Wolf Pack and KaBOOM!

It was still dark when the Lyft driver dropped off me and Snowman at Pearsall Park and sped away. The driver hadn’t wanted to go there and looked at us funny when we climbed into his car with ten thousand dollars’ worth of video gear.

Although Pearsall Park transformed “from dump to destination” about three years ago, it still is in one of San Antonio’s poorer neighborhoods. With the Lyft car vanished, the only light came from an electric sign explaining why we were there.

Snowman and I were there not to volunteer but to gather storytelling material for our mutual client, Wolf Pack Ninjas, who would help KaBOOM! build an adventure course playground that would offer a Ninja Warrior-like experience.

Wolf Pack – a group of American Ninja Warrior competitors committed to “making the world healthier one kid at a time” – and KaBOOM!, the renowned non-profit playground developer, were joining forces to provide fun and fitness opportunities to youth in underserved communities.

Soon after meeting KaBOOM! teammates who had arrived even earlier than 0-dark-hundred, the San Antonio sunrise crept over the massive mulch-pile that would gradually diminish during the day as hundreds of volunteers raked, shoveled and wheelbarrowed it into the build.

Before the event kicked off, we already were interviewing participants on camera, including extraordinary, community-minded students from the JROTC program at Southwest High School and the basketball team at East Central High School.

When the volunteers started working, it was 91 degrees. The sun was grilling, and the work was grueling, from assembling the heavy playground equipment to moving mulch to mixing cement.

But the spirit of the volunteers was remarkable. The adult leaders gave their all with great patience, and every child out there defied the stereotype of screen-addicted teen slacker. They showed pride in their community, willing to work for its improvement. They worked longer, harder and more joyously than many paid employees in much more comfortable environments, undaunted by dust and dirt, unfazed by fatigue.

The KaBOOM! crew orchestrated the volunteers with an expertise borne of building or improving 17,000 playspaces. Their concern with safety meant frequent public address reminders about hydration and sunscreen. The only other interruptions in the motivational music came during an announcement that lunch was available or when Snowman and I were conducting our on-camera interviews atop the mulch pile. Wolf Pack Co-Founder and Ninja Warrior star Ian Dory was so happy with his that he flipped.

At lunch, Ian posed for photos and signed autographs for volunteers, then went back to work right alongside them. By about 3 p.m., pieces of adventure course equipment that took six people to carry were stood in place, the 22 tons of concrete were poured, and the dust began to settle. The build was finished.

The concrete had to cure, so the course was not immediately accessible. But Ian made a great offer to the crowd to come back and play when Wolf Pack and KaBOOM! reunite in San Antonio on November 16.

Inkflow’s Cool Summer

Summer – which I have defined not by solstice and equinox but by “school’s out” ever since attending kindergarten in 1969 – was cool this year. Inkflow’s workflow made it so.

Summer started with a Fit Kids event at Levi’s Stadium on the last day of school for the students we serve in East Palo Alto, continued with gaining new Inkflow clients, and ended with amazing back-to-school initiatives. As usual, returning to my roots in Chicago and Milwaukee nourished the blooms and fruits of these labors.

In early July, The 82 Project Foundation’s annual Swine Social pig roast and fundraiser reminded me why I love serving on the non-profit’s board. Named “82” for the year our board members graduated from Whitefish Bay High School, the organization funds a scholarship for a senior graduating from our alma mater and aids community members in need of financial and emotional support.

During that visit, Inkflow linked with the Milwaukee area’s Concord Chamber Orchestra and contracted to advise the non-profit classical musical group on marketing communications strategy. A slew of stakeholder interviews, an online survey, and observations in and around CCO’s community will inform Inkflow documents that provide the organization a map for its future outreach efforts.

Also while in Milwaukee, preliminary talks from earlier weeks with San Francisco-based real estate concern Andersen, Jung & Co. turned into a short-deadline assignment to write a 90-second speech that Principal Broker Monica Chung delivered to a group of business executives.

Back in the Bay, Inkflow sealed a deal to deliver writing coaching and marketing/business development consulting for Ferox Yoga, the brain-child of yoga instructor Claire Ngoon.

Soon after, the latest issue of Saint Thomas Academy’s Saber Magazine dropped, with several of my articles, including the cover story, “Profiles in Service.”

July closed out with the launch of a new promotional video for Fit Kids, including my first voice-over work…

…and August started with a return to Chicago as a panelist on the topic of “Telling Your Story: How to Engage Your Donor Base” at the inaugural Sports Philanthropy World Congress.

About 100 delegates gained information and inspiration from the panel, including moderator Nicole Fisher (Founder of Health & Human Rights Strategies, Co-Founder of Brain Treatment Foundation and a Forbes contributor), Katie Wilkes (Freeheart Creative), and Marianna Whitehurst (Board Member for Georgia Playworks, Foundation Board of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Chick Fil A Peach Bowl Advisory Board).

Back in the Bay, Inkflow forged an alliance between Fit Kids and Citizen Schools, which will have me leading Fit Kids classes for underserved middle-school students at Redwood City’s McKinley Institute of Technology. The chance to merge my passion for both non-profits into a single project that directly impacts youth and advances both organizations’ goals is a dream come true.

Then this other dream came true:

Minda, whom I informally and occasionally advised in the last several years, read from The Memo, sold and signed scores of copies, and led a rousing panel discussion with several other women of color that infused the packed room with equal parts anger and hope.

Twenty-four hours later, some of Minda’s “Memo” continued to hit home in another room of multi-culturalists, as “summer” ended with students back in school, including those who last night completed the class I teach at The Writing Salon, aptly titled — in light of Minda’s message — “On Point.”

Karma: A Writing Exercise

Sometimes small talk becomes bigger talk. Settling onto the bench in the yoga studio lobby, I asked Claire, “How are you?”

She sighed before answering, “This morning I woke up late, and my boyfriend wasn’t there. I found him on the couch. I wanted to grab my purse and go, but there was a huge spider on it. I just stared at it, and while I was trying to figure out what to do, the spider raised its front paws, I mean legs, and moved them around like time didn’t apply to him.

“I had to wake my boyfriend up, and I was like, ‘Help,’ and he just killed it. I think part of it’s still on my book. But I was so glad that I could just grab my purse and go, because I was running late, and today was the last day for that public-speaking class that I teach to the middle-school students.”

“And how was that?” I asked.

“It was tough! I had to be a little hard on the students. One of them kept taking out his tablet. I told him twice to put it away. I was going to take it away from him, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to confiscate things. Anyway, I just had him come sit next to me.

“Then this other boy, he’s really smart, but he doesn’t do the work. They were all supposed to give their final speeches today, and he wasn’t ready, but I told him he had to do it anyway. He was going to have to improvise, and he did it, and he nailed it. It was so good.

“I explained to the class that it’s better to be prepared, but sometimes in life that’s just not possible, so you just do the best you can, and sometimes it works out like it did today. So, I made it through the end of the class, and I was happy for that boy, and still kind of stressed from the other one who kept playing with his tablet. When class ended, they were the first two out, and I was holding the door open for all the other students, and then those two boys, one at a time, both came back and wanted to give me a hug. So, now I’m here on kind of a high, ready to lead your yoga session.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “I had something like that happen in a middle-school writing class that I taught…”

Then I stopped – it was Claire’s moment—and pivoted. “It’s great when stuff like that happens. That’s why as a writing coach, I was happy to get your email last night with your blog ideas. Two of them intrigued me a lot: the one about what yoga instructors can learn from the dog whisperer, and the one about the real meaning of karma.”

By then, I’d removed my shoes and socks, and finished some stretches. Claire started toward the studio, and said over her shoulder, “Let’s talk about that after class.”

I followed her and unrolled my mat. She brought blocks and bolsters and resistance bands. Once she started instruction, all the spider and speech-class excitement drained from her voice. Her ability to calm herself helped me trust that she could lead me to calm myself. I fell into the easy rhythm of breath she prescribed.

Most yoga instructors encourage us to remain present. Claire says to “let go of anything that will not be of use in your practice.” That phrasing resonates, along with how she says it. But, in this lesson, mid-Happy Baby, my mind wandered to writing instruction, and after “namaste” I told Claire my thoughts.

“What you said about the spider was eloquent. You tell me you struggle with writing, but you have tremendous access to language. The way you described the spider – ‘raising its front paws,’ you said, and then you corrected yourself, ‘I mean legs, and moved them around like time didn’t apply to him’ – that’s incredible description. You have the words, and it’s just a matter of writing them down.

“So, based on what you told me about your morning, and given your list of blog ideas, this week’s homework is to write about karma. I see some connection between karma and the way your day has gone.”

“What kind of connection?” she asked, and I said, “If I answer that, I think you will benefit less from this exercise. But, I’ll tell you what. I’ll do the same exercise, writing about this last hour, and next week we’ll compare notes.”

Fit Kids on the Last Day of School

Remember the last day of elementary school before summer vacation? Your weather may have been spectacular, tantalizing you outside the classroom window, promising the freedom to run, jump, skip, throw, catch, and finally, comfortably collapse into sleep as your pent-up energy dwindles with the daylight.

There is nothing better than that mad dash out the door to the sound of the school year’s last bell. Unless you’re an East Palo Alto public school student participating in Fit Kids. Then, it does get better.

You board a bus headed to Levi’s Stadium. There, you get a t-shirt and run out the same tunnel as your football heroes, all courtesy of investment firm HGGC, the Forever Young Foundation, and the San Francisco 49ers, and then you meet Steve Young, who has led all three organizations.  

There are lessons in football and life from 49ers Youth Football head Jared Muela.


There are football drills, agility tests, music and dancing.


There are flying touchdown flops into foam endzones.

There is food and beverage and a gift bag. The ride home is much quieter. Many of the Fit Kids are fast asleep…and dreaming.

Collaborative Storytelling

Two great joys — collaboration and storytelling — recently came together on an Inkflow Communications project for Fit Kids, a non-profit client that provides structured fitness programs to underserved elementary school students. The challenge was to humanize Fit Kids’ impact, telling the story of one child to illustrate the organization’s broader value to the communities it serves.

Dramatizing a problem and its solution through the story of an archetypal individual is a go-to approach for many brands. This is especially true for non-profits that need compelling content to raise funds.

In theory, focus on a single face instead of mind-numbing numbers is the surer way to change hearts and minds. The story of one identifiable person is more moving than statistical statements about anonymous millions, which can overwhelm audiences to the point of turn-off and tune-out.

So, why doesn’t every brand take the individual storytelling approach? First, not everyone got the memo. Business leaders focused on the bottom line may fixate on figures. Also, telling an individual story in support of a brand is not an easy execution. That’s where the joy of collaboration comes in.

Telling the story of Briana in the video above took Fit Kids Founder Ashley Hunter’s commitment to this form of communications, Fit Kids Program Director Navita Wilson’s keen ear to the ground to identify Briana and her family as subjects, Inkflow’s work to bridge brand and journalism, and the extraordinary skill, emotional intelligence, storytelling instincts, and production chops of award-winning sports broadcaster Mindi Bach.

The video was a hit when it debuted at The Fit Kids Lunch fundraiser on April 30. Of course, collaboration also fueled that event’s success. But that’s a different story.

Sports Philanthropy Network Podcast with Roy Kessel

In addition to the joy of kickin’ it with Roy Kessel on his Sports Philanthropy Network podcast, we shared insights and examples that can help any non-profit or other social entrepreneurship do well by doing good. Just press play on the player embedded below, and see the timecodes for highlights by scrolling just below the player.

Start-1:55, the Inkflow Communications story

2:28, how Lesa Ukman and International Events Group set the stage for social impact in our industry

4:55, why non-profits should view sponsorships through sponsors’ eyes

7:35, how non-profits attract sponsors with story-telling and other content opportunities

10:31, the futility of playing the eyeball game

14:29, identifying sponsor prospects — Fit Kids example of protecting brand integrity

20:15, Wolf Pack Ninjas example of delivering value beyond cash

24:45, working with Saint Thomas Academy on content

26:03, how WeXL creates economic opportunity through content from diverse voices

28:39, helping entrepreneurial clients get out of their own way when it comes to marketing

31:40, clients viewing marketing communications as a long-term investment in the brand

33:37, story-telling lengthens attention span of target audiences…including executives.

Learn more about Sports Philanthropy Network and its upcoming
Sports Philanthropy World Congress!

Spring Break

At the time of this post, I would ordinarily be in class. But it’s Spring Break, so I am writing instead of teaching, and my students are even more scattered than usual.

In childhood, I loved Spring Break or any other break from school. An aspiring journalist even then, I also secretly enjoyed writing the ritual essay on “What I Did Over Spring Break.” But now, as a volunteer for Citizen Schools, teaching a weekly creative writing class for middle school students at McKinley Institute of Technology, any break is too long.

Nothing is more rewarding than teaching young people, especially those in the underserved communities that Citizen Schools reach. Inside the classroom, students’ energy levels vary depending on whether they’ve had enough to eat and how much rest they could get the previous night in chaotic, overcrowded homes. Their expressions during class range from slack-jawed “a-ha!” to open-mouthed sleep.

Their potential is immense, yet still sometimes no match for the forces arrayed against them: systemic racism, under-resourced public schools, frequent reminders of the inhumanity at the borders their families crossed, and renewed threats to their own safety and sanctity no matter the number of years since those crossings.

The students’ resilience is remarkable. One has lived in the U.S. for less than a year. His stated goal on the self-assessment index card he turned in was “to learn more words.” Another writes beautifully and brutally of being forced at age 10 to choose between living with her mother or her father.

“That sounds very difficult,” I observed.

“It wasn’t,” she answered. “I don’t like my mother.”

Despite some gut-wrenching circumstances, there are no outbursts, no behavior any worse than that smattering of scattering mentioned earlier or a typical middle school giggle. The students want to learn. They help each other find words, whether to answer a question out loud or to complete a sentence on paper. When it’s time for pens and pencils to keep moving, they do.

The students treat guests with great respect. One week we hosted Dania Denise, whose creative talents include comics and graphic novels, because several students showed interest in those forms. In a future class, Rudy Ramirez, an ethnic studies professor at College of San Mateo, will share the songs he has written in Spanish and English.

It’s critical that these students see people who look like them and hear people who sound like them show and tell them the way toward personal fulfillment and professional achievement. Too many in this class too often are subject to discouraging depictions of themselves from too many of the too-few people in power.

Much of the students’ writing shows the angst that typifies their age under any circumstances. The best of it shows signs of imminent rage against their specific circumstances.

Last week, students wrote descriptions of the final projects they are committed to deliver when the Citizen Schools term ends in May. One will write about finding respite in nature, another plans poems about a poor family, and another outlined a super-heroic quest for a cure to save her mother’s life.

As much as I used to love Spring Break, now I can’t wait for it to end.

Grown-up writing students may register here for my May 4 class at The Writing Salon,
On Point: Crafting a Short-Form Point of View Piece