The first Chatham Magazine Women’s Issue

They teach us to dance and they lift our spirits. They’re playing with the boys and rocking out with the girls.
They make the laws and keep us safe. Ten remarkable women who call Chatham home.

Photography by Briana Brough

Tami Schwerin

the community builder – pictured above

You get a feel for how far back Tami Schwerin goes in Chatham when she talks about opening her first business, a software company, in Pittsboro in the early 1990s. She and her husband, Lyle Estill, went in to apply for a business license for their start-up, Blast Software.

“[We] had to check a box for the kind of business it is,” she remembers. “They didn’t have ‘tech’ or ‘software’ as an option. They put us down as ‘small appliances.’”

In the decades since, nothing Tami has done in Pittsboro has been “small.” Rather, through a life that has combined activism and business, celebration and grief, Tami has helped remake the face and heart of Pittsboro. After selling Blast, she and Lyle converted an abandoned factory off Lorax Lane in east Pittsboro, which she calls “The Plant,” to manufacture biofuels and then reinvented the complex into a distillery as Fair Game Beverage Co. Biofuels, she says, should be an important sustainable energy source and was a good business – until most restaurants in the region caught on and stopped giving away their used cooking oil for free. “We get in in the beginning of things,” laughs Tami, “and lose our butt.”

Along the way, as the founding president of the Chatham Marketplace co-op grocery story, she helped revitalize Chatham Mills. In 2006, Tami founded Abundance North Carolina as an incubator of ideas and resources for businesses, nonprofits and events with sustainable missions. The organization has helped launch local farmers markets, community lender Slow Money NC, summer camps, music festivals and, beginning in 2008, the annual Pepperfest, which attracts scores of local farms and restaurants and thousands of attendees.

But the spring of 2016 marked a sudden, wrenching change to her work. When a neighbor, Chris Lucash, was diagnosed with ALS, the prospect of his near and certain death moved Tami to study how America treats the end of life. What she found reminded her of the hands-off mechanics of a commodity market – ornate caskets and flowers, a quick burial and a few days off from work. No room for connection, no room for grieving. 

“Our work started as environmentally based, but as I dug deeper I found that if you don’t address grief and loss, you create chaos, pain, disease, suffering, violence in the world, and that leaks out to destroying our earth,” she says. “I seek the roots.” 

Yet, as she studied how society grapples with the end of life, the topic became much too real. In April of 2016, her son Zafer Estill, 20, was found dead in Boulder, Co., of a drug overdose. She posted to Facebook: “My dear friends, our lives are changed forever. My beautiful hard-headed, hilarious, sweet, sweet son Zafer made a huge error.”

Zafer’s death led Tami to launch the annual Death Faire that November. The festival, which she calls “an exploration and celebration” of life, is held at The Plant and brings together speakers, experts and artists on topics ranging from terminal medical care to DIY funerals and green burials to spiritual help. In its two years, the event has drawn medical professionals and patients with terminal illnesses. The festival features films, art and traditions like a New Orleans jazz funeral, Mexican Day of the Dead and Congolese village funeral.

Abundance’s latest promotion is what Tami calls the Think Again series, lectures and workshops that examine outdated practices and social systems.

“After Zafer’s death, my brain was completely reconstructed,” Tami says. “I realized that the smallest things that don’t get mentioned can be life or death. I think that our culture, our community needs to examine everything that we think of as truth, look again at it and speak about the unmentionables.”

Madi Horrell and Mykia Taylor

the athletes

Madi Horrell and Mykia Taylor weren’t trying to break boundaries. They just wanted to play.

For Madi, a sophomore at Northwood High School, that meant finding a sport she liked after a childhood spent in Singapore and Australia. Her family returned to the U.S. and Chatham in time for 8th grade.

“My mom really wanted me to find a sport,” says Madi, and a middle-school teacher gave her a flyer for the girls lacrosse league. “I enjoyed it and wanted to keep playing.”

But Northwood does not have a girls team so Madi tried out for the boys team. This spring, she’s the starting goalie on the school’s JV team. In early March, she recorded 12 saves in a breakthrough win over Carrboro High School, one of the state’s top programs, and she was named Player of the Game after making 16 saves against Pinecrest High School.

“I don’t think they realize [I’m a girl] until I take my helmet off,” she says. “One player for another team, when he saw me, he told me, ‘Wow, you’re really good for a girl.’”

Mykia, an 8th grader at Moncure School took up baseball two years ago. She already played softball.

“I knew a lot of people who were like, ‘Why?,’” she says. “I wanted to try something different. I wanted to do something different that I knew not a lot of people would do.”

She tried out at catcher as a 7th grader and made the team. Proving herself took a bit longer. “[The boys} are coming strong with all their speed,” she said in a school interview. “When they get down on that ground, your only choice is to cover home and try to tag ‘em out.”

With a bat in her hand, she says, she got some hits and a few strikeouts. Now in 8th grade, she’s switched to volleyball after a larger group of boys tried out for baseball this year. When she joins Madi at Northwood next year, she says, she’ll probably stick with softball, but she hopes more girls will push into boys’ sports behind her.

Ebony Grissett-Delgado

the dancer

Ebony Grissett-Delgado opened Chatham Dance Connection in 2008, renting space wherever she could find it. She and her students danced after hours in day-care centers, rented space at Camp Royall and even used a spare room at the back of an Italian restaurant. Sara Heilman, who today competes as one of Ebony’s elite students, remembers those early days.

“We’d have to walk through the actual restaurant and past all the customers in our ballet clothing,” says Sara, now a senior at Northwood High School. “We’ve been everywhere and I never really thought to question it. We’re not the biggest studio in the world but I know every single person by name.”

“I just love the fact that people want to dance and share that with me,” Ebony says. “Whatever their ability is, we welcome it. We have kids who have special needs. We also offer scholarships, so if [choosing to take lessons or not] is income-based, that’s not an issue. I never want anyone to not dance for one of those reasons.”

Four years ago, Ebony moved the studio into a dedicated space behind the Piggly Wiggly shopping center. The space is small, but it’s her own and she now teaches close to 100 dancers. One of them, Jonah Jacomet, 11, a huge Michael Jackson fan, came to Ebony to learn the King of Pop’s moves. His mom, Edie, worried how Jonah, who falls on the autism spectrum, would take to a structured dance class.

“He just took off,” Edie says. “Ebony was very kind and patient with him.” When Jonah did his routine in his third grade talent show, the video was picked up by a local TV station and played on the ABC News website.

Meanhwhile, Sara and Ebony’s other senior dancers have won regional dance titles. “Ebony has always been the teacher that I’ve been closest with,” she says. “She’s always been my dance mom.”

Sherri Murrell

the judge

As Chatham’s newest district court judge, Sherri Murrell presides over cases in both the new Chatham County Justice Center and Orange County courtrooms. She was elected in 2016 after 16 years as a public defender, trying her earliest cases in the Chatham County Historic Courthouse. A Tar Heel for both undergrad and law school, she and her husband, Duncan, an English teacher at Chatham Central High School and freelance magazine writer, are raising their two daughters, Caroline, 14, and Sarah Anne, 11, in Pittsboro.

On any given day, she may rule on traffic tickets, misdemeanors or the particularly difficult decisions of family court, often involving children. Those cases, she says, “are both tough and rewarding. I’m constantly reminded that there are real human beings that are having
these experiences.”

In one recent case, Judge Murrell was confronted with whether to permanently remove two children from their parents’ care.

“[These] children were young and [their temporary guardians] were interested in adopting them. For that to happen, the biological parents had to either give up or have their parental rights legally terminated. Cases like that are painful because no matter how deficient parents are, they love their children and usually don’t want to give them up.”

In this case, she ruled to end the parental rights, opening the door for the guardians to adopt. But it’s never easy.

“I would rather somebody tell me they are going to lock me up than take my kids,” she says. “Those are the two fundamental ideas: people want to be free and they want to have their kids. So you run the gamut from terribly sad to a situation that ends up, for these children anyway, as being incredibly positive.”  – MW

Susan Henson

the guardian

Around six years ago, Susan Henson’s daughter Abigail Attix saw a TV show on the plight of infants born to women in jail. Within a day of birth, babies are turned over to whomever a mom can find, usually family or friends. And they may have little control over when they get their babies back.

Susan reacted with sympathy but not much else. “I thought, ‘Somebody should do something about that’,” she says. “But it ain’t me.”

Yet within days, she realized she couldn’t shrug it off. “The next few weeks I couldn’t sleep at night,” she says. “I felt God saying, ‘Someone needs to do this, and I’m tapping you on the shoulder.’”

In 2017, after more than five years of laying groundwork, Susan opened her home to the first “class” of babies – Skyler and Jaiden – at Pharaoh’s Daughter, a non-profit Susan built to meet that calling. She had been contacted about two women who were facing jail time and also expecting in July and August. Susan met the women and they agreed to name her as their child’s guardian during their sentences.

“When a woman is pregnant, she is going to be calling her mother, aunt, her next door neighbor,” says Susan. “Maybe they come from a home with some kind of abuse, and she is sending her newborn baby right back into that stew.”

She named the non-profit after the Biblical story of the Pharaoh’s daughter who took Moses as a baby, saving him from drowning in the Nile. Susan also moved Abigail back into her house to help with, as she put it, being ‘back into the baby business.’

While their moms are away, Susan takes the babies to visit them every week – the most allowed – a step that child experts view as vital to allowing mothers to bond with their newborns but that many women in jail miss. When released, the women stay at Susan’s house until they find suitable housing. Jaiden is already back with her mother. Skyler’s mom gets out in April.

Already, Susan says, lives change. “One of our moms had been estranged from her adult children for many years,” says Susan. “She just couldn’t get on her feet and she’d disappointed her kids one too many times. Now, they’ve been reunited. Those are implications I didn’t consider when we started, the ripple effect of a human being doing well.”

Karen Howard

the commissioner

The top two stories on the top of Karen Howards recent Facebook timeline do not, at first glance, have much in common. The first you might expect from a Chatham County commissioner: a report on an ongoing dispute in Siler City between residents of a trailer park and a major chicken processor that wants to build a new factory on the site.

The second post could be a travel ad: a tropical beach surrounded by white cliffs, palm trees and turquoise ocean. The story links to an online petition from the Bahamas, where local activists want to prevent a resort development on an historic, pristine stretch of coastline on the island of Eleuthera.

For Karen, who grew up in the Bahamas through middle school (her father’s family is from Eleuthera), the dispute in Siler City and the petition from the island strike the same chord. The parallels, she says, helped her connect with long-time Chatham residents over the past two years as the Board of Commissioners developed the county’s new Comprehensive Plan, which will guide county planners for the next 25 years. Before adopting the plan in November, the board held 18 months of town hall and community meetings to hear from residents.

“When you sit down and you’re talking to people, I can say I came from a place where everybody knew everybody,” Karen says. “We face the same challenges. The Bahamas [less than 200 miles from Miami] is right off the coast of this giant that’s gradually creeping in. How do we preserve our cultural identity?”

Some of the most productive listening sessions, she says, came in rural pockets of the county like Bonlee and Bear Creek, where residents want to preserve Chatham’s rural identity.

“For a lot of these people, their goal is not to commute to Wake County and make a lot more money,” she says. “For a lot of them, it’s quality of life and it’s Chatham-specific. What are we doing that’s making the Moncures survive and thrive, the Goldstons survive and thrive?”

Karen came to Chatham in 2006 from New Jersey, where she practiced law for more than a decade. “We kept looking around Chapel Hill, and I kept coming back to Chatham,” she says. A mother of six, she spent most of her time looking at schools. As she waited for a tour of North Chatham Elementary – the only school she visited where the principal gave her a tour – she watched a school secretary call out to kids by name, and ask them about their home life. “She’d say, ‘How’s your puppy?’” Karen remembers.

Just as she would describe the Bahamas, the moment made her realize that Chatham was “a place where everybody knows everybody.” – MW

Beth Turner, Melanie Girard, Tracy Lynn

the rock’n’rollers

Tracy Lynn describes the music she and her friends write for their band, The Unmentionables, in mysterious terms.

“We want to create this shroud of mystery and create mild paranoia. ‘Is this song written about me?’ These songs are about our friends…,” and then she stops, as if she’s said too much. “Well, I’m not gonna say who these songs are about. It could be you.”

Indeed, if you have spent much time in Chatham, you have likely run across at least one of The Unmentionables – and could therefore be the subject of a song. While all three musicians have played in various musical acts in and around Chatham for over a decade, they also hold jobs that keep them in the public eye.

The band’s bassist, Beth Turner, works for a Carrboro healthcare nonprofit and served four years on the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners. In 2003 she helped form Girls Rock NC, a Durham-based nonprofit that runs “rock and roll feminist empowerment camps” and programs aimed at getting young girls into music while teaching leadership and independence. Campers, who do not need previous musical experience, form bands and write rock songs.

Melanie Girard, who calls herself the band’s “reluctant drummer” – they needed one when they formed so she volunteered – is the development and communications director for the Chatham Council on Aging, and owns Grapevine Realty Services.

Along with The Unmentionables, Tracy plays in a duet with local guitarist Dave Smith and the duo recently released a CD, “Iron Gate.” While Melanie and Beth picked up music as adults, Tracy learned to play as a girl.

“I stole my brother’s Sears’ Kay acoustic, refinished it and bought an ‘Easy Guitar’ for Beatles and taught myself how to play when I was 13,” she says. “It was a coping mechanism for growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania. It was the only thing that
saved me.”

Her first public performance was as a junior in high school when she played ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ for her school talent show. The Neil Young lament to addiction did not win the school show, but Tracy kept playing.

“I was a wicked guitar player by the time I was 20. Then something terrible happened,” Tracy says. “I let my confidence drop and I became a closet musician for
15 years.

“It was really getting together with [Melanie and Beth], playing on a screen porch, that got me starting to write complete songs and break out my electric guitar, which I hadn’t done in a while.” – MW CM

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