Baklava. This mouth-watering Greek treat is sweet and loved by many. But to Heather and Lauren James, baklava has an incredibly important significance – a perfect match. And that perfect match is arguably more sweet than the honey-soaked pastry!

By August 2015, Heather James had been through more than most teenage girls. A year earlier, her existing medical conditions worsened until she required desperate measures. And in November 2014, Heather received a double lung and liver transplant to improve her health.

At this stage in her life, Heather’s poor body was extremely sick and worn out. It was quite wonderful when she received the literal gift of life of these organ transplants. Her wonderful family, including her loving mom Lauren, stayed by her side, relocating from their home in Mechanicsville to Durham, North Carolina, where Heather had her surgery.

But life is complicated, and so was Heather’s medical recovery. After her surgery, her kidneys weren’t working. She went on dialysis a couple of days after the lung/liver transplant with the hopes that her kidneys would start working again. At the nine-month mark, however, Heather and her family were told that their functionality would not come back. They started looking into getting a kidney transplant. “It was a physically and emotionally tiring time,” Heather shared.

By the end of July 2015, Heather and her family started searching for donors. Lauren, Heather’s father Mark, and Heather’s brother Mark, all volunteered to donate a kidney to Heather. Initially though, Lauren had some concerns.

“I wondered if I were too old to donate. Turns out that’s a common misconception,” Lauren shared. To the family’s relief, they learned that there is no age limit to donating an organ. “We found a wonderful doctor we respected and liked, and he gave Lauren the green light to start the testing process.

In August 2015, Lauren’s phone rang. She and Heather were on pins and needles until Lauren excitedly learned she was a perfect match for Heather! Later that same day, the mother-daughter duo decided to go out to lunch and splurge with some celebratory baklava! Opa!

There were still some obstacles to face. Due to medical concerns, it was a long two years before Heather was ready. But in December 2017, Heather received Lauren’s kidney. No more dialysis!

And Lauren and Heather, who are even closer than most mothers and daughters, continue to celebrate life every day. “You learn not to worry about the small things. They don’t matter.” Together they volunteer time at the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, the nonprofit that makes stories like this one possible by matching donors with organ recipients. Along with Mark and Mark, even after experiencing some heartbreaking and scary times, Lauren and Heather truly know how sweet life is.

Checkpoint One

Community

As soon as you step foot on the grounds at Checkpoint One, you’re welcomed into this incredible team with a joke, a warm welcome, and a hot cup of coffee. On the day we met with Andy Kaufmann and Kristen Fitzgerald, they made us feel at ease. And that’s the point.

Andy, Kristin, and Mary Margaret Signorelli established Checkpoint One as a safe space for military veterans and first responders, including firefighters, police, emergency room personnel, and other who deal with extreme stress on a daily basis and need to decompress. Ironically, these people who work hard to take care of everyone else in our community are some of the worst when it comes to taking care of themselves.

Andy knows this first-hand. A retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served for more than twenty years, he experienced devastating stress that impacted his family, friends, and co-workers. Through his experience with his own stress, he encountered equine experience related to trauma and also yoga. He found both extremely helpful. After he retired in 2009, Andy accepted his next mission, to help other vets and personnel under extreme duress to change their lives through working with and healing through horses, yoga, and other activities. Andy became a Certified Equine Specialist and on the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) Military Task Force.

Andy met and joined forces with Kristin, a professional horsewoman. Not only has Kristin grown up with and loved horses for most of her life, she is also married to a former United States Marine. She is trained as a Certified EAGALA Equine Specialist and is additionally trained and qualified in E3A (Equine Experiential Education). When Kristin and Andy co-founded Checkpoint One in 2013 they brought Mary Margaret onto the team as she is an Equine Assisted Mental Health Professional.
When you arrive at Checkpoint One, you are greeted by a number of horses, ponies, and donkeys and a couple of cats, too. The Checkpoint One team lead the veterans and first responders to interact with the animals but they allow them to do so on their own terms. All of the interaction is done with people and animals on the ground, as no one gets on horseback. Andy, Kristin and Mary Margaret are just there to provide safety and some gentle guidance. In fact, there’s nothing the vets and first responders are required to do. They can come to Checkpoint One and never even touch a horse. If they do choose to interact with the horses, they often project their own issues into these interactions. This enables the participants to not only choose their activities, but also choose what they call the animals. The Checkpoint One team intentionally does not share the gender or the names of the animals with the participants. Why? Well, if they told the participants the horses’ names, it’s entirely possible that one of those names could be a trigger or remind a participant of somebody with the same name about whom they have a negative association. To avoid that, Andy, Kristin, and Mary Margaret allow the participants to call the animals whatever they want.
Why is working with horses such a powerful experience? Kristin and Andy explained that people and horses can recognize if someone or some animal doesn’t have an authentic connection. There is no “fake it” until you make it in the horse world. They pick up on energy. Andy told a story about how he had an encounter with a horse along with other veterans. All of them had mirrored sunglasses on and their arms were crossed. The humans had body language that was sending a pretty negative vibe. A horse that was there with them walked up to the men and kind of smacked at them with his nose playfully. He was saying, in horse language, “Open up, guys!”
Kristin said, “While office therapy has its advantages, there’s just something about being in nature that really can open up a lot of these folks.”

While serving the vets and first responders is their main mission, the team provides corporate and other organizational learning and growth opportunities. Trust-building and communication are some of the lessons that these company groups gain from their experiences at Checkpoint One.

In addition, Andy and Kristin are both yoga instructors. They have what they call their Yoga Barn, which is a pretty darn cool area. It’s a space where they can do yoga and help the veterans and first responders to relax, stretch out, and do the yoga exercises.
This is a team that’s always thinking about their next big steps. Currently the Checkpoint One team leases the farm but what they’d really like to do is purchase it. Eventually they will be raising money so they can make this dream happen. They are creating a labyrinth in one of the fields that will be so large that they’ll be able to take wheelchairs and people on horseback on its path. It’ll be the biggest labyrinth on the East Coast once they have completed it. They also want to expand and do more programs.
Checkpoint One got its name because many military people will describe the first step for a mission as “Checkpoint one.” Andy and Kristin adopted this term since this amazing non-profit is the place where many vets and first responders get started taking better care of themselves. It’s a fitting title because this is a team that doesn’t stray away from tough talk or tough topics with each other or with their participants. They speak authentically and transparently, and they also are very supportive of one another. Making veterans and first responders and workplace teams feel incredibly safe and like they want to take this first step towards a healthier life is an important task. It’s a pretty awesome group and RBI is incredibly glad to support their mission.

Polished and stylish when preparing for a board meeting, Ariel McGuire looks cool and professional. But stick around and watch her when she is doing her side hustle and you might be surprised. This 20-something year old has a few tattoos that you can see when she is in the ring….she’s a Muay Thai martial arts fighter!  When she’s not in full-contact combat, this amazing young lady is involved in a much different type of fight. She’s battling for the lives of girls and women in a country over 5,000 miles away from home.

Born and raised in Virginia, Ariel graduated from university in 2014 with a degree in Religious Studies. In 2012, she traveled to Ghana to study. While there, this adventurous lady traveled through West and East Africa. Ariel lived and traveled in Southeast Asia from 2015-2016. While living in Thailand, she loved the culture.

“There were lots of markets and shops. I lived in the mountains,” Ariel said. “The people there are beautiful.”

Ariel was teaching English, but she was seeking out people to teach her the art of Muay Thai.

“I was on a mission and I asked everyone how to start Muay Thai lessons. No one could help until a friend introduced me to someone who was practicing.” Ariel was soon hooked.

She was also still passionate about helping people in other countries. In the summer of 2017, Ariel returned to work in Ghana.

Ariel said, “Through Global Leadership Adventures, I partners with [fellow co-founder] Fafa Nukunu. We created a new program together.”

On The Mother’s Heritage International (MHI) website, Ariel is described this way: “As a very curious, vivacious, and strong-willed young woman, her experiences over time have evoked a fervent belief and passion for education and empowerment of women. After seeing and experiencing first-hand the type of change that needs to happen in Ghana, paired with the ability to create it within reach, she jumped on the opportunity to create MHI with Fafa Nukunu.”

Lake Volta, Ghana, is plagued by child slavery. In the Lake Volta region, around one in three children are engaged in child labor. Ariel said, “When I arrived, I saw the homes for child slaves were only for the boys. I asked, ‘Why not girls, too?’

Ariel and Fafa worked together to make a home a reality for the girls, too. They founded MHI to be an agent of social change and refuge for at-risk girls in Ghana. They provide rescue and refuge for young female slaves, teach women self-sustainable vocational skills, support educational and medical missions, and offer community education outreach. The entire idea behind their organization is to provide a safe, healthy environment for growth and education for girls who seek refuge from harmful labor practices and treatment on Lake Volta. All of Ariel and Fafa’s social initiatives are efforts that work together to stop the cycle of forced child labor and create positive change for women in Ghana.

“My main takeaway is knowing we are making a difference,” Ariel stated. With the establishment of MHI in 2018, they have just gotten started.

“My vision for 2019 is to raise money to purchase land for a new home for the girls.” Ariel said the best way to contribute to MHI is to donate money so she and Fafa can purchase the land and the building materials they need for the new building. 

Another way Ariel is raising money for MHI is through her passion for Muay Thai. Ariel currently competes in Muay Thai tournaments in Virginia. Here at RBI, someone who is associated with insurance had one of his unfiltered ADHD thoughts and suggested to Ariel to have a fight card to benefit her nonprofit.  She thought this was a great idea!  Ariel’s fight to raise money for MHI will be happening on January 26 in Winchester, Virginia at 6 PM. To learn more, please go to https://www.facebook.com/pg/RFSMMA/posts/.  Ariel is kicking butt, both figuratively and literally!

Whether she’s grappling with a fighter in the ring, or she’s working tirelessly to give girls and women in Ghana their freedom, Ariel is the kind of contender we love to champion.

To donate to MHI, please go to their website at https://mothersheritageintl.org/donate/.

On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, there’s a new annual tradition. Have you heard of it? It’s Giving Tuesday. Around here, our pants are fitting tighter after that big turkey feast the previous week, our thoughts are turning to buying a Christmas tree, and we start thinking about presents for the RBI gift exchange. Giving Tuesday is an international day of giving at the beginning of the holiday season that reminds us, while we’re recovering from the turkey feast and preparing for the holiday hubbub, to remember to give to our community too during this season of generosity.

At RBI, we’re all about Giving Tuesday. And giving Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and on the weekend too! Seriously, our driving force, the foundation of our existence as an insurance and accounting company, is so we can serve the underserved nonprofit community with the support they need. Many insurance companies shy away from providing insurance to nonprofits because while they may be high-risk and really need insurance, they don’t have a lot to spend. They’re called nonprofits for a reason!

But we at RBI are really grateful for Giving Tuesday because it serves as a reminder to all of us that we’re part of a larger community. The holiday season is about showing that we care. While we care throughout the year, the cold winter months make it a little harder to get from one place to another, doing the daily things we have to do. The holiday season and Giving Tuesday remind us that it’s not just all about walking around with blinders on as we go through our daily activities. We have this reminder that we can show our community that we care about everyone. Having a great holiday spirit during this sometimes bleak season – looking at all of the bare trees, trudging through snow, dealing with ice – brightens not only our own lives but also the lives of everyone we support.

While we care for many nonprofits, we wanted to check in with Rebecca Blackwell at the Sophie House and find out what Giving Tuesday means to their community. The mission of the Sophie House is to provide encouragement, supportive services, and housing to single women and single women with children that will move them from instability to stability.

When asked about the impact of Giving Tuesday, Rebecca shared, “The Sophie House relies on the generosity of our community to support the single women and mothers in our program. Giving Tuesday is a great way to give back to organizations that make a difference to you. After being able to shop and buy and save lots of money on the things we want to give during the holidays, we then have the opportunity to give back some of the money we saved while shopping, to a cause that makes a difference in the community and to us! Giving Tuesday makes a difference!”

As Board Members for Sophie’s House, we’re so grateful for the impact of Giving Tuesday! We believe in giving through monetary donations, but also through giving our time and energy. So when you’re considering trading in your work pants for stretch pants after Thanksgiving, and making out that long holiday shopping list, consider starting first on Giving Tuesday, November 27th, and make the season bright through a donation to your favorite nonprofit.