The Hummel Report: A Quarterly Update

Editor’s note: Jim Hummel has a quarterly update with new information on a handful of his investigations.

Update ApponaugInto The Homestretch — The Rhode Island Department of Transportation is putting the finishing touches on the much-anticipated and often-maligned Apponaug Circulator Project. The official completion date is Nov 30, when state officials hope the project, as envisioned years ago, will come to fruition and make traffic smoother.

Our investigation last spring showed there were more than 100 accidents at the five intersections in the six months since initial sections of the project were opened — four at the time with rotaries — primarily fender-benders caused by people confused about how to negotiate the traffic circles and who yields to whom.

The summer brought more headaches than relief as traffic was often backed up while crews continued to work. Viewers sent us pictures of the accidents, the plethora of orange barrels and ponding after heavy rains.

The DOT tells The Hummel Report the project is on time and on budget — the revised budget of $71 million, not the $30 million project initially presented to the taxpayers.

Update asphaltUp and Running — We first told you four years ago about a controversial asphalt plant right in the middle of Coventry and the owner’s pledge at the time to move out of that location. Last winter that pledge turned into a reality, and last month we went to see how he was doing at his new location at Quonset.

Owner Tom Miozzi directed the move himself, part of it during the early stages of a snowstorm last winter. He moved his plant, piece by piece, 12 miles down the back roads to its new home: a parcel double the size in Quonset, where there are no residential neighbors as there were in Coventry.

Miozzi tells us he is doing 11% more business than he did this time last year and expects to produce more than 140 tons of asphalt by the end of the season later this year, a record for his company.

Because there are no time restrictions on hours of operations, he says his trucks have been able to leave at 5am rather than 7am, opening up new business opportunities in neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Update bike pathOn The Beaten Path — Last year we reported on a plan aimed at making it easier to get to the Seekonk River on the East Side of Providence. Part of those plans included a bike path. And in August, they completed it.

It is officially called Segment 1A of the Blackstone Valley Bikeway, but the locals will likely call it the Gano Street section of a path that will eventually stretch north to the Massachusetts state line Woonsocket and south to Bristol. The ¾-mile path starts at the base of the Gano Street exit off Route 195 and runs along the Seekonk River to Pitman Street, with the easiest access at the Trenton Street boat ramp. The $2.5 million project was 100% federally funded. The DOT completed the project in 12 months, on time and on budget.

Update AmtrakNot In Our Backyard — Opponents of a proposed Amtrak rail line that would run through some prime sections of Charlestown got good news in July when the feds announced they had a change of heart and were not going to build the bypass after all.

The proposed bypass was part of a long-range plan by Amtrak to try and shorten the train route that runs The Northeast Corridor from Washington, DC to Boston. The proposal called for a jog north of Old Saybrook and East Lyme that eventually would chew through farm and conservation land like this in Charlestown.

Local leaders in both Connecticut and Rhode Island mounted strong opposition, arguing that the bypass wouldn’t save any time. The Federal Rail Administration made no comment, simply releasing a revised plan in July without the proposed bypass included.

Update signA Big Scoop — Finally, if you’re a customer of the Narragansett Bay Commission, you already have seen your rates triple over the past decade. Now the commission is facing a $5 million grab out of its reserve fund by the General Assembly, trying to plug its own hole in the budget.

Facing a more than $100 million budget deficit, the General Assembly last spring raided the reserve funds of several quasi-public agencies like the Narragansett Bay Commission. Ratepayers have gotten sticker shock as they’ve footed the bill for millions of dollars of improvements to the water quality of the bay, resulting in the cleanest water in more than a century.

A Commission spokeswoman tells us the NBC will likely use some restricted funds and does not anticipate having to raise rates to cover the $5 million legislative scoop. But it first needs permission from the state Public Utilities Commission to transfer the funds.

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation, go to HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org

Hummel Report: New Rotary at CCRI

CCRI long shotAnyone who has visited CCRI’s Warwick campus in the morning knows the drill: A line of cars backed up on the long road in from East Avenue, and controlled chaos as hundreds of people arrive in a short period of time.

But students, faculty and staff arriving for the first day of classes this year not only got a big welcome on the sign leading into campus, but also a new traffic pattern that is making a comeback in some parts of Rhode Island: The roundabout, or rotary, which the administration hopes will reduce some of the confusion and congestion that has plagued the campus in years past. The rotary is designed to both slow down and keep the traffic moving.

“We had a lot of cars going in a lot of different directions, and a lot of people trying to get into the building, without a tremendous amount of direction,” said college spokesman Patrick Stone. The rotary and associated improvements cost $1.8 million and include landscaping, a modified speed bump and better signage for a crosswalk from the faculty parking lot. They are part of a five-year plan to give the aging campus a face-lift.

CCRI rotaryIt’s the rotary — and particularly the speed bump — that has drawn the most reaction. And it has been a mixed reaction from the students, faculty and staff we spoke with over the first week of school.

“I’ve been here before; the traffic pattern sucks,” said student Malcom DePina of Providence. “I blame the roundabout. I think the roundabout hurts because it’s slower to get in.”

Jean-Luc Gonzalez agreed: “It’s mainly because the roundabout’s so slow because no one knows how to yield at times. That entire line that goes back onto that little intersection is always backed up and it’s a pain.”

Others, though, thought it was an improvement. “I think I kind of like it; it’s easier for passengers to move around,” said Ibraheim Shode.

One the of the biggest changes is a closure of the road that goes under the main building. It is now totally blocked off to motor vehicles, with handicapped parking accessible in the back, forcing drivers to go around the building to get there.

“I think speed, and again, public safety is the heart of this entire project, really slowing everything down a little bit,” said Stone, the college spokesman.  “We had a lot of fast cars and people running into the college, and kids trying to scramble to get to their classes and everybody was go, go, go.”

CCRI crosswalkSeveral faculty members approached us complaining privately about the new traffic pattern. Students, though, had no problem talking publicly about a speed bump they say is both higher and longer than it was last year.

Stone countered: “I think the reasoning for that speed bump, primarily, is that’s a really high traffic [area] for pedestrians. That’s where our faculty and staff walk in — a lot of the people coming off the bus will walk over that way to go up that second-floor ramp. We really wanted to make sure that was as slow as possible.”

Others told us the lines were so long because the rotary slowed the traffic down, then motorists faced another slow-down with the speed bump, defeating the purpose of the rotary: to keep things moving slowly, but steadily.

In addition to the rotary, the college renovated the Great Hall inside and has plans to replace the long, main pedestrian ramp leading up from the parking lot, an original structure that is clearly showing its age.

Just as there has been a steep learning curve with the state’s Apponaug Circulator project not too far from CCRI, the college says it may take a little while for those arriving here to get used to the new pattern.

On the Friday before classes began, CCRI sent out a mass email, outlining the new traffic pattern and preaching patience during the transition period. Student Nick Wainwright agrees there will be a learning curve. “It’s kind of confusing; I ran into a couple of problems this morning. People don’t know how to yield. Classic Rhode Island.”

Stone is preaching patience: “I think there’s people who are going into this and they’ve never seen a rotary, there’s not that many in Rhode Island. It’s becoming a more popular aspect, I think, of traffic engineering to bring it back, especially in these areas where it wasn’t necessarily the safest it could have been before, when you have a lot of fast traffic. So I’m sure it is new to people and like I said, that first day even to now people are getting used to it.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org

Rhode Island Spotlight: Westerly Library

Westerly Wilcox ParkOn one of the prettiest afternoons of the summer, more than a dozen children gathered under a sprawling magnolia tree for a program called Art in the Park. The setting: Wilcox Park in the heart of downtown Westerly, a 15-acre oasis that hosted dozens of programs and community events over the course of the summer.

At the southern edge of the park is Westerly Library, founded in 1892. Together, the library and the park have been a focal point — and a resource — for Westerly and surrounding communities forWesterly stacks view more than a century. What many don’t know is that the two entities are privately held: Only 25% of the operating budget comes from the town of Westerly and neighboring Stonington, Connecticut. The rest comes from an endowment, grants and donations.

“Most libraries are municipal libraries, some have private portions to them, so they may have associations attached,” said the library’s executive director, Brigitte Hopkins. “But they’re not completely private, so we’re fairly unique in Rhode Island.”

It began in the late 1800s when Stephen Wilcox, a local business owner and inventor, stepped in to provide seed money for a local library. His contribution, matched with community donations, was a precursor of what was to come over the next 125 years. What you see today — in the library and throughout the park — is the result of that generosity. The main building has undergone a series of additions and renovations that creates unique spaces inside, from reading areas and a computer room to an art gallery with rotating exhibits upstairs and a teen room that was formerly a book storage area — plus a third-floor terrace room with an outside deck. Over the past century, the building has grown to more than 50,000 square feet.

The number of programs and events in the library and park has increased significantly since Hopkins took over as director three and a half years ago. We saw numerous children’s programs, a weekend folk festival in July and preparations for a Shakespeare in the Park series in August.

“It’s great that we can provide a venue, or host programs, because we have this space so we can connect these programs or events and our community members,” Hopkins said.

Everywhere you look, there is history, including a century-old gazebo-like bandstand that just underwent a major renovation and hosts scores of weddings every year. Across the way is the park cottage, also a century old, where caretakers used to live, with a prime view of a pond and fountain.

Westerly LibraryBack at the library, visitors who come in the front door will see a calendar of events to the left, changing from week to week, and a huge plaque to the right with a list of donors that is a testament to the community’s support.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have people in our community and region who donate to the library,” Algiere said. “It is a private library and the park is private, open to the public, it’s a unique situation. And we’re very fortunate to have people in the community who recognize that and donate their time and their money.”

We asked Hopkins what makes Westerly different from other places she’s worked.

“The community,” she said, without hesitation. “I think it’s the community; the staff (is) great, but the community, I think, really feeds our dedication and our enthusiasm about working here. There’s such pride the community holds for the institution, and you can feel it walking in. And, I think, because the community supports us we’re excited to be here.”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org

The Hummel Report: Do We Need an Inspector General?

IG pic State HouseFiguring out a way to close an annual budget deficit has become a familiar challenge at the Rhode Island State House. This year’s $9.2 billion budget — a 30% increase over what the state was spending just a decade ago — relies on the governor coming up with $25 million of yet-to-be specified cuts and the legislature scooping millions of dollars in reserves from agencies like The Narragansett Bay Commission.

But what if there was more money available without having to raise taxes or fees or use other financial gimmicks? Ray Berberick of Portsmouth has a suggestion: Create an office of the inspector general.

It’s a pitch that he gave to Governor Lincoln Chafee five years ago when Berberick and others were fighting a proposal to toll vehicles on the Sakonnet River Bridge. Politicians, trying to close yet another budget gap, asked the opponents: In lieu of tolls, where would you find the money? “[An inspector general] will find scores of millions of dollars in funds that are spent incorrectly,” said Berberick, a retired lieutenant colonel who served  for two years as an inspector general when he was stationed with the US Army at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, in the mid-1990s. He was trained before taking over the position.

IG pic Berberick SH“During the training I thought, ‘My God, if only half the people in the world knew the concepts of what the inspector general can bring to the table to make things more efficient and effective.’ Then there would be a lot less, not fraud waste and abuse from criminal intent, but just streamlined procedures [that would] save everybody time,” Berberick said.

Berberick and other proponents envision an inspector general, whose duties lie somewhere between the state’s auditor general and the Rhode Island attorney general, with a focused mission of looking for waste, fraud and abuse. And if the IG comes across potential criminal activity, he or she would immediately refer it to the attorney general.

Massachusetts was the first in the country to create the position 35 years ago and is one of 12 US states to have an IG. And Florida has taken it one step further, as 26 agencies have individual inspectors general across the spectrum of state government.

In Rhode Island, an inspector general bill has been filed each session for nearly two decades, including two on the House side and two on the Senate side in 2017. But they’ve gone nowhere. Berberick testified in May before the House Finance Committee along with the lead sponsor of one of the bills, Rep. Robert Lancia, a Cranston Republican, who points to the savings right next door. “Ultimately, the pros outweigh the cons,” Lancia said. “I think we’ve seen Massachusetts and other states, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been saved.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello told us he is still studying the issue. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was non-committal, and Governor Raimondo said she is, “open to examining this concept more closely.”

IG pic 2-shotBerberick said a Rhode Island inspector general could start with something as simple as looking at the state fleet of cars, as he did when he was in Oklahoma. “We found out there were a lot of extra military vehicles that were being licensed and insured, but not used. And we saved the post a couple of hundred thousand dollars.”

Berberick is already looking to the 2018 session. He created a website, Facebook page and Twitter account. And he’s determined to convince those in leadership this could help them in the long run. “It will help protect the governor, it will help protect the five elected senior officers of the state. Give it a shot for five or 10 or 15 years. If it doesn’t work, can it? And I think everybody would be pleasantly surprised. And the leadership that has the courage to put this in place will be heroes.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation, go to www.HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.

The Hummel Report: Mid-Year Update

Editor’s note: Jim Hummel has a mid-year update with new information on a handful of his investigations.

update pond picOffice with a View: Plans to build a $7.2 million state-owned ‘natural resources and visitors center’ in Exeter have ground to a halt. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s plans ran into a buzz saw of local opposition from residents and others who use Browning Mill Pond in the Arcadia Management Area.

Many felt the 13,000-square-foot facility was inappropriate for the location — so close to the pond and poorly advertised by state officials. Work on the center, which was supposed to have begun already, has been delayed because of several setbacks. They include a lawsuit filed by the local towns insisting that the state has to get clearance from local planning and zoning boards for the project, which it didn’t do.

More problematic, though, is a sudden lack of funding. The General Assembly last month pulled back millions of dollars budgeted for this year, the first year of construction. DEM is also conducting traffic and archeological studies, but a spokeswoman declined to tell The Hummel Report if — or when — the project was going forward.

update ferry picA Big Hit: Last summer’s popular Providence-to-Newport ferry is back with a longer season. But it got off to a bumpy start — literally — right after it launched earlier last month. More than 33,000 people took advantage of the taxpayer-subsidized service last summer, which featured $10 one-way adult tickets from India Point Park in Providence to downtown Newport.

The lower prices are made possible by a half million dollar federal grant, aimed at relieving traffic congestion. Last fall, DOT Director Peter Alviti said he’d like to see the service expanded and this year the state followed through, beginning the service in mid-June and running it through October 1 — 41 days longer than last year. But a day after launching on June 16, the ferry collided with a buoy in the Providence River when trying to avoid a sudden change in direction of another boat near it — and that forced the suspension of the service for 10 days.

All Aboard?: Wickford Junction has never lived up to the state’s commuter rail ridership projections and is costing taxpayers millions of dollars in maintenance and lost revenue. The DOT, which charged $4 a day for parking when the $44 million complex opened in 2012, abandoned that fee years ago. Even still, only a couple of hundred people use the 1,110-car white elephant garage adjacent to the MBTA commuter train stop on any given day.

Beginning July 3, the state began offering free fares for riders travelling to Warwick or Providence. The free fares promotion runs until the end of the year.

update iway picTaking the Hit: The contractor that installed defective guardrails on the IWay bridge in Providence has agreed to pay back half a million dollars, but still insists the state is partially at fault. For years Jersey barriers covered the defective guardrails on the Route 195 relocation project’s signature bridge while the DOT and Cardi Corporation, which installed them nearly a decade ago, wrangled over who was responsible.

Cardi is paying $500,000 to settle claims with the federal government, which paid for the vast majority of the Iway project, according to The Providence Journal. The company still points the finger at the state DOT, saying that its inspectors signed off on the guardrail installation. It is not ruling out making a legal claim against the state.

Clean Enough?: State officials have now acknowledged what we reported in April: Narragansett Bay hasn’t been this clean in more than a century and a half. And that means good news for Rhode Island’s shell fishermen. The Department of Environment Management in May reopened large portions of Upper Narragansett Bay to shell fishing, some of which had not been opened for more than 70 years. A total of more the 3,700 acres has been reopened, officially acknowledging what scientists and users of Rhode Island’s waters have known for years: The bay is in significantly better shape than it was even five years ago.

update GA picThe Cost of Doing Business: In June we reported several areas the General Assembly might consider trimming from its own budget as leaders tried to bridge a $134 million budget gap. The House did, in fact, look in the mirror when it was searching for cuts by announcing two weeks later that it will reduce its own proposed spending by $2 million next year. That still leaves it with more than $40 million to run a part-time legislature that has dozens of people receiving full-time benefits for only working 20 hours a week. A spokesmen tells us it is still unclear what specifically will be cut from next year’s General Assembly budget.

The Hummel Report is already gearing up for second half of 2017. If you have tips or story suggestions send it directly to Jim@HummelReport.org

RI Spotlight: Nowell Academy

On a Friday afternoon, at the end of the school day, Gioconda Ruiz and Krissia Barraza head out the back door, ready to start their weekend. Before heading home, though, they have a stop to make. The two walk 50 feet into an adjacent building and down the hall – where Gioconda’s six month-old daughter is taking a nap and Krissia’s nine month-old son is getting one last diaper change.

Nowell babiesThe young women are two of the 80 high school students who attend the Nowell Leadership Academy just off Manton Avenue in Providence. Another 80 go to Nowell’s Central Falls near the Pawtucket line. Nowell is a public charter school, founded by the YWCA of Rhode Island in 2013, with a primary mission of helping pregnant and parenting students to graduate from high school. And others who may have washed out at another school.

Nowell science“A lot of our students have been, on average, to two or three other high schools in the state of Rhode Island; so Nowell is very unique in that we really try to hold onto to these kids,” says Rosemary Miner, a science teacher at the Central Falls campus. A graduate of the Brown University Medical School who became a flight surgeon in the Army, Rosemary was looking to get back into the work force after spending 22 years raising three children of her own. She said Nowell appealed to her because she gets to teach – and affect two generations at the same time. “Nowell is a challenge, Nowell is unique, but in many ways Nowell is like any place trying to give young people the very best education and the best opportunities to go forward.”

Johanny Toribio knows. She was having a child at age 19 just as Nowell was opening four years ago. “It’s complicated and it’s hard when you’re a parent at a young age and you’re on your own.”

Nowell SlaigerThe school has four teachers at each site – in English, History, Math and Science. The curriculum is flexible, allowing students to work, if they need to, while going to school. It runs year-round and on Saturdays. And the staff works to arrange childcare and transportation – two major obstacles for many of the young parents.

“We have tried lots of different things. We have tried to remain really flexible so that we are meeting the students where they need us to,” said Rebecca Filomena-Nason, Nowell’s dean of students. A teenage mom herself growing up in Pawtucket, she eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in school counseling.

And it’s not just teen parents. Some students have had problems at other high schools, or may have dropped out when they became a parent and were too old to go back. Nowell enrolls students 15 to 20 years old: 80% of the student body is female, about 50% pregnant or parenting. There is a lottery for those on the waiting list.

Nowell classroomWe found that many of the students never before dreamed of going to college, but have been encouraged by the faculty not to stop at a high school diploma. And some we spoke with are hoping to go on to CCRI when they graduate from Nowell.

“I feel like a lot of people come here not wanting to go to college and leave actually wanting to go to college,” said Alicia Burt. “Because that was me. I didn’t think I’d ever want to go to college.”

Rosemary Miner says she is amazed seeing how much the students have to juggle on a daily basis. “Having to worry about getting to class but even before that, getting your child up, getting your child to daycare, feeding your child: I think it’s a huge challenge for these young kids. But it’s also grounding in that they know what they’re working for.”

Miner continued, “They’re not only working for themselves, they’re working to give their child a future, a brighter future, the brightest future that they can, and everyone has great obstacles to overcome. But I show up in the morning and they show up in the morning, and we know we share this goal of getting this done, of learning this material, of getting these kids through graduation, of realizing their goals and dreams – and that common goal really propels us through the day, come what may.”

If you want to see the video version of this story, go to www.RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org.

Hummel Report: Politics in Town Manager Choice

North Kingstown Town Council meeting
North Kingstown Town Council meeting

Immediately after North Kingstown’s new town council took over in early December it had an important – and pressing – decision to make: Whom to hire as town manager? Tom Mulligan, the former police chief appointed nine months earlier as manager, had announced he’d be leaving in February.

Ralph Mollis, North Kingstown town manager
Ralph Mollis, North Kingstown town manager

Eight weeks to the day after being sworn in, the council voted to hire Ralph Mollis, a former North Providence mayor and councilman who also served two terms as Rhode Island Secretary of State. It was a 3-2 vote.

Will King grew up in North Kingstown and was on a citizens advisory committee assembled to help in the selection process. King said the committee unanimously advised the council to choose another candidate and that Mollis was not anyone’s top choice among the three finalists.

“My comment about Mr. Mollis was he’s an excellent candidate for a different job, but not the town manager,’’ King said. “His answer always was ‘I will do it the way I did in North Providence,’ ‘I knew this guy,’ and essentially pulled strings.’’

Richard Welch, North Kingstown Town Council president
Richard Welch, North Kingstown Town Council president

Town Council President Richard Welch has heard the criticism but maintains that Mollis was, in fact, the best candidate. Welch, a Democrat, along with Independents Ellen Waxman and Kevin Maloney, voted for Mollis after meeting with the citizens committee. Republicans Kerry McKay and Doreen Costa voted against.

The roots of the search began more than a year ago when longtime manager Mike Embury left in October of 2015 to take a job on the Cape. King was one of a dozen people who volunteered to be on the citizens committee. Their recommendation to the council at the time would be simply that – a recommendation.

After initially narrowing the search to seven candidates, the committee recommended – and the council made an offer to – a candidate from Pennsylvania, who accepted, then pulled out in March of 2016, weeks after accepting the offer.

“My suspicion is somebody called him and poisoned that well because he declined stating that there’s too much political turmoil in town over this town manager issue,’’ King said. Mollis and two other candidates were finalists a year ago. Mulligan remained in place as manager.

Fast-forward to December of 2016 when King was out of state on a ski trip right after the new council had been sworn in. They were reassembling the search committee on short notice. The committee met with the council in closed session and each member gave their recommendation. The top choice this time was a woman who lived in North Kingstown. None recommended Mollis.

Welch said he’s heard people question the speed of the council’s decision and Mollis’s North Providence roots. “’Why are you moving so fast?’ Well, I knew why we were moving fast,’’ Welch said. “We had a budget coming in. We needed to get somebody in house and get the process going because May 1st we have to have a budget certified. [People say,] ‘You know we don’t want North Providence in North Kingstown. We don’t want to see all of a sudden new people brought in who come from North Providence.’ Excuse me? I want the best of available people working here.’’

King said he takes issue with the process. “The concern I have is there were eight people that poured their heart into this thing and did a really good job of making a selection – and it was unanimous, and there were Democrats and Republicans and Independents in that eight-person group, and it was a unanimous choice. I would think that should be difficult to disregard.’’

Welch said he believes Mollis’s background is a positive and not a negative – and that he’s gotten off to a great start. “One thing the citizens don’t have a grasp of is the things that need to be done by the town.’’ he said. “We need to have very good reach upstate. And by that I mean, somebody who can pick up the phone and get someone on the other end to answer the call because they know the person and they will deal with them. When I call they don’t know me from Adam, but when Ralph calls, as a former state office holder I expect someone is going to pick up the phone and say hello to Ralph.’’

Welch notes that Mollis works at the pleasure of the council, and reminded the new manager that all five members are up for election in an at-large race every two years. “In two years the people will get another shot at you and me,’’ he recalled telling Mollis. “I said we got two years to show this town that the right choice was made when they elected me and when we put you as town manager.’’

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to www.HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.

RI Spotlight: “Go Red” for women’s heart health

Go Red balloons
Go Red for Women luncheon

It was all shades of red as far as the eye could see across the 5th floor ballroom of the Rhode Island Convention Center in February, as women – and men – gathered for this year’s Go Red for Women luncheon.

You probably have heard about Go Red for Women, which the American Heart Association launched nationally in 2004 to focus on women’s heart health issues. But here’s what you might not know:

Melissa Cummings

“Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in women and 80 percent of heart disease is preventable,’’ said Melissa Cummings, a senior vice president at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island and chairwoman of the 2017 Go Red campaign. Along the way she got an unexpected – and very personal – primer on heart health.

Her mom, Donna Daniels, began experiencing shortness of breath last fall. A nurse by training, she had always watched her diet and exercised religiously. But it was nagging jaw pain that finally sent Donna to see a doctor.

“That came up as one of the leading symptoms of heart disease or heart issues for women in particular,’’ Melissa said. “We often hear about pain traveling down a left arm. That’s typically more a male thing. Although it can certainly happen to women, that didn’t happen to her. The jaw pain was really the trigger.’’

Fortunately, Donna did not have a heart attack, but Melissa says it would only have been a matter of time. She received stents and is now good to go.

Go Red training kits
Go Red training kits

The American Heart Association stresses education and awareness. And just last month CVS Health, based in Woonsocket, pledged to raise $10 million nationally over the next three years to support cardiovascular research and education. Throughout the month of February CVS stores encouraged patrons to donate to the American Heart Association. CVS’ Eileen Howard Boone said AHA is a good – and natural – fit for her company.

“From a woman’s perspective, from just an overall heart disease perspective, it’s the No. 1 killer of women, so we really need to be part of it, we really need to align ourselves with the smartest people in the industry,’’ she said. “And American Heart doesn’t just focus on the research, doesn’t just focus on the advocacy, it helps engage and empower women to know about their health.’’

Boone said CVS offered free health screenings in March at its Minute Clinics, which let participants find out their levels for cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and blood sugar, as well as blood pressure and body mass index (BMI). CVS also is donating six CPR training kits to four local schools in Rhode Island.

Kristina Hill

And it’s not just heart disease. Kristina Hill had a stroke seven years ago at the age of 14 – after she arrived home from middle school one day. Kristina, who was a star hockey player at the time, wound up at Children’s Hospital in Boston, where her parents got the inconceivable news.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hill, your daughter has had a stroke,’’ Kristina recalled hearing the doctor say. “And I’m sitting there like, ‘So what’s a stroke?’ Am I going to be at my hockey tournament this weekend? That was my main concern.’’


It has been a long road back, but the girl who doctors thought might not walk again is a sophomore at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts, and plays on the women’s soccer team. Kristina also regularly volunteers to speak to school assemblies like one at Norwood Middle School outside of Boston in March. She was on hand with a local representative of the American Heart Association to encourage the kids to participate in a fundraising event called Hoops for Heart.

“It really hits home because I go and speak at a middle school and I go, ‘Which one of you guys are in 8th grade?’’’ Kristina said. “And a bunch of 8th-graders hands go up. Well I was in 8th grade when I had my stroke.’’

This year’s organizers of the Go Red for Women campaign worked hard to include men as well. And they hope those who were there will take the message – and awareness – beyond the luncheon.

“Go Red is central to the point of raising awareness,’’ Melissa Cummings said. “First you have to know heart disease is something you should be thinking about and how prevalent it is. And how frankly, not sexy it is. It’s not sexy and it’s not visible and it’s not something you can look at somebody and say ‘Oh, they have heart disease.’ That is some of, frankly, the challenge in creating a conversation about why it’s so important.’’

It’s a conversation they hope will continue throughout the year.

If you want to see the video version of this story go to www.RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org.

The Hummel Report: Breaking Ground at Browning Mill Pond

DEM streamOn an unusually warm day in February, Browning Mill Pond in Exeter proved to be a popular place for visitors from near and far. Some were hiking, others were just hanging out near the pond located within the 15,000-acre Arcadia Management Area. The rustling of a brisk wind and the rushing water of a nearby stream were all you could hear.

The landscape, though, is scheduled to change dramatically here over the next year because the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is ready to break ground on a 13,000-square foot, $7.2  million building that the department is calling a Natural Resources and Visitor Center.

Although it’s been in the planning stages for years, few people outside of government knew about it until just a couple of months ago.

DEM KatrinaKatrina Thornley lives within walking distance of the pond and trails. When she found out more about the state’s plans, she put together a Facebook page and an online petition that has grown to more than 1,100 signatures. It asks Governor Raimondo to stop the DEM from constructing the building.

Katrina’s dad, Dave Thornley, spent a good chunk of his childhood in and around the pond. “It’s an office with a view.”

The property straddles the Richmond-Exeter line and has been a state park since the  mid-1930s. Dave Thornley says he can’t understand why the DEM wants to spend so much money when it has other buildings it could refurbish.

DEM Larry“I thought it was outrageous; they have so many buildings in the area they can use. The forestry headquarters isn’t three miles from here and that’s a huge piece of property they have. I’m against them building anything new, not just because of how much it’s going to cost, but because how I’ve seen the buildings they have go to waste over the years.’’

The DEM’s associate director for Natural Resources Management, Larry Mouradjian, said the visitors center has been something the department has been considering for several reasons.

One factor was that the DEM employees housed at a building in Wakefield were displaced when the state needed it for the DCYF. He said the DEM also wants to have a central location for more than a dozen employees and a facility for the numerous outdoor programs it runs; it will also have a laboratory and biologist on site, a conference room and public restrooms in addition to parking for 42 vehicles.

Jim Hummel (Motif): What do you make of the opposition to this?

Larry Mouradjian: I have to admit the notion they are surprised that this has taken so long for us [is surprising]. We went through so many different public avenues, we had to go through budget, we had to go through notifications, we had to go through permitting requirements. Of course there was the public bid for the construction and the purchase order for the contractor for this project, but we also realize that those public opportunities are not necessarily ones that someone would ordinarily search to find.

JH: Did you hold any public forums down there?

LM: We did not hold any public forums down there.

JH: Should you have?

LM: In hindsight it probably would [have been] a good idea.

So the DEM held a public forum on March 9, drawing more than 100 people to the Richmond Elementary School auditorium. All but two of the speakers opposed the project; many supported the plan but took issue with putting it on Browning Mill Pond.

The DEM director, Janet Coit, took much of the barrage, but said contracts for construction had already been signed and was noncommittal when residents rose to implore the department to change locations.

Katrina Thornley said, “We figured the money would be used to actually take care of the environment instead of letting the bridges rot and letting the driveway across the street fill with potholes. Or they’d hire people to take care of it. That’s not what they’re doing with the money.”

Dave Thornley added, “You’ve got a forestry headquarters right down there, and I don’t see anybody hiking or biking or picnicking down there. It’s because there’s a building there. Nobody wants to go and have the state looking out the window at you. They don’t. This is a nice private place for families and individuals to come and enjoy.”

Mouradjian says the DEM has gone through the regular permitting process with state agencies to approve construction and septic systems. “The DEM is not going to be in violation of environmental concerns. We’ve done all the same permitting. Another issue was that a private person never would have been able to do this; it’s simply not true.’’

But one resident at the public meeting said the state would never allow a 13,000-square-foot private house to be built so near a body of water in Rhode Island. Mouradjian said the project has gone out to bid twice and the $7 million price tag is in line with the size and scope of what is being built.

The DEM says it is taking the communities’ concerns into consideration, but did not indicate if they would be swayed by the opposition. Officials planned to break ground this month with a completion date of 2018.

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.

Rhode Island Spotlight: Books Are Wings

Books Are Wings signThe sea of children’s books stretched across lunch tables lined up at the cafeteria of an elementary school in Central Falls. Long before the students arrived for a special morning assembly, volunteers were setting up and ready to hand out books, bookmarks and apples to hundreds of 1st through 4th graders at the Ella Risk Elementary School.

By 8:45 the 2nd-graders began arriving, and a buzz spread through the cafeteria.

The goal by the end of the day was to encourage students to read and to help them start — or build on — a home library of their own.

Books Are Wings Jocelynn“A lot of these schools don’t have book fairs because children don’t come with money to buy books, and so we are that for them,” said Jocelynn White, director of the non-profit organization called Books Are Wings, a conduit for new and gently used book donations. Many of the donations come from families whose children are grown, but don’t want to throw away what was such an important part of their childhood.

The organization officially began 13 years ago after one of its founders, Elizabeth Denigan, was trying to figure out what to do with books she cleaned from her own daughter’s shelves. That morphed into a group that now takes in more than a 1,000 books a week at its offices in Pawtucket, organizes them and sends them right back out into the community.

The assembly we saw was repeated dozens of times every year at schools in Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket, areas Books Are Wings focuses on because some resident families might not have enough money to buy their own books.

“We say it’s food or books. The children and parents we work with need the essentials of food on the table and heat in their homes. When they only have pennies to spend, the book, unfortunately, is what falls down,” White said. “And so we’re there to kind of help support that piece.”

Books Are Wings tableDuring our visit to the Ella Risk Elementary School in Central Falls, Principal Mike Templeton introduced White, whose theme was making healthy choices. She read a book called Henry Gets Moving, about a hamster who has poor eating and exercise habits, but feels much better after he makes some simple changes in his life.

The kids got a surprise visit from Henry himself, then did a project decorating bookmarks before receiving a new copy of the Henry book and an apple followed by a trip to the main table to choose two books to take home. By the end of the morning, the school had all the grades go through the same process.

Books Are Wings readingBooks Are Wings has bins set up in half a dozen public libraries across the state and holds book drives throughout the year. They saw 1,500 school children in February and handed out 3,000 books. “What we really want people to understand is that these are books for kids that they want to choose themselves,” White said. “They really want that beautiful, brand new book, but they also may want and be interested in the Magic Tree House book that’s been read a million times before because that’s what they’re interested in.”

We asked White if she ever thought about where the kids who they serve would be if Books Are Wings didn’t exist.

“I do. We actually had someone come to us who graduated and is working. She said, ‘I remember you because you came to the library when I was a kid and I got a book from you every year.’ When they find out they get to take a book, even if they know who we are, they get so excited. The excitement is about, ‘This is mine and I get to keep it and I don’t have to bring it back.’ Many times children will say to me,  ‘I don’t have any money,’ and we’ll say, ‘That’s okay. Today, this is for you.”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org