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Their School Was Destroyed, Help Them Rebuild It

Three years ago, a math teacher from  the United Nations International School (UNIS) -- named Jamie Dougherty -- went to Nepal and was deeply impacted by her experience.  She couldn’t shake what she saw in Nagarkot, Nepal that summer; children going hungry and villagers without an education.  So Jamie came home and started a club at UNIS -- a school that revolves around global cultures and giving back to communities in need from all around the world -- focusing on the impoverished people of Nepal.

The Nepal Club flourished at UNIS, and over the last three years they have created and started a meal program in a Nepalese elementary school which feeds 60 children lunch every single day.
My kids are lucky enough to go to UNIS -- my son is in 1st grade and my twin daughters are in 6th grade -- and they have been involved in these important programs.

The club is currently fundraising to rebuild a school that was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Every year, 20 UNIS students go to Nepal to teach the students in Nagarkot and bond with the community. In conjunction, the club started a new project -- the empowerment of the women living in the villages. Currently, most of the women are either farmers or clean houses since they are from the "untouchable" class. These jobs pay so little that the girls would not be able to afford an education. The Nepal Club teamed up with the local Nepalese nonprofit Himilayan Voluntourism which provides raw material to the ladies and they use their creativity to design and make purchasable goods such as bags and cashmere pashminas. Every year the students of the Nepal Club travel to Nepal over spring break and bring the goods back to NYC and sell it at their school. All the profits made go back to these wonderful causes.

I wanted to expand their ability to sell so they will host a table here at apple seeds on Saturday, May 20th for us to help them with their cause. If you can't make it this Saturday morning, we will keep the gorgeous handmade products at our front desk all week. Please stop by and check them out…and support this incredible, student-led effort for this amazing cause!!

For more information on the Nepal Club and the work they do, please visit the website: https://www.schoolsofnepal.com


Mommybites Chit-Chat: Conversations with luminaries, entrepreneurs and influencers in the parenting world

Tell us a little about you (your background, your job, what makes you tick or anything else you think our Mommybites moms will find interesting).

Prior to starting a business together, we both were in careers that we loved. Allison Schlanger was a television producer. She worked at MTV for most of her career in the News and Docs department and also volunteered as a teacher for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders teaching conflict resolution and current events.

Alison Qualter Berna had two prior careers. She worked at NBC News Dateline and then at UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund managing a global program using sports as a tool to address issues affecting children’s healthy development including child protection, education and HIV prevention.

In 2010, both of us had twins. Alison S had twin boys and Alison QB had twin girls. While we were both on maternity leave we signed our kids up for music class – and that is where we met each other…in a freight elevator because the regular elevator didn’t fit our twin strollers! We immediately connected over the fact that we had the same name, both had twins, were both from New Jersey and could not decide if we were going back to our jobs.

We started dreaming of a life where we could bring our kids to work with us, and along with our husbands, started an indoor play space for families with young children called apple seeds. A couple of years into apple seeds we launched a music program called songs for seeds. songs for seeds is a three-piece rock band for kids that teaches so much more than music hitting many aspects of early childhood development. It quickly became our most popular class and so we are now franchising so we can share the program with kids across the country.

We have 22 songs for seeds locations from Scarsdale to Seattle and are quickly growing. Starting apple seeds and songs for seeds allowed our kids to grow up coming to work with us. We are looking for other young parents across the country who are interested in a similar work life balance to partner with us and own their own songs for seeds.

Who inspires you?

AQB: Allison inspires me constantly. She’s a role model mother, an exceptional friend and the most generous person I know. How lucky am I?

AS: How do I say the same thing about Alison without sounding like a copycat???

Allison inspires me constantly. She’s a role model mother, an exceptional friend, (adding) a whip smart business partner and the most generous person I know…oh and she does handstands on the edge of a cliff on a regular basis. How lucky am I?

What inspires you?

AQB: I’d say my kids inspire me every day because I often find myself fast forwarding my life so I can look back on it as an older person. I see my kids telling the story of their lives and I see the role that I played in it – both big and small. It informs my choices and actually forces me to focus on the big things and try to cherish the little things. Yoga also inspires me constantly since even if I can’t make it to class, I’ve absorbed the general philosophy reminding myself to constantly breathe through stress and find gratitude even in the tough stuff. Plus, Allison and I handstand every day!

AS: My family inspires me to attempt to live my best life every day. I have been reminded how fleeting life can be and know how lucky we are to have each other. It sounds cliché but I have moments of clarity that remind me that I want our time together to be filled with gratitude and happiness whenever possible.

What is your best piece of parenting advice?

AQB: Our kids’ preschool director once said this to us and we find ourselves both using it and sharing it with others. Remember that when your child is throwing a tantrum or having a meltdown, they’re not giving you a hard time, they’re simply having a hard time.

AS: That is one of my favorites too. The other is not necessarily parenting advice but it is a piece of advice that I return to on a daily basis…while parenting or just living. Don’t blame. Don’t complain. Wear a bracelet. Every time you blame someone or complain about something move the bracelet to the opposite wrist. It is illuminating and cleansing (and not so easy!). It changes the way you speak and then the way you think. I love it.

What’s the worst piece of parenting advice you have heard?
AQB: That your kids don’t fully understand what’s happening- what you’ve said in the next room, your mood, the nuances of your energy. The truth is they know you as well as you know them. And they hear everything!

AS: That you should get as much sleep as you can before your baby is born (or brought home) – as if you can store up sleep and just pull it out on a whim on those nights when your infant wakes you at midnight, 1:30, 2:17, 3:45, 4:20 and is up for good by 5am. You can sleep to your hearts content until the minute your child is put in your arms — after that your nights are not your own for at least 3-5 months…if not 3-5 years.

What’s the most common question you are asked by parents?

AQB/AS: A lot of people ask us how we started a business with two year old twins. Our answer? We deeply believed in our idea and wanted to fill a need in our community. But mostly we were able to make it happen because we had each other, we were in it with our husbands, and we could take our kids to work with us every day as we wrote and evaluated curriculum and built the entire business. That precious time with them made it worth every second.

What are some of your favorite T.V. shows? Books? Foods?

AQB: TV? People watch TV when they work and have kids? When we can keep our eyes open, we both like Homeland and Curious George, which taught us almost everything we know. And of course Sesame Street which served as inspiration as we wrote the curriculum for our kids’ music program, songs for seeds. songs for seeds is now in 22 cities across the USA with many more opening in September! But let’s face it…we don’t really watch tv. As soon as we lie down on the couch, it’s zzzzzzzz

AS: Black Mirror is genius, psychologically scary and a peephole into the future. The first episode will rock your world. Then watch This is Us to cleanse…

What parenting books do you most recommend to parents?

We recommend books filled with humor like Remarkably Average Parenting and Shitty Mom since they help us take things a little less seriously. We believe that parents can get through it all with a little less worry and a lot more seizing the tiny moments. Parents are hard on themselves so our advice is often just let it go, don’t sweat the small stuff, pick your battles, laugh more. The other best book for parenting advice is any book for yourself – fiction or other. If you’re taking even a little bit time for you, chances are you’ll be a happier mom.

What are some of your favorite parenting products?

Does wine count as a parenting product?

If you could be someone else for a day who would it be and why?

We would love to be one of our kids for the day and see what it’s like to be in their skin, in school, navigating NYC and friends. Our guess is our empathy for their experience would grow even more…plus, we’d think we would have fun!

What’s up next for your professionally?

We want to grow our kids music franchise, songs for seeds, and bring the music to towns across the country. We hear from moms (parents) on a very regular basis that they want what we wanted…to find a way to bring their kids to work (without hiding them under their desk). Owning a songs for seeds franchise is made for people who want to integrate their family life into their work life, be their own boss and contribute to their community.

What makes us confident in this business is that songs for seeds is much more than music and that really resonates with parents. In one 45 minute class, kids learn shapes, colors, number, counting, animal sounds, animal movements, global music and do much more. It is the most fun your child (and you…) will have all week! We raised our kids on it and we know thousands more children will be grooving to the music very soon!

Are there any other questions you wish we asked? If so, what and how would you answer?
Business plug…we just know this is a fun business to own and operate, work from home, work with your kids AND contribute to your community. 
If you are interested in songs for seeds – contact usWe would love to meet you!


There are many women who change careers once they have children— either by necessity (like me) or by choice, like Alison Berna and Allison Schlanger, two new friends I made recently who started the apple seeds playspace in NYC.

Just to give you a bit of background— I was introduced to the Al(l)isons shortly after my book came out. We have a mutual friend who gave them a copy and they loved it so much, they decided to order a whole bunch to give as gifts to their most loyal customers. Then we ended up using their party space for Harlow’s birthday party. As I got to know them, I realized we have a lot in common and wanted to help them spread the word about their new franchise opportunity, which they say works best for moms who find themselves in the exact same spot as they did back when they first became parents.

At the time, Allison was a television producer for MTV who never imagined she would leave a career she loved and Alison managed a global program for UNICEF which used sports as a tool to address health and child development issues, including child protection, education and HIV prevention. She loved her job but couldn’t reconcile the travel once she had children.

They met the way most new moms meet— on the first day of a “mommy and me” music class, where they bonded over the fact that they both had twins (in oversized strollers), they both were originally from New Jersey, they were both on extended maternity leave and they both were deciding if they wanted to go back to their previous jobs. Having their babies had changed their perspective on what they wanted to do with their lives. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring our kids to work with us?” they wondered together. And then Apple Seeds was born.

I did a little interview because I thought their story sounded best coming straight from them.

Why did you decide to start Apple Seeds?

We wanted to create something that would give us the flexibility and time we wanted to spend with our kids, as well as work for ourselves. We also wanted to take our kids to work with us without feeling guilty. At the time, the Chelsea/Flatiron area was experiencing an incredible boom of families moving in to the neighborhood and we saw a need for a safe, clean and fun space where we could go with our babies. It took many late night meetings after the kids were asleep and lots (and lots) of bottles of red wine for the idea of an all-in-one play space for kids newborn-5 years old to come to fruition. Witnessing all of the strollers and the parks, we anticipated that a place like apple seeds was more than just something we wanted. We were right— we had a line out the door on day one!

Why and how did you get your spouses involved?

The timing was kind of crazy…all four of us were very open to changing our career paths when our kids were born. Plus, Craig and Bobby excel in areas that are not in our wheelhouse and vice versa. It gave us a huge sense of comfort to know we were all in this together and that they could take on areas of the business that we would potentially drive into the ground. The four of us always feels like a good balance that just works.

What are the benefits and stressors of being a business owner?

The main benefit of owning your own business is that you are in control of your schedule and you make all the decisions for your company (for good & for bad). By “in control of your schedule,” we don’t mean we have the luxury of leisure time in our day, but it is our day to plan. As working parents, we get to drop our kids off at school, take them to after school activities, sign up for field trips, be active in our school committees and be home for homework. That doesn’t mean we have work/life balance all figured out. We are always running to get things done but we know how lucky we are that we do not have a boss who is clocking our office hours or judging where we spend our time. And…once the kids are in bed, we are back online. We are responsible for moving the business forward, paying our employees and our rent, making sure our classes are enriching and fun and that facility continues to be as safe and inviting as we promised our community it would be. It is so great to really feel like “the big picture” is in your control. It is a %$#!load of freedom, but also a %$#!load of work and worries!

What is Songs for Seeds?

Two years into our business, we created Songs for Seeds, our music program. We wrote the class with the intention of having distinct sections that each target a different aspect of early childhood development (shapes, colors, numbers, counting, animals, global sounds and more). We set all of it to really cool music (we promise it is cool, really). Songs for Seeds quickly became our most popular class and we began selling franchises 1 1/2 years ago.

Why did you decide to open Songs for Seeds up to franchisees rather than expanding yourselves?

That decision was based entirely on bandwidth and money. We live in NYC and cannot pretend to know the communities outside of where we live like we know our own neighborhood. When you are running a community based business, you have to be there— meeting the families, attending the classes, observing your teachers. We knew that if Songs for Seeds was going to thrive outside of NYC, it would be in better hands if run by the moms and dads who are raising kids in those towns and involved in those communities. Focusing on the franchise business, instead of running individual locations, allows us to be very involved in the meeting and choosing of new franchise owners. It also allows us to provide constant and consistent support as new locations open. We are constantly creating and improving our franchise infrastructure and systems. We would not be able to do any of that if we were running the day to day operations of multiple locations across the country. Luckily we have incredibly passionate, entrepreneurial owners who are leading the way in towns, from Scarsdale to Seattle. With 22 locations sold, we are growing quickly and savoring the words from new parents in the fold who tell us just how happy they are with the way their kids are learning.

Why do you think franchising Songs for Seeds is a good opportunity for moms who are looking for a more family-friendly career path?

Owning a Songs for Seeds franchise offers someone the chance to work for themselves, which includes flexibility and the chance to do something good for the kids in your community. It is extremely gratifying to watch babies grow and build community among families within a neighborhood. Plus, Songs for Seeds is a very low cost franchise. There is no brick and mortar space that requires a lease and a build out. It is a mobile business that makes the commitment a little less scary.

How complicated is the franchising process?

Our hope is that it is not complicated at all! We have broken up our franchise training and support system in to three stages. During onboarding we take you through six phases to get your business up and running – setting up your business, setting up your vendors, setting up your tech needs, finding your location, finding your band and finding your customers. The onboarding process takes you all the way to training week. Then the franchise owners and their bands all come to NYC for five days of intense music and administrative training. It is the most fun part of the franchise process. It is a mix of band camp, sleep away camp and boot camp. Over the course of five days, we fully prepare the band and owners to go back to their neighborhood and kick off classes immediately. Once training week is over, we move onto the ongoing support phase. Each franchise owner is given a point person at Songs for Seeds, so they have constant access to our entire management team whenever they need us. They are never alone.

If someone is interested, who should they contact? What would be the next step?

They can contact us directly by email at franchising@songsforseeds.com or visit songsforseeds.com/franchising and click “get started.” They will be prompted to fill out a few information fields and we will contact them immediately. The four of us (including our husbands Bobby and Craig) will walk them through a few presentations about the business, help them assess their financials and invite them to spend the day with us here in NYC.

If you’re reading this far, email us! We already can’t wait to meet you!


What if you went to the airport without a ticket or a plan, looked up at the departures screen and chose your destination on the spot?

Check out this blog post about Alison and Allison’s incredible Mystery Trip last year! 
 In May 2016, Alison and Allison went to Newark airport without a plan. They only had their passports and a suitcase filled with a little bit of everything to cover any weather condition…

You can read more about their adventure here (hint: they ended up on the beaches and rainforests of Panama!)

They leave this Friday night, May 5th, for their second annual Mystery Trip. 
Join them on social media for some suspense and surprise as they head to JFK once again without a clue as to where they will land…

In early January 2016, we went out to dinner and Allison presented me with an idea.

What if we picked a week at the halfway point between our 45th birthdays and planned a mystery trip together?

The catch?

We couldn’t plan it.

We had to pack our bags the night before and arrive at the airport the next morning with no destination in mind. We were to look at the departures screen (this visual made us both very happy) and choose a place to go.

Right then.

We only made one rule for this trip…neither of us could have been at our mystery destination before. We decided on a 3 day adventure and packed for a variety of weather conditions.

For months we looked forward to it, not even knowing what “it” would be.

As the weeks approached, we became bombarded by every reason under the sun NOT to go.

Stuff for the kids, events we should attend, work piling up…it felt too easy to be lured by the pull of life’s demands and cancel a trip to no particular destination, one without an airline ticket or hotel reservation. How could we take the time? Two workings moms who have no reason to jump on a plane just for fun and explore a new land where there were 37,069 things potentially holding us back. But we stayed the course and held on to our commitment to each other.

The night before we spent an hour on the phone, laughing like crazy, as we packed for trip to who knows where…

We went through our very unplanned list.

Bathing suit? Check.

Winter gloves just in case? Check.

Sweater? Check.

Hiking clothes? Check.

Most importantly…passport? Check.


The next morning we both dropped our kids off at school on opposite sides of NYC.

3 blocks into our plan to go to JFK we decided to change our route right then and there. We were going to Newark. Of course…we are Jersey girls!


The Uber driver turned around and asked us, “Newark airport? Which terminal?” We belted out in laughter and replied, “We have no idea…which one do you think?!”

The entire cab ride was spent deciding which terminal would hold the most promise for our adventure. We finally chose the terminal that not only seemed like it had the most international flights but the one in the middle of the airport, making it easy to do a mad dash to a flight from any gate. When we walked into Terminal B, it was a ghost town. There was one flight leaving for Tel Aviv, and not only was it already boarding, we had both been there before.

We rushed over to Terminal C aware that every minute might mean losing a coveted flight option for our adventure. As we looked over Terminal C’s options we saw Albany, Dayton, Tallahassee, Dallas... suddenly reminded of why getting to the airport by 5am is a good idea. By 930am, we had missed hundreds of early morning options, and most other international flights wouldn’t leave until evening. Note to selves (amateur spontaneous adventurers), lesson learned for next year.

But there was one destination smack in the middle of the screen that almost called out to us, seemingly standing out more boldly than the rest.


Panama City, Panama.

We could get there on a United flight leaving at 3:40pm, direct and on time. We looked at each other and almost instantly agreed it was our place. We could get would arrive by dinner time, it (sort of) fit without our pre-discussed budget, and…it was warm.

We walked over to the counter to purchase tickets and the woman informed us that a few tickets were still available. She also told us that if we bought them on the airline’s website, we could save some money. We quickly pulled out our phones, filled out all the info and counted in unison to make sure we both ended up on the flight – 1,2,3 submit!


We both got confirmation emails and walked immediately to the kiosks to printout our boarding passes and get seats next to each other. We checked our bags and felt giddy as we went through security to our freshly known destination – Panama.

We sat down to order lunch when all of sudden, as if reminding us just how spontaneous this trip was, we realized we needed to figure out where to stay!

We stopped at an airport bookstore and staring at us from the travel section was the last Lonely Planet guide on Panama.

We quickly purchased it. Then we googled Panama City and tried to quickly absorb the city’s sections, learn its geography and uncover the places we wanted to visit. We made a short list of all the things we wanted to do on our trip…tour of the historic district, Casco Viejo, a rainforest hike, the Panama Canal and visit a “deserted” island…all in 3 days.

Our greatest source of advice about what to do, where to stay and what to see? Facebook. One social post about our chosen mystery destination and we were flooded with tips, hotel recommendations and ideas about things to do.

The first recommendation came in from a well-traveled friend. She told us to call the American Trade Hotel and make a reservation…so we did. We checked that they had availability for 3 nights but only booked for one. Who knew where this trip was going to take us? We wanted to keep our options open.

Our taxi from the airport drove through the financial district of Panama City and then into Casco Viejo, a 15th century Spanish town that has seen conquest by pirates, colonists, militants and gangs. Its dilapidated buildings are now being repaired, one by one, and the city’s revival is both visible and visceral. Think urban decay meets funky hipster. Every other street displays a 15th century church, cushioned between run-down buildings ornamented with graffiti that looks more like it belongs in a Chelsea art gallery. Squatters pull electricity from neighboring buildings, but those buildings continue to blossom, highlighting that people trust in the revival and instead choose to offer an eclectic mix of venues that cater to everyone.






The American Trade Hotel is the anchor of Casco Viejo -- presiding over the neighborhood’s historic square.

The minute we stepped foot into the hotel we were taken with the intoxicating atmosphere. Although the hotel was built in the past 10 years -- it felt entirely authentic. The history of the neighborhood was built into the walls – ushering the past into the future. We looked at each other and both knew this was the place for this trip. The first person we encountered was Victor – one of the front desk team members at the American Trade. From this point on Victor would be our connector to everyone and everything we met and experienced in Panama City.


We were hungry after our flight and asked Victor to point us in the direction of his favorite restaurant.  On our way we passed by an El Salvadorian and a French restaurant that had both opened that very night.  
Over a 5 star-tasting meal at Madrigal, we talked about our upcoming 48 hours in the country. We had only two full days and Victor gave us a lot of options.
We settled on the Panama Canal in the morning (how could we not go) and a tour around Casco Viejo in the afternoon. Victor arranged for us to be taken to the Panama Canal by a taxi driver who he said could give us historical perspective on the drive. It turns out our “taxi driver”, Juan, had been a local tour guide for nearly 20 years. He could not have been a more perfect match for us. He was a kind father to young children. We asked him every question under the sun and he had an answer for every one of them. He was our personal guide at the canal – squeezing in more information on US/Panamanian politics, culture and commerce than a rigorous college course.


On the way back from the Canal we passed a sign for Gamboa. From Lonely Planet…and talking to Victor, we knew Gamboa was the rainforest we wanted to visit. We asked Juan if he would be willing to stretch out the day a bit and take us there. This meant a change of plans. We needed to reschedule our tour of Casco Viejo (Victor to the rescue). And like that, we went from the Panama Canal to the rainforest. Both less than an hour from our hotel room.
And Juan? He happened to also be an avid bird watcher bringing him to Gamboa on a regular basis. He had a favorite trail (we were the only ones on it) and pointed out tropical birds, exotic trees and “called” a family of 30 or so whiteface monkeys who put on the most incredible 20-minute private show for us.

He also knew where to find an afternoon drink in the forest.  After sucking down the most incredible mango smoothies at the Gamboa Resort, we headed back to the American Trade Hotel which, in just 24 hours, had a quiet charm that made it already feel like home base.
Juan and Victor both recommended that we try a restaurant called Las Clementinas, the sister restaurant to Madrigal. Our mouths remained wide open for the next two hours, in awe at how we happened upon this spot with funky, live Parisian music in a back garden, cozied up against 15th century brick. We were given complimentary welcome drinks upon arrival, made more friends, letting in new people, new ideas and new energy. It felt like that very moment was precisely the reason we had taken this trip.
Walking back to our hotel we saw new restaurant after new store, each one popping up almost in real time, it felt like a city awakening to the city’s promise of safety and tourism. Only 10 years earlier, the very streets we strolled had been littered with gangs, with gunshots being the most predominant sound. Now it seemed to be a pocket of the world that included a welcoming people, the most delicious food and an incredible amount of possibility.  This gorgeous city was finally catching up with itself and we felt a part of it.  
The next day, based on Victor’s recommendation, we took a 90 minute ferry from the city to explore Contadora, an island off the coast, surrounded by deserted island after deserted island. We planted ourselves in the sand of a remote beach where we saw 5 other humans over the next 5 hours. We talked and talked and swam and ate, receiving food delivered straight to us from a nearby restaurant (even that meal was fresh and delicious). The antidote to the madness of working and raising kids in Manhattan may easily be found in a single day Contadora Island.

We returned to our home base in the city sun-drenched and exhausted. We received an infusion of energy as we rushed to meet our local tour guide as we explored Casco Viejo. St. James was a Vietnam Vet who was part of a group of former gang members that straightened out their lives and now gave city tours with pride. His charm and constant jokes kept us smiling as we strolled the streets, stopping to talk to every other local on the way.
In the middle of St. James’ tour we popped into a new bar called Malibu and were immediately greeted (what we now know is Panamanian style) by the owner, Adolfo and given free shots by his incredibly friendly bartenders.
5 hours later, the two of us, St. James, Adolofo and the bartenders were still in the exact seats we sat down in when we first arrived but had now eaten dinner and had a few rounds together talking non-stop. We learned more in that evening than we had in a long time – not just about a country but also about humanity. You see the kindness of strangers when you open yourself up, simply smile with wondrous curiosity and say yes to opportunities.


Fear drives many of us. Anxiety around the unknown can be so stressful that it more often than not hinders us from trying new things. We need to know what’s next. We need to plan. As business owners, as mothers, as human beings, we know what it’s like to lay out each day providing both comfort and security as the hours unfold.  
The truth is that when you let go of expectations, you find that you can’t be let down. Expectations can create a sense of anticipation, often adding excitement to any future plan (for our trips, but also for our work, our kids and ourselves). But they can also set us up to be disappointed. If we let go of strong expectations, stop projecting into the future and live exactly in the present, it can be the most liberating and satisfying feeling. It is a true definition of happiness.
Since we arrived home many people have asked us how we did this mystery trip. The truth is – traveling has never been easier. You just do it. You don’t plan and you say yes to every opportunity as it arises. You don’t look for outs – you look for ins. You allow your spontaneity to give you even more spontaneity.  And 4 ½ hours later you find yourself in Panama City on one of the greatest adventures of your life.



If you are looking for a great family vacation where you can also give back – this is the trip for you…

by Allison Schlanger

For the past two years, my older boys, Sam and Ari, and I have gone on an amazing volunteer vacation together. We worked with Youth Rebuilding New Orleans to rebuild homes that were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. The homes are then re-sold to teachers at affordable rates to encourage educators to come back and continue revitalizing this amazing city.

Here is the story of how we decided on a volunteer vacation and why we chose Youth Rebuilding New Orleans.

Sam and Ari are twins. Ari is our humanitarian. When he and Sam were five years old, someone asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. Sam declared he wanted to be a professional basketball player because they make the most money. Ari said he was going to be an artist -- and give away his work for free on the street. He is still that same kid. He carries granola bars in his backpack for every homeless person we pass on the street. He is also the only one in the house who feeds the beta fish for fear of being responsible for the loss of a life. When I suggested a volunteer vacation he did not let it rest until I found and booked a trip. Sam is a project, goal oriented kid. He loves learning new skills and he is a perfectionist when it comes to art and building. He has also been asking if he could get a job since he was 7. The idea of “working” for an organization to build homes was high on his list of very cool things to do.

After doing a bit of research (lots of googling “volunteer vacations with kids”) I found that most volunteer/travel organizations had an age requirement – usually around 16. Sam and Ari were 11 at the time, and our youngest, Dov, was 5 ½. Craig, my husband, graciously offered to keep Dov busy if I could find a trip that Sam and Ari could go on. So I started dialing.

When I called Youth Rebuilding New Orleans, William Stoudt answered the phone. He told me that he grew up in New Orleans and was evacuated on the last plane out during Hurricane Katrina. When he came back home he found his city destroyed. He wanted to help in the relief efforts to rebuild New Orleans but was turned away from most organizations because he was told he was too young to help. So William, along with his friends, and his twin brother (twin brothers…I was hooked), founded YRNO to allow youth to contribute to rebuilding their city. YRNO now depends on students to help do the organization’s work. They accept kids 10 years old and up (as long as they volunteer with an adult).

We were in. William also told me that YRNO is very popular with college students. What college kid doesn’t want to come to New Orleans, do some good and then party their face off on Bourbon Street? He wisely advised me to avoid traditional vacation times because the job sites would be filled with older kids and Sam and Ari may not get to do the heavy lifting. I decided to pull them out of school for 2 days so that we could volunteer on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It was the best decision. Sam, Ari & I worked alone on the job site with the YRNO staff.

On our first day, William introduced us to the YRNO team -- John Coyle and Danielle Holmes, Prince Holmes (who took over for William as Executive Director this year) and Maggie Daly. They all made us feel like family from the moment we arrived.

We got right to work. Day one, we painted the exterior of the house, planted trees in the front and filled in ditches in the road.

After we were done with work on the first day, William took me, Sam and Ari on a tour to give us some context of New Orleans, pre and post Katrina. We learned about the storm, the people and neighborhoods it affected, the rebuilding efforts and the current situation 12 years later. On day two of work we met Miss Nancy (everyone is Miss or Mr. down south). Miss Nancy lived on the block of the house we were working on. The YRNO team is committed to helping all neighborhood residents better their homes and they had gotten to know Miss Nancy during their time on the block. Miss Nancy’s dog was taken away from her because she did not have a proper place for him to live. We spent the next two days building the “sickest dog house” you have ever seen (Sam’s words…).

Miss Nancy worked with us, she took us in to her home, spoiled the boys with ice cream, draped them in Mardi Gras beads and after Sam told her that his class was learning about Hurricane Katrina in social studies, she literally took a photo and poem collage she made after the storm off her wall for him to bring back to his class.

YRNO cares so deeply about NOLA. They make friends with everyone around their work sites. They clean up streets, help neighbors and share materials with other construction workers on the block. They also get to know their volunteers. On both of our trips Danielle and John were with us constantly – they supervised us, they came to lunch with us, John proudly showed us his new home that he is renovating and during our second trip Danielle even pulled her son, Tyrone, out of school on his 11th birthday to work on the site with Sam and Ari.

I say this to illustrate how special this team, and this experience, is for your whole family. Not only is it hands on work -- Sam and Ari were trained to use multiple power tools, we painted, caulked, lifted, cleaned and built -- but they also felt the pride of having been responsible for painting someone’s house, planting their trees, laying the wood floor in a master bedroom and helping to get a dog returned to its owner. YRNO allowed us to work directly with the people we were there to support and get to know the history and culture of New Orleans through the people that have lived there their whole lives. We went there to serve the New Orleans community but we were transformed in the process. We got more out of the experience than we even could have given.

I cannot end this blog without a brief mention of the “vacation” part of our trip. One of the reasons we loved YRNO so much is that after work we got to play in the amazing city of New Orleans. We ate our weight in beignets on a daily basis, heard some of the best live music in French Quarter, talked to artists and poets and soaked up as much of NOLA as we possibly could before we headed home.

The city is magical – it makes so much sense that Youth Rebuilding New Orleans was born there. We will be back next March. Maybe you’ll join us...

If a trip to New Orleans seems too much - you don't have to be on site to make a difference. Youth Rebuilding New Orleans relies on private donations to supplement the income from selling the homes to run their organization and continue giving back to the people of New Orleans.

Tomorrow, May 2nd, is Give NOLA Day. Donations to their site during Give Nola day are matched by sponsors, so any donation over $10 is stretched further. Here's the link, if you're interested in participating: https://www.givenola.org/youth-rebuilding-new-orleans

Thank you so much!