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'We're ready to get started'
• Rome City Schools hosts a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Main Elementary School.

Faith Collins

With a flattened dirt plot behind him, where the new Main Elementary School will be erected, Rome City Schools Superintendent Lou Byars told the attendees of a groundbreaking ceremony Friday afternoon, "We're ready to get started."

Byars told school system and city officials, along with board members and Main alumni, that the contractor for the project, J&R Construction, has done a good job in keeping to schedule through the demolition of the main buildings of the old school.

"It's exciting to begin this project," Byars said.

The system is aiming to have the new school built and ready to open by the start of the 2019-20 school year. The project is estimated to cost approximately $10 million to $11 million and will be primarily funded by the 1-cent education local option sales tax, which voters approved an extension of this fall.

Board Chairwoman Faith Collins reiterated that safety concerns over the separation of buildings in the old school's layout will be resolved with the new school.

It was three years in the making, Byars said, but when it is finished, the school will be "a shining light" for the system and the city.

Collins said it was fitting to hold the ground-breaking during Black History Month, considering the legacy of Main in educating black students during the period of segregation.

The Rev. Carey Ingram, the pastor of Lovejoy Baptist Church and a former Main student, said "this is the genesis of my start in school."

He recalled what the Rev. Curtis Moreland, who was a principal at the elementary school, had written in his souvenir book.

While other kids had typical messages written in their books, Moreland wrote to Ingram: "Talk, talk, talk; cheat, cheat, cheat; do, do, do; and you will."

In finishing his remarks, Ingram spoke to the importance of a good start in education.

"Simple words can mean so much," he said. "Your beginning formulates what you'll be in the end."

Rome Mayor Jamie Doss echoed the historical significance of Main, while touching on how the new school can add to the quality of education for the city's youth.

"A quality of education is key to quality of life," he said. "A key to a strong finish is to have a strong start."

Students who had gone to Main Elementary are currently going to school at North Heights Elementary. Once the new school is built, the students and staff at the consolidated North Heights will move over to Main. North Heights will then be refurbished as a sixth-grade academy — this is also an ELOST project.

Church hosts 3rd Night to Shine
Pleasant Valley South Baptist goes all out for special-needs prom

"It's an event that you can't describe in words," Eric Lefevers said of the Night to Shine Prom held at Pleasant Valley South Baptist Church for three years running.

Rather it is best described in witnessing the expressions of pure joy on the faces of the special-needs guests who walk the red carpet among cheers and emerge into the blue-lighted gym with their companions by their side, said Lefevers, the student minister at the church and one of the event organizers.

"It's one of those moments where time stands still," he said. "There's still hope in the world when you see their faces."

The prom Friday was the largest ever held, with over 500 people in attendance, from the 145 guests each with a companion to the 250 volunteers who help make this night a special one for those who won't experience a school prom.

"It's a big to-do," Lefevers said.

The Tim Tebow Foundation supports these proms across the nation and around the globe, Lefevers said. And working from a base financial support the group provides, he said the church and community come together to do the rest, including donations of food and clothing.

It's a deluxe experience for attendees, who upon walking in the door and registering, receive corsages or boutonnieres. The ladies can get their nails painted and hair styled in the makeup room, and the gents can have their shoes shined.

Model High senior Jacob Barrett said he volunteered again because his first exposure to the event "was a really awesome experience." He remembered telling his partner they were going to have a blast, wanting to make him comfortable and cut down on his shyness.

Seeing him break out of his shell and hit the dance floor was a memorable experience for Barrett, urging him to come back.

Robert Dubose, a Model High sophomore, said he wanted to be a part of what is a memorable moment for prom goers.

"They can come and have a good time and not be judged for who they are," he said. "We are all special in God's eyes."

After seeing pictures of last year's prom from fellow members of Fairview Baptist Church, volunteer Joan Stager knew she wanted to be a part of it.

"These kids, they are just such a blessing," she said. "It's just a special thing."

Shasta Farrer, another event organizer, paused and thought to herself before saying, "A quote? Because I could write a story." What she loves most is how so many people come together to ensure the prom goes on, giving the kids their moment to shine, while displaying a loving community spirit, she said.


Today's artwork is by Reese Butler, a first-grader at East Central.

Georgia Senate approves bills on opioid epidemic, health council

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome

A key state senator is saying she expects Georgia's fight against the opioid epidemic to draw funding from the Legislature through the budget process.

Sen. Renee Unterman, a Buford Republican, made the remarks Wednesday after the Senate unanimously approved a bill that would establish a Georgia director of substance abuse, addiction and related disorders, and create a commission to address the crisis of addiction and substance abuse. The bill, though, did not have funding attached to it.

The legislation, sponsored by Unterman, also has language about a possible Medicaid waiver related to opioid abuse cases.

It's difficult to determine how many opioid overdose deaths occur in the state.

A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis, citing CDC statistics, recently reported that Georgia had 918 overdose deaths from opioids in 2016, and 1,394 drug overdose deaths overall. But some experts say the overdose death numbers are underreported.

"Our numbers are going up," Unterman told reporters. She added that she would like to see real-time mapping of suspected overdoses, so law enforcement can react quickly and possibly prevent deaths.

"I personally don't think we're any different from any other state," said Unterman, calling the bill another step in the process of combating the opioid problem.

"I don't think you can sit back and do nothing," she said. "People are losing loved ones."

On the Senate floor, Unterman, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, cited a Lawrenceville subdivision that lost two boys to overdose deaths in separate events on the same day.

Senate Bill 352 also aims to crack down on unscrupulous patient "brokers," enhance education and prevention efforts for students, and increase access to treatment and recovery programs.

Unterman's bill and legislation creating a Health Coordination and Innovation Council, which also passed Wednesday, are an outgrowth of a task force appointed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, served on the task force and is a co-sponsor of both bills.

He praised Cagle's leadership on "initiatives that will make Georgia a national leader in taking on the opioid epidemic and pioneering innovative health care reform ideas."

In addition to creating the council, SB 357 adds a position of director of health care policy and strategic planning.

This new official would report directly to the governor.

The council would bring together experts from academia and business, as well as elected and appointed leaders to provide a forum to share information. And a Health System Innovation Center would be established as a research organization to develop new approaches for financing and delivering health care.

Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, who sponsored the bill and is a physician, said this effort to improve the workings of the health care system "is absolutely vital to our rural communities."

Both bills now move to the Georgia House for consideration.

Georgia Health News, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, tracks state medical issues on its website

Educator says he paid price for conversion to Christ
• The former Muslim president of Truett McConnell, who says he was disowned, shares his experiences with the Exchange Club.

Emir Caner

"Christianity, if anything, is sacrificial." Words of Truett McConnell University President Emir Caner, a Muslim convert who has led the Southern Baptist-sponsored institution in Gainesville for the past 10 years. Caner, who spoke to the Rome Exchange Club on Friday, said he was disowned by his father, a Turkish immigrant, and still has a tenuous relationship at best with two sisters. Caner also told the crowd his two older brothers converted to Christianity as well.

Caner used his presentation to the civic group to highlight differences between Christianity and Islam while touting the benefits of getting a higher education at a biblically-oriented college.

His family moved to the U.S. in the 1960s for two reasons, to achieve financial security and build mosques.

"There were only 100 mosques in the United States in the 1960s, now there are 3,000 mosques in America. Nobody is paying much attention to that; they should be," Caner said.

The Baptist college president said the premise that Muslims don't put fellow Muslims who convert to other religions to death isn't correct.

"That's a media promise, that's not true," Caner said. "Here's Muhammad's own words that we grow up with, if a Muslim changes his Islamic religion, kill him."

Caner said as many as 25,000 Muslims convert to Christianity every year, but that a similar number of Christians convert to Islam.

"Seventy-five percent of Muslims who become Christian go back to being Muslim, because of the pressures of family, pressures of other things and — to be honest with you — because churches don't know how to disciple Muslims. I grew up worshipping a false God, and then Jesus got a hold of me," Caner said.

The Muslim convert did not want to delve too much into politics, but did respond the Exchange members questions related to immigration.

"You have to vet because of Sharia law. It is against the First Amendment, it's against the Fourth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment," Caner said.

Truett McConnell University has grown from approximately 390 students when Caner was appointed president to more than 2,600 this year. The university has nine different schools, the newest being in criminal justice.

"We're second out of 324 private schools in the South for the least amount of student debt, and that's crucial because I don't want to put that burden on my kids," said Caner.

"You want irony, Truett McConnell University's land used to be a pig farm and is now run by a former Muslim. Have fun with that one," Caner said.