Fear and loathing on the “allergic to everything” trail…

I’ve finished off almost two weeks. In two weeks, I’ve tried to navigate a diet course that has thrown my life an abrupt curve ball. I believe I am moving into a new stage in this “meat, wheat, egg, and milk free” diet: acceptance.

The good news is that I’ve found there ARE plenty of good (albeit expensive and harder to find) alternatives for me to make at home. I’ve found dairy-free cheese that melts and some that doesn’t. I’ve found dairy free sour cream that is completely acceptable.  I’ve found gluten and egg-free pasta, crackers, and even (dry) bagels with dairy free cream cheese. As long as I plan ahead and cook at home, my food life is completely sustainable, and some of the alternatives, I am shocked to admit, are remarkably good!


The bad news, the part that makes me tear up nearly daily no matter how strong I appear, is that I just can’t go to my favorite places and order my favorite things anymore. Einstein Bagels is out… they do not have gluten free bagels, and their “smear” is dripping with dairy. My favorite pizza place does not have any sort of option either for this dietary predicament.  I have to just forget about these places I’ve enjoyed for more than 20 years. When I think about not eating real cheese and wheat and eggs it feels like I’ve lost a best friend…

But today, I woke up with a sharper sense of acceptance. I woke up with conviction in my belly. Conviction screamed at my psyche insisting, “Enough! This is minor compared to what many people are dealing with…” I am truly a lover of breads and cheeses, but I need to find comfort in new foods. That’s all.

As I flipped through social media, I read a post from a beloved student I taught years ago. Her son is a tiny toddler who is fighting a brain tumor right now. The pain, worry, terror that she and her husband are experiencing right now are unimaginable. I saw another friend who has been crushed by the loss of a loved one. There are families who have lost everything to natural disasters.  And I have the audacity to tear up over the loss of a few food groups? I’m going to focus on perspective this week. Try to be positive and count my blessings. No. More. Tears.

I thought I’d share some of my new findings this week for anyone looking for ideas who share these dietary restrictions.

Eating out. I am an absolute lover of Mexican food. I ate out at Chili’s this week. (I know- that’s Tex-Mex). At Chili’s, where I spent years as a server and bartender, I nibbled on corn tortilla chips and salsa. I ordered fajitas without the cheese and sour cream. I was able to eat the guacamole, pico, peppers, onions, mushrooms, black beans and a little shrimp with the CORN tortilla option that they offer! This was tasty and made me feel almost normal! Yeah for Chili’s!

Breakfasts. This week I left behind the luxury of the Vans waffles for some cereal and almond milk- even quicker in the ridiculously early mornings of a High School English teacher. I bought the unsweetened almond milk from SPROUTS, where I found an excellent variety of options for peeps on this diet plan. (I got unsweetened because I want to get the milk that most tastes like milk- the less it tastes like coconut or almonds the better to me!) I selected Van’s Honey Crunch cereal, which is gluten, egg, and dairy free. This cereal, with some added blueberries and almond milk, was really quite good once I got over the pasty-like consistency it turns into if you let it soak in the milk for too long. Overall, though, it was pretty okay. It is low in sugar with no high fructose corn syrup, to boot!

On Friday, I treated thawed out one of my new finds: a gluten, egg, and dairy free bagel with dairy free cream cheese. The cream cheese gets a thumbs up from me. A bit of a pasty consistency, but the feeling that I’m eating cream cheese is at least imaginable. The bagel… well, what can I say. I give it a 4. A bit dry. Oh, Einstein Bagels, how you spoiled me all these years…



Lunches: My school cafeteria does a pretty good job of having healthy options at lunch. Unfortunately, however, they can’t possibly find much to meet my needs, so I’m back to bringing my lunch box. (If only I had kept the one with Shaun Cassidy on the front). This week, I made what I call “happy salads”. I get bored with salads, which I eat once or twice daily and have for YEARS. The salads that make me happiest have the most colors. So- this week, I made dark green and purple lettuce salads with orange and red peppers, blueberries, raspberries, and cucumbers. I used vegan raspberry vinaigrette dressing.  My “sandwich” was half a gluten-free tortilla wrapped with about two tablespoons of tuna. (I also had celery and carrots depending on the day.)  These were pretty good, but be aware the gluten free tortillas have to be eaten with a fork. They don’t hold together well enough to pick up and eat like a proper roll-up.


Dinners: I found some tasty options this week. One day I made vegan, wheat-free pasta alfredo and veggie dogs (with a salad). The pasta was actually REALLY good- even passed the taste-test of my 13-year old! The consistency was good and it didn’t have the pastiness I’ve tended to find in these alternative foods.  The veggie dogs were mediocre… a little too mushy for my tastes. I will try them on the grill next time instead of boiling them. But when you cut them up and add enough ketchup, they end up okay…

I also tried my first wheat, dairy, and egg free pizza this week. This was interesting. I ate 2 slices of the 10 inch little pizza with salad. I kept looking in the oven to watch the cheese melt, but it never happened. I gave my first try a 3 because of the icky cheese.  When I heated up another piece later in the week, I sprinkled some vegan mozzarella cheese that I found over the top. It melted! This was a MASSIVE improvement! So, I will buy this again sometime.

mush pizza

Probably my favorite dinner was my Mexican dinner, which I enjoyed for a couple meals.  I used peppers, onions, mushrooms, corn, black beans, and salsa and sizzled them up in a pan. I put the mix on my gluten free tortilla, topped it with guacamole, added vegan cheddar and (later in the week) vegan sour cream, and had a really tasty dinner. I had to chop it up and mix it all together because, once again, these tortillas do NOT hold together well at all…


mexi dinner

On the plate before and after:

One more family- meal I made this week was a wheat & dairy-free pasta marinara w/ vegan meatballs.  This was delicious and the entire family loved it! Coupled with a salad, it is a definite staple in the Campbell house.


I hope that some of my findings might be helpful to others dealing with these dietary restrictions. I continue to read articles about how a 46 year old person can suddenly accumulate such a laundry list of allergies, and why they have to be so destructive to my kidneys. As I find answers, I will share them. I’ve read a LOT of articles about the possibility of all of this stemming from TICKS… stay tuned.


46 years old and suddenly allergic wheat, eggs, AND milk? Whaaaat???

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last few days about food allergies, after getting word from recent blood tests that I’m now highly allergic to wheat, egg whites, and milk, and moderately allergic to peanuts and soy. As a diabetic pescatarian with a kidney disease known as Focal Segmental Glomerulonephritis, https://nephcure.org/livingwithkidneydisease/understanding-glomerular-disease/understanding-fsgs/ )  this news felt like a sucker punch in the gut. For the sake of my health issues I’ve already thrown meat, sugar, and white-flour, carby-foods to the curb. How can I possibly live with all these additional food restrictions? French blood courses through my veins; bread and cheese are my go-to foods! I love bagels with cream cheese. And sub sandwiches on whole wheat. And eggs. And butter. And yogurt. I mourn for my palate, who now needs to enroll in a new graduate program…

Of course, I began reading. I’ve read scores of helpful blogs that reveal positive experiences and recipes with these dietary restrictions. Often in my life I’ve thought about how glad I was to grow up in a time without today’s modern technology, but what I’ve found online has actually made me thankful to live in this digital age- where we can access such a wealth of information. I’m amazed by the resources I’ve found and how many others in the world live gluten, meat, dairy, egg, soy, and peanut-free.

With tears freshly dried, I went to the “healthy” section of the local grocery store to explore the possibilities of my new food life. There are options aplenty for gluten free foods, but those options significantly decrease when one needs to be sure they are also dairy, soy, and egg free.  I did find, however, several products that I can eat, and I checked out with hope that these new morsels would not taste too horrific.

I’ve tried some of the items that I purchased, and I’ve not been as underwhelmed as I feared. I made myself lunch using a dairy & wheat free tuna tortilla, which was pretty good. The “mission” brand, gluten-free tortillas do not hold together well, but cut into quarters and used as a top and bottom to the tuna, it was not bad at all. With an apple and some celery sticks, my lunch was portable, filling, and tasty.


For a weekend breakfast option, I’m really impressed with Vans gluten-free and dairy-free waffles with dairy free (Earth Balance) butter spread and blueberries. I used syrup with no added sugar or corn-syrup, and it was quite tasty! It was odd to crunch down on some sesame seeds, but my palate said, “yes, ma’am.”

vans waffle with syrup and blueberries

I made a dinner using the ONE loaf of bread that I found that did NOT have egg whites, wheat, dairy, or soy. It is a brand called “Ener-G”, and the slices are the size of playing cards. I used the dairy free butter and I found some vegan “chao” cheese (this DOES contain tofu, so I’m not sure I can eat much of this one- but the tests showed the soy allergy to be moderate- I’ll learn more in the coming weeks about what that really means).  I made a tiny little grilled cheese sandwich to accompany my beans and blueberries. I was impressed that the butter melted and the texture of the bread was not crumbly- it held together quite nicely. While this new diet requires very specific shopping and planning, at least I can see ways to appease my cranky palate.

grilled cheese

Today, I used the Gluten and dairy-free tortillas to make a pizza. I doubled the flimsy tortillas together to make a more sturdy pizza crust. I spread tomato sauce over it and covered it with the vegan cheese. I baked it in the oven for 15 minutes, then took it out and ate it. While the cheese didn’t melt into that mozzarella melt that strings for miles, it was warm and mixed well with the sauce.

pizza possibilities

I’m on my way to figuring out how to replace my comfort foods. I eat plenty of greens which I’ve not bothered to talk about here; my broccoli crowns, asparagus spears, and salads are not going anywhere. They are just now betrothed to new partners.

I hope that by blogging about these dietary discoveries, others in similar situations might find some new ideas or suggestions. If you are reading this and have ideas or suggestions- please leave comments for others to see! If you are reading this and know anyone who might benefit from any of this- please share it!

For the next few weeks, I plan to keep myself busy so that I don’t sulk and think about all the foods I’m going to miss… I’m saying my silent farewell to my guilty pleasures: macaroni and cheese, Collossus pizza, REAL cheese, and whole wheat anything. I will miss all of you like a lost friend. But, as they say in show business… “the show must go on!”



Last day in Berlin 2018

As I sit down to think about my last day in Berlin, I’m already on the plane home. One sentiment continues to resonate for me- some of the first words that our tour guide Daniel uttered when we arrived: “Berlin isn’t a beautiful city, but it’s an interesting city.” After spending three full days touring the city, I have to say I agree.

And while on the subject of our tour guide- Daniel was phenomenal. He was a perfect blend of historical knowledge mixed with wit and high energy. When pronouncing the names of the train stops we would need to remember he would say, in his heavy German twang, “you will get off at the Gesundbrunnen stop. That is G-E-S-U-N-D… and more letters!” A clever way to shorten the long names that the Germans seem to attribute to most things.

After breakfast and a final training workshop, we had all afternoon to explore on our own!

I made plans to go up to the top of the TV Tower with two buddies I’d met on the tour- Tim- a special ed teacher from New Mexico and David-an art teacher from south Chicago. These guys wanted to do all the stuff I wanted to do- which was the tower and a half day of what David called an “urban hike”. Several other groups were going shopping and trying to stay out of the below freezing temps, but I wanted to explore and see more of what Berlin had to offer!

We ordered tickets in advance for the tower tour, and made our way to the subway. The Berlin subway, by the way, is called the U-Bahn when it runs underground or the S-Bahn when it comes up for air.

We got on the train that was supposed to be headed for the famous Alexanderplatz… Tim asked what the “Platz” stood for and David responded “you know- Platz [pronounced PLAYTZ]. Like you eat dinner off your Platz!” (Just a small example of loads of laughs in the day!)

The train we were on, totally going in the direction we needed, had other plans. It actually stopped in between stations and reversed directions! We backtracked to the previous station, where we got off to figure out how else to get to our destination in time to meet our 1:00pm tour time! We were down to seventeen minutes!

Tim found a train that we could take that was leaving in ONE minute, so, once again- in Amazing Race-style- we ran down the stairs to the lower level and met the train just as the doors opened!

We successfully made it to the Alexanderplatz stop and headed straight for the TV Tower… known locally as Fernsehturn. There were strict guidelines about bringing food and water in, so David had to scarf down the sandwich he smuggled out of the hotel breakfast and gulp down one of two water bottles. He hid his second, unopened water bottle behind a bench, hoping to retrieve it when we came out of the tower.

The lines to get in to the tower were long and we couldn’t read any of the signs or understand the announcements. We had “fast track” tickets, so we managed to move past the non-moving masses.

We got in the elevator, with more people than a fire code would appreciate, and headed up. We went up so high my ears popped. The tower observation deck is 207 meters up, which calculates to about 680 feet. (The actual structure, including the needle, soars a whopping 368 meters: 1207 feet. Taller than the Eiffel Tower!) In fact, our guide told us that it is the highest building in Europe that is open to the public!

Once at the top, we were able to wander around the circular observation area and look down on the entire city. There were excellent markers in front of each window that described landmarks and where to find them. It was exciting to note the places we had already seen and take note of the places we wanted to hit whilst wandering through the city.

I was excited to see that St Mary’s Church was an easy walk from the tower- I was eager to see the inside.

The white building with the mural all around it is a building called the Haus des Lehrers, which, Daniel explained, means ‘house of teachers.’ The building, he said, was built in the early 1960s by the GDR- the German Democratic Republic, and the architecture resembles all the other buildings built in the same time. Daniel described these buildings as “LEGO block buildings all over the city.” The mural, which is actually a mosaic that encompasses close to a million tiles, is a symbol of the New Berlin- the future of the city.

The tower was a great experience. It allowed me to really get a perspective of the scope and area of the city, and where things were. I recommend doing this after you have been in the city a couple of days, as it’s exciting to spot the places you’ve seen!

After making our way back out of the tower, David walked over to where he hid his water bottle… just as a man with a backpack had scooped it up. He somehow managed to communicate with the local man enough to get the man to reach into his backpack and hand back the water bottle. Point for David!

Our first stop was at St. Mary’s Church. We had walked past this on our first day, but had not gone in. We walked in and completely missed the glassed in exhibit showcasing the “Dance with Death” , a fresco painted in 1485. Inside, I was confused because there was a three panel mosaic that had skeletons dancing with people… but Then I remembered it was a fresco. We toured the church, and admired the pipe organ and the ornate pulpit.

On the way out, we were looking for stairs to see if the famous mural was upstairs, and that’s when we realized that the mural was right there- just inside the front doors! This church, a Catholic turned Protestant Church, is the second oldest church in Berlin.

We left St. Mary’s and began walking in the direction of the Neptunbrunnen, otherwise known as the “Neptune Fountain”, which is in a piazza (not sure what the Germans call this open area?) around the corner from Alexanderplatz.

This turned out to be a rather intense area, as there was a group of Syrian demonstrators who were highly charged. They all waved flags from their country and they had draped additional flags around the necks of some of Neptune’s women. They set up a jail cell, and they brutally threw two men inside the cell- both wearing masks. I could only see one of the masks but it was a Putin mask. Running around the outskirts of the demonstration were three men dressed in white clothes and head bands smeared in blood. I wasn’t sure what their role was. Although tempted to stay and watch a little longer, the German SWAT team arrived, and I knew it was a good time to keep on moving!

Our next stop was at the oldest church in Berlin- Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas’ church. The experience at this church perhaps started a downward trend of how the locals responded to us… the woman at the door glared at us. We went in, and another man glared at us. We saw that if we wanted to enter and take photos it would be 16.00 euros. I wasn’t up for spending that, and neither were my pals. David tried to head out a side door and got yelled at by the eagle-eyed man. We left in a bit of a hurry.

We ventured back out into the absolute biting wind, but were still eager to fill our time until dinner. (Did I mention the temps were in the twenties??)

We found our way across a very busy street and wandered around the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche Ruins. This was once a church, built in 1250, that was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin in 1945. There were giant blue pipes built inside that seemed to serve no purpose, so I’m guessing it was some sort of modern art. I felt like it really took away from the beauty of the ruins, if I’m being honest. It was, modern art aside, a good visual of the destruction that truly flattened the city… and what remained.

At this point in the day, we decided to find a pub to warm up and have a rest. We had passed what we thought seemed the quintessential German pub, so we decided to find it, since we had an hour and a half to kill before meeting the group for dinner.

We passed a few other interesting sites on our trek to the pub…

Once we got into the toasty warm pub, we were told to stand, as the waiter pointed to a tiny chair-less table. We ordered pints and stood, enjoying the warmth. After a few minutes, a tiny little booth in the corner opened up, so we carried our drinks to the table to relax for a minute. Well, this was apparently a sin of monstrous proportions, as the woman behind the bar began flapping her arms, rolling her eyes, and glaring at us. Since we had no idea what she was saying, although I certainly could have guessed, we just stayed where we were until we had finished our drinks. I may have also quietly rung the little bell that was on my table on the way out. While the service was rather alarming, the company and the pub feel made it a great stop!

We met the large group back at Alexanderplatz and headed out on a ten minute walk to dinner. On the way to dinner, we passed through the Kreuzberg neighborhood. This was a Jewish neighborhood before the war. Daniel explained to us that the church in the area was where many Jewish people were captured and taken to the concentration camps for being 1/2 Jewish or a 1/4 Jewish. They were actually worshipping in a Christian Church, but Hitler, with murder and hatred literally seething from his pores, found them and killed them.

We stopped to look at the ground outside the church and saw many “Stolperstein” (translates to stumbling) stones. These are stones that are mini monuments, with brass plates on each one that name the victim and the dates of their lives. Hitler murdered these people, and the modern Germans want visitors to honor them and never forget these innocent human beings.

Dinner was in this historic Jewish neighborhood at a place called the Grand Bar, and it was delicious! My vegetarian option was a delicious breaded goat cheese with veggies marinated in something wonderful. After dinner, we returned to the hotel to pack. Our wake-up call came at 2:30am! Ouch!

What a trip. Thanks to EF Tours for providing this amazing opportunity for the forty teachers who were on the tour!


Fear and loathing on the Berlin trail… Day 2

I woke up this morning and headed to breakfast. Wow- was I impressed! They had everything anyone could want on numerous separate stations! Cheeses, meats, fried eggs, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, and even hard boiled eggs… and fruits, yogurts, and homemade breads that rivaled a bakery. I ate with a few teachers, and as I cut my kiwi into quarters, I surveyed the group as to whether or not they eat the skin of the kiwi. Every single one of them said no. And I think they decided that I’m a bit of an odd duck.

I did waste two different cups of God only knows what on the coffee machine which didn’t have English subtitles. I finally clicked the golden button and got some mega-bitter coffee that was sure to wipe any last fatigue from my body!

After breakfast I had a two-hour training class, and then we had ten minutes to bundle up and load the tour bus. And I was ever so thankful today to have so many cold gear articles… because it was 30 degrees with a few hours of snow! (One guy from New Mexico called it blizzard conditions!)

Our first stop on the bus was at the historic East side gallery. No one visiting Berlin should miss this- even if it is below freezing and windy. This gallery is actually a series of murals painted on a remaining strip of the Berlin Wall, murals which were put up to celebrate all that was joyous and peaceful and free about the Wall coming down. The Wall has 101 different paintings- some very abstract, others more pop art style. One of the most famous is the “kissing dictators”, which says at the top “God help me stay alive” and at the bottom “among this deadly love”. This is, according to our tour guide, the longest outdoor painting in the world.

There was a fellow playing his instrument in front of one of the panels… this instrument was like the chitty-chitty bang bang of instruments. It made these funky gurgling, seven-horsepower motor sounds that were not very musical to my ears, yet I was fascinated! I bet I could make one of these?!

We got to see St Mary’s Church, which is one of the few buildings to live through the war. This church was actually built in 1270, according to our tour guide, who also said that the tower was put on it to make the church appear smaller. All the guides we’ve had stress the lack of interest the Germans have in religion. So much so that, according to today’s guide, 80% of Germans are self proclaimed atheists. “We have in Germany a religion tax,” the guide explained. “But if you sign a paper declaring yourself an atheist- you don’t have to pay it.” Hahaha

We we made another stop where I visited what must be the most famous chocolate shop in Berlin. In return for free facilities, I bought some chocolate and wowed over the chocolate creations. This Rausch shop smelled like heaven.

As we made our way to Potsdam, we passed some interesting modern monuments. The one with the curved, spaghetti-like appearance is actually a Kaiser Wilhelm memorial. According to our guide, the locals call it “aluminum worms” or “dancing in spaghetti”!

We got a chance to get out for lunch around the corner from the St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which was the first Catholic Church to open its doors to the Potsdam community after the war.

We ate lunch in Potsdam, which our guide explained was “Berlin’s more beautiful sister.” For lunch we made our way down the Main Street in Potsdam and found a local sandwich shop. I had a delicious spinach quiche and they had a free WC (bathroom) which I’ve come to appreciate.

One of the most interesting sites we saw before arriving at the “New Palace” was the famous “Steam Engine” building, which is located along the Havel river. This place was built to look like a mosque, but inside it is home to a mega steam engine. According to our guide, there are 2000 Syrian refugees who come into Berlin each year and go there to pray. What a surprise when they find it is not a house of worship!

Our next stop was at the “New Palace”. This palace was finished in 1769 and was pretty much a 200-room summer place for king Friedrichstraße II. The rooms were lined with silks, silver, and gold, the floors were cut from the finest marble, and the art was jaw-dropping. Before I include photos of the palace, I want to describe the “not-a-palace” that was across the street. With sweeping circular stairs on the front, this was simply built to be something beautiful to look at- and was, according to our guide, “where the kitchen was.” This photo below is just a kitchen. Freddie’s diner!

The palace, across from the kitchen, is sprawling and impressive as well. When we arrived, the snow wasn’t sticking, but by the time we left, the grounds were white!

Inside the palace was historic beauty, fortunately preserved; saved from the destruction of World War II.

The porcelain chandeliers were the first of their kind, and they all had porcelain musicians built in. Much of the art was inspired by mythology and the caretakers of the palace have even kept the graffiti that was drawn on the walls during the war.

After a potty stop that cost me 70 cents, we were on the bus and headed back to east Berlin. Our next stop, and final tour stop, was the “Topography of Terror” exhibit. The outdoor exhibit is lined with a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. This place is the exact site where the Third Reich housed the SS and the gestapo. Outside, visitors can see the remnants of the cells that the SS used to hold prisoners- those who were tortured endlessly in preparation for their execution. This is why the loathing had to be in this blog’s title.

Inside the museum, there are hundreds of photos that depict the historical atrocities of Hitler’s bloody, sociopathic reign. Many of the photos are painful to look at, but serve as a true, accurate depiction of the horrors of the time.

After leaving the museum, we found our way to dinner somewhere near checkpoint Charlie’s. I enjoyed a creamy mushroom risotto and a glass of German wine called Weissherbst. My dinner mates both had schnitzel!

The ride back, without our guide, was comical and I almost felt like what the contestants on the amazing race must experience! We didn’t understand the language, and had yet to fully comprehend the Berlin subway system. With only one wrong train, we corrected ourselves, had some laughs, changed the proper number of train lines, and got back to the hotel! The Estrel hotel, I might add, is really quite something at night!

Excited to see what awaits tomorrow- my final day in Berlin!

Highlights of Berlin: Day One

I arrived in Berlin today and we literally dropped our bags at the hotel, The Estrel Berlin, and hit the ground running. We took the short subway ride to the city center- a place that was 70% bombed out and flattened in WWII. This is a city of rebuilding… there is literally construction everywhere!

Our first landmark was the Old Church known as the “Marienkirche” at Alexanderplatz. This place is not only beautiful, it is also the second oldest church in Berlin. It houses a very famous fresco done by Totentanz called “The Dance of Death” which, according to my tour guide “reminds all of us that we are all going down!” There is a skeleton who dances with everyone from the lowly teacher to the emperor! Hopefully I will get in to see this when I have some free time!?

Our next stop was at the Rosenstrasse sculptures in East Berlin. These dramatic sculptures were carved by a woman named Igeborg Hunziger, who wanted to honor the brave Jewish WOMEN who put their lives on the line to defy the Natzis and wait for their husbands outside the detention center. 1000 women stood in waiting. The craziest part? The Nazis actually DID give them their husbands back!?

Along the way we saw bear sculptures that were really cute and lively! (Not to mention that the city flag has a bear on it!) This bear is known locally as “Buddy Bear” and he was originally, according to tour guide Daniel, “created by a bunch of Berlin marketing people in the 1990s”. The idea stuck and the Bears were sold to places around town to raise money for the city. Originally solid colors, people who bought them began to individualize them… there’s even a camo-clad buddy bear hiding in the bushes in front of the Dept of Defense building! I can’t wait to spot more of these guys tomorrow!

As luck would have it, there was a street market going on and we were granted free time to wander. Interesting things I saw- particularly the record painter!

I also enjoyed a personal favorite- a crepe with Nutella!

Our next stop was at the largest Protestant Church in Berlin. It was so huge, in fact, that most believe it was built to serve as a Protestant version of the Vatican!

This church is called Vecaka Belines Baznick.

The Berlin Wall was next. I got to see portions that are on display… and I learned that they have built bricks into the street, with placards, to mark the entire length of this wall…

Check point Charlie was next, which was a famous crossing point between east and west Germany.

We oohed and aaahed over the Brandenburger Gate… and saw a comical old dude in a white sweat suit jogging with an iPod blasting tunes from his fanny pack. Can’t believe I didn’t get his photo!

This is a photo of perhaps the most famous hotel in Berlin. The Hotel Adlon. One of its claims to fame is that it is the hotel where Michael Jackson was staying when he dangled his kid off the balcony!

Before I close with what I consider to be the most moving part of the day, I had fun capturing some of the interesting things I saw!

The Holocaust memorial was really the most moving part of the day. The monuments that make up the 2711 stones are completely blank. Daniel, our guide, told us that the artist deemed this place a “place without meaning”. It is a place that you don’t even begin to take in until you walk among the stones. Only there do you feel the weight of the six million Jewish people who were killed during the Holocaust. This was really powerful…

We had a nice dinner, even got to try German wine and beer, then headed back to the hotel!

I can’t wait to see why tomorrow brings!

I S.M.I.L.E. every time I think about this incredible organization…

My article appeared in the November 2017 issue of OUR TOWN Gwinnett on page 9. I am going to reprint it here and include the magazine link at the bottom. This organization is filling a need in our community like NO OTHER. Read the article, and maybe you’ll be inspired to offer assistance in the form of time or money to these great people. Here is the article:

S.M.I.L.E. provides a community of care for developmentally disabled adults

By Heidi Campbell

Lawrenceville has a host of non-profits doing great things for the local community, and one of those programs is an organization called SMILE, which stands for St. Mary’s Independent Living Extensions. Their website say they are a “…nonprofit organization of trained caregivers who work around-the-clock to enrich the lives of adults with developmental disabilities by maximizing independence, breaking down barriers and advocating for greater community access.”

Paul Pieper and the late Nancy Bernard co-founded the Catholic organization in 2007, and they welcome people from all faiths. “This whole thing has been a miracle,” says Pieper. “It has allowed us get our clients out in the community. In the past, these disabled adults were often institutionalized, and that is certainly not what is best for them. People want to be with other people, and it is such a blessing that we can provide this kind of care.”

The 24-hour care program, accredited through CARF, provides daytime care as well as private, in-home care to adults with developmental disabilities.  SMILE has services to assist parents with the home care of their disabled adult children, and they also help place developmentally disabled adults in supportive, private homes with other disabled adults. Often times, if parents pass away, their disabled adult children have limited care options. Through SMILE’s programs, these families can find safe, nurturing living arrangements for these disabled adults who have lost their parents.  Together with three or four roommates, these adults are cared for by trained caretakers during the hours they are not attending the day program. “They get to live where they want to live, which is so nice for them. They get a variety of care, between the day program staff, the house managers, and the night shift staff,” explains Pieper, “but they also get the comfort and peace of being in their own home, receiving compassionate care.”

The day program, which recently added transportation to and from the clients’ houses, takes place at St. Marguerite’s Catholic Church. Bill Marten, a retired Deacon from St. John Neumann Catholic Church, who is now the organization’s Program Director, says, “The classrooms in the church aren’t used during the weekdays, so we are able to rent out those rooms Monday through Friday from 9-3pm. The space is perfect for our needs.”

The day program is designed to focus on life skills and social skills while promoting independence. With a trained caregiver for every six adults, the program is able to meet the individual needs of the participants. “The volunteering component of the program is definitely everyone’s favorite,” shares Antwanette Suggs, the Director of the Day Program. “They all love to work. We do a lot of work with the Lilburn Co-op. They put clothes on hangers and organize the food. They love it, and we hold ceremonies for them. When they’ve put in one hundred hours, their name goes on a plaque.”

One of SMILE’s current clients is an autistic woman named Betsy, whose life has been made into a movie called Disabled But Able To Rock. She and her brother were able to join the SMILE program after their mother passed away. “Betsy is actually one of the founders of Dragon Con,” shares Pieper. “She still performs in it every year. She’s the little lady with the cape that goes by ‘Dangerous Woman’. She writes music and performs concerts. Betsy is just tremendous. She is one of our most inspiring clients. We are so blessed to have her!”

While the program has grown, and moved from its small Lilburn center to a larger Lawrenceville location, it still cannot meet the demand for new clients. With a tremendous waiting list, the SMILE organization continues to work hard to secure funding to help more and more adults with disabilities. The care is expensive, and Medicare waivers do not cover all of the expenses of the program. “We need additional funding to sustain the system for those the adults living in our homes,” Pieper explains. “Many of these adults only have their social security, and some cannot afford the payments for their rent. This program is so important. These people are human beings who deserve the opportunity to be with other human beings.”

The SMILE organization welcomes monetary donations of any amount.  For the past seven years, they’ve teamed up with St. John Neumann Catholic Church to raise money with their 5K & One Mile Fun Run. The race has gotten larger each year, with over 400 people racing in this past April’s event.  “One man approached me after the race with tears in his eyes,” recalls Pieper, “and he said that he runs this race for his brother who is developmentally delayed. He said that day was his birthday so they all came to run.”

Aside from the need for donations, the non-profit group also welcomes background-checked volunteers who are willing to help with office work, house cleaning, cooking, or art activities. “We are an agency with a conscience,” shares Pieper. “We work very hard to be a family for our folks. We do our best to create an environment that is person-centered and meets the individual hopes and dreams of our clients through specialized care.”

If you would like to donate or volunteer to help SMILE, please visit http://www.smile4.info/home or call (770) 279-5115 for more information.



Let’s not become a card-free society…

Let’s not become a card-free society…

The art of sending out holiday cards may be in danger of extinction. More and more people each year opt to send out digital greetings. Digital greetings certainly send the cheer- there’s no denying it, but these e-tidings lack the intimacy of traditional cards. The digital sender, after all, is able to reach hundreds of people in the time it takes to press a couple of buttons. There is very little effort put into the process, which is certainly a huge selling point for the busy families of the modern world. I do not want the tradition of sending cards to meet the same fate as the lucky rabbit’s foot of my childhood.

I sent out some photo cards this year, but definitely not as many as I have in years past- mainly because of a lack of time. Although I addressed, stamped, and sealed these greetings, I still had a pang of self-imposed guilt because I no longer write a personal note in any of the cards. My tidings are falling into the de-personalization pit.

I see Christmas cards as one of the last hold outs of old-school Christmas traditions. After all, who sends cards anymore? According to my teenagers, email is totally antiquated- it wouldn’t be anywhere in their wheelhouses to send out hand written letters. Receiving letters in the mail is something that I will forever relish, and the process involved with sending cards is one that truly feels like a part of the holiday custom.

In order to understand my passion for letter writing, I need to go back to my early days. Getting mail has always been something special to me. Growing up on a small island in Maine, we had a tiny little post office- really only big enough for a couple people to enter at once. I used to look forward to going to get the mail every day- in fact, I had a special little mail bag just for collecting mail (see photo o. I would walk up the path and sit on the steps of the post office awaiting the arrival of the mail lady: Judy when I was little, then Ann when I got a little older.

Many summer days I walked back down the road with an empty mailbag. My aunt Nancy, however, had numerous people who corresponded with her in the summer, so many days I could deliver letters to her. I loved days when a letter or two filled my mailbag.

As I got older, I sent away for pen pals from the BIG BLUE MARBLE show that I watched on Saturday mornings. I had a pen pal named Jenny Jacobs from Wisconsin, another named Mimi Bedigee from Missouri, and Gianni Rondinelli from Italy. I would write long letters to these friends, and get so excited when I would receive letters back! The anticipation of receiving mail was a constant in my world. In the winter, when the cottage was closed up tight, I would write letters to my island friends- from North Carolina, Texas, and Massachusetts. My mailbox helped me connect with people, and brought me such delight- one which can’t be replicated by the efficiency of social media.

As an adult, I still look forward to receiving letters in the mail. At Christmas time, the excitement seems to reach its peak, as people sit down and reach out to their friends and family in the old fashioned, time honored tradition of Christmas cards. Nothing beats the feeling of holding an envelope in your hand, looking at the handwriting, noticing the sender’s name, and the excitement that comes with opening it up- not quite knowing what is packed inside.

One day, when I have more time, I’d actually like to go back to handwritten messages in cards- those are my favorite. The ones where I actually see the sender’s handwriting and think about them sitting down, taking the time to write the words in ink- creating a permanent keepsake to cherish for years to come.

In our busy lives it is so tempting to opt out of the hassle of the cards, but I can’t. I cannot bring myself to watch this tradition end. I think about my grandparents and great grandparents receiving cards and news of far away friends- it was their sole mode of communication aside from the corded telephone.

I cherish the cards that I receive in the mail. I hang them all on my door and stop to appreciate them each time I walk past. I then put all the photos in a scrapbook each year- and enjoy the progression of our friends and families as they have grown up through the years.

Your card is not lost on me. As Dylan Thomas once suggested, I will “Rage! Rage! Against the dying of the light!”

Happy New Year!


Finding Gram’s candy dish

Finding Gram’s candy dish

I can only smile when I think about the times I spent with Mildred- (“Millie” for short) my maternal grandmother.  To me, she was Grammy when I was little, and Gram when I got a little older. She had charcoal curls and the stereotypical old lady glasses with the bifocals and swirly plastic rims. She wore elastic band jeans, velour jogging suits, and toe-less sneakers. She adored Lawrence Welk, Jimmy Buffet, and Hee Haw. She loved to have us over for dinners, and I never told her that her homemade corn-beef hash made me cringe.

I remember the excitement I had when I’d spend the night at her house and she’d let me stay up late to watch not only Love Boat, but Fantasy Island, too! “The Plane! The Plane!” I loved watching Mr. Roarke and Tattoo greet the guests who arrived on the tiny airplane. I was glued to that show, although I never let on that Fantasy Island actually scared me more than a little. (I remember one episode about a possessed, evil ventriloquist’s puppet. That one traumatized me for years.)

Gram always made sure that she had all of my favorite things when I’d go to her house. She bought my favorite Vermont Extra Sharp White Cheddar Cheese, and she’d let me have as much as I wanted. We drank Tab and played Canasta and Chinese Checkers. She had rhymes for each of her color’s moves: “Yellow, yellow, kiss a fellow,” she’d recite as she made numerous jumps with her yellow marble. If she didn’t have a move, she’d have another tune- “White, white- what a sight!” Her painted fingernails sometimes bumped a marble off the board and she’d slap her own hand. I remember her hands and the rings she wore with the slender stones.

She took me shopping at a local store called Grand City. She loved to shop and had fun looking for good deals. She usually bought embroidery thread or tatting string; she was quite talented in the handmade arts. After shopping, we’d enjoy lunch at the little restaurant nestled inside the store. She knew the manager, Lucien, a Frenchman who greeted us with a very proper “Good afternoon, Mildred. Enjoying lunch with this lovely young lady?”

She’d let me order a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of mac & cheese. She would tell me stories of my mom when she was little, and stories of my grandfather, who died before I was born. I loved hearing about the house they all grew up in, and how spoiled my mother, the baby of the family, was. I especially loved the story of my mom’s visit to great aunt Helen’s house, and how she always hinted around for a snack. “You know what I really like?” my young mom ask the oldest aunt. “I really like those crackers that come in the bright yellow box…. those are so good, especially when your stomach is growling.” She told me stories of my mother that filled in background I could not get anywhere else.

Whenever Gram ate, she always spilled something down the front of her shirt. She would always use soda water to feverishly try to blot the spot. Every time I spill something down the front of my shirt, which is more often than I should admit, I believe it is Gram’s way of sending me a quick “hello”.

Gram had a lot of neat things in her house, but perhaps the most memorable was her covered glass candy dish, which she kept fully loaded with colorful candies. Sometimes it held those orange or spearmint jelly candies, while other times it held those round, pink chalky candies called “Canada Mints”. One year, her friend Lilian gave her “ribbon” candy, and it looked so bright and colorful in the glass dish, I thought was almost too pretty to eat. That candy dish beckoned all the kids who visited Gram, and she always knew who was getting in the candy dish because the glass lid always made a sound when it was removed and put back on the base.

With a steady hand, I would try over and over to lift the lid without making a sound. Sometimes, I’d take the cover off with the swiftest of movement- straight up in the air and squeal with glee at the silence of the act-. Putting it back on, however, was another story. I could rarely replace the glass topper without hearing it clink. There was no sneaking candy from that dish- and Gram had supersonic hearing in my childhood years.

When my Gram died, a quarter of a century ago, my Aunt Nancy moved into her house. It was soothing to the soul to know that the house that my mother grew up in would still be inhabited by Gram’s offspring- particularly her eldest. When I visited the house the summer after Gram’s passing, I noticed that there was a new, plastic version of the glass-topped candy dish. I inquired about the classic dish, but no one seemed to be able to tell me what happened to it. I remember feeling unsettled, like there was a disturbance in the universe.

This past summer I was wandering through a vintage thrift store- one of life’s small pleasures. On a shelf in the back, among a plethora of glass treasures, I spotted it: my grandmother’s candy dish. Goose bumps broke out up and down my arms. Gram was sending me another one of her quiet “hello’s”, but this one was more than stains on my shirt– this was her standing at the door, welcoming me in. She was waving and smiling.

I brought the candy dish home and filled it with candy. I challenged my three children to try to remove and return the lid in silence- and none of them succeeded. I told them of my grandmother’s candy dish, so that they understand the significance of this dish, which now sits proudly on my corner table, filled with candy.

Thanks, Gram…



Hope is still alive…

I was inspired by a local non-profit organization that I had the pleasure of visiting. In these times of uncertainty, disappointment, greed, and ego, it is nice to be reminded that so many people do great things for people every day.    Here is an article I wrote in the June/July 2017 issue of OUR TOWN magazine about a local organization called HOME OF HOPE. If you read this and feel compelled to donate- information is at the end of the article!

Home of Hope offers lasting hope to homeless mothers and their children

By Heidi Campbell

Homelessness is a sad reality for too many families in the Gwinnett County area, and there are not nearly enough programs to help all of the people impacted by rough times. According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, Gwinnett County has the 3rd highest total homeless population in the state of Georgia. The Gwinnett County Public Schools reported that, in May of 2016, there were over 1,900 homeless students enrolled in their school system. One program, Home of Hope at Gwinnett Children’s Shelter, works to help young, homeless mothers in the Gwinnett area. “We transition homelessness into hope,” explains Executive Director Maureen Kornowa, “and turn hope into a home. This is a program that implements lasting change.”

The Home of Hope at Gwinnett Children’s Shelter is a transitional living program for homeless children and their moms between the ages of 18-25 years of age as well as young women who have aged out of the foster care system. By providing free room and board, the program is designed to keep the family unit together and end the cycle of homelessness two generations at a time. Since June of 2014, Home of Hope at Gwinnett Children’s Shelter has transitioned thirty-seven families out of homelessness by recognizing that just because a mother is homeless doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her children. The program provides love and life skills to mothers to help them live on their own. “We tell them when they come to live here that their past doesn’t define their future,” says Kornowa. “We let them know that they can do anything and be anything, and we are going to help them get there.”

The prospective families are interviewed carefully to ensure they are a fit for the program. The interview team looks for a spark of desire- someone who is willing to do hard work and be disciplined in working the program.  Kornowa explains that the plan is one of tough love, but it is also full of love. She says that while they “hold their feet to the fire”, the plan really works.  “One young woman came in and wanted to be a nurse,” recalls Kornowa. “She came in as a 21-year old with three children.  When she left here, she had graduated from a CNA program and was working in an assisted living community and transferred to stable housing.”

Once a family moves into the Home of Hope at Gwinnett Children’s Shelter, a stay typically lasting anywhere from three to twelve months, they are quickly set up with an apartment in one of the houses. Within 72 hours, the children are enrolled in school or daycare and the mom is set up with a life plan. Within the first thirty days, the mothers are required to secure employment, and they must save 30-50% of each paycheck, which represents their eventual rent. Case managers help the mothers with school related issues, and moms are required to attend classes on weeknights covering topics like resume building, HIV awareness, and Finance 101. While moms are learning life skills, their children attend Kids Club, where they enjoy supervised activities with volunteers from the community.

The program requires $987,000 to keep its doors open each year, which makes raising money a continuing effort. In March, they had one of their annual fundraisers, the Sip and Swine BBQ festival which is a Kansas City BBQ Society cookoff at Coolray Field. This event raised more than $50,000.00 for the charity.   The President of the board of directors, Mr. Brand Morgan, hosts an annual wine auction to raise funds, and, in the fall each year, they host the “Power of One” luncheon to honor someone who gives to the community. “I like to recognize good people from other non-profits,” shares Kornowa. “It costs a candle nothing to lite another candle.”

The Home of Hope at Gwinnett Children’s Shelter is always in need of monetary donations, and Kornowa hopes to raise enough money this year to begin filling an additional twelve rooms that were recently renovated. In addition to monetary donations, they also welcome summer camp scholarships for their children, food drives, household supplies, “bed in a bag” sets, and volunteers to help with Kids Club and weekend meal donations.

The week before they opened the new program on the campus of Home of Hope at Gwinnett Children’s Shelter, Kornowa found a nest outside the front door. This nest, which actually sits on a table in her office, has become their logo which appears on brochures and signs. “We use the nest,” she explains, “because although masterfully built, nests are a transitional place to live. They are where fledglings learn how to fly before they leave the nest. It is a perfect metaphor for what we do here.”

Visit www.homeofhopegcs.org to make a donation or to learn more about this worthy non-profit organization. Help them make a difference for another young family.

Everyone enjoys a good story…

Here is an article I wrote  called “Try a New Genre: Top 6 Memoirs Provide Excellent Summer Reading” The article appeared in OUR TOWN JUNE 2017 – Blue (edition.https://issuu.com/ourtownmag/docs/otm_june2017_blue_web)

Autobiographies are now passé; the telling of one’s story is now done in a relatively new genre- the  memoir. Over the last decade, there have been some truly amazing memoirs published- many which have the power to completely change the reader. As an English teacher of nearly 23 years, I am always seeking high interest literature for my social-media crazed students. Here is a list of what I consider to be the top six, high-interest memoirs on the market.

  1. My Lobotomy (Howard Dully) As humans, we have a natural morbid curiosity that compels us to read stories involving traumatic content. This memoir is the heartbreaking story of Howard Dully, who was the youngest victim of Dr. Walter Freeman- a doctor who performed ice pick lobotomies out of the back of his “medical” van.  The proverbial evil stepmother comes to life in this tale of dysfunction, disappointment, and abandonment. This is a story that will enrage every reader, and one that is absolutely unforgettable.
  2. Look Me In the Eye (John Elder Robinson) This New York Times Bestseller is told by a man who grew up with Asperger’s Syndrome but didn’t know it until he was an adult. He is at once socially awkward and gifted, but wholly misunderstood. He was seen as a social deviant- a kid with major behavioral problems. His story, which includes a dysfunctional family life, is one that truly helps the reader better understand the mind of a person with Asperger’s. He was, for instance,  always expected to “look people in the eye”, but this is not something that came to him naturally. These are the kind of normalcies that he had to learn throughout his life, often times learning them too late. His life and talents eventually lead him into business with the rock band Kiss, where he worked to create their legendary exploding guitars. This is an endearing, eye-opening memoir, which, as a teacher, truly helped me to better understand this syndrome.
  3. Proof of Heaven (Eben Alexander) This New York Times #1 Bestseller is a fascinating read for anyone who has ever pondered what happens to us after we die. Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who sees life slip away on a regular basis. In his scientific mind, he has always believed that life simply ends- there is no afterlife. This belief, however, changed when he had a near death experience. He describes what he recalls from this event in vivid detail. His descriptions of his tour of another universe is thought-provoking, and certainly solidifies the beliefs of those who believe in an afterlife.
  4. Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall & Denver Moore). This memoir, also a New York Times Bestseller, is actually written by two men, offering their perspectives on a unique and unlikely friendship. Deborah Hall, the wife of Ron Hall, a wealthy Texas art dealer, runs a ministry for the homeless in Dallas, TX. She meets Denver Moore, a homeless man with a tormented past, and finds a way to bridge a lifelong relationship between this man and her family in a story that is poignant and uplifting. This is powerful, spiritual, and uplifting.
  5. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Immaculee Ilibagiza) This is a memoir of one woman’s struggle to stay alive after her entire family was massacred. When I say massacred, I do not mince words. The mass murderers in Rwanda used machetes to kill close to one million Rwandans. As I read this story, about this modern day genocide occurring on our planet in 1994, I was embarrassed by the lack of media coverage this devastation received here in America. Ilibagiza’s bravery, as she hides in a tiny bathroom for over three months, will be a story I will never forget, particularly the tenacity of her human spirit. Parts of this story are very difficult to read, but it is a worthy, important read.
  6. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (Susannah Cahalan) This harrowing  New York Times Bestseller is a memoir about a journalist, in her mid-20s, who wakes up strapped to a hospital bed and labeled violent and psychotic. Cahalan recreates her story in journalistic fashion, relying almost solely on the medical staff and family members who witnessed her spiral into madness. She has no recollection of parts of the experience. She moves us through her horrifying tale with a perfect balance of science and compassion, and reminds all readers that we should never be satisfied with the opinion of one doctor.  This is a frightening and triumphant story.

Look for additional Top Book Recommendations in future issues of Our Town, including “Top Authors”, “Top Beach Reads”, “Top Humor” and more.

top 6 memoirs