Week 42 – stones and ripples

“Hello Ann. This is Joy. I received an email from your father this morning and we’re a bit worried. The email said he was stranded in the Ukraine and needed us to forward money. It didn’t sound like him and we’re pretty sure it is a scam, but I’ve been trying to call the house and no one is answering. When you get this message, could you please call and let us know? Thanks!”

When I returned the call we spoke for nearly an hour. She never once made me feel that she had somewhere else to be. I told her of the recent changes to my job and just as she had done 30 years before, she provided attentive listening and wise counsel.

 “A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.”   Helen Keller

Like many colleges and universities in the U.S., the one where I work is facing extraordinary budget cuts. A colleague from another institution predicted more than 5 years ago that higher education would experience the same economic “bust” that hit the technology sector. It blew into my institution with full force this last year.

While my position has been spared and I’m gratefully still a full-time faculty member, the program I directed has been cut. Forensics* is the competitive art of public speaking in 11 different events including dramatic interpretation and debate. We traveled five weekends each semester to intercollegiate tournaments and while we were never a dominating force on our circuit, we brought home numerous awards and were both respected and respectable in competition.

I will miss the camaraderie, laughter and travel that is characteristic of this activity. I will miss the experiential learning and “ah-ha!” moments that happen with students during speech development, practice and competition. I will miss the spirit of community and my friendships with coaches from other schools. I will miss judging rounds of other students and learning about concepts and ideas as vast and varied as the cosmos.

Most importantly, I will greatly miss the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with students in the countless hours spent in practice rooms and team vans. This activity is much more than “speech” — it is a honored opportunity to walk alongside our students in their educational, social and spiritual growth.

Ironically, I received the message from Joy the same week that I learned our program was cut. Our conversation gave me the opportunity to thank her for the impact she had made on my life. When I was a college student, I had wanted to “be Joy Jewell when I grow up.”

Joy laughed and told me that she had wanted to be Marion Gilmore, one of her professors in college. Then she told me about Marion, her classroom, her character. She shared that Marion had never married and she once had the courage to ask. Marion explained that she had fallen in love with a soldier during World War II. He was already engaged to be married and said, “I’ll tell my fiancee that I’ve fallen in love with someone else. But if she still wants to marry me, I will not embarrass her by breaking the engagement.” Well, the fiancee still wanted to marry him and they were married more than 50 years. She never saw the man again but he sent her a Christmas card every year. Then, when Marion was in her early-80s, she received a call from the man and he told her his wife had passed away a few months before. Within a year, Marion married her only love.

I’m usually a glass-half-full person and this story should make me say “awww.” However, I’m somewhat riled that she refused to move on in all those 50 years. And how cruel of him to send a card each year, reminding her that he was unavailable! But to hear Joy explain it, Marion didn’t walk through life wearing ashes and sack-cloth, moaning “poor me.” Marion chose to live a full life, not one of wallowing or pining. Marrying him a lifetime later was just icing.

When we hung up, I began to consider the ripples in the water. Marion did not allow this large loss to steal more from her life. Joy had experienced deep loss with the death of an infant as well as painful worry as her husband waited for and later recovered from a heart transplant. Yet she neither wore nor masked her heartache. She got on with the business of life and found happiness in all her blessings. With her husband by her side, she now enjoys retirement attending every dance recital and ball game of her many grandchildren.

 Have I worn the grief and ashes of burned dreams on my sleeves?

Have I hidden behind a steel veneer of smiles?

If I have, my Jubilee year is time to brush off and dismantle.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa

When I announced the program cut to alumni on our private Facebook page, there was an outpouring of sadness, thankfulness and support. Several students from different years shared what participating in forensics meant to them: it was a significant part of their college experience, some of their best memories, and continued to be useful today.  While hearing “thanks” is not what motivates an educator, the comments were gratifying and heartwarming.

Last year a graduating senior wrote an opinion piece for our university student newspaper. In it, she shared how she had been transformed by participating in this activity. Essentially, joining the Forensics Team was one decision that changed the trajectory of her life.

Referring to her own ideas and points of view as her “voice,” the student writes, “At the end, I stood smiling in front of our audience … I felt confidence flowing through me, because I knew my voice was indeed more powerful than I ever imagined…  and I am never going to forget that.”

Perhaps her opinion piece resonated with me because I had felt much the same way as a student. Forensics — more specifically, coach Joy — had coaxed me out of the box in which I had been hiding. New confidence and skills went with me to internships and job interviews. I learned to project my literal and figurative voice, lessons I never forgot.

(read the whole article here:   http://theaviso.org/2013/03/27/opinion-how-forensics-changed-my-life/)

“We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow… We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence. ” ― H.G. Wells

Closing the door on this chapter as a forensics coach leaves space in my life for something new to emerge, something that has the possibility of being as life-giving in this next decade as coaching forensics was in the last. As I stare down the decade of my 40s, I wonder what else in my daily existence is time to challenge, to change, to leave behind, in order to make room for new wonders.

While I wanted to “be Joy” as an adult, I never (ever!) intended on being a college educator or a forensics coach. Rather, I wanted to have Joy’s exuberance for life, her vision and optimism, her ability to make others feel valued, her sense of style and whimsy, her effective use of every second of her day, her ready and warm smile.

This week, I thank Joy Jewell for all the ways she mentored me as a student and continues to inspire me today.



* The American Forensics Association states: “Forensics is a word rooted in the Western world’s classical experience. The Greeks organized contests for speakers that developed and recognized the abilities their society felt central to democracy. Forensics is derived from the Latin term for ensis and closely related to forum.”  Forensic Science deals with criminal investigation and dead bodies.


Appreciation, Teaching Public Relations, Uncategorized

Week 43 – the gas company

About a year ago a friend from my old gas company days emailed that she was gathering a group of the East Ohio Gas retired ladies for lunch and asked if would I like to attend. I hadn’t seen any of these former co-workers for more than a dozen years. It was a joy!

In the last year I’ve been able to attend a few of the every-other-month gatherings. We reminisce about the way things were, update on the way things are, ask “whatever happened to…” about other co-workers. It is funny how quickly the years disappear and we are right back.

During my first year of teaching, I used many real examples from my former career to explain public relations concepts. A couple of students teased me that they tick-marked each time I started a sentence with “when I worked at the gas company.”

I decided to be IN on the joke and announced to future classes that when I started a sentence with “when I worked” they had to fill in the blank. Now a decade’s worth of students reflexively answer “at the gas company.”

East Ohio Gas. As I say the words aloud a tide of emotions wash over me.

My time at East Ohio Gas was formative in ways I can’t fully express. It was my first job out of college, my first group of friends not formed in a classroom, my first encounter with workplace politics.

I sent one resume to one company when I graduated college. I promised my parents I would interview well if I was called but I wasn’t sending any other resumes because I was going to backpack through Europe with my friends. Darned if I didn’t get a call to interview — and the job.

Can you identify one critical decision that altered your life’s course?

I began working July 1, 1987, met my future husband when I was transferred to Youngstown in 1990, made several contacts at Malone University when I was transferred to Canton in 1992, and  stayed on the EOG payroll until 2001.

Getting that job at EOG completely changed the trajectory of my life. I can’t comprehend how I possibly could have met my husband or landed my current job if I had not first worked at EOG.

And if that job changed my life’s course, one man helped prepare the path. Dick Kelso was the president of EOG and an alumnus of Geneva College, also my alma mater. He had visited our campus; I gave him my resume and he had forwarded it to the Human Resources office. The resume still had to stand out from the stack and I still had to impress in an interview, but there’s no doubt that Dick Kelso played a part in where I am today.

He was a masterful company leader. He was honest, empathetic, personable. He remembered every employee’s name and could usually ask about a spouse or child by name as well. He was down-to-earth and yet every employee referred to him as “Mr. Kelso” because of the level of respect and esteem he inspired.

In 2001, Tom and I drove our RV to Alaska. We stopped in Arizona where Mr. Kelso had retired. He and his wife graciously accepted our invitation to dinner. I don’t recall details of the conversation, but I remember a lovely evening and a chance to say thank you.

On the 27th anniversary of my first week of work at the gas company, I am thankful for Dick Kelso — grateful for his leadership, his loyalty to his alma mater and his dedication to his company and community. His kindness and example continue to impact my life. 


Appreciation, Faith, Uncategorized

Week 44 – timing and laughter

People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

I believe laughter has the power to connect us. Laughing even over something trivial can bond people in a meaningful way. We make eye contact, share a knowing look, realize we have a common view. I’ll run into someone and perhaps can’t remember her name or where we met, but I’ll recall that we “shared laughter.”

It was 2013 and I was in Rome with students. We had been invited to help at the drop-in center called Sogiorno, roughly translated as Living Room. The center provides a respite from the city and a place for refugees to practice English, read, drink tea.

At the table I shared with two students and two refugees, our conversation began lightheartedly over a game of Go Fish. One student was speaking to a man nick-named Mangal. In the course of small talk they realized that they shared the same birth date — not just the month and day but the year, as well. How remarkable!

Here was this American student, recently graduated from college and recently engaged to be married, with a whole lifetime of opportunity available to her. Here was the Afghan refugee, born the same day and a world away. He is clearly intelligent with his mastery of multiple languages but he had little formal education and was now alone in a strange city. To say that this juxtaposition of their situations weighed heavily on the student’s heart is an understatement.

They had been no more than 10 when the events of September 11, 2001 occurred.

Now in May 2014 I’ve returned with another team of students. We worshiped that morning at the church that hosts our service project and then we headed out to the catacombs on the Via Appia Antica, the old Roman road. After several days in Rome, I was feeling very confident and a bit smug that I knew how to navigate the city so easily.

Then I made a grave rookie mistake when we boarded a bus back to the church for an evening service project. The bus traveled down the opposite side of the river than we took out of the city for the catacombs. It wasn’t until we passed the stop we wanted that I realized we should have jumped off. I kept thinking that surely the bus would cross the river but it didn’t. The further we traveled away from our destination the more upset I became with myself at my stupidity! I stewed and fretted and beat myself up mercilessly.

We finally made it (an hour-and-a-half late!) and loaded up the gallons of hot tea and headed back to the train station. We had just arrived when I glanced over at a man speaking with one of the full-time missionaries. The man and I briefly made eye contact and I immediately thought, I’ve shared laughter with him!”

I looked back in his direction and he looked at me with a puzzled look. Almost in unison we said, “I remember you!”

It was Mangal!

The man who shared a birth date with a student! The man who spoke English beautifully, who hated to lose in Go Fish, who asked difficult questions about why westerners divorce so often.


We could not believe our good fortune! I had spoken to him only for a few hours on one day a full year before. And now, as impossible as it sounded, our paths converged once more. Of the nearly 3 million people living in Rome and the hundreds of thousands of tourists and refugees there, we were at the same train station at the same exact moment.

Mangal immediately asked about the students who had been at our table, whether the one was married now and if the other still played rugby. How did he remember this brief interaction so vividly and with such detail? Was it because of the laughter? Was it that we listened to his story and learned his name? Did we help him feel “seen” and valued?

Mangal had lived in Sweden and France in the year since we had met. Now he was back in Rome to complete his official paperwork to be a legal refugee in the European Union. He made it a point to say he doesn’t come to the station any more. How had he come to be there that night?! He asked about our plans and he made great efforts to come see us two more times during our stay in Rome. We’re now Facebook friends. (To protect his privacy, I’ve not used his given name here.)

If we had been on time that evening, our team would have finished our part of the service project and left long before Mangal had arrived — and I never would have seen him.

So while my navigation error was extremely frustrating, God intended the situation for good. Why did I spend hours beating myself up over my mistake when I know that God’s timing is perfect? Furthermore, the students had bonded on the hour-long bus ride and said that’s when they really began to feel like a “team.”

I recalled that one of my goals for my Jubilee Year is to be more forgiving of myself. So I took a deep breath, recognized that I clearly needed this reminder, as well as a lesson in humility, and I thanked the all-knowing God of grace.


This week I thank my friend Mangal. He provided a face, a name and a story to help me better understand the refugee situation. Our highly improbable and serendipitous second meeting reminds me that God can use even mistakes for good and that I serve an awesome God.

Appreciation, Faith, Uncategorized

Week 45 – Serve and Learn

The more I know the more I realize the less I know. – Albert Einstein

As we rounded the corner to the park I saw the men – roughly 130 of them – sitting along a wall waiting for the lunch we had brought. At the intersection I motioned the students to go on across the street. I would go last to make sure we were all across. Truth was, I needed time to compose myself.

The idea of serving was different than the reality. It was all laughter and joy in the church kitchen as we chopped vegetables and stirred rice. We knew we were making food for refugees and what a shame it was that they were homeless. But the reality was overwhelming. To see all these men, most between the ages of 13-30, looking so downtrodden, forlorn, scared had stopped me in my tracks. There seemed to be so many. Knowing that they are just a drop in the ocean of refugees around the world was almost too much.

According to the United Nations, there are currently 43.3 million forcibly displaced people around the world due to war, unrest, poverty. Of that number 16 million have sought refuge in another country.

As I went down the rows I tried to look each man in the eye and say “buongiorno” or “hello.” The face of one man made me do a double-take. I had seen him before. Surely he was one of the street sellers who hounded me to buy a purse, scarf, umbrella, or some sort of tourist item.

That night during the team devotions, we talked about how we had passed by and ignored these same men all week. We tried not to make eye contact for fear they’d follow us and try to sell more souvenirs. The Biblical story of the Good Samaritan had come to life — and we weren’t the Good Samaritans we thought we were. From that moment on, we all made more of an effort to address each street huckster with a smile while we said no thank you. A few people even relented and bought something over the next few days.

That was 2011. And this May marked the fourth time I’ve taken students to Italy on a service-learning trip. Our project is with Kyrios, a non-profit ministry of the Evangelical Baptist Church of the Trastevere neighborhood.

Again this year we cooked a simple meal of rice, vegetables and lentils then packaged and transported it to a park where Afghan refugees gather. About 100 men sat on the walls. We moved slowly down each row handing plastic spoons and napkins, cups and juice, and food. We hung around to talk with the few who stayed. The full-time missionaries who develop relationships with the men told us that the turn-over is about every six months. Since the economy in Italy isn’t very good, they all try to get into other European countries to find work.

What I’ve learned about these refugees over the last four years is that many just want to be seen. The food is secondary. As a homeless person and a stranger in a strange land, it is rare that someone speaks to them, acknowledges them, asks them to tell their story.

Afghanistan is the leading refugee-producing country with 2.9 million people living in 71 different countries. This diaspora has broken families and culture for more than 2 generations.

The stories are sad. They’ve endured much hardship to arrive in Rome: smuggled in bellies of ships without sanitation for days, walking for weeks, robbed by those who exploit them. The situation is complicated. The European Union has specific rules that make applying for refugee status a long, laborious effort. Many of the men are trapped in Rome. They don’t have their “papers” to go elsewhere in Europe and they can’t return home for fear of persecution or death. The stream is non-stop. Families pool their resources and choose the best and brightest son to leave for a better life in Europe. He doesn’t want to disappoint the family so he doesn’t tell them the truth of joblessness, hunger, tent-living… so they continue to send more.

Caring for refugees should be natural for Christians. The Scriptures are full of stories of God’s people being dispersed.

 Adam and Eve were displaced when God banished them from the Garden as a result of their sin.    Noah and his family were displaced from their home by the flood.                                              Abraham & Sarah and Isaac & Rebecca fled the famine and failed economy in their lands.  Joseph was a victim of international human trafficking when his brothers sold him.                  David faced political persecution and fled from Saul.                                                                    Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled from Herod to Egypt.                                                                      Philip and Peter and other early Christians faced religious persecution and left for other countries.

There are multiple Christian ministries at work in Rome. Some help meet basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. Others provide English or Italian lessons, help find jobs and complete complicated official documents. Most are staffed by Americans. If you are interested in supporting one, just let me know and I can share contact information.

This week I am grateful to Ms. Janice Furgiuele, my high school Spanish teacher, for leading a group to Mexico the summer before my senior year. That trip enabled me to experience another culture for the first time. It helped me believe that international travel was possible for a small-town, western Pennsylvania girl. She rose to the challenge, took high schoolers abroad, and planted this seed of travel and cultural curiosity that continues to grow. I’m still learning.  


Week 46 – Commencements

Spring is the season of new growth, the promise of beauty to come, seeds pushing through soil to be seen. It is also the season of graduations. In schools across the country formal occasions are punctuated by bursts of applause and perhaps more than one cowbell.

Some see graduation as a completion, a finishing of school and ending of an era. But I think an analogy of Spring is more appropriate given the term “commencement” means “to begin.” Students push through many moments of doubt and frustration; they walk across stages beaming with hope and promise for their futures; they take all that has been poured into them and use it to nourish their minds and souls.

As a faculty member at a university, I’ve watched eleven streams of students cross the stage. At least once each year I fight back tears as I recall a student’s challenges and this day of ultimate triumph. The student whose mother was diagnosed with cancer and lost the battle too soon to witness this moment. The brilliant student who is successfully fighting the part of her brain that wants to rob her of joy. The student who ran out of money and had to work for several years to save enough to return and finish.

The spatterings of applause from different areas of the auditorium suddenly swell in unison when a student with a physical challenge crosses the stage. I’ve usually been in that crowd of claps and respect, recognizing the extra challenges posed by the inability to walk or to see. But this year I wondered if it seemed patronizing to give extra applause — as if this achievement was so far out of the realm of possibility. The few people I’ve known who have lived with physical challenges have wanted to be treated the “same as everyone else.” Singling them out for achieving in spite of  a disability is the opposite of that. And then I considered the other, invisible challenges students faced that were no easier to overcome. Haven’t ALL students walked across that stage having defeated some obstacle to get here?

I’m proud of my nephew who graduated with a masters degree in public history from Duquesne University. Not only did he achieve a 4.0 and get inducted into prestigious honor societies, but during the two years he completed multiple internships, worked as a research assistant and overcame personal losses. He is a man of deep faith, discerning intellect and immeasurable empathy and kindness.

His sister works as hard at her job as her brother does in school. She received multiple promotions in a year’s time and earned the respect of her supervisors, peers and team. She is artistic and creative with a quiet reserve that protects the deep river of emotion that courses through her soul. Her smile lights up our family.

This week I am thankful to my brother, Jon O’Data, the father of this amazing niece and nephew, and the big brother who has always been my champion. Since I was not able to have children of my own, his children helped fill that void and he was always willing to share their time with me – for which I am profoundly grateful.

Aaron graduation


50 X 50, Appreciation

Week 47 – fatigues and curved roads

I’m a sucker for the people standing outside Walmart. Those who sell Girl Scout cookies and 50-cent chocolate bars for a whopping dollar so some marching band can go to Disney World. And what about the straight-up donation jars for Little League baseball? Yup, I’ll probably put something in if you post a kid by the door.

Am I the only one who feels the need to stop and explain if I don’t have cash on me to contribute? People walk by, carefree, ignoring the pre-teens and parents. But I’m an over-sharer. I feel the need to say “Sorry, using a debit card today” or “I’ll get you on the way out” — and then often hoping they leave before I do. I’ve come to expect these awkward encounters, especially on weekends.

Today when I got out of my car, I could see the top of someone’s hat behind this week’s 5-foot tall curb-side flower display. He seemed to be tucked in by the door so I got a buck out of my wallet and slipped it in my jacket pocket. As I approached the door I saw the man was in crisp Army fatigues in that pale tan color they’ve worn since wars moved from jungles to deserts. He held a large clear container and behind him was a sign: “Wounded Warriors.”

“Thank you for your service.” The words are like a reflex each time I see a person in uniform. He said thank you and told me to have a good day. In classic over-sharer mode, I told him that my husband is a veteran.



“I was in Desert Storm. Where did he serve?”

“Viet Nam.”

“Really? (pause) Is he okay?”

His eyes were focused, his voice was quiet, his concern was genuine: a fellow soldier hoping that a brother came back healthy emotionally as well as physically, no doubt knowing the stories of some who didn’t. A buck? Doesn’t seem like enough for the sacrifice these women and men make. I reached into my purse…

“Christ is with us.” This week, my pastor based the Sunday sermon on the Luke 24 account of Jesus meeting two people on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and another person were walking out of Jerusalem and talking about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When a stranger appeared on the road, Scripture says “they were kept from recognizing him.” It wasn’t until they sat down together to share a meal that their eyes were opened and they saw it was the Savior. Pastor encouraged us to keep our eyes open for the risen Lord in our midst. Too often we fail to notice that God is with us on the road, on our life’s journey.

curved road

My path took a sharp turn 22 years ago when I met Tom. To misquote some movie I can’t quite remember, “he is everything I never knew I always wanted.”

My husband is remarkable. No matter how tired he is after a long work day, he’ll cut the grass, edge the lawn or do one of myriad other projects. When I’ve encouraged him to just relax and go for a motorcycle ride, he counters that he can’t “play” until his “chores” are done. I’ve often wondered how much of his self-discipline was instilled by his parents and how much was influenced by his years in the Army.

He’s generous and thoughtful. Whenever I’ve mentioned his kindness toward others his eyes will twinkle and he’ll say, “Don’t tell anyone. You’ll ruin my reputation.” He’s smart and funny and although he can’t tell a good story, he’s a master craftsman with the one-liners.

This week I’m thankful for my husband John Thomas Lawson. I’m proud of his work ethic, his service to our country, his love for family. We’ll celebrate 20 years of marriage in just a couple months. The road hasn’t always been easy; we’ve seen our share of disappointments but we’ve also experienced beautiful blessings.

As any biker knows, straight, flat roads make for boring rides. It is much more interesting when there are a few curves to navigate and new wonders around each bend. We’re on this journey together and we know God is with us.