Wednesday, February 20, 2013

One Letter Can Go a Long Way

I have had an interesting and informative couple of months engaging different experts in conversations about our town’s school safety protocols and gun safety. For those interested in where my January letter to the Needham Times has taken me, I would like to describe my efforts here. I would guess that similar experiences are being logged around the country, so even if you are not from Needham, MA, you may be interested in this journey. 

My letter which was printed in the January 3rd edition of the Needham Times was shorter than, but similar in theme to, the post I included here on December 19, 2012. The letter included a link to an online survey to gauge the interest of readers. The response to that letter was overwhelmingly in favor of a discussion or coalition of related groups to discuss improvements in Needham's school safety protocols and access to/awareness of mental health support systems.

With collected survey responses as support, I contacted our School Committee members, our Youth Services Director, and our school Superintendent. I have had productive conversations with the principals of my local elementary and middle schools and I was invited to participate in their Health and Safety Committee meetings. I also met with our school superintendent and the director of our Youth Services organization who were both very welcoming of a dialogue and gave me confidence that our students' safety is of the utmost importance and that it is in good hands. Regular review of safety protocols and of mental health service offerings is invaluable and is occurring here.

The high school principal and I had a productive email conversation where we both learned from each other. Specifics shared with me by the principal may be of interest to readers

"...we work with the town on a regular basis to review our safety protocols and procedures. We routinely meet with the Public Facilities, Police, and Fire Departments to review and update our security procedures and protocols. For example, the building-based Health and Safety Committee meets to monitor and address emergent facilities and safety issues, and I meet with Local Emergency Planning Committee, which is made up of all town chiefs (police, fire, etc.) and department heads, to plan for different types of emergency situations that might involve the high school. 

"Earlier this year we began the process of updating our master key system to enhance our lock down protocols. Over the coming summer we will purchase and install a new digital radio system that will provide all offices, administrators, and department heads with campus-wide instant communication access in the event of an emergency. We have also planned to install a card/key fob access entry system for faculty and staff over the next 1-2 years which will further restrict access to the building during school hours. In addition, this will allow us to prevent doors from being propped open and to track more closely the comings and goings of individuals as they enter and exit the building."

I see three take-aways from my efforts:
  1. My initial plan was to help bring together various expert groups to have a dialogue that would be beneficial to improving the safety of our town's children and all residents. I feel now that some of those conversations are already happening. Although the conversations are not taking place in one central forum, I understand that they are taking place through various committees and relationships. The tragedy in Newtown has heightened all related groups' interest in providing safe school environments for our students. I feel confident that the best people are staying tuned in to the problems and I will continue to offer my help as a liaison between parents and Health & Safety Committees.
  2. The conversations I have had with two principals have resulted in improved guidelines and execution of safety protocols at those two schools. I understand the steps that have been taken at the High School in recent years to improve student safety and my concern about unlocked doors was listened to and will be addressed as soon as possible. None of the schools will ever have perfectly executed safety protocols, every minute of every day, but the plans and intentions are in place to make the schools secure. As visitors of our schools, we have a responsibility to adhere strictly to the security guidelines and to report security breaches when they happen. Our school superintendent is considering increasing the frequency and methods of communicating school safety protocols and improvements – look for his updates on his Needham Channel broadcasts, in the annual Needham Public Schools Performance Report, and possibly in other ways.
  3. I have been invited to assist one of our ministers from the Congregational Church of Needham in organizing a public forum. The forum’s agenda is under development but it will aim to address gun safety as a matter of public health. It should be a very helpful event for our town and I hope to add some value to it and to others like it. The rough goals of the event are:
  • To raise awareness in the community about the presence and reality of guns in our midst
  • To educate ourselves about gun safety as a matter of public health

Lastly, over the past two months, I have come to understand the importance of speaking up for something, even if it seems as if one voice cannot make a difference. The letters I and many others have written in the wake of the Newtown, CT tragedy have started a chain of events in the right direction toward tightening of gun control, increasing gun safety and improving public health. Letters written for publications can inspire readers to act in unanticipated, helpful ways. The letters we write to elected officials do matter. Our government representatives are getting the message – from many. I encourage everyone who is concerned about assault weapons in our communities and loopholes in our gun laws to take the time to make your views known to your elected officials. Email makes it so easy to contact them. If you have already contacted one or more, do it again. Sincerity and frequency matters. Keep repeating the message in order to compete with those emailing and calling with an opposing message.

When a mentally unstable gunman decides to enter a building – whether it be a school, a movie theater, a mall, or a workplace - he will most likely succeed. The best way to minimize those occurrences and the number of resulting casualties is to decrease the accessibility of guns, ban assault weapons and their large-capacity magazines, and strengthen our mental health support systems. The forum I describe above is a small step toward raising the public's consciousness of the prevalence of guns in our community. I hope that from it will come further action by individuals to prevent gun violence. This is a complicated problem that needs to be addressed from many angles. A simple, sincere letter can make a difference, even from one person.

p.s. Please do not comment if your comment includes an unrelated link. I review all comments before they are posted and do not post ones containing unrelated links. Thank you!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Best Birthday Ever

A number of amazing things have happened to me as a direct result of publishing Preacher Kid. The one that will stick with me the longest happened on my birthday. I have a Christmas season birthday so it generally gets absorbed into the holiday and is only acknowledged by a small but crucial few. This past birthday was the first time in 10 years I have not spent my birthday in a mini-van speeding across I-90 from Boston to Cleveland.

I had a real birthday: I woke up in the house of my destination, surrounded by people I love. And there was cake. But this year, I learned that my sister had given my book not just as a gift to her three children, but to my cousin, Jamie, whose name she had in our gift exchange. Our annual cousin Christmas party was on my birthday, so the “surrounded by people I love” element expanded exponentially.

I grew up in an environment where my cousins were my first friends. For as long as I can remember, but with a blur as to how frequently, we met at my paternal grandparents’ house on Sunday afternoons for dinner with our cousins. The house was about a mile away from my house, even closer to one set of cousins, and my East Side cousins made the much farther trek. There was KFC and Jell-O on the outside tables for the kids and the adults ate inside (brilliant!). We played simple games that always developed a distinct element of daredevil or insanity. We loved and tormented each other, depending on the personalities, and we always looked forward to the event, even though it carried with it a small edge of danger and unpredictability.

All these years later, I look over our group and realize how close we have all fallen from the tree that sprouted us. It is no wonder most of my sisters and cousins are in medical, education or counseling professions – coming from my grandfather (the doctor), from my aunts who were extraordinary nurses and teachers, and from my dad and his brother who were exceptional teachers. We represent an extremely wide array of personalities and those differences are noticeable in everyone’s approach to their own lives and loves. But there is a strong underlying current that is the same. Somewhere in the craziness of those Sunday afternoons, grew love and compassion, toward each other and aimed at the world around us. Now as adults, we celebrate each other’s achievements, small and large, we counsel and console each other about life's daily grind, and we catch each other when we fall. We know each other better than many others do, even though we only see each other twice a year. We understand our inner core and know we will always be accepted and loved in this mix. That is surely why we work so hard to get together – an extraordinary objective we gladly relish at Christmas and during the last week of every July.

So this past December, I found myself in my cousin, Anne’s, amazing century-old house with my family of 5, my three sisters and their families, spending the afternoon with many of my McCarthy cousins - bringing our total to 31. My cousin, Jamie, had started reading my book and gave it a glowing review, demanding an autograph of his copy when I see him this summer. Kelly (lover of all things vintage) admired the pictures and I could have talked to her all day about Esther's story. Jamie made a toast to me and of course there was cake. Dan, nearing 20, sweetly reminded me of our bond as December babies and I could so easily picture him making someone feel grounded and safe as the firefighter he is training to be. I could not have been in a better place. And the whole reason I began my grandma’s story was so that her story would not fade away. Here it was, being shared and gaining a following.

These are the kids I grew up with. They knew Esther, my maternal grandmother, but not the way I did. And they were genuinely excited to learn about the life of the woman they had known. They made me feel great about myself and my self-publishing. It now stands as the best birthday of my life – beating out my 16th when my parents threw a surprise party for me - where my mom watched guiltily as I almost had a heart attack in my own basement. That was a rather longstanding benchmark for birthdays. Who knows what else this book will bring.

One other amazing thing I want to share is that my son, Liam, converted the book to an iBook and it is now available from the iTunes Store. The iBook version is the best version, for the clearer, bigger pictures and a little 1970 video!