Saving Lives, Supporting Families

The Topeka St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway is underway

By Sue Baldani

St. Jude Children’s Hospital is on a mission, and has been for close to 60 years. Founded in 1962, its commitment to finding cures for childhood catastrophic diseases has enabled patients and their families not to just survive, but to live their best lives.

“Life would be so much different if it wasn’t for St. Jude,” says Josh, a local dad whose daughter Bella was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 18 months. “We didn’t know if she was going to live to be two. When doctors kept saying there’s nothing we can do, that really crossed our minds.”

Thankfully, the doctors at St. Jude didn’t turn the family away. “St. Jude, after receiving her information, contacted us directly and said if you come, we would love to see her. They were able to help when no one else could.”

The first step was surgery. Because of the tumor’s location, they were only able to remove one-quarter of the tumor. After 77 weeks of chemotherapy, the tumor finally shrunk.

Unfortunately, about a year later, it started growing again, and after nine more months of chemotherapy, the tumor just kept growing. An experimental clinical trial drug was also tried, but that didn’t work for Bella either.

“Finally, the chief of radiation said he would like her to be treated with proton beam radiation, so he went to Switzerland and studied proton beam radiation for children,” says Josh.

Thus, St. Jude was the first to have the only proton therapy center in the world dedicated solely to children. Whereas traditional radiation passes through the brain, the proton beam is precise, causing less damage to surrounding tissue. After receiving 29 doses, Bella passed with flying colors and didn’t suffer any side effects.

Today, four years after stopping proton beam therapy, Bella is a happy child who likes spending time with her family and her Dachshunds, and playing school with her dolls and siblings, Hannah and Isaiah.

“She’s excelling in school; she has no developmental delays,” says Josh. “A couple of years ago they talked to us about putting her into enrichment [classes.]”

“I cried when the school called me because I thought the opposite would happen, and that this is happening is just such a blessing,” says her mom, Jennifer.

In the beginning, Josh admits he was skeptical that they would never receive a bill for Bella’s treatment, or for anything. Today, he’s a believer.

“Bella has had over a million dollars’ worth of treatment in eight years and a middle class family like ours, we would be bankrupt.”

To continue to find cures for patients like Bella at no cost to their families, it takes people who are willing to support its mission. This month, St. Jude Children’s Hospital is kicking off The Topeka St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway, a community service project that brings together builders and their trade partners to build a dream home at no or at very low cost to give away to a lucky winner.

This year, the home in Kansas will be built by Drippé Homes in the desirable Aquarian Acres development. Only 7,500 tickets will be sold, at $100.00 each, for a chance to win the home, plus other prizes. The campaign, which started four years ago, is expected to raise a total of $2.8 million from the Topeka community by the time it wraps up this June.

“The money you are giving today could help for the cure of your child or grandchild down the road,” says Jennifer.

To buy a ticket, or to help in other ways, go to www.stjude.org/give/dream-home/topeka.html.

Written for Topeka Lifestyle magazine in Topeka, Kansas.

To participate in the St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway in other states, go to http://www.stjude.org/give/dream-home.html.

The Little Dog and the Drag Queen

By Sue Baldani

Drag queen Langanja Estranja (real name Jay Jackson) has a very busy life. When she’s not strutting her stuff on RuPaul’s Drag Race, working on a movie, meeting her fans at DragCon, or being an activist for the LGBTQ and cannabis lifestyles, she’s starring in what she considers to be her best role, being MawMa to Lil Dabbers.

“So many people told me I was just too busy for a dog,” says Langanja. “I’d been wanting a dog. I grew up with a pet, so I’ve always had an affinity for dogs.”

Five years ago, while performing in Hawaii, her roommate texted her a picture of a little Terrier Chihuahua puppy that a coworker was looking to rehome. Was she interested? “When I got the picture of my now beautiful baby, I was like ‘absolutely!’” 

Since then, Lil Dabbers has gone everywhere with Laganja. “She’s an emotional support dog because I need her with me at all times,” she says. “I’m very lucky that she gets to travel the world with me. She went to Italy when I worked with Google at the Cannes festival. I took her to DragCon, which is a huge event where all of us drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race get together and meet our followers. At 6 weeks old, Lil Dabbers was introduced to the life she was going to live and she loves it.”

Lil Dabbers was on set with Langanja while she was filming God Save the Queens, which recently wrapped and will be released for Sundance either later this year or next. “The film is told in three different vignettes, and in my vignette, I’m acting alongside Alaska, who is a famous queen from Rupaul’s Drag Race. We sing live in the film, so I’m excited for people to hear my vocal abilities.

“I’m also really excited for people to see an authentic story about drag queens. Recently, we’ve seen some authentic stories coming out about queer people, but not really about drag queens. This is going to touch on a lot of the trials and tribulations we go through as performers and as people who don’t necessarily fit into the gender black and white scale of male and female.”

During the making of the movie, Lil Dabbers turned 5, so her celebration was a bit delayed. But MawMa made up for it when they got back home. “She got to go to the beach not once, but twice. She loves the beach. She doesn’t like the water, but she loves the sand. She’s a digger.”

Langanja and Lil Dabbers reside in Hollywood, where Laganja has lived for over 15 years. “ I have a view of the Hollywood sign, so I’m lucky, and I work very hard to have this. I’m very grateful to have developed a life here with friends and family members. I just can’t believe a little boy from Texas is now a full-time female impersonator!”

Of course, as a drag queen, Langanja has an affinity for costumes and getting dressed up. So, she likes Lil Dabbers to have her own outfits as well. “I love the aesthetics of being able to have matching outfits with my dog. My designer who custom makes all my clothing will usually take the leftovers and make her an outfit, so she can have an accessory, a neck piece or a backpack – something she is comfortable wearing but still matches me.” Lil Dabbers’ fashion statements are appreciated by her almost 7,100 Instagram followers.

When Laganja became her MawMa years ago, she made several YouTube episodes that featured her little dog. There was Ganja Walks, which were episodes of her walking Dabbers in different parks and places, and Dabbers Day Out, which showed the Terrier Chihuahua enjoying a bunch of doggie adventures.

Now, plans are being made to start up Dabbers Day Out once again. “We’re partnering with Dogue, (rhymes with Vogue) which is an incredible spa for dogs out here. The owner, Josh White, is also LGBTQ and was recently featured on the show The Pack, with his dog Snow. I became a huge fan of the show because I love dogs. I ended up meeting him here in Hollywood and being able to perform at his surprise 30th birthday. So in exchange, he is going to give Dabbers a beautiful makeover. I’m excited to get her back on the web, and am also very excited to partner with Josh and continue to amplify the LGBTQ voice.”

Having Lil Dabbers in her life is a lot of fun for Laganja, but it goes much deeper than that. “Dabbers has saved my life on numerous accounts,” says Laganja. “As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, Dabbers has really been able to provide something that no human can provide, which is a closeness that even my best friends and I don’t have. To be able to have that support is very hard to put into words.”

She encourages everyone to get a dog, even if they lead busy lives. “Look at me – I made it work. You too can make it work and it will improve your life. When I have a hard day, to come home to her happiness and her warmth is a true blessing. When she sees me, there’s always that love and joy and I’m very, very lucky to have that positive energy in my life.”

To see more of Lil Dabbers, check out her Instagram page, and stay tuned for the all new Dabbers Day Out series, which will showcase the incredible life she lives. “She has traveled the world and met many people, and I feel like she is a very brave dog,” says Laganja. “Her bravery really inspires me to be the same way.”

Follow Langanja Estranja on Instagram and Tik Tok and various other social media platforms, or on her website at laganjaestranja.com. Become one of her “buds”, as she calls her followers.

Published in Pet Lifestyles Magazine in New York, New York. https://issuu.com/newyorklifestylesmagazine/docs/plm_apr21?fr=sYTk1Mzg1ODU3

Pieces of the Heart

By Susan Baldani

When making something homemade, how about keeping a photographic progress chart to include with the gift? Many people may not realize how much work and time goes into handmade items, and showing off the steps can be fun and educational.

For example, if making someone a sweater, first take a picture of the yarn with the knitting needles or a crochet hook. Then, snap more pictures as the item takes shape. You may take one of the arms, the body, and then the finished product. If you’re making someone a bird house, take a picture of the pieces of wood and the tools needed to put it together. Maybe take a pic once it’s fastened together, then one of the painting in progress, and then the completed house.

It will be interesting for the recipients to see what the items started out as and then to see them in all their glory. It will also show the craftsmanship involved, and may even inspire them to make something with their own hands.

Turning pieces of raw materials into something useful and/or pretty is a real gift that possibly the creators don’t even realize they have. But seeing something take shape from beginning to end can bring it to light and allow one to see the magic involved.

Also, taking the time to make someone a homemade gift with your own hands and from your heart is like giving a little piece of yourself. And what says love more than that?

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

From Italy, With Love

Cook, eat and celebrate all the flavors of the country

By Susan Baldani

Growing up in Italy, Cristina Bossini was a very picky eater. However, as an adult, she discovered a love of cooking and developing recipes that opened up a whole new world to her. So much so that she switched careers in order to pass on her passion and knowledge of food to others.  

When she arrived in the U.S. seven years ago, she thought it would only be for six months in order to indulge her love of the English language. But those plans quickly changed.

“Working as a CPA in Italy didn’t give me the opportunity to use English at all, so while here, I joined a Meetup group focused on English language exchange,” Cristina says. “There, I met a very interesting man, Jean Ergas, who speaks eight languages, teaches at NYU and is a CPA.”

He helped her find a job in her field where she received a working visa. “That was in April 2014,” she says. “I told my Dad, and he said, ‘Okay, considering you are in the U.S. and that is the biggest market in the world, you have to come up with something else. You can keep that job, but you also have to take advantage of this situation.”

She took his advice to heart. In 2016, she opened Healthy Italia – La Buona Cucina, in Madison, and in 2017, left her job as a CPA in order to devote herself full time to her business.

Healthy Italia, among other things, provides imported products from Italy, and has become a real family affair. “My brother Roberto and my father collect the products from all over Italy and then ship them here,” says Cristina. “My other brother, Angelo, who lives here, takes care of the IT aspects of the business. My brothers also produce the cookware I sell, which are made in Italy from recycled aluminum.”

Healthy Italia also offers a wide variety of ready-made meals featuring Italian classics such as eggplant parmesan, lasagna, and chicken scallopini. These come packaged in oven-ready containers, so they are easy to prepare.

In addition, the venue hosts holiday and family parties, corporate team building events, and other events people are interested in celebrating. Catering is also available, with special holiday menus and as well as their regular everyday menus. Or, if customers would prefer to have the food made and served in their own homes, Cristina also offers private chef services.

But, one of its biggest attractions is its cooking school. “What’s special about our cooking school is that every single person has their own station and makes everything from scratch, so all of our classes are hands on,” she says. “It’s not just cooking; you sit down and eat the meal you have prepared for yourself. It’s a cooking experience together with a dining experience.”

For Valentine’s Day, Healthy Italia will be holding special holiday cooking classes, which can be a fun date night for couples. And now, it’s also offering virtual cooking classes for individuals and families, so kids can also get involved. A box with all the ingredients is shipped to participants and then Cristina instructs them on how to cook it, while sharing a glass of wine in the process, or in the case of children, a glass of apple juice.

For more information, go to https//healthy-italia.com/.

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

Human Trafficking

How one organization is helping victims heal

By Susan Baldani

In the United States, it’s hard for people to grasp that women, men and children, many of whom are U.S. citizens, are still being sold into slavery. Human trafficking happens everywhere, and the people impacted by this heinous crime are often unseen and unheard. Here in Tennessee, there is an organization helping these victims transform themselves into survivors.

Once they are identified by law enforcement, hospitals, mental health co-ops, or addiction services, to name a few, End Slavery Tennessee steps in to provide them first with basic needs such as housing, food, and clothing, and then counseling, addiction services, and educational assistance.

“No two survivors are the same,” says CEO Margie Quin. “Some of the women, and men and boys, have suffered extreme nutritional deprivation and sleep deprivation and they come in with some really significant medical issues, so we address those needs.” Many also need addiction counseling as well as complex trauma counseling.

Margie understands human trafficking in all its manifestations. As a former assistant special agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), she has seen its many horrors in her 26 year career.

“I worked on trafficking for 11 to 12 years and had supervised the first ever statewide trafficking unit with TBI,” she says.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of what trafficking is and how it happens, Margie advises people to listen to its podcast called “Someone Like Me.” There, you can hear survivors speak about their experiences.

Like most non-profit agencies, End Slavery Tennessee is always in need of funding and volunteers. Besides money, people can donate gift cards for Walmart, Target, grocery stores, and other places or choose an item to buy off its Amazon wish list. There are also seven community groups, including those in Brentwood and Franklin, that hold various fundraisers and awareness events.

To find out more and to support its mission, go to www.endslaverytn.org/.  Here, you can donate funds, connect and volunteer with a community group, and learn about other ways to get involved.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

An Artistic Treasure

Enjoy a bounty of extraordinary art and interesting events at a venue close to home

By Susan Baldani

The Morris Museum, a designated Smithsonian Affiliate, is a hidden gem located in Morristown. Filled with artistic wonders and fun and educational events for people of all ages, it lives up to its new mission: “Interpreting the past, discovering the future, through Art, Sound, and Motion.”

“So, it’s more conceptual, and we’re very open to different practices and different disciplines,” says Ron Labaco, director of exhibitions and collections/chief curator.

Collections and Exhibits

In addition to its incredible permanent collections, such as the American Indian gallery, the Earth Science gallery, and the renowned Guinness Collection of  mechanical musical instruments and automata, there are many special exhibitions throughout the year. (See list below.)

One of these remarkable exhibits, Threads of Consciousness, is by artist Jon Eric Riis. It’s his largest exhibit yet in the U.S. and is also his first solo museum exhibition in the Northeast.

“The Japanese have a technique that they borrowed from China called fingernail weaving,” says Jon. “It’s quite fine weaving and I have very fine metallic threads and silk threads so you get clarity of details. And I like the idea of using precious materials.”

His inspiration to do this started with a Russian art exhibition he attended in Atlanta, where he now lives. It included a lot of textiles that were embellished with pearls and, he says, absolutely beautiful.

The Museum offers other areas of interest, says Ron, such as its installations of mechanical instruments and model trains that are operated by push buttons. In light of COVID, they have installed foot pedals for visitors to use, or they can pick up a stylus to push the buttons. The museum also offers demonstrations of the mechanical instruments at 2:00pm.  Note: The Museum will be open only on weekends from January-March 2021.  

The Bickford Theatre

Two years ago, Brett Messenger, the curatorial director of Live Arts, was tasked with reinventing the performing arts programming at the Museum.

“Creating something new in a place with a lot of history is an exciting challenge,” he says. “But the thing that was most exciting was the opportunity to do performing arts programming in a museum and how that can enhance what’s happening on the stage and what’s happening in the galleries.”   

The Bickford Theatre, he says, is unique in that it’s fully rigged for major performances. “Most museums have an auditorium space that’s good for a speaker or maybe a small ensemble or screening, but this theater can handle anything from plays to dance performances.”

Due to COVID-19, indoor performances were put on hold, but that didn’t stop Brett. He developed the Lot of Strings Festival, which attracted Grammy-award winning ensembles to play in the Museum’s parking lot.

“It turned out to be a great thing not only for the audiences that were really craving live music, but for the artists as well. In a strange way, our parking lot became a hub of classical music.” He plans to bring these lot concerts back this spring.

Brett also launched a Live Arts series. “This was born from a desire to really connect the galleries to the stage and even bring the performing arts out of the theater and into the galleries.”

Private and Public Events

The Museum is also a wonderful place to get married, hold a corporate meeting, have a fundraiser, or do a photoshoot. “It’s a very unique venue,” says Nina Hoffer, private event manager. “Throughout the evening, guests can wander around the Museum, visit select galleries and see all the art exhibits. So it’s great for amazing photo opportunities.”

There are three main spaces to hold events (see list below.)

Supporting the Morris Museum

Like most nonprofits, the Morris Museum had to get creative when devising fundraising events this year. Mira Prives, director of development, is excited to announce the Museum’s first ever virtual gala.

This gala will take place on Thursday, February 25, at 7:00 pm, and last for approximately 45 minutes. The theme, to honor its new mission, will be art, sound, and motion.

“This is the first full year that we have been focusing on that new mission, so we decided to theme our gala around it,” she says. To attend the Gala, interested guests can go to its website and click on the ‘Events’ tab.

“It’s going to be a great celebration for both people who know and don’t know there’s a museum here,” says Mira, “We’re going to have different artists and performers participating, plus some other surprises, and it’s going to be a fun way to learn about the Museum.”

Another great way to support the Museum and the best way to take advantage of all the Museum has to offer is to become a member.

Membership starts at $50.00 a year for an individual or $45.00 for a senior which gives special access and perks. There are also family and high-level memberships, where you get more exclusive access.

“Museums can sometimes be thought of as non-essential services, but there are things that the Museum has provided such as serenity, inspiration, comfort, and relief,” says Mira. “I think all these things are really important.”

To find about more, go to https://morrismuseum.org/, or call 973-971-3700.      

Event spaces:

The Entrance Pavilion  – the grand main foyer at the entrance to the Museum. This is the biggest space of the three, and can be used in a variety of ways.  Once they know your guest count and type of event, they will work with you to create a customizable layout and floorplan.

Museum Court – a two-story promenade, and the second largest space. Built around the Georgian-style mansion, it has modern glass on one side, and the exterior brick wall of the house on the other. It’s a great place for cocktail hour, says Nina.

Twin Oaks Mansion  – encompassing a traditional look with chandeliers and a fireplace. There is also a beautiful staircase from which brides can make a grand entrance.

Exhibits:

NJ Arts Annual: – Dissonance – Art | Craft | Design | Performance | New Media – through March 14

Adrian Landon: The Mechanical Horse – through March 15

Threads of Consciousness:  The Tapestries of Jon Eric Riis – through May 2

Natural Essence – Motion Perceived – from April 1 through August 15

Those Beautiful Rags (Ragtime music) – through October 10

Safarani Sisters: Beneath the Breath – April 1 through October 31

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

Local Teens Answering the Call for Help

Last year was surprising in a number of ways. In the midst of a pandemic, most people were doing their best to avoid others. So, the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad membership committee was not expecting any new applications to come in for quite a long time.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. Community members came forward to help, while putting their own safety at risk. Even more surprising, many of these applicants were teenagers looking to join our cadet program.

Here, some of these members talk about why they made this decision, and how it has affected them.

Julia Jackson – age 17

I joined the Rescue Squad during COVID-19, which is a scary thing, but also in my mind this was the most impactful time to join the squad. Of course, we are very cautious on calls with preventing the spread of this virus, but overall, if anything, I think this pandemic has just made me a stronger EMT. I love that I can help our community when it really needs me.

Riley Gasson – age 16

Once the pandemic started, I saw all of the amazing work that first responders were doing. I noticed a need for EMTs and I wanted to do everything I could to help my community. Now being an EMT, I find it so rewarding to help people when they are in need. I couldn’t imagine joining in a more pivotal moment in history, and I am so thankful that I am a part of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad.

Ashini Bhardwaj – age 17

When I became a member during the pandemic, I was very nervous at first. I was afraid of such a deadly outbreak that had cost so many people their lives. But as I started to get more patients, I realized how rewarding this job was. There needs to be people who help those who are in need and I like the fact that I can try and be one of those. Helping people makes me happy and after seeing many people in pain, I realized that I want to try and at least make them feel a little better no matter what the issue is. Becoming a member during the pandemic is probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. 

TJ Walsh – age 17

I initially looked into cadet programs last year prior to the pandemic, thinking that it would be a good way for me to get involved with healthcare. Once things were more stable over the summer, I started applying again because I wanted to jump in and help wherever I could. All over the news you would see doctors and nurses risking their lives for the well-being of others, and because I am young, healthy, and have an interest in working in medicine, I just wanted to serve my community and help in whatever way I could. 

Maura Farrell – age 18

I wanted to do something for the community amidst the pandemic, and I was drawn to SPRS because of my medical interest. Taking the EMT course hybrid was a little bit out of my comfort zone, but over time between that and virtual school I was able to get used to having online lectures. Because there were new precautions taken due to the pandemic, I felt like even though I was still learning on my shifts, everyone around me was learning a little as well. Everyone I’ve met at the squad has been so kind and supportive! They were always willing to help me review skills or study for my class. I’m so happy I made the decision to join! 

Karoline Hocevar – age 16

I joined the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad around June of 2020. Seeing my parents work during quarantine made me want to do something more with my time. I had always hoped to one day join a rescue squad and I felt like it was the perfect time to help those in need. 

If you too are interested in joining the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad, please go to our website at www.scotchplainsrescuesquad.com, email us at scotchplainsrescuesquad@gmail.com, or call 908-322-2103.

Contributing Author:  Susan Baldani, lifemember and membership chairperson of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad.

Making Magical Memories

By Sue Baldani

Like most nonprofit organizations, Camp Fatima of New Jersey is experiencing major challenges due to COVID-19. Founded in 1968 by four Seton Hall seminary students, the camp offers free sleep-away programs for disabled children and adults. And it’s determined to continue doing so. Seeing the smiles on the faces of those it serves, and providing a respite to their families, is not something that can be sacrificed due to a pandemic.

And smile they do. It’s not called FATIMAGIC for nothing. The campers, regardless of their disabilities, get to do things that most able-bodied children and adults take for granted. They splash around in pools, sing songs, eat s’mores, dance, and take part in arts and crafts. Every child has his or her own dedicated counselor to ensure the utmost care, so each activity can be individually tailored according to the camper’s ability.

Its mission statement, “Camp Fatima provides free, life enriching camp experiences for children and adults with developmental disabilities,” says it all. Some of the campers are in wheelchairs, while others have neurological, sensory or other serious issues. Camp Fatima and its volunteers open their hearts to all who come. It truly is a magical place.

The volunteers come from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Most have experience working directly with the disabled, and include teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, college students and other professionals. For these selfless individuals, the sounds of laughter and the looks of pure joy on the campers’ faces are all the payment they need.

Many of these volunteers live locally. Billy Malone, a Scotch Plains firefighter and Fanwood resident, became a volunteer in 1994 and has been the chairperson for the past 13 years. Scotch Plains resident and former Scotch Plains police officer, Jamie Denman, has been a volunteer since 1979, and is the current director.

Even though no one at the camp is paid, all this magic requires funding. It costs several hundred thousand dollars to operate the two children’s summer sessions and the four adult weekends each year. Funding to support and host the more than 200 campers and over 450 on site-volunteers comes from generous benefactors, corporate matching gifts, private giving, and fundraising. Because of COVID-19, many of the usual fundraisers are not able to take place.

So this year, Camp Fatima is looking for individuals to sponsor a camper. The cost to feed, house, and supply materials to each camper is more than $1000.00. To find out more about Camp Fatima, or to volunteer, make a donation, or sponsor a camper, please go to https://campfatimanj.org/.  Since the camp is a designated 501(c) (3) organization, all donations may be tax-deductible.

 Camp Fatima of New Jersey: Changing Lives, Enriching Hearts – One Camper, One Volunteer at a Time.

Hockey on Ice

How COVID-19 has put the sport on hold

By Susan Baldani

The sports industry, like many others, has been seriously impacted by the restrictions necessitated by COVID-19. From managers and players to fans and arena owners, the effect has been devastating, especially for a sport like hockey.

“It’s had a really dramatic effect on the business of hockey at every level, as it’s had with other sports,” says Costa Papista, sports manager and former semi-professional hockey player. “However, with some other sports, you can practice and train outdoors, but with hockey, not so much.

“You’re in an indoor arena, out on the ice, working really hard, and then you come off the ice after your 60 second shift and you’re sitting on the bench shoulder to shoulder with your teammates, breathing heavily and gasping for air. So, it seems logical that this airborne virus is bad luck for hockey.”

Hockey also doesn’t have the television revenue that some other sports do, he explains. It relies heavily on ticket sales and sponsorship and those two go hand-in-hand – if you’re not selling tickets and filling stadiums, the value to sponsors is greatly diminished.

At the minor professional level, says Papista, they’re looking at many different options. “Primarily, by having a shorter season and trying to hold off as long as possible to be able to get fans into the arenas and stadiums because that ticket revenue is so critical.”

A lot of the minor leagues have set start dates, then reset then, and then reset them again. Most semi-professional leagues and major junior leagues would have normally started in September, but they’ve been waiting to be able to at least be allowed a limited number of fans.

“No one wants to just cancel; they just want to wait until it’s safe and feasible,” says Papista. “But the way things have been going with case counts, it’s not really encouraging.

“It’s very difficult on so many levels because you got players that have a window of time where they have to be seen, recruited, and signed. So it’s tough on the players, tough on the families, and tough on the team owners. I also feel really bad for the arena owners and operators because they literally survive on ice rentals.”

Papista loves the sport, and has been playing since he was 4 years old. As a young man, he played on different local teams in his hometown of Grosse Pointe, and then in 1985, was drafted into the Ontario hockey league by the Sudbury Wolves. He’s also played for the London Knights, and for the University of New Brunswick in Canada while on a hockey scholarship. In addition, he’s competed internationally at the Hockey World Championships (1995) as a member of the Greek National Team.

“I like the speed of the game, and the physicality of the game as well,” he says. “I always loved being part of a team and I’ve been lucky to be a part of some close-knit teams. Some of those guys are my closest friends.”

Besides playing hockey, Papista always had an interest in the business side of sports as well. He has parlayed his experience and knowledge of the sport into management positions and has launched start-up franchises. He also currently plays on a local recreation team just for fun. So, he is seeing the sport struggle from many different angles.

Papista thinks the next six to 12 months are going to remain very challenging and difficult, but he does believe that hockey, and other sports, will rebound.

“If the vaccines from different companies are really effective, and once people get vaccinated and feel comfortable going out in public again, especially in large gatherings, I think all sports are going to recover,” he says.

“But I do think things are going to have to be done somewhat differently. It’s not going to be back to normal; it’s going to be back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Written for Grosse Pointe Lifestyle magazine in Michigan.

Feeding Families

How a local restaurant is giving back to those in need

By Susan Baldani

Last spring, Calabria Pizzeria and Restaurant in Livingston marked its 40th anniversary. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, a big celebration just wasn’t possible. Instead, the family who owns the restaurant came up with a way to support and thank their loyal customers.  

“I created the Family Meal at the beginning of the pandemic in order for us to give back to customers,” says Gabriella Ottaiano, one of the general managers. “Plus, we wanted to do something special for our anniversary on April 1. It was only supposed to be for that day, but the demand was so crazy that we decided to continue it.”

It is a true family business: Gabriella is the daughter of Bernardino Ottaiano, who founded the restaurant along with his brother, Giuseppe (Joe) Ottaiano, Sr. His son, Giuseppe Ottaiano, Jr., is the other general manager.

For $39.99, customers who order the Family Meal get a half tray of chicken, a half tray of pasta, a half tray of salad, a whole pizza, a bottle of wine, and homemade Italian desserts. It’s enough food to feed a family of four to six people, says Gabriella.

Since the pandemic started, Calabria has been doing curbside pickup and no-contact delivery. Last fall, the family decided to feed struggling families at no cost.

“There are a lot of people in need who can’t make ends meet, and they’re literally losing their homes,” says Gabriella.

So, on Monday, November 16, she posted on Facebook, in part, “If you are not working/not getting a paycheck/struggling to make ends meet and run out of food or necessities…please don’t let yourself or your kids go to sleep with an empty stomach.”

All people had to do was send her a message at calabrias1@aol.com. In less than a week, the restaurant had fed over 100 families. “No questions asked, we’ll feed your family,” she says. “We’ve been donating the Family Meal.”

In order to continue to help people in need, customers have been buying gift cards to be used to feed more families. “In the beginning, we were just doing it on our own. Many of the gift cards purchased were used to buy 80 families Thanksgiving dinner (a value of $125.00).” They will use the other gift cards once they can’t afford to donate the Family Meals any longer.

“People can call and purchase a gift card which will be used to feed needy people,” says Gabriella. “We keep track of everything and everyone gets a phone confirmation of their gift card.

“There’s a lot of people out there and we need help spreading the word. The more we share, the more we can help people. The response, so far, has been unbelievable.”

If you’re interested in purchasing and donating gift cards, or just getting a delicious meal, go to Calabria Pizzeria and Restaurant’s website at https://calabrianj.com/, or call 973-992-8496. Calabria can also be found on Instagram.

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