Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christmas in Mexico: The Children

Our main mission in Mexico was to pack and distribute food bags as well as Christmas gifts. What I like to think of as our secondary mission was to simply spend time with the people.

During our free time Sunday night we sat around in a circle and sort of debriefed. One of the observations made by several people was how much fun it was to spend time with the children in the neighborhood.

One of our first tasks was to make breakfast for the kids Saturday morning. We woke up to no electricity in the dorm, which wasn't that big of a deal. We just had to improvise (like Todd making sausage on the grill). Somewhere around 8 a.m. the kids from the neighborhood started rolling into the dorm. The table was soon filled and they started singing songs together. Then we got to bring each of them a plate of pancakes and sausage (see Katie and Brant serving above).

Following breakfast, we had some free time to get to know the kids a little bit. We learned a lot of names and played with them out in the street and at the park.

The park was made up of a huge baseball field (that's where David is playing soccer with some girls above), a basketball court and some playground equipment. There's dirt, glass and trash everywhere but it appears the people appreciate it because the paint applied by a NMC Student Impact team two years ago is still in good shape.

Whether it was football or soccer, the kids from the neighborhood couldn't get enough of just playing with us and our kids.

The streets were the main area where we interacted with the kids. Traffic was very light and the dirt roads made for a perfect playground. In the picture above you can see David playing with Kenya (and an empty Tecate can) in a sandy area near our dorm. For them it was just like a huge sandbox.

On Monday we prepared a dinner for many of the volunteers at the churches in the area. Part of the preparation was handmade placemats that you can see the girls working on above. They were so eager to help and do whatever they could just to be with us. It was really fun.

My kids have talked a lot about the kids they met in Mexico - especially Hanah. She really wants to go back next year so she can see her friend Alondra (the one farthest to the right in the picture above).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas in Mexico: The Team

Our team was made up of 16 people from Nappanee Missionary Church and two from New Life Fellowship. We had only two meetings before leaving for Mexico and neither meeting included every member of the team. So, we needed to get to know each other on the fly. It turns out that wasn't a problem. We had good team chemistry the whole time. Everyone was flexible and willing to do whatever it took to accomplish our mission.

I was especially impacted by two members of the team:

Jack Lengacher, and his wife Shelly, were our team leaders. I knew Jack before this trip, but not well. He lives near us in the summers and I had worked with him on some projects at church, but that's about it.

During the process of getting ready for the trip, I was feeling pretty unsure about how our kids were going to handle everything. I was also concerned about how the adults on the team would feel about our two young children.

My concerns were put to rest before we even left the ground. Jack, one other member and my family had to leave on Thursday. The rest of the team didn't come until Friday - just one of the realities of traveling during the holidays. So, we arrived at O'Hare with plenty of time to spare before our flight. We had already eaten dinner and had about an hour before we could start boarding. We had packed the kids' backpacks full of stuff to keep them busy during times just like this and so they started spreading toys and coloring books all over the airport floor.

Then something happened that let me know my children were not going to be considered an annoyance by anybody: My son, David, asked Jack to color with him. Without hesitation, Jack got down on the floor and started coloring with David (see picture above). I'm sure for Jack it was no big deal, but for me it meant a great deal.

After spending four days in the same room at the dorm (and giving him the nickname Pastor Skunk) David felt very comfortable with Jack. He even spent much of the bus ride home from the airport on Jack's lap planning a sleepover next summer!

Beyond the way they welcomed us and our children, Jack and Shelly provided our entire team with great leadership. They made sure we knew what to expect, what the schedule was and what was expected of us. They led by example through cooking, cleaning, serving and never acting like any question was a bother. It was great to get to know them (and their daughter, Katie, who was also on the trip) better and know that we've got some new friends to hang out with next summer!

Brant Nine was the other team member who left with us on Friday. I knew who Brant was from going to Senior High Camp last summer and working with Sr. High this school year, but I didn't know him personally. Brant was the starting quarterback for NorthWood this past football season and it's easy to tell he's considered a leader among the students at our church.

That's what I knew about Brant before this trip.

It didn't take me long to learn that there's much more to this kid. Yes, he's a leader - without question. And, yes, he was his team's quarterback. But those two things don't define him, at least in my mind.

Here's what impacted me most about Brant: His love for other people - all people - and his willingness to endure uncomfortable situations and pain to achieve something great.

It didn't take our kids long to realize what an awesome guy Brant is either. They were quickly comfortable with him. There's another picture from the airport where my daughter, Hanah, is sharing a set of headphones with Brant while he plays the only kids' songs he has on his iPod. During our first day in Mexico, while we were waiting for the rest of the team to arrive, Brant went with my kids and me to the park and showed us around. He bought us bottles of Coke and spent time entertaining the kids.

Throughout the trip, it became clear to me that Brant is a very compassionate guy. He absolutely loves the people in Mexico, but he also loves the people he's with everyday at home. He wants the best for everyone and he doesn't mind sharing what's on his mind and in his heart - even when it causes him to be vulnerable.

I'm excited for Brant to finish out his senior year at NorthWood and then go on to Bethel College, where he's majoring in Elementary Education and minoring in Youth Ministry. Both of those fields seem perfect for him!

Mexico slideshow

Here's a slideshow of my photos from our trip to Mexico. In the coming days, I'm going to pull several of these photos out and share a story or something special about each one. Enjoy!

NFL Pick 'Em Week 16 Results

Craig made some good calls this week (i.e. Chicago over Minnesota) and regained a two-game advantage. One more week left in the regular season and then we pick the playoffs!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

NFL Pick 'Em Week 15 Results

Dan Erickson keeps inching closer to Craig. He's only one game back now!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Big Week

This week is going to be a bit of a departure from our normal pre-Christmas preparations. Usually we spend the week before Christmas getting gifts ready, making cookies and other sugar-loaded treats and planning our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day travels.

This year, though, we're doing a different kind of preparation. Starting tonight, we're packing our bags for a trip to Mexico. We leave Thursday evening as part of a Nappanee Missionary Church Global Impact Team that will spread some Christmas cheer to our ministry partners in the Juarez area. We'll hand out food bags, Christmas gifts, prepare a Christmas dinner for 70+ people and share with several churches during our five days south of the border.

Katie, Hanah, David and I are all very excited. As parents, we can't think of a better way to teach our kids the value of giving and serving others. We hope this will teach us all how much better it is to give than receive.

Another significant event kicked off this week. It's really only significant to us, but I thought I'd share it with you. After seven years of driving a 1998 Mercury Villager minivan, we finally put it out of its misery and bought a new van. Our Villager was a true blessing to us. We bought it shortly after our daughter was born in 2002 and we've never had major problems with it. It's been through seven years of child transportation, a drive to Kentucky and back, an accident that the insurance company deemed a total loss, a one-day disc golf marathon with six guys in tow and countless trips between our house and those of our families who all live about an hour away. We put about 80,000 miles on it and it still runs great. But, there were enough little things starting to go wrong that we thought it was a good time to upgrade.

What we found as a replacement is a 2004 Toyota Sienna. It's a really nice van and from everything I've read it's one of the highest-rated vehicles you can buy. So, we're hoping for at least as good of results as we had with the Villager ... maybe even better!

God has been good to us this Christmas season. We've received many blessings and we're very thankful.

NFL Pick 'Em Week 14 Results

It looks like the playoffs are going to be significant, after all! Only two games separate Craig and Dan Erickson now. I'm in a distant third.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NFL Pick 'Em Week 13 results

Things are getting interesting at the top of the leaderboard. A strong 13-3 week by Dan Erickson, combined with a 9-7 showing from Craig Helfrich led to a 3-game lead for Craig with three weeks left in the regular season followed by the playoffs.

Here's how Week 13 went down and a look at everyone's records:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

NFL Pick 'Em Week 13

Uh Oh! A couple guys failed to send me their picks. I guess if they send them to me by the end of the day Friday they will still count, except for the Jets-Bills game, of course!

Anyway, here's how I see Week 13:

NY Jets over Bills: I can't see any reason to get excited about the Bills' win last week. Plus, the Jets were tough earlier in the year. I think they win this one.

Philadelphia over Atlanta: My first instinct was to go the other way on this one, but then I remembered I need to start taking some chances. This one isn't a big reach, but it turns out some of the leaders picked Atlanta, so at least it gives me a chance to gain some ground.

Chicago over St. Louis: The Bears are not good, but they're still good enough to beat the Rams right? Right?

Cincinnati over Detroit: The Bengals should run wild in this one.

Pittsburgh over Oakland: Who knows with the Steelers anymore? I mean, I still give them the benefit of the doubt, but I'm starting to wonder.

Tennessee over Indianapolis: This is a popular upset pick, but apparently nobody else in this challenge is looking for an upset pick because I'm the only one who picked the Titans. I think they've got a shot. Not a very good one, but a shot. Like I said, I need to take some chances.

Denver over Kansas City: KC is just not good. I don't think Denver's as good as they looked earlier in the season either.

New England over Miami: The Patriots have a history of stinking it up against the Dolphins, so I might pay for this one.

New Orleans over Washington: The Redskins have a good defense, but the Saints have a REALLY good offense!

Carolina over Tampa Bay: I learned my lesson. Never pick the Panthers ... except against a really bad team like the Bucs.

Houston over Jacksonville: The Texans are still on the verge of being a really good team ... but they've been there for a long time.

San Diego over Cleveland: Ummm, do I need to explain myself here?

Dallas over NY Giants: I don't know. I figured most people would pick the G-men, so I went the other way.

San Francisco over Seattle: The Niners are also on the verge. I like the Alex Smith-Vernon Davis-Frank Gore-Michael Crabtree combination. Seems like a good core of talent to build around. (Yes, I used the word talent in reference to Alex Smith)

Arizona over Minnesota: Again, another chance here. I really hope Kurt Warner plays, because I don't think the Cardinals have a chance without him. But if he plays, this could be a really fun game to watch.

Green Bay over Baltimore: This is me going with my heart to make a risky pick. The group is just about split on this one, so it may or may not work out for me. Either way, I hope the Packers win.

The Best of the Decade

I'm sort of stealing an idea from Derry here, but as long as I provide plenty of links to his blog he won't mind.

I wanted to come up with a clever name for this decade to put in the title, but it turns out I'm not all that witty. I did find a website with a long discussion of what the decade should be called here. My personal favorites were ... the Aughts, the Double-Ohs and the Preteens.

However you name it, this past decade has definitely been one to remember (or forget, depending on your perspective). I'm sure it's that way with any given 10-year period of time, but this particular decade has been EXTREMELY significant for me because of the stages of life I went through.

So, here are my best of each year of the Aughts:

By far, without a doubt, the best thing I did in 2000 was get married to Katie Malkewicz. We had a long, sometimes rocky, dating relationship that started in September of 1996. After a break during the summer of 1997 we both decided we were ready to commit to each other for good and it has been an incredible relationship ever since. Our good friends Derry and Janelle were married three weeks before us and we were all in each other's weddings. That was a lot of fun too. Katie and I went to Key West for our honeymoon - a trip we would never have been able to afford without some very generous gifts from family members. While Key West is not a location we are likely to revisit, the time together was amazing and a perfect way to start our lives together.

The first year of marriage was great, and an awesome learning experience. Katie was still in school at Bethel College and I was working full-time at the Niles Daily Star. My schedule there was unique because I worked in the office from 8-11:30 a.m. and then was off until I had to cover sports events in the evening. Since Katie didn't have to be at Bethel all day every day, it gave us lots of chances to be together during the day. Most of the time we would eat lunch and then take a long afternoon nap. We also used that time to do work around the house or exercise together. We actually ran in our first 5K race together that year. We ran in a 5K in LaPorte in September and Katie struggled to finish, which was unusual. Well, we found out a few weeks later that she was pregnant with our first child, which leads me to ...

Our daughter Hanah was born three days after our second anniversary (May 30). We were both completely unprepared for the amount of change that little girl brought to our lives. I remember not really going out unless we absolutely had to for about six months. We wanted to keep her safe and healthy. We didn't know babies are actually very durable and can withstand a lot of things we thought would really damage her. Despite our worries and uncertainties, it was an amazing first year with our daughter. Obviously, our world revolved around her. We learned a lot about babies and about each other.

As we began to settle into our new roles as father and mother, Katie and I also began to settle into our roles as husband and wife. I feel like we hit sort of a sweet spot during this time and this year was very comfortable. I began to think about my future employment opportunities and decided it was time to move on. The only problem was there were no jobs to be had for me this year.

As the job search continued, finally some doors started to open. I nearly landed a job with Ave Maria Press that would have actually placed me in the Notre Dame Sports Information office. After that near miss, I applied for a position at the South Bend Tribune and, in July, left the Daily Star to become a page designer at the Tribune. Before that move, however, Katie and I discovered that we were expecting another child. This one, like Hanah, was completely unexpected. In fact, we thought we were taking measures to avoid pregnancy. However, God had other plans for us and we began to prepare to become the parents of two children. During the pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed a problem with our baby's kidneys. They were not functioning properly and the doctors weren't sure why. Through prayer and talking with each other, we decided to name our baby David. We saw a parallel between the small physical stature and youth of King David and our son's possible kidney dysfunction. We also wanted to see our son overcome the things that were working against him to become a man after God's own heart and do great things. Our son David was born on October 9. There were no signs of the kidney problems and he has never had a problem since that time.

We welcomed the new year with a daughter going on 3 and a nearly 3-month-old son. Unfortunately, the new year also included a severe downturn in the health of Katie's grandfather. We spent much of the early part of that year at her grandparents' house as he spent his last days in the place where he felt most comfortable. I'll never forget eating a meal of corned beef and cabbage that St. Patrick's Day after Ross Eminger went home to be with Jesus. We told Hanah that her great-grandpa went to heaven. A few days later, as we prepared to go to the viewing and told Hanah that we were going to see grandpa, as we approached the viewing room she said, "Is this heaven?"

2005 also held another job change for me. I stayed at the South Bend Tribune, but moved into the Sports Department to become the lead sports designer. Further changes came our way later that year when we pursued and accepted a position with Bethel College. We became the caretakers at Bethel's Retreat Center on Dewart Lake in Syracuse, Ind., in September. The move forced us to leave a great group of friends in Niles, but God soon brought us another solid group in our new location.

Our first winter at the lake was kind of rough for us. I was commuting to the South Bend Tribune (an hour away) four nights a week. The winter weather made the drive quite an adventure at times. The weather also brought down three trees on the Retreat Center property that I had to clean up. That made for some long, busy, exhausting days. But the weather soon cleared and we got to enjoy our first summer at Dewart Lake. It was great to spend time outside in the sun and fishing on the lake. That summer we also started attending Nappanee Missionary Church where we were reunited with Derry and Janelle. In addition, a full-time graphic designer position came open at the church and I looked into it. I started working at NMC on Halloween that year.

Another long winter at the lake gave way to spring and we were able to take our first family vacation. We went to Orlando for a week. It was the first time our children (Then 4 and 2) flew in an airplane and went to Disney World. They loved both experiences and it was a great time for our whole family.

Shortly after our vacation we found out that my grandmother's health had taken a turn for the worse. She was already in pretty bad shape, but now it looked like the days were numbered. I had the fortunate chance to see her the night she died on May 22. I wrote about my grandmother here. There are not many people who I would have no hesitation about giving them this title, but my grandmother truly was a saint.

Later that year we were blessed with some great opportunities to gain some new friendships. Our neighbors at the lake, the Yoders, became a huge part of our lives. They served as mentors and friends to Katie and me and their kids became a huge part of our kids' lives. We both played on a co-ed softball team with friends from church and Katie got involved with student ministries at church. She attended summer camp and led a freshman small group in the fall.

Another vacation marks this year in my memory. Katie, the kids and I joined my parents and my sister on a 12-day trip to San Diego to visit my grandparents. We spent lots of time with them as well as my dad's half-brother and his family and my good friend Chuck. We went to the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, a Padres game and Hollywood. It was a trip I'll never forget.

In the fall of this year Katie began homeschooling Hanah. It had its ups and downs, but overall we've been very happy with that decision. Hanah loves being at home. She's a quick learner - a bit easily distracted - but homeschooling seems to be a good fit for her.

One other thing I'll always remember about 2008 is the incredible crash of the economy. I'll remember it because of the way it effected the people I love. Whether it was lost jobs, reduced income or just a sense of hopelessness, we all felt the hit. It definitely changed our perspective and served as a wake-up call to many of us to re-prioritize our lives.

This year started off pretty poorly in my opinion. A few days after celebrating the new year (which was a blast with our friends Marty & Mindy) my dad called and told me that my grandfather, his father, had died. This was unexpected and came as quite a shock. My grandpa, who was not my biological grandfather, had done much to influence our family and establish a sense of honor, responsibility and heroism in it. You can read my thoughts about him here.

Things didn't get much better in February when Derry suddenly lost his father in a car accident. I was surprised how hard that loss hit me - probably because I knew how much Derry was hurting and I appreciated his dad so much.

As we all dealt with those losses and the new economic reality we were living in, God was preparing to change our hearts as well. I like to say Derry set me up because he always used to ask me when I was going to get involved with student ministries (he's the Sr. High Pastor at NMC) and I would always respond by saying I just didn't think I was ready. Well, he gave me the book Season of Life early that year and it definitely changed things for me. It convinced me it was time to get involved with something that wasn't all about me. Katie and I decided to go to Summer Camp and even more changes came my way. I received a very specific call from God, jumped into the Kids In Need effort at NMC and committed to lead a small group of freshman guys this school year.

Our kids are at a really fun stage of life (not that their whole lives haven't been fun) where they are becoming quite independent, but still want our attention much of the time. They love to read books, draw, play games and wrestle. They love to visit friends and play with their kids. They are even becoming able to focus on things outside of themselves. In an effort to foster that shift, all four of us are going to be part of NMC's Global Impact Team to Juarez, Mexico, from December 17-22. The mission of the team is to pack and deliver Christmas gift boxes to needy families in the greater Juarez area. It falls right in line with our Kids In Need focus and the priorities we are trying to teach our children.

So, there you have it. The story of my life in the Preteens (2000-2009).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

NFL Pick 'Em Week 12 Results

Standings after 12 weeks:

1. Craig Helfrich 127-49
2. Dan Erickson 120-56
3. Tim Emmons 119-57
4. Dan Weiss 118-58
5. Rodney Jernas 115-61
6. Kevin Edwards 114-62
7. Geoff Cocanower 113-63
8. Derry Prenkert 110-66
9. Jason Thompson 109-67
10. Preston Edwards 108-68
(tie) Jeff Simpson 108-68