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Measuring the overall health of a population at the local level is an elusive and cumbersome task. As a result, there have been few statistical studies historically that hint at how Western North Carolina stacks up.

But this year, an unprecedented study compiled health rankings for every county in each state across the country.

The results weren’t good news for Swain County, which ranked in the bottom 10 percent in several categories. However, Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties went against the stereotype of poor health in the Appalachian Mountains and ranked in the top third.

“The western part of the state is a good deal older. When you control for that, the east part of the state seems a good deal unhealthier,” said Dr. Tom Ricketts, past director of the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Compiled by the University of Wisconsin, the study divided heath rankings into two broad categories: health outcomes and the health factors that cause them.

Swain County ranked 91st out of 100 counties in the state — the lowest ranking of any county in WNC when it comes to health factors. Meanwhile, Jackson, Haywood and Macon Counties are ranked in the healthiest third at 31, 19 and 15 respectively.

Diet, smoking, drinking, exercise, access to quality health care, social and economic factors, and the physical environment all play into the ranking.

“Health and health behaviors and care are all tangled up in a multi-complex system,” said William Aldis, a World Health Organization representative to Thailand who lives in Sylva and has taught health classes at Western Carolina University and at a university in Thailand. “You can never completely separate these things.”

Aldis said he notices the difference in health as soon as he steps off the plane and into the airport terminal when he returns to the United States.

“It surprises me when I come back how sick people look here compared to other countries,” he said.

While the University of Wisconsin study took on an enormous task, the rankings are not universally accepted by public health officials.

Linda White, director of the Swain County Health Department, has not used the information in any strategic planning because she thinks the data may be skewed.

She often compares Swain to Graham County in her planning because the populations are similar. But she noticed the study reported Swain to have the highest percent of smokers in the state while failing to report a percentage of smokers in Graham.

“It causes me to question the validity of the data,” White said.

Macon County Health Director Jim Bruckner said some counties may need to look harder at some of the statistics to determine their quality because of the sampling methods. But Bruckner said the health department has a lot it can glean from the statistics.

Every three years, the health department uses a variety of statistics to create a “snapshot” of health outcomes and contributing factors in Macon County. Bruckner said the county health rankings will now be included in the project.

“We hope to use this report to shed light on what more we can do to help residents lead healthier lives and to mobilize community leaders to invest in programs and policy changes that will improve Macon County’s health,” Bruckner said.


Health behaviors


The University of Wisconsin study looked at key health behaviors — which will ultimately affect people’s health in the future — such as diet and exercise, tobacco use, unsafe sex and alcohol use.

The study uses obesity as the measure for a county’s commitment to diet and exercise. Although obesity is a problem across the state, Jackson, Macon, Haywood and Swain Counties are no worse than the state average, according to the County Health Rankings.

North Carolina is the 10th most obese state in the nation with an adult obesity rate of 29 percent, according to the Trust for America’s Health “F as in Fat” 2010 report.

And North Carolina has grown heavier. In 2009, North Carolina was the 12th most obese state, 16th in 2008 and 17th in 2007.

“Obesity is one of the most challenging issues and has had the more lasting impact on our society,” said Carmine Rocco, Haywood County Health Department director.

Reducing childhood obesity is a big focus for health departments in Western North Carolina.

“We’ve attempted to combat that for years,” White said. “It’s a lifestyle change. Kids will eat what’s offered to them.”

White has worked with schools in Swain County to get healthier food on the menu. Between five and six years ago, the health departments removed the deep fryers from the school cafeterias and purchased them ovens instead, White said.

But it’s other health behaviors that earned Swain County its low ranking. Swain has the highest percentage of smokers in the state and one of the highest teen birth rates, which is used to indicate unsafe sex tendencies.

Dr. Mark Engel, a family doctor in Swain County, said he thinks part of the problem with Swain’s health is that preventative care has not been emphasized until recently and that Swain has been more isolated than the counties to the east.

“Swain has been socially isolated long enough,” Engel said. “It will be an uphill climb for better health.”

He’s noticed higher social support for both smoking and teen pregnancy, he said, adding that it will take generations to change the population’s attitudes.

Forty percent of adults in Swain County smoke compared to 23 percent across the state.

“We’ve come leaps and bounds,” White said, who questioned the accuracy of the statistics. “We work on lessening those numbers regardless of what they are.”

Both Dr. John Stringfield and Dr. Michael Brown, who are family doctors in Waynesville, said that they’ve seen a decrease in the number of smokers in their offices even though the study reports that Haywood still has a higher percent of smokers compared to the state average.

“There’s been an increase in education and peer pressure against smoking,” Brown said.

Only Macon County with 19 percent of the population being smokers falls below the state average.

Ricketts said that there is a strong correlation between smokers and more rural environments. He suggested that smoking might be a form of entertainment where few other options exist.

“It’s hard to explain,” Ricketts said. “It just is.”


Clinical care


Another key component in assessing an area’s health is the availability of healthcare. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin examined several factors, including the percent of uninsured adults, the number of primary providers in the area and preventable hospital stays.

Jackson and Swain Counties have poor clinical care rankings at 86 and 93 respectively while Haywood and Macon Counties are both in the top 15, according to the study.

“In the early ‘70s, the main problem was that there’s been a misdistribution between urban and rural areas with primary care physicians,” said John Price, director of the N.C. Office of Rural Health and Community Care. “The issue over the years has changed a little. The issue is economic access to care.”

Three of the four counties — with Haywood being the exception — have more than 22 percent of adults without health insurance.

That portion is noticeably higher compared to about 15 percent of American and 17 percent North Carolinians who are uninsured.

The Good Samaritan Clinic in Jackson County is a free clinic that treats uninsured adults. A volunteer doctor at the clinic, Dr. David Trigg, said there are often misconceptions about who the uninsured are.

“They’re not unemployed. They’re just uninsured, and they certainly aren’t lazy,” he said,

But in the clinical care rankings, other factors have a role in bringing down Jackson and Swain counties’ rankings.

Swain County has a high rate of hospitalization for typical outpatient services, according to the study. This suggests that outpatient care in the area is less than ideal or that the people overuse the hospital as the primary source of care, the researchers wrote.

A strike against Jackson County’s ranking is a low percentage of diabetic Medicare patients getting annual blood sugar control tests. The tests are considered a standard of good healthcare — a standard at which Jackson is the lowest in the state.

“One reason that could be lower is the way it’s recorded,” said Paula Carden, the Jackson County Health Department director. “Whether all the numbers get reported or not is hard to say.”

Carden said doctors are responsible for reporting the screenings when their patients come to get them. The codes used by doctors in Jackson to report the data may be different from those in other counties.

In one aspect of clinical care, the number of primary care doctors per capita, the study found all four counties at or above average.

But some of the physicians are counted twice, inflating the number of doctors for Western North Carolina. Many doctors in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties practice across countylines — with their main office in one county but a satellite office in the other where they hold weekly office hours. These doctors appear to be counted in both counties.

“Even if there are enough providers to the population by the numbers and they appear at the right levels, they’re not,” Good Samaritan Clinic director Becky Olson said. “The problem is that Jackson County doctors don’t just serve Jackson County alone.”

The study also fails to take into account the influx of seasonal residents and tourists to the area. Doctors in Western North Carolina said they can tell when the part-time residents begin to arrive in the spring.

“It’s an elusive number, hard to quantify,” said the Haywood County Health Department director Carmine Rocco. “But it’s a reality we have to deal with when we plan health care. If something happens, we have to be able to respond.”

Flu and respiratory illnesses keep his schedule filled during the winter, and during the summer, he sees an influx of seasonal residents. Some older residents who come for four or five months in the spring and summer have chronic conditions that require a physician’s monitoring, said Dr. John Stringfield, a doctor at Waynesville Family Practice.

“What keeps me busy is different for each season of the year,” he said.

But Ricketts said he wouldn’t call seasonal homeowners or tourists a stress on the Western North Carolina healthcare system.

“For a rural place, it generally does pretty well on physician supply,” Ricketts said.

He gave the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., as an example of something that would cause stress on the system. In 2008, the rally brought more than 400,000 bikers and three rally related deaths to the small town.

“[Tourism in Western North Carolina] doesn’t necessarily provide stress but provides income,” Ricketts said.


Social & economic factors


Research has shown that social and economic factors also play a key role in determining health.

“To have an overall picture of health, it’s affected by economic factors,” health director Carden said. “If you don’t have enough money for the good health care, your overall health is affected. … Economics plays an important role in our overall health whether we like it or not.”

According to the University of Wisconsin study, Swain County has the lowest high school graduation rate, fewest college degrees, highest unemployment and most single-parent households compared to the other three counties.

“More educated people are in a much better position to analyze health choices,” Aldis said. “Education is a powerful tool in expanding people’s health choices.”

Aldis said that in his work in foreign countries where the populations are less literate than in the United States, women who can read are more likely to get their children vaccinated even if they haven’t had any medical training.

But even less educated patients are attentive and willing to learn how to make better health choices, Trigg said about his patients at the free clinic. But without the clinic, they don’t have the same knowhow about getting health information, he said.

“They don’t get on the Internet and look up health information the same way someone from the university would,” he said.

Hand-in-hand with education, poverty also limits a people’s health options in that they can’t afford the best or at times adequate care, said Stringfield, a Haywood doctor.

“Those in a lower social economic status may tend to have more medical problems,” Stringfield said. “Sometimes that has to do with access to care or access to medicine. Many simply can’t afford to fill a prescription.”

Poverty also influences people’s food choices. Fruits and vegetables are expensive compared to a value menu at the local fast food restaurant. Snack food is also cheaper but contains unhealthy ingredients such as excess salt and high fructose corn syrup, Aldis said.

“There’s not a sense of autonomy of choice,” he said. “We have a very interesting inversion going on. Obesity is a disease of the poor.”

To learn more, visit www.countyhealthrankings.org/north-carolina.



How WNC stacks up

The University of Wisconsin ranked all counties in all states by health outcomes and health factors. Within health factors, four subcategories determined the rankings: health behaviors (30 percent), clinical care (20 percent), social and economic factors (40 percent), and physical environment (10 percent).
There are 100 counties in North Carolina. A ranking of 1 would denote the healthiest county while 100 would signify the unhealthiest in that category.

Health Factor Rankings denotes overall health. The others show what went into determining the rankings.

Health Factors Rankings
Macon    15
Haywood    19
Jackson    31
Swain    91

Health Behaviors Rankings
Macon    12
Haywood    35
Jackson    39
Swain    97

Clinical Care Rankings
Haywood    11
Macon    14
Jackson    86
Swain    93

Social and Economic Factors Rankings
Haywood    16
Jackson    19
Macon    33
Swain    79

Physical Environment Rankings
Swain    14
Jackson    35
Macon    51
Haywood    72

Percentage of Smokers
Macon:    19%
Haywood    27%
Jackson    28%
Swain    40%
State Average    23%

After decades of bitter division among Swain County residents concerning the North Shore Road controversy, people on both sides have come to a surprisingly easy agreement in its aftermath.

County leaders and citizens all agree that an advisory committee must be created to decide how the cash settlement is spent.

“It would be nice if you would have a committee chosen from different walks of life,” said Linda Hogue, a long-time supporter of building the road. “That’s not usually the way it happens around here. A certain few decide what’s going to happen, and that’s what happens.”

Leonard Winchester, a fierce advocate for the cash settlement, likewise said a well-chosen group should accept written suggestions then pass along recommendations to county commissioners.

“If we do that, we can really do some great things in Swain County,” said Winchester.

Commissioners Glenn Jones, David Monteith and Steve Moon all support the idea of an advisory committee as well. Commissioners Genevieve Lindsay and Phil Carson did not respond to SMN’s calls.

“A nonbinding committee would be good,” said Moon, who also suggests placing a suggestion box somewhere to take citizens’ thoughts into consideration. “We really need to get more input from the public.”

Monteith agreed that decisions should not be made unilaterally by county leaders.

“I don’t think it should be left up to five commissioners, regardless of who they are,” Monteith said.

Meanwhile, Jones would like to see a grant system put in place with a portion of the money. An advisory committee would review grant applications and make recommendations to commissioners on which projects should receive North Shore funding.


Bathrooms and pedestals


Despite a cooperative spirit regarding citizen input, the first $30,000 in interest money from the settlement has already been allocated by commissioners in their 2010-11 budget.

So far, $12.8 million of the promised $52 million settlement has been appropriated and is parked in a trust fund. Commissioners can only spend the interest — they can’t touch the principal unless approved by two-thirds of registered voters.

Since interest rates fluctuate, the county doesn’t know exactly how much it will get this year, but it has to estimate an amount and account for in the budget nonetheless.

While some confusion has arisen over how much interest will accrue by the end of this fiscal year, County Manager Kevin King maintains it will come in just less than $500,000. King said that Swain leaders have an opportunity to withdraw from the balance every month.

About $15,000 of the interest has been allocated toward building public bathrooms for Riverfront Park beside the County Administration building.

“We have political rallies, birthdays, weddings, day of prayer, different things out front,” said Jones. With no other public bathroom in sight, employees frequently have to open up the doors to the county building during weekends and holidays to allow visitors to use its restrooms.

Another $15,000 will be used to install five granite pedestals memorializing Swain County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Park Service and the North Shore story.

The pedestals would eventually be included in a historic walking tour of Bryson City.

Winchester said he personally wouldn’t choose to spend the interest on erecting monuments, but he could understand why others would support the idea.

“People put up monuments to recognize organizations and history all the time,” said Winchester. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

But Moon said there are other uses on his mind, especially with county employees struggling under the weight of furloughs and years without a raise.

“It’s been over two years right now … That’s more important than pedestals,” said Moon.


Commissioners’ wish lists


With a bountiful new revenue source in tow, Swain County residents are bound to have differing ideas on how best to spend the North Shore settlement.

Commissioner Monteith raised a stir when he recently proposed using about $4.5 million of the North Shore funds to give every property owner — except for commissioners — a one-year property tax holiday, along with a 3 percent across the board raise for county employees. It would require dipping into the principal, and to do so requires approval by two-thirds of registered voters.

Some decried the proposal as a vote-buying maneuver, but Monteith emphasized that the tax break would be instrumental in helping residents who have all been hit hard by the recession.

“That’s what I was trying to do, help people of Swain County,” said Monteith. “You can’t just pick out who you want. That’s why you have to pick them all.”

In addition, Monteith would one day like to see a museum built in Swain County that would educate visitors on the history and creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The museum would provide new jobs and attract tourists, thereby giving a boost to the local economy.

Moon’s priority is to refrain from jumping into anything major early on and simply allow the interest money accumulate for the time being.

“We don’t need to jump into something blind and commit to something that we might regret later on,” said Moon. “We need to set goals.”

However, Moon would still like to give all county employees a raise and put an end to mandatory furloughs.

“They work hard. That deserves good treatment,” said Moon.

Jones’s chief concern is to leave the principal untouched and use the interest for non-recurring expenses as opposed to regular county operation expenses, like salaries or power bills. For example, the interest money could be used to buy a fire truck one year or an ambulance the next.


What citizens want


First on Hogue’s mind is to create better access to the North Shore cemeteries isolated by Lake Fontana. Numerous family cemeteries now lie inside the national park and are accessible only by foot or four-wheel transport. A low-water bridge critical to access some cemeteries has been washed out for more than a year.

“It’s downright dangerous to go to the cemetery,” Hogue said, adding that cemeteries also need better upkeep, seating for the elderly who visit and handicapped accessibility.

That’s all that Hogue would like to see done in the short-term. “I need to see some money come in before making plans,” said Hogue.

At a minimum, the North Shore money should not be used to pay regular operating expenses for the county, according to Winchester.

Moreover, Winchester would like it acknowledged that the money belongs to all Swain County residents, not just those with ancestors from the North Shore. The entire county bore the cost of building the road that was later flooded by the government and deserves to benefit as well.

“It is an insult to Swain County to refer to this money as if somehow or another it belongs to the people of the North Shore,” said Winchester.

If the decision on how to spend the money were up to Winchester, he’d use the interest money to make high-speed Internet accessible to every Swain County resident. Ideally, a fiberoptic network would be made available to every individual and business in Swain. With a strong fiberoptic backbone already in place, Winchester says the bandwidth and infrastructure could be as competitive as those found anywhere else in the country.

High-speed Internet would allow employees to easily access work-related programs from home, doctors to quickly transmit patient files, and much more.

“That would be a major plus in terms of economic development, in terms of marketing Swain County,” said Winchester. “You always want to get the biggest bang for the buck. We need to look very seriously at the type of projects that leverage this money to get other money.”

What is the cash settlement?

Earlier this year, Swain County ended a long uphill battle over a road the federal government had promised to rebuild after flooding it to create Lake Fontana in 1943.

Swain County residents wrangled for decades over whether the county should pressure the government to rebuild the road or pursue a cash settlement in its place.

In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 to accept a $52 million settlement through installments in coming years.

After violating their own policy, Swain County commissioners convened a special meeting Wednesday (June 23) for a do-over on a vote that gave Health Director Linda White a $15,000 raise.

In the process, the board’s previous 3-2 vote to grant the raise morphed into a 3-2 vote to rescind it a little more than a week later.

Commissioner Steve Moon was thrown into the spotlight after experiencing a change of heart and casting the deciding vote to take back White’s raise.

Commissioners David Monteith and Phil Carson stuck with their decision to support White’s raise, while Commissioners Glenn Jones and Genevieve Lindsay stood by their votes opposing it.

“I don’t think we should give anybody $15,000 at one lick,” said Jones.

Though the Swain board’s first vote was perfectly legal by state standards, it violated county commissioners’ rules of procedure, which require items up for a vote to be listed as such on their meeting agenda.

This allows board members to prepare themselves with information before voting, and gives the public advance notice whenever the commissioners plan to take action on county business.

However, White’s salary raise was listed on the agenda under “New Business,” implying that no formal action would be taken at the June 14 meeting. That was not the case.

County Manager Kevin King said he was later approached by several department heads who questioned the vote.

“I just wanted to clear the air,” said King, who admitted that he had not noticed the policy violation during the meeting. “We should have caught it there, but we didn’t.”

At the special session, commissioners unanimously voted to keep the policy, but it reared its head again at the very same meeting.

Monteith made a motion to discuss a property tax hiatus at the next regular meeting — even though the agenda had already been published and that subject was not listed. (See “Cashing in the cash settlement.”)

Lindsay mistakenly said commissioners could not discuss anything that was not on the agenda. However, commissioners are free to discuss — but not vote on — items not listed in the agenda.

“It’s funny to sit in there, and they don’t know what they were doing,” said Rebecca Davis, a food service manager at Nantahala Outdoor Center who attended the meeting. Davis had hoped to defend White’s raise before a vote was taken, but no time was set aside for public comment.

Debating the salary hike

White had made a convincing presentation at the June 14 meeting, leading commissioners to vote in favor of raising her salary from $64,000 to about $79,000.

All of a sudden, that raise disappeared into thin air.

“I’m very disappointed,” said White. “I don’t know what happened.”

Moon said he switched his vote after witnessing a backlash from both county employees and citizens since the initial vote. Almost all county employees have gone without salary raises since the recession struck. Moon said White undoubtedly deserves a raise, but so does every other county employee.

“That’s not fair, and I want to be fair,” said Moon. “I regret the fact that we did have to take the raise away. That’s not good, but I felt like it was necessary.”

Earlier this year, however, commissioners voted to approve an $8,000 raise for Tammy Cagle, director of Swain’s Department of Social Services.

Commissioner Jones said Cagle got a raise because she took on a new job component overseeing child support enforcement, which was previously handled by the state.

But White points out that she has taken over the responsibilities of two employees who have left the health department, thereby saving the county $37,000 annually.

About 25 percent of the health department budget comes from the county, according to White. White argued that no county funds would go toward her $15,000 raise. It would come instead from state and federal money.

According to county auditor Eric Bowman, however, any increase in the health department budget, including a salary raise, would have to be supported by county dollars unless there is a specific grant to cover the increase.

White says she’s saved the county $454,000 in the past three years. To put things into perspective, the county provides about $390,000 out of the health department’s $1.7 million budget each year.

Meanwhile, White has the fourth-lowest salary of any health director in the state.

Davis, who has known White professionally for 21 years, said she more than deserves the raise.

“I don’t think that she’s recognized for all that she does do,” said Davis. “I feel that if they had to replace her that it would probably take two people or three to do the job that she does now.”

At 9 years old, Italian Joseph Di Lillo lost his leg as a civilian casualty in World War II. He felt he no longer fit in at home or school. After months of self loathing, Di Lillo ran away and found purpose again playing soccer on a team comprised of handicapped children at an orphanage in Rome.

Now Di Lillo lives in Bryson City and hopes to impart the values he learned through soccer to children and young adults in the community, he said.

“He’s very interested in the kids’ welfare. He has a love for soccer, and he has a strong desire to teach that to the kids around here,” said Julie Richards, who has coached a clinic with Di Lillo. “It’s very impressive to see him out there when it’s 90 degrees, and he’s carrying that gear all over the place, especially on one leg.

Having only one leg doesn’t ever stop him, said Romano Michelotti, another coach who’s worked with Di Lillo.

“He wouldn’t quit playing soccer if he had no legs at all,” Michelotti said. “The community is fortunate to have someone like him.”

About three years ago, Di Lillo founded the Western North Carolina Youth Soccer Association. It runs spring and fall soccer clinics for 60 to 65 children. There is no registration fee, and a $1,000 grant from the Asheville Community Foundation covers the cost of shin guards and cleats. The association has also received two $500 grants from Wal-mart and Sam’s Club, he said.

But that’s not enough. The association needs a field to play on, Di Lillo said.

“I’m desperate for a field,” Di Lillo said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to quit.”

Di Lillo has been told a field in Swain will cost at minimum $250,000, and he doesn’t have the money. While he could always leave the county to coach elsewhere, De Lillo wants to stay in Swain. With a high incidence of poverty, kids in Swain County have little opportunity to play soccer, which can sometimes be too expensive to afford.

But finding a field in Swain is not the biggest obstacle Di Lillo has had to overcome.

Di Lillo grew up in Italy during World War II. In his book Soccer: My Life, My Passion, he recounts the struggles and loss his family faced during the war. Nazis forced his father onto a German military truck because they thought he was a “suspicious individual.” The soldiers severely beat Di Lillo’s father and left him abandoned on a country road.

Another day when a convoy of German soldiers headed to Rome, one soldier threw a small parcel off the side of a truck. Thinking it was a can of food, Domenico, one of Di Lillo’s brothers, grabbed it. But it exploded, ripping off his thumb.

Later in the war when Di Lillo and his 5-year old brother Sebastiano headed home from school, the two found themselves in the middle of an air raid. Bombs fell on an ammunition plant near the school. As a result of the plant’s explosion, Sebastiano died from hemorrhaging two days later.

A British military truck hit another brother. At the hospital, doctors said he would die. The family wanted him to die at home so they could have control of the remains. But the hospital would not release the boy, so Di Lillo’s family lowered the boy out of the window in a bed sheet at night. He died the next day at home.

And it was during the war that Di Lillo lost his leg. In 1942 on his way home from school, a Nazi military truck ran into him, fracturing the femur in his thigh. It took seven hours for Di Lillo to receive medical attention. The doctor amputated Di Lillo’s leg to prevent complications and infection.

“At the age of nine, I found myself without a right leg and shattered by the reality of being handicapped for the rest of my life,” Di Lillo wrote. “My best and closest friends withdrew their friendship.”

Some of his relatives thought God was punishing him for poor behavior, and he was no longer able to help on the family farm.

Di Lillo’s father insisted he return to school despite his son’s embarrassment about his lost leg. Although Di Lillo once excelled in school, when he returned he began to associate with street urchins and routinely skipped class.

His uncle found out and told his father. His father beat him and tied him to a tree for two days. No one was allowed to bring him food.

When he was untied, he decided to run away from home and go to Rome. He took the Italian equivalent of $10 for a train ticket and a soccer ball. Di Lillo had never seen a game or played with the ball.

“For unexplainable reasons, holding the ball under my arm I felt I had a companion with me,” he recounted in his book.

Feeling that life had no meaning, Di Lillo wandered the streets of Rome hopeless. Di Lillo thought about jumping off a bridge and drowning in the Tiber River.

At that moment, a man approached Di Lillo and brought him to a headquarters for the Italian Communist Party. He was given a little money and became a temporary foster child before he was placed in the San Michele orphanage.

The orphanage had a soccer team of handicapped boys, and because Di Lillo couldn’t run, he played goalie. The team would play before professional soccer games, and the orphanage would get a small fraction of the ticket price.

“I saved the orphanage quite a bit of money,” Di Lillo said. “At the orphanage there were only two things to do: pray the rosary to save the orphanage or play soccer.”

When Di Lillo was 20, he could no longer stay at the orphanage. He returned home and applied for a visa to come to the United States.

He worked odd jobs and traveled before coming to Chicago where he met his wife, Concetta, at a festival called the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. She spoke little Italian, and he barely knew English. But Di Lillo said it was love at first sight.

The couple married and moved to Iowa, where she started attending graduate school at the University of Iowa. Di Lillo, 26, started attending high school but he never received a diploma.

With the help of an Italian professor, Di Lillo began attending the University of Iowa where he coached and played soccer on the International Soccer Team. He transferred to Northern Illinois University where he completed his undergraduate degree in comprehensive social sciences.

From there, he went on to Southern Illinois University where received a scholarship to coach and play soccer and ultimately graduated with a doctorate in international relations.

“I had such a craving for education, I couldn’t stop,” he said.

After retiring from a professorship, Di Lillo moved to Bryson City in 2002 to be closer to his children and grandchildren. His daughter came to North Carolina first to attend Western Carolina University and decided to stay in the area after graduation.

Di Lillo is no an assistant coach at Swain County High School.

Ben Christoph, who graduated this year, played goalie and received two years of Di Lillo’s tutelage.

“Everything he taught me about soccer and life is summed up by his motto: ‘Give 129 and a half percent all the time,’” Christoph said. “He said, ‘Never ever give up no matter what your circumstances.’ Coming from him, it meant so much more.”

Christoph recalls Di Lillo teaching the team innovative drills and demonstrating some of them himself.

“It was beyond admirable how at his age and his condition how he’d show us the drills,” Christoph said. “It made me give a lot more than I thought I could.”

Hikers and map geeks will revel in poring over a new map of the Bartram Trail being released this week.

The map covers a 75-mile stretch of the Bartram Trail that winds through the Nantahala National Forest of Macon and Swain counties. The map labels campsites and springs for water sources, scenic vistas, prime wildlife viewing areas, picnic areas, canoe access and sundry other points of interest.

“When creating the new map, day hikers, backpackers, exercise runners, nature photographers, wildflower enthusiasts, and area history buffs were all kept in mind,” said Ina Warren, a member of the N.C. Bartram Trail Society.

As a perk, the map has driving directions to many of the trail heads, and phone numbers and locations of forest service ranger stations.

Topo lines are at 50-foot intervals. The map’s scale allows for smaller creeks and finger ridges — ones that usually go unnamed on most maps — to be labeled.

The full-color, two-sided map features heavyweight, glossy paper that will hold up to being hauled in and out of your backpack pocket.

The long-distance trail follows the 1775 route of William Bartram, an early explorer and naturalist, through the region.

Plant collecting in new lands was all the rage during Bartram’s time, often funded by the royal crown back home. Bartram’s journey was popularized at the time in the book Bartram’s Travels. In addition to collecting plant and seed specimens, Bartram described the landscape and the Cherokee Indians with admiration.

In keeping with Bartram’s spirit, the map features native flora and fauna notes from along the trail.

“We hope this attractive, colorful and informative map will excite folks enough to plan a recreation outing or hike in their national forests and gain many years of enjoyment from the map.”

A grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area laid the ground work for the map project and was matched by substantial contributions from the Highlands Biological Foundation, The Wilderness Society, Nantahala Outdoor Center, private donors and members of the Bartram Trail Society.

The Bartram Trail Society has given out over 1,000 free maps to schools, public and college libraries, summer camps, chambers of commerce, visitor centers, nature centers, museums and other groups.

The map goes on sale this week at local outfitters and forest service ranger stations. It may also be ordered online at ncbartramtrail.org or by mailing a check for $12 (which includes postage) to NC Bartram Trail Society, P. O. Box 968, Highlands, NC 28741. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Swain County residents overwhelmingly chose John Ensley in Tuesday’s Democratic primary runoff for sheriff — those who voted anyway.

Ensley, the owner of Yellow Rose Realty, easily prevailed over opponent Mitchell Jenkins with 478 votes.

With more than 60 percent of the vote, Ensley is all set to face Republican incumbent Curtis Cochran this fall.

“I’m really excited, and I’m happy that it’s over with,” said Ensley, the first Democrat to announce his intentions to run, more than a year before the primary.

Ensley said going head to head with Cochran would be challenging. “He’s a very good campaigner, and people like him. I know I’ve got my work cut out for me,” said Ensley.

Cochran, who received strong backing from his party in the May primary, says he feels optimistic about the fall election. Whether his opponent is Ensley or Jenkins would make no difference in how he runs his campaign.

“I’m not going to run against them, I’m running to win the election,” said Cochran. “The people in 2006 put enough trust in me to do this job. I think they’re going to be confident enough in this election to put us back in.”

Jenkins, a self-employed logger, locked down 314 votes, the remaining 40 percent.

Jenkins had called for a rematch shortly after the primary results came back with Ensley receiving less than 29 percent of the vote in May. Primary runoffs can be held only if the top vote-getter fails to secure 40 percent of the vote.

About 11.5 percent of Swain voters eligible to cast ballots showed up for Tuesday’s rematch, much less than the 28 percent who voted in the primary election in May.

At a special session of the Swain County board last week, Commissioner David Monteith stood up and stunned the crowd with a controversial proposal for spending the North Shore Road cash settlement money.

Monteith called for a one-year suspension of property taxes for Swain County residents and a 3 percent raise for all county employees. Businesses and county commissioners would be exempt from the tax holiday, however.

Monteith estimates his proposal would scoop about $4.5 million out of the $12.8 million the county has gotten so far.

But doing so would dip into the principal of the road settlement money, a step that requires approval by two-thirds of registered voters in Swain County. Without such a referendum, commissioners are only allowed to spend the interest from the settlement, which is held in a special trust fund by the N.C. Treasurer.

Monteith said the tax break would be extremely helpful during these rough economic times.

“I know people are struggling...what better way to give citizens a break,” said Monteith.

It would also guarantee that the cash settlement benefits every taxpayer of Swain County.

Fellow commissioners were left flabbergasted by the proposal, which was brought up during a special meeting on an unrelated topic.

“We wasn’t there to discuss that,” said Commissioner Glenn Jones of the meeting. “Why he brought this up, I have no earthly idea.”

Jones and Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay vehemently opposed Monteith’s pitch, while Commissioner Steve Moon said he would only be in favor of spending the interest money to give county employees a raise.

It’s been more than two years since employees have gotten a raise, and they’ve also had to take furloughs without pay. “For a lot of people, that hurts,” said Moon.

However, giving everyone a holiday from property taxes for an entire year is a different matter.

“I could not agree with that and could not go along with that,” said Moon, adding only drastic circumstances would cause two-thirds of registered voters to support spending the principal. “To me, that would seem to be almost an impossibility.”

With at least three of the five commissioners opposed to it, Monteith’s proposal seems likely to die since the referendum requires approval by the board.

Jones stated outright that he would never support a vote by the people to dip into the principal, though he would like to see a committee of citizens help decide how to spend the interest money.

“If you ever did once get into that principal, then it’s gone,” said Jones. “You can never bring that back.”

Leonard Winchester, chair of the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, a group that fought for the cash settlement, says he suspects ulterior motives behind Monteith’s proposition.

“All this is a vote-buying scheme,” said Winchester, citing upcoming elections. “In effect, it says, ‘Vote for me, I’ll give you money.’”

Monteith, who is up for re-election this fall, strongly opposed the cash settlement and was the lone commissioner to vote against it. One of his chief arguments was that commissioners would squander the settlement.

“Now look at who the first commissioner is to make a suggestion that the principal be reached into and passed out,” said Winchester. “It is scary just how far some people will go to try to make the settlement end as a failure.”

Winchester is skeptical that two-thirds of all registered voters will show up to the polls to support Monteith’s idea, and he guesses that Monteith might feel similarly.

“He’s a smart politician,” said Winchester. “He knows this is not going to pass, but he can still get a lot of political mileage.”

Where did the cash settlement come from?

Swain ended a decades-long uphill battle with the federal government this year, and could soon be flush with cash as a result. The federal government flooded a main road through the county for the creation of Lake Fontana in 1943, needed at the time to generate hydropower for the war effort. The federal government promised to rebuild the road, but never did. Instead, it has agreed to compensate Swain County with $52 million through installments in coming years — known as the “cash settlement.”

Swain County residents overwhelmingly chose John Ensley in Tuesday’s Democratic primary runoff for sheriff — those who voted anyway.

Ensley, the owner of Yellow Rose Realty and a certified North Carolina law enforcement officer, easily prevailed over opponent Mitchell Jenkins with 478 votes.

With more than 60 percent of the vote, Ensley is all set to face Republican incumbent Curtis Cochran this fall.

“I’m really excited, and I’m happy that it’s over with,” said Ensley, who plans on taking a vacation in Alaska before getting back into full swing campaigning before the November election.

There were initially eight Democrats on the ticket vying for the chance to challenge Cochran. Of the crowded field, Ensley had been the first to announce his intentions to run, throwing his name in the ring more than a year before the primary.

Ensley said going head to head with Cochran would undoubtedly be a challenge. “He’s a very good campaigner, and people like him. I know I’ve got my work cut out for me,” said Ensley.

Cochran, who received strong backing from his party in the May primary, says he feels optimistic about the fall election. Whether his opponent is Ensley or Jenkins would make no difference in how he runs his campaign.

“I’m not going to run against them, I’m running to win the election,” said Cochran. “...I started my campaign four years ago. The people in 2006 put enough trust in me to do this job. I think they’re going to be confident enough in this election to put us back in.”

Jenkins, a self-employed logger with nine years of law enforcement experience, fared better in the runoff than he did in the May primary, when he faced seven other candidates. Jenkins locked down 314 votes, the remaining 40 percent.

Jenkins had called for a rematch shortly after the primary results came back with Ensley receiving less than 29 percent of the vote in May.

Primary runoffs can be held only if the top vote-getter fails to secure 40 percent of the vote.

Jenkins was unavailable for comment as of Wednesday morning.

Voter turnout

Only a dismal 11.5 percent of Swain voters eligible to cast ballots showed up for Tuesday’s rematch, compared to the impressive 28 percent who took to the polls during the May primary.

Still, it was far better than the typical voter turn-out witnessed in runoff elections. The local runoff boosted Swain’s voter turnout when compared to the rest of the state and surrounding counties, where the only race on the ballot was a Democratic primary runoff for the U.S. Senate.

Only 3 to 4 percent of voters in Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties cast their ballots Tuesday, choosing between Elaine Marshall and Cal Cunningham. All four counties went for Marshall, who won the primary with nearly 60 percent of the vote statewide.

Long-awaited relief for Swain County’s dire animal control problem has finally arrived.

For years, residents had no recourse if a vicious dog or colony of stray cats took up residence on their property. Now, county officials hope to hire their first full-time animal control officer some time in the coming fiscal year.

A $7,900 grant from a private national foundation that has insisted on remaining anonymous will cover the cost of equipment, like traps, poles, gloves and chaps.

Meanwhile, state and federal reimbursements, along with a county match, will pay the new deputy’s $27,000 salary.

County leaders are hoping the Town of Bryson City will pitch in by purchasing a truck or SUV for the new animal control officer. County Manager Kevin King estimates the truck or SUV might cost $23,000.

Town aldermen say they are still waiting on an official contract before making a final decision.

King said if the town doesn’t cooperate in purchasing a vehicle, the animal control officer would only work in the county — not within town limits.

However, since town residents also pay county taxes, they are already contributing to the salary of the new animal control officer — just as much as any other resident of the county — yet would be excluded from a service received by the rest of the county.

At one time, the county contracted with a private animal shelter in another county to swing through Swain once a week and haul off strays reported over the course of the week. But the arrangement was discontinued three years ago.

A local shelter run by the nonprofit, no-kill organization P.A.W.S. (Placing Animals Within Society) has struggled to fill the void, but cannot to keep up with the growing number of strays being dropped off at its doors.

For now, vicious animals are reported to the sheriff’s office, then passed on to the county health director Linda White. The only thing White can do is officially declare the animal “potentially dangerous,” making it mandatory to leash and muzzle the animal every time it’s taken outside a fenced-in area. The designation is pointless if the animal is a stray and doesn’t have an owner, however.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran says his office receives about half a dozen complaints about potentially dangerous animals each week.

“We have a lot of animals that are running unattended,” said Cochran.

Even so, Cochran assures residents that the new animal control officer will not be scouring the county, tracking down stray and dangerous animals.

“This is in no way to penalize the owners of the animals,” said Cochran. “We’re not going to go around and try to spot an animal running loose. That’s not what it’s going to be about.”

Since the county lacks a public animal shelter, it’s unclear exactly what the animal control officer will do with strays once they are picked up. County officials are hoping neighboring shelters in Cherokee or Jackson and Macon counties will accept the animals. Swain is still looking at the option of creating an in-house animal shelter.

“We’re entirely in the crawling stages right now,” said Commissioner Glenn Jones. “Then we’ll walk.”

Jones added that a shelter’s location has to be chosen carefully.

“Nobody wants a building put in their back door,” said Jones. “You have to be very selective when you start this process.”

While officials are hoping to move forward as quickly as possible, an animal control officer will probably not be in place by the beginning of the fiscal year.

“It’s not going to happen July 1,” said Cochran.

Bryson City Town Manager Larry Callicut said the county is hoping to have an animal control officer in place by Jan. 1, 2011.

On Tuesday (June 22), Swain County voters will decide which Democrat will face Republican Curtis Cochran in the hotly contested sheriff’s race this fall.

Though candidate John Ensley won the primary with an impressive 28 percent of the vote — despite competing with seven other candidates — it was not the 40 percent he needed to avoid a runoff election

Runner-up Mitchell Jenkins, who won 285 votes compared to Ensley’s 513, called for a second round.

Whoever wins the second primary will face Sheriff Cochran, who has held the seat for four years. In the Republican primary this year, Cochran won in a landslide with 525 votes, compared to his lone competitor Wayne Dover’s 156 votes.

With the sheriff’s race the most heated election in the county, candidates were lining up and campaigning more than a year before the actual primary.

In his campaign, Ensley emphasizes community involvement with the sheriff’s office, more education for officers, outreach programs in the school system and better networking with surrounding counties.

Ensley, 42, is the owner of Yellow Rose Realty but also a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer. He has worked as a jailer in Florida and worked for the Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years.

Jenkins, 52, is a self-employed logger with nine years of law enforcement experience, including eight years as chief deputy in Swain County and one year in the Bryson City Police Department.

Jenkins is running because he’d like to establish a better working relationship between the sheriff’s office and the public. Jenkins said he’d also respect the confidentiality of those who phone in tips to the sheriff’s office.

Early voting will take place until Saturday, June 19. To find out more, contact the Board of Elections.

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