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UNC women's basketball players paint furniture for animal rescue auction

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Current UNC women's basketball players Alexandra Zelaya, Alyssa Ustby and Kayla McPherson, as well as recent UNC alum Ariel Young, are pictured with their painted pieces from the IAR auction. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Zelaya.

When she's not on the court, UNC women's basketball forward Alexandra Zelaya has her own painting business, where she uses oil paints to create custom art. The UNC senior said she inherited her passion for art from her grandfather, a painter whom she credits for her "artistic gene."

This spring, Zelaya put her skills to use when she participated in Independent Animal Rescue’s 21st Annual Painted Chair Auction for the Animals to raise money for animals across the Triangle region. Zelaya also recruited her teammates Ariel Young, Alyssa Ustby and Kayla McPherson to assist her. While the exact amount raised is still unknown, IAR fundraising and communications manager Lex Tamvakis said the auction's total exceeded the organization's goal of $40,000.

IAR is a Durham-based nonprofit group that rescues and cares for animals in need. From Sept. 7 to 21, IAR held a virtual silent auction for over 350 items donated by volunteers. This included several pieces of furniture painted by the four Tar Heels at IAR's annual "paint-a-thon" in April.

“We have a really wild variety of items, [including] anything from vacation trips to local business gift cards, all these different things, but we still have some painted furniture,” Tamvakis said. “And so, the UNC women's basketball team was so kind and generous with their time and their talent to come to our paint-a-thon and paint some furniture to offer up for our cause.”

During the COVID pandemic, Zelaya said she took an environmental science course with professor Marc Alperin. His wife, Emily Weinstein, happened to be a coordinator for IAR. Through a class project, Zelaya said she and Weinstein bonded over their common love for animals and art. Since then, Zelaya has contributed pieces to the annual auction for three consecutive years.

“In basketball, it is so important that you have a balance between sports and something else,” Zelaya said. “I feel like having a hobby outside of your sport is so important for your mental health.”

While Zelaya's involvement with the auction is a natural fit given her affinity for art, her teammate, McPherson, said her lack of experience made her initially reluctant to participate last year.

She said she liked the experience though, so this past auction was her second time participating.

“It was fun, again, to step outside my comfort zone,” McPherson said. “But what really got me to go to the event was just to support my teammate [Zelaya]."

This year, McPherson worked on two separate pieces — a watermelon stool and a rocking chair. 

“Emily [Weinstein], [Zelaya] and all the people around the whole event made me feel so safe," McPherson said. "And made me feel like I could be a painter, [even though] I don't think I'm a painter."

In the future, Zelaya wants to keep connecting more of her teammates with IAR. She said she hopes that, eventually,  crafting pieces for the auction will become a team tradition. Her direct involvement with the auction likely won’t stop there. Weinstein acknowledged the forward’s commitment to the organization and envisions a future where she hands Zelaya the reins.

“[Emily] told me this year that she might have to pass the baton on to me,” Zelaya said. 

@COREYMDAVIS04

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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