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Mariachi De Oro brings Mexican food, culture to community

Photos by Tom Rivers: Some of the Rosario family members who work at Mariachi De Oro Mexican Grill include, front row, from left: Leonel, Dolores, Isabel and Gladys. Back row: Sergio, Kevin and Donato.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 September 2017 at 9:24 am

Chamber names popular restaurant ‘Business of the Year’

MEDINA – Six years ago the Rosario family opened Mariachi De Oro Mexican Grill on Maple Ridge Road, following nearly a year of renovations.

Six brothers – Francisco, Sergio, Martin, Pablo, Donato and Leonel – plus their sister Elba transformed the site. They rebuilt and expanded the kitchen and gave the dining area and grounds a new look. The restaurant showcases their Mexican culture.

The family members had all worked for years at local farms. They wanted to try their own business. Mariachi has been a stunning success, Orleans County Chamber of Commerce officials said in naming Mariachi its “Business of the Year.” The Rosarios and other Chamber award winners will be celebrated Friday during an awards banquet at the White Birth in Lyndonville.

The business has grown since it opened on Sept. 9, 2011, putting on an addition for a bar and bathrooms, an outdoor patio, and continued additions to the menu. Mariachi is waiting for its outdoor liquor license to cater to customers on the patio. Mariachi hired artists for Mexican-themed murals inside the restaurant, and has a mariachi band perform monthly.

Mariachi De Oro Mexican Grill is located at 11417 Maple Ridge Rd.

The restaurant draws many out-of-county visitors to Medina for the authentic Mexican cuisine. Mariachi has been featured in very positive reviews from The Buffalo News and Buffalo Spree.

“Everything is fresh, that is our secret,” said Leonel Rosario, co-owner of the restaurant and the head cook and manager.

Mariachi has Mexican staples – burritos, tacos, fajitas – and much more, from seafood, to steak and pork dinners. They make their own fresh tortillas. Many of the spices used in the kitchen are imported from Mexico. Leonel uses many of his family’s recipes from the state of Oaxaca.

“When people ask me about Mariachi, I tell them we are a Mexican restaurant, but we are more than a Mexican restaurant,” said Leonel, 35, the youngest of the brothers.

Some of the family continues to work in local agriculture. The family also runs Monte Alban, a Mexican grocery and clothing store that opened about a decade ago on Route 31 in Medina. There is also a taco stand behind Monte Alban’s.

Leonel is a steady presence at mariachi. He is often joined by his wife Dolores and their children, Leonel Jr., 16; and Galilea, 15.

He was interviewed on Tuesday after the lunch rush.

Question: Are you surprised by the Chamber award?

Answer: Yes. When I found out I was really happy and excited. In the first year that we opened and I was back there cooking, sometimes we didn’t have any customers for a couple hours. You feel like, ‘What’s the point being back there?’ And then you keep pushing more, and doing more things and you start seeing more customers. You get better at things. When you see these kind of achievements happen, it makes you feel really proud and thankful. It gives you more energy to do things that you’ve already been thinking about.

For me it was like a payoff for 80-hour weeks. I’m used to being inside the kitchen.

Leonel Rosario is pictured at Mariachi De Oro with the main dining room behind him.

Question: Eighty hours a week for six years?

Answer: Yes. You get time off here and there. But like any other business owner you can never leave your place.

Question: You and your family are really quite a success story. I am impressed with the Rosarios. You guys seem to get along well, too.

Answer: For us it hasn’t been uphill all of the time. We have always run businesses together. We have respect for the older siblings. That’s a main reason why we’re able to work so well together. And also because we lived together as brothers and sisters with no parents.

There is plenty of Mariachi merchandise available at the restaurant.

Question: You mentioned you were working on an outdoor liquor license. How much more can you do here?

Answer: I want to have Mariachi del Oro be a place where you can have a real authentic Mexican meal plus have an awesome experience with what’s happening. I want us to have more than food. I want to bring my culture and our traditions into the place and share it with everybody.

We’re bringing in a mariachi band and let people come in and learn about other cultures. The mariachi band comes every month. I want to do more music. I want to do more events just so people can have fun.

Question: I noticed you do many public events, with dancing and food, despite a busy schedule.

Answer: That was always one of things that helped me to get out of my self zone and achieve more because I studied my dancing and the sharing of the Oaxaca and Mexican culture. Anytime they ask, I always go for it. It’s one of the things I also enjoy a lot. Dancing will always be one of my biggest hobbies.

Leonel and Dolores Rosario perform a Mexican folk dance in March 2016 at the “The Colonnade.” That site is the former Masonic Temple now used a cultural center by the World Life Institute.

Question: It’s pretty high energy dancing. You got to be in good shape to do that.

Answer: Yes. Before I could dance like it was nothing, but now that I’m 35, I’m started to feel it a little more. Me and my wife we have always loved dancing.

Question: Why has Medina worked for you, especially at this site?

Answer: I think Medina is the type of community where everybody is starting to think and bring so many more ideas that it is helping the town to bring people in from miles away. They are doing a lot of events, which I think is really nice for all of the business owners in the community. The MBA (Medina Business Association) comes up with all of these ideas.

With us, we wanted to join them and share with them what we can offer to help bring people into Medina.

Kevin Rosario cooks a big pot of pork on Tuesday for the dinner crowd at Mariachi’s. His cousin Sergio is in back working as the grill cook.

Question: It seems like this location by creek has also worked out well for you?

Answer: Yes. We found this place. We saw it and we liked it. We went for it. I think it’s a beautiful spot. We get people from the city.

Question: The name Mariachi De Oro, what does that mean?

Answer: The Golden Mariachi. That’s what it means. When we were thinking about what to name it, some us love mariachi music. I love mariachi music. We wanted to always bring a mariachi band to play. So that’s why it’s Mariachi De Oro.

The bar stools have saddles to sit on at Mariachi Del Oro.

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Chamber Lifetime Achievement Award: Bruce Landis

Photo by Tom Rivers: Bruce Landis is pictured in July at the Orleans County 4-H Fair with a display of his portraits, commercial photographs and other work.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 19 September 2017 at 8:22 am

‘I just love creating memories for people.’

Bruce Landis is being honored by the Orleans County Chamber of Commerce on Friday with its “Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Landis, 61, has worked locally as a photographer since 1974. As a kid growing up near Lyndonville between Waterport and Kenyonville, he worked on a small dairy farm owned by Don and Linda Hobbs. They later sold him the site at 13382 Ridge Rd., the base of his photography business since 1978.

When Landis was thinking about a career as a teen-ager, his former pastor at the Kenyonville United Methodist Church urged him to follow a passion. For Landis, that was taking pictures, even back then.

He graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology and started his photography business, Photos by Bruce, at age 17 in 1974.

Question: Why have you stayed with this for 43 years?

Answer: I love photography. The adrenaline rush of people able to take someone who says, ‘I hate having my picture taken’ and to be able to get something that they absolutely love in end is really great. I love that. It’s very rewarding. One of the most rewarding things I do is when I photograph a special needs person. It’s a challenge because you never know exactly what the parents expect. When you get something that you love and they love, and it brings tears to their eyes, you don’t have to pay me for that. That’s all the payment I need.

Question: I know you do a lot of Little League teams, dance studios, weddings, groups and portraits.

Answer: One of our specialties is large group photos. It’s a lot of work to do that. If I take an assistant or an intern with me, they are always surprised that the photography part for a class reunion is maybe four or five minutes, where the setup, if you have to build some type of risers, might be 45 minutes or an hour.

Question: In looking at many historic photos, it seems people put a high value on nice portraits over a hundred years ago, whether a man in his shop or even the sports teams from decades ago. Back then, they wanted a professional to take the photos.

It seems to me being a professional photographer today is harder with all of the people with Smart Phones taking pictures, and they seem happy with photos that are ‘OK.’

Bruce Landis gets a group of Albion honor grads ready for a picture in May 2016 during a convocation at Hickory Ridge Country Club.

Answer: Yes, that’s true. And the selfie has degraded the level of acceptance of what people will think is good. They’ll take a selfie and a duck flips and think, ‘Wow, this is great. I love it.’ So someone comes along with a Smart Phone or picks up a camera at BJ’s and thinks now I’m a professional photographer. Or they may take something that’s a little bit better than a selfie, and not see beyond that.

A lot of times people will look at two different photos and not know why one is better than the other. But they will look at one and say, ‘This one is so much nicer and I don’t know why.’ It’s like with retouching. If you can tell a photo has been retouched, you’ve overdone it. You want it to look natural. I want a natural, real look to photos, rather than the plastic, and overdone.

Question: Not only are people OK with selfies, but they don’t seem to print out pictures very much. What I’ve noticed in the news business, even for obituaries, many people do not have a good picture of a relative. I think about the old days, over 100 years ago, it seems like families insisted on having a good picture of their uncle or whichever family member.

Answer: The printed picture is invaluable. The Professional Photographers Association of America right now has a program where we are trying to promote people to actually print their photos. I talk to people everyday where they have photos on their cell phone and they show me. I say, ‘Do have those backed up someplace? Are they any place other than your phone?’ Because when you walk out of here , you could drop your phone in a mud puddle or step on it or break it or something.

People say they are on the cloud, but the cloud is hackable, or you could lose a connection. It’s better than just having them on your phone. But get them on your computer or back them up to a CD. Or make real photographs.

My wife’s cousin passed away last week and his wife has like 15 family albums. When the grandkids come over, they love to flip through those albums and talk about the pictures that are in there. The kids aren’t going to know where to look on a computer. ‘What did you file them under? Do you know the year the picture was taken?’

Question: Did the Chamber give you a sense with why you are getting the Lifetime Achievement Award?

Answer: No. I thought I was kind of flying under the radar.

Bruce Landis took this senior portrait of 2015 Albion graduate Aaron Burnside. It won first place in an international competition by the Professional Photographers of America.

Question: Well 40 years is a long time of capturing important moments.

Answer: You hear in schools about the number of times people will change jobs. Well for me it was working on a dairy farm as a youth, as a teen-ager in school. When I was going to RIT, I worked at a fish market in Greece, NY, and then I became a photographer. So that’s three climbs in 40 years. I think I’m on the low end of the average.

Question: It seems like photographers tend to come and go, especially if you try to have your own location or building for the business. I think one change for the professional photographers might be, I don’t want to call them hobby photographers because they’re better than that, but people who do it as a side business. It seems like that might undercut you for the portraits and weddings. It seems likes there are a lot of those photographers working at it as a part-time business.

Answer: There are. It is easy to get into. Weddings seem to be an introductory way to get into the business for a photographer. Well, some couples don’t feel like they have money, but they have a friend who has a nice camera, so they decide to have him take their wedding pictures.

And that’s something where if you take a portrait of somebody and they don’t like it, you can take it again. But if the bride is walking down the aisle and she looking down or something’s not right with that, you can’t do it again.

People need to understand the importance or if they have an idea that this is the most important time of my life, then I want it documented properly.

The other thing, you can’t walk into a wedding, or any job, without backup equipment. I always have two of everything. It’s mechanical.

Landis is shown in a lift last July trying to get a nice photo of the grease pole competition.

Question: Has it got easier with digital because you don’t have to change the film at a wedding?

Answer: Yes.

Question: I know when I took wedding pictures, I had to be thinking ahead and time it so I had enough film for when the father was walking the bride down the aisle. I had two cameras going, actually.

Answer: We used to photograph the high school graduations.

Question: That would be tough with film with hundreds of kids.

Answer: At the time I’m working with a camera that had 15 exposures on it. I had the inserts of the camera lined up on the floor next to me. I just grabbed the next one, put it in, and winded it in between the announcement of one student to the announcement of the next person’s name. I had a real good relationship with the person that was doing the announcing. They would watch me and they would nod, or I would nod and say I’m all set. Father Csizmar was real good with that, too, back in the days of film. He would pause a little bit while I was changing film while I photograph First Communion kids.

Question: I’m impressed in observing you that you still have enthusiasm in taking pictures. You’re not just going through the motions.

Answer: You know when my wife (Sue) retired, people asked me if I was going to retire, too. I said, ‘If I retire, I’d want to take pictures so why should I retire?’ I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing because I really do enjoy it.

We do some underwater photography, part of it is portraits, but the major portion of that is commercial photography.

That sparked an interest because I am a professional scuba diver also.

Question: Yes, I was going to ask about that.

Answer: I started in 1974. There was a scuba diving course over at GCC in Batavia. I was originally certified there. You can’t dive alone. There was no one to dive with so I kind of let it slide until my daughter got into college and my son into the Navy. They were both learning to scuba dive.

(Bruce retook course with his daughter, Liz, in 1990s.) I’ve since taken all kinds of courses. I’m certified to dive under ice in the wintertime, and as a rescue diver after taken a search and rescue course. Something I never want to use, but I’m also certified with First Aid, and oxygen administration. You never want to use any of that, but if I had to, I have the certification.

Provided photo: Bruce Landis is also a professional scuba diver.

We also do a lot of aerial photography. I was talking to a realtor the other day, and there’s a property I’ve done an aerial photo for the owner. They had a photo taken by a drone. Most drones are like really wide camera angles. With the background it looks like you can see the curvature of the earth. The buildings are all leaning to the side. It’s not the right angle. I called and said I would be happy to let you use this photo because that (one taken by drone) is not a good representation of the property. The realtor is going to get her own drone. I told her I would help her with the settings so you don’t get the distortions.

Question: Is there a favorite part of being a photographer?

Answer: There is nothing like taking someone who is shy, their chin is against their chest and you just barely get them to look at you through their eyes, and you get them to overcompensate, you do something up by the ceiling so its gets their face up to the camera, then you come down quick and their eyes come back down and you have a split second to get the photo before their chin goes back to their chest again.

Question: That is a good gift for their family, to have that picture forever. It seems like you’re willing to get on lifts, and ladders and you-name-its. It isn’t just a matter of pointing the camera at someone.

Answer: This is true. I remember years ago when they were bringing fish to Lake Ontario. I remember looking at that and thinking the best angle really would be out in the water. There wasn’t a boat available so I ran to my car and changed into my not-so-good clothes. I walked out into the water with my expensive film camera. I love the photo because you see the fish coming out of the pipe into the lake. You see the people and the observers and the workers. You see the truck, and the American flag in the back. That was the picture.

You try to visualize. Every picture I take I see it in my head before I take it. I say that’s how it ought to be, now I need to do the chemical part to get it there.

Question: There is definitely an artform to being a good photographer?

Answer: One of the most important things is to have a knowledge and be comfortable with the technical aspects of it so you’re not thinking about, ‘Do I need to put this light here, do I need to change this setting?’ That stuff all becomes automatic. It’s like breathing. You know what you need to do and you do it automatically.

Question: Why do you go to the Orleans County Fair every year, for the entire week?

Answer: I see people there I don’t see, except at the fair. I see some of my classmates. It doesn’t matter how much advertising I do, unless people see the actual photographs, they might realize this is different than their selfie. They might see I do aerial photos. They will see there are photos underwater and they may ask where I took that. So it gives people a chance to see my wares.

We also have 60 to 80 photos over at the nursing home. They’ve been up there for years and years since they did the addition (completed in 2007). I asked them, ‘What are you going to put on the walls?’ and they said they didn’t know, that it was a real expensive process to get artwork.

I told them every year at the County Fair we have about 40 feet of wall space that is 8 feet tall that we fill with photographs. In the studio I can hang up about eight of them in my reception area. I have an archives full of photos. We put them up at the Nursing Home and they have been there for many years.

I was thinking of taking them down or changing them up, but a lady came up to me that is the last few days of her mother’s life, all that she could talk abut was that family portrait outside of where her room was and how she really felt like those people were part of her family and life. It just really touched me that images can have a profound effect on someone, especially in the last part of their life.

Question: Why have you stayed in Orleans County, Bruce?

Answer: I love it here. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I know people. I’ve worked for other photographers. Different photographers will call up and say, ‘Hey we need some help, can you photograph this wedding on whatever date?’ So I’ll go into the city.

People tend to be, do I dare say more honest, more appreciative of what you do here. In the city it’s more cutthroat. I can get probably double the price if I go into the city, but it’s not about the money. Our tagline is, ‘Creating for you memories that last a lifetime.’ And that’s what I do and what I want to do. I don’t want to get into cutthroat in downtown Rochester or Buffalo.

Question: It seems like a lot of weeknights and weekends.

Answer: I didn’t do too bad with the kids while they were growing up with their sporting events and so on. But Saturdays you could be out 10 to 12 to 14 hours for a wedding and then Sunday it’s hard to stay awake in church. Then you’re kind of dead to the world on Sunday when the kids want to do something.

There are a lot of 6- and 7-day weeks, but then again I like what I do. I just love creating memories for people.

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Q&A: Owner of Dance Theater in Medina has students aiming high

Photos by Tom Rivers: Brandon Johnson is pictured with some of his dance students who are practicing for a performance in October at Disney.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 27 August 2017 at 5:02 pm

Brandon Johnson opened the studio 15 years ago

MEDINA – Brandon Johnson, 34, was 19 when he opened his own dance studio in Medina. A decade ago he bought a building at 425 Main Street, and Dance Theater has been a fixture in the downtown, a part of the business district’s renaissance. (Many of the parents will go to restaurants and shops on Main Street while their kids take classes.)

Johnson works with about 130 children, including 25 in a competitive dance group. Those 25 will be going to Orlando, Fla. in October for the Disney Performing Arts Program. The Dance Theater group will perform in three age levels: minis are 7 to 9 years old, while juniors are 9 to 12, and seniors, 13 to 17.

(Some of his dancers have competed at national events at Atlantic City; Hershey, Pa; and Wildwood, NJ. They have brought home national titles through StarQuest and DanceXplosion.)

Johnson sat down for an interview recently before a high-energy rehearsal with his dancers, who are getting ready for Disney.

Question: I wonder how you got into dance and were you thinking this would be your career?

Answer: I started performing at the age of 8. I got serious about performing in my junior year of high school. I was actually going to go to college to be an art teacher but that changed a few weeks before classes started and I decided I wanted to be a dance major. So I auditioned and was accepted into the dance program at SUNY Brockport. The opportunity came to open a studio here because a couple of studios had closed. So I jumped in and opened it. When I opened it, I didn’t imagine I’d be where I am today.

Question: Did you get your degree at Brockport?

Answer: Yes.

Question: You juggled that while doing this business as a 19-year-old?

Answer: Yes. Looking back I’m not sure how I did it, but I somehow did it and was able to graduate.

Question: You graduated in 4 years?

Answer: I did.

Brandon Johnson leads a dance class at the Dance Theater, which he opened when he was 19.

Question: I know you are also the talent show chairman at the Orleans County 4-H Fair.

Answer: Yes, and I am the entertainment coordinator overall for the fair so I book all of the entertainment on the grounds, so it’s not just the talent showcase – the miniature horse show, the magic show, all of the bands.

Question: Why are you willing to do that? Were you in 4-H as a kid?

Answer: I was in 4-H when I was younger. And then the opportunity came to join the Fair Board and I kind of just fell into the entertainment chairperson’s spot. It’s different from running a dance studio and I enjoy it, but it’s still the same realm of entertainment.

Question: How long have you been doing that?

Answer: I think this is year 8 or 9.

Question: What do you like about that role?

Answer: It’s meeting a lot of entertainers from across the U.S. who have similar interests in the entertainment industry, and hearing their stories.

Provided photo: Dance Theater students are shown performing at Disney World in July 2014.

Question: Are you the teacher/choreographer at your studio?

Answer: Here I would call myself the studio director, and I do choreograph some dances, but I have staff because I am not Superman. There is no way I can teach and choreograph classes six days a week for two studios. We have two rooms running here. There is no way I could choreograph that many dances on my own. I do have a staff that works under me to help me out.

Question: Were you a one-man show when you first opened?

Answer: For a while I was. When I opened I was very, very small, but as the years grew, my reputation grew and I am where I am today I feel because of that reputation I have. I knew I couldn’t do it on my own so I hired staff. They staff I have now I’ve had for four or five years now.

Question: How many people do you have on staff?

Answer: I have six people on staff, including myself.

Question: Why do you think you’re successful?

Answer: It’s a passion. With a passion it’s something you enjoy doing, and you put your all into it. Performance is something I’ve always done.

Question: I notice there are some studios that really push for excellence and want to win competitions, including at the State Fair.

Answer: I think it’s a matter of preference. Some kids may go to dance for fun. Some kids may come to dance for fun, but they want a little extra, so that’s why I have recreational classes and competition classes. Those competition classes are for kids that want a little extra and want to push a little harder, and strive for a little but more.

To be on the competition team isn’t mandatory for anybody, but the kids on the competition team want to be there, they want to work towards that extra step towards perfection.

Question: How does the competition season work?

Answer: Each competition season kicks off in February-March. We do three regional competitions that we keep local, usually Buffalo-Rochester-Niagara Falls-Syracuse. We also do a Nationals competition every summer and this year we did Lake George. But we’ve done other Nationals in Wildwood, New Jersey; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Pennsylvania; Ohio; it just depends where we travel.

Brandon Johnson gives tips to his dancers who are working on a lift, one of the many moves for their competitive dance program.

Question: How many on the competition team?

Answer: The competition team is 25.

Question: I think you’re unusual being a man who owns a dance studio. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

Answer: I would say I’m one of very few. I think you see it more often today than 15 years ago. But I would say I’m one of very few in the area who is a male studio director.

Question: It seems like 95 percent of the kids in dance are girls.

Answer: That is correct. To find a male dancer is very rare. A lot of male dancers you find at ages 4 or 5 because mom and dad wanted them to try something different. And then as they get older that kind of dwindles out because dancing for boys isn’t as popular as baseball, soccer or football. But when you think about it agility-wise, if you take a dance class and pair that with sports, the coordination you get with dance would definitely help your agility with other sports you’re playing. I don’t think a lot of people realize that and that is something to think about.

Question: I’ve heard that from other athletes, who said dance helped them to be better in sports.

Answer: It helps with flexibility and coordination, muscle movement and muscle memory. You get a little bit better recognition of your body and the way your body works and moves. It can definitely help you on the field and with whatever sport you’re playing.

Question: I wonder how you got into it as a kid?

Answer: I had a couple friends who were males who got into dancing. I decided I wanted to dance, too. So I joined a dance class. They dwindled out and I stuck with it.

Question: Why did you keep going?

Answer: I think it was the artistic portion of it. I’ve always been an artistic kid who was interested in art. When I was in high school I took a lot of art classes. I think dance is one way to express yourself in an artistic fashion. That is one reason why I stuck with it because I’ve always been an artistic person.

Brandon Johnson bought the building at 425 Main St. a decade ago.

Question: Did you get any flak or pushback for being a trailblazer locally?

Answer: I got some flak but dance was something I enjoyed doing and I wasn’t going to give that up based on something someone else said. If it was something I didn’t enjoy, I wouldn’t be doing it and I wouldn’t be doing it today. It’s something that brought me to where I am today. I really don’t regret any decisions I’ve made in the past to bring me where I am today.

Question: Were you tempted to work in a city as an artistic person?

Answer: That very well could have happened, but I opened here and the opportunity to teach was here for me so I didn’t need to go anywhere else. You can only be at one place at one time especially with running a studio and keeping things running smooth here. There’s not a lot of room for you to be in two places at once.

I do judge for two national talent competitions across the East Coast right now but that’s because I have a great staff behind me here. So when those opportunities come up for me to go judge for one weekend, I have a staff here who can take care of the business for those two or three days that I’m gone.

Question: What makes a dance team good? What are you looking for as a judge?

Answer: Technique – good dance technique. Great training. And just entertainment on stage. You can tell when you’re watching a dance number on stage and there’s a group of dancers that just love what they’re doing, and when there’s a group of dancers up there because they have to dance. There’s a huge difference between that.

The kids that compete really, really love what they’re doing, and they go up on stage every time and give a great performance. You can tell that’s what they enjoy.

That’s not to say our recreational kids don’t enjoy what they’re doing, but they just want to come and dance and not be pushed as hard as the team kids are pushed.

I will admit my teams kids are here two to three times a week in classes for four, five, six, seven hours at a time, learning extra choreography, and technique, and jumps and turns to make sure when they go out on stage they are showing the judges they are getting a very good dance education.

Question: What about all these trophies in here?

Answer: They’re from all the different competitions we’ve been in. And we have a display window in front as well.

Question: Looks like you guys do pretty well.

Answer: We’ve won some pretty big awards. I train them but they go out and win the awards. I give them the passion I have. I’m giving them what I enjoy doing: performing. Growing up I performed and I competed, and I’m just passing that on to them.

Question: Is this a tough business?

Answer: Yeah, I think so because every town has a dance studio or dance studios. There are several dance studios here in Medina. There are several in Albion. There are studios all over. People have a choice with where they want to go, just like with the airlines – they have a choice. I think my reputation speaks for itself and people come here for a reason. I have a huge following of students who come back year after year and I’m grateful and humble for that. I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and what I enjoy doing, with the hope to keep it going another 15 years.

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Q&A: Judge Punch says opioid crisis biggest change in nearly 30 years on bench

Photos by Tom Rivers: Orleans County Court Judge James Punch is pictured a week ago during his last day in the courthouse. He served as the county judge for nearly 27 years.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 4 August 2017 at 10:22 am

‘The opioid crisis is different because it seems to cross over all social, economic and other lines. We’re seeing people from nice families … who are in serious trouble because of these drugs.’ – Judge James Punch

ALBION – Orleans County Court Judge James Punch retired on July 29 after nearly 27 years as the county judge. Punch, 62, worked five years as district attorney before he was elected judge.

After his final court session last Friday afternoon, he sat down for a 25-minute interview with Orleans Hub Editor Tom Rivers.

Q: I’d like to talk about some societal changes since you’ve been judge. Nearly 30 years ago I don’t think the court volume was nearly what it is today.

A: Things have certainly changed. I could enumerate on some ways society has changed.

Q: You have a very good vantage point.

A: Good or very bad, depending on how you look at it. I think the biggest change in the last 30 years is the change in people brought about by the opioid crisis. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m going back farther than 30 years, it’s closer to 40 as an attorney. I guess it would be 38 years starting as a defense attorney, a Family Court attorney, then later as district attorney. I actually started out as a Legal Aid lawyer for a year.

So I have pretty much 1980 from today as a reference point. The drug use that we used to see – in the old days it was heroin and then crack cocaine started coming into the area around 1986 – it seemed there was limited populations using those drugs.

The opioid crisis is different because it seems to cross over all social, economic and other lines – geographic. We’re seeing people from nice families whose parents have actually tried who are in serious trouble because of these drugs.

Quite honestly I don’t think we have as a court system a good way of dealing with it. I’m not sure there is one. We have to keep things together at the seams with a certain amount of punishment for the sellers and at times possessors. I still believe in drug court but I think it’s much harder to get someone through drug court with a heroin or opioid habit than it was before when it was typically a cocaine or alcohol problem.

They just seem to go back to it. It’s a much more powerful addiction. It has to be a combination of the courts and public health in order for it to work and I’m not sure how that can actually in practice be implemented. But I think they have to start looking at it differently and I think they are.

That’s the biggest change I’ve seen.

‘Things have changed a lot. I don’t want to be an old fogey and say how great things were in the old days, but things have gotten a little be shaky these days.’

The other big change I’ve seen is there seems to be a general change in the way people look at government institutions and authority in general. When I started for example the jurors wore coats and ties, and the ladies wore dresses. It’s much different now. You’ve seen it.

As a judge or police officer, you were respected. There was a presumption that you would be respected until you did something to lose that respect. Now it’s the inverse where you’re not respected in these positions until some individual sees a reason to respect you. That also cuts across a lot of lines with the clergy, doctors, lawyers, judges, police.

That’s made it a little bit trickier to try to enforce these laws when people are less apt to accept your authority. That’s a bad thing for society, but you have to deal with. In any of these positions you have to be very careful and behave as ethically as you can, and don’t give any appearances of unethical or irresponsible conduct, and then just hope for the best.

So there’s two changes.

As far as the numbers go (for caseloads), when I started the numbers were quite a bit lower than they are now. They really peaked in I’d say the mid-’90s when they were very high. Then they levelled off for a few years. In the last few years, not only in my courts but in the neighboring counties, family court has actually decreased. That’s in the last three or four years. I’m not sure why. It could be demographics.

Q: I’d be inclined to think we have less families in the community now given the enrollment drops in local schools.

A: I think it could be. I know the divorces, the raw numbers, have gone down and that’s because fewer people are getting married.

Things have changed a lot. I don’t want to be an old fogey and say how great things were in the old days, but things have gotten a little be shaky these days.

Q: I wonder, and I think many others do, why you stuck with this for so many years, especially in a small town where this job could be a real burden for someone?

A: It’s funny you don’t know your job is stressful because you’re trying to buck up and deal with the stress, but the last couple of days I’ve finally discovered it was stressful. I’m starting to feel the release. I never thought I was under stress. I love to have a mission. When I was DA and judge, in a strange way the more serious the case or the bigger the problem, the more it engaged me. I felt like I was running on all cylinders.

Those challenges weren’t what scared me away. They are actually what kept me not only in the job, but loving the job.

I talked last night (during retirement gathering at Tillman’s Village Inn) about those murders, those were terrible, tragic things that occurred. But I felt like that was what God put me on the Earth to do. That’s why I say I love this job because I feel like this was what I was meant to do.

Q: I wasn’t familiar with the murder on Murdock Road (which Punch referenced during comments at retirement). Was that a boy who was killed?

A: A 17-year-old boy, his name was Randy Neal. It happened June 2, 1986. He became involved with a little group of criminals. One of them was a guy named Harry Ayrhart. It was a brutal murder. They went up into his room, and I say they because we always suspected there was an accomplice but we only had evidence against Harry Ayrhart. They surprised him in his sleep and cut his throat and then some.

It was a tough case to prosecute. We had to really dig for evidence and get some statements from people who knew what happened. I think back then everyone who was a cop in the county worked on that case in one way or the other. We got the conviction and it was confirmed on appeal.

Later Harry Ayrhart decided to be a witness. There was a prosecution against a fella by the name of Paul Rutherford. He was the suspected accomplice. With Harry Ayrhart’s statement they felt they had enough to proceed with the prosecution against Paul Rutherford. This is about 10 years ago, and he was acquitted. Part of the reason is you can’t be convicted just on the testimony of an accomplice. There is inherent suspicion on its reliability. So he was acquitted.

James Punch served as the sole county judge in Orleans, leading Criminal Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court and State Supreme Court. He also started specialized courts for drug and domestic violence.

Q: Is the intention to keep this as a one-judge county?

A: I’m afraid so. There is no plan to increase it. It can be handled by one judge, it really can. But you have to do a lot of studying and you have to read the law in all of these different areas. You can’t go into any court and tell yourself this isn’t my area. You can’t be an amateur in any area. You have to study up.

I have a big filing system I use. Every time I read something that comes up I print it and get it into hard copy and I throw it into these files. I can’t possibly remember it all so that’s my memory. It’s divided into Family Court, Surrogate Court, Supreme Court, and County Court. When I have an issue come up, I pull up that little sub-file on confidential informants or any number of issues. There are probably 300 different sub-categories. That’s how I’ve managed to do it. It’s old-fashioned and low-tech but it’s worked for me. It still can be done by one person.

We’re told if our population ever hit 55,000, they would consider a second judge. (Editor’s Note: The Census estimate in 2016 for Orleans County was 41,346 people.)

The courthouse renovations were done with eye towards having two judges. There are two chambers, and there is extra space for another secretary. We don’t see it in the future. The population just isn’t there.

Q: We’re just about the same as Wyoming County, and they have two judges. I think they have more Family Court cases than we do.

A: They have something we don’t have and that is Attica Correctional Facility, and that – back I think in the ’70s, they had so many lawsuits out of the facility and so many indictments out of the facility, they got a second judge because of the facility.

It’s huge. It’s much bigger than our two facilities put together. (Albion is home to two state prisons – Albion and Orleans Correctional.)

Why they have more Family Court cases than we do, I don’t know. For a lot of years we were neck and neck but theirs has increased a little bit.

All the other counties have more population so we’re kind of in this odd position as the only county in Western New York with one judge.

Q: I wasn’t covering the court when you had cancer. I didn’t realize you had it twice.

A: Well I can tell you about it if it’s not too boring.

Q: Sure. I don’t even know what type of cancer you had.

A: I had run-of-mill prostrate cancer. I missed four days of work. I had a prostatectomy and it was no problem. That was in 2006.

The next year I could see hard lumps about the size of a baseball forming. They started to hurt like crazy. I went to the doctor and had a scan and it turns out they were cancer of unknown primary, which is called CUP – cancer of unknown primary. When they first diagnosed it, it was really a nondiagnosis really, but it was really aggressive.

I would up with about seven tumors. Two of them were bigger than baseballs. The others were reoccurrences. I’ve had two reoccurrences. I’ve had most of my abdominal muscles surgically removed and I wear a brace to hold myself together. But I can still play tennis and racquetball and stuff like that, but I can’t play golf. I’m a lefty and I can’t pull through that way. I still have a good vigorous game of tennis.

I went to Roswell, and they, in conjunction with Sloan Kettering, came up with a treatment plan that involved some very unusual and heavy chemotherapy. I was really sick as a result of the chemotherapy. I also had radiation for nine weeks. I had four major operations/surgeries.

They had at one point written me off, actually. That was one doctor at Roswell. The other doctor said we think we can go in there surgically and they did. So that and the nasty chemo allowed me to survive.

Q: Why not retire then?

A: I was only 51, and I wouldn’t have a pension. I could have had a disability pension. I had a certain amount of faith I could get through it. I worked through most of it. I had to go into the hospital for a week because I had a double line going in for five straight days and then I needed time to recover so there were judges helping me. But for most of it I worked and I needed that motivation to stay focused and keeps my hopes up, keep my prayers up. Working really helped me to get through it.

Q: So when were you out of the woods with cancer?

A: I was pretty sick for 2 to 3 years after the chemo. The cancer itself took a couple of years. I would say probably out of the woods just before the last election in 2010. I was sick, but not too sick to do the job. I was anemic for two or three years because my blood was just battered by the chemo. It took two to three years to get that back. But I was still working. I was cross country skiing. I could only go 100 feet or so at a time but I was still out there trying to get back into shape.

I lost all of my hair and my eyebrows. You know why you lose your hair with chemo? Because it hits the fast-growing cells. The faster the cell grows, the thinner the cell wall, and the chemo penetrates the cell wall. It will penetrate the thinner cell walls and not the slower-growing, thicker cell walls. Your hair and fingernails grow fast, and your stomach lining grows fast so those are your vulnerable spots.

The cancer, if you’re lucky, is growing fast, and mine was very fast and very aggressive. It actually worked in my favor. It grew so fast the cell walls didn’t have time to thicken so it eventually killed what was left of the cancer once I got the right chemo.

The first chemo had no effect and that’s when they wrote me off. Then they got their ducks in a row and came up with this new chemo which made me very sick. But it saved my life.

So you know my fingernails fell off. My toenails fell off. My stomach, I was in terrible shape. And of course I had no hair, no eyebrows, no eye lashes. I remember walking out into the courtroom after my hair had fallen out. It doesn’t just fall out. It starts falling out and you can’t sleep because it’s in your mouth. I couldn’t sleep, I’m a clean person and it was driving me crazy. I went to the mirror and there was a clump of hair. In about 90 seconds, I pulled it all out. It all came out in clumps and then I was able to sleep that night.

Suzanne (Punch’s wife) woke up the next morning and said, ‘What happened to you?’

So that’s the story on cancer. I was able to work through the vast majority of it. I did think I was going to have to take a disability retirement but fortunately, thanks to medical science and Roswell and Sloan Kettering, I was able to get right through it. I feel good today.

Q: Did the defendants seem shocked while you were fighting through that?

A: When I came out the first time with no hair, it was the defendants – and the defendants aren’t always terrible, horrible people. I learned from my days as DA, the way you get a statement from the defendants is to be kind of nice to them, and they’ll be nice to you. I tried to do that a little bit. I called them by their first name. I tried to tell them when I’m sentencing them, even if it was the maximum under the plea bargain, something positive to send them off with. – so when I came ut the first time it was the gallery over here of the defendants that I heard the gasps from. I was walking very slow. I must have looked like I was 90 years old. They weren’t used to that. They looked horrified. I was sort of touched by their reaction.

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Medina ER says it is committed to high-quality care ‘as quickly as possible’

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 19 October 2016 at 12:22 pm

Quick Questions with Dr. Richard Elman and Mackenzie Smith

Photos by Tom Rivers: Dr. Richard Elman serves as medical director of the Emergency Room at Medina Memorial Hospital. He is pictured with, from left: Amanda Luckman, secretary of the ER (sitting); MacKenzie Smith, nurse manager and stroke coordinator (in back); and Maria Piotrowski, a registered nurse.

Photos by Tom Rivers: Dr. Richard Elman serves as medical director of the Emergency Room at Medina Memorial Hospital. He is pictured with, from left: Amanda Luckman, secretary of the ER (sitting); MacKenzie Smith, nurse manager and stroke coordinator (in back); and Maria Piotrowski, a registered nurse.

MEDINA – Some of the new faces at Medina Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Room may look familiar to community members.

Dr. Richard Elman is the ER’s medical director. He worked for the hospital in the 1990s. He returned when the hospital in August partnered with TeamHealth, a physician services organization, to provide staffing for the ER, which serves about 10,000 patients annually.

TeamHealth started work in the Medina ER on Aug. 1. It has five full-time staff and six part-timers working at Medina. That includes physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. TeamHealth works with about 3,000 hospitals in the country.

The ER’s nursing staff is also managed by MacKenzie Smith. She grew up in Medina and was working at a large hospital in Rochester before returning to work in her hometown about 1 ½ years ago. Smith also is coordinator of the designated stroke center at the hospital.

Smith said the ER has been focused on improving care and providing it “as quickly as possible.”

She is pleased with that push for excellence. The ER also has updated equipment with computers mounted in the two trauma rooms, new nurses’ stations and cabinetry. Wireless scanners and redone floors are coming to the ER, which includes seven rooms, plus a triage room.

The two ER leaders were interviewed last week at the hospital.

Question for Dr. Elman: Why do you think so many hospitals are contracting with TeamHealth for ER services, rather than trying to do their own staffing?

Answer: There is a lot you can do when you are that large. They are a very well-oiled organization. They provide a lot of resources and support to all of their members. There is continuous education, best practices – how should this ER be running and what can we do more efficiently – that is offered to us and there are expectations that we implement these processes as we move forward.

Question: Have you already identified processes that could be improved in Medina?

Answer (Dr. Elman) : Oh we’ve already started making some changes since we’ve been here.

Answer (Smith) : Dr. Elman is also the chairman of emergency medicine for Catholic Health Services.

Answer (Dr. Elman) : I spent the last 13 years as chairman and facility medical director for South Buffalo Mercy Hospital. Over the last year and half I’ve been chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine for the Catholic Health System. (Medina and the Catholic Health System have an affiliation.)

Question: What are some of the things that are improved at the Medina ER?

Answer (Smith) : It’s fair to say things are improved. Dr. Elman is working on new policies and really bringing us up to speed for a lot of evidence-based practice and to provide the best care and treatment for our patients.

Answer (Dr. Elman) : I work about 10 shifts a month here on average so I’m actively involved not just in the administrative aspect but the clinical aspect. So I walk the walk. I work here and see what issues there are and what we can do to improve it. I work collaboratively with MacKenzie and the team we have down here – nurses, aides, PAs and our docs – to communicate the messages we need to get through, about how we want to change what we’re doing.

MacKenzie Smith and Dr. Richard Elman are pictured in one of the trauma rooms with a new mounted computer, which makes it quicker to enter and check medical data.

MacKenzie Smith and Dr. Richard Elman are pictured in one of the trauma rooms with a new mounted computer, which makes it quicker to enter and check medical data.

Question: If there is down time what does a doctor do here?

Answer (Dr. Elman) : I’m doing paperwork, or the schedule, chart review or working on policies. I do a lot of my administrative work in the down time.

Answer (Smith) : I do want to point out is that even though they are a national organization, TeamHealth is very involved with each individual hospital. The regional medical director is coming down in November for an EMS education night over at Medina Fire Department. They are very forthcoming with doing education.

Question: What do you think the community should know about the ER?

Answer (Dr. Elman) : We are focused on efficient quality care, reducing or improving turnaround times so patients aren’t spending hours in the ER when they don’t need to be here, to instilling best practices in medicine and in patient health.

Question: Are there statistics on that?

Answer: We’re in the process of bringing in a new electronic medical record. Once that process is completed we’ll have the ability to run reports. We look at door-to-provider time. That national goal is 30 minutes for the patient to see a provider within 30 minutes of arrival. We look at turnaround times for discharged patients, and percentage of patients who leave without being treated or against medical advice. There are national statistics or thresholds, and our goal is to be under them. Those will all be focuses of what we do.

Question: Does Medina have to submit an annual report?

Answer (Smith) : It’s a running report more for our measures of patient care and delivery, for chest-pain patients, for stroke patients, those are the metrics that we have to submit and are held accountable for. The turnaround time and the door-to-provider time is ongoing. There are some variances for that. There is some wiggle room. If your volume is very high or if your acuity is very high that makes up for the times that you are not.

Really the metrics that are reportable would be the stroke and chest pain, and the very patient-centered metrics. We are a stroke center so we have rigorous metrics we have to do for that.

We are very efficient at knowing what can be treated here and what we have to ship out. A lot of times we do have to ship out to the higher level of care facilities. But we are very efficient with our times for that. We also have a very close collaboration with Medina Fire in getting our patients out. They have a very quick time for getting patients out of here for transfers. It’s not always a common thing at other facilities. We’re fortunate to have Medina Fire.

Question: Do you have a sense of what percentage you’re able to handle here without sending to ECMC or another larger hospital?

Answer (Smith) : It all depends on what the patient is presenting for. If it’s a trauma patient they really need to go to a trauma center. Our job is to stabilize those critical patients. And that’s what we need to be excellent in: stabilization. Knowing when to get them out, we do that very quickly and efficiently.

Answer (Dr. Elman) : We can primary care. We don’t have a lot of specialists. Anybody with a complicated medical problem – a heart attack or a stroke or a trauma, or a lot of patients may be getting medical care at other tertiary care centers in Buffalo or Rochester – those patients we will probably have to transport. It’s what is best for the patient in each case.

Dr. Richard Elman enters data into the computer in the Emergency Room at Medina Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Richard Elman enters data into the computer in the Emergency Room at Medina Memorial Hospital.

Question: If there was no ER in Medina, what would happen for the community?

Answer (Dr. Elman) : They would have to go to Batavia, Lockport, Rochester or Buffalo on their own. We can treat a fair amount here and we can stabilize what we can’t treat.

Answer (Smith) : It would be detrimental for our community. Our ER is vital for the community. It is vital for businesses coming to the community.

If you are having a cardiac arrest or if you’re loved one is having a cardiac arrest or respirator distress, it’s a very long ride to the city.

Question: How many stroke patients do you have a year?

Answer (Smith) : Last year we were between 60 and 75.

Question: Do they then go by Mercy Flight after getting the clot-busting drugs?

Answer (Dr. Elman) : It depends on their condition and whether Mercy Flight is flying based on the weather outside.

Answer (Smith) : If not they would go by Medina Fire and that’s why I say our collaboration with Medina Fire is very important. We have a very close working relationship.

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New family doctor in Albion drawn to serving patients in rural community

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 16 September 2016 at 3:36 pm

Quick Questions with Dr. Keith Fuleki, who joined Oak Orchard Health in July

Photo by Tom Rivers: Dr. Keith Fuleki is pictured at Oak Orchard Health in Albion, where he started as a physician after completing a residency at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

Photo by Tom Rivers: Dr. Keith Fuleki is pictured at Oak Orchard Health in Albion, where he started as a physician after completing a residency at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

ALBION – Dr. Keith Fuleki, 30, is the new family physician at Oak Orchard Health, working out of the site on Route 31 in Albion, across from the Save-A-Lot grocery store.

Fuleki is well acquainted with Western New York after doing a residency at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

He grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich. and graduated from Aquinas College in Michigan with a bachelor of science, majoring in biology and a minor in chemistry and psychology. He earned his doctor of osteopathic medicine from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2013.

He discussed his career and path to medicine during an interview last week at his office at Oak Orchard Health, 301 West Ave.

Question: Why did you want to be a doctor?

Answer: There is a lot of benefit in helping people and I really like science. That is what got me started and interested. But I specifically enjoy rural medicine. This is what I want to do. It was a very good fit coming here.

When I came here and was looking for a place to live, the first people I called for an apartment they were initially very cautious. ‘You’re a doctor. Aren’t you going to live in Rochester?’

But I’m in rural medicine, which is what I want to do. It’s what my grandfather did. I’ve lived in the city, in Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Buffalo and Philadelphia. I like the country more. There is also a big need here.

A lot of colleagues also are going to start out and go to a place of need like Nevada. They just move out west.

So, to the question why would I go here? It’s great. I live in Holley. I got really lucky getting a nice apartment there. The people refurbished it phenomenally. The equivalent price of what I looked at in Brockport was so much worse.

Question: I’ve read where it’s hard to find doctors today, because of the debt from school and the regulations taking the joy out of it. I don’t know if that’s true. Are there fewer people going into the field?

Answer: Well, I think if you want to do it, you will. One great thing is the mid-level physician assistant program was created in America. That is phenomenal and of course there are nurse practitioners. That is great. If someone wants to work in the medical field, and they don’t want all of the responsibilities, the years of work and the debt, all of the exams and all of the things a doctor has to deal with, there is PA school.

The reasons why you wouldn’t want to be a doctor, that was brought up to me when I first got interested at the age of 17. It was right before I went to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I read a book by a psychiatrist. Initially I wanted to go into psychiatry.

So I went to college saying I wanted to be psychiatrist and people said, ‘There’s going to be a lot of debt, there’s going to be a lot of schooling. There’s going to be a lot of exams.’

But I said that’s fine, I want to be a doctor. I think that’s what everyone else who goes into it says.

There are some people who go into it for the wrong reasons. Anyone going into it for money that’s the most ridiculous idea in the world. But for people who really flourish it’s a calling. I know that’s romanticizing it.

I did get a lot of those comments (about the debt, etc.), but I was like, ‘Whatever, let’s just get on with it. Let’s take the courses and exams.’ I want to do it.



Dr. Keith Fuleki likes the staff and medical professionals at Oak Orchard Health, which is located at 301 West Ave.

Question: Why Albion instead of another rural area?

Answer: This is convenient in terms of living near Buffalo. I started looking around for jobs. I didn’t want to move really far. I’ve been moving my whole life and I’m tired of moving. I like Holley, where I live. It’s really nice. There’s a lot of nice things in the town.

Question: For this job, was there a want ad, or a recruiter? How did that work?

Answer: For doctors, it’s so specific and specialized. You sort of ask around. I talked to my superiors. I was fortunate with the people above me, basically my boss who was the director of the residency. He is an excellent person. I asked him the same question, ‘How do I do this?’ Do I just start Googling?

I have a recruiter and there was this Albion place. There was another option in the suburbs of Buffalo. Another option was a small community hospital.

Question: I get the impression there are resources here with grants and you are part of a team?

Answer: On yeah, that is what really attracted me. Some physicians, young or old, have different perspectives. They may be really comfortable being the only one, or being one of two or three in a practice. What made this a perfect fit is I wanted about five, six providers. Here there are basically seven. There is a pediatrician, mid-levels, and physicians.

There are grants. We’re technically a private practice but we’re funded through the government. There’s the National Health Service Corps, which is an incentive provided the government to get physicians into rural areas and areas of need. In theory, the budget for that should be tripled or quadrupled, some people say.

Question: So are you in an area of need in Orleans County?

Answer: Yes. The Oak Orchard Health system is part of that. It gives us resources. We have a lot of providers. We have space. We have staff. If it was a true private practice, we would probably have as little nursing staff as possible. We’d have to be as efficient as possible.

Question: I would think that helps the doctors focus on care and not have to worry about the dollars as much?

Answer: Yes. We have more resources and really good things for people. That is part of why I came here, too.

Part of what drew me here is I will get more experience with skin, I will get more experience with women’s health, I will get more experience with migrants, and outreach and speaking Spanish. I speak a little Spanish, but I want to get fluent. This is the perfect fit for me.

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National Girl Scout CEO says organization training future leaders, entrepreneurs

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 6 May 2016 at 11:00 am
Photos by Tom Rivers - Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of USA, meets with Girl Scouts, volunteers and staff last week at the office in Rochester for Girls Scouts of Western New York. There are 161 Girl Scouts in Orleans County and 37 volunteers.

Photos by Tom Rivers – Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of USA, meets with Girl Scouts, volunteers and staff last week at the office in Rochester for Girls Scouts of Western New York. There are 161 Girl Scouts in Orleans County and 37 volunteers.

ROCHESTER – Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of USA, visited the Rochester and Buffalo region late last week to visit Scouts, volunteers and staff with the Girl Scouts of Western New York, which serves nine counties in WNY, including about 16,000 girls and 7,000 adults.

Chavez has served as national CEO of the organization since 2011. She grew up as a Girl Scout in Eloy, Arizona. In 2016, she was named as one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune magazine, which cited for her vision and creativity in working to revitalize the Girl Scout brand for a new century, including debuting new badges in STEM and financial literacy, and initiatives like Digital Cookie, the first national digital platform for the iconic Girl Scout Cookie Program.

She sat down for an interview April 28 at the Girl Scouts service center in Rochester on Elmwood Avenue, down the street from Mount Hope Cemetery, where women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony is buried.

Question: Is the Rochester area on the national radar for the Girl Scouts because we’re home to Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriett Tubman and other prominent women?

Answer: Absolutely.

As you know Harriett Tubman was just announced to be on the $20 bill. We were behind and one of the big proponents of getting women on the currency.

We’re all about telling the story what our organization has done. Our founder was organizing opportunities for girls long before women had the right to vote.

Harriet Tubman

Harriett Tubman, whose home is in Auburn, will be the new face of the $20 bill.

As the suffragette movement was taking off, she was in Savannah, Ga., developing a global organization for girls. (Editor’s Note: Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in 1912 in Savannah, Ga.)

Question: When you say Girl Scouts were advocating for women on currency, what were Scouts doing?

Answer: At first 40,000 Girl Scouts reached out and basically wrote to advocate on behalf of our founder that she be considered as one of the individuals on the currency. But the larger message was it’s time to show that women have played a significant role in this country’s history and impact, and what better way to here directly from girls.

I just spoke to the Treasurer of the United States, Rosa Rios, and she has been one advocating for this for several years. They are going to start with the $10 bill and the $20 bill, and the focus is both on the back sides of the currency and to have someone on the front side.

Harriett Tubman is a prime candidate for that. (Editor’s Note: Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20, and Alexander Hamilton will stay on the $10.)

The larger discussion continues around how else can we memorialize the amazing impact of women and girls in this country. It’s a continuous conversation we are having.

Question: People might wonder how the Girl Scouts, now in their 104th year, are changing because I think there are perceptions it might be a baking club. I know from my son being in the Lego group in Albion that the Hippie Pandas (a Girl Scout team in Rochester) is a dominant team, beating the boys. They are a major STEM program.

Answer: The Girl Scouts are more relevant than ever. We are looking for opportunities to share that story. We’ve been in every zip code in the country for a hundred years. We’ve been part of our communities.

The story is we are based on very concrete values around service, around empowering girls to be self reliant, to serve others and most importantly to prepare for leadership at the age of 12 and the age of 20.

Emma Wadhams

Emma Wadhams, an Albion Girl Scout, carries the American flag while leading Scouts down East Avenue in the Memorial Day parade in Albion last May.

So we talk about our history but we also talk about how we are relevant today. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of the biggest issues facing the economy right now is a strong workforce in particular based on STEM. We run the largest empowerment program for girls in the world. People don’t know that.

We also run the largest entrepreneurial program for girls in the world: It’s the cookie program. You talk to all of the major CEOs who were Girl Scouts, and I can name them all for you, and they will tell you they started their business acumen by selling Girl Scout cookies – 8-year-old girls doing cold calls. How to take no and still persevere. What is her delivery model? How is she going to invest her revenue? We have now the ability to take girls from that platform. We have digitized it for the first time in a hundred years.

I love the stories that I hear where they are taking that cookie revenue and investing it in non-profits. They are funding your local animal shelters, your congregate meal sites, your senior centers, your local parks. That is the story we want to tell.

When you invest in a local Girl Scout, you’re actually investing in your local community. Our data shows that our girls are definitely more resilient. If you look at our alum, when you look at their path – and we have 59 million living alumni – and they are doing amazing things. They are making more money than non-Girl Scouts, $12,000 more a year. They are bringing back more resources to their families. They are much more culturally, community and civically engaged. We even looked at our Girl Scout mothers and they volunteer more in their kids’ schools than our non-alums.

Girl Scouts also go on to get higher levels of education. They go on to not only get their BA’s, but their JD’s, their MBAs, their PHDs, and they are voting. They are very actively involved in the economic and political systems, both regionally and nationally.

And, when you ask them about their life choices, the decisions they’ve made in their own life whether family, career, or their own opportunities, they are happy. They have made decisions that resonate with their values and they see the impact they are making.

Anna Marie Chavez and Sue Cook

Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of USA, is pictured with Susan Cook, a former Albion resident and Orleans Hub reporter who is now a community relations specialist for the Girl Scouts.

For $15 a year investment in membership, this is what a girl can get. For the local community it costs about $300 a year to serve a girl and that’s why we really have to talk to our community members about investing in our local council to ensure that they can reach all girls.

Question: What are some of the challenges – maybe money and having enough dedicated adult volunteers?

Answer: What we have found over the years is it is taking more for families to succeed in life. Parents are having to work. Our model was built where someone could stay at home 100 percent of the time. That is no longer the case. You have grandparents raising grandkids. You have single-parent households. We had to reformate our sort of infrastructure in the field to support all types of volunteers.
There are episodic volunteer opportunities or there are troop leaders who are going to be with girls consistently year to year. We’re doing that through technology.

Question: STEM sounds like a great thing, but is it harder to find volunteers to lead those more technical programs?

Answer: The other thing is we’re trying to talk to the men. You may think it’s only for female volunteers. But the reality is our research has shown – and we have our own Girl Scout research here in New York – that 75 percent of girls love STEM. They resonate to math and science, and they’re really good at it. But they stop taking those courses because they’re getting different messages from their peers, from their teachers and from the community that STEM is not for girls to do.

The number one factor for girls whether they continue their STEM education and go into a STEM career is the male figure in her household. The father, the uncle who is mentoring her, who is taking her to the local lab – girls are looking for those mentorship opportunities from both women and also from men in the field.

Question: Why are you here visiting Rochester and Buffalo?

Hippie Pandas

The Hippie Pandas, a team from a Girl Scout troop in Churchville, was the overall champion in a FIRST Lego League competition in November 2014 in Churchville. The Hippie Pandas also designed the best robot. They advanced to the national event in 2013.

Answer: I’m so excited to be her. First of all this council has done amazing things for many, many years. They are also a great example of how we are really re-energizing and looking at using technology to almost bring a new renaissance to Girl Scouts in this area. They are combining the great DNA that we have around outdoors – because we know that girls need to be outdoors, they need to be out there exercising and out in the wilderness without a cell phone to connect with nature – but they also need to understand there are other opportunities for them to get ready to exceed in school and also to excel in soft skills that we consider very important in the workforce: how to work on teams, how to collaborate, how to express your opinion in a group environment. So this team (The Girl Scouts of Western New York) has done an amazing job creating local Girl Scout programming and also embracing our national Girl Scout leadership experience that is focused on getting girls outdoors and other leadership opportunities.

Question: Is this a fire-up-the-troops visit?

Answer: I work for the field. The average age of my boss is 8 years old. So for me it’s getting out and listening to our girls, to our volunteers, and supporting our amazing local leadership and staff, and also to talk to community members about the importance of investing in girls.

Today with all of the billions of dollars that are donated in the philanthropic area only 7 percent go to women and girl causes. Think about that, only 7 percent. So we clearly need to tell the story why it is so important to invest in women and girls.

We are the pipeline. We are the largest prevention program in the world. We are helping girls to see their potential to build resiliency, to really think through their life so when they are met with other choices at 12 and 13 years old they are picking the right path for a brighter future and opportunity.

In addition, we are serving girls across the country who may not have opportunities due to a financial situation. We are serving girls in foster care. We actually have a program where we take troop meetings behind bars where mothers are incarcerated. We have troop meetings in prisons. Our data shows we have cut down the recidivism rate for that family. We have allowed those mothers who are incarcerated to continue to have that bonding with their daughter.

We are opening the eyes of people around the country who may think of Girl Scouts in a certain way. The fact is we’re multidimensional, we’re in 90 countries in the world and it’s a girl-led organization.

Quick Questions with Darren Wilson, president of Lyndonville Area Foundation

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 13 March 2016 at 7:00 am

Foundation directs $100K to community each year

Darren Wilson in his office

Photos by Tom Rivers Darren Wilson is pictured in his office along Route 63, just north of the Village of Lyndonville.

LYNDONVILLE – The Lyndonville Area Foundation started as a small community foundation more than 50 years ago. A couple major bequests have been game changers, bringing the Foundation assets to $1.7 million and allowing the organization’s board of directors to distribute about $100,000 a year into the community.

That money helps pay for the big fireworks show in Lyndonville on the Fourth of July, a summer recreation program at Lyndonville, an annual payment of about $17,000 as the local share of the Stroyan Auditorium, $30,000 in scholarships, and many other community causes, including Medina Memorial Hospital and Hospice of Orleans.

The Foundation recently agreed to help fund a character education program at Lyndonville schools and the Young Entrepreneurs Academy for Lyndonville students.

Darren Wilson is president of the Foundation. His father-in-law, James Oakes, helped start the Foundation in 1967.

Wilson married Oakes’s daughter Wendy, who is president of the Leonard Oakes Estate Winery. The couple has a son, Sawyer, a seventh-grader at Lyndonville.

Wilson is a Florida native who works as a graphic and industrial designer with a focus in the automotive industry.

Wilson has served on the Foundation board since 2002.

“One of the advantages in a smaller community you can participate in organizations and you actually matter,” Wilson said.

He was interviewed recently at his office on Route 63.

Q: So your father-in-law was one of the Foundation’s charter members. What do you think that initial group was thinking back then when they started this?

A: Basically the Foundation was set up for the educational, recreational and civic benefit of the community. It was something to give back to the community. They started out with next to nothing.

I would venture they had a few hundred dollars when they kicked it off, possibly a couple thousand.

Q: So there was James Oakes and a few farmers, maybe?

A: It was a bunch of life-long Lyndonville residents who loved their community, who grew up and went to school here. They just wanted to get together and give something back to the community.

Q: I thought the Foundation was putting out $10,000 a year. I was surprised to see it’s about $100,000.

A: By law you have to give away a certain percentage of your assets. Right now we’re giving over $100,000.

Q: Are you tied to giving to the Lyndonville area?

A: Our bylaws and our charter is for the benefit of the Village of Lyndonville and the Town of Yates. Obviously, 50 years ago with not much money they could easily do that. As the Foundation has grown over almost a half century, we have had to look further than the Town of Yates.

We do confine it to Orleans County. We do things like Hospice, the hospital, the YMCA. We have had to broaden our steps. We recently gave money to the Genesee-Orleans Ministry of Concern for their furniture program to help the poor.

We try to look at things that at least the residents of Lyndonville and the Town of Yates could potentially be impacted by. Hospice is a good example. On any given week or month you will probably find a Lyndonville resident over there. Same thing with the hospital.

Fireworks in Lyndonville

The Lyndonville Area Foundation is a big sponsor of the annual fireworks show on the Fourth of July, considered one of the best in the region.

Q: Did the Foundation take a quantum leap recently in terms of assets?

A: It did about 20 years ago. The Foundation had very modest assets until about 1997-98. A resident, Mabel Stroyan who lived right down on Main Street, had accumulated a great deal of personal assets over decades. She had nobody to leave it to and it was a huge amount. It was somewhere around a million bucks.

The Foundation went from modest to “Holy Cow!” in basically a blink of an eye.

Q: You’re given out about $100,000 now, but back then it was much less?

A: You’re required to give away 5 percent at a minimum. And that’s where the Stroyan Auditorium comes in. The school wanted to expand and also add an auditorium, not only for the school but for the community.

There was a public portion of expansion for the school. The state would provide X amount of dollars for the school if the community would provide the remaining percentage.

The only way to raise the local portion was to do a massive amount of fundraising, which probably wasn’t going to happen because we were talking about three-quarters of a million dollars.

It was decided by the board of directors that Mabel’s money would take over the local portion. That way nobody was impacted. Taxes weren’t raised. The school got what it needed and Mabel got some recognition and her money went to something that would be permanent in the community she lived in all of her life. The timing was perfect.

Q: I have to think Lyndonville is unusual to have such a Foundation. What a blessing.

A: It is. We have had a couple other substantial contributions since then. We had another gentleman, maybe 2006 or 2007, who provided a contribution well into the six figures.

Q: Is that Frank Housel?

A: Yes, Frank B. Housel. That was earmarked for two annual scholarships for our graduates. The amount that he gave pretty much ensures those scholarships will continue forever. There are two for $4,000 each.

When I started on the Foundation board (in 2002), the Frank Housel scholarships weren’t even in existence, nor was the Wilson-Skinner. Basically we had three scholarships at maybe $1,000 or $1,500 each. Now we have eight scholarships and they’re all $4,000 each and the Skinner-Wilson is $5,000.

Q: Do you have anything to do with the Skinner-Wilson Scholarship?

A: No the Wilson doesn’t have anything to do with me. Donald Skinner is a 1950 graduate of Lyndonville. He has been a very successful guy. He grew up in Lyndonville and now lives in Florida. About five years ago he contacted the president then of the Foundation and wanted to set up a scholarship. He wanted to make it $5,000, payable at the end of a student’s second semester.

The other scholarships are payable at the end of the first semester. The kids have to meet a minimum GPA and then have to enroll in a second semester.

Justin Edwards and Alex Murphy receive scholarships

Provided photo The Lyndonville Area Foundation presented two scholarship checks of $2,000 apiece to the recipients of the Trevor Cook Memorial Scholarship last fall. Justin Edwards and Alex Murphy, both Lyndonville graduates, completed basic training at US Marine Corps Parris Island. Pictured from left to right, Dave Cook, LAF board member and father of Sgt. Trevor Cook; Lyndonville natives and US Marines Justin Edwards and Alex Murphy; LAF Treasurer Doug Hedges; and President Darren Wilson.

Q: I don’t think people realize the impact of the Foundation, or maybe they do?

A: I don’t think they do. One of the jobs of the Foundation’s president every year is to attend the graduation and present the checks to the students. There are other scholarships out there, although I think ours are the most substantial.

When I’m in the audience I don’t think most of parents are aware of these scholarships until maybe a month before graduation and we start soliciting the kids to apply for them.

I don’t think most of the residents are aware of our existence. Just recently, we finally decided to put our foot down to change the awareness level. We have a website for the first time (Click here). We’re creating some social media things like a Facebook page.

We’ve always been sort of low-key.

Q: Maybe more people would bequeath the Foundation more money if they knew you were an option.

A: It’s a beautiful double-edged sword. We would love for people to know about us to bequeath some things, but it’s also an attempt on the flip side to make other organizations aware of us. For example, at our January board meeting we had a request from a wonderful organization over in Waterport that works with refugee children. We weren’t aware of the World Life Institute and they weren’t aware of us. So a little self-promotion works both ways.

It’s not of the nature for a Foundation to get on a pedestal and use a megaphone, but we do want people to know we’re around.

The Foundation for example works closer with the Lions Club on the fireworks show which is spectacular.

Q: Isn’t that the third or fourth best fireworks show in the entire region?

A: I think it’s the fourth and we might be working towards the third. The Lions Club obviously has a huge stake in the event.

Q: You can see how your money takes the pressure off some of these groups.

A: It does. For instance over the holidays we have some very pretty lights and wreaths and stuff that are strung along Main Street. The Foundation recently purchased brand new lights for those. I don’t know who knows that, but it certainly is a very nice community touch to have our Main Street lit up.

The point I’m making is there is a lot of these little things. The playground moving, for example. I’m not sure if a lot of people knew the Lyndonville Foundation provided some funds to move the playground.

Housel Avenue playground

The Lyndonville Area Foundation helped pay to move the playground from the closed elementary school to the main school campus on Housel Avenue last summer.

Q: In addition to you, how many members are on the board?

A: There are 12 members. We make up members of the community. It’s all-volunteer. None of us are paid. Five of the board members are what we call our Class 1 directors. It consists of the mayor of Lyndonville, the president of the Lions Club, the past president of the Lions Club, the superintendent of schools and the Town of Yates supervisor. Those five positions are whoever is in those positions at that time.

The remaining positions are community members who want to participate, who volunteer their time.

Q: You can see the benefit of the board of just getting the mayor, town supervisor and school superintendent in the same room for however many times you meet.

A: It’s four times a year.

Q: It’s good that they sit down that often. I’m not sure that happens in too many other communities. It’s good they can build those relationships.

A: It’s also good a way for building a need base. For instance, if the village or the town has a need, unless the supervisor or mayor is present, we may not know that need exists. For example, the summer recreation program, which goes on for five weeks at the school for 120-some kids, we started funding that along with the Town of Yates six or seven years ago.

That was initiated by the Town of Yates. They wanted something for the kids to do during the summer, even if just for a few hours. Our board members may not have known that if the Town Supervisor John Belson hadn’t mentioned the need for the program.

Lyndonville Christmas decorations

The downtown decorations for the holidays in Lyndonville were upgraded thanks to funds from the Lyndonville Lions Club and the Lyndonville Area Foundation.

Q: Just having a few thousand dollars for some of these organizations can take the pressure off.

A: It can do amazing things, and most of it is very practical things. For The Arc of Orleans we provide some transportation money to help them get some of their special needs kids around during the summer months.

Q: So you’ve been on the board since 2002. How did you become president?

A: About three years ago the past president, Richard Pucher, stepped down. He had been president for about eight years. He is still on the board in capacity as past president of the Lions Club.

He decided to step down as president. We looked around the board. The vice president suggested I might make a good president, and I was willing to step in and give it a shot. I like my job. We’ve done some really interesting things.

We have some really terrific people on the board. Our treasurer for instance, Doug Hedges, has been on the Foundation board in some capacity for 25 years.

Dick Pucher has been a board member for at least 15 years. Our vice president, Rita Wolfe, has been on the board for at least 10 years. We just have some really great people. They are very smart. Collectively we do some terrific things.

We manage our money very well. We’re now considered a private foundation because we actually earn more off of our investments than we do from donations. That changed about eight or nine years ago. I think that says a lot about our capabilities and fiduciary duties. I think we’ve done a lot with the money. We take care of it. We plan to run this foundation forever.

Q: How much does the Foundation have in assets?

A: Right now we have approximately $1.7 million. It’s a good chunk of change. We’re always happy to take bequests and contributions.

In the case of Donald Skinner, he is a perfect example. He grew up in Lyndonville and still has connections to the community and general area. He simply wanted to give back to a community where he grew up in and loved. That’s the type of thing the Foundation exists on.

The money that we’re giving out didn’t come from anywhere except from within. We’re literally transferring the money from the Lyndonville area.

Q: You are able to do this with a group of volunteers?

A: We’re not paying people. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. We do have some operating expenses. We have to pay our accountant to do our taxes. We have to buy stamps and envelopes and stuff like this.

But compared to our assets, we spend maybe $6,000 to $7,000 a year, including paying our CPA, and that’s for doing our taxes and certain filings that we have to do every year for our 501c3 status.

That’s it out of $1.7 million. We pinch pennies everywhere we can when it comes to our operating expenses. The village donates meeting space to us so we’re not crowded in somebody’s house. We’re meeting in a public arena. People in town can walk in. That’s what drew me to the Foundation 12-13 years ago.

Darren Wilson

Darren Wilson has served as Foundation president for the past three years.

Number one, I found it remarkable that a community of this size had such a thing, and that it had the assets that it did. The fact that they were giving these fantastic amounts of money to scholarships, the school, the Lions Club, The Arc of Orleans and the hospital. We’ve given $250,000 to the hospital since I’ve been on the board. And this from a community of less than 1,000 people. I find that inspiring if nothing else. And the money is all coming from this community.

Sometimes it’s a $2,500 donation and sometimes it’s $250,000 or $500,000. But it all goes into the pot and eventually it all goes right back into the community.

We are struggling at times to give away the money and that is a wonderful situation to be in. We do have a minimum to give away, and as our assets our growing we have more dollars to give away.

Q: It’s put some onus on the community to dream a little, to consider some projects and programs to benefit the community.

A: Yes. We have to look forward. That’s something the board and myself are doing. We have to project forward five, six, 10 years down the road, wondering and looking into not only future sources of income but who do we give it to.

Quick Questions with Trisha Laszewski

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 9 February 2016 at 10:00 am

Assessor now works for 3 western Orleans towns

Trisha Laszewski at her desk

Photos by Tom Rivers Patricia Laszewski has worked the past 15 years in assessing for Ridgeway. This year she added assessor for Shelby and Yates to her duties.

RIDGEWAY – Patricia Laszewski grew up in Middleport and moved to Medina in 1990 with her husband Frank. They have four grown daughters.

She was hired as a full-time assessor clerk for Ridgeway in April 2001, and became assessor in July 2002 when Kate Lake retired.

Her job expanded this year when she became assessor for Shelby and Yates, in addition to Ridgeway. She will assess values for 7,300 parcels of property in the three towns.

She admits the job doesn’t always make her popular with the public. She said she strives to be fair and treat everyone with respect.

The following interview was conducted at Laszewski’s office at the Ridgeway Town Hall.

Question: How did you get into assessing?

Answer: I was subbing at the school in clerical and as an aide. I knew there was a position opening up in the middle school for a clerk in the office. I decided to take the Civil Service test for clerk and this position (in Ridgeway assessor’s office) opened up before they hired for that position. I interviewed and I accepted the job not knowing anything about assessments.

I had no intention of applying for this job, it just came about.

Q: Was it overwhelming initially?

A: It was very overwhelming. When I was hired there was such a short amount of time when I was with the current assessor. I don’t think it was enough time to understand how everything worked. I never had a job where I dealt so much with the public so it’s definitely been a growing experience. I think it changes you a little bit, including your personality. You learn to look at things a lot differently. You are offended by very little after a while.

Q: I think it would be a tough job. I don’t think people necessarily like the assessor. It can be tough as a property owner because you want a nice property but you don’t want your assessment to go up and have to pay more in taxes.

A: Exactly. When people come in and they’re frustrated, you can not take it personally. Bottom line is they feel what you have done is touching their wallet and that’s sensitive to everyone.

Q: So how to you keep the peace here?

A: I find that most people who come in I approach it as, ‘I know you are frustrated.’ We sit down, and I let them talk. I explain the process and a lot of times you agree to disagree.

Q: Don’t you determine values through comparables?

A: It’s basically what homes are selling for, business and commercial properties. What they’re selling for on the market. We take that information and analyze it and compare it the best we can. There is no black and white. It’s not that every ranch is assessed so-many dollars for every square foot. It depends on what the market is doing. There is a lot of gray area.

Q: Where is the market strong in Orleans County?

A: Right now I’m seeing that the homes outside the village (of Medina) are selling above assessed value. Homes inside the village, if they are move-in ready homes, they are also selling above assessed value. The houses that are your run-of-the-mill houses can sit on the market for a year or year and a half.

Q: When you think about the three towns you are now working in, they really aren’t the same with lakefront, the wildlife refuge and the village.

A: I can consider Shelby and Ridgeway, obviously, more similar than Yates because of the lakefront. That is definitely going to be all new to me. With Shelby, I’m pretty comfortable with all the agricultural properties. It’s just learning different faces and where everything is.

Q: Would you use the same strategy with comparables for all three towns?

A: Yes. That’s the same. It’s just knowing your properties and analyzing the data to the best of your ability because it’s not black and white.

Q: Do you look at recent sales?

A: When assessors use comparables we use comparables normally over the last three years. The last time I did an update was in 2013. The comparables would have gone back to 2010. Until I do a new update, anything I have to reassess, I have to use the same comparables that I used from back in 2013. That’s what meets the state guidelines of everyone being assessed equally. Your comparing this property to the properties that I used when I reassessed the entire town.

Sometimes that’s hard for people to understand because they’ll say, ‘Just six months ago this house sold,’ but I can’t use that as a comparable. That being said, do I take that into consideration? Yes.

Q: Is there a town-wide reassessment this year?

A: No.

Q: Is it every four years?

A: It’s every three years but because of the move we just made there is no possible way I could do an update. I’m not really sure when there will be a new update.

Q: Your not obligated to do it every three years?

A: You’re encouraged. I would guess one of the towns will be done in 2018. Right now we’re seeing how things go. I would guess Shelby and Ridgeway we would keep them together because we share the village. That just makes sense.

Trisha Laszewski outside Ridgeway Town Hall

Patricia Laszewski works most days out of the Ridgeway Town Hall but also keeps office hours in Yates on Fridays.

Q: Is there concern about the assessments in the village, how they are declining?

A: They are definitely declining.

Q: I wonder how low can they go?

A: I know with the 2004 or 2007 reassessment, they took a huge leap, like $20,000 to $30,000. We as assessors when we got together said there would never be another $40,000 house again. Those days are gone. Well, they are not.

They only thing you can hope is that these houses people are picking up they are going to rehab them and maybe property values will increase.

There are so many different pieces of the pie. When people come in and they are frustrated with their tax bill it’s not just the assessment that affects that. That’s one piece of the pie. The rest of it, take a look at the municipalities. Take a look at the town, the county, the school and the village. How are they budgeting their money?
It’s hard to educate the residents on that because they say you’ve raised my taxes and now you need to fix it.

Q: Why have you stayed in this job?

A: It’s worked for me. It’s a great job as far as being a family-friendly job. I’m just a few blocks from home so that’s awesome. I was always able to participate in my daughters’ things at school. If somebody was sick, I could run over and get them and take them home. There were a lot of conveniences.

After a while I just settled in and this is what I do. I’ve never in the 15 years gone out and tried to hunt for something different. I’ve kind of embraced it.

Q: I suppose you would get good at it after a while.

A: I’d hope so. I’m much more comfortable.

Q: Has the technology helped, such as the Pictometry?

A: Absolutely. The Pictometry is amazing. It is a great tool to be able to measure properties. Not everyone is home during the day. Not everyone wants you on their property. You still need to get out and drive around or else you lose touch.

Q: If there is a building permit, is that something you’re aware of?

A: Yes.

Q: Maybe not everyone gets a permit when they work on their house or property.

A: Right, but Pictometry has helped us to find things.

Q: What does it take to be good at this job?

A: It takes patience, good people skills, open to learning as much as you can.

Q: If people think you’ve made a mistake, you have the Assessment Review Board?

A: Yes. We encourage people to come in and talk to me. We try to keep the lines of communication open. For the most part I’ve got positive feedback from that.

With the Assessment Review Board at that point that decision is out of my hand so they are able to discuss what they believe the value of their property is with five other people and they get to make the decision.

Q: In terms of hopefulness for the community with the STAMP project and its impact, do you think we will see more demand in the local housing market.

A: I hope so. It would be awesome. We have a great community.

Retiring Medina police chief says society has changed, demands increased on police officers in 3 decades

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 December 2015 at 9:00 am

Jose Avila’s parents were in concentration camp in Cuba, fled to U.S. when he was 10

Jose Avila

Photos by Tom Rivers – Jose Avila is pictured last week outside the Medina Police Department. Saturday is his last day on the job.

MEDINA – For the past 18 years, Jose Avila has served as chief of the Medina Police Department.

He has led the department through some high-profile cases, including when one of his officers, Lt. Mike Russell, was shot at a local pharmacy. Russell survived those gun shot wounds.

Avila, 53, grew up in Cuba and came to the United States when he was 10. He would settle in Rochester, where his father has been a long-time pastor. Avila joined the Coast Guard after high school, and first worked as a police officer in Nantucket, Mass. He would work at Holley, Rochester and Medina police departments.

There will be a retirement party today for Avila beginning at 1 p.m. at the Medina Theatre on  Main Street. The community is welcome to attend.

The following interview was conducted last week at Avila’s office at the Medina Police Department.

Question: Where did you grow up?

Answer: I grew up in Rochester. My family came here on the Freedom Flights. In 1960s and ’70s this country would take so many people from the Communist Block countries. My parents applied for that when I was born in ’62, and they were both sent to jail when they did that. My dad served 10 years in a concentration camp. My mom, who was a school teacher in Cuba, she was stripped of all of her titles.

Q: That’s just for applying…

A: Just for applying for the Freedom Flights. That’s why it’s hard for me to swallow this whole thing with Cuba. It’s all a facade.

So my mom had to be picked up by a truck at 4 in the morning and then get dropped off at 9. She worked in a ricefield. She worked at a pig farm. In Cuba there is a tree and they make fiber things out of it. She worked with that and her fingers were full of it. My grandmother, my mom’s mother, lived with us and she basically raised me.

One day when I was 10 years old a police officer came to the house and told us. We were living with my father’s parents and they had applied for the Freedom Flights but didn’t get accepted because they didn’t have degrees. They ended up getting permission to leave from Spain. Sometimes you can leave and go right to the United States and sometimes you have to go through another country.

We didn’t have much in Cuba. We didn’t even have running water. We had an outhouse.

My grandfather, my dad’s father, refused to leave. My grandmother, my dad’s mother, went to Spain all by herself in her ’60s. From Spain she applied to come to the United States eventually. My dad had a brother who saw things going downhill in Cuba in 1959 and decided to come here. He created King’s Furniture up in Rochester. He built a business and that’s who eventually brought us all here. His finance and things like that.

The police officer came to the house and said you have an hour to leave this property and report to this particular airport. We showed up there and my dad was brought by a truck because he was in jail. He was in a concentration camp. We stayed at this airport for about a week.

There was one couch, 50 families and we were eating moldy cheese, whatever we could find. They would bring you in and interrogate you. Everyday the DC3 airplane would land. They would pick several families to leave. It was a big joke. They were trying to play with our heads. So four or five families would leave, the plane would land, and then “Nope, nobody’s leaving today.” The plane would have to take off again. It was a big game. Finally our turn came up about a week later and they let us go.

We got to the airplane and I never had Coke before or any type of soda. A man in very broken Spanish came out and said, “Welcome, you are now headed for freedom.” He offered us Coke and Root Beer. I never had either because I was in Cuba. I took the Coke and I don’t know what happened to me. I ended up passing out. When I woke up I was in a stretcher. It was in Miami. To this day I cannot smell Root Beer. It makes me sick.

From Miami, my uncle who lives in Rochester brought us here. My father went to work for Xerox. He was a minister and he opened a church. He still is the minister there (The First Spanish Baptist Church of Rochester). If you go there you will see his name on the front of the building: Efrain Avila, right on the corner of Dewey and Ridgeway next to the big Fire Department there. It’s a big church. He was very rare in Cuba to be a Spanish Baptist. There were very limited Baptists in Cuba and that didn’t help the situation.

He still preaches and is running the church. He has been there 30-plus years.

Q: Did you go to school in Rochester?

A: I graduated from Eastridge and always wanted to serve in the military. I had a chance to take the Coast Guard test and got into the Coast Guard. I did a lot of traveling. I was the only bilingual Coastie on the East Coast. They had two but one broke his foot. So I was it. They shipped me all over the place.

In 1981 George Bush, the first one, had a drug task force and I was involved in all that because I was the only bilingual guy. I spent most of my tour down in the Caribbean on ships and listening to radios. The druggies found out if they took off from Columbia and headed way, way out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Coast Guard ships that hung around – you know Cuba has two passages. Between Cuba and Haiti that’s called the Windward Passage. Between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula that’s called the Yucatan Passage. That’s the only way to make it to Miami other than if you go round the islands and that’s a month trip versus a couple weeks or a week.

So the druggies figured if they go out, no Coasties out there. Well, we learned it, and the Coast Guard had me listening. They would get on ham radio frequencies, which are very well controlled by the FCC. They would use CB lingo and I was taught the difference. My job was to find these guys, translate it, and then get an FCC fix on them. Then the Coast Guard ships would go out there and get them. It was called Operation Gossip. I was very much a part of that.

When I got out of the Coast Guard, I had already been working part-time for the Nantucket Police Department, the chief said I want to hire you full time. After serving a couple years over there, I decided to come home.

Q: Why did you want to come home?

A: There is a different format hiring over there than here in New York State. I went looking for a job. I took the City of Rochester Police Department, I took Orleans County, and Holley. That’s how I got started in Holley. I was in Holley for several years. I used to come out here (Medina) and translate for the court here.

Homer Phillips (former police chief) would call me when there was a case. I would never ask for money, I would just come out. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been paid for translating. I felt it was something I should share.

So I would translate here, and when the opening came, the chief called me and said, ‘We’d like to hire you.’

Jose Avila directing traffic

Medina Police Chief Jose Avila directs traffic while a costumed crowd crosses the street during Beggar’s Night in downtown Medina in October 2014.

Q: Did you start at Holley as a part-timer?

A: No it was full-time.

Q: I’m guessing you’ve always been a friendly person?

A: I don’t know about a friendly person, I can get mean when I have to or I can be strict when I have to. I’ve always felt I have to be firm when I have to, but a major part of law enforcement is serving the public. Serving the public doesn’t mean you have to be a mean person.

I’ve generally found out if you treat people with dignity and respect, they will treat you back with dignity and respect. There’s an exception to that, and you can always switch that button and become tough.

I always believed whether you are the victim of a crime or a serious murderer, the Constitution requires that we treat people with respect and that’s how I’ve always done it. The Constitution is a very important document that we live under and it needs to be upheld.
Q: You were in Holley for five years?

A: Yeah, and then 24 ½ years here. I started in 1992 and served a little time in the Drug Task Force in ’96, but I was still attached to the Medina Police Department. I was their representative on the Drug Task Force.

In ’97 I came back here and was appointed assistant chief. Chief (Don) Draper decided to retire at that time and I was appointed chief. I never actually put in for the chief’s position. I wanted to be the assistant chief because I wanted to help the chief.

I was called upstairs one day when Chief Draper said he was going to retire. I truly enjoyed working for him. I thought he was a great guy. It was an honor to be his assistant, to be there and to help him. The assistant chief is there to help, to defend the chief and make sure his policies are carried through.

I knew the chief was going to retire but I didn’t think it was my place to stick my two cents as to who was going to be the chief. If they brought someone in, I was fine with working for someone else. They called me upstairs – it was December 1997 because I’ll never forget it – and they told me if I wanted the job it was mine. I took it.

Q: Who was the mayor then?

A: It was Herb Brant. He was a very nice man. I have truly enjoyed working for all of the mayors. I’ve worked for Herb Brant, Don Kennedy, Howard Lake, Adam Tabelski, Clayton Ehrenreich and Andrew Meier. I’ve worked under six mayors and I’ve enjoyed every one of them.

Q: You’re positive about working here.

A: It’s been an honor. We didn’t have much in Cuba. We didn’t even have running water. We had an outhouse. We didn’t have much of anything so to me this is big.

Q: I’ve noticed with some of the tough budgets in Medina, you’ve accepted it and found a way to make it work without a lot of grumbling.

A: That’s the trick. I always felt it was my job to protect Medina but I had the people’s money in my hands, and I have a responsibility to try to do it as cheaply as I possibly could. Public safety, you can not play with that. It’s very important, especially in today’s day and age. But you also need to think about the taxes and the citizens who work hard everyday to pay those taxes.

Although I do believe when people come collectively like our village did, and pool their money like our village did, a house assessed for $50,000 is only paying about $1,000 a year in taxes. That’s not a bad deal they’re getting when the money is pooled. But it is still money they are paying. As a police chief I need to keep that in mind and I have.

If they gave me 5, I did it with 5. If they gave me 10, I did it with 10. I tried to do it with what they gave me.

Q: Is the department smaller now than when you started?

A: When I started there were 11 officers with Homer. Later on, due to a grant, we hired two more, 12 and 13. When I became the chief, it was brought down to 12, but the 12th position was never replaced. So we went down to 11 and we are at 10 right now. I’ve never gone up, we’ve always gone down due to the rising taxes. We’ve lost two positions since I’ve been chief.

Q: I know you have one clerk, did you have more support back then as well?

A: No, a couple of years ago they didn’t have the money to fund the animal control and I volunteered to take that on. I’m grateful I’ve had the chance to work with the county animal control officer. She has been very helpful.

Q: Are things worse now than 20-30 years ago in terms of crime in the community?

A: I think society has less respect for law enforcement and laws. I think with overcrowding in the jail the criminals are let out sooner. The criminals seem to go back to the same cycle. So I think society has changed as whole for the worse.

However, there are still a lot of good people out there, and they deserve our very best. That’s why we do it everyday.

It is a very thin blue line and I don’t think society appreciates how difficult law enforcement has become.

I always hear in this country about the thin blue line that protects a community. There truly is a thin blue line. There really aren’t many of us (police officers) when you think about it. It’s a tough job.

If you look at what a penal law looks like, the book is thick with vehicle and traffic. We have seconds, if we’re lucky minutes, to put a case together, and attorneys have weeks and months to pick it apart.

It’s very difficult because you could be on the midnight shift and have a fight call and have to arrest two or three people and have them there screaming in your cell. Imagine trying to interview somebody when somebody is outside there yelling, calling you names and spitting on you.

That happens all of the time, and you have to keep an eye on that person because you have to make sure that person doesn’t commit suicide, or hurt themselves and hurt somebody else. You have to get all of that paperwork, legal documents that are going to be reviewed by an attorney. In the meantime, there are other calls coming in. There are other fights in other places. You have to figure out how you’re going to handle that.

You also have to take that person to a judge. You have to call the judge and have them come out and arraign them, and then transport that guy to the county jail. That’s an awful lot for a human being to handle.

It is a very thin blue line and I don’t think society appreciates how difficult law enforcement has become.

When I first started with the police, the patrol car had a little gumbo on top, and one toggle switch to turn the lights on. There were two switches, one for the lights and one for the siren. Nowadays that officer has a laptop. It’s unbelievable all the technology.

Jose Avila as parade marshal

Medina Police Chief Jose Avila served as honorary grand marshal for the parade. He is retiring next month after 17 years as leader of the Medina Police Department.

Q: It does seem like a lot to juggle.

A: It’s a lot of pressure on the officer on the beat. When you care about police officers and your community, it’s an awful lot for one person to have on their shoulders.

There hasn’t been a day or a night since I’ve been chief that I don’t think about the guy who is out on patrol. If something happens, I take it personal. I take a responsibility to try to do whatever it takes. I’ve done multiple things to try to solve a case. You get an individual charged with a crime, they have often been through the system. They know Miranda Rights and the rights that they have. To get a confession from them and to gather the evidence is not an easy task.

None of the cases would be solved without the officers here. The officers, our secretary and I we make it happen for as little as possible.

Q: Is it harder to be an officer in Medina compared to let’s say Rochester?

A: In Rochester, you may be doing as many as 30 to 40 calls per shift. Here in Medina, we may be doing 10 to 20 at the most. But down there that is all you do. Here you have to be a supervisor. When you get a crime scene, you can’t call the crime scene technician because you are the crime scene technician. You have to do the whole thing.

You go to a domestic in Rochester, and there is a civilian team out there that is on patrol and only handles domestics. You call ’em, and if a crime has not been committed and they just need counseling, you call that unit and you’re done. The officers leave.

Here in Medina, we are the counselors. We have to figure out how we’re going to prevent this from happening again. There is a lot more that a police officer in a small town does.

The police chief is not only the chief, he is a patrolman, he is a janitor, he works on cars, you do whatever it takes to keep this ship moving, to keep the people of Medina safe and to support my officers.

Q: So why did you stay and not go to Rochester or somewhere else?

A: I was in Rochester. I did a little time there. I like the small-town community here. It’s Mayberry. I didn’t like the mass-production law enforcement. In Rochester you were going to calls all of the time. I wanted a little more hometown feeling. I came to Orleans County in 1987 and I fell in love with the place.

Q: When did you work in Rochester?

A: I worked there between when I worked at Holley and here (Medina) for a little less than a year. After I got a taste of that and I had a chance to come back, I decided to come back. And I’m glad I did. I like the way things are in a small town. I like how it works.

In Rochester I found it to be mass production. Just get it done, get it reported and move on to the next call. You have to do it the way or else you’d get very far behind. Here you get a chance to really jump into the case and work with people.

Q: I notice on many of the calls you’re right in the thick of it.

A: I said to the board in December of 1997 that I’ll take the job but I’m not going to stop being a police officer because that is what I love. Everyday I try to do two or three hours of patrol. That is the bread and butter of a small town police department, the guys on patrol.

If you have a uniformed patrol car out there, a marked unit, that may get somebody who is going to do something to somebody, a criminal who is going to commit a crime, that gets that person to think twice. That’s why it is important that the police car is on patrol. They may think twice and the crime may never be committed. That’s Police 101.

Q: Your last day is when?

A: My last official day is Dec. 26. That’s Saturday. Then I hand over the keys to Chief (Chad) Kenward. I leave the department in good hands. I’m honored to have worked with so many fine officers.

I’ve had some sad times here: The Mike Russell shooting (Sept. 4, 2001). But we handled it. I’m glad that he’s still alive. He was the lieutenant here. It was a tough time for the department and it was my job to see it through.

I’m very grateful I’ve had good employees to help me see it through.

Q: I notice you keep a picture of Mike Russell on your wall.

A: He was shot at 3:05 p.m. on Sept. 4. Then 9-11 happened the following week. In between that, what the public didn’t know, we had a threat to the village. It was solved. The guy was from Rochester. He was a mental health patient and he sent us a letter saying he was going to blow us all up.

It was a lot for a small town police department to handle, but we handled it.

Mike was a hard worker. It was a sad day for all of us when that occurred. I’m glad that he’s still around. I promoted him lieutenant. He was a man with a lot of potential.

Q: What would make the job easier for you and the other officers? More money and more officers?

A: More money is always great and more people will always work, but if I could ask one thing from the citizens is understanding how difficult the job is for the officers that are here – the state troopers, the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department, my officers at the Medina Police Department.

Television makes it look very easy. The first 15 minutes of a show a crime is committed, a handsome police officer with lots of hair in a suit solves it by the half hour. By quarter of, in the hour show, the criminal is sentenced to life imprisonment for a minor misdemeanor.

It does not work that way, especially for a small-town police department like us, and Albion, and Holley, where the officers have to be answering calls, and handling crime and investigating cases and dealing with the phone. There is a lot going on. If you were God and I had one choice it would be for the citizens to understand the difficulty of the job.

If I have one request it is to understand the difficulty the patrolman on the beat has and be sympathetic to that officer.

Sometimes police officers make a mistake. One time a politician came in my office and he was upset about something. I said to him, there were a hundred things I had to take care of today and I’m sorry I messed up on No. 61.

Q: Is it hard to get momentum to finish a case when you’re called elsewhere?

A: Officers sometimes have to work overtime to fill the shifts. At the end of the day, that’s not their end of the day. They have subpoenas. They could be working the midnight shift. Imagine working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and then having to show up at court at 9 a.m. for an all-day trial and then having to come back for a midnight shift. How awake is that officer going to be? And he has to do it. He has no choice. And he has sit on the stand and testify to something that happened six months ago or maybe a year ago, and he better be right.

If I have one request it is to understand the difficulty the patrolman on the beat has and be sympathetic to that officer.

Now we have terrorism to worry about. I’ve been fighting drugs since I was 18 years old. It’s still there. The drug epidemic has not gone away.

We’ve had good years. For a while heroin went away, now it’s back. There’s always marijuana and cocaine. It’s an epidemic that in my opinion puts our society down. I’ve seen the end results of drug usage. I’ve seen good people on drugs lose their families. It’s very said. Kids suffer.

Believe it or not it weighs heavily on police officers. I’ve seen a lot of guys come back from calls and cry in that backroom.

Jose Avila in his office

Jose Avila is pictured inside his office at the Medina Police Department.

Q: Maybe it’s harder in a small town because you get to know the families?

A: That’s one of the problems. There are benefits to having the police chief live in the community where you police. I can’t tell you how many cases I’ve handled out on my back porch. People who choose to come to my house while my wife and I are having dinner. God bless her. Lisa has been a very understanding person. I’m a lucky man to have her.

But I’ve handled hundreds of calls on my back porch. I’ve had them on my front porch, knocking on the door at 1 in the morning. You go out and you have to handle it. These people pay your salary and you can’t say no to them.

One of the first things I did when I became chief is I threw away the appointment book. I told my secretary anybody who walks into the front door has the right to see me. It is my job to try to help them in any way that I can.

Q: I’m surprised you’ve been able to do this as chief for almost 20 years.

A: I’ve been able to do it because I have good officers and they help me to do it. It’s a collective effort with my secretary Theresa (Caldwell), who is very, very efficient and the officers who have worked with me over the years. I’ve been lucky.

It was an honor to have worked with the New York State Police and the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office. They have been wonderful to me. They were always accommodating to me when I needed the extra help.

Q: What will you do when you retire?

A: That’s a good question. I’m not really sure. I’m going to spend some time helping my parents because they deserve it. They suffered a lot in Cuba to get me here. I want to make sure the remaining time they have is as comfortable as they can be.

My father suffers from a lung disease. They made him spray pesticides in Cuba when he was in the concentration camp without a respirator and that hardened the fibers in his lungs. It’s starting to take effect on him.

I’m going to spend some time with my wife Lisa and my son. I actually have two sons and two daughters. I have three kids from a previous marriage. I want to spend time with them.

I also going to try to serve, I’m not sure where. But wherever I live I’ll find something because I enjoy it. Service to the community you can never do enough. I’ll find something where I’m needed and I’ll serve. It could be a translator, cleaning toilets, cleaning the floor.

I’m not sure I’m always going to be able to stay away from police work because I love it so much. It’s been a part of my life for 32 years.

I’m going to miss this. It’s painful because I don’t want to leave it. If I care about the department I have to leave. Somebody new, somebody younger needs to take over.

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