empowering others to find their passions or just to simply smile on a rainy day. It’s about learning from other people.

Anyone who attends a workshop of mine goes through an interactive activity built around the belief that  every person in the world has learned something that someone else can learn something from, a Life Lesson if you will. If you’re interested in learning more and sharing your lesson (, or signing up ( to learn from others, please do!

As you’re learning more about yourself, you have to continue to upgrade your skills. You need to grow. I’ve been doing that with Twitter ( lately and I’m excited about the possibilities and how much I can learn! My next venture will be YouTube self-help videos that are currently in the development stages. I’m always learning.

Finally, you can’t do any of these things if you can’t manage your stress. There was a recent cover story in Newsweek about how stress can be healthy. I absolutely agree, but stress to the point where you can’t function productively or positively and when it starts to affect your health – well, that’s bad stress! You have to make sure the stress you do have is manageable and pushes you forward, not downward.

I know I said a lot and I have more to say. You can learn more about all these things on my blog at

Gazette Communication’s Information Content Conductor Steve Buttry (in short, my boss) posed a question at the end of his March 23 column regarding the Linn Area Reads program.  This year’s program features “Tallgrass” by Sandra Dallas and Harper Lee’s classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which delves into the delicate issue of racism in America. Steve asked readers what issues a modern-day Harper Lee should address today.

Longtime Cedar Rapids resident and Gazette reader Ray Buck e-mailed Steve of a possible Harper Lee in our midst today.

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Ray wrote: “Cynthia Lord and she has written a lovely children’s book, Rules. It is a novel that looks at feeling different yet finding acceptance in today’s crazy, demanding world. You mentioned both of your books were told through the eyes of a young girl. Rules is a story told by a 12 year old girl with an autistic younger brother. About a snooty new neighbor and a young man, ‘handicapped’ with no voice.”

Steve forwarded me Ray’s e-mail because I often write about my son, Sage, who is on the autism spectrum and has ADHD as well. Ray is the grandfather of an autistic child, Jack.

What struck me most about Ray was his willingness to learn about the disorder that affects approximately 1 in 150 children. Autism is a difficult disorder to understand and, sometimes, to accept. It affects an individual’s ability to socialize, make transitions and in extreme cases, function. There are outbursts, tantrums, obsessions, inappropriate comments, incessant talking, and, sometimes, no talking at all.

It is instinctive to think these children are “bad” and their parents are not disciplining them enough. It can be especially difficult for grandparents and others  in Ray’s generation (he’s 68)  to understand these children. But Ray and his wife, Karren, are making every effort to understand their grandson.

When the Bucks’ grandson was diagnosed with autism, their son Brad and his wife Traci involved them with the process.

Ray wrote me in an e-mail: “I don’t recall we had a difficult time understanding or accepting his diagnosis because his parents included us in everything, right from the start. What they were feeling, what they were doing to help Jack.”

autism-ribbon2April is Autism Awareness Month and I hope more and more people take on Ray and Karren’s attitude of understanding and acceptance.

The Bucks were kind enough to drop off a copy of “Rules” for me at the office. I finished reading it last night and agree that it teaches a valuable lesson and should be read  by many, especially young students.

“Rules” focuses on a 12-year-old girl, Catherine, who is torn between taking care of her younger autistic brother and making friends with the new hip girl next door. To make things more complicated, she develops a friendship with a non-verbal boy in a wheelchair while going to her brother’s occupational therapy appointments.

At that age, there is a need to impress peers , and having your “different” brother tagging along and acknowledging your handicapped friend to the “cool kids” just doesn’t fit the mold.

I won’t tell you the ending, but I think you’ll be pleased with Catherine’s maturity.

I have set up an Autism Awareness Month page on the Frumpfighter blog. I invite anyone affected by autism to share their story. Please e-mail me at or

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