Thursday, December 24, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

Operation Date Night: Local Teens Give Military Couples Quality Time Together

By Patricia Adams

The season of thoughtfulness and giving is upon us, and for three sisters from Howard Beach, the spirit of the season has been raised to another level—one they say they intend to keep up.

The Connolly ladies, Rachel, 16, Joanna, 15, and Shannon, 13 say their experience as a “military family”—brother Gerard is a West Point cadet—has made them very aware of the stress and pressure that military personnel face when confronted with being away from their loved ones and families. They are especially concerned with young, married military couples who are often separated during their tours of duty and who have very little quality time together.

“We just wanted to come up with a way for some of these troops to have something special,” said Rachel. “To have a night where they could go out on the town and forget about everything but each other and having a wonderful time.”

And so after many hours of conversation and planning the Connolly sisters came up with “Operation Date Night.” The concept provides for a military couple who are nominated by other troops at the base where they are stationed to be chosen for a night out on the town. Joanna Connolly says that she and her family were inspired by the date night that President Obama and his wife spent in New York.

“It just got us thinking. The Obama’s called attention to the fact that spending time like that is important to all couples,” said Joanna. She also pointed out that there is a very high divorce rate among military couples because of the stress and responsibility that comes with the job.

“They have very little time together and we think something like this could really help.” Rachel Connolly explained. “It gives them the opportunity to go out and have a great time with nothing to worry about—especially finances for the night.”

Worrying about nothing is a great way to describe the evening the girls set up for their first couple, Staff Sgt. Michael Bacon, 28, and his wife, Kim, 25, who were overwhelmingly chosen by fellow military staffers at their home base in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn.

Sgt. Bacon serves in the Military Police and recently returned from his second tour in Iraq. While on his first tour which began in 2007, he was shot in the line of duty and awarded the Purple Heart. The couple also celebrated their two year wedding anniversary just days before they went on their memorable date.

The couple was picked up at the army base in Ft. Hamilton by a white stretch limousine, donated by Designer Limousine and whisked off for dinner at Howard Beach’s exclusive Italian/Mediterranean restaurant, Vetro by Russo’s on the Bay. After dinner they were driven to Manhattan’s Broadway where they were treated to a performance of In the Heights. The theater tickets were donated by the USO.

Shannon Connolly was first to praise the restaurant for their willingness to donate a wonderful dinner to help out with Operation Date Night. “The food here is so wonderful and the restaurant and the lounge — everything is so beautiful — you would have to feel special here.”

And feeling special is exactly what the Bacon’s did. “It’s so nice to be appreciated like this,” said Sgt. Mike Bacon. “This is an experience that we will never forget. It is a chance for my wife and I to enjoy ourselves and just to be alone without a care in the world.”

“I would like to thank Rachel, Joanna and Shannon and everyone for doing this for us,” said Kim Bacon. “The restaurant is the most beautiful one I have ever seen. What an unbelievable way to celebrate our anniversary and the upcoming holidays.”

If it’s up to the Connolly’s Operation Date Night will continue with more and more troops being invited to escape everyday military life. “We hope this can go on forever,” said Rachel Connolly. “It’s such a good thing for everyone.”

The girls say that Vetro will continue to donate the dinners and they will continue to seek donations from limo companies. Vetro owner Frank Russo says he is very leased to be able to help out and looks forward to hosting many more couples at his restaurant. “This is a phenomenal thing that these girls have done. Putting this together is something we should all be very proud of them for.”

Officials Vow to Again Fight Proposed MTA Cuts

W, Z Trains, Q56 Bus Among Threatened Lines

By Conor Greene

With a sense of déjà vu, elected officials and community leaders again find themselves fighting against proposed service cuts that are included in the budget plan recently approved by the MTA.

The MTA’s budget plan, unanimously approved last Wednesday, was forced to address a $383 million gap that developed over the past two weeks as a result of state budget cuts and lower than expected tax revenues. To close this gap, the MTA’s budget plan includes elimination of student discount, cuts to the Access-A-Ride program, elimination of the Cross Bay Bridge toll rebate program and service cuts along some bus and subway lines.

Among the proposed service cuts are elimination of the W and Z trains and more than a dozen borough bus lines, including the Q56, which runs along Jamaica Avenue. While this results in a redundancy of services in some ways, residents and officials say having both a bus and train option along Jamaica Avenue is essential for senior citizens, the handicapped, families and customers.

In addition to elimination of the W and Z trains and the Q56 bus, frequency of the J train would be reduced, and the following bus lines would be eliminated: Q24, Q30, Q31, Q41, Q42, Q84, Q74, Q75, Q76, Q110, QM4, Q21 and X28.

To draw attention to the cuts, officials including Assemblyman Mike Miller, Councilman Eric Ulrich, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and Assemblyman Rory Lancman gathered on Tuesday and urged the MTA to reconsider. “It is going to have a major impact on Woodhaven and Richmond Hill,” said Miller. “It doesn’t make sense – why would you cut the mode of transportation the majority of the community uses?”

For many seniors, the bus is essential because it is difficult for many to climb the several dozen stairs leading to the elevated train stations along the J line. “We know that cuts have to be made. Let’s start at the top and work our way down,” added Miller.

Lancman noted that his district is being threatened with elimination of the Q74 bus, which brings students to Queens College. He recalled that during the last round of budget negotiations and threatened service cuts, legislators agreed to implement a payroll tax to fund the authority. “That was a bitter pill for our economy to swallow… but we were assured by that MTA that was what as needed to prevent the cuts we’re talking about today,” he said, calling the authority a “very sloppily run organization.”

“The MTA needs to start at the top and make itself a well-run organization,” added Lancman. “Then maybe we can talk about the need for sensible service cuts. The focus of this conversation has to be about how the MTA is going to reform itself.”

Crowley said that Councilman James Vacca has devised a plan to avoid the cuts by instead reallocating $140 million of capital funds to temporarily close the budget gap. The funds would come from two sources: more than $90 million in unspent federal stimulus aid that may be allocated towards operating expenses, and about $50 million in MTA operating funds that are currently being used to supplement the capital budget.

Ulrich called the service cuts “a slap in the face of the working men and women of this city” and said they target the “most vulnerable” including students and seniors. “They are telling us they don’t care about Woodhaven, and to me that is the biggest disgrace,” he said.

Maria Thomson of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corp. reminded those in attendance at Tuesday’s press conference that the same fight was waged just last year. Since Jamaica Avenue’s Business Improvement District stretches for 25 blocks, Thomson argued that having bus service along the shopping corridor is essential. “We’re going to make the MTA care [about Woodhaven] because we’re going to fight for this,” she vowed.

In a statement announcing the budget decision, MTA Chairman and CEO Jay Walder said that it is impossible not to have service cuts that impact people when $400 million is taken from the budget overnight, but recognized the need to restore the public’s confidence in the beleaguered authority.

“We have a responsibility to assure our customers and taxpayers that every dollar they sent to the MTA is used as effectively as possible,” he said. “We can’t say that today, and that is why we have to fundamentally change the way that we do business. In short, we must take this place apart to find the efficiencies that will make it stronger. We can’t do it fast enough to take off the table the things we’re taking about today, but this effort is our best chance to restore the MTA’s credibility and protect the critical services we provide.”

New Bake Sale Regs Frustrate Students

Restricts Fundraisers Held by Clubs and Teams

By Conor Greene

Fundraising efforts for public school clubs and sports teams has been severely hampered by a new chancellor’s regulation banning bake sales during lunch periods. A group of students representing nearly a dozen schools citywide have launched a petition drive in response to the new rules, which they say were implemented without warning.

Whitestone resident and Bronx High School of Science student Matthew Melore recently attended a Community Board 5 meeting with colleague Seth Hoffman to spread word about the new regulation, and the impact it is having on students. Fundraisers involving food are now only allowed during non-lunch periods, and since most students don’t have free periods at that time, it is difficult for clubs and teams to have enough members available to hold a bake sale, or make money due to the lack of hallway foot traffic.

“There is a better way of getting healthy foods to students than getting rid of bake sales, which we need for clubs and teams to raise money,” said Melore. “It’s had a really big impact on clubs, which have to come up with other ways, or they run out of money.”

The problem has impacted sports teams, especially at smaller schools where funding has been cut or eliminated in recent years. As a result of those budget cuts, sports teams at smaller schools have relied on fundraisers to pay for equipment and other costs.

Adding insult to injury, said Melore, is that the new regulations were passed in the summer, at which time approval from the Panel on Educational Policy was not required. In addition, many schools, including his, were not even aware of the new rules until September, by which time clubs and teams had budgeted for the year based on expected bake sale revenues.

“It was passed without warning,” said Melore. “Getting rid of bake sales and fundraisers is not solving the problem. A cupcake once in a while is not a bad thing to do, and most of the food that students get that’s bad, they get at home, not at school… In my opinion, and many others, the regulation that was passed is not even legitimate.” He notes that it was “hastily written” before mayoral control of schools expired, and was “enacted in such a haste that the Nutritional Guidelines that were a key part of the legislation were not even incorporated until late October.”

After hearing from the students, Community Board 5 passed a resolution supporting their petition drive. So far, Melore and Hoffman have visited three boards, and in all, students from 11 schools have collected 5,000 signatures on the petitions. The students’ goal, said Melore, is to convince officials that the rules should be revised so that bake sales can be regulated, but still provide students with a way to fund raise for teams and clubs.

In a statement, a Department of Education spokesman said that the new rules were co-developed with the Department of Health and represents an important step in combating childhood obesity and ensuring that students develop healthy eating habits. “The city and country are confronting an obesity epidemic the proportions of which are difficult to overstate,” the spokesman wrote. “It is our responsibility to make sure schools are a part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

At the same time, the DOE is working to increase students’ access to athletic programs, expand physical fitness education in schools and make sure the city’s school lunches are some of the most nutritious in the country, the spokesman added. However, recognizing that the policy “might affect students’ and parents’ ability to raise money for their schools,” the DOE is “in the process of working with the Department of Health to see how we can maintain our commitment to combating obesity without putting onerous restrictions on student fundraisers.”

Another aspect of the new wellness policy involves a new city contract for school vending machines, the department noted. In October, the school board approved two new contracts for machines that will only sell foods and beverages that meet strict nutritional guidelines. The millions of dollars in revenue that the machines will produce will help fund the city’s middle and high school athletic leagues, the spokesman said.