Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Chris Kuo”

“You have to let go,” says TROSA founder Kevin McDonald as he steps aside

When Kevin McDonald woke up the morning after his first round of electroshock therapy, he couldn’t remember how to make coffee. He used to drink it every morning – strong with some cream. That Saturday he stopped. 

But the shock therapy continued, and so did his memory lapses. Scrolling through Facebook, he found himself staring at unfamiliar names and faces. And when he drove into the complex of TROSA, the Durham organization he founded 26 years ago, he couldn’t remember the security guard’s name. 

Eventually, McDonald, who served as the President and CEO of TROSA since its inception, decided he had a choice to make: hold on to the organization, or allow someone more capable to take over.   

In the decades since McDonald started TROSA (the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers) with $18,000, an abandoned school building and a four-burner stove, the organization has helped hundreds of people recover from substance abuse and become a cornerstone of the Durham community. TROSA moving vans help Durhamites schlep their stuff to new homes, TROSA yard crews keep lawns trim and TROSA cleaning crews prepare Cameron Indoor Stadium before almost every Duke basketball game. 

But after 26 years running the organization, McDonald knew he needed to hand over the reins. On July 1, he stepped aside to a role as “founder” as Keith Artin, the organization’s longtime chief operating officer, became president and CEO.  

“I just knew in my heart of hearts that you have to let go,” McDonald said.  

***

When I called McDonald over Zoom recently, he appeared on my screen wearing a white button-down shirt that matched his large white beard. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, McDonald, who is 72 and has trouble breathing, has worked from home. Despite the isolation, he’s enjoying life. 

“I’m drinking Coca-Cola instead of Diet Coke,” he chuckled. “I’m splurging, man.” 

McDonald is no stranger to letting go. Because his dad was an officer in the Air Force, McDonald never got to settle down. He was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, but he grew up across the South – Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and Florida. 

As a Yankee with a Boston accent, McDonald struggled to fit in, and developed feelings of shyness and social anxiety. His mother was also physically and emotionally abusive, he said. 

In 1959, when McDonald was 12, his family moved to Germany, where his father served as commander at an air base. His anxiety and lack of confidence continued to fester. 

He escaped with alcohol, frequenting local bars as a young teenager. “I wasn’t shy there, after I had some drinks,” he said. By the time he left Germany in 1963, alcohol had become a major problem in his life, he said. 

The family moved to California, and he started partying and drinking more. Eventually, his drinking problem became so severe that his dad delivered an ultimatum. “My way or the highway,” his father told him. McDonald took the highway. He was 17. 

After high school, he enlisted in the Air National Guard, in the hope of making it into the Air Force Academy. He started carting drugs from Northern California to Los Angeles, but wore a short-haired wig during his military training so he’d look clean-cut. 

McDonald didn’t make the Academy and then started snorting heroin, which spiraled into more trouble. Soon he was robbing pharmacies to get drugs. But he got caught twice in three months. The first time, he was bailed out; the second time, he received a sentence of 20 years in prison. (A defense lawyer found a way to reduce that to three months.) 

Instead of spending years in prison, 32-year-old McDonald headed to Delancey Street, a substance recovery program that would become the model for TROSA. At Delancey, McDonald began to learn how to care for other people, and—even more difficult—to accept other people’s care for himself.  

“The hardest thing for me was to receive, to let people care about me, get close to me. That started happening too,” he said during an interview with Frank Stasio on “The State of Things.” 

During his 12 years of working at Delancey, McDonald visited Greensboro, North Carolina to help set up a substance recovery facility. There, he met many of the people who would later invite him to set up a similar program in Durham. 

Inspired by his own treatment, McDonald decided to start one when he moved to Durham. He told his wife Sue about his plans during their wedding dance. 

TROSA soon took off, earning large donations from the Chamber of Commerce and support from the community, including volunteer work from a Duke fraternity. Combining work-based training, counseling and education, the program helped hundreds of residents recover from substance abuse problems. TROSA’s lawn care, thrift store and moving company have each won readers’ awards from Indy Week. 

Even as the program grew into a big success, McDonald kept his eye on the day when he would have to move on. 

“It’s what’s important for the organization, not the founder, not individuals in the organization, and I really believe in that,” he said during his 2015 interview on “The State of Things.”   

***

Roughly the same time as that interview, McDonald began experiencing more severe bouts of depression, which had been a chronic problem. He had more trouble finishing tasks and getting out of bed. People who knew him well could tell that he was a little colder, a little harder.  

He went to a psychiatrist, who eventually recommended that he undergo electroshock therapy.

He ended up going through 19 rounds of the therapy before deciding to stop. He says the treatment left major gaps in his memory. He once had a knack for remembering names and faces. Now, when TROSA residents greeted him, he would have to say, “Hi, what’s your name?” – and he felt terrible about it. He used to be able to give speeches from memory, but now he had to write them down. 

Around that time, McDonald was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a brain disorder that can lead to physical decline and short-term memory loss.  

“It was scary,” he said. “It was like, I went inside myself. And, how am I going to adapt to this one? How am I going to beat this?” 

But as the memory lapses continued, McDonald realized that some things in life can’t be overcome – only endured. He decided it was time to step down at TROSA.

“Nobody realized but me where it was,” he said. “And so I just said, ‘July, I’m out.’ And it was the right thing to do.” 

McDonald’s voice cracks when he talks about the support he got from his staff, particularly after he announced he was stepping down. 

“I just was so emotionally blown away by people caring so much. I’ve cared a lot of about people in my life, and I’ve given everything I got for a lot of years, but I don’t expect people caring about me.” 

Does he regret stepping down? 

“Oh no,” he said. “I worked hard, man.” 

Actually, he’s quite happy. A person he trusts is in charge, and, as founder, he can still be involved. 

“I’m ain’t laying down, and I’m gonna help people.”

Of course, he’s had to adapt to his new role. With Artin in charge, he’s learning to follow orders instead of giving them.

“I don’t need to be a general,” he said. “Rank? I’m past rank. I’m Kevin.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Chris Kuo can be reached christopher.kuo@duke.edu

In photo at top: Kevin McDonald in his home. He now splurges and has a real Coca-Cola. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

COVID-19 by the numbers in Durham

Reporting by Chris Kuo, graphics by Henry Haggart

COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the nation, including in North Carolina. As of July 11, 83,793 cases and 1,499 deaths have been confirmed in this state. Drawing on Durham County and North Carolina data, The 9th Street Journal created a snapshot of the outbreak in Durham today.

Durham is the sixth most populated county in North Carolina, but it has the highest number of cases per 10,000 people among counties with the most residents. A large COVID-19 outbreak at a federal prison complex in Butner, part of which sits in northern Durham County, contributes to Durham’s rate. Graphic by Henry Haggart

The impact of the coronavirus on racial and ethnic groups is evolving but has hit three groups hardest in Durham. When Mayor Steve Schewel first instituted a stay-at-home order in March, white residents made up the largest percentage of coronavirus cases. In April, it was Black residents. By June, the percentage of white and Black residents had fallen, while the percentages of new cases among Latinx residents had skyrocketed. Graphic by Henry Haggart

Nursing homes and other residential care facilities are linked to a small fraction of COVID-19 cases in Durham County and across the state. But they account for the majority of COVID-19 related deaths. In Durham, the contrast is even more striking: over 73% of COVID-19 deaths in Durham are linked to nursing homes and residential care facilities such as adult care homes. Graphic by Henry Haggart

Age disparity: In Durham and statewide, people younger than 50 make up the majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Yet 95.5% of people who have died so far were age 50 or older. Graphics by Henry Haggart

9th Street Journal reporter Chris Kuo can be reached at christopher.kuo@duke.edu 

Outdoor fitness classes, real estate open houses allowed to resume

The city of Durham and Durham County are continuing to move forward with reopening plans during the coronavirus pandemic. An amendment to the “safer-at-home” order issued on May 28 will allow real estate open houses and outdoor fitness classes to resume starting Friday. 

Gyms can hold outdoor fitness classes of up to 25 people, with recommendations to keep 10 feet of distance between participants and make sure the areas are sanitized. Realtors can now hold open houses for up to 10 people, although officials said in a press release they “strongly discourage” this activity. 

“We appreciate the active engagement and participation of both our realtors and our fitness centers in our Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force Roundtables,” Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners, said in the release. “Like many of our business sectors, they are taking the lead to develop and implement industry best practices putting their clients and customers safety first.”

These changes come against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in Durham County. Data reported by the Durham County Public Health Department shows a clear upward trajectory in cases for the first week-and-a-half of June. As of June 12, Durham County has approximately 2,470 confirmed cases — up from 1,677 on the first of the month

A similar spike in cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus is taking place across the state. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human services reported 1,768 new cases in North Carolina on Friday, which surpassed the previous largest single-day increase of 1,370 cases on June 6. This brings the total number of confirmed cases in North Carolina to 41,249 cases. 

A social distancing sign in a Durham park. Photo by Lyndsey Gilpin

“As we continue to re-open activities in our community, it is more important than ever we all continue to practice the 3 W’s- Wearing face coverings, Waiting 6 feet and Washing our hands to keep ourselves, our loved ones and each other safe and healthy,” Jacobs said in the release. 

This amendment means it’s up to real estate companies and fitness center owners to decide if they want to host larger groups. 

Steven Squires, senior broker for Costello Real Estate and Investments, regularly conducts business in Durham County. He told 9th Street in an emailed statement that he recommends real estate professionals who plan to show homes or host open houses take a “one in, one out” approach so that no more than 10 people are in the home at a time, and that all parties should wear personal protective equipment and limit touching surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches and plumbing fixtures.

He also said that he is holding off for the time being on hosting open houses based on his “own comfort level with the pandemic.” 

“Considering there are so many other methods of advertising at our disposal, I just don’t feel like it’s necessary to host events where an increased level of exposure is possible,” he said. “I do plan to resume hosting open houses on my own listings in the near future, but only when I feel more comfortable doing so and my clients are on board with it as well.” 

Cameron Oglesby contributed reporting to this story. 

Fire at Stagville plantation was set

Last week’s early-morning fire at Historic Stagville state historic site was set, according to a fire department chief who was among the first on the scene. 

The site is located on part of what once was North Carolina’s largest pre-Civil War plantation, which covered more than 30,000 acres in northern Durham County. Approximately 900 enslaved people once lived there. 

Four exterior portions of the 18th century Bennehan family home were on fire when Chief Allen Needham and other members of the Bahama Volunteer Fire Department pulled up at about 6:45 am, Needham said. 

Because the building is so old, the wooden materials burned easily, like “a lighter box,” said Needham.

Fire, smoke and water used to extinguish flames on a front corner of the building damaged furnishings inside, including a rug, table, chairs and portraits hanging on the walls, Needham said. Fire on the back of the building damaged a porch and doors but firefighters put it out before the interior there was harmed, the fire chief said.

The Lebanon and Redwood volunteer fire departments also rushed to the scene, Needham said. Fires in two other spots on the building were small and easily extinguished, he said. 

The fact that fire was detected at multiple sites on the building indicated that someone set the fire, Needham said. “It was definitely some human hands involved,” Needham said. “It was definitely a set fire.” 

Needham said he found “other stuff” that indicated it was a case of arson, but was not authorized to disclose what that is. 

Programming at Stagville for years has focused on teaching visitors about the lives and work of enslaved people confined there by the Bennehan and Cameron families. In addition to a Bennehan family house, the site includes four buildings where enslaved people lived and a large barn

Investigators from the Sheriff’s Office and the county Fire Marshal’s Office are looking for leads on who set the fires. Anyone with information can contact the Sheriff’s Office criminal investigation division at 919-560-7151 or Durham Crimestoppers, which welcomes anonymous calls, at 919-683-1200.

If a tip leads to an arrest, a caller could be eligible for a cash reward.

At top: Fire damage is visible on the front of the Bennehan family home at Historic Stagville state historic site. Source: Durham County Sheriff’s Office.  

The mayor’s inbox: gripes, praise and lots of angst

A lawyer grouses about people who aren’t wearing masks at Harris Teeter. A music teacher pleads for help from a small business relief program. A woman who has read — and reread — Ron Chernow’s thousand-page biography of Ulysses Grant demands that her local library be reopened.  

These emails, part of a sampling of 21 that Mayor Steve Schewel provided The 9th Street Journal from his inbox, reveal the unsettled mood of the city. They show Durham residents grappling with a pandemic that has shuttered their stores, cloistered them in their homes and left them afraid that they’ll contract the virus the next time they shop for milk or toilet paper. 

Residents worry that the virus spells doom for city businesses. There’s angst about mask enforcement, frustration over stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Some people simply long for life as it was a few months ago. Others offer the mayor a few words of thanks. 

“I cannot contribute to the economy from the grave” 

One recent Tuesday afternoon, Linda Goswick, 73, went to the Durham Costco for the first time in months. When she noticed a woman without a mask behind her in the checkout line, Goswick spun around and told the woman she was breaking the law.  

Later that day, she wrote an email to the mayor pleading that the city more strictly enforce its mask policy. “I am a lifelong Durham resident,” she wrote. “I want life to get back to ‘normal.’”  

Hank Hankla said his wife had a similar mask experience at a Harris Teeter, where she encountered several young men who weren’t wearing masks. Hankla and his wife, who are both immune-compromised, have since decided to buy their groceries somewhere else.  

Hankla, a lawyer, said the decision “is not only a protest, it is self-preservation.” 

Some of Schewel’s email correspondents also used dark humor to make their points that the pain and inconvenience of the shutdown was necessary for public health.    

“I’m begging you to extend (the stay-at-home order) further,” wrote John Davis, a father of a young child. “While the economy *will* recover, we haven’t – to my knowledge – figured out how to bring people back from the dead.”  

Jules Odendahl-James, a spouse and parent of “individuals at high medical risk,” put it even more bluntly.

“I cannot contribute to the economy from the grave,” she wrote.

“Imagine a ghost town” 

Many people who wrote to Schewel are worried that the shutdown will destroy the city’s small businesses.

Russell Lacy wrote that he is worried about whether his music tutoring company can survive. 

“If businesses like mine can’t get the help they need Durham’s richness will not be the same post covid-19,” he wrote, and urged the mayor to approve a small business grant.

For Crystal Williams-Brown, downtown Durham had once been a lively place where she could speak with strangers and enjoy the noise and rush of a weekday afternoon. But the pandemic has left silent streets punctuated only by the wailing of sirens.  

“Imagine a ghost town with store fronts serving as a reminder of what once was a vibrant, bustling, comforting place,” she wrote, while urging the mayor to approve funds for small businesses.  

After reading Chernow’s 1,104-page Grant biography, Morgan Feldman was ready to browse the stacks at Durham’s public library for something new. Feldman’s May 1 email indicated she’d grown frustrated not just with the shutdown of the library but with, well, everything.

“The current closures are the equivalent of a 5 mph speed limit — so it’s safe — and wearing 3 inches of bubble wrap–so it’s safe,” she wrote. “It’s all non-sense and we deserve immediate restoration of services–and the economy in general.”  

Scott Gray II described the impact of the restrictions on his personal life: his friends unemployed, his family members stranded at home, his church unable to congregate together.  

“We can’t be Bull City strong if we keep hiding.”  

Moments of peace 

“Thank you,” said the subject line in an email to Schewel from George Stanziale Jr., the president and chief business development officer at Stewart, a construction company. The message itself was brief. “I just wanted to send you a note of thanks for all you’ve done in protecting the health and safety of our city during the Covit-19 [sic] pandemic.”  

In another email, Schewel was invited to address Durham’s children.

Margaret Anderson, who directs children’s services at the Durham County Library, sent an email to the mayor: would he read a picture book over video for the kids? It would be part of a weekly series of summer videos for the children.  

The reply arrived in her inbox the next evening. Yes, of course. The video would be made, the picture book read. Life would go on.