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Faces of Crisis: Reflections on gratitude from the year of pandemic

“I believe it’s a fact of life that what we have is less important than what we make out of what we have.”

— Fred Rogers

When most of us hold the notion of 2020 in our minds, the first emotion to rise up may not be gratitude.

Even if we have managed to stay healthy, financially secure and relatively positive throughout this tumultuous year, we may not have a lot of reserves left over for counting blessings.

It's understandable that a global pandemic impacting everything from how we buy food to how we teach our children has tested the good nature of even the most resilient among us. And for those who have suffered the greatest losses — loved ones, jobs, businesses, precious time with grandchildren and the elderly —  it would be understandable if they found summoning gratitude this Thanksgiving too much to ask.

And yet, even in these challenging times, when we are being asked to social distance from loved ones and brace ourselves for a difficult winter of sacrifice and loss, a spirit of gratitude is intact.

Lieutenant Bernadette Frae of West Nyack, a Rockland Paramedic out of the Medic 3 Clarkstown Station in New City, Nov. 10, 2020.

Take Bernadette Frae, an EMT from West Nyack, New York, for instance. Frae and her fellow first responders had to navigate one of the worst hot spots in the country early on in the pandemic. Often she says, they would arrive too late to save people dying of COVID.

And yet, she greets this Thanksgiving with awe and gratitude for her community.

"It’s amazing, when people get together, what they can do to encourage people going through a bad time. I think we need more of that.”

We asked Frae and eight more people — teachers, front line workers, struggling business owners, the grieving — to share with us what they are most thankful for this Thanksgiving.

May their responses inspire you this holiday season.

Mourning a loved one

Dustin Coleman, Smyrna, Delaware

Dustin Coleman of Smyrna, Delaware with his father Ronald and late step-mother Carla.

For Dustin Coleman, a 15-year Walmart distribution center worker in Smyrna, the arrival of COVID-19 in Delaware sent both his father, Ronald, and stepmother, Carla, to Kent General Hospital in Dover.

Both had developed symptoms only two weeks or so after the state shutdown in mid-March, suddenly turning the 39-year-old's world upside down.

While Ron recovered after a short stay, his wife did not. Carla passed away on April 13 at the age of 70, leaving behind seven children, 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren who called her "Mommom Carla."

She had been Dustin's stepmother ever since he was very small.

This Thanksgiving, Dustin and his wife, Cathy, and daughter, Darby, 9, will go to Dover to visit his father and make stops to see other family members.

And just like every year, they will go around the dinner table before eating and say what they are thankful for.

This is normally when Coleman fumbles around for something to say after realizing it's his turn. This year, he already knows what he'll say.

After what he and his family have been through, it's not surprising that he's had some time to think about it.

"After the loss, it's about realizing how lucky and blessed I was to be able to have two great moms in my life when I knew kids who didn't have any," says Coleman, a forklift driver. "So for me, it's about how I'm thankful for my life prior to 2020."

But it doesn't stop there. In the wake of Carla's death, Coleman took a month off to grieve and to be with his family as the fear of the virus spread. That's something he has never done before. And he says it was a blessing.

"Being home for that long and not being able to go anywhere was really different," he says, "but it really did make me thankful that I was able to create more of a bond with my wife and daughter than before."

— Ryan Cormier

Becoming closer as a family

Ruth Montan, Browns Mills, New Jersey

Ruth Montan reflects next to a chair that belonged to her father. Santiago Disla Martinez, who died died due to COVID-19 on April 20, 2020, that sits next to a memorial located in the backyard of her Browns Mills home for Montan's father and her uncle Martin Silvero, who died due to COVID-19 on April 19, 2020.

Ruth Montan, 38 of Browns Mills, lost her father this year to COVID-19. Santiago Disla-Martinez died in Paterson at 74 years old.

A wife and mother of three, Montan has “some good days and some really, really sad days – but that’s what it’s like when you’re grieving,” she said. Montan was incredibly close to her father. Disla-Martinez and his wife Victoria Perez de Disla adopted Montan when she was a newborn.

Disla-Martinez doted on his daughter when she was a child, supported her through her marriage, comforted her after Montan had difficulty with fertility, suffering seven miscarriages, helped her and her husband purchase their home, and became a loving grandfather to her kids. Now, she and her family are facing a Thanksgiving without him. But she’s still found a few things to be grateful for during this difficult year.

“We’ve grown closer as a family this year," said Montan. "This is the first time we’ve experienced a death so close to us. When an aunt dies who you never see, it’s sad, but when it’s someone you’re so close to dies, it’s different. This is how it was with my father. He was a big part of us. But, I’m grateful. My mom and I were always close but now we’re even more so. When I speak to my husband and kids about my dad, I see they also feel sadness. We’re gentler with one another, more understanding.

“When I’m really sad, I know in my heart he wouldn’t want me to be down. He always said to work hard for your kids, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I know he wouldn’t want us to be sad and would be glad we’ve become closer as a family.”

— Rebecca King

Losing a business

Jonathan D'Silva, Erie, Pennsylvania

Faith Kindig and Jonathan D'Silva, shown Nov. 29, 2018, were the co-founders of the Oasis Market, 914 State Street in Erie, Pennsylvania. They opened the store in February 2019 to provide downtown residents with access to fresh foods and other healthy foods, most of them produced locally. The store closed in October 2020, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "It is COVID-related," said Kindig at the time, "In that we just don’t have foot traffic downtown right now."

Jonathan D'Silva had hoped to eliminate the food desert that envelopes downtown Erie, Pennsylvania. But COVID-19 left the downtown as parched as ever.

In February 2019, the 44-year-old intellectual property lawyer and his business partner opened the Oasis Market in the center of the city. The nonprofit offered fresh foods and other healthy options to downtown workers as well as residents with no supermarket within walking distance.

The Oasis closed in October.

The pandemic forced many downtown businesses to require its employees to work from home, causing Oasis' foot traffic to dwindle and its sales to plummet. It also faced higher rent.

"I try not to dwell on the negative so much in general because I always think it can be much worse," D'Silva said.

A native of Kuwait, he recalled the troubles in his homeland during the Persian Gulf War and how he arrived in the United States in 1994 to attend college and never left. The closing of the Oasis disappointed him, but he said he remains thankful that he still has a job and that he and his wife and children remain healthy.

"In the end," D'Silva said, "I am very lucky."

— Ed Palattella

Responding to sick & dying

Bernadette Frae, West Nyack, New York

Bernadette Frae, a lieutenant at Rockland Paramedics Medic 3 Clarkstown Station, said her New York metropolitan-area county was among the first to see COVID-19 cases surge last spring.

Frae said she and other paramedics often had to beseech people to go to the hospital because patients were so afraid of getting worse, of dying there, without loved ones around. Often, when they responded to a call, the patient was already dead by the time they arrived.

As COVID-19 cases spike nationwide and begin to surge again in Rockland County, Frae freely admits her trepidation. Most of her colleagues, she said, feel the same way. But they are ready.

“I’m grateful for my co-workers, that they had the courage to keep showing up in the face of fear and the unknown. And they’re still showing up when people need them,” said Frae, 50, a West Nyack resident. “It was truly an act of courage to show up every day. We were the first wave, so we really had to figure it out. People died right in front of us. It was horrendous. I didn’t think we were going to get through it.”

Frae, mom of three, is married to Scott Frae, a retired New York City firefighter who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The community pulled together then, she said, and that’s what got first responders like her FDNY husband through.

Community got first responders through the COVID-19 crisis too, she said.

“The community stood behind us. They made signs. People brought us dinners every night. It was really amazing,” Frae said. “The parades, people coming out a 7 o’clock banging pots and pans. It made us think, ‘Oh, I could do another day.’ ''

As Thanksgiving approaches, Frae said she has been taking stock of the past nine months.

“I’m grateful that my family’s healthy and my kids are healthy and I get to spend time with them and it didn’t affect us, healthwise, like it did other people,” Frae said. “Some people are going to have an empty chair at the table.”

— Nancy Cutler

Fighting to save a restaurant

Lou Smith, Manasquan, New Jersey 

Lou Smith, chef and owner of Blend on Main in Manasquan.

As a chef and restaurant owner, Lou Smith loves to feed people.

As a person who cares about his community, he also loves to help them. 

When the pandemic hit, he began doing a lot more of both. In March, when New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms, Smith, who owns Blend on Main and Peach Pit Cafe in Manasquan, quickly mobilized a team of chefs to feed the state's healthcare workers, homebound seniors, veterans, first responders, and children and families in need. 

"I have a skill, I'm good at what I do, I love my community," he said of the effort, which he named Chef Lou's Army. The meals were funded by donations, which Smith matched. "We might not beat this virus as chefs, but we can definitely make things a little bit easier for some people and show we care."

As of today, he has donated more than 50,000 meals. On particularly busy days, he gave up offering takeout to make food for people who needed it. He also set up a market inside the dining room for people having trouble getting groceries. 

"The fact is, there's much more important things than money," he said.

As for what he is grateful for – aside from his family – Smith thinks of words shared with him by his grandmother. 

"It is easy to think about what I am most thankful for. These simple words to live by, once said and written to me often, by a wonderful, strong, woman: my grandmother, Marie Benfatti," he said. "Although I am very thankful for knowing her, it is what she would always say to me, or write in a birthday or Christmas card: 'Remember! Your health is your wealth.'

"It is a constant reminder to me," said Smith, who had gastric bypass surgery two years ago following a diabetes diagnosis. "You must take care of your mind and body.  Sometimes we get wrapped up in the hustle of life (and) forget. If you're healthy, you can do so, so much for your family and community around you."   

— Sarah Griesemer

Delivering on a promise

Tiara Harper, Allen, Maryland

Tiara Harper has been the postmaster in Allen, Maryland, for two years.

Tiara Harper has been the postmaster in Allen, Maryland, for two years, serving the small community on the state’s Eastern Shore. A mother of three, Harper, 29, has worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, thankful she can continue to build relationships with members of the community.

“I’m thankful I can still see the people of Allen,” she said. “It’s funny how you get to know these people. I call them up on their phones when they have a package and tell them when to pick them up.

“There’s been a lot of changes (since the pandemic). Everyone would come in and mingle, eat and talk — that’s Allen for you. Now it’s just grab the mail and go, but I’m still so thankful to work in a place like Allen where you can have a relationship with the customer”  

— Richard Pollitt

Teaching the children

Krista Granite, Perkasie, Pennsylvania

At Deibler Elementary School in East Rockhill, kindergarten teacher Krista Granite asks students to "use a big mask voice" instead of a "soft talking voice." Instead of telling her students to "bring their smiles to school," she teaches her children to "come to school with your smiling eyes."

Krista Granite is a kindergarten teacher at Deibler Elementary School in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. She has been teaching in the Pennridge School District for 28 years.  Born in New York, she is 51 and married to Paul Granite for 26 years. They have two daughters.

Her gratitude starts in her childhood home.

“The older I get, the more deeply I am thankful for my parents.  They are the ones who have always made me feel loved and bring me peace, even in the most trying times.  I need to let them know more often how much I truly love them and how much they mean to me.  I realize now how precious our time is together as each year goes by.  Even though I do not see them much due to COVID and teaching in person, hearing their voice is a gift I am grateful for every day.”    

Granite asks her students to "use a big mask voice" instead of a "soft talking voice." Instead of telling her students to "bring their smiles to school," she teaches her children to "come to school with your smiling eyes."  

Her kindergartners move through the halls and doors like "American drivers," following green arrows on the right, with green dots lining the floors in the "lanes" to give students a sense of safe spacing.  "Our main goal is to make sure they are safe first," she said. 

The kindergartners "don't know what it was like before," she said. "They don't know it to be any different. They know maybe we can't change what's going on with coronavirus but we can change our attitude about it and look at where the silver lining is. Being in school together is definitely the silver lining." 

— Marion Callahan

Taking risks

Christopher Polk, Fleetwood, Pennsylvania

Christopher Polk has embraced technology and created youtube videos to demonstrate cooking for his students.

Christopher Polk is originally from Lehighton, Pennsylvania, and lives in Fleetwood. He has been teaching for 21 years and is on his 13th year at Quakertown Community High School. He teaches computer-integrated manufacturing, engineering design and development, as well as family and consumer science classes that include cooking skills.

Polk says he is grateful that the challenges of this year encouraged him to take more risks.

"I am grateful this year to have been able to make everything work with the support at school and at home. This year has taught me to be flexible and willing to take risks.  I am still teaching, just in a different environment. 

"My students still need my support, but they need it in different ways.  Rather than being in front of them, they need my help through my online course, videos and Google Meets.  When developing an online learning platform, you need to take risks because not everything works all of the time the way you want it too."

— Marion Callahan

Surviving remote learning as a working parent 

Siobhan Fisher, Rochester, New York

Siobhan Fisher, a self-employed photographer with two daughters attending the Rochester City School District, said working from home while overseeing her children’s classes has been more of a challenge than she ever expected.

Siobhan Fisher, a self-employed photographer with two daughters attending the Rochester City School District, said working from home while overseeing her children’s classes has been more of a challenge than she ever expected.

Her girls, 6-year-old Willow and a 13-year-old Blythe, each participate in online classes while at desks on different levels of the family’s home. Blythe, an eighth-grader, studies in the basement, while her sister, a first-grader, learns in her first-floor classroom. On weekdays, Fisher works upstairs in her office.

“I’m grateful they are safe,” said Fisher, 37, a single mother. “As hard as this is, their being home with me means that I know who their contacts are and I’m not relying on other people’s choices to keep them safe.”

Fisher said she is also thankful for her daughters’ teachers – for their patience and flexibility “and for never making me feel like I am failing.”

She also said the pandemic has taught her that she needs to give herself grace.

“You can’t do so many things and do them well,” she said. “It’s OK that the house is a mess or an assignment isn’t finished or you’re having chicken nuggets for the third night in a row. I need to just let some things go and say ‘This is 2020.’ ”

— Victoria Freile

Ryan Cormier, Rebecca King, Ed Palattella, Marion Callahan, Richard Pollitt, Nancy Cutler, Victoria Freile and Sarah Greisemer contributed to this report.