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National nonprofits surprised by loss of funding from United Way of Rome & Floyd County

Two Rome and Floyd County nonprofit agencies that relied on funds donated to the United Way for many years say they were completely caught by surprise to learn in August they will not be receiving those funds for the 2020-21 funding period due to United Way’s new focus on locally-governed 501(c)3 organizations.

So as of Jan. 1, 2020, those who have contributed funds to the United Way through payroll deductions to benefit the Salvation Army, American Red Cross of Northwest Georgia, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Mercy Care will need, instead, to donate directly to those organizations.

“For over 60 years the Salvation Army received contributions channeled through the United Way to provide food, shelter and services to the homeless and indigent in Floyd County,” a Letter to the Editor submitted to the Rome News-Tribune from Salvation Army’s Board of Directors states. “These funds came from individuals and businesses in Rome/Floyd County, often through payroll deductions for their United Way contribution to support Salvation Army. Recently, the United Way communicated that it is ending the relationship in December.”

Both Capt. Jason Smith of the Salvation Army and American Red Cross Executive Director Leigh Brock-Barba indicated Wednesday they knew United Way was changing its criteria for grant allocations and required all applicants to apply for next year’s funding as if they had never applied before.

However, they said there was no indication that the United Way of Rome & Floyd County would be cutting off national nonprofits in favor of locally-grown and governed entities.

“The Salvation Army felt that we’d met their new criteria,” Smith said. “There’s nothing in their Request for Proposal guidelines to alert us to the changes that would impact us and other organizations that have served this community for so long. It’s kind of like having the rug pulled out from under you.”

United Way Executive Director Alli Mitchell said Wednesday she believes her organization has been transparent throughout the new funding process and said claims from the Salvation Army and Red Cross that they were blindsided are “inaccurate.”

“Transparency and integrity are absolutely our highest priorities,” Mitchell said through an email. “We made no guarantees whatsoever, except to be utterly transparent and that our current funded agencies would know first and as soon as possible any changes that came up throughout this year.”

The nearly $24,000 the Salvation Army received through United Way in fiscal year 2018 represented about 4% of the Salvation Army’s total annual budget. However, the organization that feeds, houses and educates the homeless and their families also is accustomed to receiving another $23,000 through United Way from the government’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program.

“So our total loss will be about $48,000,” Smith explained.

Smith said he wanted to make clear that although the Salvation Army is disappointed with United Way’s decision, his organization still appreciates the work they do and hopes they will be able to work together in the future. He also wanted people to be aware there will still be a way they can donate to the Salvation Army directly by mail to P.O. Box 5188, Rome, GA 30162 or through salvationarmyrome.org.

He also wants residents to know the funding loss will in no way impact the work they do on a regular basis. He said they will still raise funds through their annual Red Kettle Campaign, Can-A-Thon, monthly mail appeals and special fundraising events to serve more than 6,000 Floyd, Polk and Chattooga county residents.

“Here’s the thing,” he stressed. “If a disaster strikes our community — whether natural or man-made — Salvation Army and the Red Cross will be the first ones here and will always be here. We will not leave. We are still responding to those things and we do appreciate all United Way has done.”

Barba said her organization also will be out $25,000 next year, but she wasn’t sure what percentage of their budget that represented.

“The Red Cross of Northwest Georgia will continue to rely on the generosity of our local community to support the vital and unique programs and services we provide in the greater Rome area with the help of volunteers,” Barba said. “Examples include youth preparedness education, smoke alarm installation campaigns, shelter, emotional support and recovery resources for families impacted by disasters and support for military families and more.”

Barba said folks can donate directly to Red Cross NWGA at 112 John Maddox Drive, Rome, GA 30165, or by calling 706-291-6648.

Mitchell also said that Salvation Army clients will benefit from the donation of 25,000 shelf-ready meals that come out of the second annual Floyd Fights Hunger event slated for Oct. 26.

“I spoke with Capt. Smith directly to verify that they had the capacity to accept the 25,000 meals and, in fact, asked his permission to give them more if we did not get a response from the other agencies we reached out to,” Mitchell’s email stated. “I also included our gratitude for the partnership through Floyd Fights Hunger and our ability to continue supporting them, even if not through a Community Impact Grant, through support of their food ministry, in the letter that informed them they would not be eligible to apply for our upcoming grant cycle (which, we have stressed, is a guideline that applies only to the current funding cycle).”

Rome man found guilty of murdering the mother of their newborn son

It took a Floyd County jury less than four hours Wednesday to find Nakotah Javez Smith, 34, guilty of murdering the mother of his newborn son in the West 13th Street apartment they shared.

Crystal Dawn Vega, 30, died on June 18, 2018 — three days after she was shot in the head during their final, fatal fight. Her 2-year-old son and their 1-year-old son were in the home that night. The infant was still in the hospital.

Assistant District Attorney Emily Johnson said the shooting stemmed from Vega’s determination to leave Smith, after suffering physical and mental abuse at his hands.

“He had always been able to get her back, but this time she had had enough,” Johnson told the jury, describing Smith as “controlling, possessive and obsessive.”

In addition to malice murder, the jury convicted Smith on charges of felony murder; two counts of aggravated assault; aggravated battery; two counts of cruelty to children; and possession of a deadly weapon during a crime.

After the verdict was announced, they were told of a ninth count: possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

The charge had been held back so they would not know during their deliberations that he had a criminal record. After a second round of deliberation, they found him guilty of that charge as well.

Superior Court Senior Judge Walter Matthews said he would sentence Smith in 10 days.

Smith did not testify in his own defense. During the trial, Public Defender Sean Lowe sought to cast doubt on the interpretation of the evidence and witness testimonies.

An alternate view, Lowe contended, is that Vega pulled a gun on Smith during the fight, they struggled and the gun went off.

“It’s so easy to take sides when you have a case that is so gruesome ... to want to find a villain and punish them,” Lowe cautioned the jury. “But emotion is not evidence. Sympathy is not proof.”

Johnson, however, said there is both circumstantial and direct evidence.

In her summation she said the 2-year-old’s statements — to neighbors and in a taped interview with a child advocate — that “Dada shoot. Mama dead” is eyewitness testimony. The testimony of Vega’s sisters and friend of the ongoing abuse, Johnson said, is corroborated by text messages and medical records.

“Those are Crystal’s words,” she said about the texts.

While a gun was never found, Vega was shot with a deadly RIP bullet — a next-generation Radically Invasive Projectile designed to break into eight pieces, each creating its own wound channel. Vega’s sisters testified that Smith had shown them his RIP bullets along with other weaponry and accessories.

Johnson noted that a neighbor testified that Smith left the house with two bags before police arrived and, “that gun was probably in those trashbags the defendant grabbed and went up the road with.”

Smith was taken into custody a week later in Lindale.

Wisleid DeLeon, a first-grader at Elm Street Elementary School

Pirates hunt hidden treasures in Rome this week

Rome will be the headquarters for pirates from across the country and around the world who are hunting hidden treasures in Rome through the weekend. “Message in a Bottle” is the pirate-related theme for the Going Caching 2019 mega-event that is expected to draw close to 1,000 geocachers to Rome.

Local river historian Dennis Nordeman frequently tells guests aboard the Roman Holiday tour boat about piracy on the Coosa River during the heyday of steamboat traffic. Thursday night, new millennium pirates will parade up Broad Street from the Town Green to City Hall, led by Geocaching HQ President Bryan Roth from Seattle, Washington, the grand marshal for the event this year.

Andi Beyer, one of the local organizers, said that people have registered from as far away as Finland and Puerto Rico.

“It’s a family-friendly activity that anybody can do,” Beyer said. “As humans we’re all hunter-gatherers, so hunting for something is great.” Beyer said that when people participate in such an event they often see parts of a community they might otherwise not be exposed to.

Last year over 1,400 people attended the event in Rome and organizers are hoping for even more this year. The sanctioning national organization has indicated the Rome event is one of the three largest geocaching events in the U.S.

This year, participants were given the opportunity to register for one of seven different pirate crews: Sea Devil, Crustacean, Cosa Nostra, Racketeer, Soggy Bottom, Epidemic and Bel Air, which will compete for the Most Fearsome Ship by finding the most caches, solving the most riddles and challenges for points.

This year, the main event takes place on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Ridge Ferry Park, where volunteers under the direction of local organizers Beyer and Jim Williamson have built a treasure maze on the stage of the bandstand.

The stage at Ridge Ferry Park will be the setting for a big show Friday night and following the day-long activities Saturday, there will be a costume ball for the geocachers at the Forum River Center.

County and city beat SAT averages

Both county and city schools can boast beating state and national average SAT scores after the Georgia Department of Education released the scores by district and school on Tuesday.

As a system, Floyd County Schools had an average score of 1064, with Rome High School scoring 1069 on average, which beat the state average of 1048 and the national average of 1039.

However, neither met the state senior participation rate of 67%, which is not concerning to those who say the SAT is no longer the only or best avenue to a secondary education.

John Parker, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer, said students can opt to not take the SAT for a variety of reasons: whether it be cost, taking a different test like the ACT or attending a college that doesn’t require a standardized test for entrance.

The FCS Class of 2019 actually had more of it seniors take the ACT than the SAT, Parker said, which is about the norm. About 23% of seniors took the SAT, state data indicates while 70% of county seniors took the ACT according to Parker.

Through a release, superintendent for Rome City Schools Lou Byars said Rome High’s SAT senior participation rate of 50% was double what it was last year.

“The participation also went up in each demographic area as well,” he said. “I am very proud of the scores achieved by our students and hope that they continue along this path to success.”

Superintendent for Floyd County Schools Jeff Wilson had similar comments about the high scores in a release from the county school system.

“One year’s scores are important, but looking at our results, consistency is very evident as our students have regularly performed at a high level above the state and national averages over a seven-year period,” he said.

SAT scores for students at Darlington School were also above the local, state and national averages. Darlington students posted a total mean score of 1175, beating out both state and national averages by a wide margin. The SAT was taken by 116 of Darlington's 124 seniors.

The GADOE said in a release that this is the second year in a row Georgia students outperformed the national average with this year’s score of 1048 being nine points higher than the national mean.

Georgia’s 2019 scores also brought positive news in the area of equity, the release stated.

Black students in Georgia’s public-school class of 2019 recorded a mean composite score of 952, well above the national mean of 921, even as their participation increased by 1.7%.

Georgia’s Hispanic or Latino students recorded a mean composite score of 1016, well over the national mean of 967, with a 16.3% increase in participation.

Two years ago, the 2017 SAT results set a new baseline for year-to-year comparisons. Reports prior to 2017 were based on the old SAT, which had a different score scale and different benchmarks.

The 2017, 2018 and 2019 SAT scores are comparable. Comparisons to 2016 or earlier are not valid.