My son had a stroke as a baby. I just watched him become a man.

My greatest hope for my son Max's bar mitzvah: I wanted him to have both a fun and meaningful time.

I got my wish. Actually, I got more than my wish.

It was all so surreal. It didn’t feel like that long ago that Max had suffered a stroke that would lead to cerebral palsy. That he might not walk and might not talk. That he could have vision and hearing problems.


And here he was, my young man.

All photos by Ellen Seidman, used with permission.

Max owned the ceremony. We put it together ourselves, creating our own tradition.

He sang his songs and prayers beautifully, accompanied on guitar by a music teacher with whom he'd been practicing for eight months. He was especially gleeful about belting out "Thank You, God" — sung to the tune of "Fire Truck" — because he'd made up the words. ("I love the mitzvah of helping people, I want to be a fireman when I grow up!") The refrain of "Uri, Uri" had special meaning to me: "'Cause you've got the music in your soul, this world needs to hear your song."

When Max made his speech, first he used the speech app on his iPad to pronounce each sentence, and then he articulated the words. He noted that he is good at being Jewish and doing good; that he'd done a fire safety presentation at school for his mitzvah project; and that everyone should join him in eating sushi afterward.

Max had a gigantic smile on his face the entire time and giggled when people pumped their fists and said, "Woot! Woot!" — he had requested no clapping. He had everyone in the sanctuary laughing and crying; there is a reason we had 70 packets of tissues handy.

He had everyone in the sanctuary laughing and crying.

I only lost it a few times. Mostly, I was beaming, thrilled by his delivery and confidence. Boy, was he in control. Max told one of his cousins "Shhh!" when he heard her talking and directed his little sister, Sabrina, where to stand when she came up to sing a song with him. At the end, he gave the rabbi a hug. After stopping by a pew to give his teacher one, too, he booked out of there for cocktail hour.

Max made an ecstatic entrance into the party room wearing his Fireman Max hat as "Firework" played. He danced it up. He had asked to not be raised high on the chair during the hora, but when the predesignated Max Lifting Committee got him up there, he asked to go higher. Then he asked to do it again. Then he wanted Daddy to go up on a chair. Then me. Sabrina went up, too. Baby Ben: no.

Max welcomed special guests to light candles on his cake. He and the kiddie crowd played games with the DJ. He watched, in awe, the photo/video montage I’d made of his life and kept watching it again and again as it looped on the video screens. He ate a giant slice of birthday cake. He got pics taken in the photo booth. He danced some more, including our mom/son duet to "Just the Way You Are."

And when it was over, he requested another bar mitzvah. "This year!" he told me, hopefully.

Umm...

I wasn't just proud of my boy, I was all-out wowed by him. It was a day to celebrate Max becoming a young man but also a day to celebrate how far he has come.

My husband, Dave, and I did our best to capture the wonder that is Max in the speech we gave at the party.

Max held the mic for us the entire time.

Me: "My friend Wendy recently gave me a compliment; she said I always choose happiness and joy in life. Actually, that’s not completely true. Happiness was delivered to me and Dave, and his name is Max. From his first smile at two months old, Max has added cheer, exuberance, and joy to our lives and to basically everyone who comes into contact with him. To know him is to adore him."

Dave: "Behind that smile is a whole lot of strength, determination, and will. (Stubbornness, too, which explains why Max’s first word was 'No!') Max knows exactly what he wants, at all times. When we went on a joy trip last winter, Max chose the destination — Chicago. He watched videos on YouTube about Chicago, and when we were there, it was him telling me how to get around."

Me: "Max has shown us the way throughout his entire life. He has shown us what true perseverance is. He has shown us how to appreciate the inchstones along with the milestones. He has shown us the many meanings of 'ability.' He has shown us that it’s perfectly OK to be on your own timeline, proceeding at the pace that is right for you. He has shown us the beautiful range that is humanity. And, of course, he has shown us the way to the nearest fire station, wherever we go."

Max has shown us the way throughout his entire life. He has shown us what true perseverance is.

Dave: "We’re so glad you’re here to celebrate Max’s bar mitzvah. You’ve come from places near and far including Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, Georgia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Maryland, Massachusetts, and that truly exotic locale, Brooklyn, New York. So many of you have played a role in Max’s life, whether directly with him or enabling me and Ellen to be the best parents possible to him."

Me: "My father, Zaydie, is here with us in spirit and likely wondering how good the food is — he loved a good meal. He was impressed by Max’s progress, and he would have been so proud of him today. At the beginning of Max’s life, we only hoped this day would come; eventually, we knew it. 'I can see the brightness in his eyes,' a doctor once told us. I know that today, you've seen it too."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

Photo by Vanessa Garcia from Pexels

A professor's message to students has gone viral.

If you know any teachers, you probably know how utterly exhausted they all are, from preschools all the way up through college. Pandemic schooling has been rough, to say the least, and teachers have borne the brunt of the impact it's had on students.

Most teachers I've known have bent over backwards to help students succeed during this time, taking kids' mental and emotional health into consideration and extending the flexibility and grace we all could use. But teachers have their own mental and emotional needs, too, and at some point, something's gotta give.

A college student posted screenshots of a professor's message on Twitter with the comment "someone PLEASE check on my professor." It's simply incredible.

The message reads:

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Courtesy of Ms. Lopez
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Marcella Lopez didn't always want to be a teacher — but once she became one, she found her passion. That's why she's stayed in the profession for 23 years, spending the past 16 at her current school in Los Angeles, where she mostly teaches children of color.

"I wanted purpose, to give back, to live a life of public service, to light the spark in others to think critically and to be kind human beings," she says. "More importantly, I wanted my students to see themselves when they saw me, to believe they could do it too."

Ms. Lopez didn't encounter a teacher of color until college. "That moment was life-changing for me," she recalls. "It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin as a student. Always remembering how I felt in that college class many years ago has kept me grounded year after year."

It's also guided her teaching. Ms. Lopez says she always selects authors and characters that represent her students and celebrate other ethnicities so students can relate to what they read while also learning about other cultures.

"I want them to see themselves in the books they read, respect those that may not look like them and realize they may have lots in common with [other cultures] they read about," she says.

She also wants her students to have a different experience in school than she did.

When Ms. Lopez was in first grade, she "was speaking in Spanish to a new student, showing her where the restroom was when a staff member overheard our conversation and directed me to not speak in Spanish," she recalls. "In 'this school,' we only speak English," she remembers them saying. "From that day forward, I was made to feel less-than and embarrassed to speak the language of my family, my ancestors; the language I learned to speak first."

Part of her job, she says, is to find new ways to promote acceptance and inclusion in her classroom.

"The worldwide movement around social justice following the death of George Floyd amplified my duty as a teacher to learn how to discuss racial equity in a way that made sense to my little learners," she says. "It ignited me to help them see themselves in a positive light, to make our classroom family feel more inclusive, and make our classroom a safe place to have authentic conversations."

One way she did that was by raising money through DonorsChoose to purchase books and other materials for her classroom that feature diverse perspectives.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

The Allstate Foundation recently partnered with DonorsChoose to create a Racial Justice and Representation category to encourage teachers like Ms. Lopez to create projects that address racial equity in the classroom. To launch the category, The Allstate Foundation matched all donations to these projects for a total of $1.5 million. Together, they hope to drive awareness and funding to projects that bring diversity, inclusion, and identity-affirming learning materials into classrooms across the country. You can see current projects seeking funding here.

When Ms. Lopez wanted to incorporate inclusive coloring books into her lesson plans, The Allstate Foundation fully funded her project so she was able to purchase them.

"I'm a lifelong learner, striving to be my best version of myself and always working to inspire my little learners to do the same," she says. Each week, Ms. Lopez and the students would focus on a page in the book and discuss its message. And she plans to do the same again this school year.

"DonorsChoose has been a gamechanger for my students. Without the support of all the donors that come together on this platform, we wouldn't have a sliver of what I've been able to provide for my students, especially during the pandemic," she says.

"My passion is to continue striving to be excellent, and to continue to find ways to use literature as an anchor, depicting images that reflect my students," she says.

To help teachers like Ms. Lopez drive this important mission forward, donate on DonorsChoose.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

This article originally appeared on 03.30.16


Dalton Ross wanted to make sure his family didn't miss him too badly while he was studying abroad in London.

To help them cope, the 22-year-old Tennessee native did what any selfless college student would do: He sent his mom a life-size cutout of himself.

All photos courtesy of Dalton Ross, used with permission.

"I thought maybe they'd put it in the living room corner until I got back to remember I exist," he explained about the cutout, which came with a short note: "You're welcome."

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Comedy Wildlife Award Winners 2021.

Six years ago, the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards started humbly as a small photo contest. But it's grown to be a worldwide renowned competition seen by millions across the globe. The photos are always funny but they come with a serious message: We need to protect the natural world.

This year's winner is "Ouch!" a photo of a Golden Silk Monkey who appears to have injured the family jewels by landing on a wire with his legs open. The photo was taken by Ken Jensen in 2016.

"I was absolutely overwhelmed to learn that my entry had won, especially when there were quite a number of wonderful photos entered," Jensen said in a statement. "The publicity that my image has received over the last few months has been incredible, it is such a great feeling to know that one's image is making people smile globally as well as helping to support some fantastically worthwhile conservation causes."

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