Laconia woman named state's Volunteer Coordinator of the Year

LACONIA — Nikki Lyons vividly remembers the first time she got to see up-close how Make-A-Wish touches the lives of seriously ill youngsters.

Little David wished for a castle, and Make-A-Wish made it come true. The castle was built in David's backyard. Volunteers worked behind a long, high drape so David couldn't see what was going on. When it was finished it was time for the unveiling.

Then-Gov. John Lynch was there to proclaim David the lord of his castle. Lyons, then strictly a volunteer for Make-A-Wish, was one of those waiting to pull down the curtain, letting David see for the first time what he had long wished for.

Lyons saw the look of amazement on David's face. Lyons talks about that day, identifying David only by first name, in keeping with Make-A-Wish's policy.

"Kids (with life-threatening medical conditions, like David) have been ripped out of their childhood and are fighting an adult battle," says Lyons, a Laconia resident, who earlier this month was honored by Gov. Maggie Hassan at the state's Volunteer Coordinator of the Year. "Granting these kids' wishes provides hope and strength to keep fighting." And just as importantly, she adds, "It makes them able to be children again."

Volunteers are indispensable to organizations like Make-A-Wish. Make-A-Wish New Hampshire has 500 volunteers, according to Julie Baron, the organization's president and CEO.

Some volunteers go out and meet with youngsters and their families to find out what the child's wish is. Others help out in the office and assist the nine-member staff in various ways. Still others organize or help run fund-raisers. And then, there are Wish Ambassadors — those have benefited personally from Make-A-Wish — who go out to speak to other families and to community groups about how the organization touched their lives, and with the public's generosity can touch even more.

As director of volunteer services for Make-A-Wish New Hampshire for almost three years, Lyons has been responsible for recruiting, training and retaining volunteers.

Lyons graduated from Keene State College with a degree in communications. For a time she considered a career in television news, but realizing that being a TV news reporter wasn't for her, she took a job as a marketing assistant at Taylor Community. It was while she was at Taylor that Lyons got to meet Baron and they became good friends. Baron would ask Lyons about her interests and her goals.

"I didn't realize at the time she was interviewing me," Lyons recalled.

Lyons started with Make-A-Wish NH as a volunteer herself. Soon she was hired part-time to oversee the volunteers. As Make-A-Wish NH grew to meet more and more wish requests, the demands on Lyons grew to the point where she was working full-time.

It's hard to imagine anyone who would be better suited to enticing people to give their time and energy to helping bring smiles to seriously ill children's faces.

"I want (a job) where I wake up every day and jump out of bed with excitement," she said. "I feel really passionate about what I do. I just love children."

"Nikki is a great fit for Make-A-Wish," says Baron. "She has that knack of finding the right job for the right volunteer and to help them understand the work of the organization."

The mission of Make-A-Wish remains the same as when Baron was hired to head the organization a dozen years ago. But its reach has grown phenomenally.

During Baron's first year as the head of Make-A-Wish NH, the organization granted 39 wishes. This past year it granted 90 out of the 112 wish requests it received. Baron's goal is simple. "We want to be able to grant every wish" we receive, she says.

Lyons and Baron know that to achieve that goal requires more and more fund-raising.

The average wish costs $10,000, says Lyons. The most common wish is for a trip, with Disney World being the most popular destination. But there are other wishes, too. One child wanted a Barbie experience, another a tree house.

The wish one that still brings Lyons to tears is Garrett, who due to his life-threatening illness had lost the ability to walk. He wished for a trip to Cambodia so he could go there to build wheelchairs for bombing victims who were unable to walk. Today Garrett is in college in South Carolina, where he is involved on a on-campus organization that helps support Make-A-Wish, says Lyons.

With the challenge to grant more and more wishes, means the need to raise more and more funds. Even before Lyons received the award from Gov. Hassan at the Governor's Conference on Volunteerism ceremonies in Concord she was making the transition from her job as volunteer director to Make-A-Wish NH's director of community outreach, a position in which she will be working with community organizations and activists who host big-time fund-raising happenings, like car shows and golf tournaments, to smaller-scale events, like bake sales and car washes. One local event that Lyons will be closely involved with is the Timberman Triathlon in August, which attracts a contingent of competitors who in the past have raised upward of $80,000. 

In order for Make-A-Wish to consider a wish request, there needs to be a referral from a qualified medical professional that a child, between the ages of 2 1/2 and 18 years, has a life-threatening medical condition. Most of the children have been diagnosed with some form of cancer. But there are other serious illnesses which are life-threatening, such as cystic fibrosis, Lyons explains.

Lyons stresses that while the child's illness must be life-threatening, that does not mean that they have to be dying. But it is that association of Make-A-Wish with youngsters who have been diagnosed as terminally ill that sometimes makes families hesitant to reach out to the organization.

"These parents are not referring their child because they think it makes it look like they are giving up on their child," she said.

Both Baron and Lyons say their personal experience with a family member who died from cancer helps them see more clearly and feel more deeply how important Make-A-Wish is.

Baron said that watching her mother battle cancer helped her to see that strength and hope can mean so much.

One of Lyons' cousins died of leukemia when he was 4. And while Lyons never knew the cousin — he died a couple of years before she was born — she has vivid memories of her aunt and uncle going to the hospital where the cousin was treated and giving Christmas presents to the cancer patients there. "Having someone battle a life-threatening and ultimately terminal illness has had an impact on our family," she says.

In thinking about the award she has received Lyons is quick share the credit. "I am very privileged to work with some of the most passionate people I have ever met in my life," she says, "volunteers, staff, and board members."


Rep. Burchell challenges county commission’s choice of legal counsel

LACONIA — The two Belknap County Commissioners who voted last week to hire Attorney Paul Fitzgerald of the Wescott Law office as legal counsel for the commission defended their actions last night at a meeting of the Belknap County Convention's Executive Committee.
Both Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) and Hunter Taylor (R-Alton), commission vice chairman, said that the choice of Fitzgerald, a former Laconia mayor with a long history of serving as legal counsel for the city of Franklin, was in the best interest of the taxpayers of the county.
''He is familiar with the issues and is experienced and knowledgeable,'' said DeVoy.
But Commissioner Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton), who voted against Fitzgerald and said that he had wanted to look at attorneys from out of town, said that Fitzgerald ''was wrong ethically in what he did'' in preparing an employment contract requested by the previous Belknap County Commissioners for County Administrator Debra Shackett. He claimed that Fitzgerald had given the contract to Shackett for her approval before it went before the commissioners.
Commissioner Taylor said that he had never blamed Fitzgerald for the contract, which he said was what the previous commissioners had asked him to do. ''It's not an illegal contract. He's highly competent and experienced and I don't want to go out of town for an attorney,'' said Taylor, who is himself an attorney.
The issue came up at the conclusion of a meeting of the Belknap County Convention's Executive Committee which had been called to deal with budget transfer requests from the commissioners. It was initiated by Rep. George Hurt (R-Gilford), who said that he was not pleased with the hiring of Fitzgerald, citing his role in drafting the employment contract and the fact that he had represented DeVoy in a lawsuit which had been brought against DeVoy and fellow commissioner Taylor in Belknap County Superior Court by commissioner Burchell. He said that he thought it was bad public policy.
Burchell's lawsuit sought to overturn the action of his fellow commissioners in ousting him as chairman of the commission in early March. Burchell's request to remain as chairman was denied and DeVoy remained as the new chairman.
DeVoy said that it was not his point to have to go to court to defend his action in ousting Burchell as chairman and that it had been brought about by Burchell's own action in refusing to acknowledge the right of the majority of the commission to change chairmen.
When Hurt said that he still thought that the choice of Fitzgerald was wrong, DeVoy said that he thinks Fitzgerald is right for the county and that the current commissioners are ''leading from the front'' by asserting their authority and not handing it over to appointed administrators.
Burchell said that the Fitzgerald nomination was handled so quickly that he never had a chance to bring up other candidates. He has been at odds with his fellow commissioners since shortly after Taylor was appointed in early January and has been a consistent critic of Shackett, having written in a e-mail to county legislators that she and former Finance Director Glen Waring were to blame for many of the county's problems.
Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), chairman of the Belknap County Convention, said that the entire conversation was off base. "The commissioners do not report to us. This is not our business. We should not be discussing this,'' said Tilton.
He said that he personally thinks the choice of Fitzgerald is a good one and said that ''he's not responsible for the sins of his clients. I've heard nothing but good about him.''


Former Inter-Lakes superintendent interviews for interim Laconia job

LACONIA — Former Inter-Lakes superintendent Phil McCormack was interviewed last night by the subcommittee of the School Board tasked with finding and recommending a part-time administrator to lead the district next year.

McCormack was Inter-Lakes Regional School District's superintendent from 2001 until his retirement in 2012.

The following year, he was called from retirement by the N.H. School Boards Association to lead the Newfound Regional School District for a few months during the late Superintendent Marie Ross's illness. When she passed away, McCormack stayed for the remainder of the year.

The interview was conducted in public, however at the end of it, the three members – School Board Chair Joe Cormier and members Stacie Sirois and Scott Vachon – went into a non-public session with McCormack. Also at the interview and staying for the non-public session were Asst. Superintendent Kirk Beitler and Business Administrator Ed Emond.

The search for an interim superintendent was triggered by current Superintendent Terri Forsten's decision to leave Laconia at the end of this school year to take over the helm at Concord School District. Because Concord's final decision came late in the year, the Laconia School Board decided to hire an interim, according to Vachon, to promote initiatives already in place and calm the nerves of some employees who fear change, while it begins the process of recruiting a full-time superintendent.

Before going into the non-public session, Cormier said there were no more interviews scheduled for last night and, at that point, no more interviews scheduled for the immediate future.

The board met last week in a closed door session with Dr. Kenneth DeBenedictis of the New England School Development Council (NESDC), the firm the board chose to help it search for an interim superintendent who will serve until July 1, 2016.

DeBenedictis had brought two recommendations for the district's interim superintendent and the committee met in non-public to discuss both of them.

It is the School Board's intent to hire an interim and then immediately begin the process of hiring a permanent superintendent who they expect to name in December of 2015 and who will begin with the district in July of 2016.

The interim position will be for 32 hours a week with an hourly pay rate and no health insurance benefits.

The search committee is expected to make a recommendation to the full School Board for action after tonight's meeting.