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Community center director named Hyundai Hometown Hero, winning free car: 'She is a 360-degree kind of person'

Her name is Tijua Robinson, but everyone calls her "Ms. T." It's a short name for someone whose dedication goes for miles and miles.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the heart of Charlotte's Grier Heights, there is a person, some have called the heart of the neighborhood.

Her name is Tijua Robinson, but everyone calls her "Ms. T." It's a short name for someone whose dedication goes for miles and miles.

"She's not only a mentor in the community. She's a big sister. She's an aunt. She's everything, and everyone knows Ms. T," said Kimberly Nesbitt, a counselor with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and longtime work collaborator and friend of Robinson.

Nesbitt's nomination of Robinson for WCNC Charlotte's Hyundai Hometown Heroes program rose to the top of dozens of entries.

Nesbitt and others who work with Robinson said she has taken her role as director of the Grier Heights Community Center and elevated it.

"She is a 360-degree kind of person, where she's looking at the whole child and the whole family and the whole community," said Tiffany Capers, Executive Director of CrossRoads Corporation for Affordable Housing and Community Development, housed in the Grier Heights neighborhood.

The needs of the neighborhood have only been heightened over the past year due to the pandemic. Virtual learning, in particular, has been a challenge for some of the children in the area.

"A lot of low-income communities do not have access to technology or even the internet," Robinson said.

So, the Grier Heights Community Center stepped up. The center is housed in the historic Billingsville School, a school built specifically in 1927 to educate African-American children. Previously, it was a place where neighbors could find guidance for affordable housing, parenthood and careers, but soon after education made the transition online, dozens of students were also using the center again as a way to stay connected to their studies.

"We really just, I hate to say it, recreated history," Robinson said.

But Robinson did not stop there and made sure the kids were also fed, mentored, and had rides to and from the center.

"She thinks about it all. She's not just thinking about what they need here in the building. She's thinking about what they need when they go home," Capers said.

When a WCNC Charlotte news crew arrived at the Grier Heights community center on a Thursday morning, Robinson thought they were only there to profile the programs at the center. But there was so much more to come.

Waiting in the wings, was Anthony Barreiro and a brand new Hyundai Santa Fe. Barreiro was there on behalf of South Charlotte Hyundai and all the Charlotte-area Hyundai dealers to recognize Robinson for her important work.

"It's an honor to be able to say, ‘thank you for all she's doing for everybody in the community," Barreiro said.

Barreiro parked Robinson's new car at the center, in hopes that the strange vehicle would stick out in the parking lot's handful of spaces. As Robinson showed the news crew around the center, the new set of wheels did catch her eye. The revelation started to form as Barreiro stepped into view with a new set of keys.

"On behalf of all the local Hyundai dealers: That's your car," Barreiro told Robinson.

"That's crazy!" Robinson said, over and over, looking around in disbelief. Her students ran outside to learn the news and were just as excited. In fact, they were the first to sit inside the new vehicle.

Nesbitt was thrilled that Robinson was finally getting the big recognition she deserves.

"Seeing that representation in the Grier Heights community is so impactful," Nesbitt said. "Thank you for always pushing our students, pushing the community, pushing for greatness."

"The kids drive me, actually. They are the inspiration honestly," Robinson said. "I think, for me, it's just ensuring certain generational cycles are broken and the future generations know and understand that there is a world outside and that anything is possible. There are no limitations."