Six kids, five days, two papers and one island

Oct 27, 2016

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, the Durham VOICE and the Durham NGO 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 UNC-CH and NCCU in partnership with Partners for Youth Opportunity.


By Jock Lauterer
Senior lecturer | UNC-CH School of Media and Journalism

Take six inner-city urban teens, send them to a remote island village far across the water from the mainland, take away their smartphones; 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 and 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.

Co-sponsored by the Durham NGO’s Partners for Youth Opportunity, and the UNC-CH 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 wrote about the island’s only judo master, who dreams of sending one of his young students to the Olympics.

Bruce Wilkerson wrote about how journalists Connie Leinbach and Peter Vankevich, both transplanted northerners, came to own the village’s newspaper.

Gwen Payne 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 interviewed a local woman who does HIV prevention work in Africa.

Christian Lawrence spent a day with a 17-year-old entrepreneur who runs her own smoothie stand.

Yusuf Shah told the story of the Hutcherson family, owners of the village’s iconic “Variety Store,” and how they selflessly donated a valuable piece of prime property for the location of the new volunteer fire department building.

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 UNC-CH Office of Student Aid, Assistant Professor Joe Cabosky of the School of Media and Journalism, and me. They all deserve thanks for making this amazing experience so rich, layered and robust.

At trip’s end, I asked the kids what their takeaways were from the experience. Some of their comments:

“I really have learned a lot. I love the vibe of this island and this community. I wish Durham was like Ocracoke. Then it could help the community rise.” —Wilkerson

“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.

“I have gained new skills as a reporter by being here.” —Jones

“I’ve never gotten off the mainland before, so that’s pretty cool. And this place is better than Durham. There’s a lot of culture here.” —Payne

“This experience really brought me out. Everybody knows each other and are so friendly. Y’all are like family here.” —Shah

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

Patrons and donors who made the trip possible are: Charles Broadwell of the Fayetteville Observer; Walter Phillips of the Carteret County News-Times; plus Connie Cohn, Frances Shetley, Bruce dePyssler, Andy Bechtel, Roger Coates, Pam and Bob Winton, Richard and Lonna Harkrader, Courtney Price and friends, Lynn Blanchard, Anne Johnston and Sam Miglarese.