Stefanie Dell'Aringa

Freelance Writer

Category: Long Form Writing

Creativity aids healing: AIM program gives new meaning to the phrase ‘the art of nursing’

Originally published on Nurse.com

Artist Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano works with a Shands Hospital patient as part of the Artists in Residence program.

Artist Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano works with a Shands Hospital patient as part of the Artists in Residence program.
(Photos courtesy of the University of Florida)

What once was a sterile, white ceiling along a bone marrow unit corridor at the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla., is now colorful and meaningful. It was transformed after an artist pulled down the ceiling tiles and encouraged patients and nurses to use them as blank canvases for unique works of art. Patients who return for follow-up care can visit their ceiling tiles and remember how far they’ve come in healing; for nurses they serve as a permanent reminder of the lives they have touched.

The ceiling tile project was part of a collaborative program between Shands and the UF Center for Arts in Medicine in which artists engage patients throughout the hospital in meaningful projects with nurses’ support. The benefits of this were noted in an Oct. 20 Parade magazine article that emphasized how crafting is good for the body and mind.

Helen Welsh, RN
Welsh, who is considered an AIM pioneer, invited the first artist onto her bone marrow transplant unit in 1991. “I really believe in this, and I worked with my staff to get them on board,” Welsh said. “As a result, when the nurses support it and the team supports it, it’s much easier to have the program become successful.”

Tapping their creative side inspires and benefits patients and staff at UF Health Shands Hospital, say nurses and artists involved in the Artists in Residence program. Helen Welsh, RN, MSN, nurse manager, 8 East/adult oncology, collaborates with artists on choosing projects for patients based on factors such as patient mobility. She also speaks at an annual AIM summer intensive, a comprehensive training program for artists, caregivers, students, educators and others who wish to explore the roles of the arts in healthcare settings.

Helen Currier, RN

A Professional Research Consultants survey showed that for eight years, Welsh’s unit received the five-star excellence award for staff satisfaction. An art lover, she connected with artisans such as artist Mary Lisa Kitakis-Spano. Kitakis-Spano, who began as a volunteer, is now coordinator of the program. “She’s done incredible work here at Shands,” Welsh said. Kitakis-Spano is one of 15 artists-in-residence.

Although they’re not nurses, the artists-in-residence at Shand sfile clinical reports to assess how the arts are helping patients. One report from musician-in-residence Ricky Kendal revealed after he played songs for an 89-year-old ED patient her blood pressure dropped from 164/95 to 113/94.

“We’ve had really outstanding professional musicians doing incredible services,” said UF Center for Arts in Medicine director Jill Sonke.

A patient creates a work of art at Shands.

Another AIM program for nurses was piloted last year at Shands. The CoreCARE program addresses stress among oncology nurses through yoga, breath awareness, resiliency practices and guided relaxation, among other techniques.

Nurses also have leadership roles in making the AIM program successful. Shands’ administrative director of nursing innovation Ginger Pesata, RN, DNP, ARNP, NEA-BC, CTTS, FNAP, conducted AIM research with Sonke to measure the positive affects of art on patients and staff. Nurses polled as part of the research project observed a reduced need for pain medication among patients practicing arts.

About half of the nation’s hospitals have some type of AIM program, Sonke said, and it’s a growing field. “What we see every day is that the arts provide relaxation, connection, enjoyment and distraction,” Sonke said. “All of those things are huge gifts when you’re experiencing a healthcare crisis.”

Seven nurses are enrolled in a UF AIM online graduate certificate program, which equips nurses to start or run AIM programs in hospitals and communities; helps professional artists learn to work with patients; and assists caregivers in enhancing quality of care.

A proposed AIM master of arts program is awaiting approval with more than 100 nurses on a waiting list, Sonke said. One of those nurses is Helen Currier, RN, BSN, CNN, CENP, a nursing director and an AIM graduate certificate student and self-taught arts and health practitioner at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Currier pioneered a visual arts program at Texas Children’s and is vice president of the Global Alliance for Arts and Health. The knowledge she’s gaining from the Center for AIM, she said, “is really going to help us create a program that is systemwide, one that’s sustainable for every patient. As a nurse, there is much opportunity to not only integrate the arts into nursing practice but also to lead AIM efforts.”

California Action Coalition website live, emphasizes community involvement

The California Action Coalition, formed in October 2010, has launched its official website, CAActionCoalition.org, to educate and expand its 1,000-member group of nurses and healthcare workers striving to meet the Institute of Medicine’s “Future of Nursing” report standards.

Under the direction of Mary Dickow, DPA, who serves as CAC state director, the CAC has eight work groups established to focus on the IOM’s eight recommendations.
“The great feature is that wherever you are, you can just go ahead and log in as a member,” Dickow said.

A “get involved” form automatically logs in visitors to the site. “Right now, the site is pretty public. We’re encouraging people to get our information and go into the resources tab and look at what we have to offer.”

Under the events tab, users can click on an event and automatically RSVP online. That information goes into a database. “We know exactly who’s coming to our events,” Dickow said. Through the website, Dickow plans to update members on CAC work.

Members and interested parties can watch a featured testimonial video, get the latest news, and read about upcoming events such as the speaker’s bureau training sessions, regional town hall events, leadership council meetings and national updates. Dickow’s personal welcome on the site invites members to submit high quality (300 dpi) photos of California nurses at work. Information on the CAC’s executive committee, regional champions, workgroup leaders and partners also is organized on the site. One of the best features of the site, Dickow said, may be the tools and resources tab, where downloadable files are available to help nurses and other healthcare workers communicate important messages. One example is a how-to on effective Powerpoint presentations.

Dickow said she is willing to assist other states’ action coalitions with building their own websites.

“I would encourage anyone to ask us how it was done, and we can give them advice on moving a website forward for their own action coalitions.”

Stefanie Dell’Aringa is a member of the editorial team at Nurse.com.

I-CARE posters at VA Long Beach support quality care for veterans

As patients, families and staff come and go through an entrance at VA Long Beach (Calif.) Medical Center, they’re greeted by a large poster loaded with signatures. It’s one of two posters symbolizing nurses’ ongoing commitment to the I-CARE program, a nationally implemented push to maintain core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence.

Many of VA Long Beach’s nurses, along with physicians and other staff members signed the poster, which hangs on the wall of a major access point for staff and patients.

In addition to the signed poster, about 20 nurses at the hospital created another poster that highlighted their personal commitment to the program. They also watched an I-CARE video and held discussions about what it means to adhere to the program’s values.

“On the [nurses[‘]] poster, they wrote how they individually committed to I-CARE, to VA values and how they provide care to our veterans,” said Isabel M. Duff, RN, MS, director of VA Long Beach. “They personalized what their commitment was.”

Developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the national rollout of unifying values applies to all three VA arms: veterans health administration, benefits administration and cemeteries. All of the organizations stand on this common foundation of shared principles to guide and influence VA workforce behaviors and decisions affecting veterans, their families and beneficiaries.

“We’ve all had the values identified for each of our programs,” Duff said. “This was the first set of unifying values for all of VA. This is the first time we have all committed to these values, the same set of values and the definition for those values.”


As a show of support for the I-CARE program, nurses, physicians and staff contributed signatures to a poster that hangs prominently in a hospital entryway at VA Long Beach Healthcare System.

Duff said nurses at VA Long Beach developed a plan as a leadership of how they were going to roll out their commitment.

“Our nursing leadership really took the commitment to demonstrating the I-CARE values to heart and worked directly with their frontline nursing staff to implement means of showing their commitment and putting out visible markers of their demonstration of I-CARE and what it meant to the nursing staff,” she said.

The poster hanging in the main entryway provides a visual reminder of the I-CARE values, prompting conversations among patients and their loved ones, and serving as a encouragement to staff.

“A lot of people will stop and look at the poster, read or ask questions about the I-CARE poster,” Duff said. “As I walk the hallways, people will come up to me with examples of how they’re advancing I-CARE values.”


Stefanie Dell’Aringa is a member of the editorial team at Nurse.com.

Seattle Children’s RN facilitates YouTube series — ‘Good Times and Bald Times’ — to reach other youths diagnosed with cancer

When Leah Kroon, RN, MN, wanted to know how to deliver an educational message to her teen and young adult patients with cancer, a clear answer came back from the focus group she polled: YouTube.

Kroon, clinical nurse specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program, began talking with patients two years ago about effective communication methods for cancer care.

“[They said] anything they could do on their computer or with a handheld device,” she said. “We knew they used social media. We thought the YouTube-style video was interesting.”

Patients also indicated they wanted to hear about the cancer experience from someone their age.

“It’s a very isolating experience to be a teen or young adult with cancer,” Kroon said. “No matter where they go, they are a minority.”

According to a statistic on one of the video segments, 72,000 teens and young adults are diagnosed with cancer each year. Those cancers can include non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia and sarcoma.


Leah Kroon, RN

Kroon envisioned a YouTube video series with short, pithy segments addressing specific topics of interest to young adults and adolescents with cancer. Topics include what it’s like to lose your hair, how to deal with emotional parents and dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy, she said.

“I think people are used to getting information in very short, fast-paced visual content,” Kroon said. “So that’s why we decided to do that.” The video segments, called “Good Times and Bald Times,” went live in June 2011.

”This generation of teens and young adults is a connected group that relies heavily on technology for their information,” said Rebecca Johnson, MD, medical director of the AYA Oncology program at SCH. “We identified a real need for this type of resource, and we wanted to utilize new media to provide education and psychosocial support to other cancer patients.” Johnson spearheaded the program and also is a cancer survivor.

The videos aren’t reserved solely for patients at SCH; in fact, Kroon and her team of physicians, nurses and social workers hope to reach a much larger audience. “We wanted to make the content widely available,” Kroon said.

Co-facilitator Linda Wolf, who founded Teen Talking Circles, worked with Kroon to gather eight patients who agreed to spend time in sessions talking about their cancer experiences. All but one patient was cancer free at the time of the filming, which took about six weeks. Issues discussed were planned out ahead of time. Kroon then had the unique, months-long task of editing the segments, something quite outside the realm of a nurse’s typical duties but enjoyable, she recalled.

“It had to really drive the point home,” she said. “We sort of worked on things like, ‘What’s the appropriate music for this section?’ ‘How do we not make this part morbid?’ and working on setting the tone.”

She recruited participants by asking the adolescent/young adult oncologists for patients who might be interested in sharing their stories. Patients who said yes were hoping to help others their age to know they’re not alone.

“It is so important for these teens and young adults with cancer to know that there is a peer out there who understands what they are going through and that support is available,” Johnson said. To advertise, Kroon reached out via Facebook and the hospital’s media channels.

“Little by little, I run across news blurbs on online journals, so people are seeing them and writing about them a bit,” Kroon said. “We’ve done some stories about them in our in-hospital newsletter and website and so on. We’ve had some good feedback from some patients, although I would like to get more feedback from patients.”

Kroon said her role as CNS is interesting, compelling and creative. She enjoys the development of palliative care and working with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance with which the hospital is affiliated. She’s proud the program recently received an art grant from Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG organization.

In addition to patients and parents, Kroon educates other nurses, staff and the general public. “It’s an interesting public health issue because the mortality rate [for adolescents and young adults] haven’t improved since the 1970s,” she said. “So we have a message to get out to the community as well as taking care of our own patients.”

Feature – Chicago Tribune

Developmental Programs Help Bridge The Gap In College

March 07, 1999|By Stefanie Dell’Aringa. Special to the Tribune.

Each fall, new students arrive at college lacking the skills to succeed in their courses. Perhaps they have difficulty comprehending college-level texts or they struggle to solve mathematical problems.

Looking at a student’s academic history and freshman-placement test scores often can show that he or she needs help.

For many, that help comes in the form of remedial education, or remediation, which refers to classes designed to raise students’ proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics. Many schools, however, don’t like to use the word “remedial” to describe programs or courses that are below college-level; instead, they refer to them as developmental classes or support programs.

Because high school graduates are not always prepared for college-level work, most colleges offer these classes.

“All community colleges offer remedial classes, and in fact, about three-fourths of colleges and universities offer them,” said Vali Siadat, chairman of the math department and a professor of mathematics at Daley College, a two-year school and one of the City Colleges of Chicago.

“Recent statistics show that more than 50 percent of the enrollment in the colleges and universities is below the calculus level. This shows that there are a great many students who are in college doing remedial work, and this problem is especially paramount in the community colleges.”

Karen Pittman, 21, of Chicago, is a freshman at Daley. She said she benefited from two of the school’s remedial courses. She was placed in the classes because she scored low on college-placement tests.

Reading 125, Developmental Reading Skills II, prepared her for college-level English. “I learned more about how to write a paper correctly,” she said. “I increased my vocabulary and I am reading a lot more magazines. I can pick up a book and breeze through it.”

Math 110, which covers basic algebra, has challenged and excited Pittman so much that she is planning on a career in math education. She hopes to transfer to the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Pittman was one of 33 students in the math class, which is taught by professor Paul Musial. The class is part of the Keystone Project, an experimental program funded by the Gabriella and Paul Rosenbaum Foundation.

The Keystone Project is a teaching program that works to improve the students’ study skills and concentration levels, in addition to focusing on mathematics. Attendance is mandatory, and homework must be completed.

To improve the students’ ability to concentrate, there are daily quizzes with time limits.

“What I really notice is that we take quizzes every day, and that’s different from my other classes,” Pittman said.

Three years ago, a five-semester pilot study of the math program revealed that students’ math skills improved by 22 percentage points and reading comprehension improved by 12, even though reading was not the subject being taught.

“This teaching method affected all groups, from low achievers to high achievers,” said Siadat, who conducted the pilot study with Yoram Sagher, a math professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Remedial math courses offered at Daley are Math 110, which is basic algebra, and Math 112, intermediate algebra. Remedial English courses include English 100, Basic Writing Skills, and Reading 125.

There are 1,623 Daley students taking remedial classes out of a student body of 4,591.

Pittman feels her study skills have been improved by the math course: It has prepared her for the college-level Math 120 course. Her grades are above average.

“It’s really fun when you start seeing A’s and B’s that you haven’t seen before in a math class,” she said. “It makes me feel really good and it makes me want to keep up the good work.”

At Lewis University, a four-year college in Romeoville, students are given the chance to excel in the Success Program. There are 55 students–the maximum allowed–in the Success Program, out of 1,000 students overall.

Marcus Morton, 19, of Chicago is one student who has benefited from the program.

During the 1997-98 school year, when he was a freshman, he was offered additional support because of his low ACT scores. “My composite was 16 both times that I took it,” said Morton, now a sophomore. The nationwide average score for the ACT is 18.

After meeting with a college coordinator, he enrolled in courses that are part of the Success Program, such as Principles of Management, which focuses on time management and study skills, and Basic Composition, which is a springboard to college-level English writing courses.

“Basic Composition was an excellent class,” Morton said. “It was a refresher, in a sense, and it prepared me for taking the qualifying exam to move to College Writing. I got an A in Basic Composition.”

Morton received a 3.5 out of 4.0 grade-point average in his freshman year at Lewis–but, like many students, he needed help in specific areas. “My writing skills were not as sharp as they should have been, so they put me in Basic Composition,” he said.

Lewis also offers ongoing support for students such as Morton through the Center for Academic and Personal Support, known as CAPS. About 600 students participate each year.

CAPS has computer-assisted instruction using remedial and developmental software programs in reading, writing and math.

The students can come in and work on their own, using the tutorial programs, Director Mercy Azeke said. “They can come as many times as they want and stay as long as they want,” she said.

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The program also offers counseling and academic-skills presentations that focus on skills such as goal-setting and time management.

“The support has been phenomenal,” Morton said of CAPS. “They are there for you to receive any type of help you need.”

DePaul University in Chicago offers the following developmental reading and writing courses: WRC101 (College Writing I), WRC102 (College Level Writing II), WRC107 (College Level Reading I) and WRC108 (College Level Reading II).

When students complete those courses they can advance to the standard freshman English courses, English 103 and English 104.

The developmental courses are taken by about 20 percent of the 1,482 freshmen, said Eileen Seifert, assistant director of writing programs, although not all the students take all four of them.

“I think that these courses are very successful, because what many students need is more reading and writing experience,” Seifert said. “This gives them a supportive environment and they seem to do well.”

DePaul students who are not prepared for college-level material also can enroll in a five-week summer course called the Bridge Program, which is taken the summer before freshman year. The program is offered to students accepted on a condi-tional basis because of low ACT scores.

Since 1985, when the program began, 1,628 students have enrolled. “Between 50 and 60 percent have graduated,” said R. Janie Isackson, the program’s director.

Students take a combined reading and writing course, a math course based on their level, and a Discover Chicago course that focuses on different aspects of the city, such as labor or music.

At Harper College, a two-year community college in Palatine, incoming freshmen and new students who are not reading at the college level must enroll in Reading 090, Fundamentals of Reading, and Reading 099, Developmental Reading.

Before classes begin, students take a battery of tests in math, English and reading–the last “gives us a good sense of whether they are capable of handling college-level text,” said Jean-Louise Gustafson, an associate professor in Harper’s Learning Achievement Program.

“What we’re finding is that students are really inexperienced readers and they have read very little up until this point,” Gustafson said.

Some students take both courses, which focus on comprehension and handling higher-level passages. In Reading 090, they read articles on contemporary issues as well as novels and non-fiction; in Reading 099, they read novels, biographies and expository writings.

Paola Capelo, 20, of Des Plaines, completed Reading 099 her freshman year and received a B. “Before when I used to read, I would read a passage and not understand it,” said Capelo, a sophomore. “Now, I will go back to it and try to comprehend it, and if there’s a word I don’t know I’ll look it up.”

She noticed her speed improved as well: “I read a lot faster than I used to read. My reading skills really did improve.”

Harper also helps students who are below college level in mathematics. Courses start with 8th-grade level basic arithmetic (Math 050) and go up to high school level intermediate algebra (Math 080).

Students who receive low scores in math on their assessment tests must take developmental-math courses at Harper before they can advance to college-level math.

From 50 to 60 percent of the incoming students need the courses, said Dominick Magno, a professor in the department of mathematical sciences.

“We try to take students at whatever level they are at,” he said, adding that the school has an open-door policy.

Right now, the school is looking at what can be done to expedite the developmental process for its students.

“What we’re trying to do rather than saying, `You’ve got to take arithmetic all over again’ is to be able to individually diagnose where their weaknesses are,” Magno said.

The success of remediation courses can be measured by looking at the achievements of the college graduates who have taken them.

Pamela Patterson, who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, a Chicago public housing development, graduated from DePaul in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in education.

Patterson, now 31, was told she could not be admitted to DePaul because of low ACT scores. The letter of rejection, which she received in 1985, is still fresh in her mind.

“I remember feeling pretty sorry for myself,” she said.

Two weeks later, she received a letter announcing the Bridge Program, a pilot program in which she was allowed to enroll. “We had one writing course and one math course and we also had a study skills course that we’d go to on Saturday mornings,” she said.

Today she is a 4th-grade teacher at Otis Elementary School on the city’s West Side.

The Bridge Program, Patterson said, “was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Feature Obit – Chicago Tribune

MITCHELL J. WATERS, 69
Marine general boosted training for reservists

By Stefanie Dell’Aringa
Special to the Tribune
Published February 4, 2005

Retired Maj. Gen. Mitchell J. Waters spent much of his military career breaking down the walls that separated Marine reservists from active-duty members.

After the Persian Gulf war, he spent six months at the Pentagon, during which time he testified before Congress in favor of joint training of reservists and active-duty Marines for future wars.

He wasn’t alone in his endeavors, said retired Maj. Gen. Mike Coyne. But his personality and charisma made him the perfect advocate.

As a result of his efforts, reservists from the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, which he once commanded, are fighting in Iraq today.

“Mitch believed there would come a time that the Marine Corps Reserve would be needed, and he argued it strongly,” Coyne said. “Clearly other people were present and contributing, but nobody could exaggerate the role that Mitch Waters played in that.”

Mr. Waters, 69, died of brain cancer Thursday, Jan. 27, in his Lake Barrington Shores home.

He proved that his battalion of reservists could measure up to active-duty Marines by taking them to a NATO exercise in Germany in 1978.

“They performed so well in that exercise as measured against the performance of two other active battalions that he gave credence to what he was arguing,” Coyne said.

Mr. Waters also had a full-time civilian job as a salesman and was a Little League coach. He also ran in five marathons and later started his own business, an electrical tool and die manufacturer.

“He could work on five things at one time and generally was happier doing that,” said his wife, Cindy. “His focus was always multiple, never singular.”

Mr. Waters was born and raised in Evanston and graduated from Evanston Township High School, where he played baseball, basketball and football. He received a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., where he pursued a double major in sociology and anthropology.

He began his Marine career during his sophomore year of college, when he participated in an officer training program. In 1960, just two weeks after he had fulfilled his active-duty commitment, he joined the reserves.

At the same time, he landed a job as a salesman. During his career, he was a senior sales manager and president at various companies.

Mr. Waters, who retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1993, received the Legion of Merit award for his efforts toward a unified Marine Corps training program.

He also is survived by two daughters, Melissa Waters Blank and Julie Waters Price; a son, Mitchell Jeffery; a sister, Sally Waters Hobson; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service with military honors will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in Presbyterian Church of Barrington, 6 Brinker Rd., Barrington.

Profile – Chicago Tribune

Big Brother Inspires Teenager

Pair Explores Interests In Sports, Music, Literature

September 09, 1998|By Stefanie Dell’Aringa. Special to the Tribune.

Reading Homer’s “Odyssey” isn’t how most 15-year-olds would spend a summer afternoon. But Edwin Perez, who lives in the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, had a little guidance from his Big Brother in reading the classic.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Perez and his Big Brother, Mike Plemmons, crack open their copies of the book and pick up where they left off the last time they read together.

Each takes a turn reading a paragraph, stopping only when Plemmons needs to clarify a word or explain a situation to Perez.

To outsiders, these two might seem like an unlikely pair. But they’ve been spending time together for close to three years. They were matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago, 28 E. Jackson Blvd.

The program, which has served more than 6,000 children since it began in 1967, matches volunteer adult role models with children from single-parent or foster-parent homes.

Perez has been without a father since he was preschool age–his parents divorced and his father returned to Mexico. His mother remarried a year ago.

Plemmons, 47, knows what it’s like to not have a father around. When he was growing up, there were many occasions when he was separated from his father, a sergeant in the Air Force, because of his military duties.

Plemmons began thinking about being a Big Brother after a friend died from brain cancer.

“He had a wonderful family with three kids, and during the time he was ill, I spent a lot of time with them,” he says. “One day, because it became very obvious to her (the friend’s wife) that I liked kids, she suggested that I might try Big Brothers.”

Plemmons, who lives in Streeterville, knew it was a big commitment. “You have to agree to meet once every two weeks for a year,” he says. “You have to be there, and I think that deters a lot of people.”

He also had to go through a training program and background check.

“Mike has been great for Edwin,” says program manager Renee Tucker, who was responsible for matching Plemmons and Perez. “I think that Mike’s involvement has definitely helped in Edwin’s school work. Mike is incredibly dedicated and committed to helping Edwin academically.”

Plemmons’ interests and hobbies and those of his Little Brother were considered when the match was made.

“I had to write down what I like to do and they said they would find a similar person like me, with the same hobbies,” Perez explains. “I felt a little strange, but as soon as I got to know him, we got along very well. He has helped me with a lot of things.”

The two share a common love of sports, music and literature. They have attended sporting events, gone to movies, read books and gone bowling.

Two years ago, Plemmons took Perez to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra because Perez had discovered he enjoyed classical music after listening to one of his mother’s compact discs.

“One day he said to me, `Who is this Beethoven guy?’ ” Plemmons recalls. “I thought it was really neat that a 15-year-old would be interested in Beethoven.”

Because of past experiences, though, he was fearful that Perez would talk during the concert. “Right in the middle of a movie, he would stop and say something full-throat, like, `Hey Mike! Why are they doing that?!’

“So I said, `Edwin, you must not talk to me during the performance.’ I was so paranoid.”

At one point during the performance, Perez noticed that the violinists were plucking the strings. He leaned over and whispered, “Mike, they’re not using their sticks.”

Plemmons says he chuckled and responded, “I know. And those are called bows.”

Perez feels the biggest difference that Plemmons has made in his life can be seen when he looks at his grades. Since his native language is Spanish, he has had difficulty with the subject of English. Plemmons loves to read and majored in English in college. That’s one reason the two spend a good deal of time reading.

“He has helped me with vocabulary words,” Perez says.

Last year, he went from a failing grade in English to getting the highest exam score of the 20 students in his class at Lake View High School.

“I got so excited!” he says. “I called Mike and thanked him for helping me with the reading.”

Plemmons says he, too, was excited to hear the news and felt that all his work had paid off.

During the school year, Plemmons spends as many as three nights a week helping Perez with his homework.

The difference Plemmons has made in the young boy’s life can be summed up by the words Perez uses to describe him.

“I view him as a friend and a father,” he says. “When I have a problem, he is always there to help me.”

Plemmons was born in Las Vegas. He says he was a “military brat,” moving as a young child every time his father was transferred to a different miltitary base.

Like his father, he decided to join the Air Force.

He enlisted when he was 18 and went to San Antonio for basic training. He was sent to the Azores, a group of islands west of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean, where he served as a military police officer from 1969 to 1973 at the refueling stop.

After that, he was stationed in Springfield, Mass. It was there that he started his career as a writer, freelancing for local newspapers. He visited the editor of the Springfield Union and was offered a part-time job while he was still in the service.

After his discharge in 1973, Plemmons moved to Biloxi, Miss., where his father had retired. He worked for various newspapers while attending college.

He majored in history and English, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Alabama in Mobile in 1976. He received a master’s degree in journalism in 1977 from Northwestern University, Evanston.

He worked for the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1977 to 1979, covering labor issues. He met his wife there, and although they divorced in 1985 they’re still close friends, he says.

Plemmons then went from being a newspaper reporter to advertising copywriter–he got burned out, he says. He worked for several agencies in various jobs before starting Plemmons/McMartin, several years ago. Today, he is the company’s creative director.

Running his own company allows Plemmons the freedom to spend time with Perez. And, as many volunteers find, he has received more out of the friendship than he anticipated. For one thing, he is considered part of the Perez family. In fact, Perez says, the refrigerator is stocked with Diet Coke for him.

One of the greatest honors was when Perez’s mother remarried and she asked Plemmons to be a witness.

“I still get a lump in my throat when I think about it,” Plemmons says. “I was deeply honored that she asked me to do that.”

Though Plemmons has long surpassed the one-year commitment that the program requires, he says he will remain Perez’s Big Brother indefinitely.

“I don’t see how this would end,” he says. “We have become friends and we know each other. It’s just a natural thing now.”

For more information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago, call 312-427-0637.

Profile – Delta-Therm Corp.

Self-Taught Graphics Gal Hopes to Advance Her Skills at Delta-Therm

Denise Philyaw has always learned by doing, beginning as a paste-up artist for Lakeland  Newspapers in Grayslake when she was a college freshman.

“I just learned by experience and kind of grew with the industry,” said the 45 year-old McHenry resident. “I enjoy trying to learn something new. If you stay still, you’re not doing yourself any favors.”

Though she attended College of Lake County and Illinois Central College in East Peoria for a time, she quickly found her niche as a graphic designer for a company called Graphic Partners in Zion.

“I was with them for 12 years,” she said. “Longevity with my employers is something that I pride myself on.”

Philyaw spent the next nine years with Exacto, an agricultural chemical company in Richmond where she worked as a graphic designer and marketing coordinator. After that, she spent three years running her own graphic design/marketing support business before being hired by Delta-Therm in May as its Marketing Communications Assistant.

“Everything was going really well, until the fall of the economy when things slowed down considerably. There was a significant drop in business, so I needed to look for a full time or contract-to-hire position,” she recalled. “I did a lot of searching and I contacted a lot of agencies.”

Delta-Therm, working through the Randstad Agency, identified Philyaw as the right candidate for the job. To maintain the company’s professional image, Ada Cryer needed an individual who could accurately and artfully update the annual product catalog as well as manage collateral marketing materials, such as literature, the website, product displays and other promotional pieces.

“Denise has an extensive background working for printing companies, and she has experience as a graphic designer for technical products,” said Cryer. “We hoped that her experience would help us maintain and/or improve our collateral materials while allowing me more time to work on customer support issues as I took on managing the customer support department almost two years ago.”

The catalog involved page layout templates, font styles, photos and illustrations, all of which had to be sent to a printer in digital format with proper file links.

“She proved that she not only could manage the project, but she improved the tab layout to make it easier to find the product you’re looking for,” said Cryer, adding that Philyaw also corrected layout inconsistencies and completed the project on time. “She’s currently assisting me on final production of an installation DVD for our 2FW floor warming product.”

Philyaw had a 90-day trial period before being hired permanently. It was just what she was hoping would happen since working at home, though comfortable in her fuzzy slippers, was somewhat isolating.

“When you’re on your own, you really miss water cooler conversations and interaction,” she said. “I really missed the camaraderie.”

Philyaw is excited about the challenge of adding website design to her skill set. She’s been studying a book Cryer gave her that teaches CSS and HTML, markup languages that will assist her in the process, and has also enrolled in a 6-week online class, learning Dreamweaver.

“It’s really interesting,” she said. “We’re going over Delta-Therm’s website, and I’m learning how to use administrative tools on the website for updating documents.

“It seems everybody is learning website design these days,” she added.

“It’s something that I’ve never had the opportunity or the time to learn or tackle, so I’m really glad that I’ve been given the opportunity.”

Outside of Delta-Therm, she contracts with clients to do freelance graphic design jobs. She stays abreast of current trends by enrolling in courses, or self-taught programs such as Adobe InDesign.

“I try to learn as much as I possibly can,” she said.

Philyaw’s previous employer, Exacto was a family-owned company where she enjoyed close relationships, so she felt at home right away at Delta-Therm.

“It’s very laid back, as opposed to a big corporate business,” she said.

Tending to her perennial garden beds, fishing, canoeing, and hiking are among her personal hobbies. She also loves traveling, history and archeology.

In the future, Philyaw hopes to learn more about the products at Delta-Therm, though she’s somewhat knowledgeable about cables and electricity.

“I come from a family of electricians so I’m familiar with some of the jargon that goes on around here,” she said. “It’s just a matter of getting used to a new product line.”

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