Going to the Birds

By Sue Baldani

To bring some beauty into your life, why not hang a bird feeder nearby? Depending on where you live, you’ll have birds of every type and color flitting around your window or yard. The feeder doesn’t have to be fancy or large, or even store bought. Building one from scratch is easy and fun and something you can do on your own or with your kids.

There are many do-it-yourself instructions available online, from the very simple to the truly elaborate. For example, you can just cut some small holes into a plastic soda bottle, slide a long wooden spoon handle through the holes from one side to the other, fill with bird seed and hang. On one end, the birds will have a perch to eat the seed from the hole, and on the other side they can rest on the spoon handle and eat the seed that has spilled out onto it. This and other versions, such as one made from an old saucer and cup and even a Lego feeder (which kids would definitely love to build) can be found at https://blog.manomano.co.uk/10-simple-ways-make-diy-bird-feeder/.

For those living in colder climates, bird feeders can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. It’s difficult for many birds to find adequate food supplies when the trees are bare and the ground is frozen. During the worst of winter, you can also put out suet, which with its high-fat content and nutritional ingredients can help fill and sustain our feathered friends for a longer period of time. You can buy suet relatively cheap, or once again, you can make your own. A great recipe can be found at https://www.audubon.org/news/make-your-own-suet.

If you live in an area that stays warm year round, the local birds will also appreciate the ease of finding sustenance. Maybe include a small container of water or a bird bath close by as well to keep them hydrated and clean.

Nature can always use some human help when it comes to feeding its wildlife. Bird feeders are a way to help one species while at the same time giving us the pleasure of watching these beauties right in our own backyards.

Written for The Country Register newspapers published around the country.

Splurge on the Best

Treat yourself and others this holiday season (and all year round)

By Sue Baldani

Splurge Bakery in Millburn is gearing up for the holidays, creating unique and delicious items for you and your family to enjoy. Whether you’re looking to celebrate with lavishly decorated cakes, amazing pies, and/or beautifully decorated cookies, they have it all. And, it’s all “home-made.”

“We do a lot of custom orders, so when people come in, we can make their dessert dreams come true,” says owner Julie Winer. “We bake with the highest level of ingredients and everything is made from scratch. We don’t use mixes.”

Husband Stephen and daughter Raquel also help out in the bakery whenever possible, so it’s a real family business. When pie season gets underway, Stephen actually travels to local farms to bring back the best apples and other produce to use in their pies, saving customers from making the trip themselves.

“Our pies always get great reviews,” says Julie. “We have apple pies with cinnamon-sugar crumb toppings, pecan pies, key lime, pumpkin, coconut cream, and banana cream pies in Nilla wafer crusts.”

All of the pies are sold in glass Pyrex® dishes, so when you put it on your table, it looks like you made it at home. During COVID, Splurge Bakery also started working with schools and nonprofit organizations on fundraising, and created a special fundraising apple pie. “It’s a little smaller and in a traditional tin,” she says. “We offer it at a very good price so they can mark it up and sell it for a reasonable amount to raise money for things they need.”

Cookies are also a huge seller year round, and you’ll find Halloween and holiday cookies for Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and Christmas. Their amazing cakes will include Star of David and Christmas tree cakes along with holiday-themed cake pops.

They’ve also created something truly unique with Cake Buddies. About the size of a softball, they come in vanilla and chocolate, and are filled with candy. There are witches for Halloween, turkeys for Thanksgiving and many other fun-themed Buddies.

For the holidays, Julie recommends ordering at least two weeks in advance, if possible, to make sure you get what you want when you want it. Orders can also be placed online at https://www.splurgebakery.com/ for pickup, or they can be delivered or shipped.

In addition to ready-to-buy bakery items, Splurge also offers kids’ classes and parties in its beautiful backyard space, as well as inside. They usually hold Halloween parties, gingerbread house decorating classes, and cookie and cupcake decorating classes. There are also do-it-yourself kits to take home.  

“We care about our customers and have a lot of repeat customers,” says Julie. “We‘re like a family here.”

So, during the holidays, and all year round, join Splurge Bakery’s family of customers. You won’t be disappointed!

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

Women Veterans Interactive

Serving those who have served their country

By Sue Baldani

After serving four years in the U.S. Navy and being medically discharged after an accident in 1992, Ginger Miller had a difficult time transitioning back into civilian life. Joining the military right out of high school left her unskilled for many employment opportunities.  

“I did not transition well,” she says. “My husband, a Marine, who was discharged before me, was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and we ended up being homeless.

“I knew no other woman veterans. I was feeling down and out and ashamed of being homeless after serving my country. Even if I would’ve known where to look for help, I don’t know if I would have been strong enough to ask for it.”

Miller ended up working three jobs, raising two young sons, and going to school whenever she found the time. Eventually earning a B.A. in accounting and an M.A. in nonprofit and association management, her life today is dramatically different. However, she never forgot those struggles and has committed herself to making the transition smoother for other female veterans.

“I initially founded John 14.2 Inc. in 2009, a nonprofit organization that focused on veterans like my husband who suffered from PTSD, not realizing that I also had my own issues as a woman veteran.”

In 2011, when she was the Commissioner and Chair of the Outreach and Education Committee of the Maryland Commission for Women, she decided she wanted to do something to specifically help women veterans and founded Women Veterans Interactive (WVI) under the umbrella of John 14.2. It blew up so large that it eventually became its own nonprofit in 2018.

“Back in March of 2012, I organized a Women Veterans Empowerment and Unification Cruise and over 200 women veterans registered within 30 days. That showed me that I wasn’t the only woman veteran who had struggled or was struggling.”

She knew the Veterans Administration (VA) was having a hard time reaching female veterans, so she reached out to bring them on board so they could talk to these women about the services they had. That started a lasting partnership between WVI and the VA that continues to this day.

One of WVI’s programs, Operation Safety Net, is the heart of what they do, says Miller, providing everything from security deposits and rent to healthy food. It also works to stop evictions and utility disconnects.

Its Workforce Development programs help female veterans find employment. “For every three out of five women veterans that have issues with homelessness, their real issues are unemployment and underemployment.”

The struggles that female veterans have can be much more complex than their male counterparts. “A lot of corporations and foundations have funding and programs that support veterans and military spouses, but women veterans often fall through the cracks. That’s why we’re here.”

As of today, WVI has supported over 5000 women veterans and has members in approximately 25 different states. When Miller was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the B3 Group was in the audience. “Small businesses are some of our biggest supporters, and the B3 Group has made a commitment and has stuck to their commitment. To have an ally like the B3 Group is amazing.”

Another supporter of WVI is actor and producer Tyler Perry, who heard about the organization through the great work it does. Along with a $20,000 donation, he also gave a private tour of his new Tyler Perry Studios to approximately 25 female veterans, which also included Tyler Perry Studios swag bags. The following year, he sent 150 T-shirts for its annual Women Veterans Leadership and Diversity Conference.

To join in the support for this amazing organization, people can make a donation on its website at http://womenveteransinteractive.org/, become a member, or email Miller directly at gm@womenveteransinteractive.org for more information. They can also follow WVI on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“There’s no wrong door at WVI,” says Miller. “I don’t care if you’re homeless, if you’re hungry, or if you’re doing great. We’re here for everybody. For those who don’t need help, they want to give help back to their own communities by starting chapters. This is what makes us so special.”

As the founder and CEO of WVI, she was recently selected to tell her story about being a woman veteran who experienced homelessness for the Obama Presidency Oral History Project, which she calls a once in a lifetime opportunity. Among many other awards, Miller was also presented with the White House Champion of Change Award for Woman Veterans in 2013.

And she isn’t done yet! The Women Veterans Interactive Foundation will launch in July and will build upon the work Miller and her members have already accomplished with WVI. It’s also going to have its own research department and provide annual data on women veterans. To find out more about this new initiative, go to http://womenveteransinteractive.org.

Written for The Business Voice Magazine in Virginia.

A Child’s Sweet Inspiration

Colorful and fun collections of candies and more

By Sue Baldani

Like most kids, 10-year-old Henry MacLane loves candy. Unlike most kids, Henry decided to turn his love of sweets into a business and created the Chocolate Fat Fish Company.

“I started this company three years ago when I had an idea,” he says. “I package our mixed candy in clear little cellophane bags and color code it by separating each bag into different colors.” Depending on the order, it usually takes him about a week to prepare 75 to 100 packages. One order alone was for 144 packages!

There are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, pink and purple packages and each one weighs about two ounces. “They’re great birthday party favors and kids love them,” says Henry.

When Henry first started his business, he planned to package unwrapped candies such as gummy bears, but was told he needed a license to sell unwrapped candies. At that point, most 10 year old kids would’ve probably quit. But not Henry.

“He asked how he could sell in stores and decided to iterate and create a medley of these colorful pre-wrapped candies, package them and rebrand,” says dad Jared MacLane. “And lo and behold, that landed him in stores.

Henry, adds his dad, operates the entire business on his own from developing the website, designing the logo and packaging, to conceptualizing the product and how it should be displayed in stores. He also initiates the meetings with store owners and conducts the sales meetings, etc.”

“Henry is a born leader, and has an incredible amount of drive and perseverance,” adds mom Katherine Petty MacLane. “To say I’m proud is an understatement. He has a gift for business. Even at the onset of Chocolate Fat Fish, he would ask for ingredients for a lemonade stand to accompany his candy, calculate his profit and pay me back immediately because he didn’t want to owe anything.” 

Today, in addition to his website, his colorful packaged candies can be found at Katie’s Hallmark stores in Brentwood and Belle Meade. And candy isn’t the only thing that Chocolate Fat Fish sells. There’s everything from fun T-shirts and towels to tote bags in its online store.  

Go to www.ChocolateFatFish.com to shop and find out more about Henry, his candies, and other cool merchandise.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

Make Your Holiday Merry and Bright

Bring beauty and joy to your home this season

By Sue Baldani

Let’s make this holiday season as festive as ever. A beautiful tablescape is a great place to start.

Nicole Ragolia Gaba, senior general manager at the Short Hills Williams Sonoma store, gives us some great ideas for beautiful settings.

“The holidays are quintessentially what we are known for since we are all about food and setting up your entertaining to be spectacular,” she says. “Even more, we’re really known for our customer service. The level of engagement that comes from our team’s knowledge, whether it’s trying out new products, tasting food items, or going to their homes to decorate, is so far beyond other retailers.”

When you walk into the store, says Nicole, there will always be three or four tablescapes on display so you can visualize some of the arrangements you can create at home. “What we show with all of our holiday tablescapes is a layering effect,” she says.

For example, one table is set with their ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas dinnerware collection and matching napkins. These are then layered with Glitter Burst chargers and accompanied by red Pinecone glassware. Alternatively, this collection can be interspersed with their core French white porcelain dishes and Panto Gold glassware.

“So you can pair the white porcelain with our holiday dinnerware,” says Nicole. “You don’t have to buy the whole holiday line – which is stunning – all at once, but instead purchase parts and add to it every year from our various collections.”

Another wonderful table showcases their silver and white color combination with blue napkins for Hanukkah, which can be changed out for other celebrations too. The New Year’s Eve table shows off more French white porcelain layered above sparkly silver beaded placemats. Sorrento Jacquard napkins with crystal square napkin rings and Fiore cut crystal glassware complete this tablescape.  

It’s also fun to carry the same theme into other areas of your home. A mantle is a great place to add accents, such as garland or colored candlesticks, that replicate the colors in the tablescape. “We also have beautiful magnolia branches which can be draped over a door frame or bookcase,” she says.

Since scent is also a big part of the season, simmer some cider on the stove with their Mulling Spices mix. Then, serve it to your guests!

Of course, most parties wouldn’t be complete without special cocktails. Another festive display features their Whiskey Sour Cocktail Mixer. Drinks can be served in Fiore crystal glasses, chilled with gold-plated Whiskey Cubes, and placed on festive antique brass trays.

Williams Sonoma offers complimentary in-home design services and personal shopping as well. So, if you need help setting up your décor or getting your shopping done, just ask and you will receive.

Check out what else Williams Sonoma has to offer at https://www.williams-sonoma.com/.

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

Reading Down to Christmas  

By Sue Baldani

Children love advent calendars since they allow them to count down the days until Santa arrives with their long awaited and wished for presents. To make the countdown even more meaningful, why not read down to Christmas instead?

Every evening before bedtime, have your child unwrap a new book. Find books that celebrate the season, such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and more. Of course, save the grand finale, The Night Before Christmas, for December 24th. A children’s Bible would also be a great addition to the rotation, and one where they can learn the true meaning of Christmas day.

If you want to expand their horizons, depending on their age, you can even include a book or two on Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. This way, they’ll be able to understand how other people of various cultures and faiths celebrate this season.

If your budget is limited, look in used book stores or dollar stores for lower-priced books. It’s not only about the book, but also about spending precious time together to read and learn, especially during this most hectic season. By the time Christmas day rolls around, not only will children have the memories of the stories and of spending time with a parent or caregiver, but they will also be better readers. And that is a present they’ll never outgrow!

 Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!

Written for The Country Register newspapers published across the U.S.