Saratoga citizens remember Dr. Martin Luther King

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY– “ I am amazed and intrigued by him. I admire his personal transformation that led him to practice non-violence. His lasting change,” Jim Fulner, says.

“I think there are some people that are touched by god and on the right path and MLK is one of them,” Amy Doren says.

Fulner and Amy, Saratoga Peace Alliance members, are talking about Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the prominent figure of the 20th century noted for making influences in social change through nonviolent methods during the Civil Rights Era.

The United States commemorated King Nov. 2, 1983 by the Reagan Administration, making the third Monday of January a federal holiday. The nation observed the first Martin Luther King Day Jan. 20, 1986. Next year’s Martin Luther King Day will be the 25th-anniversary.

People worldwide will celebrate the holiday to respect the legacy of King, in various ways. While in Saratoga Springs, the Saratoga Peace Alliance and the Saratoga office of the NAACP plan to serve the community.

“It’s not about remembering MLK, it’s the [remembering] of principles guiding. That’s important. It’s important to acknowledged the work and inspire more service then the day is well spent,” Doern says.”

Since 2003, the two organizations established the MLK-Day committee to manage the planning and execution of an exhibit at the Saratoga Springs library during MLK Day. This year they want to do something different and add volunteerism to their agenda. MLK-Day 2011 will be the ninth-annual exhibit, but this year it will start earlier in the day to allow citizens a chance to dedicate their time and energy by volunteering at various sites in the area.

“This event is to shift the tendency and go deeper and be understanding of Dr. King, and learn about his impact on society,” Fulner says. “I hope that it extends the true purpose o it. I hope it reflects who he was and puts his legacy into practice.”

Fulner speaks about what he considers the King legacy to be about serving others as a means to serve oneself and others with compassion, respect and dignity.

This year the event starts at 9 a.m. with volunteer groups located in downtown Saratoga offering on-the-spot volunteering for interested visitors. Sponsored organizations such as Shelters of Saratoga, Equal Opportunity Center and The Guardian House, will allow first-time volunteers to  contribute to their respective daily services as a way to further conversations about providing service in the community. This is a one-time opportunity that will introduce people to new ways to play a role in the community.

These opportunities will be available until 2:30 p.m. when Scott T. Johnson, Saratoga Springs Mayor, will start the traditional exhibit with a message of introductions and hope. Then several performances and readings will take place until the end at 4:30 p.m..

Fulner says, “Every year the library is packed. Usual 100-150 people attend to learn more and be enlightened.”

Every year the event present a moment where a basket is passed around in a huddle. The basket contains sheets of paper that each have a distinct quote from Dr. King. Anyone may select a sheet and read it aloud, and hear the words of the men. This is usually an emotional moment as people come to see Dr. King in new ways.

“People pass around the basket and see that he doesn’t mince words, he’s clean with ethics, he is direct and says things as they are,” Doern says. “He has a similar discernment to Jesus, he does the same thing.

These poignant moments motivate the committee to think of new ways to educate Saratoga residents on Martin Luther King Day.

“We help those of us who are more interested to learn more where they can get more information on his work. Like the holidays the general day off can get sugar-coated and we lose focus, but lessons like this keeps us from forgetting,” says Fulner.

“He [Dr. King] felt uncomfortable with recognition  and for people forgetting his message and honoring hi instead. He was about service and treating people well,” Doern says. “He was a leader and he’d want us to keep the spirit of what he said and did alive. He’d ant this day to stand for change not just a reminder of tokenism without action.”

And so it Begins

One thought becomes the contextual basis for another intriguing philosophy, you take the lead, and the next topic you follow. It is a charming experience that is uncommon, and further adventures reveal the foundations of ones being, the essence that inspires their thoughts, their words, and their actions.

Soup kitchen has fun while serving the community

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY– “We have travelers from out West who visit places like ours nationwide and they say we’re the best spot in the United States,” says Gloria LaPorta. “They say we have the best tasting food and selection.”

Today’s menu baked chicken, garden salad, fresh fruit with a choice of beef and vegetable soup. Last time it was baked chicken and rice, lasagna and/or baked ziti. Desert is a selection of baked treats pies, cakes, doughnuts and cupcakes.

By itself this seems like the basic menu to a typical restaurant, with friendly staff and fresh food. Yet here, all the food is free and second helpings are complimentary, if you ask. Everything is open to the public at the Saratoga Soup Kitchen, sponsored by the Saratoga County Equal Opportunity Center (SCEOC), and located in the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church on Circular Street.

Gloria LaPorta, kitchen volunteer for 19-years, knows the setup and regular customers of the Soup Kitchen well after so long. Other volunteers work distinct days, but she is there everyday. She introduces her teammates to new customers, and it includes a variety of students, middle-aged people and others from the Saratoga area.

“Everyday is a different combination of workers, and each day has its own character with its flow and atmosphere. But it’s a great place to work and the people are fun.”

Volunteers help out Monday-Saturday, 11:45 a.m.- 1:00 p.m., to prepare food, serve customers and clean up afterwards. The Soup Kitchen feeds 60- to more than 160-customers per day, and only needs about six-volunteers to handle the workload on a given day.

Today new volunteers come to help, students Daniel Burt, Robyn Baird and Delaney Scollan. Burt is a Saratoga Springs high school student, while Baird and Scollan are tennis athletes and students at Skidmore College, they came because they knew of LaPorta.

Burt says, “I was supposed to come many weeks before, but couldn’t. I came this week and it’s way easier than I though, and a lot of fun.”

“Being at Skidmore, I feel stuck in the college setting and don’t feel involved in the community,” Scollan says. “I thought about this and came to help.”

“I’ve done this kind of work before, but today I see how privileged I am to be at Skidmore and it’s nice to get out, see more of the community and help,” Baird says. “Being at Skidmore is nice, but being a part of the community completes the full college experience.

Volunteers come in a steady rotation of support to maintain the Kitchen services. While the customers are a mix of people who visit for lunch regularly. The staff knows and often spends time with these customers outside of the Kitchen setting.

“Most of them [customers] are regulars. It’s not just the homeless that come here. It’s the elderly, and people living on fixed incomes,” Laporta says. “We have people on a limited income that come here to save money.”

Kathleen Sephas, kitchen volunteer, knows the Soup Kitchen best. She started coming in 1987 with her children to subsidize her income.

“Living on welfare is tough because the income does not compensate for needs like hygiene, children, school. The Soup Kitchen was survival. I had to go to survive,” Sephas says. “I bought into the idea of the American Dream. I want it, and go for it, but I subsidize my income with the kitchen to help my income.”

In 1995, Sephas became a volunteer and since then has done work at organizations focused on community issues.

“I’m a Christian. My grandma always taught me to be a Christian and to be good to people. I grew up with people who helped each other. Always helping their family and others. I get a warm feeling in my hear from my work.”

People like Sephas, LaPorta and other volunteers work directly with the diverse Soup Kitchen customers. Their work is in tandem with SCEOC workers SCEOC headquarters with people such as Julie Hoxsie, SCEOC executive director.

Hoxsie started the Soup Kitchen in 1985, it was one-day a week, Wednesdays, and ten-years later, in 1995, it expanded to five-days a week. It faced adverse situations throughout that time, but now the trials are minimal.

Hoxsie, “We’ve never gone without [food],” Hoxsie says. “The biggest problem was when the church didn’t notify us that they were redoing the blacktop on their driveway. We couldn’t get in because of it, and did not open that one day.”

Besides that one event, the Soup Kitchen is open six-days a week, without exception for national and religious holidays.

Hoxsie says, “We face lots of small challenges keeping up with food problems with customers and expanding our outreach. Sometimes customers can be disruptive, which sometimes may lead to violence.”

Today, 25-years later, Hoxsie manages the entire SCEOC program. She hosts fundraisers to keep a consistent flow of income to support the various programs that support people in need of food, housing, education and counseling. Meanwhile her colleague, Lillian McCarthy, community services program director, directly runs the EOC Soup Kitchen and dozens of programs that support the assessed needs of people in the community.

McCarthy, provided with a grant from the Regional Food Bank, purchases food for the Soup Kitchen. The grant is not enough to supply the demands of the Kitchen, but donations from individuals and businesses ensure everyone is fed well.

“At our Food Pantry, in 2008 we saw a high increase. We hear from our families and see that unemployment is an issue. There’s a lot of layoffs, the cost of gas and other limits that make it hard to afford the extras,” McCarthy. “It’s interesting at the Soup Kitchen though. There are some new faces, but the numbers are the same. We do see more families however, instead of individuals like before.”

Local businesses with notable culinary reputations with top-tier pricing for their menu items donate food. That is how the Soup Kitchen offers a wide selection of food without ever running short. It is also how the Kitchen can serve 600-pounds of Turkey for the Thanksgiving past, which is annual donation of food and service by Steven Sullivan, Longfellow’s restaurant owner.

Organizations like Longfellow’s Temple Sinai and others are part of a new-year initiative to make the Soup Kitchen a seven-day affair, thus making lunch services available 365-days a year without break for national holidays or religious celebrations furthering the intent of providing to those in need.

Year-round charity at the bakery

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY– After Thanksgiving and during December, it’s easy to get pressured into spending money to please people you care about, and others you may feel obligated to please. Gift-giving may seem like a chore this time of year. Although, at Slice of Heaven’s Bread that feeling is forgotten as you enter the door.

Located at Temple Sinai, on Broadway, the scent of Slice of Heaven’s Bread permeates the air. The aroma of bread dough, and baking buns invites you to stay a while and talk with the friendly volunteer staff in the bakery, who are committed on doing work to help their community.

For five-years Temple Sinai has been the home of Slice of Heaven’s Bread, the charitable operation that is lead by Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein. He and his team of volunteers, meet once a week, and they include seniors, children, adults and the differently-abled.

“If a society gives back to its needy, it’s a good sign of the health of that society,” Rubenstein says. “It doesn’t have to mean giving money. Here we donate our time with volunteering and it works in many ways.”

The multiple ways Rubenstein refers to, are how Slice of Heaven Breads provides for the community. First, the operation gives differently-abled clients of Living Resources, a home care agency in Albany, the chance to develop their social, motor and mental skills by baking. Each week several clients spend their time learning bread-making techniques and being in the presence of nonjudgemental people.

Finally, the bakery donates its bread to homebound and facility residents of Saratoga County. These community members may otherwise go without food or cannot get it themselves. Slice of Heaven Bread’s is part of Temple Sinai’s support of hunger relief in the Saratoga area and Rubenstein ensures that deliveries are made to specific people and families who need it.

At Temple Sinai, charity means making considerations for the less fortunate and is not limited to only giving during December. Rubenstein uses his time in the bakery, year-round to teach his volunteers about Judaism, especially on the topic of charity.

Charity is an important part of Judaism as it is a religious necessity to give tzedakah (the Hebrew term for charity) to the poor. The poor includes anyone in need of considerate support to survive such as the disenfranchised.

“This means giving to people in need like people without health insurance, the poor, the gay lesbian community could be considered needy, and some women and racial minorities still,” Rubenstein says.

The Jewish faith practices giving tzedakah in honor of cultural celebrations like weddings, bar mitzvot, baby naming, funerals. These cultural rites make great times to give in honor of the celebration, towards an organization that is important to the celebrant.

Similar to Judaism, charity is a main tenet in Islam. True believers follow two categories of charity– zakat and sadaqa. Zakat is an annual donation of 2.5-percent from the income of individuals and families that can spare the donation, after bills and debts are paid. Their money is put into a fund that an Imam (Islamic worship leader) oversees, and then distributes to organizations and people in the community accordingly.

Meanwhile, sadaqa is an affirmation of ones faith by daily acts of kindness says Mohammed Ahmed, Imam.

“People have the nature to do good and bad. That quality is in everybody,” Ahmed says. “Sadaqa is how people choose kindness to give anytime, and not necessarily money.

Sadaqa are those moments of simple help, which count as charity, such as giving someone a ride to work, babysitting for friends, or tutoring– any time someone offers their time or energy without expectation of reward.

In Islam and Judaism charity is an obligation of its followers to practice regularly in the pursuit of justice and fairness for those who have to help those who cannot do for themselves.

Ahmed says, “Things change, but one thing never changes– the class structure. As long as we have the classes of have’s and have not’s that is irrespective of time and space, charity will be a necessity.”

Back at Temple Sinai, more bread bakes, and the fresh loaves are sealed for delivery while the volunteers share their feelings about charity work. The staff includes men like Jerome Mopsik, bakery volunteer, he comes weekly to help bake challah bread, after being laid off as a financial analyst. One year later, his dedicated work has taught him new lessons.

Mopsik says, “I learned a a new skill and received mitzvahs. I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t like it because I don’t get paid. I recommend it [volunteering], especially working with challenged people. Its taught me to be more patient.”

Josh Silverman, Saratoga Springs high school student and volunteer, delivers the freshly baked bread donations to elderly people in hospice care or in assisted living programs.

Silverman says, “It’s different. It makes me feel good in the long run. I can really see that I’m helping people.”

David Kohn, attorney and volunteer at the bakery, takes a break from folding the dough into challah bread patterns, and shares his understanding of charity.

Kohn says. “Treating people well, if they’re down and out by being nice, and doing nice things, and giving your expertise is being charitable.You strive for personal satisfaction, and always you get it, but most of the time you don’t notice it until you step back.”

Finding work during tough economic times

PLATTSBURGH, NY– Jean LaVerdure, 58, visits OneWorkSource daily to check his email, read current news and write.

LaVerdure is a union electrician out-of-work due to the nature of union work.

“The union work is intermittent,” says LaVerdure. “I’ll have three months of work, then time with unemployment. But I get by.”

LaVerdure has a spouse and maintains his lifestyle in spite of the employment downturn that has nearly 10% of Americans unemployed. He still eats well and pays his bills while his ample free time allow him to hike the high peaks in the area, write creatively and read.

“[Unemployment] if it’s something you’ve never experienced this, it is traumatic, but for people in union work, we’re used to it,” says LaVerdure. “we know how to scramble and handle ourselves.”

This is when Susan Gallagher comes into play. As the community service center manager, she oversees the job-finding opportunities available at the OneWorkSource office. She notices noticing simple trends becoming available for people looking for work.

“Right now there is a strong emphasis on green jobs. Some jobs aren’t considered green at first, but now anything that reduces a carbon footprint- is green,” says Gallagher. “That means occupations like mass transit or windmill production and even some construction.”

Besides construction and mass transit, Clinton County is seeing considerable job gains and in March, 27,600 citizens became newly employed in local education, health, leisure and hospitality services. Unfortunately, the losses are still high and overshadow the recent gains.

These statistics contrast the national and state numbers being reported by the Department of Labor. New York State lost more than 300-thousand jobs over the past two years and the North Country accounts for nearly a third of these numbers with major job losses in manufacturing, information services, government and business services.

According to the Department of Labor the North Country has the highest rate of unemployment outside of New York City at 8.9% (recorded in Nov 2009). In Clinton County, unemployment is a high 10.6% as of February 2010.

The WorkStopSorce staff works hard to engage unemployed citizens with free services to get them prepared for the process of finding the right work and applying to specific jobs. Each month the office hosts workshops on resume-building, computer skills, interviewing skills, ability tests, e-mail usage and a host of other skills to build individual marketability in the new competitive workforce.

Paul Grasso, executive director of the Work Force Investment Board, works alongside Gallagher to ensure local employers uphold state and federal laws and makes sure that the center reaches employment targets.

Grasso stands by the work of the whole team and says, “this location exemplifies the idea of spreading hope for citizens out of work. In a nut shell, that is what OneWorkSource is all about- hope. The counselors here are well-versed to help you out and to give you the right resources to handle unemployment.”

The counselors at OneWorkSorce handle any citizens social, financial and overall well-being because it all comes into play whether someone is newly unemployed or has been out of work for years. The staff devotes all their resources to the public on a first-come, first serve basis, while senior citizens get priority service always.

Although the services available are not only offered to the unemployed; dozens of employed people come by to improve their hiring marketability. These people also get the chance and place their resumes within the database where local employers search regularly for matching profiles they would like to hire.

Peter A. Neenan, Director of the Division of Research and Statistics, says our losses in New York State are leveling off. “However, following previous recessions, it has taken the state about five years, on average, to regain all of the jobs lost during a downturn.”

LaVerdure makes himself at home in the computer lab and in his calm and refreshing manner shares advice with me that he hopes can comfort people struggling. “I started as a college drop-out, got my drivers license at 36 in 1989. Then went back to school for a degree in American history. So I keep reminding myself to count my blessings. Look on the bright side. The weight of the world works itself out.”

Getting the most out of students, and teachers

PLATTSBURGH, NY– “Children learn best through play,” says Kristen Lutters, Momot Elementary Child Advocate.

For nearly 25 years, Lutters has pushed for effective school curricula in the Plattsburgh City School District that are influential to the whole development of students at any age.

“Play is important for healthy social skills, self-awareness, cognitive development and how well kids retain what they learn,” says Lutters.

The Plattsburgh City School District wants to reach the federal mandates of the former Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, and newer initiatives of the Obama Administration’s, Race to the Top program. Towards that goal, the school district is allowed to implement its own protocols to fulfill federally established assessment standards.

The District office staff did not have time to speak directly on this matter and suggested Lutters to be their voice. She has researched and practiced methods of engaging students through play instead of lecture-based curricula, which many school districts are adopting nationwide.

Her system of curriculum development goes against other districts that feel they have to teach through lectures and give homework regularly for students to be prepared for state assessments.

“I advocate for broad-based, contextualized teaching for students,” says Lutters.

Her system is micromanaged and begins with shared experiences among a diverse group of students who see the world in different ways because of their socioeconomic status.

She tours a pre-kindergarten class funded by the state, for me, at Momot Elementary, the children sit around their teacher as she reads about dinosaurs. These students are learning about archaeology and paleontology and their classroom setting immerses them in the experience. They have several learning stations– one is a sand box filled with “archaeological digs” (toy dinosaurs, bones and artifacts) and another is a campsite with a fort complete with canopy, dining utensils, notebooks and everything necessary to be comfortable as they discover a foreign prehistoric world. Lutters calls this, “building an authentic context through play,” where children learn together and at the same pace.

NCLB and Race to the Top place pressures on administrators and teachers to reach standards and maintain them at the risk of losing federal funding. That pressure becomes more testing and lecturing in schools even at the elementary level. That pressure trickles down to children and parents who are now dealing with homework, sleepless nights and family conflict because of it.

Sara Bennett, an education reform activist, is a concerned parent living in Brooklyn, N.Y. that began her steps toward improving the American education system with her own children. Her first son was in first grade when he started coming home regularly with a significant amount of homework. She immediately discussed the issue with the teacher and resolved the matter. The teacher gave less assignments, but Bennett had similar conversation again with other teachers in consecutive years.

“Most of the time teachers wouldn’t know parents cared about homework or how long it took, and when I told them, then they reduce the homework,” says Bennett. “A lot of times, they [teachers] forget or do not know what it’s like to deal with a child coming home with homework, especially when these teachers are younger and don’t have their own children.”

Events like these motivated Bennett to learn more about the current state of homework in America. She researched the topic further and eventually wrote, The Case Against Homework: How homework Is Hurting Our Children and What we Can Do About It. Her conclusion is most homework is “busy-work” that does not engage students of any age to think critically about an idea or the world.

At Keeseville elementary students are tested every ten days, and some students are tested weekly. This is part of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills assessment, playfully titled, Dibles, which measures the literacy skills of students.

Heather Brault teaches at Keeseville elementary. She used to be a full-time teacher and has since become an academic intervention services (AIS) math teacher. Brault works with students individually to better handle their academic needs.

Petro says, “Our goal as teachers is to challenge students at their particular rate of learning.”

“Basically, state assessments identify students I need to work with,” says Brault. “I try to reinforce concepts through games and activities, but sometimes there are time constraints.”

Educators cite standard assessment as a problem for children students nationwide, not because it creates pressure for them to learn material, rather assessments tend to be limited in their measurements.

I am not opposed to standardized assessment, but I think for the millions of students they give them too, it is a narrow way to assess critical thinking and enthusiasm for learning,” says Lutters. “To only have a skill-based assessment is too narrow.”

Bennett says, “Every kid is creative, interesting and loves to learn. And homework ruins that.

For Margaret Felty, Momot Elementary speech therapist, homework is not on the agenda either. “My teaching style is well-backed through research,” says Felty, “I teach through unstructured lessons, creative art projects, I read to them and we have discussions together for listening.”

Stephanie Petro, a parent, appreciates this learning style and technique. Her son is in kindergarten at Peru Intermediate School where she is also a 3rd grade teacher.

“My child recently learned about Antarctica, and had an exercise to plan an imaginary trip to Antarctica by packing a suitcase with things necessary for a trip like that,” says Petro. “I think he learned a lot and retained more because it was more fun.”

Some teachers send homework home to ensure parents spend time with their children and be aware of the current lessons taking place in the classroom.

Lori Walters-Kramers, a parent, says, “Every so often he [her son in kindergarten] brings home assignments from a workbook or a vocabulary list. She [the teacher] doesn’t ask for proof of completion, but she makes it clear that she encourages shared time for the parent(s) and child.”

Black mold upsets tenant

PLATTSBURGH, NY – Pete Helfrich, senior student at SUNY Plattsburgh, used to live at 35 Clinton Street, apartment 10, but now he is homeless. He found black mold growing behind his shower a month months ago, which he now blames for his deteriorating health. “Within weeks of living in Plattsburgh I had sinus issues, unexplained nosebleeds, receding gum-line, bruises that wouldn’t heal,” says Helfrich, “My doctors back home can tell you, I was healthy before moving to the area.”

Once he discovered the mold, he immediately contacted a microbiology team to inspect the apartment. Helfrich is still waiting for testing results to be evidence of his exposure to high levels of black mold.

Helfrich tried to receive proper health care from dentist and doctors in the local area. Insured only by Medicaid made the process difficult and Helfrich says it is the reason he became a victim of mistreatment at CVPH facilities. Doctors failed to handle his fungal infection causing it to spread and have teeth removed. He had to do the necessary research and find the proper medicinal remedies of black mold infections to teach his physicians how to help him.

Doctors generally do not receive toxicology lessons during medical school. The only way  doctors learn about the topic is to study behavioral medicine or become a certified toxicologist. Director of Health Education Services at SUNY Plattsburgh, Jerimy Blowers, is a former victim of mold allergies and had the chance to learn about environmental affects, like mold, on patients. He knows about the importance of mold studies in medical school saying, “Incidence of that [fungal infection] is pretty high. [Medical school] curriculum is so heavy with information that it is hard to fit more in a program.”

Blowers pushes students living on campus to make themselves more aware of environmental issues that might affect them more if they live on campus. He suggests reading material on mold and pay attention to things that do not look right in their apartment.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports mold can be anywhere there is moisture and most is harmless. However, some mold is dangerous and can lead to death, especially if you are allergic to it. Long-term exposure may lead to severe affects of chronic lung illnesses, weakened immune system, loss of memory, lethargy and/or brain damage. These are lessons Helfrich researched quickly after being exposed to the mold for so long. He first found the mold September 1st and since took matters into his own hands with vigilante-like activism documented on his website

The site is legal evidence to support a large figure lawsuit against Property Management of Platsburgh LLC, the owners of his previous residence. It includes a timeline of his process to reveal the mold colony, prove it is the cause of his health problems and begin to receive retribution for his losses.

Property Management representative, Rick Landry owns the property at 35 Clinton Street, and when asked to talk on the subject of the mold problem he stated his clear disinterest to speak. Helfrich had similar experiences when trying to speak with Property Management representatives.

“I lost the best semester I was going to have. Lose your teeth, gums, health. Then tell me about retribution,” Helfrich says, “I would give anything to be who I was before I lived there. A million dollars can’t give me back my kidneys, liver, spleen, etc.” Helfrich explains, “The damage has been done, it’s just about getting doctors and lawyers to believe me.”

Clearly, Helfrich is beyond apologies from Property Management, the city and even the school. He is currently teamed up with one of the largest toxic tort law firms in America who are impressed by the piles of information and facts Helfrich collected so far. The only thing needed to put a lawsuit in full effect is a valid blood test from a certified toxicologist stating the cause of Helfrich’s current state of health is directly caused by long-term exposure to black mold.

Until then Helfrich is living in his car or in tents while he investigates his situation and reports his findings on his website, while at pit stops in public libraries, and friends’ houses.