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quick questions

Leader of ethanol plant says facility has been an asset to local farmers, community

Photos by Tom Rivers: Tim Winters is president and chief executive officer of Western New York Energy in Medina.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 6 December 2017 at 11:17 am

MEDINA – Tim Winters, 48, is chief executive officer of Western New York Energy, a company that celebrated its 10th anniversary of production last week.

Winters joined the in September 2007, soon before it opened and began turning corn into ethanol. WNY Energy initially planned to use 20 million bushels of corn annually to produce 50 million gallons of ethanol.

The output proved a conservative number because the company is on pace to produce 62 million gallons this year. All of the ethanol is blended and used in the Rochester and Buffalo markets.

The facility also produces high-protein distiller’s grains for livestock and the CO2 is captured and used for food and soda industries. The company pays more than $1 million in taxes locally each year.

John Sawyer and his son Mike were influential in getting the plant built. John was the company’s first CEO and president. He died from leukemia at age 72 on Oct. 13, 2013. Mike followed his father as the company’s CEO and president. Mike died while hiking in the Adirondacks at age 43 due a medical condition on Aug. 18, 2016.

Tim Winters said the two Sawyers were critical in getting the plant built and in its success. Winters was interviewed on Friday at his office at WNY Energy, which is located at the corner of Bates Road and Maple Ridge Road.

A banner at the entrance of the plant notes that WNY Energy has produced more than 500 million gallons of ethanol in the past decade.

Question: What did you do at the start your career?

Answer: I was in the family business for several years and then had a couple different jobs. Then I moved out West for six years and worked for a large grain company in Oklahoma.

Question: Was that where you were right before Western New York Energy?

Answer: Yes.

Question: What did they do to lure you back home?

Answer: I was actually here getting remarried and was nosing around the company. The company I was with was talking with companies about building ethanol plants and grain elevators in Oklahoma. While I was back here I wondered what this new plant was all about. I ended up meeting Mike (Sawyer) and emailing Mike. He asked me what is it I do and I told him I was a controller. He said he was looking for a controller. It just kind of happened very quickly from there.

Question: What does a controller do?

Answer: A lot of everything. In a normal capacity it’s just accounting functions. But for us here at this company it’s a lot of dealing with some of the marketing, operational and working with the plant, helping to analyze data. I also do a fair amount of the IT. I have some grain experience so I was involved in that.

We’re a large company but it is small enough where I had the title of controller, but it was always whatever needed to be done.

A truck with grain from H & E Farms in Albion is unloaded last Friday at the ethanol plant.

Question: When you guys started I think you were taking in 20 million bushels to make 50 million gallons of ethanol. I thought the output ended up being more.

Answer: It was 50 million as the original name plate, that’s what the plant was designed for. We started running pretty much over that within months when we started.

Question: Was that because it was a conservative number?

Answer: They design these to be able to run a little bit harder. We were able to gain efficiencies and learn more about the plant to get more gallons out. It’s been pretty much a continuous trajectory up since then. Currently today we are running about 62 million gallons with a potential to run even higher.

Question: With 20 million bushels?

Answer: Yes. Twenty million is what we’ll grind this year. It will probably be 21 million next year. When we started we were probably grinding 17 to 18 million.

Question: That’s significant because I know one of the criticisms I’ve heard about ethanol is the amount of energy to produce it. You’ve made gains getting more out of the corn. It looks like you’re about 3 gallons for every bushel of corn.

Answer: A lot in the industry when it was started was about 2.7 to 2.75. Our average over the years I would say has been 2.9-plus. Every year you try to close in on that magic 3 number.

Question: Has it happened for you?

Answer: Not yet, but with the technology each year we’re getting a little bit closer.

Question: I wonder what could clinch it for you to hit the 3 level?

Answer: It doesn’t sound like a lot to go from 2.9 to a 3, but that’s actually a lot. For every hundredth that you get it’s a big step. It takes quite a bit to gain those little bits. When you think about it, take that .01 and multiply it by 20 million bushels. That’s a lot of gallons.

Question: (During the interview several trucks stop at the weigh station outside by Winters’ office) Is this a normal occurrence for you, having all of these trucks here?

Answer: Generally on average we take 75 a day.

Question: And that is throughout the year?

Answer: Yes. We have times in the year where there are more. It could be a hundred or more. We have unloaded as many as 200 corn trucks in a day in the past. Sometimes, it’s 40-50 a day. It really depends on how much is bought and the time of the year.

Question: In terms of the impact for the local farmers, they used to have to drive much farther, to Dunkirk perhaps to the Purina plant.

Answer: Or Arcade or Batavia.

Tim Winters keeps an eye on market prices at his office.

Question: When you’re driving farther, it can gobble up your day just with the added time.

Answer: Yes. An hour-and-a-half to 2-hour drive is not uncommon at all each way.

Question: With the local growers, including some in Medina, it must be awesome having you here so close by. And you can see all of the new grain bins that have been put up in the last 10 years, including the new one by Western New York Energy. (The WNY Energy bin can hold 800,000 bushels and was built about two years ago.) What was the reason for the new grain bin you added?

Answer: One of the big reasons we decided to do it was because as we continue to produce more, we needed to have more days of run time available. What if you got into a winter storm in the middle of January? With only a million bushels of storage, that was only around 15 to 17 days for us. That was kind of uncomfortable. So a larger capacity gives us that insurance if we have bad weather and at the same time gives us more options throughout the year. We can buy more during harvest than we could before.

Question: I think 50 people work here.

Answer: It’s 51 today. That includes Shelby Transportation.

Question: With that, you guys go get the corn? How does that work?

Answer: Yes. We get the corn and we also haul out some of the distiller’s. We do some other hauling as well.

Question: When you consider the distiller’s and the CO2, is there any waste here?

Answer: No. When we’re done there is nothing left of the corn kernel. We use every piece of it. We talked earlier about the gripe about using more energy than you’re making, but in reality in the most recent analysis it’s at least 2 to 1, sometimes 2 ½ to 1. For every energy unit we’re using, we’re creating that much more than what a gas refinery or oil refinery would be. They’re energy deficits.

The point I’m making is gaining all of those efficiencies and using all of your byproducts, you don’t have anything to burn off or waste to dispose of.

Question: I think there were more criticisms of the ethanol industry 15-20 years ago, but you don’t hear that much these days. Do you think ethanol has proven itself?

Answer: One of the great things about being in this industry is we are young, we are really just in the first 10 to 15 years of taking off. With the technology every day there is something new coming out. It’s really exciting to see what is could be coming down the pike.

Distiller’s grains are a byproduct of the ethanol process and are used to feed livestock including many cows in Western New York.

Question: I know some plants have doubled in size after they opened. Is that something that might happen here?

Answer: It’s something that we have considered, but it’s quite an investment. When you look at building capacity on that large of a scale, the cost per gallon is quite a bit higher than when we originally built the plant. It’s something you have to take a much harder look at because your payback is going to be much longer. We’ve chosen to take a more phased in approach. We built a new fermenter, we built some cooling capacity. We’ll continue to look at some of those projects maybe just building up in phases, rather than in one big lump sum. Not to say that could never happen, but right now the phased in approach is the best investment strategy for Western New York Energy.

Question: What kind of ripple effect do you think this plant has had on the farming community?

Answer: From what I remember, growing up in the family feed and grain business, yes it has had an impact. This area has always grown a lot of grain. Anybody who has lived here more than 20-30 years remembers that. There used to be a lot of government storage. There used to be a lot of excess storage and prices that the farmers received were very poor. I remember years that corn was maybe $1.50, $1.25 a bushel. Over the years that got tough for a family farm to stay in operation.

After we started – within months of after we started – farm families that I’ve known for all of my life, it wasn’t uncommon for some of them to come up to me in the grocery store and say, “Tim, we are so glad you and the plant are here because we were getting ready to sell the farm.”

Just look at the farms that have built bins, that have trucks. They are doing better to be able to make investments in new technologies and equipment. But farming is still farming. There are good years and there are bad years, but hopefully overall the averages are better than what it was.

Question: Not only are you here and the corn price is up, but the yields are also up. It seems like a good time to be a local corn grower.

Answer: Right now, if I put my farmer hat on, the price is not great. The Chicago Board of Trade today is trading around $3.50 (per bushel). That’s not great but it could be a lot worse.

There are farms out in the Midwest that are getting below $3 cash price.

Question: I thought you paid a little more than going rate?

Answer:  There are a lot of factors that go into it. The term you’re looking for is basis. That’s the price, plus or minus whatever the Board is trading at. That really depends on the season and a lot of other market conditions. Sometimes it’s over. We have been under at times. But generally we’ve been paying over.

Question: Don’t you test the corn and based on the quality that affects the price?

Answer: Yes, there are several different quality factors that we evaluate for. For instance, if it is too high in moisture there is a small discount and a dockage that goes along with it. If there is too much foreign material, beeswings or weed seeds – things like that that aren’t corn – there are discounts for that. It’s all about quality, just like anything else.

Question: If it’s wetter than you want do you then have to dry it?

Answer: We don’t have a dryer. All we have are fans. We can take slightly wetter than we’re used to. But we can’t take 18 percent or even 17 percent (moisture). What ends up happening is if you take that wetter grain and put it in the middle somewhere, concrete or the bin, it will eventually rot. To store it for any amount of time it has to be 15.5 percent or below, preferably.


John Sawyer, right, and his son Mike Sawyer were the driving force in establishing Western New York Energy and the construction of the $90 million ethanol plant.

Question: The only sad part about this is that John and Mike Sawyer aren’t here today.

Answer: I agree.

Question: But they certainly brought an asset into the community. I like that the shareholders are local people. The plant has helped to bring some money into the community. If the farmers make money they often put it back in the community, including helping to fund the Extension Education Center and the new library in Albion.

Answer: Correct. That is one of things that drew me here. I didn’t know John or Mike before I came here. I checked them out and I’m sure they checked me out. I heard nothing but good.

When you heard John talk about where did this come from, it all came from his desire to help out farmers. This is what developed. It does allow us to provide not only 50 good-paying jobs for employees, but it allows us to do good things for the community – the Parade of Lights for example. As a Medina native, I’m very proud to do that. As you know, you’ve been in the area long enough, we’ve had a lot of things taken away over the years. It’s nice to bring something back for a change.

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Sanford Church says he is ready to serve community as next county judge

Photos by Tom Rivers: Sanford A. Church is running for Orleans County Judge. He is pictured last week at his law office on East Bank Street in downtown Albion.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 October 2017 at 1:55 pm

‘I’ve learned to keep an open mind, listen to everything, and then figure it out and figure out what the just response is.’

ALBION – Sanford A. Church, 59, is the Republican candidate in the Nov. 7 election for Orleans County judge.

Church grew up in Albion and played on the Albion football and basketball teams, and was one of the top tennis players on Albion’s undefeated tennis teams. He earned a law degree at Duke University, where he met his wife, Diane, who is also an attorney.

They have two grown children. Ben, 26, is a graduate of the Northwestern Medical School in internal medicine, and is doing his residency in California. Molly, 24, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and is studying to be a mental health counselor in Boston at Tufts University.

Church returned to Albion after getting a law degree, and worked with his late father, Ted Church, at an office on East Bank Street.

This picture of Sanford E. Church hangs in the law offices of Church and Church in Albion.

The Church family goes back generations in Albion, including Sanford E. Church, the first lawyer in the family who was an elected district attorney and went on to serve as lieutenant governor, state comptroller, and the chief judge of the NYS Court of Appeals. A historical marker stands by his former home on Ingersoll Street, which is now the Merrill-Grinnell Funeral Home.

Sanford A. Church seeks to succeed the retiring James Punch as county judge. Church has the backing of Punch and most of the attorneys in the county for the elected position. Church faces Tonia Ettinger on Nov. 7.

Church has been a long-time Little League coach for the Rotary-Lions team, and has been involved with the Rotary and Lions clubs, as well as serving on the Albion Board of Education.

He has been the public defender for about 20 years, representing low-income people facing felony charges. Church, a former member of the Albion Board of Education, has practiced law in all of the courts a county judge will preside.

Church was interviewed at his Albion office last week by Tom Rivers, the Orleans Hub editor.

Question: After graduating from Duke, why did you come back to Albion?

Answer: When were at Duke we were around a lot of lawyers who wanted to be at big firms. I watched it and didn’t want to do that, and decided to come back to my family practice where we’ve been lawyers forever.

Question: You were mid-20s then?

Answer: It would have been ’84, so roughly 26.

Question: How did you get involved as an assistant DA?

Answer: The way it worked first is I came back and started practicing with my dad. Curtis Lyman was the DA at the time. He asked if I would be one of his assistant district attorneys. I did that in ’85 for just a few months because then – this is a long story – there are attorneys who work for judges and the one who was working for (former) Judge Miles got a job as a support judge. So then Judge Miles, who had seen me do things in court, asked me to be his law clerk, which is the lawyer that works for the judge and does research, and writes decisions. I did that until ’89 and then I worked part-time in the same type of job for the Family Court judge in Batavia, and kept the practice here. And then I did assistant DA and assistant public defender, depending on what was going on and who wanted me to do what. Then I moved to public defender.

Question: I think you’ve been the public defender for as long as I’ve been here. (Tom Rivers started working as a reporter in Orleans County in July 1996.)

Answer: It’s got to be over 20 years.

Question: Why have you stayed in that job so long? What do you like about it?

Answer: The public defender’s job is part time. It allows me to do other things and still be a lawyer. I like coaching, too. It enables me to do all the different types of courts that I do. It is helping to represent people.

Sanford Church speaks during last Thursday’s Orleans County Republican Rally.

Question: What do you do as public defender? Aren’t you the administrator of the office as well as an attorney handling cases?

Answer: The way it is set up there is the public defender’s office and I am the boss so to speak of the public’s defender’s office. There are three assistant public defender attorneys who work under me or for me, however you want to say it. And so then with the criminal cases if we have a conflict of interest with the case we have to get an attorney who is not affiliated with the public defender’s office, in other words, not me or the three other attorneys. Right now the system is set up so Jeff Martin (an attorney in Holley) assigns the assigned counsel, who are private practitioners who take cases.

Question: Who are the three assistants?

Answer: Nathan Pace, Dominic Saraceno and Patricia Pope. She doesn’t do county court. She does the other courts.

The only courts the public defender’s office does in Orleans County is criminal. But I do Family Court, Surrogate’s and others as well.

Question: What is the Surrogate’s Court?

Answer: It takes care of peoples’ estates who have passed.

Question: What would the judge do?

Answer: In the beginning, it can be if a will is valid. Someone in the family may think there was undue influence on somebody signing the will, something like that. There are legal formalities that have to be filed and a surrogate can end up ruling whether the will is to be accepted or not. Sometimes it’s a battle. After it is accepted the executor has to then collect everything and dole it out so it is consistent with the will. If there is a disagreement within the family or whoever about how that should be done, then the judge has to figure that out, too.

Question: It seems there is a persona for a judge, in terms of having control of the court room. That doesn’t show up in credentials or the resume.

Answer: I can just say it’s not a plug-in position. I’ve been around law and lawyers all my life. It’s not a plug-in, anybody-can-do-it correctly for the community position. It takes the experience, knowledge and respect to do what needs to be done. You can’t just step in there and know criminal law, for example.

Question: Isn’t the judge also an administrator of the court?

Answer: Yes, with an amount of staff. I administer the PD’s office and I have some staff, too.

Question: And you have to keep the cases moving. Aren’t there time frames for the judge to keep cases moving?

Answer: For everything but Supreme Court there are what they call “standards and goals” for the courts. At least in Family and Criminal Court they try to have the cases done in six months. Now with jury trials in the criminal cases that can be hard to do, but that is what they strive to do.

Question: The public defender is a different path to getting to judge. It seems like in the smaller counties it is often the district attorney who makes the leap to judge. You have a little bit of a different resume than Judge Punch, who was DA before being judge.

Answer: I agree that it is different. The Family Court work, as an attorney for a child, I do all of that, too.

Criminal law is a lot of what is done in Orleans County, whether you are the public defender or the DA you get immersed in particular cases. The challenge is, and I’ve felt I have the ability to do it pretty well, is you figure out what the issues are in the cases, then you research it and figure out how to apply it to the case. Whether it’s the DA’s side or the public defender’s side or the defense side, it really helps to develop the knowledge base, so when you’re the judge you don’t have to start from scratch with making different decisions.

Question: Whether you’re the DA or public defender you’re playing by the same rules?

Answer: It’s the same body of law. I’m appointed, and the DA is elected. In general I’ve never run for one of these offices before. The DAs have and the public is a little more aware of them than a public defender or defense attorney.

Question: How long is the appointment for public defender?

Answer: It’s for two years. We go with the Legislature. They will meet in January and organize for two years.

I think I work well with the Legislature. I’ve been appointed a bunch of times. I work on the budget and keep that in line.

Question: People probably want to know why you want to run for judge?

Answer: I’ve been around it a long time and the judge matters. It’s an important spot. The local attorneys certainly support me. They respect me and know I can do it. I’m willing to do it and do what the county deserves. I’m used to the county and the law.

Sandy Church warms up a pitcher for the Rotary-Lions team during a game in July versus Carlton. Church has been a Little League coach for about 15 years.

Question: Why have you continued in the Albion Little League, long after your son aged out?

Answer: Number one, baseball was the thing when I was growing up. I like baseball. When I was a kid I had all of the baseball cards. I like working with the kids and getting to know some of them. Even when I was a basketball coach, you want to help the kids.

I’ve been able to back off as the head coach in Little League, but I still like working with the kids.

Question: Why have you and Diane stayed here in Albion?

Answer: I prefer the rural community. I don’t know everybody, but I know lots of people. I just like it better than the cities.

My two kids did fine coming from here. You can get involved in a whole bunch of extracurricular activities and you get the schooling. You can get there from here if a kid wants to do that.

Question: What else do you want to say?

Answer: One of the things that makes me qualified as anybody – if not more qualified than anybody around here – is that I learned how to suspend judgement after working for all of the judges over the years. I’ve learned to keep an open mind, listen to everything, and then figure it out and figure out what the just response is. I think I’ve been able to do that. The people that know the area and know me, who aren’t making snap judgements on me from one experience, they respect my ability to do that.

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Advocate sees first-hand the challenges facing many needy families

Photos by Tom Rivers: Jacki Mowers-Sciarabba works as a client advocate for the Geneses-Orleans Ministry of Concern. She received a Community Service Award last month from the Chamber of Commerce.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 11 October 2017 at 1:52 pm

Jacki Mowers-Sciarabba was honored by the Chamber of Commerce for her work at the Ministry of Concern

ALBION – Jacki Mowers-Sciarabba spends her workdays helping people avoid shut-off notices and obtain needed housing and health insurance. The job is stressful and takes a lot of problem-solving.

“She listens to people on a deep level,” said Nyla Gaylord, executive director for the Genesee-Orleans Ministry of Concern. “She shows extraordinary kindness, concern and creativity in helping people through a crisis.”

Mowers-Sciarabba is a full-time client advocate at the Ministry of Concern. She also is program coordinator for Just Friends E-3 youth mentoring program. That program stresses energy, encouragement and empowerment.

The program has monthly activities and could use more adults, Mowers-Sciarabba said. There are 59 kids in the program in Orleans County.

The Ministry of Concern serves about 2,000 people in the county, helping with personal care items, prescription co-pays, emergency shelter and some utility bills.

The Orleans County Chamber of Commerce last month presented Mowers-Sciarabba with a community service award for her work with local families.

Mowers-Sciarabba has worked four years at the Ministry of Concern.  The Kendall native was pharm tech at the Holley Pharmacy when she decided to earn her college degree in human services.

She helps people with budgeting with the long-term goal for more people to become self sufficient.

During an interview last month at the Ministry of Concern’s office at 121 North Main St., Albion, Mowers-Sciarabba said the job has been an eye-opener, showing “devastation” in the community.

Question: You said you didn’t realize the devastation in the county. What do you mean by that?

Answer: I didn’t realize the lack of employment opportunities and how many are in need of food stamps and public assistance, basic help with personal care items – diapers, things of that nature. It is something I had never thought of before until I was in this position and I see it every day.

After I was here after a while I saw people who were here frequently for the same thing so limits had to be made and budgeting had to be discussed. That’s why I get into helping them develop a budget so they didn’t need the services of the agencies. I didn’t realize how many people were in need of so many things.

Question: People might think there is Section 8 and welfare that cover all of the needs?

Answer: There is, but there is a waiting period for everything. If you go in and apply for Medicaid, you have a 45-day wait. Where are they going to get their prescriptions in the meantime? The people on necessary prescriptions they can’t be without it. They will end up in jail or an institution. We help them get through that. We help them get through the time period until they can get what they need. The time period is a killer for so many.

With the insurance change there were so many people who all of sudden didn’t have insurance when they went to their pharmacy – their pharmacy no longer took that insurance. So then there is the whole process of finding a pharmacy that does so people can get their medication. We help them apply for a different insurance. It’s a process. It’s a time-consuming process. For people who aren’t familiar with the system and how to do it, it’s very confusing. A lot of elderly people have no idea how to do it. It’s my job to walk them through, get them on the right track, and hook them up with the navigator.

Question: Was that a big learning curve for you?

Answer: It was. I had never dealt with insurance because I had always had insurance through my employer. I really never had to apply for it. I just signed up for it. It was a big learning curve for me. The health navigator through Fidelis has been great. She walked me through it. I hook people up with them. Neighborhood Legal Services had a health navigator and they did their appointments in our office for their Albion clientele.

Jacki Mowers-Sciarabba tries to help residents through the bureaucracy to getting health insurance, public assistance, needed furniture and medications.

Question: How many caseloads do you have?

Answer: It depends on the season. It depends on the day. In-office traffic is much less during rainstorms because many people walk or they have to wait for a bus, so I get a lot of phone calls on those days. It varies per situation. Right now is a busy time because the Village of Albion is giving out water disconnections. If you get your water disconnected, you’re condemned from your house. So our choice is do we help with the water bill that is due, or do we help with emergency housing that ends up costing a lot more and is a temporary fix?

You can’t have a displaced family. You can’t put them in Dollinger’s because it’s not economical. Usually it’s cheaper to help them pay the water bill by kicking in a hundred dollars. We try to find a way to come up with the difference.

Question: It seems like this would be a tough job?

Answer: It is a tough job. First of all you see families in a point of a panic due to a utility being turned off and not having the money to pay whatever the situation may be. I consider it my role to put them at ease. That’s what I do. I try to be calm because there’s always a way to figure it out. So that’s a good feeling when we do.

Emotionally it is difficult to see situations. Every day is different. There are no two days the same. You never know who’s going to come in with what situation and what they’re going to need and who can help them.

Question: It’s good that people see this agency as a place to help. I know the Ministry of Concern is considered “The agency of last resort.”

Answer: We are. They go through all the hoops before they come to me. Or in certain circumstances the monies they need are so much that I have to refer them out and they have to come back with a denial for us to consider. There are only so many funds for so many people.

Question: Do you sometimes function as a connector to other agencies?

Answer: I never send someone out without having someone else for them to go to for the assistance that they need. We don’t help with rent or security deposits and that is an issue. Nobody in this county helps with security deposits. Community Action and DSS do first month’s rent, but there is limited funding.

Question: So people could need $500 or more for a security deposit?

Answer: Absolutely. The typical one is generally between $500 and $700, and then there is the matter of finding apartments. The landlords are often booked.

It is very difficult. They have to go through the application process. There is nothing quick when it comes to housing. So therefore how many nights can we pay for someone to stay at Dollinger’s? We used to have a rule for one night and you have to have a place to go by 11 o’clock the next morning. So if they needed one night’s lodging before they could move into their apartment, that was fine. But that is so often not the case. If the people are being evicted on a Thursday, they won’t get into DSS until Monday. What do they do for the weekend with their kids? What are they supposed to do?

I’m not one to encourage people to sleep in their cars. It’s not the heating season so DSS won’t help them with emergency housing. It has to be 40 degrees or lower for them to help with emergency housing. That displaces a lot of families.

I’m grateful that Dollinger’s is in this town. That’s all that I have to say. It’s a good place for people to stay while they get their paperwork together and make calls. If they were just out walking on the street with their kids as an emotional wreck, they wouldn’t accomplish any of that and it would just prolong what they need to do.

Question: You are doing a community service in this job.

Answer: It’s work that needs to be done. Because we’re a non-for-profit, we don’t have the regulations that so many other agencies have to do. Although we take that information for our funding proposals. If somebody makes over the poverty level and they are in need of a coach, I still take their request.

If someone makes over the poverty level and they need help with their insulin, I’m not going to turn them away.

Question: You must see some success stories with people who have a dramatic turnaround.

Answer: I do. I’ve seen success stories with Just Friends, too. Children who were in the program when it started are now mothers who are bringing their children back. This one mother in particular just loves the program and wants her children to be here. That makes me happy.

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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 out 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.

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