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Dominick A. Merle photo  

Colorful statues are heading for immersion in the Ganges during the festival of Durga Puja in Calcutta. 

holiday spirit
Supplies tight, but Christmas tree lots open in Napa County

With the weather no longer frightful, Napa County shoppers turned their attention on Sunday to decking their halls – with fresh Christmas trees going on sale at various lots around the valley.

The segue from bountiful Thanksgiving dinners to holiday greenery appeared swift at some Napa tree lots, whose owners reported brisk sales with Christmas exactly a month away. Those looking to adorn their living rooms with firs or spruces, however, were advised to shop earlier than usual, amid shrinking supplies due to drought conditions in the Pacific Northwest forests where many of the trees are born.

Tree inventories in Washington state and Oregon are smaller, and wholesale costs higher, this year as scant rainfall has killed or stunted seedlings that otherwise would grow into display trees, according to several local sellers.

“I had 2,800 trees out of 5,000 (sought), and then I got a call from a guy who lost his place in Oroville,” said Steve Arampatzis in between greeting midday customers at Steve’s Trees, his annual tree lot at the Napa Valley Expo. “I went there and bought another 1,200 trees from him, so I’ve got 4,100 now – but I’m still short this year.”

Arampatzis began his 34th tree-selling season Nov. 17 amid conditions made tougher by more than just constricted inventory. Windblown smoke from the massive Camp Fire in Butte County triggered an extended air-pollution alert in Napa and the Bay Area, while a change of weather last week that finally cleansed the air also drenched the valley with three days of rain, including on Thanksgiving.

However, neither foul air nor rainstorms appeared to seriously crimp early tree sales, according to Arampatzis.

The smoke “had an effect on us, trying to work in that environment, but it didn’t have much effect on the people coming to buy trees,” he said. “We were working in air at 190 (air-quality index, in which levels above 100 are unhealthy for people with respiratory problems), but I can’t just sit idle. It is what it is, and I love to see children having a good time. It means a lot to me, to make a child happy for the time they’re here.”

At Steve’s Trees, a steady flow of seniors, children and young couples perused the rows of Douglas, noble and grand firs on display, their wintry and forest-like feel contrasting with the cloudless sky and temperatures in the mid-60s.

“I’ve always picked natural trees – it has the smell,” said Taylor Martin of Napa. “It’s always been part of the family tradition to get a tree.”

Jamie Nelson of Napa, inspecting trees with her husband Tyler, mused about her family’s childhood custom of traveling from Cupertino to the Santa Cruz Mountains to cut their own Christmas tree. While less exotic, the tree lot – and the newly clear conditions – were a literal and figurative breath of fresh air.

“I appreciate it a thousand times more,” she said. “That’s what I told my husband: we need to get outside, get our tree now that it’s not smoky.”

On the north side of Napa, shoppers streamed toward another, smaller tree lot at Vintage Farm, where Vintage High School students were spending their Sunday taking orders, checking inventory and boosting firs into and onto customers’ cars. The student farm at the end of Sierra Avenue began its sale the day after Thanksgiving with 228 trees and will steer its proceeds into the Napa FFA farming education program, according to Rori Bohan, an agricultural instructional assistant at Vintage.

The hours would be long for the student staff – perhaps 10 hours a day on weekends and from 3 to 8 p.m. after school days – but Vintage junior Hannah Madole treated it as an education, not only in salesmanship but also in how valued their stock is.

“It’s nice to see how excited people get, especially the younger kids, and be a part of that,” she said.

Napa's Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch moves to greener pastures

From the looks of it, Harvey, Kiki, Tacoma and Sasha are quite content at their new home in south Napa.

Lounging around their new indoor/outdoor “catio”, the felines and a handful of others recently relocated from Ella’s CatHouse & Catnip Bar, an adoption facility located on Caymus Street run by Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch (JARR) in downtown Napa, to the Carneros area.

They were city cats before. But now, “They’re country cats,” said Monica Stevens.

Founded in 2014 by Monica and David Stevens, JARR is no-kill rescue and sanctuary. The nonprofit provides transitional and permanent shelter, adoption and rescue services, humane education, animal advocacy and more.

In mid-November, the nonprofit’s headquarters moved from Caymus Street to the new ranch facility at 1199 Cuttings Wharf Road in Carneros.

“It has been a wonderful 21 months where we have been incredibly successful in adopting over 150 cats into loving homes,” said Julia Orr, director of communications for Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch. “It is a bittersweet departure for all of us but the cats will have a wonderful new home.”

The new home “is the perfect location,” said Stevens. The facility was previously home to the Wine Country Pet Resort. Today, the space can accommodate dogs and cats and also farm animals such as horses, sheep, pigs and chickens.

Combining both companion animals with farm animals at one location is the best of both worlds, said Stevens.

The JARR cats joined a group of nine horses, three pigs, two dogs (one of which just got adopted), 10 hens and nine sheep, and others will eventually join them at the animal sanctuary.

Now known as Ella’s CatHouse at the Ranch, the cat adoption center is open daily by appointment only. Eventually, the 4-acre property facility will be open to the public.

JARR gets called for animal rescues for three reasons: someone died, leaving their animal without accommodations; someone is moving and unable to or won’t take their pet with them; or the animal is suffering from abuse or neglect.

The Carneros location is already licensed to hold 75 dogs and 25 cats. But Stevens said she doesn’t plan on caring for that many dogs. Dogs do better in foster homes rather than kennels, she said.

“This ranch will enable us to rescue and aid even more animals,” Stevens said in an August interview. “Here we can provide them with a humane, loving space to receive care and, for many, a second chance at life.”

According to Stevens, the new JARR location will eventually feature new barns, a learning center, behavioral center, a garden, a graywater water treatment system and other improvements.

A series of old concrete kennels will be demolished.

For now, the horses, pigs, dogs and other animals live in enclosures or stalls that will last until the new barns and other permanent structures are built.

Each horse has his or her own stall, with a sign posted outside listing the horse’s name and temperament. During a recent tour, one horse was skittish and didn’t want to be touched. Another followed a visitor who was passing by.

The three pigs each have a large living space. During the visit, Stevens used a long fork-like stick to scratch their backs.

Each of the pigs has their own story, she said. One is living at the ranch temporarily because the pig’s owner is going through a divorce. Another pig was saved from the meat market.

The ranch cost $2.4 million to purchase. Another $10 million is needed to complete the entire project, said Stevens.

Stevens is optimistic the money can be raised. “I think we’re going to do really well,” she said.

health care
Napa families consider sacrificing health care to stay in America

Local nonprofits worry that a growing number of foreign-born residents are forgoing health care, fearing medical help could jeopardize their immigration status.

It’s difficult to quantify the number of immigrants who are choosing to decline health care because evidence is anecdotal. But OLE Health, the Napa Valley’s second-largest health care provider behind Kaiser Permanente, says it may have statistics that offer a glimpse into the problem. The organization serves many immigrants.

More than 900 OLE Health clients have disenrolled from Partnership Health Plan, a Northern California health care organization that manages benefits for 560,000 low-income residents on the state-run insurance plan Medi-Cal. Most of those patients were children.

“If you’re a citizen, that’s great,” said Elia Rubio, who educates patients for OLE Health. “But if you’re not, you will not access any kind of public benefit out of fear of hurting yourself in the long run for citizenship.”

Legal and health care professionals who work with local immigrants say the anxiety around obtaining public benefits, such as government-run health care, started to grow after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

Trump campaigned on commitments to crack down on people who cross the Mexican border illegally and made it a priority to reform immigration policy.

Local health care professionals say the anxiety has grown significantly worse since October, when the Trump administration proposed to change the “public charge” rule that helps the government decide whether a person trying to enter America or obtain a green card may primarily rely on public dollars.

As a result of this proposed change, roughly a dozen clients visit Community Health Initiative Napa County each week wanting to withdraw from public benefits or seeking more information about the proposed “public charge” rule change, said Elba Gonzalez, head of the organization.

The office, which offers help to patients seeking health insurance, is usually busy around the time of open enrollment for health care benefits. Fewer people seem to be enrolling in Medi-Cal this year, she said.

Every client who seeks more information about the proposed change is misinformed, Gonzalez said. The rules are confusing, especially for people who don’t speak English as a first language. Sometimes, clients are so scared that they don’t seem to be listening to the advice she offers, she said.

“To see that fear, and that they’re having to make a decision that puts their health at risk, it’s just really concerning,” said Gonzalez, who has worked in the health care resources field for 13 years.

Trying to redefine ‘public charge’

The “public charge” rule exists to help the government determine how big of a charge, or cost, an immigrant could pose to taxpayers. Currently, the rule targets immigrants who receive benefits through Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but the proposed change to the rule would expand the range of public benefits.

If approved, the government would take into account immigrants receiving housing assistance, non-emergency Medicaid benefits, Medicaid benefits for certain low-income patients who need prescription drugs, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Most immigrants who use such services for at least nine months within a three-year period would be considered a “public charge.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which proposed the rule change, says the policy will give the government a more comprehensive set of tools to decide whether immigrants will be self-sufficient.

The changes would mostly affect immigrants who use family connections to obtain a green card, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. A much larger pool of immigrants may also be affected, as some may pull out of public programs because they are confused or scared of risking their chance at staying in America, according to researchers.

An estimated 875,000 to 2 million children of noncitizen parents could lose Medicaid coverage if the policy change caused 15 to 35 percent of those patients to disenroll, Kaiser Family Foundation researchers found.

‘There’s so much fear’

Kids are the fastest-growing group of patients disenrolling at OLE Health, according to Alicia Hardy, head of OLE Health. Some children of undocumented parents have even asked to stop receiving public benefits to avoid jeopardizing their parents’ immigration status.

People disenrolling in great numbers could ultimately reduce the availability of services OLE Health can offer to the broader community, officials said.

OLE Health saw a 20 percent increase in clients who became insured when the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was implemented in 2013, Hardy said. Clients have started disenrolling in the last two years. And for every one percent of clients who drop coverage, OLE Health loses nearly $200,000 in revenue, officials said.

Such a change would not hamper OLE Health’s plans to expand into its future south Napa campus, but could affect ongoing operations.

The “public charge” proposal has yet to be approved, but Hardy said it will be a matter of time until the change becomes law. The organization is bracing itself for the possibility that people will disenroll at an even faster rate by trying to educate as many patients as it can.

The public may submit comments on the proposal until Dec. 10 to

Patients seem to be coming in less often or only when they’re in an emergency situation, Hardy said.

“With the current political environment, there’s so much fear of government and fear of anything that could jeopardize someone’s ability to obtain legal permanent residency,” said Hardy, “even though some of the (anxiety behind the) decision-making is unfounded.”

The proposal prompted some who were considering disenrolling from benefits to reach out to the International Institute of the Bay Area, a nonprofit that offers legal help to immigrants.

Karla Marquez, who works in the organization’s Napa office, encouraged immigrants who are considering disenrolling to speak to their eligibility case worker and connect with a legal service provider. The case worker can help their client understand how they determine whether someone is eligible for a public benefit, while a legal service provider can help the client understand how receiving a benefit could affect their specific case.

It’s better to go to trusted organizations than to live in fear, she said.

“This is really about making a decision,” Marquez said. “We want people to be well-informed so that they can … not be overwhelmed by the fear that other neighbors might be feeding to them, or the fear that’s being distributed over the television or the radio.”