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Remembering Marilyn Benis

Marilyn Mercia Benis passed away unexpectedly the morning of November 27, 2019 at the young age of 66, a heartbreaking loss beyond words.

Marilyn was born on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1953 in Columbus, Ohio, but she will always be remembered as the true Vermonter she was. Barbara and Leonard Mercia raised Marilyn with her three siblings, Jackie, Bill, and Kathie, in a colonial farmhouse in Williston, Vermont. A quiet, nature-loving young girl with ringlets in her hair, Marilyn led day-long adventures exploring nature in the hills beyond their property limits, picking raspberries for her mother’s famous pies, and organizing games with her siblings and neighbors.

Marilyn flourished as a student at Champlain Valley Union High School where she met her best friends Suzanne Durrell and Laura Benis. They rode horses and made plans to live off the land as adults, building a cabin in the woods without running water or electricity. Through Laura, Marilyn met and fell in love with Henry Benis. They married in 1972 and thus began their 47-year partnership, raising four children, Leah, Jason, Sarah, and Carrie.

Marilyn and Henry’s children grew up in a magical world, filled with a menagerie of animals, garden-grown vegetables, home-cooked meals, and ample space to create, imagine, and play. Marilyn was a fierce advocate for her children; any obstacle could be surpassed to fulfill the dreams of each of her children. She intentionally encouraged and guided each of her children to find and pursue their own passions in life, emphasizing the ultimate goal of leading happy and fulfilled lives.

Marilyn began working toward her teaching degree at UVM, but with the birth of Leah and Jason, she experienced a power and joy of caring for others. While being the primary caretaker for four young children and keeping the books for Henry’s business, she also started and completed her associates degree to become a registered nurse. She began her 37-year career at the UVM Medical Center, working first as a float nurse in 1982, then moving to Newborn Nursery, and then the NICU beginning in 1988.

Those around her always admired Marilyn for her trailblazing nature and scholarly abilities; in 1992, she was awarded the opportunity to attend Georgetown University to earn her Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP) license. Upon graduation in 1993, she launched the NNP team at the hospital that eventually grew to become a service that continues to support and deliver quality care to families. Marilyn continued her neonatal studies through a masters degree at Northeastern University. Through her service and dedication, she impacted countless lives by launching the NICU Transport Team, developing manuals for care for patients, publishing research studies, coordinating countless conferences in her field, and leading professional learning for her co-workers. Marilyn’s example of daily courage and compassion set the standard of care in the NICU, from saving lives to counseling grieving families to mentoring her colleagues.

As Marilyn’s career expanded, so did her family with the birth of her first two grandchildren. To Eva and Bella, Marilyn became their Mimi. She cherished her time with the girls and never wavered in her support of her eldest daughter Leah through both pregnancies. Solomon and Eli, Mimi’s first two grandsons, joined the girls in their love of spending time in Mimi’s garden, picking berries and enjoying the daily garden tours. Mimi was present to welcome her third grandson Simon into the family in 2018.

After the loss of her mother in 1985, Marilyn became the force that held the family together, hosting and organizing family gatherings and reunions. She baked and hand-delivered thousands of raspberry pies over her lifetime, bringing warmth and sweetness to those in her life. An avid storyteller and frequent embellisher, Marilyn took joy in hosting gatherings around her and Henry’s famous ring of fire for the Hill People Tribe, family members, and anyone lucky enough to receive an invitation.

Marilyn’s most recent passion was her love of cruising the open seas with her co-pilot Henry. Traveling the world on over 20 cruises, Marilyn developed an expertise that earned her near celebrity status as “VTCruiser.” With nearly 9,000 posts on the Celebrity Cruise Critic Forum, Marilyn followed the launch of new ships, answered questions, organized new excursions, and “virtually” befriended countless individuals who sought out her in-depth knowledge and advice. As one fellow cruiser posted, VTCruiser was “curious, generous, intelligent, witty, and blessed with a wonderful sense of humor.”

We knew you as Marilyn, Ma, Mimi, and as we are pulling things together we are only beginning to understand the scope of our loss and the countless people’s lives you have touched. We know you will always be thinking of us, worrying, laughing, and working, but please know you have built a strong family and community. Be reassured that you have done what you need to do for us to carry on your legacy. You may rest in peace.

Marilyn leaves behind her husband, Henry Gordon Benis, Jr. of Hinesburg, daughter Leah Joly (John) and granddaughters Eva and Bella of Essex Junction, son Jason Benis (Sarah) of Essex Junction, daughter Sarah Benis Scheier-Dolberg (Joe) and grandson Solomon of New York City, daughter Carrie Benis (Bereket) and grandsons Elias and Simon of Watertown, MA.

She also leaves her father Leonard S. Mercia (Shirley), sister Jackie Owen (Gordie), brother Bill Mercia (Susan), sister Kathie Mercia, sister-in-law Liz Waterhouse (Brent), and sister-in-law Laura Benis (Pat) as well as many nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and countless close friends. 

Marilyn was predeceased by her mother Barbara Martin Mercia, her father-in-law Henry Benis, mother-in-law Catherine Benis, brother-in-law David Kuusela, and sister-in-law Joanne Benis.

The family is hosting visiting hours on Sunday, December 8, 2019 at the Catamount Country Club, 1400 Mountain View Road, Williston, Vermont from 2-4 pm.

A Ring of Fire Celebration of Marilyn’s life will be held in the spring of 2020.

In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in Marilyn’s name to the Hinesburg Food Shelf.

Please visit Marilyn’s online memorial.

Learning to Breath

I have been working for the better part of a quarter century to learn to meditate.

I came to a curiosity about Zen Buddhism while in high school as I had the opportunity to travel to Japan one summer, and though I had never really left my rural upbringing in Vermont, I entered a Buddhist temple for the first time during that summer and found a sense of peace and feeling of being truly at home I had not yet experienced.

I have this memory rooted in my hippocampus after returning home to Vermont and picking up a book that gave instruction on meditation in the Buddhist tradition.

In this memory, I can still hear the rain falling as I sit in my Ford Granada stuck off the side of a dirt road between Hinesburg and Charlotte, Vermont. Unable to drive any further because of downed trees and washed out roads. While I waited for a rescue, I decided that now of all moments would be the best time to try meditating.

I found myself alone doing nothing curious about Zen and with a book about Buddhist practice in my backpack. I opened the book and began to reread a passage on meditation. I sat. I tried a chant. I worked on an open posture. I crossed my legs. I began to breath.

I was puzzled. I did not understand how to breath in this way.

That memory sits with me now 25 years later as I have come to finally understand what clarity feels like when you sit breath listen.

Many experiences in that time have added guidance and purpose to that earnest kernel of curiosity and drive that came with my first visit to Japan. What has allowed me today to actually find a consistent practice with breath and meditation is an app. I use it on my iPad and my android devices. Insight Timer.

There is a beautiful intro course on the app that is open to all learners. I also find deep commitment and connection to a daily meditation course for mothers. I found the app through a course listing free for teens to learn to manage stress and emotions through meditation.

I was compelled to pen this post because as fundamental as breathing is to life, it is hard to learn to breath with confidence, calm, and insight. I am hopeful that sharing a sense of struggle and purpose will light the way for others to explore opportunities for sitting in stillness and learning to breath.

EQ Café: Anxiety

Anxiety in the world is growing and it’s affecting youth and adults. But what IS anxiety? Since it’s a feeling, how can we use emotional intelligence to understand and work with it?

Join this interactive, powerful “EQ Café” to practice emotional intelligence together, and explore answers to these important questions about anxiety. EQ Cafés are insightful, fun sessions for people curious about emotional intelligence to connect and learn together. 

In this Café we will discover:

  • What “anxiety” is and isn’t 
  • Current data about anxiety, it’s causes and effects
  • How emotions, and emotional intelligence, helps us work with this challenging feeling

Who: Anyone interested in learning about and practicing emotional intelligence – the learnable, measurable, scientifically validated skillset we all need to thrive.

What: Free interactive workshop

Where: The Dream Center
205 West 119th Street
New York, NY 10026

When: Tuesday, June 4, 2019 (6-8 pm EST)

How: Save your space by Registering

Questions: Please email Six Seconds’ Network Leader, 
Sarah Benis Scheier-Dolberg <sarahbsd@gmail.com>

How can I Keep My Child Safe at School? Relationships.

Recently a child who I care about shared that a friend had threatened him at school, saying he would violently kill him and his family in real life and then also harm him online as well. Both boys, aggressor and victim, are 6 years old. They are friends in the same classroom, and the incident happened at school.

As a parent how, I imagine the worst possible context for this bullying report. A child who is literally afraid for his life all day, too afraid to tell his teacher or anyone else what happened. As a parent I am relieved that the boy found an adult at the end of the day to confide in and who could help him feel safe and help him eventually reconnect to his friend who thought the boy knew he was only joking.

How do I keep my child safe?

This is what we ask constantly as parents. It is a paradoxical question. Every morning I confront the limits of my own agency as a parent. I say good bye to my child at the apartment door or in the school hallway as his teacher walks his class upstairs to their room, and I hope and trust that we will come back home at the end of the day.

Over time we have become a more anxious society. Bullying, shelter in place drills, and active shooter scenarios are all common place in schools now. And, we do have options about how to both navigate our own anxiety and keep our children safe while they are at school. We can teach our children to develop and use their relationships to keep them safe at school.

I cannot reliably predict what will happen to my son when he is at school, but I do know that one of the greatest resources I can give him is a deep network of trusting relationships. Some children relate to others more easily than others. My son is one of those children who relates easily to others and makes himself known in any community he joins. That, more than anything, keeps him safe. He is on the radar of many adults in the building, and he knows he can trust multiple adults at school to keep him safe.

What also keeps him safe is knowing what to do when he finds himself in harm’s way – suffering the aggressive behaviors of other children, being bullied by a group of kids, watching a friend harmed physically on the playground, or being alone with older kids who can threaten or harm him easily without adults immediately nearby – these are all common place circumstances for children. As parents, we cannot eliminate these dangers for our children; however, knowing how to navigate them is something we can consciously teach our children.

We can ask questions and guide our children to find answers that will keep them safe, even in our absence. These may be questions you use proactively when your child goes into a new community, reactively when you respond to an incident, or as a regular check-in to assess how healthy the school context is for your child.

Who are the top three adults you trust at school?

Make sure your child has multiple people they can go to when they do not feel safe. This could be the nurse, current or past year’s teacher, afterschool staff, cafeteria staff, guidance counselor, music teacher, crossing guard, or an adult in any professional role at the school.

What can you do if you see a friend getting hurt or bullied?

Help your child to identify multiple “right” things to do. See if they can think of a time when a classmate or friend was bullied at school. Ask them to think about what kind of thing did that friend need to feel safe. Help them consider a range of options that others could do to help: tell an adult, invite the friend to play with you, tell the aggressor(s) to stop or get an older friend to do so, check in with the friend after the incident, look out for the friend tomorrow – offer to play together, etc. It can be helpful for a child to focus on a recent incident they observed to generate ideas for how kids can help to safely interrupt bullying during or after an incident. After that kind of conversation, your child may find it easier to then think about what they would do themselves if they were being bullied or harmed by another child or group of children.

Do you feel safe at school? Where are the safest places at school? Where are the dangerous places at school?

Your child may not have the opportunity to share the answers to these questions unless you ask. It can be helpful to identify problem areas by asking about where your child feels safe and unsafe in the building. You may also ask where are kids in the class most likely to get in trouble or bullied as some children do not see their environments as unsafe, especially of bullying and physical aggression have been normalized in the school culture.

Helping our children to consciously choose and strengthen healthy relationships with trustworthy adults is something active we can do as parents in response to the anxiety we feel about how common place bullying, physical aggression, and harm are in our world and in our schools.

Inclusivity and Equity Resources – Set 1

Family and community resources for supporting public schools to engage in equity, inclusion, and anti-bias initiatives.

What equity framework might you/your group choose to operate from? – link to Equity Frameworks (Hammond, 2017)

Consider using comprehensive resource sets from organizations like:

The Equity Project Resources Link

Engaging families and community members in a school walk through with a focus on culturally, responsive teaching, school climate, and/or inclusion can be an eye-opening experience to launch an equity initiative in a school and then return to monitor progress toward school-wide goals. A few examples of these walk through tools are linked below.

Teaching Tolerance has been a foundational organization for school communities to engage in deep equity and anti-bias education. See a few highlights of their free online resources below.

One final idea – make it real with stories and short articles. One examples linked below.

How should we sing Happy Birthday? from Rethinking Schools

From Rethinking Schools – Photo Credit Olivia Wise

Anger and Advocacy

We have the opportunity to tap into the wisdom of our feelings.

When I feel angry, I have the opportunity to pay attention to what the feeling might be telling me.

What am I angry about? What important pathway is blocked? What closely held values are being violated or ignored? What conditions need to be changed? What danger do I sense and want to protect myself or others from in this situation?

I have learned over the past year to breath deeply, to pull back my shoulder blades and open up to a more relaxed posture when I sense that anger is present in my body, mind, and heart. My mouth may feel dry, my pulse quickening , and a feeling of heat or general agitation suddenly appear in my body. I am learning to condition my body to respond to anger with curiosity and openness so that I might learn more about the source of this very powerful feeling.

More often than not, the source of my anger is institutional, but it manifests in individual professionals and parents in city schools. I am often angry about the condition of schools, the mindset of adults who see children and families as less than, the insidious nature of privilege and our inability to see and value others who have radically different views and experiences from our own.

I am curious about how we can learn ways to see our anger as productive to justice-centered endeavors. A few starting points are linked below.

Buddhist Peace Fellowship U Mad? Wisdom for Rageful Times

Six Seconds Anger Archives

Blog header image from Getty Images

Emotional Wellness In Schools

Emotions drive our actions, and developing our capacity to make space for exploring our own emotionscapes gives us greater agency in directing our energies in purposeful pursuit of our goals. Becoming smarter with feelings (EQ – emotional intelligence) is a pursuit I have recently devoted a significant amount of energy to both professionally and personally.

I have found increasingly in my work that many schools in America have normalized an enormous amount of toxic stress into the culture of teaching and learning for children and adults alike. The effect takes a toll on school administrators, educators, children, and parents in ways that change the development and functioning of our individual and collective brains, severely impacting opportunities for student learning.

Image from: https://developingchild.harvard.edu

What is also true is about stress in schools is that it can unlock new capacities in both children and adults, depending on their access to knowledge coming from recently established fields such as neuroeducation.

Are you a school administrator or district administrator? Spend 25 minutes in your next meeting with administrators or educators watching and discussing this video:

How to make stress your friend | Kelly McGonigal

McGonigal’s talk alerts us the opportunities that the neurohormone oxytocin releases in us – it stimulates us to reach out to others to whom we feel positively related during times of stress. Research suggests that our bodies are hard-wired to seek out those whom we trust and that responding with empathy and caring to others builds resiliency and may be positively related to many positive health outcomes.

My work in schools and my review of recent research confirms for me that learning the science of empathy, resiliency, and stress is indeed where we need to direct our energy. Attending to emotional wellness in schools is a critical next step for administrators, educators, and parents to take together.

For more resources related to emotional wellness in schools, please visit the Social Emotional Learning Resource Board linked below.

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