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Church members make stockings for UT Health East Texas holiday babies

Holiday preparations started early for more than 30 women and youths who have been busy getting in the Christmas spirit.

For the second year, women from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in East Texas have worked to purchase material, cut, sew and donate Christmas stockings for newborn babies as a gift for parents to take home from the hospital.

The infant fits inside the new stocking, capturing a special memory. UT Health East Texas plans to present all new mothers with the stockings embroidered with the UT Health East Texas logo.

“We are so pleased our labor and delivery departments can offer these hand-sewn special keepsakes during the holiday season,” said Moody Chisholm, UT Health East Texas president and CEO. “These parents already are taking home the best gift possible this season, and we hope this stocking is a fun reminder for years to come of how small their bundle of joy once was.”

Last year the church donated more than 150 stockings, and this year the volunteers have made more than 250. The fleece is measured and cut into the stocking pattern. The young women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ages 12 to 18 gathered with the older women to help with the cutting.

The diverse group of women enjoyed working alongside one another to speed up the project in time for the holidays, church representatives said, adding that the response was positive for those making the stockings as well as the families that got to take one home last year.

“When I was helping I felt really happy knowing that I was making something that would be special keepsake for a family,” said Abrie Johnson, 17, Tyler who helped cut stockings. “It was great to work on this project together as women.”

The stockings are hand-sewn by five women from the church, many of whom have sewn for years. One primary seamstress is a retired nurse, so the project is particularly close to her heart.

“We are thrilled that we are able to provide stockings for the community here in East Texas,” said Scott Mackey, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Tyler resident for more than 20 years. “As a church we believe this is what the true spirit of Christmas is all about — Christ-like service to others.”

Mackey’s wife, Mary, helped sew several stockings this year and hopes to make it a yearly tradition.

“What I love about the stocking project is that it helps me focus on the true meaning of Christmas — the birth of a baby, our Savior, Jesus Christ,” Mary Mackey said. “As we gathered to cut out the fleece I imagined the joy of all the new parents bringing their infants home in these beautiful, bright red stockings. What a blessing to welcome a precious baby into your family at Christmastime! I hope the recipients feel our love and support as they celebrate the holiday season.”

Jill Taylor is the media relations specialist for the Tyler Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Someone has died on Texas roads every day for 19 years. Here's a look at some reasons why — and ideas for turning the tide.

At 1 a.m. Oct. 11, 52-year-old Sylvia Figeroa lost control of her sedan in Lubbock. At 8 a.m. in Midland County, 44-year-old Gerardo Pérez couldn’t stop in time and collided with a semi towing a tractor. Later, at 11:20 a.m., Nedward Davidson, 62, crashed against a Freightliner truck southeast of Valley Mills. And at 2 p.m., Deputy Matt Jones of the Falls County Sheriff’s Office was struck by a car while helping another vehicle that had slid off the highway.

Figeroa, Pérez, Davidson and Jones all died in their wrecks, according to media reports. They are among the more than 67,000 people who have died on Texas roads since Nov. 7, 2000, the state’s last day with no fatal crashes.

Since then, an average of 10 people have died in crashes each day, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. In October alone, there were 249 fatalities.

“I think as a state we’ve become very numb to it,” said Laura Ryan, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT. “This is probably one of the most deadly situations we have in the state, and it’s one of the most controllable situations we have in the state. Ninety percent of the deaths that we’ve had over the 19 years are preventable.”

Between 2010 and 2018, more people died on roads in Texas than in any other state. There were more deaths here than in California, which has more people and is also a car-centric state. When factoring in population size, 12.7 people per 100,000 residents died in Texas wrecks in 2018. That puts the state in the middle of the pack for per capita road deaths but is still above the national average of 11.2.

“We continue to have a terrible problem in Texas; we have an epidemic of traffic deaths,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, executive director of Farm & City, a safety advocacy group based in Austin. “More families suffer in Texas every day than in the rest of the country, but we believe we can change this.”

Blazek Crossley is optimistic because in May, the Texas Transportation Commission established an ambitious goal of ending all road fatalities by 2050. In addition to its regular spending on safety measures, the agency budgeted $600 million in the next two years for widening roads, upgrading guardrails and improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, among other measures.

Here’s a look at what contributes to Texas road deaths and how experts and officials believe Texans can help curb them.

Drunken driving

Speeding, failing to stay in a lane, distractions and alcohol are the main contributing factors to fatal crashes. In many wrecks, there can be multiple contributing factors, such as when somebody might be speeding and texting.

But in Texas, fatal crashes in which alcohol played a factor decreased 8.23% between 2010 and 2018. In 2010, 34.5% of all deadly wrecks involved alcohol. In 2018, the number was 25.7%.

“Yes, we’re doing better. And I think that there’s been a lot more awareness about drinking and driving,” Ryan said.

She thinks ride-sharing companies helped contribute to the decrease. But just because there’s been an 8.8 percentage point drop, that doesn’t mean it’s time to celebrate.

“It’s still 25%,” Ryan said. “And that’s still too many.”

Rural roads

While roughly 3 out of every 4 Texas crashes happen in cities with 5,000 or more people, more than half of the state’s traffic fatalities happen in rural areas.

“When you look at the crashes on these rural roads, you see higher speeds, you have single lanes going two directions, you have no shoulders,” said Lisa Minjares-Kyle, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “Drivers are given very little room to make any errors, yet are still doing the same things that they would be doing on the freeway.”

But the high number of rural fatalities shows that road improvements are needed throughout Texas, and not just in more populated areas.

“I don’t think this is a rural issue or metro issue. This is a statewide issue,” Ryan said.

Cyclists and pedestrians

Although walking and biking are less common in Texan cities than in many other American metropolises, the number of pedestrians and cyclists here is growing. The number of people killed while walking or biking has increased 40% in Texas.

“It’s a growing problem. It is very dangerous to be in a car in Texas than in other places, but the danger of walking or biking has been increasing even more,” said Blazek Crossley.

Blazek Crossley said this comes, in part, from Texas’ “terrible obsession with trying to reduce congestion.”

“We have very smart engineers in Texas, but we have been asking our engineers the wrong question for a long time: How can we increase the speed of travel, the number of cars, and the last priority is how can we reduce danger,” said Blazek Crossley.

Trucks and SUVs

In 2018, 68% of the vehicles sold in the U.S. were SUVs or trucks. Many believe this is driving the increase in pedestrian fatalities.

In Texas, heavy vehicles — pickups and SUVs — are involved in more fatal crashes than regular-size cars, like sedans or coupes. Experts say more weight can make a vehicle deadlier. Blazek Crossley believes a tax on a vehicle’s weight might discourage customers from buying heavier cars, and the revenue could fund road improvements and other safety measures.

“The free-market way to fix this is a fee on weight. You could actually pay for the amount of risk you are introducing to the system,” said Blazek Crossley.

But this might be a difficult sale in this state.

“Texans love their personal liberties,” said Minjarez-Kyle. “And when you start to talk about taxation for these lifestyle choices and you start to talk about penalties, it’s going to be a long, controversial road to travel, unfortunately.”

Update: Progress being made on Tyler ISD's new high schools

Two years and more than $200 million later, Tyler Independent School District is headed toward the finish line on its new high schools.

While they’re technically renovations, both John Tyler and Lee high schools will essentially be brand-new campuses. The builds were made possible by a $198 million bond package passed in 2017. Altogether the projects will cost about $220 million, but the district used savings from its 2013 bond package to reduce the cost.

Almost the entirety of the new Lee campus is being built south of the current campus, which was built in 1958. John Tyler is being renovated on top of and in front of the current campus. The district was able to use most of the foundation at the current John Tyler campus because it was rebuilt after a fire in 1981.

Because the John Tyler build has more moving parts, students will be moving into their new digs sooner.

In just over a month when students come back from winter break, their classes will have moved into the new multistory instructional wing.

“We’re actually moving in our furniture on Dec. 9 and doing finishing touches as we speak,” Tyler ISD Director of Facilities Tim Loper said.

One of the things he’s most excited for is the modernization of the campuses.

“We have state-of-the-art technology, the Wi-Fi is unbelievable,” he said. “Each class will have a 7-inch smart board that works just like your smartphone.”

Both campuses also will have collaborative areas, teacher workrooms and more.

The new Fine Arts Center at John Tyler will be finished next August, along with the portions of the old campus being renovated.

At Lee, students already are preparing to take the stage in their updated Fine Arts Center, which is one of just three pieces of that campus that won’t be demolished. The other pieces that will be kept at Lee are the field house and varsity gym.

Come next summer, the old campus will be knocked down and work will begin to shift the school’s sports fields toward Loop 323.

Both campuses will feature nearly identical amenities and boast more than 400,000 square feet. They also will be far more secure than the current campuses that feature outdated open areas and breezeways.

For fresh air, students at Lee will have a massive central courtyard, and at John Tyler, the unique layout of the campus will give students four separate green spaces.

“I went to both high schools and just to be a small part of this is an honor. This is something that has been needed for a long time,” Loper said. “We’re finally here and I’m just grateful to the community.”

Within the next year students will be taking advantage of the new facilities and both campuses are expected to be full completed in 2021.