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Carroll students compete for LEGO League state championship
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HILLSVILLE — Five robotics teams from Carroll County Public Schools competed earlier this month in the LEGO League State Championship held at James Madison University.

Students design robots to complete specific tasks and compete against teams from other schools. This is the seventh year Carroll teams have gone to the state championship competition.

Hillsville Elementary School science teacher Mike Hobbs shared details of the HES team’s competition with The Gazette. “They have two divisions, and our team’s division won for fourth and fifth. We do this kind of like an academic sports team. Students stay after school for practices.”

The competition was held on Dec. 10-11. This year, Hobbs said there were two teams at Hillsville Elementary, one from Oakland Elementary and two from Carroll County Middle School.

“Every team has to go to a regional qualifier, and if you move on you go to the regional finals, which is similar to a state championship league,” Hobbs explained. “There were 36 teams from all across the state and [Washington] DC.” Teams can range from a minimum of two students up to 10 students, but most average six students.

“The big component that everyone sees is the robot game,” Hobbs continued. “We have four chances on the [robot game] table. The first is a practice run, and then you get three runs to get the highest score on the robot game table. That’s about 25% of what you are being judged on.”

Every year, there is a different theme. This year was energy, and Hobbs said the kids “had to come up with an innovative solution to a problem in that field. It’s wide open and a lot of research goes into making the project, and into coming up with a presentation for it. You present in front of two to three judges for approximately 30 minutes.”

For the robotics component, he said, “The kids have to understand the design of the robot, its programming, and then the judges ask them questions about how to demonstrate core values, such as inclusion in the related field.”

The HES team this year was named “The Real Wiggle Wobble Riders.”

Hobbs said the kids did a lot of research to prepare. “All the kids came up with a really strong idea and a few stood out. They were interested in the area of converting kinetic energy into electricity; the energy of movement into electricity. More specifically they were interested in a new product on the market called Ergo Ergo, an ergonomic chair so they can move around while still at their seats.”

The team came up with the idea of making an Ergo seat into something that could produce enough electricity to charge a Chromebook. They started reading about piezoelectricity — “energy that is in crystals such as quartz, and if you strike it it will produce a small charge,” Hobbs explained.

They also found out they could make their own crystals, and began to research how much energy could be generated off a field or tray of those crystals. “We ran into an obstacle about keeping steady electricity from the crystals, so they did more research on how to make what’s called a ‘joule thief.’ ” (A joule is a unit of electrical measurement.)

“The kids had their own drawing design of what the chair would look like on the inside,” he said. They were going to call the chair the “Tux-Seat-O,” which is the inspiration behind their costumes of tuxedo T-shirts, bowler hats and fake mustaches.

Keeping with the theme of the “Mystery of the Joule Thief,” one of the students on the team wore a Sherlock Holmes hat.

“We got a first place in robot design, and that’s from the nailing the design part of the presentation,” Hobbs said of the HES team. The kids can build anything as long as they use all authorized LEGO parts. Every year, you get a new board and new mat with challenges that are built out of LEGO pieces. From there, it’s up to the team to figure out during a timed run how to get as many points in that time limit.”

Hobbs said his students were dedicated. “The kids were giving up two to three nights a week for practice, which is kind of a lot for 4th and 5h grade classes. They did really well this year, and it was a really solid team.”

The next step is qualifying for nationals. “This is the best we’ve done for Hillsville Elementary so far, Hobbs said. “We wanted to thank Rust Warren, our vice principal. He’s a licensed electrician who helped us with a lot of the steps along the way. Also, Danny Choate who works with Wytheville Community College, and Shanda Warren, who is our LEGO team advocate for Carroll County Public Schools.”

Project Light gets $1M grant

Project Light in Galax has received a $1 million grant from the state’s Industrial Revitalization Fund (IRF).

“Project Light” is, for grant application purposes, the name for the effort to renovate the former Oldtown Market in Galax for God’s Storehouse & Soup Kitchen and all its ministries, groups and services. These include the Celebrate Recovery addiction-to-work peer counseling program, after-school and adult mentoring by skilled educators in the community, and prepared meals and boxed meals for the food insecure.

Additionally, 10 low-rent office spaces will allow graduates of Celebrate Recovery and low-income community members to begin start-up businesses. This project anticipates the creation of at least 10 new jobs, with the potential for many more.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced the grant on Dec. 27. The IRF grants provide “gap financing for construction projects aligned with local and regional economic development strategies, primarily in distressed communities,” according to the governor’s office.

“We are incredibly humbled and thankful to be awarded this grant,” said Kisha Johnson, God’s Storehouse director. “This grant will allow us to renovate our building and give us the opportunity to expand our services.”

She said the non-profit is still raising money to match a $250,000 grant, “but this Industrial Revitalization Fund grant will enable us to complete the building at once instead of in multiple phases.”

The grant is especially helpful since construction costs have risen over 25% since the initial blueprint was created, Johnson said.

“The most exciting part is that our dream was to see God’s Storehouse become a community building where we are able to help people thrive,” she said. “With every cent we get, that dream is coming true and in pure Appalachian fashion we are truly getting to build it together.”

Johnson thanked Jolena Young, who is Galax’s grant writer and administrator; the God’s Storehouse board of directors; Mayor Willie Greene and Vice Mayor Beth White; and Galax City Council.

“There are so many exciting things happening in our city and we are honored that they believe in what we do,” she concluded.

“The transformation of older, vacant or blighted structures into productive, usable spaces is crucial to catalyzing economic growth to create thriving communities,” said Youngkin in a news release announcing this and other IRF grants this week. “The Industrial Revitalization Fund continues to be an important resource for those redevelopment efforts, spurring regional partnerships, economic development and job growth across the commonwealth.”

The fund leverages local and private resources to achieve market-driven redevelopment of vacant and deteriorated industrial and commercial properties. The program is targeted toward vacant non-residential structures whose poor condition creates physical and economic blight to the surrounding area in which the structure is located, according to the governor’s office.

Projects were reviewed and evaluated competitively, with an emphasis on those with a high level of blight, identification of impediments to economic development efforts, alignment with regional or local strategies, availability of matching resources, the level of community distress where the property is located and an identified and feasible end use.

“These funded projects are transforming deteriorated structures that impede future economic development efforts into small businesses, tourism destinations and sources of community pride,” said Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick.

Governor proposes $230 million behavioral health overhaul

Describing Virginia’s current behavioral health system as in “crisis,” Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently laid out a sweeping $230 million plan to address gaps in how the state cares for adults and children facing mental health, substance abuse and other behavioral issues.

“The commonwealth’s behavioral health safety net is not equipped to address the demands that are being placed upon it,” said Youngkin.

At an occasionally emotional announcement at Henrico Doctors Hospital, the Republican governor previewed parts of a budget proposal he plans to unveil Thursday while outlining a six-point plan that his administration says will bolster Virginia’s struggling systems for providing aid to people undergoing crisis.

“Almost 1.5 million Virginians have some form of mental health challenge,” he said. “About 340,000 of those have serious mental illness. And yet six out of 10 adults with any form of mental illness did not receive any form of treatment.”

Under the “Right Help, Right Now” plan, Youngkin is proposing large investments in crisis response solutions that don’t rely on emergency rooms such as mobile units and crisis receiving centers, as well as the expansion of community-based care, initiatives to strengthen the state’s chronically understaffed behavioral health workforce and funding for substance abuse treatment efforts.

“The current behavioral health system is being overwhelmed and failing to meet the needs of Virginians in crisis with an outdated model of care that relies too heavily on hospitals,” the Youngkin administration said in a release.

‘Comprehensive continuum of care transformation’

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a practicing OB-GYN, called the proposal a “comprehensive continuum of care transformation” that offers an improvement on the General Assembly’s past “whack-a-mole” approach to behavioral health.

“We are in crisis and we all know it,” she said.

Both Democrats and Republicans will have to agree to Youngkin’s budget requests, which include $20 million for 34 new mobile crisis units, $58 million to increase the number of crisis receiving centers and crisis stabilization units statewide, $9 million to expand tele-behavioral health services in public schools and on college campuses and $9 million for transportation and in-hospital monitoring by law enforcement and other personnel.

Dunnavant said she believes the overall budget proposal will have bipartisan support but may face disagreements about the specific breakdown of dollars.

“I think the only variable will be how the money is spent,” she said.

Several Senate Democrats on Wednesday reacted positively to the announcement, with Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, saying, “We are delighted that the governor is willing to work with us on an issue that Democrats have taken the lead on for years.”

“We certainly are willing to work in a bipartisan way,” said Favola, who also serves on the Virginia Behavioral Health Commission.

The challenge, she said, would be in implementing Youngkin’s proposals, particularly with worker shortages in the field.

One solution she proposed was reform of Virginia’s laws governing barrier crimes, which prohibit many health and social services providers from hiring people with certain criminal convictions. While barrier crime laws are not unusual, Virginia’s version of the restriction is widely seen as unusually far-reaching, with 176 different convictions disqualifying applicants from working in behavioral health. Prior legislative efforts to reform the state system have failed, but Favola said she hopes the proposal could garner more support this year.

Recent struggles

Virginia’s behavioral health system has faced high-profile challenges in recent years, with a dwindling workforce that in July 2021 led to the temporary closure of five of its mental hospitals to new admissions.

The state has also struggled to meet the requirements of a 2014 “bed of last resort” law that requires state hospitals to admit patients under a temporary detention order within eight hours if a bed cannot be found at another hospital, including private facilities.

Temporary detention orders are issued by a magistrate for people undergoing a mental health crisis who officials determine have a “substantial likelihood” of causing serious physical harm to themselves or others.

The bed of last resort law was put forward by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, after his son Gus stabbed Deeds and then killed himself during a mental health crisis. State officials had been unable to find Gus Deeds a psychiatric bed.

The incident was one of several Youngkin and his wife, first lady Suzanne Youngkin, referenced Wednesday in support of the plan to overhaul the state’s behavioral health system. Both also mentioned the 2012 death of Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears’ daughter and two grandchildren in a car crash during a mental health episode Earle-Sears’ daughter was undergoing.

“There’s not a person in the room who hasn’t been touched directly with a mental or behavioral health challenge, and our family’s no different,” Youngkin told reporters after the announcement. “Lt. Gov. Earle-Sears is a very dear friend, and you all heard her story. And we have so many friends who have similar stories.”

The governor also pointed to two high-profile mass shootings at the University of Virginia and a Walmart in Chesapeake last month as examples of the need for expanded mental health resources. Following the Walmart shooting, Youngkin told reporters he intends to propose legislation during the upcoming session on the issue.

Two locals arrested in N.C. drug bust

SPARTA, N.C. — Six people — including two from Galax and Independence — have been charged after the Alleghany County (N.C.) Sheriff’s Department conducted a drug bust on Dec. 21.

According to a news release, Sheriff Bryan Maines said the roundup was held to arrest individuals involved in trafficking, selling, delivery and possession of drugs that included methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl.

“This has been an operation that targeted persons distributing narcotics in Allegany County,” Maines said.

Four of the suspects have been arrested. The sheriff’s department is still searching for two others, identified as:

• Michael Graham, 25, of Galax. He is charged with sale and delivery of meth, possession with intent to sell meth, and maintaining a vehicle to keep a controlled substance; and

• Jose Alvarado, 25, of Laurel Springs, N.C. He is charged with sale and delivery of meth, possession with intent to sell meth, selling and delivering cocaine, possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine, and maintaining a vehicle to keep a controlled substance.

The other four subjects in custody include:

• Stephen Aaron Bare, 34, of Glade Valley, N.C. He is charged with sale and delivery of meth, possession with intent to sell and deliver meth, and maintain a vehicle to keep a controlled substance.

• Michael Joseph Miller, 45, of Independence. He is charged with two counts of sale and delivery of meth, two counts of possession with intent to sell meth, and two counts of maintaining a vehicle to keep a controlled substance.

• Amanda Meredith Ratliff, 41, of Sparta, N.C. She is charged with sale and delivery of meth, possession with intent to sell meth, and maintaining a vehicle to keep a controlled substance.

• Donnie Max Sexton, 46, of Ennice, N.C. He is charged with trafficking heroin, possession with intent to sell meth and heroin, possession of a controlled substance on jail premises and misdemeanor larceny.

All four subjects are scheduled for upcoming appearances in Alleghany General District Court.

Maines added, “This operation was a great success because of the hard work and dedication of my deputies.”

He asks anyone with information on the whereabouts of the two wanted fugitives to contact the Alleghany County Sheriff’s Department at 336-372-4455.

USDA provides grants for vehicles

INDEPENDENCE — USDA Rural Development has awarded $116,600 to Grayson County to cover the purchase of four vehicles.

The funding, awarded in two grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, includes $75,000 for the purchase of two sanitation vehicles and $41,600 for the purchase of two law enforcement vehicles.

In both cases, the funding was to “replace unreliable vehicles that have high mileage and need costly repairs,” according to USDA.

Announcements applauding the funds came from Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. H. Morgan Griffith’s offices.

Warner and Kaine’s office issued a joint statement, put thusly: “We’re glad to see federal funding is headed to Grayson County... From trash collection to public safety, it’s critical that rural communities have the equipment they need to provide essential services to local residents.”

Griffith issued a statement that also lauded the funding, and said in part, “These vehicles are needed to provide public safety for the county’s residents.”