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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 5, 2006

Taking care of Daddy, struggling with MS

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The everyday is extraordinary in the Fremante household.

Sunday morning, as the family arranges itself for a picture, Joe Fremante looks radiant. His face is cleanly shaven; his hair is freshly washed.

Because he has multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system in which gradual destruction in the brain or spinal cord causes progressively weaker muscles and loss of coordination, Fremante can’t do those everyday chores himself.

The extraordinary part is his two children do such chores for him, day in and day out.

Fremante’s son, also named Joe, who will turn 16 next week, shrugs when asked about shaving his father. "It’s no big deal," he says, adding that his father’s beard is harder to cut than normal hair since he’s shaved without cream for years.

The day began early on Sunday for the family of three — with a thud.

"At two o’clock, he was on the floor," said Joe. Gesturing to his sister, Julia, two years younger than he, Joe goes on. "She sleeps right in the room with him."

"So I can help Daddy," Julia finishes the sentence for her brother.

"Then she comes and gets me," says Joe.

Together they use a Hoyer Lift to get their father back in his chair.

Fremante spends 24 hours a day in what he calls his "scooter," a powered chair.

Parenting is at the center of his life.

He takes pride in being a father. "That’s probably when I got the luckiest," said Fremante.

"Most kids say, ‘My parents don’t understand me.’ My kids know every day I’ll have new knowledge of what makes them tick."

He remembers what it was like to be a kid. "You ask yourself in the middle of the night, looking up at the stars, ‘Does anybody really know who I am"’"

Give and take

The trio discuss their lives together in a straightforward way, without any sense of drama or any inkling that what they’re doing is remarkable. The father expresses no pity for himself and the kids show no resentment.

On a typical day, they get up at 6 a.m., sometimes after one or two wake-ups to set their father aright, fix his breakfast, and catch their bus for Guilderland High School at 6:50. Julia started ninth grade this year and Joe is a sophomore.

They mow the lawn and do the cooking. Julia mows the backyard and Joe the front, although lately he’s been doing the back, too, since his sister is busy with both tennis and gymnastics.

Joe is also the chief cook, although Julia chimes in, "I do the macaroni and the vegetables."

"That’s microwave," says her brother. The day before, he had cooked pork chops for lunch and for dinner served the leftovers in sauce over macaroni.

"Which I cooked," says Julia.

"They not only prepare my food," Fremante said later. "They cut it up and, at times, they actually feed me."

Fremante organizes things at home over the telephone, like an upcoming family birthday party for his kids or arranging for firewood for the winter.

"It took me three days to get it here so my son can cut it," he said of the wood.

Joe goes on to brag about his sister’s accomplishments, stating, "She’s too shy to say anything but she’s a straight-A honors student. I help her with her homework."

Asked if he worries about his father, Joe says, "Sometimes." Looking at his father, he goes on, "When I’m not here, I kind of forget you have MS." Most of his friends, he says, don’t really know about it.

The first nine years of his life, Joe says, his father could walk.

"Joey had this period, when he was 12 or 13, when he felt like life cheated him," said Fremante.

He recalled a father-son talk they had had. "I always feel guilty you do all these things. Why do you do it"" the father asked.

"Without you, I’d be lost," the son said.

"I love my Daddy," says Julia, patting him on the shoulder.

"She still has that little-kid connection," says her brother.

Relentless disease

Fremante’s own childhood was disease-free, but he has dealt with the steady progression of MS from his young adulthood on.

Fremante grew up in Kinderhook, the son of a State Police captain and a homemaker. He went to Ichabod Crane High School and liked math best. He’s always liked numbers and can work with them in his head.

"It’s come in handy; I can’t write anymore," said Fremante.

His first job was as a nurse’s aid. "I liked it a lot," he said of the work. "I volunteered for doubles at Christmas. I liked being with the geriatric patients because they needed me."

The pay was poor, though, so he became a union plumber with Local 7.

When Fremante was 20 — he’s now in his early forties — he felt a sensation in his leg that he knew was not right.

"I’m a heavy smoker, and they said it was bad circulation," he recalled.

By the time he was 24, he was unable to run long distances.

In 1990, at the age of 26, Fremante was on vacation in Maine when he and a friend were swimming in the cold water. It was October but, Fremante said, "I’m a tough guy."

He ended up with hypothermia and was then diagnosed with MS.

He recalls walking out of the doctor’s office. "I got in the car with my two-week-old son in back, my first born, and his mother. I didn’t want to tell them. I was trying to hold it in, to hold in the tears," he said.

Fremante said he wanted to know how to deal with the disease himself before he told his girlfriend; it took him six months to tell her. Two years after the MS diagnosis, their daughter, Julia, was born.

Fremante was able to walk until 1999, when he started using crutches. He began using a scooter in 2001.

In 2003, he had a pump put in his spinal cord to help relax his muscles.

"I couldn’t get in the car after that," he said. "My ability to walk diminished. Now my legs don’t do anything."

Fremante goes on, in a matter-of-fact tone, "Two years ago, the hands and arms started giving out."

Asked how he copes with such relentlessly progressing limitations, Fremante answers, "You let go of a lot of things. I was a pretty stress-free guy. What are you going to do""

Asked if he had any hope of medical advances helping him, Fremante replied, "Not for people like me...The only hope is embryonic cell research."

Later, he said of injecting embryonic cells into the spinal cord, "I just sit here and wait for that day to come."

Fremante works within realistic parameters for attainable goals.

He’s just gotten a new chair that, he says, has "all the bells and whistles." He explains that it reclines in a space-shuttle position and has a lift. He’ll be able to sleep in it more comfortably.

But he needs to come up with $18,000 to get the bathroom and the ramp into the house re-done to accommodate the new chair.

He has Medicaid, Medicare, and Blue Shield coverage, Fremante said. "But they can only do so much...My life can get very aggravating. I never really had a temper."

He applies for funds by typing with one finger. "It takes a long time," said Fremante.

Fathoming the future

Fremante is bothered that he now can’t get to most of the events his kids are involved in.

"I’ve never stopped my kids from doing anything.," he said. "They know I would sit here rotting to let them go.

"Up until two years ago, I never missed a game or an event...but now it’s too much trouble for people to get me into a car."

Their mother does the driving now.

"I don’t care," says Julia, explaining to her momentarily startled father. "I know that you want to come, which is what’s important."

She goes on, reporting, "He still comes to my tennis games at home."

And he still coaches her to focus on winning. "She does it for fun," Fremante says of his daughter playing sports. "I try to get a little more aggression out of her."

Julia responds that her junior-varsity tennis team is undefeated.

Joe has some ideas he calls "far-fetched" for his future. One of them, he reveals after some prodding, is to be a doctor. He thinks that’s out of the question because he has an 86 average.

Nodding to his father, Joe says, "He wants a 90 or above."

With a steady gaze, his father responds, "I watch the amount of studying you do and, if you can get an 86 with the corners you cut, that’s not good. If you were studying hard and got an 86, that would be good."

Joe’s other idea is to own a restaurant.

"He’s a good cook; that’s what he should do," says Julia.

Julia also says her brother likes to work with kids.

He has attended Camp Nassau in Guilderland since he was a kid himself and, for the last two years, he has helped out with the younger children.

Julia thinks a "cool job" for her would be to plan the outings for the Blessed Sacrament youth group, which she attends.

"Daddy doesn’t believe in God," says Julia.

"Our mom does," says Joe.

When Joe and Julia are with their mother, a school teacher who lives in Albany, they attend Blessed Sacrament Church. The couple split up nine years ago.

Little things

Julia recalls a time when the family was taking its annual vacation on the coast of Maine and her father lost his crutch in the ocean; he’s not one to give up.

Three hours later, the ocean returned the crutch.

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter.

"I can still light a lighter," says Fremante, a heavy smoker.

On Saturday, he left his kids in their cozy family room and wheeled himself to the door. He manipulated the lever handle, opened the door, and descended a ramp to the garage to smoke.

One time, when his kids were three and five years old, he smelled cigarette smoke on their hair.

"I never smoked in the house again," said Fremante.

Guilderland student with knife is arrested

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — A Guilderland High School student was arrested last Thursday after he showed a knife to a group of students in the school lobby.

Mark W. Balthazar of 6254 Johnston Road, was charged with two misdemeanors — criminal possession of a weapon and menacing.

At about 7:25 a.m., near the start of the school day, six or seven students were involved in a "small shoving match," according to Brian Forte, a Guilderland Police officer who is stationed at the high school.

Balthazar then took the knife out of his pocket, said Forte, explaining, "He just wanted to let the other boys know he had it."

Asked if Balthazar felt threatened, Forte said, "I’m not sure."

Balthazar could not be reached for comment.

Forte described the knife as a "gravity knife" with a two-and-a-half-inch blade. "You can flip it out and it locks in place," said Forte.

After displaying the knife, Balthazar "put it back in his pocket and walked away," said Forte.

The group then divided into two and some of the students went to tell a monitor while others went to tell the school principal, Michael Piccirillo, about the knife, Forte said.

Asked if Balthazar had been arrested before, Forte said, "He had some problems as a juvenile." Forte declined to elaborate because of the juvenile designation.

After the Sept. 28 incident, Balthazar was suspended from school, Forte said, pending a superintendent’s hearing.

State law allows a school principal to impose a maximum five-day suspension. Further penalties can be administered only after a superintendent’s hearing, where witnesses speak and evidence is presented.

Piccirillo could not be reached for comment.

"We’re safe here"

Forte described weapons in school as "pretty rare" in Guilderland. In the seven years that he has been a school resource officer at the high school, Forte said there have been only three or four arrests for weapons possession.

He added, "Kids probably have knives that we don’t see."

In April of 2005, A Guilderland High School student was arrested with second-degree assault, a felony, for stabbing another student with a piece of jewelry shaped like a Christian cross. Both of the young men were 15.

"When a jewelry piece becomes a weapon, said Ismael Villafane, the principal at the time, "that’s not something you’d catch with a metal detector."

The school board at the time had been discussing school monitors and mentioned metal detectors and security cameras.

Asked yesterday if he thought more school security was needed at Guilderland, Forte said, "Considering the news the last two weeks, security is needed everywhere."

He went on to say, though, that Guilderland High School is basically a safe place.

All the doors but the front door are locked and that is watched by a monitor, he said. Cameras are in various locations throughout the school, he said, but more would be useful.

"We were just turned down for a federal grant," he said.

All staff members wear identifying badges and a building safety committee meets regularly as does a district-wide safety committee, Forte said.

"We talk about ways to enhance security," he said of the committee.

Forte had said earlier that metal detectors and cameras can be deterrents but they don’t "stop the everyday things that go on." He went on, "It’s more important to educate people to get along, to stop bullying, and those types of things."

The Guilderland School district two years ago launched an anti-bullying campaign.

Forte concluded yesterday, "We’re safe here but we’re always looking for more measures to improve."

Brick by brick
Westmere Elementary builds beautiful courtyard

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — "I found your brick! I found your brick!" shouted eight-year-old Cheyenne Rusinovich as she jumped up and down, her blond hair flying.

Her cousins, Andy and Rose Leicht, rushed over to see. Sure enough, engraved on one of the bricks in the new Westmere courtyard patio, are the words, "The Leicht Family."

The Leichts’ was one of many engraved pavers that together raised $7,000 for the $34,000 project.

Thursday, students and their families gathered with staff to dedicate the new courtyard.

"This is such a special day for us here at Westmere," said Principal Deborah Drumm.

Drumm referred to a favorite quotation of anthropologist Margaret Mead that she has in her office: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Drumm commended the group at Westmere that had the vision to transform a space with worn asphalt into a vibrant and beautiful courtyard.

Jill Bierman, president of the Westmere PTA, said the project had been in the works for more than a year-and-a-half. She praised Gary Rexford whose masonry company built the patio.

Rexford "worked far beyond the scope of his contract," she said, often in "awful heat."

"He cared about it as much as we did," said Bierman.

She also thanked her husband, Andrew, for cutting over 1,000 bricks to fit. Bierman explained that, to shave costs, she had used two vendors and four-by-eight for one was not the same as four-by-eight for the other. So her husband shaved off the difference, a thousand times over.

"It’s not only a beautiful space," Bierman concluded, "but a space the faculty and students can use."

Drumm pointed out to The Enterprise some of those many uses. A door from the school’s library opens to a walkway that leads to a maple tree in the center of the courtyard. The tree is surrounded by a "reading wall," she said, where students can sit to enjoy their books.

The kindergarten rooms open onto another part of the courtyard, across a mulched area from the maple tree, where three patio tables with benches are set up, each centered with a generous umbrella.

"It’s a nice, tranquil place in the school," said Drumm.

She said there were more plans for the courtyard, including a fountain, which had to be scaled back, but may be carried out later if more funds are raised.

Rexford, whose wife, Germaine, works at the school as a teaching assistant, smiled as he watched the crowd admire his work.

"I’m absolutely happy," he said.

From one Guilderland home to another
Beatty is set to help those in need — right here and now

By Jo E. Prout

GUILDERLAND -- Deborah Beatty is opening a not-for-profit business out of her suburban home to help those in this affluent town who need "a temporary lift out of calamity"with no strings attached," Beatty said.

Her organization, aptly named No Strings Attached, will open when she receives her state tax permits, probably within a month, she said.

"It’s an idea that was sparked just by seeing people fallen on hard times," Beatty said. "Things are going great and then, all of a sudden, things happen and you need a hand out" of a bad situation.

Her inspiration to help came after a woman and her son lost their belongings in a fire. A group helping the family requested a particular size of clothing. Beatty said that the clothes were the wrong size and were returned.

She wanted to put the returned clothes to good use, and to have clothes or other items ready for the next person with a need, without delay. She said that people who are out of work may need household items, as may mothers who find themselves divorced or widowed.

Beatty, herself, experienced trouble years ago, she said.

"I felt abandoned, and I felt alone," she said. Others helped her, and now she wants to help her community. "I just want to be ready and have what they need, and give them a hand up so they can get on with their lives," she said. "There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of need. People are hiding it. They’re living paycheck to paycheck. People don’t think to do something like this here."

Beatty is conscientious about remaining "above board" with her business. So far, she has helped a few families, using her own and her parents’ personally-donated items, but she is waiting for all her permits to be in place before she begins a larger-scale distribution with donations from others.

"I’m taking more stuff in right now," she said. "I have a waiting list of people who have needs."

People in pain

So far, Beatty‘s six-year-old daughter has donated most of the toys on her storage shelves.

"We trust in God that what goes around comes around," Beatty said. "I’m a Christian. Doing this myself"I never could have. When I came to the Lord, I could hear people crying out everywhere. They’re hurting. They’re losing jobs. Their kids are sick or dying. They’re losing their houses. And, they’re hiding it. It’s just a love of God.

"God loves them. I never would have done this on my own. This is God’s heart. This is what He wants. I’m a Bible teacher. I preach the word of God. Right now, people are hurting. They don’t want to hear. There’s a way out. This was His idea. He told me to do it and I’m just being obedient," she said.

"The main thing is, everything had to be legal and above board," she said.

"People feel invisible, and betrayed, and forgotten. God wants them to know, ‘I did not forget you,’ " she said.

Beatty used to work for the Guilderland school district, and she told her co-workers about her project before she left.

"It just seems to fall in place like it’s meant to be. I haven’t had to advertise anywhere," Beatty said.

"I have a vision for it that’s very huge. I’d love to step out into a facility," she said. "People’s hearts are so big. I see taking over a building, helping take in the homeless, supplying them with training"with no strings attached. That’s where my vision is headed, eventually."

Guilderland entrepreneur makes learning fun for kids

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Most parents don’t think of education and reading development being related to their children’s computer games.

However, Samson the dog hopes to change that.

Darrin and Jason Jahnel have launched a computer software program aimed at teaching sight words to young readers with the help of their comical mascot, Samson the dog. The program is designed to provide all of the necessary tools of sight word instruction, while capturing children’s interest and encouraging them along their way.

Sight words are commonly used words, such as the, for, done, and because, which are instantly recognized by readers without having to decipher their meaning.

Darrin Jahnel, a Guilderland entrepreneur, is the president of Knowledge Wand, LLC, which produces other educational computer software aimed a students between first and eighth grade.

Sightwords with Samson also includes worksheets, flashcards, and lesson plans, in addition to educational games. One of its features allow teachers and parents to monitor each student’s progress.

"When I was working down in New York, I always had a desire to start my own business," said Jahnel, who studied at New York University. "My brother and I came up with ideas while we were working on our graduate degree at NYU."

Knowledge Wand recently received a $100,000 contract for software programs with the New York City school districts.

"We kind of wanted to get into younger education because of the lack we saw in sight word education," Jahnel told The Enterprise.

Jahnel’s company also created Uptown Education and Get Your Learn On, educational software used by school districts around the country. Sight Words with Samson was released in August, and in only 45 days, 4,600 games were played according to Jahnel’s on-line calculations.

"The new product has been absolutely incredible. We’ve been going crazy," said Jahnel. "We’re doing on-line pay-per-clicks in 15 different states and in Canada. We gave free programs to the Schalmont and Coxsakie-Athens school districts. They’ve been good to us in the past, so we use them to pilot the software."

A free demo of the program is available at www.sightwords-withsamson.com.

Knowledge Wand was first incorporated in 2003, but Jahnel said it wasn’t until March of 2005 that he quit his job as a senior software engineer to pursue running the company full-time.

"That’s when I realized this was for real," said Jahnel.

Jahnel graduated from Schalmont High School in Schenectady in 1994, received his bachelor’s degree in business administration from University at Albany in 1998, and then his master’s degree in information systems from New York University’s Stern School of Business in 2003.

"We’re kind of a virtual organization. I live here in Guilderland, my brother lives in Manhattan, we have a sales representative in White Plains and Long Island, and various part-time workers all over," Jahnel said. "We still get together quite a bit, but we do everything through tele-conferencing, on-line, and over the phone.

From Explorer to Yaris
Trading down measures up

By Tyler Schuling

ALTAMONT — Before setting out on my journey from central Iowa to Albany County to start my new life as a reporter, I was confronted with a lot of choices. The biggest of my concerns was transportation.

I’d had an SUV, a 2004 Ford Explorer Sport Trac. It was a reliable company vehicle, but, knowing what kind of gas mileage it got, and knowing that I was going to, most often, be the only one in its cockpit, I didn’t think it all that practical or economical to purchase the vehicle from my father’s company.

The job I was taking as a reporter covering towns in the hills would send me winding around curves, facing the obstacles of the road, encountering numerous blind spots, and making many wrong turns.

Before I made my decision to purchase a new car, I had many things to consider. At the top of my list was gas economy.

Having owned SUVs and light-duty pickup trucks, I can safely say there’s nothing more disappointing than paying $55 every four or five days, comparing that with the miles it gets you, and praying for long trips so that you will finally feel as though you’re actually getting your money’s worth.

So, after surfing car manufacturers’ websites, perusing magazines and newspapers, and making numerous trips to car dealerships, I bought a 2007 Toyota Yaris. When I bought it, I was told by a salesperson that it had been selling over in Europe for years and was quite popular.

The Yaris is a small, four-cylinder vehicle, which boasts about 40 highway miles to the gallon. In town, it gets roughly 34 miles to the gallon. Though it only has an 11.2 gallon tank, I’ve discovered I can get pretty far without filling up. I made the trip from Iowa to New York, and spent a little under $100. And throughout the past month, I’ve realized I’m not at the pump nearly as often as I was when I drove an SUV.

Though it doesn’t have power door locks and windows, I’ve gotten pretty used to not having the feature. I roll down the window only when I’m getting fast food, and it’s not all that often that I have a passenger, so three of the four doors remain locked most of the time. It was an option, but the car that I bought was on the lot and ready to go.

"American ideals"

I didn’t have any qualms about buying a "foreign" vehicle. In this day of globalization and an attitude of every man and woman for himself, I didn’t feel as though I was compromising any of my American ideals.

It would be nice to say that American vehicles are more efficient, better-built, and the way of the future. Having once been in the automotive business (I was in the trailer hitch business and was under vehicles daily), I’m not all that convinced that American-made vehicles of today can stake that claim.

Once I made the transition from the SUV to the car, I haven’t had to get my oil changed as often. Every 5,000 miles now, instead of every 3,000. When I went to get my oil changed and tires rotated at Lia Toyota, I noticed there was a big poster on the wall in the waiting area. It read "10 Ways Toyota Helps the American Economy." My interest was piqued right away. Clearly, someone within the company knew there was skepticism in some American minds, and wanted to try and do something about it.

The poster was wrinkled, nearly falling off the wall, and outdated. (it was published in 1993)

I read about the ways in which Toyota has "helped the American economy." First of all, the poster said, Toyota has invested more than $5.2 billion in the U.S. Toyota, the poster, said, also employs nearly 16,000 Americans, contributed $14.1 million to U.S. charities in 1992, and produces nearly half of the passenger cars it sells in the U.S. in North America.

According to a more recent study, which was conducted by the Center for Automotive Research, and financed by Toyota, the car manufacturer is employing more people in the U.S. than it ever has.

The study says Toyota, which has five manufacturing plants in the States, employed approximately 29,000 people in the U.S. in 2003 for its manufacturer-related activities, and about 74,000 in sales and service.

Measuring up

The Yaris has front-wheel drive, so I’m not too concerned about the coming snow. I’ve been told the winters here can be treacherous, and that I am going to have to get some snow tires. I’m confident the vehicle and my conscientious driving will ge –me through in one piece. However, never having experienced a New York winter, I may have a lesson in store.

Buying the car wasn’t easy. I was a bit hesitant for many reasons. For one, I’ve never bought a new car. Since I was 16, I’ve been the recipient of second-hand vehicles and company-owned trucks and SUVs. Entering the showroom, throwing around figures, and playing psychological games while making the second-largest investment possible, was a bit intimidating. I survived.

Speaking of survival, I’ve learned a bit about feeling susceptible. I’ve never before felt the vulnerability that goes with being close to the ground, continuously being passed by trucks and SUVs twice my size; as they rush by, I sometimes imagine the drivers laughing at my miniscule size. Until I drove the Yaris, I’ve always felt I measured up.

Now, measuring up has taken on new meaning. I think to myself when the full-size trucks and SUVs blow by how uneconomical they truly are, how their owners possibly feel quite helpless and defeated when they see the numbers winding up as they pump more and more gas into their tanks and at a much higher frequency than I. I wouldn’t say that I am smug about it, but there is a certain amount of satisfaction, a feeling of being a more practical, thoughtful consumer.

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