Week 42: Cleaning Kitty Boxes is…. Fun?!?

Project: Volunteering for Colony Cats in Columbus

Time Taken: 3.5 hours

Here’s a sentence I never thought I would say: I had so much fun scooping poop out of litter boxes, I lost track of time.

Yeah. Weird for me too.

I found Colony Cats via VolunteerMatch.org before I had even left Boston, hoping to get a jump on my one-hour-a-week-of-volunteering mission. Colony Cats was one that jumped out at me right away.

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Having a feline friend of my own, I immediately was interested in getting to play with other fur balls, and signed up right away.

I showed up at the crack of 9 am the first day of volunteering sleepy but excited. (Shows get out around 11 pm every night and we had just been though moving from Boston and performing in our opening week in Columbus, which is always exhausting. So 9 am may as well have been 6 for all my body knew)

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I walked into the store-front of the Colony, which had a nice glass front for the kitties to watch the swarming packs of birds. These flocks seemed to know that they had the power to mock these captive kitties from the safety of the other side of the glass and hung around all morning, causing a few frustrated outbursts from the Colony Cats.

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“Hey. You have thumbs. Let me out so I can get a bird!”

The inside of the facility is a series of different rooms made homey with cat trees and benches for the kitties to play and nap on all over. It smelled to high heaven, of course, so I met everyone who was volunteering, had a brief orientation, and got quickly to work.

Litter boxes a-go-go!

First order of business- cleaning the numerous litter boxes that lined every room. There were about 135 cats in the facility, one volunteer estimated, so there was lots of scooping to be done. They use the clay based litter, making the… ahem.. wet parts of the litter quite heavy. At the end of the day I was sporting a sore shoulder and hand from the sheer force I had to exert on the metal scooper to get the job done!

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An impressive fur ball I made from brushing the cat trees.

After the litter is cleaned, I brushed all of the carpeted cat trees to get the fur from napping cats off, and then swept and mopped the floor.

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Right after cleaning the cat trees, they were immediately repopulated. Note their very own fish tank to enjoy!

All this took about an hour, and that was just the front room! The other, more experienced volunteers seemed to be flying through their sections and I vowed that by the end of my monthly visits it would take me less than an hour per room to clean!

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My clean front room!

After I was done with two rooms, it felt so good to look back over my work and see (and smell!) the difference. It seems like such a small task, but somehow noticing how the little dust bunnies of cat hair were gone and how the room was much more manageably cat-smelling, I was incredibly proud of myself and felt quite rewarded.

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“Can you pet me now, please?” – One adoptable kitty who lost his eye in a fight before he was taken in by the Colony.

I was so engrossed with cleaning that I literally lost track of time and missed an appointment with my personal trainer! (Sorry Heidi!) No one was more surprised with this than me. Cleaning my own cat’s litter box is one of the more loathed chores in my house, so the fact that I spent almost four hours cleaning hundred’s of other cat’s poop and having a good time was strange for me to realize!

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Cat fight!

After I was done cleaning, I hung out with a few of the more needy kitties. So many times while I was cleaning a kitty would mew for attention, try to play with my brush, or rub on my leg to try to get some love. Lots of the cats are absolutely love bugs, and I would take 10 to 15 minute breaks just losing myself in the soft fur of one of these attention-starved babies.

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Lots of kitties to love on!

So at the end of my shift, I rewarded myself with some one-on-one attention for the more needy souls in the facility, like this one sweetheart of a cat, who had lost an eye in a cat fight before being rescued. All he wanted was for me to talk to him and give him scratches under his chin, mewing indigently in protest when I stopped.

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“Love me! Looooove me!”

I was exhausted from my morning of scooping and lifting and mopping at the Colony, I walked back into this:

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Classic Copeland.

Apparently Copeland decided to protest his once-every-other-day litter box cleaning schedule and tell me exactly how he felt about it. I sighed, retrieved my broom and dust pan, and got right back to work.

All pictures by Me!

If you want to add a feline friend to your life, or want to donate to this wonderful charity, click here!

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Week 41: The first Autism Friendly Show in Boston ever!

Project: Performance for Autism Speaks

Time Taken: 4 hours

Magic and Disney go together like peas and carrots. I have the unbelievable privilege to create magical moments every night as I step out on stage at my job as a dancer in the cast of the national touring cast of the Lion King.

But some nights are more magical than others.

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The lobby of the Boston Opera House

This week, we had the honor to perform for an audience completely comprised of adults and children who are all along the autism spectrum and their families. It’s the second time I’ve participated in this special show, and the third time our touring cast has hosted this special event. Last year in Pittsburgh, I was absolutely floored not only at the audience’s response to the show, but my own emotional reaction.

This year, I was determined to keep it together.

I didn’t even make it past the initial meeting.

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A Lion King fan. Ha.

We met earlier in the week as a cast to see the technical changes required of such a special show. Lights are brought up, there is no total black out, sounds are slightly muted, and certain special effects, such as our strobe lights and CO2 geysers, are cut all together. All of these adjustments are made to make our autistic guests more comfortable, as most of these effects and stage techniques can be startling or unsettling, but for the cast, it changes the show dramatically.

We are so used to doing the same exact show with all the same effects every night, six nights a week, 52 weeks a year, and in my case, for going on six years now. Any minuscule change in the show, whether someone flubs a line slightly, a musical cue is a little early, or a light doesn’t go on when it’s supposed to, is easily noticed by us backstage. So to change so many aspects of the show, the stage management team had to prepare us.

Ken Davis, our intrepid leader, gave a beautiful, moving speech about the effect our show had on a particular child in Pittsburgh, so was too afraid to come into the show until he convinced him to come see Timon and Pumbaa sing “Hakuna Matata.” The boy finally came into the theater and quickly forgot his fears, bouncing along with the song with abandon.

Cue my waterworks.

We got through the rehearsal and were ready for show day, and I pulled myself together, thinking that I would be stronger the day of the show. No tears would leak from these false-eyelash laden eyes, I told myself. (Tears quickly ruin a good pair of fake lashes, if you didn’t know.)

Before the show, I went out into the lobby, to see how we were preparing in the front for our audience that afternoon, and it was simply amazing. Quiet rooms, toys to occupy busy hands, and smiling volunteers were everywhere ready to help. The audience filled in slowly, almost apprehensively, taking their seats and apologizing for their child running down an aisle before realizing that they didn’t have to- they were among the understanding.

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Calming areas were found throughout the lobby.

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Fun toys for anyone who needed them.

I got ready for the show, enjoying the electric energy that this special show gives the cast. Only a few of us had experienced it last year, and we were looking forward to joy that flooded us a year ago coming again. Those that hadn’t experienced it yet were excitedly nervous, not knowing what the show would hold. Two years ago a guest tried to run up on stage- would that happen again this year, they wondered? (For the record, no, it didn’t. Although there was a story of a guest finding their way into the upstairs dressing rooms from the lobby somehow. A cast member saw them run down the hall with a volunteer trailing them. Exciting stuff!)

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Preparing for the show.

We got an official welcome from the mayor of Boston, as this was the first Autism Friendly show in Boston’s history. We didn’t get to meet him, but it was very cool begin introduced by him and knowing that we had his full support.

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Thanks Mayor Walsh!

I though the first act without a hitch, proud of how professional I could be when I needed to be, and still enjoying looking out on the bouncing, yelling, happy faces of our audience with joy in my heart.

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The inter lobby of the Boston Opera House

And then the second act started.

If you’ve seen our show, you know what happens. If you haven’t, I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but let’s just say that I get to go out and perform in the audience for one song, “One by One.” It’s one of my favorite parts of the show, as I get to make direct eye contact with our audience members, and even sometimes get to give high fives to willing kids. I don’t know why I thought i would make it though this scene without any kind of reaction, because the minute I stepped out into the buzzing audience, I felt the tears begin to prick the back of my eyes.

I ran into my assigned aisle and began to sing and caught eyes with a row of special needs kids with the happiest, beaming faces I had ever seen. They waved, giggled, smiled and laughed though the song, and I could help but give my biggest smile back. When the song ended, I gave them each a high five, receiving a few sticky hands in return. I didn’t even care.

I ran backstage to get ready for my next scene and the local makeup artist saw the tears I was holding back. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she remarked as she painted stripes on my face. “It’s just so amazing that you guys are doing this.”

I thought about what she said, and realized she was wrong. We aren’t the amazing ones. They are. The ones living their lives with autism, their friends and families who care for them- they are far more amazing than anything I can imagine.

Something else that our stage manager Ken Davis had said at the meeting popped into my head, and I realized the truth in these words as my tears streaked my face paint: “This is a performance where the audience are the real stars.”

And he couldn’t have been more right.

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Intermission at the Boston Opera House

All photos by Selena Moshell – All rights reserved –

Week 40: Panera Cares

Project: Panera Cares Cafe

Time Taken: 45 minutes

 

Lunch at Panera Cares Cafe, take two. And…. action!!

 

After a false start, I finally made it to Panera Cares Cafe between a rehearsal and a show this week, thanks to it’s close proximity to the theater.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 2.28.32 PM(Image Courtesy Of RestaurantNews.com)

 

Panera Cares Cafe works is this: There are three levels of payment. One level where you pay the suggested donation rate, or more if you can afford it, to help sustain the cafe’s working costs. The next level is to donate what you feel is a fair share, if you’re struggling a food insecurity. Finally, if you have nothing to give monetarily, the cafe offers a plan where you can donate an hour of volunteering in exchange for a meal.

 2014-10-03 17.22.35How it all works!

I didn’t know any of this when I walked in for a quick bite to eat. From the outside, and even the front counter, it looks exactly like any other Panera. The main difference are the locked plastic donation boxes attached to the front of every cash register, and the signs explaining the different levels of giving you can choose. But if I hadn’t taken the time to read the signs, I may have thought it was just another Panera Cafe.

 2014-10-03 17.22.52Looks familiar, doesn’t it?

I talked to the sweet people that were working, who patiently explained how the system works, and ordered my food, just like any other Panera. I paid a little more more than the suggested donations for each item on the menu, to make sure to cover my costs, and sat down at a small, creme colored table surrounded by the same art that is at any other Panera.

 

The manager delivered my food and retrieved my vibrating disk that told me my food was ready (which actually is above and beyond service wise for a Panera- usually that disk-thing explodes in a buzz of noise and red led lights on the table and scares the crap out of me) and I enjoyed my sandwich and salad combo, just like any other Panera.

 

See the pattern here?

 2014-10-03 17.27.36Yummy. Just like any other Panera.

I guess I wasn’t expecting it to be so… similar. I guess I expected to be more aware of the people in the cafe who were clearly struggling to put food on their table daily. But to see a business man in a suit with a leather briefcase sitting at a table next to a woman wearing four layers of tattered clothing with a bag containing all of her earthly belongings was amazingly refreshing. No one seemed to blink an eye, no one look down their nose at anyone else, and the dream of everyone being able to eat with dignity was suddenly a reality all around me.

 

It’s so easy to forget, in our privileged, comfortable, safe existence how close we are to so many people in need. The idea of ‘food insecurity’ is so foreign to the way most of us think, yet Panera thought of a caring, clever way to address a serious need in the community by involving us- the unaware, the haves- into taking care of the have-nots. All by having a meal, and paying what we can, and hopefully a little bit more.

 

As I noshed away on my turkey sandwich goodness, and finished up my salad, I prepared to get up and go. But looking down at the plate that still had a little bit of food, I realized I still had a bread roll left. Now, usually, I am completely guilty of just throwing this ‘evil carb’ away… but in this cafe, in this new world view… there’s no way you would catch me wasting food in such a place! So I carefully wrapped it up in a napkin, looking forward to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich snack I turned it into after work that night.

2014-10-03 17.22.18-1 “We exist to feed each and every person who walks through our doors with dignity regards of their means”

– Panera Cares Statement of Purpose

So bravo to you, Panera. Thank you for shifting my world-view on food, for thinking of such a beautifully simple initiative, and for allowing others in the community help out in any way we can- even if it was just by paying a bit more for my lunch. It’s amazing how such a small experience can change you for the good.

Photos:

Panera Cafe Exterior: http://www.restaurantnews.com/panera-bread-foundation-brings-panera-cares-community-cafe-to-boston/

All others: Me!

Week 39: Cooking for a cause

Project: Cooking for On the Rise Women’s Shelter

Actual Time Taken: 3 hours

This week I found my volunteer opportunity via the the good people of VolunteerMatch.org. It’s been a great resource for finding new places to volunteer from city to city, and I was so excited to find one that I could include my entire Girl Scout troop in as well!

(The “entire troop” being me, the Girl Scout Troop leader, and my Girl Scout, Hero.)

The charity I found, On the Rise, is local homeless day program that focuses on women. It’s mission is so beautiful and moving, and I was absolutely honored that we were able to help out this week by making a meal for them this week. It was super simple to sign up- I wrote them an email about being interested and they sent me a link to register for a day that they needed food delivered on a very cool website that helps caretakers and shelters keeps track of community meal planning, Meal Train.

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“On The Rise is a day program that is uniquely effective at working with homeless women who do not fit the requirements of other programs.  For example, a woman might not have a specified period of sobriety, a firm commitment to leave an abusive partner, a treatment plan for her mental illness, or a clean criminal record.  On The Rise meets women where they are.  Our expectations of her, and her expectations of us, grow as our relationship grows.” (Image Source

When my Troop and I met last week, we found a Cooking badge that Hero had yet to earn and composed a menu that met the requirements of earning the badge: A food Hero’s never cooked (Shrimp), a dessert she’s never made (Pumpkin Pie), and for Hero to plan a complete meal (See menu below.) Check, check, and check! Hero carefully crafted the entire menu herself, which consisted of Shrimp Scampi, Roasted Veggies, Pasta, Garlic Rolls, and Pumpkin Pie. I wondered to myself if she could get double points for the fact that I also had never made those dishes before….

The blind leading the blind…

We started on our culinary adventure at the grocery store, flying around the shelves like two contestants in Supermarket Sweep.

 2014-09-24 14.16.23Hero at the wheel!

When we got home, we started with piecing together the pumpkin pies, figuring that they would take the longest to bake. We laid out all of the ingredients and realized in our market frenzy, we forgot the condensed milk.

 2014-09-24 14.32.22Our haul, sans condensed milk…

Whoops.

So almond milk instead of condensed milk it is…. and we finished up the pies with the hopes that they would turn out. (And looking back, we never did try a slice to test the taste… hope it worked out for everyone…)

 2014-09-24 14.53.23Yummy pies. (I hope…)

Next we boiled a pot of pasta as we sautéed up the veggies and shrimp (in separate pans, in case there were allergies) with some  olive oil, garlic, and spices for the scampi. I know, I know, scampi recipes usually call for white wine vinegar of some kind, but the shelter prefers that volunteers not donate food with any alcohol ingredient of any kind. This probably disqualifies our dish as a traditional scampi, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

 2014-09-24 15.40.37Shrimp “Scampi,” a la Hero and Selena

We glazed the Pillsbury crescent rolls with butter and garlic and popped them in the oven after pulling out the pumpkin pies, and finished up plating the shrimp and veggies and pasta in separate aluminum dishes for transport.

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Hero glazing away

We had a great time, taking turns sautéing (aka stirring stuff) and giggling at me spilling various liquids on myself. (Like I said, a regular Rachel Ray I am certainly not…)

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The next morning, I dropped off the food along with a note detailing the ingredients, so the women could make healthy choices and be aware of potential allergens, as well as how to re-heat the food. As I waited for the volunteers to come out to the car, a truck pulled up in front of me and started to unload fresh produce and fruit. It was a local not-for-profit that was also dropping off fresh food for the organization, and I felt so honored to have been able to do my little part to help this week too.

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“When I give food to the poor,

they call me a saint.

When I ask why the poor have no food,

They call me a communist.”

-Dom Helder Camara