“What we have here is a humanitarian crisis unlike we’ve seen in a while,” volunteer Zohar Swaine said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, March 24. The New York City-born former United States Marine said he, along with many others, felt a sense of duty that compelled him to pack a suitcase and head to Poland on his own dime to help refugees pouring into Poland from war-torn Ukraine.
Swaine, a business consultant from New Jersey, said goodbye to his wife and two teens about 10 days ago, before flying to Krakow, Poland to see what he could offer in assistance to refugees fleeing Ukraine. Fortuitously, he met fellow American Stan Brooks, a former Front Royal mayor and town councilman, now of Charlottesville, Virginia, on a flight from Munich to Krakow. Both were headed to Poland to help, though neither was affiliated with a rescue group or organization.
Upon arrival, Swaine made his way to the border and Sauveteurs Sans Frontières, SSF (“Rescuers Without Borders” from French to English), a French/Israeli organization that provides humanitarian aid across the globe. As a former U.S. Marine who had deployed during the Gulf War, he knew he had some skills that would help with the refugee relocation effort.
Brooks wasn’t sure how he could best help, but after three days of not finding a role in the effort, he felt fundraising was the best way to help those in need. By simply asking for help, the pledges of support came rolling in from friends. Before a week had passed, Brooks had collected around $11,000. Brooks said, one Winchester physician and his wife donated $1,000 and offered to house a Ukrainian family when refugees begin entering the U.S.
Those funds were used to directly help refugees who entered Poland. Some of those with dire needs, typically the elderly and mothers with young children, received $100 dollars in hand. Swaine said many of the refugees were dressed in threadbare coats and carried their belongings in plastic bags.
Others benefitted from one of the 300 rolling bags purchased with donated funds. Several hundred dollars were used to purchase plywood, to put down on dirt floors prior to expected rain. Swaine purchased 100 raincoats, anticipating a weekend rain. Other items bought with donated money include air mattresses, blankets, and children’s supplies; $1,200 was spent on medical supplies, additional money went to replenish the food pantry. A special donation of $1,000 was gifted to an elderly Ukrainian couple who are awaiting a visa appointment to obtain entry into the U.S.
Swaine has spent most of his time near Medyka, Poland, an area near the border with Ukraine. It’s a sleepy little town that, in recent weeks, has seen roughly 1.5 million refugees pass through its gates. Swaine, armed with a wheelchair and another volunteer with a shopping cart full of items such as water bottles, juice boxes, chocolate for the children, mylar rescue blankets, and first-aid supplies have sought out the most vulnerable Ukrainians to help.
As noted above, the elderly and mothers with small children were those needing the most help, Swaine said. It’s 49 miles between Lviv, Ukraine, and Medyka across the Polish border. Some refugees were able to get bus rides to the border; others walked.
“We would generally look for the very elderly – folks who maybe needed to be in a wheelchair – who may have just gotten off a bus or somehow made the day’s walk from the city of Lviv to the border crossing. Especially when we were coming into the late afternoon, we could assist by bringing those highly vulnerable people across the border by skipping to the head of the line. It’s 30-degrees outside, and some needed to be in a better place quickly,” Swaine explained.
The Medyka Crossing Area
After crossing the border, the refugees arrive at the Medyka Crossing area. The first stop is at a heated tent that has cots, hot meals, electricity, phone charging stations, a breastfeeding station for mothers, a play area for children. The tents are guarded to ensure that the refugees are safe from predators, including human traffickers.
Refugees were able to stay as long as needed, from a few hours to a few days. Many of the refugees had arranged to meet up with friends or relatives, then travel to another location.
Swaine said that while volunteering, he wore many hats, serving as, “a hotel manager, a procurer of supplies, kindergarten teacher, and even a janitor,” – and that was fine with him. “If you are looking for glory, you will not find it as a volunteer,” he observed.
Crossing the border can be a time-consuming process, Swaine noted. Though officials spend about a minute, on average, processing each refugee, there were only three lines to service the 50 to 700 people waiting, depending on the time of day.
Swaine observed that the refugees are generally still “shell-shocked” and seem, at times, to be overwhelmed. But their demeanor changes almost immediately upon entering Poland, he said.
After crossing the border and traveling a few hundred yards to the gate outside the rescue center, there is a flurry of activity: “a man in a costume who wants to hug you, candy for the kids, there is a tray of hot tea, pizza being offered,” Swaine explained. As time passes, he says the ratio of volunteers is shifting. As more volunteers show up and the numbers of refugees drop, there sometimes seem to be more volunteers than those needing help.
The refugees seem weary, he said, after having made a perilous journey that sometimes lasted weeks.
In the space of 200 yards, there are probably 50-60 additional tents along the corridor, and each has its own specialty. There is a tent for pets that includes food and supplies; a tent designed for mothers and young children, with diapers and baby food; there were several World Central Kitchen tents with food; other tents with free sim cards and minutes for cell phones.
After traveling through the corridor refugees are led to an area where buses sit, ready to take them to a former shopping mall converted to a help center, or to a train station in Przemysl, about 30 miles away for travel across Europe if they have destinations through relatives, friends, or other contacts. In that facility, owned by the British company Tesco PLC, areas of the mall have been converted into a shelter, with cots, a large kitchen serving meals, medical treatment, and other services that might be needed. There are also volunteers who help refugees without a plan to figure out their next steps.
Swaine shared that the Polish citizens have been gracious throughout the influx of over a million refugees, working selflessly to improve the lives of those who have lost so much. Though planning to head home to New Jersey in a few days, he said he would return to Poland because the actions of Poland’s citizens have endeared the country to him.
Brooks, who has since left Poland, wrote in an email that “It was somewhat fateful that Zohar and I met on the plane from Munich to Krakow. We were two people who felt that they had to do something.” Brooks had high praise for his new friend Zodar Swaine, saying, “He did all the heavy lifting. I was nothing more than a fundraiser. But I am glad that I could do something. Like it or not, this war is about more than Ukraine,” Brooks observed of a growing international consensus, adding, “It is about democracy and the freedoms that it allows and about reality over fake reality – the reality created by sociopaths like Putin, using the latest in technology to brainwash an entire nation. Something that in America we are not immune to.”
Has Russia’s leader – who has cemented unchallengeable authoritarian rule over the past 20 years through “black ops” * methodologies learned as a KGB agent and chief – bitten off more than he, or perhaps his nation, can swallow this time?
For there appears to be a rising tide of opposition expressed by Russians, even at home who are now under threat of arrest for simply publicly appearing at an anti-war rally, or even calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “war”. Even Russia’s oligarchs, the rich corporate and industrialist insiders handed the wealth owned by the Soviet State until the early 1990s collapse of the Soviet Union, are believed to be expressing some discontent as international sanctions, not to mention the specter of an expanded international war front, damage their wealth and security.
But a push toward historic regime change in Russia will rely on continued and escalating international cooperation — the kind of cooperation Zohar Swaine and Stan Brooks experienced on the volunteer front lines in Poland. Though rather than individual commitments born of conscience, it must be the conscience of nations at work in support of national sovereignty and independence from neighboring expansionist, totalitarian dictators.
Is the world up to it?
Are Russia’s institutional elites up to it?
* FOOTNOTE – “black ops” methodologies: Lies about opponents, domestic or foreign; the imprisonment of those domestic political, media, or cultural sources who would challenge him, not to mention their murder, even on foreign soil.
(Roger Bianchini contributed to this story)
Penny Lane Hair Co: A Fresh Cut on Front Royal’s Main Street
Front Royal Celebrates the Opening of Penny Lane Hair Co on Main Street.
In a vibrant ceremony, the Front Royal/Warren County Chamber of Commerce, led by Executive Director Nike Foster Cales, welcomed a business to its new location in the heart of the town. Penny Lane Hair Co, located at 413 E Main St, opened its doors amidst the cheers and support of the local community, including Mayor Lori Cockrell and Supervisor Walt Mabe.
The air was filled with excitement as Mallory Deinert, the owner of Penny Lane Hair Co, was greeted with warm applause and cheers from a crowd that included Chamber members, friends, and representatives from various local businesses. The event not only marked a new business opening but also symbolized the ongoing revitalization and diversification of Main Street’s business landscape.
Mayor Lori Cockrell expressed her enthusiasm, reflecting on the uniqueness of each ribbon-cutting event she has attended since joining the council and becoming mayor. “Each opening brings something new to our community, and we’re thrilled to support them all,” she remarked. Her words echoed the sentiment of inclusivity and diversity that the town prides itself on.
Supervisor Walt Mabe also shared his satisfaction with the expansion of downtown, noting the importance of adding varied businesses to the area. “It’s a sign of our town’s growth and vitality,” he said.
For Mallory Deinert, the opening of Penny Lane Hair Co. is the culmination of a lifelong dream. Overcome with emotion, Deinert shared her journey, “I’ve always wanted to be on Main Street, and now here we are, just a few doors down from my mom’s business. It’s a dream come true.” She dedicated this milestone to her family, mentioning her late father, her brother, and her mother, whose birthday coincided with the opening.
The community’s support was palpable as Deinert thanked everyone for their encouragement and shared her excitement for the future of Penny Lane Hair Co on Main Street. Her story is a testament to the power of local support and the importance of small businesses in building vibrant communities.
The opening of Penny Lane Hair Co. is more than just a new business on Main Street; it’s a symbol of the community’s resilience, growth, and commitment to supporting local entrepreneurs. As Front Royal continues to welcome diverse businesses, it strengthens its reputation as a supportive and dynamic place for commerce and community.
McDonald Defense Counsel Renews Motions, Including for a New Trial, as Feb. 12 Sentencing Date Looms
Federal officials in Harrisonburg have verified that defense counsel for former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer McDonald has filed renewed motions seeking a new trial for their client, as well as the overturning of several of the 34 guilty verdicts a federal jury of six men and six women in Harrisonburg delivered on November 1. Verdicts being sought to be overturned include several counts of bank fraud and one of aggravated identity theft. The latter of those charges involves the use of ITFederal principal Truc “Curt” Tran’s name in promoting one of the real estate transactions McDonald was convicted of using to misdirect money to her personal benefit or that of others under the guise of conducting FR-WC EDA related business. Attempts to reach defense counsel about their filing were unsuccessful as of publication.
The defense has submitted its motions, similar to ones denied by Judge Elizabeth K. Dillon at trial, as the sentencing of McDonald, set for 10 a.m., Monday, February 12, 2024, looms over their client, who remains free on bond. The defense motions reiterate points made by federal Public Defenders Office attorneys Andrea Harris and Abigail Thibeault at trial and in closing arguments delivered October 31. The three defense witnesses called on that final day of the trial appeared to be presented in an attempt to discredit some of the 67 witnesses called by the prosecution in the trial that began on August 21 and ended on November 30, following several delays of a week to several weeks due to a need to suspend or reschedule the trial because of medically verified illnesses or issues of involved parties, on several occasions defendant McDonald.
The new motions, like those rejected at trial, focus on the defense’s central contention that McDonald and the FR-WC EDA had entered into a secret agreement behind closed doors to pay McDonald $5 million or more in exchange for her not filing a sexual harassment or assault lawsuit against local government officials over actions she alleges during her tenure as FR-EDA executive director. The lone signature on a defense exhibit submitted in support of this scenario belonged to former FR-WC EDA Board Chair Patty Wines, who was by then several years deceased. The prosecution asserted the signature was a forgery. Other EDA officials called by the prosecution, including board member Ron Llewellyn, also unhappily called as one of the defense witnesses on October 31, denied any knowledge of the existence of such a document. It was noted during trial testimony that such a document could not have been approved without a full vote of the EDA Board of Directors.
The defense motion for a new trial centers on the asserted exclusion of evidence related to the alleged sexual harassment secret agreement. Arguments about the exclusion of a transcript of grand jury testimony given by someone with alleged knowledge of the secret agreement or the absence of that person being called as a witness at trial appear to be at the center of the mistrial/new trial motion. There is also an objection to a related jury instruction given by Judge Dillon, noting that the prosecution didn’t have to produce every piece of evidence or potential witness related to the case at trial.
According to the federal 10th Western District of Virginia website, thus far a hearing date on the new defense motions has not been set for the Harrisonburg federal courtroom.
McDonald was accused of diverting as much as $ 6.5 million of EDA assets to her direct personal benefit out of an estimated $26 million alleged to have been moved under false pretenses during a four-year period (2014-2018) of her executive leadership of the FR-WC EDA. Part of that larger total, a $10-million loan with additional developmental expenses estimated at as much as $2 million, was approved in support of Tran’s ITFederal company’s development plan earmarked for 30 acres of the 148-acre Royal Phoenix Business Park property in Front Royal at the former Avtex federal Superfund site. EDA officials and civil cases attorneys assert that a $10-million loan and subsequent addition of developmental expenses were achieved under false pretenses as to Tran’s ability to achieve his submitted developmental plan. However, at the time some of these McDonald-involved real estate transactions were occurring, between 2016 and 2018, information was being circulated that Tran was planning to invest in other business opportunities at other locations in the county. Tran has said such investments were discussed but never finalized and never signed on to by him.
Virginia’s Creative Harvest: Celebrating Farming with Hay Bale Art
Hay Bale Decorating Contest Showcases Agricultural Pride and Community Talent.
As autumn colors adorned Virginia, the state’s agribusinesses, community groups, and educational organizations displayed their creativity and agricultural pride in the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s (VFBF) annual Hay Bale Decorating Contest. Now in its ninth year, the contest has become a cherished tradition, drawing a record number of 59 entries, each telling a unique story of Virginia’s rich agricultural heritage.
The competition invited participants from across the state, including county Farm Bureaus, FFA chapters, 4-H clubs, and individuals, to create imaginative displays using hay bales. The themes were as diverse as Virginia’s agricultural landscape, depicting farm animals, idyllic farmscapes, horticulture, farm machinery, and a variety of Virginia-produced commodities.
Faye Hundley, VFBF Women’s Leadership Committee chair, expressed her excitement over the record participation. “The imagination and ingenuity everyone puts into the hay bale displays is always so impressive,” she said. More than just a fun activity, these hay bale artworks serve a dual purpose – they are not only visually appealing but also play a significant role in fostering discussions about farming and connecting communities with their agricultural roots.
Local businesses and organizations, including farmers’ markets and school agricultural groups, were encouraged to participate, highlighting the contest’s role in strengthening community bonds. The winners, spanning various categories, were awarded a $100 cash prize and a trophy, with their accomplishments celebrated on the VFBF Women’s Leadership Program Facebook page.
The winners of this year’s contest were:
The VFBF, with nearly 135,000 members across 88 county Farm Bureaus, stands as Virginia’s largest farmer advocacy group. This non-governmental, nonpartisan, voluntary organization remains dedicated to supporting and promoting the state’s vital agriculture industry.
The Hay Bale Decorating Contest is more than a display of creativity; it’s a testament to Virginia’s agricultural spirit and community involvement. Through these artistic expressions, participants have showcased their talent and highlighted the importance of agriculture in their lives and those around them. It’s a colorful reminder of the state’s deep-rooted connection to the land and the people who cultivate it.
Samuels Public Library Rewards Young People’s Talent with Holiday Writing Contest
On Thursday, December 7, at 6 p.m. at Samuels Public Library in Front Royal, the library held its annual Holiday Writing Contest, rewarding young people’s talent at every grade level with first, second, and third place for each level, assigned by teachers and other volunteers from the community who served as judges.
A packed room revealed how important this event is to the community. Each child seemed to have his or her own support group present, as in many cases, cheers erupted from a specific part of the room when the announcement was made for the winner of a particular slot. All the winners, individually, walked bravely to the front of the room, where they stood with children’s librarian Michal Ashby, who recognized them, and sometimes read their contributions aloud in the case that they did not want to read it themselves. At the end of each child’s reading, Ashby distributed a prize and encouraged the audience to give applause once again as the winner returned to his or her seat.
The contributions demonstrated insight and maturity, due in part, perhaps, to the books the young people have been reading. The attendance of family and friends implies that the young people are not reading in isolation. Certain reoccurring themes were present in the stories these children told: the importance of family and friendship; the importance of leadership, often exercised by a child; the importance of home as a warm center that offers shelter from the beautiful but sometimes overwhelming elements; and the power inherent to receiving a gift. The stories were not unacquainted with conflict and war; but in each case that this darkness was acknowledged, the main character rises above that evil to bring the magic of Christmas to his or her community. Each story or poem was a testimony to the partnership between the library and parents, dedicated to nurturing the imaginations of tomorrow’s leaders. Looking at the structure, which is Samuels, this reporter was reminded of the words of Audrey Hepburn in the classic film War and Peace: “You’re like this house. You show your wounds, but you’re still standing.” Indeed, Samuels is still standing.
The holiday writing contest is one of Ashby’s favorite parts of the year. She looks forward to it, even during what has been a difficult year. “I’ve been doing it for eighteen years,” Ashby explained, “And it’s, in my opinion, one of the most heartwarming events we have throughout the entire year because the kids get so invested in their work, and they’re so proud of what they’ve done. And then the parents and the grandparents and the siblings, they’re rooting them on. So, it’s a time that I see their self-esteem raised. A lot of them share the most beautiful, heartwarming messages and if you actually listen to their stories and their poems, they really know the essence of what Christmas and Hannukah and all the winter holidays are about.”
Going on to speak about that evening specifically, Ashby said, “I was so touched by some of the poems and the stories.” Ashby hears in these award-winning pieces the indomitable spirit that overcomes differences and brings people together. “What touched me so much this year were the messages of peace and unity, and I think that’s what we need in this society.” She added, “It’s a wonderful way to bring in the winter holidays in the most positive way because you’re getting together two hundred people from the town, and it’s this community, and they’re all proud and joyous for their children, or their siblings, or their grandchildren, and to feel that positive energy is just exquisite.”
The evening ended with refreshments and winners posing for pictures in front of Samuels’ Christmas tree.
School Board Bids Rinaldi Farewell; Votes to Lengthen Contract for Truancy Prevention Officer
The Warren County School Board on Wednesday, December 6, unanimously voted to extend the contract length for a secondary truancy prevention officer from 10 months to 12 months and said goodbye to one of its own members, who is leaving at the end of the year.
School Board Chair Kristen Pence, Vice Chair Ralph Rinaldi, and board members Antoinette Funk, Andrea Lo, and Melanie Salins were present during the board’s final meeting of 2023.
The meeting was Rinaldi’s last as a School Board member as his term expires at the end of the year, and he decided against running for re-election.
“It’s been a great four years,” Pence told him. “I don’t think either of us could have known when we sat in our training in December of 2019 exactly what the four years were going to look like.”
Pence acknowledged Rinaldi’s passion for WCPS, the students, and the teachers. She also highlighted his work on the board’s Facilities Committee and his input on the renovation project at Leslie Fox Keyser (LFK) Elementary School.
“We’re all very appreciative of all of the work and dedication that you’ve done here,” said Pence, who presented him with a wall clock made by students at the Blue Ridge Technical Center and a brick of dedication from the LFK project.
Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) Superintendent Christopher Ballenger thanked Rinaldi for his efforts.
“I want to say thank you for your leadership,” the superintendent told Rinaldi. “I appreciate the wisdom you’ve been able to share and your dedication to students and to the schools of Warren County.”
Rinaldi told his colleagues he appreciated being part of a “good team.”
“It’s great to work with people who are on the same page,” he said. “And this board has been on the same page.”
While he admitted the board has faced some “rough spots,” Rinaldi said the School Board has achieved many goals and it’s been his pleasure to serve on it.
“Dr. Pence and I came on, and then COVID hit, and then we had to hire a superintendent,” he said. “I mean, we were really kind of slammed. So, I appreciate her leadership more than you know.”
Tom McFadden, Jr., elected to replace Rinaldi as the School Board member representing the Shenandoah District, spoke during the community participation portion of Wednesday’s meeting to introduce himself to the community and thank residents for their votes.
McFadden (above), the vice president of enrollment at Christendom College since 2014, has lived in Warren County for 23 years with his wife and 11 children. He noted that prior to his election in November, “there was a lot of chatter on social media about me — continues to this day — and what agenda I may hope to bring to the schools here in Warren County.”
McFadden said that while people didn’t ask him what his agenda was, they assumed certain things about him “due to my affiliation with the Catholic Church.”
“The fact that my children are homeschooled and I did not have any children enrolled in the school system, they wondered what agenda I might be trying to impose,” McFadden said. “I’m here to tell you that my only agenda is to provide a quality education opportunity for every student to achieve their highest academic learning potential, develop positive core values, reflective of our community, and enter higher education or the workforce, their choice, being well-prepared.”
The incoming board member said he also wants to help further the mission of WCPS by enhancing the community’s support of sports, increasing active parental involvement, and providing “clear, concise, and frequent communication.”
During the last few weeks, McFadden said he has met with WCPS principals and learned what they think the School Board can do to assist them with policies or what topics the board should be focused on.
“I’ve told each of them the same thing: my only agenda is to help them,” McFadden said. “I look forward to our working relationship over the next four years.”
The School Board also took several actions during its meeting, including unanimously approving the Secondary Truancy Prevention Officer position from a 10-months to a 12-month contract effective January 1, 2024, and scheduling its 2024 organizational meeting on Wednesday, January 3, 2024, at 5:30 p.m., in the Board Room of the Warren County Government Center.
To watch the December 6 School Board meeting in its entirety, go to: https://wcps.new.swagit.com/videos/283684#
Wildlife Center’s ‘Patient of the Week’ highlights importance of protecting region’s wild animals
It’s been a few years since Royal Examiner representatives visited the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center (BRWC) in Boyce, and most of that time our online newspaper has been pleased, and honored, to publish each week the photo and story behind injured animals that are delivered, now by the thousand each year, for treatment and, unfortunately for some, the benefits of euthanasia.
Many of these animals, however, are treated by not one, but now two, on-site veterinarians and their helpers, some volunteers among them, as the center has developed from its original old, old house, to a modern hospital enabling staff to admit and provide urgent medical care for hundreds more animals, birds and reptiles annually. Staff has increased exponentially over the past decade also, including the doubling up of veterinary care, as earlier mentioned.
Many of these unfortunate wild animals, indigenous to our region, are struck by vehicles or by victimized by garden tending materials accidents, others are poisoned by the effect of hunters’ lead bullets left in abandoned portions of carcasses left in the wild. Readily available unleaded ammunition is recommended regularly by BRWC. The injured may be operated on for the most serious and painful of injuries, and hopefully recover enough to be released back into the wild.
Some that are left with tended injuries that nevertheless make them unable to return to their habitats, are carefully housed in outside viewing areas, in airy cages, are labelled “ambassadors” and are used as educational tools in schools, service and other organizations, taking to the road almost weekly to spread the word about what the center, which is not subsidized by government entities but operates only on donated funds, does and how it does it. The weekly publication of the “Patient of the Week” and its photograph, has steadily shown the public the how and the why protection of our local wildlife is so important to ours and neighboring counties, and perhaps why we should give consideration to donating to the cause.
We’ve noticed over the months how owls appear to be one of the more common intakes among all animals, birds and reptiles, including the handsome old boy featured in the following “Patient of the Week” report from the center. We take the opportunity to wish him well, and welcome his eventual release to his home environment. Important to his recovery was the center’s new X-ray machine that a spokesperson said “could never have been purchased without the amazing donations made at this past fall’s fundraising gala!”
This owl, with broken metacarpals (“fingers”), is expected to recover well enough not to join others of his kind as a permanent resident “ambassador”. As with all the wildlife that arrives at the center, the vets and the center staff rejoice upon their patient recoveries that allow them to be released back to their natural habitat to begin life anew. So, off he will fly in the New Year.
We hope you will read through and study the photographs of this wise old owl, and follow our weekly series with interest and feeling for our native animal friends.
To contact BRWC, at 106 Island Farm Lane, Boyce, VA 22620, call (540) 837-9000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Malcolm Barr Sr., contributing writer for the Royal Examiner, is a lifelong friend of all animals, wild, domestic, great and small!)