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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Six teens, five days, two papers and one island


In total concentration, Durham VOICE staff writer-photographer Bruce Wilkerson zooms in a shot while on assignment in Ocracoke. Photo by Jock Lauterer.

Editor’s note:  Earlier this month, the Durham VOICE and the Durham non-governmental organization Partners for Youth Opportunity teamed up with the Ocracoke Observer to bring six Durham inner-city teens to the Outer Banks island to spend the better part of a week learning about island culture and documenting the stories of some of the fascinating people there. All six teen journalists have served for a year as staff writers for the Durham VOICE,, a seven-year-old gang intervention community journalism project, website and newspaper created by Carolina and North Carolina Central University in partnership with Partners for Youth Opportunity.

Take six inner-city teens, send them to a remote island village far across the water from the mainland, take away their smart phones, put cameras, pens and computers in their hands – and set them loose to photograph and write about island life – and what do you get?

A little chaos, a dose of culture shock, a boatload of surprises – plus a lot of what the locals call “the Ocracoke Effect,” in which community connectivity produces a sort of invisible free-floating chemistry of serendipity that pervades island life. In short, everything there is connected.

Connie Leinbach and Peter Vankevich, co-owners of the Ocracoke Observer, the local community newspaper, get the credit for coming up with the novel idea of bringing the Durham VOICE kids out to work on their beach newspaper.


With the wind in her hair, Natasha Graham savors her first boat ride as the ferry crosses the sound from Swan Quarter to Ocracoke. Photo by Jock Lauterer.

Co-sponsored by the Durham NGO Partners for Youth Opportunity and the School of Media and Journalism, the beach newspaper work trip, Aug. 3-7, enabled the six teens from the Durham VOICE to be immersed in island life and then to create story-photo packages about the fascinating people they met there.

LaMon Jones, a 17-year-old Jordan High School grad who plans to join the U.S. Army, wrote about the island’s only judo master, who dreams of sending one of his young students to the Olympics.

Bruce Wilkerson, a 17-year-old rising senior at Voyager Academy who wants to be a dancer, wrote about how journalists Connie Leinbach and Peter Vankevich, both transplanted Northerners, came to own the village’s newspaper.

Gwen Payne, an 18-year-old Hillside High School grad who is attending Durham Tech this fall, wrote about a 10-year-old who has her own radio show on the village’s low-watt community access FM station WOVV-FM 90.1 (which publisher Vankevich helps anchor).

Natasha Graham, immediate past teen editor-in-chief of the VOICE, interviewed a local woman who does HIV prevention work in Africa. This fall the 18-year-old Northern High School grad will be entering Wells College in Aurora, New York.

Christian Lawrence, 17 and a rising senior at Hillside New Tech High School, spent a day with a 17-year-old entrepreneur who runs her own smoothie stand.


VOICE reporter Yusuf Shah listens as 83-year-old Julia Hutcherson relates the long history of Ocracoke’s iconic Variety Store. Photo by Jock Lauterer.

Yusuf Shah, an 18-year-old high school grad, told the story of the Hutcherson family, owners of the village’s iconic Variety Store, and how they donated a valuable piece of prime property for the location of the new volunteer fire department building. This fall Yusuf will be entering UNC-Pembroke.

All six teens have spent the last year as writer-photographers for the Durham VOICE, the community newspaper serving central Durham. Their internships are supported by the Partners for Youth Opportunity, led by Executive Director Julie Wells and Workplace/Mentoring Coordinator Carlton Koonce.

Other mentors serving as volunteers on the trip included Eric Johnson of the Office of Student Aid and Assistant Professor Joe Cabosky of the School of Media and Journalism.

At trip’s end, the young journalists were asked about their take-aways from the experience. Some of their comments:

Bruce Wilkerson said he learned a lot and loved the vibe of the island. “Durham is not a together community and I do not like that,” Wilkerson said. “I wish Durham was like Ocracoke. Then it could help the community rise.”

For Graham and Payne, the trip opened a door to a world of new experiences.

“I’ve had so many firsts on this trip…I’ve never been on a boat before, never been to a bonfire, never been on a beach trip… and I learned I’m good at adapting to new situations,” Graham said.

Said Payne, “I’ve never gotten off the mainland before, so that’s pretty cool. Being able to go to the beach and look at the stars next to the firelight. And this place is better than Durham. There’s a lot of culture here.”

Jones said he not only gained new skills as a reporter, but the insight that “community matters more than anything.”

Within that community, Shah said she felt at home. “This experience really brought me out,” Shah said. “Everybody knows each other and are so friendly. The way the community embraced me – y’all are like family here.”

Once completed, their stories and photos will appear in the Ocracoke Observer and the Durham VOICE later this fall.

Stay tuned.

Jock Lauterer is a senior lecturer and director of the Carolina Community Media Project at the School of Media and Journalism where he teaches documentary photojournalism and community journalism. He is the founder and the UNC publisher of the Durham VOICE. His blog, the Blue Highways Journal, covers community journalism from Chapel Hill to China.