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Has COVID-19 Changed Our Friendship Groups? What It Looks Like a Year Later



Left to right, Terry Hogan, Karl Barham and Jiles Parham. Photos by George Hunter.

By Matt Bruce

Photos By George Hunter

Sanctuary is an oasis of refuge. A fortress of equanimity nestled upon resilient timbers sturdy enough endure turbulent sea changes.

Many look for sanctuary in the traditional realms of church pews and scripture. Others find it in work or hobbies while some turn to yoga mats and nature trails to find their place of solace.

But a local group of hoops lovers found theirs in sport. Three times a week, they crawled out of bed before dawn and convened at the Robert D. Fowler Family YMCA on Jones Bridge Road for early morning pickup basketball games.

Theirs was a refuge that existed between the black lines of the hardwood court. Saggy-eyed engineers and insurance salesmen filtered in for shoot arounds at 6 a.m. Minutes later, the kinetic pace of full-court runs energized the gymnasium.

For two hours, the chorus of sneakers squeaking against the synthetic wood floors mixed with the snap of the roundball swishing through the net. Afterward, each of the men went their separate ways for an honest day’s work.

It was a ritual that held true for decades at the Peachtree Corners Y. Dozens of recreational ballplayers, hungry for good pickup games, cycled through the gym on different days. As many as 75 players were signed up on an email distribution list for the 6 a.m. runs.

But COVID forced statewide shutdowns of Georgia’s gyms last spring, stripping the local hoopers of their beloved sanctuary. Gov. Brian Kemp issued a shelter-in-place order April 2, 2020, officially closing all gyms, hair salons, barbershops and many other businesses across Georgia. That executive order came two weeks after all of Metro Atlanta’s YMCA facilities temporarily closed.

Thirteen months later, many of the shutdowns have lifted. However, the morning ballers had yet to return to their haven on the court.

Terry Hogan

“I feel like I’m missing something,” Terry Hogan said during a recent interview. “It’s just another loss for me. It’s like the whole world’s been rocked and this is a piece that I miss and hate that it was taken away.”

COVID-19’s devastation has extended to all aspects of life, affecting everything from work and school to the ways we shop, vote, congregate and worship.

One of its overlooked impacts is the toll the pandemic has had on casual friendships. Researchers say those relationships add depth to people’s lives and help eliminate the feelings of isolation that have crept into many households over the past 14 months.

Before the pandemic-forced closures, Hogan, a 56-year-old engineer, had been playing basketball at the Y since 1998. He and three of the other group’s mainstays sat down with Peachtree Corners Magazine last month to discuss life sans their pre-dawn basketball rendezvous.

“It feels good because it’s a sense of normalcy,” Hogan said of seeing some of his old buddies for the first time in more than a year. “Normalcy’s about to return, that’s how I view it.”

‘It’s Sort of Like Family’

For this group, normalcy meant starting their day with a workout. They met at the Peachtree Y around 6 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The majority of them are working professionals so the early starts gave them enough time to muster a handful of pickup games before cleaning up and heading to the office.

“It jumpstarts your day,” Jesse Mills said. “The thing about it, once you get into a routine, your body adapts.”

Mills, a 39-year-old tech analyst, was recruited to play about 12 years ago. He’s a part-time referee and was officiating a rec league in which Hogan played at the time. Mills said he was about 300 pounds when he first started waking up for the morning scrimmages. He’s slimmed down to about 200 pounds and now brings an explosive style to the pickup games, capable of slashing to the bucket and knocking down 3-point shots.

The ensemble includes a mixture of ballplayers from across the Atlanta metro region. Some drove from as far away as Cherokee County — over an hour away — to get in on the action. The players ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s. Some of the regulars were women.

Between 12 and 15 players showed up each morning. The crowd swelled to over 20 during the summer months, when college students were home from school and local teachers joined the fray.

Karl Barham

“All the basketball personalities are there at different times,” said Karl Barham, a regular of the past 20 years. “You dread it, but you can’t beat it. Every morning, I get up with the same feeling of ‘I don’t want to go, I want to sleep.’ But on those days, the second I get on the court and get that first game in, that feeling’s gone. And I never regret it. I never feel like I should have stayed home. It’s the days that you don’t go that you regret not going.”

Barham, a 48-year-old New York City native, plays a physical style patterned after the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks of the 1990s. Without real options to play basketball over the past year, he said he’s struggled to stay in shape. He’s tried alternatives like the Peloton and running outdoors.

“But you don’t get the cardio, you don’t get the exercise you get with running on the basketball court,” Barham said. “Even just getting up in the morning, keeping that routine.”

Trash talk was an integral part of the players’ bond. Barry Blount, an automotive engineer, moved to the area from Michigan in 2012 and quickly stumbled upon the morning rec runs. He said the boastful banter begins with text messages long before they hit the court. And the smack talk continues right after the runs are over for the day. It’s all borne out of the spirit of competition that draws the ballers to the gym.

“It’s sort of like family because even when we argue, we all know what the limits are and it never really lasts that long,” Blount said. “We have the games and everybody loves it. It’s the kind of group that would hang out outside of work.”

While Mills may be effective on the court, he catches flack for the volume of fouls he calls during the games. It’s become a running joke in the group over the years, with his comrades wisecracking that he should leave his whistle at home. Mills shrugs it off.

“I’m a ref, so anytime I call something, they’re always yelling ‘bad call,’” he acknowledged with a wry grin. “But it’s a pretty good group of guys that we’ve got on a normal basis.”

The Love of the Game

Jiles Parham

Jiles Parham, who turned 77 in May, played morning basketball for more than 30 years in Albany, Georgia before moving to Conyers in 2012.

Parham has a special bond with the game. Basketball is credited with saving his life. During a morning run at the Albany Y in 1995, Parham collapsed on the court. He came up to Atlanta to have five heart bypasses at the Emory University Hospital.

“The doc that did the surgery said, ‘Keep playing, keep doing what you’re doing,’” Parham recalled. “They said it was the reason I survived, because I was in good shape. But I say it’s because the Lord saved my life.”

When he moved to the Atlanta suburbs, Parham said he first tried out a gym in south DeKalb. But it only offered recreational games once a week on Monday nights.

“So I called around, and this was the only Y that had 6 o’clock basketball. That’s why I started coming up here,” Parham said.

Before the early pickup games at Peachtree Y were suspended last year, Parham woke up at 4:20 each morning in time to travel from Conyers and hit the court by 6 a.m. “If you love basketball, you’ll do it,” he said.

“If the world could live like we play basketball, we’d be a lot better place. That’s for sure,” Parham added later. “If we have disagreements, we take turns on a ball. But if you have a bad call, we’ll shoot the three for it. And whoever makes or misses it, we keep playing.”

Shaking Off the Rust

All of the members of the group said they miss the fellowship. Blount said a few tried to arrange times to catch up around Christmas, but those plans eventually fell through because of scheduling conflicts.

“I love the basketball,” he explained. “But I also love the fact that I found a group of guys who all kind of have the same mindset as I do. They’re all family guys…And a lot of us are not from here, so we don’t have family here. So it gives me, like, a group that I can affiliate myself with.”

The bug to get back on the court started to set in around late March when the winter weather dissipated. Several people started texting each other about going back to the gym.

“At least get the guys sparked back up to start playing again,” Blount said. “Everybody wants to get back in the gym, to get in shape and just kind of see each other. Get that camaraderie going again.”

Mills said he’d already started back at different gyms throughout the area, but his game wasn’t the same as before the pandemic. He’d heard whispers of other local courts that were set to open.

Hogan reflected on losing his connection with the group. He was itching to get back on the court but had some apprehensiveness after being away for a whole year.

“I’m worried about my age,” he said. “It’s hard at this age to stop and start back up.” Despite those concerns, he began making plans to get the word out and round the gang back up.

“This is perfect timing,” he told Mills, Parham and Barham as they sat at Towns Center plotting a return to the courts. “This is like going to be the restart. It’s like we’re close to restarting, and talking to us now is the perfect reason to restart.”

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Rooted Interiors Unveils Largest Transformation Project Yet for a Family in Need



Grandfather's bedroom before and after // photos courtesy of Rooted Interiors

Rooted Interiors, a new non-profit organization dedicated to transforming lives through design, has announced the completion of its largest transformation project to date.

With a commitment to providing complete interiors to individuals and families emerging from homelessness, Rooted Interiors continues to make a profound impact on communities, one home at a time.

The latest project marks a significant milestone for Rooted Interiors as it demonstrates the organization’s unwavering dedication to creating havens where families can plant roots and thrive.

Through meticulous planning, collaboration and the support of generous donors and volunteers, Rooted Interiors has successfully transformed a once hopeless space into a warm and welcoming home for a deserving family.

At the heart of this project is a single mother, accompanied by her two children and her father, who found themselves in dire circumstances after the mother fled from an abusive partner, forcing them to seek refuge at the Family Promise shelter in Athens, Ga.

Upon securing a new home, however, their relief was short-lived as they found themselves in a space devoid of warmth and lacking the essentials of a home.

With no furniture besides a dining room table, no washer and dryer and a malfunctioning fridge, their daily struggles persisted for three long months.

But Rooted Interiors didn’t just redesign the family’s space, they filled it with love and hope.

Through this project, the organization transformed the family’s house into a sanctuary, addressing not only their physical needs but also their emotional well-being. From carefully selected furniture to thoughtful décor choices, every detail was curated to create a space that felt like home.

“We are thrilled to unveil our latest project, which represents our continued commitment to serving those in need,” said Kristina McCalla, Founder and Executive Director of Rooted Interiors.

“Our Rooted in Renewal Program not only revitalizes physical spaces but also renews hope and stability for the family who calls this house their home,” she added.

Rooted Interiors offers a lifeline to families in need, empowering them to thrive and succeed in their journey towards independence.

“This journey is not just about creating aesthetically pleasing interiors; it’s about using the language of design to uplift and restore,” said Kristina McCalla, also Lead Interior Designer at Rooted Interiors.

“Rooted in faith and love, each project is a testament to the belief that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, deserves a place that reflects their humanity and worth. By providing a thoughtfully designed and fully furnished home, we aim to empower families to thrive and succeed in their journey towards independence,” she explained.

As Rooted Interiors continues its mission to fully furnish homes for those emerging from homelessness, this project serves as a testament to the organization’s impact and the generosity of its supporters.

Through ongoing partnerships and community engagement, the organization remains committed to building brighter futures for individuals and families in need. For more information about Rooted Interiors and how you can support their mission, visit rootedinteriors.org.

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BRACK: Peachtree Corners to lose Peterbrooke Chocolatier



Scottt Gottuso and Geoffrey Wilson.
Scottt Gottuso and Geoffrey Wilson. Photo provided.

Peachtree Corners will soon lose one of its most iconic, popular and tasty businesses.

Peterbrooke Chocolatier, run by Geoffrey Wilson and Scott Gottuso, has been told by Peachtree Forum landlords, North American Properties and Nuveen Real Estate, that its lease will not be renewed. The last day of business will be July 25.

Meanwhile, Peachtree Forum is getting several new stores. They include Kendra Scott, Sucre, and The NOW Massage. Previously announced were Alloy Personal Training, Cookie Fix, Gallery Anderson Smith, Giulia, Lovesac, Nando’s Peri-Peri and Stretchlab. Wilson adds: “We are not in their big picture.”

Wilson has operated Peterbrooke at the Peachtree Forum for 14 years and Gottuso has been there nine years. They have made the chocolatier profitable and doubled sales. Wilson says: “We turned it around through community involvement and made relationships. We worked with the schools, gave donations, did a lot in the community, and made a difference. We produce most everything we sell in the shop, so it’s labor intensive. We make European-style chocolate treats from scratch from the very best ingredients, package it, make gift baskets, and also sell a lot of gelato.”

Key items include truffles, hand-made caramels, cherry cordials, chocolate-covered cookies and pretzels and strawberries hand-dipped in their own blend of chocolates. (They are all good!) One of Wilson’s and Gottuso’s most iconic products is chocolate popcorn. Once you try it, regular popcorn is tasteless. “We sell a lot of it.” Wilson adds: “Gelato sales have carried us in the summertime, since there are not many chocolate holidays in the summer.”

Peterbrooke now has five employees, and would like to have 10, but it is difficult to hire people with the skills in chocolatiering. A key part of its business is corporate companies, such as Delta Air Lines and Capital Insight. The Peachtree Corners’ Peterbrooke has corporate customers as far away as Cleveland, Ohio.

The operators were surprised when the Forum owners did not renew its five year lease. “The big decisions were made in Charlotte or Cincinnati, not locally,” Wilson feels. “We were no longer in their big picture. They want new and glitzy, shiny, fancy and trendy.”

The operators plan to start their own chocolate company, to be called “Scoffrey,” and initially sell online, plus have pop-up locations during holidays, and possibly have a booth in other merchants’ stores on occasions.

“Whatever we do would look different. We might rent a space somewhere close by so that people can still have the good chocolate experience with us, but we won’t have a regular audience walking by.”

Another element: the price of chocolate futures has spiked this year, with a bad crop production year. Wilson says: “That is key to our business and a huge cost increase. That doesn’t help.”

Wilson adds that the forced closing of the Peterbrooke location “is something like the death of a friend. But you go to the funeral and to the wake, and in six months or a year, It won’t be so bad.”

Have a comment?  Send to: elliott@elliottbrack

Written by Elliott Brack

This material is presented with permission from Elliott Brack’s GwinnettForum, an online site published Tuesdays and Fridays. To become better informed about Gwinnett, subscribe (at no cost) at GwinnettForum

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The Transformative Trail: Dr. Sunit Singhal’s Journey to Wellness



The highest peak in Tanzania also known as the “roof of Africa" // Photos courtesy of Dr. Sunit Singhal

For more than two decades, Dr. Sunit Singhal has been a member of the Peachtree Corners community. In February 2001, he opened Suburban Medical Center, making a significant contribution to community healthcare. Under his leadership, the medical center has expanded, notably by introducing Suburban Med Spa next door.

A 1988 graduate of the University College of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, India, Dr. Singhal furthered his expertise in the United States, completing his residency in Internal Medicine at Harlem Hospital Center in New York.

An awakening at the Grand Canyon

A few years ago, the 60-year-old physician had an eye-opening moment about his own health. Most of his life was spent being overweight, which he accepted and managed the best he could.

“It’s not a secret that I was overweight. Anyone could see it; it’s how I was my whole life,” said Dr. Singhal.

The pivotal moment for Dr. Singhal was his attempt to join friends on a hike at the Grand Canyon a few years back. Despite his determination, Dr. Singhal was unprepared for the hike’s demands.

“I thought, okay, I will meet my friends one-third of the way down the canyon from the opposite end. That way, I can keep up with them towards the end of the hike,” he shared.

The trek up Mount Kilimanjaro

Even starting much later, Dr. Singhal struggled greatly with the hike. He experienced knee pain, breathlessness, and exhaustion. His struggle not only slowed him down but also his friends, who had been hiking for an additional 12 hours before he joined them.

The ordeal ended in the middle of a cold night, leading to a physically taxing recovery period that left Dr. Singhal sore for days.

Despite the arduous experience at the Grand Canyon, Dr. Singhal didn’t retire his hiking boots. Feeling motivated to conquer the obstacle, he began walking long miles with friends to get into shape.

A few months later, the call of the canyon echoed again, and friends proposed a new challenge: hiking from the South Rim to the river and back. While less daunting than their previous endeavor, the task was intimidating.

“This time, I was able to make the hike without holding anyone back,” he shared. Dr. Singhal already saw the difference his efforts were making.

His triumphs over physical and mental barriers were clear and exciting. Dr. Singhal’s return to the canyon increased his resilience and personal growth.

Conquering Kilimanjaro: a test of determination

Following a series of hikes through the Grand Canyon as his health improved, Dr. Singhal and his hiking group set their sights on Mount Kilimanjaro. They regularly engaged in 10-mile hikes each week to prepare for the trek.

(left to right) Singhal, Kashish, Vani and Mahender Gupta.

“It was never on our minds to simply skip or cut the hike short because we didn’t feel like it that day,” Dr. Singhal said. Even family members occasionally joined, keeping pace with the senior group with varying success.

When the time arrived for their Kilimanjaro quest, they needed to identify the number of days their group would need to complete it.

“There are different levels you can choose for hikes. If you are very athletic, the 5-day hike is for you. It goes all the way up to 9 days if you need to go slowly,” Dr. Singhal explained.

The friends chose the six-day option. It seemed like a good balance of their confidence in their fitness coupled with a conservative approach. Yet, they completed the ascent in five days.

“We couldn’t believe we finished at such a quick pace. We weren’t straining ourselves to do it. It was the natural pace we wanted to go, and we finished with the group we viewed as the most fit and athletic.”

Mount Everest on the horizon

The hiking group isn’t resting on their laurels, though. The crew continues to meet and train for their next goal, climbing Mount Everest.

“There’s a lottery to be accepted to climb. We entered and are hoping to be selected for a hike this fall,” Dr. Singhal shared. When asked if he felt intimidated about this potential hike, he confidently replied, “No, not really.”

The team of friends will hear this summer if they are selected to climb.

Health and hope

Dr. Singhal’s health journey is the perfect example of the potential for change at any stage of life. It also highlights the importance of self-care, perseverance and pursuing one’s goals, regardless of the starting point.

His patients can rest easily. He isn’t walking away from his practice for the mountains full-time. Dr. Singhal is committed to his practice and patients. He firmly believes and displays that personal improvement and professional dedication can coexist harmoniously.

“I want my patients to know that I am equally dedicated to being here for them and their own health journeys.” When he’s not hitting the trails, Dr. Singhal can be found spending time with his family in Duluth or at his practice in Peachtree Corners.

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