Arlington, VA

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Whether it was entering a beauty pageant or a 10-day immersive therapy retreat, Arlingtonian Grace Ashi — AKA Miss Arlington USA 2019 — has marked the last year as one of immense personal growth in overcoming her stutter.

“I was born with a speech disability, I wanted to basically put myself in a position where I could grow and I can inspire people who might suffer from a disability they could do it,” said Grace Ashi.

Grace Ashi, who works at Keller Williams realty by day, grew up in Cameroon and Maryland, where her stuttering led to bullying and scared her away from public speaking.

Ashi had a friend in Maryland who had entered a pageant two years ago, and when it was first suggested that she enter the pageant to work on her public speaking, she was largely unfamiliar with the concept. Though she’s always had a great interest in fashion and has her own fashion blog, she thought pageants sounded superficial (although she’s ashamed to admit that now).

The Miss USA competition (not to be confused with the Miss America pageant of the famous theme song and Atlantic City background) is a part of the Miss Universe pageant, which is an entirely separate circuit.

The Miss America pageant made headlines announcing they would no longer judge contestants on physical appearance or recognize the swimsuit competition.

In contrast, the Miss USA pageant continues to employ a swimsuit competition and has no talent competition. Still, the three portions — an interview segment in front of a panel of judges, evening wear and the swimsuit competition – can require a lot of grueling preparation.

“It’s like getting ready for the Olympics, because you have to have your body right, your mind right and your community service, while preparing to foster relationships,” said Jasmyne Franklin, who represented Falls Church at the pageant.

While she had an amazing experience at the pageant in Norfolk Sheraton, Ashi stops short of calling the experience a vacation.

“We were up and running sunrise to sunset,” said Ashi. “It’s a lot more work than it looks like.”

As for the swimsuit competition, 2016 Ms. Virginia America Marta Bota explained, “it’s really about showing physical fitness, which is about showing a woman is well-rounded.”

Bota was also Ashi’s personal coach and said that Grace’s story inspired her, though that’s par for the course for her contestants.

“A lot of people don’t realize the work that goes into pageantry, as well as how educated they are and what kind of pillars to the community they are,” she said. “It’s really been amazing to mentor these amazing women and I get a lot out of it myself.”

Bota worked with Ashi for six weeks, which is generally late in the process to prepare for the pageant. Typically, contestants train a year or so in advance.

Bota estimates that this might have limited her chances of advancing, but that she did an incredible job under the circumstances, citing her as a quick worker and a great student.

“She’s a really bright young woman, she’s go-getter, she’s ambitious, that’s what I got out of her,” said Bota. “I’m sure if she comes back, she’ll do even better.”

In addition to her traditional pageant training, Ashi also attended the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke. There, she participated in a 10-day immersive therapy program that included 100 hours of therapy for people with stuttering disorders.

“It was my first time meeting other people suffering from the same thing I’m going through,” she said. “I learned how important it is that we need people like me to give me a voice and it was my first time being comfortable with my version of the story.”

Through the course of an orientation and pageant weekend this past fall in Norfolk, Grace found a lot of camaraderie and felt as if it were more of a sisterhood than a competition. Franklin and Ashi keep in touch with the other contestants through a chat group.

In fact, one night during the competition, Ashi came back to her hotel room and found one of her friends gave an inspirational note, along with a gift from Franklin.

But these days, she’s back to her day job as a realtor with Keller Williams, which comes with its own challenges.

“Most people with any kind of speech impediment would avoid working in sales but I do not want the stuttering to control my destiny,” she said. “That’s not to say it’s been easy. Sometimes insecurities of my speech does hold me back from putting myself out there.”

She also runs a fashion blog, “Girl Meets Pearl” in her spare time, and has documented much of her journey with the followers of her blog through her Instagram account.

As Miss Arlington USA 2019, Ashi is a delegate of the community and works to advance her platform — in this case, combating bullying — through volunteering, fundraising and advocacy work. She works at an after school program, Aspire Afterschool Learning, and hopes to host charity events, which would raise funds to expand those facilities.

“Even if I didn’t get win the competition, I can still use the title to get involved in my community,” said Ashi.

Ashi moved here from New York in 2015 and calls “Arlington one of the best cities I’ve ever been in my entire life” because of its cleanliness, diversity, and restaurant scene.

Next up, Ashi is considering competing in Miss United States.

For more of Grace Ashi, follow her on Instagram @Grace_Ashi and for more of Aspire, go to Aspireafterschool.org.

Courtesy photo

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Despite a dining space that’s limited to less than a dozen foot stools in a cramped row, few neighborhood eateries have had a more indelible effect on the community than El Charrito Caminante since its founding in 2000.

Unbeknownst to most of its customers, the hybrid Salvadoran-Mexican restaurant, located at 2710 Washington Boulevard, has a long history in Arlington’s food scene.

“What makes up for the space is they have a really friendly atmosphere,”said Jennifer Hernandez, who, like the owners of El Charrito Caminante, is Salvadoran. “The owners are really nice and acknowledge every single person who comes in.”

“I lived across the street for several years, from 2003 to 2006, and basically survived on it,” recalled former Arlington resident Evan Vischi.

Owner Jose Zalaya Sr. hails from San Miguel, El Salvador, and he faced quite the journey before founding the Lyon Park eatery. Even before the country faced a massive civil war in the 1980s, which led to a mass exodus of Salvadorans that continues to this day, the Zalaya clan was targeted by rebel insurgents.

“Anyone who owned land was in danger; we didn’t know anything about them or their names,” said Jose Jr., who plays a major role in managing the restaurant.

According to local resident Frick Curry, who worked as a foreign policy analyst for the Center for International Foreign Policy at the time, the military was closely aligned with a ruling class that consisted of an oligarchy of less than fifteen families.

“Being part of the opposition was really your only alternative because the elections were rigged and the economy of the country was run by the 14 families or their minions,” Curry said. “They did try to seize land from land owners and this is an issue still in Central America today because of the growing populations and the pressures on land.”

The Zalayas estimate half of the family was killed, in all. While Jose Sr. and his parents were spared, they no longer had a base of wealth.

Accordingly, Jose Sr. chose to head to America in 1976 at just 19 years old, leaving his pregnant wife behind. Unlike many immigrants from Central America, who rely on family to sponsor their journey to the U.S., Zalaya didn’t know anyone when he began his trip.

Instead, Jose Sr. got by thanks to the people he met along the way during his months-long journey, including a fellow traveler who linked him to his first construction job when he got to Northern Virginia.

Seven years after arriving here, Jose Sr. was able to send for his son, who was raised in Alexandria and went to Edison High School alongside his two younger sisters — one is in the military and the other is out of the restaurant business.

In the 1990s, Jose Sr. and his wife, Anna, opened up a food truck based on family recipes. They sold at the intersection of N. Pershing Drive and Arlington Boulevard with a customer base that was boosted by military personnel stationed at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall (then known just as Fort Myer). Jose Sr. estimates it was one of four or five food trucks in the county at the time.

But when the Zalayas decided to expand and open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2000, they never considered changing the menu.

“Around here, this was a close place where everyone in the neighborhood knew us, we didn’t want to change,” Jose Jr. said.

The menu is well-known for its authenticity. Dishes are referred to as “cabrito” for goat, or “gallina” for hen, rather than more palatable terms, like chicken or lamb.

The make of the sandwiches is very unconventional as well. Order the gallina sandwich and you will get red cabbage with slices of egg.

Jose Jr., who has been working since the age of 16, is often seen at the front taking orders. His father still works daily and can be seen in the back.

“Every time my dad came in, the owner [Jose Sr.] would have a conversation with him, so we’ve become personally loyal,” said Hernandez.

Vischi also remembers befriending Jose Jr., who never forgot him even once he moved away from Arlington.

“When I visited El Charrito [Caminante] in 2012, Jose had thought that I’d been absent for other reasons, but where I told him where I’d been [living in the Czech Republic], he refused payment for our meal, even refusing payment for a symbolic tip,” Vischi said.

The 2015 Census American Community Survey counted 288,000 Salvadoran residents in the D.C. metro area, accounting for one third of the region’s Hispanic community. It is also the highest population of Salvadorans in the nation.

As such, the local culinary scene is marked by plenty of other, long-standing Salvadoran restaurants, such as Pupuseria Dona Azucena (71 N Glebe Road), Restaurante El Salvador (4805 Columbia Pike), Sofia’s Pupuseria (3610 Columbia Pike), La Union (5517 Wilson Boulevard) and Atlacatl (4701 Columbia Pike).

“We have a lot of customers who aren’t Salvadoran because we’re in a primarily white neighborhood,”said Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant La Union manager Henry Gutierrez. “Salvadoran is a whole different cuisine than Mexican, which people are more familiar with, but people really like the steaks and shrimps and meats.”

When asked about expansion, Jose Jr. says the family has no plans — they have the perfect location in the neighborhood.

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Jay Stapf points to shed where foxes were found

A wild animal, believed by some to be a coyote, is causing increasing concern among Cherrydale residents.

The concern stems from Cherrydale resident Jay Stapf’s sighting of what he says were three decapitated fox heads on his back lawn this May. When Stapf went to retrieve his puppy, Stella, from the backyard, he was greeted by the sight of the severed heads.

“It was creepy, almost like when you bury someone in sand at the beach,” Stapf wrote in a report of the incident.

For the second time that month, Stapf called the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, who showed up to assist.

AWLA determined that a human didn’t sever the fox heads. They also suggested that Stapf install a motion sensor camera in his backyard in order to get further clues about the incident. However, Stapf says AWLA never followed up to confirm that a coyote was involved.

“We don’t know for certain [what they were] because they never came out and trapped them,” said Stapf.

AWLA Chief of Animal Control Alice Burton said that most of the time when people report coyote sightings to her, they turn out to be foxes, but this was a case that had her puzzled.

“It’s funny because I’ve reached out to professional naturalists on this and no one has a clue,” said Burton.

“Usually when we find decapitated animals, it’s kind of unusual. Heads are actually the first thing that animals eat,” said Alonso Abugattas, The Department of Parks and Recreations’s natural resources manager and one of the people Burton consulted with.

Sheila Dougherty, who walks Stella, had another neighbor who also reported a coyote sighting, so she decided to check with other residents on the Cherrydale email listserv.

“I think it’s good for everyone to know that there are coyotes in Arlington so that they can make informed decisions about whether to leave their dogs and cats out at night,” Dougherty said.

Eleven other members in the community wrote in with evidence of coyote sightings, with three others seeing a coyote as recently as this past spring.

Some of the sightings were indirect like Stapf’s. One neighbor reported seeing half a bunny in her backyard and the other indirectly reported a pet cat found dead through violent means.

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Mandrake Summers and his Pez collectionMandrake Summers didn’t set out to maintain a collection for 20 years when he  started a competition with his friend in his senior year of high school — in 1992 — to see who could collect the most Pez dispensers.

The Aurora Highlands resident, who has been working in Arlington County’s Department of Aging and Disability since 2009, has amassed a collection of well over 1,000 Pez dispensers at this point.

“Partly, it’s a compulsion,” admitted Summers. “I can’t walk into a store, see a Pez dispenser that I don’t have, and not buy it.”

Summers, 37, cites two key advantages to his Pez dispenser collection, as compared to other types of collectables: It takes up very little space, and Pez dispensers are easy to find.

“If I were collecting antique gliders, that would be very problematic,” said Summers, whose hobby also persisted when he stationed in the Ivory Coast for the Peace Corps in 2000.

“I would keep an eye out but my post was pretty rural,” said Summers. He caught up on his collection when he returned stateside.

While he has told his coworkers about his hobby, Summers surmises that if he has gotten any notoriety for it, it’s because he posts his new acquisitions on his Facebook page. One friend told us that he likes the posts because many of the photos bring back nostalgic childhood memories.

Summers owns a number of books on Pez that he uses as field guides, and he is part of an internet community of what he estimates to be approximately 100 or so forum members, who exchange information about new finds and reliable vendors.

Asked if he has any advice for would-be collectors, Summers said: “I guess I would say collect something that’s small because if you collect large items, they’ll quickly take over your house. Decide early on what you want to collect and sort of just commit to that.”

For those who take up Pez collections, Summers has more specific advice.

“My recommendation for anyone who’d want to start, is to go out to stores that are selling Pez dispensers and just buy as many different dispensers as you can, he said. “You can start there and within a few months you can probably get 30 or 40 dispensers without having to go on eBay.”

As for whether he developed a sweet tooth via his Pez collection, Summers says he doesn’t actually eat the candy — he gives it to his stepson.

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Arlington County Board (file photo)The Arlington County Board voted unanimously on Saturday (June 15) to adopt the six-part Community Energy Plan.

The CEP acts as a guide for transforming the way energy is used, generated and distributed in Arlington through 2050. It sets “ambitious, yet achievable, goals in the areas of building and transportation energy efficiency, and county government activities.”

The plan focuses on building efficiency, localizing energy sources, maintaining sustainable transportation options and education. It calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 3.0 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person per year. That’s almost 75 percent lower than current levels.

Last month, the county announced it had exceeded a goal set in 2007 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from government operations by 10 percent. It did so through measures such as improving the efficiency of its buildings.

Slide from Community Energy Plan presentation

One goal of the CEP is to increase energy efficiency in all buildings by calling for a five percent reduction in energy use by 2020. That standard will escalate to 25 percent by 2030, 40 percent by 2040, and 55 percent by 2050.

“I think it’s absolutely fair to say that buildings are at the core for this plan,” said County Board member Jay Fisette. “We don’t have agriculture, we don’t have industry, [or] industrial factories, the other sources often plaguing many places.”

The Planning Commission noted the need to recognize that there will be different expectations of savings from new construction than from older buildings.

The plan will also focus on education to build the initiative of residents and business owners to help with implementation.

“The last three and a half years has been about education,” Fisette said. “The next 35 will be reinforcing finding new ways to educate. I actually believe that as one of the smartest places around we have a lot of people here and a lot of stakeholders and businesses very willing through friendly competitions or other ways to actually change behavior or do the right thing through education.”

Another goal is refining and expanding Arlington’s Master Transportation Plan, which the county has been working on with its transit-oriented development land use strategy and implementation of bike lanes.

Most of the 23 residents who spoke during the public session were supportive of the plan, but three voiced opposition. Timothy Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, said there has been no global warming in the past 17 years and that the plan wouldn’t stay economically competitive. Robert Atkins opposed the localization of energy on the grounds that the county couldn’t take credit for Dominion Power’s increases in energy efficiency in explaining their own drop in emissions.

“The numbers are so fraudulent Bernie Madoff would gag,” Atkins said. “You need to have realistic numbers to make a plan that could work.”

Board members believe Arlington residents will eventually see tangible benefits from the CEP, such as lower utility bills and fewer power disruptions.

“I think this is an example of the Arlington Way at its best,” said Board member Libby Garvey. “I’ve been struck today particularly by how holistic this issue is because what helps the environment makes us more sustainable and competitive.”

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Five-way intersection in Cherrydale (via Google Maps)Cherrydale residents are at odds with Arlington County over changes to the neighborhood’s busiest and most confusing intersection.

As the county continues to move forward with its Cherrydale Lee Highway Revitalization Program, the Cherrydale Citizens Association (CCA) is voicing strong disapproval with changes to traffic patterns at the “Five Points Intersection.”

The Cherrydale Lee Highway Revitalization Program is part of the county’s overall plan to foster a safer, more aesthetically-pleasing, and pedestrian-friendly Arlington. In its efforts to enhance the Five Points Intersection — where westbound Lee Highway splits into Old Dominion Drive and Old Lee Highway as it crosses N. Quincy Street and Military Road — the county has made a number of changes which Cherrydale residents say have made the intersection worse.

The CCA formed a Five Points Intersection Committee (FPIC) in the fall of 2011 and, according to CCA President Maureen Ross, the committee has been unanimous in their opposition to the proposed changes.

Five-way intersection in Cherrydale“Citizens who had never met each other all voiced the same conclusions when we met with Betty [Diggs, Arlington County Representative] and those conclusions were that every change we’ve made in the past two years have made the travel problems worse,” said in a PowerPoint presentation posted online in September 2012.

County engineers added a nub at the corner where Lee Highway intersects North Quincy Street. Though it was intended to help pedestrians, the FPIC alleges that it has resulted in restricting right-turn traffic from N. Quincy Street onto Lee Highway.

Additionally, the creation of a left-turn-only lane on northbound Quincy Street  has forced cars into a single restricted right lane causing motorists to cut across 20th Street N. and into residential neighborhoods to avoid the bottleneck.

“They have narrowed how far you have to cross which makes it a better pedestrian experience but it’s still a miserable vehicular experience and it forces cars down pedestrian streets which isn’t good for anyone,” said Ross.

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Vinod Goel in his storeHidden from the majority of the pedestrian traffic on the third floor of Ballston Common Mall, International Bazaar sells international gifts from 39 countries.

If the store looks familiar to passersby, it’s because the Bazaar is one of Ballston’s inaugural stores when the mall was opened in 1986. While the store boasts artifacts from around the world with interesting back stories, it is possible that none of them have a story as interesting as the store’s owner, Vinod Goel.

Since emigrating to the United States in 1961 from India, Goel has worn many hats in his five decades: founding president of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, media mogul, international marketing professor, and an unofficial advisor to the India desk of the Peace Corps.

“We call him the professor around here,” says George Wong, owner of American Formal Wear, located three doors down. “He’s a mentor for the people around the mall and in the local area. He helps people find higher education and opportunities, especially for foreigners.”

“If I were to say one word about him, the word would be ‘visionary,'” said his daughter Nita Goel Popli. “He really helped to establish this community when he came here.”

Goel was a master’s student and a respected photojournalist from the Indian state of Rajasthan when he was intrigued by a travelling exhibit that came to his college entitled “Life in America.” With the advice of a noted visiting economist, Goel came over to the United States in 1961. He was 27 years old.

While an MBA student at the University of Maryland a year later, Goel was one of a number of international students invited to the White House. With just thirty seconds to make his mark on President Kennedy, Goel used his time to encourage him to put India on his agenda.

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