Horse and Buggy

Recalling memories of life as a child in the coal fields of Eastern, KY

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Another Log on the Fire

Mists rise slowly from the mountain valleys adding to the chill of the early morning air, that, washed clean by last night’s shower,  is enough to cause the early rising camp staff to hurry to the lodge and put another log on the smoldering embers in the great stone fireplace. Their arrival has already been preempted by the kitchen crew, hard at work shaping breakfast for the soon to be clamoring group of eager and hungry campers, who meanwhile, are still sleeping in the comfort and safety of their cabins. The smell of baking bread made from meal ground from the produce of the camp’s own farm, is just one of the many invitations that is evident as camp comes to life for another day of adventure. The morning mists will evaporate long before the sun warms the corners of  the swimming pool and the overnight hikers, their fleeces draped across their shoulders, head towards the out bound trail. But for now, the great stone fireplace offers a very warm invitation of its own.

Soon, the first noisy peal from the old iron bell next to the dining hall will signal wake up time and the woodland sounds of birdsong will be joined by the equally noisy music of a hundred or more young voices as they too awaken to the expected adventures of a new day at camp. For millions of young children across America, this scenario will unfold during all the magical span of summer and, as a result, their lives will be enriched in a manner that will never be forgotten.

There are, of course, many ways to describe the meaning of summer camp for children and youth. Breakfast is a good way to begin. Here, there are no heavily sugared and fat laden foods. Nutritious, tasty and portioned for the growing needs of active youngsters, camp meals are a meaningful introduction to healthier eating that will follow the young camper home. But healthy eating is not all that takes place in the camp dining hall. Respect for the presence of others as the day’s activities are outlined, responsibility for cleaning up and appreciation for those who prepared the food are all subtle but important portions of living to be gained from a meal shared at the camp table. Too, depending on the particular focus of the camp, appreciation for the sanctity of creation and the creator can be a simple but profound part of a blessing for the food provided.

A healthy part of camp living is learning to care for one’s own space by cleaning the cabin and tidying up the beds.

Throughout the day, activities and gatherings allow for plenty of exercise (hiking, mountain biking, scaling up the climbing wall, kayaking on the lake and riding the zip line) as well as artistic expression (pottery, tie dying, painting and writing), and the development of new friendships. Bugs are discovered, tree leaves identified, wildflowers enjoyed, frogs apprehended and harmless snakes handled without fear. Clouds and blue sky replace city views, games on the green are expressive, energetic and non-competitive. The nature hut, pottery shed, farm fields, horse stables and barnyard provide windows through which children see amazing connections to the simple things of life so often missed when days are spent in front of a TV screen or playing a video game.

A restful after lunchtime nap provides a brief interlude before the rest of the day is spent in learning new skills, writing stories and listening to the wisdom and absorbing the lore of other people and other times.

By the time evening has come, campfire songs repeated, and flashlights and stars have guided them to their cabins, a tired but quite pleased bunch of youngsters will snuggle into the comfort of their sleeping bags, memories of a day well lived the subject of their dreams.

Summer camp is a marvelous institution. With the support, encouragement and protection of counselors and staff, children are ushered into a place where connections to better eating, physical activity, creative thinking, appreciation for the abundance of nature and respect for others are the common standards. Interestingly enough, those standards more often than not become the guideposts by which children live into adulthood. And those guideposts mean a richer and healthier life for all.

Finally, with lights out, children asleep, night sounds tuning up, it is time for a few of the counselors to drift back to the lodge, put one more log on the fire and relish the rewards of spending one more day forever shaping the life of a young child.

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Advocating for public health

Dr. Olson Huff hasn’t slowed down in retirement

Black Mountain News, June 12, 2012

For Black Mountain resident and retired pediatrician Olson Huff, the link between medicine and advocacy is obvious.

“You believe in people being healthy and then you want each person you come in contact with to have good health,” he said. “Then you begin to see how each aspect of their world affects health. So you can’t ignore certain issues and aspects . . .  read more

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Whirlygigs, Juciy Fruit and Overfed and Undernourished children

It is Saturday morning in America. Millions of children are engaged in some of their favorite activities. Vigorously messaging away on their cell phones, fighting the horrific and violent invaders on the latest gameboy or totally absorbed in television cartoons, the most exercised part of their bodies’ their thumbs, they pursue what seems to have become part of the great and heavily commercialized passion for connections.

What would happen if a different picture of Saturday morning emerged? One, for example, if dads (and I do mean dads) and their children paid a visit to the hardware store.

No, not the new, brightly lighted and overstocked warehouses filled with row upon row of products beckoning to find their way into the huge rolling shopping carts being pushed to hurry and exit the computerized checkout lane. A different kind of hardware store. The one that signals your entrance with a bang of an old screen door and the jingle of a bell that sets you at ease and bids you welcome. The kind of place where the freshly oiled wooden floors bear the scuff marks of generations and the ceiling is covered with old squares of embossed aluminum, generously sheltering paddle fans and old empty kerosene lanterns. Amidst the somewhat disorganized shelves are a mixture of desirable and useful tools, boxes of model airplanes to be built and faded packages of patterns to make dresses from feed sacks. Here too one finds a seldom seen friend and, if lucky, another child or too, using imagination to wistfully scan the strange collection of handmade toys such as a whirlygig or a disjointed figure dancing on a wooden paddle Instead of a computer there is a bulky old cash register that is opened by the press of keys and along side it sits a box of Juciy Fruit gum and a glass jar filled with BB bats.

In this remnant of the past there is the opportunity for children to hang onto something unique. Instead of the “flat learning” in front of the TV screen or playing a video game, here, on another kind of Saturday morning, they can enter a round world that invites their creative ability and stirs their imagination. Instead of sitting, they can move. Instead of being encouraged to absorb the latest sugar coated breakfast treat, they can learn to make choices. Instead of being stimulated by violence they can appreciate the wisdom of their elders. Instead of fearing new places they can enjoy the comfort of a surrounding that was built on securing the continuity of generations past and a pathway to future connections.

Perhaps it won’t be in an old fashioned hardware store or some other remnant of the past where a dad and his children can spend a Saturday morning or more. picking up a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and finding a handmade toy to enjoy. What it is hoped they will find is a time away from the stimulating world of computer games and violent videos to a happening where being together is all that really matters.

 

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Tired Legs

Tired Legs

Some time ago I worked, along side a Presbyterian Medical Missionary, in one of the more impoverished areas of Sub-Sahara Africa. Malawi is a very poor country with limited resources and only the slightest hint of a supportive social network or government infra-structure. While there, I had the opportunity to go into several villages, collections of huts really, with no suggestion of sanitation, knowledge or application of health care and a very high incidence of neonatal deaths.

My missionary friend told me that when she had first arrived to work in Malawi, she had asked why so few of the women from these village groupings came to the hospital where she could deliver their babies safely and with a markedly lowered mortality.

The answer she was told was “Tired Legs.”

At first she wondered if this was a statement of some cultural or religious norm that prevented the people from using the hospital as a source of care. Upon further inquiry, she told me, the answer was far more simple and at the same time, heartbreaking.

The women, who were in labor, ran out of energy on their long trek to the hospital to give birth and their legs were too tired for them to walk any further. Their babies were born and often died at the place where their tired legs just gave up.

Sometime this month, the Supreme Court of the United States will decide whether or not the Health Care Reform Act,passed by Congress in 2010, and referred to by many as “Obamacare” fits into the legality of circumstances as defined by our Constitution. At stake in the debates over this law are such things as  whether all people should be required to have health coverage and whether Medicaid, the “safety net” government funded plan to provide access to health care for the poor, especially women and children, should be expanded to more of those in need.

It is hard, at times,  for me to balance these two extremes. In our country, we exhaust ourselves, arguing ideological views on who deserves what, set against a background of the  most advanced health care system in the world. Rather than embrace the excitement and good fortune of what exists that could forever prevent any “tired legs” from accessing quality, supportive, preventive and equitable health care, we wear ourselves out, trying to limit how such care is obtained.

In the villages of Malawi, and in millions like them around the world, the people exhaust themselves in the sheer effort to get to someplace, where someone who cares, will give them the barest minimum of help.

We have come to a time, I think, when we must re-think what it means to have good health and the ability to obtain health care. There is a saying  “that a rising tide raises all boats,” meaning that what is good and of equitable distribution in one area will likely lift the prospects of  those in other areas as well. I believe when we come to a time where we stop arguing about who should have health care and start applying our incredible minds and resources to assuring that everyone does have access then we can see the tide rise. I believe also that this is the only way we will see the cost of care decline rather than steadily increase. I do not hold to an allusion however, that this is a one way system. All of us must engage in ways of maintaining good health in order to be able to have access to the health care we desire. That is part of the obligation to ourselves and to each other.

But in the end, I come back to the images I forever will carry in my mind of desperate women, tying to reach a place of safety for themselves and their babies, whose legs are too tired to carry them any longer. We must never forget the lessons to be learned from them. It is time to move the health care reform debate out of the courtroom and use that energy to move aside the ideologies of restraint so that we reach a point where we all access, achieve and hold onto the best health possible.

Perhaps then, our own tired legs will be at rest.

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With

The Lopsided Bird Feeder

With super glue and duct tape, I patched the bird feeder back together for what I hoped might be at least one more season of usefulness. And, doubting that the many varieties of birds that call our wooded lot their home would be concerned about their lopsided feeding station, I was indeed hopeful. The young bear who had nearly demolished the feeder a few nights before my attempted repairs had not returned. That gave me a feeling of some optimism about the future of my once mechanically proficient, symmetrical and well structured bird feeder.

Alas, it was not to be. The feeder, too lopsided to work, simply spilled the seeds onto the ground, much to the delight of the squirrels and chipmunks who scurried happily to the feast.

So now, the lopsided feeder is gone and a new one has taken its place.

But what abut the “lopsided children?” You know, the children who through no fault of their own are beaten down by the despair, poverty, anger, alcohol and drug abuse and the unknowing or uncaring persons who ushered them into a world filled with risk? What are their chances of moving away from endless generations of a downward spiral? Or will they too, end up, discarded and forgotten?

As bleak as the words may sound, they do not necessarily predict a dark or hopeless future. In recent times, a great deal has been learned about children’s development, especially their earliest years. Research into early brain development reaffirms the human capacity for resiliency while also pinpointing our vulnerabilities to environments that deprive rather than nourish. The balance between these two – resiliency and vulnerability – are greatly influenced by what happens in the first three years of life. This is where the challenge to all of us seeking to avoid “lopsided children” lies. For too many years we have tended to neglect the importance of placing the maximum of our resources – our human capital and fiscal strength – where it can be most effective. Now is the time to correct that notion. We must insist that early childhood education and enriched day care programs for all those who need them becomes a priority. Every child should have equal access to the highest quality of health care and preventative services and every parent should be given the information and encouragement they need to raise their child to be healthy, resilient and happy about all their tomorrows.

I suspect that would be a beginning towards bringing all the “lopsided children” back to where they belong; not discarded because they have no use.

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Why We Do What We Do

In America, about four million children are born each year.

Of those children, one million a year who enter the 8th grade will not graduate with their peers.

5 children a day will die from child abuse and, on average, most of those will be less than 4 years of age.

One child out of nine between the  ages of twelve to seventeen will use illegal drugs;

One out of four school age children will be obese.

1.3 million will be homeless;

40% of girls will be pregnant before age 20;

Every four days, at least 32 children will be killed by firearms.

And the dreams with which so many  are born will perish if there are not enough who care.

And that is why We Do What We Do: Care.

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A Day of Remembering

Memorial Day. In the mountains where I grew up, this day was referred to as “decoration day.” The burial places of family and friends were visited and flowers usually placed on the graves. Those who had worn the uniform of service to their country were remembered in a special way with  a tiny American flag placed on their  head stone.

Remembering, decorating, paying respect; important things to do on this day.

But as much as we recall the deeds and the sacrifices of those who have gone before us., and the quality of our lives they sought to improve, it is worth a moments thought to recognize those who labor tirelessly each day to improve the lives of our children.

Of the many I could mention, this day I will salute America’s teachers. Overworked, underpaid and often with inadequate resources, they march on, day after day, encouraging young minds to think and instilling the values that make us proud to reflect on what Memorial Day is all about.

Today, my teachers, I remember you.

Olson Huff

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Op-ed in Raleigh News & Observer: Talking about early childhood education in North Carolina

“Zero. Out of more than 1,000 questions asked during 20 primary presidential debates there was not one on an issue that military leaders have called a matter of urgent national security, economists have called critical to America’s competitive future, law enforcement officials have called a key tool in reducing crime and educators have called vital to academic success. The issue – early childhood education.”

Read more at http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/05/23/2082687/talking-about-early-childhood.html

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Welcome to my world of reflections and insights

Welcome to my world of reflections and insights on the state of children’s health and the many factors that surround the future of their hopes, their dreams and their impact on  the world they will direct.

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