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How one Tarboro native was drawn back to help her community

If the planes hadn’t struck the World Trade Center, Inez, 40, and her husband Stephen, 41, never would have moved back to Tarboro.

At the Carolina Food Summit, the first of an annual gathering to discuss the food locale in North Carolina, Inez Ribustello was among many invited to speak. She and her restaurant, On the Square, invest heavily in the children of their local community and the Edgecombe County Public School System of Tarboro.

“I think Stephen and I are both very fortunate that we were raised to understand the importance of giving back, and we try to support as many community projects as we can,” Inez says. “Certainly, we’re more excited about things that involve children. So, we do a big Thanksgiving dinner for the Boys and Girls Club of Edgecombe County…. That is something we love doing.”

Inez grew up in the Edgecombe County Public School System, so for her, ensuring the children there are doing the best they can holds a special meaning. Recently, she helped finance a drive to Rocky Mount to observe a summer enrichment program designed to help kids who have fallen behind in their education to read at grade level — the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools.

“I don’t know how it happened, because, all I did was invite people to go see it, but we’re getting it for [Tarboro] in the summer of 2017. So, you know, I have never — knock on wood — asked for support in terms of doing something for our community and not gotten it,” she said.

And since the floods from Hurricane Matthew have devastated areas of Edgecombe County, especially nearby Princeville, Inez has stepped up to help in whatever way possible.

“Really, the blessing in life is when you can help others when they’re down and out,” Inez said. “So I’ve seen this community — Edgecombe County — as it always does, just take everyone in.”

She said she hopes to continue to support those in need and relay the needs of her town as the recovery process continues and the news cycle moves on.

In 2001, it would have been impossible for Inez and Stephen to imagine themselves living in Tarboro in 2016. They both had promising jobs at Windows of the World, a restaurant in the World Trade Center; she was the beverage director and he was one of her employees. They were in the Twin Towers every weekday.

On the day the planes hit the towers, Inez was back in Tarboro for her sister’s wedding. She was the maid of honor. Stephen had worked a night shift the day before, so he was sleeping in that morning.

At first, she and Stephen wanted to stay in New York City. She loved her life there, so was she really going to leave at a time when the city was hurting? They both found new jobs by November. But while he was able to grapple with what happened, Inez described herself as a “mess.”

“Crying all the time, couldn’t form sentences without just being really, you know, distracted. So, by March, I said, ‘I don’t think I can do it anymore. I don’t think I can work, period….’ I was just in such a bad place,’” she says.

Her family urged her to come back to Tarboro to take some time off and heal.

So the two stayed in Tarboro from May to August, but before leaving on a trip to France, the previous owner of On the Square offered to sell the place to Inez. “We didn’t have any money, though,” she says. Her father, however, overheard the conversation and offered to be their investor. “I’ll back you,” Inez recalls him saying.

Stephen didn’t think a local restaurant could thrive in Tarboro. It was (and still is) a small town of about 11,400 people, according to the 2010 census. Moreover, the town isn’t close to bigger metropolitan areas.

Her father, though, insisted to Stephen that people will come if the food is worth it. Stephen relented and agreed to go in on the restaurant — a commitment of 18 months to give it a go, to be precise — if Inez’s father bought the place.

“And when we came back in October, he had just closed on the building. And so, we came back on a Saturday and we went into work on Monday,” Inez recalls.

Stephen has worked in restaurants since he was 12, so he offered to cook — and to this day still cooks. Inez’s responsibilities have shifted since that first day, from setting and cleaning up plates, and serving wine at tables, to maintaining the website and handling the business side of the restaurant.

On the Square has exceeded beyond everything she could have wanted. Today, it serves casual lunches and fancier dinners, and has gone from five employees to about 30 in the past twelve and-a-half years.

“We will never be millionaires, but I feel like we’re millionaires in terms of what we are able to do in the community,” she says. In addition to their other initiatives, her restaurant helps support food sustainability in North Carolina. They buy honey from Reverend Richard Joyner, whose nearby church grows food for its members and the people of Edgecombe County.

“I give all the love to the community,” Inez adds. Living in Edgecombe for 14 years since returning from New York City, Inez can’t imagine ending up anywhere else — she’s learned so much about herself. Asked to think back, how her life has evolved and what it all has meant for her, she doesn’t need time to think. “I look back, and, yeah, I look back over the past fourteen years and know there was no way I was going to be truly happy if I had not come back to Edgecombe County.”

Because of where she went to school and who she went to school with, she is who she is today. And to be able to cultivate her place, her home, for the future, to ensure children where she grew up have the chances she had, well, that’s her restaurant, too.

Lily Carollo

Lily Carollo is a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. She loves puppies, science-fiction, frocks, and cloudy days.