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Building Strong Communities

A Democratic Governor’s Rural Strategy: Highways for Counties that Went for Trump

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Specifications for the highway widening project in Murphy and Cherokee County, North Carolina Photo: NC Department of Transportation

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper will spend millions on road improvements in four rural mountain counties that went Republican in 2016.

Murphy, North Carolina – Roy Cooper is the arrow-straight, paunch-free current first-term Democratic governor of North Carolina.

His model appearance and demeanor at 62 are likely to make Republicans a bit uncomfortable as he welcomes them to their party convention next August in Charlotte.

Yet that runs counter to the governing style of the onetime farm-boy from the little town of Nashville near Raleigh with a population of 4,327.  Cooper seems to naturally seek consensus.

Few leaders of the Tar Heel state are as experienced.  The University of North Carolina law school grad is a former state House member, former state Senate member and majority leader, and four-term state attorney general who gained a reputation as a tough prosecutor.  He’s also a former Sunday school teacher, deacon and elder in his church.  He’s married and the father of three daughters.  And according to his staff, Cooper “champions rural North Carolina.”

In his first State of the State address in 2017, Cooper, “reached out to Republican legislators, emphasizing their interests,” according to the News and Observer of Raleigh.

During the next year, Cooper’s big highway spending plan called the “Build N.C.” Bond Act enjoyed deep bipartisan support on the way to becoming State Law 2018-16.  It provides for “strong delivery of critical road projects” with the issuance of up to $300 million annually through 2028.

Happy Surprise

Then came what can be termed the happy October surprise for four of the counties here in the far western tip of the state – Cherokee, Henderson, Jackson and Transylvania. It was the welcome news that they had been placed on the bond issuance act. Now amid bright fall turning leaves, the state’s preliminary engineering and right-of-way purchases are underway.

And all four counties sharing in these initial millions of dollars bringing greater road safety are themselves crimson red — politically at least — having avidly supported President Donald Trump’s election in November 2016.

In 2016, Cherokee County voted 76.5 percent for Trump. Henderson County voted 61.6 percent for Trump; Jackson, 52.7 percent; and Transylvania, 58.9 percent.

Here in Cherokee, the $22.7 million in grading, paving, drainage and signaling for what’s really an impressive highway erosion control plan along a small stretch of the four-lane U.S. 19-64-74-129 (the 1970s ARC Corridor K) is moving forward.

That’s so despite the location’s nagging, longstanding need having received only a “statewide mobility quantitative score” of 18.39 out of 100 in 2014 under a previous governor of the other party, Pat McCrory, whom Cooper relegated to one term.

Mayor: ‘I’m Passionate’

Murphy (population 1,638) Mayor Rick Ramsey told me this week: “I’m passionate about the road widening project because there have been too many accidents out there.”

Is he joined in support by the Town Council? “Yes, we’re for it,” Ramsey said. “It’s going to be a tough couple of years (as traffic slows through town including to the new Harrah’s casino), but we’ll make it through.”

A Sharp Turn

Governor Cooper and the General Assembly remain apart on other matters, for certain on expansion of Medicaid.  However, it’s fair to say that in this important swing state being watched as Trump’s re-election bid approaches, there’s been a sharp turn toward cooperation and bipartisanship — at least on getting something done about needful infrastructure.

What a Democratic governor is launching here in the selected county of four that are quite supportive of the Republican president is well summed up in Penny Ray’s article last month in the Cherokee Scout weekly of Murphy.

That article identifies project R-5735’s winning bidder (Wright Brothers Contracting of Tennessee), cost, extent, possible duration of up to two years, and this:

“When completed, the stretch of road will remain a five-lane highway, but the outer lanes will be widened from 10 feet to 14 feet.  The inner lanes and center turn lane will be widened to 12 feet.”

U.S. Environmental History

The 278-page “Contract and Contract Bonds for R-5735 Cherokee County State-Funded July 21, 2019” and the “Plan for Highway Erosion Control” by Karen Hefner of Raleigh’s MI Engineering are open under North Carolina’s public records law (N.C. § 132-1). These documents encompass U.S. environmental history and expansion since the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Contractor Wright Brothers Construction is to “minimize soil erosion activities in compliance with the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System” that’s in that historic act.

The most prominently displayed erosion-control measures planned here – and that soon the delayed drivers flagged to one lane can at least watch for in the ditches — are called the 1633.01 Temporary rock silt check type A with excelsior matting and the 1633.02 Temporary coir fiber wattles. There also are references to earth berms, infiltration basins, rock inlet sediment traps, rock settlement dams, silt ditches, skimmer basins, slope drains, special sediment control fences and a concrete washout structure.

State-funded

Being state-funded, this Southern state’s contract and plan haven’t a word to be found anywhere in them about what Politico reported September 12 that the “Trump administration rolls back landmark water protections.”

One American in a thousand may know/realize that that particular Trump executive order with purportedly conclusive statements in it by current EPA Secretary Andrew Wheeler applies to federal funding.

That is, the executive order would have a chance of affecting funding once any movement occurs on federal infrastructure projects. It is just as likely to lead to attorneys lining up in courts from Honolulu to Maine to challenge Trump and Wheeler’s alleged “rollback.”

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

Tom Bennett of rural Cherokee County, North Carolina, is a retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer and editor, 1983 to 2006.

Building Strong Communities

Drag Queen Story Hour Brings LGBTQ-Friendly Fun to the South

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Little Miss Hot Mess reading to children at Park Slope Library in Brooklyn, New York. The event was part of Drag Queen Story Hour, a reading program with 35 chapters in U.S. cities and towns. Photo from Drag Queen Story Hour

Teaching inclusivity and diversity to kids is important—but especially where LGBTQ role models are less visible.

In patent leather stilettos and sparkling diamond eyelashes, Rylee Hunty closely held the attention of dozens of bright-eyed schoolchildren. Perched on a thronelike chair, his legs primly crossed and tucked to the side, Hunty took them page by page through My Wish for You, a children’s book about embracing curiosity, strength and vulnerability.

His voice was soothing to the babies cradled by their mothers and dazzling to the 8- and 9-year-olds sitting cross-legged on the floor. When the story ended and Cheetah Kane Morgan prepared to read next, Hunty engaged the kids with a game of “Rylee Said.” They literally jumped at the chance to play. One little girl asked if he would be her best friend.

Rylee Hunty reads to children at the Simpsonville, South Carolina, story hour. Photo: Robin Kavanagh

The fun and games were part of a reading program called Drag Queen Story Hour, and Hunty, who has been a drag queen for the last six years in upstate South Carolina, helped organize and run this event at Five Forks Library in Simpsonville, part of the Greenville area. Finding other drag queens in the upstate area to volunteer was easy, Hunty said, because “all the girls were more than willing to donate their time for a great cause.” He believes that teaching inclusivity and diversity is important at any age—but especially in areas such as Greenville, where the LGBTQ community is not very visible.

“This event allows children to realize there may be people just like them or teach them not everyone is the same,” said Hunty, who won Miss Upstate Pride 2019 in March.

Originating in the libraries of San Francisco under queer literary arts nonprofit RADAR Productions, Drag Queen Story Hour gives children “glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models,” said co-founder Jonathan Hamilt, and it aims to encourage their imagination and natural gender fluidity. Since 2015, drag queens have read at libraries and bookstores but also restaurants, parks, community centers, churches, hotels, yoga studios and even museums. In four short years, the story hour has grown into its own nonprofit, with 35 chapters in U.S. cities and towns, including New York and San Francisco but also Mobile, Alabama, and central Tennessee. The idea has become so popular that chapters have also been formed in Sweden, Japan, Germany, Australia and Puerto Rico.

Queens read classics like Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go as well as stories about difference and pride in oneself. They learn about a little boy who is mesmerized by a woman on a subway and wants to make himself an outfit as beautiful as hers, in Julian Is a Mermaid. They hear that no matter the color of their eyes, the size of their bodies or the things they like to do, they can believe in themselves, in I Am Enough.

Studies show that LGBTQ youth have a higher risk of developing emotional, health and social problems as a result of prejudice within their own families, communities and religious institutions. Having more positive interactions regarding their identities, such as being read to by a drag queen, can make them happier and healthier.

Rev. Yolanda performs a song at Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn, New York. Photo from Drag Queen Story Hour

In addition to storytelling, the program hosts other fun activities for kids, such as making crowns and wands out of beads and pipe cleaners, coloring pages from a “Dragtivity book,” or singing songs—anything to engage their sense of play and curiosity. The program offers special readings to bilingual and autistic children and has plans for sign language, too. Older kids are treated to book clubs, design workshops and makeup tutorials.

It’s well-established that reading aloud to children can have positive effects on their social, emotional and behavioral development. But Drag Queen Story Hour has stirred up controversy.

In January, Taylor Cox, a member of the Greenville Tea Party, circulated an online petition to try to stop the Simpsonville event. A couple of hundred protesters showed up outside the library, but they were outnumbered by a slightly larger group of counter-protesters, in addition to the 400 people standing in the cold and rain to hear the queens read inside. Camielle Reed of Greenville was on the counterprotest side of the library parking lot, divided by police tape to keep the opposing groups a safe distance apart. She went to support a friend who was bringing her daughter to the story hour.

“This is about entertaining the kids, giving them something different and culture, opening their eyes to the real world,” Reed said. “I think the more people that come to support that, hopefully, draws more attention than the negativity from some people.”

Other conservative areas have also organized protests. Earlier this year, federal lawsuits attempting to prevent Drag Queen Story Hour events in Louisiana and Texas were dismissed. Just days after the Simpsonville event took place, S.C. Rep. Garry Smith introduced a bill to withhold state funding from public libraries allowing activities deemed not “age-appropriate,” citing the story hours. The proposal was tabled and effectively killed.

A counterprotest was held in response to a protest against the Simpsonville, South Carolina, event by conservative community members. Photo: Robin Kavanagh

Hamilt said that opposition is to be expected in these areas, and that is where Drag Queen Story Hour is needed the most.

“Whenever there is an intellectual shift in society that threatens masculinity or makes femininity equal, it scares people,” Hamilt explained. “Often that fear comes out in anger. Protests and opposition are expected in those communities.

“LGBTQ-positive programs like Drag Queen Story Hour are a vital part of making the world a safe and affirming place for all children. LGBTQ children need role models, and all children should learn to embrace gender diversity and learn empathy.”

This article was originally published by YES! Magazine.

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Building Strong Communities

Communities With Culture of Volunteerism May Be Healthier, Research Indicates

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Wirt County Pioneer Day in Elizabeth, W.Va. Photo: Bruce Wendelken

Seven of the leading causes of death are higher in Appalachia compared with the nation as a whole. But amid that grim news, there’s some diversity in these statistics.

When researchers analyzed all 420 counties in Appalachia, they found that 42 outperformed their statistical odds. A team of researchers has been studying why these communities are outliers. In all of the communities that researchers studied, a culture of sharing and volunteering were found to be essential in helping to improve health outcomes.

They called them “Bright Spots.”

Route 53 in Wirt County outside Elizabeth, W.Va. Photo: FAMatrin/Wikimedia

Elizabeth, West Virginia, is one of them. With a population a little over 800, the town in the western part of the state near Parkersburg has few fast food chains and no liquor store. It’s the center of government in Wirt County, the smallest county in the state.

When you walk through the door of a local diner here, a chalkboard lists some homemade desserts, and above that is written in blue chalk, “We do not have WiFi, talk to each other. Pretend it’s 1995.”

Carol Menefee has lived here her entire life.

“I spend a lot of time in the Chicago area, and I tell the people here when I come back and I’m driving across the bridge there, I came out Route 50, and I drive across the bridge. I just have that feeling of home. And it’s just, there’s no place like going home,” she said.

Many who grew up in Appalachia share similar deep feelings for home. But the region has long been plagued by bad news stories about economic challenges, as well as poor health outcomes and lower life expectancy. There are many different theories on why this is. The region has a higher rate of smoking, drug overdoses, obesity, and also challenges when it comes to accessing health care.

But some communities have found ways to improve health without a lot of money or resources.

A recent health study by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Foundation for Healthy Kentucky looked at 10 counties across Appalachia, including Wirt, to find out why they did better than expected in most health measures. And what they found is, even though a lot of these places are resource-scarce, they have other cultural strengths that may outweigh the lack of money and access to fancy hospitals.

And because of those cultural strengths, they’re faring better than their neighbors.

“Repeatedly we see that how people collaborate, how different organizations collaborate and work together and coordinate with each other, it rises up as one of the key ingredients in building a local culture of health, or even a statewide culture of health,” said Hilary Heishman, one of the researchers involved in the Bright Spots study.

According to the study, research shows that the quality of where one lives, learns, works, and plays can have a greater impact on health than having quick access to a doctor. Not to say that doctors aren’t incredibly important when it comes to improving health, just that there is a lot more to keeping people healthy, things like walking trails, activities that encourage people to be more active, and a strong network of churches that help on various community projects.

The researchers found all of these qualities in Wirt County.

Volunteer speaks with visitors at historic hotel in Wirt County. Photo: Heather Murray Elkins

Within walking distance of the local diner is a senior center, the three local schools, and the community health center, all connected by sidewalks that were built through a grant a few years ago. Many of the sidewalks are used by kids who walk to school, said Kathy Mason, director of the Wirt County Family Resource Network. Volunteers and various groups, including the Family Resource Network, worked on this sidewalk project together. They also built a walking trail that wraps around the elementary and middle schools.

After school lets out in the afternoon, the public is allowed to use the elementary school to do laps or walk inside the school gym, a resource Mason says has been popular among Elizabeth’s aging population.

Both Mason and Menefee are involved in a number of community projects, including a Fourth of July picnic and fundraiser for the local volunteer-run fire department, Meals on Wheels and food giveaways during the holidays. Mason does most of this as part of her job, but like a handful of people in this community, Menefee does it as a volunteer.

The projects that are run by volunteers here is impressive. But in a community where so much work is done by volunteers, will volunteers get overworked? And when they leave, or pass on, who will be there to do the work after them?

“I think that the volunteering spirit is here, but I think our little organizations are secluding ourselves,” said Menefee. “They need to reach out and ask for those people to volunteer.”

Elise Sheppard, a volunteer at a thrift shop and food pantry called The Hope Shop. PhotoL Aaron Payne/ Ohio Valley ReSource

Another community project that’s entirely run by volunteers is the Hope Thrift Shop, one of the most popular spots in town with its 25-cent clothing rack. The store raises money to supply a food pantry, located in this same building. Five churches regularly donate food here. Volunteer Beverly Cheuvront manages the Hope Shop.

“Say it’s just an emergency, or they’re down on they’re luck for just one month, I mean they may not qualify for the food through the government standards, but we’ll still be able to help them.”

The Hope Shop has been in this community about 20 years. But they do struggle to find enough volunteers to keep the place going. And, Cheuvront pointed out, more and more people here commute to Parkersburg or Ohio for work, limiting the time they’re available to help on community projects.

“So many people have to have two jobs to survive so that really affects if they have any time to volunteer.”

On top of managing this shop as a volunteer, Cheuvront operates a small store in a neighboring county about 40 minutes away. She loves living here in Wirt County, but she says it is a struggle to make a living without traveling elsewhere for work.

Elizabeth isn’t located near any interstate exit, and it’s not the kind of place you pass through accidentally. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to reach the nearest hospital in Parkersburg. Residents can get a lot of their health care in downtown Elizabeth at the Coplin Health Clinic, inside the same building as the pharmacy.

Nurse Practitioner Stacey Mills at Coplin Health Clinic in Elizabeth, W.Va. Photo: Holli Hudtman/Coplin Health Systems

Inside, where patients sign in, there’s a sign that reads: “No patient will be denied services because they cannot pay.”

“We’re gonna do everything we can to get them care at the time they need it,” said Holli Ludtman, the clinic’s office manager.

The Coplin clinic charges patients based on what they can afford, and their services include primary care, X-rays, labwork, behavioral health and cancer screenings. For more specialized services, such as dialysis, surgery or the birth of a baby, residents must travel out of the county.

But despite the challenges of living here, Beverly Cheuvront says Wirt County’s best strengths are not in its resources, but in its people.

“Though we don’t offer a whole lot, what we don’t offer makes up for what we really do offer,” she said. “And that’s a common core, family values, a close-knit community, people that will do anything for you.”

And according to the researchers, while Wirt County is special, it’s not entirely unique. Many of the residents in the other Bright Spots communities share the same values in their towns: a willingness among organizations to share resources, instead of competing, a strong support system, and people who will help each other out in times of need.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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