June 3

“68 days,” Siri answered the first time I asked,
“How many days until June 3?”
3 days before my birthday,

the day she was diagnosed —
dry heaves in the parking lot
as the helicopter lifted.

Morning sun raked the bed, her eyes searching mine
“Happy birthday to you,” she warbled.
That’s when everyone realized — I was 21.

She’d had 3 of us almost exactly 3 years apart­.
I wasn’t showing during the holidays, she’d smile,
not pregnant in the summer heat.

50 days a patient — a rare brain tumor.
3 surgeries — 2 went past dark.
Blood on the boots of her weary surgeon.

Shaved, stitched, punctured —
she knew.
3 days shy of her birthday,

she never made it to 48.
3 summers later I marry & follow her
blueprint — 3 babies, 3 years apart.

Vessel of her love, I pour — her into them.
27 years later: it’s June 3
& I’m wife & mother of 3.

I’m 3 days shy of 48.
Tomorrow I’ll be older than ever
she was.

IMG_2860June 3 is a really big deal for me — the day I summit the solitary mountain that has long dominated my personal landscape. My mom’s death is easily my greatest tragedy and my biggest gift. Over the last few months, I’ve pondered my mom’s last days — sometimes soberly inhabiting them in “real time.” Today I take in her final vista. It’s a huge moment. I wanted to do something meaningful to acknowledge this milestone, and this poem satisfies that need in me. 

I’m indebted to another motherless daughter, Lynda, a gentle poet who asked for a favor and then returned it almost immediately with some lovely advice on patching up this beginner effort. I won’t put her full name here lest someone searching for legitimate poetry stumble upon this mess.

In its various versions, this poem naturally occupied 27 lines, then 48, then 27. I found that so curious. In its final form, there’s one line for every year we’ve lived without her.


TEDxRVA – Improving lives (and front yards) in Richmond

In March of 2016, I was invited by the leaders of TEDxRVA to guest blog about an inspirational speaker from their 2014 event. My blog proved so popular that, just weeks later, Andy Stefanovich invited me onto the the TEDxRVA stage to give an impromptu talk. Below is the blog that published on the TEDxRVA website.

DSC_0034There’s an 800-pound slab of bluestone in our front yard, on the corner of Grove Avenue and Mulberry Street. It’s the top of a broad table – a table my family built because of something a stranger said, two years ago, at TEDxRVA.

The Table fulfilled its purpose a mere two weeks after it was constructed when – on a warm evening, as we sat with old friends under shimmering lights strung in the limbs of our enormous live oak – a friendly couple happened by. “This is fabulous!” they said. “You guys look so European!”

“Join us!” we implored. “Have a glass of wine!”

“No, no…” they laughed.

But then we explained, “We actually built this table to meet our neighbors. You should really join us. We’re serious.”

And damned if they didn’t pull up a chair. And we served them wine and ice cream. And they shared their story – Chris and Cindy, new to the neighborhood, just bought a house two blocks over. And we shared our story. And it started with TEDxRVA.

In March 2014, Dr. Danny Avula took the stage at Richmond’s second TEDxRVA. I had attended the inaugural event and learned that regional TED talks – and the glorious audience that attend them – are not to be missed. But I never dreamed how impactful his brief presentation would be. His theme? “Dependence isn’t a dirty word.”

Avula’s face glowed with kindness as he opened with memories of college friendships. He shared a beautiful tale, of successful college housemates, scattered to three continents, who ached for reconnection and collectively moved to an impoverished North Church Hill community to once again share their lives and to serve others.

“In the first month of living there, we had had more conversations with neighbors than we’d had in the previous three years in the suburban community we had moved from,” Avula said. The “warm culture of porch sitting” led to “relationships of depth and dependence [that] started to extend beyond [his] circle of friends.” And, therein, he discovered the real joy in life: Dependence.

Then Avula spoke the words that changed my perspective – and my front yard. He said, “Over the last 30 years, human beings have become the most globalized… well connected we’ve ever been, but we’ve also become some of the loneliest and most isolated people we’ve ever been.”

He spoke of the birth of America’s suburbs, saying, “These suburbs… became the new vision of utopia. But the problem with that was that these front porches, where we used to sit and connect with our neighbors, gave way to back decks with privacy fences where we could keep to ourselves.”

That was it for me.

That’s when I realized what we needed to do with our front yard – the corner just beyond our own privacy fence. We needed a community space – a community table – right there. To connect with our neighbors – to the benefit of us all.

Over the last two years, The Table has hosted countless family meals, Scout meetings and “Girls Nights.” Just being out there, steps from a busy city sidewalk, has meant we’ve met hundreds of people. But, as The Table’s story spread, it grew to be a shared space.

A few months after its completion, The Table was host to a pair of young Vietnamese immigrants. When the wife, Tuyet, purchased a used bike from me on Craigslist, I learned they had immigrated here with a very tight budget and absolutely no furniture or house wares. Within days, thanks to Facebook, The Table became the site for a surprise “Welcome to America” party where they met Richmonders of all sorts, including some of Vietnamese descent, and received truckloads of well-loved furnishings.

Two years later, The Table is going strong. “Are you hosting any cyclists?” a friend asked us last fall, during the UCI Road World Championships. “The Latvian Federation is staying in Fan.”

“I can’t feed a team,” I responded.

“We can all pitch in,” she said.

“Are you game for this?” I asked my Facebook community.

Twenty-four hours later, about 50 of us stood in my front yard, tears in our eyes, as members of the Latvian Cycling Federation, seated at The Table, rose to their feet as my friend Mary, principal flutist with the Richmond Symphony, played their national anthem. It was a remarkable night and a powerful example that “dependence isn’t a dirty word.”

“Ideas worth spreading” is much more than the TED tagline, I’ve learned. It’s the TED reality. And it’s why I always will be among the first to buy TEDxRVA tickets each and every time they go on sale. This year’s theme is “Artful” and the speaker lineup looks as passionate as ever. If I don’t see you at The Table, I hope I’ll see you there.

View my TEDxRVA talk here.


Her Speech

The speech.

I keep thinking about it.

I’m a writer and what I’m arguably best at is speechwriting. So I keep thinking about Hillary’s election night acceptance speech.

It had references to that glass ceiling. The Javits Center was picked because it had one. But the glass ceiling line wouldn’t have been the line that people remembered.

She would’ve talked about her mom Dorothy, the unique circumstance of her mother’s suffragette birthday, and how badly she wished her mom could see this.  And her voice would have cracked and we would’ve all cried. Chelsea definitely would have cried.

She would’ve named the women who inspired her. The women who paved the way. And there would have been the usual cast of characters. But she would’ve named at least one woman none of us even knew about but who we all would then know about and learn about.

She would’ve said the blah, blah, blah campaign stuff. And while it’s all critically important to us, our minds would have gone elsewhere while she was weaving through those bullet points.

But then she would have changed her tone. And she would have talked about the division in this country. All the brutal, horrible things that were said during this campaign. And she would have SWORN to try her very hardest every single day to unite us and be the very best president any of us has ever had.

And those of us who believe in her would know that she really MEANT it. This lady works HARD and she’s smart as hell.

She might have even mentioned some folks by name — like the coal miners in West Virginia who overwhelmingly voted against her. And she would have told them, PLEDGED to them, that she wanted to be THEIR president and THEIR champion. That they would NOT be forgotten in her administration. And that she would be coming soon to talk with them. Before the inauguration even.

We would’ve seen how EAGER she was to get in there and to dazzle us with all she’d learned. And she’d say something, some reference to her schooling or her former classmates, that would remind us of Hermione. And we would LOVE her SO MUCH because she’s our real-life Hermione.

Her closing would have moved the hearts of everyone, including the women watching who hadn’t voted for her but who woke up their daughters to see history being made.

It would have ended with ALL of us ladies feeling so PROUD that a WOMAN finally got this job and so EXCITED for her to knock it out of the fucking park and show the world (and our daughters) that, HELL YES, a woman could and should be the ultimate boss.

That speech is written.

Hillary practiced it.

On election night, somebody packed a paper copy of it into a briefcase or box as a stunned hotel suite was vacated.

The aide who has it will keep his or her copy someplace special. Maybe, Wednesday afternoon, he or she wrote on it, in pen, certifying that it came from that hotel suite. And the curled-up corner on the cover page will add to its authenticity.

People will look at it someday — in someone’s private library or maybe in a museum case — and think, “She held this in her hands that night.”

This 69-year-old woman. This battle-weary warrior who dragged her ass around the globe and around this nation for something far greater than just power. This lady…

And that just breaks my heart in two for her and for all of us.

And it’s why it’s 9:16 AM on Saturday morning and I’m still in bed crying.

Three Reasons Why One Mom Became an Advocate for Gun Violence Prevention

In January of 2014, my daughter and I participated in a vigil for victims of gun violence. What I witnessed at that event  deepened my resolve to reform America’s gun culture. Afterward, I was asked by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America to write this for Richmondmom.com. You may view the publication here

In the last year, I’ve made time to ask my representatives to take action to prevent gun violence. Here are three reasons why:

1.  Two years ago, when my daughter was in sixth grade, a gun was confiscated from one of her classmates. Days later, I sat on her bed, and we had a sober conversation. I’m not an alarmist, and I believe there are plenty of things kids don’t need to worry their little heads about. So I had an almost out-of-body experience as I watched some lunatic mother, who looked just like me, tell my daughter, “Honey, I’m sure it will never happen… but if you’re ever in a situation where someone is shooting, don’t run away in a straight line. Go in a zig zag. It makes it harder for them to aim at you.”

2. One year ago, I was reading an article about six-year-old Noah Pozner, one of the victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. It said, “Connecticut Governor Malloy came to the funeral home to pay his respects. [Noah’s mom] took him by the arm and brought him to the casket. Noah’s famously long eyelashes — which she spoke about in her eulogy — rested lightly on his cheeks and a cloth covered the place where the lower half of his face had been.”

Minutes after this photo was taken, Virginia Capitol police confiscated the (potentially dangerous) stick from this girl’s American flag. Steps away, “Guns Save Lives” protestors demonstrated on Capitol grounds armed with handguns and assault weapons.

Minutes after this photo was taken, Virginia Capitol police confiscated the (potentially dangerous) stick from this girl’s American flag. Steps away, “Guns Save Lives” protestors demonstrated on Capitol grounds armed with handguns and assault weapons.

3. Last week, my 13-year-old daughter and I made our way to the Virginia Capitol to attend the 21st Annual Vigil and Advocacy Day hosted by The Virginia Center for Public Safety. In the midst of the remarks, a Capitol police officer approached my daughter and confiscated the pine dowel from her American flag. Sticks can be used as weapons and, therefore, aren’t allowed on Capitol grounds. Steps away, a dozen “Guns Save Lives” men, several armed with handguns and assault rifles, walked the Capitol grounds (and later, halls) undisturbed.

There’s something wrong here, folks.

There’s something wrong when rational mothers feel it’s appropriate to advise their middle schoolers how to flee from an active shooter.

There’s something wrong when a mentally-ill 20 year old can use military-grade weapons to blow the hand and jaw off a six-year-old boy, and similarly massacre 19 of his classmates and six of his school faculty in a matter of minutes.

As Capitol police confiscated the sticks from hand-held American flags carried by gun violence prevention advocates, armed demonstrators wearing “Guns Save Lives” stickers were left undisturbed.

As Capitol police confiscated the sticks from hand-held American flags carried by gun violence prevention advocates, armed demonstrators wearing “Guns Save Lives” stickers were left undisturbed.

There’s something wrong when you aren’t permitted to wave an American flag on Capitol grounds if it’s attached to a stick, but you’d be most welcome to affix it to the end of a loaded assault rifle.

Are you good with what’s going on in our country right now? Have you read what other industrialized nations say about us? How they fear visits to our country? How appalling they find us? How they pity us?

It doesn’t have to be like this. Please realize that.

Our children now participate in “lockdown drills,” preparing for armed intruders the same way they do for fires and tornadoes. We now behave like gun violence is something we can’t do anything about. But no other civilized country teaches its kids to hide in closets from the threat of assault weapons.

Every day, every death, every drill… represents another day in America without a public policy solution. Just last week in Virginia, legislators voted down a Senate bill for criminal background checks despite the fact that 92 percent of Virginians (including gun owners) favor background checks.

In the face of the powerful gun lobby, we’ve got to have legislative and moral courage. And the only way that will happen is if parents demand it. It’s time we showed our kids what freedom really looks like. If you care about this issue, it’s time you took meaningful action. Please act.

Advice to Newly Motherless Daughters… and Anyone Who Grieves

Two years ago, a good friend and admired colleague suffered the unexpected death of his wife – a vibrant, intelligent woman in her 50s. I was devastated for his entire family, but my thoughts turned to his 18-year-old daughter. I, too, lost my mom when I was in college. And, while I’d never met my colleague’s daughter, I felt compelled to share with her my learnings and advice. My friend recently asked my permission to share a copy of my note with yet  another young woman who was grieving the recent loss of a mother. In the interest of helping others more broadly, I decided to post the letter here. With the exception of the recipient’s name, little is changed.

Dear Jane,

You don’t know me but I’ve worked with and admire your dad.

My mom, Betsy Paterson May

My mom, Betsy Paterson May

My mom died suddenly between my third and fourth year of college. I was 21. She was three days shy of 48. She died of complications related to a rare benign brain tumor. She was healthy her whole life. She was sick (surgeries) for about a month and a half.

When she died, she was the person I loved most in the world and the person from whom I received the most love. Like your mom, she was a rare and exceptional woman. I see my mom in pictures of yours. This summer I turn 42 and will have spent half my life without her.

Hope Edelman wrote a book called “Motherless Daughters.” It came out about three or four years after my mom died. I was given no less than four copies and, while it was an interesting read, I didn’t find it particularly helpful. Then she released this one [book was enclosed] – letters that “Motherless Daughters” had written her. And it remains the only helpful thing I ever read about joining the “Dead Mom Club.” So here’s a copy.

Here are some things I learned on my own that may be helpful to you:

  • It’s her. If you think something is your mom (a song, a butterfly, a coincidence), especially over the next few months, you are right. So don’t even question those things. It’s her.
  • Why? There is no answer to the question “Why?” It took me about a year to figure that out. Someone told me in the last year that “Why?” is a human question, not a spiritual question. I thought that was interesting and maybe you too will ponder that one day. Regardless, you will never, ever, ever be able to make sense of why this happened. Maybe it will be helpful to know that now because things become a lot more peaceful when you stop asking that question.
  • Write. You come from writers. If you don’t have a journal, get one and try writing about this. The first entry is the hardest. I found that when I wrote things down about my mom – things I would miss about her, things I wish could be different, things I wish the doctors had done, a dream I’d had about her, whatever – the buzz in my head about that particular topic would be quieted. Something about writing it down allowed me to turn that subject off in my head. It gave me great peace and it also gave me something to do at night besides sobbing when I had a roommate in the freakin’ dorm room with me. I filled two books with grief. What therapy that was. And it made me a better writer. Big time.
  • Be gentle to yourself. You have internal bleeding right now, honey. For the next year, offload needy friends, reduce the volunteer stuff, take on only a bare minimum of responsibilities. Seriously. For a year.
  • Get a therapist. This summer – about three months from now – when people stop asking you daily or weekly how you are and start to go about their lives and when all your good friends have cried with you and heard your most horrid tales of anguish, get a grief counselor or join a grief group or just talk to someone with fresh ears once a week. After two consecutive weeks of visits with that person/group where you don’t cry, you’re done with that. But as long as you are crying weekly in someone’s presence, keep going and keep crying. I learned I needed therapy when I had an anxiety attack – out of nowhere – at about three months in. Save yourself that mess and get pre-emptive help. I saw a crappy free college therapist for three months, and it was really good for me. I ditched him when he couldn’t make me cry anymore. This was the first and only time I ever used a therapist. It did me a world of good.
  • She’s there. After you cry and beg for a sign from her and hope that she will make a book fall off a shelf or turn a lightbulb on and off… after you plead for her to show you anything to demonstrate that she’s still there with you, you’ll end up bawling. And after you do, resignation and exhaustion will wash over you. That’s her, honey. She’s holding you then. That’s her. And she’ll give you peace after your tempest. So just exhale and know that she’s got her arms wrapped around you and she’s kissing your lovely cheek and wiping off your tears with the back of her finger.
  • You will be happy again. The Greeks have a great word – palimpsest. It refers to a piece of parchment (a manuscript page from a scroll or book) from which the text has been scraped off or erased in order that the precious paper could be used again. For the next nine months to a year, every experience you have will be written on the same parchment that documented your mother’s tragic death. So previously joyous experiences will not be joyous. And you will question, through false smiles in social settings, if you will ever experience true joy again. Please know that you will. You absolutely will. You will be soaringly happy again. But it takes time. Time is a wonderful gift. Nine months after my mom died, I was so relieved and even shocked to experience a taste of joy again – on clean parchment. Not on palimpsest. It occurred to me then that it takes nine months to bring someone into the world. Maybe it takes nine months to let them out of it.
  • She will inhabit you. After you stop wanting to call her. After you stop wanting to tell her about the childhood friend you ran into. After you almost don’t even think to miss her because you’re so used to not having her there, you gradually will realize that she inhabits you. You will see her face in the mirror. You won’t miss that she didn’t “meet” your husband or see your kids because you will have a very certain knowledge that she inhabits you. Her love never, ever leaves you, and she is part of everything you do – not watching from above, but watching from within. She’s in you, honey. The love, her love, never leaves. That deep, deep wonderful love will be with you forever. She will be a part of your life forever and ever. Sincerely. My mother is with me all day, every day. She is in me. She knows my husband, she treasures my kids, she sees everything I do, she is proud of me still. She’s in me. I don’t even miss her these days. I just adore her.
  • Don’t sweat the thank-you notes. People will understand if you don’t write them. Your mom just died.

If you ever want to talk to someone, absolutely call me. It would be an honor to speak with or correspond with you. I am so deeply sorry this happened to your lovely, exquisite mom.

(As always, I welcome comments… about this post or on this topic.)

The contents of my purse and the benefits of a life coach

In my second blog entry after winning this contest, I confessed to being “fearful about the whole ‘life coach’ thing,”specifically the prize of “six life coach consultations via phone.” It turns out, the life coach was really a gift.

Here are some highlights from my five life coach consultations thus far:

Your life is like a purse. Lauree Ostrofsky, my life coach and founder of Simply Leap, began our series of sessions explaining what a life coach does. Imagine your life is like a purse, she said. A life coach is someone you can take your purse to and just dump it out – someone you can “let in” on all your crazy madness. For me that includes a jumble of business and appointment cards, balled up tissues, a finger splint I no longer need, an expired watch battery, coach’s whistle, pediatrician’s pamphlet on “Puberty in Boys,” and a battered “emergency tampon” that I would never actually allow anywhere near my body. 

Life coach Lauree Ostrofsky

What a good life coach does, Lauree explained, is help you make sense of all that madness – helping you decide what you don’t need, organizing what do you need, and figuring out what else ought to be in there. After dumping out “my purse,” we quickly agreed that she could be of greatest assistance in time management and household organization.

Start small. Lauree had me start small, managing one day at a time. We pondered the things I had to do each day (freelance writing work, household chores, feeding people), the things I failed to do each day (household chores, remembering my daughter’s weekly violin lesson, working late into the night on work I should have completed during the day) and the ways I wasted time each day (Facebook). Together we came up with two simple solutions: First, I would create a highly visible, daily to-do list. Second, I would reward myself with time-wasting activities only after completing mandatory activities.

My homemade daily to-do list

By the end of that day, I’d purchased a five-dollar 8” x 10” frame from Target. Behind the glass, I inserted a piece of paper that said “What I’m doing today.” A series of lines invited a daily list, written in dry-erase marker, of things I felt I could reasonably accomplish during the day. At intervals of completion, I rewarded myself with a little time-wasting indulgence. For me, an insanely social person who works in solitude from home, that meant the validation festival that is Facebook. And… it worked. I began churning out work and remembering to do stuff. I started going to bed earlier too.

Get bigger. In subsequent calls, we moved from days to weeks. Wouldn’t it be nice, I said, to assign specific days for my weekly tasks? So began the conversation that resulted in my weekly fridge calendar.

Lauree asked great questions:

  • What do you need to do each week?
  • Is there anything you do that you don’t need to? Can you drop something?
  • Is there anything else you should be doing?
  • Who can help you get these jobs done? (“Oh my gosh, that’s right! My kids can do some of this stuff! That would actually be good for them!”)
  • What would be a good day of the week to do that?
  • How can you get everyone on board with this program?
  • What tools do you need? How can you make these jobs easier?

 The result? A weekly calendar I created in Word. It has five rows (one for every member of the family) and seven columns (one for every day of the week). Each box in the 5 x 7 grid has a small checklist. For example:

  • my son’s Monday says “feed dog, make bed, empty dishwasher, homework,”
  • my daughter’s checklist includes “violin practice” nearly every day,
  • each Sunday, two of my kids split cleaning the upstairs “kid bathroom,” while the other one does the downstairs half bath (we even supplied little rubber gloves for everyone), and
  • my Thursday cleverly includes doing my “delicate laundry” since it makes sense for me to wash work clothes immediately after a regularly scheduled Wednesday client meeting.

 Weekly vacuuming is life changing. Without question, the two most life-changing days on my calendar are Monday (“vacuum upstairs”) and Friday (“vacuum downstairs”… in anticipation of Friday’s fun “have friends over”). Gosh. What a difference weekly vacuuming makes. You can’t really vacuum your house without pretty much cleaning up the whole house. Vacuuming weekly means nothing ever gets crazy messy.

Making a weekly calendar with Lauree’s help and prompts was actually fun. (“Hey! If I’m vacuuming the “downstairs” every Friday, that means every Thursday night, the kids should clear the whole first floor of their stuff! I’ll put that on their lists!”)

I printed out a pile of the weekly calendars and put a new one on the fridge every Sunday.

Bribes work. The incentive for my kids to complete their daily checklist is simple. They love watching “Fetch” on PBS. If their checklist from the previous day is complete, they get to watch it. If their list isn’t complete, you can be sure they are using their lost television time to earn “Fetch” on the following day.

The benefits of a life coach. Had I not “won” a life coach, I probably would have been the last person to hire one. I’ve got a pretty decent life (great family, friends, career) and, like a lot of women, I hate asking for or admitting I could use help, much less paying for it.

Yet working with Lauree has had clear benefits. It forced me to make time to think about my goals and things in my life that need improving. It gave me a framework to think about my problems – a framework that I’ve since used to help my own friends with their problems. It’s made me realize the value of having a thinking partner and someone to hold me accountable as I seek change. It’s also made me realize that I am the best-qualified person to solve my own dilemmas and that the solutions to my problems are often very simple, if I just take the time to examine and ponder them.

Today my house is cleaner, I’m getting more done, my kids are gaining responsibility, I’m working fewer nights, and I’m dropping fewer balls. I still have no idea how much a life coach costs. (I do know Lauree usually advises clients to purchase a minimum of nine calls.) But I will say that, despite my apprehensive early blog entries, I’m more than happy to pay prize-winner taxes on Lauree Ostrofsky. I’m grateful for her every afternoon when I open the dishwasher and smile when I see that my son has faithfully emptied it before leaving for school. And I’ll be sad when we conclude our final call.

 DAYS KAYAKED: 13 (no change; it’s winter)

Secrets from the highest-grossing Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale

On September 11, 2010, Richmond, Va., was host to the highest-grossing bake sale in the two-year history of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. I was proud to have had a hand in the event and recently was asked to write a recap of what made it so successful. Here’s what I sent the nonprofit:

The Japanese have a form of martial arts called “Aikido.” It focuses not on punching or kicking your opponents, but rather on using your opponents’ own energy to gain control of them or throw them away from you.

Our sale wasn't slick. We were all about hand-painted signs and banners.

Anyone who has ever faced pediatric cancer will tell you that – despite being an abhorrent coward – it’s a powerful opponent. Medical professionals use surgeries and toxic treatments to fight it. Friends and families use hope, love and prayer (among other things).

But imagine if we could redirect cancer’s own rage and power right back at it? This, I realized recently, is exactly what Cookies for Kids’ Cancer does.

On August 22, 2010, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Founder Gretchen Holt Witt posted this status update to her Facebook page:  “It wasn’t good news. It was awful news. We start high-dose chemo on Monday morning. My heart is literally shattering into a million pieces. But I’ll pick myself up and go at it again. Liam needs me. He needs all of us. Pray for him and hold a bake sale.

Those words were read 300 miles away in Richmond, Va. And just 20 days later – in direct response to cancer’s attack – a handful of bake sale coordinators, a dozen “team captains” and hundreds of moms, dads, caring souls, big-hearted businesses, kids, scouts and students raised more than $34,000 to fund pediatric cancer research. Every dollar earned was matched by a grant from “Glad to Give™.”

Our best bake sale tip: Tell a story
The single biggest takeaway from our successful Richmond bake sale is: Tell a story. Think of it as practicing Aikido. Speak and write powerful words about the sickening blows that pediatric cancer intends for the most vulnerable among us, and then just stand back and watch as the world rises up and redirects that force and fury right back at cancer.

Our children – with aprons around their necks and signs in their hands – earned more money than grown-ups ever could.

Here are some other things that contributed to our team’s success:

Act quickly. Gretchen’s heart-breaking plea gave us a sense of urgency, and our fresh emotions translated to dollars. If something compels you to raise money for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer (a diagnosis, a surgery, a relapse), act swiftly and you will be rewarded for it. Set your bake sale date just weeks, not months, away. Don’t give volunteers or donors much time to ponder their participation. Just share the story, then say, “I really need your help in two weeks.”

Ask and you shall receive. There is something about pediatric cancer that is so, so wrong. Speak the words “kids’ cancer,” and people will do almost anything you ask.

We asked for an anchor location and the Carytown Merchants Association gave us a mile-long shopping district and merchants that donated a percentage of their sales. We pleaded for bakers and Gretchen’s former employer – CRT/tanaka – volunteered its staff for a 12-hour baking blitz. We asked for industrial ovens and got the Mixing Bowl Pastry Shop. We asked for cookies and got 6,000 frozen cookie pucks from Jacqueline’s Gourmet Cookies.

We asked for anything and everything – public service announcements, cardboard boxes, big photos of affected families, gift bags, donation jars, rolls of kraft paper and mistint paint for banners. When it was apparent that our sale was going to be big, Amber van der Meer (mother of Richmond warrior Ber van der Meer) simply told her “Caring Bridge” subscribers that we needed another corporate sponsor. The next day, Qdoba Mexican Grill donated a thousand entrée coupons (a $6 value; we sold them for $3 a pop). If you have any need, simply tell your story, flash the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer logo, and ask

Use what you’ve got. We had a talented media relations professional, so news of our city-wide bake sale was on all three network news shows, local newspapers, blogs and a popular radio station. (See links below to listen/watch.)

WINN Transportation donated the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Mobile Bake Sale Trolley

A family connection to WINN Transportation earned us the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Mobile Bake Sale Trolley that conducted business-day visits to some of Richmond’s most generous companies as well as a popular, outdoor lunchtime plaza. A vacant restaurant turned into the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Drive Thru. Girl Scout volunteers helped us score two grocery store locations that otherwise wouldn’t have allowed solicitors! And our children – with aprons around their necks and signs in their hands – earned more money than grown-ups ever could.

Call on every kind-hearted, hard-working person you know!

Recruit what you need. Look holistically at all the skill sets you need. A major event needs: sales people (able to secure locations and make big asks), team captains (to recruit volunteers and staff a single bake sale location), a publicity person and/or spokesperson, people with corporate connections, a professional baker, a financial person (to tally dollars), and a local family or two willing to be the courageous face of pediatric cancer in photos at every sale location.

Use social media and technology. We used Facebook and e-mail to plead for team captains, volunteers and bakers. An online “First Giving” account made it easy for friends to contribute to our specific from afar. A Facebook post simply wishing for a single donation in the memory of a former classmate, Scott Newhouse (who died of cancer at age 12 back in the 1980s), generated hundreds of dollars in long-distance pledges from Scott’s former classmates, warming the hearts of his mother and brother. Facebook posts on the walls of contributors thanked them for being a “good cookie” and included a link to the First Giving page.

Got trolley?

A coordinator’s blog told the story behind the event and everybody involved found a way to link to it and to the blogs and journals of families fighting cancer. A Facebook event page was created and featured excitement-generating updates (new locations, new donations) and hundreds were invited to “attend.” A week before the event, a Flip camera was used to create a music video of several families painting dozens of banners and handheld signs in preparation for the big day. The closing message said simply, “September 11th for Gretchen and Liam the Brave.” The video captured the spirit of our sale and the event preview was watched by hundreds on Facebook and YouTube. Our media genius used Twitter to tweet about our latest news or needs.
Keep it simple. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer can be a lemonade stand, a bike-a-thon or a pub crawl. It can be whatever you have the passion to make it. The magic of our Richmond bake sale was its simplicity. We might have had a media machine behind us and a trolley with professional banners, but we were anything but slick. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer allows for local creativity and local customization. Our volunteers felt that. Our sale was about cardboard signs and hand-painted banners. It was about teams of moms running up to cars at stoplights with baskets of cookies, and about kids in smudged aprons spontaneously setting up new, little sales locations on their own and glowing at the results. After just a few hours, our bake sale tables had the look of a favorite stuffed animal.
A million amazing moments
The Richmond sale was unbelievably inspirational for everyone involved. (Watch the video of sales held in Carytown.) Several mothers approached our team captains asking, “How can my family get involved in something like this?” One woman bought a pile of cookies. After listening to our sales pitch on the need for better treatments she said, with tears in her eyes, “I know… I’m a nurse in a pediatric cancer ward.”

Two young harp players randomly set up across the street from this sale to busk for cash. Later a rainbow appeared despite a lack of rain. At the end of the heavenly day, we learned we'd surpassed our goal & sobbed with gratitude at the generosity we'd seen.

A young college student expressed her delight at our cause, explaining that she was a pediatric cancer survivor. A Hispanic man on a bicycle gazed at an image of Ber van der Meer in the hospital and handed over a crumpled bill. When a volunteer encouraged him to take a bag of cookies, he shook his head and said, in broken English, “I just want to help.” As he rode away, she unfolded the bill and discovered it was a twenty. Her Facebook status at the end of that day said what we all felt: “What I know for sure: more people are generous than not.”

 Relevant links: