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Holy Spirit’s against Lower Cape May during scrimmage game at Holy Spirit High School Friday April 16, 2021. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City


Local
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EMT, Gift of Life advocate saves lives after kidney donation saved hers

(Editor's note: This article was updated Monday, April 19, to correct information regarding Type I diabetes.)

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Stacey M. Rodenas has three kidneys and two pancreases.

Rodenas, 34, named her new organs “Frank” and “Pank.” She says she has a “dark sense of humor,” something that has given her the strength and positivity needed to survive kidney failure and an organ transplant.

Today, after the life-saving procedure, Rodenas is working full time as an EMT through the COVID-19 pandemic, raising her 9-year-old son as a single mother and advocating the importance of organ donation with an organization called Gift of Life.

Rodenas was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was 11. Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are mistakenly destroyed by the body’s immune system. Due to complications of Rodena’s Type I diabetes, which she believes resulted from her poor dietary choices, her organs began to fail.

“When you’re young, you don’t really think about things like that. Everyone tells you, ‘Oh, if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re going to end up having issues.’ You think you’re invincible, so you kind of just do whatever you want to do,” said Rodenas. “I would eat things and make up for it with my insulin, and eventually I just lost control of my diabetes.”

In December 2016, Rodenas was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease, a result of her diabetes, that would gradually make her kidneys fail. From there, Rodenas started peritoneal dialysis, performing the treatment on herself at home overnight after receiving the required training, and began the process of getting on a transplant list.

She remembers the day she got the call that she was on the list — Feb. 28, 2017 — as well as the shock she felt when she got another call only eight hours later that she was a backup recipient for the life-saving organs she needed.

The next day, the morning of March 1, she was told to come to the hospital to get an organ transplant. The rapid turnaround seemed so surreal to Rodenas that it wasn’t until she was being rolled into the operating room that the reality of the situation registered.

Despite the shock, Rodenas understood the risks; she knew there was a chance she wouldn’t wake up. To her, the decision to proceed with surgery was a no-brainer. She had no other alternative.

“The only thing I kept thinking about was my son and like, ‘Well, I have to get back to him,’ so if there’s a chance for me to fight in any possible way, I’m going to do it,” Rodenas said.

She felt comfort in leaving her fate in the hands of her transplant surgeon, Dr. Adam Frank, whom she named her new kidney after.

“They didn’t take my native kidneys out. They only take them out if they’re necrotic or like have some sort of damage, so my organs are still in my abdomen.”

Post surgery, she experienced setbacks such as struggling to walk and low blood pressure. None of that stopped her from returning to her career as an EMS lieutenant for Galloway Township 11 months post surgery, in an effort to regain some sense of normalcy and to help others once again.

Rodenas said she got involved with a volunteer ambulance squad at 16 because she was curious.

“As I got older and got more involved with patient care, I really enjoyed advocating for patients. And you get to really talk to people and help them and their, you know, different situations,” Rodenas said.

Her advocacy and drive to help others doesn’t stop with her job. When COVID-19 started spreading in March of last year, her doctors at Jefferson took her out of work temporarily, fearing the unknown. Rodenas took that time to become a trained Gift of Life ambassador, conducting Zoom meetings with other organ recipients, organ donors and those who want to contribute to the program.

Gift of Life is an organization dedicated to connecting organ and tissue donors with recipients. Based out of Philadelphia, Gift of Life supports donors, recipients and their families from Eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware.

Through the organization, Rodenas became an advocate for organ donation and participated in awareness events such as their yearly Donor Dash. This year’s event, which was virtual due to the pandemic, runs through Sunday.

“So I have a donation page that people can raise, you know, if we’re trying to raise money for the thing itself or if anybody wants to walk with me. I have a couple people that are interested in doing that; we just walk at home. We all submit pictures, and so my son and I will be doing it this year, from home,” Rodenas said.

In regard to her future advocacy plans, Rodenas would like to work with other donation organizations and become a resource for other organ recipients.

“My goal is to go to nursing school. I want to work either with Gift of Life or transplant patients,” Rodenas said, adding she wants to address the issues recipients face. “They don’t really want to talk about like the real issues, like how about how a woman is going to, like I have a scar that ranges from my ribcage down to like my lower abdomen, you know, how are you going to feel as a woman.”

In addition to body image, Rodenas wants to address other concerns that only someone who’s had a transplant would understand, such as medication side effects and recovery.

Rodenas says she tells her story not to gain sympathy but to educate others on a sensitive topic and express the impact organ donation had on her life, and the legacy a person’s last decision can make.

“It’s not always a wonderful story. My story hasn’t always been the best. I have the most beautiful life now, even with all my struggles, I would take that over not having what I have right now. So if you can give that to somebody, if you can give somebody hope, and really just a chance, take the opportunity to do it,” Rodenas said.

For her, she just needs to look at her hand to remember the gift she received. She wears a custom-made ring with the date of her transplant engraved on it in memory of her donor.

April is National Donate Life Month. More information about organ and tissue donation and Gift of Life can be found at donors1.org.

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Local
top story
Chelsea awarded $681,000 to implement neighborhood plan

ATLANTIC CITY — The city’s Chelsea neighborhood will get a much-needed facelift, as well as help with a multitude of projects, thanks to a $681,250 grant from the state Department of Community Affairs.

The grant was given to the nonprofit Atlantic City Development Corp., the developer of Stockton University’s city campus and the neighboring South Jersey Gas headquarters. Through the Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit program, the grant will help fund a number of projects intended to strengthen community, promote safety and wellness, youth and recreation, and bolster economic development.

Elizabeth Terenik, senior project manager at ACDEVCO, said the community's objectives for the program were finally “coming to fruition.”

“Developing the plan was a critical and required step, but the implementation is truly exciting,” said Terenik, who also is president of the Chelsea Economic Development Corp. “The reason this model of neighborhood revitalization works well, and can serve as a great model for neighborhoods throughout the city, is because it pulls together Chelsea’s anchor institutions, neighborhood businesses and the residents to establish common goals, such as public safety, and working together to implement the strategies. Every neighborhood in the city has those same ingredients.”

The area for the NRTC Plan is a 0.75-square-mile site that is home to 10,000 residents from Annapolis to Texas avenues and from the beach to the bay. Virtual and in-person meetings and surveys led by ACDEVCO and the nonprofit Chelsea EDC garnered public input on the community’s priorities.

According to the findings, community members generally believe Chelsea’s greatest assets are its diversity of people, businesses and institutions, as well as its natural resources and open spaces.

Jessie Clisham, 21, and roommate Yosef Valencia, 20, live in Chelsea Heights. They

stopped for a quick drink at the Boba Café on Ventnor Avenue, where they both said they would like to see the money go toward fixing the roads in the area, along with their own separate interests.

“I definitely want to see the money go towards trade schools and work training,” Valencia said.

“I would like to see more flowers and trees,” Clisham said.

Other locals said they would like to see the money go toward recreational areas and infrastructure.

“Like sports fields and basketball courts,” said Don Daniel, 25, of Margate, after ordering a poke bowl at the Poke Bowl Café, also on Ventnor Avenue. “Places that aren’t bars, where people can go and enjoy themselves without alcohol.”

Cooper Fiadino, 24, of Ventnor, said, “I would like to see the grant money go towards cleaning up the streets, making them more walkable and add lighting.” He also said he would like to see the history of Atlantic City, like historic buildings, preserved and invested in.

Residents can expect a Chelsea Street Captain program, which will train resident volunteers to lead beautification efforts such as sidewalk repairs, tree plantings, general cleanup, lighting and other improvements requested by residents.

Additionally, the Chelsea community can look forward to summer outdoor fitness classes and special events, including a fall market highlighting fresh produce, neighborhood restaurants and things to appeal to the neighborhood’s many cultures.

Councilman Jesse Kurtz, whose ward includes Chelsea, said the effort has taken about two years and he looks forward to the fruits of that labor for the neighborhood.

“My hope is that the EDC will extend the positive impact of the Gateway Project into the actual neighborhood,” Kurtz said. “The key part of the plan is that there has to be a lot of community involvement.”

Some of the projects funded by the neighborhood plan will go to the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) Lab at the Chelsea Boys & Girls Club, the STEAM program at Our Lady Star of the Sea School and Mudgirls Studio’s job training program.

Boys & Girls Club CEO Stephanie Koch said she is “extremely excited” about the award designated to support the STEAM Lab.

“The Chelsea EDC has been instrumental in uniting community members around youth development and recreation, educational opportunities, job readiness, as well as cleaner and safer communities. To fuel this transformative plan, the club is looking to be a catalyst for change with our STEAM Lab, providing opportunities for young people to explore careers in technology, focusing on coding and robotics, preparing them for self-sustaining careers in the future,” said Koch. “We are incredibly grateful to our Chelsea community partners and look forward to rising together, turning this plan into a reality.”

The Atlantic City Arts Foundation said in a news release it is working with the Chelsea EDC to add more art to the visual landscape.

“We’ll be able to provide opportunities for the members of our local creative community to share their art through a fairly innovative program we’ve developed as well as through more traditional projects,” said Joyce Hagen, executive director of the Arts Foundation. “I hope that the other city districts will see the success and then adopt their own initiatives. Little by little we’ll see Atlantic City become the vibrant residential and business community we all know it can be.”

Other project partners include AtlantiCare, the Greater Atlantic City Chamber, the Atlantic County Improvement Authority and the Latin American Economic Development Agency.

Organizations such as OceanFirst Bank, PNC Bank and Horizon Healthcare chose to fund the Chelsea projects and will receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.

“The Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Program is one of the best public-private partnerships in the state because everyone wins,” Lt. Gov. and DCA Commissioner Sheila Oliver said in a news release. “Corporations that participate get a tax credit and contribute to neighborhood redevelopment programs of their choosing, nonprofit groups with a proven track record of helping their communities get much needed dollars, and residents get a better neighborhood.”

Projects funded in this round will support Chelsea’s 100+ small businesses through events, promotions, district branding and marketing, assistance applying for grants, access to capital, technical support and other resources.

Funding also will go toward commercial real estate grants for neighborhood businesses to purchase their own building and {span}beautifying vacant storefronts through art installations, storefront murals and other façade improvements.

For more information, visit ChelseaEDC.org.

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Education
featured
Students received devices and hot spots, but the digital divide goes much deeper

Last month, New Jersey announced it had bridged the “digital divide” by providing 231,000 students statewide with hot spots and devices to connect to the internet for school as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed classrooms from in-person to virtual.

Ellen Hemple was shocked to hear the news.

“It’s a sore subject for us, it really is,” said Hemple, a Lower Alloways Creek Township art teacher who uses cellular service and Verizon hot spots to connect. She and her neighbors have never had a decent internet connection. “I feel like I’m living in the Dark Ages.”

Typically, the term “digital divide” is used to describe the educational barriers created by the lack of technology and internet connectivity by some students and their families, but educational experts and advocates say it’s much more far-reaching than K-12 students, and addressing it will take much more than providing equipment.

It also will require addressing the infrastructure and the divides that exist in society, affecting less affluent families, like having safe, comfortable and quiet places to learn, and whether there are adults at home who can help students with technological issues or classwork questions.

“If solving the digital divide were about providing everyone with a device and a pipe to the internet, it would have been really easily solved and solved a long time ago,” said Jim Brown, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden and director of the Digital Studies Center. He said his own students had major connectivity issues, and they were not evenly distributed.

Although the district where Hemple teaches has been back in person for a majority of the time since September, on the days Hemple has to teach from home, she often experiences slow service, causing her audio or video not to work, which can be detrimental to her and her students, she said.

The digital divide’s impact on educational attainment is still being measured, but educators and legislators across New Jersey are expecting the worst, which is why the state invested more than $50 million in bridging the divide over the past year.

“Remote or virtual learning access is just one factor impacting student learning during the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency,” Department of Education spokesman Shaheed Morris said. “The department’s evaluation of student learning is not limited to or solely focused on the impact of the digital divide; the department has and will continue to incorporate multiple strategies to measure student learning during this unprecedented time and to help districts and students accelerate learning in response.”

Information on those strategies is forthcoming, Morris said.

While affordability is the primary barrier to access to internet, those living in rural areas were less likely than those in urban areas to have access by 69% to 98%, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission report.

Darrell Edmonds, founder of the local youth empowerment organization Friday is Tie Day, said he knows college students in rural areas of Atlantic County without internet at home who would sit outside the library in their cars this year to complete homework assignments. Some students, he said, were using their cellphones to type their college papers.

Pleasantville, a poor, urban district with a majority minority population, has been all-virtual since last March and will not return to the classroom this year as the district attempts to tackle mold issues in the buildings.

Students in the district were provided laptops and hot spots, but 10-year-old Kristina Session, a fourth-grade student at the South Main Street School, said it was much easier when the students were in the classroom.

“The work got a little harder and the teacher wasn’t next to us trying to help us,” she said, adding there are more distractions now for students who are at home, like background noise.

Kristina now attends the Future Leaders program in Pleasantville during the school day, where staff members make sure students have a good internet connection and are provided meals and additional support.

Rena Graves, 52, of Pleasantville, was watching her four grandchildren during the day but decided to send them to Future Leaders when their school became a challenge due to internet connectivity.

“It was horrible, it was slow. I had to up my internet to the highest speed because all four of them were on at the same time,” Graves said, adding that in addition to the technological challenge, it also was a financial burden.

Area residents said that while governments, private businesses like Comcast and nonprofits are taking positive steps to address the inequity created by the digital divide, there is much more to do to not only ensure students receive an equitable education but to make sure the entire region can grow educationally and economically.

Pedro Santana, a former longtime Stockton University professor and assistant vice president for student affairs, said the region and the state should learn from this situation, challenge pre-existing concepts and create new frameworks for success.

“We have an opportunity as a region to attract investors who want to invest in Atlantic County and bring us up into that next level of participation in the economy,” he said.

Brown applauded the $100 billion investment into broadband access within the Biden administration’s approximately $2 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, which the White House says will bring reliable broadband to “more than 35% of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds.”

He said the line between what is digital and what is not is blurred due to how we function as a society that is reliant upon digital technology, so he is optimistic about that kind of thinking in government — the internet as a public utility.

Brown said instead of calling it a digital divide, it should be called digital inequities and then addressing those issues would lead to results that also address wage and wealth inequality, child care and more.

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