How Did It All Start?

I’m not going to take you back to the high school sweethearts going to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on their first date.

I’m not going to take you back to borrowing my Dad’s car because my 1967 Volkswagen Beetle had absolutely no heat and the aforementioned sweetheart didn’t like that.

I’m not going to…….

Oh wait, never mind.

Instead, I’m just going to go back to let’s say 2002. We had three girls and they were all in the “double digits” age and were doing well.

And then we started hearing a whisper. No, it wasn’t the voices in my head.

It was a whisper that was calling us to consider “more.”

But it didn’t really make clear what “more” was.

Until one Sunday in October of 2002, we were sitting around on a Sunday afternoon and one of those “unspoken” conversations happened between my better half and I. And we realized that we could do “more.”

Or at least we had to find out what “more” was.

For real. Not hypothetical but let’s actually find out what God’s nudging was leading us to. What is the more that he wanted to show us?

We had no idea what we were getting into.

Some days we still don’t.

But we knew it was time to try to figure out what God was up to.

How do we tell the kids?

So, we decided that we’d write a letter.

And we’d give it to them at Christmas. Sort of like Gideon’s fleece – if they all ran to their rooms screaming in terror, well God, now what?

After all of the presents were opened, we told them all to sit down on the couch and I got three envelopes from the top of the Christmas tree. I gave them each one with specific instructions;
• Open it and read what is inside.
• Because you all read at different speeds, do not say anything until all three of you are done reading.

In the letter, we talked about how they were great girls (still are) and that we felt God was calling us to do “more” but we didn’t know what more was. It could be:
• Being foster parents
• Doing medical fostering
• Adopting domestically
• Adopting internationally
• We didn’t know but we felt God was calling us to find out.
And then we ended the letter with the “Starfish Poem.”

It made a difference for “that one.”

Reactions?
⁃ the oldest – I want a baby brother!
⁃ the middle – Please not a boy – my friends all say their brothers are so annoying!
⁃ the youngest – I’m not going to be the baby of the family any more!

Okay, God, it’s a go.

And boy was and is it a ride.

Tom

Time – What Time Is It?

I can’t speak for other countries, but Americans are obessed with time.

What time is it?

How long does it take to get there?

How long is it going to take?

Buy this latest calendar/planner – it’s guaranteed to change your life and make you a multi-millionaire!

(Sarcasm alert)

Let me tell you two stories that changed my view of time. (Second one will come in Part 2).

In 2003, we were in the process of adopting and getting all of the paperwork pulled together. As part of that, we had to get certain documents “notarized” and then “authenticated” by the Haitian embassy. Given as how we weren’t too excited to send important documents by mail, we decided to schedule an appt and take the day off, drive to Chicago, get them authenticated and be back home by supper time.

The night before, I was reviewing the paperwork one last time and realized we had to get one document stamped with the seal of the State of Michigan before the Haitian embassy could authenticate it all. Suddenly our trip got longer – we had to go an hour east before we could go down to Chicago. But we figured out that if we were there, in Lansing Michigan, by the time the office opened, we could still make our appointment on time. If all went well.

If. Two small letters, one big word.

We left home early enough to make it to Lansing on time. In and out, like clock work. Headed straight to Chicago – well, as straight as we could. Traffic was good, all was on time. It was going to be close but all was looking good.

And suddenly, it all changed.

Red lights up ahead.

Almost there – we could see the building. And we’d make it on time!

If the red lights up ahead didn’t block the entire road. It was 4 lanes – give us one or two lanes open, please?

If only. If only the accident had happened a little way down the road. But it didn’t.

And we waited and waited.

And missed our appt. by 20 minutes. “I’m sorry, Mr. ________ left for lunch.” “Okay, can we come back after lunch? We’re sorry we missed our appt. It was because of a car accident.”

So we went and got lunch and came back about 1:30. “Have a seat, they should be back soon.”

And we waited.

And we waited.

And we waited.

Finally, four hours after they left for lunch, they returned. Very friendly, very welcoming, very quick to get things done and we were on our way.

It was our first introduction to Haitian time.

Time where relationships are more important than schedules.

A time that doesn’t worry about technicalities – like how long lunch is.

Over the years, we’ve heard other stories from friends about Haitian time. It was our first exposure to a different way of looking at time.

It also was our first exposure to really truly realizing that when we were entering into international adoption, we were entering into a different culture as well.

In many ways.

What time is it? Yeah, whatever……

Tom

Getting Smart

In the previous post, we talked about how it is important to push back against confusion and misunderstanding. We talked about how it’s important to push back against those because if we can clear up confusion and misunderstanding, it’s easier to push back against evil.

Why? Because evil likes to create confusion.

Evil likes to use misunderstanding to hide from the light of day.

Now I want to make it more personal. I don’t want to talk about government policies that are confusing. I don’t want to talk about how the motives behind what so and so does are being misunderstood.

I want to talk about you. I want to talk about me.

I can’t speak for you, maybe you do. I don’t.

Don’t what? I don’t know everything.

Not even close. Actually, so far from close that it’s funny to even think about.

But I know that if I get smarter, I can make more of a difference. If I ask questions, I can learn more. If I read about things, I can learn what is going on.

Most people are more afraid of what they don’t know about than what they do. If they don’t understand what is happening or why, that can create fear. It can create contempt.

I don’t understand your music – so it must be bad music.

I don’t understand your language – so you must be talking nasty about something or someone.

I don’t understand your religion so I don’t like you.

I don’t…….

The list can go on and on and on.

But if I do understand, then I can see you for you, not for what I didn’t understand.

If I do understand, then I can see the reason behind behaviors and not be afraid of the behaviors as evil or hostile.

If I understand your history, then I can appreciate your cultural festivals and respect them and you better.

If I understand the reason behind events in history, then I can see them for the impact they have on you and on me.

Most people are afraid of things that they don’t understand.

Many people will, when they understand things or people or traditions or habits or whatever, respond in a way that furthers communication and relationships.

And that makes the world a better place.

Tom

Tom

Twitter and the Earthquake in Haiti

(This was originally written for the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Social Media blog when I was on the External Advisory Committee there.)
(This was originally written in 2011 – before certain political figures and television “former” stars gave Twitter a bit of a black eye so to speak).

Many people think that the only thing Twitter is good for is telling people what you had for dinner and what coffee shop you are at.

Wrong.

Let me tell you a story about how Twitter worked to help the orphans in Haiti……

Prior to January 12, 2010, I used Twitter for a couple of main reasons:

  • To interact with real estate and mortgage people all over the country.   It is a great way to keep up with people all over the country, talk to them about what’s happening and to not feel so “alone.”
  • To keep up the news and the markets.   In the mortgage world, it was and is very important to keep on top of what is happening in the markets, the economic reports, the direction of the interest rate market and things like that.

So, I had found a number of the main news sources and was following them.    Places like the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the Washington Post, CNBC, the Today Show, Ann Curry, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric, Al Roker, Barry Ritholtz and a bunch more were all on my “follow” list.   I also followed all of the local TV stations and newspapers and their reporters.   I created a separate list in TweetDeck (my favorite and almost only twitter app) that shows only what they are saying.

Now keep in mind, the orphanage that my wife and I adopted our two youngest children from is about 15 miles outside of Port Au Prince Haiti.

Well, I’m sitting at my computer at 5:07 pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 and Tweetdeck pops up one of those boxes in the upper corner of my screen showing one of the new tweets that just came in.    It was a tweet that changed my life forever.

“Major 7.5 Earthquake hits Port Au Prince Haiti” and then a link to their article.    I clicked on it, read the article with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.    This was bad.   Devastatingly bad.

Within 10 minutes, I had reached our Adoption Coordinator via instant messenger (located in Colorado) and she was on a cell phone with John B (the orphanage director’s husband).    So about 25 minutes after the earthquake, I had confirmed news that our orphanage had survived and that we had experienced no casualties at the orphanage (though we didn’t know the status of our staff who weren’t on duty at that point.)

And then the phone calls started coming.   Being an adoptive parent and a board member, many families who were in process of adopting knew me and my family and started calling us and asking us what we knew about what was going on with the earthquake.   I’m so glad that I was able to reassure them that their child was safe within 25 minutes of the earthquake.

From 5:15 PM on Tuesday until 4:00 AM Wednesday morning, I spent virtually the entire time glued to the computer and the phone.   I was scouring all of the major news websites but I soon learned that I was able to find out more news of what was really happening in Haiti and with the earthquake on Twitter than I was anywhere else.    So, I’m searching Twitter using terms like #Haiti and #PAP and #Earthquake and getting live reports from people on the ground in Haiti.    I was then able to pass that information on to our supporters and adoptive parents.   Using Twitter to keep on breaking news from the “front lines” is a great benefit.

But that wasn’t the most powerful way that Twitter changed the lives of orphans in Haiti on January 12, 2010.    The most important aspect of Twitter that made a difference that day is Twitter’s ability to be the great equalizer.   I’ve had interactions with people on Twitter who I never would have had the opportunity to if it weren’t for Twitter.   News reporters, CNBC guest commentators, PGA golfers and others are all on “that” list of people who I’ve tweeted with that I never would have otherwise.    But probably the most popular one is Ann Curry from the Today Show.

About 8:30 or so that night, Ann Curry posted on Twitter, “Trying to get in touch with anyone in Port Au Prince Haiti who speaks English – need an interview.”    I chimed in, “I’m “talking” with our orphanage there – they all speak English.”

We went back and forth a bit trying to connect.   At the same time, I was IM’ng with our staff in Colorado and they were talking/texting with our staff in Haiti (when they could get through.)    Then I got a message from Ann – “How do we get in touch with them?”    Shortly after that, I got an e e-mail that said:

Tom Vanderwell, Ann Curry is following you  on Twitter

I haven’t framed it yet, but I think I’m going to.

It was then that I had to step away from the computer for a minute because the power of Twitter just kind of hit me.    Here was this mortgage lender from West Michigan talking to one of the anchors of the Today Show in the middle of the first night of an international disaster.

All because of two things:

  • The power of Twitter to be the great equalizer – More of the “high profile” people are accessible than they have ever been.
  • The willingness to speak up.   Twitter is most powerful when you aren’t a Twitter “Stalker” (always listens but never says anything) but also aren’t a “Twitter Hog” (someone who clutters up the space with very little of importance.)

Back to the story – Ann and I exchanged a few more DMs and she got the contact info that they needed down in Haiti.    About 30 minutes later, I got a Facebook message from the orphanage director’s daughter (working on her laptop outside the orphanage where she could still get a signal – they didn’t know if it was safe to go inside).     The Facebook message said that Dixie was talking to a producer from NBC.

What was the end result of the Twitter conversations that I had with Ann Curry?

The Today Show started the Wednesday morning broadcast (the day after) with an interview with the orphanage director.  Because of Twitter, Ann Curry’s willingness to be accessible and my willingness to speak up, the orphans in Haiti, especially the ones at “my” orphanage got a lot more publicity than they would have otherwise.    And that additional publicity led to additional support at a time when we really needed it.

My recommendations are:

  • Set up Twitter to develop a list/group (depending on what app you use) for the news people that would impact your life and your work.
  • Don’t be afraid to interact with those people and places – not as a spammer or trying to sell something but as someone who cares about their community and has something useful to add.

You’ll be amazed at how powerful Twitter can be.

TJV

200 Colored Buttons and 4 Cans of Diet Coke

So, I live on the west side of Michigan – about 30 minutes from Lake Michigan. There’s a school on the other side of the state where an adoptive mom teaches – she has two children from Haiti and I consider her a friend.

When I was working for the orphanage, she asked me if I would come to their school and talk to their kids about Haiti and what it is like as part of their multi-cultural week. Obviously, I was very happy to – not only was it what I did for a living, but it was and is a passion of mine.

The day came, and I showed up with a small cooler and with 4 bags of various colored buttons. The teacher had 6 kids make sure that each of the approximately 160 students picked a button out of one of the bags before they sat down in the auditorium.

After introductions, I told them they were going to be participating and asked them all to stand up.

“If you have a black button, I need you to sit down. Right now.”

“Those of you who did not sit down, take a look around at your friends who are sitting down.”

“They died.”

“Before kindergarten. They never went to school.”

“You never got to play with them on the play ground. That many of the children in Haiti never live to the age of 5.”

Stunned silence…….

“Okay, moving on. If you have a blue button, please sit down.”

“You are alive, and most of you live until adulthood, but you never got more than a 5th grade education. You never got to learn the things that it really takes to hold down a steady job. You missed out on the “high school” years because you were hauling water or working in the fields and trying to figure out how to make enough of a living to put food on the table. Tonight. You aren’t worried about next week, you’re worried about tonight. Oh and you might have learned how to write your name, you might not have learned that skill.

“If you have a yellow button – please sit down. Congratulations, you “graduated” from middle school, but never any farther. Minimal wage manual labor jobs are in your future.”

At this point, approximately 80% of the students are sitting down. The students who are standing up are looking around at all of their friends who are sitting down and starting to feel uncomfortable. Why are they still standing?

“If you have a green button, please sit down. Yep, you guessed it. You got to go to high school, but you didn’t make it through. Graduation was not in your vocabulary and any time you apply for a job, you won’t be able to say you have a high school diploma.”

At this point, I asked them all to take a look around the auditorium. A minute (well, maybe 30 seconds) of silence as they all looked around and it sunk in that of the approximately 160 students who came into the auditorium, there were 4 still standing.

They had the red buttons.

That’s right four.

One over there.

One in the back.

One right in the middle of a really long row of friends.

and one sitting off to the side.

“If I did it right, all four of you have red buttons, correct?”

They all say yes or nod. Obviously feeling uncomfortable being the only four still standing in the auditorium.

“Come down front please.”

They slowly and reluctantly come down to the front and I meet them at the front edge of the stage. I hand them the small cooler that has been sitting next to the podium.

“Here, this is for you. You four are the entire graduating class. That’s right, out of all of these fellow students, out of all of those who died before they could even attend school, you achieved the statistically unachievable. You graduated from high school.”

“In some of the worst schools in America, it would be considered a tragedy if half of the students didn’t graduate. Less than 4% graduate on average in Haiti.”

“Open up, the cooler is for you. While I’m talking more about Haiti, have a seat right here in the front row, enjoy the Cokes, enjoy the candy bars. You earned it.”

Awkward silence…….

“Mr. Vanderwell, can we take these home instead? We feel really awkward eating these in front of our friends who have nothing.”

“And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the point of my time here and a little glimpse of what life is like in Haiti.”

I told them more about Haiti and about the orphanage, but I could have (and probably should have) ended it right there.

At that point, less than 4% of the students graduate from high school and the United States is a very short plane trip away and it doesn’t seem to bother us. What’s up with that?

I don’t know whether it bothered them more or bothered me more.

But I know I won’t forget the time I spent with those high schoolers. It’s been 6 years and the statistics might have changed a little bit, but very very little.

However, according to the current US administration, Haiti is doing very well and able to absorb an additional 60,000 people who would have to go back if the Temporary Protection Status is lifted.

Stay tuned – how does Gilligan fit into this?

Tom