Thursday, June 13, 2019

Graduation Day for Kenny and Angela!

Well, we did it!  Kenny and Angela graduated in low key style this past Saturday evening, with a few close friends in attendance.  At their request, we kept the celebration small and intimate, and the event was beautiful, connecting, and authentic.

After a nice meal, we all moved into the living room, where we had a small ceremony, and where I offered a little speech for each of our graduates, and they each spoke as well.

I will openly admit I started crying before saying a word, and worked hard to hold it together throughout...I was pretty unsuccessful on that front.  This wasn't as much about homeschooling as it was about our entire journey together.  Trying to keep it short and sweet, there was so much unspoken that we each understood to be beneath it all.  I will share here in this far-too-long-blog-post the words each of us spoke through tears, for I was not the only one crying.  

But what were those tears about?  Were they shed because school was being left behind?  Because kids were growing up?  Because of fear of the future?

No, not at all!!  Those tears that fell for each of us were tears of victory, of success, of gratitude for reaching a goal that was far harder to attain than most would ever truly understand, for it was never guaranteed and they each started so far behind their peers and had so much working against them.  And we wept  because we love each other so darned much and we made it.  This was a celebration of all that has been accomplished despite incredible odds.

The blog is always in my voice, so I thought it would be nice to allow you to "hear" their voices here for graduation, so here is Kenny's speech:

Only when one can recognize and accept their limits can they master their abilities. 

Of all the great lessons that I have learned from homeschooling, this is the lesson that has impacted me most. Learning and accepting this concept has been the key to my success in homeschooling, and it’s the key for my success in the future. 

We live in a world that sells the idea that we can do anything and that by following our passions everything else falls into place. I prolonged my suffering by holding on to a dream that would never come to fruition. I failed to realize all that I had done and all I still had to offer. 

In AA they say that acknowledging that you are an alcoholic is half the battle. By acknowledging my disabilities I was able to work with them. 

I had forgotten how long it took Mom and I to get answers about what was wrong with my brain. How we bewildered so called experts. Some of them told my Mom that she was expecting too much from me and that I was too slow and impaired to help. While other experts told her that there was nothing really wrong with me. It was frustrating and heart breaking. 

The day I finally got my diagnosis of FASD, was a day of celebration because finally we understood what we were dealing with  

But over time I have come to blame my diagnosis for limiting me, failing to understand that whether I had or not had that diagnosis my life was already limited. 

Some things are not possible no matter how much I wanted them to be. Believing that 2+2 =3 is wrong wether I do or don’t acknowledge it. Buying into my head games and holding on to delusions only serves to hinder me. 

It was by getting that diagnosis that aided my Mom to craft an education that has pushed and grown me in all the right areas.

In the last few months I feel like God has been sending me two by fours about this message. Seeing and reading about people that bought into their own delusions and then going on to live lives of constant disappointment and shame. One example is some of the people with FASD on Facebook that keep blaming the world for their problems. They believe that the world needs to bend to them. 

The Tao talks about how the strongest and most rigid trees are not the ones that hold firm in a storm, but the trees that are able to bend and yield that make it through the storms. Palm trees 

Evolution tells us that it isn’t the smartest or the toughest animal that survives, it’s the animal that adapts the best that survives and thrives. 

By accepting my limits I have been able to hone in my abilities. 

Last year I gave a sermon about the idea of that God is always More and we are too. 

When I accept limits it doesn’t negate that I am still more. No, It’s the opposite. by realizing my capacity in certain areas I am able to explore the more in all the other areas of my life. 

I am so thankful to have had my Mom who has been there every step of the way. She has fought the world so it would recognize my impairments and fought me at times to accept them. She has also fought the world to see all that I have to offer and again fought me at times to get me to see my gifts. Thank you for being my second brain, thank you for accommodating and customizing my education in a way that I was able to maximize it, and thank you for cheer leading me when the burdens of life seemed overwhelming. 

Albert Einstein said that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. A fish excels in water and homeschooling has been my water.  

Below is what I shared with Kenny:

Kenny, I don’t know if you remember a day that stands out so clearly in my mind.  You were 11 years old and crying in the back seat of the car, frustrated, literally hitting your head and calling yourself “stupid”.  We had been through so many specialists, so many tests, so many meetings, and still you couldn’t read.  It was in Kazakhstan while briefly doing a test run of homeschooling while we were there adopting the girls that we first caught a glimmer of the profound learning disabilities you had that could no longer be chalked up to mere English language learning.  Upon our return, we knew we would give homeschooling a try the following year for you.  Demoralized by the end of the year, we found ourselves in that moment, and  it was then that I told you regardless of whatever test results we had, regardless of how everyone else wanted to classify you as borderline mentally retarded, I saw the very intelligent boy underneath it all, and I made you a promise, do you remember it?  I promised that by the end of high school, you would be reading.  How well, I didn’t know, but I just knew there was too much intellect to abandon so quickly, and that it was my job to research and find new strategies, and it was going to be your job to work harder than you ever had in your life.

You know what?  We did it, Kenny!  Day after day, workbook after workbook, phonics program after program (3 different ones!), we threw our heart and soul into helping you succeed.  Matthew, who was already a very good reader by that time, was the most patient, helpful sibling anyone could ever wish for.  Sitting at a table alongside FOUR brand new readers was a reflection of his great, silent compassion, for even as your educator I struggled not to grow impatient!!!! And I know each day for you was a long, slow grind.  But one morning, three years or so later, there you were, reading fluently, almost as if by magic.

But we know it wasn’t magic, don’t we?  It was painful, arduous work and required a faith from both of us that eventually we would see the results of years of sowing seeds.

No one outside your four siblings and I understand what your school years were truly like.  They know the  emotional suffering that pre-dated the confident, logical young man who leads Bible Study, rattles off obscure historical facts, and can analyze P & L’s like a pro.  They were there as witnesses to your enormous growth, they saw your grit first hand, and they know that who you are today almost didn’t happen.  I may have been your guide to a new intellectual world, but it was you who said yes and grabbed me by the hand willingly following wherever I led.  It was you who rewrote papers over and over again, it was you who tolerated (and still do!) my constant correction of speech and thought, it was you who allowed yourself to be molded and shaped.  You did so with a graciousness few of us could ever muster over that great a period of time, and you still do.  You never grew angry with me, you never rebelled, you simply knuckled down and got to work.

How I know we all honor your humble spirit, born of necessity, grown in wisdom as you gained more awareness of your needs and gifts, and what it would take to maximize your future possibilities.

The tenacity you have shown in your educational pursuits, which is far more than many more natural students, will serve you well as you begin your life as an entrepreneur.  Those seeds sown long ago will bear fruit in ways we likely can not imagine at this moment.  You have developed a work ethic second to none, you have honed your logic…something that once was deeply in doubt.  You have learned at an earlier age than most that miracles do happen, that independence is a fools errand and interdependence is the sweet spot where everyone thrives, and that hard isn’t bad, hard is just hard.  

No one does “hard” better than you, Kenny.

As you begin this next stage of your life, you are once again in a new circumstance, one that will test you, teach you, and if you are doing life right, terrify you.  Remember, no one grows from the comfortable seats.  

I know the fears for your future are based in a reality few of us can understand, but you need to know that what we see before us is someone who is a thinker, a dreamer, a prophet, a teacher, and so much more.  Dream big, Kenny.  While no one’s future is limitless, despite what Facebook memes would have us believe, the world is yours to explore, and we all believe in you.  Keep reaching, keep being intellectually curious, keep analyzing and researching and writing.  

You have a beautiful life to live, one filled with as much hope and possibility as everyone else, as long as you choose to look for it.

Congratulations, to the owner of the single most hard fought for high school diploma ever.

After wiping away tears, and taking a deep breath, our next graduate was up, Angie.  Like her mom, she was barely able to speak at first, so moved by finally arriving at this moment.  Speaking in public is incredibly hard for her, in fact, she even struggles and has a quavering voice when delivering an oral report in front of just me and the kids for school!  So this was a big challenge for her to stand up in front of family and friends and share her intimate thoughts...I was enormously proud of her.  Here, from Angie:

Two years ago, almost to the day, my brother Matthew was giving his high school graduation speech and I remember seating inside the Conway school, filled with emotions and being incredibly amazed by what I was hearing. My heart began to race and it hit me, no way can I stand a chance on moving my audience as much as Matt moved me that day. After his graduation, I began to type down notes, working on my speech, trying to somehow evoke the emotions of my listeners as Matt did in me. Despite my hardest efforts of trying to write  my speech years before its due date, I slowly started to erase words, which led to lines, and eventually turned to paragraphs and  I was left with nothing. 
No speech….just a blank page……
And here I am seating, the night before my graduation day,
……… contemplating what to say.
Do I talk about learning English and my constant battle with articles?
Do I talk about how I grew from absolutely hating books to loving them?
Do I write about learning how to forgive a person who never asked for an apology?
Do I write about  learning how to say “I love you” and how to open up yourself to the ones you deeply love?
Do I share how both my sister and I had to be educated on how to live in a family and what it meant to have a family……
All this  was taught to me by my  parents whom I was privileged to have as teachers, too.
Mom, you especially.
My school which was my home wasn’t ordinary,  we didn’t just learn how to add and subtract or how to read and write. We learned that “I don’t know" or “I can’t”  were never the right answers no matter to what question life or anyone has asked us. Everyday we learned that character is what mattered the most. Our success was evaluated by our willingness to rise up despite the disability, the  challenges, and the roadblocks we faced.
When a child learned to open up and break walls and show affection for the  first time in years that was success, when a student worked tirelessly and diligently trying to read but being told he will never be able to do so, and finally the day came and he began to  read at his grade level that was success, when everyone told you it was wrong to follow your heart and calling in life just because you might not afford it and might lose your house and live in a trailer, but you did it anyway, that was success… it was all based on WHO WE ARE not the grades that we have received or the trophies we’ve put on our shelves to collect dust.

So as I continue with the next stage in my life, which Buckaroos will be part of, I must always remember and judge my success not by the amount of customers that walk through Buckaroos’ doors and not by the recognition I may receive, but by my ability to rise above my limitations and setbacks in life. 

Thank you mom and dad for everything!!!!

We had a hard time getting good photos because we were in the moment, and both of us trying not to cry for the camera! Hahaha!

Here are the words I offered Angela upon her graduation:

Angela, the first time I held you was not as a tiny babe, but as a tall 8 year old girl who came purposefully down the steps of the orphanage and walked right into my arms as if you had always belonged there.  That confidence is something you continue to exude, along with that same open-hearted smile that invites everyone in.  

I have never met a child who was so intuitive, so spirited, and so courageous all rolled up into one.  You took the LaJoy name officially when you were eleven years old, but you took my heart many years earlier…and from the pile of letters carefully wrapped and saved, I think the same was true for you with me.  Neither of us could have intuited, however, how our lives would grow so lovingly intertwined.  What we didn’t know at the time, and would have terrified me if I did, is that I would become not only your mom, but your educator, English Language Learner tutor, special needs instructor, and business mentor.  But perhaps what warms my heart the most is that I can look into your 21 year old eyes now, and see not just my daughter, but my dear friend.

Few of us can imagine the leap of faith you and Olesya took.  We try, but we fail miserably.  Like some sort of kamikaze daredevil, you leapt off a very high cliff with no safety net below.  When we pause for a moment to consider it fully, you willingly abandoned all that was familiar with no possibility of return.  Leaving your native Kazakhstan, you lost your language, your culture, your friends, your safety, your foods (and boy was THAT a big one!), and even your education, for it soon became apparent that your supposed 5th grade level was inadequate, at best, and we would have to begin at…well…the beginning.  Initially, you were deeply disturbed to discover we were dropping you back a couple of grades, but surprisingly, though a totally foreign concept, you were not at all uncomfortable with being educated at home.  One brief visit to a public school and you were thrilled to be learning at home, where it felt more similar to the small classes you had in the orphanage.

In time, you began to discover just how much your prior education lacked, as Josh who was five years younger provided you with a baseline for comparison, and it was hard to argue with all you had missed through no fault of your own.  Your acceptance of this decision proved early on your inner wisdom and that when you listen to it, you will be guided well.  Allowing for this sort of emotional and educational setback provided you with the time and opportunity you needed to learn and grow at your own pace, rather then spend your entire childhood playing catch up.  You saw peers struggle in their new families and in school, adoptions fail, and it affirmed for you that the tortoise does indeed win the race.  

One would only need to see how you handled your school work to understand who you are at the core.  You had only been reading 3 years or so when you tackled a 3 inch thick biography about Gandhi, impressing even me with your tenaciousness as you stopped over and over again to ask me the meanings of new words.  Your strong sense of social justice and fairness to all came out on the volleyball court as well, when you stood up to your coach and asked to be taken out of the game so a player who had been unfairly benched all season could have the chance to play.  You embody regularly the quote, “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes,” and that is why it is so obvious to all of us that you will indeed change the lives of those you encounter, and will fight for those who need to be seen in this world.  It is a quality I admire greatly in you.

Though a very good student, you are not defined by academics, but instead your soul is firmly defined by your compassion for others, and your incredible honesty.  As we often joke, you couldn’t tell a lie to save your life.  You don’t even try!  Unlike any other person I have ever met, other than  perhaps Billy, I have never seen someone stand straight and tall, look you in the eye, and boldly tell the truth even if they know that truth will lead to severe consequences.  What a refreshing gift that is to be around!!  But your compassionate heart is what I urge you to follow while using that honesty and unwavering voice to speak the truth.  This unique combination of admirable traits of yours will make you a force to be reckoned with in the world, and it will make you a voice for the voiceless, something this world is in desperate need of.  I told you long ago I saw important things in your future, for only the most courageous can stand up and speak loudly, but only the most compassionate can do so and not remain toughened.

And my dear Ang, if there is one piece of wisdom I can leave you with today, as your mom and your educator, it is to live as Brene Brown suggests, for I believe that for you it will be your greatest challenge,  Go forward with “a strong back, a soft front, and a wild heart.”  Don’t just maintain your heard earned softness, nurture it, protect it, grow it.  That you stand before us today with the ability to love so deeply and openly is a miracle itself.  Trust others until proven otherwise, remember the Spirit presence that has been with you since you first drew breath, and feed your soul daily in ways that cleanse you, calm you, and captivate you.  Your world is big, your spirit is even bigger.  Use your gifts in whatever setting you find yourself in, and you will literally be the light I know you were born to be.

Congratulations, to the child who trusted, and the adult woman whose patience allowed her to earn a truly valid high school diploma.  

These two also proceeded to make the day very special for others as well, having written beautiful notes and sending flowers to two of their additional teachers, and honoring Dominick and I with 4 gift cards to various restaurants for a nice meal out!  I also received a lovely personalized crystal desk clock with their thanks etched in it.  They got gifts for one another as well, with Angie receiving a very special piece of art work from Kenny, crafted by her former art instructor, who rushed it as quickly as she could from what I understand, and it was a portrait of Angie and I!

Raynola Dominguez has taught the girls for 3 or 4 years and has also been a beautiful presence in their lives in terms of her spirit.  Thank you, Raynola, for helping Kenny to give Angie a one of a kind special gift!!

Then, the kids also thoughtfully included Josh, and along with Olesya presented him with the small gift of a Colorado hoodie with a design he had seen and wanted but was unable to afford.  This was to acknowledge his hours and hours of physical labor put in at Buckaroos to help them with the construction phase.  

I love how these kids all love one another so much!  I don't know who was taking more pictures, as Matthew was also snapping away feverishly!  This day was a high point for the entire family.

We are doing so much financially to get Buckaroos open that we had little money for any sort of major graduation gift, which they totally understood and did not expect.  But we did surprise them with the graduation cookies shown above in the first photo, created by Mack Canvas & Cookie.  This amazing little company started in this couple's kitchen less than a year ago and we are following them on Facebook and learning from their social media posts for future reference.  Here is Angie opening up the box and realizing what was inside:

We also gave each of the kids a photo book containing all my favorite photos taken throughout their life.  I was a bad adoptive mommy and never crafted a lifebook for them, so this was it!  They each loved it and enjoyed looking at them, I created them while we were in Chicago for two weeks with Kenny for surgery as it was when I could manage that much time alone to spend hours and hours working on them!  Kenny also got a small computer bag/briefcase and Angie got a new purse which they both loved.  We joked that what they really got for graduation was a pizza oven!! Hahaha!

The evening ended with a post-graduation birthday party for Matt, who turned 20 years old (What?!?!?!  How in the world did he get that old???) on the 12th, and Candi, my best friend, who, her birthday is on the 13th ;-)  We haven't actually had Matt around for his birthday for 5 or 6 years, as it always falls on the week he was at Civil Air Patrol Encampment, and now this year he had to return to his summer job as a camp counselor at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp so he STILL wasn't home for his birthday!  That's ok, he did a little birthday dance with his favorite adopted auntie.

Though lacking a lot of true pomp and circumstance, the graduation was deeply reflective of who we are.  At first, as graduation approached, I was feeling a little melancholy, largely due to what felt like might be big gifts, no fancy clothes or meal, no huge party.  You know, sometimes social media can make you feel you are lacking in all kinds of ways.  But then I look at my family, the abiding love and deep friendship we all feel for one another, the adopted extended family who is such an important part of our life, our church who celebrated our kids a couple weeks earlier, and I shook my head in dismay at what I thought briefly was necessary.

We have so much!!!  The love we all share, the respect we offer one another, the precious gift of family that we all almost didn't have...who could ask for more?  Holding each of my beloved grads close for a long hug after awarding them their diplomas, surrounded by everyone else we love so much, I can't think of a single thing that would have made this day any more special.

Happy Graduation Angie and Kenny!  Go take on the world!!!

Saturday, June 01, 2019

We're Making Progress!

Market Research!! HAHAHA!
Summer is in full swing, school work has been completed, and what was a "class" is now real life!  We are having a family dinner for Angie and Kenny for graduation next weekend, but high school already seems far behind them as work for Buckaroos ramps up!  Let's take a sneak peek at all that has been going on behind the scenes:

After finishing the framing and drywall work, waiting for electricians to complete one step of the process, waiting for plumbers to do another step of the process, Angie started painting the kitchen the dark...with flashlights...because lighting had not yet arrived for the kitchen area.

Next came painting the ceiling, and masking things off to paint the walls.  Who is this tall stranger appearing in our photos?  I will explain more below!

Next came painting, which went quickly and smoothly as the kids have had lots of experience with that particular task!

The galvanized metal was installed, trim pre-fitted, and as I am writing this Olesya is staining and applying urethane to the trim pieces.

What a difference THIS made!  The installation of two windows at the front of the building will allow daylight to stream through.  The eventual installation of a large glass front door will also help, but first we have to bring in our enormous pizza oven which has been sitting in storage while we get a little further along in the process.  This suddenly made it all feel real!

Wow!  It looks entirely different and is beginning to feel like we might just make this happen for real!

Angie was so impressed she had to whip out the camera to take pics!

And now for the explanation of who this young man is who has joined us...and no, it isn't another adoption.  Well, at least not legally ;-)  Billy Ashenden is our summer intern and a student at USC.  He is studying economics and will be a junior next year.  He is staying with us through part of August learning about business start ups and studying all the aspects of business we are teaching the kids.  Billy has also struggled with challenges of his own, and understands our mission intimately because of that.  We are thrilled to have him with us, and already the poor lad has put in several twelve hour days.

The son of my best friend, Candi, it honestly feels he is just another LaJoy and it is delightful to have him with us.  Matt was teasing about being replaced, saying "He is the taller, whiter, better version of me!" and Billy has moved into Matt's bed while Matt is off on his summer adventures at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp, La Foret United Church of Christ summer camp, and then off to the Netherlands toward the end of summer.  Here is a quick photo of him as our church sent him off with a blessing last weekend:

We will see Matt a couple times this summer as he comes home for his siblings' graduation, and then overnight before heading to the Netherlands.

Aside from progress on the building, there has been an incredible amount of hard work going on behind the scenes.

These two have spent numerous hours dealing with menu design and costing out each item we will sell. They have worked with percentages and real life numbers that are scary when looking at debt to potential income, labor, and more.  The reality of the courage it takes to open a mom and pop business has sunk in even more dramatically, and they are doing an outstanding job!  The girls would not be able to do this sort of work, due to math limitations, so they finished up painting and doing more at the store while these two hit the financial pieces hard.

That doesn't mean that Billy and Kenny aren't also having fun while working so hard.  Honestly though, the first photo was posed and they made sure to spread out all the documentation so it looked impressive, and here they are cracking up over that.  Honestly though, they ARE using every document here, and they ARE doing the kind of work that, frankly, tanks many businesses if it isn't done.  Kenny noted at the pizza show that one of the sessions he attended shocked him, there were at least 70 people in the room who were already owners of pizzerias whose questions and comments led him to understand they had never done food costing or analyzed their menu for contribution to profit for each item.  He walked out early saying, "Mom, you and dad have already taught us all that years ago.  I don't get how anyone could be in business and not have done that kind of work.  No wonder 60% of restaurants fail in the first three years..." and thankfully, that also gave him confidence that we just might be able to make it with Buckaroos, because we are putting in the work to begin with, and are willing to sacrifice a heck of a lot to hopefully find success.  If not, they will go down swinging.

The next step was to check out the competition to learn more.  Of COURSE this involved running around to get four pizzas from four different local establishments, and of COURSE we had to try it all! Hahaha!

It was a good lesson though, as the kids were able to put their pizza knowledge to use.  We have studied various cheeses and blends, sauces, learned about the dough making process, etc.  This actually changed the direction of our menu as we conversed and analyzed every slice, comparing flavors, crusts, texture, shared what we liked and didn't like.  For hands on learners and kids with FASD, talking about something isn't enough, and often parents and teachers don't go far enough to help cement concepts.  Yes, though this was fun, this was also very necessary, just like attending the pizza convention was.  For people who struggle sometimes with logic, seeing and touching can help create connections.  However, using such practices as we are using to accommodate a disability are still just darned good business practices.  You check out the competition, you educate yourselves about the industry, you never stop learning and growing in your craft.

The current step everyone is working on is installing FRP (fiber reinforced plastic panels) to line the kitchen walls with for easy cleaning.  Though not pictured, Josh has helped each day with this task as well, and it is a 3-4 day project.  Behind Billy is the hood and ansul system for ventilation which will be professionally installed.  There is only so much we feel qualified to tackle! 

Next the kids will install flooring, Angie is going to begin working on a special little touch for the shop which I will show later, we need to complete the order of our equipment and figure out cabinetry and countertops.  We will begin our real social media presence in about two weeks, and I will share links here for anyone who is interested in following along as we move toward our opening, hopefully in August if all goes well.