Bethesda-Chevy Chase Restaurant Week to support Yellow Ribbon Fund

by Katie Pohlman
Special to The Gazette

While getting a taste of Bethesda, diners will also help support wounded military members and their families during this summer’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase Restaurant Week.

The restaurant week, to be held July 29 to Aug. 4, will benefit the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a Bethesda nonprofit. It’s the first time the annual promotion is supporting a charity, said Laura Kimmel, director of membership and marketing for the Restaurant Association of Maryland. The decision was made by a committee of representatives of local restaurants, including Jaleo, Grapeseed American Bistro and Lebanese Taverna.

“The committee thought it would be a good idea,” Kimmel said. “It’s another way to tie in the local Bethesda feel.”

Mark Robbins, executive director of the Yellow Ribbon Fund, said the support is welcomed.

“We said yes immediately,” he said.

The Yellow Ribbon Fund works with families of injured service members who are recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia. The fund offers free rental cars and taxi rides, free hotel rooms and free apartments to families. The fund partners with local businesses to provide the services, Robbins said.

The fund’s mission is to make the healing process, which can last two years, as easy as possible for military families. That includes helping them visit service members and finding places for them to stay if the families are not from the Washington, D.C., area, he said.

“Our primary function is to keep families together during difficult times,” Robbins said.

The Yellow Ribbon Fund works with the Soldier and Family Assistance Center at Walter Reed. Robbins said the center provides a list of activities and services offered by different support organizations for families to choose from.

Amy Oppelt, coordinator of the Family Caregiver Program, first used the fund’s services when her husband was staying at Walter Reed. Oppelt had a newborn and a 6-year-old child at the time and said the free housing helped her adjust to living in the area. She also utilized the free taxi rides when extended family came into town to visit her husband.

She said the fund’s staff will jump through any hoop to help families.

“They’ve been so accessible,” she said. “If they don’t provide a certain service, they will find a way to get you what you need.”

Oppelt also benefited from the Family Caregiver dinners hosted by the fund to give wives and mothers time to themselves.

“At the beginning, you’re so overwhelmed with appointments that you don’t have time for yourself,” she said.

The dinners provided a support system for Oppelt, she said, by introducing her to other wives who are going through, or have gone through, the same process she is.

“It helped me feel like, ‘Yeah, I can do this’,” she said.

Oppelt’s husband is now in the outpatient stage of recovery, but still has appointments every day at the hospital.

Jessica Allen, director of the Family Caregiver Program, also found out about the fund when her husband was injured. After being helped by the fund herself, Allen decided to give back to the program.

She said the fund takes care of every family member, not just the service member. The organization provides events for “warriors only,” “warrior and caregiver only” and for the children, whom she called the “littlest warriors.”

Kimmel said about 30 restaurants are expected to participate this summer. Restaurants can decide whether to offer a two-course lunch for either $12 or $16, a three-course dinner for $33 or both during the week.

Participating restaurants will donate 10 percent of their sales throughout the week to the Yellow Ribbon Fund.

Spurs memorabilia stolen from Potomac home

by Katie Pohlman
Special to The Gazette

A San Antonio Spurs fan is missing some prized memorabilia after a burglar snuck into his Potomac home and took it.

A basketball signed by the 2005 San Antonio Spurs championship team, a basketball signed by the 2007 San Antonio Spurs championship team and two No. 21 San Antonio Spurs jerseys autographed by Tim Duncan were stolen from the house on the 8900 block of Holly Leaf Lane June 22. Police say the homeowners went for a walk about 1:30 p.m. that day and returned to find the items missing.

Police are now hoping someone with their eye on sports memorabilia might have seen the stolen goods.

“Due to the unique nature of the stolen items, investigators are asking for tips from the public,” Officer Janelle Smith said.

Police are asking anyone who may have information about this crime or the stolen memorabilia to call 301-657-0112 or the department’s anonymous tip line at 866-411-8477. Crime solvers are offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information that leads to an arrest or indictment of the crime.

Montgomery County’s tax bills overdue

by Katie Pohlman
Special to The Gazette

Montgomery County residents who logged on to view their annual tax bill July 1 were surprised to find them unavailable.

Taxpayer bills should be posted online the first day of July every year, according to the county’s Department of Finance’s website. But this year, the county missed their deadline.

Bonnie Ayers, county spokeswoman, said in an email that the bills should be posted online and sent out to taxpayers July 9.

The reason that 2013 property tax bills are not available yet is that the State Department of Assessments and Taxation does not send the assessment information to all jurisdictions at the same time, and Montgomery County did not get the assessment information until the end of June, the last of all jurisdictions to receive the necessary information, Mike Coveyou, county chief of the Division of the Treasury for the county’ Department of Finance, said in an email. After getting that information, it takes seven to 10 days to analyze the data, correct any errors and finalize the data for publishing on the Internet and as printed, mailed bills, Coveyou explained.

Before the county finance department receives the annual bill information from the state, the State Department of Assessments and Taxation spends three days preparing them. Robert Young, the department’s director, said it takes a little longer than normal to assess bills for Montgomery County because there are more tax credits for residents to apply for, such as the Homestead Tax credit from the state, a supplementary Homestead Tax credit from the county and a senior tax credit. The department must review all applications and award them to appropriate taxpayers. After the process is completed, the state sends the bills on to the county, Young said.

The state started reviewing county tax bills June 24 and sent them on to the county finance department June 27. These dates change every year as all of Maryland’s 24 tax subdivisions – all 23 counties and Baltimore city – apply for tax review. The process is first-come, first-serve, according to Young.

“You get your turn in line,” he said.

This year, he said, Montgomery County just contacted the state later than usual.

Once the state is done reviewing tax bills, the county then has additional local taxes to add, including bills for municipalities, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Maryland branch of National Capital Park and Planning Commission. There are also charges for the Water Quality Protection Fund and Solid Waste Services. All of these taxes are added together on the residents’ bills, Ayers said.

“Then the bills are sent to the print shop where the information is applied to the forms, then printed,” she said. “Bottom line, it will be several more days before the bills will be in the mail.”

Dee Hodges, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, is concerned about the not-yet-posted tax bills. She said the delay in receiving bills will cause a delay in paying them.

“People pay their bills when they get them,” she said.

Hodges believes the payment deadline should be pushed back to account for the eight missed days that are usually available for residents to review their bill, plan their payment method and make the payment itself. Banks and mortgage companies will not be affected by this change, but homeowners will, she said.

Ayers said the county cannot push the payment deadline back because it is set in state law. She doesn’t believe residents should have a problem in getting in the first payment before the September 30 deadline.

Once tax bills are posted online, residents can view theirs by going to the finance department’s website at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/finance.

Burtonsville woman heading into Africa this week

by Katie Pohlman
Special to The Gazette

Awrad Saleh leaves Burtonsville on Wednesday for Tanzania, to begin her two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer.

There, she will join 167 other volunteers, according to a Peace Corps news release, and teach English to secondary school children.

Saleh, 22, said her love of traveling and helping others drove her to apply to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

“I want to be able to see a change in other peoples’ lives,” she said.

Saleh has traveled around the Middle East and speaks fluent Arabic, but hasn’t visited a country whose background differs from hers. She said she is excited to live in the East African country and be exposed to a new culture.

For the first three months, Saleh will live with a host family to become aquainted with the culture. She admitted she is a little nervous because she doesn’t know anything about her host family and doesn’t know anyone else going to Tanzania.

“I’m going in completely blind,” Saleh said.

She began the application process in June 2012 after she graduated from Penn State with a degree in international relations. Saleh was told by the Peace Corps in August that she needed more volunteer experience before it could fully review her application. She decided to teach English for about a month at the English School for the Nations, which hosts English as a second language night classes at Greenridge Baptist Church in Frederick. After she finished volunteering, she notified the Peace Corps and it continued to review her application.

She didn’t hear anything until she was interviewed in November, when she was asked where she wanted to be sent. Her top choice was the Middle East or North Africa.

Saleh said the application process was frustrating at times.

“You wouldn’t hear anything for a month,” she said. “So many people would look over your application that the person you see at the beginning of the process is not the same as the one at the end.”

During the times of no communication, Saleh said, she also had to gather medical forms and get vaccinations.

Saleh finally found out in February that the agency wanted to send her to Sierra Leone, but she wasn’t happy with that placement and decided to appeal for another post. She was told she might not get another chance to be a volunteer, but that didn’t scare her.

“It’s two years of my life,” Saleh said. “I wasn’t going to just go anywhere.”

Tanzania was in her second-choice area, so when she received the invitation, she accepted immediately.

After her time in Tanzania, she plans to attend graduate school.

Montgomery County joining national ‘100,000 Homes’ campaign to help homeless

by Katie Pohlman
Special to The Gazette

Three hundred volunteers will take to the streets this year to examine the need for permanent housing for Montgomery County’s homeless. The event marks the county’s initial steps to participate in the national “100,000 Homes” campaign.

A coalition of county government officials, nonprofit organizations and volunteers will join forces to place homeless people in permanent housing. The Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless will be the driving force, Executive Director Susie Sinclair-Smith said.

The county’s involvement with the national campaign will begin Nov. 4, when volunteers are expected to walk the streets and assess the needs of homeless people willing to talk to them.

Volunteers are scheduled to be trained Nov. 3 to conduct Vulnerability Index Surveys that will produce scores based on a person’s mental and physical health, age and drug use. The higher the score, the more the person needs. People with the highest scores will be placed in housing first.

Volunteers are expected to conduct the surveys Nov. 4 through 6, between 4 and 7 a.m. A housing development plan will be ready by Nov. 7, Sinclair-Smith said.

“We will be going out to the woods, bus stations, Metro stations to identify the people who need help,” County Councilmember George Leventhal (D-at large) of Takoma Park said at a press conference Wednesday.

On average, 1,000 people are homeless every night in the county, Leventhal said in his speech. About 400 of them are chronically homeless, meaning they have been homeless for a year.

He said the 100,000 Homes campaign will help slowly lower those numbers over the coming years.

“We may not end homelessness all together, but for those individuals we place in homes,” Leventhal said, “we will end it for them.”

Leventhal has been a driving force in getting the county involved with the national campaign. The county will join more than 200 communities working together to provide permanent housing to 100,000 chronic and medically vulnerable homeless individuals by July 2014.

The campaign has passed its halfway mark and has housed 55,684 homeless individuals, according to its website.

But the county’s coalition plans to continuously provide housing to people even after the national campaign has met its goal, Sinclair-Smith said.

The county’s coalition for the homeless also will provide medical care and therapy to those who need it, something it already does for current clients.

Lack of health care is a leading cause of homelessness, said Michael Stoops, community organizer for the National Coalition for the Homeless. Accessibility to both health care and a house should be the first steps to getting people off the streets.

“We all need more than just a roof over our heads,” he said.

Stoops added that the National Coalition for the Homeless sees heath care and housing as human rights.

Chuck Hanson, a Bethesda Cares volunteer and future volunteer for the November surveys, said the homeless are no different than everyone else.

“People on the streets are just that,” Hanson said. “They’re people.”

Anyone interested in volunteering for the November surveys should visit the coalition’s website at www.mcch.net.