Return to Chi-town

Following a visit to Grandma and Papa’s farm in Illinois, the girls and I headed to Chicago for a couple of days. I lived in Chicago during a few gap years between high school and college, so I told the girls Chi-town was a bit like home, too.

Like a lot of places we revisit, Chicago was both the same as I remember it and very different than my memories from more than three decades ago. The streets were the same–same busses I used to take to work (with steeper fares these days) and familiar landmarks to remind me to watch for my stop. But much had also changed. The big department stores like Marshall Fields and Carson Pirie Scott that I used to visit at Christmastime to window shop no longer grace State Street, and my old neighborhood on Dearborn has a whole new look.

And while I fell right back into the pace of Chicago, scurrying across streets filled with traffic while dodging oncoming crowds, the girls were a bit stunned. Helena couldn’t get over how many shoves she received making her way down Michigan Avenue and Celia was floored by a conversation two women on the bus had about where she was sitting (within earshot of Celia!).

I told the girls that they were noticing these things because they’d grown up in the South.

I also told them that when I moved to Chicago at 17, I learned a lot about how to stand up for myself. Chicago made me street smart, teaching me how to adapt to new places–a lesson in survival that I’ve relied on many times in places and circumstances around the globe. Both of my daughters were amazed that I made it in such a tough terrain where, “obviously,” Helena noted, “people do and say just about anything they want!”

At one bus stop en route back to our hotel, a woman boarded and began a dialogue with the driver about getting dropped off at a certain street typically not on the route. After much back and forth between the two, the driver raised her voice to the woman: “Just get on the bus, lady!”

Helena quickly tapped me on the shoulder, whispering “Mommy, she didn’t even say ‘please’ or ‘ma’am’ to that lady!”

Nope, she sure didn’t.


Privilege and Prejudice

Soon-to-be former Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s recent comments regarding African Americans and Magic Johnson’s HIV+ status demonstrate that brains don’t necessarily coincide with wealth and privilege. Yet it frequently comes as a surprise when those in our society with power say or do something that unearths their bias.

Collective shock seems, well, shocking to me. Certainly many who are privileged achieve status through something other than intellect and open-mindedness. History shows us that the rise to power routinely involves stepping over others and arrogantly dismissing the value of these underlings to society. As many a philosopher has noted, we define who we are by who we are not.

When planning the first Street Smarts event a few years back, a volunteer from the community, an educated and well-respected successful businesswoman, asked me if she would have to “touch” the homeless women we would be helping.

My response was that since we would be offering spa services, there would be a good chance that she might make physical contact with one or more of the women. The volunteer decided to serve behind the scenes instead. And she never came back.

Sometimes the most privileged among us are the most ignorant.

Street Smart(er)

Cindy Hayhurst talks about the importance of breast and cervical cancer screening.

Cindy Hayhurst talks about the importance of breast and cervical cancer screening.

Edwina and I learned something, too!

Edwina and I learned something, too!

The third Street Smarts event was held today at Pathways of Birmingham, a shelter for homeless and abused women and children in the city. I can honestly say that it was the best of the three programs we’ve run–looks like we’ve gotten Street Smart(er) with a little practice!

One of the things I’ve learned from working with the homeless population is just how unpredictable their circumstances, as well as how much those of us who go to bed (as in, we have one) with a roof (of our own) over our heads don’t understand about life on the streets. Each time I’ve run Street Smarts in partnership with Susan G. Komen of North Central Alabama and with help from volunteers from Komen, UAB, churches, and many other organizations throughout Birmingham, something new comes up that we hadn’t prepared for.

For instance, when we launched Street Smarts at Church of the Reconciler, it never dawned on us that we’d need something more than face recognition to know who had already received their lunch or a tote bag at the end of the event. When a woman popped up who said she didn’t get “one” of whatever it might be that was being passed out, it was her word against that of a volunteer. So, at Cooper Green, we added ID tags (which may or may not include women’s real names, depending on their need for anonymity) that could be marked off as participants made their way through the stations (“N” for Nails, “E” for Education, “L” for Lunch, and so on). The tags also identify which women are okay with having their picture taken (solid) and which aren’t (striped). Thank you, Sarah Grogan, Community Outreach Coordinator for Komen, for coming up with this do-all system for keeping track of the day’s events!

Nail time was a big hit!

Nail time was a big hit!

Crossing borders--from UAB to Pathways.

Crossing borders–from UAB to Pathways.

A beautiful color choice.

A beautiful color choice.

Participants left Street Smarts with a glow thanks to Mary Kay!

Participants left Street Smarts with a glow thanks to Mary Kay!

The power of human touch was conveyed through hand massages from Aveda.

The power of human touch was conveyed through hand massages from Aveda.

At Cooper Green (Street Smarts, take two), we experienced some problems with timing. A group of women receiving spa services finished before a group in the education classroom, and there’s not a whole lot to do in a hospital to pass the time–at least, not the kinds of things you’d want to do with your time! So, at Pathways, we set up a craft and movie area in the Day Center, where the women could sit and relax between sessions. This solution seemed to do the trick!

Participants made bead necklaces . . .

Participants made bead necklaces . . .


and pink ribbons.

and pink ribbons.

Even the breast cancer awareness/health education session went off without a hitch today. Cindy Hayhurst, RN, director of the Early Detection Breast and Cervical Cancer Program for the Department of Health, provided information about the services provided, as well as some basic definitions for “pap smears” and “HPV” and “mammogram.” I followed with a discussion of some popular myths about breast cancer, using my own experiences to illustrate. Then, I brought in Edwina, who told the ladies about how it felt to be diagnosed with breast cancer while living on the street and what she did to get the treatment she needed and continue to take care of herself. The participants had plenty of questions and comments, which the teacher in me suggests is a good thing. They were engaged, really engaged!

Thanks go to some of our new volunteers and partners:
* Mary Kay representatives, who walked the women through facials and lip treatments.
* Aveda representatives, who brought student beauty technicians in training to offer participants hand massages and nail color.
* All of the wonderful employees and volunteers from Pathways, for welcoming us into their home to share a message of knowledge and hope.

All of the pictures from today’s event were taken by Pathways Development Director/professional journalist Karen Griner.

My take-away message to participants: Be Street Smart and Survive.

My take-away message to participants: Be Street Smart and Survive.

Grit and fluff

We’ve held off until the last minute on choosing Halloween costumes this year. At 14 and 11, my daughters are too old for the kid costumes sold at local Halloween shops and have to make sure that whatever concoction they come up with for a homemade look comes together just right.

This morning on the way to school, both girls determined what they’ll be: Celia an 80’s girl with leg warmers, a headband and t-shirt with a ragged neckline (my mom used to sigh audibly every time I brought out the scissors to trim my own perfectly-good clothes back in the day, so I guess it’s my turn), and Helena a zombie. One will be perky, the other, well, dead. An interesting combination.

Lately, I’m experiencing an interesting, sometimes surreal, combination of emotions and visions when working on my book about the friendship between Edwina and me. One moment, I find myself in a narrative about one of the darker episodes we’ve shared, like the time she and I spent in pre-op at Cooper Green waiting for Edwina to be wheeled in for a mastectomy. Edwina was crying because she just knew the doctors were going to put her to sleep and forget to wake her up.

A few pages later, though, I discover a much lighter tone–a shopping expedition with Edwina and Aubrey or an exchange we shared that threw us both for a loop.

Case in point: Edwina recently asked me to pick up some soap for her, since she tends to run low on money at the end of the month. I promised I would, but admitted that things were pretty hectic at work so she’d have to hold on until I found five free minutes to run over to her place.

Immediately, she began texting me.

“Ok. Which five minutes it be? I goin to the dr. this five minutes and I be home this five minutes” and so on. Standing beside Edwina in pre-op, I felt our worlds collide, while a simple exchange about me delivering some soap turned to confusion.

I suppose that’s the point–of the book and of the very bond the two of us share. Ellen Zahariadis, executive director for the local Komen affiliate, recently referred to Street Smarts as a great program because it intentionally rolls  “fluff and grit” into one concerted effort. She could just as easily be talking about Edwina and me: biting into cookies with pink icing one minute and heading to an overcrowded ER the next to tend to my friend’s latest physical need.

Opening a window

Cancer Today just published my story about cancer care in Nepal:

The article reveals a very different perspective on what it means to have cancer and what constitutes adequate care. It’s interesting, too, that the story is in print just days after Obama’s Healthcare Law was upheld by the Supreme Court. A look at what happens when cancer care is, blatently, tiered according to who’s able to pay sheds light on the need for a better system not only abroad in places like Nepal, but also in the U.S.

On a somewhat related note, we held the second Street Smarts event yesterday at Cooper Green. It was a great success, so stay tuned for photos from the day!



Back to the streets

In just two days, we’ll be running the second Street Smarts event, this time at Jefferson County’s Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. In addition to spa services, lunch, and a breast cancer education session, participants will be given the opportunity to undergo initial screening through a clinical breast exam. Edwina and Lisa are on-board to share their experiences with stage IV breast cancer, both of them given the diagnosis while homeless.

I met up with Ellen and Sarah from Komen earlier today to prepare the fifth floor of Cooper Green for the event. Ironically, we have a good deal of space to run all aspects of the program only because the hospital has been forced to close the ob/gyn unit. In fact, it wasn’t more than a month ago when we got the word that oncology will remain open, at least for the time being, despite the severe funding problems the county is facing. The news spread fast in the homeless community, since Cooper Green is truly the only healthcare facility in Birmingham willing to treat the poorest of patients.

As I returned to Cooper Green on my own later this evening to set up a bulletin board for the event, I caught myself humming to myself and feeling pretty happy that Street Smarts is just about here. I’m proud of the program and the efforts of so many in the Birmingham community–volunteers from Komen, friends, former students, breast cancer survivors from all walks of life–to make the day special for women who don’t often have the luxury to tend to themselves or the confidence to trust their own bodies.

On a side note, the ASCO (American Society for Clinical Oncology) Post just published a piece on Street Smarts, along with some other exciting projects initiated by survivor-advocates:,-give-thanks,-and-give-back.aspx

A serial number I’ve been wishing for . . .

After many false starts, I finally submitted the U.S. Trademark Application Form for Street Smarts and the accompanying tag lines: “Cancer ain’t crazy. It’s serious.” and “Be Street Smart and Survive.”

While it didn’t take more than an hour to work through the entry form, the instructions were consistently poorly communicated. Hmmm–kind of makes you wonder whether the government wants people submitting applications for trademarks and patents!

I have now officially earned a serial number for my submission. While approval of the trademark is pending, that 8-digit serial number feels like an accomplishment! Stay posted for updates!