Lancaster reaches out to military through letter-box campaign

LANCASTER — Carla Schorr holds the key to the “mailbox” in Lancaster’s Veterans Square.

Every week, she kneels on the sidewalk and empties the box, gathering an overflowing, colorful bundle of letters. In her arms, she holds various shades of construction paper scribbled with crayon drawings, neat cursive phrases decorated with glitter and formally typed sentences on white computer paper from people who have dropped them off at the non-Postal Service box. Tucked inside each letter are expressions of gratitude to active-duty military members.

Schorr, 47, was born and raised in Lancaster, the birthplace of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman and a town that takes pride in patriotism. Passers-by strolling down Main Street can spot local military members’ faces displayed on “Hometown Heroes” banners hanging from streetlamps. Families and downtown workers flock to Veterans Square on a sunny day to eat lunch beside the black marble memorial and historic World War II cannon.

But Schorr wanted to do something to make an impact outside the town. Coming from a military family, she knows the hardships troops face when they are deployed overseas: loneliness, sadness, hopelessness.

She hoped to curb those negative feelings with “Operation: Letters to Soldiers.”

When the letter box debuted in April, she wasn’t expecting much. A couple hundred letters over a few months, if anything. But after a social media post, the community sprang to action. A local artist donated his time and talents to paint the box, decorated in a camouflage and American-flag design with two service members on the side. The owner of a local furniture company donated a protective coating.

Instead of leaving the letter box in just one place, Schorr decided it should travel during the academic year. She took it to local schools so students could correspond with military members.

In just four months, the box collected more than 1,600 letters.

“It means a lot to them knowing they’re being thought about and missed by total strangers,” Schorr said of service members.

The initiative costs nothing except time, Schorr said. All materials and labor were donated, and community members don’t even need a stamp.

Schorr, Rise Reality Co. and a nonprofit called Key to Giving teamed up with the United Service Organizations of Central and Southern Ohio, which places stamps on the letters and disperses them to U.S. military personnel around the globe.

“Just a simple message from a 7-year-old saying, ‘You’re my hero,’ means so much,” said Sue Ann Carroll, the community-relationships coordinator for USO of Central and Southern Ohio. “And the whole story of the ‘traveling mailbox’ really adds to that.”

Schorr has been contacted by communities across the country wanting a military mailbox. She said she plans to begin filling orders in the winter, charging about $500 for materials and shipping, with all proceeds going to veteran services.

She hopes people will leave return addresses on the letters so that kids can become “pen pals” with military members, with hopes they can meet someday.

The “mailbox” will hit the road again in August, visiting schools and other places in the community. By October, the box will need cosmetic work after seasonal sun damage to the paint, so Schorr is engaging Lancaster High School students by running a contest for the next design.

Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler, who is a Vietnam veteran, said he was not surprised by the patriotic city’s response to Operation: Letters to Soldiers.

“To see our community react in such a positive way is so heartwarming.”

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 23, 2018.

Advertisements

Columbus group awarded nearly $6.1 million grant to tackle youth homelessness

Skye Vanek of Columbus was five months pregnant when she became homeless.

After her house burned down, the 21-year-old bounced between hotels, even living in her boyfriend’s car for a time. But she knew she needed a plan. She was told if she didn’t find permanent housing soon, her daughter could be taken away from her.

That’s when she discovered Huckleberry House, a Columbus shelter that provided Vanek and her daughter with a place to live and helped put her through school.

“If it wasn’t for those centers, my daughter wouldn’t be here with me,” Vanek said, choking back tears and clutching her baby to her chest at a news conference at the Columbus Foundation on Monday.

Columbus is now getting a helping hand to deal with the youth homelessness crisis for people like Vanek.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Community Shelter Board of Columbus a total of nearly $6.1 million Monday through its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. Out of the 11 communities nationwide also given grants, Columbus was awarded the second highest amount of money, behind San Diego, which received $7.94 million. A total of $43 million was disbursed.

“Young people who are victims of abuse, family conflict or aging out of foster care are especially vulnerable to homelessness,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a written statement. “We’re working with our local partners to support innovative new approaches to help young people find stable housing, break the cycle of homelessness and lead them on a path to self-sufficiency.”

The Community Shelter Board will develop a comprehensive plan in the next four to six months to address the youth homelessness crisis in Columbus. A youth advisory board, composed of people who have been affected by poverty or homelessness, will assist in formulating the plan. Programs are anticipated to begin in 2019, according to a Community Shelter Board press release.

“We are going to create a new reality for the most vulnerable members of the community,” said Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board.

In 2017, more than 1,300 people ages 24 or younger were served at Columbus and Franklin County shelters — a figure Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther called “unacceptable.” More than 900 unaccompanied young people also visited Star House, a youth drop-in center in Columbus, last year.

Those numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the entire youth homeless population, said Sara Loken, community relations director for the Community Shelter Board, since not all youths go to traditional shelters. A point-in-time count on Jan. 31 found 174 young people in that age range homeless in Columbus.

The two-year federal grant will be blended with private sector resources, including investments from the Columbus Foundation and United Way of Central Ohio. The HUD money is specifically designated for tackling youth homelessness, allowing Columbus to expand its efforts for that population in the coming months and years.

“As a great city, we have an obligation to make sure every citizen is sharing in that success story,” Ginther said. “This is our collective call to action.”

Last year, Columbus and four other cities participated in a 100-day challenge to speed up efforts to end youth homelessness. That effort helped with the realization that Columbus needed to do more with prevention and programming, Loken said. She also said it helped strengthen the group’s HUD application.

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 16, 2018.

Diver inspects 3 Franklin County bridges

A diver from Stantec, an engineering services company, descends into the Scioto River to inspect Fishinger bridge.

It’s not typical to spot a diver, in flippers and full helmet, plunging into the Scioto River.

But on Thursday, some amused kayakers and joggers on a nearby bike trail caught sight of a commercially licensed diver swimming below the surface to inspect the Fishinger Road bridge on the Northwest Side.

Federal law requires bridges to be inspected every two years, but Ohio requires inspections annually. Underwater inspection is required every five years. Franklin County paid $21,000 to Stantec, an engineering company based in Lexington, Kentucky, to bring in a diving crew.

Of the 357 bridges the county owns, only three require a diver for underwater inspection, said Ed Herrick, the county’s bridge design engineer. Most others can be done by wading into shallow water.

Steve Reuschle, a Stantec diving service manager and engineer, and his team was searching for any cause for alarm: a crack, logjams and general soundness of the concrete pillars supporting bridges on Hayden Run, Fishinger and Smothers roads.

“You can’t see this stuff above the water,” he said. “That’s why we have to send someone down there to physically touch and move things and pound on the concrete to see how sound it is.”

Although the diver is not an engineer, he has a camera attached to his helmet, providing Reuschle with real-time communication and a video feed from the boat.

Generally, Reuschle said, routine inspections do not find a lot of problems in areas such as Columbus where the water current isn’t strong. Because the team is inspecting only the three bridges, it plans to finish Friday after two days, spending one to four hours at each bridge.

Bridges are rated on a scale of zero to nine, Herrick said: Nine is pristine condition and built within a year, and zero meaning failed condition. Franklin County bridges average a seven. The lowest bridge rating in the county is a four, with upgrades planned in the next year.

Franklin County has 10 major bridge-repair projects — which will include replacement or rehabilitation — planned for 2018-2019.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 12, 2018.

School districts should adopt uniform crowdfunding policies, auditor says

Many Ohio teachers reach into their own pockets to buy an average of $600 in school supplies a year. To help alleviate those expenses, some have turned to collecting donations online through crowdfunding websites.

While that fundraising option has many benefits, such as engaging the community and allowing contributors to pay for school supplies at no cost to the district, there also are many risks. According to a report released Wednesday by state Auditor Dave Yost, more than half of Ohio school districts do not have specific policies on crowdfunding.

Dozens of online crowdfunding sites exist, some specific to teachers and classroom needs. One site — DonorsChoose — has raised $621 million for 600,000 classroom projects. There are currently more than 900 initiatives for Ohio classrooms on that site alone.

“The citizens can take it upon themselves to crowdfund for a specific cause the institution may not have the money for and get the resources,” Yost said. “But like a lot of things, the benefit of the thing is also the danger of the thing.”

In the report, Yost recommended that school boards create policy regulating crowdfunding by teachers and others in the district to avoid potential legal issues.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) bar disclosure of personal information about students younger than 18 without parental consent. If those regulations are not followed, districts risk the loss of federal funding. Some districts allow the use of student photos in crowdfunding efforts, and more than half said their policies don’t address the issue.

Yost also warns about financial liability. Some donation sites will send specific products to the school with the money raised or give the funds directly to the district. Others give the lump sum to teachers, which raises many legal questions and potential violations of the Ohio Revised Code, because the district treasurer is required to be in charge of all school funds. If money being requested by a public entity isn’t accounted for, the treasurer would be held legally accountable.

The auditor recommends that school administrators review and approve all crowdfunding policies, designate which sites can be used, require the money be used for its stated purpose and mandate that donations will not be accepted without school board approval.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 11, 2018.

Demonstrators protest immigration policies in downtown Columbus

A woman dangled more than 30 feet above fellow protesters along Front Street in downtown Columbus, attached by a harness to a crudely constructed tripod. At the base sat a man, whose arms were duct-taped around the wooden poles that supported the woman.

They were among 12 people arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest Monday at a “solidarity rally” held to call for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency has come under heavy public criticism over the separation of undocumented immigrants from their children at the border, and delays in meeting a court order to reunite them.

The two protesters with the tripod were determined not to leave until local officials took action to defy ICE. Police closed Front Street between West Broad and Gay streets during the demonstration of about 100 protesters and onlookers.

The woman, who hung from the structure that displayed a sign that said “ICE ruins lives here,” was suspended for about an hour before the Columbus Fire Division arrived. Several firefighters were raised on a ladder truck to meet the woman on her level. They removed her from her harness and brought her down to the street to be arrested at around 10:30 a.m.

Officers then detached the man from the base of the structure and carried him by his arms and feet into a police vehicle. Shortly after, officers disassembled the tripod and worked to safely bring down the three-story-tall structure.

While they used a chainsaw to break down the wood, protesters continued to chant, bang drums and wave their signs from the sidewalks. Police cleared the road and traffic was flowing on Front Street by 11:15 a.m.

Protesters moved the rally to the Broad Street entrance of the LeVeque tower. Police said several protesters entered ICE offices in the tower prior to the floor being shut down. Five people in the office were arrested for trespassing: one from Millfield in Athens County; two from California and two from Florida. Names of others arrested have not yet been released.

Organizers demanded local authorities end all aid to ICE and stop deportations in Ohio. Several other rallies have been held this month in Columbus to protest ICE and the separation of families at the Mexican border.

“No one is helping us or listening,” organizer Ruben Herrera said of local and state officials. “We must take these radical actions to be heard.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 9, 2018.

Columbus Police Academy graduates more diverse class

New Columbus Police Officer Craig Gibson shakes Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s hand at the graduation ceremony.

A slightly more diverse class of police officers received badges Friday and soon will be hitting the streets of Columbus and other central Ohio communities.

Of the 52 recruits who began training at the Columbus Police Academy in December, 45 of them stood Friday before family and friends to take their oath, marking an end to 29 weeks of intensive training.

One of the top priorities of the Columbus Division of Police is diversity among the police force, said Chief Kim Jacobs. The 129th recruit class — with the highest academic average of any class in Police Division history — is made up of more than 30 percent minority officers, meaning nonwhite or female officers.

That percentage is higher than the current makeup of the Columbus Police Division, which Jacobs said is between 20 and 25 percent minority.

“We are always looking to have a variety of backgrounds,” she said. “The more we look like our community, the better we can understand and protect those people.”

Not only is the group more diverse in race and gender, but also in experience and skill sets. Among the recruits are a former pastor, an Ohio State University football player, military personnel and officers from other states.

Anthony Hamilton, a 27-year-old from Dublin, was thrilled to be among the graduating recruits. As his family left the auditorium of the police academy on the West Side, they swept him up in a tight embrace.

“It’s a great day,” said Hamilton, who will serve as an officer at Ohio State University. “I’ve always had a natural instinct to help others and be a pillar in the community, and I’m in a great position to bridge the gap between officers and people.”

Other graduates included former Ohio State football player C.J. Barnett. And there’s Jason Sekinger, who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall.

The graduates will undergo 15 weeks of field training, working with experienced officers, starting Sunday. Thirty-two of the new officers will join the Columbus Division of Police; the other 13 will become members of police forces in Gahanna, New Albany, Grove City, Westerville, Hilliard and at Ohio State.

“While others are running away from chaos, danger and crime, our officers are running toward it,” Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said. “They’re trained by the best to be the best.”

“We came here to learn,” said new Columbus police Officer Sarvone Johnson, 44, in an address to the crowd. “Now we are leaving to serve.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 6, 2018.

National veterans program expands with Newark location

NEWARK — Matthew Dowling used to cover his face with dark sunglasses and a beard, the epitome of what he called a “big, bad veteran.”

He didn’t want people to look at him. He was in his 30s, with a wife and two kids. But despite the 17 medications he was on, he was nearing a decision that too many veterans consider: suicide.

Two years later, the 37-year-old Newark resident sits and laughs among the people who saved his life. And as he watches his son fishing on the lake, he says he can’t believe he ever thought he was beyond help.

According to a study released in June by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans choose suicide every day.

Save a Warrior, a nonprofit organization aimed at saving the lives of veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, wants to change that. The group runs “war-detox” programs that have saved hundreds of lives, it says. Now it’s planting roots at a new facility in Licking County.

The retreat center, which previously served as a horse farm and vacation home, is the first and only facility that the organization owns. The program also operates in Malibu, California, but Save a Warrior rents that space.

The new center in Newark, called “Warrior Village,” provides many new opportunities in Ohio, which has the sixth-largest veteran population in the United States, said Adam Carr, executive director.

“It’s a very patriotic and philanthropic state,” Carr, who went through the program himself before joining the staff, said of Ohio. “People here really support veterans, which is important.”

In the past six years, 607 people have gone through the five-day program in California, led by people who have gone through the program themselves. Save a Warrior has a heavy focus on mindfulness, meditation and learning to cope with trauma and depression, with support from other veterans.

Dowling said daily meditation was his big takeaway from the program and said it has helped him cope with stress in everyday life.

“Every day of my life gets better. I don’t want that to sound generic, but it truly does,” Dowling said. “I thought I was alone. It changed my whole world, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.”

Anyone who feels they are in need of help can sign up on Save a Warrior’s website and a staff member will reach out within 48 hours to discuss aligning schedules with the program. There are about 300 people on the waiting list, but for many, Save a Warrior CEO Keith Ritz said, waiting isn’t an option.

Between Malibu and the new program in Newark, the organization will be able to accommodate nearly the same number of people in 18 months as it had in the past six years combined. The first Save a Warrior program in Newark will begin at the end of August and there will be five programs in the fall. For 2019, 14 are planned, including an all-women’s program.

The program, which costs about $3,500 per person, is funded by donors and free to those who go through the application process. Transportation is not included.

Central Ohio is the perfect location for the new facility, Carr said, because a majority of the country can reach Newark in a day’s drive.

The organization allotted a $1.5 million budget for the space and renovations in Newark. It purchased the 47-acre plot of land in December 2017, which includes a pond and several furnished buildings, for $787,000. The group plans to build a stone labyrinth, to be used for self-reflection, and a ropes course that allows for team building. The organization also will be working with PBJ Connections, an equine-therapy center in Pataskala, on the war-detox programs.

According to surveys collected prior to and following the program, symptoms of depression and PTSD decreased for participants. One of the people helped by Save a Warrior was Patrick Atkinson, who now works with development and finance for the organization.

His wife, Nichelle Atkinson, was pregnant with twins when Patrick left to complete the program in Malibu. She said he returned much happier with a renewed sense of life.

“He came back a whole new person,” said Nichelle Atkinson, who now serves as the director of development. “It was perfect timing. Bringing two new kids into the world, I needed a whole person.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 5, 2018.