Conflicted: Leading tours while black in the Silent Sam era

By Karen Stahl


The pulse of helicopter blades chopping the air sliced through Jess Casimir’s ears.

Words zoomed around her brain in a flurry as she tried to chase just a few in pursuit of a coherent sentence.

The group around her exchanged confused glances and questioning eyes. Casimir took a deep breath.

“So I usually like to end with my ‘Why Carolina,’” she said on an exhale. “It is why I came to Carolina, why I choose to stay at Carolina and why I love Carolina.”

But her false confidence was no match for the deafening chants of the Silent Sam protestors around her.

Her palms started sweating. Her mind would not stop racing. Her braids hung limply in the humid August air.

Pressure is a feeling Casimir knows all too well.

As a black tour guide at UNC-Chapel Hill, junior Casimir still struggles with giving well-informed, honest tours about Silent Sam, the controversial Confederate monument that stood on McCorkle Place from 1913 to 2018.

“We have to talk about safety at Carolina,” she said. “As a person of color, I feel like you have an obligation to other people of color to be truthful about those situations.”

One of her most difficult tours took place in the middle of a Silent Sam protest.

But, as a daughter of Haitian immigrants, Casimir is no stranger to adversity.


Her mother makes Casimir’s favorite dish – “mori ak banann bouyi,” or salted codfish and boiled plantains – in the comforts of their cozy home near Lake Norman, where her father keeps the temperature at a steady 75 degrees. He grew up on an island and cannot handle colder climates.

Scattered around North Carolina and New York, Casimir’s family speaks Haitian Creole, the French-based official language of Haiti.

Casimir is a first-generation college student. And she is not alone at UNC-CH.

According to the Office of Undergraduate Retention, about 20% of undergraduate students at UNC-CH are first-generation college students, or students whose guardians do not have bachelor’s degrees.

A 2014 report from the office said 34% of first-generation students at UNC-CH are African-American.

But Casimir did not feel supported by her peers when applying to colleges, and she struggled to realize that there were others like her. Coming from a predominantly white community, she felt as though her experiences as a black woman were invalidated.

“I’m a particular type of black person,” she said with a chuckle.

As the youngest of four children, Casimir looked to her older siblings for support. After applying to countless schools and scholarships, she finally settled on UNC-CH because it was the most affordable option.

Her parents knew it was the right choice for her.

“We hear her sing the alma mater in the shower all the time,” said Patricia Elibert-Casimir, her mother. “Any excuse to talk about UNC.”

Though she was excited, being a black, first-generation college student in a class of 4,228 enrolled students – 71% of which were white – was daunting for Casimir.

“It has its challenges, like not feeling wanted at the university,” she said. “Everyone has networks, and you just kind of have to start from the ground up.”

The first night on campus after her parents left, Casimir cried silently in her room.  But she resolved to hit the bricks running.

She had no idea what she was in for.

Silent Sam. Minority safety. Being a black woman.

Her first tour, all Casimir could think about was facts.

“I was like, ‘I know they told me not to do that,’” she said. “It’s about your experience, but I was so nervous because that was all I kept doing.”

Casimir began as training as a tour guide in August 2017 and gave her first solo tour in January 2018.

Her training coincided with the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 11, 2017. She immediately began getting questions from parents on tours about Confederate monuments.

After a rally to take down Silent Sam later that month, the volume of questions surrounding the monument skyrocketed.

“It just became a thing that people assumed you were going to touch on, because how could you not?” Casimir said with a tired shrug.

The pressure never ceased.

Every tour had the same recurring themes: Silent Sam. Minority safety. Being a black woman.

Her palms still get sweaty thinking about it.

For nearly a year, Casimir teetered around the issue of Silent Sam, giving a university-tailored response only when a parent specifically asked about it.

“I know it took a toll on her,” said her friend Ashlin Elliott. “I think she managed the tours in a way that her opinion was not known to her groups, even when it was hard for her.”

Then the unthinkable happened.

When Silent Sam fell the night of Aug. 20, 2018, Casimir was lying in bed and scrolling through her phone.

She saw the video on Twitter and let out a shriek, though she was not entirely shocked.

Not after what had happened earlier that day.

The fall

Casimir approached the Old Well with her tour group following closely behind. Out of the corner of her right eye, she spotted the familiar Silent Sam crowd.

She braced herself for the questions.

But instead, she was met with the chants of protestors. News crews formed at a distance. Barricades surrounded the statue in layers, like rows of sharp teeth in the mouth of a shark.

She knew this was it.

It was the day before classes began, and Casimir watched the eager faces of prospective students in her tour melt into confusion. Most of the parents and their children were from out of state, and while Silent Sam had garnered national attention, not everybody was up to speed.

She crossed the street and walked around news crews with their trucks, stopping her group in front of the Old Well.

Her palms were sweaty as always, but this time her mind stopped racing. With slow control, she began her final speech.

“This is my ‘Why Carolina,’” she said. “It is why I came to Carolina, why I choose to stay Carolina and why I love Carolina.”

She talked about the different opinions on campus, student activism and selflessly provided her thoughts to the tour group, as her friend Kirsi Oldenburg described it.

Casimir felt like it was the end of the era of questions surrounding the monument. She knew that very soon the discussion would shift to moving forward. Even if she did not know the statue would fall that very night.

“I have to say, as a first-generation college student, I was really nervous about where I wanted to go,” she said to her tour. “Everybody experiences Carolina differently. It’s awesome to see different stories that people tell.”

The pulse of helicopter blades chopping the air sliced through Casimir’s ears.

But with a gentle look back at McCorkle Place, she gave a small smile.

Edited by Paige Colpo.

RTP local makes luxury accessible with start-up company, Rewardstock

By Virginia Blanton

Jonathan Hayes could not believe his older brother’s magic worked: He scored two business class plane tickets to South America for $2.50 apiece by strategically applying reward points after months of research.

Boarding the flight, Hayes awaited the moment when he and his brother would be ushered to the plane’s last row. But when the stewardess hovered by their spacious seats, the only thing she asked was if they wanted champagne or orange juice.

At that moment, Hayes decided everyone needed to experience luxury treatment at least once in their life.


The birth of Rewardstock

That voyage in 2011 inspired Rewardstock. Based out of Raleigh, North Carolina, Rewardstock is an entrepreneurial venture that helps users go on vacations they would otherwise be unable to afford.

Hayes left a steady, 7-year investment banking career at Citigroup in 2014 to create Rewardstock and be present with his family, leaving Wall Street for the City of Oaks.

“Our success implies that people all over the world are having cool experiences. Experiences are ultimately what matter in life and enrich your time here. Fancy, glass-case things don’t have that power,” he said.

Inspired by his brother Jason’s frugality, Hayes tested his own hand at reward point magic a year after their South American excursion. With the help of reward points, he and his wife were able to go on a $40,000 honeymoon in the Maldives for just $200.

“We googled ‘paradise’ and went with the first image that came up,” his wife, Alison, said.

Alison and Jonathan flew first class and stayed at a luxury resort for eight nights. That’s when Jonathan realized he could make this game a legitimate business.

By using reward points most Americans overlook, Rewardstock’s algorithm shows users how to take advantage of frequent flier miles and credit card points to cash in on extravagant trips.

“Everyone knows that flier miles and card points are valuable, but Jonathan has gone beyond that –– he figured out the pathways for exchanging miles for points and back again in a way that expands the value of your holdings,” said Patrick Conway, an economics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Hayes’ last Citigroup bonus financed the first seed funding for Rewardstock. The website went live in 2016. Traffic was fleeting. What they were doing wasn’t working.

Hayes had been growing an impressive beard at the time. One day, he woke up and decided to shave everything but the thick handlebar moustache. He claims the facial hair change was symbolic of the need to approach Rewardstock’s mission differently.


Into the shark tank

Out of the blue, cyberspace delivered Rewardstock a support ticket that changed the company’s trajectory –– a casting director from the TV show “Shark Tank” reached out to the Rewardstock team to come on the show, which helps budding entrepreneurs break into their desired industry.

Hayes and the Rewardstock team agreed to give the show a chance.

“We encouraged him to write out his speech word-for-word, memorize it and rehearse it a thousand times –– also prep for anticipated Q&A,” said David Gardner, Hayes’ first investor.

In November 2018 Hayes pitched Rewardstock to the country on ABC.

Kevin O’Leary and Mark Cuban sat up in their chairs when Hayes mentioned he was a former investment banker. He wasn’t just a great presenter, he also knew how to calculate margins.

Hayes said one difference between the broadcast show and his actual experience was that the “sharks,” or investors, actually talk to the contestant for close to an hour, firing dry questions that don’t make for good TV.

“America doesn’t care that we are incorporated in Delaware,” Hayes said.

There were no second or third takes –– Hayes only had one chance at making an impression.

From binging prior episodes, Hayes observed the difficulty founders faced pitching their apps once enclosed in the tank. There is no advantage of a physical product or freebie to give out.

Enter the fire twirlers, leis and coconut drinks. Hayes outfitted the “sharks” and gave them a cultural performance to replicate the experience of traveling.

Hayes walked away with a $320,000 deal from Mark Cuban. Since the episode aired, Rewardstock has helped explorers across North Americ save a total $250,000 in travel fare.

“We have tons of Canadians trying to sign up right now. Shark Tank is very popular in Canada,” he said.

Hayes presents his company to the ‘sharks’ on ABC’s television show “Shark Tank.” Since the episode aired, Rewardstock has helped North American travelers save a total of $250,000.

The investors’ roles don’t end with the show’s closing credits.

“Mark is very engaged. We communicate about once every other week via email. He has the fastest email response time ever,” Hayes said.

He jokes that he has the real Mark Cuban and the Mark Cuban of the Southeast, David Gardner, on his side.

“We often talk of the ‘quants’ of Wall Street that bring algorithms to stock trading. Jonathan is bringing his algorithm to the use and trading of another asset: miles and points,” Conway said.


Looking ahead

Hayes has no plans to move to a more cosmopolitan or traditionally entrepreneurial zip code. There are a lot of resources and opportunities in The Research Triangle. It is Jonathan’s home. He loves the great quality of life, the low cost of living and the modern, socially-conscious environment.

“In Silicon Valley you can’t buy food and groceries with shares of your company,” he said.

Jonathan wants his children to grow up believing that anything is possible for them. He reads his 3-year-old daughter the children’s book “Rosie Revere, Engineer.” There’s one line he makes sure to stress:

“The only true failure can come when you quit.”

Hayes presents his company to the ‘sharks’ on ABC’s television show “Shark Tank.” Since the episode aired, Rewardstock has helped North American travelers save a total of $250,000.

Edited by Paige Colpo and Bailey Aldridge. 









Faster than a speeding bullet: The competitive sport of flyball

By Savannah Morgan

Bullet lifts his hind legs off the flyball box in anticipation. A human teammate holds and steadies him, keeping him from sprinting forward. His front paws press firmly on the mat-covered ground. His dark eyes focus on his owner, Gary Gundacker, who waits beyond the jumps at the end of the 51-foot lane. It’s just a practice drill on a laid-back Saturday afternoon, but Bullet loves this game and is raring to go. He barks, perks his ears and braces his hind legs back against the box. Finally, the human and dog teammates are in place.

“BULLET!” Gundacker calls.

The steadying hands release their grip, and Bullet sprints forward like a horse on Derby Day. He flies over one, two, three, four jumps and past the cones marking the start/finish line, where a treat and a head pat reward him for his good work. Bullet has just completed half of a flyball run, an exercise that helps young dogs learn the relay process of the game.

What is flyball?

Flyball is a dog sport involving two teams of four dogs and two parallel, 51-foot lanes. Each dog is required to sprint down its lane, jumping over four hurdles as it goes. When the dog reaches the end of the lane, it jumps onto an inclined ramp attached to a spring-loaded box, triggering the release of a tennis ball. The dog must catch and carry the ball, turn while jumping off the box and make its way back down the lane and over the hurdles to the start/finish line, where it can drop the ball. Upon the first dog’s return, the second dog is released, and the process continues until all four dogs have returned to the finish line. In a tournament, the first team of dogs to finish wins the heat.

‘Hillbilly Flyball’

Three flyball clubs — DogGone Fast, New River Rapids Flyball and TurboPaws — practice together in an old industrial-sized chicken coop located in Holly Springs, North Carolina. The flyball teams that practice there lovingly call it “Hillbilly Flyball.” The chickens are all gone, and flyball equipment fills the space instead. Black rubber mats cover the red dust ground to prevent the dogs from slipping as they speed up and down the lanes. The white jumps are spaced 10 feet apart along the mats. They are scarred by years of dirt, scratches and accidental run-ins. Collapsible gates, tennis balls and L-shaped pieces of wood with bright green and blue pool noodles duct-taped on the edges are scattered around. Black boxes covered with black sandpaper sit at the end of the lanes. The dogs alternate as they practice, getting to complete runs or work on trouble spots.

“Flyball is like the kegger of dog sports,” laughs Laura Kroeger, who organizes the chicken coop practices. “I love the friends and team aspect of it. It’s like a big party.”

From across the chicken coop, Cris Lane adds, “It’s also sort of like being in the National Guard because you just get so committed to your club.”

Continuing the legacy

Bullet’s owners and handlers, Gary Gundacker and Barbara Klag, are flyball veterans. They started two dogs, Sally and Jesse, in the sport about 20 years ago. Jesse went on to win the highest flyball honor, the Hobbes, which is awarded for accumulating 100,000 points. Gundacker and Klag are so dedicated to the sport that they moved to North Carolina from New Jersey about 12 years ago for North Carolina’s many flyball clubs and tournaments. They joined the DogGone Fast club, and their dogs have been running and having fun ever since.

Bullet has been playing flyball for seven years. Gundacker and Klag brought him home from a sports dog breeder in Las Vegas. He is a mix of Malinois, Border Collie, Border Terrier, Jack Russell and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. His shoulders reach about 15 inches off the ground when he’s standing, making him average-sized compared to the dogs he practices with. Bullet’s chestnut-colored fur is short and, in some places, wiry. Black fur mingles with the brown on his back and through his long, thick tail — growing darkest and most wiry at his shoulders, lightest and softest on his toned hind legs. Soft, dark hair grows along his nose and is fused with white patches.

“I liked the name Bullet,” Gundacker said. “It’s the name of the dog on the Roy Rogers Show, which I liked to watch growing up.” He pauses and then adds with a wink, “And you know, I look a little like Roy.”

Bullet started flyball training early, when he was just about a year old. Now dogs have to wait until they are 15 months old to start training. The North American Flyball Association (NAFA) determines the rules for flyball training and tournaments. Training a dog for flyball usually takes about two years. Trainers break down the game into digestible portions, teaching the dog one obstacle at a time.

Teaching the game

“First you have to teach the dog to have fun with you before you can introduce jumps or other obstacles,” Kroeger said. “The next step is to teach recall — getting the dog to run back to you as fast as possible.”

Then the dog can begin learning jumps. Getting the dog to jump over all four jumps without going around them or hitting them is a crucial part of the game. The handler must also determine what the dog will run for. Some dogs want to be rewarded with treats, while others prefer a toy or game of tug with the handler. Bullet likes to be rewarded with treats and balls when he completes a run. Once the dog can run up and down the lane, return to the owner and complete all four jumps, he or she is introduced to the box.


After a dog learns to complete a full run with little to no mistakes, the handler can begin entering it in tournaments. The club puts together as many teams of four as possible. The smallest dog on each team is called the “height dog” because its jump height determines its team’s jump height. Jump heights range from 7 inches to 14 inches.

Tournaments usually take two days, and the winning team of the tournament is the team that wins the most races by being the fastest. On average, a single dog will run the course in four to seven seconds. Bullet usually runs a time of 5.4 seconds. A good time for a team run is 18 to 20 seconds, but the record is 14.433.

“Bullet isn’t the speediest dog, but he does the job that needs to be done,” Gundacker said.

Teams are also given points for the runs they complete, but the points are for dogs’ individual flyball records and don’t impact which team wins the tournament. If a team completes its run in less than 24 seconds, the dogs are each awarded 25 points. Flyball dogs accumulate points over time and win awards for high point totals. In 2016, Bullet received an ONYX award for garnering 20,000 points over his career. He competes in one or two tournaments every month.

“It’s a game for him,” Gundacker said. “He likes working with us and pleasing us. And it doesn’t hurt that he gets some treats here and there.”

Edited by Paige Colpo.