Connection is Key!

I had the pleasure of speaking to hundreds of high school students in Sun Prairie this month.  It never ceases to amaze me with the diverse lifestyles some of these kids come from.  Let me explain a typical setting when you go in and speak to group of kids you have never seen before.

Generally speaking, having a speaker in the classroom is a break from the student’s normal routine. I love it when teachers ask them to put their phones away, clear their ears of ear buds and put everything on the floor. I know then that I will have all of their attention (or at least it appears so). The stage is set and I look out at the students, wondering who I will connect with that day.  Having lived a healthy lifestyle for the last part of my life thus far has been a journey.  I have found through many experiences and mistakes, that I personally feel much better when I take care of myself physically and mentally. The journey was not easy for me and I have tweaked some things along the way and I continue to look for ways to be healthier.  It has been a journey that has enabled me to connect emotionally to students.

Stories, stories, stories.  I’m full of them.  Talking about cancer, detection, and living a healthy lifestyle is one of my passions so the words and stories flow naturally for me. I feel like my approach is almost mom-ish.  Is that a word?  My intent is to make my audience feel connected in a warm and welcoming way so the listener feels they can openly engage about the topic at hand.  It is very important for me to grab their interest within the first couple of minutes.  I need to make myself likable, engaging and informative in a very short period of time.

Students generally come from varied backgrounds. Their lives are all different.  Some of them have families that would seem for the most part “normal” which provide a healthy and nurturing environment.  Others, not so. I hear stories where the odds are against them.  Unhealthy environments of drug use, one or both parents in jail, homelessness, ongoing domestics, a single parent working so much to provide he/she is never home.  Some kids have lost parents to cancer or are dealing with it.  Some kids are dealing with cancer themselves or are in remission. My point is you never know who your audience is and how any one student is going to react to the presentation. 

One student, who appeared shy and timid had put her head down the entire presentation. She was tired as she was up all night listening to her parents argue. She was hungry because her parents fed her fast food and pizza every day.  She hated it and was sick of eating the same foods.  She has no memory of her parents ever cooking. She was in survival mode. Emotionally, mentally and physically she was exhausted and the worry and look on her face surpassed the years in age she was.  Hearing me speak gave her a glimpse of things that are in her control. The importance of sleep, eating the healthiest things she could find at school, and exercise. She never thought of some the things I spoke of. The smallest steps you can take every day add up to make the changes and impact on anyone’s overall health. She craved to be healthier. She wanted it badly but her home life was working against her.

Heartbreaking, but unfortunately common. Statistically 82% of our children aren’t eating the recommended five servings of fruits and veggies a day. Sometimes by choice but some because those foods just aren’t brought into the home.  I encourage kids to learn to start taking advantage of the things that are available to them in school. Some eat breakfast and lunch so I show them how one can get two or three servings alone while they are there. Choose whole grain whenever you can, cut out sports drinks and soda and replace with water and milk.  Give it some time and notice how much better you feel and think. Skip the fast food and challenge yourself to learn a new skill like cooking. Habits become harder to break the longer we do them. Create some healthy ones that are habits you future self will be thankful for! Those days in Sun Prairie had me thinking the whole way home. I am so grateful for this job and the ability to pass on information that can impact our youth in a positive way. We  not only educate, we connect.


Be a ripple effect…

Dear Parents,

Before I start, let me tell you about me. I am a mom. I am actually a mom and a dad. I am a single parent. That being said, I am pretty weathered-I’m not going to lie. I have had to pull the weight of raising my three children for most of their lives. They are all grown now and I feel my job as both parents turned out to be the best it could be. It wasn’t easy and there were many times I wanted someone else to take the reins. Oh, the thought…. the relief of someone else being there to discipline, teach manners, rules, morals, talk, cook, clean, read, help with homework, pick up the aftermath of flu, to name a few. The weight of a parenting is a heavy one. It can test every fiber of one’s thought and will. The parenting gig will make you acquire wrinkles, lose sleep and earn every gray hair on your head. Toddler years to teenage years to being young adults…And, now that they are grown, weirdly enough, I miss every second of raising them. Honestly, I would do it all over again. It was a fleeting moment on the large scale of things and I miss it. All of it.

Working for the Breast Cancer Family Foundation has filled a small void in filling that parental role. Kind of. I now go into schools and get to talk to students about cancer and cancer prevention. My goal is to touch their hearts with stories and knowledge that reach a part of them that yearns to be a better, healthier version of themselves. I talk about the importance of nutrition and exercise and other science proven things we can do for ourselves to be healthy but I also cover other important topics such as smoking, vaping, and Juuling.

Juuling hasn’t been around very long. In fact it was brought to the US in 2007. The Juul was intended for current smokers, not for someone who has never smoked much less alone a young person. We are just hitting the tip of the iceberg on what this potentially can do to our health. As an organization, we have to stay current on the subject as we seem to have new info on the subject daily. Last year I was in an auditorium packed with a couple hundred high school students. I had asked the teachers to leave the room because I wanted to have an honest conversation with the kids. I asked the students to stand up if they had ever tried to vape or Juul. The room hummed with small chatter and the noise of every student standing. There was not a student sitting. They sat back down and we started a genuine dialogue. I heard stories of why they started or tried Juul. Most of them were doing it because their friends were. Many told me they couldn’t quit if they wanted to. This. Breaks. My. Heart.

I am not oblivious to peer pressure or the need to feel like you fit in. I get it. I was a teenager once. I had three of them. There is a line though. A line we need to draw for our children. It is a metaphor for a mutual, common place where parents and children can go daily. A place to have conversations. A place to hear about each other’s day. A place to laugh, cry, and vent. A place to listen and guide. It is a safe place that takes years to establish a growing, respectable relationship with our children. The earlier the better, however it is never too late. It is our job as parents to meet them on that line daily and talk about stuff we may not feel entirely comfortable about. It is easier to openly talk about tough topics preventively than deal with them as a current issue. Having these conversations is necessary in terms of this vaping/Juul epidemic. The repercussions of ignoring it will and is biting us in the butt. This Juul epidemic has hit us like a storm. Use is up over 75% and as a result we are seeing a new generation addicted to nicotine. Juul’s website is now offering resources and tips to help teenagers and young people quit. The CEO of Juul is apologizing to parents for the nicotine addiction. This is a real problem. We love our children and we never want to see them suffer. It is our guidance that can have an impact. We are having a growing number of kids out there suffering with nicotine addiction because of the Juul. One pod is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes. I have spoken to kids who are doing up to 10 pods a week! Those that are trying to quit may or are suffering and feeling irritable, restless or jittery. They are having headaches, increased sweating, feeling sad or down, anxious, tired and groggy. They may be having trouble thinking clearly or concentrating, having trouble sleeping, are hungrier. This is just the nicotine aspect of a Juul! Wow….if parenting a teen who isn’t going through this isn’t tough enough!

As we approach a new school year, I encourage parents to establish or strengthen that line with their children. It isn’t going to be a fun kind of conversation but it is one that hopefully will reconnect you to that child that is growing inside of that preteen/teenage body. Whether or not they would admit to needing you yet (or not), please know they do and your opinion matters. Talking to our children about loving themselves should be a frequent conversation. It starts there. It is the stone thrown, known to have that ripple effect.

Have a great school year with your kids!


Holly Fox | BCFF Community Educator

A Note of Gratitude…

I think it was quite possibly the hottest day so far this summer.  Camp was beautiful.  The cabin I was in overlooked a lake and was surrounded by trees.  There was so much humidity in the air you could see a soft, transparent blanket of mist covering everything.  The sun was going down and the reflection through the trees hitting the water and pier were beautiful.  Swimsuits were hanging as if they were trying to dry in the high humidity.  I could hear the girls coming towards the cabin, chattering or singing in small groups among themselves. It was my second night at camp and I was excited to see the faces I had spoken to the night before.

The night before I spoke to the girls about taking care of themselves mentally. I had started the presentation with an intention to show how quickly we can jump to a conclusion and judge others based on what we see. Hoping they’d take the bait, I was to launch into my healthy mind, healthy you segment. As they walked in, the giggles dissipated as I stood there with an expressionless, stoic face.  I wore a soft beige blouse, business skirt, and heals.  I put more make up on than usual, sporting some matte lipstick I had to dig around for at home. I certainly didn’t look like I belonged in camp. I said nothing until they were all sitting in front of me. I stood erect, properly poised as I said my hello and explained that I was Ms Holly, CEO from an elite organization that worked with young girls to obtain high self-esteem. My tone was different for me and it was hard not to break out into laughter.  I asked if they were ready to hear what I had to say and I think I heard a couple muddled yes’s.  As I spoke with a conceded tone, I stopped as if my thoughts were side tracked.  I told them I “forgot” to hand out the note paper and pens I brought for them.  I had wanted them to write down their opinion of me. I encouraged them to write as much as they wanted and it told them it was ok if it was negative or seemingly mean as I wouldn’t know who wrote what. I collected the little pieces of paper and proceeded to read them out loud. Some of them held nothing back! Kids are so honest.  It is part of why I love what I do. Some things the girls wrote down included-rich, well dressed, thinks highly of herself, had plastic surgery, pristine, pretty, poised, mean, emotionless, high end, old, lots of make-up.  As I read the little sheets of paper, I explained that my feet hurt and I needed to take off my shoes. I reached down and took each shoe off and plopped them on the floor in front of me.  They were very quiet and watched intently as I read a couple more comments.  I paused, looked up and at the girls and reached into my purse for some wipes where I proceeded to take off my make-up. They squirmed and looked at each other. I kept a straight face and read a couple more. Some comments weren’t so nice and it made some of the girls gasp at the raw honesty of others. I remained calm and told them it seemed to be very hot in the cabin. The pretty blouse and skirt I was wearing came off to reveal a much cooler and simple outfit. Now I looked like I belonged in camp! I looked up to see many of them sitting with their mouths and eyes wide open and with a look of disbelief. My tone changed. “I wasn’t what you thought I was?” How quickly we can judge others and assume. I proceeded to say, “My name is Holly and I am with the Breast Cancer Family Foundation.” The lesson went on to explain that we often will do this when we are social media, phones and our computers.  Anyone can present themselves in any kind of way. They can pretend to be something they are not, act like they have something they don’t, pretend to know something you don’t. It is hard to know what is real and what is not. We are plagued with what we think the world wants us to be rather than celebrating who we are and what gifts we have to bring to this life. We start comparing ourselves to others, trying to define our interpretation of what success looks like to the world rather than to ourselves. The path is different for everyone. Comparison steals joy. It can affect your self-esteem, which can lead to feeling anxious and depressed and engaging in unhealthy habits. We followed the conversation with an exercise that lifted each of us. We learned that we all have struggles. I stressed the idea of being more compassionate, kind and understanding towards others. It truly feels better on both ends. The plan should be for us to be a better person tomorrow than we were today, both mentally and physically. We finished the evening with hugs and a photo.  The photo of us was snapped after I asked them to proclaim, “I’m beautiful.” I asked three times before I got half the response I was hoping for. I left thinking, I need for that response to be much louder when I return tomorrow evening.

Overall, the first night went well and I was excited to return the second evening. I was going to bring in the previous night’s content into the second night while covering other aspects of wellness. They knew me now and I hoped to have gained some respect and trust from the girls.  I was dressed in my casual shorts this night. Thank goodness.  The evening was much like the previous, warm and humid. 

I waited inside by the door and high fived the girls as they entered the cabin.  Half way through the line, a brown-eyed girl secretly handed me a folded up note.  I felt like it was a secret.  I felt like I was in high school, getting slipped a note only intended for my eyes to read.  I smiled softly at her, said thank you and slipped the unevenly folded note into my short pocket.  The evening flowed and was filled with topics like sunscreen, sleep, nutrition, exercise and self-care. I learned from listening to the girls and felt like this age (8-12) was so impressionable. There were several big issues for the girls that came up again and again. Many talked about an alone feeling of being the only one (fill in the blank), bullying, family issues and electronic distractions. Nutrition and exercise was a common theme as well as taking care of our earth. It was an amazing couple of hours and a gift for me to spend that time with these girls who are a fraction of my age. The struggles, the awareness and the willingness to thrive at this age should never be underestimated. The girls were very honest about their life struggles and we discussed how we can improve our life every day. 

I needed another picture.  We posed and I asked them to say “I’m beautiful!” Ahhhh.  There is was. It actually hurt my ears.  I received more hugs this night than the last.  It felt amazing and I hated to see the night end.  It was raining when I left and I was happy I wasn’t wearing heals as I headed through camp and back to my car.  The girls left at the same time to head back to their cabins for the night.  As I was almost back to my vehicle. I heard a group yell, “We love you Ms. Holly.”  I smiled and waved to them as I got into my car and listened to the rain hit the window as I thought about the evening.  I then remembered the note the brown eyed girl slipped me.  I pulled it from my pocket and gently unfolded the note to find the little girl’s written words touching. Moments like this are priceless. They are fleeting and gone, but the impression and impact we have reinforces our “reason” in the work we do at the Breast Cancer Family Foundation. 

Dear Holly,

Thank you so much for coming.  You are now one of my top role models. You reminded me that I could do so much more for myself. I’m feeling better about me and having self-esteem. I think everyone should hear from you because I think it could change a lot. Have you ever heard of the book, Strong Is The New Pretty?  I think you would like it.

Thank you so much.   – Sophie

Holly’s End of Year Thoughts

Hey all! It’s Holly.  My second year as an educator for the Breast Cancer Family Foundation is winding down as the school year is ending with a much anticipated summer.  This winter was brutal and I think students and teachers alike share the anticipated relief.  I have only two years to go on, but this winter had so much snow I found myself rescheduling not once but sometimes twice due to so many snow days.

Students are cleaning out lockers and desks.  Teachers are finishing up grades and custodians are trying to maintain order in the hallway.  The energy can be felt by students and staff alike. A great parallel in visualizing this environment is like watching the end of the movie Grease. For me, it is a time of reflection, both personally and professionally. I think back to the entire school year; the schools I had visited, the students, the stories along with the emotions I take away from the experiences.  I always go into a school with an anticipated excitement, to share what I know and to inspire my listeners to live a healthier life.  Each day I speak, my hope is to make an impression on one student’s thoughts where they might make some life changes that lead them to a healthier life.

Let’s be honest, teenagers are almost from a different world, a different culture, a different language!  Part of my job as a speaker/educator, is entering that world and making a connection and difference.   I’m not going to lie, this has been a work in progress for me and is a tricky endeavor. But, once you’re in their world…it is amazing!  There are no words to explain the conversations where you know you are making an impact. The hugs, the thank you, the questions, the “thank you for coming” as they leave the classroom mean so much. I cherish the moments when a student tells me about the changes they are going to make to become healthier.

I am a big story teller when I speak.  I make my presentation work with my stories.  These accumulated stories are acquired through past classrooms experiences so it is not uncommon for my presentation to change some throughout the school year.  There are many stories I could share. Some of them are funny, some could make you cry yet other stories leave you with a “WOW” feeling that stays with you.  I have decided to share a “wow story” to give you a glimpse of the impact the Breast Cancer Family Foundation has on our youth.

This happened in a high school classroom where approximately 40 students sat in individual desks. It was a health class that consisted of junior and seniors. There was one boy who was seated in the middle of the classroom who would not look at me when I spoke.  He would look down, while swaying his head back and forth so I figured he had headphones in. I’d walk back and forth to see if I could get a glimpse of his ears to confirm a set of ear plugs, but they weren’t there. Twenty minutes had passed and I had not been able to make eye contact with this student. At one point, he turned around to speak to the teacher who was sitting in the back of the classroom. This student then got up and walked out.  Assumingly, I thought the kid had to go to the bathroom and was afraid to get up while a guest speaker was in his classroom.  He returned a few minutes later only to return to his original state of no eye contact with a swaying head.  This started to bother me and I made it a goal of mine to make eye contact by the end of my presentation.  I tried to spike his interest by moving my hands in a theatrical manner while pacing back and forth.  It wasn’t working and he didn’t look at me once, but got up from his desk and started to walk towards me when he passed out and fell at my feet. When he came through, I asked him if he was diabetic or had any underlying medical conditions.  His reply was no. I asked him if he had breakfast and he said yes, but was wondering how he got down on the floor.  The teacher called the school nurse and he was removed the classroom. I proceeded and finished my presentation with the other students. I answered questions and packed my things up.  When I walked out of the classroom, I saw that student and nurse sitting on the floor leaning back on the lockers.  He was pretty pale and he had a blank stare on his face.  I decided to approach him so I also sat on the floor across from him.  I got eye contact! It made me smile and I asked how he was doing and wondered if I could ask him some personal questions.  He said he felt a little better and agreed to answer my questions.  I know the topic of cancer can be a very real and raw thing for some students, so I asked him if he had a family member or someone close to him that was inflicted with cancer. He looked at me and said no.  Then it hit me. I carefully and warmly asked him if he had a lump.  His answer was yes. I wondered if his parents knew about it but he said he had not told them.  I reacted calmly as this poor guy was scared and riddled with anxiety.  I encouraged him to tell his parents or someone he trusted to see a Doctor. It may not be cancer, however if it was, it is always best to catch it early.

 I felt better after I spoke to him and I hope he followed through with getting care.  It was an impactful day not only for him, but for me as well. It was a nice reminder for me that everyone has a story.  Our message at the Breast Cancer Family Foundation is powerful. It impacts and it does make a difference. He was student #13 this school year to tell me in confidence about a lump they were concerned about on their body. I honestly don’t know if I will ever know how this boy’s story ends but I can’t help thinking of the different directions this kid’s life could have taken. I’m glad I was there that day. It was a day I made eye contact at exactly the right moment.