Mariah Carey directs and stars with Lacey Chabert in ‘A Christmas Melody’

By Kellie Freeze,

 Lacey Chabert Lacey Chabert Mariah Carey’s music is an integral part of the holiday season, and now the Christmas chanteuse is gifting her talents to Hallmark’s most musical holiday film. The singer/actress is directing her first film, the aptly named A Christmas Melody, premiering Dec. 19 on Hallmark Channel.

The film stars Lacey Chabert as Kristin, a young fashion designer who shutters her big-city boutique and moves back to her hometown with her daughter (singing sensation Fina Strazza, of Broadway’s Matilda) in tow. The duo face a tumultuous adjustment to small-town life, further complicated by Kristin’s highschool nemesis (Carey). But the plucky family braves each challenge with the help of Kristin’s aunt — a local coffee shop owner (Kathy Najimy) — and the hunky local music teacher (Brennan Elliott).

Chabert reveals that one thing she and Carey bonded over was their mutual love of the holiday season. “I never thought anyone could love Christmas as much as I do until I met Mariah Carey,” she says. “She absolutely adores Christmas!” The pair also chatted about their love of holiday tunes, and Chabert admits that she has Carey’s holiday CDs on a near-constant loop.

Chabert also delights in the scenes she shot with her director, where Carey gets to flex her comedy chops as a mean girl. “She was excellent at those scenes,” says Chabert. “I really enjoyed those scenes with her so much, because they are really funny and of course, because it is Hallmark, you know that nothing’s too mean-spirited.” The repartee in the duo’s scenes is the film’s funniest.

The film, part of Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas,” has all of the family-friendly trappings we would expect from the network’s popular holiday programming block. And, of course, Carey adds her impeccable taste to the film’s visual design. “She is Miss Christmas,” laughs Chabert. “She has such a great eye for aesthetics and knowing what looks best, and what looks flattering and beautiful. She really wanted to capture the Christmas spirit and I feel like the movie did that. She really is a fantastic director.”

In addition to directing and starring in the festive flick, Carey also lends one of her most charming holiday hits to the film’s soundtrack. Carey isn’t the one singing “Oh Santa!” — but the upbeat and cheerful Christmas tune is pure perfection when sung by young phenom Strazza.

When we spoke, Chabert gushed about her young costar. “She is amazing. Fina is remarkably talented and so smart for her age. I mean … I shouldn’t even say ‘for her age.’ She is so smart in general. Just a wonderfully talented child and it was funny all that we have in common. I was actually on Broadway in Les Misérables at the same exact age. and she has been doing Broadway’s Matilda.” She adds, “I looked at her and she is just so tiny and young and it was hard to imagine myself ever being that tiny and young and handling your responsibility of performing in front of thousands of people live every night. It was just kind of cool to walk down memory lane with her.”

Chabert also shares high praise for her other castmates, saying Najimy “is a doll,” and considering Elliot — with whom she recently costarred in Hallmark’s All of My Heart — “a good friend.” The actress adds, “It is really nice to work with people who you get along with so well.”

The cast’s chemistry is palpable, their talent divine, and with Carey’s attention to directorial detail and discerning eye, this Christmas charmer may enjoy the same longevity as her other holiday classics.

Tom Hardy delivers a master class

In theaters now

Director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) introduces viewers to the Kray twins in his new film, Legend. The identical twin gangsters, Reggie and Ronnie, were two of the most notorious criminals in British history. Their empire rose in London’s East End during the 1960s and they dominated much of the illegal activity there. Helgeland’s film is a close examination of the twins, both portrayed by Tom Hardy.

Reggie Kray was the quiet but merciless twin — feared and revered at the same time, as many gangsters have been throughout history. He fashioned himself into a club owner, and though that wasn’t his primary source of income, it had a more legitimate ring to it. Frances Shea (Emily Browning) caught his eye and he was willing to do anything for her, though the one thing he could never seem to do was to become a truly legitimate businessman.

Ronnie Kray had been in a mental institution due to his instability. Quick to snap, Ronnie was the less rational of the two, and after his brother had him declared sane — through threats, of course — he worked with Reggie in their rise to dominance.

Despite disagreements between the two, they were brothers so devoted to each other that, to solve matters, each looked past the other’s shortcomings. While Reggie often looked out for Ronnie, Ronnie also had his own way of looking out for Reggie. Together their rise was impressive and, yes, legendary.

Brutal, yet orchestrated like a carefully crafted symphony, Legend tells us a story with visually striking images that are disconcerting but necessary — necessary to relay the otherwise indescribable violence that took place during the Krays’ rise to prominence. Helgeland, in both writing and directing the film, is deeply invested in the portrayal and walks a fine line with Legend’s violence. It’s harsh but not gratuitous.

The real star of this film is Tom Hardy, who portrays both twins; it’s a master class in acting. He transports himself from brother to brother with seeming ease, all the way down to the simple physical mannerisms of each twin. It feels as though he totally embodies each twin for who they are and what they possess. There aren’t many other actors who could be counted on to display this level of nuance in these roles.

This Legend is worth the price of admission just to see Tom Hardy; the rest is a bonus. The film is beautiful yet violent, compassionate yet abusive — all at once.

Rated: R
Stars: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning,
Taron Egerton
Director: Brian Helgeland
Grade: B

Students in grades 2-12 may enter poster contest

New Jersey’s soil conservation districts are now accepting entries in a poster contest designed to raise awareness of natural resources and related issues among young people. The theme for this year’s poster is “We All Need Trees,” according to a press release.

Students may compete in the following categories: Grades 2-3, Grades 4-6, Grades 7-9 and Grades 10-12. The winner in each category will receive $200. The secondplace finisher in each category will receive $100 and the third-place finisher in each category will receive $50.

The winners will be entered in the National Association of Conservation Districts poster contest.

The competition is sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, New Jersey Association of Conservation Districts and the state’s 15 soil conservation districts, which work to conserve and manage soil and water resources in the state, according to the press release.

To find the local soil conservation district, go to the website html. All entries must be submitted through the local district.

For more information and the entry form, visit the website pdf

St. Veronica School reaches 50th anniversary milestone

Staff Writer

 Sister Cherree Power and pupils at the St. Veronica School, Howell, display the papal blessing the school received from Pope Francis on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.  JENNIFER ORTIZ/STAFF Sister Cherree Power and pupils at the St. Veronica School, Howell, display the papal blessing the school received from Pope Francis on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. JENNIFER ORTIZ/STAFF HOWELL — Sixth-grader Faith Wittstruck was able to easily express her feelings when asked what she likes about attending St. Veronica School, Route 9, Howell.

“I like St. Veronica School because it feels like a second home to me, but also because we are allowed to talk about our faith, which you are not allowed to in other schools,” she said.

St. Veronica School is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The school enrolls 205 pupils in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

“We are celebrating the changes we made to make our school a better place,” Faith said.

Principal Sister Cherree Power said the changes were made possible by the teachers, parents and wonderful spirit of the children, allowing the school to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

“I have the most wonderful parent-teacher association in the world. I ask for the stars and they give me the moon,” Power said. “But also the kids. This year in particular we had a school near us that closed and we have children who came from that school and we are trying to meld two schools together.

“Holy Family School in Lakewood closed this year and it was hard. The students lost their school, they lost their friends, they lost their teachers, and it was hard coming into a new school,” she said.

Power said the St. Veronica pupils opened their hearts and welcomed the youngsters from Holy Family into their new home.

“We have a very generous group of students. We talk about social justice and they do a lot to help the community in many ways,” the principal said. “Within our diocese we have the Propagation of the Faith where our students raise money for missions and this year we had a Mass in Trenton.

“Representatives from each school went and the bishop was there … and at that Mass we received a plaque because our students have given the most money for the missions. That was a big deal. The money is sent to poor countries to help, so they are very generous,” Power said.

St. Veronica will celebrate its 50th anniversary with events that include a dinner dance and an alumni reunion.

“I like how for 50 years we have fostered reverence, respect and responsibility,” sixth-grader Michael Lamastra said.

Power said is the motto of the school.

The school has received a papal blessing from Pope Francis.

“I am one of the Sisters of the Resurrection and I belong to an international community so our motherhouse is in Rome. I asked one of our sisters to go to the Vatican to request one and she went to get it for us,” Power said.

A typical day at St. Veronica includes prayer when students arrive and prayer at the end of the day.

“Once a month the students go to Mass together and we are so lucky because the church is connected to the school. At other times during the year we will have a special Mass or prayer service,” she said.

Sixth-grader Samantha Jose said she enjoys attending Catholic school and added, “It is just so nice to have Mass every month …”

Sixth grader teacher Carole Howell said a student who exemplifies a certain virtue is selected each month and recognized at the Mass.

Power said the St. Veronica students enjoy being a part of Catholic Schools Week.

“It is a special celebration of who we are as a Catholic school. It is a lot of fun, but it is also a celebration of our Catholic identity, of the fact we are Catholic, and it is something that does set us apart because it is different in a Catholic school,” she said.

Power is in her 24th year as the school’s principal. She taught at St. Veronica from 1980-90 and then left for two years to serve as a principal in New York. She returned to St. Veronica in 1992 as the principal and remains in her post today.

She said the dedication of the teachers, pastors, parish and parents has brought St. Veronica School to this milestone.

“Financially, it is a big strain on the parish and it is a big sacrifice for parents. They live in a town like Howell where the schools are excellent and they are making sacrifices and choosing to send children to our school. They have to pay (for private school) when they are paying hefty taxes as it is. It is the dedication and commitment of parents. Together, we make St. Veronica School a big family,” Power said.

— Contact Jennifer Ortiz at

Jackson School District tightens security rules

JACKSON – New protocols describing how parents and guardians are permitted to visit schools were recently introduced by Jackson School District administrators.

In November, Superintendent of Schools Stephen Genco sent a letter to parents outlining the changes and calling them a necessary step for security in the district’s 10 schools.

“These changes were developed in collaboration with our district security staff, receptionists and the Jackson Police Department,” Genco wrote. “[They] represent our continued effort to evaluate our security needs and make changes when necessary.”

According to district administrators, the changes were made to allow staff members to pay more attention to who is entering Jackson’s schools during the day.

In the morning, school personnel, including teachers, stand at the main entrance as students arrive. In order to make the task of watching people entering the school less distracting, administrators are asking parents to wait at least 20 minutes after the students’ arrival time before entering the building for whatever purpose brings them there.

An exception will be made for parents who have an appointment that has been approved by a teacher, a counselor or the principal.

“We realize parents of some younger students are accustomed to walking their child through the doors in the morning,” Genco wrote. “This new procedure allows our staff to better focus on the students during this busy time.”

Genco said parents are also being asked to refrain from taking their child out of school when there is less than 20 minutes left before the dismissal time. He said an exception will be made if prior notice regarding a pick-up time has been provided by a note or email to a teacher or principal.

In the event of an emergency, parents may contact administrators by telephone prior to arriving at their child’s school.

“Please know we are not limiting a parent’s ability to sign his or her child out of school when necessary. We simply want to allow our staff to focus on the safe and orderly dismissal of the student body,” Genco wrote. “This advance notice helps us make arrangements to have your child ready for release without interfering with dismissal times.”

Parents were also notified of new entrance procedures at the schools. Each visitor will notify a receptionist of his or her arrival by using a buzzer at the front door. Each visitor will be asked why he is at the school.

If an individual says he has an appointment with someone in the school, the appointment will be verified. At that time the visitor will be allowed to enter the school and asked to report directly to the receptionist, where he will have to present a valid photo identification card. A visitor’s pass will be provided and the individual’s identification card will be held until he leaves the building.

If an individual says he does not have an appointment and seeks entrance, for example, to drop off a student’s lunch, he will be permitted to enter the building to do so.

All visitors are asked not to come to the school in the 20-minute period following the opening bell and in the 20-minute period prior to the dismissal bell.

Genco said small actions by all visitors and staff members can further bolster school security, such as not holding a door open for other visitors and limiting student drop-offs and sign-outs.

“With hundreds or thousands of students in a particular school, each unnecessary diversion draws our staff members’ focus from their assigned tasks,” the superintendent wrote.

In addition to the changes in protocol, the district implemented security upgrades during the summer, including the installation of additional cameras and newly keyed locks, according to administrators.

— Andrew Martins

Volunteer says advances have been made

The holidays are upon us and it is the time of giving. The giving of gifts, the giving of time, the giving of goodwill, and most importantly, the giving of thanks.

As a volunteer, I want to thank every person who has supported the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Perhaps it is a donation, attending a Heart Walk, championing a healthy change or supporting your child in a Jump Rope for Heart program. No matter how you have shown support, I want you to know that you have made a difference.

Born with a congenital heart defect, I made history at the age of 2 when I became the youngest recipient of a pacemaker. Since then, I have needed several pacemaker replacements.

To date, I have undergone 104 surgeries, multiple transfusions and too many tests to count, but I am still here because of all the work that has gone into the battle against cardiovascular disease. We have seen advancements in the treatment of heart disease and strokes because of research. We have seen workplaces make a shift toward workplace wellness.

We have witnessed children saving lives because they have learned CPR. We have heard the push of making the healthy choice the easy choice for all Americans. And for me, I have been able to live a happy life.

Thank you for the support you have given and will continue to give as we move toward a day where heart disease and stroke are no more.

If you are interested in supporting the American Heart Association, consider volunteering, participating at an event, or making a donation at

Augustine Concepcion
American Heart Association/
American Stroke Association volunteer
Ocean Grove

Remembering The Rat Pack

By Lucie M. Winborne,
ReMIND Magazine

 Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin They sipped Scotch on the rocks and smoked with panache. Wore tuxedos and mohair suits. Made movies and spoke their own brand of slang. Chased women (or, as Joey Bishop said, had to chase them away!). Sold out shows at the Sands in Vegas, where audiences lined up for hours for a seat.

They were talented, they were hip, and, for a brief but golden period, they were the coolest of the cool.

They were the Rat Pack.

Five names are familiar today: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Joey Bishop, but their “founder” was actually Humphrey Bogart, who dubbed a group of his drinking buddies the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack” in the ’50s. Another story has it that Bogie’s wife, Lauren Bacall, upon witnessing the aftermath of her husband’s and pals’ carousing, told them they looked like “a pack of rats.” Whatever its origin, the name stuck, although Sinatra wasn’t too fond of it and referred to the group as “The Summit” or “The Clan.” Other original members included David Niven, Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland.

After Bogart’s death in 1957, Sinatra became the group’s leader (“It’s Frank’s world; we just live in it,” Martin famously quipped), and in the early ’60s he and the boys charmed audiences at the Sands with their irreverent jokes, impressions and, of course, songs. They also made three films: Ocean’s 11, Sergeants 3 and Robin and the 7 Hoods. Noted Sinatra of these efforts: “Of course they’re not great movies! But we are not setting out to make Hamlet or Gone With the Wind. We are out to make films the people enjoy. It’s called entertainment.”

The group didn’t confine themselves solely to entertainment, though. In 1960 they publicly supported John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, donating publicity, photo ops and even a new version of “High Hopes” from Sinatra that Kennedy would take as his campaign song. That summer, Sinatra, Lawford, Davis and pack “mascot” Shirley MacLaine sang the national anthem at the opening of the Democratic National Convention, forging a link between politics and celebrities that continues to this day.

Those seemingly carefree times couldn’t last forever, of course. Relations between Kennedy and Sinatra cooled, then Frank’s friendship with Peter Lawford soured as well. After just a few years, the heyday of the Rat Pack was over.

In 1988 Sinatra, Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. tried to rekindle the old magic with a “Together Again” tour that Sinatra felt would be good for Martin, who had not performed for several years, but Dean was forced to drop out due to illness after just a few shows, and Sammy was diagnosed with throat cancer the following year. In 2007, Joey Bishop, the last surviving member, passed away.

By present politically correct standards, the Rat Pack might seem hopelessly outdated, but “The Rat Pack & Friends” tribute shows, featuring member impersonators and a big band, still delight fans around the globe. For a memorable 90 minutes, old-style Vegas cool lives again.

Bills aim to end preventable child and maternal deaths



The country in which a baby is born should not determine how long she lives. Now Congress has an unprecedented opportunity to make sure it doesn’t.

A new bipartisan bill has been introduced into both houses of Congress entitled the Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2015.

In the Senate, S-1911 was led by senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware). In the House, HR- 3706 currently has 25 Republican co-sponsors and 29 Democratic co-sponsors.

Both bills aim to end preventable child and maternal deaths by 2035.

Unlike many of the world’s problems, this is one we have the power to solve and we have made some incredible progress.

With the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), global partners and advocacy groups like RESULTS, the number of children worldwide under the age of 5 dying annually has fallen at an astonishing rate, from 12.6 million in 1990 to 6.3 million in 2013.

But with 17,000 children worldwide still dying each day — mostly from treatable causes like diarrhea and pneumonia – much work remains.

The Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2015 and the companion version which was introduced in the House in October will set important reforms into law.

The legislation supports doing more of what we know works, including quality prenatal care, management of labor and delivery, and basic treatments necessary for child health.

For the first time in history, experts and scientists agree it is possible to stop these avoidable deaths once and for all. Lawmakers should seize this incredible opportunity and pass this common sense, cost-effective and, most importantly, lifesaving legislation.

Working with its partners in developing countries, USAID has long been at the forefront of helping stop child and maternal deaths.

However, a 2014 report from a blue ribbon panel, a group of high-level business and development experts, identified a series of specific budget and management challenges impeding faster progress. These include a highly decentralized planning and decision-making process, a lack of flexibility, and fragmented data collection that makes it difficult to measure progress.

USAID has already made changes including creating clear benchmarks for success, appointing a coordinator to manage the entire strategy, and realigning $2.9 billion in funds to support a bold target of saving the lives of 15 million children and 600,000 women by 2035. This is major progress. The Reach Act will hold USAID accountable to its promises into the future and ensure that ending preventable maternal and child deaths remains a United States priority after the Obama Administration is gone. This legislation will maximize our investments, with returns measured in lives saved and healthy prosperous communities. If they work quickly to pass these bills, members of Congress can make sure that every single child in the world has a chance not to only survive, but thrive.

It is hard to imagine a more powerful legacy for this Congress and the people of New Jersey. Let’s call on representative Chris Smith to co-sponsor the Reach Act so New Jersey can take its place in history by giving all children a chance to survive and thrive.

Phyllis AlRoy is a group leader for RESULTS in New Jersey and the recipient of the Bob Dickerson National Grassroots Leadership Award for her nearly 30 years of child survival advocacy work.

Students open up hearts with donations of books

Staff Writer

 Pupils at the Elms Elementary School, Jackson, pack up more than 1,000 books that were collected and will be shipped to students who attend the Pine Point Elementary School in Ponsford, Minn.  PHOTOS BY STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Pupils at the Elms Elementary School, Jackson, pack up more than 1,000 books that were collected and will be shipped to students who attend the Pine Point Elementary School in Ponsford, Minn. PHOTOS BY STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR What began as a book club at a Jackson elementary school turned into an effort that collected more than 1,500 books for a school in Minnesota.

A group of about 30 fifth-graders from the Elms Elementary School collected the books as a new student club, “Tiger Paws for a Cause,” got off the ground.

Teacher Donna Donner said the effort took wing after she mentioned that she knew a teacher at the Pine Point Elementary School on a Native American reservation in Ponsford, Minn., who had lamented about a lack of books for her pupils.

Donner said she connected with her fellow educator through a social media group made up of educators from around the country.

“We are so rich in books and our love for books at Elms,” Donner said. “When I mentioned that the school in Minnesota did not have as much as we did, the kids said they could not imagine not having books readily available.”

She said the pupils took the reins from the start. They talked about the book drive during morning announcements and at lunch. They asked their peers to donate books that were no longer needed.

After that, it wasn’t long before books began arriving at Elms.

“The kids started bringing boxes and boxes of books to my room,” Donner said. “Our community completely came together and everybody is so happy to send out the books.”

Principal Michael Burgos said, “This event is a wonderful example of Elms’ commitment and the teachers’ and students’ commitment to giving back to the greater good. This project started as something small … and it gelled into something a lot bigger. It’s about giving back.”

After school on Dec. 2, students, parents and teachers sorted the books by reading level.

Parent Amalia Ulrey said she was proud of the students and more than happy to support the book drive in any way possible.

“The kids are really what made us excited and motivated to get this done,” Ulrey said. “For me, it was an amazing experience to see the kids reach out and think of someone other than themselves.”

A donation from a parent will cover the cost of shipping the books to Minnesota.

Donner has remained in contact with her counterpart at Pine Point, although she has not told her fellow teacher exactly how the book drive at Elms turned out.

“[Pine Point] has no idea this is coming to them. They think they are getting a box of books,” Donner said. “I kind of want to tell her they need to build a bigger shelf.”

Donner said the Elms group has included a special request for the Minnesota school.

“If they become rich in books, we hope they would do the same thing for another school,” the teacher said.

Donner said the students will come up with another charitable cause in January. She said she knows the Elms pupils will leave a legacy at the school.

“This isn’t surprising at all because I just think these kids have never been given the opportunity,” she said. “When you open the door, let them walk through it and give them a little freedom in their thinking … that is how they get things done.”