Originally published on May 06, 2007 at 06:42 AM in the Chapel Hill News|
Jackie Helvey is the face of Carrboro
By Meiling Arounnarath,
CARRBORO -- She's always
around. She's at every Carrboro event.
Chances are her face is behind a camera as she snaps plump
tomatoes and ripe strawberries at the Farmers Market for its
website. Or a magic moment during the Carrboro Music
Festival. In fact, she's the woman taking photos at Carrboro
Jackie Helvey, 53 and a mother of two girls in college,
loves Carrboro. It's in the way she shows up, volunteers, and
helps start signature events -- like the Carrboro Film and
Carrboro Music Festivals and the Community Art Project with
Chapel Hill -- that exude that Carrboro charm.
"I can't stand not being productive," said Helvey, who was
named Carrboro's 2007 Volunteer of the Year last month. "When
I moved to Carrboro, I felt I had finally come home."
In 1996, she received a grant through the town to repair
her house, which was facing condemnation. Her sun porch became
her home office, where she mostly runs her website and
graphic design business. She also has a downtown office where
she meets with clients.
"That grant really enabled me to do what I'm doing now,"
Helvey said. "I wanted to pay back this wonderful gift that
was given to me. I really do believe in 'paying it forward.' "
When not volunteering, Helvey designs websites for people
or businesses through her company UniqueOrn Enterprises. She's
generous there, too.
"Money is never an issue in my business," Helvey said last
week over butternut squash soup at Weaver Street Market. "I've
never turned down anyone who couldn't pay. We barter or we do
whatever it takes."
Artist Maggi Grace, who has known Helvey for more than 10
years, says her friend "cares that people get what they want
"She sort of personifies what Carrboro's about," Grace
said. "She sacrifices a lot. She helps out the Latino
community, the arts community, the whole Carrboro community
because she cares that they exist."
But she's real, says Tori Ralston, chairwoman of the
Carrboro Arts Committee.
"She's got a very quick wit, and it's really nice because
it sort of defuses whatever the moment is, like if there's
tension or something like that," Ralston said.
She remembers the Arts Committee once spending two hours
discussing possible designs for the town's storm drains.
"And Jackie says, 'Guys, come on, we're talking about storm
drains here,' " she said. "Her humor is like shifting gears,
like, 'Let's get to the bottom line, and then go home and have
a beer.' "
She loves Carrboro like she grew up here, but Helvey was
born and raised in Logansport, Ind. She began working in an
automotive parts factory as a senior in high school. She made
parts such as regulators and seatbelts in a majority female
factory. She belonged to a labor union. She walked picket
She would go to school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. then head
straight to work and stay until midnight. She would be so
tired some days at school that she would push chairs together
and sleep on them during lunch.
Layoffs were frequent, so Helvey worked as a cocktail
waitress at a disco, and eventually learned to tend bar. Then,
one day, her company told her this layoff was going to be a
"So I packed all my things and moved to North Carolina,"
Helvey said. She was 25. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1979. She
moved in with her sister in an apartment off U.S. 15-501. She
was going to be a bartender.
She began at The Talk of the Town restaurant in the Glen
Lennox shopping center. After six months, she moved on to the
Chapel Hill Country Club. In 1980, she was hired to run the
bar at the Carolina Inn, where she worked for 13 years and
served wine to celebrities such as writer Maya Angelou.
But she wanted to learn something new and make more money
to support her daughters. So her brother taught her how to
take a computer apart and put it back together.
She scraped together $21 to buy a basic HTML book to teach
herself Web design. She also taught herself graphic design.
From those self-taught skills grew her business. Now, she
maintains the unofficial Carrboro website,
Carrboro.com, as well as the site for the 2nd Friday Art Walk.
She also created websites for state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird and
Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson -- both former Carrboro
mayors -- and county Commissioner Alice Gordon.
So if you're heading to Carrboro Day today, look for the
woman behind the camera with the cropped-short blond hair and
Say "Hi," and she'll likely ask, "Isn't this wonderful?!"
And it won't be a question.