Pleasanton high school students Elena Angst, Sarah Crawford, Hannah Yozzo and Mariah Nibert marched into the San Francisco airport earlier this summer bearing signs of welcome for Mexican students they’d never met. They welcomed them into their homes for three weeks of language immersion, cultural experiences and just plain fun.

Currently, these students are in Tulancingo, where they are sharpening their Spanish skills and learning about a city that resembles Pleasanton in demographics, cultural opportunities and soccer enthusiasm. In all the testimonies that I’ve heard about this program, it’s apparent that, without fail, these teenagers go from being strangers to lifelong friends in six short weeks.

courtesy of Ann AngstHannah Yozzo, left to right, Sarah Crawford, Elena Angst, Mariah Nibert, Andrea Islas, Enrique Gayosso,Braulio Riosand Daniela Orozco.

courtesy of Ann Angst Hannah Yozzo, left to right, Sarah Crawford, Elena Angst, Mariah Nibert, Andrea Islas, Enrique Gayosso,Braulio Rios and Daniela Orozco. ( courtesy of Ann Angst )
 Celebrating its 30th year, the youth exchange is one part of the Pleasanton-Tulancingo Sister City program. The club hosts many activities throughout the year, including adult trips every April and September. Jorge Victoria, the current president, explained that families participating in the youth exchange only have to cover airfare; the club finances group activities such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a Giants game, a Sacramento tour and social events. In Tulancingo, activities include visiting the Teotihuacan pyramids, Pachuca and attending the local high school. This year, the girls packed white dresses for a quinceañera celebration.

Ann Angst co-directs the program and says the benefits include increased self-esteem, stronger social and second language skills and college preparation. The challenge, she says, is reaching Pleasanton parents. More students apply in Tulancingo than Pleasanton, a trend she attributes to overpacked schedules and unnecessary trepidation.

“Parents are afraid that Mexico isn’t safe or that their children’s Spanish skills aren’t strong enough,” said Angst.

After two thousand successful trips and so many years of fellowship, these two communities are tightly knitted together.

“Participating households undergo a rigorous interview process,” said Victoria.

As for Spanish skills, a student only needs to have taken Spanish 2, often accomplished by the end of one’s freshman year.”Typically, the Tulancingo parents don’t speak English, but the students are fluent,” said Angst.

Angst’s daughter, Sophia, participated in 2012 and is now an International Studies major at Elon University in North Carolina attending classes at the University of Buenos Aires. She said the program helped foster her interest in the culture and motivated her to improve her Spanish.

“It was definitely a good first step to an abroad experience and made adjusting to Argentine culture a little easier,” said Angst.

Hannah Yozzo, one of this year’s ambassadors, said, “My favorite experience so far has been seeing the pyramids because they are so old and beautiful and unlike anything you would ever see in the U.S. Also, it’s really odd because everything is so green and I can take showers for as long as I like!”

The value of connections with people from a different culture and country is immeasurable.

Sarah Crawford summed it up: “I’ve made seven new friends that I feel I’ve known my whole life. I heard people say that you make lifelong friends in this program, but I didn’t believe I could feel this close to people I met only a few weeks ago.”

For more information, visit www.ptsca.org and contact Ann Angst at 925-600-7941.

Contact Amy Moellering at ajmoellering@gmail.com.

Dear Sunny Spells Readers: Although it’s been ages since I’ve blogged, I have been busy writing columns for our local newspaper, The Tri-Valley Times. Some of you have asked to read these pieces and since they are piling up and I’m losing track of them, I thought I’d start posting them here. I will clearly label them so they are clearly distinguishable from my other musings. Thanks for reading and for your incredible support!  
 
Best, Amy

AROUND PLEASANTON, AMADOR GRAD HEADED TO WORLD CHAMPS Amy Moellering, Columnist, Contra Costa Times, July 9, 2015

A look of sheer admiration graced the faces of the middle school students who stopped at our Santa Rita Road Starbucks table. I was talking to Jackie Gilbert, a 2015 Amador Valley High graduate who, as the first female Californian to be picked for the U.S. National Lacrosse team, is creating quite a name for herself. These girls wanted some of her time, too.

Like many kids in Pleasanton, Gilbert first turned to lacrosse as a way to cross-train for soccer. By the time she reached high school she was fully committed to playing year-round, making the varsity team as a freshman and playing in tournaments across the country with Bear Lax. She’s now headed to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the U19 National Lacrosse team to compete in the world championships. Considering that the farthest west any of her teammates live is Pennsylvania, Gilbert is finally bringing attention to what has traditionally been an East Coast-dominated sport.

Amador Valley High School Jackie Gilbert plays for Amador Valley versus Carondelet High.

Gilbert’s competitive journey started in May 2014 when she was playing in a tournament with the NorCal team. Out of 800 players, Gilbert was invited to attend a tryout two months later in Baltimore with 110 other players. This tryout pruned the number to 25. She then flew back east for training sessions in October and found out in January that she made the final cut, a team of 18. Selected to play defense, she’s a versatile player who is also dynamite as a midfielder and on the draw. Gilbert gives a lot of credit to Bear Lax coach Theresa Sherry. “She made it possible to get into top tournaments and get huge exposure,” said Gilbert.

Support from family and friends, who have helped fund her travel expenses, has been invaluable. “This process has shown me how incredible our town is,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert will fly to New York for final training with the team before she joins them on what will be her first international flight. The world championships will run from July 23 through Aug. 1, and the team is hoping to win its fifth consecutive gold medal. After the World Cup, Gilbert will return for a few weeks to prepare for her new adventure: freshman lacrosse player at USC.

“It will be nice to have that pinnacle moment in Scotland because then it’s back to low man on the totem pole,” said Gilbert.I soon discovered that the middle school girls who stopped at our table were lacrosse protégés. In her limited free time, Gilbert gives private lessons to girls. In the “Be You” videos highlighting the U.S. national team, Gilbert talks about how difficult middle school was and how she overcame bullying. Now she helps that age group gain self-confidence through lacrosse. It was apparent from the kind way she spoke to them and the look on their faces that Gilbert has learned to use her talents to give back and is a hero — our very own hometown lacrosse hero.

For more information about the U.S. national team and to see the “Be You” videos, visithttp://www.uslacrosse.org/u19women.

Contact Amy Moellering at ajmoellering@gmail.com.

Posted by: amymoellering | May 19, 2014

One of those “on the brink” Hugs

Remember your child’s first day of Kindergarten and you bent over to hug him or her goodbye? For me, I knew, to the bottom of my core that it was a profound moment, a moment on the brink—our little girl was crossing into a new world outside our home and our protection and moving into the big, expanded world of schooldays.

Then there was the first time our son took the car keys after he got his license. I knew he was entering a new level of freedom, and it wouldn’t be long before he too felt those possibilities. I hugged him and said, “Drive safe.” I must have said those words countless times. “Take care.” “Drive safe.” “Call me when you get there.” The litany of phrases we moms use.

These hugs are “on the brink of a transition” hugs. Sometimes you know that’s what they are and sometimes you don’t. They aren’t necessarily sad…they are bittersweet. Filled with pride and joy intermingled with the sting of loss that comes with change.

That was the hug I had with my oldest daughter last week. I knew what was happening. She did not. She just thought she was going for a hike with her sister. In her crumpled sweatshirt, her long brown hair tied up in a ponytail, she gave me a huge smile and morning hug. I held on a little long, in full knowledge that when she came home things would be different. Not only was our relationship moving into a new sphere, but also the circle of our family would be expanded. Just like that— exciting, full of promise— the way life is at twenty-three.

“See you soon,” I simply said, feeling like I was hugging the moment of her childhood moving on. “Have fun hiking.”

Yet, this was not a normal Saturday morning hike. A wonderful red-headed boy was waiting for her on a bench, with a ring in his pocket and promises in his heart. I knew during our hug that the next time I saw her she would have entered a new world, one that was redefining her definition of home. Although she’s been independent for a number of years and has lived on her own—this was different. Very different. Yep, it was one of those on the brink hugs!

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Posted by: amymoellering | November 6, 2013

Conversation Confusion

As we prepare to visit our daughter for Parents Weekend  (packing our winter coats) I came across this entry I wrote in the summer….

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone that veered so off course you were left scratching your head?  A week before we took our youngest to college in the Great Midwest, we were eating lunch at some outside tables in Monterey with our new puppy sitting at our feet. Because new puppies are skilled conversation starters we caught the attention of a young mom and her two boys. She stopped us as we were leaving and asked all sorts of questions about the dog. I told her how she was bred for the runway, a show dog reject, whose dreams of modeling were curtailed by the fact that she’s too short. We laughed..I mean, aren’t we all too short to be models?  This is where the conversation got funny:

“What’s your dog’s name?” asked the woman.

“Well, her show name was ‘Who’s your Honey?’ but we renamed her Gracie.”

The woman’s eyes lit up and she nearly leapt out of her chair. “I’m from Indiana!”

At which point, my daughter’s eyes lit up too and she burst out, “I’m going to Butler! I leave next week.”

“OMG. I lived in Broad Ripple! You are going to love it. Butler’s a great school. Midwest boys are sooo nice…..” and on and on she went, in directions I couldn’t fathom. No longer was I the proud momma of a show dog reject, but the confused mother of a college bound daughter who was now the center of attention.

Although confused, I was also thrilled at how excited Maggie looked because frankly, she had seemed rather nervous lately about college.

We walked away after Maggie had gotten the low-down on all the places to go and the merits of Midwestern men. “What the heck was that all about?” I asked.

“Mom, she thought you said Hoosier Honey…not “Who’s your Honey.”

”But I’m glad she did,” Maggie continued. “I needed to hear that. People have been asking me why I would go so far away and it was nice to talk to someone who thinks it’s great.”

Whose your—Hoosier, I muttered. Well, there you have it!

HOOSIER, def. Hoosier /ˈhʒər/ is the official demonym for a resident of the U.S. state of Indiana.

Posted by: amymoellering | October 29, 2013

Just Married—50 Years Ago

After months of planning on Skype with my husband’s siblings who live in Ohio and London, the 50th anniversary celebration of my dear in-laws finally happened.

Outside Chapel Hill North Carolina, in the lovely Fearrington Inn, we had an intimate gathering of their closest friends and family. We re-enacted the saber arch they had at their military wedding during the Vietnam Era—four of their prior service friends standing as close to ramrod straight as possible, with sabers held high and crossed to form an arch. We duplicated the gardenia bouquet she carried and strung a paper streamer with the numbers 1-50, each filled with a detail of foolish fun (e.g. #24: Cost of a gallon of gas the year they were married).

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 We watched, amid laughs and tears, a video my husband put together. That’s when it became apparent:  50 years is a lifetime, and that’s what we were celebrating: a married partnership across half a century filled with love for each other, for family, for friends; filled with kindness, laughter and commitment.

There were photos of parades and uniforms, of the babies, of the vacations, of the silliness of family reunions, of trips with friends, of those no longer with us, of fashion mistakes like shoulder pads and horrible ’80’s perms. Their love and devotion to each other was evident in every frame.

As we were setting this whole affair up, an outdoor wedding was taking place nearby on the lawn, and we stopped to watch. A young bride, on her father’s arm, walked through a drizzle of rain down the grassy aisle. She was just beginning her journey and I hoped she had a role model like my in-laws to emulate.  I was hoping the rain wasn’t bothering her one bit. That she welcomed its serendipity, it’s defiance against the weather forecast; that she laughed, because if she didn’t have the day she imagined, she had the day she created.

Because it’s one thing to stay married 50 years—and it’s another to hang a banner that sincerely reads: “Just Married- 50 years ago.“

Thanks for the example of love, Karla and John.

Posted by: amymoellering | October 15, 2013

Empty Nest?

My poor blog…it’s where I try to make sense of things and sometimes when you’re in the midst of an upheaval you just live through it and try to make sense of it all later. Later soon becomes a month, then two. Journals—that’s where the rawness of experience is recorded. Scrawled ink, rambling sentences, a litany of the mundane…that’s my journal. Time to pull those out, do a little healthy reflection, and hash them into Sunny Spells again.

 It has been a time of upheaval…the youngest off to college; the oldest struggling with health problems; a new puppy, a new job. But it’s been full of Sunny Spells too and it’s time…

So yes, we took the youngest to college, almost two months ago, and it’s been an adjustment. Not that I’m in denial or anything…I do buy way too many groceries for teenagers who aren’t coming, and although those empty closets are tempting, I haven’t filled them yet with the overflow of mine or the coats from the downstairs closet (I’m thinking that space would make a great wine cellar)…but so far, the rooms are intact.

However, the lack of chaos has been something I’ve had a bit of trouble with, as my neighbor brought to my attention this past weekend. She came over with her kids, and did a double take in my foyer. She took one look at the Golden Retriever and another at the small Terrier pup who came running to greet her and said,

 “Amy, I need to give you a reality check. Here you guys are supposed to be Empty Nesters and you have not one but two puppies, and one is in diapers!”

It’s true… John went shopping for diapers when our seven-month old puppy went into heat and the terrier was a friend’s dog we were watching while she went to her daughter’s parent weekend. But I smiled. Maybe I do need a reality check, but watching those puppies play and wrestle, and the madness of them running in circles brought joy and noise to a house that has felt a little too…quiet lately.

 

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Posted by: amymoellering | July 8, 2013

Adventure on Highway 5

The interminable stretch of interstate between Southern and Northern California is the definition of monotony. The poorly equipped rest stops are few and far between, leaving mile after mile of golden farm fields, almond orchards, dried up almond orchards, smelly cows, disturbing scenes of smelly cows, trucks, and many more trucks.

Congress Created Dust Bowl

I’ve driven this stretch countless times, sometimes there and back in one day, to help my daughter who attended school in L.A. and stayed there to live. I’ve wrestled with sleepiness and boredom with packs of gum, Twizzler packs, book tapes, country music stations, and carafes of coffee.

Yes, to have any excitement on this road is unusual. Guess I should consider myself lucky.

On one of my latest trips, I traveled with Sarah’s boyfriend Joel with the mission of  getting to her place  by 2 pm in order to drive her to the hospital for a minor procedure. We left at 6 am with plenty of time to make the six-hour trip.

It wasn’t long before we were far from any signs of civilization and the tire blew. Not a large pop or blow out, just that uneven, jagged, bumpty-bump-bump on asphalt at high speeds.

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My first thought was “great, we are in the middle of nowhere,” only to realize (gratefully) that the middle of nowhere no longer exists if you have cell phone reception.

In the old days, this really would have been an adventure as we would have had to walk to a call box, or try to flag down a sympathetic ( not pscyopathic) trucker.  But, in the days of smart phones, there wasn’t much danger. Within seconds I was on my phone calling AAA while Joel was on his, determining our exact location on his navigation app. Simultaneously, my husband John was at home photographing the AAA card that I had left behind and texting it to me.

Not impressed by this adventure? I know, the phones kind of killed it.  But this adventure isn’t about being stranded on Highway 5, it’s about what we found off Highway 5.

Within 30 minutes AAA found us, put on the dinky spare, and directed us towards Big O Tires in Los Banos, 40 miles away with a 15-mile detour off the highway.  At this point, we had only lost forty-five minutes and felt confident we could still make it. Our hopes sank when we got to Big O and a For Sale sign was in the front window. While I went in a gas station to ask for advice, Joel searched on his phone. The line was long, and by the time I came back Joel had already found Bruce’s Tires, a few blocks away with a five star Yelp rating.

As soon as we walked into Bruce’s, I asked, “What happened to Big O?”  Bruce just smiled and said, “Well, we are the best tire place in town.” I explained our time crunch and he said, “Go get some grubbage at the best breakfast place in California and I’ll have you ready to go in 25 minutes.”

That’s when I realized it was only 8 am, I had been up 3 hours and was starving. Could it be that I was about to experience two bests of California in Los Banos?

We walked a block or two, and the sign said it all:

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It was as though we had stepped back in time. Brown vinyl booths with  value-sized bottles of ketchup and mustard on laminate tabletops. The walls told the story of Eddie’s family in large 8×10 frames: family of four with 80’s clothes and hairstyles in a Sears photo by a fake tree; wedding photo of that daughter now grown-up smiling with her dad; Eddie, now a grandfather with glasses, gray hair and a baby girl.

The two waitresses were in their mid-50’s, and–no kidding–they wore short denim shorts, their hair in buns, and sported a mouthful of “honeys” and “don’t you worry, love,” and “Yes dear, the Southwest Scramble with Homefries is one of the best items on the menu.” They kept the coffee pouring non-stop and hot in my cup, with a nice oil-slick film on top. Heavenly.

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Thirty minutes later we were out the door, our bellies full, and Bruce was true to his word…the tire was on the car and came with a 12-month guarantee.

So, if you ever find yourself in Los Banos with an empty belly, by all means get off that tiresome highway 5 with its chain restaurants and go find Eddie’s. Hopefully you won’t need Bruce.

We made it to Claremont on time, but then had a 3-hour wait in the hospital because the doctors were behind schedule.

Posted by: amymoellering | July 2, 2013

Our Furry Teacher/Partner in Parenting

We’ve had two significant events happen in the last several weeks. Our youngest child graduated from high school; we lost our Golden Retriever. These two events may seem unrelated and not merit a semi-colon, but they are intertwined.

Our dog Josie arrived in our lives when Maggie was a seven-year old who wanted nothing more than a dog to love. She soon learned that loving and playing with a puppy also meant picking up dog poop– along with the other chores of feeding and walking.

Love and responsibility go hand in hand

During the middle school years, Maggie was less interested in chores and playing fetch with Josie, but she would lie on the carpet after a hard day of girl drama and just pet and pet the dog. I wouldn’t always know the words to say in those days, but Josie seemed to pick up the slack for me with her mere presence.

Love is being there

Then came the high school teenager who no longer grumbled about picking up dog poop or feeding the dog…she just did it. She would still lie on the carpet and pet Josie, but it wasn’t with the same intensity. I liked knowing that if I wasn’t home, Maggie could still count on Josie’s happy face and wagging tail when she walked through the door. Let’s face it…sometimes that was a warmer greeting than I could muster!  Something about that effusive dog greeting filled a gap that we could not.

Love is joy!

As parents we love our children unconditionally, but they don’t always experience it as we go about the hard work of disciplining, setting boundaries, fighting exhaustion, and trying to meet the demands of the day.  The dog, with her unbridled excitement upon seeing us, her funny phobia about vacuum cleaners, and her readiness to play at any moment, kept the mood light around the house and reminded us not to take life too seriously.

Love is playful

Maggie graduated and is traveling to the mid-west for college. Childhood is over. And our canine partner in parenting has left the world as well. Thanks dear friend. We appreciate your example of unconditional love. Somehow, you made it easier for us.

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Afterword: When I was setting up for the Graduation Party, I pulled out Maggie’s school photos and schoolwork. This was among them and explains how that dear dog came into our lives.

Favorite Gift (Written by Maggie in 3rd grade, 2003)

I’m going to describe to you my dog Josie. Josie is a Golden Retriever and is a scardy cat! I got Josie because we had a dog named Louie who was cute but mean. He wanted to be the leader of the pack (family). So we had to give Louie away. I felt terrible when we gave him away. Even though he bit me by my eye! After we gave Louie away we decided we wanted a puppy! But a Golden Retreiver, Louie is a Beagle. So we were on the list. The lady who was breeding the puppys called our family and one of our friends’ family. She said she had two dogs who are Aunt and Niece. “They love to swim in pools” she said. “And if you don’t like them I’ll put you back on the puppy list.” Their names are well, the Aunt’s name is Mackee and the the niece’s name is Josie. So we said, “We’ll try them. We loved them so much we bought them.

Now I still have Josie! My dad said, “I’m happy we didn’t give up on dogs.” When I was a kid I did the same thing but didn’t get another dog.” I love Josie. I always will. She loves playing fetch with her Aunt Mackee. Whenever I see her run I want to yell! ”That’s my Josie!” because she always will be forever, My Josie!

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Love is forever

PSS. We will be getting another dog. Guess it will be the “Empty Nest Pup.”

 

Posted by: amymoellering | May 14, 2013

On the Bright Side

This past Mother’s Day I received the following text from my sister Meg:

Well, I guess I must be a GREAT mom because I got EVERY meal served to me in bed today. People jumped when I buzzed all day and all night! They got me whatever I needed including several cups of coffee IN bed and they even made my bed for me! I got tons of flowers and I was left to rest all day except short visits where I got gifts, chocolates, songs, books and flowers. I did absolutely nothing but read fashion mags all day in my nightgown! You know, come to think about it…I didn’t get out of bed all day except to use my private Master bathroom.

This might be hard to beat next year…

If this doesn’t capture the spirit of Sunny Spells, I don’t know what does. You see, my sister had spent the past three days in the hospital which meant she missed her daughter’s eighth birthday and Mother’s day. She had blood poisoning from a bacterial infection caused by the port she has in her chest that allows her to receive saline infusions for her autoimmune disorder. Today she underwent surgery to remove the port, install a new one, and was looking at another couple days in the hospital.  Throughout all of this she’s been texting me like the one above and trash talking me about our Words with Friends game.

My sister is a hero. She has an incredible sense of humor, a persevering spirit and a knack for finding the silver lining. One of her favorite quotes is “Don’t wait for the thunderstorm to pass. Dance in the rain.” I guess with that attitude she is way beyond looking for the sunny spell or the rainbow. She is a ray of sunshine. Love ya, sis!

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Posted by: amymoellering | May 9, 2013

Dark Horse Decisions (The College Search, Part Two)

“A dark horse, which had never been thought of…rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.” – Benjamin Disraeli, The Young Duke

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Orb’s victory at the Kentucky Derby on Saturday was not a dark horse race because he was expected to win, but still it was exciting to watch him come from behind and win those roses. This blog, however, is about the dark horses, and I ask for forgiveness as I stretch the metaphor.

Your dark horse might be the mediocre team that wins the championship, or the childhood friend you took for granted and one day becomes your spouse, or that wacky course you weren’t going to take that introduces you to your lifelong passion. There are situations in life where the dark horse wins. They are those people/choices/places that were in the shadows but then emerge to daylight and prominence in your life. It’s the choice that sat in the background, that you gave little or no attention to and then it becomes your course.

Indiana was not in our daily vocabulary until last week.

I don’t think we gave it a second’s thought that our daughter applied to Butler University. She was looking for another school to add to her list; a friend had visited it and recommended it highly, and it was so easy to apply to…just another push on The Common Application (if you aren’t familiar with this dangerous way to apply to colleges, be forewarned that it makes the process way too easy, and way too expensive.) When she got in, she wasn’t going to visit, as it seemed such a hassle.

So Butler sat there, a dark horse in the back recesses of our minds, and it wasn’t until she was about to commit to another that she expressed an interest in visiting. The May deadline upon us, and she had an inkling, an urge, a sweet request, “Is there anyway we might see it? I have a feeling I should.”

Perhaps it was the Bulldogs roaming campus, the Midwestern charm, the canoes in the pool, the friendly history teacher who was training for the Big Sur Marathon. Whatever it was, our lives have changed. Southwet Airlines loves us and we love Southwest.

And so I rewrite Disraeli’s quote:

A big Bulldog, which had never been thought of…barreled into our lives, became our mascot, and swept our daughter off to college.”

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