Did you know that up to 40% of the homeless youth in this country identify as LGBTQ? Many of these children are homeless because their parents have rejected them merely based on their sexual orientation. Homeless youth are at a greater risk of violence, sexual assault and exploitation. One organization’s mission is to protect these children from harm and help empower them to live independently, and that organization is the Ali Forney Center. Alexander Roque, a SSP dad, is their Director of Development and oversees all of their donor programs. Please read and share this with your friends. We all need to think about how we can help this incredibly important organization and the innocent children they support.
SSP: Can you please tell us about the organization you work for, the Ali Forney Center? What is your mission?
AFC is the nation's largest and most comprehensive provider of services and housing for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young people. Our mission is to protect homeless LGBTQ youth from the harms of homelessness while providing them with the tools they need to rebuild their lives. LGBTQ youth are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than non LGBT youth. Once homeless, these young people are eight times more likely to experience violence, substance abuse, HIV infection and tragically suicidal ideation. In NYC there are an estimated 4,000 homeless young people on our streets. AFC provides care for nearly half who identify as LGBTQ. Family rejection is the leading cause of LGBTQ youth homelessness.
Please watch this moving video of Alex presenting an award to Lady Gaga and Lady Gaga’s mother, Cynthia, who Alex says “shared kindness and love with our kids in only a way a parent can”.
SSP: Why is this cause so important to you, personally?
As a parent, I struggle with comprehending how families reject their children for any reason but more so I cannot understand how a parent can reject a child because of their LGBTQ identity. Having experienced family rejection because of my identity I am particularly empathetic to the young people we provide care for. Above all, the issue of youth homelessness is one we should all be concerned with. Homeless populations, particularly homeless youth, need our support and care beyond a donation of cash.
SSP: Can you please share a little more about how that very personal experience led you to where you are now?
Generally, my childhood and what I was exposed to led me to a career of caring for others, and more specifically working to improve the lives of young people - prior to joining the Ali Forney Center I worked for a national organization that dealt with a neurodegenerative brain disease - Huntington's Disease. And, before that I worked for a program of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court providing care for children who were abused abandoned or neglected by their parents.
Specifically, I grew up in Miami, Florida as a first generation Cuban-American immigrant. Both my parents were religious and expressed their homophobia and transphobia very openly at home - in fact, family rejection rooted in religious beliefs is the leading cause of LGBTQ youth homelessness - about 90% of the homeless LGBTQ youth population identify religious believes of their parents as the reason for their homelessness. My father in particular threatened me with abandonment (kicking me out of my home) if I were gay. When he suspected that I was gay he sent me to a therapist for psychiatric care - as a result I grew up rejecting my identity and in fear of family rejection.
SSP: Did you always know you wanted to help gay youth?
Having moved out at a very young age and building my own community of support and acceptance, I sought refuge and empowerment in helping others - primarily young people - be it LGBTQ or not. I always knew that my upbringing was not normal nor was it one I deserved, as such my work circles largely around helping youth who are underprivileged, underserved, or otherwise disenfranchised from acceptance, and love.
SSP: What programs do you offer at your center for the LGBTQ youth? I understand you also offer shelter?
In addition to providing shelter and housing services, AFC offers a continuum of services specifically designed to help these young people thrive and overcome the trauma of family rejection and the harms of street homelessness. This includes medical and mental healthcare through our onsite medical clinic, substance abuse treatment, career and educational support in a classroom environment, support group services, leadership development, advocacy training, peer led services, and other vital care. We also do a lot of work around sex trafficking and sex work. In the US more than half of homeless youth are propositioned for sex within 72 hours of being homeless-- typically sex in exchange for food, shelter, or money. Nearly 87% of the young people who come to us indicate they have engaged in commercial sex to survive.
In total, we connect with over 1,700 young people annually who are forced into homelessness. Nearly 50% of our clients come to us from New York, 45% come to us from across the country -- mostly the south, and 5 % come to us from outside of the US.
SSP: Can you tell us a little about Project Birthday?
Project Birthday is a program I launched when I worked with children in the dependency system -- these are young people who were abused, abandoned and/or neglected by their parents. I learned that children in the court system did not celebrate their birthday, and worked with a board member on developing funding that would allow us to celebrate birthdays. When I joined AFC in 2011 I knew I wanted to introduce this program but I wasn't able to amass the funding necessary to make it possible. Earlier this year, I was fortunate to work with a donor and board member on introducing the program. Each month, we host an agency-wide celebration where we celebrate all birthdays that month. Each young person who has a birthday that month receives a birthday card, a gift card to Target, a certificate for a cupcake at Sprinkles, and a birthday celebration with other friends celebrating their birthday. Above and beyond the gift and the time we spend celebrating the birthday, we are able to celebrate this young person's life. We are able to remind them that they are valued, important to us, and loved.
SSP: What has been the most meaningful and impactful experience you’ve had while working the Ali Forney Center?
For me the greatest impact and most meaningful part of my work has been the thousands of people that I have connected to our work over the years. Telling our story, educating others about the realities of our homeless young people, and engaging the community in this work is particularly meaningful because our young people need us - not just for funding - but to remind them that even though their parents/families have rejected them they are valued, and celebrated just as they are. Connecting our community to our work demonstrates for them that they can build new families and new lives, and even though their family rejection may be painful, there is a family waiting for them.
SSP: Funding must be more important now than ever, as I understand certain federal grants are ending this year. How can we get involved, can we volunteer? And how does one donate?
Volunteering, telling our story, liking us on FB and sharing our posts are all ways you can help us. Attached are group volunteer opportunities but there are also individual volunteer opportunities. I personally volunteer once a month in Sunset Park and once a month in Harlem. There are over 18 sites where individuals can volunteer. Donations can be made online on our website at www.aliforneycenter.org or on our Facebook page.
Jill Wood is a very dear friend, patient & Park Slope neighbor. Her story is about her brave and relentless fight to save her son's life. When Jonah was just shy of 2 years old he was diagnosed with a fatal genetic disease that is so ultra-rare that there are only 20 cases known in the US. After the diagnosis, Jill took immediate action and started a foundation in his name, Jonah's Just Begun, to help create awareness and advance the science. Jill needs our help now more than ever as she perseveres to find a cure before it is too late for her son and the other children and families suffering from it. Want to make a difference today? Buy tickets for your family to attend her upcoming Halloween themed fundraiser October 28th, right here in Park Slope!
SSP: Before we learn more about your son’s rare disease and your organization, can you please tell us about your upcoming Halloween fundraiser and why we all need to attend?
The Little Gingerbread House of Horrors is a Halloween themed fundraiser. This year’s theme comes from Hansel and Gretel meets Candyland. The event will take place October 28th from 12-2pm at Shapeshifters Lab in Brooklyn NY. There will be lots of activities for the kids: crafts, face painting, food, music and dancing. Come dressed and hopefully win a prize for best costume. Parents give your kids a fun and wholesome time, while you peruse our awesome raffle baskets. Enjoy a cocktail with friends, you can even dance if you want to. Don’t be scared - there is fun for everyone at the Gingerbread House of Horrors.
A huge thanks to our sponsors: South Slope Pediatrics and The Park Slope Day Camp!
SSP: How did Jonah’s Just Begun come to be?
Jonah was born July 30th, 2008, happy and healthy. Jeremy and I couldn’t take our eyes off of our remarkable son. He was our first child and his birth changed our lives. Jeremy remarked to his father that it felt like his heart had doubled in size, making room to hold all the love he felt for Jonah.
We were living in bliss with our little boy, dreaming of the years to come and all of the wonderful experiences that we would have together as a family.
At Jonah’s ﬁrst-year well visit our astute pediatrician, Dr. Hai Cao, suggested we get Jonah an MRI. Dr. Cao noted that the size of Jonah’s head was “off the charts.” Nine months later, Our geneticist gave Jeremy and I the news that changed our lives a second time: Jonah had Sanfilippo Syndrome Type C, a rare genetic disease that is both fatal and untreatable.
When I asked our geneticist if this meant a death sentence for Jonah. She paused for a very long time, my heart sank. She came back and said: “Today there are treatments thought impossible just five years ago.”
That is exactly what we needed to hear to give us the strength to fight Jonah’s fate.
Do to the rarity of Jonah’s syndrome there was not a single research program happening at the time of Jonah’s diagnosis. My husband and I found this unacceptable. Jeremy and I reached out to every resource that we had, forming Jonah’s Just Begun-Foundation to Cure Sanfilippo Inc. We started fundraising and searching for scientists that would help us.
SSP: What exactly is Sanfilippo and how are children affected?
Sanfilippo Syndrome is a genetic disorder. My husband and I are both carriers of the defective gene that causes Sanfilippo Syndrome. We both passed our defected gene to Jonah. There isn’t newborn screening for Sanfilippo Syndrome and there was no way of knowing that we were carriers. Because of this defective gene, Jonah’s body is unable to produce an enzyme, this enzyme’s job is to breakdown and recycle a molecule called Hepran Sulfate (HS). Because of this defect, HS is left to clog every single cell in the body.
SSP: What happens to a child with Sanfilippo Syndrome?
Sanfilippo is an insidious disease that often goes undetected for years. Most children are born with no visible signs that anything is wrong. It’s not until the preschool years that children start to show cognitive delays; even then, the disease is often misdiagnosed. It is most commonly misdiagnosed as Autism.
Sanfilippo is progressive and can be broken down into stages. Some describe Sanfilippo as a childhood Alzheimer’s.
First stage: The affected child presents with: delayed speech, hyperactivity, impulsivity and behavioral issues. Sanfilippo children have distinctive facial features, you must be trained to notice them: prominent forehead, bushy eyebrows, coarse hair, thick skin, short neck, full lips, low thick ears, a wide flat nose. Their facial features are described as “coarse.” Affected children are prone to sinus and ear infections, diarrhea, and minor muscular skeletal issues. The problems associated with Sanfilippo are vast and varied.
Second stage: The affected child will become extremely active, restless, suffer sleeplessness and exhibit difficult behavior. Many children are compelled to chew on things, grab at people or items. Some children have seizures others have visual and hearing problems. Over time, speech and communication skills decline along with other cognitive and motor skills.
Third stage: The disease will take its ultimate toll. The child will lose the ability to walk, talk and eat on his own while his body shuts down. Death may occur as early as the age of five. More common, however, are children that live into their early teens, with some surviving into their twenties.
SSP: How rare (or ultra-rare) is this disease and is there a treatment?
A rare disease is defined as having a patient population of 200,000 or less. Jonah’s version of Sanfilippo only has 20 known patients in the United States, the current known incident rate is 1 in 1.5 million. Sanfilippo Syndrome is considered ultra-rare.
SSP: What is the current research?
JJB along with our consortium: H.A.N.D.S. made up of international medical research foundations like JJB have funded over a million dollars towards a treatment. Our gene therapy program is ready to go to trial. The only thing stopping us is funding for the vector production for a human clinical trial.
A handful of Mom and Pop foundations have funded a treatment that once had no hope all the way to the point of clinical trial. We could have never gotten this far without the generosity of others. Now we need a financial partner to help with manufacturing of the drug and the finances of a clinical trial.
SSP: What is next/what can you share with us?
There is still a lot of work to be done. We need to complete our Natural History Study (NHS) a NHS follows the progression of a disease by collecting medical data from the patients that suffer from the disease. Our Natural History for Sanfilippo type C and D is being conducted at the Montefiore Children’s Hospital under the direction of Dr. Paul Levy. 20 patients will come to NY for two days of testing, one day will be spent at Montefiore where the children will undergo a battery of tests, involving bloodwork, MRI, E-Xrays, Ultrasound etc.
The second day the children will participate in cognitive testing at the Albert Einstein Medical Center under the direction of Dr. Sophie Molhom. Dr. Molhom’s testing is not covered by insurance, each day of testing for each child is $1,000. That’s $20,000 a year, this study will happen for five years. This study is vitally important as the data will provide proof to the FDA that our gene therapy is working.
SSP: What is needed NOW and how can we help support you?
We need to raise funding to cover the cognitive portion of the NHS that is not covered by insurance. $1,000 per child per year.
One way you can help support is to come to our upcoming fundraiser: “The Little Gingerbread House of Horrors” You can purchase tickets http://bit.ly/GingerbreadHouseofHorror
If you can’t make it to the event you can help by supporting our raffle and auction tables.
Purchase an item from our amazon gift list and it will be re-gifted into themed baskets for raffle prizes. https://smile.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/dl/invite/46wCYyd
Lastly, we can always use volunteers to help set up and take-down the day of the event. The set design for our life-sized gingerbread house event will take a lot of manpower to construct.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN interviewing Johnny Lee Miller:
Now more than ever, human interaction seems to be missing from our lives. Most of us are guilty of ordering almost everything online. We tend to lack that human connection in our day to day purchases. One local small business, Accurate Pharmacy (5th Ave and corner of 18th St), is bringing that connection back in a meaningful way in this age of mobile interaction and automated calls. Let’s get to know Danny Tsang, the owner and person who will greet you at the door every day and very likely remember you by name!
SSP: Before we dive into what makes your local small business so special to the South Slope community, can you please tell us a little about yourself and how your life led to the opening of Accurate Pharmacy?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn and recently moved into Park Slope. I’m a father to two beautiful daughters (ages 4 and 6), and husband to Sarah - a lifelong friend, business partner, and professional colleague. Sarah is a Pediatric Pharmacist and works at New York Presbyterian - Weill Cornell Medical Center and just celebrated her 15 year anniversary there (which includes her intern years).
While working at corporate pharmacies, I’ve decided that I wanted to spend more time with patients and foster a trusting relationship. Therefore, I developed a business plan that carried us to our upcoming fourth year in business and hopefully many more. I believe that pharmacies should not be driven by metrics and quotas, but simply by the number of families that it has touched upon and made a positive outcome.
We strongly believe and advocate that the pharmacy’s role in healthcare is integral in patients’ well being (a visit to the pharmacy is usually the patients’ last stop before they go home “to the road of recovery”; therefore, taking time and counseling each patient, and arming them with proper knowledge specifically regarding the medication (or regimen) will ensure compliance and reduce risk of unwanted adverse effects). We can also assist and collaborate with patients’ healthcare provider to reduce adverse events and increase compliance.
SSP: When did you open the store, and what was your goal when you opened it?
The pharmacy grand-opened September 14, 2014. The main goal is PATIENT CARE. In the world of healthcare as pharmacist, we have the unique opportunity to improve outcomes, lower costs, and raise the quality of life for patients; after all, we are the last person or location patients will visit before going home to rest and recover.
Another goal is to break the cycles of any bad associations patients have with pharmacies. This includes remaining transparent with patients, working with patients, doctors, and pharmacy insurances to come up with a mutually agreed treatment plan, reducing wait time, and providing thoughtful personal services.
SSP: Local Park Slope residents have shown great appreciation for you and your pharmacy. One such positive review says “Danny is the best pharmacist I've ever known! He takes his time to answer any questions, has helped me to understand my insurance and goes above and beyond for all of his customers. I always thought local pharmacy=more expensive but that is definitely not the case. I will never go to a chain pharmacy again! I had a friend go pick up some medicine with me and after experiencing the wonderful customer service, they now walk a mile past their pharmacy just to go to Accurate. I really can't say enough great things” (Yelp). How do you think you deliver such positive experiences to your customers?
Dedication and hard work. Sarah and I have worked each and every day the pharmacy is open since grand opening. We have made a commitment to get to know the neighbors for us to understand how we can position ourselves to help and be useful in the community.
SSP: Folks love the personal attention they receive when they enter your store. You even take the time to greet customers by name. Why is this so important to you, creating these personal connections?
Sarah and I believe it is important to create an emotional connection via patient/customer engagement. Greeting customers and patients as they enter the pharmacy triggers positive conversations. A warm and sincere greeting serves as a tool to help connect people at a more personal level and may even reduce the imaginary “defensive walls” to create a comfortable environment. This will then foster a open patient/customer and pharmacist relationship where it is more likely for questions to be asked and counseling is seeked.
SSP: One local Park Slope mom has told me that she had complained about a prescription she received and you took the time to call the distributor to get a better product for her - truly going above and beyond for your customers. If a customer has questions about a medication, you will call or text them answers. Can you please tell us more about how you deliver such outstanding customer service?
I’m glad we can reference an example where a patient complained about a specific prescription. We listen and put ourselves into the patients’ shoes. Listening is one of the many important skills in customer service. As a small business owner, we may not always have the ability or resources to solve every customer’s problems, but we can always offer them our 100% attention, by listening, and then respond appropriately and thoughtfully. In certain cases, it can also turn a negative experience into a positive one. In this example, we made a call to the manufacturer of the patient’s medication and made them aware that there was a complaint. This allows the manufacturer to collect data and hopefully improve and reduce similar incidences. We are then able to work with our distributors and get a similar product to replace the damaged medication. It all seems like a simple interaction, but if the patient did not inform us about the issue, and decided not to take the medication, then this might have led to an undesirable medication non-compliance issue. It is crucial to us, for my patients, to understand how to use/take their medications comfortably so they can achieve a better outcome.
Listening to customer feedbacks also help us improve. I remember when we started, our shelves were bare and stocked with items that our neighbors weren’t looking for; by listening to our patients’ and neighbors comments, we have transitioned ourselves to their daily stop - carrying as many essentials items and medications that our small location can fit.
SSP: Our South Slope Pediatrics family would surely like to know more about your offering at the store. I understand you sell things like Honest diapers and Melissa and Doug toys! Can you please tell us more about your offering, to young parents in particular? Are there other services that are unique to your store, which we should know about?
We offer all the same standard services as most pharmacies, but I am also a Kings County Notary Public and approved NYS Department of Motor Vehicle vision test center. The pharmacy is also a UPS Access Point which for the neighbors’ convenience, may drop off packages here. We also have a photo processing lab located directly behind the pharmacy (side entrance). Services in the photo department includes passport photo, photo touch ups, film processing, etc.
SSP: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our parents about your store?
We also dispense prescription medication and compound individualized medications for pets (offering the best available prices). For example, if your cat loves their medication chicken flavored - we can help!
Another summer is winding down, and our focus is now on the start of the school year. This can be accompanied by some anxieties (for both you AND your child). So how can we best prepare our children for the upcoming year? Here are 10 tips that will help us through the adjustment of a fun, playful summer to a more regimented school schedule.
Photo courtesy of Baciccia
There is surely no shortage of restaurants in and around Park Slope. But which are the best choices when we go out with our babies and children? We’ve spoken to several parents in the neighborhood and have rounded up some of the favorite family spots. FUN FACT: Did you know Dr. Cao is totally obsessed with Italian food? His top 3 restaurants are featured at the top, with his family’s favorite menu choices!
#1) Baciccia - True Italian cuisine (everyone there is from Italy). They have Nutella Pizza (YES, it’s a thing - and Hai learned this from Matteo’s nephews back in Italy)!
#2) Piccante - AMAZING Italian (not in Park Slope but close enough in Bay Ridge). Osso Buco is to die for but definitely come hungry...it’s huge! A real gem of a restaurant and very accomodating for children.
#3) Piccoli - Bolognese della Nonna is Hai’s daughter’s favorite dish. They start preparing it as soon as she walks in, they don’t even ask what she’s having! Mouth watering homemade risottos, and more simple pasta dishes for the littles make it a win-win for the whole family.
Photo courtesy of Piccante
Bogota -If you’re looking for a more lively spot, this restaurant will deliver a more fun experience and great Central/South American food. Children’s menu and fried yucca, cornmeal cakes (arepas), black bean empanadas...lots for them to choose from. Definitely go early if going for dinner as it gets very crowded!
Brooklyn Crab - Mini golf, bean bag toss, sandbox….and plenty of room for kids to run around and play outside while you enjoy the seafood in this crab-shack vibe in Red Hook. A perfect way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon with the family!
Cafe Steinhof - Casual Austrian restaurant, where kids can enjoy some schnitzel or spaetzle. Great choice for a brunch and high chairs are available. It’s a little tight indoors for strollers, FYI (easier to sit outside)!
Calexico - Sometimes it is hard to get a seat, but when you do it's worth the wait at this restaurant with a “cool, California vibe” (NY Mag). Affordable, and fun - can’t really go wrong here, kids menu and all! Folks love their burrito bowls with the “crack sauce” (spicy mayo).
Dizzy’s - A “finer diner”, a PERFECT brunch spot for the family and it really doesn’t get any more baby or kid friendly than this. Food is always solid, and the staff could not be any friendlier!
East Wind Snack Shop - This spot in Windsor Terrace has the yummiest Chinese dumplings, and kids will often agree. Large communal table inside and bench outside, and the website even states “we love kids and dogs”!
Guiseppinas - Many think this is the best brick oven pizza in the Slope, true NYC pizza. The owner often comes by each table to greet guests. You can see the brick oven from your table and can watch them make your pizza.
Greenwood Park - This open picnic table setting outdoors is a fun spot for kids (during daytime hours only). Be sure to keep track of their holiday events, like pumpkin carving in October and the tree lighting in December.
Haab - A large menu includes more traditional tacos to tacos with duck confit, or cactus with avocado and queso fresco. Accommodating wait staff, definitely appropriate for babies and children.
Hugo & Sons - Super family friend restaurant, where children’s menu includes organic chicken nuggets, hot dogs and fries and rigatoni. They’ll even prepare any pizza or pasta as gluten-free if requested! Crispy artichokes...yum.
J'eatjet - If you or your kids love burgers, this gastropub is for you (beef, lamb, veggie, and more)! Not sure there are many kids (or adults) who would turn down their mac-and-cheese balls. Their backyard is lovely for the summer.
Johnny Mack's - For more traditional American comfort food, and you can play pinball while you wait. This restaurant has been there for 23 years, which says a lot.
Korzo - A Slovakian restaurant where kids are always welcome and can help you eat the yummy pierogies, potato latkes, and the infamous “fried burger”.
Krupa Grocery - The food here is delicious, specifically the panko-crusted shrimp burger and the Korean pickles. High chairs available, even “higher high chairs” for the high tables! Beautiful outdoor area is a great spot to enjoy brunch too.
Le French Tart - For lighter lunches and dinners, like quiches, crepes and salads, this new cafe is the place to go. The owners have young kids who are often there behind the counter. They also have an amazing selection of baked goods (and everyone must try their chips)!
Le Paddock - In addition to classic French food at a good price, this restaurant also offers brick oven pizza which always seems to work for kids! It's a smart option if you are in the park and want to go closeby for brunch or dinner (located in Windsor Terrace).
Miriam - Another great brunch spot, this Israeli restaurant is a pleaser for both kids and parents alike. Includes more simple foods (french toast) and then a more traditional Israeli dish like the Burekas, a puffed pastry pocket stuffed with feta & olives.
Patsys - If you find yourself in northern Park Slope, this old-school pizzeria has a big back patio. Thin crust pizza is amazing. They also offer to do kids’ parties, where they learn to make their own pizza!
Pita & Sticks - Good Greek food option and family-owned and therefore very welcoming of families. Large platters are fun to share with the kids! For the more picky eaters, the menu include burgers and chicken nuggets and the unisex bathroom has a changing station for babies.
Prospect Bar & Grill - The French Toast is a favorite with little ones, and it has ample space should they get antsy and want to walk around! The staff is so accommodating and friendly, an easy choice for brunch on a Sunday morning.
Sidecar - Buttermilk fried chicken. The best. That is all. And yes, kid friendly and a charming little outdoor space.
Ten - While many young children might not be so adventurous to try sushi, there are more “kid friendly” options like gyoza and edamame. Lots of vegan options as well!
Don’t see your favorite restaurant listed? Please comment and share!
Today it is more important than ever to celebrate and create dialogue around our diversity. One woman, a SSP parent and renowned artist, is doing just that through her 80+ murals around the world, her children’s books and teaching. Meet Katie Yamasaki, whose work has been given high praise by the NYT among many other publications. She has just published her 4th book, “When the Cousins Came”, which she has both authored and illustrated. Let’s meet Katie, learn about her latest children’s book and the significance of her work.
SSP: Before we dive into who you are and how you got to this incredible place you are at, can you please tell us about your recent book launch earlier this month of “When the Cousins Came”? One review summarizes it as “A refreshing, reassuring, and honest story about family and friendship that stands out amid a sea of pat friendship stories” (Anna Haase Krueger, Ramsey County Library, MN). How would you describe this book and what it means to you?
This book was inspired by my own family, by the times shared with my cousins from our earliest days. There are a lot of us, I’m one of 27 first cousins, and we were spread across the country in both very urban and very rural areas. I had cousins who rode skateboards in Albuquerque and cousins who rode dog sleds through the Alaskan tundra. So when we would get together, there was always a lot to share and a lot to learn.
We were also comprised of many different racial and ethnic mixes, which only continues to grow in this new generation. At any given family reunion these days, you’ll find our family to be different mixes of Chinese, Indian, Dominican, Japanese, Irish, Hawaiian, Nigerian, French-Canadian, Ethiopian, etc. The lesson that we took from growing up in that environment, is the lesson that I hope to communicate in the book. It is that our differences actually bring us closer together and make our relationships stronger and healthier.
SSP: You are tremendously gifted across many different fields. A muralist, an educator, a writer, an illustrator...I’m not sure where to begin! How did your childhood help shape the path to where you are now? How did you discover your passion for art?
I am lucky to come from a very creative family who encouraged all of us to make things all the time. I didn’t grow up thinking I’d become an artist, but I did grow up building, baking, painting, woodworking and sewing. My family was full of artists and teachers on both sides and I grew up thinking I’d probably become a social worker because I loved working with people and wanted to do something meaningful with my time. When I got to college, I ended up liking my drawing class (I was awful but it was fun) much more than my social work class, so that was the path I pursued. The tricky part was trying to figure out what I’d do with the art in terms of work, making a living, doing something meaningful, etc . . . I was lucky to find children’s books and muralism in the years that followed.
SSP: Who would you say are your biggest influences?
My biggest influences are people I meet who share their stories. I’m lucky that my way of making work focuses on storytelling- either in book form or in mural form. The stories are usually the stories of others, and the art is kind of the vehicle or the platform for expression. So I get to hear all kinds of stories- stories of immigration, of incarceration, of community, of family, of loss, of visions for better futures. These stories are my greatest influences and motivate my work completely.
Artistically, there are some artists whose work I love with my whole heart. Leo and Diane Dillon, Frida Kahlo, Ed Young, Kerry James Marshall, Diego Rivera and Isamu Noguchi to name a few.
SSP: So many of us, especially in the NY area, can identify with being part of a diverse family (including myself)! We can totally relate to the curiosity and excitement that comes with learning about our family’s different cultures and celebrating our differences. This seems to be an underlying theme in your books and murals that you’ve created. What is the most important message or messages you would like us to take away from your work?
I think that across both the books and murals, I hope that people will feel empowered to share their own story in any form. Everyone has a story and we sometimes get so used to our own story that it starts to feel less interesting or unimportant. Or maybe we are around too many people who have similar-seeming stories. But they all matter and they will matter to your children and to their children. So, I hope that the work will motivate the viewer to ask questions from their elders to learn more about the stories of their people. We are in a time where the power of listening cannot be underestimated. I hope that my work will motivate people to ask questions and listen thoughtfully as a way to deepen and broaden our connections.
SSP: To date, is there a piece of work that has been most meaningful to you, and why?
I am most proud of the work I have done in different prisons and detention centers both nationally and in Mexico. A few years ago, I did a project with incarcerated mothers at Rikers Island and their children in Brooklyn and East Harlem. I worked with the kids to design a message and a mural for their moms and then painted that mural with the moms at the women’s jail on Rikers. Then I worked with the moms to design a message and an image for their children, and painted the image with the kids in E. Harlem. It was a powerful project for many reasons, but it really showed me the power art-making has when it comes to building bridges. Not only were the moms and kids brought into dialogue with each other and able to communicate in a new and expressive way, but the moms were also brought into greater dialogue with the people around them in jail- other women, corrections officers, etc. The kids, in doing a public piece of art were also brought into the light in a way that lifted the stigma that burdens many children with incarcerated parents. The ways that the communities around both the moms and kids supported the expression of their story was incredibly moving and a project I will never forget.
SSP: I understand you also visit schools and organizations, can you please tell me a little more about that and how someone can get in touch with you?
I love to do presentations and workshops with both my book and mural work for people of all ages and moments of life. I’ve presented in elementary schools, homeless shelters, churches, prisons, museums, 4-H clubs, etc. Anything goes. I can be reached by email at: email@example.com
OK, it’s officially HOT out there! It’s a mix of emotions for many of us parents. Those of us who love the heat are enjoying it but if our child is not near water we’re bombarded with whining and constant complaining. Not to blame them completely - it does get crazy hot in the city! But they are obviously not the best at concealing any type of discomfort. The solution: playgrounds and parks with water features!!! Let’s explore some of the ones local to Brooklyn and in surrounding areas.
Splash Pad at the LeFrak Center at Lakeside (Prospect Park): Over 20 water jets pumping at once while you groove to fun pop music. Another bonus to the splash pad is that there is a great cafe on site to replenish all the energy you burned chasing your little one around in the water. The Bluestone Cafe has very decent food and picnic benches to enjoy it on. Stuffed Avocado salad, Mediterranean tuna wraps and chicken tenders are a few of the popular menu options. Cannot think of a better way to cool off and have fun on a hot summer day! GMAP
Third St Playground (Prospect Park - Prospect Park W and 3rd St): Almost a hidden gem, this playground is located off 3rd Street and Prospect Park West. Less chaotic than Harmony and offering more shade, this bench-lined circle has several play structures, tire swings, a circle sandbox and water features. This playground is a preferred spot for playdates, as parents can hang out on a bench and easily watch their children (while having adult conversation – imagine that)! Kids can run through a huge red coil water feature to cool off, or chill out in the sandbox. Bathrooms are nearby at the Picnic House. GMAP
J.J. Byrne Playground (5th Avenue between 3rd and 4th St): I like the fact that it’s segmented into different play areas for different age groups, including a gated toddler area. Slides and swings galore, standing farm animals for kids to climb on, and the spinning chairs that go way too fast. Best feature of this park is surely the water play, from sprinklers and water pump to shoot and spray water cannons! Enjoy the shady benches, and the best part...you can enjoy a gelato right across the street! GMAP
Pier 6 Water Lab (Brooklyn Heights): Cool off in the park’s most popular playground, which features a water-jet field that will keep children entertained for hours.It’s a two-level play area situated on a small hill, with a river of water winding down from the top level to the bottom. There are sprinklers, pumps, small pools to stand and stomp in, and a waterwheel that kids can turn themselves. You can spend hours here, and when you’re done, hit the nearby Sandbox Village, Slide Mountain, or Swing Valley. GMAP
Underhill Playground (Prospect Heights, Underhill Avenue between Park Place and Prospect Place): Kids sprint through the mist of two water-spraying fish, and get totally soaking wet in the fountain in the middle of the playground's water feature. They’ll also love riding through the spray on the tricycles, cars, and other toys strewn throughout this playground. GMAP
Mount Prospect Playground (Prospect Heights, Eastern Parkway between Brooklyn Central Library and Brooklyn Botanic Garden): This well-shaded park on a hill is the second-highest point in Brooklyn and used to be a water reservoir decades ago. In the playground you’ll find a stone seal that sprays a generous mist, with several other sprinklers surrounding it. GMAP
Harmony Playground (Prospect Park, Prospect Park West at Ninth Street): This music-themed playground located near the Bandshell at 11th St in Prospect Park is AWESOME. Shaky bridge, wobbly bridge, tons of swings, slides (including a twisty slide), a toddler-friendly area, tunnels, large sandbox, and my favorite water feature of all the parks, an upside-down “U” shape mister that gently sprays water towards the ground – just gentle enough that your child can get a little spray or can hang out underneath for a full soak! Bathroom with changing table is a nice bonus as well! GMAP
Imagination Playground (Prospect Park at Lincoln and Ocean Ave): This park is a bit further out, just over on the east side of Prospect Park (near Lefrak Center at Lakeside). A bit more creative in design, this park is inspired by children’s literature, featuring statues of characters from Ezra Jack Keat’s books, a bronze dragon with water flowing down it’s back, and animal masks for kids to hide behind. Three playhouses and an open stage help stimulate children’s imaginations and creativity. A nice break from the typical slides and swings! GMAP
Slope Park (18th St and 6th Ave): For those of us South Slopers, this local playground is very convenient AND happens to be located across the street from a very decent coffee shop, Southside Coffee. My favorite part of this park is the water feature, which includes a little wheel that kids can turn and subsequently water flows out. There are different water spray elements – both horizontal and vertical for children to jump in. It’s a bit more intimate than the larger parks, which is also a positive. GMAP
Hudson River Park Pier 25 Play Area (Tribeca, Hudson River at North Moore Street): Feeling adventurous? In Hudson River Park, you'll find this amazing playground, featuring a cool play area with water guns, sprayers, and buckets that fill up and dump water all over the kids. When they are tired of getting wet, there's a seasonal mini-golf course on the pier that costs just $5 for children and $7 for adults. GMAP
Teardrop Park (Battery Park City between Warren Street and Murray Street, East of River Terrace): Also across the river, and located behind a high-rise, this playground can be tricky to find. But once you do, you (or your kids I mean) may never want to leave. The super long slide dumps kids in a massive sandbox. But in summer, the main attraction is the water play area, where geysers shoot up and soak everything in the vicinity. Afterwards, take a ride nearby on a glowing fish at the Seaglass Carousel! GMAP
Most of our SSP families know that Dr. Cao and Matteo are the very proud fathers to their beautiful daughter Isabella...what many don’t know is the story behind her adoption. Not only was it an extremely emotional journey for them, but it is actually historic as you will soon find out. In honor of Father’s Day and Pride Month, let’s talk to Dr. Hai Cao and Matteo Trisolini in this month’s interview and learn a bit more about their fascinating adoption story and how they became a family of 3!
SSP: Let’s rewind to 2008, when you were married. Did you know at the time that you wanted to start a family together?
Matteo: We knew right away, in our first year. It was one of the questions that we needed an answer to in the first year we met. This was back in 2004.
Hai: We lived in the same building, so we talked a lot. Both of us came out of disappointing relationships.
Matteo: I had promised myself that I would be clear, frank and that I wouldn’t settle and so one of my questions was “do you see yourself having kids one day”?... he had the same question as well. And you know what's so funny? We already decided her name already (it would have been Luca if we adopted a boy)!
SSP: How did your adoption search begin, and how did it lead you to find Isabella?
Hai: We had planned a trip to Italy, and we were already in the process of doing adoption paperwork, and we had plans to finish it when we got back in September. Matteo got hopping on it, got all the paperwork done and had our website online and ready to go. We finished with the social work visit and by September 30th we were online and approved and ready to go.
Matteo: And… a week later we got our first call.
Hai: We were upstate, doing our bathroom remodel.
Matteo: We had given ourselves projects to keep us busy as we thought it would take some time, a couple of years. We wanted to keep busy so we didn’t think about it all of the time. A week later, we got that phone call.
Hai: 6 days into it we got a phone call.
Matteo: That website and ad campaign I created was my most successful marketing project to date!
Hai: We had been told by the adoption agency to post ads in the Pennysaver, go to the newspapers…
Matteo: My eyes just rolled back.
Hai: He knew that our target audience would be looking at their phones and not reading the pennysaver.
Matteo: Advertising in such an old fashioned way didn’t make any sense in 2010. The adoption agency didn’t even have the time to put our profiles on their website by the time we were approved to be on the adoptive parents list. So I did my own marketing and within those 6 days we got our phone call and it was the right one. And that's how we started the relationship with Isabella’s birth mother’s family. When I got that first voicemail, my heart was beating so fast I couldn’t even understand the voicemail and what they were saying, my heart was beating so very fast. Hai had to listen with me to hear what they were saying and what was happening here. We called and spoke to Isabella’s birth grandmother.
Hai: And the birth mother...and set up a time to meet the birth family.
Matteo: So we came down to SC to meet the birth family. We just got on a flight and got there, met at a restaurant...it was a mutual place. They were very sweet. All they really wanted was the best for the baby. And for us, if you think about it (this was almost 8 years ago), the fact that they choose us - a same sex couple - was awesome and at the same time was kind of like, “why”? We asked this to each other. They found us online, they found our website and decided this was the right family. We were honored and at the same time, we were puzzled.
SSP: How would you describe the adoption process for you, being in South Carolina - not exactly known to be as open and accepting overall as the NYC area?
Matteo: 8 years ago, we didn’t have laws, it was a lot more difficult.
Hai: We expected to go down, go to the hospital, say hello, give our best to the birth mother and then go and adopt through the pre-adoption 2 days later and come back to Brooklyn where Matteo’s family had just flown in. At our pre-adoption hearing in SC the judge recused himself (judges are appointed in SC and aren’t elected). It is a conservative state...so he recused himself, he didn't want a career suicide and sign off on a same sex adoption. We were the first same sex married couple in the state of SC to adopt.
Matteo: We are in the courthouse, and had Isabella with us. We thought it was hugs, say goodbye, leave with the baby in 3 minutes with smiles and photos. It’s our turn and the lawyer says we’re not going in. And we were like “what”? He announced he had a meeting with the judge who recused himself, who said “don’t put this on my desk”. Here we are, now with the baby, and we are told that we have to wait for another judge after the holidays, so another 2 more weeks, to get a hearing. At that point, we had the baby. We were legally the custodians until the judge would sign off or say no...and we were responsible for the baby. Imagine: we have the baby, and we think that we might be able to adopt - but we don’t know if we after the 2 weeks if we are taking the baby back or not. In the meantime we fly in my family.
Hai: So we rented a house in Charleston on the beach and we flew his family of 6 to SC to be with us. Imagine, those first days are stressful enough. Added to that is the stress to think what if she does not go home with us?
Matteo: The birth mother had signed off her rights. If the baby doesn't go home with us she is back in the system. All of this, add Christmas time and my family witnessing the situation … And right then and there, that is our parenting lesson #1.
Hai: We realized during that waiting period that we were both parenting at 80% - we thought what if we have to leave her? It was holding us back. And I called it out...and we decided: If we only have 2 weeks with this kid, we want her to have everything we have. We want her to know we did everything we could. From then on it was much easier. I think it’s much harder to keep at arm’s length than showing real affection. We threw ourselves into it fully.
Matteo: And we were contacted by other political associations who wanted it to be a thing, to make it a story - well meaning organizations, but we wanted to keep it private.
Hai: Good or bad, political associations wanted to contact us to make it a thing. We just didn’t want to. This is a private situation.
Matteo: At that time also, it was a very different situation because there were no laws protecting us.
Hai: Our marriage wasn’t recognized, and SC had DOMA in their constitution. They didn’t have to recognize our relationship, so our application was questionable. Throughout the whole process the most loyal and faithful person to the process was her birth mother. She wanted the baby with us. Even up to the point where she was in elevator to meet us, her social worker was trying to talk her out of it….saying are you sure you want her to go with two men.
Matteo: I would say though, the experiences that we had with the people in Charleston, when we went to a restaurant with the baby or anywhere else - they were very sweet overall. Now we were the obvious Benetton family. It was me, Hai and Isabella.
Hai: Even in the hospital, they were all very happy that she was coming home to us, in capable hands. It’s the politics that were difficult, not the people.
SSP: And so what happened next? How did you bring her home?
Matteo: We got the notice on December 31st that they signed off on the paperwork, and we drove that morning off to the very edge of SC before NC and got a motel room. A trucker motel.
We were just waiting for the state of SC to communicate to the state of NY that we had permission to leave the state with a baby. Now this is happening on December 31st...but somehow after numerous phone calls with the agency and pushing here and there, we got permission from the state. We got into the car, drove 13 hours and got home right after midnight. My family was back in NY, and was waiting for us.
Hai: And while we were doing the adoption, while we were in the motel we were selling our old place, buying our new place...all at once.
Professionally I tell parents especially parents with NICU kids, very colicy kids, kids that have problem gaining weight issues - this stress will be with you, and you have to do something to process or otherwise it stays with you. I didn’t have that insight, and it stayed with me. I didn’t do anything with that stress. My blood pressure still rises when I talk about this. Anytime initial parenting stress stays with you, you need to deal with it.
SSP: What has been the most challenging part of becoming same-sex adoptive parents? What do you find to be the biggest misconception about gay dads?
Hai: I think the initial part is the politics.The biggest misconception is that a) it’s different or that b) we’re smug and that we have all the answers. Because we don’t .
Matteo: The hardest part was definitely the politics and having anyone’s opinion valuable somehow. The biggest misconception we encountered was coming from some members of our own families, believe it or not. Everyone has questions and deserves answers. But I am tired of hearing people asking “don’t you think she needs a mother”? I’m tired of that question. I feel like it’s not even my turn to answer that question. If you can’t answer that question yourself, do your homework and then come back to me. This is disrespectful to people with one parent, one mother or one father. A widow, who is a perfect parent. I haven’t asked my mom “why don’t I have 2 moms” or “why did you marry my father”? I have the parents I have and you don’t decide your family. That is hard when you‘re going through all of what we were facing and have to educate your own family. You know?
Hai: I think the good thing is that we didn’t have the energy to deal with this. We had other more important focuses.
SSP: How lucky that you were able to show off your gorgeous family in a recent J. Crew ad this past holiday. How did that come to be and why was it important for you to do that?
Matteo: It happened just by fate. A friend of ours who is a family at SSP reached out because one of his friends is a producer for J.Crew and I think that initially his family was asked to be in the photo shoot (he also has a partner and a little boy). I believe they were asked, but they were out of town. He thought about us, showed this producer our picture on FB and thankfully we had been on a diet that year - and of course Isabella is gorgeous. It all happened in 3 weeks. Hai should really answer this question as it’s closer to his heart.
Hai: As a young student (of asian descent) I was in a male dorm, in Indiana...and I would get the J.Crew catalogs every 3 or 4 months.. I’d appreciate the clothes, but I couldn’t relate to these people. To see a LGBT family in this catalog would have given me so much hope back then. I was a smart kid, a great student, a great leader - but a part of me needed that and didn’t get that. So that would have been such a catapult for me.
SSP: Do you have any advice for other gay couples considering adoption?
Hai: Do it. If you have the inclination to be a parent and the want and yearning to be a parent, do it. There are so many ways to do it - you can do surrogacy, you can do adoption, you can do foster to adoption. We have friends that did foster to adoption and have a beautiful child. The state helps fund for their development and progress. For example, if you are a foster kid in NY you will receive a paid college education through the state.
Matteo: Parenting is a journey. Obviously you know if you want to be a parent or not. You know it. At one point in your 20’s you know if you want to be a parent or not. So if you hear that voice, then you should do it.
Hai: If you have that inclination and you're writing yourself off because you’re LGBTQA, that’s not a reason. That is not a reason.
Matteo: Politics are not awesome at this time in history but laws are still standing at the moment. Take advantage of the laws while we have them. This is the thing, most of our friends don’t even have to think about the laws. For us, if we are going through adoption process, we have to be aware of what’s possible. And right now it’s still possible.
We’ve all been there. Trying to talk to our child while they are within close proximity but they magically cannot hear us. Repeat, repeat, repeat...and then after several attempts they FINALLY respond. It’s interesting...this might happen only when I’m asking my child to clean up her mess or to get her shoes on so we can head off to school in the morning. Amazingly enough, I’ve never experienced this when asking what ice cream flavor she wants at the ice cream truck or what TV show she wants me to put on at night time. Super selective hearing. Or what about when I ask her to please stop whining….and it just goes on and on. How can we NOT be ignored and really get them to start listening?
So I decided to do some research. Here is what I think are the top 10 most meaningful ways we can encourage better listening:
I am personally obsessed with this topic. Sleep. I wish I wasn’t so obsessed, but I am because I am the lucky mother of a toddler who is a terrible sleeper. How do I get my child to self-soothe? How do I keep our 2.5YO from keeping big sister, mommy and daddy having sleepless nights without “rescuing” said screaming child from his crib at 3am? Listen, I’m drinking way too much coffee and blowing through way too much undereye concealer to get through my day. I know I’m not alone. Let’s meet Brooke Nalle, a sleep consultant, mother of 3 and founder of “Sleepy on Hudson”...perhaps she can provide a little advice and offer us hope to a better night of z’s in the future!
SSP: Brooke, please tell us a little about yourself and how you became the sleep expert that you are!
When I was expecting my first child, I prepared for breastfeeding and birth, but I had no idea how to handle sleep and the lack thereof. Sleep deprivation hit hard, and I really struggled personally and professionally for the first year of my son's life. Quite frankly, it was hard to enjoy being a new parent because I was tired and stressed about sleep for most of this time. I read book after book and took in any nugget of sleep advice I could gather at the playground; but in the end, I didn't really find my answer until I switched up my point of view on sleep and looked at my situation as an educator (my training and background) rather than as a defeated parent. I decided to choose an approach that was right for my son developmentally, tailored to his temperament, and supportive of our parenting style. I could finally be consistent this way, and it worked. I helped friends and their friends until my personal hobby became my professional calling. I trained with Kim West and am one of her first 50 sleep consultants. I expanded my training with work in medical sleep issues such as GERD and sleep apnea as well as work with Lynn Lyons, an anxiety expert.
SSP: How did “Sleepy on Hudson” come to be? What is it specifically that you offer families facing sleeping issues?
When I started Sleepy on Hudson, I envisioned helping local families here in the Rivertowns (a series of towns just north of the city on the Hudson River), but I soon ended up helping families down river in Manhattan and then Brooklyn... and now I have clients across the country and even as far away as Uganda and Israel. At Sleepy on Hudson, we drill down to the individual sleeper, focusing on his developmental picture, temperament, and family style. We ignore the chatter and various advice streams out there and focus on a family's unique situation. I have trained our consultants individually and make sure that we offer the right fit for each family looking for help. We meet in home or virtually, and we also offer overnight support.
SSP: Let’s start with little babies. How do we instill positive sleep practices and get started on the right foot at a very young age?
I think it can be really hard to do the right thing right away when your baby is very young. In fact, some babies really do need the 4th trimester and have to be held more often than not. However beginning around three months, most families can begin to slowly transfer sleep independence by shaping schedules, routines, and sleep behaviors that form the foundations of a good sleeper. I see a lot of families who still parent like they have a newborn when now they have a more capable baby. We can help a family navigate this transition. That said, don't stress, it is never too late to get a good sleeper. We help 3 month olds and 3 year olds learn to sleep well for the first time.
SSP: Is there an age when our babies should be on a set sleep routine? Speaking of “routine” - how important is it that we stick to one for sleep schedules?
You can begin a sleep routine right away and certainly between 2 and 3 months you can solidify a sleep routine and bedtime. At Sleepy, we like to say shape a schedule rather than set a schedule especially when working with young babies. However I do find that my best sleepers come from days that follow a good schedule with clear feeding and nap times. If you go off schedule, it's ok! Just try to get back on track as soon as you can - or wait to sleep train when you can nail down 2-3 weeks of home time to define and set a good schedule.
SSP: It’s not always easy to get our children to self-soothe. Do you have any advice to share? It’s SO easy in the middle of the night to just take the child to bed with us so that we can all go back to sleep as quickly as possible. Is that the right solution?
You have a few options here. If you like just bringing them to bed and going back to sleep, and that is working for you and your child (and you are doing if safely) then that's great. However if you know that you don't want to have a baby in your bed forever, then you do need to be proactive and teach your child to love his crib. You can also do some self soothing work at bedtime and at naps if you are too exhausted in the middle of the night. However to be honest, sleep training is not as miserable as you might think, and if you have the right plan for your baby and you, then you can see positive changes in under a week - so perhaps worth a few tough nights?
SSP: Not to get too personal here (but I am)...when my husband is around for bedtime, he often rocks our 2.5 YO toddler until he falls asleep on him, then puts him to bed. I’m convinced this is not helping a child who already has issues self-soothing. What is the right approach to bedtime?
Yes, this is tricky! I often work with parents who approach bedtime/sleep differently. However rocking an older child to sleep can be problematic especially as they get older, smarter (more aware) and get more independence. I think when you guide a child to learn how to soothe himself you are giving your child the gift of sleep - it is so empowering to give your child the space to learn how to do this his way. Just like riding a bike or reading, learning to sleep is hard at first but it quickly becomes natural and liberating.
SSP: A question we’ve all discussed a million times. When do we know it’s the right time to drop the nap?
For an older child, it is good to shorten it and then drop it when it interferes with night sleep. For example, if your three year old naps from 1-3pm but then only sleeps from 9pm to 5am. Understand though that dropping a nap is a bit of a tricky transition, and there will be rocky days.
SSP: For those of us puffy-eyed moms and dads who have been struggling with sleep issues, what is your best piece of advice?
Get a plan together, mark your days on the calendar, and get someone to cheer for you and hold you to it. You should not have to do this alone. You can work with a sleep professional or a good friend - but if you are at your limit personally then tap out and get some help!
To learn more about Sleepy on Hudson and the programs they provide, go to http://www.sleepyonhudson.com/