World AIDS Day 25th Anniversary: See how far we’ve come

The 25th Anniversary of World AIDS Day will be commemorated on December 1, 2013 to raise awareness about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Over the past 25 years, anniversary themes have generated support for programs promoting testing, treatment and care services. The United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) theme for 2013 Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation urges communities to envision a day when there are no new HIV infections.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH), joins the World Health Organization (WHO), the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) World AIDS Campaign, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in supporting the 2013 observance of World AIDS Day.

Globally, UNAIDS estimates there are over 35 million people living with HIV. Nationally, the CDC estimates more than 1.1 million people living in the United States are living with HIV infection. As of December 31, 2012, over 29,000 Marylanders were living with HIV. At the end of 2011, Maryland statistics indicated 17,962 males living with HIV; 10,235 females living with HIV, and approximately 6,250 Marylanders living with HIV who were unaware of their status.

The 2013 national theme, “Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation” encourages individuals to equip themselves with HIV prevention knowledge and to access testing and care services. As long as HIV remains we must take responsibility and continue to take action against it.

To be responsible everyone is encouraged to share and follow the CDC recommendations for routine HIV testing for all persons ages 13-64. HIV risk behaviors should be avoided, such as failure to use condoms, being too intoxicated by alcohol and drugs to make wise decisions, having multiple sex partners, sharing needles, and exchanging sex for drugs or money.

To be successful, we need to end community silence by stopping discrimination and stigma, which only serve to keep the epidemic hidden. We need to build community capacity and routinely share the scientific and medical advancements achieved through treatment. We need to educate the public that treatment works. Treatment works to reduce the replication of the virus; to prevent the virus from spreading; and to prevent people from become infected.

Through shared responsibility we will be able to achieve a Maryland with no new HIV infections and attain an AIDS free generation. For additional information about HIV prevention, testing, treatment, and support go to:

To find an HIV testing location near you, contact your local health department at 410-767-5227 or visit Maryland-based agencies and programs may request targeted HIV/AIDS educational materials for their local community events by calling 410-799-1940 or by contacting the DHMH Prevention and Health Promotion Administration, Infectious Disease Bureau at 1-800-358-9001.


ArtsCentric updates ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

— Kevin McAllister has seen the classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” several times.

McAllister, a Helen Hayes Award-nominated actor and artistic director at ArtsCentric in Baltimore, knows well the story of George Bailey, the small-town man whose life appears so desperate that he contemplates suicide.

So, McAllister decided to bring the traditional Christmastime story to the Garland Theater on the campus of the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills. But, he’s doing it with a major twist.

“This starts in the mid-1970s and it doesn’t focus on the idea of banks and loans,” McAllister said. “It deals with the age of communication and the Internet.”

There is little doubt that the integrity of the 1946 Frank Capra film remains intact during this production, but McAllister wants it to resonate with his audience.

“It’s a multicultural production. The young man who plays George Bailey in our play is Latino and there are 14 children in the cast, a few of which are biracial,” he said. “We’ve taken the story of a man giving up life for his community and we apply that to today, because this story can apply to anyone, including anyone of color.”

In Capra’s production, which starred James Stewart, the main character had a strong desire to leave his small town of Bedford Falls to explore the world. However, his penchant for helping others forced to him to stay. Bailey sacrificed personal opportunities to keep the family banking business afloat and to protect the town from an unscrupulous banker.

As he prepares to jump off of a bridge, Bailey’s guardian angel stops him and shows him what life would have been like for the locals if he had never been in their presence.

Considered one of the best movies ever made, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” received five Academy Award nominations and many deem it the most inspirational American film ever.

ArtsCentric’s production of, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also tells the story of Bailey, by transitioning scenes between past and present day. In a flashback, George is seen abandoning his big dreams for the good of his town. In the present, George appears broken and suicidal on Christmas Eve over the misplacement of an $80,000 loan payment.

Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence, falls to Earth, literally, and shows him how his town, family, and friends would turn out if he had never been born.

“It’s a play that deals with modern definitions of family and community. The show will not only feature a talented multicultural cast, it will explore what it means to come together in times of crisis, and to see the basic humanity in your fellow man,” McAllister said.

In the spirit of giving, and in keeping with ArtsCentric’s longstanding commitment to community service, McAllister said ArtsCentric will donate a portion of the ticket sales to Adopt-A-Family, a program of The Family Tree in Baltimore, a nonprofit whose mission includes the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

Performances are scheduled for Friday and Saturday December 6-7 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday December 8 at 5 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday December 13-14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 15 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $25 and can be purchased by calling 410-504-5398 or visit:

County Executive gives Negro Leagues Baseball Museum permanent home

— On Wednesday, November 20, 2013, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced that the permanent home of The Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball, Inc. would be located in the Owings Mills branch of the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL). The new $30M facility in the Metro Center also houses the Owings Mills campus of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC).

Ray Banks with a donated painting of Negro League baseball players

Courtesy photo

Ray Banks with a donated painting of Negro League baseball players

The Museum, previously operating under the name Negro Leagues Baseball Museum of Maryland, Inc., had been housed in various temporary locations since 1996 until the County offered to give it a home in the new library. During the announcement event, Kamenetz paid tribute to the late “Bert” Simmons, who played for the legendary Baltimore Elite Giants in the 1950s.

“Baltimore County is dedicated to preserving the history of African American baseball,” said Kamenetz. “We are honored to share the photographs and artifacts with the thousands of folks who will pass through these doors. The Negro Leagues Baseball legacy will live on through museums, such as we will have here in Owings Mills.”

Audrey Simmons, Bert’s widow and executive director of the museum and Ray Banks, a life-long friend of Simmons and Museum curator attended the event. Elected officials from the state, county and city came to show their support, as did community advocates and members of the general public. The Baltimore Orioles were represented by The Bird.

The Museum is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014— just in time for opening day.

Film “Black Nativity” opens nationwide

The buzz surrounding the new holiday film, “Black Nativity,” might turn out to be more about the compilation of talent assembled for the silver screen version of Langston Hughes’ masterpiece, than about the birth of Jesus Christ, which is the prevailing theme of the stage play.

The film, which opened nationwide on Wednesday, November 27, 2013, stars Hollywood powerhouses Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett. It also features music superstars Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Jacob Latimore. The score for the movie includes new tracks from Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman.

However, audiences ultimately will decide whether, “Black Nativity,” keeps the integrity of Hughes’ play, which became one of the first by an African American to appear on Broadway.

“The movie is a reflection on our time and the everyday miracle of forgiveness, but I did not want an obvious big miracle holiday movie with just the conspicuous hand of God reaching down,” said the film’s director Kasi Lemmons. “I believe that miracles happen every day even in tiny waves and I think that forgiveness is one of those great miracles and that opening your heart will [also] open a universe to different possibilities.”

Lemmons’ directing credits also include the 2007 film, “Talk to Me,” the story of Washington D.C., radio personality, Ralph “Petey” Greene, an ex-con who became a popular radio talk show host and community activist in the 1960s.

Hughes’ play also focuses on miracles and forgiveness. It opens with barefoot singers clad in white robes holding candles, singing the gospel classic, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

The late Mike Malone, co-founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., staged “Black Nativity,” in theaters around the world, including Paris, Hong Kong, New York and Ohio. The production has become a holiday tradition in many locations, especially in Washington, where staff and students at Ellington will perform the play again beginning December 4.

For the silver screen production of “Black Nativity,” Latimore, 17, plays “Langston,” a frustrated teen from Baltimore. The story chronicles his journey from the single-parent home he shared with his mother, Naima, portrayed by Hudson, to New York where he spends Christmas with his estranged grandparents, the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Whitaker) and Aretha Cobbs (Bassett).

While the family feuds over past misgivings and a lack of trust, Langston ultimately discovers the meaning of faith and forgiveness.

“I think as a parent we all can relate to when you want the best for your [child] and your family and you want to provide for them,” said Hudson, 32, who rose to fame in 2004 as one of the 12 finalists on the popular Fox television talent show, “American Idol.”

Hudson, a multiple Grammy Award winner, made her film debut in the 2006 film production of, “Dreamgirls,” for which she earned an NAACP Image Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe Award and the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

“I understand Naima, I understand her stubbornness, and not wanting to forgive her family,” Hudson said.

Lemmons and officials from the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures, are hoping “Black Nativity,” benefits from the success of other African American movies this year, including the recently-released, “The Best Man Holiday,” “12 Years a Slave,” and, “The Butler.”

Lemmons says she is thrilled with the end result of the film and counts herself fortunate to have been able to bring together such a star-studded cast that also features the rapper, Nas; and model, actor and singer, Tyrese Gibson.

“Getting them all together was a huge challenge,” Lemmons said in an earlier interview. “But, I pretty much got my first choices. Also [Latimore], is just this amazing kid and I knew that this movie rested on the shoulders of this kid. He was the first actor I auditioned, and I knew as soon as he walked into my house and I [had him] read, this was an extraordinary young man. I love this kid.”

The impact of maternal mortality

— Twenty-one years ago, Dr. Doral Pulley and his wife Alecia were happily awaiting the arrival of their twins. The newlyweds’ long awaited moment had arrived. Alecia gave birth to a set of twin girls— Brittney and Courtney. Then, something went terribly wrong.

“We knew she had a cough,” recalled Pulley. “She was told to take some medicine and that she would be better in a couple of days. However, in a couple of days, she was not fine. They thought she had a cold, and it was not a cold. Ten days later, she was dead.”

He added, “I became a single father of two beautiful girls. However, it was difficult being a single parent. I had to discontinue my study at Princeton University and pastoring a church.”

Merck for Mothers, which recently launched a $500 million initiative focused on creating a world where no woman has to die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, points out that when a woman dies, the effects on her family are enormous. Merck for Mothers further noted that her baby is more likely to die before the age of two and her other children are up to 10 times more likely to leave school, suffer from poor health, or die prematurely.

However, Dr. Pulley and his twins beat the odds.

Pulley currently serves as vice principal of St. Frances Academy. His twin girls Brittney and Courtney are now 21-years-old. Brittney is a senior at Hampton University, and Courtney is a senior at Ferrum College. Pulley says his in-laws were major contributors.

“Kids need their mothers and fathers,” he said. “I can’t be a mother and father. A child should not have to live without their mother. However, my in-laws were there to help me. I was an only child, and both of my parents are deceased. My in-laws gave me a break, and encouraged me. I did not know anything about parenting.”

He added, “Once my girls were able to walk and talk, I started pursuing my ministry again and went back to school. I would not have been able to do it without my in-laws. We are a tight-knit family and work together to ensure the girls have everything they need.”

According to Dr. Pulley, his wife died of congestive heart failure and pneumonia. He says he is hopeful his story will help others.

“This changed the entire dynamic of our family,” said Dr. Pulley. “I want children to stop being without their moms. I want this to be reduced. I want this to stop. Alicia knew inside that something was not right. She was told she had a cold, but it was not a cold. This could have been prevented. Families need to pay attention and get a second opinion.”

Dr. Priya Agrawal is the executive director of Merck for Mothers. Drawing on the company’s history of discovering innovative, life-saving medicines and vaccines, Merck for Mothers is applying Merck’s scientific and business expertise— as well as its financial resources and experience in taking on tough global healthcare challenges— to reduce maternal mortality around the world.

“We focused on listening to people like Doral Pulley and Alma Roberts,” said Dr. Agrawal referring to Alma Roberts of Baltimore Healthy Start. “If we don’t listen and learn, we can’t improve.” Baltimore Healthy Start has been awarded one of eight planning grants given nationally by Merck for Mothers.

Dr. Pulley applauds the Merck for Mothers initiative.

“I want women to pay attention to their bodies and advocate for their care,” he said. “This program will be a huge help. My hope is that maternal death could be reduced or even eliminated.”

Leith Walk Elementary celebrates American Education Week

In honor of American Education Week, November 18-22, 2013, the students at Leith Walk Elementary/Middle School in northeast Baltimore were given an activity to help reinforce the theme for American Education Week’s tagline, “Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility.”

Students in pre-kindergarten through the sixth grade completed a “Raise Your Hand for Student Success” project as part of their “Weekend Family Home Assignment-Homework” on November 15th. Each student was asked to decorate a paper hand with five steps to becoming a successful student. More than 1,000 colorful, creative and inspiring paper hands went on display November 20, 2013 to celebrate public education.

Maryland AG Advises health insurance companies to treat consumers fairly

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler advised Maryland health insurance carriers that consumers who receive a policy cancellation notice must be informed of their full rights and options under state and federal law, and that such communications should be concise and easy to understand. Citing reports of insurance company abuses in other states where carriers have attempted to “intentionally evoke fear and mislead consumers about their options” under the Affordable Care Act, Attorney General Gansler notified insurance carriers in a letter sent today that they will be held accountable if they attempt to drop consumers from their rolls and push them into the exchange without offering a new plan.

“I am making it clear to insurance companies that they will be required to comply with the letter and the spirit of the law under the Affordable Care Act,” said Attorney General Gansler. “Our office will not stand for the abuses and fear-mongering that has been documented in other states.”

In the letter to eight Maryland health insurance companies, Attorney General Gansler spelled out the information that every Maryland consumer should receive if their carrier opts to cancel their policy. The Attorney General wrote that such notices, where applicable:

1) Should provide the 90-day notice required by Maryland law, as well as comply with all regulations set forth by the Maryland Insurance Commissioner.

2) Should include a statement, when applicable, that the insurer had the option to renew the policy for one year, but chose not to do so.

3) Should prominently mention Maryland’s health exchange; the availability of other health plans on the exchange, including those offered by other insurers, and; the availability of tax credits and other subsidies that lower premiums.

4) Should not automatically enroll individuals in a new plan outside Maryland’s health exchange.

5) If letters identify or suggest a new plan offered by the insurer as an option and any comparisons are made between the current plan to be canceled and that plan, comparisons must not only include actual premiums and deductibles, but also the scope of benefits covered, coverage of pre-existing conditions, and the availability of tax credits and subsidies.

6) If letters identify or suggest a new plan offered by the insurer outside the exchange as an option, they must include information on all plans offered by the insurer on the exchange, including information on actual premiums, deductibles, scope of benefits covered, coverage of pre-existing conditions, and the availability of tax credits and subsidies.

The health insurance carriers that received copies of the letter are CareFirst of Maryland Inc., CareFirst BlueChoice, Group Hospitalization and Medical Services Inc., Aetna Life Insurance Co., Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States Inc., Mega Life and Health Insurance Co., Celtic Insurance Co. and United American Insurance Co.

Merck for Mothers launched in United States

— One of the most cherished moments for a woman is giving life. However, for many new mothers, their lives end shortly after giving birth. In one country maternal mortality (the death of a woman from complications of pregnancy and childbirth) has nearly doubled since 1990, despite significant progress in reducing rates globally.


Courtesy Photo

Dr. Priya Agrawal

In that same country, more than 50,000 women nearly die annually from a severe complication they experience during pregnancy or childbirth. Shockingly, these sobering statistics do not belong to a third world country, but the United States. The United States, ranks 47th in maternal mortality rates, the worst among industrialized nations.

To address these startling statistics, on November 19, 2013, global healthcare company Merck announced that “Merck for Mothers” launched programs aimed at decreasing the number of women across the United States who die from or suffer severe complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Merck for Mothers is a10-year, $500 million initiative focused on creating a world where no woman has to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth

“Merck for Mothers was launched two years ago internationally,” said Dr. Priya Agrawal, executive director of Merck for Mothers. “People think it’s not happening in our backyard. We were shocked to hear the numbers. We realized that we have to address the issue here. The majority of these deaths are preventable.”

The leading causes of maternal death in the U.S. include blood clots (embolism), excessive bleeding (obstetric hemorrhage), and severe high blood pressure (preeclampsia).

“Pregnancy is not a disease,” said Agrawal. “There are warning signs that women can look out for such as blurred vision and a persistent cough. With the arrival of the holidays, women will be traveling. Women at risk for developing clots should stop and stretch their legs during a long journey and take aspirin. There are things they can do to reduce risk.”

Agrawal added that women also need to be actively engaged in partnerships around their health to ensure a safe, childbearing experience.

According to Agrawal, Merck for Mothers is now working in the U.S. to address the following areas: Enhancing community initiatives that coordinate care for high-risk women before, during and after childbirth; implementing standard approaches to address obstetric emergencies; and strengthening data collection and reviews to better understand why maternal deaths are occurring and use that knowledge to improve practices and patient care.

“My goal is that no maternal death goes uncounted and unlearned from. I want to see a national standardized approach to maternal care regardless of income or racial status, and that women who are at higher risk of complications have a viable plan for healthcare,” said Dr. Agrawal. “Our numbers are unacceptable and it’s a tragedy. I want to report that the numbers are going down. However, we cannot do this alone. This has to be a national commitment to women and mothers. No one company can make an impact. We have to do it together.”

While any woman can experience complications such as blood clots, excessive bleeding, or severe high pressure during pregnancy or childbirth, women with chronic conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes are at higher risk of dying or nearly dying from them. Agrawal noted that the number of chronic conditions is on the rise, and that one in three women is obese, putting her at higher risk of developing complications.

Baltimore Healthy Start has been awarded one of eight planning grants given nationally by Merck for Mothers. Alma Roberts is president and CEO of Baltimore Healthy Start.

“Baltimore is at the epicenter of this issue,” said Roberts. “In Baltimore, a third of the population is obese. Obesity is also linked to heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and many other diseases. In the city, there is also a huge disparity factor.”

According to Baltimore Healthy Start, the rate of overweight and obese African American women in the city is about 50 percent and the consumption of fast food by African American women in Maryland is among the highest in the nation.

“We are happy to be working with Merck for Mothers to link women at risk for maternal death and disease to care continuously,” said Roberts. “Transportation, access to care, and failing to go back to postpartum visits are huge issues for the women we serve. I deal with these things everyday with our clients. We have a van and double check to make sure they are getting to their visits.”

She added, “The Merck for Mothers program will allow us to enhance our care. The planning grant they have awarded Baltimore Healthy Start, allows us to frame out the model of care that will be available to our clients.”

For more information about Baltimore Healthy Start, visit: www. and for more information about Merck for Mothers, visit:

Orchestra teacher Willis Keeling: Performing musical alchemy for 60 years

1954 was a notable year. The United States Supreme Court ruled in unanimous decision that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education. Baseball great Hank Aaron hit his first major league home run and polio vaccinations of children began. The iconic Boeing 707 jet made its maiden flight and RCA manufactures the first color TV set.


Jayne Matthews Hopson

It is also the year Willis Keeling taught his first music class at Our Lady of Victory, an all girls’ Catholic school in Portsmouth, Virginia. In a remarkable career that spans seven-decades he continues to perform musical alchemy by turning a new student’s dissonant notes into beautiful, harmonious melodies.

Keeling is currently the orchestra teacher at the Waldorf School of Baltimore, an independent school located in the Coldspring Newtown community. I am the development manager at the school, as well as the parent of one his students. Each day, he greets his students looking quite dapper in a suit, tie and perfectly polished shoes. He is what my mother used to refer to as a “courtly gentleman.” Nowadays his teaching style and comportment would be called “old school” in the best sense of the expression.

Keeling has everything you want to see in a great teacher. He is pleasant, sometimes jovial in professional conversations with colleagues. However, in his music room he is a no-nonsense, serious concertmaster, with the patience, grace and wisdom reminiscent of my grade school teachers.

His students hold him in the highest regard. On those rare occasions when a pupil misbehaves he commands attention and respect with a silent, look of disapproval that quickly restores order to his lesson.

A graduate of Virginia State University, a historically black college near Petersburg, Keeling attended segregated public grade schools in Norfolk, Virginia.

Inspired by his own teachers, he knew at the age of eight that he wanted to be

a music instructor. “I love teaching music,” says Keeling, who has taught hundreds of students of all ages.

He was a vocal music instructor at several junior high schools in Virginia and the District of Columbia, and taught orchestra at Baltimore’s Clifton Park High School. Keeling was a professor of music at Catonsville Community College from 1970 to his retirement in 2004. After his retirement, he taught private lessons at a piano studio before joining the faculty of the Waldorf School in 2008.

When asked about the educational benefits of music lessons he said, “The study of music teaches valuable skills like working together and enhances organizational skills. It teaches students to think logically. Children learn how to read and ‘speak’ another language. A universal language not limited to people of a certain country, it can be spoken and understood by everyone, anywhere.”

Keeling shared his thoughts on the importance of daily practice saying, “Practice before each class and rehearsal is crucial and should be taken seriously.” He says at a minimum “the beginning student should practice a few minutes each day, learning to hold and articulate tone on the instrument, according to the teacher’s instructions.”

“After the beginning student has mastered this stage, he or she can begin practicing assigned material daily, beginning with five, 10, and 15 minute practice periods. This should move eventually to 20 to 30 minute sessions. Ideally students should practice each day.”

A good practice session should be close to the following:

  1. Brief warm-up using long tones, a scale, etc.
  2. Technical work for lessons in class
  3. Performance piece for lesson (class)
  4. Orchestra material

This is only a guide, says Keeling. “After the warm-up, the practice may vary according to individual need and difficulty of the music being studied.”

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes about educational matters because “only the educated are free.”

“Raise Your Hands for Success”

— School Celebrates American Education Week

In honor of American Education Week- November 18-22, 2013, the students at Leith Walk Elementary/Middle School in northeast Baltimore were given an activity to help reinforce the theme for American Education Week’s tagline, “Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility.”

Students in grades pre-kindergarten through sixth grade completed a “Raise Your Hand for Student Success” project as part of their “Weekend Family Home Assignment- Homework” on November 15th. Each student was asked to decorate a paper hand with five steps to becoming a successful student.

More than 1,000 colorful, creative and inspiring paper hands went on display November 20, 2013 to celebrate public education.