2015 in Review

One thing I miss about doing a Project 365 or a Project 52 is the story I end up with for the year. At least with those projects, I’m shooting and blogging frequently, so I’m kind of keeping a virtual scrapbook of our lives. Instead of a Christmas letter (which last year was my very first one), I thought I would do a long update here for this year. And I am thinking of doing another P365 for 2016 but just post once a week like I did in 2013. My favorite year was my first P365 in 2010… I didn’t know beans about photography at that point, but I learned a TON and documented every day of our lives that year. The kids will always have that online album to look back on and see what our lives were like.

So 2015. I started it with an interview with Dominic (forgive the autofocus noise on the camera, I was just figuring out my new D750 movie function). I think I’ll try to make this an annual tradition with him. The movie file is too big to upload, so I’ll try to embed the URL.

Dominic 2014 Interview

In February, we adopted a puppy we named Lola (already blogged) from Texas Sweeties Dog Rescue… ostensibly for Anna, but Lola turned into my dog. Anna got to hold several Chihuahuas at PetSmart one afternoon so she decided she had to have a little dog. Having only ever owned large dogs, I was skeptical about getting a little dog… but I fell in love with Lola, the Chorkie, who was only 4 pounds when we got her. I think she’s up to about 7 pounds now but she is yappy. That is the only thing I really don’t like about her. Lola is always happy and loves chewing on Charlie’s tail to get him to play with her. They are adorable together. Oh and the Texas Animal Guardians that set up every Saturday at the Creekside Petsmart here in New Braunfels have made Anna an honorary volunteer, they even gave her a t-shirt! She would earn going to PetSmart as a reward for a good week at school, so we spent a lot of time there for a while in the spring and summer. They are also a wonderful rescue group that works solely with fosters to save dogs from kill shelters. Here she is holding a puppy from the New Braunfels Humane Society‘s adoption event outside of the theater. Wherever there are dogs, you will find Anna!

New Braunfels special needs family pet dog photographer

Not long after we got Lola, my mom adopted a stray Shih Tzu, whom she named Cricket. Cricket ended up being an elderly dog… we never did find her owners and think she might have belonged to an older man who passed away. I actually think she’s a cat trapped in a dog body. Trans-species syndrome. Cricket has grown on everyone but she does not like getting her picture taken. She will turn away from the phone or camera every single time we try to take a photo. It’s so weird! And she loves to lay on the back of the couch like a cat. Her and mom are best pals.

New Braunfels dog pet family photographer

In the spring, Curtis bought a new (to him) used Lexus from Craigslist (and took 7 months to get it titled and registered in his name… LOL). It’s a gorgeous car and he got a great deal on it. Always buy used, people! He got a $75K car for under $25K by buying used. It’s a 2007 and only had about 70K miles on it. It looks brand new and drives like a dream. Smart.

Anna celebrated her 14th birthday in March (already blogged). I can’t believe we are only nine weeks away from her 15th birthday. Time is flying by too quickly.

Late spring, Curtis got a potential deal with a client in Scotland. He ended up taking several trips to Scotland and England that lasted several weeks each time. Though he missed the last day of school (we Skyped him in for Dominic’s 5th grade graduation ceremony) and had to cancel Dominic’s Boy Scout summer camping trip, Curtis did his best to be totally present and playful when he was home. Here is a link to one of my favorite photos he took while in England… he walked into a protest! Turkish Peace

We celebrated our first year in River Chase (already blogged). After living here another six months, I feel even more blessed to be in this neighborhood. River Chase rocks. <3<3<3

Dominic finished elementary school in June. Everyone here LOVES Hoffman Lane Elementary and people move to River Chase just for this school. Our very first impression going in last summer 2014 was for registration. It was our first time on campus, we weren’t familiar with anything or anyone. The lady that greeted us was not friendly nor kind nor helpful, and kinda treated me like an idiot for not knowing what I was supposed to do. She remained that way during our year there as she was the front office person. I don’t think she liked her job very much, or at least she didn’t like new people. The TAG program is a fraction compared to what Dominic had in Round Rock (they call it the GT program here). In RR, he was pulled out every day for math and had aggressive Independent Study projects for Language Arts. Here, he met once a week for 45 minutes. He was not challenged academically at all at this school. Dominic has ADHD and a 504 Plan. During his first month at HLES, he got in trouble a few times and got sent to the principal’s office. The VP is the one who ended up being our main point of contact and was very long-winded every time she called to recount Dominic’s transgressions. Dominic’s only advocate and champion at that school was his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Barker. Thank God for her. They rotated classes, so he saw four different main subject teachers, plus had electives, PE, lunch, and recess. It was a lot of change and there were lots of eyes watching him for mistakes. He got in trouble for all kinds of stuff that seemed minor to us. (Like swinging his soft-sided lunchbox around during dismissal which hit a kid.) He was in the VP’s office one time and overheard a popular girl that was there for spitting on another child. She did not get in trouble, no call home, no referral. See what I mean? It felt like he was singled out. I ended up taking him to his psychiatrist in Austin and his behavioral therapist weekly for months to help him cope. Yet despite not getting referrals and behaving well from October through February, he felt constantly scrutinized and criticized. His self-esteem plummeted. The low point came in the spring when the News Crew was open for spring auditions. This is their closed-circuit TV news spot that the kids put on in the mornings as school is starting. His best friend, Taylor, who lives across the street, did the News Crew in the fall so he wanted to try it. He got an application, filled it out thoughtfully and had me double-check it for him, then for three days in a row, wore his nicest outfits for his audition. Finally, he asked when he would have a turn and the librarian was snotty, saying “Why do you think you would be allowed to try-out? You have a behavior plan! Only students with an S in conduct can try out.” WTH? There isn’t even a Conduct area on his report card or anywhere online. No one told him this beforehand. He was so upset and thought it was unfair and got angry… which got him sent to the VP’s office… which earned him a referral and a call home. I was so pissed that I went off on that woman. How dare they? If they knew ahead of time that he would not be allowed to try out, why allow him to get an application in the first place? Why not pull him aside in private and tell him the policy? Then to shame him even more, the VP said that his reaction is the reason they couldn’t trust him to be on air?!? He was devastated and embarrassed and humiliated. So our impression of Hoffman Lane is that if you have a typical child with good behavior, they will do very well there. If you have a gifted child, they will be bored. If you have a behaviorally challenged child, they will have no idea what to do and will squash their self-esteem. And there is very little diversity there too. Dominic was extremely bothered by the “R” word and repeatedly went to the adults on campus asking for help in confronting the kids saying it. All adults denied ever hearing it.. Dominic was making it up for attention. We asked that the school take part in the annual Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. The VP said no. She felt that none of the kids knew that word and would be introducing it to them and wouldn’t be appropriate. Needless to say, we were not impressed with our experience there. Do you know that he even got that woman a gift at the end of the year? He had heard her joking about how much hair spray she uses, so he got her the best hair spray he could afford. She didn’t even smile when she opened it and just dismissed him like he was a nuisance. It was really crappy. I am so glad he’s done there!!!

This was his 5th grade field trip. He is in the top row, all the way to the left, with his head down, cap and sunglasses on, apart from the other kids. 🙁

New Braunfels child photographer

He received numerous awards, academic achievements, and even came in 2nd place for the most read books all year. He’s not even holding up his papers. He looks so defeated.

New Braunfels child photographer

And here is Mrs. Barker. Without her, I don’t think Dominic would have survived 5th grade. She was the only ray of kindness and kinship he felt at Hoffman. She really was a gem.

New Braunfels child photographer

Anna had a wonderful experience at Church Hill Middle School for her 7th grade year and her teacher, Mrs. Haynes, was just the best. She understood Anna like she was family. She spent her own money to buy little incentive prizes for her, toys for Lola, Frozen trinkets. She even recommended ESY for the summer (that’s Extended School Year services which we were always denied in Round Rock). ESY started the week after school let out for summer so I was worried about how Anna would handle it, but she did GREAT. ESY was from 8 a.m.-12 p.m., she rode the bus, and we called it summer camp. Miss Rebecca was her teacher… and this woman would prove to play a critical role this fall with Anna. More about her later. There were only a handful of kids at summer school with Anna and she flourished. It really was a lovely summer. The program ended in late July so we still had a month of being off and swimming and sleeping in and lazing about. It was grand.

Anna had an inpatient video EEG (blogged already) at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin for three days at the end of July. There was only one blip in the middle of the night so her brain is not showing any signs of subclinical seizures. Sometimes we see weird behavior changes around the full moon and we sometimes can’t tell when she has staring spells if she is just spacing out or if she is having absence seizures. Plus she sometimes complains of her head “vibrating” and gets tremors in her left hand. We didn’t see any of that while we were there. Anna continues to stay on Lamictal, it seems to help with the rage/cry/sleep episodes that plagued her during 5th grade. It’s been over six years since we’ve seen her have a tonic-clonic seizure, and I hope she never experiences another one again. I recently took part in an IndieGoGo campaign to fund a wearable device called Embrace. We should be getting it first quarter of 2016. I’m excited for her to wear it just in case something happens in the middle of the night, it will send a signal to my phone.

Dominic celebrated his 11th birthday at the end of July. We had the party at Evo Entertainment in Kyle. It’s a great place, it has a movie theater, bowling alleys, game room, private party rooms, full bar and restaurant… kinda like a TopGolf for entertainment. It was high end but worth it. Dominic ended up winning a huge stuffed elephant from the giant claw machine. He named her Myra. Anna at the time was obsessed with the Minions and we tried to win her a stuffed Minion from the smaller claw machine, but we had no luck. Finally the staff there tried using their freebie token card with no luck and then finally the manager just opened the case and gave her one. I was super impressed with the staff.

It was a Minecraft-themed party.

New Braunfels child birthday photographer

We had someone local here in New Braunfels make his birthday cake, didn’t it turn out awesome?

New Braunfels child birthday photographer

We were very grateful that friends from New Braunfels and Austin made the trip for the party.

New Braunfels child birthday photographer

Happy 11th, Dominic! He looks so happy, my heart was starting to recover from his devastating depression in the spring.

New Braunfels child birthday photographer

Everyone got $20 token cards to play in the game room. They went fast, so we ended up bowling a few games too.

New Braunfels child birthday photographer

Here’s Myra! He is a claw machine master. WTG, Dominic!!!

New Braunfels child birthday photographer

I finally graduated from my minivan to an SUV! I sold my 14-year old Caravan on Craigslist for a good price and did a ton of research on SUVs. I’m one of those obnoxious people that uses Consumer Reports to find the best deals on big purchases. Anyway, I found a used Buick Enclave in Corpus Christi with low miles at AutoNation. I was emailing the sales agent and said, “You know before I drive 200 miles down there, I have to let you know that this is $3K over budget, and I don’t want to waste your time.” 3o minutes later, he knocked $2500 off the price. Awesome. It’s only 4 years old and had 37K miles on it. I love love love it. Plus we got to go to Corpus which is always fun.

Corpus Christi beach photographer

The car felt like an early birthday present… I celebrated my 46th birthday on August 17th. Little did I know how hard the next months were going to be…

iPhone photographer

I found out at my annual checkup in March that I had some health issues that needed attending to. Because of Curtis’s travel schedule and the kids being home for the summer, we decided to put off the surgeries until fall. But it put a lot of worry and anxiety on my shoulders all summer. I tried my best not to worry, but when there’s a 50% chance of something being cancer, even very curable cancer, it does tend to creep into your mind late at night. I had to go through an induced medication withdrawal in preparation for the first surgery and it was one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced (Stigma, Pain, and Shame: already blogged). But I have incredible doctors supporting me here. I had some preconceived notions about the kind of care I would get in New Braunfels, a small town. I thought I would need to travel to Austin or San Antonio to get good care. But honestly, this place is so amazing, that the smart people that grew up here come back to raise their families here, so I have gotten amazing care. These people don’t treat their patients like a number, they treat us like family. I now know more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome than ever and have a much better feel for my future and Anna’s future. My mom was an amazing advocate and I’m hoping she will write a guest blog post soon about her experience. But getting through the thyroidectomy, hysterectomy, and pelvic floor reconstruction was brutal. No way around it. It was rough. Pain control was hard. Giving up control was hard. Accepting help was hard (thank you, Judy!!!). But it was NOTHING in comparison to what Anna was going through…

Looking back from the middle of August to just after Thanksgiving, I get a pit in my stomach. Seeing my sweet shining light of a daughter grow dimmer and dimmer as the weeks went by killed me. It was by far the worst start to a school year that Anna has ever experienced. Anna started in PPCD at age 3, so she’s been in the school system for 11 years. It’s always a hard transition for her… going from the freedom of summer to the routine of school. Bless her heart, she still experiences severe separation anxiety from me. Curtis is SO good at getting her to be more independent. He is a good balance to my overprotective, nurturing momma bear. I have to learn how to push her to be more independent… this will be one of the hardest lessons of my journey here this lifetime. Letting go of Anna. I am trying. This fall really put us to the test.

The teacher Anna had last year, Mrs. Haynes, got a promotion (she was named Teacher of the Year a couple of years ago and she is a rare special soul) so Anna was placed with the other Essential Academics teacher that was there last year. Plus they added two more EA teachers, both new to the school. One of the aides from her room last year was with her, so I thought this was a good transition plan. The administration and the staff had met and talked about what would be best for Anna, so I felt reassured that they were on the ball. But almost right from the start, things were bad. Was this normal transition behavior that always seems to take a few weeks? We requested our first meeting at the end of September, less than a month after school started. She was acting out and we were getting phone calls, emails, and notes home everyday about her being oppositional, refusing to do work, refusing to get off the bus, refusing to go into the classroom, hitting/kicking/biting/cussing/throwing things, turning over her desk, them having to clear the room. I got copious notes about what she did, what she said, etc. It was awful. I was recovering from surgery, I felt incredibly guilty. Was it me? Was it her? Was it hormones? Was it neurological? Was it medication? Was it pure behavior? Multiple calls to the psychiatrist, multiple tweaking of her medications… it only led to her becoming more and more angry. We kept asking for meetings, we kept emailing her old teacher, begging her to help. And we kept getting the run around from the staff and administration. Nothing made sense. We just thought it was Anna’s fault, that she was being bad and ultimately it was our fault as her parents. Curtis and I began to really bicker and argue. We scheduled the first of three meetings that would finally resolve what was going on. The first meeting happened at the end of September (right before my second surgery), the second in early November, and the last in early December. The September meeting was just to placate me. I offered strategies for helping Anna cope, they took notes, they said all the right things. Mrs. Haynes was not there even though I asked that she attend. She knows Anna better than anyone. Why wouldn’t they have her involved?

By October, she was banned from the STAR Bowling program where she won a gold medal last year… all because of behavior that was happening at school. I do not think this was a good consequence at all. She was not allowed to go on field trips unless a parent came with her, the transportation department wanted to put her in restraints. Y’all… you have no idea how bad it was. Every day, we had to be angry with her for hitting and hurting people. We had to take away all of her privileges, she had no joy, nothing to look forward to. She started sleeping half the day every day at school. It makes me cry to think about it. Finally, one day came the final straw. I got a phone call home one afternoon because Anna refused to get on the bus to leave school. Once she was on the bus, she was hitting the aide and driver, so I talked to her and got her calmed down, then talked with her teacher after the bus left. She had all of her incentive strips taken away by 9:30 a.m. and had a particularly rough day. I’m sorry but what does a child have to do by 9:30 in the morning to have everything taken away? This was the first time I raised my voice at her teacher. I was so frustrated. She was only having maybe one decent day a week at this point and the notes home were very detailed about every single transgression, every cuss word written out in full, yet the good days just said “good day.” Seriously. How can I help her build her self-esteem about school if there is only negative feedback?

This is when we INSISTED on the second meeting, we insisted that Mrs. Haynes be present, and finally, after waiting another week, we got our meeting. They were using a restraint system called “Team Transport” where they would physically lock arms with Anna and move her from one area to another. They used this on her a total of four times. In 11 years of schooling, she’s only ever had one incident (6th grade at that horrid Deerpark Middle School in Austin) that required someone to lay hands on my child. That last week before The Big Meeting in early November (#2), they used Team Transport on a Monday and again on a Wednesday (our meeting was scheduled for Thursday). Twice in one week? The second time, they dragged her (sorry, they said she wasn’t dragged) all the way from the cafeteria down the entire length of the school, then turned and went the entire back length of the side of the school to reach her classroom. That is a very long way to “transport” a child. Then they claim that Anna intertwined her legs with theirs and caused all three of them to fall (her teacher, an aide, and Anna) as they entered the classroom. (She does not have the coordination to do that! I would love it if she did, but come on.) Because Anna fell, they had to notify me with a phone call. She hurt her knee. It’s a very good thing she didn’t bump her head on the doorjamb. There might have been a lawsuit involved. I did some research and discovered that this method is ONLY to be used in an emergency to keep the child from hurting themselves or others. They were not using the technique properly. I allowed Anna to stay home the rest of that week because what was the point in having her be at school?

So you can imagine going into that meeting on Thursday, we were livid and wanted changes now. Remember Miss Rebecca from ESY? She is the Essential Academics Support Specialist for the district and she was in attendance as was Kim, the district’s behavior specialist (who also worked with Dominic last year on his behavior plan). Mrs. Haynes was not there. Curtis immediately said there is no point continuing if she is not here, why was she not present? They said because this is her team now. Curtis had to threaten to go the superintendent (who happens to live in our neighborhood) and the VP said she would talk to the principal and have him call Curtis that day. [Which did happen. Curtis explained very calmly and logically to the principal that if you had a student who spoke a foreign language on campus and you had one teacher who also spoke that language, wouldn’t you want that teacher to be at every meeting to help translate? Guess what… Mrs. Haynes was at the next meeting. WTG, Curtis!!! And of course, she had some amazing insights and strategies, and offered some wonderful incentive ideas to help Anna earn fun time (like playing basketball in the gym at the end of the day and getting to take a friend… all the kids want to be picked, so it makes her feel special and if she’s not behaving well, the kids can put a little peer pressure on her reminding her that they want to play). That was at meeting #3, the good meeting.]

We continued the meeting as planned without Mrs. Haynes present. I asked for a formal investigation into the Team Transport event that ended with the fall. (I did not ever get anything formal out of it, but the district admitted the technique was being used incorrectly and all staff was re-trained within the week.) The crux of the meeting was that they were going to do a new Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) which means that the teachers, aides, and us as parents, all fill out paperwork on Anna’s behavior. They then analyze the results and put together a new Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). We have done these many times on both kids. I said as gently as I could that I think this could be a teacher personality conflict and asked if a placement change were possible. We only had about nine school days until the Thanksgiving break so they wanted that time to see if they could implement some incentive changes while doing the FBA so they had solid data on which to make a recommendation. During this time, Miss Rebecca observed Anna, rode the bus with her, and generally helped her cope a lot. Kim did an observation as well. Rebecca has now become a family friend.

The Monday after the Thanksgiving break, Anna started in a new classroom based on Rebecca’s and Kim’s recommendations. THANK GOD. I am not blaming her old teacher, but there was a dynamic there that was not working. I’m not saying she didn’t like Anna, but Anna is very, very empathic and intuitive, and I think this woman did not click with my daughter. They had power struggles every day that just escalated. It did a lot of damage. Anna continually says she is stupid and that she’s a bad kid. It is heartbreaking. The good news is that now she is in the right class. Her new teacher “gets” her and is very open to ideas and feedback. She texts me throughout the day, lets me know of Anna’s successes. They really only had one tough day in the three weeks before Christmas break. She called me and we chatted on the phone for a good 10 minutes or so. I feel like it’s going to be okay now. And I feel like I have a team of advocates on Anna’s side which will be really helpful next fall when she starts high school.

Whew. Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath.

The great news is that Dominic is flourishing in middle school. He was so despondent at the end of 5th grade, we were truly worried about him. But he is fitting in well in most of his classes (only PE and Science are causing problems). He’s made some new friends and loves his theater arts class. We had some trouble the first two months with assignments getting lost and work not getting done in class, but at his first 504 Plan meeting, they said they want to re-do all of his testing to get him more support. We should have the results from those tests in mid-January. He may go from a 504 to an IEP…  he needs the support but I do worry about the social implications. One thing at a time. Right now, he’s happy.

This fall he ranked up for the first time in his Boy Scout troop, he’s officially a Tenderfoot.

New Braunfels family Boy Scouts photographer

This was my first outing post-hysterectomy. Anna’s anxiety was high. Daddy hugs make everything better.

New Braunfels family Boy Scouts photographer

Halloween went well. Anna was Mork from Mork and Mindy… she was pretty obsessed with him from June through October. Dominic was an actor in our neighborhood haunted barn and had to wear all white, so I painted his face to make him look skeletal. Since our neighborhood is all 1+ acre lots, it’s too hard for the kids to trick or treat, so we have a trail where people set up tables and the kids ToT there. Anna didn’t enjoy walking the trail but sat at our table for a while before heading home with Nana.

New Braunfels child family special needs photographer siblings Halloween

From there it was a whirlwind… Curtis’s 46th birthday where I got him one of the coolest presents I’ve ever gotten anyone. Curtis is color blind and I found these sunglasses that fit over your regular glasses that allow the color blind to see actual color. They are called EnChroma and it’s made his driving and day-to-day vision better.

New Braunfels family photographer

Then it was Thanksgiving… thank you to my mom for doing the majority of the cooking and creating the pretty table setting.

New Braunfels thanksgiving photographer

I also got the best group photo of my kids ever!

New Braunfels lifestyle portrait family siblings photographer

In early December, my mom volunteered for a local event called the Festival of Trees, benefiting the non-profit organzations, Central Texas Advocate for Seniors and the Comal County Senior Center. Our neighbor, Sherry, put out a call for musicians. Mom had just finished up the fall concert season with the Hill Country Community Band, so she put together a small ensemble to play twice at the event.

New Braunfels band photographer

Each tree was created by a family, business, or other sponsor to be auctioned off. It was pretty cool!

New Braunfels photographer

Later that evening, Dominic’s Boy Scout troop served Smores on a Stick and Hot Chocolate at the annual Wassailfest celebration downtown. It was a super busy day!

New Braunfels Boy Scouts Wassailfest photographerNew Braunfels Boy Scouts Wassailfest photographerNew Braunfels Boy Scouts Wassailfest photographer

Jenny’s 24th birthday was extra special because we all traveled to Georgetown to be with her, including her dad and Denise. We celebrated first with lunch at Kerby Lane Cafe (where they all sang to her… the video is on my FB page), then we went back to her and Chris’s apartment for presents and brownies.

Georgetown birthday family photographer

Denise got her the coolest gift, a life-size cut out poster of a Walking Dead zombie!

Georgetown birthday family photographer

Church Hill Middle School put on a Fine Arts Showcase, so Dominic got to perform one of the plays they worked on this fall. It was an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty and he got to play the evil witch who turned all the people into animals. The kids all chose their own parts with many boys choosing girl’s roles, complete with fairy wings, tutus, and makeup. It was a hoot!

New Braunfels child photographer

Then finally Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

New Braunfels Christmas photographerNew Braunfels Christmas photographerNew Braunfels Christmas photographer

Thanks for looking and reading this incredibly long post. It might be a record for the longest EVER! There were a few other highlights… mom was accepted into the Texas Master Naturalist gardener’s program. In addition to the HCCB and ensemble work, she’s also recorded some jazz tracks that will be on her website soon. I had several images accepted into juried art shows and several images published as well. Curtis got Michael Dell to record some video for a presentation. Chris graduated from the fire academy and became a firefighter with the Killeen fire department. He’s now in paramedic school. Jenny got two promotions and a raise at her job. And Jenny and Chris are in the process of buying their first house.

I’m still not sure what 2016 will bring, but I hope it is health and happiness for my family and for yours. If you are reading this, then please know that I care very deeply about you. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and God Bless!

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