GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - For more than 300,000 children in Eastern Carolina, school lunch is a necessity to get the nutrient-filled meals they need.
With the school year over, some families may be struggling to provide.
But in Greenville, the Salvation Army has partnered with the Food Bank to fill that gap, and all kids have to do is show up.
“Being fed, being full, and being nourished is not a privilege,” said volunteer Barcey Godwin. “It’s a basic human right.”
Until August 26, families can visit the Salvation Army on S. Memorial Dr. for a free meal for kids 18 years old and under every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
Each day the menu is something different.
“Nachos and cheese, some milk, some vegetables and a banana,” said Anna Rossi in between bites. “It was really good.”
For the volunteers, going without food is a struggle that hits close to home.
“If they’re anything like me growing up, school food is the only food you have,” said Godwin.
It’s difficult for parents to keep everything from their children, no matter how hard they try.
Another volunteer, Matt Johnson, recalls growing up with his mom, who had to provide for two kids on one salary.
“I know she hit the food bank several times when I was growing up, probably more than I realized,” said Johnson.
At the end of June, millions of families are expecting the COVID free school lunch program to expire, but food insecurity is nothing new to the East.
“I’m 25 years old. I remember when I was 5 being hungry and there was no COVID 20 years ago,” said Godwin.
On Tuesday, a group of bipartisan lawmakers announced a bill that would extend the food program through the summer.
Amongst those spearheading the effort is republican senator Virginia Foxx from North Carolina’s fifth district.
But the extension has not yet been approved.
To have come through that hardship and make it out to the other side, volunteers are hoping to change the story for the next generation of kids.
“Maybe you’re eating toast because that’s all you’ve got is a loaf of bread and a toaster, but to be able to give people a chance at a relatively balanced meal, it’s definitely something I was interested in trying to do,” said Johnson.
If you are fortunate to not be experiencing food insecurity, volunteers say there is still something you can do to help: get the word out about the program.
In the first two days of the program, they have given away just 15-percent of the lunches they have available.
GREENE & HYDE COUNTIES, N.C. (WITN) - Many parents’ fears are being realized as information from the State Department of Public Instruction shows that students, on average, fell behind their academic pace by two to 15 months after their instruction was interrupted by the pandemic.
“The school is a sad place without all the children in it, and we have them back. We are so glad to have them back, and they are so glad to be back,” said Mattamuskeet Elementary School Principal Allison Etheridge.
Instruction is looking more as it did pre-pandemic. Now on the other side of fully remote learning, data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction shows where students have fallen behind in their learning.
The deepest hit came in math education. Students also fell behind in English Language Arts by two months and one week to seven months and three weeks.
“We have gaps that we haven’t seen in many years,” said West Greene Elementary School Principal Phil Cook. “[Teachers] have done such an amazing job, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work that they all do every single day. They are growing those students, and I’m very excited to see the gains at the end of the school year because I know from the data we’re looking at right now, our kids are growing.”
NCDPI says students will need intensive academic intervention to make up for hundreds to even more than a thousand hours of class time they couldn’t capitalize on, if they want to get back on track.
“We had to really take a deep dive into how are we going to teach these skills to our students because we normally don’t have to do that,” Cook said. “We’ve had a lot of professional development, guiding resources, dug deep, and got our hands dirty and started working with our students at the small groups tables on differentiating the work to meet those needs. They’re coming to us with some weaknesses that we hadn’t seen in years before.”
It’s all hands on deck to fill in the gaps for some of the state’s youngest learners.
“You pull a student who’s in need whether it’s your student or if it’s not because ultimately, they’re all our students and the goal is to get everybody where they need to be,” Etheridge said.
The focus isn’t just on academics, but social and emotional learning, too.
“Our second-grade students had never had a normal school year,” Cook said. “We’ve made sure that our teachers knew about that so that when our students came to us."
In order to try to help students catch back up, the state has outlined several upcoming summer programs focused on learning recovery using the Public Instruction department’s pandemic relief funds.
This summer, a “Career Accelerator” program will be geared toward preparing sixth through 12th grade students for careers, either out of high school or out of college.
A “Summer Bridge Academy” will be available for rising Kindergarten, sixth grade, ninth grade, and 12th grade students.
Two weeks before the start of the next school year, those students will focus on math and English, projects, and field trips, among other things.
The state will also direct a math enrichment program for fourth through eighth graders for before-school and after-school programs designed to help students accelerate their math learning and get back on track.
Schools can apply for the program in July.
PITT COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - Colleges and universities across the east are rounding out the school year with graduation ceremonies. Tuesday night, Pitt Community College joined the list.
A wave of royal blue caps and gowns marched through Minges Coliseum at ECU with hundreds of families there to cheer on the new graduates.
In just a few years the students say they have become like family, and today was the greatest celebration of their friendships.
“They did everything that they could to help me get through this program, I swear, especially the friends that I’ve made,” said Jasmine Vickery. She’s going to be a paramedic.
With so many higher education options throughout the east, PCC attracts students with certain values.
“It’s so close to my home,” said Vickery. “I have a two year old so I like to stay home.”
For the past three years, this group of friends has been through it all together, but the road to their success wasn’t easy.
Friendships challenged by the difficulties of the pandemic came out stronger on the other end.
\“It’s passed COVID. It’s the first one we’ve been able to have in person,” said Emergency Medical Science program director Leslie Carico. “They’ve made it wonderful. I’ve got to say I’m going to miss all of them.”
As they take these next steps toward the rest of their careers, nostalgia creeps in and they reflect on their time in school.
“We cried. We fought. We did everything we could, and we got it!” exclaimed Bethany Peterson, another graduate.
She now looks forward to living out the daydreams she had as a student.
“Seeing different things, doing different things, saving people, that’s all I’ve wanted to do,” said Peterson.
The full graduation event will be rebroadcast on Pitt-TV at 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. every Sunday through September.
GREENE & HYDE COUNTIES, N.C. (WITN) - Teachers are rounding the corner on the school year, but before school is out for summer, educators are being celebrated.
National Teacher Appreciation Day gives school systems and classrooms the chance to highlight their favorite teachers’ favorite things.
“Our staff loves to eat so we are eating every day this week,” said Greene County Intermediate School principal Jada Mumford.
After two years of interrupted education from the pandemic, teachers in Eastern Carolina are getting back into the swing of things.
“This is the first year that we’ve had some sense of normalcy,” said Mumford. “We were able to go on a field trip for the first time in three years to the Wood Ducks game and took almost 350 students. So, I just think it’s a great time to be able to come back together.”
Tuesday’s celebration was just one part of a whole week dedicated by the National Parent-Teacher Association to those educators going above and beyond for their students.
“There’s a lot more that a teacher does other than just educate our children,” said Hyde County administrative lead teacher Paige Smith. “You’re nurse. You’re a mom in school. You are someone to get them food if they are hungry outside of the lunch or breakfast time. So, just a kind note, letting them know that you realize that they are going above and beyond for your child and that you appreciate it, that really means a lot. "
Now seeing the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, teachers still have their plates full.
The National Education Association’s annual teacher salary report placed North Carolina as the 34th highest paying state.
The state’s Department of Public Instruction has the ranking a bit higher at 32nd.
“The pandemic was definitely a challenge for us all so it is so nice to be as close to normal as we can in the meantime,” said Smith. “Our teachers are working diligently to help our students grow and fill in those gaps that happened during the pandemic.”
The National PTA has many resources your family can use like fillable cards, poem templates, and coloring print outs.
Even just a passing encouragement to those educators can make a positive impact on their day.
Teacher Appreciation Week runs all the way until Friday, May 6.
PAMLICO COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - A former teacher of the Pamlico County Schools system addressed the school board in a public comment to allege discrimination in the workplace.
Charlon Long, who taught in Pamlico County for 15 years, says her final year created a “bitter environment” that she had to leave.
Long said in her comment to the school board that she now joins a long list of teachers of color who have resigned in the past two years.
“If you don’t believe me, just listen to the names of the minority employees that you have lost within the past two years. I know who I am, I know my worth. I love my students,” Long said.
Long added that her resignation was sparked by several incidents. She felt microaggressions from her superiors, noticing body language and tone that she identified as discriminatory.
She says she watched that dynamic translate to the students, with kids of color being treated differently than their white counterparts.
When Long gave her notice of moving on from Pamlico County Schools, she says she was given hours notice to pack up her classroom, turn in her keys and badge, and leave the school campus.
They didn’t even give me a chance to say goodbye to my students,” Long said. “They didn’t give me the opportunity because they retaliated.”
The Pamlico County School Board returned a request for comment from WITN, saying in part:
“The board was briefed in detail about the allegations made by the former teacher who spoke at the March 7 meeting and who recently resigned. The board is satisfied that the former teacher was not discriminated against, nor was she subject to any retaliation. It is an unfortunate fact that there is a relative shortage of minority teachers throughout North Carolina and the entire country. Many efforts are being undertaken to address the situation, but it will require time and a concerted and collaborative effort at various levels. The Pamlico County Schools welcomes applications from strong teacher candidates of all races.”
Long says she plans to attend the school board meeting for public comment again next month and is considering seeking help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if her complaint sparks no action from the board.
The next Pamlico County Board of Education meeting will be held on April 4 and can be live-streamed from the board’s YouTube page.
PITT COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) -A Pitt County family is seeking answers in the disappearance of their loved one who was supposed to be headed to Las Vegas for a pageant, but never made it and hasn’t been heard from or seen since.
The family of 21-year-old Lejourney Farrow says going off the grid is uncharacteristic for her.
Now her mom Olivia and brother Randy, are trying to piece together the last ten days that their loved one has been missing.
Olivia says, “I have been devastated.”
According to Greensboro Police, Farrow was last seen on February 10th.
Her family says she was expected to fly from there to Las Vegas that day for a beauty pageant, and onto New York City after that, but missed her flight and rescheduled for early the next day.
On February 11th, a text message came in from Farrow’s phone to her family that she had landed in Chicago, one of her scheduled layovers. That is the last known contact with her family.
Randy says, “She always talked about Journey’s journey. That was something for her that was really passionate. She always wanted to write about that.”
They say she wouldn’t miss the opportunity to participate in the pageant by choice.
Randy says, “She was really inspired by being a role model for the younger kids. If you look at her Facebook, a lot of the people that she follows are from the pageant world, that’s pretty much all of her friends.”
A detective in Greensboro has been assigned to Farrow’s case and is looking into the details of her last known whereabouts.
Randy says for the family, “Right now it’s all a big blob and a bunch of question marks. We don’t have that many details from the detectives and what they’ve found. I don’t want to make a whole bunch of assumptions because when you assume stuff, your mind just goes to the worst places possible.”
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Lejourney Farrow can contact Greensboro Crimestoppers at 336-373-2222.
WASHINGTON, N.C. (WITN) - More than a century and a half ago, thousands of enslaved African Americans journeyed through the secret trails of the Underground Railroad, many passing through Eastern Carolina in their pursuit of freedom.
One of the most prominent roadways in North Carolina ran through the coastal area of Washington, as the Tar-Pamlico River was a heavily trafficked mode of transportation to northern areas.
James Jones was inspired by the stories of the brave men, women, and children that sought their freedom in the 1800s.
Jones directed the film Freedom of NC, which tells those stories in the historic spaces they would have occurred in throughout the East.
“It’s all about creativity,” Jones said.
The process of creating the film was no easy feat for Jones, especially as the COVID pandemic restricted all filming schedules.
“As the whole world was shut down, it just gave me a chance to be able to review what I had and go over my script and make changes... leading on to the new plantation that we were going to be able to shoot on,”
said James Jones, Freedom of NC director.
The “new plantation” he refers to is the Historic Hope Plantation, located less than five miles west of Windsor.
“We wanted to do something to give back to the people that are here as well,” Jones said in reference to locals of Washington.
This caused him to scout the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum as his opening scene location.
To fill in the gaps of his plotline, Jones needed an expert in Beaufort County history.
“The history we document here is how freedom seekers got from those plantations with the help of abolitionists who were white, Black, Native American, people from all walks of life,” Leesa Jones, Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum executive director and historian said.
Motifs of history were interwoven with the plotline. Leesa Jones’s favorite is inspired by flowers with a secret meaning.
“I could have just a handful of sunflowers and that big brown spot was called an eye,” Leesa Jones said. "That could simply indicate that there were too many eyes watching and so the movie accurately portrays that.”
In Washington, people will see the showing of Freedom of NC at the Historic Turnage Theatre on Feb. 26th, as part of their Black History Month celebrations.
“I’m very proud of doing it and bringing it back here because this is where it started and you can really see what was transpiring during that time,” James Jones said.
This month, in his celebration of Black history, James Jones wants to focus on more than just the adversities of his ancestors.
He honors the stories of Washington-based ancestors, and he hopes his work inspires other young Black creators to achieve what he calls “Black excellence.”
That starts, James Jones says, by putting himself out there, efforting to reach his dreams.
When the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum is not the backdrop of Jones’s filmmaking, it serves as an educational tool for area students and visitors.
There, they have the opportunity to see primary documents from Beaufort County in the 1800s, when thousands of enslaved people sought their freedom.
Due to a volunteer shortage from the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum is working on an abbreviated schedule.
The museum is open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for tours of its collection.
PITT COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - Virtual learning has taken on a new meaning at H.B. Sugg Elementary School where one student is on wheels this school year.
EJ Lyles made his kindergarten debut using an innovative piece of technology: a VGO robot.
Social and emotional learning is an important skill in early education. This week, Lyle’s classmates are learning about emotions and feeling words.
Happiness and excitement were the dominating emotions and feelings shared by his new friends when Lyles dialed into his classroom.
“Having EJ return and him coming home, we knew that at Sugg/Bundy we needed to teach and take care of and love on him,” principal Ali Setser said.
In October, WITN first told Lyles’s story of a long road to recovery.
He underwent a series of traumas that left him hospitalized at Duke University Hospital.
Lyles had just been involved in a crash that seriously hurt his mom when he began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Then, Lyles was diagnosed with a MRSA infection that caused several of his organs to begin failing.
Fast forward three months and Lyles’ heart and kidney functions are approaching normal levels.
“I do appreciate how willing and open the school has been just to really get him back on track,” Sophia Lyles, EJ Lyles’ mom said.
“That was one of our fears. When he did come home, how would school go?" said Sophia Lyles, EJ Lyles’ mom
Setser reached out to Karen Harrington, Pitt County Schools director of student services, for options and landed on the VGO robot.
EJ Lyles is able to see, hear, and interact with his classmates from the safety of his home.
The robot wears an #EJStrong t-shirt, something that one donor gifted all 800 students of the H.B. Sugg and Sam D. Bundy school.
Setser inducted the shirt into the school’s spirit day collection, making it uniform-approved on the special dress-down days.
While his classmates admired his shirt, EJ Lyles admired their masks.
“He was really excited about the one kid with the Spiderman mask,” Sophia Lyles said. “It really did enough for him because he’s been jumping off the walls ever since.”
At home, EJ Lyles has made great strides in his recovery, but he doesn’t get to spend much time with other children his age.
“I think it’s important that he’s around kids his age and he realizes, ‘Hey, I’ve been through this and I’ve made it through it and now I’m here.’ That’s a way for him to share what he’s been through and share that he’s just like anybody else,” Olivia Haley, EJ Lyles’ kindergarten teacher said.
Haley has worked with the Lyles family to craft a schedule that includes Lyles in group learning while working around his medical schedule.
Lyles completed a math lesson Wednesday in greater than and less than numbers. He was able to participate with a small group of students to identify the correct answers.
And when Lyles was ready, he would light up his robot to signal his hand being raised.
EJ Lyles will continue to be monitored by a team of doctors, but when he is able to make an in-person debut at school, the H.B. Sugg family is ready to embrace him.
LENOIR COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - COVID cases surge as thousands of students across Eastern North Carolina return to school this week after their winter break.
Students packed their backpacks and lunchboxes Wednesday morning and for Lenoir County students, they had the option of whether or not to also pack their mask.
The option comes after a school board meeting on Monday maintained, by a vote of 4-3, that masks be optional for students and faculty in school.
“I find a hard time understanding why this is being debated for this demographic of the population... children, and germs, and a close environment,” Hannah Perry, the mother of a third-grade student in Lenoir County Public Schools said.
Perry is pleased with the way the school system handles some aspects of its COVID precautions. “The custodial is amazing and they are amazing with their sanitation,” she said.
However, she is not so happy about other parts, like mask-wearing being optional.
As students enter the halls of schools across the district, Patrick Holmes, a spokesperson for the school system, said, “The first day of school in the new year looks a lot like the last day of school for the last year.”
He’s referring to the mask policy, in which the vote in December yielded the same optional mask-wearing result.
“The mask question is up to the board of education,” Holmes said. “That’s a policy decision that the board is going to make. They vote on it every month.”
The Lenoir County School Board isn’t the only board of education to have made this decision regarding masks. Face coverings are optional in Beaufort, Onslow, and Carteret counties’ schools. All four of these districts reaffirmed their rulings.
“We are taking a number of steps in schools,” Holmes said.
“From testing on request to the usual sanitation measures that we do, most of our students don’t eat in the cafeteria. They eat in the classroom. We keep groups as small as we can," said Holmes.
The school board has also partnered with Lenoir County Health Director Pam Brown.
“She was instrumental in working with our school board members and our district administrators in devising the current policy we have for optional face coverings,” Holmes said.
For Perry, making face coverings optional has the same ring to it as making hygiene optional.
She says if you saw someone leave the restroom without washing their hands, “you would almost want to encourage them to. I’ve encouraged my son and I bought a box of 100 masks for about $16 and it’s just such a low price to pay to keep him safe.”
As for the school district administration, they will keep an eye on the COVID numbers in the community and in their schools.
Holmes said, “I think we are doing all that we can and if the situation warrants it, we’ll adjust our practices.”
The school system administration urges parents to keep their children home if they are sick and to get them vaccinated as soon as they become eligible.
The district offers PCR testing upon request and has most of its students eat in the classroom in smaller groups to reduce outbreaks.
KINSTON, N.C. (WITN) - The Children’s Village Academy held a drive-up vaccination clinic on Saturday for people ages 5 and up in Kinston.
The clinic offered full doses of the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson, and pediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine. No appointment was necessary.
Douglas Dunn waited in line to register his kids for their first dose.
“It took a little time but it’s worth it,” Dunn said. “The doctors know what they are talking about so, stick with the doctors and you’ll live longer.”
After the Dunn siblings got their pediatric doses, the clinic was open for business.
School nurse Deborah Johnson spent most of her time holding the hands of the kids getting their shots, but when there was a lull in the crowd, she rolled up her own sleeve for a booster.
Johnson contacted the Lenoir County Health Department to organize the drive. Vaccines were administered by Charlotte-based StarMed Healthcare.
“I just think its important for our kids to get vaccinated,” Johnson said. “This is not going to guarantee that they are not going to get sick but it will probably make their symptoms much lighter and not get as sick and not end up in the hospital.”
With the holidays approaching, Johnson said the clinic could not have come at a better time for students.
“Hopefully, there will be a lot of kids vaccinated as well as adults getting their boosters, especially before the holidays because it does take two weeks for it to kick in,” Johnson said. “I hope it will protect our kids during the holiday season and they can enjoy their family time.”
Matilda Burks said she is happy to be vaccinated, bringing her one step closer to a visit with her aunt in New York.
“You should get your vaccine so you can stay alive,” Burks said.
She joins the over 120,000 kids between 5 and 11-years old to have received at least one vaccine dose in the state
Every story you see here is written, filmed, edited, fronted, and day-turned by Maddie. As an MMJ with WITN, she really does it all!