Just Turn Around

Pippi Longstocking! If she had to pick one favorite book from her childhood, L. Marelle Camel would choose Pippi Longstocking. The adventures… The lack of supervision…

“I just was so taken by this little girl who was raising herself.” Marelle’s smile and tone revealing a bit of envy for the child who was free to get into mischief unchecked. “But also, I was kind of afraid for her because she didn’t have guidance.”

Since those early years, books have moved Marelle. And she wants them to impact today’s elementary aged kids too by presenting reading not as a chore, but rather as a world of exploration, learning and wonder.  Marelle cares about this so much that in early 2019, she founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Camel Kids Foundation.

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“It’s important for kids to really see themselves reflected in books,” she said. “We provide students with free books to introduce them to authors and illustrators and lead characters of color.”

Marelle says it is imperative for children to see books that have someone who looks like them on the cover.  “Especially in children’s books, picture books… that’s important for the little kids to see.

“I want to triumph all of our people of color who are authors because they don’t get a lot of credit. I want to introduce their books to kids.” That also includes illustrators of color. “I think that the children who are not of color can also benefit from reading a story by someone who is of color. Nine times out of 10, they have friends, schoolmates or playmates or people in dance class that are of color. And it’s important for them to know how to relate.”

Marelle knows stories can be formative, and they have staying power. Decades later, the thought of Pippi Longstocking still brings a smile to Marelle’s eyes. (The story was first published in 1945 by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, and it has been translated into 75 languages.)

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Now a 32 year-old actor living in Los Angeles, Marelle embraces all aspects of storytelling, and she has made a commitment to reaching young minds through books.

The mission of Camel Kids Foundation — which Marelle says is currently operating in Los Angeles and New York, and next in Atlanta — has two parts. One part: Visit schools to read and gift carefully selected books to elementary age children. The other part: The Snack Box Project: To provide classroom supplies for teachers and snacks for their rooms.

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An estimated 94% of all teachers buy classroom supplies out of their own pocket, and up to 13 million children nationwide go to school hungry regularly.

The struggle felt by teachers to provide for their students is a reality Marelle knows well. Her mother, Pearl, has been an educator for nearly 25 years. While teaching pre-K and kindergarten, Pearl raised three daughters alone: Marelle, Marelle’s twin sister Lynne Michelle (younger than Marelle by just three minutes) and their older sister Katherine (who is also an educator and teaches K2 at a daycare).

Homework and the Human Spirit

Growing up in Atlanta, Marelle learned the importance of education from her mother.

“She is an educator to the T. So if we didn’t have homework, we had homework. She would give us homework. And even if we did have homework, she would give us homework. Our summers were spent at the library.

“If one of my sisters or I even asked a question, like, ‘I wonder if there’s butterflies that have the same pattern…’ that would be a book report that we would have to do. If you asked a question, you would learn it. You know? And it would be all of us that would have to do that book report. So being the daughter of an educator is hard, but it’s good at the same time because you learn so much.”

Marelle and her sisters learned academic lessons from Pearl. But one of the biggest life lessons Marelle learned was this:

“My mother says, ‘Turn around, child. Just turn around.’

“A lot of people wait until they’ve got Oprah money or Obama money in order to be philanthropists. (My mother) says, ‘Turn around. There’s somebody behind you that could use your help where you are now. You are capable. You don’t have to wait until you have… money to be, like, now I’m going to donate. Or now I’m going to build a school in Africa. Or I’m going to build a school in Europe. You know, there’s something that you could be doing, someone who could benefit from you, if you would just turn around.’”

Marelle thinks about how an organization like the one she has founded today could have helped back then. “We struggled as a family,” she says. “And so now that I’m capable…. (You) can hear the echo. I’ve definitely got to turn around, you know? And help somebody else.”

Camel Kids Foundation primarily serves Title 1 schools, although not exclusively. The basic principal of Title 1 is that schools with large concentrations of low-income students will receive supplemental funds to assist in meeting student’s educational goals.

Learning to Live

After graduating from high school in Atlanta, Marelle left home for the first time in the name of study: to Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. There, she learned that being on her own wasn’t as carefree as it seemed for fictional Pippi Longstocking.

“I had a hard time my freshman year. Wow! I never realized my attachment to my mother until it was time to leave.” Four years later, she majored in Communications and went back to Atlanta to figure out what to do next. From age 21-24, Marelle would search.

“I found that period, that three year period, very hard for me. It was about discovering my identity and who I was as a person, who I was going to be, the things that I wanted to do, the things that I could do and how could I make my goals reality.”

It’s during those times of waiting or searching that we all find our spaces of grace and refuge.

“I did dance — ballet, contemporary and hip hop. I found a love for pilates and yoga during that time…. That was my release. That did … buy me some time and really helped me deeper discover who I was as a person. I’ve always been very creative, and dance is definitely a way to express myself.”

Through her yoga practice, Marelle says she found calm. “It was the stillness about it that really got me to hone in and focus, which I think is necessary as a young adult to have.

“I think that’s what really led me to just pick up and leave after I’d found my focus.”

Unlike that first goodbye when she left Atlanta for Oakwood University, Marelle was ready when she decided to move to Los Angeles to work in production and then pursue acting.

“Leaving the nest again wasn’t something that I feared. It was something that I welcomed. I was ready for change.”

Change Maker

Even as Marelle focuses on her acting career, her mission with Camel Kids Foundation is deeply rooted in family and tradition and turning around for the next person.

I wondered if Camel Kids Foundation had made its way to Pearl’s classroom.

“I go to her class whenever I’m in Atlanta and disrupt,” she laughs. “I teach (teach, she says, with air quotes) to the best of my ability!”  But those visits have been personal visits.

If Marelle brings Camel Kids Foundation to her mother’s classroom — to sit down with students and read to them about characters just like them — it will be a sort of coming full circle,  a circle which has her mother, Pearl, at its center.

Marelle has watched her mother teach and is in awe of the way she’s able to make connections with students and sees the light bulb moments when they’ve learned something. And there is reverence there, but not only that.  “I adore her.  She’s my heart.”

And it is really heart that is motivating Marelle’s movement — to see hearts, to open hearts and to nurture hearts. Perhaps so that every child will one day find it in their own  heart … to also… turn around.

To learn more, to donate or to get involved with Camel Kids Foundation, visit www.camelkidsfoundation.org and follow them on social media at @camelkidsfndn. Email, volunteer, donate, share. Portrait 1 photo credit: Kevin Richardson/Dance As Art. Portrait 2 photo credit: Kirk McKoy. My thanks for permission to use your beautiful work.

la vie en rose

Rose McAleese is a writer and storyteller.

“I’m Nora Ephron if Nora Ephron listened to Kendrick Lamar.”

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Rose has a quick wit and a sparkling personality.

“I’ve been a writer all my life. I did poetry then (music) journalism and then screenwriting. So obviously I like jobs that don’t pay!”

She wrote and published a book of poetry called Strong. Female. Character. She has written for BET’s The Quad. She has been through the Universal Pictures Emerging Writers Fellowship program where she worked with mentors, wrote punchlines and gave notes on scripts.

“And I just became a playwright!”

There is a clarity, rhythm and mischievousness to the way Rose speaks, and it’s mixed with deep awareness, compassion and humor.

Her first play was recently performed, and it is titled A Phrasal, Likewise Me. It’s a cool name. Clever too. It’s an anagram. Think about that. And I’ll tell you the answer later.

“I’ve had my words said in a TV show that I’ve written for… and short films. But in theater,  it’s just completely different.

“There’s this magic … ‘on this Saturday we’re all gonna witness something great together and all we can do is try to, you know, describe it to people before it slips away.’”

Rose says her play is a Shakespearean mixed tape.

To remake or remix something requires knowledge and insight into the original thing. In this case: Shakespeare. Rose — raised in Seattle — says she has slept through more Shakespeare plays than most people have seen. (There is a Nora Ephron Sleepless in Seattle reference I should insert here, but I can’t think of one.)  Sitting in the audience to watch her own play A Phrasal, Likewise Me come to life in Los Angeles, however, Rose was wide awake, nervous, excited. 

“It was a series of monologues that were written from the point of view of characters in Shakespeare that Shakespeare writes about, but doesn’t give lines to. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, the girlfriend before Juliet is Rosaline. Rosaline gets mentioned seven times in the play.

“So I kind of gave Rosaline a speech towards the end of the play. She finally gets to talk. She talks about how Romeo wasn’t really her dude, but she might be jealous, but like, it’s fine.

“So that was one of the monologues. Another one was Miranda’s mom from The Tempest. Obviously Miranda had to have a mother. The mother character never has a name. Her opening line is, ‘I never had a name in any of these stories.’ So it’s from her perspective.

“I feel like every writer has the first storyteller that sparks their imagination. And for me it was Shakespeare. My mother read everything to me, explained to me that if you don’t understand it, that’s the beauty of it. It’s poetry. It’s always up to interpretation.

“When I was 11 or 12, the Seattle Shakespeare Company had a summer camp called Camp Bill. We just put on plays. So I’ve played Romeo, I’ve played  Juliet, I’ve played Puck, which was my favorite. I love Puck because Puck is the quietest meddler.”

The Trouble With Words

To re-imagine the work of her earliest inspiration required empathy, interpretation and imagination. But it also required a great handle on language, and in Rose’s earliest years of childhood, words on paper and the order of the letters…puzzled her.

“I used to be very embarrassed by it, because when they tested me for dyslexia, I was a seventh grader with a reading level of a third grader. But I had an immense vocabulary. I knew what words meant.  I just couldn’t spell the words.

“That’s why I got into spoken word poetry — because no one sees your writing. It was really calming to be like, ‘Oh, I just have to memorize it.’ Memorization comes easy. Most people who have dyslexia or a reading disability have a superpower to do something else.

“I didn’t think I could be a writer if I was dyslexic. I mean, literally, ‘you want to work with words, but you can’t even read.’ But then I got the right resources, had the right mentors, had a really loving family that supported me. And then was introduced to this world that didn’t require actually anyone reading my jumbled up letters or words.”

Once you’ve seen Rose perform spoken word (Google search), you will see what a huge talent she possesses. Her delivery has a powerful cadence.

“Everything is a poem,” she says. “Everything has rhythm. Everything’s a song.”

Diversity in the Writers’ Room

Our personal pasts have a rhythm, a song…. once we choose to see our individuality as something magical. Because we are all unique, a variety of voices are needed to bring drama or comedy to life on screen. All of our favorite scripted TV shows have writers’ rooms. Those writers tell the stories we see.

“I was taught this in the spoken word poetry community: Every single human being has about 10,000 poems that live inside of them. Maybe sometimes you and me might have similar poems. We would write them completely different. You and me might have similar life experiences, but we saw them from a different POV.

“Diversity is important because that’s the natural thing. It just sparks a whole new point of view.

“It’s really important to have people that don’t look like you and don’t sound like you and don’t come from the same city as you to really bring that heavy texture and layers that we need in storytelling.

“I grew up thankfully with a lot of amazing programs that taught me media literacy when I was really young. I was part of a group called Powerful Voices, and they have this program called Girls Rap where we basically went into middle schools and high schools and we learned media literacy. We learned how important ads in magazines are to be, like, ‘What is this telling you? What’s the truth of the matter?’ Like, you don’t have to be skinny. You don’t have to be fair skinned. That is important.”

Rose is a huge fan of Insecure on HBO and Issa Rae.

“Everyone watches TV. Everyone watches film. So you have to have diverse voices to really make these stories sound authentic, to really have this point of view come through where it’s like, no, this exists.

“Being a white woman, my diversity lies in the fact that I’m a woman. But being white in America, that is a privilege. And understanding your white privilege is really important. But then on top of that, I didn’t really grow up rich, you know? And so class was a huge theme in my life.”

Class & Character

Rose is taken back to her childhood in Seattle.  “I guess I didn’t realize that growing up in a bar gave me character.”

Rose’s grandparents own Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub.

“When I was little, my dad was a bartender and even managed the restaurant with his family. My sister and I, we just grew up there.  No wonder I became a storyteller. I was in a bar! It’s music meets oral history.”

Career Path of a Storyteller

“If anyone’s gone into my apartment, they enter it and they go, ‘Oh! This must be what the inside of your brain looks like.’ Because there’s Post-it Notes everywhere. It’s really random and eclectic, and there’s twinkle lights constantly. My dad says, ‘Life is a matter of lighting.’”

There are two quotes that for Rose are guiding principles.

“One, on the fridge, is the Jimmy Breslin quote: ‘Go ask the gravedigger.’”

That is in reference to It’s An Honor, the extraordinary article written by Breslin that highlighted the perspective of the last man to serve President John F. Kennedy: the man who dug his grave at Arlington National Cemetery, Clifton Pollard. The message: See what others are doing, and don’t do that. Do something else. Be original.

“And then the second one, because I love Kendrick Lamar, is: ‘Careers take off. Just gotta be patient.’”

Rose makes it clear that it is quite literally a ‘note to self.’

And it reminds me of a quote I read in Busy Philipps’ book This Will Only Hurt A Little which is similar and applicable to all of us: ‘Be grateful in that waiting room.’ And in that writers’ room. And in that room of your own soul.

Which brings me back to the beautiful juxtaposition of Rose and Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare (whose language perplexed many of us) threw off convention to craft his own bedazzled words and phrases, and he utilized language to his pleasing. And to the benefit of those who are inspired by it. And not unlike her earliest inspiration, Rose McAleese found her own brand of true expression when she was bold enough to unravel the complexity of words so she too could utilize language to her pleasing. And to the benefit of those who are inspired by it.

A Phrasal, Likewise Me is William Shakespeare through Rose-colored glasses.

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Follow Rose:  Instagram: @rose_ettastone  Website: http://www.rosemcaleese.com

Design Your Life

“I’m an entrepreneur. In a way, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. It’s a certain kind of creativity and determination and just a not-giving-up. It’s creating something out of nothing.”

Edit Keshishyan is 38 years old, and she moved to the US from Armenia when she was just ten. She is passionate about her work and life and has let her passion and intuition guide her every step. As a child, she watched her parents closely — they were models of the self-made, the creative.

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“When I was little in Armenia, my mom was a dress maker and my dad was a cobbler, a shoe maker.  I would help him in his little workroom. Cut leather. The smell of leather is very sentimental for me now,” she says, remembering her late father. “My mom…I would watch her make dresses, and I kind of tried to make little dresses for my dolls.”

Like many childhood recollections, those early memories made an impact on young Edit and would become ingrained in her character. Design and fashion would be Edit’s calling, and hard work, self-reliance and optimism would be her method.

As a college student in southern California, Edit was studying sciences with a dream of becoming a pediatrician. Despite her commitment, other dreams were visiting Edit at night. They not only woke her from her sleep, they were also a wakeup call.

When I was in college studying biology, I would have these very vivid colorful dreams. I would wake up in the middle of the night and sketch it really fast and then go back to sleep.” She was sketching her dreams of dress designs and fashion.

Edit paid attention to the messages of her subconscious and a new life path opened like a runway. Fashion was her new Medicine.

“Right when I changed my major, there was no question. That’s what I wanted to do! I immersed myself completely.  I looked at all the magazines, read a lot of books, I tried to become just as good as I could become at making patterns, making dresses, draping. I would sew until midnight. I loved it.

Edit’s tireless commitment to learning and growing took her from the place of imagination to manufacturing warehouses in downtown Los Angeles to high end boutiques in LA, New York and Paris and finally to fashion’s esteemed runway shows. She was in it. She was doing it.

“Overall, it was very fun. It was very fast paced. I’d be up at 5:30am, then 100%, until I’d go to bed.”

In the Details

During that time, Edit met the man who would become her husband, Alberto. He lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had been heavily influenced by time he spent living in Brazil. When he came back to the US, his love for the martial art Brazilian jiujitsu became a way of life and he opened jiujitsu gyms. One feature of many jiujitsu tournaments, Edit told me, was a Brazilian “superfood” called acai.

At that time, Edit was an avid student of health, reading about superfoods before most of us had heard the term.  And sometimes it’s the most curious of life details and circumstances that influence our life’s path. Love leads to connections that lead to new life directions.

Edit and Alberto married and started a family in southern California.

“I really wanted to focus on the family and not be on this stressful planet of the fashion world. I decided to give fashion a break.”

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Superfoods and Emotional Intelligence

“For the past 10 years I’ve been helping Alberto with the gym. It’s been our project aside from having three kids.

“We both really love acai. And I’ve been making acai bowls even since Santa Fe. We decided to have acai at the gym as a little fruit cart.  I put bamboo around it and had a freezer with acai in it. I had it running like a little business of its own, and I took it very seriously.”

They rolled the cart into the street and people would drive 30 minutes just for a cup of acai. When the space next door to the jiujitsu gym opened, it was originally going to be a gym expansion. Instead it turned into the ACAI JUNGLE CAFE in Burbank, CA. And Edit has been running this health food spot that plays world music and serves up well-being ever since.

“I was very nervous about opening the cafe. Honestly even today a year later, every person that comes… I am genuinely happy to see them. I don’t ever want to take it for granted.

“What I learned from fashion and from jiujitsu, having a gym, is to never sacrifice quality. So same thing with the menu here. Make three perfect sandwiches. Make three perfect salads. Make three perfect smoothies. Every single item on the menu is so well thought out that you don’t really want another variation of it. And that’s why we have such a high percentage of returning customers.  It’s just really important that everyone leaves here happy.

“If I’m not going to eat it, I’m not going to have it here.  I try to keep a really healthy, clean diet. But it has to be delicious.

“I came across an article about emotional intelligence recently. It talked about all the different ways you self-talk and what you want to feel like every day, how to handle stressful situations, how to stay calm. And I thought I really have to bring this to the meeting we are going to have with the cafe group.

“When I was little, my mom always used to say that people like to be around happy people. I think I’m a happy person overall. Unless something really happens that’s bad, nothing kind of throws me off.

“I think my energy affects everyone else that works here. And their energy affects every single person that comes in here. And I want everybody that works here to be really happy.  Like, ‘we’re gonna have an amazing day. Let’s do good things’ and you always feel good.

“I try to inspire them to constantly push their own limits. It might build some confidence. I want them, if they do leave here, to say ‘I got something from that.’

“I think another fulfilling part about having this business is the way it affects my kids, my daughters especially.  They don’t see anything holding me back. They don’t see me saying, ‘Oh, I can’t.’

“I don’t ever want them to feel held back because they’re women, that they can’t do something because they’re women. It’s always been a very important thing for me.

“They see that even as a female, as a woman, they can do whatever they want to do. They can be whatever they want to be.”