September 2021

Local Business Executive Spreads Message of Kindness

What instigated your donation to Tech Feeds Hope?
My mother lives in Santa Cruz and saw the long lines of families picking up food donations from Second Harvest at Thanksgiving, with kids in the car awaiting their turn. She suggested that we offer Girroo to instigate fun and healthy family conversation while they wait. I reached out to Susan Lovegren, one of our advisors at #NotMe who is on the board of Second Harvest, with a simple offering. She and the SH board came up with many different ways and places to distribute the book and stuffed animal so that local children could receive them for the holidays. It’s been awesome to see how one small idea snowballed into something beautiful when impassioned people came together. I’ve truly enjoyed all of the amazing staff and volunteers that I’ve met at SH through this, and so appreciate the awesome work they do in our community.
What is the basic plot line of The Happening of Girroo, and what or who inspired you to a write a children’s book while attending UCLA? )
My Grandmother came up with the idea. She was an amazing woman— mother of 10 and entrepreneur with her own toy company, Twinson, that she started with her twin sister in 1946. She approached me with the storyline, my cousin for the illustrations and was inspired by my grandfather, affectionately known as Papa. He had a huge heart and would stop to connect and smile with any and every child that ever crossed his path. The Happening of Girroo is about a giraffe named Jeff who is being transported to a zoo when he meets Katy, a kangaroo who helps him to escape. They become friends, fall in love and eventually have Girroo. It’s all about recognizing and celebrating our differences and the things that make us unique, while also united and connected..
The Happening of Girroo is written in rhyme. Do you think that makes the message of belonging easier for children and adults to grasp?
Funny enough, that was one of the reasons our book was turned down by so many publishers. Many said that rhyming wasn’t popular or “in” at the time, and encouraged us to resubmit without the rhyme. That didn’t make any sense to us. We disagreed and recalled our own childhood and the lessons we more readily remembered – many of which came from rhyme or song. So we stuck with it and I’m so glad that we did. It’s fun to listen to children who have read it multiple times that recite parts of it with joy and playfulness. The message of the book is a deeply important one, but it can be relayed – and better received – with a light heartedness that helps it to spread further and faster.

As a mom of two young children, how do you teach your children about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging?
Exposure and open conversation. Exposure can come in many forms. Ideally in personal interactions with all different types of people, but with the last year in lockdown, that’s been challenging all around. So exposure in what we read and what we watch and how we talk amongst ourselves. Our little guy just turned 1 and has barely met anyone or seen much of anything beyond our home, so it’s how we treat each other and talk to one another that is having its greatest impact. Our daughter is now 4. They both love books and I try to make books available to them that have diversity in representation, thought and messaging. And a fun thing we do as a family is watch The Voice. There’s a variety of contestants and the short vignettes on each of their stories that brought them to the stage are great. We welcome the very innocent, curious questions from our daughter about why someone looks, sounds or acts differently than we do. Those moments, which can be uncomfortable or even awkward in shared company, are usually only made so by the adults in how we respond. So we’re practicing meeting those moments with honesty, kindness and openness.

You recently donated 300 copies of The Happening of Girroo and plush toys, to Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County to distribute to their partner organizations. Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center was thrilled to receive 50 copies. Executive Director Julie Macecevic said, “It could not have come at a better time because our Early Education Center is packing weekly bags of school activities for all of its’ ages 0-5 program families to use while homeschooling. The book is delightful and shares a message of love and acceptance of diversity, which perfectly aligns with Walnut Avenue’s mission and values. My own 5-year-old twins adore Girroo!! We are grateful for this generous donation at a time when families need all the help we can get providing stimulating and engaging educational materials.”
Aww thank you, I love hearing this! And the fact that I wrote it 20 years ago and it’s still being appreciated reminds me of the saying that you learn all the most important lessons of life in kindergarten where the focus is on the golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated. It really is that simple for kids, but as we get older, sometimes we forget the basics.

As President and Chief Business Officer of #NotMe, the speak up and reporting solution that helps prevent misconduct, you are clearly passionate about diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging. What changes are you seeing in people’s attitudes towards making workplaces, schools, and organizations safer for all?
Let’s first clarify that when we talk about making these environments safe, we are talking about making it both physically and psychologically safe. That’s growth in and of itself.

Additionally, the two biggest changes that I have seen are 1) a louder verbal commitment by employers and organizations to do better in this area and say how their company values reflect this, and 2) a higher standard of expectation by individuals/employees/students who are calling out when those words are not backed by action, and who are no longer willing to accept that power – abuse in any form – is “just the way it is”.

The next shift, which is truly exciting and happening with the most progressive organizations and leaders, is to go from saying the right thing to actually doing the right thing by listening differently, empowering their constituency to easily and safely report issues earlier, and by ultimately crowdsourcing – not simply claiming – a more inclusive, accountable culture all around. And I’m really proud to say that a handful of those companies are right here locally.

If there are other non-profits in the county interested in an in-kind donation of this delightful book that supports differences and teaches the importance of compassion and understanding of others, please contact Josue Barajas, Chief Programs Officer at Second Harvest Food Bank, [email protected].

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