Friday, October 24, 2014

Homeless Shelter Volunteer

While I'm involved in a variety of charities, the work I've been doing the longest has been volunteering overnight at a homeless shelter here in New York City, and I get questions about it all the time. The main question I get is, "why do you volunteer?" and honestly, I just don't know. It just feels important to me. So, I thought I'd share a little bit about it.

Even though I have been doing this routine consistently for a long time, I didn't tell my mother for almost five years. I thought she would worry, and I was right. Then I brought her with me to drop off some food on Thanksgiving one year, and she saw that everyone is very polite and helpful, and it feels safe, which helped her to stop worrying. I was glad I told her -- not only because I didn't want to hide something, but also because when I did tell her, my mother told me she wasn't surprised that I was volunteering. I learned that as a small child I had saved my allowance to give to the homeless people I saw sleeping on the sidewalks of New York. I don't remember this, but I do remember feeling very sad that they were all alone and noticing all the people walking by who ignored them. I remember thinking that they must be lonely.

I first heard about the shelter within months of moving to New York. I felt an immediate calling, but didn't feel fully comfortable with staying the night, so I met with one of the founders of the shelter to find out more. Sylvia was an older woman who no longer stayed overnight but continued to run the logistics of the shelter and kept involved in the politics that affected its function and funding. In fact, she was so passionate about protecting New Yorkers that she eventually ran for and won a seat in local politics while in her late 60's. She was a tiny woman who spoke with a kind voice that could also be quite stern if necessary, and while she looked like a cute grandmother, she was a force that was not to be crossed. I respected and liked her from our first meeting.

Still, I had my reservations. But I attended the group training session anyway, and started what would become a near-decade of volunteering.

The shelter I volunteer for is a faith-based shelter, meaning that a house of worship runs it. In the 1980's a bunch of faith-based shelters opened their doors to help the overwhelming number of people sleeping on the city streets. My understanding is that this was partly in response to reports of the city-run shelters being so unsafe that many people preferred the cold sidewalk to a city cot. The churches, meeting houses and synagogues of the city opened their basements and gyms to provide a safe place for the city's homeless to stay.

Because the volunteers at these shelters are not trained in social work, every guest that comes to a faith-based shelter must first go through

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Small Space Sweater Solution

As small a space as it is, for years my closet shelves were beautifully tidy with a place for everything. 

Yes, it was work to get those sweaters in there perfectly (and without snagging on the crates!), but it was worth it to be able to see every one at a glance. 

Then last year, I decided to finally upgrade the black milk crate shelves I've been using in one capacity or another since the beginning of college. While the milk crates were useful for different arrangements in different spaces over the years, my heels would often fall through the holes. More importantly, I thought I could get more pairs on a standard shoe shelf, and get the shoes living in boxes out. I searched for the right fit, and discovered that this flat shelf style holds the most pairs. The shoe shelf was a perfect fit, and it does hold more pairs than the milk crates were able to hold. Unfortunately, the length of the shoe shelves cut down on how many milk crates the closet could hold, which made it difficult to stack knits.

Resulting in this more days than not...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fall Flowers from Leaves

Have you seen these pretty flowers made from leaves by Nicole Duke via Sisters Know Best?

My version. Photos taken by my wife.

A pretty project that's free and takes just a few minutes was exactly what I had time for this weekend, so I gave them a try. I didn't watch the video instructions, so I made mine by just looking at the pictures. It came out nicely and was the easiest thing I've made in years.

Photos and project by Nicole Duke via Sisters know best.

I really love the way her flower in the final picture uses gradation to make the leaves look even more like a rose. My rose is a bit more random in color, which I like, but it might also be fun to make a few roses, each in a different color. The most colorful leaves are best for this as they bend more easily without breaking.

I used the pictures as a rough guideline for the process. I started by folding the first leaf's top point down, with the pretty side on the outside of the fold, as shown. But instead of continuing to fold it, I just rolled it from one side to the other, keeping the flat fold as the top. I folded a second leaf the same way, and rolled it around the first leaf, and repeated again with a third and forth leaf. These first four became the tight center.

After creating a center to the rose, I tucked other leaves around the center with the colored side facing the center of the rose. As I added each leaf, I turned it on a slight angle so that two of the three points would show as petals and the third wrapped around the rose.

I didn't happen to have floral tape available, so I used what I could reach to tie all the stems together. With the help of another pair of pinching fingers holding the stems in place, I tied a knot as close to the top of the stems as I could. I used a hair elastic (solely because that was the closest thing in reach), but string would work even better. After this photo was taken, I decided to braid the leaves' stems to create a single rose stem instead of attaching a small twig or wrapping the stems as shown in the pictures.

This was a fun and quick little project. Because they're easy to make, I could see a bunch of them on a table for Thanksgiving, or a single one pinned to a jacket as a corsage. And with Halloween coming up, I could even see them tucked into loosely curled hair as a great addition to a woodland fairy or Mother Nature costume, couldn't you? What a pretty way to decorate for fall.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Silly Travel Tip

I love tiny things, and travel size versions of favorite toiletries are no exception. Not only are they cute, but they certainly do they save space and weight in a bag when compared to full-size versions. Sometimes favorite products are available in travel sizes, but many are not, which makes bottling them up at home necessary.

Buying small empty bottles for this purpose has always struck me as a poor use of money -- those small bottles are rather expensive to be empty, don't you think? I've bought one here or there for shampoo or mouthwash, but I've really tried to repurpose my small containers instead. For years I've saved small empty bottles of products like lip balm and eye cream because they often make perfect travel-size containers for other products like moisturizer or face wash.

However, as smart as this plan may be, I kept running into problems. Mainly, I would constantly forget what was inside. Writing the names of products often required more space than the top of the container would allow, so I usually chose to leave it label-less, certain I'd remember, and always forgot. If a white cream is discovered in an old lip balm container, there is no good way to know what the cream might be. Sometimes the consistency of the cream helps eliminate options, but often trying to be a product detective is more trouble than it's worth.

As is my habit, I overthought it... I considered buying pre-made labels, but that seemed silly. Then I tried writing on the bottles with a Sharpie, but it would often rub off. And when it didn't rub off, that small container became more difficult to re-fill with something else because it now had a name. When I stopped using Oil of Olay, for instance, the perfect

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reward Points

While I'm a pro at using the free loyalty cards many stores provide, I am just beginning to learn more about all the rewards points and options out there for various credit cards. Credit card reward points are great because they feel like free money -- and if one is using a credit card anyway, why not get something back for it? As long as it doesn't encourage more spending on the card, and the card isn't costing a high interest rate, it's a nice little bonus.

I want to know more because it's important to know the options -- if used to their best advantage, they can really help cut down on things like air travel for vacations. Even so, it certainly is a lot of work to figure out which credit cards are the ones to open for which rewards, while also weighing the importance of not having too many credit cards and the interest rates or annual fees each card will require, against the types of purchases that will incur the highest number of points.

In the meantime, the credit card I've had for years has been racking up points. It is a pretty simple point system with most purchases working as one point for one dollar, but because I haven't touched the points for a while, they started to accumulate. There are lots and lots of options for redeeming them, from using them to pay bills, to donating to charity, to purchasing train or plane tickets, to getting cash, to trading for items of all kinds from kitchen appliances to jewelry.

After looking around at the different options, it becomes clear that some options have a higher return per point. Thanks to the various prices available for hotel rooms and flights, it's tough to figure out if they are the best deal, but simple things like paying bills, getting gift cards, and buying electronics are easier to figure out the breakdown. Here's how a few options break down for my card...

-Apple iPod Nano, 16gb, 7th Generation lists at about $152.00 at the store (including the average sales tax). Through my rewards, it costs 18,400 points, which means that the rate for this item is about $1.00 = 120 points.
-A $100 gift card to a restaurant or store is 10,000 points, or $1.00 = 100 points.
-Paying bills breaks down to about $1.00 = 154 point.

Honestly, the numbers are close enough that I may not have noticed if my wife hadn't done the math and pointed it out to me. But now that I know, using my points for gift cards is the only way I redeem them. It might be nearly free money, but it's still worth making the most of it.