Culinary Compositions

Delicious and delectable bites across the board

By Susan Baldani

Charcuterie boards are an easy and delicious way to bring people together. Toni Zorich, owner of Dammi Vino, grew up in an Italian household. When she creates a board for her family, she makes sure to always include prosciutto and Italian cheeses.

“I’m Italian, and we sit around the table and drink wine and eat food all the time,” she says. “I came up with Dammi Vino, which roughly translates to ‘Feed me wine.’ It’s what I do best in life.”

Dammi Vino is a local company providing unique food and wine experiences. Their custom charcuterie boards often include such favorites as prosciutto, focaccia crackers, and barrel-aged cheeses. And, says Toni, they are full to the brim with the highest quality foods.

“They are built with lots of care and much love because this is a family business,” she says. “As much as I would like to take credit for it, I could not do this without my mom, my fiancé, or his sister.”

What she puts on a board depends on the client and the event. It can be fancy and festive for a romantic picnic or girls’ night out, or more down to earth and manly for a sporting event or poker game. But each one is an original.

“Part of the fun with my boards is you can get wine that pairs with it, or a few different bottles that pair with certain bites,” says Toni. “It just takes it to another level.”

To find out more, go to

Starting with green olives and going clockwise:

[see picture above]

Castelvetrano Olives

These olives have a sweet, subtle flavor.

Honey Goat Gouda

An in-between hard and soft cheese with a great subtle, salty, and sweet flavor.


A traditional Italian dry-cured meat sliced very thin. It has a great saltiness.

Pretzel Thins

A cracker that is familiar to people, and has a flavor that hits everyone’s palate well.

Peppered Salami / Hard Salami

A meat with a slight spice flavor that brings a familiarity as something your guests can easily identify

Soft Brie Cheese

Pairs well with everything. It provides a perfect vessel for jams, jellies and honey.

Homemade Basil Strawberry Jam

Jams and jellies add flavor and color. This jam is best paired with the Brie cheese.

Herbed Pita Crisps

A cracker that brings more interesting flavors to the charcuterie board.


An Italian cured meat that brings sweet and salty to the board. It is one of the most delicious elements and always the first to go.

Kalamata Olives

These popular olives have a briny and salty flavor that many palates find pleasing.

Bellavitano Chardonnay Cheese

A great hard cheese with bites of salty, buttery and floral notes.

Rosemary to garnish

Written for Franklin Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

Attire That Inspires

Outfitting women with the tools to get the job done

By Susan Baldani

Dress for Success Nashville, a program through the YWCA, has been in operation for close to 10 years now. A local affiliate of the world-wide organization, it has helped countless women become financially secure.

“I believe very much in the YW’s mission of eliminating racism, empowering women, and loving peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all,” says Sharon Roberson, the President and CEO of the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. “Dress for Success is a crucial part of that mission because we do believe that women need support and career development tools in order to be empowered.”

Women are referred to Dress for Success from one of their many partner organizations in the community. These are women who have a desire to transition to a higher economic level through professional development. Dress for Success provides the clothes, the tools, and a network for women to help them become financially independent. This, in turn, leads to more security for their families.  

A career specialist helps women put together their resumes. Even if they have never been in the workforce, these specialists help them discover the skills they have and how to market them.

Before an interview, a woman is given what they call a “suiting,” which consists of an interview outfit and accessories. Wearing the appropriate outfit instills the confidence needed to make a positive first impression. If the woman gets the job, she is then able to return and receive a week’s worth of clothing, which she can mix and match as she desires.

Many of these women, says Roberson, have never had anyone pamper them or encouraged them to feel good about themselves.

“We also have a professional women’s group that mentors our clients, because when you get into the workforce, the first step is getting the job, but keeping the job is the second step,” she says.

Some of the women who have gone through Dress for Success and other YWCA programs come back to be mentors themselves.

“They are our greatest pride, says Roberson. “There are no better teachers than those who have been there.”

To support this invaluable program, go to Professional women can donate their time; others can hold a clothing drive, or financially assist the program. If anyone in Williamson County is interested in Dress for Success and/or any women’s organizations as a whole, Roberson would be happy to speak with them.

“For $250.00, you can cover the cost of an interview suiting for one client,” says Roberson. “You can give a woman a new lease on life with this $250.00.”

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle Magazine in Tennessee.

Designer Dreams

Honoring a family’s legacy

By Susan Baldani

Biridiana Torres’s family has a long history of following the American dream. Her grandfather, Maximiano Garcilazo, came to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico, in his early 20s to pursue a better life. Shortly after, he brought his wife Margarita to join him so they could raise their children in their newly adopted country. Biri’s mother, Monica, was born in the United States.

When Biri decided to pursue her own dream of starting her fashion design business, IXO’LOYANA, her family couldn’t have been more supportive. Her mother has become her go-to person when she needs a second opinion, and Biri often sends her pictures of dresses and asks her for feedback. Her father, Arturo Martinez, who was born in Mexico, also loves to see her creations.

“My parents are very proud and excited,” says Biri. “They love seeing a new finished dress or hearing about new opportunities.”

Biri knew from a young age that she wanted to design dresses. As a little girl, she would carry a notebook in which she would sketch every day. In high school, when she was getting ready for her junior prom, she couldn’t find a dress that matched the vision in her head. She ended up having to settle for what she could buy in a store.

“In my senior year, I was like, ‘That’s not going to happen again,’” she says. “So, for senior prom, I made my own dress. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, I just did it. Surprisingly, it turned out really nice.”

That’s when she knew for sure that designing was her passion and what she wanted to do going forward. She applied to Colorado University and was accepted into their Design and Construction program. In addition to obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Apparel and Merchandising in 2016, she also interned for the Wedding Seamstress in Arvada in her junior year and at the Anabella Poletti Design House in Fort Collins in her senior year. The skills she learned at both places were invaluable.

“While I was interning, I was able to do things I didn’t learn in college,” says Biri. “I learned all the tricks you need to know,  such as working with lace, which is so delicate, and how to make a wedding dress look structured.  I also learned awesome tricks to make fittings and alterations easier.”

The first custom dress she made on consignment was in 2016 for a teenager celebrating her quinceañera, a celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday common in many Spanish-speaking families. Shortly after, in 2017, she opened an Etsy Shop, and the orders started pouring in.

“I got many requests for custom dresses,” says Biri. “Everything from a confirmation dress and a prom dress, to a first communion dress and wedding dress. Basically, anything that was formalwear.”

All of these dresses were custom designed for a particular individual, so no two dresses were the same. On average, it takes about two months to complete a custom dress, but she can make them faster if necessary. She also works on multiple dresses at a time. 

Since making these dresses is very time consuming, she hasn’t had the time to do much else. Until now.

“I’m taking a break from custom dressing and taking the time to design a collection,” says Biri. “By making a collection, I feel that I can truly express myself as a designer. I have the ability to be very innovative and very creative.”

She is also doing this collection to reintroduce herself as an individual and as a designer. She has seen many small businesses doing Meet the Maker posts on their social media pages, and decided that she is going to do a Meet the Maker collection. In this way, she says, she can let everyone know who she is, but in dress form.  There will be a total of six dresses in the collection.

“Each dress is going to represent me in some sort of way,” says Biri. “So, the first dress is describing my Mexican American roots. I call it Beautiful Roots.”

When you see it at first glance, it’s going to say USA on the corset which will be in sequins, which are reversible. The American flag is on a short, belted skirt. But then, when I switch the sequins up, it will reveal the word Mexico. And when I drop the skirt it becomes a long skirt which will reveal the Mexican flag.”

Biri removed a Mexican eagle from a shirt she already had and sewed it onto the skirt to look like part of the flag. For the American portion of the skirt, she says she was lucky to find the most perfect upholstery fabric for the blue and white stars and the red and white stripes. It works wonderfully because it gives the skirt some structure.

For the second dress in the collection, she decided to do an inside out dress. This is to show how much work it takes to make a dress. The third dress will be an ethical dress that uses vegan leather; Biri is a vegan. The fourth dress will represent how much family means to her,  so she’ll be using a family tree as an inspiration. The fifth dress will represent her aunt’s name, IXA’LOYANA, which is also the name of her brand.

This name, she says, has a meaning behind it. Many of the letters represent the moon in some way.

The first two letters, she says, represent Ix Chel, a moon goddess from Mayan mythology. The “L” represents Luna, which is Spanish for moon. The “O” represents the shape of the moon, and “ANA” are the last letters of her full name, Biridiana. And Diana, in Roman Mythology, is a moon goddess as well.

“When I first started, I remember looking up at the sky whenever I didn’t feel inspired,” says Biri. “It would make me realize that we live in a beautiful world with a beautiful sky and moon, which I connect with my brand because I feel it is classy and edgy.”

The last and final dress in the collection will be more of a casual outfit. This will be something that she would wear to a show or a concert. She expects the whole collection to take about five to six months to complete.

“I feel blessed to have the opportunity to start a business in the U.S. because my family sacrificed and worked very hard to make it to this country,” she says. “I also feel inspired to continue growing and achieve more not only for me, but for my family and community as well.”

To learn more about Biri and IXA’LOYANA, go to

Written for Loveland & South Lifestyle magazine in Colorado.

Pass the Syrup

Pancakes are back on the breakfast menu

By Susan Baldani

When Josie Johnson was diagnosed with a gluten allergy many years ago, one of the foods she missed the most were pancakes. So, she started making her own mixes in her kitchen in Bend. Today, Josie’s Best Gluten Free Mixes are being sold throughout the U.S.

“When my husband and I were first dating, I really become obsessed with making a gluten-free pancake that we both could enjoy,” she says. (Marty, unlike Josie, doesn’t have a gluten allergy.) “So, I came up with one we really liked it and started giving it to family and friends. They loved them.”

The company’s warehouse is based in Sisters. All products are made with minimal ingredients, and can be enjoyed by people with many different food allergies. They contain no peanuts, no tree nuts, no dairy, and no gluten. In addition to pancake mixes, which are their number one seller, the company also offers mixes for waffles, muffins, and crepes.

Josie finds her work extremely rewarding. Many of her customers tell her that they had given up on pancakes until her mixes came along.

“For me, it feels like warmth and family and all the good  things about being a kid, with sticky syrupy fingers,” she says. “I’m grateful to know that I can insert some of that happiness back into people’s lives.”

To learn more, go to

Gluten Free Pancake Berry Bake Recipe


  • 2 cup batch of Josie’s Best GF Pancake batter (per instructions, you will need an egg, oil of choice, milk of choice)
  • 2 cups frozen berries (or any fruit)
  • ½ a lemon
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 2-4 tsps.  sugar of choice (Josie uses coconut sugar )


  • Line a square 8×8 baking dish with parchment and preheat oven to 350°.
  • Mix up pancake batter following instructions on the back of the bag.
  • Add the juice of ½ of lemon to batter. 
  • Toss frozen berries with 1-2 tsps. sugar and pour into baking dish.
  • Pour batter on top. Sprinkle with remaining sugar.
  • Bake for about one hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with only a few moist crumbs. 
  • Allow to cool slightly and enjoy!  

Written for Bend Lifestyle magazine in Bend, Oregon.

When home and school are one and the same

By Susan Baldani

It looks like distance learning is here to stay in many communities around the country this fall. At least this time around, unlike in the spring, parents have a chance to prepare. It’s critical for children to have the right environment in which to learn and setting up a dedicated learning area in your home can make a world of difference in their academic success.

There are many factors that go into choosing the right spot. It’s important that it be quiet and away from distractions such as televisions, radios, and/or household activity. This can be a dining room that’s rarely used, a spare bedroom, or an area in a finished basement. If possible, it’s better to set it up outside of children’s own bedrooms. For one thing, there are too many temptations such as toys and games there. For another, their bedroom should be the place they can go to relax when they’re done with their school day.

In whatever room or area that you choose, make it an enticing space where your children will want to go and spend time. Make sure there is a flat surface on which to work. This can be a desk or some kind of table with enough room for a computer and writing area. Comfortable seating and good lighting are also a must. Of course, outlets must be close by too.

Keep the area organized by making cubbies out of plastic crates or even small cardboard boxes that kids can decorate. These can be used to store books, folders, and notebooks, as well as ongoing and completed projects. Have a tray or small boxes to hold pens, pencils, scissors, glue, and whatever other supplies a child might need to complete assignments. To encourage tidiness with younger children, make a chart with stickers that children can achieve when they clean up their work areas at the end of the day. This way, they can begin the next morning in a neat and functional “classroom.” 

We don’t know how long  these COVID-19 restrictions will last, but for now at least, children are having to adapt to a whole new way of learning. Let’s make their home learning environment a stimulating and interesting place to spend their school days.

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

America strong – September 11, 2001


What can be said that hasn’t been already said? How many more tears will be shed over this tragedy? Even if you hadn’t lost someone personally that day, you still lost a lot. A sense of security in our homeland, in our places of work, in our routines, and in our streets. Our innocence of evil and the faith that terrorism would never strike us on our soil. Gone.

But we also gained a lot. The strength to go on and live our lives even in the face of danger, the overwhelming appreciation of those who run toward death and destruction instead of away from it. A pride in our nation that may have been forgotten. The ability for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds to come together to offer support for their fellow man. Let’s find that again. One Nation, Under God.

Even with all of our troubles, and especially today, I am proud to be an American.



Going casual in the age of COVID-19

By Sue Baldani

With many people working from home due to COVID-19, weekday dress is transforming from business casual to, well, just casual. Leisurewear and athleisure, such as yoga pants and stylish sweats, were already hot commodities for after work and weekends. Now, they are becoming the workday norm. This year, fall fashion is going to look much different than it did in 2019.

“Work-from-home is a category of merchandise that never existed before and is going to persist for quite a while,” says David Zoba, Chairman of global retail leasing at JLL, in the article, “How COVID-19 is Changing the Fashion World,” on its website.

 How we dress is not only about fashion. During times of great uncertainty and fear, people seek comfort, whether in clothing, food, or family. Along with the emotional fallout, there is the loss of everyday social interactions. Working from home can be isolating for those used to the hustle and bustle of an office. There is no longer bantering with coworkers during coffee breaks or stopping to chat at a colleague’s desk. So, if we have to be alone at home, we might as well be comfortable.

 People are now living, working, and playing at home, and their clothing reflects that. Instead of changing outfits for these different activities, they’re now wearing the same one for all three.

Lululemon, one of the best-known brands in the athleisure market, is experiencing a tremendous surge in sales after expanding into loungewear. And Betabrand, an online retailer that began its “Dress Pant Yoga Pant” campaign many years ago, has been enjoying steadily increasing sales after hosting a “Work From Home” online runway show early on in the pandemic.

An additional issue these days, especially when it comes to high fashion, is money. Unemployment rates are staggering, and even those still working may have taken a pay cut. This has changed the trend from spending to saving. Having the latest Michael Kors handbag or Jimmy Choo shoes may not be a priority, especially when there is nowhere to go and no one to admire them.

The contents in those designer handbags have also changed. Those fun extras that women used to carry such as body sprays and hair ties have now been replaced with hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and extra masks.

Traditional clothes shopping has also undergone a huge change. Shoppers may be hesitant to go into physical stores, so fashion retailers have shifted their focus to e-commerce. According to data from analysis firm Commerce Signals, online sales skyrocketed following the March closures of brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S.

However, online buying is not without its problems. One major disadvantage of purchasing clothing online is the inability try things on; the other is shipping costs. This has led to more consumers “shopping” in their closets. They are rediscovering outfits that may have been pushed to the back of the closet some time ago.

Joshua Williams, assistant professor of fashion management at the Parsons School of Design, in the Bustle magazine article, “People May Never Dress The Same Again After Coronavirus, Experts Say,” states, “Most importantly, this pandemic has made us realize that we have a lot of clothes in our closets we are not wearing.

It’s forcing us to think about what clothes we will likely wear post-pandemic — especially with the idea of moving through the world in more comfort.”

Social media also reflects this new normal. Whereas pre-COVID it was common to see users showing off their stylish new outfits and accessories, now you see many more selfies featuring more casual clothing.

Another reason for comfortable and oversized clothing during a pandemic? Weight gain. With gyms closed, limited places to go, and  a refrigerator and pantry in the next room 24/7, people are finding it harder to stay fit. Those elastic waistbands help us to ignore the fact that we can’t fit into our tailored suits any longer.

Of course, there are times when business wear still comes into play, even while working from home. Bosses, colleagues, and clients may request to see you onscreen, so “waist up”  dressing has become quite the thing. Basically, wearing business attire on top, but then sweats or even underwear below.

This has also led to a new type of apparel called the “Zoom shirt.” This is a more office-friendly shirt that is donned only while having online meetings.

In the article, “The Video Call is Starting. Time to put on your Zoom shirt,” Maria Rugolo, an apparel industry analyst for the NPD Group, states that according to a company poll, only 10 percent of people actually get dressed in business attire to work from home. The majority just slip into and out of Zoom Shirts.

Despite the trend to casual wear, there are people who are still interested in adding some unique style into their everyday lives, especially when they do leave the house. Instead of having to wear those ubiquitous, plain surgical masks, some designers and consumers are making cloth masks that go specifically with certain outfits, either by using matching fabric or fabric that accentuates the colors in the clothes.  Masks have become another accessory, albeit a necessary one, so why not dress them up?

What about post-COVID fashion? Will we go back to a more formal style?

“I do believe we will dress up for special events,” Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist, states in Bustle magazine. “But work attire will become lax. At a psychological level, people will still be fraught with anxiety. This has scarred us, and this will affect how we present ourselves to the world externally due to the inner turmoil the pandemic has caused.”

Other experts, however, are predicting a resurgence of the desire to “get dressed up.” They expect people to get bored with the casual look and go back to relishing the idea of  putting on a fancy dress or a designer pair of pants. Timeless classics, they believe, will also regain popularity.

With casual clothing most likely to continue well into the fall season, fashionistas may have to wait until the spring season to break out their favorite au couture outfits once again. Until then, make sure those Zoom shirts are within reach.

Written for Grosse Pointe Lifestyle magazine in Michigan.

Swim Like a Dolphin


A life-changing and life-saving organization

By Sue Baldani

When Beth Scruggs, an avid swimmer, was asked to help a child with Down Syndrome improve her swimming skills in order to compete in the Special Olympics, she was glad to help.  But she didn’t stop there. Today, the Nashville Dolphins, an organization she started in 2003, has over 215 participants.

“The leading cause of death for people with special needs is drowning, so it’s really important for them to learn how to swim,” said Brenda Vroon, Program Director and Head Swim Coach.

Brenda got involved with the Nashville Dolphins about 10 years ago. She is a physical education teacher and also the Wildwood Gators swim coach. The Gators, which has some swimmers with Down Syndrome, hold Swim-A-Thons to raise money for the Dolphins. During these Swim-A-Thons, swimmers ask family members, friends, and neighbors for pledges, and depending on how many laps they do, money is raised to support the Nashville Dolphins.

According to Brenda, there are no other programs like it in the country. Whereas most programs for people with disabilities end when they turn 18, no one ages out of the Dolphins. Right now, the youngest child is only 2 and the oldest is 52. The person who Beth initially helped all those years ago is still in the program.

Brenda said she is always surprised when parents tell her that no one is willing to teach their children with disabilities how to swim. Swimming is not only a life-long sport, and one that will keep them safe, but it’s also great exercise. In addition, the Nashville Dolphins programs provide a peer group where people with disabilities can feel like they are a part of something.

“It’s really nice for kids to get out there and be with others like themselves and have that camaraderie,” said Brenda.

Their mission is to provide those with special needs the physical and emotional benefits of swimming. They accept people of all ages, abilities, and financial backgrounds, and participation in the Nashville Dolphins is completely free. They will even purchase a swimsuit for a participant, if necessary.

“Parents of  special needs children have so many costs, from medical bills to therapy programs,” said Brenda. “Our program is totally free.  We never have charged, and we never will charge. That’s part of our mission – to provide free swim lessons.”

They have about 65 swimmers on their Dolphin Swim Team, while most of the other swimmers are in the Junior Dolphins. There is also a “learn to swim” program called Future Dolphins.

The ultimate goal, said Brenda, is for most of the swimmers to get to the point where they will be on the Dolphin Swim Team. Some of these swimmers go on to compete in Special Olympic competitions. There are some members with serious disabilities who will not be able to reach that goal; however, they never have to leave the program.

“People love it. They love the friendships, they love the volunteers, and they develop great bonds and learn teamwork,” she said.

Brenda said there aren’t any disabilities that would preclude someone from taking part in the Nashville Dolphin’s programs. Participants include people in wheelchairs, those who are blind or deaf, and others with a variety of disabilities. Some have prior swimming skills while others are absolute beginners.

Since they don’t have their own facility, their greatest challenge is finding pool space. Because of this, they do have a wait list, so unfortunately not everyone who wants to take part can do so. If they had more pool space, she said, they would be able to accept more people.

“We have been trying to raise capital to build a pool, which would be life changing, but right now we are in many indoor pools throughout the community,” said Brenda.

Some of these include the Gordon Jewish Community Center, Ensworth High School, the University School of Nashville, and the Centennial Sportsplex.

“Wherever people will give us pool space, that’s where we go,” said Brenda.

While their ultimate goal is to be able to build their own indoor pool facility, for now they would really like to get people off their wait lists and into the water. Swimming is what they’re all about.

“It’s sad that we have so many people on our wait list. We are open to any size indoor pool,” she said.

The Nashville Dolphins holds many fundraisers throughout the year. Their Boots and Bubbles fundraiser, which is a big crawfish boil, is usually held in May or June. This year, because of COVID-19, they had to get creative and do a drive-through event with live music and punch. It was a great success, and they ended up cooking over 2100 pounds of crawfish. They also hold a mum sale in September, and host an event called Soundwaves and Sweethearts every February. It’s a big party with a band, with liquor that is usually donated. Brenda said it’s a really fun event, and guests really enjoy themselves.

In the past couple of years, swim teams in Williamson County and the National Swim League have jumped on the Wildwood fundraising bandwagon and have done their own Swim-a-Thons to raise money for the Dolphins. This summer, four swim teams are taking part.

In addition, the Nashville Dolphins recently participated in a fundraiser called the Big Payback. It’s a huge fundraiser for Middle Tennessee where different nonprofits try to raise money.

“Because we felt like we had to give back to Nashville, we just presented a check to The Store, which is a free grocery store started by Brad Paisley and Kimberly Williams- Paisley in Belmont,” said Brenda. “We gave them half of our ticket sales and presented a check for $8700.00.”

The National Dolphins is staffed by over 150 volunteers, who come from all over the state. Volunteers don’t have to have any swimming background, and they need people both in and out of the water. If people are interested in volunteering, they can go to their website and fill out the application. There is even a video showing what volunteers can expect.

“We have lead instructors who help the volunteers, so they just have to have a willing spirit and an open mind,” said Brenda.

If an organization has an indoor pool and would like to donate space, please reach out to the Nashville Dolphins by phone at 615-866-9971, by e-mail at, or on their website at Or, if a corporation or individual would like to donate funds, please click the “Donate” button located on their website. Since members never age out, the financial needs continue to grow every year. Besides the website, information and personal stories about the Nashville Dolphins can also be found on Facebook and Instagram.

“There are so many things that this program does, and I wish more people knew about it,” said Brenda.

Pull quote: “The leading cause of death for people with special needs is drowning, so it’s really important for them to learn how to swim.”

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Brentwood, TN.


Healing Our Heroes


How horses are bringing hope to those who give their all

By Susan Baldani

Many of our veterans have a hard time transitioning back into civilian life. Suicide and divorce rates are high, and traditional therapies are not always successful when dealing with their unique issues.

Jennifer O’Neill, the long-time actress, model and author, set out to help these heroes. In 2010, she started Hope & Healing at Hillenglade, an equine-assisted program for veterans (and first responders) that teaches them new ways of coping with a myriad of issues. Steven DePalma, her partner with Hope & Healing, has served in Afghanistan.

“There’s something very special about warrior to warrior conversations,” she said.

All programs take place on her farm, located right outside of downtown Nashville. Veterans often come to Hillenglade from Fort Campbell, as well as  organizations such as Operation Stand Down and Wounded Warriors.

“We have served over 4000 military and first responders and their families,” she said.

O’Neill believes that it’s not enough just to work with the veteran or first responder; you also have to work with their families.

“We are intent on dealing with the entire family unit,” she said. “You can’t deal with one person and not look at the trickle-down effect.”

When participants arrive, they meet with O’Neill and/or DePalma and get to know each other. This exchange helps to ascertain the specific needs of the veterans and first responders. Once that’s done, they will begin to interact with the horses.

“It’s so interesting to see what happens, because it varies with the person and with the horse,” she said. “For instance, knowing our horses and knowing our guests, we can partner them with a specific horse that will work on their specific issues.”

Horses, she said, are flight animals. Their instinct is to check you out to see if you’re going to hurt them.

“Our program is not about riding; it’s all about ground work,” said O’Neill. “Horses have 17 expressions, so it’s interesting to see these men and women warriors who come in perhaps feeling distant, and develop a trusting relationship with our horses.”

What happens, she said, is this beautiful dance between the person in the pen and the horse. During this time, the horse is loose – or at liberty – and by using specialized exercises, O’Neill and DePalma help to create a relationship between the two.

“When a horse, this 1200-pound animal, comes to them by its own volition and willingness to want to partner and have a relationship with them, you just see these amazing heroes just break down and completely respond.”

Many times, she said, participants don’t realize they’re presenting with anger, or coldness, or acting threatening.

“Horses are our mirrors, and with their 17 different expressions, they can show what they think of us pretty easily,” said O’Neill. “God was in a good mood when he made a horse.”

Initially, Hillenglade Hope & Healing hosted large celebrations where veterans, first responders, and their families could get away in the country and be around the wonder of therapy horses. However, when they were finally able to build a covered pen a couple of years ago, they got into deeper healing programs.

“That has been a real blessing,” she said. “It’s very difficult to start to do deeper healing and say ‘Well, I’ll see you in the spring,’ or ‘The weather’s not going to be good this month.’ Now, we have groups come down for three-day deeper healing events.”

Once participants have gone through their program, O’Neill and DePalma will then have them talk about what they’ve learned and experienced at the farm and how they can take that home to their families and friends and to their work environment. If requested, they will also work in concert with certified counselors in more traditional therapies.

Hillenglade Hope & Healing also offers an Empowerment Transition Program. This program provides veterans  a place to stay on the farm for three to six months, while they work through their issues. During this time, they work on the farm daily with the horses and learn how to care for them. Once they graduate, they can then get a job in the equine world.

O’Neill would like to expand Hillenglade’s offerings, but it’s been very difficult lately for many 501(c)(3) organizations. Because all of their programs are free for the veterans, first responders, and their families, their financial needs are great.

“We’re just hoping that people recognize the importance of  this program and help us to keep doing this,” she said. “These days, there’s a lot of need everywhere, but this is not frivolous. This is lifesaving.”

To donate, please go to their website at They also need hard-working volunteers who are willing to groom horses, clean stalls, paint fences, and prepare for events. If you can help, please contact them for more information.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Brentwood, TN.

Head to the shore, soak up some sun, and then go shopping


By Susan Baldani

With the warm weather coming, many of us will soon be heading to the beach. Soaking up the sun, splashing in the waves, and reading a book are great ways to spend a summer day. But, look around, and you will see there are many other things to do to have a great time while there, which allows you to support local businesses at the same time.

Many shore communities have small, often family-owned shops filled with unique and high-quality items that you may not be able to find closer to home. Candle stores, yarn shops, baby boutiques, and stationery stores are usually steps away from the sand and surf. Take some time to visit, say hello to the proprietors, and pick up some items to treat yourself, or to give as special presents for someone’s birthday or anniversary.

Sand, saltwater, and sun can also wreak havoc on your nails and skin. Stop in a local salon or spa and let yourself be pampered with a mani-pedi and facial. You will come back from the beach not only with a tan, but with lovely nails and glowing, vibrant skin as well.

Looking for something with a little more action? How about a game of mini golf or getting soaked at a water park? What kid (or adult) doesn’t enjoy getting a hole in one or gliding down a slide on an inner tube? Much more exciting than just lying on the beach.

Craving a bite to eat? Instead of bringing your own food in a cooler each time, check out what the local delis and mom-and-pop restaurants have to offer. Some of the best food can be found at the shore.  Tear into a lamb or chicken gyro or indulge in a creamy seafood pasta dish. And whatever you do, don’t forget dessert. Enjoy a delicious ice cream cone with sprinkles, funnel cake with powdered sugar, or a generous slice of home-made apple pie with a fresh dollop of whipped cream.

Quite a few of these treasured establishments rely on summer visitors to get through the entire year. Many of these places have been around for years and are considered the backbones of their shore communities.

Be sure to patronize these local shops and take advantage of all they have to offer so they can continue to flourish for many more years to come. And then, head back to your towel on the beach and take a long nap under the umbrella. Happy summer!

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