Where to Donate for Illinois Tornado Victims

Crews are on the ground working to provide relief to victims of at least one deadly tornado that swept through the midwest Thursday night. The hardest hit by the massive tornado was the town of Fairdale, Illinois.

Like most people, I’m sending my thoughts and prayers to those in Fairdale. But I’m also encouraging people to donate to the Kirkland Lions Club.

Those first moments after disaster strikes are the most critical. It’s very important to know that the money you donate will go directly to the people who need it.

The Lions are already on the ground. They are a part of the community and aware of the needs. If you truly want to make sure your donation goes directly to helping the victims and has the highest impact, then this is where you’ll want to donate.

Sadly, my company has covered our fair share of disasters for clients over the years. I know first hand how hard organizations like Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) and the Red Cross work to ensure your money gets to the people who need it the most. However, Lions have the one thing Red Cross is missing…people embedded in the community, which is invaluable because they’re the first on the scene and the last to leave.

Cyber-Bullying: There’s a Person On the Receiving End of Those Comments

Every now and then, I come across an issue that fascinates me to the point I eat up whatever information is available. Lately, it’s been the narrative “that girl” Monica Lewinsky is forging – ending public humiliation as a bloodsport online.

Recently she gave a very powerful TED Talk that was accompanied by an article in the New York Times. This reaquainted me with her very well-written piece in Vanity Fair published last May. Think whatever you want about her, but her goal is clear. She’s determined to show people the cost of cyber-bullying while showing victims they can survive it.

If you haven’t read the articles or watched the TED Talk, then I strongly encourage you check them out.

What I like the most about the packaging of her message is it addresses the desensitizing of human empathy the internet and technology creates.

I remember experiencing this first hand while working as a web content producer for a news outlet in Chicago. I had misspelled a word in an article I wrote and posted to Facebook. In my defense, working 16 hour shifts where you’re writing non-stop makes it hard to produce grammatically correct articles 24/7. I was OK with that and usually avoided the comments, but man could the audience be brutal when I did have to read them! Most of the time I knew there would be a mistake if I had more than 20 comments in the first 5 minutes with no likes. The attacks would be personal – I was idiot. I should be fired. Silly stuff like that.

However, one time a female facebook fan proceeded to write a scathingly long comment about how I was a “dumbass” not fit to report the news, her 5th grade daughter was a better writer, and blah, blah, blah. I actually started crying because I was at a point where I was seriously contemplating if I was cut out for news. I remember calling John and crying to him over the phone. He then went on to Facebook to find the comment, clicked a few times and then started laughing hysterically.

“This isn’t funny John,” I cried over the phone while trying to make sure no one in the newsroom saw or heard me balling.

“I’m sorry Kiddo, I’m not laughing at you though,” John said. “Have you clicked on the woman’s profile? I really think you should.”

I humored him and clicked on the link to her profile. My jaw dropped and the tears in my eyes dried up. The woman’s cover photo, and I’m not making this up, read : “Cyber-bullying is a crime. Stop Cyber-bullying.” This woman was not even aware of the hypocrisy she had just committed. I felt better instantly, but a concern began to grow – the internet was becoming a cesspool for the mean side of humanity.

In March, Buzzfeed published a profile piece on two young adults who went to prison for cyber-bullying along with their experiences. The two, who had no relation whatsoever, both tweeted death and rape threats to Caroline Criado-Perez. Aside from the foul tweets they sent, the other shocking part of this article are their reasons for sending the tweets in the first place. Neither really had knowledge of what was going on or who Ms. Criado-Perez was. They happened to see she was trending on Twitter and wanted to join in on the commenting for attention. Their comments got the attention, however it came at a very high price.

It’s scary to think how easy it is to type words and disconnect from the fact there’s a living person on the receiving end. Admittedly, it’s easier for me to say what I really want when I don’t think about a live person on the receiving end or some idea of an idiot on the other side of the device (computer, phone, iPad, etc.).  Instead of someone with feelings and as fragile as I am. Or, like Monica said in her TED Talk, “someone with a soul.”

You can think what you want about Ms. Lewinsky, but realize that if you decide to go after her for her past and believe she’s not entitled to stand up for herself then you’re pretty much taking an anti cyber-bullying stance when you think about it. And that is what I find so incredibly fascinating about this, all the hypocrites are revealed.

The Job: Filming Kingston Mona Lions’ Reforestation Project

Jamaica is known more for it’s beaches and tropical climate than an island facing a serious environmental threat – deforestation. At least that’s what I thought when my boss gave me the assignment for a shoot last month.

The tropical island in the caribbean is losing forest up in the mountains at a large rate to agriculture.

(Photo Credit: Amanda Ratliff)

You can see where the forest has been cleared. (Photo Credit: Amanda Ratliff)

“Globally we are losing about fewer than 60 acres per year, but for a small island that’s quite a lot,” said Jamaica’s Forestry Department Operations Principal Director, Keith Porter.

Porter travels up into the Blue Mountains almost everyday to monitor the forest activities. If you’ve ever traveled up into the Blue Mountains, you know it’s not for the faint of heart. Most of the drive is off road, and even that is an understatement.

(This is the video I produced for work about the project)

Marilyn Headly, CEO of the Jamaica Forestry Department, jokes with me that when she traveled to the U.S. to visit our national forest she laughed.

“You have paved roads!!!” She jokingly says with laughter.

After riding over 4 hours in a truck on an extremely bumpy dirt path only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle but handled two-way traffic, I get why she’s laughing. Did I forget to mention that there are no guardrails either?

Where's the guardrail? (Photo Credit: Daniel Morris. Camera: GoPro)

Where’s the guardrail? (Photo Credit: Daniel Morris. Camera: GoPro)

Two hours into the drive, I see children walking on the narrow roads with backpacks. Our driver tells me that it’s the only way kids can get to school and sometimes they walk multiple hours. He goes on to say that schools in the mountains are divided into shifts to accommodate the kids who have to walk long distances or need to help their families with farming.

I started to understand why forests were being converted into farms. The mountains receive the most rainfall so soil is very fertile, making it ideal for crops like coffee. Also, there are no nearby markets to buy food and farmland is necessary for them to survive.

We bought Blue Mountain Coffee from this man. It was delicious! (Photo Credit: Amanda Ratliff)

We bought Blue Mountain Coffee from this man. It was delicious! (Photo Credit: Amanda Ratliff)

On the surface level of the problem, the farmers use slash and burn methods to convert the forest. More times than not, the fires get out of hand and burn down huge chunks of the forest.

On a deeper level and the bigger part of the issue, the cleared land leads to mudslides and also pollutes the water supply in Kingston and nearby areas.

“When we get heavy rains and you get whoosh and all the rains come down, the water come down pollutes the air, pollutes our sea and then we have problems,” Headly said.

Complicating the matter is limited funding from Jamaica’s government. Headly admits that while the government does the best they can, protecting the forest isn’t high the priority list of who gets funding.

“Our government never has enough funding for everyone,” said Headly. “There’s crime, hospital, education, so we are down at the bottom.”

Non-government agencies or corporate sponsors aren’t quick to open their bank books either.

“Well you are looking at about 100,000 Jamaican dollars per hectare,” said Headly. That amount includes the land, seedling and maintenance. The majority of non-government agencies and corporate sponsors are only willing to pay for the planting and not the maintenance. Not all of them though…

The Kingston Mona Lions Club sponsored and oversaw a 10-year reforestation project in the Blue Mountains targeting an area in the Wallenford section of the forest. It was the first sponsorship of it’s kind in Jamaica.

Talking with the project head, Denise Forest (yes, she’s aware of her name’s irony), you get a better sense of the project’s scope and the massive amount of organization it required.

“Reforestation is not simple but going up into the forest reserve and planting a tree,” said Forest.  “The tree has to survive in what is a relatively hostile environment. This is why our project focuses not only on planting, but in fact the majority of our resources over the past ten years have been spent on maintenance, right.  This is allowing the tree to grow above the competition to a point where it can survive on its own.”

Forest and the other members of her club worked together with members of the Jamaica Forestry Department and members of the community. The Lions oversaw the grant writing and organization, while the Forestry Department figured out the ideal land for planting along with the types of trees that would flourish there, and the community was trained and paid to maintain the forest. The latter was a key part of the equation.

“Our community stakeholders are very important in the scheme of things,” said Porter. “They can either make or break so to speak because sometimes they’re the ones that will maybe deforest and encroach.  But if we are able to win them over and convince them of the importance and value of the forest then they’d work along with us.”

Working together, about 52 hecters have been reforested. That’s close to 100 football fields combined. While it seems like a lot of land, it’s only a small dent. However, it is the biggest dent an organization has made to date.

It’s been so successful, Headly said she often uses it as an example of what Jamaica’s Forestry Department needs in terms of financial assistance and donations from non-government agencies and corporate sponsors.

If you’d like to contribute to this project, then please hit me up in the comment section with your email. I’ll be happy to put you in touch with Denise.

Kingston Mona Lions Club smile with members of the Jamaica Forestry Department up in the Blue Mountain Forest Reserve. (Photo Credit: Amanda Ratliff)

Kingston Mona Lions Club smile with members of the Jamaica Forestry Department up in the Blue Mountain Forest Reserve. (Photo Credit: Amanda Ratliff)

“Walking Dead: Season 1” Made Me Cry

John and I have been playing a ton of great video games lately. I’ll definitely be blogging about them, but for this post, I’d like to talk about “Walking Dead: Season 1.” We recently finished the game and it was incredible.

At first I wasn’t so sure about this game. It was super cartoony and hard for me to take seriously for the first 5 minutes. But then the story developed and…well, wow.

The main character in the story is Lee Everett, a college professor in Atlanta heading to prison after recently being convicted of killing his wife’s lover when the Zombie apocalypse strikes. He has no clue what caused it or how it happened, he can only react and do his best to survive. This was enough to keep my interest, but it’s the relationship he forms with a very young girl named Clementine early in the game that sucked me in.

The most fascinating part of the game is the freedom to choose your dialogue in the game, which in turn can affect relationships with other characters and change how the game actually plays out for you. It’s very similar to the Mass Effect Series, but Telltale games took the concept to a whole new level. The options you have range from good intentioned to very dark. Some of the options made me question if I was actually capable of those choices in real life, making me scared to select them for fear it would reveal that I am capable of such darkness…even though it was just a game with no real consequences!!! It messed with my head big time.

As for the action sequences, a.k.a. shooting sections, I found it really easy to maneuver the controller to aim and fire quickly. That’s surprising for me because normally it’s usually the weakest area of my gaming skills. But Walking Dead’s Game play made it easy for me to play confidently without worrying John would heckle me…because he didn’t have to as much for this game. In fact, I didn’t have to throw the controller at him. It was a huge victory.

WARNING: Video Producer Perspective/Analysis/Love Fest Ahead

The number one reason I absolutely loved this game though is because it actually made me cry. I mean sobbing emotionally at the end kind of crying. I won’t spoil it and tell you why, but the ending is incredibly powerful and kudos to Telltale Games for creating such a fantastic storyline with incredibly rich characters in a game that cause THAT kind of emotion. Seriously, I’m shocked that I played a video game that actually made me cry like that. It’s made me an instant fan of their games and I’m excited to see how they continue to expand their emotional storytelling capabilities.

If you’d played Walking Dead: Season 1 and want to discuss it, please hit me up because I’m STILL thinking about it!!!

Drowning In Debt: Student Loan Fine Print

It’s that time of year, where a number of undergraduates and graduates across the country preparing for graduation come to the horrible reality…they’re in debt for the rest of their lives!

Photo by @DonkeyHotey on Flickr. Great photo that sums up how we feel after graduating – OWNED by loans. See more of his work here – https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6304808136/

OK, it’s not really for the rest of their lives. But it sure does feel that way after taking the exit loan online course. I remember taking it back in 2011 and thinking, “where was this when I applied for the loan?!?!” I’m having flashbacks to it now because my fiancé John, who graduates from law school this May, recently took it.

We’re about to get married and our biggest long term challenge will be paying off our student loans. The loans that were supposed to secure our future in a higher pay bracket, so we could make sure our future kids would have the childhood both our parents gave us. There’s no way we’re getting close to paying even half of our debt off by the next decade though.

No, it’s not because we’re worthless millennials looking for a handout in the form of student loan forgiveness by the government. The reality is that even if the government offered to forgive all federal student loans tomorrow — and keep in mind John and I both took out Federal funding for our education — only one of us would have our loans forgiven.

You see, there’s a fine print when you sign your federal loan that gives the Department of Education the right to sell…I apologize, the correct terminology they prefer is “transfer” your loans to a private not-for-profit loan servicer. Yep, and they can do this with any of your loans for any given reason. All of my loans (both for undergrad and grad school) were sold…gosh! Excuse me, I keep meaning to say “transferred.” Mine were transferred to a loan servicer called MOHELA and I was actually lucky it was just one. A friend of mine had her loans transferred to two different banks and her attempts to consolidate them was not only a nightmare, but she’d also have to pay higher interest rates if she consolidated. The last time I spoke with her (which, admittedly was a few years ago), she had just accepted her fate and made two separate payments to two separate servicers.

The New York Times published an article called “We’re Frighteningly in the Dark About Student Debt.” The article is definitely worth the read, however I was surprised it didn’t include anything about this aspect. It was more about how secretive the Department of Education is with their data, which it is when you consider the following revelation from the article: They will not even share data with the Federal Reserve, who relies on student loan data from Equifax.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about anything in the article though. The Department of Education’s right to “transfer” seems to be the biggest secret of them all. Especially given that I found out about it in an email two weeks AFTER it had happened, citing the fine print of my loan agreement. Trust me, if I knew my loans would be “transferred” to a servicer who didn’t know how to apply my payments correctly to the principal (true story), it would have been a red flag to stick with my gig at Starbucks a little longer. At least they offer tuition reimbursement and health benefits.

As for the Student Loan Forgiveness program? It’s joke. Mark my words, if it does happen in our lifetime. The Department of Education will be sure to sell…(Apologies again! Not sure why that word keeps popping out of my mouth! I MEAN transfer!) My guess is that they’ll “transfer” as many loans as possible because no one can afford to take a $1 Trillion hit.

In the meantime, my hands are full trying to pay off my student loans and making sure MOHELA applies the correct amount to the principal.

The Link Between Us: Rebooting the Blog

SkywardSwordCaseAfter a long hiatus from our Zelda blog, John and I are rebooting our blog with a more engaging strategy. Initially, John had proposed we play through the Zelda games in the order they were released. At first it didn’t seem so bad, but it was tough to go from Skyward Sword graphics and developed storyline to the Legend of Zelda on Nintendo graphic. At that  point, it was Game. Over.

But tonight John surprised me by agreeing to replay Skyward Sword. Not only that, but we would play through according to timeline. This had way more appeal to me, so it was  game on!

Admittedly, this was a tough game the first time we played it four years ago. Flying the bird around Skyloft was the cause behind the first time I threw the controller at John. I loved the game except for the bird because I would get so flustered and frustrated. For years I would tell John that Skyward Sword would be my favorite Zelda game, had it not been for the bird. But about 6 months ago, and quite randomly, I decided to give it another go on my own.

You can read the full blog post here.

The Engagement: An Oral Contract

John and I had planned to watch the Wisconsin v. Minnesota football game that Saturday weeks in advance. I should have known something was up when John offered to take me to an eyebrow waxing appointment and wait for me in the car before heading to the bar where we would watch the game.

After the appointment, we headed over to Wrigleyville and I couldn’t help but notice John leading me towards the site of our first date.

As we walked down the alley toward Wrigley Field, John looked at me and asked, “Do you know what today is Kiddo?”

The thought and feeling of “Oh Shit. I forgot an important date,” definitely set in as I searched my brain for why today was important. There was a lot of anxiety about whether or not I forgot a special day…but I decided to gamble.

“Um, no?” I said hesitantly.

“Today is my grandpa and grandma O’Donnell’s wedding anniversary,” John said before adding, “and it’s also the 40th anniversary of my parents’ first date.”

After that, everything was kind of a blur. Especially when John told me that when he was in Italy he realized he never wanted to be apart from me that long again. Tears definitely started to flow.

When John got down on bended knee, in low 30-degree temperatures mind you, and opened the box with the ring, I. Was. Elated.

John and I got engaged November 23, 2013, outside Wrigley Field, where we had our first date.

John and I got engaged November 23, 2013, outside Wrigley Field, where we had our first date.

However, as John constantly told me during his first year of law school, the engagement is a contract. Terms had to be set before I accepted. Yes, this went through my head immediately when he was down there. So I did what any devoted NFL football fan would do…

“Can they (our kids) be Packer fans?” I asked between the tears and laughter.

John looked at me like he would not have expected anything less but disgusted at the same time as he said “Whatever makes you happy, Kiddo.”

“THEN YES!!!!” I said while John up to kiss him.

The story didn’t end there though. Right after, I heard cheering and looked over to see a man in a Steelers’ jersey and a girl in teal puffy jacket holding a camera.

“John,” I said, “We should ask that tourist if she got a picture of us.”

John just laughed at me, because the girl with the camera happened to be one of my best friends, Kim Dunbar. He had called her earlier in the week to plan everything, including being at Wrigley Field to take photos.

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If you doubt this story at all, which I totally understand, you are more than welcome to ask John. He’s still trying to figure out a way out of his promise…especially during the Packers/Bears rivalry games (if you can even call them that these days ;-)).

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