Not much over the past year happened in a traditional way for Keene State College’s Class of 2021, Class President Adriana Daniel said in her commencement address Saturday.
Instead of many in-person classes, there was Zoom. Mandatory weekly testing for COVID-19 replaced campus-wide social events.
“This was not the senior year we all expected to have,” Daniel remarked.
But when “Pomp and Circumstance” wafted through the college’s Fiske Quad on Saturday afternoon, things seemed at least a bit more familiar.
“This commencement, like this entire year that’s just passed, has been filled with adaptations,” President Melinda Treadwell told the 750 graduates. “… All the while, we asked you to be good and diligent students.”
Treadwell told graduates that hardships presented by the pandemic — academic, social and financial — will help them confront the challenges to come. The class helped “set the standards for this community” over the past year, she said, doing so with both grace and compassion.
“You’re venturing forward with the skills you have gained in the most challenging of times,” she said. “… It gives me so much hope.”
Keene State conferred degrees to the class, nearly all of them undergraduates, in a chilly outdoor ceremony featuring intermittent light rain. With each graduate allowed only up to two guests, the commencement proceedings were also livestreamed online.
Graduating senior Benajil Rai drew some of the day’s loudest cheers after winning the Leo F. Redfern Citizenship Award, the highest non-academic honor an undergraduate can receive. Treadwell praised Rai for her work on multimedia projects for Keene State’s library and its student newspaper, The Equinox, and also for sharing her native Nepali culture with the local community.
Mathematics professor Vincent Ferlini was recognized with the Alumni Association’s annual Distinguished Teacher award. Lucille Jordan, president of Nashua Community College and a Jaffrey resident, received an honorary degree for her work in higher education and commitment to public service. And Brian Burford, New Hampshire’s state archivist, earned the annual Granite State Award, which recognizes someone who has demonstrated outstanding achievement in their field and contributed to the state’s welfare.
Reflecting on their time at Keene State, many of the graduates said they feel more confident than when they first stepped on campus.
For Gilroy, Calif., native McKenna Blean, being 3,000 miles from home meant quickly becoming self-reliant.
“I’ve had to establish myself and be sufficient on my own,” she said. “It’s helped me so much just to be my own person.”
A member of the field hockey team, Blean said that group gave her “some of the best friends I’m going to have for the rest of my life.” Losing her senior season to the pandemic “really sucked,” she said, but it didn’t put a damper on the whole year.
One highlight came earlier this month when Blean, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design, presented her work at the program’s annual Portfolio Show.
“So many friends came out and supported me,” she said. “I was able to show everyone what I was doing for the past four years.”
Genevieve Joly said she worried when she arrived at Keene State that she’d struggle in the classroom, having been homeschooled for most of her academic life. But the work turned out to be quite manageable, she said, crediting the college’s faculty and her friends for their support.
“It was really easy to get help when I needed it,” she said.
Joly, who is from Brookline, will attend Ohio University in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in geography. In addition to earning an undergraduate degree in that field from Keene State, she also studied technical theater, which focuses on set design and other production-related elements — far from her initial plan to study education, she said.
Joly said she’s changed outside the classroom, too, after entering college with a lot of social anxiety. Thanks to leadership roles in several extracurricular activities, including as an Admissions tour guide, she’s now comfortable standing in front of a group and “telling them what to do,” she said, laughing.
“It’s just fun to meet new families and show them the campus,” she said. “I love sharing it with new people.”
Paxton Blanchard, a men’s lacrosse captain this year, said his favorite memories at Keene State include winning the Little East Conference as a freshman and a sophomore.
“To come in and do that in college was new and super-exciting,” the Norwell, Mass., native said. “I just remember jumping up and down with all the guys and holding that trophy.”
Blanchard, who studied business management as well as safety and occupational health applied sciences, is returning to Keene State next year for a graduate degree in the latter program and said he’s excited for his brother, Grayson, an incoming freshman, to join him on campus. Like Joly, Blanchard said his confidence has grown significantly over the past four years, explaining that he was initially “pretty shy.”
“I have no problem walking up to a complete stranger, shaking their hand and having a full-blown conversation,” he said.
Same goes for Katelyn Mello of Exeter, who said putting herself in uncomfortable situations has helped her “come out of [her] shell a lot.” Mello, an early childhood education major, credited her academic adviser — Assistant Professor Jayme Hines — with helping her succeed in and out of the classroom.
“She’s always been there and supported me if I ever needed anything,” she said. “I know she’ll always be someone I can go back to.”
Despite the disappointment of missing many traditional events due to the pandemic, Mello said she and her roommates have enjoyed going to restaurants and retail shops downtown in recent weeks, noting that it’s nice to “have some normalcy” to cap her time at Keene State.
“I’ve had the best four years of my life,” she said.
A Keene city councilor is urging city leaders to invest in sidewalk repair and expansion.
Councilor Raleigh Ormerod detailed his proposal to increase the amount of money for sidewalk repair in the city’s 2021-22 budget plan, during a Thursday meeting of the council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee. He said that while his first priority is fixing deteriorated roads, the city should also keep an eye out for areas that don’t have sidewalks — but should.
“Main Street is a gateway entrance, and there are places on Main Street where we don’t even have sidewalks,” said Ormerod, a Ward 1 councilor and member of the finance committee. “And that’s probably one area that we’re ... looking at and targeting, but there’s numerous other areas in the city where it’s hardly worth plowing the sidewalks because it just creates a little bit of an ice rink because it’s so uneven.”
In a May 25 letter to the council and Mayor George Hansel, Ormerod proposed bumping up the budget for sidewalk maintenance from about $65,000 to $250,000. The committee did not vote to recommend this request, instead accepting it as informational.
A few areas where the sidewalks are particularly concerning are the east side of Main Street just south of the Winchester/Main/Marlboro streets roundabout, and the Monadnock Street/Adams Street area near Wheelock Elementary School, in Ormerod’s own neighborhood, he told The Sentinel Sunday. He said students walking to school in the area have long dealt with broken and uneven sidewalks that form puddles and freeze in the winter.
Ormerod had suggested increasing parking fees and the hours of operation for parking meters, along with looking for ways to increase the number of parking fines that get paid off, as a way to pay for increased sidewalk maintenance. However, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said the city’s parking fund is a standalone account, much like the city’s water and sewer departments, and that revenue raised within the parking fund would have to be used for parking expenses.
Dragon noted that there’s a chance the city could receive federal funding to cover some of the city’s upcoming capital projects, which could free up dollars for sidewalk maintenance. She said sidewalks would be part of the conversation when the city begins working on its next capital plan this summer.
Keene has already begun developing an asset-management plan, or a long-term outline detailing how and when the city will do maintenance work on its sidewalks. The council’s Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee was supposed to hear a presentation on the plan during its meeting Wednesday evening, but it was put on hold due to technical issues from a thunderstorm and rescheduled for June 10.
“By creating an asset-management plan for sidewalks, the council can determine what level of service you are looking for,” Dragon said, “and whether or not there’s a need for new sidewalks, and if so, how will that be prioritized?”
Dragon added that beyond basic maintenance, the city has not really made sidewalks a priority in recent years. She said now is a good time to discuss how the city will manage its sidewalks moving forward.
Other committee members echoed Ormerod’s concerns that the issue of sidewalks should be addressed, with Councilor Stephen Hooper saying sidewalk maintenance should be prioritized along with roads. He also said the city needs to make sure it has the funds to deal with its priority list in a timely way.
“I think we need the money in the budget to aggressively tackle [the priority list],” he said, “make sure that we get through those [sidewalks] in 10 years instead of 40 years.”
Meanwhile, Councilors Thomas Powers and Mike Remy said that while they agree sidewalk repairs are needed, they’d like to wait until there’s a more concrete plan for funding sources and how the repairs would be carried out.
Councilor Bobby Williams, a vocal advocate of sidewalk maintenance but who is not a finance committee member, also spoke in support of Ormerod’s proposal. He said the first priority should be to make sure all sidewalks in town are passable, particularly for “people who are on wheels.”
In an email to The Sentinel Monday evening, Williams, a Ward 2 councilor, pointed to the sidewalks on Beaver and Spring streets as examples of where repairs could most be used, noting that Beaver Street has root damage and Spring Street is prone to flooding. In a letter to the editor published in The Sentinel in December, Williams also said Roxbury Street and Eastern Avenue could use some work.
He said during the meeting Thursday that the city needs both a short-term funding source to cover the costs of sidewalk repairs that have been backlogged and a long-term funding source to ensure the city doesn’t fall behind on sidewalk maintenance in the future. He also noted that the city has a road and sidewalk infrastructure fund, which he hopes can be tapped into.
He said that one source of short-term funding could be selling off underutilized city-owned properties and using the money for pedestrian-friendly projects in that community.
“In my neighborhood, I could think of one city-owned lot that could easily support a couple of housing units on it but is vacant instead,” Williams said during the meeting. “If that could be sold, not only would it become a tax-generating property and help [alleviate] our housing crunch, but the proceeds could be used within the nearby neighborhood to support some small pedestrian improvement projects that have had a hard time attracting investment by the city.”
Memorial Day kicks off the summer hiking season in New Hampshire, and with it, hikers who need rescuing. If last year is any indication, a lot of those rescues will be done by phone.
Typically, the state Fish and Game search-and-rescue team averages about 50 “non-responsive” rescues a year, meaning someone from the team can talk the person or party through a crisis over the phone without going to the scene. These most often involve lost hikers who need help getting back on the trail.
Last year, when the pandemic brought record crowds to the state’s hiking trails, that number was 186. There were another 173 calls that required an in-person response from Fish and Game’s 16-member rescue team and dozens of volunteers from private rescue groups. These calls range from injuries, deaths, and drownings, to people with dementia who wander from home and hikers who hit the trail without proper gear, like a headlamp, compass, and map.
In April, a Massachusetts woman called for help from Mount Monadnock at 8:25 p.m. because she didn’t have a light. A 911 operator was able to identify her location before her cellphone died a minute later. A rescue crew reached the woman at 10 p.m., after she had continued hiking in the dark and fallen 20 feet off a rock ledge.
The woman had begun her hike at 6 p.m., about an hour before sunset, and also didn’t have a map, compass, food or water.
The state has been tracking these in-person rescues, which average 189 a year, for a long time. It began tracking non-response calls about six years ago, when the numbers started climbing. Fish and Game Col. Kevin Jordan attributes that increase to a few things, including improved technology.
“I think we have a lot more people out in the wild, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “And the more our cellphone coverage improves, the more calls I get. When they could not call, they took care of it themselves.”
The search-and-rescue work has not been the only challenge for Fish and Game. Funding is equally difficult, and Jordan noted that both in-person and over-the-phone responses cost money. Between 2009 and 2019, the department spent $3.1 million on responding to 1,890 situations and the training needed for that work. Despite a dozen attempts in the last decade to get state funding, the department gets almost no general fund money. It covers what it can with three unpredictable sources of income: donations; $1 from each boat, snowmobile, and off-road vehicle registration; and the sale of voluntary Hike Safe cards, a program that brought in $200,000 last year and exempts cardholders from rescue charges. The department bills only when a rescue is the result of extreme negligence. In the last five years, it has charged 85 people a total of about $62,000. It’s been able to collect about 60 percent of that, Jordan said.
That income falls short of rescue expenses, which average about $390,000 a year. In some cases, a single rescue can cost $25,000.
In January, Fish and Game team members and volunteers from Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team rescued two men from Mount Lafayette who were running the trail in sneakers with microspikes with no gear for a snowstorm, amid wind speeds of 40 to 50 mph. Their water bottles had frozen and one had lost a sneaker in deep snow. It took Fish and Game, 20 members of the Pemigewasset team, and a National Guard helicopter to get them to safety. Had the storm not cleared long enough for the helicopter to come in, the rescue team would have had to carry the men out.
“That would have taken a long time and maybe resulted in a fatality,” said Allan Clark, founder and president of the Pemigewasset team. “I don’t know if they realize how lucky they were.”
Not every rescue is as dramatic, but they often result from the same bad choice: the wrong footwear and insufficient gear, said Rick Wilcox, who’s been with the Mountain Rescue Service in North Conway for 40 years.
“I’d say the theme in the last several years is that we are seeing less experienced hikers and hikers doing this for the first time,” he said. The state’s 48 peaks over 4,000 feet get a lot of attention. Wilcox suggests new hikers start with the right gear and something less grueling like Hedgehog Mountain off the Kancamagus Highway, or Mount Willard and Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch.
The Legislature’s $20 million plan in 2019 to expand desperately needed mental health services stalled after the pandemic hit. A recent state Supreme Court ruling and stories of kids and adults waiting days in emergency rooms for help has put that effort back on track.
The Senate is poised to reverse two significant cuts to the state Department of Health and Human Services: a $50 million budget reduction and the elimination of $30 million for a new secure psychiatric hospital. And, the state recently announced it will pay community mental health centers more to expand transitional housing and give hospitals and long-term care facilities $200,000 per bed and $45,000 per bed a year, respectively, to add 50 inpatient beds for psychiatric crisis care to the approximate 250 now available to the state. That reimbursement rate is twice what’s been offered in the past, and three to four hospitals have reportedly shown interest.
Meanwhile, a statewide mobile crisis response unit, a key piece of the 2019 plan, is expected to come online this summer and reduce the number of people whose only choice is to go to an emergency room.
The expenditures are in line with recommendations in the state’s 10-year Mental Health Plan. And while there was bipartisan support for the 2019 mental health investments, there is a sense of urgency now to move as quickly as possible, due in part to a May 11 state Supreme Court decision. The court called the state’s process for allowing people to wait in emergency rooms for days without due process hearings unlawful.
Two days after the ruling, Gov. Chris Sununu issued a sweeping executive order that made immediate changes to the state’s mental health policies and called for a review of all mental health services in the state. Sununu also called on hospitals and community mental health centers to do more to solve the mental health crisis and opened the door to bringing in private providers if needed. The centers had been calling for similar collaboration with the state since February.
“I think the Supreme Court’s decision, saying, ‘You must,’ kind of gives us the backing to say, well, we must, so here we go,” Sununu said while announcing the executive order. “Don’t give me 10 reasons why we can’t do something. Let’s impress our citizens with what we can do because they deserve that level of attention to that level of need. This is a crisis.”
That sense of urgency, which Democrats have said was needed more than a year ago, had a near-immediate impact — for adults. The day the Supreme Court issued its opinion in mid-May, there were 41 adults waiting in emergency rooms for a psychiatric bed and two more waiting in a correctional facility. At the end of last week, there were five.
It’s been a different story for kids. The count has gone from 26 to 30 in that time period.
Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI New Hampshire, has been advocating for an increase in all levels of mental health care, from community providers to crisis psychiatric care. He has been encouraged by the progress and hopes to see the same success with kids soon.
“I’m really focusing on looking forward rather than looking back,” he said. “I’m thrilled to see the adult numbers in the single digits. I attribute that to a lot of effort by a lot of people.”
Steve Ahnen, CEO and president of the N.H. Hospital Association, shares that optimism.
“Building a system of care for those suffering an acute psychiatric illness is essential to solve the ED boarding crisis,” he said. “As is ensuring that these patients are able to receive the care they need to successfully transition back into the community with outpatient care and other supportive services. The increased funding will help identify solutions and address the challenges facing those patients in acute psychiatric crisis.”