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All articles published in The Sun newspaper of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Dracut’s Jeffrey Smith endured classmates’ teases to help Locks of Love

Sun, The (Lowell, MA) – Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Author: Tyler Dumont , Sun Correspondent

DRACUT — Kids teased him, called him “girl,” and made fun of him to his face for more than a year. His long hair made him different, and he didn’t look like the other boys. Beyond the bullying, he consistently received awkward looks from adults — most of whom did a double-take as his name was called: Jeffrey.For 11-year old Jeffrey Smith, however, it was all part of the process. He knew he had to endure the name calling if he was serious about doing this.

Back in the summer of 2009, he had decided to grow out his hair — but he wanted to do it with a purpose. Several family members had struggled and lost battles with cancer, and he wanted to give in a way few other boys choose to challenge.

“My mom asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this the first few weeks,” Jeffrey said. “She knew that I might get teased.”

He was indeed sure about it. He wanted to donate at least a foot of hair to Locks of Love, a public nonprofit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children suffering long-term medical hair loss in the U.S. and Canada.

“I was watching a documentary about (chemotherapy) on TV, and how most cancer patients going through it will lose their hair,” he said. “I wanted to do it for my grandfathers and my uncle.”

Jeffrey never got the chance to meet his grandfathers. They both had died of cancer before he was born. His uncle, who presently lives in Texas, continues to fight a tough battle in the fourth stage of rectal cancer.

As his hair began to grow longer and longer, other children at the Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsboro began to tease and bully him.

“They called him a girl,” his mom Lynn said. “They’d tease him and make fun of him for how long his hair was. He never let it bother him, though. He would just shrug it off.”

The bullying continued until Katy Lianos, one of Jeffrey’s teachers, decided to work with him on a presentation about why he was growing out his hair. They put together a PowerPoint presentation explaining Locks of Love and why it’s important to donate — even if you are a boy. Jeffrey got up in front of nearly 200 students, and presented his case. The bullying stopped, and other students finally began to understand.

“Her support really made such a difference. She really made him that much happier about what he was doing,” Lynn said.

According to their website, Locks of Love provides hair prosthetics that are custom-made for each child’s head. The hairpiece is specially designed, and works like a “suction cup” so that only the wearer of the hairpiece can remove it. Wearers can shower, swim and play with them. Essentially, the mission is to allow them to be kids again.

Donors, however, never meet the person they help.

“They could be a million miles away, or they could be right down the street,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey grew his hair to more than 11 inches during a span of nearly two years. Last week, he brushed his long, brown hair backward for one final time. His hair dresser, Kristen Werner, wrapped it in a pony tail and took out her scissors.

“Mom said we’re gonna do your regular haircut — like we used to?” Werner asked.

Jeffrey replied with a nervous, “Yup.”

Werner said it was her first time cutting a boy’s hair for the cause. Several minutes later, she made a perfectly straight cut — and there was no turning back. Jeffrey looked down, held the ponytail in his hand, and smiled.

His parents, Jeff Sr. and Lynn, of Tyngsboro Road, sat nearby and cheered on his success. Jeffrey said they were fully supportive since Day 1.

“He went through a lot, and it was tough to see him being called a girl all the time,” Jeff Sr. said. “But anytime somebody did that, I’d go to tell them what it was for, and he’d already be saying it before I could get the words out of my mouth.”

His mom, Lynn, agreed.

“We went to get a library card for him, and when I told her his name was Jeffrey she looked at me like, ‘Are you sure?’ I had to spell his name, and she looked at him for a few minutes before she realized it. That happened a lot. Admittedly, maybe he did look like a girl sometimes. He has these beautiful blue eyes and could easily fool someone. But, he just took it all in stride. It was such a bigger cause than how other people felt about how he looked,” she said.

Jeffrey was quick to add that it wasn’t always about being serious to him. He had fun with it along the way. Last Halloween, he dressed up as one of the “Pink Ladies” from Grease.

“My own grandmother didn’t even recognize me,” he said with a laugh. “And I used to be yelled at to put the brush back in the bathroom, but now I don’t have to use it anymore.”

After his hair is shipped out to the organization, Jeffrey will receive a certificate of thanks and a posting on their website for his efforts. Most importantly, however, he will continue to feel good knowing he improved someone else’s life.

“Like the old saying, some people give and then you’ll receive,” he said. “But I guess I’ll never know who I’m going to help.”


In 7 feet of steel, Dracut honors lives lost on 9/11The Sun (Lowell, MA) – Thursday, July 21, 2011
Tyler Dumont , Sun Correspondent


DRACUT — Emotions ran high last night as the sun set over a new memorial to the losses of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The memorial contains a unique artifact the town recently received — a piece of steel from one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

“This is one of those things everybody remembers the moment and day it happened,” said Colleen Dubuc of Dracut, as she gazed at the town’s new 9/11 Memorial last night along with some 200 others in the lot of the Jones Avenue Fire Station.

“Dracut is a small town, but has a special connection” to that pivotal moment in history, said Dracut Town Manager Dennis Piendak. “This is for the people who were from Dracut who were killed that day or as a result of the terrorism. It’s in honor of them and their families.”

The three Dracut residents who were involved, directly or indirectly, with the 2001 attacks, were remembered:

* Capt. John Ogonowski was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, the first hijacked plane to strike the World Trade Center.

* Brian Kinney, a Dracut native living in Lowell at the time, was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to hit the towers.

* Mathew Boule, an Army specialist, at age 22, was the first service member from Massachusetts to lose his life in the war in Iraq when his Blackhawk helicopter went down. He signed up shortly after 9/11.

Dave Paquin, who formed the memorial committee and worked to get the artifact to Dracut, said it will honor Dracut soldiers for their service, as well as all those who perished on Sept. 11.

“We wanted it to be a public-safety display, and we thought this location would be appropriate,” he said. “It’s pointing in a southwesterly direction, which means it goes from here, across to the Ogonowski Monument, and continues all the way down and terminates at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City — it’s a direct line.”

Getting the artifact to Dracut, however, wasn’t easy. The town’s request first had to receive approval from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The town also had to get approval by a federal judge, as all pieces of steel from the site are considered forensic evidence of a crime scene.

For many, the tragedies of both the attacks and ensuing war on terror remain a blur, rekindling painful memories.

“To me, it’s a memory for the start of the war. But as far as the memorial, I think it’s great,” said Sue Boule, Mathew’s mom.

“Dracut, whether it wanted to or not, was an integral part of it,” she said. “My son knew Mr. Ogonowski — he used to cook breakfast for him on Sundays down at Korner Kitchen,” she said with a smile. “The support from the town has been amazing. People we don’t know have been there for us. I still have close to 800 cards I haven’t even opened to this day.”

Local elected officials also attended the ceremony, including state Rep. Colleen Garry and state Sen. Barry Finegold.

“The town of Dracut has such as special connection with 9/11,” said Garry. “It reminds us that we’re vulnerable and anything can affect us, even in Dracut.”

The artifact, titled “H-0151A”, is mounted at an angle of 9 degrees, 11 minutes, and the encircling curb stone measures 9 feet, 11 inches in diameter. It measures 7 feet, 4 inches long and weighs 480 pounds. It cannot be washed or painted. All materials used to build the memorial were donated and will be maintained by the Dracut DPW and the Ladies Garden Club.

“It’s wonderful to have it right across the street,” said Peggy (Ogonowski) Hatch, as she remembers her late husband, John. “It’s a sense of place. He’ll always be here.”


Mixed reactions on muzzle law

The Sun (Lowell, MA) – Monday, June 20, 2011
By: Tyler Dumont, Sun Correspondent


LOWELL — A decision by the City Council to require all pit bulls to be muzzled and leashed when off their owners’ property is receiving mixed reactions.

“Not all pit bulls are vicious,” said Dallis Souza of Lowell. “It’s the ones that are raised wrong.”

Many agree with Souza, saying it’s not the breed that’s the problem but the owners.

Others, however, say they have heard enough reports of vicious attacks involving pit bulls and feel it’s time to do something.

“The city of Lowell needs an ordinance,” said Dave Ellingson, who lives downtown. “Are they waiting for a child to be walking down the street and get harmed or even killed? The muzzles aren’t hurting the dog any.”

Ellingson, who used to be a breeder, also cited bad owners as a majority of the problem.

“It’s clear that pit bulls are a problem, but it’s also clear that bad owners aren’t helping either,” he said.

The ordinance isn’t exactly friendly to owners either. If an animal-control officer sees an owner violating the rule, he will be able to seize and impound the pit bull, which would only be released once the owner has provided proof that it has been registered and licensed with the city, and has paid all fines for violating the ordinance.

Many pit-bull owners and supporters argue that they’re friendly dogs when trained properly, just like all other breeds.

“I don’t support the ordinance for my dog,” said Steve Groux, of Chester, N.H., who often walks his pit-bull mix on the boulevard by the Merrimack River. “I have a good dog here. But if they start enforcing that, I’m taking my dog somewhere else.”

“I’m really angry,” said Jennifer Lynde of Lowell. “In fact, I saved the article when I read it in the paper so I know who not to vote for next election. It’s not fair. Good dogs will be muzzled.”

But many folks who enjoy sitting on public benches said that sometimes just simply seeing a pit bull is enough to instill anxiety.

“It’s a good idea,” said Bucky Fleming of Lowell. “Pit bulls walk by me, and it strikes fear in me.”

Similar feelings come from Louise McCarthy of Lowell, who remembers when she was attacked years ago.

“They’re so ferocious,” she said. “People don’t care how close the dog comes to you. One attacked me once, and it took me a month to recover. I used to live in Hampton, New Hampshire, and we never had any problems like this.”


For 39 years, touching lives
The Sun (Lowell, MA) – Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Tyler Dumont , Sun Correspondent

LOWELL — “Don’t bite your fingers.”

“Keep your eyes on your book.”

“Thank you for helping, Jimmy.”

“Have any of you gone strawberry picking?”

Louanne Theokas has fond memories of those words from Mrs. Donna Shanahan, her first-grade teacher at the Hellenic American Academy. They remind her of the love, dedication and faith she saw in Shanahan.

After 39 years at Hellenic American Academy, Shanahan is retiring in June.

Now 66, she knew what she wanted to do at a very young age. As a child, she attended St. Peter’s School in Lowell, where she received a strict, disciplined education from the many nuns whose love and dedication inspired her.

“I knew I wanted to work with and be around children,” Shanahan said. “It was always something I loved.”

She attended Lowell State College and then taught for a few years in Plaistow, N.H., and at a U.S. Air Force base in England.

Her next chapter began in January 1972, when Shanahan made her way to the Hellenic American Academy on Broadway Street. When she first walked into the brick building, she was not sure what was in store for her at the small Greek school.

“She does not speak Greek, she is not Orthodox and is not of Greek heritage,” said Principal Doug Anderson, who has been at the school for four years. “When she came here 39 years ago, she saw a strict community. But she loved it, and they loved her. She has really grown in this place and is truly loved.”

Over her time at the academy, not much has changed. The children come into her class every day, dressed in their uniforms, with homework in hand. If they do their work the way Mrs. Shanahan expects, they know they will be rewarded.

“The children are most important,” Shanahan said. “They’re very special to me. I have met so many great kids over the years. I don’t have children of my own, but it’s OK. I call all of my students ‘my children.’ Parents have always been fantastic to me, too. They have treated me with so much respect. The principal at the time I was hired, Nick Gavriel, also really welcomed me to the community and gave me a lot of guidance.”

Former students recall the way they were treated by their beloved teacher.

“I felt a special connection with Mrs. Shanahan. I still feel it,” said Theokas, who was a member of Shanahan’s first class at the academy and has a son, Angelo, in her last class. “She overcomes all of the challenges presented to her. She also really connected with me, personally, because we were both dog nuts. We both had German shepherds, and it’s just something I will always remember.”

Shanahan is loved by fellow staff members as well. She attends almost every program and goes to numerous meetings.

“People trust her,” Anderson said. “Students and parents, teachers and friends. She has the whole package.”

Asked about what’s coming next, Shanahan jokingly replied, “Anything I want!” She plans to travel more with her husband, Paul. She also plans to return to the Hellenic American Academy to substitute when needed and visit with other faculty members, whom she refers to as very close friends.

“All teachers were good, but Mrs. Shanahan is still my favorite teacher to this day,” Theokas said. “It’s going to be a great loss when she leaves.”


Students create robot for competition
The Sun (Lowell, MA) – Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Tyler Dumont , Sun Correspondent

WESTFORD — It’s sleek, it’s quick and it’s strong. But most importantly, it works correctly.

Thanks to a team of 18 Nashoba Valley Technical High School students who have worked countless hours over the past two months, the school’s first robot is ready to compete in the regional FIRST Robotics competition in Boston in April.

FIRST, or “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology, according to its website. The organization is based in Manchester, N.H., and aims to motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, all while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.

The Nashoba Tech students are led by Robert Beaton, instructor of the electronics/robotics course at the school. Beaton formerly worked with the FIRST program at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute, so he knew it would be a great addition to the Westford school.

“Schools get a new challenge every year, and we have six weeks to do it,” Beaton said. “This year, the challenge was to design a robot that can hang three inflatable objects — a square, a triangle and a circle — on a pole about 9 feet high.”

The students have worked nearly 190 hours on the project since Jan. 8, when FIRST announced this year’s challenge. All schools receive the challenge via webcast at the same time in order to avoid an unfair advantage. And because Manchester, N.H., is so close, students from Nashoba Tech were able to go up and watch the webcast live.

They also got to meet William Adams (better known as Will.i.am) from the Black Eyed Peas, an avid supporter of FIRST, at the webcast.

Student designers, like senior Tom Keaney, 18, of Groton, said they’ve enjoyed the challenge.

“There’s a lot of dedicated kids, and that’s why it works,” Keaney said. “We had to work really hard to ‘make it’ before we actually made it.”

Although the robot doesn’t talk, it has some unique features. It is controlled by two people: One steers the wheels, the other controls the arm. It is also mainly built of aluminum and weighs no more than 120 pounds.

“It was built to be defensive,” Beaton said. “It uses parts that are linked together in order to let the claw part rotate 190 degrees. It was great building it because it was truly a community effort inside Nashoba Tech.

From graphics and web design to autobody to the machine shop and, of course, engineering, we all pitched in to help put all the pieces together.”

Some of the major “brains” of the robot were designed by junior Seth Hickox, 17, of Littleton, who uses a netbook supplied by FIRST.

He uses the netbook to talk to a device called a C Rio, which translates signals to the robot, telling it what to do.

“I’m in programming and web development, and I wanted to integrate that with other things, and this was a perfect project to do that,” he said. “I’m used to just using software, but now I have to know hardware, too. Just because the program works doesn’t mean the parts work. We had to put it all together.”

Students completed the final product yesterday, then shipped it to be stored until the competition in April. Nashoba Tech students will be grouped with two other schools in the region to support each other in the competition.

If they win, they will travel to the national competition in St. Louis.

Students are judged based on teamwork, gracious professionalism and if the robot is able to do its job. (It has to travel up the field, place all the pieces of the logo on the pole and return, all within three and a half minutes).

Nashoba Tech’s program is sponsored locally by PTC, NASA and Raytheon — who also supplied Rick Nagle, part of the IDS department in Raytheon’s Tewksbury division.

Local electrical engineer Phong Nguyen helped with software for the robot as well.

“I wanted to come here because they’re a rookie team, and it’s always fun to work with them to make it happen,” Nagle said.

The region’s FIRST competition is at the Agganis Arena at Boston University on April 8-9. It is free and open to the public.

“Things are looking good,” Hickox said. “We should be able to compete in this.”


Tyngsboro teen angels on TV
The Sun (Lowell, MA) – Sunday, February 13, 2011
Tyler Dumont,  Sun Correspondent


TYNGSBORO — Since creating “Four Friends for a Difference,” their community-service group, these Tyngsboro High girls have earned plenty of praise locally.

Today, the rest of America can see what they’ve accomplished.

Rachel Collins, 15, Lindsay Albert, 16, Taylor Vigneault, 16, and Amy Szablak, 15, will be featured this morning on the nationally syndicated television program, Teen Kids News.

The girls’ good work started over lunch at school in January 2010 when they got to talking about how fun it would be to volunteer and get involved. The girls got together and typed up a paper full of ideas.

The first service project took them to the Lowell Transitional Living Center, where they cooked and served meals for lunch.

The mission of the group is to make a difference in the world, and they believe they have succeeded close to home. The girls, now sophomores, have completed more than 400 community-service hours, almost half of the 1,000 hours they hope to complete by the end of their senior year. But pulling it off hasn’t been easy. All of the girls play sports and maintain high grades.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Beverly Collins, Rachel’s mother. “It’s amazing that they’re already concentrating efforts in the community. They seem to value community service just as much a sports and academics, and that’s what is perhaps most impressive. They’ve grown so much in just a year, and it’s just great to see all that they have been able accomplish.”

The four close friends credit each other for their drive. They say they have been able to participate in some unique experiences that other teenagers often let pass by.

“It’s been amazing,” said Rachel. “I’ve learned so many new things about myself, my friends, and the world around me. I’ve developed a new confidence in the way I interact with people, too. And I even learned how to bake.”

For Lindsay, the benefits are just as great.

“I really think it’s going to help me get into college and in applying to jobs,” she said. “The hours look good on a resume for any kid. I think it also helps me appreciate what I have in my own life. Volunteering really has been rewarding to other people and myself.”

Teen Kids News, the program that will feature the girls, is an award-winning educational news program that highlights positive teen stories.

“In typical news programs, the only time teens are shown is when they’re victims of a crime or have done something bad,” said Executive Producer Alan Weiss. “Our show tries to give the spotlight to the good things teens are doing, including positive role models. If half the kids in the world did half as much as what these girls are doing, it would be twice as good a world to live in.”

The four friends hope to work with a local Brownie Girl Scout group next. They plan to give a presentation on community service and what makes a role model.

The television segment, which shows the girls in action at an origami session at the Tyngsboro Public Library and stuffing backpacks to donate to local kids in need, can be seen on WMUR-TV 9 at 10:30 a.m. and on WCVB-TV 5 at 11:30 a.m. The girls have created blogs on which they write about their volunteer experiences. To read blogs and other information on the group, visit www.fourfriendsforadifference.com.


Westford girl, 12, perfects art of giving
The Sun (Lowell, MA) – Thursday, February 10, 2011
Tyler Dumont , Sun Correspondent


WESTFORD — Taylor Leong’s resume of helping others began early.

According to her mom, Taylor was 2 when she developed a love for community service. It began with a small-scale toy drive, in which she raised and donated 75 gifts to hospitals in Lowell and Lawrence.

“We wanted to teach her early to give back,” her mom said. “I knew she could easily receive, but I wanted her to experience giving. So, I decided that physically handing someone a gift was the best way to do that.”

After being adopted at 15 months from China by her new parents, Laura Goodman and Tobin Leong, Taylor, 12, soon discovered a love for helping people everywhere — especially those who lived in shelters. With the support of her best friend, Erika Gould, she began to collect toys to donate to local shelters. The two worked well together, enjoying the time spent trying to figure out how they would help people next.

Erika was 7 when she lost a battle with brain cancer on Nov. 26, 2005. The tragedy struck Taylor hard. Instead of giving up, she decided to push her charitable drive even further. She named her new effort, “For the Love of Erika,” which would consist of a toy drive and two holiday parties. Both are held at the Jump On In facilities in Lowell and Haverhill. Over the years, Taylor has received a lot of recognition from her school, the Blanchard Middle School in Westford, where she is a sixth-grader. She has also received recognition from national community-service groups, including the Kohl’s “Kids Who Care” scholarship.

What came in the mail Feb. 8, however, was something she never expected.

Inside the envelope, she found a certificate informing her that she was the recipient of a “Prudential Spirit of Community Award.” Only two students in Massachusetts received such recognition. Taylor was one of them, and the other was Julie Sargent, 17, of Lancaster. Components of the award include: $1,000, engraved medallions, and all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in May. The award is given to youths around the country for community involvement and dedication.

“I totally didn’t expect it. When I opened the envelope, I had friends over and really didn’t pay much attention to it. I had no idea how big it was,” Taylor said. “The next day, when I found out what it was really all about, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep at all,” she said.

Her mother was just as surprised.

“I had no idea what the award was really about,” said Laura Goodman. “Her student-council teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Benstead, recommended she apply for it, her principal nominated it, and all of a sudden — we get the letter back saying she won. I’m really excited,” she said.

Taylor credits her mom for her drive to help others.

“She’s taught me how to give back and that everyone should be treated nicely,” Taylor said. “She’s always said that I should do to others the same as I would want to be treated, and I’ve always tried to follow that.”

When Taylor visits the nation’s capital in the spring, she will be joining the other top two honorees from each of the other states and the District of Columbia for several days of national-recognition events. She also has a chance of making the “top 10,” all of whom will be named America’s top youth volunteers for 2011.

If Taylor makes the top crew, she will receive an additional $5,000, a grant to donate $5,000 to a charity of her choice, an engraved trophy that will be given to her school and a gold medal.

“She has always been so caring, and really gets along with anyone,” her mother said. “I’ve never had to really worry about her, because she’s such a self-motivated kid. I want her to do whatever makes her happy.”

All stories are copyrighted and protected to Lowell Publishing.

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