Wednesday, January 10

Organization Skills For Students Of All Ages

‘Why didn’t you turn your homework in?” asks mom, as she reads the 16th note of the year mentioning that little Jacob (or Jessica) has not turned in that all important paper.

“I did it. I swear I did. I just couldn’t find it.”

Sound familiar? Organizational skills may come naturally to a few of us, but for most of us, learning to be organized is one of the toughest assignments. Whether the student is 6 or 60 — organizational skills are essential, says Janet Williams, a professional organizer.

Williams, whose business, An Organized Life, is located in Hopewell, speaks on “Organizational Skills for Students,” on Wednesday, January 10, at 7 p.m. at the Hopewell Public Library. The seminar is free. For more information contact the library at 609-737-2610. The workshop is part of a series presented by local members of the Mercer County Professional Organizers. January has been named Get Organized, or “GO Month” by the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Williams has been a professional organizer for about five years. Her path to her current career has been a winding one. She returned to college after the birth of her two sons, now ages 22 and 24, and still remembers the difficulty of planning and organizing her own studies as well as her children’s schedules. After receiving her degree she joined the corporate world as a molecular biologist for an area pharmaceutical company, and “had no time to organize anything.”

Then, seven years ago, after the birth of her third child, she decided that she wanted to stay at home. “I had the chance to finally organize my own life and found it was something I really loved to do,” she says.

Today she works with both residential clients and businesses to help organize “anything they want, from time to space to paper management.” She particularly enjoys helping students, of any age. Whether they are children who still need their parents’ help to stay organized, teenagers, or adults who have returned to school, there are common challenges to organizing a student’s life.

Because students have such a variety of activities, different subjects in school, as well as sports and other outside activities, they need to be constantly planning ahead, says Williams.

Two areas of organization are the most important for students — desks or work areas, and planners.

Prime real estate. “The desk is prime real estate,” says Williams. “It should be used only for things that are important right now.” Often, however, desks become just another storage area, loaded with books, papers, CDs, and empty snack bags.

Williams’ first tip is to make sure that the desk is set in a good location with adequate light. “My desk faces a window, and I’m always taking a few seconds to look out of it,” she says. “If my desk were turned to face the wall, I’d never use it. I’d end up moving to an area where I could see outside.”

If your student prefers another area of the home for homework, such as a family room or dining table, don’t try to change them, says Williams. Instead, come up with a compromise. A portable file or box can be used to hold all the necessary tools — including pencils, paper, books, and half-finished projects. The box should be stored someplace convenient to the work area so that it is easy for the student to clean it up and put it away when homework is done for the evening, or if the family needs the space for another purpose.

Whether the work area is a desk, the dining table, or a favorite patch of floor, only items that are currently needed should be out, says Williams. “Everything else should be tucked away properly.”

A problem often occurs, however, when the parent organizes the students’ things without his or her help. “The student has to have ownership of the organization plan, or it won’t work,” says Williams.

Depending on the age of the student, parents can take a more or less active role in the organizing, but always get the students’ input. Different types of learners have different organizational styles that need to be taken into account, says Williams.

There are visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners.

“For the visual learner out of sight is out of mind. If they can’t see it they’ll forget about it,” she says. This can be a particular challenge for the student who wants to have everything on his desk, but Williams suggests that a system of brightly colored folders can overcome the challenge. For auditory learners, “just explaining the system,” can often work, she said.

But the kinesthetics, the students who need to actively touch and feel, need to be very actively involved in setting up a system. “They need to actually make the labels and attach them to the file folders, and put everything in the place they want it to be or they won’t remember where it is later,” she says.

Planning is everything. An organized desk is only half the battle, says Williams. Today’s students have busy lives. They must keep track of overnight assignments and long-term projects for several classes, practice and performance schedules for one or more sports or activities, and if any time is leftover, they hope to have a social life to schedule, too.

A good planner can make all the difference, says Williams. If you buy your child a planner, think about it from their point of view, not yours. Because they often have long-term projects and assignments, they need a planner that shows a week, or even a month, at a time, not just one day per page. And make sure that the pages are filled out by the student — not mom or dad. “Nothing will keep a kid from opening a planner at school like their parents’ handwriting all over it. They don’t want their friends to see that,” says Williams.

Use different colors to designate different items, such as various subjects, sports, and social activities.

In the age of electronics many people want to get their child a PDA, an electronic organizer like Blackberry, but Williams advises against the gadgets for students younger than college age. “They take more time to use and it is difficult to see more than a day at a time,” she says.

For the adult student, having one good organizer is essential, says Williams. “As adults we are tempted to have too many organizers — the work calendar and a separate family calendar.” But too often, things don’t get transferred from one calendar to another.

“Adult students always have too much to do. They need to keep their organization as simple as possible to make sure that it happens,” she says.

The most important thing to remember, however, is that no matter what the age, the person who is “being organized” must take ownership of the project. Says Williams: “If they aren’t willing to do it, it just won’t happen.”

— Karen Hodges Miller

A Pharma Program For Career Changers

New Jersey is home to more pharmaceutical companies than any other state in the country. In fact, New Jersey has more pharmaceutical companies than any country in the world. Pharmaceutical companies are considered some of the best companies to work for in the area, offering excellent wages, stellar benefits, and in some cases extras such as on-site gyms and even take-out dinners. But many people are unsure of how to find a job in the industry.

Mercer County Community College is addressing the interest in pharmaceutical industry employment with a certificate program in Drug Development and Clinical Research. The program consists of several courses taught by a variety of teachers with experience in the industry, as well as guest speakers, says Barbara Novak, one of the instructors for the program. A free information session to help prospective students learn more about the program and about career opportunities is scheduled for Wednesday, January 10, at 5:30 p.m. For more information on the session call 609-570-3311.

Students in the class will learn to apply principles of good clinical practices in helping to conduct and manage a clinical trial suitable for regulatory submission to the FDA. They will also learn to interpret the laws and guidelines necessary to develop an audit plan and interpret the FDA 483 document, which details failures in an FDA audit.

Other aspects of the courses include learning to apply fundamental concepts to the design of a clinical trial and the development of a study protocol, learning to understand the differences and relative merits of efficacy and effectiveness studies, and learning to understand the steps involved in managing data obtained from clinical trials.

The program is designed for people who already have a B.A. or B.S. in nursing, pharmacy, chemistry, biology, medical technology, or related fields. To earn a certificate students must complete three courses.

Foundations of Clinical Research and Study Design. The course focuses on what it takes to get a new drug to market, the fundamentals of new pharmaceutical research, and clinical trial methodology. Students learn to design a clinical trial, develop a study protocol, understand the assessment and reporting of adverse events, and establish guidelines for reporting study results. The 11-session course is taught by Novak and begins on Wednesday, January 24, at 6:30 p.m. It also meets on Saturdays, beginning on February 3, at 9 a.m. Tuition for the course is $990.

Regulatory and Legal Issues in Drug Development. The second course in the series, this class examines historical and legal cases as part of the evolution of new pharmaceutical compound development. Specific ethical principles and issues surrounding clinical research operations and the management of clinical trials will also be discussed, including philosophical issues and procedural techniques used to ensure the protection of human research subjects and the integrity of the clinical trial. No start date has yet been announced.

Data Management/Biostatistics. A general overview of the steps involved in managing data in clinical trials is the third course in the series. Traditional aspects of data management will be discussed including the development of a trial protocol and the design and completion of case report forms. In addition, the course covers trial planning and resource assessment, eligibility checking and patient registration, data collection and data entry, and quality control systems and interaction with statistics. The course is intended for any healthcare professional involved in clinical trials.

— Karen Hodges Miller

Wednesday, January 17

SOX Act Washes Businesses Clean

Five years ago investing in America seemed to be a pretty shady prospect. With fresh scandals of corporate malfeasance breaking as fast as journals could clear their headlines, both domestic and foreign money holders began eying foreign markets for safety. Now, as we enter 2007, the USA has regained its traditional warmer, friendlier, and safer investment climate. Experts agree that the credit for the turn-around goes to Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) and Representative Michael Oxley (R-OH).

Designed to thwart what the press termed the “culture of corruption,” the Sarbanes-Oxley Act demands fuller public disclosure, more board and senior management accountability, and more independence for independent auditors. Originally proposed in 2001, the bill stalled along party lines when Enron claimed links to the White House. But by the next spring, when WorldCom joined the ranks of the corrupt, the House and Senate cried “enough.” Unanimously in the Senate and with only three dissenting votes in the House, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) was passed on July 30, 2002.

Four and a half years later, SOX’s effects and fallout have been enormous. But is this just another unwarranted government intrusion into business, placing yet another burden on the company owner? Or is compliance merely a matter of sensibly tracking one’s business practices? To guide company owners through the law and its effects, the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce presents “The Sarbanes-Oxley Act: How Will it Affect Your Business” on Wednesday, January 17, at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club on Mercer Street. Cost: $25. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.

The speaker for this “Business Before Business Breakfast” is veteran auditor Tom Basilo, CEO of WithumSmith + Brown’s global assurance division at 5 Vaughn Drive.

Basilo is a career-long outside auditor who remembers a less complex era, and has traced the problems that led so many companies into temptation. A native of Bergenfield, Basilo’s father suggested that he take up accounting because his neighbor was one and he wore a tie. So in l971 Basilo graduated from Seton Hall with a degree in accounting.

He began his career with Ernst & Young, where he worked for several years. He then joined PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he worked for 15 years. “Back then relationships between auditors and the managers of the audited firms were always friendly. We were taken out for grand dinners, but had no thought of collusion, so we thought nothing of it,” he says.

Following his years with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Basilo struck out on his own, formed Basilo Associates, a Tenafly-based auditing firm for mid-size companies. Within two years he returned to Ernst & Young. In 2004 Ivan Brown lured Basilo to WithumSmith + Brown to run its global assurance division in Princeton, which specializes in SOX compliance. With the new year, Basilo has also been named head of the firm’s Morristown branch. Commuting to his offices from his Tenafly home, Basilo still finds time to teach at the Entrepreneurial Development Center, which he helped found at his alma mater.

The shockwaves of the major corporate scandals that began rippling through the investment community in the late l990s were unprecedented. Previously the Securities and Exchange Commission and other federal agencies were always seen as the global standard. The absolute safety of American investment was a lure that brought money from all corners of the globe to our industrial marketplace.

Then in a flash it all seem to unravel. As investigations unfolded, there was ample blame to go around. But as an accountant Basilo finds it odd that most of the finger pointing and legal solutions were leveled at the auditors — not the thieves.

“Somehow, people were saying that it was all right to steal, but it was wrong for us not to catch them at it,” he says. It is interesting that every CPA is now legally required to take an ethics course, but senior managers are not.

Horror stories of huge SOX compliance costs have been rumored. But, Basilo explains, a quick look at where both auditors and companies slipped up helps make the SOX system more understandable.

Into temptation. In the mid l990s, when businesses everywhere were expanding and richly-funded dot-com firms were springing up like very profitable mushrooms, auditors became overwhelmed. At the same time, accounting firms were allowed to advertise. This led to a cut-rate, audit-for-less environment. Because of these price wars internal control auditing was sometimes pushed aside in favor of a top down approach.

The proper documentation that should have followed an incoming check through a bid file to a purchase order, a voucher package, and finally to a drafted check or deposit — all signed and back-checked — was less tested in outside audits.

“The process didn’t stop,” says Basilo, “but people became aware that it was untested.” No one was counting the cookies in the jar. Instead, auditors would test the account balances and go over inventory, and do only the internal control testing the contract budget allowed. Fraud became easier.

SOX standards. The primary enforcement arm created by SOX is the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (www.pcoabus.org). This non-profit group sets and enforces financial handling, disclosure standards, and ethical practices for all publicly held companies and outside auditors.

“By investing, I’m allowing a company to use my money,” says Basilo. “It’s only right that I should know what they are doing with it.

For most companies that are honest and ethical from the start, SOX entails two additional chores. First, the company needs to adopt and record an internal control and a capital management program. These processes must be documented and be in a form that can be easily presented to an auditor for logical tracing.

Second, companies need to set up more frequent and more minute documenting of their financial dealings, and must have records available — even to non-shareholders. These systems entail some added expense, but Basilo is quick to point out that new software programs, available within the last six months, have vastly simplified both tasks.

Accountability. The SOX standard shocking most publicly held companies is more a caveat. Since the enactment of the law the veil of corporate immunity for directors and managers has been dissolved. Individuals claiming they were only the CEO and had no idea of where the cash was flowing will be making this cry from a jail cell. Board directors, too, have to be fiscally knowledgeable and aware of their responsibility before they sign on.

For outside auditors, the SOX collar grips the tightest, but it is not without an effect on clients. Under SOX an outside auditor cannot provide consulting services for any client or anyone remotely connected with a client. He cannot do managers’ tax returns and he can no longer lend or be lent money by an audited client’s directors (a surprisingly familiar practice in the bad old days).

Also, getting an accountant on one’s board of directors automatically disqualifies his entire firm from bidding for auditing business.

“In short, the relationship between auditor and client,” says Basilo, “may not be necessarily adversarial, but it is more professional and no longer personal. And this is definitely what the public is calling for.”

SOX fallout. Amid this more stringent, more accountable environment, several other unethical practices have come to light. This past November Donald L. Drakeman, CEO of Princeton-based biotech firm Medarex, resigned after an investigation into his company’s back-dating of stock options.

The practice of doling out stock option benefits to senior executives and then artificially fixing the shares at a time of relatively low prices had become a quite common way for companies to skew their stock in executives’ favor. Like insider trading, back dating destroys the level investor playing field that has made America’s exchanges an enticing place for investment capital.

The practice was so common, in fact, that Medarex was part of a national 100-firm dragnet in which 41 other executives resigned. For this greater cleanup of managerial practices, Basilo credits SOX, which mandates increased auditing, and has led to such investigatory probes.

Guidance on compliance with the full standards of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is available on the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board website, www.pcaobus.org. The rules are very much a work in progress and the board even solicits help in forming standards and variances.

Sarbanes-Oxley does not mandate legal standards for privately-held company. However, its effects are increasingly felt in all commerce. Publicly-held corporations now in the throes of compliance are nudging their suppliers and vendors to follow suit. Private firms are finding that SOX compliance is becoming a business-to-business marketing tool. And many firms that kept all the internal control procedures in the head of Sally the bookkeeper are finding that documentation is a worthwhile investment.

Still, a few corporations are crying government intrusion and claim that they have been driven into foreign lands because they can’t afford compliance. For these, Basilo has no sympathy. “It’s like a owning a Rolls Royce. If you can afford the car, but can’t afford paying for the upkeep, you’ve no business buying a Rolls,” he says. “If you can’t document what you are doing and tell it to your stockholders, then maybe you just shouldn’t be playing with the big boys in the public arena.”

— Bart Jackson

Thursday, January 18

Put Down Your Foot To Get Ahead

The new year is under way. The holidays, filled with entertaining and rushing to finish end-of-year reports, are barely over, and it’s time to plunge into a whole new set of projects, while, at the same time, returning to homework monitoring duty and trying to find the time to keep up with New Year’s resolutions to exercise more and get organized. As the stress builds it is easy to respond to others in unproductive ways — either too aggressively or too meekly. If you feel that you are a walking doormat, or that you just don’t know what to say when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, you may need to learn to stand up for yourself in a quiet, confident way.

“Appropriate assertiveness can be the key to getting ahead, both at work and in personal situations,” says communications consultant Marge Smith. She teaches a five-session course in assertiveness skills at Mercer County Community College beginning on Thursday, January 18, at 7 p.m. Cost: $95. To register call 609-570-3311.

“Assertiveness is about respect,” says Smith. “It’s not about being in an ‘I win/you lose,’ scenario, or about, ‘I’m not worthy,’ which is an ‘I lose/you win,’ scenario. Assertiveness is about creating an equal relationship.”

The way we communicate with others often comes from messages we received in childhood, says Smith. And while some of these lesions do have value, they can be used in the wrong way.

If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. How often have we heard that phrase? When our mothers taught us this lesson they meant that we shouldn’t gossip about other people or call other children names. Too often as adults, however, says Smith, the message is transformed into a fear of ever commenting on someone else’s work. And without constructive criticism, how can an employee, a co-worker, or a family member know not only what they do well, but how to improve what they don’t do so well?

Smith turns the tables on the message. “Is it nice to set someone up to fail by not helping them to do something better?” she asks. Don’t be afraid of giving constructive criticism; just make sure it really is constructive.

If you want it done right, do it yourself. This attitude leads workers to hoard jobs that their colleagues should be doing and bosses to work monster hours instead of trusting subordinates. “People don’t like to work with someone who can’t delegate,” says Smith. “We feel that we aren’t trusted.”

Delegation “is empowering, it makes us feel like we are part of a team and can contribute,” she says. If we don’t delegate and insist on doing everything ourselves it is as if “we continued to tie our children’s shoes when they are already in high school.”

I can’t say no. People often feel that to say no is not just to reject the request, but to reject the person who is making it, says Smith. “They think people won’t like them if they say no to something.” Make sure that when you must reject a request you “affirm the relationship,” says Smith.

For example, “I appreciate you asking me, but I can’t do it right now.” Or “I’d love to do it, but I’m so overloaded right now I just wouldn’t be able to do a good job.”

I can never ask for help. The flip side of being unable to say no is being afraid to ask for a favor, says Smith. People often “back into a request,” with phrases such as “Are you busy right now?” However, that phrase, says Smith, is guaranteed to strike fear in your listener’s heart. “The first thing you think when you here the phrase, ‘Are you busy,’ is ‘I really want to be’”

It is much better to be specific about what you need and when you need it. That way the listener can judge whether or not he has the time and the ability to help out.

For example, “I need to move some furniture. Could you help me on Saturday morning?” or “I need to have these brochures distributed by Monday. Can you deliver them for me?”

I want to toot my own horn. When a compliment is given, just say thank you. Many people don’t seem to have the ability to give or accept a compliment, says Smith. But learning this skill can really change a relationship.

What do you say when someone compliments an outfit you are wearing? “So many times, instead of saying, ‘thank you,’ we say, ‘I got it on sale,’ says Smith. Instead of making the person who gave the compliment feel good, we have instead just made her feel awkward. “The price you paid is not part of the conversation,” she says. Instead, try just saying, “thank you for noticing.”

We can also feel awkward when giving a compliment because we don’t know what to say. Smith suggests being specific. “Thank you for your work on the report. Your comments were very insightful.” Or, “Thank you for the sweater. You noticed I love blue.”

Showing that you have noticed something specific about the work or the gift shows the person that you really have noticed their effort.

Smith has been teaching assertiveness “off and on” for about 15 years, she says. For seven years she worked as executive director of the Princeton YWCA, where she used the skills when training new employees. “Assertiveness is about treating others with respect. When you do that you will be more effective in your job,” she says.

She is a consultant to non-profits and runs retreats and designs workshops for non-profit boards and staff. She designed and teaches the Certificate Program in Nonprofit Management at Mercer County Community College and is also currently chairman of the Human Services Commission of Princeton and a member of board of the Childcare Connection, Foundation for Thomas Edison State College, Rotary Club and Hands on Helpers.

She is also the chairman of Community Works, a one-day, all-volunteer educational and networking seminar for area non-profits. This year the event takes place on Monday, January 29, at 5 p.m. at the Frist Center on the Princeton University campus. Full details are available at www.princetoncommunityworks.org.

Smith has learned assertiveness skills over the years through “analysis and intuition,” she says. “It is a matter of understanding the principles and practicing them. Just like learning to write with your left hand if you are right-handed. The first time it will feel awkward, but the more your practice, the better you will become at it.”

— Karen Hodges Miller

Friday, January 19

The Nitty Gritty Of Careers In Landscaping

You see their trucks on the prowl everywhere. Their door panels proudly proclaim the drivers as “Landscape Designers.” Yet this deceptively generic term is used by everyone from a Japanese bonsai artiste to a group of mower jockeys.

For owners and workers in nurseries or landscape design companies with two years experience, Mercer County Community College, in coordination with the New Jersey Landscape Organization offers a preparatory course for the Certified Nursery Landscape Professional Examination,” beginning on Friday, January 19, at 9 a.m. Visit www.mccc.edu.

Taught by horticultural program head Amy Iseneker, the course covers the basic identification and biology of anything growing in the Garden State. This includes everything from shade and flowering trees to evergreens and shrubs, a host of perennials — and even weeds. Instruction in insect and disease are given, as well as both the practical and legal aspects of landscape management.

For Iseneker, who has witnessed the expansion of information in the field, such certification and continuing classes are long overdue.

A native of Watertown, she was the first in her family to have any interest in gardening or the plant world. Iseneker attended Cornell University, first earning an undergraduate degree in plant science in l997, and then earning a master’s in education. Having joined Mercer in l998, she is currently the coordinator for the college’s horticultural programs.

The business of landscaping is booming. The New Jersey Department of Labor rates landscaper and nursery workers as the 24th fastest growing occupation in the state, with a 37 percent growth in employees over the last decade. These typically small operations remain, for the most part, swamped with work, with many turning away jobs from commercial, residential, and development construction clients.

As demand drives an ever increasing supply of busy trucks out on the road and frantic nursery growers into expansion, quality has not kept pace. “As with any popular market, in which one can get easily established, people are entering into landscaping without full knowledge of the trade,” says Iseneker. She points out some of the trends in the profession, and some of the caveats among its professionals.

Beware the bark. Somebody out there must really be an expert at selling woodchips. With an almost religious zeal, landscapers are planting thousands of new saplings and mounding each with its own two foot altar of woodchips. “I don’t know what they are thinking, but it is disastrous for the trees,” says Iseneker. “These chip volcanoes encourage shallow root growth and bark-destructive voles.”

Don’t let your landscaper pile on the chips, instead look for a landscaper who will provide several inches of fertilizing compost on your new plantings with just a final layer of chips to hold down weeds and retain water.

Another frequent error that landscapers make is packing plantings too close together or placing potential giants, holly for instance, right up against a house, a house that it will, in time, be completely engulfed by the tree. Regardless of your nursery owner’s assurances, all plants grow — and some, like wisteria, multiply at an alarming rate.

Look at the landscapers’ diagram and have him determine the entire property’s look a decade hence. Such questions allow the client to not only test the landscaper’s integrity, but his knowledge as well.

When checking client references, find out the landscaper’s favorite types of plant materials. Suggest some alternatives and see what the landscaper says. Then check with his supplying nursery to find what they are selling him and why. The more horticulture you teach yourself, the better the odds of getting what you want. And finally, Iseneker says to always look for the “CNLP” — Certified Nursery Landscape Professional — on the business card.

Chemical solutions. For the past two years, the state of New Jersey has licensed any professionals who use fungicides and insecticides. There is separate training for the owners of companies using such sprays, and for employees of those companies. The CNLP license qualifies both groups and assures that both state and federal guidelines in chemical use are observed. Many of these chemical sprays are available to the home or business property owner for individual use. But there are a more powerful and volatile set of chemicals, most often used by professionals, that demand training.

Garden State soils. Soil in New Jersey ranges from three-foot layers of rich and fertile topsoil to yards of sugary sand. “The variety is vast and each region usually small, with some of central New Jersey’s richest soils being right in downtown Trenton,” says Iseneker.

For too many central New Jersey residents, the soil is a sandy, pebbly base mixed with clays the developer dug out from the house’s basement and spread over the yard. Iseneker says that there is no quick fix for this less than ideal growing medium, and adds that there is no magic sod that can be unrolled and ignored.

It will take years to get the necessary new rich vegetable mulch worked into the existing soil’s substructure. For this reason, most nursery professionals are advising that owners of new plants watch and water periodically for two years.

The good news is that most conservation minded municipalities are composting their collected leaves and brush into very valuable mulch, which they set out free to residents.

But Iseneker warns to check before you shovel. Ideally, decomposition should be complete and the mulch must have reached 150 degrees for some period during its storage to kill off all harmful organisms. This temperature in effect pasteurizes the soil.

On the horizon. The latest trends in the landscaping design tend away from the norm. The standard green English-style lawn broken only by regimentally planted maples, oaks, and spruce may still be in vogue among developers, but individuals are demanding more. And landscapers are learning to give it, seeking out more exotic plantings for residential and business clients.

On one hand, strange and twisted growths from foreign soils are being clamored after, each set to focus the eye on some major (and expensive) feature tree. Tastes range from the unusual to the bizarre. On the other end of the spectrum, the green movement is spurring an interest in natural plantings. For residents of central New Jersey this may mean tall pines creating a shady, enticing bed of needles to cover what was previously grassy lawn.

“Definitely, the four seasons gardens are coming in,” says Iseneker. Garden State soil allows winter interest plantings such as weeping evergreens, red twig dogwoods, and holly; with spirea and lilacs in the spring; and for fall, white blooming itea with azaleas.

Regardless of economic downturns, Americans, and central New Jersey residents in particular, are spending a greater percentage of income on their natural settings. The old joke among nursery owners used to run that a Princeton family in a $1 million house would balk at the landscape bill that the $300,000 homeowner in northern Jersey considered a bargain.

But no more. Happily for those in the landscaping business, more and more homeowners want to edit their space and are gladly paying the price. This new priority adds beauty to every neighborhood, and provides a steady stream of business for landscapers.

— Bart Jackson

PWA Leaves Earth For Cyberspace

Whether a group is a nonprofit, a professional organization, or even a corporation, it develops a momentum over time that transforms its founders’ dreams according to the changing needs of its members. For the Professional Writers Alliance (PWA) of Mercer County, change has been less in substance than in the format for group interaction. Early on writers met regularly for professional and personal interaction, often with speakers on topics like research methods, copyright issues, accounting, organization, and negotiation. The group also sponsored a journalism contest for high school students for several years.

To facilitate communication among members, PWA created a listserv where members could ask each other for help — for example, how much to charge, where to find a good computer person, or where to find interviewees for a feature story. Although PWA continues to hold occasional social get-togethers and group members attend book signings of PWA colleagues, the listserv has become the glue that holds the group together.

Over time members have gone on to busier careers, often as a direct consequence of referrals or guidance from other members. And sometimes, when members have needed greater security or income, they have gone back to full-time work.

Robin Levinson and Robin Rapport, the founders of PWA, describe the group’s origin, development, and present situation as a mostly online organization. Levinson, whose daughter was in preschool with Rapport’s son, started PWA after quitting her full-time job at the Times of Trenton to be at home with her kids. Having cut her teeth on feminist writers, there was some regret about giving up her career. “I turned around one day,” she says, “and I was June Cleaver.”

Levinson, who recently returned to a full-time writing job at Educational Testing Service, found herself alone in her spare bedroom, talking to herself, and feeling that freelancers didn’t get any respect. “I hungered for professional contact with other writers,” she says. “I was looking for companionship, friendship, and professional support.” Then she happened to meet Rapport, and with her encouragement and support, started PWA.

Rapport’s desire for a group was based more on a desire to link up with other professionals in her field, network with them, and share job leads, but, she adds, “a side benefit was the many friendships that came out of it.”

Thinking back to the people who joined the new group, Rapport says, “A lot of people in the beginning joined for friendships, but many more joined to learn from other writers and to get jobs.”

For Levinson the group became both a personal and a professional support group. Between 2000 and 2001, when she was going through a bit of a professional crisis — burned out as a health writer and transitioning into Jewish writing — she remembers, “Several meetings were devoted to my crisis. People were amazingly supportive, had creative ideas, and I didn’t feel alone. It was a matter of people telling me to honor my feelings.” She did, and ended up writing the Gali Girl series of books about Jewish girls, each set in a different era of Jewish history.

Rapport believes the group has also helped its members to negotiate changes in the freelance writing market over time.

“I think our group has been a bellwether for how things changed in the whole industry,” she says. In the beginning many PWAers wrote for magazines. Then as magazine work started to pay less and was less in demand, many switched to writing for the Internet. “People who had gotten a dollar a word for magazine articles were getting 10 cents a word,” she says. “Writers were getting a lot of work and encouraging each other to go in that direction,” she continues, adding that many were writing about technology. But when many Internet companies failed and content was less in demand or less lucrative, many writers went into the healthcare field.

Looking back at PWA’s 10 years, Levinson observes: “For five years, there was great attendance and we schmoozed after the meetings.” But once the listserv, powered byYahoo, connected people in cyberspace, they didn’t feel an urgent need to meet in person. “It’s sad,” she says about the reduction in face time, “especially in an information age, in a digital world, when human contacts are even more important.”

But Levinson also believes the listserv has been a blessing. For one thing, people who live far away and can’t make it to meetings can stay connected.

The nature of the listserv entries has not changed significantly. Some early postings asked about health insurance, pricing, resumes, and appropriate holiday gifts for clients, and announced jobs and educational opportunities.

This is still true. In the most recent postings, members still were asking about pricing, as well as health insurance, where to pitch articles, how to use capabilities in Word, and interviewees for an article on shoppers. PWA members also were busy making internship suggestions to a winner of the high school journalism contest who had written to a group member asking for help.

Aside from the listserv, Levinson and Rapport had some other ideas about why attendance at meetings had fallen off. The first, says Rapport, is that as careers have developed and the writers have gotten better at what they do.

“They are in demand and have less time for meetings,” she says. “As the writers became busier, the group became more valuable as a virtual group.” But the writers still have questions for each other and occasional referrals and through the group’s listserv were able to ask and get responses with only a couple minutes investment of time.

Another reason for lessening interest in meetings was that the monthly programs had already covered most of the topics of interest to professional writers.

Then there were the people who came to the group with specific needs that they felt were not being met, so they left. “People had personal things they wanted from the group,” Rapport observes, “but people who just came for job leads missed out on the real beauty of membership.”

As with many groups, PWA also suffered from volunteer burnout. “It’s like other groups,” says Rapport. “A few people do the work, and it’s hard to get volunteers.” A member who had recently been very active, for example, added job responsibilities and had less time to put into the group.

Levinson, who graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in journalism, believes that newcomers would have much to gain even from the online interactions in the group and might even revive the in-person meetings. “If new people join, they may have the enthusiasm and energy and time to resurrect the group and redefine it,” says Levinson, who notes that each president has redefined the group according to her values.

Anyone professional writer interested in joining the Professional Writers Alliance can E-mail Levinson at robinl@optonline.net and include a phone number so she can call back.

Levinson concludes, “Even if the group fell apart tomorrow and the Yahoo group exploded, I would feel it has been a success and be really proud of it. It is a tribute to the success of the group that everyone is so busy.”

— Michele Alperin

My Kingdom For A Volunteer

Another media-oriented Princeton-area networking group is considering a change in direction. Andy Kienzle, president of the Princeton Media Communications Association group, wants members to know that the group may not be able to continue if some people don’t step up to volunteer.

Kienzle, a founder of PMCA back in the early-1990s, says in an E-mail to members that he has been spending between three and fifteen hours a month organizing meetings for “three or four years.”

In a phone interview shortly after the E-mail went out, Kienzle says that he is tempted to “bag” PMCA. The work of coming up with topics, finding speakers, writing press releases, and handling money and refreshments is wearing him down. Director of content solutions for NXLevel, an E-learning company with offices in Hopewell, he says that “I have other things I want to get accomplished.”

But he quickly backpedals on his ultimatum. “I might be able to get something together for January,” he says. “Maybe I could keep it going until June.”

PMCA is a group of people involved with “anything that moves.” Or at least with any image that moves. Many of its members are involved with corporate media, which often involves putting together training materials. Others produce documentaries or create websites. Kienzle has gotten a great deal out of the group. “My job, for instance,” he says. Before he was working full time he also found PMCA a good source of freelance work. Beyond that, he says that PMCA “is my social group.” Members sharing experiences with members is a big part of every meeting.

In the E-mail he sent around soliciting help in producing meetings, he mentioned past topics as a guide to the sort of material anyone putting together a meeting might consider. The list includes “Producing Documentaries,” “How Real is Reality TV?,” “Lighting on a Budget,” “Can I Get on You Tube (and Do I Want to?),” “Directing Do’s and Don’ts,” “Producing Video for Museums,” and “Editing Techniques for Effective Storytelling.”

Anyone taking on the job of setting up meetings would have a real chance to mold, or re-mold, the group, says Kienzle, as long as the core interests of members was taken into account.

Within hours of sending out his E-mail, Kienzle had two offers of help, one of them from Doug Dixon, a technologist and frequent U.S. 1 contributor. Dixon, owner and producer of website Manifest-Technology (www.manifest-tech), has offered to take on one winter meeting. A board member is offering to put together another.

So far, no one has expressed an interest in taking over the job of president, but Kienzle says that is okay. He doesn’t necessarily need one person to take over the whole job of running the group. If members can only volunteer to organize one meeting, that would be fine, and would keep the group going.

Part of the job includes arranging for refreshments, and Kienzle thinks the task is worth the effort. “In better days we used to meet at restaurants,” he says. “First the Olive Garden, and then Tre Piani in Forrestal Village.” He thinks that the conviviality inspired by good food and the chance to have a drink or two was important. Refreshments are now hoagies, “good hoagies from an Italian deli in Hamilton,” he says. Having the food on hand means that no one has to sit through a meeting hungry. “We’re all working late now,” he says. “This way people can come straight to the meetings from work.”

Obviously eager to keep the meetings going, Kienzle would also like to return them to restaurants. “Get out the word to any bar out there that would like us to bring in a big group of people,” he says.

Any bar or restaurant interested in hosting PMCA, or any member or prospective member able to help out with putting on a meeting, or taking over as president, can contact Kienzle at 609-466-2828, ext. 20.

As he says in his E-mail, “I know that there are some folks out there who love this business and want to learn and network. I’m waiting to hear from you if there will be a meeting this month, or ever again.”

— Kathy Spring

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