What I Did Before My Daughter’s First Birthday


This is a piece I contributed to the American Foundation for the Blind FamilyConnect® For parents of children with visual impairments. You can find it published HERE. Full text is below as well.

—–What I Did Before My Daughter’s First Birthday —-

After the severely premature birth of our first child and a five and a half month hospitalization in the NICU, we cocooned at home for two months. I simply wanted the world to stay away so I could just enjoy my baby. We accepted two early intervention professionals weekly into our home but that was it.

In time, my Blind Babies Foundation (BBF) counselor encouraged me to do a few things, like meet blind adults and ask questions. Other things I did because I was curious or because they felt right.

Here’s my short list of what I did before my baby’s first birthday, to feel that I was facing the reality of blindness by empowering myself with experiences:

  • I subscribed to “Don’t lose your child to the disability.” Very critical first step, very sage advice. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read that.
  • I met a mom for brunch. She had raised a blind daughter who was a college student at Stanford University, majoring in physics and religious studies. This was a very powerful ninety minutes in my life, with profound impact and hope.
  • At the mom’s suggestion, I got on Seedlings’ (print/Braille books) mailing list and ordered six books to read to my daughter. I did this even though I thought she was way too young for books. Touch and Feel and Scratch and Sniff books with braille dots to feel with tiny fingers were a huge hit early on. She clearly enjoyed the experience of cuddling and reading.
  • I attended the NFB state conference to confront the world of blindness head on.
  • I met parents of older kids who are blind and in my school district.
  • I began to seek assistive technology that would make the world accessible to her later.
  • I read a book that my BBF counselor brought to me: Small Victories: Conversations about Prematurity, Disability, Vision Loss and Success, by Mary Lou Dickerson.
  • I sought out blind adults for lunch meetings and asked, “What did your parents do really well as you were growing up?” and “What do you wish your parents had done differently?” I learned a wealth of information from asking these two questions.

Yes, it’s a lot for the first year, especially when you consider that I spent the first 5 1/2 months of that year in the NICU with my baby girl after her birth at 25 weeks, weighing one pound two ounces! But I needed to do these things right away, to get rid of the terrible feeling of helplessness.

I’ve always believed that “Knowledge is Power, Ignorance is Expensive.” For me, this is what helped me overcome the grief and get on with the business of raising my child and becoming her advocate.

Posted in Special Education Advocacy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Two-Way Immersion Program and Biliteracy in Turlock

On Thursday, after having served children at Naval Air Station Lemoore to celebrate Month of the Military Child, I drove up the gorgeous, uber-green Central Valley to the city of Turlock.

I passed Atwater, the town where Castle Air Force Base once trained military aircrews. That’s where I did my training as a young Air Force lieutenant to learn how to fly with a crew and operate a KC-135R refueling tanker. I smiled recalling those 5 months of training after graduating from Undergraduate Navigator Training in Sacramento and getting my silver wings. I recalled the excellent Castle Air Museum of fascinating military airplanes that’s located there now that we enjoyed with our kids last year. Good times!

This time however, I was on my way to serve as the featured speaker at the Noche de Inspiración at Dutcher Middle School in Turlock. How that invitation came to be is a classic social networking story: my BFF Sonya Sigler has a friend from high school named Janet Smith. Janet because curious about my background after I tagged Sonya on Facebook and started looking into the work I do. She then connected me with her daughter’s former teacher, suggesting me as a bilingual, bicultural speaker for her event. It was this dual-immersion teacher at Dutcher, Maria Alex Carrillo Prasad, who issued the invitation to me. Thanks Mark Zuckerberg! And thanks Alex for sending ALL the photos in this post.

As I arrived and began to unload boxes of books, it started to rain a bit (of course – it never fails!)  Janet, Alex and others quickly helped me unload and get everything set up inside for the evening event for about 150 parents, students, educators and administrators.

I immediately spotted half a dozen Latina students sitting in the front row -always a good sign -they’re not trying to hide in the back like too many kids this age. Behind them, sat some English-speaking students who have been learning in both English and Spanish since kindergarten.  I was pumped up looking at these excited  young faces. I was ready to tell my story of growing up as a child of Mexican immigrants and becoming an ambicultural American Latina and a multicultural, globally-savvy professional. I was ready to inspire and answer this question some people sometimes ask: WHY should we continue to study in two languages?

I answered this by sharing specific instances where in my professional life, I was offered extraordinary opportunities to work somewhere in the world because of my cultural competencies and my language skills. Among these was an operational leadership assignment with NATO in the spectacular medieval city of Vicenza in northern Italy, 30 minutes from Venice. I was selected while serving in the Air Force because my personnel records showed fluency with Spanish AND a conversational level with Italian.

Another memorable opportunity I shared was offered to me in my final year in the military. The requirements listed were both an aeronautical rating and fluency with the Spanish language. This one landed me at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador for four unforgettable months of work that required me to speak both languages daily and with very high-level military officers and people in the host nation government.  I emphasized to the audience that those who do not possess these language skills will never even know of the opportunities they missed simply because those experiences will not be offered to them. The winners in the 21st century will be those who can speak two or more languages and master cultural competency skills that will enable them to be globally mobile. They will of course also be able to work cross-culturally with people from anywhere on the planet, as they come to the USA.  Being monolingual is so 20th century and fast becoming a disadvantage. I cited this New American Economy report in which the demand for bilingual workers in the USA MORE THAN DOUBLED in the last five years: “In 2010, there were roughly 240,000 job postings aimed at bilingual workers; by 2015, that figure had ballooned to approximately 630,000.”

The local paper summarized the evening’s key messages and perfectly captured the essence of the heartfelt students’ presentations in two languages. Here’s the story in the Turlock Journal.

The school principal Mr. Lucas purchased a carton of my Latinnovating books to inspire students. Latinnovating showcases people with higher education credentials and successful entrepreneurship records – the latter towards which MANY bilingual, bicultural adults gravitate these days. The books were raffled off and I enjoyed sitting in the back of the room signing and personalizing each book to the students, parents and educators who won copies.

I LOVED that part – signing time was time for asking students questions about what they will takeaway from tonight’s presentation. They said they enjoyed:

  • how I encouraged them to rebel against narrow, traditional mindsets about how their lives are supposed to turn out because of to whom they were born
  • the story and pictures of my large, Mexican immigrant family because it mirrors their own families and that gives them so much hope
  • that I shared very specific information about WHO helped me navigate the college application and scholarship application processes. Like my parents, most of their parents cannot help them through this.
  • that I told them THEY have to own the process and ask the questions to seek the help and answers they need
  • the examples of special work assignments I was able to experience BECAUSE I spoke Spanish and English fluently. (I encouraged them to learn a third language later in life as I did while at Berkeley in college.)
  • the joy I shared that comes with accomplishments achieved FAR from home after daring to leave at age 18, celebrated with my family who has never missed a graduation ceremony – ever.
  • That I reminded their parents to think LONG-TERM and be willing to let them go far away to study at a university
  • That I reassured their parents that moving away to college does not mean abandoning their parents (something I find that many immigrant parents fear, as did my own parents)

I of course also asked about their aspirations and from their answers, it’s obvious these educators in Turlock are creating a culture of HIGH expectations for students. These one-to-one chats with students provide me much insight and hope.

Several parents asked me to take pictures with their children as they received Latinnovating books. Other parents with younger children purchased bilingual Captain Mama books and asked me to sign, personalize and take a picture with their kids. I loved it all!

These moments when I know I’ve touched many hearts by sharing the miracles that strung together make up my life, these moments that will get students and parents thinking about the long – term view of their own lives and what’s possible because they’ve chosen biliteracy and will choose higher education…these moments keep me happy and humble, because these moments are very, very special. I cherish these moments – my source of strength. This work and this feedback is how I can present six different times in one day at two school districts 125 miles apart. It’s how I can serve over 700 people in a day, in two languages – because I truly LOVE this work with all my heart and soul.

After the event, we took these group photos with some of the dual immersion teachers in attendance. Then, I was treated to a yummy dinner at the Dust Bowl Brewing Co. Downtown, enjoying the company of teachers and delightful conversation.

I was particularly struck by the personal success story of a young man named Gustavo, a former TUSD student who’s now an administrator at CSU-Stanislaus  located in Turlock. Young Latino educators are the diamonds in the rough – so few in numbers and so needed as educated role models for many boys and teens. In a day full of two-way inspiration, Gustavo’s story over dinner really grabbed my heart. I share with him the deep desire to inspire many more students like him to bet on higher education and win as bilingual professionals!

After hilarious and insightful conversation at Janet’s house with her two daughters (both fellow Girl Scout Cadettes like my daughters) who offered great tips for my girls’ Silver Award projects about to start, I crashed hard in my bed after midnight. I am so grateful for the hospitality and kindness offered to me by the friend of a friend and the wisdom of her assertive, confident teen daughters. I was truly inspired by their change-the-world attitude and examples of what they’ve already done!

What a blessing to serve the Turlock USD tonight. I have a feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. I look forward to much more sharing and listening and future opportunities to serve this school district that’s truly leading the way in creating Future Bilingual Professionals who will succeed brilliantly, however they choose to participate in our 21st century globalized economy.

Posted in Business writing, School visits | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Air Force Veteran/Author Serves Children of U.S. Navy for Month of the Military Child

It’s April – Month of the Military Child – when we thank the children whose parents are serving in our volunteer armed forces. We recognize them for the sacrifices they are forced to make as children whose parents are frequently called to duty far, far from home, for extended periods of time. It’s a month to do special things FOR them and to honor them somehow. I’m blessed, as a military veteran and children’s book author, to be part of these very special celebrations in schools on military bases.

Children’s artwork for Month of the Military Child author visit NAS Lemoore

I was invited to Naval Air Station Lemoore Thursday to present two assemblies and three 4th grade classroom visits at RJ Neutra Elementary School, serving 520 children of Navy personnel. Greeting me in the multi-use room, decorating the walls, were eight colorful banners filled with children’s art inspired by my books. The many original patch designs created by the students (using template from my first book) will have me smiling for a LONG time. They celebrate a parent’s service; they express love and joy.

Patch designs at RJ Neutra Elementary at at NAS Lemoore, CA – inspired by patch template seen inside “Good Night Captain Mama” children’s book by veteran Graciela Tiscareno-Sato

Here’s a photo of a favorite patch at the school! Just look at the detailed artwork!!

Beautifully detailed patch at NAS Lemoore to welcome Captain Mama

The memories I will take away with me from this day filled with hugs from grateful children are MANY. Here are a few highlights:

Graciela Tiscareño-Sato, a.k.a. Captain Mama, entertaining children at NAS Lemoore

During the assembly I shared photographs of my squad during our military survival training week in the Colville Forest of Washington State. I shared details of the kinds of things we survived on that week: black ants that taste like lemon drops found in rotted logs, earthworms, edible plants, a rabbit. I shared how we caught a deer with a large-game snare to enjoy our best  source of protein that week. I was quite surprised that these kids were so fascinated by these survival training stories!

During the afternoon classroom visits with three different groups of 4th graders, in addition to asking lots of questions about how to write and publish books, the process of writing and working with other people, and talking about aviation, aerial refueling and the training involved, I got many questions about the survival training and the eating of insects and such. It came up over and over again. It was hilarious – the questions were awesome:

  • Did you find any lizards out there?
  • You said it’s important to take off the heads of the ants before eating them so they don’t bite your esophagus on the way down. Did that happen to you?
  • You said that you should eat earthworms whole (and not chew them because you’ll get dirt in your teeth) but won’t they bite you on the way down like the ants?

I also got questions about how long does it take to write the book? Is it hard to write a book? Who drew all the pictures? I loved it all…all the wonder and curiosity in their eyes and voices!

While pulling my wagon filled with my flight suits and books through the hallways after lunch, I was stopped several times by inquisitive children. The same thing happened at the end of the school day as I walked to my car.

One little red-headed girl was so excited that she had just received an embroidered patch of my first book (the school staff purchased three Teacher Packs for students.) She said, “I just have to give you a hug to say thanks for coming to my school!”

Children’s artwork for Month of the Military Child author visit

Another girl simply wanted to tell me that she thought I was pretty, something that frankly I’ve NEVER been told at a school visit before. LOL! Several boys wanted to know more about how hard it was to fly and one asked if I had ever thrown up in an airplane. (I haven’t.)

Then there was the little boy who stopped me to tell me that his father has been deployed to Bahrain for over 5 months and he really misses him.

A fourth grader in one of the classrooms shared that he’s barely seen his father the last four years because “he comes home, is home for a few weeks and then deploys again.” I asked what his father did and he answered proudly, “My daddy flies F-18s.”

Such is the nature of serving children whose parents are in our active-duty military forces. All I could do for the children was offer hugs which they gladly took me up on. They’re all such loving kids there – a truly special school culture has been created by the devoted staff.

As I drove two hours north to Turlock for an evening event at a middle school (will be my next blog post), I reflected on this. To be asked questions about my military aviation service and survival training which I did in my previous life AND to be asked many questions about how to publish books, how to write books in two languages and how to become an author who wins awards….which is my current life ….all of it together – it is simply a HUGE blessing. I was filled with gratitude and am still floating as I think of it all.

What a wonderful way to celebrate April Month of the Military Child! There’s a lot more of April left. Please let me know if I can be of service at your school in person or via Skype or Google Hangouts. Please call (510) 542-9449 to inquire about getting me to a school near you – in person OR remotely. Read numerous testimonials from teachers HERE.

Are you on Facebook? If so, I’ve posted more photos of children’s artwork and the assembly HERE.

Thank you for supporting my work.  Visit www.CaptainMama.com to learn MUCH more about this award-winning bilingual, children’s picture book series we’re creating to take children’s into fascinating airplanes, nations and technical careers…while seeing the world as I was blessed to do while serving in the U.S. Air Force.

Creative adjective patch #CaptainMama

Posted in Business writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Processing Those Honest Mother’s Day Messages from my Children

One of the best benefits of being a mommy is receiving handmade projects that convey love from your children. Really nothing beats that…because kids create directly from their hearts…It’s #NoFilters defined.

Mother’s Day is the day that, if you’re lucky, you get flooded with creative messages expressing love…and hints.  This year takes the cake!

My oldest child is blind and writes beautifully in Braille. This year’s list of things she loves to do with me was filled with variety: 20150510_122921

“I love you. I love playing trombone music with you. I like going on the Undertow (a crazy ride on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk) with you. I like making paper with you. You are an amazing mother.”

No need to analyze that one – just a simple expressing of the multitude of activities we love to do that bring her, and me, total joy.

20150510_123039My second child is the visual artist. She  poured her heart into the artist cover in collage format and kept the sentiment within short and sweet, expressing happiness that she’s my daughter (like she has a choice, right?)  As I reflect on her choice of words, they seem to be code for “I’m the middle kid who gets less time with you versus the baby boy and the older sister with a multitude of special needs. I cherish every minute.” Sigh…am I overthinking it? And yet, she concludes with anticipation, that many other adventures lie ahead…which is awesome. 20150510_123130








These next pages are from a little book my little boy in second grade made at school. My favorites:

– I love you more than Minecra20150511_194601ft! (Now THAT is saying something!!)

– You are the best mother because you cook good soup! (Yes, I’m good at cutting veggies and throwing cooked chicken bits in a pot. I’ll claim that much.)

– I will help you…with your bissnes! [business!] (He’s my youngest book order fulfillment assistant, which is how he earns his “commission.” No “allowances” in this house!)










Lastly, the ice cream cone!! This sweet, colorful piece was also crafted by my little man. It smacked me in 20150510_122845the heart, big time!

“Dear Mom, Being around you makes me feel sweet, except for when you’re angry.”  (OUCH.)

Sometimes the brutal honesty coming from our kids is just what we need to make those necessary improvements, yes?

I have pinned the cone next to my bed. It’s truly a gift, a daily reminder when I wake up to try harder to not let the extreme stress of my life get conveyed through anger that lands on my little beloved kids. I am admitting right here that it is THE most difficult task assignment I face daily…truly one that I have apparently failed at repeatedly, judging by this message from my son.

I’m truly blessed with these children and their abilities to express themselves in such very different ways. I love that they are teaching me to continuously be a better person. That’s what this Mother’s Day was really about this year.

How about you? Did you receive any hints, I mean messages of love, this year? Want to share your own highlights? Please do!





Posted in Creative writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Role of Children’s Books in Our Insanely Active Summer

IMAGE Summer reading adventuresMy kids and I were uploading all the titles and author names of the books they’ve read this summer as part of the 2014 Latinas for Latino Lit Summer Reading Program. Luckily, the program required we only report eight books per child or I’d be doing this all night. Why? Because my kids, now entering grades 2, 5 and 7 this fall, are (thankfully!) self-motivated, voracious readers of many types of books. I have never had to remind them to read over the summer. They default to reading, that is, when we’re not outdoors doing something else. Or should I say, because we’re outdoors doing so much? You decide.

In June as the L4LL program kicked off, I was invited to participate in an NPR interview on parenting and “Diverse Summer Reading Picks For Kids,” I mentioned how my hubby and I intentionally expose our biracial kids to a diverse mix of nonfiction and fiction literature in the summertime when the world is our unscheduled oyster. I also mentioned that I let their interests lead the choices we make in what to check out from the library and what to load on the Kindles. Especially when traveling, we have both print and eBooks available for enjoyment depending on the activities of the day. I gave the example that I had asked each child what they wanted to study and read about this summer. Predictably, my son said, “I want to learn more about insects.”

When they’re reading what they love, they simply read more. Very importantly to prevent the typical regression that happens when kids turn their brains off for the summer. As I mentioned in the NPR interview, I remind my kids to journal regularly in the summer about the adventures we’re having. My oldest child who is blind reads Braille books and journals her sentences on a digital, refreshable BrailleNote; my two sighted kids write in small journals they shove in their backpacks while packing.

This summer the reading, the outdoor adventures, the learning, the experiences, the journaling all came together so naturally. They had to – we traveled over 3000 miles by car from California to Las Vegas, back to California then north for two days to Washington State. There, we spent the entire month of July fixing up a rental property. But that’s the beauty of having insatiable readers – all three read quietly for hours and hours in the car – it was the smoothest set of back-to-back roadtrips EVER. In the evenings after dinner, we’d let them relax and enjoy playing Minecraft until they got sleepy and we arrived at the hotel.

In Las Vegas, my daughter and I met Duncan Tonatiuh, author of Pancho Rmeeting Duncanabbit and the Coyote, after the International Latino Book Awards ceremony we attended. He signed the copy of his book we had brought from home for this occasion and she was thrilled. She also met Angela Cervantes, author ofMeeting Angela Cervantes Gaby Lost and Found that she’d read at school.


It was super special to have my daughter and parents with me as my bilingual children’s book won an award that night, AND even more so to be able to introduce her to other award-winning Latino authors. We bought the Pure Belpre winner this year, Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales to enjoy on the Kindle in the car on the way home. It’s a completely hilarious story with genius illustrations. I bought a print copy and gave it to my 83 year-old father who loves it too.

We drove home and did a quick unpack/repack marathon in a day. We then drove north through Oregon and Washington – 900 miles over two days after driving 560 miles home from Vegas. Ouch.

The night we arrived at the Washington house in the forest, it was 8:45 p.m. on the 4th of July and not quite dark. As we exited the car, we got buzzed by a very large brown and white beetle. “Whoa, that’s HUGE!” exclaimed my son. I said, “Yep, you’re going to LOVE it here. There’s some awesome insects and especially cool beetles!”

A few days later, my neighbor Sharon, who I’ve known since we first moved into this house when I was stationed at Fairchild AFB in the 1990s, mentioned that she was going to take her grandkids to the local rural library for storytime. She invited us to go and of course we accepted. The library was enrolling kids into their summer reading program and so all three of my kiddos signed up. My son immediately checked out two nonfiction books beetlesabout beetles and began to identify the different species they had already collected in the backyard. The initial conversation I had with him about what he wanted to deeply explore this summer, became a daily experience (catching numerous insects), was embellished with the beetle books and gave him a chance to show the neighbor kids the proper way to pin insects to cardboard for display and exploration. He expanded his science vocabulary, gained cool social points by teaching the neighbors and enjoyed every second. Guess what he wrote about several times during the summer? My role was limited to driving him to the library and listening to his discoveries and new beetle names. Love that.

The Lakeside Community Library summer reading program was based on hours spent Koko with bag 20140714_142953reading, so we immediately credited them for all the hours reading between home and Vegas and up to Spokane. My ten year-old got her prize, a nice logo’d book bag, for twenty hours of reading, the following week; the other two later in July. She remembered to write down at least half of all books read on the L4LL reading log sheet she remembered to pack.

In Washington State, the many trips to Home Depot for our many home improvement projects instead of becoming exercises in frustration for our family, became the time when my ten year-old plopped down in the outdoor furniture section or the garden section to read and re-read the manga version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. That one she discovered at the American Library Association national convention we attended in Vegas in June. What’s funnier than sneaking up on her laying on bags of compost and peat moss, reading and snapping a photo?

My blind child had a similar yet different experience. She read big Braille books from home that she packed in tote bags. She packed many issues of Spider magazine from her large collection, a magazine I enjoy along with her because I have a digital subscription to access on my laptop or smartphone. The highlights you see of her in the first graphic all came this way: My long-time friends Doug and Margie, both former Air Force officers, invited us to visit their horse farm. We spent a lovely afternoon with them and their goats, sheep, dogs, and horses. My oldest child adores horses and loved riding almost as much as touching them and feeling their hot breath on her neck.

When we finally came home to California, I took her to her school library, the California School for the Blind, and checked out one of my favorite books starring a blind character, Mandy Sue Day. It’s a book where a girl spends a day enjoying her horse in a very multisensory way – a beautiful story where you only learn at the end that she is blind. As we enjoyed the book together, she relived the fun days we had with our Air Force friends with horses. Doug and Margie, Jim and his Clydesdale horses and Jon and the three miniature horses recently rescued.  Her reading and adventure experiences came in a different order, but that’s okay.

The highlight of her end-of-summer reading came that August day in the CSB library when she found Stir It Up: Recipes and Techniques for Young Blind Cooks produced by the National Braille Press. That evening, she led the shopping, prepping, cutting and baking of our new favorite easy meal: Corn Dog Muffins. Last night, she and Dad made another recipe she read aloud and led: Sweet Potato Casserole. Yum!

I share these experiences so that other parents and children can hopefully appreciate the natural flow of life, books, adventures and daily experiences – they somehow tie in altogether if you let them. There’s no nagging and stress required to enjoy reading in the summer when you allow the children’s curiosity to lead the way. This is true whether you spend the summer at home like we usually do or if life requires a manic summer schedule as we had this year. You just have to ask them what they want to learn during this valuable time.

I had NO idea my son would learn so much about the wide variety of beetles that exist in the world (350,000 different species!). I had NO idea my second daughter would get deeply into Japanese-style manga (coincidentally my hubby is Japanese) and be reading books from back to front all summer. And I had no idea that my daughter who sees with her hands would discover a book that now has her telling us what she wants to help make for dinner as a result of finding this one book.

Yet, all these wonderful, fun, personal growth things happened because we listened to their interests, honored them and got out of their way. I can’t wait to see what they discover next summer!

Thank you L4LL for structuring a program that exposed my kids to more Latino authors and books this summer as part of their intellectual exploration amidst the family “working vacation” chaos. Keep it up. We’re big fans!L4LL kids with certif

Posted in Creative writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflecting on the Wisdom of My Mami’s Choices – a Momtrepreneur Moment of Gratitude

I was reading a post from telecom engineer Eva Smith earlier this week. In it she mentioned that her mother made cakes at home to make extra money for the family. Mi mami also made birthday, quinceañera and even wedding cakes (!!) so I was smiling and recalling.

Suddenly, a memory from 4th grade popped into my head. My mother was sitting at our kitchen table which was configured more like a factory station fishing pole guideduring the day while we were at school. She was wrapping fishing rods, which meant attaching the guides (the circles that hold fishing line for you non-fisherman –see photo right) by applying colorful thread to hold them and then lacquer to shine them up.

My sister and I, the two oldest children of four kids at the time, learned to use the pedal-operated thread-wrapping machine (essentially a giant sewing machine but the thread wraps around the rod instead of a needle into fabric) and helped my mom continue production as she made dinner. I didn’t know it then, but my mother was teaching me how to bring in revenue for the family while being home with her children.

military ribbonsFrom that production experience in my kitchen, I got the idea to apply the pretty colorful thread to my plain yellow #2 lead pencils. If you can’t quite imagine that, I’m realizing as I write this that those pencils I decorated looked a lot like the military ribbons on my Air Force uniform as seen here; odd, but true.  As soon as I took my jazzed-up pencils out of my school bag, immediately I heard, “Wow! Where did you get those cool pencils?” Yep, you guessed it. At the age of nine I replied with, “My mom has special equipment at home to do this.  I can wrap pencils for you for only $0.25 each. How many would you like me to decorate?”

As word spread of this unique pencil customization service throughout the school, I begin taking orders in my school notebook—number of pencils they provided, what color combinations they wanted, deposit collected, balance due, etc –all while applying my math skills. I also remember sitting down with my dad and creating a pricing table, offering volume discounts for wrapping pencils and special pricing for  decorating entire packages of pencils. We even added a service where we would provide the pencils instead of my classmates having to provide them to me. I remember one Sunday while watching a Denver Bronco game on TV that I decided to start wrapping pencils in orange and blue sometime during halftime; I sold all 24 of those babies on Monday!

During that year, I learned many important business principles before school, after school, during recess and at lunch time.

  • a new innovative idea is almost naturally exciting; if it truly stands out from everything else (as my special pencils did), you’ve successfully captured your prospective customer’s attention.
  • asking for the business is the first key skill to confidently master. Nothing would have happened had I not made that first offer to the first client.
  • when you’re offering something special to people, they naturally share that information with many others; they’re happy to tell others and feel proud that they found you first. I know I do that when I find a particularly unique product or service. I tell people!
  • on-time delivery matters; “underpromise and overdeliver” came early for me. I loved telling my friends that I would have their pencils done by the end of the week, then surprising them with a Wednesday or Thursday delivery. That made them so happy and my reputation benefited.
  • repeat business is a good thing. Kids go through pencils quickly (or lose them); I had lots of repeat business. I even got orders from teachers, who wanted to have cool pencils too.
  • cash transactions ROCK!…so easy.

I don’t recall for how many years my mom did that work but one day my mom was asked to return the fishing-rod-wrapping machine to a store 30 minutes away, something about the business owner changing to a different type of piece work for his in-home workers. The next project became counting and packing fishing hooks in bags, ten per bag then stapling the branded cardboard on top. It was easy work and by now all four of the kids could count and therefore help with this work. My mother ended up producing much more, making more money for our family and we all saw increases in our weekly allowances.

While it was sad that my pencil-wrapping business suddenly ended, the benefits of the business lessons gained endured AND I learned that I could create new businesses (and I did but that’s another post.) I enjoyed making my own money and coming up with my own ideas to create and sell. I liked that through my own thinking and creativity, I made things that made people happy. I learned very early in my life how to produce unique, differentiated value and how to simply communicate it.

My mom also taught me the most important lesson of all – that it was possible to bring in revenue while being home with her children. She never worked outside the home while we were young. She always found ways to make money while we were at school, while also teaching business skills to the children by involving us in appropriate ways.

At this point in my life, after nearly a decade of military service and a decade of corporate marketing and always working globally, I want exactly what my mother wanted: to contribute to the family revenue stream, to teach my children life-long business skills and to be there to pick them up after school and help with homework as needed. It’s a heck of a thing to admit to myself because for so many years, I have believed I was trying my best to diverge away from how Mami did things. Suddenly, the wisdom of her choices is obvious to me. It’s humbling and gratifying to connect these dots…a lovely benefit of the mid-forties experience!

Although I’m going about it very differently in starting my own company and creating unique and differentiated literature to put into a national and global distribution, I am realizing that I’ve always been prepared for this. And, like my mother, I love to involve my children in the family business. From inspiring a children’s book series to assisting in a piece of the order fulfillment process, all three of my kids are learning about creating value and serving customers at a young age. Instead of counting fishing hooks as I did, they count books that came out of Mommy’s brain (and imagine themselves as authors too.) Instead of packaging hooks in bags with a fishing equipment brand, they package books in boxes with OUR publishing brand. And instead of pencil design, they’re learning 21st century skills like blog, app and web design. And the all-important skills of communicating the unique value and asking for the business…if you’ve seen them with me at events, it’s obvious they’ve got that down pat.

tiscareno family circa 1982

Taken in Evans, CO

Thank you Mami, for the choices you made to do it differently, for having business aspirations (fishing poles, fishing hooks, Tupperware, Princess House, etc), to contribute substantially monetarily in partnership with Papi to bring in the revenue our family needed to live well, for putting your children first and involving them in your business endeavors. Looks like I’m imitating you after all and I know I am blessed for it, as are my children.


Posted in Business writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

From Frog Sized Preemie to Advancement Ceremony Speaker

Twelve years ago this summer, I was six months pregnant with my first child. After a military aviation career, completing master degree, accepting a global tech marketing position and moving back to the SF Bay area where we first met, my hubby and I decided that after nine years of marriage and global travel, it was time to “see what happens.”

What happened was “premature rupture of the membranes (PROM),” a nice medical term for baby’s protective water sac breaking for no apparent reason, at 21 weeks gestation. Worse, as a first-time mommy wannabe, I didn’t even know it happened.

What followed at my next check up was a series of exams and finally the news: we should begin to prepare for the “high degree of probability that your baby will roll onto its umbilical cord, cut off its oxygen supply and die.” We were told to prepare for the worst. We returned home, cried, called our parents to tell them the sad news and waited for our baby to die inside me.

But then I called one of my best friends from my college days at Berkeley, medical doctor Arnaldo Moreno. He said these words, “Just because the doctor tells you the most likely prognosis does not mean that is what is going to happen.”

Speaking these words of logic, to me with a logical brain, gave me the first hope that maybe the worst could be avoided, somehow. I called my doctor and said, “So what if the baby doesn’t die in the next few days? What if it lives to 24 weeks (the point of fetal viability)? What if I somehow manage to stay pregnant for three and a half more weeks?”

I was told that it was 80% likely I would go into labor within the week of the water breaking and lose the extremely tiny baby. If I could somehow miraculously stay pregnant until the first day of week 24, the medical team would have to admit me to the hospital and attempt to resuscitate the baby when he/she was born. So that’s what I decided I would do, stay pregnant, not mourn.

My mother flew to be at my side. We invited the Catholic priest from our church to our home to pray together for my baby’s life. At one minute past midnight on September 11, 2001, my hubby and I arrived at the hospital and I declared I was there to be admitted so they could save my baby. Six hours later I watched our nation suffer terrorist attacks from my hospital bed, taking steroid shots to accelerate the baby’s lung development and pondered how life suddenly became so strange and difficult. I also thanked God that I didn’t already have a child at home, asking questions about the horrors on the TV. And I waited and prayed to stay pregnant another hour, another day, another week, until the now obvious fibroids inside my uterus tricked my body into thinking I was 40 weeks pregnant and ready for labor, when I was really only 25 ½ weeks along with this already tenacious child.

where's the 10 inch baby?

where’s the 10 inch baby?

She was born on a hot September night by near emergency C-section weighing 505 grams (5 grams over minimum resuscitation weight I was told), a whopping one pound two ounces. I describe that weight as a box of butter and a paper clip. I saw the red, frog-sized creature in the incubator for a few seconds through my anesthesia-induced haze, just before they whisked her away by ambulance to another hospital in other city. She went to a hospital in Berkeley (how apropos for being the first child of two Cal Berkeley alums).

Her 137 – day stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is chronicled here, the website and guest book we created as our techie parents coping mechanism. We used it to chronicle what happened each difficult week, each surgery, each milestone, each piece of sad news; we used it to update our friends and family who wanted updates from two parents too emotionally and physically exhausted to provide them any other way.

But that’s not why I write today. Today, I look back on all that hell, the fifty pounds of stress I gained during that time, the nights she almost died, the Learjet medevac flight to Michigan for eye surgeries in the dead of winter, the insurance company battles [“Your daughter has used up her lifetime maximum benefits of one million dollars already,” and my response “But she’s not even home from the hospital yet!”]

I look back on all of those trials we survived today and cry. Why? Because one week, my little girl Milagro, with her sense of sight lost to detached retinas caused by her prematurity and her sense of hearing compromised too, this little fighter last week stood up in front of her elementary school as one of three children selected to speak at her 5th grade advancement ceremony.

Her speech that she wrote in Braille followed her two peers who also recapped their elementary school years.  These are the words my daughter wrote and spoke that brought our community to tears:

Milagro speaking Vannoy is a Rose by Debbie D

photo by Debbie Smith-Dommaschk

 Title: Vannoy is a Rose

 “To me a rose means something is wonderful.

Vannoy is a rose because I get to eat cream of wheat for a snack. I get to play the piano when I finish my work.

 Teacher Debbie is a rose because she lets me pick out tasty oranges when we go to the grocery store on our community outings. She also taught me how to tie my shoes.

 Writing and reading on my Braille Note is a rose. My Braille Note is a tool for people who cannot see.

 Mr. Steve is a fabulous rose because he plays the guitar.

There were many roses in Room 9. I remember playing the numbers game with Mr. Matt and Miss Rolene. I also had so much fun playing the Cougarcat piano and singing the “Good Morning Song” with Teacher Steve.

 A recess rose is the game-time swing. Buddy reading with my friends was a rose every day.  I loved the Cougarthon because I got to eat cotton candy. The water tent with the misters was fabulous.

 Singing I’ve Got an Autumnish Feeling at the Talent Show was a dozen roses.

 There are so many people at Vannoy who are roses. Miss Tara helped me practice my choir songs.

Miss Lori taught me how to use my cane.

Both Miss Lauras taught me how to Braille.

Miss Jody taught me how to speak clearly.

Miss Kym has helped me be independent. She also taught me how to hula hoop!

Now I hope you see why Vannoy is a rose.”

Like many momtrepreneurs can relate, my life moves alarmingly fast these days. My hubby and I went on to have two more children in the four years that followed this near tragedy. I’m running a publishing and marketing business, traveling as a speaker and launching a children’s book next month, in addition of course to enjoying summertime fun with my three kids. So today I forced myself to stop…just stop. I forced myself to reflect as I didn’t have time to do last week when my first-born child gave her speech, her sister wrapped up third grade and little brother graduated from Kindergarten…too much of a blur.

Today I’m stopping and processing the wonder of what we experienced that day as my first child completed elementary school. I’m feeling tremendously grateful once again for my daughter’s life that was nearly lost 12 years ago in that scary first pregnancy. I’m grateful that we survived those five surgeries before she came home, the oxygen bottles, the apnea monitor, the medications, the daily stress, all of it.

Milagro and members of her educational team

Milagro and members of her educational team

Today I’m grateful for what she teaches people who meet her about what’s possible when love triumphs and when a mother and father forcefully advocate for their child’s educational rights. I’m grateful for the many devoted teachers, speech therapists, mobility instructors, Braille teachers, adaptive PE teachers, audiologists, program managers who have come together all these years to provide a piece of expertise to educate a child that several people early on declared would not be teachable.

I thank her for proving those naysayers wrong.

Today I pause and honor the miracle in my life, the miracle of my little girl, my Milagro. I am truly, truly blessed to have her in my life and share this brief recap of her story with you today. Let her remind us of the possibilities that exist for all of us, if only we truly understand (as Hillary Clinton famously informed us), that it really does take a village.

DSC05016 walking to room 779

Attending the National Federation of the Blind Convention

Milagro on trombone at school talent show

Milagro on trombone at school talent show



Posted in Creative writing | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Reflecting on the Birth of My Micropreemie on Her 10th Birthday

Ten years ago today, a severely premature baby entered my life. Weighing in at barely one pound two ounces, my first born child much more resembled a frog than a human. See the picture here for yourself. “Where’s the baby?” asked my mother when she first looked into the incubator of medical equipment….

where's the 10 inch baby?

This morning, after an extra-long good morning birthday hug with Milagro and the usual get-to-school-on-time routine with her younger sister, I decided to take a few minutes and reflect. I re-read portions of the online journal we kept during her agonizing 137 days of NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) hospitalization. I reviewed the many, many entries in her guestbook from around the globe.

A true understanding of the gift of a child who doesn’t see, whose hearing is also compromised, will evade most who are parents and just about all who are not…unless you’ve met our daughter. If you’ve met Milagro, then you know the happy, chatty, silly, intelligent, literate, curious, strong, joyous, scientific person she has become, little by little, day after day for 3650 days of her miraculous life.

I could write an entire book about the adventures, knowledge, richness and loving souls her birth and unique needs have brought into our lives as her parents. Maybe one day I will. But today I’m grateful to the NICU doctors, nurses, surgeons, retinal specialists, early intervention specialists, special education advocates, administrators, teachers, speech therapists, pediatric pulmonologists, ophthalmologists, audiologists and other “ists” that all entered our lives when Milagro needed them. And I will never stop remembering that had she been born elsewhere with this laundry list of severe medical needs, this story might never have happened and likely would have ended with a quiet little funeral.

Instead, Milagro’s story has been shared (and is still being shared) with parents and professionals around the world through the “Letting Your Child’s Wild Side Out” DVD that we created. My husband and I felt compelled to create this because positive images of children who are blind were not readily available to us during her infancy. When we desperately needed to see examples of how a baby develops without sight, when we needed to see happy blind children to give us hope for our daughter’s future, these images evaded us.

So, perhaps as a coping mechanism as she turned five, we decided to share our struggles, learning, family photos/video and triumphs with others to give hope and specific ideas to parents in our situation. We’ve shipped it to over 100 individuals and agencies on four continents. Although we rarely hear from anyone who purchases it, when we do get the rare email from a parent whose imagination and hope was sparked by watching Milagro’s story, it’s truly priceless.

Through it all, from Milagro’s point of view, life has simply been full of love, laughter, Braille books, writing in Braille, trombones, dancing, school days, marching bands, horses, marshmallows, fishing, camping and most recently, family camps with other blind campers and rollercoasters. She has developed tremendous confidence and self esteem, expressed as “I am a great student!” or “I am a great writer!” or my favorite “I am a great math girl!”  That she punctuates most of her sentences with exclamation points instead of periods also speaks to her exuberance with all things.

ropes course 30 feet off the ground at Camp Bloomfield

imitating art with her cane at National Federation of the Blind Convention

meeting other children with canes at NFB convention

exploring a Cal Band sousaphone her way

exploring Apache, Carole's horse








God indeed has answered all our prayers from those frightening early days after she arrived 100 days too soon into the world. She survived 25 ½ weeks gestation in the hostile uterine environment in which she found herself. She’s a physically fit, super-strong, healthy girl. She laughs many times a day and loves to make others laugh with her own brand of jokes and word play. And lately, from out of nowhere, she’s begun to say “Mama, you are a wonderful mother!” And “Papa, you are a great Father!”

Yes, indeed God answered all our prayers! Happy 10th Birthday my love! As we say in preschool, “Thank you for being born!”

On stage at school talent show
Posted in Creative writing, Special Education Advocacy | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Nine Eleven 2001 -Day of Horror and Creation

On 9/11/2001 I was in an east bay hospital trying very hard to keep my first child from escaping my uterus prematurely.

I had checked into the hospital at midnight, because it was the first day of the 24th week of my high-risk pregnancy; there was a very high risk of her coming early. Because miraculously we hadn’t yet lost her despite several scares, I had told my doctor I would be showing up at the hospital at midnight to be admitted on the first day of fetal viability.

After a fitful night of sleep, probably 3 to 4 hours total, I woke up, turned on the television, and that’s when I saw the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center taking place. Completely in shock still, when the Pentagon was hit, I couldn’t stand it any more. Though it was only 6 something in the morning I had to call my husband. The images I was watching on TV were straight from a Tom Clancy novel and I was completely in shock.

My mother had flown down to California the day before to provide moral support to me during a very difficult and emotional time. At my bedside later that day watching the horrific images, she kept telling me I should turn the TV off because watching this was not good for me. On strict bed rest in the hospital, I had few choices for passing the time. I watched obsessively for hours and hours- nothing else was on TV. Bless my mommy’s heart-she and my hubby bought crocheting supplies later. 9/11 was the day I learned to crochet! Beginning that day, my mother and I made many beautiful baby clothes and blankets that all of my children have enjoyed (and enjoy still by dressing dolls in these same precious items.)

Luckily for all of us and for my daughter, who will celebrate her 10th birthday this month, she was not born that day. She stayed inside her mommy for another 10 days, the 10 days that proved to be the difference between life and death for her.

Posted in Creative writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Summer Moment of Overcoming Disability

Overcoming? Is that the right word for what we did this summer?

My daughter who is blind is now nine. Last year she had her first two weeks of swimming lessons, as did her siblings. What a difference competent swimming instruction makes!

This year, we did it again –two weeks straight of lessons which culminated in two lifeguards holding my blind child’s hands and jumping into the deep end, nine feet deep.  By the time they did that, she had learned to hold her breath for nine seconds underwater and had overcome any residual fear of having her entire head submerged. Was I nervous? Not one bit! What’s safer than your daughter in the deep end with two life guards at her side?

Instead, I took a fast sequence of pictures the first time they jumped; made a video the second, just like I did when my seven year-old jumped into the deep end, holding the lifeguard’s floatation tube, (landing next to her instructor) at the end of her class.

I’ve been reflecting on that post I wrote a couple weeks ago and it’s finally hit me: this is the summer when my daughter who doesn’t see is doing the same things in the pool as her siblings…no exceptions. She’s doing back floats, front floating, lots of continues bobbing to practice taking breaths and holding breaths, etc. She can hold her breath underwater and make her way to the edge; actual swimming strokes are an “emerging skill” as they say in school.  Granted, my four year-old son isn’t doing any of these things, but he’s observing and learning the skills to prep him for those adventures the next few summers.

hanging out underwater with Papa

The summer of 2011 will therefore go down in my memory as the summer we overcame my daughter’s disability…in the pool anyway. I’ll take it. I loved it!




Posted in Creative writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment