Finding gratitude in an otherwise bleak year

HHS nutrition employee Amanda Back hands out bags of food to students and their families in the spring. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

This year has been hard with so much stolen from us through cancelled plans, lost or cut-back jobs and restrictions on being around others. We’ve faced illness, overwhelming anxiety and loss. 

During the season of reflection when many are normally able to connect with friends and family it seems hard — even impossible — this year to find the reasons to be grateful. 

And yet, even when days have been downright awful, there have been acts of kindness and love deep enough to offer light and hope at the end of a dismal 2020.  

Four community organizations teamed up this spring to help those experiencing homelessness avoid the spread of COVID-19. A group of “makers” in the city made PPE for first responders and health care workers. Pale Fire Brewing, Digital Minerva, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and Sysco Foods started a food pantry to assist restaurant staff affected by the pandemic. Teachers and school administrators handed out free meals to every student in the Harrisonburg City Public School system weekly throughout the pandemic. Thousands marched peacefully for racial equality and justice in downtown Harrisonburg over the summer. 

Human kindness was abundant in Harrisonburg in 2020. 

For Tim Brady, one of the organizers of Pale Fire Helps, he found gratitude in community members who helped pull together a pop-up food pantry in six days and hand out more than 28 pallets of food over the course of the pandemic.

“Pale Fire Helps was amazingly heartwarming,” Brady said. “So many people in our community came together very quickly to make a real difference. Members of each organization gave so much free time and work to make it happen that quickly.”

Once it started, more people volunteered to run the program daily, he said. “People who just reached out and said: ‘This is great, what do you need?’”

“Seeing so many people selflessly jump into action was a reminder of how wonderful our community is,” Brady said. 

Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed said while 2020 was challenging, she was grateful to the people who made and donated more than 3,500 masks to her Mask Drive this spring and summer. 

“So many residents, organizations and churches came together and donated masks to my drive to support our most vulnerable neighborhoods,” Reed said. “It was incredible, but it showed who we are as a community.”

Noah Harrilla, a JMU School of Nursing alumni and volunteer for the Suitcase Clinic, screens a client before he enters the shelter in May. (Photo by Tristan Lorei)

Deciding to be grateful

Pastor Steve Hay with Asbury United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg said the hardest part of finding gratitude might be in the decision by each of us to decide to be grateful.

“I get distracted by all the things that are threatened or lost or need to be done,” Hay said. “So I don’t look at what I have been given, and so I don’t respond with gratitude unless I sort of decide to.”

It’s more than trying to see the hidden benefits amid the challenge, he said. 

“Not just the silver lining — look for that as well. But look for the more fundamental good of life,” Hay said. 

Harrisonburg resident Jeremy Aldrich said finding gratitude for him has been easy at times, and harder at times this year. 

“Grief and worry hang heavy in the air these days, and there is no shortage of really poor decision-making everywhere you look,” Aldrich said. “But there are so many things that feel extra special this year that inspire gratitude.”

For instance, he said two recent examples are a church putting on a drive-through nativity scene and residents who “put extra effort into their holiday decorations to make others smile.”

Frosty the Snowman and Snoopy blowups wave from the porch of a home residence on Thompson Street in Dayton. (Photo by Mike Tripp)

‘Storing those moments in my heart’

Parents have had to make excruciating choices this year. Most have had to worry about balancing children’s schoolwork with their own work responsibilities, while fearing constantly about being able to do either adequately.

Some had the ability to work from home, while others had to scramble for childcare. 

Still, many parents have expressed gratitude in the face of such impossible choices of having more time spent with their children — time typically lost in “normal life.” 

“There is a silver lining for sure,” Aldrich said. “Time with my wife and young daughter that we wouldn’t have had in a normal year.”

Aldrich, who works in the city school district, said he has been grateful for the hard work and determination of the teachers, staff and parents who have all worked harder than ever to help children learn. 

“In my job as an educator, we’ve done more to close the digital divide this year than ever before,” Aldrich said. “Our students are more independent, our teachers are using amazing tools to connect, and our parents are more involved in their kids’ learning.”

Ashley Saunders, a mother of three in Broadway, also said time spent at home with her children this year fills her with gratitude.  

“Like most families we would hit the ground running on Monday and not connect again until Saturday,” Saunders said of her normal routine.“Two active teenagers and a husband who was busy was exhausting. We spent so much time together — talking and dreaming and reacquainting ourselves. Our 6 year old was in heaven. With my oldest being a senior this year, I am storing those moments in my heart.”

Trey Smith (left) and Diar Kaussler, staff members at Camp Horizons, test a hand-washing station built from a repurposed canoe, in preparation to have Harrisonburg Public Schools students attend the camp as an outdoor classroom this fall. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

In the business of gratitude

For others, the chance to reinvent their own wheels and continue to run their businesses filled them with gratitude. 

The Harrisonburg Farmers Market pivoted to an online ordering and drive through system.  OASIS Fine Art and Crafts began to hold online art shows.  Massanutten Regional Library cancelled fines for overdue books

Kirsten Moore, who had big business opening plans for 2020, pivoted during the pandemic and created a drive-through market featuring the goods of local restaurants and artisans. 

“Running the drive through market certainly made us feel grateful,” Moore said. “At a time when we weren’t seeing people in social settings, it was such a joy to see people come through and wave at us from their car while we loaded groceries. It was nice to fill a need and nourish our community. It was heartwarming to take piles of fresh food to the Pale Fire Helps food bank each week because of people’s generosity.”

As a result, she said it was actually easier to feel gratitude this year. 

“When we are comfortable, we tend to take a lot of things for granted,” Moore said. “This year there was a lot of unease, and so it not only made me thankful for the big and obvious things–health, family, etc. — but it made me pay attention to and be grateful for things like COVID not changing the basic human need to break bread together, how much it means to see a smile, how much we need each other in this community, our ability to be resilient and work together. I think that has the potential to be pretty transformational for our community going forward.”

As mayor, Reed also said while she knows how much small businesses have suffered this year, she was grateful the city council allocated $850,000 of federal CARES Act funding to help city business. In addition, the city designated more than $1 million in CARES Act funding for rental, utility, child care and food assistance for residents. 

Reed also said watching people take care of each other made her incredibly grateful to serve the city. 

“It confirmed why I love my hometown, why I love serving my hometown, and why I am proud of my hometown,” Reed said. “We still have a lot of work to do and even though we may disagree on some issues, overall we are a kind community and we truly care for one another.”

Harrisonburg proved itself to be “such a supportive and creative community to live in,” Brady said. “If you’re paying attention, there are lots of examples, similar to Pale Fire Helps, happening all over our city. Just people doing what they can to help their neighbors.”

Gratitude and hope

For Hay, the pastor, tapping into gratitude can lead to hope. 

“Gratitude and hope, I find, are very closely linked,” Hay said. “They emotionally feel quite similar. You can’t survive long without hope.”

Hay says that while feeling gratitude is important, even more important is to tell people when you are grateful for them. 

“This comes form Andy Stanley – he’s a pastor down in Georgia – when we have gratitude towards people, and we can feel it, but we don’t express it, if we don’t tell them, it can feel to them as if it’s ingratitude,” Hay said. 

And Saunders said searching for ways to feel grateful has given her the strength to face the challenges this year has brought. 

“Gratitude has helped me get through 2020,” Saunders said. “Gratitude often leads to small joy. It also helps with perspective. I have a lot to be grateful for in 2020. It’s reaffirmed my commitment to love humanity as a whole.”

Editor’s note: The Citizen also has been grateful this year for our amazing journalists who contributed thoughtful and well-reported pieces about the community. And we are of course ever grateful for our readers and those who have generously supported this local journalism enterprise. We are going to take a few days to revel in that gratitude but will resume publishing Thursday, Dec. 31. Happy holidays!

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