Monday, September 29, 2014

Haven's Mission Trip To Brazil

Hey, this is Haven, Julie's oldest son.  I've hijacked my mom's blog to share with you this awesome experience I had over the summer during my Mission Trip to Brazil. Enjoy!

Spring of 2014, my youth group leader Tom was talking to me at church. He told me of an upcoming Mission Trip during the summer, to Brazil. He said it would be really fun, that I'd get to help people, but that this trip would be about helping others and not about me. It sounded like something pretty awesome so I told my parents and asked them if I could go. My mom had gone on a lot of mission trips when she was about my age to different places and my dad wanted to go when he was young but didn't have the chance, so they both said they would do whatever it took to make it happen.

I started to attend the high school meetings for the Brazil Mission Trip, so I began to get really interested and excited for the trip. I wrote a letter asking for support and/or prayers and sent it to a bunch of people.  I got a lot of donations because so many people wanted me to go and have the time of my life.  I raised all the money I needed and then it was time for me to get all of the supplies for the trip. The most important items I needed to get were: shoes that could survive a rainforest, bug spray and 100SPF sunscreen since I burn really easily.

My parents dropped me off at LAX at 5:30am. I was so tired.  At the airport it was a lot of paperwork and checking to make sure we had everything. Very stressful. It was the first time I had ever gotten to use my passport, which was cool. Everybody helped me out which I'm very grateful for.

First we flew to Miami. Not my favorite airport. Right when we got outside the plane it was so humid. My mom is from Florida so she grew up with humidity but I'm from L.A. so it was new to me. I'm not a fan of humidity. The flight was delayed two hours and we had to play games to keep us busy while we waited. My favorite card game we played is called Mafia. Tom was leading it and it was so funny. All those lumps. (Tom calls everyone who's dead a "lump")

The flight to Brazil was very long. I didn't sleep much and was very tired when we landed. We landed in Manaus and their airport was very different than ours.  Getting out of the plane, I had my first encounter with a local Brazilian. She kept asking me what "pai" (sounded like pie) was. I answered, "3.14??" She rolled her eyes and let me pass. I still don't know what pai is.

sidenote: After I wrote this, Tia (pronounced Chia), which means "aunt" in Portuguese, talked to my mom on the phone and told us that "pai" meant the lady at the airport was asking me where my parents were. Pai = father/parents. Tia and my mom have been very close friends since they were 16, after she moved to America from Brazil, and she has been my "Tia" since I was born. She is the reason my mom was able to teach me some Portuguese phrases before the trip, which I completely forgot the minute I arrived.

At the pick-up lobby, there was a line of Brazilians waiting to greet us and congratulate us for arriving into their country. It was mind blowing because everyone was so nice. And when we walked outside, it was even MORE humid than it was in Miami, which I couldn't believe. It also smelled weird. Then we got onto a bus for about 30 minutes and we went to the docks where our boat was. It looked small at first glance but when it became our home for the next six days, it seemed plenty big. It had more than enough room for everyone. Our group was made up of high schoolers, leaders, a doctor, a dentist, cooks, the captain, five translators and crew members. There was a lot of us.

On the boat our room smelled odd but we got used to it. We settled in for the night and slept. We had to get up at 7am, which was 5am L.A. time. I'm used to getting up at 9:30am so that was rough. When we would wake up in the morning, the boat was still moving on the Amazon River. Breakfast was at 8am. They gave us loaves of bread, fruit, yogurt and other breakfast stuff to eat. That first day was mostly about getting ready for the next day so I got to meet a lot of the the other high schoolers. It was the summer after my 8th grade year so I didn't yet know anybody. I was still kind of shy. We sang songs with everyone else on the boat. There was a lot of exotic food for lunch and dinner. Well, exotic for me. I'm not usually adventurous with food. Midday we could see the first village so we docked in the marsh for the night. There are a LOT of bugs in the marsh.

The next morning it was time to get to work. Before the trip, at one of the meetings, RO (one of our leaders) assigned each of us to a "pod". Pods consist of 6-7 people and we had 5 pods. I was in RO's pod which was really cool and I got to bond with everyone in it.  Each one of our pods would have a different job to do in the villages. There were: VBS (Vacation Bible School type activities with the children), painting houses, and evangelism. With evangelism, we would go to people's houses and pray for them and share our testimonies. Being that there were 5 pods and only 3 jobs, meant that 2 pods would work with the children, 2 pods would paint the houses and the last pod would do evangelism.

(here's me and my pod)

In the villages it was very hot and surprising to me on how much the villagers had technology-wise.  Before the trip, I pictured the villagers as maybe wearing clothes, maybe not and definitely no TVs or phones. But these villagers had TVs, phones, and some even had satellite dishes for their TVs. I don't know how they got that in the middle of the rainforest, on the Amazon River. And yes, everyone was wearing clothes. As you can see in these pictures, the villages were kind of flooded.

We had to walk on these thin planks over the water. Luckily I didn't fall in, because I have watched the show "River Monsters" and I did NOT want to swim in the Amazon River.  The other high schoolers were more brave than I was because by the end of the trip most of them had gone swimming. It was so hot I kind of wanted to swim but didn't because I was sure I'd get eaten by piranhas, even if they weren't eating anyone else. It would be just my luck for piranhas to have a taste for redheaded boys.

These boys enjoyed climbing up this tree, just to jump into the river again and again.

When it was time for our pod to paint houses, which I did two different days, I learned that I suck at painting. I kept rolling the paint roller in the same spot saying to myself, "This isn't working! This isn't working!" And I got more paint on myself than I did on the house, but I did have a lot of fun with everyone and that's what matters. The boy who lived there fixed my spot and I think he was only about 6 years old. He also drew lines on our faces and arms with paint. One of the girls painted a heart on my shirt. Next to one of the houses we were painting, there was a mud trench filled with fire ants. We had to stomp our feet constantly, like we were marching in place, to keep the fire ants from getting on us. There was also a bunch of mosquitos and other flying, stinging bugs we had to watch out for.

(that's me in the red shirt)

In the middle of the painting session, my friend Kate had a great idea.  She wanted to go to the boat to get yarn to make friendship bracelets.  Since I suck at painting, I offered to go with her. It sounded exciting since I had never made friendships bracelets and Kate showed me how to make one. She's really good at it and me... not so much. My friendship bracelet didn't look as good as hers, but I did give it to a villager boy who liked it. At least I think he liked it. Maybe he was just being polite.

When it was our turn for evangelism, we would go with the boat captain/preacher. He would tell them about Jesus and the translator would tell us what he was saying so we could keep up. Then at the end we would all pray for that family.  That day we visited four separate houses. The first one had a family in it and we were praying for their newly born son. He was so cute! The second house we went to, the guy was building his house. We prayed that he would have the strength to complete it. It was amazing to see how well he did with no power tools. The third house we went to had a couple with a new baby and we prayed for the mother and child to have a good life. The last house was the most moving of all. There was an old couple with a disabled child that was blind, and had difficulty speaking and walking. We prayed for them and her as well and it brought everyone to tears. We hugged the people and it was very moving to have been a part of that.

When it was our turn to do VBS, where we worked with the children, we were in the gymnasium.

(the gymnasium)

It was fun and exhausting. That was the most I've ever sweat in my life. I feel sorry for the people around me because my deodorant wasn't "Rainforest Rated".  We played musical chairs, the hot/cold game (which we had to memorize the Portuguese words for "hot" and "cold"), soccer... lots of soccer, Shark Attack (a running/tagging game), and many other games I can't remember. It was so hot, I think it affected my memory.  It was fun playing with the kids and fun to learn from their culture. It was cool that we could play the same game and understand each other even though we spoke different languages.  One of the older kids was out hunting/fishing for food for his family.  That blew my mind. Where we live, all we have to do is go to the grocery store and pick out what we want, pay for it and eat it later. If we hunt or fish, it's for fun because you get the joy out of hunting or fishing, though I don't really see how you get any joy from fishing. It's just waiting and waiting all day long. Sounds pretty boring to me.

This is one of the boats the villagers used for fishing.

After we were finished visiting all three villages, our boat headed back to Manaus.  On the way there, there was a lot of fascinating things. It was dark so you could see more stars than I had ever seen in my life. Also, every couple of seconds you could see red lightning. It was jaw-dropping awesomeness. Before I went to sleep that night, I lay awake as long as I could just watching the lightning in awe. It was majestic.

The next morning we had to pack up all of our stuff and take it to the bus.  The bus took us to the hotel in Manaus. During the bus ride, it was cool to see what it was like in the city vs. how it had been on the Amazon River. We got settled in our hotel rooms, and I took a shower for the first time since we arrived in Brazil. We were able to take showers on the boat but I didn't because the water was all rusty looking. I don't think anyone noticed I hadn't showered on the boat since we all smelled bad. The shower in the hotel was glorious. After that we went to the city center to watch the World Cup. That was the day the Brazil team was playing in Manaus. The streets were full of people and what looked like the National Guard, complete with automatic weapons, watch towers and armored trucks.

It was really cool to be in a crowd that big and have everyone gasping or cheering when a player would miss or score.  I'm so glad Brazil won that game. We couldn't stay for the whole game because we had to get back to the hotel, but we watched the rest of the game on the TVs in our rooms. When Brazil won, everyone in the hotel ran out of their rooms cheering and there were fireworks going on outside. It was really cool to be a part of that because that kind of thing wouldn't happen in America. Americans don't cheer in unison as an entire country with the enthusiasm that the Brazilians have. There really is no comparison to how Brazilians feel about soccer/fĂștbol.

The next day we were had to go to the airport but we didn't have to be there until midnight, so we got to do a lot of stuff that day. I shared my testimony at the Manaus Presbyterian Church, which was very nerve wracking. I'm glad no one could see me shaking.  A "testimony" means the story of how you became close to God or a hard time in your life that God has helped you get through. It was hard for me to share about my personal life with everyone on the high school trip, let alone the people at Manaus Presbyterian. We've had a really hard year as a family and I shared about that in my testimony. Thank you to everyone who supported me in that, including Matt Jones.

Later that night we went to a large gathering of about 500 people at a warehouse.  We sang on stage and one kid in our group shared his testimony in front of the entire audience. I'm so glad I wasn't him!

After that we went to the airport. Everyone was so tired. The flight to Miami wasn't that bad and most of us slept during the 7 hour layover in Miami.

Thanks to everyone that came on this Brazil Mission Trip and thank you to everyone who helped me by donating money and/or committing to pray for me so that I was able to go. I am so grateful that I have such a great family, church and friends.


Thank you to all the high schoolers and leaders that welcomed me into the group and helped me through this experience. This trip changed my life. I feel like I've changed a lot in a good way and I have bonded with most of the high schoolers and leaders.  I'm much more outgoing and excitable after this trip. This Brazil trip happens every two years. I'm already planning to go on the next Brazil trip in 2016 and I highly encourage everyone that can make the trip, to go with me.

*Special thanks to Matt Pickart, and RO and Mindy Smith for all the pictures they let me use for this post.


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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fergus the Scottish Fold!

I'm sure many of you out there were thinking, "Julie, you don't have enough cats. You should get another one."  No? Well, no matter. We went ahead and did that anyway. Enter cat #8, Fergus the Scottish Fold kitty.  He is the cutest kitty ever. Don't agree? Show me a picture of a cuter cat. Scottish Fold cats have ears that fold over.  Well, 1/2 of Scottish Fold kittens do, and the other half have regular ears. Straight eared Scottish Folds have the same wonderful personality as their folded ear siblings, but look more like regular cats.  Have you heard of the internet cat star named, Maru? Maru is a straight eared Scottish Fold.  How did we come up with the name Fergus?  Well, we picked a Scottish name since he's a Scottish Fold.  You can't name a Scottish Fold cat George. Well you can, but why would you do that when there are so many fun Scottish names to choose from?

See? Cutest. Kitty. Ever.

Fergus' breeder is located near Lake Tahoe, CA. We had never been there before, so we decided to make a little vacation out of it.  The severe altitude sickness I got upon arrival put a little damper on our time there, but we still enjoyed it as much as we were able. I'd love to return again, next time with medicine to prevent altitude sickness!

We drove around Lake Tahoe, which part of it is located in the state of California and the other part is located in Nevada.  Anyone who visits, should definitely take the 72 mile drive.  Many of the views are breathtaking.  Here are a few of the pictures I took on our drive....

Our hotel was located 15 minutes away from Lake Tahoe, in a town called Truckee.  Truckee is a historic town that was named after a Paiute Native American Chief. They have several buildings and houses that were built in the 1800's which are now historical monuments. Truckee receives an average of 203 inches of snow annually, making it the 5th most snowy city in the United States.  That brings up what Truckee is most famous for... for it was in Truckee in 1846 where a wagon train of settlers from Illinois, known as the Donner Party, got stuck in what is now called the Donner Pass.  Of the original 87 settlers, 48 survived the ordeal after many had resorted to cannibalism as a means of survival.  The Donner Memorial State Park is dedicated to the settlers and is located on the East End of the Donner Lake. 

(Donner Lake)

Here are our boys at the Donner Party Memorial on the site where the Donner Party was stranded and made up their own type of cuisine, which is largely frowned upon in our society.  

But you can't visit the Memorial without acting out that historical event. Oh wait, are we the only ones who did that?  Seamus is looking mighty hungry in that picture. 

So... back to Fergus. This kitty is so incredibly sweet and loves to cuddle. Did you know that Scottish Folds sit up like humans in what they call a "Buddha Position"? Kind of like this...

They also stand up like a meerkat and can walk on their two back legs like that. We've observed Fergus doing that, and even walking backward like that, but I have yet to get a picture of it. So here's a picture of another Scottish Fold doing this. Just picture Fergus in this position.  See? I even found one that kind of looks like him.

Everyone loves Fergus. Here's a picture of him snuggled in my hunky hubby's arms. Seriously... a shirtless man cuddling a sleeping, baby kitteh?!!  Ladies, you can't have either one of them. They're MINE, ALL MINE!!!  

Back to the "everyone loves Fergus" bit.  It's true. We have 7 cats inside (one lives outside) and we all fight over who gets to hold Fergus. Every. Day.  And the other cats? Lupin has decided he's Fergus' daddy. He plays with him, cleans his ears, grooms him and sleeps with him.  When Fergus is not with Lupin, Lupin keeps a watchful eye on him to make sure he's okay.  Fergus has also accepted Lupin as his daddy and now follows Lupin around.  Here they are cuddling together...

And when I said everyone loves Fergus, I mean EVERYONE. All of our cats love him. When he joined the family, there was not one single hiss from another cat. They accepted him from day one.  Our cat pack has always accepted new cats fairly quickly, but Fergus broke records when he joined our family. 

I'll leave you with this last picture of a sleeping Fergus. He is the softest, sweetest kitteh around. His personality makes him even more ridiculously cute. Haven said just this week he thinks Heaven should be full of little Ferguses running around, and Seamus describes holding Fergus as "holding a soft, fluffly cloud".  Simply put, he's just the cutest kitty ever. EVER. 

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas Card and Letter

First... the obligatory Christmas Card....

Now for the official letter that I normally would include in a Christmas card if I was on top of things and had ordered cards this year.  But frankly I'd like to include many pictures, so this will work better in blog form. For those of you who sent us Christmas cards... thank you! I will try hard to get actual cards out next year.

This year has been the hardest we have ever handled as a family, since Marshall and I got married 17 years ago.

In May, my sister and her family offered to have our daughter come to live with them for the summer. There is a lot of love between all three kids, and these pictures were taken the day before our daughter left, and the day she left, respectively.

Two days after our daughter arrived in Chicago, an anonymous call from Chicago was made to Los Angeles Child Protective Services, accusing us of neglect of our daughter.  We believe the call was made by the clinic where my sister tried to seek Psychiatric care for Marlie, though since the call was "anonymous" we do not have proof.  Exactly one week after our daughter left, we had a surprise visit from a CPS Social Worker at our front door.  As we knew we had nothing to hide, we let the Social Worker in the house.  We have since learned that was a poor decision on our part. If a Social Worker from CPS ever arrives at your house, do NOT allow them inside the home. Instead, get their card and call a lawyer. Once the Social Worker gained entrance in our house, she was not concerned about our daughter who was in Chicago, but rather focused on our boys.  We provided names and numbers of all the professionals in our life (Psychiatrist, Pediatrician, Dentist, etc.). Despite all of them enthusiastically supporting us as parents, the Social Worker returned with her own health care professional to inspect the boys.  I was told point blank that I had to stop homeschooling. (which I did not) Both boys were interviewed individually on more than one occasion (though the boys described their experiences as "interrogations" rather than interviews) Marshall and I were not allowed to be in their presence, and the boys were not allowed to be interviewed together. Both boys said they felt severely pressured, repeatedly, to admit to being sexually abused, which they have not been.  Several things were said by the Social Worker during her visits that made both boys (and us) believe there was a very real possibility the boys would be removed from our home.  One of the things she said was that if our daughter returned to the home and hurt the boys, the boys would be removed.  This was terrifying and traumatizing to us all. Some of the complaints the Social Worker made about us were: homeschooling, feeding the boys Pop Tarts for breakfast and clutter in the home.  Despite complying with them 100%, we felt we were being bullied and harassed, so we contacted HSLDA, which provides legal defense for homeschooling families.  Even with a lawyer, things that were demanded of us were physical evaluations of Marshall and I, by our doctor, who had to write letters stating that we are physically capable of parenting our sons, as well as a letter from our Family Therapist stating our mental competency as parents. Later there was a demand for a 3rd interview with our boys, but our lawyer refused, as did Marshall and I due to the trauma the last two interviews caused them. Instead we were asked to get another letter from our doctor stating what medications Marshall and I were on, and the doses of each medication. In the end we consented to the Social Worker checking out the boys, in our presence, in our driveway, with no interview. She agreed. The four of us have been severely traumatized by this experience, especially the boys, and we are now in Family Therapy trying to heal from this experience. Despite having a very competent lawyer, this investigation dragged on for FIVE months, only to have our case finally closed and no action taken against us. Our lawyer informed us that our experience with CPS was unfortunately very common, especially in Los Angeles County, and we could take legal action against them if we so choose, however it would be very costly and we do not want to put our boys through any more than they have had already been put through.

These are devastating pictures for me to look at and share, but it shows the pain that the four of us were going through during the CPS investigation.

We found ourselves in a family crisis with the CPS investigation.  Daily meltdowns from our boys were common.  We did several mini vacations just to get away and try to heal and nurture each other as a family.  Marshall and I did several 1:1 "dates" with each of the boys and have tried to spend as much time together as a foursome as possible.

After consulting with my sister, we made a decision to let our daughter stay in Chicago for the school year. For staying in touch with her, we have been FaceTime'ing. We also bought her a cell phone on our family plan so she can talk on the phone with us whenever she wants.

The absence of our daughter also added to the stress of our family. We have missed her very much and had a terrible time adjusting to her absence, as we still are.  Unfortunately we don't know much about how our daughter is doing in therapy and school, other than what our daughter has told us herself. This experience has been very rough on the relationship between my sister and myself. Repeated requests for information about our daughter have gone unanswered by my sister. We will be flying to Chicago to spend her birthday (Christmas Eve) and Christmas with her and are very much looking forward to seeing her as we miss her so much. We don't know what is best for our daughter in the long run, or what is best for our sons. These are decisions we will have to make as they come, after much prayer.

As if we weren't under enough stress this year, the IRS put a tax lien on our house, which was a mistake on the part of the IRS. After some time and many conversations with the IRS, our accountant was able to get it sorted out and the tax lien was removed.

Marshall's debit card number was stolen from a device he used to pay for something, and $1000 was cleaned out of our bank account in a matter of hours. Thankfully our bank's fraud department was alerted and the money was returned, but still not a fun experience to go through.

Last October (technically 2012) I was hospitalized for 4 days as a result of severe vomiting and severe bleeding from my no-no hole. (Lovely picture I painted for you, huh? Want to see pictures of my colonoscopy?  Kidding. I do have them, but I'm not posting them.)  I was diagnosed as having Acute Colitis.  When I never fully recovered, I had many more tests, another colonoscopy, endoscopy and blood tests to find out what was going on.  The Specialists and our Family Internist agreed that I now have stress-induced Severe IBS. (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)  This sadly is not something controlled by diet but rather by the amount of stress I am feeling and how I am managing the stress.  So I plan to live the rest of my life stress-free. (just seeing if you are still paying attention) This has played a big part in how our year has gone, directly related to the amount of stress we have been under. I've named my colon, "Bob the Douchebag Dragon" so I have something to blame when I'm feeling awful.  "Yeah, Bob is really being a jerk today." "Bob hates me."  "I hate Bob."  "Bob is an a-hole."  I realize this may make me sound a little crazy but it helps me to be able to complain about Bob rather than repeatedly using the term "my colon". Ewww.

Also last October the owner of the Kung Fu school my kids attended moved to Colorado and the school closed.  We made the decision to get rid of our fancy Ethan Allen furniture in the living room since we never used the room and turned it into a home dojo so they could continue to train under the Kung Fu Master.  I even found purple mats!



Ever since, The Kung Fu Master has been coming to our house three days a week for 90 minute lessons with the boys so they could continue their Kung Fu training.  Also, with the addition of Bob the Douchebag Dragon to my life, the Kung Fu Master started training me in Tai Chi and Qigong, to help with my stress management.

Despite the many challenges this year, there were some highlights...

Marshall and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. A couple of months later when his parents came in town for a visit, we got away for a 3 day vacation, the first time we have had a kid-free vacation in years.  It was wonderful!

Seamus had a birthday and turned 9 this year.  There was about a month where Seamus existed only in his Ironman suit, which was pretty darn funny, especially in public.

Puberty has hit Haven full blast. At age 13 he is now 4 inches taller than me and STILL GROWING, and his voice is lower than Marshall's.  I'm trying to not freak out about that. Here he is performing one of my favorite Martial Arts forms, "Noe Pa".

We got a new kitten this year.  For those of you counting, that makes our current cat count: SEVEN. Only six are inside the house. (as if that makes it any better)  Our new kitten is of a fairly new breed of cat called, "The Highlander".  We named him "Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod".  And for short, we call him "Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod". And of course there can be only one. We reserved him back in April when he was 4 days old, so little did the breeder know at the time that he would end up being the best of the litter. She very grudgingly told us that when we picked him up. Ha! (she would never have sold him if she had known)  The "Highlander" breed are known for having ears that curl back, polydactyl paws (extra toes) and a bob tail.

The very next morning, the entire cat "pack" was well aware there was an addition to the family.

Once he was big enough to introduce to the other cats, it only took a couple of days before he was fully integrated into the cat pack. 

Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod is truly a very loving, purr-box of a kitty that is very silly and is right at home with the rest of the cats. We're lucky they all get along so well.  Often we will find all six of them on the couch with us in the evenings.

Our breeder asked us to submit a photo of him to see if he would get accepted into the 2014 "Highlander" breed Calendar.  You are now looking at "Mr. August".  (picture by Marshall)

We were able to do our yearly trip to Yosemite this Fall, which we scheduled the day the park re-opened. Marshall of course took fancy pictures with his fancy camera, but these are the favorite ones I took with my iPhone.

Hey anyone can take a picture of a deer, but can everyone take a picture like this? 

Last week Haven and Seamus endured a 5 hour Kung Fu test at our house, with the two of them, Sensei Trenton and Master Jack.  At the end of the very grueling test, Seamus earned his red belt in Kung Fu, and Haven is now a black belt in Kung Fu! I am very, very proud of them both.

Next week Marlie turns 8 and Haven turns 14!  Now it is time for me to end this thorough report of our most challenging year.  We are very much hoping 2014 will be an improvement over 2013.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all of you!

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