Friday, December 27, 2013

Our Special Needs Journey:Part 5 - My Life is a Sitcom

A comedic look into the humor that is my every day life.  Setting: a modest house falling apart at the seams with a lawn covered in snow in a Minnesota suburb. Cast: Frumpy, frazzled Mom of 4, Hardworking raccoon-eye-tired Dad, 3 children with autism (12, 9, 4) and a baby. Costarring a fluffy, lovable Ivory Lab, 4 moody cats, and 2 turtles.  Enjoy! 

Photo Credit: Carpe Diem Photography

Christmas Day Evening: Return home - sort gifts we were blessed with, sending each child to their rooms with their toys & new clothes.  Leftovers directly to fridge, wash dishes including the crockpots used to bring ham to Gramma's. Write 2 Thank You cards, fold laundry while watching Die Hard with my hubby, fall asleep exhausted and fully dressed when putting Dean (my 4 year old) and Bruce (my 10 month old) to sleep.  Reflect on how truly blessed I am by the generosity of others and the grace of God.

Day After: Return to bed at 9 am, place Dad on Kid Duty - Cmas gift to self.  Wake at 10:15, shower. Run to Target for milk, snag animal crackers for only $.23! Proud I left Target spending less than $3!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Affordable Homemade Gifts and Christmas Crafts

We have been getting our craft on for several days in preparation for Christmas! The kids and I really enjoy finding creative gift ideas that we can make and that are fun to receive.  The goal is to put as much love into it as possible.  And if you know how precious my time is to me then getting a gift from me that took a lot of time to make should prove my love! :)

A few lucky grandparents are getting a set of carolers.  See previous posting for how-to.

Tile Magnets:  
I bought a sheet of 24 small 2x2" tiles at Home Depot for about $2.50 (that's a lie - my hubby bought them. Because it was an excuse to go to Home Depot.) The girls enjoyed coloring little photos on the tiles with colored permanent markers (I don't often let them use my collection of Sharpies so they were pretty thrilled).  I covered each one with a layer of Mod Podge to seal the markings on, as they rubbed off  a bit without that coating. 
Glue a magnet to the back of each tile. Check for polarity before glueing - make sure the side of the magnet that sticks to the fridge is facing out, not glued to the tile. 
The one with "Dean & Bruce - Brothers" written on it has a small photo.  We took several of those little bitty pictures that come on the summary page when you develop photos and cut them up.  We used them for magnets, keychains, and bookmarks.  Since they are printing on photo paper and are a nice small size they were perfect for these projects!  Simply glue and cover with Mod Podge.

-White 5x5 inch tile squares were only 13 cents each from Home Depot! There were plenty of choices, such as nice stone ones, marbled, textured, etc. but I went simple so I could experiment on the cheap.
-Something to decorate the coaster - photos, scrapbook paper, fabric, Sharpies...
Fabric --- I'm a Thirty-One consultant and have fabric swatches up the whazoo.  The patterns are so fun I am always looking for ways to use these little samples of fabric, and the size fit perfectly here. For these I chose complimenting patterns and cut a square of fabric to fit the tile.  I did so freehand because I wanted the imperfections - a "homemade" look. The kids were able to do the cutting and help more this way, but I'm sure you can measure and slice more precisely. I knew my mom's favorite pattern was Black Parisian Pop, so I went with that theme for her set.
Photos --- I printed out pictures of the kids on plain old printer paper - nothing fancy is required here.  The photo quality was pretty good on paper and I didn't need to make a special Shutterfly order for prints. I shrunk to the size I needed and the girls cut and glued them onto the tiles.
Confetti --- I LOVE this polka-dot/circle confetti! I use it in crafts All. The. Time. For the one in the photo I glued pink fabric onto the tile first, layered it in Mod Podge, dried, glued these thin tissue-paper circles of confetti on, layered in Mod Podge, and allowed to dry.
Paper --- Pick a fun print of scrapbook paper to glue on - great way to use up larger scraps.
Sharpies --- draw freehand, stencil, whatever suits you.
-Adhesives -- we used glue dots and decoupage glue/Mod Podge.  I actually used the Martha Stewart brand decoupage glue because it is dishwasher friendly.  I figured coasters needed to withstand liquid.

After you have decorated your tile, cover in a generous but evenly spread layer of Mod Podge and allow to dry overnight.

I like to use a paper plate, clothespin, and clean scrap of sponge.  I pick up sponges at the dollar store and snip off a piece to use to spread the glue.  This way I can toss it when I'm done instead of trying to wash out paintbrushes.  They usually end up stiff and sticky.  With a sponge I can also snip the used part off and use it another time or two!

Add a 2nd coat of Mod Podge/decoupage glue and again allow to dry overnight.  It will go on white and cover your photo/paper/fabric but will dry clear.

Lastly I add a square of felt to the bottom of the tile using glue dots. This will keep the coaster from sliding around or scratching the table surface.

These garlands were not gifts, just a fun project to make the house look festive.  I drew tons and tons of Christmas light bulb shapes on construction paper and had the kids cut them out.  In the end I had to do all the cutting due to their poor motor skills (autism) but they did all the taping!

The girls used scotch tape to secure each paper light to a ribbon.  It was adorable until Julia used half a roll of ugly masking tape to hang the garland in the door frame! :)

In the background you can sort of see the paper chain hanging on the ceiling.  A tradition in our house is to work together to make a long paper chain and hang it from our ceiling.  This way even our youngest kids can participate in crafting!

Julia made me this cute paper plate wreath to hang above the window.  Pretty obvious how-to:  Cut a hole from the center of a paper plate. Glue green tissue paper squares around the outside (lay flat, scrunch up, color or paint instead, try using construction paper, anything goes). The holly berries are puzzle pieces I had spray painted red for a Valentine's art project last year. Oh, and she taped on a sign that says "To Mom."

Keychains, Bookmarks, and Lanyards:
Honestly these were the most fun for all of us! I asked the cashier at Target for all the used gift cards in her trash and ended up with plenty for this project.
-Gift cards (without any value on them!!)
-Hole Punch
-Keyring, string, lanyard clip, etc.
-Mod Podge or decoupage glue
-Something to decorate with

We started by trimming up our cards - some were cut in half to make "BFF" keychains, some left original size to be used as bookmarks, and others cut smaller to be used as keychains (like the purple one in the above photo). Round corners if desired.

If punching a hole do so FIRST. We then covered all of our cards (except the front of one really fun one - the Target dog riding a Harley) in duct tape. Punch hole again through the tape.

Decorate as desired. For some we glued photos on. Others I used that tissue-paper confetti I love so much. We used nail polish and/or permanent markers to write words ("Best Friends" "#1 Uncle" that sort of thing). My 4 year old used stickers on his. Taylor used the small circles from the hole puncher to glue colored paper circles on one of hers.  Anything flat works!

Cover one side in Mod Podge glue and allow to dry 12 hours or overnight.  Flip and cover the other side.  For some items, such as photos, a 2nd layer may be needed.

Once dry add a clip, keyring, or bookmark string.  We found a bag of 40 assorted clips (lanyards, keyrings, etc) of various colors and sizes at Joann's for less than $3.  The girls made Rainbow Loom bands and braided them to use for the bookmarks instead of plain ribbon. 

These wooden spoons were so fun! I bought a set of bamboo spoons at Target and gave them as a set, but it could be fun to pick up a bunch at the Dollar Store and give one each to tons of people - neighbors, teachers, Sunday School Leaders...

The one with circles is simply that confetti I keep talking about that I love so much! I applied a layer of Mod Podge glue on the handle of the spoon and stuck several pieces of tissue paper confetti on the spoon.  I applied several layers of decoupage glue on top - I used the Martha Stewart dishwasher safe kind.

The girls each made their spoons with nail polish.  Taylor wanted help so I wrapped washi tape around the handle to keep her lines straight.  She painted the black polish on and after it dried we pulled the tape off and the lines were (mostly) straight.  Then I just added some red dots of nail polish.

How cute are these Reindeer Noses?! I found this printable on Pinterest.  I used miniature zipper bags, found at craft stores, 8 Whoppers per bag (8 reindeer) and 1 red nose (for Rudolph).  Some were red gumballs, some red Jawbreakers, some Gobstoppers.  Basically, I wasn't able to find anything with JUST red round balls and had to buy a bunch of candy and experiment.  The gumballs were nicest looking - both in size and in shine! :) We made about 40 of these for teachers, family, even the mailman!

I picked up a couple of ivory pillar candles when I was at Ikea last month, I think they were $2 each.  The girls used a glue stick to cover the candles in tissue paper squares, making designs, writing in marker on white ones, etc.

I wrapped the candle in wax paper and heated it with a blow dryer. It did take awhile to get the wax to melt to secure the tissue paper into the candle and so the kids gave up and mom had to finish the task, but they turned out pretty cute.

My goddaughter is a teenager now and therefore harder to shop for, especially on a budget (since all teens really want is money).  This dry erase board is one of the things I gave her this year, as we like to make gifts for each other (what she made me was AWESOME!).  It was in the dollar spot at Target (actually I purchased it for 30 cents on clearance) earlier in the year.

I covered the frame in a fun duct tape and added a command hook to the back so it can hang easily.  She actually really liked it and said it could hang in her locker.  So that was simple and cheap! :)

For Grampa the girls covered this mug (from the DOLLAR STORE! Score!) in permanent markers.  We didn't coat it with anything to protect it so I'm not certain how long it will last, but my dad said he always hand washes these type of mugs anyway.

These are dollar store frames that we added a photo to and the girls decorated with their tapes.  We have duct tape, washi tape, Scotch Expressions masking -type tape, etc.  Then they added some stickers and wrapped them up for all the grandparents.

I forgot to take photos but we also made:

Glass bulb ornaments - some had paint drops inside and we rolled it around to coat the inside, then wrote the year with Sharpies on the outside.  Others we put broken bits of crayon inside and heated with a hair dryer - you can find tons of ideas on Pinterest.

I purchased plain clipboards from the dollar store (they were plenty sturdy, they were just plain and boring) and the girls covered them in duct tape.  Taylor made one with only Despicable Me minion tape and a minion photo she colored (I covered the coloring page with clear packaging tape to protect it) while Julia made one with 10 different colors of tape!  They both looked festive and fun, especially after adding a bow with a twist tie to the little loop at the top.

An ordinary $1 ceramic pot became a colorful holder for a manicure kit (nail polish, foot lotion, file and clippers, etc.) after decoupaging confetti on that as well.

Ack! I forgot to take pictures of my homemade wreaths and garlands before I wrapped them up as gifts.  These were fun - I bought naked wreaths and garlands on clearance after Christmas, as well as shatter-proof bulb ornaments, ribbons, bows, scented pinecones, etc.

Create a layout first, keeping in mind where a door hanger will be on the top and a bow on the bottom, then hot glue the decorations on and wrap the ribbons around.

I packaged mine in wreath storage boxes and included a door hanger for the wreaths (not for the garlands).

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cream Cheese Chicken Empanadas

These Empanadas are so delish! Since they require a bit more effort than my usual dinner (toss-in-crockpot-and-forget) I thought they'd be fun to make for a Christmas potluck I was attending. 

For a typical serving size - if I was only feeding my family:

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 box of 2 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts
8 oz cream cheese - softened
taco seasoning  (no clue how much - we get ours at Costco in a big tin and I use a TON)
1 tsp lime juice
Ground red pepper or chili seasoning to sprinkle on top for flair

I cannot say it enough: I love my crockpot. I am lazy. Or Busy. Or whatever it's called - all I know is if I can toss it in the crock to save time, I will.  So - cook chicken on low in slow-cooker.  Once cooked (for me it's about 4 hrs), shred. I make a double batch and use the other half of the chicken for chicken enchiladas.

Add cream cheese, lime juice, and taco seasoning, stir together.

Unroll the pie crust.  Roll that a bit thinner and use a glass or bowl to cut circles. (The Ikea kids bowls are perfect.)  Add a spoonful of the chicken mixture.

Fold pie over and press at edges.  Use a fork to score the edges and sprinkle with seasoning.  Bake as instructed on box (in case you used another brand pie crust).  I always reroll the leftover crust dough and make more - the photos are from those, as I was in such a rush to get to my meeting.  They are actually much prettier than the ones in the photos.

I serve with guacamole and sour cream, no extra salsa is needed, and they are also delicious without anything extra! Enjoy! My favorite topping is actually a diced avocado mixture:

-2 ripe avocados, diced
-juice of one lime (roll the lime before slicing to break open the segments for the most juice)
-cilantro (I use dried seasoning from Costco so that I always have Cilantro on hand)
-sea salt

Stir together in a bowl and top your empanadas (or tacos or sandwiches, etc) with this!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Our Foreclosure Journey: Part 1 - The biggest blessings come on our most difficult days

1 John 5:14 - "And this is the confidence we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us."

My prayer is God will use us - to be a light for Him in our trials and to someday encourage others. Good people lose their homes. Christians go through foreclosure. I try to remind myself I am not a bad person and that God has NOT abandoned us. This may be the very thing He is using to answer our prayers.

I have been reluctant for a few months to share, as this is very personal and honestly, very humbling and humiliating. We are not crying out for hand-outs! Our needs are met. We are blessed, even when we struggle financially.  My goal is to share how God is ever at work in our lives.

Quick background: We purchased our home 10 years ago, when I was 19, and we had 2 incomes and 1 child (and one on the way).  It was the height of the market and in our naivety and excitement we bought more than we could afford (with some creative financing). 

Fast forward to now.  The property has declined in value and we are upside down, as are many others. It is falling apart everywhere - I won't bore you with details but it is livable for the most part, but barely. 

We have one income, 4 children, all with health issues and 3 with autism, that I homeschool. Dan and I also have health issues - in fact my hard working husband who turns only 32 this month has arthritis already, thanks to his manual labor job and 80 hour work weeks. Our medical costs and prescription expenses are through the roof! Difficult pregnancies have caused us to fall behind as well.

We now have debt - student loans, a bed (Dan and I have both had back surgery already, so this was important), repairs to our vans and our home, appliances - 7 were replaced in a 3 month span this year, and medical bills (such as dental surgery and eyeglasses). 

The bank is a credit union and does not participate in any of the government programs meant to keep you in your home and avoid foreclosure. They will not allow a short sale, refinance, reammortization, deed in lieu, etc. We have come to them many times in the past 6 years pleading for a hardship workout and been denied.  

After much prayer, we chose not to pay our mortgage in October.  There are not enough funds to cover credit card bills, medicine, daily living costs, AND the mortgage. My party sales/consulting business was not successful, a part-time job is not wise or profitable, and Dan can only work as much as the company allows (often 60-75 hours a week or even more). If the money is not there, it's not there.

We spoke with a government HUD counselor and were advised to transition to more affordable housing. This is the wisest and least prideful decision for our family, as painful as it is to leave our home behind. My husband and I feel at peace with this and believe it is the only way out - and it is God's intention to move us.

I did not realize it would be so difficult, so painful, so emotional, so... nasty. I thought the bank would be amicable, or at least indifferent (paperwork communication only). I was wrong.  We awoke Monday morning to find that our accounts had been drained, we were left penniless. 

Convinced there must be an error I went to the bank.  Our mortgage lender happens to be the same bank we have our checking and savings accounts with, Richfield Bloomington Credit Union. I waited with the baby for Donna, the mortgage lady, to come down. We went into a conference room off the lobby with the door open. 

I let her know there was nothing in the terms of my mortgage that allowed them to steal my money without our permission and without warning.  She claimed it was in the terms of the checking account agreement that they can take funds we owe them.  I said we tried to tell her last year we could not afford the house and she disagreed.  She told us to stop tithing for starters, and that we could come talk to them after we've missed a payment and have debt, which at the time we did not (aside from a student loan). 

So here we are, and they are not playing nice. My daughter needs meds refilled today for her life threatening asthma. We need gas to get to work. Christmas is just a couple weeks away. What the heck?! She personally put the transaction through and seemed to take pleasure in our circumstances.

I said I wanted to close my accounts, she said "I think you should." and walked into the lobby.  I said "I wanted to ask -"  and there, in front of a bank full of people, she says emphatically "Frankly Nicole, you've told me you do not intend to pay your mortgage so we have nothing to talk about."

I begged God for the strength to keep standing, to not fall to the floor in tears at that very moment. I was humiliated - yet had to stay another 30 minutes to ensure my accounts were closed, all while Baby Bruce was tired and very fussy. 

I saw the look on the bank tellers face as he worked his magic at the computer, staring down at the keyboard to avoid my glance. I wanted to tell him I'm a responsible person.  We give to charities, missionaries, and pay tithes at our church.  We make meals for those in need and live without luxuries - we do not have nice cars, furniture, or take vacations.  Our house is not exceptional - it is 999 sq feet on each floor (two levels) but the basement isn't even finished. It is over 50 years old with broken windows and doors, crumbling stairs, and a cracked driveway.  The ceiling is falling off in chunks downstairs and the bathroom wall was torn down due to mold from a pipe leaking. 

My husband works HARD. I word hard too - caring for the children, homeschooling, taking them to various doctor appointments and therapies, getting groceries and making meals for our family. We try our absolute best to maintain the yard and keep the dishes and laundry clean. We are not lazy. We are not generally foolish with our spending.  We are real people with challenging circumstances that result in great expenses (mostly medically). 

He wouldn't have cared and it really doesn't matter.  The only thing that is true about me is what GOD says is true.  I have yet to find anywhere in scripture it says "Nicole is trashy, fat, evil, a loser and stupid." It feels true most days, but I'm my own worst critic.

So I prayed for God's provision for our family - that I could sell several things on Craigslist that I had listed, that Dan would have plenty of overtime opportunities, that our expenses would be minimal, and that my children would have no worries - that their Christmas is blessed and carefree.

It is very scary to have nothing, no money at all.  While being wealthy does not ensure happiness it is certainly terrifying to have none.  I have 4 children, from 10 months to 12 years. I know we can get by on little, and even with nothing in the bank, we have more than SO SO many. All the same, I cried. I called a friend and just let out an epic cry session.

God told us He will supply our needs and we are not to worry about where we will live or what we will eat. Here is my faith-building trial.  Will I run TO Christ - or away from Him? I choose to put my hope in Him, the Author and Perfecter of my faith. 

Psalm 120:1 "I call on the Lord in my distress, and He answers me."

"Only people who don't know God are always worrying about such things.  Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things. But more than anything else, put God's work first and do what He wants. The other things will be yours as well." - Matthew 6:32-33

In the hours that followed my meltdown I have seen God at work in our lives like never before.  His provision was immediate and abundant. Dan was called in for extra hours on Tuesday. A stranger gave us an envelope of cash.  I sold ALL the American Girl items I had listed to sell to one person. I even found a package of toilet paper in the laundry room I had no idea was there!

There are still things that make me sad.  I will miss our home and our yard and all our pets - and the memories we have made. Dan and I both moved a LOT growing up.  This is the longest we have lived in one place. Leaving it all behind is both sad AND freeing.

I'm so excited to see God at work in this! A smaller home, such as an apartment, will free us from the burden of THINGS.  Downsizing our toys and possessions has been a perfect opportunity to teach my children about the difference between treasures in Heaven and earthly treasures.  I'm excited for less to clean and no yard to care for - and when things break, as they often have around here, I don't have to fix it myself! Oh - and to have Dan work a bit less would be amazing, the poor guy is run ragged.

Jesus said "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." - Matthew 11:28-30 

I can learn from His character - free of bitterness and anger in His circumstances. Trust in God for all my needs. I can give my yoke to Him and the two of us will carry the burdens together - I am not alone. 

Just as I care for my children, to supply for their needs and protect them from burdens, my God cares for me.  As His child He will provide for our needs and shoulder our burdens, offering me comfort.  

 **Since I posted this yesterday I have had an outpouring of support and encouragement. I feel crazy loved and blessed! Which is helpful, because holding in my feelings can cause loneliness. I deeply treasure the encouragement and support of others, thank you for blessing me. 

I have been asked how people can help (thank you).  At this point our needs are met. If you are local and hear of a home for rent, let us know.  We have 6 months of mortgage free living ahead of us so in a couple months we will be caught back up financially. :)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

DIY Baby Sensory Bag

I'm sure I've said it a zillion times already - we love sensory play around here! This squishy bag entertains both my baby and my preschooler and costs practically pennies.

 This is one of the ones I've made for Bruce - and his brother got to choose what I put inside and which tape I used.  He says he made this for his baby Brucie! :)

Use a heavy duty Ziploc Freezer Quart-size storage bag - no off-brands (I guess Hefty would work too?), freezer style is thicker.  I've never had a bag break open and I assume it is because I always use the nice thick bag. 

A quick swipe of nail polish remover will remove the lettering on the bag.  I fill each one with hair gel from the dollar store - the clear kind. This bag is a gift for a friend's baby's 1st birthday - since it's a girl I added neon pink food coloring. Zip shut and squish around to mix in the food coloring.

 Reopen and add some fun items to keep baby entertained - try things with different colors and textures.  We've used:
-foam shapes (snowflakes in the pink bag, fish in the clear one in first photo)
-perler beads
-other beads - we had vehicle, star, heart and flower shaped ones on hand, as well as all the letters of Bruce's name for his bag
-confetti and sequins
-googly eyes
-a small jingle bell

After it is sealed tightly, use duct tape around all the edges.  I cover about an inch of the bag and instead of folding the tape over leave it hanging over the edge, then flip over and tape the backside. This makes it a bit bigger and gives an edge for baby to chew on.