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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. 

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.

IMG_7512

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.

 

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.

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.”

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.

By SUZANNA LOURIE
slourie@saratogian.com

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, emiller@saratogian.com)

 

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.

Breese

Amy Breese with her children, Orion, 2, and Aidan, 9, in their Hoosick Falls home.
(J.S. CARRAS, photos@saratogian.com)

“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. 

By SUZANNA LOURIE
slourie@saratogian.com

Elton John

Elton John performed for a packed audience at Saratoga Performing Arts Center Sunday. (ERICA MILLER, emiller@saratogian.com)

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.

Literally.

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.
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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.

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“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.

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Region Rattled: Rare Quake Shakes Up East Coast

Originally Published in the Saratogian Newspaper. Print Edition, Wed., Aug. 24, 2011. Click Here to Read Online.

By SUZANNA LOURIE, slourie@saratogian.com

State Employees

State employees mill about on the Empire State Plaza near the Corning Tower in Albany Tuesday, August 23, 2011 after an earth quake centered in Virgina shook the east coast. (J.S. Carras/photos@saratogian.com)

SARATOGA SPRINGS — At 1:51 Tuesday afternoon, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake, 3.7 miles deep, struck Virginia, rattling the entire East Coast up to the Capital District and beyond.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported the quake’s epicenter was located in a town 44 miles northwest of Richmond, Va., in Louisa County. In Washington, D.C., the White House, Capital Building and the Pentagon were all evacuated due to the strength of the tremors. Flights from the Reagan National Airport outside of Washington, D.C., were also put on hold.

The quake, close to a 6 on the Richter scale, shook the computer monitors in the Lake Avenue office of The Saratogian here in Saratoga Springs. Within minutes, calls from people in towns across the county started rolling in and the newspaper website and social media outlets exploded with feedback.

Bob Gordon, who lives in Pyramid Pines on Old Gick Road in Wilton, said he felt the quake for about five minutes, and although nothing broke, it shook the entire house.

“We live in a mobile home and it shook the place like nothing,” he said.

Like many in the area, Judy Shrade of Nelson Avenue said that at first, she thought the vibrations were from a passing truck, but when the shaking didn’t stop, Shrade knew it wasn’t a truck causing her glassware to clatter on the shelves.

Quakes don’t strike this area often, but 87-year-old Saratoga resident Roslyn Pittinger has had earthquake experiences in the past. After yelling to her daughter, “Your washing machine is backing up,” Pittinger said her daughter responded that it wasn’t even on.

“I’ve lived a lot of places and felt this before,” Pittinger said, still laughing about the incident.
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While the ground was still rumbling, people from Virginia to New York reported the events using social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook to tell the story as it was happening in real time.

Even state Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, tweeted at 2:27 p.m., “My office in Schenectady was shake, rattle and rolling from the earthquake!” On Facebook, Steve Lyon added, “Definitely felt it here, about 8 miles east of the track, just off Route 9.”

 

South of Schenectady, a spokesperson from the Albany branch of the National Weather Service said their building, “shook like crazy,” and most staff evacuated the premises. Employees at the Capitol Building and government agency buildings also were required to evacuate their office, but returned to work later that afternoon.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement at 2:43 p.m. announcing that effects of the quake in New York state were being monitored by the State Office of Emergency Management and that as of that time, there had been no reports of damage to buildings, bridges, roads, power grids, the Indian Point nuclear power plant or other infrastructure.

Locally, the Saratoga Springs Police Department said although no emergencies or accidents had been reported as a result of the quake, more than a dozen calls came in immediately after the ground stopped shaking.

Lt. Robert Jillson of the Saratoga Springs Fire Department said firefighters were dispatched to a possible gas leak, but said he didn’t know if it was related to the earthquake or if it was just coincidence.

Since no horse races are run on Tuesdays, “dark days,” at Saratoga Race Course, thankfully no horses were running when the ground shook. Dan Silver, communications director for the New York Racing Association, said as of around 3 p.m., there had been no reports of harm to any horses, who were safe in their stalls in the backstretch.

Although the Virginia quake was felt here in Saratoga County, it wasn’t the first earthquake of the day for New York state. The USGS reported a smaller, 2.2 magnitude earthquake, 13.3 miles deep, that hit three miles outside of Altamont, a town just 20 minutes northwest of Albany, at 6:35 Tuesday morning.

Earthquakes might be rare in the Capital District, but it was only one year ago on Wednesday, June 23, 2010, when Saratoga residents felt the rumblings from a 5.0 quake that hit northeast of Ottawa at 1:40 p.m. — today’s earthquake coincidentally struck on the same date, the 23rd, of a different month, August, just 11 minutes after last year’s quake.

Later Tuesday, the USGS confirmed two aftershocks hit near the epicenter in northern Virginia — the first, magnitude 2.8, at 2:46 p.m., and the second, at 3:20 p.m. with a magnitude of 2.2. The National Weather Service said no tsunami was expected as result of the quake.

Saratogian reporters Michael Cignoli and Lucian McCarty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Savvy Savings: Coupon-Cutters Save Hundreds at Local Stores

Originally Published in the Saratogian Newspaper. Print Edition, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011. Click Here to Read Online. 

By SUZANNA K. LOURIE
slourie@saratogian.com

Couponing

Coupon-cutter Charlene DuBuque of Milton clips coupons with the help of her 8-year-old son, Tom McClean, and 6-year-old daughter, AriAna DuBuque.
(ED BURKE, eburke@saratogian.com)

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Extreme Couponers. Sure, you’ve heard of them: ordinary people saving extraordinarily large sums of money by clipping coupons. And maybe you’ve seen them on TLC’s hit reality show, “Extreme Couponing.” But do these savvy savers really exist here in Saratoga Springs?

The answer is yes. Meet two local super couponers: Charlene DuBuque of Ballston Spa and Kate Scott of Saratoga Springs.

Between the two of them, DuBuque and Scott save more than $700 on groceries and household items every week.

How do they do it?

To cut costs and fight back against a tough economy, DuBuque and Scott plan financially savvy schedules each weekend, starting with the bonus coupons found in the weekend editions of local newspapers.

“On Sundays, I wake up and get the two local papers. Then, my mother-in-law and friends send me their coupons, so I’ll have about six or seven copies of the same inserts that you get in one paper, which is six or seven times the discount,” Dubuque explained.

Scott’s routine is a little different. Early Saturday morning, she heads to Stewart’s to pick up four copies of the Times Union’s early bird special edition with extra coupons.

The next step is digital. Both women spend between 30 minutes to an hour each day comparing print coupons to current sales at stores like Price Chopper, CVS and Rite Aid. They’re looking for online coupons and sales that match their print coupons.

“At least half match up each week with the sales,” DuBuque said.

Coupons

Coupon-cutter Charlene DuBuque of Milton transitions her coupon collections from an over-stuffed folder to a larger binder with clear sheets.
(ED BURKE, eburke@saratogian.com)

 

After scouring the print and online deals, it’s time to start clipping.

“My two oldest kids clip and they get free TV time — they love it and it helps a lot,” DuBuque said with a laugh.

Once everything is meticulously laid out, Scott and DuBuque arrange their personal coupon binders.

“I cut the coupons and organize them in the binder — I plan out everything I’m going to buy that week,” Scott said.

DuBuque also uses a coupon book with the vouchers carefully laid out, organized not only by store, but by aisle. That book travels with DuBuque to every store, just in case she happens to see something forgotten on the list.

On the off-chance they do see an item not on the list, DuBuque and Scott rarely surrender to the urge to make an impulse buy.

“The thing is, I do everything with coupons. We don’t buy anything unless it’s with a coupon, from going out to restaurants to buying clothing,” DuBuque said.

Scott agreed. “I don’t even remember the last time I went anywhere without a coupon, and I never splurge on random items,” she said.

It might be strict, but living by the couponer’s code pays off. DuBuque saves between $200 and $500 each week while shopping for six, and Scott saves around $200 between herself, her boyfriend and two pets.

“There’s no way we could have the kind of stuff we have if I wasn’t clipping. Even once I’m in the job force, I’m still going to do this,” DuBuque said.

 

Although DuBuque recently finished graduate school, full-time work isn’t an option right now.

“My husband makes a decent salary, but it’s not enough for six people, and two of my kids have special needs — my baby goes to therapy, so it’s hard to find a nine-to-five,” she said.

DuBuque said she saves the most each week at Price Chopper due to their policy of doubling coupons up to 99 cents.

Price Choppers’ competitive Capital District coupon deals are about to be broadcast nationally.

A Price Chopper spokesperson said the TLC show “Extreme Couponing” filmed a segment at the Watertown Price Chopper several weeks ago to profile an extreme couponer from the area. The air date is still uncertain.

“We’ve definitely noticed an increase in people using coupons since the show started,” said Tom Smith, the Ballston Spa Avenue Price Chopper’s front end manager.

Although DuBuque and Scott aren’t quite as extreme as some of the crazed TLC couponers, both admit that the hobby does have a darker side.

After learning to clip from her mom, Scott quickly surpassed her mother’s couponing compulsion.

“It’s definitely an addiction,” Scott said. “If I don’t do it — yesterday we went out to the lake and I was like, ‘I have to do my coupons’ — I feel anxious when I don’t do it or if I buy something without a coupon.”

DuBuque agreed, saying, “It does become kind of addicting. When we were in Plattsburgh, we would get stuff pretty much free and we’d have so much stuff — just coming out of the closets. Now I only buy things we need or just a little extra.”

 

Of all the addictions in today’s society, saving hundreds of dollars per month doesn’t stand out as a cause for worry. Of course, all habits need moderation, but DuBuque and Scott are two examples of local extreme couponers who, with a little extra time and effort, manage to balance their lives with their savings.

“I’ll never go back to shopping without coupons,” DuBuque said. “I started clipping coupons when I was 17 and I’ve never looked back.”

Off to a Good Start: Attendance Up, Handle Up, Temperatures Way Up on Opening Day at Saratoga Race Course

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

By SUZANNA K. LOURIE
slourie@saratogian.com

Opening Day

Horses make their way around the main track at Saratoga Race Course Friday for morning workouts.
Photo Erica Miller

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was the hottest July 22 in more than 10 years for Saratoga Springs, but blistering temperatures couldn’t stop the 25,155 fans who showed up, water bottles in hand, ready to celebrate the kickoff of Saratoga Race Course’s 143rd annual racing season.

The high temperatures were a stark contrast to last year’s opening day when a crowd of 23,178 came out despite torrential downpours; this year’s opening day attendance represented an 8.5 percent increase over last year.

For the next six weeks, the racing industry will be focused on Saratoga, America’s most historic track, where plenty of new features abound,from the entrance of Dunkin’ Donuts and the exit of Carvel to the touted low price of beer at $3 for a 12 oz. domestic draft. Fans were up early in the Clubhouse for the 7 a.m. breakfast at the track, where they dined on scrambled eggs, pastries and sipped a morning mimosa during the horses’ early workouts.

Close friends Marie Vredenvurg of Mechanicville, Teresa Califano and Ann Palin, both from Clifton Park, come to breakfast at the track on opening day every year.

“We like to see the horses work out,” Califano said. “We also just love Saratoga and it’s not just during race season,” Palin added. “I love Saratoga all year long — I enjoy coming up here, just walking the main street through the little shops — you find things you don’t find any other place. Saratoga is just unique and we’re fortunate to be a part of it.”

Opening Day2

Sirsy duo Melanie Krahmer and Rich Libutti perform on Division Street during the first night of this weekend’s Hats Off to Saratoga Festival.
Photo Ed Burke

Other dedicated fans lined up even earlier than 7 a.m. outside of the main gate to ensure they would get a shady picnic table in the backyard.

“We line up every year at 6:30 in the morning to get this same spot,” said longtime racing fan Randy Johnson, who also teaches biology at Saratoga Springs High School.

Johnson, a Saratoga Springs resident, reunites with friends he only sees during racing season each year at the very same picnic table.

 

“Randy runs every morning with his packed backpack, table clothes and chairs to get this spot,” said Johnson’s friend Cynthia Hutchinson of Montreal. “He calls it running with the bulls.”

Johnson is no backyard rookie either, for more than a decade he’s come back to the same spot to meet friend Bob Guay, of Montreal.

“We met right here 15 years ago and now this guy is my best friend — we go to his house and he comes down here,” Johnson said of Guay.

For Johnson and his crew, the best prescription for beating the heat was kicking back with a cold beer, plenty of water and, of course, laughing with old friends.

“We sit in the same area every year and you really start to know people,” said Guay’s wife Joy Brock. “People say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ It’s really wonderful.”

A “who’s who” list of Capital Region business leaders gathered at the Carousel Restaurant, where socialite Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, hosted their annual Opening Day luncheon.

Outside in the picnic areas, track goers were in high spirits despite temperatures soaring into the mid-90s.

“It’s Christmas in July!” yelled one happy fan while setting up his tent.

Strolling past the bars, there was a buzz about the new low prices of beer.

“Dude, it’s only $3!” called out another anonymous crowd member from one bar.

 

For some, the cure for the sizzling heat was knocking back a cold one and for others, it was savoring a bowl of ice-cold Ben and Jerry’s. Moshik Teichholtz of Israel came to Saratoga for the first time with son Guy Teichholtz and brother Udi Vax. Having only been in Saratoga for three-hours, the trio was already enjoying the atmosphere of the track.

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“I like the atmosphere, it’s not like Israel — except it’s hot, the weather is just like Israel,” said Teichholtz.

Closer to the track, fans outside the paddock lined up to watch the horses warm up before the second race of the day.

“The horses are why we come here; they’re the stars,” one observer said.

Racing fans did a lot of wagering Friday: on-track handle was $3,551,745, up 13.4 percent from 2010; total handle including wagers made on-track and from nationwide simulcast outlets was $15,871,449, up 18.9 percent.

Other fans were content to post up with elaborate picnic set ups in front of the outdoor TV screens to watch the races and do their betting from the comfort of their claimed space.

“We only go to the rail if it’s not blistering hot,” Hutchinson said. “We mostly spend the day right here in the shade and it’s great.”

Despite the high humidity, well-coiffed women in the Clubhouse managed to stay glamorous with elaborate hats and headpieces, high heels and frequent make-up touch-ups.

“I love the excitement and the challenge of picking the right horse… which I often do by name,” laughed 10-year track attendee Wendy Burke, of Boston.

It’s not just racing fans who are feeling good about the 2011 Saratoga meet, the New York Racing Association heads into the 2011 meet in much better financial condition than a year ago, when it was faced with the possibility of a racing shutdown before getting the first installment of a $25 million loan. The loan, first provided by the state, has since been taken over by Genting New York LLC, the firm chosen to run Aqueduct Race Track’s new casino that’s scheduled to open this fall.

 

Adding to the sense of optimism, Saratoga Race Course is expected to undergo $100 million worth of capital improvements in the next few years as new gaming revenue becomes available.

Overall, searing temperatures couldn’t slight the opening day excitement felt around the track about the official kick off of what is sure to be another exciting 40-day meet.

“I think Saratoga is the best track in the country because of the ambiance,” said Mary Ann Monaco of Albany. “At Belmont, it’s just the racetrack — here, it’s the picnic areas, the trees and just look at the track! It just inspires you to come here. Saratoga is the place to be, just like they say.”