Monday, December 31, 2012

Our 2012 Christmas Letter

Last year, Jamie and I set a goal of writing a letter toward the end of the year to many friends and family members. Our list keeps getting longer, but we know that there are people we miss, so we thought maybe we could post it on this blog. That being said, here it is.

It’s been quite a year, and there’s so much good stuff to share that it is hard to know where to start, but we wanted to share a little update on 2012 with you!

Jamie started working part time in January at HealthWorks, a rehab and fitness center in Morgantown, WV. In her job there she helps people improve their lives through aquatic rehab, aquatic fitness classes, and even gives some swimming lessons from time to time. Her professors were eager to see her placed as she was one of the top students in her program, and she has such a deep compassion for others, that being able to help people improve their lives is part of her DNA. When she interviewed, she was able to negotiate a full-time job to be a part-time job, and was also able to secure time off so we can continue to travel together.

The majority of both of our families live within a couple of hours of Morgantown, so thankfully we have been able to see family a lot. We have managed to see both of our families about one weekend per month, and, in supplement to those trips, we have also been able to make visits for Thanksgiving as well as for Memorial Day and July 4th to Lake Floyd. Visiting the lake is like stepping back to a way of community life that has long been forgotten by many in our country—and we love it!

Aside from visits to family, we have been traveling the country sharing Nuru’s story and inviting others to join in our efforts to end extreme poverty through Nuru. This year we have made our way to Columbus, Akron, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Denver, Chicago, Indianapolis, and even a few different locations around West Virginia. We continue to be able to travel together for the most part, and on our most recent trip, we were able to visit Billy’s brother and sister-in-law in California (one day we even took a hike to the Hollywood sign). 

This summer, we traveled together to Kenya to document the growth of Nuru’s work. It was Jamie’s first trip in the developing world, and it was an utterly heart-wrenching and awe-inspiring experience to walk through together. Heart-wrenching, because when you see how desperately some people live, you can’t help but be stirred by it. Awe-inspiring, because we saw family after family who had turned their situation around and who were living a significantly better life because of Nuru’s programs. The trip served to increase our own resolve to continue to work hard so that our global neighbors have access to tools and knowledge to improve their lives and lift themselves out of extreme poverty for good! Here's a recent video from Nuru that shares a more detailed update of how lives are being changed. 

And as the year progresses, we feel as though each day is filled with sacred purpose as we learn how to better care for each other as well as how to better love our neighbor, particularly our neighbors who live in desperation. Jamie and I have both always been a little "granola," but we find ourselves striving to live more and more simply. We have both been very dedicated to our faith, but this year, we have an incredible sense of gratitude as we have seen such a robust cross-section of God’s beautiful world and the wonderful people He has made in His image, and to whom He extends love and mercy beyond comprehension.

And as we approach the celebration of Christmas, we are filled with gratitude for you, and the very special place you have in our life. May this holiday season find you filled, with faith, hope, and love.

Merry Christmas and hope you enjoy the photo too! J

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Joe’s Island Tours in St Thomas USVI and Our Honeymoon Adventure

In 2011, I had a goal of writing 3-5 blog posts per week, and failed to achieve that goal, but it was certainly not for a lack of content. Interestingly I ran into a similar shortfall in my goal in 2012--maybe 2013 will be different? There was one particular post that eluded me in 2011, that I wanted to make sure I wrote in 2012. And that post is a post about Joe Penn and Joe’s Island Tours in St. Thomas.

Last year, for our honeymoon, Jamie and I drove to Florida, and hopped on a Carnival cruise ship for seven days around the Eastern Caribbean. One of our stops was a visit to the island of St. Thomas, one of the US Virgin Islands. Our stay on St. Thomas was limited from 8AM-6PM, and it was a bit of a rainy day on the island.

It appears that the typical cruise ship port itinerary consists of visiting a litany of duty-free alcohol, tobacco, jewelry, and clothing shops, and for Jamie and me, this was not our cup of tea. We also didn’t want to purchase a ‘shore-excursion’ through the cruise ship even though this was strongly encouraged. Every stop we had on the journey, we wanted to soak in the local culture and vibe, and find our way quickly away from the well beaten path to shopping, and tourist traps. We decided on St. Thomas we would splurge, and take a tour of the island. Initially, we had hoped to just walk and explore, but we had underestimated the size of these islands.

On St. Thomas, we met a taxi driver named Joe Penn who ran a business called Joes’s Island Tours. The deal with his tours were that you paid $25/person (standard rate for all taxi tours), but you could stop for a swim at Sapphire Beach for an hour or two, and he would pick you up on a subsequent island tour trip during the day.  Not only this, but he insisted that folks not pay until they arrived safely back at port in time to board their ship. 

Jamie and I had explored all of the island we could explore on foot, so we asked Joe if he had room on his ‘cab’. It was a pickup with a series of five bench seats built on the bed of the truck. He could haul 25 passengers at a time. Well, by the time we showed up, he was at capacity, but he offered us an opportunity to ride in the cab with him.

I’m so glad we did! Of course, Joe took us to all of the usual tourist spots, Drake’s Seat, top of the mountain, Blackbeard’s Seat, and Magen’s Bay. But he also took time to stop and share some of the medicinal plants and nature of the island. He also offered us an opportunity to stop for a swim at Sapphire Beach. While we rode in the cab with him, we enjoyed the same tour that he gave the 25 other passengers, but we received the added bonus that was our hope. We learned more about daily life on the island, we connected with Joe himself pretty significantly, and we learned more about Joe’s hard-work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit, and solid business practices.

As we made our way back to port, Joe drove us as close to the ship as he could, and dropped us off before collecting our $25/person taxi fee.  We really enjoyed the time we were able to spend with him and were grateful for what was for us, one of the high points of our Caribbean experience.

Joe shared many words of wisdom, and even shared his challenges and struggles both personal and professional. He is a successful businessman, and I wish him the greatest success in his endeavors. He understands that to be successful you have to be willing to work hard, and provide superior service.

Jamie and I think of Joe often, and if we ever have opportunity to visit the island of St Thomas again, I’m sure we will look Joe up. And, if you find yourself on the island, I suggest you do the same. Take his tour around the island. Whether you are riding in the cab or on a bench on the bed of the truck, you will be grateful for the experience.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

West Virginia Ranked 47th In Terms Of Health

Just a few days ago I noticed a post from a friend lamenting this recent finding from the United Health Foundation. According to the results of this research, we are among the most the least healthy people in our country. We dropped from 43 to 47 in the last year. We are ranked among the worst states in the country for diabetes and obesity in particular.

It’s kind of hard to turn around a stat like this, but it is totally possible.  I believe one of the biggest deterrents to improving health is that there are no shortcuts. I know of many people who look for some type of quick fix that will cure whatever ails us, but historically, I believe we turn things around by the slow process of cultivating good habits and letting go of bad habits.

As I think about my own health and level of fitness (improving, but not where I would like it to be), I have had a realization that change takes time and effort, and that’s why it is so hard. Two years ago, I went to a place called Dynamic Physical Therapy in Morgantown, and worked with a guy named Phil Cooke to improve my posture and reduce pain in my neck and shoulder. As I talked with Phil, I realized the reason my posture was so bad was because I had practiced poor posture for most of my life, and so I began efforts to strengthen muscles that I had allowed to atrophy over years and years.

For our state to improve its health, individuals need to get serious about improving our health. In my estimation, that means making some different dietary and recreational choices. It means getting outside and breathing the air and enjoying sunshine. It means playing outside and watching less TV. It means choosing to take incremental steps toward better health.

As the new year approaches, perhaps we can all set some incremental goals to achieve a healthier lifestyle. Maybe it will be eating sugary snacks a little less often, or maybe it will mean getting outside and walking for 20 minutes three times a week.

Let’s turn this statistic around! Who knows? Maybe your initiative will inspire others around you to make similar choices toward a healthier lifestyle. At the top of this post, I included a photo of my wife, my sister, and my brother-in-law. They trained t run a half marathon in Parkersburg back in 2011. Three years ago, my sister was not a runner. Now she is placing in virtually every race. Jamie, Becky, and Ray each started out slow and are now able to run for a long time and distance. I would love for West Virginia to climb into the top 40 in 2013. Let's do this!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Help Nuru Expand To 1750 New Families Now And Get Your Donation Matched

Earlier this year, my wife and I visited our work in Kenya and received update after update from individuals who for the first time ever were able to feed their families, and were also learning to save for the future. Their children were going to school, and they were learning about preventative health and sanitation interventions that were reducing the incidence of illness in their homes. So much has happened since this was just an idea being talked about. In 2012, nearly 3000 families were benefitting from Nuru’s programs, and we even began laying groundwork for starting an initiative in a second country.

I’m deeply grateful for what we have been able to do together over these last few years, and I’m excited by the prospect of accomplishing even more together in the future. It has been inspiring for me to have so many friends join us in this work by donating, sharing Nuru’s story, and inviting others to get involved with this work.

In 2013, Nuru is preparing to expand programs to 1750 new families which will mean even more people in southwestern Kenya being equipped with the tools and knowledge to lead their communities out of extreme poverty for good. As 2012 approaches its end, a very generous donor has stepped up to match dollar-for-dollar every donation that is received during the month of December, up to $100,000.  There are less than 96 hours left to take advantage of the opportunity, will you help us hit our goal?

Thanks so much for being Nuru!