Addiction to destruction: Heroin on the rise in Tompkins County

By Gillian Nigro and John Brunett

Ithaca – Apr. 14, 2014 – A mobile methamphetamine lab was found near the E. Green Street parking garage in Downtown Ithaca on Apr. 6, but in Tompkins County, heroin as the drug of choice is rapidly increasing in prevalence, according to law enforcement officials.

That day, City of Ithaca Police responded to the scene, with assistance from the Tompkins County Sheriff and the Ithaca Fire Department Haz Mat Team, and discovered a half-dozen clear bottles of an unknown substance that appeared to be reacting and off-gassing. Preliminary department tests have shown them to be the remnants of a mobile meth lab.

No arrests have yet been made in the case, but Jamie Williamson, public information officer for the Ithaca Police, said the department has not seen that large of an influx in meth use and possession over the last several years, but has data showing that heroin is becoming a serious problem.

“Heroin is much more devastating than other drugs simply because when you go from recreational use to addiction to destruction, that cycle rears its ugly head much faster and with much more intensity than other drugs,” Williamson said.

The office of the Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County is directly across the street from where the containers were found in the alley where E. Green Street and the overpass meet. Education and Prevention Director Stacy Cangelosi said she was not surprised meth was found there.

“It’s very isolated,” Cangelosi said. “It doesn’t seem like it because it’s right there on Green Street, but it’s very shady. I walk through there as fast as I can.”

Narcotics in Ithaca Final

In contrast to Tompkins County, Southern Tier communities are experiencing a huge increase in the production, possession and use of meth, according to Williamson.

“Our community and how well we’re doing here in Ithaca is almost an anomaly compared to all the other communities in upstate New York,” Williamson said. “We’re a more affluent community and we’re fortunate in that regard.”

Bill Rusen, Chief Executive Officer of Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services, said CARS does not see many patients with meth as their prime substance of addiction, but it has been a larger problem in neighboring counties.

“Many surrounding counties are more typical upstate counties in that they were agrarian-based economies,” Rusen said. “When that economy got hollowed out by big agribusiness buying up farms, methamphetamine became the way that people made a living, albeit in an illicit manner.”

Meth is not only an issue in less affluent counties in upstate New York, it has also become the primary industry throughout a big swath of middle America, Rusen said.

“When you look at the great plains and the small rural farm towns scattered all the way from the foothills of the Rockies to the Appalachians, a lot of that used to be small farm towns,” he said. “The idyllic picture that we have of American life at the beginning and middle of the 20th century may not have been as idyllic as we like to think.”

An interview with Stacy Cangelosi of the Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County:

Photo courtesy of the Ithaca Journal

Local athletic facilities offer disability accommodations

By Gillian Nigro and Jamie Swinnerton

Ithaca – Apr. 7, 2014 – New York Special Olympics events underway this month around the state are shedding light on the breadth of offerings at local athletic facilities for disabled individuals.

Recreation Support Services (RSS), a department of the Ithaca Youth Bureau, provides recreation programs for disabled children and adults year round through the utilization of community recreational facilities.

“We do a whole array of recreation, both physical and nonphysical,” program coordinator Joanie Groome said. “On a really good note, I can’t think of a single place that hasn’t been extremely accommodating to us. We’re pretty lucky in that sense.”

In order to use the recreation services that RSS provides, you must be registered with the program. There is an application form and an assessment to map out what is of interest to an individual, and also what support the individual will need to participate.

Even with the numerous classes that RSS provides, they continue to work to help as many people as possible.

“Every single one of our programs is full,” Groome said. “We know that we’re not serving all the people in Ithaca that could utilize our services, but we do the best that we can.”

Island Health & Fitness, an athletic facility near the Ithaca inlet, partners with the Cayuga Medical Center, and is attentive to the needs of individuals with special needs in that regard, according to General Manager Christine Cummings.

The facility provides ample disability parking, wide aisle space between machines, wheelchair-accessible exercise equipment and pool areas, as well as a full-service physical therapy center and spa for rehabilitation.

“It’s part of our mission to be inclusive and to better the community health,” Cummings said. “It’s not a discriminatory thing. We want to provide health and wellbeing for everybody.”

Island Health & Fitness is an adult-based facility. Only individuals 14 and above are permitted on the equipment floor. Head Over Heels Gymnastics, alternatively, is devoted to working with children in the Ithaca community, both able-bodied and disabled.

“We like to make accommodations on a case-by-case basis, depending on the particular needs of the students,” said Dean Altes, owner of Head Over Heels. “Many times, we start students with disabilities out in a private lesson situation to both help them get comfortable and give the instructor time to assess their needs.”

Sarah Smith, assistant manager of Finger Lakes Fitness, has worked with disabled clients, including one man with prosthetic leg.

“Typically when someone comes in who has disabilities, they have someone who comes in with them to help us out, and then we work to make them feel comfortable here,” Smith said. “We are all knowledgeable and can modify things or come up with exercises they can do, depending on their limitations.”

Fitness facilities both in Ithaca and across the country are beholden to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which lays out standards accommodating the approximately 36 million people in the U.S. with physical or mental disabilities. Athletic centers abiding by these regulations help disabled people achieve their fitness goals.

Ithaca veterans find solace and sense of community in church

By Gillian Nigro and Noreyana Fernando

Ithaca –  Mar. 31, 2014 – Paul Waldrop’s U.S. Navy fleet was stationed about a half-mile off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon, when the Marine barracks were bombed on Oct. 23, 1983. Two hundred ninety nine American and French servicemen died in this attack during the Lebanese civil war, which is rooted in a complex religious and territorial conflict.

The then 19-year-old Waldrop could see the smoke cloud rising higher and higher from the rubble.

“I can remember at night watching gunfighting back and forth and up into the mountains,” he said. “It was an event that changed my life, both as a person going from a boy to a man, and just having more of an awareness of a spiritual being.”

Waldrop became a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in downtown Ithaca after he returned from active duty. He said the sense of community he experiences there is reminiscent of his time spent on a small combatant ship in the Navy.

“In one instance, we went out to sea for 39 days straight days with no land,” Waldrop said. “It’s a bonding experience that you can get in all aspects of life.”

Men who experienced intense combat were more than twice as likely to turn to prayer than those who did not, according to an analysis of archived World War II surveys of Army Infantry published in the June/July 2013 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health,

The co-authors of the study, Craig Wansink and Brian Wansink, are brothers and also professors at Virginia Wesleyan College and Cornell University, respectively.

Craig, the coordinator of the Department of Religious Studies at Virginia Wesleyan, said he and his brother wanted to highlight that communities are important in responding to the experience of intense combat.

“Religion involves a sense of community, and those combatants who focused on a ‘band of brothers’ seemed to find a common sense of community with the context of a church community,” Craig said.

Though the Wansink study only applied to World War II veterans, Craig said he anticipates similar results if they applied the same analysis to veterans of more recent or ongoing military conflicts.

“Although I have never experienced the horrors of combat, I’m confident that those who have, even today, would find some comfort in being with a group of people that focuses weekly on issues of life, death and ultimate significance,” Craig said. “So much else in the world might just seem painfully trivial.”

Robert Nobles, 93, was taken as a prisoner of war after D-Day during World War II while serving in the Air Force. He said being a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church for more than 60 years has provided him with a strong sense of community.

“The church is like a big family,” he said. “They have a seniors dinner once a month and I go to that.”

David Allen, also a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, served off the coast of Vietnam on an aircraft carrier from 1965 until the end of the war in 1975. He said he did not engage in actual combat, but acknowledges the therapeutic power of a church community, especially for more recent veterans.

“Younger people, people who have been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, might be much more emotionally affected by what they went through, as opposed to what I had to do or what I did,” Allen said.

Religion and war: an interview with Vietnam war veteran Jim Murphy —

Durland Alternatives Library promotes prisoner rehabilitation

By Gillian Nigro and Jamie Swinnerton

Ithaca – Mar. 24, 2014 – A decade ago, the assistant director of the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell University, Gary Fine, received a letter from a prisoner requesting books.

“He explained to me that in prison all he has is pencil and paper,” Fine said. “He’s on the lowest level of solitary confinement and he’ll probably never get out. Books were his link to sanity.”

Prisoner Express was the result, which has since worked to promote rehabilitation for prisoners across the country through various self-enrichment programs.

Sending books to people in prison still remains the largest part of the project, but it has since expanded to include a pen pal program, a prisoner art program, a book club, self-education programs and a bi-yearly poetry anthology, among other educational initiatives.

“It’s a literal renaissance,” Fine said.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) reported in 2011 that nearly seven in 10 people who were formerly incarcerated will eventually commit a new crime, and half will end up back in prison within three years. A 2005 IHEP report, however, indicated that recidivism rates for incarcerated people who had participated in prison education were on average 46 percent lower than rates of incarcerated people who had not taken college classes.

Fine receives stacks of letters from prisoners daily. He said many of them write that these programs have changed their lives.

“We get people out of prison by getting them deeper into themselves,” Fine said. “We have a whole bunch of programs that encourage self-reflection.”

The project receives no funding from Cornell, and thus relies entirely upon donations and support from volunteers, many of whom are local students.

“The prisoners are really grateful that we’re even giving them the time of day, let alone helping them out and trying to get them back into the real world,” said Amanda Hutchinson, an Ithaca College student who has been working at the Alternatives Library since September of 2013, and contributes both to the book packaging and pen pal programs.

Another Ithaca College student and Alternatives Library volunteer, Candace Burton, is in the process of organizing a book drive for the project.

“Gary [Fine] said that one of his biggest needs was fundraising,” Burton said. “We’re in the process of getting a list of professors so I can give them a letter that asks for donations of books.”

Books Thru Bars, a prison book program that operated out of Autumn Leaves Used Bookstore in Downtown Ithaca, closed down in December of 2013 after the retirement of its director, Jurden Alexander.

“If I was maybe 10 years younger, I may have thought about continuing the program,” the 66-year-old Alexander said.

Prisoner Express is filling the gap and then some.

Cross-country bikers plan third home build in Tompkins County

By Gillian Nigro and John Brunett

Ithaca – Mar. 3, 2014 – The fire alarm went off yet again in the middle of the night at the Wilcox family’s one-bedroom apartment in Hartford, NY. The couple’s 2-year-old daughter woke up from a dead sleep, and as her cries entwined with the cacophony, the two parents realized they needed to move to a house of their own.

“We had gone to see what kind of housing we could get before and it just wasn’t affordable for us,” Mrs. Wilcox said.

A group of about 30 bikers, hammers in tow, would soon be riding through town to help build one for them.

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Bike & Build is an organization that plans cross-country bicycle trips to benefit affordable housing groups. On a variety of routes, young adults ages 18 to 25 pedal across America’s landscape, stopping every four to five days to build affordable homes for people in need.

Since its founding in 2003, the organization has contributed more than $4.5 million to affordable housing groups throughout the country. Justin Villere, Director of Operations and Outreach at Bike & Build, said the majority of riders are not experienced cyclists before they start.

“We’ve always been of the belief that individuals can learn how to bike,” Villere said. “We’re really looking for people who have a passion for service and adventure to engage in the cause.”

Two Cornell students, Laura Anderson and Kristen Ewing, will be biking 3993 miles from Maine to Santa Barbara in 75 days starting Jun. 19 through Bike & Build. Their route will not pass through Ithaca. Each rider is required to fundraise $4500 to participate in the trip, which will subsidize their travel costs, and also be donated to various affordable housing organizations through a competitive grant program.

The unseasonably cold weather in Ithaca has not been very accommodating for training purposes, and Anderson said when she was riding her new bike for the second time and reached the top of a hill, she fell over into a snow bank.

“I’m pretty scared, but every time we share our fundraising page a little something will trickle in and you think if all those people believe in me, I’ve got to be able to do it,” Anderson said.

As of Mar. 3, Anderson has raised $3215 and Ewing $2645, 71 and 59 percent of their fundraising goals, respectively.

Though neither Anderson nor Ewing were avid cyclists before applying for this cross-country trip, they make up for it with their passion for affordable housing.

“The implications of being able to have a stable roof over your head has a huge impact on your daily life,” Ewing said. “There are so many really great people who are just in a bad place and need help. There’s no shame in that.”

The Wilcox’s moved into their new home on Nov. 26, 2013 after it was built by volunteers of the Tompkins and Cortland County branch of the nonprofit housing organization, Habitat for Humanity. Bike & Build riders on the Providence to Seattle route stopped for a day last summer to assist the construction process. They are set to do the same on Jun. 16 of this year to build a home right next door, which will mark the third contribution of Bike & Build to Tompkins County.

The Wilcox’s daughter now has her own bedroom and the couple is able to get a decent night’s sleep. The experience been life changing, Mrs. Wilcox said.

“It’s really nice to have a place of your own and feel like you can actually settle in,” she said. “Living in an apartment, I never really wanted to decorate and paint a lot because I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. I didn’t want to get attached, whereas this place I can.”

The U.S. Census Bureau defines affordable housing as costing 30 percent or less of a citizen’s monthly income. Under this threshold, New York State is the fifth least affordable state in the nation.

The condition of affordable housing in Tompkins County is deceiving, Director of Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties Shannon MacCarrick said, because the dense population of college students drive up rent.

“As much as there’s a lot of wealth in Tompkins and Cortland Counties, especially in Tompkins close to the universities, you don’t have to drive very far to find a lot of families who are living in tremendously overpriced rental housing that’s in terrible condition,” MacCarrick said. “A lot of college students pay a tremendous amount for rent, so in turn families who are trying to rent are in the same boat.”

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said developing affordable housing projects is a top priority as he begins the third year of his four-year term.

“The cost of housing in Ithaca has climbed unsustainably,” Myrick said. “We need to address it by increasing the supply of housing and increasing the supply of subsidized housing.”

Bike & Build has donated $4900 to Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties over the past three years. Villere said it is possible that number will increase this summer when riders on the Providence to Seattle route pass through Ithaca.

Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties

Cornell student lays roots for sustainable farming in Cameroon

By Gillian Nigro and Dylan Lyons

Ithaca – Feb. 24, 2014 – Cornell undergraduate Timothy Smith received approval in January to establish an organic cocoa teaching and research farm in Bekondo, Cameroon, to help small farmers escape poverty.

Smith, a 32-year-old senior, established The Bekondo Foundation after visiting the village last summer as a volunteer consultant for WebDev, an organization that trains rural entrepreneurs to develop sustainable environments in underserved areas. He put forward his plan last month to both the Bekondo village chief and general council.

“I presented a framework of what we wanted to do,” Smith said, “which is to create an open-access research farm for the farmers to see how sustainable farming works and how they can reduce their dependency upon agrochemicals.”

Cameroon is the world’s fifth-largest cocoa exporter. Farmers currently borrow agrochemicals at a rate of 200 percent market value, and because they cannot afford to pay up front, they are charged an additional 4 percent interest during harvest season, which results in meager profits. Organic production would reduce this dependency, Smith suggested.

The Cornell Computer Reuse Association (CCRA), an organization dedicated to refurbishing and donating computers to those in need around the world, partnered with Smith to establish computer centers in Bekondo where growers will be able to learn chemical-free disease and pest management techniques, as well as financial planning.

The CCRA plans to donate 20 computers to the village, which will begin shipping out in March, according to President Amy Allen.

“It’s really great to see someone like Tim being able to take initiative and provide access to technology that is so desperately needed in that region,” Allen said.

The next step for Smith is to purchase land for the farm, and while in Bekondo, he found two parcels that will cost about $10,000. Back at Cornell, he is raising funds and said he hopes to acquire $50,000 for startup costs by May.

While exploring a vast range of fundraising efforts, Smith is also contacting businesses for potential partnerships. He recently brought cocoa beans back from Cameroon, which he made into chocolate and plans to sell. An Ithaca chocolate event is also in the works where local chocolatiers will be able to feature their products, he said.

Darlynne Overbaugh, owner of Life’s So Sweet Chocolates in Ithaca and Trumansburg, said she has placed a large emphasis on quality since she started her business in 2007.

“One of the really important aspects of my business for me is utilizing quality cocoa beans,” Overbaugh said. “It’s got to taste good.”

Overbaugh said she tries to be cognizant of issues in the cocoa industry, such as sustainability and child labor. She makes her Ithaca bark products from Kallari chocolate, a collective of Ecuadorian cocoa farmers who sell their own chocolate and focus on community development and environmental conservation.

By reaching out to cocoa importers and chocolatiers, both local and national, Smith is also fostering connections between buyers and Cameroonian farmers to develop a co-op. That way, when the growers eventually have high-quality cocoa beans to sell, they will already be linked to businesses independent of major exporters, he explained.

“I hope to establish these connections for them, and to provide resources and education so that I can leave,” Smith said. “It will be up to the Cameroonians to decide what they need next.”

Timothy Smith explains why he was attracted to Bekondo and what he found there in this audio interview:

Cornell student-launched smartphone app approved by public safety experts

By Gillian Nigro and Joe Gentile

Ithaca – Feb. 17, 2014 – “ResCUer,” a public safety app launched by five Cornell students in the fall of 2012, was included on AppComm, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International online application community, on Feb. 3.

APCO International, the world’s largest public safety communications association, launched AppComm on Apr. 23, 2013, and inclusion here is the standard for all viable security apps. The team of Cornell students – Anisha Chopra, Emma Court, Matt Joe, Joshua Krongelb and Matthew Laks – submitted the app for inclusion on the site and APCO staff reviewed the app using the Key Attributes of Effective Apps for Public Safety and Emergency Response as a guide and determined it was acceptable for inclusion on AppComm, according to Director of Government Relations Jeff Cohen.


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According Krongelb, ResCUer’s head programmer, the app was downloaded 1,097 times on iPhones and 99 times on Android devices as of Feb. 9.

Laks said being included on AppComm after review from APCO staff was a big step in terms of the legitimacy of the app.

“What this means is that we got their seal of approval that this could be used by the general public,” he said.

Upon opening the app, users are presented with two options: “Get Help” – which provides contact information for all relevant emergency services, such as campus police and the Gannet Health Center – and “Go Home,” which contains numbers for local taxi companies, as well as other possible routes home.

Court, now acting as community outreach liason, said she and her team members were prompted to develop the app following a string of sexual assaults on campus in the fall of 2012.

“I thought how frequently girls walked home by themselves when they could have easily called a friend, taken a cab or pursued any number of safer alternatives,” she said. “We therefore came up with the idea for an app that could consolidate the safety resources available on campus to give people a very clear idea of what their options were in unsafe situations.”

The group entered ResCUer in two campus competitions, CU Collaborate and Big Red Ideas, and was awarded prize money to fund the creation of the app. Laks said they simply wanted to make something to help the Cornell community and funding was not a top priority.

“There’s no cost other than the cost of labor to make the app,” Laks said. “It was really just implementing the idea through code and marketing the idea. That’s really where the money helped us.”

The team is currently devoting efforts to expand the reach of the app through numerous publicity routes, including working with the Cornell Student Assembly, Court said. The Student Assembly encouraged undergraduates to download the app in one of its monthly emails, and plans to issue information about it to student organizations that focus on personal health and safety awareness.

Juliana Batista, vice president for outreach of the Student Assembly, said as well as being an important resource for students, ResCUer also has the capacity to help the local transportation economy through its inclusion of taxi numbers.

“It bolsters the bottom line for promoting students to use public transportation,” Batista said.

Kathy Zoner, chief of the Cornell University Police Department, said the app benefits security by improving upon safety measures already in place, such as the blue light phones, which provide access to Cornell Police at the touch of a button.

“The app gives people an opportunity to reach out to a lot of different levels of help and assistance, whether it’s friends, ambulance, police or EMS services,” she said.

The creators have recently been having discussions about the possibility of expanding the app to other colleges, essentially creating a customized campus-to-campus safety app, Laks said.

“We could provide a framework for campuses to use to facilitate a safety app that all people on the campus can use,” he said. “That’s our big picture plan.”

There are 17 other apps included on AppComm related to campus safety, according to APCO Government Relations Associate Mark Reddish. University of Maryland has an app called “M-Urgency” where students can send live video feeds of suspicious activity to campus security, and Princeton students developed “FireStop” to provide information to firefighters at critical moments.

“It’s an exciting time for public safety to be interacting with these young developers,” Reddish said.

Article originally appeared on IthacaWeek.

Ithaca’s Board of Education challenges New Roots’ charter renewal

By Gillian Nigro and Jamie Swinnerton

Ithaca – Feb. 3, 2014 – New Roots’ school charter was renewed last Monday, a month after the Ithaca City School District Board of Education voted to prepare a challenge if the charter was approved.

On Dec. 17, the ICSD Board of Education voted 5-1 to prepare an Article 78 challenge against the SUNY Board of Trustees – New Roots’ accrediting body – if the charter was renewed following a recommendation by the Charter School Institute (CSI). Board member Brad Grainger, who made the motion, and Superintendent Luvelle Brown, declined to comment.

Article 78 is “a special proceeding brought to challenge the activities of an administrative agency,” as defined by the New York State Court System’s glossary article. In this case, the ICSD wants to challenge the SUNY Board of Trustees, which oversees New Roots.

The board will seek opinions from its attorneys over the next few weeks regarding Article 78, said Rob Ainslie, president of the Board of Education, although there’s no decision yet.

“We’re not at all surprised that New Roots’ charter was renewed,” Ainsle said. “We just want to make sure that the kids in this district are getting the best opportunities they can, but we have no oversight of what goes on there.”

New Roots’ Principal and Superintendent Tina Nilsen-Hodges said there is no basis for an Article 78 challenge against the SUNY Board of Trustees.

“The renewal is absolutely in line with their policies and their definitions of what constitutes a charter renewal,” she said. “So there’s no way that there can be a finding that they acted in an arbitrary manner, or that they didn’t follow their own rules and procedures.”

New Roots co-founder and chair of the Board of Trustees Jason Hamilton, who is also an Ithaca College professor, said public school districts are fearful of charter schools partly because they are taking money out of their budgets that are funded by taxpayers.

“If a citizen decides to go to the charter school, then they ought to be able to take some of their money with them to this new educational experience,” Hamilton said.

Nilsen-Hodges said she recognizes that the introduction of charter schools into the public education world puts established school districts in a difficult position.

“We’re located in the middle of someone else’s community school district, which is under the jurisdiction of a board of education in that community,” Nilsen-Hodges said. “So it’s a very different kind of dynamic and relationship among public schools than has existed in the past.”

The motion to prepare Article 78 passed with a majority vote, with Seth Peacock voting against the measure and Chris Malcolm abstaining. Peacock, who works as an attorney, declined to comment.

“Pursuing a legal challenge against the SUNY Board of Trustees would be a colossal waste of money and the money could be better used educating students,” Hamilton said. “As a citizen, I would be quite upset that my tax dollars are being spent that way. As a New Roots Board of Trustees individual, it’s really neither here nor there to me if they want to sue SUNY or not.”

Hamilton also said he was relieved, honored and excited that the charter was renewed.

“It shows that this whole experiment with New Roots is really working and we’re starting to slowly reshape how people think about education,” he said.

The process of renewal for a charter school is ongoing, according to Nilson-Hodges. Each year the school produces an accountability plan progress report to show that they are on track with the Institute’s guidelines. The extensive review process includes on-site visits to the school, interviews with staff and in class observation sessions.

“It’s been an excellent process in terms of keeping us and this organization on what matters most, which is a rigorous program in line with our mission that focuses on the success of each and every student,” Nilson-Hodges said.

Catherine Kramer, director of charter school information at CSI, said the Institute will provide an update as to the progress of New Roots at a committee meeting in 2015, once additional performance data becomes available this summer and a fuller picture emerges of the school’s progress in meeting its accountability plan.

Article originally appeared on IthacaWeek.