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South Jersey residents reflect on Martin Luther King Day

ATLANTIC CITY — The history of the struggle for civil rights equality and the idea of service to a cause greater than one’s self will be themes at events across South Jersey on Monday celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

“We are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Fannie Lou Hamer in her 1964 address to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Yolanda Melville will echo Hamer’s words during her keynote speech at the Atlantic City chapter of the NAACP’s Martin Luther King Day ceremony Monday.

Melville, 33, a local attorney with Cooper Levenson and the legal redress chair for the chapter, focuses her speech on themes of service and women’s role in the civil rights movement.

“The history in Atlantic City is … it’s rich and abundant. But then you look around and you realize that some of the issues they were fighting for then, they’re still fighting for now,” Melville said, referencing housing discrimination and voter suppression.

Originally from the Bronx section of New York City, Melville’s family moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, when she was 10. She came to Atlantic City after graduating from Howard Law School in 2012, and worked as a law clerk for Judge Susan Maven. Upon arriving here, one thing struck her.

“I kind of looked around and saw that there was a need for legal advocacy and people of color to serve this community,” Melville said.

Of course, King’s words will also be featured largely at events Monday.

At the Atlantic City Free Library on Saturday, library patrons and elected officials — including Mayor Frank Gilliam and Councilman Kaleem Shabazz — recited some of King’s notable written works, including his “I have a dream” and “I have been to the mountaintop” speeches and his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

With the current politically divisive climate in the United States, the sixth-annual “read-in” being held there Saturday feels particularly important this year, said Library Director Robert Rynkiewicz.

“So when we do a program like this, it really is an opportunity for all of us to come together,” Rynkiewicz said. “It’s a community event where we can speak out and work together. Because we’ve got to do that, right?”

Some tie Atlantic City’s history into their ceremonies.

“Atlantic City has a history in the civil rights movement in America,” said Shabazz, president of Atlantic City’s NAACP chapter. “The NAACP is over 70 years old in Atlantic City, fighting for civil rights, fighting for equality and social justice, and that’s part of the DNA of Atlantic City’s civil rights movement and civil rights activity.”

Like Rynkiewicz, Shabazz felt the national moment underlined the importance of Martin Luther King Day in important ways.

Recent racist comments from officials like Representative Steve King, R-Iowa — and the ensuing silence from President Donald Trump — plays a role in that, he said.

“I think it seeps down, and people see that and they want to be involved in an activity they think has the potential to bring people together,” Shabazz said, “and I think that anytime you bring up the legacy of King, and do some of the things King does, that helps all of humanity and people respond to that.”

Stockton’s 15th annual Day of Service features more than 800 students and community partners doing just that, university spokesperson Diane D’Amico said.

An organizer for the event, Veronica Rowland, 22, graduated from Stockton last May and started a year of service there with AmeriCorps in October.

The large amount of events and partners for the day of service reflect the school “trying to connect with the majority of the community that Stockton reaches and that prospective students are from,” Rowland said.

She thinks large-scale service events such as Stockton’s provide an opening for people to get involved more generally.

“I think that days of service are good ways for people who are maybe not as involved in service to start getting involved and start figuring out what kind of service they’re interested in,” Rowland said, “and what they think gives back the most in relation to them.”

Ocean City is encouraging residents to give back to their community by participating in a citywide cleanup Monday morning before a program centered on the life and words of King.

“It really is a reminder to kids and families and seniors to take time and give back because you learn a lot more about yourself and your community when you’re taking time to give,” said Mike Hartman, Special Events Coordinator for Ocean City.

At the event, Sally Onesty, a Ocean City resident and owner of A Bella Salon and Spa, will be honored with the Martin Luther King Award for her volunteer work as an advocate for addicted individuals.

It is work she has done since her son, Tyler, died of an overdose in March 2017.

Onesty acts as a liaison, connecting addicted individuals with recovery homes and addiction services, and says the doors are always open at her salon. They keep pamphlets there for those who need information, and collect food for recovery and sober living homes.

“I don’t get paid. I don’t work for treatment centers. None of that,” Onesty said. “I just try to get help — mostly free help — that the families and the active user could use if they’re ready, and willing, and able to start recovery.”

EHT applies for $2.4M to demolish West Atlantic City motels

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Township officials have applied for a federal grant that would cover the cost of demolishing four eyesore motels in West Atlantic City, the blighted gateway to the resort that has long harbored illegal drug activity.

If approved, the four inns will be razed and converted into green space — whether that be parks, trails or restored wetlands — under a $2.4 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood mitigation grant assistance program. The program aims to mitigate flooding on properties severely and repeatedly inundated with water.

The township would acquire and tear down the Hi Ho Motel, Destiny Inn, Bay Point Inn and Budget Motel, bringing the total number of motels in West Atlantic City down from eight to four.

Owners of the motels did not respond to requests for comment.

“When tidal surges come, those motels get flooded and the water has no place to go,” said Business Administrator Peter Miller. “It makes their rooms uninhabitable.”

Together, the motels filed 56 claims over a 10-year period, equal to $3.8 million, said Matt von der Hayden, the township’s deputy administrator. All are considered “severe repetitive loss” or “repetitive loss” properties. It’s the first time the township has applied to the federal program to level motels on the Black Horse Pike.

Demolishing the aging buildings will help the township eliminate blemishes along the entrance to Atlantic City that officials have hoped to beautify. A 2009 redevelopment plan that envisioned high-rise condos and nightlife in the area has been at a standstill for years.

The last movement came in 2015, when the township used a $3 million grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to tear down five West Atlantic City motels. Among them was the Golden Key Motel, where the bodies of four prostitutes were found nearly 10 years earlier.

The township will discuss more concrete plans for the properties if the FEMA grant is approved. Those blueprints could include recreational fields, vegetation or restored wetlands to absorb flood water.

“We can’t build anything there once the motels are demolished,” Miller said. “We think it should look like a green belt.”

In order for permeable green space to alleviate flooding on Route 40, Miller said the township would have to enter into an agreement with the state Department of Transportation to discharge water from the causeway and onto the four properties.

Further discussions haven’t begun and would be at least a year away.

“It’s one possibility. ... Our options are wide open,” Miller said. “There will be the ability for those spaces to absorb water.”

In September, township officials sent letters to businesses along the pike in West Atlantic City asking whether they would participate in the program.

The application is being reviewed by the state before it’s sent to the federal government. By May, the township will know whether it passed the first round of the grant process.

“Now we wait to hear from FEMA,” von der Hayden said.

The idea of increasing open spaces to lessen the impact of flooding is gaining traction elsewhere, too. Atlantic County last year bought a 0.8-acre property in Mays Landing partially to keep a flood-prone buildable lot from being developed.

It’s also the concept behind the state’s Blue Acres program, in which the state purchases flood-prone properties from homeowners to restore the land to permeable open space.

Meanwhile, local officials have been lobbying the DOT to raise a three-mile stretch of the Black Horse Pike between West Atlantic City and West End Avenue, which leads into the resort. The process of raising a causeway is expensive and takes years.

Atlantic City local heads state's effort to return city control

ATLANTIC CITY — Mike Epps takes his new role personally.

The recently appointed executive director of the Atlantic City Initiative Project Office is a homegrown product who has been tasked with implementing the recommendations contained in the state’s transition report.

For the 52-year-old attorney, shepherding Atlantic City out from under state oversight and returning local control to its residents is a chance to let others view the Queen of Resorts the way the Atlantic City High School gradaute sees her.

“This is an opportunity to be in a spot that has some impact on, hopefully, our growth and re-emergence as a premier jurisdiction to both work and live,” Epps said Thursday from his seventh floor office in City Hall. “I think that’s one of the most important pieces of this initiative ... (Atlantic City) is a great place to live. And I want other folks to appreciate what a great place it is to live and raise a family and, ultimately, we need to get back to that. I think we can.”

The Atlantic City Project Office operates under the purview of the state Department of Community Affairs and is funded by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The CRDA approved $1.35 million in November for the office’s staffing needs, but, so far, Epps is the only employee.

As executive director, Epps reports directly to Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who doubles as commissioner of the DCA.

Besides the transition report itself, the Project Office takes its lead from the collective ideas generated from the Atlantic City Executive Council and the Atlantic City Coordinating Council, two entities comprised of public and private stakeholders, such as casino executives, Stockton University and AtlantiCare along with city, county and state officials.

Lisa Ryan, a spokesperson for the DCA, said Epps was selected to lead the Project Office because of his Atlantic City roots.

“He knows and understands the city’s history, strengths and challenges, and he’s developed relationships over the years with a network of community leaders, stakeholders and neighborhood organizations that will serve him well in his current role,” said Ryan.

“He is a respected force who knows how to get things done and can jump right into the work. We are tremendously fortunate to have Mike leading the Atlantic City Initiatives Office. His hire shows our commitment to implementing the recommendations in the Atlantic City Transition Report and to advancing the initiatives of the Atlantic City Executive Council.”

Epps, whose connections to the city and its primary economic driver include a term as a Casino Control Commissioner and general counsel to the city’s housing authority, said his relationships with many of the key stakeholders involved means his primary function is keeping those people vested and engaged in the long-term progress of Atlantic City.

“I’m not some guy that has the magic pill or the the secret answer,” said Epps, who now lives in Galloway Township. “I’m just a person that’s kind of trying to keep everybody at the table and keep them invested in what they’ve already indicated. A lot of times we have great ideas that fall apart because there’s no one to hold it on. Together, hopefully, I’m able to keep those things moving in a positive direction and keep everybody’s energy focused on the finish line, so that we can get some things accomplished for our town.”

Acutely aware that some may view the Project Office as more state involvement where it is not needed, Epps said the initiative is not just another government agency created to address a nonexistent problem.

“The beauty of this is, I think, is that it’s not bureaucracy,” he said. “My office is the facilitator of it. But, primarily this is driven by corporate citizens who are engaged enough in Atlantic City and invested enough in Atlantic City to try and make things happen.”

The transition report was co-authored by Jim Johnson, a former U.S. Treasury undersecretary and 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who was tapped by Gov. Phil Murphy to create a blueprint for getting Atlantic City back on its own two feet after the 2016 takeover. Johnson said he considered the transition team to be “very fortunate” that Epps was selected to helm the Project Office and implement the strategies contained in the report.

“Our desire was to put together a team that had Atlantic City roots, an appetite for change, integrity and smarts,” said Johnson. “And Mike is our key player.”

Johnson said the hope is to round out the Project Office with others who have city development experience, including some from outside Atlantic City.

Epps said he recognizes the challenges the new opportunity presents, particularly in pushing back against the perception that Atlantic City is doomed to fail.

“Absolutely, (this is) 100 percent is personal to me,” he said. “The negative stigmas and the negative press that Atlantic City often receives, I internalize ... Some of it may be self-inflicted and some of it may be deserved. But whether it is or not, I still internalize it. It is my hometown. And there are a lot of folks who know me as from Atlantic City and so that reflects on me to a certain degree, maybe more than it should.”

For his part, Epps said he is determined to be a part of the Queen’s comeback story.

”She always reinvents herself and I think that she is poised to reinvent herself again,” he said. “I think that she can reestablish herself as a place that people want to live as well as play. I think that we’ve lost some of that. And so, I think that’s the next (chapter) of Atlantic City.”

Health providers focus in on addicted mothers, youth at opioid conference

Opioid misuse and addiction continue to touch communities across all spectrums of age, race, socioeconomic status, gender and backgrounds. This increasingly includes pregnant women.

Expecting women with opioid-use disorders have become a unique population in the epidemic, experts say, as more babies in South Jersey and across the country are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome every year, federal reports show.

Nurses and doctors say specialized programs, education in the health-care field and wrap-around services may be able to improve outcomes for both baby and mother.

“This can be a great opportunity to get women into treatment,” said Carrie Malanga, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at the University of Pennsylvania, “but some aren’t there. They’re not going to go for it.”

Malanga presented Tuesday at Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City to more than 100 doctors, nurses, social workers and health providers across the region on ways to treat pregnant and postpartum mothers who may be addicted to heroin, fentanyl or other prescription opioids.

The conference, hosted by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and AtlantiCare, also focused on opioid exposure and use among adolescents, public health approaches to prevention methods, pediatric pain management, the legal concerns of opioid exposure in children and more.

“This is an opportunity for us to fight stigma, share new resources and services available in the hopes that one day we can cure this epidemic,” said Samantha Kiley, executive director of the AtlantiCare Foundation.

There are still not a lot of updated statistics on pregnant users, Malanga said. What research does show is that more than 5 percent of pregnant women are using an illicit drug, with the majority using marijuana and a small percent using opioids, she said.

Malanga said many women when they find out they are pregnant, they try to stop, but they can’t. It can also be difficult for health professionals to find these women to treat them during pregnancy and before birth.

“They avoid prenatal care, because of lot of them feel ashamed,” she said. “They also assume that no help will be given to them by providers and fear that they’ve already done damage to the fetus. They also fear that their pain won’t be treated.”

As a result, hospitals have seen problems in birth like pre-term labors and low birthrates.

Neonatal intensive care units are also experiencing rising rates of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or when a baby born addicted to a drug may need to be treated for withdrawal and other health complications. About 685 babies were born with the condition in 2016, according to the state Department of Health.

Mothers Matter at the University of Pennsylvania was created and designed to get pregnant women addiction treatment and prenatal care, as well as mental health treatment and other social services, Malanga said. There have been successful cases of healthy births and continued treatment, she said.

To better prevent and treat opioid and drug use in youth, Dr. Terri Randall, psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital, said it’s important to understand their behaviors.

Opioid misuse is high among 12- and 13-year-olds because they can easily access pain prescriptions at home or get them for free from friends, and one in 10 teens have reported using drugs at least once, she said.

But with improved and new prevention programs, “as bleak as the numbers may seem, drug use overall is going down” among youth, Randall said.