Discussing Death

By Sarah Miller

When people hear that I’m a hospice chaplain, they often say “OH that sounds so hard!” or they immediately tell me their death story. Most people have a story about someone in their life who has passed away. After telling me their story, they thank me for listening and for being curious about their loss. People LOVE to share their experience.

Our culture prefers to talk about newborn babies and new life but not so much about end of life care and death. I lecture on death and dying at Baylor University and have noticed that even college students have often been connected to someone who has died or have walked with a friend who has lost a loved one. I think it is important for stories to be heard.

Since getting people to talk about death before a crisis happens is one of my interests, I decided to offer two events to the Waco community this summer. In May, I hosted a Death Café at the Good Neighbor House. Death Café was starting in England by a man named Jon Underwood. He wanted to create a space where people, often strangers, would get together to drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death. The objective of Death Café is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping others make the most of their finite lives.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I invited anyone interested to show up, eat cake, and talk about death with me. I was delighted by this gathering of kind, curious Wacoans who arrived ready to talk about all things death. A death positive Waco facebook group was created after this event and has sparked some great conversations.

In August, another chaplain and I hosted a Death Over Dinner (again at the Good Neighbor House). The concept is quite incredible. Guests meet for dinner and talk about end of life issues. The organization recommends listening, reading, and watching various stories or articles before the dinner and offers questions to guide the evening.  I enjoyed getting to hear from people from a variety of backgrounds and hear what is meaningful to them. More death related events will be planned in the upcoming months. I would love for more Wacoans to tell their stories and also to ask questions and process death topics in safe spaces.

Due to the nature of my job, I’m asked the same questions over and over so thought the blog readers might have interest in my answers. The most popular question is this: How can you work with dying people and grieving families and not get burned out? Compassion fatigue is a real thing! I do a few things to prevent burn out. I do at least 3-4 yoga classes per week. Making my body and breath work together in a yoga class helps tremendously with stress relief. I also spend time with my husband, adorable son, and lots of friends. I’m an extrovert so need to have intentional, fun space with people who are life-giving to me. I also journal after a hard day and use my coworkers to process grief when a favorite patient dies or if I’m feeling particularly sad. Another question I get asked often is what books or websites do I recommend. I think everyone should read Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. The websites I use frequently are: www.theconversationproject.org, www.agingwithdignity.org, www.caringinfo.org, www.compassionandchoices.org, www.griefshare.org.

Talking about death and end of life care can be a little scary initially but I recommend families and friends do this when possible. It is much better to know in advance what your loved ones want. If anyone wants more information on upcoming death-related events, please go to Death Positive Waco on Facebook.


Sarah Miller has lived in Waco for the past fifteen years and is a chaplain with SouthernCare Hospice. She loves encouraging patients and families at the end of life. She can be found most nights doing yoga at the Yoga Pod or hanging out with her husband and delightful five year old.

2017 Greatest Hits #6: Four Things I Wish I Had Known in High School

(During December we will be reprising some of  “2017’s greatest hits” from the Act Locally Waco blog. I couldn’t possibly pick my favorites – so I used the simple (cop out?)  approach of pulling up the 10 blog posts that got the most “opens” according to our Google Analytics.  It is an intriguing collection that gives at least a little insight into the interests and concerns of Act Locally Waco readers. I hope this “Top 10” idea inspires you to go back and re-read your personal favorites.  There have been so many terrific ones… If you would like to see the Top 10 according to Google Analytics, here’s the link: 2017 Greatest Hits.  Merry Christmas! — ABT) 

By Kassidy Munden

After my first year of college, I began to realize there were things I really (and I mean really) wish I had known in high school to help make my transition to college smoother.

The first thing I would advise any high schooler would be to take the high school anatomy class. I didn’t think I would ever need anatomy in my future profession, or even have to take it in college, but I could not have been more wrong about that. High school students considering going to college should seriously consider taking an anatomy class. My biggest regret about not taking anatomy in high school was that when I got to college, I was far behind my classmates and didn’t know a single thing. You can imagine how well a 100-question test over blood flow in the body went for me three weeks into my freshman year.

The second thing I would recommend for any high schooler would be to take dual credit in high school. Looking back on high school, that had to be one of the best educational decisions I made to prepare for college. Thanks to dual credit, I had all of my core English classes completed by the time I began college. Not only was it one less major class I had to take, I also learned how to properly write college papers. This helped me in my other classes as well, because in every class, even math, I had to write some type of proper essay. Knowing how to format and write these essays before my freshman year paid off in a huge way. I wish I had known to take more of the dual credit classes my high school offered, because even though they seemed difficult, they were more rewarding in the long run than they seemed at the time.

The third thing I wish I had known was to take the college transition class offered. Most high schools offer a college transition class and extend the class to all seniors. I did take this class, but I wish I had taken it more seriously. This class teaches students about life in college and how to live on your own, as well as educational enhancements such as how to build a resume. Looking back now, I wish I had learned how to build a proper resume, because that is something I will need for anything and everything. Most freshmen take classes requiring them to build a resume of some sort, and trust me, learning about it in detail in high school is easier than trying to learn it on your own in college.

The fourth and final thing I wish I had known was to get a job or internship. Most high school students declare their major “undecided” when entering their freshman year of college, which is completely normal. However, I wish I had explored more job opportunities and taken internships. These not only look great on a resume but also help you develop an idea of what you might actually want to get a degree in. Having more of a background in several different positions makes you a more diverse and knowledgeable individual. Did I mention it also will give you a stronger resume when you apply for college? That is key for all aspiring college students.

High school is a profound experience-building time for everyone, and I highly recommend that college-bound students seek out all of the opportunities available, because they definitely will pay off in the long run.


Kassidy Munden is a summer intern at ESC Region 12 in the College and Career Readiness/CTE department. She is a student at Texas Tech University and wanted to share her wisdom with current high school students.

Exhibit on Women in STEM Fields Opens at the Mayborn Museum!

By Emily Carolin

This fall, the Mayborn Museum at Baylor University will host the exhibition, Find a Way, Not an Excuse: Women in STEM.  Focused on the lives of 19 women and their contributions to science, technology, engineering, and math fields, the exhibit also includes women with local connections. This project would not have been possible without the initial idea and input of Courtney Berge and Valencia Johnson, recent alumnae of the Baylor University Museum Studies Graduate Program. 

What is STEM?

Ellen Ochoa, Astronaut

STEM is shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  These sectors work together to expand human knowledge and make the world a better place. Women have contributed in STEM fields for generations, often without credit. Some female leaders were discouraged by fellow scientists, and pushed out of research projects. Even without the recognition, their accomplishments live on today. This exhibit highlights some unfamiliar women who changed the world.

As we focus on pioneering innovations in STEM, we hope to inspire a fierce desire to learn continuously, and through perseverance allow curiosity to lead to discovery. We celebrate these female STEM leaders and are excited by all that remains to be discovered.

Here are a few female pioneers with a Baylor connection.  Come to the museum to see more national names and some amazing medical drawings by Ruth Sanders! 

Dr. Cornelia Marschall Smith

In 1895, Cornelia Marschall was born into a family well-versed in the practice of the sciences. She graduated from high school in three years, taught in a one-room schoolhouse, and entered the Baylor pre-medical program in 1915. Dr. Smith came back to Baylor, serving as Chair of Biology and Director of the Strecker Museum (now the Mayborn Museum Complex) from 1943-1967. While at the Strecker, her primary objective as museum director was to make sure the materials in the museum were used as teaching tools. Students in the biology department were required to attend demonstrations in the museum, and teachers used items from the collection in their classrooms. These practices continue today at the Mayborn. 

Ruth Maxwell Sanders

Ruth Sanders was a skilled medical sketch artist and wife of Strecker Museum Research Associate and herpetologist Ottys Sanders. She assisted as the illustrator for many of her husband’s publications, and maintained a successful business herself. In her position at Southwestern Medical College (UT Southwestern), she worked with physicians to produce high-quality surgical illustrations. This allowed the physicians to teach precise methods to their students. Her collection of medical drawings and art supplies were given to the Strecker Museum and show a strong understanding of the human body. 

Dr. Allene Rosalind Jeanes

If you enjoy ice cream, salad dressing, toothpaste, or gluten-free baked goods, then you probably owe a word of thanks to this Baylor alumna who was recently inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Jeanes made discoveries in the science of mass production of polysaccharides (large sugar-chain molecules), including dextran and xanthan gum. Today, xanthum gum is commonly used in foods like ice cream, condiments and gluten-free breads, and in cosmetic, automotive, and healthcare products. It keeps substances like oil and vinegar from separating, and prevents ice crystals from forming. 

Dr. Beverly Griffin

Earlier this year, Beverly Griffin passed away and medical and research communities around the world mourned her loss. She came to Baylor from her hometown of Delhi, Louisiana, and after graduating with her degree in chemistry, she went on to earn doctoral degrees from Virginia and Cambridge. In 1972, Dr. Griffin joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in London. While there, she made a major contribution to science by completing the genetic sequencing of the mouse polyoma virus. With 5,293 base pairs, the virus was one of the longest ever sequenced when she finished it in 1980. She went on to become the first female professor at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at London’s Hammersmith Hospital, where she dedicated much of the remainder of her career to studying the Epstein-Barr virus. 

Dr. Hallie Earle

As a teen, Hallie Earle tracked Central Texas temperatures for decades. Baylor President Oscar H. Cooper praised Hallie for her mathematical abilities, suggesting that she could become a math teacher. Earle, however, sought to challenge gender roles by pursuing a professional career in medicine. Her quality of work was so widely appreciated that a copy of her thesis was placed in the cornerstone of the Carroll Science Building in 1902. Born in 1880, Earle was the only female in the class of 1907 at Baylor University Medical School in Dallas, and later became Waco’s first female physician.


Emily Carolin is a Yankee living the grad school life in the South. She can often be found: devouring books and baked goods, wearing clogs, and wandering in museums. Emily is a graduate student at Baylor University, works at the Mayborn Museum Complex, and just completed her an internship in changing exhibits at the Mayborn.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

Welcome to Waco, Dr. Nelson! I think you’ll be glad you came.

By Ashley Bean Thornton

A few weeks ago I attended a welcome and “get to know you” reception for our new Waco ISD Superintendent, Dr. Marcus Nelson.  The event, sponsored by the Waco NAACP and the local chapter of educator sorority, Phi Delta Kappa Inc., was a terrific success.  Dr. Peaches Henry, NAACP president, told me they had put out 50 chairs before the event – by the time Dr. Nelson rose to speak they needed 200. Dr. Nelson made some fans for himself that night.  His introductory speech was masterful:  full of  humor, passion, challenge and confidence. His speech wasn’t exactly a sermon, but there were plenty “amens” from the congregation as he shared key elements of his educational philosophy.

A few days later I happened to be walking out of a different meeting with school board member Norman Manning.  I told him I thought they might have hit a homerun with Dr. Nelson, and Mr. Manning agreed.  As we were talking, though, he mentioned some other conversations he has had about our new superintendent.  He told me several people had been asking, “Well, if he’s so great — why does he want to come HERE?”

Why here?  I don’t know Dr. Nelson yet, and I can’t read his mind, but I can think of at least three big reasons why a superb educational leader in the prime of his career would want to come to Waco, Texas.

First, if you believe in the power of education, Waco is exactly where you want to be.   Sure, there are probably easier places to work.  But, for someone who believes in the power of education, that’s not where the action is.  There are school systems with more money.  There are schools where the students have more advantages. There are probably even some schools where, honestly, the students are going to be fine if you are even a moderately competent educator.  But, where’s the sport in that?  The purpose of public education is not to perpetuate the status quo.  The purpose of public education is to perpetuate the dream – the dream that a person, any person, starting from any circumstances, can work hard and achieve and build a good life.  Waco is a place where “the rubber meets the road” when it comes to that dream. Waco is a place where educators make a huge difference in students’ lives every day.

Second, there is plenty to build on in Waco.  I’m an outside observer, I know, but I have some favorites: The Income Tax Prep program at the A.J. Moore Academy at University High; The Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy (GWAMA), the Greater Waco Health Career Academy (GWACHA) and the new Construction Sciences Academy; the fine arts programs including the amazing musicals; our support for homeless students…the list goes on.   We have terrific students at WISD.  When they are given the opportunity, they can knock your socks off.  We also have some terrific educators who are working and innovating every day to give them those opportunities.

Finally, the community of Waco needs a strong school district and we know it. I get phone calls and emails regularly from people who are moving to Waco and want the “inside scoop” on living here. I have not had one of these conversations yet that did not end up being a conversation about school districts.  These conversations reinforce for me what we all already know: Any community that expects to thrive must have a strong school district…and Waco expects to thrive. Our community has shown it is willing to join in the work of building up the school district.  Through community-wide efforts such as the Education Alliance (now a part of Prosper Waco) we have been rallying support for years. Organizations such as Avance and  Communities in Schools, tutoring programs sponsored by a variety of churches and community groups and numerous individual volunteers stand ready to help.

In 2015 our community showed its support for WISD by passing a Tax Ratification to direct new financial resources into the district – resources that have been used to improve literacy programs; to explore and implement positive, effective ways to work on behavioral issues; and to provide outstanding dual credit opportunities to WISD students.

Certainly, Waco ISD has its challenges. We also have the wisdom and the will to face those challenges head on.  By all accounts, Dr. Nelson did his homework before accepting the job as superintendent of our school district.  I think he saw a terrific opportunity in Waco, and was smart to jump on it.

For the first day of school the Waco NAACP organized a group of us to “greet the scholars” at J. H. Hines Elementary.   As we welcomed the children back to school and wished them a wonderful school year, Dr. Nelson showed up to do the same.  I had the honor of introducing him to Pastor Pam Rivera of St. Luke A.M.E. Church.  She welcomed him warmly to Waco, and as he acknowledged the welcome he lowered his voice a bit to say seriously, “We have a lot of work to do.”  She didn’t hesitate in her response, “and plenty of people who want to help.”  Amen, Pastor Rivera!

Welcome to Waco, Dr. Nelson.  Hard work pays off!


This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she has lived in Waco almost 20 years now.  Far longer than she ever lived anywhere else.  She likes to walk. If you see her out walking, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.