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Stories from 2019 that will warm your heart

Less than a year after Amelia Jacobs put her for-profit business on hold to crochet scarves for those in need and deliver them to the streets of Tulsa under cover of darkness, she hasn’t stopped.

In fact, the operation has grown more than she could have imagined. The Tulsa World first told readers about Jacobs in January, one of the many feel-good stories we featured over the past year.

“It’s one of those things that whenever you do it, you continue to want to do it,” Jacobs said.

Even when summer came.

“We couldn’t just walk past people and not give them anything,” Jacobs said, referring to how she and nextdoor neighbor Rebecca Marshall passed out donated T-shirts along with snacks and water to homeless people they met.

The operation picked up immensely after Marshall put out a request on social media for donations of yarn, food, water and various clothing items, and Jacobs now has so many women crocheting her infinity scarf pattern for her, she is almost not needed.

The women crocheted all summer long, some with a tighter stitch than she does, Jacobs said, but that only opened the door to leaving bags of scarves, mittens and gloves for underprivileged children outside schools.

A donation of goods from American Airlines employees even allowed her to place a book in some of the bags, Jacobs said. And although she’s nervous to admit it, her goal for 2020 is to hang the bags outside every elementary school.

Her passion for homeless Tulsans remains, and for the time being, the need remains, as well. She and Marshall continue to monitor their weather apps and descend on the streets when unfavorable conditions prevail.

“It’s funny because people are like, ‘Haven’t you handed out enough?’ ” Jacobs said. “But we still see new people.”

Here are some of the other stories we hope made you smile from the past year:

Generosity taught a homeless man ‘what true love is all about’

After seven years in and out of homelessness, Charles Ireland’s luck changed when he ran into his former boss. He had worked for Bill Farr about 10 years earlier at First Maintenance Co. and he asked Farr to rehire him.

“You’re a great worker,” Farr replied, and told him if he would get in his car right then and could pass a drug test, Farr would put him to work. Ireland was clean.

“I just felt compelled in my heart to help him,” Farr said. He got Ireland an apartment, paid all the deposits, got him clothes and some furnishings, and even regularly drove him to and from work.

“He paid me the highest compliment that he could’ve paid me,” Farr says of Ireland, who told him: “For the first time in many, many, many years, I see what true love is all about.”

A Japanese flag from World War II is returned to the family of a fallen warrior

When Chris Armstrong’s late father, World War II veteran Lowell Armstrong of Tulsa, arrived home in 1945, a Japanese flag was among the items he brought with him.

“Unfortunately, we never thought to ask my dad about it — how he came into possession of the flag or anything,” Armstrong said.

More than 70 years later, the mystery behind it was cleared up, at least in part, which made possible a gesture that the late veteran’s family is certain he would support.

A formal ceremony was held in February in Japan, and the aging flag was officially returned to the survivors of the fallen Japanese serviceman who once carried it, Masashi Ito, who was killed at Iwo Jima in March 1945.

Chris’ brother, Steve, was thrilled that his nephew, Lowell, a Jenks High School graduate and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, was able to participate in the return. Lowell is his grandfather’s namesake and was already in the region.

Tulsa officer risks his safety to stay with young mom pinned in burning vehicle Detective Chad Moyer crawled under the bed of a flipped pickup moments after it had been struck by a sport utility vehicle.

The pickup caught fire with two people pinned inside, but Moyer was holding Justice Wilson’s hand and wouldn’t leave.

“I just jumped in there and started talking to her, trying to get her to calm down. I guess the truck was on fire or caught on fire at some point,” Moyer said.

Wilson, a young mom who was partially ejected, asked Moyer to stay with her, and he refused to get out from under the pickup even after firefighters arrived. They instead worked around him.

“If it was my kid, I would hope that somebody would do that,” Moyer said. “I didn’t really do anything other than just be there with her.”

Rejoice Christian lineman doesn’t need sight to be a visionary

When Will Lambley first noticed his fuzzy eyesight, there was no way he could have known he was about to embark on a journey to doctors’ offices that would end with a diagnosis of LHON, a disease where optic nerve cells die and the central vision is impaired to the point you are legally blind.

“It’s called Leber hereditary optic neuropathy,” Will said. “I’m one in 50,000 people.”

At 17, he can no longer drive or play baseball, his first sports love. But he’s not dwelling on his diagnosis. He’s adjusting. This past season, he played nose guard with the Rejoice football team.

“I still get mad at times, say some things I shouldn’t,” he said. “I think ‘What if?’ But I also know God gave me this for a reason.

“The people in my life, it’s hard not to be happy.”

“We wanted to be an outlet for him. He was dealing with so much,” Rejoice football coach Brent Marley said. “We talked as a staff and thought, ‘Well we could move him to nose on the defensive line and put him right over the football.’

“There’s a lot of people running around with sight, everything is fine, and yet they have no vision. Here, you have a young man who has lost a major part of his sight. But you can see his conviction. He has vision.”

Nurses photograph ‘preemies’ to surprise parents with handmade cards

For new mom Chelsea Gibbons, it wasn’t just their expressions that moved her to tears, it was the fact she could see the three tiny faces at all.

“That was the first time we really saw what they looked like,” Gibbons said of the photo of her premature triplets, which was part of a handmade Easter card she and her husband, Josh, received from the babies’ nurses.

Handmade greeting cards featuring photos and footprints of babies, a tradition started by night-shift nurses at the Hillcrest NICU, have been presented to parents on select holidays for several years.

Registered nurse Reagan Robertson, who does the photography, said: “It’s something we can give these parents. They are not getting that holiday experience at home. They’re not getting that picture with Mom on Mother’s Day, or with Santa or the Easter Bunny on those holidays.”

Kids at lemonade stand in north Tulsa won’t give up after theftThe day after a thief snatched their hard-earned money, three boys in north Tulsa decided to keep their lemonade stand open for business.

“If he saw that we stopped, he’d think he got the best of us,” said Ty’Relle White, 12.

Ty’Relle is one of three “founders” who opened the lemonade stand this past summer. The others, little brother Sedrick White II, 9, and longtime friend Alex Johnson, 12, were among those working at the stand when an adult customer took off with their hard-earned cash.

After a police report, plenty of Tulsa police officers went to check on the boys and buy a drink or two, and as the word spread, community members showed up, as well.

Even before the support, Ty’Relle said the trio decided to keep their stand open to serve as an example for other entrepreneurs who might face trials.

“We don’t want nobody else to get robbed and then quit,” he said. “We want them to keep going.”

The man police say is responsible was arrested about two months later.

Progress dominoes in long-troubled neighborhood thanks to community resource officer The first month or two in Hope Valley brought some chilly receptions for Tulsa police Officer Donnie Johnson.

But the community resource officer used his passion for dominoes and people to break the ice with residents.

Johnson plays football and volleyball with the kids, and he has coupons to QuikTrip for free meals he can pass out. He builds relationships with business owners who learn they can call on him if they experience troubles, and he has changed some lives with nothing more than upfront conversation.

His grant-driven goal is to improve community relations as an avenue toward crime reduction and an increase of trust in police officers. Over the summer, grant researchers said data point to Savanna Landing as a lesson in how to reclaim a neighborhood from crime.

“It’s going to take the community to step up and volunteer and do group activities together as a whole and just love on each other,” Johnson said. “To me, that’s what has to be done to be sustainable moving forward.”

Tulsa Police Department patrols the reading room in new programTulsa Police Officer Tiffany Sappington guides children through underwater adventures, llama growing pains and whether to eat green eggs and ham weekly.

It’s all in books.

The Tulsa Police Reading Patrol program, a partnership with the Police Department and the Tulsa Crime Prevention Network that began this year, is meant to give children a chance to spend time with police officers outside of emergency calls, as well as help negate the high frequency of trauma officers are exposed to.

The ultimate goal of the program is to promote reading and interactions between children and law enforcers in “a safe and welcoming environment,” said Karen Gilbert, Tulsa Crime Prevention Network executive director.

“Growing up, I didn’t have the best home life,” Sappington said. “We had our fair share of struggles, and my escape from that was reading.”

Perry WWII veteran who died without survivors honored by community, state leaders

When Perry WWII veteran Herman White died with no known survivors, his funeral home reached out to the community.

They responded in droves: Residents, state legislators, fellow veterans and a strong contingent of white-uniformed Navy personnel from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, all who were strangers to White.

He was a quiet, private man, who never divulged much about himself, and his wife, Evelyn, and son, Mickey, died before him.

Although he’d reserved a plot next to his wife and son, he made no arrangements for funeral and burial expenses. He donated his home and possessions to the First Baptist Church.

For everyone who gathered to bid him goodbye — whether they knew a little about him or, more likely, nothing at all — that wasn’t important.

The only thing that mattered, as Perry resident Ervin Bier put it, was “he was a veteran.”


Education
From Epic to school closings and teacher pay raises. Here were the noteworthy Oklahoma education stories in 2019

News coverage of public education issues in Oklahoma reached a fever pitch during 2018’s statewide teacher walkout, but 2019 brought with it plenty of fodder for the news cycle.

Epic Charter Schools became a household name amid the revelation that the state’s online school juggernaut was under investigation by state and federal law enforcement officials.

Tulsa Public Schools closed a handful of north Tulsa schools and replaced them with two new schools in the first half of the year, and then turned around in the second half of the year and announced a $20 million budget right-sizing campaign that promises more school closures in the new year.

The 2019 calendar also saw the Oklahoma State Board of Education taking the rare measures of forcing the closure of a charter school and forcing the consolidation of an entire school district.

It was also the year Oklahoma broke its longtime, rock-bottom teacher pay ranking and moved up to 34th nationally.

Here’s a look back at some of the other headline-grabbing education stories in 2019.

Forced closure of a Tulsa charter school

In January, the state Board of Education ordered that Langston Hughes Academy for Arts and Technology, 1821 E. 66th St. North, be closed by June 30, citing ongoing compliance issues and new student safety concerns.

The charter school, sponsored by Langston University, had been on probation since summer 2018. State accreditation officers raised new questions about the truthfulness of the school’s student counts, its compliance with federal laws that dictate how special education students must be served and corroboration of a school resource officer’s claims about the school not completing required criminal background checks on employees.

Epic Charter Schools investigation

In February, Tulsa World reporting revealed to the public for the first time that state and federal law enforcement officials have been probing student enrollment practices and finances at Epic Charter Schools.

Epic’s advertising and marketing efforts to children, parents and potential new hires persisted and the school’s overall enrollment was up to a record 28,070, as of the official state count on Oct. 1.

Epic recently sued a state senator for slander and libel over statements he reportedly made while questioning the school’s student attendance practices.

A state investigative audit of Epic was also launched, which, along with the law enforcement investigations, are still underway as 2019 closes.

VIP visit to Tulsa school

A snow day for most schools across the area in early March saw a Tulsa charter school persist and open its doors for a surprise visit by first lady Melania Trump.

Trump brought her “Be Best” initiative against cyberbullying and opioid abuse to Dove School of Discovery, 4821 S. 72nd East Ave.

Complaint leads officials to special education deficiencies at TPS

In April, a public records inquiry by the World revealed that Tulsa Public Schools was being required to conduct a sweeping review of its case management for all 7,000-plus special education students in response to a parent’s formal complaint to the state of Oklahoma.

The state’s finding that TPS was in “noncompliance” with basic, federal requirements for how students with disabilities must be served meant that TPS had to complete a series of corrective actions dictated and monitored by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Oklahoma breaks longtime, rock-bottom teacher pay ranking

Statewide pay raises for 2018-19 lifted Oklahoma’s average teacher salary from its longtime ranking of 49th in the nation to 34th overall, according to the annual state-by-state comparison released in April by the National Education Association.

State’s reliance on nonaccredited teachers continues upward trend

In June, the World’s analysis of state data for 2018-19 found that the approval of emergency certifications for 3,038 teachers in districts throughout Oklahoma represented a one year increase of 54%.

As of December, Oklahoma’s new school year total reached a record 3,092, with several months remaining for additional nonaccredited teachers to be hired.

Forced consolidation of a rural Oklahoma school district

In late July, the lone remaining board member of a rural school district facing forced consolidation told the World that the co-founder of Epic Charter Schools offered to rescue the district in an unorthodox move.

The state Board of Education went ahead and consolidated Swink Public Schools, located between Hugo and Idabel and serving 140 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, with the neighboring district of Fort Towson.

Flooding recovery in northeast Oklahoma schools

Devastating floods in May swamped Webbers Falls, but students and school employees worked alongside community volunteers and received donated supplies from educators in Krebs, Haileyville, Muskogee, Broken Arrow, Tulsa and even Weatherford, to reopen local schools in September.

North Tulsa school closures, consolidation

2019 saw many changes in Tulsa Public Schools and many more are in store in 2020. In the spring, the Tulsa school board voted to consolidate Gilcrease Elementary and Early Childhood Development Center-Bunche and later renamed the new, consolidated school John Hope Franklin Elementary School.

Also, the spring saw a proposal from the North Tulsa Community Education Task Force with sweeping changes adopted for the McLain feeder pattern. Shuttered were Penn Elementary School, McLain 7th Grade Academy and McLain Junior High School, and the magnet school Monroe Demonstration Academy was revamped into a new neighborhood school to serve students in grades 6-8.

Enrollment declines necessitate deep budget cutting process at Tulsa Public Schools

Amid a budget right-sizing campaign at TPS, a Tulsa World data analysis found thousands of students leaving Tulsa Public Schools for other options in the most recent six years, with the top five recipients being Union, Broken Arrow, Epic Charter Schools, Jenks and Sand Springs.


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Crime-and-courts
New police officers don't see $10,000 starting pay increase

Mayor G.T. Bynum’s plan to increase police starting pay by $10,000 a year is going to take longer than he hoped.

City councilors were informed earlier this month that the actual increase for this fiscal year amounted to $2,786, a bump from $46,425 to $49,211. That’s a 6% increase.

The mayor’s original proposal — approved by councilors as part of this year’s budget — called for increasing starting pay by 22%, from $46,425 to $56,763.

The goal was to bolster the city’s recruiting prospects by putting its police starting pay on par with that of Oklahoma City’s.

“We budgeted for a $10,000 starting pay increase but when we got into collective bargaining the union did not feel that that was equitable to all the people within the department,” Bynum told councilors during the mayor/council retreat earlier this month. “And to be fair to them, I think that is probably correct.

“We were trying to make that big move in one year on starting pay, and in doing that sacrificing a fair increase for those who had been in the department for a long time, and so we ended up modifying it.”

Bynum said the change in plans allowed for more officers to receive pay increases and avoided a likely arbitration hearing had the city tried to push through its original proposal.

“The determination that we made through that negotiation was that we still want to get there, we just couldn’t get there in a year,” Bynum said. “We’d have to break it up over multiple years.”

Jerad Lindsey, chairman of the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police, said the mayor’s comments accurately reflect the union’s concerns and that he is grateful for Bynum’s willingness to try to resolve the issue.

“We look forward to working with him in the future,” Lindsey said.

The city had budgeted $1,018,668 for the $10,000 starting pay increases. Of that, $598,333 went to cover the 6% starting pay increase. The remainder paid for smaller raises for more experienced officers, and for step increases. A step increase is what an officer receives when he or she moves up within a rank.

Jack Blair, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the city accomplished its goal of emphasizing pay increases for lower-ranking officers and those at the bottom of the pay chart but that it could not be done without regard to other officers.

“Otherwise, you allow lower ranks to leap from higher steps,” he said. “That is a detriment to morale”

City officials note that the pay increases are going where they are needed most. Eighty-nine percent of corporals, 99% of sergeants and 100% of captains, majors and deputy chiefs have topped out in salaries.

Only 56% of officers have done the same.

“Recruiters and others say it really is about more than just starting pay,” Blair said. “Because when new officers are recruited, they understand they’ll move up relatively quickly through the steps, so we’ve been planning for that as well.”

Blair said the Tulsa Police Department’s pay scale is not identical to Oklahoma City’s. For example, Oklahoma City’s starting pay for a recruit in the academy was approximately $46,000 in 2019, with the base starting pay of approximately $56,000 not kicking in until after the cadet becomes an officer, he said.

The city remains committed to increasing police pay to ensure that it can compete for the best officers, Blair said.

“A budget is a plan, and plans always confront reality as we proceed through a fiscal year, whether it’s collective bargaining, economic conditions or a flood,” he said. “The bottom-line outcome we want to continue building momentum behind is recruiting top flight personnel for extremely challenging work.”


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