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Baseball league for children and adults with special needs creates bonds

KERNERSVILLE

A line of dark, jagged green tinged with telltale yellow and red dominated the map. The radar — or more precisely, a phone-driven weather app — flashed trouble.

As bad as the nastiness on the screen looked, the actual, God-given sky overhead was worse. Angry dark clouds, pushed by gusting winds, were rolling.

Parents who’d come from across the Southeast for a Little League regional tournament scurried for their cars. “Lightning,” muttered a harried baseball mom. “Might not play tonight.”

Yet despite the chaos, Chuck DeLuca, the one guy with arguably the most to be concerned about, seemed remarkably calm.

He’s the volunteer director of N.C. District 2’s Challenger program — baseball for special-needs children — and had poured hours into organizing an opening-night exhibition game for a couple dozen kids with physical and developmental challenges.

A welcome to town cook-out for out of state teams taking part in a weekend Little League tournament had started late, and now the weather was threatening to turn the Challenger game into a humid, muddy soup.

And yet there DeLuca stood unfazed and unbothered.

“I never worry about the weather,” he said. “In all my years, when it comes time for the kids to play baseball, it always seems to work out. The front passes, and the clouds always clear.”

Field of comfort

Little League baseball, if you’ve never had the pleasure, is a thing of beauty. For the players (and the parents who love them) it’s perhaps a last pure gasp of innocence.

Serious school work, relationships, jobs — the real world in other words — lurk in the not too distant future. But for a few glorious weeks in the tepid summertime, all of that waits for a game played without a clock.

And for the kids playing Challenger ball and their parents, there’s an extra cocooning layer of comfort and peace.

“It’s a big deal for a lot of the kids,” said Rick Weidman as he rifled through an overstuffed backpack digging out gear for his son Jacob. “It’s about the kids first, but getting to know other parents having the same experience as you is big, too.”

Challenger ball is baseball but with a few adjustments. A coach (or volunteer) pitches and kids playing the field are accompanied by a buddy. That can be a parent, an adult volunteer or as in the case Thursday night, other Little Leaguers.

The score isn’t really recorded. Nor are balls, strikes or outs. The entire object is having fun, getting a little exercise and, if all goes right, making some new friends.

Eight teams from eight states came to Kernersville over the weekend to play in the Southeast Regional Intermediate Tournament. The ominous weather put a crimp in the opening night schedule Thursday and sent several teams scurrying for their hotels.

But most of the two dozen or so Challenger players waited it out. After the clouds had passed just as DeLuca said, a team of 11- and 12-year-old boys from Birmingham stepped up to play with and against the Challengers.

“This was the event for us tonight,” said coach Adam Stacey of the Alabama team while eating a box of PDQ chicken fingers in short right field. “It wasn’t about the food.”

Indeed, the Alabama kids looked as if they were having as much fun, if not more, than the local kids. Smiles, laughter and cutting up was the order of the night.

“Hey guys, give ’em high fives when they come by,” Stacey offered in his best coaching voice.

“Our boys really wanted to participate in this.”

‘It’s like networking’

A few feet away, Phil Nelson of Winston-Salem nodded in agreement while listening to the conversation.

He pointed to his son, 29-year-old Craig Nelson, nearly lost in a small sea of his Challenger teammates as Craig waited his turn to bat.

“There, with glasses and the gray shirt,” Phil said. “The sports part, he doesn’t care about. He likes the social part of it.”

Unlike traditional Little League, there are no age limits for Challenger players. Any young person interested in playing is welcome to participate for as long as they want.

And that explains Craig, sweaty and all smiles as he shook hands and chatted up anyone within arm’s reach. He talked up his beloved Demon Deacons with coach Stacey and radiated friendliness.

“He’s never met a stranger,” Phil said, stating the obvious. “He’s been involved since he was 6 years old. He loves it.”

With no prompting and without intending to, Nelson spoke to the value of Challenger baseball for the parents, just as Weidman had done. It’s important and the connections matter.

“It’s not like there’s a special needs child on every block,” he said. “For lack of a better term, it’s like networking.”

From short right field, the scene was something to behold. The kids from Alabama seemed to be having as much fun as the Challenger team.

They got it.

Maybe, just maybe, the tide has turned. Online videos go viral all the time showing kids standing tall to lunchroom bullies.

Seen the one of an entire high-school graduating class standing stock still and silent out of respect for an autistic classmate who can’t tolerate loud noise? Get a little dust in your eyes, too?

Maybe it’s just perception that’s making me think kids today are more tolerant and accepting of differences.

Or maybe such things as the Little League Challenger division are really making a difference.


Z-no-digital
137 jobs are still on the line in Winston-Salem. But the nation’s largest employer of the blind is fighting court rulings

A group of 47 workers at IFB Solutions Inc. have a 15-day extension on their employment. There’s no guarantee, however, that they or 90 of their co-workers facing similar situations, will keep their jobs thereafter.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has informed Winston-Salem’s IFB that it will extend one of three federal contracts it has with the company until Aug. 15. The contract in question had been set to expire at midnight Tuesday.

The other two contracts are set to end Sept. 30 and Oct. 31. The IFB optical lab’s remaining workforce — 90 jobs — would be cut if extensions for those contracts are not granted.

IFB officials said their lobbying effort in Congress to preserve and extend all three contracts has yet to bear fruit.

The contracts provide work for IFB’s optical laboratories. They affect 137 of IFB’s 556 local jobs, including 76 employees who are blind and 15 who are military veterans.

IFB has been providing prescription eyewear to the VA since the late 1990s. The Winston-Salem company is the largest employer of the blind in the United States, with about 1,000 employees overall.

The work for the VA means $15.4 million in annual revenue for the nonprofit group, formerly known as Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind Inc. That represents nearly 20% of IFB’s total revenue.

“This brief extension gives us additional time to find possible positions within our organization for those 47 affected employees,” said David Horton, IFB’s chief executive.

“However, it is not the outcome we had hoped for, as we believe the VA should not be taking business away from AbilityOne nonprofits like IFB Solutions, who provide life-changing jobs for people who are blind or visually impaired.”

The American Federation for the Blind said the U.S. unemployment rate is about 75% for the 4 million Americans who are completely or partially blind.

For nearly three years, IFB has been attempting to preserve its laboratories’ status as a mandatory source for the VA’s eyeglass manufacturing — meaning the VA was required to contract with IFB for the work.

“The VA is about 97% of the production we have with our optical portfolio,” said Dan Kelly, IFB’s chief operating officer, who is blind.

IFB stands to lose its contracts after legal rulings in federal appellate court. Judges ruled on the side of a disabled veteran-owned optical business, PDS Consultants of Sparta, N.J., that has provided visual products to the VA since 1998.

The company claimed in court that, based on a U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the federal Veterans Benefits Act of 2006, businesses owned by disabled veterans should have top priority in getting government contracts. That interpretation of the law would require the VA to choose PDS as its eyeglass-maker instead of IFB.

The November and May rulings represented a defeat for the AbilityOne program, which has provided federal government contracts for groups that employ the blind or severely disabled.

Horton and IFB optical lab employee Scott Smith met with members of Congress last week, including U.S. Reps. Virginia Foxx and Mark Walker and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, all Republicans representing North Carolina.

“We do not believe that Congress ever intended to benefit veteran-owned small businesses at the expense of people who are blind or severely disabled,” Kelly said. “There is plenty of business for both veteran-owned small businesses and AbilityOne nonprofits, many of whom, like IFB Solutions, also employ a significant number of veterans.”

IFB plans to file a petition by September to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal.

A decision could come in November on whether the Supreme Court accepts the appeal. If it does, it likely could take 18 to 24 months for a decision.

“We plan to pursue all available legal and legislative options to get this issue resolved,” Horton said.

Foxx said in a statement Friday that “while visiting the Industries for the Blind Solutions facility in Winston-Salem, I’ve seen the great output and incredible impact that this business has on the livelihoods of differently-abled individuals in the community.”

“It is very unfortunate to see that two procurement programs that Congress intended to be complementary have been interpreted by courts as competing against each other, especially when the jobs of veterans and others who have been using the AbilityOne program for 80 years are at stake,” Foxx said.

“While the courts have limited (the secretary of veterans affairs’) influence over the issue, I’m keeping open channels of communication with industry stakeholders and the VA to find a fix,” Foxx said. “The procurement process shouldn’t be a zero-sum game for beneficiaries of the AbilityOne program and the Veterans First Contracting program.”


Walt Unks/Journal  

Andre Woods and Nancy Rosa Gonzalez prepare lenses Tuesday for polishing in the optical department at IFB Solutions in Winston-Salem.


Business
Shareholders OK 'Truist' name, BB&T-SunTrust merger by wide margin

GREENSBORO — BB&T Corp.’s $29.7 billion purchase of SunTrust Banks Inc. received near unanimous approval Tuesday from both banks’ shareholders.

About 98% of 694.1 million outstanding shares cast at BB&T’s special shareholder meeting approved merging the two banks into a financial institution valued at $65.9 billion. There were 579.42 million shares voted for, 6.51 million against and 105.39 million broker non-votes.

About 90.6% of all outstanding BB&T shares were represented in the vote.

Shareholders voted at almost the same level — 96% — to approve making Truist Financial Corp. the corporate name of the combined bank. That broke down to 662.07 million in favor and 26.85 million against. There were no broker non-votes on the name change.

Meanwhile, SunTrust reported 98.9% of its shares cast were voted in favor of the merger.

As a result, the banks have cleared two of the three main regulatory hurdles toward closing their megadeal in late September to early October.

The banks gained approval from the N.C. Commissioner of Banks on July 10. They await reviews from the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The combined bank would have its headquarters in Charlotte, with its community-banking division based in Winston-Salem and its wholesale-banking division in Atlanta. It would have a presence in 17 states, stretching from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to Texas, but foremost in the Southeast.

It would be the banking industry’s largest deal since the Great Recession of 2008-11. It could take another 12 to 24 months to integrate the operating systems, including branch networks.

However, depending on the level of congressional and federal regulatory scrutiny about whether Truist falls into the too-big-too-fail category, approval might not be until early 2020, analysts say.

The banks did not provide an update on branding plans.

“We’re very pleased BB&T shareholders have overwhelmingly supported both the merger of equals with SunTrust and the new Truist name,” said Kelly King, BB&T’s chairman and chief executive. “This is an important milestone as we move toward our goal of creating a bold, transformative organization that benefits our shareholders, associates, clients and communities.”

If the merger is allowed to go through, King would be the combined bank’s chairman and chief executive through Sept. 12, 2021 — his 73rd birthday. King then would become executive chairman for six months before stepping down from that role on March 12, 2022.

William Rogers Sr., SunTrust’s chairman and chief executive, would succeed King as both CEO and chairman when King retires.

After Tuesday’s shareholder meeting, BB&T’s board of directors declared a quarterly common stock cash dividend of 45 cents a share, up 4½ cents. The dividend is payable Sept. 3, to shareholders registered as of Aug. 14.

‘Doing fine’

Before the shareholder vote was tallied, King provided more insight into why he thinks combining BB&T and SunTrust makes sense.

“Both companies are doing fine in every economic factor,” he said. “But the world is changing at blinding speed ... following a paradigm shift of about 10 years ago.”

For decades, banks felt their best way to compete was through direct contract with customers in the branch.

“Now, technology has moved from the back office to the front room,” King said. To gain a high level of customer trust, customer touch and technology must work together, he said.

“That’s why we’re doing this merger,” King said. “We’re not large enough alone” at $225 billion in BB&T total assets and $217 billion in SunTrust total assets to compete with the four, $2 trillion national banks — JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup and Wells Fargo & Co.

Even at $442 billion in total assets, Truist still would be less than 25% of the asset size of the national banks. King said Truist would have about 3% of the national asset totals.

Bank of America and Wells Fargo are entrenched competitors with BB&T and SunTrust in the Southeast, while JPMorgan is opening branches in the Triangle.

King said about 40% of Generation X to millennials are customers of one of the four national banks, which “are spending billions of dollars telling everyone they have all the technology bank customers need.”

“For many, that perception is their reality,” King said. “We need (the technological) scale to go toe-to-toe in our markets, and this merger will give us that.”

The merger represents the “ultimate rollout” of the “disrupt or die/disrupt and thrive” philosophy that has become a BB&T mantra for the past two years, King said.

The initiative has focused on pouring resources into the bank’s digital platform and information-technology network, downsizing the brick-and-mortar branch footprint, increasing spending on the community-bank unit, and relying on organic growth and flat expenses.

The bank has been investing much of the cost savings into its digital platform “U by BB&T” and embracing artificial intelligence and financial algorithms.

The combined bank would have an innovation and technology center as part of its Charlotte headquarters presence “to drive digital transformation.” Plans call for the combined bank to spend at least $100 million on the digital initiative.

“Our best path forward is to align with a partner that values a purpose-driven approach, sound risk management and leading technology,” Rogers said Tuesday.

Track record cited

BB&T shareholder Larry Kingsley was a board member of Southern National Corp. of Winston-Salem when it was sold in 1995 to BB&T, then based in Wilson, in a $2.2 billion seminal merger of equals.

Kingsley said BB&T and SunTrust’s similar socio-economic cultures and overwhelming success with banks purchased gives him confidence in the planned Truist.

“There is room for a bank the size of what Truist will become to compete with the national banks,” Kingsley said. “If they continue to provide the same level of quality services and continue to make the same positive impacts into their communities, I believe they will be very competitive in their markets.”


Business
Cooper signs bill allowing dogs and cats to be inside N.C. breweries that don't prepare food

Dogs and cats will be welcome again at North Carolina breweries starting Sept. 1 under a bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Roy Cooper.

However, breweries will have to take a step before allowing owners to bring their four-legged friends inside.

Since late 2018, the Forsyth County Department of Public Health has stepped up enforcement — primarily because of customer complaints — of a state food code that bars pets from craft breweries and taprooms. The law had been on the books for several years but was largely unenforced.

Even though they often don’t have kitchens, craft breweries, taprooms, public bars and ale houses have been included in the food-services code that applies to restaurants, meaning the same rules apply to both.

Currently, neither dogs nor cats are allowed inside any establishment that is required to get a permit from its local health department or that serves drinks in glasses that are washed and reused. In order to allow dogs and cats inside, disposable cups have to be used.

The N.C. General Assembly combined Senate Bill 290 and House Bill 536, which deal with alcoholic-beverage regulations, to create an exemption for breweries if the brewery “is not engaged in the preparation of food on the premises. ... The term ‘food’ does not include beverages.”

“The state is currently working on a position statement for this bill,” said Joshua Swift, Forsyth County’s health director. “Facilities currently under our regulation would continue as is and would not allow dogs back in bars if they chose to maintain their permit.

“However, if currently regulated facilities meet the definition of a ‘brewery’ and do not prepare food on the premises,” Swift said, “they could request the permit to be revoked and the facility would be exempt from our regulation, allowing dogs (and cats) wherever they want.”

Dan Rossow, the taproom manager for Wise Man Brewing on North Main Street in downtown Winston-Salem, said Tuesday that “we look forward to welcoming dogs back into our taproom on Sept. 1, though we are in the process of developing a list of rules to make sure that their reintroduction into our space goes as smoothly as possible.”

SB290 also gives distilleries the same serving privileges as wineries and craft breweries, while reducing regulation on out-of-state sales.

“Distilleries are expanding North Carolina’s reputation for craftsmanship and drawing visitors to cities and towns across our state,” Cooper said in a statement. “This bill will help small businesses continue to thrive.”

The state food code was amended by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2016 to allow dogs and cats to be outside, such as on patios and in beer gardens, as long as they are on leashes.

In February, Wise Man began circulating a petition on www.change.org to get the law changed. That petition got at least 500 signatures and was sent to local governments in Forsyth and Guilford counties.

The petition said the regulation treating “non-food-serving breweries and taprooms as restaurants is inadequate and inappropriate.”

Rossow said it’s not financially feasible for the business to use single-use beverage containers.

“This regulation leads to the unintended consequence of barring well-behaving and previously welcomed canines from these establishments,” the petition continued. “This petition simply asks to lift the regulation barring animals inside the premises of non-food-serving taprooms, and to be enforced at the discretion of taproom management.”

Jamie Bartholomaus, a co-owner and the president of Foothills Brewing Co. in Winston-Salem, said Tuesday that Foothills’ restaurant policy will not change.

“We will likely allow dogs in some capacity in our tasting room, and certainly on our patio as always,” Bartholomaus said.

Foothills’ downtown brewpub on West Fourth Street has an extensive menu. Its tasting room and main brewery are on Kimwell Drive, off of South Stratford Road.

Service animals and police dogs are exempt from the rule and allowed inside all establishments.

There are concerns that creating an exemption for craft breweries in the state food code could open the door to restaurants and other food outlets requesting that animals be allowed within indoor-dining areas.