Kim Crawford has put her nursing skills to use in her home state of Georgia, as well as overseas. She explains what nurses need to know and how they are valued at home and abroad.
Tell a little about yourself including what drew you to nursing as a profession.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia next to the Center for Disease Control and Emory University. My father was a dental professor at Emory and he taught me when I was a young teenager about how the heart worked. After that I was hooked. I wanted to do something in the healthcare field. I looked at other healthcare professions including medicine and veterinary science, but wanted something, that when I graduated I could work and, that didn’t require any more school. At the time, I was a good student but did not enjoy school. I much preferred other things like sports or playing my cello to opening a book.
I grew up in a house that always had other people over, whether friends from church or classmates. My mother volunteered a lot at our school and had been known to teach fellow classmates how to drive, or she would get supplies for their class projects since their families were usually single parent households. My parents had also traveled several times to Latin America to provide dental care in villages. We learned early on that we were to share our lives and our gifts with people around us regardless of whom they were or where they came from. Seeing people as people and equals regardless of where they are in the world set my path to nursing long before I had even thought of it.
I was a pediatric emergency room nurse for 12 years and did many short-term trips to various countries for teaching as well as providing disaster response. Somehow I ended up here in Tbilisi about five years ago doing continuing education for nurses, many of whom had never had it. This led to my current job as a professor of nursing and public health at a private university in Tbilisi, Georgia.
What is your greatest emphasis when you are teaching nursing students from other cultures? Are there things that you have to focus on that are different from teaching U.S. nursing students?
Since I teach in the country of Georgia and not the State of Georgia, there are many, many differences. The textbooks that we use are from the U.S. or U.K. and some of the content is not relevant to my Nigerian students. There is a lot of explaining regarding some of the anecdotes or cultural assumptions that are written in the literature to make relevant to my students and to the Georgian Healthcare System. Different aspects such as electronic charting, certain insurance schematic types, and even types of equipment used from intravenous pumps to bandages have to be explained knowing that they may not be working in that environment. I take the approach that I will teach them from a western perspective as well as from a current resources available basis. It teaches them to be flexible and possibility be innovators in the community in which they will work.
In addition there is an emphasis on respecting other cultures that often times they are not taught to the level Americans are taught in school. Providing cultural care that involves learning and respecting the differences in all people one comes in contact with. Most students, both Georgian and Nigerian, have limited skills in this area due to living in homogenous environments and have had limited exposure to other cultures.
What are the biggest cultural differences you've encountered when it comes to what is expected of nurses including training and demeanor?
In the country of Georgia, nurses are almost at the level of the maintenance staff. They are not considered a respectable or valued profession as they are in other countries. Up until a few years ago, nurses were not even considered to have a professional level of education. To come from a culture where nurses are more trusted than physicians, developing and implementing a baccalaureate nursing program has made for a very daunting task. Promoting nursing as a profession has become one of my most important tasks.
We are in our final semester of our first cohort of students and each semester has brought along unforeseen challenges from making sure that we have documentation for the students to showing up to clinical lessons and class on time, to the skills of being able to write a term paper. This is in addition to just working through a regular nursing curriculum.
Developing a level of accountability, objectiveness and even attempting to improve quality has been the most exhausting process. Throw in the different dimensions of superiority and respect based on age or job title or even just saying what is expected to be said rather than the reality and it is a very different ballgame than the US.
How has nursing changed over the years in the U.S. and in the places you've been, if at all?
Nursing in the States has become much more autonomous and patient-centered while promoting a climate of safety and prevention. This is to the point where we don’t realize that we are doing this until we move to another culture and realize that these basic principles don’t exist. Nurses have so much autonomy and are able to truly empower the people they come in contact with. In Georgia, I have seen nursing go from no one even knows what to call them (really!) to seeing nurses grow in their solidarity and hear people say that they need better trained nurses.
So at least nursing is on the radar of hospital administrators and policy makers though a small blip. The nurses that I have trained in continuing education in Georgia, I have seen a change in their demeanor. They are more encouraged and empowered than five years ago.
Are there a couple of situations through practicing nursing or teaching that have really stuck with you, either good or bad that you could talk about?
I didn’t know how much I loved my profession until I started teaching it in other countries. I always loved my job as a Pediatric Emergency Room Nurse. There was always an adventure just around the corner. But when I went into worlds unknown whether it was for disaster response or coming to Georgia and teaching those who had been nurses for 20 years but had never had a continuing education course, my love grew. A couple of situations still come to mind.
While in Sri Lanka, after the Tsunami that hit in 2004, I was working in a refugee camp in a makeshift clinic made up of a few tents and other volunteers like me who were there for a few weeks to just fill in with basic medical care since all of the local clinics and hospitals were either destroyed or overwhelmed by this tragedy. We had had busy days of seeing patients and had eaten dinner, played a little soccer with the local children and were about to head to our sleeping bags and camping mats when we heard a cry from some locals. They were bringing in a man who had been in a motorcycle accident. I cannot remember if he had been hit with a motorcycle or had been the one driving it when he was injured.
In addition, he had the smell of alcohol on his breath. Most of us were Americans in this clinic and we all knew what the other was thinking, “This man is a drunk.” One of the physicians was an emergency room doctor. We both knew what to do and worked as though we had worked together for years. That is the exciting part of having such a well-trained system in the US; it builds for well-trained teams when put together outside of the US.
This man had burns on his legs and hands and abrasions and lacerations on his head and arms. We worked on him by flashlight for two or three hours. We didn’t need to give much pain medication since the alcohol’s sedative effects had kicked in; though we did wish we had breath mints for the patient. We found out later that this man had lost his entire immediate family in the tsunami. He was grieving the best way he knew how and probably had a death wish as well. There were no lights except by the moon that was covered by clouds and he was heading to a friend’s place for the evening. We were able to clean his wounds, give him a place to sleep for the night and provide antibiotics; all things that had we not been there, at the very least, he would have lost a limb or two.
Another instance that comes to mind is of a student of mine here in Georgia. This student walked in the first day of simulation laboratory late and did not seem to have a clue and I thought: there is no way this guy is going to make it. But slowly, he changed, matured, grew not only as a nurse but as a person. This past summer he volunteered at a children’s hospital all summer. He is also starting an international nursing club here in Georgia. He is always the first to volunteer for any medial task that the dean needs help with. He has grown into a man of convictions and service. He doesn’t seem to have the social fears that one would have when moving to a new country. His grades continue to be average, but being able to witness the transformation of a boy becoming a man has far surpassed the importance of any grade.
I feel honored that I have been able to be a part of this transformation. I love to teach and I love nursing. It is one of the few places I don’t have to be judgmental. I just have to care and be consistent. I can grieve with those who are grieving, provide a bit of relief even if only temporary to those who are hurting. I can teach and model what a western nurse looks like without all the fancy uniforms, gadgets and even paychecks. I can practice and teach what I love.
Where would you like nursing as a profession to be in 10 years. What about you in 10 years?
I hope nursing continues to grow as a profession here in Georgia, where nurses become a profession with autonomy, critical thinking skills and patient educators. In the west, I hope that nursing turns not only to those patients in the U.S. but that there is a bigger focus building up the nursing profession in other countries. Nurses empowering nurses, all from different cultures and backgrounds. In the U.S., we are too caught up on benefits and paychecks that we miss the much bigger blessing of reaching out to others who don’t have the same benefits and paychecks we do.
The real reward and blessing lies in investing our time, skills and energy in those who do not have those resources. Initially we think that we will be able to make a big difference, but in the end it is we who are changed. I am not sure what would happen in the U.S. if or when I return to teach. I am not the same person as I was five years ago. I am starting my PhD to continue my education so that I can learn how to better educate others. I hope in 10 years I am in a university that values education over money, looks at the nursing profession as one of the greatest potential life changers of the 21st century for the developing world, and that my passport is always close at hand.
Interview By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer
There is an overwhelming amount of information about the state of today’s students. Are they over-achieving or under-achieving? Can they pay attention in class for more than three minutes in a text-by-text society? Does anyone care about literature? Francesca Lee Winch, who has taught English at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia for 32 years, discusses the ways students (and parents) in this slice of the U.S., have shifted their priorities over the years and how much of teaching is counseling.
You hear a lot about how students don't have the attention spans they used to with texting and tweeting being main forms of communication. As a teacher are you seeing this in the classroom? And, if so, have you had to change your teaching methods/style?
I do see a difference in students’ attention spans and focus, but the bigger difference I see is in expectations of students' attention spans and focus. The educational system has, rightfully, made more accommodations for students with learning disabilities and differences. This has ballooned into a general assumption by students, parents and teachers themselves that all students need and deserve individualized instruction as the norm and manifests itself in teachers being actively discouraged from lecturing and assigning the classics and encouraged to assign group projects and student selected readings.
While I embrace empowering students and recognizing their differences, I do think we need balance in the classroom. I am “old school” and take away cell phones when students are repeat offenders, texting and checking their messages during class time. I try to balance individualized assignments with some lectures as I do think they need to learn to listen and take notes. Not only will they need that in college, but may in the workplace, as well. I also think they need to read books they wouldn’t select themselves and might not want to read, in order to leave their comfort zone and expand their understanding of and sensitivity to the world around them. There is no better way to walk in another’s shoes than by reading a well-crafted piece of fiction that speaks to the human condition.
I see a general trend to try to attract students’ attention by giving them what they want. You choose the book; you choose the assignment; you choose the due date. But I think that being a good teacher is a bit like being a good salesperson. My job is to expose them to what they need to grow as students and as individuals, and to convince them to want it.
How much of being a teacher has also been being a counselor and a substitute parent over the years?
I think that to be a good teacher, you have to like people even more than you like your discipline. I think and worry about my students every night before I turn off the light and throughout the weekends and summers. My one regret as a teacher is that I haven’t the hours in the day to give to each student who deserves more time, energy and attention. The heartbreaking trend I’ve seen over the past years is the increasing number of students being treated for anxiety and depression. We’ve convinced these kids that they are their GPAs, the number of AP classes they take, their SAT scores. We’ve given them the impression that if they don’t have a stellar GPA, or take a mind boggling number of AP classes, or get into UVA,[the University of Virginia] that they’ve somehow failed us and themselves. I find this appalling.
It totally marginalizes the students who struggle to get C’s and makes them feel inferior. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when we were told that our job was to make the world a better place, however we could do it, that we all had different and unique talents, and that our job was to discover and foster those talents and then use them for good. This empowered us and gave dignity to our choices and life paths. When and why did that message change?
Did having kids change your approach to teaching at all?
Having my own kids just made me realize, as they stressed out over the same numeric morass as my students do, just how pervasive this message is to this generation of children. Even kids whose parents don’t buy in are sucked into the vortex of testing, testing, testing, and feel defined and smothered by numbers.
Has the average student profile changed over the year or are you seeing the same general set of students? And what about the average parent profile?
I don’t think they’ve changed; I do that their anxiety level has increased and that their pure enjoyment of their teen years has diminished. Parents, I think, are scared and the kids sense this. We all read about how much harder it is to get into college than it was decades ago. We all want our kids to be successful, happy and financially independent as adults. As a result of this fear, parents tend to hover more than they did years ago. Grades are online and updated every day. Many parents check on a regular basis and contact teachers as soon as they see a dip in grades. While I totally understand this concern and even enjoy getting to know parents and find that learning more about a student’s personal life to be incredibly helpful, my concern is that some parents shift the responsibility from the child to the school.
We tell the students the homework, we write it on the board, we update our web pages daily so it’s online, but some parents still find fault with the teachers when their children don’t do the homework or study for tests and their grades suffer. Some even demand that grades be changed. (And then there are the parents who fill in the college applications and write the essays.) As a parent, I know that it’s a tough balance to stay involved and aware and not to take over for them. We all love our kids and we all worry.
Most of the teachers I have met have had that moment when they think, "I am outta here," and on the flip side, moments when they think, "This is the reason I am a teacher." Are there highs and lows that have really stuck with you?
Yes! I don’t think I’ve ever thought “I’m outta here” but I have looked forward to every summer, as that’s when I paint the bedrooms and clean out the garage, catch up on the reading that I want to do, and reintroduce myself to my husband and children. Grading as a high school English teacher is so incredibly all-consuming that we work seven days a week during the school year.
Here’s a bit of math for you. Say I have one set of essays to grade. Say I have 135 students. If I read each essay twice and write comments on it, that might take 10 minutes per essay. That’s 1350 minutes or 22.5 hours. And that’s just one set of essays. I also have quizzes and tests and lesson plans to prepare and the books that I’m teaching to reread. Don’t even get me started on research papers; they take a lot longer. So, the lows aren’t the kids. The lows are the piles of papers!
But the highs are when students write me lovely notes or emails from college thanking me. I had a note this year from a senior specifically thanking me for telling the class that they are more than their GPAs and, that while they should do their best, they should not define themselves by their grades. She said that it changed her sense of herself. I also love when they Facebook friend me after graduation and stay in touch. I was at a baby shower a few months ago for a student I taught 20 years ago! Yes, I love my job.
What is missing, if anything, from what standardized tests are asking students to know when it comes to reading, writing and literature?
Love. Love of literature. Love of humanity. Empathy regarding the human condition. Centuries ago, Aristotle wrote about the connection between tragedy and a catharsis of emotion. That catharsis of emotion connects us to the universal – the human condition – and makes us better neighbors, friends, lovers, citizens. You can’t touch any of that in a standardized test.
What would you tell your own kids if they came to you and said they wanted to teach high school English as a career? Think that will happen?
Hmmmm. I do not think that will happen as they see the piles of papers I’m grading on weekends and holidays. Their dad comes home from work, and he’s done. He can be fully present. I come home and set up a work station on the dining room table and start grading.
My daughter started crying once when she was around six, “Mommy, all you ever do is grade papers.” That was a wake-up call for me. I tried to be more subtle after that, talk about it less and grade more after they went to bed. Of course, by the time they became teenagers that became impossible as they are up later than I am. However, if that did happen, I’d recommend that they be very mindful about where they teach as the working conditions for teachers vary widely throughout the country. I have been blessed to have spent my career in Arlington County.
Tell a little bit about your teaching career, including at what point you knew you wanted to be a teacher.
I came by teaching in a rather circuitous way. I always loved to read and creative writing was my emotional outlet throughout childhood. I majored in English in college on the advice of a beloved uncle who was a lawyer and considered it the best preparation for law school and the bar exam. Being a lawyer was the most common career path in my mother’s family, and so I considered that my fait accompli. Simultaneously, I was volunteering for a week each summer at Camp Fatima, an all volunteer one-to-one camp for severely handicapped kids, in my home state of New Jersey. I learned a bit of sign language to communicate with nonverbal campers, and then enrolled in some classes at Gallaudet, the college for the deaf and hearing impaired here in DC.
Ultimately, I wound up with an undergraduate degree in English from Trinity College, and 24 credits in sign language from Gallaudet. But it was 1981, and about half of my graduating class was heading off to law school, and I’d long before realized that I preferred working with kids. For the next three years, I worked for Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington Cemetery, giving tours in Civil War era costumes and periodically using sign, while I pondered my options.
The career office at Gallaudet recommended that I get certified to teach and then specialize in the hearing impaired. I was accepted to both UVA and William & Mary, but the latter gave me money and recommended that I get a Masters degree. As I was finishing up my coursework, Arlington County sent a rep to William and Mary to recruit; I went on an interview and was hired. Voila! High school English teacher at Yorktown High School. I finished my Master’s thesis while starting my teaching career, still thinking that this was a temporary career shift. But then I discovered that I really loved it. This will be my 32nd year in the classroom. I tell my students this story to illustrate the fact that they don’t have to be able to predict what they’ll be doing at 25 when they’re only 15, or 16, or 17, and that a series of small, thoughtful decisions can lead to a fulfilling life’s path.
Interview by Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer
Family homeless shelters go way beyond just providing a bed, explains Laura Martin, Director, and Victor Dooley, Community Coordinator, of Shelter House, a large family shelter in Arlington, Virginia. They provide a look at the services, everything from parenting to employment classes, a homeless shelter provides, as well as how the children in these families are affected by their situation.
What is the definition of a homeless family and does that definition change by state or is it fairly standard?
Laura: We only serve families who are category one/literally homeless in shelter [according to the definitions of homelessness provided by HUD]. That means that families who are couch-surfing or staying several places or are in overcrowded places won't qualify for shelter, but they can still receive other services from a community case manager to try and improve their housing situation without coming into shelter. These are federal guidelines by HUD (Housing and Urban Development) that apply nationally.
For specific definitions of what qualifies a family as homeless, you can find it on HUD’s website.
How does a homeless family get a place in a shelter and what processes do they go through once they are there in terms of getting them back on their feet?
Laura: CSP is Coordinated Services Planning. There is a centralized intake phone number that anyone who is in need in Fairfax County for food, housing, clothing, or medical assistance can call and speak with a social worker. If the family is found to be literally homeless or at risk, then a referral is sent to the intake coordinator.
Once a family comes into shelter, they are given a range of resources and support to help get them back on their feet. We are asked to support families in moving into permanent housing within 30-45 days. These services include:
1) A case manager who meets with them regularly--sometimes nearly every day, regarding referrals and resources and their individual plan for housing and connected services.
2) A housing locator who helps identify potential housing leads, coach families in calling landlords, and discusses more affordable areas where they can live.
3) An employment specialist who helps with resumes, cover letters and interview prep.
4) An intake coordinator who orients families to shelter.
5) An on-site nurse who comes weekly.
6) An on-site counselor who comes weekly.
7) Support with various programs at the shelter and in the community, for example; tutoring program for kids, referrals for money and management classes.
8) Grants for security deposit and rental assistance. We can usually pay for a double security deposit for a family and anywhere from one to six months of rent depending on where they are living and how much rent costs. We have a range of grants that make these funds available. Since many of our families have poor credit or previous evictions, it's important that we can offer a robust deposit.
Can you talk a little bit about the kids that are part of homeless families? Do you see patterns in how they react to their situation?
Victor: We definitely see some patterns in children's behavior, especially those in the larger families we serve. Many of our parents lack parenting skills because they do not have proper parenting skills to model. This is especially true of families here who are the product of generations of poverty.
Additionally, there are some who are unprepared when they become parents themselves. Combining this lack of fundamentals with their current situation of homelessness, trying to provide for their large families, trying to find substantial employment, and trying to find appropriate healthcare options, many parents do not have the capacity to provide the attention needed to break the cycle.
All that said, when we are able to provide access to services for parents, like connecting them to healthcare providers, housing locators, school social workers, we can help restore the relationships they want with their children. We can also connect them to professionals who help with parenting skills, if they wish to reinforce positive relationships. This is how we break the cycle.
How does homelessness affect a child's education? Are there stats out there you know of in terms of how they do compared to kids in stable home environments?
Victor: We obviously see effects on children's education. First of all, children coming into homelessness facing some of the issues above may not have the reinforcements at home. If education hasn't been paramount to a parent, how can it be so to a child. Moreover, many parents in poverty are unable to assist their children due to their own illiteracy, a result of having to put education on the back-burner or of being a new citizen of the country.
However, there is a lot of concern from our school system and legislators that help to support these children and try to keep them from falling through the cracks. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 is a federal law that provides a lot of support to the children we serve. The main benefits we see are:
- Social workers in the schools to help support homeless children.
- A Homeless Liaison's Office that provides support in the form of school supplies, advocacy and an on-site tutoring program at the shelter.
- Transportation funding that keeps children who are in shelters from having to change schools, thus disrupting their school year.
- Free and reduced lunches.
We are most concerned with the children we serve, as they provide hope that their families can escape the cycle.
Laura: Many of our families are working, often full-time, low wage jobs. There are many studies on the impact of poverty on the brain's development and functioning because of the constant stress. Where will the next meal come from? How will rent be paid?
In addition, many of the children we serve have experienced trauma -- from domestic violence, from war in another country, or something else.
Are there particular cases both successes and failures that will always be in your heart? Can you share a story or two?
Story 1: Mr. N was originally referred to me when I was covering intake at Shelter House. All of what I'm going to tell you is verified in documents he provided. He is from Afghanistan and came to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa this summer after the Taliban put a $300,000 hit on his life. He had worked for the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan as a cultural adviser for 8 years. He lost fingers on both hands in IED attacks and Taliban attacks, and spent a year recovering in a hospital in Afghanistan. He has 55 pieces of shrapnel in his body and cannot continue to stand for long periods of time, so his doctor ordered him to quit the security guard job he'd had since coming to the U.S.
He has received medals of valor for saving Marines' lives, and award from various countries, including the U.S. He said that General John Allen (who he's photographed with) has agreed to co-sign for an apartment with him, and General John Allen's wife has visited him in the basement where his family currently lives. He is currently living in a basement that is full of cockroaches and his daughter is getting lead poisoning there.
I assisted in referring him to another homeless services organization to work with his family, as we were full at the time. I also set up a meeting with a congressman's office to ask them to assist with connecting him with proper supports in light of all of his service. Congressman Connolly's office was able to connect him with other members of the Afghani community in the area.
Story 2: “Edward” and “Gina” became homeless with their three children after Gina contracted a serious and difficult-to-diagnose medical condition. Gina received thorough treatment for her illness, including her having surgery while she was at the shelter. The family had acquired significant debt prior to becoming homeless, as they struggled to treat her condition and meet their basic needs. Because of this, the family’s credit was a barrier to housing. PHFS’s housing locator worked with the family to identify a landlord who would accept the family despite their credit score. Both the housing locator and the family’s case manager had significant contact with the apartment complex and advocated for the family. Gina was able to return to working at a foundation for youth where she earns $58,000 per year! Edward, a U.S. military veteran, was also connected with supports from the Veterans’ Administration as well as Shelter House’s employment specialist. The family moved into permanent housing in Fairfax, and they are attending budgeting classes to ensure that they maximize the money they earn and build up a safety net for the future!
Story 3: "Dave,” a father of three, came to PHFS’s emergency unit with his three daughters. He became homeless as a result of losing his job. During his time in shelter, he worked with PHFS’s Employment Specialist and obtained full-time employment at a pest control company. His daughters benefited from after-school tutoring. Dave then added a part-time job to his full-time one in order to further increase his family’s income. He is now also working as an administrative assistant to a real estate agent, while also studying to become a licensed real estate agent himself. Dave worked with PHFS’s Housing Locator and his Case Manager and located permanent housing in western Fairfax. Since moving to housing, he has benefited from the continued support of Community Case Management with Shelter House. He also had his truck repaired gratis by the Wheels to Work program with Virginia Tire and Auto. These free repairs allowed him to continue to work without interruption.
Story 4: A family of five had been living in two different households because of their family size and some unaddressed mental health concerns. The mother, “Lauren,” and her 3 children had been through homeless services between shelter and transitional housing programs for almost three years. The father, “Jake,” remained between room rentals as it was much easier for him to find a landlord that would rent to a single individual versus a large family of five. The father joined the family in shelter at PHFS for a few months and then was referred to the Bridging Affordability (BA) program. BA provides permanent housing. Because of the housing stability the BA program has offered in permanent housing the family has remained intact. The father is enjoying every part of his children's developing lives. He now has the opportunity to share more time with them. He is there to watch them wake in the morning, play with them during the day when he is off from work and at night he tucks them into bed. The mother is making a true effort to address and follow up with mental health services. For the first time ever, she is seeing a therapist and psychiatrist regularly. She has completed several job readiness trainings and is closer to obtaining employment, and is working with the Department of Rehabilitative Services for increased employment support. The father is working and is actively paying all utilities and rent on time. The family is thankful for the opportunity to live together, and they are making all efforts to become even more successful!
Story 5: We recently served a family of eight (mom and seven kids) from Sudan who came to the U.S. The family is applying for asylum and they do not have the opportunity to work legally right now. This application is not a short process. Mom has skills in sewing and is able to do some side sewing jobs for income. She has the opportunity to enroll in Dar Al-Hijrah's "Sew to Know" program. The family is also receiving DFS services.
Together, the family reached out to a range of partners, FAITH, Dar Al-Hirjah, and others, and raised over $20,000 in rental assistance. These funds are going to pay for the family's rent for an entire year. In addition, the family will continue to receive services from FAITH. This will give the family time for their asylum application to be processed and for them to develop other ways of increasing their income and self-sufficiency. Not only is this exceptional, but they did all of this and moved the family from shelter to permanent housing in only 41 days!
By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer
Sarah Weldon, you are planning to row around Britain solo next year. Give us some stats: How long will it take? Are you the first woman to do this? What kind of food do you eat and what do you do if the weather is bad? Will you be absolutely alone?
I'll set off from Henley On Thames (home of the Team GB rowers and the oldest rowing club in the world) on the 28th May 2016, before rowing the length of the River Thames, the longest river in England. Once I reach London, I'll be rowing anticlockwise around the coast, before rowing back along the Thames and rowing to Henley On Thames. It's around 3000 miles altogether and will take me about 14 weeks, depending on weather and how many stops I make on the way to give talks at local harbors and museums. I'll be rowing around 15 hours a day split into shifts of two hours on and two hours off the oars, so the most I will ever sleep at a time is two hours.
Right now, no one has ever rowed solo around Great Britain, so I hope to be the first person, or at least the first female.
My food will be pre-packed, so I have one bag of food per day. Each bag will consist of three to four freeze dried meals (like the astronauts have in space), along with other foods like chocolate bars, dried fruit and nuts, or beef jerky. I'll use up around 8000 calories per day so will need to pile on the calories before and during the row. My PhD research at Roehampton University is looking at the effects of calorific stress on the body of the ocean rower, so one of the things I'll have to do is keep a count of my calorie intake and food preferences, then collect my poo samples to analyze this for fat content, to see how efficient my body is at using up fat reserves for energy.
If the weather is bad, I'll likely continue rowing. My rowing area has no cover, so this could mean sitting out on deck and rowing in the rain. If the weather is really, really bad, then all I can do is sit inside the cabin, with the hatches closed, anchors out and ride it out. During this time you can't boil any water on your stove so you don't have any hot food or drinks, and you can't go for a pee as your toilet is just a bucket in the rowing area.
At sea I will be physically on my own. There are no support boats following me, but I'll never be really on my own, as my team will be on the end of the satellite phone, reassuring me and giving me important information on weather routing and overcoming challenges.
What do you hope to achieve with your expedition?
The aim of the expedition is to bring the ocean and environment alive for the students all over the world who are following the journey live - to be their eyes and ears. I'll also be raising money for my charity Oceans Project, which provides tablet computers and education to young people who are denied access to education, often due to gender, poverty, or disability. I'm hoping to use technology in a way that has never been done before, and to collect a large volume of scientific data on the human body, as well as plastic pollution, weather and the wildlife I encounter.
What's your background? Did you come from a family where education was valued and affordable?
My background is neuropsychology (looking at how the biology of the brain affects behavior). Through my work I supported young people with acquired brain injuries, particularly where they were having difficulty to access school because their needs were more challenging in terms of wheelchair access, or because they struggled with memory or recall, or in language. It was through my work that I was able to travel abroad for the first time, working on projects in India, the Caribbean, Spain, Arctic, and the Amazon Jungle. On each journey I encountered young people with a passion for learning, but no opportunity, something I think I could relate to, as university wasn't an option for me on leaving school, and it was only once I was full time employed that I was able to undertake my first degree by correspondence. I've always been lucky enough to have teachers who saw education as a passport to a better life, and that has really stayed with me, especially where some of the students I have worked with have gone on to receive scholarships for university. Without education, I would have remained in poverty with few opportunities, and it's something I have seen time and time again with the young people I meet.
Will this challenge be enough for you for now, or do you already have others in the works?
The plan is to undertake an ocean row every year to continue raising funds for education for young people. At the moment the work I do with Oceans Project is voluntary and takes up every moment, especially as I teach classes through my Skype classroom each day, and give talks in schools. My dream would be to be paid for the work I do, so that I can really dedicate my full attention to Oceans Project.
What kind of training did you have to go through?
As someone who has never rowed before, I've had to learn to row, on the river and on the sea as they are different techniques. I've taken training sea survival, first aid, using a VHF radio, how to use nautical charts and to navigate, and I really wish I'd paid more attention to my physics lessons at school, because I now have to know how to fix things like the electrics on my boat, or how to install the solar panels, or to fix my water maker if the sea water damages it.
The thing I wasn't so prepared for, was that I would need to know about setting up a new business or charity, so things like social media, website building, public speaking, even how to deal with the media, and to do accounts and legal forms.
From a fitness angle, I do around three hours of fitness training per day, and I work with a mental strength coach and a nutritionist. I've been super lucky to be surrounded by the top people in each field, from my Lawyer Kim, to Professor Greg Whyte, and three times Olympic medalist and rower Debbie Flood.
Lastly, what will you think about to get you through if you have that moment when things are tough and you really feel like quitting?
Whenever things are tough, I think back to the children I have met over the years, who never gave up, and who smiled even though they were in horrendous conditions or had lived through some awful things. At the end of the day, the row and what I do is my choice, and the struggle is temporary, but the children supported by the project don't have a choice, they are dependent on me to raise the funds they need to give them access to education. Some of those children live and work on toxic rubbish dumps, and some were sold into the sex trade by their parents, and are now parents themselves at the age of 12. If they can endure what life has thrown at them, and not give up, then so can I.
You can learn more about Sarah's row at:
Interview by Suzette Lohmeyer
Competitive cheerleading is a tough business with a lot of competition. There is a definite emphasis on looking perfect, but a great deal of skill and athleticism required as well. How does that all fit in with a teenage girl’s self esteem?
Laurin Kobie, from Anthem, Arizona, has been involved in competitive cheer for more than 12 years – first as a competitor and now as a coach. She explains what is important in competitive cheer, whether it’s on par with other organized sports, and if she’d want her own daughter to be involved.
What are competitive cheer competitions like? Is it like football teams pre game with a lot of adrenaline and competitive energy?
Competitions are an extremely charged atmosphere, filled with competitive energy, drama, determination and some anxiety! Unlike most sporting events, our teams only have two minutes and thirty seconds to display a routine they have been preparing for weeks! I think that is what makes our performances so exciting. When your chosen team is up on the mat, you end up holding your breath through the entire routine hoping all their hard work translates into a winning performance and all the skills they’ve been trained to do go off without a hitch! I know this sounds like a lot of pressure, but if most cheerleaders are like me there is nothing like the adrenaline rush, and more reason why we do it!
There has always been a controversy over whether competitive cheer is a sport. What do you think and why?
I ABSOLUTELY think competitive cheerleading is a sport! Prior to competition season, athletes spend 4-6 months conditioning to endure such a physically demanding routine. In comparison to gymnastics, cheerleaders must also train to exhibit skills found in the floor exercise. Our stunts require athletes to use leg, arm, and core strength to lift, spin, flip and throw girls their own size into the air for very complex skills. Our flyers must condition muscle memory including balance, core strength, and flexibility to perform skills appealing to the eye of the audience. If that doesn’t sound tiring enough, each routine tests an athlete’s endurance with high energy dance and jumps sections which require a certain grace and refinement of a professional dancer! I am excited just talking about all these wonderful opportunities for athletes to excel and be confident in their skin!
Has competitive cheer changed over the years?
I wouldn’t quite describe the competitive cheerleading world as changing, because most competition score sheets and formats have remained the same. I can say the sport is rapidly growing in size and evolving to be even more challenging. The skill level of athletes continues to grow each season, and coaches ability to invent routine components that have never been seen before. Innovation is an important quality of a winning team!
When I have watched competitive cheer, I think it is amazing what the girls can do. But there also seems to be a lot of pressure for the girls to look perfect. Can you talk about how competitive cheer works for or against girls' self esteem? Would they be better off playing more traditional sports or do they get the same benefits as say, being part of a soccer team?
I have had an interesting perspective change in the last few years on this subject as I transitioned from athlete to coach. I could write my own short story about the positive influence cheerleading has been in my life as a young woman and young professional. Being on the cheer mat really encourages girls and boys to project confidence and feel comfortable in front of large groups. This helped me through college, professional interviews, and my new athletic ventures in bodybuilding and figure competitions. In practice and throughout each season, I learned lessons in accountability, conquering adversity, working as a team, and practicing flexibility in difficult situations. You learn how to be a person that your friends, family, and teammates can depend on; prove you will always show up and give your best effort.
I do think there is pressure on these athletes to achieve perfection, as this is the goal of our score sheet. However, the way in which the adults and coaches of these teams promote an atmosphere of camaraderie and teamwork to achieve perfection should be the louder theme. Only when athletes work together and show accountability for their part in the overall effort will success be achieved. Most importantly, these athletes absolutely love what they are participating in and have so much fun being on the competition mat! The passion, determination, and happiness is written all over those cheerleading faces!
I know you are just getting married this year! But down the road, if you have a daughter, would you encourage her to try out competitive cheer, and why or why not?
I know I will encourage my daughter to try out for competitive cheerleading down the road, but also try a larger variety of things. I would love for my daughter to one day be as passionate about this sport as I am. But more importantly, she will be able to decide what she wants to focus her energy on. If she loves and puts her time into anything as much as I have into cheer these past 10+ years, I will be extremely proud. I really believe participation in any type of athletic program is an irreplaceable asset for young children and young adults.
Tell a little bit about your background with competitive cheer (why you got involved, how long you've been doing it, what drew you to it).
I joined my first competitive, All-Star Cheerleading program in spring of 2003 and participated in two programs in Arizona through 2011. I originally started athletic activities of this vein including competitive dance and gymnastics at a very young age and in middle school was introduced to the world of competitive cheerleading by a close girlfriend.
She had participated in competitive cheerleading for one season, and I begged my mother for that entire year to let me join her! What was so appealing about club cheerleading is how it combines gymnastics, dance, and acrobatics such as stunting, into one activity. All my favorite particulars of the sports I was participating in at the time, were combined into a thrilling two-and-a-half minute routine. Another appealing quality of cheerleading that I did not realize at the time, was a child’s desire to be a part of TEAM and create friendships as opposed to the individual sports I had been involved in up until this time.
What kind of skills do you need to have to be successful in competitive cheer? How much do you have to practice? How does it differ than regular cheerleading?
If you want to be successful in competitive cheerleading, fundamental techniques learned in tumbling and dance classes are very helpful. I strongly believe my background in these areas helped me transition easily into cheerleading. I was also involved in school cheerleading programs, which gave a great foundation in basic cheerleading techniques of motions, dance and stunts!
Other cheerleading programs, which are usually experienced in pop warner football, middle and high school teams, and collegiate teams seem to have a different purpose. Though some teams do get a chance to attend competitions, they are few and usually end within a season. I am a fan of athletics including football and basketball, and did love supporting my school teams as a cheerleader on the sidelines. Competitive cheerleading became my primary focus as I grew older because it tested my personal athletic abilities and allowed me to perform at a higher level.
Like any high level sporting activity, passion and commitment of your time in practice truly reflects how successful you will be. Because cheerleading is reliant upon up to 36 functioning parts to achieve an end goal, your attendance to practices consistently is incredibly important. Currently, cheerleading is divided into six different levels, dependent upon age and difficulty of skills performed. At minimum, our cheerleaders are at practice five hours a week. At the peak of my cheerleading career, I was in the gym up to fifteen hours a week, perfecting my craft!
Finally, a history test question: Where did pom-poms come from?
I must admit I had to look this one up! I read they were first created in the 1930’s to improve showmanship in cheerleaders at high schools and universities. A little more appreciation was just created for the keepsake pom-poms I have from my high school! You learn something new every day.
Interview by Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer