Junior Firefighters Program prepares children for a fiery future

By Molly Weisner

The road into Warrenton was quiet Monday night.

State Road 1001 dallied through the hills and clusters of forest in Warren County. The sun already set behind the county line, where the impending darkness mixed with the remaining rays.

Only the occasional truck driver rode down the highway, his cockeyed baseball cap and long, white beard reflecting in the windshield. Downtown Warrenton comes into view at the end of a few more quiet miles, and Main Street cuts it clean down the middle.

The street, like the road and the county and the night, was quiet and lightless. However, at its end, right at 7:00, fluorescent lights flashed on. Light spilled from a handsome brick building onto a few pickups parked in front. A garage door cracked open. In the parking lot, heavy boots jumped down from truck beds, and voices greeted each other in the night.

“You ready to get started?” calls an older man in a navy polo to a teenage boy in a sweatshirt and khakis.

“Yes, sir,” he says, leading a group of 14 other teens inside the Warrenton Rural Volunteer Fire Department.

Warren County Junior Firefighters Program
Bradley Pritzing calls to order the monthly meeting of the Warren County Junior Firefighters Program. The 16-year-old is an aspiring firefighter and current president of the program.

The program is a popular and well-known activity for local 12- to 18-year-olds. Professional firefighters working in and around the county help juniors organize monthly meetings, training, competitions, fundraisers, and public events.

Members come from 18 municipal departments within the county’s Firemen’s Association, which includes five departments outside Warren County that provide fire protection and other first-responder services.

The youth also help install fire detectors in residents’ homes and host information sessions in public schools.

“They are visible in the community,” Warrenton Mayor Walter M. Gardner, Jr. said. In a town of fewer than 1,000 people, when there is an emergency or house fire, it is comforting to see a familiar face arrive on the scene, he said.

Sometimes, the juniors ride along to calls, running equipment between responders and trucks.

“They are what we call gophers,” John Franks said, the program’s lead adviser and a career fireman. “Go-for this, go-for that.”

Pitzing stands in the center of a conference room in the back of the station. The other teenagers — mostly boys — sit in a semi-circle of white plastic chairs, dressed in mud-stained jeans, swatches of camo, and baseball caps.

Pitzing stands, turns toward the American flag in the corner, and leads the group through the Pledge of Allegiance. Another boy then recites a group prayer.

Now, they can get to business.

The meeting

The youth-run through their agenda for the meeting: discussing a movie night at the station, preparing for the annual junior competition in April, and planning meetings around the upcoming hunting season, which members insisted not to miss. They discuss recent fires in the community and recap prior training.

“Several people learned that fire is hot,” one boy said, and the group fell into laughter.
Franks corrals the group back to budget talks and what kind of shirts would make the best competition uniforms.

Franks and another graduate of the program, D.K. Trotman, attend meetings to keep the discussion “from falling off the rails.” After they adjourn, the chatter rises again as the group heads back into the garage for an hour of training.

Skinny bodies and lanky limbs get buckled into nearly 45-pound fire suits, complete with jacket, boots, and helmet. They look comically out of proportion with the heavy gear, but they flit and jump among each other as if weighing nothing.

Most of the youth wear helmets of red, black, and green. Each color denotes rank in the simple service: black for professional, red for the captain, and white for chiefs. As a group, they are all learning, but they come from varied experience levels and backgrounds.

History and requirements  

Pitzing’s father, Mark, is the battalion chief for Vance County Fire Department. A few of the other youth also come from two, three, and even four generations of firefighters in the community.

Julian “Juice” Greene, a former junior and current firefighter, said that is common but not required.

“I think the history of volunteer fire service is just that,” said Gardner. “They follow the footsteps of family members that started out years ago.”
Bradley Pitzing then leads the group through ladder-climbing exercises. He quizzes them on terminology and accompanies new members up the ladder.

“Once I got in it, I loved it from then,” he said.

To be a certified North Carolina firefighter in North Carolina, applicants must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma. They must also complete a series of training and tests, but this program gives them a head start.
“Some of the most rewarding stuff was being able to take your classes and get your certification,” said Greg Henry, former program president, and current firefighter for Wilson Fire/Rescue Services. “Just to get that incentive from the program and know that somebody was behind you and somebody was pushing you to go that extra step, get that education, and learn more.”

Henry said mentors pushed him to pursue his degree in fire administration from Liberty University.

The mentors do not receive pay — even full-time firefighters will only make between $30,000 to $40,000 a year on average — but they understand how valuable the program is to community building.

A community rooted in service 

“When I joined this program,” Bradley Pitzing said,” I really opened up. It made me feel like I’m not alone here. I have friends.”

The youth learn how to use thermal imaging cameras and slide face-first down a ladder, but they also learn how to support each other, building critical social skills. When Bradley Pitzing’s grandfather died in June, his teammates sent him food, letters, and flowers.

“He was the biggest thing in my life. But that right there did me in,” Pizing said. “It made me love this program even more.”

The program makes the spacious, rural county feel small, bringing together participants and mentors from small towns in every corner. Each firefighter said they leave the house in the mornings and work with their second family at the Warrenton Rural Volunteer Fire Department.

“We want these kids to understand there’s more to the fire service than just driving our big, shiny red truck, grabbing a firehouse and spraying water,” Mark Pitzing said.

When Trotman’s home caught fire on Sept. 15, the department pulled together to raise money for Trotman and his family. Calls poured in from his “public safety” family.

“In the fire service, it’s always been about brotherhood,” Mark Pitzing said. “These are not only people you’re working with, they’re your friends. This is your family.”

Not every youth who goes through the program will become a firefighter, Franks said, but everyone leaves with the necessary skills and support to be a successful young professional.

Gardner said some youth would never see outside their town or county if not for the program’s travel opportunities through its competitions.

“We want these kids to understand there’s more to the fire service than just driving our big, shiny red truck, grabbing a firehouse and spraying water,” Mark Pitzing said.

The junior firefighters also meet and network with other junior programs in Florida, Texas, and West Virginia.

“When we come in, we come in not knowing a whole lot of people,” Bradley Pitzing said. “But we don’t build friendships; we build our own little family.”

Alongside Greene, Trotman, and Franks, other firefighters supervise the training and chat with the youth, asking how they are doing and what is new with their families. The program is in its twelfth year and has seen many alums return to the station as mentors.

For current and returning members, that is the greatest reward.

“Learning your purpose and the reason you’re doing what you’re doing,” Henry said. “Being able to get out and see the needs in the community, and how much the community actually appreciates what you do.”

Edited by Aashna Shah

‘He’s a presence’: Owner Christopher Carini has kept Linda’s a Chapel Hill staple

By Anne Tate

Longtime Linda’s Bar and Grill customer Lisa Reichle will never forget when owner Christopher Carini hurdled over the Linda’s Downbar to greet her.

“He came swinging around the bar and jumped over it in this way that told me he had been practicing,” Reichle said. “The bar was his, the space was his. Everything was Chris’ in that moment, and it was amazingly funny.”

Reichle has been a regular at Linda’s for nearly 30 years. The bartenders know her name, and when she places orders over the phone, they always know it’s her. Her giveaway, she said, is that she’s the only one who orders apples as a side. She calls Linda’s Instagram posts “Lisa bait” because a picture of Paco’s fish tacos is all it takes for her to think, “damn it, now I have to go.”

When Carini, 35, took over the bar in 2011, Reichle knew there was something different about the way he would do things.

“Chris is manic in the best way,” she said. “He gets ideas and he goes with them and he’s excited.”

Carini discovered Linda’s at just the right time, with just the right drive to restore the Chapel Hill treasure and make it his own.

“I was 22 with my hair on fire,” he said.

It was the glowing red, scripted Yuengling sign that drew Carini into Linda’s for the first time in 2008. He was homesick, and the beer made in Pennsylvania, close to where he grew up in Hollidaysburg and attended college at Penn State, reminded him of home. The interior looked like the type of place you would carve your name into the molding and sit with your friends for six hours drinking on a Friday.

“It was a s—hole,” Carini said.

But he was in love – Linda’s was dirty, not broken.

“Dad, I’m going to buy this place,” Carini said four months later at Linda’s Tuesday night trivia.

Three years later, Carini sold his house, sold his Porsche, cashed out all of his belongings, and did.

Chapel Hill has other bars, but Linda’s – the loud enough to have a good time but quiet enough to have a conversation gathering hub – has been a Chapel Hill staple since 1976.

When loyal customer Evan Markfield, who has visited Linda’s once a week since 1997, heard that Linda’s had been sold, he was “kind of freaked out.”

“What if everything changes?” he thought. “What if they don’t have the cheese fries?”

After meeting Carini, who he describes as a ball of energy, Markfield quickly learned that Linda’s would stay Linda’s.

The day he acquired Linda’s, Carini deep-cleaned the restaurant and bar for 10 days straight. His goal was not to transform it, but to make it cleaner and nicer. He wanted to keep the good parts, even the Linda’s ghost, who allegedly likes to toss things around. He worked 100 to 120 hours a week and didn’t sleep much. At the end of each day, he looked and smelled like he had been dipped in beer.

He wanted to create an atmosphere of camaraderie.

“It’s about friendship and getting together and sitting there with four or five of your friends and telling stories and lies and flirting with the bartenders,” Carini said.

UNC-Chapel Hill basketball games, Super Bowls, trivia nights and other events hosted by Linda’s brings locals to the door. And Carini does not hesitate to jump over the bar to join the action.

For four years, Markfield hosted an open mic night in the Downbar. Carini would never fail to accompany Markfield on stage to sing a duet of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.”

Carini contributes to the atmosphere and is a part of Linda’s core.

“He’s a presence,” Markfield said.

Fear and Doubt

When COVID-19 hit, Carini transformed Linda’s again. But it looked more like an impenetrable fortress than a restaurant. He and his staff gave away around $6,000 worth of food, locked up the beer and liquor, changed the locks, reinforced the doors and updated the security protocols.

Linda’s closed on March 19, tried to reopen on June 6, but closed again on August 23.

“Linda’s is boarded up,” Carini wrote in his journal. “Breaks my f—— heart.”

He wasn’t sure if closing Linda’s was the right choice and he didn’t know when, or if, Linda’s would open again.

He felt like everything he had worked for over the past 10 years was ending.

The day after closing, he set out on the three-week-long road trip out West he had been planning for 20 years with his Australian cattle dog Bullet. He drove for 29 hours and 45 minutes from Chapel Hill to Colorado Springs and didn’t stop for more than a half-hour at a time.

It was north of Moab, Utah, surrounded by vast spans of burnt orange rocks and desert at Arches National Park, where Carini found the perfect place to clear his head.

“Somewhere in the middle of the Arches, I decided to leave behind all of my doubt, fear, guilt and sadness,” he said. “I drove out into the middle of the desert and left it there.”

He stood on top of his white four-door Toyota Tacoma and watched the sun set to his left and the moon rise to his right. It looked like you could take a knife and cut the sky where the light was different.

“I had this moment where I looked up and was like, ‘OK I get it, I get it! Balance.’”

There, on top of his truck in the middle of Utah, he decided that closing Linda’s was the right thing to do.

He missed interacting with people. But he had to be patient.

He felt healed.

A Fresh Start  

Now, Carini is back to work. He’s tweaking the Linda’s menu and finishing renovation projects around the restaurant. In the next two years, he will search for UNC alumni to purchase the restaurant and bar. His biggest condition: it will always be Linda’s.

“There’s no place quite like Linda’s,” Carini said. “I know Linda’s will survive and I’ll make sure that it does.”

He’s not the only one who wants to preserve Linda’s. Reichle calculated how much she would tip at Linda’s every week and donates $50 monthly to a GoFundMe page supporting its unemployed staff. So far, the page has raised over $22,000.

“When it comes to Linda’s, it’s a community,” Reichle said. “Linda’s was there when we needed comfort.”

She looks forward to when she can hug Carini and order the homemade pimento-cheese-topped Danny Boy burger with a Linda’s 76 cocktail again.

“Linda’s is all of the sort of best social things that we experience rolled into one place,” Markfield said.

He describes it as the “perfect encapsulation” of what people are missing during the pandemic.

Linda’s looks the same inside as it did before it closed. Everything is in its place, except for a few boxes scattered about and a few less chairs. The most action Linda’s sees these days is probably its ghost, flinging things around from time to time, probably wondering where everyone is and where the smell of baked macaroni and cheese went. But Carini will soon welcome back the staff and customers that make Linda’s feel like home.

Edited by Ryan Heller

D.C. locals feed children around city, persevere through COVID-19

By Anna Mudd

Fridays are delivery days for the To Be Well Fed team. Co-founder Dave Kiyvyra mans the wheel of his family’s white SUV, the back jostling with cups of oatmeal, fruit, soup and other groceries.

On Thursdays, his whole family shops. Dave, his wife Alicia, and their sons Luther, Abdisa and Memphis struggle to keep their full carts from tumbling over, like a huge game of grocery Jenga. Later, they spread the food across their floor and organize it into bright green bags. 

On Friday around 8 a.m., the team leaves their home in Ward 3 in northwest Washington, D.C. and crosses the Anacostia River, heading southeast to Ward 8. From their car window, they see the clean-cut brick row houses give way to rundown apartments and chain-link fences. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Dave would drive to Wheeler Road, walk into Eagle Academy Public Charter School and hand bags of food to a social worker. 

When the Kiyvyras first started To Be Well Fed, they served five kids at Eagle Academy, but quickly expanded to Friendship Southeast Academy and Center City Public Charter School.

A few months later, they connected with Melissa Gomes, a Student Support Coordinator at Friendship Academy, who works with Dave and Alicia to identify the neediest children. 

Inspiring action

In 2017, Alicia and Dave found clarity. Disheartened by Hillary Clinton’s loss to President Donald Trump, they sought comfort in community, starting with their neighborhood Unitarian church. 

They aren’t religious, “never have been,” Dave said. But, they wanted reassurance of good in the world. 

In her sermon, the Rev. Kären Rasmussen spoke about her nonprofit, No Child Goes Hungry. Her message that anyone can help hungry kids resonated with Dave and Alicia. They formed an idea and a sense of purpose. It doesn’t take much to help; just buy some extra groceries. 

“I feel like everything in my life has led me to where I am now with To Be Well Fed,” Alicia said. 

She remembers a similar program, called “In His Name,” that her grandfather ran when she was a little girl. She remembers his old red truck and the bed full of groceries taken from his greenhouse-turned-food-storage-space. The two drove through the streets of Fort Smith, Arkansas, picking up food donations and delivering them to hungry families. 

She was young, naive and didn’t understand that most people don’t bring food to needy families. The farther she traveled from Arkansas, the more she realized this was rare. It’s stuck with her. 

On the other hand, Dave is a D.C. local. 

“I’m a native of a very privileged part of D.C.,” he said. “There’s no connection between these areas so trying to figure out how I can bridge that gap and play a meaningful role in my community is important.” 

The Kiyvyras have always known that there was a hunger problem in Ward 8. As the Director of Development for Lindamood-Bell for Schools, Dave often works in these neighborhoods. He’s seen kids fall asleep in class or eat school meals so quickly they threw up. In Ward 8 alone, 14% of kids are homeless and 47% are below the poverty line. One school they deliver to has a “detox room” for kids high from secondhand smoke or drugs they encounter at home.

“We’re struggling to help these kids read and write, but they can’t because they’re hungry,” Dave said. 

The final push came just a few weeks after the sermon. 

Dave sat at his office desk reading The Washington Post. He came across an article headlined “Did your father die?” It was about Tyshaun McPhatter, a then 7-year-old at Eagle Academy who lived in the nearby Congress Heights neighborhood. He was in school when his father was shot. Tyshaun heard the sirens and thought, “I hope my daddy is okay,” the article said.

Dave and Alicia were devastated thinking about what life was like for Tyshaun and others in the area.

Within days, they set up a GoFundMe page and used the donations to buy groceries. They wanted the food to be simple — no cooking, no prep – because many of these kids have no kitchen access. 

Donors encouraged them to create a 501(c)(3) organization, which they named To Be Well Fed. 

The bridge

The Kiyvyras  needed someone in the schools to get the food to the kids. Enter Melissa. 

She initially chose kids to receive packs of food based on the schools’ homeless list. Now, the list has grown to families who reach out to her, many living in areas deemed “food deserts.” These families often can’t drive or walk to a local grocery store.

When Melissa shows up at their homes, kids spill out of the doors, excited to see her. The parents’ relief is unmistakable. 

“You can just tell it’s this thing over their heads they’ve been worried about,” she said. 

She and the Kiyvyras have seen the impact of these donations firsthand. Pre-pandemic, Melissa would hand the bags to the kids at school. Some of them ate everything before school let out. One child opened the bag of food, grabbing the instant oatmeal cup. He was so hungry, he ate the dry flakes from the plastic container, no milk, no microwave.

Growth during a pandemic

As To Be Well Fed grew, Costco deliveries replaced the Thursday grocery trips. 

“Just when you think they’re doing everything, they step it up another level,” Melissa said. 

When the pandemic hit, she wasn’t sure Dave and Alicia would continue. But when schools closed, the Kiyvyras dropped food off at Melissa’s house so she could deliver bags directly to children’s homes. 

“You had it looking like Aldi’s in my kitchen,” she told Dave.

Following the green bags

Two siblings stand out to Melissa. A girl and boy living with their grandmother in the Woodland Terrace apartment complex in Anacostia. When Melissa shows up, the little girl runs out to help her. 

Homebound, their grandmother battles the pandemic and her own declining health. A lot of days, it’s tough to get food on the table, and the arrival of her daughter’s newborn this summer added pressure. 

The grandmother said she isn’t one to accept charity. But when the pandemic hit, “I needed to start accepting things, because it got tight,” she said.  

She’s come across a sea of people, she said, who say they care or want to help her. But, “at the end of the day they couldn’t care less.”  

She thinks the Kiyvyras and Melissa are different. 

“Everything is short and sweet. That’s about all you can say, you grateful,” she said, adding “they always say God put a special blessing and angel in everyone’s life, and he did that by putting the people that donate into my life.” 

Moving forward

Dave and Alicia don’t consider themselves angels. “There are massive amounts of inequities in this city and we know food won’t resolve those,” Alicia said. 

They said it’s important to take direct action in bridging this divide others often ignore. They hope to soon expand to four schools. 

“There’s something more tangible and meaningful from doing that action yourself. It’s easy for people to think that there’s some organization who takes care of things. In reality, this isn’t always true,” Dave said. 

Deliveries bring them a sense of hope; it’s a step toward bringing the wards together.

Every Friday in their loaded-down SUV, the family is a rolling pantry. They drive down Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, passing the Washington Monument and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. They cross the 11th Street Bridge and turn up Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, passing liquor stores, fast food restaurants and drug treatment centers neighboring the schools.

Children in Ward 8 await their deliveries, because for many of them, these food bags bring them the chance to be well fed.

Edited by Anne Tate

Burmese refugee and Carolina Inn caretaker gives back to the community

By Britney Nguyen

The antique wooden and marble floors of The Carolina Inn wouldn’t gleam if not for Simon Lamh.

As a caretaker of the building, Lamh waxes and buffs the floors, a job that allows him to show his appreciation for the almost 100-year-old building.

After he was furloughed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lamh was able to use these skills to show his appreciation for another historical building, and for a community that supported him as a newly arrived Chin refugee from Burma in the United States.

For the past 6 years, Lamh spent an evening, every six months, cleaning, waxing, drying and buffing the hardwood floors in the Martin Luther King Community Room at University Baptist Church (UBC) in Chapel Hill.

Lamh was always limited from fully repairing the floors and fixing other parts of the room because it was often used as a communal gathering space. When COVID-19 forced UBC to cancel services and activities at the church and the community center, Lamh had the opportunity to repair the rest of the MLK Community Room.

Through a translator who helped him with his English, Lamh said he wanted to do the repairs because the church community had offered to let him use the room for free to host gatherings for the Chin Christian Fellowship group.

Lamh and his wife, Dim Lam Cing, are full members of UBC and lead 20 other Chin refugee families who are also church members. Lamh’s involvement with UBC started when he first settled in the U.S. and met another refugee from Burma.

A long journey.

For almost ten years, Lamh has lived in the U.S. with his wife and their three children, two of whom were born in the country. Before he resettled as a refugee in the U.S., he lived in Malaysia as a Chin refugee from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the name Lamh uses when referring to his homeland. Lamh grew up as a Christian in the Tedim Township Khuasak Village in the Chin state of Burma.

“There are many reasons why I left the country,” Lamh said through a translator. “There were no jobs, no work and there were many things we were being forced to do.”

It was better to work outside of Burma and better to leave the country. It was also difficult to be a Christian.

“Christians cannot build churches legally all over the country and there are many limitations,” he said. “Before, there were many church buildings, but the government confiscated them to use as school buildings.”

In 2007, Lamh left Burma for Malaysia.

“The reason why I chose Malaysia is that it is a place where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was taking refugees and accepting refugee registration,” Lamh said.

Lamh paid an agent to smuggle him out of Burma. He was carried in the trunk of a truck with two other people. He risked being arrested like many people who tried to leave before him because he left this way.

“If you leave one country into another country without a proper way, you cannot return if you like,” Lamh said.

Lamh left his wife behind when he left Burma. Eventually he asked her to join him in Malaysia when he could settle there.

For 18 months, Lamh stayed at Welcome Community Home, which he described as a non-governmental organization in Malaysia. He had to wait here to register for refugee resettlement through UNHCR. While there, Lamh worked in restaurants, in construction and did truck driving.

“In the rainy season, it’s not good to drive, so I didn’t work during the rainy season,” Lamh said.

After his wife joined him, they had to go through an interview with the UNHCR to explain their situation and why they should be considered refugees.

Lamh explained that living conditions in Burma were very difficult. He said he had to do forced labor like repairing roads. There was a military camp close to where he lived, and Lamh said the military would force him and other people from his town to go out and gather bamboo for them.

Lamh said the village chief and community leaders collected money by force, especially when someone of a higher government rank was visiting. The police also collected money.

When Lamh and his wife were informed that their application was accepted, they waited for UNHCR to continue their resettlement process.

“From there, they sent us to North Carolina, we didn’t choose the place,” Lamh said. “I just decided wherever they sent us, I will stay there until I die.”

New beginnings in North Carolina.

Lamh and his wife arrived at Oak Creek Village, an apartment complex in Durham, in 2011 with their daughter, Cingthian Muang Lamh, who was born in Malaysia just prior to their arrival in the United States.

Lamh got to know two other refugees living in Chapel Hill who told him about University Baptist Church. One of the refugees was also from Burma and had also gone through Malaysia to be resettled.

“They told me I would do very good if I got enrolled as soon as possible,” Lamh said.

Lamh and his wife were mostly aided by case workers from a resettlement agency, but after Lamh and his wife joined UBC, church members in the community helped the family by giving them clothes and furniture.

When he arrived in the United States, Lamh wanted to work in farming or gardening. He applied to different jobs at The Carolina Inn and at a 30-acre farm in Raleigh.

“I got both jobs but I was advised that The Carolina Inn would be a better option,” Lamh said.

Lamh started working as a caretaker of the building at The Carolina Inn in 2013. Before he got his job at The Carolina Inn, Lamh worked at the Hampton Inn where he would have to walk everyday.

“It was not easy, especially in winter,” Lamh said. “It took about an hour to get home.”

Giving back to the community.

Lamh just wanted to do something to thank the community that helped his family.

“I don’t get involved here and there socially, only at church,” Lamh said. “I consider religion a big part of my life even when I cannot go to church.”

After 7 years at The Carolina Inn, Lamh was furloughed from his caretaking job because of COVID-19. Lamh finally had the time to fully restore the MLK Community Room at UBC.

He recruited a fellow Carolina Inn worker, Saw Ka Iu, also from Burma, to help him with the repairs.

For weeks, the two men stripped the peeling plaster off of the walls and floors. Lamh purchased a professional cleaning and buffing machine to clean all the carpets in the 5,000-square foot room. He washed the windows and cleaned the HVAC vents.

In a letter to the UBC congregation, DeWanna Banks, one of the members of the church who helped Lamh’s family when they resettled in the U.S., wrote, “The Lamh family has chosen to reinvest the struggle and suffering they endured on their pilgrimage to Chapel Hill in the beautiful restoration of a community icon.”

Edited by Makenna Smith

Carrboro’s Elmo’s Diner: another victim of COVID-19 pandemic

By Brian Keyes

There should be noise and a flurry of activity around Carr Mill Mall on any given Sunday morning. The line of early risers should give way to the hungover college students, sipping on the coffee they poured from the cart outside. Soon, the church crowd would start to file in sometime around 11 a.m. The line would stretch outside while friends and neighbors chatted away, anticipating their breakfast at Carrboro’s Elmo’s Diner.

Young children would have scampered by the green booths and wobbly diner chairs. Friends who were far too old for such things would have been grabbing a box of crayons to color in one of the iconic ducks that lined the diner’s walls.

A year ago, that would have been the case, but COVID-19 has taken all that away. Elmo’s Diner stood as a pillar for the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro for 29 years as a place where families and college students alike could devour plates of waffles and huevos rancheros from early morning till night.

But not anymore.

The end came suddenly — on March 15, the diner announced it would be closing down due to COVID-19 with the intention of reopening when it was safe. On September 18th, the community was notified that the beloved diner would stay closed for good.

Former resident Steve Dear moved away in 2015, but his heart has always remained in Chapel Hill — at least the version of it that he remembered. Years of development have expanded the sleepy college town that he first came to in 1990 into something he hardly recognized.

“I never looked at it this way, but in a way, Elmo’s was this one dimensional American ideal of the 50s, you know? This wholesome diner kind of place,” Dear said. “But in a cooler way than that.”

Elmo’s was a constant. No matter what else was happening, the diner in Carr Mill Mall always stayed the same.

Elmo’s was meaningful to patrons

Anyone who ever spent time in the area has a story about what Elmo’s meant to them. The Facebook announcement that the diner would close for good has over 300 comments and over 600 shares from former patrons, friends and neighbors.

While attending school at UNC in the mid-90s, Allison Tuell met her husband, Ken, at Elmo’s while working as a waitress. A year’s worth of interactions over coffee turned into flowers on Valentine’s Day, which Ken delivered to Allison’s manager so she wouldn’t be embarrassed at work.

Flowers soon turned into a housewarming party for the first house Ken completed at his contracting job, after which Allison says she never really left his side again. They married in 1999, and soon, two kids followed, Aydan and Tristan, who grew up eating at Elmo’s and hearing their parents’ love story. Now well over two hours away in Asheville where the family moved in 2010, the diner was the family’s touchstone to their old town.

“It seemed, when you would go back, a lot of things changed around,” Allison said. “But when you look at the bricks of the Carr Mill Mall and the old wood floors, it was the same. You got to go back and just feel what Chapel Hill was.”

There are hundreds, if not thousands of stories like the Tuells’. Dear took his kids, Patrick and Katie, to Elmo’s, sometimes several times a week while his wife, Janet, was in graduate school. Anna Morgan, a former UNC student who graduated last year, went for the first time with her boyfriend James in the winter of 2017 (she contends it was a date, he insists it was just dinner with a friend at the time). For years, Christina Sztukowski spent every Saturday there with her father, taking the time to catch up after he was away most of the week on business.

Chapel Hill might have changed drastically since 1991 when Elmo’s first opened — longtime staples like Spanky’s and Pepper’s Pizza having long since closed before COVID-19 shuttered many restaurants’ doors — but Elmo’s was always there.

And now it’s gone.

A stark reminder of COVID-19’s impact

“There’s a strange irony that people always will, you know, go on and on and on about how much they love a place when they’re closed,” Stephen Judge said. “You know, Elmo’s is unique and different because they were still being widely supported and loved even before this.”

Judge, who owns the Schoolkid Records store in Chapel Hill, as well as one in Raleigh, also works with artists who sign under the label of the same name. Elmo’s was where he would take them in the mornings if they had time for breakfast after playing at Cat’s Cradle the night before.

“I think that that’s important lesson to learn, is that, that we need to value these places while they’re still here,” Judge said.

Elmo’s is now a stark reminder of the world Chapel Hill occupies. The dangers of a global pandemic that has already claimed the lives of over 210,000 Americans reaches everywhere, including “the southern part of heaven.” Several other local spots, including Ms. Mong, Kipos and Lula’s, have also permanently shut down.

Despite loosened restrictions that allow for limited indoor seating, Elmo’s small interior and kitchen — formerly part of its cozy charm — proved to be unworkable in a time of masks and social distancing.

For people like Dear who spent his career in Chapel Hill fighting for lives as the executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, the closure was a bittersweet silver lining in the restaurant’s history.

“I mean, they stayed closed, and to the point where they had to go out of business,” Dear said. “But they didn’t kill anybody.”

A diner that will be missed

Mostly, folks are just sad that it’s gone. Not shocked, because there’s not much to be shocked about these days. Just sad.

“I took it a little harder than we thought we would,” Whitley Simone Harris, a resident of the Triangle for the past four years, said. “Because on the one hand, it’s just a restaurant. But on the other hand, it was just this little nice spot for us.”

She still hasn’t told her children, Trey and Geneva, that Elmo’s closed down. She doesn’t have the mental bandwidth right now to tell her two toddlers that their favorite pancake spot won’t be there when this is all over.

On any given Sunday evening, the dinner crowd would roll in around 5 p.m., consisting of students from nearby apartments looking for a cheap bite to eat before returning to homework due the next day, or parents too tired to cook that night.

There should be children wiggling to escape the small outdoor patio. There should be teens ordering waffles with a scoop of ice cream, and old men at the counter enjoying their “square meals” of meatloaf, chicken and dumplings.

Instead, there is just the silence of a now empty diner, nestled quietly into a corner of a college town mall that is waiting to see what will close next.

Edited by Natalia Bartkowiak

The journey of the Asian American Center’s establishment

By Paige Masten


For most of his life, Abhishek Shankar wanted to be white.

Shankar, 20, is Indian American. Shankar’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s, hoped their American-born children would still embrace their Indian identity. But they didn’t know they’d be raising Shankar and his brother in a world post-9/11, heightened with racism and anti-brown violence.

It doesn’t matter that they aren’t Arab nor Muslim, though neither of those identities make someone any less American; to the rest of the country, it doesn’t matter.

Someone throws a brick through Shankar’s parents’ car after 9/11. For nearly a decade, Shankar’s mother refrains from wearing cultural Indian clothing, so she doesn’t stand out.

The Shankars choose to separate themselves from their Indian identity, hoping their children’s experiences in America will be better.

Despite all of their efforts to help their sons assimilate — burying the religion, the language, the culture — Shankar and his brother still have the same experience and are still perceived in the same way.

The constant question of “where are you from?” The time someone from the neighborhood told Shankar and his family they were “sand n——.”

“I hate how I look,” Shankar would think to himself. “I hate that my skin is this color.”

Then, in 2017, Shankar comes to UNC-Chapel Hill as a bright-eyed first year and finds himself surrounded by a community who knows exactly how that feels.

Asian Americans, the largest ethnic minority at UNC, comprise about 11% of the student body and 20% of the 2020 incoming class. But in 2017, they are the only group without a space dedicated to its culture on campus — and a survey conducted by UNC in 2016 found that 35% of Asian American students reported they lacked a sense of belonging.

“The journey of self-acceptance and embracing the culture only happened when I came to college,” Shankar says. “Seeing that there were people like me that were proud of who they were, and willing to share it with others.”

Now, Shankar is the director of the student-led Asian American Center campaign, which has spent more than a year working to establish an on-campus space where Shankar and his peers can feel supported and understood.


The seed is planted

It’s May 2019 and Sean Nguyen is meeting his friend June Yom, president of the Asian American Students Association, for coffee. Yom told him that Eugene Lao, a UNC alumnus who co-founded AASA more than 30 years ago, wanted to give the organization a $100,000 gift.

But Yom thought the money could be used for something bigger — the creation of an Asian American Center at UNC.

Nguyen, 21, has struggled with what it means to be Asian American; he calls the creation of the center his “coming-of-age moment.” Nguyen believes in the center, so he becomes the inaugural director of the student campaign.

Shankar, co-director of development Preeyanka Rao and several of their peers spend the following summer laying the roots for what they hope will become the Asian American Center.

Nguyen describes the campaign experience as “serendipitous,” and from that day forward, things begin to fall into place. Ten students working from their bedrooms over the summer, bringing a dream to life and conducting phone calls and meetings reaching across time zones. They talk with UNC’s administration, convincing them that the community needs a center like this on campus.

They are not the first students to have this dream — the seed had been planted more than two decades before by student advocates of an Asian American Resource Center. But without enough administrative support and momentum to water it, the dream shriveled up.

Now, a new generation of students is here to replant the seed, and for Shankar, Rao and Nguyen, continuing the movement feels like coming full circle.


The budding of the center

Shankar is studying in Washington, D.C. for the semester. It’s Jan. 29, a Wednesday, so he’s at work, performing his duties as an intern for a public health organization. From the outside, it seems like a normal day.

But today, the campaign team faces its biggest obstacle yet: getting the approval of the University Board of Trustees.

Shankar can’t focus, his anxiety is too high. On his lunch break, his eyes are glued to his phone, frantically checking for updates from his teammates, who are gathered in the ballroom of the Carolina Inn, listening to the meeting and awaiting the board’s decision.

Finally, Shankar gets a text from Rao: the board has officially granted the Asian American Center authorization to establish.

Shankar doesn’t get emotional often, but the immensity of the moment overwhelms him. Suddenly, everything they’ve been working toward for almost a year — the fundraising, the organizing, the late nights and exhaustion — feels so incredibly real.

Back in Chapel Hill, the team is celebrating with hugging, crying and standing in shock, struggling to process the full extent of what just happened.

“Damn,” Nguyen thinks to himself. “We really did that.”

Rao describes that moment as one of the highlights of her year. But she knows the gates have just opened and there is much work left to be done to get the center off the ground.

This crucial step in their journey happened much faster than the team could have hoped for or expected, but the road ahead is long and winding. The team struggles with juggling the responsibilities of being full-time students while pouring their hearts and souls into the campaign.

“We felt the weight of Asian American activists at UNC historically on our shoulders, and the future of Asian American students depending on us to get this job done,” Nguyen says.


A center in bloom

Only nine months later, the center is preparing for its official opening.

It’s the fastest that a center has ever been built at UNC. By comparison, the Carolina Latinx Center, which opened in July 2019, took more than 10 years.

It’s an impressive feat, but the campaign team knows the journey began much earlier in 1994, when the first whispers of an Asian American Resource Center appeared in the student newspaper. It began in the moments when Shankar, Rao, Nguyen and their peers felt they didn’t belong on campus, when they wished for more resources on campus for people like them.

“We knew it wouldn’t benefit us,” Shankar says. “We knew that it wouldn’t ultimately happen in our timeline, but it would be something that was ever-present for every future generation to come.”

The center’s inaugural event — a discussion of the film “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” — is the first in a series of events about anti-Blackness in the Asian American community. Rao and the development team have raised around $630,000 so far. Now, they’re hoping to raise $5 million over the next five years to fully endow the center, so it can exist in perpetuity.

Until that event, Shankar says, it still felt like an idea. But it hits him like a wave: the center is here.

He hopes that the center will serve as a resource for students like him, who’ve struggled to come to terms with their identity.

“I don’t think the way to address it is avoidance,” Shankar says. “Avoid the difficult conversations, avoid sharing in the culture, things like that. And that’s why I think the center will be successful because I really just don’t want what happened to me — what happened to people like me — to happen to others in the future.”

The team knows they’ve created something much bigger than themselves — a place for future generations of Asian American students to explore, affirm and belong. At last, the seed will bloom. To Nguyen, the moment feels historic.

“Events at the center will come and go, but regardless, there will be that presence there,” Nguyen says. “And somebody’s job at UNC-Chapel Hill will be to make sure that there is a center promoting Asian American voices and Asian American culture.”


Edited by: Evan Castillo

Mural links people from Greece, America, Mexico despite differences

By Meredith Radford


In a small school on a small island last year, all a young girl wanted to do was paint with the biggest brush in the brightest orange color, spreading the paint as widely as she could across the canvas. Sarah Cornette just kept trying to hand her smaller brushes.


“She wasn’t meaning to be mischievous, or even cover up other people’s work. She just had never painted before and it was so exciting,” Cornette said.


Cornette came to Samos Island, Greece, to give the children seeking refuge there a chance to create.


Cornette wanted these children to be part of a mural project she’d started with her art club students, many of whom were migrants and refugees as well, at Mary Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill months before.


With each group that Cornette worked with, she always asked them to paint what was important to their community. Each time she wanted to add a piece to the mural, she rolled up the heavy canvas and carried it to the next location.


Her students’ mural showed the landscape of North Carolina, with mountains filled with children’s faces on one end, the beach on the other and their school in the middle.



The beginnings of Cornette’s mural project



Cornette received a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant to make her project, Same Difference The Mural, happen. Her plan was to have one panel painted by students in Chapel Hill, and one panel done by students, including refugees, in Greece to see how art could bridge the gap between cultures and experiences.


After working with students in Chapel Hill, she traveled to Greece to work with students in the 3rd Middle School/High School of Thessaloniki.


The students of Thessaloniki made their mural panel as a sort of complementary piece to the Scroggs students’. Where the other panel had the sun, they put a moon, and they had the sea meet the ocean of the other students’ panel.


But there weren’t any refugee children in the Thessaloniki school as Cornette had expected. So she sewed on another panel and planned a trip to Samos.


Refugees on Samos traveled the Mediterranean Sea on overcrowded rafts from Turkey with the hope of gaining asylum in Europe. But for now, they were kept in an overflowing camp full of makeshift shelters, separated from the impoverished town down the hill.


Cornette’s daughter, Eliza Cornette Cook, traveled to Samos with her. Cornette Cook said places like Samos still show signs that they were once popular tourist destinations.


“They’re very strange, surreal places to be,” she said.


The children would come down the hill from their camp to the school, Mazí, meaning “together,” to paint the mural. They painted the stark difference between their camp and the town below.


They used grays, blacks and browns for the camp, but colored the town with bright yellows, blues and pinks. They included a raft headed toward shore filled with people saying “mama,” “papa” and “family.”



The spontaneous final piece



When Cornette returned to the U.S. to show the mural, she was immediately hounded with daily news and conversation about the immigration crisis at her own border.


“It was just impossible for me not to see the parallels with what was happening on Samos, and to feel pretty shocked by that, as a person from a country that was founded on offering people shelter from persecution,” Cornette said.


She decided then that it wasn’t finished.


This time, she’d have to fund the trip and this part of the mural herself, with the help of her friend Laura Streitfeld.


Streitfeld said that Cornette’s project was important because it showed humanity and told the story of people who were faceless in the news.


Within a few months, Cornette was on her way to El Paso, Texas to add another panel to the mural, this time with her good friend Kerry James.


They weren’t allowed in the shelters on the U.S. side of the border, so they crossed into Ciudad Juárez every day to work with people at Casa Del Migrante, a shelter run by the Catholic Diocese in Ciudad Juárez.


What was intended to be a project involving around 10 kids, ended up including as many kids, adults and whole families as could fit in the shelter’s small dining hall to draw and paint.


After the families finished planning their sketches, Cornette showed them the rest of the mural.


“That was kind of important to me that the kids unroll what the other children had done,” Cornette said. “It’s almost like a narrative scroll.”


But Cornette noticed that after the first day, the girls who had expressed interest in working on the mural had stopped showing up. Cornette and James found out that the girls weren’t allowed to come work on the art; there were too many boys present and their fathers were worried for their safety.


“That has a lot to do with what happens on the journeys from their home countries through these very dangerous situations,” Cornette said.


So, they decided to organize a girls-only hour.


“Whatever they’ve experienced or whatever they were worried about, I can’t really appreciate as a white woman from a completely different culture,” Cornette said.


James said Cornette had the participants be the ones to make decisions about what went on the mural.


“I was super impressed with how she gave up the expectation of what the outcome would be,” James said. “And she really let the kids do the art.”


Cornette said the Juárez mural showed things that they longed for, like school, peace and a place to practice their religion safely.


“It was things that we just don’t even think about, that we just assume,” Cornette said.



What Cornette learned



On all of these projects, Cornette said it having a community partner was vital.


“You can’t just walk into another culture like this and expect people to trust you,” Cornette said. “You need to have someone who has been there, who knows the people, who know their names, who can explain both what you’re trying to do, but also explain to you what the problem is.”


Cornette said everyone was grateful to be working with color and creating art together.


“It really just built my belief in the power of the arts to connect people,” she said.


Streitfeld said the mural shares a story that few folks get to hear.


“It tells us so much about children whose voices haven’t been heard, but who have been referred to as nameless numbers in the news,” she said.


Cornette showed the mural at her new school, The Hawbridge School in Saxapahaw, NC after she returned. She said it facilitated conversations about refugees and the border crisis.


“I hope that through talking about it, some kids from rural North Carolina were able to gain some empathy,” Cornette said.


She wants to find the mural a permanent home, but it’s been difficult. Cornette said part of the problem is that although the problems at the border haven’t gone away, they are discussed less.


“The indignation over that faded,” Cornette said. “It became something that wasn’t part of the news cycle anymore, and people weren’t as interested in it.”


For now, the 34-foot mural sits rolled up underneath her bed.


Edited by Annelise Collins

‘They still get the same feeling’: UNC-Chapel Hill’s A Moment of Magic captures pre-pandemic spark

By Jared McMasters

When walking into the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill last October, Heidi Kreis forced a smile across her face.

Kreis, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time, slogged through one of those days. She had the stress of exams and schoolwork lingering in the back of her mind, and a 20-pound blond wig resting on her head that strained her neck.

The 45 minutes Kreis spent applying makeup and squeezing into her costume multiplied her impatience by the second. But, she still encouraged herself, saying it would just be for two hours and to do her best.

“Truthfully, I did go in with a bad attitude,” she said.

Kreis’ is typically the one brightening peoples’ moods through her work with UNC-CH’s chapter of A Moment of Magic. It is a nationwide nonprofit organization that sends volunteers to their local hospitals dressed as superheroes or fairytale princesses to visit children with serious illnesses.

But, in this instance, 4-year-old Mia Ivey was the one cheering up Kreis. About six months prior to Kreis’ visit, doctors diagnosed the little girl with Stage IV Neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer most commonly found in young children typically originating around the kidneys.

Being days after Mia’s fourth birthday, Kreis arrived to see a miniature replica of herself coming out to greet her near the front entrance at Ronald McDonald House. The 4-year-old donned a wig woven together with yellow yarn, a lavender-colored dress, and carrying a handful of Rapunzel dolls.

Kreis’s weary smile relaxed into a natural one.

The college student had intended to only visit for about two hours but ended up staying for five. The two princesses spent the time enjoying a game of hide and seek in the building’s massive courtyard before heading inside. Kreis showered Mia with gifts of coloring books, Play-Doh, and even more dolls.

“It took [Mia’s] mind off what she was going through,” Ivy Ivey, Mia’s mother, said. “To this day, she still talks about when they visited, and she’ll tell people she got to meet a princess.”

It’s all these countless experiences that make the UNC-CH senior’s time in A Moment of Magic worthwhile.

Before College: ‘The Magic of Camp’

Since middle school, Kreis has gone out of her way to be a pillar of support for others.

After spending her childhood summers attending camps with her older brother, Scott, she jumped at the opportunity to become a counselor in training at Camp Kanata, an overnight camp in Wake Forest. After two summers of training, Kreis earned a certification to supervise her own troop of campers a few years before she arrived at UNC.

For most teenagers, spending 10 weeks under the burden of on-call shifts at an overnight camp, sharing a log cabin with nearly a dozen screaming elementary schoolers, and preparing group activities for kids with fleeting attention spans sounds like a terrific way to ruin a summer.

Not for Kreis.

“That probably was one of the biggest parts of my life, especially growing up through high school,” she said. “Camp was something I looked forward to, and those are the friends I really love.”

During one of her final summers working at Camp Kanata, a social worker dropped off 10-year-old Grace. She had very few belongings, which was a rarity at a camp that costs parents a grand per week.

“Heidi was always really good at working with the kids who really needed a little more attention in order to have the best time that they could,” Scott said.

At the start of that week, all 350 campers took part in the standard boys versus girls cheer-off. Grace isolated herself while the rest of the girls shouted, “We are young girls, strong girls, living on a lake going to take on the world someday” to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

Kreis made it her mission to take Grace under her wing for the rest of the week, slowly incorporating her into group activities with the rest of the campers. By Friday, the young girl was braiding her friends’ hair, exchanging school emails to stay in touch, and screaming “Angels, butterflies, daisies, too, we’re gonna rock this house for you” in the cheer-off rematch.

“As the week went on, things got really fun for her,” Kreis said. “She saw the magic of camp, which is a different type of magic from A Moment of Magic, but it’s still a great feeling.”

How COVID Impacted A Moment of Magic

Local hospitals have understandably transformed into impenetrable fortresses over the last seven months.

Many of the young patients visited by A Moment of Magic volunteers are immunocompromised, so limiting exposure to the outside world is a top priority for staff members. Those barriers are taking a toll on the Chapel Hill chapter’s progress that had been building since starting in 2018.

In-person visits switched over to 30-minute chats over Zoom. The group’s fashion show fundraiser, an event that would’ve allowed 30 kids to walk a runway dressed as their favorite characters, generated $5,000 in donations before COVID-19 forced the organizers to call it off. Executive members like Kreis, who now serves as the chapter’s Vice President, spend their days worrying about who will fill their positions in the future; the foundation doesn’t have opportunities to show new members the extent of its capabilities.

“Without all the momentum from going to club meetings to just being on Zoom, it’s hard to know what the future of this chapter will look like here,” chapter President Julia Drahzal said.

The organization is still doing whatever it can to try to replicate that pre-pandemic spark.

Kreis is part of a team that operates the chapter’s new hotline phones for patients to schedule calls with different characters. She oversees several of the foundation’s subcommittees, such as a fundraising group that just organized a trivia night event less than two weeks ago. She also helped implement book readings for children through Facebook live streams to help capture that original sense of joy in-person visits can bring.

And for some, it’s all working.

“[My kids] have really enjoyed the Zoom meetings, and I feel like they still get the same feeling during and after it,” Ivey said.

Staying in touch, regardless of any hurdles, in a socially isolated world is what helps Kreis keep those personal connections with former visitors, like Mia.

Kreis sent the Ivey family a painting of Rapunzel’s castle that still hangs on Mia’s wall three months after her doctors announced she was cancer-free.

“Rapunzel gave it to me,” Mia tells anyone who points it out.

edited by Jackie Sizing 

New life amid 1.12 million dead: One woman’s COVID-19 pregnancy

By Blake Weaver

Elijah Grant Crawford weighed 8 pounds and 3 ounces when he was born on Oct. 6, 2020, at just after 1 p.m. – in the middle of a global pandemic. During his first year of life, most people he sees outside his house will be wearing masks.

His mother, Katie Crawford, announced her third pregnancy in January. Crawford’s mother cried tears of joy while her father just sat in shock. Crawford’s eight-year-old daughter, Abby, jumped excitedly as her nine-month-old son, Joshua, crawled around the living room.

Crawford said she didn’t think much of the flu-like virus she’d heard about on the news that week.

“I saw reports of the coronavirus on the news, and my ears didn’t perk up until I heard there was a case in Washington,” Crawford said. “I still didn’t really pay attention. They kept comparing it to the flu, so I just ignored it.”

Two months later, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Much remains unknown about COVID-19 – even less about its effect on pregnancies. While Crawford didn’t have an exposure scare during her pregnancy, she said she felt lonely and helpless in the face of abrupt, potentially long-lasting, changes.

Getting ready for new life amid a nationwide shutdown.

After learning she was pregnant, Crawford spent two months preparing and planning for her new child. She moved furniture around her two-bedroom condominium, while she could still manage, and began budgeting with her husband, Walt Crawford.

She’d recently left her job to stay home and take care of her nine-month-old son. Walt started taking double shifts at Taco Bell, where he works as a general manager.

Cases increased substantially during this time, but Crawford said she still thought it was just a new flu. She remembered the 2009 swine flu pandemic and imagined COVID-19 would spread similarly. Since the swine flu came and went without affecting her, Crawford said she didn’t see any reason to worry.

“I think a lot of panic came from the media reports in the beginning,” Crawford said. “The panic – buying and mask and hand sanitizer shortages – I thought all of it was silly.”

Then, most of the country shut down, including her daughter’s school. Crawford had to create a homeschool environment in her condo while raising her now one-year-old son. Although she was barely showing, Crawford said she already felt the pregnancy’s strain.

“Walt was still working constantly, so we could actually afford this family,” Crawford said. “I don’t want to say that I was stuck taking care of the kids because I knew I wanted to stay at home anyway and loved every minute of it. The atmosphere was just different.”

Her daughter was also feeling the pandemic’s impact.

“We try to play as many games as possible to stay happy,” Abby said. “Mom keeps us focused on the happy things while everything seems sad.”

Facing pregnancy alone and losing supportive social connections

Crawford used to shuttle her daughter to and from school and countless extracurriculars, which gave her time to talk to teachers and other parents. She frequently gathered with a group of parents who shared dessert recipes in the back of the gymnasium while their children played.

“The world suddenly shut down, and I didn’t even get to say a ‘See you soon’ to everyone I saw on a daily basis. I wanted to see my friends and family, but I knew I couldn’t,” Crawford said.  “There was really nothing I could do to fix anything, and that was hard for me. Part of me wanted to go back to work just to feel some part of normalcy.”

During her past two pregnancies, Crawford’s mother, Ellen Cotton, came to her house almost daily to support her. Since she works in a medical support field, she’s had to stay away more often than they both would like.

“It’s hard for me to know my daughter is stuck, and I can’t really go help that often,” Cotton said. “Anytime I’m potentially exposed, I’m anxiously counting down the days until I can go see Katie.”

Each prenatal care checkup reminded Crawford of the pandemic’s painful realities. No one was allowed to come with her – not even her husband. The couple said not being together for Crawford’s appointments, like they had been for her previous pregnancies, was one of the worst feelings.

“I struggled to hold it together those days,” Walt said. “I felt like I wasn’t there for my wife and child.”

Giving birth and looking toward the future.

When the time came for Elijah’s birth, the Crawfords packed two weeks’ worth of clothes and made arrangements for Katie’s mother to watch the kids. They wouldn’t be allowed out of the hospital, and no one was allowed to visit.

“It felt much more like an operation than anything else,” Katie said. “This is supposed to be one of the happiest times of our lives, and it still is, but there isn’t the same energy.”

The doctors and nurses wore extensive personal protective equipment, but the Crawfords did not wear any. They only were asked to do so if they left the room, which they rarely did.

“I was not going to give up a last morsel of comfort when I was about to give birth,” Crawford said. “I rarely wore a mask the last six months, and I’m not going to now unless I absolutely have to.”

Now a big brother, Joshua has developed an aversion to masks and hides from people wearing them. He only responds to someone if they pull their mask down to show their full face – a practice that Katie doesn’t mind but her mother warns against. Abby said she tries encouraging her brother to be comfortable around masks, given that they will be commonplace for the foreseeable future.

“Joshua has spent this year seeing everyone suddenly start wearing masks,  and I think it’s a shocking change for him. He’s so young, but he saw people without masks before, and I think he remembers that,” Abby Crawford said. “Eli won’t have that. He’s just going to see masks everywhere. This is just how it is right now.”

Edited by Ellie Heffernan

Kratom: the push for pain-relieving recognition in the US

By Drew Wayland

Two and a half years ago, Daniel Horne was in a bad accident. Driving home from a date with his fiancé, Annie, on a poorly lit two-lane highway, a drunk driver lost control of his vehicle and slid into the wrong lane. The oncoming car clipped Horne’s silver Subaru and sent both vehicles spinning off the road, where Horne and his fiancé ran into a loblolly pine tree.

Horne came out relatively lucky, with just cuts, bruises and a permanently aching back. Annie shattered both of her ankles.

Daniel and Annie were thankful to be alive. But now they faced a problem seemingly without solution. Horne, a recovering addict and alcoholic, had committed to a life without narcotics since October 30, 2015. He and his fiancé now had chronic, debilitating pain they could not treat with prescription drugs without risking Horne’s life.

He had been in severe pain for seven months when a friend told him to check out something called kratom

A second chance at pain relief

“I tell people all the time that I would probably be dead or in jail without kratom,” says Horne. “I’m not sure I would have been able to live with the pain without relapsing at some point.”

Kratom is a plant in the coffee family that originated in Southeast Asia. In the last five years, it made an explosive entrance to American drug and medicine industries, going from a relatively obscure compound used by Thai and Malaysian immigrants, to a substance consumed by nearly 10 million Americans. However, the substance is still far from a household name.

“My friend told me it was kind of like tea or coffee,” he said. “This plant you mix into a drink, and it helps people with their pain. I didn’t know back then that it would do so much for my life, that it would allow me to be a functioning member of society again.”

Kratom has opioid properties, but acts more like a mild stimulant than a true opiate, like prescription oxycodone, Xanax or heroin. It is known to reduce anxiety, depression, and chronic pain for many users, and helps recovering addicts manage withdrawal symptoms. The plant is not addictive in the medical sense, but it is on a similar level of caffeine in the habit-forming sense.

“Part of the reason people like myself are hesitant to use kratom is because of its association with recreational drugs,” says Horne. “I’d go to my Narcotics Anonymous meetings and everybody would say, ‘no, don’t touch that stuff, it’s just another substance,’ but I think that fear really holds people back from trying something that could save their life.”

Local lounge gets behind kratom

Horne’s friend told him about a tea lounge in Carrboro, called Oasis, that specializes in kratom. Two years ago, he walked into the shop tucked away in a forgotten corner of Carr Mill Mall, to a scene of ornate rugs, religious statues, Rastafarian art and incense. There, he met Robert Roskind.

Roskind opened Oasis in 2012 as “a place of sharing and spreading love to all.” After an upbringing in Atlanta, a young adulthood spent in the West Coast counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s, and a decade of activism in 2000s Jamaica, he was ready to come home and plant the seeds of everything he’d learned on his journey. Roskind tried kratom for the first time in 2016, on the advice of his daughter.

“I really understood why they call it the happiness plant,” he says. “It gives me the energy of consuming caffeine, but it also lifts the spirit and facilitates better moods. You aren’t intoxicated on kratom, if anything you’re a little more in touch with yourself and the world around you.”

Users have reported increased focus and sociability under the influence of kratom. Roskind uses one variety, green kratom, to power himself through his busy days and another, red kratom, to relax in the evenings. Oasis sells two other varieties, white and Maeng Da, which correspond to high energy and pain prevention, respectively. Kratom has been their biggest source of revenue since they started selling it in 2017.

About 1% to 2% of people have negative side effects to the substance in the form of light-headedness or nausea. The biological reasons for this are not yet well understood, but Roskind says there may be a connection between frequent users of marijuana and the adverse effects.

“Maybe there’s some chemical reason for it, or maybe those two plants just don’t like each other very much,” he says. “But I’ve seen incredible results from most people who try it. We have about 25 people who buy from us to help treat their addictions or their chronic pains, and we give it to them at a discounted rate. A couple people come in who are just barely making ends meet, and for situations like that I’ll just give it away.”

Horne gets the discounted rate at Oasis, and has befriended Robert in the two years he’s been using the substance. He takes three drinks per day, a level teaspoon of kratom in a glass of orange juice, and says it drastically reduces his back pain and his desire to return to drugs.

“I was a heroin addict, but you could call me a trash can,” he likes to say about his life before 2015. “I would pretty much do anything in front of me. Drugs led me to stealing stuff, which led me to going to jail. It also led me to being sentenced to a two-year long-term treatment facility. At that time, I was not a productive member of society, I was anything but.”

Roskind says it motivates him to see people using kratom to improve their lives.

“I see him with his family on Facebook, playing with his son, taking trips with his family, and it brings me so much joy,” he says. “This has really helped him turn his life around.”

Kratom gets a second chance in the US

Kratom has a special position of legality that many medicinal drugs in the United States do not. It is legal for sale and consumption in all but five states, although trade over the internet is restricted by the federal government. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a move to ban kratom for recreational use, but thousands of letters and testimonies by recovering addicts and people with chronic pain put a stop to the action.

“People were writing to their congressmen and senators and telling them ‘if this goes away, you are going to have thousands of people in your state turning back to opiate addiction,’” says Roskind. “You know, people were saying that they needed this to live a normal life.”

In a rare moment for the FDA, the pressure stuck and the ban failed to go through Congress. Similar protests occurred on the state level, and kratom remained legal in 45 states.

“You still have to be careful where you source from,” Roskind says. “Because in some cases, poorly produced kratom can carry traces of heavy metals. A lot of that is people buying it over the internet using cryptocurrencies.”

On any given afternoon, the Oasis lounge is populated by a few people enjoying the benefits of the plant. Robert can point around the room: “one, two, three, four, five…well, actually I think all of them are drinking kratom right now.” Recovering addicts and people with mental or physical pain are his favorite customers, but many young people use it recreationally to relax or be more social.

Horne says he respects the recreational use, but hopes that the substance can someday have mainstream appeal as a tool for recovery.

“Whether it’s because of that strict addict mindset of not compromising your sobriety or something bigger, with pharmaceutical companies wanting to reduce competition, it just isn’t as popular in the US as you might think,” he says. “That’s why I like to talk about it. To spread the word about something that can help people.”

Edited by Alana Askew