Sunday, May 17, 2009

Holtermann's Bakery Satisfies Staten Island Sweet Tooth for Decades

NEW YORK—(April 10, 2009) Jill Holtermann Bowers with her cousin Billy (center) and her father Cliff display an old bakery delivery tray and hat in the inner section of the 131 year old family owned bakery.

NEW YORK--(April, 2009) Holtermann’s neighborhood has undergone quite a few changes over the last century.

Where Claus Holtermann once picked blueberries and peaches to make fresh pies, is now a golf course. A dirt road once traveled by horses and wagons and later his mini orange delivery trucks is now a busy street overrun with speeding SUVs. A bed of two family homes and shopping plazas that boast supermarkets and Dunkin Donuts line the roadway instead of a forest of trees and bushes.

Yet, his bakery nestled around the bend at 405 Arthur Kill Road still stands and remains a staple on Staten Island.

Holtermann’s Bakery has been dishing out fresh rolls, moist crumb cakes and honey cookies since 1878 when Claus Holtermann emigrated from Hanover, Germany and opened his shop in Richmond Town. His descendants later moved it in the 1930s to its current location a few blocks away.

The scenery may have changed and the building’s bricks may have faded over the last 131 years, but that’s about it. The signature white box still bears the cerulean blue lettering. Four generations later, the Holtermann family still works behind the counter and in the kitchen and customers still pack inside to buy their baked goods. Island bakers, like the Cake Chef’s James Carrozza, even shop there for items not produced in their own bakeries.

“He makes a really good sourdough bread. It’s in a small round loaf and has that perfect sour tang to it,” said Carrozza.

The German bakery, on an Island dominated by Italian bakeries, continues to thrive despite a declining economy and an increasingly health savvy climate.

“I don’t know if my ancestors would have imagined it’d still be here with us,” current owner Billy Holtermann said about the longevity of the oldest family bakery on Staten Island.

His eyes darted to a display of Easter cakes shaped like lambs, one slanted off to the side. He delicately moved it back in place.

“People have different ideas of how things should run. So it’s about getting everyone to compromise,” said Billy, 58.

The telephone continuously rings for orders while the bells on the door chime every time a customer opens it. Shelves of boxed cookies and cakes line the walls of the modest, dimly lit rectangular shaped bakery. Jill Holtermann Bowers, Billy’s cousin and assistant manager, works the counter and seems to know everyone who enters by name. She steps out from behind the glass showcase of gooey cinnamon buns and chocolate dipped Easter bunny cupcakes complete with marshmallow tails to help a customer count the number of cookies in a tray.

“I know, I packed them,” says Jill who started packing cookies in the second grade when her grandparents gave her class a tour of the bakery.

“When the tray came to you, you put the cookies in the box. My grandfather said we could have one when we were done,” she said. “Everyone has a different road they can go with this [running the bakery]. I like to get the community involved and bring the Girl Scouts in to teach them about it.”

Her father Cliff has been working there for more than 55 years. Donning a white apron and t-shirt, he helps out in the expansive factory like kitchen in the back where the scent of baking bread permeates the air. Long, wooden flour-coated tables and big mixers that help create the racks of fluffy muffins are scattered about the cement floor. Some of the machines look weathered, like the proof box, which gets the bread to rise just right in a temperature controlled environment. Cliff hopes the bakery will remain in the family.

“That’s why I’m still here. My father worked so hard to build it. It’s like a dynasty,” he said.

The bakery is just as much a tradition for customers.

Elaina Giarratano said she has been enjoying Holtermann’s breads and pastries since she was a child and continued to shop there for her son. Now a Marine and grown himself, he still enjoys their rolls, she said.

“His friends’ birthdays are in August and always landed during the weeks it [the bakery] was closed for vacation. So they always got jipped out of a Holtermann’s birthday cake when they were young,” she added.

Linda Baran, president of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and lifelong Staten Islander, attributes the bakery’s success to the family’s work ethic and ability to adapt.

“They’re a dedicated family,” said Baran. “I think they’ve probably remained because they changed their business model with the times,” she said referring to the family’s decision to stop the truck deliveries to homes.

“They did what they could handle. At a certain point they really increased capacity and became a huge operation. I think it took a hard look at things to pull back,” she said in a telephone interview.

Giarratano remembers the orange truck that delivered fresh white and rye breads to her home when she was a little girl.

“I can just visualize it,” she said clutching a bag of rolls she bought for her sister visiting from Maryland. “It was the fifties so my parents ordered a lot of white bread.”

Even though it’s good to market your business and change things around, Baran thinks Holtermann’s has a solid market.

“They have remained conscious of the consumer and how much they pay,” said Baran. “Honestly, I don’t think they need to change anything. They’ve got a great clientele.”

Even with the country in a state of economic decline, the Holtermann family isn’t too worried. Cliff is quick to point out how the bakery survived the Great Depression.

“We haven’t been hurting,” said Billy. “In fact, bread sales seemed to have picked up.”

According to Baran, bakeries might be in a better position than other types of food businesses because as more people decide to eat at home, they may shop for more of their goods.

The increased emphasis on health consciousness could prove difficult though for the bakery relying on decades old recipes. New York City bakeries and restaurants are no longer allowed to cook with trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, after the city’s board of health voted to ban them in 2008.

“It’s been a pain in the neck. Certain cookies just don’t bake the same and some icings are not as nice as they used to be,” said Billy, shaking his head.

According to James Carrozza, owner of the Cake Chef bakery and the Cookie Jar on Staten Island’s North Shore, the ban poses a problem because it leads to more expensive and less suitable substitutes.

“The companies that manufactured shortenings like Crisco didn’t come up with a good enough replacement. New and approved shortenings don’t work well in baker’s formulas. We were a bakery that always used a lot of butter so it didn’t pose too much of a problem for us, but for the old fashioned type bakeries it did,” said Carrozza.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, said bakers have to learn to adapt and use other oils, butter, or fats that are not partially hydrogenated. She acknowledged that it could be more expensive.

“The ban was an excellent idea. They [trans fats] are demonstrably harmful to health and the whole point was to take care of the problem without asking individuals to do anything special,” she said in an email.

The ban hasn’t affected long standing customers’ sweet tooth, especially the “Sunday morning crew,” affectionately named by the Holtermann’s staff.

Mike Castellano parks his navy blue Honda right under the blue and white awning every Sunday at 7 a.m. The 79-year-old’s first name is etched on the ground in blue chalk, the “Mi” faded from the rain, to show his “spot” first in line. He puffs on what’s left of his cigar before throwing it aside and paces back and forth with his hands in his pockets near the door in the cold.

According to Castellano, he’s been lining up outside Holtermann’s door for more than 20 years, “Cuz it’s good. They got the best crumb buns around.” He’s even double wrapped and express mailed them to his aunt in Florida.

The moment a hand reaches from behind the curtain to turn the sign to “Open,” Castellano, along with the dozen others who follow a similar routine, shuffle inside. Welcomed by a layered aroma of onion rye bread, sweet pastries and cinnamon, they all seem to know exactly what they want.

Ethel Holtermann, Jill’s mother, thinks the bakery’s connection to the community has kept it going.

“It’s really a neighborhood bakery. That’s why it seems to work so well,” she said.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Campaign Money Spent on Red Sox and Other Tickets

This article was featured in the June 21, 2009 edition of the MetroWest Daily News and submitted by my professor through the Boston University Statehouse Program. You can also view it by clicking here:

BOSTON--(May 1,2009) Dozens of Massachusetts’ elected officials spent a collective $76,000 of campaign funds for tickets to the Boston Red Sox and other sports and entertainment events, according to an analysis of records filed with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Approximately $71,000 was spent on sporting events and $15,000 on concerts between Jan.1, 2006 and April 17, 2009. The state’s campaign finance law says candidates’ purchases should enhance their political future or serve some political purpose.

Although several politicians did not respond to questions on their use of such tickets, Brad Balzer, deputy director of the campaign funding office, said ticket purchases are acceptable if they are given to campaign contributors or charities.

“Ticket purchases are allowed as long as they’re not for personal use. If a campaign, donated them to a charity for auction, then they could do it,” Balzer said. “If the primary purpose is to assist the campaign, then campaign funds could be used on those types of purchases (tickets).”

Still, others question the broad use of campaign funds for tickets.

Pam Wilmot, the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog group, said candidates can build a name for themselves as beneficent figure in their districts by offering up tickets. But, she cautioned against excessive spending.

“Campaign funds really should be used for political campaigns and not for enhancing someone’s lifestyles. You don’t need someone to go to the Red Sox with your campaign money,” she said.

Politicians spent campaign funds on professional teams such as the Boston Celtics and Red Sox and minor league baseball teams like the Brockton Rox and Worcester Tornadoes as well as on Boston College and University of Massachusetts-Lowell teams.

Concert tickets were purchased through Stubhub and Ticketmaster and venues listed on the records included the Bank of America Pavilion, T.D. Banknorth Garden and the Wang Theater, all in Boston, and the DCU Center in Worcester.

Former Senate President Robert Travaglini bought Red Sox and concert tickets with campaign funds in 2008 after leaving the Legislature in March 2007 to open a lobbying firm - Travaglini, Eisenberg and Kiley, LLC.

He spent a total of $530 for campaign workers and a total of $790 for tickets donated for raffle or auction on the Red Sox. He also spent $2,300 on Boston Symphony Orchestra tickets in October 2007, according to campaign finance records.

Suffolk County Register of Probate Richard P. Iannella, who ran unopposed in the 2008 election, spent over $4,000 on Red Sox tickets that year and $4,700 in 2007, the records indicate. Some of the purchases were listed on his campaign finance records as tickets for supporters.

Travaglini and Iannella did not return telephone calls.

Senate Majority Leader Frederick Berry of Peabody spent $25,890 on Red Sox season and playoff tickets between 2006 and 2008, a span that included Boston’s 2007 World Series championship season. Records also show three separate payments for the 2008 season tickets.

Beth Mullen, a spokeswoman for the Democratic senator, said Berry gives tickets to charities like the North Shore Elder League, the Pat Cronin Foundation for Cancer, Citizens for Adequate Housing and local homeless shelters in his district.

Mullen said tickets are generally “given to constituents through a charity or auction prize but not directly.” She cited one exception when a ticket was given to a boy who was hit by a car on the way home from a Little League game.

“He’s never sat in the seats himself,” she said. “He had given money to charities in the past and realized he raised more money through auctioning off of the tickets. He could write a check for $50 to a charity but if they auction off Red Sox tickets, they could make a lot more money off of that.”

Alicia Weaver, the events manager at Help for Abused Women and Children in Salem, said when Red Sox tickets are offered up at charity auctions people often bid higher than the face cost of the tickets.
“Sport tickets are a great donation,” she said.

Robert S. Creedon Jr., the Plymouth county clerk of courts, spent $400 on Brockton Rox baseball game tickets earlier this year. He bought Rox tickets five other times over the last three years; in one instance the records show tickets were donated to the Brockton Little League.

The former Democratic senator also paid more than $3,000 to his alma mater, the Boston College Athletic Association, on game tickets for constituents.

Creedon could not be reached for comment.

The campaign funding office monitors the use of sports tickets, calling candidates to clarify that they are not attending the events themselves or giving them to family members.

“Usually tickets to sporting events would normally trigger inquiry from the office so we would caution committees on the appropriate use of funds for their campaign,” Balzer said. He noted that candidates often buy tickets as part of a fundraising event to “engender good will in charities in their district.”

Although Blazer said ticket expenditures aren’t too common, the use often spikes when a team is in the playoffs. When the New England Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl a few years ago, more candidates purchased tickets with their campaign funds and had to refund that money to their committees, he said.

Wilmot said monitoring campaign spending is one way voters could evaluate candidates.

“It’s a way for constituents to say ‘that’s not the kind of campaigning or candidate we want to support,’” she said.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

HOW TO Buy U2 Tickets Without Getting Ripped Off By a Scalper

BOSTON—(Dec.4,2006) U2 perform their hit single “One” on the Vertigo Tour at the TD Banknorth Garden after welcoming several fans with different flags of the world on stage.

You’ve run. You’ve crawled. You’ve scaled these city walls only to be with U2. But you still haven’t found what you’re looking for: concert tickets that don’t drain your checking account or ruin your credit score. Ticket brokers in the business of buying up seats and reselling them at inflated prices make it almost impossible for fans to get good seats at their real value, the key word being almost.

U2’s 360 Tour is set to kick off in outdoor stadiums across Europe and America this summer. You don’t have to pay 400 bucks for nosebleed seats or mope around your living room playing air guitar like the Edge on the Elevation tour DVD. Here’s the secret to getting face value U2 tickets:

· Consider paying $50 to join the fan club. Members get access to message boards and presales which make it easier to nab great seats before shifty scalpers get at them in the general public’s sale date. It’s better to join before tour dates are officially announced because you’ll be in the earliest presale group. Although scalpers infiltrated this system as well by selling codes online or using them to buy up seats, it’s still your best opportunity to get face value tickets. Fifty dollars today can save you $350 the night before a show.

· Be aware of venue presales. Football team season ticket holders were emailed access codes for U2 ticket presales to future concerts at their stadiums. If you’re tight for cash, you can peruse the free general forum on for juicy tips and links to sites that list presale codes for free.

· Be ready online not on a line. The old days of camping outside a ticket window are over. Even if you’re near a Ticketmaster outlet, the seller is using the same system as you could at home. Whether you’re in the presale or the regular one, your computer is vital.

· If tickets go on sale at 10 a.m., be at the keyboard and on the U2 page of Ticketmaster’s website by 9:30 a.m. Refresh the page every ten minutes and at 30 seconds into 9:59.

· Register with to save time typing in your billing information.

· Choose your ticket amount and price range at lightning speed and click find tickets at the bottom. You can leave it on “best available” but the Ticketmaster site is notorious for its inconsistency and will only show one available option at a time. It’s better to shoot for the stars at the starting gate.

· When the “security check” screen pops up, type in the silly gibberish word exactly as it appears like your life depends on it and click continue.

· Don’t open multiple browsers thinking it will increase your chances because you might get blocked out completely. Ticketmaster knows that scalpers try to trick out the system and scoop up bunches of seats this way.

· Don’t give up. If you’re a slow typist and you didn’t time your clicks right, you still have a chance. Check the website throughout the day. Tickets pop up at strange times due to cancellations and credit card issues especially as the date of the show draws nearer.

· Peruse message boards. Hardcore fans tend to buy multiple tickets to various venues when they get the chance in the presale and public sale but can’t always use them all. Some look to sell or trade tickets at face value price and meet up at the venue to make the exchange.

· If you’re still empty handed and U2 is in your town, it’s time to find a line and call in sick from work. U2 holds back some tickets and releases them on concert dates at the venue’s box office. Get there as early as you can, preferably not later than noon. If a security guard tells you there is no line, don’t fall for it. Stick with the people in the vintage Joshua Tree Tour tees and Edge caps because they know the deal.

Links to save in your “favorites”: Official website of the band with tour announcements and dates U2’s page on Ticketmaster’s site where you can purchase tickets Venue presale codes for tons of artists and events get posted here, including U2. Check it before public ticket sale dates.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Other Island

NEW YORK—(Feb.15, 2009) The two postcard sculptures of the 9/11 memorial in St. George on Staten Island stand as a window to where the Twin Towers once stood and are engraved with the names of the 274 islanders killed in the terrorist attack.

By Margaret DeJesus (

NEW YORK—Staten Island is the middle child who craves more attention. Of the five boroughs in the New York City family, it’s often forgotten and overlooked as it sits in the shadow of siblings like Manhattan and Brooklyn.

And it had to put up with a lot of their garbage too. The Fresh Kills Landfill, which opened in 1948 and closed in 2001, was at one time the world’s largest garbage dump and was even visible from outer space. But I assure you, the smell did not attack the nose half as aggressively as a trip over the Goethals Bridge to New Jersey would.

Then, there’s the identity crisis. When I tell people I’m from Staten Island, N.Y., their response tends to be, “I didn’t know Long Island was part of New York City.” Apparently Staten Island never crossed their radar.

A record high of 46 million tourists visited New York City in 2007 according to a report by NYC and Company, the city’s official marketing and tourism firm. Millions of people, whether for work or tourist fun, ride the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan every year and enjoy the scenic route featuring the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. But I bet most never think twice about venturing out of the ferry terminal and exploring this island.

And they should because they’re missing out.

For starters, it has the best pizza in the city. Even Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse thinks so. Joe and Pat’s Pizzeria in Castleton Corners was featured on the best regional pizza styles episode of his show. It’s hard to resist a piping hot thin crust pizza with a perfect distribution of mozzarella cheese and fresh tomato sauce.

Staten Island is also home to the original Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices in Port Richmond. Lines stretch down the street on hot summer days for refreshing treats like a cool lemon ice or a light, creamy vanilla chip. Once you have a Ralph’s ice dripping down your hand, you know it’s summer.

Nicknamed the “Borough of Parks,” Staten Island is not a jungle of steel, glass high rises and yellow taxi cabs, but rather a flat forest of trees and homes. Silver Lake Park and Clove Lakes Park are just two of the borough’s green gems. The possibilities are endless: playing basketball, soccer or football; bike riding; rollerblading; picnicking; jogging or just plain walking.

Not to mention the scenery. During the twilight of a winter’s day, Silver Lake appears to shine.

Conference House Park, located at Staten Island’s southern tip, was the site of a 1776 Revolutionary War peace conference attended by a British commander and American dignitaries like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. The old fashioned cobble stone house near the water built in the 1600s is both a New York City and national landmark.

Traffic is a nightmare though. According to a 2006 estimate, the borough’s population stands at 477, 377 and is expected to keep growing. For an island that is only 13.9 miles long and 7.3 miles wide, it could easily take an hour to go from one shore to the other. Outmaneuvering school buses, soccer moms and workers during rush hour on a weekday is no easy feat.

The beaches are worth checking out too. Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a swim in the water, unless of course you don’t mind sharing it with the occasional floating Coca Cola can, plastic bag, and shatters of broken sea shells.

Walking along the 2.5 mile long FDR Boardwalk, sunbathing on the sand, or fishing on the pier at Midland Beach to the soundtrack of seagulls also gets you an up close view of the Verrazano Bridge which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn.

It may not be the big time like Manhattan’s MET, but the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art hidden on Lighthouse Hill is certainly a cultural attraction. The collection features 17th to 19th century bronze figurines and Buddhist sculptures. The medicine Buddha sand mandala on the mock altar is a rarity since mandalas are usually dismantled and dispersed into water. The circular pattern of sand representing wholeness explodes in color, especially with shades of red, purple and yellow. The meditation garden carved within the steep hill outside has a wide view of the world below and wrought iron furniture for sitting to take it all in.

Richmond Town, once the center of commerce and government in the 1700s, is now a window to colonial history with 28 preserved buildings that date back centuries. Faded and cracked tombstones line the cemetery outside the stone Church of Saint Andrew founded in 1708. The family burial plot of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American born saint, is situated there.

Just outside the ferry terminal in Saint George, two postcard sculptures stretched like wings honor the 274 victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and serve as one of the city’s few memorials of the tragedy. Gazing across the water to where the Twin Towers once stood, they represent messages to lost loved ones.

Just before dusk on a cold February day, I notice that the sun rests just a little longer on Manhattan.

Visit the Borough President James Molinaro’s website for a list of island parks, cultural attractions and news at:

For a list of famous people who called Staten Island home at one time or another visit:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Financial Crisis Drains Wallets but Not Faith

By Margaret DeJesus (

BOSTON--(Feb.10, 2009) The Rev. Peter Grover (left) greets parishioners after Sunday morning mass outside of Saint Clement Eucharistic Shrine on Boylston Street.
BOSTON—Peter Grover depends on a little extra to make ends meet: faith.
The pastor at Saint Clement Shrine on Boylston Street relies on his congregation to fill up four wicker baskets passed from pew to pew each Sunday morning.
Bunches of singles and five dollar bills float on the surface, a handful of spare change clinks below, and a few folded checks and a twenty or two hide within the typical basket.
“It’s just enough to get by,” said Grover in an interview at the church.
Through the generous donations of parishioners, churches and synagogues are able to operate. But as thousands of Americans lose their jobs, housing markets flounder and stock prices continue to plunge, contributions may not be as easy to come by. Some religious institutions are feeling the effects of the financial crisis while others are still stable.
Grover was always a cost cutter spending only on the “essentials,” air conditioning not being one of them. And if the roof needs fixing, he’s more than happy to “go up there and work on it myself.”
“My staff consists of me, a part time secretary and a noisy bird,” he said while Buddy, his grey and white cockatiel given to him as a birthday gift, chirped wildly in the background.
His parish along with Saint Cecilia, another Roman Catholic church in the Back Bay are holding steady.
“I think people in tough economic times give to the things that are most meaningful to them. To many of our folks, their relationship with the church is most meaningful,” said Mark Lippolt, a member of Saint Cecilia’s finance council in a telephone interview.
The parish finances are primarily raised through pledged annual or monthly donations by parishioners through the offertory commitment program. Lippolt said the level of contributions has remained the same.
“When we had our giving tree this past Christmas, there were a lot more needy people but everyone one of them was taken care of thanks to the donations we got. There’s a lot of spirit here,” said Marge Boyce, who’s been going to the parish for three years and hasn’t changed her giving habits.
According to Bruce Watson, an economics professor at Boston University, it’s still too early to tell.
“Everything tends to work on a lag in economics,” said Watson adding that a church’s location could also determine how it’s affected.
At Our Lady of Lourdes in Jamaica Plain, the economic downturn propelled more immediate effects. The parish’s Catholic school, located in a working class neighborhood, is scheduled to close this June with a current budget deficit of $240,000 according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston’s website.
“We don’t have enough money in the bank,” said Brendan Buckley, a friar and the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Buckley has already had to let go of a custodian and cut back on part time workers in order to avoid “asking people to donate more money.” But he made it clear that since a parish is a “family of families,” people should be informed of its fiscal position so they can help maintain it.
“We have to educate people so they are not in the dark about our (the parish) financial realities,” he said in an interview outside of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.
Although he hasn’t noticed a drop in Sunday collection money, Buckley said he has talked with several parishioners who have lost jobs in the restaurant and hotel industries. He also noticed food pantry donations are down and requests are up.
The 56-year-old who spent years working with youth in rough neighborhoods in East Harlem and Brooklyn said he’s optimistic of his church’s future.
“Faith doesn’t pay the bills.” Buckley nodded in a momentary flash of defeatism. “But it gives us (people) the inspiration to overcome the struggles we have,” he said.
Synagogues and private Jewish schools also aren’t immune to the recession. According to Rabbi Avi Heller of Boston University’s Hillel House, many synagogues have expensive membership dues that could cost as much as $1000 annually.
“Synagogues don't turn people away who don't pay dues, but there is a level of expectation that if you are a regular you will contribute to keep the institution afloat,” said Heller in an email.
“I’m sure that requests for financial aid from schools and from synagogues asking for reduced dues will go way up. But the schools will be hard pressed to meet those demands because so many of them will suffer on the donation and investment side,” he said.
“I haven't seen a drop in our overall collections but I know people are worried. Some have lost jobs and some are giving less. It's important to be aware of what's happening around us and tune in to how people are dealing with all the changes,” said Eugene Lee, pastor of Cornerstone, an Evangelical church on Newbury Street geared toward college students.
Sitting in a worn out armchair in a back room of Saint Clement Shrine, the Rev. Grover reminisced how his father lived through the Great Depression and survived on a cup of oil for heating.
“If the economy falls apart people can gain strength in other ways. You learn a lot when you have a little,” he said.

To view the complete financial report of the Archdiocese of Boston on the web from the fiscal year ending in June 2007, the most recent records posted, or the previous two years visit:

To view a recent financial report of Saint Cecilia Roman Catholic Church visit:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Youth Have a Ball in Leadership Program

WASHINGTON--(Jan.18,2009) Kristine Abrenica (center) along with fellow P.Y.I.C. members stand outside the Lincoln Memorial during the We Are One concert. (Photo submitted by Kristine Abrenica)
By Margaret DeJesus (

All of the invitations are usually an inch thick, but this one was special. It had gold lining on the edges.

“Is this real? I thought it was a joke,” Kristine Abrenica of Brooklyn, New York recalled thinking to herself.

Much like the invites to other conferences, sometimes in places as far away as Budapest and China, this seemed like another expensive and out of this world offer from the Congressional Youth Leadership Conference (CYLC).

But when she opened the envelope, Abrenica realized it was an invitation to witness history: the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.

Despite the fact that she broke her ankle weeks before the inauguration playing basketball, a sport President Obama is familiar with, she didn’t think twice about the CYLC’s offer. Even if it meant hobbling around the National Mall in crutches and a big cast.

The CYLC is an organization based just outside of Washington D.C. geared to bring out the leadership qualities within the country’s best and brightest middle and high school students. It sponsors forums, workshops and conferences featuring renowned speakers.

Thanks to a teacher’s recommendation years ago and some nudging from her parents, Abrenica attended one of their conferences in Manhattan and it paid off. Alumni of CYLC programs are invited to attend the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference (PYIC).

“I never would have imagined I’d be doing this (attending the inauguration of the first African American president),” said the Poly Prep high school sophomore.

Elizabeth Waters, a sophomore in high school from North Carolina and Abrenica’s roommate for the trip, said she plans to be a lawyer someday. The CYLC seemed to be a great stepping stone to gain more insight in her field.

“I just wanted to meet people, experience something new and further my knowledge,” she said.
Last summer she attended a National Youth Leadership Council forum on law, which made her eligible to attend the PYIC.

“The most memorable moment for me was the swearing in. People were screaming and crying,” said Waters. “It was so touching to see that many people dedicated to seeing him (Obama),” even with the cold weather. “It was just amazing.”

Being a member looks good on paper, particularly on resumes, but attending the events can cost a hefty price. The inaugural conference cost roughly $2000 for the five day stay which didn’t account for the new gowns, suits, dresses and other attire required. It was all worth it according to Abrenica.

“I know a lot of people, who started off doing it (CYLC) because it would look good on a college application. But you keep going to their events because it brings a new perspective and broadens your horizons,” said Abrenica who has since met people from other parts of the world, including South Africa and England.

As if watching the inauguration ceremony in the National Mall wasn’t enough, students lucky enough to attend this year’s PYIC heard from keynote speakers General Colin Powell, Former Vice President Al Gore and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. They even had their own ball to attend with a performance by former American Idol Chris Daughtry.

By Wednesday morning Abrenica had her own snapshots of history, which included a digital camera video of Obama’s slip up during his oath of office and a kind gesture from a stranger who offered her a seat.

“The diversity and feeling of being united from Obama, how he united the country and kids from all over the world like us is what I’ll never forget,” she said.