AARP Rhode Island Web Report Puts Spotlight on Hunger

Published December 28, 2012, Pawtucket Times

Especially during the holiday festivities this week the plight of Rhode Island’s hungry seniors in Providence’s West End Community and throughout the Ocean State, may have remained hidden to many Rhode Islanders, especially at Christmas Dinner, who gathered with families and friends to eat turkey, ham, the fixings, topped off with delicious pastries, and even pies.

But with the funding support of AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger, AARP Rhode Island officially launches its Hungry in the West End investigative web report next week, to ratchet up the public’s awareness that seniors do go hungry every day in this Providence neighborhood and throughout Rhode Island’s 39 Cities and Towns.

Executive Director, Kathleen S. Connell, of AARP Rhode Island, notes that, according the USDA statistics, 67,000 Rhode Island households are considered “food insecure,” which means families do not always have the financial ability to purchase adequate food. “Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of Rhode Island households,” she adds, “receive SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits.

Targeting the West End of Providence

According to Connell, the West End of Providence is the city’s — and the state’s – most economically challenged community. The unemployment rate among its largely Hispanic population exceeds 20 percent, more than double the state average, she says.

Connell adds that hidden in the West End are the “elderly hungry,” whose “food insecurity” is reflected in the number of people who must rely on the federal SNAP program, Meals on Wheels, congregate meals sites at senior centers and neighborhood food pantries to eat.

To get the story out about Senior hunger, former journalist and now AARP Rhode Island’s Director of Communications, John Martin, worked closely with former Providence Journal reporter, Jody McPhillips to investigate and put this issue on the radar screen of the general public as well as the Rhode Island General Assembly and state policy makers.

One disturbing fact came to light during Martin and McPhillips’ interviews, is that resources to relieve hunger are “stretched thin. Federal and state funding to end hunger have not kept pace with the problem. For instance, the Rhode Island General Assembly funding for Meals on Wheels is below funding levels of four years ago, before the nation’s worst recession began.

The Web-based reports, to premiere on Friday, January 4, 2013 at, clearly showcase this daunting domestic issue. What you will see are McPhillips’s eight separate stories, added one per day, many parts of which are supplemented by links to Martin’s videos. They range from extended interviews with McPhillips’s sources, to vignettes shot on various locations, including at the Rhode Island Food Bank, with a Meals on Wheels driver, at food pantries and senior centers, and at the Sodexo family food weekend backpacks program. Also, Martin has put together an overarching video in documentary form that will be posted on the site in segments ranging from four to five minutes each.

Before next week’s premiere you can watch a video preview of this project at – the Web site listed above.

Hunger, One of America’s Biggest Domestic Issues

Connell says that “Hunger and goes hand in hand with a host of serious health consequences – including diabetes, depression, even malnutrition. These are big issues that America faces today. It’s not just a ‘senior problem,’ it’s a societal problem, too. As someone has posted on our Facebook page, senior hunger is simply a disgrace.

“One of our conclusions [noted in the Web-based reports] is that that a lot is being done to help address senior hunger. But federal and state money is not a one-sized fits all solution. For the truly isolated seniors – especially those with disabilities and health issues — well-stocked food pantries may not be a practical resource,” noted Connell.

“We think people who read and watch Hungry in the West End will reach their own conclusions about how we tackle this on a one-to-one basis. It’s a call to action for people to be more aware of senior hunger and to reach out personally to those who might need help,” says Connell.

Connell asks: “Is there someone you can check on? Can you offer someone a ride to the supermarket when you go shopping? Or offer to pick something up? Can you visit a food pantry on their behalf? Perhaps you can ask if they would like some help in signing up for Meals on Wheels or applying for SNAP.”

Connell even knows of a group in one Rhode Island community where “volunteering” means preparing an extra meal each week for someone in need.

For AARP Rhode Island’s John Martin, “I can only say it has been a privilege to become better educated about senior hunger in Rhode Island. Jody and I met scores of people making a difference. But we also saw the great need that is out there. Each step of the way, however, we kept questioning who we were missing. The sad fact is that isolated seniors – by definition – can be all but invisible. In fact, one person said that first contact with some hungry and suffering seniors is a response to a 911 call.

“A lot of talk about hunger is focused on people out of work who are trying to feed their families,” says Martin. But this project brings the issue of senior hunger to the forefront — a problem that may not change much even if the economy makes a healthy rebound, he believes.

Martin states, “It’s not as if a stronger economy means isolated seniors on fixed incomes are going to have more money to spend on utilities, prescription medicines and groceries. And it has always been true that when seniors are forced to choose among those three expenses, groceries likely will be last on the list.”

A Preview….

Aptly put, the problem seems simple but not the solutions, so says McPhillips in her first Web report.

Luz Navarro, a diabetic with part of her left foot amputated, has been on dialysis for four years. The 62-year-old former insurance agent is now housebound, living with her cat. The independently-minded Navarro, can barely stand to cook at the stove and must now rely on Meals on Wheels, delivering her lunch five times a week.

McPhillips illustrates how difficult it is for older person’s to get enough to eat. Navarro, like many of the State’s elderly who are homebound, can’t drive to get to the market, or to a food pantry when money is tight. Nor can she walk to a Senior Center to have lunch and socialize with others.

As McPhillips quipps, “while pundits debate,” Mrs. Navarro needs to eat. While some in Congress denounce the social safety net for creating a culture of dependency, others call for funding to provide food for the needy even with a huge federal deficit.

Senior Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) makes an appearance, calling for the continuation of funding to the state’s SNAP program to feed the growing number of hungry.

Also, Catherine Taylor, director of the state Division of Elderly Affairs, says she sees a future looking darker rather than brighter, for Navarro, and other homebound seniors.

In an era of shrinking budgets, it’s becoming harder to do the things necessary to help older people stay in their homes for as long as possible, admits Taylor.

She warns that federal funding for food programs may be slashed as Congress is forced to rein in the nation’s huge deficit. Food and gas price increases will hit older person’s where it hurts, in their pocket books, predicts Taylor, making it more difficult for them to purchase groceries.

Hopefully, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, will get Taylor’s message at the conclusion of McPhillips’ fine investigative piece: “It’s up to us to picture the world we want to age in,” and to work to bring it about.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at


Buy Local When Shopping for Your Last Minute Xmas Gifts

Published on December 21, 2012, Pawtucket Times

Shelves at many local stores are crammed with holiday gifts and goodies – bright red Santa hats, Christmas lights, artificial Christmas trees and even holiday trinkets, all of which were stamped “Made in China.” Just a couple of miles down the road in North Attleboro, at Massachusetts-based Department Stores, you might pull items off the packed shelves, out of bins and even from clothing racks. Just take time to examine the tags. You guessed it, clothing, along with dishes, pots and pans, picture frames, you name it, all made from Chinese manufacturing companies.

Shopping for gifts for family and friends, just four days before Christmas, Rhode Islanders might just choose to purchase hand-made, “unique” products made by local artists, rather than purchasing mass-produced goods.

The Birthing of Rhode Island’s Buy Local Initiative

Lt. Gov. Roberts, who oversees the state’s Small Business Advocacy Council, kicked off the Ocean State’s Buy Local RI initiative in 2009. Roberts marshaled the members of this group, local Chamber of Commerce and small business owners along with local and state elected officials, to promote awareness of locally-owned, independent businesses to help increase sales challenging economic times.

Simply put, Robert’s strategy was to create a statewide network and web site dedicated to spotlighting local businesses and products and connecting consumers to these businesses. The campaign has now turned to social media—Twitter and
Facebook — to promote the initiative and engage a larger audience to expand the impact of the campaign.

Robert notes that Rhode Island enjoys a vibrant arts community with over 2,000 creative sector businesses that employ more than 10,000 people. “This sector has grown in recent years while other sectors have declined. We must continue to build awareness and support creative businesses–as we support all small businesses–especially during this slow economic recovery,” she says.

Aaron Hertzberg, Acting Executive Director of the Pawtucket Foundation, strongly agrees with the Lt. Governor’s call to Rhode Islanders to support the State’s creative community. “It’s important that we as a community support the small businesses of Pawtucket. They help to employ residents, share tax burden and increase the vitality of our community,” he says.

According to Hertzberg, Pawtucket has a number of wonderful retail options, especially in our arts community. “So many of these artist and shops specifically chose to do business in Pawtucket because we value their creativity and energy,” he says.

Stocking Stuffers at Hope Artiste Village

Gail Ahlers, of Pawtucket-based Ahlers Design (, a RISD Graduate who has designed custom art work and gifts for over 23 years, was involved with Lt. Governor Robert’s efforts to increase the public’s awareness of the importance of buying from local small businesses. She provided her creative eye to helping the committee select the By Local Rhode Island’s logo and web site design.

Ahlers has always believed in supporting local businesses. Since 1986, the artist had shown her art work at the Foundry Artist Holiday Sale. As its Presidents for eight years she worked hard to promote over 60 artists to sell their unique, handmade art work. As everyone who supports the buy local initiative, Ahlers will tell you that when you buy from local businesses, “the money stays in your community,” keeping the state’s economy alive.

When creating her custom made gifts she has made a commitment to source with local vendors, for raw material, and skilled local craftsmen. Her products designed in the City of Pawtucket are shipped world-wide.

When in conversation with Ahlers, she will tell you her “designs create joy along with jobs in Rhode Island.” Tomorrow, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., at 999 Main Street, Ahlers Designs opens its doors to sell its unique holiday specials, including handmade business card cases, mirror compacts, desk clocks, light switch plates, and magnets.

On the other side of the large mill complex at 1005 Main Street, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., the Winter Farmer’s Market Place, returns, bringing dozens of small businesses into its long hall way to sell more than just produce and fruit. Ahlers notes that shoppers can find grass fed beef, baked goods, homemade jams and jellies, even goat cheese and seafood, too.

No Sales Tax at this Pawtucket-based Art Gallery

In a fully restored 4,000 second floor of a nineteenth century textile Pawtucket mill, just a 20 minute drive from Woonsocket, Mad Dog Artist Studios and Gallery ( at 65 Blackstone Avenue, behind the GAMM Theatre and adjacent to the City’s William Tolman High School, opened its doors three months ago, during the City’s Pawtucket Arts Festival in September.

Tomorrow from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., in the 440 sq. ft. gallery, artwork of seventeen artist, including ceramics, handmade jewelry, hand-blown glass vases and glassware, and water colors, are available for purchased, no sales tax being charged, says Marketing Director Christina J. Garnett. This gallery is one of four certified art galleries in the City’s Arts & Entertainment District.”

“Why would you not buy local when we have so many great artists here,” quips Garnett. “These artisans are running their own small businesses, they support our community by living and working here.”

Artists in Woonsocket, Too

Notes Rebekah Speck, RiverzEdge Arts Director, the mill complex at 68 South Main Street in Woonsocket, also known as Le Moulin, is an excellent one stop shop for local gift buying in Northern RI. Her nonprofit sells affordable art work, recycled material planters, edgy and festive Tee-shirts and other small gift items, as well as gift certificates for photo shoots and graphic services.

According to Speck, among the 20 other small arts businesses and artisans in the mill complex. Yarnia, for instance, sells fine yarns and accessories as well as spinning and weaving equipment. “These are quality of life investments,” says Speck, “and not just stuff that you don’t need that accumulates and stays in landfills.”

Support the State’s Burgeoning Artist Community

So, now you’re shopping to get that perfect gift. Which way to go, mass-produced or hand-made. Go a head, just purchase that one-of-a-kind piece of artwork “Made in Rhode Island.” Choose to buy that beautiful hand-woven scarf or sweater made by a local Ocean State weaver instead of one imported and made by machine. Or
may be you might just purchase your next set of dishes, coffee mugs, cups and glassware from a local potter. By supporting local artists and artisans in the Blackstone Valley, you will see an economic trickle down effect – these small businesses generate wealth from local buyers and even outside of our state’s border and then spend and invest their money right here.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at

Coping with the Holiday Blues

Published December 14, 2012, Pawtucket Times

Chestnuts roasting in your fireplace, green wreaths with red ribbons and brightly colored lights on decorated evergreen trees may elicit pleasant thoughts about the upcoming holidays; however, these thoughts might just tear open old wounds and bring to the surface bad memories, triggering stress, tension and even depression.

Not every family gathering with your parents, siblings, children, or grandchildren will be as serene as a Norman Rockwell painting. Of course, everyone has heard horror stories involving holiday family gatherings.

Surviving the Stress of Family Visits

Allison Bernier, LICSW, Associate Director of Wellness Employment and Network Services, at the Providence Center, notes that while the holiday season can be a time of family celebration, joy, and companionship for many people, it can also be a very stressful time. “High expectations, disrupted routines, dealing with loss or separation from loved ones, financial strain, and time constraints can all exacerbate anxiety and depression,” she says.

Bernier, who has 15 years under her belt employed as a Social Worker, who now provides one-to-one counseling to clients for the past six years, provides common sense tips as to how to survive stress that can be ignited by holiday family gathering.

Fighting holiday blues can be as simple as being prepared for family conflicts and having a specific plan to handle the uncomfortable emotions that may arise, notes Bernier. Creating a list of “potential issues” and “role playing how you will react with people you trust” can be effective ways to survive difficulties that might occur, she says.

“It is okay to know that you don’t have to be happy during the holidays,” states Bernier, stressing “just accept your feelings and the place where you are at.” If needed, just reach out to your network of family or friends or contact a professional, she recommends.

According to Bernier, when expectations are unrealistic, we almost always will fail to meet them. Scale back on your plans, or ask for help Just keep your expectations low and when you visit family or friends, just go and enjoy the social interactions, she says.

If seeing family causes you great amounts of stress each year, it is alright to say no sometimes and celebrate with friends, Bernier recommends. If you don’t want to withdraw from your family gathering because of tension, you don’t have to, she says. “Just keep your visit time-limited,” she recommends, only going for an hour or two rather than spending all day at the event.

The holidays can easily become a source of stress, especially when you’re standing in long lines at the local mall waiting to buy the last available iPad while trying to remember how much money you have left to use on your credit cards. Writing out a gift list along with creating a budget for holiday spending can help decrease anxiety, too, Bernier notes. By setting spending limits you will also reduce the anxiety that comes with reviewing your post-holiday credit card bills.

Maintaining healthy habits can also take the blues out of your holiday, predicts Bernier. Enjoy some eggnog, cheese cake or pastries at a holiday party, but keep the balance by eating healthy foods (smaller portions), drinking alcohol in moderation, continuing to exercise and getting enough rest.

Coping with Holiday Depression

Besides family stress, other factors may well play into bringing on the holiday blues.

During this time of the year, some Rhode Islanders may even feel a little depressed or have suicidal thoughts with the approaching upcoming festive holidays, especially if they have lost a spouse and friends, are unemployed, experiencing painful chronic illnesses, or just feel isolated from others.

If this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers says is a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the despairing and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its web site.

Executive Director, Denise Panichas, of the Rhode Island branch, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. Conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking.

Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

In 2011, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 7,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website,, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

Professional Galley and Gift Shop Supports Program and Services

In December 2011, The Samaritans began a social venture, by relocating to the City of Pawtucket’s Arts & Entertainment District, and opening the Forget-Me-Not Gallery and Community Education Center. Through partnerships with Rhode Island’s fine arts and crafts community, “we hope to foster hope, inspiration and commemoration of the lives of our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide,” stated Panichas.

At the Forget-Me-Not Gallery, no sales taxes are charged on one-of-a-kind pieces of art work. The gallery also is a retail site for Rhode Island-based Alex and Ani jewelry and other giftware.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, its Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go to

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at