Raleigh food influencers make a difference during the pandemic

By Tim Morgan

When blogger and photographer, Linda Nguyen started posting pictures of food as a hobby at the age of 15, she had no idea that someday, it would become her full-time job.

Now 37, Nguyen is an influencer for many things around the Triangle area and has a loyal fan base who eagerly awaits her updates on new events, hotels, and local restaurant openings. During the pandemic, both her followers and local restaurants relied on her more than ever.

Changing how we dine

At the height of the pandemic, many restaurants were quick to come up with unconventional methods of changing how they do business. Restaurants began to offer curbside pickup, delivery options, and socially distanced seating arrangements in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while staying in business.

Some restaurants had never offered services like this before. Advertising these changes was key and some restaurants turned to influencers for help.

One of the most obvious ways restaurants were able to engage in social distancing, was through contactless delivery. Nguyen quickly realized the urgency in sharing these new methods and created a directory of restaurants in the Triangle area that were doing takeout. Soon, she posted it on her blog and the website gained so much traction that the local channel, CBS 17, ran a story about it.

Her motives for creating the directory were simple.

“I feel protective of small business owners in general! And because I cover mostly food, I’ve gotten to know more business owners in the food space. They’re all hard working,” Nguyen said.

While influencer marketing is nothing new, food influencers played an important role in connecting restaurants with customers in a time of confusion and fear.

“Most restaurants that reached out to me wanted me to emphasize their curbside and delivery services, but some restaurants turned into a market for goods during the shutdown and wanted me to advertise their grocery offerings,” said Beck Warrick, who has over eight thousand followers on her influencer account.

Advertising in a new era

Food influencers, sometimes called, “Foodies,” use digital media to create content and advertise local restaurants. Like Nguyen, many of them simply started by posting pictures of food online as a hobby, others blog about their experiences at local restaurants. Overtime, some influencers gain substantial followings, ranging from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of people.

Influencers can post and deliver direct messages to their followers immediately without any obstacles. Those with many followers may charge a nominal fee while the others are compensated with food from the restaurant. There are no marketing fees, no red tape, and no advertising pitches. Foodies give restaurants the ability to bypass a bureaucratic middleman and reach thousands of people, usually only at the cost of a free meal.

Because this information is coming from a person and not a marketing agency, it creates a more personal experience between the influencer and their followers. There is a level of trust that accompanies this method of advertising and restaurants are seeing the results.

“We worked quite a bit with Rose, another food blogger, over the past year. We are a food truck company, so having people know exactly where we were was very helpful. Usually, after Rose posts about us, we would get a lot of customers coming in. She has a lot of followers,” said Hannia Jara, the owner of Arepa Culture Food Truck. Jara’s food business is expanding as they have opened a new restaurant in Raleigh.

As many restaurants continued to do curbside pickup and food delivery, some people still didn’t feel comfortable ordering food, fearing the potential of contracting COVID-19. Erin Williams is a nurse and Raleigh food influencer with approximately eight thousand followers. During the pandemic, Williams found a way to use her public health background to advertise foods on her Instagram page.

“Because I’m a nurse, I felt like I needed to include safety measures used at each restaurant to promote public health,” Williams said.

Her followers loved her contents, and she became an example to many other influencers who began informing their own followers about their experience at local restaurants, particularly ones that were following CDC guidelines.

Williams simply wants to help out without expecting anything in return.

“I feel good about garnering support for local businesses during a tough financial time! So many businesses are struggling, and I want to help them by sharing them with my audience,” said Williams.

Her sentiment is shared by many other influencers who were not financially motivated to lend a hand during the pandemic.

The year 2020 will likely be remembered for many failures. But the major highlight of the year is people working hard to keep communities afloat and lending a hand during a time of need- something these influencers did for restaurants at a time when they needed them the most.

Edited by Modupe Fabilola


UNC basketball brings campus ministry together after a year apart

By Sterling Sidebottom

A rush of bodies joins the players on the court, hugging each other and jumping in excitement. For the second time this season, UNC has triumphed over Duke in basketball.

As the intersection of Franklin Street and South Columbia Street fills with unmasked students just a few blocks away in downtown Chapel Hill, a different scene begins to unfold, albeit with the same excitement.

In the parking lot of the University Presbyterian Church, clusters of people are standing in groups of five to 10. Orange traffic cones block both the entrance and the exit to the church. There’s a large white screen in front of the brick wall of the building. In the center of the lot sits a projector and two speakers, all of which are humming with the excitement of the game that just ended.

Slowly, the small clumps of UNC-Chapel Hill Presbyterian Campus Ministry students wrap their arms around their pod members and begin to sing “Hark the Sound.”

It is a special moment for everyone who’s there. It is particularly special for Garrett Hubbard, a UNC-CH junior who has finally returned to his in-person community after nearly a year apart.

It’s not as fun to be alone

Hubbard spent the first half of his junior year at home in Clemmons, N.C. While home, Hubbard would watch UNC basketball games with his parents. His mom would leave the room when Carolina turned the ball over. His dad would yell at the TV or the announcers. Though different from watching with his college friends, Hubbard enjoyed this new bonding experience with his parents.

After January 18, that all changed when Hubbard returned to Chapel Hill for the spring 2021 semester. Living in an apartment by himself, Hubbard no longer had the energy of others to keep him going when the team was bad.

“Watching the games was easier earlier on with my parents,” Hubbard said. “It’s not quite as fun to just sit in your apartment alone.”

But, the team started to pick up the pace. Exhilaration and a want to cheer and share emotions took over the PCM GroupMe which began to function as a pseudo-Twitter — one where all your mutuals are also in your campus ministry.

For Hubbard, it became a place to let loose.

“I wanted to initiate conversation about the game and generate hype around it, just like I would in person,” Hubbard said.

The GroupMe got so into basketball season that they no longer have a heart emoji, the typical indication of a ‘Like’ on the app. In its place now is a basketball going through a hoop.

For Hubbard, the GroupMe that he turned to for solace this past spring has always been a way for him to connect with members of his campus ministry. In February of his freshman year, when Hubbard walked through Gate C and into the Smith Center for the first time, he was joined by two other PCM freshmen.

“I got tickets and I think I just put it in the GroupMe,” Hubbard said. “Ya know, the general, ‘If you wanna go with me, let’s go!’ I knew that everybody was into it, it felt easy.”

When not actually going to the Dean Dome, Hubbard and PCM will set up watch parties in the campus ministry’s couch room in their communal space at 110 Henderson St. Aptly named, there are four large couches in the room each filled with pillows and blankets, two of which directly face a large flat-screen TV.

Excitement, even at a distance

In a normal year, the couches and floor below would fill with familiar faces and an anticipation would envelop the room. Members would cheer for the Tar Heels, order food and talk about their days. They would build the community they already have through church services around the basketball games.

“Basketball’s great and it’s amazing to watch Carolina basketball when they’re at their best, but it’s so much better when you’re with somebody else,” Hubbard said.

That sense of community members of the campus ministry love was clearly missed by everyone this past year. As the spring semester continued to blaze ahead in Chapel Hill, and as Carolina basketball began winning games, members of PCM began to think about what the rest of the season would look like for them — a community that loves basketball as much as they love God.

“It was brought up in a Leadership Team meeting,” Reed Frellick, one of the PCM members who set up the watch party, said. “We were trying to make it feel like the community that PCM has always felt like around watch parties.”

The Presbyterian church and the parking lot PCM set their watch party up in is located on Franklin Street directly across from McCorkle Place. It’s as close to the center of action as one can get without being in the actual center.

“There’s an excitement that you get from being that close even if you’re experiencing it from a safe distance,” Hubbard said.

A miraculous moment

On the night of the Duke game, members of PCM file in. They greet each other with waves and cheers from a distance. All are wearing masks sporting UNC-CH’s logo or Carolina colors. As much as this scene takes place in a different world, there is still a sense that this is exactly what happens every other time UNC plays a basketball game.

“It felt like pre-COVID,” Lillie Chilton, a member of PCM, said. “I’ve never really been a sports fan, but the Duke game is different. The game is more about the people you watch it with.”

Pews of chairs, set up in groups according to COVID-19 pods, are facing the screen which will soon light up with the campus ministry’s Saturday night service.

“I wasn’t as into the game as much as I was in the moment of realizing that this is my last Duke game as an undergrad,” Zoey Howe, a senior member of PCM, said. “It was important to be with my people.”

For Howe, Chilton and Frellick, this moment together was special. For Hubbard, who had waited so long to be back with people and regain the sense of community that had been lost for so long, this moment was miraculous.

“It’s that weird sense of fan obsession with the team,” Hubbard said. “It was beautiful. It was cathartic. And it felt good.”

Edited by Britney Nguyen

Durham Rescue Mission provides continued services amid pandemic

By Gabriel Lima

In the chapel room of the Durham Rescue Mission homeless shelter, around a dozen men listen to a reverend teach a class on life skills. Dressed in suits, they sit at opposite ends of the pews with masks on. The room feels vacant, the energy low. 

Down the hall, the recreation room sits empty except for a pool table, some chairs and a mattress on the floor. Asleep on the mattress is a man. He is in quarantine; he will wait in the room for days until he is cleared to join the roughly 300 other men using the shelter’s services.

“Nowadays, I’d say half of my time is dealing with COVID in some manner,” said Gary Beasley, the director of operations for the Durham Rescue Mission.

The pandemic has presented a serious challenge for homeless shelters like the DRM. According to the CDC, people experiencing homelessness are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, as most are older adults or have underlying medical conditions.

“We normally teach classes here, programs based on changing your life, to build principles,” Beasley said. “Normally the residents go to this class four hours a day where they learn vocational skills, then do four hours of chore assignments to keep the mission going.”

“In that class, we would usually have about 40 to 50 people learning, but once the pandemic hit we could barely have 10 to a classroom,” Beasley said. “We’ve had to split the lessons into multiple classrooms.”

Barriers COVID-19 presents to volunteer services

Congregate living settings like homeless shelters are difficult to protect from the spread of COVID-19. 

The men of the DRM live in various housing arrangements in the block around the main building. Smaller houses fit around four people, while the larger dormitories have up to 60 beds. Residents are required to wear masks and sanitize often — but these restrictions are hard to enforce and any form of social distancing is almost impossible. Most of the shelter’s clients sleep in bunk beds and share communal bathrooms and eating areas.

Organizations offering services to the homeless have struggled to maintain operations during the pandemic.

“We had a group of friends that served breakfast every Saturday in the parking lot of a local shelter for about three years,” said Leandro Almeida, a volunteer with the Food Distribution Center in Durham.

“When the pandemic began, we were forced to stop the services,” Almeida said. Even now, Almeida said he and the other volunteers struggle to safely provide the meals many in the local community rely upon. 

The shelter he volunteered at implemented a limited exposure policy as a preventative measure to protect both volunteers and the individuals being served.

“From what I was told, the shelter was operating with reduced capacity to respect social distancing, and many services were moved outside,” Almeida said.

The pandemic has also affected the attitudes of those receiving help.

“I’ve noticed some of the people coming in are more on edge, more aggressive than before,” said Marcelo Corsetti, another volunteer at the FDC. “It’s been harder on everyone, there’s no way around it. We’re in a very difficult moment.”

Enforcing preventative measures

Despite the difficulties involved with protecting their residents during the pandemic, Beasley said he is proud that the shelter has managed to keep the number of concurrent cases relatively low.

“I think the most cases that we’ve had at one time is about four,” Beasley said. He credited the shelter’s isolation and quarantine strategy for making that possible.

“When someone comes in, the first thing we do is put them in quarantine for about 14 days, then we test them,” Beasley said. “If they are negative after that, we return them to our population.”

Beasley said when someone at the shelter contracts the virus, they are sent to one of the quarantine locations. He said there is one house, which holds a maximum of five people, that is used exclusively for those with confirmed positive tests. They bring food to the porch for the people living in the house, who must remain isolated until they receive a confirmed negative test.

“Once we have identified a positive case, we split the others they were living with into smaller groups in the quarantine locations,” Beasley said. “For example, if one in a group of 12 gets it, I will split the remaining 11 into two or three houses, and I will only add more to that house if they have it or have already had it.”

It’s difficult to know how many people in the facility have had COVID-19. Many do not report symptoms, and once they’ve been admitted, the DRM can not fully account for the resident’s actions.

“Does this stop anyone from getting it day to day? Not really,” Beasley said. “What we are trying to stop is that person walking in the gate, mixing in with everybody else and just causing a huge breakout at one time.”

Other ways the DRM continues to serve its communities

In addition to their shelter and food bank, the DRM runs events like Christmas toy drives and Easter celebrations.

“COVID has hit our events just like it’s hit everything else,” said Marcus Deese, the event coordinator for the DRM. “We’ve done our best not to let COVID stand in the way of doing what we can for the community, though. It’s just changed the flow of how we do things.”

“For example, our usual Christmas event has children come by and pick up toys,” he said. “Usually, we set aside some space outside for the children to play with their new toys. We can’t do that anymore, but we still make it a point to give out the toys.”

Ultimately, Beasley said he is cautiously optimistic about the future.

“I’ve had COVID already, and I’ve had my first shot of the vaccine,” he said. “I hope we’ll all get vaccinated as soon as possible. In the meantime, we’ll keep trying our best to keep everyone safe.”

Edited by Jennifer Tran.

Blocking Foul: Female sports fans face discrimination among fanbase

By Ryan Heller

Maddy Sells laid in bed, listening to her Business Operations class on Zoom. The Indiana University senior reached over to her phone at 1:30 p.m. to check her Instagram feed, knowing her laptop camera was off. While scrolling, she noticed she had a new direct message from a guy that had been flirting with her for weeks. 

Earlier that day, Sells reposted the Mar. 5 news about Maia Chaka becoming the first Black female NFL referee. He had his own opinion, commenting “this is beyond irrelevant.” She’d never responded to his replies before, but her displeasure forced her to speak out. 

“If you’re wanting to work in sports then you better change that mindset or nobody will hire you,” Sells said. “And he responded saying, ‘It’s a damn good thing I don’t then.’” 

It’s a harsh reminder to Sells of the cruelty towards women in the sports industry. But it was nothing new. She’s faced it her entire life. 

A love for sports

Sports were instilled in her at an early age. Her dad drove her nearly two hours to IU basketball games from her hometown of Westfield, Indiana, and her half-brother invited her to Miami Heat games whenever she visited him in Florida. The energy in those arenas was beyond anything she’s ever experienced. 

Fans screaming and dancing, as the Hoosier fight song resonates through Assembly Hall. Flames shooting out from thin as the Heat starting lineups are announced at the speaker of American Airlines Arena. It entranced her. It was a place she felt comfortable supporting her teams – something she couldn’t do walking down the halls of Westfield High School. 

“I got made fun of a lot for being a fan of the NBA,” Sells said. “I would wear Heat stuff all the time. I had a Heat backpack and Heat shirts. It was kind of embarrassing.”

She had girl friends, but sports helped her naturally connect with guys. It was easy for her to sit around the couch watching NBA games, blurting out random facts about each player. She felt a sense of gratification in seeing their shocked faces.

But the type of people who refused to accept her were the same people she desperately tried to fit in with at school. Social media was where she encountered most of the verbal abuse, but it was also where she made some of her strongest relationships. 

Unfair treatment of female fans

Just a few weeks ago, a strange man edited an Instagram picture from Sells’ account of her posing in Australia with current NBA rookie point guard LaMelo Ball. The photo was left unchanged except for a few noticeable alterations. Sells’ breasts were enlarged and her eyes were distorted to resemble an alien. 

Allan Fegley, founder of the Instagram page @heatupdates, was left shocked and disgusted after looking at the edit sent to him on a group chat involving the creators of his account. 

“That’s not gonna change anytime soon unless we change the way the next generation is raised in how they perceive women,” he said. “Those views are not gonna change in sports if we don’t.”

Fegley saw Sells’ potential when he saw her Heat-themed promposal in 2018. He immediately messaged her, asking her if she wanted to work on his account with him. The two have built the account into the largest Heat fan page on Instagram. But the hate went with her. 

Whenever she showed her face, on either the page or their TikTok account, people bombarded the comment section typing shady remarks. Degrading statements like “a girl owns this page??” and “amazing she had to look all of that up probably” were found beneath videos posted on @heatupdates.

“A lot of times it’s people making slight comments or wanting to ask me trivia questions on sports,” Sells said. “You don’t need to do that, I know my stuff.” 

The constant struggle

Fegley wasn’t the only content creator to see Sells’ critiques. Mason Hafner, founder of @real.nba.quotes, has received several screenshots through text. 

After Sells commented on a Bleacher Report Instagram post saying LeBron was the best NBA player of all-time, a guy responded, stating her opinion didn’t matter. She clapped back explaining her experience in the industry, but all he did was called her gender-based slurs and cussed her out. 

“Maddy and I have had this conversation so many times,” Hafner said. “It’s been proven that it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or girl. It matters what you put into it. I’ve seen how unfairly they’re treated and not given the respect they deserve for no reason.”  

The two met after Sells commented on one of Hafner’s pages. Knowing she was a Heat fan and content creator, he DMed her, and their friendship grew from there. 

Hafner knows Sells’ struggle. He has an account that pokes fun at mainstream sports media by posting ridiculously fake quotes of NBA players. His followers perceive his posts as jokes, letting his humor run free. 

Sells doesn’t have that luxury. She has to worry about preserving her reputation.

“I’ve seen the work she puts in all the time,” Hafner said. “She’s always doing something to improve her page and everyone just wants to make fun of her because she’s a girl.”

Universal issue among females

None of Sells’ friends understand her more than Aelia Hassan. Growing up in Zionsville, Indiana, she was inherently seen as different as a Black Muslim in a majority-white population. IU filled her life with much-needed diversity, but when she ventured into sports broadcasting, she stuck out once again. 

“It’s one thing saying ‘I’m a female in the sports industry.’” she said. “But it’s another thing to say ‘Out of the females in the sports industry, I don’t look like any of them.’ That was another problem I had to face.”

When Sells sends pictures of her sexist messages, she relates to them. She’s lived through them. 

While at IU, Hassan confessed to a male student her love for UFC. He told her “What do you wanna do when you graduate? Be a UFC ring girl?” 

All he did after was laugh.

“I was like ‘Are you kidding me,’” Hassan said. “I couldn’t even believe that he had said something like that to that caliber. After that, I knew I wanted to inspire both younger and older females to see if she can do it, then I can do it.”

Perseverance despite oppression

Hassan fought the outside noise to become an intern for NBC Sports and was the first female to work on East West Football Network, hosting a fantasy football show. 

The bond between Sells and Hassan is just a few months old. Sells sent her a DM after learning her name from Fegley, who knew of her from podcasts she’s worked on. The women have used their shared experiences to develop a tight relationship. It was the support Sells needed.

Sells recently found success of her own, getting an internship with the Indianapolis Colts. While COVID-19 has created obstacles for her, she was still able to work this past season. She went from taking part in Thanksgiving food drives with All-Pro defensive tackle Deforest Buckner to running up the stairs of Lucas Oil Stadium zip-tying chairs. But she was happy. 

While the hate she received ruined many days, she used her platform to develop connections, creating a social support system to push her to the next level of her career. 

She’s now finally being taken seriously. 

“I always try to get my girl friends in sports to realize we can do it,” Sells said. “Don’t listen to the comments. They’re just ridiculous.”

Edited by Mikayla Goss.

UNC-Chapel Hill students reflect on a year in quarantine

By Caleb Schmidt

Remember when it was supposed to be two weeks? Easter? The end of summer? Oh, forget it, this is the new life now.

It has been a year since the United States has gone into quarantine in response to the novel coronavirus — a story that now feels like there is no end in sight, a year of social distancing, “Tiger King” binging and Zoom calling.  

Those first few weeks in quarantine played out like an apocalyptic movie. Grocery stores were ghost towns — good luck trying to find hand sanitizer or that ultra-soft four-ply toilet paper (or any toilet paper at all). Stadiums that should have been filled with cheering and jeering fans were now so empty and quiet you could hear a pin drop from the nosebleeds. Movie theaters that were supposed to be premiering “A Quiet Place Part II” and Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” in the upcoming weeks were now a wasteland of empty screens, sticky floors and stale popcorn.

A year ago nobody knew what to expect. Maybe you were like Will Davidson, who just returned home from Disney World a day before they closed their gates. Maybe you were like Excellence Perry, who had to fly back to the United States from Israel just three days after arriving due to government orders. Perhaps you were like Andrew Sheppard, who was relaxing at his home when he got the news of an “extended spring break” that slowly evolved into a year. Or you could be like Gray Hurley, who became aware of the severity of the pandemic as events like the NCAA tournament ended abruptly.

Stretched into summer

There was a sense of optimism that it would end soon.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to go to the beach,” Davidson told his grandma. “But then, of course, things were still locked down.”

There was some confusion.

“I was listening to a Joe Rogan podcast, and he had an infectious disease expert on,” Sheppard said. “He was saying millions of people could die, but we were being told that it would be over in two weeks.”

Of course, two weeks came and went, but quarantine stayed. Long-term plans were canceled. Internships, including prestigious ones like Hurley’s in Washington D.C., were canceled. He was supposed to be a press intern but stayed home in Fayetteville working 10 hours a day at Bell’s Seed Store.

“They say that your junior year internship is really big,” Hurley said. “I didn’t really get that.”

Overseas mission work fell through. Perry was planning on doing City Project, a college student summer mission trip, in South Africa. Sheppard was going to go to Bulgaria. Neither of them left the East Coast.

The summer saw isolation, a distrust of others and a growing cynicism as the country began to politicize the mask.

“I’m not going to doubt that wearing masks are effective,” Hurley said. “But, in my opinion, it’s sometimes used as an opportunity for people to lift themselves on a high horse and say, ‘Look at me. I’m a better person than you.’ It ends up being more about how people can feel really good about themselves than actually doing good in the community by protecting people.”

Tumultuous monotony

The fall brought a return to school… if you want to call sitting at a computer most of the day school. Students moved in only to move back out two weeks later. Sixteen weeks of online learning, quarantining and contract tracing can make anyone impatient, especially if you are cooped up with the same people for 112 monotonous days.

The holidays came and went. Thanksgiving was not the same. The tables were a little smaller. Christmas wasn’t as lavish. The trees were a little scrawnier than years past; just look at Rockefeller Plaza’s.

Rioters disrupted the democratic process in Washington over an unproven conspiracy theory. People asked, “What’s the president doing to help?” Well, he tweeted and got suspended from Twitter that day for continuing to encourage the riots.  

With vaccines now being distributed across the nation, people are ready to leave their houses, return to their classes or sit down in a theater to see a movie. Pandemic life is boring.  

“I feel like in pre-pandemic life it was easy to keep up with people,” Perry said. “Now, I feel more isolated. I have less social interaction, and I’m less likely to seek out social interaction too.”

For a whirlwind of a year, the pandemic brought about extreme mundanity.

“I spend a lot more time in front of a computer screen,” Sheppard said. “I get a couple more headaches. It’s pretty sedentary.”

Pandemic positives

The past year was difficult, no one will deny that. Lives were upended. Jobs were lost. Riots raided the news channels. But maybe on an individual level something good came out of this pandemic.

Davidson saw growth in his spiritual journey. He began to see consistency in his time reading the Bible. Sheppard spent his summer building houses.

Is individual good enough to justify the collective downfall? No.

However, as a whole, this past year saw some opportunities arise to come out of this pandemic stronger.

Friends and families realized how special little things like sitting in a restaurant or seeing a movie are. The pandemic highlighted flaws in the government’s catastrophe response that the nation is working to address. People rallied around names like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, educating themselves to prevent systemic racism.

The past year hasn’t been good, but it gave everyone opportunities to appreciate, improve and educate one another and grow a little stronger every day.

Edited by Brooke Spach and Megan Suggs

Elderly couple get back to sense of normalcy after COVID vaccine

By Caroline Kloster

When John opened the double doors to Mizner Court Room 453, peonies in hand, Patricia panicked. The pair had known each other since they were 14 years old and had been married almost 60 years, so the courtship days of spontaneous gifts and sweet nothings were long over. Had a forgotten anniversary or birthday tiptoed up behind her, ready to shower her in guilt?

Nothing had. According to John, though, flowers were necessary to commemorate the next best thing: a jab in the arm under the fluorescent lights of a stale-smelling hospital room.

“I mean, second to the birth of a child or grandchild, there’s no better feeling,” John said.

Scoring two doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was a full-time job, a scavenger hunt, a race to salvation. It took two weeks for the Imperials to secure appointments after a full year of curtailing every activity that made them feel sane. The couple had barely left their apartment building in a year. At 77 and 79 years old, Patricia and John fall into the elderly population with a greater chance of suffering severe illness as a result of COVID-19.

Revisiting the past

The times of real hardship were supposed to be over, and for many years, they had been. Married at 18 years old and a mother of two by 20, Patricia never enrolled in college. She spent her days working as a teacher to support her son and daughter while their father spent a year in Thailand serving in the Vietnam War. Days were difficult without her partner, and she worried her children might forget who Daddy was.

John made up for lost time when he returned from a tumultuous trip to Thailand. As an electrical engineer, he helped to invent the first digital switch for telecommunications and took his company public. His children barely saw their father, who spent his days and nights working, but he retired at 43, sent his children to college and moved to Boca Raton, Florida with Patricia.

Patricia’s perseverance and John’s determination allowed them to dedicate the rest of their lives to watching their children and grandchildren grow up. They lived the simple lives they worked hard for, but their quiet lives became even quieter when the pandemic hit in March.

Buying Christmas gifts for their four grandchildren turned into searching for a turkey for two during the early senior shopping hour at Publix. A pair of jeans Patricia bought from Nordstrom in March still hang in a gray shopping bag in the couple’s shared closet. It had been a year of missed birthdays, missed visits with family and missed memories.

“There’s so many things you can’t control, and you start to wonder if this will ever end—if you’ll die first or die from it,” John said.

The problem with finding an appointment

Patricia and John are now part of the 4.2 million people that have been vaccinated in Florida so far, but it was an uphill battle to get there. While Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that vaccines would be available to Floridians 65 years old and up in January, it took Patricia and John two weeks to find an appointment. At the time, vaccines were only available in particular hospitals, and Boca Raton Regional Hospital not included.

Searching for vaccine appointments ate up the couple’s free time, which they had more than enough to spare. Chatter in their building and threads on online forums helped Patricia to collect the links to five websites that allowed seniors to schedule appointments at various hospitals. Then, she woke at 6 a.m., closed the door on John’s hearty snoring and padded her slipper-clad feet down the hall to the couple’s Dell desktop.

She returned to that desktop every hour for two weeks, refreshing five webpages for an “Appointment Available!” notification. Her only breaks were while she slept.

“It was like trying to find tickets for The Beatles, or Justin Bieber, or whoever people fawn over nowadays. There was a competitive edge to it,” Patricia said.

Patricia’s first glimmer of hope came on day four when a single appointment opened up. After a few passing seconds, and a handful of rapid clicks, she was scheduled to receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Shortly after, she cancelled it.

“I couldn’t get an appointment for John to go at the same time as me,” Patricia said. “We’ve done everything together since I was 14. We’ve supported each other through the last year of loneliness and fear, so we deserve to feel the relief together, right at the same time.”

The celebratory click came on day 14, exactly two weeks since Patricia began her routine of researching, refreshing and repeating.

The couple embraced, standing by the computer for a brief moment to make sure the confirmation was real. Jackson Memorial Hospital, Pfizer vaccine, Dose 1.

A breath of relief

The wait was over. It had been more than two weeks.

The couple’s last pre-COVID outing took place on March 11, 2020. Patricia, John and two other couples met for dinner in Mizner Park, where they discussed new restaurants they’d like to try, plans to visit their children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the cruise vacation Patricia and John booked for the summer.

On the exact day a year later, the Imperials met the same two couples for dinner. All six of them—who were each considered high risk per CDC guidelines—had been fully vaccinated.

“When I look back on this year, I remember it as feeling like I had been asleep for a year. Now I’m waking up,” Patricia said.

They celebrated the birthdays they had missed and toasted to the joy of hope. It felt good to celebrate the freedom to celebrate again.

Edited by: Makayla Williams

Home-schooler to Tar Heel: a UNC student’s unorthodox journey

By Lauren Westbrook

Three years into the decision, Barbara Fisher was questioning her choice about her son’s education. 


“At times it really felt like a gamble, and sometimes I was up really late at night wondering if I had set my son up for failure,” Fisher said. “We were always hoping that we had done the right thing by taking Drew out of traditional schooling.” 


Breaking the norm


Drew Fisher has always been someone who has cut his own path. 


Now a 22-year-old, Fisher is a senior studying mathematics and geography at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There is a large part of his backstory that many people do not know about. 


In ninth grade, Drew did everything online through North Carolina Virtual Public Schools. Drew was the first in Iredell county—and North Carolina—to do so. 


His goal was to travel with his family while not being tied down to a brick-and-mortar school calendar. That way, he could take classes that he was interested in, play sports, and explore possible careers in addition to a flexible schedule. 

Drew’s entire family was involved in the decision to start home schooling through years of discussions— a decision like this came at the risk of derailing his education. Barbara and her husband, Mike Fisher, first had the idea for home schooling when Mike’s position at Wells Fargo became remote in 2013. 


“My favorite memory of home schooling with the boys was reading ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and then getting to take them to Amsterdam,” Mike said. “It was really a full-circle moment.” 


A family affair


Drew’s younger brother, Matt, is four years younger. He continued to take part in traditional schooling while Drew tried home schooling. Then, Matt’s parents allowed him to choose between traditional schooling and home schooling. Matt eventually chose to home-school alongside his older brother. 


At first, Barbara Fisher was teaching her boys every subject. It usually worked well, but sometimes the Fisher brothers would get tired of work. 


“One time, we decided to lie to her about doing our reading. It almost worked, but then Mom figured out what we had done. We had to have a little talk about being good,” Matt Fisher said. 


For his 10th grade year (and second year home schooling), Drew did a hybrid schedule: some online classes and some in-person classes at Lake Norman High School. For 11th and 12th grades, he transferred to Mitchell Community College to prepare him for a possible future at a four-year university. 


“I had my classes at Mitchell spaced out like a college student, so every single day was different, Drew said. “In between classes, I had time to volunteer in the hospital, during the hours when normal students couldn’t, which was incredible.” 


Though Drew didn’t have the same day-to-day life as a traditional high school student, he still found time for some of the same experiences. He was still involved in extracurriculars like golf and basketball in high school teams, and also coached youth soccer for local youth.


Going to Mitchell transformed him as a learner and made him more prepared for college, Drew said. Having so many life experiences has allowed him to bring more to the table in everything he does.  


If he could do it all over again, Drew said he would do things the same way, without a doubt in his mind. 


“It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Drew said. “Home schooling and community college before university gives students like me a really cool chance to do things they are already interested in on their own time, without being tied down by the bureaucracy of sorts at regular public high school.” 


Alexa Koures, a UNC sophomore, also made the transition from home schooling and Mitchell Community College. 


“I think that going to a community college was helpful in some ways because I had experience reading a syllabus, getting assignments done without being reminded, and other things like that,” Koures said. “On the other hand, the assignments were way easier than at Chapel Hill so it didn’t prepare me for the difficulty of college.” 


Drew also experienced both the positive and negative parts of the transition. He was still able to have the experience of a high student playing sports but wasn’t always surrounded by like-minded people, he said. 


“Outside of playing basketball, the biggest downside to home schooling and Mitchell Community College was that I missed some of the other things the other guys got going to school and having groups of friends,” Drew said. 


He was led to Mitchell Community College because of a unique program: Career and College Promise. The program, located only 15 minutes from his home, allowed him to take classes that would transfer to any in-state university for free, he said. 


The biggest pro was being to knock out some introductory classes and earn real college credit that was directly transferable to an in-state school, Drew said. Traditional high school students had to worry about scoring a certain score on a placement exam to secure college credits from their high school classes. 


A new home at Carolina


UNC was not always his end goal, but it ended up being the perfect home, Drew said. The best part about UNC is that it has the benefits of an Ivy League school while being in-state, he said. 


“I applied all over and really wanted to get into an Ivy but wasn’t able to,” he said. “But, it ended up all working out, because I was able to use the credits I worked so hard to earn.”


Drew ended up choosing UNC because it was the best fit, with an amazing learning environment and it just felt like home, he said. 


The next step was to choose a major that allowed him to reap the benefits of home schooling and attending Mitchell Community College. He had always been a numbers guy, he said. 


“Having the space to explore during my pre-college time at Mitchell Community College helped him to narrow in on something,” Drew said. 


“I tried out other fields, like medicine, when I was volunteering at the hospital after my Mitchell classes, which was great,” he said. “But something just kept bringing me to mathematics.” 


Drew said that his hard work before college had an immediate payoff during his first semester when he was ahead of his classmates. 


“I just felt comfortable managing my schedule with the college course load, and that made it an easier transition. Other people didn’t know how to handle all the freedom and homework that wasn’t due every single day,” he said. 


Drew said his experience as a home-schooler set him apart in many aspects of his college life. His brother agreed. 


“I am a self-advocate, and I now know what I want to as I apply to college,” Matt said. “I’m experienced and a pretty well-rounded person, which allows me to be more open-minded and a global citizen. I actually just won an award for mathematics at Mitchell.” 


Drew said his experiences and confidence as a student led him to his next adventure: studying abroad in Singapore. He could sum up his experience transitioning from home schooling to UNC in one word: empowering. 


Edited by Robert Curtis and Parker Brown

From the field to the screen: The unlikely story of Jake Lawler

By Macy Meyer

It took one simple phrase overheard from a conversation between strangers to convince Jake Lawler that he needed to be a filmmaker.

He had just seen “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and was shuffling out of the darkness of the theater with the rest of the audience. Jake couldn’t help but overhear a young, Black kid beside him speaking to his father.

Daddy, that was me.

Artists will say that inspiration hits at unexpected moments. It’s unpredictable, and it strikes like lightning. It’s visceral, and it overtakes the body with an overwhelming need to accomplish the inspired idea. “That’s really the first moment that I knew I needed to start writing and start being a storyteller in a visual medium,” Jake said.

As a starting defensive back on the football team at UNC-Chapel Hill, everyone who knew Jake thought that the NFL was his future. One simple phrase made him realize the impact he could have on children who looked like him if he pursued film. Since that fateful day in 2018, Jake made the jump to be a full-time filmmaker in Los Angeles and is working towards his goal of fixing the representation issues in the film industry. He’s already started this mission with his latest short film, “Good Samaritans,” that premiered in September 2020.

“That story serves as a microcosm for a much larger experience when it comes to the Black experience,” Jake said. “Not even just in America, but really across the world, representation is lacking for Black people, for people of color all around, and I think it’s important to be able to see yourself represented.”

Jake felt a weight in his heart. He found his calling.

Calculated Risks

Chapel Hill buzzed with the news that after three seasons of playing football at UNC-CH, Jake would be leaving the program in 2019 and moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. It was a shock to many who saw the 6-foot-4, 245-pound man as destined for the NFL draft, but Jake always had more passions than just football.

By his final year at UNC-CH, Jake had already established his talent and love for films and most importantly, writing. He was building a resume that showcased his passions for being a creator: taking broadcast journalism classes, co-creating UNCUT, a platform highlighting stories of student-athletes that has expanded to universities across the country, and hosting a film podcast.

Jake first drew widespread attention to his capabilities as a writer when he published a blog on his website in early 2019 about his fight with depression and the two times he attempted suicide. News outlets from across the country called the Lawler family to ask about Jake’s article. For months, Jake took on the role of a mental health spokesperson for UNC and for college athletics in general.

But Jake is more than an athlete. Jake is more than his mental health struggles. He’s a creator, a screenwriter and a visionist who wants to inspire young boys and girls like the one in the movie theater seeing “Spider-Man.” He told head coach Mack Brown he wouldn’t be returning. It was a hard decision, but the entire UNC football program was behind Jake and his dreams.

“Their most important thing is for all of these guys to have careers forever in whatever they want to do, and they’ll help them in any way they can,” Michele Lawler, Jake’s mom, said. “Coach Brown has been phenomenal with everything, the mental health part of it, and the decision to quit football.”

The gravity of the situation was not lost on the Lawler parents who both have backgrounds in the arts. Andy, a talent agent, and Michele, an actress, are perfectly aware of the cut-throat industry in LA.

“We had no illusions about the challenges involved in this,” Andy said. “I don’t know many people who are in the arts, who when their kid tells them they want to be in the arts, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ because it’s brutally hard, and it’s built around rejection.”

Andy and Michele couldn’t dissuade their determined son.

“He’s the person that says ‘yes’ to everything,” Michele said. “‘Hey, you want to start this podcast?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Do you want to start this show about athletes?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you want to be the mental health spokesperson for Carolina football?’ ‘Yes.’ That’s who he is. So his personality was pretty well-suited to taking a big leap and moving literally 3,000 miles away to try this.”

But Jake wasn’t planning to arrive in LAX with just luggage and inspirations. He set up 11 meetings with industry workers before even stepping foot on a plane. In just a few short weeks, he turned those 11 meetings into 25 meetings.

“I think that life is a series of risks, and those who calculate their risk the most have the highest chance of success,” Jake said.

Jake went to every meeting, put his portfolio down, and showed his writing chops through scripts for television, short films and features.

“I learned to fall in love with the leap,” Jake said. “If I’m going to jump out and do something that I want to do, then I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. The last thing that I want is for me to look back on an experience and feel partially to blame for not putting my all in it.”

From Dreams to Reality

The white letters on the screen stood out in the darkness of the theater: written and produced by Jake Lawler. It was a sign that his dreams to be a filmmaker were coming true.

The 8-minute short film, “Good Samaritans,” co-written and co-produced with his brother, Conor, just premiered at Film Fest 919 in Chapel Hill. The film, which tackles debates around the homelessness crisis, received high praise from across the state and has since been submitted to multiple film festivals.

It had been a long time coming. The Lawler brothers were excited to finally produce their script, partially inspired by a scene from Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” in which a table of men debate whether or not to tip a waitress. Plans had been made: The Lawlers were going to film at Zack’s Hamburgers in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they brought on University of South Carolina senior and aspiring filmmaker, Nick Stathopoulos, to direct and produce. Filming was supposed to start in March 2020.

And then there was a pandemic.

Production was halted until July as the world reeled. When the production crew finally got on set to do a day of filming and a day of reshoots, everything was different and difficult. Fewer people on set meant everyone doubled up on responsibilities; the production was almost reported to the police when an innocent passerby saw the crew using real guns while filming a robbery scene; footage from one camera was unusable thanks to a thumb-sized smudge in the upper corner of the lens.

But through it all, the Lawler brothers and Stathopoulos, who have all dreamed of directing and writing scripts, finally got to see their names on the big screen.

“It was definitely a surreal moment,” Stathopoulos said. “Having all those memories of seeing hundreds of movies in theaters and it’s weird to finally see your own name up on that big screen.”

It’s a nerve-wracking experience unveiling art to an audience. After months of preparation, creative energy and hard work, the project becomes personal and sacred. It feels like standing bare and vulnerable in front of an audience ready for judgment. But the claps and the congratulations made the nerves worth it. Jake felt affirmation that his jump into the industry, his decision to quit football, his determination to live life every day, were the right calls. Every risk and every leap of faith is heading towards something big for the filmmaker.

“I know a lot of people say that life is too short, but I really disagree with that,” Jake said. “I think life is in fact much too long to not end up doing things and you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life. I knew that if I half-assed this, or if I didn’t go full throttle then I would regret it.”

“I know that I’m going to work and I’m going to write, and then everything else is up for grabs,” he added. “And I think that’s beautiful.”

Edited by Kyle Mehlman

Surviving brain surgery offered him new insights into life

By Ryan Heller

Jason Roberts’ closest friend noticed something abnormal about him.

“Who’s the project lead?” Jason asked.

“Andrew,” Smith said.

Jason gazed at Smith confused.

“Don’t give me the nickname,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know anybody named Andrew. What’s his real name?”

“Andrew, he’s worked for you for seven years,” Smith said. You know Andrew. Drew? AJ? You need to hand up the phone and go talk to your wife.”

Jason’s wife, Lori, quizzed him on the names of family members. They both found it unusual, but they were not sure if medical examination was needed. Jason thought it could be caused by stress. Lori thought he could’ve had a concussion, but neither of them took it seriously. It was Smith, however, that persuaded them to see the doctor.

“I was telling Lori he’s stubborn,” Smith said. “If you’re not going to take him to the doctor, then I’ll drive him there myself.”

“But to lose your brain and to lose speech…”

Jason went for a scan thinking it was just for precaution. However, while he walked out to the parking lot, he got a phone call. He learnt that inside of his brain there was a golf-ball-sized cavernous malformation pressing against the left side of his head.

The fear came true.

Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by frustration. His intelligence brought him to the top of his profession; he was promoted to general manager of BRAVAS, a technology company. He couldn’t accept it would hurt his career.

“I was a straight A student,” he said. “My whole life, I’ve strived really hard to be the best at whatever I’m doing. And to have something happen in your brain…I felt like I could lose a hand and still get by. But to lose your brain and to lose speech. That would be worse than anything to me.”

Looking for hope

He went to the hospital with Lori in Delray Beach Florida. He received extensive testing from several doctors, but each of them had different view regarding the same disease. Some were confident they could treat him, while others expressed there was a 50-percent chance he’d never talk again. Some said to operate. Others said to wait.

Jason was tired of getting mixed answers. He decided to go the University of Miami Hospital and Clinics to meet with Dr. Ricardo Komotar on Nov. 11, 2019. When Jason walked into his office, the vibe was different. Dr. Komotar was very warm to him and enthusiastic. He presented his abilities and almost guaranteed Jason would survive the operation with his memory and hearing retained.

However, the surgery had to be done in three days.

Jason agreed.

“I was shocked when Jason said OK,” Lori said. “If it would’ve been me, I would’ve said ‘We’re going to talk and think about this.’”

His family came to support him, including his mother, Eve, who flew from Oregon in short notice. Though Jason was very anxious, he hide his feelings from his family. He didn’t want them to worry – especially his wife – not after all they had went through.

Lori had a hereditary diabetes. She had it for decades, which weakened her heart. Her sister passed away at 38 from the same issue. Lori was now 58. Jason was her protector, going out of his way to make sure she stayed healthy.

The surgery was possibly going to flip the situation.

“When you hand the keys over to a surgeon to cut you open like I did, I didn’t know if I was coming out or not,” Jason said. “I did some estate planning before I went in. I made sure she knew all of the passwords to the bank account and where the insurance policy and keys were. I gave her a packet and I was like ‘This may be the last thing I can give you.’”

Jason laid in the hospital bed laughing and cracking jokes. He rolled his eyes to the back of his head, pretending to die. He hanged out of his gown, walked around the room with his bare bottom and took photos with his brother-in-law. It didn’t get serious until he was brought into the operation room at 5:00 a.m. the next day.

The surgeons drilled a half-dollar-sized hole, removed the malformation and screwed a metal plate on top of the incision.

After surgery

“When I woke up, I cried,” Jason said. “It hurt and I was freaked out. I was actually more surprised to be alive afterwards than I was scared before I went in.”

The first person he saw was Lori. He couldn’t talk since his jaw muscles were stiff. All he did was smile at her as streams of blood trickled down his face. They could be relieved.

“I was so relieved that he was awake,” Lori said. “To see him in that bed with all the blood and all the swelling and not being able to communicate like he is able to do. It was very hard.”

He then turned to his mother, who was also beside him. They locked eyes for minutes without a single word exchanged.

“That connection was a heart connection,” Eve said. “It didn’t matter whether we intellectually understood any of this yet. But I could see his soul and he could see mine.”

To the surprise of many, he was able to staggered out of the hospital the next day, get into the elevator and ride an Uber home.

Lori was turned into the caregiver role her husband previously excelled in. She brought and fed him Tillamook vanilla ice cream to numb the pain of his jaw. The creaminess of the frozen dessert caused it to melt onto his tongue and slide into his stomach. It was one of the few things she could do to help. She luckily had the assistance of Smith, who was already at the house taking care of his dog. He would visit every morning and do the physical work that Lori wasn’t strong enough to handle.

As he recovered, Jason found it impossible to multitask the way he used to, so Lori never played music. She only turned on the television when she was away from his home office, and she went outside to talk on the phone. She made small sacrifice for the love of her life.

Going back to normal

Just a month later, Jason was noticeably improving, having ability to carry out any conversation. He celebrated his 50th birthday. While the COVID-19 kept him within a 5-mile radius of his house for his wife’s safety, he wouldn’t be able to interact with others often, but his memory still crept back into him. The vocabulary he used to display with ease and formal name were also back in his mind.

However, he no longer considered brain and speech that important. He realized he had more beyond that. Being alive itself was already a blessing.

“He’s so much more than a walking encyclopedia,” Lori said. “He’s a loving, caring individual.”

Edited by Wendy Jin

UNC student connects shelter animals with forever homes

By Sterling Sidebottom

Somewhere along U.S. Route 74, between Charlotte and Wilmington, North Carolina, Ali Domrongchai realized she had to pee. As an animal lover and owner of four rescue dogs, she figured an animal shelter would be the perfect place to pull over.

Dashing inside a building resembling an abandoned warehouse, she noticed trash littered across the floor and unwashed dogs of all ages crowded into cages, the rank smell filling her nose. Only one person was working. She had entered the Richmond County Animal Shelter.

A new passion 

Beyond the dirt and grime, however, Ali noticed a brown hound mix. Adopting him was so easy a decision it was as if she had run into a gas station for candy as opposed to a shelter. Ali took the puppy with her, naming him Evie.

That same day, Ali became a volunteer at the shelter and, just like Evie, found herself a forever home.

Ali grew up surrounded by foster animals. Currently, her house is filled with four dogs, three cats, two chickens, one snake and five rats. Three of the dogs wound up there because her family was simply known for taking in animals. The fourth is Evie.

Ali’s big heart and sympathy for those most in need of love is evident even in her favorite animal: not a dog, as one might expect, but a manatee — because a kindergarten classmate once called them ugly.

The first few times Ali went to the shelter, her emotions overwhelmed her.

“I’d cry every time I’d leave,” she said. “But sadness is useless. Now, I’m just angry. And anger is more productive.”

Getting involved

In high school, Ali started a club called Green Team, a gathering for planting flowers and visiting animal shelters, though to Ali, it was really just an excuse to visit her new favorite place and make her friends adopt the animals.

Twice a semester, toting collars, leashes, cleaning supplies and about $2,000 in donations,

Ali would lead 100 students through the front doors of the shelter. Dressed in ratty t-shirts and gym shorts, they would scrub cages, clean the food cupboards and sweep the entire facility.

That’s when Ali would work her magic.

Having gathered a captive audience — ranging from bleeding hearts to kids who just wanted out of school for the afternoon — Ali would show off the animals, bringing her friends around to meet the ones who needed help the most. By the end of the day, there would be 20 kids taking home their own version of Evie.

Ali also began posting pictures of the animals on her Instagram.

“It gave me the biggest adrenaline rush,” she said. “It felt so good. I didn’t realize I could use Instagram to get animals out of the shelter.”

The first dog she helped connect with an owner was a look-alike of Evie when Ali was only 15. Since then, she has helped more than 500 animals find their forever homes, and every animal she’s ever posted has gotten adopted.

Going the extra mile

Now a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ali makes sure she never has classes on Fridays so she can drive the hour and a half from Chapel Hill to Rockingham each week. That may seem like a lot of effort, but the drive is only a small fraction of the work Ali puts in. Just as she drives the extra 92 miles for the animals at Richmond County Animal Shelter, Ali also goes out of her way for her classmates.

If a college student wants to adopt one of the animals Ali posts on her Instagram, she offers to cover the adoption fee for them. She’ll also pick the animal up from its foster family and bring it back to Chapel Hill with her.

Each Friday, when Ali walks into the shelter, her first question is, “Who’s been here long?”

Immediately, a picture is taken, the animal’s story and name are added and all three are shared with her more than 2,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter.

That’s how Clara Luisa Matthews, a UNC-CH student, found Poe.

Clara was scrolling through Twitter when she saw Poe for the first time. Originally named Inky, Poe’s bright orange eyes were pleading for a home through the phone screen.

Before that day, Clara had no plans for a pet to become part of the picture. That attitude immediately disappeared as she became convinced this cat needed to be in her life. She sent a text to her roommate, Payton Tysinger.

“I was like, ‘look how cute this cat is,’ completely knowing what I was doing,” Clara said.

It took a few minutes for him to be convinced, but Payton had been pleading for a pet. Who was he to say no to his prayers finally being answered? Unfortunately, it would be two weeks before Ali could go back to Charlotte to pick up the cat from her mom’s house — a wait that was too long for Clara and Payton.

Blaring music from their car speakers and tearing across the highway, the two headed to Indian Trail, North Carolina, the very next day. Now, Clara can’t imagine a day when she didn’t come home to Poe and has since become a big fan of Ali’s, reposting dogs and cats she finds particularly adorable or in dire need of a family.

Deeper purpose

For Cindy Chambers, another volunteer at the shelter, it isn’t unusual for someone to walk in and list Ali as their reason for visiting.

“She’s gotten so many out,” Cindy said. “Even now that she’s in college, I have people come in and tell me they’re friends with Ali.”

Avery Ziegler, a family friend of Ali’s, knew exactly whom to contact when her family considered adopting a second dog. Within a few days, their new addition, Shelby, was snuggled on the couch between Avery and her chocolate lab, Bolden.

It’s been a year and a half since the Zieglers welcomed Shelby into their family, and they’re all happier for it.

Those are the connections Ali loves to make. She makes them out of the sole purpose of finding homes. Her postgraduate plans don’t include veterinary school — or animals at all. Her work at Rockingham County Animal Shelter isn’t even on her resume.

“It will always be just for me,” she said. “It’s really special. I feel lucky that I’ve made this place for myself to do this.”

Edited by Addison Skigen