DIY Charity Event: Run AND Have Fun! with Cheryl Helmick

DIY Charity Event: Run AND Have Fun! with Cheryl Helmick

You come home at the end of another long day, sit down to an excellent dinner prepared by your “stay at home Dad” husband, go for your family evening walk, bathe your son, read him a book, and after he’s in bed, then curl up with your — Facebook.

You do too, you do! I see you there.

And what do you see but that amazing Cheryl Helmick talking about her annual family fundraiser for charity. What!?!? Annual fundraiser? For the holidays? First, it’s too awesome for words that her family does this, and second, how does such a busy lady organize such an activity for years and years? I sat down with her to get the scoop.

Hi Cheryl! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me! When did you first start doing a charity event for the holidays and why?

My husband’s family came to visit us in Pennsylvania from Kansas City for Christmas in 2013. Brian had started doing 5Ks, etc. and his family wanted to do a run with him while they were out here. However, we could not find one in the time frame they were in town. A friend suggested we make our own up! I started brain storming. I had t-shirts made (Thank goodness All America Graphics was still in business, and I remembered their name from using them for clubs at Cedar Crest!), and we mapped out a 5K route for the runners and a 1 mile route for the walkers at a local park. We invited friends and coworkers to join us. I thought long and hard about what to do for the bibs but finally decided to make my own. Instead of numbers, I wrote out Christmas and winter items such as mittens, hot cocoa, santa, Rudolph, snowflake, etc. I didn’t think anyone would show up but people actually came out, and we had a great time!  It snowed a lot that week but amazingly the actual day of our run was warm and sunny; we lucked out! We invited everyone back to our house for lunch after the run.

How did this become an annual event?

At that Christmas run, a friend suggested we do this every year. We called it the Helmick Holiday Fun Run so she suggested doing a different holiday each year. My mom suggested turning the next one into a fundraising event. In November of 2014, we did a turkey trot for Thanksgiving. The bibs that year had harvest, turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, cornucopia, etc. on them. We collected food and money for a local food bank, Second Harvest.

In June of 2015, we did a Flag Day run. We collected money for a veterans group, Operation Enduring Warrior. The bibs that year were different flags (USA, other countries, states, pirate, golf, race car, etc.). Since it was summer, we took advantage of a new course at the local park and utilized the rail trail. Everyone got a flag as they crossed the finish line.

This year’s run was the Haunted Helmick Holiday held October 8, 2016. We wanted glow in the dark things so we did it later in the evening. The local park closed at dusk so we moved the run to the school that is behind our house. We mapped out routes for the runners and walkers again. I had to find a different t-shirt company (Physical Graffi-Tees) because my regular one did not have glow in the dark ink. This year’s bibs I did numbers with glow in the dark paint and then decorated them with Halloween stickers. Our charity this year was Laurel House because domestic violence is scary. Everyone got a glow in the dark wand, axe, flower, necklace, etc. for crossing the finish line.

How do you pick what organization will benefit?

I choose an organization based on the event. Thanksgiving I thought of the food bank. I picked one in Allentown that I had heard of before. For Flag Day, I wanted a veterans group. I called around to a few places in the Lehigh Valley but no one returned my message about collecting donations for their organization. Brian’s coworker suggested Operation Enduring Warrior because lots of her friends supported them. I had wanted to do Laurel House to help with domestic violence. My tag line of domestic violence is scary just came to me one day so I thought it was perfect for the Halloween run.

Do the organizations know you do this event, and if yes, what do they think about it?

No, they do not know about this event. Second Harvest was very thankful for the amount we donated that year. We collected over 70 pounds of food plus cash donations.

We collected over $500 in cash and were able to do a company match through my husband’s work for OEW.

We collected over $400 in cash, $40 in gift cards, plus cleaning supplies, pillows, and feminine products for Laurel House. We are also hoping to get the company match for this.

I also sent out a link for people to donate to the charity even if they could not attend the run. I had family from Kansas City also support us this way!

Do you ever have to poke anyone and remind them to pony up the funds?

Brian and I ask people who order a t-shirt to pay for it (we pay the screen fee). I have never had to ask twice for anyone’s money, they bring it the day of the run. We just sent an e-mail or Facebook post about what we were collecting each year for which charity and at our house after the run we have a jar to collect money or a box for the items collected. Each time I’m blown away by the generosity of our friends! Brian and I get the food and drinks after the run to thank everyone for attending. It’s nice to have a little party at the house!

How do you organize things every year?

I plan this out months ahead of time! Once it was determined we were going to do this each year I have to come up with ideas. I started out brainstorming holidays – Bunny Hop for Easter, Earth Day, Arbor Day, Cinco De Mayo, Valentine’s Day, etc. I ask people for suggestions too. Someone suggested grandparents’ day when I said the more obscure the better! I have to come up with t-shirt designs, etc. for a few of them. Valentine’s Day I have all planned what I want for the t-shirt (Lover’s Lane is what I want to call it), where to have it (was thinking indoors for this one and instead of a run maybe doing relays or something with partners), and the charity (The MS Society because it’s near and dear to my heart – my aunt has MS). I try to space them out so they are not too close together (do not want one in February if I had one in November, etc.).

I have fun planning these! It’s fun working with people for ideas on the t-shirt design, the bibs, etc. I don’t show people what they are ahead of time. It’s a surprise for everyone when they come! Brian and I have always hosted parties at our place. Our parties have now turned into the runs. I say the run, but it’s a run or a walk. Even if people don’t want to come to the park, I invite them to the house afterwards. When we had the runs at the park, people would stop and ask me about what we were doing. They thought it was neat! Jane, at the t-shirt company, always seems excited each year what we are doing this time!

I owe a huge thanks to Brian. He helps clean the house, cook (he’s the cook in our house, I do NOT cook or bake), and puts up with me if I have a slight break down because something did not go right (this year’s t-shirts almost did not get done in time due to some communication errors with the company). This year was less stress though because the run was in the evening. We had more time to prepare.

What are the benefits of doing something like this?

This is just for fun! It gets people out running or walking, but it’s not a competition or anything. I find it fun to get together with friends, to hang out and talk to everyone. The fact that we also are helping others with the donations is an added bonus. I feel good about helping others. I believe the low key aspect of it helps with donations. We didn’t ask for a certain amount or so much per mile, etc. We just ask for a donation if you can. It’s sort of anonymous too-I have no idea who put what in the jar.

Each year we get a different turn out. We have had 20-30 people each year.

If people wanted to start something similar, what tips would you give them?

I learned if you want to do something and you can’t find it, just start your own! Just do it yourself!

I had no idea people would show up that year at Christmas! I thought they were nuts. It was winter. Why would anyone want to be outside, who would want to run or walk? I hate the cold. I’d like to hibernate all winter if possible. I also am not a runner so I didn’t understand how anyone would want to do this. I was shocked it was a success AND that people wanted to do it the next year!

Things don’t have to be perfect or professionally done. I hand make the bibs out of cut Tyvek envelopes. I hole punch them and add safety pins (which everyone is very kind to return after the run so I’ve only bought 1 box that’s lasted me 4 years so far). The point of this is to have fun and see friends.

You can save money by having it potluck, having a picnic outdoors where you don’t have to clean your house or if you don’t have the space to host, etc. There are ways around obstacles, you just have to think it through.

Everyone always volunteers to bring things every year for our run. I just personally find it easier to do it myself. After the run, everyone comes back to our house and we eat. Everyone is nice and helps set food out and always offer to help clean up. Let people help at your event whether it’s setting up, cleaning up, etc. Sharing the work will help with time, stress, etc. Some people are better at things than others-play up to people’s strengths! I’m an organizer and always have 50 to-do lists around.

Plan ahead, be prepared, etc. We make as much food as possible the night before. Crock pots are great! And there is nothing wrong with store bought, paper plates, and plastic silverware. For food after the run, quick and easy is the best. People just exercised. They don’t want to wait around for something to cook, etc. Whatever your event is, details will be different though. Our run was in October but I sent graphic ideas to the t-shirt company at the end of July (this was a little early but we also happened to be getting new flooring in the house and I’d be without a computer – well, really, I’d be without a house – for a month!).

Brian and I work second shift. We are the opposite of the rest of the world so it’s hard sometimes trying to get in touch with people, but we make it work. I do have to say thank goodness for technology! I can be online and e-mail people at 4am. I do a lot of things from my iPhone. I have clip art saved for t-shirt design ideas for future runs, etc.

If you need an item for an event, ask around. You probably do not need to buy anything, I bet someone has something you could borrow. Or ask that really talented crafty friend of yours if they could make something for you. Or ask that coworker who makes amazing cupcakes if they’d help you out. If you are stuck for an idea, ask others for their opinions. All of our event came from other people’s input! It’s been a great experience, and it’s neat to see how it’s evolved over the years.

What do y’all have going on this year?

2016’s run is over but…save the date, next year the run will be May 6, 2017, back at the local park. Join us Cinco De Mayo for the 5th Annual Helmick Holiday Fun Run/Walk!!  A friend was a genius and pointed out that we had to do Cinco De Mayo because it was our 5th year. Brian and I have discussed the t-shirt design, and I know what I want to get for crossing the finish line. I’m still working on a charity for this holiday. I was thinking an organization that helps immigrants. If anyone has any ideas, please send them my way! Several of our coworkers and friends were not born in the US. Their stories of how they got here, how they learned English, and how they adapted to the culture are inspirational. I’m in awe.

How could the Notable Woman audience support your event?

Donations to the charities are always appreciated.

Second Harvest –

Operation Enduring Warrior –

Laurel House –

Look out for more info for our run in 2017. If there’s a charity you would like to recommend for future runs, let me know. Our event is a success because of the loving people that surround us. They come out to run or walk for a day and open their hearts and their wallets to help others in need. I’m hoping to continue this event. I need our friends, coworkers, and family to still keep coming (or let me know when it’s run its course). People seemed to still be into it for next year. I had people who came in the past that were bummed they couldn’t make it this year.

Thank you so much, Cheryl! This is really awesome, and kudos to you for doing this event.

Thank you! Thank you for making our run seen by so many people. I hope to inspire someone to come up with their own event or fundraiser. I’d be glad to help anyone in any way possible-ideas, help, space to have an event, etc.

“I Celebrate Myself”: An Interview with High School English Teacher Nicole Mustaccio

“I Celebrate Myself”: An Interview with High School English Teacher Nicole Mustaccio

Where did Nicole and I get the title of this interview? I’ll give you a hint. Nicole’s a high school English teacher! Still not sure? You’ll get the answer at the end of the interview…

When I was a kid, my Mom would always go through our religion workbooks at the beginning of the year. My sisters and I went to a Roman Catholic school. She probably went through our other books too, but I don’t remember that. What I do remember is that one year, her perusal of our books ended with us, my Mom, my older sister, and myself, in the living room together while she explained something I had never heard before. She said that we were going to start to hear that being gay was a sin in school, but that wasn’t something that we as a family believed. We, my mother firmly stated, know people are born that way and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My mother. The original Lady Gaga.

This conversation fascinated me for a number of reasons. People being gay wasn’t one of them. Mostly, I was fascinated that we could learn something in school that might be false. My little mind was blown.

Fast forward to a group email my high school friends and I were sending around while we were all in college at different schools. (This was before Facebook… You know, in the Stone Age.) My one friend, a smart, savvy lady, was playing what I fondly call “the pronoun game” in our email. She was telling us about the person she was dating and using “they.” My dear, I know you know your pronouns. I talked to my good friend Jackie on AIM and said, “She’s pronoun gaming us! What should we do?” And we decided that I would reply back to her alone and say we know what you’re doing and we love you whomever you’re dating. We always want your happiness and aren’t even remotely concerned or fazed or whatever you think we might be. And wasn’t she relieved that she didn’t have to play games with her oldest friends?!?!

And just a few years after that, I had the privilege of officiating the marriage of that friend to her love Nicole Mustaccio.

Nicole Mustaccio is an English teacher in the New Jersey public school system, and she is out about her sexual orientation. She is married to a wonderful woman and mother to two delightful sons. One is named after one of her favorite literary greats, Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet known for the epic Divine Comedy, and her second son, Austin, is an amazing young man who is attending Nicole’s alma mater West Chester University. Nicole loves Hamlet, coaches softball, and gets writers’ cramp every Fall as she writes out hundreds of college recommendations. She is (unfortunately, according to me) a huge Cowboys fan! I talked to Nicole about her experience as a teacher in the United States public school system.

Good day, Nicole! Thank you for chatting with me today!
The pleasure is all mine!

When did you first know you wanted to be a teacher?
Most teachers say that they always wanted to be a teacher since they were a little kid. They would “play school” with their friends and would always be the teacher, assigning homework and such. I was not one of those people, actually. I always loved literature and it really wasn’t until my Junior year of high school when I entered Mrs. Magro-Croul’s British Literature class that I thought about being a teacher. She had a way of teaching that engaged her students, made them passionate about the works of literature, and most importantly, taught her students how to be good people. All of those were things I wanted to do as well. I’ve always had a passion for helping people and figured I could do that and teach literature at the same time! After graduating high school, I actually was a Physical Therapy major for about a semester, until I realized that teaching was my calling and my passion. I changed my major, to English Literature and went on to get my Masters in English Literature and my Masters in Secondary Education, specializing in Curriculum and Instruction.

What are the best and worst parts of being a teacher?
The best part of teaching is helping the students make connections to works of literature through the characters and their actions. I also have an amazing opportunity to teach my students about the importance of being themselves, compassion, sympathy, empathy, acceptance, and to “do good in this world.” One of my former students truly summed up what I think the best part of being a teacher is when she wrote to me, “”The lesson I learned in Ms.Mustaccio’s class was one I don’t know if she meant to teach. But with two years with her I started to pick up on little things she taught us that I would use in my everyday life. She unconsciously taught me how to believe in myself more. That I am more than what I feel I’m worth. I am more than my past and more than what people tell me I am. I am worth it. I should be more confident in myself. My writing is better than I think and so is my art. She taught me to be myself and love who I am. I cannot change who I am. I’m weird, I’m silly, I’m loud, I’m protective, and I can be rash. But I learned to love that. I learned I was not meant to be invisible. I was meant to be me. I really don’t know how Ms. Mustaccio did it, but she helped me become comfortable with who I am. And once I learned that, things started to fall into place for me. I’m still awkward and silly, but I love that about myself. And she taught me others will love that about me as well. I thank her for teaching me this.”

This right here is the best part of teaching!

The worst part about being a teacher has to be the lack of respect from not only my friends and family, but also the community and society. People think that teaching is easy, teachers get paid way too much, and they don’t work “full-time.” Honestly, not sure what is so easy about teaching Hamlet to 17 and 18 year olds, but anyway. And for the record, I work 3 jobs during the school year and then tutor in the summer and many of my colleagues do the same.

Oh, and my enormous class sizes aren’t fun when I have essays to grade in a short amount of time.

What is the biggest misconception your students’ parents have about you and their children’s teachers?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that one as I’ve been lucky to have very supportive parents whether it’s in the classroom or on the softball field. I can say that I think that, in general, I think that many parents think that teachers don’t work hard enough, or grade fairly. Those are just guesses though.

Did you come out as a gay woman after you were already teaching at your current school or were you already out?
When I first started teaching at my current school in 2008, I did not come out at all. I was coming from teaching at a Catholic High School, where I definitely could not come out as well. I chose to wait until I was tenured to come out about my sexual orientation. My biggest concern was not being tenured if I came out. When you’re a non-tenured teacher, your contract cannot be renewed and the school board and administration does not have to tell you why, so I chose to wait until I was tenured. Only about 2 or 3 of my colleagues knew before I came out.

And, how awkward a question is that for me to even ask? Certainly, I don’t announce my straightness in my job interviews. 
I agree, it’s a shame because being tenured should be based on my teaching abilities not my sexual orientation. I’m hoping one day, this question won’t even need to be asked.

How do your students respond to your sexual orientation? Does it even come up?
Honestly, it does not come up much now, thankfully. The students in the school know because I will talk about my wife as casually as straight teachers talk about their spouses. In fact, on the first day of school, I will bring up my wife and sons and tell my students if they ever have any questions, to just ask. I’m open about it because I want them to realize that I’m no different than anyone else. And I believe asking questions takes away stereotypes and opens the door to true understanding. Every once in a while, I’ll get a student who will react but it’s almost always in a positive way. I do remember one time I had to “come out” in class. We were discussing, Dante’s “Inferno”, of course, and I was talking about how Dante was banned from the Catholic Church for a long time because he put popes and priests in Hell. One of my students said that all priests should be in hell because they were gay and mentioned the news about many priest and their child abuse scandal. This kid was associating the gay community with child abusers. At that point, I had to out myself so that he could understand that there is clearly no connection at all between being gay and child abuse! The class reaction was positive and we ended up have a meaningful discussion about stereotypes, stigmas, and other things. It was definitely a teachable moment. After class, the student approached me and apologized and told me I was the only gay person he knew. His family was not as accepting and he was just spewing what his family said. However, after talking to me he realized that what he said was hurtful and he will look at the gay community differently and accept them with love and compassion.

Another powerful teachable moment I had was in 2015. My school had an assembly with the family of Tyler Clementi. (Cristin’s note: Learn more about Tyler’s story here.) The assembly focused on bullying, especially bullying of the LGBTQ students. It was a very powerful assembly and I knew I wanted to discuss this with my class. With every class I had, I talked to them about how horrible my high school experience was with bullying. I was constantly pushed into lockers and called horrible names, all by one person. I felt it was important to tell my students this so that they realize the impact of their actions. I then let my students ask me anything (within reason) about me, my family, and anything else. Their questions were thoughtful, and we ended up having such a tremendous discussion and I truly believe that it affected my students in a powerful and positive way. One of my students told me that that class discussion had more of an impact on her than the assembly because I am someone who she respects and admires and hearing about what I went through made her want to step up and stop bullying.

How about your colleagues, fellow teachers and administrators?
I’ve been very lucky that once I came out I have been welcomed by my work family. My colleagues love my wife and sons. We are treated no differently than a straight couple. It’s very nice to be able to not worry about being targeted for being gay. It allows me to focus on my students and my lessons.

Do you and your family attend school events together?
Yes, my family and I attend as many school events as possible. My students get excited to see Dante because there’s always a different picture of him on my computer constantly. They always greet my wife with open arms and end up talking to her more than me. When I’m coaching, my wife will bring Dante to the games and my softball girls will invite him into the dugout, give him high-fives and play with him after the game. The parents are amazing as well. They have welcomed my wife as part of their group and love to sit and talk with her and play with Dante while the game is going on. I’m extremely lucky to have such loving and accepting players, students, and parents. The families even threw my wife and I a baby shower! It makes doing my job about a million times easier.

I’m not too familiar with the laws over in NJ land. Were you able to take leave when your wife had your son? 
I could have taken a family leave for about 6 weeks but would have lost some of my pay and with my wife on maternity leave, we couldn’t afford it. However, since Dante was born in May and that is right in the middle of my softball season, I could only take 5 days off. Definitely not enough time but I signed a contract to coach so there was nothing I could do.

I work while my husband stays at home with our son, and I get a ridiculous amount of stupid assumptions followed by even stupider questions. I have to imagine the same happens to you with Dante having two moms. Am I wrong there? Are people even more socially aware than I think they are? 
There are tons of assumptions people make about us. While most people don’t even react when I say “my wife and I,” I do get a lot of negative comments since Dante is not biologically mine. Some of the most ignorant are the ones that say that “So, Dante is not truly your son then?” Or “Ok, it makes sense since he isn’t biologically yours, because he doesn’t look like you at all!” Look, both of my amazing and awesome sons are not biologically mine but that doesn’t matter. Being biologically related to your child doesn’t automatically mean you’re a mom. I’m a mom because I love my sons with every ounce of my being, I’m protective of them, although Austin would say I’m a bit “too protective” at times, and would do anything and everything for them. I always say, “You don’t have to be blood to be family.” When I hear comments like that, I realize that there is still a lot of work to do to stray away from the stereotypical Mom and Dad family. We always tell Dante that he has two mommies and some kids have only one mom or one dad, or two dads, and none of that matters. The only thing that matters is that we love you very much.

What’s great or maybe sad, not sure, is that these negative comments always come from adults not kids. Kids don’t care as much. We were at one of my softball games and Dante and my wife were playing on the swings and a kid came up to her and Dante and here’s the conversation:

Kid: Dante is here with his mom right?

My Wife: Yes.

Kid: Then, who are you?

My wife: I’m Dante’s mommy too. Dante has two mommies.

Kid: Oh, that’s cool. I only have a mom and I help her out around the house a lot. Can Dante come play on the slide with me?

Sometimes I wish adults thought more like kids, there would be a lot less hatred in the world.

What would be your advice for someone who wants to come out at work? 
Do it when you’re ready. There’s no timeline for when you have to come out IF you choose to come out at all. The choice is completely yours and yours alone.

I know that my experience is different than someone else’s but you’ll be glad when you do come out. You’ll be more confident in yourself and your ability at your job and there will be a sense of relief that you don’t have to hide things anymore. Of course be careful too, not every school district or work place is as accepting as mine so make sure you don’t put yourself in danger or jeopardy. If that’s the case, maybe start looking for new job.

Overall, do you think we as a society are heading in the right direction when it comes to equal rights? 
I want to believe we are but then again we are still dealing with the ignorant and hateful law in North Carolina and many other states. And just recently, the Pulse nightclub shooting where the LGBTQ community was targeted for just being who they are. There is a lot more fighting to do. That is one reason why I am so openly out at school. I want to change people’s perceptions, to go against the stereotypes and most importantly show my LGBTQ students that it’s ok to be who you are and as cliché as it sounds, “It can and does get better.” Your true friends and family will love and accept you. And if they don’t, then you’ve got a teacher right here who will.

I can’t not ask you this. I am a bookworm for heaven’s sake! What’s the one book/work/play we should all revisit from our high school days?
HAMLET!!!! There’s so much in it about exploring identity within yourself, within others, morality, mortality, justice, revenge. I could go on for about 15 minutes about it.

Also, 1984, that book is so especially relevant within our society today.

Thank you so much, Nicole. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.

“I celebrate myself” is a quote from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

About Nicole Mustaccio

Nicole Mustaccio is an English teacher in the New Jersey public school system. She’s an alumni of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown with her BA in English Literature and also has two Masters degrees, one in English Literature and a second in Secondary Education, specializing in Curriculum and Instruction, both from West Chester University. She is married to a wonderful woman and mother to two delightful sons. One is named after one of her favorite literary greats, Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet known for the epic Divine Comedy, and her second son, Austin, is an amazing young man who is attending Nicole’s alma mater West Chester University. Nicole loves Hamlet, coaches softball with 2 years as the Junior Varsity head coach and now 2 years as the Varsity Assistant Coach, and gets writers’ cramp every Fall as she writes out hundreds of college recommendations. She is a huge Cowboys fan and has an obsession with the Golden Girls, as she notes, “People need to be aware of how awesome this show is.”

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