Thursday, March 12, 2015

Commentary:Protect Children from Lead Poisoning

Published March 8, 2015 in the Cherry Hill Courier-Post

lead poisoning

On the hardwood floor of a Camden apartment, a toddler crawls in circles, playing with her favorite stuffed bunny. Sunlight streams through the picture window framed by peeling white paint. The midafternoon light illuminates the tiny flakes of dust swirling like snow from a snow globe, before settling on the floor around her.

She makes the bunny hop from the sofa to the chair, gathering the nearly invisible dust on its paws. Giggling, she chews on the toy, delighted at the sweet taste. With this innocent act, her life is changed forever.

She has become one of the 5,000 children poisoned by lead each year in New Jersey.

Lead poisoning, which causes irreversible brain damage and disproportionately affects our state’s most vulnerable children, is easily prevented. By supporting state Senate Bill S1279, we can restore the nearly depleted fund to remove this hidden threat.

Though lead was outlawed as a paint additive in 1978, it lingers in older homes, posing a special danger in poorly maintained low-income housing. Young children often ingest the poison while crawling on floors contaminated by paint dust, and then putting fingers and toys into their mouths. Often, they are drawn to the sweet taste of the metal.

Tragically, the children most easily exposed are also those who suffer the worst effects. Lead is devastating to a child’s developing brain, causing learning disabilities, significantly lowered IQ and behavioral problems. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that particles only the size of two grains of sugar per day, ingested over a month, can cause impairment.

This devastation, in turn, ripples throughout our society. By impairing the brain mechanisms that govern impulse control and recognition of consequences, the toxin increases the likelihood of aggressive, criminal and even violent behavior. Studies by Harvard researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, economist Rick Nevin and others have closely linked childhood lead exposure with crime rates.

Lead constitutes a special hazard for our state, due to the aged housing stock in New Jersey’s cities. Further, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, lead safety is imperative as damaged homes are restored. Yet New Jersey’s lead standards lag shamefully behind those of other states.

Though there are no safe levels, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set the threshold of concern at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. New Jersey has not only failed to formally adopt this guideline, but has consistently mismanaged the fund meant to remedy our lead problem.

New Jersey’s Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund provides lead abatement, home testing, and lead safety education. However, an Asbury Park Press investigation revealed that since 2004, over $50 million has been diverted from the fund to pay routine state salaries and bills. In a further demonstration of negligence, state officials have failed to enact a 2008 law to ensure lead-safe conditions in one- and two-family rentals.

While the harm from lead is irreversible, New Jersey’s pattern of neglect is not.

With S1279, we can ensure a lead-safe future for our state’s children. The bill, scheduled for a March 9 hearing, will pump $10 million into the nearly empty lead hazard control fund. These funds will be used to abate lead-contaminated buildings, provide emergency relocation and early intervention for children with elevated blood lead levels, offer training in lead-safe building maintenance, and distribute free dust-wipe kits for families and X-ray fluorescence analyzers for health departments. It will also promote statewide education and transparency regarding this insidious toxin.

By voicing support for S1279, we can let our state senators know that the futures of low-income children matter. Through the simple, cost-effective measures provided by this bill, New Jersey can save thousands of innocent children from the scourge of lead poisoning.

Valerie Saturen is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in In These Times, Yes! Magazine, the Jewish Week, Next Step Magazine and other publications. She lives in North Haledon.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Protecting First Responders

Published September 11, 2011 on the earthbongo blog:

Ten years ago, amid the tragedy of 9/11, we saw the sacrifices first responders make to save others’ lives. Their heroic deeds remind us that ordinary people are sometimes called upon to do extraordinary things. As we honor our firefighters, we should also recognize the emergency personnel who perform critical tasks but remain out of the public eye.

Among the ranks of these unsung heroes are fire police like those of the Fountain Hill fire station in eastern Pennsylvania. They spend sleepless nights at the fire hall, brave extreme weather conditions, and put themselves at risk to ensure that firefighters can do their jobs safely.

As Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc across the eastern seaboard, fire police officer Tiffany McCartney knew she was in for a long night at the station. She and more than twelve other “Hurricane Crew” members stayed up through the Sunday night peak of the storm, frantically fielding calls. From 2 a.m. until 5 p.m., 47 calls came in, sometimes four or five at a time. The crew rushed to pump out basements flooded by torrential rains. At a local elementary school, they prevented a potentially disastrous fire by stopping water from leaking onto a generator.  While the storm unleashed high winds and heavy rain, Tiffany stood in the downpour, making sure no one hit the firefighters as they came out of their trucks in the dark.

Besides protecting firefighters, fire police keep the public out of harm’s way by controlling traffic and crowds, securing emergency scenes, and evacuating residents from unsafe areas. Tiffany says that the challenges of working with the public have taught her to be patient and understanding, yet firm in enforcing the rules. “People may not understand why you’re there,” she remarks, and may jeopardize firefighters by ignoring a barricade. In these situations, fire police risk their own safety to prevent firefighters from being hit. Some have lost their lives doing so.

Tiffany is continuing a family tradition that began with her father, Marlin Bozes, who served as a fire police officer. Growing up, she excitedly watched him go out on calls. “I saw what he got to do, and that he was out in his community helping people,” she says. “That inspired me.” She has been following in his footsteps for seven years, volunteering alongside her husband, firefighter Glenn McCartney. Serving together has brought the couple closer together, giving them a shared sense of purpose. Tiffany reflects that volunteering “was a joint effort, and doing it together gave us a common bond.”

Tiffany is keenly aware of the dangers confronting the firefighters she has worked with for so many years. “Being on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, you never know what’s going to happen,” she says. She was reminded of this reality when, during a home fire, a floor collapsed and nearly trapped a firefighter in a basement. Luckily, he survived, but had to be taken to the hospital. When he was released, the firefighter eagerly returned to keep battling the blaze.

Another vivid memory is the five-year anniversary of 9/11.  A local family was remodeling their home when a lamp fell on some plastic, engulfing the entire house in flames. Strong winds made the fire especially difficult to put out. To Tiffany, the fire crew’s work was a fitting tribute to the 343 first responders who lost their lives in the Twin Towers.

On this anniversary, Tiffany is organizing a commemoration ceremony at the fire hall. She has asked firefighters to share their thoughts and memories of 9/11. “To me, that was the best thing,” she says, “because it’s coming from the mouths of people who do the same thing for their community as those guys did in those towers.” For those who share that common bond, remembering the events of that day—and the protracted recovery effort that followed—takes on a special meaning.

The fire service forms a close-knit community forged by trust, and each member is conscious of his or her responsibility for the others’ lives. “Everybody’s connected,” Tiffany says. “Everybody’s in that brotherhood or sisterhood of the fire department. It’s like an extended family, and most of us would do anything for anybody else.”
We at earthbongo salute the heroes of 9/11 together with Tiffany and other first responders across the world. Thank you for your service.

September is National Preparedness Month, which is a great time to plan ahead for emergencies.  Check out earthbongo project Be Ready for Emergencies to see what you can do to keep your family safe.

Improving Kids' Lives with a School Supply Drive

Published August 21, 2011 on the earthbongo blog:

It’s almost time to go back to school, and that means parents are scrambling to get the supplies their kids need for the new year. For many families who struggle to pay the bills and put food on the table, this can be an enormous challenge. That’s where Queen Anne Helpline comes in. The Seattle organization is filling backpacks with much-needed materials to make sure local kids are ready to learn.

Founded in 1982, Queen Anne Helpline provides an array of services to disadvantaged families, including residents of the approximately 800 low-income housing units on Queen Anne hill. With the economy still suffering, the Helpline has seen a skyrocketing demand, including people who had never before asked for help. According to board secretary and volunteer Donna Hegstrom, 11 new families have approached the organization this week alone. Some walk into the office bearing eviction notices. Many are among the over 2 million “99ers” whose unemployment benefits have run out after 99 weeks of joblessness. “Most never thought they’d find themselves in this position,” says Donna. “The need is growing by leaps and bounds.”

At the same time, parents are shouldering a higher burden to provide supplies public schools can no longer afford. Donna explains that deep budget cuts to Seattle’s public schools mean that parents are obligated to provide items not only for their own children, but for the classrooms. They receive long lists of requirements, including items like white board markers, scissors, pads of sticky notes, and hand sanitizer—all for communal use. The kids must also come to school with supplies for themselves, from notebooks to ear buds and USB drives for working on the computer. “If you’re a single or low-income parent with more than one child,” says Donna, “these costs can really add up.”

How much do they add up to? Running down the lists, I did some virtual back-to-school shopping at, looking for the most inexpensive brands I could find (except for the items where high-quality name brands were specifically listed). It turns out that one second grader’s list totaled $77.87. An eighth grader’s was $96.53. You don’t need to buy a calculator to see how these sums can multiply.

Luckily, there’s help. Donna led me to a room in the Helpline office filled with cardboard boxes overflowing with folders, crayons, glue sticks and other back-to-school needs. The majority of the supplies have been purchased by the Helpline and its volunteers, often out of their own pockets. In one corner sits a box of backpacks waiting to be picked up August 26-29.

Will you help Donna and the other Helpline volunteers fill them? The packs are almost ready, but two of the required items are still needed to make each one complete. Join volunteer Nancy’s projects, USB Thumb Drives for the Kids and Headphones for the Kids, to help the children walk into the classroom prepared!

Smiling All the Way to (and from) the Bank

Published August 10, 2011 on the earthbongo blog:

Sharon Fillingim’s puppy knows all about the benefits of local banking. On walks down Seattle’s Queen Anne Avenue, the puppy eagerly tugs on the leash when Sharon passes HomeStreet Bank, hoping for one of the treats stashed there.

A trip to this small community bank is a treat for customers, too. The name says it all: HomeStreet is a welcoming hub for many residents of the Queen Anne neighborhood. Instead of rushing through their transactions and leaving, they linger to chat over coffee. On Fridays, they can munch on one of the scrumptious cookies a customer bakes herself. According to branch manager Hossein Soleymani, she has never asked for reimbursement.

Hossein has been with HomeStreet for over a decade. “Small banks have more opportunities to help the community,” he says. “It’s not just a good idea to do—it’s something you must do as a neighbor.” He and other employees have put in numerous hours volunteering for local charities, including Queen Anne Helpline, which provides a variety of social services to neighbors in need. Hossein says the bank’s growth stems not from spending money on advertising, but from building community trust through word of mouth. “Our customers bring customers,” he says.

The cornerstone of this trust is customer service that goes the extra mile. Sharon owns the charming Le Reve bakery just down the street from the bank. When I tell her Hossein sent me, her face brightens. “He was just here today for lunch!” she exclaims. Since she opened her business account at HomeStreet, she has gotten to know him and the tellers, who have typically held their jobs for many years. If Sharon and her staff run out of change, they deliver it, a time-saving favor she can’t imagine many banks doing. It’s all part of the personal atmosphere that often distinguishes local banks from their huge Wall Street counterparts. “What impressed me most is that they greet each customer by name,” she says. “It makes you feel special.”

Ronda Miller says the same thing about her local bank, Umpqua. She’s the proud holder of the key to the second safety deposit box at its brand-new Queen Anne branch, which  opened its doors July 20th. For many years, she did her banking at Washington Mutual. But when WaMu was acquired by JPMorgan Chase amid the 2008 financial collapse, things began to change. “Whenever I walked in the door,” she says, “I felt pressured to buy something.” These high-pressure, often deceptive sales tactics were so bad that in June, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) fined the bank $27 million. Employees might approach Ronda more than once, delivering the same pitch without recognizing her face or recalling their previous encounter. While the impersonal service was off-putting, it wasn’t until Ronda had a problem with her credit card that she decided enough was enough. The bank gave her the run-around, passing her from one person to the next without resolving the issue. Ready for a change, she closed her account and opened a new one at Umpqua, where she says, “I’ve never felt like I was being sold a product.”

Ronda had read good things about Umpqua in a newspaper article about its Green Street lending program. Through the program, Umpqua offers homeowners affordable loans to make energy-saving improvements and install solar panels. The bank is part of a program called Solarize Seattle, a project of the nonprofit organization Northwest SEED. Its partners include the local solar company Sunergy Systems and Sustainable Queen Anne, a grassroots group promoting economic and environmental sustainability.

While other banks may have a business plan, Umpqua has a manifesto. In it, the bank says it’s “equal parts checking account and knitting club, commercial loan and local music store, IRA and Internet cafĂ©.” Supporting the local economy is an obvious Umpqua priority. All the goodies customers enjoy, from daily coffee to free massages on special occasions, come from local businesses. To say hello, the new branch hand-delivered plants to the front porches of each of its new neighbors.

At Umpqua, Ronda receives all the same services she did at her Wall Street bank, but instead of fees and aggressive sales, she enjoys a personal atmosphere that puts a smile on her face. “When you go into Umpqua,” she says, “you talk to one person, not three. You walk up, and they help you with everything.”

Isn’t that the way it always should be? Recently, I heard about a campaign called Move Your Money, a large-scale movement to “invest in Main Street, not Wall Street” by switching to a local bank or credit union. I decided to do the same and moved my money to the Washington State Employees Credit Union. I’ve never looked back. Here’s how you can join me, Sharon, Ronda, and millions of other people in finding a bank that really knows how to make change:

Careers in Public Relations

Published March 2012 in Next Step Magazine:

Every business or organization needs a good reputation in order to succeed. That’s why companies, nonprofits, government agencies, hospitals and educational institutions all have a growing demand for public relations specialists. If you enjoy working with people and have a way with words, this could be the career for you.

Public relations specialists build positive relationships between their organization and the public. They write press releases, contact the media, coordinate events and stay up to date on public attitudes and developments in their field.

Education, skills

Careers in public relations typically require a bachelor’s degree, and it’s best to major in communications, journalism or marketing. While in college, internships are one of the most valuable ways to gain experience and network with professionals in the field. They are often the best routes to finding your first real job.

Kristina Tirloni is a media/public relations specialist for TG, a Texas nonprofit that guarantees student loans and helps students plan financially for college. At the University of North Texas (, she looked for a major that would suit her interest in discovering what makes people tick. She ended up studying journalism, with a focus in public relations and marketing. After graduation, she began an internship with a small company that later hired her as an account executive.

Tirloni recommends doing more than one internship, preferably in diverse industries, in order to find the best match. “Always be willing to try something different,” she says.
Besides internships, there are many opportunities for students to gain real-world experience and start building a writing portfolio. Many local newspapers have junior writer programs in which high school students can submit articles and photographs. Or, try writing for a magazine or website with a young readership.

Another way to learn about the industry is joining the student chapter of a professional association like the Public Relations Society of America or the International Association of Business Communicators.

Typical day

Job descriptions vary with the size of the company. Within small organizations, one person often handles many or all of the marketing and public relations responsibilities, while employees in larger organizations have more specialized roles. For example, they might promote their company online through social media.

This career involves a great deal of research and writing. Public relations specialists keep informed of new developments by maintaining files of relevant articles from newspapers and magazines. They also write publicity materials and editorials for publication.
In this fast-paced industry, be prepared for long hours, tight deadlines, unpredictable schedules and constant pressure to generate new ideas. Public relations is hectic work that includes juggling several projects at once and traveling to attend events or represent the company at conferences. If a crisis comes up, you may have to work around the clock until it is resolved.

Is it for you?

Public relations specialists must have strong oral and written communication skills. They should have an outgoing personality, confidence, exceptional judgment, creativity and a natural understanding of people’s desires and motivations.

People skills and a willingness to take the initiative are also important. As the public face of your company, be prepared to really put yourself and your company out there.
Tirloni emphasizes, “You’ve got to be willing to pick up the phone and talk to somebody you’ve never met and sell your message.  You have to go out on a limb.”

One of the biggest keys to success is flexibility. Be ready to handle unpredictable situations and build relationships with people who have different viewpoints.

“If something doesn’t work out the way you planned, you’ve got to be ready for Plan B,” says Tirloni.

This field offers an opportunity to exercise your creativity, build relationships and play a key role in helping an organization succeed.

Vital stats
  • National average salary: $51,000
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in journalism or communications, along with real-world experience through at least one internship.
  • Pursue if: You are outgoing, possess excellent written and verbal skills and can think on your feet.

Consider HBCUs

Published February 2012 in Next Step Magazine:


Students who enroll in historically black colleges are likely to find a supportive atmosphere, close relationships with faculty and a longstanding tradition of African-American excellence. With notable alumni including Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse College,, Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University,, Spike Lee (Morehouse College) and Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University,, these institutions have long played a key role in educating African-American leaders.

A supportive environment

According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are institutions that were established before 1964 with the primary mission of educating African-Americans. These institutions originally provided educational opportunities to black students when they were systematically barred from other colleges and universities. There are 105 public and private HBCUs, including four-year colleges, community colleges, medical schools and graduate or professional schools. Most are located in Southern states.

For African-American students, attending an HBCU offers an opportunity to be part of a close-knit campus community where many others share their heritage. “They allow African-American students the opportunity to share, develop awareness, bond and connect in ways that may not have been made available at other institutions,” says Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina, Professor of History at Coppin State University
( At the same time, students of other races benefit from exposure to fellow students from a different ethnic background.

Pamela Champ is a five-year MBA student at Hampton University (, a historically black university in Virginia. To Pamela, a key advantage has been the presence of positive role models on campus. “It exposes African-Americans to other successful African-Americans, whether it’s the peers you see on the road to success or the professors you see daily,” she reflects. Because of the lower student-to-faculty ratios at many HBCUs, professors are not only positive examples, but also mentors. “At an HBCU the classes are generally smaller, so I’ve really gotten to know my professors one on one, and I wasn’t just a number,” says Pamela. “The intimate learning environment really helped me.”

Living history

The majority of HBCUs were founded shortly after the Civil War, and they often have a rich and storied history. Their legacies are intertwined with the history of Civil Rights and the struggle for equality. “Most colleges may teach history,” says Pamela, “but at Hampton I felt like I was a part of it, right in the middle of historical events.” Hampton students can study beneath Emancipation Oak, the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

This year, a group of Tennessee State University students traveled to Jackson, Mississippi for a special event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. They met Civil Rights activists, including Freedom Riders who were alumni of their university.
Dr. Adrian Samuels, Vice President for Student Affairs at Tennessee State University, says that this “deep-seated, rich history” helps forge a strong sense of community. He adds that, “from a retention standpoint, students understand the historical context of the institution,” which keeps them engaged and motivates them to continue their education.

The celebration of African-American culture and heritage often extends to the curriculum. As a student in Hampton’s Honors College, Pamela took seminar courses on hip hop music, the African-American church and the pros and cons of historically black higher education institutions.


Despite the high caliber of academics, availability of resources can present a challenge. According to Dr. Bankole-Medina, HBCUs are often underfunded and face structural challenges. They have also suffered disproportionately in the current economic downturn, facing budget cuts and faculty layoffs.

This can mean they have fewer and less well-maintained facilities than their bigger-budget counterparts. And while their tuition rates are generally lower than those of other schools, fewer scholarships may be available.

College to career

Dr. Bankole-Medina says that HBCUs “offer the kind of education that leads to the development of leadership abilities and real world skills that lead to meaningful employment opportunities.”

The transition from college to career is a priority at Tennessee State. Freshmen are required to visit the Career Development Center, which maintains a relationship with them throughout their studies. They also take a Service to Leadership orientation course, where they get hands-on experience through community service.

Diversity is a growing priority in the corporate world, and many businesses seek the best and brightest diverse candidates by recruiting at HBCUs. This can be challenging because each student is competing with other highly motivated, predominantly black students. According to Pamela, whose campus enjoys frequent career recruitment, “You have to work harder to set yourself apart, and you have to be more driven.” When she graduates this spring, she will begin the job she already has lined up at one of the Big Four accounting firms.

All are welcome

While 80 percent of students enrolled in HBCUs are African-American, these colleges welcome students of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Students of all races are drawn to their affordability compared to other institutions, and to their unique academic offerings and friendly environment.

For many students, historically black colleges and universities can offer unparalleled educational and social opportunities. Whether they are a perfect fit, however, depends on the individual. For a full list of HBCUs, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website (

Above all, setting up a campus visit is the best way to find out whether a particular HBCU is the right choice for you.