Tuesday, December 1, 2015

It’s Giving Tuesday! A Goal Finally Reached After 20 Years… A Time for Change

Giving Tuesday is a time to show support for favorite causes and charities. Most people who know me know that I’m a vocal advocate of veterans and people with disabilities. As a veteran with disabilities, related causes and charities are something I support unabashedly whether it’s the Wounded Warrior Project (www.woundedwarriorproject.org) or Special Olympics (www.specialolympics.org). 

My daughter Sapphire has Downs, so it’s another reason that giving back, supporting related causes and charities for people with disabilities, is so important to me personally and my family. One of my daughter's favorite causes is Day of Champions. She's participated in every Day of Champions from the first to the most recent one, the 13th, in May 2015 and my family has been there as well. This year the Kiwanis Club stepped in to help and provide assistance, making the event an even better one for the nearly 600 kids with special needs who participated.

Another cause that I support are books for schools, libraries and families. Anyone who knows me probably knows this too. 

What you may not know is that every year since my first book was published in 1995, I’ve quietly been giving away books to schools, libraries, communities, charities and other organizations. It started with the publication of my first book Electronic Publishing Unleashed, which was quickly followed by Web Publishing Unleashed.

As part of my contracts and payment, I received 25 copies of each book from my publisher. This was written into my contracts. So a few days before publication I suddenly had box after box of these big, doorstopper books. Weighing in at around 1000 pages, there were 5 or 6 books to a box and I had no idea what to do with all those boxes of books.

Each book had a cover price of $49.95 so 25 books was $1250 at retail. Selling them probably would have been a great way to generate cash and pay my bills, especially as these boxes of books were quickly followed by other boxes of books, like my books FrontPage Unleashed and Windows NT Pocket Consultant.

I didn’t want to sell the books, however. I kept two copies for my library, gave away 2 or 3 copies to readers, and donated the rest to organizations where the books would be put to good use whether these were schools, libraries, learning centers or whatever.

Over the years, I expanded the book giving to include my fiction works and other works by RP Media authors. As I have about 100 or so professionally published books and even more published through RP Media, this has meant giving away thousands and thousands of copies of my books to schools, libraries, learning centers and other places where the books could be used to help others. As year by year RP Media matches my giveaways with the books of other RP Media authors and has a library of over 1,500 titles, the total reach is even greater.

I’ve received lots of heartfelt thanks from those I donated books to but none more so than from students in classrooms in Puerto Rico who never before had books of their own. Entire classes wrote their individual Thank Yous and it made all the hard work worthwhile.

Digital has opened up entirely new ways to ensure everyone has access to books. Through Ripple Reader, Epic and others, I’ve been able to participate in programs to provide free access to books for classrooms and teachers, but one of the most unique efforts I support is Project eShelf, which provides free access to hearing and speech impaired children in Scotland including St. Columba's Girls National School in Douglas, Cork.

My goal when I began this work was basic: simply to give back in a meaningful way. Over the past 20 years, these efforts have meant giving away over $1,000,000 in books to schools, libraries, communities, charities and other organizations worldwide. 

When I started this work all those years ago, a $1,000,000 goal was unfathomable. It seemed a great reach, but it was accomplished one step at a time. Baby steps at first, then larger steps and new paths opened. The goal reached and with less means to provide support, I will quietly step away from the effort now, though my books will remain available in specialized free access programs for schools and libraries.

My hope though is that I’ve inspired you who are reading this to pick up where I leave off. Want to give back and support books and reading? There are many ways you can do this right now:

First Book (www.firstbook.org)
Books for Kids (www.booksforkids.org)
Reading is Fundamental (www.rif.org

These organizations are nonprofits that provide books to children. There are many others as well, and much you can do if you want to forge your own path as well.

I also encourage you to support Wounded Warrior Project (www.woundedwarriorproject.org) and Special Olympics (www.specialolympics.org).

Thanks for reading,

Robert Stanek

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Odd Jobs on the Road: Random Thoughts About Family, Time & Money

I'm a child of the '60s and '70s. I come from a family of five. My mom raised us kids by herself. Four girls and me. My dad (who fathered three of us), a wealthy business man who lived elsewhere and spent more time deciding which house or boat or car he was going to buy than with us kids, never paid a dime of support. While we walked around in patched clothes and duct-taped shoes and our bellies growled, he lived a life of leisure moving between his houses, buying cars for cross-country road trips, and motoring the Gulf of Mexico in one of his pleasure boats.

Growing up we weren’t just poor, we were nearly penniless. My mom worked odd jobs when she could, here and there. She wasn’t an educated woman, but she tried and did what she could. During my childhood, that (mostly) meant cleaning rich people’s houses for less than half of minimum wage and sometimes a holiday bonus of $10 if we were fortunate.

What it was though was cash money. Cash money that (mostly) helped to keep a roof over our heads, if not always food in our bellies. My mom was too proud and stubborn to accept welfare or charity. I think she felt that if she couldn’t do it on her own, those things we didn’t have, even if it was food for our bellies, didn’t matter.

I thought it did though and even though I had older siblings who were gone as much as they were present, I felt it was my responsibility to help where I could. The first real job I remember working was when I was seven or eight. My little sister helped sometimes, but mostly she just followed me around like little sisters do. My first job was easy: collecting soda bottles and junk other people discarded. The soda bottles went to the store for a refund on the deposit. The junk went to a neighbor who collected and fixed things. He paid cash money if I found something good, so I always looked for something good. His dimes and quarters were gold in my pocket.

By ten, my older siblings were out of the house and I was in the business of washing cars, raking lawns, cleaning windows and mowing grass when I could, and I remember being paid in quarters—when I got paid at all, because sometimes I just did things for free so I might get paid the next time. Those quarters, I took them to the store and bought a loaf of bread or a bag of flour when we had no food in the house to eat. Flour was something that was cheap and went far. (Mix flour with water and pour it in a skillet and you have an inexpensive pancake. A pancake that fills a belly.)

After we moved from the city to the country, I worked with my mom at auction houses and flea markets on weekends, holidays and during the summer and sometimes as a gardener’s helper. I loaded, packed and unpacked, fetched, did odd jobs for the auctioneer, my mom and others. At times, it was rather like my junk collecting business. My mom collected things, much bought in cheap, auctioned lots and sold as odds and ends at flea markets. Odds and ends that helped make the difference between having a roof and food, and not.

At fifteen, I got my driver’s license and drove around my mom’s old station wagon until I found work in a town a few miles away. I worked 30 hours a week until I graduated high school. Two things happened during high school that changed my life.

The first: My dad took a sudden interest in me and invited me down to the Gulf Coast to work for him. He was in the construction business and wanted to teach me the trade.

I suppose I should have been angry with him for all the lost years, but I wasn’t. I worked with him and his work crews the whole summer, doing roofing and siding. Long days in the unrelenting sun, up at five, quitting at sunset. But boy how we lived because when the sun got too hot to work outside--and it often did--we would go out to eat lunch at a restaurant. And when we came home in the evening, we came home to ready meals and plenty of drink all around. Weekends were events. Fishing rodeos. Road trips. Barbecues. It was a wild, rich life.

At the end of the summer, my dad gave me a 1970 Dodge truck, which he said was mine to keep as a bonus for the work I’d done. The truck though came with strings. He wanted me to stay and not return home to Wisconsin. Tempting as it was to stay, I couldn’t leave my mom and little sister behind.

I took the truck and drove the 960 miles home. A friend from my dad’s work crew went with me and we took turns driving. Getting the truck home meant I could get to work without taking the family car, and that let me work more hours.

The following summer, my dad invited me down to the Gulf Coast again. He said he’d bought me a car. A beautiful, black ’73 Ford thunderbird with a massive V8 engine—a classic car for the time (1982). It was any sixteen-year-old kid’s dream and it was mine too.

I worked with his crews doing roofing and siding, up at five, down at sunset. And we lived like kings. After the summer though, my dad again didn’t want to let me return home. He wanted me to stay and live with him. I couldn’t do that, but this time I was less worried about my mom than my little sister. I was the one who protected and watched out for her, and I’d already left her behind for two summers.

One morning, I went out for a drive and drove the 960 miles home. After that, I didn’t go back to the Gulf Coast. I stayed at home in Wisconsin and worked and went to school.

The second: During the early spring of my senior year, my mom moved away upstate with her new husband who she’d been dating and my little sister, leaving me to fend for myself. I lived in my car until I graduated, later with friends and others where I could. Even though I was a straight-A honor student who loved biology, physics and calculus as much as computers, I had no prospects after high school. I spent the summer after high school living with friends and sometimes in my car and working whenever I could.

In the fall, with nowhere to live and no means, I joined the Air Force. Along with acing my SATs in high school, I’d also aced the ASVAB (the military aptitude test), scoring the highest the recruiters had even seen: 98’s and 99’s in every category tested. So the military seemed a rather logical path for me to take when the choice became either live in a car or do something else.

A few months after I signed up, I drove the 176 miles up to Green Bay to visit my mom and sister, and to deliver what few possessions I had, mainly my car. The dodge truck, they already had and were using as their primary means of transportation.

Although I was supposed to head off in short order, I was able to delay until February. After boot camp, I attended the Defense Language Institute and specialty training in Intelligence that took me through my first 19 months in the military. From my paycheck, I sent home what I could to my mom (who was now divorced again). My first duty station was in Japan, so every few paychecks I also bought something I could send home. Things I knew my mother would love: fine china cups and plates, collectibles, and more. Everything my mother always liked from the auctions we worked together when I was a child, but much of which, I think, was later sold off little by little to pay for what was needed.

A problem with my mother was she didn’t know how to say no. If someone needed something, she gave what she could even if it sometimes meant going without herself. It was always like that though and even though I’ve helped pave my mother’s way for nearly all of my life, she still lived the meager life she always had before. Everything I gave her always seemed to be going out somewhere else, usually to one of my siblings who even when I helped pave their way still went to my mother for more to pay the rent or this or that bill or for airline tickets or to fix a car. I’ve always wondered where the takers thought the money came from—the money I sent my mom for her needs. Money enough to have bought houses and cars that is gone. Just gone. 

More musings next time on the Board of Education and Crazy Things My Mom Said That I Believed.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please share or comment.


Robert Stanek

Monday, March 9, 2015

From the Incubator to the Crib: When Joy Turns to Heart-Wrenching Sorrow and Sorrow Gives Way to Acceptance

Raising a child with disabilities requires patience, compassion, understanding. The difficult circumstances made my wife and I question having other children. Still, when my wife got pregnant unexpectedly, we saw it as a blessing and a joyful surprise. Even more joyful was later news that everything with the pregnancy was proceeding normally.

A normal pregnancy is a term doctors use, as opposed to an abnormal pregnancy. This time, all it took for me to fall in love with our child, was an ultrasound picture taken at about six months, showing our child’s beautiful face and cute, little fingers. Until that picture, I had doubts about whether this really would be a normal pregnancy for my wife and our child. I wished it to be, but that doesn’t make it so.

I could tell my wife was just as relieved as I was and we seemed to be in the home stretch, until everything went terribly wrong. My wife was rushed to the hospital in preterm labor. The doctors did what they could and gave her medication to try to stop the labor.

It was a tense 24 hours, with lots of pacing and hair pulling, but my wife and child made it through and the preterm labor was halted. My wife was sent home from the hospital and ordered to stay in bed for the next few weeks.

Bed rest isn’t something we were unfamiliar with. My wife was prescribed bed rest several times during her previous pregnancy.

Bed rest worked until it didn’t and my wife was rushed to the hospital about a week later. This time, the doctors were unable to stop her preterm labor. My wife gave birth in a hospital room swarming with doctors and specialists.

At barely 32-weeks in utero, our child, who we later named Jasmine, was born way too early. Jasmine was tiny and blue, and she wasn’t breathing. She was handed off immediately to a neonatal specialist who tried desperately to clear her lungs and get her to breathe.

I cried, and I’ll admit to crying to whoever asks, when she finally breathed. But I never got to hold baby girl Jasmine that day and neither did my wife.

My wife and new daughter spent several days in the hospital together. At barely 4 pounds, Jasmine was in the neonatal care unit, inside an incubator, and my wife was in a hospital recovery room.

When my wife was finally discharged from the hospital, I’ve never seen anyone look sadder than she did when she had to leave baby girl Jasmine behind.

Day after day, week after week, we visited our baby girl in the hospital, watched her in the incubator. My wife would stay all day and often into the evening.

Several weeks passed before we could actually hold baby girl Jasmine. Eight weeks would pass before we could finally bring her home. Those days and nights were an agony, but nothing compared to the heart-wrenching moments when Jasmine wasn’t breathing.

Until next time

Robert Stanek

Monday, January 19, 2015

Raising a Child with Disabilities: How Love, Compassion and Understanding Can Conquer Tragedy

After the birth of my son, Will, my wife had another difficult pregnancy. The medical recommendation was an abortion, or how the doctors put it: “A premature ending of the pregnancy using a surgical dilation and curettage.” That was the day my wife and I learned our child had genetic defects that could bring lifelong problems including congenital heart problems. That was the day my wife and I chose life instead of death and asked the doctors to stitch her uterus so she could try to carry our child to term.

NOTE: This post is a follow up to Tragedy, Hope and New Beginnings, which discusses the effects of toxins and poisons military members and their families are exposed to.

The doctors told us if we did this there would need to be more testing, other procedures, and that we likely would still lose our child. The doctors told us of a life of medical expenses, hospital visits, and likely more surgeries. My wife and I allowed the procedures that would ensure our child’s health but we never wanted to know the results of the tests. We never wanted to know the exact, devastating diagnosis.

Why? Because our child was more important to us than the devastating diagnosis or how such diagnosis could be used to help us “make the right” decision. The right decision to us was to have our child, as long as our child’s health and my wife’s health were not in danger.

Until that moment, I thought I’d lived through difficult days. As a child, I’d been hit by a car while riding my bike and dragged beneath it. I’d seen my step-father die in an explosion and soon after, my sister, Bridgette, from an undiagnosed brain injury suffered in the explosion. I’d been deployed to conflict zones and survived numerous combat and combat support missions.

But that moment—that day—was one of the most difficult of my life and it was followed by months of difficulty, with the pregnancy, with stress and worry. That year was also the first of many to follow where our medical expenses topped $30,000.

There were many more scares during the pregnancy and times when our child was almost lost to us, but six months later, my daughter was born. I took one look at her and named her Sapphire, because to me, she was as precious and wonderful as the gemstone which is her namesake.

The doctors saw only her devastating diagnosis as they whisked her away. I saw five fingers on each tiny hand, five toes on each tiny foot, beautiful brown eyes, and a cute button nose. I saw Sapphire, my daughter, who I loved instantly and unquestioningly.





Until next time,
Robert Stanek