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Volunteers step up: More pitch in as demand increases for Pitt County Meals on Wheels

A new age of volunteers is stepping up to take care of Pitt County’s elderly.

The Pitt County Council on Aging’s Meals on Wheels Program has seen a stark increase in the number of volunteers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of last year. When COVID first cast its shadow on North Carolina, the group held its collective breath as volunteer numbers began to dwindle.

“At the end of March we saw a 60 percent decrease since the majority of our volunteers were seniors,” said Rich Zeck, executive director for the council.

Despite the danger, others stepped into replace those who were more at risk. By the end of December, not only had the 60 percent of volunteers been gained back, an additional 20 percent had signed on to help.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Zeck said. “More people needing to be fed means we actually need more volunteers. A lot of these people are home-school moms who want to show their kids how other people are living. Businesses are taking time to let employees volunteer with us, too.”

Last February, the organization delivered about 265 meals a day. That number is now closer to 350. Zeck also said that the group would like to do more to help people in Bethel and elsewhere north of the Tar River.

Tammy Matis is a volunteer for the program in Farmville. Throughout the pandemic, she hasn’t missed a delivery. The program is personal for her as well.

“I have a 90-year-old mother who is also a recipient and client of home delivered meals,” Matis said. “It really pulls at my heart if you know what I mean.”

A training session for Meals on Wheels volunteers is set for 10 a.m. on March 16 at the Pitt County Senior Center. The program is designed not only to provide the elderly with food, but also to serve as a wellness check to ensure hygiene is up to snuff and check if home repairs are necessary for safety.

“It is this extra set of eyes on your loved one,” Matis said. “You don’t just run that meal up and leave. I have made some beautiful relationships here. Even the (clients) who are blind, they will recognize me by the sound of my voice.”

Amid the pandemic, another set of safety standards has been put in place to keep the most-at-risk community secure. Sanitization happens in the kitchen and when boxing meals. Volunteers wear masks and are requested to do contactless deliveries.

“Our volunteers call and put the food on the knob,” Zeck said. “Many do still go in due to patrons being bedridden or in a wheelchair, but that is the volunteer’s decision.”

Training for volunteers also includes the use of technology to map routes, get in touch with emergency contacts and address living conditions.

The entire system has gone electronic, mostly through using tablets with preset software. Other ideas covered in training include understanding who qualifies for the service as well as the importance of food safety.

“When we take that food out it is at temp,” Zeck said. “We need people to realize that you are not just delivering food. You could be delivering E. coli.”

Food is provided by Aramark and marked as diabetic or non-diabetic. The meals are distributed to volunteers from sites around the county.

ECU's Polar Bear Plunge kicks off campus events amid pandemic

A cool campus mainstay looked a little different this year.

Social distancing and proper planning shaped East Carolina University’s 25th Annual Polar Bear Plunge on Thursday. The event, typically held at night, kicked off at 3 p.m. to ensure time was allotted for all 380 participants to leap into the Richard R. and JoAnn M. Eakin Student Recreation Center’s outdoor pool.

“They originally set it at 5 p.m. and it was allotted to go from 5 to 10,” said Stephen “Papa Bear” Gray, director of the Department of Disabilities Support Services. “Instead of jumping in 25 at a time and rotating them in as quickly as possible, this year they’re doing it 10 at a time as per state organizational events.

“We line them up 10 at a time, social distance them inside the pool area, so that they come out to the outside, jump and scamper through.”

The event originally was open to 280 preregistered participants, but the decision to let in another 100 led to the university’s decision to kick it off in the late afternoon.

“It’s the first time that I get to have a tan during a Polar Bear Plunge,” Gray said.

Plungers made their dives ten minutes apart to accommodate for safety. The social aspect of the event, which has previously had as many as 1,200 participants, also was cut back. In lieu of cake and prizes, T-shirts were made available following a quick dip in the pool.

“They’ve eliminated the affair of it,” Gray said. “It’s a ceremonial jump, one and done. Thank you very much, go back and study.”

In between jumps, campus recreation and wellness staff sanitized the outdoor pool deck. The recreation center was closed to all activities Thursday prior to the event.

Masks and temperature checks were required and individuals only were allowed to use the locker room in small groups to change.

“We had a safety plan that was put in place to maintain social distancing,” said Justin Waters, assistant director of facilities, aquatics and outreach. “You could only register for a time slot. We are only taking 10 jumpers at time, with 10 others staged on the (recreation) courts.”

The event is one of ECU’s first of 2021 and, if all goes swimmingly, could set a standard for how health and safety protocols are handled this year.

“We’re appreciative of our leadership from (Interim) Chancellor Mitchelson and Dr. Virginia Hardy,” Waters said. “We’re excited to be pretty much the first event post-COVID for our students on campus.”

Jasmine Anguiano, a first-year student at ECU studying recreational therapy, said she appreciates the faculty’s willingness to bring back events.

“This is my first semester at ECU and, despite COVID, I really appreciate ECU trying to make the best experience out of all their events,” Anguiano said. “Being a part of this event was really special for me as my first event. It was freezing.”

Papa Bear’s final plunge

The plunge is Gray’s last as a coordinator, a role he has filled since its start in 1997 when the recreation center was built. Since then, the event has evolved.

“We used to have students selected and they’d build a throne on two canoes to paddle me over to the starting point,” Gray recalled. “Then it turned into a student activities affair so it was a little different. It’s been so much fun over the years.

“The best thing has been getting to know the students,” he said. “I’ve had students who jumped five years ago contact me and ask if we are doing it. It’s been great seeing some old faces.”

“I wanted to go out on a nice round number,” Gray quipped. “I’m hanging up my polar bear hat.”

Chancellor-Elect’s challenge

ECU Chancellor-Elect Philip Rogers did not attend at this year’s Polar Bear Plunge, but he took to Twitter to tease the possibility to jump (for a price) in next year’s event.

“Hey @EastCarolina #Pirates, here’s a challenge: I’m not in town yet, so I’m missing @ECU_CRW’s 25th annual Polar Bear Plunge tonight. But I’ll jump next year if … 300 RTs + 1,907 likes (# of jumpers)” he tweeted at noon on Thursday. The post had 51 retweets and 137 likes at the time of the event.

Rogers would be the first non-interim chancellor to participate in a Polar Bear Plunge.

Rogerson named to lead NC East Alliance


A regional economic development partnership that serves 29 eastern counties has picked a familiar face as its new chief executive.

Vann Rogerson has been appointed to lead the Greenville-based NC East Alliance, which supports existing industries in the region by identifying supply chain needs and addressing workforce deficiencies, a news release from the group said.

Rogerson, a Williamston resident, has been the partnership’s interim president/CEO since June 2019. The NC East board of directors announced his selection to fill the post on Wednesday.

“We are pleased that Vann has accepted this new role,” board chairman Mark Hamblin said in the release. “Vann has been critical in leading the refocus of NC East Alliance during COVID. The organization has a refined mission to work hand in hand with other organizations across the region and continue to help improve the economic and educational opportunities for the people and businesses of eastern North Carolina.”

Rogerson is a native of Martin County and a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill who started the first Small Business Center at Martin Community College in 1990. He was president and CEO of North Carolina’s Northeast Commission, based in Edenton, which merged with NC East in 2015.

He served as senior vice president of the alliance from January 2015, focusing on lead generation and company recruitment, building relationships with prospects, and organizing prospect visits to all counties across the region, the news release said.

Since July of 2015, NC East has generated 332 visits to the region by 95 companies, the release said. Rogerson replaces John Chaffee of Greenville, who retired as chief executive in 2019.

Under Rogerson, NC East will lead advocacy efforts by convening stakeholders to identify and solve regional issues, the release said. NC East also will expand its STEM education initiative throughout the region.

The alliance partners with local economic development offices, chambers of commerce, tourism bureaus, federal, state, county and local government, Workforce Development boards, public schools, private employers as well as service providers and many others to address the needs of the 29 counties, the release said.

Smith seeks end to hair discrimination with CROWN Act

A 2019 study found black women are 3.4 times more likely to have their hair perceived as “unprofessional.”

Black women also are 30 percent more likely to be made aware of a formal workplace appearance policy than their white counterparts, according to the study commissioned by Dove, a skin and hair care company.

N.C. Rep. Kandie Smith of Pitt County wants to ensure no one ever faces discrimination because of their hair.

Smith is one of four primary sponsors of House Bill 170, the NC CROWN Act, which stands for Creating A Respectful and Open World for Natural hair.

The legislation is part of a larger national effort called the CROWN Act to establish laws that prohibit race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles, including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots.

“The truth of the matter is, black Americans, but particularly black women, are disproportionately targeted and reprimanded for their natural hair,” said Smith. “Discrimination in any form is something we cannot, and will not tolerate, and I am confident that the NC CROWN Act will provide necessary protections for those who feel that they must choose between being employed or changing their identity for the comfort of others.”

Smith said she’s never felt her hair was being used against her in a professional or personal setting. However, she has had many people approach her asking if they can touch her hair.

“I have people who are curious and want to know how I got my hair the way I did and ask questions,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with curiosity, but people have to be mindful of not walking up and just grabbing people’s hair, touching their hair. You should always ask if that’s something you would like to do.

“We are all curious about each other and the more we learn about each other the more we can treat each other with respect and learn to appreciate each other,” she said. “I think it’s important we create a respectful and open atmosphere that one can be who they are without straightening their hair or changing it to fit someone else feeling comfortable. That’s when it’s a problem.”

Smith said she spent about two years studying the proposed legislation and issues surrounding discrimination based on hair.

She was incensed by the 2018 incident involving New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson, who was told by a referee just before a match that he had to cut his dreadlocks or not wrestle. His parents said no issues were raised about their son’s hair during the earlier weigh-in period.

She also heard stories about high school girls forced into in-school suspension because they were either wearing head wraps or had hairstyles that weren’t allowed.

It’s frustrating to think about the effort that goes into encouraging young people to pursue education, to graduate with a college degree, only to think they may be stopped because their hair doesn’t conform to an expected standard, she said.

The Dove study, a survey of 1,000 Black women and 1,000 non-Black women, found 80 percent of black women reported that they feel they have to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office, and black women were 3.4 times more like to have their hair perceived as “unprofessional.”

“Black women are significantly more likely to be judged for their hair, they are more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair, and they are more likely to be policed for their hair in the workplace,” Smith said. “All North Carolinians deserve to be treated with dignity and respect no matter how they wear their natural hair, and the CROWN Act helps ensure that mission is carried out.”

The CROWN Act was first introduced in California in 2019, and has since been implemented in seven states and multiple cities, towns and municipalities across the country, including Durham, and Greensboro.

The goal of the CROWN Act is to enact legislation in all 50 states, as well as federally.

Smith said she believes many people don’t understand the discrimination that others have been put through, that should not happen, so the legislation will open conversations on that issue.

“It’s a piece of the cultural competence that we all should make sure we are working towards because understanding other people and understanding their culture and what they do and how they do it, I think, is the key,” she said. “We don’t want to exclude or to discriminate against people, especially if it’s for something that is a part of them naturally. I want to make sure we live in a world where we respect one another.”