Regular Folks Give Advice to Graduates

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 23, 2014

This month, commencement speakers at Rhode Island’s Colleges and Universities will give the Class of 2014 their tips on how they can successfully find their professional niche, in a state with the distinction of having the worst employment rate in the nation and continues to be one of the last states to see an economic revival.  Rhode Islanders are also known for their inferiority complex and general attitude about the quality of life in the state.

Robed graduating seniors will sit listening closely to commencement speeches, given by very well-known lawmakers, judges, television personalities and Business CEOs, detailing their observations and advice, and how if closely followed, just might give the graduates a more rewarding personal and professional life.

 Typically a commencement speech (the length being about 10 minutes) is given by a notable, successful, stimulating figure well-known in the community, nationally or internationally. While some colleges and universities may enhance their prestige by bringing in high-profile speakers (University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, Roger Williams University, and Providence College) sometimes at great cost, others like Brown University, unique among Ivy League institutions, features graduating seniors, rather than outside dignitaries, as their commencement speakers. This year, Rhode Island College,
under graduate and graduate commencement speakers are Rhode Islanders.

So, I say to Presidents of Colleges and Universities, with your tight budgets you can save a little money by not bringing in high paid commencement speakers. As can be seen below, there are many potential    commencement speakers in local communities throughout the state who fly below the radar screen and can give college graduates sound strategies for success gleaned from their life experiences. They give road maps on how one can live a more healthy fulfilling life, mature in a way to realize their potential and age gracefully in a challenging and quickly changing world.

Jesse Nemerofsky, 60, Providence, Professional Commercial Photographer. “Always remember that everyone you meet in life can be a potential or future client. This being said, a positive introduction of yourself is a valuable way to be called to work together on projects, even to be hired for future jobs. George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, has stated in interviews that when he meets someone he gets their business card, and at birthdays, Christmas time, or when the person is honored, he sends them a personal note. By taking time to acknowledge people over the lifetime of his career, the former President is highly respected by those he has encountered, even if his political position or business venture was successful or not.   Honesty and representing your capabilities is of course of the utmost importance, and small gestures like sending a personal note can ultimately have great impact, but excellence in your work should be your main goal.”

Michael Cassidy, 66, Pawtucket, Retired. “As you go into the ‘real’ world from the sheltered ‘world of college’ don’t be too quick to judge the new people you meet in the work place.  People come in all types, sizes, shapes, temperaments, personalities, ages, and backgrounds; and they all have their own experiences from which you can learn. If you are smart enough to listen to what others have to offer, you can learn from them not only what to do, but what not to do. And most times learning what not to do is the most valuable lesson you can have.”

Olon Reeder, 55, North Providence, Reeder Associates Public Relations. “Become adaptable to constant changes in your life. Today’s global environment demands that you must become faster, better and smarter and compete with yourself and everyone else to survive socially. You have to embrace non-stop learning, empower yourself with your own resources, have an independent attitude and create value for who you really are and what you want to be to shape your quality of life for the future!”

Michelle Godin, 50, Vice President, New England Economic Development Services, Inc. “Live each day of your life with integrity. Whether in your personal life or professional life, integrity will define you as a person.  Never waiver.  When your days on earth are ended, it is your integrity that others will remember.   Those who live with integrity will be fondly remembered and missed, because with integrity comes many other admirable qualities such as compassion, empathy, tolerance, and understanding.  Those lacking integrity will be discussed with disdain and quickly forgotten.  Choose to become exemplary.”

Paul Audette, 85, Pawtucket, semi-retired businessman.The Youth of today — from puberty to whatever age one reaches maturity – tend to see life as it pertains to them, yet each person is responsible for him or herself.  While the youth may have the knowledge, they lack the life experience which is the main factor in making good sound judgments that ultimately affect (your) well-being as well as that of your loved ones. While experience cannot be taught, it cannot be overlooked as a major component in making sound decisions that affect your future.experience comes from living – and life is a journey.”

Joan Retsinas, 67, Providence, a writer. “Savor, savor, savor. Savor the sunshine, and the rain. Savor your friends, your family, your colleagues. Nurture the people close to you. Be a friend. Fall in love. If you fall out of love, fall in again. Read “Winnie the Pooh” to a child. Eat ice cream. Ride a bike. Swim in the ocean. Laugh. As for fame, fortune, and success, don’t fret. They don’t really matter.”

Rick Wahlberg, 61, Senior Project Manager, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. Be Useful, there is no feeling like making the world a better place. Be Aware, strike a balance between career, family, friends, and community. Be Grateful for what you have, don’t be jealous of what you don’t have, and share.

Wendy Jencks, 61, Cumberland, Visitor Center Manager, Blackstone Valley Visitor Center. “There may be a time in young people’s lives when they are nervous to take a risk, don’t be afraid to take a chance. If an opportunity/life experience arises and you want it, take it even if it is unconventional. You may not get another opportunity again. Also, a person’s first job is not the end all be all. Your dream job may actually be something you did not study. People confine themselves to their own walls.”

Larry Sullivan, 49, Pawtucket, Director, Net Compliance Solution’s technical & consulting services. “Recognize opportunity. If you can’t identify opportunities, then they are very likely to sneak past you unnoticed. Most people’s search criteria is so narrow in focus that it can essentially blind them to opportunities available right in front of their face. It’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” scenario. Also, see yourself as a valuable asset. Your self-image will make a huge difference in the type of opportunities you attract to yourself. If you see yourself as a valuable asset, and you present yourself as such, others will see you that way as well.”

Denise Panichas, 50, Woonsocket, Executive Director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island. “Respect cannot be given when asked for, it has to be earned.” This is something you learn later in life. How do you earn respect from those around you? By being true to yourself – your values, beliefs and most importantly to your commitments to family, friends and the community.”

Ken McGill, 51, Pawtucket, Register of Voters, City of Pawtucket. “Find time to give back to your community. In the years to come you will be looking for a good job, getting married, having children and getting on with life. Never forget those in need in your community. Mentoring children, giving time to a soup kitchen, volunteering to help civic groups in your city or town or just helping a neighbor will give you more reward than any salary or position in the corporate world.“

Gail Solomon, 59, Pawtucket, Gail Solomon, Inc., a graphic design company. “You’re not the most unqualified or least knowledgeable person in the room. Everyone else thinks they are. And anyway it’s much more elegant to ask questions than to behave like you know all the answers. Because nobody does. Ever.”

Susan Sweet, 72, Rumford, former state administrator, non- profit lobbyist and advocate. “In the short space that we are in the world, we must create meaning in our lives by contributing to the happiness and well-being of other people and other sentient beings. To do good and useful work, caring and acting for the betterment of others is the true goal of life.”

Bob Billington, President of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council who received his Doctorate in Education from Johnson & Wales University in 2005, says that “Star Power Sells” when seeking out a commencement speaker. “We have regular people walking amongst us who do very extraordinary things everyday but they may never get a chance to give a commencement speech at a college or university,” he notes.

If so, I say that it’s a shame.

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

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AARP Report Says Older Americans Value Livable Communities

Published n Pawtucket Times, May 16, 2014

If they had their druthers, the vast majority of people age 50 and older plan to remain living independently right at home in their communities “aging in place”, concludes a new report released last month by the AARP Public Policy Institute. The 43 page report which surveyed boomers and seniors found that both value secure neighborhoods, safety, good schools, safe streets for walking, access to transportation, parks and affordable housing as community amenities. With these resources in place, communities enhance personal independence and foster resident engagement in civic, economic and social life, qualities that AARP has traditionally used to describe the livability of a community.

“What older Americans and Millennials want in terms of their community is not all that different.” said AARP Executive Vice President for Policy, Debra Whitman. “What is livable differs for each of us, whether we want a warm climate or a dense city, for example,” she said. “But this report tells us that the fundamental elements of a community that will please America’s aging population will equally serve future generations [as well].”

Maintaining Independence in the Community

The new report, “What is Livable? Community Preferences of Older Adults,” unveiled April 25, 2014, is based on focus groups and a survey of more than 4,500 participants. These findings reaffirm the historic trend that most people ages 50 and older want to age in place. Adults ages 65 and older are even more likely (87 percent) to say they want to age in their current home or community than those ages 50 to 64 (71 percent).

A small portion of adults age 50 and older – about one in six – say they plan to move in the next three years. This thought is more common for members of minority groups, those with low-incomes, those who don’t drive, or those living in metropolitan areas, notes the report.

According to the AARP report, many factors play into the hierarchy of a person’s community preferences. Specifically, household income influences the importance of local government spending priorities on local schools, transportation, personal safety, and proximity to various amenities. Race and ethnicity also play a role as do health and one’s life stage. African-American and Latino respondents ranked affordable housing more highly than respondents in general, for example, while caregivers and people with disabilities rate the availability of specialized transportation more highly than those who are not in those categories.

Participants were also asked, “What community amenities do you want close to home?” Access to public transportation, food and green space topped the list, the researchers say.

Effectively Planning for Livable Communities

Jeff C. Davis, Principal Planner at the Rhode Island Division of Planning, notes that AARP’s report mirrors his state agency’s views as what is a livable community. State planners’ strategy is to identify and promote areas where Rhode Island should grow – places in the state that already have a core of residential and commercial development or are well suited to planned, future development; they are the places that will accommodate and nurture Rhode Island’s future growth while protecting its natural and cultural resources.

According to Davis, livable communities can be found in downtown places like Providence, Westerly, Newport and Warren and in villages like Wickford, Harrisville, Wakefield and Pawtuxet. “These places offer a mix of homes, shops, community services, jobs, and public open space, connected not just by roads, but bus routes, bike paths, and in some cases trains,” states Davis, stressing that the Ocean State is also “very fortunate that a lot of these places have beautiful architecture and access to water, whether rivers, ponds, or the ocean.”

Davis believes that zoning ordinances through the state make it difficult to recreate livable places, or to enhance existing centers with sensitive development. “Many of our older urban communities have the bones of a livable, walk able place, but need targeted reinvestment to come alive again with a mix of uses and housing,” he says.

“The state and our cities and towns need to continue to work together to make sure local zoning allows and encourages center development, finds ways to prioritize funding and other supports for these areas, and makes sure that we are planning physically and financially for inclusive and accessible places,” adds Davis.

Davis is seeking public input to make Rhode Island’s communities more livable. “We are currently working on a planning campaign called RhodeMap RI, and need feedback on ideas for growing Rhode Island’s economy and providing for healthy homes and great communities.”

“It’s All in Our Backyard”

“The one surprise in the AARP report is that health care was not a major concern,” says President and CEO Neil Steinberg, of the Rhode Island Foundation, the state’s largest and most comprehensive funder of nonprofit organizations. “We hear about it all the time. In fact, access to quality, affordable health care is one of our strategic priorities,” he says.

“Almost everyone probably can agree on what makes a livable community. They have vibrant arts and culture, concern for children and families, economic opportunity for all, a great educational system, a sound environment, quality health care, housing that doesn’t break the bank and programs that meet basic human needs,” states Steinberg..

“The fact that we do have livable communities is what keeps Rhode Islanders here generation after generation,” says Steinberg, noting that the state’s small size gives its residents a “statewide feeling of connectedness.”

“This sense of belonging may be the most important factor in defining a livable community,” adds Steinberg.

The Rhode Island Foundation which awarded more than $ 31 million in grants last year to help nonprofits tackle critical issues in the state, has implemented a very visible public awareness campaign that reminds people that the Ocean State is a special, very livable place, notes Steinberg. “It’s All in Our Backyard” is about pride of place. It is an effort to help Rhode Islanders connect with our state’s rich resources, he says.

“There are plenty of success stories right here,” Steinberg says, noting that Rhode Island has “global industry and cutting-edge innovation, thriving entrepreneurship and world-class universities, breathtaking landscapes and a major arts scene.”

Steinberg urges, “Let’s celebrate Rhode Island as the vibrant, stimulating place where we work and live.”

It’s a Mixed Bag

AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen S. Connell observes that neighborhoods widely differ in the state’s 39 towns and cities, and within larger cities. “That said, a fair assessment would be that there are examples of great strides toward more livable communities as well as places in Rhode Island that are in a state of neglect.”

“The good news is that where improvements are being made today the process is much different when it was a decade ago as far as taking into consideration the interests of a broader range of stakeholders,” Connell adds.

Connell says that “many of the state’s older neighborhoods qualify as “livable” insofar as they are blessed with open space, sidewalks, are near parks and bike paths and feature transportation infrastructure that is designed with consideration for all types of users and people of all abilities.” Many planners and members of zoning boards understand the concept of livable communities and work hard to maintain and expand livable features,” she notes.

“But as the AARP survey revealed, livable also [also] means good schools, responsive local government, safety, convenient public transportation and affordable housing,” adds Connell, noting that there are still “parts of the state where these things have yet to come together that can be improved and communities made more livable.”

Connell warns that making a community livable should not be just to benefit the older population. “It’s really about people of all ages who want to live comfortable, healthy and environmentally responsible lives,” she says, detailing examples that include more public, park-like space in a retail/business district. These are assets for Rhode Islanders of all ages.

“A greener environment can enhance the business climate and local economy and works for all citizens on that level, too,” states Connell. Bike paths benefit all age groups and curb cuts benefit young moms with baby strollers as much as they are helpful to folks who get around with the aide of walkers,” she says.

The AARP study’s findings show that both young and old gravitate to livable communities. These localities allow persons to be more active, stay fit, even connected, allowing aging boomers and seniors to live independently at home. Rhode Islander’s might just think about The Rhode Island Foundation’s message, “It’s All in Our Backyard.” While we have a little ways to go to be a completely livable state, we’re closer to that goal than some naysayers believe.
The full report “What is Livable? Community Preferences of Older Adults” can be found at http://www.aarp.org/research/ppi/liv-com2/policy/Other/articles/what-is-livable-AARP-ppi-liv-com.

For more information about the Rhode Island Foundation’s “It’s All in Our Backyard,” go to http://www.ourbackyardri.com.

For details about RhodeMap RI, and to take the State’s surveys on housing and economic development, go to http://www.rhodemapri.org/rhodemap-virtual-open-house.

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

TV Celeb Valerie Harper Calls for More Funding for Cancer Research

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 12, 2014

With a growing population of aging baby-boomers, the U.S. Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on Wednesday to put the spotlight on how decreased federal funding to support cancer research is derailing the nation’s successful efforts on its fight against cancer and to detail treatment advances. .

In Dirksen Building 562, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-Florida) addressed the packed room on how innovative cancer research has tripled the number of survivors during the last 40 years, while continued federal cuts to balance the nation’s budget are having a severe impact on biomedical research.

But, despite significant advances in medical treatments over the years, cancer still is a major medical condition for the national to confront. About 1.6 million Americans—the majority of them over age 55—will receive a cancer diagnosis this year, and more than 585,000 will die from the disease.

Putting Cancer Research on the Public Agenda

In his opening statement, Nelson stated that “As a result of the sequestered cuts, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had to stop 700 research grants from going out the door.” Federal funding support has “accelerated the pace of new discoveries and the development of better ways to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat cancer in all age groups,” he says.

Cancer research has been put on the radar screen of the Senate Aging panel because “little is known about the impact of cancer treatments on the body as it ages,” added Nelson.

Nelson notes that although many cancer survivors are in remission because of ground breaking advances in research, there still remains a large percentage of people with cancer across the nation who are still dependent on their next clinical trial, or even the next NIH research grant to keep them alive just a little bit longer. This is why Congress must be committed in its war against cancer, he adds, noting that the best place to start is to renew the federal government’s role and commitment to innovative research that is taking place at universities, oncology centers and hospitals, where much of the federal funds are being directed by NIH.

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, said more research is needed to fully understand how cancer is linked to aging. “Because most types of cancer-but not all-are commonly diagnosed in older age groups, the number of people with cancer is rising [with the world’s population rapidly aging], and continue to rise, here and globally.”.

“For people of any age, the first line of defense against cancers and their damaging consequences is prevention,” states Varmus.

Dr. Thomas Sellers, director of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, made his views quite clear about the federal government’s “irreplaceable role” in funding medical research. “No other public, corporate, or charitable entity is willing or able to provide the broad and sustained funding for the cutting edge research necessary to yield new innovations and technologies for cancer care of the future,” he says.

Sellers warns, “Without increased funding now, the spectacular advancements we have witnessed in the past will not be there in the future.”

Star Power to Make a Point

One of the nation’s most prominent lung cancer survivors, Valerie Harper, who rose to fame on the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda,” “Valerie,” and more recently on “Dancing with the Starts, advocated at the May 7 Senate panel for increased funding for cancer research. Harper, detailed her own battle with cancer, reminiscing about her initial diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, later finding out last year that her cancer had spread to the lining of her brain.

Through the eyes of an entertainer Harper explained her fight with cancer. “Cancer reminds me of a very bad but tenacious performer, who although no one wants to see, insists on doing an encore, having a return engagement, making a comeback and worst of all, going on tour,” she said.

According to Harper, more than two-thirds of all lung cancers occur among former smokers or those who never smoked, the majority being former smokers.  Second hand smoke, air pollution and radon, a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas, can cause lung cancer. But, one’s genes can play a role in developing lung cancer, too, she says.

Seventy four-year old, Harper, a cancer survivor of four years, admitted she never smoked, but was exposed to secondhand smoke for decades. As to family, her mother developed lung cancer and later died from it. The actress believes that her lung cancer might be traced to two risk factors, second-hand smoke and genetics.

In her opening testimony, Harper claimed that 75 percent of all lung cancers are often times discovered too late, in the later stages when the disease has already spread. The vocal cancer advocate called for Congress to put more funding into finding better ways for early detection of the disease.

Harper notes that research can also identify new treatment options for lung cancer when it is detected in stages 3 and 4 and finding promising ways to personalize chemotherapy, by testing genetic markers, making the treatment less toxic and more effective against specific tumors.

Others on the Witness List

In 2012, Chip Kennett, 32, a former Senate staffer, remembers passing his annual physical “with flying colors.” Weeks later, a nagging, blurry spot in his right eye would lead to a PET scan that showed he had cancer “everywhere.”

Looking back, he expressed to the Senate panel the shock of being diagnosed with having cancer. “There are really no words to describe what it feels like to be told you have an incurable disease that will kill you,” he said.

Now 18 months post-diagnosis, Kenett, who is now living with an as-yet incurable form of State IV lung cancer, is now in his fourth targeted treatment, the clinical trials have allowed the young man to lead a relatively normal and productive life. “Research saves lives and I am a living example of that. The drugs that have kept me alive for the past 18 months were not available just seven years ago,” he says.

Other witnesses at the hearing included Mary Dempsey, assistant director and cofounder of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing in Lewiston, Maine, who shared her experience of taking care of her mother, Amanda with her Brother, nationally renowned actor Patrick Dempsey seen on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Over 17 years since the mother’s initial diagnoses in 1997, she had a total of twelve recurrences and just recently died in March.

“My mom lived this experience, and I shared it with her as her primary caregiver,” notes Dempsey said. “In this role, I experienced first-hand the impact cancer had on every part of my life. For me, it really became a full-time job, navigating resources, understanding the medical world, and coping with the profound changes in our lives.”

A Call for Increased Cancer Funding

Hopefully the Senate Aging Panel’s efforts to put medical research on the short list of the nation’s policy agenda will get the attention of GOP lawmakers who over the years have attempted to balance the nation’s budget by slashing NIH funding.

Cancer touches every family. Everyone knows of a family member, colleague or friend who has died from cancer or is a cancer survivor. Americans must send a strong message to their Congressional lawmakers, “no more cuts to medical research.” If the nation is truly at war with cancer, it is shameful to not give the nation’s medical researchers the adequate funding necessary to defeat it once and for all.

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