Friday, March 18, 2022

Be the hero for kids who need you


I’ve been listening to the police scanner for over 35 years now. Eavesdropping on the dispatching and responses of sheriff’s deputies and volunteers keeps me in the know about things going on in Niagara County.


But, the knowledge gleaned from the scanner is more than where an accident or fire might be, or where the latest speed trap is. It also provides insight into the social conditions of certain parts, certain households of our communities. It can be incredibly uncomfortable and heartbreaking to hear officers being dispatched to abusive homes, something that’s too regular of an occurrence.


According to the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, all departments within Niagara County reported 1,428 victims of domestic violence in 2020. Likely a result of the pandemic’s lockdowns of that year, the mental stresses they caused, and the fact that they basically imprisoned victims with their abusers, the total number of cases showed a 17% increase over the year prior. Among those painful events were 1,249 cases of simple assault, 108 cases of aggravated assault, 44 sexual offenses, and 27 violations of protection orders.  


Mind you, those are just the cases recorded as actual arrests. There were thousands of 911 calls and tips about domestic situations and intense verbal abuse. The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office alone responds to in excess of 4,000 such calls every year. There are thousands more covered by the city police departments in Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and Lockport. And, remember this: Most victims and witnesses remain silent; there are literally thousands of situations that go unreported. 


Children are occupants of many of those houses and apartments where hate and discord rule. It could be they were beaten or demeaned. Maybe they their saw dad hit their mom or knock her down. Perhaps they witnessed their mother going on a drunken rage towards their father.


You have to feel for the kids who grow up in such families. If they aren’t abused, a loved one is and that in itself is a form of abuse towards the child.


Those incidents sear into a child’s memories and behaviors. They could give nightmares, instill fear, plant the seeds for hate, lead to substance abuse, foster depression and suicidal thoughts, lead to lower grades, and make dysfunction a normalcy that the child could carry into his or her relationships one day. Many will rise above their circumstances, some will not, and even if they do the painful memories linger.


I bring all this up to give perspective to those who provide, or could provide, service to children, especially now that some normalcy, some routine, has returned to school and other activities after society shut down or impinged those opportunities for far too long.


Whether you are school teacher, sports coach, club leader, Sunday school instructor, or a scouting volunteer like me, we all have to understand that these victims – direct and indirect alike -- are in our classrooms, on our teams, and in our troops. The sheer volume of dispatches and domestic statistics show us that it’s certain that they are.


You likely don’t know who these kids are, and in many cases you won’t. That may be from masking of the hurt by the child or the sheer joy he or she has just being around you and their friends.


Realize that in many cases you are providing a safe place, a good place to that kid. Your classroom, baseball field or campout might be the only place they feel happy, loved or safe. Let that sink in. They fear home. They don’t what will happen to them. They don’t know what will happen to their mother or father.


Every child we serve has different expectations of us – a boy scout from a well-adjusted home may want the adventure of a camping trip while one from a broken home may only want you to be you, someone for him to strive to be, someone who isn’t his dad. You may not realize it, and they might never tell you, but to kids from troubled homes you are their hero -- they might see you as the mother or father they always wished they had or could one day become.


Hurt kids are too many, and it’s up to us, as their educators and leaders, to give them the safe harbor they deserve and, from there, the help they need to navigate life, rise above, love others, and find some much-needed joy in their young lives.       


That significance be an overwhelming way to view what we do when doing good for children. But, it’s a necessary view. We have roles in this world, some much, much bigger than we often assume them to be. A simple act of kindness, a little bit of our time, can go a long way in changing lives. 



From the 14 March 2022 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun

Leek season is coming soon


Summer and fall have their own special bounties, both cultivated and wild, to choose from across Western New York. Spring, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to offer in the way of fruits and vegetables as the plants are still growing and recovering from the winter.

That doesn’t mean we are without something for our palates to enjoy. You can find asparagus at roadside stands or yummy maple syrup at farm markets and seasonal pancake houses. And, if you are the adventurous outdoors sort, you can find leeks in our local woods.


The leek is a member of the onion family and also goes by the name of ramp, a name more commonly used in Appalachia. Unlike other wild onions, the leaves and flowers are not seen at the same time. Instead, in these parts, the leaves typically come up in early April (depending on the severity and length of the winter) and last to maybe second week of May. Those leaves are 8 to 12 inches in length and have reddish stems. They typically grow in tightly-packed clusters, in groups of two to as many as two dozen. After the leaves have withered you will see in June and July a small cluster of creamy white flowers atop a single, naked stem.

Leeks are found in cool, somewhat moist woods with rich soils. The best places to look for them are along streams. In the lake plains, look closer to the Niagara escarpment where the soils are more conducive to their growth. In the Southern Tier, such as throughout Allegany County, they can be found in many forested valleys and ravines.


To harvest them, you need only a small spade. Their bulbs are close to the surface (maybe 2” underground), so barely stick the spade in the ground and pop them out. It is that small white, onion-like bulb that you want for cooking. You can also use the leaves (minus the bitter red stems) in salads. They, too, have an oniony flavor.

As with any wild plant or animal, sensible harvest is crucial to maintaining both the local and the greater populations. Do not take too many leeks; for a family of four just a dozen plants should satisfy what needs you may have for making a springtime dish or two. If you take too many, you will prevent the leeks in the area from efficiently flowering and spreading their seeds, thus eliminating them from the forest. It’s laborious for the plants to provide you food: It takes a few years to make a harvestable bulb and up to 7 years for the plants to become mature enough to make seeds.

Sustainable crops become a problem the further north you go. As a matter of fact, a black market for wild leeks exists in Quebec where years of overharvest have made them a species of special concern. There, it’s illegal to have more than 50 bulbs or plants in possession and leeks cannot be sold commercially or by the individual.


It’s a different story in NY’s Southern Tier and points south. In the Allegheny Mountains the plants are fairly abundant. In Appalachia, people will take to the woods in small armies to harvest them each spring. There are numerous, well-attended ramp festivals throughout the Virginias, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, some having attendance measured in the thousands. There, the pungent plants, which smell like garlic but have a subtle onion flavor, are served in a number of ways, fried individually, put in eggs, pickled, or turned into soup. For readers of this column who hail from the lake plains, know that it’s not uncommon to see roadside stands selling leeks in our Southern Tier and if you cross the border into Pennsylvania you will find a veritable bounty of leek trade in places like Potter County where leek dips and leek sausages offer prime cuisine.


Throughout WNY, perhaps due to many families having German heritage, leek and potato soup seems to be a preferred dining option.


This is the simplest leek dish to make. You’ll need 6 tablespoons butter; 12 to 14 leeks (sliced); 4 large russet potatoes (peeled, diced); and 9 cups of vegetable broth or chicken/turkey stock depending on your preference. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the leeks and cover; cook until leeks are tender, stirring often. Add potatoes. Cover and cook, stirring often, until potatoes begin to soften. Add the broth or stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until the potatoes are very tender. Puree until potatoes and leeks are smooth. Season with salt and pepper.


Leeks provide much deliciousness and are sure-fire sign of spring and one of the few things you can actually say are a flavor of spring. But, again, anyone’s who’s familiar with the plant or new to it should harvest it sensibly. It doesn’t take much to harm a leek community within a forest – some conservationists say you should never take more than 5% of leeks from a woodlot. That said, treat its goodness as a rare delicacy to be enjoyed sparingly. Savor -- and save -- leeks.


From the 07 March 2022 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun

Monday, March 7, 2022

China is a real threat to WNY jobs


Donald Trump became president of the United States for a variety of reasons that voters found intriguing during his initial campaign. One of his biggest selling points was his disdain for Chinese manufacturers and American outsourcers as he believed they posed threats to good-paying manufacturing jobs here in America.


That populist rallying cry was also quite popular for President Joe Biden. He helped secure votes by keeping the focus on China in various ways, such as his desire to have the federal government buy American-made goods. It wasn’t election bluster, either, as he’s kept the pressure on China. Like Trump before him, he’s certainly not a friend of the Red Dragon.   


Despite this matter being brought to the fore by these Presidents and their supporters, a lot of folks who count themselves as big thinkers – economists, professors, and the corporatists on Wall Street -- have always and will always publically state that fears over China taking our jobs are misguided and that the loss of jobs to overseas competitors is almost mythological. They believe that we no longer need to emphasize the manufacture of goods because we’ve become and/or are better off as a high-tech service economy; most manufacturing job losses were attributed to robots and productivity; we’re in a global economy that knows no borders; and consumers are better served by lower prices.


That wrong-headed world view about manufacturing posed by those who have a huge impact on public policy are precisely why manufacturing has been hurting in America. The regulations, taxes, damaging trade agreements, and more that they have helped to develop have crippled the producers that are an absolutely necessary part of our nation’s health.


A service economy doesn’t create wealth. A mixed economy with strong manufacturing, mining, and farming sectors does – the workers, plants, and equipment that make something out of nothing drive a nation’s wealth. For every $1 spent in manufacturing, an extra $2.79 is added to the economy. That’s a multiple of the multiplier effect seen in other market sectors.


For that reason, and the obvious one that I have a deeply vested interest in manufacturing, I side with the blue collar view of China’s threat. I’ve seen it firsthand. We live it every day at the plant…and so do workers in other factories across the region.


There are numerous Chinese manufacturers that rip-off some of the pool and spa products that we make at Confer Plastics. The look, design, and even the assembly manuals were all copied to a “t” – except for the name and, in some cases, the patented portion of the products. Some would say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that doesn’t make you feel good when you’re certain that the business lost to these cheap goods would provide opportunity for dozens of WNY workers. 


Going further back in time, in the 1970s my dad invented the flexible funnel that you see in almost every garage, used a means to cleanly put oil and gas into your vehicle. When the patent expired in the late-1980s we lost that business because we couldn’t compete with overseas plants, their lower input costs, and their ability to fill shipping containers with cheap goods. We haven’t made any of these ubiquitous tools since 1990.


We aren’t alone in this fight.


Consider the story behind the Made in America Store. That awesome enterprise, which has garnered national acclaim and has become a tourism destination, was founded by Mark Andol as a means to overcome the foreign monster that was hurting his first business, General Welding & Fabricating. Low-cost, low-quality Chinese competition forced him to close 2 of his 5 plants and layoff a third of his workforce in 2009.

Mark knew that he needed to “Save Our Country First” (the store’s slogan), so he opened the first of his retail locations in 2010 to showcase goods made by his fellow domestic producers. That store now has multiple locations and carries 9,000 American-made products. While the stores prosper, the back story is still there: Mark still busts his butt to keep his skilled machinists and welders busy at his factories despite and in spite of China.


The, there’s General Motors and its local predecessors. The one-time Harrison Radiator – Delphi plant in Lockport is busy for sure, employing 1,400. But, that number is only a portion of what it was in its heyday. Some of that is attributed to changes in business models and greater productivity, but hundreds of jobs were no doubt lost to Asian rip-offs. I know engineers and managers employed there in the 1980s and 1990s who worked with foreign “partners” that ended up stealing ideas and technology and became competitors, even going so far as to commit espionage with concealed cameras.              


Those are just 3 companies of the many in this region that constantly battle intellectual property theft, subsidized production, and unfair trade practices. There are hundreds more like us.


The specter of China is not some made-up bogeyman. It’s real. China manufacturers are taking jobs from Western New York and taking money out of local families’ pocketbooks.


If there are some things to be learned from the pandemic, it’s that China can’t be trusted and we need a strong manufacturing sector here to weather domestic and global crises.


Hopefully, those in power keep that in mind.


Hopefully you do, too, when making a purchase.



From the 20 February 2022 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun