We Couldn’t Do Anything


Yesterday our children, playing
in a tree, watched as the tiniest bird
fell from above them,
where it belonged,
to land below them,
where it did not.
The dog, animal and eager,
stepped on the bird, then
lowered his head. Our daughter
screamed, hauled him back,
then cupped her trembling hands
around the trembling bird,
Its one wing stretched and bent.
Our son ran inside, obedient
to our daughter’s instructions.
I was in the shower, useless.
You found a shoebox, sheltered the bird,
helped our children find leaves and twigs,
perched the box in the tree. At supper,
we prayed for the bird while its mother
visited the shoebox,
her beak full. She fretted
and fluttered. She couldn’t do anything,
and we couldn’t do anything,
and after supper, we found the trowel.
Dust to dust,
I said.
O how I longed to gather you,
you said, as a mother hen gathers
her young beneath her wings.
Our son pushed a stick into the soft earth.
Our daughter told him not to push too far.

~Shea Tuttle “After reading our daughter’s poem” from Image Journal

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

~Emily Dickinson

I have known the helplessness of watching life ebb away from a living creature and not be able to do a thing to change what is happening.

As a teenage nurse aide in a rest home for the elderly, I saw much of dying over those years before going to medical school – some deaths were anticipated and some unexpected. What was most apparent to me in that setting is that my primary role was to be a caring witness and comforter. I could not change what was happening but I could be there, not leaving my patients to die alone. I hoped that I was useful in some way.

Later, when I worked as a physician in a hospital, there were certainly things we would do to respond to a sudden cardiac event, and it was very dramatic to see someone’s pulse restored and stabilized due to our intervention. But more often than not, what we could do wouldn’t change the reality – dying still happened and we were gathered to witness the end. We often left the bedside feeling useless.

Now I have grandchildren who are learning about death through observing the natural cycles of animals living and dying on our farm. They discover a dead bird or vole on the ground; they were aware one of our elderly horses recently died. They are aware our beloved farm dogs are aging and so are grandma and grandpa.

Children naturally ask “why?” and we do our best to explain there is always hope and comfort, even when physical bodies are dust in the ground, marked by a stick or stone or only a memory.

It is “Hope” that sings alive within us, even when we’re naked and featherless, even if we fall far from the nest we were born to. We are caught and safe under our Savior’s wings for the rest of eternity, never to be “just dust” again.

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Making Something Happen Every Day

There in the attic of forgotten shapes
(Old coats in plastic, hat boxes, fur capes
Amongst the smells of mothballs and cigars),
I saw the doll house of our early years,
With which my mother and my aunt had played,
And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:
The little beds, the tin-foil looking glass,
Bookcases stamped in ink upon the walls,
Mismatched chairs where sat the jointed dolls,
The clock whose face, no larger than a dime,
Had, for all these years, kept the same time.
I remembered how we set the resin food
Atop a table of stained balsa wood,
The shiny turkey hollow to the tap,
The cherry pie baked in a bottle cap.
Now it is time to go to sleep, we spoke,
Parroting the talk of older folk,
And laid the dolls out fully-clothed in bed
After their teeth were brushed, and prayers were said,
And flipped the switch on the low-wattage sun.
But in the night we’d have something break in,
Kidnap the baby or purloin the pie —
A tiger, maybe, or a passer by —
Just to make something happen, to move the story.
The dolls awoke, alarmed, took inventory.
If we made something happen every day,
Or night, it was the game we knew to play,
Not realizing then how lives accrue,
With interest, the smallest things we do.

~A.E. Stallings “The Doll House”

I was born with a severe imagination deficiency. I could not create my way out of a paper bag, much less make up a story. This never seemed like much of an impediment since I am quite content dealing with the daily challenges of real life. I married someone with a similar world view and we both thrived in our banal and mundane world.

Then we had children. Children born with intact and active imaginations. Children with imaginary friends, and monsters under the bed and a world outside our front door that I didn’t recognize. And they have grown up to have children with wild imaginings too.

Our old doll house is a pretty tame place to exercise excessive levels of creativity, with characters and furniture to move around, conversations to overhear and conflicts to resolve. So I watch grandchildren make something happen in their world while I continue to make sense of the world I was born into.

Their stories become interest accrued on lives well-composed and imagined. Even when a giant troll comes and knocks over all the furniture – there is no need for real life earthquakes in their created-reality.

And so it goes…

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Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and return to the house long after the sun sets. They need a positive outlook to keep going – knowing there is sunshine somewhere even when the skies are gray, their fingers are aching from the cold, and their back hurts.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, with both parents working on and off the farm. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And one of our favorite songs to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” a song originally written about a horse named “Sunshine.

For the farmer and the rest of us, it is the Sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

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Facing a Rainbow

Harry in his backyard, admiring a rainbow he never forgot
Rainbow at 3R Farms
Harry (L) giving my husband Dan a driving lesson with stallion Midnight van de Edelweiss
photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger

Harry was at home in the house he and his wife Terry had built for his final retirement years, a house that had been encircled by a remarkable rainbow soon after they moved in. They both knew he lived on borrowed time thanks to a defibrillator in his chest that brought him back from the brink of death more times than his doctors could count. The rainbow brought a promise that Harry had not yet finished with his work here.

He was in that house last night when the Lord called him home, after so many near misses. Harry liked to say, “The Lord keeps taking the hook out and throwing me back in.”

This time the Lord kept hold and cradled him.

There is so much to say about a man who was a retired firefighter, a horse and beef farmer, a brother, a friend to scores of people, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, and a husband to a loving and determined RN wife who single-handedly helped him reach nearly 82 years old.

Harry was always looking for the beautiful and the unusual in his field and garden and would send me photos to use on my blog – I gratefully have used his contributions many times and share them here with my deep appreciation for his eye for wonder in the ordinary. He also took great joy in being someone who would find faces in every-day objects – a skill called “facial pareidolia.”

I always wondered whose face he was seeking.

Now I know. Today he sees the face of God in all His glory, no longer hidden in common objects and no longer mysterious.

You no longer have to keep looking, dear friend. Fulfilling His rainbow promise of a few more years of life and love for you, God has brought you back home.

photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo of supermoon by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger
photo by Harry Rodenberger
video by Harry Rodenberger
“To love another person is to see the face of God…”

Immortal Flowers

“Did you ever know that a flower, once withered and freshened again, becomes an immortal flower, – that is, that it rises again?”
~Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend

Emily Dickinson Herbarium – preservation of trillium

Emily Dickinson herbarium- preservation of wild ginger (asarum)

While I was fearing it, it came—
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair—

There is a Fitting—a Dismay—
A Fitting—a Despair
’Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

~Emily Dickinson

Over a decade ago, as I was going through my mother’s boxed-up possessions after her death, I found the 1956 Webster’s New Dictionary of the Twentieth Century that I grew up with. This book was massive, easily weighing 10 pounds, and served as a booster seat for haircuts, a step stool for trying to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen cupboard, and of course, for looking up any obscure word that ever existed in all of history. Or so it seemed.

It was an amazing tome. And as I flipped through the pages, I found some old familiar friends that were neither black nor white nor read all over. They had survived over half a century.

Wildflowers had been carefully pressed between the pages–over two dozen specimens paper thin themselves, their existence squeezed into two dimensions–still showing faint pink or blue, or purple color, almost exuding a long ago fragrance from a summer over fifty years ago. As a child I regularly wandered out to our fields and woods to gather crimson clover blossoms, buttercup, dandelions, daisies, wild violets, wild ginger, calypso lady slippers for bouquets for my mother, and she would select the most perfect to slide between the pages of the dictionary. Occasionally she would pull one out to gently paste on a hand written card she sent to a friend.

Here were my perfect flowers, preserved and pressed for time, just waiting for the senior-citizen me to rediscover them lying between wonderful words that I love to roll in my mouth and type on a page. They are too fragile to paste to a greeting card, or even to handle due to their brittleness. They need to stay right where they are, for another generation or two or three to discover.

As a child, I was always very worried about losing my parents, fearing their death would be the end of me as well. But as Emily Dickinson writes “fearing it so long/Had almost made it fair” – as an adult, I was more prepared for the day each parted from this life. As the poet suggests, fearing it for years was much harder than the acceptance when that time had come.

Now I too am pressed for time, fading and more fragile, perhaps more brittle than I care to admit. My mother and father have blown away like the puff ball seeds of the dandelion, on to other horizons, but the sturdy old dictionary is going nowhere. It will be passed down, its delicate passengers preserved inside from a long-ago-far-away summer afternoon of flower gathering. They will be shared as a great grandchild opens the book to look up a favorite word sometime in the not-so-far-off future.

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A Girl from Spring Valley

Fourteen years ago today, my mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, returned home for good, gently picked up and carried away by the Lord before dawn. She was just over 88 1/2 years old, and had lived much of her life anticipating her death day with some apprehension, having almost been called home at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith.

She was born in the isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington, in a two story white house located down a long lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills. Despite having one older brother, it was a lonely childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.

Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.

As a young woman, she was ready to leave the farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.

Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation years later after divorce, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.

As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.

She never did stop worrying during the last few months if her life after a devastating leg fracture. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she tried to give up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.

I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected but safe nonetheless, under her wings.

The Sidewalks of Life

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light-
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

~Billy Collins “On Turning Ten”

Dear Ben,

You were born thirty-four years ago today on a gray and drizzly mid-November day.

November is often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist. The woods and fields are all shadowy.  Morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

You changed November for us that day. You brought sunshine to our lives as if you were born with light under your skin. You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family. You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since, no matter where you have gone and what you have done over these four decades.

Then you married another bright light and now you shine together, raising your precious sons in God’s Light.

We know you discovered long ago, even before you turned ten, that when you fall on the sidewalks of life, you bleed. And you know sadness and have wounds aplenty. Yet you love others like no one else, and keep going in hope, with longing for our Lord. Even your scars shine with intention.

Gray and drizzle is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come even though you now live where the sun shines almost every day.

November 15 was and still is, a brighter day because of you.

Love,

Mom and Dad

Everyone in the Wrong Places

On a table in the living room
there is a gray ceramic bowl that catches
the light each afternoon, contains it.
This is the room we turned into
the room of her dying, the hospital bed
in the center, the medical equipment
against the walls like personnel.
In Maine, once, I rented a house hundreds
of years old. One room had been
the birthing room, I was told, and I sat
in that room writing towards the bright
new world I am always trying
to write into. And while I could stop
there, with those two recognitions
of endings and beginnings, I’m thinking

of yesterday’s afternoon of errands.
My father and mother were in the backseat,
my sister in the passenger seat,
and I driving. It was like decades ago
but everyone in the wrong places,
as though time was simply about
different arrangements of proximity.
Sometimes someone is in front of you.
Or they are beside. At other times
they are behind you, or just elsewhere,
inconsolably, as though time was
about how well or badly you attended
to the bodies around you. First, we went
to the bakery. Then the hardware.
The pharmacy, the grocery. Then the bank.

~Rick Barot “Of Errands”

For a time, my husband and I were the middle of the proverbial family sandwich – the meat and cheese with condiments while our aging parents were one slice of bread and our young children the other slice. It was such a full time of always being needed by someone somewhere somehow in some way that I barely can recall details of what those years were like.

Mothers with daughters sometimes note the irony of being in the throes of menopause while their pre-teen is adjusting to menarche – we pass on the fertility torch.

As I sort through boxes that have been stored away for over a decade from my mother and mother-in-law’s belongings to find things to help our son’s family get settled in their house, I realize that time could be measured in bowls and vases and casserole baking dishes. They are passed to the next generation for another lifetime of use. We start out being fed, then we become the provider, and wind up being fed ourselves in the end.

I want to forestall that time of becoming dependent again as long as possible. For now, I want to hold my grandchildren’s hands as I try to keep them safe in an unpredictable world. Someday, I may need them to help hold my hand once I lack the strength to walk unaided.

Turn turn turn – there is a season. Turn around and everyone has changed places, blessed to still walk alongside one another for as long as possible.

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand, photo by Andrea Nipges

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…
Ecclesiastes 3:1

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A Sweetness Ripening

Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know…
Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening.
~Wendell Berry from “Ripening”

My husband and I have walked our country road together many times on warm late summer evenings, breathing in the smell of ripening cornstalks and freshly mowed grass lined up in windrows, much like the walks we took together forty one years ago when we were newly married. Just down the road, we pass the smaller farm we first bought to leave the city behind for a new life amid quieter surroundings. 

The seedling trees my husband planted there are now a thick grove and effective windbreak from the bitter howling northeasters we endured.  The fences have fallen after 38 years, the blackberries have swallowed up the small barn where our first horses, goats, geese, chickens and cows lived. But today, on our 41st wedding anniversary, the house is getting new siding and windows, a fresh coat of paint, and the inside is being updated.

In a few weeks, our oldest son and his family, having concluded their mission work in Japan, will move in. There is such sweetness knowing the first home we owned together will now house our grandchildren.

Our children were raised on this road and they strolled these same steps with us many times, before flying far away for their life’s work. My husband and I have continued to walk together, just the two of us, pondering how the passage of time could be so swift that our hair has turned white and we are going to seed when it was only yesterday we were so young.

Indeed we ripen before we’re feeling ready. It is bitter sweetness relinquishing the youth we once knew, to face a future we can never know.

It is the mystery that keeps us coming back, walking the same steps those younger legs once did, admiring the same setting sun, smelling the same late summer smells.  But we are not the same as we were, having progressed to a fruitfulness intended all along.

We are ripening and readying, our seed flying with the wind.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here
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An Arch of Colored Light

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life.
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,

and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
~Lord Byron

But mark! what arch of varied hue
  From heaven to earth is bowed?
Haste, ere it vanish, haste to view
  The Rainbow in the cloud.

How bright its glory! there behold
  The emerald’s verdant rays,
The topaz blends its hue of gold
  With the deep ruby’s blaze.

Yet not alone to charm thy sight
  Was given the vision fair;–
Gaze on that arch of colored light,
  And read God’s mercy there.

~Felicia Hemans from “The Rainbow”

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~Henry David Thoreau

Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page.  The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created  through startling combinations:  “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.

I understand, as Thoreau does,  how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words.   Like grasping ephemeral star trails or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I bring to the page or screen is intangible yet so very real.

I will keep reaching for rainbows, searching for the best words to preserve my days and nights forever. It does feel like I’m clutching at a moment in time moving through my fingers.

I witnessed this Sabbath rainbow last night from our farm, standing with two of our very young grandchildren, hoping they would remember it enough to describe it to our someday great-grandchildren. Perhaps they will even read my words and know how much it mattered to me that they experience such beauty and promise.

I want them to always remember: in the beginning was the Word, and we are created by the same Author who writes incredible rainbows across the sky.

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