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SummerFest in Gaithersburg

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SummerFest in Gaithersburg is a beautiful lawn party for young and old and everybody in between. It takes place on the grounds of Bohrer Park at the end of June, an early celebration of Independence Day. From late afternoon through late in the night there is a non-stop offering of music and entertainment, games, contests, mini-parades and activities.

The festival invokes thoughts of the Great Gatsby in its elaborate festivities (minus the flapper dresses and boater hats).

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The band NATION provides truly amazing music throughout the afternoon and evening. People merrily sing and/or dance along.

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There are food trucks and local breweries galore.

Gaithersburg is one of the most diverse cities in the country. Statistics prove it, and, beyond the numbers, Gaithersburg Park and Recreation events year-round show it. But nowhere does Gaithersburg’s amazing diversity show so much as at SummerFest. People of all backgrounds come together to celebrate, get along, and have fun together.

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To me, SummerFest encompasses some of the things I love about America—the things that Americans take for granted but are unique to Europeans like me. For one, Americans just know how to party in the great outdoors! And they know what to bring: picnic hampers, coolers, chairs, tables, blankets, games, balls, frisbees, bubbles and especially a positive attitude. They come to have fun and they DO have fun!

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The festival is a great place to make new friends by joining in a pick-up volleyball game or jumping into - literally and figuratively - the sack races.

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The little ones can have fun together at the Touch-a-Truck site with a firetruck and school bus.

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During the course of the afternoon and evening a marching band, occasionally accompanied by colorful characters, walks around and invites people to tag along, thus merrily forming an impromptu parade. It’s a happy sight.

It’s a very, very hot day and people are encouraged to cool off in the air-conditioned Activity Center. The two gyms are transformed into a magical play area for kids, with giant inflatables, organized games, arts and crafts and fun photo-op spots. The hall of the building offers the popular book giveaways, some games, and spaces to just hang out.

At some point during the evening, the mayor of Gaithersburg and several Gaithersburg and Montgomery County council members address the party-goers from the main stage and kick/throw large beach balls into the happy crowd.

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Once dusk sets in, a special vibe is in the air and excitement starts to build. It’s almost time for the fireworks. This is a nerve-racking time for me. Photographing fireworks is tricky and I feel a lot of pressure. I spent a fair amount of time researching and preparing but I am not completely happy with my photos. My favorite is the “blue” photo with children in the middle. I think it has a dreamy quality but probably belongs more in an illustrated children’s book than a blog about SummerFest and its beautiful fireworks.

As soon as the fireworks are over, the marching band, followed by a colorful, glow-in-the-dark lineup of costumed characters, inflatable creatures, stilt walkers, jugglers and hula-hoopers, parades through the park and ends in front of the stage. It is time for the SummerGlo party. It is a tremendous event and therefore not surprising that so many people stay for the spectacle. Unfortunately, approaching thunderstorms put an early halt to the event.

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PS:  I love photographing for Gaithersburg.  After the OktoberFest and the St. Patrick's Day Parade, this is my favorite event.  It’s a long, hot day but I would do it again in a second. My only regret: no time for a hot dog and a beer.  Luckily, I had (more than!) my share of both the next day, at a fun restaurant in the area in the company of my lovely family!



Game of Golds

Today, exactly one year ago, I was at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. This year I attended the not much less spectacular Game of Golds, a.k.a. the Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games. They took place at Towson University in Towson, Md. from Friday, June 7 through Sunday, June 9. Here are some of my favorite moments:

Opening Ceremony in SECU Arena at Towson University, MD on Friday, June 7, 2019. Over the course of three days 1500 athletes and Unified Partners will compete in athletics, softball, cheerleading, bocce or swimming.

Opening Ceremony in SECU Arena at Towson University, MD on Friday, June 7, 2019. Over the course of three days 1500 athletes and Unified Partners will compete in athletics, softball, cheerleading, bocce or swimming.

Two athletes carry the Olympic torch to its final destination in front of Unitas Stadium at Towson University, MD at the end of the Opening Ceremony. They are surrounded by Law Enforcement Torch Runners and athletes. The torch will remain lit until the Summer Games are completed.

Two athletes carry the Olympic torch to its final destination in front of Unitas Stadium at Towson University, MD at the end of the Opening Ceremony. They are surrounded by Law Enforcement Torch Runners and athletes. The torch will remain lit until the Summer Games are completed.

An athlete rejoices upon completion of the 50 meter freestyle event in the pool of Burdick Hall at Towson University, MD on Friday June 7, 2019.

An athlete rejoices upon completion of the 50 meter freestyle event in the pool of Burdick Hall at Towson University, MD on Friday June 7, 2019.

High jumper successfully completes a challenging jump at Unitas Stadium , Towson University, MD on Sunday June 9, 2019.

High jumper successfully completes a challenging jump at Unitas Stadium , Towson University, MD on Sunday June 9, 2019.

Athlete giving it her very best at the long jump event at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete giving it her very best at the long jump event at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Javelin thrower being watched by a volunteer referee at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019. The staging area for all track and field events is top left and the awards area is top right.

Javelin thrower being watched by a volunteer referee at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019. The staging area for all track and field events is top left and the awards area is top right.

Great catch during the final softball game on the Varsity Softball Field at Towson University, MD on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Great catch during the final softball game on the Varsity Softball Field at Towson University, MD on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Howard County coaches and athlete watching the game from the sidelines at the Varsity Softball Field at Towson University on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Howard County coaches and athlete watching the game from the sidelines at the Varsity Softball Field at Towson University on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

A few of the many supporters of the Summer Games at Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 19, 2019.

A few of the many supporters of the Summer Games at Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 19, 2019.

Athletes taking off for the 50 meter dash on the track of Unitas Stadium of Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athletes taking off for the 50 meter dash on the track of Unitas Stadium of Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Short distance runners on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Short distance runners on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete running the 50 meter dash on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete running the 50 meter dash on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Runner completing the final leg of the 4 x 100 meter relay on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Runner completing the final leg of the 4 x 100 meter relay on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Judges and volunteers applauding a deaf runner at the finish line on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Judges and volunteers applauding a deaf runner at the finish line on the track of Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete high-fiving a law enforcement officer after receiving a silver medal from him in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Athlete high-fiving a law enforcement officer after receiving a silver medal from him in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Excited athlete shaking hands with a law enforcement officer upon receiving a 6th place ribbon reading “skill, courage, sharing, joy” in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Excited athlete shaking hands with a law enforcement officer upon receiving a 6th place ribbon reading “skill, courage, sharing, joy” in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

A very happy athlete in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

A very happy athlete in the Awards tent at Unitas Stadium, Towson University, MD. on Sunday, June 9, 2019.

Bread baking demonstration.

Being from Europe, bread is “sacred” and treated with the utmost respect! A few months ago I decided to start baking my own bread and miraculously discovered (against all odds) that I can actually succeed in this! I developed my own whole wheat, multi grain, multi seed bread and it is delicious! See photo at the end of this blog.

But there is so much more to learn and I was therefore very happy when I came across an announcement of a baking demonstration by King Arthur Flour in my hometown (Gaithersburg, Md.) This was offered as part of a road trip by a King Arthur team, visiting schools to teach kids to learn, bake and share. The program is called “Bake for Good".

The demonstration was just wonderful! What a great ambiance! The King Arthur team was very welcoming and friendly. A large table was set up in the front of the room with ingredients, utensils, measuring cups, bread rollers, samples, etc. While the instructor was talking and showing how to knead, roll, let rise, knead some more, add ingredients and knead again, we could simultaneously watch a more close-up view on a large screen. We learned about making whole wheat yeast bread, quick bread and braided bread and much more. There was a raffle at the end with some really fun door prizes. And at the end everybody was given a bag with flour, recipes and other goodies.

Here are some photos, taken with my brand new Nikon Z6.

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And here’s my bread!

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My beautiful Rosi got engaged!

Rosi! My beautiful and loyal friend. She always puts others first. She gives and then gives some more! She is humble. She is hardworking. She is devout. And now she is engaged! So much joy and happiness! How can that even be captured?

Rosi doesn’t favor being in the spotlight, so a formal photo session is out of the question. “Snow,” she says, “photos in the snow!” I think it is very risky to bet on snow. It is already towards the end of February, fast approaching spring. Then, some weeks later, it miraculously starts snowing. A few urgent text messages and phone calls later, I grab my snow boots, my gear and my ugly grey oversized poncho and trudge through the snow to meet Rosi and her fiancé. Rosi is ready. Her fiancé is not! He is still clearing the driveway and then needs to shave, shower and change. I wait, fixated on the snowflakes. Are they going to remain flakes, or will they become too wet and turn into miserable, little raindrops? But the stars align and here is the result!

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Congratulations dearest Rosi! I wish you boundless happiness. You deserve it!

More portraits here: https://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Portraits

Be Brave, Include and Lead the Way!

Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle - July, 2018

In early July, more than 4,000 athletes and coaches and 15,000 volunteers descended on Seattle to participate in the Special Olympics USA Games. Total attendance across 14 venues was 101,500.  I was very lucky to be one of them as part of Special Olympics Maryland’s media team.

I have hesitated to write a story about the Games for several reasons. How can any words describe the magnitude of the experience, the passion among the athletes, and abilities of the intellectually-disabled?  How can the joy, camaraderie, friendliness, kindnesses, or all-around “having each other’s back” feelings be translated into words that do them justice? How can I explain what the entire experience has done to me on a personal level: old friendships reaffirmed, new friendships made, that feeling of belonging - not only in the media team or in Team MD athletes, coaches, family and friends but also a belonging among the 101,500 USA Games attendants?

As I spent many hours contemplating what to write, the Special Olympics Athlete Oath kept popping up in my thoughts:

Let me win.

But if I cannot win,

Let me be brave

in the attempt.

This perfectly describes all the athletes at the Games: there were many attempts made and they were all brave!  As so many touching and inspirational stories have been told in the media outlets, suffice it to say that witnessing this firsthand was an unforgettable experience.  What an incredible example the athletes set for all of us!

Another Special Olympics motto that really appeals to me comes to mind:  Choose to Include. We need to include and welcome people with intellectual disabilities in our society! And I saw that happening at the USA Games on a very large scale. Of course, volunteers, coaches, family, friends, and other supporters were there to love and celebrate the athletes. But everyone else connected with the Games - camera operators and photographers, groundskeepers, vendors, sponsors and students on the campus where the Games took place - actively appreciated and included the Special Olympics community.  And many good people of Seattle welcomed the athletes and their supporters with open arms and showed genuine interest in the Games and the people involved.

But the athletes themselves  are the best model of Choose to Include, extending inclusion not just to their fellow athletes and teammates, but also to all of us cheering them on. They let us into their lives; they shared their brave attempts and accomplishments with us. They gave us their friendship and love.  For all of that, I cannot thank the Special Olympics athletes enough.

Once again, the Special Olympics athletes are leading the way: in their Inclusion Revolution.  It’s not just them but ANYONE who is different in any way or is facing mental disabilities who needs to be included.  This is the Inclusion Pledge:


                                           I pledge. To look for the lonely. The isolated. The left out. The challenged. The bullied.

I pledge. To overcome the fear of difference. And replace it with the power of inclusion.

I #ChooseToInclude

 

As I am not an eloquent writer or speaker I’d like to stop my thoughts here and show some photos. Of course I took thousands of them and many show the athletic accomplishments but I just picked a few photos capturing the spirit of my experience.

Special Olympic athletes at the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics USA Games at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium Alaska Airlines Field in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2018.

Special Olympic athletes at the Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics USA Games at University of Washington’s Husky Stadium Alaska Airlines Field in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2018.

Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics, addresses the crowd during the Opening Ceremony of the USA Games on the Alaska Airlines Field of Washington University’s Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2018.

Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics, addresses the crowd during the Opening Ceremony of the USA Games on the Alaska Airlines Field of Washington University’s Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2018.

Athletes approaching the finish line at the 100 meter dash on the Husky Track of the University of Washington.

Athletes approaching the finish line at the 100 meter dash on the Husky Track of the University of Washington.

Runner finishes the 400 meter dash on the Husky Track of the University of Washington.

Runner finishes the 400 meter dash on the Husky Track of the University of Washington.

Golf coach helps his athlete stretch and relax at the tee box before her first shot at the Willows Run Golf Club in Redmond, Washington.

Golf coach helps his athlete stretch and relax at the tee box before her first shot at the Willows Run Golf Club in Redmond, Washington.

Tennis coach joins her athlete while he is warming up for his match at the Bill Quillian Tennis Stadium of the University of Washington.

Tennis coach joins her athlete while he is warming up for his match at the Bill Quillian Tennis Stadium of the University of Washington.

Tight race at the 50 meter breaststroke in the King County Aquatic Center in Seattle, Washington.

Tight race at the 50 meter breaststroke in the King County Aquatic Center in Seattle, Washington.

Team Maryland player attempts to score and Team Florida goalkeeper deflects the ball on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle.

Team Maryland player attempts to score and Team Florida goalkeeper deflects the ball on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle.

Team Maryland and Florida supporters at a very exciting game played on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle. After a fierce battle team Florida won!

Team Maryland and Florida supporters at a very exciting game played on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle. After a fierce battle team Florida won!

Team Maryland goalkeeper succesfully stops a goal on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle.

Team Maryland goalkeeper succesfully stops a goal on the Championship Field of the University of Seattle.

Athlete gets a high-five from his nephew who wears a t-shirt with the words: “My Uncle Rocks!” Husky Track University of Washington.

Athlete gets a high-five from his nephew who wears a t-shirt with the words: “My Uncle Rocks!” Husky Track University of Washington.

Athletes are gathered on the Marv Harshman Court of the University of Washington on July 1, 2018.

Athletes are gathered on the Marv Harshman Court of the University of Washington on July 1, 2018.

Cheerleaders performing for all Special Olympics athletes at the Marv Harshman Court of the University of Washington on July 1, 2018.

Cheerleaders performing for all Special Olympics athletes at the Marv Harshman Court of the University of Washington on July 1, 2018.

Maryland powerlifter competing at the Meanie Hall for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

Maryland powerlifter competing at the Meanie Hall for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

Maryland powerlifter after competing at the Meanie Hall for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

Maryland powerlifter after competing at the Meanie Hall for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

Maryland bowlers at the bowling competition taking place at Kenmore Lanes in Kenmore, Washington.

Maryland bowlers at the bowling competition taking place at Kenmore Lanes in Kenmore, Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball team at the beginning of a game on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball team at the beginning of a game on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball player on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball player on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington.

Maryland’s traditional basketball team at the end of a game on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington! They won!

Maryland’s traditional basketball team at the end of a game on the IMA Courts of the University of Washington! They won!

 

 

 

All Special Olympics USA Games Team Maryland photos here:  SPECIAL OLYMPICS

 

 

 

Last college drop-off in Maine!

All good things come to an end!  I don't mean to sound gloomy (because  in the words of W. Eugene Smith: " Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance.  Always, I am on the threshold".) I'm just a bit  melancholic!  Last September marked the last college drop-off of our youngest at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  As had become our tradition we spent a few days vacationing in the area.  My husband plans these trips and they are always sublime and filled with delightful surprises.  

It's naturally very hectic on drop-off day and there is way too much stuff (girls!) to gather at the storage facility, unload and  lug up the stairs.  We therefore never venture out very far but spend the first night in nearby Portland to gather our wits, get over the fast good-byes (very one-sided), stroll around, relax and find a good place to eat.  

This year we didn't stay in Maine but travelled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and then on to Rockport, Massachusetts.  Here are a few scenic photos!

Mural in Portland, Maine.

Mural in Portland, Maine.

View from pool of Wentworth by the Sea, New Castle, New Hampshire.

View from pool of Wentworth by the Sea, New Castle, New Hampshire.

View from Wentworth by the Sea, New Castle, New Hampshire.

View from Wentworth by the Sea, New Castle, New Hampshire.

Late afternoon view of harbor of Rockport, Massachusetts.

Late afternoon view of harbor of Rockport, Massachusetts.

Twilight just before sunrise over the harbor of Rockport, Massachusetts.

Twilight just before sunrise over the harbor of Rockport, Massachusetts.

Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Rockport sailboats in the twilight.

Rockport sailboats in the twilight.

World's most celebrated fishing shack (Motif Number 1) photographed from the "wrong" side, on Bradley Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

World's most celebrated fishing shack (Motif Number 1) photographed from the "wrong" side, on Bradley Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

World's most celebrated fishing shack (Motif Number 1) photographed from the "right" side, on Bradley Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

World's most celebrated fishing shack (Motif Number 1) photographed from the "right" side, on Bradley Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

"Decorated" side of the world's most celebrated fishing shack (Motif Number 1) on Bradley Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

"Decorated" side of the world's most celebrated fishing shack (Motif Number 1) on Bradley Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Gallery display on Main Street, Rockport, Massachusetts.

Gallery display on Main Street, Rockport, Massachusetts.

Back view of Bearskin Neck in Rockport, Massachussetts.

Back view of Bearskin Neck in Rockport, Massachussetts.

Storefront with lantern display for Rockport's Illumination Weekend.

Storefront with lantern display for Rockport's Illumination Weekend.

North Shore Kayak on Tuna Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

North Shore Kayak on Tuna Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Fishermen's boats on Bradley Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Fishermen's boats on Bradley Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts.

The Atlantic Path from Rockport to Halibut Point State Park, Massachusetts.

The Atlantic Path from Rockport to Halibut Point State Park, Massachusetts.

House on Ocean Avenue in Rockport, Massachusetts.

House on Ocean Avenue in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Lobster boat heading straight into the sunrise in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Lobster boat heading straight into the sunrise in Rockport, Massachusetts.

All good things must come to an end but in the words of W. Eugene Smith:  " Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance.  Always, I am on the threshold". 

Previous Maine blog:  www.marleenvandenneste.com/blog/maine

More Maine photos here: https://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Places/Maine

Black Ankle Vineyards

All too easily I let weekends slip by.  Not this weekend!  After photographing assignments Friday night and Saturday morning and an amazing Halloween party that evening, I asked my husband to plan a little outing for Sunday afternoon.  As it's his hobby to plan trips and culinary adventures (he's really a master planner!), he came through - much to his credit because he didn't particularly feel like leaving the house!

So mid-day he drove me through windy, narrow stretches of road in a beautiful countryside;  the sun smiling upon us and the sky as blue as blue can be.  It wasn't too far from where we live but I had never been there.  Our trip led us to Mt Airy, Md. at the beautiful Black Ankle Vineyards. This is supposedly one of the best wineries in Maryland.

For the European readers I have to explain that wine-tasting here can be a very different experience.  It's maybe a little less formal and strict, people often take a picnic and a blanket and once they have tasted some wines and decide on a bottle or two, they take it all outside to hang out.  Although there may not be the amazing caves as, say, in France,  the scenery is often beautiful, there's ample space for the children to run around and play and there may be some musicians.  It's a wonderful atmosphere.

As soon as we arrived at Black Ankle winery we loved it!  It was truly one of those times when one good thing was followed by the other and then the other, culminating in an incredible experience.  We tasted some lovely wines inside the cozy strawbale cottage and since our charming server felt bad for us because she was so busy we were even treated to some dessert wine tastings.  We then took some wine outside and enjoyed it on the patio, overlooking beautiful fields of grass and vineyards with some foliage in the background.  We admired groups of people enjoying themselves with their picnics and wines and chatted with some others on the patio.  It made us feel energized and  happy and we really didn't want to leave!

 

 

 

Sunrise, food and serenity in Maine

Summertime in DC, a time I always wish I was somewhere else!  Since I just started a new job I couldn't go back home to the Netherlands for a visit this summer.  I'm therefore very much looking forward to a short trip coming up soon to one of my favorite places:  Maine!  We've been making this trip the past three years to drop off our youngest at college near Portland and this will be her last year!  My husband is the planner and he is very good at that.  Ever since our honeymoon he keeps most of it a surprise and I have never been disappointed!  

Last year we went to Bar Harbor, a town surrounded by Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.  Everything about this trip was magical. We were staying in a place overlooking the Gulf of Maine and woke up to the most spectacular sunrises. Within a few minute timespan the view on the left, then on the right and then back to the left would be like this:

Usually, when we travel, we have a simple breakfast, some fruit for lunch and then feast in the evening.  My husband is the mastermind behind our dinner plans and finds us the most perfect little restaurants, shacks, diners and dives although I certainly have a say in that too (last photo in this series).

The ambiance at one restaurant in particular was spectacular.  Seafood being cooked in this shack, was brought up by runners (literally ) to the restaurant uphill or to the brave souls at the tables on the water's edge (it was somewhat cold!).  The food was mouthwatering good.  I had lobster of course!

It's all about seafood in Maine.  And  fishers start at a very young age!

I need peace and quiet at times.  Always have!  Growing up in the Netherlands I spent a lot of time on and by the water and so naturally I'm drawn to the serenity in Maine.  

I'll finish here with this final image that was actually not taken in Mount Desert Island but rather in Boothbay Harbor and is part of a series  "Fog in Boothbay Harbor".

 

 

Thank you to these very special people!

Thank you to these very special people!

Mid-November last year marked a crucial point in my life.  I had just completed my “Outsider” project (exhibit in July) and was ready to start a new personal project.  Having regularly done assignments for Special Olympics Maryland (SOMD) I wanted to  create a portrait series of Special Olympians reflecting their beauty and unique personalities.  I did not want to focus on disabilities.  With the help of SOMD,  who sent out a social media and email newsblast about the portrait sessions, I soon received responses and started setting up appointments.  I asked each person to bring a few favorite outfits as I wanted to portray them in a way they would feel beautiful.  It didn’t necessarily have to be athletic portraits.

A little nervous and  self-conscious, I opened the door for my first appointment that day in mid-November.  A beautiful young woman, smiling from ear to ear, and her mother entered and were excited about a photo session.  We talked a bit, laughed a bit, and photographed a lot!  It’s possible the mother sensed that I was worried about saying or doing the wrong thing because in a very gentle way she guided the conversation and helped me understand her daughter. It was very uplifting and I don’t know who had a better time, they or me!  That same day three more sessions followed. And 24 more in the next weeks.  The ages ranged from 3 to 54.

Every session was different. Some people were a little shy, most of them were not!  Some were able to verbalize well and  some didn’t verbalize but were able to communicate in other ways.  Some people wanted to move around, dance or jump, and some stood still or lay down on the big red beanbag.  Some wanted to have music (sometimes we played the same song several times, especially Abba’s “Dancing Queen”) and some didn’t.  Some only wanted to stay a little while and some didn’t want to leave (I didn’t want them to leave either!).  Parents, caregivers and sometimes siblings stood by and offered support.  They were really the biggest cheerleaders!

These sessions became the highlight of my day!  And I was sorry if someone cancelled.  

Each and every person I met, taught me something new.  They taught me ways to communicate and interact.  They explained about hurdles, big and small,  and how they were overcome.  They talked about challenges, major and minor,  and how they were dealt with.  They showed pride in accomplishments, big and small. They taught me about persistence and discipline. They taught me to enjoy and have fun. They also taught me that happiness and joy can exist even under difficult circumstances. I learned about self-sacrifice and giving.  And about doing one’s best without making it about winning.  I learned about supporting each other and having each other's back.  And they showed me the meaning of unconditional love!

It was a life-changing experience for me.  My life has been one with personal struggles, doubts, lack of self-esteem and self-love. There’s been the fear of rejection.  And  there’s always been that nagging question:  “who am I?” This has been so as a child, student, mother, lawyer and photographer.  Although objectively speaking there were some accomplishments, these never really gave  me a sense of peace and true happiness.

The photo sessions and meeting so many truly inspiring people made me realize that my life shouldn’t be about a search to the answer of the egocentric question: Who am I?  It shouldn’t be about me!  It should be about how I can, by simply being me,  be good and do good.  About doing my best.  About giving and empathy.  About enjoying the small things.  And about sacrifice and working hard.

So I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to everybody involved with this project.  Aside from the fact that it was such a pleasure meeting you and working with you, you showed me the way!
 

Thank you!

 

 

Here are a few photos from the portrait sessions.  The entire series is here https://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Portraits/Special-People/

Portrait Special Olympian
Portrait Special Olympian
Portrait Special Olympian
Portrait Special Olympian
Portrait Special Olympian
Portrait Special Olympian
Portrait Special Olympian
Portrait Special Olympian
Portrait Special Olympian

This blog only contains a small selection of the series.  The entire series is here https://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Portraits/Special-People/

Super Plunger Mary Kokosko

Mary Kokosko!

She's a teacher, she's an organizer and fundraiser, she's a smiler!  She's very involved with people with disabilities and has been since she participated in the best-buddy program during her high school years.  She's outgoing, charming and full of life!  But most of all she's an amazing Super Plunger!  

This weekend the Special Olympics Maryland Polar Bear Plunges took place at Sandy Point State Park , Md.  The events kicked off with a Cool School Plunge on Thursday, followed by a Police, Firefighter/EMS and Military Plunge and a Corporate Plunge on Friday and culminating in three gigantic Polar Bear Plunges for everybody else on Saturday.  

Mary didn't just do one of these plunges.  Not even two or three.  She  probably plunged more than 25 times this year (but I actually have to ask her because I think it's even more than that).  And she hasn't  done that just this year but she's been at it for 8 years!  

On Thursday, Mary plunged with 270 students and 12 teachers (that's 7 school buses full) of South River High.  She got them there, she inspired and recruited the kids, she organized many fundraisers, she took care of the required forms and waivers and she collected the money. This year the school raised $ 34,000 and were the #1 team (again).  In total the school, over a 7 year period, has raised about $ 250,000.  And then after the Cool School Plunge, she came back on Friday to start super plunging:  a plunge every hour during a period of 24 hours.

I met Mary during the Super Plunge in 2014;  the coldest plunge EVER, when the waves in the Chesapeake Bay kept bringing in ice through which the plungers had to find their way!  (For those interested, here are some photos:  http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/SpecialOlympics/Polar-Bear-Plunge-12514.) It didn't discourage her though.  This year was her 5th time as a super plunger (7th time overall, including the cool school plunge).  She teamed-up with South River High student and student liaison Caroline Boyd whose father, Don Boyd, is the captain of the Super Plunge Team.

This Saturday Mary and I sat down for a few moments to talk. This was after plunge # 23 at around 8:15 AM and she was tired!  Very tired.  The "dark side of the moon" plunges (between 1 and 5AM) had been hard. When I asked her if she was planning to continue being a super plunger in the next few years she was a little hesitant.  "As long as her body would let her", she said!  "It takes more and more time recovering..."

Mary, the following photos are worth a thousand words, all illustrating  what an amazing, inspiring, funny and kind plunger you are!  Thank you for all that you do!  I have a feeling you'll continue doing this for a few more years!

And to all super plungers:  you all deserve to be the subject of a blog.  You are all so, so special.  Thank you for showing me the way!  Your photos are here: http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/SpecialOlympics/Super-Plunge-27-2817.

Polar Bear Plunge 1-27-28-17-3581.jpg