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Article: Volcano Beer Returns to the Beach

Originally published in the Tico Times on June 4, 2014, Click here to read online

By Suzanna Lourie

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – This summer, taking a six-pack of Imperial to the beach may not be the only option for surfers and sunbathers hitting the sand for a day of fun in the waves.

Beer lovers in Tamarindo and its surrounding beach towns can thank Joe Walsh, longtime resident and owner of Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, for broadening beer selection in the Guanacaste region.

“First and foremost, I’m a surfer,” he said over the phone between sets on a surf trip in the Osa Peninsla. “I’m a brewery owner second.”

Volcano Brewing Company has returned from Lake Arenal to Tamarindo/ Suzanna Lourie/

But this diehard surfer and California native knows a thing or two about the beer industry.

After establishing Witch’s Rock in 2001 – a company that started out of the school bus Walsh drove from California as he surfed his way through Central America to land in Tamarindo – he spent the next 10 years building his brand. In 2011, Witch’s Rock was a thriving business, but something still didn’t feel right.

“I started Witch’s because I felt like it was the thing missing at the time,” Walsh recalled. “That’s sort of what happened with Volcano Brewing Company – I always joked this place would be perfect if only they had pale ale, but good beer was really still nonexistent.”

In the 2000s, Walsh and countless other nostalgic expats watched the microbrew industry explode across the U.S. and Canada. Bars donned row upon row of taps pouring artisanal brews from across the globe. Costa Ricans, however, continued to happily swig Imperial and Pilsen – craft beer wasn’t on their radar.

Years passed. Sick of waiting for that magical pale ale to suddenly show up on the supermarket shelves, Walsh decided to take matters into his own hands.

In 2011, he became one of the pioneers in Costa Rica’s budding microbrew industry by opening the doors of Volcano Brewing Co., a combination hotel and pub brewery on the shores of Lake Arenal in the Northern Zone. Good beer, it seemed, was the only thing that could tear Walsh away from the waves – just for a little bit.

“I’m not really into the whole driving away from the waves to the mountains kind of thing. It’s beautiful up there – don’t get me wrong. But it was temporary. The goal was always to get back to the beach,” he said.

Finally, after three years of mountain-beach travel, Walsh was ready to bring Volcano Brewing Co. back home to Tamarindo, where is it now housed under the Witch’s Rock umbrella.

“Everything takes longer than it should, … especially in Costa Rica, but we’re excited to finally be back at the beach and have everything in one place,” Walsh said.

Suzanna Lourie / The Tico Times

Moving to Tamarindo also meant closing the Arenal Hotel, a sad, but necessary move that allows Walsh more time to focus more on his two passions – beer and surfing – while getting back to his original vision for Volcano Brewing Co.

When he started the company three years ago, craft-brewing equipment was scarce in Costa Rica. So in 2011 when Walsh received an offer to take over the lease to a hotel with built-in brew facilities, he jumped at the chance. The out-of-the-way location on the far shore of Lake Arenal kept the operation small, allowing the company ample time and space to master the brewing process and work out any kinks before expanding.

Up to this point, the beer has only been served only at the onsite Arenal brewpub and Eat at Joe’s and El Vaquero in Tamarindo. But next week, Volcano Brewing Co. will celebrate an important milestone when Sharky’s Sports Bar in downtown Tamarindo becomes the first non-Witch’s Rock venue to sell Gato Negro Dark Ale and Witch’s Rock Pale Ale on tap.

Sharky’s is the first step of a plan to bring Volcano brews to the area. Over the next few months, distribution will begin in Tamarindo, starting with restaurants and bars that already have a tap system, such as Pangas Beach Club in Tamarindo and Lola’s in Playa Avellanas. From there, distribution will continue throughout Guanacaste in upscale hotels such as the Four Seasons in Papagayo and nearby towns like Playas Flamingo and Potrero.

“We actually don’t even have enough to serve everyone who wants to buy it right now, but it’s awesome to be growing in that direction,” Walsh said. “It’s a huge honor to know people want to sell our beer.”

As the company expands, Walsh says Volcano Brewing will begin the canning process – a novel idea in the craft beer industry, but something Walsh feels is essential for a beach beer. Glass isn’t ideal for tossing in the cooler or the back of a pick-up truck, Walsh explained.

“Cans aren’t necessarily the main packaging for a high-end beer, but that’s starting to change,” he added. “People are realizing quality beer can come in a can.”

Another reason to can is the ease of distribution, particularly to bars that do not yet have tap systems in place. “There have definitely been hurdles,” Walsh says, “but it’s exciting to be part of an industry that is still in its infancy in this country.”

He will also stay loyal to the surf world with Volcano Brewing’s planned distribution route – a path mirroring a traditional Costa Rican surf road trip beginning in northern Guanacaste and running down the Inter-American Highway all the way to the Panamanian border.

“That’s basically our mission – to grow from Tamarindo, down the Coast and in San Jose as well,” Walsh said. “We’re a Tamarindo brand at heart, but there are a lot of thirsty surfers (and non-surfers) up and down the coast.”

To stock Volcano brews in beach bars spanning over 500 kilometers from Witch’s Rock to Pavones, Walsh realizes Volcano Brewing still has a ways to go. Future plans include additional facilities, although the Tamarindo brew house will remain the Volcano Brewing Co’s showpiece at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo.

As things move forward, Wash and his 80-plus team at Witch’s Rock expect to refine the Tamarindo facilities even further – opening up the brewery to connect to El Vaquero, add a third beer-focused bar and add a large thatched-roof rancho to shade large event groups and parties.

“It’s happening in a couple of steps, but getting back to Tamarindo was the major part,” Walsh said. “We need to stay true to what we’re all about and that’s the beach.”

Article: Tamarindo Airport to Reopen, but Questions Linger

Originally published in the Tico Times on June 7, 2014. Click here to read online. 

By SUZANNA LOURIE

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – Two weeks ago, Tamarindo Airport was shut down by Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation Authority due to runway safety concerns. Now the company that owns the land – Hotel Diria Beach Resort Group – has stated that it will “continue with its aeronautical operation once everything is resolved.”

“Everything” includes working with consultants and construction companies to come up with quotes and alternatives solutions for repairing and reopening the runway, according to Diria Director Manuel Rockbran

The comments came after two weeks of radio silence from the Diria following the airport shutdown, which caused local residents and business owners to fear they were losing their airport for good. Without it, the town’s tourism-drive economy would take a hit, residents said.

While the Diria’s recent statements cleared up some of the misconceptions and put minds at ease, important questions about the airport’s future remain.

The Tamarindo airstrip lies on a large piece of the Diria’s privately owned land; land that is home to a driving range and may become a full-scale golf course. With signs, billboards and the recent completion of a model home advertising a future residential golf community, it’s no secret that the Diria has plans for the area.

According to a statement made by Civil Aviation at a recent meeting, its authorities first began sending safety reports to the Diria in 2009, informing the administration the runway needed attention. Five years passed and more memos were sent, but no one from the Diria responded.

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The Tamarindo Diria Airport Sign – Airport still closed.

So when the airport was temporarily shut down, some local residents feared the worst. One of them was Guido Scheidt, a pilot and area resident whose company, Auto Gyro America, has flown scenic gyrocopter flights from the Tamarindo Airport for over five years. He organized community fundraising to fix the runway, but once he heard the Diria’s statements, Scheidt admits the effort may have been premature.

“The Diria said they are not looking for help,” he said. “They don’t need financial help to rebuild the runway.”

Diria representatives told the group they remained silent until now because they had been negotiating with construction companies and contractors to determine a budget for runway repairs.

When it comes to Diria’s long-term plans for the airport, Rockbrand and other Diria representatives have declined to comment.

The uncertainty over the airport’s future has created frustration for Tamarindo businesses – particularly three real estate conglomerates reportedly interested in donating land for a new public airport. Those projects include Reserva Conchal in Flamingo, Hacienda Pinilla in Avellanas and a group in Tempate.

Once a location is chosen, the project could take up to three years to complete. Business owners say they are eager to get started and disappointed with lack of information coming out of the Diria. For a new runway to succeed in this region, it would rely on the service of regional airlines Sansa and Nature Air – both of which seem unlikely to add a new route so close to Tamarindo’s airstrip, should it remain open.

As for an exact date for the reopening of the airport, Rockbrand didn’t know. But the public can expect an announcement soon, he said.

 

Article: Big Changes for Guanacaste School

Originally Published in the Tico Times, May 30, 2013. Click here to read online. 

By SUZANNA LOURIE

BRASILITO, Guanacaste – Although the students will soon vacate the halls and trade their textbooks for surfboards, the activity at Country Day School Guanacaste is just getting started for summer.

With the help of parents and community members, Country Day School’s Guanacaste campus stands poised to transition from a privately owned, for-profit business to a community-owned, nonprofit school.

 

Middle school students will return to their classrooms next year at Country Day School Guanacaste thanks to a community effort to keep the school open. Courtesy of Country Day School Guanacaste

Middle school students will return to their classrooms next year at Country Day School Guanacaste thanks to a community effort to keep the school open. Courtesy of Country Day School Guanacaste

“Country Day School Guanacaste (CDSG) was founded as a satellite school to a much larger campus in San José,” explained Bruce McKillican, Country Day parent and member of the school’s transition board.

“After years of falling short on making the Guanacaste school a business success, Country Day’s Escazú headquarters decided to consolidate their resources in Escazú,” McKillican said.

Early this year, several parents were approached by the school’s owners and were given the opportunity to take over the campus in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and recreate the school’s image as a community-based nonprofit.

Faced with the frightening prospect of their beloved school closing and leaving their children’s educational future in limbo, a group of parents came together to form the CDSG Transition Board, charged with adapting the new ownership structure.

“The families that have children in the school realized that a change in leadership could be an incredible opportunity – a chance to focus on the local issues and make decisions for the school based on the needs and desires of this community, while still maintaining the strong K-12 academic standards that Country Day has become famous for,” McKillican said.

But seizing the opportunity was no easy task. It took community outreach, in addition to support and dedication from the parents and the newly formed Transition Board to begin the process of remodeling Country Day’s ownership structure from private to not-for-profit.

In addition to raising money and solving teacher contracts, McKillican and the transition board had to vigilantly research other nonprofit school board models and consult with academic professionals to learn what was necessary to succeed under such a model.

“We couldn’t let the school close. As a parent, this school represents an educational pathway for children to any university on earth,” McKillican said.

“Without this pathway, so many families would be denied the ability to live here, including my own.”

Luckily, under the new ownership, the parents and students won’t have to forego what makes Country Day – both in Escazú and Guanacaste – a unique academic institution. Specifically, the school will retain its U.S. accreditation as well as Costa Rican Education Ministry status and continue to fill the role of one of the region’s few international, U.S. college preparatory schools.

Not only will the school maintain its defining characteristics, but it will also take on several new elements in the 2013-2014 school year, including reduced tuition rates that will allow more students the opportunity to study at CDSG.

“There’s nothing wrong with the educational program at Country Day and we want to maintain it. We’re happy with the school, but under a community-based ownership structure, we will be able to see it better reflect our values and interests,” McKillican said.

The new school board leadership will allow current boards and future members to create an environment that reflects the dynamic and changing interests of the community.

According to McKillican, these interests will be expressed in the coming year through an increased emphasis on extracurricular sports and heightened focus on the school’s Spanish program.

“We recently started a surf team, which is becoming more popular by the day and we’re developing additional golf, tennis and equestrian programs to add to our existing extracurricular options,” he added.

Next school year, English will remain the school’s official language, but more courses will be taught in Spanish in order to emphasize the local connection and focus on Costa Rican cultural immersion.

“We hope the renewed focus on the Spanish program will be one of many key elements in attracting foreign students to the school’s boarding and homestay programs,” McKillican said.

Country Day School Guanacaste features a boarding program where international students can study abroad in Costa Rica for a semester or a full year and live either in on-campus housing or in a homestay with a local family.

Re-energized and ready to seize new academic and extracurricular opportunities, the CDSG Transition Team recently announced its plan to the community. The news was met with an outpouring of local endorsement and support.

“We’ve achieved record high enrollments for the 2013-2014 school year,” McKillican said. “We’re looking at this transformation as an opportunity – we’re in a fortunate position where we can take all that was good with the school and better align it with the local community to make it thrive.”

Country Day School Guanacaste is still accepting applications for the fall in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as their newly developed play care program for younger children. For general information and to learn more about the new, reduced tuition rates, visit www.cdsgte.com.

Liceo de Villareal High School opens Central America’s first school skate park

Originally Published in the Tico Times. Online Edition. Friday, March 22, 2013. Click Here to Read Online.

Grinding the new pool: Students enjoy the first skate park in a public high school in Central America. Photo: Suzanna Lourie - The Tico Times<span style="font-size: 13px; line-height: 25px;"></span>

 

By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times

VILLAREAL, Guanacaste – The blistering afternoon sun proved no match for the excitement that captured more than 600 students and community members last Tuesday as they celebrated the inauguration of the new Liceo de Villareal High School Skatepark.

“It really seems like we started a craze,” said one crowd member as he watched the students swarm the edge of the park, taking runs, trying tricks and laughing with friends.

A craze would be an understatement. Since Liceo de Villareal announced the completion of the new skate park – the first one in a public high school in all of Central America – requests for more have been pouring in from across the country.

“The Minister of Education wants to build more parks, and we’re actually meeting tomorrow to discuss ways of getting the funds to build five or six more skate parks all across the country,” said Andrés Valenciano, executive director of the Youth Action Fund (FAJ), one of the nonprofit groups that spearheaded the Villareal project.

“The park works as an excuse to get kids more interested in what education is supposed to be. Suddenly school becomes a place where you can not only gain new knowledge and skills, but also make new friends and develop your potential as a human being,” he added.

The model of the skate park as an alternative to get kids off the streets and build healthy social relationships in a safe recreational space is catching the attention of the press and other schools around the country for one very important reason – it works.

Etnies professional skater Ed Reategui, left, with CEPIA President Laetitia Deweer.  Photo:Suzanna Lourie | Tico Times

Etnies professional skater Ed Reategui, left, with CEPIA President Laetitia Deweer. Photo:Suzanna Lourie | Tico Times

“It all started three years ago when the [school] director called us in to help with a group of 13 teenagers who were having some trouble in school,” said Laetitia Deweer, president of CEPIA, a Guanacaste-based nonprofit organization that worked with FAJ on the skate park project.

Both organizations were called in to initiate discussions with the group of students, who were teetering on the edge of expulsion, in hopes of finding a way to turn their behavior around.

“They explained to us they were all facing difficulties in their personal lives that led to them getting into all sorts of problems, fights, drugs, the works, and they told us there weren’t a lot of different alternatives to have fun together or just socialize,” FAJ founder and President Jorge Aguilar Berrocal said.

As it turned out, the students shared common interests in sports, including surfing and skateboarding. When asked what would motivate them to come to school, the group unanimously suggested the idea of a skate park – something that would boost the high school’s “cool” factor.

From there, the 13 students took on a new identity, and the “Team Riders” of the Liceo de Villareal Skatepark were born.

“We immediately figured out they were talented, clever, funny and creative kids,” Berrocal said. “So it was absolutely feasible for them to get good grades and do better, we just needed to figure out how to channel their potential.”

With the help of CEPIA and FAJ, the Team Riders made a deal with the principal: They would get a clean slate in exchange for improving their grades, helping with volunteer work and attending class.

Inextricably linked to education, the skate park evolved along with the students’ grades. Eventually, CEPIA and FAJ began to search for funding to make the vision a reality, and they found an overwhelming response from the community.

The project was made possible with more than $30,000 in materials and services donated by National Community Development, Australian AID, CEMEX, The Pool Store, Fertama, Friends of Education Foundation, Florida Skateboards National, Recordings Destiny and many other individual sponsors.

With the help of enthusiastic donors and continued participation in school from the Team Riders, the park began to take form and simultaneously accomplish its educational goals of helping students boost grades and get involved in various volunteer projects.

One of the original members of the Team Riders, 20-year-old Keiner López, 20, has since graduated from high school thanks to the skate park program. Today, nearly half the group holds diplomas.

“I’m finished with school, so I am just excited to skate all the time,” López said. “But the idea for the other students is to motivate kids in school to make classes more fun; so they don’t just feel like they are going to learn, but also that school can be a fun place to be.”

The hundreds of kids aged 4-24 who came out to skate the new park on Tuesday seemed to support López’s sentiments and show just how popular the school will be with its new park.

“I think [the skate park] is a good metaphor of how kids, teachers, faculty, civil society and the private sector can all come together behind an idea of giving kids a voice,” Valenciano said.

“The kids are willing to do their half if people are willing to listen and take note of their ideas,” he added. “This high school is an example of how education can be transformed into a place for kids to fulfill their potential as human beings.”

Guanacaste Mega-Project in Court’s Hands

Originally Published in the Tico Times, Print Edition, Thursday, September 20, 2012. Click Here to Read Online.

By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times

FLAMINGO BEACH, Guanacaste – Despite a pending injunction against Las Catalinas, a massive luxury housing project near Flamingo Beach and Potrero, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, has given the green light for developers to build a private road on the property.

Las-Catalinas_newsfull_h

The court halted construction at the 1,200-acre site in early August while it studied a lawsuit filed by environmental advocates seeking an injunction. On Aug. 31, the court said it would allow the new road, but other work would be suspended pending a review of the case.

Luis Carlos Sánchez and Roberto Faris, both noted environmentalists, filed the lawsuit against Las Catalinas Holding Properties Limited, alleging the project was improperly using well water without the proper permits. The lawsuit also asked the Sala IV to investigate other permits issued at the site due to alleged irregularities in drilling and logging.

“It’s more frustrating than anything else,” said Las Catalinas General Manager James Berry, who oversees daily operations at the site. “We had to fire 80 people, and after six years of hard work and doing everything correctly, to have to stop and wait [is frustrating].”

For several weeks, the Sala IV has reviewed the legality of permits granted by the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute and other government agencies. Although the development team at Las Catalinas is confident the court will find no error in the project’s building permits and legal records,

members of the regional environmental group Confraternidad Guanacasteca aren’t convinced.

“We spent a year and a half going through all of Las Catalinas’ records and came to the conclusion that it looks like the environment is being violated,” said Confraternidad member Robert Campbell, an expat who has lived in Costa Rica for 11 years.

In the case of Las Catalinas, the Confraternidad was one of the primary forces that investigated the project, eventually leading them to build a case to submit to the Sala IV in August.

“I’m for sustainable development and respecting the land, but at Las Catalinas they are planning on building around 2,500 houses, and the fact is there are not enough resources to support that high of a demand,” Campbell said.

According to Campbell, Las Catalinas has been getting its well water from an aquifer that hasn’t been properly studied to find out whether or not it can meet the demands of the large development project.

“When you start a project, one basic requirement is you have enough water for it,” Campbell said. “If you’re in a rural area you need a viable concession for water.”

Campbell said developers might have pure intentions with the project, and that they would likely point to documents from the municipality believed to be proper water concessions, but he questioned if the letters were valid.

“It’s not atypical; some municipalities don’t even know what a letter of water concession is,” Campbell said. “Most developers don’t know what’s …  real versus what’s fudged because they don’t understand the details in Spanish,” Campbell said.

Confraternidad also believes that Las Catalinas has been developing on forested land versus building on the approved pastureland.

“The challenge here is development in Costa Rica is almost impossible; it doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, good or bad, rich or poor, it’s more about the regulations,” Campbell added.

In response to questions raised by the Confraternidad, Las Catalinas developers stand by their legal documents, as well as how they have been interpreted. One of the key organizations required to submit a report to the Sala IV was the Environment Ministry (MINAET), which filed a document to the court written by Environment Minister René Castro.

According to Michael Garcia, director of environmental and community affairs for Las Catalinas, Castro studied reports from  MINAET’s water issues office and the Tempisque Conservation Area and recommended judges “declare the claim placed by Roberto Faris Campbell without merit because all procedures are being performed legally as outlined in the report.”

The MINAET document was released after The Tico Times interviewed Campbell, but Berry said Las Catalinas’ response to Confraternidad’s allegations have been the same throughout the process: Las Catalinas believes the court’s investigation will show they have not engaged in improper activity, and government agencies will recommend the construction ban be thrown out, he said.

Building another dream

While the court continues to investigate, Berry said he is focused on development goals set by major shareholder and investor Charles Brewer, a U.S. real estate mogul from Atlanta, Georgia, who hopes to pioneer “new urbanism” in Costa Rica.

“Las Catalinas will be a town, where the different elements of life, such as houses, apartments, shops and workplaces, are together on walkable streets, rather than separated into separate pods,” Brewer told The Tico Times in 2010.

“One of the things I hope we will accomplish is to introduce a pattern of development that I think would serve Costa Rica wonderfully well, which is that of a compact, walkable town with lots of preserved nature surrounding it,” he added.

Brewer and his group of 25 investors plan to build 2,000 homes initially priced at $495,000-$995,000.

Although Brewer doesn’t expect his community-building goal to be fulfilled for decades, as the town develops, prices are expected drop to the $125,000 range (TT, April 16, 2010).

Six years after planning, zoning and building started, the evidence of what Las Catalinas could become is standing ready and open to the public, developers said. A wooden boardwalk runs parallel to the beach, lined by seven finished homes, four public plazas, Lola’s del Norte Restaurant, an outdoor gear and watersport shop as well as several playgrounds and lounge areas.

According to Berry, some of the most frequent visitors to Las Catalinas are families from Liberia, Santa Cruz and neighboring Potrero, who come to spend a day at the beach.

The town model based on new urbanism is a design movement Brewer has been actively involved with in the United States. One of the movement’s core principles is a sustainable development model that originated when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began to realize that a high-density, suburban model – with two-acre, side-by-side plots – was worse for the environment than a low-density plan, where development is concentrated in one area.

Developers vs. Environmentalists

As developers at Las Catalinas noted, creating a sustainable model is complex, and inevitable tensions arise between large-scale developers and environmental organizations in Costa Rica.

Concerns from environmental groups about the effect Las Catalinas would have on local ecosystems existed from the beginning of the project, but they appear to have changed from questions of plausibility to environmental integrity.

In 2010, Gadi Amit, president of Confraternidad Guanacasteca, told The Tico Times the idea behind Las Catalinas was “not ambitious, but unrealistic,” because Sugar Beach, just south of the Las Catalinas property, is crippled by an erratic and insufficient water supply.

“It will be very difficult for the development they have in mind to be supplied with all the resources promised. I’m sure the developers have the best intentions, but creating a project as big as this is almost always accompanied by problems,” he said.

“We’re only developing 20 percent of the land,” Berry countered, adding that, “the other 80 percent we’ve been actively reforesting for the last six years. We planted 5,000 trees, and of those, the average mortality rate is only 10 percent, even though we have forest fires.”

Berry said local forest fires have been controlled since Las Catalinas hired a trained fire brigade to help extinguish fires on the property.

The brigade also helps out neighboring towns including Potrero and Flamingo, he added.

“We really want to be a model of sustainability in Costa Rica,” Berry said. “We know building a town doesn’t happen overnight, and we’re committed to doing whatever needs to happen to see that vision become a reality.”

In the meantime, Berry extended an invitation for anyone interested to come and see the Las Catalinas project.

“If you don’t believe it, come see what we’re doing,” he said. “There’s no gate. You don’t need an invitation, you don’t need a reservation and you don’t need to pay. Come see it for yourself.”

Coastal Residents Shaken, but Grateful After Strong Quake

Originally Published in the Tico Times, Print Edition, Thursday, September 6, 2012. Click Here to Read Online.

By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – The powerful 7.6-magnitude earthquake that shook Costa Rica Wednesday morning caused panic, property destruction and collapsed buildings in areas surrounding the quake’s epicenter in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

Preliminary reports by the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (Ovsicori) said the 8:42 a.m. quake was centered in the Nicoya Peninsula, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the provincial capital of Liberia.

In the Pacific coast beach town of Tamarindo, residents awoke to chaos as furniture shook violently and glass shattered from the shelves for what many say lasted up to 30 seconds.

“It was crazy how long it lasted. We heard a gust of wind and then everything started shaking,” said Chelsea Lisaius, who runs a local schooling program.

“We all ran outside and I just grabbed our youngest student [a 9-year-old] and pushed her against the wall until it was over. It was pretty terrifying, but we’re grateful we survived and the students are safe.”

Earthquake damages

Many restaurants and bars reported minor structural damage and thousands of dollars lost in expensive liquor bottles shattered on the floor.

No injuries were reported in Tamarindo and surrounding communities, but the Red Cross reported one person died in Costa Rica from a heart attack, and at least 20 were injured. Two people remain missing. The Red Cross retracted earlier statements that a second man had died at a construction site.

“We cannot confirm any deaths caused by trauma. [The Red Cross] only provided assistance to OBGYN patients and people suffering anxiety and high blood pressure,” Red Cross spokesman Freddy Roman said.

After the shaking stopped, panic ensued across the region. In Tamarindo, more than 200 residents and visiting tourists did the only thing they could think of: seek higher ground and gather at the top of the town’s main hill.

“Everyone I knew was there,” said Jon Phillips, a U.S. expat who owns a restaurant and bar in Tamarindo. “We didn’t have Internet or power, but people were saying there was a tsunami warning so everyone went to the lookout point.”

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a preliminary tsunami warning for Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua, but it was quickly canceled – a stroke of luck for a crowd of surfers in the water when the quake hit.

Paola Sánchez, 31, who is originally from San José, was out for a morning surf on Tamarindo Beach when she heard a deep rumble emanating from the ocean floor.

“It was so intense; it was a new sensation I’ve never felt before in my life,” she said. “I knew something was wrong.”

After being thrown violently in the waves and feeling as though she would be “swallowed by a hole in the sand,” Sánchez and other surfers were confused, but got out of the water without any major problems.

Had the quake been shallower, the outcome for Sánchez could have been much worse. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the event was fairly deep at 40 kilometers (25 miles) below the earth’s surface.

Besides causing widespread fear, the quake also took a toll on local businesses. Many of the tourist town’s restaurants and bars reported minor structural damage and thousands of dollars lost in expensive liquor bottles shattered on the floor.

“We won’t know how much we lost for a few days, but it looked pretty bad,” Phillips said of his third-floor location. “All the bottles had fallen; there was lots of broken glass and some damage to electronics from falling ceiling tiles.”

Still, no one is crying over spilled liquor – damage was minor compared to devastation being reported closer to the quake’s epicenter. In the Samara district, towns were temporarily evacuated. In the town of Hojancha, a few miles from the epicenter, city officials said the quake knocked down some houses and landslides blocked several roads.

“We know the damage is much worse in some places,” Phillips added. “Everything here can be replaced. We’re just thankful everyone is safe and wishing the best for everyone else out there.”

In the hours following the quake, several aftershocks were felt in town – Ovsicori reported more than 60 aftershocks between magnitudes 2 and 4 occurred as the day went on. As of 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Tamarindo appears to be out of any immediate danger, but locals are still feeling on edge with unconfirmed rumors of more powerful earthquakes and tsunamis circulating.

“You can’t predict these things,” said Sasha Karaliova, 27, who lives and works in Tamarindo. “You never think things like this are going to happen, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and natural disasters, you never think it will happen to you.”

Karaliova said the only thing to do was wait and make sure friends and family are safe in the aftermath. But while some people left town to head inland, Karaliova is staying close to home.

Weather reports for Wednesday night and Thursday indicate storms, but there are no current tsunami warnings in effect, although officials have advised of the possibility of strong aftershocks in the next couple of weeks.

The Healing Power of Literature: Skidmore Students Bring Books to Children

Originally Published in the Saratogian: December 25, 2011. Click here to read online.

By SUZANNA LOURIE

SARATOGA SPRINGS — A class of first-year Skidmore College students delivered boxes of holiday cheer to children staying at Albany Medical Center when they donated more than 1,100 books to the Ronald McDonald Family Room earlier this month.

“The most important thing I took away from this class is that it takes a community to raise a literate leader,” said senior Becky Bui, the peer-mentor assigned to work with students in Rebecca Johnson’s “Reading Minds,” a course about the history and power of literacy. “When we do things like the book drive, it benefits the entire community.”

Johnson taught Reading Minds as one of this year’s Scribner Seminars, a group of multi-disciplinary, discussion-based courses for new students as part of the college’s First Year Experience program.

Although the course includes reading to preschoolers as a service-learning component, Johnson added the book drive as another service project. It was based on a personal experience she had at Albany Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the summer of 2010, when she had her twin boys.

“I would take my 20-month-old daughter to the Ronald McDonald Family Room to play and to read to, but I noticed there was only a small bookcase with some pretty old books to choose from,” Johnson said. “It stuck in my mind because the NICU shares the family room with patients staying at the children’s hospital, which has kids up to 17-years-old.”

The opportunity to make a difference arose when Johnson, an assistant psychology professor, was assigned to teach the Reading Minds, a seminar about the importance of literacy in today’s society, seminar to 16 first-year students this fall. The class set a goal, to collect enough books to help replace some of the older books in the Ronald McDonald Family Room and to expand the selection to include adolescent books.

They met and exceeded that goal, generating enough books for children at the hospital to take home when they leave.

“Reading is one of the things a child in the hospital can do so we do go through a lot of books” said Lori Emery, the operations manager for Ronald McDonald House Charities, with whom Johnson worked on the drive. “With the valuable contribution from Skidmore, we can offer not only the books in the family room, but there are enough for the kids to take them bedside and keep them to have a special book to hold onto.”

The book drive process started before Thanksgiving, when Johnson and her students sent a college-wide advisory to faculty, staff and students asking them to purchase a copy of a favorite childhood book to donate to the cause.

With more than half the semester’s coursework behind them, the students in Reading Minds had come to understand some of the seminar’s core concepts, including how the brain learns to read and the importance of literacy in Western society.

“I never realized how lucky I was when I was read to as a little kid,” student Emily Defiore said. “The class placed an emphasis on how essential it is to be read to when you’re young because it helps you grow up so much, both cognitively and emotionally. And it felt really good to be able to give more kids that opportunity with the books we raised at the book drive.”

The students organized the week-long drive, making posters and taking turns sitting at the collection table as they watched the books begin to pile up.

“It was really fun to sit at the table — when I was there the president of the college came and donated,” said Madison Dipman, another student. “It just made me feel really good, knowing you’re helping so many people.”

The end result was a total of 1,111 books, 1078 donated by college students, faculty, staff and other organizations and 33 purchased by the class from a $75 cash donation.

“We couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” Johnson said. “The members of the Skidmore community were so generous with their donations, from giving one book to five or even an entire bin of books.”

Once word of the book drive reached the Saratoga community, members of the Friends of the Saratoga Springs Public Library also pitched in by dropping off a carton of books. Other donations came from the preschool class at Greenberg Child Care Center on Skidmore’s campus and the college library.

“The donation will help us get through at least a year of providing children’s books at the hospital,” Emery said. “This is going to make a big difference for kids who I think are somewhat trapped in their situation, having to be there at the hospital when they wouldn’t choose to be. Books are a great way to help them get away from that, to escape for a moment. We’re very grateful.”

Student Enrollment Down in Saratoga Springs Schools: Decline Reflects Trends in Housing Market

By SUZANNA LOURIE

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Student enrollment in Saratoga Springs schools continues to decline, a trend district officials say is reflective of the sluggish housing market.

District enrollment dropped significantly between this academic year and last, down 106 students from 6,741 to a current total of 6,635.

“We have a projected enrollment decrease of 55 students next year, and home sales reflect directly on our projections,” said Thomas Mele, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

According to projections, the decrease will level off after next year, decreasing by just 58 students over a three-year period.

The report, compiled using city statistics and school data, showed similar findings to last year’s, including a decrease in students primarily at the elementary level — where two sections were eliminated this year.

“The trend continues that we’re not seeing an infusion of new students into the district because we’re not seeing homes being sold,” Mele said.

Homeowners are hanging onto their houses in the recession and younger families aren’t coming into the area, causing students to age out of the elementary schools, Mele said.

Attendance at the middle and high school levels remains steady.

The report also revealed that the GlobalFoundries chip plant project in Malta has not driven up district enrollment figures as many administrators predicted.

“We’re finding a lot of families are moving out of the district, presumably, I believe, to find more affordable housing,” Mele said.

 

Following Mele’s presentation, Angelina Bergin, director of human resource services, presented the annual staffing report.

The district has trimmed staffing in recent years from around 1,152 in 2005-2006 to a current total of 1,105. Five instructional and six non-instructional positions were eliminated across the district this year, down 11 from the previous year.

As enrollment decreases, so does the need for employment, but Bergin commended the district for avoiding layoffs as employment has shrunk in recent years.

“We’ve really skimmed staff quite a bit not to lay anyone off, and as enrollment goes down, so does our employment,” Bergin said. “The student to staff ratio has maintained stable without diminishing educational programming.”

Muscular Dystrophy Association Salutes Saratoga Springs Wife and Mother

Muscular Dystrophy Association salutes Saratoga Springs wife and mother devoted to caring for her husband as he battles a neuromuscular disease

Originally Published in the Saratogian Newspaper, Print Edition. Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. Click Here to Read Online. 

By SUZANNA LOURIE
slourie@saratogian.com

Ragan Family

Andrew Ragan sits with his wife, Kelly, and two sons, 8-year-old Quinn, left, and 10-year-old Briggs in their living room. Andrew was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2006 and Kelly was recently recognized by the Muscular Dystrophy Association for her devotion as his full-time caregiver. (ERICA MILLER photos/emiller@saratogian.com)

SARATOGA SPRINGS — When her husband was diagnosed in 2006 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Kelly Ragan’s life changed forever.

Ragan soon found herself a full-time caregiver for her husband, Andrew, in addition to being a full-time wife and mother, as the neuromuscular disease claimed Andrew’s speech, motor skills and mobility.

“We’ve been fortunate in so many ways, and I’m lucky because I’m able to stay home with Andrew, but being a caregiver is honestly the hardest job I’ve ever done,” Ragan said. “It’s not easy; there are no vacations. You’re on all the time, and you’re watching someone you love deteriorate in front of your eyes, but you also have to stay strong for your family.”

Earlier this month, Ragan received a call from a staff member at St. Peter’s ALS Regional Center in Albany informing her that the national Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) had chosen her as one of 12 caregivers it planned to recognize as part of its MDA Salutes Caregivers campaign held each November.

“I’m honored to be a representative of the thousands of caregivers who are doing this for their loved ones who are battling ALS,” Ragan said. “I’m really thankful for the support we’ve had because it makes the dark days not so dark, and we do have lots of happy days.”

St. Peter’s ALS Regional Center recently became affiliated with the Albany chapter of the MDA, which has more than 200 offices nationwide.

Muscular dystrophy disorders are muscle diseases — ALS being just one of many — that cause the progressive weakening of the musculoskeletal system.

When Kelly first met her future husband in college, she never imagined someone as athletic and healthy as Andrew would be diagnosed with a disease as physically crippling as ALS. The pair dated for seven years before getting married, and they eventually moved to Saratoga Springs to be close to Andrew’s job with General Electric Co.

“He was involved in every sport,” Ragan said. “We did a lot of tandem bike-riding fundraisers. That was kind of our thing.”

While traveling for work in 2006, Andrew noticed something wasn’t right.

 

“He would call me and his voice was slurred. I thought maybe he had a couple of cocktails, but he said, ‘No, Kelly, this is getting worse,’ ” Ragan recalled.

When he returned home, the couple thought Andrew’s voice problem was the result of a bad sinus infection until they were referred to a neurologist after seeing countless doctors in the area.

“You always kind of think it’s something small or not a big deal. We were both healthy, happy, vibrant and working young people with two little boys,” Ragan said. “I guess you could say we were in denial until 2006 when he received the diagnosis of ALS from a doctor in New York City. (The doctor) told us to get our affairs in order because you’re basically handed a death sentence when diagnosed with ALS,” she said.

Currently, there is no cure for the disease and the one medication on the market can, at best, give a patient several more months to live. Despite the fatal diagnosis, Ragan sought out every option and alternative treatment.

Still, the disease progressed. Today, Andrew requires a special wheelchair, feeding tube and computerized communication system that he can control with eye movements.

“Within six months he went from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair and had to retire from his job, which was frightening having the kids and a mortgage to pay for,” Ragan said.

Five years ago, doctors said Andrew had three to five years left to live.

Ragan has adjusted to being his full-time care-giver, acting as her husband’s arms, legs and voice. A hospice worker helps for 90 minutes each day, giving Ragan time to run errands, clean or just sit down.

Although Ragan doesn’t know who nominated her, MDA Supports Caregivers coordinator Ali Santander and a team of staff members at the MDA national headquarters in Arizona felt Ragan’s story of courage and dedication deserved national recognition.

“Kelly was chosen because she’s been so strong and has dedicated her life to giving (Andrew) the quality of life he deserves,” Santander said. “It’s our way of saying thank you to the caregivers, and for the MDA community it’s a nice way for us to recognize their hard work because it’s truly remarkable what they do for family members and loved ones.”

 

Ragan is one of 12 finalists chosen from the hundreds nominated by a local ALS center staff member who works with the caregiver and the area MDA branch.

“The MDA/ALS center has been an absolute lifeline to our family,” Ragan said. “ALS can be devastating financially and emotionally, and they have provided us with a high-tech wheelchair that makes my husband more comfortable and my caregiving responsibilities manageable.

“I’m in awe of my husband every day — he has battled this disease with determination and integrity and he gives me strength every day. ALS is still a life sentence, but I’m determined to carry on the fight no matter what.”

Where There’s Smoke … Synthetic Marijuana Use on the Rise in Area

Originally Published in the Saratogian Newspaper, Print Edition. Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. Click Here to Read Online.

By SUZANNA LOURIE, slourie@saratogian.com

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Officials say a dangerous national trend is catching on in and around Saratoga County: synthetic marijuana. It’s perfectly legal, but its dangers are very real

Synthetic Marijuana

Owner of Smoke & Fire on Caroline Street Theresa Sheffer has stopped selling synthetic marijuana, despite the fact it’s legal. She says she doesn’t feel comfortable selling such a dangerous and unnatural product. (ERICA MILLER, emiller@saratogian.com)

About three weeks ago, Saratoga Springs High School Resource Officer Lloyd Davis caught several students skipping school. He brought the students back to school and while searching one student Davis discovered the student had a small green package of “herbal incense” called Supernova.

It was herbal incense, Davis discovered, a synthetic mixture of plant materials and unregulated chemical compounds that mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

“That’s when it first came to my attention,” Davis said at a Saratoga Partnership for Prevention meeting Wednesday. “We asked — what is this? And he explained it’s something he gets high off and it’s completely legal and that he bought it at a shop in Saratoga.”

Marketed as herbal incense or herbal smoking blends, synthetic marijuana is called by a variety of street names including Wicked X, Posh, K2 and Thunder. These artificial marijuana products actually have 4 to 5 times the potency of marijuana, causing intense and dangerous side effects including hallucinations, anxiety, vomiting, heart failure and even death.

Synthetic Marijuana

Packages of herbal incense don’t come cheap. Three-gram packages can sell for up to $25. (ERICA MILLER, emiller@saratogian.com)

On Wednesday, Davis shared his concerns about synthetic marijuana with Partnership members including representatives from the Saratoga Springs High School, the Saratoga Springs Recreation Center, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Four Winds Hospital.

“This is just like kids sucking chemicals into their body and possibly having hallucinations or seizures — there’s no gray area on this,” Maureen Cary, of the Prevention Council, said.

Smoking herbal incense can cause harmful health effects and erratic, even dangerous behavior, and those side-effects have been seen in communities across the Capital District recently.

Several weeks ago, a 15-year-old Whitehall girl was treated at Glens Falls Hospital after having an adverse reaction to smoking herbal incense. Police also say a man was high on synthetic marijuana when he beat a 7-week-old child, landing the infant in Albany Medical Center.

 

Police in Glens Falls, Queensbury and Fort Edward are investigating a series of burglaries and break-ins at stores that carry herbal incense.

In Saratoga Springs, one local shop owner chose to remove synthetic marijuana from her store altogether.

Theresa Sheffer, owner of Smoke & Fire, a tobacco accessories shop on Caroline Street, noticed strange addictive behavior in her herbal incense customers — just one of the reasons she stopped selling “fake weed” in October 2010.

“Every time I would show up for work there were people waiting for herbal incense and it made me feel uncomfortable — it was an addiction almost like crack or cocaine — they were obsessed,” Sheffer said. It was a costly decision. Packages of herbal incense don’t come cheap — 3-gram packages can sell for up to $25.

“We started learning about it and what they were finding in the products. We made a lot of money off it, but at what expense? Do we need to make money if it’s hurting our customers?” Sheffer said.

Some other local head shops still carry brands of herbal incense, though.

Before Wednesday’s Partnership for Prevention meeting, Cary visited several of these shops to find out where the product was being sold and discuss with the owners the possibility of not selling herbal incense if there were a community-wide agreement.

Synthetic marijuana is currently available in Saratoga Springs at the Getty station on Church Street and Smoke n’ Save in Congress Plaza. But, Cary says at least one shop owner seemed agreeable to pulling the product if other local stores do the same.

Though they don’t have a solid plan as to how they would approach local government, the Partnership agreed something needs to be done in the community to help make parents — and kids — aware of herbal incense and its dangers.

“This looks like a package of candy or gum. If I saw this on my son’s desk I wouldn’t think twice,” a concerned parent said at Wednesday’s meeting.

 

In addition to being legal — even for kids younger than 18 — herbal incense is fruity and sweet-smelling. It has been popular among people on probation because it does not show up in drug screening.