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Local Heroes

Our annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference

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 2007 local heroes do this in one way or another, whether it is fighting for quality mental-health services, speaking out against gun violence, raising money to bring clean water to children in Africa, or agitating to overthrow entrenched political power. We also honor the extraordinary efforts that enhance our cultural lives, highlighting the efforts to establish a popular citywide celebration, and the reenvisioning of a regional performing arts center.

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

 

Mame Lyttle

Mame Lyttle, Albany, embraces her role as a mental-health advocate.

“I am so flattered by this,” says Mame Lyttle. “I am just one person. There are so many other people more deserving of this than me.”

The world of mental-health treatment is one that few would choose to enter. Almost as a rule, those who advocate for the mentally ill have a family member or loved one who suffers from mental illness. Lyttle is no different. To her, she has only done what so many other people struggle to do: become familiar with a foreign, bloated bureaucracy for the sake of a loved one.

Her brother Bill is mentally ill, and a resident of Capital District Psychiatric Center. After their mother died, Lyttle moved to the area and became Bill’s primary caregiver. But Lyttle has gone beyond acting simply as a caregiver to her brother. Working as a volunteer at CDPC and for the New York state branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a support and advocacy group, Lyttle has dedicated herself to organizing and agitating for a change to the system in Albany County that she calls “very broken. Stretched. It is over-burdened.”

It is hard picture the graceful Lyttle as a rabble rouser; but because sometimes she has to be, she is. When she learned this summer that Albany Medical Center planned to halve its allotment of 52 beds dedicated to Albany County’s mental-health patients, she rallied the troops and organized a protest. Although that effort didn’t reverse AMC’s decision, she had to try.

“There are not a lot of services that are available,” she says, “and often those that are available are not working for the people who are the most in need. Their lives become very chaotic, and so does the family situation.”

For families coming into the system, this chaos can be devastating.

“To deal with the illness is one thing, then to deal with a bulky, broken system,” she says, “it is very distressing. I was there myself 20 years ago, knowing very little about mental illness, knowing little about treatment. I now try to help families make it through the system with what I have learned.”

This was how she survived those first painful years: mentors in the system giving her guidance, helping her navigate the convoluted treatment world. That is how these things go, she says: People pass information along. “I have been very fortunate in meeting people who have given me help,” she says. “I just hope that I am able to do that for other people.”


PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Troy Night Out

Troy Night Out, a monthly celebration of downtown Troy, has become, in less than a year, a staple of the city’s cultural scene

Someone had to take charge, Elizabeth Young Scarlata says. The idea of a monthly event celebrating Troy’s downtown businesses and art galleries had been floating around for a while. Towns up and down the Hudson had been throwing their own versions of art walks for years. Albanians recently started hosting their own version, 1st Friday. And a small group of dedicated Troy-philes were eager to get something similar going—but no one had taken the reins. Then Young Scarlata met Karen Schlesinger of Digital Artist’s Studio.

“It was funny,” Young Scarlata says. “She and I kind of had the same idea on our own, without ever meeting each other. She stopped by my shop one day and asked if I would be interested. It was like the stars aligning.”

They held a meeting at Young Scarlata’s River Street business, Living Room Antiques, and more than 20 people showed up, including the owners of Kismet Gallery and Shake Shake Mamas. From that initial show of interest, the duo knew that an event in Troy would be a hit.

They gave the event a name: Troy Night Out. They set out to broaden the appeal of Troy Night Out beyond the typical arts walk. They wanted the night to highlight all the positive things that downtown Troy has to offer: restaurants, shops, galleries. They reached out and recruited as many people as possible. One person who has been with it since the beginning, Kevin Luddy, proved to be indispensable.

“Kevin is a diehard Trojan,” Young Scarlata says. He got the company he works for, ID29, to donate marketing services for the events. “Really, what that meant was that he was going to have to stay late and do all the work himself.”

With the help of Jason Steven Murphy, Luddy started throwing “official unofficial” afterparties, moveable dance parties that have taken on a life of their own.

Now, with Troy Night Out coming up on its one-year anniversary in February, nearly 50 businesses, art galleries and restaurants have gotten involved. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has donated $10,000 to sponsor the event, and the reelected mayor, Harry Tutunjian, will be taking his oath of office during the next Troy Night Out.

“The community has really embraced it, which is awesome,” Schlesinger says. “It is something they look forward to every month.”


PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen

Philip Morris

Philip Morris, Schenectady, Proctors CEO, has realized a newly expanded vision for the performing-arts complex

 

“A lot came together” this year, says Philip Morris. “We became a performing arts center and conferencing center.”

Morris is the CEO of Proctors in Schenectady, a reborn performing arts complex that includes multiple theaters and conference rooms in addition to the original grand 1926 movie house.

You can visit Schenectady almost any day and see the tangible results of this rebirth. For example, on a recent Sunday morning, volunteers readied for a visit from Santa while families descended on downtown for a dance performance and film screening.

“Over 500 people showed up for the iwerks movie” that Sunday, says Morris. This 70mm film format, similar to IMAX, is featured in the new GE Theatre, which is one of many creative reuses of the former Carl Company department-store space. And these 500 folks were in addition to the crowds of families who were there to meet Santa in the new lobby off the arcade, and attend Northeast Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker on the main stage.

How big is this change?

Last year—September 2006 to August 2007—Morris says that Proctors hosted 370 separate events. This year—September 2007 to August 2008—he notes that the performing arts center will host 1,384 events.

“We’re doing things that are unique for the Capital Region,” Morris argues. They’re certainly doing a lot. Events this fall include a “black box” comedy series, the iwerks film program, and the Eighth Step folk-music series, which celebrates its 40th anniversary by moving operations to the GE Theatre; plus gallery exhibits, art events and 28 conferences that brought, Morris says, “people in the building who’ve never been here before.” In addition, this year Proctors will serve 60,000 of the region’s children with arts-in-entertainment programs—a continuing program that earned Morris an award from the Schenectady City School District.

All of this, with the exception of the kids program, is new activity—we haven’t even mentioned the traditional events, like national touring companies of Broadway shows, dance performances, concerts and films—featured on the main stage.

It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing. “We had a small flood on opening day,” Morris remembers sadly, which led to some unexpected repairs.

Morris, who helped develop a Lucille Ball-themed arts district in Jamestown, N.Y., has had his biggest job here in the Capital Region.

“It was a big transition for us institutionally,” he says. But, judging from this first year at the “new” Proctors, it’s so far, so good.


PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen

Toni Mcgrath

Toni McGrath, Delmar, is helping to raise money and awareness for a small village in sub-Saharan Africa

One sleepless night last February, Toni McGrath was watching late-night Frontline. She learned about the water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, and she learned about a beautifully simple and innovative solution. A PlayPump—a deep-well pump, powered by children playing on a merry-go-round—draws enough clean water to provide for 2,500 people. PlayPumps International, the nonprofit organization that oversees the production and installation of PlayPumps, has installed more than 900 of the pumps in sub-Saharan Africa, with plans to install 4,000 by 2010.

Since McGrath learned about PlayPumps, she has dedicated herself to being part of that solution. A single PlayPump costs $14,000, and McGrath has challenged herself to raise enough money to buy one pump. One pump that will change thousands of lives. To date, McGrath has raised $9,700. She is past two-thirds of the way to her goal, and her effort keeps gaining steam: $1,200 of that total was raised in the last month.

But McGrath is not just raising money. She is raising awareness about one of the world’s greatest problems: the water crisis. “I really want this to be as much about educating people about the water crisis and the importance of clean water and sanitation as it is about raising money for “PlayPumps,” says McGrath. Every 15 minutes a baby dies of waterborne disease, and it’s so unnecessary. I’d like our community to be aware of the problem, and aware that there are lots of clean water projects around, lots of people trying to help solve the problem. . . . I don’t think people in general are aware of how many children die of common diseases.”

The problem is dire, but the PlayPumps solution is “simple and doable,” according to McGrath, who is particularly enthusiastic about the happiness the pumps bring to children. Not only do they get clean drinking water, the pump’s merry-go-round is often their only piece of playground equipment, and at $14,000 a pump, it only costs 56 cents to provide one person with a year’s worth of clean drinking water.

McGrath’s next big project combines fund raising and education. She has teamed with Mohonasen School District to develop a month-long project focusing on PlayPumps and the water crisis and anchored by World Water Day on March 22nd.

Asked about the impact her mission has had on her personally, McGrath said, “It’s certainly a really good feeling that you can initiate something, that you can do something that will defiantly make a difference, that will cause change to happen. Some little community is going to be so pleased that they have this kind of gift.”

“I’m psyched,” said McGrath of her progress. “My next phase is to approach local youth groups. . . . If I get over $14,000 and I still have momentum, I’ll just keep going. I’ll do two pumps!”

If you’re interested in donating to Albany Friends for PlayPumps, or have fund-raising ideas to share, you can visit their Web site at www.firstgiving.com/albanyfriendsforplaypumps or e-mail tmcgrat1@nycap.rr.com.


PHOTO: Chris Shields

Allison Banks

Allison Banks, Albany, turning tragedy into hope, works against the cycle of violence that led to the death of her son

It has been almost two years now since Allison Banks’ son Elleek Williams was gunned down in front of a bar in West Hill, and Banks has not slowed down one bit in trying to get the word out that her son’s death was absolutely unnecessary.

Elleek spent years of his life living in fear because of the uptown-downtown feud that has led to so much violence on Albany’s streets. Banks says that her son repeatedly told her that things needed to change, and he encouraged her to get out there and spread the message. And now after his death, Banks, who is attending Bryant and Stratton while working full time and raising a number of children, has become deeply involved in efforts to address the issues that foster gun violence in Albany.

Banks, along with Robyn Ringler, has resurrected the upstate chapter of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and serves on Albany’s newly founded Gun Violence Task Force. Along with her work with these groups, Banks has fought hard to get a memorial built to her son in the West Hill neighborhood where he was killed, and is currently writing a memoir about her son’s life.

Although Banks could not be reached this past week to be interviewed about her being chosen as a local hero, Metroland has seen firsthand Banks’ dedication to helping Albany understand and address its gun-violence problem.


PHOTO:Leif Zurmuhlen

Valerie Keehn

Valerie Keehn, Saratoga, the mayor who has fought hard battles against entrenched good-old boys to open up Saratoga’s government to the people

“The results of this election were understandable. People don’t like confrontation, they don’t like strife,” says Saratoga Mayor Valerie Keehn of the infighting some say cost her reelection this past November. “But I personally don’t have a problem with that if I am fighting for something I believe is worth fighting for.”

Keehn, a Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Mike Lenz in 2006 despite strong opposition from long-entrenched politicians inside her own party. Once elected, she spent time opening up the political process and trying to break the stranglehold that Saratoga’s old guard had over governance. And the battle she fought has changed Saratoga politics.

“I can believe that not because of some secret talent of mine or some special message I had, but because I really feel I have been the voice of regular citizens,” says Keehn. “The only thing different about me compared to my neighbors, my best friend or the person down the street is that I said, ‘OK. I will step up and do this, I will dedicate the time I know I need to dedicate to do it. I will put my career on hold for a time and make those sacrifices that need to be made to do it knowing I have thousands of people backing me and supporting me to do that.’ ”

Keehn had many nasty battles with longtime incumbent Department of Public Works Commissioner Thomas McTygue about the direction of development in the city, but Keehn says those battles were worth it because they were out in the open and showed the citizens of Saratoga how some insiders wanted to run the city. And exposing McTygue as a bully helped bring about his electoral defeat this year.

Keehn says that she thinks she has increased citizen participation in Saratoga government and has changed Saratoga politics for some time to come. “I think that because that’s what I’ve heard almost everybody who I have discussed the election results with say. They were all congratulating me for what I was able to do, what no one has ever done, and that was fight the fight in public not just turn a blind eye to how things have always been done, whether it was proper or not. I would publicly say, ‘No! I’m not accepting that. That’s not going to happen while I’m the mayor of this city.’ ”

Despite being defeated by Republican Scott Johnson, Keehn says that she will not disappear from the face of Saratoga politics.

“I’m a fighter,” says Keehn. “In my life, I have seen things that are unjust and unfair, and I have never been the kind of person to say, “Well, I don’t like what is going on but let someone else do something about it. I’m the kind of person who says, ‘This is unfair. I’m gonna organize. I’m going to join the cause, and I will be the leader if that’s what needs to be done.’ And I will continue to do that as long as I feel there is a cause that is meaningful to champion. I think there are going to be plenty of those for me to go forward in the next few years.”


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