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Published: May 06, 2007 06:42 AM
Modified: May 06, 2007 06:42 AM

The face of Carrboro
Jackie Helvey loves Carrboro
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 Web site. Or a magic moment during the Carrboro Music Festival. In fact, she's the woman taking photos at Carrboro Day today.

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 Web site 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 Web sites 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 and need."

"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 lines.

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 long one.

"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 onto 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 Town of Carrboro Web site, Carrboro.com, as well as the site for the 2nd Friday Art Walk. She also created Web sites 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 flushed cheeks.

Say "Hi," and she'll likely ask, "Isn't this wonderful?!" And it won't be a question.


Contact Meiling Arounnarath at 932-2004 or marounna@nando.com.
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