Here's how one woman helped her friend's son cope with his mother's death.

N.J.’s eyes are dark and deep as he kneels in the garden, hands wrapped gently around the kale seedling.

We line peas on either side of the fencing I’ve brought, and I show him how to press each one down to the first knuckle on his index finger and then pat the soft dirt over the hole. The tomato plant doesn’t want to come out of the container. It’s root-bound, clinging to the pot; I tap the edges to loosen it and pull slowly on the stem.

“Plants are tough,“ I say, as I slice the roots with the edge of the trowel and then let him do the same thing to the other side. We wiggle the tangly, knotted white roots loose, and then he sets it in the hole we dug, snuggling it in and combing the soil with his fingers. Finally, we dot the front of the box with onion starts and poke them in, some of them already sprouting little green shoots from their tops.


It’s May. We are working together in a garden box his parents built in their backyard the previous summer. All the seeds they planted had washed away in a hard rain. They hadn’t had time to do any more with it, because Mary, N.J.’s mother, was undergoing chemotherapy after a diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer.

N.J., out of frame, waters his garden. All photos courtesy of the author, used with permission.

Now, a year later, treatment has ended, and Mary is in her last days.

She won’t get to see her son in his garden, though she is only steps away. Breathing slowly and steadily, nodding and smiling softly — these are the things she is doing with the energy she has left. She looks at pictures on my phone, though, of N.J. with his hands on his plants, proudly shepherding his garden along, smiling her same soft smile. His eyes are her eyes.

N.J.’s lettuce.

Before Mary was diagnosed, we were friends, but not close friends. We lived down the road, attended the same church, chatted here and there in passing. I have two girls; she had two boys. She would bring N.J. and his older brother to play as soon as he could walk on his own.

N.J. would toddle through the rows of my garden, stuffing cherry tomatoes into his cheeks, tugging on fat pea pods, and eating cucumbers like you eat an ear of corn. He seemed to delight in the magic of growing things the way I do. We are born gardeners, part of that secret society of people for whom weeding is not a chore, but a pleasure.

After Mary was diagnosed, I never really knew what to say. But I did learn, over time, to just be there, with vegetables, with bread, with myself.

I saw the washed-out garden box in the backyard that summer, but I didn’t yet feel confident enough to suggest planting it again or to just go ahead and do it.

Over the winter, though, Mary let me be one of the people who took her to chemo and other appointments. We grew close, closer than we had ever been. We both had strong opinions, we both swore a lot, we both liked Thai food. I would get a spread of things to nibble on together while the medicine dripped into her port, while she got hot and then chilled and then dried out and thirsty.

And then, when it was over and she was exhausted, I’d bring the car around, and we’d drive, the winter sun setting behind us as we headed home from the cancer center.

A parent’s first worst nightmare is something happening to their child; the second worst nightmare is something happening to themselves, because the loss of a parent leaves children vulnerable to danger, to pain.

Mary said to me once, on one of our many slow walks up and down our road, “At least it’s not one of the boys. I couldn’t handle that.”

But they, of course — and Mary’s husband — have to handle that it was her.

Some of Mary’s flowers remain in the author’s own garden.

When it became clear that treatment was no longer working and that it would be days or weeks rather than months, the new growing season was just beginning.

On one of my last visits to the house while Mary was still alive, before I knocked on the door in the garage, I walked around back to see the garden box.

Mary had covered it with a tarp the previous summer, and I pulled back a corner. Just a few weeds here and there. The soil needed turning, but it was soft and loose and rich, I could tell, full of good lobster and blueberry compost from the coast of Maine.

I had some extra pea fencing and plenty of seed, and a grower at the local farmers market had donated kale, tomato, and cucumber seedlings. I brought N.J. out to the patch of land and, together, we started to work.

When I whispered to Mary how good the box looked and how pleased N.J. was with his garden, she smiled, eyes closed. "Take a picture for me," she said.

Someone brought a sunflower in a pot; N.J. planted it in a corner of his box. He carefully tended his vegetables all summer after his mother died, pulling every other onion plant for scallions so the remaining onions would bulb up nicely, weeding around the kale, training the peas as they climbed.

His eyes are dark and deep and full of pain, but kids, like plants, are tough.

This story originally appeared on Rodale's Organic Life and is reprinted here with permission.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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