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What happened when this kid wore a dress to his grandma's funeral.

"I want to wear a dress. That's how Nana would want me," C.J. declared.

What happened when this kid wore a dress to his grandma's funeral.

When my mother, Nana, died on Memorial Day, we immediately started planning her Celebration of Life.

Mostly, it felt better to be actively doing something as opposed to sitting immobilized unable to do anything. And those were our only two options.

As we began planning, my brother Michael, my husband Matt, and I explained the event's significance to my sons, C.J. and Chase. "What are we going to wear to the Celebration of Life?" C.J. asked immediately, because even when grieving, he's concerned about fashion.


"I'm wearing a tie," said 12-year-old Chase, who loves any excuse to wear a tie.

"I want to be a girl at Nana's Celebration of Life. I want to wear a dress. That's how Nana would want me," 8-year-old C.J. declared. He asked if we could go shopping. I promised him we would.

Baby C.J. and Nana. All photos provided by the author, used with permission.

"Will everyone at the Celebration of Life know that I'm gender nonconforming?" he asked.

"No." I waited for the usual self-editing and deep consideration about his gender expression around new people to begin.

As C.J. explains it, he's a boy who likes "girl things" and "girl clothes" and wants to be treated like a girl, all while preferring masculine pronouns and his male body. We say that he's gender variant or gender nonconforming, and he floats on the gender variation spectrum from super-macho-masculine on the left, all the way to super-girly-feminine on the right.

"I don't care," he said. "I'm wearing a dress."

"That sounds good," we said.

C.J. could have said he was going to dress up like a dragon or be a dandelion, and we would have said it sounded good.

The sudden death of a loved one puts things into perspective, and the Celebration of Life would be casual, loving, and accepting, just like Nana was.

Every day that week, C.J. pressured me to take him shopping for a new dress, and every day, I told him that we needed to wait until his uncle Michael got back in town. I was physically and emotionally spent and didn't feel well-equipped to help my son pick out a dress for his grandmother's funeral. I needed some back up, some support, and in this case, I knew my brother was the person I needed most.

When Uncle Michael arrived on Thursday, our first stop was Target.

C.J. led us to the "girls' section" and started purposefully working the aisles and holding out fabrics he fancied. Uncle Michael and I did the same.

The three of us called out to each other when a dress caught our eye and held it up for comments and opinions. Uncle Michael and I have similar tastes and found a few options that we thought were perfect. C.J. nixed them all.

C.J. finally decided on a cream linen dress with delicate eyelet detail, a dainty navy blue cardigan and a headband with blue and yellow flowers adorning it. He could not be swayed.

Over the next two days, C.J. kept reminding us that he was going to wear a dress at Nana's Celebration of Life.

We said we knew and thought it was perfect. If that's how he felt Nana would want him, then that's exactly what he should do.

He never again asked about the strangers who we would welcome into our home and what their reactions to a boy in a dress might be. He was unwavering in his decision and he didn't care what other people thought. He was committed to making the event about him and his Nana, and that made me proud. That's what memorializing a person and the relationship you had with them is all about.

"Pa, I'm going to be a girl at Nana's Celebration of Life," he said to my dad the night before the service. He looked his grandfather right in the eyes and stood firm. If anybody in our family was going to have a reaction, it would be Pa. I nervously held my breath.

"That is exactly how Nana would want you and that's what you should do. It's about you and Nana, and she loved you so much," Pa said as he wrapped C.J. in a hug.

The day of the Celebration of Life, C.J. made sure I steamed his dress, like I did mine, and flat ironed his hair, like I did mine.

He spritzed on some Chanel Coco perfume and applied his favorite lip gloss. After he put on his cream dress, navy cardigan, and flowered headband, I surprised him by presenting him with a strand of Nana's pearls to wear.

He greeted people at the door as they arrived at our house for the Celebration of Life. We introduced him to people from my parents' church and to their friends who had never met him before.

"This is our youngest son, C.J.," we'd say.

"It's nice to finally meet you," they'd say. “Your Nana told us so much about you."

That afternoon, my son was not one bit worried about what perfect strangers would think about him wearing a dress.

He listened to those strangers tell him that his Nana loved him very much and that she told everyone all about him. He was unabashed and unashamed. He honored Nana and their special relationship beautifully.

I imagined her looking down on him.

"That's my beautiful boy! You look so pretty! I love your dress!" she'd say, like she always did.

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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."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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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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