Capturing the Memories of a Lifetime

A place to store and share our stories

By Sue Baldani

We all have stories, but many of us don’t know how to capture and share them with family and friends. Many of us also wish that we knew more about our ancestors who have passed away.

“My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and I said to him, ‘I want to ask you questions about your life so your grandkids and great grandkids will have this information about their Grandpa Jack,’” says Elaine Schwartz. “We often don’t ask those questions while our relatives are alive, and then we have to depend on other people’s memories, and they’re not always right. They remember things with their own filters.”

Elaine, who came to know many interesting people in her work with the state, wanted to find a way for them and others to record and preserve their stories in a way that was sharable. “I was the community outreach director for the State of Kansas and the Department on Aging, and that’s when I realized that we didn’t have something available where people could write and share their life stories.”

In 2005, Elaine collaborated with her husband, Howard Schwartz, to develop Lasting Legacy Online, a totally free site. From her exhaustive research on how to write an autobiography, she was able to formulate 75 questions for people to answer.

“The one question I think is the most interesting is, ‘What is your earliest memory?’ Don’t think of pictures you’ve seen with you as a small child, but focus on what you actually remember. If you read my story, my first memory was of lightning when I was 3 years old and sleeping with my sister and being afraid.” She found that answering these questions in detail was very therapeutic.

“When I had to answer about the greatest accomplishment in my life, even though I had been a legislator and knew the governors and the high and mighty in the state, I answered that it was truly my family that was my most significant accomplishment,” she says.

Elaine also had the honor of interviewing her good friend, the late Chief Justice Kay McFarland. “Working with the chief on her story is really what made Lasting Legacy Online happen. She named me trustee of her estate, and one of the things I did was promote her story.” Since Elaine made the chief’s Lasting Legacy public, others are able to read about her fascinating life. Elaine and her husband have also made their stories public.

All the other stories are private, and the site utilizes the latest technology to protect this information. “We don’t even see the answers to their questions, because we want them to be private stories,” says Elaine. “Once they’re finished, they get a link, and they can then share that however they want.” The site also generates a QR code to use and share.

“Lasting Legacy Online is not only for people to write their own stories, but a way for them to capture those memories of the people they love before they die. It’s a beautiful thing. And if somebody has already written their life story, that document can be uploaded rather than going through the questions.”

Some of its users bestow their stories as gifts, while others, she says, are making them part of their trusts. “We have several financial institutions in Topeka that are using it with their clientele.”

Links can also be used for school reunions and/or any event where people would like to share their stories. “Whatever your age, it’s a great tool,” says Elaine.

To record your and your loved ones’ stories, sign up at https://lastinglegacyonline.com/.

Written for Topeka Lifestyle magazine in Kansas.

Winter Skin Care

As we age, our daily regimen often needs to adjust

By Sue Baldani

While it’s important to take care of our skin all year round, there are certain issues that can arise or get worse when the weather turns cold. Some can be allayed with high quality over-the-counter products, whereas others may necessitate a visit with a dermatologist.

“In winter months, we tend to see more issues with dry and itchy skin,” says Dr. David Balle, a board-certified dermatologist with Grosse Pointe Dermatology & Cosmetic Center in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. “It’s a time of year when some things, like eczema and psoriasis, tend to act up.”

Fortunately, there are quite a few things we can do at home to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms. Here, he gives us some helpful tips and product recommendations.

“When showering or bathing, use a mild, gentle cleanser,” he says. “Using harsher soaps may dry or strip the skin of its natural oils.” He recommends Dove®  for Sensitive Skin as well as CeraVe®  brand cleansers. “Secondly, when taking a shower or a bath, don’t linger, because the longer we’re exposed to water, the drier our skin becomes in the winter.”

It is also critical to use a moisturizer after each bath and shower. “What I usually recommend and what I use myself are CeraVe moisturizers,” says Dr. Balle.

As we age, he explains, adhering to a skin regimen becomes even more important. “Studies have shown that we produce less moisture in our skin than we did at a younger age, so moisturize daily for preventative maintenance.”

Grosse Pointe Dermatology offers its own moisturizing cream. “We make a super-rich moisturizing formula that’s often very helpful for areas that have thicker, drier skin with thicker scales, like hands and feet,” he says. “That’s something unique we offer our patients, and they absolutely love it.”

For the older population, Dr. Balle also recommends cutting down on the amount of showers and baths we take. Instead of every day, every other day may suffice, and he says to only use cleansers on necessary areas. Using our hands to clean ourselves is also gentler than using a wash cloth or loofah.

“When we’re younger, I think using a washcloth is a great idea, especially for the facial area where we produce more oil,” he says. “But, we tend to produce less oil and have less moisture in our skin naturally as we get on in age.”

He says using a hyaluronic acid serum is also helpful. “By 45 to 50 years of age, it’s thought that we’ve probably lost almost 50% of the hyaluronic acids that we naturally have in our skin,” says Dr. Balle. “Hyaluronic acids are molecules and agents that hold onto moisture and water in our skin. So as time goes on, not only do we produce less moisture, but we hold onto it less effectively.”

If you follow all the tips above, but you’re still itchy, it might be time to see a dermatologist. “A lot of times when people have itchy skin, they may need more help,” he says. “Chronic dry skin may eventually turn into a mild form of eczema, and they may need prescription level medication or cream to manage that.”

Severely dry, itchy skin, says Dr. Balle, can also be an sign of something more serious such as a thyroid or autoimmune disorder, or sometimes even cancer, which is another reason to visit a dermatologist. “Dr. Google never went to medical school,” he jokes. “When we see things online, we don’t really know where that information is coming from. Anybody can call themselves a skin care specialist and many do, but only board-certified dermatologists have spent four years in college, four years in medical school and have had four years of residency training, as well as continued medical education classes. We know how to properly evaluate, study, and determine what is safe, effective, and advisable.”

As a dermatologist, he also has the knowledge and expertise on ways to help us look our best by using a number of anti-aging and cosmetic treatments, like Botox, fillers and microdermabrasion.

As a Grosse Pointe Farms resident, Dr. Balle enjoys being involved in the community. “I’m on the city of Grosse Pointe Farms Foundation Board, and work as part of the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce,” he says. “I’m also on the advisory board of the Helm.”

Dr. Balle also loves spending time with his dog Stella, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. “She’s a sweetie and a joy in my life. I’m just very blessed.”

To find out more, go to https://grossepointedermatology.com/.

Written for Grosse Pointe Lifestyle magazine in Michigan.

The Magic of Santa

Learn the interesting history and fun facts of Christmas and the big man himself

By Sue Baldani

Being a professional Santa is a lot more than just putting on a red suit and happily chortling “Ho, Ho, Ho.” After all, sitting on Santa’s lap and telling him about their Christmas wishes is something most kids look forward to all year long. Since the real Santa can’t be everywhere at once, he needs caring and enthusiastic helpers who can fill in for him at times.

“I’ve been a professional Christmas performer since 2013, and one of my goals over the last couple of years, especially with COVID, was to become a better performer for my clients,” says James Brown of Warrenton. He believed that the more he learned about the holiday, the better he could emulate the persona of Santa.

“There are an estimated 10,000 professional Santa Clauses nationwide,” he says. “A professional Santa is someone who has a license, has undergone a background check, and carries insurance.”

In order to educate himself and other professional Santa Clauses, he started researching the history of Christmas and Santa Claus. Eventually, he put all of his findings into his book, Beyond the Beard, which was just released in October.

“It took about three years to write,” he says. “My editor, Katherine Eppley, helped me go through all the information that I collected. This book is basically the who, what, how, and why of Santa Claus and Christmas. Amy Zwirko of Creative Crafts produced the charming hand-drawn illustrations throughout the book.”

Brown says he didn’t start out to write a book. “It was just a personal journey for me. About two years ago, I got in touch with Phil Wenz who wrote the Santa Claus Oath, a code of ethics, that’s currently used in the Santa Claus community.” Wenz provided him with a lot of information, including the basic background of Charles W. Howard, who, explains Brown, pioneered one of the first Santa Claus Schools.

There are many interesting and obscure facts throughout the book that even the most devoted fans of Christmas and Santa might not know. Here are just a few:

  • Mrs. Claus actually came about as part of the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1800s. During World War II, due to the shortage of men, women played Santa Claus and were paid $25 a week.
  • Lewis Prang, the father of the American Christmas card, started using Santa depicted in a red suit. A lot of people believe Coca-Cola was responsible for that.
  • Jolly Old St. Nicholas, created in 1865, was one of the first non-religious Christmas songs.
  • The oldest church in the United States is St. Nicholas Church in New York City and it still stands today.

The book also includes a tasty recipe for Reindeer Snacks! It’s fun to treat Rudolph and his antlered friends.

Beyond the Beard can be found at Open Book in Warrenton, Barnes & Noble, on Amazon, and at Tinsel Thyme Press, which the Browns founded a couple of years ago.When not playing Santa Claus or running his agricultural business with his wife, Nichole, he works as a government employee. “Nichole is a school teacher who is considering writing about agriculture for children, and the reindeer photos in the book were actually created by my son, Zechariah. We sell his reindeer cards to Santa Clauses worldwide.”

Additionally, Brown uses these reindeer cards as part of his Santa routine. “I also have reindeer shoes and talk with the children about the shoes. I tell stories how Dancer likes to dance the salsa with Mrs. Claus and how Cupid likes to take care of the animals at the veterinarian’s office. It’s important to be a good storyteller.”

Brown’s other book, The Making of Santa, which he wrote alongside Beyond The Beard, was released in July of this year, and combines the basics of a Santa school with a business manual for the professional Santa. “We’ve sold approximately 1,000 copies already, mostly to the Santa Claus community,” he says.

His passion for Christmas started when he was on active duty in the Navy (he was enlisted for 20 years.) “I spent many years away from my family at Christmastime, and somebody was always there to be Santa for my kids,” says Brown. In addition to Zechariah, he has three daughters, Ashley, Amber, and Alesha. He was also able to watch Santa giving kids gifts during deployment parties.

Keep an eye out for more Christmas and Santa Claus related books coming in the near future. “We’ve already come up with the titles for the next couple of books, and we’re going to start working on book number three around February,” he says. “It won’t take long to turn it around because we already have all the material we need.”

To find out more, go to https://tinselthymepress.com/.

What makes a good Santa?

Along with the red suit and white gloves, pay extra attention to the beard, belt and boots. Kids care more about those than the suit. Wear a high quality beard, a real leather belt, and sturdy black boots.

Make sure you know the reindeers’ names and when Rudolph was born (1939) and have a story about when you and Mrs. Claus met (they married in 1849).

Always focus on the child. Be a good storyteller. The children are there to be with Santa and it’s a bonding moment for that child.

Santa should never be a disciplinary figure. Everyone has opportunities to be on the “Nice List.”

Written for Warrenton Lifestyle Magazine in Virginia.

A Festive Home for the Holidays

Unique and inspiring decorating tips

By Sue Baldani

When Jessica Merryweather Pollard opened her home, gift and design store in the summer of 2021 in the Box Factory in Bend, Oregon, she focused on making it a place where people could find something that expressed their unique tastes. She also likes to encourage customers to think outside the box. With the holidays coming, she especially wants to promote decorating in a style that incorporates the traditional with the unexpected.

In order to keep a sense of continuity in the décor, Jessica advises choosing a color palette and carrying that theme throughout the house. This way, from the time you and your guests walk up to the front door, then walk into the living room, the dining room and possibly the powder room, everything feels connected.

Here, she gives us some ideas on how to make your home as festive and fun as can be this holiday season.

Front of home/porch

If you have a pot that you keep flowers in during the summer, transition that into a holiday theme using white or natural colored sticks with a mix of evergreens and even feathers. I usually do evergreen and juniper, and then I’ve used these red sticks that come off my crab apple tree.

One the front door, you could do a swag or a wreath, but I like to do greens around the border of my door and then add some fun color using ornaments and lightweight outdoor bulbs.

Living room

Most Christmas trees go in the living room, so the tree is going to be the focal point. The tree is also going to set the tone for how you’re going to decorate the rest of the room. You can go the traditional route of reds, greens, creams, golds and silvers, or follow the trend of super neutral. People have been doing white trees with lots of cream, taupe and gray ornaments. If you’re going to really kick it up and go kind of modern, it’s really fun to do navy blues, hot pinks and citrus. So, first decide how you want to decorate your tree.

If there’s a fireplace with a mantle, your next step would be to connect the mantle to the tree using the same colors. If you’re going traditional, you could use evergreens on the mantle, but if you’re going more neutral, you could use a pinecone swag or a feather garland – something that’s more browns and creams. Add candles in whatever colors you have going on with the tree.

On the sofa, you can add holiday pillows such as the Cross Country Skiers pillows we carry from Coral & Tusk, which uses a linen foundation with embroidery on it.

On your coffee table, try using a tray that has a winter arrangement with candles or you can do a bowl full of these really pretty wooden acorns we carry. There’s a really nice gold on the cap part.

Whatever color palette you do choose, you want to repeat the color at least three times in the room. I call it a three-point connection.

Dining room

It’s pretty to dress up the dining room table with a table runner, and you can find them in all different colors and textures. One of my favorites, Christmas Cheer, is also from Coral & Tusk and has bears on it. It’s absolutely gorgeous and whimsical. There are reds, greens, oranges and browns, which are really pretty and not the typical green and red plaid. You can then have your plates and napkins bring out some of the colors that are in that runner. Be creative.

You can also take sofa pillows and put them on dining room chairs to dress them up. It’s sometimes fun to find things that don’t scream Christmas, but are instead more about winter. The skier pillows, for example, are decorations you can keep out after the holiday. So don’t box yourself into Santa Claus or Christmas trees.

We sell a pretty candle holder you can put on a sideboard that you could fill with pinecones or evergreens instead of candles. Again, think outside the box.

We also have these African Zulu baskets that are all very neutral and you can mix in things you already have in your house with say marble Christmas trees and make it very organic.

Powder room

We have these beautiful tea towels, again from Coral & Tusk. One has a Christmas tree and all these critters hiding in the tree looking out at you. Another is a tinsel tree with bears, ice skating bears and, of course, the ski buddies bears.

There are many fun things to do. It doesn’t always have to be classic greens and reds. Hopefully, this gives you some new and fresh ideas.

To find out more, go to https://www.merryweather.shop/.

Written for Bend Lifestyle magazine in Oregon.

Michael Bolton – Live In New Jersey

Singing and sharing songs from his heart

By Sue Baldani

The iconic Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown will be welcoming Grammy-award winning artist Michael Bolton on Wednesday, December 7, at 7:30 pm. Performing some of his most beloved classics such as “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “How Can We Be Lovers,” the audience will be able to see, hear and feel the music deep in their souls.

Thanks to his many albums, including a Christmas album, fans can also enjoy listening to Bolton’s music all year long and wherever they may be. Here, this Connecticut guy shares more about his life and love for music.

Tell me about some of your favorite holiday traditions.
The best holiday gift is being able to be home with my daughters and grandchildren which doesn’t get to happen too often due to my constant tour schedule. But when we can all gather at my home in Connecticut it’s the most wonderful time of the year!!

For your This is the Time Christmas album, how did you select which songs to include? Do you have a favorite?
I tend to choose classics in much of my work because they run deep in the DNA of multiple generations and that familiarity of a song connects with people in a personal way that may carry meaning of a time or place in their lives. It’s always a great feeling when the audience can sing along to the songs you’re performing. [Another popular song, It’s Christmas Time, was released in 2020.]

For your Greatest Hits and Holiday Favorites show at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, NJ, this December, what songs are you most looking forward to performing?
I always look forward to performing my hits because they’re what have fueled me and my career and what the audience has come to hear! Over the years many fans have shared with me how songs like “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” or “Time, Love & Tenderness” have marked important moments in their lives or gotten them through tough times. So we get to share in that experience. And then there’s just the feel good songs which let people just get out of their seat and enjoy!

After so many years of sharing your music with your fans, what do you love the most about performing?
I love singing. It’s always been my first love. Stepping up to the mic and allowing my heart and soul to express through music is the greatest gift for me.

It seems like the world is finally starting to come back after COVID. As a performer, it must have been difficult to not be able to perform for a live audience. How did you keep your music alive while the world was shut down?
It was very surreal and tragic for everyone in different ways. For me to get through and still fuel the creativity, I focused on songwriting and did many Zoom sessions to create songs for my new album. It was great getting the time for that in spite of the reason. But we also managed to stay really busy shooting commercials and TV shows with COVID compliance protocols in place, and I started the writing and recording process for my new podcast. Of course I’m absolutely thrilled to be touring again though it’s made finishing some of those other projects more challenging.

How do you want people to feel when listening to your songs?
The important part is that they feel! Whatever they feel is so personal to them but the whole goal is to move people emotionally. To connect.

It’s almost going to be 30 years since you started Michael Bolton Charities. How has the mission of this organization changed and grown throughout the years, especially after COVID ? What are a couple of the charitable organizations it supports that especially touch your heart?
The mission hasn’t changed – we are focused on providing support resources and interventions to assist women and children at risk of domestic violence. Over the years, we have realized that we also need to place focus on interventions that can reduce violent behaviors for the future. We are very proud of our Beyond Trauma Youth Music Therapy programs that help to reduce violent behaviors in young people who are exposed to violence in their everyday lives. We also helped establish a family justice center in New England. This one-stop shop service and support to women affected by domestic violence provides relief at the right time in the right place.

What is one thing you would like people to know about you that hasn’t been publicized, or that would surprise people?
I’m actually a very shy guy!

Tickets are on sale now at https://www.mayoarts.org/. Come out and experience an amazing concert and a chance to sing out loud!

Written for Morris City Lifestyle magazine in New Jersey.

From Tragedy to Triumph

Bringing hope and independence to those with spinal cord injuries

By Sue Baldani

Spinal cord injuries can happen to anyone at any time. Learning to cope with losing one’s independence and then gaining it back takes a lot of hard work and perseverance. Cheshire Home in Florham Park has been providing services to support these journeys since it opened its doors in 1981.

“I don’t think people realize that most of our residents were living normal lives before their accidents,” says marketing associate, Betsey Burgdorf. “They had jobs, drove cars, cared for their families, and then a tragic event occurred and now they’re in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives. It has a dramatic effect on the individual, the family, and the community.”

Spinal cord injuries, she says, can happen in numerous ways. “We have two residents who dove into the surf at Long Beach Island, hit sandbars and broke their necks. We have landscapers who fell out of trees or people who have been in car accidents. We also have residents with genetic issues such as spina bifida and others with lupus.”

Cheshire meets the needs of many patients, especially younger ones, who are suffering from not only spinal cord injuries but neurological impairments as well. Its staff works tirelessly to help residents leave its facility and rejoin their communities.

“We focus on being a transitional facility, which means patients are only here while they recover, although we do have some long term patients who have  been here from the beginning,” says Betsey. “But we’re really focusing on teaching them what they need in order to regain their independence.” This can  take up to three years or more.

The facility offers 24/7 care, an expert nursing care specialized in spinal cord and neurological treatments, and on-site physical and occupational therapy. “We work with residents on their goals, whatever their goals are,” she says. “There is always a plan in place, but it’s affected by motivation and medical setbacks, which sometimes happen.” Some patients who had limited or no use of their arms and hands have actually regained function by the time they leave, which is huge.

Having these types of resources, explains Betsey, is one of the main reasons why Cheshire Home is so successful. “We had one gentleman who was involved in a car crash in his early twenties and kind of bounced around. He was almost put into a nursing home, but because he was so young, he ended up here instead. He moved out about a year and a half ago, and now lives in Madison and has a full time job. He’s really one of our great success stories.”

She said one of the biggest obstacles to integrating people back into the community is wheelchair accessible accommodations. “With the disability laws, things have gotten easier, but there are still a lot of barriers.” For example, curbs and steps in front of businesses are often insurmountable and things most able-bodied people don’t even notice.

Everyday operating costs and these extraordinary services do not come cheap, so the nonprofit offers many fundraisers, such as 5K races and other events, to help residents reach their goals. A fun one is their upcoming 40th Anniversary Gala being held on Thursday, November 10, at the Park Avenue Club in Florham Park.

“There’ll be a dinner, a DJ, a live auction, a slideshow and more,” says Betsey. Master of Ceremonies will be Senator Jon M. Bramnick, and four honorees, including Senator Declan O’Scanlon, Jr., will be speaking about their support of those with spinal cord injuries. Tickets are available now on its website.  

To find out more about Cheshire Home and how to help support its mission, go to https://cheshirehome.org/.

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

https://citylifestyle.com/chathamandshorthills/issues/2022-11

The Art of Rock

Experience the creative magic of some of your favorite musicians

By Sue Baldani

Many of us remember when we first attended a concert and saw our favorite rock artist. Maybe we bought a t-shirt or a poster to bring home to remember the incredible experience.

Now, Wentworth Gallery offers an amazing way to connect with some of our favorite rock and roll artists in an even more tangible way. “What really started it was when we began working with Paul Stanley from Kiss about 15 to 20 years ago,” says Christian O’Mahony, owner of Wentworth Gallery. “He’s very creative in a lot of different areas and artwork for him was therapeutic. He never really thought about it as a commercial venture.”

When Christian saw his paintings and realized how talented he was, he wanted to represent him. “We started doing shows with Paul and they were immensely successful. A lot of people were buying his paintings, some without knowing who Kiss was or who were not really into the music. It was the artwork itself that really touched them.”

Word got out and Christian started picking up other musical artists such as Michael Cartellone from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rick Allen from Def Leppard. “From there we got Mickey Hart from the Grateful Dead, Brian Wheat from Tesla, Charlie Benante from Anthrax, and the late Ric Ocasek from the Cars. I have his only collection of artwork.”

Christian has become the go-to person for successful musicians and even celebrities who have a passion for art and want to expand into this avenue. “First and foremost, they have to be good artists, and secondly, they have to understand that art shows are a little bit different than rock and roll meet and greets. They are more personal and much more intimate.”

This is a major component of what makes Wentworth Gallery stand out. “It’s a combination of the art in some way touching them, but it’s also the incredible experience that somebody could have with someone they’ve admired artistically.”

So, if a customer were to purchase a painting done by, say, Rick Allen, either at a show or beforehand, when Allen comes to the gallery, they get to meet him. “They spend real time with him,” says Christian. “They might even have dinner afterwards.”

Wentworth has also offered private concerts for buyers. “I’ve done that with Paul Stanley and Rick Allen,” he says. “More recently, I’ve done it with one of my new artists, legendary solo guitarist Joe Satriani. If you’re a fan of Joe and you really like his artwork, you not only get a beautiful painting, but you also get to sit through a private concert. Or, if you purchase one of his paintings on a guitar, perhaps you would actually go up on stage with him and jam.

“We offer these lifetime experiences. So, it’s not just a beautiful painting on a wall; it actually has a story behind it.”

Wentworth Gallery has 10 galleries up and down the East Coast, and Christian plans to have more incredible shows coming up in the next year at the Mall at Short Hills location. “I expect Rick Allen, Paul Stanley, and Joe Satriani all to make appearances.”

Artwork, he says, is a lifetime acquisition. “It’s different than buying a shirt or a pair of pants. It’s for you; it’s for your family.” And, it can be acquired by people of all backgrounds; it’s not just for the wealthy. “We have many different price points, and we also offer 24 months interest-free financing with no money down to make it affordable for almost everybody.”

One of the reasons why many Wentworth Gallery locations are in malls, he explains, is that he wants people to feel comfortable coming in. “When people are walking down a street and see an art gallery, they might feel intimidated. So, we try to take down the walls and not have people feel like they need an art degree to walk in.”

Another factor that makes Wentworth stand out is its white-glove service. “When you’re at a gallery and something catches your eye, you might have a hard time envisioning what it would look like in your house,” says Christian. “You don’t know if it’s going to be too big or too small. You don’t know if your spouse is going to like it.”

In order to make the decision easier, Wentworth offers what they call a Home Show. “We bring the artwork within 25 miles of any of our galleries without any financial obligation. We can also hang them for you, and at that point you can decide which pieces, if any, you would like to purchase. It really takes away the anxiety.” They will also come and hang the piece if you just purchase it from the gallery.

To see these rock and roll and other incredible artists, go to www.wentworthgallery.com.

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

https://citylifestyle.com/chathamandshorthills/issues/2022-11

Turning Trauma into Smiles

A ranch where happiness reigns supreme

By Sue Baldani

At Freedom Reigns Ranch, people and horses work together to heal one another. Although primarily focused on teenagers, the organization also assists children and young adults who have been through trauma.

Founder and Executive Director, Carissa Ramsdell, can sympathize with those who come to the farm, both human and animal. “Because of the abuse and trauma I endured growing up, I was super angry at the world, at God, and everyone and everything,” she says. “But God basically used my horse, Boston, who was also dealing with a difficult past, to save my life. Through working and training with my horse, God unlocked my own heart.”

Freedom Reigns Ranch was officially founded in October of 2015, but Carissa was helping kids with her horse, which she got in 2009, long before that. “Some kids from church were going through some challenging things, and being outside with one of God’s most beautiful creatures was really something that brought them a lot of peace.”

While caring for and training with Boston, she watched them become more confident and empowered. “They stepped outside of their own comfort zones in a way that led to growth, not only with a horse, but in their everyday lives. We basically combined a broken horse with a child whose heart had been shattered and watched God heal both at the same time.”

Shortly after, a friend came to volunteer, someone donated a pony, and then she ended up taking a rescue horse that had been abandoned in a dog pen. “It just snowballed, and all of a sudden these kids were coming and more people were coming to help,” says Carissa. “Then more horses needed rescuing too.”

At that point, she knew she had to start her own nonprofit. “Caring for horses is expensive, plus we felt from the very beginning that we were never supposed to charge anything. So, we really needed to create an avenue for folks who believed in what we were doing to support it.”

This summer, the ranch will have officially provided over 10,000 hours of mentorship. “We have about 50 individuals that come twice a month for the season and some who stay for multiple seasons because they really need this safe space in order to continue to thrive in their lives,” she says.

For many of these kids, getting up on a horse and trusting it is life changing. “I see this unbelievable thing happening where they’re building this relationship with the horse,” she says. “We usually share that horse’s story – over half of our herd has their own history of abuse, starvation and neglect. As you watch, it’s like these puzzle pieces coming together and you see how they realize that the horse that had been thrown away by the world means the world to them and they connect that with their own life. That then translates into their own emotional sense of wellbeing.”

The ranch has been leasing about eight acres in Thompson’s Station, which houses 12 horses, but it needs to expand in order to provide its services to more people. “We have a wait list that extends 12 to 16 months and over a hundred kids are on it,” says Carissa. “Our hope and prayer is for someone to grant or donate 25 to 40 acres somewhere in Southern Williamson County or even Northern Murray County.”

They’re also busy raising money for a long-term lease and/or to build up the new land and make any renovations necessary. Individuals and corporations can go to #UNimpossible to donate. “We will be doing a big fundraising push on Giving Tuesday on November 29 that will be social-media based.”

They were also planning on doing a fundraising gala on September 10, but since money is tight for everyone right now, they’ll be having a fun hoedown for the community and donors instead.  “We’re doing it true to our style – it’s a boots and bling style hoedown,” she says.

Carissa says she’s amazed and overwhelmed to be a part of something like this. “Going from not having a reason to live 10 or 15 years ago and feeling like I would never overcome what I had been through to watching so many kids find hope again, there is nothing better. Watching the trajectory of their lives change course because God chose to use a horse to reach their hearts – I’ve seen it so many times and it’s special every time.” 

To help with its mission, go to FreedomReignsRanch.com.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

Have Fun This Fall

Pumpkins, carnival rides and seasonal favorites for the whole family

By Sue Baldani

The spectacular Jack O’ Lantern Experience is back for its third year at Skylands Stadium in Sussex County from September 23rd to November 6th. Offered by the State Fair Group of New Jersey, it’s a great way for kids and adults to get into the Halloween spirit.

Start off with an approximately 45-minute walk through over 6000 hand-carved pumpkins in all their blazing glory. “We also have the world famous talking pumpkins,” says Justin Ferrarella, general manager at Skylands Stadium. “They tell jokes, sing, and talk amongst themselves, which is really awesome.”

Afterwards, take part in the fall festival and enjoy seasonal favorites such as hot apple cider and roasted nuts. Or, indulge in other treats like funnel cake and deep-fried Oreos.

Adults can listen to live music in the beer garden while enjoying over 30 different craft beers, plus ciders, wine and seltzers. Skylands on-site restaurant, the Double S Smokehouse, will be offering delicious barbeque as well.

Continue the fun on carnival rides like the Ferris wheel and carousel, then have the kids take part in the Under the Sea bubbles attraction and meet Disney princesses. “There will also be a Jurassic-themed attraction,” says Justin. “Honestly, there’s something for people of all ages.”

Jack O’ Lantern Experience tickets must be purchased in advance at http://skylandsstadium.com/jackolantern. Tickets are not required to enter the fall festival.  

Skylands Stadium

94 Championship Place

Augusta, NJ 07822

Written for Suburban Essex Magazine in New Jersey.

Scotch Plains Rescue Squad is getting the word out about the 988 hotline

Contributing author: Sue Baldani, a life member of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad.

We all know that dialing 911 can be a lifesaver, and now, so can calling 988. This new three-digit dialing code became active on July 16, 2022, and is a lifeline for those contemplating suicide.

The counselors who respond to the calls, texts and chats provide caring support and guidance to those in crisis. Many studies have shown that after calling for help, people tend to feel less suicidal, less depressed, less overwhelmed and more hopeful.

Previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, it’s now the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. However, the previous number – 800-273-8255 – is still in use as well. The Lifeline’s network of over 200 crisis centers has been operating since 2005, and in its years of existence, has received over 20 million calls from those in distress.

The 988 number can be dialed from any state in the country and is accessible for non-English speakers and for those who are deaf. Veterans can also use this new option to contact the Veterans Crisis Line. All they have to do is dial 988 and then choose the number 1. The previous number – 800-273-8255 – is also still active. 

Veterans can also connect through text at 838255, and through chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat. According to the Military Veteran Project, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

With COVID-19 exacerbating mental health issues, this easy-to-remember hotline number is more important than ever. According to the Lifeline website, “Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was the tenth-leading cause of death in the nation (CDC, 2019). Every year in the U.S., more people die by suicide than in car accidents, and more suicide deaths occur than homicide and AIDS deaths combined.”

To learn more, go to https://988lifeline.org/current-events/the-lifeline-and-988/. To find information about the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad, or to become a member, go to www.scotchplainsrescuesquad.com.  

Written for local press outlets in New Jersey.