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An interesting article in today's newspaper

Spotlight: Melissa Wallace, who spent the past 4 years growing her Greensboro business, tapped to speak to economic policy conference. Page A3

Greensboro nonprofit gets kudos for 'showing love'

GREENSBORO — The nonprofit Green Team Helping Hands is at the top of the list in showing love, according to an industry group.

Green Team, which focuses on helping the area’s homeless and hungry, is led by Ashley Benton, a former nominee for Greensboro’s Woman of the Year.

Benton’s group, which operates on a shoestring budget that she raises through individual donations and occasional grants, often provides home-cooked meals on Sundays to hundreds of people who begin forming a line when it’s time for them to show up.

The industry group Great Nonprofits chose the organization as a Top Nonprofit for 2019 based on nominations and the kinds of testimonials people give about their experiences with the group.

“I really believe it’s us being authentic,” said Benton, also the group’s founder. “It’s showing love.”

Just before Thanksgiving, Benton got a call from “The Steve Harvey Morning Show” radio program and WQMG-FM (97.1) about donating 20 turkeys to the group to pass out to families in one of the public housing communities the group works with in Greensboro.

“I screamed to the top of my lungs,” Benton said of the call.

It’s not about the group receiving another award that thrills her — but the difference it makes with people who are struggling.

Benton started the group in honor of her father, James Benton, who received a transplant organ from Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry after Henry died in a tragic accident in 2009.

Benton said she was so touched by this gift of life for her father that she decided to “pay it forward” after her father’s death two years later.

Before then, she would make plates of leftovers from dinner at her home and hand them out to the homeless. The self-described “Daddy’s Girl” made it official with nonprofit status.

This isn’t the first time the group has gained national attention.

In 2016, the Green Team was named one of 10 groups and companies making the Change AGENTs Pay It Forward list, which each week celebrates efforts undertaken for charitable and humanitarian reasons and in positively changing the way people think.

The Green Team Helping Hands organization was ranked No. 5 by the online group for feeding more than 300 homeless or hungry men, women and children in downtown Greensboro every week with meals ranging from fried chicken dinners to bagged sandwich lunches.

Others making the list: The mass media firm Comcast was No. 1. Its Comcast Cares Day involves 100,000 participants volunteering at more than 900 projects in 22 countries.

The Green Team is known for providing sustenance by way of food and other items, but also encouragement.

The group also gives out bags of toiletries and bus passes when there’s money for them.

Benton is known to take selfies with the downtrodden.

“We don’t mind getting close to them and giving them hugs and listening to their stories,” she said.

She said she believes this is what she was meant to do because of the ways that people come into her life.

Like the family with three children she found living in a car.

“I know the looks of despair,” said Benton, also the wife of a police officer.

She had stopped at a gas station when she spotted the adults.

“I went over to them and they said they had just been put out of their hotel room,” Benton said. “They had been sleeping in the car. The children were in school, and they had a small baby.”

She went to social media, asking her friends on Facebook if they could help. This is how she tackles many of these causes.

Within a few hours she had raised enough money to put them in a room for two weeks.

Benton went back home and prepared a home-cooked meal for them, which she delivered along with a batch of diapers.

From there the family got into a shelter in  and eventually public housing.

Occasionally, the group raises money for pizza dinners (one man on the streets told her recently that he had not eaten pizza in years) and grooming sessions.

Oprah Winfrey tweeted “Ashley ROCK ON!” about an after-Thanksgiving meal in 2014 that Benton was planning at Center City Park.

Benton signed up as an OWN ambassador — people who in their communities are making a difference in the lives of others — and has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network website.

“Everyone should treat the public the way that Ashley and her team does,” said Jojo Clemins, the store manager at the Walmart off of East Cone Boulevard.

Clemins used grant money the store received from the Walmart Foundation to help the nonprofit with food to feed the homeless and hungry.

Altar’d State, a young women’s clothing store in Friendly Center, chose the nonprofit as its Mission Mondays recipient through Dec. 17. The store will donate 10% of sales on Mondays to the group’s work.

“We have great partners with such compassion,” Benton said.

But without a steady source of income, the fundraising is ongoing.

There’s no building, no employees, no budget.

“Just putting in the work, and faith,” Benton said.

For her birthday, Benton also hosted a Facebook fundraiser that raised more than $1,000 for tents to help the homeless who cannot stay in a shelter because of legal problems or other issues.

Recently, Benton was certified to handle leftover foods from restaurants and businesses, which she in turns hands out to the hungry.

“This is the only way I know how to pay it back,” Benton said, acknowledging the gift of a transplant given to her father. “We were given the ultimate gift, from one human to the next.”

For the contents of her “blessing” bags, Benton depends on a loosely knit group of family and friends and businesses, who give everything from excess donuts to gloves and hand warmers, purchased by someone who spotted them on sale and who had a few extra dollars.

Benton recently spent $175 of her own money for a Safe Serve certificate for safely storing foods.

She knocks on a lot of doors and does a lot of engaging — after talks over time, Olive Garden has agreed to help provide spaghetti and salad for the group’s Christmas meal downtown.

Much of it emanates from her living room, where supplies are often stacked throughout the week.

She said there is a lot of despair coming through the lines, including families with small children, veterans who have served their country, and gay youth who sometimes confide that they are living on the streets and looking for a meal because families have kicked them out for their sexuality.

“It can be depressing but it also uplifts me because I’m trying to help them,” Benton said.

N.C. Senate race on track to once again be one of the most expensive in the country

Six years after North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race set a national spending record, its 2020 contest already is shaping up as one of the nation’s most expensive.

Two national conservative groups that supported Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ first race in 2014 have released ads backing him again.

A group backing one of Tillis’ Republican primary opponents is spending a quarter-million dollars against him.

And a group funded by billionaire and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer plans to spend $4.5 million in North Carolina to elect Democrats to the Senate and other offices.

“If an outside group is spending this much this early before the Democrats have a consensus (Senate) candidate, it’s a sign that this is going to be a massively expensive race, and could be on track to break records once again,” said Brendan Quinn, a spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Tillis is regarded as one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbents. He faces Raleigh businessman Garland Tucker and Ayden farmer Sandy Smith in the GOP primary.

The Democratic primary features state Sen. Erica Smith, Mecklenburg Commissioner Trevor Fuller and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who’s backed by the national Democratic Party’s Senate campaign arm. Candidate filing opens Monday.

Some analysts call the race a toss-up. Democrats say it’s a key to picking up control of the Senate.

The 2014 Senate race saw a then-record $124 million spent by candidates and outside groups. According to Advertising Analytics, $4.7 million has been spent so far on the 2020 race.

The company projects that next year’s race will cost at least $74 million, more than all but two other Senate contests. Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, believes that will go even higher. That’s because spenders in the Senate race will have to compete with those in what are expected to be hard-fought races for president and governor.

“What’s going to make it expensive is demand,” she said. “At the end of the day, outside groups will end up spending more than most candidates combined.”

Early spending for Tillis

Earlier this month, the U.S. Chamber began airing a television ad touting Tillis’s co-sponsorship of a bill intended to aid veterans’ employment opportunities. The Chamber spent more than $7 million to help Tillis’ 2014 campaign, its largest contribution of the cycle.

Americans For Prosperity, funded by the Koch family foundation, launched ads last week, arguing against government spending and praising Tillis for his vote for the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. AFP Action, the group’s political action committee, is engaged in grassroots activities for Tillis, reaching nearly 70,000 voters through phone calls and knocking on doors. It endorsed Tillis in June.

Chris McCoy, American For Prosperity’s North Carolina state director, said the early spending — the primary is March 3 — is “treading into new territory for us.” He said Tillis’s work on criminal justice reform, particularly the First Step Act, tax-and-spend policies and veterans issues have earned him support.

“We know where Sen. Tillis stands. He has vote records to back him up,” McCoy said.

Last month, The American Foundations Committee, a pro-Tucker super PAC, began airing a television ad attacking Tillis as a flip-flopper for his stance on a border wall.

Tillis has the lowest approval of any incumbent senator at 33%, according to Morning Consult polling.

In September, his campaign announced a $2.2 million ad buy. He has released ads taking on Tucker and highlighting President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Tillis. A Fox News poll released this month showed Tillis with 54% to 11% for Tucker and 4% for Smith among Republican primary voters.

The same poll showed Erica Smith (18%) leading Cunningham (13%) and Fuller (10%) in the Democratic primary, though a majority (59%) of those polled answered don’t know or none of the above.

Richard Garzola, deputy national press secretary for the Steyer-funded NextGen America, said his group plans to spend $4.5 million on broadcast and digital ads and to mobilize voters at 33 N.C. college campuses. The group spent $1 million in North Carolina in 2018 and $500,000 in 2016.

“This is the largest ever voter engagement,” Garzola said.

Presidential spending

Then there’s spending by presidential candidates. North Carolina’s March 3 primary is earlier than ever and part of Super Tuesday. North Carolina has 110 delegates available in the Democratic primary, the third-most among Super Tuesday states, trailing only California and Texas.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a new entrant into the Democratic presidential race, already has booked more than $1 million in television advertising in North Carolina as part of a $37 million ad blitz. Part of that advertising is in the Charlotte market, which covers parts of South Carolina.

At Greensboro College, a pressure to perform well, literally

GREENSBORO — When college students return to campus from the Thanksgiving break, they’ll have a few more days of classes before they take final exams for the fall semester — three hours of remembering and writing as much as they can of what they’ve learned since August.

But some Greensboro College students have already knocked out a few of their finals. Students in some performing arts classes gave public recitals or performances this month in front of audiences. Those shows double as their finals.

The reason? Greensboro College professors say performing arts can be taught in a classroom. Fundamentally, though, dances, plays and songs are meant to be performed.

By making her dance students put on a performance instead of sitting for a traditional exam, “it’s a chance for them to show me that they know the steps and that they’re good enough to be in front of an audience,” said Ashley Hyers, an assistant professor of dance.

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It’s two Fridays before Thanksgiving, and Natalie Craven’s hands are sweating and her heart is beating fast.

Craven has been playing piano since she was 6, and she has practiced at least two hours a day since her freshman year at Greensboro College. But 75 people are waiting in the college’s chapel for her to start her senior piano recital, and the senior has a case of the nerves.

At Greensboro College, music performance majors are required to put on two recitals before they can graduate, and one of those must last an hour. Music education majors — prospective teachers like Craven — must do one recital that lasts for at least 30 minutes.

“That’s the essence of music. You’ve got to perform it,” said Jane McKinney, the chair of the college’s music department.

The public recital, McKinney added, “is a great thing for (students), frankly. It’s not just an academic performance.”

The recital is the culmination of everything these aspiring musicians and music teachers have learned in their time on campus. First, though, music majors must run through the gauntlet known as the jury.

The jury is a closed-door private performance in a faculty office or classroom held at least a month before the student recital. The jurors — three music professors — listen as each student performs the pieces they intend to play at their recital. A thumbs-up means the recital goes on. A thumbs-down means a student needs more practice.

Craven’s jury signed off on her recital songs, several of which she had been practicing since her junior year. Her recital, then, would go on, with two Bach pieces, a Haydn sonata, Debussy’s “Arabesque,” a hymn and two duets, one with a singer and one with a saxophone player.

The jury experience is high-pressure and valuable, Craven said.

“They’re giving their time and feedback so you can sound the best you can,” she said. “Your actual recital is the real deal — and you have to have everything as perfect as you can.”

But on that Friday night, when her piano teacher, David Fox, stepped into the chapel to introduce her, Craven had to give herself a pep talk. The audience — college classmates, other music majors, her family from Archdale and members of her church — was waiting.

“I told myself, ‘Natalie, there is no reason for this. You are prepared,’ ” Craven said.

A few deep breaths and 45 minutes later, Craven was done.

The recital went well, she said. “I was pretty proud of myself.”

The audience agreed. She received a standing ovation and bouquets of flowers from her uncle, brother and a boy from her church.

“I was really relieved because it was over,” said Craven, who will be student teaching at a Greensboro elementary school in the spring semester. “It was a lot of pressure off me.”

Grades won’t come out until mid-December. But McKinney said students who can impress a jury of music faculty and perform well at their recital usually will get a high grade.

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The week before Thanksgiving, Greensboro College cancels classes for a day so its students and faculty can take part in Showcase Day.

Starting at 8:30 a.m. and running until dinner time, Showcase Day gives students a chance to, well, showcase their research and class work from the semester. There are poster presentations, seminars and art displays all over campus.

That afternoon, music and dance students took the stage inside the Gail Brower Huggins Performance Center. There was ballet, hip-hop, jazz and tap as well as three more modern routines choreographed by a student. The entertaining 50-minute show finished with songs from “The Sound of Music,” “A Chorus Line” and several other Broadway shows.

The students shared hugs and smiles and post-performance exhilaration. For students in some of the dance numbers, there was relief that one of their final exams was in the bag.

Hyers, the dance professor, said the lower-level classes are designed to teach the language and the basic steps of each dance discipline. For students in her ballet and tap classes, their Showcase Day performances are worth 10% of their semester grade.

Hyers, who films each performance, said she is looking at how well students can do the dance steps. She’s also watching to see how students react if they flub a move.

“Things happen. It’s live. You don’t get a second take,” Hyers said. “You have to figure out right there in the moment how to deal with (a mistake).

“You miss a step? You jump right back in there. Don’t show it on your face and the audience probably won’t notice.”

Hannah Soots, a junior from Greensboro, is majoring in theatre and aspires to be an actor. She is also minoring in dance to help her become a more versatile stage performer. Because she’s taking ballet and jazz this semester, Soots was on stage for two different dance routines.

Soots said both classes had been practicing their Showcase Day routines for weeks but didn’t rehearse on stage until a couple of weeks before the show. The lights, sound and audience of Showcase Day made their final exam performance feel like opening night.

“It’s a new kind of energy,” Soots said. “You have to trust that you know the steps and you know the dance and what you’re doing.”

Samuel Walker, a junior theatre major from Raleigh, took a hip-hop class to round out his performing skills. He thought his hip-hop performance went well, “but there’s always room for improvement.”

When Walker gets back from Thanksgiving break, he still must take several sit-down final exams. But he said it’s nice to have one final out of the way and get applause for finishing it.

“It’s something to be proud of,” Walker said. “We did it.”