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Deeds that lie in the stars

SoVaNow.com / December 24, 2020

We’ve almost reached that fateful moment when we get to say goodbye to 2020 — don’t let the door hit ya in the hindquarters on the way out, big fella — but first there’s the small matter of Christmas to attend to. Never has it seemed harder to dispense the usual “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” greetings of the season than now. Sure, there are things to cherish and eagerly await as the big day approaches, but one cannot help but to feel for all the people who’ve been treated so cruelly by this terrible year, pandemic and otherwise.

As always, there are those who’ve risen to the occasion to help out, who’ve chosen to do the right thing and make the world a better place, even if measured only in baby steps (which can be a lot). Christmas seems like a fine time to look back on the best works of 2020 and praise those who have made a difference at the local level. This is an imperfect, highly subjective, not-meant-to-be comprehensive list — and our thoughts are with those who gave behind the scenes, who sacrificed without any thought of receiving recognition for their efforts, or simply went about doing their jobs rather than feeling as if they were auditioning for the role of hero.

British author C.S. Lewis famously defined integrity as doing the right thing even when no one is watching. This was the year when we gained a similar appreciation for the essential worker. Let’s resolve in 2021 to bestow upon them the security and fairness they deserve.

In no particular order and with varying levels of specificity, here are a few of the year’s standouts.

» Health care workers. It’s always hard to place yourself in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes, and never has this been more true than during this nerve-wracking time with a deadly virus yielding new and unpleasant surprises on a regular basis. Nurses, doctors, therapists, lab workers, custodians and food service staff, fire and rescue medics and all the rest -— no one has confronted 2020’s harsh realities more directly than these folks. On the subject of walking in someone else’s shoes, how many times have you heard the story told of health care workers who shed their footwear, scrubs and other garb before they’ll step inside their homes, lest they expose family members to COVID-19? I would have lost my sanity many times over under similar conditions, and none of this even broaches the mental and emotional toll on providers who’ve watched patients struggle against disease, suffer in isolation, or, in worst cases, die. Heroism doesn’t even begin to describe the work of front-line health care employees this year.

Kinda makes the idea of “pandemic fatigue” for the rest of us seem just a little wimpy and churlish. We’re months away — maybe longer — from getting out from under the dangers of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and it’ll take time for widespread vaccinations to build up a level of herd immunity sufficient to protect those who, for various reasons, can’t receive the shots. Two side notes here: Along with the development of antibiotics, vaccination is the crowning achievement of 20th century medicine, responsible for savings billions of lives around the globe. So please keep your anti-vaxxer nonsense to yourself. Second, anyone who says we can achieve herd immunity by allowing normal life to proceed without mass vaccinations and not kill millions of people in the U.S. is an idiot or a charlatan, or both. This is supposed to a nice-and-not-naughty list for Christmas week, so we’ll let the point rest there for now.

One final item: On the list of healthcare heroes, please leave room for the employees of the Virginia Department of Health, including the Southside Health District, our local office. VDH has done some things that, to me at least, have been real head-scratchers, but for the most part my pet peeves have centered on tangential questions regarding how much information the health department should disclose about community spread of COVID-19, especially inside nursing homes. (Let’s just say the policies today in this respect aren’t the same policies that existed back in the spring.) All this said, no one should question the commitment, expertise and plain hard work of the health department staff. Back in the summer I got a phone call from Dr. Scott Spillmann, executive director of the Southside and Danville-Pittsylvania health districts, after I had emailed an inquiry to his office regarding some matter or another. He called on his day off, taking into a cell phone as he worked in his garden. It was a pleasant conversation, and much of the time I didn’t bother taking notes. It was during this part that Dr. Spillmann admitted his family was afraid that he wouldn’t make it through the year without getting sick or dying. That’s been the 2020 reality of the ICU nurse, pulmonologist, respiratory therapist, nursing home worker and health department epidemiologist, in a nutshell.

» Efforts by individuals, civic groups, churches, local governments and businesses and non-profits to ease the strain of the pandemic have been ongoing and at times magnificent, but let’s single out one sector for special praise: our local food banks and food distribution networks. One would be hard-pressed to name a better outlet for charitable giving, so please: consider clearing out your kitchen pantry to make a food donation, or volunteer your time to help. Cash contributions count, too. Every bit adds up.

Unlike Santa I’ll leave someone off my list, so apologies for the inevitable omissions, but here’s an extra Merry Christmas to the folks at The Jane Jones Pantry at Main Street United Methodist Church, the L.E. Coleman African-American Museum food bank, the Good Samaritan at First Baptist Church, Hunters for the Hungry and the local Wild Turkey Federation chapter, South Boston Church of God, God’s Final Call and Warning Ministries and so many other church and community pantries spread throughout Halifax County and Southside Virginia. In Mecklenburg County, a short list would include The Bread Box in South Hill, the South Hill Senior Center, the Clarksville Food Pantry and Feed More, the Ray of Hope Food Pantry in La Crosse and Bracey and others I have surely overlooked.

Thanks, too, to Food Lion, Shopper’s Value and other grocery stores that have donated so generously to the cause of feeding the hungry.

It shouldn’t be this way in America, that people would have to worry about providing the next meal for themselves and their families, but the pandemic has taken this very real problem and raised it to levels unseen since the Great Recession, and perhaps since the Great Depression. Those who push back at this tide of misery and want deserve all the gratitude the rest of us can offer.

» Few things in the course of our local reporting this year have been any more gut-wrenching than covering the meetings of the Halifax County School Board. I wouldn’t say every moment with our county trustees was a highlight — humankind is a fallen race, after all — but School Board meetings have been a case study in what happens when you put ordinary citizens in a position of having to make momentous decisions that are fraught with enormous risks and obvious downsides. It’s been a wretched year attempting to balance the educational needs of children against the dangers to them and adult staff of trying to conduct classroom business as usual. Our school board — and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Lineburg and his administrative team — have handled the challenges of the pandemic about as well as anyone, and probably better than most.

As a group, the School Board has been the county’s most important and most impressive governing body. This may be a minority opinion, given all the grief that school trustees and administrators have caught this year, but there you go. It’s been a helluva year. Remember that the next time you feel motivated to pick up the phone to bless out a school trustee, administrator, teacher or any other employee of Halifax County Public Schools.

» For some time now, but especially this year, the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors has distinguished itself with sound, even wise decision-making. I don’t make a point of lavishing praise on elected officials, but our county supervisors deserve a positive word for their astute handling of the controversy with the Confederate statue in Boydton. Working together and with a refreshing lack of grandstanding and cant (mostly), supervisors made the right decision to relocate the statue to a more appropriate setting, still to be determined.

The board’s decision was never going to make everyone happy, but this move puts Mecklenburg on the right side of history and harmony by removing a racially charged symbol at the people’s courthouse, a state of affairs that should be recognized as indefensible even among those to who view totems of the Lost Cause with benevolence. Glanzy Spain, the longest-serving member of the board, first brought up the idea of moving the statue off the courthouse square, and though it’s been awhile since I’ve covered board meetings in person (that task falls on our redoubtable reporter, Susan Kyte), since the day Spain took county office he has exemplified the principle that to earn respect one should grant respect in return. He’s not alone in championing the ethos, either. That a local governing board in a rural conservative Southern county could conduct a decorous debate over its Confederate statue and make the right decision is a minor miracle. Every member of the board deserves credit for doing their part to see this remarkable outcome to fruition

» By now Santa must be eyeing the exits, so let’s finish up with one last group to add to Mr. Kringle’s been-good-all-year list: community bankers. You may have read over the weekend that Congress and the White House have come to agreement on a new $900 billion stimulus bill. The original CARES Act provided $2.2 trillion in pandemic relief, which included hundreds of millions of dollars for the small business Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a forgivable loan fund that helped to keep small businesses up and running and their employees off the unemployment rolls. Businesses were allowed to apply for money to fund their payroll costs and keep their workforces intact, plus pay expenses such as rent, mortgages and utilities. The program was a sloppy, choppy and sometimes sleazy mess — companies that had no business asking for the money inevitably rushed in to stick a hand into the money pot — but for all its flaws, the program served the intended purpose. Because it was necessarily rushed, PPP was never going to be perfect.

I’m convinced, however, the program would have been an utter disaster if not for the yeoman’s work of small bankers around the country, including here in Southside Virginia, in assisting clients with their loan/grant applications and figuring out the Small Business Administration program rules. (As long as companies kept their employees on payroll, they should be eligible for loan forgiveness.) Speaking strictly from a personal perspective, I had a great experience working with our bank (take a bow, Benchmark Community Bank), and I’ve heard from enough business people in the area who maintain accounts elsewhere to believe that such outstanding work by community bankers was the rule, not the exception. (So also take a bow, members of American National Bank, Touchstone, Bank of Charlotte County, Carter Bank & Trust, First Citizens and other regional banking institutions.) Sure, everything in life and commerce revolves around the almighty dollar, but the amount of work our local bankers put into making the PPP program work on behalf of small businesses — and saving more than a few of them in the process — should not go unrecognized. So thank you and have a wonderful time with all those bank holidays coming your way.

Wonderment, peace and joy is our wish for all this blessed season, even if it’s hard at times to see the present moment in quite such hopeful terms. Hold those dear to you tight in your hearts but not in your arms, and let’s see this crisis through to the end while remembering all those who helped up overcome the darkness along the way.

Merry Christmas!

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