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ECSU hosting statewide project for suicide prevention

A statewide campaign to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention will be based on the Elizabeth City State University campus.

Driving into the main entrance to the campus it’s hard to miss the large red heart on the lawn behind the university archway. Known as the “Heart of Hope,” the project is raising money to help disseminate information about the warning signs of suicide and the ways to get help to those who need it.

The red heart on the ECSU lawn was formed by placing small red flags in the ground. Right now the heart is a red outline but “we’re going to fill it up with red flags,” said John Chappell, who chairs the Greater Elizabeth City Out of the Darkness Walk.

“We need funds to keep the work going,” said Chappell, who noted that the $10 it costs to buy a flag will cover the cost of 50 “lifesaver” guides, which list warning signs of suicide and provide information about how to get help.

“It’s a tremendous resource,” Chappell said of the lifesaver guide.

The Out of the Darkness event this year is billed as the Out Of The Darkness Experience because it’s being held virtually rather than through an actual walk.

The goal is to place 1,494 red flags, each representing someone who died by suicide in North Carolina in 2018.

At the 2019 Out of the Darkness Walk in Elizabeth City there were 1,527 red flags, representing each person who died by suicide in the state in 2017.

Betsy Rhodes, associate area director with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said North Carolina is one of only three states that reported a decrease in deaths by suicide from 2018 to 2019.

The declining number is evidence that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is making a difference, Chappell said.

The red flags also represent the warning signs that someone might be considering suicide. The signs include talking about killing oneself, telling others you are a burden to others, talking about feeling trapped or having no reason to live, withdrawing from activities, giving away prized possessions, and acting recklessly.

The red flags have a special meaning for Chappell and his family. He lost his father to suicide in 2014 and his father’s favorite color was red, he said.

Rhodes said organizers decided to charge $10 for each flag because they wanted the project to be something people can participate in even during the financially stressed times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chappell said ECSU has been a great partner for AFSP.

The university hosted the Out of the Darkness Walk last year and was extremely helpful and cooperative as the event was being planned and carried out, Rhodes said.

Rhodes said ECSU Chancellor Karrie Dixon donated 100 red flags — one representing each county in the state — to highlight the project’s statewide scope.

Dixon said the university’s involvement reflects its concern for students’ all-around wellbeing.

“As educators, we not only care about the success of our students in the classroom, we also care about their overall health and wellbeing,” Dixon said Thursday as the Heart of Hope project was being launched. “The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the need to focus on mental health in addition to physical health. This has been a very stressful time for all of us, and we need to provide the necessary services to support the emotional and mental health of our campus community.”

The giant red heart on the lawn is perfectly suited to a social media campaign, Rhodes said.

“We’re hoping it goes viral,” she said.

More information about the Greater Elizabeth City Out Of The Darkness Walk/Experience can be found at afsp.org/elizabethcity. Red flags may be purchased for $10 each by visiting NCProjectRedFlag.attendease.com.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifelife can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

Keeping doors open in a pandemic: COVID effects differ for biz

The owners of three local small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have distinctly different outlooks heading into the fall.

Keystone Barbershop owner Glover Shannon says the pandemic that’s infected more than 600 people in Pasquoank County and contributed to 27 deaths has significantly slowed his business.

His two barbershops, like others across the state, were forced to close under Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 23 order designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. The order closed most businesses where people were likely to gather indoors: barbershops, nail salons, gyms and movie theaters.

At the time, Shannon was hoping his shops would only be closed for two weeks. However, they ended up being shuttered until June.

Barbershops were allowed to reopen under social distancing restrictions in May. However, Shannon chose to keep his closed because he said he wanted to see how other shop owners navigated the new rules before trying it himself.

When he finally did reopen, Shannon followed public health officials’ recommendations, stocking up on cleaning and sanitation supplies, setting out additional soap for customers, and posting signage in his shops about new procedures. He also instituted rules like requiring customers to don masks and wash their hands before receiving service.

“There are also temperature checks when they arrive,” Shannon said. “Customers must arrive wearing a mask and continue wearing the mask throughout service. They must wash their hands thoroughly. ... The easel outlines the protocols for anyone who wonders.”

But despite providing a safe environment for customers, Shannon said foot traffic in his shop isn’t what it was before the pandemic. Shannon — who’s been in business 40 years — has always been able to depend on a steady flow of regular customers. He says his customers, both adults and young people, take pride in being well groomed whether it’s for work, church or school. He’s dismayed that many haven’t come back to get a haircut.

“Some people are still afraid of coming out,” he said. “People may not be aware of all the protocols in place now but we want to assure customers barbers can service customers — just with fewer people in the building at a time. In the meantime, we are trying to weather this thing out.”

Like other small businesspeople, Shannon was severely affected by the loss of income during the three months his barbershops were closed. He notes his income may have stopped but his bills keep coming.

Shannon said he was encouraged by information he received from the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce and the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Economic Development Commission. A small grant from the city COVID-19 relief fund also helped. But he makes no bones about the fact his business is still struggling.

“It’s absolutely tougher to be in business now than before the virus arrived,” Shannon said. “For anyone considering opening a business, do your research, know that expenses can arise for water, personal protection equipment.”

Despite his shops’ current struggles, Shannon plans to hang in there and hope business turns around.

“I am in business to provide a service to my customers and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.

Dan Glass’ fortunes during the pandemic have been much different. Glass, owner of Glass Music on North Poindexter Street, says this spring was the best sales season he’s had since he opened his business in August 2017.

Glass sells guitars, guitar strings, music books, music stands and assorted accessories. He also provides advanced guitar repairs and gives lessons in guitar, bass guitar, piano Uhelele, banjo and mandolin.

When the pandemic forced many residents to start staying at home more, Glass noticed a remarkable turn of events. People who had tucked away an instrument because of their busy schedule started showing up at his door seeking to have it repaired. Others who had postponed buying an instrument because of their schedule started coming in to buy one.

It seems the requirement to stay home gave people the one thing that previously kept many of them from pursing their dream to perform music: time.

“It’s been my best spring and summer in three years,” Glass said. “My customers had time to learn to play the banjo or the guitar. ... We had a run on guitar buying, accessories, strings. It was pretty amazing. Not expected but very welcome.”

Glass, a retired firefighter, said customers who’ve bought instruments from him have ranged in age from 8 to 80. Some also live outside the area, drawn by his attractive prices.

“I hear people say, ‘you charge less than they do in Greenville, Norfolk and Virginia Beach,’” he said. “I tell them, ‘I might not carry everything a large music store could carry; but what I have you can count on — service to keep your instrument performing at its best.’”

Glass has his own theory of why he’s been successful during the pandemic.

“Playing an instrument, it’s great therapy,” he said. “I tell kids when you learn to play that instrument well, people look at you differently because you are special. You gotta want it (success), though. If you put in the work, take the lessons, you can learn and get better.”

Lennette Ventura’s experience is more like Shannon’s. The owner of Famous Franks Hot Dogs & Grill on Church Street Extended said the challenges of running a small restaurant during a pandemic ultimately were too much for her to overcome. She closed the business on Sept. 4.

Ventura, who owned and operated Famous Franks for five years, said it was never easy for her to turn a profit, even before the pandemic. Famous Franks charged less than $5 for most menu items.

Ventura had hoped that by adding new menu items while keeping popular favorites would have boosted Famous Franks’ business. But when Cooper’s executive order in March ordered restaurants to suspend in-person dining, allowing them to provide takeout service only, her chance to make a profit disappeared.

Cooper’s Phase 2 restrictions allowed restaurants to resume offering in-person dining in May. However, they could do so only at 50 percent capacity.

When Ventura attempted to reopen, she found it difficult to lure back her former employees. Many were receiving unemployment benefits greater than what she was able to pay them, she said.

Ventura received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan but it ultimately wasn’t enough to help. Her rent, vendor fees, and loss of customers, combined with an uncertain future, led her to conclude this wasn’t the time for her to try and save a small restaurant.

“I’d already run into repairs earlier in the year here that cost me money,” she said. “After we reopened I found myself running the kitchen some days alone while one waitress worked the tables with customers. I tried to hire and train new employees but it just wasn’t the same. The lease is up in October so I will sell as much of the equipment as possible and move on.”

Ventura graduated from College of The Albemarle, attended ITT Technical Institute in Norfolk, and earned a criminal justice degree from Elizabeth City State University, but said she’s “done with school.” She said she “should have done more research before buying this business” but doesn’t regret opening it.

“I’ve learned some lessons. I’m just sorry I had to learn them the hard way,” she said.

Camden increases small biz grant funding to $150,000

CAMDEN — Total funding for Camden County’s grant program for small businesses suffering losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic has been expanded to $150,000.

The Camden Board of Commissioners authorized County Manager Ken Bowman Monday to increase the amount set aside for the COVID-19 Small Business and Non Profit Relief Fund program and disburse the remaining funds.

The program, designed to help small businesses and nonprofits affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, is funded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.

Camden received an initial $426,810 in CARES Act funding and an additional $210,906 in August for a total of $637,716.

The county intends to complete the grant program by Nov. 1.

The county originally set aside up to $100,000 for grants to small businesses and nonprofits. Monday’s action increased that amount to $150,000.

The number of small businesses applying for the grants increased dramatically in the past month.

At the time Bowman reported on the program in early August, only eight businesses had applied for grants of up to $2,500.

But about a month later that number had soared to 75.

Bowman gives much of the credit for increased interest to Alexandra Lekki, who heads the grant program for the county. Lekki spent a lot of time visiting businesses in person and speaking with owners, according to Bowman. The in-person visits were effective, he said.

Grant amounts depend on the business’s or nonprofit’s number of employees. Businesses employing between one and 10 people are eligible for a grant of $1,500. Businesses employing 11-15 employees are eligible for a $2,000 grant, while businesses employing between 26 and 49 workers are eligible for a maximum grant of $2,500.

The application deadline for the grants was Friday of last week.

County, city see sales tax revenue increases

Both Pasquotank County and Elizabeth City saw sales tax revenue increases in June, a likely result of the state easing some COVID-19 restrictions at the end of May.

Pasquotank’s sales tax revenues for the month were $1.23 million, a 16-percent increase from June 2019, when revenues were $965,665.

Elizabeth City’s sales tax increase was similar, 15.69 percent. It garnered $411,003 compared to $355,258 in June 2019.

For the 2019-20 fiscal year that ended June 30, Pasquotank took in $1 million more in sales tax revenue than the $9.5 million the county had projected. Despite the pandemic, the county saw a 12-percent increase in April and a modest 1 percent drop in May sales tax revenue.

When Pasquotank crafted its current fiscal 2020-21 budget back in the spring as the pandemic was starting, the county projected that sales tax revenue would be the same as last fiscal year.

County Manager Sparty Hammett said the June figure is a “good sign” that the county may collect more than anticipated.

“It was good to end up the last fiscal year on a positive note, (I’m) very pleased with that result,” Hammett said. “It’s a good sign for this (fiscal) year that June was that high.”

The extra $1 million will go into the county’s fund balance.

“As you end up every fiscal year, whatever remaining budget you have left over goes back into your fund balance,” Hammett said. “It just helps the overall financial condition of the county.”