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John Donovan

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A Call to Service

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When the world began to split at the seams, Alicia Philipp, the longtime director of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, was in a vineyard in Sao Pedro do Sul, Portugal, visiting family. From her vantage point, the deadly coronavirus, already tearing through Europe, was a real, if not necessarily immediate, threat to America.

About that time, in Atlanta, the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Milton J. Little Jr. felt the rending, too. As president of the powerhouse nonprofit, he had begun internal conversations on the virus. But nothing had moved much past the talk stage.

All that changed within days. What had been a nebulous overseas menace became a hometown catastrophe. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered. The economy struggled. And caught in the crosshairs of the crisis were the most fragile in Atlanta: the sick, the elderly, the poor, the homeless, the underserved.

Milton J. Little Jr., president of United Way of Greater Atlanta

Photo courtesy of United Way of Greater Atlanta

From that first split, though, in the first half of March, Atlanta’s philanthropic community coalesced with unprecedented focus and ferocity. Little worked the phones from his kitchen table. Philipp WhatsApp-ed back to Atlanta while walking her daughter’s vineyard, wrestling with a five-hour time difference. On March 17, the two organizations launched the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund which, in about a week after its formation, already had generated more than $17 million in donations from local corporations and deep-pocketed charitable foundations. By March 26, the first few grants already were out.

Barely two weeks had passed since the pandemic first hit home.

“That never happens in the world of philanthropy, right?” Philipp says. “There were so many [needs] that were so immediate. It wasn’t like it slowly built up. It happened, like, whammy. The response needed to be equally immediate.”

By early May, more than $25 million had been raised, and 320 local nonprofits—from more than 600 that applied—had directly benefited.

“I think the community responded both extraordinarily and unsurprisingly well,” Little says. “People recognized the severity of the impact this was likely to have and saw some real threats. Kids who needed to find a way to be able to continue their education when school went online. Families needing to be able to put food on the table. And to address the kinds of financial challenges that just came up like a kind of tidal wave and really risked sweeping people out to sea and being lost forever.”

Behemoths like the Atlanta Community Food Bank used a massive grant to support nearly 700 partner groups across metro Atlanta and North Georgia. Other, smaller nonprofits met more specific needs. A Latino group, Ser Familia, received a six-figure award to provide mental health counseling to its clients, in Spanish, and to supply food and emergency assistance. Ser Familia serves a lot of Latinos in hospitality and construction, areas which crumbled with the economy. Some couldn’t get aid from government agencies.

Grants were awarded to dozens of groups with unique needs, like the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, which provided halal meals to 500 seniors in East Atlanta; the Tahirih Justice Center, which supports immigrant survivors of gender-based violence; and Giving Kitchen, which represents hard-hit food-service workers.

Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, co-founder of Giving Kitchen

Photo by Ben Getz

“We saw more asks for help during the first week of COVID-19 than we saw in all of 2018,” Giving Kitchen co-founder Jen Hidinger-Kendrick says. “The fundamental services we provide helped keep a line cook from being evicted, allowed a server to pay for her mother’s funeral expenses, and kept the lights on for a bartender going through cancer treatment.”

At the same time, nonprofits used their own partnerships and fundraising skills to add to the influx of money. In a matter of weeks, more than 5,000 people—90 percent of them newcomers—donated to Giving Kitchen.

“I am an optimist by nature. I think that most people are good. Most people just want to help,” says Belisa Urbina, the founder and executive director of Ser Familia. “They just need to find a way to do it.”

For the Community Foundation and United Way, the crisis was a defining test. Staff and volunteers attacked it, cobbling together working solutions (Zooming from home, WhatsApp-ing from Portugal, streamlining the application process for grants), putting in back-breaking hours, and all the while concentrating on the neediest.

“We provided for large organizations early on, but in our open-application process, we decided it was important to support smaller organizations with smaller budgets,” Lita Pardi, the vice president for community for the Community Foundation and a key driver behind the fund, said in July. “In the end, out of all the organizations that we supported through the fund so far, 49 percent are agencies with budgets under $1 million.”

Ser Familia

Photo courtesy of Ser Familia

As remarkable as the response has been, the need remains even greater. Through June, more than 367,000 workers in the metro area had filed first-time unemployment claims, a stunning 3,700 percent rise from 2019. The loss of income has potentially devastating implications:

  • Without steady paychecks, living conditions for thousands across the metro area are imperiled.
  • Thousands more—maybe more than 1 million—struggle with hunger every day.
  • The education of hundreds of thousands of children was interrupted when schools closed; more than 344,000 area schoolkids, according to United Way, do not have access to the proper educational tools to learn while out of the classroom.
  • And the threat of COVID-19 remains, with the pressures it places on the physical and mental wellbeing of the area’s neediest.

Although the work is destined to continue for years—the pandemic has laid bare undeniably deep-rooted economic and social inequity in Atlanta—the city has shown in this crisis an admirable ability to rise to the call.

“I think it’s about the spirit of the people . . . who work at our institutions who believe really strongly in the power of community to come together when it’s really needed and have a commitment and dedication to working on behalf of others,” says Katrina Mitchell, United Way Atlanta’s chief community impact officer and another key player in the formation of the relief fund. “I think that’s, for me, truly powerful and uplifting.”

Here are a few of the hundreds of Atlanta organizations that have stepped up:

Housing

In early April, as the full force of the pandemic descended on Atlanta, Gov. Brian Kemp declared that all Georgians should shelter in place—a particular problem for the area’s thousands of homeless. Says United Way’s Little: “You can’t shelter in place on the street.”

Statistics vary, but on any given night in Atlanta, some 2,000 people are without any kind of shelter—they’re on the street—and some 7,000 are otherwise homeless throughout the metro area, according to Atlanta Mission. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s last Point-in-Time count found that almost 86 percent are Black.

Gateway Center, the venerable downtown institution which provides emergency shelter and critical services to the homeless—meals, showers, health checks, employment aid—immediately confronted the challenge that the virus posed. While other shelters closed to new residents as a precaution, and others, staffed largely by at-risk elderly volunteers, closed down entirely, Gateway remained open to serve its nearly 500 residents. The people at Gateway worked to educate the homeless population, in their Pryor Street facility and on the street, in preventing the spread of the virus. With the help of the City of Atlanta, Mercy Care, and many others, Gateway was among the organizations engaged in the first full-scale virus testing of the area’s homeless. Thousands of tests were done in 16 shelters early in April.

MercyCare

Photo courtesy of the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta

Gateway, with others, also partnered with two downtown hotels, largely unused as the pandemic spread. One was used for quarantining homeless persons who showed symptoms of infection or who tested positive. The other was for housing healthy but at-risk homeless.

“We didn’t have to have healthy folks and people who were symptomatic in the same facility. I think that particularly hurt some of the nursing homes,” says Raphael Holloway, the CEO of Gateway Center. “As a community, we really have come together well in being innovative in solutions. We’ve truly been able to manage the storm much better than we could have ever predicted.”

The rate of infection among Atlanta’s homeless population, which some feared could reach epidemic levels, was lower than 2 percent through the middle of summer. Other big cities saw their numbers run in the 30–40 percent range, Holloway says.

The surge of unemployment and loss of income sparked by the pandemic have threatened thousands of renters and homeowners with potential homelessness, too. A small nonprofit in Peoplestown, the Housing Justice League, organizes communities to defend their right to remain in their homes.

The League accepted a grant to launch a COVID-19 hotline, which assists residents with troublesome banks or landlords. It’s proven particularly important to those who can’t leave home to attend organizing meetings. The real value in the grant, though, may be highlighting the injustices that the Housing Justice League has been fighting for years.

“I must say that I am not always pleased with the way Atlanta understands the working class and poor people and how they value the residents in the city,” says Alison Johnson, the executive director of the HJL. “As we begin to see that more people that are not people of color are experiencing difficulties, I see a lot more people calling us and saying, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing, yada yada yada?’

“But that’s not where the power is. That’s not what’s going to help the people in Atlanta. What’s going to really help folks in Atlanta is policy and organizations like the Housing Justice League that believe in the value of people in the city.”

Food Security

On March 2, the week before the pandemic hit home, the Atlanta Community Food Bank moved into a huge new facility on North Desert Drive in East Point. It’s been doling out tons of food ever since.

“We’re very proud of how our team has responded to this crisis. We’ve grown our food distribution volumes by nearly 50 percent since the onset of the crisis, providing 25 million meals to people in need since March 16,” says Kyle Waide, the ACFB’s president and CEO. “We’re feeding more people more food more often than we ever have.”

The Food Bank provides weekly food distribution to five local school districts (Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County, DeKalb County, Clayton County, and Marietta City schools) at more than 20 sites. The students there are just some of an estimated 1 million people in the Food Bank’s 29-county service area that are unsure of where their next meal is coming from.

Others harshly affected by the pandemic have found help from the Food Bank, too. Local hotel workers directly impacted by a downturn in visitors were given 12,800 pounds of food—enough for 250 families—in a drive-up distribution.

Like all nonprofits, the Food Bank has had its challenges. Food donations dropped. Concerned with spreading the virus, the organization stopped using volunteers at its main facility. But a sizable grant from the United Way/Community Foundation fund helped restock the warehouse, and the Georgia National Guard took over for volunteers.

Several groups that don’t normally focus on food security issues suddenly were thrust into the role of food providers. And others familiar with feeding the hungry have seen a surge in requests.

“Last year, the whole year, we delivered, I think it was, about 514,000 meals,” Charlene Crusoe-Ingram, the CEO of Meals on Wheels Atlanta, said in late July. “This year already, we’re probably at 360 [thousand] or so. We’re projecting, if we keep on the pace we’re on, we might get very close to a million.”

Meals on Wheels, which supports low-income seniors and veterans, found new donors and used a strong volunteer base to come up with innovative ways to get meals to clients while keeping staff and volunteers safe. Drive-up Super Saturday events limit contact between the 100 or so volunteers who prepare personalized, boxed meals at the northwest Atlanta facility and those who deliver them. The group can turn some 12,000 meals out of the building and on their way to doorsteps in a little over an hour.

“We’ve always been concerned about generating donations for seniors. Nobody wants to be elderly and out of sight,” Crusoe-Ingram says. “But I’ve been so pleasantly amazed at the generosity in this city.”

Healthcare

The virus sickened more than 150,000 Georgians through the end of July and killed more than 3,400. More than a third of the grants from the United Way/Community Foundation fund were made to healthcare organizations. They responded in novel ways.

In three days, CHRIS 180, which provides school-based mental health services in 42 schools and counseling in seven spots in Fulton and DeKalb counties, switched to telehealth services to keep in touch with those who need help. “We are all living through a shared community trauma,” says Kathy Colbenson, the president and CEO of CHRIS 180, “and as a therapist and leader who specializes in understanding and recovering from trauma, I know that being able to act is critical to healing.”

The East Atlanta organization pivoted into other areas of service despite no previous experience. CHRIS 180—the acronym stands for Creativity, Honor, Respect, Integrity, and Safety—provided food service (more than 31,000 meals through late July) for the first time. Counselors did in-home well-checks. They provided Chromebooks and other educational tools for those clients who needed them for telehealth or schoolwork. They delivered medications and toys, too.

Sadie G. Mays Health and Rehabilitation Center

Photo by Casey McDaniel

Few organizations have felt the wrath of the virus more than nursing homes. The nonprofit Sadie G. Mays Health & Rehabilitation Center in West Atlanta houses elderly, low-income Atlantans, providing short-term rehab and long-term hospice and nursing care for its majority Black residents. Sadie G. Mays faced huge challenges.

“Staffing was the most severe thing. Some employees just quit, with no notice,” says Charles Robinson Jr., the president and CEO of Mays. “They were afraid, and they never came back.”

Through late July, 129 residents and 43 staff members tested positive for the virus. Among the success stories, though, were a 104-year-old resident who recovered and Teresa Brown, the facility’s interim director of health services. “I was quarantined at home with viral pneumonia for almost three weeks. Then, by the grace of God, I was able to come back to work,” Brown says.

“We had some help from the community, which we appreciated. The State of Georgia provided us with six registered nurses and sent the National Guard to help with testing and sanitizing our facility. We were also able to get periodic donations of PPE and other supplies from Fulton County. We sought out every type of foundation and public health grants available and were successful in securing several grants,” Robinson says. “Even so, it’s been very difficult to carry on our work.”

Education

When area schools began to close, educators sprung to action. The move to learning over the internet was a given. But what about those students without the tools to jump online?

Inspiredu, formerly known as PowerMyLearning, provides needy students in low-income areas with laptops, Wi-Fi, and other materials to get them learning online. They’ve handed out nearly 13,000 devices since 2007. When schools closed in March, they fielded requests from several schools for almost 5,000 students. By mid-July, they had provided 1,400 refurbished laptops and other devices, supplying technical support out of their warehouse in northwest Atlanta.

Inspiredu

Photo by Sharon B. Dowdell

“It feels like we have been preparing for a time like this for 13 years,” says Oneisha Freeman, the director of partnerships and programs for Inspiredu, “and although there is still much more work to be done, we’re very fortunate to have the support of the philanthropic community, board members, and individuals in the tech and corporate community who really get the technology access challenge with the willingness to be there and plug in where we need to the most.”

Other educational hurdles had to be cleared to keep students on track, too. What about educators unfamiliar with teaching online? What about parents forced into the role of teacher? How are each of those groups supposed to know what to do?

GPB Education, a division of Georgia Public Broadcasting, partnered with the Georgia Department of Education and launched Georgia Home Classroom, an online resource filled with learning tools across all subjects and grade levels.

“GPB Education has been, and is, a thriving entity. Just this last year, there were close to 11.5 million downloads from GPB Education,” says Teya Ryan, president and CEO of Georgia Public Broadcasting. “That’s pretty astonishing. Sometimes we can barely keep up. Certainly those numbers rose exponentially during April and May.” The content online has 3.2 million page views already this year, up 104 percent from last year, according to GPB figures.

The GPB team also wiped out preschool programming during the day and replaced it with around 10 hours of general educational programming on television. “Which, may I remind you, is free,” Ryan says.

GPB Education conducted its first virtual workshop on online learning on March 17 and held 91 more sessions over the next three months, reaching 2,816 educators and families. That’s in addition to in-person courses that show potential educators all that GPB offers.

In effect, GPB taught teachers—professional and novice—how to teach in the age of the pandemic. And it came about, as it did with hundreds of other nonprofits, largely because of the generosity of others.

“I think our beloved city has been challenged like every other city in America,” Ryan says. “Let’s give our city and our state great credit. This is an amazing philanthropic community. I think the city has really risen to the philanthropic call, and it did so immediately.”


 

How other Atlanta nonprofits have weathered the storm:

  • C4 Atlanta began a fund for out-of-work artists and moved training courses online as the pandemic hit. The group also stopped charging rent to tenants in the Fuse Arts Center. Artists helped to deliver food, masks, and other supplies to the needy. “They amaze me,” says C4’s Jessyca Holland. “Artists amaze me.”
  • Zeroing in on long-time donors after the loss of a major fundraiser and opening a new store to create more revenue has kept the heroes at Furkids humming. Adoptions are soaring. “I’m so happy,” founder Samantha Shelton says, “that people realize what a great time it was—is—to bring a pet into their lives.”
  • Piedmont Park has proven essential to Atlanta during the pandemic, but operating a 200-plus acre park without the funds typically generated from program and venue rentals hasn’t been easy. Thankfully, donors and volunteers have stepped in to fill that void. “From picking up trash, mulching, and pruning to making financial contributions, donors and volunteers are the reason people still want to find respite in Piedmont Park every day,” says Piedmont Park Conservancy’s Mark Banta.

When Hollywood needs fake cash, it turns to Atlanta’s RJ Rappaport

RJ Rappaport Hollywood moneySqueezed into the recesses of a windowless room in a warehouse in west Atlanta, two laundry carts overflow with thousands and thousands of $100 bills. A fairly realistic arsenal of guns is strewn about, too, among a few bricks of “cocaine,” a block of “heroin,” and a bag or three of “pot.” Lording over the illicit-looking bounty is a skinny, bearded Orthodox Jew from Connecticut: a quick-hugging, high-fiving dealmaker in faded Wranglers and beat-up New Balances. He is Rich “RJ” Rappaport, Atlanta’s premiere proprietor of fake money. Which, here in the Hollywood of the South, makes him one of the good guys.

Cheap fakes
Rappaport owns RJR Props, a supplier to Atlanta’s movie, TV, and music industries. If you need to make it rain in a music video or want hundreds of $100s for that drug-deal scene, RJ’s the man to see. His money is as close to real as it gets. And, starting at $45 for a stack of 100 bills, it’s a lot cheaper, too.

G-Men approved
Rappaport works closely with the Secret Service to keep his faux cash on the up and up. That keeps his clients safe, too. When the feds were called to a shoot of the Netflix series Ozark at Lake Allatoona because the studio wanted to make sure the money was legal, they quickly okayed a scene filled with “millions” of RJ’s funny money. They know his fake money is legit.

Real enough
The best fake cash, the stuff that looks most like real money in a closeup, is printed on only one side to keep from running afoul of the law. Shot from above or fanning through a stack, it works. The colors, size, and fonts have been meticulously designed to make it look real—but not too real.

The fine print
RJR’s standard-grade money is printed on both sides, so when the cash is, say, being tossed at an exotic dancer, it looks authentic. Close up, if the camera were to linger, your average Walmart cashier wouldn’t buy it. The wording next to Ben Franklin on that version of an RJR $100: “FOR MOTION PICTURE USE ONLY.”

Buy in bulk
RJR sells all sorts of denominations, either fresh off the press or looking like they’ve been through a drug war. Filmmakers can order older money or the newer, supposedly anti-counterfeit bills (circa 2013). All of it is genuine enough for Hollywood purposes, and the bigger the order, the bigger the break on the per-stack price.

Shop around
Rappaport counts some 30,000 props—as small as cop badges, as big as airplanes—spread over nearly 100,000 square feet in two warehouses, all scrounged from dozens of projects in Atlanta and beyond. He and his staff design and make props, too. Need a bomb or a scary-looking laser? “As real as anything in Hollywood,” he promises.

This article appears in our August 2018 issue.

Saying goodbye to Crash, the Greatest Dog Who Ever Lived

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Crash
Illustration by Paul Blow

I didn’t want a new dog. Then my wife Mary Jo brought home Crash.

He was tiny. “Dinky,” we called him. He had a cropped tail that shimmied like a little fur-covered metronome when he was happy, which was often. His default position was one ear up, one ear down. He had a bark that was from something three times his size.

Crash was the tug-o-war champion of the block. When he was maybe four, my son, Luke, had a pillow shaped like Winnie the Pooh, and he’d lie on it while Crash—10, 12 pounds at the time—pulled him across the floor. Once the baby brother of one of Luke’s friends came over. He grabbed one of the millions of rubber balls we had lying around, and Crash dragged him across the floor by that little rubber ball, with the kid giggling all the way.

Crash could sit like a champion and rise up on his back legs to beg, speak when commanded, and roll over like he was born to do it. When we yelled “come,” though, he sometimes had a little problem. “Off,” usually reserved for one chair in particular, was performed only with hesitation and a nearly audible sigh. But those were easily overlooked.

Oftentimes, Mary Jo would hug Crash—he allowed it in the early years and became pretty fond of it later on—and whisper to him: “Remember,” she’d say, nodding my way, “Daddy didn’t even want you.” Truth be told, though, I was hooked the moment we carried him through the door.

Crash was there for Luke’s first day of preschool, for his walk down to the bus stop in first grade. He was there when Luke was sick—often right next to him in bed. He was there the day Luke took a baseball bat to the forehead. (I wasn’t.)

Every morning, when Mary Jo woke up Luke for school, she brought Crash in with her. He’d jump up on Luke’s bed, or Mary Jo would toss him up there, and that’s how Luke got up. Every morning.

When Luke had a bad day, he’d come home, lie on the floor, and Crash would crawl on top of him. If Luke would drop facedown, Crash would climb onto his back.

Just about every night when Mary Jo settled in to watch TV, Crash would crawl into her lap or next to her in a chair, put his chin down, and settle in, too. And every night when we’d go to bed, he’d be there in his bed under the window, with his pink blankie, curled into a ball.

Every once in a while, he’d want to get up into bed with us, and every once in a while, we’d let him. I’d turn onto my back, and invariably he’d burrow down between my knees. It was, in truth, more than every once in a while.

To say he was part of the family is, of course, painfully cliche. But what do you call someone who lives with you every day for years and years, who sleeps in your bed, who eats in your kitchen, who is the de facto baby brother to your only child, who watches every episode of Friends or Seinfeld with you? Or at least sleeps through them?

Crash was always much more game for play than he actually was healthy for it. Early in his life, after we saw him limping around the backyard a little too often, he had to have a ligament in his knee fixed. It didn’t completely do the job. We had to watch how much he ran, or he’d start hobbling. He was still faster than all get out. When we moved to our house in Alpharetta, I’d take a tennis ball, toss it high in the air, and bounce it off the deck. Crash loved chasing it down, sore or not. I still had to wrestle with him to get it back.

Crash
Photograph courtesy of John Donovan

Not long ago, we discovered that Crash had gone mostly deaf. Things (including our new dog, Brodie) could sneak up on him. He didn’t come running when the security beeps signaled a door opening. He still would recognize the vibration from the garage door opening, which meant someone was coming home. But thunderstorms, a former bugaboo of his, started passing mostly without notice.

For as long as I can remember, we had to watch what he ate, too. He was diagnosed years ago with irritable bowel syndrome, which meant special foods and, I’m sure, not as much food as he’d like. Then in the past year or so, it became worse. We had to start trying all sorts of different foods, supplemented with medicine. He wasn’t putting on any weight. But he was still, every pound of him, a fighter.

Then in February, Crash’s health problems got worse. He couldn’t keep any food in his system. Mary Jo often caught him standing in the middle of the room, gazing off at nothing.

We visited our veterinarian at the Hollyberry Animal Hospital in Roswell in early April and faced the question that no pet owner wants to face. We—the vet, Mary Jo, and I—decided to try him on a couple of new drugs (steroids, some stomach-coating stuff, and whatnot) and revisit The Question after we returned from a trip to Texas.

But when we came back a few days later and picked up poor, skinny Crashie from our dear friends’ house, he seemed no better. Mary Jo called the vet on Friday, and they talked. He told her that if Crash was still having trouble with all the drugs in his system, his situation was dire. It was time to seriously think about letting him go.

We talked. We weighed the idea of giving him more drugs and maybe another few days of pharmacological relief. We wondered if we were being selfish. We hugged him. A lot. He let us.
We decided.

It is strange, I think, to call this humane. But I think that’s exactly what it is. As Mary Jo and I talked through our decision, we thought of Luke. We thought of us. But most of all, we thought of Crash, leading a life in which he clearly felt more miserable every day. A life in which he couldn’t eat, couldn’t play, couldn’t even sleep without some amount of discomfort. It was, as near as we could tell, agonizing for him. And for us, too.

So Mary Jo and I took the Greatest Dog Who Ever Lived back to the vet clinic on Friday afternoon. I drove. Mary Jo cried and hugged.

We sat in a little room while Mary Jo covered Crash with kisses and told him, with as much of a smile as she could muster, “Remember, Daddy didn’t even want you.” I looked into his eyes and told him something different. I told him, several times, out loud, that he was a good boy. I understated it.

The vet gave him a quick shot of sedative, then left the room. We hugged Crash some more. Mary Jo cried. And then Crash, just short of 13 years old, let out a sigh—we felt it was a great sigh of relief—and drifted into a sleep. Mary Jo held him tighter.

At 4:42 p.m. on April 10, we laid Crash—Luke’s little brother, Brodie’s older brother, our boy, a family member, dammit, in every sense of the word—onto the table in that little room at the Hollyberry Animal Hospital. He was wrapped in his pink blankie.

I have told Brodie more than a few times over the past several weeks that he has some big shoes to fill. That he will never be the Greatest Dog Who Ever Lived. That he is no Crash, and he never can be.

And, of course, he can’t. But Brodie—a goofy, gangly border collie who lives to please Mary Jo, who loves to gnaw on Luke’s fingers and wrestle with me—will be a good dog as Luke enters his senior year of high school, as he leaves for college in little more than a year, and as Mary Jo and I move on to whatever we do next.

While I’m writing this, Brodie sits at my feet in my office. Outside, the sun is shining through the April pollen. The grass is greening up. And there in the middle of the backyard—I can see it through my window—sits a lone tennis ball.

I think it’s time to teach Brodie to fetch.

This article originally appeared in our August 2015 issue.

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