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'From our hearts': Fourth-grader donates star for Auburn Christmas tree

AUBURN — Nine-year-old Finn Bell was unimpressed when he saw the star on the Christmas tree outside of Auburn's Memorial City Hall last year during the city's holiday parade. So he set out to raise enough money to help the city purchase an even bigger and better star for the Christmas tree this year.   

"I didn't like how the star looked last year," Finn said during an interview at the Auburn Downtown Business Improvement District office Thursday afternoon.

Finn was at the office to see the star BID Director Stephanie DeVito bought with his donation. 

"I was excited to see it," Finn said after DeVito opened the large cardboard box and revealed the sparkly gold star to fourth-grade student. 

He was able to raise almost $200 to purchase the star. He said he spent a year saving up his birthday money, collecting bottles and cans and selling hugs to some of the ladies down at the Auburn American Legion. 

"We are very grateful and honored that he wanted to do something for our community and do something that thousands of people are going to see over the holiday times," DeVito said. "We are grateful for his generosity and his kindness and we think he's a great kid. We're glad to have him in our community."

Finn is no stranger to helping others. Last year, he donated goody bags of small toys and stuffed animals to the Auburn Police Department so officers would have something in their cars to comfort children in traumatic situations. Finn, unfortunately, was one of those children facing a traumatic situation when his mother, Bridget Bell, was murdered by his father in 2011.  

Auburn Police Chief Shawn Butler, while still a detective with the department, was the lead investigator on Bridget's murder case when he first met Finn.  

"Finn remembered the experience he had in my office back in 2011 when he was real small," Butler said during the Nov. 2 Auburn City Council meeting. "Unfortunately, I didn't have any stuffed animals or any toys for him, so he got to play on my computer while, unfortunately, we dealt with some very unfortunate circumstances with his grandmother."

Since then, Butler said, Finn and his grandma Kelly Bell have kept in touch with Butler. The police chief said he "likes to think that I have become a mentor to Finn."

As a token of appreciation, Finn is leading this year's holiday parade, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25. He will ride in the chief's police car and then help Mayor Michael Quill light the Christmas tree, which will be adorned with the star Finn donated.  

"Kudos to Finn," Butler said. "He's got a big heart and he's been through more than some of us will ever go through in our life. He's a special little friend not only to me, but also to the city." 

Kelly, who is raising Finn, said she is working hard to instill a giving spirit in her young grandson. 

"He knows that when he was a little baby and everything went wrong, this community was here for us," she said. "That's why we support Auburn all the way through. We're just trying to give back to the community what they gave to us."

"We're not doing this for publicity," Kelly added. "We're doing this from our hearts."

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Veterans Day service in Auburn honors those who served

AUBURN — Steve Weldon, who served as a lance corporal in the U.S. Marines, felt he was representing both the living and the dead at a Veterans Day service in Auburn Saturday.

Weldon was in Operation Buffalo during the Vietnam War. He said 105 out of 120 members of his unit, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, nicknamed "The Walking Dead," were killed. Those fallen men were in his thoughts at a Veterans Day service at SS. Peter and John Episcopal Church in Auburn Saturday.

"I remember them every day — but more so on this day than others," Weldon said.

He said he acknowledges those men that died in the conflict didn't get to have the opportunities he has had, like seeing his children and grandchildren grow up. He feels he is able to represent those troops through talking about their trials.

He was one of several veterans present at the event. Auburn Mayor Michael Quill, who also served as a Marine, and city councilor Jimmy Giannettino, who was in the U.S. Air Force, were among the speakers at the church. Giannettino said his time in the service helped shape the person he is today.

A presentation, which included a musician playing the military bugle call "Taps" was played as the audience stood up from their seats.

Terry Winslow, former chief of the Auburn Fire Department, thanked the veterans that attended for their service. He said one can recognize who is a veteran because all of them "stand one inch taller as an American flag comes down."

If the veteran cannot stand, he said, there is still a sign that distinguishes them from the rest.

"There's a spark in their eye that tells you they are truly proud of the county they defended," Winslow said.

As NY women celebrate suffrage centennial, they look to the future

Melina Carnicelli recalls a comment she heard often while campaigning for Auburn mayor in 1999. When her volunteers knocked on doors in the city, voters, mostly men, would ask why she wasn't watching her children or at home cooking dinner.

The sexism didn't derail Carnicelli's historic bid. She was the first woman elected mayor of Auburn.

"It didn't deter me from running because I knew I could do the job," she said in a phone interview.

New York is commemorating the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. Women could vote in the state three years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It was a major achievement that was decades, if not centuries, in the making.

But as the state celebrates the women's suffrage centennial, there are conversations about what the future holds for women, especially those serving or wishing to serve in government.

When Carnicelli ran for mayor nearly 20 years ago, she was already serving in city government. Four years before, she was the second woman ever elected to the city council.

The "Why isn't she at home"-type comments weren't foreign to her then and she knows similar sentiments are expressed in the present.

"That kind of prejudice against women in leadership existed at that time and still exists today," she said.

It's a reason why she and other women leaders, including Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, are focused on the future.

Hochul is leading the state's women's suffrage centennial commission. The panel is tasked with developing ideas for educational programs and events commemorating the anniversary.

"What happened in 1848 (at the Seneca Falls Convention) and winning the right to vote 70 years later in 1917 are wonderful parts of our history and our story, but 100 years later we have a moral responsibility to not just hold the torch and pass it on but to make sure that torch is nurtured and the flames grow even brighter," Hochul said.

Carnicelli and Hochul highlighted the challenges women face, whether it's a lack of confidence or not wanting to wade into a messy political climate.

Outside government, there are cultural issues. The rash of sexual assault and harassment allegations levied against powerful men, such as Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein, shed light on the conditions women are subjected to in society. Whether it's in Congress or corporate America, sexism is an epidemic.

"There are inequalities that are so prevalent in our culture that it's discouraging for women," Hochul said.

A cultural shift is needed, according to Hochul. But she also believes that internal shifts will help bring more women to the table.

She remembered the constant attacks and barrage of criticism she faced while running for Congress in 2011. Her husband would clip negative letters to the editor from the newspaper so she wouldn't see them.

"Women see this and say, 'I don't want to sign up for that' and I tell them 'But you need to,'" she said. "We're at a point where we need to stand up for ourselves."

A challenge mentioned by Carnicelli and Hochul is the number of women elected officials. Hochul noted that when she served in Congress, 21 percent of the House and Senate membership was women. Now it's 19.6 percent.

There has been a slight increase at the state level. Women now hold 27.7 percent of the seats in the state Legislature.

State Sen. Pam Helming, whose district includes Seneca Falls, is one of the newest members of the state Legislature. She was elected in 2016 to succeed state Sen. Michael Nozzolio. Helming, R-Canandaigua, is one of 14 women in the state Senate.

Carnicelli is involved with two initiatives that aim for gender parity in elected office. One program is WomenElect, a leadership class for a limited number of participants that educates women on how to run for political office. Another is First Amendment-First Vote, which is an educational program for high school girls.

Nationally, the number of women serving in elected office is 20 percent, according to Carnicelli. Yet women make up more than 50 percent of the population.

"There are plenty of qualified, dedicated and effective women who could be and should be leaders in our governance areas," Carnicelli said.

For now, Hochul urged women and all citizens to vote. But she is also asking them to consider the future and the state of women's rights in 2017 and beyond.

"How will we be judged 100 years from now? And I want people to feel the weight of that responsibility," she said. "We should be as courageous and as audacious as the women and women who stood with them a century ago were." ​