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Thousands attend two-day Festival of Glass at Blenko

MILTON — Glass lovers got the chance to get hands-on with their own world-famous glass during the Blenko Glass Co.'s annual two-day Festival of Glass on Friday and Saturday at the factory's longtime location in Milton.

Visitors from across at least 11 states came to Blenko Glass to take part in the 12th annual event, according to Blenko Glass vice president for marketing and sales Dean Six.

"We had about 300 people a day in classes, plus many others that come to buy or look at the glassmaking process here," Six said.

Six said he expected about 2,000 people to flow through the Blenko Glass headquarters along Bill Blenko Drive in Milton.

"People think of us not just as a great place to come and see a living history, but to have a chance to do something fun and get your hands on it and experience," he said.

In addition to the company's regularly offered tours, which provide

access to the glass manufacturing process, the Festival of Glass offered participants the chance to flex their creative and industrial muscles with classes for people of all ages.

"We offer lots of classes that include making jewelry out of glass to large glass windows," Six said. "People have a handson opportunity to work with glass to make special pieces and learn about the glassmaking process."

Among the classes offered were glass blowing, making jewelry or mosaics and glass painting. From hot glass to crafts with wood, glass and glue for youngsters, the festival featured special prices, tours, a signing event and family activities, Six added.

John W. Blenko was on hand Saturday signing pieces of purchased glass during the festival.

"This is probably our best weekend all year," Blenko said. "I recognize people that have come from all over the country that have come to this annual event in the past. The visitors comment so much on how much they enjoy this event, and our workers also love showing everyone how they make glass pieces here."

The company celebrated its 125th anniversary last year, Blenko said.

"In 2021, we will be celebrating 100 years here in Milton," he said.

The history of Blenko Glass continues to draw people back to the facility.

"The quality of the product continues to be the same, made with American sand and American natural gas," Blenko explained. "The workers pass the craftsmanship down to their children, and each piece is still made by hand with lots of pride."

Blenko is the vice president of the company and is the fourth generation of the Blenko family in the business.

"My father, Walter J. Blenko Jr., is the third generation and is president; before that was William Henry Blenko Jr. and the founder, William John Blenko," he said.

Blenko said the goal of the festival was to bring the art of glassmaking to as many people as possible, whether it was a new experience for them or a reintroduction to the process.

"I think seeing the whole process is an experience for anyone," he said. "Glass is made by a team of men with metal blowpipes with a glob of molten glass on the end. Literally, these men are swinging this glass around within inches of each other. It's an art. It's like a ballet to see them work. When people see that, it sort of brings the process home for them."

A special limited edition "Egyptian Coil Vase" glass piece was made for the event and cost $79.

"The special limited edition piece is so popular that they are gone by the end of this event," Blenko said.

Matt Browning and Brian Mann, of South Charleston, West Virginia, said it was their first visit to Blenko Glass and the festival.

"We have been wanting a piece of Blenko Glass and wanted to see the factory for the first time," Browning said. "My eyes are drawn to the clear glass pieces, but everything here is so beautiful."

Mann said he is a book lover and had his eyes on some handmade bookend glass pieces.

"The history and local artisan movement in this region is big," Mann said. "I think the fact that everything here is West Virginia-made is something everyone wants a piece of, and they offer that here."

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Follow reporter Fred Pace at and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

DHHR: No audit of syringe exchange

HUNTINGTON — A proposed audit of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department's Harm Reduction Program — which operates the county's syringe exchange — will not happen, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services has confirmed.

Cabell County Commissioner Kelli Sobonya had requested an audit for the Cabell-Huntington Health Department similar to what DHHR had compiled for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's now-defunct syringe exchange, which Sobonya revealed a number of red flags in how that program operated. Sobonya, who made the request as an individual and not on behalf of the commission, contends that not only is an audit necessary, but also that the state should pay for it.

An audit would shed light on the type of people the syringe exchange serves, with Sobonya arguing the program, in part, attracts a transient population to Huntington in conjunction with other homeless services around the city.

The decision against the audit comes after senior DHHR leadership met in Charleston two weeks ago to discuss the audit with Sobonya at her request. That group included Secretary Bill Crouch, State Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp and Bob Hansen, director of the Office of Drug Control Policy. Dels. John Mandt Jr., R-Cabell, Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, and Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, also attended.

While the result of the closed-door meeting is certain — that there will be no state audit of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department's syringe exchange — how

the decision was reached was told in slightly different stories.

According to DHHR, the decision to not continue an audit was made by a "consensus" of those involved following the meeting, said Allison Adler, DHHR communications director, in an email last week.

Slemp added in a follow-up email statement that "with greater mutual understanding, it became clear that an audit of the (Harm Reduction Program) would be of little benefit in addressing the concerns expressed." She added that program audits typically focus on fiscal accountability and quality improvement.

Sobonya, however, contends that an audit is still necessary, and said DHHR was simply unwilling to pay for it. The state department had set a precedent after it funded an audit of Kanawha-Charleston's syringe exchange, and she felt it was unfair DHHR would not do the same for Cabell-Huntington.

"I just want an audit," Sobonya said in a call Thursday. "I have not publicly asked for this program to end; I just want to know that it's working."

An audit would bring to light several points of data Sobonya says could be indicative of how the syringe exchange is operating. Those include how many clients have tested positive for HIV, how many of those who have tested positive are native to Cabell County, and how many transient individuals have established Cabell County residency through a homeless shelter — effectively making them Cabell County residents and able to use the program.

The question of a residency requirement — and how residency is established — is the driving argument for an audit, all parties agreed.

Cabell-Huntington's syringe exchange began in 2015 by serving everyone regardless of county of residence, but last summer limited the program to Cabell County residents only. The department has, however, allowed homeless individuals to use the syringe exchange if they can be confirmed as residents of one of the city's shelters.

The Cabell County Commission, which in part funds the Cabell-Huntington Health Department but does not govern it, is not in a position to fund an audit, said Sobonya, who is the only one of three commissioners expressing interest in an audit. The health department is also funded and monitored by DHHR and guided by an independent Board of Health.

Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said he would support any decision from the state to review the program.

The goal of a syringe exchange is to provide one clean syringe for every intravenous injection of drugs. Syringe exchanges have been used for more than 30 years in hundreds of locations nationwide — including nearly 20 in West Virginia — to discourage the use of sharing dirty needles leading to the spread of bloodborne illnesses like HIV and hepatitis.

It's particularly necessary now to control Cabell County's current HIV cluster, Kilkenny said, which has more than 50 confirmed cases. These cases have been diagnosed entirely among local intravenous drug users.

"Harm reduction programs are very potent tools in controlling the spread of this serious disease, and communities need every tool in their toolboxes to stop the spread of HIV," Kilkenny wrote in an email Friday.

These programs have nearly universal support from public health officials, state and federal, as an effective, inexpensive means to controlling disease. Syringe exchanges also encourage an otherwise hard-to-reach population of intravenous drug users to visit a clinical setting — where they receive their syringes at the health department — which then can become a talking point to referring them to treatment.

Between 2018 and May 2019, more than 900 harm reduction clients in West Virginia were referred to treatment — around 300 of those from Cabell-Huntington's program alone, Slemp said.

Cabell-Huntington's syringe exchange serves an estimated 600 individuals with varying regularity — some weekly, others with months between visits.

Sobonya reiterated she does not oppose the concept of a syringe exchange, but only if it is done correctly and in a clinical setting. She contrasted the Kanawha-Charleston program, which an audit found had been overwhelmed, with a syringe exchange still operating in Charleston by nearby West Virginia Health Right, an independent clinic. Sobonya says Health Right's model is more clinical-based than the Kanawha-Charleston program, including mandatory HIV screenings and barcoded syringes for easy identification.

DHHR recommended Kanawha-Charleston suspend its syringe exchange last year after their audit discovered several inconsistencies, including missing data, which made it difficult to fully track how the program was operating. The KCHD Board of Health, which oversees the department, contends the audit was hastily conducted and inconclusive.

With an audit of Cabell-Huntington's program seemingly out of the picture, Sobonya said "doing our due diligence" is the next step. That includes finding out why Kanawha-Charleston's program failed and what other harm reduction programs, like Health Right, are doing differently.

Any changes would need to be pursued through the state Legislature with bills that would ideally create uniformity among state-funded harm reduction programs and require it be offered in a clinical setting, Sobonya said.

While she no longer serves in the House of Delegates, Sobonya said these are issues discussed by her and Mandt, who has been a vocal critic of the syringe exchange. Mandt was not available for comment Friday due to travel.

Texas gov: 20 dead in El Paso shopping-complex shooting

EL PASO, Texas — Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured in a shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town of El Paso, the state's governor said.

Among the possibilities being investigated is whether it was a hate crime, the police chief said. Two law enforcement officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity identified the suspect taken into custody as 21-year-old Patrick Crusius. El Paso police haven't released his name, but confirmed the gunman is from Allen near Dallas.

Police said another 26 people were injured and most were being treated at hospitals. Most of the victims were believed to have been shot at a Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall, they said, adding that the store was packed with as many as 3,000 people during the busy back-to-school shopping season.

"The scene was a horrific one," said El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen, who described many of those hurt as having life-threatening injuries. He also said police found a post online that may have been written by the suspect — one reason authorities are looking at whether it was a hate crime.

El Paso, which has about 680,000 residents, is in West Texas and sits across the border from Juarez, Mexico.

Residents were quick to volunteer to give blood to the injured after the shooting, and police and military members were helping people look for missing loved ones.

"It's chaos right now," said Austin Johnson, an Army medic at nearby Fort Bliss, who volunteered to help at the shopping center and later at a school serving as a reunification center.

Adriana Quezada, 39, said she was in the women's clothing section of Walmart with her two children when she "heard shots."

"But I thought they were hits, like roof construction," she said.

Her 19-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son threw themselves to the ground, then ran out of the store through an emergency exit. They were not hurt, Quezada said.

She said she saw four men, dressed in black, moving together firing guns indiscriminately. Police later said they believed the suspect was the "sole shooter" but were continuing to investigate reports that others were involved.

El Paso police Sgt. Robert Gomez said the suspect, who used a rifle, was arrested without incident.

The shooting came less than a week after a gunman opened fire on a California food festival. Santino William Legan, 19, killed three people and injured 13 others last Sunday at the popular Gilroy Garlic Festival, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Ryan Mielke, a spokesman for University Medical Center of El Paso, said 13 people were brought to the hospital with injuries after the Texas shooting, including one who died. Two of the injured were children who were being transferred to El Paso Children's Hospital, he said. He wouldn't provide additional details on the victims.

Eleven other victims were being treated at Del Sol Medical Center, hospital spokesman Victor Guerrero said. Those victims' ages ranged from 35 to 82, he said.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who confirmed the number of victims at a news conference, called the shooting "a heinous and senseless act of violence" and said the state had deployed a number of law enforcement officers to the city. President Donald Trump tweeted: "Reports are very bad, many killed."

Presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke appeared a bit shaken as he appeared at a candidate forum Saturday in Las Vegas shortly after news of the shooting in his hometown was reported. The Democrat said the shooting shatters "any illusion that we have that progress is inevitable" on tackling gun violence.

He said he heard early reports that the shooter might have had a military-style weapon, saying we need to "keep that (expletive) on the battlefield. Do not bring it into our communities."

"We have to find some reason for optimism and hope or else we consign ourselves to a future where nearly 40,000 people a year will lose their lives to gun violence and I cannot accept that," O'Rourke said.

El Paso has become a focal point of the immigration debate, drawing Trump in February to argue that walling off the southern border would make the U.S. safer, while city residents and O'Rourke led thousands on a protest march past the barrier of barbed wire-topped fencing and towering metal slats.

O'Rourke stressed that border walls haven't made his hometown safer. The city's murder rate was less than half the national average in 2005, the year before the start of its border fence. Before the wall project started, El Paso had been rated one of the three safest major U.S. cities going back to 1997.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, also said the El Paso shooting suspect wasn't on her group's radar screen prior to the shooting.

"We had nothing in our files on him," Beirich wrote in an email.

The shooting is the 21st mass killing in the United States in 2019, and the fifth public mass shooting. Before Saturday, 96 people had died in mass killings in 2019 — 26 of them in public mass shootings.

The AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University mass murder database tracks all U.S. homicides since 2006 involving four or more people killed, not including the offender, over a short period of time regardless of weapon, location, victim-offender relationship or motive. The database shows that the median age of a public mass shooter is 28, significantly lower than the median age of a person who commits a mass shooting of their family.

Since 2006, 11 mass shootings — not including Saturday's — have been committed by men who are 21 or younger.