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Young leaders emerge in South Jersey Black Lives Matter movements

Twenty-year-old nursing student Jana White had never organized a march or a protest , but after seeing the movement against police brutality erupt across the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she felt inspired.

“I wanted to create a safe space for the Black community to vocalize and acknowledge the pain and the frustration that we’re all feeling,” said White, of Mays Landing. “And I also wanted it to be a place where allied communities can come and listen and learn so they can understand exactly how their voices can help, too.”

From the Greensboro sit-ins during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to 2018’s gun control movement in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shootings, youth have played a significant role in organizing and promoting social movements throughout the past century.

Since Floyd’s death, several of the protests, marches and rallies in South Jersey have been planned by people under the age of 25 who say they are the future and their voices need to be heard. It’s not just organizing large marches; young people from all over the region are finding ways to stay involved by participating in youth forums, sharing original poetry and artwork inspired by the movement, and even standing alone on a bridge holding a sign.

“More than anything, what I really wanted was to get the community together and really vocalize that change starts with us,” said White, a 2018 Oakcrest High School graduate and rising junior at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Irenonsen Eigbe, president of the Young Activists of Atlantic County, said young people are the next leaders of the country.

“And we need to make sure we’re having an interest in these topics because we’re going to be the ones making the decisions in the future,” said Eigbe, 18, of Galloway Township, a sophomore at Stockton University.

Eigbe and her three friends formed the YAAC because they wanted a way to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement that has been happening in large cities that they couldn’t otherwise participate in due to costs or lack of transportation.

“We really wanted to have something that we could get local people involved in because we know there are a bunch of people interested in these topics,” she said.

The YAAC’s first event was earlier this month in Galloway. On Friday — which was Juneteenth, the date that news of emancipation reached slaves in Texas in 1865 — they participated in a rally at Stockton hosted by the college’s newly revived NAACP chapter.

The chapter, which had been inactive for a few years, was brought back to life this month by 19-year-old Danielle Combs, of Berlin, Camden County, a rising senior and aspiring lawyer, who sought out membership after Floyd’s death.

Combs contacted her adviser and was able to quickly restart the chapter as its president.

“It was actually overwhelmingly easy to find students who wanted to join NAACP,” Combs said, noting she got three times as many members as were needed to create the chapter. “Students were hungry to have their voices heard.”

Like Eigbe and White, Combs had not been involved in any protests, marches or rallies until she decided to organize their own. The three young, Black women say they were inspired by their upbringings to get involved in the movement.

“We constantly live in this fear that police brutality is going to take one of us very soon. That’s a fear that I’ve been living with as long as I can remember,” White said. “As terrible as the situation is, I’m happy that from it we’ve started to really push for a change in the system because it is long overdue.”

Stockton sophomore Shannon Glover, 20, of Delran, Burlington County, had also organized a Juneteenth rally, which was later combined with the NAACP event. Glover said that as a Black man employed as a truck driver, he is constantly concerned about any interactions he may have with police. Floyd’s death struck him.

“It really hit my heart in the moment,” Glover said, adding he decided then to organize. “If not anybody else, why not me?”

Combs said the support has been overwhelming, and she hopes to see the movement continue well past June.

“A lot of times it will trend for a week. I don’t want this movement to go silent in any way. I’m going to keep this conversation alive against police brutality,” Combs said. “We want to break the barriers of social injustice and systemic racism. … We need to help fight to make the change happen now so it’s not too late.”

The recent marches bear messages of ending systemic racism and police brutality, as well as justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Taylor, a Black woman, was shot to death in her home by police executing a no-knock warrant, and Arbery, a Black man, was killed near his home by two white men, one a former police officer, who suspected Arbery of robbery. There have been no charges or arrests made in Taylor’s death, and arrests were not made in Arbery’s death until four months later despite video evidence.

In addition, recent marches and rallies have had a focus on registering voters.

Tables have been set up at each event to sign up young people to participate in elections.

“It matters that people my age are registered and are voting,” White said. “So that they really understand that their single voice matters. There’s no better time to really start pushing for change.”

PHOTOS: Juneteenth March for Justice at Stockton University 2020

Fathers sacrifice family time to be on the front lines of COVID-19 response

Dr. Manish Trivedi is used to working several weeks without a day off.

And as director of AtlantiCare’s Infectious Diseases Division and chairman of its Infection Control Committee, he was trained to prepare for the worst.

Still, nothing could have prepared him for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two weeks ago, he finally got to enjoy time off with his wife and two children.

Due to an increased workload from the disease making its way to New Jersey, it was Trivedi’s first day off in more than four months.

“Life has been accelerated, I think, in the last three or four months,” the 39-year-old said. “From an infectious disease perspective, the world is always evolving and diseases are always evolving. You’re always trained to kind of manage a situation like the pandemic, and I don’t think anybody really realized how quickly that would’ve accelerated.”

In his position, Trivedi has influenced many key decisions in the state’s efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The Margate resident helped determine when Atlantic City’s casinos should close, developed new visitor policies for AtlantiCare’s hospitals and has been in constant communication with the Governor’s Office.

From the moment the first cases of the disease were reported in New Jersey, Trivedi has been tasked with organizing staff meetings to go over new policies and make sure everyone knows how to properly put on and remove personal protective equipment. He also sees almost every COVID-19 patient that is admitted to the hospital.

On a daily basis, he said he fields about 1,800 text messages, 140 emails and 140 phone calls.

“When you have a day off, you’re still fielding a lot of texts and fielding a lot of phone calls,” Trivedi said. “But, for the most part, to not have to come into the hospital, it’s a little bit of a shock to your system because you’re going, going, going and then all of a sudden you’re not going.

“My wife would always complain, ‘You take a couple days just to reset and figure out that you’re on vacation, and by the time you do that, you have a day or two and then you’re back to getting geared up to get back into the groove again.’”

After work, Trivedi takes off his scrubs and shoes in the garage and heads straight for the shower. He makes sure to leave anything from work outside the livable areas of his home.

Time with his children, 2-year-old Maya and 4-month-old Bodhi, was few and far between the past few months. He would often leave home before they woke up and come back when they were already sleeping. Video calls during the day helped fill some of that void.

“It’s emotionally difficult to be separated from your child, but it’s also emotionally difficult, I’m sure, for my wife as well,” Trivedi said. “You’re an integral part of that team, and I had to re-focus my attention to a hospital system that needed me as well as the family that needed me.”

When Bodhi was born Feb. 20, Trivedi spent a day with his newborn before going back to work. He said his wife, Lindsay, an advanced practice nurse at AtlantiCare Physician Group Cardiology, is his inspiration while he continues to work.

“She’s been phenomenal,” Trivedi said. “I could not ask for a better situation. She has two kids under 2 during a pandemic where child care was certainly none because people were afraid to leave their house. It’s stressful for anybody to see their loved ones going into the hospital system where things were very uncertain at the time and things were very scary. For her to maintain that kind of composure for a family and for me, that camaraderie is important.”

Trivedi will work Sunday and will have to wait a week to have a true Father’s Day with everyone the following weekend.

Dr. Brian Acunto

Dr. Brian Acunto is an emergency physician at AtlantiCare. He and his wife welcomed Anabelle, the couple’s first child, March 20.

For him, time with his daughter has been a much-needed reprieve.

“It was actually a nice distraction,” Acunto said. “At the hospital, we had been planning for COVID, especially when it became more and more clear that it was going to enter the Unites States and it was going to potentially hit us locally. We were definitely getting prepared for that in addition to our normal duties, and to have the anticipation of a baby was kind of a nice distraction as well.”

Acunto, 42, takes the same precautions as Trivedi before entering his home. While he wasn’t too concerned about the virus in regard to his daughter, he said becoming a father has made him more empathetic to parents that bring children in for unknown illnesses or injuries.

“There’s a personal attachment of seeing a 3-month-old and now I have a 3-month-old,” Acunto said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, that could be my daughter.’”

Fortunately, quarantining did not keep Acunto from his child.

Dr. Jordan Silver

Dr. Jordan Silver, on the other hand, wasn’t as fortunate.

A single father, the AtlantiCare hospitalist was unable to see his son, 6-year-old Matthew, for more than a month. Matthew lives with his mother in North Jersey, where the state was hit the hardest by the pandemic.

“It was extremely difficult not being able to see him,” Silver said. “To explain to a 6-year-old child that there’s a virus out there that’s very dangerous and normal things that you used to do, you can’t do anymore, is challenging in itself to make them understand why that’s so important.”

The two would see one another on FaceTime nearly every day. After being away from his son, and seeing COVID-19 patients unable to be surrounded by loved ones, Silver gained a greater appreciation for any chance to be with family.

“I lost my father about a year ago, who I was very close with,” Silver said. “I can’t imagine if he was in the hospital (with us) not being able to see him, which is what every family member potentially is going through right now with their loved ones. It certainly puts things in perspective and makes you very empathetic, and your heart goes out to those families.”

Infectious disease physician Dr. Manish Trivedi, of Margate, checks in with his wife, Lindsey, on a FaceTime call Friday at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Mainland Campus, in Galloway.

US Veterans Affairs secretary in Wildwood: More services coming to South Jersey

WILDWOOD — South Jersey’s veterans will see new and expanded health services in the next few years, the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs told a crowd of veterans Friday in this seaside resort.

Robert Wilkie spoke at the annual VFW convention in front of 100 state veterans. The convention has been held at the Wildwoods Convention Center for 51 years. This year, due to the virus, it was held outside across the street from the center at Fox Park.

Wilkie, in an interview following his public remarks, outlined a few coming improvements for the area.

“We’re taking the veterans clinic out of the Coast Guard in Cape May and building a new one,” he said. “We’re probably expanding some of our hospital capabilities down on the Delaware/New Jersey border.”

Wilkie spoke about the VA’s response to COVID-19, crediting New Jersey for taking swift action at the start of the pandemic. He thanked Gov. Phil Murphy “for putting veterans front and center” during the crisis, saying Murphy was one of the first governors to reach out to the VA office and ask for help in regards to veterans’ health care amid the outbreak.

“Coronavirus has put us in a position we never thought we would be in, but the VA has responded,” he added. “We not only responded by taking emergency measures long before the rest of the country knew what was going on, we took those emergency measures with the goal of making sure we (do) everything to protect our most vulnerable veterans.”

There are 134 VA nursing homes that house 7,500 patients nationwide. As of Friday morning, only three VA patients had COVID-19, he said.

Of the 9.5 million veterans who are part of the VA health system, 1,500 have died due to COVID-19, Wilkie said. To slow the spread and minimize risks to veterans, VA hospitals took the same approach as other hospitals did. Visitors were not permitted inside, elective surgeries were halted and normal operations were shut down to serve the most vulnerable patients.

“We’ve sent out over 50 million individual communications to veterans, to families, to caregivers, telling them what they need to do, how to come see us, how we can reach them if they don’t feel well, and they’ve responded magnificently,” he said.

He added that VA hospitals had the lowest employee infection rate of any health organization.

“We had to start early, and I think we created some lessons for the rest of the country,” he said.

The VA office is also rolling out a national effort to further address suicide among veterans.

“We lose 20 veterans a day who take their lives by suicide,” Wilkie said. “By bringing the country together, by bringing government together and the research capabilities, (it will) help us reach into communities we’ve never been to take veterans off the streets and take them into our care to prevent this.”

To reach more veterans with mental health services, telehealth — or videoconferencing with patients — has been expanded nationwide, he said. As a result, the VA has seen its number of mental health appointments increase from the typical 40,000 remote mental health appointments. In April alone, there were more than 900,000 telehealth mental health appointments, he said.

VA sends nurses to 2 Atlantic County nursing homes

Ten nurses from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs arrived this week at Meadowview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Northfield, and a similar number at Preferred Care in Absecon, the VA said Wednesday.

“We’ve reached into veterans’ homes,” Wilkie said. “We did that to protect them so they did not have to come in and put themselves in danger. We have reached out in areas and in ways that we’ve never done before. I think it’s a great mark for the future because we now know it works.”

Wilkie said that in the coming years, mental health teleclinics will be expanded into Walmarts, which will help veterans living in rural areas, including South Jersey.

Each year, the state VFW convention in Wildwood brings in notable speakers to address veterans’ issues and the government’s performance in addressing them. New officers are also appointed during the convention.

The convention typically brings out about 700 veterans, but due to COVID-19 restrictions only about 100 came to this year’s event. Services are also usually on site to help veterans — from helping with benefits issues to resume writing, but that part of the convention was dropped this year due to the event being outside.

And while adjustments were made in the face of the pandemic, organizers were determined to have the event take place, said Bill Thomson, VFW convention director for the Department of New Jersey VFW.

“We stood firm,” said Thompson. “We were going to have a convention of some sort, in some way, somewhere.”

Thompson said the VFW also continues to give back to veterans by organizing blood drives, food drives and charitable work.

And he looks forward to more VA services coming to South Jersey.

“Robert Wilkie is a close, personal friend,” he said. “When he says he’s going to do something for me, or the South Jersey area, I’m very confident.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, was also at the convention and was awarded Legislator of the Year by the New Jersey VFW.

“As long as I am in office, I will always ensure our veterans and military have every tool at their disposal that they need,” Van Drew said. “We must honor and support them in every way that we can.”