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Winchester families raising money to keep school sports, transportation

WINCHESTER — Ailliea Carle’s grandsons love sports and can’t wait to get back to their baseball, basketball and soccer teams at Winchester School.

“They are outside playing nonstop,” Carle said of the boys — Carter, who is entering 6th grade, and Caiden, who is going into 5th grade. “They are very excited.”

But all of Winchester’s athletic programs are slated to be cut this year as part of a $1.6 million school budget reduction that voters passed in March. Transportation for Winchester students going to Keene High School is set to be eliminated, too.

So, families like Carle, who is president of the Winchester Sports Booster Club, are stepping up to raise the money to try to keep sports alive at Winchester School and continue busing for high school students.

“It’s an unfortunate situation, but it is what it came down to,” Carle said. “And it’s what we have at hand. And as a parent, I do whatever I have to do.”

The Winchester School Board initially proposed a $12,840,830 budget for the coming school year. But at the district’s Feb. 6 deliberative session, voters put a reduced budget on the ballot. Among concerns cited with the board’s proposal was the impact it would have on the town’s tax rate; another argument was that the school’s budget should be lowered to what it was about three years ago due to the lack of improvement in the district’s educational rankings since then.

Voters approved the smaller budget in March by a margin of 614-471. To meet the new figure, the school board made a number of cuts, including eliminating 23 staff positions and reducing kindergarten to half day. Last month, school board Chairwoman Lindseigh Picard said another three staff members have since resigned due to the uncertainty brought about by the budget cuts.

The transportation fundraiser, organized by Keene resident Lisa Scoville, whose stepdaughters have attended Winchester School in the past, aims to raise $200,000. Scoville originally planned to host a silent auction in late July but ultimately decided against hosting a large indoor gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, she’s organizing an online auction in mid-August to reach for the admittedly lofty fundraising goal.

“I hated to see the kids not be able to get to school,” Scoville said. “... I’m here to just try to help the kids, [but] I don’t think that I’m going to hit this goal. It’s just such an insurmountable number. I don’t know if it’s going to happen.”

Details for both athletics and school transportation are still up in the air for schools across the state, as districts determine how they will reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. The transportation fundraising goal is based on last year’s Winchester school transportation budget, Scoville said.

If the transportation fundraiser — the date and website for which are still in the works — falls short, Scoville said she will give whatever money she gets (with donors’ permission) to the Sports Booster Club, which aims to raise $60,000 through its own series of fundraisers to cover the cost of equipment, uniforms, transportation to games and coaches for Winchester middle-schoolers.

“I just feel like the kids need activity,” Carle said. “They need to be out and moving. And the more we can offer them, the less they’re going to be after school out on the streets, doing nothing, [playing] video games, sitting around.”

The Sports Booster Club will be selling 50-50 raffle tickets Aug. 1 and 8 at the Winchester Speedpark. The group has sent out donation requests to local businesses, and members are also selling baked goods at the Winchester Farmer’s Market every Saturday through the end of the summer, Carle said.

But the biggest sports fundraising push will come the weekend of Aug. 15 and 16. The club is hosting a two-day, co-ed softball tournament at the school and the nearby ELMM Community Center, along with a yard sale on both days at the community center. Registration for the softball tournament is $10 per person per teams of at least 10. Individuals can also sign up for the softball tournament for $10 and be assigned to a team. Vendors and individuals can reserve a booth for the yard sale for $20.

On Aug. 16, the Sports Booster Club will also raise money with a cow plop, where a cow is released in a fenced-in field with a numbered grid painted on the ground.

“People will buy their ticket with their number, and at a certain time, we’re going to let the cow out into the pasture,” Carle said. “And whatever number that cow does his doody in gets a portion of the proceeds.”

Before the sports and transportation fundraisers, though, the organizers of both are still seeking donations and volunteers. It has been particularly challenging to set up the events with the COVID-19 pandemic putting a financial strain on so many people and local businesses, Scoville and Carle both said.

“Businesses have been a little more reluctant, and it’s understandable. They took a hard hit when things were closed down for such a long time,” Carle said. “But businesses that were not able to donate financially have donated in other aspects, offering to hang up fliers, put up donation cans.”

Scoville added that she has gotten “some great feedback from local businesses,” including gift cards to grocery stores and restaurants and a season ticket package from the Keene SwampBats. Some businesses that weren’t able to donate items for the raffle have been able to pledge monetary donations, totaling about $10,000 so far. But Scoville is still looking for more raffle items.

Once she finalizes the date and details for the online raffle, she will post them on the Facebook page for her photography business at www.facebook.com/LisaScovillePhotography. Anyone interested in donating or helping with the transportation fundraiser should contact Scoville at lisascovillephotography@gmail.com or on her business phone at 931-980-4512.

For more information on the Sports Booster Club fundraisers, and to sign up for the softball tournament or yard sale, visit the group’s Facebook page by searching “Winchester Sports Boosters Organization.”


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Harry Potter event descending on downtown Keene this week

Time to grab your wand and brush up on your spells, because local merchants are bringing the Harry Potter universe to Keene.

Starting Tuesday, several of the Elm City’s downtown businesses will be celebrating the beloved novel and film series by transforming Main Street into Diagon Alley — the marketplace Harry Potter visited before traveling to Hogwarts to master the skills of witchcraft and wizardry. Local businesses will be selling Harry Potter-themed goods and treats and hosting events through Sunday.

“It’s going to be a week-long celebration of Harry Potter’s birthday,” said Amy Christiansen-Schoefmann, owner of Eat More Cake, a local bakery that operates out of Life is Sweet in Central Square. “It’s just a magical week for the residents of Keene to enjoy some fun and some food.” According to the books, she noted, Harry Potter was born July 31.

Christiansen-Schoefmann first discovered the Harry Potter series as a young adult when her oldest son developed an interest in the books. She said it’s been a part of their family tradition for a long time.

Life is Sweet has been celebrating Harry Potter’s birthday week for the past several years, but when Christiansen-Schoefmann started doing business out of the shop a few months ago, she said she saw an opportunity to expand upon their tradition. And luckily for her, Christiansen-Schoefmann is friends with Life is Sweet co-owner Shannon Hudley, who she said is also a fan of the series.

They began to reach out to local businesses to see if there was any interest in helping the celebration grow beyond the walls of Life is Sweet. As of Sunday morning, Christiansen-Schoefmann said 13 businesses had agreed to participate, along with a few smaller vendors who will have pop-up shops within other participating businesses.

“Anybody who wants to be a part of it, can be,” she said. “The only rule was that you need to make your store magical.”

For her part, Christiansen-Schoefmann will be preparing Harry Potter-inspired treats, such as Golden Snitch Nutella cake truffles, in a nod to the wizarding world’s favorite pastime — Quidditch. Other participating businesses include restaurants, salons and other establishments that have tailored their offerings or their decor to fit the occasion. More information on participants can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

Activities that will span the entire event include a Butterbeer competition, in homage to a butterscotch-based beverage popular in the books. Different businesses will make a Butterbeer-flavored item, and guests will vote on their favorites. There will also be a costume contest. Participants are asked to still wear masks due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the restaurants participating in the event is Machina Arts: Kitchen and ArtBar. Co-owner Danya Landis said the venue will be transformed into the Three Broomsticks, a pub featured in the series, and will be offering cocktails corresponding with each of the Hogwarts houses. They will also feature a cocktail called the “Felix Felicis” (a reference to a potion from the series), some of which will be made with fruits and flowers from Landis’ own garden.

Machina will also offer some Harry Potter-inspired dishes, including chocolate covered frogs legs (yes, real frog legs). The restaurant will also be competing in the Butterbeer competition. A full menu for the event will be posted to the restaurant’s social media pages later this week.

“When [Christiansen-Schoefmann] asked us to be involved, all of our staff were very excited about the opportunity to think creatively on what we would make that corresponds with the theme,” Landis said Sunday in a text message. “We didn’t realize how many of our employees were such Harry Potter fans! Chef Ryan Nyland and Bar manager Becca Paine have taken the lead in coming up with some amazing food and drink for this event!”

Most of the participating businesses are in Central Square or on Main Street, with a few on Emerald Street. In addition, Keene Cinemas on Key Road will be showing Harry Potter films throughout the week, Christiansen-Schoefmann said.

Christiansen-Schoefmann said all of the businesses involved are also participating in the Keene Safe program, a city initiative that asks stores to pledge that all employees and patrons will be required to wear face coverings and embrace social-distancing guidelines. She said the event was designed to continue through the week to spread out visits and prevent crowds from forming.

There will be two vendors — Beeze Tees Screen Printing and Catbird Flower Farm — which will have masks for sale during the event. The latter will be located inside Soul Emporium.

“This is just about bringing joy and magic to our small town,” Christiansen-Schoefmann said. “We are taking every precaution to make sure our town citizens are safe and able to have a good time without regretting it.”


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Online church services during pandemic draw new interest

During tumultuous times, humans have historically sought out organized religion for comfort and answers.

The same appears to be happening as the United States faces a level of civil unrest not seen in decades while simultaneously dealing with the health, economic and social effects of a global pandemic.

But people aren’t turning to places of worship like they did after traumatic national events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. State regulations and national guidelines put in place to help curb the COVID-19 virus caused many churches, temples and mosques to suspend in-person gatherings.

Instead, people have been connecting — or in some cases, reconnecting — with religious organizations through the congregations’ websites, social media accounts, and the services and programs they are streaming online. And the leaders of some area churches have taken notice.

“It’s very interesting,” Rev. Elsa Worth of St. James Episcopal Church in Keene said last week. “Each Sunday the deacon and I, or someone else in the church and I, put together a recording of the service. A musician plays some music, we read the gospel, and open conversation about what it might mean for our lives. We end with a prayer. I get so many views. So many people are watching.”

She said the amount of interest since the pandemic began, including from people who are new to the church, has surprised her. Further, many more people have been checking St. James’ Facebook page than before the pandemic, she noted.

While people have sought out religion in trying times before, having the services online has made them, in a way, more intimate and accessible to those who are otherwise hesitant about stepping into a church, she said.

“I just think people are experimenting with spirituality, and they’re meeting with others to talk about it in a way where they didn’t feel comfortable walking into a building,” Worth said. “People have so much baggage about churches because of issues of being hurt by them or preconceptions about what they’ve heard about them.”

The Unitarian Universalist Church in Keene has noticed that offering services online has not only brought in some people new to the congregation, but also garnered interest from those who may have lost touch with the church over the years, Rev. Michael F. Hall said recently. Attendance has increased, and people’s connection to the church and each other appear to be stronger, he said.

“I think people really miss things when they’re gone,” he said. “That live connection, even if it’s now through a video connection, we have a lot more folks participating in the life of the church even when the church is mostly closed.”

Hall said he’s also noticed that having the weekly services available online affords flexibility to people who may not otherwise be able to attend in person, as they can view the service at their convenience.

The Trinitarian Congregational Church in Troy reopened for in-person services on June 7. But its pastor, Stanley Clark, wrote in an email last week that he has continued to record his Wednesday evening and Sunday morning sermons, which then can be viewed on the church’s YouTube and Facebook pages. Members of the church’s Tech Team, which formed back in March when the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect, puts the sermons on CDs and DVDs to be hand-delivered weekly to parishioners who don’t have Internet access, Clark wrote. The team also helps with the recording, editing and remastering of sermons.

He noted that with the church reopened, his sermons are recorded separately from the live services out of respect for the privacy of parishioners.

“When we reflect back on our experience during the time when the church was closed to ‘in-person’ services, we really feel as though the church family never really stopped ‘meeting’ together — the way in which we met together simply changed,” he wrote.

The United Church of Christ and Monadnock Covenant Church, both in Keene, Congregation Avahas Achim in Keene and the First Congregational Church of Swanzey were not reachable for comment Friday.

Churches nationwide are seeing an uptick in online engagement during the pandemic, according to a July 2 article from U.S. News and World Report.

Prior to the pandemic, about 25 percent of Americans claimed not to have a religious affiliation, and those of heavily white Christian denominations such as Catholics and mainline and evangelical Protestants were experiencing significant declines in membership, the article reports. The question now is whether the influx in online interest will translate to in-person attendance once churches reopen, the article notes.

It’s one Michael Grayston, location pastor for Next Level Church in Keene, has thought about as the church plans for an in-person gathering on Aug. 2, the first in many months.

Like others during the pandemic, the church has experienced an increase in its online and social media presence, and seen many new faces tune in to its online programming, he wrote in a recent email.

He said he’s optimistic the church’s membership will continue to grow, and that the best is still ahead for the church.

“I believe now more than ever; people need a message of hope,” he wrote. “The Gospel message is exactly that; a message of light in the darkness.”


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Nursing home COVID tests come home to Dartmouth-Hitchcock

A state-mandated program aimed at preventing future COVID-19 outbreaks in New Hampshire nursing homes by regularly testing staff and residents will now rely on a laboratory at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center instead of a distant for-profit lab.

That promises to shorten the lines of communication in a program which, since June, has required local nursing home operators to send thousands of samples for COVID-19 tests more than 700 miles to North Carolina laboratories run by a small company named Mako Medical.

“We were able to stand up Mako fairly simply, and it was OK, and now we have to pivot and move in a different direction that’s going to give us even better results,” N.H. Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said in a Zoom conference on Wednesday.

Nursing homes have been ground zero for the COVID pandemic in the Granite State. Of 405 deaths attributed to COVID, 332 occurred in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities including 304 in 32 multi-case outbreaks, according to data compiled through Thursday by state authorities.

In June, as the death toll mounted, New Hampshire officials launched a “surveillance and sentinel” program that during each 10-day cycle aims to test all employees and one in 10 residents in the state’s 75 nursing homes. That program reflected a change in prevention strategy that incorporated new scientific data that showed that COVID transmission often could be traced to infected people who had not yet developed high temperatures or other symptoms of illness.

Now state officials have adjusted that testing strategy. “We’re really working hard on trying to keep and bring some of our testing capacity up in state,” Shibinette said. “The more we can keep it local the better turnaround times we have, the better control over quality we have.”

Since early June, Mako processed nearly 20,000 samples collected from New Hampshire nursing home employees and residents and sent to the company’s North Carolina laboratories for analysis, according to data compiled by HHS. In the week that ended July 21, Mako conducted 786 tests a day for its New Hampshire customers, according to HHS.

Shibinette said the move to localize testing was prompted in part by lengthening times between sample collection and test results reporting in the program: “We’re seeing longer turnaround times from some of our commercial labs, because of not what’s happening in New Hampshire but because of what’s happening elsewhere in the country.”

Strains on testing providers have increased as the rate of infection has risen nationwide and surged in large Sunbelt states. On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it would require weekly testing of employees in nursing homes in all states where more than 5% of individuals tested have the virus. During July, New Hampshire’s positive rate has remained well below 5 percent, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Quality concerns also surfaced in New Hampshire’s nursing home testing effort, according to Brendan Williams, president of the N.H. Health Care Association, an organization of private and nonprofit nursing home operators. Williams said that at a July 17 board meeting several attendees complained about false positives in Mako tests. Such results, in which the test incorrectly signals the presence of the virus in a subject, were very alarming, adding to staffing and protective equipment expenses and triggered isolation of tested subjects and their roommates, he said.

A false positive episode also occurred in late June at the Mountain View Community, a county-run nursing home in Ossipee. Mountain View Administrator Howie Chandler reported that two residents whom Mako identified as COVID positive were found to be virus free in follow-up testing. After first denying that a so-called false positive test was possible, Mako acknowledged that a “pipetting error” and an inconclusive test had led to mistaken outcome, Chandler said.

Chandler said that while he understood that testing volumes at Mako were up as a result of the surge in disease in the Sunbelt that shouldn’t have affected quality. “You have to have 100% confidence in these tests,” he said. A false positive, and the isolation measures required, “put families through hell,” he added.

After a company public relations aide relayed questions about turnaround and quality issues in Mako’s New Hampshire testing program, Chief Operating Officer Josh Arant sent this brief response by email: “We are appreciative of the partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services during this pandemic and we are glad we were able to assist in fighting the spread of COVID-19.”

Not everyone was dissatisfied with Mako’s performance. Gary Sobelson, medical director of the Genesis Pleasant View nursing home in Concord, said the company’s testing “went pretty well.”

But Mako’s role as sentinel surveillance tester in New Hampshire ended this week. So far, HHS’ contract with Mako has not been made public nor its terms disclosed.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock spokesman Rick Adams said that the hospital was looking forward to its new role as a sentinel surveillance tester. Its agreement with the state “calls for us to process up to 600 tests per day – well within our testing capacity of up to 2,000 tests per day – with the remainder being processed by the N.H. Public Health Laboratories,” he said.

Terms and language of that deal have not been disclosed.

According to data compiled by New Hampshire officials, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s testing for COVID recently peaked at 354 on June 13, while Mako processed 1,591 New Hampshire tests on July 18, its busiest day.

Shibinette said that shifting the testing from Mako to Dartmouth-Hitchcock would involve some “ramp-up time.”

But Adams said the sentinel testing wasn’t expected to affect other testing programs being done by the hospital’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

Shibinette said the state was preparing to soon expand surveillance testing to the state’s assisted living communities, beginning with those in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, where most of the state’s COVID infections and deaths have occurred.

Shibinette also said the state was considering further easing of visitor restrictions at New Hampshire nursing homes, which banned all visitors starting March 15. In early July, limited outdoor visits by residents’ families began at facilities without active COVID outbreaks.

But that provides limited relief. Sobelson noted that Pleasant View, which is licensed for 176 beds, only has the capacity for 12 outside visits in a week.

In Wednesday’s conference call, Shibinette said that HHS officials and epidemiologists were considering ways to safely allow each nursing home resident to receive visits from a relative or someone else designated to act as that resident’s advocate.