by Kristy Bailey, Alamance News Staff Writer
Most people would’ve stayed with the relative security of a state job amid a shaky economy in the post-9/11 world, and an already uncertain local economy that remained after many of Alamance County’s manufacturing companies moved their operations following passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
Sandy Ellington-Graves did just the opposite, a leap that apparently prepared her for the next stage in life as as an Alamance-Burlington school board member.
Ellington-Graves was the top vote-getter among 11 candidates for four open seats on the school board seats in the general election. Ellington Graves received 40,301 votes (15.58 percent); followed by Ryan Bowden with 32,774 votes (12.67 percent); Patsy Simpson with 30,259 votes (11.70 percent); and Donna Davis Westbrooks with 23,319 votes (9.02 percent), according to unofficial results from the November 3 election.
Ellington-Graves was working as an administrator within the school of medicine and the dental school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when her husband of seven years left her, she recalled in a recent interview with The Alamance News.
Suddenly a single mom, Ellington-Graves’ mother suggested she look into getting her real estate license so she’d have more time with her children, then three and five years old, she explains.
The rest is history. Ellington-Graves took real estate classes at night at Alamance Community College, while continuing to work at UNC, from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on nights and weekends at a real estate firm in Mebane. Over time, she built up enough clientele that she could quit her job at UNC. While many real
“For me it’s so much more than selling houses. You’re helping people, but lots of times, they’re helping you. If you find what you love, you never work a day in your life. Repeat business has been a big blessing for me. People see that I’m passionate about it, so they’re comfortable referring their friends and family to me.”
– Sandy Ellington-Graves
Though many real estate agents might’ve moved to stronger markets to begin their careers, living and working anywhere but Alamance County doesn’t appear ever to have crossed Ellington-Graves’ mind.
She, her husband Justin, and their 15-year-old daughter, Katie, a freshman at Southern High School, live where she grew up, in the Eli Whitney community, south of Graham. (Her children from her previous marriage are grown and live in Saxapahaw and Cary.) Except for a brief period during her first marriage, Ellington-Graves has lived her entire life on the same land that’s been in her family for generations and where she learned as a child how to milk cows and tend a garden.
“We built behind my grandmother and mom and dad,” Ellington-Graves says, adding that her brother and sister also live on the family land in Eli Whitney. “On a good day, it’s a plantation; on a bad day, it’s a compound,” she says with a laugh. “It’s very convenient for babysitting but far enough away that, if you need some space, you’ve got it. It does have its perks.”
One of her favorite perks, Ellington-Graves says, is going next door at 7:30 a.m. every morning for breakfast with her 95-year-old grandmother, Hazel Ellington. “She gets her peanut butter and banana sandwich and orange juice, and we read the obituaries,” she says.
Real estate was a calling for Ellington-Graves. From her first job – at age 15, she worked after school and on weekends at Kentucky Fried Chicken on Maple Avenue in Burlington – to now, she’s always been in the business of helping people. Before working in healthcare administration and real estate, at UNC and going into real estate, Ellington-Graves managed a bridal shop. “I love people,” she says. “I want to help them. Most of my clients become friends; people are the best part of [my work] because that’s the part I love.”
Ellington-Graves started her real estate career in 2004 with Hawkins Tripp Realtors in Mebane and later operated her own firm for six years, before joining Allen Tate Realtors in Burlington in 2010.
She has consistently been named as one the company’s top 100 agents – out of approximately 2,000 agents up and down the East Coast – every year since.
“For me it’s so much more than selling houses,” Ellington-Graves explains. “You’re helping people, but lots of times, they’re helping you.” There’s no better feeling than handing a buyer the keys to a new home, or closing with a seller, she says. “If you find what you love, you never work a day in your life. Repeat business has been a big blessing for me. People see that I’m passionate about it, so they’re comfortable referring their friends and family to me.”
In 2019, Allen Tate Realtors merged with Howard Hanna Real Estate, the third-largest real estate company in the U.S., with offices throughout the Carolinas and seven other states on the East Coast. “They’re a huge power player, and they’re independently owned, as well,” Ellington-Graves says, adding, “But we’re part of the community – we’re local but still global.”
“I want the parents and community to feel like they have a voice. I would like to bring more people to the table. I know I sit in that seat but that seat really belongs to [them].”
– Sandy Ellington-Graves
Ellington-Graves has supported ABSS schools for years. She and her colleagues have raised money for ABSS and Alamance Arts through the company’s “We care, we give” program, in addition to tutoring students and hosting career days at ABSS schools. She has served on a joint facilities task force for ABSS; as PTO president for Southern Middle School; and as a member of the communications team for Alamance Achieves, a nonprofit in Burlington that works to improve academic outcomes for ABSS students.
Ellington-Graves has several priorities she hopes the board will consider after she and two other new members begin their terms on the school board next month (see related stories, this edition). “I would really like to safely get our schools open and our kids back in the classroom; I think academically, mentally, and socially that’s important,” she explains. Like a majority of the state’s 115 public school systems, ABSS schools closed in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic and began the current school year with online instruction.
Ellington-Graves says she’d also like to discuss expanding the School Resource Officer (SRO) program to be an integral role in existing student support teams at ABSS schools. “I would like to see our SROs working with school nurses, counselors, social workers, and school administration to support the whole child,” she explains. “I think sometimes we’re so focused on the discipline piece that we don’t get to the root of the problem.
“I also want our educators to feel appreciated, valued, and involved in the direction of our schools,” she continues. The challenge of maintaining morale amid the ongoing statewide school closure is something she hears frequently from her 25-year-old daughter, who is in her third year as an elementary school teacher for Wake County public schools. During and since her campaign, Ellington-Graves talked to a lot of educators who, she says, fear speaking out publicly about the issues they face in the classroom.
“I want the parents and community to feel like they have a voice,” adds Ellington-Graves. “I would like to bring more people to the table. I know I sit in that seat but that seat really belongs to [them].”
Ellington-Graves is scheduled to be sworn into office on December 7. She and her two fellow newcomers will join incumbent school board members Wayne Beam; Allison Gant; Tony Rose; and Patsy Simpson, who won her fourth term in the general election.