North Carolina bars won’t let COVID-19 bar them from being open

By Suzanne Blake

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, on any weekend night, The Crunkleton — a bar on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill — would be full of people drinking, laughing and connecting.

That was before the pandemic, even though for the bar’s co-owner, Gary Crunkleton, it seems like only yesterday that everything changed.

But last year, the bar — which is known for its classy, old-timey feel, with historic paintings and taxidermic animal heads mounted on the walls — became a ghost town for 54 weeks.

North Carolina bars, like The Crunkleton, have fought to stay afloat in a time that demanded their closures. With the spread of a virus that thrives off the human nature of strangers being close to each other in indoor spaces, bars had to get creative in how they adapted in the now of COVID-19.

The Crunkleton originally opened in 2008 and over time became a Franklin Street mainstay until North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all restaurants and bars closed in March, as coronavirus case numbers increased and hospitals neared capacity.

Crunkleton didn’t intend on owning a bar as a career. As an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill, bartending was just the best, legal way to make a lot of money in a short period of time.

Crunkleton said he thought he’d become a lawyer.

But he was wait-listed for law school on account of his law school aptitude test being two points too low. Then he met his now-wife, Megan, and fell in love. Crunkleton was more excited about being with her than retaking the LSAT, so naturally, they decided to open a bar.

“I like bringing people together,” Crunkleton said. “I like to keep a place where it’s jovial and alcohol brings out the good stuff in all of us, not the bad.”

The Crunkleton survived the past year in part because of Megan’s full time job. The bar also received two Paycheck Protection Program loans to help pay their employees and rent. Orange County and North Carolina also gave The Crunkleton grants to keep paying rent.

Not all small businesses were as lucky. According to Yelp, nearly 100,000 businesses permanently closed in the U.S. during the pandemic.

Everybody was guessing

The Raleigh Times, located in the heart of downtown Raleigh, operates as both a restaurant and bar and has served the community for 15 years. The restaurant’s owner, Greg Hatem, has been tracking the coronavirus since January 2020 and began preparing internally for it early. The restaurant — well before shutdowns began — had started separating tables to allow for social distancing.

When Cooper’s restrictions began on March 17, Hatem wasn’t shocked. Though it seemed drastic to him, Hatem understood the need to contain COVID-19’s spread.

Hartem ramped up e-commerce for the restaurant — and began offering options delivery through DoorDash — which he attributes to saving the business.

Hatem had a meeting with all of his employees before shutdowns began, offering other jobs through his business line at Empire Properties to his restaurant workers. But then the whole world came to a halt, he said. So, communication with his employees on what they wanted to do was vital.

Once unemployment benefits were boosted $600 a week, it was hard to convince some employees to stay.

Hatem said his businesses then struggled to both maintain employees and prevent the spread of the virus. Hatem said he initially didn’t know the best way to prevent the spread of the virus or what the government would do to support businesses. Everybody was guessing, including him.

But keeping customers safe was of the utmost importance in their reopening plan, Hatem said.

“That was rule No. 1—how do we keep each other safe, and if we can do that, we’ll keep our guests,” Hatem said. “And we never deviated from that.”

Hatem was tormented between how to get his business going and how to keep customers safe. So, they embraced the three Ws: wear, wait and wash. 

The Raleigh Times even made their own propaganda-like posters, one of which had an image of Smokey Bear with Anthony Fauci pinned across his head, saying “Only you can prevent COVID-19.”

When the restaurant learned of positive COVID-19 cases among customers or employees, it always felt the responsibility to shut down and clean. Luckily, Hatem said, the restaurant has evaded any internal spread.

Servers at The Raleigh Times stay six feet apart from you and basically “throw the food at you” to protect you, Hatem said.

The Crunkleton has also adopted precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They thoroughly clean all surfaces and have removed bar stools to create smaller areas where people can stay in their groups.

Crunkleton said his patrons so far have been following the three Ws. Many are excited to be back out after a year of mostly drinking at home.

Patrons take precaution

UNC student Jordan Norona has noticed varying levels of precautions at the bars in Chapel Hill and their effectiveness. While he’s felt safer at outdoor bars like He’s Not Here, he acknowledges why many flocked to indoor bars: the cold.

When the government order mandated bars closed, Norona said this pushed forward discussions of customer safety.

“I think that intuitively it made sense,” Norona said. “I think that there needed to be a readjustment.”

In Greensboro, where UNC student Michaela Stutts has been spending her senior year, she’s frequented the local Boxcar Bar + Arcade often. Only occasionally has she witnessed problems with those who don’t wear masks.

“The bouncer has gone up to them and told them to put on masks,” Stutts said. “But they’re doing pretty well.”

Looking toward normal

In working to get back to a more normal environment, Hatem doesn’t understand why people aren’t eagerly going to get vaccinated — it’s a pathway out, he said.

“When I got my first shot, it was monumental,” Hatem said. “You can’t believe that you’ve just done something that is going to put an end to this.”

Crunkleton encourages everyone to be smart and diligent about which places they consider safe to go to during the pandemic, but he wants the community to give bars a chance again.

“I think looking at the science of it all, with the numbers decreasing and the vaccine distribution, I think things are safer than they were,” he said. “I would give us a shot.”


Edited by Brandon Standley

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … a cicada?

When Anna Wei walked outside the door of her townhouse in Cockeysville, Maryland, all she could see, coating every inch of the sidewalk, were bodies.

Bodies of cicadas, that is.

Anna was four years old, living just outside of Baltimore with her parents, sister Cindy and brother Daniel. They moved a year later, to Charlotte, North Carolina.

But when she looks back on her childhood in Maryland, her main memories center on the summer of 2004; and the dead bugs that covered the concrete until she couldn’t even see the pavement. She remembers being petrified.

She convinced herself it couldn’t have been real— a fever dream, or some nightmare her child self had concocted and planted in her subconscious — that is, until 2021, when she saw a tweet about the return of the Brood X of cicadas set for this summer.

The return of Brood X happens every 17 years. The life expectancy of someone living in the United States is 78, meaning one might live through four or five Brood X events.

The low hum or shrill shriek of a cicada may seem to be just another sound of summer, like waves crashing against the shore or the opening chords to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” But among all the generations of cicadas, Brood X is the biggest — and the loudest.

The life of a cicada is short, but fruitful. The brood first emerges between April and May. Then, they sing. The shrieks, the hums and buzzes are all variations of the cicada’s mating call. Then, with the eggs safely buried in the branches of trees, about three weeks after they first emerge, they die.

The total number of cicadas that will awaken in one cycle is in the trillions. In a hotspot like Maryland, cicadas gather in hordes of 1.5 million per acre on average. Ground zero for Brood X is officially Washington, D.C., but the bugs blanket far into the South and Midwest. Most are found in wooded areas and older homes.

Woods were all Bridget Sheehey knew growing up in Green Hills, Ohio.

“There couldn’t be a place on Earth with more cicadas than we had growing up,” she said.

Bridget was 7 in 1970, the first summer she encountered cicadas en masse. On one large tree in her front yard, known as the “locust tree” among her and seven siblings, at any given time, there would be as many as 30 golden-brown shells stuck to the branches.

“We were never, ever afraid,” she said. “They could be swarming, but we were more fascinated in trying to catch them without breaking them.”

To catch a cicada, she would stretch her hand into the swarm and brush against a wing until she could close her fingers and hold one.

“They’d make this incredibly loud noise until you finally let them go,” she said.

The next time Bridget witnessed the cicadas, she was married one year, living in an old, rented house in Ohio — it was 1987. When her husband Phil tried to cut the grass that summer, the engine’s noise instantly attracted a swarm, as they mistook its whirr for a mating call. And when the cicadas swarmed, Phil would run.

“He’s a city boy,” Bridget said.

To mow the lawn, Phil would wrap a T-shirt around his head, with eye holes cut out so he could see without risk of being surrounded by the bugs. Bridget just watched the cicadas in fascination, still reaching her hand out, trying to catch one.

When 17 years passed, again, Bridget was living in Baltimore, Maryland, with Phil and their four children. One of the family’s favorite playgrounds was Seminary Park. One day that summer, Bridget brought three of her children, including four-year-old, Maeve, to the park.

A few of the cicadas were scattered on the ground. This was her chance, Bridget though, to impart her childhood love of cicadas onto her kids. She picked up one by its wings to show that they aren’t scary. But of course, it buzzed.

“Maeve freaked out, and from that moment on, I had blown it,” she said.

Maeve remembers things differently.

She said the summer of 2004 was the summer of the bug collector. She would throw the lime-green strap over her shoulder, screw off the top and put the bodies of dead cicadas inside. As she tried to collect them, she remembers her brother Conor picking up their bodies and hitting them with a wiffle ball bat.

But something Bridget and Maeve both remember is the cicada-shell charm that stayed in the family’s red mini-van for months.

The oldest, Riley, was just about to start driver’s education classes. She was practice driving with Bridget when she noticed a dead cicada perched on the corner of the dashboard. Only the driver or passenger could see it if they leaned forward.

Riley was the one who initially insisted on keeping the cicada shell. “It’ll be like our pet,” Riley said.

As the seasons changed, the cicada became one of the last remnants of the summer of 2004. Bridget had no intention of ever moving it. That is, until the day Phil tried to surprise Bridget.

“I cleaned your van today — guess what was stuck in there still?” Phil said.

“You didn’t take it,” Bridget pleaded, “You didn’t take the cicada.”

“Bridge, that is sick.”

The summer of 2004 was eventful for Lee Pedersen, now 83, who knew the cicada’s song from his Catoosa, Oklahoma, childhood.

Lee was a professor in the chemistry department at UNC. Before he started his 8 a.m. class on quantum mechanics, he would always pour himself a cup of hot water and stir in ovaltine. Each day, the same drink.

He would walk the few steps to the classroom, where on this particular day, his class of eight people were already preparing for the discussion. Normally he would sip on the drink as the class continued on — it gave him something to look forward to.

But this day, when he raised the cup to his lips to take his first sip, he wasn’t met with the chocolate milk taste he had been accustomed to. No, he felt something rough.

It was the shell of a dead cicada floating in his coffee cup.

“As I finished the lecture, I didn’t have any more sips,” he said.

The cicada likely came in through the open window of his office. Lee said he thought a fellow professor may have put it there as a prank.

“But nobody ever owned up to it,” Lee said.

In 2004, his office overlooked a swath of trees. They would eventually be torn down for the construction of Caudill Labs, a building now well-established as the cicadas are set to return.

Looking back on her cicada-filled summers, each one stands out for a different reason in Bridget’s mind.

“I swear you just blink,” she said.

Now, just a few weeks before her fourth time witnessing the emergence of Brood X of the cicadas, Bridget is on vacation.

Sitting poolside in Naples, Florida, she recently called some of her siblings as news of the return of Brood X spread. Each shared different memories of their childhood, all centered around the summer of the cicadas.

“How weird is it to think that we were just these little kids running around in the woods, and then the very next time, we were engaged? And then we have these toddlers ourselves, and all the sudden, boom, we’re old, dare I say,” her sister said to Bridget as they reminisced.

Maybe reminiscing over cicadas is making meaning out of cicada-corpse hills. But in 17 years, they’ll be back; meeting a world already so different than before.

“What I don’t want to think about is how old I’ll be the next time around,” Bridget said with a laugh. “That’s really creepy.”

Edited by Suzannah Perry

NASCAR Woman Mechanic Liz Prestella Creates Clothing Line

By Macy Meyer

Liz Prestella held up two lug nuts to the Zoom screen as she sat in living room in Mooresville, North Carolina. One has the word “Cup race” scribbled on the side, and the other with “Bristol” is labeled in dark, black sharpie, standing out in perfect contrast with the shiny chrome shell.

Liz remembers the nerves of seeing the car pulling up to the pit lane during her first race and how she just wanted to prove to the pit crew she could do it as well.

Make it tight. Make it quick. Don’t screw up.

She practiced for this moment for years, but she still worried about falling on her face as she attempted to change a NASCAR tire in under 12 seconds.

In the literal sense, the two lug nuts symbolize the first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race she ever worked as a tire changer and the years she hustled to finally work full time in NASCAR Cup Series, the top racing series. They remind her of where she started as a tire changer and where she is now a tire specialist, giving orders to the pit crew.

However, for Liz, they hold more meaning than just fond memories from a NASCAR racetrack — it reminds her that when she first started changing tires in 2012, she was one of the first women to ever work in a NASCAR pit crew.

Even now, as a full-time tire specialist for JTG Daugherty Racing, Liz often finds herself the only woman on the race track.

“I kept those as little mementos for what I did,” Liz said. “I’m one of the few girls that’s ever actually changed tires in NASCAR.”

From passion to obsession

When Liz was little, she always found refuge in the garage of her home in Lake Nevada, California. As the youngest of three girls, Liz, however, spent most of her time in the garage between the men of the family and a vehicle, studying the way they worked.

“Liz always loved to hang out and watch her father, both grandfathers and uncle working on cars in the garage,” Jeanne Prestella, Liz’s mother, said. “It wasn’t long before she was watching races on weekends with dad.”

Therefore, when Liz chose auto shop as her elective in high school, Jeanne and Alton, Liz’s father, weren’t surprised. As a child, Liz was always taking apart toys to find out how they worked, and the parents can remember Liz’s shinning eyes when she attended her first NASCAR race at 12 years old.

This passion was quickly turned into an obsession.

Liz, with Alton and a copy of a Summit Racing book, would spend hours tinkering with her 1988 Camaro, studying every auto part from piston to camshaft for her favorite class. It was during Mr. Patterson’s auto shop class that 15-year-old Liz realized she wanted a career in racing.

It was a complete leap of faith, however, for Liz, a native of a Northern California town that held no opportunities for auto racing, especially as a woman, to get into this industry.

“Our biggest fear was how we could help her find a way to be successful in her dreams,” Alton said. “We knew nothing of the industry.”

Liz took her chance, though. She moved 2,500 miles from Northern California to the heart of the auto racing industry in Western North Carolina. She worked her way through the NASCAR Technical Institute and through the NASCAR divisions, starting from an internship with Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing in the Truck Series and pushing forward to the highest level.

“When I started, there wasn’t nearly as much diversity as there is now,” Liz said. “I worked hard and people started having more and more respect for me. And it was more just me proving myself. I had to prove myself more than the guys would because there’s not a lot of girls.”

The challenge

Liz loved her job, and she worked hard. Her only complain was about the workwear.

Liz had it enough after watching her phone tumble out of her pocked for what felt the hundredth time. On one occasion, her pants ripped in the back so she has to spend the rest of her workday with duct tape keeping them together.

Liz knew there was a huge issue: there was no clothing suitable for women in NASCAR.

Liz spent years wearing oversized men’s coveralls through high school and her training years. She just assumed NASCAR, with its network and funding, would have more options for women working in the crew. A few pairs of ripped pants later, she decided to fix the problem herself.

Liz didn’t even know where to start, but she knew there was a problem and she needed it fixed. For this purpose, she googled clothing factories, started drawing up designs and researched fabrics and cuts until she could design the perfect clothing line for women in the auto industry.

Liz always loved sewing and designing. She even made her own prom dresses just because she could, but she never knew it would help her to start a business in 2017: Torq’d Clothing.

Kaylynn Simmons was astonished when she first saw the posting on Facebook promoting Torq’d.

Finally, she thought.

As a clutch specialist for Top Fuel in The IndyCar Series, she was just thrilled someone felt her pain through years of wardrobe malfunctions.

“A lot of the girls’ pants don’t hold up to what we put ourselves through, and I was constantly buying guys pants,” Simmons said. “I told [Liz] how badass it was that she was finally doing something that was so monumental.”

Making a difference

Torq’d has expanded from just the automotive industry, giving women welders, construction workers and other trades the comfort they need in their work. In a larger sense, it’s creating resources for women in male-dominated industries.

“I think that the more resources women have and the fact that there’s uniforms for them, it’s gonna encourage women to be like, ‘you know, I can do it too,’” Liz said. “I’m hoping that Torq’d can make women feel like they can be a part of automotive or trades or welding.”

Liz remembers the special feeling in her heart when a young girl approached her at a race asking how she can be like Liz.

Her heart warmed. That one moment was worth all the battles, all the trials and tribulations, all the effort she put into proving that she was just as capable as the men next to her. It has always been her dream to break barriers for the next generation of young women. She felt triumphant knowing she was proving women can, and should, be in NASCAR.

“I definitely want to be an inspiration for young girls to see that they can do it,” Liz said. “The way I look at it is if I have a tough time, then it makes it that much easier for women down the road, so I have to break this mold or break the stereotype. I’ve always wanted to be that person that made a difference.”

“And if it’s me making a difference for women and racing, then I’ll happily do whatever it takes.”

Edited by Wendy Jin

The Triangle welcomes its first indoor mini golf facility

By Caleb Schmidt

Before you drive into downtown Raleigh, you may find yourself on U.S. Route 401. It’s a little rundown. The lights take forever to change, and, for the most part, it looks like it hasn’t stepped into the 21st century. It’s peppered with small ranch-style houses. Fast food wrappers litter the cracked asphalt. The air reeks of gasoline as pick-up trucks on monster truck wheels rev their engines loud enough to echo into the nearest town.

However, tucked to the side of 401, a new mini golf course has opened for business: the ParTee Shack, the only indoor mini golf course in the Triangle. From the outside, it just looks like an old warehouse. The only indication that you’ve pulled into the right dusty parking lot is a sign above the warehouse door.

When you first walk in, your eye will probably be drawn immediately to the yellow school bus parked in the middle of the course. But it’s not just a school bus. It is its own course, where you step inside, putt your ball and hope that it finds its way through the bus’s exhaust pipe and into the hole.

Reimagining the game

ParTee Shack is different from your usual mini golf experiences for its untraditional course designs. For example, there’s a hole where you have to ride a zipline to get your ball in, another where you have to play a game of Beirut and one where you have to play a game of pinball to secure your win.

These ideas came from John Berger, one of the owners of ParTee Shack. While John has always loved mini golf, he wanted to bring the commonly outdoor experience indoors.

“It gets so hot in the summer,” John said. “You can’t do it when it’s raining. You can’t do it when it’s cold. I just loved the indoor concept.”

John never thought he would be the owner of a mini golf course. Before opening ParTee Shack, he made a living selling medical devices across the country. Meanwhile, his wife, Caroline, worked as a flight attendant. Whenever they were in the same city, they would always play a game of mini golf.

It wasn’t until they played a game in Omaha, Nebraska when they decided to open up their course in Raleigh. After all, most of the teenagers in the area had only a Sheetz gas station to hang out at after school. Surely there could be something better.

“I feel like there’s not that many family entertainment spots in Raleigh,” Caroline said. “It’s something different, something unique that people haven’t really seen before, especially the fact that it’s all indoors.”

Constructing ParTee Shack

They decided back in July of 2019 to build a mini golf course. Initially, they had planned to build it in Greensboro, but when the pandemic hit in March of last year, they lost the building they were going to use.

Eventually, they found a little warehouse off of 401 and chose to build their course there. Before ParTee Shack, the building housed Interskate, a roller rink. Though people would sometimes go there after school, it was far from a safe place. With electrical malfunctions, asbestos and outdated equipment, the Bergers had to not only repair the building, but its reputation as well.

So, they got to work.

John built some of the courses with the help of his business partner, Jimmy Garcia. Throughout the construction, they ran into some problems. Their biggest problem involved the installation of a new fire sprinkler system. They had to do more than just connect the system to a water pipe. The system had to be connected to a water source … across the busy U.S. Route 401. This tedious project delayed the grand opening of ParTee Shack. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. After announcing the grand opening date, the Bergers discovered that the pipe had been installed incorrectly. So, after all the announcements had already been made, they had to push the date back even further.

Finally, after nearly two years of planning, construction and setbacks, ParTee Shack opened its doors to the public on March 27.

An un-fore-gettable experience

Since opening, ParTee Shack has had a steady flow of new customers. People are telling their friends about this new attraction and are coming back to experience it all over again. It’s more than a rotating windmill, an over-glorified sand trap or a ceramic hippopotamus. It’s a new way to look at mini golf.

“The comment we get the most is, ‘This is so cool. I’ve never seen anything like it,’” Caroline said. “They’re not expecting to go through a school bus or hit a ball off a tee with a bat.”

After all their hard work, the Bergers came up with a fresh, new way to entertain people in the Triangle. While going to Sheetz or loitering a Walmart may be fun for a few minutes, it’s bound to get boring. ParTee Shack is bringing new life to 401 and redefining the game of mini golf.

“It’s really cool just watching people coming in, having such a fun time, getting out of the house, getting out of the crazy routine that people have been going through over the last couple years and have some fun,” John said.

Edited by Alex Berenfeld and Brooke Spach

New students at UNC School of Nursing struggle during the pandemic

By Caroline Kloster

 When you spend 20 years in a family whose steadfast anti-dessert rule made sweet treats synonymous with special occasions, your taste buds learn that sugar means success. Standing outside of Yogurt Pump on Franklin Street, Carly Rittenmeyer smiled at her mother, who had treated her to a chocolate frozen yogurt. On March 3, 2020, celebration tasted sweet and smooth with every bite.

Earlier that morning, Rittenmeyer, a Raleigh-born sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, had opened her email to a long-awaited good news: she had been accepted to the UNC School of Nursing for the fall 2020 semester. After years of volunteering in hospitals and retirement homes, surviving the university’s “weed-out” classes like organic chemistry and turning down nights out to write application essays, Rittenmeyer had beat the school’s 31% acceptance rate.

 It felt like the beginning of the rest of her life: one dedicated to helping others, powered by a valuable foundation from the No. 1 public school of nursing in the nation. 

 Not even a week later, Rittenmeyer gazed down at her iPhone as its bright light illuminated a more unexpected email. Through a bombardment of texts from friends and family, she skimmed its contents: spring break would be extended for another two weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by online classes, for the foreseeable future. 

 The foreseeable future extended through her entire first year of nursing school at UNC.

Lack of hands-on experience

Rittenmeyer is one of the many undergraduate students who began their nursing training during the peak of a global pandemic. As COVID-19 swept the United States, healthcare workers became real-life superheroes, donning makeshift personal protective equipment instead of glistening capes. As classes pivoted to Zoom, however, nurses-in-training like Rittenmeyer worried about receiving significant hands-on instruction.

 “My role as a nurse never felt more needed or urgent, but it felt like there was a roadblock in front of it. I wanted to rise to the occasion and learn how to help in the hospitals, but how was I supposed to be trusted to do that without any in-person experience?” Rittenmeyer said. 

 Each semester, the UNC School of Nursing immerses students in demonstrative skills labs for three hours per week and two clinical rotations in which students shadow nurses at hospitals in the Triangle area during twelve-hour shifts. 

 Rittenmeyer had zero clinical shifts during her first semester of nursing school. 

“Nursing school is going to be rigorous regardless, so we were expected to know the same volume of material, just without the option to practice it in person. The anxiety that caused was insane. I just kept wondering if I would even be good at my job, and nursing is a job that you can’t really afford to be bad at,” she said. 

Back in March, while Rittenmeyer savored every bite of her celebratory chocolate yogurt, UNC sophomore Carly Arendas clinked her glass in a “cheers” with her friends, who gathered around a circular table at Top of the Hill to commemorate her nursing school acceptance. Lindsey Humphrey did the same later that week at a steakhouse with her family and long-distance boyfriend. 

It wasn’t until July, when UNC-Chapel Hill announced that classes for the fall 2020 semester would be remote, that their hours of volunteer work, lab internships and MedLife board service felt disposable. 

“My dream of being a labor and delivery nurse felt unreachable when mothers couldn’t even have guests in the delivery room, let alone an extra student tagging along,” Humphrey said.

High expectations in an abnormal time

Similar worries overtook many college students as they adjusted to learning under COVID-19 conditions, and UNC-Chapel Hill responded with special adjustments tailored to decrease the stress students felt from unprecedented uncertainty. For the spring and fall 2020 semesters and the spring 2021 semester, all undergraduate students had the option to “Pass/Fail” any of their classes with no detriment to their GPA. 

Because the nursing curriculum is structured differently than other undergraduate major tracks, the UNC School of Nursing did not offer a Pass/Fail option for students. If a nursing student receives lower than a 75% test average in any course, they must repeat that year of education.

“The nursing school was operating as normal while practically the entire rest of the campus was not. Not having any of the allowances that other students were afforded definitely made it harder to cope with everything going on,” Arendas said. 

 A spark of hope

As COVID-19 regulations in Chapel Hill slowly began to loosen, a spark of hope brought excitement and chatter to Zoom rooms. The School of Nursing allowed junior students to start their clinical shifts at hospitals in the Triangle beginning in January of 2021.

 Rittenmeyer, Arendas and Humphrey now spend two days each week shadowing nurses and caring for patients, alternating between the maternity and psychology sectors of local hospitals.

 Despite the unprecedented challenges of practicing healthcare during COVID-19, there’s one thing all three students agree on: their nursing school experience might have miraculously fallen on one of the most valuable times to be in a hospital.

“It’s so worth it”

 Humphrey prepared for a long day as her pregnant patient—a 31-year-old woman named Anne—had her first contraction. It was her first time assisting with a birth, and she wondered if it was always this bad. Anne’s pregnancy was riddled with complications, anxiety about the pandemic and constant nerves. She didn’t like the uncertainty of bringing a child into a virus-ridden world whose leaders were still wrestling for control over their economies and health sectors. 

 After laboring for almost Humphrey’s entire clinical shift, Anne sobbed as she held her baby boy. Tears of relief, of gratitude, and of understanding.

 “It’s so worth it,” Anne kept saying.

 Humphrey cried with her. It was worth it. It all was. The confusion of a bizarre semester made everything feel different, but it illuminated every patient experience the students had. Every person who walked through the doors of a hospital in the past year was carrying unique baggage inflicted by COVID-19. To see beautiful moments of happiness and hope—not after the pandemic or outside of it, but in its sanitized and sterilized epicenter—meant everything.

 “Being on the frontlines of a pandemic has made me extremely confident in the fact that I am going to be proud to be a nurse. There will be challenges in this field, but I’m going to return to my job every single day,” Arendas said.

Edited by Elizabeth Egan and Modupe Fabilola

Jewish UNC students and faculty discuss anti-Semitic experiences

By Ryan Heller

While lying in bed, Tamara Zishuk noticed a text from Thilini Weerakkody, the co-president of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Campus Y. The school’s epicenter for social justice had swastikas drawn onto its floor.

It upset Zishuk to hear the news, but it didn’t surprise her.

She already felt numb.

Growing up in Orlando, Florida, she was part of a large Jewish population, which she continued to be involved with when she attended the University of Central Florida. She decided to stay at UCF for graduate school, but studying away from the main campus separated Zishuk from the community she was raised in.

The time away helped her discover the need to be more connected to Judaism. Through her relationships at the UCF Hillel, she was able to escape the humid Florida air and travel to North Carolina. She now serves as a director for student engagement at UNC Hillel —working in an environment completely foreign to her.

“I feel like I’ve experienced Judaism in such a different way,” Zishuk said. “People here don’t necessarily know what Judaism is in a way that in Orlando, people do know what Judaism is.”

It is the town of Chapel Hill where anti-Semitic graffiti can pop up on library walls or religious stereotypes can easily slip out of students’ mouths. It is the town that has trouble relating to a Jewish minority when there seems to be a “sea” of blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian students.

It is Zishuk’s job to unify them. She is tasked with reaching out to Jewish students through email, phone or Zoom to invite them to Hillel and introduce them to those with similar religious backgrounds.

The presence of ignorance and prejudice makes Zishuk’s role more essential. Each student comes to her with new stories to share and new insecurities to confess.

“It becomes emotionally taxing to be that educator at all times,” she said.

The mirage of activism

Lila Haller was shaking while reading the GroupMe messages on her phone. She had joined a conversation in a group chat with members of UNC’s class of 2024. They were discussing what happened at Campus Y, and she felt it was a safe space for her to share her opinions.

She soon realized how wrong she was.

The accepting image many of these students were putting out was simply a mirage to her. They were not the “leftist activists” they claimed to be. They silenced the Jewish voices in the chat, claiming they were “one percent Jewish,” which, to them, was enough validation for them to take the reins on the political conversation. Any disagreements were met with a mob of defense.

Haller and her Jewish friends tried to speak up, but over a thousand students decided to ignore it. She eventually became too physically and mentally overwhelmed. She had to put her phone down.

“I’m pretty desensitized to it at this point,” Haller said. “I think when it happens enough, the shock wears off and you’re just like, ‘Wow, people are really bad.’”

Haller experienced religious prejudice when walking the halls of Sanderson High School in Raleigh. A group of guys have told her she resembled Anne Frank, made jokes about Jews picking coins off the ground and blurted out offensive slurs.

She already felt numb.

“The thing is, anti-Semites don’t want you to be proudly Jewish,” she said. “That’s the biggest way you can offend them — by being yourself.”

Uncomfortable spaces and conversations

Hailing from Boca Raton, Florida, a city with a large Jewish population, Emily Kramer never felt like she was different from the people around her.

But when she began to attend UNC, she became the only Jew in two different friend groups: one that refused to learn about the religion, and another that barraged her with questions. For her, it was as if a Star of David was drawn on her forehead.

“If there’s a Jewish character on a television show, they’ll text me and say, ‘Hey, this character is Jewish,’” Kramer said. “I’ve gotten pictures of kosher sections of grocery stores, and people will say, ‘Oh, look, it’s kosher.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not kosher, but thanks for the picture, I guess.’”

There were times she also felt uncomfortable in the classroom.

While in a POLI 130: Introduction to Comparative Politics course during her first year, her class got into a heated discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As students took their sides, Kramer became unsettled when she heard some of her classmates rant about false information. She had been to Israel — she knew the state better than anyone there.

One student chimed in calling Judaism a cult. That took it too far.

Kramer heard these misconceptions before. They were part of life as a Jewish student in the South.

She already felt numb.

Hillel became her escape — the place she could go to fill the voids left from her friend groups.

Zishuk was a big part of maintaining her connectivity, despite not arriving at UNC until Kramer’s sophomore year. The two formed a quick bond after realizing Zishuk’s brother was roommates with Kramer’s cousin.

Zishuk understood these struggles. She had her own issues with her Jewish identity.

During the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, a gunman shouted, “All Jews must die,” while killing 11 congregates. Zishuk temporarily stopped wearing her Star of David necklace. She did not want to be a walking target.

Why others should work to become more religiously educated

While the reasons for the shootings and vandalisms were rooted in hatred, there are a lot of misunderstandings due to a lack of religious education.

“There is this very strong potential for progressive spaces to become areas that are a bit hostile for Jewish students to voice some of their views, because of the way things shake out involving the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Max Lazar, a graduate teaching fellow for UNC’s department of history, said.

Lazar also experienced his share of bomb threats at his local synagogue, despite living in the very accepting town of Westfield, New Jersey. He takes the role as a teacher of Judaism, becoming the professor of a course at UNC about confronting anti-Semitism worldwide.

“There’s a fundamental queasiness as far as how Jews fit into this hierarchy of discriminated groups, because Jews are this really interesting case,” Lazar said. “If we look at the way that Jewish identity and perception Jews develop in the United States, Jews sort of straddle this interesting blurred space between what is and what is defined as white in this country.”

Zishuk grew to appreciate her role as an educator. She said she always planned on working with Jewish students. She became a guide to students like Haller and Kramer.

One day, she hopes the numbness will be taken away.

“I think it’s a double edged sword. I would much rather if this job had nothing to do with anti-Semitism ever,” Zishuk said. “But when I get to have these conversations and there’s an ‘Aha!’ moment with this student, I do feel this sense of joy and pride in it.”


Edited by Jennifer Tran.

Shining light on UNC-CH environmental dual degree program

By Lauren Westbrook

Annie McDarris found herself standing on top of a mountain in Montana, shivering from howling winds and wearing a red rain jacket.

She never imagined being in that moment in time. She carried a small, yellow “Rite in the Rain” all-weather journal in her right pocket to scrawl notes.

Her entry from June 21, 2016, describes the conditions following the Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park: “The landscape was exposed, a windswept meadow uphill of a creek. Thick, knee-deep foliage. Much colder than yesterday, it appeared to be snowing on the high peaks. The wind had picked up.”

McDarris said that day was illuminating, as she realized she was on the wrong career path. Though she loved environmental work, fieldwork was not her forte. She needed to find another way to make it into the field.

Taking the next step

Now, McDarris is a Media Relations Associate at Resources for the Future, an environmental, energy and natural resource non-profit organization. After a year at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she will be relocating to Washington D.C. to the non-profit’s headquarters.

Without her environmental studies and communication training at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this position would not be a possibility for her, McDarris said. McDarris  also took part in the environmental communication program. Founded in 2015, this program allows students to get a dual degree in Environment and Science Communication by earning a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies or Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science along with a Master of Arts in Media and Communication in five years.

The general public needs to know of the climate emergency in order to start making the changes that will shape the coming decades. Communicators that are able to educate about environmental issues are in high demand.

Climate communicators in short supply

Leaders for the next generation, from art to science, often graduate from UNC-CH. In a time when climate communicators are needed more than ever, UNC-CH has created a path for students to receive training in this growing area. Yet, only five students are currently enrolled.

“Graduates of the program combine the deep content knowledge of the environment with the communication skills sought by employers,” Heidi Hennink-Kaminski, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, said.

Because most students do not hear of the program until it is too late to begin and the notoriously difficult admissions process, enrollment has consistently remained low.

Students need to have a plan to enroll in the program as early as their first year at UNC-CH.

Early advising is essential for a successful application to the program. The classes on the communication side in the Hussman School are particularly in high demand which can lead to enrollment issues, Hennink-Kaminski said.

Graduates of the program often work for non-profits or in-house at a corporation as environmental consultants. There is not much data to pull from, since an average of only five students complete the program each year.

“Environmental issues are still extremely important and have become increasingly important with more attention on the issues,” Ann Marcella Schmitt, Graduate Program Administrative Coordinator, said. “It would be great to see more students apply and be interested in the program.”

 Planning ahead 

For McDarris, the path to enrolling in this program started before she set foot on campus at UNC-CH. Though McDarris did not know she would eventually take part in the program, her Advanced Placement exam scores would allow her to consider enrollment.

“Having two degrees on my wall definitely helped me land the job I have,” McDarris said. “Though, I would not call the program glamorous.”

In order to complete the dual degree program in five years, students need to arrive a step ahead with a large amount of applicable AP credits, Hennink-Kaminski said. Then, they must immediately know to start taking classes in the two areas of focus, environmental studies or science, and communication.

Undergraduates wishing to apply to the program in their junior year need to plan ahead to take the required prerequisite course and stay on track with B.A./B.S. degree requirements. Students admitted into the program also need to be prepared to do graduate-level work their senior year.

“The kind of people who participate in this program are students who are majoring in Environmental Studies or Environmental Science and who come to UNC-CH with substantial AP credit hours that allow them to begin taking graduate-level courses their senior year,” Hennink-Kaminski said. “Students are eligible to apply if they have double-majored or minored in Media and Journalism or taken three prescribed courses in the Hussman school.”

Applying to the program was stressful, current program participant Jessica Reid said. It was difficult for her to have to wait until her junior year of college, when the application takes place, to know if she would be able to take part in the program.

Making sure she took all the required prerequisites to apply to the program was made difficult by the enrollment process at UNC-CH, Reid said. Getting into the right classes did not always work out, so she sometimes worried about applying when the time came.

Though Reid is an Honors Carolina student and published a book, “Planet Now: Effective Strategies for Communicating about the Environment,”  she wondered if she would be admitted into the program—and if it would be worth all the work it took to apply.

“The admissions program is looking for very motivated students who have a clear idea of what they want to do and how this program will help them with their career goals,” Schmitt said. “It sounds cool to do a program like this. We want students that understand the rigor of getting a master’s so early”

There are other environmental organizations around campus, such as UNC Institute for the Environment, that work for the same common goal, yet these programs are not endorsing the dual degree program.

“I actually found out about the dual degree program from a flyer slipped under the door of my freshman dorm,” Reid said.

 What’s around the corner

Creating a sustainability strategy that includes the research of faculty, staff and students, education and service endeavors will indelibly intertwine the future of the university into the fabric of the experiences of the people who live, work and study here, said Emily Williams, Director of University Relations UNC Institute for the Environment.

“I think the future of this program lies in making it more of a thing,” McDarris said. “There are these people who do it each year but never feel like they are part of the program. I don’t really have a ton of loyalty to the program itself because it didn’t feel like it was concrete. I was very lucky to get my job, and I didn’t feel like I had much help to get it.”

Her field notebooks from that time are still readily accessible in a box in her closet, McDarris said. She no longer participates in fieldwork, but her focus on the environment holds true.

Edited by Robert Curtis and Kyle Mehlman

UNC student supports boyfriend as his father battles COVID-19

By Sterling Sidebottom

Leah Brooks was walking from Alpine Bagel in the UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union when her phone rang, Gwyn Lanning’s name lighting up the screen. The call was a strange one to be getting at 11 a.m. on a Monday, but she had also just spent the morning holding her boyfriend, Sam, after he found out his dad had gotten worse. 

“It was a realization that his mom trusts me enough to call me and the fact that she didn’t want Sam to hear her upset,” Leah said. 

On March 14, 2021, Hoy Lanning, Sam’s father, was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) for COVID-19. The next day, Leah picked up Gwyn’s phone call, got Sam from the Ram’s Head Gym and drove her red Subaru to Albemarle, North Carolina

As stressful as the situation was, Leah was also calm. 

“I needed to be there for him,”  Leah said. “It wasn’t my place to be frazzled.”

‘My job was to comfort Sam’

When the pair walked through the door of Sam’s house, his mom’s eyes were still red. His grandmother also had tears in her eyes. Sam immediately went to hug his mom. The two held each other for a minute. This left Leah holding their bags and standing in the doorway not knowing what to do. 

“I know his parents well, but not super well, so I just kinda stood there awkwardly,” Leah said. 

In the three weeks to follow, that would change. 

Leah stayed in Albemarle for four days, Monday through Thursday. Each morning would start with a FaceTime call into the hospital to talk to Hoy. In the frame would be Gwyn, Sam, his grandmother, and Sam’s sister Sarah. Sitting next to Sam, but out of the video frame, was Leah. 

“It was a little weird,” Leah said. “I became more comfortable. Also, just knowing that my job was to comfort Sam.”

On the very first call, Hoy was still breathing on his own. He could talk, so the family would talk with him. They would pray for him. They would tell him they loved him. There were a few tears. 

The second day, Hoy was put on a ventilator, and Leah’s role evolved. When Sam saw his father on the ventilator, he cried. 

“There’s a type of strength you have to have,” said Grace Warner, one of Leah’s junior year roommates. “She’s a strong woman.”  

In the first week that Leah was in Albemarle, the days blurred together. There was a lot of studying for her LSAT. People would stop by and drop off food. Leah would spend time playing cards with Sam, Sarah and Gwyn. As Hoy stabilized, Leah also began to think about what she had left behind.

With it not being her father in the hospital, part of Leah felt like a burden, so, on Thursday, she left Sam and his family and returned to Chapel Hill. Unfortunately, it was short lived.

That Sunday, while at the Southpoint Mall shopping for a graduation dress, Leah’s phone rang. This time, it was Sam’s name on the screen in front of her. Hoy’s heart stopped while the doctors were attempting to roll him onto his stomach. Leah picked at her fingers and rubbed them against the edge of her mask as if she wanted to bite them. 

In the car on the way home, she asked if he wanted her to come back. Sam thought he’d be okay. He didn’t want to be a burden on her or for Leah to see him struggle. Slowly, that shifted.

‘In sickness and in health’

A few hours later, Sam called Leah again. This time, Hoy was being airlifted to another hospital, a larger one with more resources. Leah was heading back to Albemarle. If there was an inner sense of calm Leah called upon during that first drive, there was fear during this second one.

When she walked in the door of the house, now filled with people checking in on the family, it was her turn to hold Sam. 

“There’s ‘in sickness and in health’ and then there’s this,” said Amy Brubaker, a friend of both Leah and Sam.

This, meaning a parent in a state of limbo, where one end is the unthinkable and the other is a long path to recovery, can shift a dating relationship.

“Seeing him so upset made me really upset and seeing how much he relied on me for support,” Leah said. “I really do think it brought us closer together for sure.”

For Emma Uhrlass, the change she saw in Leah was endearing. “She was able to pick up the pieces for him but also communicate with everyone in Chapel Hill. She could lift that weight for him.”

In just a month, Leah went from Sam’s girlfriend to a key support system. In sickness and in health, she shouldered a responsibility that was both unexpected and much larger than anything in the past. The situation brought Sam and Leah closer together, but it also brought her closer to his family. 

Sarah, described by Leah as a hard-ass, began advocating for Leah and Sam to be able to stay in the same room together — an unthinkable arrangement in a Southern household. Maybe it was the stress of the situation, or that Gwyn had bigger concerns to worry about, but she agreed.

After Hoy was stabilized again and Leah returned to Chapel Hill for a second time, Sarah even sent Leah $100 on venmo for “babysitting” Sam. It’s the little change that maybe would have never happened had the two not spent a week in that high-stress environment.

Sam’s sister wasn’t the only one to warm up to Leah.

“His mom texted me ‘I love you’ the other day, which really means a lot,” Leah said. “I think she saw how much I cared and tried to take care of Sam.

On April 8, 2021,  three weeks after being admitted, Hoy was moved from the ICU.

Edited by Addison Skigen & Makayla Williams


Newman Catholic Center evolves to sustain faith through pandemic

By Edward Trentzsch

Crucify him. Crucify him. 

Voices reciting ancient demands for an execution blare through the speakers in the parking lot of Newman Catholic Center. Newman is a Catholic parish and campus ministry on the western edge of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, neighboring both residential and sorority houses. The Catholic Center contains a unique congregation where a diverse mix of children, undergraduates and senior citizens combine to celebrate the Catholic faith.

On April 2, no one was celebrating.

Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!

The day marked Good Friday, a Christian holiday signaling the torture and crucifixion of Jesus on the cross. Families and college students alike spread out across the black asphalt, sitting on lawn chairs and seat cushions instead of traditional church pews. Winter hats and blankets accompanied the parishioners who had smartly anticipated the unusually cold weather.

At the direction of the head priest, everyone in attendance rose to their feet to voice the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, narrating the persecution of Jesus until his final breath.

“It is finished,” Jesus said. And bowing his head, he handed over his spirit. 

Following the mass, the revving of car engines provided the only sound as hordes of churchgoers dispersed in somber silence. A thick cloud of sorrow seemed to envelop the church, but every member of the congregation looked forward to the miracle of Easter Sunday.

Rising above the pandemic

Miracles manifest when amazing acts occur in unexpected ways. Over the past year, the Newman Catholic Center has battled with the unexpected just to survive.

Beginning in March of 2020, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on religious institutions across the country as states restricted gatherings of people. For previous Easters, people lined up outside Newman’s front door to catch a glimpse of the service because the sanctuary was packed to capacity. Last year, officials decided to cancel the service and livestream it without any in-person spectators.

Although the livestream celebrated how Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb of Jesus, the jarring sight of an empty chapel signaled a new reality for the small campus church.

“I had to look around and think to myself, ‘I hope this isn’t the way things are going to be forever’,” Deacon Kevin Sullivan, a staff member at Newman, said. “Everything was so strange.”

Unable to gather during the pandemic, Newman completely evolved how parishioners could attend worship services. In addition to streaming every service on social media, the staff at Newman spent countless hours developing a robust outdoor environment where the spirit of the Catholic community could thrive. After consulting with experts from the UNC School of Public Health, Newman became the first parish in the Diocese of Raleigh to reopen.

Being bold and creative

Everything changed to accommodate for the pandemic, including the offertory at mass, where church members now donate by scanning a QR code on their service pamphlets. Over six loudspeakers, a makeshift altar and a temporary stand for the band were all bought or created to allow the parish a chance to experience mass while staying socially distanced.

The community of a church exists within the hearts of its believers, not within the walls of any building.

“The pandemic has given us a new opportunity to start over and rethink our strategy of reaching more people,” Kevin O’Reilly, Associate Director of Campus Ministry at Newman, said.

O’Reilly is the first person to enter Newman in the morning and the last person to leave, the kind of guy who can recite The Apostles Creed in his sleep. Before every mass, he arrives at least two or three hours early to start transforming the parking lot into a place of worship. Wrestling with the sound equipment is the hardest part, with each speaker and microphone connecting into an audio board through a tangled mess of black wires. He then works with different student leaders to set up the liturgical altar before checking on those participating in the mass at Newman’s temporary staging room.

O’Reilly goes to great lengths to remind people of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the Catholic church, with the virus recently claiming the lives of at least 50 active parishioners at St. Sebastian in New York City. Every day is a gift, and every day brings another opportunity to do things better and safer than the rest.

“I have been thinking a lot on this quote by Pope Francis about our church, where he says ‘I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities’,” O’Reilly said.

Creating hope through adversity

For Francis Lauzier, a senior at UNC majoring in chemistry with plans of attending medical school in Detroit, the community at Newman has been a pillar of support long before the pandemic. Lauzier first encountered Newman during his first weekend at UNC when he attended Carolina Kickoff, a UNC orientation program for first-years. As Lauzier looked around the room at the other smiling faces and cheery freshman, he felt consumed with homesickness. He went to grab his bag and walk back to his dorm at Ehringhaus before a program counselor approached him.

“I don’t know if you are religious, but would you like to join me when me and my friends go to church? I’m Catholic,” the counselor said.

Lauzier has been a regular sight in the Newman pews ever since.

“Before, being Catholic was like much more of a cultural connection than a personal one,” Lauzier said. “But being here has made it a personal connection, especially since I’ve had the opportunity to talk with wonderful students and staff.”

Although this Easter marked the first services of in-person worship for many churches in North Carolina as vaccination rates climb to 18 percent, Newman has persisted with its outdoor services. Unlike on Good Friday, the sun burned brightly on Easter Sunday families flocked to Newman to ditch their hats and blankets for sundresses and short sleeves. Instead of the cold solemnity of the Friday service, a warm hope now shone on the faces of everyone listening to the gospel under Carolina blue skies.

“The environment was super welcoming, and you couldn’t ask for a better vibe for a great day,” Melissa Alexis, a junior at NC State and Chapel Hill native, said with a smile. Despite moving to Raleigh, Alexis still made the 30-minute drive to be at the Newman mass.

The mass has ended. Go in peace! Allelujah! Allelujah!

As the mass reached its conclusion, O’Reilly quickly climbed multiple flights of stairs to the roof of the church to photograph the amazing turnout Newman had received. As he looked over the crowd, he felt a peace come over him. Through faith and determination, an ordinary parking lot had been transformed into a shining symbol of hope through adversity.

“This world now is a puzzle with missing pieces,” O’Reilly said. “Every person who comes to Newman is an important and beautiful piece to God’s wonderful puzzle picture of life.”

Edited by Megan Suggs

Recovering from the disaster: he understands what a community is to him

By Edward Trentzsch

With his friends hollering in the back seat, Carson O’Neal slams down on the gas pedal in his tan Jeep Wrangler. South Point Road is a dirt path on the southern edge of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, cutting through beautiful marshlands to an empty beach where summer seems to last forever. Potholes inhabit the dirt road like land mines on a battlefield, yet O’Neal swerves around them with ease.

This island is his home, and his roots run deeper than even the largest pothole.

O’Neal descends from a long lineage of Ocracoke history. During the 1700s, O’Neal’s ancestor worked on a “pilot” boat where he and other sailors helped guide English ships through the harbor. Seven sailors fell in love with the island and refused to leave, choosing to instead remain on Ocracoke and start new lives. People have come and gone in the 300 years since those original seven men built their homes on the island, but the O’Neal family has remained.

“My family has been here for a while, which has made me feel even closer to his place,” O’Neal said. “Ocracoke is the kind of place where you feel close to the people who you aren’t even close with.”

O’Neal is now a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Sports Administration. Every time he feels the stress caused by exams or homework, O’Neal closes his eyes and thinks back to the rush of wind streaming through his windows as he accelerates down the marsh. He can still smell the warm salt air and see the sun sinking into the Atlantic Ocean after a long day.

Also, he can still feel the terror from two years ago when a single storm threatened to wipe out the home he loves.

The Catastrophe

In September of 2019, Hurricane Dorian laid waste to Ocracoke Island. A 7.4-foot storm surge caused waters to rise to unprecedented heights, creating the largest floodwaters on the island since 1944. Dorian decimated the local village as more than a third of all buildings in Ocracoke were severely damaged. Cars and debris floated down the damaged highways like fish in the ocean as local families watched their life’s work quickly drift away.

In the midst of this tragedy where all hope seemed lost, the bonds of a small community rose from the debris to renew the hope.

The village of Ocracoke contains around 700 permanent residents and is accessible by ferry or private boat. Locals spend the year hoping the winter can pass quickly so they can reap the benefits of tourism in summer.

Ocracoke School is the only school on the entire island, where O’Neal graduated in 2017 as valedictorian of the largest class in history. He graduated with 18 other students.

“Whenever I came to college, it was really the first time in my life where I ever had to make friends,” Darvin Contreras, a current junior at UNC and Ocracoke native, said. “Growing up, everyone feels the same sense of community.”

That day

In September of 2019, O’Neal took his usual seat in an auditorium at UNC-Chapel Hill as he waited for his morning class to start. His phone lightly buzzed in his pocket, signaling a Snapchat from his sister Katie.

After opening the notification, O’Neal quickly gathered his things and walked out of class. He needed fresh air to combat the panic quickly coursing through his body.

The Snapchat revealed the immense flood-waters that were quickly pouring into the ground floor of his family home. The O’Neal family have endured plenty of hurricanes during their time on the island, and after evacuating to Greensboro for Hurricane Florence in 2018, they decided to wait this one out at home.

Inclement weather is a part of life on Ocracoke, but no one could have prepared for the devastation Dorian would bring.

“I remember sitting on our steps and feeling complete shock as the animals ran up to the higher floor,” Sue O’Neal, Carson’s mother, said.

When the water finally receded, the serene island community had been transformed into an apocalyptic nightmare.

“Seeing people again was like looking at walking death,” Sue O’Neal said. “It was complete devastation.”

“So it brought everyone together in grief…”

Hurricane Dorian caused significant damage to 88 of 105 businesses on Ocracoke, something the O’Neal family experienced firsthand. Growing up, O’Neal would look forward to the days following a high school baseball game, when his dad would treat the entire team to breakfast at their family restaurant, the Pony Island Restaurant. No matter if they win or lose, the memories come along with laughers of friends and the taste of pancake and grits made them look forward to every baseball game.

However, over the course of one day, Dorian had completely flooded his parent’s business and replaced the smell of breakfast with the stench of black mold.

Immediately after the hurricane, Ocracoke residents held community dinners every night at the fire station to feed those without access to food. People from other Outer Banks towns used boats to reach the island and distribute drinking water and clean clothes to those in need.

Ocracoke shares a bond few other communities in North Carolina could understand, a bond strengthened through a shared faith inside this close community.

“You could see in everyone’s eyes that we all knew something terrible had happened, so it brought everyone together in grief,” Kyle Tillett, a student at East Carolina University and Ocracoke native, said.

There is no Home Depot on Ocracoke. What the island lacks in resources, it makes up with in compassion.

With the help of their neighbors, the O’Neal family gutted their entire ground floor and built it back better than before. After receiving donations from family and the American Red Cross, the Pony Island Restaurant reopened its doors on Memorial Day of 2020.

Two years after Hurricane Dorian, O’Neal estimates that nearly 90% of the community has rebuilt from the ruins. Every few months, O’Neal returns home to Ocracoke and drives his Jeep up South Point Road with the same friends he grew up with in the back seat. The scars of Dorian are still imprinted on the small island community, but every mile forward reflects another step towards healing from the past.

“For people who grow up on the island, we are raised to persevere through hard times,” O’Neal said.

Edited by Wendy Jin