reesa marchetti,columnist

Student Exchange Programs an Unregulated Industry

Student Exchange Programs an Unregulated Industry
Problems with international swaps

©Gloucester County Times
Staff Writer

Guzel of Sterlitamak, Russia, 15 years old, plays basketball and enjoys running. She likes music, literature and dancing and is in the choir. She has two younger brothers. Her teacher says, “She is rather modest, kind, polite and ready to help others.”

As described in a foreign exchange student agency brochure, inviting a youngster like Guzel to stay in your home may sound like a wonderful way to promote international goodwill and expand your cultural awareness.

But recent problems encountered by a host family in Pittsgrove Township have led many people to wonder who regulates the agencies that bring in these students — and what is the cost, to the families, the students and the school districts.

Gitte Hommelgaard, 18, of Denmark has become the object of controversy since she arrived in Pittsgrove last month to stay with the Pokrovsky family and attend Arthur P. Shalick High School there.

Because the school had recently changed its exchange student policy to require 90 days notice to register a foreign student, Hommelgaard was denied admission. Her host mother, Sandy Pokrovsky, appealed the school board’s decision to the state department of education and won emergency relief to enroll the Danish teen at Schalick.

According to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), the agency that placed the Danish student should have secured written acceptance from a school official before sending her to the Pokrovsky’s home.

The CSIET, however, is a strictly voluntary system of self-monitoring to which exchange agencies may apply. Adhering to such standards is not legally required in order for an organization to place students from other countries in U.S. schools — and homes.

There are no regulations that control how or when foreign exchange students attend New Jersey’s public schools.

Rich Vespucci, a spokesman at the N.J. Department of Education, said those issues are handled by local boards of education.

“It is a local decision,” Vespucci said. “There aren’t any state regulations that apply to it.”

Nationally, exchange agencies are self-regulated via several voluntary programs. The United States Information Agency (USIA) designates non-profit organizations that meet their requirements, and authorizes them to issue applications for one-year student visas.

The national Association of Secondary School Principals’ CSIET sanctions both non-profit and private agencies who voluntarily submit to their guidelines. Many agencies, such as the Cultural Academic Student Exchange (CASE), which placed Hommelgaard in Pittsgrove, are designated by both the USIA and the CSIET.

Legally, agencies do not have to register with either one in order to arrange student exchanges. Students do not need an agency to get visa applications — they may obtain the visas for themselves, or school principals here or abroad may arrange for the student to get them.

The USIA has a booklet with more than 40 pages of regulations, and operating and financial criteria, that organizations must meet in order to become USIA-designated.

So how does this federal agency monitor its 1,100 exchange programs, of which approximately 70 deal exclusively with high school students? USIA public liaison Bill Reinckens said the only way his office can regulate them is when a complaint is received.

“It is handled on a case by case basis until the situation is resolved,” he said. “We don’t have the staff and resources to be pro-active in our monitoring.

“However, we do a lot more than respond to complaints. We handle the general administration and procedures involved in conducting these exchange programs. As part of this effort, there is constant dialogue and a regular relationship between the USIA and the program organizations we designate.”

Reinckens stressed that contrary to what many of the agencies imply in their advertising, they cannot issue student visas. They are only allowed to supply the application forms.

“The USIA issues application forms that the organizations complete for the participants,” he said. “Then the participants take them to the U.S. consulate in their home country. The students pursue the visas in their country.”

Reinckens suggests that people thinking of hosting an exchange student check with their local better business bureau or department of education. Unlike New Jersey, he said that some states have adopted laws governing exchange agencies.

“Various states, among them Washington, Minnesota and California,” he said, “have passed laws and regulations regarding these kinds of organizations.”

According to Reinckens, 23,000 to 25,000 foreign students attend public school in the U.S. annually on J-1 visas, assisted by USIA-designated agencies. One of the provisions of J-1 is that there are no repeat visits allowed.

“Students on a J-1 can be here for a minimum of one semester to a maximum one-year stay,” he said. “There’s another kind called an F student visa, where a student can stay as long as a high school issues an I-20 form. The high school is responsible for issuing that form.

“Another kind of visa is a B-visa, which is a visitors visa for short-term visits. For example, a student may enter the U.S. on a B-visa if they are just going to attend a class for a few weeks.”

* * *

Some of the methods used by exchange agencies to locate and screen host families for foreign students can cause problems for all parties involved.

Robert Bender, the superintendent of the Carneys Point-Penns Grove district said he has been troubled to see ads for host families on telephone poles just prior to the start of the school year.

“That caused part of the problem,” he said. “They didn’t find families until late in the summer. I think it’s a worthwhile program, but they need to find host families first before bringing the students over.

“Once they do that, it will eliminate a lot of concerns the schools have.”

Bender said that although having a foreign student can be a benefit for the school, it is difficult for administrators to prepare for the student’s needs on short notice.

“A foreign student is a living social studies lesson right in the classroom — there’s so much to be gained by our own students,” he said. “But at the end of summer where you have transfer students coming at the last minute, exchange students make it a little more difficult. We need to review their transcripts and find out where they should be placed.

“You want them to be successful when they’re here. If you only have a day or two, that’s not the way we like it to be. It’s better to do this in time to properly place them.”

Danish student Hommelgaard recently got a lesson in the problems school officials have to deal with when placing a student from another country. Although she is 18 and is taking mostly Grade 12 courses, she had to be placed in junior level history when she started classes at Schalick on Wednesday.

“It’s a bit difficult when you don’t know it,” she said. “I know more Danish history than American history.”

According to Bender, a girl from Russia who attended Penns Grove High School last year didn’t work out and ended up going back home.

Penny Tarplin, the Pittsburgh area CASE director, said that it is not unusual to have to place a child as late as August.

“Sometimes a placement falls through,” she said. “In May, the father of a family here had a heart attack and died.

“Or sometimes a student cancels. I’ve been doing this for 24 years and we learn everything the hard way.”

Ads seeking host families by the Pittsburgh CASE organization can be found in locations as diverse as local newspapers to a page on the Internet.

Tarplin said that except in the few states that require police background checks for host families, her organization is not allowed to request them. Instead, she said she relies on her instincts at an in-home interview with all family members, and three letters of recommendation obtained by the host parents.

“A police check has not been necessary so far,” she said. “We expect the references to take care of that — someone will spill the beans if there are problems.

“I went to visit a potential family once, and all over their wall, they had guns. Needless to say, we did not place a student with them.”

Ellen Battaglia, who is the president of the national CASE organization based in Middletown, agreed that CASE representatives have to use their “professional experience” to find a safe, compatible match between a student and a host family.

“If a student calls and has the slightest qualms about a family, we take the student out,” she said. “We’ve never had any sexual or physical abuse from the host family.”

John Doty is a member of CSIET’s board of directors, as well as the director of Pacific Intercultural Exchange, a West Coast-based student exchange organization. He agreed that being able to do police checks on potential families would be ideal, but not possible in most cases.

“I would feel more comfortable if we had access to criminal background checks,” he said. “We would love nothing more than to tap into a database to find this out.”

According to Doty, even in areas where host families are required by law to agree to a background check, the cost and length of time it would take — up to six months — can be prohibitive.

“Our program’s application form asks if anyone in the family has ever committed a felony,” he said, “but if you ask and the answer comes back no, what good is it? We have to assume that it’s answered correctly.”

Doty said his agency checks with the schools, as well as asking potential host families for personal references.

“If the school says, I wouldn’t place a student with that family, we listen,” he said. “Our program brought in 20,000 students in the past 20 years and never had any reported abuse.”

Tarpin said that to facilitate the student and family getting along, she holds an orientation meeting within 10 days of the student’s arrival in the United States.

“There usually are little things that are cultural that they have to get used to,” she said.

As a local representative, she is expected to stay in close contact with the student and the family, by phone and in person, to help them through any problems during the student’s stay.

Battaglia said that CASE workers are independent contractors who receive $20 a month for each student they supervise.

* * *

The CASE organization is currently under scrutiny by the USIA and the CSIET for its actions in placing the Danish student with the Pokrovsky family.

“We look for patterns of concern,” said Anne Shattuck, CSIET director of operations. “Is this an isolated incident or is this a pattern? Our standards require written acceptance from the school prior to assigning a student to a family, but there may be extenuating circumstances where a phone call worked.”

Because each organization must reapply annually to be CSIET-designated, the incident will not be considered until the CSIET board’s regular meeting in January, Shattuck said.

Doty said that the majority of companies placing foreign students are not regulated at all.

“The USIA has stringent rules, but for-profit agencies are not regulated,” he said. “There are problems of screening issues because programs don’t have to comply with any standards.”

Doty said that when he helped push for legislation in his home state of California, one of the biggest problems faced was identifying organizations that are not designated by the USIA or CSIET.

“It’s impossible to know how many programs are out there,” he said. “Some are here today and gone tomorrow.

“Part of the problem comes from schools being unaware of the nature of this business. If the schools were more selective and knew what to look for in an exchange program, I think they would be diminishing their potential for problems.”

Doty said that non-designated, for-profit agencies are not necessarily bad.

“Some are excellent and have wonderful reputations,” he said.

Woodstown High School Principal Steve Merckel said being a non-profit agency doesn’t exclude everyone involved in it from making money.

“Non-profit doesn’t mean that the people who head them up don’t get big salaries,” he said.

To some school administrators, the addition of a foreign exchange student to the class rolls can be a culturally enriching experience for the entire student body, but others don’t accept them.

Kathleen Carfagno, administrative assistant to the Gloucester County Superintendent of Schools, said districts differ in their views on exchange students.

“We’ve talked about it with the local principals group. There are some schools, by policy, who say that we are not going to accept them,” she said. “Others say it’s a good opportunity to learn from someone from a foreign country.”

Merckel cited good experiences with students placed by both the 4-H and the Youth for Understanding organizations in the school district.

“They do an excellent job of monitoring students and working with families,” he said. “They usually take families known within the organization. I’ve worked with agencies before that don’t screen the kids or families well, and don’t give support when you have problems.”

Merkel said the school’s foreign exchange student policy, which was revised to limit exchange students to four per year, has helped the district avoid problems.

“Limiting the number you have in one year,” he said, “allows you to better give assistance to the students.”

* * *

The expense to the school district for enrolling a foreign student for a year is difficult to determine, but appears to be minimal. Henry Bermann, the board secretary and business administrator for the Pittsgrove district, said that the cost per student to attend Schalick is budgeted at $6,500.

“But we won’t know the actual audited cost until the following year,” he said.

One of the reasons the cost can’t be determined immediately is that state aid, which is granted per student enrolled, is often based on enrollment figures for the previous year. So in many cases, having an exchange student could result in increased state funding to a district.

An average of four or five exchange students a year may attend Kingsway Regional High School in Woolwich Township, according to Superintendent Terence Crowley.

“The biggest thing in my opinion,” he said, “is that it allows our kids to meet with other students from other countries.”

Crowley said there is another benefit to the exchange programs — Kingsway students have had the opportunity to study in other countries including Japan, Brazil and Ecuador.

Staff writer Cynthia Collier contributed to this report.

reesa marchetti,columnist

In Rural Alloway, Sculpture Blooms

Sculpture Garden in Alloway, N.J.
In rural Alloway, sculpture blooms

©Today’s Sunbeam
Staff Writer

SculptureALLOWAY TWP. — Instead of the fruits of the earth, Daniel Gantenbein grows the fruits of his imagination in his field on Commissioners Pike here.

Massive, geometric forms carved out of marble, granite and shaped steel, line the path that winds around his four-acre lot.

An award-winning international sculptor who has pieces on display at the Japanese Stone Museum, Gantenbein settled in Alloway 10 years ago in order to create his own gallery. His Ironstone Sculpture Garden officially opens to the public next weekend with a reception starting at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

The garden containing 30 pieces also features works by Casey Schwarz and David Tothero. Gantenbein said he will not be charging admission, because his purpose is to display the sculptures — to both casual admirers and potential buyers.

“I’ve showed with galleries, and as a sculptor, it’s hard to find suitable exhibition places,” he said. “I got tired of lugging pieces around to galleries — most of my pieces are heavy and not that easy to move around.

“I knew I could show it well here — it’s wonderful to see sculpture in the context of nature. If it stands next to a tree and makes sense, I think you’re doing all right.”

According to Gantenbein, having sculpture in public view allows people to see the world from different perspectives. He said that the county has few such objects.

“The cow and cowboy at Cowtown are about the only public sculptures we have around here,” he said. “and the chicken at Fisher’s.”

SculptureAlthough those long-standing rural characters are nothing like the abstract pieces that Gantenbein shapes, he considers the cow, the cowboy and the chicken to be works of art as well.

The Swiss-born artist said that since his move to Alloway, he has usually kept a few sculptures around his house or barn, but he just recently started to organize them.

“People have been coming already to see the sculptures,” he said. “They stop in from time to time. Some people drive up because they like it — they think it’s exciting.”

What attracts their attention, most likely, are the two objects along the roadway. One, which Gantenbein shaped out of antique metal farm implements, looks like a deer’s head with antlers sitting atop a pole. The other is a bright red and blue cubelike piece with triangular points at the top — Gatenbein says it’s a fox.

When people drive up to his house, they can leave their cars to walk a circular path cut out of a wildflower meadow, bordered by weeping willows and surrounded by cultivated farm fields. All along the path are the sculptures, some towering overhead, others closer to the ground.

Each piece had to be installed on its own foundation, Gatenbein explained. He pointed out a hoist that he and his friends had devised to move the heavy statues into place.

Gantenbein has lived and worked around the world since leaving home at age 16. He studied art in places as widespread as New York and Japan. The Japanese experience left a lasting impression on the sculptor.

“They split stone a different way. That’s why I wanted to go there,” he said. “It’s a different philosophy of working stone with a different visual effect.

“Sculpture is a universal language.”

During a tour of his barn-turned-art-studio, Gantenbein showed some of the work he has done in wood. His house, which is simplisticly modern inside, contains many of the pieces, carved out of exotic grains.

The artist said that for now, he wants to concentrate more on the stone works he has done for the garden.

“It’s outdoor sculpture,” he said, “meant to be seen outdoors.”

reesa marchetti,columnist

Award-winning column: New Way of Getting There

Reesa Marchetti, writer

N.J. Press Association award-winning column

Learning a new way of getting from here to there

© Today’s Sunbeam

Slanting slopes, rambling ramps, open-air lifts, closed hallways and mysterious buttons — this was my first adventure in true handicapped accessibility in Salem County.

Until last year, I never gave much thought to the ramps, elevators and handrails that have been cropping up in public buildings and other places since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But last year my former love of walking was replaced by the need to go slowly, using a cane (on a good day), and on a bad day — the need for wheels. Because multiple sclerosis left me unable to walk more than a short distance, I got myself a powered scooter.

You know the kind. Maybe you’ve seen them in commercials accompanied by a jingle with the words, “Now I can go to the mall!”
Or perhaps you remember the one that the character George was riding on an episode of the television show “Seinfeld” when he pretended to be handicapped in order to get a job.

Although I wish I was pretending, I’ve had to accept the fact that I am handicapped. Certainly not as bad off as many others, but going up or down steps is troublesome for me.

So riding my scooter around downtown Salem City was kind of fun.

The first time I approached the wheelchair ramp in the county courthouse, it looked daunting to me: a long, sharply sloping concrete thing.
I expressed my fears, and my amusement, to a gentlemen standing near the ramp, and he laughed.

“Just make sure your brake’s working,” he said.

Thinking I would sluice speedily down the slope, I proceeded apprehensively and instead coasted slowly to the bottom.
There I encountered a push button before the doorway. Now those handicapped push buttons for doors are great things, although you probably never think about them much.

When you’re in a wheelchair, or a scooter like mine, it’s kind of tricky to push the door open and then get your motorized chair through the door before it slams shut. The push button is set up so that the door opens before you reach it. Handy.

Inside this basement entryway to the courthouse, however, I found the inner door locked. A sign instructed me to pick up a phone on the wall to call the guards.
Several minutes later, two officers appeared and asked me what I wanted to do in the courthouse. They then asked if they could look in my pocket-book.

I said, “Go ahead.”

Looking a little flustered, one guard said, “No, you have to open it yourself and show us.”

Having heard about men who are afraid to enter a woman’s pocketbook, I tried to joke with the guard.

“No, ma’am, I’m not afraid,” he said in a very serious manner. “You have to open it for us.”

Since the man was obviously in no joking mood, I revealed the contents of my purse and the guards let me in, leading me through the law library to the elevator. It was smooth sailing after that through the courthouse halls.

My experience in Woodstown, at the post office, was a lot homier. In this case, I was walking with my cane and I saw an odd-looking contraption next to the steps.

There were no signs indicating what it was, and I assumed it was for packages. So I walked slowly up the steps inside.

After I had transacted my business, I noticed that there was a door leading to the open-air lift, and the sidewalk below. I also noticed that Liz Smith was standing there.

After we exchanged greetings, we started talking about the lift. She said that, yes indeed, it was to carry people up and down but she had no idea how it worked. She asked one of the postal clerks, and with some instruction, we entered the lift.

Liz pushed the button, and we started down. I whooped in delight. And the lift stopped.

So she pushed the button again and it started again. And stopped.

After we finally figured out that you had to keep your finger on the button to keep the lift moving, the lift slowly lowered to the sidewalk.

Postmaster Bill Worrilow told me later that the lift was designed with a non-automatic button as a safety feature to prevent the arms or legs of people on the street from getting caught in the lift’s mechanism.

“We didn’t want someone to lean over from the outside,” he said, “and send it going up.”

Just one of my ramping experiences was less than satisfying. I went to a dentist office and found a handicapped parking spot leading to a ramp inside the office.

It was a relief to find this ramp so handily, so I caned my way to the top and saw there was a door. But when I went to open it, it was locked.

A hygienist appeared at the window and said she’d be right over to unlock it. Obviously, this handicapped entrance wasn’t used much because I heard the sound of her footsteps as she went after a key.

When she finally came back and unlocked the door, I was led right into a cubicle with a dental chair — in which a patient already sat having her teeth examined. It wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences for either of us.

Whether sharp slopes or plodding lifts, with one exception, I’ve found out that ramping can be fun.

reesa marchetti,columnist

Award-winning column: A Good Deed

Reesa Marchett, writerN.J. Press Association award-winning column
A good deed comes from a shared experience in life

© Today’s Sunbeam

“Terminal,” he said.

In the same cheerful, matter-of-fact tone that he had been using to describe his life with his wife, Sophie, in their Craven Street neighborhood, Andy McKee told me about his coming death.

I paused in my interview of the couple to keep myself from crying.

This was not the answer I had expected when I asked Andy what his prognosis was.

And this was not the story I had expected when Sophie called earlier in the day to tell me about “just a really nice thing” that two little girls on their block had done.

When I drove onto Craven Street that hot, sticky afternoon, just as Sophie had described it, I saw Jessica and Meagan selling lemonade from a card-table stand. The cute thing they had done, according to Sophie, was — without anyone having asked them to do so — to bring Andy a cup of the refreshing liquid.

Andy is disabled, Sophie had said, and the girls know he has difficulty walking. As I found out when I met Andy, one of his legs was removed when he was a youth because he had cancer — cancer that up until a year ago, his doctors thought was cured.

Meagan Fogg, 9, and her “step-cousin,” Jessica Harris, 11, didn’t know the extent of Andy’s illness when they decided to bring lemonade to him. They just wanted to help out, they told me.

The young entrepreneurs said they delivered free drinks to a number of people in the neighborhood who might not be able to get out to their lemonade stand.

As we sat talking in the shady front yard at Jessica’s grandma’s house, Meagan broke away to bring some 25-cent refreshment to the mailman.

When I asked Jessica why she was so considerate and helpful to other people, she revealed something about herself that not too many people in the neighborhood knew.

“I just thought since he couldn’t walk down here — well, he can with his crutches but that wouldn’t be right — everyone brought me stuff when I had cancer,” she said.

Jessica had a brain tumor when she was 4, a long time ago for an 11-year-old, but she still remembers the kindness that was shown to her. She offered this explanation of how her illness was discovered:

“The only reason they found out was because my brother hit me in the head with a golf club,” she said. “It wasn’t his fault — I walked behind him and he hit me with his back swing.”

Jessica had more than one thing in common with Andy at that time, but one of the things that stands out in her mind today is the pre-surgery haircut.

“I had all my head shaved off,” she said. “I only had two pieces of hair hanging down.”

Andy still sports the shaved-head look, although he’s no longer in treatment for cancer.

“As you see,” he said, nodding his head, “it’s my $4,000 haircut.”

Originally from Quinton, Andy said he had been going out with Sophie, a Pennsville native for several years before the two 27-year-olds got engaged. When they found out a year ago that Andy’s cancer had reoccurred, they decided to wed right away.

“We weren’t planning on getting married then,” Sophie said. “Someone told us go on living our lives while we can, so we’re getting it all — in high gear.”

As evidence, Sophie pointed out the two Tiffany-style lamps she purchased recently to go in their trim, neat living room. They bought the house and moved in earlier this year.

“We’re just in love with the house,” she said, “so now we stay home a lot.”

“High gear” for the McKees also includes doing some traveling, as the boat parked in front of their house would indicate.

Despite what he calls misconceptions about how a terminally-ill patient should feel, Andy says at times he’s “a little sluggish,” but most of the time he feels “great.”

He and Sophie are determined to keep a positive attitude, and they just want their friends to treat them normally.

“Some people are afraid to come over,” Sophie said. “They’re afraid of what they’ll find when they come to see him.”

Andy says the attitude he encounters from children is usually different.

“We have fun with all the neighborhood kids,” he said.

“When they see him driving down the road, they’re like, `Hi, Andy, Hi, Andy,’ ” Sophie said. “They think he’s the greatest thing since bubble gum.”

Sophie said she and Andy want to do normal things and “just live life to the fullest.”

Andy has other, typical-male concerns: “I’m just waiting for football season to come,” he said.

And while he waits, there are kids in the neighborhood who think Andy’s the greatest. And bringing him a cup of lemonade on a hot day is the least they can do.

Jessica and Meagan earned $11 that day, and the cliché that dictates, “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade,” was never truer.

(Editor’s note: Andy died less than six months after this article appeared.)

reesa marchetti,columnist

Award-winning column: Everybody Wants a Day

Reesa Marchetti, writerEverybody Wants a Day
© Today’s Sunbeam

Sometimes the trash can is my favorite piece of office equipment.

With my guidance, the preposterous press releases that come across my desk daily go right there. These notices — which I’ve been getting more and more of lately — proclaim commemorative days, weeks and months, some sanctioned by Congress, all touting their own special cause.

I began pondering this overabundance of commemorativeness, about the time the package from National Headache Awareness Month landed on my desk, complete with coupons for aspirin.

It seems that every cause under the sun wants its own place in it. Every day is a national day, week or month for someone or something, and every someone or something is proud of it — and not at all shy about letting me know.

This year, April hosted both National Panic Week and National Artichoke Week, which was a good thing for people who are afraid of prickly vegetables. And why shouldn’t they be?

It’s also good that Eat What Yu Want Day arrives in May, and National Clean Out Your Fridge Day comes just in time for Thanksgiving.

Prune Breakfast Month and Oatmeal Month were both in January, preceded by National Maple Syrup Day. Now wasn’t that a little out of order?

Other foods that have their own days or month are Chicken, Turkey, Bratwurst, Pigs-in-a-Blanket, Clams on the Half Shell, Fresh Fruit and Vegetables, Beans, Pretzels, Popcorn, Garlic, Gazpacho, Mustard, various Nuts, Desserts including Butterscotch Pudding and of course, Ice Cream.

Ice cream even has its own subdivisions, for example, Vanilla, Rocky Road, etc. Fortunately these are followed by Vegetarian Day on Oct. 1 and National Bicarbonate of Soda Day, Dec. 30.

Professions are celebrated, too. I’m not sure where this all started. Perhaps Secretary’s Day, whose only real celebrants are greeting card companies and florists, was the first.

Even though hardly anyone is called a secretary these days — they’ve all become administrative assistants — employers all over the nation continue to spend their money on useless items for their typists, probably to assuage their guilt about making their secretaries always say that they’re in a meeting.

Accountants, Clowns, Engineers, Hikers, Kids, Lawyers, Nurse’s Assistants, Poets and Whale Watchers all have their own days or weeks now.

And the Biomedical Engineers organization has been petitioning Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress for its own nationally-sanctioned week. So that everyone will know that they are: “the people who maintain, in all ways, the medical equipment used in today’s healthcare profession … from the light the doctor uses to look in your ear, to the ventilator placed on patients who need assistance in breathing.”

I guess we’d all breathe easier knowing that.

There are many excellent health-related causes, such as those celebrating immunization, nutrition, safety, awareness of breast cancer and other illnesses. But do we really need a National Condom Week?

We have Pooh Day, World Friendship Day and Football, Basketball and Legos days.

Every dog has its day (Be Kind to Animals Week).

But when do I get mine: perhaps during Middle-aged, Artificial Redheads Week?

Or maybe I’ll find the real answer on Nov. 1, an occasion I’m really looking forward to: National Makeover Day.

reesa marchetti,columnist

A Skillet Tossing Woman

She tries her hand at skillet tossing

© Today’s Sunbeam

In my mind, I had my acceptance speech all planned. I rehearsed the script mentally …

“I am honored to be presented with this winner’s mug, but of course, as a journalist, I cannot accept this award.”

I would then graciously turn the prize over to the woman who almost matched my prowess.

Yes, that was my dream until I entered the skillet-throwing competition at the county fair last week — and found out that I am a wimp. No, not just a wimp. I stink at skillet-throwing.

I had the worst score of the entire event that night. A silver-haired senior citizen beat my throw by 10 feet. I mean, I was pathetic.

For those uninitiated in the joys of skillet-throwing, I’ll just say, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Although nobody at the fair could tell me exactly what this sport means, most people whom I questioned about it said that it had something to do with a wife throwing a cast-iron skillet at her husband.

Of course, that was back in the good old days. Now we have to throw microwave ovens at our husbands.

So out of respect for this grand tradition, women at the county fair sign up for a chance to demonstrate how far and how accurately they can aim and fling a 10-inch skillet.

You get three throws to prove how much of a woman you are. And it can’t just be a power shot — you get points off if the pan doesn’t follow a straight path along the measuring tape laid out by the judges.

This is meant to be fun, but as each woman stepped up to lob her skillets, you could tell they were serious. That’s when I started to worry.

One woman’s first shot went far afield, getting her a warning from the official, Alice Shivers, to please not hit the judges. That also got the contestant a lot of laughs from the crowd.

By the time I had seen most of my competitors take their turns, my hopes of achieving Olympic gold in skillet-throwing had been tossed aside. Two women had already passed the 48-foot mark.

I sized up each woman as she approached the rack, skillet in hand. Some took three steps and tossed as if they were bowling. Others stood still and flung as hard as they could. One woman who was a high-scorer wound up like a windmill before pitching her pan.

When my name was called, I had a pretty good idea that I wouldn’t wind up at the top, but I thought I would at least be average, which seemed to be about 30 feet.

My first throw drew a collective gasp from the audience. No, they weren’t amazed by my strength — the pan went straight up in the air.

Alice suggested that I get myself a hard hat.

I took a deep breath, stepped up to the line again and heaved. This time the skillet went in a near-perfectly straight line close to the ground and landed at — 20 feet.

A woman’s first skillet throw is something she always remembers. Just ask any contestant and she can reel off the numbers: 30 feet, 6 inches; 41 feet, 11 inches; 34 feet, 1 inch … And then there’s mine: 20 feet, 3 inches.

I have plenty of excuses. I didn’t get to practice or pump iron, as some of the contestants did. I spend all my time using my hands to type instead of tossing things. I was afraid to throw it too far because I might hit the judges. And I didn’t want to throw it too hard because it would make the other women look bad.

The truth is, the other women beat me fair and square. When it comes to skillet-tossing, I’m just a wimp.