Get on Track

High-performance racing experiences puts you in the driver’s seat

By Sue Baldani

For Father’s Day, think outside the box and onto the track. Monticello Motor Club, located in Monticello, NY, offers adrenaline-pumping driving experiences on its premier automotive playground. MMC has 4.1 miles of driving track and a “Full Course” track which is 3.6 miles long with 18 turns and 450 feet of elevation changes.

“People love it,” says Marketing Manager Suzanne Forni Gonzalez. “It’s so unlike anything they’ve ever done. A lot of people haven’t had the experience of driving on track, and many like high-performance vehicles.”

Taste of The Track and the Porsche Taycan Experience are two great packages they offer, and no experience is necessary. “Taste of the Track is a full-day experience and is a perfect glimpse of what it’s like to be a member of MMC because you get to try all different parts of the club,” says Suzanne. “You’re on the track for quite a bit of the day with a private instructor, and then you’ll do some go-karting. You’ll also get a tour and have lunch.”

The Porsche Taycan Experience is a half-day offering where participants get to drive a fully-electric Taycan on track. As drivers, they’ll learn how to handle the car’s potential, which can reach 60 mph in under three seconds. As passengers, they can experience a full-course hot lap with a professional driver at the wheel.

Monticello Motor Club has a variety of vehicles for use, such as a BMW 240i, a BMW M2 Competition, a Porsche 911, a Mini John Cooper, and a  fully-equipped M2 racing car. The Club also allows people to use their own high-performance vehicles.

The on-site clubhouse serves breakfast and lunch, and also has a make-your-own sundae bar. “We have a kitchen staff who work magic and our chef is Culinary Institute of America trained,” says Suzanne.

“We have a full locker room with showers and a members’ garage for storage of private vehicles. We also have concierge services so if our guests need help with where to go or what to do, we can assist with that.

“Most of our clients are very busy people, and when they’re here, they can just let go of everything. All they’re thinking about is the car and what their next move is going to be.”

MMC is typically open from mid-April through mid-November, and shuts down for the winter except for members taking part in snow driving and off-road activities. The Club is popular with people of all ages, and members include a good amount of women and teens.

“We’re like a new-age golf club; we have our own driving range, which is the track.”

To find out more and to give dad a thrill this Father’s Day, go to https://www.monticellomotorclub.com/. He might just end up becoming a full-blown member.

Written for Chatham & Short Hills Lifestyle magazine in New Jersey.

Celebrate on the Island

A destination point for weddings

By Sue Baldani

Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw) in Northern Michigan, has been a popular destination for years for generations of families staying a week or more and for day trippers taking advantage of a rare day off. But, it’s also a dream location for couples planning a wedding and/or a honeymoon.  

“We’ve had brides say, ‘I started coming to the island with my parents when I was three and I always knew I was going to get married here.’ And they do!,” says Liz Ware, vice president of sales and marketing for Mission Point resort hotel, and the owner’s daughter.  

“The island is truly beautiful and the water is crystal clear, like the waters of the Caribbean,” she says. Everyone has flowers and a garden; we have a lilac festival every year. It’s just a different way of life.”

Her parents, Denny and the late Suzanne Ware, bought Mission Point six years ago when the former owner wanted it to stay a family business. Today, Liz helps her father run the resort along with four of her five siblings.

“Working for a family business is so different and the owners are really involved,” says Michaelena Waite, manager of wedding sales. “They really know about any challenges our staff faces so they make sure they set us up for success. And I think guests like knowing that the family is right here.”

Mission Point, voted one of the top resort hotels in the Midwest by Travel + Leisure Magazine in 2020, is located on 18 acres right off of the lakefront overlooking the Straits of Mackinac. Liz calls the décor rustic elegance. “Our lobby has these big logs that were floated over from the island across from us when it was built.”

There are two buildings with a total of 241 guest rooms, and of those, 72 are two-bedroom family suites. Its Lakeside Salon & Spa is the largest spa on the island with its 5,000 square feet. It offers the full complement of body and hair care – anything one would need for a wedding.

To get around the island, which is a Historic National Landmark, you walk or bike, or you can take a horse drawn taxi; there are no cars allowed. Food for their restaurants comes from local area farms and is brought over by a ferry and put on a wagon. It’s then pulled by horse and brought to the hotel.

“We believe in our farm to ferry cuisine and locally-sourced foods,” says Liz. “Northern Michigan has a lot of small farms and produces a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. We also have a cocktail garden where we grow a ton of mint, lavender and a bunch of other ingredients that are used in our fresh cocktails.”

Mission Point is well known for its great lawn, where guests can stroll around, enjoy the view of the lake, and breathe in the fragrant scent of flowers. There are also plenty of Adirondack chairs where they can sit back and relax.

Mackinac Island is a seasonal destination, and the season generally begins the beginning of May and goes through the end of October. Mission Point opens its doors on April 30, and weddings are held all throughout the season.

“The charm of the island is a favorite thing,” says Andrea Crawford, senior manager of Conference Services, which also handles weddings on property. “You feel like you’re in a different place. Time stops. My absolute favorite thing here is when they have the horse and carriage bring the bride, or pick up the couple. No matter how many times I see it, it’s just the most amazing thing ever.”

Due to COVID-19, the focus is on flexibility of space and bringing celebrations outdoors since the outdoor restrictions haven’t been as severe as the indoor restrictions. “What we’re finding, in most cases, is couples who are planning on getting married want to get married,” says Liz. “They’re not interested in postponing, so it takes a really strong team on a property like ours to work with couples to go through Plan A, B, and possibly C. You can’t just plan on one set of restrictions. You have to plan for multiple versions.”

“We do everything and anything that we can do to make their day as special as we can while still abiding by the restrictions,” says Andrea. “We have to communicate with our couples and crew to keep them informed, and they trust us to do that.”

“With COVID, our whole world has flipped upside down,” says Michaelena. “Thank God we have an amazing team who all jump in together to make things happen. It’s definitely not easy. I give you an idea of what will work best to make your wedding dream come true, and then do the handoff to our Comfort Services team, which is just amazing and flawless. Then that trust and that relationship is built even more while planning all of the details with them.”

For an outdoor ceremony, says Andrea, there are a couple of choices. They can set up white chairs on the great lawn facing the water, and have an arch that is beautifully decorated with flowers for the couples to be married under. Or, there is also a gazebo on the great lawn, which is separated by beautiful landscaping to give it a more intimate feel.

“We have a lot of outdoor space,” says Liz. “We have a 38,000 square foot conference center and the rooftop area of that is a deck area, and we just built this beautiful pavilion on it. It opened last May, and the views of the water are spectacular.”

Pre-COVID, Mission Point could hold receptions for up to 350 people. Now, the number allowed this coming season is up in the air. “There’s not the shock this year as there was last year,” says Liz. “We’ve lived through a year of COVID, and everyone has learned to become flexible and pivot, and so couples are pretty calm about it and pretty adaptable to any situation. Which is really good, because there’s a lot of stress with a wedding to begin with, and then you have possible restrictions on top of it. But all in all, we’re very positive about this season.”

Many couples who get married at Mission Point stay on for their honeymoon. Others come just for their honeymoon. “We offer several packages and we can create custom packages as well,” says Liz.

Packages include round-trip ferry tickets, and champagne and chocolates upon arrival. They also include a five-course dinner in Chianti. “This is a restaurant I would call a great place for foodies and wine lovers,” says Liz. “We have a five-course prix fixe dinner that is served every night and it is outstanding.”

There are several signature suites in which a couple can stay, based on availability and budget. There is the 1,200 square foot Presidential Suite overlooking the water. There is the Tranquility Suite with two double doors that open up to a view of Tranquility Point, which overlooks Lake Huron.

“It is extremely beautiful and has its own little patio,” says Liz. “Brides love to get ready in there and have photos taken.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Since Mission Point is a very popular destination for weddings, Liz recommends booking large weddings a year in advance. And thinking outside the box. “With so many people having to rebook from last year, Sunday weddings are becoming popular along with weekday weddings. If you can do a weekday wedding, do it. Your destination isn’t likely to be as crowded and you’ll find you’re going to get a break on your pricing. Your wedding guests can make it a vacation for themselves as well and stay more than one day. And this way, you can spend more time with family.

Guests can even bring their dogs. Liz says Mission Point is the only resort on the island that allows pets. Nick, the resident Border Collie, loves greeting guests when not helping keep the geese off the great lawn He’s very popular with children (and adults), who love getting their picture taken with him.

Mackinac Island is located 4.5 hours north of Grosse Pointe. To find out more, or to book a day trip, a spa day, or a wedding or other event, go to https://www.missionpoint.com/.

Written for Grosse Pointe Lifestyle magazine in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Saving Lives, Supporting Families

It takes a village (and a lot of love)

By Sue Baldani

On June 24, a lucky winner will find out that he or she will soon be living in a dream home! Now in its fourth year in Topeka, the 2021 St. Jude Dream Home campaign launched this past April with a goal to raise $750,00 by the time it wraps up this month (and a whopping $2.8 million for all four years.) Along with the home, other fabulous prizes will be given away as well.

The funds raised from this campaign will help St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital continue its almost 60 year mission of finding cures for childhood catastrophic diseases. While doing this, it will also support the families who are battling right alongside their children.  

This campaign would never have been possible without the support of the Topeka community. The number of people involved, from the builders to the subcontractors to the designers and retail establishments, is phenomenal, and they’re all passionately committed to the cause.

“One person can’t do it on their own, so if you have enough people get together, you can make it happen,” says Mike Drippé, owner of Drippé Homes, who built the first and fourth homes. Mark Boling Construction built the second and third.

As this latest home was being constructed, Brandi Whisler, lead interior designer for Drippé Homes, was busy planning how to make the inside as worthy of a dream home as the outside. “We definitely wanted to do something a little bit more mid-century modern,” she says. “I thought it would be a fun opportunity for us to bring a new style to Topeka.”

Her favorite part of the house, she adds, is the really amazing fireplace with porcelain tile and a floating hearth. It’s the first thing people see when they walk in the door and gives it that “wow” factor.

Brandi was also daring in her color choices. “I love using black and I think people are sometimes scared to do that. We have some accent walls that are black and some cool geometric trim detail.”

Brandi worked closely with Jennifer Dodge from Furniture Mall of Kansas, a family-owned-and-operated business that has been involved in the campaign all four years. For this home, it’s supplying all the furnishings for the entire first floor.

“Some of the finishes they used in this home have a mid-century modern inspiration to them and that’s what inspired our design as well,” says Jennifer. “We wanted to play along those lines and have those elements in it.” Her mother, Joyce Winter, is also helping with the design.

“First and foremost, our goal at Furniture Mall is to help bring happiness through helping our guests create more beautiful and comfortable homes,” she says. “That’s really our mission and I hope we accomplished that through the design of this house and making it feel like a dream home.”

One of her favorite rooms is the master bedroom. “We are bringing in a beautiful bedroom set which has live-edge detailing as well as black steel elements.”

Everyone involved in the campaign feels it’s an honor to support St. Jude and its mission. “I know some parents who have gone to St. Jude with their children, and they described it as if you’re in this tunnel of darkness and sometimes St. Jude is the only bit of light you feel that you have,” says Brandi.

Adds Mike, “Anything we can do to alleviate that suffering and that stress they’re going through – this is a way to help show love for other people’s kids. I can’t cure their cancer, but I can do this little part to help.”

He stresses that many of his and Mark Boling’s subcontractors have been involved all four years. “They consistently donated over $10,00 every year in labor or materials, so that’s an important part of it. And they are thrilled to do it.”

“Supporting St. Jude in its lifesaving mission of ‘Finding Cures. Saving children’ allows our entire Furniture Mall family to be part of making a real and positive difference,” says owner, Jeff Winter. “I would encourage any business that desires to grow and inspire their team to get involved.”

To learn more about St. Jude and the St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway in other cities and states, go to www.DreamHome.org

Written for Topeka Lifestyle magazine in Topeka, Kansas.

Music to Our Ears

Giving to those who fill our world with sound

By Sue Baldani

Music adds an extra layer of joy to the background of our lives, whether it’s while we’re driving in a car singing along to the radio, looking for that extra boost while exercising, dancing with friends at a party or club, or just hanging out at home. The lyrical sound of vocals and the rhythmic thrum of instruments enters through our ears and fills our souls. Whether soft and melodic or hardcore metal, life just would not be the same without music.

MusiCares® makes sure that the people behind this magic are able to live their best lives. “MusiCares is the leading music industry charity; helping the humans behind the music because music gives so much to the world,” says Debbie Carroll, a Nashville native and vice president, health and human services. “MusiCares was established in 1989 by the Recording Academy to provide a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need. We provide a variety of health and human services and focus our attention on the human service issues that directly impact the health and well-being of the music community.” 

Whether these needs are monetary or pertain to mental or physical health, addiction recovery, hearing loss, or other issues, MusiCares can help. As of today, it’s served over 200,000 people in the music industry who have reached out for assistance.

“As the pandemic continues to keep venues closed, cancelling music festivals including Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival and Bonnaroo, it’s clear music people need our support now more than ever,” says Debbie. “MusiCares had to quickly determine what music people needed most, which is why we established our COVID-19 relief efforts in partnership with the Recording Academy. We’re honored and humbled by the support we’ve received, allowing us to distribute more than $22 million to more than 24,000 music people across the industry since March 2020.”

The organization relies on donors to fulfill its mission, and is hosting Music on a Mission, a virtual event that will honor the immeasurable number of music industry professionals impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’ll be held on Friday, March 12, two nights prior to the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards® telecast. Tickets are available on its website and all sales will go to support MusiCares, and its COVID-19 Relief response.

“The Music on a Mission virtual event will feature never-before-seen interviews with musicians, live and virtual performances from artists like H.E.R., HAIM, John Legend and Lady Gaga, plus previously unaired performances from Person of the Year tributes to Dolly Parton, Aerosmith, and others,” she says.

If you or someone you know in the music industry is in need of financial or other types of support services, reach out to MusiCares for the help it so generously offers. Songwriters, musicians, engineers, producers, bus drivers, crew, guitar techs, label employees, make-up artists, and beyond are all eligible.

“Additionally, we have a list of COVID-19 relief online resources, which now includes a food insecurity hotline (1-800-5HUNGRY) and Find Food search with WhyHunger,” says Debbie.

A 73-year-old singer and songwriter said the following about the assistance received from MusiCares: “Such a relief. I have managed to make it through the month, [with] ‘gleaning’ and food stamps. Was about to sell a treasured guitar for far too little…So grateful. Crying with gratitude.”  Another artist wrote: “Dear MusiCares, I received an unexpected love offering this year from your grant program, and I wanted to let you know how much it meant to me. I, as a touring musician, am so happy that there are agencies out there supporting the arts in these darkest of times. Happy 2021. My soul wears a smile as wide as the Pacific Ocean.”

To find out more, volunteer, or provide financial support to this worthwhile organization, go to www.MusiCares.org. Help those who share their talents and make our lives more memorable and joyful, and let’s keep the music playing. After all, how quiet and less meaningful our world would be without it.

Written for Belle Meade Lifestyle magazine in Belle Meade, Tennessee.

Cheers to Your Health

A toast to organic wines and liquors

By Sue Baldani

Organic produce and meats have been in high demand for years, and now consumers are looking to extend those healthy benefits into their glasses of wine. Eco-friendly wines, those produced without the use of pesticides in vineyards that use sustainable and biodynamic farming practices, are thought to be not only better for you, but better tasting as well.

“Eco-friendly wines have a technical component to them, but it’s more of a philosophical piece, which is to get to know where your wine, your product, comes from,” says Dan Dinelli, one of the owners of Cambridge Wines, with stores in Summit and Morristown, NJ.

“Alcohol is a highly-lobbied industry and there’s technically, I think, about 200 or more additives that are allowed in a bottle of wine.” Many of these natural wines are hand-harvested, have no additives or yeasts, and little or no added sulfites. And headaches, he says, come from these fillers, not the sulfites, as many believe.

Dan and his partners, cousin Anthony Dinelli and friend David Bernat, like to educate customers about wine. Roommates in their younger years, they lived on Cambridge Avenue in the Bronx, hence the name of the store. “We have a very lighthearted way of working with people. That’s in our DNA.”

He says when it comes to wine, they’re just like everyone else. “We drink wine, we enjoy wine, but the more we know about it, the more fun this journey becomes.”

Dan says he and his partners grew up with wine in their homes. “We’re Italian. It was always an extension of the dinner table – we’re bonding, we’re breaking bread, and it doesn’t need to be fancy.”

Quality can be found at every price point, he says, and they try as much wine as they can before they carry it. “We try a lot of bad wines so our customers don’t have to.”

But, Dan and his partners also want high-end wines and liquors to be approachable for those who would like to experience them. In the Summit store, these bottles can be found in what they call the Cellar. “Most places have it locked up or put away and it’s almost like taboo to touch it unless you’re super wealthy. But we want people to see what a $3000 dollar bottle looks like.”

Speaking of wine cellars, their Cellar Management Services helps wine enthusiasts manage their own private collections. “We handle the restocking, the organizing, and the upkeep, whether it’s as little as an in-home wine cooler to a thousand bottle wine cellar.”

Cambridge Wines also offers same-day delivery, a free loyalty program where shoppers can leverage points from previous shopping trips for perks, and multi-level paid membership programs. With paid membership, customers receive two wines every month or a selection of beer, and have access to special incentives, such as discounts.

The store also does Cases for a Cause, where the profits of sales get donated to whatever charity is chosen. “It’s a fun way of generating revenue for nonprofits – leveraging wine tasting to raise money.”

Start your own curated collection of eco-friendly wines today and enjoy them while spending time with family and friends. Make every day and every meal a special occasion. Cheers!

Written for Chatham & Short Hills Lifestyle magazine in New Jersey.

National EMS Week

Honoring the people who answer the call

May 18, 2021, Scotch Plains, NJ  – May 17th through May 22nd is National EMS Week, which was instituted in 1974 by President Gerald Ford. It’s a time to recognize and celebrate EMS practitioners and the important services they provide to our nation’s communities. This past year has made that more apparent than ever.

Dealing with COVID-19 has pushed many in the industry to the brink of despair and exhaustion, but even so, they continue to answer the call. The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad (SPRS) is fortunate to have EMTs who put their own safety concerns aside to help their neighbors in need. Over the past year, there’s actually been an influx of applicants who wanted to join in the fight against this deadly pandemic, and the squad is thankful for this additional help.  

During the worst days of the COVID-19 crisis, residents and business owners often showed their gratitude by delivering meals to the EMTs on duty. This outpouring of appreciation made a meaningful impact on all those serving.

In its 84th year of service, this life-saving organization’s volunteers are proud to be here for the community of Scotch Plains and surrounding towns, handling all types of emergency calls. New members are always welcome to assist with calls, as well as standbys at high school football games, summer concerts on the Village Green, Scotch Plains Day, and other community events. In addition, squad members provide demonstrations for Boy and Girl Scout troops, clubs, and any other groups that may be interested in learning about what the squad does.

For more information, or to volunteer or donate, please go to scotchplainsrescuesquad@gmail.com or call (908) 322-2103 (for non-emergencies).

Contributing Author:  Susan Baldani, a life member of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad.

Life in Pictures

Teaching kids with special needs photography skills

By Sue Baldani

When Jen Vogus’s son, Aidan, who is non-verbal, started kindergarten, she wanted to make sure the other children were able to get to know him. So, she came up with the idea of taking and captioning pictures of him doing things he liked and sharing them with his teacher and the class.

“The pictures were a way for others to see that Aidan is more like them than he is different from them,” says Jen, the founder and executive director of AbleVoices in Nashville. “It worked out really well for our particular situation and we were able to sustain it over many years.”

While on the board of directors for the Arc of Williamson County in 2014, she wanted to use her skills in teaching and photography to help others with disabilities. She had learned that the Arc occasionally put together a visual resume, or portfolio, for students aged 18 to 22 who had earned a special-education diploma in Williamson County schools and were currently enrolled in a four-year vocational based transition program. These portfolios included pictures of them at various job sites to show potential employers the types of job skills they had.

“I said to Sharon Bottorff, the executive director, ‘What do you think about doing a workshop teaching these young adults how to take better pictures so they’re better able to tell their stories?’”

Shortly after, Jen started teaching semester-long workshops, and in 2018, she decided to expand the curriculum. She implemented a methodology called Photovoice, which, she explains, provides cameras to any group that is underrepresented or that wants to share its views about a particular issue.

Many of the young adults really enjoyed these photography classes and wanted to keep them going, so she developed a photography club the following summer. In 2019, wanting to expand even more, she felt it was time to form her own nonprofit organization. And so, AbleVoices was born.

“I work with Marie Wicks, who is the Williamson County Schools transitional program coordinator,” says Jen. “She sets me up with a classroom and a teacher, and there are typically between nine and 17 students per semester.”

Since COVID-19 shut them down in March, she found a way to continue some of the classes virtually. “Last summer, I did a few with some young adults that weren’t able to leave the house because of COVID, and I did a summer-long outdoor photography club in person.”

Recently, she’s started a virtual Photography for Self-Expression course. “I provide videos that teaches them a photography tip, and we have a photo mission every week,” she says. “The pictures can just stir up emotions and memories and experiences that are all different to each person. So, it’s a really wonderful way to gain insight about our participants.”

The students get to show off their pictures in the lobby of the Williamson County Community Services Building, where Arc is located. “It’s just so awesome and so rewarding to see the skills they’ve learned. And it also gives them a sense of importance, as in, ‘This is my camera, and I’m a photographer.’”

Right now, Jen is applying for more grants to expand the amount of programs she can provide in the schools, and make the photography club, which does have a fee, more affordable for families. Donations are very helpful in making this a reality.

“It’s been really exciting for me, and it’s something I really believe in,” she says. “It’s been a lot of fun to see these young adults be able to express themselves visually through their images and provide them with another way to share about themselves with the world.”

Today, Aidan has graduated from high school and is in his first year of the transition program with Williamson County Schools. Even though he is now more interested in going on Instagram and doing other age-appropriate activities, his mother’s desire to help others tell their stories through pictures lives on.

To find out more about AbleVoices, or to buy merchandise from its online store or donate to this worthwhile organization, go to www.ablevoices.org.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Brentwood, TN.

Finding Cures. Saving Children

Support the Topeka St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway campaign

By Sue Baldani

More than fifteen years after losing his young son Daegan to acute myeloid leukemia, Lance, from Kansas, is still a strong supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. After undergoing a failed bone marrow transplant procedure, Daegan was transferred to St. Jude, and thanks to an experimental treatment, he was given a precious extra year of life.

“A year is not a long time, except when you measure a child’s life at 4 ½ years; a year is a fourth of their life,” says Lance. “Up until the very end, it was a pretty good quality of life.”

During this time, the little boy with the infectious personality that captured people’s hearts was able to do some of the activities he enjoyed most. Daegan loved Thomas the Train, and he was able to take a ride on Thomas. He also wanted, among other things, to go up in a helicopter and ride on a golf cart, and he was able to do it all.

While on the St. Jude campus in Memphis, Lance remembers seeing all the research buildings. “Their lights were on at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. They literally don’t stop. If they can do that, then I can do whatever I can do.

“[St. Jude] shares [protocols and treatments] with everybody, and it’s not just cancer,” says Lance. “They’re doing research on a lot of different things.” He can’t stress enough that even though the hospital is located in Memphis, by donating, you’re helping people in your local community as well.

For St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to be able to continue helping more children and their families, it’s critical to garner financial support. One way it does this is through its St. Jude Dream Home campaign. For a $100.00 ticket, participants in Topeka have a chance to win the St. Jude Dream Home in the Aquarian Acres neighborhood, as well as other prizes. In its fourth year in Topeka, the goal is to collectively raise $2.8 million by the time it wraps up in June.

Caroline and Kevin Gray, owners of Custom Wood Products, have been involved with the St. Jude Dream Home campaign every year in Topeka and for three years in Wichita.

“We’ve donated all of the cabinets for the kitchen, the bathrooms, laundry room, basement bar – anything that is interior, cabinet wise,” says Caroline. “It’s always great to be a part of something that is bigger than you.

“And I love the aspect that it brings competitors together. That’s really awesome! If an electrician can’t afford all the labor and all the product, maybe he’ll work with another electrician and one will do the product and one will do the labor.”

To support St. Jude in its mission, go to www.DreamHome.org. See other states that are participating as well.

Saving Lives, Supporting Families

The Topeka St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway is underway

By Sue Baldani

St. Jude Children’s Hospital is on a mission, and has been for close to 60 years. Founded in 1962, its commitment to finding cures for childhood catastrophic diseases has enabled patients and their families not to just survive, but to live their best lives.

“Life would be so much different if it wasn’t for St. Jude,” says Josh, a local dad whose daughter Bella was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 18 months. “We didn’t know if she was going to live to be two. When doctors kept saying there’s nothing we can do, that really crossed our minds.”

Thankfully, the doctors at St. Jude didn’t turn the family away. “St. Jude, after receiving her information, contacted us directly and said if you come, we would love to see her. They were able to help when no one else could.”

The first step was surgery. Because of the tumor’s location, they were only able to remove one-quarter of the tumor. After 77 weeks of chemotherapy, the tumor finally shrunk.

Unfortunately, about a year later, it started growing again, and after nine more months of chemotherapy, the tumor just kept growing. An experimental clinical trial drug was also tried, but that didn’t work for Bella either.

“Finally, the chief of radiation said he would like her to be treated with proton beam radiation, so he went to Switzerland and studied proton beam radiation for children,” says Josh.

Thus, St. Jude was the first to have the only proton therapy center in the world dedicated solely to children. Whereas traditional radiation passes through the brain, the proton beam is precise, causing less damage to surrounding tissue. After receiving 29 doses, Bella passed with flying colors and didn’t suffer any side effects.

Today, four years after stopping proton beam therapy, Bella is a happy child who likes spending time with her family and her Dachshunds, and playing school with her dolls and siblings, Hannah and Isaiah.

“She’s excelling in school; she has no developmental delays,” says Josh. “A couple of years ago they talked to us about putting her into enrichment [classes.]”

“I cried when the school called me because I thought the opposite would happen, and that this is happening is just such a blessing,” says her mom, Jennifer.

In the beginning, Josh admits he was skeptical that they would never receive a bill for Bella’s treatment, or for anything. Today, he’s a believer.

“Bella has had over a million dollars’ worth of treatment in eight years and a middle class family like ours, we would be bankrupt.”

To continue to find cures for patients like Bella at no cost to their families, it takes people who are willing to support its mission. This month, St. Jude Children’s Hospital is kicking off The Topeka St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway, a community service project that brings together builders and their trade partners to build a dream home at no or at very low cost to give away to a lucky winner.

This year, the home in Kansas will be built by Drippé Homes in the desirable Aquarian Acres development. Only 7,500 tickets will be sold, at $100.00 each, for a chance to win the home, plus other prizes. The campaign, which started four years ago, is expected to raise a total of $2.8 million from the Topeka community by the time it wraps up this June.

“The money you are giving today could help for the cure of your child or grandchild down the road,” says Jennifer.

To buy a ticket, or to help in other ways, go to www.stjude.org/give/dream-home/topeka.html.

Written for Topeka Lifestyle magazine in Topeka, Kansas.

To participate in the St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway in other states, go to http://www.stjude.org/give/dream-home.html.

The Little Dog and the Drag Queen

By Sue Baldani

Drag queen Langanja Estranja (real name Jay Jackson) has a very busy life. When she’s not strutting her stuff on RuPaul’s Drag Race, working on a movie, meeting her fans at DragCon, or being an activist for the LGBTQ and cannabis lifestyles, she’s starring in what she considers to be her best role, being MawMa to Lil Dabbers.

“So many people told me I was just too busy for a dog,” says Langanja. “I’d been wanting a dog. I grew up with a pet, so I’ve always had an affinity for dogs.”

Five years ago, while performing in Hawaii, her roommate texted her a picture of a little Terrier Chihuahua puppy that a coworker was looking to rehome. Was she interested? “When I got the picture of my now beautiful baby, I was like ‘absolutely!’” 

Since then, Lil Dabbers has gone everywhere with Laganja. “She’s an emotional support dog because I need her with me at all times,” she says. “I’m very lucky that she gets to travel the world with me. She went to Italy when I worked with Google at the Cannes festival. I took her to DragCon, which is a huge event where all of us drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race get together and meet our followers. At 6 weeks old, Lil Dabbers was introduced to the life she was going to live and she loves it.”

Lil Dabbers was on set with Langanja while she was filming God Save the Queens, which recently wrapped and will be released for Sundance either later this year or next. “The film is told in three different vignettes, and in my vignette, I’m acting alongside Alaska, who is a famous queen from Rupaul’s Drag Race. We sing live in the film, so I’m excited for people to hear my vocal abilities.

“I’m also really excited for people to see an authentic story about drag queens. Recently, we’ve seen some authentic stories coming out about queer people, but not really about drag queens. This is going to touch on a lot of the trials and tribulations we go through as performers and as people who don’t necessarily fit into the gender black and white scale of male and female.”

During the making of the movie, Lil Dabbers turned 5, so her celebration was a bit delayed. But MawMa made up for it when they got back home. “She got to go to the beach not once, but twice. She loves the beach. She doesn’t like the water, but she loves the sand. She’s a digger.”

Langanja and Lil Dabbers reside in Hollywood, where Laganja has lived for over 15 years. “ I have a view of the Hollywood sign, so I’m lucky, and I work very hard to have this. I’m very grateful to have developed a life here with friends and family members. I just can’t believe a little boy from Texas is now a full-time female impersonator!”

Of course, as a drag queen, Langanja has an affinity for costumes and getting dressed up. So, she likes Lil Dabbers to have her own outfits as well. “I love the aesthetics of being able to have matching outfits with my dog. My designer who custom makes all my clothing will usually take the leftovers and make her an outfit, so she can have an accessory, a neck piece or a backpack – something she is comfortable wearing but still matches me.” Lil Dabbers’ fashion statements are appreciated by her almost 7,100 Instagram followers.

When Laganja became her MawMa years ago, she made several YouTube episodes that featured her little dog. There was Ganja Walks, which were episodes of her walking Dabbers in different parks and places, and Dabbers Day Out, which showed the Terrier Chihuahua enjoying a bunch of doggie adventures.

Now, plans are being made to start up Dabbers Day Out once again. “We’re partnering with Dogue, (rhymes with Vogue) which is an incredible spa for dogs out here. The owner, Josh White, is also LGBTQ and was recently featured on the show The Pack, with his dog Snow. I became a huge fan of the show because I love dogs. I ended up meeting him here in Hollywood and being able to perform at his surprise 30th birthday. So in exchange, he is going to give Dabbers a beautiful makeover. I’m excited to get her back on the web, and am also very excited to partner with Josh and continue to amplify the LGBTQ voice.”

Having Lil Dabbers in her life is a lot of fun for Laganja, but it goes much deeper than that. “Dabbers has saved my life on numerous accounts,” says Laganja. “As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, Dabbers has really been able to provide something that no human can provide, which is a closeness that even my best friends and I don’t have. To be able to have that support is very hard to put into words.”

She encourages everyone to get a dog, even if they lead busy lives. “Look at me – I made it work. You too can make it work and it will improve your life. When I have a hard day, to come home to her happiness and her warmth is a true blessing. When she sees me, there’s always that love and joy and I’m very, very lucky to have that positive energy in my life.”

To see more of Lil Dabbers, check out her Instagram page, and stay tuned for the all new Dabbers Day Out series, which will showcase the incredible life she lives. “She has traveled the world and met many people, and I feel like she is a very brave dog,” says Laganja. “Her bravery really inspires me to be the same way.”

Follow Langanja Estranja on Instagram and Tik Tok and various other social media platforms, or on her website at laganjaestranja.com. Become one of her “buds”, as she calls her followers.

Published in Pet Lifestyles Magazine in New York, New York. https://issuu.com/newyorklifestylesmagazine/docs/plm_apr21?fr=sYTk1Mzg1ODU3