Little caring gestures can be a really big help. Just ask this busy mom of 3.
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Hallmark

Olivia’s son Otto was barely 2 years old when she realized he was different. His eventual diagnosis — severe autism — was a surprising relief.

Olivia Cytrynowicz. Image via Hallmark/YouTube.

Growing up with an autistic brother, Olivia was already familiar with the spectrum, as well as how it affects the lives of people on it and those who care about them.


Her young son would have challenges expressing himself verbally; he'd have learning difficulties and complicated emotions. She knew that in the same way her son saw the world a little bit differently, she and her family would need to do the same. On top of her job at Hallmark and her already busy life, she and her family had to create space for understanding Otto's special needs while ensuring that those of their other two children — and their own — would be met.

If that sounds like a pretty tough balancing act, it is. It's also not out of the ordinary for parents of kids with special needs.

Fortunately, Olivia and her family have a caring community to help them along. Three years after Otto’s diagnosis, they're all thriving.

Olivia and her family on vacation in Colorado. Image via Olivia Cytrynowicz, used with permission.

“You’ve probably heard the expression, 'It takes a village.' ... We live that every day with our family," says Olivia.

"Our neighbors know that if they see Otto running down the street, he shouldn’t be and where to return him," she adds. "They will come over with a meal when it’s been a really rough week. They’ll take my other kids out for pizza or for a sleepover, just to give them kind of a sense of normalcy or just to give us a break. It’s those really specific acts of kindness that resonate with us every time, really.”

When large gatherings happen, their friends make sure Otto's special needs are accommodated. For example, they’ll make sure the barbecue doesn’t have open flames, or they’ll create a special quiet place where Otto can find peace if he’s overstimulated. For parents like Olivia, who base their decisions on which events to attend on how their children could potentially react to them, these small kindnesses make a huge difference.

Having a community to lean on is a huge asset. But when support from others isn’t enough, Olivia has learned to take time for herself, too.

“Especially as women, we’re warrior moms or constantly advocating ... and that’s where we spend a lot of time getting our affirmation,” she says. “But that really can get exhaustive. I mean, I’ve been on this path for five years now, and it’s taken me close to that amount of time to realize that that’s not where I’m going to recharge. I’m going to be a better mom, I’m going to be a better wife, I’m going to be a better employee if I get out of the house for a little bit.”

Olivia and Otto share a special moment at home. Image via Olivia Cytrynowicz, used with permission.

At the moment, Olivia recharges with the help of exercise classes that she takes five times a week. She credits the experience with changing her life and helping her find control, especially when the rest of her day is chaotic and unpredictable.

“I make it count because I know that as soon as I leave that gym that I’m going home to a bunch of stuff that I can’t control. How many pushups I can do in an hour?  That’s something I can control.”

In her nine years as a parent, Olivia has learned a lot about care. She's seen how even tiny amounts of it can change lives, even her own.

"There are so many ways to show someone that you care," she says. "It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, it doesn’t have to be something that you purchase or just the right words at the right time. It’s just being there and being genuine and letting that person know that they matter to you."

Listen to Olivia speak about how caring gestures have changed her life in this short video:

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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."

The difference between a politician and a public servant may be a matter of semantics, but when it comes to getting legislation passed that actually helps people, the contrast is stark.

Texas Representative James Talarico is on a mission to get his constituents the life-saving medicine they need. The 31-year-old lawmaker has just introduced legislation that would cap the price of insulin—a medicine people with type 1 diabetes need to live, which has become unaffordable for many—at $50 a month.

The mission is personal for Talarico, as he nearly died three years ago when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

He shared his story on Twitter:

"In May 2018, I was a healthy 28-year-old running for the Texas House. I decided to walk the entire length of my district and hold town halls along the way. I hike Big Bend every year, so I wasn't concerned about a 25 mile walk...

But halfway through the walk, I began feeling nauseous and fatigued. Before the town hall in Hutto, I vomited in the bathroom."

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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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