Have you ever been in a situation where someone you were talking to over lunch had a- say- a bit of broccoli stuck between their teeth as you wondered should you just ignore it or politely point it to them in some discrete manner? A variant of that scenario happened to me last week. Thursday and Tuesday nights is where I go to grab dinner with a friend of mine. Other people join us on occasion. I do enjoy a nice sit down meal at one of my favorite restaurants in Gainesville. From the table we can see the room and the bar and after we're done with the food we occasionally grab a drink, and yes, maybe two. All of then sudden my friend points out a girl sitting at a stool and starts to laugh. She has a piece of paper stuck to her otherwise elegant shoe and is clueless about it. She's having a nice conversation with a gentleman next to her and they're having a few laughs. But the piece of paper is pretty big. You can't miss it, as her legs are not hidden behind any piece of furniture - they're sitting by the bar, leaning to the side. My friend is clearly enjoy the show, so our conversation quickly turns to: should we say something. We don't know her, but this is Gainesville. People here talk to strangers all the time. My friend points out that it would have been embarrassing. And there's some truth to that, especially to hear it from a random person at a bar. But is it more or less embarrassing than having something something actually stuck to your shoe with people pointing you out and making jokes? And how will she feel when she gets home and realizes that she had this there for hours and no one, including her date says anything? This isn't one of those cases where ignoring a problem would make it go away. I tell my friend I want to come up to her. My friend it turn really doesn't want to go there and points out that she's busy talking and probably is on a date. Our checks arrive and we are ready to go. (This was also the night when I felt tingling on my neck only to discover some form of a black beetle that I threw off to the ground, that my friend started to frantically squish with his shoe- Oh Florida) I decide to come up. My friend is so much in a hurry all of the sudden that he's nowhere to be seen. I say "excuse me, you have something stuck to your shoe" as quietly as I can. She looks at it, smiles and thanks me- and that all she wrote. All it took for me was 10 seconds of kindness that didn't cost anything, while for some reason my friend preferred it continued (to his credit, he likes to remove himself from awkward situations). I leave through the front door and he's waiting there. It wasn't a big deal. Definitely not worth debating for twenty minutes and I think I made the right choice. I sometimes think that we let social conventions stand in the way of a basic human reaction and small issues blow up to gigantic proportions. What would you have done?
Friday, January 23, 2015
As my nonprofit was granted the 501(c)(3) status at the beginning of January I thought we were out of the woods. But the fun times with following up and filing more applications were just about to roll. I've been keeping busy this week dealing with volumes and volumes on paperwork so that our Resource Director could have her pick of any type of campaign she can think of, so that we can finally figure out a strategy, generate some funding and finally do what we originally intended, which is- help people. So here's the problem- you get a letter from the IRS informing you that your organization was tax exempt. It then further tells you that until the charity listings are updated donors can rely on it when they give to your institution. What it doesn't tell you however is that businesses that have wonderful tools and solutions for non profits such as Google Apps and the AdWords grant, Amazon Smile (where buyers can give a small amount to an approved organization), the PayPal Giving fund (similar, but for ebay) or the Paypal rate discount - don't really care to see your paperwork and just verify the information against the IRS electronic listing. It used to refresh once every quarter. Now it's republished every month, just not in January. I got this little bit of information as I was able to get through to their phone agents some time after 8 in the morning. I attempted to call yesterday- forgetting it was the tax season- I spent an hour and a half on the phone waiting for a person and then it was 5 pm so I had to hang up. I felt like Phoebe from an episode of the 90's sitcom friends, where she's waiting day and night on a customer service rep to pick up, hearing only "Your call is important to us", refusing to give up. But I finally got my answer- it's expected to refresh on the second Monday of February. Then I followed up with the Florida Department of Agriculture, about our solicitation application that we filed and learnt that it takes up to 15 days- so we'll get it next month as well. A non profit should register with every State where it plans to raise money. And it becomes a real concern where money cross State lines through online fundraisers and campaigns. Some States but not all have exempted small nonprofits from that obligation, so it is something all of us need to watch for. While in most jurisdictions I reviewed failure to do so result in civil penalties, in some they are criminal. I know not to put as much as a Paypal button until my State approves me and to make sure to list the Stats where I do and do not solicit to avoid any confusion. Then the next step- USPS has interesting, lower rates for non profit entities, and there's a form for that. A form that- what I learned with many others I had to submit, was a non interactive, ready to print PDF. But I'm thinking and dreaming two steps behind- about what it will be like where we get to first strategize and then send out our first batch of postcards or other mailers announcing that we have arrived. I really don't mind, and I found myself re energized when the IRS letter came. I can get DOT if I want to have activities at the public rest stops- there's a form for that. To get there I need to submit an Application for Customer's Certificate of Exemption. I don't mind the work and I don't mind the calls, the emails and the faxes. It's weirdly exciting to be able to get things done. But when there's nothing to do but wait, I feel stuck. Because I can't do anything to help the process, we can't speed it up, we've done all this work and now it's out of our hands.
Monday, January 19, 2015
About a week ago, we've heard the good news. Something we were planning for and working on for months finally came true. Florida Disability Access and Awareness Foundation is finally a tax exempt, 501(c)(3) charitable organization, with the effective date of its formation. It's a big milestone for us. Up until now we've been fiscally sponsored by the Jordan Klausner Foundation, a similarly focused disability non profit. It's where I first volunteered and then worked on for a few years and I've developed a close relationship with them. I will expand on the non profit formation issues later in the week, but those of my readers who are unfamiliar with American procedures should understand that unlike some European countries, where you simply form a non profit often with one document and then file it in court, here tax exempt recognition has stages. You form an entity at the state level and then ask the IRS for a special designation. It used to be a long process involving projections, mufti- year business plans and a backlog estimated at 270 days. We've finally done it. This great accomplishment, a burden lifted off my shoulder put me in a reflective mood. For about a year we've been part of the Linked In for nonprofits platform. It's a program that allows certain non profits that join to seek out talent and put out free ads for volunteers. It's coordinators have long been asking for our thoughts, success stories and impressions. I thought it was finally a good moment to voice my opinion. I've learnt that the talent is transient - often joining in for a short while something we learnt to adjust to. But it doesn't change what some of our team members did for us in the best. It was their accomplishment as much as ours, so the first thing I did was thank those who left us since, because their work helped the project along. Then I shared the following with the Linked In team. I think it's an amazing resource for nonprofits given ts obvious limitations.
A few weeks ago Meg Garlinghouse encouraged us to share positive experiences with the program. Here's mine: At the time Linked In for nonprofits launched I was ready to give it up. Sure, we had a great mission, that I felt extremely passionate about- but what is it worth if you don't have the resources (and you feel like your stuck and going in circles). We were never going to make it- and then the program came along. We've recruited a lot of people. Most of them didn't stick around, but many gave us that extra inch to push us a little bit more to get to us to that goal. One thing I've learnt about volunteers- they need structure. A lot of new organizations don't really have it and the impulse is to have a new person come in and do it for you. People don't work well that way and I feel we wasted a lot of good talent- because if that makes sense- we were figuring ourselves out and we wanted an external person to come in and figure out some of those things for us.
Friday, January 16, 2015
Thursday, January 15, 2015
A lot of my friends are passionate about many causes as they should. Some of them don't eat meat. Most adopt abandoned animals from the pound. They get involved in runs, walks and fundraisers. And they give plenty. Did I ever say I know some of the most amazing, caring people? And there's plenty of injustice in the world - and a lot of ways you can join and stand what you believe. It's hard not to be moved when you see informercials for St Jude's hospital, the pet rescue campaign for tortured animals or pictures of starving kids in Africa in the middle of the night. I think that people who get involved in something should always be applauded. I have a friend who only gives to Cat Society. Would probably give them an arm and a leg if they asked and that's his prerogative. I was contemplating this whole concept of the "Art of Giving" as my new creative Director asked me why I started a non profit. Why don't I just get a corporate job and then write a check to something like a lot of honest working, good people do. And I tried to tell her, I wasn't looking for a cause to align myself with, it's the cause that found me. And then it followed me every minute, every day of my life, so I decided to do something about. With some of the campaigns people see on TV- they are moved by them, it inspires them to act, but then they are able to separate themselves from it. It's not always on your mind, it doesn't define everything you do, there's a life that you have that may have nothing to do with it. It's not that you forget- because you do get invested- and then you move on. From the moment I wake up in the morning I think about what kind of experience I will have as I board the wheelchair bus. What type of a boarding mechanism will it have. Who will be the driver, will he be nice or rude, will he know how to get the bus aligned and how to work the mechanism. If I go somewhere I worry about the ramps, the doors, the steps and the accessible bathrooms. The cause I started is about all the things I worry about having a disability and being in a wheelchair, so I can't turn it off, I can't move on from it and focus on other things. Because until the world is fixed it's something that will always affect me and even when it doesn't, it's something that I will always see. As I was discussing the issue of ADA enforcement in one of the Linked In groups aI was pointing out that being in a small city like Gainesville I often feel like I'm "the only wheelchair user in the village" so to speak. If I get businesses in trouble for not being compliant - the focus will be on me. I will be the one who is not welcome, who gets a reputation for stirring trouble and with a town of this size there's not many places for me to go. I said- I wish it wasn't so personal, that it wouldn't be always about me. Part of the reason I chose to build a non profit was to soften the blow. If I educate people rather than scare them, the more likely they are to come around on their own. But even if you say, hey you shouldn't really be doing X and you should get Y in the nicest way possible people still get upset. I was reminded that ADA flows directly from the civil rights movement and the 1964 Act, although it arrived decades later. And that in terms of personal sacrifice, the risks, the urgency, the resentment it's not that different. Some people said their friends received death threats trying to to promote the cause. It comes at a cost and with the territory, they said, the tears and the blood. Some of the provisions of disability legislation are almost identical to those of the Civil Rights act. At some point, something I'd never imagine, from a person who wants to do something and had a skill that admittedly can move a cause forward I became an activist when I wasn't looking. That's what makes this a bit different from just running a non profit. Some of the things we'll do would always be an eyesore to some who don't want to see it or hear it. There are times I could just turn it off and walk streets anonymously for a day. But there's a line that somebody wrote in response to mine that I like as it it hits the spot: "I imagine Thurgood Marshall may have felt similarly when he was in the field slaying dragons".
Monday, January 12, 2015
Here's a confession. I haven't really been keeping in touch with all the people who have helped me along at the lawschool. Who advocated for me when I fought with the LSAT administration for disability accommodations. Who then supported and encouraged me to get the word out about how it turn taints the whole admission process. Who then pointed me in the right direction and showed me where to start. And often just cheered me on when I was running out of steam. Years later, these were the same people that were there for me when my immigration status for a hot minute there got pretty messy. For someone with virtually no relatives in this country save some extended family, having someone who'd listen, send good vibes, pray for me and then actually be happy when it all worked meant the world. I live in the same city, yet I rarely go back. There's never a good time or good enough of the reason, so since I graduated, got my green card and passed the bar, I haven't really visited my law school a lot. And it's the secretaries- those quiet, kind ladies who knew everybody and everything there, though rarely spoke out loud- that helped to navigate the maze that can be an academic institution. I guess they liked me. I was always polite, greeted everyone with genuine interest, I cared about people and what they had to say and at the same time I was determined, ambitious and strong. I was on a mission, I was driven and I had conviction that everything will work out in the end. But- as it is always the case- we all move on and focus on other things. I fight new battles, often for other people and I stress over a new set of things, such as relaunching my nonprofit and making it successful so it can do what we envisioned it doing. This Sunday I saw one of the ladies I used to speak with a lot (did I mention I love to talk and I love people?) as we got in the checkout line. She was surprised I was still in town. For some reason she had assumed I moved back to Poland- I guess she hasn't seen me in a long while. She told me that she just retired last year but she still keeps busy and most of the other staff was gone too. The law school is now searching for a new dean. I joked that if they needed me they knew where to find me. . As I told her that I now practice law, that it's been nearly five years already since I got my green card and I run the non profit, she said: "God is good". "It has been trying"- I replied. "I remember"- she answered- "God tries people". And it made me think about how much too often when looking at what I've been through trying to get my point across, fighting for what I thought I deserved I focus on what the road here was like. How I felt exhausted and powerless and lost at times. How on occasion it seemed like I was going to scream with frustration. I remember those emotions well. But I rarely think of how I was able to overcome it. How it took a while, but I emerged victorious and I came out on top. I'd say that stands for something and it shows character. One thing I'll say for me- I dealt with it with humility. I told her that had anyone told me ten years ago that I'd be running a nonprofit I would have not believed them to which she said, "God found you a new path". I was out of my business cards so I couldn't give her one, but I wrote my number in her notebook. We promised to stay in touch and we went about our own ways.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
It happened as I was shopping last Sunday (I just realized that most of my recent posts start in the setting). I boarded the bus with a bag full of groceries handing from the back of my wheelchair and the driver secured me in. "You're leaking somewhere"- a guy behind me got my attention. As I noticed a tiny stream making its way towards the front of a bus I knew it had to be the big, gallon jug of milk. I thought, "Wow, it's going to be a great day". It was the last run of the route, so at the next stop the driver went back, to look through my bag and assess the damage. He moved the groceries a bit and turned a milk a bit because it was on the side. He couldn't really see, because it was wrapped in the plastic bag, but if it was leaking from the cap it would have help by getting it upright. For the duration of the ride it seemed OK. And then- it started to rain. I didn't have a rain coat or an umbrella because the weather app on my phone told me with great certainty that it was not going to rain for hours. Luckily for me, it's a 20 minute ride home, so by the time we got to my area it pretty much slowed down. Still I asked the driver to drop me off one stop earlier- just in case the rain picked up again, I could seek cover by the Starbucks building. From that point on it's pretty much open space with nowhere to hide. Then a couple with an umbrella caught up with me. "I'm just gonna walk with you for a little bit and put this above you, if that's OK"- the woman said- "Where do you live" and I pointed to my building. With rolls of toilet paper on my lap and having to balance them so I wouldn't drop them, I couldn't roll very fast, excuse the pun. I asked them to see how bad the leak was. The man just grabbed my groceries and took out the milk and walked a long with us. As it turns out, the kid who was bagging my groceries at Publix didn't do a very good job putting it back on my chair and he hung it to low. The bag was dragging all this time and it now had a big hole. As did the milk jug that was right on the bottom and dragged rubbing against the sidewalk, and it caused a tear on the bottom side corner. I picked up the paste a bit as I wondered if I should just toss it. They suggested I find a container I pour it over to. Such nice people, going out of their way to help me. It was interesting watching them as she seemed to be the leader of this operation, bossing him around a bit. I do love my milk. I got a gallon, thinking it'd save me time and effort having to do this again soon. I picked up this very British habit of drinking it in my Earl Grey (Something my mother didn't understand as I visited home last year and wouldn't do for me as she made tea) As we approached the apartment they suggested they go in and set the milk in my refrigerator. I wasn't too keen on having strangers over, so I asked them to set it on my lap. I needed to know if I can set it safely anyway, so I'd get a sense of how to handle it and needed be- toss it. I found a plate to secure it in my fridge with and then an almost empty jug of apple cider. And that's how I got home- almost dry, with an an almost full, (well 3/4) gallon of milk. All thanks to the kindness of others.