Looking to add a pet to your family?


Our boy Boo

Give a black dog or cat a chance at a loving home

by Sue Baldani

Shelter workers and rescue groups often report that black dogs and cats wait longer to be adopted than their fair-haired counterparts. For dogs, this phenomenon is often called black dog syndrome.

Unfortunately, black dogs are often portrayed in the media as being aggressive, which can lead to misconceptions in real life. And many dogs that people are wary of, such as Doberman Pinschers and Rottweilers, are black.

Another reason may be that people are concerned about black fur on their furniture and rugs. Although black dogs and cats don’t necessarily shed more than others, their dark fur is often more visible. An additional negative factor when it comes to black dogs is that they may look older than their peers, since the gray or white hairs on their muzzles stand out more.

Black cats have the additional misfortune of being thought of as harbingers of bad luck and are linked to witchcraft and other superstitions. Think about all the black cat decorations on display around Halloween. They always look menacing with their arched backs and hissing faces.

But does color bias really exist? It depends on who you ask.

“New pieces of research have found that there is no indication that they are less likely to be adopted,” ASPCA vice president of shelter research Dr. Emily Weiss told TODAY.com. “We just conducted a piece of research looking at various traits that drive people to adopt, and color did not play a role at all.” They also found that black animals did not remain at shelters longer.

However, a study presented at the 2013 International Society for Anthrozoology conference found that coat color does influence people’s perceptions. Participants were shown pictures of cats and dogs of varying colors, and the researchers discovered that white cats were considered the friendliest, orange cats the second friendliest, and black cats the least friendly. Among dogs, yellow dogs were considered friendliest, brown dogs the second friendliest, and black dogs the least friendly. Darker pets were similarly judged less adoptable, and black dogs were considered the most aggressive.

Furthermore, in a survey by Petfinder, their member shelter and rescue groups reported that most pets are listed for 12.5 weeks on Petfinder, whereas less-adoptable pets (such as black, senior, and special-needs pets) spend almost four times as long on the site.

And many animal welfare workers still insist that color bias is real. So what is really going on?

The perception of lower adoption rates could be because black dogs are more prevalent. Also, the poor lighting and dark colors of some shelters may make black dogs harder to see and easier for people to overlook.

“When the public is in a shelter ready to adopt, and they walk down the aisle to start choosing, looks come first, not behavior,” said Rachel Bulman, public relations director for the SPCA of Lakeland, FL. “The shelter environment is our worst enemy because adopters cannot see interaction first, only color and size.”

Sherri Skidmore runs an organization called the Black Dog Rescue Project, which works to bring awareness to black dog syndrome and improve adoption rates for these dogs. She believes there are several reasons behind the phenomenon.

“Black dogs are harder to photograph than lighter or multicolored dogs, and many potential adopters are now searching websites that post pictures of adoptable dogs in their area,” Sherri explained.

So, what can be done to help these animals find homes?

Promoting black pets is one way. February is Black Dog and Black Cat Syndrome Awareness month, and many shelters and rescues use this occasion to highlight black animals and offer discounted adoption fees.

To make them more noticeable on websites, pictures of black animals should be taken in well-lit areas against lighter backgrounds. Putting colorful bandannas around their necks can also help them stand out.

Shelter employees and rescue volunteers should also tout the great personalities of their black dogs and cats to help people looking to adopt get beyond outside appearances and possible fallacies. If people can see them as individuals and not just as “black dogs” or “black cats,” they can then more easily picture them as part of their own families.

There are also tons of blogs promoting black animals, and if people have one, they can talk them up to their family and friends. Black dogs and cats need all the positive press they can get.

If people need more incentives to adopt a black animal, here are some fun reasons:

  • Black dogs and cats have beautiful, sleek coats.
  • If you prefer dark clothing and furniture, you don’t have to worry about the fur showing. It will blend right in.
  • Some of the best family dogs are black, such as Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundlands, and Cocker Spaniels. Even if they’re not full-bred, black dogs may have some of these breeds in them.
  • Black cats often have amazing green eyes that are bright and intelligent.
  • The intimidation factor of a black dog can come in handy when you hear a noise in the middle of the night or you come upon a stranger when out walking your dog.
  • They also look cleaner longer, since that dirt from running around in the yard won’t show as easily.
  • Black dogs and cats are also easy to name—Midnight, Blackie, and Coal, for example.
  • And, like all pets, they will love us unconditionally!

Whatever the facts, black dogs and cats need homes just like other animals and can make wonderful, loving pets. Find a furry friend that has the personality you’re looking for, one that fits your lifestyle and home, and it will be the right one for you, regardless of color.

Written for Paws and Claws magazine in Virginia.

Giving back to the community


Meet a member of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad

By Sue Baldani

Rebecca (Becky) Lugara initially got involved with the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad through the squad auxiliary. The auxiliary was started 11 years ago by Jennifer Speth, the eldest daughter of long-time squad members Deborah and Robert Speth. It has been instrumental in supporting the rescue squad through fundraising and by taking part in community events.

Becky was 50 when she joined. Her then 16-year-old son Dave was already a volunteer on the squad and was studying to be an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).

“I’d grown up in Scotch Plains and had an allegiance to the town (although I now live in Cranford),” said Becky. “I also wanted to support my son.”

When she began attending squad auxiliary events and met people on the squad (some of whom she’d known since childhood, such as President Daniel Sullivan and Chief Carolyn Sorge), she found them very welcoming.

“I saw the selfless work that they did, and I realized that this would be the perfect time for me to seek out my high school ‘dream’ [of joining the squad.]” Plus, my son was coaching me on, saying ‘Mom, you can do it and we need EMTs!’”

In 2017, at the age of 51, Becky officially passed the state exam and became a certified EMT.

She said there are many things she likes about riding on the ambulance. Her favorite is having the opportunity to help someone in need, at a very vulnerable time, and to also provide moral and emotional support for family members. She also enjoys working together as a team and serving the community as a volunteer.

There have been several calls that stand out in her mind, but the one she remembers most was when she responded to a call in which a woman had fallen down some stairs.

“She was in immense pain, and understandably very upset. But, in addition to that, one of her daughters was very emotionally distraught about her mom’s accident. We worked as a team to as carefully and as painlessly as possible transport the patient to the hospital. While working to get our patient safely to the ambulance, I temporarily took on the role of comforting her daughter the best that I could. On the way to the hospital, the patient was in less pain, but scared and concerned. I told her she could hold my hand if she wanted to, so she did. We began talking about her family and the length of time she lived in Scotch Plains. She also asked if I would say a prayer with her. While the transportation and the first aid were just as crucial, it felt like an imperative part of her treatment to tend to her emotional needs….in other words, to provide the ‘human touch.’”

Besides her volunteer work, Becky is a certified elementary school teacher, working as an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) paraprofessional for students with autism and related disorders. She’s also a member of the St. Theresa’s Church choir and Little Flower Organization, and the Westfield Instructional Support Services Association. In addition, she teaches beginner piano lessons on a very part-time basis.

“I think someone should volunteer with our squad (and/or Auxiliary) because it’s an immensely rewarding experience,” said Becky. “Not only do you make great friends, but the squad (especially the officers), support and mentor their EMTs. I volunteer on Wednesday evenings and I’ve learned so much from ‘veteran EMTs’, especially Crew Chief Joan Lozowski, who have ridden on the squad for decades. It’s a perfect way to serve the community, be part of a great organization, grow professionally and emotionally, and help your fellow human beings.”

Today, in addition to being an active member of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad, she is also the president of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary, having assumed this role in November of 2018.

To find out how you can become a member, please go to our website at http://www.scotchplainsrescuesquad.com, email us at scotchplainsrescuesquad@gmail.com, or call 908-322-2103.

Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Pancake Breakfast – February 23, 2020



The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad will hold its annual Pancake Breakfast on Sunday, February 23rd, 2020 from 8:00 to 12:00 at its building located at 1916 Bartle Avenue.  This event is hosted by the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary, which raises funds for the all-volunteer squad.


All-you-can-eat pancakes, coffee and sausages are offered for just a $5.00 per person entry fee, (children 5 and under eat free.)  There is also a raffle for baskets, which are filled with gifts and goodies donated by the community and area businesses.  This is the 10th year this event is being held, and it’s clear by the number of people who attend that it’s something the community looks forward to every year.


So, come out with your family and friends and enjoy a hearty, delicious breakfast along with good conversation.  It’s a nice way to spend a Sunday morning. And for those with mobility issues, downstairs dining will be available.


The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad relies on ongoing community support. These contributions enable the Squad to fulfill their motto, Neighbors Helping Neighbors – We Work For Pride Not Pay. The squad looks forward to continuing to faithfully serve those who call for help. 


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


Mastering a Life Skill


Creativity and Fun Combine to Enhance a Child’s Love of Math

By Susan Baldani

Mathnasium, with over 1000 locations in the U.S. and more worldwide, has been helping children learn for over 40 years. Its creation was inspired by math teacher Larry Martinek, whose goal was to find a better way to educate children in the art of mathematics

His method relied on replacing repetition and rote memorization found in most curriculums with tools children could use to better understand the concept of numbers. His innovative ideas were so impressive that the Los Angeles school system replaced their own textbooks with his materials, which led to a sharp increase in test scores.

In 2002, Peter Markovitz and David Ullendorff, education industry leaders, took Martinek’s teaching methods and incorporated them into the Mathnasium Method™. The first Mathnasium center opened in California shortly after.

Years later, Sam Younis, who wanted to transition from being an actor and writer to owning his own business, opened his first Mathnasium center in Los Angeles in 2012. He and his family then moved from Los Angeles to Decatur, GA, in 2014 to be close to his wife’s family and raise their two children there.  Soon after, he opened a Mathnasium center in his new home town, and then another in Dunwoody. This past November, he opened a center in Morningside.

His creative side loves how the method allows kids to apply creativity to the understanding of math. He enjoys seeing children become confident in math, and because of the fun way in which they learn, their eagerness to return to the center.

“We’re trying to provide an environment that’s engaging for them, a place where they will want to come back to. Maybe they didn’t like math before, and suddenly they’re asking their parents to come back. That kind of why it’s caught fire. It surpasses what parents expect out of the experience. Not only are the grades going in the right direction, but their feelings about math start to change,” said Younis.

Children are first assessed, and based on that assessment, are placed into small groups of two or three. These groups are not confined to cubicles, like they are in some other centers. Materials are chosen according to the child’s style of learning, whether visual or tactile. Basic skills, such as addition and multiplication, to higher math levels such as algebra and precalculus, are taught, so children from kindergarten to high school can benefit from the method.

Younis mentioned how some children, because math is so difficult for them, tend to categorize themselves as “bad in math” even at a young age. The goal of Mathnasium, he said, is to interrupt this thought process and give them the confidence that they can master it, whether it’s simple arithmetic, word problems or higher-level math.

Mathnasium derives a customized learning plan according to each student’s needs, whether they are struggling with math or have a great aptitude with numbers. Younis stressed that each center goes way beyond just tutorial and instead focuses on helping children develop an understanding and a love for math.

“A lot of it is about going deeper into the material, and having a deeper understanding of math; not just being able to regurgitate facts, and not just being about to follow five steps without knowing what it means,” said Younis.

Many of their instructors are college students from Georgia Tech and other schools as well as college graduates who live in the area.

“I think we are more affordable than individual tutors,” said Younis.

Since he knew many parents in the Morningside area were interested in having their children enroll, but didn’t want to have to make the trip into Decatur, Younis decided to open a center there. He also knew with all the development happening a lot more children who may need their services would be moving in.

Parents can enroll their children for up for a month, six months, or even a year. Each class is one hour, and for the best progress and value, Younis recommends children take classes two to three times per week.

“It’s meant to develop the students over time; it’s not a short-term solution,” he said.

To find out more about Mathnasium or to enroll your children in the center, go to https://www.mathnasium.com/morningside.

Written for Midtown Lifestyle Magazine in Atlanta.






Embark on a Wellness Retreat  


A unique event to enhance your body and mind

By Susan Baldani

Started by Michelle Klemm in 2017, MK Luxury Travel offers clients the best excursions to destinations all over the world. A Brentwood based company, the nine women who encompass the group have years of combined knowledge and experience in the travel industry.

“When our clients finally get the time to travel, they want to know what they’re getting,” said Emily Fengler, one of the travel advisors. “We also take the time to travel so we can see and experience what our clients will experience to make sure it’s the best.”

Recently, MK Luxury Travel has been collaborating with Grand Velas resorts for their Wellnessing event on May 1st through May 3rd in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico. Special activities such as yoga, wellness workshops, and meditation will be offered, along with appearances by well-known health coaches, yogis and bloggers. Guests will get to try raw food and learn about healthy eating. Of course, everything else that the Grand Velas has to offer, such as massages, fitness classes, and water sports, will also be available.

“This event provides our clients a chance to visit a beautiful location and unwind, reconnect with a loved one, make this their girls’ trip and/or learn something new through one of the workshops. Each person can pick and choose which activities they want to do. The concierge will help you pick them,” said Emily.

Emily definitely recommends the Seven Step Water Ceremony. It’s a step-by-step experience that prepares one’s body, from head to toe, for a spa treatment. Rushes of warm water pinpoint different parts of the body to relax the muscles. Each rush is about 30 seconds to a minute long.

The all-inclusive Grand Velas resort offers very large rooms, even with the entry level package. They’re very modern and all the furnishings are up to date. There are rooms available for couples as well as whole families, and they also offer suites and connecting rooms. There is even a wellness room which comes with a special concierge who will take guests through a customized experience during their whole stay.

There are multiple restaurants, pool side food, and in-room dining available, and all the food and drinks are of the highest quality. Rooms are restocked everyday with snacks and drinks and since it’s all inclusive, everything is already included in the package.

If interested in booking this event, please reach out to MK Luxury Travel soon since time is running out. Also, make sure your passport will be valid for six months after your planned arrival back to the U.S. or you may be denied travel.

To find out more about this event and/or other destinations, go to their website at www.mkluxurytravel.com or check out their Facebook page.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle Magazine in Tennessee.

Ten Habits of Healthy Families


Give your loved ones the gift of togetherness

by Susan Baldani

Between school, work, sports and technology, it’s sometimes hard for families to connect and spend meaningful time together. An important characteristic of healthy families is that they spend time doing enjoyable activities with each other.

“Healthy families tend to select activities that promote the family as being important and help the family to grow closer,” said Richard L. Sale, Ph.D., in the article “Characteristics of Healthy Families.”

There are ways to ensure that this quality time happens regularly by fitting it into the family schedule, the same way you fit in a dentist’s appointment or a baseball game. After a while, many of these activities will become habitual.

“Try planning family ‘dates.’ Enter an official family date on the calendar where everyone can see it. The date can be anything from going to see a movie together to spending an afternoon at the park,” said Karen Kleinschmidt, who has worked with children with ADHD, sensory issues, and behavioral problems.

Here are some positive habits every family can incorporate into their routine:

Play together.

Get down on the floor and play with your child. Or, run around the house playing hide and seek. It doesn’t matter what game you play; your child will be happy to be doing one of his favorite pastimes with you.

“A child just wants to interact with the parent more. That’s the whole point. Playing with other children may be fun, but nothing beats the joy
and satisfaction of getting one’s parent to play with you.”

~ Darcia F. Narvaez, Ph.D., professor of psychology
at the University of Notre Dame.

Eat together.

Whether it’s home-cooked food or takeout, sitting down to eat as a family creates an opportunity to find out about each other’s day. For children, it’s a chance to rejoice in their successes, ask for help with their failures, and share their worries. For parents, it’s a chance to be a part of their children’s everyday lives and to talk about their own experiences.

“When families come together to eat, they create an emotional harmony
that I think is pretty sacred for long-term health.”

~ Dr. Mehmet Oz

Volunteer together.

Giving of your time as a family creates a sense of accomplishment and pride in helping those less fortunate. Have each family member choose a cause meaningful to him or her, and support that person by getting involved. Once everyone sees the differences they’re making, volunteering will hopefully become a family tradition.

“Whether repairing a wall, cleaning up a trail, or staffing a food booth
(or a Girl Scout cookie table), there is something very satisfying about working together. The banter, laughter, and problem-solving that go on strengthen and deepen family relationships.”

~ Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D., psychologist and marriage and family counselor.

Laugh together.

Yes, sometimes laughter is the best medicine. Whether it’s watching a funny movie, telling corny jokes, or acting silly, having a good chuckle is something a family can enjoy together.

“In the long term, regular bouts of laughter can lessen anxiety and depression,
in addition to inducing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.”

~ Maryn Liles, editor, Parents magazine.

Exercise together.

Choose something that the whole family can do. It can be as simple as taking a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood or gearing up for a hike in your favorite national park. Leave all electronics in the car and soak up the peace and beauty of nature.

“Today’s parents often bring work home, text on their phones, and complete other activities instead of truly being with their children. Turn off the gadgets, have them do the same, and truly spend time together. Your family’s health depends on it.”

~ Maureen L. Daniels, M.Ed., Director of Wellness at Work
at Berkshire Health Systems.

Cry together.

Sadness and grief are a part of life, but when shared with others, it can help lessen the pain. It also reinforces that it’s okay to show emotion, and not everything always turns out the way we hope.

“Children are resilient, but they have feelings too. Adults can help children identify and process what they feel. Validate that what they are experiencing
is real. Let them know they are not alone.”

~ Dr. Christina Hibbert, clinical psychologist.

Pray together.

If your family is religious and/or finds comfort in prayer, why not make time to do it as a family? Prayers can be said out loud and shared, or said in silence.

“Be sure to teach the families to pray all together — father, mother, and children. For the family that prays together stays together, and if they stay together they will love one another as Jesus loves each one of them . . .”

~ Mother Teresa

Read together.

Whether it’s a bedtime story, the Bible, or a chapter book such as Harry Potter, reading out loud allows children and adults to visualize the actions taking place. It also strengthens a child’s aptitude in literacy and helps build a love of books.

 “Through reading, we learn empathy, compassion, respect, and understanding. How lucky we are as parents to be able to give our children those skills
by doing something as simple and enjoyable as reading.”

~ Corinne Canning, editorial and marketing specialist at National PTA.

Be affectionate together.

There’s something about touch that relays love and caring. Sometimes when words are not enough, a warm embrace can make the world a nicer place.

“Make sure your loving arms are always open.
They will become a powerful, life-changing security blanket.”

~ Sue Atkins, parenting expert.

Learn a new skill together.

Whether it’s yoga, painting, or a foreign language, show your children that it can be fun to learn something new. Pick something that works with everyone’s schedule and make a point to attend every class until the skill is mastered. Children will not only learn a new skill, but also recognize how dedication to a task equals success.

“Tell me and I forget.
Teach me and I remember.
Involve me and I learn.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Written for Roanoke Valley Family Magazine in Virginia.

Groundhog Day – How much longer will winter last?


By Sue Baldani

As we move into February, most people are beginning to get tired of the cold and the snow. We need a sign that warm weather is on the horizon, and with it a chance to stash our winter coats, gloves and boots back into the closet.

Maybe that’s why Groundhog Day, celebrated on February 2, is such an anticipated event each year. Everyone is watching to see if a large and furry rodent will give them hope of milder days soon to come. Of course, that same animal can also quash those same hopes in a matter of minutes.

Now, I’m sure most people don’t believe that a groundhog can really predict the weather. But, it’s a fun tradition that is looked forward to in the colder parts of the country every year.

The most famous groundhog, of course, is Punxsutawney Phil, and Punxsutawney, PA, puts on quite a show every year. Since 1887, when Groundhog Day originally started, Phil has been considered the most accurate when it comes to predicting how much longer winter will last.  Of course, since groundhogs (also known as woodchucks and whistle-pigs) usually live less than 10 years, there have been many Phils since its inception. And he’s not the only groundhog known for predicting the weather. Others include Buckeye Chuck in Ohio, Staten Island Chuck in New York, Chattanooga Chuck in Tennessee, and General Beauregard in Georgia.

Legend has it that if a groundhog sees his shadow, which Punxsutawney Phil does quite often, winter will last another six weeks. If he doesn’t, then spring weather will soon be moving in. Of course, seeing his shadow depends on whether it’s a sunny day or a cloudy day.

The credit for the celebration of Groundhog Day goes to German immigrants, who were Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers. They had a tradition called Candlemas, which is the day midpoint between winter and spring. Although hedgehogs and badgers were used in Germany to predict weather, in America, groundhogs were chosen since they were easier to find, and considered not only smart, but sensible as well, and the perfect animal to carry on the tradition.

A poem about the tradition of Candlemas Day reads,

“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.”

People are so enamored of Groundhog Day that a movie was made with the same title in 1993. Poor Bill Murray, as weatherman Phil, kept experiencing the same day over and over again. Talk about a long winter!

So this year, if Punxsutawney Phil or one of the other famous groundhogs do indeed see their shadow, keep the long johns and winter socks close at hand. And make a hearty pot of soup. Enjoying hot soup is one of the delicious perks of a longer winter.

Groundhog Day Loaded Potato Soup


1 medium onion diced

4 tablespoons flour

8 cups chicken broth or stock

10 Yukon gold potatoes peeled and cut into 1″ cubes

2 cups half and half

2 cups sharp cheddar cheese shredded

6 slices of cooked bacon cut or broken up into small pieces

salt to taste

ground black pepper to taste

shredded cheese, sour cream, green onion for garnish, optional


After cooking and removing bacon, add diced onion to the same pot and sauté until soft and clear. Sprinkle flour over the onions and stir well until combined. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 3 minutes.

Slowly add chicken broth, whisking constantly while bringing to a boil.

Add diced potatoes and reduce heat. Simmer for 10-12 minutes or until potatoes are tender, stirring often.

Add half and half and stir until well combined.

Put half of the soup in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Be careful because it will be very hot.

Add this mixture back to the pot and mix in shredded cheese and cooked bacon. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Garnish with additional shredded cheese, sour cream, and/or chopped green onion.

Written for The Country Register, published throughout the U.S. and Canada.