Friday, May 29, 2020

Don’t let a good summer go to waste

Last week, our team at the local Boy Scout council made the difficult decision to suspend summer camp operations at Camp Dittmer and Sam Wood while also canceling the regional day camps we had scheduled for local Cub Scouts. It was a path of safety and concern also recently taken by other scout councils across the state, the Girl Scouts, and operators of other youth camps.

At the same time, other summer events for kids have been dropping like flies – youngsters won’t get to do things like play in little league, watch Independence Day community fireworks, ride the rides at the Olcott Carousel Park, attend county fairs, or enjoy refreshing splash pads.  

As the dad of four young kids and someone who serves local youth, I find this a little heartbreaking.

Childhood is fleeting. Like our precious and short WNY summers, those years go by so fast…too fast. As a parent you want every summer to be special, memories to be made, traditions to be created and carried on, and the innocence of youth to be savored.

You can’t let a good summer go to waste.

And, you shouldn’t.

Just because the world has changed so dramatically around us doesn’t mean the kids – and their parents -- should be denied fun. Do as the kid running the stand down the block has done: Turn lemons into lemonade. Rather than obsessing over what could have been, what should have been, plan now to make this the best summer ever.

Invest in your backyard. In this world of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders there’s no place safer to be than home -- and, there’s no place better to spend your “play” money. With destination vacations now seeming like some quaint relic, staycations will become the norm for the foreseeable future. Get a swimming pool or a spa. Install a basketball hoop. Set-up a playset. Build a Whiffle Ball park or volleyball court. Make your place the place to be. Your kids will love that their yard has become a playground. So will you. There’s something to be said about relaxation and play just outside your backdoor.  

Go camping. Since you’ll be staying away from theme parks and hotels, go back to basics. Rough it, whether your idea of that is renting a small lodge on an Adirondack lake, taking your camping trailer to a campground, or pitching a tent in a state forest. The opportunities to spend nights in the wilds are limitless and available at any price level, including for free. The memories to be had around campfires, sleeping under a starry nighttime sky, and encountering wild beasts are hard to beat.   

Take to the water. Access to water in WNY is an embarrassment of riches…waters of all shapes and sizes abound, from small streams to the Genesee and Niagara Rivers to the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes to the history-defining Erie Canal. There are so many opportunities to put a motor boat in the water, go kayaking and canoeing, take up fishing, and do what young kids absolutely love to do – kick around a creek looking for minnows, crayfish and salamanders. You could literally visit a different body or stretch of water every day of summer and still not put a dent in what the region has to offer.  

Go hiking and biking. Equally abundant are the hiking and biking opportunities in the region. Nature trails are everywhere, the Erie Canalway Trail is an absolute gem, there are the “Alabama Swamps”, Letchworth, and countless state forests in the Southern Tier. Get the family on the move. It’s exercise -- and it’s also good for the soul to be in nature, exploring, seeing and doing…and getting muddy.  

Hang out at the ballpark. Just because there’s no baseball, softball or soccer this year doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be opportunities for your sons and daughters to develop their skills or play pick-up games with the whole family. You don’t have to be the second coming of Ted Williams expounding on the science of hitting a baseball -- just be you and focus on fundamentals, with an emphasis on the “fun”. Your kids will appreciate that they have the chance to hit and field. Ten or twenty years from now they’ll likely more fondly remember the nights spent shagging flies with dad than they will the team practices held in normal years.  

I could go on and on about what families can do to wring every drop of excellence out of this summer. There won’t be summer camps, day camps, and crowded places to visit, but that shouldn’t cause one to believe that the next few months will be duds.

Life is what you make of it.

So is the summer.

So is childhood. 

Don’t let any of those go to waste.

From the 01 June 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, May 22, 2020

Public speaking: An important life skill

By now, you’re probably sick of me being in the press.

Not only are you subjected to this weekly column but recently I haven’t been able to stay off radio and television as I’ve been game for countless interviews related to my company’s re-opening after the coronavirus shutdown.

Being able to do that wasn’t always so easy.  

When I was a high school student 30 years ago, I, like most teenagers, dreaded public speaking. The butterflies would kick up in my stomach and I couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over.

Fortunately, at least from my standpoint at the time, such activities were rare – we might have made one or two presentations a year and I could always lean on the equally-uncomfortable fellow speakers as we almost always spoke as groups, never singularly.

Luckily, I had Scouting to dramatically change my view of public speaking in the closing years of my school life. Being put into positions of leadership and working at summer camp as a counselor made me develop public speaking skills first out of necessity then out of enjoyment.

Because of the shot in the arm that the Boy Scouts gave me I have a critical skill available in my arsenal. The 45-year-old version of myself is not like the 15 year-old Bob Confer: I look forward to speaking to groups and talking about things I enjoy, be it work, Scouting, nature or public policy (well, I don’t really enjoy public policy but you get my drift).

Public speaking is a regular part of my life. Not only do I deliver multiple weekly shift meetings at the plant to dozens of my coworkers at a time, but looking back at my 2019 calendar there were another 20 occasions when I had to speak to groups of more than 10 people at a time. They could have been tours or speaking engagements, or participating on panels -- I didn’t even count running board or business meetings.

As I write this, I’m kind of taken aback by how often I find myself in speaking roles.

Maybe I was unaware of how often it happens because I see it not as one of life’s woes, but rather as one of life’s duties as a businessman or citizen. It’s a normal part of being.

That’s a way of thinking we need to share with students today. They, their parents and guidance counselors are always looking to help them develop demonstrable – and marketable -- skill sets that can be used to further their academic and, ultimately, work careers.

Public speaking should be one of them.

As a kid, you don’t see a payoff in the stress as you learn the art, but as an adult you see the limitless potential: you could use it at work in the private sector as a manager, sales person, project leader or newsman; in the public sector you would find it as an asset as a teacher or town councilperson; in volunteerism you would see its value in running a little league team, fire department, fundraiser, or church. You truly never know when you will need it – but you should be ready.

But, how do we prepare teens for that?

For the most part, school courses lack public speaking training exercises. The frequency of such activities is no different in 2020 than it was back in 1990 and it might even be less today due to the countless mandates state and federal governments put on education.   

So, the focus needs to be on the extra-curricular – as mine was.

The classroom is just one part of your child’s foundation – get him or her into a program that would complement and supplement it. You can always recognize the young adults who did a little more at school (they were in drama club, student government or Future Farmers of America) or they were in an out-of-school organization that gave them confidence and abilities (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H).

But, what about those for whom it might be too late – the moms and dads of those kids?

It’s never too late!

Some adults don’t find their comfort level in public speaking until well into their 30s, after work and volunteerism forced it upon them. Most adults never do – no doubt you’ve heard many a time that the average person fears speaking to the masses more than death.

But, you can overcome those insecurities no matter your age. If you missed out in high school or college, there’s always Toastmasters, a wonderful program that fosters communication skills in a warm, guiding group setting in which speakers help you and you help them. There are such clubs that meet regularly in Western New York, even in this era of social distancing -- many are holding Zoom get-togethers, which further helps the newbies to get rid of their anxieties.

Public speaking should never be feared. It should be savored and developed. If someone can master it – to be confident, fluid, knowledgeable and engaging in front of groups – they will set-up themselves and their organizations for success.

From the 25 May 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, May 15, 2020

Public schools need Covid-19 Administrators

Two weeks ago, my company went back into business, albeit it partially for what are essential products.

At that time, I reassigned a young man who previously managed one of our distribution centers to assume a new role – Covid-19 Administrator. For the next 12 to 24 months – however long it takes the world to overcome the virus - his sole focus will be on the coronavirus. He will, in conjunction with me, frontline managers and everyone on the plant floor develop, redevelop, train, audit and track our countless protocols and procedures while also building a network for testing, tracing, cleaning and communication if someone does become ill.

That may seem to some businessfolk to be a big investment in Covid-19. It is, but it’s a necessary investment and like any investment it has a return: What would the cost be to our countless families, let alone the company, if we had an outbreak? My coworkers, customers, contractors and community deserve protections and his new role helps me ensure that everyone and our supply chain are healthy. You can’t put a cost on that.

Such a position isn’t for every business, especially smaller ones, to make a full-time role (in many cases, a proprietor or human resources person can do this among their duties). Having a Covid-19 Administrator should be based on thresholds and exposures at the consideration of the business owner. For us, with 165 coworkers from wide-ranging and diverse WNY communities and customers who visit from across the United States and Canada, it made sense. There are a lot of people to protect in our workplace and in the workers’ homes.

While I don’t encourage all businesses to bring on such a person I encourage all school districts to.

I’m in charge of essential products but our schools are in charge of essential people – sons, daughters and grandchildren, our world’s most precious gems. They need to be protected, as do the teachers and the parents and babysitters who live with and watch the children.

You know what it’s like with kids and something “simple” like the cold or flu – despite contagious illness policies and considerations, feverish, snot-nosed and coughing kids fill the schools because their parents have to work. These sickly children wipe their mucus on wrists and sleeves, rub their hands along stair rails and door handles, and cough and sneeze on the lunchtable. That causes these common ailments to spread like wildfire in schools and then at homes, which then spread to workplaces. It’s a vicious cycle.

Now, take those behaviors, add a bug that’s a few notches worse, a virus that spreads easily, is difficult to kick, and puts so many with preexisting conditions had by parents and grandparents alike (common maladies like diabetes, heart and lung disease, and old age) at risk of hospitalization and death and you’ve got the perfect formula for a horrid community outbreak.

That’s why a Covid-19 Administrator is so important in each district. You need someone full-time to: Develop social distancing protocols; manage facility layouts; strategize athletic events, plays, and graduations; train students, families, staff and teachers; procure and manage inventories of personal protective equipment; create a testing network; and much more.

It’s necessary to protect the kids and also because this is -- as they keep saying -- the “new normal.” Coronavirus considerations will be with us for a few years until society has developed something close to herd immunity or scientists create a successful vaccine. We certainly can’t shut down the economy and society for years. And, as I mentioned in this page last week, students need their classrooms and teachers --- technology cannot replace the love, care and abilities of our educators. Plus, the kids – and heck, even we moms and dads – need sports, arts and clubs and the lessons and memories they create.

To make that happen schools have to adapt their facilities, operations and behaviors accordingly. With so many moving parts, it will take full-time attention.  

Regular readers of this column are likely scratching their heads and thinking “I thought Confer was a small government guy. Now he wants another unfunded mandate?”

No, I don’t.

The State has identified Covid-19 as a public health risk and has instituted so many – even too many – means to keep it at bay. That admission puts the onus on the State to be deeply involved in it at the most important of public institutions, our schools.  

In a proposal to the State, I will be asking them to consider investing in a Covid-19 Administrator for each district. The schools would hire their own admin (someone who is an excellent project manager) and maintain employment for only two academic years, a temporary position to handle the virus as it develops and to create a playbook that can be rolled out at any time after those two years. That position would be fully-funded by a state grant. The state would also provide a week of training and regular retraining, remotely, to ensure the administrator is up on the latest issues.

With September just 3.5 months away, time is of the essence to make such an essential person an asset for each district and its families. But, we do have a little time to make this a reality and get people hired. Planning and preparation for 2020-2021’s new world has already begun, but amidst the struggles with remote education underway now, it’s not getting the fullest attention until this school year ends.   

A Covid-19 Administrator is an extreme idea, but desperate times calls for desperate measures. We have to give schools the tools they need to protect their precious cargo – my kids and yours.      

From the 18 May 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News