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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, January 26, 2006

Visit with favorite author thrills Pierce

By Matt Cook

BERNE — A sixteen-year-old’s wish was granted this week when he got to meet his favorite author.

On Sunday, Zach Pierce, who has a brain tumor, dined with Johnathan Rand, successful author of thrillers for children. It was a dream come true for Pierce.

"It was interesting," Pierce said of his meeting with Rand. When asked if Rand was how he expected, Pierce said, "No. He was nicer."

Pierce and his family, of Berne, ate with Rand at a local Chinese restaurant.

"It was so awesome," said Pierce’s mother, Robin. "We probably spent like two hours with [Rand] and his wife."

At dinner, Rand presented Pierce with an autographed hardback copy of one of his books. Of course, Pierce had already read it.

"Zach has every single book," his mother said.

Pierce was diagnosed with the tumor when he was five. According to Mrs. Pierce, surgery on the tumor in 1994 affected his vision, balance, fine motor skills, and caused learning disabilities. In 1999, the tumor had returned and Pierce began chemotherapy. The therapy caused nerve damage to his legs, putting him in a wheelchair.

Through it all, his mother said, Pierce never complains.

His disabilities make reading difficult, so when someone gave Pierce a book called New York Ninjas by Rand, he put it aside. One day, however, for no apparent reason, Pierce picked up the book and read it cover to cover. He was hooked, his mother said.

Quickly, Pierce started making his way through all of Rand’s books and joined the fan club.

Set in Albany, New York Ninjas is one of a series of books Rand writes called American Chillers. For each American state, Rand tells an adventure tale of children and their spooky encounters. The stories incorporate local place names and landmarks.

Several years ago, Rand was working as a radio broadcaster in Michigan when he decided to become a writer.

"I always loved to write and read and be creative," Rand told The Enterprise.

His first books, the Michigan Chillers series, were set in various cities in the state, from Detroit to Traverse City to Kalamazoo. The books caught on among children in Michigan and states beyond.

"I started getting letters saying, ‘Hey, write about my state,’" Rand said.

Rand shies away from the word horror. His books are exciting, he said, but he is not a proponent of violence and he is not out to frighten children. All his stories end happily, he said.

"I think there’s something that kids like about being scared and being able to close the book," Rand said.

"They’re thrilling and they’re fun to read," Pierce said of the books. His favorite is American Chillers number seven, Werewolves of Wisconsin.

Rand was brought to the area to meet Pierce by WPYX, the radio station, as part of its PYXmas Wish program. The station learned about Pierce from a letter his mother wrote.

While Rand is in the area, he’s visiting schools and libraries, telling children about reading and writing.

"What I try to do is to put a hipness factor into being an author," Rand said. "If they think I’m cool, they might think reading is cool."

On Sunday, Rand met his biggest fan.

"It was really humbling that it was his Christmas wish to meet me," he said.

Hilltown Family Center: ‘We’re not turning anyone away’

By Matt Cook

EAST BERNE — Though the Hilltown Family Center officially opened to the public on Monday, Hilltowners have been calling for its services since it started moving into its East Berne home this fall.

"We’ve had our phone ringing well before this," said Marge Capuano, lead family advisor.

Capuano heads a staff of three Hilltown residents at the center, which is housed at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Main Street in East Berne. Their mission, Capuano said, is to provide information, referrals, and support to families with children who have emotional, behavioral, or developmental problems.

"We’re not turning anyone away," Capuano said. "Any family that comes in here will be eligible to receive something."

Capuano and the two part-time advisors, Amy Anderson and Marybeth Peterson, are parents or members of families of children with special needs, said Linda Stewart, the co-project director and family counselor earlier.

"When there are emotional, behavioral, or developmental needs, the family tends to withdraw and not know where to go for help," said Stewart. "There’s no place for parents to go that is warm and welcoming, where you can ask questions, right in your neighborhood....This will give parents a place that meets their culture and their needs."

The Hilltown Resource Center is one of three such centers intended for Albany County by Families Together in Albany County. The other two, in Albany and suburban Colonie, haven’t opened yet.

Families Together in Albany County was formed with a $9.4 million grant from the federal government and a partnership between the county and Families Together in New York State, Inc., a statewide non-profit organization for families with children with special needs.

"Families Together in New York State collaborated with Albany County to get the grant, and Families Together in Albany County was the result," Capuano said.

All of the center’s services will be free. In addition to the information and referrals, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, Dr. Monica Myer from Albany Medical Center, will visit the facility once a month.

If, for example, a family notices a child is falling behind in school or having behavioral problems, the doctor can examine him or her "to see if there is a problem," Capuano said.

The center held an open house on Sunday. Over 100 people came, including 25 children, Capuano said. The open house doubled as an information fair, with representatives from the Cornell Cooperative Extension and Headstart attending.

At the open house, people learned about the Across Ages Mentoring Program, in which Families Together in Albany County will pair youth between ages nine and 15 with adults over 55. The program’s director, Kevin Brown, talked to The Enterprise in October.

"The success of our program and more importantly, its ability to improve services for the youth of the Hilltowns, will be dependent upon strong members," Brown said. "The Hilltown senior citizens’ expertise and life experiences are key components."

One of the reasons Families Together is designating one of its centers just for the Hilltowns is to save busy parents the long drive into the city.

"There is so much need up here," Capuano said. "I mean, everything is far away....Time is so valuable and everything takes so long."

Besides providing help to families who call or drop in, the Hilltown Family Center has plans to start a number of programs, from forming support groups, to starting a high school youth group. It also plans to hold information sessions on HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program), Medicare, and food stamps, Capuano said.

Already, Hilltowners are interested and the center is spreading the word to the far reaches of the county, including into Westerlo and Rensselaerville.

"It’s a big place up here. It’s a lot of miles," Capuano said. "By word of mouth, I know it’s going to start coming around, really."

The center has been in contact with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District and other social organizations, Capuano said.

"We’re working hand in hand with all these agencies," she said.

Capuano is excited about getting to work at the center. She and her staff have just completed extensive training.

"We are so happy that we’re here and we want to do a great job," Capuano said. "We’re going to give 100 percent and 100 percent will be given back to us because there’s such a big need."

The Hilltown Family center is open weekdays, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the advisors are available weekends and evenings by appointment. The phone number is 872-1460.

Plans for if Gilboa Dam breaks

By Matt Cook

BERNE — If the Gilboa Dam in the Schoharie Valley breaks, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school could become a temporary shelter for students fleeing the flood.

At a meeting on Monday, Jan. 23, the school board discussed the possibility of housing students for a day from the Middleburgh and Schoharie school districts in case of a flood.

In October, the dam on the Schoharie Creek in Schoharie County failed a safety inspection, worrying Capital Region residents as far away as Schenectady. If the dam fails, the Schoharie Reservoir would empty into the surrounding area and send a 30-foot surge down the creek and the Mohawk River. The dam, which is owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, is undergoing emergency repairs.

On Monday, Gregory Diefenbach, BKW’s business administrator, reported to the board that the district’s health and safety committee has met with representatives of the Middleburgh and Schoharie districts.

If the dam bursts, the Schoharie Valley districts could bring their students to BKW, on high ground in the Helderbergs, Diefenbach said. Middleburgh is planning on BKW, while Schoharie is leaning toward bringing its students to schools in the larger Guilderland district, he said.

"The actual procedures are still being drafted," Diefenbach said.

Diefenbach said that the school would act as a "reunification point," where parents would pick up their children.

If the catastrophe occurs, Middleburgh would give BKW four hours’ notice before busing in the students. That would give BKW time to send its students home in an early dismissal, said Superintendent Steven Schrade.

"I feel truly confident that we have a good plan," Diefenbach said. "Basically, bottom line, it’s one school district trying to help another school district out."

Other business

In other business at the Jan. 23 meeting, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board:

—Heard a report on the results of the state-required survey of building condition. Diefenbach said the district’s engineer and architect declared the district office and the Westerlo school satisfactory and the elementary and high school unsatisfactory.

The problem, Diefenbach said, is that the fire alarm systems aren’t up to the latest building code. They are loud enough to warn anyone in the building, he said, but they lack sensors to indicate if a strobe light or alarm is out.

"Before you get anything else on your wish list, this is number one," Diefenbach said.

He estimated it would cost at least $10,000 for the systems to meet regulations;

—Continued a discussion on the valedictorian and salutatorian. The district has, for several months, been considering eliminating the honors.

High school Principal Mary Petrilli reported that all the suburban districts in the area have replaced valedictorian and salutatorian honors with the recognition of a group of top students. There has been no community backlash in those districts, Petrilli said.

Also, she said, most colleges don’t give scholarships to students solely for being valedictorian or salutatorian.

The board is going to consider Petrilli’s report and discuss the matter at the next meeting. Board member Joan Adriance said the board should make a decision soon.

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