The essentials

A tribute to the people we depend on

click to enlarge PAINTING BY FELICIA OLIN
Painting by Felicia Olin

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In April, we began to ask readers to share stories about the workers they love who are on the front lines, fighting this pandemic. When we get to the other side of this thing, there won't be a single life unaffected. Some have lost their lives. Some have lost their livelihoods. Others are working harder than ever before to keep us fed and cared for. Those include sanitation and medical workers and countless others. Here, we recognize their sacrifices, which was a common theme among the entries.

While the government has deemed certain workers "essential" during this pandemic, we know the definition of essential is more complex. For example, teachers are adapting to educate their students online. We are happy to include a couple of them here. While we couldn't represent every profession deserving recognition, we are grateful for the reader submissions that include cleaners, grocery clerks, social and health care workers and the artwork created to support them.

We hope all our readers are well and safe and able to reflect on what in their lives is truly essential during this challenging time. May these stories provide testament to the strength of our residents.

First responders don't stop

All first responders are an essential part of the battle against this virus. As Sangamon County Sheriff, I would like to thank all the employees in our office. Our duties, though altered, have not stopped. Our court security officers now monitor everyone who enters the county building. Correctional officers wear surgical masks every shift, every day, to protect the inmates as well as themselves. Deputies face many unknowns, even when they go on routine calls. The bottom line is that the Sangamon County Sheriff's Office continues to function and ensure public safety, even through a pandemic. We appreciate the public's support and encouragement. -Jack Campbell

My grieving best friend

I am grateful for my best friend, Amy Hankley Gresham, a respiratory therapist at the Springfield Clinic Sleep Center, who also works at HSHS St. John's as needed. Amy lost her father to cancer March 4. She did not have time to grieve, as she was thrown into overdrive at work. Working hard is a blessing and a curse, as this is a diversion from her internal hurt, but she is not afforded the opportunity to go through the bereavement process. Time off is spent going through her father's belongings and taking care of the necessary steps to manage his estate. Amy's grandmother also recently died, after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Due to the stay-at-home order, Amy is unable to be with friends or to receive a much-needed hug. However, Amy continues to put on her scrubs, drive to work and take care of patients. In Amy's words, she takes things as they come. Some workers are experiencing a "pause" due to the coronavirus limitations, but Amy's "fast-forward" button was engaged. Her strength, resiliency and compassion are inspiring during a time when these attributes are what our country needs. But I wish a reprieve for my friend. -Melissa Fisher Paoni

Hope for kids

At Hope Residential Academy, our direct service professionals are still hard at work caring for the youth who live there. These front-line workers have put in long days, often taking time away from their own families, to care for our youth. The parents of our kiddos are extremely grateful for the staff's dedication to their children, and for caring for them like they are their own. Hope is also appreciative of our staff, who are the backbone of our organization. At Hope, we care for some of Illinois' most vulnerable population. In this unprecedented time, we could not be more proud of our staff who are selflessly showing up to work every day to care for our kids. -Hope management

This too shall pass

As I sit here, a 63-year-old woman, in quarantine, in the comfort of my own home, my heart goes out to the ones who have lost their lives and were not able to say goodbye to their loved ones. I think of all the essential workers on the front lines, including my daughter who is a nurse assistant, my daughter-in-law who is a nurse manager at an ICU and my granddaughter-in-law, a nurse in Hawaii. I hear their stories and it breaks my heart. I feel so helpless, especially when my daughter told me that she had to get tested. I prayed and cried all night long. Thank you, Jesus, her test came back negative. COVID-19 is affecting each of us in the world in so many ways. I pray for the doctors, nurses, bus drivers, grocery clerks, sanitation workers, farmers and others. I have to play my part to help essential workers on the front lines, and my part is staying home, just staying home. That is the best thing we can do for our precious front-line workers. Please stay home. Please be safe. They are working for us. -Anita Ware

Teaching her students and daughters

Tenika Dupuis has always been the sunlight peeking through even the darkest of days for me and so many others in her life. During these odd and trying times, as a wife she works by her husband, Adam, building their urban farm and raising their chickens. As a mother, she loves spending her days teaching her daughters, Greta Sue and Mona Claire, to connect with nature and music, to feel the dirt with their hands, to eat fruit picked off the vine and to sing along as she plays on the guitar. As a first-grade teacher at Dubois Elementary, even though her classroom is virtual, she continues to inspire her school children to dive deep into their imaginations and creativity. Never have I seen such a warrior queen who gives so much to others, yet never gives up. She has always believed in kindness above all things, and in hard times like these, to know her is to feel hope. Hope that with people like her who put the world before themselves, we will survive this. -Carrie Jo Stucki

A steadfast mentor

I would like to thank Natalie Nale of HSHS St. John's, my clinic manager. She has been my biggest supporter. She makes sure we always have food and beverages and sends notes every day to keep us informed. She has answered my endless questions at all hours of the day. She continues community projects to help others, such as collecting items for the homeless. She has worked seven days a week for multiple weeks, including her Army Reserve duties. She always remains calm while keeping up with the demands of patients and employees. I couldn't have gone through all of the uncertainties without her. She has cared for and supported me like I am family. I am so glad to have her during this time. -Andi Anderson

To my daughter

Thank you for the often unrecognized work you do. Thank you for the unseen ways you go above and beyond to ensure your work area is as clean as possible for employee and customer safety. Thank you for being on the front lines so that doctors, firefighters and EMTs have access to what they need, to continue the important work they do. Thank you for putting yourself at risk to help others. Thank you for being part of the reason our community is still functioning. Thank you for the way you have kept your spirit high through these odd times. Thank you for the way you have shown a level of responsibility you don't often see in teenagers. Thank you for going with the flow during your "unique" freshman year of college. Thank you for being an ear for me to vent to about my own struggles as an "essential worker." Thank you for providing an essential service to our community. You always have been and always will be essential. -Sunshine Clemons

Mailing on

My son's partner, Severyn Beekman, is a crazy talented multimedia artist. She's charming, delightfully funny, thoughtful and genuine. As much as she's a badass, she's also a sweetheart. By day, Severyn works for the U.S. Postal Service, in a rural area north of Springfield. Severyn delivers much-needed medication, government assistance checks and other necessities. Because Severyn is exposed to the public daily, we haven't been able to get together with Severyn or my son, Alex, as my husband is high-risk. They have dropped by a couple times and, although we talk through our glass front door, it's just not the same. We pray every day that she stays healthy, and we absolutely cannot wait to hug her and Alex again. -Tracy Owens

A friendly face

Thank you to my friend Molly Frey. Molly is a part-time pharmacist and a single mother. During this crisis she has worked overtime to help older pharmacists stay safe at home. She has rearranged her life to keep everyone's medications coming and their questions answered. She doesn't complain and she continues to share her positive attitude and warm smile with all she encounters. Her heart and dedication to our community is contagious. -Sarah Stahly

Grocers keep going

I want to take a moment to thank everyone in the service industry, medical field, construction and everything in between for keeping things running during this difficult time. I especially want to thank the staff here at Food Fantasies for all of the extra hard work and time that a lot of us have endured. I'd also like to thank our boss, Jeff Elston. Though it has been hectic at times and we have been a bit understaffed, it has brought us closer together. I appreciate all of you who have hung in there with me and made this business run smoothly. Thanks Food Fantasies family! -Lyndsay Grawey

click to enlarge PAINTING BY FELICIA OLIN
Painting by Felicia Olin

Helping the vulnerable

I would like to honor the people who work in shelters, housing programs and on outreach teams to help people who are homeless. This incredible group includes social service agency employees, health care workers, law enforcement, faith communities and community supporters who have provided food and resources necessary to keep our doors at Helping Hands of Springfield open for extended hours. The homeless community is made up of individuals with varying needs – some complex and all involving physical, mental and emotional health. Because many other organizations had to close during this time, those who work with people who are homeless have taken on a myriad of roles they usually don't have to, and have done so with enthusiasm. Some of the staff at Helping Hands are working significant overtime. As their director, the patience, courage, skill and compassion they continue to show every day inspires me now more than ever. They put others ahead of themselves, quietly and consistently, because they care about the people who are most vulnerable among us. -Erica Smith

Continued medical care matters

As a survivor of multiple strokes and a person battling stage five renal failure, I don't have the option of staying at home. I must regularly attend to my health through in-person appointments. I'd like to thank the people who make that possible, especially Martin Valtierra, who is a technician leader at Fresenius Kidney Care. I appreciate how he supports his patients' lives, providing required kidney therapy and dialysis treatment. Valtierra carefully supplies treatment for me, which is a blessing for me and my family during this especially challenging time. -Gregory Small

Reporting day and night

As a journalist for NPR Illinois, my wife, Mary Hansen, has worked days, nights and weekends to cover the nonstop news surrounding COVID-19. Her stories have included the experiences of front-line workers, approaches to contact tracing and the growing number of cases at nursing homes. As grocery stores were first adjusting to social distancing and compliance with an executive order, Mary's coverage let listeners know what to expect and how to complete a grocery trip safely. Did you hear the one about the U.S. senator, the bishop and the sheriff? It's not the start of a joke, but Mary's excellent story highlighting the community voices offering thanks to health care workers and urging people to stay at home. Within our own home, Mary impressed me with her first home improvement project, converting a closet into a recording studio. But I am most proud of Mary's resilience and unwavering dedication to strong local news coverage in the face of a global crisis. Thank you to all of our journalists, and my love to Mary. -Frank Butterfield

Praying for them

I put out a call for front-line health care workers in the Springfield area to share their perspectives so that others could offer meditation and prayer on their behalf. They shared some hard truths, as well as the good they see happening. Buffy Lael-Wolf, a registered nurse, shared, "There is no ignoring the drive to help people, often to our own detriment. We learn the art of compartmentalizing; here is a lung that needs repaired. Right now, we are raw and exhausted, unable to use that skill. We need people to social-distance, the health care system needs time to put processes together for safety and efficiency or the system will break." Ben and Kara Black, a couple who are paramedics, have had to make the tough decision to separate their family and reduce to one income, which has made it difficult to pay bills. Ben offered, "Feelings come in waves: sad, missing my family, anger this is happening, fear of how long this will last. There is so much fear and anxiety about risk of contamination ... It feels terrible to sit with someone gasping for air and not be able to treat them effectively." Ben is grateful for donation of masks and the words of encouragement that help him regularly. Kara shared her concerns about a lack of PPE, and the intense emotions and worry about her husband she feels as he works 24- to 36-hour shifts to help soften the blow of her staying at her in-laws with the kids to reduce exposure. Kelley King Tierney, from Lewis Memorial Christian Village senior community, wants everyone to learn more empathy and compassion. She shared, "See the bigger picture. It's not a place to blame ... to hate or make it political." For her it's about building a stronger relationship to God, and trusting God has a plan for us. Kelley said this is a time to reevaluate our priorities and become closer with family. -Teri Freesmeyer

Holding the line for those with developmental disabilities

The direct support professionals working for Individual Advocacy Group are courageous and tireless heroes providing 24-hour support to people with developmental disabilities. Regardless of family responsibilities and personal risk, they hold the line for the most vulnerable people in our community. They are under tremendous stress to keep everyone safe while at the same time helping the people they support cope with the anxiety caused by so much change. Some don't understand why they can't go to their day program or see their friends and family. The stress, boredom and anxiety they experience can lead to negative mental health outcomes and behavior problems. Furthermore, to prevent spreading the virus, many group homes are going down to minimal staff or schedules that require staff to move in and stay away from their families for long periods. Even in these challenging work conditions, workers remain positive, engaged and committed. They are motivating the people they support to play games, plant gardens, fly kites, take long walks in the country, make art and learn new skills. They are my heroes and I am honored to be part of the IAG team in Springfield. -Diane DeLeonardo

"An essential human being"

Sarah Miller is a Technologist in Surgery at HSHS St. John's. She embodies everything essential workers and St. John's stand for. Sarah has been with St. John's for almost 19 years. In that time, she has had to endure many changes. Sarah began working overnight shifts when the department she worked in closed. Despite her fears, Sarah has excelled. She has sacrificed so much to provide care where it is needed. During this pandemic, Sarah has volunteered to do temperature checks in the hospital lobby. When Diagnostic Radiology fell short on employees, she temporarily transferred there to work a completely different shift taking care of Emergency Department patients, including COVID-19 patients. We are grateful for her every day, but especially in times of crisis. Sarah never hesitates to help someone or do everything she can to make others' lives easier. She is a hard worker and always tries to see the positive in life. Throughout all of this she has also helped her community. When she found out there was a mask shortage, Sarah immediately began making cloth masks for anyone who needed one, as well as surgical caps. She remains dedicated to her church and continues to quilt baby blankets for new moms. Sarah Miller is not only an essential worker, but she is an essential human being. -Miranda Boston, on behalf of Surgical Radiology staff at St. John's

Learning new ways to teach

My husband, Chris Blankenhorn, is a teaching assistant at the Montessori Schoolhouse. His students are all aged three to six. Teaching lessons online is a new challenge, but even more so with young kids. My husband loves teaching. He's always coming up with fun and creative ways to do so. Recently he had the students make up an animal and then build or draw it for the rest of the class. He built his own imaginary animal out of Legos. This is a challenging time to be a teacher (and a student), but it's amazing to see both kids and adults adapting to such a sudden change with grace. My own job in an office setting has been put on hold for the time being, but education must go on. Teaching from home, while very different from other essential positions that require maintaining close contact with the public, is nevertheless an arduous task with unique hurdles. I'm thankful for my husband and proud of the work he is doing for his students and his school. To all the teachers out there: thank you for all that you do all the time, but especially now. -Jenny Sawyer

A proud child

Being a child of an essential worker isn't easy. When you are young, you want your parent to be around more than anything. But essential workers don't always have the luxury of "regular hours." So as a child, you wonder why they aren't home on the weekends to play, or why they don't attend school performances, or why they aren't there to help with homework. As a child, not only do you miss your parent, but they miss you just as much. Later, as an adult, you realize those who dedicate their lives to help others have an innate mission to serve. One that is their unique gift to live out and fulfill. My mother, Shirley Williamson, has been a nurse technician at HSHS St. John's since 1979. This woman has shared her heart with many. Through her dedication and sacrifice she has been a blessing to those she cares for. Although I didn't quite understand her mission as a child, I couldn't be prouder of her today. I thank you for being essential to us all. -Melissa Hamilton

Nurses and CNAs sacrifice

I am very grateful to work with eighth-floor and ninth-floor nurses and technicians at HSHS St. John's. They are a great team to have on my side. Throughout this pandemic, we have been very thankful for our nurses and CNAs. They have been working so hard when floated to help out on the COVID-19 floor. They never complain, they just go with the flow. I believe each tech and nurse deserves respect for the jobs they do. They work hard and long hours. They and their families have a sacrificing spirit. May they continue on their journey during this pandemic doing a tremendous job. -William Durbin

Families who serve together

Gayla Las is a loyal 18-year employee of HSHS St. John's, working as a facilitator in food and nutrition. She is part of a work family that relies on each other for support. She works full time, then heads home and babysits her grandchildren. This enables her daughters, both nurses, to continue being a part of the COVID-19 workforce. Because of her selflessness, there are more nurses able to work. Gayla, your colleagues think the world of you. -Dana Crutchfield

About the cover artist: Felicia Olin was born in a "hippie art commune" before moving to Springfield as a child. Her artwork is inspired by nature and fairy tales and has won numerous awards. Generous and prolific, her paintings have spread throughout the city, including at The Roost co-op as well as an "outdoor art gallery" she recently painted on fencing near Graham Elementary School. Her website is feliciaolin.com.

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