Witnessing Joy Was the Christmas Gift

Christmas 1958.

Christmas in Maine was routine.

Not a hum-drum sort of thing but rather something to count on.

Thanksgiving led to Christmas Eve at the Congo church that kicked off restless sleep before Santa came.

Photo for an annual Christmas card. The popup book? “Poochy the Christmas Pup.”

Before sunrise could emerge my sister and I would locate our bulging knit stockings and empty the contents as our parents looked on.

Then in heightened anticipation of the rest of the day, my mother’s elegant, candle-lit breakfast would be ever-so-slightly rushed.

In record time dishes were washed and put away so that the only thing standing between us and racing toward gift exchanges was Nana Webster’s deliberation.

And trust me when I say her Christmas-day pace was remarkably relaxed.

With Nana Webster in 1960.

She admired each gift.

It was held up and received as if it had been personally delivered by one of the three kings.

Because to her it had been.

And as our elder, she got to go first in the slow rotation — one person, one gift at a time.

It’s a cadence I’ve come to love.

To grandmother’s house we go

Halfway through the day we’d bundle up and walk three houses down to be with our other grandparents where happy chaos prevailed. 

They were faster, didn’t save paper like mom and Nana, and one of them used expletives like most of us throw out thank yous.

“Well for *&@!#%’s sake, who gave me this?” my grandmother would ask.

Bob and Hattie Weatherbee, 1960.

With a door always open to nine children and spouses, 21 grandchildren, great grandchildren and long-time friends, even ordinary days in their home were high-energy events.

And rarely a day passed in my youth when I wasn’t in their company for at least part of it.

This segment of the Christmas ritual meant watching as they opened packages between pausing for coffee warm ups, taking calls from friends, and greeting relatives entering and exiting the scene.

Witnessing joy in one another was what these days were about.

Christmas present

As an adult I count my blessings for each year I get to spend with my husband and children.

And it’s inevitable that sometime during Christmas day, reflection will appear.

I’ll miss kicking off wet boots to  rush into cousin Berta’s room to see what Santa left.

I’ll sense a longing for the sweet scent of baking bread and will feel the acute, still undefined loss that accompanied the stocking’s end as I reached the navel orange that filled the toe.

Such a poor use of space, I still think . . .

I’ll miss my mom and my dad, the man who modeled agape love.

I’ll think about Nana and Grampie Bob and my beloved Grammie. 

Dog memories of Patches, Rocky, Wags and Tippy will color in the background.

And in a flash the foundation responsible for this year’s Christmas will be acknowledged with a nod to the past and a prayer of thanksgiving for the joy I get to witness right here and right now.

Wishing each of you a moment to witness joy 
in this and every day.
. . .
(a recent photo taken at Ariana and Lucas’ wedding in Los Angeles — my son Byron, daughter Audrey, me, and my husband, Ed)

Suicide and Mental Illness Close to Home in Wyoming

Kelsey Rose Wilson

Last week a Laramie Boomerang obituary page included a teen’s face.

Kelsey Wilson was a 16-year-old student at Laramie High School.

While I didn’t know her, what my untrained eyes see in her photo is a young woman who was well loved in life.

And what pain she felt in that life, I can only imagine.

Alongside the shock of her age, the obituary contained a raw plea.

“Suicide and depression are difficult topics to discuss, and the family hopes you will talk with your loved ones to help bring it into the light and reduce the stigma surrounding it.

“The family asks you write your legislators and representatives in Congress to push for better mental health interventions and suicide prevention services in Wyoming.”

I grieve for Kelsey and for her family.

And my own letter to Representative Liz Cheney has already been sent.

The Tragic Truth

–  31% of teens nationwide have symptoms of depression.

–  Wyoming has the 4th highest suicide rate in the country.

–  In Wyoming, worry about suicide in teens is becoming
the top reported concern.

–  1 out of 6 students nationwide (grades 9–12)
seriously considered suicide in the past year.

–  Teen suicides in Wyoming are rising and are
nearly three times the national average.

The top blue line shows Wyoming’s deaths by suicide per 100,000 for youth aged 15-19. The lower blue line is the national number.

Take Action!

•  Write Representative Liz Cheney.

•  Read Preventing Suicide in Wyoming.

•  Be reminded of good people doing good work in Wyoming:

–  Peace as Learned and Teachable Skills

–  Pain Should Not Be Wasted: The Story of Three Parents

–  Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love By Way of the Foster Parent Exchange

.   .   .

Ellen is a native of northern Maine. Her interest in getting to know Wyoming focuses on ways people and organizations help and protect individuals, wildlife, beauty, and rights. She is a HeartMath® trainer and coach, a Connection Practice trainer and coach, and a biodynamic craniosacral therapist. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com and her email is EllenSynakowski@icloud.com.

“Remember that justice is what love looks like in public.” – Cornel West

Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love to Sheridan, Wyoming by Way of the Foster Parent Exchange

Carla Trier, founder and Executive Director of Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Carla Trier has a radio voice, and you want to listen when she speaks.

It’s sultry and earnest and sparkles when she talks about the nine children she has fostered/mentored as a single parent.

Her first foster daughter was seven years old when she arrived on New Years Eve 2012.

“She came only with a sack of things,” Carla said.

“She was sobbing, and I made a pretty fast decision that this wasn’t the way things should work.” she said.

That clarity lead to the Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Carla said, “Children are removed from parents quickly, and that usually meant stuffing a few things into a trash bag as they are taken from the parents.”

But awareness is changing, and evidence of that are duffle bags often replacing plastic bags when children are picked up.

“That makes the little ones’ self images a lot different than arriving at a new home with a garbage bag,” she said.

Carla was a foster child, but unlike most children she encounters, she was sent with a suitcase and a teddy bear under her arm.

Change is also seen in Sheridan in the form of both children and the foster parents receiving help faster.

Children immediately receive 7 days worth of clothes, hygiene kits, towels, handmade quilts, coats, shoes, socks and underwear, pajamas, books, and stuffed toys.

Yet it’s not about handing a child a bag.

“Sometimes they’ve never had things that are their own, and we don’t ask for anything back,” Carla said.

As well, foster parents, grandparents, and biological parents reuniting with their families are all supported by this 501(c)3 nonprofit.

What Carla Would Like You to Know

“People say foster care is something they could never do.” Carla said.

“They’re afraid they’ll get attached to a kid and then they’ll leave”

Carla and her first foster daughter. The following year Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange was created.

To Carla, though, if you don’t give it your all, you’re not serving yourself or the child.

“The love they know when they are with you may be the only time they experience that in their lives.

“That might be the only place they have to go back to in their minds.”

“Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

“It’s not always been easy with my kids,” Carla said.

Yet her support is unwavering.

“The love they know when they are with you may be the only time they experience that in their lives. That might be the only place they have to go back to in their minds.”

“I tell all my kids, I am not going to give up.

“I say, ‘Hey, I love you.
‘Hey, you matter.
‘Hey, you made my day special.
‘My day is always better with you in it.'”

“Those are things they may not hear in their lives,” she said.

“I just keep showing up.”

Take Action!

Donate to the Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange.

Watch a 90-second video on Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange narrated by Carla Trier.

•  Learn about a similar organization in Laramie, Wyoming

•  Watch the feature film, “Instant Family,” based on director Sean Anders’ own experience adopting his three foster children. From the movie’s website learn more about fostering and adoption, and volunteering with the foster care system as a tutor, mentor, and more.

•  Read about other organizations doing great work in Wyoming:
Wyoming Foundation for Cancer Care Sees Far Beyond Medical Needs
–  Climb Wyoming Breaking Multi-Generational Single Mom Cycle of Poverty

•  Listen to Josh Shipp, a former foster child, talk about The Power of One Caring Adult

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is EllenSynakowski.com. She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and is a practitioner of both HeartMath and The Connection Practice.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West


Mr. Rogers, It’s Time We Bring Back What You Taught Us

How do you feel when you see Mr. Rogers’ face as he sings to or looks at a child?

Does your heart open up like a big, all-in hug?

It takes me back to sitting on our living room floor in Lincoln, Maine and watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood after school.

Four o’clock, I think it was.

And though there are oodles of counter-joy messages in TV land these days, we can always go back to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

That’s where we can hear Tony Bennett sing to Lady Elaine.

Or watch Margaret Hamilton discuss pretend witches as she ties on her Wizard of Oz skirt.

Or be reminded of who knit all those zippered sweaters.

We could let ourselves empathize with the uncertainty of vulnerability.

And then feel certain that having a friend matters fiercely, as it did the day Lady Aberlin and Daniel sang, “Sometimes I Wonder if I’m a Mistake.”

We could picture ourselves living as compassionately as Mr. Rogers did, like the time he and Jeff Erlanger sang, “It’s You I Like”.

Mr Rogers, It’s You I Like

The 2018 PBS documentary, Mr. Rogers, It’s You I Like, is narrated by Michael Keaton, one of The Flying Zookeeni Brothers on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. (If you click the link, he’s the one in the white hat.)

Sarah Silverman says, “You know what I loved about him? He never lied to kids. He leaned right into it and he always told the truth.”

And John Lithgow falls still as Mr. Rogers sings, “Sometimes people get sad, and they really do feel bad. But the very same people who are sad sometimes, are the very same people who are glad sometimes . . .”

Whoppi Goldberg calls Fred Rogers a subtle civil rights advocate.

You could see it the first time he invited Officer Clemmons to share his wading pool.

It was during a time vicious messages promoting segregated swimming were pervasive in the U.S.

And again years later they cooled their heels while singing, “There are Many Ways to Say I Love You,”

Mr. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, never strayed from his message of love.

“Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love  —  or the lack of it.”

And how evident that was when he and the signing, silver-back gorilla, Koko, exchanged words of love.

When I was the parent of young children, I wanted them to to know that the simplicity of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood could go with them anywhere, and that they didn’t have to do or be a certain way for me and others to love them.

“The greatest thing we can do,” he said, “is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Treating yourself to the newest documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, qualifies, I’d say, as profound, self care.

And ditto for taking time afterwards to sit quietly with the feelings it evokes.

Surprisingly, the moment that may have spoken loudest to me during this film was when Mr. Rogers chose not to speak during a speech.

In a commencement address at Dartmouth he invited reflection then paused:

I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today.
. . . wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self.

So I’m making the suggestion that as you read this, you stop for a moment to also remember.

I’ll do it, too.

and dad
and Byron
and . . .
. . .
. . .


And when your minute is up, remember:

It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive, it’s such a hap-py feeling you’re growing inside, and when you wake up ready to say, I think I’ll make a snappy today. It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling, . . .”

Take Action!

•  Be kind to someone today just because.

•  And notice all there is to be grateful for from sunrise to sunset. Once you start looking with those eyes, what comes into focus is pretty spectacular.

• And take action when you see something that is just plain wrong.

•  Read about Climb Wyoming, the organization demonstrating to adult, single moms that “they are loved and capable of loving.”

•  See how one small group banded together, Gillette Against Hate.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West

Cambodian Sex Trafficking and Child Exploitation: Heart Mothers Support Survivors

Ruth Williams founded Heart Mothers to support children rescued from sex trafficking and exploitation in Cambodia.

The faces of Cambodian survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation compelled her to action.

Twelve years ago Ruth Williams had just moved to Laramie. “I was sitting in a salon and saw a picture of a rescued child.”

“’Her eyes pierced me . . . I couldn’t forget her,” she said.

Within 24 hours she had emailed and heard back from Somany Mam, the woman from the article responsible for saving 6,000+ children.

And so began Williams’ journey to support young girls through her nonprofit organization, Heart Mothers.

It’s a story of frequent trips to Cambodia, fund-raising to help sustain Mam’s Center that’s home to 62 girls as young as 14 months, and enlisting the help of nearly 90 women to write letters, send gifts and bring hope to children with few life options.

“Social justice is protecting somebody’s dignity,” Ruth said. “And yet there’s so much injustice in the world.”

“Nothing will change until people realize that
pornography is epidemic.”

According to Equality Now, an activism group working to protect women’s rights around the world, trafficking is a $99 billion business and the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. Ninety-six percent of its victims are women and girls.13

Ruth says the underlying issues are poverty14 and the way we view pornography and women.

Asked how this problem will end, Ruth said, “I don’t think it will.”

“Nothing will change until people realize that pornography is epidemic,” she said.

Yet the girls themselves bring her hope.  “They are happy, confident, loving, amazing young women who have been through hell and back,” she said.

Sugar Mouse Cupcakes are a feature of the Laramie Farmer’s Market.

Financial support for Heart Mothers comes from donations and profits from thousands of Sugar Mouse Cupcakes made by Ruth and sold at Laramie’s Farmer’s Market each summer.


Take Action!

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West


Witnessing Childhood Injustices Part 2: Bullying and Isolation — Two Sides of the Same Coin

Bullying and isolation are really two sides of the same coin.

Liza Thomas was in fourth grade when she brought a beer to school in her lunch box. As you might expect, all hell broke loose.

When isolation is used to bully

As a third grader I stood by and witnessed the cruelty that met her each day. On one extreme was the merciless taunting she had to endure, and when attention swung in the other direction she was socially isolated.

I wish I had a single memory of walking up to her and saying “hello” or “want to swing at recess?” but I don’t.

Sometimes I alter the images of her battling these injustices all alone and imagine her fists softening and a hint of a smile appearing. This older me wishes I’d been able to give her a moment’s peace at school.

Liza Thomas and Alvin before her are two of the reasons I created this blog.

The courage to take risks

I want to meet people around the state of Wyoming who have the clarity of mind to know what they believe in, work hard to correct what they see may be headed in the wrong direction, and have the courage to take risks in ways I never did with Liza.

This blog will be looking at these and more topics:

•   aging                         •   animals                   •  bullying
•  care of the planet    •   crime                       •   disability
•  education                  •  race                           •  healthcare
•  environment            •  domestic violence  •   fire arms
•  free speech               •  gender                      •  human trafficking
•  immigration             •  income disparity    •  LBGTQIA+
•  laws                           •  opioids                      •  politicking
•  poverty                     •  native Americans   •  water and land
•  children in foster and alternative care
•  loneliness and isolation

Please email me with names of organizations and people working for justice in Wyoming.

Also of interest:  Why I Care: Witnessing childhood injustices

•  •  •

Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”1 – Cornell West

Why I Care: Witnessing Childhood Injustice


Lincoln, MaineI care. But why?

Third grade was dull though welcome. Compared, that is, to the previous year when the teacher took a ruler to Alvin’s* knuckles.

Mostly, though, stressful interruptions were infrequent and easy to push aside.

Week-ends were spent at big family pot lucks and traveling the neighborhood with a gaggle of friends. Belonging and community in this northern Maine town shaped me.

Where was the care?

Life wasn’t so easy for Alvin, already well into his short unhappy life, nor for Liza Thomas,* then a class or two ahead of me in school.

She lived somewhere poor. Without noticeable care. Maybe in a cabin without running water and sufficient heat, and surely without someone keeping her safe.

Things only got worse for Liza the day she brought beer
in her lunch box.

And similar to Alvin, misery at home followed her to school.

Where was the care?

What I remember of Liza is pain and rage — her face twisted in defiance and her fists raised like shields against the cruelty she faced daily.

She was taunted then isolated for being poor, for standing up for herself and for not fitting in. Collective kindness was withheld.

Overt cruelty came from the boys, but girls had their ways, too.

Liza’s screaming was a raspy, hoarse voice cussing those who hurt her. These outbursts led to shame and punishment while the guilty and complicit walked free.

Things only got worse for Liza the day she brought beer in her lunch box.

She was chided by adults then mocked by her peers, and for the first time her temper receded into tears.

I have no memory of Liza Thomas after that day, yet decades later I still wonder what social justice might have looked like through my 3rd grade eyes.

*names changed

•   •   •

Posts and resources of interest

•  Wyoming Social Justice in Action: Witnessing Childhood Injustices Part 2

•  Connecting: When needs are met in a simple thank you

•  Bullying in the ’60s

Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”1 – Cornell West