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AN UNPLANNED LIFE

Summer Vacation Redux
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It’s August, and while many kids are going back to school this week or next, my daughter just finished summer session. (Open Mind School operates year-round.) Katie has a three-week break before school starts up again.

I’m embracing this out-of-sync-ness. I’ll be using my time to relax, read, and do some writing. Katie will probably be doing as little as possible. We both plan to enjoy the last days of summer.

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In September I’ll be back, blogging about my unplanned life. Whatever you are doing, feel grateful for what you have, and enjoy the beautiful summer weather. I’ll see you soon!

Until next time,
Cynthia

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What Happens at Camp Arroyo, Stays at Camp Arroyo, Year 3
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sleeping-bag-59653_640Last week, my daughter Katie attended Camp Arroyo, which is where the Exceptional Needs Network (ENN) holds its summer camp for special needs children in conjunction with the Taylor Family Foundation. This was her third year. The camp may be a short three days, but ENN really goes all out, providing two bounce houses, a swimming pool, service animals, petting zoo, popcorn and snow cone machines, ping pong, a host of special visitors, and a yurt devoted to art projects. They also had horseback riding, rock climbing, a zip line, and a dunk tank. Plus a dance on the final night.

Katie had the amazing Ashley Angeles as her aide again. She and Katie really took to each other last year, and the two picked up right where they left off.  As we carried Katie’s gear up the hill to her cabin, Ashley asked if anything had changed in the past year. “She’s getting a period now,” I said. “I don’t think it will happen at camp, but I packed some supplies, just in case.”

Ashley nodded. “We’ll be fine, whatever happens.”

We reached the cabin, and Katie picked out her bunk—in the same location as the past two years. She climbed up and spread out her sleeping bag and blankets, aded her pillow, and flopped down. “Bye, Mommy.”

“You don’t want a hug?”

“Go bye bye, Mommy.”

Ashley and I laughed. “Enjoy your time off,” she said.

“I will.”

I walked back to the car reflecting on what a difference two years makes.

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The next morning Ashley texted that Katie had gotten her period during the night. Damn, I texted back. That’s the worst timing ever.

No worries, Ashley texted.

The nurses thought Katie had cramps, so they administered ibuprofen. I worried camp would be spoiled by this turn of events, but Katie didn’t miss a beat. Both she and Ashley had a great time. Ashley reported that Katie made some new friends and let the other kids dunk her over and over in the dunk tank. She rode a horse, petted a goat, did the zip line, and ate nonstop. On Friday night, she danced so much that she was awarded the long distance dancer award!

Once again, my daughter didn’t just survive, but truly thrived at summer camp.

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As for me, I watched a ton of movies on Netflix, wrote, and slept in every morning. On Friday, Nate and I went out for dinner, saw the movie Wonder Woman, and browsed at a book store. I had hoped to spend time with a new significant other, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Even so, it was good to get a break from the demands of parenting.

As was the case last year, after three days away, Katie didn’t want to come home. This year instead of unpacking her duffle bag, she mostly cried and asked to stay. But she was happy to see me when I arrived for pick up (and possibly a little homesick). She hugged me, then hugged Ashley goodbye.

“See you next year,” Ashley said as we left.

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We stopped at a park to swing, then headed home. Katie slept for much of the afternoon. By Sunday she had recovered and was asking to return to Camp Arroyo. A year is such a long time to wait….

Until next time,
Cynthia

 

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Katie’s at Camp Arroyo (Again)!
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Camp Arroyo - LogoYesterday I dropped Katie off at Camp Arroyo. This is her third time at the Exceptional Needs Network’s summer camp for children with special needs. To say she was excited would be an understatement.

I was pretty excited too. (Still am.) Unlike most single parents, I don’t have an ex-spouse/partner who provides me with free and convenient childcare on a regular basis. As a result, I get very little time off from parenting my autistic child, and when I do, it almost never involves more than a few hours here and a few hours there. Plus it’s not cheap. To have a three-night break is an extraordinary and priceless gift.

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Thank you Exceptional Needs Network and Taylor Family Foundation. You have made one single mom very, very happy.

I’m off to play….

Until next time,
Cynthia

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Testimonial for Open Mind School
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250228_465261366867616_1625140658_nLast week, I posted about writing a testimonial for my daughter’s fabulous school. After it was published, several people wrote asking what my testimonial said. I told them I had paraphrased it pretty well, but they wanted to read my letter in its entirety. So here it is.

 

TESTIMONIAL FOR OPEN MIND SCHOOL
May 24, 2017

My daughter, Katie, is a bright, beautiful, and energetic 13-year-old. She was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 32 months. Prior to that, she was diagnosed with a significant speech delay and sensory processing disorder. In my experience, public schools find this combination of issues extremely challenging to address.

For nearly ten years, Katie bounced between school districts and programs. Before attending Open Mind School, she had eight placements in three school districts and was kicked out of school three times. None of these one-size-fits-all approaches could meet her unique needs.

My child was labeled “unteachable,” “retarded,” “non-compliant,” “defiant,” and a “behavioral nightmare” by the school officials charged with her education. I was told that she had severe cognitive delays, and to be honest, her academic progress supported this claim. In middle school, Katie was doing kindergarten-level work. She could not read, and no one had bothered to teach her math (or any other subject). She was not expected to write anything other than her first name.

School officials told me that my child would never amount to much. They said I was a big part of the problem because I “refused to accept reality.” It’s true. I refused to accept their so-called reality. I knew my child was capable of more.

In July 2016, my daughter and I tried the Soma Rapid Prompting Method (RPM). Within minutes, Katie was answering questions about the French Revolution, and I knew I had found the answer to my prayers. This would be the key that unlocked Katie’s potential.

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Open Mind School (OMS) is the only school in California that teaches using RPM. That fact alone would have prompted me to apply for admission. But OMS is so much more. After ten years of struggle in the public school system, OMS is like a magical slice of heaven.

Katie started at OMS on October 25, 2016. Within a week, the school informed me that Katie would be preparing a presentation on the California Mission of her choice. Sure enough, in December 2016, Katie delivered a PowerPoint presentation on Mission San Francisco de Asis to her classmates. My supposedly retarded and unteachable child had researched and written a report! Can you imagine how miraculous that felt? I literally cried with relief and joy.

It’s been six months since Katie transitioned to OMS. She now adds, subtracts, multiplies, and divides. She writes poetry. She can correctly answer comprehension questions on chapter books such as Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She’s learning science, art, civics, and history. She recently prepared a research paper on ants.

None of this would have been possible in public schools. I wish that were not the case, but sadly it’s true. In addition, Katie’s communication and social skills have improved. Her self-regulation and independence have grown exponentially. She’s mastering team sports such as volleyball and baseball as well as learning to swim. Any one of these things would be cause for celebration, but all of them? In six months?

Most importantly, Katie no longer hates attending school. This has been the biggest change of all. It’s taken 13 years, but my child is finally learning to enjoy learning. After years of frustration, boredom, bullying, and lack of progress, that’s a beautiful thing.

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In short, my daughter is thriving in her new environment. Open Mind School has given her not only the priceless gift of education, but also a future filled with possibility.

Words cannot express my gratitude.

Cynthia Patton

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Gratitude for Attitude (School Update #2)
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feet-2358333_1920As part of our effort to save the new building in Menlo Park for my daughter’s fabulous school, many of the parents wrote testimonials. After I helped Marina Vaserman, Director of Open Mind School, write a killer advocacy letter to the landlord, I wrote a testimonial too.

Later, after Marina thanked me for my help with the letter, she thanked me again. “Your testimonial made my day.”

“I was happy to do it. I’m so grateful that I found this school and that you were willing to accept Katie.”

“Of course we would accept her! We love having Katie here.”

This statement, delivered so matter-of-factly, made me choke up. Marina and other staff have said it before, and each time, it takes my breath away. Because for ten years it was abundantly clear to me as well as my daughter that she wasn’t wanted in public school. Katie was granted space merely because the law compelled them to do so. Even then, Katie was kicked out of school three times. Yes, it’s illegal, but it happened. Another district counted the days until she left.

Apparently it never occurred to either of these school districts that their attitude may have had an impact on the situation at hand.

success-1433400_1280After experiencing both, I have to say, the difference between tolerance and acceptance is like the difference between night and day. You can feel it, see it, and taste it. There is truly no comparison.

You cannot fake acceptance. You either accept someone or you do not. And believe me, a person knows when you do not. They feel it in their bones.

I’m sad that Katie went ten years without experiencing educational acceptance, but now that we have found a school that offers it, we will never go back. There is too much at stake.

Not only is Katie accepted for who she is at Open Mind School, but she is presumed intelligent and capable—rather than “retarded,” “non-compliant,” and “unteachable.” My child has not changed. What changed is the attitudes and beliefs of those teaching her, and this has made a tremendous difference.

In just over seven months, going only part-time, Katie has made phenomenal progress. She prepared and delivered a PowerPoint presentation on Mission San Francisco di Asis (aka Mission Delores). She mastered addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. She wrote poetry and a research paper on ants. She learned science, art, history, geography, and civics. She has correctly answered comprehension questions on chapter books such as BFG, Charlotte’s Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Wonder.

None of this would have been possible in public schools. I wish that were not the case, but sadly it’s true. In addition, Katie’s communication and social skills have improved. Her self-regulation and independence have grown exponentially. She’s mastering team sports such as volleyball and baseball as well as learning to swim. Any one of these things would be cause for celebration, but all of them? In seven months?

Most importantly, Katie no longer hates attending school. This has been the biggest change of all. It’s taken 13 years, but my child is finally learning to enjoy learning. After years of frustration, boredom, bullying, and lack of progress, that’s a beautiful thing.

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In short, my daughter is thriving in her new environment. Open Mind School has given her not only the priceless gift of an education, but also a future filled with possibility.

Words cannot express my gratitude.

Until next time,
Cynthia

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Summer Vacation
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It’s summer and my daughter Katie has a two-week break before summer school starts. (Actually Open Mind School is a year-round school, so it’s just regular school that happens in the summer months.) So we are off enjoying the warm sand and ocean breezes while we can.

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I’m going to be using my time to relax, read, do some writing, and plan for my role as the fourth Poet Laureate of Livermore. Katie will be doing as little as possible. We both need time to unplug and rest.

In two weeks I’ll be back, blogging about my unplanned life. Whatever you are doing, relax a bit, feel grateful for what you have, and enjoy the beautiful summer weather. I’ll see you soon!

Until next time,
Cynthia 

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It’s Official! I’m Poet Laureate
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fountain-pen-1851096_1920On Monday, June 26th, I was sworn in as the City of Livermore’s fourth Poet Laureate. The Commission for the Arts notified me of its selection a few weeks ago, but I wanted to wait to make the announcement until the appointment was official. Well, it’s official. My term starts on July 1, 2017, and lasts two years (with a possibility of a two-year extension).

To kick off my first week, I read my first official poem to the City Council, hosted the Whistlestop Writers Open Mic, now in it’s fourth year, and on Sunday, July 2nd, will host a cowboy poetry event at the Heritage Guild’s community open house at historic Hagemann Ranch, located at 455 Olivina Avenue in Livermore. I’ll be showcasing poems from two local poets: Lynn R. Owens (Livermore’s “Poet Lariat,” now deceased) and Lauren DeVore, who owns a ranch on Morgan Territory Road. Plus I’ve collected some fantastic examples of classic and contemporary cowboy poetry, including a fair number of female poets!

The poetry readings will be split into two 30-minute segments: one at 3:00 p.m. and the other at 4:00 p.m. The event runs from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., and will include a 4-H horsemanship demonstration, square dancing, glass blowing, antique farm equipment, presentations by local ranchers, games for kids, the El Ranchero Vaquero Team (Mexican horse dancing) at 1:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., plus free food!

It’s going to be an exciting and fun event, and I’m happy I could help out my dear friend Barbara Soules and the Heritage Guild. Barbara is already planning to make this an annual event! I hope you can join me.

For those of you that missed my first official poem, here’s what I read to the Livermore City Council on Monday night after I was sworn in.

 

A PLACE TO CALL HOME

 Live-No-More-in-Livermore.
That’s what we used to say as bored
high school students eager to escape.
It was different then: no hip restaurants,
no outlet stores, no wine bars,
or even coffee shops. We bucked

hay in the quad for Homecoming.
I dreamt of a fast-paced career paired
with big city lights, far from a sleepy
hometown. I got them—for awhile—
but by thirty I found myself, inexplicably,
here, in the one place I’d sworn to avoid.

 Live-No-More-in-Livermore.
Which changed more, the place or I?
The Vine serves wine; we have fireworks
downtown. The cowboy bar is gone, replaced
by yoga studios, French bakeries, craft beer.
Now when I climb Pigeon Pass at night,

see the Valley cupped like a sea of stars
in the Earth’s hands, I feel blessed. I hike
Brushy Peak in the shadow of windmills,
mark seasons with vineyards. I pass
Baughman’s and the Donut Wheel, feel
something twist in my head-strong heart.

 Live-No-More-in-Livermore.
For both the place and I, things were lost
in the passage of time, but much was gained.
The roots I once sought to sever sink deeper,
drawing me close, weaving a cloak
that shelters in life’s inevitable storms.

 Livermore—it’s good to be home.

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For the next few weeks, I’ll be talking to key constituents, making plans, and settling into my new role. If this first week is any indication, it’s going to be a busy two years!

What new tasks are you tackling this summer?

Until next time,
Cynthia

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Small But Mighty
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12973396_10154810270134816_8980740602952449345_oAs I wrote before, Open Mind School (OMS), my daughter’s fantastic new school in Redwood City, was being kicked out of its current location by Oracle’s childcare provider and then lost its new location in Menlo Park to Facebook. We had just over two months to figure out a solution or OMS would be homeless. And my daughter, once again, without a school.

It was devastating news.

Marina Vaserman, the Director of Open Mind School, several OMS parents, and I worked together to write the mother of all advocacy letters. Marina delivered it to the landlord over Memorial Day Weekend, along with parent testimonials and other information about the school and its mission. Then we waited.

And waited.

I didn’t know if our pitch would work. If Facebook had offered more money, it seemed likely that OMS would lose the space. I felt sick at the thought of my daughter losing the only school that had ever treated her as a bright, capable individual. Katie had made so much progress in six short months. What would we do if our pitch failed to sway the landlord?

I spent several sleepless nights, worrying, praying, and mulling my options.

image1And then the parents received an email from Marina, entitled We Are Small But Mighty. Guess what? Fate smiled on us. The landlord read our letter, watched the video, and considered the parent testimonials and other information. In the end, he decided to go with Open Mind School rather than Facebook. He and Marina signed the Master Lease, guaranteeing OMS a home for at least five years. Possibly as long as ten. I suspect many of the parents will continue to push for a fundraising plan that will start us down the path to purchasing property. But the Menlo Park lease bought OMS some much needed time.

After a tense couple of months, OMS has found a place to call home in Menlo Park. The new space offers room to grow (20,000 square feet versus 7,000 in the current location) and requires a conditional use permit. Marina has already found a consultant to help secure the necessary approvals from the City of Menlo Park.

I’m not sure if this will mean a longer commute for Katie, but it will definitely be a different one, over a different bridge, to a different building. Changes are coming, whether we like them or not, but at least they are positive ones. Katie and I will not need to search for another school that can meet her unique needs. I’m deeply grateful for that.

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Starting in August, 28 children from 13 school districts scattered around the Bay Area will converge at 1215 O’Brien Street in in Menlo Park to continue their educational journey at Open Mind School. I can’t wait to see what new magic unfolds for our exceptional kids.

Until next time,
Cynthia

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The Path Forward
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street-1435744_1920“The path forward begins with a question.”

That’s what the shaman said during her ceremony.

I already knew the answer to her first question, which was “what is your process?” Based on her examples, I knew I tackled issues with a combination of planning and preparation. I also knew I often got stuck by doing too much of both. So I wasn’t expecting to discover much during the meditation.

What popped into my mind was the memory of a map spread out before me on the kitchen table, planning the route for our family camping trip. At twelve, I could do it as well if not better than Mom. I thought of all the trips I’d planned: for my family, for Michael, for my daughter Katie, for friends, for myself, including a three-month solo trip through Europe. I accomplished this through planning and preparation. It was, I realized, a highly honed skill, a talent, that I’d taken for granted for years. Something to be proud of. Something I’d developed through years of practice that began when I was a child.

I studied the map, the calculator, the dog-eared guidebook and realized that Mom valued safety and therefore remained stuck. I had learned to move beyond fear with planning and preparation. That’s how I kept myself “safe” but still able to adventure far beyond my comfort zone.

But what about the times I did too much planning and research, the times I also got stuck? I thought through all those trips, all those plans, and realized when I had a destination, a vision of where I wanted to go, the planning and research stayed in check. It was, in a word, focused. It was only once I began my unplanned life, when all milestones and destinations were obscured, when all dreams had vanished, that I lost focus and got stuck.

BalanceNo amount of planning, I realized, can prepare you for the unknown. No wonder I had wandered for so long.

I needed a vision for the path forward. A vision to guide the planning. I needed balance.

There was a ying and yang to moving forward.

The shaman asked how our process had served us on our journey. Hmmm. It had served me well for years. I had my life well-planned until suddenly I found myself in uncharted territory, spinning my wheels. Overwhelmed, I thought. I felt compassion for my younger self. Alone and terrified, with an autistic toddler in tow. No map, no guidebook, no resources. Just a leaking roof over our heads and a dog dying of bone cancer.

I hadn’t done that badly, all things considered.

I knew I’d been moving forward in some areas, but hopelessly stuck in others. I knew I’d been reacting to Katie’s constant issues rather than being proactive and relying on a plan (or goals). Was it possible the vision was too far off, too remote?

Then again, hadn’t something led me to the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM)? Hadn’t something been leading me all along?

I had no answer to those questions, but it was clear to me that I needed more short-term goals, that preparing for a well-planned adventure felt better than wandering lost in one.

The shaman asked what we needed on the path forward. I was immediately struck with the vision of Katie striding across a college campus, her fiery curls wind-blown, laughing with friends. For years I’d been telling myself this dream was too far out of reach, but suddenly I could see how it had been guiding me, even when I had no idea it was influencing my choices and actions. Hadn’t I read a story of a fourteen-year-old nonverbal teen diagnosed with severe cognitive delays who learned RPM and by 22 was graduating from high school and heading to college? If it was possible for him, it was possible for Katie.

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Perhaps more important than a map or guidebook was the vision or the goal. Perhaps with a vision, you could find your way without a map.

I had my vision for Katie, but what about me? What was the big vision for my life?

I wasn’t sure, but I knew it was time to find it.

Until next time,
Cynthia

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Chaos and Change, Part 3
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12973396_10154810270134816_8980740602952449345_oAs I wrote before, Open Mind School (OMS), my daughter’s fantastic new school in Redwood City, was being kicked out of its current location by Oracle’s childcare provider and then lost its new location in Menlo Park to Facebook. We had just over two months to figure out a solution or OMS would be homeless.

After our parent meeting, we decided that our first course of action would be to send a letter to the Menlo Park landlord in hopes that we could sway his decision. If that didn’t work, we would approach Facebook to see what was possible. After that, we would would regroup and decide what to do next.

Marina Vaserman, the Director of Open Mind School, and several OMS parents took a stab at the letter to the landlord. It wasn’t bad, but this had to be the mother of all advocacy letters. Adequate would never be good enough.

So shortly before Memorial Day weekend, about a week after our parent meeting, I did a total overhaul of the draft letter. Then Marina and I stayed up until the wee hours tweaking and polishing it further. In the end, we were pleased with what we came up with.

Here’s the letter that Marina delivered to the landlord:

Dear [Landlord],

We, the parents, teachers, and supporters of Open Mind School (OMS), are contacting you regarding our current real estate challenge. As you may be aware, OMS is unique in what it offers to children like ours — a place where neurodiverse students join neurotypical students to learn and thrive. 

Open Mind School has helped our children grow and realize their full potential. It serves students whose needs have not been met by numerous Bay Area school districts, including San Francisco, Las Lomitas, Los Altos, Mountain View, Pleasant Hill, Livermore, Union City, Daly City, Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, Milpitas, Hayward, and Fremont. These children travel long distances to attend this school, in part because it offers what no other school in the Bay Area can provide: an opportunity for equal education tailored to unique student needs. 

Open Mind School has so many incredible stories of student transformation, so many great partnerships, so many amazing initiatives, but most of all, so much heart! The attached documents provide a deeper overview, but you can watch this video to glimpse the magic.  

We know that you’ve been in discussions for months with Marina Vaserman of OMS for the lease of 1215 O’Brien Street in Menlo Park. Our current sublease ends in two months. If another organization takes this location, our students risk having no home for the coming school year that begins in August 2017. 

This is a heartfelt request on behalf of all our exceptional children to please give OMS primary consideration for the lease of 1215 O’Brien Street in Menlo Park.  

Sincerely, 
Parents, Teachers, and Supporters of Open Mind School

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Now we wait to see what happens. Will OMS find a place to call home? Will it be moving to Menlo Park or not?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do know that none of us will give up on this amazing school and the magic it performs daily for our exceptional kids.

Until next time,
Cynthia

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