Monday, December 28, 2020

It wasn’t a merry Christmas for some local children


The police scanner provided me a saddening study in contrasts on Christmas Day.


As always, it was on in the background in my home. While my family was enjoying laughs and love, I kept hearing radio transmissions about families that weren’t experiencing either of those. Their day was filled with tears and hatred.


Niagara County Sheriff deputies were dispatched to an alarming number of domestic situations -- verbal and even physical altercations between family members or exes. Those calls began early, at a time when families should be sharing special moments around the Christmas tree, and they continued well into the evening, when there should be joy around the dinner table.


It was as if the holiday, a day about the universal love, bred contempt and awakened the beasts within those who don’t understand and might never understand what love is. Never had I heard a Christmas like this on the airwaves. It was depressing.


Some might say 2020 and all that it was created that problem.


No. I would say that 2020 only amplified what already existed. 


Beyond the Christmas explosion, one needs only to listen to that same police scanner on any given evening or weekend. It seems that the calls for domestic situations are endless. Our officers have to be peacekeepers in homes as much as on the streets. They are called to calm altercations playing themselves out before young children, they have to keep women from verbally abusing their husbands, they have to prevent men from following through on physical and sexual threats to their girlfriends, and they have to protect kids from physical, mental and sexual harm.

According to data provided by the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, all police departments within Niagara County reported 1,225 arrests for domestic violence in 2019. Among them were 1,052 cases of simple assault, 106 cases of aggravated assault and 40 sexual offenses against a family member, 29 of which were not the intimate partner.


Mind you, those are just the cases recorded as actual arrests.


There were thousands of 911 calls for domestic arguments and other forms of verbal abuse. The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office alone responds to approximately 4,000 such calls every year. There were thousands more covered by the city police in Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, and Lockport. And, remember, most victims and witnesses remain silent; there are tens of thousands of situations that go unreported.


You can’t help but feel for those affected by such monstrosities -- the victims, the innocents, and especially the kids raised in unloving homes or exposed to hateful people.


Think about your kids and how long and powerfully they hoped for Christmas to arrive and the thoughts they had of what Christmas is and could be. Then, think about those other kids less fortunate who, living in the miserable circumstances of 2020 and the miserable circumstances of their day-to-day life, had those same dreams but at a greater intensity, because they wanted that one day – one day! -- of happiness, joy and love. But, that day was stolen from them, as so many days are.


It’s heartbreaking.


And, it’s a call to action.  


The unrest in their homes means unrest in our communities: The vitality and morality of a society can be measured by how it treats its children. We must be there for them. You see, those same kids dealt a bad hand on Christmas are given the same the rest of the year…and this year even more so than others as they’ve been sequestered, due to Covid lockdowns, in those unhealthy environments.


So, on the other side of Covid, whenever some normalcy, some access, returns, it’s up to us as coaches, teachers, scout leaders and other mentors to help them and provide the respect, guidance and positive examples that they sorely need and deserve.  


If you create one New Year’s resolution, make it that. Do what’s possible to make not only Christmas Day but every day brighter for the kids who need you. Be the light in their darkness. Give them hope. Give them a better tomorrow. Give them love.



From the 28 December 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Monday, December 21, 2020

Food insecurity is real, everywhere


There is a food pantry at Zion Lutheran Church in Gasport that is open once per month. Back in January of this year, 22 families used this critical service. Last weekend, 41 families did.


That increase is outcome of the COVID economy. It’s a substantial number, too, given how small Gasport is: The Census Bureau says the population within the hamlet proper is just over 1,200 people. That means if all those individuals hail from the immediate area, 10 percent of area residents are relying on the charity to get by.  


If you tell those numbers to anyone, and specifically Gasportians, it’s met with amazement. They’ll claim that Gasport doesn’t look like it’s saddled with poverty and that they hardly know anyone in need.


That’s the problem with poverty. It sneaks up on you. It often doesn’t look like it should and appears in places you’d least expect.


That’s especially the case in rural and small town America.


We all know the inner-cities are impoverished. It grabs the attention of the press, academia, and policymakers. And, it grabs a disproportionate amount of money and energy in the war on poverty.


Rural poverty, on the other hand, remains under the radar. You almost never hear about it on the nightly news and it’s even rarer yet to hear an elected official cast a spotlight on it. 


Maybe it’s because it’s less noticeable than it is in the big city. Rural poverty is less centralized and more spread-out through a given community with low-income families living next door to middle or high income folks. You don’t get that in cities where social classes tend to be segregated.


Maybe it’s because it’s fly-over country. The population centers, for better or worse, dictate thought and public policy throughout America. Everything outside of the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami is meaningless to powerbrokers. We see that here in the Empire State in spades – New York City lawmakers determine what happens across the state, much to the detriment of upstate.


Regardless of why it’s ignored, it’s a problem nonetheless and, as many will find surprising, one greater than that of the cities.


Prior to the COVID crisis (its impact won’t be shown in government statistics until mid-next year) 13 percent of the population in urban locales was considered impoverished while 16 percent of rural and small town Americans were. 

That accounted for 10 million Americans living below the poverty line in towns identical to those where this newspaper is circulated.

Worse yet, of those 10 million people, a majority of them are children. While you may not know their circumstances in the home, it’s more than likely you know many of those kids. They could be your neighbors. 

As the president of the board of the local Boy Scout council which serves eastern Niagara and the GLOW counties, I tell people all the time that we not a social club for boys, but rather a social service organization. Our duty is to deliver education and development to children, in need and out of need, to help them rise above any obstacles in their lives and prepare them for careers and parenting.

When one looks at how the youth served by our council are besieged by poverty, you’ll understand my social service designation.

In Medina, 12 percent of the population under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line while in Batavia that rate is 29 percent. In Geneseo it’s 31 percent and in Albion it’s 37 percent.

Or, on a more macro scale, consider the poverty rate for minors in each of the counties under our jurisdiction: Wyoming (17 percent), Niagara (18 percent), Livingston (19 percent), Genesee (20 percent), and Orleans (25 percent).

Basically, 1-out-of-every-5 or 1-out-of-every-4 kids are impoverished in this region. 

That’s why our local school districts have so many free or discounted breakfast and lunch programs. In order to best utilize the wonderful public resources that our public schools offer, the children there need to be nourished or it’s all for naught.

That’s why food pantries are tested to their limits. 42 families at Gasport’s food pantry last Saturday? That’s a lot. But it pales in comparison to the food distributions seen in Orleans County. Hundreds of families line up at a time. Quite often when the Orleans Hub reports on these modern day bread lines, their photos show cars are lined up for blocks or miles. It’s a heartbreaking visual that puts it all into a palpable perspective.

Most people wouldn’t expect such abject poverty in God’s Country. I don’t care if they’re visiting from a suburb or living right here in the epicenter. The unparalleled beauty and bounty of the fields and forests seem to do a fine job in hiding the fact that are some truly ugly circumstances plaguing our rural communities and economies.

Food insecurity was really bad before 2020. The COVID crisis has made and will make things even worse. It’s time we brought this out of hiding and did our best as a people to initiate the economic policies, locally and nationally, and sustain the charity and volunteerism to bring opportunity and prosperity to those who have been deprived of hope for far too long.



From the 21 December 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, December 11, 2020

Celebrating fifty years of the DEC


Last month, I caught a fish that I never believed possible in the Genesee River in Allegany County. That rainbow trout measured over 26 inches and weighed in at nearly 7 pounds. You’d expect a trout like that in one of the Great Lakes, not an inland trout stream. 


While marveling that fish and that moment I said to my daughter, “This is one of those times you thank God and the DEC.”


The Department of Environmental Conservation made that catch possible. They stock the river, allow a year-round fishery in the Genny, and maintain upstream a special catch-and-release section that lets big trout flourish.


That experience had me further reflect on the importance that the DEC has had on my life.


Some of my earliest and most cherished memories of the outdoors are of family camping in state forests near Alfred. That helped lay the foundation for my deep appreciation of our wild world, something many of you know from my daily #Nature365 posts on social media.


I’d like to think the same foundation-laying is happening now with my kids, as they absolutely love our annual summer trip to the Adirondacks where they can hike and paddle on DEC-managed lands and waters.


Beyond those foundations, there is much more to appreciate of what the DEC provides New Yorkers – Man and Beast alike: Clean water and air, game management, campgrounds, forestry plans, invasive species controls, wildlife restoration, Econ officers, forest rangers, and so much more. 


3,000 men and women work for the DEC and the environment, assigned to 24 divisions and offices. It seems like a lot, but it’s a big state, so diverse in natural splendor that takes an incredible amount of effort and so many macro and micro strategies to protect and promote the natural world: Heading west to east we have the Great Lakes and the mighty Niagara River; the Allegany mountains; the Genesee watershed including Letchworth; the Finger Lakes; the Tug Hill plateau; the Adirondacks; the Hudson River watershed; the Catskills; and the marine environs around Long Island…and many places in between. 


We have a whole world’s worth of wonder just in our state’s borders.


It’s truly amazing.


And, so are the accomplishments of the DEC. Here are some highlights:


In 1970, the DEC created the state’s first endangered species list to identify and protect the most threatened of our plants and animals. I think of how this has helped our orchids and moose, to name just a few, escape extinction and, in some cases, thrive.


In 1976, the bald eagle restoration program was launched. Over my lifetime, these magnificent birds, our national symbol, have gone from rarities to regular sights across the state.


In 1980, the Salmon River Hatchery was opened. That was instrumental in making Lake Ontario a truly world-class fishery. Think of the millions of dollars in sportsfishing tourism that the hatchery and others bring to our lakeside communities every year.  


In 1984, the acid rain law was passed after years of study by DEC scientists. Since then, brook trout and other creatures have made a return to Adirondacks waters once poisoned. Dedicated stewardship reversed fortunes.  


In 1985, the DEC launched the Saratoga Nursery seedling program. If you’ve ever purchased seedlings from your local Cooperative Extension office or Soil and Water District, you know how important this has been for affordably improving our lands. 


In 1988, the DEC helped devise the Solid Waste Management Act which has decreased the number of active landfills from 500 to 27 statewide. This has saved numerous rural towns and counties from being dumping grounds and having their watersheds exposed to various forms of waste.


In 2003, the DEC took ownership of the Brownfields Cleanup Program which uses $120 million annually to salvage and improve tainted industrial sites that were left by previous generations and bad players. It’s reassuring to see wastelands being repurposed to usable properties or greenspace.  


The list could go on and on. Victories big. Victories small. Victories yet to be had.


2020 was supposed to be a special year for the DEC, its 50 year anniversary. There was so much planned to celebrate that milestone and I was looking forward to taking my kids to some celebratory and educational events at campgrounds, parks, and state forests. But, alas, like all celebrations this year it was canceled or muted.


But, just because parties couldn’t be had, we shouldn’t take the time to reflect upon and recognize what the DEC has meant and will mean to you, your family, and our natural world. 2020’s shutdowns and Covid protocols should have put it all into perspective: The crisis drove people to the outdoors and the chances are good that, this year, you probably enjoyed a public asset maintained by the DEC (a trail, forest, or camp) or savored a harvest they helped provide (like a trout or wild turkey).


The DEC has been good to us and good for us. They truly and literally make New York a better place.


Happy belated birthday!    



From the 14 December 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News