Wednesday, March 31, 2010

‘Our family is incomplete without her’

L.B. parents talks about daughter’s heroin addiction, overdose

By Joseph Kellard

The beach had a significant role in Holly Prussman’s life — and death.

When she was a girl, Holly enjoyed playing on Roosevelt Boulevard beach, and she developed into a top Long Island swimmer at age 6. In January the beach was the site of a memorial service for her, as lifeguards paddled surfboards out to sea to place a wreath in her memory and 19 balloons, one for each year of her short life, sailed skyward.

On Jan. 12, Holly died of a heroin overdose at her parents’ home in the Canals. Early that morning — a week after she had checked herself out of a drug rehab center after a few months’ stay — her father, Mitch, saw light under her locked door. Mitch and Holly’s mother, Julia, found their daughter lying dead in her bedroom.

Holly had injected herself with the usual amount of heroin that she took before the rehab stint, her mother explained, but because she had been clean for three months, her detoxified system couldn’t handle the normal dosage. “She didn’t mean to kill herself,” Julia said.

Growing up in Long Beach, Holly cultivated many interests and developed into a top athlete. Thanks to her early success in swimming, she made the high school varsity swim team when she was just a seventh-grader. Her mother was a swimming instructor, and Holly taught alongside her. She surfed with her father, and became a lifeguard at several Town of Hempstead pools and beaches as well as in Long Beach. She also excelled at track, soccer, gymnastics and dance.

At Long Beach High School she was an honors student, earning a 98.6 average, excelling in math, chemistry, earth science and meteorology, faring well at school science fairs and earning a $10,000 scholarship to C.W. Post. She loved going to movies, especially comedies, tending to her chihuahuas and riding roller coasters. Her parents took her on multiple trips to Busch Gardens and Disney World.

In her late teens, however, her life changed. One day on the boardwalk, her mother recalled, Holly met her future boyfriend, a Freeport man who, her parents said, introduced her to heroin. Eventually the Prussmans started to notice things missing from the house: cash, blank checks, jewelry. At the time they had no clue that these were the first signs of Holly’s addiction.

There were other red flags. “Holly had always been a good friend to her friends,” Mitch said, but, Julia explained, her daughter began shutting her friends out, isolating herself with her boyfriend. The Prussmans were aware that she had done some drinking in high school, but that stopped cold. “You see, alcohol and heroin don’t mix,” Julia said — one of the many things she came to learn about heroin users.

There were also the many lies. Julia dismisses the claims of those who insist that you must trust your drug-addicted children. “They’ll earn your trust to get you to believe them and then they’ll lie to you,” she said. “So you never knew when she was being truthful and when she was lying. She was very smart and knew how to manipulate you.”

One day, Holly’s boyfriend was at her home and appeared to her parents be under the influence of something, but when they later confronted Holly about it, she lied, telling them he was high on marijuana. They told her not to bring him around anymore. Then Holly’s older sister, Sarah, found heroin bags in Holly’s clothes, and her boyfriend explained to the Prussmans what they were.

Finally, last June, Holly came clean. “She told me one morning, ‘Mom, I’m in a lot of trouble,’” Julia recalled. Her parents took her to the detox unit at Long Beach Medical Center, and the time she spent there made her eligible for the Dynamite Youth Center, a drug rehabilitation facility in the Catskills, which she entered last October.

But it wasn’t long before she started to think about leaving the center. One January day, a week before her fatal overdose but months before her treatment was scheduled to end, she checked out. The next day she took two trains back to Long Beach. “That was a bad sign when she came home,” Mitch said, citing statistics about relapse rates.

Hours before her parents found her dead, they tested Holly for heroin, and the test turned up positive. After the family went to bed the night of Jan. 11, Holly got up and injected herself with more heroin. “Heroin addicts will do drugs at any time,” Julia said.

Mitch said that what makes his daughter’s death so hard to accept is how sudden it all seemed. “We lost her to a severe sickness — drug abuse, a sickness she couldn’t control,” said Mitch, a high school teacher, who recalled his bring-your-child-to-work days with Holly.

“I’ll miss her affectionate ways,” he added. “If something was bothering you, she would rub your shoulders and your back.”

The Prussmans are heartened by the outpouring of support from the Long Beach community, particular their fellow parents and officials at the high school, who helped pay the funeral expenses. With Sarah, 24, and their son, Jacob, 14, still to look after, they want to find some way to help the parents of other drug-addicted children avoid the pain and heartache they have endured.
“She was a good kid ... the one we had the highest hopes for,” Julia said. “Our family is incomplete without her.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Did Students Heed My Career Advice?

By Joseph Kellard

When I was editor of the Oceanside-Island Park Herald, I gave talks to students from fourth grade up to the high school level on Career Day. I eagerly agreed to talk to students about my career and to offer them advice that would have served me well when I was their age.

While I spoke briefly about my work as a journalist, I spent most of my talk emphasizing to students that they should choose a profession that they can enjoy and love. I believe a long-range, productive career is the cornerstone of self-confidence, pride and happiness, and that an individual can't fully achieve these values stuck in a job they don't like.

To get them to understand this fact, I asked them to imagine being stuck each day, every week, in a class they disliked, whether it's math or English or science. With my analogy, some students gave a knowing groan.

I told each class my own story to give them an example of someone finding a career they loved. When I was in grade school, I was a poor student with a mild form of dyslexia, so my biggest problems were with reading, writing and spelling. Knowing I loved sports, however, my parents bought me a subscription to Sports Illustrated, believing, correctly, that this would motivate me to read. Immersing myself in stories of my sports heroes, my reading proficiency soared.

Through my teen years, I expanded my reading to include encyclopedias and works by writers ranging from Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy to Hemingway, Capote and Joyce Carol Oates. I made lists of unfamiliar words and historical and mythological figures that had me reaching for my dictionaries and Britannica. During those years, I had become so fascinated with the many ways to use the English language that I began to write short stories and poems. I had decided I wanted to be a fiction writer.

My deeper purpose in telling students all of this was to get them to take my experiences as a guide for how to start thinking about their own potential careers and career choices. Specifically, I wanted them to consider some activities they enjoy, and to think about applying these to the seemingly countless career choices they have in this land of opportunity.

"Maybe you love animals and have always been intrigued by doctors," I explained to them, "so why not think of becoming a vet? Perhaps you like to talk a lot and enjoy athletics, so being a sports announcer might be your bag. Are you a numbers person? If so, maybe your calling is to teach math, be an accountant or work with statistics."

I made sure to tell them that I had left college to work at a well-paying, full-time "job" with a medical company. But within a few years I realized that this was not my field. I was bored and felt stuck, as if I were in a dreaded algebra class each day. But I noted that I never gave up on my writing and self-education, reading writers on subjects ranging from philosophy, history and art to politics, American culture and sports. I began to write some opinion columns that were published in a few semi-prominent newspapers, and this led me to try my hand at freelance reporting and, eventually, a career in journalism.

I also stressed to students that it's not enough to just dream about a particular career, but that they must take the necessary steps to attain their ideal. It's one thing to for someone to say "I want to write a novel," and another to have the motivation and commitment to invest the countless hours and enormous effort — researching information, striving to find the precise words and write perfect sentences, re-editing one draft after another — to become a published fiction writer.

When one fourth-grader told me that he would like to be the next Derek Jeter, I asked him if he played Little League and practiced baseball even during the winter. One girl told me she wanted to be a lawyer. I told her that, in part, she'll have to learn how to speak well to present her cases, and that she should take some public speaking classes when she gets to high school.

The last time I talked on Career Day, at Hegarty Elementary School in Island Park, when I left the classroom that day to head back to my office, I had hoped that at least a few students had learned a lesson that I didn't fully understand in my youth: Making a career choice is one of the most important decisions an individual will ever make — and is crucial to his or her happiness. If the students followed this advice, then they likely won't have to struggle unnecessarily for several years and through a string of dead-end jobs before finally finding a profession to be passionate about.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Building From Scratch

Homeowner talks about life after fire

By Joseph Kellard

Standing barefoot in the street in mid-January, watching her Tennessee Avenue home go up in flames, Cheryl Ennella ran back inside to try to rescue her three cats.

"I was really concerned about getting my cats out," Ennella recalled. "I went in the house twice. The second time, I was trying to get in my front door and a man pulled over in a truck and pulled me out."

The fire that ripped through the bungalow she had lived in for 25 years destroyed everything inside — including her and her husband's life savings, which they did not trust to banks. "There was nothing salvageable," Ennella said. "Nothing."

When a stranger led her to one dead cat during the fire, she passed out and was treated by EMS workers at the scene. For three weeks afterward, she returned to the charred ruins of the house with food for her other two cats, hoping to find them. One eventually came to her; her son found the other hiding under what was left of the house.

Since the fire, Cheryl and her husband, Silvio, and their son, Silvio Jr., have had to start from scratch. Their neighbors and friends immediately offered help, giving the family clothing, and the Red Cross gave them debit cards to buy shoes.

"It's been a lot of paperwork and a lot of legwork and a lot of heartache," said Cheryl, who on Tuesday took a bus to the Nassau County Department of Social Services for the first time to seek public assistance.

Meanwhile, she remains out of work due to poor health, but Silvio continues to work as a salesman for Drake's Bakeries in Hicksville. The Ennellas now occupy a home on West Penn Street at Grand Boulevard, but initially they had to split up, each living in a friend's house. They wanted to stay local because their only relatives are in the Bronx. "I even stayed in the Long Beach Motor Inn for three days," Cheryl recalled.

The family was at first unable to find a permanent place to stay, due in part to issues with their home insurance company, which is still investigating the fire. Cheryl fears that delays could keep her family from building a new home for at least another year.

When the fire started, at around 1 p.m. on Jan. 15, Ennella said she was home with her son and his girlfriend, who were playing cards. Suddenly she heard her son shout to call 911.

"I went to open the door from my living room to my hallway and I saw the smoke coming in from the back of my house," she said. "My son proceeded to open the back door, and the flames just flew through the house. And we ran out with no shoes on."

Ennella learned later that the man who stopped her from going back in was Gregg LePenna, owner of the Whales Tale restaurant on West Beech Street. LePenna was leaving work that day, driving down Tennessee, when he spotted Ennella in the middle of the street, shouting that her cats were inside. He pulled over to help her.

"I walked about three feet into the front of the house and I saw a big black cloud of smoke coming towards me, and I turned back around because there was no going in there," LePenna recalled. "She tried to go back in but I grabbed her."

The fire ignited in a shed at the rear of the house, which housed a washing machine and a boiler. Vincent McManus, a division supervisor at the Nassau County fire marshal's office, said the cause remains unknown, and that insurance companies will hire a mechanic to investigate equipment like the boiler to determine exactly how it malfunctioned.

Some 100 firefighters from eight companies helped battle the blaze, which they brought under control in about 40 minutes, but not before it damaged the exteriors of three neighboring homes.

Long Beach City Council members Len Torres and Mike Fagen have assisted Ennella's family since the fire. John Merit, owner of Buddy's Bike on West Beech Street, offered her a new bike, her favorite mode of transportation. Brendan Costello of the city's Transportation Department gave her a Metro card so she could use buses for free. And Fran Barden, director of the outreach program at St. Ignatius Church on Broadway, bought the family new clothes, bed linens and gift cards.

"Once in a while we get fire victims and try to get them to the Department of Social Services," Barden said. "We encourage them to go there first to see what they provide, and then, if I can afford it, I go and see what else I can do for them."

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Book of Historical 'What Ifs'

East Atlantic Beach author writes time-travel novel

By Joseph Kellard

What if the Hindenburg had never exploded over Lakehurst, N.J.? If President Lincoln had been unable to deliver the Gettysburg Address, would the Confederacy have won the Civil War? How might history be different if Amelia Earhart had completed her ill-fated Pacific flight?

These are just some of the 10 scenarios Robert McAuley, an East Atlantic Beach resident, plucks from history and develops in his first book, “The 1800 Club,” published by Publish American last month.

If the Wright Brothers hadn’t invented a man-powered and controllable flight system that is heavier than air, McAuley posits that the Germans could have, particularly for military purposes. “That would mean Germany wins World War I through their innovative use of air power,” McAuley said.

As the recently retired art director of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine at McGraw-Hill, McAuley understandably has a particular interest in writing about aeronautic figures in his 500-pages-plus time-travel book, but he knew enough not to pack them all into his first book of a planned trilogy.

“In each scenario I ask, What if this or that didn’t happen?” McAuley explained. “In so many cases, it changes the power structure of the world.”

To thicken his plots, McAuley conjures up an 1800 Club that is set in the present and whose members go back in a time portal to fix history so that it turns out as it did, to keep his tales historically accurate.

Members are unaware that the club was started by people from the future. These guardians of history discover that famous figures from the past strayed from their well-known decisions and actions, which makes it necessary for the members to guide them back, unbeknown to the subjects.

“What I’m doing throughout is looking at and teaching history in a different manner,” said McAuley, who is quick to point out that seeded throughout his book are little-known facts about each subject.

In “The 1800 Club,” McAuley postulates that if Ronald Reagan had never been born — if his great-great-grandfather had been pressed into the British Royal Navy and died before fathering his children — the Soviet Union might not have fallen when it did.

“Many believe that Reagan was the president who shut down Russia,” McAuley said. “In my scenario, if another president took his place, maybe he would have been too soft and the Soviets would have been here occupying the U.S.”

Throughout his book, McAuley fictionalizes people he knows, from former coworkers to childhood friends, into club members who go back in time. Rocko Terna, a friend of McAuley’s from his native Park Slope neighborhood, goes back to fight the Royal Navy, then the world’s most powerful fleet. “How he does it by stealth and subterfuge I think is amazing,” he said.

The figure he most enjoyed writing about was Mark Twain, who dies in a steamboat explosion that destroys a levee and causes Katrina-scale flooding in New Orleans, leaving unwritten such classic American novels as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

“If he passed away before he wrote most of his stories, imagine what would have happened,” McAuley said. “He wouldn’t have inspired so many great writers in the literary field, and he was also such a fair person and gave the black man a chance.”

McAuley found inspiration for his trilogy in Jack Finney’s “Time and Again,” a 1970 novel whose modern characters travel back to the 1880s, which he calls one of the best books he ever read. After he retired from McGraw-Hill, McAuley discovered that he wanted to try his hand at writing. He started working on “The 1800 Club” about two years ago, for Publish America, a company that publishes first-time authors.

He is also a landscape and portrait painter whose work adorns the walls at his Clayton Avenue home. He aims to attract readers to his trilogy in the same way he attracted readers of the magazine he worked on for 17 years.

“My job as the artist was to stop readers from going past a particular page and bringing them into that page, and as a writer I found I was doing the same thing, writing intelligently but descriptively,” McAuley said.

He’s hard at work on his second book, averaging about a chapter every two weeks, which will feature scenarios involving the Titanic, the 1849 gold rush and Judge Joseph Force Crater of New York, who disappeared in August 1930. He expects most of his figures will be from the 1800s, a century that he likes to honor.

“That’s the age of the Industrial Revolution, and is what freed up enough creative time for the average person to come home, at least when it was light out, and work on their creations,” McAuley said.

* Photo by Joseph Kellard