Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Fire

As vice president of her youth group, my 16-year old daughter Melissa can often be found  co-leading chapter meetings or lending her creative skills to a committee of teens planning a calendar full of special events.  And so it was on Thursday of last week that I found myself, once again, on my way to the community center where the meetings are held, ready to fulfill my end of the carpool bargain to pick up Melissa and her friend Gabby and drive them home.

With an Olympic-size indoor poor, comprehensive fitness complex, a preschool, a conference center and dozens of classrooms, the community center is an impressive facility, used by hundreds of people on any given weekday evening.

Arriving early as I usually do, I loitered in the lobby, flipping through some brochures to pass the time until the meeting ended.

I didn't pay much mind to the middle-aged man who walked through the lobby following his workout, until he paused in front of the information desk and announced that he smelled smoke.

To verify this seemingly odd claim, I took a deep breath and, indeed,  inhaled the distinctive odor of a recently lit match.

The elderly woman at the information desk called security, her nonchalant manner demonstrating no sense of urgency, no indication that she had detected the ominous scent that now permeated the entire lobby.

My thoughts turned to Melissa!

I know from experience that my daughter tends to linger a bit longer after the official chapter meetings have ended, taking advantage of a few moments to debrief with the other board members.  However, as my mind began to make sense of the impending danger, I determined that on this night there would be no such lingering....I had to get her out of the building!

I propelled my out of shape body up the stairs faster than I thought possible.  Here, the smell of smoke became noticeably stronger, leading me to the incorrect conclusion that the fire had started on the second floor.

That's right.

The second floor!

The floor that played host to my Melissa and her unsuspecting friends!

I raced down the hall, becoming more and more frantic with the passing of each classroom. Finally, when I arrived at the far reaches of the second floor corridor, I burst through the door,  an emotional wreck of a mom, ordering Melissa and her friends to evacuate because the building was on fire!

They didn't need to be told twice.

Together we raced toward the stairs, banging on classroom doors as adults and teens alike poured into the hall, all striving to reach the safety of the fresh air that beckoned from beyond the building's front doors.

Smoke continued to fill the corridor.  As Melissa and her friends descended the stairs, the fire alarms finally began to reverberate throughout the building, providing proof positive to anyone who doubted the danger that they needed  to GET OUT!

We tore through the lobby, only to witness a community center employee attempting to calm the masses, assuring everyone that the fire had been extinguished and they could come back in.  Not wanting to take any chances, I yelled for Melissa and her friends to ignore this attempt at reassurance and to keep going!

Shaken, but unharmed, Melissa and Gabby followed me to the car, where, during the drive home, we wondered aloud what had started the fire, and if the building had gone up in flames.

Fortunately, it had not.

Yet, unanswered questions remained.

1. What started the fire?
2. Why did it take so long for someone to activate the alarm?
3. Why did an employee tell people it was safe to return to the building, when the large facility was still filled with toxic smoke?

The next day I called the community center, expressing my disappointment at how the staff had handled the emergency.  A senior member of the community center's administration listened to my call with grave concern.  Tucked away in a board meeting in one of the classrooms on the second floor, he too, had born witness to the events of the previous evening.

The fire had started on the first floor in the preschool kitchen, and had indeed, been extinguished almost immediately. However, he agreed that the alarm should have been pulled the moment the flames had sparked, and that nobody should have been allowed back inside until the fire department - not a member of the community center staff -  gave the ok.

He assured me that the community center will use the fire as a terrifying wake up call for much needed emergency response training so that if it ever happens again, the staff will know what to do...and what NOT to do.                                                  

Thankfully, there were no injuries, but I shudder to think what might have been if the fire had not been contained.  Because in a fire, waiting ten minutes before pulling an alarm could mean the difference between life and death.

To learn more about fire escape plans, visit the U.S. Fire Administration.

If you like my stories, please tell me in the comments section below.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Mother/Daughter Program

We gathered together in the cozy, darkened living room of a suburban home in southern New Jersey.  Teenage girls and their mothers, our faces framed by the shimmering glow of dozens of tiny tealight candles.

One by one, the girls spoke, taking advantage of this judgement-free environment where they could safely admit to being overly critical of themselves and to having feelings of fear, shame, and embarrassment.

I looked across the room at the program leaders, my 16-year old daughter Melissa and her friend, who sat with notebooks on their laps, asking the questions that had elicited such raw, emotional responses from their peers.

"Has anyone ever made you feel uncomfortable in your own skin?"

"Have you ever felt embarrassed or ashamed of who you are?"

"How do you cope when you are feeling upset, or stressed, or out of control?"

The question and answer session came as part of a Mother/Daughter program hosted by B'nai B'rith Girls (BBG), an international Jewish youth organization focused on leadership skills, confidence building, community service, religion and spirituality, sisterhood, and friendship.

Each year, the girls in Melissa's local BBG chapter dedicate their time and resources to raising funds and awareness for a "stand-up cause".  Armed with the knowledge that nearly half a million teens suffer from anorexia and bulimia, the girls unanimously chose to focus on Eating Disorder as their 2014 cause.

As chapter vice president, Melissa had played a key role in planning the Mother/Daughter program, which featured a guest speaker from The Renfrew Center, a local eating disorders treatment center, as well as the  mind/body/attitude discussion that encouraged the girls to share from the heart.

They spoke of feeling awkward about their body shape. They spoke of feeling like they didn't belong.  They spoke of feeling stressed, feeling pressured to do too much, to get good grades, to look just right, to be pretty, to be popular, to be fit in.

And as the girls spoke, their mothers listened.

And then we talked.

We told our daughters that we faced the same challenges, and they don't go away, but they get easier to handle the older you get. We told our daughters that we know we'll never be perfect, but we no longer care.  We told our daughters that throughout our lives we've developed a deep bond with the friends who love us for who we are...and that everyone else who dares to judge us no longer matter.

We told our daughters that we wished when they looked in the mirror that they could see what we see....a teenage girl who is so incredible, so talented, and so wonderful.

We told our daughters that no matter how bad things get, no matter where they are or what they do, that they can come to us, they can talk to us, they can tell us anything because we are their best friend.

We told our daughters that we love them unconditionally.

We told our daughters that we think they are beautiful.

I just hope they think so too.

Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences.  In the United States, 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives.  To learn more visit the National Eating Disorders Association.

My daughter Melissa (front row, 2nd from left) with her BBG girls!

If you like my stories, please tell me in the comments section below.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Tribute to Les Miserable

While watching a production of the Broadway classic Les Miserable, I stole a glance at my 7-year old niece Amy, sitting two seats away.  Although she is a creative child who loves to dance and sing, I still had doubts she would understand the complicated tale of love, loss, revolution, and redemption. What's more, the 3-hour show, devoid of spoken dialogue, tells the entire story through song.

Yet, as I studied the expression on her sweet, young face, I knew, then and there, that my niece had fully embraced the experience.  Amy's wide, innocent eyes glistened with tears as she watched the show's tragic heroine Eponine sing tender words of comfort as she lay to rest in the arms of her unrequited love.

Don't you fret M'sieur Marius
I don't feel any pain
A little fall of rain
Can hardly hurt me now
You're here, that's all I need to know
And you will keep me safe
And you will keep me close
And rain, will make the flowers grow

Amy was not alone.

I too, felt my cheeks wet with emotion as many in the audience wiped tears from their eyes.

I had seen Les Mis countless times - the Broadway production in New York City, the national touring production in Philadelphia, and of course, the movie version starring Hugh Jackman.   I knew about Eponine's heart-wrenching destiny. I knew every word of her final song. I cried each time she drew her last breath. Yet this time, this time....the tears that flowed were more than tears of sorrow. They were tears of wonderment, of pride, of joy.  For I simply could not believe that the actors whose talents struck such an emotional chord with their audience were high school students!

Yes, high school students!  Shawnee High School students, to be exact.

Last year, when my teenage daughter Melissa told me her school planned to tackle Les Mis, she could barely contain her excitement.   Like her parents, she had also seen both the stage and screen version and had fallen in love with the story, the characters, and the music.  For over a year, Melissa and her friends analyzed their high school's decision to produce such a difficult show.

She was thrilled to be a part of something so special, cast as an onlooker with a solo in the cart crash scene, and lending her sweet vocals to the "Girlfriends of Students" ensemble.

After countless late afternoon and weekend rehearsals, opening night had finally arrived! My husband Bob and I sat in the audience, waiting with anticipation for the lights to dim, excited but still unsure that high school students could pull this off.

I am happy to share that those kids, those high school students, proved us so very, very wrong!

We. Were. blown. Away.

The actors poured every ounce of their passion, energy, enthusiasm, and talent into bringing the characters to life.

It was, by far, the best production of Les Miserable that I have ever seen!

Congratulations to the entire cast, crew, and Jim Sheffer's orchestra.  And a special tip of the hat to music teachers Gina Kehl and Rob Joubert who had the faith and confidence in their students' ability to shine!
Melissa with Bob and me following her performance in Les Miserable

If you like my stories, please tell me in the comments section below.