2020 in review: Creativity in challenging times

A STITCH IN TIME: In response to the COVID-19 health crisis, designer Stina Andersen is shifting her focus to making cloth-based masks, which people can purchase online. Photo by Cindy Kunst

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

Sewing has been one of my favorite hobbies for decades, so the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States in March held a silver lining for me: Staying home and sewing masks felt like a perfect creative response to the new reality.

Soon enough, masks in hand, the simplicity of those early days faded. With nearly every aspect of life in Western North Carolina in flux, many of us struggled to adapt. Community members expressed frustration over shifting guidance from public officials, the choices of fellow residents regarding masks and social distancing, decisions about school and business closures and so much more. In an already charged environment, protests demanding racial justice and the 2020 general election combined to create a perfect storm of social-media-amplified blame, finger-pointing and polarization.

Amid the noise, it’s all too easy to forget the astonishing feats of adaptation we’ve pulled off as individuals and as a community. Remember those awkward early business meetings when the urge to shake hands was almost impossible to resist? Remember the first few days after you got serious about wearing a mask yet kept forgetting to put one in your bag or car? For most of us, those and many other new habits have become the norm. 

We’ve also learned to help ourselves. Local efforts to support those who are struggling range from mutual aid groups like Pandemic of Love (showcased on our cover of Oct. 7) and the Facebook group Asheville Survival Program to the Asheville Strong initiatives and government-led programs like the One Buncombe fund. Individuals of all ages and walks of life have committed to small acts of kindness, including Mary Wells Letson’s flower giveaways (Xpress, July 22) and Madelyn Schmidt’s care bags (Xpress, Nov. 4).

It’s time to celebrate the creativity of our community’s response to the pandemic, even as we acknowledge the pain, uncertainty and loss that surely still lie ahead. Here, community members weigh in on successes that fill them with pride as they look back on 2020.

“Election Services took the pandemic seriously from the beginning. We rented larger locations; worked tirelessly to support absentee-by-mail voting; implemented safety measures immediately both internally and at voting locations; and we got the word out that voting would be safe. No cases of COVID-19 were traced back to voting in Buncombe County, and that’s saying something for the largest event of the year!” 

Corinne Duncan, director of elections, Buncombe County

“Buncombe County government was proactive in establishing our emergency operations center and fostering unprecedented levels of collaboration between county and city governments, public health, fire departments, law enforcement, emergency management, school systems and other community partners.”

Fletcher Tove, emergency preparedness director, Buncombe County

“Asheville for Justice is a mutual aid network that was started this summer during the protests that has provided rent support, clothes and meals for unhoused folx. Groups like Asheville Survival Program also stepped up to meet unmet needs as usual, providing funds, clothing, harm reduction work and services needed to folx.”

London Newton, UNC Asheville junior and Student Government Association president

“MANNA FoodBank has moved into even higher gear due to the impacts of the pandemic and the huge and sustained need for food. As an organization, we’ve taken major steps in every aspect of our operations to continue operating safely, all while distributing record amounts of food each month to record numbers of people who are struggling.

“The pandemic has shown that, for the most part, local government plays a far larger role in our immediate day-to-day lives than our federal government. I’m hoping that our newly elected officials work hard to prioritize the well-being and quality of life for those who call our wonderful town home and to build a successful economic vision that respects and protects the natural majesty of where we live while helping to lift all boats.”

Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications, MANNA FoodBank

“Pisgah Legal Services expanded our services for people who needed advice and representation with unemployment insurance benefits.  A combination of staff and volunteer attorneys worked on over 300 cases in 2020 — compared to four cases during 2019.  Additionally, for the first time, PLS obtained funding to offer financial assistance to clients struggling to pay rent and utilities. To date, we have assisted more than 200 families with financial assistance.  We increased staff resources to help with the dramatic increase in client calls, as many as 1,800 a week now.”

Robin Merrell, managing attorney, Pisgah Legal Services

“Our infectious diseases team not only helped guide our COVID response but the response of countless other health care professionals and organizations throughout our region. Our materials management team and their early attempts to keep our health care workers supplied with appropriate personal protective equipment resulted in our not facing a dire situation or shortage. And our emergency preparedness team and their early commitment to the development of a highly communicable respiratory diseases plan ensured preparedness for various infectious diseases. That includes all matters related to COVID-19, such as use of critical care and pediatric beds, and all necessary supplies and treatments for an influx of COVID-19 cases.”

Dr. David Ellis, chief medical officer, Pardee UNC Health Care 

“In May, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority created a $5 million Buncombe Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund. The fund was a source for grants that supported the sustainability of nearly 400 small businesses and 4,800 jobs for area residents. 

 “The only COVID relief initiative of its kind in the state, the fund was made possible when the N.C. General Assembly authorized this one-time change in the use of revenue from occupancy tax collections designated for tourism product development. It was the result of an extraordinary collaboration involving numerous individuals and organizations, most especially the Asheville Buncombe Hotel Association, with Sen. Chuck Edwards introducing the bill with support from the local delegation. 

 “Thanks to these collective, monumental efforts, with the nonprofit Mountain BizWorks administering the fund, small Buncombe County-based businesses from restaurants, retail, attractions and arts, to breweries, bakeries and event and wellness businesses — the vast majority with fewer than 25 employees — received an infusion of cash to pay for rent, salaries and much needed resources like personal protective equipment and supplies.”

Vic Isley, president and CEO, Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of having real relationships with people. When there are true bonds between people, you do not have to be physically in the same room to enjoy and appreciate each other.”

Joseph Fox, vice chair, The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville & Buncombe County

“In a year fraught with disconnection, suffering and grief, I found deep satisfaction weeding and digging my hands in the earth. My garden is a daily reminder of our reliance on the soil we share and our responsibility for future generations. As Lin-Manuel Miranda shouted at the end of Hamilton, ‘What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.’ I’m hopeful about what will grow forth in the new year.”

Cass Herrington, “Morning Edition” host and news reporter, Blue Ridge Public Radio


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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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