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Painting a picture of 2020 in 12 stories

By Crystal Burns


Staff at the Tri-City Reporter chose one story from every month to paint a picture of 2020 in our local communities. While the COVID-19 pandemic caused unimaginable heartache across the country, 2020 still brought some good news of volunteers helping others, a happy ending for a Dyer toddler in need of a transplant, and industrial growth on the horizon.


Jan. 14 – Dyer student earns state honor

Hannah Prestininzi, a seventh grader at Dyer Junior High, received statewide recognition as the Tennessee Gifted Middle School Student of the Year in the area of leadership. Mary Gay London, the Gibson County Special School District gifted teacher, recognized Prestininzi at a GCSSD school board meeting.

London said the application process was tough. Prestininzi had to write an essay “bragging on herself,” which is out of character for the young leader. She also submitted three letters of recommendation.

London said Prestininzi shows her leadership skills in the classroom, her school and community.

“We could go on and on about school and community,” Long said. But she believes Prestininzi impressed the judges with her advocacy for the Gibson County Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, which her grandmother Bett Jewell directs.

Hannah is the daughter of Phillip and Cassie Prestininzi.


Feb. 4 – Spring Hill PTO disbanded due to admitted theft

The Spring Hill Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) was disbanded due to admitted theft.

Gibson County Special School District Director of Schools Eddie Pruett said Friday, Jan. 31 that the PTO’s former treasurer admitted to taking funds from the account, prompting the district to disband the school support organization. Pruett declined to identify the treasurer or the amount of money taken and reimbursed, citing an ongoing investigation.

Pruett said that financial statements were provided to PTO members at a 2019 meeting that caused two parents to question PTO officers. The statements showed that money had been taken out for cash but did not show that the money had been put back into the bank account.

The parents talked to Jenifer Clark, principal of Spring Hill School, who advised them to ask PTO officers for copies of the bank statements. When officers refused the request, Clark alerted the district office. The treasurer then informed the PTO president that the bank statements would not match the financial statements, Pruett said. The treasurer’s name was promptly removed from the account.

The PTO provided bank statements and financial statements shared at previous PTO meetings to the district leadership, and they determined that money had been taken from the account. Pruett said the district contacted school board attorney Bill Barron to make sure they were following all appropriate steps in reporting the theft.

Pruett met with parents of Spring Hill students on Jan. 28 to alert them of the problem and the solution. District leaders also met with principals of all GCSSD schools to remind them that student support organizations should follow proper accounting procedures to prevent theft and mismanagement of funds and honor the public’s trust.

Editor’s Note: The Tri-City Reporter has not received any information regarding the matter’s closure from the state comptroller.


March 17 – COVID-19 pandemic likely ends Lady Pioneers’ championship run

After defeating Pickett County 61-54 in the quarterfinals of the TSSAA Class A basketball championship, the Gibson County High School Lady Pioneers had to wait to see if they would be able to finish their march to a second consecutive state title after TSSAA announced it would suspend the state tournaments.

TSSAA leaders initially announced that attendance at the girls’ state championship games would be limited beginning with semifinals March 13. Games would be closed to spectators, but immediate family members of players would be allowed inside the Murphy Center on the MTSU campus.

But as GCHS coach Mitch Wilkins walked to his team’s locker room following Thursday’s win, a TSSAA representative informed him that the remainder of the girls’ tournament and the boys’ tournament scheduled for this week would be postponed indefinitely due to concerns about COVID-19, a new strain of the coronavirus that was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday.

“This was an extremely hard decision to make for everyone involved,” Wilkins said. “I’m very disappointed for the girls. They have worked so hard to have the chance to defend their Class A state championship title. I ready feel bad for all our fans that have supported us throughout the season. Competing for a state championship is a big part of the Lady Pioneers program from the youth up.”

Editor’s Note: TSSAA later canceled the state basketball tournaments.


April 14 – Dyer nurse practitioner serves at ‘ground zero’ in New York

A Dyer nurse practitioner returned home after spending days volunteering in a New York City hospital. Lisa Schweich, who works as a geriatric mental health provider for seven nursing homes in Tennessee and Kentucky, had some time off due to COVID-19 restrictions put in place by her employers. As she watched the news and saw New York City becoming a hot spot of the coronavirus outbreak in America, Schweich knew she wanted to help.

Within 48 hours of contacting the right agency, she was in Queens New York at “ground zero.” The agency that she signed up for provided room and board, food, and transportation to and from the hospital where she was working. Schweich worked in the emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

“ER slots that were supposed to hold three patients in the trauma unit were lined with 15 to 20 people on ventilators,” Schweich said. “It was like a war zone. I have over 13 years’ experience working in the medical field, and I have never seen anything like I saw in New York.”

After about seven days straight of working 12-hour shifts, Schweich decided to come back home.

“We all know this takes a toll on your immune system, and I didn’t want to take a chance on that,” Schweich said. “I flew back home and was greeted by my family. No one could touch me for one week, and I decided to self-quarantine for an additional week in my guest room at home.”


May 19 – 253 days later, Dyer toddler receives heart transplant

Chelsea Cunningham and her fiance Zach Hopper had a prayer answered late this past Saturday night. Their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Lincoln, after a long 253-day stay at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, finally got a new heart.

Cunningham posted the good news on Facebook Sunday morning which read, “Please say a prayer for us. We are so excited but we are so scared. Please pray Lincoln’s surgery goes as perfect as possible. And most importantly please say a prayer for the family, that in their most painful time, selflessly made the decision to donate. After 253 days, Lincoln is getting his second chance at life.”

Lincoln was born with Heterotaxy Syndrome, a rare birth defect that signifies altered arrangement of the heart and other organs. Lincoln’s primary issue with the defect has been a condition called dextrocardia, where in his case, his single-ventricle heart lies on the right side of his chest rather than on the left.

Lincoln was taken into surgery at 12:06 p.m. Sunday and that Lincoln’s new heart was scheduled to arrive around 4:30 p.m. The surgery was expected to take 10 hours to complete.

Sunday night, Cunningham posted, “Heart is in and beating!”

Zach came home to Dyer on July 3.


June 23 – Rutherford pool sees record attendance

The Rutherford City Pool was the place to be this summer.

Lisa Dotson and Jayna Wakins, who manage the pool for the city, told the Mayor and Board of Aldermen in June that they were seeing record numbers of swimmers since several other public pools are closed.

Dotson said that on opening week, more than 375 people paid to swim at the pool, and the concession stand sold out of snacks.

“Everybody’s swimming,” Dotson said.

Children and families flocked to Rutherford from all over Gibson County and even as far away as Fulton, Ky.


July 21 – GCSSD board approves distance learning plan

In a lengthy special called meeting that included exhaustive discussion, public input, questions, and suggestions, the Gibson County Special School District (GCSSD) Board of Trustees unanimously approved a distance learning academy option for families uncomfortable sending their children back to school Aug. 3.

The plan, which the board dubbed Option 1A, gave stipends to teachers whose classes include children enrolled in distance learning. Classroom assignments were made as usual, with all students being assigned to specific teachers. A teacher could end up with a classroom only comprised of in-person learners or a mixture of in-person and online students.

Director of Schools Eddie Pruett presented four options to the board. In Option 1, the district would have reached out to teachers to volunteer for distance learning duties in addition to their in-person instruction and paid those teachers a stipend based on the number of students they taught virtually.


Aug. 11 – Rutherford leaders snip ribbon on helipad

An idea born in the fall of last year became a reality in August.

In November 2019, Rutherford Fire Department Assistant Chief Jon Stafford was looking for a safe location to land a helicopter to transport a child to a Memphis hospital. After the call, he knew it was time for a permanent dedicated location for air ambulance service to use to serve the Rutherford community.

Stafford, along with Gibson County Fire Chief Bryan Cathey, Gibson County Fire & Rescue Station Chief John Baker, and Station No. 9 member Terry Jones, decided that Gibson County Station No. 9 would be the best location for a helipad. Stafford, Baker and Jones began seeking monetary donations and personnel to complete this project, and now it is finished and ready to provide a safe location for air ambulances.

The helipad is a concrete 30’ by 30’ slab with lights that run along the outside edge to help with nighttime landing. All three air ambulance helicopter services in the area, Air Evac Lifeteam, Hospital Wing and Vanderbilt LifeFlight, will use the helipad in Rutherford.

This is the third helipad built in Gibson County in the last three years. Dyer helipad was built in 2017 and Trenton followed in 2019.


Sept. 29 – Dyer to get $500,000 THDA grant

Mayor Chris Younger announced the City of Dyer will receive a $500,000 HOME program grant from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) to help local families with home repairs. The grant will be administered by the Northwest Tennessee Development District.

HOME program funding is intended to help families of low income, senior citizens, and individuals with disabilities who cannot afford to rehabilitate their homes. Individual grant recipiences can see assistance with issues such as leaking plumbing, unsafe flooring, faulty wiring, damaged roofs, and more. The $500,000 HOME grant is the largest amount that can be awarded to a city like Dyer.

The HOME program is funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered in Tennessee by THDA. HOME grants must be used for the production, preservation or rehabilitation of affordable housing for low and very low income families and individuals.


Oct. 6 – Dyer’s Select Tennessee Certified Site is first for northern end of county

State and local officials were on hand at the Dyer Industrial Park on Thursday, Sept. 3, where it was announced that Dyer now has a 32-acre Select Tennessee Certified Site.

The Select Tennessee program helps communities like Dyer prepare industrial sites for private investment and job creation. The program sets rigorous standards to give companies detailed and reliable information during the site selection process.

There are now five Select Tennessee Certified Sites in Gibson County, but this is the first in the northern part of the county, according to Gibson County Director of Economic Development Kingsley Brock. Brock said the process has taken more than 18 months.

The City of Dyer, in partnership with the Dyer Industrial Board, received a $15,000 grant to help finance the geotech and archeological studies that are required as part of the certification process.

“I feel like Dyer is on the cusp of great things, of quality jobs, and industrial and commercial growth,” said Dyer Mayor Chris Younger. “We’ve worked hard to get here, and we’ll all continue to work hard for Dyer. A special thanks to Director Brock, the Dyer Industrial Board, our staff at the City of Dyer, and our partners from all the agencies that have helped us out.”


Nov. 3 – County, state smash early voting records

Gibson County and the State of Tennessee smashed early voting records during the two-week early voting period that ended Thursday, Oct. 29.

According to Gibson County Administrator of Elections Julieanne Hart, 14,684 voters cast their ballots early in person or absentee by mail. The county is tied for fifth statewide in percent increase in early voters to date compared to 2012 at the same number of early voting days.

Hart said 10,467 Gibson County voters voted early in the 2016 presidential election, with 9,336 voting on Election Day that year.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett reported 2,280,767 or 51% of the state’s registered voters have already cast their ballots for the presidential election.


Dec. 15 – Tyson Foods helps create industrial maintenance program at GCHS

Tyson Foods and a consortium of local industries have helped created an industrial maintenance program at Gibson County High School to give students opportunities to stay at home, earn a good living, and advance in their careers.

GCHS has partnered with Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) in Jackson, with the industry consortium working to develop the curriculum. Areas covered include Health & Safety, Mechanical, Principles of Basic Electricity, Welding, General, and Machine Tool Technology.

The program sets aside two to three hours per day for instruction, to eventually begin in ninth grade, continuing through senior year. In addition to earning dual credit through TCAT, students also have the opportunity to earn 50 to 60 certifications. There are about 75 skill paths students who complete the program could go into, including commercial, industrial, and residential technical career fields.

As the need arises, the program and space will also be dedicated to training incumbent workers in short segments to facilitate their work schedules.

Tyson donated about $110,000 worth of fluid power training platforms and multi-process welding equipment, and Bongards’ Creameries kicked in about $24,000, which the school has used to purchase motor control trainers, electric multimeters, and other electrical tools. Stanley Black & Decker donated hand tools, and several industrial vendors have contributed supplies. Graves Metal of Jackson, MJS Russel Metals of Jackson, MacLean Power Systems of Trenton, HCI of Humboldt, Dyer Builders of Dyer, B&R Supply of Trenton, Hickerson Automotive Group of Trenton, Harbor Freight, Lowe’s of Milan, and Orange Coast Pneumatics, Inc. of Yorba Linda, Calif. also contributed to the program.

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