June 22, 2007

‘Nothing short of miraculous’

McGraw teen graduates tonight after overcoming a severe head injury


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer      
McGraw High School senior Brett VanAtta will graduate tonight from McGraw High School and plans to attend Tompkins Cortland Community College in the fall.

Staff Reporter

Brett VanAtta, 17, doesn’t remember the spill he took in a bicycle accident in May 2001 when he was in sixth grade, but he does remember the work and frustration of learning to walk, talk, and most importantly, think again.
He was biking with a friend on McGraw-Marathon Road when he lost control of his bike and struck his head, cracking his helmet. Brett said his friend was too far back to have seen what caused the spill.
“A couple weeks later I wake up in the hospital,” Brett said.
Initially, Brett was not expected to live. He said he was in a coma for a week and spent another week “waking” up. He remembers waking up and his grandfather being there, watching TV.
Brett’s right side was paralyzed and he required intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy. He was able to come home after 5 1/2 weeks.
“They wanted to keep me longer but I was doing so well they let me go,” Brett said.
At 6:30 tonight, VanAtta and 47 of his peers will graduate from McGraw High School.
“It was nothing short of miraculous,” said Debbie VanAtta, his mother and a special education teaching assistant at McGraw Elementary, of his survival and recovery.
“We’re very, very proud of Brett,” his mother said. Brett is also the son of Bill VanAtta. “He worked real hard. It hasn’t been easy for him. He has never given up.”
“I’m going to miss you,” Carrie Strout, a junior, said as she was leaving the high school building Thursday. “He’s amazing,” she said.
Brett said she has been a friend since elementary school.
Not only is Brett graduating with his class, but he is the first McGraw student in special education to receive an Advanced Regents Diploma, Debbie VanAtta said.
To receive the diploma a student must pass all Regents with at least a 65 and either take additional courses in language or a five-credit sequence in technology, business or art. VanAtta chose technology.
“I still have short term memory loss and will have it the rest of my life,” Brett said.
Next fall Brett will enter Tompkins Cortland Community College, where he will major in liberal arts; he’s already scheduled for 15 credit hours. “My mom’s making me keep a planner,” he said, for college so he can keep track of his classes and assignments
Brett said he had wanted to study architecture, but now is considering a career as a pediatric physical therapist, a career path he had not considered until after his accident.
Brett said the hardest subject for him is math.
“It was my best subject before. Now I’m pretty much good in everything but math,” he said. He took precalculus this year. “It isn’t my thing,” he said, noting he was getting 70s in class.
But, technology, science and math are good classes. He even received a grade of 100 one marking period in technology. He said he is good at finding solutions to problems in technology.
Brett said he is also good at writing and has written poetry for the school’s magazine and lyrics for a band he used to sing and play bass in.
Both Brett and his mother credit Lissa Lipfert, his special education teacher, with helping him succeed at McGraw.
“She’s been great,” Debbie VanAtta said.
Debbie VanAtta said Superintendent of Schools Maria S. Fragnoli-Ryan also helped in giving her time off so she could stay with her son throughout his hospitalization. Her husband was also given time off with pay from Reserve Supply of Central New York, in Syracuse.
Besides academics, Brett has also volunteered in the community. He said he was part of Cortland County Youth Leadership one year and for a community project the group helped clean up Recreation Park after a flood.
He also joined the Zero Adolescent Pregnancy program as a ZAP peer and talked to other students about sexual issues, helping younger students deal with peer pressure.
“That was one of the best things I’ve done.” A friend asked Brett to join so the friend would not be the only boy in the program.
“He has maturity of wisdom beyond his years — I think because of the accident,” Debbie VanAtta said, noting that he can empathize with the feelings and stress others face. “Brett is very dedicated to the needs of others.”
“It’s going to be very emotional,” said Debbie VanAtta said of today’s ceremony.




County moving to accept credit cards

Staff Reporter

Cortland County departments may soon be accepting credit cards, as the result of an agreement with a local company that was backed Thursday by the Budget and Finance Committee.
Pending full legislative approval on June 28, Systems East, located on Locust Avenue, will set up credit card acceptance capabilities for the county, beginning with the County Clerk’s Office, the County Treasurer and Real Property Tax Services.
The service should begin by Aug. 1, County Administrator Scott Schrader said, the date the county’s five-year contract with Systems East begins. People will be able pay with credit cards in person and online, and by electronic checks, however these payments will include a fee to the user.
Every credit card transaction will include an additional “credit card site fee” to the consumer of 2.7 percent of the total transaction, plus an additional 60 cents, meaning, for a transaction of $100 for instance, a consumer would pay a total of $103.30.
Electronic checks will carry a flat fee of $1.75.
Such a fee is typically charged on all credit card transactions at all businesses, but non-municipal businesses must pay the fee themselves, according to James Buttino, president of Systems East.
However, because a municipality can’t deduct money from, for instance, a court fee to pay credit card companies, state law allows municipalities to add the fee to the total transaction so the fee is covered by the consumer, Buttino said.
“Because we’re a government, I must collect the exact amount of money the state mandates, so I can’t absorb that fee,” said County Clerk Betsy Larkin. “If they wish to use a credit card, we will make it known that there is a convenience fee, but I’ve been hearing from so many people asking for this, I think they’ll be willing to do it just for the convenience.”
Larkin, who has been pushing to allow for credit card acceptance, said that the system should be beneficial to walk-in consumers at her office, to attorneys who accumulate numerous filing fees, and for the county clerk’s new online document system, which currently requires that consumers pay, via check or in person, a certain amount up front and then draw from that amount as they print documents from the clerk’s online database.
Meanwhile Real Property Taxes will be able to accept credit cards for tax maps and parcel information, and subscriptions to access tax information online, Schrader said, while the Treasurer’s Office will eventually be able to accept credit card payments for delinquent taxes and other fees collected by the treasurer.
County Treasurer Don Ferris said that it may take a number of months to get the delinquent tax payments online, but that credit card payment at his office would likely be a possibility sooner.
When Systems East first pitched its system in March, Schrader had expressed concerns that the system would bring a significant administrative burden, but Thursday he said he felt the system would be able to accommodate the accounting requirements of the Treasurer’s Office.
“The only difficulty will be to make sure we’ve got it set up properly, so it’s capturing the information in a meaningful way,” Schrader said.


McGraw man still missing

Staff Reporter

Family members are still searching for a 66-year-old McGraw man who went missing Monday in Tompkins County. They said they are baffled by his disappearance and concerned for his welfare.
Robert D. Ralyea, of 4865 Maybury Road, went missing in the town of Newfield around 1 p.m. Monday while making routine deliveries for his employer, Parts Plus of Cortland. His common-law wife and stepdaughters said this morning that he was driving the company delivery van — a Green 2002 Dodge Caravan with a New York state registration of DUS1804 — at the time of his disappearance.
They said they have spent the last four days searching for him but have found no leads.
“He’s home every day by a quarter to five,” his wife, Bertha Stegall-Ralyea, said. “If he is still in that van and still alive we have to find him or he is going to die.”
Stegall-Ralyea and her two daughters Pamela Smith and Tammy Morelli said police investigators believe the disappearance is medically related because Ralyea has had a history of heart disease and diabetes.
They said police have used helicopters to look for Ralyea but that investigators have been unable to find him or the vehicle he was last seen driving. They said they have personally searched the roads that Ralyea normally travels for work, along with much of the wooded area near those roads.
“We’ve been searching on foot,” Stegall-Ralyea said, visibly distraught about the disappearance of the man she has lived with for 25 years.
Family members said they do not believe the disappearance is the result of a crime but that they are beginning to question why police have not found the van if Ralyea had a medically-related accident. They said Ralyea does not have a history of disappearing or of dementia.
“Everyone liked him,” Morelli said.
Ralyea is a white man with blue eyes and gray hair. He stands around 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs around 250 pounds.
Police are asking anyone with any information about his disappearance to contact them at (607) 756-5604.