Monday, October 28, 2013

Little Pit Needed His Help and She Got It

Michael Stewart (left), his dog Jaw-Z and friend Alvin Lawrence.
A Random Act of Kindness Costs Man More Than He Bargained For, A Horrific, Sulfurous Smell, One Sick Puppy & $1,800 He Didn't Have

By Diana L. Chapman

He didn't pick her. She picked him, her golden-green-yellow eyes batting at him outside a Jack-In The Box in Paramount. He calls it coincidence. His friend calls it "destiny" that he now has an unplanned, unwanted three-month old abused pit bull that needs surgeries.

None of this was in the life plan of Michael Stewart, 25, of Long Beach, a laid off AT&T manager-turned "self-employed pool guy" who struggles to make money since the recession and had dreams of owning a large, male blue pit as soon as he was financially able. All that changed when he rolled up at the restaurant to meet his friend one morning at the end of September and was greeted instead by a tiny Weimaraner colored puppy with a pink nose and a little pink tongue hanging out.
"She was looking right at me" and "I said: Aren't you cute?" Michael explained. "I asked if anybody knew about the dog, but no one did."

What he didn't know at the time: someone had hit Jaw-z, thus her name, with either a baseball bat or stick -- breaking her jaw so badly, a big piece of bone was floating inside her mouth  -- dead. She was so skinny, her ribs stuck out. But other than that, she looked fine. The injury was not visible and she was eating like a horse, so Michael didn't suspect anything was wrong other than the rank odor that floated along with her.

Thus began the odyssey (the kind I like) of Jaw-z and Michael, who had no intention of bringing the pup home. Despite that, the small dog glommed onto him, only leaving his side for a few minutes while begging for food from other customers. But the puppy returned to him repeatedly, crying, so he shot her photo and sent it to his friend, Alvin Lawrence, 24, who he was meeting. In the meantime, Michael's will power snapped. He broke down and bought Jaw-z five chicken McNuggets, which disappeared in seconds. He bought her 10 more. "She scarfed them down and she didn't even take a breath." And despite her smell -- something like a cross between rotting fish and rotting meat -- he petted her and let her lick him all over his face ignoring the repelling scent.

When Alvin met Jaw-z, he encouraged Michael to keep her. No, Michael said, he would take her home just to get her off the street and then bring her to the shelter in Seal Beach where both the Long Beach residents were working to clean pools.

But when they arrived at the shelter, the doors were shuttered. The facility was closed that Monday and the following day. Alvin shook his head and said: "That's destiny right there, man." Michael responded that he didn't believe in destiny. But to Alvin, "it was meant to be," because the signs of love were blossoming between a man and his dog before his eyes.

Michael, he said, would gently tuck Jaw-z into his truck with a buckle, coo to her to make her know she was safe, take her everywhere he went and held and kissed her despite her stench.
On the dog side of things, even when Michael left her with Alvin, Jaw-z would whimper and cry. Alvin suggested perhaps it was time for Michael to rethink his plans and forget about that big male pit he wanted to name Dump Truck, Tank or Torch.

He had, Alvin said, through fate, been teamed with this dog for life.

"I thought: shots, spaying, dog food. I can afford that," Michael said. ''That wouldn't be too bad." Since the recession, Michael has been living with his mom, Sonia Watkins, and her two dogs. He knew she wouldn't mind if he brought Jaw-z to live with them and his mom's two dogs, Mini, 11, a 15 pound rat terrier, and a laid back Kooper, a 100 pound, docile 10-year-old pit rescue from Venice whose idea of a good day is to lay on his back.

But for Michael, it would turn plenty bad when Alvin spotted some caramel-colored discharge in Jaw-z's mouth. "What's that?" Michael didn't know, but despite washing her and taking care of scrapes and cuts, she continued to smell.

Taking her to a vet, Michael learned the bad news about the broken jaw and that someone had deliberately injured the puppy "and she still loves people," he said. The bone had turned black, was dead and had cut its way out of her mouth and the carmel discharge was the infection causing the smell. 

Dr. Jacobo Balairon hangs out with Jaw-z.
"It cut its way out enough to be sticking out," Michael explained."So it didn't fall out but just stayed there like a tooth. And that was the first thing they did was pull it out since it was completely detached and dead."

Without the surgery, one veterinarian told me, Jaw-z would die within a few weeks. Michael was flipping out when the first estimate he received was $4,000, which was "absolutely shocking."

Michael was reeling, by now knowing he could never give Jaw-z up. When he bumped into my friend, Anita Sinclair, who has rescued animals from brown pelicans to dogs over the years, she wanted to help.

"He was crying and so very upset," Anita told me. "He cared so much about the puppy. Michael is a sweet guy who did not even hesitate to help a little puppy in need. Such a lovely young man! We need more like him in this world."

Anita contacted me and helped Michael put up a funding venue. Michael zoomed around looking for a vet that would give him a break. Finally, he heard about a new veterinarian, Dr. Jacobo Balairon at  Primary Care Animal Hospital in Long Beach.

Michael and Alvin sat in the lobby, waiting to see the vet. Ironically, he was busy doing surgery on a cat with not just a broken jaw like Jaw-z, but a feline that's name was Jaws. "That's fate," Alvin reminded Michael as they sat waiting and holding the puppy.

When Dr. Balairon met Jaw-z and Michael spilled out the whole story, he agreed to do the surgery--at a cost of $1,800. If Michael could scrape up $500 that day, the vet told him, he would do the surgery and Michael could pay the remainder later. Michael took the last bit of his money, paid $500 for that operation, and is praying that others will help him pay the rest with donations or in-kind goods, such as dog food, paying for vaccinations and such. He barely has money left to pay for the gas to get to his pool jobs, he said.

The good news is that the surgery saved her life. It was improbable that Jaw-Z would have lived much longer than three weeks in her condition, the veterinarian said.  The infection would destroy her ability to eat or drink and though she had to have pain, she didn't show it. She was a "real trooper," Balairon said. "Super playful, super nice. But she had a really bad infection. She's really tough."

He partly agreed to the deal because: "Michael is just a really nice. He fell in love with the dog and he didn't know what he's getting into." Balairon said the hospital does frequently try to work with rescue groups, but cannot always do so because "we have to pay the bills for the hospital. We wish we could do it for every patient." 

In the meantime, a grateful Michael is rethinking his attitude about "destiny" and changed Jawsy's original name to something more contemporary, like a rapper's name, and that's how he came up with Jaw-z.

"I don't believe in fate or destiny," Michael said. "But it just got crazy that the vet was doing the same kind of surgery for a broken jaw, and not just any broken jaw," but the same procedure he would do on Jaw-z.

Jaw-z is not completely out of the woods and may still need reconstructive surgery.
But in less than three weeks under Michael's care, she has picked up the pounds and become more muscular, going from 18 pounds to nearly 29. That's the Jaw-z I got to meet, her little pink  tongue still hanging out.

 In her short life, it seemed Jaw-z made one important decision wisely: who she picked to save her.

Want to help? Donations for Jaw-z can be made at

  Michael can be reached at:

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Student on Test Scores

Why the Test Scores Don't Work For This 13-year-old

By Cicely Arana, Dana Middle School Student, 7th grade

"I have fifty reasons why I hate it (the California Standardized Test). I hate it, but I'm only telling you five.  One, I hate how many questions we have. Two, the teachers and staff put pressure on you, making you stressed and making you do badly.  Three, it's not even fair how they determine if you are smart or not by your scores. If they didn't make such a big deal of it, we would do better. Four, I hate how right after the CST, we have more school and more quizzes and tests. Five, we have to come home to: 'How did the test go honey?' Then all you do, is fake a smile and nod."

Friday, October 18, 2013

Los Angeles Artist Brings Murals to Newtown Trying to Heal After Sandy Hook

Artist Nichole Blackburn high fives a  young girl at the Newtown Youth Academy where she has painting murals for three weeks.

Los Angeles Artist Brings Vivid Colors, Joy and Strength To A Connecticut Town As It Works Toward Recovery After Sandy Hook

    "In a town that has a dark cloud hanging over it, it is so uplifting to walk into a facility full of color. Slowly we are adding the color back into our lives and this lasting piece of art is in a place that has opened its arms to this community is so very fitting. Children should not see things in black and white. They should see things in color." --  Newtown parent Caren Wellman

By Diana L. Chapman

  For nearly three weeks, international muralist  Nichole Blackburn has worked at a feverish pace to transform the facility found in the heart of the town wounded last December where 26 people were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.
   The facility, Newtown Youth Academy (NYA) Sports and Fitness Center, served as a media free zone and the second home, at the time, for those coping with the tragedy. Now the Sports Facility's officials are hoping the artist's colorful work -- which included four walls, and is about 100 feet long combined, will bring happiness and smiles to its resident's faces. The paintings reflect the life of Newtown -- depicting all ages from toddlers to seniors, the very customers  the 90,000 square foot the non-profit serves.
  The artist's desire to fill the center with light and brightness has been her primary goal since arriving in early October. The unveiling today came about because Blackburn, who lives in Redondo Beach, CA, worked16 hour days on the paintings to reflect Newtown's daily lives.
   It was the first time in her philanthropic heart and history to allow her non-profit, Big Sky Countries, to let someone else dictate and come up with the design. It seemed fitting because the community, she said, has lost so much. She also asked the center's officials not to tell her which users had lost someone so she didn't treat anyone overly "special in order to facilitate moving forward."
  "There wasn't a soul who came through the NYA's doors who hadn't lost someone or been deeply affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy," Nichole said trying not to break into tears during a phone interview. "This community is so strong. It's truly inspirational. I wanted to be as strong as I could. People were hugging me on a daily basis with tears in their eyes. What I saw is that this community has been doing everything they can to move forward. Newtown is truly choosing love."
   Nearly every day, the center's visitors, many of whom express happiness with the work, are more surprised to learn Nichole has donated all of it.  She has received warm greetings, invitations for dinner, lunches and parties, all actions that make her more humble.
   A mother, Denise Sullivan, said she was grateful. "The uplifting and is an incredible gift to the NYA! We are so grateful for it!"
   NYA Communications Manager and Newtown resident, Alisa Farley, wasn't surprised by the town's reaction to Nichole's murals, which have received nothing but praise.  Nichole's obvious talent and likeability made her fit right in, especially after she splashed vivid colors in tones of oranges, reds, blues and greens capturing the town's vibrancy on the facility's walls with inspirational words such as "effort," "practice" and "perseverance" and "vision."
  "She has done a spectacular and especially classy job in capturing the spirit of our town," Alisa said, adding that the residents are extremely sensitive having been inundated with hordes of media and an overload of donations which has often made it difficult for those directly affected by the shooting to be alone and have quiet with time for personal reflection. 
High school girls help on the murals.
   After the  incident, Alisa said, she was hired by the NYA founder to manage the facility's communications and marketing. The Newtown mother of three, having watched the facility as a parent during the crises become the "hub" and core of the community, believed the center could bring even more light to the town by turning its giant and "sterile" lobby walls into a spirited world of art showing off athletes of all types and other activities.  The murals, she hoped, would bring back a sense of happiness. She also deeply understood the center's importance after it served residents free of charge during Sandy Hook and the disaster left behind from Hurricane Sandy. 
  Nichole aided the facility in converting two 25 foot long wall into white boards in the conference room using specialized paint. The other remaining walls detail those in action from soccer to tennis. 
  The two were teamed up after NYA consultant, Terry Sagedy, who worked with the artist on another mural in Atlanta, recommended her. It was the perfect match because not only did Nichole come with an open heart, she brought in large donations for gallons of paint, brushes and other supplies and a willingness to flex with center official's requests.
   Her scenes reveal those who use the facility for basketball, soccer, tennis, lacrosse, weight lifting, nutrition planning, fitness classes and the many community events. The center became the soul of the town during the Sandy Hook tragedy because it opened its doors offering people a safe haven, a place to sleep, eat and stay clear of the media. It also hosted the myriad of professional athletes who came to aid the town in healing -- and many perhaps to heal themselves.
  The direction to make the lobby brighter started after the center's founder, Peter D'Amico, a 33 year resident of Newton and a soccer coach for 30 years, asked Alisa to join the team in March as the communications director. Initially, she said, the founder's dream was to build a soccer academy, similar to those found in Europe. However, after working with the town nearing a population of 30,000, it became clear the residents of the surrounding areas would benefit  more from a full service sports and recreational center for all ages.
   The founder then opened the facility on November 1, 2008. Unbeknownst to D'Amico, his dream center would become the town's heart beat during times of tragedy. That's one reason why center officials having nothing but enthusiasm for the paintings. It brings a sense of light.
  "What a gift it is to have (Nichole) find her way into our community," said Cody Floss, a co-director of the facility. "Rarely does someone have the ability to sit back and experience an artist work right in front you from the comfort of your office. This remarkably unique experience has afforded me, literally a window, in which to observe the tireless effort, motivation and amazing skill that Nichole has."
   Said another co-director, Dorrie Carolan: "We are honored that someone of Nichole's caliber chose to come to Newton to paint in the NYA. Her personality is incredible, and we are humbled that she dedicated her talents to us."
  For Nichole, it was a slam dunk for her non-profit.
  "When people would ask me why I donated such a big mural, spending three weeks in Newtown, living with one of the local families, I would simply say: 'Because the NYA has done so much for the community. They deserve someone to give something back to them. I did not need to come and say anything directly about my mural donations having to do the tragedy at Sandy Hook and the NYA's support in those difficult times. Everyone I spoke too could read between the lines."
  She was also able to bring in donations for the project. Modello Designs provided $2,000 worth of stencils, letter and logo designs. Purdy Brushes donated prep materials, rollers and paint brushes that would have cost $1,500. Sherwin Williams provided $1,000 in paint and Magna Construction approximately $2000 in paint preparation services.
  While the artist typically works with children with other organizations, the center wanted to limit the numbers to protect them from the media. Instead, the center picked specific children, including high school art students and children from the organization's R.E.A.C.H program. While they did allow some photos with children, it was tightly controlled and done my the artist or staff.
  "We decided unanimously not to have the children be...subject to media of any kind," the artist said. "We wanted the kids to quite simply just be kids and have fun painting."
  What attracted Alisa to Nichole's work, the marketing director said, was the energy, transformation and inspiration she could bring to the center's cold-looking 25 to 30 foot wide walls, standing twelve to fourteen feet tall. As a Newtown mother, Alisa had witnessed firsthand the dark days of Sandy Hook. With three children ages 10 to 15, Alisa said she was home when she received a call announcing that there had been shootings at Newton High School, where her daughter Dori attends. The campus was on lockdown.
    On pins and needles texting her daughter numerous times, Alisa received no response. Eventually, she learned the shootings were at Sandy Hook and her daughter texted her saying she was safe.
    "I will never forget this time as long as I live," Alisa said. "I am talking from my heart."  She watched as the dim, gloomy days ahead unfolded. With a theater arts background, Alisa believed murals would be the perfect way to bring the effectiveness of art into a traditionally sports oriented facility -- adding a bit of art therapy.
  "The real goal is to make residents feel happy," she said. "It's color and it's life." 

Monday, October 14, 2013

LAUSD Board President Sparring With Superintendent John Deasy

LAUSD Board President Richard Vladovic

Despite Some Ugly Allegations, Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Richard Vladovic  Still Hangs In There And It's A Good Thing As The Board Appears To Move Away From Only Trumpeting Test Scores

By Diana L. Chapman

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy
The reporter called to ask what I had to say about Los Angeles School Board President Richard Vladovic and the recent allegations that he yells at people, has been accused of sexual harassment and is overall a big bully, according to a report released from the district and other sources.

It took me two seconds to assess this having volunteered for the district for years: "I have met few people who care more about students than this man," I told the reporter.

"Yeah, everyone says that," the reporter said, sounding deeply bored by my thoughts -- which in fact were very unexciting and did not appear in the article.

All of these allegations  leaves me with much food for thought, more than anything, about the timing of  these implications and the more than strained relationship between Vladovic and Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy. Last week, LAUSD released a report filled with allegations that Vladovic allegedly sexually harassed an employee more than a decade ago and had berated two employees and further retaliated with snubs more recently. Vladovic was cleared in an investigation that he improperly handled molestation allegations against a teacher at George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School  in Wilmington.

Vladovic, 68, has spent more than half his life in education mostly in Los Angeles Unified from starting out as a middle school teacher, to managing gifted programs district wide to holding principalships at three inner city high schools. He retired as a senior administrator, but  later rose as a board member in 2007 to head  up the southern region of the district, which has scores of Harbor area and south Los Angeles campuses. He admitted publicly in a released statement that he had lost his temper and would seek professional  guidance to help  him control it. He also denied having sexually harassed or overly abusing anyone.
 "I violated the district's civility police along with the board's policy, and for that I'm truly sorry," he said in the statement.  "I also apologize to any employee who has felt intimidated because of my actions. In my capacity to serve the district I admit to having crossed the line and I intend to never do so again."
I am happy Vladovic clearly admitted that he needed counseling and took ownership of his actions. The trouble I am having is why are these allegations flying out wildly now?  Why now is an employee  reporting sexual abuse more than a decade later? It seems that will be difficult to prove at this late date. It's also gives me  the read between the lines feeling.  

The crux of it might be this: It's no secret that Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy and Vladovic  have been at odds for a while now, especially after Vladovic realized what a mistake he had made initially joining former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in heading up many actions in the school district, including allowing the mayor to  take over some schools. Two years ago, Deasy came in riding the same ticket siding with the mayor about the takeover. Most of the board, was on board, including Vladovic until things began to crumble. The mayor took over several schools, but had no more success than LAUSD had handling  them and Deasy and his support staff were so focused on raising test scores in the flailing district that they forgot about one thing -- looking at the whole student.

That pains me greatly as I see much more in the kids I work with beyond their test scores. I see intelligence. I see creativity. I see students who need guidance to determine how to define and refine their attributes for their futures. The whole test score thing shoved that and all the poor performing students into a muddy bucket, making them feel stupid and worthless when they do poorly  -- even for some good students.

"I have fifty reasons why I hate it (the California Standardized Test)," wrote student Cicely Arana, a 13-year-old middle school student. "I hate it, but I'm only telling you five.  One, I hate how many questions we have. Two, the teachers and staff put pressure on you, making you stressed and making you do badly. Three, it's not even fair how they determine if you are smart or not by your scores. If they didn't make such a big deal of it, we would do better. Four, I hate how right after the CST, we have more school and more quizzes and tests. Five, we have to come home to: 'How did the test go honey?' Then all you do, is fake a smile and nod."

Under Deasy's reign, elementary teachers were reporting  that the fix at poorer performing schools was so intense on testing that they were told to drop the sciences and not to do any art until the last 20 minutes of the day. They had to stick strictly to math and English. While there are probably countless reasons for this inner-district battle, I knew sticking strictly to testing would further unhinge  the already stilted relationship between the board president and the superintendent.

Having worked with Vladovic, and having talked with his fiercest critics, I still was able to see one thing: Vladovic wanted to return to look at the whole picture of the child and not just the limiting view  of tests, which is like taking one facet of a diamond to determine its worth. The board president joined that testing movement at the time due to the intense amount of sharp criticism that the second largest  district in the nation was a complete flop, with a dropout rate nearing 50 percent. With test scores continually on the rise, the board appears ready to move on to bring back the polish and spit of some important principles  that were dropped such as returning fine art to the classroom.

 Deasy and Vladovic are two giants sparring over philosophy and the right ways to teach kids. It appears only one will survive, which happens often when two personalities are too large for the town. My bet is on Vladovic. The reason: Deasy threatened to quit if Vladovic was named board president in December.

 Despite the threat, the board unanimously voted Vladovic into the seat. Bosses typically don't like threats. Rumblings of the accusations began to hit before that. After the vote that brought Vladovic into the presidency in July, Deasy didn't leave his post. He stayed.

Deasy denies that he has anything to do with the allegations against Vladovic. Still criticism seems to brimming over for the Deasy. The United Teachers Los Angeles gave Deasy an F grade as superintendent. I can't help but agree.

While Vladovic is getting beaten up for his temper, Deasy isn't actually a keep -it-in-control-kind-of-guy either. He berated a substitute -- in front of the students -- for having them copy instructions off the board, a request from their teacher, an issue reported by Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks.  He told the sub it was a waste of time. But as far as I know substitutes are supposed to follow the teacher's instructions. In reality, she wasn't doing anything wrong. It should have been a debate between him and the regular instructor.

For myself, I am so ready for Los Angeles Unified to move on.  Deputy Superintendent Jamie Aquino announced his departure after calling the board members micro-managers and said they threatened the academic progress of the district's students. He also accused the board of mistrusting the top school officials, according to many news accounts, and plans to depart at the end of December. 

"The current political climate does not allow me to lead an agenda that is in the best interests of the kids," Aquino said in news accounts.

The truth is that really depends on how you look at it.