Opinion

TBR News Media held a free screening of its first feature film, 'One Life to Give,' at the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University in June. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Leah Dunaief

By Leah Dunaief

The end of the year has snuck up on us. Have you noticed that the pace of the passing years seems to have accelerated? This is our last regular issue for 2018, and it seems fitting to take a bird’s-eye look at where we’ve been and what lies ahead.

Most immediately coming are the next two issues of special note, that of Dec. 27 and Jan. 3. The first is People of the Year, and we call it our only all-good-news issue. This is the 43rd year we are honoring outstanding residents for going that extra mile and thereby helping to make our hometowns the special places they are. In doing so, they quietly elevate the quality of our lives.

We solicit nominations for this issue from you, our readers, community leaders and neighbors. The editorial board meets with focus groups in the last quarter of the year over breakfast or lunch to discuss nominees and to further inform us of what is happening here, sometimes quietly, sometimes not so much. It is a treat for us to interact with the community on such a pleasant mission. We also get suggestions via emails, texts, phone calls and even an occasional petition; our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts are available, too.

We then take those names back to our conference room and amid lively discussions, select those whose stories we print in the People of the Year issue. Sometimes the ones that don’t fit become feature stories we run in the new year. I have been told that there are collectors who have all 43 issues. What a shelf life!

The second, the Year in Review, is new this year and is done in pictures in a kind of Life magazine treatment. It is on special white stock to help enhance the photo reproduction and is in full color. Life magazine — for whom I worked when in my early 20s and is no more — eat your heart out! A chronology of the way we were, we suspect that it, too, will have a long shelf life. 

Some special offerings of this past year certainly should include our first full-length movie, “One Life to Give,” which was screened in June at the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University to a full house of more than 1,000 viewers. The story follows the early years of the Revolutionary War, specifically through the lives of Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge, and the start of Washington’s Culper Spy Ring that was headquartered in Setauket. 

I am pleased to be able to tell you that we have filmed a sequel, called “Traitor,” that takes place four years later. It is now 1780, and with great luck the Patriots have captured British spymaster, John André. Again Tallmadge is central to the plot that reveals the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and the ultimate fate of André. It will be screened in the spring and you will all be invited.

Another first for us this past year was the Cooks, Books & Corks event at the Bates House off Main Street in Setauket. Many local authors came with their books for sale, and many local restaurants came with their specialties for tasting on a sweet summer evening. There was wine and unending good food for both the body and the mind. Our engaging headline speakers were Guy Reuge from Mirabelle Restaurant, internationally famous naturalist Carl Safina and the inspirational dean of the School of Journalism at SBU, Howard Schneider. The event raised money to fund a journalism intern next summer. In answer to the many times we have been asked, yes, we are planning to do it again.

A new print offering this past year was the sleek Washington’s Spy Trail booklet. In 1790, Washington took a slow, ceremonial coach trip along what is now 25A, from Great Neck to Port Jefferson, to honor the Setauket spies who had contributed so much to the victory of the colonists. The booklet marks the route, which this year sports road signs, with information about various points of interest along the way. We will again be publishing the story with updates.

I am running out of space, but there was a lot more that we innovated this past year with much more to come in 2019. Meanwhile thank you for your participation. We could not do any of this without you.

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Cleary School for the Deaf in Nesconset is the only state-supported school in Suffolk County for more than 50 preschool children who are deaf or profoundly hearing impaired. It has become apparently clear to us the state assistance it does receive doesn’t seem to be nearly enough.

As a parent pointed out, Cleary’s full-time students ages 3 to 7, despite being young, are keenly aware that they are different from their peers. While facing the challenges of learning how to overcome hearing loss, often in combination with visual impairments and other disabilities, they are separated from peers.

This is a classic case of separate but not equal. Cleary School for the Deaf was forced to take down its 30-year-old wooden playgrounds and has taken to GoFundMe to raise the money needed to replace them.

Young children have a natural desire to want to run, jump and play outside. A playground provides them with the opportunity  not only to get exercise and build gross motor skills as they try to negotiate the monkey bars, but a chance for social interaction as well. In taking the risk of asking another child to play, they learn how to negotiate making friends and, unfortunately, deal with rejection. It can also be a chance to be creative by playing make believe.

Parents researching various preschool and kindergarten programs have every reason to want to know what activities and resources will be available to their children — including what opportunities will be available for play.

Katie Kerzner, principal at Cleary, said she’s already faced the difficult questions from parents such as “Will my preschool or kindergarten-aged child have the same opportunity as those at public schools? The opportunity to play on a playground?”

The answer, we all know, should be an unequivocal “Yes.” Unfortunately, the future isn’t so clear. The state-supported school’s staff say enrollment has boomed in the last five years and state aid isn’t keeping up.

Parents of Cleary’s students have launched a GoFundMe campaign in an effort to raise the funds necessary to build a playground. In addition, the school hosted fundraising breakfasts and raffles while local businesses and community members have stepped forward to help, but it’s not yet clear if their fundraising efforts will be enough.

New York State officials need to get on this, provide support and do more. It’s not right to have children who already feel different as they fight to overcome disabilities left out on a fundamental part of growing up.

Our Long Island schools, both public and state-supported, need to receive their fair part of state funding. It’s a battle cry we hear from teachers and school administrators at the start of every budget season in January. This time, we’re sounding the rally cry early for Cleary and its students.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Old school. It’s a phrase that suggests someone, like yours truly, does something one way, even if there might be an easier, more efficient or modern alternative method for doing things.

Take reading a book. My teenage children think nothing of doing their assigned reading for classes on electronic devices.

That just doesn’t work for me. For me, reading has
always been a multisensory experience. I enjoy finishing a page and flipping to the next one, anticipating the next set of words even as I know how many pages are left in the book by the size of the stack to the left and right.

When I was young, I used to figure out the exact middle of a book. I had an understated celebration when I reached the midpoint, even though the prologue, or introduction, often tilted the balance slightly.

Of course, I could do the same thing with an electronic version of a book.

And yet it’s just not the same for me. I also liked to see the names of the people who read the book in school before me. These students had perused the same pages, found the same shocking revelations and associated with the characters as they moved through the same year in their lives.

When I reread a chapter, searched for symbols or literary devices, I could recall exactly where on a page I might have seen something.

In an e-book, every page is the same. None of the pages is slightly darker, has a bent corner where someone might have stopped, or has a slightly larger “e” or a word that’s printed above the others on a line. The virtual pages are indistinct from each other, except for the specific words on the page or the chapter numbers.

I suppose people like me are why a store like Barnes & Noble can still exist, despite the ease and low cost of uploading books. And, yes, I understand when I travel how much lighter my suitcase would be if I uploaded 100 books without lugging the weight of the paper. I also understand that e-books are more environmentally friendly. Once a paper book is produced, however, it no longer requires constant battery recharging.

Passing along books read by earlier generations connects us to our parents and grandparents. We can imagine them holding the book at a distance as their eyes started to change, falling asleep with the book in their laps, or sitting on the couch until late at night, eager to finish a book before going to bed. We can also picture them throwing a book that frustrated them across the room or out the window.

Among the many Titanic stories that sticks out for me is the tale of Harry Elkins Widener, a 27-year-old book collector who boarded the ill-fated ship with his mother and father in Cherbourg, France. Legend has it that he died with a rare 1598 book, “Essays” by Francis Bacon, that he had bought in London. Harry and his father died aboard the ship, while their mother survived the sinking. After her son perished, she donated $2 million — an enormous sum in 1912 — to Harvard to construct a
library which is still on the main campus.

While I’m sure it’s possible to pick a random section of an e-book, I have grabbed books from a shelf and leafed to a random page, trying to figure out where in the story I have landed.

I am delighted to hold children’s books, including many of the Dr. Seuss collection. Also, I remember my children searched each page of “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown for the mouse. There’s probably a mouse in the virtual version and touching it may even make the mouse grow, scurry across the virtual page or offer lessons about rhyming couplets.

Still, for my reading pleasure, I’m old school: Hand me a book and I’ll carry around a friend.

Evelyn Berezin

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Two exceptional people, Edmunde Stewart and Evelyn Berezin, died this past week, one day apart. The funeral for one was at Bryant Funeral Home in East Setauket on Monday, for the other at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City on Tuesday. Although quite different, they were both well known for their talents. I was privileged to know them as friends. Their deaths leave a void for the world and a hole in my heart.

The first was a Scotsman, an orthopedic surgeon who lived for many years in Old Field and whose office was in Port Jefferson. He was 80 years old, and during his half-century of medical practice, he touched the lives of thousands of people. Educated well, he came to the United States to cap off his training, fell in love with one of the first women he met at Stony Brook — and Scotland’s loss was our gain. She was there, at his bedside all those years later, when, struggling to breathe, he finally succumbed to COPD.

Edmunde Stewart

The second was born in the East Bronx and was 93. She was one of three children raised in an apartment under elevated railroad tracks. It was so small that the uncle who boarded with them, while he finished medical school, had to sleep on a mattress under the dining room table. She was bright enough to finish high school at 15 and attended Hunter College at night while she worked. Unusually tall for her generation, she lied about her age in order to get her job. Under a World War II City University program that allowed women to study calculus and other specialized subjects at an all-male school, she then transferred to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and ultimately earned a degree in physics from NYU in 1946. Needless to say, she was in a distinct minority in her classes.

He, when not practicing medicine, and as a passionate lover of horses and riding, participated in the Smithtown Hunt for many years and on many wild rides through the neighborhoods. He cut a fine figure in his scarlet hunting jacket at the head of the pack. And he probably broke every bone in his body at least twice in his many falls, always with good humor during the phone calls as he related the latest mishap to his wife on his way to the hospital.

Evelyn Berezin

The other left NYU just shy of a doctorate in 1950 and ultimately found a job in 1951 with the Electronic Computer Corporation, a shop of engineers in Brooklyn. In between she married a tall Brit named Israel Wilenitz, who was a chemical engineer. She figured out how to design various computers including one that made range calculations for the U.S. Defense Department, another that kept accounts in business offices and one for an airline reservations system for United Airlines. She also built and marketed the world’s first computerized word processor. She went on to found her own computer company with two male colleagues, which was located in the Hauppauge Industrial Park, and eventually was bought out by Burroughs Corporation. For fun she loved attending cultural events, especially the American Ballet Theatre in New York City where she held a subscription. Recently she joined us with a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera.

Our best times together were probably on her back deck in Poquott, where she served us elaborate brunches of French toast, bagels and lox from the famous Russ & Daughters on the lower East Side of Manhattan and regaled us with historic events she had witnessed during her long life. She had something interesting to say about every subject, past and present, and was totally engaged in current events right up to the end. The last time I called her, she told me she had to get off the phone because she was watching “60 Minutes.”

He was also my orthopedist and shared with me a precious bit of wisdom: “You Americans feel that there should be a cure for every pain that you may feel. But the body isn’t like that. Pains, minor pains, are a part of life and can be borne without rushing into surgery to have them fixed, which is a risky thing to do in the first place.”

They were companions and their lives were an inspiration for me. I am diminished by the loss of my dear friends.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Over the years, I’ve seen many ways of decorating for Christmas although they are variations on the Rudolph, Santa, Frosty, Nativity themes.

This year, perhaps we could use some modern iconography to celebrate the themes and elements that are parts of our lives. Here are my top 10 suggestions for new Christmas iconography — without any connection to a religion:

10. Déjà Santa: Perhaps, in addition to Santa on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, eager decorators should add another Santa, pulled by a similar-looking group of reindeer behind the leader in an homage to the sequels that have become routine in our lives, from Wall Street to Main Street to “Rodeo Drive, baby” — yes, that’s a reference to the movie “Pretty Woman,” which in case you haven’t heard or seen the ubiquitous ads is now a Broadway musical. By the way, I read recently that “Dear Evan Hansen” will become a movie.

9. Cellphones: Somewhere on lawns throughout America, oversized cellphones could become a part of the decorative landscape. In addition to a mother and father cellphone, little cellphones could congregate around a cellphone Christmas tree, with little wrapped apps under the tree just waiting to integrate into the world of the little cellphones.

8. Ice-cream Cones: Ice-cream stores seem to be springing up everywhere, with the scent of malted cones wafting out of their doors and up and down streets, beckoning to those whose stomachs anticipate the inextricably intertwined link between sugar and celebrations. Let’s also celebrate all the mix-ins and candy toppings which have become the main course, pushing the ice cream deep beneath a pile of multicolored candy toppings or shoving a small melting pile to the side.

7. Gyms: Yes, I know Olivia Newton-John and her generation celebrated “getting physical,” but with the abundance of ice-cream stores, we could use more time at gyms, which are often conveniently located next door to ice-cream shops.

6. The Intrepid Weather Person: We’ve watched as weather reporters race off to find the defining images of storms of the century, which appear to rip through the country almost every year. Let’s install on our lawns a windblown weather person, holding a microphone that threatens to fly out of his or her hand.

5. A Collection of Marchers: Not since the 1970s have this many people come out with a wide range of signs in support of or in opposition to someone or something. How about some marchers with “Go Santa” or maybe just “I believe in something” signs for the modern decorated lawn?

4. The Constitution: More than ever, a document ratified 230 years ago has kept the peace. The Constitution seemed to anticipate modern imbroglios. Perhaps an enormous Constitution, or even a list of amendments, could glow on a lawn.

3. A Grand Stage: Everyone seems well aware of the cellphones pointed at them, recording their celebrations and pratfalls. People crave their five minutes of fame: Why not give them a stage on a front lawn?

2. The Driverless Car: Yes, it’s finally here, a car that drives and parks itself. A modern lawn could celebrate the long-discussed innovation with a car that pulls away from a decorated curb, circles a small block and reparks itself. I would watch the car the way I used to watch model trains.

1. The Hashtag: What was once a tic-tac-toe board or an extra button on a phone has become a calling card for self-expression. Let’s add colored lines and lights to our #moderncelebrations.      

Stock photo

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

The conversation in a New Jersey classroom of first-graders got around to the subject of Christmas, and the substitute teacher unleashed a bombshell. She told them that Santa isn’t real, that parents just buy presents and put them under a tree. On a roll, she didn’t stop there. Reindeer can’t fly, she advised the students, elves are not real, the elf on the shelf is just a doll that parents move around, there is no tooth fairy and no Easter bunny, either. She summed up with the news that there is no magic anything and that magic doesn’t exist. Whoa!

This made the top of the news earlier this week for CBS, NBC, Fox, USA Today and other major news outlets. No one, as far as I know, has interviewed the children to get their reactions, but the school superintendent and the principal were moved to speak, as the district apologized to the parents.

Montville superintendent of schools, Rene Rovtar, was “troubled and disheartened by the incident.” Cedar Hill Elementary School principal, Michael Raj, sent home a message to the parents in which he mentioned the “poor judgment” of the teacher and asked parents to “take appropriate steps to maintain the childhood innocence of the holiday season.” At least one parent, Lisa Simek, took to Facebook, expressing dismay. She urged that Christmas magic is real and expressed through acts of kindness, love, positivity and grace — from and for loved ones and strangers. The superintendent added, “The childhood wonder associated with all holidays and traditions is something I personally hold near and dear in my own heart.”

We don’t know how the children reacted, but we certainly know how upset the adults are. And we have not been told if the teacher will be allowed to substitute again. How should we react to this?

On the one hand, we know that the idea of Santa Claus brings joy and excitement to children and therefore to the adults around them. This is hardly innocence exploited by adults but rather an opportunity for adults each to be Santa, to be their best, most generous, most loving selves. While the person of Santa is a fiction, the embodiment of all that Santa stands for most surely is not. Fictional characters can provide inspiration for the lifetime of a child as he or she grows up. Intergenerational mythmaking exists in many contexts, not only to entertain but also to inspire.

Children sooner or later catch on, especially when they see 20 Santas walking down the street together on their return from their Salvation Army posts. But on the other hand, how do children feel when they realize the adults around them have told them untruths? If they go to school expecting to believe what they are taught there, should the teacher acquiesce in mythmaking? For sure, this teacher handled the situation with poor judgment. It would have been far better for her and the children had she told them to ask their parents about the magic of Santa. For whatever reason, she did not do that.

How did you feel when, as a child, you learned that Santa was a story made up by the adults closest to you? Did you understand the greater good embodied in the concept or were you left to distrust on some level whatever those adults might subsequently tell you? Does misleading a child bring psychological questions into play?

It did not negatively affect Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked that question of her father when she was 8 years old in 1897. She said the answer inspired her for the rest of her long life. Her dad told her to write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper, and added, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The Sun’s hard-bitten, cynical editor, Francis Pharcellus Church, wrote the answer that turned into the most reprinted editorial over the next century in the English-speaking world: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

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President Bill Clinton visits George H.W. Bush last year

We join the nation in mourning the passing of former President George H.W. Bush (R), the 41st president of the United States who died Nov. 30 at the age of 94.

Like all who serve in political office, Bush had his adversaries, but in the end we hope he’ll be remembered for the request he made for a kinder, gentler nation when accepting his party’s nomination for president, especially in these divisive times.

Bush was well prepared when he first took over as president Jan. 20, 1989. The World War II combat hero’s political résumé included two terms as a U.S. congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China. He also served as CIA head and is credited with turning around low morale at the agency. After he lost the 1980 Republican primary to Ronald Reagan, he was appointed by the future president to be his running mate for two terms as vice president.

While some may remember Bush’s only presidential term as ending in a recession and others may criticize how he didn’t do enough to fund HIV/AIDS education programs and prevention, there are those who applaud his approach toward foreign policy while in office. Many will remember him as a strong leader who helped oversee a smooth transition after the fall of the Soviet Union and for being the commander in chief who orchestrated quick success in the Persian Gulf War. On the home front, he was responsible for the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Clean Air Act Amendments, both in 1990.

What we find most impressive about Bush’s achievements is after his term as president he took to heart in making the nation a better country by helping others.

He is most known for his charitable work with fellow former President Bill Clinton (D), with whom he teamed up in January 2005, after his son President George W. Bush (R) asked the two to help figure out how to administer aid to the coast of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand after a devastating tsunami. Later in 2005, the pair joined forces again and set up a joint nonprofit, raising millions for victims of Hurricane Katrina that had struck New Orleans.

The philanthropic partnership led to a friendship between the two former political opponents and shows how two people from different political parties can get along and even be friends. The two served as a prime example of what can be done when people are willing to reach across the political divide to work together for a common cause.

And when it came to achieving a kinder and gentler nation, Bush knew that goal started in his own home with the love he had for his wife of 73 years, Barbara, who died in April.

We hope Bush 41 is remembered for his quest for kindness, gentleness and lack of divisiveness, attributes that are most needed now.

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This week, the nonprofit organization ERASE Racism, of Syosset, and the Stony Brook Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice, and Policy will hold the first of a series of five forums meant to start a public dialogue about structural and institutional racism on Long Island.

We applaud these two entities for coming together to advance an obviously vitally important discussion. Professor Christopher Sellers, the director of the SBU center, and Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, each said separately in interviews the goal in hosting the first event and the subsequent forums is to begin a regionwide discussion about barriers certain groups face in their daily lives, not in some far-off time or place, but here and now close to home.

They each also referenced the misnomer that race-related issues are a thing of the past in this country, and that the Civil Rights movement or election of our first African-American president of the United States somehow delivered us to an end point in creating a just and fair place for all to live and prosper.

Gross stressed that the point behind hosting the forums and the desired byproduct is not a finger-pointing or shaming session intended to label people as racists, but rather it’s an educational opportunity meant to present attendees, and hopefully by extension the larger community, with a look at life through the lens of those who are part of racial minority groups.

According to ERASE Racism, today three out of every four black students and two out of every three Hispanic students attend school districts where racial minority groups make up more than half of the population, a phenomenon the nonprofit likens to modern-day segregation. Both figures represent a more-than 50 percent increase compared to 2004, meaning Long Island’s schools are becoming more racially segregated as time goes on.

“It is embedded — it doesn’t require that all of the players be racist people, or bad people, it only requires that people go along with the business as usual,” Gross said of structural racism.

On top of that, according to a report released by the FBI Nov. 13, hate crimes increased by 17 percent in 2017 compared to the prior year, a jump exponentially higher than any of the previous two years, a trend all Long Islanders and Americans should be inspired to stop and consider when reading.

We are glad to hear such an important discussion is not only taking place but being spearheaded in part by our hometown university. We hope that those who can make a point to attend, and those who can’t, do their due diligence to find out what it is all about.

Photo by Alex Petroski 2018

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

It’s time for the media to look elsewhere. The lowest hanging fruit has been extensively covered. Washington journalists and, indeed, state and community journalists have a responsibility to cover the entire landscape. Everything doesn’t run through one office, one branch of the federal government or one person.

It’s time to highlight human interest stories. Flawed though it may be in parts, the movie “Instant Family,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne makes people laugh. However, it also addresses a significant issue about foster children “in the system.” No, I didn’t run out to adopt a foster child as the final credits were rolling, but I heard some personal details that were as moving to me as they were to the people in the movie.

We the press should run off and cover the local versions of Karen, played by Octavia Spencer, and Sharon, acted by Tig Notaro, who work tirelessly at an adoption agency. Spencer is a remarkable combination of serious and slapstick, offering the kind of range typically only reserved for a main character. She draws the audience, and the other characters, to her, offering perspectives on fostering children and adoption that aren’t often discussed.

Undoubtedly, on Long Island, in New York and in the United States, people like Karen and Sharon give children hope and seek to connect parents looking to adopt with children, while maintaining level heads through the high-stakes process.

Every year, papers print out lists of high school graduates, sometimes including the names of colleges these newly minted graduates plan to attend. These students, many of whom have spent their lives in one place, are preparing to take their next steps on literal and figurative terrain they haven’t yet covered, except perhaps to pay a quick visit to a college.

Maybe, in addition to listing all the high school graduates, we should interview several college graduates 10 years after they graduated from high school, asking them what they learned, what mistakes they made and what paths they took to get them from their youthful hope to their current state.

And, yes, there are local and national politicians who have become subsumed in the Washington wave. Some of them also have worthy ideas such as our local state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) with his work on the environment. We owe it to ourselves to hear them, to give them a platform and to give our readers a chance to
respond to their visions and ideas.

In an era when people voted in impressive numbers in the recent midterm elections, we need to know what everyone in Albany or Washington is doing. Voting is just the start. We should keep tabs on them, encourage them to follow through on their campaign promises, and lend our support when they turn to their constituents for help.

We should also hear more from police chiefs, who can offer insights into what it’s like on the front lines of the drug crisis. Many of these people are working feverishly to prevent family tragedies that resonate for years, hoping to redirect people away from self-destructive paths.

Every day, incredible people with tales of trials and tribulations live among us, pursuing their goals while trying to ensure that they follow their moral and civil compasses.

In this incredible country, merely being famous or even powerful isn’t enough of a reason to write about what we like or don’t like about someone everyone sees every day. We need to shine the spotlight in the corners of rooms, not waiting for YouTube, reality TV or a heroic sports moment to catapult someone to public attention. Some people deserve that attention because they typically remain in the shadows, supporting others, saying the right things when there isn’t a camera in sight, and inspiring others to believe in themselves.

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This sounds like a fairy tale, but the latest weapon in the battle against mental illness is a bench. Yes, a brightly colored, sometimes plastic, sometimes wooden magic bench. In this particular instance, a bench can do wonders. It all started as a brainchild of psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda in the far-off country of Zimbabwe, which is just north of the Republic of South Africa.

In Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, he was treating a young woman for depression who traveled some 160 miles from her rural home each time to see him. At one point, when she couldn’t get to him, he discovered that she had taken her life. That tragedy changed his life.

Zimbabwe is a dirt poor country of some 17 million people with 12 trained psychiatrists, and they are only in Harare. Almost every person suffering with depression does not have access to evidence-based talking therapies or modern anti-depressants. There is not even a word in the Shona language for depression. The closest is “kufungisisa,” which means “thinking too much,” and is akin to “rumination” or negative thought patterns that often lie at the core of depression and anxiety. Long-term social stress, such as that brought on by unemployment, chronic disease in loved ones and abusive
relationships, is associated with depression.

In the early 1990s, nearly one quarter of adults in Zimbabwe had HIV with no meds to save them. In 2005, strongman President Robert Mugabe’s forced slum-clearance program to “drive out the rubbish,” known as Operation Murambatsvina, caused the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of homes and jobs. The consequence of such events was widespread depression.

For Chibanda, the challenge was enormous. He felt strongly that had his patient been able to see him regularly, he could have saved her. But how to get mental health care to those who cannot easily access the help? Certainly not in the private clinics that he had planned to start in the city.

As he cast around in vain for government resources, he realized that grandmothers were already functioning since the 1980s as community health workers, supporting people with HIV, TB, cholera and offering health education. They were trained by the government, lived where they worked and were trusted and highly respected. In 2006, they were asked to add depression to their list of treatable ailments.

Chibanda took on a group of 14 elderly women, taught them to ask patients 14 questions, eventually called the Shona Symptom Questionnaire, and if the answers to eight or more were “yes,” then psychological help was deemed necessary. Questions included, “Do you feel you are thinking too much?” or “Do you ever have thoughts of killing yourself?” The patients put their answers in writing, and after the first interview, the grandmothers gathered in a circle to discuss each patient and decide how to proceed. Professional help might be sought for the extreme patients, but for the most part, the service provided by these grandmothers of listening and offering wisdom acquired over their years to guide patients to their own solutions to the problems at hand proved remarkably effective.

Where to sit and listen to these patients? Rather than in overcrowded clinics, the answer was on a bench under the shade of an old tree. The benches were placed outside the clinics, in plain sight, and by sitting down on one, a patient could indicate the need for intervention. In 2007, an initial pilot was begun in a suburb of Harare, and by October 2011 the first study was published. By then, there were 24 health clinics and more than 300 grandmothers trained in an updated form of problem-solving therapy. And by 2016, a decade after the program began, the results showed a significant decrease in depressive symptoms.

The Friendship Bench project, as it is known, has spread, with evidence-based approaches, to Malawi, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Canada and the United States; Australia and New Zealand are on the wait list. There is also a program in New York City. Chibanda gave a TED talk in 2016 that has further popularized the Friendship Bench project

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