A New Day Dawns: Portraits of Our City’s Early Risers

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11 workers, most of whom get to work before sunrise, share moments from their morning routines.

ICU Nurse at Durham Regional in the morning

By Hannah Lee, Madeline Kraft and Amanda MacLaren | Photography by Beth Mann


At 5 a.m., three days a week, clinical nurse Laryssa Thompson gets up to exercise and feed her pets before starting a 12-hour shift at 7 a.m. in the intensive care unit at Duke Regional Hospital. “I feel lucky to be part of the team that I’m on,” she says. “I really like helping people [through] a scary time in their lives.” Laryssa currently cares for patients who do not have COVID-19 due to her high-risk status – she is pregnant, expecting her first child in the fall. “I have found taking one day at a time is important,” she adds. “One neighbor even brought me a bouquet of flowers to thank me for what we do. It made my day.”

Manager at the Animal Protection Society of Durham in the morning


Amanda Freeman wakes up at 5 a.m. to get to her job as the foster manager and medical coordinator at the Animal Protection Society of Durham by 7:30 a.m. She matches available animals to foster families, schedules pickups, provides supplies and then follows up weekly to make sure the animal is adjusting well. Amanda knows firsthand about the importance of pets – she has four dogs and a cat, and she is a beekeeper. “To be able to solidify the lifelong bonds between people and their pets is worthwhile to me,” she says.

Hard working parents in the morning


Annie and Gus Franceschi spent four years trying different fertility methods to have a child before Leo was born earlier this year. “I feel nothing but gratitude about being a mom,” Annie says, “but it’s tough.” The owner of local branding agency Greatest Story Creative, Annie was hoping to get back to work when stay-at-home orders were implemented. “My concern went from putting Leo into day care to, ‘Oh, my husband’s home, and we can split child care, and what does this mean, and should I go back to work given the virus?” Annie says. She and Gus, who is a grad student at Elon, both wake up well before dawn and begin the day by feeding Leo. “And then we do sort of this running, hand the baby back-and-forth, kind of day, ” Annie says.

Morning workers at Durham's Bulldega Urban Market


On a Tuesday morning, when Bulldega Urban Market is expecting deliveries, Receiving Supervisor Josh Nicholson gets to the shop at 7 a.m. “Duties differ day to day,” says Bulldega’s owner Yvette West. “They include starting coffee, wiping all surfaces and cooler handles, stocking things that folks might want first – like breakfast items and dairy – opening the cash registers, putting the daily papers out …” Josh, who’s worked at the shop for two years, “knows our operations in and out,” Yvette says.

“It’s just nice to be recognized for [doing] the hard work, really,” Josh says. “I know when I work hard, it rubs off on other people, and people want to be more involved.”

Four Leaf Farm Owners – morning workers


“We’re going to check the potatoes, because I can’t help myself,” Helga MacAller says on an early Sunday morning at Four Leaf Farm. “They’re my favorite vegetable.” Helga – here with farm cat Findus on her shoulders – and husband Tim started the farm in 1980 in East Durham and sold produce at the Carrboro Farmers Market for four years. But they lost the lease on the land, and then moved to a little homestead in Rougemont to raise a family alongside a few gardens. When their youngest son, Sven, was in high school, he convinced his parents to start selling their yields at the farmers market in Hillsborough. “And so we got addicted again,” Helga laughs. For the past 20 years, they’ve provided plants and produce to restaurants like Gocciolina and Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets, and to the community at the Durham Farmers Market.

Now, they are taking a step back and selling their property, but they won’t quite retire from the job – they plan to help Sven and his wife on his farm in Orange County as his “head gardeners.” “You’re kind of never finished,” Tim says of farming. “If you have that completion anxiety thing, this would be the worst job you’ve ever had.”

Saladelia Café and The Mad Hatter's Café & Bakeshop


Robert and Fida Ghanem have been in the restaurant business for more than three decades, with Saladelia Café on University Drive (and six satellite locations) and West Main Street’s The Mad Hatter’s Café & Bakeshop. “My favorite special is the crab cake Benedict,” Fida says after a morning working with her Mad Hatter’s staff, including Bakeshop Manager Elizabeth Chando, at left. The team baked and frosted medical-themed cookies for health care employees.

Fida wakes up at her Hope Valley home at 5 a.m. and often doesn’t wrap up her day till 8 p.m. She does scores of tasks, including putting the bakery items made overnight (graveyard shift runs from midnight to about 6 a.m.) into the front case, adjusts the grind on the espresso machine, makes coffee and looks over daily orders and makes sure the kitchens are stocked.

What Fida misses most in this time of shuttered dining rooms is people in her cafes. “I love to see the smiling faces of my customers,” she says. “I love seeing the repeat customers, and I love getting to serve them. Food is all about love. That’s the joy of what we do.”

Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club


Chris Bacugan has been with the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club since 2008 and in his current role as a bell person since 2009. Up at 5:45 a.m. to make it to work just before 7 a.m., Chris is one of the first faces guests see. “What I value the most are the relationships I’ve built with guests over the years,” Chris says. “I’m one of the first employees they meet here, and I take pride in getting to really know many of them.” His commitment is apparent: He’s been recognized as an employee of the month on four occasions. Chris has also won several awards from the hotel that honor employees who show high levels of care and compassion in a time of need or distress, and who weather a crisis in the workplace with grace, humor and empathy.


Shefali Christopher wakes up as early as 5:30 a.m. to sneak in a quick run around Duke’s East Campus, not too far from where her family lives in American Village. “[6 a.m. is] my running time of choice,” she says, though she admits that it doesn’t always happen these days. The Elon professor of physical therapy education came to Durham in 2005 to study at the Duke Doctor of Physical Therapy program, right around the corner from her regular running spot. A former collegiate swimmer, she needed a way to exercise while raising her two boys, Siddharth (“Sid”), 5, and Ishan, 8. “I could throw the kids in a jogging stroller, so then running became my primary focus,” she says. “I run all over Durham. My favorite race is Running of the Bulls.” That 8K race is postponed till August, so she’s developed a training schedule. “I feel like if I have a goal, I’m more likely to do it.”

Maintenance and Operations Administrator for the City of Durham Solid Waste Management Department


These days, Jacquetta Bunch, a 20-year city employee and mother to Ja’Daja Bunch, 17, Janika Bunch, 16, and Damari Bunch, 14, has a new task when she arrives to her job as the maintenance and operations administrator for the City of Durham’s Solid Waste Management Department: “I make sure that the crews have their PPE [mask, cleaning supplies, gloves, etc.] before I do anything else,” she says. “Our safety is my priority.”

Jacquetta gets up at 4 a.m. to make her way into work between 4:45 and 5 a.m. She takes pride in holding her own “in a dominantly male environment,” she says. “The guys thought that I could not do the job when I first walked through the door as a collector, riding on the back of the truck. It was all worth it!”


Mornings are busy in the McClain household. Either Ona, a City of Durham police officer, comes in from a night shift at 3 a.m., or Talisa, who’s also a police officer and a department physical trainer, wakes up at 5:30 a.m. three days a week to teach fitness at the law enforcement academy at 6:30 a.m. Since sheltering at home brought a stop to group workout sessions, she’s been home with her two sons, Tyler, 10, and Jordan, 14. For now, Talisa’s primary role is recruiting candidates to the force. “I still get up [early], because I’m a police officer,” she says. Her husband, Ona, is still on uniform patrol duty. Whether he’s working 10 a.m.-10 p.m. or 3 p.m.-3 a.m., he’s naturally calm about his duties – even now with the added risk of COVID-19, Talisa says.

Senior Program Director at YMCA of the Triangle's Camp Hope


YMCA of the Triangle’s Camp Hope – child care for essential personnel – started at the Downtown Durham YMCA on March 30. Since then, the day-to-day for Chuck Gordon, senior program director for the Durham YMCAs, “is a lot more hands on,” he says, beginning with taking all the kids’ temperatures upon arrival. “And figuring out how to program within CDC guidelines is tough – we can’t do dodgeball or tag or any of those traditional games.” Most days, Chuck’s getting up at 5 a.m. to make it to the YMCA by 6; camp starts at 6:30 a.m. “We’re giving these kids a chance to get away from the COVID talk,” he adds. “They get out and get to be kids again. There’s the reason for this.”

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