‘Jeep Girls’

Here is another article I did for today’s SanTan Sun News, a newspaper based out of Chandler, Arizona. I had the opportunity to interview The Jeep Girls, Ashley and Brittany, two extremely nice sisters, over the phone a few weeks back. Their story was pretty incredible to hear, as well as write. Enjoy reading about their adventure.

‘Jeep Girls’ share their story, bring awareness

Published in SanTan Sun News Jan. 18, 2014 issue

Two Chandler sisters dubbed “The Jeep Girls” share their lifestyles with like-minded people by giving back to others as they tour the country bringing awareness of American culture.

“Life is a constant treasure hunt and we are able to learn about our culture through the people, landscape and industry,” says Ashley Hill, who makes up the Jeep Girls with sister Brittany Hill.

The two are relative newcomers to Arizona, having moved here from Illinois when Brittany, now 25, was just out of high school.

“It was quite a culture shock,” Brittany explains.

She says when they moved to Chandler, they learned that life can be sunny and colorful. Arizona offers a very laid-back atmosphere, Brittany says.

Before the ‘Jeep Girls’

The love of Jeeps resonated at a very young age for the Hill sisters. The duo has a family video where they are in a Power Wheel flame red Jeep Wrangler.

“In this video Brittany is 3 or 4 and I am 1,” Ashley says. “In this video our parents taught us the word ‘Jeep.’”

The girls purchased matching flame red Jeep Cherokees as teens and, in 2005, they went on a nationwide search to find a Jeep Wrangler, which they found in Chicago.

In 2005 Ashley and Brittany Hill, otherwise known as the Jeep Girls, went on a nationwide search to fi nd a Jeep Wrangler.  Photo provided to the SanTan Sun News

In 2005 Ashley and Brittany Hill, otherwise known as the Jeep Girls, went on a nationwide search to fi nd a Jeep Wrangler.
Photo provided to the SanTan Sun News

“The Jeep is a symbol of that ultimate freedom machine with the ability to take the doors off and the top,” Ashley explains. “The freedom machine celebrates American history.”

Brittany earned a fi ne arts degree from Arizona State University’s Herberger School of Fine Art in 2008. Ashley graduated summa cum laude in 2009 from Arizona State University with a communication degree from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

Both of the girls went into the news business after graduation but were dissatisfied with that career choice.

Brittany quit on a whim. Ashley followed.

“I am much happier not being competitive in terms of trying to climb that corporate ladder,” Brittany says.

The American Legend Tour

The American Legend Tour kicked off on July 4, 2012. Ashley explains that they are focusing on learning and understanding what it means to be American through their tour.

The jaunt was so interesting to Chandler Public Information Officer Jim Phipps that he shared the story with the council.

Councilman Jeff Weninger says as an entrepreneur he’s excited anytime when he sees people doing what they are passionate about.

“I think it’s exciting,” he says. “Even at their young age, look at what experiences they are having.”

Phipps found out about the Jeep Girls through his subscription to a Jeep magazine, because he, too, is a Jeep owner. He explains that he found it interesting that these two young ladies can do what many people dream about.

“(They) throw hair to the wind and get in a vehicle and see the world and do it through help of sponsors,” Phipps says.

Phipps says the Jeep Girls are good role models.

“We are letting them know that their city is proud of them, letting these young ladies know that we think they are a good example for the community and the youth,” he says. “(It sends) messages of inspiration to young people that there is a great big world out there and go conquer it.”

Ashley and Brittany Hill with Old Faithful. Photo provided for SanTan Sun News.

Ashley and Brittany Hill with Old Faithful.
Photo provided for SanTan Sun News.

The Hill sisters have traveled to such states as Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York and many national parks on their tour. In 2013, the sisters trekked more than 17,000 miles.

“We take everything as a learning experience and we try to evolve and bring awareness to our home community and what becomes our global community as we interact with people,” Ashley, 28, says. “We like to spend a lot of time in person with people and learn from people.”

At the end of January they will head to Aspen, CO.

“This is a very exciting time to explore what’s in front of us,” Ashley says. “Our main focus right now is our American Legend Tour. The goal is simple. By leading by example, we want to inspire others to live an active lifestyle, explore and follow their dreams.”

The Jeep Girls traveling on the Rubicon Trail.  Photo submitted to SanTan Sun News.

The Jeep Girls traveling on the Rubicon Trail.
Photo submitted to SanTan Sun News.

On the back of the American Legend Tour, is the American Legend Artists series featuring U.S. fashion designer Nanette Lepore. The tour explores artists, designers, storytellers and musicians. The jaunt will involve heritage vehicles to inspiring heroes and historical sites.

“We want to open the conversation to allow other people to interpret what you are proud of,” Brittany says. “It doesn’t have to be related to what we do. We want to stimulate and activate people to live a colorful lifestyle and see no limits.”

Ashley says she does not think they would be doing what they are doing today if they were not living in Arizona.

“We really owe a big thank you to the community,” she says. “We wouldn’t have the encouragement anywhere else, I would think.”

Brittany says even though they do not make money right away, they have to be OK with that because of the rewards, including seeing America.

“So far it has been this growing, wonderful thing for us,” she says. “We wantto keep running with it.”

For more information about the Jeep Girls visit their website www.gojustintimemedia.com.

‘Dunk Your Kicks’

One of the things I enjoy most about my journalism career is the various topics I have the opportunity to write about.

The article below appeared in the SanTan Sun News, a newspaper I write for in Chandler, Arizona today.

I enjoyed writing this article because of its unique fundraising initiative, “Dunk Your Kicks.” It’s a cool idea, collecting old sneakers and running shoes to raise money for pediatric cancer patients.

I talked to two mothers who have son’s going through cancer treatments right now . . . I could not imagine their journey, but am glad there are foundations like the Max Cure Foundation to help them through their hard times.

‘Dunk Your Kicks’ while supporting pediatric cancer patients

Published in the SanTan Sun News Nov. 16, 2013

Parents who are struggling to financially support their cancer-stricken children are receiving help from a unique fundraising initiative in the Southeast Valley.

Three Chandler youngsters Jayden, Angelisa, and Tylar Bailey, spent theirfall break dispersing boxes at various locations to help collect sneakers for Dunk Your Kicks after their mother Erica Bailey shared information about the cause.

Tylar says he is helping with Dunk Your Kicks “because I don’t want anyone to have to fight cancer anymore.”

Started in 2012, their campaign raises money to help find a cure for pediatric cancer. The trio’s goal was also to help low-income and military families who are experiencing financial struggles while their child is having treatments.

Now, instead of the 200 million pairs of sneakers being thrown away each year sitting in landfills producing toxins, the sneakers are earning a profit and helping many families.

The fundraising campaign was created by the Max Cure Foundation in December 2008 by the New York-based Plotkin family. Their son, Max, who was diagnosed with cancer before his 4th birthday, is in remission at 9 years old.

“David, Max’s father, gave up everything to run the foundation,” says Erica Bailey, who began working with the foundation at the beginning of the year.

Instead of asking individuals for monetary donations, Dunk Your Kicks collects gently used sneakers and running shoes.

“It’s been a phenomenal campaign and it’s growing and growing,” Bailey says.

Her children placed boxes at 10 Audio Express locations and Fix 24 Chiropractic, which will remain there until Fri., Nov. 22. Audio Express is offering a $10 off coupon for every pair of sneakers donated.

“Their goal is to raise 20,000 pairs of sneakers,” Bailey explains.

Each sneaker earns $1, which in turn goes to families.

“I will be able to physically show my children that 20,000 sneakers equates to $20,000. It’s visual. It teaches them morals and values.”

An international recycler helps the foundation resell the shoes to merchants in developing countries.

“The more sneakers we collect, the more children we can help and the longer we can help them for,” she says. “We are putting shoes on men, women and children who die from diseases.”

The Baileys’ efforts are providing assistance to three families this year via the Dunk Your Kicks donations. Their children are undergoing cancer treatments.

Delilah Dow’s son Buddy, 5, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, high-grade brain tumor, in 2011. Soon thereafter, Buddy underwent surgery for tumors on the back side of his brain. He also has tumors on the front of his brain as well as his spinal cord.

The initial diagnosis was shocking for Dow, who lives in Phoenix. Buddy began chemotherapy after his diagnosis and now has treatments every three weeks, Monday through Friday, for three hours at a time. Dow says the chemo is helping the tumors and preventing further growth.

“He is really strong,” Dow says. “He doesn’t like chemo, but he deals with it. He gives me the strength to keep doing what I am doing for him.”

The young boy started school this year at William T. Machan Elementary School where he also attends physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“He misses a whole week of school because his energy level is down,” Dow explains of his week of chemotherapy. “He doesn’t like to miss one day of school. He’s just a kid that likes to learn a lot.”

Another mother has a similar story.

Amber Foley has a similar story. Her son, Maurice Harrison, 9, was diagnosed with a nervous system disease and subsequent brain tumor in 2011.

“Since then he has had two brain surgeries,” Foley explains.

Maurice had his first surgery on Nov. 9, 2011, which was followed by unsuccessful chemotherapy treatments. An MRI was done in March 2012 and he had his second surgery in April of that year.

“Because of where it was, they weren’t able to get all of it,” Foley explains. “That’s why they are doing so many treatments.”

Maurice has had 33 radiation treatments and is on his second round of chemotherapy. Foley says he has at least another year to go with treatments. He has chemo treatments every two weeks for six to eight hours at a time.

“He goes one day every other week,” she explains. “He is just tired that day. This chemo is a lot calmer than other treatments we have tried with him.”

Foley explains her son is willing to give this cancer a fight.

“He is so kind hearted and so willing to help other people before he is worried about himself,” she says.

Although the diagnosis has been with the punches. She says as a single mother of four, she tries to work as many part-time jobs and seasonal jobs as her schedule allows.

“We try to make the best out of what we can and the situation,” she says. “For a child to go through it, it’s heartbreaking. God has a final say and take it day by day.”

The two families voice their appreciation for the Bailey family.

“I am really overwhelmed with happiness with how much help they were able to give me and my family,” Foley says. “I think it’s a wonderful foundation helping kids out here and kids in different countries that don’t have shoes. Everyone wins with this foundation.”

Bailey says so far they have collected 165,000 sneakers this year.

“Most of the time we collect them through mud runs and races,” she explains. “We collect muddy sneakers after the event (because) they typically end up in the garbage.”

If individuals are unable to donate their sneakers, they can log onto dunkyourkicks.org/match-a-dunk, and make a donation. Bailey says the donation will stay in Arizona.

‘Hard to put into words’

Before Melanie Sassano left for Cambodia I interviewed her for the SanTan Sun News, a paper I write for in Chandler, Arizona. It was pretty incredible to hear about her experience and see some of the photographs she had taken while she was in Cambodia volunteering.

Here is some of the article that did not make the cut for the paper . . . I thought it was interesting to include.

When Sassano first arrived in Cambodia Sept. 30, she attended an orientation that taught the International Volunteer HQ organization volunteers about the culture, language and how to get around the city. They were also taken to a museum that taught them about an extremeness who took over and killed about a fourth of the population.

“I had already read a lot about what happened,” she explains. “It’s necessary to understand what was going on in the country and learn how the culture is now because of that.”

Throughout her stay, she lived in a volunteer house with 15 others who traveled from such places as Australia, Finland, California, Michigan, Boston, Ireland, Asia and many places in Europe. The house was staffed with a mixture of Cambodia locals and foreigners,

“It was really neat to meet people from all over the world. I really enjoyed being in a completely different culture and country,” she says about her roommates that ranged from 18 to 65 years old. “We always ate dinner together, we went on weekend trips. The house was really great.”

While she was in Cambodia a protest broke out about an election. She recalls the house staff advising everyone where they should and should not travel to stay clear of the protest.

Photographer captures poor living conditions in Cambodia

Published in the SanTan Sun News Nov. 16, 2013

After spending two and a half weeks volunteering in Cambodia among shanty towns with no running water or electricity, Chandler photographer Melanie Sassano still hopes to continue her work.

“It puts into perspective what is important about day-to-day life and if, you get enough to eat, you are good to go,” she says. “Experiencing it is very different. I would recommend anyone to do it.”

Sassano was in Cambodia from Sept. 30 through Oct. 16. She witnessed shocking living conditions for the kids with whom she worked.

“I would say the ones that lived on the street actually had it better than the ones who lived in the shanty towns,” she says.

The shanty towns, she explains, were plywood houses that sat on mud and a river that had raw sewage floating throughout.

“The shacks have no running water or electricity,” Sassano says. “The trash and smell in these shanty towns is really terrible.”

Other kids lived in parks and slept under the bridge when it rained or lived at the pagodas, religious compounds.

“This isn’t to say that all live in those shacks,” she explains. “Many live in modern buildings with water and electricity, however the cleanliness of the water is not to a high standards.”

She was placed with Le Restaurant des Enfants de la Rue, an 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. program for kids ages 1 to 17.

“Any kids can come off the street and come into the program,” she says. “It provides two meals a day, a place to sleep and hang out and provides a little bit of education.”

Sassano spent her time teaching English to the kids or playing impromptu games. She says the kids just wanted attention because many did not have parents or their parents worked frequently.

“It took a little bit to kind of process,” she says. “It was a little bit different to jump in there and see a lot of things and hear stories that were very difficult.”

She recalls working with Kakada, an intelligent 8-year-old boy who wanted to learn the English language. Sassano says he picked up on words and memorized them before he learned new ones the next day.

“He already had English words on the board,” she says of a ritual they began.

The number of kids she worked with varied almost every day. Some days Sassano explains the center was slower with around 10 kids, which provided her with the opportunity to work with youngsters one-on-one and other days there were 40 to 50 kids. She says a lot of the kids worked selling flowers and newspapers or collecting trash and bottles, which is why the numbers fluctuated from day to day.

“I am pretty amazed by the resilience of children,” she says.

The staff who worked at her placement, took their own personal time on the weekends to show her where the kids lived. Sassano says they wanted to show her because people do not know what their country and kids are going through.

“That is definitely something I wanted to share,” she says.

While volunteering, Sassano learned that individuals can sponsor a child in Cambodia for $30 a month, which can be done by visiting wacambodia.com/EN/le_restaurant.aspx. That money will feed the family and put the child through school.

“You have to pay for school, so most of the kids will not go to school,” she says.

Sassano says many Cambodians live on a dollar a day regardless the size of their family.

The 30-year-old volunteer says the first couple of days were emotionally overwhelming.

“I had a hard time blogging it, it was hard to put into words,” she says.

For more photos from her trip,visit melaniesassano.tumblr.com.