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LOCAL HEROES

Heroism takes many forms. It’s easy to recognize in its most dramatic forms, when people sacrifice or risk their lives or safety for a good cause. But it also involves the tireless everyday work of people who sacrifice their time, energy, comfort, and sometimes peace of mind to do good for others or for the planet, to come face-to-face with hard truths, or to disrupt an established way of doing things that is past due for some shaking up. All of Metroland’s 2005 local heroes have done this in one way or another, whether it was raising money for distant victims of disaster, healing individual victims of war, or working creatively to reduce the number of victims of sex crimes. Our heroes have sacrified their free time to save a historic landmark, give kids something to do other than join gangs, and protect a unique and fragile ecosystem from encroaching development. We salute their energy and their vision.

 

Our annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference

 

 

photo:Teri Currie

Friends of the Madison

“The original idea was that we were going to call ourselves Friends of the Madison Theatre,” laughs Lorenz Worden. “But we decided to make it Friends of the Madison so we wouldn’t limit ourselves.”

Though they did get to keep the theater, they certainly haven’t limited themselves. Whether getting together to review city planning proposals or encouraging local businesses and other agencies to think in a more community-minded fashion, FOTM has seen its purpose blossom from a focused effort to preserve a local landmark to broader community advocacy in less than a year, without losing momentum.

But FOTM members are quick to add that it all began with a little vacant movie theater on Albany’s Madison Avenue that was in danger of being knocked down for a CVS drive-through.

“Our mission statement from the very beginning referred to the theater as the cornerstone of economic development in the neighborhood,” says Lorraine Weiss, who founded the group along with Worden and Anne Savage. “And it really has been a catalyst.”

After the neighbors met, realized the strengths they each brought to the group (Weiss works for the Preservation League of New York State) and researched their options, they began wooing potential investors. When more than a hundred people braved a treacherous blizzard last March to attend an FOTM forum at the College of Saint Rose on alternative uses for the theater, the group knew it had caught lightning in a bottle.

As it turns out, the man who eventually purchased the Madison Theatre, Joseph Tesiero, was in the crowd that night. Seeing the number of people FOTM had attracted to the event made him a believer, said Tesiero upon announcing his purchase.

While the Madison Theatre still lies at the heart of their efforts—the group was instrumental in arranging a recent, sold-out independent film festival at the theater, among other events—preservation of the neighborhood itself has become the general theme of the group’s efforts. When the city announced a development plan for the area, FOTM mobilized local residents to comment on the plan. When it came time to fill the storefronts in the front of the theater, the group encouraged local residents to suggest what sort of businesses they’d like to see. (Among the top suggestions was a coffeehouse, and one has since moved in).

In the end, however, it all boils down to a group of motivated neighbors and their favorite local theater.

“There’s no guarantee that we could replicate this anywhere else,” says Savage. “There was so much hard work and pure luck involved.”

“But we love that everything has paid off for us,” she adds, “because we all feel a sort of ownership when it comes to that theater.”


photo:Alicia Solsman

Richard Hamill

“Sure, I’m a little biased, but I think it’s quite amazing,” says Richard Hamill, project director of the Capital District Coalition for Sex Offender Management. “We’ve managed to achieve just about all the goals we set up for this project.”

And the long list of accomplishments Hamill and the various agencies involved with CDCSOM deserve a pat on the back for are that much more impressive when one considers the environment they operated within over recent years. While politicians skewed offender statistics and the media salivated over sex crimes, Hamill and the various probation officers, victims’ advocates, government officials and treatment providers of CDCSOM made real progress improving the safety of local communities instead of simply using the issue to generate tough-on-crime votes or sweeps-week ratings.

Initially conceived in 1999, the coalition had a simple primary goal, says Hamill: to pull the various local agencies involved with sex-offender management together under a single banner to share information, strategies and resources. By taking an in-this-together approach, he explains, much of the confusion between probation officers and treatment providers, prosecutors and victims’ groups, or even between one county and another, might be avoided.

Six years later, the little group that started out as an informal lunchtime gathering of professionals has accomplished some big things. Among them: the specialized training of many local law-enforcement and government officials, the development of new monitoring techniques to keep up with emerging technology, and the increased availability of lie-detector tests for local police and treatment agencies.

Despite the coalition’s low-profile status, the unique partnership has earned CDCSOM some national attention, too. Hamill says he recently heard from representatives of the A & E televisions series Cold Case Files regarding a case in which the coalition had become involved—and in doing so, helped put a rapist-murderer behind bars.

“They were really impressed with the way we worked collaboratively on that,” he explains. “It’s not something they had seen much of elsewhere, apparently.”

And even that, says Hamill, is something he hopes to change. While the coalition had to tread lightly in its formative years due to the unprecedented nature of the partnership, he says the group’s achievements have been gaining some attention at the state level—a situation that he hopes will translate into changes that will make sex-offender management a more effective system not just in the Capital Region, but throughout the entire state.


photo:Joe Putrock

Decky Lawson

“Sometimes I walk by this thing and it gives me chills,” says Decky Lawson as he gazes into a trophy case at Albany High. Lawson was on the 1992 and ’93 Albany basketball teams and was a high-school sports hero. He knows just how important sports were to him as a kid, and since an article ran in Metroland about his basketball tournaments and his work with kids in the South End [“Bring It to the Kids,” Oct. 6], Lawson is finding out from more kids than he thought he ever would exactly how important sports are to them.

“The kids that didn’t make it to the basketball team are all coming to me saying, ‘Deck, we want to play!’” Lawson, who works as a teacher’s assistant at Albany High, serves as a role model for hundreds of Albany High students. But his influence does not end there, as he also volunteer-coaches a makeshift basketball team in the South End. Lawson is not paid for the time he spends with these kids, for the gas he spends driving them to tournaments in state or out, or for the work he does trying to bridge the divide between the youth of uptown and downtown Albany.

Although Lawson had help organizing basketball tournaments from the Albany County district attorney’s office this summer, Lawson was left hanging in September when the district attorney’s office wanted to change a tournament date because of primary elections. Instead of canceling the tournament, Lawson plowed ahead with the resources he had.

“Some people in that office were not happy with it,” reports Lawson, referring to his openness about his frustration with that situation. But, he adds, “We were speaking the truth, and if the truth is what gets them moving, so be it.”

Lawson is still cautious of politics and politicians. He says he keeps hearing from people involved in Albany politics that he’ll get more help from the city once the new, potentially more-sympathetic Common Council sits in January. However, Lawson says he isn’t willing to simply wait for government to pledge support or funding to help him find a home to host his tournaments or to give his kids proper uniforms.

He’s had enough of waiting, and is already planning to have four tournaments before spring. Come summer, he hopes to be involved in a series of tournaments organized by groups all over Albany, and he will do it all with whatever he has and whatever community members are willing to pitch in.

Lawson’s notoriety has grown so much among Albany teens that he has become a unifying force in a city whose youths tend to form an uptown-downtown divide.

Lawson glances into the Albany High gym, and then at the basketball he signed with his teammates a decade ago, now resting in the trophy case. “Kids from uptown are hearing about how I work with kids from downtown and they want to get involved,” he says. “So it is bringing them together. It’s squashing that rivalry.”

It’s up to the politicians to catch up to him.


photo:Joe Putrock

Ruth Pelham

Ruth Pelham, who has been a part of the local music and arts scene for more than two decades, consistently has been known for furthering the principles of peace and understanding in her work. This year, she brought these beliefs to a world stage.

In 2002, she followed a celebration of 20 years of Music Mobile, the arts-in-education summer program she operates in Albany, with a musical tour of Sri Lanka. Pelham worked with local musicians and children, forming a bond with the people of this South Asian nation. When the Indian Ocean earthquake hit on Dec. 26, 2004, causing a massive tsunami that took the lives of at least 275,000 people across the region, Sri Lanka was devastated. Pelham was prompted to action.

Working with Tuan Razik, a local Sri Lankan immigrant who lost many close family members in the tsunami, and Sri Lanka-based musician Lakshmi Danayanthi—and M&T Bank—Pelham founded the Friends of Sri Lanka Fund. The purpose was simple: Find a way to help people directly. Upon consulting with Razik, Pelham found that the fishermen of his home village, Hambantot, had lost their boats and had no way to make a living. So, purchasing boats became the goal; later, this expanded to include fishing nets and cooking stoves for the people of the village. Pelham and Razik tirelessly raised awareness and money; Danayanthi visited Hambantot to chronicle the direct results of the effort.

And the results are impressive. The total money raised, from the Capital Region and people in 14 states, is $72,000. One hundred fishing boats, 150 fishing nets and 500 cooking stoves were purchased and distributed. A “full-size” children’s playground was purchased and erected in Hambantot. Two hundred fifty student backpacks and 4,000 undergarments—that’s five pair each for 800 children—were distributed, along with “assorted band instruments for high school marching band” and a number of “CD/DVD players for schools affected by the tsunami, [to be] used for music therapy.”

What’s next for Pelham?

“I’m planning to return to Sri Lanka in the spring of 2006 to visit Hambantot. . . . I want to see with my own eyes how far the people of Sri Lanka have come in their healing and rebuilding since the tsunami, and be able to carry back my impressions to the caring people of the Capital Region whose contributions made such a huge difference.”


photo:Teri Currie

Ed Tick

When Ed Tick started treating returning Vietnam vets with post-traumatic stress disorder as a young therapist several decades ago, he quickly realized that he, a war resister, had a lot to learn about their experiences. He also learned that the conventional treatments for PTSD—a mix of traditional talk therapy and medications for depression, anxiety, and sleep problems—wasn’t really getting at the core issues for many of his patients [“Back From the Wasteland,” Jan. 20].

Modern warfare is tremendously more destructive and impersonal than ancient warfare, Tick notes in his most recent book, War and the Soul, and yet we don’t even have the level of rites of passage that older societies used to initiate warriors and help them move between the worlds of battle and peacetime.

It took him many years, a long apprenticeship to a Native American medicine man, studies of ancient mythology, and an awful lot of listening to what his clients were actually saying to develop his experiential healing approach, which, while individual, often involves some combination of purification, storytelling, restitution, and initiation.

Healing can be a long difficult process, but Tick has clients who had been unable to sleep through the night for years who say they are now symptom-free, without medication.

In 2000, he and Professor Steven Leibo of Sage Colleges of Albany started leading reconciliation tours to Vietnam, which have provided some powerful experiences for veterans whose image of that country has remained frozen as they left it in the midst of war [“Another Country,” June 26, 2003]. He also has written several books, some of them scholarly works on the effects of war on the psyche and soul, others books of poetry [“Healing from War,” Books, Dec. 8].

Along with insisting that we as a culture need to listen to what veterans have to say, Tick has also reached out to other people of the Vietnam generation who didn’t fight in the war as well as Holocaust and other war survivors and survivors of other kids of trauma and involved them in his trips and storytelling retreats.

Tick embodies the think-globally-act-locally ideal, dealing intensely in one-on-one relationships, and then trying to apply what he’s learned there to suggesting ways to move us toward a less- warlike society.


photo:Joe Putrock

Jeff Mirel and George Kansas of Rock2Rebuild

When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia at the end of last year, the world was horrified. Millions of people rushed to donate money and resources or to volunteer to help rebuild the land and communities devastated by the disaster. Locally, entrepreneurs George Kansas and Jeff Mirel found their means of helping by founding an organization called Rock2Rebuild Charitable Concert Events, an outfit that, since its inception, has staged two major concert events, started a children’s acoustic music series and raised money for charities like Habitat for Humanity, Save the Children and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Albany.

The first Rock2Rebuild concert was a tsunami-relief benefit held on Feb. 11 at the Palace Theatre. More than 2,000 people turned out for the event, and nearly $30,000 was raised for tsunami relief. Though the concert originally was intended as a one-time-only event, the public response was so great that the Mirel and Kansas formalized their organization as a trademarked entity in March of this year.

An aspect of the tsunami benefit concert that the organization is particularly proud of is that all of the musical talent featured were local groups and performers, a concept that has become the foundation of Rock2Rebuild’s mission, which, according to their Web site, is to “unite regional music and arts with local and regional, as well as national and global, goodwill efforts through premium barn raising-type events, educational programs and more.” The organization took action again when Hurricane Katrina hit, staging a concert at the Palace (again featuring only local acts) that raised more than $14,000 for Habitat for Humanity.

Rock2Rebuild also started a Rock Lite Acoustic Concert Series this past September, which takes place at the Ronald McDonald House Charities Family Room in the Children’s Hospital at Albany Medical. The series features area musicians doing stripped-down, interactive performances for critically ill children.

Mirel and Kansas have made it their mission to help the Capital Region rediscover community involvement and pride while involving, supporting and encouraging local artists and musicians to help foster and nurture their talent.

Cofounder Jeff Mirel’s next project (inspired by Rock2Rebuild) is an initiative to build a not-for-profit community arts center for the Albany area called the Barn. Mirel says that the Barn facilities will include performance space and art galleries, work studios and more.


photo:John Whipple

Lynne Jackson

Lynne Jackson remembers when Save the Pine Bush was founded. It was February 1978, and the Albany City Planning Board had gone forward with a public hearing on four development proposals in the Pine Bush, despite a snowstorm so bad the state workers had been sent home early. Then the city planner closed the hearing because of the weather before all the opponents who had showed up anyway got to speak. Enraged, a group got together and eventually decided to sue. It wouldn’t be the last time.

“In the beginning it wasn’t very easy,” Jackson recalls. “You’re not a popular person if you’re suing the city of Albany, and we sued them a lot. It’s hard for me now to remember how afraid I was.”

Though she wasn’t at the forefront in the early years, SPB work took up a lot of Jackson’s time. “At times I think I was a terrible employee,” she jokes (she is now self-employed), because of the time she would take off to go to hearings and meetings. Once, when SPB was being sued itself, she arranged to work 1 to 9 PM on Thursdays in order to have one morning a week to devote to the cause.

As with many dedicated activists who are part of sustained group efforts, Jackson is uncomfortable with the spotlight on herself. Save the Pine Bush “was made up of regular people who care deeply about this ecosystem,” she says, noting that many others, including Rezsin Adams and John Wolcott, had been involved from the beginning as she was. But at the moment Jackson is one of the most consistent public voices for the group. “I’m just the one out there making all the noise,” she says.

Many of the victories of SPB are well known—the creation of the Pine Bush Preserve Commission, and the purchase and preservation of large areas of the unique ecosystem. But the fight isn’t over. Recently Jackson has found herself at a flurry of public hearings and comment periods on development and rezoning proposals for the Pine Bush.

They are small—4 and .69 acres. But that just means the Pine Bush is being eaten away by degrees, Jackson frets, sounding frustrated as she recalls trying to explain to the Albany Common Council how these little projects still fragment the habitat of the endangered Karner blue butterfly, which needs to follow patches of lupine that grow in different spots each year. “In some ways it’s even more difficult because we’re fighting for very small pieces of land. No one comes in with a 200-acre proposal any more.”

Jackson, as with many devoted Save the Pine Bush members, has also learned to look at the bigger picture, which she describes as: “making urban places really nice places to live, so people will leave our wild places alone.” She’s therefore proud of her long-term residence in Albany’s South End. “A lot of people are very surprised that I live in South End. They think I would live near the Pine Bush,” she says wryly.

And despite the difficulties, she knows that Save the Pine Bush has had one overriding success over the years: “Everybody knows about the Pine Bush.”


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