I was at a meeting the other day with some colleagues who run some major nonprofit human service agencies in the Western PA area. It is a group that meets each month for mutual support and to join hands to address common challenges.

We start each of our meetings with personal updates on what is new at our agencies and the colleagues can weigh in with thoughts or recommendations. When it came my turn for the update, I focused on the search process CLASS is taking to find the next CEO to step in when I retire from my administrative roles. After 45 years at CLASS, 27 as CEO, it is time to move on to new things.

When I finished my update one of my colleagues said it is not about being “retired,” but to become “rewired.” After thinking about it my colleague is right. As many of us “baby boomers” begin to step aside, many of us do not plan to check out. Given our experiences, backgrounds, and wisdom, the next step really is a rewiring - a chance to do more of what we feel destined to do.

Certainly for many of us who have been dedicated to our organizations and especially their causes, it is hard to step away - but the notion of rewiring to find new, and innovative ways to impact our world, is there for the taking.

I can’t wait for this next phase of my life!

Loneliness Kills

Commentators in our society, and around the world, are now awakening to an emerging issue that is more lethal than cancer, or heart disease - it is social isolation and loneliness. The evidence and, in some cases actions, are beginning to not only identify the issues, but recommend actions or solutions to address this specter.

Research and studies continue to mount and are compelling enough to promote actions. Consider the following issues:

  • Loneliness and emotional rejection affect the brain and body in measurable and alarming ways promoting stress and lowering immunity levels.

  • One lonely day extracts the same toll as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes.

  • Emotional rejection causes stress affecting health, producing more illness and heart attacks.

  • The UK has designated a Minister to address Loneliness, reporting to the Prime Minister on ways and means to lessen loneliness in their country.

  • Positive relationships (the opposite of loneliness) is right behind genetics in predicting positive health and advanced longevity.

  • Men are at greater risk to be lonely - especially elderly men.

  • The number one public health crisis is not cancer, obesity, or heart disease - it's loneliness.

  • As many people in North America die from loneliness as from all smoke related diseases annually.

  • Cigna Insurance company conducted a national study with over 20,000 Americans looking at loneliness and discovered that loneliness has increased in all major age cohorts, but the highest level was found to be the youngest respondents.

  • Smart phones were designed to connect us, but the reality is that they have isolated us more than ever.

  • In the US, the life expectancy levels have dropped for a third consecutive year.

We need to ponder these trends. We need to not only recognize these issues but begin to find ways and means to address this specter. Our lives virtually depend upon it.

The Key to The City

Each year, our organization, CLASS, hosts a “Community Hero Banquet” which is designed to celebrate folks who are building inclusive opportunities in our town of Pittsburgh.  The event is always an exciting evening where we highlight these amazing people and then give them an award.

This year’s event was wonderful with some unique folks getting the award.  As a surprise to me, however, my colleagues at CLASS were able to convince the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Paduto, to do a special award for me, given my upcoming retirement from CLASS.  Now Mayor Paduto and I are old friends, who have been working together for years, going back to his days as a legislative assistant to City Council in the early 80’s. When he then ran for a city council seat, it was in the district that directly represented our agency center.  Bill won that election and in his time as a Councilman, we collaborated on many important initiatives designed to make our city more inclusive and welcoming to people with disabilities.  He has been an amazing advocate for our city, and now, as Mayor, he continues to promote the elements of inclusivity for Pittsburgh.

At our dinner this year, he made a surprise visit and read a wonderful proclamation that singled me out and was very touching.  Over my 45 years at CLASS I have heard politicians give proclamations to deserving community members and was touched to be on the receiving side of this effort.

What bowled me over however, was that after he read the proclamation he paused, and reached for a large box with the seal of the City of Pittsburgh.  He opened the box and then gave me the highest civilian honor that one can get in our community - the Key to Pittsburgh.  He went on to say that I was only the 5th recipient of this most high honor in the history of our city.

I was literally speechless.  People who know me know that I am not one for awards or accolades.  I am a simple man trying to do what is right - to use whatever gifts I have been given to build something better for all of us.  And not just me - but trying to collect all of us to do whatever part we can in making for a better world.

I am humbled and honored to receive the key to our city, but more, to have aligned with forward thinking people who see the wisdom of a better commonwealth - one where the impact to one of us, is tied to the impact of all of us.

Lets continue, all of us, to change the world.

Family Engagement Patterns

One of the exciting aspects of my work at CLASS is to partner with organizations in trying to learn more about ways to help individuals or families find greater success in community.  One such partnership has been with Chatham University in Pittsburgh.  Over the past couple years Chatham and CLASS have been working on a Family Engagement Study where we compared and contrasted the engagement patterns of 50 families, 25 who have children with disability labels and 25 who have children without disabilities.  This study was further enhanced by including our partner agency in Brisbane Australia, Mamre Association, who mirrored this effort with 50 Australian families.

We are writing up our results now, but in both the US and Australia, we found that families who have children with disabilities engage less.  They don’t go out as often, and have less community exposure.  In a way this did not surprise us, but what did was the qualitative follow-up we did with the families who have children with disabilities.  We found 3 key reasons why these families engage less.

One reason was economics.  Quite simply, families with children who have disabilities have less discretionary money, and can’t afford to engage as much.  This is consistent with other studies that show clearly that disability is costly.  Medical appointments, equipment, therapies and the like take their economic toll.

The second reason reported was around logistics.  Figuring out all the details and planning for the things that might happen related to the disability are sometimes overwhelming.  I understand this in a personal way when my family were planning an outing with my dad, who had Parkinson’s.  We had to consider everything that might unfold and sometimes this would be so overwhelming that we would decide to just stay home.

Last, we discovered that families felt strong social stigma from others that they just didn’t feel welcome in the venue.  They reported eye rolls, people moving away, and other social indicators that they weren’t welcome.

In a way, recognizing these variables has a positive residue.  That is, we now have a target to go after in an effort to help all families engage.  The notions of economics, logistics, and social stigma are items we can develop some social approaches to change, though all 3 of these issues will not be easy to fully resolve. 

Still, knowing the challenge is the first step in creating a better world, one where all families might feel welcomed.  So what can you do in helping to make this happen?

Pro Social Behaviors

Sociologists who explore the temperament of culture often talk about the importance of pro-social behaviors. These are things like tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness and such - all things we crave as people and members of community. These are the things that make us feel good and included. They make us, and community, better places to live, work, and play. In fact, we all want to be a part of communities that manifest these pro-social behaviors.

We also know that these behaviors are associated with the social capital (relationships) in our life that spill into our communities. That is, we are more tolerant, respectful, kind, and compassionate with people we know, or have relationships with in our life. Often we treat these people better than we do strangers.

These behaviors are not only important to the primary health and impact of a community, but they have a secondary impact as well. That is, not only do we feel better when we are treated this way, but the secondary effect is that people observe these behaviors and will tend to mimic them. We know that positive behaviors beget positive responses in others - people who observe these positive gestures will tend to act this way as well. If you do something kind and respectful with another person, people who observe this will tend to be influenced to follow suit.

We have all seen commercials or advertising that show a person observing a kind act, and then acting kind with the next person they encounter. Sociological research has corroborated this phenomena again and again.

So what is the lesson here? One is that we should be conscious of how we treat others and strive to be more positive and pro-social in our efforts. Further, we should look to build more relationships with people to assure these behaviors continue. Vibrant and inclusive communities depend on it.

Initial Social Capital

In the work we do at CLASS and with the Interdependence Network, we are often talking about the importance of social capital in our lives and how we can help people build more relationships. Of course, this is not an easy task as often perceptions and stereotypes can challenge the process.

While I was musing on this issue I took time to pause and participate in my grandson’s first birthday party a few weeks back. Little Connor was the center of attention at the party, sticking his hands into his cake, enjoying the balloons, and flashing that dazzling smile. And surrounding him were all of our families and friends of the families and over the 2 day celebration there were close to 50 folks who participated.

As I watched all of this it dawned on me, that Connor is well on his way in building social capital. Given the size of our families, and the large range of friends that his mom and dad have, offer him a solid launching pad to relationships. And as he ages, this network will only get bigger as new friendships are added - some developed by his family, and others he begins to develop through the socialization opportunities that will come down the pike.

Further, as he grows and comes to observe his parents and family engaging, he should begin to develop solid relationship building skills that will serve him well over his years. These are all good trends that should make for a strong and successful life for Connor.

From this observation then I noted, no one starts at ground zero in building social capital. We all launch off the backs of our families and the friends they already have amassed. These initial aspects of social capital, the ones we inherit from our family and their friends are the early building blocks for a better life.

Social Infrastructure

I conducted a workshop recently in Central Pennsylvania, and the group that invited me held the gathering at the local community library. Using community gathering places, certainly when we are exploring community engagement principles, are real testimonies to the critical nature of community. Often, when we look at the importance of social capital as a key ingredient for a more vital community, it pushes us to understand the principles of social infrastructure.

Community builders know that having viable places in our communities for people to gather is an important link to building social capital. Some sociologists maintain that the more places that offer regularity of exchange are vital to the strength of a community. These include not just meeting spaces, like the library we did our session in, but informal spaces as well that are open, accessible, and welcoming to everyone.

So what about your community? Are there adequate and inclusive meeting spaces for people to gather. Are there “great, good, places” where people can meet up, and come to know one another. If you were hosting a group of people, where might you meet? We are seeing commercial settings understand this need, such as Starbucks, or Panera’s, that gladly make their space available for meetings and gatherings?

Our communities are only as good as their social infrastructure!

Sustaining a New Idea

I speak at a lot of conferences during the year, often on ideas related to macro change and social capital.  Usually when I finish up, people will approach with questions or want to dig deeper on concepts and good conversations ensue.  They are excited about adopting these principles when they go back to their agencies, yet, to the best of my knowledge, few people are able to apply the ideas to their work.  Recently I have been pondering on this dilemma.

I know that through translational theory research, it takes a long time for a new idea to become mainstreamed.  Some estimates suggest upward to 17-20 years.  Sustaining a new idea is challenging.

I know this as it has happened to me, especially earlier in my career.  I would go to a conference, get really fired up at something I heard or saw, came back hell-bent on applying the new idea or thought, only to find myself unable to realize the innovation.  I am sure this has happened to you as well.

So what can we do about this?  How can we sustain a new idea and see it to fruition?  This is not an easy path, but here are some of the things I am doing more of and finding that they help.  First, make sure you take good notes on what you are hearing; write down references and leads that are associated with the new idea.  Next, talk about the ideas with others; start this right at the conference or gathering while the idea is fresh.  Get others opinions, even look for some leads that can help you dig deeper.  When you get back, start doing research on the idea; call people, buy books, google leads, follow recommended TED talks.  Then keep the conversation going.  Report your idea at your staff meeting, seek out your supervisor or director and tell them about your thoughts on application.  Keep digging and thinking and processing.

Sustainability is challenging - and it is easy to go back to a default.  Passion is the fuel for change, and keeping passionate requires fuel.  Keep looking for new fuel to help you realize your idea by talking, researching, and exploring.

For those of you who have been successful in sustaining a new idea, what recommendations do you have for us?  What has experience taught you?


Interdependence Network Podcast Update

Most of you who know my work know that some colleagues and I founded an online community of practice, the Interdependence Network (, in 2006.  This coalition of advocates consist of parents, families, professionals, folks with disabilities, and other interested advocates from all over the world.

Over the years the network has done a number of things - we have sponsored 7 symposia conducted in the USA, Canada, and Australia where we have explored the advocacy shift from micro to macro change approaches, hosting over 800 advocates in the process.  The network also has conducted research when we surveyed over 220 folks with disabilities in 7 unique research sites in 2013 using the "Social Capital Benchmarking Survey" developed by Robert Putnam at Harvard University.  This research was reported in the article, "Somewhere to Live, Something to Do, Someone to Love," published in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies (Dec, 2016).

Our newest venture now is the launching of the podcast, "You Can Call Me Al," which features timely interviews and conversations related to social justice and full community inclusion around the world.  Just this past week we have recorded 3 new episodes which will be airing soon.

We are excited about these podcasts as they represent an easy way to listen, learn, and broaden our understanding of social capital, social justice, and community engagement.  To this end we invite you to check out our podcast at the Interdependence Network website,  Feel free to share this resource with your networks.  Further, if you have any recommendations for topics or guests, give us a yell.  We are all students of inclusion and can all benefit from each others ideas or thoughts.

Loneliness and Social Isolation

Sociologists and public health officials are learning more and more about the ill-effects of social isolation.  In fact, we know today, that social isolation is a significant public health risk and that as many people die from isolation each year as from all smoke related diseases and illnesses.  Officials have recently said that isolation is as bad for us as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes per day!

In this same vein, we continue to look at and study loneliness as a by-product of isolation; and though they are related, isolation and loneliness do stand alone.  That is, one can be lonely in the midst of many connections.  Our recent sensitivity to suicide situations seem to validate this point.  Certainly many people who take their own life are not necessarily isolated, but are clearly alone with their demons.  Equally, you can be in an isolated situation, yet not feel lonely.  This is an experience I deal with every time I travel by myself.

These notions of social isolation and loneliness are important ones that we need to wrestle with as a community.  Clearly they (isolation and loneliness) have a toxic effect on us, and anyone reading this post has had some experience with them.  Further, there are people in all of our communities who are at greater risks of their throes. 

The antidote to loneliness and isolation is to build more social capital - easier said than done.  Still, if we, as a Community, want to lessen the effects of these experiences we have to better understand social capital.  How do people build friendships?  What are the steps and stages that are part of the social capital process? 

We know more and more about the process, and I have written extensively on it over the years, but for this blog there are 2 key points to think about.  One is that any relationship is a 2 way street - it takes actions on both sides.  The other is that all relationships start with some elements of similarity.  Think about it, every relationship in your life today can be tracked back to some component of similarity - it is the essence of social capital. 

So, as you reflect on this, consider doing your part.  If you are one of the lucky ones who has abundant social capital, recognize this - and then do your part to reach out, especially to those who hunger for connection.  You never know - your behavior might just save someone’s life!

Pugnaciousness - What Does It Mean to You

The notion of social capital first appeared in the literature in 1914 and since that time has been explored by academics as to its impact and benefit to society.  Most of the early studies were buried in the sociological literature until the concept was popularized by Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam in the mid-90's.  In fact, Putnam's book, Bowling Alone, which came out in 2000, began to spread the concept of social capital into many fields.

In preparation for a presentation I was to do, I pulled out my copy of Bowling Alone and reread the book this past weekend.  In this work, Putnam looks at the civic significance of relationships and how building social capital makes our communities better.  The book is a good read, and its relevance still has impact to this day, some 18 years later.

In one section of his book, Putnam writes about how relationships help people resolve problems, and become more tolerant and willing to understand each other.  One issue that really stood out to me was the fact that social capital reduces "pugnaciousness."  I remember when I first read the book looking up the concept of "pugnaciousness."  I wanted to get a better sense of what he meant.

Pugnaciousness is defined as having a quarrelsome or combative nature - to want to fight with people; and I have to believe that it is on the rise in the United States.  From the President, who seemingly wants to fight with everyone, and has made bullying fashionable, to the guy on the street who is willing to pull a gun on the person who took the parking space he was waiting for, pugnaciousness seems to be commonplace.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam suggests that when people come to know each other, their pugnaciousness (at least between them) goes down.  But if people remain distant or anonymous from each other, it is easier for them to end up in a fight.

Now I am not sure how much social capital lessen pugnaciousness, or, for those folks who have a pugnacious nature, can be softened by a relationship, but I have to believe that it helps.  More, I am convinced that although pugnaciousness (due to the cultural acceptance of influential, mean-spirited people), is on the rise in our society, it can be lessened through the power of relationships.  In essence, the more you come to know someone, the harder it is to be mean to them.

So take a minute now, to reflect on pugnaciousness.  Be aware of its toxic, spreadable nature, and do your best to not be drawn into the fray.  My mother used to tell me that fighting doesn't really solve problems.  The older I become, the smarter my parents seem to be.

What Makes Resilience

I had coffee the other morning with an old friend, a fellow disability advocate who has worked in the mental health field for years as a psychiatrist.  We were talking about how challenging it is to promote macro change, and especially attitudinal change in the greater community towards disability.  He then asked me if I was familiar with the "Resilient Cities" movement and if we want to make more of a macro impact, we should find ways to align here.

The Resilient Cities movement was initiated in 2013 by the Rockefeller Foundation with a worldwide goal of aligning forward thinking cities to broaden their agenda.  Over the next 4 years they invited cities to apply for funding to initiate an agenda for inclusion, openness, and acceptance.  In that time, 100 cities around the world were selected and began to meet, share, and compare ways to be more robust and inclusive.  Check out their website to see if your city is included -  

Of these 100, 22 are from the USA and my hometown of Pittsburgh is in the mix (along with Atlanta, Boston, Berkeley, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas, El Paso, Miami, Honolulu, LA, Louisville, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, NYC, Norfolk, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Tulsa, Washington, DC).  This means that these cities have key officials identified to promote resiliency in that community.

My friend Ken told me that many of these cities are focusing attention on infrastructure issues that look at things like water, roads, bridges, architecture, sewers, and the like.  Other cities, most notably Glasgow Scotland, has focused attention on people and relationships.  These cities feel that resilience is really about people and how they relate to address the needs of people in the city.

This relationship oriented agenda in resilience continues to show the power of social capital and how, at the end of the day, inclusion of any devalued or marginalized group, comes down to relationships between and among people.  In my work as an advocate, it suggests that the sooner we can promote relationships for folks we support, the sooner we can be assured that disability issues become a part of resiliency.

So if you are an advocate in any one of the aforementioned cities (for myCanadian and Australian friends, know that Toronto and Sydney are on the list), dig deeper and see how you, and the folks you serve, can become part of the resiliency conversation.  This is the stuff that will change a community.

Why Do You Stay At Your Job

At our agency, CLASS (, we are always looking for ways to recruit people to work for us.  Our turnover rate for our Direct Support Professionals is consistent with human service industry standards, hovering at about 35%.  We always have openings for positions that provide direct support to the folks with disabilities that we serve, and struggle to fill them.

That is why this morning, while driving to work, I took interest in an NPR report regarding a study that looked closely at turnover and why people leave jobs, or are attracted to new ones.  Of course the conventional wisdom regarding turnover is always tied to salaries.  If you had to guess, it is a good bet to put money on salary as the key issue.

But this study found that money (salary) was not the primary factor in job turnover/acquisition.  Certainly money and salary are important and high on the list, but for the first time the primary factor rated was "culture and purpose" in a job.

Now organizational theorists have always identified culture and purpose as important, but never as important as salary in what attracts and keeps people in jobs.  They have felt that people will change jobs for even small increase and this is still probably true for many people.

Still, this notion of culture and purpose suggest that organizations, and especially nonprofit organizations, who do not have access to profit lines that can be applied to salaries, might do well to examine their cultures.  Certainly nonprofit organizations have important purposes to play in their communities, but the notion of culture offers some room to improve the turnover rate.

I know for me at CLASS, that the nurturing of our culture is job number one.  People want to work in an environment where they are valued and respected.  That they are treated with dignity and honor and that equality becomes an important variable.  Of course we need to raise salaries as much as we can, but compared to profit making firms, we are often limited by factors we can not control.

So my message with this blog is two-fold.  One is to prompt you to recommend CLASS to anyone you know who might be interested in direct support work.  At CLASS they can find purpose, and a culture that will care for them.  The other is for you to reflect on what keeps you at your current job.  Building a better culture is everyone's business. 

Time Taken To Build Relationships

So I was flying to Baltimore to participate in the DE Partners in Policymaking program and was fingering through the in-flight magazine.  I came upon an article titled; "It takes 50 hours to make a friend," and as I am always looking for information related to social capital, I read on.

It was a short teaser article summarizing an article by Dr. Jeffrey Hall that appeared in the "Journal of Social and Personal Relationships."  The short piece did not dive deeply into the article, but highlighted his key findings in looking at the time it takes to build a relationship.  Hall found that once you are acquainted with someone, it takes a good 50 hours to move that connection from acquaintance to "casual friend."  Then it takes an additional 90 hours to move from "casual friend" to "friend;" and finally a good 200+ hours to move from "friend" to "close friend."

Further, Hall found that the typical undergraduate student spends nearly a third of their waking hours with one close friend.  This nets to almost 6 hours/day invested in one close friend.

Now all of this is interesting to me as it suggests the importance of time in building meaningful friendships.  Of course we all know that time is critical, but for the advocate, helping people to build friendships we must understand the importance of regularity.  If we want to help people build social capital, they must make a regular commitment to be present with the folks they hope to befriend.

So instead of community outings, it would do us better to find places that meet on a regular basis and make sure that the person being supported can make the commitment to the group.  Then the real work begins, because connecting with others require that similarity emerges and that people can begin to share and compare that which they have in common.

Not fool proof, but building relationships takes time and we must be prepared to make the time if we want more friends.  So, the next time you are with your friends, think back to the time you have invested.  In these cases, time is more than money!

A Time to Scatter Stones; a Time to Gather Stones

I love the passage from Ecclesiastes 3, that was immortalized in song, “A Time for All Seasons.”  It juxtaposes important aspects in life and causes us to think about our own actions.

For me, I have been thinking for a while now about moving out of my current role at CLASS as CEO and on to other ventures.  To this end, I have decided to retire from my role as CEO effective later this fall and move into a "Special Advisory" role with our organization.  Now this is not an easy decision as I have been with CLASS since 1973, and have been the CEO since 1991.  This organization is part of my essence.

That is why I am happy to be moving into a supportive role; one that will allow me to take on special projects and offer a historical perspective as we march into the future.  Of course I will be doing this on a part-time basis as I want to have time to travel with Liz and my family and get in an occasional round of golf.

Still, there are other things I want to do.  Know that I plan to continue teaching, consulting, and speaking publicly about the importance of full and inclusive community, social capital, and cultural change.  There is still so much more for us to do, and as long as God shines on me I want to remain a player.  I also look forward to having more time to write.  I want to do a book about social capital in educational venues with my daughter, Gianna and her teaching colleague (and boyfriend) Marc; and continue to blog and offer short opinion pieces.

I also want to pay more attention to the Interdependence Network (  This international community of practice offers a framework for enhancing community and promoting macro change.  My colleagues Jeff Fromknecht, Jamie Curran, Patty Flaherty, Janet Williams, Joyce Steel, Rachel Drew, David Isitt, and others from around the world have helped to form a Template that can make a difference in our communities.  We need to move this along.

And of course, I want to spend more time with my grandson, Connor Allen (my son Dante and Heather's son), get to NYC to see my other son, Santino and Valentina as they continue to plan their wedding next year (in Mexico!), and spend winters with my daughter Gianna and Marc in Orlando.  Time is marching on, and I want to get in step.

So, for everything there is a season, and for me the time is now to step from my administrative role at CLASS, and make room for living.  I have loved every minute of my 45 years at CLASS, and it will always be another home for me; but there are other things that need attention, and I want to get at them.

Know that CLASS will begin to search for a new CEO, and I will be posting more information about this down the road.  In the meantime, I need to cut down some golf clubs - there is a future PGA player named Connor Condeluci, who is looking to learn the game, and Grampy is ready for the assignment!

Gatekeepers in Your Life

One key concept we use to help people understand the process of building more connections is to recognize the critical role of "gatekeepers" in our lives.  In more of an academic analysis the gatekeeper is someone already accepted in a community who offer their support, endorsement, or acceptance of the new-comer.  This juxtaposition between someone already valued and the new-comer creates a lift to this new person.  When people see, or hear someone they like or trust, endorse someone (or something) new, they are more prone to accept that new person (or thing) themselves.  It is sort of an endorsement and sociologists call this "social influence theory," and it is more powerful than you think.

What is even more powerful is that the endorsement of the gatekeeper has both an external as well as an internal impact.  That is, and as stated above, when people around the gatekeeper see their actions toward something they begin to become more accepting.  This is the external effect of social influence theory.  But more, there is an internal validation that the new-comer experiences that affects self-esteem, self-confidence, and feeling better about oneself.

In training's I do on this concept, I sometimes use an exercise that illustrates this internal impact.  After discussing the concept of the gatekeeper, I will ask people to take a minute and reflect on gatekeepers in their life. I ask them to write down their names and to jot down the experience they had with these gatekeepers.  Then I roam around the training room and ask volunteers to share a gatekeeper story.

Invariably, respondents offer these powerful, warm memories of these parents, teachers, coaches, relatives, ministers and the like, who were there for them, who propped them up, saw something in them that they couldn't see in themselves.  Powerful, loving and sometimes tearful reflections, that are incredibly validating.

So stop now, and think about the important gatekeepers who have impacted your life.  More, if you still have a relationship with this person stop now and reach out - call - go visit with this person - and tell them how much they influenced your life.

Never miss a moment to tell someone how important they are (or were) to you! 

Returning to Community

A couple years back, I was invited by my friend and colleague, Dr. Rory Cooper, to participate in a "Wounded Warrior" training program held at Walter Reed Army Hospital.  Dr. Cooper, a military veteran, and expert in disability issues, has aligned the amazing work he is doing at the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Lab with the VA and participates regularly in military training programs.

Given my work in social capital, Dr. Cooper felt that this information would be vital to the wounded veteran who is leaving the service and re-connecting to the greater community.  Needless to say, when someone joins the military they become immersed in a military community that dominates their social capital network and, in a way, meets their every need.  Then, when the veteran decides to separate from their military "family," the challenge of community integration becomes a huge issue.  This is further exasperated when the veteran has been wounded.

The session we did at Walter Reed Army Hospital truly opened my eyes to this dilemma and how hard it can be to realign to civilian life when the mainstay of one's social capital is left behind.  Certainly many people experience this challenge when they must relocate for job or lifestyle reasons and finding new friends (social capital) becomes one of the most difficult issues.  For the returning veteran, this challenge can be monumental.

As a follow-up to our session, I was further invited by Dr. Cooper to write a chapter in his newest book, "Promoting Successful Integration," that explores some of the strategies and actions the veteran can do in building a new life in their community.  The chapter I did with my colleague, Melva Gooden-Ledbetter is titled, "Community/Peer Support and Service."  The book was just released by the Office of the Surgeon General, Falls Church, VA, and we are incredibly proud to have been included.

There is no question that the power and potency of social capital in helping people build a more successful life applies to all aspects of experience.

Keys to a Better Life

I just finished reading my recent AARP Bulletin and found an article that really resonated with the work we have been doing on social capital, relationships and community building.  It was penned by Jo Ann Jenkins, the CEO of AARP and summarized the keys to better health.

The 2 key ingredients reviewed are "friendship and purpose."  Here are some of the things reported:

People with viable social connections are more likely to get plenty of sleep, eat healthier, have peace of mind and less stress.  They state that loneliness is the new smoking and being lonely can shave 8 years off life expectancy.  The mortality risk for loneliness is greater than that of obesity and that social isolation of older adults is associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually.

Social isolation is such a problem around the world, that foundations have identified it as the key issue today.  The UK has appointed a "Minister of Loneliness" with the challenge of measuring the impact of loneliness and to find strategies in Great Britan that can deal with it.  Similarly, CareMore, a health care provider in California has hired a "Chief Togetherness Officer" to directly address loneliness and its impact on health.

The other variable, "purpose," is equally impactful.  A sense of purpose for many people is more important than money, and it has been associated with a variety of health issues.  Studies have found that people with a sense of purpose get better sleep, have fewer hospital stays, and see their physician less.  They eat healthier, tend to exercise more, and avoid drugs and alcohol. 

Further, optimism and purpose can add 7.5 years to your life, and help you heal more quickly, and show significantly less cardiovascular issues.  Without question, lifestyle and choices we make can have a huge impact on creating a better life.

Think about this and do your best to nurture your relationships and the directions you have chosen.  Friendships (social capital) and purpose are vital elements to life success.  If you need to find a purpose in your life, come join us at CLASS, as we work to build a community where everyone belongs!

Change, Though Slow, Can Happen

Years ago, I recounted an experience I had in my book, "Interdependence: The Route to Community" (1991).  It related to a community outing of 6 people with disabilities I observed at a local McDonalds in 1989.  As the story went, I had taken my children to McDonalds and while we were sitting with our meals, an obvious group of folks with disabilities, probably from a local group home, made their way into McDonalds.  They had 2 staff that were overseeing them and it was clear who was whom.  The folks with disabilities were dressed in ways that were culturally inappropriate, either too large, or small, or clearly mismatched clothing.  

The staff sat these folks down, not far from where we were sitting and proceeded to get their food orders.  Then, one staff member went to fill the orders as the other kept watch over the "clients."  It was all so odd and out of place and I noticed other people noticing.  After they finished their meal they were marched out to a large van in the parking lot with writing on the door that spoke of the agency that served them.  I remember there were balloons and a smiley face in the logo.

I recounted this story in my book as an example of how community outings can message some wrong things, especially when the goals for such outings is to promote community inclusion.  I subsequently spoke often of this experience in workshops to suggest alternate strategies and approaches to inclusion and full community participation.  As change agents we need to understand the powerful external message of our work.

Interestingly enough just the other day, my wife and I went to our local Cracker Barrel for breakfast and after our meal, I sat on porch rocker while she shopped a bit in their store.  While sitting in the sun, observing people come and go, I noticed a nicely appointed SUV pull into a handicap spot.  There were 3 folks in the vehicle, and I thought nothing of it.  Then slowly I noticed that the driver got out to help the other 2 passengers.  They were all nicely dressed and headed into the restaurant.  A few minutes later, another SUV pulled into the lot, and as these 3 folks got out, I began to realize that these must be folks who receive residential supports, out for morning breakfast.

I couldn't help thinking back to that experience in 1989 at the McDonalds to the experience I was observing right now.  The differences were stark - no large van with signage, appropriate dress, folks in small increments where i couldn't tell staff from folks being supported.  All of it so typical and blended into the community norms.

I smiled a bit and felt some sense of satisfaction that the messages of community inclusion can, in fact, happen.  I don't know if these folks were even part of a service system, or if the van drivers were staff, or just friends enjoying a morning out.  I was just happy that it was happening, and that no one noticed.

On Fatherhood

We are ready to celebrate Fathers Day, and although I understand the commercial focus of these type of holidays, they do allow us to reflect on the critical role fathers play in helping mold their children into productive men and women.  Of course, for most of us who are fathers, the template we use in this challenge is often tied to the relationship we had with our own fathers; and even if that experience was not the best, it was probably instructive.

I count myself among the lucky men who had a father that was a guide, mentor, and, in a way, my best friend. He wasn't perfect, i don't know any father who is, but his values and the lessons he tried to help me my bother and sisters understand were steady and predictable. Observing him, as a child, teenager, and then man myself could not have created a better framework for me when I became a father myself.  As I summarize his temperament and style there were 3 major themes that emerge.

One was a sense of gentleness with us as kids.  Of course he could lose his temper, but he always was able to walk away, collect himself, and then re-engage.  He never bullied us, or anyone else for that matter and would use his faith oriented adage, blessed are the peacemakers.  This gentleness extended in many ways and I never heard him use a cross word with our mother, though times she could be provocative.

He was a good listener - not perfect - but would get us to talk about the issues that were creating barriers to our success.  In his listening he would temper what he was hearing with the important values he wanted us to understand.  On occasion his Italian temper would get in the way of the deeper listening, but even these experiences taught us how emotions can influence how you are seeing something.

His work ethic was strong and he felt that we kids should carry some of the economic weight. He was a newspaper man, so from my earliest memories I delivered papers in our neighborhood.  I kept that route into high school then passed it on to my brother when I got a job setting pins at the local bowing alley.  I worked in a men's store, and then started playing music in high school.  All of these efforts allowed me to save money for college and ultimately get my degree without any loans. This work ethic track set a tone that continues for me to this day.

So, if you are a father, think about the lessons that are important to you.  If they track back to your dad, and you are fortunate enough to still have him in your life, thank him for the time and energy he expended to help you become a better person yourself.  If you didn't gather lessons from your dad, think about the things you can do now to make you a better father.  Either way recognize and appreciate the amazing opportunity you have now before you.