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The last few years have been pretty tough on the family – we lost so many in so little time and unexpectedly. It almost seemed like we were cursed with all the tears and so many hearts to heal. This year was a bit different and we are all still here, and although there are those who continue to cope with different ailments, we are pretty much okay.

This year was a big one for my Nick. This year he finally “got” the whole birthday thing and he enjoyed Halloween and was the cutest Superman I have ever seen. The words started flowing and he is communicating so much better. Just the other day he said “good morning” to a neighbor who was in the elevator with us. I had to prompt him, but he looked at her and said it. I don’t think she realized what a big moment that was. He uses “I want” when he needs something and he is doing great in school. My Facebook cover page says “Words Will Come,” but I think I have to change that now.

I have met and become closer to new friends who are on the same journey as Nick and I. These women who understand what it means to raise a child with Autism. We laugh together over a meal and drinks or just talk about our children – sometimes we shed tears of sadness but mostly of joy. As an adult I can’t remember the last time I met someone who I can genuinely call a friend. I have never been the type to give anyone the title of “best friend” and I still don’t because my real friends are more like family. These new friends – and you know who you are – are a blessing to me and they are now and will always be my family.

On Thanksgiving night when we sit around the table with my family and share the amazing meal prepared by my dear mother, I cannot help but feel blessed to still have her and my father here on earth and hope that we have many more years together.

Health, Words, Family.

And for that I am grateful.

Marisol Vendrell is a life-long New York City resident and works as a legal assistant for a midsize Manhattan firm. She is the single mom to a seven-year-old boy named Nicholas who is diagnosed with Autism. She is the co-founder of the Bronx Parents Autism Support Circle, a parent support group for Bronx parents, and is a CUNY SPS student working towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Disability Studies

Sarah Chalmers graduated from the CUNY SPS MA in Applied Theatre program in 2010. In 2012 she started her own company, Civic Ensemble, and was recently awarded the Civic Leader Fellowship from the Cornell University Public Service Center. She will teach applied theatre techniques to Cornell students and engage them in the community-based play process. Below is a reflection on her road to success:

Sarah Chalmers is a graduate of the MA in Applied Theatre program at CUNY SPS

My life since completing the MA in Applied Theatre with SPS in 2010 has been a whirlwind. I promptly left New York City for Ithaca, NY for what many might think would be a quieter life. While we certainly drive slower up here and, unlike NYC, it is against the rules of decorum to honk at someone sitting still at a green light, we do keep busy. My son was born in July of 2011 and I spent a glorious year almost exclusively hanging out with him. In June 2012, ready to scratch my applied theatre itch, a few colleagues and I started a new theatre company, Civic Ensemble. The theatre scene here is thriving and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

While Ithaca has many small community theatre companies and two well-established regional theatres, there was an opening for a new company committed to engaging communities in theatre-making as well as theatre-going. Civic Ensemble is focused on just that. In our first year, in addition to producing a reading series of new plays by women, we implemented several applied theatre programs which we put under the heading of Civic Engagement.

We were commissioned by the Sciencenter (a children’s science museum) to create an interactive theatre workshop about hydraulic fracturing for young children which included debate on both sides of this contentious issue. This workshop was conducted throughout the summer of 2013 and continues into the fall. We also conducted a free two week summer youth theatre for teens ages 13-21 to explore topics of importance to them. This project was in partnership with the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and was funded by the City of Ithaca. We hope that becomes a year round program in the future. Also this summer we implemented a program at a detention center for young men in Lansing using Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to provide a structure for participants to step back and think critically about their lives and the external forces that shape their circumstances as they explore the ways that they can effect change in their lives. For this project, funded by the State of New York Office of Children and Family Services, and for the Youth Theatre, we hired my fellow MA in Applied Theatre alum Ernell McClennon (’10). It was a wonderful reunion and chance to work with someone who speaks my language completely!

The cornerstone of Civic Ensemble’s season every year is a community-based play. The play tells our collective story as devised by the participants with the guidance of Civic artists. All members of our community are welcome to participate in these plays. The topic of our first play was parenting and resulted in a production called, Parent Stories. Our topic this year is Safety: Community-Police Relations in Ithaca. This is a hot-button topic here in Ithaca, as in many communities in America. Through the sharing of personal stories and perspectives, participants can examine this challenging topic and potentially rethink entrenched positions. We will take these personal stories and craft a play that we will then rehearse and perform for the broader Ithaca community.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the response to Civic Ensemble and the work that we do with communities. When I look at what we’ve done in one year I am convinced that the applied theatre techniques we bring are needed by our communities. People are hungry for a way to connect and having the tools to facilitate that connection means I am able to create the life I want, doing work that is meaningful to me.

I am Itamar Kestenbaum – a Business student at the CUNY School of Professional Studies.

I am taking an extremely interesting course this semester – Oceanography with Professor Kathleen Schnaars-Uvino. Professor Uvino has been very enthusiastic about the topic of the course throughout, and while I had at first just been trying to get through the course to get the credits – I found myself engrossed in the subject of Oceanography and the different components of oceanic life, meteorological and lunar phenomenon affecting the oceans, and the general science of Oceans.

In particular – with my deepening understanding of what causes beaches to erode or to become swampy and littered, I grew uneasy.

When Professor Uvino offered an extra-credit assignment that involved cleaning up a beach – it goes without saying that I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to see what a beach looked like when what we learned about happened in real life. When, after many ebbs and flows in the bay – sediment and debris washed and deposited onto the shore, leaving it a swampy mess.

On Saturday, the 30th of April – the weekend after Earth Day (which has recently extended itself into Earth Week) – the American Littoral Society met up at Breezy Point, NY for the third day of a massive cleanup operation. Most of Breezy Point is actually quite beautiful – and houses several beach and nautical clubs along the thin strip of land parallel to the Belt Parkway.

However, Rocky Point – the beach at Breezy Point that we were tasked with cleaning, had been used as a dumping ground for excess lumber and other debris. But the littering of this specific beach was not onset by humans. The beach, due to poor up-keeping and general desertion, had become the ideal place for sediment and particles to settle in the bay, and nature did its part in creating an appalling marsh where a beach would have been,

When I showed up, the American Littoral Society was already deeply engaged in carrying the lumber and trash out of the swamp and into a large dumpster by the road. There were large representative groups from Bloomberg, CUNY, and the Girl Scouts among others.

Approximately fifty people in total were involved in the operation – and what a difference it made.

When I had arrived – they had cleaned up half of the wood (the piles were about 5 feet high, and 14 feet in diameter.) I jumped right in to help clean up the other half – and by the end of the day only a small amount of wood remained – and the container was completely full.

Aside for the general cleanup – there was a special operation underway closer to the shore, where about ten people were actively and enthusiastically sawing away and hammering together a professional-looking osprey tower completely out of the spare wood that was found at the site!

At the end of the day, the entire group gathered by the swampy shore. There, laying on the mud, was a large pole with a flat surface attached to the top. Two ropes were strung to the top of the pole, and a large hole was dug near the other end of it. Twenty people gathered – ten on each side of the pole, and pulled the rope up at the count of ten, while a few people at the base of the pole guided it into the ground. It looked like the mast of a ship being pulled up by sailors – it was beautiful.

Once it was in the hole, and standing at 90 degrees with the ground, they secured it in with some wooden planks, and by shoveling mud back into the hole. There were cheers and celebration at the success of the osprey nest erection, and group pictures were taken.

Thank you, Professor Uvino, for the opportunity to have this great experience! I know I would have never found myself in Breezy Point, NY cleaning up a beach without your help and guidance!

Here is a great time-lapse of the some of the cleanup and the osprey nest building provided by the American Littoral Society:

Untitled from Irene Roxanne on Vimeo.

Itamar Kestenbaum is a Junior at the CUNY School of Professional studies – working toward his BS in Business.  He also works in Marketing in NYC, and loves hanging out with his wife and son.