How a disability affected these Athens residents’ day-to-day lives

The Athens County Community Singers open for the annual Disabilities Speaks event on September 14, 2017. The Athens County Community Singers are a musical group open to people of all abilities. (Abbey Marshall)

Ohio University’s basketball coach Saul Phillips woke up this morning just like any other day, only when he opened his eyes, he couldn’t see.

Phillips spent the day with a disability like seven other Athens residents as part of the annual “Disabilities Speak” program hosted by the Athens County Commission on Disabilities.

“I was really struck by how my job and day-to-day hinges directly on my sight,” Phillips, who wore opaque sunglasses that obstructed his vision, said. “When it’s gone, you notice in a hurry.”

The disabilities ranged from being tethered to a walker to limb paralysis.

“We are all temporarily abled,” said Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, who served as the former chair of the Athens County Commission on Disabilities. “One day we will all have a disability. That’s just the frailness of the human body.”

All eight of the volunteers gathered in the Athens Community Center on Thursday at 6 p.m. to share their experience with the community. The program began with a performance from the Athens County Community Singers, a mixed choir of about 36 singers of all abilities.

Following the performance, Barbara Conover, consultant for the American Disabilities Act and the mother of disabled children, delivered a keynote speech on universal design. Universal design is the concept of allowing accessibility for people of all abilities, such as ramps, door levers instead of knobs and wider hallways.

“Everyone ought to be able to use everything available to everyone,” she said.

Although the city has made great strides, including a lift to the mayoral office and an ADA accessible path in Sells Park, Patterson said the city has a long way to go.

Athens City Schools Superintendent Tom Gibbs, who had a paralyzed arm for the day, said the experience was eye-opening not only to physical disabilities, but all disabilities students might be facing.

“A physical example was good but … what we confront more everyday are things like mental, cognitive or social disabilities,” he said. “I used this opportunity to talk to our staff about how to address those disabilities as well.”

Patterson wrapped up the event by presenting the annual Athena award to Noriko Kantake, the president of Appalachian Family Center for Autism and Disability Resources and Education. Kantake has an autistic son and recognized the need for increased accessibility in Athens.

“To be here today … this really makes my heart soar,” Patterson said. “I’m hoping everyone walks away today with more sensitivities to those around them and more sensitivities to accessibility and inclusion.”



People are using Wayne National Forest as a dumpsite

Dover Township assist the Wayne National Forest, Athens City-County Health Department, and Athens Sheriff’s Office in cleaning up an illegal dumpsite along Big Bailey Run. Special thanks to the SEPTA Correctional Facility for providing assistance in picking up the trash. (Image Courtesy of Wayne National Forest)

Some people are using Wayne National Forest as a dumping ground for anything from couches to kitchen appliances.

Illegal dumping is one of the issues facing the only national forest in Ohio, the forest’s Public Affairs Officer Gary Chancey said. The most common items include scrap appliances, construction debris, tires, furniture and more.

“A lot of (the bigger items) that are dumped are things … you’d have to pay to throw away,” Erin Sykes, Zero Waste’s program director, said. “Whether it’s a learned habit or whether it’s trying to avoid paying for throwing away their trash, those are two big contributors. It’s a lot of wide open land, so it’s hard to monitor.”

Rural Action, a local environmental conservation group, has identified 124 dumpsites on public and private lands in Athens, Hocking, Perry and Morgan counties. Wayne National Forest has partnered with Rural Action’s Zero Waste Initiative to conduct cleanups of the forest. The next cleanup event is Sept. 30.

“Litter damages ecosystems and animal habitats,” Chancey said. “Because illegal dumps can pose a health and safety hazard, it is critical to clean up litter and illegal dumps as soon as possible.”

Since the partnership between Rural Action and Wayne National Forest began in 2014, 21 dumpsite cleanups have been conducted, and more than 200 volunteers have logged about 600 hours.

“The agreement expands the Wayne National Forest and Rural Action-Zero Waste Programs ongoing efforts by sharing resources to protect and enhance watershed areas threatened by illegal dumping in and adjacent to the Wayne National Forest,” Chancey said.

The partnership with Rural Action also helped to secure a $12,000 grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for a trailer stocked with litter and dumpsite cleanup equipment.

Everyone, not just those who spent time in the Wayne, should care, Chancey said.

“Neglect and apathy take root in a neighborhood,” he said. “By volunteering their time to clean up illegal dumpsites, many students have taken action to help make a difference in their community, which includes Wayne National Forest.”


Originally published for The Post on Sept. 14, 2017.

How the proposed Free Speech Act could affect OU

Sasha Estrella-Jones gives a passionate speech at a protest against President Trump’s executive order on immigration in front of the Athens County Courthouse on Feb.1 (Photo by Matt Starkey)

Some state representatives are arguing that Ohio University — or any public college in Ohio — shall make no law prohibiting the freedom of speech.

State Reps. Andrew Brenner (R-Powell) and Wesley Goodman (R-Cardington) are introducing a bill to the Ohio House of Representatives reaffirming First Amendment rights on college campuses.

“We need to defend (free speech) everywhere, but especially in college campuses where you’re supposed to have a free exchange of ideas,” Brenner said. “We have some universities enact some policies that have led to some alternative ideas being squashed, and I don’t want to see that happen.”

Brenner said the Free Speech Act aims to ensure public universities in Ohio are compliant with the First Amendment. That includes an elimination of “free speech zones” that are present on many college campuses. The entire campus should be a free speech zone, Brenner said.

Under the Free Speech Act, policies such as OU’s recent ban on protesting in university buildingswould not be able to exist.

“Public universities that are getting large amounts of taxpayers’ money, their policies and conducts of laws should be consistent with the First Amendment,” Goodman said.

Goodman emphasized the need for an exchange of ideas at the collegiate level.

“We completely reject that notion that speech or expression is harmful,” he said. “The answer to speech we dislike or disagree with … is to meet it with more speech of what you believe and find to be true.”

OU has faced the debate around free speech on campus in recent years. Last fall, the university hosted a campus conversation addressing the drawing of a hanged figure on the graffiti wall, which is at the intersection of Mulberry Street and Richland Avenue. The event sparked a debate about what constitutes hate speech and free speech.

“We can all agree that hateful rhetoric has no place on this campus,” David Parkhill, the former OU College Republicans president, said last October during the panel discussion. “But who is to say what is hateful rhetoric? We cannot allow the government and we cannot allow our institutions to start regulating our speech. Once it starts, where does it stop?”

The line between hate speech and First Amendment freedoms is not quite so clear cut. Sarah Wooldridge, a sophomore studying middle childhood education, said she thinks the bill is not a good idea in some situations.

“(Speech) should be limited to keep things appropriate and professional,” she said. “We need to learn how to interact and get our points across in appropriate ways. … We need to learn how to communicate our ideas professionally at our age now.”

Brenner stressed that the proposed bill does not tolerate speech that portrays a clear and present danger, which has been rhetoric ruled upon the U.S. Supreme Court in reference to free speech.

“If someone is causing threat or physical violence, that’s not tolerated and they should be arrested,” he said. “We’re talking speech (and a) discussion of ideas.”

Goodman said the two would likely introduce the bill to the Ohio House of Representatives in the next few weeks, and they hope to pass it through the Ohio House, Senate and governor’s office by next spring.

“Too often we’re talking at each other or past each other,” Goodman said. “We see this as a step toward creating a healthier climate and a healthy dialogue so that young people on college campuses are fully equipped to be engaged and successful citizens of Ohio.”


 Originally published for The Post on Sept. 12, 2017.

New law requires organ donation education in Ohio public schools

The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. (Provided via Ohio Department of Development)

Athens teen Emmalyn Brown was only 9 years old when her liver suddenly failed. Had it not been for the generosity of a donor, she would’ve died in three days.

Since her transplant, Brown, now 19, has been actively campaigning for increased awareness and registration of organ donors in Ohio. As part of a project her junior year at Athens High School, Brown reached out to former State Rep. Debbie Phillips to begin work on new legislation that would require schools to teach about the positive effects of organ donation.

“I (saw) a pattern of folks who didn’t understand donation or who held strange myths about it, especially in isolated communities across the state,” Brown said. “I realized that if they had more education on donation, maybe from a third party, they would understand it better.”

Brown worked closely with Phillips and Lifeline of Ohio, an organization she volunteered with, to give input on the proposed legislation. After almost four years, Brown is excited to finally see the bill become law.

The legislation requires that every Ohio public school educates students on the positive effects of organ donation. It was an amendment added to House Bill 438, which outlines public school appreciation week.

“As a retired teacher, I’ve always been very sensitive to young students and their need for education on a wide variety of fronts,” said State Rep. John Patterson, who was the sponsor of HB438. “Organ donation is one of those things that all of us ought to be educated about.”

The law allows for schools to instruct on organ donation in whatever way is convenient to them, Patterson said, which is typically in a health class.

2010 study found 90 percent of Ohioans reported being in favor of organ and tissue donation, but only 54 percent of eligible citizens are actually registered in the Ohio Donor Registry.

“It is our hope that through education more students as they age into their adulthood are more inclined to become organ donors,” Patterson, an OU alumnus, said. “It only seems logical to educate our young people on the possibilities of the gift that keeps on giving.”

Greg Haylett, a fifth-year senior studying biological science, said he wished a similar program was in place when he was in high school.

“As long as it’s (an) unbiased thing, I couldn’t see a downside to it,” Haylett, an organ donor, said. “It could be a positive thing because that’s a decision everyone has to make when they get their license.”

Brown said she hopes this legislation debunks myths and stigmas associated with organ donation and ultimately increases organ donation registration.

“There are no cons to organ donation in my book — only pros,” Brown said. “It has saved my life and many people I know. Organ donation is something that makes sense to me as you can help others after your own death.”


Originally published for The Post on Sept. 8, 2017.

Athens Women’s Recovery Center to open January 2018

The 317 Board on Dairy Lane operates to implement policies and monitor programs intended to prevent and treat alcohol and drug addiction. (Emma Howells)

Athens’ first women’s transitional housing center will open at the beginning of 2018 after a longtime effort by local women in addiction recovery.

Jayne Darling, the president of the Women in Recovery Board, said as a woman recovering from addiction, she recognized the need for transitional housing following rehabilitation or prison sentences.

“What we were seeing was women who were going through recovery were not ready to return to independent living,” Earl Cecil, the executive director of The Athens-Hocking-Vinton Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, also known as the 317 Board, said. “They went through the intensive work to learn how to be sober, but to return to the community, they were at risk of falling into their old crowd who would trigger their use again.”

The 317 Board helped with technical assistance and moral support for the Women in Recovery group. Cecil oversees many local recovery and mental health facilities but said there is no transitional housing specifically for women in Athens.

Darling said women in recovery face specific challenges men do not.

“Most of them have children and have lost their children to children services,” she said. “Most of the fathers are not in the picture. … They have a battle in front of them to try to get their kids back, which is something men don’t have. … It’s a little bit tougher for women.”

The idea has been in the works for about a year and a half, Darling said. The group of nine board members, all of whom are volunteers, has been advocating for the development with local bodies of government and filing paperwork.

“It’s been an adventure and a challenge, but the hard work is great,” Darling said. “We have a great board and volunteers. … We have a combination of people with a lot of talent.”

The group recently purchased a house on a 7-acre plot of land for $232,000. The house is in the Athens area near state Route 56. For safety reasons, Darling said the board would not disclose the exact address because some women have restraining orders.

The state granted Women in Recovery $190,000 for the mortgage and facilities, but none of that funding goes toward operations. Women staying in the house will be charged rent, but many people are not able to pay, so the operations are dependent on volunteers. They have received donations from local individuals and institutions, such as OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital.

Darling said the goal is to be open Jan. 1, 2018.

“Addiction is rampant here,” she said. “It’s destroying families and taking lives, and we believe there’s a way out of it. We want to help folks find that way.”


Originally published for The Post on Sept. 6, 2017.

City plans for construction of $6.9 million new pool

Iris, an English Bulldog, struts around the edge of the pool during the dog swim at the Athens City Pool on Saturday. (PATRICK CONNOLLY | MULTIMEDIA EDITOR)

The local pool, a staple of Athens since 1972, is set to be demolished this month by a construction company the city recently partnered with.

The city accepted a bid from Gutknecht Construction on July 28 to build a new outdoor hub to replace the existing 45-year-old community pool. The city budgeted $6.9 million for the project.

Construction was scheduled to begin Aug. 28, soon after the pool closes for the summer. The new pool will be built on the existing site, 701 E. State St. Demolition will cost $85,000 to $90,000, according to a report from MSA Sport, which completed a design for the city. Deputy Service Safety Director Ron Lucas said the city hopes the project will be completed by May 18, 2018.

“We’re going to go forward quickly in terms of work and construction,” he said. “We don’t want our community to miss out on a pool season. We want to have it done for our community to enjoy.”

Gutknecht initially proposed that the project would cost $7.25 million based on the design from MSA Sport. To bring cost down to $6.9 million, the city and Gutknecht agreed to remove some proposed amenities, such as one of the water slides and the canopy over the concession stand.

The money for the new pool comes from a levy that passed in 2014. The ordinance approved a tax increase for 20 years, that began Jan. 1, 2016 and will end Dec. 31, 2035.

Athens City Council President Chris Knisely said the city did not want to wait 20 years to complete the project, so Athens City Council passed an ordinance to secure a bond.

“We can’t wait 20 years for that money to accumulate,” Knisely said. “We have to authorize bonds. … It’s a way of borrowing the money, so it’s all there and available so once we have the design for the pool, we should be able to build it.”

The ordinance said the bond could not exceed $7.3 million, and it must be designated to “swimming pool facilities bond.”

“The whole concept of parks and recreation is important for the quality of life,” Knisely said. “It’s a resource that makes Athens an up-to-date community.”

Kalei Edenfield, a 2016 OU alumna, said she was excited to see the additions the new pool will have.

“I have been to the pool before and found it to be extremely basic but a pool nonetheless,” she said. “It will be a great new addition for everyone in the community. Based on the proposed pictures so far it looks as though it’s going to be a great summer activity for families or even (students).”


Originally published for The Post on August 31, 2017.

Initiative to depenalize recreational marijuana will be on city ballot

A person rolls a joint outside of Seigfred Hall. Various groups in and around Athens are working to depenalize marijuana in Ohio. (FILE)

Athens residents might soon be able to blaze it with lesser repercussions.

Following the collective efforts of a group of Athens community members, The Athens Cannabis Ordinance was officially added to the Nov. 7 ballot after a petition driven campaign.

This is the second attempt to get the measure on the ballot. The success this year can be attributed to other statewide efforts to depenalize marijuana, Athens resident Caleb Brown said. Brown was one of the leaders of the TACO petition.

Brown said the ordinance uses aspects from the Ohio State Constitution that allow municipalities to alter laws and penalties for misdemeanors within city limits. A common example is varying levels of fines for speeding tickets in different cities.

“Since there are some misdemeanor marijuana offenses in Ohio, the idea is to change the fines and penalties all the way to zero,” Brown said.

Marijuana misdemeanors in Ohio are defined by possession of 200 or less grams. Currently, offenders could spend up to 30 days in jail and be fined up to $250.

To put an initiative petition on a ballot in Ohio, petitioners must gather 10 percent of the number of people who casted votes in the most recent governor election, which was in 2014. In Athens, that equated to 319 signatures.

“Initiative petitions are a really cool thing that we as citizens in Ohio have available to us,” Brown said. “It’s awesome because it’s a safety gap for democracy. … We can by petition enact ordinances and laws as citizens, which is pretty cool.”

Brown said in 2016 they were only a few signatures short, but this year the group garnered 625 signatures, 405 of which were valid.

“The petition this year is a lot cleaner and better,” Brown said. “When we did it last year, there was a lot of pending court cases. It was kind of like a shoot for the moon kind of deal because we didn’t know what we could do. … This year we knew we could make it happen.”

Though Ohio legalized medicinal marijuana in September 2016, Saraquoia, another leader of The Athens Cannabis Ordinance petition, said she was excited by the prospect of Athens depenalizing recreational marijuana use.

“It’s not dangerous,” she said. “We know that our jails are sometimes occupied by people with low-level cannabis offenses and that law enforcement hours are being wasted. … It’s a no brainer to reduce our cannabis (penalties) and denounce the stigma attached to cannabis.”

Students who register to vote in Athens with proof of residence in the city will have the opportunity to vote on the issue in the upcoming election.

“It should be up to the people to decide whether they want to partake or not,” Daniel Ingram, a senior studying recreation management, said. “It’s a lot like alcohol. In small doses, I don’t think it’s a big deal. I don’t think someone should get into that much trouble if they make a small life choice or mistake.”

Saraquoia said although Athens is a small town, she hopes to have influence on surrounding areas.

“It’s baby steps,” she said. “It’s the ways we can affect progress in our community. … We hope other cities snowball and eventually the state will try to push something through the legislature.”


 Originally published for The Post on August 29, 2017.