Public Speaking: Your Story Is Your Connection

Leslie Rhode emceeing the National Coffee Association’s 2017 convention

Whether you’re speaking to a large group, a classroom or a camera – don’t forget the STORY. People listen to stories that connect them to the content you’re sharing. Kids and adults. Sharing a personal story of how you’re connected to the subject matter helps too, because your audience connects to YOU.

These thoughts came to mind recently as I emceed the general sessions of the National Coffee Association convention in Austin, Texas. The speakers did a great job of telling those personal stories as they relayed content ranging from marketing to nonprofit work to economics to demographic data on coffee drinking trends. Personal stories work with anything you’re discussing.

Come to think of it, coffee is a connection tool itself. I’ve listened to dozens and dozens of great stories while enjoying a cup of coffee with friends and family. So next time you’re speaking to a group at work, school or online, think about sharing a cup of coffee with the people listening. You might make a powerful connection.

Alicia Machado: Don’t Bury That Dream

(* This is part of a series of posts about people using their life stories to inspire others.)

As soon as I met Alicia Machado, I could see a twinkle in her eyes that I knew told an amazing story. The 17 year old student at Austin Can Academy took me on a tour of her high school that she will be a graduate of in a few short months. She already envisions the moment she walks across the stage at graduation and looks out on her friends and family. It will be a moment along her journey she doubted would ever happen. It almost didn’t happen. But in June 2017, Alicia will become a high school graduate, and she has a great story of the importance of determination, self worth and intrinsic motivation to tell us all.

Alicia Machado and Leslie Rhode at Austin Can Academy

 Alicia struggled in a traditional Austin public high school for more than a year, barely making a passing grade in several classes. She skipped school a lot and simply walked away from campus at times when she felt she did not belong there. The discipline issues she faced at school started adding up. In her mind, a high school diploma did not seem obtainable.  

“I felt dumb,” said Machado. “I just didn’t care.”

She heard about Austin Can Academy, a public charter school specializing in offering second chances to students who have struggled in traditional schools, and decided to enroll. However, after just one semester at Austin Can, school administrators told her to go home. She had bad habits of violating dress code and being late to classes. About two months after spending days at home watching her single mother work long hours and thinking about her older brother who dropped out of high school and never returned, Alicia had a realization. The teenager knew no one else could create her future but herself. And she hoped Austin Can Academy would give her a second chance. She called her Austin Can advisor (each student is paired with an advisor to act as a mentor and hold students accountable) and was welcomed back with open arms.

Her second time around at Austin Can Academy was different. Alicia showed up everyday with a purpose.  She trusted that getting her high school school education would send her towards her dreams of going to college and working in the criminal justice system. She had seen her father and brother spend time in jail and wanted to help others get out and stay out of the justice system. With the help of Austin Can educators, Alicia pushed herself in her studies and surprised herself with some of the results.

“I feel so smart,” said Machado. “I just got a 90 on a math test! I know I still have a chance.”

Alicia’s story speaks to all of us who still have a dream we’d like to accomplish.  Something we’d like to try. Something we’d like to complete. It may be a new job, a new hobby or a new approach to a relationship. We tend to bury those dreams as we get busy with life. Many times, the only thing standing in the way of us getting started… is US. Just look in the mirror. Regardless of the people and noise around us and despite other circumstances, that person in the mirror has to step out and take a chance. Find the time. Ask for help. Do the hard work. The end result may be well worth it. It may be time to get out the shovel and start uncovering that dream.  

Chrystal Smith: Creating a Village for Foster Families

(* This post is part of a series of interviews with people using their life stories to inspire, teach and love others.)

The Smith Family

The Smith Family

Over the Thanksgiving holiday of 2013, Chrystal Smith took a trip to Mexico that dramatically changed her life story. Her family traveled to Reynosa just across the Texas border on a church mission trip where they encountered people who had very little but taught her more than she could have ever imagined. She recalls a little boy who gave her child a tattered toy car to thank him for a gift. It was likely the only toy the Mexican child had. Smith returned to the United States on the shopping frenzy of Black Friday, and she immediately knew priorities in her family had to change. 

“The trip shifted our perspective about the American dream,” said Smith. “We knew we had to live outside our box in terms of safety and predictability.”

Then Smiths stepped outside their box and became foster parents within five months of their Mexico journey. In that short time, they went through required state training, and their foster child arrived at their door on April 28, 2014. The Smiths spent their first day with the little girl driving all over town buying clothes and supplies she needed. It was at that moment Chrystal says God planted the seeds for what would become Foster Village:  a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas that provides a connectional community for foster families.

“I met other foster families that felt isolated and disconnected from the general population,” said Smith. “They needed a village around them. We made it our personal mission to help and support foster parents.”

Smith and her family quickly connected with other foster families, and immediately realized their huge needs. As of August 31, 2015, there were 16,378 children in foster care in Texas (Texas Department of Family and Protective Services) and a tremendous lack of foster parents. By early 2016, with her husband, 3 sons and newly adopted daughter from the foster system, Carla, the nonprofit Foster Village was born. She put out the call to friends and her community and donations started pouring in.  Foster Village began collecting items to take to foster children when they first join a family, so they could spend those precious early hours together getting to know each other instead of shopping for necessary supplies.

Foster Village Welcome Pack

Foster Village Welcome Pack

The Foster Village Welcome Packs contain things like clothes, pajamas and toiletries. Foster Village sometimes delivers cribs and car seats as well. The organization grew on its own in just a few short months.  A local storage company offered a storage unit too keep all of the item in that are used for the Welcome Packs.  Smith partnered with area group homes like the Burke Center for Youth where foster children live before placement in the system. Foster Village delivers Welcome Packs to those children too, even before they are placed in foster homes.

All along her two year journey, Crystal felt a special connection to every foster child she has met, because her story is similar.  She says she grew up with an abusive father that gives her an understanding of what many foster children experience.

“The majority of kids in foster care are pulled out of homes with drugs or neglect,” said Smith. “God has used my empathy for the hard places the kids are in.”

Chrystal’s educational background also prepared her for this unexpected organization. She has a degree in Child Development and experience working with parents who are dealing with vulnerable children.

In less than one year, as the word has spread about the Smith’s efforts, the Foster Village has expanded. The storage unit for Welcome Pack items has doubled in size. Volunteers partner with more group homes to provide additional support. At least one judge in the Travis County court system is referring foster families to the Village for help.

“God has opened all of the doors,” said Smith. “We’re just going along for the ride.”

The Smiths with their adopted child, Carla

The Smiths with their 3 sons and daughter

(After 555 days as the Smith’s foster child, their daughter Carla became their adopted child. A judge made it official on November 4, 2015.)




Jaimie Davis: Growing Better Health

Jaimie Davis, Texas Sprouts

Jaimie Davis, Texas Sprouts

(* This profile is part of a series of blogs about people using their life stories to teach and inspire.)

Jaimie Davis sees a world of opportunity when she sees a tiny green plant.  Through her experience, she knows that one plant can spark just enough curiosity in a child to change that child’s eating habits and ultimately prevent disease.  The University of Texas Associate Professor of Nutritional Science coordinates the Texas Sprouts research project happening now at several Central Texas schools.  Davis’ team of nutrition educators teach eighteen lessons throughout the school year about healthy food and help the elementary students tend to the gardens. 

“They’re getting to plant things,” said Jaimie Davis.  “They’re getting to take care of things.  Weed.  Water.  And then eventually pick it and help make a meal with it. “

The goal of the Texas Sprouts project is to encourage the children to take their nutritional knowledge home and teach their families how to eat healthy.  The research will span three school years, involve sixteen schools and more than one thousand children ages seven through ten.  The students have blood drawn and health screenings at the beginning and end of each school year.  Already after the first round of screenings, Davis realizes she has her mission cut out for her.  She says 30 to 50 percent of the overweight kids screened have pre-diabetes.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in childhood obesity,” said Davis.  “We’re seeing also a huge increase in metabolic diseases associated with childhood obesity.  Our kids aren’t just getting chubby anymore.  So they’re getting a lot more other co-morbidities associated with it.  Type 2 diabetes risk factors.  Cardiovascular risk factors.”

Students in Texas Sprouts garden

Oak Meadows Elementary students in a Texas Sprouts garden

Lessons In the Garden

On the day I visited Oak Meadows Elementary in the Manor Independent School District, the Texas Sprouts class was learning the difference between whole food and processed food.  I was working with photojournalist Todd Bailey on a special report for KXAN-TV in Austin.  The students examined produce like apples and carrots and spent time reading the small print on processed foods that contained ingredients like preservatives and food dyes.

The children also picked fresh basil our of their garden and made small caprese salads that fifth grader Isabell Surita tried for the first time.  She told me that is not the only type of salad she has learned how to make in the Texas Sprouts program.

“I like salad with like cucumber and cilantro and tomatoes and avocado,” said 5th grader Isabell Surita.

The children also drank a homemade fruit infused water that Davis incorporates in most of the lessons, because she believes sugar sweetened beverages are the biggest culprits of childhood obesity.

“Sugar sweetened beverages make up 40-percent of their added sugar intake,” said Davis.

Patience and Passion

Davis spent six years developing the Texas Sprouts program, relying on her passion for childhood nutrition to make it reality.  She helped implement a similar after school experience during her time in Los Angeles doing post doctoral work at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.  After growing up in Austin, Texas, she returned to her hometown in 2012 with the hopes of doing more school gardening research.  With the help of $3.5 million from the National Institutes of Health, Davis secured partners in Seton Healthcare, Travis County Texas A & M AgriLife, University of Texas School of Public Health and Austin’s Sustainable Food Center.  The Texas Sprouts study also acts as a training ground for the next generation of health and nutrition educators and researchers, because Davis’ undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Texas are so heavily involved.  

Not only does Davis hope to see real physical differences in the elementary students by the end of the school year but cognitive differences as well.  The Texas Sprouts curriculum is designed to help support what students are learning in the classroom.

“Most of these schools have to learn a lot about life science and the life cycle of a plant anyway,” said Davis.  “So these concepts that they’re learning in the garden directly apply to what they need to learn anyway for their school standards for their standardized tests.  So why not also incorporate the health component into it?”

Student behavior is also being tracked throughout the school year.  University of Texas researchers from the Department of Kinesiology are observing students in the classrooms to determine if the gardening education has effects on how much time a student is able to spend on task before becoming distracted.

Jaimie Davis cultivated the ground for one of the largest first of its kind school gardening research projects in the country.   The seeds have been planted.  Now she will tend to the garden and gardeners for three years before she knows the true harvest.

Watch the story on KXAN here:   

Food deserts: How Austin is tackling the problem


Helping Our Children Write Original Stories: Julie Lyles Carr

Raising An Original, Julie Lyles Carr

Raising An Original,
Julie Lyles Carr

Parenting books intrigue me.  I have several of them scattered on shelves and in drawers throughout my house.  I think it’s because I’m very aware of some of my parenting pitfalls, so I need all the help I can get.  Also my heart tells me it’s one of the most important jobs I will ever have on this planet:  parenting.  Let’s be honest.  Most of the books leave me making a parenting “plan of action” that ultimately stresses me (and my children) out more than I was before I started reading them.  However, the new book Raising An Original brings me a sort of “parenting peace.” It reminds me the job should focus on bringing up children who discover their part in God’s purpose.  In order to do that, we must give ourselves permission to see the the original interesting parts of our children and ignore the cultural clutter that we allow to define them.  It’s not an easy task, but author Julie Lyles Carr provides us with some thoughtful tools to use throughout our parenting journey along with some laugh out loud moments from her personal story.

I recently met Julie for a cup of coffee and a discussion about her book.  But I don’t write book reviews.  I write stories about people.  And I found Julie to be one of the most inspirational, down to earth and funny people I’ve ever met.  She is a speaker and nationally known blogger.  She leads women’s ministry at her church, LifeAustin, in Austin, Texas.  She is the founder of a nonprofit group serving families with special needs.  Oh, and by the way, she has 8 children and has been married to her husband, Michael, for twenty-seven years.  Now she’s a published author of a book that might just change the world.  One family a a time.  

Julie Lyles Carr

Julie Lyles Carr

Julie told me she hopes Raising An Original will help parents gain a new profound respect for their children.  “Parents get focused on what they’re supposed to see and don’t feel permission to see the interesting things about their child,” said Julie.  “Our kids just seem a mystery to us.”  It’s a trend she has seen in her years teaching parenting classes.  Julie majored in psychology and has years of parenting experience of her own. She writes those parenting stories on her blog and shares them with audiences when she speaks.  Raising An Original took more than five years to get published.  “It has been a weird scenic drive,” said Julie.  

In the book, Julie describes how we as parents get trapped in what she calls “tangles” that may prevent our children from being the “originals” they were born to be.  I underlined a lot of lines in the book to re-read later.  Below are some of my favorites.


Tangle 1:  Vocation/Job 

“We think that what they want to be will help us understand who they are.  Understandable.  But flawed.”  

Tangle 2:  Education

“Education is a tool.  Yes, it is powerful.  But it’s primary function is not to reveal destiny or individual sparkle.”

“Here’s some shockingly good news:  God is not limited or empowered by your kid’s mediocre or sparkling academic record.  God can absolutely use someone who is a poor speller.  It’s not a moral failure if your kid isn’t great at math.  Educational success is not the same thing as spiritual success.  Let’s always remind our kids – and ourselves – that God is the One in charge of the report card that really matters.” 

Tangle 3:  Protection/bubble wrap

“We’ve created the tangle.  We’ve unwittingly set the trap.  Wrapped in the strings of unreality and cushioned by pillows of non-consequence, our kids find themselves entangled in lack of experience.  Tangled in naivete.  And, if we’ve really wound the bubble wrap tightly, they’ll find themselves encased in selfishness and self-agenda as well.”

Tangle 4:  Our own sense of self

“For some of us, it will take uncommon courage to love our kids more than our own struggle with identity.” 

“Our children were never intended to be direct reflections of us – or anyone else.  They were never meant to carry the weight of our identity and their own.”

Julie's family

Julie’s family

The second half of the book contains a personality assessment tool that Julie says in no way in an exact science, but it may help parents take a closer look at what makes their children originals.  I haven’t put my children or myself through the evaluation yet but have made a promise to take the time and work through it.  I figure, even if I don’t learn anything new about my children in the assessment, Julie has already given me a huge gift.  A reminder to look at my children through His eyes.  Not as an 11 year old, a third grader, an A student, a tennis player, a dancer or Leslie’s kid.  If we can see more clearly what makes our children true originals, we can celebrate that originality in others and ultimately fulfill God’s (the true Original’s) plan. 

Julia Barnett: Re-examining Your Story

Julia Barnett

Julia Barnett, Chasing Grace

(* This profile is part of a series of blogs about people using their life stories to teach and inspire.)

Julia Barnett has been acting since she was a teenager, most recently playing a recurring role on ABC’s Nashville and a role on Lifetime Network’s The Preacher’s Mistress.  Her latest project, however, is her most personal.  It took her more than ten years to complete and carried her though a journey of frustration and forgiveness.  Using what she knows best – film – she’s sharing some of her story with others who have struggled with family relationships impacted by divorce.

Inspired by her own life story, Julia wrote, produced, directed and acted in a short film called Chasing Grace that was shot in Dripping Springs, Texas just outside of Austin.  The movie depicts a little girl living in the uncertainty of divorce in the 1970s and follows the girl into adulthood when she recalls the memories of her parents’ split and the decisions they made.  Julia walked a similar road in her off screen life and hopes people who have divorced parents will see the film and see the good in working to restore strained family relationships.  “If we can find room to forgive our parents for the choices they made, then there is a possibility of a relationship,” said Barnett.  

Julia says conversations with her parents in her adult years helped her understand some of their prior decisions were simply bad choices.  As a child, it was difficult for her understand why her mother moved her to another state after the divorce and why her father took her from school unexpectedly to live with him for a couple of months.  The custody case that followed was even harder to explain.  However, the lens she viewed the divorce through as a child was a much different lens than the one she looks through as an adult.  It was important to her for no character in the film to be portrayed as a villain.  “Some memories can’t be trusted,” said Barnett.  “We as adults have memories that change with time and perspective.”  

Julia's daughter, Lydia, and Christopher Backus, Chasing Grace

Barnett’s daughter, Lydia, and Christopher Backus, Chasing Grace

Chasing Grace explores lifestyles of the 1970s and features all the members of Julia’s family.  Her daughter, Lydia Tracy, stars as the young girl caught in the middle of divorce.  The cast also includes Julia’s husband, Van Tracy and son Zander.  Christopher Backus of Underground (2016) and Roadies (2016) stars alongside Jolie Vanier known for Shorts (2009) and From Dusk Till Dawn (2016).

“At the heart of the story, the main character wants to know her dad loves her, said Barnett.  “And there’s a spiritual parallel to the relationship.  Things happen that we don’t understand.  Kids don’t understand court cases and divorce, but God understands.  Sometimes yucky stuff just happens, but God is there.”

Barnett and Backus, Chasing Grace

Barnett and Backus, Chasing Grace

In the more than ten years Julia worked on what would become the Chasing Grace film, she had her two children and worked on various other projects.  Other than acting, she is the International Operations Director for the African Children’s Choir.  (That position started with a volunteer trip to Africa and turned into what she calls her God given mission.)  Through all of it, the drive to create a film about her story kept coming back.  “If you can’t let go of an idea, you have to get it out,” said Barnett. Look for her short film to be out at film festivals soon.

(Photos by David Radzinski)


The Importance Of Looking Back On Your Story

My sister and I in our childhood home's backyard

My sister and me in the backyard of our childhood home

On a recent trip to my parents’ home, I spent several hours sorting through two drawers full of memories.  There were photographs of my sister and me that documented our time as infants all the way through college and into our adult lives.  There were school class pictures and report cards.  There were pictures of every Christmas tree we have ever decorated in that house since it was built.  It’s strangely comforting to see the tree looked the same every year.

Several thoughts came to mind as I looked back through all of the images.  First, I am reminded of how God has blessed me throughout my life.  My story has been written in part by the meaningful relationships with family members, friends, teachers, coworkers and others. My parents have always surrounded me with love and a sense of adventure even when we didn’t physically travel far at all.  

My mother and father

My mother and father

Second, I realize how much my story has been shaped by both the good times and the bad.  My family has dealt with death, divorce and disappointment just like others.  As the rough spots fade farther into the distance behind me, I realize how they are truly the “strength builders” in my life.  My story would not the same without them.  Third, I remember how important it is to stop and look back on our story.  We all focus on living in the moment and planning for our future.  Consider looking back every once in a while, if only to take stock of what defines you and realize how both the high and low points can motivate you to take the next step towards your goals.

I have always considered “moving forward” to be the best approach to take in my life and career.  We are constantly reminded to “be present” in our relationships and experiences both at home and at work.  After looking back through the memories at my parents’ home, I now will look back more often in both my personal life and career.  The point is not to dwell on the past but to use the past to shape our future.

Collection of photos from my childhood

Collection of photos from my childhood


Selling Your Business Story:  Identify Your Bad Guy

Good guy v. bad guy stories are memorable

Good guy v. bad guy stories are memorable

Most every memorable story has a good guy and a bad guy, and if you want to sell your story in a way that connects with people and makes them take action, you must identify your bad guy.  Disney does this beautifully.  We cheer for Cinderella, because we all can’t stand the thought of the mean step mother and step sisters.  We celebrate when the prince slips the shoe on Cinderella’s foot, and it fits perfectly.  The good girl wins.  Yea!

Journalists naturally look for the good and bad guys in stories.  Reporters are the watchdogs of government, making sure elected officials don’t become the bad guy and misuse their power.  The good guys in the story may be people who were not treated fairly, or the good guys may ultimately be the tax payers.  It’s usually obvious in most crime stories who the bad guy is.  Even memorable human interest news stories have bad guys.  It may be the story of a woman and her doctors (the good guys) who tried an experimental new treatment to beat her cancer (the bad guy).  

As you plan your business marketing strategies, first identify the bad guy in your story.  You may even have more than one bad guy.  Then utilize your good guy to save the day.  You must not be afraid to do this with emotion, thinking deeply about the human connection to your business story’s plot.  You’ll more likely get the attention of a news reporter to cover your story and ultimately be more successful in selling your product.

Flipping the “Play Switch”

Playtime in the bluebonnets

Taking time to play

We were on our way to school drop off at 7:30am.  Simply getting in the car on time with everything we need and with our teeth and hair brushed can be a challenge.  Now realize it’s a Monday in April with less than two months to go in the school year.  We see the summer light at the end of the tunnel, but as we crawl through it in the last few weeks of school, we often get into ruts. I’m the worst at becoming the “check list” mom.  That lady who constantly reminds people of the time and the number of things that need to get done, mostly at a speed of at least 65 miles per hour.  On this morning I decided to do what I call flip the “play switch.”

The “play switch” is that little button in our brains that takes us out of the adult role and allows us to play like a child.  So instead of drilling my children with questions about items on the to do list before school, we decided to write an impromptu song.  A rap song to be exact.  (If you know me, you’re likely laughing by now.)  I dare not share the song with you, but let’s just say it had us all laughing our heads off, and the boring routine of getting to school was much more fun.  Our songwriting experience made me question why I don’t more easily flip that “play switch” on a daily basis.  I know it’s what my children need from me.  I know it creates a wonderful connection to my kids, and it can help smooth out arguments much faster.  Plus it usually takes my stress level down a few notches too.

I’m a visual learner, so I have decided to imagine what that “play switch” looks like in my brain and reach for it more often.  It won’t be long before my children will rather play with their teenage friends.  So tonight after we check a few things like homework and chores off my list, I am going to make sure we play something on theirs.  And tomorrow we’ll likely write another rap song.

What Tourette Syndrome Has Taught Me

IMG_3550My son has Tourette Syndrome, a neurobehavioral movement disorder causing motor movements, or tics, he cannot control.  And that’s just what is obviously visible on the outside.  Many children with TS deal with obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and various learning disabilities.  The Tourette Syndrome Association of Texas estimates up to 1 in 33 children have TS in some form.  Even so, it’s so misunderstood, and we have much more to learn about what causes TS and treatments.

I would never try to speak for my son about what it feels like to live with TS, but I can tell you, after years of processing this diagnosis, what Tourette Syndrome has taught me.  Maybe all parents could learn something from this part of my story.

Most of the time it’s best to “call it like it is.”

Be as honest with your children as you can.  If they learn mom or dad has rough dark days too, they can better manage theirs.  They will also more likely want to talk to you about the difficult moments.  I believe we should all learn to laugh at our personal challenges, because they don’t define us.  However, sometimes those challenges, like Tourette Syndrome, make us want to throw up our hands, scream and cry.  It’s not easy.  Let’s just call it like it is.

Let go and let God.

Sometimes being “in control” means letting go.  If we, as parents, constantly strive to show our children perfectly managed households and expect perfect grades and perfect behavior, we set them up to disappoint us and themselves.  We cannot always control the cards we are dealt in life.  If we let go and let God, we realize we really don’t need control in the first place.

“Being still” is sometimes impossible, but that’s okay.

Some people can “be still” better than others.  Telling a child with TS to “be still” is insulting and can do damage to the self-esteem.  They have no control over their motor or vocal tics.  If you think about it, all children were not made to “be still.”  They were made to move and play and grow and learn.  Let’s let them be children.

Remember we all learn differently and at a different pace.

It’s easy to say this phrase but not so easy to embrace when we live in a world of developmental benchmarks and educational standardized tests.  This mindset has been difficult for me to accept, but on days when I truly am at peace with it, it brings a great deal of freedom. 

Work hard to control the stress in your household.

We all know how even small amounts of stress overtime can make us sick.  Physically sick.  Stress and anxiety can send a child with TS into overdrive triggering tics that stick around for a while.  I have seemed to thrive on stress at times in my life and worn the amount of stress I can handle like a badge of honor.  Teaching our children ways to manage stress will make us all healthier and happier.

Help your children discover their God given gifts. 

I figure this is my most important role as a parent.  We should work with our children to show them how to use their gifts and talents for God’s mission.  I often get so focused on trying to fix my children’s challenges and weaknesses, I miss the chances to help them discover their strengths.  The world may make it difficult to see a child’s gifts, but we should ask God for patience in waiting to see those gifts revealed.  As my son grows and uncovers his passions and God given purpose, I’ll be the one watching from the wings with a huge smile on my face.