Rhode Islanders of the Year

Meet the women, men and kids who have done the Ocean State proud this year.

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There are plans for a pedestrian bridge, and a much-publicized proposal to build a baseball stadium was scuttled after many residents cried foul. The parcels of vacant land made available by the relocation of Interstate 195 in Providence are some of the highest profile potential developments in Rhode Island.

But to Adam E. Anderson, a practicing landscape architect who teaches at Rhode Island School of Design and often walks past them, it seemed like developers were dueling over the land. “Everything was going too fast, and there was a rush to put something on that land,” Anderson says. “So I was a different kind of developer. I developed just a very simple idea of a way to turn the channel of people’s minds for a minute and just think of another possibility for that place.”

His very simple idea? Plant sunflower seeds in a series of circles on the nearly acre parcel between South Main and South Water streets, creating what he describes as a “botanical performance” called 10,000 Suns.

Earlier this year, Anderson composed some drawings and got permission to plant from the 195 Commission. He and a crew of about twenty volunteers started planting on June 4.
“I quickly realized the scale of the project,” Anderson says. “Either me or a couple of volunteers, we were pretty much there every night. A couple of nights my girlfriend and I were there until 2:30 a.m. with headlamps on and watering by the moonlight.”

Anderson also had some additional help making the botanical performance a reality. Smithfield Peat donated compost and the city forester contributed mulch. Anderson wasn’t sure how well the seeds would grow, because of the uneven quality of the soil of the original highway land, but they added several inches of compost.

From the beginning of the planting, water was a major concern with the drought. At first, Anderson ran back and forth to his house on Sheldon Street. “It was like putting out a fire trying to save these little sprouts, because all of them came up. We had about 40 percent die off because we couldn’t keep up with the watering,” he says. “Then I just went up to a neighbor’s door looking desperate and asked if I could use their spigot.”

The neighbor was former Providence Fire Chief Rick Susi. “They told me to turn it off before 11, so I bought 400 feet of hose and ran it across the road and watered it that way and replanted about 40 percent of the seeds,” Anderson says.

But watering took about eight hours a night after a full day of work for Anderson, and buses kept running over the hoses and breaking them. “I was like, I’m done, I can’t keep up with this,” Anderson says. Meanwhile, a fire hydrant was right there on the corner and he knew the pressure was strong enough to hook up four or five hoses.

One day, a student showed him the most recent broken hose. Then Anderson “turned around and Rick was holding up a key” to the hydrant. “That was kind of amazing.”

After July 4, the project proceeded more smoothly with a dependable source of water. People would come by and ask what Anderson was doing, and sometimes help weed for a night. There were wildlife considerations as well. Anderson says he made a deal with the birds to leave the seeds alone. And he had to herd out the flock of geese that trampled a few of the sunflowers. “But it hasn’t been so bad. Most of the seeds came up. The first sunflower that came up, there were two bees on it already,” he says.

By late August, the sunflowers were blooming “like a slow fireworks show,” Anderson says. They grew to different heights, depending on the quality of the soil. And the sunflowers weren’t just a pretty splash of yellow in the midst of the city; they also removed toxins from the soil.

In full flower, the vacant parcel attracted picnickers and yogis and changed people’s perception of the possibility of the landscape. Despite this summer’s challenges — or maybe because of them — Anderson hopes to have a repeat performance in 2017.

 “With what we learned from this year, hopefully we will make this a yearly event,” he says. “And improve it, so that they will eventually be ten feet tall.”

As six-year-olds go, Michael Finch is pretty awesome. he was home in Tiverton with his mom, Rebecca Cottle, on April 22 when she felt like she was going to pass out because of low blood sugar. The daughter of EMTs, she’d drilled into her son the importance of remaining calm in an emergency. Cottle tossed Michael her cellphone and asked him to call 911. He gave her name, address and told them what was going on. “He even let them know I had a dog that barked at everybody, so they’d be safe,” Cottle says. When the paramedics and firefighters arrived, Michael let them in, put the dog in a crate and showed them where his mom and her medication were. She made a full recovery and the first grader at Pocasset Elementary School now wants to be either a state trooper or a weatherman.

For most of us adults, snow days aren’t as fun as when we were kids. Navigating blinding precipitation followed by some serious shoveling or blowing can make us long for the years when our biggest concern was making a snow angel. Fortunately, we’ve got Matt Glendinning and his merry band of collaborators at the Moses Brown School in Providence. It was January of 2015 when the school’s director of communications and community engagement, Adam Olenn, walked into Head of School Glendinning’s office with a crazy idea. Did Glendinning know the movie Frozen? Nope. With no kids himself, Glendinning had never heard of “Let It Go.” Not a problem, Olenn informed him: “Trust me, every child in America knows this song.” And he had a plan: Spoof it for the next snow day. He’d already rewritten the words and was able to recruit choral director Justin Peters and videographer Ryan Vemmer. And at the time, they had no idea that the weather event that would paralyze the Northeast was brewing. With everybody stuck at home after the storm struck, the video went viral. Glendinning found himself fielding calls from the BBC, TV stations in Japan and South Korea; Whoopi Goldberg talked about it on “The View.” The next winter, they wondered if they should try to replicate their success. “We decided the whole idea is to do something funny and goofy, so if we do something embarrassing, we don’t care,” Glendinning says. In the winter of 2016, the team created yet another international phenom with a rewrite of Adele’s “Hello.” And as for this snowy season? Plans are top secret, of course, but “we have an idea, and if we can do it well, it’s going to be a smash.”

It was just after midnight on September 5 when Middletown police officer Brendan Behan was driving north on East Main Road and saw smoke.

The two-and-a-half-year member of the force thought it might have been Dunkin’ Donuts cleaning its vents. But as Behan got closer, he smelled fire. Then he saw a house engulfed in smoke, with flames shooting out of the rear second-floor window and knew it wasn’t good.

Behan called the fire in to dispatch and barged through the front door. He came across fourteen-year-old Leilaney Arroyo, who was lying on the floor, barely conscious. He asked her if there was anyone else home and took her outside to safety.

Fighting the darkness and the smoke, Behan went back inside and found sixteen-year-old Cheyanne Arroyo asleep in a first-floor bedroom. He told her to go outside and asked her if anyone else was in the house. She told him her younger brother, Ramon, was upstairs.

Behan tried to get to the second floor, but was overwhelmed by heat and smoke. Meanwhile, Officer Brett McKinnon arrived and Behan told him there was a child upstairs. He dragged Behan out of the house and tried to go up the stairs. Around back, two other police officers, sergeant Andrew Barth and officer Michael Foody, had found a ladder and smashed a window. Both tried several times to get inside but were deterred by smoke. By that time, family members and the fire department had arrived.

The firefighters were able to get Ramon, seven, out and do CPR on him. They got a pulse, and he was taken to Newport Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

The police officers were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation and released. The sisters were also treated and are back with their family.

Since the fire, a fundraiser held for the family at Middletown High School generated an overwhelming response.

“It was a team effort,” says Middletown Police Chief Anthony Pesare. “The fire department, they did a wonderful job. They had to fight the fire while family members were trying to get in there. They did get the child out. The police officers were remarkably brave in their attempts. Unfortunately, we’ll all have to live with the fact that we weren’t able as a team to save that young boy, but I think two children are alive today as a result of the actions of Officer Behan.”

Elise Reynolds was about thirty-two, working as a waitress with three boys at home, when she had her first experience with opiates. Her doctor prescribed oxycodone after back surgery. Reynolds took one, but didn’t like the way it felt and put the bottle back in the medicine cabinet.

Over time, she became much more familiar with the damage prescription drugs can wreak in people’s lives, both professionally after Reynolds went to school to be a nurse and later with her own sons. In hindsight, she’s not sure what ever happened to the painkillers that were in her medicine cabinet.

“I never thought about educating my children about what opiates were,” she says.

Now, Reynolds devotes time to educating people about the effects of addiction. She’s one of many parents in the state who have lost children to overdoses and are speaking out about it in an effort to let other families know they are not alone.

Governor Gina Raimondo mentioned Reynolds’s work in a State of the State address and invited her to the State House in June when she signed legislation to help reduce the number of fatal overdoses in Rhode Island. In 2015, there were 258 overdose deaths in Rhode Island, according to the state Department of Health.
Looking back, Reynolds can’t say when her two younger sons, Paul and Teddy, started using. She’d only ever smoked marijuana and didn’t see drugs in her home. When a friend told Reynolds he thought her sons were dabbling with opiates, she didn’t want to believe him.

Reynolds speaks about it publicly today because she says many people don’t know the potential of some of the prescriptions health care providers are writing for them. When a teen breaks an ankle playing sports, does the doctor who prescribes painkillers tell the patient and his or her parents that it’s an addictive drug? Reynolds wonders.
Her youngest son, Paul, was twenty-two when he died of an overdose on June 11, 2004. About six years later, her middle son, Teddy, returned from the two happiest weeks of his life in Florida only to overdose on May 21, 2010.

“You look back and you just think: would have, should have, could have,” Reynolds says. “I don’t want anybody to have to go through what I did. That’s why I’m not ashamed to put it out there because it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s just sad that all these people are losing their children to this disease.”

But she always looks for the positive. Her oldest son, David, is married with four boys. And the deaths of her two younger sons brought family members back into her life.
Reynolds began sharing her story publicly with encouragement from the late Jim Gillen, who founded Rhode Island’s first recovery center.

“He’s another big loss. He’s the one who actually called me and got me out there speaking. Just don’t be ashamed. It’s a disease and finally they’re recognizing it as a disease.”
Earlier this year, she testified at the State House to help get the Good Samaritan bill passed again.

“People should not have to worry about any past records or what’s going to happen if emergency has to come in,” she says. “Usually when emergency comes in it’s the police and people are frightened. So with this Good Samaritan bill, they’re there to save a life. They’re not there to make an arrest.”

And Reynolds is encouraged by legislation championed by Raimondo to make doctors and pharmacies more accountable for their prescriptions, plus efforts to cut the amount of painkillers dispensed by emergency departments and to make naxolone, which helps counter the effects of overdoses, more widely available. She still holds on to the pen the governor gave her when she was invited to the State House for the signing of the bills.

“She’s been very compassionate,” Reynolds says. “She listens. Some people are upset with some of the things she’s done, but I always say, look what she was handed.”
Reynolds also appreciates the recent practice of making recovery coaches available in hospitals to people who overdose. But addicts have to be willing to get help.
Her voice still breaks when she talks about her sons. No one gets a book on how to parent, she says. But Reynolds takes comfort in the fact that her son Teddy used to tell her that his addiction had nothing to do with the way she and his father raised him.

Reynolds is still in touch with many of her sons’ friends and sees their presence in her life. A few months ago, the dog lover thought about getting a puppy, and a few weeks later, one of her son Teddy’s friends texted her to see if she was interested in a four-month-old miniature pinscher. The woman who reached out to her about it turned out to be someone Teddy had once dated.

“I really believe it’s through Teddy that I have her,” Reynolds says of the puppy, Nina. “And she’s just the sweetest.”

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