Picture of a boy in a box

My Happy Place: Organization

Each time I have felt anxious, stressed or just overwhelmed, the answer is a messy drawer or closet away. Organization is my happy place. I have always found solace in making my home less cluttered and more controlled.

During the past few months of social distancing and working from home while educating my seven kids – I say that very loosely – organization has been a go-to for me. Everyone’s coping strategy is different. But for me, whenever the world outside feels out of control, I turn inward. My small, at-home projects don’t cost a dime and they also keep my mind busy. As a type-A planner, this all helps me feel better by knowing things are in order.

Cleaning Clutter for a Clear Mind

I am glad to find I am not alone. Many of my co-workers and friends have shared that they have also found this time has helped them get that much overdue yard work done, refrigerators cleaned out from years (yes, years) of unused condiments, or finally sort through that tall stack of unread mail.

Just this past weekend, I tackled a closet that had clothes bursting out of it, with things that my husband hadn’t worn since he was in his 20’s… he is now 42. Putting on some fun tunes – my go to is “Alexa, play Justin Timberlake” – and getting to work was the best mind-clearing activity I could ask for as the snow was falling outside in May. *Heavy sigh*

Picture of a before and after of a messy closet organization project

Before and After pictures of Aida’s closet project (photo courtesy of Aida Byrne)

The reward was that my mind was clear after a few hours of organization; his closet looked fabulous, if I don’t say so myself, and it turned out to be a family activity as my kids helped me fold jeans, stack shoes, and fill bags with those Hawaiian shirts to donate.

What can organization do for you?

Studies have shown that our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions, and behavior. Working in or living in an unorganized space can negatively impact our stress and anxiety levels, both at work and at home.

A 2009 study of mothers in the U.S. found that mothers who said their home environment was cluttered experienced higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Another study found that individuals who felt overwhelmed by their “stuff” were more likely to procrastinate. Other researchers found that disorganization can trigger coping and avoidance strategies like watching too much TV or binge-eating a pint of ice cream.

On the other hand, according to the National Association of Productivity and Organizing, getting organized may help:

  1. Boost your energy
  2. Lead to better eating habits
  3. Improve your sleep habits
  4. Reduce stress and make us happier

Start Small

“If getting started feels overwhelming, choose one small project, such as a drawer that annoys you every time you open it,” said Amanda Shanahan, RD, Employee Wellbeing Manager, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “Or make a list of potential projects and prioritize them by time, cost, necessity or benefit. This can help to organize your organization.”

There is also practicality in home organization. When spaces are organized, less time is spent searching for things like that favorite black sweater or keys to the car. Your kids may be more likely to grab a healthy snack if there is a well-stocked snack bin or an organized refrigerator that displays some healthy options.

“Creating an environment which supports making healthy choices easy is key to maintaining good mental and physical health,” Amanda said.

What works for you?

Home organization may not be a coping strategy for everyone. There are many activities that can help you the way this helps me, such as exercise, gardening or reading. Find an activity that brings you to a happy place.

For me, there is plenty still to do in a home where nine people live. I’m already looking forward to the weekend, taking a deep breath, and thinking of what I can tackle next.

What is your happy place? Tell us in the comments how you keep busy at home.

Picture of a boy flying a kite in a park

Foster Care: A Rewarding Journey

Growing up as one of six kids, Sandra Smith of Chenango County always knew she wanted to be a mother.

“I’d always pictured that coming to me in the same way it did for everyone else. I believed I would fall in love, get married, get pregnant, and be able to care for my child right from birth,” she stated.

That’s not how it happened for Sandra.

A Rewarding Journey

Her first child was conceived through in vitro fertilization. After that, Sandra and her husband unsuccessfully tried again to get pregnant. Knowing that they still had a whole lot of love and stability to give, they decided to try adopting a child through foster care.

Embarking on the process of becoming foster parents meant extensive background checks, months of classes and plenty of home visits. Sandra said the whole thing was long and arduous, but so worth it in the end.

Sandra and her husband fostered a little girl who was placed in their home when she was 10 months old. Eight months later, they were able to proceed with the adoption. “Amy is now a happy, healthy and fun-filled 10-year-old little girl, and she certainly completed our family,” Sandra added.

Consistent, Quality Health Care

Today, approximately 16,000 children in New York state are in the foster care system and waiting for homes. Foster parents are special people; they open their homes and hearts to children who cannot continue to live safely with their biological families.

Studies show that children in the foster care system do better when their health is closely monitored during the various transitions and psychosocial stressors they may experience.

Amy Houghton, with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, understands the importance of consistent, coordinated health care for children in the foster care system. Amy leads the Excellus BCBS Foster Care team that works to enroll foster care children into health insurance plans and coordinate their care to make sure they have consistent access to necessary social, community, medical and behavioral health services. The Foster Care Team works with other service providers in the community to advocate for children in foster care and ensure that they are receiving high quality care.

“I am proud of our dedicated staff and their commitment to helping this population live healthier and more secure lives through access to quality health care and services,” said Amy.

To learn more about foster care, visit:

Picture of a woman sitting on her porch with her two sons

A Happy Medium: Our Family’s New Habits in These Unprecedented Times

They say it takes roughly 21 days to create a habit. As I write this, my kids and I are on day 40 of staying home from work and school—just like everyone else—to keep ourselves and those around us safe.

I admit, I was one of those parents who had grand plans of creating a routine, a “new habit” if you will, that we would stick to. Everyone wakes up by a certain time, meals on a schedule, set times for schoolwork and my work, and time for exercise (after all, the excuse that there’s no time doesn’t really apply anymore!).

Life on “Corona-cation” Time

Well, “corona-cation” as my son repeatedly refers to this unusual time, seems to dictate our new habits. Make no mistake, my teenage boys and I know EXACTLY how serious this is and there’s no making light of what we’re all being asked to do. They haven’t seen their friends since in-person school ended on March 13, and they’re discovering that even though they don’t always like each other, they’re lucky they have each other to ride bikes with and to walk the dog.

Picture of Deanna and her two children

Deanna and the boys (photo courtesy of Deanna Vincent)

But because they don’t see their friends in person, the only place they interact with them is, you guessed it, in the gaming world. So, the routine I had hoped to adopt hasn’t panned out. My teenagers are “living their best life” right now. They’re in bed until around noon, they get up to eat (and eat and eat), do homework, get outside for a little while if it’s nice out, then game with their friends until long after I’ve gone to bed.

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits” – Mark Twain

My “new-normal” schedule? Well, it’s not much better. I’ve seen the jokes on Facebook; “don’t forget to change out of your daytime pajamas and into your nighttime pajamas before you go to bed!”  Ha. Ha. The only comfort is knowing if it’s being shared on Facebook, I can’t possibly be the only one living like this.

Overall, even though there’s no routine or habits forming at my house, everything is running smoothly, so why worry? I’m still able to focus on my work and the boys are getting things done. In fact, I haven’t had to pay much attention to their schoolwork at all, and assumed all was well.

Until I received an email from a teacher. Then another, then a third, followed by a phone call from the assistant principal. What the…?  That’s when I realized it was time to start “mom-ing” again and get my house back in order.

Meeting in the Middle-ish

The first step was to find a happy medium. It’s not realistic for me to be the mom who has a set schedule for everything—right down to when to do the laundry. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not me. I’ve always been more of a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” kind of mom.

So instead of set times, we have timeframes. I’m all about the “ish”—9-ish, 10-ish, noon-ish. So that’s the clock we live by right now.

  • For the boys, there’s no more sleeping until noon (or later), regardless of what time they went to bed. Ten (-ish) is their wake-up call. I’m also being much more vigilant about checking the school’s parent portal for missing assignments. This really matters now since our school isn’t grading students anymore. You pass or fail based on completion of the work.
  • Both boys are still engaged in some of their extracurricular activities (Boy Scouts and music). My oldest is “this close” to his Eagle Scout project, and my youngest is a decent drummer. Having set times for lessons and meetings has restored shred of normalcy for them, which helps with our schedule.
  • They also share dog-walking duty and general playtime with our pup. Somedays, it’s the only exercise they all get, but at least it’s something.

Making the Most of It

I personally have some new-found habits that have formed as well.

  • I walk. A LOT. It’s the part of the day I most look forward to. I’ve experimented with different routes and I’m up to over four miles a day. It provides the mental break I need and physical movement that has been sorely lacking (if my back is any indication). This truly is the highpoint of my day.
  • Dinners at home are a thing again. Both boys play winter sports so from October through February I am on the go, as is dinner. With all of us home every day, dinner together at the kitchen table every night with home-cooked meals has been a great bonding time for us. Even though we’re all in the same house, we’re all usually on different floors. Believe it or not, we come together for dinner and have something to talk about.
  • When it isn’t a home-cooked meal (I think I’ve made more meals in six weeks than all last year—a girl needs a break!), it’s takeout from one of our favorite establishments, and sometimes from a new place we’ve been wanting to try. We want these places to be open for when we can dine out again someday so supporting local businesses has been great.

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These are unprecedented times that we’re all living in right now. There’s no manual or instruction book on how to do it or do it right. The best habit we can all embrace is being generous with the gift of grace, for ourselves and for those we live with. After all, tomorrow is a new day for many of us, which makes us the lucky ones. And when this is all over, that really is all that will matter.

World Asthma Day

May 5, 2020 is World Asthma Day, when the National Institutes of Health stands with patients, families, advocates, researchers, and health care professionals to raise awareness about this common chronic respiratory disease, the people it affects, and the biomedical research that improves its prevention and treatment.

Like The “Feeling of Drowning”

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes periods of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. It is a major contributing factor to missed time from school and work, with severe attacks requiring emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Sometimes these asthma attacks can be fatal.

“During an asthma attack, airways become swollen and inflamed, and the muscles around the airways contract and the airways produce extra mucus, causing bronchial tubes to narrow,” said Lisa Y. Harris, MD, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield vice president and chief medical officer. “Some sufferers liken an asthma attack to the feeling of drowning because it is extremely difficult to breathe.” Mild asthma attacks may last only a few minutes; more severe episodes can last from hours to days and become a life-threatening emergency.

Nearly 13 percent of upstate New York children younger than age 18 are affected by asthma.

Complete an Asthma Action Plan

“World Asthma Day is a great reminder for parents to consult with their pediatrician to develop or update their child’s asthma action or management plan,” said Harris.

Asthma action plans indicate a child’s daily treatment, including which medicines to take and when to take them. It also explains how to identify when asthma symptoms are severe enough to contact the child’s pediatrician or to take the child to urgent care or a hospital emergency room. All adults and schools who care for a child with asthma should have a copy of the child’s asthma action plan and understand their responsibilities regarding the child’s care.

Six steps to controlling your child’s asthma:

  1. Check in regularly with your child’s doctor to make sure medications are working and available at home, at school, or wherever your child will be.
  2. Make sure your child takes all asthma medications as directed.
  3. Alert the adults in your child’s life about their asthma, including details about triggers and signs of an asthma attack. That includes alerting school staff, scout leaders, Sunday school teachers, their friends’ parents, etc.
  4. Teach your child to recognize their asthma triggers and warning signs.
  5. Reduce asthma triggers at home by washing bedding with hot water once a week and using allergy-proof covers on mattresses and pillows.
  6. Prevent the spread of germs by encouraging proper hand-washing by the entire family and making sure that every family member age 6 months and older receives a yearly flu shot.

A free, downloadable poster, “Breathe Easy: 6 Steps for Controlling Your Child’s Asthma” is available from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield by clicking HERE.

An older couple sitting on the floor of a room they just painted.

Get A Hobby!

Since Saturday, March 21, 2020 – and every weekend thereafter – Rick Nangreave, of Monroe County, has been painting. He’s painted his finished basement (his office), the mudroom, kitchen, downstairs hallway, upstairs hallway, staircase, laundry room, living room, and dining room.  All that is left is his wife’s office and two bedrooms.

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But why this sudden urge to push up his sleeves, get the rollers, brushes and drop clothes out, and, well, paint?

“For me, I find it very relaxing, rewarding, and therapeutic… it’s something I truly enjoy doing,” he says.

Rick, who didn’t want to sit idle, wanted to keep his mind active, and needed a distraction. By painting in his off hours, Rick is doing what so many have discovered is a healthy way to pass the time while practicing social distancing.

“Hobbies, an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure, are for everyone, not just those who live relaxed and leisurely lives,” says Amanda Shanahan, RD, Employee Wellbeing Manager, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “In fact, those that live stressful, busy lives may benefit even more from hobbies than those living quieter lives.”

Why?

Good health is more than the physical. The social, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual parts of your life also play a factor in maintaining good health, Amanda says. Hobbies can help you develop these areas of your life. They allow for you to be creative. A hobby can provide a time to take your mind off your stressors and engross yourself in an activity that offers pure enjoyment.

And that is exactly the case for Rick, who explains “when I paint, I typically have my headset on, and I get into the zone. I often wonder if it’s like a runner’s high?”

How do you choose a hobby?

For Rick, painting was an obvious choice because it was something he learned from his father.

“My dad was a shipfitter in the Navy during World War II and after serving our country, he became a carpenter and had skills and talent to basically do anything when it came to home improvement.  He was that all around handyman. He could build, remodel, electrical, plumbing, and yes, paint,” he says.

A New Sense of Balance

On the other hand, a hobby can be a reason to try something new. That’s how Emily Field has approached her new hobby: the unicycle. Sharon Field, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Wellness Specialist and Emily’s mom, said the hobby is a new one that Emily had no experience or real knowledge of, but was simply interested in learning.

“Emily is a competitive gymnast who was looking to stay active with balance, and this is one of the ways she chose to do it,” Sharon says. So, Emily gave a new hobby a try. And try she did. Watch Emily practicing the unicycle in the video below.

Ready. Set. Pick a hobby!

If you’re not sure about your passion, here’s how you can get started:

  • Think about your childhood. Is there something you liked to do in the past that you want to revisit?
  • Look around your house. Maybe there are hobbies you started but had to put aside for a while. Do you have a musical instrument or crochet needles that have gotten tucked away? Is there a piece of furniture you’ve been looking at for years thinking “I really want to have that refinished”?
  • Know yourself. If you don’t like to sit or have patience, quilting might not be for you.

What’s next?

  • Make and find time. You may not have hours in your day to spare, but you may have more than you think. Could the time you spend at night watching TV or surfing the net be time to spend on a hobby?
  • Start small. Don’t feel that you must start by spending oodles of time or money when you start.
  • Join a club or group online. This is a way to meet people with a similar interest. You may also gain some great tips on furthering your interest.

It may take some time and several tries before you find your true passion.  Talk to friends and co-workers or do a few web searches.  The possibilities are endless.

As for Rick and Emily’s advice, both suggested that you find your passion and immerse yourself into it – and just have fun!

Share Your Hobby!

Do you have a new hobby? Share your hobby in the comments section below.

Picture of a person holding a phone with a black dog in the background

Defying the Laws of Probability, or, How We Got Our Dog

I thought my plan was virtually fail-safe, with only the smallest chance it would not succeed. But on February 21, 2016, as I sat on the finely polished concrete steps between sections 103 and 104 of the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, I saw my plan dashed in the blink of an eye.

First, allow me to explain something. I like dogs, I really do. I like cats better, but I do like dogs. I’m just not a fan of their lack of self-sufficiency. They need to be let out all the time and they need to be taken for walks. As puppies, they need to be taught not to chew up everything in sight. And, why is it, every time a dog drinks water, they dribble most of their last mouthful on the floor as they walk away from the bowl?

I know this is going to sound strange, but a dog’s unconditional love irks me, too. They don’t judge anything, at all. They’re so raw with acceptance and so ready to play and cuddle. When they see you, they wag their tails like trumpeters signaling the arrival of the king … their complete inability to harbor negative feelings gives me the creeps.

The Dog Question

Imagine my reluctance then when, in the spring of 2015, my two children, Brind’Amour, age 6, and Eulalia, age 5, as well as my beloved wife, began asking me for a family dog. We already had two wonderfully idiosyncratic cats, Mortimer (a bully) and Ethel (a nervous wreck). I thought as far as family pets go, that was enough.

I had plenty of arguments against getting a dog. We were a dual-income family, so if we got a dog, the poor thing be home alone all the time. We didn’t have a fenced-in yard and spending the money on one was just not a priority. And, what would we do with her when we go away on trips? Boarding could also get expensive. I had my reasons.

The Beginning of the End

The subject of the dog continued to surface and resurface at least a few times a week for several months. I fought hard and stuck to my guns.

Then, one night in late January 2016, I was sitting on the couch watching National Hockey League (NHL) highlights of the day’s games. One of the highlights was the story of a goal scored by Ottawa Senators right wing Bobby Ryan. The highlight showed a young boy holding up a sign that said “Bobby, Dad said if you score, we get a puppy.” Sure enough, Bobby had scored. I figured the dad in the story either wasn’t very bright, or wasn’t truly against getting a puppy. Bobby had a well-established reputation for scoring goals.

At the time, we had plans to travel the following month to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit friends. I had already purchased NHL game tickets for the family to see the Tampa Bay Lightning play the Carolina Hurricanes (I am a Tampa Bay fan due to the organization’s affiliation with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch) at Carolina’s PNC Arena. Putting this and the Bobby Ryan story together, I came up with my plan to put the “Dog Question” to rest for good.

The Plan

I marched upstairs and announced to the family that I had a deal to make. I told them that, if Tampa Bay player J.T. Brown scores a goal against the Carolina Hurricanes when we see them play next month, then we can get a puppy. Considering that I hadn’t budged at all in previous negotiations, my family erupted with excitement.

What they did not know at the time, however, was that, unlike Bobby Ryan, J.T. Brown didn’t score a lot of goals, at least not at the NHL level. He was a good hockey player and a fierce competitor, but his NHL role had been more of along the lines of fourth-line “mucker” or “grinder,” someone whose job it is to wear down the other team with physical play, rather than scoring prowess.

J.T. Brown is by no means a slouch, but in my mind, the odds were decidedly in my favor.

The Second Sign

My family’s anticipation for the game reached a fever pitch in the week leading up to our trip. Our kids talked excitedly about dog breeds and names, made predictions about what our cats’ reactions would be, and pondered aloud just how much fun it’ll be to have a dog in the house. I often snickered at their naïve overconfidence.

When gameday arrived, my wife bought a piece of sign-sized foam-core, some markers and other sign-making supplies at a nearby office supply store. On the way to the game, she and the kids made a sign that said “If JT Brown Scores, WE GET A PUPPY!”.

Two kids holding a sign standing in front of a hockey arena.

My kids on their way into the arena

When we got to the arena, about an hour prior to the opening faceoff, we walked down to the glass at ice level to watch the players warm up. My kids held the sign up against the glass in the hope that J.T. would notice it. The team was busy with shooting and passing drills, but after a few minutes, we saw him do a double take as the sign caught his eye. He smiled and dipped his head as if to say “Aw shucks!”

We then made our way to our seats behind the Tampa Bay team bench. We were warmly welcomed by a number of Carolina and fellow Tampa Bay fans who thought the whole “if he scores we get a puppy” thing was a lot of fun and they wished the kids good luck.

Picture of two kids holding a sign sitting in a hockey arena.

At our seats, kids beaming with anticipation

The Calm Before the Storm

The first period came and went. Although it certainly was exciting, the only player to score was Carolina’s Joakim Nordstrom, with a shorthanded tally at the 11:10 mark.

I didn’t like that Tampa Bay was down by a goal, but conversely, JT Brown remained off the scoresheet. Good. Twenty minutes down, 40 to go.

At the intermission, I decided to take a walk around the arena. I wistfully made my way around the concourse, past the season ticket sales kiosk, the food concessions, and the charitable silent auction featuring autographed sticks, pucks and other memorabilia. Obviously distracted, it took me a moment to notice the hallway quickly emptying out as people made their way back to their seats. The second period was beginning.

I was halfway around the arena at the time, far away from our seats. So I picked up my pace to an awkward form of walk-jog. I made it to our section and a group of people were standing at the entrance of the stairway leading to our seats. This can only mean one thing:  the puck was still in play. As  hockey fans know,  you must wait for a stoppage before you can enter the stairway to get to your seat, lest you interfere with the view of other fans.

A long sequence of play ensued before the whistle blew. The group began shuffling down the stairs and dispersing among the seats. Unfortunately, the game started up again before I was able to get all the way down to my seat. Not wanting to block anyone’s view, I sat on the stairs, confident that another whistle would soon bring play to a stop and allow me to finish the trip unnoticed.

The Shot Heard ‘Round My World

I watched as Tampa Bay won the faceoff and controlled the puck in the Carolina zone. Then, Lightning forward Valtteri Filppula dropped the puck to his teammate, defenseman Andrei Sustr, who fired the puck at the Carolina goal. The goaltender, Cam Ward, whom I had watched win the Stanley Cup a decade earlier, made the initial save but the puck bounced off his pads and dribbled directly toward a Tampa Bay player standing undefended in front of a wide-open net.

Picture of hockey players on bench and one getting out of the bench.

J.T. Brown hopping over the boards for shift (photo courtesy of author)

In the microsecond that then passed, I could feel my eyes widen as I realized who that player was: J.T. Brown. And like a true professional, J.T. made no mistake and quickly buried that puck in the back of the net for a game-tying goal.

Everyone is a Winner

I immediately looked down toward where my family was. Tampa Bay and Carolina fans alike were standing up and cheering and high-fiving my now beyond-elated wife and kids.

I flew down the steps and received absolutely no condolences, no comforting slaps on the back, no apologies, from anyone. There was only everyone else’s joy. But the truth is, I was happy, too. There is nothing quite like your family feeling as if they won the lottery and buying the ticket was all your idea.

J.T. skated towards his bench for a celebratory fist-bump with his teammates and flashed a smile at all of us. After that, the rest of the game was anticlimactic, except for Lightning Captain Steven Stamkos’s powerplay goal in the final period that put his team ahead for good in what would become a 4-2 win.

The Day After

The next morning as I lay in the hotel room bed, I checked the internet for stories about the previous night’s game. To my amusement, the Raleigh News & Observer ran a photo of J.T. scoring his goal with the caption “J.T. Brown fires a shot past Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead in the first period.” Undeterred by the inaccuracies (it was the second period, and his goal tied the game at 1-1), I kept reading. The second line of the caption read, “He also earns a puppy for kids who had a sign at the game saying they would get one if he scored.” That part was undeniably true.

Then, NHL.com ran a game recap story that included the following:

With Tampa Bay in the midst of a father’s trip, Brown was asked if he looked into the crowd for his dad after scoring the goal.

“No, I was looking behind our bench because there was a sign that said if I scored, somebody got a puppy,” Brown joked.

Later that day, one of my wife’s friends tweeted to J.T. and said, “Big thanks to @JTBrown23 my friends kids are getting a puppy.” He replied, “I’m glad I could help!”

The End of It (or, Love Conquers All)

picture of a chocolate lab puppy

J.T. 8-week-old puppy on her first day at our house

A few weeks later, we welcomed our little girl, a chocolate lab puppy aptly named J.T., into our lives. My wife tweeted a photo of our kids with their sign and our new puppy to the Tampa Bay team’s Twitter account. They asked her for a few small details, which she happily shared.

Picture of two kids sitting on the ground next to a chocolate lab puppy.

My kids with their new puppy, J.T.

A week after that, your humble narrator was again on the couch watching hockey.  This time, Tampa Bay was in Toronto playing the Maple Leafs. During a stoppage in play, the producers queued an episode of a short segment they called “Timeless Moments” and I almost fell onto the floor when I suddenly saw video of my kids holding their sign up to the glass at the Carolina game. The segment then went on to show and describe J.T.’s puppy-winning goal and concluded with my wife’s picture of our kids with their new puppy.

So, that concludes my puppy story.  I must confess that J.T. the dog has changed me somehow. For one reason or another, it does not bother me when she dribbles a mouthful of water on the floor as she walks away from her bowl.

Notes:

https://www.nhl.com/news/tampa-bay-lightning-carolina-hurricanes-recap/c-279049404?tid=278839888

https://www.nhl.com/news/ottawa-senators-beat-new-york-rangers/c-277768776?tid=277731746

Picture of an older man and a younger man on a couch looking at a tablet screen laughing.

Social Apps Are Keeping Us Connected

For many of us who are now working from home, it can feel kind of crowded. The kids are remote-learning at home, and spouses or partners are set up to conduct their business from whatever quiet corner of the house they can find. At the same time, it can feel a bit isolating with friends and loved ones all practicing social distancing.

But don’t fear, you’re not living in an episode of the Twilight Zone! With the internet, free social media apps and video chat software, there is a way to replicate some social interactions and keep in touch with family and friends. Most people are familiar with Skype and FaceTime, but there are several other apps available that can allow you to socialize with large groups of people, safely and effectively.

Marco Polo Connecting Big Families

Marco Polo is an app used by Aida Byrne from Madison County. Believe it or not, she heard about it from Pink (yes, the recording artist!).

“While scrolling through what seems like an endless stream of Instagram posts on the coronavirus, I stopped to watch Pink and listen to her message – she is always so upbeat,” said Aida. “Pink mentioned the Marco Polo social app as a great tool to keep in touch with people. Because I come from a big Italian family that includes my parents, six siblings, and 20 grandchildren across the state, I thought it would be a great way to share videos and short posts about our day to stay connected.”

Marco Polo likens itself to a “video walkie talkie.” It’s a video chat app that lets you send quick messages back and forth with your friends.

“By Saturday night, 21 of us were connected and sharing funny stories and updates to keep us positive and motivated,’” said Aida.

Cheers and Yahtzee! with Google Duo

Over the past few weeks, everyone seems to have caught on to using virtual communication apps. Teachers are using it for instruction while adults are hosting happy hours to socialize and participate in virtual exercise classes.

Kevin Kane, from Monroe County, recently used Google Duo for a “virtual happy hour” with friends who had both Android and iPhones (vs. Facetime, which only works on iPhones). He and his wife later used Google Duo to play a “virtual game of Yahtzee” with his son and son’s girlfriend on the West Coast.

Kevin let us in on a few tricks to set up an event using Google Duo. “The organizer signs up for an account, after which you grant access to your contact list, then you send a text to ‘invite’ the new group to a video chat call,” he explained.

Use this unprecedented time as an opportunity to explore news ways of interacting, learning and socializing.

Other options to stay connected include:

  • Facebook Messenger Video: Aligns with your Facebook friends and uses the FB Messenger app to select people into a group video chat. (https://www.facebook.com/pg/messenger/videos/ )
  • Snapchat: Offers a way to send fun messages and short videos. The app includes filters that augment images by adding silly hats, eyes, noses, voices, and stickers. (www.snapchat.com)
  • WhatsApp: Works on Android and iOS platforms, making it a good choice for people with friends who own various types of devices. The free app accommodates up to four users per session. (https://www.whatsapp.com)
  • Instagram:  Gives  up to six people an opportunity to video chat together. (https://www.instagram.com)
  • Houseparty: Allows people to play video games or test trivia skills. It is available through Android, iOS, MacOs and Chrome.  (https://app.houseparty.com)

How are you staying connected?

Share your story in the comments below.

Disclaimer: Excellus BlueCross BlueShield does not endorse or have any business relationship with the apps featured in this article. 

It’s Time to Have “The Vape Talk”

When Shaquana Divers talked with her teenage daughter about e-cigarettes, she was shocked to learn just how popular they are with kids at school. Her daughter said that even though kids are told about the harms of e-cigarettes, many still use them. Some start using as early as sixth grade. Divers, an Executive Program Manager with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, was concerned about the growing popularity of e-cigarettes.

Numbers to Gasp At

Parents like Divers aren’t the only ones shocked to learn about the popularity of e-cigarettes. In New York state, e-cigarette use among youth increased 160 percent between 2014 and 2018.

Trends in e-cigarette use among high school student in New York

One in four high school students in New York said they used e-cigarettes at least once in 2018.  The U.S. Surgeon General has gone so far as to declare the  increase in youth vaping as an epidemic. 

Behind the Smokescreen

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid (sometimes called “vape juice” or “e-juice”) to produce an aerosol vapor that is inhaled. They are also known as vape pens, e-cigs, mods or by a common brand name,  JUUL®.

E-cigarettes can look like a variety of objects, such as USB drives, cigarettes or pens. They can easily be hidden. In fact, some devices don’t even produce a vapor cloud when exhaled, making them harder to spot.

Small Device, Big Problems

Many young people believe that e-cigarettes are less harmful than other tobacco products. But e-cigarettes are not harmless. They can contain a number of dangerous ingredients such as:

  • cancer-causing chemicals
  • chemicals linked to lung disease
  • heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead
  • ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • high levels of nicotine

It is unsafe for young people to use any product containing nicotine. Nicotine can cause addiction, harm the developing brain and affect memory and attention. Some e-cigarette cartridges have a higher concentration of nicotine than a pack of cigarettes.

Many people aren’t aware that e-cigarettes can contain nicotine. One study showed that 63 percent of JUUL® users between 15-24 years old didn’t know the product contains nicotine.

Wheezing, Explosions and Long-Term Risk

Research shows that e-cigarettes can also have other health impacts. E-cigarette use among young people may:

According to the CDC, e-cigarettes can also have defective batteries that can cause fires and explosions. A few of these have led to serious injuries, including  third degree burns, broken teeth, and even loss of vision.

Since e-cigarettes are still a relatively new product, scientists don’t know all of the long-term side effects of e-cigarettes.

Tips For Having “the vape talk”

With serious health risks and a lot of misinformation, it’s important to talk with your child about e-cigarettes. For Divers, open conversations are a key to her parenting strategy. That’s why she made it a priority to talk with her daughter about e-cigarettes and support her in continuing to make good, healthy choices.

But, it’s not always easy to have sensitive discussions with your children. The American Lung Association offers these tips for having the “vape talk” with your child:

  1. Choose a time and place where you are both comfortable and more likely to open up, like when you’re riding in the car or having dinner.
  2. Acknowledge the smart decisions your child makes  every day. Encourage them to keep positive choices going.
  3. Ask open-ended questions  to encourage conversation. Some suggested conversation starters include: Are a lot of kids vaping at your school? What do you think about vaping? Do you know how vaping can damage your health?

Resources for quitting

E-cigarettes are not approved by the FDA as a method to quit smoking. Use only FDA-approved methods when trying to quit.

Here’s just a few ways to get the ball rolling when it comes to quitting or helping someone quit:

  • Talk with your doctor
  • Call the NYS Smoker’s Quitline at 1-866-NY-QUITS (1-866-697-8487)
  • Visit SmokeFree.gov
  • Visit The Truth Initiative website to learn about text message programs that help young people stop using e-cigarettes

A free e-cigarettes educational poster is available to download here

Hidden Gems: The Ausable Chasm in the Adirondacks

This summer a group of us moms and our teens took a weekend trip to the Ausable Chasm in the Adirondacks.  After visiting the North Star Underground Railroad located on the same park grounds, we explored the Chasm. We were hoping to build leadership skills among our teens, and have fun!

The trip was a highlight of my summer and one that I will remember for years to come.  Since visiting I have been telling my friends and family members about this upstate New York treasure!

The Highlights

The Ausable Chasm is one of the oldest natural attractions in the United States. It’s also known as the “Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks”. The Chasm is a long, narrow sandstone gorge that stretches for two miles. In between the Chasm is the Ausable River that flows into Lake Champlain.

The trails and scenery are breathtaking. There is a rock that looks like an Elephants Head and stunning Rainbow Falls.

The Ausable Chasm offers many different adventures. Lace up your sneakers and enjoy a scenic walking tour of the Chasm. If you are feeling more adventurous, you can go rafting through the Chasm, which we did. Furthermore, if you are really daring, you can scale the Chasm. On the other hand, if you’re looking to relax, you can take a tube ride down the river.

The Details

  • Location: 2144 Route 9, Ausable Chasm, N.Y. 12911
  • Hours: The park is open year-round, except for major holidays. During the summer, the park is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The rest of the year, the park closes at 4:00 p.m.
  • Accessibility: Tours of the chasm are not recommended for people who have difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Strollers are also not permitted in the chasm.
  • Pets: The park does not allow pets. The park does allow service animals in the Welcome Center, and on the Elephant’s Head and Rainbow Falls trails.
  • Admission: Basic admission is $17.95 for adults and teens, $9.95 for children (age 5-12), and free for children under age 5. If you’re a resident of Clinton, Essex or Franklin Counties, admission is $9.00. You can also purchase optional adventure packages for an additional fee.

To learn more about the Ausable Chasm, visit the website: http://ausablechasm.com/ or call (518) 834-7454.

Don’t Miss

If you’re looking to explore all that the Ausable Chasm has to offer, consider camping at the Chasm.

Fairies find a new home in Mendon Ponds Park

Countless hearts broke earlier this year when dozens of fairies were evicted from their homes in Henrietta’s Tinker Nature Park following acts of vandalism. The beloved fairy trail featured beautifully crafted and brightly painted doors carved into both trees and various pieces of wood.

The good news – you can rest easy! The fairies are safe and sound in their new slice of paradise – the Birdsong Trail at Mendon Ponds Park.

I recently had the opportunity to check out the fairy homes. They are brand new and tailored to the park. The inhabitants were too shy to come out and say hello, but I was blown away at how skilled they are at carpentry.

Check out the photos below to see how our winged friends live.  Don’t worry, though – there are still plenty more houses and surprises I didn’t include!

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The Highlights

If you’re interested in visiting the Tooth Fairy or checking out the Troll Hole, gather up friends and family and make the trek to Mendon Ponds Park.  The Nature Center sits on the corner of Pond Road and Clover Street.  There’s plenty of onsite parking, so don’t hesitate to load up several cars with eager explorers.

The Birdsong Trail begins to the left of the Nature Center, just past a small grass field.  Once you reach the sign, just follow the path in a square shape. It’s only about three quarters of a mile. Let your eyes feast on the adorable community built into the bark.

Feeling adventurous?  Instead of following the square path, turn right once you’ve completed half the square to continue down the Birdsong Trail into other criss-crossing trails.  You can find a detailed map of the Mendon Ponds trails here.  No matter how far you walk, the fairy house trail is a great way to get up and moving with your loved ones!

The Details

  • Location: The Mendon Ponds Park Nature Center is located at 27 Pond Rd, Honeoye Falls, NY 14472. For more information, call (585) 334-6170.
  • Hours: 6am-11pm (park access varies seasonally)
  • Pets not allowed on the Birdsong trail.

Don’t Miss

Once you’ve caught the fairy house fever (like I have), be sure to stop by the Corn Hill Arts Festival on July 13 & 14, 2019. The 7th Annual Fairy Houses Tour at the festival will feature tons of tiny dwellings built by individuals who want to carry on the fairy house tradition. Stop by and vote on your favorite!