How Dogs Make Our Lives Better

By Susan Baldani

Kristen Finch and Smash

Smash pic

What is your background?
I’ve been the Senior Manager of Community Relations with the Nashville Predators for eight years. I really wanted a dog, but with my crazy schedule it was hard to have one. When I found out we could have a team dog that I could bring to the office every day, it was perfect.

Tell me about your team dog.
We adopted Lord Banner of Smashville, or Smash, from Keely’s Friends Dog Rescue when he was 2 to 3 months old; he’s now about 9 months. We have no idea what breed he is; he’s a true mutt.

What are the benefits of having a team dog?
Smash has really brought the mood of the organization up. He visits different departments, and if people are having a bad day, they stop by to give him hugs and kisses. He also visits the team in the locker room and helps relieves stress and anxiety.

In addition, Smash is involved with Weber’s Woof Pack, our fan club for dogs. For $30, your dog gets a Woof Pack collar and leash, a dog tag, a dog bowl and invitations to exclusive dog-park meet-ups throughout the city, where Smash likes to play. All proceeds go to the Nashville Humane Association.

Jamie Popwell and Sona Jean

Sona Jean 1

What is your background?
I joined the Marines in 1982 and served most of my six years at Camp David. When I came out, I became a police officer and then in January of 1999 took a job as a contractor overseas. During that period, I spent time doing security in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In 2015, I came home for good, but after about 9 months, I started to exhibit signs of PTSD – anxiety, stress, and anger – which could be set off by certain sounds, smells, and sights. My wife, Dina, convinced me I needed to get help and came up with the idea to get a service dog.

Tell me about your service dog.
Sona Jean is a 4-year-old English Lab. She came into my life on Mother’s Day weekend of 2018. Since then, we’ve only been apart for three days. She sleeps with me, goes to work with me, and travels everywhere with me.

What are the benefits of having a service dog?
Sona knows when I’m having a bad day and is able to distract me. It may be by nudging my hand, jumping in my lap, or sticking her nose in my ear from the back seat while I’m driving. She brings me back to reality and gives me peace of mind. I love her unconditionally and I don’t know where I would be without her.

Elizabeth Treadwell and Bogey

Bogey 2

What is your background?
I was born and raised in Michigan, lived in Chicago, and then moved to Nashville 4 ½ years ago to obtain my MBA. I live with my fiancée and two dogs, and work for Mars Pet Care in Coral Springs.

I was always taught to help others whenever possible. Since I love animals and volunteering, having a pet therapy dog is a perfect fit.

Tell me about your therapy dog.
Bogey is a 7-year-old, 100-pound yellow Labrador I adopted from a shelter. He was about 12 weeks old and just so laid-back.
Remembering how much joy my grandfather got when a dog would visit him in the hospital, I decided to get Bogey, at age 2, certified as a hospital therapy dog. Unfortunately, he failed twice because he just couldn’t ignore the food plates passing by.

He was able to pass another exam to work with kids in the Chicago Public Schools system. They would read to him and Bogey loved it; he would hang out with his belly up in the air.

After moving to Nashville, Bogey, at age 5 ½, finally passed the test to be certified as a hospital therapy dog. We were then told that the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt was looking for volunteers, so now Bogey and I visit every other Tuesday morning.

What are the benefits of a therapy dog?
When the kids see Bogey, their whole demeanors change because they can focus on him rather than what they’re actually there for. The kids in rehab don’t even realize they’re still doing their therapy work by walking and petting him.

Written for Franklin Lifestyle magazine in Franklin, Tennessee.

Talking to kids about drugs


by Susan Baldani

In order to reduce the likelihood of drug abuse, start talking to your kids about the dangers of drugs while they’re young. Waiting until the teenage years may be too late.

“I have been talking to my children about drugs since they were four and five years old,” said Christine Scally, a social worker and mother of two teenage boys, ages 17 and 18, from New Jersey. “We’ve always been very matter-of-fact about it. Because of what I do for a living, the kids know that I have firsthand knowledge of what can go wrong when someone makes a bad choice. We kept it simple initially and focused on how drugs are bad for your body and can cause you to put yourself in harm’s way.”

With young children, start with conversations about how good it feels when we take care of our bodies by doing things like eating right and getting a good night’s sleep. Discuss how this allows them to play and have fun because they are healthy.

As they get a little older, expand the discussion and talk about things that can make them sick, such as poisons and other harmful substances. This can then lead into a discussion about drugs and how they can affect our bodies in a bad way. Keep things simple at first.

“Let them know, for instance, that being high on alcohol or drugs makes it harder to play ball, finish a puzzle, or do other things they enjoy,” said Laura Broadwell, a health writer for Parents and other magazines.

One of the hot topics right now is marijuana. Kids may be hearing multiple points of view on whether it should be legalized or not, but parents need to stress that just because it’s legal for some adults in some states, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for children to use.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2018, “About ten percent of eighth graders, twenty-six percent of tenth graders, and thirty-seven percent of twelfth graders reported using marijuana in the last year. At the same time, teens are developing more positive attitudes about using marijuana, with seventy-one percent of high school seniors saying they do not view regular marijuana smoking as very harmful.”

When speaking about the dangers of drugs, stick with the facts and focus on the present. Children and teens are more interested in how things will affect them today, not years from now. Explain the dangers of marijuana and other drugs, such as learning, attention, and memory problems, poor coordination and motor skills, loss of motivation, sleep issues, and poor judgment. All of these can lead to problems in school, as well as in their personal lives.

“As they got older, I got much more specific about the ripple effects of doing drugs and, for example, getting pulled over by the police, being in a car with somebody who has drugs on them, allowing somebody in your car with drugs on them, driving under the influence and hurting somebody else, and how that could impact your life,” said Scally.

Make sure you know what the different drugs are and their effects, as well as other names they may go by. A great resource is the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens (, which gives street names of various drugs and comprehensive information on each one.

Teens often use drugs not only to fit in with their peers, but to also to ward off feelings of boredom, anxiety, and depression. Let them know there are alternatives for handling these issues. If they are bored, get them involved in a sport they like or another hobby that will occupy their time. For anxiety and depression, have them speak with a professional who can teach them how to cope with their feelings in a healthier, more positive way.

Be clear on your stand against drug use, and keep in mind that children learn from watching, not just listening. According to the NIDA, “Parents, grandparents, and older siblings are models that children follow, and research suggests that family members’ use of alcohol and drugs plays a strong role in whether a young person starts using drugs.”

Also, help your child learn how to say no to drugs. “Kids who don’t know how to respond when offered alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs, or who don’t know how to get out of sticky situations, are more likely to give in to peer pressure. Act out some real-life situations with your child and brainstorm solutions for what she can say,” said Broadwell.

Of course, children need to know that some people take medications for their health, so help them understand the difference between legal and illegal drugs. Explain that certain drugs, such as Ritalin and Xanax, are legal when prescribed by a doctor for a medical reason. While these are some of the same drugs sold on the street, when taken responsibly under a doctor’s supervision, they help people cope with medical conditions.

“Make sure your child knows your rules about drug use and the consequences if they’re broken. Kids this age can understand the reason for rules and appreciate having limits in place (whether or not they’ll admit it!). What’s more, research shows that children are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking them,” said Broadwell.

Make your children feel comfortable and respected during these conversations. They will then be more likely to come to you when faced with difficult situations.

Written for Roanoke Valley Family Magazine in Virginia.


The Peachtree


Keeping America (and beyond) running for 50 years

By Susan Baldani

The AJC Peachtree Road Race is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. This annual 10-kilometer run is held on the 4th of July in the heart of Atlanta and is always a big draw for runners worldwide.

“With it being our 50th year, we saw a record interest,” says Jay Holder, Director of Marketing and Communications of the Atlanta Track Club. The club, which opened in 1964, has organized the race since day one.

Limited to 60,000 participants, the Peachtree Road Race has participants from all walks of life and abilities. According to Donna Nail, a 56-year-old wife and mother, “It doesn’t matter if you run fast, slow, walk, run, or crawl, it’s all about the t-shirt and the satisfaction of finishing the largest 10K in the world. I encourage others to run/walk the race so they can understand that we come in all shapes and sizes, but we can all make it to the finish with some training, a good pair of shoes and some encouragement!”

Speaking of a good pair of shoes, Mike Cosentino, owner of Big Peach Running Company who has run over 12 Peachtree races himself, explains why people should get expert advice when it comes to finding the right shoe.

“Different running shoes are designed for different foot types. It depends on your arch profile, how broad your feet are, where you apply pressure, and the different length of stride.” He and his employees, most of whom are runners, assist their customers with finding the right shoe for their particular objectives.

“You’re not going to get that kind of advice or tailored fit by shopping online or just walking into a general sporting goods store,” says Mike.

Hunter Vaughan, the manager of New Balance at Toco Hills, couldn’t agree more. “There’s really no way to know how a shoe will fit your specific foot when you look at it online. Your feet are the foundation of all of your movements and there’s no time that this is more important than when running longer distances,” says Hunter. “Also, most people have a tendency to wear their shoes too tight.

If shoes are too tight, it can cause major problems. Every shoe model fits differently. That’s why it’s important to come by our store so we can, at a minimum, make sure you are in the correct footwear and have enough room in your shoes. From this, you are better equipped for your run and you’ll be more comfortable at the end of the day.”

The right apparel is also critical. Mike stresses that everything from your socks to your shirts have to be tailored towards the conditions. For example, you’ll want to wear moisture wicking apparel to keep you dry and cool. Also, look for items that have UV protection to protect you from the sun’s rays.

Besides the runners, close to 200,00 spectators will be watching and cheering from the sidelines. This year, there will also be entertainment. At each mile, there will be DJ’s and bands playing music from each decade. Mile 1 will have tunes from the 70s, mile 2 will showcase the 80s, mile 3 the 90s and so on.

Many of the runners come back year after year. Although you have to be at least 10 years old to take part, there is no upper age limit. According to Jay, the oldest participants right now are a 94-year-old man and a 94-year-old woman who run the race year after year.

Randy Stroud, 64, from Acworth, Ga., is running his 47th consecutive race. “I started running back in 1968, so I’ve always been a runner. I train year-round, so Peachtree is a race that I always look forward to and prepare for,” says Randy.

There is also a wheelchair race held beforehand. Since 1984, the Atlanta Running Club has partnered with the Shephard Center in Atlanta, one of the most well-know rehabilitation centers in the world. This is strictly an elite race with professional racers and is one of the most prestigious wheelchair races in the world.

To honor the country’s veterans and military who will be participating, Jay says they are issued a commemorative race number design so people will know who they are. He encourages everyone who sees them to shake their hands and thank them for their service.

Another way they are celebrating their 50th anniversary is by awarding $50,000 to anyone breaking the record in their division. The record, held since 1996 in the men’s division, is 27:04; for women, held since 2002, is 30:32.

For the wheelchair contestants, the men’s record since 2004 is 18:38 and for the women, since 2009, is 22:09. If one of the wheelchair racers breaks the record, it will be the highest payday ever for a wheelchair athlete in any race around the world, says Jay.

Custom-made Frabel glass peaches will be awarded to the top three competitors, a tradition dating back to early 80s. The winner will also receives $10,000.

Ty Ragan, from Brentwood, Ga., has run seven races and will be running again this year. “Initially, I signed up back in 1998 as a celebration for losing weight and getting into a healthier lifestyle. I was about 80 pounds overweight and when I first started running, I couldn’t complete a quarter mile. But by 1998, I was able to run more consistently and felt the iconic AJC Peachtree Road Race was the best way to celebrate achieving my goal,” he says.

When asked how he prepares for it, he explains that he “started running around mid-day to get the heat and humidity in order to make sure I knew what to expect once the hot July 4th weather arrived!”

The course itself closes at 11:30, but the fun doesn’t end there. There is a party at Piedmont Park where every finisher will receive a Peachtree Road Race t-shirt.

There are also events leading up to the race. For the last 30 years, the Anthem Peachtree Junior, held now on July 3rd, has given kids a chance to cross the iconic finish line. There’s a one mile and a dash which are open to those aged 14 and under. In addition, the Peachtree Health and Fitness Expo takes place on July 2nd and 3rd.

The Atlanta Track Club is a not-for-profit based in Atlanta and their mission is creating a healthier, more active Atlanta through running and walking.

“We are committed to making running and walking an accessible sport for people of all ages and abilities, not just through the more than 30 events programs we put on every year, but also by community engagement and being a running and walking resource for schools, groups and communities across the area,” says Jay.

The registration for the race runs from March 15th to March 31st each year and goes through a lottery, which is a random draw. However, members of the track club are guaranteed entry to the race.

To learn more about the history, people and traditions of the race, go online at and sign up to receive their emails. Hosted by the Atlanta Track Club, they’re posting 50 stories in 50 week.

Written for Midtown Lifestyle magazine in Atlanta, Georgia

The inspiration behind Penley


Honoring our country one painting at a time

By Susan Baldani

You would expect to find paint splatters and drips in an artist’s studio, but walking into Steve Penley’s studio in Atlanta is like walking right into an abstract painting. This is what he actually set out to do upon moving into the new space last August. Nothing is spared a whimsical coating of paint – furniture, instruments, floors, walls, ceilings, and of course, the artist himself. He is literally immersed in his passion.

Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1964, Penley knew he was meant to be an artist from a young age and took art classes while growing up in Athens and then Macon, Ga. Thanks to his middle school industrial arts teacher David Cornelius, he was even able to build his own canvases. Asked if he still does, he responds “I do until the people that work for me make me stop. I love building stuff.”

Later, he studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and at the University of Georgia. After graduation, he took some odd jobs while continuing to paint, but it wasn’t until Robert Steed, an attorney and art enthusiast, saw his work that his career finally took off.

In talking about Steed, Penley’s quirky and fun sense of humor comes through.

“Robert L. Steed was the first person other than my parents to pick me up out of the gutter, hose me down and give me a check. He was a partner at King & Spalding, which also played a pivotal role in the direction of my career and had it not been for those two factors, I would probably be a piano delivery guy in Macon, Ga. or a convict in hopefully a minimum-security white-collar prison,” says Penley. (His father was a piano salesman.)

The bold strokes and vivid colors of his historical icon paintings are instantly recognizable as Penley’s, and his works are exhibited around the world. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the U.S. flag are some of his best-selling subjects, with the Statue of Liberty being number one. The flag painting shown on this magazine cover is quintessential Penley.

When asked how he developed his style, he tells a story about a friend who asked him to cover the walls of his new restaurant with paintings and gave him less than four days to do so. Not having any idea what to paint, he fell back on his second favorite subject – history.

“At that time, my fascination with history, especially WWII and the events surrounding it, was what led me down the road towards painting historical icons. I defined that inspiration more over the years and it has become more about celebrating this country and trying to convince others that this is the greatest nation on earth and what made it that,” says Penley.

This is why his favorite painting is Washington Crossing the Delaware, which hangs in the U.S. Capitol. “I love the original painting that I ripped the subject off from. And, I like large scale paintings. I also like the heroic theme of the painting which reflects my feelings about our founders and this country,” says Penley.

Known the world over, this self-deprecating artist keeps things down to earth.

“I think my popularity stems from the fact, much more than talent, that I share a common bond with my customers in my interest in historical figures. I choose my subjects by how interesting or how non-interesting the subject’s face is and their overall influence in American culture to the point that most anyone would be able to at least recognize and relate to that icon in some way,” says Penley.

Bursting with ideas, Penley believes there is no way he’ll ever be able to get them all down on canvas. He says he has painted practically anything and everything – portraits of kids and pets, including someone’s bird.

Throughout his career, he has developed products for Fox News, Coca-Cola and several U.S. presidents. He has also penned multiple books and has done illustrations for others including those authored by Coach Vince Dooley from the University of Georgia, his alma mater. In fact, in Atlanta, he is also well known for his paintings of the coaches, players, and places of the university.

“I love Atlanta people. It’s my crowd,” says Penley.

He donates scores of paintings to various charities and organizations in and out of Atlanta, and feels it’s a particular honor to support those that assist active members of the military and veterans.

His other joys in life are his talented children – Lyall, Abbey and Parker. “I don’t know where they derive this talent because they really never ask me tips about art. I think they just grew up knowing it was something you do when you are a Penley.”

To see more of Steve Penley’s work, go to

Written for Midtown Lifestyle magazine in Atlanta, Georgia

Photo by: Sikira T Photography

A picnic on the beach


By Susan Baldani

What’s better than sitting on a blanket on the sand, watching the waves roll in on a hot summer day? Not much, but there is one way to make it even better. Bring along some food and drinks to put out on that blanket, and have a picnic.

One of my favorite memories of the beach when I was a little girl, besides splashing in the water and making sand castles, was eating cold fried chicken, sandwiches and other tasty fare. Now that I’m a grown up, I still love those same foods, but these days I add in some other things that my family likes and are healthy for us as well.

Dried and fresh fruits, such as raisins, blueberries, cranberries and apples are great choices, and cheese sticks, sandwich wraps (which help keep fillings contained), raw veggies and hummus are delicious and nutritious. Pack your cooler with foods like these that are easy to eat and travel well, and to keep things simple, try to leave out those that need utensils.

Make sure you also include some yummy snacks. There something about salt air and water that heightens the appetite all day long. Plus, swimming and playing expend a lot of calories, especially for children who are constantly on the move.

Cookies, chips and nuts are quick and simple options, and of course, the kids will love those Goldfish crackers. What could be more appropriate than snacks shaped like fish? Also, be sure to pack some wet hand wipes and napkins for those sticky hands and faces, plus a plastic bag to put your trash in.

So, next time you head to the beach, plan to skip the boardwalk pizza and overly sweet drinks. Bring your own food and beverages, like the strawberry lemonade below, which will be fresh and satisfying, and also save you some money.

Strawberry Lemonade

2 cups fresh strawberries
1 cup fresh lemon juice (squeezed from fresh lemons)
1 cup sugar
5 cups water

In a blender, add strawberries, lemon juice and sugar and blend well. Serve cold.

Written for The Country Register in the U.S. and Canada.