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Vacation: Same Time, Same Place – Next Year!

Enjoying the ocean in Rehoboth Beach, DE!

Enjoying the ocean in Rehoboth Beach, DE!

By:  Ruth Topper

A few weeks ago my fellow blogger, Karen, shared some of her favorite family friendly vacation destinations over the years.  It’s always exciting to ask Karen what her family is doing for vacation  because they plan different, exciting trips each year. Our family, on the other hand, might be what you call “traditional” or “boring” because our vacation plans have been the same for over 10 years! We spend a week each June in Rehoboth Beach, DE with my husband’s family.   This group of 16 includes his sister’s family of 5, his brother’s family of 4, another sister, his mom and our family of 5.

Cousins - 2006!

Cousins – 2006!

This vacation tradition began in the year 2000 – verified in the family scrapbook.   In the first year it was just two families – our family of 4 along with Gary’s sister & her family of 5.   As the years progressed the tradition of renting a house for a week continued and the numbers grew!  Our third child, Josh, was a new addition in 2001.  Gary’s brother & his wife started coming with us that year.  They welcomed their daughter, Kelly, to their family in 2003.  In 2005, Donnie & Diane didn’t make it to the beach (but Kelly did) – since they had just added their 2nd child, James, into the family in mid-June.  Since 2006 our numbers have stayed steady at 16.  So each year it is important that we find a house to rent that will accommodate our “magic” number!  We have rented different properties in Rehoboth over the years. The houses have all been within a few blocks of each other and the change in location has either been due to our family changing our “week” in June or the owner’s decision to stay at their home during our “designated” week.

Cousins - 2013!  See how they have grown!

Cousins – 2013! See how they have grown!

So you may wonder why did we choose Rehoboth Beach, DE as our vacation destination.  When we started going to Rehoboth Beach with Gary’s family – this was not a random “beach” for us to go to.  My sister & her husband had been vacationing in Rehoboth since the mid-1980’s.  Gary & I frequently went to spend part of a week with them and our two nieces.  We knew that Rehoboth was a very family friendly place to vacation.  They have a wonderful 1 mile boardwalk, great beaches, a variety of restaurants, shopping (lots of outlets) and last but not least – Funland!  In the beginning we decided that June would be a good time to vacation.  It is typically cooler than July or August, it is not as crowded at the beach and the home rental rates are less expensive because it is not “peak” season.  This has all worked well for our families.

The "Free Fall" - one of the favorite rides at Funland!

The “Free Fall” – one of the favorite rides at Funland!

As with any vacation there always is some coordination needed.  My husband, Gary, has acted as the “coordinator” for us.  He scopes out available houses and we take responsibility for signing all the “official” house rental paperwork.   If we like the house we stayed in one year we normally will fill out a pre-registration form when we are on vacation to hold it for the next year.  Sometimes this works in our favor – other years due to our schedule or the owner’s we have had to relocate to a different house.  This can be exciting too – to experience being in a new house.

We also do a lot of coordination on food/supplies that come with us to the beach in order to avoid duplicates.  Gary started a spreadsheet years ago that we update occasionally.  Included in our lists are specific items for each family to bring.  For example, we always bring Bisquick, an electric griddle (and chocolate chips) for pancake making, ketchup, trash bags and baggies (sandwich, 1 qt. & 1 gallon), dish detergent (both for the hand washing & dishwasher), specific sets of sheets, etc.  Gary’s sister brings the “S’mores fixings”, tea bags, tea butler, charcoal/lighter fluid, clothes pins, peanut butter, etc.  Everyone brings their own towels, snacks, drinks, along with a box of tissues and a 4 pack of toilet paper to share!   Our dinner menu was set years ago and typically includes picking up bbq chicken on our way to the beach on Saturday, hamburgers/hotdogs, chicken on the grill,  pasta with meatsauce, one dinner out at Cracker Barrel, leftovers and pizza – if needed!   Several “grocery runs” happen throughout the week with essentials like milk, eggs, orange juice, any forgotten items, etc.  So you can see – we have just about gotten the logistics of our family vacation down to a science!

It's amazing how much they still enjoy digging holes in the sand!  Too bad I can't get mine to do any labor like this at home!

It’s amazing how much they still enjoy digging holes in the sand! Too bad I can’t get mine to do any labor like this at home!

So what keeps our families returning each year?  First, it is the week of spending time together as an extended family.  We get together frequently for birthdays and holiday celebrations that last a few hours.  However, this is the opportunity – especially for the kids to spend quality “cousin time.”  Fortunately our kids truly love being with each other.  Because we have been coming back to the same vacation spot for years most of our activities are “traditions” and the kids won’t even think about changing things up.  For example, our families travel from different areas & we always meet at the McDonald’s in Denton for lunch on our travel day.  There is a Pizza Hut and Burger King right next door – but we have to stop at McDonald’s!    On Sunday morning (not Monday or Tuesday!) a few of the kids & adults head off to get donuts for breakfast.  Our other favorite/traditional activities of the week include:  going to the beach, mini golf at Ryan’s on the roof, feeding the turtles at the “turtle park”, getting Grotto pizza, Dolly’s caramel popcorn, Thrashers fries, ice cream on the boardwalk, our daily trip to Funland for rides or games (Skee ball is the best value at $.25 per game.  My favorite is the “horse” game!), the boys playing lots of video games, late night card games, etc.

Skee Ball at Funland!  The best "gaming" value there at $.25 per game!

Skee Ball at Funland! The best “gaming” value there at $.25 per game!

Although it is exciting to go somewhere different each year on vacation our family enjoys our traditional vacation just as much!  Share with us about your family vacation.   Are you a little “boring” or “traditional” and spend your vacation in the same place each year or are more adventurous and go somewhere new & different each year? 

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Dreaming of Summer: Vacation Tips

By Karen Hendricks

Every year around February, it hits me. The winter blues. Time to start thinking about summer and reminding myself that it’s right around the corner—hopefully—before any more snowstorms hit. Planning and dreaming about a summer vacation help to get me through the winter blahs! That is traditionally the time our family plans, makes reservations, and marks the calendar for our summer destination(s).

When Memorial Day weekend comes, “the unofficial start to summer,” we know those vacation plans will soon be here, whether we’re headed to the beach, mountains, cities or amusement parks, and whether travel is for a day trip, weekend and/or vacation week. I loved fellow writer Jennifer’s post earlier this week about “Summer Fun in Your Own Backyard.” Lots of great, money-saving tips! I realize not every family has a vacation budget, but there are some wonderful, thrifty ways to “get away” without breaking the bank. My husband and I feel that taking a vacation is a priority so even during times when finances were tight for us, we found a way to make getaways a reality. We even keep one specific scrapbook specifically for vacation highlights through the years—and they are some of our fondest memories.

I recently conducted a family poll and we made a list of some of our favorite, family-friendly destinations through the years. Hopefully some of our tips and ideas will inspire you! (Please note, as is the case with every article on Off the Merry-Go-Round, we do not accept compensation for reviews or endorsements—of products, services, events, other websites, etc. All ideas and suggestions are truly our own.)

Footprints in the sand, in Bethany Beach, Delaware

Footprints in the sand, in Bethany Beach, Delaware

1. Bethany Beach, Delaware

This family-friendly beach has everything we love: clean beaches, a boardwalk, cute shops and plenty of activities nearby such as mini-golf, restaurants, museums, etc. The beach is not a huge sprawling beach, which we like because you don’t feel lost in a sea of people, and it’s easier to keep track of the kids. We like to stay in South Bethany, which is quiet and mostly residential. There’s a good mix of affordable rental houses just a short walk to the beach, and we always come prepared to cook dinner in-house several nights so that we can splurge and go out to dinner several nights as well. Entertainment and dining options are close-by in two larger beach towns–Rehoboth Beach, DE and/or Ocean City, MD. The town of Bethany is simply charming, with a style similar to Cape May, NJ. (Click here to visit the Delaware Tourism website for more info on Bethany).

One of our favorite spots in Bermuda: exploring Horseshoe Bay

One of our favorite spots in Bermuda: exploring Horseshoe Bay

2. Bermuda

We splurged and took the family on a cruise to Bermuda several years ago to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We chose Bermuda on the advice of our travel agent at AAA and it turned out to be excellent advice. Bermuda is not only beautiful, but very family-friendly with numerous gorgeous beaches and things to do. The cruise itself was wonderful—I highly recommend Norwegian Cruise Lines. Leaving out of New York City was an awesome experience! We took the train from PA directly into NY (and avoided parking fees), then cruised out of Manhattan past the Statue of Liberty and other NYC landmarks. It started the vacation with a bang! We stuck to our budget as planned and did not opt for add-in packages such as additional guided excursions; we still had plenty of fun, both on-board the cruise and during our stay in Bermuda. We purchased 3-day bus passes (for pink buses!) to get around Bermuda, which was an ideal, affordable way to travel and see the entire island, visiting different beaches and landmarks every day. My son was thrilled to enjoy at least one (sometimes two) ice cream cones a day on the cruise ship… that was one of the highlights of the vacation for him! (Click here to visit the Bermuda Department of Tourism’s website… the photos are breath-taking.)

I think it’s important to plan a “big” trip every few years, especially to celebrate milestone moments. We celebrated our 15th anniversary with a family trip to Disneyworld which was incredible and still very affordable. That will have to be a separate blog post for another day!

Family pic after climbing to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Family pic after climbing to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Racing down the sand dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park, Kitty Hawk

Racing down the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Kitty Hawk

Learning how to ride the waves along the Outer Banks

Learning how to ride the waves along the Outer Banks

3. The Outer Banks, North Carolina

From Duck to Kill Devil Hills, Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke Island, the Outer Banks are dotted with lots of family-friendly beach towns. Prices for vacation rentals and/or hotels vary widely but there are plenty of affordable options. When our children were younger, I preferred staying near beaches that were patrolled by lifeguards; lots of the smaller beach towns do not have lifeguards on duty. Cape Hatteras is an example of one beach where lifeguards are present. There are plenty of things to do nearby, if you have a rainy day or if you need a break from the beach. One excursion I highly recommend is Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Kitty Hawk, where you can not only learn about the Wright Brothers taking flight, but you can trek across and run down the huge sand dunes. Fun and great exercise! There are plenty of great restaurants and touristy areas, but many of the towns along the Outer Banks also retain their quiet, residential status for a true “getaway.” (Click here for the official Outer Banks tourism website.)

The Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park

The Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park

4. Shenandoah National Park

Renting a cabin for a week at Shenandoah was a great way for my family to experience “camping” without truly roughing it with tents, etc. (We have stayed in cabins/lodges at a number of national and state parks and both are fun, affordable options.) Located in Virginia, the Skyline Drive through the park is literally beautiful at every winding turn. We saw plenty of deer and even several bears during our trip a few years ago. Our family really enjoys adventures such as going on nature hikes and there are plenty of trail options at Shenandoah. One specific hike will remain a topic of conversation for years to come, because mid-way through a 10 or 12 mile hike one day, it began raining. A gentle shower turned into torrential rains and a “shortcut” trail turned out longer than our original route. Once we reached a key road, my hero of a husband ending up running two miles (still in the rain) to the car in order to pick us all up. We were drenched, several times over, but we can laugh about it now. Events like that are never “planned,” but they sure do make memories… and we can laugh about it now. (This link will take you to the National Park Service’s website for Shenandoah.)

The classic carousel at Hershey Park is the one pictured at the top of our website!

The classic carousel at Hershey Park is the one pictured at the top of our website!

5. Hershey Park / Knoebel’s Grove

It’s hard to imagine summertime without a trip to an amusement park! Two options in our “backyard” are Hershey Park located in Hershey, PA and Knoebel’s Grove located in Elysburg, PA. Our family has enjoyed a day trip to Hershey every year for as long as I can remember—it must be 15 summers now. We always spend a full day there, from opening to closing. There are plenty of kids’ rides, family-friendly rides such as the park train, and then thrill-seeking rides (for the teens and brave adults). When the kids were younger, we especially enjoyed taking a break from rides by visiting the zoo that’s located in the park for a change of pace. There are also performers here and there throughout the park—my family really enjoyed a rhythm performance similar to “Stomp” a year or two ago. There is also an entire section of the park devoted to water slides which we’ve enjoyed on super-hot days. Since it’s an expense for those of us with larger families, we usually look for discounted tickets available through area grocery stores, and we usually pack a lunch (picnic facilities are available near the parking areas) but purchase dinner inside the park. (Here’s the link to Hershey Park.)

You're never too old for a photo with the Hershey's characters!

You’re never too old for a photo with the Hershey’s characters!

Knoebel’s Grove is the quintessential old-fashioned amusement park with lots of charming rides. A huge, old-fashioned ferris wheel at the park entrance sets the tone. Mixed in with plenty of kiddie rides for younger family members are thrilling rides to keep teens on the edge of their seats. They offer a twist on admission and pricing: Admission to the park is free, with several options available for ride tickets. There are special days when you can “pay one price” to enjoy all/any rides, or you can purchase ride tickets in batch quantities to use them as you go through the park (but don’t put the tickets in a shirt pocket and ride an upside-down roller coaster as your first ride of the day… as one of my family members learned, you WILL lose your tickets… oops). There is a large picnic grove where you can enjoy lunch or dinner if you’d rather pack your own meals. Knoebel’s is especially a good option if you have family members who want to join you for a day at the park, but really don’t enjoy riding rides. Since admission is free, it’s easy for them to still get “in” on the family fun. (Click this link to visit the Knoebel’s Grove website.)

IMG_7963FB

Knoebel’s classic ferris wheel lights up the night

What are some of your family’s favorite vacation destinations? Feel free to share your ideas and tips below and join the conversation. Wishing you a fun-filled summer!

“Summer Fun in Your Own Backyard”

Find simplicity and balance in your summertime activites

Find simplicity and balance in your summertime activities

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

We have been reading and sharing many bloggers’ stories of graduating children, growing pains, and emptying nests. I feel a little left out because my son is only 3 years old. However, though I don’t have a child heading off to college, my family is preparing to feel a similar financial strain when he begins attending private school in the fall.

For us this will mean we need to shift our priorities in some areas of our household budget. Although little tweaks can make big differences in a bottom line, we fear there may be no grand family vacations for awhile!

Therefore I have been thinking about what we can do for some family fun – not only closer to home, yet perhaps even right here in our own backyard. With a little clever thinking, I’ll bet my young son won’t even know the difference. All he’ll know is that he is having a great time!

It’s wonderful to be able to get out of town and escape with your family on a fun-filled vacation during the summer. Yet sometimes that just isn’t possible – either with work or other commitment schedules, or because finances are tight. Here are some ideas for how to have a little summer fun with your children – right in your own backyard! Remember, summertime is for slowing down and letting go of some of those school year stresses. So as the famous song goes … “don’t worry, be happy!” Enjoy just being together even if you are simply hanging out and spending uninterrupted quality time with each other!

And don’t miss a photo gallery at the bottom of this post, illustrating all of these activities!

Turn Your Location into a Destination!

+ Add a twist to what your children learned during the school year. Just because school is out doesn’t mean the learning needs to stop. Kids learn best through play and engaging in the world around them anyway, so this also doesn’t need to come in the form of an indoor rainy day lecture. My son studied metamorphosis in preschool so we spent time around our butterfly bushes looking for different species and checking them out as they gathered nectar. Since the bushes border our deck, we sat leisurely at our picnic table – sharing snack while we observed nature around us hard at work!

+ As you spend time outside, tell your child a story. When you create a story from your surroundings, it is almost like you are in a book and gives a new twist to story time. You can create one based on a story you already know – such as the heart-pounding adventure tale we spun about the great giant Abiyoyo – or make up a new one. Either way, it’s fun to narrate your playtime!

+ Invite a close family friend to visit. Sometimes just a fresh face in your house – and someone new to play with (and spoil) your children brings excitement!

+ Turn unexpected expenditures into unique adventures! When we lost an enormous tree due to a summer storm, our planned trip out west was cancelled by the $4,000 removal bill. Instead of taking a family vacation, or purchasing the playground set we wanted, we let the chopped logs and sawed off stumps entertain our son. In fact, he continues to play in that area and doesn’t beg for a jungle gym! You’d be surprised what a child will enjoy doing using common outdoor and household items.

+ Let your children help with outside (or inside) chores, and teach them new responsibilities. Chores do not have to be mundane; my son and I have sung, danced, and paraded our way through many a household task. They also don’t have to be complicated. Whatever the experience, though, make it age-appropriate, simple (for a young child), and most   important – fun! My son loves to garden with his daddy, and is learning lots about nature and caring for the land at the same time.

+ Introduce a new outdoor toy. New doesn’t always mean large, complex, or expensive. We bought a nice sand & water table for a reasonable price. It came with a sun umbrella, sand tools, and water toys! Being able to relax in a comfy deck chair and watch my son enjoy the simplest of toys already had me less worried about entertaining him through the summer. Your child can even have water play in a tub filled with bubbles and bath toys if you can’t get outdoors or make it to a pool.

+ Eat ice cream! Need I say more?

Take a Trek Around Your Neighborhood for More Fun!

+ “Dine out” at an unexpected (and less expensive) place. My son and I have taken to eating an occasional lunch or dinner at our grocery store. You know the familiar saying, “Never go shopping when you’re hungry.” We have taken that to heart, and to him it is pretty cool!

+ Or just eat in! For a true money saving meal, we have started cooking more at home. Teaching your children to cook is one of the most important life skills you can help them master. There are also many “academic” skills you can subtly weave into food preparation – from reading (recipes), to math (measurement), to critical thinking (what to do if an ingredient is missing). Move your meal outdoors to put a unique spin on the usual dinner routine. Picnic table or picnic blanket – either way will give your kids a thrill!

+ Check out your local library’s summer class schedule. Ours runs classes for all ages year-round yet during the summer, program themes increase and so does the fun! It is good for your children to hear new people read, as well as to experience activities and crafts led by someone other than their parents. These classes have saved our rainy days and our let’s-get-out-of-the-house days, yet they are good for any day!

+ Let your children see you having fun! Once in awhile, take your child with you to a class (as long as it’s okay with your instructor, and safe and appropriate for kids to be present); or let them see you engaged in a hobby or exploring an interest.

+ Make a friend! Even a short, low-key play date with a new pal can make for a more interesting and lively day!

+ Dress-up, arts and crafts, and indoor/outdoor games are engaging and fun. Although I don’t consider myself a “crafty” or “athletic” person, I do try to offer my son materials to create various forms of art media and engage in a variety of physical activities.

+ Simply relax. In our society, often motion = productivity or fun. Yet just slowing down a bit during what is supposed to be those “lazy, hazy” days of summer can be refreshing. Wind down, take time to smell flowers, and nap. At the very least you’ll have energy for all the fun you’ll be having with your family in your backyard!

Hopefully some of these activities will bring you and your family a simple, inexpensive, and fun-filled summer. You may find that it takes less effort to entertain, keep happy, and even tire out your children than you think. Enjoy!

Click on any of the thumbnail images below, to open a photo gallery:

What are your ideas for simple, inexpensive summer fun? Please share with our community so we can all get ready to hit the … well – backyard!

How to: Make Little Changes to Your Home to Create a Fab New Look!

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

Our Little House in the Big Woods

Our Little House in the Big Woods

When we bought our home in 2006, we had a small house and BIG plans. We would take this quaint, though somewhat neglected, “bungalow” with barely-enough-room-to-squeeze-into bathrooms, tear it apart – one room at a time – and give it a (major) facelift!

Then, without warning, life happened. You know what I’m talking about … transition into new job life; loss of new job life; kid on the way life; I wasn’t expecting that expense life. Suddenly, all the money those fancy renovations take to make happen wasn’t there.

Big plans and shattered dreams. Or were they? Could this little house with great potential, yet in need of much work, ever become our dream chateau in the country?

As it turned out, yes it did – and so can your home … no matter how small. It may appear otherwise, but few of us live in those sprawling 7 bedroom houses we so often drive by. Since we live in a Washington, DC suburb our monthly mortgage is more than some people pay for a mortgage and two car payments! Yet, at just 1,184 square feet, our house is very small compared to what most people would consider livable square footage.

What we began looking for was balance. Balance between making our wish to turn our house into a home come true – and knocking down a wall to expand our square footage in order to achieve it!

Just one of Susan Saranka's many helpful decorating books for small houses and spaces!

Just one of Sarah Susanka’s many helpful decorating books for small houses and spaces!

That’s when I finally picked up a book I bought some time ago: The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka (she has written a number of books on this subject). The premise of the book is that a “Not So Big House” exchanges space for soul, and that their owners, rather than spend their budget on spaces they never use, tailor their houses to fit their lives. Additionally, their home design expresses something significant about their lives and values without going overboard. So this past fall, we began those upstairs renovations we had longed for and they are now nearly complete. Ms. Susanka’s book gave us the help we needed to find that balance, and to “have our cake and eat it too!”  

Do you face the same dilemma, or just want to give one area of your house a “lift?” If so, use these tips and suggestions to get started on home renovations, upgrades, and design and decorating ideas you put off in the past due to cost and logistical concerns.

Go for It!

+ Read, research, and write/map out your ideas. When I put my researched ideas and creative thoughts on paper and carried them around my house as I considered them, I finally saw our ultimate dreams could come true.

+ Contractor is key. Hiring a professional, skilled contractor helps you get what you ultimately want and gives you peace of mind in the process! I believe in the “don’t try this at home” philosophy. Painting the walls in your guest bedroom is one thing – creating arched entrance ways or installing crown molding is entirely different.

I don’t want to discourage checking references, yet keep in mind that these (and even photographs of project work) are easily faked. We no longer check references for things such as paint jobs and house cleaning services. Instead, when we find a service provider we like, we hire them for a small, less significant job first to see how that goes before launching into a bigger project. We also never give a paymentupfront,” and always make sure one of us is home during the work phase.

We hired an experienced gentleman who tended toward a perfectionist nature. He took a little longer than another contractor might have, however he finished the job in a reasonable amount of time. He was upfront and honest, produced what we wanted, charged just for materials and time, required only smaller payments throughout the scope of the project, and provided invoices with a service/cost breakdown.

+ Proceed slowly and with caution. No matter how well thought out and prepared you are, little glitches do happen along the way. It is easier to add something to your project than take it away so consider your plans carefully!

+ Do it right the first time. The do-it-yourself projects of previous owners created the need for a good bit of repair and renovation on our house that would not have been necessary if handled properly the first time. When the bathtub in our son’s bathroom needed new piping, we were unable to get to the pipes from the access door located in his bedroom. Shelves, in the form of sloppily sawed wood boards painted white, had been nailed directly over it! Needless to say, those are no more. If you do it right (and well) the first time, it really will last forever!

+ Live with it! Once you have a renovation idea, think about it for awhile. Make the project come to life in your mind and then once complete, live with it before moving on to something else. We did not add objects to our beautiful new hallway display case until a “theme” came to mind a few weeks later.

We have many options to consider for showcasing items in our new built-in display case.

We have many options for showcasing items in our new built-in display case.

+ Simply updating furniture and accessories can change the look of a room. Rather than spend thousands of dollars to replace the white IKEA-style cabinets in our kitchen, we unscrewed the thick plastic white handles and installed simple silver ones we picked out at our local hardware store. This little change immediately gave the cabinets a sleeker, updated look for little expense and effort!

Kitchen Cabinet Handles - After

Kitchen Cabinet Handles – After

Kitchen Cabinet Handles - Before

Kitchen Cabinet Handles – Before

+ Small touches make a big difference. When redecorating, you may wish to keep the essence of your original home. Built in the early 1960s, our house has elements of the “retro” style popular then and remnants from the more simplistic era of do-it-yourself home projects. We gave a “nod” to our home’s original style – for example, leaving the tiny square floor tiles in the upstairs bathroom, and keeping the homemade closet shelving in the bedrooms. We created a more current look throughout our house by tweaking the appearance of what we chose to keep and adding fresh, modern paint colors to the walls!

+ Let your interests inspire your decorating, not overwhelm your surroundings. Part of turning a house into a home is reflecting your interests, cultures and memories. We have an affinity for Native American culture, value nature and the outdoors, and feel connected to our son’s African American heritage. Rather than clutter tabletops and shelves, and cover every inch of wall space, we share our interests by carefully choosing and arranging items of special significance. As an example, we enjoy our beautiful native bird species so a mysterious painting of an owl waiting out a storm hangs on one wall, a custom-framed arrangement of birds common to our woodland property is clustered on another – and we left the rest of the birds outside! A good friend has also successfully incorporated this decorating tip. When you visit her home, you see what holds meaning and value to her family on display in a corner dining room china cabinet. Rather than being haphazardly scattered throughout her house, these treasures are enjoyed in one special place.

The perfect wall to show off our custom-framed bird paintings

The perfect wall to show off our custom-framed bird paintings

+ Your house and its appearance is a reflection of you. De-clutter! Purge thy surroundings! If you haven’t looked at it, worn it, remember where you got it, or even thought about it in a year – it’s time to toss it! If you feel you really can’t part with that stack of “antique” books old Aunt Martha passed along to you, arrange them in front of a pretty backdrop, take a photo, and put it in a frame to display on your end table. Now send those books a-packin’ down to the local book store. You might even get some extra spending money in exchange! Another easy way to cut down on “stuff” in your house is to regularly sign up for charity pickups; we do that monthly. When I know a donation truck is coming, it makes it so much easier to get rid of unused items – after all, I have to give them something. I keep an empty box in the corner of my office at all times, drop things in as I purge, and there you have it – an instant tax write-off!

Everyone has their own decorating style and sense of what “looks good.” My husband and I just happen to be super-organized, and like clean lines and well-defined, clutter-free spaces. Our home renovations and decorations reflect this. As you consider what you ultimately want your home to look like, consider your personality, interests, how you live – and design your home accordingly. Use some or all of the above tips to get started, yet remember that the most important thing is that your house feels like home!

Our "new and improved" Home Sweet Home!

Our “new and improved” Home Sweet Home!

Do you have additional decorating tips and renovation stories you can share with our community? Many people begin work on home projects in the spring and summer so please join the conversation!

Small Changes You Can Make to Help Improve & Save Our Environment

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

Earth Day is April 22nd.

Earth Day is April 22nd.

Earth Day is Monday, April 22nd – Go Mother Earth! Indeed there is much to celebrate on this annual occasion which was first held on April 22, 1970 in the United States. It became an international event in 1990 with organized events in 141 nations.

As we clean up some of our past environmental messes and come up with ideas to better care for our Earth in the future, there exist more groups than ever to help us do just that. These organized groups address environmental issues on local, national, and international scales.

According to author Andrew Rowell, the largest and most influential environmental organizations in the United States are the “Group of Ten” comprised of organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society.

Public awareness and environmental sciences have certainly improved in recent years, and environmental issues have broadened to include concepts such as “sustainability” – as well as to address new concerns such as ozone depletion, global warming, acid rain, and land use.

Additionally, environmental movements often collaborate with social movements such as those that work for peace, human rights, and animal rights; or who are opposed to nuclear weapons/power, poverty, and hunger. 

Pretty “big picture,” isn’t it? In a couple of my past blogs, I have written about topics that involve a “little things” focus. Here, I intend to do the same because when you think about environmental issues in too big a context you can become overwhelmed and even complacent. Have you ever thought, “What can I do?” or, “Does my small part in all of this really make any difference?”

Well…yes. Doing little things, making small changes, and focusing on doing your part can make a big difference. Even if you are not part of an environmental group, there are many other steps you can take to contribute toward improving our environment and making Earth a cleaner, healthier, better place to live – for us all!

Here are simple and easily implemented ideas to get you started – from the outside in:

The Great Outdoors

+ Take a look at the property you live on. If you have acreage, consider its location. If you live in an area where your land meets certain criteria, you can apply to the National Wildlife Federation to have it certified as a wildlife habitat area. I speak from experience! Receiving such a certification as we have means you have taken steps to provide a viable area where wildlife can thrive.

+ Start a compost pile. Do you have a spot outdoors that would be an ideal location? When you research this environmental tool, you will find there are many ways to create one even without a large plot of land. Cleaner and more convenient than a compost pile is a compost bin which is easy to build and can even be used on a porch or patio. Our compost pile is contained by bricks, and once it has built up through the fall and winter my husband uses it in the spring to jump-start our garden! We bought a stainless steel, compact pail that we keep next to our sink. In it, we collect and store our compost (fruit peels, rotten tomatoes, vegetable skins, etc.) until we have enough to take outside to our pile. The special odor fighting insert helps keep the pail’s contents a secret.

Putting in a garden yields the best in natural, "home grown" food!

Putting in a garden yields the best in natural, “home grown” food!

+ Put in a garden. Gardens come in many forms and sizes. My husband designed a small one in our backyard to grow a few of our favorite vegetables using organic methods. After a year of trial and error to get it going, he planted and tended to a row of blueberry bushes bordering the garden – yielding more berries each season. Next step is a few fruit trees! We have also grown vegetables, such as tomatoes in big planters, and strawberries in large flower pots on our deck.

+ Plant trees. Whether you buy saplings or trees with some growth, planting adds oxygen to our environment and creates natural habitats.

+ Add flowers and plants wherever you can. We invested in several flower/plant/herb boxes and lined our deck railing with them. The bees and butterflies seemed appreciative, and this little step which we saw as simply beautifying our favorite outdoor gathering place has contributed toward many life cycles. Plus, you get the benefit of a beautiful outdoor retreat on a warm spring or summer day!

Ahhh...a lush garden retreat!

Ahhh…a lush garden retreat!

Indoors

+ Sign up with your energy company for their energy savings program. The ways to save energy vary by company, as does the level of participation. BGE in Maryland offers “Peak Rewards” in which we participate. Even the higher level has proven of little inconvenience to us. We receive big savings on our monthly bill – and save the environment at the same time!

+ Develop an awareness of your electricity usage patterns. Are there lights that are on unnecessarily? Our home has many big windows that let the sunlight in – we have very little use for lights once the sun comes up!

+ Add motion detector lights and switch to more efficient light bulbs. This reduces electricity usage and conserves energy.

+ Use cold water for washing clothes whenever possible. Warm and hot water is usually not needed to effectively clean clothes.

+ Become conscience of your water usage habits. How often to you turn on a water faucet? How long do you leave the water running? Consider cutting back on the length of your showers and turning off the water while you brush your teeth.

+ Recycle. Establish an easily followed process. Throughout the day, we put recyclable materials (what is accepted as such varies by county) in a non-descript box on top of our kitchen counter. When our recyclables pile up, we take the box to our upper deck and distribute into two bins – one for paper and cardboard, and one for plastic and cans/jars. On weekly pickup day we empty the bins into the large containers the county provides (stored outside) and take them to the end of our driveway. When we read on a product what recyclable materials were used in its production or container, we know we had a part in that!

We can all make a difference if we just do our part!

We can all make a difference if we just do our part!

These are just some ideas for conserving energy and resources, reusing materials, and contributing toward a cleaner environment that we can all live in and enjoy! So this Earth Day, take a pledge to look around you – just outside your door or around your home can be far enough to make a real global impact when we all make a little effort or a small change.

What are some little things you do to help improve our environment? We would love to hear from you!

Take a SNOW DAY!

By Mary Ann Filler

Do you have the winter blues?  My advice is to take a snow day with your entire family!

Growing up, winter was one of my favorite seasons.  I remember major winter snowstorms.  At times it snowed so much that it covered the fence in our yard.  Our dog was delighted as he could walk up one side of the snow bank and down the other to get out.  My brother and I would stay outside, as much as humanly possible, playing in the snow, building forts and having snowball fights with the neighbor kids.  Our youth group went sledding at a nearby park where toboggans set the course for a speedy trip down the hill on our sleds.  There was nothing better than waking up to a school closing on a snowy winter day!

As I grew older, my love for winter began to dwindle.  Somewhere along the line, I began to dread winter.  Sure, I enjoyed a brief visit outside with my boys on the occasions that we got snow.   And, I’ll have to admit, the snow pictures I have taken of the boys over the years are the cutest shots ever!!

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OH…the snowsuits!

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Crinkled Nose and Chapped Lips…PRICELESS!!

…But, January and February (for me) were months to be dreaded.

Then, one year for Christmas, the boys received gift cards to our local ski resort.  The giver’s intent was for us to use the gift towards snow tubing (aka sliding down a snowy slope on an inner tube) since none of us were skiers.  That winter we had a beautiful snowfall on March 16.  The next day, Saint Patrick’s Day, we headed up to the ski resort, and I discovered a way to begin enjoying winter once again.

Snow tubing requires absolutely no experience but delivers big on fun!  This may sound funny to those who are “seasoned” skiers, but I thought that in order to go snow tubing there had to be natural snow on the ground.  Once we got there, we discovered another world!  As long as the temperatures cooperate, the ski resort can actually make snow.  I wish I had pictures of that first snow tubing adventure (camera batteries were dead).  It was certainly a memorable day for all!

After that first outing, it occurred to me that the reason that I stopped enjoying winter was that I was hibernating during the winter months.  I wasn’t outside enjoying nature and breathing in the fresh air.  The next year, I learned to ski and the boys learned to snowboard.   We made time to get outside and enjoy the beauty of the season!

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Ski Liberty!

I’ll be honest with you, skiing can be an expensive sport, but it doesn’t have to be.   If you are new to skiing and snowboarding the “learn to” packages can’t be beat!  They allow you to try the sport without spending a lot of money.  Click here for SkiPA, a website that addresses the beginner skier.

Do you have a 4th or 5th grader?  College student?

Also from SkiPA:  “How about skiing or boarding for FREE this winter? Well here’s your chance! Your Pennsylvania 4th & 5th Grade Snowpass booklet offers you the privilege of skiing and boarding 21 Pennsylvania Ski Resorts for FREE this winter – Take mom or dad with you for the thrill of a lifetime – an experience you will never forget.”  Click here for more info on this great offer.

Our local ski resort, Ski Liberty, offers College Days on Wednesdays.   For $35 the student with a valid college ID can ski for 4 hours including rental equipment AND lessons if needed.

Look for the snowpack… as in packages:

There are also deals to be had on snow tubing packages–click here for an example from Ski Liberty.

And February 21 is our resort’s local appreciation day!  “All residents of Fairfield, Gettysburg, Orrtanna, Cashtown, Carroll Valley, and Emmitsburg, MD are eligible for this special discount! Must bring valid photo ID to show proof of residence. Liberty is open for skiing & snowboarding from 9am to 10pm, and from 4pm to 10pm for snow tubing on Community Appreciation Day.” For more info, click here.

The bottom line is that you can find less expensive ways to enjoy the slopes.  Search on-line for the slope closest to you, and look on their website to find the best times to visit.  Many slopes even have webcams so that you can see the conditions ahead of time.  Here is our local resort’s link for their webcams. 

Get in gear…

If your winter boots aren’t up to date, many snow tubing venues actually rent boots!  Also, don’t forget to check the consignment and thrift shops to outfit the kids (this is a great tip whether you’re planning on skiing or not;-).  In addition, if you discover that you would like to purchase ski or snowboarding equipment for yourself or the kids, the fall is a great time to buy second-hand equipment at local ski swaps.

Finally, If you’re lucky enough to have natural snow, get some inexpensive sleds or even inner tubes and hit a local hill. Even though the boys have learned to snowboard, they still enjoy sledding with friends!

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Sledding with the Toppers…luckily there’s a hill right behind our home;-)

How does your family celebrate winter?  Feel free to share your tips for family skiing, snow tubing, and other ways of enjoying the winter season, below.

Pinterest Paradise

By Karen Hendricks

Has the Pinterest craze hit you yet? If you haven’t yet discovered this virtual bulletin board yet, let me tell you–it can be a mom’s best friend. But if you haven’t heard, there is a warning to heed: Pinterest can be slightly addicting so proceed with caution!

The best thing about Pinterest is if you’re in need of inspiration, this is the place to find it. The downside is sometimes you get so wrapped up in all the inspiration, that you forget to actually DO and MAKE some of the projects and recipes and ideas that you find on Pinterest!

Before Pinterest came into my life, I was forever tearing out magazine articles, clipping recipes, jotting down ideas from The Today Show, putting bookmarks in my gazillion cookbooks, etc. (I still do some of that!) Now, where did I put all those great ideas?

The beauty of Pinterest is I can bookmark in cyberspace and not lose or misplace a single idea–it’s all in my account. Viola! And believe it or not I have tried quite a few recipes and put quite a few ideas into action as a result of Pinterest. I’m going to share some of my highlights with you…

Homemade laundry detergent - wish the scent came through your computer!

Homemade laundry detergent – wish the scent came through your computer!

One of my favorite discoveries, and probably the most practical, is a recipe for laundry detergent. I whipped up this concoction in early November and I still have a great supply here in mid-January. I have not bought laundry detergent since, and with a family of five that is an amazing feat! All told, the ingredients cost between $20 and $25 so I feel as though I’m saving a lot of money as the net result. Ordinarily I spend between $10 and $20 a month on detergent. The homemade detergent works great–that’s the best part. The only thing I did differently was instead of using the 1 to 2 tablespoons per load as recommended, I generally use 2 to 3 just because my washer has an extra large cycle.

I’ve tried quite a few new recipes as a result of Pinterest and two of our family favorites have been spinach cheese balls and Nutella cupcakes. The spinach cheese balls served as the perfect appetizer several times over the holidays. And I have to give my daughter Katie credit–she’s the one who discovered and baked the Nutella cupcakes. YUM.

Spinach Cheese Balls, Photo Credit: BettyCrocker.com

Spinach Cheese Balls, Photo Credit: BettyCrocker.com

Nutella Cupcakes, Photo Credit: Shine.Yahoo.com

Nutella Cupcakes, Photo Credit: Shine.Yahoo.com

For Christmas gifts, I made each of my three children customized dry erase boards using colorful paint samples and poster frames from Michael’s craft store. The blocks of color make it especially handy for them to write to do lists. I customized their colors to coordinate with their rooms. I think they were all amazed to see that mom has a touch of creativity! It was actually a pretty low-cost project, considering the paint samples were free. The only cost was the frame plus the investment of my time. And the end result is priceless–helping my children stay organized. What a lifesaver.

Colorful paint chips + frames = artful dry erase boards for calendars and to-do lists

Colorful paint chips + frames = artful dry erase boards for calendars and to-do lists

My daughter Katie's board is already in use

Already in use!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My beautiful sis-in-law Dawn, wearing her infinity scarf

My beautiful sis-in-law Dawn, wearing her infinity scarf

I also discovered an easy sewing project–how to make an infinity scarf. I actually made seven as Christmas gifts, until my sewing machine broke down… I guess it wasn’t used to all that activity.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish by having a few more minutes of free time in your day. By maintaining a 40-hour workweek–and not spiraling into the 60+ hour range–I feel as though I have the ability to think clearer, plan ahead and have time to BREATHE. Every Mom needs time for herself, “off the merry-go-round,” in order to be the best Mom she can possibly be to her family. And if that personal time is spent on Pinterest, I’d call that paradise!

For more information on all the projects featured in this post, click here for the NEW Off the Merry-Go-Round Pinterest page! We look forward to adding many more inspiring and helpful pins. Hope to see you on Pinterest—be sure to follow us!