The queen of the crosswalk

Crossing guard Sherita Baker at her post on UNC/Chapel Hill  Campus. Photo by Jennifer Tran.

COMMUNITY NEWS

By Alexandria deRosset
Media and Journalism Student Correspondent
Hussman School of Journalism

Sherita Baker stands on her concrete island in the middle of the road. She blasts her whistle two times and waves students past. She starts her chorus of greetings.

“Come on, sweetheart, stay safe.”

College students with headphones glance up from their phones to say hello.

“Hi, sweetheart.”

Others rush across the street, thanking her as they go.

“You’re welcome, darlin.”

A straggler hurries to cross the street just as Baker is about to let the cars go.

“Take your time, sweetheart, no rush.”

Once the last student is safely across, Baker gives two more blasts on her whistle and the cars rush by until she stops them again.

Baker has worked the crosswalk on South Road outside of the Student Stores at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2021. She stands on her island during class changes Monday through Friday. In between, she sits and talks to students.

She’s dressed in layers like she does when it’s cold. Her thin mittens are folded back, exposing her baby-pink acrylic nails. It’s a glimpse of Rita, shining through her two hats, three shirts and a fuzzy hoodie, all black. She has a gap in her teeth and two moles. She speaks with a Southern accent and a laugh. It’s easy to imagine she’s always been this way – bursting with life and radiating joy.

But, she said, that wasn’t always the case.

“I was really shy when I was a kid. I was really shy, really quiet, kind of standoffish, you know,” Baker said.

It wasn’t until after graduating high school and starting to work at The Home Depot that Baker came out of her shell. 

Baker spent six years working in the paint department. She trained over 50 people. In her first three months, she got the MVP award for customer service.

“I just loved it,” Baker said.

While working at Home Depot, Baker found a community. She bonded with her manager over family troubles and befriended her coworkers. Baker’s customers knew her and relied on her expertise.

“Once I got to Home Depot and I met people that I felt comfortable with and understood, I kind of opened up,” Baker said.

Now that she’s gone, what Baker misses most is her friends.

“I would hug everybody, every single person, from any department and every department,” Baker said.

It’s easy to imagine her ruling the paint counter at Home Depot, smiling her signature gap-toothed smile as she mixes paint for contractors or compares swatches with novice DIY-ers.

Cole Baker sits against a brick wall. He’s watching Sherita on her island for the last hours of her shift.

He’s wearing canvas pants and work boots. His hands look like they’ve been scrubbed clean. When he talks about his wife Sherita, he chokes up.

“You can see the happiness sort of spreading from around her,” Cole said. “Kids that are on the other side of the road, and you can tell something’s wrong with ‘em, or maybe they were just thinking about something real hard…By the time they get over to the other road, they’re just a beam of sunshine.”

When Cole talks, Sherita looks at him. When Sherita talks, Cole watches her. When they’re waiting for our interview to start, they hold hands and make jokes under their breath.

Six years ago, they met online and moved in together after a month. In November, the two married at the courthouse in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where they live.

“She is one of the kindest people I have ever met, my wife, her generosity is…” Cole trails off. He’s holding back tears, and Sherita is studying him. “It’s infectious.”

Before there was the crosswalk, before there was Home Depot, before there was Cole, there was Youngsville.

Baker grew up in Youngsville, North Carolina. Her paternal grandmother, Annette Eaton, raised her in a yellow house with a big backyard. The house was full between Baker, her grandparents, her two younger brothers, and three younger cousins.

When Baker was 5 years old, her mother and maternal grandmother were shot and killed after an argument got out of hand.

Eaton is the matriarch of Baker’s family.

“She helped me become the person that I am today, hardworking, dedicated, loving and caring about everyone,” Baker said. “If it weren’t for her and God, I wouldn’t be the person I am.”

Even now, Baker relies on her grandmother for support.

“I depend on [her], [she’s] my heart,” Baker said.

Baker plays with her long sunflower necklace, a gift from Cole. 

“I know how it is to be alone and feel kind of vulnerable,” she said. “I feel like God put me here to make people smile.”

There have been times when Baker was in need of a smile herself. Times when she felt like no one cared or understood her struggles. Times when Baker felt like she had no one to talk to, and just missed her mom.

Working her crosswalk has helped Baker. Since then, she’s built friendships with students who give her hugs on the way to their classes.

“I feel like I’m making a difference,” Baker said.

The bubble of joy surrounding Baker’s crosswalk isn’t the only proof a smile can change a person’s day – there’s psychology to back it up.

UNC-CH doctoral student Taylor West studies how social connection improves well-being. Interactions with acquaintances, baristas or, say, crossing guards create a sense of belonging and can make people more inclined to help others. These acquaintances are called weak ties.

“Emotions are also contagious,” West said. “[When] people in the community are crossing paths with this crossing guard, and experiencing these positive emotions, that’s also being passed on to other people in the community.”

Even small moments with strangers or acquaintances can buffer against the negative effects of loneliness. That’s important for students on campus who face heightened anxiety and stress, West said.

For former UNC-CH student Graceanne Boone, Baker’s joyful presence in the crosswalk led to an unlikely friendship.

The two bonded during crosswalk chats and on Baker’s breaks.

“I feel like Sherita’s an easy read, of just being an awesome person,” Boone said.

Eventually, Boone invited Sherita and Cole over for spaghetti and meatballs. They connected on faith and family. One year after Boone’s graduation, the two still keep in touch.

“It is such a testament of her heart that she even wants to check in on me,” Boone said.

It’s afternoon and Baker is almost done with her shift at the crosswalk.

She waves to a middle-aged couple on a walk with their dog.

“Great to see y’all, have a blessed day.”

They wave back.

As more people cross, Baker maintains her usual chorus, smiling and greeting everyone who crosses. Each greeting is fresh. She’s talking directly to the students and clearly means it.

“I try to smile and say hello to everybody because maybe somebody didn’t smile at them today or maybe someone didn’t have a kind word to say to them, so why not me?” Baker said.

Cole knows that Sherita is helping people. 

“She makes people happy enough to brag about her to the people that matter,” Cole said.

A parent rolls down their window to ask Baker if she’s the crossing guard their daughter was talking about.

Baker responds in her usual way.

“You’re so lovely, I hope you have a blessed day.”

It’s clear from the stack of cards Baker has saved, the love goes both ways. She keeps homemade thank-you notes, store-bought cards, valentines, and even sticky notes in a box in her house. She plans to create a collage to put up on her wall.

A card signed from Rachel, a UNC-CH student, reads, “You are one of the most special people on this earth. I hope one day I can repay your kindness.”

Baker chokes up as she reads through them. The messages from students make her feel loved and cared about.

In another card, a student compiled the messages people leave about Baker on social media.

“I’d invite her to my wedding and all I’ve heard her say is, ‘Have a great day, sweetheart,’” reads one message.

If, while reading, you’ve found yourself wondering why college students still need help crossing the street, maybe they don’t. Maybe what they really need is a smile.

Tweet Tweet.

Baker gives two blasts on her whistle and the cars roll forward.


UNC Media Hub is a collection of students from various concentrations in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism working together to create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina and beyond. The Local Reporter is pleased to promote potential journalists of the future.

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1 Comment on "The queen of the crosswalk"

  1. Lawrence Chadbourne | March 1, 2024 at 9:31 am | Reply

    Alexandria
    I am a crossing guard for the Chapel Hill schools and I enjoyed your article.

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