Creating Happiness

How one young man is sharing his passion for art with others

By Sue Baldani

Looking at art can bring people joy, soothe their souls and foster an appreciation of life. Being able to create art is even more incredible; Joe Baker of Bristow knows this well.

“It’s my favorite thing to do,” says Joe. “I like free drawing and sketching buildings and all that. It makes me happy and I like doing fun things.”

The 21-year-old ink artist has faced many challenges in his life. “He was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old,” says his mother, Colleen. “He was having a really hard time writing, so in kindergarten we pushed for occupational therapy. Within a couple years of OT, he started writing and started drawing and just never stopped.”

When Joe was in the fifth grade, he had his first major seizure. “We think the change into puberty was what prompted it; a third of kids with autism end up with epilepsy,” she says.

But art has always been there for him. It was a way to wind down after a school day and a vehicle to get his feelings out. While at Patriot High School, he took an art class and was also on the Unified Sports basketball team. “He loved playing,” says his mother.

Unfortunately, Joe’s epilepsy became much worse and Colleen, a teacher for 29 years, the last of which were in Prince William County, decided to quit working in order to stay home and care for him. She also home schooled Joe so he could obtain his high school diploma, which he proudly did.

When COVID hit, the idea of turning Joe’s passion into an actual business took hold. “I was doing some life skills with him like managing money,” she says. “We were stuck at home, and we made one of our bedrooms into an art studio. We bought all the furniture and spruced it up and bought a bunch of art equipment.” In September of 2020, Artfully Joe was up and running. Joe goes into his studio every weekday afternoon at 1:00 and usually works until 4:00, except for Fridays, which he and his mom call Fun Fridays.

“We think it’s going great,” says Colleen. “We’re always trying to come up with something different, so in addition to the drawings, we’ve added note cards to our repertoire, and made calendars for the holidays. We haven’t really been to any official art shows yet but are looking to do some.” Right now, some of Joe’s artwork can be found at The Winery at Sunshine Ridge Farm in Gainesville, where he also did a meet and greet on February 25th.

As with many small at-home businesses, initial customers consisted mainly of family and friends. But now, Artfully Joe receives orders from as far away as California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Florida. It’s not surprising. There are wonderful collections of flowers, animals, silhouettes and more available online.

Joe encourages people to buy his artwork. “They can hang it up somewhere in their house and put it in a nice frame and love it,” he says.

Colleen believes Joe gets his talent from her father. “I’m crafty, not artsy like him, but his grandfather is an artist, although not by trade. His mother’s family was from Copenhagen, Denmark and he had a couple artists in the family that still have artwork there.”

Joe and Colleen often brainstorm together about what he should draw next. “We have a whiteboard in his studio that somebody made for us and we decorate it for the seasons and we put ideas on it,” she says. “We also put up what we have going on that month.”

Colleen enjoys helping Joe with his business. “I help him with ideas for social media and the website, and with purchases and shipping, and I try to include him in what I’m doing or what we sell.

“It can be challenging for those with his issues to find a job. This has been great because he can see the benefits of working, and yet, if he has a seizure one day, he can stop and rest. He has that flexibility.”

In addition to his business, Joe is also excited about becoming an uncle this summer. “I have a sister who is pregnant now and her name is Abby,” he says. “I also have three dogs – Billy, Baxter, and Petey.” Joe will take commissions drawing other people’s dogs, but not his own. He wants to keep them all to himself. 

“I’m really good,” says Joe. “I really love how I draw things and color them.” He would love for others to follow him and see his amazing pieces on social media. He also posts videos of himself in his studio, which are a must-see!

Facebook- Joe Baker

Instagram- @artfullyjoe

Twitter-Joe Baker
TikTok- @theartfullyjoe

Written for Haymarket/Gainesville Lifestyle Magazine in Virginia.

Better Breakfasts Lead to Better Days

By Sue Baldani

September is Better Breakfast Month, which is a perfect time to make sure children (and parents) are starting the day off right. Eating a healthy, well-balanced breakfast has many benefits and can affect how we feel throughout the entire day.

If we’re hungry, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. Learning new skills and absorbing information becomes more difficult when our bodies are in need of fuel. For youngsters, hunger can also lead to behavioral problems, which can disrupt learning even more.

Research has proven that children who eat healthy breakfasts and well-balanced lunches are often more alert, more productive and less tired and jittery during the school day. Foods and beverages that children often prefer for breakfast, such as high-sugar cereals and juice, can initially lead to a burst of energy that quickly dissipates, leaving them hungry and irritable.

One of the most common reasons for skipping breakfast is lack of time, but eating something healthy doesn’t have to be time consuming. Of course, it’s best to sit down, eat at a moderate pace, and then have some time to digest, but eating on the run is better than not eating at all.

Here are some quick and healthy meals that every child will enjoy:

  • Low-sugar, whole-grain cereal with low fat milk and sliced banana. Instead of a bowl, put it in a travel mug or thermos and let your child eat it on the way to school.
  • Oatmeal with fruit and low fat milk. Choose plain quick oats and add in a small amount of honey and fruit, and pop into the microwave. Most are ready in minutes.
  • Whole wheat toast with peanut or other protein butter.
  • Yogurt (buy it plain, since many yogurts have a surprisingly high amount of sugar), and mix in honey, nuts and fruit.

If children are allergic to any of the ingredients above, just substitute with a safe option. There are many alternatives available.

With meal delivery services these days, keeping these staples in stock is quick and easy. Or, take an hour on a weekend day and create a treasure hunt for your kids to find what’s needed for breakfast that week.

If possible, setting the alarm clock even 15 minutes earlier can give families some time to eat and talk about what they’ll be doing that day. It’s another chance to connect before the demands of our busy schedules take over.  

Once children get into the habit of taking the time to eat a healthy meal, it will become another part of their routine. Parents can also set a good example by eating breakfast with their children. This way, healthy choices become a family affair.

Written for The Country Register newspapers distributed across the U.S. and Canada.

Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary is Helping Previously Homeless Vets

The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary is collecting much-needed household items for previously homeless veterans residing at Valley Brook Village on the Veteran’s Administrative Campus in Lyons/Basking Ridge, NJ.

The requested items are as follows:

Laundry soap

Dish soap

Surface cleaners

Toilet paper

Toilet wipes

Paper towels

Eight O’Clock or Dunkin Donuts ground regular and decaf coffee

These items can be dropped off at these locations:

  • Scotch Plains Farmer’s Market (at the rescue squad table) on October 1 and 15
  • The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad building (1916 Bartle Avenue) on October 8 and October 29
  • Trunk or Treat on October 22 at our ambulance
  • Scotch Plains Day (at the rescue squad table) on October 2

After collection, the collected items will be presented to the veterans on or around Veteran’s Day in November. These brave men and women are so grateful for the ongoing generosity of the people and businesses in our local communities.

The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary meets once a month, and its “grass roots” function is to assist the Squad in many capacities – from holding fundraisers and providing meals during crises to performing outreach to squad and fellow auxiliary members. Members also attend town functions, such as fairs, concerts and holiday events, in order to connect with the community and promote Squad interest.

If interested in becoming a member of the Auxiliary, go to https://www.scotchplainsrescuesquad.com/the-auxiliary/. For more information on helping the veterans at Valley Brook Village, contact Steve Hackenberg at 908-723-0788 or at dnea117@gmail.com.

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

Creating Change

Meet author and attorney, Keeda Haynes

By Sue Baldani

While in college at Tennessee State University, Franklin native Keeda Haynes started dating a man who would change the course of her life. “He asked if I would accept packages of cell phones and pagers for his company,” she says. “It turned out that none of the packages contained cell phones or pagers.”

Keeda, along with 28 others, was indicted on various marijuana and conspiracy drug charges. “Everyone pled guilty except for me,” she says. “I chose to go to trial and exercise my constitutional right.”

What was the outcome?

I was acquitted of six charges, but was found guilty of aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute 100 to 400 kilograms of marijuana, which carried a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison. Although I had no prior criminal history, instead of receiving the minimum, I was sentenced to seven years. Upon appeal, I was resentenced to five and released from prison in December of 2006. I was determined to change the system.

What were your next steps?

I went to law school and became a practicing attorney In 2012. I worked at the Public Defender’s office for six and a half years and came to realize there was an intersectionality of the criminal legal system with so many other issues, like lack of housing and lack of meaningful employment.

I didn’t feel as if there was anyone in Congress addressing these issues, so I decided to run for Congress and received 40% of the vote. Today, I work on the national level with The Sentencing Project, and with Free Hearts, a local grassroots nonprofit. I’m also a member of Delta Sigma Theta and am one of the co-chairs on its Social Action Committee.

Why did you write BENDING THE ARC: My Journey from Prison to Politics?

I want to encourage people to have conversations about what’s happening in our world. I want them to think about how they can change things.

Personalized, signed copies of her book can be ordered from The Bookshop in Nashville, and unsigned copies are available on Amazon. For more, go to https://keedahaynes.com/.

Written for Franklin Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

A Museum With Something for Everyone

Come and experience the old and the new

By Sue Baldani

Looking to see great works of art, find unique programs for your children, or rent a spectacular venue for an event? If so, you don’t have to travel far. The Morris Museum in Morristown, with its affiliation with the renowned Smithsonian Institute, has all this and more.

Collections and Exhibits

While the permanent collections offered are incredible and varied, there are always new and fascinating exhibits to be found at different times of the year.

“We’re really excited to be hosting Art in the Atrium’s 30th Anniversary Show, For The Culture, By The Culture, 30 Years of Black Art, Activism, and Achievement, which opened May 25 and will run through September 25,” says the new Executive Director, Andrew Sandall.

Another exhibit on display throughout the summer is Contemporary Spin: The Guinness Collections Re/Imagined. “This shows our signature Guinness Collection interpreted through the eyes of the next generation of museum professionals.”

Children’s Programs

The amazing Spark!Lab, which opened last year, has been a tremendous hit. “It’s a fascinating, unique place,” says Director of Museum Learning and STEAM, Gabrielle Meyer. “There’s nothing quite like it within a couple of states.”

Spark!Lab, she explains, is a hands-on space that allows kids to create, think about the world differently and come up with solutions. “There might be a prompt to create a vehicle with this material or create something that moves with these gears. As a former teacher, the piece I love the most is that a 5-year-old and a 13-year-old can have a fantastic experience using the same materials.”

Another offering is the Art in Motion Tour. Children learn about various pieces, then go to the classroom and make their own kinetic art. Artful Afternoons, which will be held in July and August, is yet another fun addition. They’re each a week-long and have very specific programming based on a theme.

Memberships

“There are numerous reasons to be a member, but the number one is free admission to the museum,” says Andrew. “Members also get exclusive programs and experiences and discounts for our regular programs. You’re also helping support us financially and making sure those programs and exhibits are available for everyone in the community.”

Private Events

Hold your next party or corporate event (up to 120 guests) at this unique venue. “We still have some select Saturdays available this summer,” says Private Event Manager, Nina Hoffer. Having access to the galleries during your event adds an extra dimension to your party that is distinctive and unforgettable. 

To find out more, go to https://morrismuseum.org/.

Written for Morris City Lifestyle magazine in New Jersey.

The Heart of a Restauranteur

A place for food, love and learning

By Sue Baldani

Jimmy Bellas grew up in the restaurant business. “My dad, James, literally came out of World War II and along with his dad and his brother opened a series of diners on Long Island. Later, he had a bustling place called Jimmy’s Backyard.”

As a kid, Jimmy was there washing dishes, cleaning silverware, and bussing tables. He later became a waiter and bartender. “I did it all, and I studied restaurant and hotel management in college, so when I graduated, I ran the restaurant with my dad.” It’s also where he met his wife, Karen Coccari.

Jimmy eventually opened his own Italian restaurant, but after getting married in 1998 and wanting to have a family, he realized he needed to make a change. “The restaurant business is wonderful, but the hours are difficult, especially if you’re serving dinner.”

After switching careers and working in sales for over 20 years, Jimmy found himself missing the restaurant business and would often sit around the family table regaling his wife and sons, Nico and LJ, with nostalgic stories. “I would say maybe someday we’ll open up a little place, and I’ll go back into the restaurant business with my own family this time. One day, Nico just looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you stop talking about it and just do it?’”

And so, they did. They opened Sorriso Kitchen, a charming café in Chatham that serves breakfast, with choices such as omelets, home-made sausage and thick-cut bacon, and lunch, including an award-winning burger, which you can enjoy with a cold beer (it’s a BYOB.) The food is amazingly fresh and much of it, like their produce, honey, chicken, cheeses and syrups, comes from local farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  

Their son LJ, who has special needs, was also the inspiration for opening up the business. They wanted to give him a place to work after graduation.

On Mondays, when the café is closed, they hold classes for other special-needs children to learn restaurant skills. In order to expand this program and encourage other businesses to do it, he and Karen will be starting a foundation.  “We’re so excited!” he says. “We’ll be able to support this type of program or similar programs that exist or even seed and create new programs.

“We really feel like we’re doing what we are meant to be.” Jimmy’s advice to others who are thinking about taking the leap into a new career or going back to a former one:  “Follow your passion, but make sure that the leap you’re taking is one that’s going to continuously provide you with the love of what you’re doing.”

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

A Main Street Legend

Sports, art, music and more

By Sue Baldani

Legends Gallery at Frames on Main in Chatham has been offering sports memorabilia for over 20 years. There’s everything from framed classic sports photos and jerseys to signed baseballs, football helmets, and hockey pucks. It has also hosted autograph-signing events with professional athletes like Eli Manning, Carli Lloyd, and Keith Hernandez.

“It’s a quick thrill to get to meet, say, Mariano Rivera, get your item autographed and take a picture with him,” says owner Greg Daily. Guests buy tickets beforehand, then either bring in their own memorabilia or buy them at the gallery.

Greg is now expanding into the exciting world of music legends by offering professionally-framed photographs of iconic moments in music history signed by the extremely accomplished photographers who took them. “There’s Bob Gruen, who was John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s photographer. I also have Ron Pownall, who was a tour photographer for Aerosmith, and Frank White, who has been shooting concerts for years. There’s also John Comerford, a Chatham guy, who has shot multiple album covers for artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell II.”

There’s another new and unique offering as well. “I had a client bring in what’s called sound waves prints to be framed, which are pretty cool,” he says. “One was a Natalie Merchant piece signed by the singer herself.” Sound waves, he explains, are what you would see on a digital screen in a music studio.

“What this particular artist has done is create relationships in the music industry, so now he’s got all these sound waves and paints colors onto them,” says Greg. “Each one is different and signed by the musician. He does limited-edition runs of prints taken from photographs of his paintings.”

In Legends Gallery right now, there are sound wave pieces from Jamie’s Got A Gun signed by Steven Tyler, and Another Brick in the Wall, signed by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. “I’ve also got one from a band called Evanescence, featuring their main song, Bring Me to Life, which is signed by Amy Lee. It’s actually my favorite piece and has this incredible purple color. I then have an old standby, Mama Said Knock You Out, by LL Cool J.” Each one of these pieces is beautifully framed.

Greg buys each of these prints directly from the artist, who then donates the proceeds to each individual musician’s charity. If you’re looking for a great gift for Father’s Day, or for a great gift for yourself, go to https://legendsgallery.net/ or https://framesonmain.net/, or even better, stop in and see them in person.

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

Come to the Lodge

By Sue Baldani

Forest Lodge’s lush 50-acre property in Warren has always been an amazing place to hold parties all year round, but now it’s better than ever. Owners Charles and Maria Alberto, along with their son, Charlie Alberto IV, ensure that every event receives personalized care and attention.

“We set it up from the initial meeting all the way to the final appointment and then, on the day of the event, we’re here,” says Charlie, who has been the general manager for the past two years. “I think it makes the clients feel comfortable to have us present.”

From small, casual birthday parties, picnics and corporate events to large, elegant weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, Forest Lodge provides the perfect venue. Guests can choose one of its three modern outdoor pavilions, the sophisticated indoor Sherwood Chalet banquet hall, and/or various Groves with pools, sports courts and rides. Its new Maple Grove Pavilion was erected during COVID as a safe place to hold events.

“We set up a 40×60 paver area and invested in a beautiful, white sailcloth tent, and added firepits and gazebos” he says. “It has a unique and elegant outdoor look.

Since the tent was such a popular addition, they set up another one in their Apple Grove Pavilion as a temporary addition for proms and other large (400+) parties. “We always had schools reaching out to us for graduations and field days, but when our new director of catering, Anthony Panchery, contacted them about proms, it spiraled into something really beautiful for the kids,” says Charlie. They also installed touchless fixtures in restrooms and at work stations to keep guests and employees safe.

The changes they’ve made didn’t end there. They revamped their entire website and regularly post information and updates on social media. “It’s been great because that’s where we get in touch with a lot of our customers and where many of our inquiries now come from,” he says. “People can now look at our menus online, gain more information through our digital brochures, scan QR codes to join us and post on Instagram!”

They’ve also brought in some new and creative team members and vendors, and have added to their list of food truck offerings. “All of our catering is done in house, but people love that they can get fried Oreos or Cuban sandwiches from award-winning food trucks.”

Charlie feels his prior work in film production has given him the skills to handle the logistics of coordinating over 300 parties and events each year and ensuring that they all run smoothly. He grew up working at the Lodge as well, which gives him a great understanding of what its guests expect.  

He’s also excited about Forest Lodge being able to hold Oktoberfest once again this fall, where people can enjoy brats, spaetzle, music, and everything German. He also hopes to offer some additional public days as well featuring live bands and other enjoyable entertainment.

For more information, go to www.forestlodgecatering.com/ and/or check out its Facebook page.

Written for The Showcase Magazine in New Jersey.

The Art of Healing

Enabling veterans to turn trauma into hope

By Sue Baldani

On September 11, 2001, Richard Casper was a high school student, and the events of that day would change the course of his life forever. “It inspired me to go into the Marine Corps, so two weeks after graduation, I was on a bus going to boot camp,” he says.

While in the service, he spent time guarding then-President of the United States, George W. Bush. He also went to war. “I was in Fallujah, Iraq, for seven months,” says Richard. During that time, he was badly injured and his buddy, Luke Yepsen, made the ultimate sacrifice.

After leaving the Marines, it was hard for Richard to transition back into civilian life. “I couldn’t do a lot because my anxiety and depression were so bad.”

It was at this time, while living in Bloomington, Illinois, that he randomly found an art and music program at a community college. He says it’s what ultimately saved his life. “They started teaching me about art and how to use color to symbolize emotions. Being able to express myself without talking about what was wrong with me, and being able to evoke emotion from others who would then understand me, was powerful.”

After receiving his associate’s degree, Richard applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Through these classes, my brain was remapping and restructuring all these negative situations into a positive because I was turning them into art pieces.”

He then expanded into songwriting. “I still had an issue talking about Luke, and I thought, ‘What if I could write a song so people would know his story?’”

Eventually, Richard hooked up with Mark Irwin, who has written songs for Billy Ray Cyrus, Alan Jackson, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, and Tim McGraw. “I traveled to Nashville and wrote a song with him within three hours,” he says. “I was blown away.”

He wanted to bring these healing tools to other veterans, and along with Linda Tarrson,founded CreatiVets in 2013. “It’s strictly for wounded veterans – someone who’s been to a combat zone and has mental, emotional, moral, or physical injuries from that experience,” says Richard.

Today, the nonprofit has helped veterans across 48 states in both its music and art programs. With its four-day music program, vets are paired with mentors and work with accomplished songwriters and music artists backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Once finished, these songs are recorded at the Rukkus Room and OMNIsound Studios.

“Each veteran thinks they’re alone in their fight, but as they hear each other’s songs, they feel connected,” he says. “They get to heal together.” They also have their photographs taken by Jason Myers, a well-known photographer who donates his time.

A majority of veterans with serious mental-health issues become isolated and never seek help. “In order to reach them in their homes, we’ve partnered with Big Machine Records to release our veterans’ songs.” These songs are sung by renowned artists like Vince Gill and Justin Moore.

Its three-week art programs are held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Belmont University, University of Chicago, University of Southern California, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Tuition, food and housing is completely covered and like regular students, the vets have access to wood working, ceramics and other classes. With the help of the teachers, who are esteemed artists, they create art pieces that reflects something they’ve been through.

Greg Pihs, a Marine from Chapel Hill who served alongside Richard and Luke at one point, knows how valuable these programs are to veterans. He wrote a song with CreatiVets about a situation he could never verbalize, and it helped him to finally process his pain. “For the first time in my life, I had a voice, and that was life-changing for me,” he says. “It greatly helped me over the last three years.” Today, Greg is a mentor in the program as well as a successful businessman.

CreatiVets is always in need of volunteers, especially in Nashville, where they have a new facility to hold classes. “We need people who are willing to volunteer and share their artistic skills, whether it be painting, drawing, jewelry making or something else.”

Like any nonprofit, it also needs funding. “We have more veterans on our waiting list than we have money coming in,” says Richard. “In order to support them, we need to grow.”

To learn more and help support CreatiVets, go to CreatiVets.org.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

The Epitome of Luxury

A home that feels like a private resort

By Sue Baldani

Short Hills is known for its beautiful homes and lovely surroundings. While some homes may be on the more “modest” side, most are spectacular. One of these is currently for sale, and whoever buys it may never want to leave.

Located in the Fairfield section of the upscale town, the modern and sophisticated home is handsomely attired with hand-cut stone with mahogany windows and trim and a slate roof.  Sitting on a magnificent and lush 1+ acres, it’s an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. However, downtown Millburn with its lovely shops, Broadway-worthy theater, and fabulous restaurants is minutes away, as is the train station that can whisk you right into New York City.

But again, with this residence, staying in is also a fine idea. As soon as you enter, the high ceilings and grand staircase set the tone for luxury. With a home gym featuring top-of-the-line exercise equipment, and a private pool area with luxurious pavers surrounded by mature trees and other landscaping for the ultimate in privacy, you, your family and guests can enjoy the serenity of nature while relaxing in or out of the saltwater pool. There is also a hot tub and a pool house with a bar and full bath. On the lower level of the house, you’ll find a wine cellar and tasting room. It’s truly your own personal resort!

Every inch of the 12,000-square-foot home is exquisite and no detail has been overlooked. With six bedrooms and seven full and three half baths, there’s plenty of room for family and guests to spread out. Each bedroom has its own balcony and overlooks the picturesque property.

While walk-in closets in most homes are a nice convenience, the closet off the primary bedroom is more like your own personal boutique. With storage galore and glass-fronted cabinetry, you’ll almost feel like you’re shopping in your own home. And the best thing is, everything you see is yours to wear and enjoy whenever you like.

To see this magnificent home and have a chance to own this extraordinary piece of real estate, go to https://www.newjerseyluxuryrealestate.com/short-hills/2-sinclair-terrace-short-hills/ or www.SignatureRealtyNJ.com. You can even choose to purchase some or most of the high-end furnishings that were specifically chosen by a professional designer to fit the house to perfection. This is what living in luxury is all about!

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