Wednesday, November 21, 2012

This Thanksgiving, Appreciating Life’s Unexpected “Gifts”

Written by Jaia Peterson Lent

Last February I was diagnosed with stage 4 rectal cancer. I am 38 years old. Cancer sucks. It also gives you gifts. Gifts I wish I could have received another way, but gifts for which I am thankful.

Even as I have worked for Generations United for 12 years, one of these gifts has been a new appreciation for the presence and perspective of the young and old in my life.

The young

My son has spent his twos with a mommy going through treatment. He has handled it like a champ. From abruptly stopping nursing before he was ready, to spending nights away from mommy,  to visiting her hooked up to a pole in the hospital, to being told mommy wants to but can't pick you up right now because her tummy hurts. He didn't like any of it, but he adjusted because he sensed that he had too.

"Mommy, you can't pick me up ‘cuz your tummy hurts? Oh. (pause) Can I see it?"

"Yes, honey."

(He examines the incision from surgery. Pause) "Did the doctor zip you up?"

“Yes, kind of."

(Pause) "He won't unzip it?"

"No. It will get better and won't need a zipper anymore."

"Okay, can I go play with my dump truck?"

I loved how we dealt with the facts and then moved on. The next thing I would hear from him was giggles and excitement from the sheer joy of play. I often think I owe my survival to him, both because I need to survive for him and because his spirit makes me want to continue to have more years of joy.

The old

When you are diagnosed with cancer in your 30's your peers are in shock. They are wonderful and supportive and concerned.  But the older people in your life understand. It's an impossible experience to explain to people. Most older people have already experienced it in some way. They've been forced to understand. They've survived it themselves or they've cared for or lost a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend, or perhaps most devastating, a child.

I have a caring bridge site where I post updates online for friends and family about how I am doing. There is a guest book for people to leave comments. About 3/4ths of the comments are from older people. Many of them are my parents' friends. This is in large part a testament to how much my parents' enormous network of friends love them and me by extension. 

It's also because older people have been there and have a profound need and skill at sharing love, prayers and insight.  I am deeply grateful for them. From them we have received letters of support, monetary gifts to help with hospital co- pays, parking, housecleaning and babysitting, and simple hugs in church to remind my husband, son and me explicitly that we are loved. The gifts of the older people, many of whom only have known me peripherally, are unmatched.

To my peers, don't get me wrong, I could not make it without your support. I write this in hopes that you and others will find the opportunity to benefit from the gifts of young and old without the pain that comes from tragedy. But if tragedy comes, know that they are an ever present and perhaps unexpected essential part of our human safety net.

By way of an update, I am now in my last stages of treatment. The doctors can no longer see any cancer- Another gift. One to which I owe the young and old in my life much thanks.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Social Security Stories: Bill Libro

BillLibroAs an eight-year-old, Bill Libro didn’t know the role Social Security played in his life after his father died. His mother collected survivor benefits on behalf of Bill and his two sisters. Only when the survivor benefits played a key role in his ability to attend college, did the full impact of the program hit home for him.

“What eight-year-old knows about the checks that come in?” said Bill. “My dad served in the Pacific during World War II, so I think my mother also received some veteran’s benefits as well. It only occurred to me later how important it was for Social Security to help us get by back then.”

As a stay-at-home mom, Bill’s mother spent most of her days doing chores on their family farm. They lived with Bill’s grandparents, just outside of Hibbing, Minnesota. Bill recalls how living with his grandparents helped everyone.

“Because we lived in a multigenerational household, it allowed us to extend the benefits my mom was receiving on our behalf,” he said. “Our being there allowed my mom to put some of the money aside to help pay for college-related costs for me and my older sister.”


Bill went to Bemidji State University in Minnesota, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in biology. In addition to doing farm chores, Bill worked construction jobs during summers while in high school and college. But, the money he made was never enough to cover his college tuition. Fortunately for Bill, while he was enrolled in college he also received a student benefit from Social Security that he used to help cover the cost of his classes. Others were not so fortunate. In 1981, Congress rescinded Social Security benefits for students enrolled in college.

“I saved up as much as I could each summer,” he said. “The student benefit made a huge difference and helped me remain in college and get my degree.” Now, Bill contributes back into Social Security himself as the Director for Federal Affairs for Minnesota Power.

Reflecting on his childhood, Bill is convinced Social Security played a crucial role in his upbringing.

“Our immediate family had no other sources of expendable income,” he said. “Because we lived on the family farm, we didn’t suffer like some others who were concerned with paying the rent or putting food on the table. But, we all worked hard and certainly scrimped on nearly everything else. Social Security benefits had a huge impact on our lives.”

For more Social Security success stories, download Generations United’s publication Social Security: What’s at Stake for Children, Youth and Older Adults.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Grand Success Stories: Stacey Walker

Stacey Walker DeskStacey Walker was four, his little sister Cymone just one when their mother was murdered in Buffalo, New York. With no father in the picture, the siblings were facing an uncertain life at the hands of child authorities until their grandmother, Shirley Martin, made the choice that she would take them in.

It was a tumultuous time for everyone. The children had lost their mother, Shirley had lost a daughter, and all were grieving. After bringing the children from Buffalo to her home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Shirley had to confront a daunting reality: how to provide for two young children on a nurse’s aide salary. Truth was, she was nearing the end of her career—she was well into her 50’s—and she worked the night shift. Money had always been tight, but now she needed to hire a babysitter to look after her grandchildren while she toiled through the night tending to sick patients and filing medical records in the basement of one of two hospitals in the town.

“Things were tough psychologically for my grandmother,” explains Stacey. “Here she was trying to come to grips with the murder of her daughter and adjusting to the fact that she would once again assume a parenting role for two very young kids.”

“Things were tough financially, as well. My grandmother already lived in a government housing project, and although her salary had been enough to keep her afloat, she now had all sorts of new expenses: clothes, food, toys—all the basics any young child needs, multiplied by two.”

Stacey remembers that his grandmother never complained and tackled her new situation the way she always had—with strength and determination.

“She made a lot of sacrifices for us, and ended up retiring early so she could raise us. She had to buy a car to get us from place to place, another added expense. Before we arrived, my grandmother would walk to and from work.” Stacey recalls. “We barely made it financially.”

What saved them, he says, were the Social Security survivor benefits the children received because their mother had died.

“I bristle when people try to paint Social Security as merely a retirement plan for older folks who didn’t work hard enough to save for themselves,” Stacey says. “Many people have no idea how much survivor benefits mean to families whose head of household has died or is permanently disabled. I know for a fact that we could not have made it without those benefits.”

But thanks to those benefits, and an incredible woman named Shirley Martin, Stacey today is a successful man. He is a Field Organizer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. 

Stacey was a success long before he worked for Obama’s re-election campaign. “I was always quite different from other kids in my neighborhood,” Stacey notes. “I had several interests, including sports, music, and debate. Those things cost money; money we didn’t have. But my grandmother always figured a way to make it work.”

Stacey remembers one incident in particular. “As a sophomore in high school, I was selected to attend a leadership conference in Washington, DC. Needless to say, we didn’t have the money for me to attend.

“At the time I had an internship with one of the most well-respected law firms in the state of Iowa. So, on her own—and without my knowledge—my grandmother approached each partner and asked for a donation to send me to the conference. They all contributed. Then, my grandmother persuaded our church to take up two offerings to support my trip.”

The leadership conference proved to be a critical juncture in Stacey’s life. From there, Stacey went on to earn a BA from the University of Iowa in 2010. But his college years were markedly different from those of his peers. In 2006, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America tapped Stacey to serve as their National Spokesperson. In that role, he travelled around the globe to address various groups and advance the organization’s mission. For his efforts, he was awarded the Presidential Service Award by President George W. Bush..

Through the Boys & Girls Club, Stacey learned about Generations United. In 2008, he attended the Third National GrandRally that brought together grandfamilies from around the country to push for national policy initiatives surrounding fairness in federal benefits for intergenerational families.

“At the rally, Donna Butts [executive director of Generations United] approached me and said that there was an opportunity for me to meet with staff for Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa to talk about the need for supportive policies for grandfamilies,” Stacey explains. I did, and after our chat, the Senator introduced legislation that supported our policy goals and eventually became law.”

More recently, Stacey has had the honor to work closely with members of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which involved enacting parts of the President’s economic agenda, including the JOBS Act.

Pretty impressive for a guy whose early life was so tumultuous. And, as he’ll tell you, he owes it all to his grandmother.

To read more inspiring stories of people raised in grandfamilies, download Generations United publication Grand Successes: Stories of Lives Well-Raised today!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Grand Success Stories: Don Thompson

When you have the support of a grandmother like Rosa Martin, anything is possible—even rising to the top of the world’s biggest foodservice company. Just ask Don Thompson.

Thompson, the newly-minted president and CEO of McDonald’s, credits his success to his grandmother’s love and encouragement. Thompson spent his early childhood in a rough area of Chicago, where his grandmother raised him from the time he was two weeks old. When Thompson was ten, his grandmother decided she needed to raise her grandson in a safer environment, so the two moved to Indianapolis.

Thompson’s entrepreneurial spirit began at a young age, and was directly affected by his grandmother and her friends. "When I was 11 years old, I printed up little business cards and distributed them in a nearby convalescent home," Thompson told the Franchise Times, "The residents hired me to do errands or clean their apartments."

That entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with Rosa Martin’s emphasis on education, led Thompson to enroll at Purdue University’s School of Engineering. "My grandmother gave everything she had to get me into and through Purdue," Thompson told Black Enterprise magazine in 2007. After earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Thompson worked in aeronautics until an executive recruiter came calling. The recruiter was pitching a job that involved working with robotics and control circuitry for one of the best-known corporations in the world: McDonalds. Thompson accepted the offer and began a 22-year ascent to the top.

Now that Thompson is leading an internationally popular fast-food chain, he still remembers where he came from and the important role his grandmother played in his success. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, when Rosa Martin was told that her grandson was McDonald’s newest CEO, she began crying, saying, “I must have done something right.”

To read more inspiring stories of people raised in grandfamilies, download Generations United publication Grand Successes: Stories of Lives Well-Raised today!