Robyn Barberry is the doting wife of her high school sweetheart, the mother of three precocious boys, and the art teacher at St. Joan of Arc school in Aberdeen.


March 2015
February 2015

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There ARE consequences to not immunizing. The consequences are epidemics.


I am concerned about the choice not to vaccinate. Mrs. Tsottles refers to Countless families whose children have suffered as a result of vaccination. I would be interested in hearing the numbers who have had some problems as opposed to those who have benefitted. I am 72 years old and still remember polio. That was a common disease and I believe that most people of my generation knew someone who had polio. I remember how happy my parents were to get us immunized. I wonder if people will remain so opposed to vaccinations if we begin to see some of these horrible afflictions return. This is not a perfect world and sometimes we have to weigh the risks. Do we really want to return to the time when whooping cough was a common occurrence among young children?



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Welcome to the Dojo!

In addition to being a STEM school, St. Joan of Arc also embraces the PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports) philosophy of classroom behavior management.

In the past, teachers spent so much of their time and energy disciplining students who were misbehaving, that the other 95% of the class was missing out on instructional time. PBIS flips the traditional model of classroom management by encouraging teachers to praise those students who are doing the right thing, and ignoring those who do not.

Students who follow directions, show respect, and go above and beyond in their classrooms are rewarded. Sometimes it’s a sticker (my second graders devour my colorful stars!). Sometimes it’s a trip to the treasure chest. But in some cases, an entire school shares a reward system.

At St. Joan of Arc, students receive paper “shields” for outstanding displays of respect, responsibility and leadership. The shields are submitted to the office, where they are entered into a drawing. The winning students’ names and their good deeds are announced on Fridays, and they can come to the office to claim their prizes. (Collin was the lucky winner of a “free shoe” day where he got to wear his sneakers, rather than his dress shoes.)

As I mentioned earlier, SJA is a STEM school, which means we try to integrate technology into everything we do. PBIS is no exception. Last week, we instituted a new program called Class Dojo, which allows us to use an app to give immediate points to students who are meeting and exceeding specific behavioral objectives.

I run the app on my Samsung Galaxy Note 4, but many teachers are using it on their iPads. Using my stylus, I click on the class, select the student from the roster (which is alphabetized by first name and demarcated by adorable little monster avatars), and award points where they are deserved for being ready to learn, teamwork, paying attention, being quiet in the halls, cleaning up, and any other behaviors that are essential to succeeding in my classroom. All it takes is a quick tap.

I can offer an award for achieving a certain number of points, such as a sticker or even a shield. But, even the intangible reward of a point is enough to keep many of my students motivated. When I walk around the room and announce who is receiving points and why, it gets quieter. Students sit up straighter and redirect their eyes to the work in front of them, waiting to hear their names.

The name of the PBIS game is recognizing kids who do the right thing. And isn’t that what God does for us? In providing children with a Catholic education, we are not only offering top-notch academics, but a high quality character education, too. Class Dojo enhances PBIS so that rewarding good behavior can be efficient, effective, and high-tech to meet the demands of the digital generation. 

March 02, 2015 04:04
By Robyn Barberry

Sensory story time

When Frank’s teacher first told me about sensory story time at the Harford County Public Library, I imagined a room with stations where kids could put their hands in buckets of beads, or put sugar cubes on their tongues, or peek through a kaleidoscope, all while a lady read quietly in the background.

I did some research and learned that sensory story time is designed for kids with “sensory issues,” which is frequently the case with autistic kids. We still don’t know for sure what’s at the core of Frank’s behavioral and social issues, but he doesn’t like the dark or loud sounds. He also refuses to sit still.

Sensory story time is a good option for Frank and other kids like him, because it doesn’t require a child to sit still for an extended period of time while the facilitator reads two to three books. Sensory story time includes one book followed by a variety of short, simple activities. Children are encouraged to be active, and in some cases, singing and fingerplays are kept to a minimum.

The more I read, the more I knew that this would be a great opportunity for Frank to get out of the house and into a positive public experience. It would coincide with the developmental goal Frank’s teacher and I set for him. So, on Valentine’s Day, we headed to the Abingdon Branch of the Harford County Public Library to meet Leo’s godmother, Brittany, for our first sensory story time experience.

Unfortunately, I wrote down the wrong time and we missed the actual story portion of the event! I was so embarrassed, but Mrs. Margaret and Mr. Jake, the librarians in charge of the event warmly welcomed us to a big, furniture free room where kids of all different levels of ability buzzed about, creating a “Love Monster” to match the book Love Monster by Rachel-Bright that the group had just finished reading. Mrs. Margaret and Mr. Jake handed us materials for all three boys and helped us find a spot on the floor.

Naturally, Frank was more interested in exploring than in working on his Love Monster, but Patrick had fun putting one together! After about five minutes, Mrs. Margaret and Mr. Jake brought out all kinds of simple puzzles and toys. Nothing was electronically powered and everything was safe enough for Leo to be around. Frank gravitated toward the two fruits, as he likes to carry a banana and an apple around the house.

When it was time to clean up, Mrs. Margaret and Mr. Jake very quietly sang a couple of simple songs. (I caught Frank singing them later). I felt so relieved. I’d spent half an hour in a public place with Frank without feeling exhausted and embarrassed. The librarians and other parents were so understanding. I never once felt as though someone was giving me a dirty look for being unable to behave. Frank was allowed to be the explorer he is. And what better place to explore than a library.

Sensory story time is held at the Abingdon Branch of the Harford County Library at 10:30 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month. Hope to see you there!


February 25, 2015 11:38
By Robyn Barberry

Voices in the vaccine debate - Part 3

In this three part series, I will share the perspectives of three different women (who also happen to be mothers) when it comes to the vaccine debate. I asked all of them the same exact questions and will run their responses in their own words.

This is Part 3 - The public health expert

Mrs. Bethney Davidson earned her undergraduate degree in Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine with a minor in Sociology from Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina. Mrs. Davidson was an active member of the US Army for five years as an Outpatient Mental Health Specialist working in the Community Mental Health Clinic, Social Work Services and the Alcohol Substance Abuse Program (ASAP).

Ms. Davidson has been working for the U. S. Army Public Health Command since 2005 and supports the Tri-Service and DOD needs in training and consultation work from her location in the Health Risk Communication Program under the Portfolio of Health Risk Management, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

Q.  Describe your professional and/or personal experiences with vaccinations.
A. Personal:  According to my parents, I received all my childhood vaccines at the appropriate times to include the smallpox vaccine in 1968.   I continued routine immunization as an adult in college and then upon my entry to the US Army (Vaccinations are a way of life in the U.S. Military.  All new recruits (both officer and enlisted) are vaccinated against various diseases during enlisted basic training or during officer accession training) in 1992 (age 25) as a basic trainee I had the following:  MMR (again), Meningococcal, Polio (again), Tetanus-diphtheria, Influenza (required yearly as a service member). I was required to also have the Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B as a high risk occupational group.  I have not had the Varicella vaccine as I had chickenpox as a child in the 1st grade.

In addition as a rapid response team member I have received a second smallpox vaccine and I currently must maintain the following yearly: Influenza, Typhoid.  I have also received two Anthrax vaccinations and will eventually complete the 5 shot series as required.

Depending on the area that I may find myself traveling to for rapid response/crisis response I may in the future be required to have the yellow fever vaccine or the JE Vaccine (Japanese Encephalitis).

Q. What are vaccines?
A. I consider vaccines to be another protective measure you can take to minimize illness or the extreme severity of an illness.

Q. Do you have your children vaccinated?
A. Yes, my daughter of 19 years has always been vaccinated according to recommendation. In addition, she has received all three doses of the HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Immunization (given at the recommended age of 11) and the Varicella vaccine as she did not contract chickenpox.

Q. Why do people choose to have their children vaccinated?
A. I can say that most of the people (family, friends, and co-workers) that have also vaccinated their children did so to provide a protective measure for their children and for themselves. 

Q. Why do people choose not to vaccinate their children?
A. I can imagine that fear of the unknown could be a factor in choosing not to vaccinate.  As much information that is accessible today can be overwhelming and confusing to a concerned parent wanting to do the right thing for their child/children.  I do believe that those who choose not to vaccinate make the decision they feel is right for them but not necessarily for the community.

Q. What are the potential consequences (positive or negative) when people choose NOT to have their children vaccinated?
A. Just as there are unknowns when the choice IS to vaccinate, there are unknowns when the choice to NOT vaccinate is made. Many wondered what would happen when the anti-vaccine choice began years ago. Many considered the potential future ripple effects there would be and as evidenced recently, we have a number of outbreaks (predicted) of preventable diseases (mumps, measles) that are now threatening young, old and immune compromised. Those that cannot be vaccinated (medical exemptions) are most at risk for life threatening outcomes. I feel medical exemptions are valid and believe most would agree...but exemptions just because threaten everyone....including those who have NO choice.

Q. What are the potential consequences (positive or negative) when people choose to have their children vaccinated?
A. Just like all medications, vaccines are not perfect and can have side effects. This goes for the cold remedies, prescriptions, and over the counter items that are available for illness ... we take a chance each time we take or administer one of these (none of them are 100% effective). So the realization that if you choose to vaccinate it may run the spectrum of results must be appreciated ... however vaccines ask us to do something very different; take a healthy person and introduce a combination of ingredients that might keep us healthy if we are ever exposed. Whereas if we are sick, taking something that shows we improve is much easier to tolerate as you see the results. Out of sight illness mean out of mind for most ... the problem is vaccines have worked so well we don’t see most of what we are preventing.

Q. Who benefits from vaccinations?
A. Everyone!  It is so important to know that vaccines for one will keep many safe.

Q. Do you believe parents should be legally obligated to vaccinate their children?
A. This is tough, it is the parent’s responsibility to care for the child and for many it is simply the right thing to do and has been mandated for certain places/activities like school in order to keep all children safe from getting or giving dangerous and deadly diseases.  I wonder if it were not mandatory what we would find ourselves experiencing?  If we went back to the days before ... what did that look like, what number of children became ill and unable to go to school?  I think the science backs up the obligation, just wish more understood or cared to learn the science.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say about this issue?   
A. I wish to see more discussion without finger pointing and degrading ... so much of what is available is bias ... it is no wonder that we are finding a line drawn in the sand with two sides unwilling to budge.


February 19, 2015 04:14
By Robyn Barberry

Voices in the vaccine debate - Part 2

In this three part series, I will share the perspectives of three different women (who also happen to be mothers) when it comes to the vaccine debate. I asked all of them the same exact questions and will run their responses in their own words.

(If you missed it, here is Part 1 - The pediatrician)

My name is Leigh Tsottles. I am a mother of three girls, whom we are/will be homeschooling, and wife to an amazing husband. I run a horseback riding, training and boarding facility as well as a homestead where I raise sheep, cows, chickens and turkeys.

I worked at a local hospital for several years as a nurse assistant.

Q. Describe your professional and/or personal experiences with vaccinations.
A. I have no “medical experience” with vaccinations other than the hundreds of hours I have poured into my own research of them. I have broken down each individual disease and each individual vaccine to determine if I felt the disease was something I could support my own child through, with the help of my naturopathic doctor and the use of herbs, oils, homeopathics and other immunity supports.

My personal experiences with vaccines was during the times I spent soothing my daughter, who at the time we were fostering and pursuing adoption, as her body was dealing with the side effects of the vaccines. She was an exceptionally happy baby (even the social worker noted how pleasant she was and that we had to be “doing something right”) but the hours and days following her vaccines, which I even had spaced out so as not to be overloaded, she screamed and screamed high-pitched shrieks, had golf ball sized hard lumps at the vaccine site, and her entire leg was swollen. She refused to eat, ran low grade fevers and couldn’t even sleep well because she kept waking up screaming. This is still after I had given her supplements, orally and topically, to assist in her detoxing.

Q. What are vaccines?
A. Vaccines are a mixture of substances that are put into a body by means of injection or aerosol that generally causes antibodies to form.

Q. Do you have your children vaccinated?
A. My two biological daughters are not vaccinated at all. My adopted daughter was vaccinated her first 9 months of life. Because she was not legally adopted until just before her first birthday we were forced to have her vaccinated or she would be removed from our home.

Q. Why do people choose to have their children vaccinated?
A. People choose to vaccinate because they are led to believe, mostly by their pediatricians, that it will protect their children by giving them immunity to specific diseases.

Q. Why do people choose not to vaccinate their children?
A. People can choose NOT to vaccinate their children for several reasons. 1) Religion: they know that God has created living creatures, the human body in particular, to be flawless and to be perfectly able to support themselves by means of their immune system and other supplementary products, such as herbs, created by God. 2) Toxic overload: the list of ingredients in these vaccines is enough to make people question how in the world bodies (especially new born babies) can handle the poison and not suffer at least minor lifelong complications. 3) Liability: if there is an adverse reaction, vaccine manufacturers are not held accountable. In fact they are totally protected! 4) Effectiveness: there is no proof that these vaccines do work. Wait, there ARE tests ad research done to “prove safety” but they are all internal! You cannot have studies done on something when it is being paid for BY the company seeking positive results.

Q. What are the potential consequences (positive or negative) when people choose to have their children vaccinated?
A. Potential consequences are allergies, asthma, ear infections, ADD/ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, auto immune diseases and death, to name a few. The spread of diseases from the vaccine itself. Weakened and faltered immune systems. You have new strains of diseases that are evolving and are no longer affected by certain vaccines. Positive may be for people in third world countries where they are drinking water contaminated with feces, where they have no sanitation, no food etc. Their immune systems are not able to support the attack of diseases so therefore vaccines may be their only option. But to be perfectly honest I have still yet to find a study done by a third party stating that this is even true. Vaccines still may be hurting them more so than we actually know.

Q. What are the potential consequences (positive or negative) when people choose (NOT) to have their children vaccinated?
A. There are no consequences to not vaccinating. You have children with strong, thriving, healthy immune systems. Bodies and immune systems are able to develop properly, how they were created. The topic of “herd immunity” usually comes up at this point and non-vaccinating families are being blamed, however true herd immunity is ONLY ever established when everyone has lifelong immunity to the disease by actually contracting that disease..and vaccines do NOT provide that kind of immunity.

Q. Who benefits from vaccinations?
A. Obviously people who benefit from vaccinations are those people/parties involved on the financial end of this. People are making billions and billions off of these vaccines. Of course drug companies are going to hire research labs to prove their product, then pay doctors to push those products. It’s a vicious cycle that will not be broken until lots of brave people with lots of money to fight can stand against this.

Q. Do you believe parents should be legally obligated to vaccinate their children?
A. I absolutely do not believe parents should be legally obligated to vaccinate. Should we REALLY have our rights taken from us? In America we have the ability to have those freedoms. That is what America was founded on. When the government starts taking away our rights it is taking away our freedom. If they start taking away our parental rights at what point will it end? This is only opening up the door to more laws and restrictions.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say about this issue?  
A. My personal conclusion was that I felt more comfortable if my child contracted the diseases, and potentially needed hospitalization, than injecting them with substances and ingredients that are known to be hazardous to living things. I have read testimonies of countless families who have either lost a child to, or had a child severely damaged by the reactions of being vaccinated. I could NEVER EVER live with myself if I had allowed my children to have that done to them. Bottom line is this: there is absolutely NO proof ( other than from the labs paid by these pharmaceutical companies) that vaccines work, and I will not allow my children to be guinea pigs. I am doing everything I can to support my children’s immune systems by feeding them well quality foods and providing them with healthy lifestyles. To those families who believe I am putting their children at risk by not vaccinating: well I’m sorry they feel that way but my first and foremost obligation is to MY children’s health, not theirs.


February 17, 2015 11:01
By Robyn Barberry

Voices in the vaccine debate

Part 1: The Pediatrician

In this three part series, I will share the perspectives of three different women (who also happen to be mothers) when it comes to the vaccine debate. I asked all of them the same exact questions and will run their responses in their own words.

Dr. Lainie Holman specializes in Pediatric Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (dual board-certified). She finished residency in 2007 and has two grown, not-autistic children. Here are her responses:

Q. Describe your professional and/or personal experiences with vaccinations.
A. I’m a pediatrician and have cared for a number of children affected by vaccine-preventable illnesses.

Q. What are vaccines?
A. They are compounds that resemble pathogens enough to engage the immune system. After the body “sees” the vaccine, it “remembers” it enough to fight it better or entirely when exposed to the wild pathogen.

Q. Do you have your children vaccinated?
A. Yes. Although my partner at the time was afraid of vaccines, so my oldest was not completely on time.

Q. Why do people choose to have their children vaccinated?
A. Because they don’t want them to die from something preventable. The same reason they use car safety seats. Also, because they feel a social obligation to protect others.

Q. Why do people choose not to vaccinate their children?
A.Because they are afraid. Because they don’t remember the diseases that are now mostly eliminated. Because a now-discredited physician wrote a false paper linking MMR to autism. Because we have the blinding privilege to think our children are more special than others’. Because they don’t understand epidemiology.

Q. What are the potential consequences (positive or negative) when people choose to have their children vaccinated?
A.Pain at the injection site, fever, rash, allergic reaction. Sometimes, a fever can trigger a seizure. This is rare and not dangerous. There is some association rarely with transverse myelitis. But that is unclear.

Q. What are the potential consequences (positive or negative) when people choose not to have their children vaccinated?
A. Death. Brain damage. Permanent disability. Hearing loss, blindness, sterility, pneumonia, epiglottitis. Did I mention death?

Q. Who benefits from vaccinations?
A. Individuals and society.

Q. Do you believe parents should be legally obligated to vaccinate their children?
A. Almost. I believe that parents should be educated. Most either don’t understand or have erroneous information.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say about this issue? 
A. I have many patients with congenital rubella who are profoundly disabled. I also have patients with permanent encephalopathy and seizures from preventable meningitis or encephalitis. I have a patient who has an anoxic brain injury after cardiac arrest as a result of sepsis. I have seen a 14-day old die from pertussis. They don’t really cough much, they just stop breathing. I have cared for patients with complications from hepatitis and pneumonia. I personally have taken care of many children hospitalized with influenza. I also care for patients who are immunocompromised who cannot be vaccinated. I have had patients with post-polio syndrome. I hope these epidemics will be enough of a wake-up call that people will stop being so impervious to science and fact. If not, well, enjoy polio.

Also, if you don’t immunize your children, please, please, do not lie to health care providers about it. Vaccination removes many diagnoses from the thoughts of most of us. Not being vaccinated returns those possibilities. Please don’t lie.

Dr. Holman also shared this interesting article with me about the link between vaccines (and everything else) and autism.

February 13, 2015 02:23
By Robyn Barberry

A proposed truce for the 'Mommy Wars'

You probably won’t see my favorite new commercial during the Super Bowl this Sunday night, but this is the one you shouldn’t miss. I usually skip through ads, but while waiting for a YouTube video to load on my phone, this one caught my eye.

Anyone who’s ever had, been, or known a parent can take something away from this humorous, yet thought-provoking, take on today’s raging “mommy wars.”

The commercial takes place on a busy playground and includes just about every archetype of motherhood, waving their flags of allegiance to “stroller mamas,” “working-outside-of-the-home moms,” “attachment parenting,” “SAHDs” (stay-at-home-dads), and other maternal types fiercely battling over their preferred parenting methods. Dirty looks, name-calling, and other shaming techniques are hurled across the playground-turned-battlefield like cannonballs and grenades, while the innocent babes sit by and watch.

It’s not a far cry from the real world. From the second you announce you’re expecting, deeply personal questions come flying at you from everyone from your best friend to the customer behind you at the post office. That big round belly prompts such unsolicited advice as, “Breast is best,” to “You’re getting an epidural, right?” to “The problem with kids today is that they aren’t spanked anymore.” I learned quickly that the best tactic in these situations is to quietly agree, despite your true feelings, and excuse yourself from the situation.

Registering for baby gifts is much trickier. Every barcode that meets the scanner reveals a decision you have made about how to raise your child; a way for someone else to make a negative judgment about you. All yellow and green clothing? You’re waiting to find out the gender? You’re clearly not a “planner.” Pink or blue everything? You’re impatient. Cloth diapers? Gross! Pampers? You don’t care about the environment. A stroller? You’re pushing your child away. A sling? You’re smothering your child. A breast pump? Why are you even bothering to nurse your child if you clearly don’t have time? Bottles and formula?!?!

You are:

a. selfish

b. ignorant

c. immature


Over the past five years, I’ve received enough criticism about the decisions Patrick and I have made for our boys for me to develop a serious complex! Even our decision to send our children to Catholic school has come under fire. But, when I find myself questioning my ability to be a good mother, I turn to God. He brings me peace and assurance that my boys are healthy, happy, strong, and lovely. (I imagine I’m not alone in this.)  

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the Similac commercial, one of the babies begins to roll down the hill in her stroller because her mother is so caught up in the competitive parenting game. Another mom notices, and the scrum of battling mothers shifts its attention to the baby in distress, stampedes down the hill after her, and collectively save the little girl.

I realize that the commercial is for Similac, which is a baby formula company, and that some critics might say they’re just trying to create an excuse for bottle-feeding mothers to feel better about themselves. If the naysayers feel that way, they’re missing the point.

The point is this. Parents like you and me love our children with every ounce of our being. We just choose to do it differently. If we can focus our energies on seeing to our own children’s needs as best we can with who we are and what we’ve got, realize and accept that “there is more than one type of good mother,”* and keep each other’s children safe from the real dangers in this world, we can end this useless war.

*As quoted by Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, in Season 4 Episode 1 of Downton Abbey.






January 30, 2015 10:56
By Robyn Barberry

Choosing Catholic: A celebration of Catholic Schools Week

“Let me show you a trick,” I told three sixth-grade students who were losing a battle against a mammoth-sized hunk of red bulletin board paper. They were decorating for Catholic Schools Week, the annual event that has St. Joan of Arc abuzz with preparations for five days of celebrating everything that makes Catholic schools so special.

I’d gotten there just in time. I showed the kids how to hold the paper taught and staple the sides. Then, we opened the scissors like an alligator’s mouth and scored the edges where the paper met the metal frame. The excess paper fell off, to find a new home in my collage box, and a final coat of scalloped border completed the stage.

I asked the kids how they were planning on being involved in Catholic Schools Week, and they excitedly revealed their roles in Tuesday’s big family Mass. They thanked me for sharing my time-saving tip and continued to decorate.

This is life in a Catholic school. Students are encouraged to take ownership of the space and the events with transpire within it. Outside-the-box thinking is not only encouraged, but taught. Relationships are richer. And when we throw a party, we go all out!

As a student at St. Margaret School in Bel Air, I can remember getting excited about Catholic Schools Week. We’d push our desks closer together to make room for the chairs that would soon be filled with our parents. Our teachers would always plan something exciting, to show off their skills and our knowledge. Maybe it was a spelling bee, or a flashy science experiment, or even a play. Whatever we did to showcase our academic highlights, it was genuine, and could only be accomplished by daily exercises to make our brains bigger, better, and faster.

The relationships I formed with my St. Margaret friends and teachers have lasted over a quarter century. My best friend and I met in third grade. Our babies are two weeks apart. My other best friend from high school married the guy I rivaled in the SMS student council president race. (I won.) I see almost everyone else from my graduating class on Facebook every day. Mr. Bean, the legendary science, language arts, and art teacher and I hang out at the gym. I recently ran into Mrs. Strong, who was my inspiration for becoming an English teacher. She said she might be able to babysit for me when she retires. I’m going to hold her to it.

As both a teacher and a parent at St. Joan of Arc, I get to witness this symphony on a daily basis. I walk down the halls fulfilling my “curator duties,” and see kids who are engaged in the work on their desks or on the SMARTboard. iPad apps and a state-of-the-art science lab reinforce the STEM focus of the school. Students spend more time exploring on their own with their teachers acting as dynamic guides rather than dry lecturers. The teachers know their stuff, care about each student, and are the kind of role models I want for my own children.

Rather than a downpour of standardized tests, students’ projects take center stage. Oftentimes these projects cross over subjects in the STEM interdisciplinary model. I had the pleasure of being a part of two of those for the third grade class. We created an island out of clay, pipe cleaners, and beads to coincide with their Mim’s Island Unit and recently completed a research project that offered students the opportunity to recreate the work of a famous artist, just as my favorite artist, Mary Cassatt, did when she was an art student.

It’s hard to tell what color the walls are in the St. Joan of Arc hallways because students’ essays and illustrations immerse you in a world of color and surprisingly neat handwriting. Our mural, based on student research about our patron, St. Joan of Arc, is breathtaking.

And in every room is a cross, a religious statue, a rosary, a reminder that you are blessed – and so is the school.   

Despite my background as an English teacher, my efforts to teach Collin reading using sight words never took him far. After five months in Mrs. Pesa and Mrs. Nocket’s Kindergarten class, Collin is breezing through books, even if he’s never seen the words before. The Super Kids reading program we use at SJA is incredible, and very similar to the one I used in Mrs. DeCapite and Mrs. Kelly’s Kindergarten class at St. Margaret’s. Each unit teaches the students a different letter using a character whose name begins with that letter (“Golly,” the dog, is my favorite. He came with a scratch ‘n sniff booklet.) Collin loves to tell me about the Super Kids’ adventures and to point out their letters everywhere we go.

St. Joan of Arc is a STEM school, which means that Collin will learn more science, technology, engineering, and math skills in the next eight and a half years than I will in my entire life. He gives me the play-by-play on science experiments all the time. (So, we have to take a straw and put a feather in it and blow! And that’s the wind. The harder you blow, the farther the feather goes!) Unlike me, Collin will learn to think logically. But, as his art teacher, I can assure you he and the rest of my students will be creative thinkers, too. By using “whole brain” thinking skills, they can solve just about any problem.

Besides providing a strong academic foundation, Catholic Schools also offer students character education. I feel comfortable knowing that my values and moral beliefs are embraced at St. Joan of Arc and that Collin’s teachers will reinforce what we’re teaching him at home.

After a recent snow storm, I was starting my car in the driveway when Collin, who wasn’t yet buckled in, pressed the button for my sunroof. Within seconds, the front seats, console, steering wheel and I were covered in a blanket of snow.

“Oh, Mommy,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m really and truly sorry. It was an accident, and I won’t let it happen again.” He continued to apologize for 15 minutes. I tried to contain my laughter, forgave him, and mentioned it to his teacher the next day.

“We’ve been really focused on apologizing and forgiveness,” she said. Collin even taught Frank how to say “Excuse me,” and excitedly retells the Bible stories he learns in religion class on our daily walk home. He also tells me about his friends who made “silly choices” that day. (Sometimes I think that silly friend might be himself.)

Living, working, and worshipping within a quarter mile radius has been a real blessing. I have more time to spend on my family and have found a home in my parish and school communities. I know every student in my school and many of their parents.

Seeing them at Mass on Sunday is a reminder that we are a unified front who have chosen to raise their children in a faith that has lasted over two thousand years, even as more and more people choose to live secular lives. Plus, it’s so cute to see the little kindergarteners wave frantically at me, their smiles revealing a recent visit by the Tooth Fairy.

I’m looking forward to the week ahead. Here’s our Catholic Schools Week schedule:

Monday – Buddy Day – Students will paint rice bowls with their buddy for Catholic Relief Services.
Tuesday – Parent Day – Parents are invited to attend 8:30 Mass and visit their children at school.
Wednesday – Teacher Appreciation Day
Thursday – Staff Appreciation Day
Friday – Student Appreciation Day – Pajama Day!    

Catholic Schools Week was, and is, an opportunity to answer the question, “Why?” “Why is a Catholic education one of the best gifts I can give my child?” I hope I’ve answered that question for you, but if I haven’t, stop in and discover for yourself.


January 27, 2015 12:14
By Robyn Barberry

Public policy

“Frank will comprehend and follow directions to ensure his safety in public places.” This was the goal that Frank’s special educator and I had established yesterday morning.

A few hours later, I was yelling his name and chasing him around the St. Joan of Arc parking lot with Leo on my left hip and Frank’s shoe in my right hand, looking like an idiot in front of the parents and grandparents of my students. I imagined them thinking, “If she can’t control her own kid, how does she manage mine?”

Frank isn’t like any of my 200 students, not even his own brother. For starters, he’s 2 and a half, which automatically makes him unreasonable. But Frank’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t understand us –Stop! No! Don’t! Come back! FRANK! - because of his language and developmental delay.

I like to imagine that Frank’s words are stuffed into a closet in his brain and that someone is leaning up against it. I’d love to push that guy out of the way so that I can hear Frank say, “Can I have an apple?” or “Have you seen my shoe?” or “I love you, Mommy!”

But, that guy is Goliath and Patrick, me, our parents, Frank’s teachers, and even Collin keeps slinging pebbles at him. It’s working, one word at a time.

Maybe someday that barrier will fall down, and I’ll say, “Frank! Let someone else have a chance to talk.”

The truth is, we don’t yet have a label to stick on Frank other than “receptive language and social developmental delay.” Those are just pieces to the puzzle. Symptoms of something greater. Is it a fluky phase? Or is it an auditory processing disorder? Or is he on the autism spectrum?

There are so many times that I wish I knew how to classify Frank so that I can recalculate my GPS for his future – and mine. Or at the very least so that I can explain to people in public why my child behaves in such an off-putting way!  
I took the boys to the Sky Zone in Timonium for New Year’s Eve. It’s a trampoline park that operates on a grid system – one jumper per square. Frank was in heaven. Except, he couldn’t understand the rules. There were several children half his size bouncing happily within the confines of their jumping units. But not Frank. He’d intrude upon other people’s squares, sending “Where is your mother, you little brat?” stares my way.

I pulled the attendant aside and apologized for Frank’s behavior, explaining that he has a developmental delay and has trouble understanding directions. She tried to be his “coach,” escorting him to a square in the back, but as soon as he interceded with a presumed cheerleader’s backflip, I pulled him out early.

Like any toddler, when Frank is removed from a situation he is enjoying, he throws a tantrum. Only, I can’t walk away from him like I did the two or three times Collin threw a tantrum. Frank runs – fast! And he is super strong, so grabbing him and holding onto him is nothing short of gator wrestling. To add to the chaos, his screams could earn him a spot in a metal band.

Most of our ventures out of our house involve Frank being strapped into a car seat or my trusty double stroller. I can’t trust him to hold my hand or stay by my side. He’s oblivious to traffic and has to get his hands on everything. We don’t visit many other people’s houses, and when we do, Patrick and I tag-team between socializing with our friends and family and “Frank Patrol.” The rules are: keep both eyes on Frank at all times and never let him go out of arm’s reach. It’s like being in a pool, only slightly less fun.

Frank, age 2, May 2014.  Note the lack of books on the bookshelf and the missing shoe.

I want to stop for a second to talk about what makes Frank so wonderful. It starts with those twinkly blue eyes. There’s a spark in there. He has so many ideas that he wants to share – as soon as we get that pesky bouncer out of the way. He’s generous with kisses and has hands-down the best laugh I’ve ever heard. (Usually it means he’s up to no good, but his chuckle makes up for it.)

He bops up and down in his booster seat and hums if he’s eating something really yummy. And he is a master at piecing together puzzles and solving problems – all without saying a word. In fact, he will determine a way to get something he wants without even needing to talk to us. This is why our doors, refrigerator, pantry, cabinets, and all electronic devices are outfitted with reinforced locks. (And he STILL manages to find a way in!)

So, back to the goal about behaving in public. Frank needs to learn to hold my hand, to walk close to me, to come back, to turn around, and to stop when we’re outside of the house. He needs full immersion in public places to learn how to live in the “real world.” I’m going to have to find a fun place to take Frank and Leo once a week. I’m going have to learn to ignore the dirty looks from people who don’t understand Frank’s situation when I’m chasing him or if he has a meltdown. And I’m going to have to keep praying that God grants Frank with the ability to speak and to listen, to understand and to be understood.  

January 22, 2015 05:04
By Robyn Barberry

Chelley’s courage


Chelley Vukmanic is a lot like me. A graduate of Salisbury University’s English program (where we met), who became a teacher, a wife, and a mom in rapid succession. She’s a cheerleading coach, too, which, along with her Catholic faith, has brought her the optimism and hope she needs to face a serious medical illness. Here you will find her story. Here you will find a way to help Chelley and her family.

Fifteen Minutes

For the past five months, my favorite event of the day is my mid-afternoon shower. It’s not because I need to wash away the sweat and grime of a hard day’s work, though I wish it were. It’s not because the warm shower is relaxing, and it’s certainly not because I love our bathroom’s old fashioned tiling. It’s because for those 15 minutes each afternoon, I am standing and able to feel “normal.”

My Painful Diagnosis

This journey – my journey – began the first weekend in August when I got out of bed and felt the worst headache I had ever experienced. It felt like my head was imploding, and I assure you that this is not a hyperbole. My neck was sore, and I also couldn’t hear anything in my left ear. Once I began vomiting and could not even think straight, I went to the ER. I used trusty WebMD to diagnose myself with Meningitis, however, the ER doctor calmed me down and told me I was suffering from painful trigger point muscle knots in my neck and shoulders. He gave me pain medication, recommended physical therapy, and sent me home.

Being a high school English teacher and cheerleading coach, the end of August is usually exciting and fun. I get to help with Cheer tryouts, set up my classroom just how I want it for the new school year, and then plan out the first few weeks of lessons. Needless to say, this was an awful time of year to suffer from debilitating headaches. Instead of enjoying my reunion with colleagues on my first day back, I only survived the last 20 minutes of a department meeting with an ice pack held to the back of my head before needing to go home and lay down. Even though I was taking the maximum dosage of Ibuprofen and Tylenol each day, the only relief I felt came from lying flat on my back. The constant pain was keeping me so nauseous that my weight plummeted down to 82 pounds.

After weeks of physical therapy, three visits to my primary care physician, and a round of steroid medication, I was finally sent for an MRI of my brain just to “rule out anything serious.” I was very nervous about the MRI because I live with a panic disorder and being trapped in that small tube for any length of time will inevitably trigger an attack. My husband was able to stand in the room with his hand on my ankle for reassurance as I kept telling myself that the MRI would be over soon and the images would confirm that there was nothing seriously wrong with me. I repeated this like a mantra: “It’s almost over. You’ll find out that nothing’s wrong. It’s almost over. You’ll find out that nothing’s wrong.”

My husband and I had only driven about 10 miles away from the imaging clinic when I got a call asking us to turn around and return for more scans. By then I had been upright for too long so my brain felt like it was being ripped apart. I couldn’t handle it any longer, so as soon as the technician ushered us through the door, I pushed the patient chair out of my way and threw myself down on the floor of the neuroradiologist’s office. My pain completely overshadowed any embarrassment I might have felt from being sprawled out on the floor of a medical professional’s office as he was greeting us. When I apologized for having to lie down, the doctor’s response was, “Oh no, I would do exactly the same thing if I were you.” Then, he went into a detailed description of spontaneous intracranial hypotension caused by a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) Leak.

In the most basic of terms, a small tear in my spinal dura is causing spinal fluid to leak out of my spinal canal. Without the proper volume of spinal fluid to support my brain, it sags. The sagging pulls on the meninges, which connect the brain to the skull. Hence, the horrible headaches whenever I am upright. The neuroradiologist added that I need to lay flat as much as possible because if the meninges stretch too much, they can tear and cause a hematoma. There are also potentially life-threatening risks involved, such as a stroke. He told me to stay on strict bed rest and see a neurologist for further instructions. He helped me off the floor just to put me back into the tiny, constricting MRI tube for an even longer period of time to scan my entire spine in search of the leak. I did not need my mantra though. I prayed instead. My entire focus was on asking God for help while tears flowed nonstop.

How Many Spinal Procedures Does It Take To Seal A Leak?

I have been blessed with a phenomenal neurologist, Dr. Price, who has been amazingly supportive through this entire ordeal. She graciously came into her office early to see me the morning after the neuroradiologist called her. Dr. Price informed me that my images did not display the exact location of the leak, so the protocol is to go through a spinal blood patch procedure. She made some calls to an interventional radiologist friend and was able to get me an appointment for a blood patch at the hospital that same day.

Looking back at how quickly events occurred over those two days, I recall thinking to myself, “I’ll be back on my feet in no time!” Unfortunately, I was not one of the lucky people whose leak sealed with the first blood patch, or the second, or the third.  

I can say with complete honesty, brimming on the edge of desperation, that I hope no one I know ever needs any of the spinal procedures I have received over these past five months. My panic disorder definitely makes most medical experiences more frightening and intense for me than the average person, but I cannot imagine them being enjoyable for anyone. I don’t feel it’s necessary to go into much detail for this blog, but the blood patch procedures consist of the Interventional Radiologist using a long needle to inject a collection of my own blood into my spinal canal with the hope of my blood coagulating over the tear in my spinal dura, which would seal the leak. My lower back is numbed for the procedures, but I am awake on the table and able to feel the manipulation of the needle, as well as sensations caused by the needle entering the spinal area. Sometimes I would feel intense pressure, while other times, I would feel an electric shock shoot down my leg or across my hip.

Following each blood patch procedure, I was told to do nothing but lay flat for twenty-four hours, and then slowly regain a normal routine with fingers crossed that the leak had sealed. It was emotionally draining to be filled with fear and anxiety leading up to and during the procedure, followed by physical pain for a week, and then a complete hopeful desire to make it through each day without a headache only to crash into a solid wall of disappointment when the symptoms returned. A few weeks after each blood patch when I would feel the headache and neck pain return, I would sink into despair, anger, and shame.

After three blood patches and one special spinal imaging procedure, my Neurologist and Interventional Radiologist referred me to a Neurosurgeon at John’s Hopkins Medical Center. Dr. Price thought that Hopkins might have better luck identifying the exact location of the spinal fluid leak, which could possibly require surgery to seal. After a very frustrating month of commuting to and from Baltimore and two more MRI scans, we were no closer to a solution. My neurologist had heard of a CSF Leak Specialist who works at Duke University Hospital, so she referred me to him.

Ask, Believe, Receive

I cannot recall another time when I felt more hopeless and defeated. Since I am on unpaid medical leave and my husband had to resign from his job to take care of our six year-old daughter and me while I was on bed rest, we are approaching the edge of a cliff plummeting down into financial crisis. We are a young married couple who just purchased our first home and a new car now wishing that we had stayed in our little apartment and pushed our decrepit car around for at least one more year. Hearing that my only hope of leaving behind this permanently horizontal life involved traveling to North Carolina to see a specialist seemed impossible. I prayed to God and asked the questions that I didn’t know the answers to - How many months will I have to wait before the specialist could fit me into his schedule? How can I afford the trip? Who will look after my daughter? How will I handle more tests and procedures with my panic disorder? God answered each of my questions in his own unique way.

About a month after my diagnosis, I had a dream that I was at Salisbury University and failing Sociology because my professor didn’t know that my reason for missing class was a CSF Leak. In the dream, my roommate was Marissa, a friend I hadn’t spoken to much since we graduated from high school. Thinking it was a random humorous dream, I wrote about it on Facebook and tagged Marissa.

This sparked a conversation between us, which led to Marissa’s Bible group being generously supportive of my family. At the time, I thought the dream was a way for God to bring this supportive soul back into my life.

Fast forward to the end of November when Marissa sent me a message just to see how I was doing, and I explained that my best chance is to try to get an appointment with the specialist at Duke. I told her that I was feeling hopeless about the situation, and Marissa’s response was that she works there! I knew she was living in North Carolina, but since we had lost touch for so many years, I had no idea that she was working at Duke. Marissa offered to email the specialist for me and she even offered to host us while we are down there. Within two weeks of Marissa emailing the specialist, I had an appointment set up for early in January. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that I dreamt about a high school friend who I had not spoken to in over a decade and she just happens to work at the hospital where the only CSF Leak specialist on the east coast is located. I believe that Marissa is an answer to my prayers.

A few of my colleagues who had heard of our financial burden offered to begin an account for me at to help raise money for my trip to Duke and the unpaid bills quickly accumulating. I thanked them for the offer, but wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with publicly requesting monetary donations. After much discussion with my family, my sister set up and began sharing the link on Facebook. I thought that if we were lucky, we could raise half of the money needed for gas, food, and a hotel room close to the hospital so we would not be an imposition to Marissa and her family. In less than 20 days, the account raised $3,350! I cannot look at the webpage without crying tears of joy and gratitude. Family, friends, as well as current and former colleagues and students have been donating money. My heart swells even more when I see the names of kind strangers who are donating to help me and my family. I believe that everyone who made a donation is an answer to my prayers.

My 6-year-old daughter has been such a trooper through all of this, even though she has been worried for me and a little frustrated that her mommy cannot get out of bed. The last thing I wanted was to scare her more by bringing her to Duke with us during my upcoming spinal procedures, but we will need to be there for almost a full week.

My mother-in-law just recently lost her job because the company had to make cuts for financial reasons. Upon hearing what we are going through, she immediately offered to stay at our home and take care of our daughter while we are away for the week. She can work on her resume and look for job opportunities while providing our daughter with the comfort of a normal routine during this difficult time. I believe that this is an answer to my prayers.

As I mentioned earlier, medical tests and procedures are extremely challenging for me because of my panic disorder. I have tried medications, meditations, and therapy, but the anxiety lives on until the panic attack rises. During one of my last MRIs, my anxiety was worse than normal so I kept moving. The technician told me that she needed to re-do the scans because they were blurry from my movements. When she pushed the button for me to slide back into the enclosure, I tried to focus on calming breathing exercises, but it wasn’t working. Then, I began reciting the Rosary to myself. My focus transitioned from the loud clanking noises and the suffocating confined space to the Rosary. I was able to remain still and calm for the remainder of the scans. Even though my anxiety is a constant battle, I believe that turning my focus toward the Lord calms me much more than medication.

One Day At A Time

It is hard to live a life in a bed. I feel my muscles weakening, and I mourn the activities I can no longer do. I celebrated my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, Halloween, my daughter’s sixth birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year while lying flat in bed. I wish I could say that I’ve been optimistic and positive through this entire journey, but that’s simply not true. I have my bad days where I fear never returning to a life outside of my bed. But I’m trying to take it one day at a time. I’m learning lessons about humility, appreciation, family, friendship and faith. And as I await the upcoming spinal procedures at Duke that I pray will seal my leak, I’m really enjoying my daily 15 minute showers.

January 08, 2015 05:51
By Robyn Barberry

Etsy: Your one-stop-shop for one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts

At Christmas time, we give each other gifts just as the Magi bestowed frankincense, gold, and myrrh on baby Jesus, who is the greatest gift anyone could ever know. The tradition of Christmas gifts shared among loved ones is beautiful … but sometimes it can be so frustrating!!! What do you buy for the person who tends to shy away from anything new or different? Or the person whose interests change so quickly you’re always two steps behind? And who could forget – “the person who has everything?!?!”

After throwing my hands up in the air, I stopped my annual sojourn to the mall and took a tour on the Amazon, instead . With my Prime membership, I am guaranteed free two-day delivery on hundreds of thousands of items. Here is where I find great prices and availability on those things that normally would cost me a parking nightmare, long lines, and murky encounters with other stressed-out shoppers – the kind which make me question the spirit of Christmas.

But, even the Amazon jungle has its limits. Sometimes I’m looking for something unique; something that doesn’t come from a factory; something that isn’t buried under plastic in a box. This used to require hit-or-miss trips to craft fairs and expensive commissioned pieces. This year, I’ve been finding treasures on Etsy, an online marketplace for artists, artisans, crafters, antique dealers, and other creative minds to peddle their wares.

I started using Etsy as a venue for finding graphic designs for invitations and games for Frank’s Dr. Seuss-themed first birthday party, but soon I branched out into fine jewelry for my mom, reusable The Very Hungry Caterpillar sandwich and snack bags (perfect for St. Joan of Arc’s waste-free Wednesday lunches), and everything a little boy could ever want that has a lion on it (sorry, Leo! You’ll just have to get used to it).

Lion Cupcake Topper available at PrettyPalace1

Crochet lion newborn bonnet by kreativkris.  Screen printed personalized lion pillow by zoeysattic.  Custom first birthday lion bib by grandmasbabyboutique.

I have been able to find things I never imagined just by typing a word into the search tab. (I just tried “Nativity” and found all of these diversely beautiful things!)  Every seller I have dealt with has been professional, flexible, and eager to please.

My business-savvy best friend, Rachel, and her talented husband, Dave, sell his iconic Baltimore-themed photographs at their 13th Hour Photography Etsy store. Dave uses a special metallic paper to make his art appear 3-D. Dave says, “It’s so rewarding knowing that someone spent their hard-earned money on purchasing a piece of my artwork. Whether they bought it to display in their home or give as a gift, it means so much to me personally.”

Baltimore Ravens Win Superbowl XXXV Crab Art Print by 13thhourphoto.

So if you have a talent, consider sharing it – and making a little extra dough – on Etsy. And, of course, if you’re looking for a special gift for an O’s fan, Ravens fan, or photography connoisseur, check out 13th Hour Photography.

I wish I could share with you some of the awesome custom Christmas gifts I’ve found so far, but I’d be ruining the surprise for some very special people in my life who just might be reading this!

My suggestion: start shopping on Etsy soon. Like the second you finish reading this. Craftsmanship takes time – and so does shipping. (We have a few things coming from Europe that we ordered two weeks ago). So, what are you waiting for?!?! That perfect present is a click away!

December 12, 2014 03:41
By Robyn Barberry

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