Activists and Consumers Chew on Results of Recent Food Study

By Sienna Mae Heath

November 2, 2016

Published on

While our dependence on food is universal, discussions of food activism can get complicated.  This was very much in evidence on October 29 at Northampton Community Kelly Allen College’s (NCC’s) Fowler Family Southside Center at a “Community Conversation” that concluded “Food in the Public Square,” a nine-month study of the Lehigh Valley food supply.

The goal of the day was to engage the community in a humanities-based conversation about the local food supply and food culture. The conversation was as rich in flavor as the diversity of people in the Lehigh Valley, reflecting differences and similarities in culture, language, lifestyle, and economic status.

We all eat, but some do not have time to cook, are short on time to garden, and lack the funds to buy fresh food. Those of us who can do all of the above can count our blessings. No matter our resources, we can all join the conversation on food.

Kelly Allen, an NCC professor who coordinated the “Food in the Public Square” study funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, opened the conversation by discussing the fluidity of sustainability and food justice. He emphasized that culture inevitably impacts our food choices. He then introduced “a panel of people who are doers” in the field.

The panel included Sophia Feller, Stephanie Dorenbosch, and Alvaro Drake-Cortes.

Feller is the urban ecology coordinator of the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership. In 2009, she started community gardens of raised beds tucked away in former parking lots near her home in Easton’s West Ward, an area she describes as culturally diverse and heavily populated.  It is considered a food desert.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as, “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in Food in the Public Square impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”

While the Easton Farmers’ Market seems nearby, West Ward residents feel distanced from it. Some feel socially awkward there. If they don’t have cars, it’s hard to walk home while carrying produce, Feller added.

To serve this need, Feller worked with Lafayette College to provide those families with fresh produce. She started vegetable stands on the streets where people enjoyed music and sharing recipes in English and Spanish. She created the volunteer-driven Easton Urban Farm. Its stand lasted for 10 weeks in 2014, partnering with donators La Farm (Lafayette College’s community garden), NCC East 40 Community Garden, and Northampton County Prison’s treatment center.

“It’s a real labor of love to work there,” Feller said.

Stephanie Dorenbosch spoke next. She is a staff attorney at Friends of Farmworkers, a nonprofit legal services organization that serves low-income farm and food processing workers in Pennsylvania. She represents many immigrant workers.

Dorenbosch presented data from The National Agricultural Workers Survey indicating that 75 percent of U.S. farmworkers are from Mexico and 53 percent are undocumented. These workers typically possess little education and low English language proficiency. They live in poverty, earning $12,000 to $15,000 a year. As a result, they rarely bring home healthy food to their families.

All immigrant farmworkers, whether documented or undocumented, experience many issues, most importantly retaliation for speaking up. Even a U.S. citizen farmworker isn’t entitled to overtime pay, she said.

“[These] people are living day-to-day and on the edge,” she said.

Dorenbosch spoke of the complexity of immigrant farmworkers’ situation, asserting that the U.S.’s agricultural economy is based on slavery. Exemptions from the 1930s New Deal deprived poor black farm workers of their rights and continue to impact immigrant farmworkers today, she said.  Farmers are dependent on field workers to harvest their crops.  Some try to treat them fairly, but they face economic challenges in doing so.  Dorenbosch also believes the public should start asking farmers about their work conditions.   “You can solve this!” she said.

Alvaro Drake-Cortes was the final speaker. He is the project manager of The Food Trust based out of Philadelphia. The Food Trust addresses food challenges in the U.S. and policy change, oversees research, runs 21 farmers’ markets in underserved communities, offers workshops in more than 15 schools, and works with small business owners.

Drake-Cortes manages the Pennsylvania Healthy Corner Store Initiative that guides grocery store owners in providing “real estate” and “marketing” for organic products as they do for junk food. Cortes’s main goal is to help customers understand their options.  “We offer nutrition education to help create demand,” he said.

A Q&A followed the panel discussion, starting with, “What can we do to better accomplish the goal to increase the participation of new and under-respected populations in the community discussions focused on food?”

Estefania Perdomo, a member of the public, asked why the presentations were not in Spanish. Cortes and Dorenbosch reacted by translating in Spanish to show their eagerness to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community.

They noted that racial diversity is an issue to consider in the food conversation. New populations regularly immigrate to this country. Regardless of race or language, many people experience a collective desire for fresh food, they pointed out.

“We have the whole world coming to us,” Cortes said.  “We have…very specific challenges that make the environment very rich.”

Participants met in groups to develop action items related to food justice.

Marilyn Hazelton, Allentown-based editor/poet/photographer, suggested people share their personal stories of hunger.

“I grew up on canned food, the more dented, the better,” she said.

Poems from her nature poetry workshop were displayed in the lobby. The poems explored themes of farming, flavor, cooking, texture, unity, and generational love.

Kailyn Seixas, 15, who attends Liberty High School, suggested schools fund events about food “rather than fund a video game club.”

“Our generation is already going on the wrong path,” Seixas said. “We should focus on the right path.”

Sodexo provided lunch for the participants in the community conversation with ingredients supplied by NCC’s Farm Market vendors: Jett’s Produce and The Flour Shop.

After lunch, Saide Saddiq performed drumming and spoken word. Saddiq is the founder of Arrow Up EAP (Empowering Arts Project), a startup nonprofit social impact movement dedicated to creating justice and unity among Lehigh Valley youth. The nonprofit was invited to pilot an after school program at Liberty High School in Bethlehem.

Change can happen if we understand a collective identity, Saddiq said.

As Saddiq chanted “Brand New Day,” his energizing rhythms unified people in the room from different walks of life. He enthusiastically welcomed attendees to play along using the percussion instruments at their tables.

Saddiq mentioned that he wrote the chant when feeling depressed. He reached rock bottom when he was homeless and continued to struggle on his entrepreneurial journey.

“You can revive yourself and see there’s a bigger picture that we’re all living in,” he said.

His spoken word performance titled “The Future Is” embodied taking ownership of creativity and belief. He passionately encouraged people to take ownership of food activism.

A cook-off sponsored by Second Harvest featured three chefs with different backgrounds: Kirk Hawk, a retired special education teacher who learned to love cooking when he married his late Sicilian wife; Ada Chandler who works as the chef at Safe Harbor of Easton and also hosts cooking classes at Easton’s new public market; and Matt Hall, an attorney with Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin whose self-taught cooking skills won the competition.

The chefs answered honest questions with honest answers. When asked, “What if I can’t afford those fresh peas?” a chef suggested using frozen peas, saying they are better than canned because they are preserved better and can be used a little bit at a time.

Each attendee received a gift basket of cooking tools. Prizes of larger kitchen gadgets were raffled off.

The chefs’ entrees included a salad of red kidney beans, yellow squash, zucchini, edamame, cumin, and lemon; one pan-chicken with tomatoes, onions, and garlic as well as rice with the “good stuff” on the bottom of pan.

By the end of the day, participants gained a greater understanding of food culture. They eagerly exchanged contact information, sharing their ideas to further the actions we can take to provide fresh food for many people in the Lehigh Valley.

Revolution in My Living Room

By Sienna Mae Heath

July 21, 2009

Published: (July 21, 2009), New America Media (, (August 18, 2009), The Express-Times (July 21, 2009), and Pocono Record (July 18, 2009)

I am an Irish-Iranian American member of the human race. Who are you?

Iran has been defined as “over there” by many people who are not familiar with the country. But ever-growing technology has brought “over there” into our houses.

The burst of publicity on the Iranian people’s peaceful freedom fighting has proven to be not always so peaceful through our television and laptop screens. In my house, such broadcasts are particularly poignant. YouTube videos are playing throughout the house, surrounding my parents and me with the sounds and struggles of the Iranian people’s bittersweet cries. We’re also surrounding ourselves with the sounds of loving and creative solidarity events like poetry readings and musical collaborations from all across the globe. Sometimes it feels like it’s all right here in my living room, right here in America.

While Iranian and non-Iranian people are coming together, it hasn’t been enough yet. Once in a while I’ll see my Iranian mother crying over her computer screen. Sometimes I cry too. I’m crying because a part of me that I barely know is dying, or maybe just being born. The comedies we used to watch don’t brighten our days the way they used to. My Facebook posts aren’t as popular: many of my Iran-related links are left without any comments, but I know that someone is clicking on them.

At the same time, the attention isn’t so bad. The Iranian people – not just the Iranian government – should have made CNN headlines long before the summer of 2009. Not only their cries for human rights but their literature and music have finally become appreciated and admired around the world. They should have made headlines for the past thirty years, but like their last revolution in 1979 (when my mom left her home in Iran), the news reports lost interest.

As the Twitter updates dwindle and as the Iranian government cracks down on the already weary and broken backs of their citizens, will the American interest, fascination, and maybe even sympathy fall into the cracks of the Iranian soil, in between the government and its opposition? Will the brief American curiosity and compassion for people over there fade away?

As an Irish-Iranian, an American, and a human being, I sincerely hope not.

While I have relatives in Iran, the focus of recent news broadcasts should transcend heritage bonds and form bonds throughout humanity. The news on television and the voice of the people through mediums such as Twitter have come together, as should the people over there and the people over here. Through technology and through our hearts, it is time. My aunts, uncles, and cousins deserve just as much as yours.

While we’re on Facebook for hours, my cousin in Iran got on Facebook for just five minutes to let me know she was alive.

As Twitter’s trending topics sway from genocide to pop culture: What are you doing?

Ramadan Tent Dinner brings a flavor of the East to Bethlehem

By Sienna Mae Heath

July 28, 2012

Published in The Express-Times and on lehighvalleylive.comRepublished on Hizmet Movement News Portal.

About 100 Americans and Turks broke bread and baklava last week in Bethlehem.

The 10th annual Intercultural Dialogue and Friendship Ramadan Dinner celebrated the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar on Wednesday and Thursday nights in Bethlehem.

Hosted by Lehigh Dialogue Center, a program of prominent speakers and chanted prayer began at 7:30 p.m. Istanbul Grill on Broad Street served dinner at 8:15 p.m. alongside traditional Turkish coffee and Turkish delights from the LDC.

The event was free and open to the public. Other organizers and sponsors of the event were Peace Islands Institute, Turkish Cultural Center Pennsylvania and the City of Bethlehem.

A tent in Payrow Plaza, formerly known as Bethlehem City Hall Plaza, channeled traditions from the Mediterranean where tents are often set up in the streets of Turkey for people who cannot get home soon enough before sunset to break the fast during Ramadan, says Murat Al, of Bethlehem, who moved to the U.S. from Samsun, Turkey, and is a member of the Lehigh Dialogue Center.

The dinner included traditional Turkish cuisine. Red lentil soup is popular for breaking the fast before eating heavy food, says Sunay Yerdelenli, of Easton, who moved from Turkey to New Jersey in 1995.

The meal’s rice, a staple in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, is cooked in corn oil, butter and ground orzo for a smooth taste, according to Yerdelenli. The ground beef kebab, known as Adana Kofte in Turkey, is cooked with smashed onions and peppers.

The event’s invitation stated that its intent was to “raise awareness about the importance of interfaith and intercultural dialogue in the greater Lehigh Valley and Northampton area.”

“Everybody is here for freedom, but we don’t want to forget our culture,” says Omer Alici, president of the Lehigh Dialogue Center.

According to their mission statement, members of the Dialogue Center aim to bridge cultures between Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the community.

Understanding Ramadan

Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to leaflets handed out by the Lehigh Dialogue Center. This year, Ramadan began the evening of July 19 and will end the evening of Aug. 18.

Ramadan is a holy month to Muslims, who believe that during this time the holy book Quran was sent down from heaven to lead people to salvation, according to

Fast breaking time is a holy moment during each day of Ramadan, which unites communities around the world during Ramadan/Iftar dinners, according to the Lehigh Dialogue Center.

Al, who is studying for a doctorate degree at Lehigh University, sees a good relationship budding between Americans and the Turks.

“I hope the friendship will go on where we embrace our differences and similarities in a friendly atmosphere,” he says.

The Christmas City celebrates Ramadan in style

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, who attended the Ramadan Tent Dinner says he sees significance in uniting cultures of the East and West.

The event was appropriate in Payrow Plaza, where the Christmas City displays a nativity scene and where a menorah lighting has taken place since 2009 during the winter holiday season, Callahan says.

To close the night, Yerdelenli and younger women in the Turkish community brewed traditional Turkish coffee, a small, strong cup of coffee with cardamom.

The women wore flowing scarves to symbolize their devotion to God and to share the latest fashion trends in Turkey of intricate designs and vivid color.

Unity through diversity

The Lehigh Dialogue Center also hosts trips to Turkey. Its annual 10-day summertime tour of Turkey took place June 15 to June 25 this year. Roseann Bowerman and her husband Douglas, of Bethlehem, went on the tour and stayed an extra two days to take in the air of the East, she says.

“The group that is hosting us tonight and [hosted] the trip very much emphasizes intercultural and interreligious understanding,” she says.

The family connection in the East, Bowerman observes, is often lost in the West. In Turkey and other parts of the Mediterranean and Middle East, generations enjoy being together, whereas the idea of the extended family isn’t as common in the U.S. Events such as the Ramadan Tent Dinner are inspiring unity, bringing families from the East and the West closer together, Bowerman says.

Murat Guzel, a delegate for President Barack Obama, moved to Bethlehem from Malatya, Turkey. He owns Smart Juice, an organic juice company in Bethlehem. He, too, appreciates Ramadan as a time of generosity.

“Since we’re all human, we love to host people and we want to host our neighbors,” says Guzel. “We need to use Ramadan as a chance to start (getting involved) in our community matters and volunteer time and donate generously.”

For more information on the Lehigh Dialogue Center, including its upcoming events and cooking classes, visit

* * *

Lehigh Dialogue Center will also host keynote speaker Dr. Christian S. Krokus at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 at the Holiday Inn Allentown, 7736 Adrienne Drive. The professor is from the Department of Theology/Religious Studies at the University of Scranton. Registration is required by Aug. 14 by contacting 610-871-0562 or


Many members of the Lehigh Dialogue Center see the month of Ramadan as a time to be generous and give back to the community.

  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars, or duties, of Islam.
  • Fasting has always been a part of many major religions. Moses fasted for 40 days and nights before he was given the law, and Jesus fasted for 40 days before he was called to be a prophet.
  • All physically mature and healthy Muslims are required to decline all food, drink, gum chewing, tobacco use and any kind of sexual contact between sunrise and sunset. Fasting also includes speaking only kind words and doing generous deeds, while refraining from gossiping and lying.
  • It calls for self-reflection, praying and being very conscious of God’s presence. Fasting inspires humankind to realize the blessings given by God and to show appreciation for these gifts.

Dinners in Ramadan tent welcome all faiths in Bethlehem

By Sienna Mae Heath

July 21, 2013

Published in The Express-Times and on Republished on Hizmet Movement News Portal.

A tent reminiscent of late nights in Turkey lit up Bethlehem’s Payrow Plaza, welcoming everyone to break the Ramadan fast.

The second annual Ramadan Tent Dinner in the city observed the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

Hosted by the Lehigh Dialogue Center, Turkish Cultural Center of Pennsylvania and Bethlehem, the event, which was free and open to the public, featured live music by the New Brunswick, N.J.-based band Wind of Anatolia on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Wednesday night, host Kent Mehmet Ozman and Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan welcomed more than 150 people with remarks. After a call to prayer, Istanbul Grill on Main Street served dinner, inspiring the global dialogue the center strives for in the greater Lehigh Valley.

“We’re open and welcome to everybody. We are all human beings,” said Omer Alici, president of Lehigh Dialogue Center. “We believe in the same God but in different ways.”

In Turkey, most people work late hours so there is little time to go home to break the fast. Tents are set up in the city centers so that people can do so as a community.

The event in Bethlehem served a similar purpose, the mayor said while standing 50 feet from where the Christmas tree and Menorah candles light up the Christmas City every December.

“Bethlehem is a melting pot,” Callahan said. “This event is an opportunity for us to learn more about each other as individuals. This is how we grow.”

Ozman was born to Turkish parents in Ohio, absorbing his Islamic faith there. He recognizes fasting, prayers and generosity as commonalities in all religions.

“I wore a jacket and tie because I figured if the Arabs can celebrate in all that desert heat, then I better do the same for them,” Ozman said.

As the sun set, traditional Turkish cuisine was served. Muslims refer to the evening meals during Ramadan as Iftar dinners, or the breaking of the fast.

Red lentil soup is a light start to a generous meal, said Sunay Yerdelenli, of Easton, who moved from Turkey to New Jersey in 1995.


Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to leaflets handed out by the Lehigh Dialogue Center. This year, Ramadan began the evening of July 8 and will end the evening of Aug. 6.

Ramadan is a holy month to Muslims, who believe that during this time the holy book Quran was sent down from heaven to lead people to salvation.

Tibetan monks at Musikfest to make mandalas, meditate and chant for world peace

By Sienna Mae Heath

July 29, 2012

Published in The Express-Times and on Republished on

Monks at Musikfest will set the tone for a peaceful yet energetic festival this year.

The Tibetan monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery will perform for several days, starting with a mandala sand painting ceremony noon Thursday at Handwerkplatz and ending with the closing ceremony 6:30 p.m. Aug. 6 when the monks will hand out half of the sacred sand to audience members and then pour the other half into a nearby body of water to spread its healing properties throughout the world.

The monks will make a mandala design out of millions of grains of colored sand during the mandala sand painting ceremony, also offered Saturday. The artists typically begin at the center of the mandala (or circle) and work outward, creating geometric shapes and ancient spiritual symbols within. The monks will destroy it at the “sweeping” ceremony Aug. 6 to symbolize the impermanence of life as the strands of sand are swept away into a nearby body of water.

The monks will also perform their multi-phonic chanting at the Musikfest Opening Ceremonies 6 p.m. Friday at Americaplatz. This overtone chanting, known as “zokkay” which means “complete chord,” brings the monks and potentially their audience closer to a higher state of mind, according to The Mystical Arts of Tibet.

When Patrick Brogan, vice president of the performing arts at ArtsQuest, first saw the monks in January at Arts Presenters in New York City he realized, “€they presented a diversity of cultural exchanges that would be unique to the audience.”

Visually and musically, they differ from other performers at Musikfest. Instead of rocking out to typical tunes, they will chant and create art showing a variety of color, motion and vibration in their performances.

“[The audience will] see the beauty of the art itself and the patience that it takes. There’s a lot of lessons,” says Irene S. Lee, assistant director of The Mystical Arts of Tibet in Atlanta, Ga., where the monks are endorsed by His Holiness the Dali Lama and under direct guidance of the Drepung Loseling Monastery in India.

The history of the monastery 

The Monastery was founded near Lhasa, Tibet in 1416. After fleeing to India during the communist Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, the monastery successfully rebuilt as a monastery in exile near Bombay, India, creating a holy community with a current population of approximately 3,000 people. The monks came to the U.S. in 1989 when eight monks undertook the first Drepung Loseling world tour co-sponsored by actor Richard Gere, of Tibet House, N.Y.

Since then, they enjoy seeing new things, meeting new people and often form long-term friendships with audience members. Especially during the mandala-making, according to Lee, the monks are known to be social as well as spiritual beings. Mandalas, used for healing and happiness, are rooted in the Tantric legacy of Buddhist India, extending back some 2,500 years.

Ven. Lobsang Dhondup-la, 32, understands happiness relies solely on the happiness of the mind. Entertainment, like the musical entertainment during Musikfest, is also desired by the mind, according to Dhondup-la.

“Our consciousness can be entertained by many means,” says Dhondup-la. “€œHappiness is nothing but the happiness of the mind.”

Dhondup-la has been with the monastery since he fled India when he was 10 years old. He has now been a monk for 22 years. During that time, he says he strives with his fellow monks to open up the minds of his audience to another culture and to world peace.

The overtone chanting contributes to their passion for healing and creative living, he says. The last song of the monks’ chanting performance is “Sangso Shijo: Auspicious Song for World Healing” when the monks will send forth the smoke of incense, which the wind carries into 10 directions with the intent of invoking peace, harmony and ways of creative living.

Dhondup-la sees creative living as re-inventing what you do and who you are on a daily basis.

The sacred dance, among their specialties in chanting, meditation and sacred music, promotes world peace. The monks will be robed in costumes and play traditional Tibetan instruments during the sacred dance’s two-hour performance, which includes introductory comments during a 20-minute intermission.

“It spontaneously heals the people,”€ he says. “The sacred dance has years of history of healing.”

Tibetan Traditions Today

Meanwhile, the monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery travel on a global scale to spread the word about their culture and the Tibetan refugee community in India. Most recently, they were in Southern Nevada to visit The Torino Foundation’€™s summer camp for children who are critically ill.

“Our common [human] consciousness has something to do with these vibrating sounds,”€ says Dhondup-la. “€œEverybody has an instrument.”

The monks use their voices, but also play other traditional Tibetan musical instruments, such as the 10-foot-long dung-chen horns and the gyaling trumpets.

The Tibetan traditions can be experienced at the upcoming shows at Musikfest where audiences and guests can meditate on positive energies through the arts of mandala, meditation and multi-phonic chanting.

“It sounds like a great festival that unites different cultures,” says Lee.

For more information, visit and

Musikfest schedule for the Drepung Loseling Monks:

  • The Tibetan monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery will perform a mandala sand painting ceremony noon Thursday at Handwerkplatz.
  • The monks will perform 30 minutes of multi-phonic chanting and traditional instruments at the Musikfest Opening Ceremonies 6 p.m. Friday at Americaplatz at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks.
  • The performances of “Sacred Music Sacred Dance” will be held 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Volksplatz.
  • Meditation sessions will be offered 11:15 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at Handwerkplatz. The public is welcome to bring cushions or sit on the ground.
  • Mandala Sand Painting will be held Saturday
  • The closing “sweeping” ceremony will be at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 6 when the monks will hand out half of the sacred sand and then pour the other half to demonstrate impermanence.
  • The monks’ mandalas will be on display Saturday through Aug. 6 at Handwerkplatz.
  • “Tibet: Magical Land of Spiritual Wonders” photo exhibit will run Saturday through Aug. 12 at the ArtsQuest Center.

The Drepung Loseling Monks strive to:

  • contribute to world peace and healing through sacred art.
  • generate awareness of the endangered Tibetan civilization.
  • inspire support for the Tibetan refugee community in India.

Bello is Back!

By Sienna Mae Heath

Summer 2009

I collaborated with fellow PR intern Jenn Steinhardt to interview and write this feature story about the World’s Greatest Daredevil Bello Nock. This document was circulated to donors and press to create publicity for Big Apple Circus’s production “Bello is Back!” 

Bello Nock returns to the Big Apple Circus for its 32nd season show Bello is Back! Well known for his daredevil stunts and child-like humor, Bello returns after an absence of ten years to his first American circus, where he became a star. Since that time, Bello has continued to strive for balance on and off the stage, as would befit someone who rides motorcycles on tight wires sixty-five feet above the heads of his audience, performs acrobatics atop steel sway poles at up to eighty feet in the air, and hangs on a trapeze from a helicopter flying over the Statue of Liberty. Walking a fine line between daredevil and clown, like wire walking, Bello has also achieved a perfect “yin yang” in his life with his family, performing, and business.

His chart-topping hair, balanced on end above his impish grin, and jaw-dropping stunts have won him great acclaim. TIME magazine crowned Bello “America’s Best Clown” (2001) to which he responds, “I believe the reason I could… receive an honor like that is because I set a new trend, I blazed a new trail. I don’t think I’m the funniest person out there. I don’t even think I’m the funniest clown.” Bello defines himself as fifty percent clown and fifty percent daredevil. “I call myself a comic daredevil,” he says. Achieving this balance in his performances has been a slow, but sure process since his stage debut at six years of age as Michael Darling in Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby. “Achieving the greatest of ease takes many hours if not years to make it look like the greatest of ease,” he says. “I wanted what I am at a very young age.” Bello had to train himself athletically as well. He elaborates by explaining that many people will try and do too much when they start training. The trick is start “slowly but surely, and then [increase] exponentially.” His techniques convinced the New York Daily News when the newspaper said that Bello “might be the greatest athlete to ever set foot in Madison Square Garden.”

With a background in the theatre and circus, he compares the two. In theatre, he says, the actor is “acting out someone else.” In the circus, it is “much more personal.” It is an “autobiographical performance, bringing people into your world. You’re their tour guide in your own house.” The circus has more freedom, so he “writes the rules as I go.”

Bello is excited to return to the Big Apple Circus and looks forward to “being able to make friends with every single audience member in a two-hour…journey.” He appreciates its intimacy and the new opportunities in store for him. Bello is particularly pleased to perform in the Big Apple Circus because it serves as a form of education and entertainment, which unites family members of all ages. He says, “No matter where you are in life, no matter what age group, it has something for you. It is the perfect blend of the chaotic art [of the] circus and very finetuned theatre.”

Bello also brings a parallel blend of talents and cultures to the Big Apple Circus. As the son of a Swiss circus performer and an Italian actress, the grandson of an opera singer, and the great grandson of a pianist, Bello has the arts running through his veins. He is full of surprises and sets clowning on edge, reinventing himself and entertaining audiences all over the world. He speaks five languages and has accumulated a variety of performing skills, which have come from his roots: his father and his mother come from seven generations of performers.

On his father’s side, the Nocks began the tradition of circus performance in Switzerland in 1772 and founded Circus Nock in 1840, which remains the oldest circus in the hands of the same family that founded it. Bello’s father came to America in 1954 and had four sons, of whom Bello is the youngest. On his mother’s side, the Cannestrelli family in Italy pursued theatre and music. Bello’s mother came to America in 1955, and she met his father in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Now, Bello is happily married to his high-school sweetheart, Jenny, a retired trapeze artist, whom (like his parents) he met in the circus. Their son and two daughters respect the family tradition of circus performing in different ways. “Each one of them has found their niche,” Bello says. Bello and Jenny’s son Alex, age 20, and older daughter Amariah, 16, work behind the scenes. Amariah is Bello’s personal assistant, making his costumes and organizing his schedule. Younger daughter Annaliese, 13, is quite the daredevil, in more ways than one. “She wants to try everything,” Bello says, and she will perform this season in Bello is Back! Bello claims that a good performer needs four things: natural ability, a great coach, the drive to get back up and try again, and accessibility. “I had those, thank God. So does my daughter,” he says, “I’m looking forward to performing with her.”

As his children have grown older, his gravity-defying strawberry-blond hair has grown taller. He continues to wear his signature costume, a black tuxedo with a red bow tie, because when he was younger he heard this was the formal attire to treat an event with the utmost respect. Bello exclaims, “I have a deep-rooted respect for the circus!” He further explains that a doctor isn’t a doctor because he or she wears a stethoscope around the neck. A doctor is a doctor because he cares for his patients and is educated in the field. Similarly, a clown isn’t a clown because they put on a funny-looking outfit. “I was born a person who wants to make people laugh…I take it that seriously. There is a depth and a challenge,” he says. With a considerate and necessary amount of seriousness for his art, Bello also has a fresh, positive outlook with which he smiles in the face of a challenge and embraces the power of laughter. “Laughter is God’s good medicine,” he says. “It heals wounds and bridges gaps.”

In performance, Bello is able to achieve the greatest reaction by being mindful of his skills and the audience. He looks forward to bringing new expertise to his performances. “I don’t think anything is impossible,” he says. He is a skilled water skier and plays twelve instruments, so he may incorporate aspects of extreme sports (X Games) or music into his act. He says, “I want to bring back a perfect balance of what people expect of Bello with a few surprises.” Bello brings his optimistic belief in the potential of comedy to the developed, diverse, and warm atmosphere of the Big Apple Circus.

As to the audience, keeping up laughter in the crowd is a balancing act as well. “There is a certain amount of expectation [from] people,” he says. “It’s like getting a greatest hits record. You want a hit record that has about eight or ten of the greatest hit songs, but you always want two new ones to see what they’re working on. There’s no difference in performing. From show to show, [my performing] stays the same about eighty percent of the time and twenty percent of it is spontaneous and changes depending on the audience, whether they are a quiet audience, a loud audience, further away, whatever it is – that relationship is instantaneous during the performance.”

Bello believes that the perfect circus performer has to “be somewhat of a scientist, a daredevil, a performer, and an operation-minded person.” All these qualities give Bello his inventiveness, which has contributed to his success. His keeping the child alive in his heart but staying dedicated to his craft has earned him and his audience members the opportunity to experience the power of laughter. Bello likens himself to an “internal” case of Benjamin Button. The older he gets, the more child-like he becomes. “I enjoy life no matter where I am,” Bello says. Now he is ready to make the audience enjoy life under the Big Top of the Big Apple Circus’s 2009-2010 season of Bello is Back!

Yanni’s intimacy invades full house: Yanni brings the world to Easton’s State Theatre in return engagement

By Sienna Mae Heath

June 28, 2012

Published in The Express-Times and on 

While Yanni moved from his piano to his keyboards on the stage of the State Theatre on Wednesday, he took the audience on a much larger journey — a world tour of his heart.

Yanni returned to shine long after his performance May 7, 1991, at the Easton venue.

I was fortunate enough to stumble into the VIP tour this week just after the sound check when Yanni said to his 15-piece orchestra, “Let’s have fun tonight.”

The world-class performer understands Easton as a part of his interwoven story. “This is a historic place,” Yanni said. “And it is for me, too. I was just starting out when I came here.”

Since then, Yanni’s international career had him performing Live at the Acropolis in 1993 in his homeland of Greece. Wednesday night, Yanni came full circle in our own little part of his history, in a slightly smaller setting.

“I like these theater tours, they’re intimate, they’re small,” tour manager Richard Allenson added.

The intimacy Allenson, Yanni’s brother-in-law, and his crew appreciate was reflected in the warmth of the audience of the sold-out concert as well as the in warmth between the musicians on stage.

“He’s so down to earth and caring and makes sure everyone’s taken care of,” said Lisa Lavie, vocalist on the tour.

Words speak louder in the soundscapes of Yanni’s purely instrumental compositions. You can substitute lyrics for the lyrical violin and cello solos and understand he was homesick for something right in his own homeland when he composed “The End of August” toward the end of a lonely summer in Kalamata on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Yanni’s warmth and love for not only his country, but equally for the world, beamed from the very beginning of the concert.

“Santorini” introduced the experience with effortless opening of the melody by the French horn, ringing cello accompaniment, and Yanni’s smiles and expressive conducting to bring them all together.

He moved from the keyboards to his piano with slower, thoughtful tones during the gentler song “Felitsa,” dedicated to his mother who died. The duet between Yanni and violinist Mary Simpson struck a chord among the poetic drones of the lower strings and an attentive audience.

The lighting at the theater mirrored movements of individual musicians. Yanni danced between his two keyboards during more soulfully modern songs such as “Niki Nana,” which featured Lavie and Lauren Jelencovich, who first made a grand entrance with an operatic duet to techno beats.

The world was brought to Easton and the full house welcomed it with open arms.

“You came warmed up to the concert,” Yanni said enthusiastically to the audience.

Cuban drummer Yoel del Sol momentarily beat palm-tree drums with his elbows, Armenian violinist Samvel Yervinyan surprisingly didn’t break his bow, and Paraguay native Victor Espinola developed a new technique of what I witnessed as slap-harp. Alexander Zhiroff traveled up and down the notes and harmonics the cello has to offer during a transitioning cello solo.

His music provides a positive way to learn lessons and “resolve them, that way I can be free,” Yanni said.

He took a moment to dedicate “Nightingale” to his new baby panda from China that he named Santorini, which means “peace” in Greek. Of the 1,600 pandas in the world, Yanni was honored with this panda in the hometown of keyboardist Ming Freeman, who played a large role in the song about Yanni’s birthplace, “Acroyali.”

Drummer on tour, Charlie Adams, has been playing with Yanni for about 30 years, even during his rock ’n’ roll days and during his previous performance at the State Theatre. The drummer, who typically surprises Yanni by wearing a new T-shirt every night, sported a Phillies jersey Wednesday night.

In the end, “The Storm” took the concert on a frantic race to the end and seats were empty because the theater was full with a standing ovation.

Hats tipped to The Band Perry: mixing rock, country and covers works for Allentown Fair crowd

By Sienna Mae Heath

August 31, 2012

Published in The Express-Times and on 

The Band Perry, well-known as an American country music band, Friday night brought their passion for pop, rock and country to The Great Allentown Fair.

Country fans tipped their hats and raised their plastic cups to Easton Corbin at 7:15 p.m.,  when his seven-piece typical twang country band introduced the small-town flavor of the night’s show.

Corbin’s comfortably tight jeans were more than “a little country tonight” next to the tipsy blown-up Corona Light bottle blown up at the nearby stand at the fair. The lead singer’s common country accent was almost endearing, especially when the majority of the audience clapped their hands to every word when he stuck the microphone out to them during the chorus of “Lovin’ You Is Fun” from his band’s new album “All Over the Road” due Sept. 18.

The Band Perry blazed the stage on time at 8:30 p.m. with “Sugar,  Sugar” and “Hip to My Heart” for “all the girls in town,” said lead singer Kimberly Perry.

Psychedelic and patriotic lights lit the stage, bringing the band’s fiddler front and center while Kimberly wasn’t afraid to let her hair blow in the breeze or in the fan attached to her microphone stand.

“Country music is the people’s music. We hope you have the best night of your lives,” Perry said.

The audience let loose after a hard week with “Walk Me Down the Middle.” Meaningful metaphors like “loving you is like throwing a lasso around a tornado” delved out of the common corny country lyrics heard in other country bands.

The band may have played a few too many covers such as “Amazing Grace” and “Fat Bottomed Girls.” But let’s face it,  as the fans did,  The Band Perry belts out songs like no other.

Their song “Independence” was a perfect fit for a smooth transition into “Free Falling” for anyone in a small town,  said Perry. The lead singer showed off her two hopeless romantic musicians who are single and undoubtedly successful at quality grassroots entertainment with electric strings.

While Perry sang “give me back the rock ‘n’ roll” the audience wanted country to stay all night. A lot less iPhones were in the air,  and a lot more hands were moving to the upbeat small-town sounds.

Rodale Institute cares for honeybees in redesigned Thomas hybrid hives

By Sienna Mae Heath

September 9, 2012

Published in The Express-Times and on 

Area bee experts and elementary school teachers are encouraging people of all ages to “bee” grateful that honeybees help us survive and live healthy lives.

While some commercial beekeepers keep bees only for the honey and the money, the staff at Rodale Institute says they are doing it all for the bees.

Rodale Institute and Meme Thomas of Baltimore Honey launched a redesigned beehive on its organic farm in Maxatawny Township, Pa. in January.  The hybrid hive combines the hive bees would build in nature with one that is suitable for beekeepers to make honey.

It’s “the best of both worlds,” says Mark “Coach” Smallwood, executive director of Rodale Institute.

When the institute hosted beekeeping workshops in April, participants had the opportunity to care for their own hive, which they could take home or keep on the site.

“That’s what you do when you start a hive,” says Maria Pop, education and outreach manager of Rodale Institute. “Our main mission is to start a good, healthy colony, not to sell jars of honey.”

Don’t let bees drop like flies

Fewer people have kept bees since the 1970s as the population of honeybee colonies went down. There were 8 million beekeepers in the U.S. in the 1970s, and now there are just 2 million.

“If population went to 2 million, what would New York City look like?” Smallwood says.

Comparing beehives to a metropolitan city makes sense. Honeybees are responsible for up to 70 percent of our food supply, Smallwood says. Without them, the 1,100 trees in Rodale Institute’s apple orchard would not exist.

Smallwood thinks backyard hobby beekeeping is the answer to maintaining both the bees’ and humans’ health. He and his five trained staff members use water to mist the bees, not smoke. Sometimes, he says, you should just “leave ‘em be.”

Bees have 170 scent receptors, while we have two scent receptors: our nostrils. Beekeepers can use industrial smokers to calm them down. Smallwood is against industrial smoking because it weakens the bees’ sense of smell, so in the end, humans won’t have many pollinated fruits or vegetables on their farms, or flowers in their gardens.

Ethne Clarke, Editor-in-Chief of Organic Gardening magazine, published by Rodale, Inc., is a frequent visitor of Rodale Institute.

“The Rodale Institute with the focus on science is a constant source of inspiration,” Clarke says. “Bees are so critical to the health of a garden.”

Alison Panik, a fifth grade teacher at Seven Generations Charter School, who developed a unit on honeybees for her students, says that planting pollination-friendly plants in backyard gardens will help bees to pollinate fruits and vegetables.

Bees for People

Children are at the forefront for many bee workshops.

“The younger generation is a little more aware,” says Megan Kintzer, director of communications and development at Rodale Institute. “There’s a big push to educate on environmental issues.”

Panik teaches science through so-called “system thinking,” which helps her fifth graders become problem solvers with the understanding that all ecosystems interlock.

When the charter school’s hive swarmed and left half of its population frozen in time, it made her students wonder why. Now that they have two new hives, which arrived in April from Texas, she and her students decided not to let them swarm this time.

Swarming, as Panik and her students recognized, is a natural process and a way that honeybee colonies reproduce. More than half of the worker bees will leave the original hive location with the old queen in a relatively large swarm and relocate to a new spot.

“They feel that they are solving important problems in the world,” Panik says. “Even the kids that aren’t the strongest readers want to go after this information.”

Thomas also sees the importance of educating children on the lives of bees.

“[We are] reaching out to the youth and widening their eyes to the bees’ connection to the world,” she says.

Bee careful

Tips for kids to “bee safe”

Fifth grade teacher Alison Panik, of Seven Generations Charter School in Emmaus, wants her students and all children to “bee safe” by following these tips:

  • Buy local honey. Support bees and keep them healthy so they can pollinate fruits and vegetables at local farms.
  • Plant a vegetable garden.
  • Plant a butterfly bush, even though it is not a native plant.
  • Plant clover and let it grow. A big lawn with no clover is like a desert for bees.
  • Do not plant invasive plants.
  • Do not use pesticides.
  • Don’t wear perfume around bees. They may not want to sting you, but they are very territorial.
  • Know that bees are not the enemy. Bees are your friend. They are partners in a system that help us survive.

Smallwood encourages wannabe-beekeepers to wash hands with alcohol and wear white protective gear.

While the honeybees do not intend to sting anyone, they are very territorial. If you get stung, Smallwood suggests chewing plantains and making a paste for the sting.

“They’re not looking to sting anybody; they’re looking for nectar,” says Smallwood. “Usually when you think you are stung by a bee, you are stung by a wasp or hornet, not a honeybee, he says.

Before building your own hive, visit for resources or plan to attend the April session. The hands-on workshops cost $1,000 for participants to experience beekeeping with the Thomas hybrid hive.

If you go

The Rodale Institute is open to the public 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

The institute’s beehives, livestock, organic gardens and more are located at 611 Siegfriedale Road in Maxatawny Township, Pa.

For more information, call 610-683-1400 or visit

Organic green home has a colorful future in Lehigh County

By Sienna Mae Heath

July 15, 2012

Published in The Express-Times and on

Ruhmel Contracting’s model home is considered the brightest shade of green, according to Energy Star standards.

The contracting company’s Shades of Green program makes the core advantages of green building available and cost-efficient for its customers while pledging to build every home to Energy Star standards.

The Ruhmels’ program takes eco-friendly living to the next level at its model home in Breinigsville. As the East Coast lifestyle intensifies, the Ruhmels are building with energy-efficiency and chic modern design tailored to the needs of house-hunting customers.

The model home showcases “garbage as something beautiful,” says Robin Ruhmel, CFO and chief designer of Ruhmel Contracting.

Robin’s husband, Hersh Ruhmel, CEO and president of the contracting company, understands that his customers are busy. But he feels many of them are unaware that a green home can be built in six to eight months. While code-built homes may be constructed quicker, there is less opportunity for customization, Hersh Ruhmel says.

Ruhmel built a model home in 2009 to save their customers time and allow them to visualize options and up-and-coming trends in green living.

The exterior of the house is very similar to traditional Pennsylvania home styles while the inside is much more modern, a contradiction upon which the contractors thrive.

Designing Shades of Green: Beauty of convenience

In the basement of the model home is Robin Ruhmel’s independent design firm, The Design Studio at HoudenHAL, which offers customizing opportunities to the public for selecting solid strand bamboo floors, organic fabrics and custom doors. Her designs have been applied to the 12 green homes Ruhmel Contracting has built and sold in the past two years.

“Green, organic fabrics can be just as beautiful as any other fabrics,” says Ruhmel.

Houden means “to sustain” in Dutch. HAL, pronounced “hall”, is inspired by Ruhmel’s passion for educating her customers.

The custom doors, including doors made of recycled resins with inlayed twigs, provide an experimental opportunity for using plastic to play with light. Solid-strand bamboo floors in the house are two and a half times harder than red oak floors, says Robin Ruhmel, who is also a NAHB Certified Green Builder.

While Robin Ruhmel is the designer who inspired the model green home, she says Hersh Ruhmel, a member of the United States Green Building Council, is “the sticks and bricks guy” in charge of building her visions in design.

Hersh Ruhmel is particularly proud of Sealection 500, an insulating material that dramatically minimizes moisture intrusion. Compared to the commonly used Fiberglass, Sealection 500 slows the air in the exterior of the walls in the house and lowers the temperature in its open-cell bio-based material. It also provides a sound silencer to the 3 million cars that pass the house on I-78 each year.

This airflow technology, in addition to the iPad and iPhone controls that adjust heat and lighting throughout the model home gave Ruhmel Contracting a Certified Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index score of 12 out of 100. The rating estimates the energy efficiency of a home, and in this case lower numbers are better. The HERS ranking proves that the green home is 88 percent more efficient than homes built to today’s code.

“We’re of the opinion that people will buy because of health concerns and rising energy prices,” says Hersh Ruhmel.

Saving green energy

Environmentalist clients tend to appreciate that the Shades of Green at Ruhmel Contracting extend to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Green Home certification and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process. The home’s geothermal heating is less expensive due to its circulation system using three close-looped wells in the front yard. A geothermal heat pump is a central heating and cooling system, which pumps heat to or from the ground at the model home. Meanwhile, Benjamin Moore’s eco-friendly paint with no formaldehyde or drying agents color the walls and tables made of trees from their minister’s yard provide an example of personalized decor.

“That’s the green idea,” Hersh Ruhmel says of the contributions from minister and woodworker John Deck, of North Whitehall Township. “Utilizing things you’d otherwise throw away and be creative with it.”

Visitors to the model home, where open houses are hosted six days a week, walk all over the creative contracting. Cork floors breathe and are softer on feet with some resistance, while recycled carpets cover parts of the renewable product floors. The staircase to the third floor, still in construction, is lit with LED lights. The 100 LED lights in the entire model home burn approximately 800 watts, which is typically found in one room in a code-built home.

The fireplace on the first floor also provides warmth and light with energy-saving electronic ignition and liquid propane. Robin Ruhmel designed the fireplace with slate, granite, maple wood and stainless steel.

“We were really focused on energy efficiency. It’s such a good investment,” Hersh Ruhmel says.

Their son, Reid Ruhmel, is Ruhmel Contracting’s building analyst and resident energy rater, who is a NAHB Certified Green Builder and BPI Certified Building Analyst. He notes, “Some of the highlights of our conservation methods that people seem to respond to are lighting controls and advance lighting technology, insulation and building airflow and water efficient measures.”

Reid Ruhmel’s energy-saving success thrives on technologies such as the geothermal energy system that uses a permafrost with glycol solution through the pipes of the house’s three closed-loop wells to maintain heat in the house.

The tank-less hot water heater also generates heat, making hot water for coffee instantly in the morning in kitchen’s recycled glass and cast iron sink. The heat is driven by the electricity generated by windmill and solar panels.

Hersh Ruhmel feels he can splurge on an elevator for the model home since he emphasizes it is more economical to build vertically than horizontally from the basement of the original house to the recycled cement shingles on the roof of the green home today. Building up, rather than across, he says, is more economical because a solid foundation on a house requires a lot of time and money.

More funky than a code-built home

The “Transition Room” brings the house together in terms of style and design. Old-fashioned mirrors and historical pencil and ink sepia-toned artworks offer a striking combination compared to the more modern bedrooms upstairs geared toward teenagers.

“We want to make things different with a little more interest and funk into it,” Robin Ruhmel says, standing between two old barn beams.

And with most products of Ruhmel Contracting’s green homes coming from within a 500 mile radius, owners of green homes can stimulate their area economically while refraining from using other fossil fuels to get them there.


  • The model home is located at: Ruhmel Contracting, Inc., 9905 Old 22, Breinigsville
  • Open houses are hosted:

Mondays through Wednesdays noon to 5 p.m.

Thursdays noon to 7 p.m.

Fridays noon to 5 p.m.

Saturdays 1 to 5 p.m.

Sundays by appointment

  • For more information: call 610-366-0910 or visit and

‘Foraged Flavor’ cookbook turns weeds into a part of dinner

By Sienna Mae Heath

March 11, 2012

Published in The Express-Times and on

Tama Matsuoka Wong considers the landscapes from her childhood “edible meadows,” fields filled with so-called weeds that she turns into part of dinner.

The well-traveled Harvard Law School graduate, author and forager told a crowd March 4 at the Musconetcong Watershed Association River Resource Center in Warren County how to spot and use edible plants.

She’s the co-author of “Foraged Flavor,” a cookbook to be released June 12 with recipes using ingredients sometimes found in backyards.

“You can go outside and it’s right there,” Wong told more than 40 farmers, artists and prospective foragers at the center in Franklin Township. “It’s fun. It’s free. A lot of people think food is something you buy in a package at the store.”

What most people consider nuisance plants, Wong considers food: onion grass, dandelion, chickweed, cardamine, bee balm and mugwort, many of them common along the Musconetcong River. She said nature lovers routinely walk by herbs and flowers that can add flavor to meals.

“A lot of the ones she was going over we call ‘weeds,’ so it’s wonderful to know that there is a good use for them,” said Cinny MacGonagle, vice president of the watershed association. She’s been growing bee balm for the association’s native plant sale April 28.

Not everything is forage-friendly. The New Jersey Poison Information and Education System warns against eating mushrooms, even by experts in their identification.

Ingredients from the book can also be found at farmers markets, but Wong says buyers need to be careful. An orange daylily, the stem of which is used in Wong’s recipe for Moo Shu Pork, for example, can be hard to positively identify.

“I never go to some place where I don’t know the owner well,” said Wong, who forages plants for Daniel, a well-known New York City restaurant. She co-authored the book with Eddy Leroux, a Daniel chef.

For those foraging on their own, Wong recommends plucking the young, tender parts.

“Think about it as you would look at any green in the supermarket,” she said.


Foraging 101

Tama Matsuoka Wong, co-author of the cookbook “Foraged Flavor,” offered tips on foraging for food recently at the Musconetcong Watershed Association including:

  • Chickweed tastes like grass when it’s raw but is better lightly cooked
  • Dandelion should be picked when it’s young, preferably before it flowers
  • Daylilies are particularly hard to spot
  • Bee balm is in the mint family

Art classes inspire productivity at Northampton County Prison

By Sienna Mae Heath

May 31, 2014

Published in The Express-Times and on

The barren walls of a prison crave some color.

Inmates at Northampton County Prison have their artwork displayed to inspire hope and redemption.

The faith-based art classes create community in the prison, according to Patty Fiorilli who teaches the art class on the A-2 Female Unit on Saturdays.

“When it’s hanging up everyone feels like part of a group,” Fiorilli said. “When they can visually see something concrete and everybody else likes it too, it helps give them encouragement…and hope.”

Fiorilli, of Palmer Township, started teaching her class in January 2013. Since then, she has introduced a variety of media. Inmates are creating 3-D artwork, paintings, paper projects and clay tiles.

Two weeks ago they practiced painting flowers, petals and leaves. Most recently, they invented their own flowers and put them to paper with paint and markers. Fiorilli plans to use eight by eight pieces of watercolor paper to assemble the paintings into a paper quilt and display it.

She thinks it’s important that the inmates take their artwork with them when they are released from jail.

David Lothian agrees that the end goal is re-entry. He is the prison’s volunteer services coordinator at Northampton County, Department of Corrections. He said he thinks carefully about the meaning of “corrections” in his job title.

The art classes may inspire inmates to take up art as a hobby or career, but what’s most important is that they are productive members of society when they are released from jail, Lothian said.

“If you make them believe that they can be productive when they get out, it’s best for us and for the community. It’s about re-entry,” Lothian said. “There’s always those who have old-school views on jails. Those individuals are most likely naïve or unknowledgeable about what’s going on in a jail. They would think otherwise if they were sitting in jail.”

Cordaro/Stevenson Associates, Inc. conducted a survey at Northampton County Prison in Sept. 2000. At that time, the prison had 635 residents. The survey projected that the prison would have 900 residents by the year 2015.

A major problem was inmates being released, reoffending and coming back, he said. Instead of building more jails, the prison staff looked inward and expanded their programming. As a result, the prison currently holds 698 residents, not much more than it did in Sept. 2000.

Nelson Bollinger, who teaches another art class in the prison, believes that faith-based art classes can help inmates become productive and ready for re-entry.

Bollinger teaches a drawing class on the Male B-4 Unit on Thursdays. The class started with 18 residents in April and is now down to 11 because seven have been discharged.

Bollinger, of Catasauqua, writes a scripture on the board and the class can discuss it only if they want to. As a whole, they came to him and said they’d love to discuss them every day. One of the scriptures was John 3:16-21, which describes god’s relationship with humanity.

He connected this scripture to the inmates’ drawings of the parts of a skeleton. The prison’s residents have been drawing different body parts, learning artistic concepts such as relationship, lines and perspective.

Drawing while truly understanding the relationships between objects or people is what motivates the residents, he said. That understanding comes with effort too.

“I challenge them in areas where they are uncomfortable, which parallels a lot with scripture,” Bollinger said. “Art is a bridge. All of us have the desire to express ourselves.”

Bollinger is a member of the Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church, and Fiorilli is a member of the Yokefellowship Prison Ministry.

Likewise, faith is a part of Fiorilli’s class. They have painted characters from the Bible and discussed how Abraham, for example, dealt with problems. They made three-dimensional Moravian stars, symbolizing stars of faith.

She said she finds words relieve stress, as art does.

Her class discussed how to make, break and keep promises. Then they made clay tiles and wrote God’s Promises on them.

“Maybe the guys can draw something better than they can say it or put it in words,” Bollinger added.

However many women were able to express themselves during the prison’s writing contest in February 2013. Inmates were invited to submit short stories and poems. Themes included regret, redemption and family.

Muhlenberg College gave writing workshops Feb. to May. The College compiled the inmates’ writings in binders.

Tiffany Litchfield and Olivia Marth, located on the women’s A-2 Min Unit, submitted their writings to the contest.

“I hate that it takes to eternity to fix a mistake,” Marth wrote. “A moment when life feels beautiful to me is when I see the look my daughter gives me when I come to visit her. Like I’m her world.”

“A role model to the youth to show everyone this isn’t the end, it’s only the beginning,” Litchfield wrote. “Each second that goes by only means your time isn’t up yet. Don’t give up; the clock is still ticking.”

Northampton County Prison among sites for trauma-informed yoga classes

By Sienna Mae Heath

May 11, 2014

Published in The Express-Times and on

When you go to prison, you lose control over your life and your mind.

Waiting for your case to make its way through the justice system can take a toll, said David Lothian, Northampton County’s volunteer services coordinator for the Department of Corrections.

“Imagine waking up in a little cell every day and not knowing what is going to happen,” he said. “Worrying about outside or family issues is very stressful. Imagine having a mortgage and not being able to pay it. Imagine having a job for 20 years and not being able to go.”

That’s why the prison has opened its doors to Shanthi Project. Founded by Denise Veres, the nonprofit provides weekly trauma-informed yoga and meditation classes at public or nonprofit institutions such as the county prison, juvenile justice center and Children’s Home of Easton.

The events that land someone in prison often leave traumatic scars. Shanthi Project’s yoga instructors ease the pain by including elements of choice and soothing language, Veres said. Prisoners have few choices, but they can choose to turn inward to heal themselves, and yoga can help, Veres said.

“Our students tell us they feel calmer and they feel more peaceful,” Veres said. “Prisons are noisy places. Huge magnetic doors are always slamming shut. People are unhappy. Walkie-talkies are always going off. The feeling of having this stuff around you and not having to react to it is really very, very powerful. It’s a sign of mindfulness, of living in the moment and moment to moment.”

The nonprofit’s 15 yoga instructors teach trauma-informed yoga, an approach focusing on body awareness. The teachers encourage students to become aware of a muscle group that is working in a particular posture. When people experience trauma, they disassociate with their bodies, Veres said. Yoga teaches them to reconnect with their bodies.

The prison typically has six to eight participants in each of its five weekly classes. Veres said teachers often focus on balancing poses.

“We’re not only balancing the body, but we feel that the mind is being balanced as well,” she said.

Yoga, breathing exercises and meditation provide stress relief, she said.

“I think it makes them stronger mentally as well as physically. It teaches them to deal with stress,” Lothian agreed. “I think they’d probably be more ready to deal with society as they get out. I see ex-inmates in the community and they thank me for getting yoga in here.”

About a third of Shanthi Project’s funding comes from grants and two-thirds comes from individual donations.

Even young people need coping mechanisms for stress. Children at the Easton Boys & Girls Club have played yoga games since 2010, Veres said. Instructors trained in childhood yoga lead games such as “Trees in the Forest,” where some children stand in a tree pose while others come in snake and frog poses. Through the game, children still learn mindfulness, body awareness and exploration, Veres said.

Children say they feel inner peace and use yoga breathing when they are upset with family or teachers, Veres said.

In fall 2012 and spring 2013, Shanthi Project taught yoga to 60 Cheston Elementary School students. Veres remembers a student with special needs who had a difficult time focusing in school. He participated in a guided meditation during which children closed their eyes and pretended to hold bird seeds in their hands. Their goal was to stay still and quiet, so that the birds would come eat the seeds from their hands.

Meditation can achieve results much more readily than an impatient adult saying, “Be still! Get control!” according to Veres.

“The aides said they had never seen that kid be still, ever,” Veres said. “I would love to be able to teach these techniques to classroom teachers. It’s so simple, but it’s so profound.”