On the way to a bright future - Alana Persson of Laconia experiences the world through Up with People

LACONIA — For a high school girl who had always loved volunteering and music, it seemed to Alana Persson that joining Up With People would be an obvious choice.

But it wasn't. Until Up With People prepared their visit to Laconia by sending a promotional representative in August of 2015, the only thing Persson said was on her mind was applying to colleges, working, and finishing out her senior year at Laconia High School. She had barely heard of the organization.

But when an Up With People promotions representative named Marie stayed with her family, she said she "fell in love with the mission of the program because it coincided so well with my values."

Up With People, according to its Website, travels to nearly 20 countries over three continents over two semesters. It's cast of about 100 young people performs a musical show twice weekly, while each member participates daily in community service projects, immerses him or herself in local cultures, and joins workshops that teach various life skills to participants. This year it is celebrating 50 years of service and performance art.

While speaking from her parents' home this week during her four-week intercession from the program, Persson said that meeting Marie, who is Belgian, and seeing the second of two shows performed at the Laconia Middle School in September of 2014 that made her want to join.

"I said, 'I could see myself doing this,'" adding that she filled out an application and went on a interview with the Up With People team in the green room at the Laconia Middle School. Two weeks later, she learned she had been accepted.

"None of my friends really believed I was going to do it," she said. "I had a high GPA, was president of my class and most thought I would end up going to college."

She held fundraisers to help pay the tuition, worked at The Laconia Daily Sun as an editorial assistant and occasional writer, and plodded toward her financial goal. She left home on June 28 to fly to Denver for five weeks, where the entire team of 110 with mixed language skills had to learn a two-hour show as well as spend nearly every day working for a local human services agency.

She had been away from home before and had done some traveling, but for an 18-year-old girl from central New Hampshire, she said she was terrified.

"I almost threw up in the car on the way to the airport," she said, adding all she could think was "What did I get myself into this time?"

During the past six months, Persson has worked in Colorado and Mexican day care centers, built houses out of adobe, plied a machete to clear walking paths in Georgia, sat by helplessly in Lichtenstein while the recent terrorist attacks in Paris sent the world to its knees, eaten crickets, gotten dysentery, battled strep throat, lived with about 15 different families – some English speaking and some not – sang for Pope Francis and worked with refugees from war-torn Syria, Eritrea and Iraq.

She said she cried herself to sleep from homesickness, went to a Mexican hospital where a doctor kept poking her stomach and asking her in Spanish if it hurt and to which she kept replying "Si, si," and laughed herself silly with her new friends.

Persson's highlights – going to a 1920s cafe in Antwerp, Belgium, and swimming with the whole Up With People crew at Siesta Key Beach in Florida. Her low spots include being sick in Mexico and Lichtenstein, almost being left on her own in Toluca, Mexico, and the Paris attacks which both angered and frightened her.

While she said she was "very lucky" to see so much of the world with Up With People, she also said it was at lot of hard work. During this time, she has applied for and gotten three internships – one for education, one for admissions and one as part of the "news crew" in Denver. She said she hopes to be a promotions representative, like her friend Marie, when she returns in January, meaning she would travel ahead of the cast.

She said she is still the same girl from Laconia and is grateful to the city and its people for all they have given to her. She said she loves being home with her parents, high school friends and friends from her summer at St. Paul School during her junior year.

When asked if and how she is different, she said she is more "mindful" of the rest of the world and far more "culturally sensitive" than she was six months ago. She said she's a little more serious about life and a lot more serious about certain causes – like that of refugees, especially those from Syria.

"I want to do some refugee work and will focus on international affairs and human rights" at American University, where she will go to college in autumn of next year. "All (refugees) want is education and to try and live a normal life," she said. "They got unlucky. They were born in a tough part of the world and they just want a normal life."

She said that she hopes to focus her college and international efforts on process, saying that how refugees currently get treated and resettled is costly and ineffective.

"It's just chaos," she said. "And America isn't taking enough refugees."

Persson rejoins her Up With People crew in mid-January. In 2016, her work and travels will take her back to Denver, where she hopes to see more of the city instead of the suburbs, back to Mexico, where she said she can do without another bout of dysentery, and through the American Midwest. She'll spend two weeks in Bermuda and her last four weeks with Up With People in Europe.

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Artist who overcame debilitatinng condition reflects on year of painful losses

LACONIA — 2015 was not a good year for Shane Jordan, a local artist whose paintings have become well-known across the Lakes Region in recent years.
In September, he lost his pet cat, Jasmine, who came it him as a feral kitten, a gift from his brother, Jaden. Jasmine was 19 years old.
"She was so wild when he first brought her here that she would attack people," he said. But she became a real pet and everyone loved her personality."
Last month, he lost his pet dog, Nala, whom he had for 15 years. She was a pit bull/boxer/chow-chow mix, a very athletic dog who adored small children and was a fixture by his side when he was painting.
But the hardest loss came in October, when his caretaker and close friend for 15 years, Bob Pelletier died.
Jordan says that he knew that Pelletier wasn't feeling well when he and another caretaker, Tony Walters, left his home on Pearl Street on October 27. When they returned three hours later they found Pelletier slumped in a chair and unconscious. Rescue workers applied CPR when they arrived after a 911 call. It was to no avail. Pelletier, who had been Jordan's live-in caretaker for 15 years, was dead.
"It was just before Halloween, which was always Bob's favorite celebration,: he said. "That made it tough. Bob always had a special thing for the holidays and loved seeing children dress up in costumes or open their Christmas presents."
At Pelletier's funeral, Jordan spoke emotionally of the bonds of affection that had been forged over the years and what a great influence Pelletier had had on his life.

"He had his quirks," he said, "but he was a caring person who loved being around people and helping them out, seeing them be happy."
Jordan, who suffered a broken neck when he was only 19 years old, lives within sight of Memorial Park, where he was a catcher and third baseman on the 1991 Laconia High School baseball team that won the Division II state championship.
Less than two years later, he had dropped out of high school and working at Fratello's restaurant when he and a group of friends who had been partying went to Gilford Beach for a late night swim. He dove into water only 2 feet deep and broke his neck. Two weeks later, when he woke up in the hospital, he had no feeling below his neck.
He has had to live his life in a wheelchair since that time, and through therapy was able to regain some control over his arms and shoulders, although he has very little use of his hands and requires adaptive equipment to do things such as write, shave or hold a spoon or fork. About 10 years ago, he was given an easel and painting supplies by one of his caretakers as a Christmas present and since that time has taken art lessons with Larry Frates to help develop his skills.

It was a long and difficult process, but Jordan stuck with it and has developed techniques which allow him to create paintings which have won him praise and recognition,  including several years ago a painting for a calendar put out by artists with handicaps.

Today, his paintings are in many homes across the area and he has exhibited his works at different venues. What he likes most is painting something which has meaning for the people for whom he paints the pictures, whether a caretaker's childhood home or one of their favorite pets.
He said he has been able to get through his recent losses thanks to his caretakers and the support he has received from Easter Seals, as well as from his extended family.
Caretakers like Walters, Eva Bush and Cheryl Vermette have made a big difference in his life and notes that he has been a client for 20 years of Wanda Horton, who runs the Lakes Region Easter Seals office.
Jordan said one way he tries to show his gratitude for all the assistance and support he has received is to do paintings for charitable causes, as he has recently done for the Lakes Region Children's Auction.
"You learn what's important in life," he said. "And that means using your talents to help other people."

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Women fight for toplessness in Laconia court

LACONIA — The Free the Nipple N.H. campaign met the town of Gilford in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division, Monday in a hearing that will decide if the town’s ordinance to ban “female topless sunbathing” is discrimination.
At issue is whether the ordinance discriminates against women by prohibiting them from appearing topless at the beach while men can go topless.
“This is a hecklers’ veto,” said defense attorney Daniel Hynes, who said that this law is specific only to gender and sex.
“If you’re going to object (to something) based on someone’s sex,” he said, “you better have a very good reason.”
The defendants in the hearing were Heidi Lilley of Gilford and Barbara McKinnon of New Hampshire. Both were cited by police for appearing topless at Gilford Beach on Sept. 6. at after Gilford Police responded to at least three separate complaints from beach goers. The citations are violations and not crimes. The hearing and testimony were all part of a motion to dismiss the charge filed by Lilley and McKinnon against the town of Gilford.
He said his clients are being prosecuted only because they are women and that if the beach passed an ordinance that no Asians could go there, no one would be arguing about the wrongness of such a law. Judge Jim Carroll asked him how this set of circumstances and prohibition of a specific race or ethnicity were the same.
“One is race and one is attire,” he said.
Hynes said in this case there isn’t a difference He said the state is looking for an exemption in the law and there is no built-in exemption and the ordinance only addresses women.
The state was represented by Gilford prosecutor Eric Bredbury, who said the safety and orderly conduct of beach-goers is the primary reason for the ordinance.
“Gilford doesn’t want that standard (that toplessness is accepted) at Gilford Beach,” Bredbury said.
He made the argument that if that state, as interpreted by the defense, means to treat men and women differently, then it would also be discriminatory to prevent people from surreptitiously looking, recording or photographing the private body parts of a person, including the genitalia, buttocks, or female breasts, or a person’s body underneath that person’s clothing, which is the case with at least one section of the state criminal code.
Brebury said laws and rules are put in place when the state sees a need for them. He cited a 2001 decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court that upheld a charge against a woman who appeared topless and whose case was argued under the same First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
While prosecution witnesses testified as to what they saw, they also made their opinions known that toplessness at the beach is unacceptable at Gilford Beach – a private beach open only to residents and their guests – which is what two of the witnesses said is what makes Gilford a good place to live.
Prosecution witness Melanie D’Agata said she was at the beach with her 9-year-old daughter when she noticed “a commotion in a nearby family.” She said she saw a few women in two groups who were topless and called the police. D’Agata said some of the woman in the water were acting like they wanted attention.
Under cross examination, she said it was the upset children that really upset her and that she would have no objection to a woman with a double mastectomy going topless nor would she object to two same-sex people kissing at the beach, because it is the societal norm.
D’Agata she she just felt it was the wrong forum for the Free the Nipple N.H. campaign.
Aaryn Demers testified for the prosecution and she was in her truck, parked in the parking lot, while her husband and 13-year-old son were at the beach.
“I said, ‘No way, that’s not happening,’” she said, adding she approached two of the demonstrators and told the women to put the “expletives” away.
Demers said they told her toplessness is natural and legal, adding that the beach was why she bought a home in Gilford.
Laura Drumheller of Greenfield, Massachusetts, a member of the Free the Nipple campaign, was confronted by Demers at the Gilford beach. Drumheller testified that Demers called her names like “whore and slut,” and told her she must be “mentally unstable” to appear topless at the beach.
Demers also testified she would be offended by a woman who had a double mastectomy being topless at the beach. Under cross-examination, she said if she thought it was legal to go topless in Gilford she would move, and she would do the same if it was legal in New Hampshire.
Drumheller said they had all been at Weirs Beach in Laconia until the beach was cleared so the fireworks displays could be set up. She said it was still very hot and Lilley had invited them to come to Gilford Beach with her.
“We’re trying to show people that women can be topless and the world isn’t going to end,” Drumheller said.
She said prohibitions against toplessness at the beach were part of a “slut-shaming” and a “rape-shaming culture” that still asks rape victims what they were wearing at the time of the attack.
When asked if it is illegal to walk down the street topless, she said it is not, by state law. When asked about Gilford, she again said no. She said the campaign is limited to beaches and pools but when Bredbury asked her about other places she said no.
When asked why she said, “I don’t see a lot of men walking along the downtown topless but it’s kind of weird when I do,” she replied.
Lilley testified that their effort is about equality and the equalizing of the breast. She said the Weirs Beach demonstration was a political statement, but the Gilford Beach incident was because they were hot and Weirs beach had closed. She said she didn’t know about the ordinance prohibiting toplessness until she got there.
McKinnon testified she supports the Free the Nipple cause but that she is more concerned with neutralizing the sexes. She said she identifies with neither gender and considers herself “non-binary,” meaning she does not identify as either male or female.
Under cross examination from Bredbury, McKinnon said she was born female.
Judge Carroll is expected to make a ruling in the near future.

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