Butter ‘Christmas Story’ sculptures to greet visitors as Ohio State Fair opens

Ohioans can expect to enjoy deep-fried food, thrills and live music as the Ohio State Fair kicks off Wednesday. The festivities, which run through Aug. 5 at 717 E. 17th Ave., include all the classic fan favorites, as well as new additions.

To honor Ohio’s 2,200 dairy farms, the butter cow has been an Ohio State Fair tradition since the early 1900s. This year, artists — including lead sculptors Paul Brooke and Alex Balz — spent more than 400 hours in the 46-degree cooler on the state fairgrounds re-creating scenes from the classic film “A Christmas Story” — using 2,200 pounds of butter. The American Dairy Association Mideast group decided to highlight the film, filmed in Cleveland in 1983, to celebrate its 35-year anniversary. The sculptures were unveiled Tuesday in the Dairy Products Building at the Ohio Expo Center.

“Watching ‘A Christmas Story’ is a holiday tradition for people across the country, and we’re proud that it’s one that started right here in Ohio,” Jenny Hubble, senior vice president of communications for the dairy association, said.

Highlights include Ralphie in his bunny costume, Randy in his snowsuit, a Christmas tree with working lights and — of course — the iconic leg lamp. The butter cow, which is sculpted annually, stands nearby, overlooking her calf, whose tongue is stuck to a pole alongside Flick, Ralphie’s friend who was triple-dog-dared to lick a frozen flagpole.

“It’s a pleasure to be a part of something so many people enjoy,” said Balz, who has sculpted the fair’s butter sculptures for 19 years. “It’s always a fun thing for artists and dairy farmers and the people who come to the fair.”

Fairgoers also can enjoy new live entertainment options. With the price of admission, guests will hear live music while milling through the fairgrounds, but they also will be treated to concerts and new stunt shows with acrobats.

“It’s that very Americana, old-school vintage thrill entertainment you would expect to see at fairs, but don’t always do,” said Alicia Shoults, the fair’s marketing and public relations director.

The fair is also launching an 11-episode podcast series, with an episode released per day. Each episode will focus on a different aspect of the fair, such as history or livestock.

Thrill-seekers can head over to the midway and enjoy about 70 rides, four of which are new. Amusements of America is the ride vendor once again, but the Fire Ball — a ride that broke apart on opening day of the fair in 2017, killing one and injuring several others, some seriously — will not be returning. The company said increased safety measures are in place this year.

Fairs also mean a plethora of fried food. There are 195 food vendors at this year’s fair, offering everything from classic powdered-sugar funnel cakes to burgers wrapped in a doughnut bun. There are 27 categories of food that are deep-fried.

“It’s a great tradition,” Shoults said. “We have a lot of things everyone loves, and some new and different things we’re excited about.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch July 24, 2018.

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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.

Study suggests potential link between fracking industry and increased sexually transmitted infections

Activists have long condemned natural gas drillers in Ohio over environmental concerns, but a recent study links the fracking industry to a different kind of health concern: sexually transmitted infections.

Researchers at the Yale Public School of Health found about a 20 percent increase in two STIs — gonorrhea and chlamydia — in eastern Ohio counties with high shale development activity, such as Belmont.

Experienced, out-of-state workers in the industry are often brought into rural communities for their specialized skills, such as operating drilling rigs, said the study’s lead author Nicole Deziel, an epidemiologist at Yale. Those workers tend to be transient young men, she said, living in hyper-masculine “work camp” environments without families — all factors that allow for casual relationships and sexual encounters.

Deziel, an assistant professor in the Yale Public School of Health, was inspired to investigate the potential impact of migrant workers on local communities after visiting Belmont County in 2016 and noticing rows of camper vans that workers were living in while working there.

Her team examined new well permits and reported STI cases using publicly available data sets from all 88 counties in the state from 2000 to 2016 to monitor the influx of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis to account for any pre-existing trends in STI rates. Prior to 2010, there was no hydraulic fracturing activity in Ohio. Since fracking was introduced, about nine counties in eastern Appalachian Ohio with high Utica shale development activity — 10 or more new well permits a year — saw a 21 percent increase in gonorrhea and 19 percent jump in chlamydia rates.

Syphilis rates were unaffected, presumably because workers in those areas were engaging in heterosexual intercourse, whereas syphilis is more associated with homosexual intercourse, Deziel said.

This is not a new phenomenon or unique to just Ohio, Deziel emphasized, citing other studies linking transient workers and STI increases, such as mining communities in South Africa and even crisis cleanup workers in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the shale gas industry directly, but to do with population growth,” said Dr. Charlotte Gaydos, an STI expert at Johns Hopkins University. “It makes sense anytime there’s an activity in the area which increases the influx of the migration of a population that it might be associated. It has been studied a lot.”

The shale fracking industry has expanded rapidly in Ohio over the past eight years. Although there has been a decrease in new permits in recent years, STI rates continue to climb because once a disease is introduced, Deziel said, it can be exchanged within the communities even after the workers leave.

The study notes that the link between fracking and STIs needs to be studied in other regions and by other researchers before it could be considered conclusive.

Some worry that the study makes unfair assumptions about the working population in the natural gas industry.

Although out-of-state workers might have filled many of the early fracking jobs in Ohio, more Ohioans are being hired and trained for those jobs, said Jackie Stewart, state director of Energy In Depth, a research and education organization financed by the oil and gas industry.

“There are no conclusions from this study: only potential and possible links,” Stewart said.

She added that chlamydia was on the rise in Ohio prior to 2010, before fracking began in the state, and the Ohio county with the highest rate of gonorrhea and chlamydia in 2016 was Hamilton — where there are no shale wells.

“It’s a bit dubious,” Stewart said. “They fail to explain the rise in cases of STIs in the decade prior to shale development, but go to great lengths to highlight an increase in the years since.”

The Ohio Department of Health recommends using a condom and getting tested regularly to avoid sexually transmitted infections or diseases. The department’s STD Prevention Program provides screenings for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.

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

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.