Friday, January 27, 2012 - Making A Difference

I love to contribute to causes where I can, whether it's my time, talent, or treasure. That's probably why I'm on the PTO board at the schools for both the wee ones. And I am Little Miss's Girl Scout Cookie mom. And I helped out with the Autism One auction last year. And I still bake cookies and help out with the holiday bazaar for the animal shelter I volunteered for from college until after Mister Man was born. And and and... we all do it. When I donate money, I like to know that the money I'm donating is going to the cause I'm supporting - or at least the very vast majority of it - instead of to help run the charity itself. I'm sort of picky that way.

Even better is knowing - and help select - exactly what my donation will be spent to support. So yes, I do give to the animal shelter I listed above because I know that the funds will help buy the cat and dog food, along with pay the necessary vet bills. I donate to the school PTOs, seeing exactly where the funds are going in the classrooms and to the students. And I love DonorsChoose because not only do I know the funds are going to teachers for specific projects, but I actually get to choose what project to fund. It has become my new favorite spot for donations, and as the wee ones are getting their allowances and putting some away for donations, this is where I'll be directing them once they've saved a chunk.

I was recently given the opportunity to support a project thanks to Lands End. They provided me with a $25 credit to DonorsChoose, and a couple credits for me to share with other bloggers. We were able to go to the DonorsChoose site to choose projects that spoke to us and donate that $25 each towards a project. Let's just say that it was a challenge to decide what project to support, but this is the kind of challenge I love. Each project on the website is posted by a teacher who shares where she's from, the type of classroom, details about the project and why it's needed, and the cost. This information is verified by DonorsChoose, so you feel even more comfortable donating - or at least I do! There is also a ticker for each project showing how much time remains (if a project isn't funded by the deadline, your donation is refunded so you can choose another project) and how much funding the project has received to date.

As you scroll to the bottom of each project, it lists the detailed cost for each component of the project from the individual item cost to the shipping cost to the (optional) support for DonorsChoose as part of processing the request. You know exactly where every penny is going, and I love that transparency.

Personally, I loved seeing that there were many projects where corporations were matching any donations - if you donated $25 towards that project, they would kick in a second $25. While that played into my decision of what project to support, the most critical factor for me was that it was a project supporting special needs children. Mister Man, as most of you know, is autistic, and the supplies needed to effectively support so many of these children are often not funded to the extent they need to be because of budgetary issues - especially since special needs children are often hard on the equipment, and it needs to be replaced regularly.

As I entered the site, I searched for a project near Chicago for special needs students - some of the many criteria you can use to narrow your search. I looked for projects that seemed as though they would be something Mister Man could benefit from were he in that classroom. It was hard to narrow it down because so many of them were so deserving, but I only had $25 from Lands End as part of their Love Giving initiative. In the end, I chose a project for a classroom in Chicago that supported sensory needs for students who need the support to stay organized and focused - something Mister Man is struggling with in school this year.

My students require a lot of sensory devices to help them organize their bodies so they can focus on their educational goals. To help with this, I've asked for oral motor devices (vibrating and chew), vibrating pillow, pea pod, karate ken as well as a classroom swing. These devices will help my students fulfill their sensory needs on a daily basis.

Imagine you can't sit still because your body can't calm down. Would you be able to focus on your daily tasks? My students are unable to focus on the daily routine and classroom tasks without sensory support. Unfortunately we have very few sensory devices because we don't have the funding to purchase the devices my students require. Please help us stock our classroom with the devices our students need to be successful at school!

Mister Man doesn't have this available to him, and I really wish he did. I was thrilled to be able to support this program. I received a confirmation email almost immediately thanking me for my donation. Had I donated $50 or more, I would also have received a thank you note from students - a super thoughtful touch. The teacher sent me a thank you note within days, with a second thank you after her project was successfully funded. I don't need thanks, but it's nice to know that my contribution was received and that it did make a difference.

Thank you for your generous donation. Your support means the world to mean and my students. I can't express how important sensory devices are for some children with Autism. For those individuals who benefit from these devices it can make the greatest impact on their day.
I look forward to utilizing these sensory devices on a daily basis to help support the needs of my students. I know they will be better off for the donations made to our classroom so thank again for supporting my students. Your goodwill has not gone unnoticed!

I wasn't the only person who was able to benefit from Lands End's generosity. Two other friends shared their experience in donating to a project on DonorsChoose.

Two States of Chaos also chose a project for special needs - in fact, one I was considered funding myself!

I chose to donate the $25 to Ms. Ehlenburg's Special education class at Big Hollow Primary School in Ingleside, Il for a couple of reasons. For one, having two children who also attended Early Education for sensory and developmental issues, I can truly identify with the needs of the children at this age and I'm very well aware of the lack of funds there are to give these children the support they desperately need.

I also feel it is important to support the teachers in our state. The state of Illinois does not have the funds to support children with special needs like many other states do. I feel these children deserve the basic needs like these sensory items in order to get through their day in the most productive way possible. These items will help the children attend better to the teacher, therefore they will get much more out of their education.

I hope this class will be able to get the amount of donations they need to purchase these simple, yet effective items for the children in their class.

Busy Mom chose a project that also seems like it should be a no-brainer - providing snacks for children so that aren't hungry when trying to learn. Study after study has shown that children won't learn if they haven't eaten sufficiently, but not all schools are able to provide for their students. As she put it:

I have 3 kids in school, and both my husband and father are teachers, so I know a little about the dedication teachers have to their students.

I consider my family and our schools fortunate, but I know many are not. Teachers themselves are in the best position to tell us how we can help them, so that's why I love the idea of Donor's Choose. They make it easy to help public schools in need with real requests of what teachers need to make learning happen.

I was excited to have the opportunity to choose a project to support, and I was looking at schools local to me for perhaps a science-related request when I saw this one from a school in Nashville.

She is asking for snacks for her students. Not a computer, not books, not furniture, but food. Childhood hunger is real, and it's in my back yard. You can have all the resources in the world, but if the students are hungry there's no way to learn even the most basic information. I can't imagine what it must be like to ask for food for my students, but I hope my donation helps just a little.

It is amazing the scope of projects available - all of which have been verified and costed and are directly benefitting children now. Have you ever visited DonorsChoose? This wasn't my first time supporting them, nor will it be my last, but I'm grateful that Lands End provided me - and others - with the opportunity to make a difference once again.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was provided with $25 credits to DonorsChoose for myself and others as part of Lands End's Love Giving campaign. I received no compensation, nor was I provided with any product. All opinions expressed are my own or that provided to me by the others who participated in the campaign with me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: reBloom

Sometimes, I feel like that fan who follows his favorite star across the country but just can't seem to get introduced to that star. He knows everything there is to know about the star and can sometimes convince himself that they are good friends, but ultimately, reality wins out every time. My star? It's sleep.

I love the feeling of being well-rested. I love waking up after a good sleep and feeling like I can tackle the world. Or at least I think I do. It's hard to remember what that feels like anymore, since I so often don't get the sleep I need. It isn't because I can't fall asleep - most nights that isn't an issue at all. Instead, I generally wake up in the middle of the night and then I'm stuck. I just can't get back to sleep for hours on end. By the time I do, it's almost time for the alarm to wake me up, and I'm exhausted again.

I survive. It isn't ideal, but I don't want to turn to any sleep aids because I see all the warnings about them and feel like I should be able to just sleep. Besides, I like finding more natural solutions, whether it's cleaning supplies or what we eat or something to help me sleep. I already know to avoid caffeine after 9am (seriously - I'll be awake still at 3am if I don't), but I need to find something else.

I recently received two bottles of reBloom via Mamapedia to try a natural sleep aid that is designed to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep so that they wake up feeling refreshed. It sounds like the perfect solution for me, as the ingredients are chamomile, valarian root extract, melatonin, and l-theanine - along with filtered water, malic acid, lavender extract, natural flavors, and salt. That's the kind of natural relief I could use.

I was excited to try it out, as I was in the midst of another cycle of wake up at 2am and stay up until 5:30 then wake up at 7 feeling as though I could use another five to six hours of sleep. Each bottle contains 2.5 ounces of reBloom that is one full dose or two half doses. The idea is to drink either a full or half dose 30-60 minutes before you want to be asleep, and let it take effect.

Because I was wary of waking up groggy, the first night, I took a half dose. It tasted similar to many herbal teas I've drunk - which makes sense given the ingredients. It wasn't unpleasant and had an herby aftertaste. That night, I didn't have any trouble falling asleep - but I generally don't have that issue. Unfortunately, I still did wake up around 2am although I was able to fall back asleep sooner than I normally do. The second night, I took the other half dose (having put the bottle in the fridge after I'd opened it, as directed) and again still woke up, but this time went back to sleep fairly quickly for me. The third night I took a full bottle, hoping to stay asleep the whole night and not worrying about grogginess since it was now a weekend and I didn't have to wrangle children out the door early in the morning. Again, I woke up in the middle of the night, but I was able to fall asleep within about fifteen minutes which is huge for me.

I was pleased that I never woke up feeling groggy like I'd taken sleep medicine. I do wish that I had been able to stay asleep all night using reBloom, but I have a feeling that I'm somewhat of an outlier given my consistent middle of the night waking and the length of time before I'm able to fall back asleep. I wish my samples for review had been more than two bottles, as I wonder if being less tired when I go to bed would have an impact on how well I sleep at night. I know with the wee ones, the more tired they are, the harder time they have sleeping through the night.

ReBloom would be a useful tool for those nights when you know you need to get a really good sleep and just want a little push, especially if you were traveling and wanted to get over jet lag. I was comfortable with the ingredients and happy to see more natural products out there.

You can order reBloom direct from the company. There are different packages available, but each bottle costs on average a little over $3. Using the link above, you can try reBloom simply by paying $4.95 shipping and handling for two bottles.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received two bottles of reBloom via Mamapedia for review purposes only. I was not compensated, and all opinions are my own.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Recap: North American International Auto Show Part 1

I am somewhat of a geek. I love seeing how things work, and I'm fascinated to see all the different ways that technology is making the things we do on a day to day basis easier. A perfect example of this is the technology being put into cars today. I've talked before about how I love what's been integrated into some of the new GM cars I've driven over the past year.

After spending a couple days at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), I really really want a new car. It goes beyond the heated and air conditioned seats. And the heating/cooling cup holders. And the infotainment systems that rise from the console. And the cargo holders that most and adjust to fit what you're carrying. And the improved gas mileage. And the acres and acres (it seemed) of hybrid and electric cars. And the in vehicle communication and management systems. I suffer from severe car envy.

GM hosted me and other members of the press during the NAIAS, and we were able to attend some fun and informational events, as well as interviewing several GM team members. We had a blast, and I learned a ton.

John McFarland from Chevy spoke a lot in their press conference about where Chevy is heading. They introduced two new concept cars, the Tru 140S and the Code 140R. Pretty sweet cars, but very different from each other.

I was fascinated to learn that when they designed these cars, they gathered information from millenials about what they wanted and needed. The focus for Chevy is is on young consumers - technology and digital interactions are key. People now have so many digital experiences without leaving the driveway. They are passionate about brands like Facebook, Nike, etc., but car brands fall between disinterest and complacency. Chevy's aim is to take their initial interest and turn it into passion while staying true to their brand. From product planning to marketing now involving the millenials more and more. They want to capture minds and hearts of young consumers - and there are 32 million out there.

Chevy is asking for customer feedback via interactive kiosks both at NAIAS and at other shows to then lock down what ideas the cars will include and how they will incorporate them. Chevy wants to ensure the cars will be designed to delight the customer. They want to find out what makes the largest car buying block that will be emerging over the next years.

Chevy has several lines they're focused on growing right now. The Chevy Cruze, was number one last year in the small and compact car segment. The Sonic will grow this market for them, too - it's designed with the buyer in mind. They are currently three months into launch, and they've done no tv ads, just a strong presence online and they can barely keep up with demand. The 2013 model has a lower suspension to improve handling and a 1.4 liter turbo with more aggressive sports styling to make it look "better". They've also incorporated a racing inspired steering wheel, and the MyLink infotainment is standard. Drives can now access hands free calling, listen to streaming music via their smart phones, and there is a new nav app to make life easier for others.

Really fun about the Sonic at the NAIAS was their display. You can create a ringtone for your phone using a funky electronic table, something individual and unique. Why yes, I did create a ringtone, and I love it. It took me a little bit before I actually recognized when my phone was ringing. It was just too hip to really be my phone, right? I sort of want to go to the Auto Show when it's in Chicago so I can make another one. Or two.

The new compact car for Chevy is the Spark. It is selling already in Europe and Asia and will be coming to the States and Canada this summer. Even more cool? It will be a pure electric vehicle in some markets. I'm fascinated by the oh so cool colors it comes in. This is the car I could so see myself driving right after college.

It was interesting, too, to learn about some of the customer care initiatives GM is working on. Jim Maloney from Buick's customer care spoke to us about his philosophy and what they're putting together on the Buick side. They are really using social media to monitor customer sentiment. Online, they found people complaining, asking about product configuration, dealer locations, etc. There is also a dealer side which focuses on technical services questions or issues with parts procurement (primarily phone calls).

The goal with Buick's customer care is that they want to get more proactive rather than waiting for customers to contact hem. This initiative started in summer 2010. They started with monitoring and interacting on Facebook and Twitter but realized the need to migrate to forums where customer enthusiasts are. Now, they have representatives monitoring nearly 100 sites. Where they have an actionable opportunity - to correct misinformation, take customer issue offline to solve - they can do so. They have agents monitoring Monday to Saturday plus now Sunday hours, as well.

Lots more to come on the NAIAS... come back to see more about concept cars, see some of my favorite new features, learn about how OnStar worked and evolved, and more.

In the interest of full disclosure, I attended the NAIAS as a guest of General Motors. I was not asked to write about my experience, nor was I compensated. As always, all opinions are my own.