Late educator and coach Karen Sbrollini Heilman honored during Northwood fundraiser

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PITTSBORO — Something curious was stirring in the student section at the Northwood High School gym last Tuesday night.

The students were adorned in a crazy quilt of bathrobes, sweatshirts, t-shirts and slippers in shades of rose, flamingo, bubblegum and coral as they chanted their typical good-natured taunts at the visiting Eastern Alamance basketball team.

Call them Witty in Pink.

But the pink attire also festooned the adult seating, where men and women wore dresses, blazers and button-down shirts in the soothing shades often associated with charm and femininity.

It was the Northwood basketball team’s “Pink Game,” an annual opportunity to support cancer research and to show up in pink to raise awareness of the disease. This year’s edition, on Feb. 8, honored the memory of Karen Sbrollini Heilman, a longtime coach and teacher at Perry Harrison Elementary School who succumbed to an aggressive form of the illness last September.

“The kids bought in and it was great,” said Northwood Athletic Director Cameron Vernon of the cause.

Heilman’s life and legacy were honored at halftime, and cancer survivors attending the game were called to the floor to be recognized and showered with loud claps of love. The “Play 4 Karen” event raised $507 for the Karen Sbrollini Heilman Scholarship, coordinated through the Rotary Club of Pittsboro with proceeds benefiting seniors at Northwood and Chatham Central high schools.

Memories posted on the funeral home web page are a testament to why the lifelong athlete was chosen in 2018 as Teacher of the Year at Chatham Central High School. She was praised as “a light of happiness in the community,” “a great teacher who made learning fun,” “energetic, positive, friendly, and an inspiration to keep moving and stay active.”

“She wasn’t just my coach, she was an extremely positive role model. She was always so happy and passionate,” read another.

“I used to coach against Karen when she was at Perry Harrison and I was at North Chatham,” Vernon said. “It was one of my first coaching jobs and it was kind of a rivalry. Her teams were always real competitive against ours and, personally, her teams made me a better coach because I always had to prepare for them.”

When Vernon became the women’s basketball coach at Northwood, Heilman’s daughter, Becca, played for him.

“Karen loved basketball,” Vernon said. “She was at every game, she was at every one of our events. She was just a huge supporter of Northwood. She taught a lot and coached a lot of our girls.”

“Play4Kay” events have been held to raise money for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Yow was the longtime coach of the N.C. State women’s basketball team. When Vernon learned of Heilman’s passing, he thought about holding a “Play4Karen” night, a local adaptation of “Play4Kay.” First he wanted to get the approval of her husband, Thomas “Newt” Heilman II.

“So I reached out to Newt, and Newt was all for it,” Vernon said. “We just wanted to give back in memory of her because she was such a huge supporter of all of our kids, at Chatham Central and at Northwood, and just Chatham County in general.”

Vernon said there’s a reason these fundraisers are successful.

“Cancer has probably touched all of us in some form or fashion. We know somebody who’s had it, maybe a loved one who’s had it,” Vernon said.

“I think it’s just really important for those three (cancer survivors) that came out tonight (that) they know that we have their back, they’re in our prayers and we’re thinking about them and all the other people out there,” he said. “Hopefully we can do more to support cancer research and hopefully get a cure for this disease.”

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