This year, in honor of our second anniversary, Westchester Parent is proud to salute five people whose contributions to our community have been exceptional and inspiring. Alex Matthiessen, executive director of Riverkeeper, has led the fight to close down Indian Point. George Albano, principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Vernon, has inspired his students to excel. Stephen Apkon, founder of the Jacob Burns Film Center, has provided our area with a rich and much-needed cultural resource. Dani Glaser, a member of the United Communities of Westchester, has taken on the responsibility of educating the public about the proposed Millennium Pipeline. Mindy Kombert and her partner, Sherry Kronenfeld, are creating the poignant Flag of Remembrance to memorialize the lives lost on September 11. We celebrate the achievements of these five special individuals, all of whom have helped to improve the quality of our lives:
Alex Matthiessen, Executive Director, Riverkeeper Alex Matthiessen has always been one to meet challenges head on. His latest, as executive director of Riverkeeper — an independent, member-supported organization dedicated to protecting the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River — may be his greatest challenge to date.
Working with a team of attorneys to safeguard New York City’s and Westchester County’s drinking water supply by tracking down and stopping polluters, Riverkeeper has investigated and brought to justice more than 300 environmental lawbreakers since 1983. Most notable was the 2001 campaign to force General Electric to clean up toxins from the Hudson River.
But since September 11, Matthiessen and his organization have taken on a new opponent — the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan. After the attacks, questions began pouring in about the plant and its vulnerability to terrorism. What kinds of security measures are in place to protect residents of surrounding areas? What would have happened if jetliners had crashed into the domes of the Indian Point reactors instead of the Twin Towers? How far would a radioactive release travel in the event of an attack?
Last November, Riverkeeper, joined by public interest groups and government officials, launched its campaign with a petition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) calling for an immediate shutdown of Indian Point Units 2 and 3, at least until the NRC can clearly demonstrate that the plants can be operated safely.
More recently, Riverkeeper has started to investigate the corporate structures of the power plant companies, and Matthiessen has publicly questioned whether Entergy, which owns and operates Indian Point, would have the funds to cover losses resulting from a nuclear accident.
According to Matthiessen, “There is no good reason to keep Indian Point open. We can meet our power needs by taking a few steps and by using power from existing plants in New York and Connecticut.” He believes this is possible with or without conservation efforts.
We applaud Alex Matthiessen and his co-workers at Riverkeeper for these and other efforts on our behalf. For more information, visit www.riverkeeper.org.
— Robin Green
George C. Albano, Principal, Lincoln Elementary School, Mount Vernon
Educators are often the least decorated heroes of our society. That said, one educator in our community deserves to be recognized as a true hero and shining example of educational excellence crossing racial barriers and economic obstacles.
George C. Albano (brother of professional wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano) has been the principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Vernon for 22 years. His school, made up of 800 students, half of whom are African-American and close to half eligible for a free or reduced lunch, recently scored near the top of Westchester County in the 2002 fourth grade English test. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that the performance gap between black and white students was negligible, in contrast to a large and disheartening gap existing throughout the state.
What is Albano’s secret to success? “We believe in educating the whole child – academically, socially and morally,” says Albano, a man clearly proud of his school’s achievements.
Sure this sounds great, but can he back it up? You bet. Albano’s students receive weekly chess lessons from a chess master (the benefactor is a wealthy businessman in Greenwich), and onsite visits from the staffs of the Westchester Philharmonic and the Westchester Conservatory of Music. Enthusiastic learners line the art-filled hallways as low-volume, classical music fills the air.
Obsessive about hiring decisions, Albano believes he “has the ability to recognize and recruit talent.” Recent hires include an opera singer from Juilliard to teach music and a children’s book illustrator to teach art. He also boasts of a full-fledged mentoring program to enable every teacher to achieve success.
Moral development is where Albano really stands tall. His students, many of whom are themselves economically disadvantaged, are involved in community service projects which provide support to Hale House, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Montefiore Children’s Hospital and other charitable organizations. They provide Thanksgiving dinners to families in need, and visit nursing homes to sing carols and give gifts at Christmas.
His accomplishments are summed up by his assistant principal, Lyuba Sesay, who says: “Under Albano’s meticulous leadership, no detail is too small, no task too difficult, no challenge too great to ensure that each student is presented with countless opportunities to grow.”
Stephen Apkon, founder, Jacob Burns Film Center Stephen Apkon relishes creating memories — especially for a community. "I believe in the power of film," he says. "Film gives us the unique ability to enter worlds other than our own and learn from them." Apkon’s convictions and boundless energy have helped make the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville a standout success.
Like many of his neighbors, Apkon moved to Westchester from New York City to enjoy everything the county offered his growing family. Yet he missed some of the city’s cultural draws, especially the cinema. He envisioned Westchester having one of its own premier film houses — a place where people could enjoy an alternative to the multiplex; where independent, documentary, and international films would share the stage with children’s features and old-fashioned musicals.
In 1998, this dream became a reality. Apkon and a group of friends founded a non-profit organization and renovated the old Rome Theater in Pleasantville, one of the county’s first movie houses. In its 2001 inaugural year, 150,000 people enjoyed Jacob Burns’ cinematic offerings.
Apkon believes the film center’s draw centers on its reputation. "People know they’re coming to see great films, not just to be entertained," he says. Apkon’s voice rises and quickens as he describes the legacy he’s helping create: "Some of the films challenge, many inspire, but all of them enrich."
This past year Jacob Burns sponsored several educational programs for area schools. One pilot program, See*Hear*Feel*Film, helped third-graders improve their storytelling techniques and writing through evaluating films. Each of the programs will be expanded in the coming year.
While Jacob Burns’ offerings will continue to draw viewers, Apkon hopes the film center will also be an inspiration for his own children. "As a parent, the greatest things you can do are not in words, but in actions," Apkon says. "My children have seen me pursue my dream and make it a reality. I love what I’m doing and I think that’s one of the greatest gifts for my children."
For more information go to www.burnsfilmcenter.org.
— Kristen J. Gough
Mindy Kombert, co-founder, the Flag of Remembrance
Mindy Kombert’s office is papered with close-cropped photos of faces. Mothers, fathers, brothers, neighbors. Even though Kombert didn’t know any of them personally, if you point to one, she can tell you a name and usually a story. "I feel like I know some of them," she says.
Since September 11, Kombert has been on a mission to pay tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Flight 93. Kombert envisioned a flag pieced together with the faces of those who died. Kombert and her business partner, Sherry Kronenfeld, decided to devote all of their time at their graphic design firm in Chappaqua to work on the project, which will take almost two years to complete.
Each picture is scanned and then printed onto a 4-1/2” fabric piece, which becomes a part of the stripes of the flag. Kronenfeld researches and authenticates each name and picture with the help of several relief organizations and government agencies. Volunteers from across the country hand-stitched each of the 50 white stars.
At times the project can be draining. "I’ve scanned over 1,700 faces," explains Kombert softly. "Sometimes it’s difficult to look at all those faces and think about what happened."
The flag will be almost two stories tall when it’s completed in June 2003 for a special exhibit at the New-York Historical Society. It will be on display from June until September, at which point Kombert hopes that it will travel the country. The project has been funded entirely by private donations.
Kombert imagines that people’s reaction to the finished flag will be very emotional, just as the project has been emotional for her. "Our goal was to create a tribute to the victims and their families," she says. "We wanted to try to help in some way so that these people will not be forgotten."
For more information, go to www.flagofremembrance.com.
Dani Glaser, member of the United Communities of Westchester
When Dani Glaser returned from vacation in April of 2001, she found a book the size of the Yellow Pages on her doorstep. Instead of listing phone numbers, the book was a draft of the environmental statement for the proposed route of the Millennium Pipeline, which would literally go through her backyard.
Glaser started knocking on her neighbors’ doors, asking what they knew about the pipeline. "I met some of my neighbors for the first time," she recalls. The seeds for what would become the United Communities of Westchester were planted as neighbors began talking to one another and banding together to fight what they considered an unnecessary threat to their community’s safety.
The pipeline would pump highly pressurized gas through a 420-mile route, extending from Canada, entering Westchester County near Buchanan, crisscrossing many communities and schools before ending at the Con Edison plant in Mt. Vernon. Glaser and her neighbors became alarmed, first by the pipeline’s proposed route, and then by its method of construction — dynamiting into Westchester’s bedrock and backyards.
Her neighbors formed Not Under My Backyard (NUMB) to mobilize the community into action. Glaser became the head of communications for the group, contacting other Westchester residents and local and state representatives. "I have over 350 email addresses on my computer," she says, "people from Mt. Vernon to Cortlandt and every elected official in the county."
During some of her busiest weeks, Glaser can work up to seven hours a day, including weekends, handing out and explaining information to residents and government officials. The organization has now expanded beyond the town of Cortlandt, and since its inception, has gained a reputation for professionalism, tenacity and results.
Although Glaser sometimes feels overwhelmed with the amount of work she puts into the project, she’s grateful for her family’s support, especially that of her teenage children. "I wanted them to know that you don’t just sit back and let something happen," she explains. "You fight for what’s right."
For more information, go to www.NUMB-IN-NY.org.