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Staff Editorials

Coat drive donations making a difference

    If anyone wants your shirt give them your coat also, Jesus advises in the New Testament.
    The Rev. Joe Betts doesn’t ask that much for the second annual Holy Spirit Ranch/Pickens Progress winter coat drive, which runs through November 21st.
    All he asks on behalf of the poor are for those coats (heavy, winter materials) that you never wear. Those coats in your closet taking up space that are too tight, out-of-style or you just don’t like.
    Last year, some of our Progress readers gave new winter coats apparently purchased just for the coat drive, which brought Betts’ wife to tears over people showing that kindness.
    But Rev. Betts is only asking for what you don’t use that might keep someone else warm this winter.
    For years, Betts, who works out of the Holy Spirit     Ranch office in the Grandview area, has ministered to the poor and homeless in public parks in the metro area. More than just delivering weekly messages, Betts and his wife, plus the volunteers with Holy Spirit, have worked to help find shelter, food, jobs and a chance to improve the lives of people who end up homeless. They have counseled and been friends to people living on the streets.
    Keeping warm when you stay outside most all day is a challenge. And if you are ever in the city during winter, you know the cold that comes from the asphalt and concrete and steel  goes right through what you are wearing. Imagine, not having anywhere to get out of that?
    Particular to the homeless is having whatever coat you own stolen or lost, or thrown away if you leave it in the wrong place or with the wrong people.
    This winter is shaping up to be cold. This weekend is predicted to be freezing and it’s not even Thanksgiving.
    Thanks to the generosity of Progress readers, a lot of people will be a lot better able to withstand the freezing weather –especially considering they live in substandard housing or on the streets in the metro area. Two loads of coats and blankets from this drive have already been picked up by the Holy Spirit people.
    Pastor Betts said the first load of donated coats came at a good time as he had people lining up at his Sunday services in Piedmont Park wanting the garments, plus blankets.
    So far, the “As Long As It’s Warm” coat drive has produced 56 heavy coats; 23 jackets/hoodies; plus a good number of blankets, scarves, hats and gloves. We could use more before the coat drive ends November 21st.
    Betts said they have checked locally and haven’t found a big need for coats here, but first priority remains Pickens County residents. Betts said he believes from groups like the Thrift Store and area churches most local people are covered. If anyone knows of a local need call Holy Spirit Ranch at 770-826-0203.
    The coats not used in Atlanta are delivered by the Holy Spirit Ranch during mission trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where they are trying to plant a church.
    It is unbelievable how much difference the coats people here never wear can make to people in both Atlanta and South Dakota, who will most assuredly put them to immediate use. Check your closets for this drive, it really does help. For more information look for a full-page ad elsewhere in this issue.   

Americans take too many drugs

Ceremonies and events held in Pickens County in observance of Red Ribbon Week were poignant reminders of how drug abuse and addiction can destroy lives. 

You could hear a pin drop as the mother of a boy who overdosed on prescription painkillers recounted her experience to PHS students –a tragic story being told across the country as painkiller abuse has reached epidemic levels. 

Now reports are emerging about a rise in heroin use as a cheaper alternative to opioid painkillers (synthetic heroin), while the failed four-decade-long “War on Drugs” hasn’t put a dent in illicit drug use. According to a New York Times report from 2012 hard drug use has remained stable over the last 20 years, with “consumption habits moving from one drug to another according to fashion and ease of purchase.”  

The Red Ribbon Campaign focuses on communication between parents and children about drug abuse and encourages citizens to make a pledge to be part of the “creation of a drug-free America” - but with studies showing that retail sales of legal prescription medications has doubled since 2000 we’d like to point out that America is even further away from being “drug-free” than you may have thought. America suffers from an epidemic of overmedication that we’d argue is also seriously harmful to the nation’s health and economy. 

According to a study released by IMS Health in April, total dollars spent on medications in the U.S. reached $329.2 billion in 2013 (that’s just shy of Denmark’s entire GDP for the same year). This staggering figure was up 3.2 percent from 2012 and nearly double from the $172 billion spent in 2001. 

A study released by the Mayo Clinic in June 2013 found that seven out of 10 Americans are on a prescription drug and more than half receive at least two prescriptions. Twenty percent of U.S. patients are on five or more medications.

We blame in part pharmaceutical companies’ increased use of direct-to-consumer advertising (all those commercials that encourage us to “ask our doctor” if certain drugs are “right for us”), which has more than tripled since the 90s, with drug companies now spending far more on marketing and promotion of their drugs than they do research and development. A Pew report found that in 2012, “the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $27 billion on drug promotion— more than $24 billion on marketing to physicians and over $3 billion on advertising to consumers. This approach is designed to promote drug companies' products by influencing doctors' prescribing practices.”

Drug manufacturers - many of which have been put on the AllBusiness.com’s “Top 100 Corporate Criminals” list for fraud, cover-ups of fatal side effects, doctor kickbacks and other egregious acts - are raking in obscene profits while the health of the American public remains unenviable. In 2013 the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council found that, despite us being the most medicated country in the world, Americans live shorter lives and are in poorer health than other affluent countries. 

Then there are the health problems created from an overabundance of prescription medications - from prescription narcotics abuse, antibiotic-resistant germs and accidental deaths and illness from prescription side effects.

We’re not negating the value of advancements in medicine and we value prescription drugs for their ability to provide better quality of life for serious diseases like cancer, critical care and terminal patients. In an NPR interview Psychiatrist Dr. Sophia Vinogradov pointed out, for example, drugs for schizophrenia were once “draconian” but are now providing relief for that population.        

"Wrapping them in wet towels, locking them in a padded cell, frontal lobotomies if the behavior was really out of control," she says. "So when anti-psychotic medications did evolve and they did reduce psychotic symptoms, it was like the heavens had opened."

We get that. But for the treatment of more common health problems prescription drugs shouldn’t always be the go-to. This approach will require a change in mindset. Doctors and patients must become more knowledgeable  about health options and must place a stronger emphasis on prevention. 

Choco-lypse and the lure of the office candy bag

    The office candy bag -- every Tuesday afternoon as we are proofing page after page of type and staring down yet another weekly deadline -- it calls our names. Just a small break in focus and we’re out of our seats heading to the front office where the stash is not-so-well hidden.
    And this time of year with Halloween just around the corner it’s always full. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, Butterfingers, Hershey’s Kisses. Sometimes even a decadent Lindor truffle will find its way into the bag.
    Periodically we’ll find the bag empty but there’s usually a back up hidden in someone’s drawer for such emergencies.
    We love chocolate. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate with nuts and chocolate without nuts. The best, of course, is chocolate with peanut butter or caramel. You get the picture.
    We love it but we hate it too, every time we head for the bag our rational self tells us we should avoid it like a Dallas hospital. It’s not good for us, too many calories wasted on too little food. Yet that rationale doesn’t stop us.
    At our office we’ve tried threatening the chocolate purchaser, saying things like, “We  will refuse to finish this week’s paper unless you stop buying that chocolate.” At least that’s what we said in our heads. What we said out loud was more along the lines of: “We refuse to work unless there are chocolate treats in that bag at 2 p.m. every Tuesday.”
    You see the dilemma.
    From babies to newspaper workers, no one likes to have chocolate taken from them.         We could try to move the  big bag of chocolate farther away from us, out of view because when it’s within easy reach - not far from our keyboards for instance - studies show people eat an average of nine pieces of candy per day. Nine pieces! Take that Michelle Obama with your healthy-eating advocacy.
    Put the chocolate in a desk drawer (with a Master lock on it, perhaps) and that cuts consumption to an average of three pieces per day - four pieces once you’ve figured out the combination.
    Halloween generates $2.5 billion in candy sales and we’re betting our office, despite the news staff cravings, is only responsible for a fraction of that figure.
    Sure there are scientific reasons we want chocolate. When our ancestors (who didn’t have a Walgreens on every corner to procure said chocolate) didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, it was smart to eat high fat and high calorie foods. As a result, our brains now reinforce and reward this way of eating. It’s genetic that we have a need for chocolate every Tuesday afternoon. And the disappointment that is felt every time a certain member of our staff reaches for chocolate in the bag only to find three Jolly Ranchers left is felt throughout the office.
    Just the sight of chocolate can make us smile. And we’re not alone. A recent British survey found that 60 percent of women ranked chocolate as the most smile-worthy experience, edging out loved ones and other smiling people. (The top pick for men was a “Sunday roast”).
    And backed by hardcore findings like those from UC San Diego, which found adults who ate chocolate on more days a week were actually thinner  than those who ate chocolate less often, we feel justified in demanding a full chocolate bag to get us through deadlines.
    We, like Bridget Jones and the ancient Incas, crave chocolate because it tastes good, it smells good and it raises our spirits - at least long enough to finish proofing page 20A.   
    So this Halloween we’re going to chock up our chocolate cravings to genetics and not a lack of willpower. Remember, nine out of 10 people admit to loving chocolate. And the 10th lied.

The changing relationship of kids and bikes

    Last week a staff member saw two boys, maybe 11 years old, riding their bikes alone on Refuge Road near Roper Park. Not too long ago it would have seemed ridiculous to ask if allowing this would be considered neglect on the parents’ part because kids rode around by themselves all the time - but in today’s world an unsupervised child on a bicycle is something you rarely see. 
    According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 1969 about half of all students walked or bicycled to school, and 88 percent of students who lived one mile from school walked or biked. Today fewer than 15 percent of school trips are made those ways; one-quarter are made on a school bus and over half in private automobiles. And we’re willing to bet the percentage of kids who bike or walk to school in Pickens is less than 5 percent.
    In his book Manhood For Amateurs Michael Chabon laments the loss of what he calls the “Wilderness of Childhood,” a place where kids rode bikes all the time. He describes his own childhood as a “freedom that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible,” then talks about the irony of teaching his own daughter to ride her bike.
    “Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it,” Chabon writes, “nowhere that I was willing to let her go.”
    He then describes wandering around the neighborhood with his daughter at “that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood,” and not encountering a single other child.    
    “Even if I do send [my kids] out, will there be anyone to play with?” he asks.
    We would argue that today’s 11-year-old is genetically no different from an 11-year-old raised in the 70s, and that today’s kid has the ability to do the same things as the kid raised 30 years ago. So what’s changed?
    David Darlington, author of the Bicycle article “Why Johnny Can’t Ride,” says modern parents are worried about two things: traffic dangers and abductions. He also says broad cultural changes have made an impact.
     “There's a difference today, it seems, between recreation and transportation,” Darlington told an NPR reporter.  “A lot of kids still ride bikes, but they kind of do it with their parents on the weekend for fun. The idea of actually using a bicycle to get somewhere is alien to them.”
    Darlington cites kids spending more time in front of screens over outdoor play as well as suburban sprawl - today’s schools are bigger and are built further from the center of town.
    We’re excited to hear about the Department of Transportation program called Federal Safe Routes to School that encourages communities to make walking and bicycling to school a safe and routine activity again by providing funding for things like safer street crossings.
    But the truth is most of Pickens just isn’t conducive to kids riding bikes to school. The thought of an 11-year-old bicycling on Highway 53 West to get to class is definitely frightening, and much of Pickens’ landscape is so hilly it would be too difficult to ride on (even for most adults).  
    But what about Jasper where the two boys were spotted last week? The addition of a few sidewalks – say a sidewalk from downtown to Ingles and from downtown to Roper Park - would connect the city to other high traffic areas and encourage more walking and biking.
    It’s a crime that a kid living in the city limits doesn’t have a safe sidewalk to the county park.  
    (We realize the city has said it will use SPLOST monies for sidewalk improvements and we hope they come to fruition. We also know about the state’s plan to revamp Highway 53 East from downtown to Highway 515, but the project has been pushed back so many times we’re not counting on it anytime soon.)
    Just like Chabon it makes us sad to think about the freedoms we had that our children don’t - and while not sure if we’d let our own kids do it, knowing those two boys were able to experience it on their bikes one sunny afternoon makes us smile.    

Open government means open discussion

As our county commissioners ponder whether or not to allow public comments during budget hearings, we would like to encourage them to be proactive and hear what people have to say before budgets are officially set. This type of open government sets a good and much needed precedent for all local governments and gives the citizens a chance for input on the front side of issues. 

Having attended school board, city council, and county commission meetings for the better part of 20 years our Progress staff can attest that with the exception of a couple of times each year when the budget - already practically set in stone - is presented, few members of the rank-and-file attend government meetings. 

And we understand why. Attending a meeting which strictly adheres to agendas where department heads present proposals that are voted on without much discussion can make regular citizens feel like fish out of water. Not only does it foster a sense of helplessness, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who wants to voice their opinion. 

While open meeting laws give the public the right to attend meetings of government, public comment is subject to limitations. For instance, the school board gives citizens, if properly approved on the agenda ahead of time, five minutes to let board members know of their concerns. Board members are not required to (and rarely) respond to anyone making comments. This leaves people feeling their thoughts have fallen on deaf ears because the board members don’t say anything besides a formal “thank you for your comments.” 

Attendees at a Jasper City Council meeting are more likely to be recognized from the floor without any prior protocol. The county’s planning commission has a sign-in at the time of the meetings for comments and typically allows ample back-and-forth. 

Allowing comments at the county’s less formal public hearings on the budget would allow commissioners to know the concerns of the citizenry.

We ask the commissioners to consider the long tradition of public debate in this country, when establishing future policies. Think of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, a meeting hall since 1742, where Samuel Adams and other famous patriots lead cries of protest against the imposition of taxes on the colonies. Those boisterous meetings led to the Boston Tea Party, which led to this country’s independence.

When parents or property owners or students attend modern meetings, they are carrying on a noble tradition of open government and should be given a chance to be heard. 

We don’t want officials besieged by a barrage of comments that don’t have any bearing on the topic at hand but government officials serve the public and the people they serve should be given an opportunity to speak in a public forum. 

Anything less would be contrary to the spirit of this nation.