Be the Change #24 – Random Acts of Kindness at Work

Posted by on May 27th, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

We spend more time at work than most us do with our families.  For many of us, co-workers are a family away from home – and sometimes they can get on our nerves or hurt our feelings just like family members.  It can be hard to be kind.  It’s so easy to form cliques, or hold onto grudges and resentments. This week, following a nice, relaxing long holiday weekend, I challenge you to break out of the mold and practice at least one random act of kindness at work.

These 10 ideas assume that you work in an office.  Even if you don’t most, of these actions can still work for you.  Or think of your own!

  1. Bring in snacks to share. Bake cookies of muffins, or bring in a basket of juicy strawberries
  2. Offer to do a lunch, or coffee or tea, run for a co-worker who is heads-down on a deadline.
  3. Bring in flowers to brighten up the whole office. Put them in an area where everyone can enjoy them.
  4. Buy a couple of cheap umbrellas to keep in your desk to offer to co-workers who are going out to lunch or leaving for the day and have not brought one.
  5. When someone does great work, tell their boss, in person or via e-mail.
  6. Invite the new person to have lunch with you.
  7. Clean out the microwave, even if you aren’t the one who made the mess – and don’t complain to everyone in earshot about it. Just quietly clean it.
  8. Start a library in the break room by bringing in books or magazines that you’ve finished. (As a writer, this is my favorite one)
  9. Set yourself the goal of learning one new thing about one of your co-workers each day.
  10. Just generally treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Would you like to be greeted with a smile and a “good morning” at the beginning of the day?  Would you like to be cut a break when you make a mistake?  Would you like someone to ask how your weekend was, or how your sick dog is doing?  Well, then….

Be the Change #23 – Be Like Jane

Posted by on May 21st, 2017 in Blog | 1 comment

We’re going back in time this week, to 19th-century Pittsburgh.  If you’re a Pittsburgher, the name Swisshelm will ring a bell with you.  That’s right:  the namesake of Swisshelm Park and Swissvale Borough.

Jane Grey Swisshelm was born in Pittsburgh in 1815.  A committed Covenanter Presbyterian, Jane took her Christianity very seriously – and actively.  While still a child growing up in Wilkinsburg, she circulated a petition advocating the abolition of slavery.  As a young wife, she began submitting articles and poems to abolitionist newspapers. That alone would have been unusual for a woman of her time, but Jane took it a step further.  In 1847, at age 32, Jane founded her own newspaper, the Saturday Visiter (sic), funding it with her small inheritance. She was the first woman to sit in the US Senate press gallery.

The perspective of the the Visiter was feminist and fiercely abolitionist.   Jane was an adamant opponent of the Fugitive Slave act, and her passionate editorials were so influential on Allegheny County judges that no fugitive slaves were sent back South from Allegheny County after 1848.

As you might imagine of such a strong-minded woman, Jane’s marriage didn’t last.  In 1857, she left her husband, and in 1860 he divorced her on the grounds of desertion. She continued to publish the Visiter, and began another career as a public speaker advocating abolition of slavery and women’s property rights.  During the Civil War, she volunteered as a battlefield nurse.

Jane died in 1884 and is buried in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery.

You don’t have to be a Presbyterian or a journalist or a feminist or a civil rights activist to be like Jane.  What I love about Jane, and the reason she is the subject of my next book, is her passion and commitment. She states in her autobiography that when she was confirmed at age 16, she made a covenant with God to “spend my whole life in any labor he should appoint, without a sign of the approval of God or men.”  She was, by all accounts (including her own), a difficult, stubborn woman.  But she had a deep moral passion that we could all emulate.  Be like Jane:  find a cause outside yourself that you are passionate about and commit yourself to action – even in the face of disagreement and disapproval.

Be the Change #22 – Be Like Carol

Posted by on May 6th, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

This is Sadie.  She’s the granddaughter of my cousin Carol.  Sadie takes ballet lessons, plays the cello and was voted Most Respectful Student last year.  She also has cystic fibrosis.  Like many people with a family member who has a chronic illness, Carol has become involved in raising awareness about CF and raising money for a cure.  Carol is a board member of the Western PA Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and she and Sadie’s many other supporters have formed Sadie’s Soldiers, which stages and participates in fund-raising events.  Check out Sadie’s recent newsletter Great Strides Walk Letter 2017 to learn about upcoming events.

What Would Saint Augustine Eat?

Posted by on Apr 30th, 2017 in Blog | 1 comment

I’ve written before about how much the people of the Ancient World were like us.  One of my more surprising discoveries, in researching The Saint’s Mistress, was that they had fast food. There was a good reason for this:  many apartments, particularly in the poor areas of the cities, lacked kitchens.  So, small stands selling quick foods thrived, serving lentils, porridge, bread, sausages, poultry, even an ancient forerunner of pizza! They didn’t have Styrofoam containers, of course.  The fast-food meal of the Ancient citizen of Rome or Carthage or Hippo would have been provided in cheap clay pottery, which ended up in massive landfills not so different from our own.

The first two meals of the day, what we call breakfast and lunch, would have been quick and simple for most people:  bread and cheese, perhaps some fruit or a little cold meat, some watered-down wine.

Dinner was eaten in the late afternoon, after a visit to the public baths, and would have been more substantial.  Wealthier people in the Roman Empire did eat reclining on cushions, just as they are portrayed.  Only children sat.  Forks were unknown; they ate with knives, toothpicks, spoons – and their fingers, which entailed a lot of hand-washing between courses.

Ancient Romans of the upper or upper middle class would have had access to many of the same foods familiar to us today.  Their fresh fruits and vegetables would have included grapes, figs, apples, leeks, asparagus, beets, gourds and lettuce. An evening meal might include one or more servings of protein: pork, eggs, fish and shellfish, goat meat, and various kinds of poultry.  The rich could afford roasted boar or peacock.  Those Mediterranean staples, olives and wine, would have been served with every meal.

The poor had to satisfy themselves with the same food for dinner that they had at breakfast time:  bread, porridge, perhaps some fruit or cheese

Augustine and his contemporaries would have known many of the same spices and flavorings the we use, such as pepper, cinnamon, and anise.

Honey was their only sweetener, so beekeeping was big business.  Hives were tall and domed, made of bark and dried dung, or willow reeds tightly woven and daubed with mud and leaves.  Honey was harvested twice a year.  The right time in spring was whenever the Pleiades were visible.  If the bees who made the honey had fed on poisonous plants like mountain laurel, the honey was poison, causing madness or even death due to heart failure or nervous system collapse.

In The Saint’s Mistress, I portray Augustine’s friend Nebridius as being especially fond of garum.  Garum was a sauce that was popular throughout the Roman Empire.  There were probably many variations, but it is believed to have been made from fish entrails, blood, salt and spices, and fermented for 20-30 days.  My sources said it probably tasted like Worcestershire sauce.

The biggest difference between how we eat and how Saint Augustine and has contemporaries ate, is the amount of labor that it took to produce food.  North Africa was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire in Augustine’s time and large-scale, corporate-style farms, like our modern ones, were not unknown. The difference was that ancient farms relied on human and animal labor, rather than on combustion-engine machinery.  Food was therefore more expensive, relative to the average income, than it is for us today.  Surrounded by abundance, peasants and the urban poor nevertheless knew periods of hunger and even famine.

Be the Change #21 – Be Like Joyce

Posted by on Apr 25th, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

When I wrote the first in this series of “Be Like…” posts, I mentioned all the good friends we have made by dancing with the Pittsburgh Ceili Club.  This fourth in my series of posts about people I know who are dedicated volunteers, is the third to feature a Ceili Club member.

Our friend Joyce Rothermel is a board member of the Thomas Merton center.  The Merton Center began in a store front office on the Southside in 1972 to protest the continuation of the war in Vietnam, and expanded their mission over the years to provide information and resources to combat poverty, racism and war, and advocate simplicity as a lifestyle.

Through the years, the Center has educated and organized against world and local hunger, exploitation of workers, militarism, and racial discrimination in Pittsburgh. Members have been arrested protesting the B-1 bomber, nuclear weapons, and apartheid in South Africa. They have organized fasts and vigils. The first Pittsburgh chapter of Amnesty International and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank were organized by Thomas Merton Center staff members.

Their many projects include advocating for public transit, promoting sustainable environmental practices, the Book ‘Em Books for Prisoners project, and the Greater Pittsburgh Interfaith Coalition.  Their Protect Our Parks campaign fights to keep our state parks fracking-free.  They even run a volunteer-staffed thrift store as both a fund-raiser and a clothing charity. And that’s just a partial list.  Where peace and justice are the goals, the Merton Center stands ready with partnership and support.

Like Theresa (see my bog post a few weeks ago), Joyce’s activism started with teaching.  She was teaching at a Catholic School in the 1970s, and began to feel compelled to put Catholic Social Justice teachings into action.  She was on the staff of the Center from 1977-87, and went on to become director of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (1987-2011), but has remained an active Merton Center volunteer.

Joyce and her husband Michael are kind and nurturing spirits at the Harp & Fiddle, quick to welcome strangers and to show a compassionate interest in others.  Joyce says of her longtime commitment to peace and justice, “It is a privilege to put my faith into action within a communal environment.  Working with kindred spirits of all ages, races, religious backgrounds in efforts to make the world more peaceful and just gives meaning and fulfillment to my life.”

Learn more about the Merton Center HERE.

Be the Change #20 – Be Like Dave

Posted by on Apr 22nd, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

Dave Hartnett is another of our Pittsburgh Ceili Club friends.  One of the first things we learned about him was his passion for human development projects in Guatemala.

The World Bank counts Guatemala as having one of the most unequal income distributions in the Western Hemisphere. More than half of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  Poverty is particularly widespread among the Maya. Many Qeqchi Maya families live in one-room huts with dirt floors and thatched roofs that lack basic sanitation, running water and electricity. In the mountainous districts, almost 92% of the population lives in extreme poverty.

On a church mission trip 25 years ago to visit a sister parish in Guatemala, Dave became acquainted with the deep human need in that country, and with the pastor of the sister parish, Father Daniel Vogt.  Dave and Fr. Vogt worked on several projects together, and ultimately determined that they would be more effective if they set up their own non-profit.

Qeqchi Partners works to preserve the heritage, language and rights of the Qeqchi Maya, and help them with development projects that will increase their self-reliance and raise their standard of living.  The organization supports efforts to address high infant and maternal death rates, malnutrition, and health and education inequalities.  They are also working to bring running water, electricity and sanitation to the Qeqchi Maya villages. Their newest project is bringing biosand water filters to families in the area.  Diarrheal diseases are the main cause of death among infants and children in South America, and only 16.8% of rural Guatemalans have access to purified drinking water.  Qeqchi Partners plans to change that by making the biosand filtering technology available to families. Developed in Canada, this technology removes 95-99% of bacterial and other contaminants that are responsible for illnesses like diarrhea, amoebic dysentery, typhoid fever and worms.  Amazingly, it costs only $100 per unit, including the cost of training the families to use it, and is low-maintenance.

Dave is currently on his 24th trip to Guatemala. Learn more about Qeqchi Partners HERE.

Be the Change #19 – Be Like Debbie

Posted by on Apr 9th, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

Debbie Whitfield is my oldest friend.  We’ve known each other since we were little girls attending Sunday School at Trinity Lutheran Church in Sheraden.

Today, Debbie is a wife, mother, grandmother, working woman – and dedicated volunteer with Kiwanis.  This week’s blog post is easy, because when I asked Debbie about her volunteer experience, she sent me such a powerful story that I share it here in her own words, edited only for brevity….

I was raised by parents who served. They served at church, at our school, and with youth programs. They instilled in us the importance of giving back, and my brothers and I followed their example. I have been blessed in many ways and I want my footprint on this earth to be a positive one.

When my kids were young I volunteered at their schools and youth programs. As my kids grew up, I moved on to community groups . Kiwanis was holding a recruiting dinner and my husband and I attended. I knew most of the people there and they shared their Kiwanis story. The official mantra is that Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers, dedicated to changing the world, one child and one community at a time. I was on board in no time.

As time went on, I found out that those lofty goals were actually achievable. The Kiwanis family offers groups for every age level. We have K-kids for elementary school, Builders Clubs for middle-schoolers, Key Club for high-schoolers, Circle K for college age and action clubs for adults with special needs.

My Sheraden club sponsors many of the Kiwanis family clubs, introducing young people to a life of serving others. My club is located in Sheraden, an inner city neighborhood that has been hit hard with poverty and the issues that come with it. Sometimes partnering with other service organizations, we sponsor or co-sponsor events for kids and families throughout the year: a biggest bedtime story, an Easter egg hunt, an annual community picnic, and Halloween and Memorial Day events.  The health, safety and fun fair is my favorite event. We partner with other agencies to provide health, education and public safety resources for families. We do this in a fun hands-on environment. We provide lunch and every child receives a free bike helmet.

We also distribute books by the thousands. Owning books encourages kids to read and kids who read are kids who succeed.

The signature project at the PA state level is early childhood learning and we have distributed over 145,000 early learning guides. These guides help parents and other adults to fill the Pre-K learning niche. Kids who enter school with a solid foundation are far more likely to be academically successful.

On a global level, Kiwanis International adopts a cause and Kiwanians all over the world work on the problem. Over $100 million was raised for iodine deficiency disorder, virtually eradicating the problem on a global scale. Kiwanis International also partners with UNICEF on other significant health initiatives. Our most recent endeavor was Project ELIMINATE, geared at eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus. Simple vaccinations save lives.

Recently Kiwanis adopted a new marketing campaign that I love because it embodies the Kiwanis spirit: “Kids need Kiwanis.” The work we do with children is important and we do it with a passion to impact their lives. I would go one step further and say Kiwanians need kids, because the work we do is so rewarding. By joining my fellow Kiwanians we are changing the world, one child and one community at a time.

Be the Change #18 – The Best Hour of My Work Week

Posted by on Apr 2nd, 2017 in Blog | 2 comments

I’m not as committed a volunteer as my friend Theresa, whom I blogged about last week.  My family, my job at the bank and my writing take up most of my time.  But I obviously have a passion for the written word, and I try to focus my donations of time and money on the cause of promoting literacy.

I’m proud to work for PNC, partly because of the bank’s Grow Up Great program, which has donated millions of dollars and thousands of employee volunteer hours to early-childhood education over the years.  My team has volunteered many times to help clean and prepare classrooms for a new school year, or package literacy kits for schools.  I have donated many, many children’s books to our book drives.

I am also an annual donor to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

But, the commitment that warms my heart the most is my weekly visit to Martin Luther King School.  For the past 4 years, I have been a volunteer with the RIF Everybody Wins program.  Every Tuesday, I have the privilege of spending my lunch hour reading one-on-one with a first, second or third-grader.  It’s the most rewarding hour of my week.  The first year, they gave me the easiest kid in the world.  Corey, a 3rd-grader, already loved to read, and we read many chapter books together, including his favorites, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.  Corey was polite and charming – and knew it.  When I complimented him on his excellent manners, he replied, “Yes, the ladies at church say I’m a sweetheart.”  The following year, I was paired with Adriana, a sweet little second-grader who was obsessed with Disney’s Frozen.  Adriana had a little less attention span than Corey, and would rather draw pictures than read.  I lured her into reading with as many Frozen books as we could find, and the promise that, as we finished each book, she could draw me a picture about it.   For the past two years, I have been partnered with Zauymon, a high-energy little boy much like my own grandson.  At first, it was a challenge getting Zauymon to sit still long enough to read, but I have been gratified by his steady progress over the past two years, from a hesitant reader who preferred that I read to him, to a confident reader who now prefers to show off his skills to me.

Each of these children has been a delightful break in the middle of my busy work week, and we part at the end of each school year with hugs, a few tears, and a bag of gift books (the only time of year we are allowed to give gifts to our “reading buddies”).

I wish you could see pictures of my 3 cuties, but, for privacy reasons, we are not permitted to share their photos.  So the picture attached to this post is a generic one from the internet.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging some more about people who volunteer their time and money to causes that they care about.

What’s your passion?  How can you use it to help others?

Be the Change #17 – Be Like Theresa

Posted by on Mar 27th, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

I’m always amazed at how small decisions can change your life.  When Al and I were planning our trip to Ireland in 2014, we decided to try to learn a little about Irish dancing and music before we went.  So, we showed up at the Harp & Fiddle one Tuesday night, thinking to get one Irish dancing lesson…and we liked it so much that we’ve been showing up nearly every Tuesday ever since.  We have lots of fun with the dancing (which, I might add, one does NOT learn in one lesson!), but the real gift has been the wonderful friends that we’ve made – including one of the most admirable women I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Al and I often say we want to be Theresa when we grow up.  Everyone should be Theresa when they grow up, or at least their own version of Theresa.  Theresa has been a Christian educator, the day-program director of a women’s shelter, a sponsor of refugees, and a founder and leader of ecumenical and social justice organizations.  At 78, she is still a fierce Christian soldier and social justice warrior.

Theresa came by her activism organically.  Her husband, Harry, owned a barber shop in Oakland for many years.  As barber shops often are, it was a social hub for the community.  People came not just for haircuts, but to play cards, check in on their friends and just generally hang out.    When the 2011 micro-burst destroyed the barber shop, Harry finally retired.   He and Theresa could easily have sold the lot, but they chose instead to invite local residents to turn it into a community garden, which still thrives.

Her career in Christian education started when she was asked to substitute-teach an 8th-grade Catechism class.  It was initially not  a good experience for Theresa nor for the students, in her telling, but one thing led to another and she ended up being a Director of Christian Formation in the Diocese of Pittsburgh for 24 years.

Her community and church ties put her in contact with people of different races, religions and social classes, deepened her understanding  of what we share as human beings, and ignited in her an unwavering passion for service.  This year alone, she is being honored as both a Jefferson Award recipient and a LaRoche College Distinguished Alumna award.  A partial list of her volunteer activities includes:

Current Board of Directors of Just Harvest, serve as Chair of Personnel Committee

Founding member of North Hills Anti- Racism Coalition Steering Committee

20 years Facilitator of Annual Interfaith Gathering

Founding Member of Call to Action Committee – 10 year service as a trainer on the National Anti-Racism, Ant-Oppression Program

Pgh North People for Peace- Member

PGH  Aids Task Force – volunteer “Power of One Award”

North Hills Ebony Women  – Member

Oasis Inter-Generational Tutor- Pittsburgh Public Schools   -5 year  “Star Award”

St. Benedict the Moor Parish member and volunteer for all Ministries-25+ years

Pittsburgh Celli Club Member & Volunteer

NORTH (Social Justice Collaboration)-Representative member of the NH Anti-Racism Coalition

AJAPO – Resettlement Program for African and Caribbean immigrants – Outreach volunteer

Thomas Merton Center –Member



Not a bad resume for a little old Irish-American lady who could walk under a 5-foot bar without even mussing her hair. And her granddaughter continues her activist tradition by running an annual “Pet Walk” event to raise money for animal rights, and serving on the Monroeville Foundation Board.

My point is not that you have to do as much as Theresa does (not many of us could!), nor that you have to be active in the same causes that galvanize her.  My point is that heroes (or “sheroes” as she prefers) like Theresa should inspire the rest of us to stretch ourselves in the direction of others, to go just a little beyond what we think are the limits of what we can give, to follow the light of our own compassion where it leads us.  Theresa didn’t start as a shero.  She started a wife whose husband owned a barber shop, and a mother of 3 who offered to help out with a Catechism class.  “I saw the need and tried to respond,” is how she modestly describes her experience.  Wherever you’re starting from, let Theresa inspire you to let your light shine in someone else’s darkness.

Be the Change #16 – Understand gerrymandering

Posted by on Mar 11th, 2017 in Blog | 1 comment

Think back real hard to 9th-grade Civics.  You’ll vaguely remember a term called “gerrymandering.”  You probably haven’t thought about it since then.  But you should.  Because it is one of the reasons for the partisan divide in the United States today.

The chart below explains what gerrymandering is and shows 3 separate examples of how legislative districts can be created.


Grid 3 is what my own state of Pennsylvania looks like:  neither compact nor fair.  But both grid 1 and grid 3 can result in extreme partisanship.  Here’s why:  If you’re a Republican in a safely “red” district, you probably don’t have to worry about your Democratic opponent.  Your biggest threat is a primary challenge from the right.  So, if you want to keep your job, it is in your best interest to take extreme conservative positions, and refuse to compromise with Democrats.  The same applies for a Democratic congressman in a safely “blue” district.  It’s to his advantage to lean strongly left.

Grid 2 is less fair than grid 1, but it has the advantage of mixing conservative, liberal and moderate voters in one district. Your congressman (or woman) in that kind of district has more incentive to take moderate positions and to compromise with representatives across the aisle.

The best way to get districts that are compact, fair and hopefully moderate?  Take it out of the hands of state legislators who have personal biases in favor of their parties, and let a computer do it.  Here’s what that would look like in several strongly gerrymandered states.

Fairer districting would go a long way towards giving us back the kind of government we had between the 1950s and the 1980s.  Those of us old enough to remember the 70s and 80s can remember when Republicans and Democrats actually worked across the aisles and created compromises that benefited the whole country, instead of just their particular party’s interest groups.  If you’d like to see that happen again, you should care about gerrymandering.  Here’s a link to Fair District PA, a group that is working to create better legislative districts in Pennsylvania.

Copyright 2014 Kathryn Bashaar | Design by | Adapted from PureType