Recently, I have been thinking a lot about life at Deerfield and how I long for the return of “normalcy” with students back on campus, teachers in the classrooms, coaches on the fields, and the schedule that has us all functioning as a closely-knit community. The current state of affairs has stripped us all of our familiar spring term setting and has pushed us all into discomfort; forcing us to adopt a new daily schedule that we never expected. The hustle and bustle of sit-down meals, school meetings, and interacting with students, staff, and faculty has been replaced with long walks to the “Rock” and staring at a computer screen for hours on multiple Zoom meetings. We enter week four of what this global pandemic has brought to all of our lives and the end remains uncertain. The best we can do is to confront our reality, pay attention to our well-being, and do what we can to make our lives and the lives we influence collectively better.
Whenever confronted with adversity and discomfort I look outward and recognize a person of strength and courage. I use what I admire about that person as leverage to realign my priorities, gather my strength and self-confidence, and begin to problem-solve the challenges at hand. It is a strategy that may or may not work for everyone, but it has always been a positive way of thinking for me. The situation we all find ourselves in today presents many challenges for how we expect to continue growing, helping others, and caring for those we love.
There is a person I know who lives in southern Vermont that I have been thinking of a great deal these past several weeks. Her strength of character and belief that everything has solutions has not only inspired me over the years but has helped shape a “can-do” spirit that serves a large portion of a sleepy, small southern Vermont village.
Karen owns and runs a small grocery store that is located on Main Street in the middle of her town. The store does not look like much; it is not very big, but it has everything you could ever imagine wanting. I have always been amazed at the fact that I have never left that store without finding what I needed. Karen has lived in the town her entire life and naturally, she knows everybody who enters her store by name. She went to the local high school and was a classmate and good friend of my wife Amanda. So of course I sometimes get even better attention at the store because I have that inside track! This store has never seen bad times in close to the forty years Karen has owned the place. In my opinion, owning a small grocery store in southern Vermont is not the best investment you could make, but Karen has been the architect that has made this store different, and made it hugely successful.
Early in Karen’s high school years her mother passed away and before her sixteenth birthday Karen was helping her father, a local carpenter, take care of her younger siblings. She grew up in a hurry and assumed a set of responsibilities that allowed her family to move forward. Karen has never stopped taking care of others. From her post at the town’s general store Karen has helped the small town get through Hurricane Irene, 9/11, and numerous local tragedies. I have watched her spring into action putting others first while providing leadership within her community. The store was always the vessel in a crisis within the town with Karen at the helm offering solutions. The town always looks in her direction whether it is a global pandemic or someone’s passing within the community. The recent Covid-19 pandemic is no exception.
If you drive on the state road that cuts through southern Vermont in a south/north direction, you’ll notice that in every town there are very few businesses open. The Governor’s stay-at-home order has influenced many; even those who own “essential” businesses that could remain open. There is not a grocery store for miles unless you go to a large chain store in Brattleboro, VT or in Manchester, NH. Between these two larger towns there are 50 miles of winding road with very few stores remaining open. It did not surprise me to find out that Karen’s store was open and it was thriving! Customers are not allowed in the store and Karen has a sign on the door with instructions on “how to order”. She takes emails and texts, collects your groceries in the store, boxes things up, and then takes payment with Venmo, debit, or cash. Her store workers disinfect everything being placed in your order box. Karen will even disinfect your change should you pay for your groceries with cash! Talk about service with a smile, and you’ve never felt safer buying your groceries in these trying times.
During the tragedy of Hurricane Irene parts of the main road through town were washed away in high water. Some houses were lost and the town was in isolation for months while they waited for the state highway bridges to be replaced. Karen responded by making her store into command central for all the first-responders and national-guard personnel and rescue workers sent in to bring relief to the area. Store hours were expanded to accommodate those with altered work hours. Karen worked extended hours, keeping her store open those weeks and months, but mostly she realized her role in stabilizing a devastated community. Supplies were hard to get to stock the shelves, but Karen’s store never ran short. She figured out ways to remain viable when others did not just as she is doing with our current health crisis.
One important distinction I would like to point out with Karen’s handling of any crisis within her community has been she has never taken advantage of her situation as a store owner. Since I have known her she has always put her community and serving others first. When supply and demand made things hard during the Hurricane crisis Karen did what she could to find supplies and keep her prices in check. I find it amazing that I can get a 12-pack of toilet paper from Karen today without any problem. She’s had adequate supplies of paper products since we first noticed these items disappearing from supermarket shelves. Karen is a problem-solver. Who would ever have guessed how long the shortages on paper products would have lasted? Karen knew and she put measures in place to remove this potential problem for her customers.
What can we learn from people like Karen? The answer is plenty! The first thing is to never give up hope. Good things come to those who look for silver linings and then make plans on how to get there. Secondly, serving others is so important to any community and very often when you commit to taking care of others you are taking care of yourself. The store in the little town in Vermont symbolizes the need to look out for others. And finally, don’t be afraid to embrace your current situation and be determined to win. Stay focused with your online learning, be determined to get some exercise, and don’t hesitate to reach out and say hi to a friend, family member, or someone you want to get to know. I admire Karen because she lives a full life. regardless of the challenges that come her way. Her strength of character is what I chase after especially at a time like now when there is more uncertainty than I’m comfortable with. Check in with yourself; view your house as that little store in Vermont, and don’t be afraid to further embrace today’s circumstances.