United Way of Smith County aims to raise $1.5 million this year for area nonprofit organizations and programs.
The organization kicked off its 79th annual campaign Tuesday with a breakfast at its headquarters in the Tyler Woman’s Building on South Broadway Avenue. The event was sponsored by The Ward Agency, a Longview-based insurance agency recently acquired by brokerage company Hub International.
United Way of Smith County is a nonprofit organization that is donor-funded by employees of participating businesses, or “community pillars,” in the East Texas area. Sanderson Farms and EMA in Tyler are two businesses that are newly invested in this year’s campaign, while Christus Trinity Mother Frances and Brookshire Grocery Co. in Tyler are the two largest donors.
“Eighty percent of what we raise comes from employees who donate through payroll deduction,” United Way Development Director John Berry said. “Those are the companies that we’re talking about, getting them to talk to their employees and filling out forms choosing to support United Way and the people that we help.”
Campaign Chairman David Stein said that this year’s campaign goal of $1.5 million is a significant increase over the amount received in the past. According to Berry, United Way raised $1.29 million in 2017 and $1.26 million in 2018.
“We’ve got to help people learn to read. We’ve got to help people in crisis situations. We’ve got to help people learn job skills so they can become marketable,” Stein said. “There are folks who need shelter; there are folks who need health care who can’t afford it. We are compelled to help as a community, and often as people of faith; because to whom much is given, much is required.”
United Way President Nan Moore said the company’s vision is to be the leader in collecting donors for nonprofits for the health of the community and to focus on workplace giving.
“We focus on education, income or financial stability for families, health and wellness, and crisis intervention,” Moore said. “Programs that fit into those four building blocks are where we put our funding.”
Partners of United Way that had representatives in attendance were the East Texas Food Bank, Literacy Council of Tyler, East Texas Boy Scouts, Champions for Children, The Salvation Army, Children’s Advocacy Center, Bethesda Health Clinic, American Red Cross, Goodwill Industries, and Alzheimer’s Alliance.
Patterson Auto Group in Tyler donates a vehicle to United Way each year to be used as a prize in a drawing. This year, anyone contributing $5 or more per week ($260 annually) to the campaign is automatically entered in the drawing for a Jeep Renegade.
Moore said the most recent accomplishment of United Way was acquiring the organization’s new home in the Woman’s Building on South Broadway in Tyler.
“We really worked for about 10 years to find this location,” Moore said. “The building was donated to us and renovated, but it’s still largely in use by the community.”
The campaign breakfast ended with a celebration for Moore’s birthday, as a quartet was abruptly called up out of the audience to sing “Happy Birthday.”
All Saints Episcopal School is back in session later this week and families got a sneak peak of the finished Lower School renovations during an open house on Tuesday.
The Lower School classrooms have been made to look like different styles of homes, reminiscent of a San Francisco neighborhood, with “16-bit” styles of trees stretching into the air in the style of popular video game Minecraft.
Head of School Mike Cobb said the goal is to make students feel welcome, and making the classrooms look like a neighborhood was a great way to make students feel at home.
Heather Hill, whose son Nolan will be starting pre-K, said he was blown away when he saw his new school.
“I think this is phenomenal,” she said. “It’s so fun. It’s like being in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Hill said she’s excited to see the potential this learning environment can unlock in children.
The new classrooms have a fabrication station for older students or an in-class bathroom in the lower grades, a patio area and a floor-to-ceiling tree in a corner designed to encourage collaboration.
Also new this year is the CIA (Collaboration, Inquiry and Action) Room that last year’s sixth grade class designed for current fifth- and sixth-graders. Each year the sixth grade class designs a project to renovate a portion of campus for students who come after them.
Cobb said the class used empathy in their design, creating an area that will give those grades their own innovative learning space and a spot for teachers to come and relax.
Crews also are working to finish the school’s new Science Exploratorium geodesic dome learning center on campus, which will transport students to the bottom of the ocean or the surface of Mars for interactive learning experiences.
The finishing touches on the dome will mark the completion of a multiyear capital improvement campaign at All Saints, which has seen significant renovations to the campus each summer for the past three years.
“It’s pretty incredible (to see),” Cobb said. “It’s also sparking our teachers. It’s energizing our teachers to be audacious dreamers.”
This year the school will see a record 655 students. Cobb said that while the capital campaign is wrapped up, they do plan to renovate some art classrooms and intermediate grade classrooms in the near future.
Cobb said throughout the project he’s held to an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
“We’ve done something unique,” he said. “We’ve gone fast and far.”
The Smith County Fire Marshal is urging residents to take caution when they’re burning brush but won’t recommend an altogether ban.
Jay Brooks made the comments to the Smith County Commissioners Court on Tuesday in light of ongoing extreme heat in East Texas.
Brooks said recent conditions put the county at 638 on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, a 0 to 800 scale with 800 representing an absolute drought.
The scale assumes that the ground can hold 8 inches of water, and measures how much of that has been depleted, divided into hundredths of inches.
A 638 means that 6.38 inches of water has been depleted from ground in the county. Brooks said the number would be closer to 700 when new ones come in later on Tuesday.
“So far for the month of August, we have responded to, the fire departments in Smith County have responded to 58 grass fires, and I compared that to the same time last year when they responded to 93,” Brooks said.
“At this point, I believe it’s definitely something we need to urge the public to be very cautious when they’re burning,” he said. “We would ask that if you can refrain from it, please refrain. If you have to burn, I ask that you please please stay with your fires.”
The National Weather Service has a heat advisory in place for most of East Texas and anticipates it staying in place all week. The heat advisory means peak temperatures in the afternoon will feel like more than 105 degrees.
Commissioners Courts in Rusk County and Henderson County issued burn bans Tuesday.
One thirty two counties statewide have issued burn bans, but most East Texas counties have not, according to a map from Texas A&M.
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Smith County officials voted Tuesday to use money from two different funds to pay for unexpected expenses in the county jail.
The Smith County Commissioners Court voted 4-0 at its meeting Tuesday to transfer the money for the jail from the contingency fund and the indigent health care fund.
Under the transfer, $385,000 will come from contingency, and $100,000 will come from indigent health care, for a $485,000 transfer to the medical services fund.
“This is something the auditor and I have talked about over the last little bit that the court needs to be aware of,” Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said.
Moran said the money is going to pay for medical services in the Smith County Jail, and that those expenses will need to be monitored closely.
“This is not going to be the last transfer that you’re going to see,” Auditor Ann Wilson added. “This is only what we could do today to pay for today.
“We have more bills that are estimated to come in in inmate medical and inmate meals overages,” Wilson said.
She said the county is no longer able to use money saved through vacant positions in the jail to pay for the expenses because spending on overtime has eaten that number up.
The county budgeted $165,000 for overtime among Smith County Jail detention officers in the current year, and spent more than $500,000 by the end of July.
“The salary lag is depleted due to the overtime overages, so we will be back with more transfer requests as soon as we can determine where to get the money from,” Wilson said.
The jail population has risen steadily since the county opened the new jail in early 2015. A report from Smith County Sheriff chief deputy Deal Folmar on Tuesday said the previous week population peaked at 909 inmates.
A report from Wilson’s office shows that spending on medical services with a contractor has increased slightly in recent years from $1.4 million in fiscal year 2016 to an estimated $1.9 million this year.
There has been a more significant jump in spending on outside medical care, which has increased from $369,000 in fiscal year 2016 to an estimated $1 million this year, the report shows.
Moran said he is working with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office and Wilson’s office to see if there’s a way to bring the costs down.
“We’re trying to dig deep … to really look at what is causing the trends, and not just look at the number,” Moran said.
“Is this just a result of sometimes you just have a year where there’s a lot of inmates that have some medical stuff you can’t anticipate that, but is there something more we can do?” he asked.
“And so we’re working on that with both bodies to try to figure out a way to try to bring that number down,” he said.
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