Take a Hike and Exercise Your Mind and Body

hiking 2

Many of us spend too much time indoors, whether due to work or other responsibilities. Now is the time to get out, get active and breathe in some fresh air.

Explore your town or state to find the best places to hike. Many trails can be traversed easily with just a good pair of sneakers. Others are more arduous and may require a pair of hiking boots. Hiking is something you can do anytime, either by yourself or with a partner or group, and trails can be matched to your level of ability. It’s a great way to enjoy nature and get away from the hustle and bustle of our sometimes fast-paced world. Stroll under a canopy of trees while birds and other wildlife serenade you. Let yourself relax and forget your troubles. Or if you prefer, push yourself up a steep incline and revel in the satisfaction of making it to the top.

There are some important items to bring with you, whether you’re taking a short walk around a park or a long trek through the mountains. Water, of course, is number one on the list. It’s important to stay hydrated while doing any form of exercise. Bug spray or some kind of tick repellent is also critical, and make sure you wear high quality socks. It’s also a good idea to bring along some healthy snacks, and yes, bring your phone, but only use it to take pictures. Also pack an extra pair of shoelaces, just in case.

If you want to take your hike a step further, try geocaching. What is this, you ask? As defined by Wikipedia, “Geocaching is an outdoor recreational activity, in which participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or mobile device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called ‘geocaches’ or ‘caches’, at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world.” Doesn’t that sound interesting? When you find a cache, remember to sign and date the log book and return the item exactly how and where you found it. A cache can be any number of things: a toy, trinket, a book, or something else that has some kind of meaning to the person who left it behind. For more information, go to https://www.geocaching.com/play.

If geocaching is not your thing, you can make up your own games as you walk along. How many pine cones can you fit into your pockets? Who can spot the first squirrel in a tree, or the first bird’s nest? What is the first animal track you see? These are just a few examples, but use your imagination to make it an adventure.

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

Homemade toys spark creativity and imagination


Old-fashioned fun for big and little kids

By Susan Baldani

When many of us think back to our childhood toys, we don’t think of computers or video games.  The majority of our toys didn’t make noises or light up, and we often had to use our imaginations to have fun.

Parents and caregivers can bring back this same kind of joy and wonder for their children. Yes, a lot of kids love the latest and loudest products as seen on television commercials and store shelves, but many don’t realize the entertainment value of quiet, simple and even homemade toys.

As a little girl, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. I loved playing there, even though she didn’t have a lot of money for anything extravagant. But I do remember her sewing together little square bags out of extra fabric and filling them with dried beans. She would then take a basket and have us toss these bean bags in there for points. What a great memory for me and my siblings.

There is an abundance of ideas for simple, homemade toys to be found online on sites such as https://happyhooligans.ca/70-awesome-toys-make-kids/, in library books and in magazines. Many of these are made with items already in our homes or even in our backyards. Making toys is also a great way to recycle all those plastic bottles and soup cans.

In her article Really Cool Toys for Kids to Make Themselves on rediscoveredfamilies.com, Sharon Harding writes, “Children are naturally creative and have fantastic imaginations. They can make toys out of anything.” She also goes on to cite that making their own toys “stimulates the imagination, helps children solve problems and discover that they can make their own fun.”

Besides having a great time with the end products, the making of these toys can also help children in a myriad of ways. Kids get to use their imaginations while honing their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Oftentimes counting is involved, so it can help children learn numbers and math skills.

In her article Why Art and Creativity are Important on Parents.com, author Paula Bernstein writes, “When children experiment with materials, they dabble in science. Most important perhaps, when kids feel good while they are creating, art helps boost self-confidence. And children who feel able to experiment and to make mistakes feel free to invent new ways of thinking, which extends well beyond the craft room.”

Letting children help with making these toys enables them to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in what they’ve created. This in turn will increase the likelihood of them playing with the things they’ve made and motivate them to make even more. These projects are also a great way for parents and children to spend time together in a meaningful and goal-oriented way.

Here are some ideas for parents and children:

  • Want to do a hand puppet show with your kids? Grab some old socks and make faces on them. If you want to get really fancy, glue or sew some buttons for the eyes and nose and maybe some yarn for the mouth and hair. Have kids color a big piece of cardboard (even a pizza box will work) to make the “stage” that the puppets will appear above.
  • Speaking of cardboard boxes, the ideas are endless. Have children paint or color the outside. These can become playhouses for kids or dolls, blocks to stack on top of each other, or even a toy box for all those homemade toys. Most kids (and cats) love boxes.
  • What child doesn’t like balloons? Take large paper plates and a large Popsicle stick for the handle. Make a slit in the bottom of the plates, slide the “handle” partway into it and tape. Now they can play balloon tennis, which is even safe to play indoors since a balloon can’t do much damage. Use a bed, coffee table or a couch as your “net.” This is a great rainy day activity.
  • What about homemade play dough made with ingredients already in your kitchen? For a great recipe, go to https://theimaginationtree.com/best-ever-no-cook-play-dough-recipe/. Then use cookie cutters, small rolling pins and other plastic and safe baking items to make all different shapes and patterns.
  • Have your kids find some smooth rocks, paint or color on animal faces, and they’ll have their own set of pet rocks. Or use seashells; these can become sea pets.
  • A simple piece of chalk can make a hopscotch board and a small rock can be the marker. This makes for great exercise and balance control.
  • Holiday themed toys are also fun. Make ornaments out of old costume jewelry or cut out pictures from last year’s Christmas cards. A simple hole puncher and some yarn and you’re ready to hang it on the tree.

Start collecting things now for future toy making. Rinse out and store bottles, cans, and other odds and ends for fun, easy and inexpensive projects. Remind your children to be on the lookout for anything that can be used in your next creation. Make it a family event, one that will foster great memories now and into the future.


Cabin Fever


By Susan Baldani

What can we do to keep our minds and bodies engaged while our normal routines are totally disrupted? Even with adults working remotely and children doing their schoolwork, this whole self-quarantine mandate is getting BORING.

So, I’m going to be re-posting some articles about playing games, making homemade toys, cooking with children, and other subjects I hope will be helpful, especially to parents, over the next few weeks. Stay safe!

The Smyrna Owls


How one couple is providing a safe place for these extraordinary birds

By Sue Baldani

Emily Schreck and Ben Davis of Smyrna have always enjoyed hearing the owls in their wooded backyard. She, a bird lover, and he, a general contractor, decided to build and install two owl houses in their yard last year.

“We built them on January 1st; it’s the first thing we did,” said Emily. “It’s a special day, and quiet. We put them out on the 2nd and by the beginning of February, we saw owls going into the houses.”

This year, two barred owls have taken up residence once again. She thinks they’re the same ones as last year.

“I read online that once they find a good place to nest they come back to the same location,” said Emily.

Last year, two owlets were born and raised in one of the houses, and as of February 21, 2020, there were two eggs in the house. Emily said that the female will sit on them for about three weeks and the male will come around to feed her. She will also leave for short periods of time.

The eggs will probably hatch around the week of March 9. After that, the owlets will stay in the nest until about the beginning of April, during which time the male and female will feed them pretty much continuously. The female will also stay with them most of the time, but once they get bigger, she’ll leave the nest for longer periods of time. Sometime in April, the owlets will fledge and leave the nest for good.

“We love it, and want to do anything we can do for the animals so they have a safe spot to raise their babies,” said Emily.

The couple installed three cameras – one on the inside of the house and two on the outside. To observe the Smyrna Owls, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MI32NeIutvI, and to make the houses yourself, follow the instructions here: https://www.wildlifecenter.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/Nestbox/BADO%20boxes.pdf

Update: as of March 21, 2020, the two owlets have been born.

Written for Smyrma Vinings Lifestyle magazine in Georgia.

Showcase Salutes Watchung Pediatrics


By Susan Baldani

Watchung Pediatrics has expanded to provide more services for their patients and families. With the addition of new physicians, plus a nutritionist and a social worker, the practice offers a comprehensive health care experience.

Dr. Kapila Marepalli, MD, and Dr. Elaine Sanjuan-Saleh, DO, who came on board last summer, are dedicated to the health and well-being of their patients. They feel that being part of this practice enables them to give the best care.

“Watchung Pediatrics has created this family culture within their staff, and that translates to the patients and their families as well. Everyone really works together and supports each other, and I think you can really see that in the care that’s provided to the kids,” said Dr. Sanjuan-Saleh.

Watchung Pediatrics was named New Jersey Family’s Favorite Kids’ Docs 2019 for two years in a row as well as Hulafrog’s Most Loved Pediatrician of 2019.

The two doctors never had any doubts about going into pediatrics. The relationships they’re able to form with not only the children, but the families as well, is very meaningful to them.

“When you’re working with kids, you’re working with the whole family dynamic. You’re assessing the entire situation to see how they interact with each other, see how comfortable a family is with a prognosis, and managing the child at home,” said Dr. Marepalli.

Caring for children is greatly rewarding for both pediatricians. Unlike treating adults, they get to see many changes from visit to visit and have the opportunity to watch their patients develop and grow.

“Kids are constantly reminding you of the simple joys in life, even when they’re sick. But I also feel that at this young age, you’re really able to make a lifelong impact. You can help them grow into the people they’re supposed to be,” said Dr. Sanjuan-Saleh.

“It’s so rewarding when you’re making kids feel better. When they come in with a health issue and then they feel better, you feel very satisfied,” said Dr. Marepalli.

The doctors also very passionate about being proactive and work with caretakers to provide the best in preventative care. They feel that educating parents on how to keep their children healthy, whether it’s through diet and exercise, timely vaccinations, or accident avoidance, is one of the most important things they do. They also understand that children are resilient.

“Knowing when to intervene and when to reinsure is important. Kids have a great way of bouncing back and doing a lot of self-healing, and one of our jobs as a pediatrician is knowing when to give their immune system some time to heal itself versus giving them medication or other interventions,” said Dr. Sanjuan-Saleh.

The two physicians are also bilingual, with Dr. Sanjuan-Saleh being fluent in Spanish and Dr. Marepalli being fluent in Telugu. They believe that being able to speak to families and patients in their own languages helps to provide the most accurate medical care, and also helps connect with those families on a deeper level.

Written for The Showcase Magazine in Warren, NJ.

Nightly Beauty Routines


A Beauty Blogger Shares Tips and Products

By Susan Baldani

Megan Elliot, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, started her website, Lush to Blush, in March of 2012. It was a way for her to share advice about beauty, luxury travel, and more.

“As far as beauty, I love trying products out and sharing my favorites with my audience,” said Megan. “I have very sensitive skin and I have been through a lot, so I’ve kind of gone on this skin journey with my audience. They’ve been there with me from the beginning and since I’ve documented it, even newcomers can see the transformation my skin has had.”

Here, she gives some tips and product recommendations for winding down at the end of the day.

“Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!” she said. “I love a good, thick cream to use at night. Anything with hyaluronic acid is also amazing. Pro tip: When you’re using various products, always apply the lightest/thinnest formulas first and the thicker ones last.”

Megan also believes that clean beauty is the way to go, especially if your skin is sensitive. However, she still uses a few medical-grade products for keeping fine lines and wrinkles in check, and to prevent and fight acne.

Beautycounter Supreme Cream

Supports elasticity and visibly firms while minimizing the look of fine lines and wrinkles. With continued use, wake up to more radiant, youthful-looking skin. $89


Beautycounter Tint Skin Hydrating Foundation

Lightweight, creamy foundation that goes on seamlessly and blends effortlessly to cover imperfections and visually even out skin tone. It also includes sodium hyaluronate, a natural moisture magnet, to promote smoother-looking skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. $42


Obagi360 Retinol 1.0 Cream

Tretinoin – common brand name: Retin-A

Improves the appearance of the skin by reducing fine lines and wrinkles, reducing roughness, and improving skin color. It should be used with a sunlight-avoidance program and daily use of an effective sunscreen. $57


Written for Smyrna Vinings Lifestyle magazine in Georgia.

Book review of Window on the Bay



By Susan Baldani

What do two single mothers do when they find themselves with empty nests and no romantic prospects on the horizon? Well, the first thing is to plan a trip to Paris, and the second is to prepare for the unexpected.

In “Window on the Bay,” a 2019 novel by New York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber, Jenna Boltz and best friend Maureen Zelinsky commiserate with each other about the struggles of mid-life. While reveling in their newfound freedom, they are also staving off feelings of loneliness.

Coming from failed marriages and still reeling from disappointments and betrayals, the two are wary of opening up to new people. However, while appreciating the love of family and cherishing their longtime friendship, they find there is something missing from their lives. Deep down, they both feel the absence of partners to share their lives with.

When a near tragedy leads Jenna to Dr. Rowan Lancaster, and job duties force Maureen to interact with rough-around-the-edges Logan, both women have a hard time ignoring their feeling, even though these men are not who either had in mind when thinking about possible future relationships. Jenna vowed to never get involved with another surgeon (her marriage to one was enough), and Maureen, a prim and proper wine and ballet aficionado, cannot imagine what she could possibly have in common with a construction worker who drinks beer ,drives a pick-up truck, and is a proud owner of NFL season tickets.

In “Window on the Bay,” Macomber shows that opening our hearts and minds to people who are different from us can lead to whole new experiences and put us on a path to happiness. By staying in our comfort zones, we may be missing out on worlds of new opportunities.

Through her excellent writing, we get to share in these women’s triumphs and heartbreaks as they traverse the uneven landscape that is life. We are shown that although our lives do not always follow our carefully laid-out plans, and certain dreams don’t always come true, the twists and turns that occur can sometimes lead to even better outcomes.

To find out more about “Window on the Bay” and other books by Debbie Macomber, visit her website at https://debbiemacomber.com/.

Written for The Felixstowe Magazine in the U.K.

Looking to add a pet to your family?


Our boy Boo

Give a black dog or cat a chance at a loving home

by Sue Baldani

Shelter workers and rescue groups often report that black dogs and cats wait longer to be adopted than their fair-haired counterparts. For dogs, this phenomenon is often called black dog syndrome.

Unfortunately, black dogs are often portrayed in the media as being aggressive, which can lead to misconceptions in real life. And many dogs that people are wary of, such as Doberman Pinschers and Rottweilers, are black.

Another reason may be that people are concerned about black fur on their furniture and rugs. Although black dogs and cats don’t necessarily shed more than others, their dark fur is often more visible. An additional negative factor when it comes to black dogs is that they may look older than their peers, since the gray or white hairs on their muzzles stand out more.

Black cats have the additional misfortune of being thought of as harbingers of bad luck and are linked to witchcraft and other superstitions. Think about all the black cat decorations on display around Halloween. They always look menacing with their arched backs and hissing faces.

But does color bias really exist? It depends on who you ask.

“New pieces of research have found that there is no indication that they are less likely to be adopted,” ASPCA vice president of shelter research Dr. Emily Weiss told TODAY.com. “We just conducted a piece of research looking at various traits that drive people to adopt, and color did not play a role at all.” They also found that black animals did not remain at shelters longer.

However, a study presented at the 2013 International Society for Anthrozoology conference found that coat color does influence people’s perceptions. Participants were shown pictures of cats and dogs of varying colors, and the researchers discovered that white cats were considered the friendliest, orange cats the second friendliest, and black cats the least friendly. Among dogs, yellow dogs were considered friendliest, brown dogs the second friendliest, and black dogs the least friendly. Darker pets were similarly judged less adoptable, and black dogs were considered the most aggressive.

Furthermore, in a survey by Petfinder, their member shelter and rescue groups reported that most pets are listed for 12.5 weeks on Petfinder, whereas less-adoptable pets (such as black, senior, and special-needs pets) spend almost four times as long on the site.

And many animal welfare workers still insist that color bias is real. So what is really going on?

The perception of lower adoption rates could be because black dogs are more prevalent. Also, the poor lighting and dark colors of some shelters may make black dogs harder to see and easier for people to overlook.

“When the public is in a shelter ready to adopt, and they walk down the aisle to start choosing, looks come first, not behavior,” said Rachel Bulman, public relations director for the SPCA of Lakeland, FL. “The shelter environment is our worst enemy because adopters cannot see interaction first, only color and size.”

Sherri Skidmore runs an organization called the Black Dog Rescue Project, which works to bring awareness to black dog syndrome and improve adoption rates for these dogs. She believes there are several reasons behind the phenomenon.

“Black dogs are harder to photograph than lighter or multicolored dogs, and many potential adopters are now searching websites that post pictures of adoptable dogs in their area,” Sherri explained.

So, what can be done to help these animals find homes?

Promoting black pets is one way. February is Black Dog and Black Cat Syndrome Awareness month, and many shelters and rescues use this occasion to highlight black animals and offer discounted adoption fees.

To make them more noticeable on websites, pictures of black animals should be taken in well-lit areas against lighter backgrounds. Putting colorful bandannas around their necks can also help them stand out.

Shelter employees and rescue volunteers should also tout the great personalities of their black dogs and cats to help people looking to adopt get beyond outside appearances and possible fallacies. If people can see them as individuals and not just as “black dogs” or “black cats,” they can then more easily picture them as part of their own families.

There are also tons of blogs promoting black animals, and if people have one, they can talk them up to their family and friends. Black dogs and cats need all the positive press they can get.

If people need more incentives to adopt a black animal, here are some fun reasons:

  • Black dogs and cats have beautiful, sleek coats.
  • If you prefer dark clothing and furniture, you don’t have to worry about the fur showing. It will blend right in.
  • Some of the best family dogs are black, such as Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundlands, and Cocker Spaniels. Even if they’re not full-bred, black dogs may have some of these breeds in them.
  • Black cats often have amazing green eyes that are bright and intelligent.
  • The intimidation factor of a black dog can come in handy when you hear a noise in the middle of the night or you come upon a stranger when out walking your dog.
  • They also look cleaner longer, since that dirt from running around in the yard won’t show as easily.
  • Black dogs and cats are also easy to name—Midnight, Blackie, and Coal, for example.
  • And, like all pets, they will love us unconditionally!

Whatever the facts, black dogs and cats need homes just like other animals and can make wonderful, loving pets. Find a furry friend that has the personality you’re looking for, one that fits your lifestyle and home, and it will be the right one for you, regardless of color.

Written for Paws and Claws magazine in Virginia.

Giving back to the community


Meet a member of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad

By Sue Baldani

Rebecca (Becky) Lugara initially got involved with the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad through the squad auxiliary. The auxiliary was started 11 years ago by Jennifer Speth, the eldest daughter of long-time squad members Deborah and Robert Speth. It has been instrumental in supporting the rescue squad through fundraising and by taking part in community events.

Becky was 50 when she joined. Her then 16-year-old son Dave was already a volunteer on the squad and was studying to be an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).

“I’d grown up in Scotch Plains and had an allegiance to the town (although I now live in Cranford),” said Becky. “I also wanted to support my son.”

When she began attending squad auxiliary events and met people on the squad (some of whom she’d known since childhood, such as President Daniel Sullivan and Chief Carolyn Sorge), she found them very welcoming.

“I saw the selfless work that they did, and I realized that this would be the perfect time for me to seek out my high school ‘dream’ [of joining the squad.]” Plus, my son was coaching me on, saying ‘Mom, you can do it and we need EMTs!’”

In 2017, at the age of 51, Becky officially passed the state exam and became a certified EMT.

She said there are many things she likes about riding on the ambulance. Her favorite is having the opportunity to help someone in need, at a very vulnerable time, and to also provide moral and emotional support for family members. She also enjoys working together as a team and serving the community as a volunteer.

There have been several calls that stand out in her mind, but the one she remembers most was when she responded to a call in which a woman had fallen down some stairs.

“She was in immense pain, and understandably very upset. But, in addition to that, one of her daughters was very emotionally distraught about her mom’s accident. We worked as a team to as carefully and as painlessly as possible transport the patient to the hospital. While working to get our patient safely to the ambulance, I temporarily took on the role of comforting her daughter the best that I could. On the way to the hospital, the patient was in less pain, but scared and concerned. I told her she could hold my hand if she wanted to, so she did. We began talking about her family and the length of time she lived in Scotch Plains. She also asked if I would say a prayer with her. While the transportation and the first aid were just as crucial, it felt like an imperative part of her treatment to tend to her emotional needs….in other words, to provide the ‘human touch.’”

Besides her volunteer work, Becky is a certified elementary school teacher, working as an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) paraprofessional for students with autism and related disorders. She’s also a member of the St. Theresa’s Church choir and Little Flower Organization, and the Westfield Instructional Support Services Association. In addition, she teaches beginner piano lessons on a very part-time basis.

“I think someone should volunteer with our squad (and/or Auxiliary) because it’s an immensely rewarding experience,” said Becky. “Not only do you make great friends, but the squad (especially the officers), support and mentor their EMTs. I volunteer on Wednesday evenings and I’ve learned so much from ‘veteran EMTs’, especially Crew Chief Joan Lozowski, who have ridden on the squad for decades. It’s a perfect way to serve the community, be part of a great organization, grow professionally and emotionally, and help your fellow human beings.”

Today, in addition to being an active member of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad, she is also the president of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary, having assumed this role in November of 2018.

To find out how you can become a member, please go to our website at http://www.scotchplainsrescuesquad.com, email us at scotchplainsrescuesquad@gmail.com, or call 908-322-2103.

Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Pancake Breakfast – February 23, 2020



The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad will hold its annual Pancake Breakfast on Sunday, February 23rd, 2020 from 8:00 to 12:00 at its building located at 1916 Bartle Avenue.  This event is hosted by the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary, which raises funds for the all-volunteer squad.


All-you-can-eat pancakes, coffee and sausages are offered for just a $5.00 per person entry fee, (children 5 and under eat free.)  There is also a raffle for baskets, which are filled with gifts and goodies donated by the community and area businesses.  This is the 10th year this event is being held, and it’s clear by the number of people who attend that it’s something the community looks forward to every year.


So, come out with your family and friends and enjoy a hearty, delicious breakfast along with good conversation.  It’s a nice way to spend a Sunday morning. And for those with mobility issues, downstairs dining will be available.


The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad relies on ongoing community support. These contributions enable the Squad to fulfill their motto, Neighbors Helping Neighbors – We Work For Pride Not Pay. The squad looks forward to continuing to faithfully serve those who call for help. 


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