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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 1, 2008

Trustees check out plans
Guilderland library may double in size

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The library trustees unanimously supported plans to renovate the Guilderland Public Library and nearly double its size. The cost could range from $11 million to $12 million.

Architect Frank Craine of Peter Gisolfi Associates presented the plans  — which include such features as a rooftop garden and geothermal wells — to an enthusiastic board Tuesday night.

“We are definitely designing a green building,” said Craine.

The project would bring the library’s total square footage to about 46,500, up from the current 26,500 square feet.  The brick and metal one-story library was built on Western Avenue in 1995; the library’s assistant director described it as “bursting at the seams.”

The architects worked for the last seven months with a long-range planning committee chaired by Robert Ganz. They have also met with staff members to assess needs.

“It will be our job to figure out how to sell it to the community,” Ganz told the board on Tuesday. A series of dialogues will be scheduled to gauge public support, he said.

The library’s director, Barbara Nichols Randall, told The Enterprise this week, “We haven’t set a timetable beyond saying we would hope to begin something in the next three to five years.” State funding could cover half the costs, Randall said, and the hope is to get grants beyond that to lessen the tax burden. (See related library budget story.)

The architect estimated the building, once approved, would take 1 5 to 18 months to complete.

Most of the added space would be in a two-and-a-half-story addition on property to the east of the current building, which the library purchased in recent years.

The architects had to work around steep slopes and wet conditions. “The shape would take on more of the vernacular — gabled roofs with dormers,” said Craine.

“The building wraps around and embraces the parking lot,” he said. The current parking lot will remain in place but will be added to and reconfigured. Board members raised some concerns about whether the plan includes enough parking spaces.

Craine said the building itself will last “50 years plus.” As for the function, he said, “We shoot for 20 years-plus,” noting that technology and demographics change.

Renovated and expanded

The current library building will be reconfigured with what Craine described as a “market square that would be the spine of the library.”

He described this center axis as containing “the hubbub of the library” and said it would be “an active light-filled space.”

A teen library will be contained in its own space in the current building and the children’s space will be expanded. Another small meeting room will be added and the large meeting room will be enlarged.

The two-and-a-half-story addition features stairs that open to each floor and a new elevator. Both the old and new sections will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A glassed-in tech center will house computers and the addition will also feature enclosed study rooms.

The main floor will feature a traditional reading room with a sloped ceiling surrounded by a mezzanine above. And the reference librarian will have a space she can “defend,” said Craine.

The top floor will have additional study spaces and a local history resource center with the mezzanine overlooking the entire library.

Craine called the “vegetative rooftop” part of a “sustainable design.” It can be used as a “teaching tool,” he said, and the four inches of soil will reduce storm-water runoff, serve as a natural air filter and thermal insulator, and will extend the life of the roofing materials.

Another green feature would be the use of geothermal wells, which would draw from underground, where temperatures are always 55 degrees, for use heating and cooling. The “renewable energy” systems cost more to install but will pay for themselves in the long run, said Craine.

Photo voltaic panels on the roof are also a possibility, said Craine. And, he said, “Overhangs allow heat in when we want it and keep it out when we don’t.”

Board backing

All of the trustees present at Tuesday’s meeting expressed support for the plan.

“It’s big enough to encompass what we need,” said Carroll Valachovic, “without being ridiculously big.” President Brian Hartson described it as a “beautiful building and an asset to the community.”

Ganz called it “a good investment in the community’s future.” He said the plan would encourage both traditional library use and non-traditional enjoyment of cultural experiences that “reinforce the desire to explore reading.”

“When I first came to the Guilderland library,” said its director, Nichols Randall, ”the thing that attracted me was the open feeling and comfortable place. People could come and read and see their friends and gather together.”

She said the plans have the same openness and light and described them as “something that fits with our untraditional building” and “doesn’t look stuck together.”

Merry Sparano, a long-time, now retired, trustee, sitting in the gallery, asked the architects, “Where were you 15 years ago?”

Library proposes $3M budget with 5-cent tax hike

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — As the library trustees plan to expand and renovate their building, they have proposed a $3 million budget for next year where the largest increase is for planning that expansion.

The spending plan is up from $2.8 million this year and would bring an estimated tax increase of 6.67 percent, or five cents per $1,000 of assessed value. A hearing on the budget will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at the library; it goes to public vote on May 20.

”We’re all very aware of the pressures people are under,” said the library’s director, Barbara Nichols Randall. The trustees put together a budget with few increases beyond inflation, she said.

“Because of our space limit,” she said, “we see next year as keep doing what we’re doing and not a year of innovation.”

Building constraints limit services, she said.

Typical of library use in tough financial times, Guilderland’s circulation and attendance has been increasing. In the past year, Nichols Randall said, patrons have numbered about 1,100 a month and usage at the Guilderland library has increased an average of 4 percent each month.

Last month, for the first time, she said, the library had over 60,000 items in circulation. For 2006-07, total library loans — including everything from audio books to fishing poles — numbered over 627,000, she said.

The biggest jump in the budget is an increase in programming and planning from $38,375 this year to $70,225.  The bulk of that, just over $37,000, will go for a “schematic design” for the library expansion project, said Nichols Randall. A sub-surface survey will cost $7,500.

While library construction grants are available from the state, she said, architecture and engineering costs are not reimbursable. The library currently has a grant, she said, to expand the auxiliary parking lot.

The lion’s share of the budget, as always, goes for salaries and benefits, which will be up from $1.9 million this year to $2.1 million next year. The library currently has 57 full- and part-time workers, said Nichols Randall.

The human-resources budget will increase $3,000 to $18,750, mostly because of more staff training as senior members retire. 

Library materials for next year are up about $10,000 to $345,483, “keeping at the inflation level,” said Nichols Randall.

“We’re doing a few new things,” she said. This includes purchasing the popular Playaway audios, which she described as “stand-alone books you can listen to.”

This year, too, the library started buying more bestsellers, not letting some of them be reserved to create a “serendipity effect” for those who want to read them.

The library also plans to have downloadable audio books by the fall so people with iPods can download them, said Nichols Randall.

The equipment budget is down about $3,000 to $50,885. While the library will continue to buy replacement furniture, she said, “We have no place to put any more shelving.”

The increasing circulation, she noted, has eased the crunch for shelf space. “If everyone brought everything back the same day,” said Nichols Randall, “we’d be in trouble.”

The technology and communications budget will increase about $4,000 to $60,575. ”We can’t have everything everybody wants,” said Nichols Randall. “As we replace the computers used by the public, they get moved to the staff.”

Soon, the library will be getting FIOF, a fiber-optic connection that is more than twice as fast as its current connection. “We hope that will increase the number of people that use our computers,” she said. Library patrons are allowed an hour of computer use at a time; last month, the average time was 38 minutes. By upgrading the connection, the hope is user time will be shortened so more people will have a chance, said Nichols Randall.

Property and physical plant costs will remain the same.

On the revenue side, investment income will be down from $45,000 this year to $30,000 next year. “The interest rates have continued to drop,” said Nichols Randall. “We’re looking at a worst-case scenario.”

State aid is listed as the same at $10,377. “Actually,” said Nichols Randall, “it’s probably not staying the same; Governor Paterson has said there will be a 2-percent cut...We don’t yet have the final word from the state.”

The lion’s share of the funds — $2,784,744 — will come from the local tax levy.

The area served by the library follows school district boundaries and, while most of it lies within the town of Guilderland, pieces of it fall in three other towns. The tax rate varies from town to town based on assessment practices and a state-set equalization rate.

The library estimates these tax rates if the $3,014,786 budget passes:

— Guilderland residents would pay 95 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, up from 89 cents this year;

— Bethlehem residents would pay 83 cents, up from 78 cents;

— New Scotland residents would pay 80 cents, up from 75 cents; and

— Knox residents would pay $1.39, up from $1.30.

“We try to do the best we can and keep the levy low while keeping the service as good as it is,” said Nichols Randall. “We think we’ve got the best library in the Capital District and we want to keep it that way.”

Two candidates, one write-in for three library trustees seats

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Two candidates — Vishnu Chaturvedi and John Daly — will be on the ballot on May 20 for library trustee. Three seats are open on the 11-member board and a third candidate, Michael Fox, has launched a write-in campaign.

The unpaid post carries a five-year term. At the same time, voters will be deciding on the library’s $3 million budget proposal for next year.


Vishnu Chaturvedi reads a lot of books but Arrowsmith stands out in his memory.

“When I was transitioning from high school to college in India, I read this novel by Sinclair Lewis about a physician who becomes a scientist. He works with bugs that are causing havoc in the Caribbean ... It’s larger than life but the man is very human. He accomplishes his goal but the price is very high ... He makes a lot of sacrifices. ...

“I still remember it because, at that time, I was not reading that many books in English...It imprints on your brain.”

Chaturvedi is a scientist himself. He is a clinical microbiologist who does research for the state’s Department of Health.

He is making his first run for the board of the Guilderland Public Library, having been appointed to the post last September. “I’m still learning,” he said, but he believes he has much to contribute.

 “It’s a very good experience,” he said of serving on the board. “The group of people is dedicated and careful. They have reflective discussions and sincerely represent the community.” He went on, “Even though I was a rookie, I was never made to feel like that.” The board, he said, is “very inclusive.”

Chaturvedi has lived in Guilderland for 11 years, with his wife, Sudha, also a scientist, and their daughter, Aditi, a senior at Guilderland High School. He has enjoyed using the library during that time. “You get your books and get out,” he said. “You don’t realize there is so much behind the scenes.”

He has served on two library committees, for long-range planning and for grounds and maintenance.

Asked about his goals, Chaturvedi said he would like to see the library “try to expand as much as possible to high-speed computing, accessible to all demographic age groups.”

And, he said, while the library currently has a good public-speaking series, he’d like to see that extended “to invite local academicians, people who can relate science to the public.” Chaturvedi said, “A lot of scientists talk just to each other.”

Chaturvedi himself is on the faculty of the University at Albany’s School of Public Health and he is an adjunct at Albany Medical College. He is also editor-in-chief of Mycopathologia, an international scientific journal.

Talking of other goals for the library, he said, ”My target group would be teenagers, to make it more attractive, to continue to engage them...We may even have some students doing things not available at local institutions.”

Chaturvedi also said, “If I’m formally elected...I would like to influence people to contribute to the Friends and the Foundation...The money is very well spent.”

He concluded, “I’d rather not just fly my own flag, but be a team player.”


John Daly says he is passionate about involving the public in library matters.

 “I present a moderate middle-of-the-road view,” said Daly of his five years on the board. “I’ve fought successfully to control the size of the tax levy.“

He currently chairs the finance committee and formerly chaired the library’s long-range planning committee. He is also a member of the policy committee.

Now 70, Daly has retired from a 37-year career with New York State, where he worked as a budget examiner, management analyst, and planning coordinator.

Daly has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a master’s degree in health-care administration from George Washington University.

He and his wife, Lenore, a lawyer, have twins: Joshua, a 1997 graduate of Guilderland High who lives in New Jersey, and Sabrina, a 1997 graduate of Holy Names, who is about to graduate from law school in Maryland.

Daly is also a musician. He plays the string bass with the Delmar Community Orchestra and a local swing band.

“I believe that libraries are an important institution,” he said. “Guilderland’s library is a very good one...I want to continue to contribute.”

Daly is excited about the library’s expanding programs and proposal for a new addition. (See related story.)  “I want to participate in meetings we’re planning with the community,” he said, to “listen to ideas on how to develop the library.”

He went on, “I feel passionately about community involvement. I feel the trustees are too shielded from the community. I would like to see trustees’ e-mail addresses publicized.” Daly gave his own e-mail address to be published: jackdaviddaly@yahoo.com.

“It takes time to read e-mails and respond to concerns, but that’s what we’re elected for,” he said.

Daly’s goals for his next term, besides working on the library expansion, include educating young people in science and technology. “We need to prepare our young people to participate in the emerging high-tech industry locally,” he said.  High-paid jobs will be available that will “keep our children at home,” said Daly.

He went on, “We are chartered as an educational institution by the state Board of Regents. We can present seminars and lectures on science and technology, coordinating with the schools.”

Adults should be learning, too, he said. Daly wants to “kindle the spark,” he said, and involve “all our citizens in seizing this opportunity.”

Finally, Daly said, he believes the library should limit access to R-rated movies, CDs, DVDs, and video games for children under the age of 17.

“We’ve recently issued a flyer to make it clear to parents that a library card grants access to all library materials...regardless of age...We can work out a reasonable policy which will limit access to adult-rated materials.“

The library’s director, Barbara Nichols Randall, said that, under the state’s confidentiality law, libraries cannot prevent anyone from taking any materials out. “It’s not the staff’s business what people check out,” she said. “When we first had videos, only people 18 and up could take them out. The community was not happy with that.”

She also said, “The videos, just like the book collection, are divided into different libraries — for children, teens, and adults.”

Earlier in his tenure, Daly had proposed that books for children aged 10 to 16 be labeled by librarians to make parents aware if they included “descriptions of sexually-explicit acts.”

The idea was strongly opposed by a crowd at a library meeting and did not gain support from a majority of board members.

“The idea I was proposing censorship is nonsense,” said Daly. “I was asking for a sticker on the spine of the book to say parent guidance recommended.”

He went on, “The library should put parents on notice so they can ideally hold discussions with their children.”

Daly concluded, “Each newly-elected board has an opportunity to set policy so the issue is always there.”

Asked if he has a favorite book, Daly said he is “an avid reader,” reading The New York Times and the Times Union daily as well as The  Altamont Enterprise weekly.

Right now, Daly is reading Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism by Arthur Brooks.

“It’s a very practical book,” he said “about the patterns of giving in the United States.“

While the Guilderland Public Library is supported by the taxpayers, he said, it is also interested in obtaining grants.

“All of us trustees need to know more about charitable contributions,” said Daly. “I’m hoping future programs in technology will be funded by farsighted members of the science and technology industry and academic institutions, promoting the idea of the new birth of the science industry in this area.”


Michael Fox is launching a write-in campaign because, he said, “I have the time and expertise to help out.”

Fox, 55, works for the New York State Senate as counsel in program. “I work for Joe Bruno in the policy area of education, libraries, and museums,” he said.

He has a bachelor’s degree in government from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in public administration from the University at Albany.

He and his wife, Debra Hutchins, moved to Heritage Village when they were first married.

“I’ve lived in Guilderland for the last 30 years as a homeowner and taxpayer. Both of my sons graduated from Guilderland High School. I have time now to give back,” Fox said.

Asked about his goals as a trustee, he said, “To insure access, making the library accessible to those with disabilities and the elderly.”

Asked about his favorite book, Fox said, “Number one is The Pillars of the Earth....It’s historical fiction about building a cathedral in the 1500s in England so you get to know the time and era and about the feudal system.”

Lawlor still in
Search for top cop narrowed to three

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — A field of eight has been narrowed to three in the race for police chief of this suburban town.

Of the two Guilderland officers in the mix, one is in and one is out, said Supervisor Kenneth Runion on Tuesday.  The town board has agreed on the finalists, he said, which include Robert Durivage, who was on a list last year of three eligible candidates from the Civil Service Department; James Tedesco, an officer from Troy who answered an ad recently posted by the town; and Carol Lawlor, a veteran of the Guilderland Police Department who has been acting chief for the last year. 

The formerly all-Democratic town board elevated her to the position when the long-time chief, James Murley, left amid controversy.  Lieutenant Curtis Cox, second in command of the 33-member department, did not make the final cut.  The two Guilderland officers took the promotion-class Civil Service exam on March 8, the results of which won’t be available for another week or so.

The pair have been close throughout the process — in February, they hired attorney Paul Clyne to notify the town of possible legal action stemming from comments made by a freshman Republican on the town board.

Lawlor and Cox sought a lawyer because they wanted “a fair playing field,” Lawlor said at the time.  “I’m a believer of promoting from within if you have qualified candidates,” she said.  “You have two qualified candidates.”

“Carol Lawlor has been here for 30 years,” Cox said yesterday of his colleague.  “She certainly has earned the right to that job.”  He’s pleased that he was considered for the chief’s position, Cox said, but he’s “very comfortable” in the job he now holds.

“It was pretty easy,” Runion, a Democrat, said of the decision on candidates made by the board, which has often been at odds since two Republicans took office in January.  “Pretty much,” he said, “there was a consensus on the final three.”

“It would have been a different combination… if it was up to me,” Republican Mark Grimm said of his thoughts on the choices.  “I agreed only because I saw the handwriting on the wall,” he said.  Grimm and fellow Republican, Warren Redlich, have accused the Democratic majority on the town board of aiming to promote “Town Hall insiders.”

When asked what she will do if she’s passed up for the position, which carries a salary of $84,000 to $92,000, Lawlor said, “I would have to cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Two candidates will be interviewed before the board meeting on Tuesday and the third after the meeting, Runion said.  The first round of interviews covered qualifications and credentials, he said, and he expects that next week’s interviews will delve into the specifics of how each would manage the department.

All three are “very highly qualified,” he said.  “Any one could handle the job.”

Aging gracefully
The Guilderland Ballet turns forty years old

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Jane De Rook didn’t learn to love dance in Europe.

“There wasn’t much dancing there at the time,” she said of her post-World War II childhood.  When she came to the states in 1954 as a physician, she settled in the area and went to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where she saw her first ballet.  Ten years after her arrival stateside, she saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in 1968 she began the Guilderland Ballet.  This year, the studio is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“This specific area is sports oriented,” she said of what prompted her to bring dance into the schools here, which is where the Guilderland ballet originated.  There were only a few dance schools at the time, she said, and she, with a group of eager parents, started a program to teach dance in the gymnasiums of local schools. 

“I don’t see as many broken bones… in the ballet school as in the sports,” said the long-time doctor.

In recent years, De Rook has noticed a drop in interest from girls, who are tending towards soccer.  “The interest has declined, definitely,” she said, but the studio has evolved over the years to reflect the vogue.  The Guilderland Ballet now offers yoga and pilates as well as ballet and jazz.  It has also grown into a larger studio, finished in 1999.

The program moved out of school gymnasiums when Armand Quadrini gave De Rook a barn on his Mill Hill property decades ago.  “It was in a deplorable state,” she said, but together with several mothers, she transformed the roughshod barn into a dance studio and now the Guilderland Ballet has a second studio that is twice the size of the first.

With discipline, De Rook said of dance, “it takes you to a whole different field.”  Dancing, she said, involves music and choreography in addition to the physical movement.  De Rook prefers it to gymnastics for young girls because it doesn’t pose the risk of injury and it doesn’t encourage competition.  “I’ve always hated the competition part in sports,” she said.

While she retired from her medical practice last July, De Rook is still very active with the ballet, she said, and plans to carry on with fostering children in dance, helping them to realize their potential.

“Children are artistic beings,” De Rook said.  “Little girls dance if they hear music.”

In Namibia, Breitenbach is bringing love to the forgotten, food to the starving

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — “They’re my babies,” says Jessica Breitenbach.

She is talking about children who live on the other side of the world in the African bush of Namibia.

Breitenbach works, without pay, in an orphanage there and, at age 30, feels she has found her purpose in life.

The children, she says, don’t talk about their past. “They don’t need to be reminded,” she said. But, as she has come to know and love them, she has learned pieces of their history.

A boy had been sold into slavery by his poverty-stricken family.

“He was sick; now he’s a strapping young man,” said Breitenbach. “He went from being a little boy to a young man. He plays soccer and guitar. He wants to be a pastor one day. He’s one of the reasons I went back.”

Another of her favorites is an 11-year-old girl who had suffered abuse and abandonment. “Her laugh is so contagious,” said Breitenbach. “She strives to learn as much as she can in school and to better herself and encourage others...She’s one of the most compassionate kids. She’s learned so much about the Bible.”

Another boy was living in a hospital because he had no place to go. Yet another, as a sickly infant, was nearly thrown into the grave with his dead parents.

“They thought he wouldn’t survive and he couldn’t be cared for,” said Breitenbach.

The stigma of AIDS, said Breitenbach, keeps the children from naming the disease. “They were sick,” the children say of their dead parents.

A dozen of the children she cares for are HIV positive. “We take normal precautions,” said Breitenbach. “When a little guy climbs in your lap, you don’t think, ‘He’s diseased.’ You think, ‘He needs a hug.’”

She said, “I feel like I’m actually accomplishing something...I see the real face of AIDS. These are real children, really suffering; they have nobody left.”

Breitenbach has learned to look where she sets her feet as she walks — to avoid the poisonous black mamba snakes, the cobras and the adders. She has fallen asleep to the sound of hippopotamuses talking to each other as they bathe in the Zambezi River.

“It sounds kind of like a demented Santa Claus,” she said of the hippos’ ho-ho-ho-like grunts.

She describes the place where she lives as “gorgeous.”

Food for the starving

Breitenbach is home for six weeks, staying with her parents in Guilderland, while she raises funds to return to Africa. She hopes to raise enough to pay for a vehicle that will allow her to truck food to starving villagers who live in the Caprivi Strip.

When Breitenbach returns to Namibia in a month, if she has raised enough money for a vehicle, she will work with Jimmy Kearney of Joint Compassion Keepers to bring food to children along the length of the Caprivi Strip.

Joint Compassion Keepers places huge unused shipping containers in African villages and turns them into feeding centers. The rectangular metal containers are brightly painted and look like modern mobile homes once they are set up.

“They’ll provide us with food for a year to get us off the ground. I’ll be the director of the new centers,” said Breitenbach. She’ll drive the length of the strip, from Katina to Runda, picking up food at a warehouse and leaving it in villages with large numbers of orphans.

Breitenbach lives at the far end of the strip, inland from the coast, in a compound established by two Americans, Rebecca and Gary Minks; their work is supported by a Maryland church, the Children of Zion. The village has modern buildings, including a house for the Minks and their adopted children, a barn, a school, and two dormitories — one for the girls and one for the boys — connected by a large common room. Fifty-seven orphans and vulnerable children — whose parents may be too sick to care for them — are housed there.

“Our littlest guy is 2; our oldest just turned 18,” she said. “They play and bicker just like a good old-fashioned family.”

Learning about AIDS

Breitenbach graduated from Guilderland High School in 1995. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in the ministry with a concentration in education from Roberts Wesleyan College near Rochester.

While in college, she had taken a church trip to Kenya and Uganda. “I hated it,” Breitenbach recalled. “I felt like a spectacle...and it was so rustic... We showered in a bucket. I thought, ‘Lord, call me anywhere but Africa.’”

She stayed on at Roberts Wesleyan, working for the college in alumni relations and fund-raising, earning a master’s degree in theological studies and then working for the chaplain.

Breitenbach felt, though, that her life lacked purpose. Then she was asked by Roberts Wesleyan students to be the advisor for a club dealing with AIDS.

“The more I started studying HIV and how it looks in the world, my heart was broken,” she said. “I had thought that, if you contracted HIV, it was your own fault. You were a drug user or promiscuous...The real victims are the children who are born with it and the children who are left behind when their parents die. In Africa, women are victims of HIV because their husbands bring it home.”

When some of the club members wanted to take a trip to Africa, Breitenbach, at first, was dead set against it. She began looking into it, though, when the club members persisted and she found the Children of Zion Village in Katima Mulilo.

Forty-three percent of the people who live on the Caprivi Strip are infected, said Breitenbach. “It’s one of the hardest hit areas.”

She went on about the AIDS epidemic, “Normally, a disease kills off the weaker people, the young and the old. This is hitting the working class, the young and the middle-aged, the healthy, active child-bearing people...It’s hitting the teachers, the police force, the farmers, leaving the children and the elderly with no one to care for them.”

The life expectancy in Namibia is 45, she said.

All this convinced her to take the trip to the Children of Zion Village. “As soon as I set foot there, I fell completely in love with the children,” she said. “I was still searching for what I should be doing.”

She found it.

She was devastated when her three-week sojourn was over and she returned to Rochester. “Now I know what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said.

She let go of her apartment and started saving, then quit her job, and with money raised from her friends, made a six-month commitment to work with the Minks in Namibia. The flight cost $2,000 and living expenses amount to about $300 a month.

“For a long time,” said Breitenbach, “I felt I shouldn’t do it alone.” She thought she would work with a husband and family. Then I thought, ‘What are you scared of?’ I’m a much happier person now,” she said.

“If that blessing ever comes,” Breitenbach said of marriage and a family, “I’ll accept it. But I’ve found alternative ways to have a family or significant relationships.”

Day in the life

Breitenbach says there is no typical day for her at the Children of Zion Village. She teaches pre-school; does paper work; helps in the kitchen; takes care of the babies; and helps with barnyard work caring for chickens, goats, sheep, and horses.

Each day starts early as she attends a staff devotion and meeting at 8 a.m. “We discuss everyone’s concerns,” she said. “Africans are really all about community.”

Most days, she drives four kilometers to the tar road and then travels 10 or 15 minutes to Mafuta, the nearest village, where the Maryland church supports a feeding center. There, cornmeal is cooked until it becomes thicker than porridge, and more like bread. This pap can be ripped off and dipped in soup or gravy.

“It’s really odd to eat with your hands,” said Breitenbach. “If we have goat milk, we bring that. We bring them whatever we have.”

About 116 orphans and vulnerable children in Mafuta are eligible for this meal; served at around 10 a.m., it is their only meal for the day. Without the program, those 116 children probably wouldn’t eat, said Breitenbach.

Although there are UNICEF and government programs, said Breitenbach, “Most of the food is not really getting to the children...and there are just so many children in need.”

She said of the children of Mafuta, “I don’t know what the future holds for them.” The country has thousands of homeless children, begging in the streets.

“When I go to Mafuta every day,” said Breitenbach, “I want to take one home.” She says she has thought a lot about adoption.

One of the girls she has befriended in Mafuta was thought to be handicapped. Her name means “suffering.” She came from a different tribe and simply couldn’t understand the language.

“Now that she’s spending time with me, she speaks English,” said Breitenbach. “She’s actually quite smart.”

For the villagers, much of the day is spent getting food and water. To get the wood for the fire to heat the cornmeal, said Breitenbach, “We go out into the brush.”

By contrast, the orphans living in the Children of Zion Village are well fed and have ample clean water.

“We’re trying to teach our children life skills, like farming,” said Breitenbach. “We wish we had a carpenter or bicycle repairman to teach them useful skills.”

All of the children work in the garden to learn how to grow food for themselves.

“The best part of my day is sitting in the baby room,” said Breitenbach, smiling as she describes the way the children love to surround her.

Bridging cultures

“My African friends are amazing,” said Breitenbach. Twenty native Namibians work at the Children of Zion Village cooking, doing laundry, gardening, doing barn work with the animals, teaching, and caring for the children.

“Africa is very tribal,” said Breitenbach and the children and workers speak a number of different native languages. She is trying to learn Lozi, one of the languages. Lessons at the village school are taught in English.

One of the biggest cultural differences between America and Namibia is the sense of community, said Breitenbach. “America is more of an individualistic society.”

She gave an example from her life, as seen through the eyes of one of her new African friends, Benstien, a staffer at the Zion village. “I lived in the city of Rochester for years and barely knew my neighbors. He said, ‘If I have food on my table and my brother next door doesn’t, I would not let him starve.’”

The constant sharing, said Breitenbach, is a change from the American attitude: “It’s my stuff. I work hard for it. Stop asking.”

She also said, “They’re big into gifts.” Benstien’s fiancée, Doreen, for example, sent Breitenbach a few ears of corn. “That was a huge sacrifice for her,” she said. “It means she cares we’re friends. I did actually eat that corn, after boiling it.”

Breitenbach also said, “It’s with caution I crossed that barrier of having men as friends...As a Christian, I don’t want to form insignificant dating relationships.”

Breitenbach has had to fight some stereotypes of being American, such as the assumption she is wealthy. She points out she is working for no pay and has to collect contributions to do her work.

She also said, “Being an American, people look up to me. I don’t like having a different status, being the center of attention. I want to earn friendship because I’m me.”

She doesn’t wear native dress — the colorful cotton wrapped skirt worn by the natives as well as many visiting American women. Instead, Breitenbach wears conservative shirts and pants.

“I try to accept them for who they are and they have to accept me,” she said, adding, “I definitely don’t wear revealing clothes.” This means keeping her shoulders covered, even in extreme hot weather.

“Some days,” she said of the children she cares for, “They just want to play with my hair or stare at my eyes to see the contact lenses.”

She concluded, “I want to be part of their lives. I don’t want it to be me and them; I want to be all together.”

To contribute to Jessica’s project

The Children of Zion Village opened in 2003 in Namibia, in southern Africa, and now houses 57 orphans and vulnerable children. The village is run by missionaries, volunteers, and Namibian staff and is funded by the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Maryland.

Jessica Breitenbach, a 1995 Guilderland High School graduate, is passionate about her work there. She is raising funds to return and hopes to collect enough to pay for a vehicle that she will use to transport food to starving villagers in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia.

Contributions may be made to support her work to: Children of Zion, Inc., Post Office Box 413, Churchville, MD  21028. Contributors should write “Jessica Breitenbach’s support” on the memo line of their checks.

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