Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.

Thursday
Oct252018

* * Bethany Mott cares about your child

“The New River Valley is an official child care desert, as designated by the Center for American Progress,” Bethany Mott told me. Bethany is the Executive Director of a new organization here in Montgomery County called, ABCs, the Alliance for Better Childcare Strategies, and she’s trying to fix that.

I met with her in my office to talk about how well, or in this case, NOT well, we’re taking care of our youngest citizens, those from infancy until they enter kindergarten.

“ABCs is a new non-profit that is the result of a two-year working group, a committee out of (Virginia) Tech and other concerned members of the community who realize there is a crisis in child care.” She said our situation is common, but worse here than many places. “There is only one child care space for every five children under the age of five. There are about 5000 children and only 1100 spaces. The other children are being shunted between relatives or informal situations, or being taken care of by a parent who isn’t working.

“So it’s an economic development problem because those parents might want to be working. And it’s an educational readiness problem because the children aren’t ready for kindergarten. Children who aren’t ready for kindergarten when they start may not be reading by the third grade. Statistics are grim about whether they’ll graduate from high school and have a successful, prosperous life.

“With our current system, funding (for child-care) only comes from one place: tuition.” In other words, parents are paying for child-care. There is no societal contribution, for example from the state or federal governments. “It typically costs anywhere from $700 to $1200 per month. Given the median income of Montgomery County residents, many simply cannot afford that. Thirty-six percent of local families live under 200% of the Federal Poverty Limit. So they would have to spend 40% of their gross income on quality child care for a preschooler and one year-old. Nobody can do that. So there’s an industry conundrum.

“It’s a highly regulated industry to provide our children with safety and education. ABCs has a three-fold mission. First, we will create more capacity. We want to keep our young adults here. So we need more capacity. Second, we want to improve quality, both in childcare facilities and in in-home providers. We are working with Virginia Quality to support education of the childcare workforce and the Chamber of Commerce on recognition, granting an ‘Early Childhood Educator of the Year’ award. And third, we’re working on affordability. We’re launching a scholarship program to help working families that are above the poverty limit and don’t qualify for assistance but are still unable to afford quality child care.”

But this is a private market, we agreed. Like other businesses, childcare centers need to be successful financially. Running a facility has many expenses, mainly the staff.

The state provides funding for some poor families for child-care through a state grant program. But the family may still struggle to find a provider or may be put on a state waiting due to lack of funding.

“We want our children to grow into successful adults, contributing to society and paying taxes back into the system,” Bethany said. “Our community has a vested interest in preparing these children. We also have a vested interest in helping families climb the income ladder.”

“Is there anybody who doesn’t understand this readily,” I asked innocently.

“Yes,” she shrugged. “But it shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s a rational economic issue.”

I said, “We’re moving into a high-paced, global, highly competitive, technologically based economy. If our kids can’t compete, we have no future.”

“Exactly,” she agreed.

I listed a bunch of traditional industries that once fueled the economies of our region. Textiles. Furniture. Coal. People want these things to come back. But they won’t. Communities that don’t recognize the terminal demise of these industries are destined for failure. Communities that accept these realities have a chance for success. ABCs is promoting adequate quality childcare as a necessary foundation for future success.

We talked at length about other models worldwide, where the government took a more active role. Here, the government funds education K-12, but before, in child-care and afterwards in college, you’re generally on your own. Those become personal economic investments rather than societal. Bethany ended our conversation with “ABCs is established to help working parents have choices and access quality childcare. ABCs is strengthening our local childcare infrastructure to enable families to work and children to be prepared for kindergarten. It’s about economics, quality of life, and our future.”

Wednesday
Apr112018

* * So I got a quick shower

Yes, I know. You’re reading the headline and asking yourself why you should bother to read an article about me taking a shower. People take one every day. The recent shower I got was a bit different.

Many of us who are politically motivated have a series of issues that frame our perceptions of the nation and world. National security. Education. Health care. Taxation. Infrastructure. Energy policy. For me, during the last several decades, the issue of gun violence has been near or at the top, accentuated when a madman killed 32 people in my town of Blacksburg and at my Virginia Tech, 11 years ago. We lose over 30,000 of our fellow Americans each year to gun violence. It’s a national tragedy, unique among other First World countries.

Other industrialized nations have implemented a series of common sense gun restrictions, combined with active mental health treatment schemes, to virtually eliminate gun violence. For example, following a mass shooting in Australia in 1996, that nation implemented stringent gun controls that lowered their rate of gun deaths to 10% of ours. We have the 11th highest rate of gun violence in the world, and by far the largest of any large or highly developed nation

Any number of reasons contribute to our inability to reduce the carnage here. Various interpretations of the Second Amendment have limited what lawmakers feel they can do. Powerful lobbying groups like the NRA carry a disproportionate level of influence, and because they have significant funding can put oversize pressure on lawmakers. And there’s the legacy of our Wild West past.

Communities like Las Vegas, Orlando, Austin, San Ysidro, Sutherland Springs, Littleton, Charleston, Camden and schools like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Stoneman Douglas have experienced the horror of mass shootings.

We know we cannot eliminate guns or gun violence from all private hands in America. But I’m convinced that strict background checks which would make it harder for people suspected of violence, waiting periods to eliminate sales at gun shows, better safety features (e.g. embedded chips to prevent anyone other than the original buyer from firing a gun), limited lethality (in muzzle velocity and magazine capacities), and liability laws for dealers, manufacturers, and owners whose guns are involved in shootings, would all reduce the carnage.

After each of these terrible events, empathic people have implored lawmakers for change. But after each, the dust has mostly settled and the blood has mostly been wiped away with little if any change. Through the power of social media, however, after the Stoneman Douglass massacre on St. Valentines Day, activists became emboldened and took to the streets. Last week, I participated in a Rally for Commonsense Gun Reform organized by the New River Valley chapter of the national action group Indivisible, at the town center in Christiansburg, a half-block from Congressman Morgan Griffith’s office.

I found myself carrying a borrowed sign that had in the background the black silhouette of an assault rifle and in the foreground the red circle with the diagonal line indicating “no,” alongside 25 or 30 other protestors. Several drivers honked approval. We got some thumbs-ups and some thumbs-downs.

Then, a driver in a pickup truck slowed and threw a shower of water from his cup at me, splashing my face, head, shirt, and sign. I wiped myself off and the ink began to run on the sign. I was so flabbergasted by this liquid assault I didn’t think to retaliate or even be angry.

Afterwards, I was overwhelmed by mixed emotions. I have had far worse done to me by ugly people. What the guy did was despicable, but it would only damage myself more if I lashed out. Then he's hurt me twice. Maybe, just maybe, he’d return home and realize he was an ass. Maybe on Sunday, his preacher will say something like being kind to your fellow man or turning the other cheek, and he’d feel remorse. Who knows? Maybe he was simply an ugly person, and would find smug self-satisfaction in his dastardly deed. I can’t concern myself with that. All I know is that not lashing out, not throwing a fire-hydrant or similar thing back at him, makes me feel better about myself.

I think people like he are scared right now. They really, truly feel that their lives will be deeply endangered if jack-booted thugs storm their house to take away their weapons. And they see me, and the other protesters, as facilitators.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m sure this guy remains adamant about being able to exercise his Second Amendment rights, to the extreme, in the way he interprets them. But then he became angry enough at me to prevent me from exercising my First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly free from abuse or assault from him. I’m guessing he’s the type of guy who would need the concept of hypocrisy explained to him.

Wednesday
Apr112018

* * Habitat For Humanity builds community 

Shelley Fortier is working to provide boots, so to speak. She’s the Executive Director of the local affiliate of the Habitat For Humanity. There’s an old expression about people picking themselves up by the bootstraps. Some people face daunting financial obstacles. Habitat For Humanity helps people in a real, tangible way to make improvements in their lives, by helping them achieve home ownership.

Hers is a fascinating story that led her to that position. She told me, “I was raised in Blacksburg and went to Virginia Tech. I got a degree in Political Science, but I entered the corporate world.” She met her husband Joe in New Jersey, and had a series of jobs in the New York, New Jersey, and New England areas, and then in California, working in management for retail chain stores.

“He finished a graduate degree from Berkeley in Energy Resources. We were both pushing 40 and were asking ourselves what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. My parents were still in Blacksburg and we ended up moving back here.”

They arrived with two kids, great job skills, no plans, and no jobs. “One day, Joe came home and said, ‘I bought a building in Radford.’ He had a vision. He thought Radford needed a coffee shop and more affordable housing. They have an inventory of great, historic buildings.”

They have gone on to purchase several other downtown buildings in Radford and Blacksburg, and most recently the old Prices Fork Elementary School. Meanwhile, Shelley started volunteering for Habitat For Humanity. Habitat was founded in 1976 in Georgia, and is the largest not-for-profit home builder in the world.

So Joe came out of financial services, and became a developer and carpenter. Shelley came out of corporate retailing and became immersed in providing affordable housing. How did that happen?

“We looked at investing in rental properties. Many landlords bought substandard buildings and never improved them. They were low quality and not putting anything back into them. We believe in fairness. Conversations about privilege always made me uncomfortable. We worked hard. My parents worked hard. Yet my successes stand on their shoulders and theirs on their parents’. That’s privilege. I had that. Not everybody has that. Some people can’t pick themselves up by the bootstraps because they’ve never had boots. I had boots.

“We are social entrepreneurs. We live here. We’re going to invest in the community.”

They got grants and subsidies from a variety of sources. Historic tax credits. HUD money. Private investments. Then they got income from their tenants.

“I saw that Habitat was opening the ReStore in Christiansburg. With my retail background, I thought, ‘That I can do.’ I volunteered lots of hours.

“Everybody knows Habitat as a construction company. We facilitate the energy of human and financial resources of a community to build affordable houses. We are a retailer. We are a lender. We do family counseling, primarily financial counseling. We are housing advocates. The homes we build are sold, not given away. The buyer pays us back at zero interest, and we put that money into more homes.

“Affordable housing leads to a strong economy. Big corporations won’t move here if their $14/hour employees can’t find affordable housing. Companies seek a stable, motivated workforce that can find inexpensive housing. Stable households build stable communities, and stable communities build stable economies.

“I describe my job as popping corn without a lid. I try to catch a combination of land, money, home buyers, and community energy in the same bowl at generally the same time to make a project come to fruition. There is no typical day.

 “Our donor dollar never dies. When someone donates to us, the home buyer pays it back over time. It fuels itself for the next one. The community invests. The family invests. Lots of people have skin in the game. Our buyers build confidence as home owners. We don’t give them boots. We sell them affordable boots and they build themselves up. I spoke with one of our homeowners and he said ‘I was surprised that there are people out there who will come and invest their day for me and my family. I only hope that me and my family can do the same thing for someone else.’ It’s powerful stuff; it’s what love looks like. When volunteers devote their days off to build a home for someone, it builds communities. That’s where the value of life is.

“I have a lot of good days in this job. I’m not an emotional person, but when have dedication days, when we hand someone the Certificate of Occupancy and a set of keys to their new house, it gets me every time. It’s the culmination of all that love.”

Two major Habitat projects are in the works, a single family home in Christiansburg and a multi-tenant apartment in Blacksburg. Visit the website at www.habitatnrv.org for more information and volunteer opportunities.

Wednesday
Apr112018

* * The Board owes Erica Williams an apology

Here in the USA, we’re blessed to live under a set of foundational tenets of democracy that form the cornerstones of our republic. For example, in the eyes of the law, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

We all take this as a matter of faith, except apparently some members of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. That is, except by the Republican members. Because two years ago, in February 2016, these Republicans, three of which still serve, punished Circuit Court Clerk Erica Williams for a perceived transgression she never did.

Background: In November, 2015, Williams was re-elected to a second 8-year term. Shortly thereafter, she declined to re-appoint four members of her staff and a fifth refused reappointment. Reasons are widely speculative, but obviously she felt they were unresponsive to her needs as head of the clerk’s office. She had the full legal power to do this; the statute is clear. Other constitutional officers have done exactly the same in the past.

In response, Republicans on the Board, without justification, voted as a block to remove the $20,700 annual supplemental pay she’d been receiving as part of a Memorandum of Understanding she and the other Constitutional officers had signed. There was no trial. No evidence was presented to the Board. This was merely a partisan witch hunt by Republican Board members who reacted with vengefulness because they’d lost an election. In fact, Williams won by a landslide, a margin of 64% to 35%.

Thereafter, the county’s most partisan Republicans, spearheaded by newcomer James Willis, undertook a futile effort. On March 1, 2018 the State Supreme Court threw out the petition, citing that many signers were not informed that they must sign “under penalty of perjury,” which may have kept many of them from signing.

The ill-fated petition drive was not only unsuccessful, but philosophically a bad idea because the voting process is not well-served if a winner can be removed because of an unpopular decision. Rightfully, Virginia sets a high bar for removal of someone legally elected, making removal possible only under extreme conditions of neglect of duty, criminality, or misuse of the office. Williams’ situation clearly did not apply, as she was never accused of a crime. Mr. Willis’ frivolous war against her was doomed to fail from the start.

Because Willis and his accomplices obtained the requisite number of signatures, the County was forced to act, providing a legal challenge to Williams. Williams also wisely employed legal representation. Because Williams (who now uses her married surname Conner) ultimately prevailed, the County, and by the County I mean you and I as taxpayers, incurred her legal expenses (over $26,000) as well. What this means is that tens of thousands of our tax dollars that could have gone into other County services, instead were frittered away.

Responding to the news of the failure of his effort, Willis was quoted in the local daily newspaper, “We’re disappointed, but we started in this process knowing it was worth doing.” Oh? Maybe if it was “worth it,” he and his collaborators should pay for it!

In addition to the monetary loss we’ve incurred, the matter has been stressful to Erica, as she expressed when I met with her recently. She steadfastly refused to comment on the situations that led to the dismissal of the four employees, only to say she did it to improve the services provided by her office. In spite of all the stress, Erica was composed and professional, never once lashing out at her accusers. She mentioned to me that she took her oath seriously and that she worked every day to uphold that oath, even under the circumstances.

Furthermore, this action has cast a pall over our County, both in how a newcomer can lead a challenge to a fair and legal election, and in how acrimony and recrimination can distract us from the health, economy, education, and welfare we should be focused on. By removing her supplement, the Board validated and lent credence to the recall effort, damaging its own reputation.

Mr. Willis and his collaborators’ reputations are damaged, as they came across as vindictive and incompetent. And people who signed the petition come across as uninformed and easily manipulated, lending their signature without fully understanding their legal responsibilities.

This episode has shown any outside observers that our county is pre-occupied by petty, internecine squabbling, an image none of us want.

If the members of the Board of Supervisors have a shred of integrity, they will admit their error in judgment, reinstate her supplement immediately, and compensate her for two years of lost supplement with interest, unfairly withheld from her. And the Board will issue her a formal, public apology.

Wednesday
Apr112018

* * Ferne Moschella, President of Warm Hearth, loves elder care

Warm Hearth Village is the largest elder care facility in Southwest Virginia, and one of the most successful, with an occupancy rate of over 96%, providing homes to almost 600 seniors. Ferne Moschella, who has been with Warm Hearth for 18 years, is its current President and CEO, carrying on the legacy of Wybe and Marietje Kroontje, who founded it in 1974. I spoke with Ferne in her office and asked about the joys and challenges.

“I was hired as Chief Operating Officer,” she told me. “I had worked for Carilion for 9 years, and was traveling a lot. My office was at Roanoke Memorial (Hospital). I wanted a job closer to home. I have lived in Christiansburg since 1991, and I raised my two children there.”

Ferne is from the Queens borough of New York City. She and her husband moved here from Ithaca after her husband finished his PhD at Cornell, when he got a job in research in physics. With her MBA, she felt flexible about her career. They came down for a visit, liked what they saw, and then moved.

Long story short, she was hired on at Warm Hearth in 2000, and she started her new job the same day that the Kroontje Center opened and their workforce doubled.

I asked about her impressions in how Warm Hearth today matches the founders’ vision. She said, “Their legacy is alive and well. ‘Our mission is to enrich the lives of seniors of all socio-economic backgrounds through a wide range of choices in housing, services, and care.’ It has been modestly tweaked from its original version. I hope this is a vision that (all our staff) can recite. We try to ingrain it in every person who comes to work here. Enriching the lives of seniors is what we’re here to do. All of us here, regardless of our title, have the same job, which is adding meaning and value to people’s lives.”

About her predecessors, she said she is perhaps more liberal-minded in allowing customization of homes and with Warm Hearth’s pet policies. “We believe that having pets enriches people’s lives. So we encourage it. Our staff is willing to go the extra mile to help our residents take care of their animals.

“About the customizations; these are people’s homes. If they want to do something to it that makes it more livable to them, and it’s not going to diminish the value, we let them do it.”

I asked, “Your background is not in geriatrics. What ‘is it’ about old people?”

She said, “Our elders have resilience, wisdom, and a depth and breadth of experience that is unique. What we have to learn from and be inspired by, on a daily basis here, is just phenomenal. This feeling permeates our staff as well. Absolutely. The people we’re serving have served others their entire lives. They’ve been our doctors, our nurses, our teachers, and our professors. Our friends and our neighbors. This is our opportunity to give something back to them. They are at a time in their life where their world is narrowing. As humans, our need for relationships does not change as we get older. When you live to be among the oldest people in society, your peer group has fallen away, by definition. When your life expectancy is 78 and you’re 88, or 98, or 100, and we have people here are over 100, you’ve outlived your support group.

“When you’ve outlived your spouse, your life partner, your friends, your siblings, and sometimes your children, our job becomes being friend and family. Whether you’re the caregiver, the nurse, or the CEO, you’re now their friend and family. In working here, we all find we receive more than we give. We develop deep relationships with our residents.

“I went to a funeral yesterday for a woman who lived here for 11 years. Two years ago, we were at a memorial for one of her neighbors. She said to me, ‘Ferne, it means so much to us that you come to funerals. I hope you’ll come to mine.’ I said to her, ‘I appreciate that and I hope it’s a long time before it happens. But I’ll be there.’ So come hell or high water, I was going to be at hers. 

 “We have amazing, accomplished people here whose lives deserve to be celebrated. Knowing these people is a real benefit for me. They deserve the best we can give them, to help them live their best lives. That’s what we’re about.

“Every time I go to our Village Center and I see residents and people from the community from all walks of life, in the pool, exercising, having lunch, just socializing, I just want to pinch myself. Warm Hearth is a place for living. Wow; that’s it for me.”