Something to Talk About
It began with a message from Mrs. Margaret Poole Jones: “I am probably stepping out of bounds, however, is it possible for you to reach out to Michelle Stewart? She does so much good in the community, helping senior citizens, the disadvantaged, disabled…just name it. She does it without tooting her own horn.”
Mrs. Jones arranged the first contact with Michelle by phone, and it revealed a chatty, lively person, who, at the same time, is evasive about discussing her own good deeds. So true was Mrs. Jones’ description of Michelle—she does not toot her own horn.
But there is much to say about a woman such as Michelle, who sees serving her fellow citizens’ needs as a way of life.
When talking to the Person County native and 1987 Person High School grad for the first time, one of the first things she mentions is that she comes from a large family.
The quiet deeds and major endeavors of two dedicated Personians.
“I’m from one of the biggest families in Person County,” she says. “Probably the biggest family. Esther and Richard Woods were my grandparents. They had 21 children, more than 75 grandchildren, and almost 300 great-grandchildren. And my other grandparents were Bertha and Earl Love, so huge families on both sides. I have three sisters and four brothers. And my husband and I have three children. So I have always been around a lot of family.”
From Michelle’s perspective, being in such a large family helped her become sensitive to other’s needs, particularly children’s needs.
“Coming from such a big family, there are always lots of kids around. So, I love kids. I always have. And if there is anything that I can do to help kids, that’s what I want to do.”
But Michelle’s familial background is not the only thing that has molded her giving spirit. She is a devout member of Zion Christian Center in Person County, which is pastored by Danny and Teresa Johnson, and is known for community service activities, such as a food pantry. Michelle gushes about her pastors. “Oh my goodness, I love them,” she says. “They are wonderful. I mean, just awesome pastors. So supportive. Anything I need or anything I’m trying to do, they support it. All I have to do is ask.”
Michelle’s career working with individuals with complex health needs has also stimulated her desire to help others. She has worked in group homes for more than 25 years, either working with the elderly or working with individuals with special needs.
“I have a son who has autism,” she says, “so working with those individuals is important to me. And I love what I do. That’s what made me start going out into the community. Because I wanted to help more people who had those kinds of needs. It makes me feel better just being around them, so they are helping me as much as I help them.”
She really downplays her own efforts, and she often times chooses to celebrate her community for the work the she is actually spearheading. She says that whenever she makes a post on social media about an endeavor that she is involved with, there is always an outpouring of support from the community. "The community really comes through," she says.
But pressed for details, Michelle humbly opens up about her various initiatives, which include buying toys and clothes for children in need during the Christmas season, purchasing goods and securing donations for disaster victims, and collecting adult pampers for the Senior Citizens Center.
“I just love to help others,” she says. “It’s just natural. Nobody told me to or asked me to. If I see a need, I just do it.”
“I carry meals every week to the elderly in the community. And I visit the elderly. Especially those who don’t have anyone at home and are lonely. I go visit them and just sit and talk. That’s all they really want, is someone to talk to.”
Again, Michelle is not at all an introvert. She’s just a tad shy about celebrating herself.
One thing she is not shy about, though, is sharing the credit. Michelle is quick to point out that she is part of a two-woman team with friend and business partner, Deborah Burwell. And for the record, Deborah is even more modest than Michelle.
Michelle and Deborah met a few years ago while both were assisting in trying to help establish the Aviyon Athletic Foundation, which was created by Tanillya Partridge with the goal of building athletic skills and life skills for Person County youth in honor of her deceased son, Aviyon Partridge.
Since they met, Michelle and Deborah have been arm-in-arm in community service. “She likes the kind of things that I like,” says Michelle. “She loves community work. She loves the elderly. She was a godsend, I feel, because we really have the same passions.”
Deborah, also a Person County native, agrees that they are kindred spirits. “I’ve always been into charitable work anyway because I used to work for a nonprofit. And Chelle has a large Facebook following and she’s well known for service in the community, so we just bonded immediately.”
Together they have adopted students to sponsor during the school year and last Valentine’s Day they made ornate care packages to be delivered to seniors who are on the Meals on Wheels route.
Recently Deborah and Michelle decided to take their community service efforts to another level. In March they took on managing roles for the Sportsman Club off Semora Rd. in Roxboro, which had been out of use for many years.
“The story behind this is that I was looking for a place to have my 51st birthday party,” says Michelle. “I couldn’t celebrate my 50th birthday because of COVID-19. So I was hoping to find a facility where I could celebrate my 51st. And I couldn’t find anywhere. But that led to us coming out to Sportsman Club to see what was going on here.”
What they found was a property in great need of renewal, in no shape for a party. But that perhaps was the best birthday gift for Michelle, because it sparked her and Deborah’s curiosity and creativity. They say they then contacted Mr. Avie Lester, who is a member of the non-profit group that owns the club, and he told them that they could reopen it.
With keys in hand, Deborah and Michelle went about turning the property around, which was a tall task considering Deborah works twelve hour shifts and Michelle works overnight shifts at the group home.
But with Michelle's husband, Joseph Stewart, doing the landscaping, and a team of hired workers handling the interior renovations, they made it work. So far they've remodeled the gathering hall and kitchen on the top floor and the dance hall on the bottom floor, and the grounds are now ideal for outdoor gatherings. They even refurbished a side deck from which one can look out over the back of the beautiful property and gaze at a pond off in the distance.
After four months of remodeling, they were finally able to reopen the facility in July.
“This place used to be poppin' back in the day,” Michelle says. “Everybody talks about the parties. Everyone keeps saying they are glad we are opening it back up because they remember all the fun they used to have out here. We wanted to be able to offer that again. We wanted to have a place where people can have family reunions and cook outs and all kinds of celebrations.
“Business is already booming and we haven’t even had an official grand opening yet. We haven’t had time to do a grand opening because people are so eager to book it on the weekends. Which is awesome.”
On the surface, the club is a great business opportunity for Michelle and Deborah. But, as Deborah explains, it actually serves to help them in their efforts for the community.
“Chelle and I had been looking to get our own building somewhere. We had a lot of things that we wanted to do. We wanted to help the elderly. We wanted to adopt families to help. We wanted to start a non-profit. Just helping, helping, helping. That’s what our bond was. And I told her, ‘Chelle, we can only do one thing. Because I work and you work. So we just have to find one thing that we can do.’
“The Sportsman Club has always been known as a club, with dancing and parties and stuff. But Chelle and I, our vision for it was to do things in the community, bring the kids out, have family days and stuff like that. And then have paid events, let people rent it to have banquets and weddings and things like that. So that’s our vision.”
There is much more that Michelle wants for her community. She says that Person County needs a public pool, recreation centers and outdoor basketball courts throughout the county that can provide outlets and opportunities for growth for young people. She’s happy that elderly citizens have a community center but she feels that there are even less things for children to do now than there were when she was young, which is really disheartening to her.
But for now, she and Deborah will be putting their efforts into making sure the Sportsman Club fulfills its potential and accomplishes their vision. If so, it will go a long way to helping them build up the community that they have served so diligently.