By Claire Atwell
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
At first glance, Barbara Haight and Sharika Strickland, hurrying out of the rain and in to Pepper’s Pizza in Chapel Hill last Tuesday evening, look more like a teacher and student than good friends.
But looks can be deceiving, and as the two have shown, friendships can be born out of the even the most unlikely of pairs.
Haight, the 39-year-old director of global safety for GlaxoSmithKline in Research Triangle Park, met Sharika Strickland while tutoring at Fayetteville Street Elementary School about five years ago when Sharika was 9 years old.
“(The school) pairs a tutor with a specific kid to work with for the entire year,” Haight said while glancing at the Pepper’s menu. “And they just happened to put us together.”
Haight tutored Sharika once a week for 50 minutes in the morning while she was in 4th and 5th grade, forming a close bond with the shy girl who eventually started to come out of her shell and open up to Haight.
So when it was time for Sharika to move up to middle school after working with Haight for two years, they decided to keep getting together outside of school.
What began as math practice and multiplication tables turned in to weekly trips to the climbing gym, roller-skating or guitar lessons.
Because Haight, who recently married and has no children of her own, has become more than a tutor and a mentor to Sharika. She is her friend.
“We’ve tried a lot of things,” Haight said, smiling at Sharika, the now 14-year-old ninth-grader at Hillside New Tech high school.
Haight said climbing is one of the many activities the two have done together in the past five years.
“I got trained on belay so Sharika and I could climb together,” she said. “Sharika even joined the climbing team!”
Every Tuesday, Haight picks up Sharika from her grandmother’s house in Northeast Central Durham to “help with homework and just hang out.”
Along with keeping up with Sharika’s grades, Haight helps out with science homework and math, which is now Sharika’s favorite subject.
Sharika decided to go to Hillside New Tech for high school this year because she’s interested in working with technology. In one of her classes, digital media, she gets to make fliers and learn about graphic design.
“I want to go to (North Carolina) A&T,” Sharika said softly of her plans after high school graduation. “Then go to medical school.”
Last Tuesday, as part of their weekly time together, Haight and Sharika met over dinner with Jock Lauterer, UNC-CH community journalism lecturer, to talk about opportunities for teens in Northeast Central Durham to get involved with the Durham VOICE.
Haight likes to help Sharika get involved in many facets of the community, including the photography classes she took over the summer with the Durham Arts Council.
“I liked walking around downtown and just taking pictures,” Sharika said. “It was my favorite part.”
Haight began tutoring through the “Exemplary” PAWS (Panthers Always Will Succeed) tutoring program that attracts members of the community (including several GSK employees) to Fayetteville Street elementary school, where, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 94 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
She likes that the program matches a tutor with the same student over a period of time.
“It builds trust and gives some continuity,” said Haight, whose husband, Shane, now tutors with the same program at Fayetteville Street elementary school.
“When the little boy he tutors sees him walk around the corner, his face just lights up with the biggest smile,” she said.
Although the tutor-student matches made through the PAWS program may not always grow in to a friendship like the one Haight and Strickland share, these two show that 50 minutes, once a week together can make a difference in the life of a child.