Make 2014 a year of action

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Outside the Box: a weekly column in The Meadville Tribune

by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2013

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

Last month, I was sitting in the associate dean’s office when the college president walked in and handed him money. Terry Bensel explained that his wife Connie’s family was from the area hit hardest by Typhoon Yolanda, as it was called in the Philippines. People had begun asking about her family and offering support.

They received nearly $1,000 in donations and wired the funds to Connie’s sister, a doctor who lives and works in the Philippines. With the help of local family, she purchased supplies and made the long journey by car and ferry to Lantawan, where they offered food to 102 families, the first significant food delivery to the small town since the storm hit.

Years ago, I was in the Philippines. I had completed my scuba instructor training and I’d taken a day away from the ocean to join friends on a picnic in the jungle and a trip to a waterfall.

On the ride home, I turned the corner on a narrow dirt road and saw a pedestrian in the middle of it. I had a couple choices: hit the pedestrian; veer right and plunge into a steep ravine; or, veer left and hit a wall. I veered left.

The ATV went up the wall and flipped on top of me. My helmet flew off as the machine crashed on top of me. Pinned under the ATV, I looked at the sky. You’ve really done it this time, I thought.

The next day, I took a boat to the nearest island with a hospital and learned my wrist was shattered. I was lucky: no nerve or arterial damage in my wrist, no other serious harm. Since more than a day had passed since my injury, the doctors advised immediate surgery.

“Where’s your companion?” I was asked by nearly everyone at the hospital. I said I was alone. This was hard for people to understand; in the Philippines, no one would be in the hospital without friends and family to care for her.

The owner of the dive shop where I’d done my training sent a waitress from the resort to be my companion. Leah was waiting when I returned from surgery and I was glad for her company.

She stayed by my side in my hospital room. We shared our stories. She told me that she’d been a good student and dreamed of being a teacher. I told her my mom had been an elementary school teacher. When her father died, Leah left school and her home island to work to provide for her family.

Days later, I went to pay my hospital bill: approximately $2,500 for major surgery and four days in a private room. Leah wept when she heard the cost. How will you ever pay, she asked.

I learned later that $2,500 could pay for four years of college. I asked my Filipino friends if it would be appropriate for me to offer to pay for Leah’s education.

With their assurances, I offered and Leah accepted. In 2007, I returned to the Philippines to celebrate her graduation.

Many of my friends sent cards and gifts for Leah. They had followed her progress over the years. Some gave me money — and suggested it would be great to send another young woman to college.

In my years as an international correspondent, I saw firsthand that it is the women who hold their families and communities together when war and famine tear them apart. Women run the orphanages and volunteer in hospitals. And it’s also women who are denied access to education. I decided I wanted to plant something different in the scorched earth left in war’s wake.

Inspired by Leah’s story and success, I created Isis Initiative Inc., a nonprofit that offers scholarships to young women overseas who have the desire but not the resources to attend college.

I wanted a strong female to figure in the name of our organization, hence Isis. In Egyptian mythology, Isis collected the scattered pieces of the body of murdered Osiris and brought him back from the dead. As a former war photographer, I like the metaphor of healing what has been broken and bringing new life to what has been destroyed.

In the years since her graduation, Leah has become an elementary school teacher at a government school near her village. She is able to care for her elderly mother, who lives with her. She has made improvements to her home and paid for both her nephews to attend school. She adopted a baby boy who is now 9 months old.

It took me more than a month after the typhoon struck to reach Leah by phone. She said that her family was OK and she immediately expressed sadness and concern for the thousands who’d been killed in the storm and its aftermath.

Leah thanked God for all her blessings. She thanked me for sending her to college and told me that I had made it possible for her to achieve her dreams. I told Leah that she had done the work; she had made her dreams come true.

In our nonprofit’s name, initiative speaks to what it takes to make things happen. Leah showed initiative in returning to school at 31 to pursue an education and a better life for her family. Terry Bensel and his family showed initiative in accepting offered funds and acting quickly to launch their own relief efforts after the recent catastrophic typhoon.

In the new year, I encourage you to follow the examples of Terry and Leah.

Take action when you have an idea or an opportunity. A small action, a small donation, a simple gesture has the power and potential to make a significant difference in the life of another human being.

Take initiative. Don’t wait for everything to line up just right. Take the first step. In my experience, things will fall into place.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

Can you help me?


It’s been snowing on and off for days here. It’s sneaky, silent snow.

I’ve been grading papers, projects and exams. I have a view out two windows and still sometimes I’m surprised when I look up and see four to six inches has fallen.

Most folks in my neighborhood have snowblowers, so when I hear that lawnmower engine whir, I look outside. Sure enough, time to shovel.

I’m not sure which is heavier lifting: grading or shoveling. Each day, I walk downtown–to take a break from grading and to enjoy the snow. When in Pennsylvania…

Today I passed a boy shoveling snow in the driveway of a two-story, weathered Victorian house. I waved.

“That’s hard work,” I said.

He turned, put his hands on the handle of the shovel and paused. His cheeks were red and his fringe on the hood of his jacket hung over his eyes.

He leaned on the shovel–the handle was just under his chin–and looked up.

“Can you help me?” he said.

The driveway was at least 30-feet long and six-feet wide. The snow was at least eight inches deep and still falling.

I stopped.

“The snow is light when it falls but it gets heavy when it piles up,” I said. I suggested he shovel the top layer of snow and then shovel the bottom half. It would be more effective.

He said it was so hard because the shovel kept getting stuck in the gravel.

As we talked and he shoveled, I watched an adult leave the house and a teenager with earbuds in place and smirk on his face walk into the house. And here was this boy, nine-years-old I’d guess, and no one was lending a hand.

I had somewhere I wanted to be so I turned and walked down the sidewalk. I got about a block when I thought ‘do I really have anywhere to be?”

I turned around and walked back up the hill.

“Hey, how bout if I shovel and you take a break?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

As I shoveled, he talked. And talked and talked. He pointed to his bedroom window. He told me there was a snowblower in the garage but his brother’s friend had broken it. $700, he said. And when he was done shoveling the driveway, he was going to make a snowman.

I returned the shovel and he returned to shoveling.

Later, walking home, uphill, I passed a small girl and her mother. The girl was running ahead and leaping into snow banks. Her mom yelled after her to stop, that she was getting her pants wet.

She dropped on her back into a snow-covered yard and moved her arms and legs in a horizontal jumping-jack, creating a snow angel.

The girl looked up at me, big smile, rosy cheeks. Then she blew past me and crashed on her back into another snow drift.

“That looks like fun. What’s your name?”


When I got back to my house, I broke out the shovel and started clearing a path from my doorstep to the garage.

When I finished, I put the shovel down and jumped into a snow bank.

Then I dropped on my back in the fresh snow in the driveway and waved my arms and legs.

I stood up, admired my snow angel then dropped in the snow to make another.

A snow angel fun fact: In 2002, 1,791 people made snow angels on the capitol grounds in Bismarck, N.D.

And if you’ve forgotten the joy–or technique–of making a snow angel, here’s a link to a nifty short instructional video.

Weathering the storm


A week ago, Sandy decided to turn northeast just enough to bypass Meadville in northwest Pennsylvania. The wind howled through the night and rain soaked the earth, flooding some basements; however, we never lost power.

And Allegheny College held classes on Monday.

This past week, I’ve been reading the news stories from New Jersey and New York, the states hit hardest by the storm, including some fine writing by my former Associated Press colleague Verena Dobnik.

Here’s a couple graphs from one of her stories:

“Around the metropolitan area, some of those lucky enough to escape the storm’s wrath have taken in Sandy’s displaced , friends, neighbors and colleagues who have fled their cold, dark homes in search of food, light, a hot shower and juice for their cellphones, iPads and laptops.

And the generosity toward the storm’s victims has extended well beyond the big city. In Charlotte, N.C., Brian Cockman and his partner have welcomed a revolving door of people stranded by canceled flights.”

The air waves and newspapers (and probably TV channels) have shared stories of friends, neighbors and strangers pitching in to help one another. Sharing food that would spoil. Cooking steaks on grills in the street. Offering showers and a place to sleep or work.

In 2008, I was in Houston, Texas, when Hurricane Ike hit. The power went out. Cell phones didn’t work. Neighbors found themselves gathering in the cul-de-sac. They grabbed chairs, bottles of wine and beer and brought what food they had that would spoil.

For a few nights, in spite of the hardships–in fact, because of the hardships–the neighbors spent their evenings together, sharing food and stories well past sunset. The family who had a landline let people call loved ones to let them know they were doing just fine.

As soon as the power returned, the neighbors retreated to their air-conditioned patio homes. The garage doors stayed closed and the neighborhood block-party vanished.

As I listen to the stories of generosity and kindness in the aftermath of Sandy, I am heartened; and yet, all too soon, it’s likely life will return to normal: conversations on glowing screens “connecting” us rather than conversations around a candlelit table or over a grill in the street.

In times of trouble and adversity, we do remember ourselves, our best selves, our true selves. I share the sentiments of Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of The Pretenders, in the song “Message of Love.”

“Now the reason we’re here/as man and woman/is to love each other/take care of each other/when love walks into the room/everybody stand up..”

So, yes, it’s a sexy song. It’s also a beautiful song, complete with a quote from “Lady Windermere’s Fan” by Oscar Wilde.

The sentiment rings true, though sometimes in the daily rush and crush of our lives, filled with hand-held devices instead of hand-holding, we may forget the most obvious and important thing in our lives: each other.

We are here to help each other, take care of each other.

Very superstitious

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After two months embedded in Afghanistan and 19 days in a hospital in Kuwait, I was packing to return to the States last week. I was practicing the out-with-the old-in-with -the-new approach.

I threw away nearly everything I’d worn in Afghanistan. My three Hane’s men’s v-neck white t-shirts were irrevocably dirty. I tossed one pair of torn pants and kept the other though they’d grown too big (not a bad thing.) I’d toss them when I could replace them. I’d already lost my favorite wool hat that I purchased at the Farmer’s Market in Newport, Oregon in the fall 2010 when my brother visited me from Germany.

Next, I packed the sweet Donna Karan party dress I’d purchased especially for the !st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment ball. I added a couple new dresses and several pair of new shoes, including a gorgeous pair of Michael Kors heels, again for the ball.  (Thanks to Sarah for the shopping excursions and encouragement to “Just try it on.”) After wearing trousers, dirt and body armor, I was looking forward to putting on heels, skirts and dresses again.

When I had everything packed, I looked in the closet and discovered my sweater. My friend Jeanene had given me the sweater in Oregon a few years ago. I always seem to be in denial about the cold and don’t dress appropriately. She bought it for a few bucks at Good Will.

It’s not an attractive piece of clothing. It’s beige, bulky and tattered with holes. It makes me look eight-months pregnant when I wear it.. But it’s warm, made of a blend of wool and silk. And it was so cold in Afghanistan, I wore it all the time.

I wore it on every patrol under my body armor. At the end of my first month-long embed, Spc. Valerie Cronkhite, a medic and member of the Female Engagement Team, remarked that I’d been lucky. She noted that I’d been out on many missions and traveled significantly in Strykers and helicopters and hadn’t had any contact: no small arms fire, no IEDs. We had returned safely from every trip, every patrol. Her comment stuck with me.

On my second embed, the weather warmed and I continued to wear the sweater…at first, out of habit.

One day at Khenjakak, I was putting on my gear for a patrol with 3rd Platoon, Charlie Co. It was hot. I decided not to wear the sweater. I put the body armor over my t-shirt and left the Khenjakak Resort. I took about three steps and stopped. It didn’t feel right, not wearing the sweater. I didn’t want to risk the run of good fortune–not just for me, but for all the soldiers I was accompanying on patrol. It was a strong impulse…so I turned around, returned to the tent and put on my sweater.

I would not have thought I was superstitious. I remember covering the civil war in Liberia and the soldiers wore “gris-gris,” decorative bands of twisted hemp that they said made them bulletproof and invisible. I thought they were deluded…and dangerous.

I had talked with many soldiers about things they carried and rituals they might observe before patrols. (Inspired by one of my favorite books, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.)

Sgt. Robert Taylor, of 3rd Platoon, C Co., often carried a Vallon and took point on patrols. He repeated a specific prayer he created before every patrol. Spc. Mazzole Singeo, of 3rd Platoon, C. Co., also carried a Vallon. He said he told himself every time that he’d come back safe and he’d bring his soldiers back to their families. And he did.

Soldiers carried photos of their loved ones. One had a locket with his girlfriend’s picture. Another wore a grandmother’s cross. They carried tokens from their loved ones, tucked in a pocket or wore them around their necks.

I carried photos, too. Of my niece and nephew, so I could look at their bright smiles on the dark days. A photo of my mom holding me as a newborn, to feel all that beaming love when I felt alone.

And the sweater, go figure. I could not let go of that sweater. I tried to leave it in Kuwait. At the last minute, I stuffed it in my duffel bag with the body armor. I tried to ditch it in Oregon. Right now it simply feels wrong, ignoble, to abandon the sweater when it had served me so well.

In the end, when it’s came to following in the soldiers’ footsteps in Afghanistan, I became very superstitious. I’m keeping the sweater.

And, of course, I know it’s not the sweater that protected me. Life wrapped her arms around me and blessed me.

And the soldiers of the 1-5  took responsibility for me and shouldered that burden with good humor (most of the time.)

They took me along with them and brought me back, every time.

Thank you.

Sleep Hygiene


I wake up about every twohours.

Tonight I went to bed at 2100, tired after a long day of writing and filing a story. It took JR and I five hours to file my 500 word story and JR’s seven photos. Internet gymnastics!

JR had fixed the air leak in the cargo container, CHU, I currently call home. He put my body armor and duffel bag against the opening and severely curtailed the cold rush.

He adjusted the heater to a warmer setting. I had it at 24 degrees, the setting I’d used in my room at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) earlier. JR noted that was nuts since the room in KAF had been insulated.

I’m a soldier’s daughter and a Pac-10 rowing champion and I’ve got a pretty tough will. I can be a whimp when it comes to the cold, especially when I’m trying to sleep.

The Bobcats made a special effort to set me up with accomodations where I could work and sleep. I’m in a cargo container across from the operations center and next to a latrine. I have a desk, chair, two-bed bunk and a  heater near the ceiling at the back of the CHU.

Yesterday evening, cold air flowed relentlessly from the door to the rear of the room. The floor was so cold it sucked the heat from my body when I stepped on it. I felt the warmth drain from my body–the pair of wool socks and slippers I wore awere barely a barrier.

I started in the bottom bunk wrapped in my mummy bag and switched to the top bunk to seek warmer air. I put on my wool socks and Alaska underwear, added a second layer of clothes, donned a wool cap, and still I was rattling in my sleeping bag. Tonight though, I feel positively toasty by comparison, thanks to JR’s ingenuity.

It’s cold and dry here, so it’s crucial to hydrate, which means every time I wake up I slither out of my mummy bag, crawl down the ladder from the top bunk (a sight to see!), slide flip-flops over my wool socks and shuffle through the “moon dust,” (as the soldiers call the talc-fine dirt here) to the latrine.

I can see the stars tonight–a good sign, it means we can roll later today.

We’ve been under “red air” the last few days–no flying due to the lack of visibility in the thick dust-fog hanging over the FOB and the area.

Yesterday I heard a couple soldiers talking.

“Santa can fly in red air cuz he’s got Rudolph,” one said.

“He’s got the Rudolph guidance system,” the other responded.

It’s neraly 0400 and chilly in this MWR. I’m going to catch a few more hours of sleep before we roll out later.

Maj. Renee Reagan of the 113th Medical Detachment Combat Stress Control said their team of social workers and therapists pay close attention to soldiers’ “sleep hygiene.” A good night’s sleep is vital to physical and mental health.

So, night, night.

Fairbanks Firefighter Fred to the Rescue

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On Monday, I headed to Fred Meyer to buy eggs for the chocolate chip recipe I was making. I’d bought laundry detergent the night before…and failing to make a list, I found myself bright and early on a return trip. It was -35F. Note to self: make a list. Of course, this presupposes that I remember to write down the note to self.

I decided to make the most of the early morning extra trip and I stopped to fill up the tank. While I pumped gas, I blasted the radio–I’d been listening to KUAC‘s report on the Yukon Quest–an NPR driveway moment, sort of. When I tried to start the engine, my battery whined then died. Huh?

I turned to the taxi driver in line behind me. Do you have jumper cables? No, he said as he hustled back to his car, his frozen breath hanging in the air behind him.

On the next aisle, I noticed a gonzo silver Dodge Ram 2500 with a large water tank in the truck bed and a wench on the front end. This guy must have jumper cables.

I asked. He did. After he pulled his truck around to face mine, a station attendant came out and told us we couldn’t jump the car on the cement pad. Huh? Regulations. We’d have to push the car away from the station. OK. Fortunately, my good Samaritan was amenable. The station attendant, the pick-up driver and another man pushed the Suburu Forester off the pad, about 10 yards, first down.

Cheryl Hatch, I said, sticking out my hand as the driver started to hook the cables to the battery. And thank you. Fred. I’m a firefighter.

The battery didn’t respond immediately. He hopped in his truck and pushed the accelerator and the Suburu decided to cooperate.

We drove off, both heading toward the university. I figured he worked at the UAF station, so I walked across campus to offer my thanks and a plate of the fresh-from-the oven chocolate chip cookies, made from the eggs that started the whole morning adventure.

The station chief Todd answered. No, Fred works in the city. I know him. I’ll make sure he gets these.

And just to be extra certain Fred knew how much I appreciated his assistance, I gave him a shout out during my morning conversation with Charlie O’Toole on 970AM KFBX.

If Fred hadn’t jumped to the rescue and jump-started my car, I might not have made the cookies–or my interview with Charlie.

Thank you.

Cool and Cold: Life in Fairbanks in February

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Today I woke at 5:30 a.m. I stay huddled under my down comforter and rolled over to look out my picture frame window. Cassiopeia hung in the dark, clear sky just to the right of my window, about 45 degrees from the horizon.

The nearly-half moon was sinking below the silhouette of bare-branched birch trees that ring my cabin. That’s cool, I thought.

I decided to watch it slip below the horizon; it looked almost like a slice of mandarin, not quite orange enough, though.

I turned on our local NPR station, KUAC. -43F at the airport in Fairbanks. That’s cold, I thought.

For a bit, I read “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America” by Bill Bryson. He’s the rare author whose writing and descriptions of characters and places can make me laugh out loud.

-43F. I’m not in a hurry to go outside.

I listened to the update on the Yukon Quest.  (Below is a description from the race website.)

At the “top of the world,” in the Yukon and Alaska wilderness of northwestern North America, an epic winter sports event takes place every February, the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Covering 1,000 miles between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska during the depths of the Arctic winter, the Yukon Quest is known for excellence in canine care and fostering the traditions of northern travel by dog sled.

The Yukon Quest has been run every year since 1984 over the 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of rough, sometimes hazardous terrain between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. The Yukon Quest Race Start alternates annually between these two host cities.

On Friday, Brian O’Donoghue, the chair of the UAF Dept. of Journalism, who has competed in the Quest and the Iditarod, mentioned taking some students out to mile marker 101 to witness some of the mushers on the course.

Here’s the e-mail message he sent this morning:

To all,
As of 9 a.m., Neff is likely at least eight -12 hours from Central. The few other teams within driving distance will be hitting Circle, a 6-7 hour drive. Do NOT attempt to intercept Neff at Cochranes Cabin. We don’t know if it’s open this year and IT’S TOO COLD, likely 50 below or more out there. THAT’S THE DANGER ZONE for any traveler, and far too cold for a novice to mess around alone.
If you attempt to drive north today take a friend, food and survival gear. IF you get get stuck, anyplace, do not leave your car unless it’s to wave down a snowplow or passing car. Monday will be a better day to find teams at Mile 101, Central and Circle.
–Brian O’Donoghue

Brian has been good about giving me tips about the perils of winter weather here and how to dress for it. Over the time I’ve been here, I’ve acquired jackets, gloves, boots…even a down SKHOOP skirt (made in Sweden.)

It’s a short distance from my cabin to the outhouse, and I didn’t dress for the journey. Silly not to wear gloves, I quickly realize. The metal hook latch stung my fingers like a needle stick. My face and hands immediately felt the tight sizzle-sting that screams “are you kidding?”

I went back inside and started a fire. For the first time since I arrived in Fairbanks, I put a blanket at the base of the front door to deter some of the cold seeping in. (Even the cold is seeking shelter.)

Despite the cold, it’s a crystalline beauty day. Snow dusting the trees. A bright blue sky. And more than eight hours of daylight today.

It’s cool and it’s cold living in Fairbanks in February.

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