Principal placed of administrative leave, parents ask why

This article appeared on December 3, 2014 in The Gardner News. 

The principal, a guidance counselor and a teacher at Helen Mae Sauter Elementary School have been placed on paid administrative leave affective Nov. 21.

“There is an investigation underway,” said Superintendent Denise Clemons, who could not comment further on the matter as it is a personnel issue.

Officials said it may be related to an incident of a student being videotaped without consent.

At this time, the police department is not involved in the investigation, according to Chief Neil Erickson. Media outlets were told the incident is not criminal in nature but related to a school policy that was allegedly broken.

The information became public when the “Hms Pto” Facebook group posted to the Helen Mae Sauter PTO Facebook page at 8 p.m. on Monday saying that Principal Janet Smith, guidance counselor Deb Leone and second grade teacher Denise Ulrich have all been put on administrative leave.

The post said it was “in response to questions we have been receiving about the three faculty members.”

The post was removed before midnight, as the comments section spiraled out of control. However, eliminating the post did little to calm concerned parents.

“That tells me they are hiding something,” said parent Kimberley Fagan.

Ms. Fagan is hoping for a swift investigation, as she feels the absence of the faulty members has created a disruption in the education of her daughter, who is a special education student.

As one parent phrased it, “we get a call for every other little thing to not be informed that our school’s principal has been gone for almost two weeks and no one will say anything?”

While much of what happens at the schools is public information, personnel issues are confidential, according to the city’s Director of Human Resources Debra Pond.

“It’s for the protection of the employee and the employer,” she said. “People take a small amount of information and make it into something it’s not. That’s why it’s confidential.”

The School Committee has a meeting schedule for Monday where it is feasible the situation could come up for discussion. However, as of this time, there has not been an executive session for the administration to inform the school committee on the matter.

“We are not commenting on it as it is a  personnel issue,” said Committee member Carol Bailey when contacted Tuesday evening.

Ms. Smith has held the principal position at the Helen Mae Sauter School since 2012, according to city records. Although, she has worked for the School Department for significantly longer.Many parents are hoping the administrator and two faculty members will be reinstated soon.

“The integrity and character they display to the children is second to none, and the dedication they have to HMS and our students is more than any parent could ask for,” the HMS PTO wrote in their press release yesterday.

“They really are amazing at their jobs, and we cannot wait for their return.”


Addiction in the Region: ‘I couldn’t save my son’

This story appeared on October 18, 2014 in The Gardner News. It was part of a three part series talking to parents of addicts. 

On Feb. 10, Joyce Fletcher woke up to a pounding on the door. It was still dark out, too early for good news.
“I came down the stairs, and I saw a police car, and I just lost it because I knew. I knew,” she said.

Her son, her baby, had died of a heroin overdose.


Six years earlier, Ms. Fletcher and her husband James learned their son Kevin was an addict the hard way. They had spent the day in New Hampshire watching their son play college football, and when they returned home their daughter’s then fiance was waiting in the kitchen.

“I thought ‘uh oh, something happened. Why is he here?’” said Ms. Fletcher. “And he said ‘something really bad happened, but it’s okay.’ And, of course, then you start shaking. He said ‘Kevin had an overdose.’”

Earlier that day — September 6, 2008 — Kevin, then 25, had been driving around with an old friend. When he went to get out of the car, he collapsed unconscious on the driveway. The friend started rescue breathing and called 911. When they arrived, EMTs revived Kevin with Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose. At first he didn’t want to go the hospital, but later relented.

“I think it scared him when they finally told him what happened,” his father said. “He couldn’t hide it anymore. “

Panicked, his parents spent the night on the phone trying to figure out what to do next. They called hotlines that didn’t work, asked bewildered doctors they knew for advice and researched detox centers on the internet.

By morning, they had settled on sending him to a clinic in California that charged $30,000 a stay.

“We thought 30, 60 days maybe, and he’d come back good as new, and life was going to go on like it used to,” Ms. Fletcher said.

“There was a small thought this might not work, but we thought for sure, he would be better,” she continued.

“I wish I knew people aren’t always looking out for the best interest of your child,” Ms. Fletcher said. “They just want your cash ahead of time.”


Later that day, the Fletchers put a resentful Kevin on a flight to the West Coast.

“Then we find out it’s all scientology, they give him high doses of meds and made him sweat. There was no treatment there,” Ms. Fletcher said. “I can’t believe I did that to my son.”

While it was happening, the Fletchers didn’t know how bad the center was. So Kevin went through the treatment, and his parents continued to believe he had come home  fixed.

Until, his father caught him using the next day.

As time went on and Kevin went to more and more rehabs, his parents got smarter.

“Whether people know it or not, rehab is big business,” Ms. Fletcher said. “And it’s mostly unregulated.”

They learned to ask treatment centers if they were accredited by the Joint Commission of Hospital Accreditation.

They stopped feeling so pressured when centers said “there’s only one bed left” knowing that it probably wasn’t true.

They discovered the insurance wouldn’t cover their son’s treatment until he overdosed several times. And they traded their initial anger and frustration over the situation in for compassion towards their son.

“It’s an awful disease,” Ms. Fletcher said. “He struggled way, way more than we knew. He tried so hard to get better, and he just couldn’t … I would have traded places with him in a second. I would have done anything, but there wasn’t anything I can do.”

In total, they said they sent Kevin to at least 12 treatment facilities, including two stays at Hazelden treatment center.

Mr. Fletcher said they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on treatment or “enough to send him to several privates schools and do a fifth year.”

“We’ve never added it up, but yeah we spent a lot of money,” he said.


In retrospect, Ms. Fletcher said, there were warning signs.

Growing up, Kevin had all the benefits of being part of an upper middle class home, Ms. Fletcher said. She stayed home with all three of her children, and both her and her husband volunteered in all their activities, not missing any events.

She always encouraged Kevin to invite his friends over, so she could make sure everything was okay. And when he was 16, they bought him a car, so he could always leave if things got out of hand while hanging out with friends.

“I guess what I am trying to say is that his life was normal, he had a great family, he had everything he needed and wanted.  He lived in a nice house and he still suffered,” Ms. Fletcher said.

At Gardner High School, Kevin was on the football team and made captain of the baseball team.

He was happy, Ms. Fletcher recalled. It wasn’t until the end of his senior year that she started to notice changes, like a different group of friends.

“When you see them totally change friends, that’s a clue we didn’t know,” Mr. Fletcher said.

Kevin admitted to smoking pot, but his parents believed during college his drug use escalated. He went through periods of anxiety and depression. His grades slipped and he didn’t graduate after four years.

“I was in denial,” Ms. Fletcher said. “My gut was saying something was wrong and I didn’t listen to that because I didn’t want it to be that.”

He returned to Gardner and started working for his father. He lost weight, there were days he couldn’t get out of bed until mid afternoon and his mom noticed his pupils were often tiny.

Overall, he seemed depressed.

“I wish I had known to confront earlier … I don’t know if it would have changed anything. The hardest thing in the world is seeing your child dying and you’ve done everything and there’s nothing else you can do,” Ms. Fletcher said. “I think early intervention is important. The heavier the drug use gets, the worse it is going to turn out. A lot of them die. They’re either in prison or they die.”

A hair test, she said, would have been the best way to check.


In some ways, Kevin’s disease was the entire family’s. Ms. Fletcher, typically a very social person, retreated into herself.

She couldn’t handle being around a lot of people anymore.

“I was just so worn out from the fight,” she said. “Just as the addict isolates him or herself, so did I.”

She cried all the time and stopped smiling. This, in turn, strained her relationship with her husband, and her new distance hurt her other two kids.

“I was so sad all the time. I know it was hard for my other kids to see that,” Ms. Fletcher said.  “They say you should release (your child with an addiction), not have any contact. I couldn’t do that to my baby. I know I maybe did things wrong. I couldn’t detach that much.”

She was waiting in dread, for a phone call saying her son was would never come home.


Kevin was struggling. He wanted to get better, his parents said, but he couldn’t.

At one point, his father recalled, he intentionally got himself kicked out of a rehab facility. The management decided to transfer him.

“They moved him to another facility in Desert Spring. They dropped him off outside with his suitcase, and he never bothered going in,” Mr. Fletcher said. “In 45 minutes he was high. That’s all it took, in a place he didn’t know, at 10 o’clock at night.”

The absolute worst period was the three months right before his last stay in Hazelden, when he was homeless living on the streets of Denver.

“It was horrible,” Ms. Fletcher said. She felt anxious and afraid all the time. “We didn’t know where he was. Sometimes he didn’t have a cell phone.”

When he did borrow someone’s phone to call home, he sounded awful, Ms. Fletcher said. He would beg to come home.

“We said ‘Yes Kevin, you can always come home, but you need help first,’” she said. “Finally, in order to save his life he called and asked for help.”

Mr. Fletcher flew to Denver the next day, and then drove him to Minneapolis and admitted him to Hazelden again.


There, Kevin began to get better. He had always wanted to be well, but his second stay was where things began to click. He worked through some of the shame and guilt he felt, and started to find joy without heroin for the first time in years.

“He called and told us ‘I never thought I could ever get better, and I do now. This place has given me hope,’” she said.

He moved into a halfway house. After four months of sobriety, he came home for Christmas. He had put on weight, was smiling, met his nephew for the first time.  By all accounts, he seemed better, and Ms. Fletcher stopped waiting for the call telling her her son was dead.

“Seriously when he came home for Christmas I thought we had it licked,” Ms. Fletcher said. “We had hope. We had a lot of hope then. We really did.”


Two months later, he died of an overdose. He was in the bathroom at his sober living facility. Officials don’t know how long he had been using for, but suspect it was the first time since he had sobered up.


“What I wish I knew too is that I couldn’t save my son,” Ms. Fletcher said. “I wish I knew that. You spend so many years in anguish. Anytime Kevin said I want help we never turned our back on him. We were there. We never hid it from anybody we were always open about it. We don’t want Kevin’s life to be for nothing. He went to world class places … and we still couldn’t save him. He had to save himself.”


The Fletchers are now planning on starting a foundation to honor Kevin’s life and help other people going through what they did.

They also want people to know many detox centers, including Hazelden, offer scholarships to people who otherwise might not be able to afford treatment.

Parents looking for more resources can attend the Learn to Cope meetings Tuesday evening at Heywood Hospital. The group meets at 7 p.m.

Principal cracks down on cyber bullying

This story appeared on February 28, 2015 in the Gardner News. Eryn Dion contributed to the report.


When Murdock Principal Joshua Romano answered his phone in Barnes & Noble, he didn’t know he was setting in motion a chain of events that would place himself, and Murdock High School, on the national stage.

The caller — the father of a student — was asking what Mr. Romano was going to do about two Twitter accounts attacking Murdock students. Hanging up the phone, Mr. Romano was furious.

His inbox was flooded with messages from parents, teachers, even students, interrupting their February break to report inappropriate tweets implying sexual promiscuity as well as criticizing the athletic ability, appearance and sexual orientation of classmates.

“Fifty kids were following these accounts, retweeting, favoriting it, it was spreading,” he said. “I wanted to snap down on it right away. … What if the kids started thinking these accounts were cool, and then I had a dozen?”

So he went on the offensive, first on Twitter, calling the accounts “largely vile and ignorant,” and then in an email to the student body.

“To the pathetic cowards who chose to start and participate in this, you are warned I am coming for you and I am furious,” he wrote.

A veteran of the Iraq War, Mr. Romano said, “I have more respect for insurgents I fought in Iraq than I do for the people behind this Twitter account.

At least Iraqis had the courage to face their targets and not hide.”

When overseas, Mr. Romano served in a unit that lost a member to an insurgent. After that, he said, every time they went out they wondered if they would be the next one in a body bag. Those Twitter posts provoked the same type of fear, he said.

“Everyone was worried they were going to be the next person,” Mr. Romano said.

While he later said he should have calmed down before sending the email, to him, the accounts — @confessions2k15 and @murdockhigh2k15 — had the potential to be just as deadly as the insurgents.

He remembered the story of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old from South Hadley who hanged herself in January 2010 because of bullying.

“That’s what I was thinking about. I don’t want a kid to do something terrible,” Mr. Romano said. “If I have to make a mistake, I would rather be too harsh.”

How to combat cyberbullying is an issue that administrators around the country are battling as it becomes increasingly prevalent.

Both Gardner and Narragansett grappled with similar incidents over February break — although neither as serious as the one sweeping through Murdock. While all the accounts have since been terminated, administrators say it’s only a matter of time before a new, more-determined set crops up.

One of the main drivers behind cyberbullying appears to be the idea of anonymity. Perpetrators hiding behind fake photos or names believe they are shielded from any consequences — that there are no real-life repercussions because these crimes occur in the virtual world.

But as cyber crime has evolved, law enforcement has evolved with it, and where similar cases may have fallen apart in court during the advent of social media, there are now numerous charges the District Attorney’s Office can level at suspects. These charges range from simple harassment to intimidation of a witness, assault and battery, and even the more-serious assault with a dangerous weapon charge.

Deleting the messages or photos also won’t save suspects, as sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram save all of the content produced for their sites, even if the source is seemingly erased.

“If you’re caught, we have state police experts who can retrieve that,” said Tim Connolly, director of communications for the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office.

Many of the cyberbullying cases brought to trial deal with juveniles, Mr. Connolly said, which is why the DA’s office reaches out to students through seminars and presentations in middle schools and high schools across the county.

“We’re talking to kids in school virtually every day,” he said. “Thousands of students in Central Massachusetts have seen our presentations.”

The DA office’s cyberbullying courses are the most requested offerings, Mr. Connolly said — a sign that school districts are taking the threat of online harassment very seriously.

Narragansett has taken advantage of the DA’s presentations — and additional staff training — for several years, high school Principal Shawn Rickan said. The programs help his school “strike a balance” between student education, counseling and law enforcement when approaching the issue of cyberbullying.

“I’m hoping that we have a handle on it,” he said.

One of the main ways the DA and schools combat bullying, in both the real world and virtual world, is by building empathy between students, allowing them to see their victims not just as names or faces, but actual people.

“If you wouldn’t want to have someone say things like that to your brother or sister, don’t say it about someone else,” Mr. Connolly said.

Online communications also often lack the same cues as a face-to-face conversation — another key point the DA’s office tries to highlight.

“Many times we hear from students caught in the early stages of bullying who say they thought it was going to be funny,” Mr. Connolly commented.“Oftentimes, it goes beyond funny really quickly.”

In the case of Murdock, the accounts went so far beyond funny the incident was featured Friday morning on “Good Morning America.”

“It shocks me this is a nationwide story: ‘Principal takes strong stance on bullying.’ This shouldn’t be news,” said Mr. Romano, who’s ready for the incident to settle down.

“Everyone should be taking a strong stance on bullying.” Mr. Romano said he’s received an outpouring of support from the community and from victims of bullying across the country, who have emailed him with their stories.

He’s also been supported by Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui, who said softer wording may have been nice but that he understands Mr. Romano’s position.

“He’s a champion of the kids and has no problem fighting for them,” Dr. Khelfaoui said. “He doesn’t tolerate anything that would jeopardize their safety.”

Inside the high school, things are starting to return to normal.

The kids who were victims of the Twitter accounts have said they feel well supported. As for who did it, that’s a question likely to go unanswered.

Law enforcement says Twitter is unlikely to release the names, and with all the publicity, Mr. Romano doubts anyone will confess. About a dozen students have been accused by their peers, but there is no proof to accompany the accusations.

Mr. Romano said he doesn’t want a witch hunt on his hands.

“I don’t want two kids who are angry at the world to be what drives this school,” he said.

Instead, he’s told students who see this sort of behavior online to report it directly to the websites and to him.

From there, he said to continue to focus on the positives.

“They’re better than this,” he said. “This is not what I want for our school.”

Judge dismisses City Councillor’s case against Mayor

This article appeared on April 17, 2015 in the Gardner News. 

Citing a lack of standing, a judge on Thursday dismissed City Councillor Scott Graves’s complaint that Mayor Mark Hawke overstepped his authority during the writing of Gardner’s emergency service zone plan.

“A claim of injury based on an official’s disobedience or flawed execution of a law alone is simply a generalized grievance about the conduct of government and does not confer standing,” wrote Superior Court Justice Dennis Curran in his finding dismissing all claims.

For months, Mr. Graves and City Solicitor John Flick have squared off over the city’s service zone plan, which was approved last fall by the Department of Public Health and is a requirement of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 111C. Years overdue in submitting it to the state, Mr. Hawke acted as the local jurisdiction during the writing of the plan, without City Council approval.

Despite correspondence from the DPH to the contrary and Mr. Flick’s insistence, Mr. Graves said the City Council and only the City Council could authorize a local jurisdiction to legally write the plan.

The question of whether the mayor acted legally was answered by the court, as Judge Curran upheld Mr. Flick’s motion to dismiss the case due to lack of standing.

“This is the fastest I’ve ever seen the courts move on a motion to dismiss,” said Mr. Flick, who appeared before the judge alongside Mr. Graves  last week. “I would love to argue Chapter 111C … but it has to be brought the right way, and the judge clearly said this wasn’t the right way.”

In his decision, Judge Curran wrote that the outcome may have been different if the case was brought on behalf of the entire City Council. He also cautioned that the courts should have a limited hand in matters such as this one.

“Courts should exercise restraint in becoming involved in disputes between other branches of government,” he wrote. “Court should not resolve disputes in cases where a political remedy is available.”

Mr. Graves said he has no plans to appeal the decision.

“It’s an excellent decision, although I don’t like the result,” he said. “The judge based the decision on two things Mr. Flick never brought up, which I find interesting.”

As for next steps, Mr. Graves said the judge’s decision gives the council the option of still voting to appoint a local jurisdiction. A decision, he said, City Council President James Walsh will have the first chance to mull over.

“I wouldn’t want to step on his toes,” while reserving the right to broach the subject again, he said.

While Mr. Walsh did not offer comment Thursday, Mr. Flick said he is ready to move on to other matters.

$14 million plant upgrade proposed

This article appeared on May 28, 2015 in The Gardner News. 

At least $14 million worth of improvements to Gardner’s Wastewater Treatment Facility could be on the horizon due to old equipment and future federal regulations.

“At 30 years old, the technology is obsolete, parts are hard to find, and the pumps, electrical units and other devices are well beyond their useful and efficient life,” said Director of Public Works Dane Arnold. Additionally, “we will be receiving a new permit from the Environmental Protection Agency shortly (which was expected in February 2014) that will most likely force the city to have to reduce the concentration of nitrogen in the plant’s discharge.”

On Wednesday, the Finance Committee unanimously recommended a $14 million loan order to the City Council following a presentation by Mr. Arnold. The project would be funded through a gradual increase in the sewer rate, the city’s first hike in seven years.

“I agree we should get in front of this now,” said Councillor Marc Morgan, who sits on the Finance Committee and is chairman of the Public Service Committee. “The system is getting antiquated and fixing it before it breaks is the way to go.”

The sewer rate is now $4.10 per 100 cubic feet. If the plan is approved, the rate would likely rise to $4.50 in 2016, $4.76 in 2017, and $5 in 2018.

Mr. Arnold said it’s hard to predict the increase after 2018 because the contract with United Water, the private company that handles the operation of the plant, expires and decisions will need to be made about the sludge landfill.

The improvements would fix issues where sewage enters and water leaves the plant, as well as address problems with electrical and software components. The EPA has stated that portions of the facility are in “dire need of repair.”

For example, in high flow conditions like heavy rain, sometimes the headworks — where sewage is accepted into the plant — fails, sending “materials” into parts of the facility where they aren’t meant to be, Mr. Arnold said. He cautioned that these failures could eventually lead to a fine from the EPA.

The city has not been ordered to make these improvements by the state or federal government at this point. However, Mr. Arnold said it’s inevitable that the city will one day be mandated to make improvements.

If the city were to wait for that day, he said rate payers might see a sharp increase in rates and the city would have to rush through changes. This, Mr. Arnold cautioned, is what happened in Fitchburg in 2012 when the city was required to meet stricter requirements — and residents’ bills spiked by 60 percent as a result.

“We owe it to our rate payers to phase this upgrade in on our timeline, not a timeline that forces us to upgrade our rates in two years,” Mr. Arnold said.

He also said that if the city waits for equipment to fail, such as the headworks and belt filter press, it will cause problems.

“If we can implement a plan and approach, it will no doubt go more smoothly than if one day they stop working and we have an emergency on our hands,” Mr. Arnold said.

The main reason this is appearing before city councillors now is because Gardner recently became eligible for state revolving loan funds at a 2 percent interest rate. As the city’s interest rate is 3.25 percent, over the life of the loan it would save rate payers about $1 million if the lower rate is secured, according to officials.

To get the lower rate, however, the paperwork — including the City Council’s approval — has to be into the state by June 30.

The project is phase one of a three-part plan to upgrade the facility. The second phase would upgrade the nitrogen treatment process, depending on what the EPA calls for, and could cost an additional $10 to $15 million, Mr. Arnold said. The final phase will address how the city handles its sludge disposal.

Mr. Arnold is expected to give a presentation to the full council before its first meeting in June.

Families who lost children to overdose appear in movie

This story appeared on June 26, 2015 in The Gardner News. 

On a bitterly cold, snowy day in January — the type of day when most people would stay home — Gwen Phelps of Westminster and her husband, Michael, braced themselves and made an early morning journey to St. Williams Catholic Church in Tewksbury.

There, they acted as extras in the funeral scene of the newly released film “If Only,” about two teenage boys who experimented with, and then become addicted to, drugs.

Except they, like everyone else there, didn’t have to act. They knew exactly what it was like to don black and sit at a loved one’s funeral. Just one month prior, their son, Jacob Phelps, 24, had died from an overdose.

“It was very moving. Everyone was very serious, very somber,” said Ms. Phelps. “I remember thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? This happened to all of us?’ And this is just the tip of the iceberg, too.”

At the end of the film, all of the extras were shown one family at a time holding a picture of the loved one they lost. The Phelps, Fletcher and Dunn families all represented the Gardner area.

“From this small area there were three families representing,” said Michelle Dunn, who founded the AED Foundation after her daughter, Alyssa, passed away in 2013. “I think that says a lot about the problem in the area.”

Though each family had their own story, they all hoped that by standing there they would break down the stigma, educate and prevent another opiate death.

“I hope the movie reaches young people. We’re losing a generation with kids thinking it’s OK to experiment when they don’t know,” said Ms. Phelps. “They are playing Russian roulette…My son started at 15.

“I hope when at the end they see that these are actual people, it resonates.”

On Thursday, Ms. Dunn held a small community viewing of the half-hour film at Alyssa’s Place: Peer Recovery and Resource Center.

The film starts with a high school student, Isaac, being pressured by his best friends to go to a party and bring some of his mother’s pills. He lies to his mother, goes and takes a handful of pills.

Days later, he takes some more pills a friend offers him and then starts stealing out of his mother’s medicine cabinet. His mother notices he is acting weird.

When he nods off during dinner, a side effect of being high, she has the doctor drug test him. When his results come back negative, she sends him to rehab.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s friend, Connor, keeps using. The day Isaac leaves rehab, Connor passes away in his room with a needle in his arm.
“When we’re young, we think we’re invincible,” Jeffrey said at Connor’s funeral. “We’re not.”

Both Ms. Dunn and Ms. Phelps hope the film will be screened at local middle and high schools, for both students and parents.

“I think the film is fantastic,” said Ms. Dunn. “And I think it could and should be showing in the schools…and parents should be mandated to see it.”

Alyssa’s Place is open three nights a week and holds at least one community event a month. For more information, go to

The Makers: Gardner baker Heather O’Toole is not settling for the ordinary

This article appeared on July 23, 2015 in the Gardner News. 


This article is the second in a three-part series about local people who make specialty items and sell them either directly to the consumer or through online marketplaces.

Boring cupcakes are a bit of a pet peeve for Heather O’Toole, the baker behind My Sweet Escape Treats.

“Buttercream frosting is great, but I can do so much more than that,” said Ms. O’Toole, the business owner and baker. “I don’t like run-of-the-mill flavors you can find anywhere. I want to make really cool flavors you can only get here.”

An insurance claims adjuster by day, Ms. O’Toole has always liked to bake quality food, but never seriously considered it as something she could make into a small businesses until her son’s third birthday party.

“I ordered a cake, and I paid a lot of money for it, and then I really didn’t like it,” she said. “That’s when I said, ‘I can do this.’”

From there, she turned her house’s kitchen into her own personal cupcake laboratory, manipulating recipes to capture unique flavors, testing out ingredients and perfecting techniques.

Her coworkers, her husband’s office and her friend’s work became her taste-testers, with dozens of cupcakes showing up in the break room in exchange for honest feedback.

“I wanted a broad variety of opinions,” Ms. O’Toole said. “There was a lot of trial and error.”

Eight months later, in September 2012, Ms. O’Toole was ready to bring her cupcakes to the masses, launching her website and signing up for a Groupon — an online coupon — to help promote her business.

“People at work were asking me “is this you? Is that what all those cupcakes were about?’” she said. “We lost more money than we made on the Groupon, but you can look at all the pictures of cupcakes you want, you need to try them. We got quite a few repeat customers out of it.”

In sampling My Sweet Escape Treats’ cupcakes, there is a clear difference between them, and other cupcakes on the market.

The cheap shortening used in a lot of store-bought cakes is strictly banned in this baker’s kitchen. She uses real butter.

But not only that, all the ingredients are made fresh. The caramel is whisked up from sugar, butter and heavy cream on her stove. The raspberry jam filling in her lemon raspberry cupcake is her mother’s homemade jam recipe. Homemade marshmallows, fresh churros and basil-infused mascarpone frostings are some other ingredients that Ms. O’Toole whips up.

“I love fresh, fresh ingredients,” she said. “I make everything fresh to order.”

To create her unique flavors — funky monkey, raspberry lime ricky, Mexican hot chocolate, margarita — Ms. O’Toole considers every food she samples as something she could turn into her next cupcake.


“It’s one of those things I don’t think I could shut off,” she said.

For example, while on vacation last week she enjoyed some fancy guacamole with toasted coconut and pineapple in it while out to dinner. The whole time she was analyzing the guac to see if it could be a cupcake.

“I’m thinking an avocado cupcake, pineapple and coconut frosting with a sriracha drizzle,” she said.

She admits the idea pushes the definition of “cupcake,” but without trying it, how do you know if it’s good or not?

Cupcakes are the easy, and fun, part of the business. The business part of it — bookkeeping, bringing the house up to Board of Health standards and marketing — are more challenging.

“It’s a lot of work and commitment and it can’t be half-hearted,” Ms. O’Toole said. “Getting the name out there is hard.”

The big dream is to someday open a storefront with her daughter, now 13, who loves making cupcakes. The short term dream is to find a business or restaurant to partner with.

“That would get me to the next step,” she said. My Sweet Escape Treats can be found at or by calling 978-790-1187. They sell for $18 for a half dozen and $36 for a dozen.

Gardner to take building by eminent domain

This article appeared August 4th in the Gardner News. 

The city is making moves to take one of the neglected buildings in the downtown through eminent domain, although which one has yet to be disclosed.
At its August meeting, the City Council approved borrowing $97,500 so the Gardner Re­development Authority could purchase a “derelict vacant property in the downtown business district.”

Councillors were very careful to not reveal which building was being talked about as the owner of the property has yet to be informed this is coming. All discussions took place in an earlier executive session.

“There are steps that have to be taken,” said Councillor Ronald Cormier, who also is the chairman of the Gardner Redevelopment Authority.

However, officials promised the change would be well worth the money.

“There are a couple of derelict buildings that have been in the same state of decay for far too long,” said Mayor Mark Hawke. “This is a way of taking back our downtown. We need to assist the private sector.”

With the purchase of this property, he alluded, the city would be able to start massive redevelopment efforts, as outlined in the urban renewal plan, which was created nearly a decade ago.

Reclaiming the vacant buildings in the downtown — such as the old Gardner cinema and the Maki Building — has long been a priority for local politicians and shop owners, who worry some of the more unseemly properties deter people from coming downtown to shop.

And, in some cases, the buildings have attracted nefarious activity.

For example on June 13, 2014 — Friday the 13th — police arrested three Gardner men who had broken into the old cinema to “make a movie” using stolen robes from St. Joseph’s Church.

Other buildings have also attracted problems. However, many of these buildings have absentee landlords who pay the taxes so the city can’t seize the building in land court for taxes, but otherwise put no money into the property, allowing them to crumble.

This makes it difficult for the city to gain control, as the landlords often name a high selling price.

In this case, though, the city, in partnership with the Redevelopment Authority, is working to take it through eminent domain.

“They are using their powers of sale,” said Mr. Hawke. This means, according to Mr. Hawke, the Redevelopment Authority can set the price at an assessed fair market value and send a letter to the landlord informing him of its decision. The landlord will then have the option to challenge the price in court 30 days after receiving the letter.

From there, it is a legal battle. Known abatement costs, such as asbestos removal, can be deducted from the fair market price.

Once the property owner is informed, officials said they will reveal which building they plan to take.

Mansion to become spooky B&B

This story ran in the July 24, 2015 edition of the Gardner News. 


The ghostly tenants of the S. K. Pierce Victorian mansion have a new landlord.

New Jersey-based company “Dark Carnival” announced Thursday it bought the South Gardner landmark, with plans to turn it into a bed and breakfast 11 months of the year and a seasonal haunted house in October.

“For all of those who love this home and appreciate the rich history associated with it, we want to let you know that our main goal is to restore and preserve the beauty, history and originality of this home,” the company posted on Facebook. “No changes will be made to the structure.”

Hoping to open the home in October 2016, Dark Carnival plans to start immediately with renovations.

“We hope to make everyone in Gardner proud of this place again,” a representative said.

The first step will reportedly be renovating the deteriorating soffits. Next up will be the trim, a power washing and repainting the exterior.

On the inside, company representatives said they to keep the updates minimal. While there will be some repairs to plaster and such, they claimed on Facebook to want to keep as much of the original woodworking and furniture as possible.

“The attraction we will offer here will be a very special “altered illusion” attraction that accents the history of this home and its ghostly inhabitants,” Dark Carnival wrote. “One thing for sure, it will be one of the most terrifying attractions on the East Coast.”

Established in 2010, Dark Carnival offers a circus-themed attraction in New Jersey focusing on “the terrifying world of clowns and freaks.”

Exodus: St. Joseph, Sacred Heart hold last Masses; Gardner’s four Catholic churches coming together as the new Annunciation Parish

This story ran on July 1 in The Gardner News.

last mass

If you ask the Rev. Brian O’Toole, he’ll swear to you the Holy Spirit was with parishioners at Sacred Heart church last Sunday. “It was the second time in my life I’ve had an experience like that,” he said.

It was the final Sunday service in the history of the 140-year-old parish, and he was giving his sermon on the story of how Jesus healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years and then resurrected a young girl by saying “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

The message, he said, is that with faith we can conquer our fears and move into the future. And so he told the brimming church to “koum.”

“Just as I said that, a huge wind blew through the front door, and the bulletins — that had been stacked on the table by the door — went flying through the church, up into the choir and to my feet,” he said. “Everyone broke into applause.”

“You couldn’t have planned it,” he continued. “It was a roar, just like the stories of the Pentecost.”

• • •

In the mid-1800s, there was no Catholic church in Gardner. Every Sunday, the 125 recorded Catholics in the community walked to St. Martin’s in Otter River for Mass.

Then in 1856, they started to celebrate Mass outdoors in a little grove of trees off of Baker Lane. According to Sacred Heart’s records, there “the women knelt on their shawls, the men held their caps in sincere reverence and the children watched the flicker of candles, which each worshipper held.”

In 1874, these people formed together to open the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on Cross Street. While the building burned down in 1887, the parish — made up mostly of Irish immigrants — rebuilt it.

The year before Sacred Heart burned down, the French Canadian immigrants decided they wanted a church of their own where they could incorporate French into the Liturgy and honor their customs. From this desire, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church was built on Nichols Street.

A fierce rivalry, still talked about when the Sacred Heart and Holy Rosary elementary schools merged two years ago, developed between the two parishes.

Not to be outdone, Gardner’s Polish immigrant population decided to build a church of their own, where their heritage could be a part of their worship. In 1908, they build St. Joseph Parish on Pleasant Street.

In 1955, Holy Spirit Parish on Lovell Street was built to give everyone else, as well as portions of Hubbardston and Westminster, a place to worship.

A few years ago, the Worcester diocese began to study whether it made sense for Gardner to still have four parishes in a world where people no longer walk to church. In Nov. 2014, Bishop Robert McManus announced it didn’t.

Starting today, the four parishes no longer exist. Instead, their parishioners are now a part of AnnunciationParish, worshipping at Holy Rosary and Holy Spirit.

Sacred Heart and St. Joseph are now closed.

• • •

Uncertainty, fear, disappointment, discouragement, sadness and even anger are feelings parishioners at all four churches have struggled with since the announcement of the reconfiguration.

“People were crying last Sunday,” said the Rev. Thomas M. Tokarz, who presided over both St. Joseph and Holy Spirit. “It’s a tough time.”

To many, these are more than just buildings and names. They are the places they brought their babies to be baptized, the origins of their marriages, where they said goodbye to their parents, and the support network they relied on in difficult times.

“We were married here (at Sacred Heart) in 1960 on Oct. 1. I still have the wedding pictures,” said Gardner resident Marjorie Kraskouskas. “It kind of hurts that it is going to close.”

“I did everything you could do here,” her husband, John, said. “I was baptized here, I had First Communion here, I went to school here, I altar-served here, I was Confirmed here and I was married here. … This was the bedrock of the community and life.”

How to honor that was a question each of the closing churches dealt with differently. At St. Joseph’s people dealt with it quietly, culminating in a simple, well-attended service last weekend, where people gave thanks, remembered and cried.

At Sacred Heart, they decided to go out with a bit of a bang.

• • •

On the wall next to the baptismal font at Sacred Heart Parish there is a list posted of 8,000 names, representing everyone who had been baptized there. The pews are covered with white stickers with green typed names representing everyone who received First Communion at the church’s altar. The wood columns that stretch to the ceiling are covered with 6,000 white stickers with red names, all of the people who were Confirmed there.

For the last six days, the members of Sacred Heart have kept a vigil to honor their history.

“These are real human lives, with real stories, real families, real histories and real futures,” said the Rev. O’Toole. “We need to have some sort of ritual to honor that.”

Each day of the vigil, the community remembers a different piece of their history — the baptisms, First Communions, celebration of the Eucharist, weddings, and education.

On Tuesday, more than 50 people attended one last farewell Mass.

“The parish brought me back to church,” said Patricia Castagna, who will attend Holy Rosary this Sunday. “I had been away for a long time, but this felt like being with family.”

For his last sermon, the Rev. O’Toole spoke about how change is an inevitable form of chaos — scary and confusing. However, Jesus was capable of calming the ocean in a storm, and so with faith in him, it is possible to move forward, no matter how frightening.

“With God, there is no such thing as an accident,” the Rev. O’Toole said. “Every time I look in the Scriptures, I have yet to find a time where God says, ‘Retreat, go back.’ He is always saying, ‘Go forward, don’t be frightened, have faith.’”

• • •

Today, the Rev. O’Toole is on his way to Assisi, Italy, to do a pilgrimage in honor of St. Francis before spending some time in Rome while on sabbatical.

The Rev. Tokarz is unpacking boxes at St. Joseph Church in Berlin — his third stint preaching at a St. Josephs — to start new after 20 years in Gardner.

And, the Rev. Joseph Jurgelonis, formerly the pastor at Holy Cross Parish in East Templeton and St. Martin Mission in Otter River, is moving into his new home in Gardner, ready to start building Annunciation Parish.