Life in the time of corona

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Volunteers

interviews by Meghan Wayland

The Chronicle interviews a variety of people each week to see how their lives have been altered by COVID-19.  

This week, we asked five volunteers about how and why they’ve stepped up to help their communities in the face of this unprecedented crisis, what they think their neighbors need in order to survive, and what gives them hope.

Answers have been edited for length and continuity.

Pauline Couture, Westfield

Pauline Couture and her husband, Jacques, own Couture’s Maple Shop and B&B in Westfield.  Ms. Couture — along with her sister-in-law Jane Sargent and a mass of others — is sewing masks for local hospitals and community members.  The Chronicle interviewed Ms. Couture a day before her seventieth birthday.

“Whatever the need is I’ll keep making them,” Ms. Couture said of sewing masks.

“I have a stash of material, and I’ve been quilting and listening to fifties and sixties music to get my mind off a lot of things.   I had to shut the TV off and stay occupied because it was making me nervously sick.

“My sister-in-law sent me a mask pattern from Dartmouth-Hitchcock,” she said.  That’s how it began.  Ms. Couture was emphatic that she was not nearly as industrious as her sister-in-law when it came to sewing masks.  Still, she’s sewn dozens for hospitals, family members, and people who simply want a mask to wear while grocery shopping.

“I made them until I ran out of elastic,” she said.   

“My daughter says, put it on Facebook, and maybe we can get our local people to do them.  I’m telling you, that blew up.  It was like a virus.  It started a ball rolling.  

“I just talked to another nurse on Facebook and she could use [masks] for her and her four-year-old daughter, so I’ll make a little one.”

Ms. Couture said no one’s allowed to make any special requests as to the color or pattern of the fabric used.

“I’m not going out and buying material, I’m using what I got,” she said.

“It doesn’t take very much material to make them.  Of course, it’s not the hospital’s top brand,” but they’re pretty simple to make, she said, just two pieces of fabric.

“One side’s a flannel and one’s a cotton and two elastics.  It takes about 15 minutes from beginning to end.  “It’s something I can do.  I’m a stay-home worker, so I’m not out there and I feel for those who are.”

The isolation gets to her, she said, but she’s able to FaceTime with her six children and 12 grandchildren who live throughout the country.  When it comes to socializing, she’s creative.

“My neighbor is my cousin,” she said.  “Last Sunday, I’m going bonkers, and I called him and said…go to your front porch.  So he went to his front porch.  And I went to my front porch and I waved at him.  He just cracked up.  He wasn’t expecting it.”

Ms. Couture said the other day some relatives were on the farm collecting VAST trail markers.  She waived at them from the house, and the crew held out their elbows in response.

“Keep your distance,” she said.  

“I think Westfield people take it serious.  I have an AirBnB and bed and breakfast, and someone called me to book a room in May, and I say, I can’t do it.”  

She said the farm’s maple shop remains open to the public because it offers staples like milk and eggs, but the rest of the business is closed to visitors.

“My fear is my children or that my personal family gets it, or my husband and I.  We’re in that older age group.  My hope is if it does happen, I have reward at the end.  The Lord is my personal savior and if it’s time, it’s time.”

She said the virus is “bringing good out of people that we wouldn’t have seen before.  

“If everyone listens to the rules — like in church if you listen to the commandments — then we’ll be fine.  

“Pray,” she said.  “Pray a lot.

“We need spiritual help and not just government help or medical help for the mental anguish people are going through.”  

Clare Dolan, Glover

Clare Dolan of Glover is a nurse in both the intensive care unit (ICU) and COVID unit at the hospital in St. Johnsbury.  She also operates the Museum of Everyday Life in Glover.  

While nurses aren’t volunteers, they daily put their lives — and the lives of loved ones — on the line to care for patients.

“There are nurses I work with who aren’t going home,” she said.  “There’s a colleague of mine whose husband is in a high-risk category, and she’s so afraid of bringing stuff home to him that she’s buddying up with another ICU nurse and living with her.  It’s really major.  It’s also pretty major for the nurse who took her in because now she has a roommate.”

When asked to define what she’s doing to help her community amidst the pandemic, Ms. Dolan said on Saturday, “I’m an ICU nurse in a hospital.  What I’m doing to help is showing up to work.”

She laughed.  

“My job is being a nurse, so that’s nothing special.   What’s different is negotiating the new situation.  In the ICU, I know where everything is.  I know what’s expected of me, where to get the tools I need.  

“It’s a new environment now.

“We’re getting new information every day. We’re learning new protocols and procedures. We’re having to adapt to strict requirements for protective gear.  We’re having to get used to how uncomfortable wearing all that protective gear is hour after hour.  We’re having to get oriented to a new flow and new workspace. 

“This virus highlights that health care is screwed up in America,” she said.  “The whole system’s a wreck.

“Nursing is a really hard job and it’s well-compensated compared to a house cleaner or cashier or nanny or all of the other hard jobs mostly women do — all of these jobs should be better respected — [but the compensation], it’s not enough. 

“There aren’t enough nurses in this country.  It’s been true for a while.   There’s been a huge shortage of nurses, but you don’t see that at the top of national news.”

Ms. Dolan said it’s expensive to become a nurse, and among other solutions, nursing school needs to be made affordable.   

“When you’re in a pandemic, it brings to the fore how we’ve been neglecting people, neglecting our national needs.  

“We, as a country, aren’t prepared to be able to take care of everybody.”

Ms. Dolan worries that, as the pandemic progresses, there may come a time when all visitors to the hospital are banned, with no exceptions for births or deaths.

“I’m really dreading having to be the nurse that has to say to a family member, you can’t come in.  Your loved one is going to die without you.  Being with someone at their death — to sit with someone and absorb their details for the last time, to see the way their eyes crinkle or their hands lay — it’s so important for people to be with their loved ones in that moment.”

She hopes people stay connected as a result of this pandemic.

  “Culturally, we might learn to value social interaction and disengage from the rat race,” she said. “We might prioritize relationships over getting things done.”

Peggy Loux, Jay

Peggy Loux is the executive director and treasurer of Jay Focus Group and manages the #WeAreLowellJayWestfieldTroyAreaStrong Facebook page along with Trish Sears and Karen O’Donnell.  Talking with Ms. Loux, it’s clear she has a hand in just about everything good, and it’s evident from the amount of people named in this short phone interview, Ms. Loux has a knack for giving credit where it’s due.

 “If I didn’t have all this to do in the last couple weeks, I’d probably be going crazy.  It’s keeping me sane.

“I have friends who can’t see their relatives, who can’t see their grandkids.  The president of [Jay Focus Group], Kathy DiCarlo, is an emergency room nurse at the hospital.  She’s working there through all this, and she has her husband at home.  Everyone’s doing something.” 

Ms. Loux rattled off the many initiatives she supports in some way — anything from buying gift cards from local businesses to give to essential workers, to collecting donations for the Jay Area Community Food Shelf.  This week $4,000 was raised for the food shelf which serves Jay, Lowell, Westfield, Troy and North Troy.

“People need food. We’re going into week four and [Kim Lucier, who runs the food shelf] picks up more and more people who’ve lost their job due to businesses closing down. 

“We don’t have a lot of business in the area.  Some of these businesses are small, and some of them won’t make it through this crisis and that’s just not right.  We have to help as many people as we can.  

“Denise Rossignol is part of our Jay Focus Group and she, along with a ton of our other volunteers, started making masks.  Denise is paying for it on her own.  That’s what she wants to do for her community.  

“We’ve had calls from all over.  We’ve put it out on Facebook that anybody who is in need of a mask can reach out to us and we’ll get masks to them.  We’re not charging anybody for them.

“My biggest fear is people falling through the cracks  — people who need help but aren’t getting it because they’re stubborn.  We all think that we can take care of ourselves, you know.  

“I mean, it’s a crisis for a lot of people — it will be for a long time, financially.”  But, she said, given the circumstances, “I’m really surprised most people have taken this whole thing so well.

“I think some people are saying, okay, we’re just going to keep cleaning our house and getting our gardens ready.  What else can we do?

 “There’s hope.  There’s always hope.  We all see hope in this.  Most everybody is just trying their best to wait it out.”

Before hanging up, Ms. Loux made a point to mention Steve Wright, president of Jay Peak.

“Steve’s been through a lot since 2016.  He’s so grounded.  He just keeps going from one thing to another and now this.  He’s just there to help — always has been.  He’s there for us.  He’s really a story in himself.”

Carol and Paul Castle, Derby

Carol and Paul Castle are delivering groceries and other necessities to their mothers, friends, and neighbors.  The Chronicle spoke with Ms. Castle over the phone Saturday.

“Both of our mothers are in their eighties.  We have to be sure they stay pinned in their houses so we go shopping once a week for them, for us, and whoever else might need something — people that I know need to be extra cautious.  If they need something, they just send me a list.

“We’re a community and that’s everything.

“This crisis has revealed the weaknesses [in our society] that have been there all along but haven’t been visible.  Top-down economics is really hurting people.  So many local people have limited incomes, and they’re losing their jobs.

“I have to assume there are people whose needs aren’t being met.  It’s hard to tell because you don’t always see.  Maybe they can’t reach out. There’s so much shame involved.”

Ms. Castle described the website of a mutual aid organization where her daughter lives.  She said there are two questions on the site:  “What do you need?  And what can you provide?  

“I think people are more likely to ask for help if there’s something they can also provide.  

“Whenever there’s a transition, any kind of shift, there’s a tug in both directions.  A tug at the top, a tug at the bottom.  Both get stronger.  I don’t know who wins, but I hope we can hold on to what we have, and the network and community strength evolve beyond this crisis.  

“My biggest fear is that we have this life-changing experience and we don’t remember what we learned from it and we go back to so-called normal.”  

Mrs. Castle said it’s time for sweeping change.

“We need to decentralize the whole system.  The big corporations, the banks, the powerbrokers don’t mean anything.  They don’t get their hands dirty.  It just shows that the real strength has always been the people.”

Kris Coville, Craftsbury

Kris Coville runs Wild Branch Valley Farm in Craftsbury with her husband, Glen, and is a teaching aide at Albany Community School.  After posting a call for community on Front Porch Forum only a few weeks ago, Ms. Coville now also helps organize a task force of about 15 town leaders and 50 volunteers who have stepped up to help Craftsbury in a striking variety of ways.

“I knew this virus was going to be on the roof even though, on a national level, it was being downplayed.  I thought, when it comes our way, we have a lot of people in the vulnerable population — people that are over 65.  I wanted to start the conversation about how we were going to help those people to stay safe.  

“We wanted to reach everybody in our town and at least give them the resources they need, or at least get them clear information.  A town resource page outlines ways to ask for help and ways to volunteer, but there’s a whole big population out there that might not be computer savvy.”  So Craftsbury created a way to reach those people by mail and phone tree, she said. 

“We call again and again to offer support.  We’re such a self-sufficient bunch here in Vermont,” she said wondering if people who got their first postcard or phone call thought, “I’m all set.”

A couple attempts, she feels, are key.

“Weeks in, [people] might think, hmm, maybe I do need support or maybe I don’t want to go to the grocery store.

“A woman went through the mutual aid form process [online], so she came up on my list.  Here was a 73-year-old woman in North Albany.  

“We told ourselves we had very porous boundaries and if someone showed up on our doorstep, we would do everything we could to help.   

“She’s very clearly made it on her own forever.  She has a wood stove, no backup heat, log cabin.  Here’s this person who just had her way alone, and yet, even in this instance she found herself needing to reach out to somebody.  Somehow she got our information.  She was almost out of food and almost out of firewood.

“I had not one truck show up with firewood, I got 15 trucks,” Ms. Coville said of the community response.  “It’s like they’re piranhas.   People are so willing to pitch in in whatever way they can.

“Immediately, when I put out that first Front Porch Forum post, it was a huge outpouring of community leaders and residents that said, yes, let’s do this.  People rallied around it, and now I guess I’m leading.

“I’ve always loved working in community but I’ve gained a level of confidence in organizations.  I was waiting for the confidence to come, but being thrown into it I’ve had to learn a lot. 

“I want everyone in town to know we’re thinking about them.

“We started a weekly meal for pickup or delivery.  We started this idea of a pop-up food pantry which some of the small businesses were already thinking about,” businesses like Pete’s Greens and the Craftsbury General Store, she said.

“We wrote a grant and put calls out to the community for donations to help neighbors that are struggling.  We made stations where volunteers can pick up gloves and masks and Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, when we can get it in.  

“All these other things spring up.  Someone says, let’s do a letter campaign and all of a sudden there’s a flurry of letters for the care center or hearts in our mailboxes for mail people.  These sweet things pop up.  

“If everyone does a little bit, at least we’re making impacts right here that are visible.

“Inevitably, we’re going to lose people — friends and loved ones, people’s brothers and sons and moms and grandmas.  I feel like there’s going to be this huge global grief.  There’s so much that will be lost.  How will we come back from that?

“In my small, little corner, where we’re all in the same boat of figuring out how we’re going to do this and make it through, I see a lot of communication and outreach and interaction between people that wasn’t there before.  Really interesting connections are being made and I think that, although it may be a slow process, I think those new ways of caring for each other will stick and will become our biggest asset.  We’ll find a way to rise up out of this together.”

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