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Keene YMCA to launch after-school program with federal aid

To provide a safe space for local at-risk youth, the Keene Family YMCA plans to launch a new after-school program by the end of the year.

The free program is being funded by the federal CARES Act, which recently awarded the Y just over $85,000.

Peter Sebert, program coordinator for the Y, said the program can take a minimum of 50 students who are between 6th and 8th grades in Keene and Swanzey and may be struggling with academics, mental health issues or problems at home.

Twice a week, the program will give certain middle schoolers a place to come after school to engage in group discussions and activities. It will address topics such as social isolation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding mental health and the risks associated with substance misuse, Sebert said.

Before the pandemic, Sebert said, several similar community programs in the area were helping school-aged kids. But now many of them are unable to run due to safety concerns at a time students may need them the most.

“The program is specifically to target teenagers that are really struggling,” Sebert said. “We hope to use our connections with all of our community partners, like [Monadnock Family Services], the city of Keene and Keene Housing, to really get referrals for some of these high-risk teenagers.”

Siebert said to get the program started by Dec. 31, as required by the federal funding, the Y needs to hire staff to run it.

The grant is paying for three positions — one full-time and two part-time. Qualifications include a high-school degree or equivalent, previous experience working with youth and behavioral management skills.

“As soon as we identify staff we will start to take [student] referrals,” Sebert said.

To identity students who may need extra guidance, Sebert said schools, parents, caregivers and community leaders will all be on the lookout. Several children have already been identified.

While some of the specifics are still being worked out, Sebert said the program will include learning how to build self-esteem, developing leadership skills and identifying who to contact for help.

Students will also receive academic support from local tutors. And, overall, it’ll be a space where students can create relationships with “positive” adults, according to Sebert.

He added that the program will offer fitness activities each day, and participants will receive free one-year memberships to the Y.

Other program specifics are still being worked out, but Sebert said that due to the pandemic, the program will likely be split into small groups at different area locations — including the Y itself — to encourage social distancing.

He said transportation could be offered for students if needed, but it wasn’t included in the original grant proposal.

Those interested in the program — whether as a student or staff member — can contact Sebert at

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'Sheer determination': Keene man to bike to Boston for cancer research

Before his 60th birthday next summer, Robert Forcier wanted to do something meaningful. So the Keene native decided on a benefit bike ride from the Elm City to Boston for a cause close to his heart — cancer clinical trials.

Several of Forcier’s friends have succumbed to the disease over the years, he explained, and many of them received treatment at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

As a tribute to them, Forcier is embarking on the two-day bike ride, which will benefit the institute, starting Thursday.

“My inspiration just comes from being alive and being well, and not everyone can say this at this point,” he said. “You got to live every day like you mean it.”

This will be Forcier’s longest bike ride to date, totaling just over 100 miles. The farthest he’s gone before has been on trips to Walpole and Swanzey of about 30 miles.

And he admitted he’s a bit nervous for the journey, as he has been through some health issues himself.

Forcier has only one lung and a hole in his diaphragm after having a tumor — which was benign — removed in 2008, followed by eight months of home care for his recovery. Because of this, he retired early from his job as an electrical engineer at Lockheed Martin in Nashua.

“Most of this is out of sheer determination,” Forcier said of his upcoming bike ride. “To have someone who is disabled do this is pretty cool.”

To help build his stamina, he has been biking up and down hills on Leverett and Castle streets, near his house, as well as on the Cheshire Rail Trail.

He also has arrangements to stay at an inn in Bolton, Mass., at the halfway mark to rest up, and a group of friends will be on stand-by in case something goes wrong and he needs a ride.

Once he arrives in Boston he will visit his cousin — who thinks he is “crazy” for doing this, Forcier said — until Sunday, and then likely take the bus back home.

He’s been raising money toward his $2,000 goal for about three weeks, with $480 collected as of Saturday.

In addition, Forcier said, several Keene businesses have been lending him a helping hand. Jakes’ 5 Star Convenience Store owner Dhruv Patel wrote Forcier a check for $500 to put toward benefit T-shirts, which are being made by Beeze Tees.

The shirts will say “Barefoot Bob’s Big Boston Bike Benefit Bonanza” — a nod to his habit of walking around town without shoes.

Forcier is also having his bike tuned at 365 Cycle in Keene before the ride.

The T-shirts, as well as wristbands with the same text, will be for sale this week, costing $20 and $5 respectively. Forcier said they can be purchased at Jake’s 5 Star on Roxbury Street until they are gone.

Selling them all should bring Forcier close to his fundraising goal, he said. The money will be sent directly to Dana-Farber through the Pan-Mass Challenge — an annual bike ride based in Needham, Mass., that benefits the Boston institution. Started by Billy Starr in 1980, the Pan-Mass Challenge annually attracts thousands of cyclists from around the world and has raised $717 million for cancer research. However, it had to go virtual this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.

If all goes well with the ride, Forcier said, it likely won’t be his last.

His father — who gave Forcier the bicycle he’ll be using — was recently diagnosed with dementia, so next year Forcier wants to do another benefit ride for dementia research.

“It’s another disease that I hate seeing,” he said, “and it’s one that is a lot less researched than cancer, so I want to help if I can.”

End of life rituals have been altered so much during the pandemic, it’s changing the way we grieve

Nowadays, when Marc Guillemette enters a hospital room to perform the sacrament of the sick, he feels like a character out of Star Wars.

Guillemette, the director of the Chaplain program at Catholic Medical Center, wears a large plastic gown, gloves, and talks loudly to cut through both his surgical and N95 mask. He is glad he can be there to bless patients who desire a visit from the clergy while most hospital visits are still limited.

But he admits that many aspects of end-of-life rituals now feel cold and dystopian through layers of personal protection equipment and electronics. Saying goodbye through an iPad isn’t the same as holding a loved one’s hand as they die.

“There is something that is missing when you’re looking at someone through the monitor,” he said.

Chaplains in hospitals across New Hampshire are grappling with how to do a routine part of their jobs, like comforting and praying with sick patients and performing end of life rituals.

Kate Morse has seen the countless end of life requests in her time as the Chaplain for Concord Hospital, religious and secular alike.

One family asked the staff to play a college fight song every day at noon for a patient who loved college football. Another patient asked to hear Christmas music in the middle of the summer.

Since the pandemic started, many of these rituals have disappeared. Morse thinks it is largely because family members haven’t been in the hospital rooms helping to articulate what the patient wants. Until recently, most hospitals gave family members limited access until the very end of life to reduce the danger of COVID-19 to vulnerable patients.

In Concord, hospital staff has tried to create meaningful end of life experiences for their patients — one nurse gently braided her patient’s hair while another moved a patient’s hospital bed to face the window every morning.

But Morse worries that without shared rituals, families aren’t able to properly recover from a loved one’s death. “I think of this as a second pandemic in our country,” she said.

Throughout the human experience, rituals have accompanied dying.

The specific flowers sent to the grieving, the precise prayers recited at the deathbed, and the etiquette followed at funerals, all give the mourning a framework to process the overwhelming emotions that accompany death.

However, since the beginning of the pandemic, the very rituals that were supposed to offer comfort and normalcy became potentially dangerous. The CDC offered a number of guidelines — don’t share prayer books, don’t drive to funerals together, don’t touch the deceased.

To the horror of religious leaders and grief researchers, many death rituals started to dissipate altogether during the pandemic, leaving many concerned about what this will mean for those who are grieving.

Robin Nafshi, the Rabbi at Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, said since common end of life rituals have disappeared, grief has looked different. It seems deeper. It lasts longer.

“It’s not just the death of a loved one,” she said. “It’s the absence of the communal norms that brought them comfort. It is the absence of what is familiar. It is grief upon grief upon grief.”

This isn’t just her hunch — it’s a well-studied phenomenon. In psychology literature, it’s called prolonged grief disorder, which is often characterized by a debilitating yearning for the deceased that lasts longer than six months.

Researchers most commonly see upticks in prolonged grief after natural disasters with many causalities and significant societal disruptions.

Researchers are expecting a surge of long-lasting, complicated grief from coronavirus related deaths. The authors of one article examining grief during the coronavirus pandemic predicted that “worldwide, PGD will become a major public health concern.”

Funeral etiquette

Nafshi has presided over several funerals since the start of the pandemic. Consoling families without in-person contact has created a host of complications she never considered before COVID-19. For example, when she’s consoling a family on Zoom, where is she supposed to look?

If she looks at their faces on her computer screen, it seems like she’s gazing at some arbitrary point but if she looks at the camera she can’t actually see the person’s face.

Then, there’s audio feedback and delays and any other multitude of difficulties that arise when technology in a sensitive process.

“Being in someone’s physical presence is really different,” she said. “It’s different to hear your voice without a second delay and to see a real smile. It’s not normal for human beings to be so isolated.”

Even when she meets with families in person for burial ceremonies, it’s more difficult than it once was. The number of people allowed at the funeral is restricted, the time they have at the plot is limited and rituals have been altered.

Crowds of community members singing prayers and offering hugs have been replaced with small pockets of families, donned in masks and reciting, not singing, the prayer, as not to spew tiny infectious droplets into the air.

Nafshi often finds her mind wandering to issues of safety — who is standing too close? Who doesn’t have a mask on? If people take off their masks to speak, what does that mean?

“I shouldn’t be thinking these things at a funeral,” she said. “I should be thinking about how to comfort the family.”

The restrictions are so frustrating for people, many are forgoing ceremonies altogether, Nafshi said. A couple have opted to visit the plot during the unveiling of the headstone about a year from now instead.

Jerelyn Serra, a staff member at Concord’s Bennett Funeral Home, said her team worked to solve similar logistical problems — what is the best video conferencing app? What is the best combination of microphones to makes sure the families can hear the service?

“Wi-Fi in the cemetery is not always the easiest,” she said.

All of these considerations are the backdrop for a job that is already incredibly difficult during the pandemic. With a global pandemic and an economic recession, it’s harder than usual to guide people to see the light in the world, Nafshi said.

She said there is something special about the physical presence of people at a funeral that comforts families in a way that Zoom calls cannot.

A couple of years ago, a beloved man in the community passed away and 150 people packed the sanctuary for his funeral. Even if each individual attendee didn’t talk to the family members, she said the family could see his legacy just by looking at the number of people who showed up to his service.

“The impact an individual has made on other people becomes lost,” she said. “They’ll get notes and cards but that’s really different from 150 people standing in a room to honor somebody’s memory.”

Natalia Skritskaya, the head of the Complicated Grief Center at Columbia University, said mourning is complicated because close relationships are complicated.

Relationships permeate into various psychological processes like decision making, emotion regulation, and even appetite. When the relationship is suddenly lost, people are often caught off-guard by the swirl of emotions and physiological changes.

Enter rituals.

With events that are planned down to the attire and the words that will be exchanged, those who are grieving don’t have to think about how to fill their time, and friends and family know exactly what’s expected of them to help.

The pandemic has not only upended this predictability but added additional anxieties for those who have to worry about the logistics of rituals during strict social restrictions.

Skritskaya said the most important thing to do while grieving is to remember that your mind and body are fighting for your recovery. It’s not just a platitude, it’s science. Humans have been dealing with loss for as long as they’ve existed, she said. Yet nine out of 10 people adapt to their loss and re-engage with their lives within months of losing a loved one.

Skritskaya thinks there’s an instinctive internal mechanism that has evolved to help the body move on from a loss. Trusting that the mechanism is the first step in healing.

Next, she said allowing yourself small indulgences, like taking time to enjoy your coffee or going out for a walk, can create a buffer against negative emotions.

Finally, she said it’s important to lean on friends and family members for emotional support, even if social distancing guidelines prevent you from doing it in person.

“We don’t grieve well alone,” she said. “We need people.”

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NH schools reopen with mixture of optimism and confusion

For months, families across New Hampshire have been wondering what school would look like. And now, a lot of them have a first taste. There have been technological glitches and reports of positive coronavirus cases in several districts.

But many people say they’re relieved the new school year has finally begun.

Thursday was the first day of school for Westmoreland Elementary School principal Mark Hayward, and it started early.

“I woke up at 3:30, kind of like ‘Ah!,’ and I was actually thinking about the bus pick-up today,” he says.

Hayward donned an outfit to celebrate the school’s bulldog mascot — a blue bulldog belt, shorts embroidered with bulldogs, the school’s signature blue polo shirt — and headed to school.

Westmoreland is starting the year with a hybrid model; most students are in the building two days a week and home for the rest.

As the school day began, Hayward wondered how parents would manage the new COVID-19 screening survey and remember when to get their kids on the bus.

“You might have a kid at this school and a kid at the high school,” he says. “You can imagine: you’re getting their lunch ready, you’re getting your kid ready for school. Do they have what they need in their backpack? Is this the right day? And then you think: ‘I gotta do the screening.’ It’s overwhelming. People’s heads are about to explode.”

Hayward says despite the complications, the town has come together — donating picnic tables for outdoor classrooms, researching deals on plastic barriers for desks, and prepping kids for how to stay safe.

When students finally arrived, Hayward asked them what the most important thing was to remember this year. Hands shot up.

“They were like, ‘Make sure you wear your masks!’” he smiles. “Elementary kids were like: ‘6 feet apart and washing your hands!’”

Hayward kept a list of problems to troubleshoot, but by the end of day one, he felt a weight lift off his shoulders.

“There’s a lot I’ve been thinking about in the middle of the night all summer,” he says. “When it finally happens, it’s a huge relief.”

But not all districts are bringing classes back into the building. Some of the state’s largest school districts are sticking with a remote model at least until October.

In Somersworth, most students log onto Google Classroom each day from home.

“It’s hard being home by myself and without any help,” says 10th-grader Maggie Lanoue. Lanoue feels safer learning from home, but she’s still getting used to the isolation of remote school.

She and her mom have brainstormed ways to cope: baking, visiting family members, giving her dog a bath, and staying in touch with her best friend and classmate Kayah Gautreau.

“If I’m in a really bad mood or something, I’ll call or Facetime her,” Lanoue explains. “And she just listens to me yell for a good five minutes and then she yells if she needs to. And then we just talk to each other, see how we’re doing, and calm down with each other.”

Kayah Gautreau is dealing with another challenge of remote learning: bad Internet. This means she can’t always participate in class or turn work in on time.

“I’ll email teachers; I’ll call them; I’ll text them; I’ll send through Google Classroom, like ‘Hey, I can’t get these assignments in,’” she says. “And half the time they won’t respond because those messages won’t go through.”

Gautreau has developed new strategies to get through, including asking friends to communicate on her behalf, or going to Maggie’s house for Internet.

The friends say remote learning in the spring was so haphazard that many students tuned out, but this year, they’re pleasantly surprised by their teachers’ level of communication and understanding, and their classmates’ high attendance.

“Truthfully, I was surprised at the fact that everyone is there every day,” says Lanoue.

Attendance is one of the many things districts are using to measure their success in reopening. One of the others is how students with special education needs get adequate services.

Mary Ellen Biser is raising her five grandchildren in Bedford. All of them need special education services, which she found out in the spring are nearly impossible to provide at home.

“Even though [the district] tried hard by doing it on a Chromebook, you can’t help a kid with occupational therapy and physical therapy on a Chromebook,” she says. “I’m too old to be sitting there babysitting them at a table.”

After meeting with administrators and teachers this summer, Biser’s family decided it was worth the health risk to send all five kids back to school. Biser says at least some of her grandkids are “thrilled” to be back in school.

On Friday, all of them went into the building, giving 74-year-old Biser her first day alone since schools went remote last March.

“There are other things in my life that I have to do during the week, and I have not been able to do that since March 17th,” she says. “I need to have at least one to two days a week … for me.”

First on Biser’s agenda: morning coffee with an old friend, and a pedicure.