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Article: Tamarindo Airport to Reopen, but Questions Linger

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


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.


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.


Man Assaulted Outside of Saratoga Springs Bar Now in Stable Condition at Albany Medical Center

Originally Published in the Saratogian: Dec. 26, 2011. Click here to read online.


SARATOGA SPRINGS — The victim who sustained a serious head injury when he was assaulted early Saturday morning — allegedly by a Putnam Den employee — has been upgraded from critical to stable condition at Albany Medical Center, Saratoga Springs Police Department Lt. John Catone said Monday afternoon.

Police have not yet released the name of the victim, but confirmed he is a 35-year-old male who lives in Ballston Spa.

“He’s responding well,” Catone said Monday.

He did not know when the man would be released from Albany Medical Center or the extent of his head injury.

The alleged assailant, 26-year-old Putnam Den employee Adam McInerney of Stillwater, was working security at the entrance to the bar when the fight broke out on Putnam Street.

City police responded to the scene at 1:27 a.m. Saturday and found the victim unconscious with an apparent head injury. He was airlifted to Albany Medical Center.

After conducting an investigation, officers arrested McInerney, who appeared to be responsible for the injuries sustained by the victim. McInerney was then taken into custody and charged with second-degree assault, a felony.

According to his Facebook profile, McInerney has been employed by the U.S. Marine Corps.

He was arraigned in City Court and sent to Saratoga County Jail after his arrest Saturday. Bail was set at $10,000 cash or $20,000 bond.

The investigation is being led by Saratoga Springs Police Sgt. Tim Sicko and Investigator John Kelly.

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

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


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.”

Downtown Staple Saratoga Shoe Depot will Close its Doors for Good Dec. 31

Saratoga Shoe Depot, a downtown staple since 1976, will close its doors for good Dec. 31

Originally Published in the Saratogian Newspaper, Print Edition, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011. Click Here to Read Online. 


Saratoga Shoe Depot

Saratoga Shoe Depot at 385 Broadway, a downtown staple since 1976, will close its doors for good Dec. 31. It was sold at auction earlier this month. (ERICA MILLER file photo/


SARATOGA SPRINGS — Saratoga Shoe Depot, a downtown business staple since 1976, will close its doors for good Dec. 31.

The announcement comes just weeks after the store at 385 Broadway was sold at auction to Tom Newkirk, owner of Saratoga National Golf Course, for $2 million.

Saratoga Shoe Depot and another Broadway property — a mixed-use building on the corner of Spring Street and Broadway — were originally slated for foreclosure in May, but former owner Frank Panza filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to hold off auctioneers.

Unable to sell the properties, Panza lost the buildings Dec. 2, when they sold at auction for a combined $3 million.

“It’s bittersweet,” Panza said Saturday, “but I’m a firm believer that life is going to take you in a direction and you have the option to be happy or to be sad, and I’m not walking away sad.”

Looking ahead, Panza said he has no specific plans to reopen the Shoe Depot elsewhere and for now is focusing on taking it slow with his wife, Jennifer L. Flynn, while recuperating from the financial and emotional losses.

“We’re not going to relocate, at least right now, but we’re leaving it open because we don’t know the possibilities yet,” he said. “We will definitely do something, I’m just not sure where it will be.”

While Panza plans his next step, the property’s new owner, Newkirk, has apparently reached an agreement with another retail tenant — Frivolous Gal — that will move into the space next year.

Although the owner of Frivolous Gal, a boutique currently located at 18 Division St., was unavailable Saturday evening, an employee confirmed the business would be moving to Broadway, opening some time next spring.

Roughly 10 employees will be out of a job when Saratoga Shoe Depot, which has been in business for more than 35 years, closes its doors at the end of the month.


Longtime employees and customers were the first to be notified of the closing in an email from Panza sent earlier this week.

“My family and I want to say thank you for the way you have treated us,” the message said. “Some folks say retail is a tough racket, and I would tend to agree. It also seems appropriate to mention that 35 years ago I could not imagine how wealthy our hearts would become from something as simple as serving you. From its now deeper bottom we can say Bless You.”

The email also announced a liquidation sale that will feature price cuts on everything in the store.

All jewelry, clothing, footwear, accessories, gifts, toys, furniture (antiques included) will be 20 percent off through Monday; 30 percent off Dec. 19 through 21; 40 percent off Dec. 22 through 24; 50 percent off Dec. 26 through 27; and 60 percent off Dec. 28 through 30.

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


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.”

Saratoga Springs City School District: Number of Students Who Qualify for Free or Reduced-Cost Lunches has Spiked in Recent Years

Originally Published in the Saratogian: December 10, 2011. Click here to read online.


SARATOGA SPRINGS — The number of students in the Saratoga Springs City School District who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch programs has spiked in recent years, mirroring a national trend caused by the troubled economy. High unemployment rates and greater financial uncertainty have resulted in lower annual household incomes.

“There has definitely been an increase in how many students are eligible this year,” said Margaret Sullivan, the director of the district’s school lunch program.

Since the 1940s, the federally assisted National School Lunch Program — regulated and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has been helping to ensure that children from low-income households have a balanced and healthy meal during the school day.

Students in families of four that have a household income of up to $29,055 are eligible for free meals. Children in four-member households earning up to $41,348 annually qualify for reduced-price lunches.

Sullivan, who has worked in the school district for 14 years, said the number of students who qualify for subsidized lunches has risen dramatically in the past few years.

The rising number of students eligible for the discounted lunch program does not affect local school budgets because the federal program reimburses the cost of each meal. In New York, the state goes a step further by covering the difference to offer reduced-price lunches at 25 cents as opposed to the 40-cent rate found in most states. In Saratoga Springs, the regular cost of an elementary school lunch is $2.50.

“There’s no downside to us having more students in the program,” Sullivan explained. “Hopefully, now more students will be eating the meals we’re providing and doing better in the classroom. It benefits all parties.”

Saratoga County remains well-off compared to many other parts of the country. U.S. Census data shows the 2009 median household income in the county was $66,634, compared to the national median household income of $50,221. Census data also shows that 6.3 percent of people in Saratoga County live in poverty, versus 14.3 percent in the United States and 14.2 percent in New York state.

Despite this, the local school district’s free and reduced-cost school lunch program numbers mirror the national trend.

In an analysis of data from the Department of Agriculture, the New York Times recently reported that the number of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches rose to 21 million during the last academic year, a 17 percent increase from 18 million in the 2006-2007 school year.


At the end of the Saratoga Springs City School District’s 2006-2007 academic year, there were 1,155 students enrolled in the program. By May 2011, 1,347 students qualified — a 16 percent increase over a five-year period.

“I’ve noticed it. We have a lot more kids this year than before,” Greenfield Elementary School Cook Manager Judi Martone said. “The economy is really, really bad, and it shows.”

However, the troubled economy might not be the only reason the number of families participating in the free and reduced-cost lunch program has increased.

“I think part of it may have to do with the fact that the state now allows us to receive information on people whom they call ‘directly certified,’ ” Sullivan said.

Direct certification refers to a process conducted by state and local education agencies to allow children to receive free school meals without a household application, a requirement of the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which has been phased in across the country. This is the first year the Saratoga Springs City School District has received the information this way.

“New York state now sends us an electronic file of people who receive particular state benefits such as food stamps, who automatically qualify for the free and reduced-cost lunch program, rather than each family having to send a letter to me,” Sullivan said.

Because the system is still in its trial year, families can still opt to mail in a form, but in the future, direct certification will automatically register children for the school lunch program. Updated information will be sent to the district three times per year.

“It makes it easier on the family. There can be confusion sometimes if they have to send the letter in,” Sullivan said. “It benefits the family and helps us provide benefits to people who should be getting those benefits, but maybe haven’t been in the past.”

Although the fact that more students are now enrolled in the subsidized meal program might represent a growing financial need in the community, it could also have a positive side by providing more children good nutrition they might not have access to otherwise.

“If kids pack a lunch from home, they’re usually getting non-nutritious food because non-nutritious food is cheap. They get Twinkies and other junk,” Martone said while taking homemade corn bread out of the oven at Greenfield Elementary School. “This is the best lunch they can get, and good nutrition is what’s going to help them settle down and learn in the classroom.”

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. 


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/

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.



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,

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,

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.

Non-profit Shades of Light provides support system for women suffering from postpartum disorders

Originally Published in the Saratogian Newspaper, Print Edition. Oct. 22, 2011. Click Here to Read Online.


Suzanne Nelson and Family

Suzanne Nelson with her family, husband Rick and two children Jaden, 11, and Adler, 4, in their home in Schuylerville. Suzanne is a co-founder of a non-profit called Shades of Light for women struggling with Postpartum. (ERICA MILLER,


SCHUYLERVILLE — Schuylerville resident Suzanne Nelson only had a few blissful hours with her firstborn, Jaden, before the panic attacks set in.

“It was terrible. I had no idea what was happening to me,” said Nelson, who was living in Colorado at the time.

It was years before she could label the nightmare that ensued as severe postpartum depression.

So severe that early this summer, Nelson teamed up with Hoosick Falls resident and fellow postpartum anxiety survivor Amy Breese to found the budding not-for-profit Shades of Light, a Capital District support network for women suffering from postpartum disorders.

In telling her story, Nelson said she not only hopes to generate awareness about Shades of Light, but also to help women realize help is available.

“I hope people can hear my story and realize they’re not crazy, they’re not alone and realize something is wrong and they need to get help,” she said.

The story continues a week after Jaden’s birth, when Nelson’s panic attacks grew into nonstop crying, extreme anxiety and irrational fears of the baby dying.

“It was this overwhelming feeling of doom — constant thoughts, terrible, terrible thoughts,” she recalled.

By two months, Nelson’s health was deteriorating. She would go days without sleep, her hair was falling out and she dropped to a weight so low it caused cardiac complications.


Amy Breese with her children, Orion, 2, and Aidan, 9, in their Hoosick Falls home.

“The doctors would say I must be bipolar and say maybe you should be put in a psych ward,” she said.


It was four months before a therapist suggested Nelson get her thyroid tested. Sure enough, her physical symptoms were a biochemical illness and a hormonal imbalance known as Postpartum Graves Disease, which had led the body to attack the thyroid.

“We tried all sorts of med therapies, but nothing worked, so they ended up having to eradiate — basically kill — my thyroid,” she said.

That was seven months after giving birth. With daily medication, Nelson’s strength started to return. After 18 months, Nelson said, she could consider herself normal.

Once settling in Schuylerville and hearing about postpartum depression disorders from doctors and family members, Nelson began to make sense of what happened.

“Everything started clicking, but I think the bulk of my education came after the birth of my second,” she said.

After giving birth to Adler four years ago, Nelson experienced another four months of postpartum, although less severe because of her established support system.

Still, the lack of resources in the Capital Region for women with postpartum mood disorders was glaring, she thought.

“Even the doctors don’t know where to send these women,” Nelson said.

She connected with Breese, who has worked for almost eight years as a postpartum doula, someone trained to provide in-house support to women and their families after childbirth.

“I was a survivor of extreme postpartum anxiety. It’s always been a cause near and dear to my heart,” Breese said.


In May, Breese started a monthly postpartum support group in Troy. Now the group is a part of Shades of Light and has a consistent following.

“I was ready to create some support in the community so these women wouldn’t have to go it alone like I did,” Breese said.

Nelson connected with Sonia Murdock, co-founder and executive director of the Long Island-based Postpartum Resource Center of New York, who quickly got on board with Shades of Light.

In June, Nelson went through training with Murdock to earn the same certifications Breese has to conduct postpartum support groups.

Last month, Nelson hosted the first Saratoga Springs group at the public library, and the women have a Glens Falls group in the works.

In New York state, around 25,000 women suffer from perinatal disorders and more than 50,000 suffer from postpartum mood disorders, Murdock said.

The spectrum of these diseases and their risk factors are wide. While not genetic, women who have experienced a trauma are at greater risk to develop the condition, Murdock explained.

With trauma often comes postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder in which birth re-triggers the traumatic experience.

“There are a lot of sub-sets — postpartum psychosis is where the woman is unable to tell the difference between what’s reality and what’s not reality,” Murdock said.

Other postpartum classifications include depression/anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and anxiety or depression during pregnancies.

“The information needs to be integrated into the whole continuum: pre-

conception, during pregnancy and after having a baby for everyone who plays a role. It’s important for them to be educated about how to be part of the safety net,” Murdock said.

That’s exactly what Nelson and Breese hope to bring to the Capital District with Shades of Light.

Future plans include a website with a local guide of professionals and support groups, as well as distributing informational brochures through regional health care facilities.

“We would like to have what they (the Postpartum Resource Center of New York) have here. We want to be independent and have one support group per week. There are all different kinds of outreach we hope to accomplish,” Breese said.

There’s still a way to go, much of which requires funding. But if Shades of Light grows the way she hopes, Nelson, owner of a graphic design business, envisions this becoming a full-time career.

“I’m hoping some businesses will want to help us or donate so we can provide all these things,” Nelson said. “If everybody plays a little part, it could be a really, really big thing.”

Concert Review: 22 Years Later, Elton John Still Dazzles

Originally Published in the Saratogian Newspaper, Print Edition. Sept. 6, 2011. Click Here to Read Online. 


Elton John

Elton John performed for a packed audience at Saratoga Performing Arts Center Sunday. (ERICA MILLER,

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Bitch is Back — and when Reginald Dwight (yes, really), also known as Sir Elton Hercules John comes to town, traffic stops to make way.


Though the 2.2-mile drive from Broadway to Saratoga Performing Arts Center took more than an hour, neither traffic nor torrential rain could keep away the thousands of fans who braved the elements for the rare opportunity to see Britain’s own “Rocket Man.”

A Live Nation security guard said the venue expected a crowd of 17,000, but with people still pouring in more than an hour from the show’s start time and fans posted up to listen outside the gates, the number could have easily soared closer to SPAC’s 25,000 capacity.

Clad in a long, black tuxedo jacket decorated with roses and a diamond bedazzled skull and crossbones, Elton’s costume wasn’t quite as over-the-top as back in his ’70s and ’80s pomp, but with his signature tinted-shades, Elton’s stage presence still radiated.

Warmly greeting the audience, Elton remembered the first time he stepped on the SPAC stage 40 years ago and the last time he performed here 22 years ago.

It could have just as easily been 22 days as the sparkling songster opened strong with, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” his pipes and his piano-playing anything but rusty.

Noteworthy performances by shaggy-haired Scottish guitarist Davey Johnstone and longtime drummer Nigel Olsson strengthened the force of Elton’s piano and vocals.

Two of his soul-singing backup singers also included Rose Stone, co-founder of the psych-rock ’70s soul group Sly and the Family Stone, and Lisa Stone, Rose’s daughter.
Seamlessly flowing into popular single “Tiny Dancer,” Elton had the crowd singing, smiling and swaying along in their seats.


With more than 250 million records sold, Elton John proved he is timeless by drawing in a mix of youngsters, rowdy teens and nostalgic baby-boomers, all of whom could connect with some aspect of his four-decade career.

For someone who has played a countless number of concerts and churned out 30 albums, Sir Elton never let his skill, energy and gratitude for the crowd fade throughout the nearly three-hour-long show.

In response, the fans never quit cheering for the man who has influenced the world with his music and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998 for his service to charitable organizations including the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

A vibrant version of “Hey Ahab,” a hip-shaking tune from his 2010 album, “The Union,” a collaboration with Leon Russell, had Elton jumping up and down, urging the crowd to clap along.

Other highlights included a powerful, prolonged rendition of “Rocket Man,” interlaced with crescendos and piano solos, and a pitch-perfect version of “Bennie and the Jets.”

Elton masterfully conducted the crowd’s energy, calming it down with “Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” then amping it up with the loud anthem, “The Bitch is Back.”

Throughout it all, Elton’s gusto and gratitude stayed strong as he fist-pumped, pounded and stood to wave and thank the audience after nearly each track — he even took time to sign autographs near the end.

“When I first played here 40 years ago, it was incredible and still is,” Elton said before the finale. “I want to thank you for being here — thank you to everyone on the lawn, thank you for buying a ticket, thank you for loving me for all these years. I want to dedicate this song to all of you to have happiness and peace and to thank you for supporting me for so long.”

With that, Elton laid his cards on the table and gave a striking final performance of “Your Song,” a love song prolonged through the generations with its memorable role in the 2001 movie “Moulin Rouge.” As he sang, fans could be seen wiping their eyes.

As the crowd trickled out, no one pushed, no one shoved and all around you could hear murmurs of bedazzled fans telling each other things like, “I’m speechless,” or “Man, that was amazing.”

We can only hope he doesn’t wait another 22 years before he takes the SPAC stage once again.