Santaniello Gets AARP’s Most Prestigious Award

Published in Pawtucket Times, December 6, 2013

Look for hundreds of AARP members to gather today at this year’s Andrus Awards noon luncheon at the West Valley Inn, in West Warwick, to recognize their own, at the aging group’s annual Andrus Awards ceremony.

Norma Santaniello, 81, gets the Rhode Island AARP Chapter’s most prestigious volunteer award for age 50 and older volunteers, that is the 2013 AARP Rhode Island Andrus Award for Community Service. It’s the aging advocacy groups most visible state volunteer award for community service

“This award acts as a symbol to the public that we can all work together for positive social change,” states . “AARP has long valued the spirit of volunteerism and the important contributions volunteers make to their communities, neighbors, and the programs they serve.”

Connell says the North Providence resident has worked with the nonprofit’s chapters and community partners, reinforcing the organization’s strategic priorities and being a voice to the public. “She is a strong advocate for community service and works with the volunteers on projects such as the RI Community Food Bank and at various health and fitness fairs.”

Santaniello follows a very distinguished group of award recipients. Previous Andrus Award winners are Sarah Gauvin, Virginia Tierney, Anna Prior, Ann Gardella, Melvoid Benson, John O’Hara, Rita Wood, Ed Drew, Richard Ryan, Jorge Cardenas and Catherine Graziano

The December 6 Andrus Awards Luncheon is very festive and upbeat regardless of “what is going wrong in the world or otherwise leaving us feeling unsettled,” says Connell, noting that she looks forward to attending this annual event because “it is a time to acknowledge volunteerism and public service on many levels.

AARP Rhode Island’s Andrus Awards Luncheon allows the organization to recognize people for their community service throughout the year. “It is indeed an honor to know each and every one present, along with many who are absent,” notes Connell, stressing that they represent an “even greater network of volunteers and advocates who carry on Ethel Percy Andrus’s dream of a productive and fulfilling life for people whose knowledge, passion and energy remains indispensable in our neighborhoods and in towns and cities all across our great state.”

AARP Award Recognizes Ethel Percy Andrus’s Advocacy

According to Connell, her group’s top award is given to recognize and honor AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus, she “embodies all that AARP stands for. Once Andrus retired in 1944 from her position as Los Angeles high school principal in 1944, she stepped into a new career, one that ultimately would have a major impact on the nation. “She became an activist and organizer on behalf of other retirees and older Americans, fighting to improve their financial security, their health care and other services that they need, says AARP Rhode Island’s State Director.

The former long-time educator, who served as the first woman high school principal in California, never married and was childless, had retired so that she could care for her mother, who was in poor health. Despite decades of working, Andrus was entitled to a pension of just $60 a month, around $750 in today’s dollars. She had enough money to financially survive, but she realized that many of her older colleagues were not so fortunate, living off incredibly small pensions.

For Andrus, her commitment to become a change agent for society was fueled by learning the indignity faced by a former colleague due to lack of retirement income was forced to live in a chicken coop in a small town outside Los Angeles. This led to Andrus to become active in the California Retired Teachers Association and in 1947 she founded the National Retired Teachers Association. This group would ultimately lead to the creation of AARP in 1958, now considered the nation’s largest aging advocacy group.

Connell notes that Andrus worked to shift the nation’s perception of aging. As she once explained, “Old age is not a defeat, but a victory, not a punishment, but a privilege.” The aging advocate urged her fellow retirees “to be as active as possible — to pursue new passions, to travel and see the world, and, most of all, to continue to use the skills and experience developed over a lifetime to serve their communities.”

The Ojai, California resident continued to work long hours and travel to promote AARP until her death from a heart attack at age 83 in 1967, the same year that membership in AARP reached 1 million. Today, AARP’s membership serves over 40 million older people.

Like the AARP Rhode Island Chapter, recipients across the nation are to receive the distinguished award, named for Andrus, recognizing their ability to enhance the lives of AARP members and prospective members, improve their community or for which the work was performed, and the inspiration they give other volunteers.

Empowering Seniors

For 29 years, juggling a demanding job that provided administrative support for Providence School Principals combined with raising two young children left Santaniello with little time after hours to join community organizations. One year shy of age 60, she would take retirement, noting that “I had worked long enough, had a pension, and just wanted to do different things.”

Santaniello remembers her volunteer work began when she was invited to join the State Legislative Committee some 18 years ago. The retired Providence School Department employee, joined the AARP North Providence Chapter taking the helm of its Legislative Committee, ultimately being appointed to AARP Rhode Island’s State Legislative Committee. In these positions she has written numerous letters to Congressional lawmakers on aging advocacy issues and has testified many times on Smith Hill before the General Assembly on a multitude of aging issues, including care giver issues, long-term care, Social Security, and fair market pricing for prescription drugs.

As the years rolled by, Santaniello would continue to put her energy into her AARP duties. But, she also would find time to teach fifth graders about religion at her local parish, the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in North Providence, serve as a board member for Marieville’s Community Police program and to even became certified to be on FEMA’s Emergency Response Team in the Ocean State. That’s not all.

Santaniello is actively involved in the Department of Elderly Affairs’ Senior Help Insurance program, assisting seniors to get the best insurance plan for their specific needs. “Right now I am very concerned about United Health Care dropping physicians,” she says.

Besides receiving the Andrus Award, Santaniello notes she has also accumulated a few others over the years. She received the AARP Rhode Island’s Outstanding Team member Award in both 2000 and 2004 and the nonprofit group’s Life Time Chapter Education Award in 2010.

With today’s luncheon ceremony in her thoughts, Santaniello admits, “it’s quite an honor, getting the highest award that AARP can bestow.” She seems amazed that one should get this award for just doing something you like. “Obviously, if I did not enjoy what I was doing I would not have been around so long,” she says.

As to staying active in her early eighties, Santaniello hopes that her older friends will find volunteer activities that are worthwhile to invest their time and energy. “We just have to know what is going [in the world] or we will fade away, she said.

Like Santaniello, older Rhode Islanders might consider following her very active life style. Become a volunteer in your community. According to the Washington, DC-based Corporation for National & Community Service, a growing body of research details that older volunteers have lower mortality rates, less depression, fewer physical limitations and higher levels of well-being. Older volunteer’s can tackle community problems, making the world a better place for their children and grandchildren. Being a volunteer might just well be your fountain of youth.

At today’s Andrus Awards noon luncheon, here are other AARP members who will be recognized for the 2013 Volunteer Leader of the Year: Advocacy; Doris Haskins (Advocacy): Julia Valles (Community Presence); Lourdes Pichardo (Maria Matias Award); Susan Sweet (Advocacy Education); and Jorge Cardenas (Volunteer Engagement).

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

It Takes a “Village” to Organize an Arts Festival

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 30, 2013

Years ago, the First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wrote a book It Takes a Village, attributing the title to an old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The book details the impact individuals and groups outside the family make on meeting a child’s needs.

City government does not always have the financial means or resources to organize large community gatherings, successfully. Just as it takes a “Village” to assist parents in raising their children, it takes the commitment of dedicated community volunteers in a “Village,” that is Pawtucket, to work closely with City government to organize and host one of the largest arts and cultural festivals in the Ocean State, maybe even in New England: the Pawtucket Arts Festival (PAF).

The upcoming month-long PAF, organized by Pawtucket’s Department of Planning and Redevelopment, leading cultural and service organizations, as well as community volunteers, is scheduled for September 6 to September 29, at various locations throughout the City.

With more than two centuries of story to showcase, the PAF turns the spotlight on glorious Slater Memorial Park, the Blackstone River and the riverfront, and the city’s contemporary blue-collar urban core, with its restored mills and commercial spaces that now house visual arts and recording studios, galleries and fabricators, as well as two of New England’s most highly regarded theatres, the Gamm Theatre and Mixed Magic Theatre.

The City’s arts festival celebrates a legacy of creativity and innovation that dates way back to 1790, when a young textile wizard from England, Samuel Slater, made the Blackstone River Valley and the City of Pawtucket the Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and the place where artisans and craftsmen first gathered.

Now in its 15th year, the Pawtucket Arts Festival is overseen by Pawtucket resident John Baxter. PAF Chairman Baxter, a senior level staffer for the Rhode Island Senate, and his executive committee of 16 volunteers are about ready to see the fruit of their year-long planning.

Performing Arts Chair Mary Lee Partington says, “The performing arts focus of the Pawtucket Arts Festival is aimed at interpreting the region’s innovative and entrepreneurial energy through the state’s resident artists…many of whom perform and introduce new and original material during the month-long Festival.”

Partington notes the range of offerings from classical, traditional, or folk music and dance to Aurea, Opera Providence, and jazz artists Greg Abate and Duke Robillard and their ensembles, as well as theatre at The Gamm and performance art from TEN31 Productions. Pawtucket’s widely-acclaimed arts festival reaches across geography and genres to show the performing arts at work in Rhode Island and among our national and international touring artists.

“We tell Rhode Island’s story through the arts…here, there, and everywhere,” stresses Partington.

Here are some of the major events of the first weekend of the upcoming Pawtucket Arts Festival.

Celebration in the Streets

Next Friday, on September 6, PAF organizers kick off the first ever Blackstone River Party: Taste of the Valley, brought to you by Schofield Printing. The event, drawing thousands to the grounds of the historic Slater Mill Museum and the blocked off Roosevelt Ave., is scheduled from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. The City’s largest downtown block party offers food and dessert samplings served by some of the finest restaurants in Pawtucket and the surrounding Blackstone Valley communities. A cash bar is available.

Crowds will gather on the large dance floor under a huge white tent as Rhode Island’s high energy Zydeco band, Slippery Sneakers, begins playing at 6:00 p.m., concluding at 8:00 p.m. After a brief break, headliner Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic take the stage from 8:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Admission is $10. Children under 12 are admitted free. The event is “Rain or Shine.” Advance tickets can be purchased at the City Visitor Center.

On September 7-8, the performing arts share the stage with visual arts and fine craft when more than 50 artists show their one-of-a-kind work at Arts Marketplace: Pawtucket (www.artsmarketplacepawtucket.com), from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., in the Pawtucket Armory Center for the Arts. Surrounding the 119 year old historic armory, XOS-Exchange Open Studios (www.xospawtucket.com), from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., brings art buyers into the studios of more than 60 artists located throughout four renovated mills in the City’s Pawtucket Amory District.

According to Joan Hausrath, a retired college professor and artist at Riverfront Lofts across from Pawtucket City Hall, XOS Exchange Street Open Studios attracted more than 2000 people last year for its 2-day inaugural event. One of the benefits of having open studios in her neighborhood is that visitors can easily walk from one mill to another – all located within one block of each other, and they are just yards from Exit 29 off I-95, the artist noted.

Hausrath and her fellow organizers of this event invited artists from the other mills in Pawtucket to participate as guest artists, to increase the concentration of talent within the grand, historic structures that provide creative home and work space for these gifted citizens of the arts.

Jam Packed First Weekend

Also, on September 7 other festivities include The Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival on the Blackstone River, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at School Street Pier (presented by Schofield Printing); the Lighting of Pawtucket’s New Bridge (4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.); Slater Mill Museum’s new In-OVATION Festival featuring the Duke Robillard Jazz Trio and the Matt Macaulay Trio and more (12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m.). Meanwhile, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, will be offered by Opera Providence, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., at the City Visitor Center, and The Samaritans of RI, from 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., showcases their intimate fine arts gallery and In-OVATION Festival After Party with Unforgettable September Music at Forget-Me-Not Gallery on Park Place.

Finally, among the new PAF events this year is the Pawtucket Rotary Club’s Food Trucks on the Blackstone (www.blackstonefoodtrucks.com), offering a food fair (and beer tent) on September 7-8, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., near Pawtucket City Hall, to hungry families, art shoppers, and audience attending Slater Mill Museum free musical performances.

On September 8, Slater Mill’s Labor, Ethnic and Heritage Festival, presents one of the Ocean State’s longest-running folk music and heritage-arts festivals. Initiated in the late 1980’s in partnership with the Rhode Island labor community and affiliated unions, the L&E Festival celebrated 25 years in 2012. The Sunday event, from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., shines its spotlight on folk and ethnic music, the artisans of the Community Guilds Studio and gifted regional artists and artisans.

Creative Co-advisor to In-OVATION FESTIVAL and the Labor & Ethnic Heritage Festival at Slater Mill is Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame inductee Ken Lyon, a blues and folk music legend who helped design this year’s music festivals, who lists the L&E lineup with members of Magnolia, The Greg Abate Jazz Quartet, The Eastern Medicine Singers, Joyce Katzberg & Jimmy Warren, Bill Petterson, The Zimmermen (presenting the repertoire of Bob Dylan) and more.

Admission for the folk music festival on the grounds of Slater Mill is free. Admission prices for Slater Mill tours are listed at http://www.slatermill.org. Special preview tours “RI Labor History 1790-1830” by Slater Mill interpretive guide Joey L DeFrancesco of “Joey Quits” You Tube fame, will be offered.

Logistics Co-Chair Paul Audette, a semi-retired businessman who serves as a volunteer festival organizer, has seen the Arts Festival “grow up” and offer more sophisticated artistic presentations. “Programming reaches out to more people in a larger geographic area to showcase Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley region positively,” he observes, noting that this year’s events are more varied and offer something for everyone.

Adds Chairman Baxter, “I continue to be amazed that the Pawtucket Arts Festival, with its limited financial and manpower resources, manages to produce this remarkable event again and again.” Community volunteers and arts and cultural organizations are truly the life-blood of the City’s largest festival, Baxter observes. “Without the incredible support of the City Administration, the local business community, the cultural enterprise community, and these volunteers, the Pawtucket Arts Festival would never happen.”

Keeping Kristine’s Vision Alive

In 1999, Kristine Kilmartin, newly married to her husband Pawtucket Rep. Peter Kilmartin, had lived in Pawtucket for only a few months. The Smithfield native was driving through Slater Memorial Park in early January with her new husband when she asked why the City didn’t take more advantage of its green space. Kristine wondered why the City couldn’t do something like the Scituate Arts Festival in the City’s 209-acre park. The Kilmartin’s turned to Mayor James E. Doyle with the idea of creating an arts
festival. After a month of meetings, discussion, and planning, the City created an 18-person volunteer committee to begin planning the first Arts Festival.

Fifteen years later, volunteers from the community have kept Kristine’s vision alive, annually bringing new life in September to the City’s downtown and to its largest municipal park.

For more details and updated information on the 2013 Pawtucket Arts Festival, go to http://www.pawtucketartsfestival.org.

Herb Weiss, Leadership RI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care, and medical issues. As Economic & Cultural Affairs Officer for the City of Pawtucket, he provides staff support to the Pawtucket Arts Festival organizers.

Raimondo Rolls out Educational Initiative to Financially Empower Rhode Islanders

Published in the Pawtucket Times, August 2, 2013

Everybody has been hit hard over the years with the economic downturn in the Ocean State. The statistics are startling about the impact on Rhode Islander’s pocketbooks. According to the Office of the General Treasurer, two-thirds of Rhode Islanders reported some difficulty in covering their expenses and paying bills. Startling the average borrow in our state has $13,221 in credit card debt, the 5th highest amount in the nation. Almost 47% of the Ocean State’s homeowners are “cost burdened,” that is home ownership costs more than 30 percent of their income.

During her first term, overcoming strong opposition of union groups, Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina M. Raimondo, working with Governor Chafee and leadership in the General Assembly, successfully redesigned Rhode Island’s state-administered public employee pension system. Now the Smithfield native, and mother of two, who graduated from LaSalle Academy, Harvard University and Yale Law School, who became a Rhode Scholar at Oxford University, goes into full gear to financially empower the state’s residents to make informed disciplined choices to achieve their financial goals.

Raimondo’s interest in financial empowerment came from her memories of growing up in a modest-income family, and a house with three kids and her grandfather. “My family had to become very smart about saving and budgeting,” she noted. By financial juggling and hard work, she was able along with her two siblings to attend college. According to Raimndo, getting a good college education allowed her to climb up the career ladder and eventually run for General Treasurer.

Building a Prosperous Financial Future

Recognizing that everyone could use a little free help understanding and managing their finances, last October, Raimondo, in partnership with the Providence-based Capital Good Fund, kicked off their financial empowerment initiative to provide guidance, though the Rhode Island Financial Coaching Corps, to provide free financial help to Rhode Islanders balance their home budgets, managing debt, building up credit and plan for their retirement.

According to Raimondo, becoming financially secure and taking care of your family can become tricky with the huge number of financial products available today. One can become confused with the different types of mortgage and banking products available, especially the proliferation of pay day loans, credit cards and reverse mortgages, she says. “If people are not careful they can be hit hard by hidden fees or hidden risks by choosing the wrong product,” she says.

Recently, Raimondo took her Smart Money Tour out on the road visiting local libraries, farmers markets and senior centers, “right into the community,” she says, noting that it might become a permanent initiative if it proves to be successful. At these locations treasury staff, through an online computer data base, (treasury.ri.gov/unclaimed) also helps people locate their lost or abandoned property for free. Unclaimed property includes items such as long forgotten bank accounts, stocks and dividends and life insurance claims. During the last fiscal year, Treasury returned more than $8 million to over 8,000 Rhode Islanders.

Supporting Common Goals

According to Executive Director Andy Posner, of the Providence-based Capital Good Fund, he met Raimondo during her campaign for Treasurer and found a kindred soul. She had similar interests in bringing financial literacy to Rhode Islanders and a desire to fight predatory practices (pay day loans that have interest rates of 260 percent and rent-to-own centers where consumers ultimately pay more than the product is worth).

Capital Good Fund trains volunteers, for the Empower RI initiative, in financial coaching techniques and provides them with curricula to use either in one-to-one sessions with employees at companies who contract for the service or to those interested in getting help, learning about this assistance at community events or through newspaper coverage or social service agencies.

Since the inception of the program over 200 Rhode Islanders have been helped, says Posner. Currently, the Financial Service Corps, has 17 active volunteers, he added.

Joining the Financial Coaching Corps

Jerry Leveille, a Burrillville resident, jumped at being a volunteer with the Financial Coaching Corps after reading the mission of Empower RI, “Moving Rhode Island forward – one person at a time – through financial empowerment.” The 68-year old retired banker, who served as a senior vice president and lending officer, had worked for over 51 years at Warwick-based Greenwood Credit Union.

Filling out the application at the Capital Good Fund, he was accepted, trained and now has worked with two clients.

In one case, Leveille stated that 83-year-old widow learned the art of balancing her checkbook after the death of her husband, who had managed the family’s household account, paying the bills for over 58 years. The woman still coping with the recent death of her husband only needed a couple of sessions to learn this financial skill.

Meanwhile, Leveille says that a 62-year old woman who worked for a large Rhode Island company for over 30 years made a personal decision to retire. She would later learn that this financial decision would reduce her income by a whopping 40 percent. This was combined with mortgage problems. The single older woman owed more on her family homestead than its market value. She could not get her out of state mortgage company to lower the eight percent interest rate or allow her to extend payments.

Before coming to Leveille “her only choice was to walk away from the mortgage or continue to work,” he said, noting that if this occurred the lender would most likely suffer a $60,000 loss. “As a volunteer I was not going to talk her out of retirement, it was not my role to do this. Ultimately, the Financial Coaching Corps. volunteer would refer his client to Rhode Island Housing who is in the process of negotiating a lower interest rate on her behalf.

“We must be very nonjudgmental when we work with our clients,” says Leveille, noting that humans do make mistakes they regret when making bad financial decisions. “We are there to be helpful. It is what it is and we try to find the appropriate solution,” he says when counseling client.

Cumberland resident, Randy Sacilotto, who serves as Navigant’s vice president of business and community development, joined Raimondo’s effort to ratchet up the state’s financial literacy knowledge. Sacilotto, with 21 years working for the credit union, also brings to his clients the expertise he gained from training to become a certified financial counselor, accredited by the National Credit Union Foundation.

Sacilotto, 52, has met with two individuals and one couple, teaching them how a household budget works and another couple on tips on refinancing their home.

Working on budgeting, Sacilotto told his clients to track the spending of “every penny,” for two to four weeks. Write everything down, he says, because you will learn where your money is spent.

“We don’t always actually know what we spend on things,” he says, and if you track your results, cutting spending on things you don’t need can allow you to put your money into more important things, like saving for a house,” notes Sacilotto.

Finding Satisfaction in Financial Problem Solving

Emerson Gardner, a retired manager of the New York-based Bank of America’s International Banking Office, brought this experience and working in the City’s AARP Money Management Program, to the Ocean State in 2010. Two years later he would join Raimondo’s Financial Coaching Corps.

One of the original volunteers, Gardner is already working on his fifth client (their ages range from early 30s to their 50s). “Any time you help a person get their credit rating up or confront their debt problems it begins with creating a budget,” he says, noting that people need to learn how to live within their incomes.

While Gardner’s clients profit from his expertise gleaned from his banking days and a Masters of Business Administration received from Harvard University, he benefits, too. “I get satisfaction in helping clients solve their problems.” The retiree likes the flexibility of the program, allowing him to decide who to take and when to schedule the counseling session.

“For a person who has financial skills and the time to give because they are retiring, it is a great thing to do,” quips Gardner.

Those interested in volunteering for the Financial Coaching Corps, or meeting with a financial coach should visit http://www.fcCorpss.org.

Pawtucket’s Smart Money Tour is scheduled for August 30, 2013, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the City’s Leon Mathieu Senior Center, 420 Main Street, Pawtucket RI.

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