St. Mark Parish in Burlington hosted a “Covid Community Commemoration” July 17 to honor and thank first responders, emergency and medical personnel and others who helped people during the pandemic and to recognize those who were touched by Covid-19 in such ways as sickness, death and loss of employment.

The commemoration also gave the parish community an opportunity to gather in thanksgiving and camaraderie.

“We are not meant to live in social distance,” said Father Dallas St. Peter, pastor, referencing one of the safety protocols put in place during the worst months of the pandemic. “It was sad and a challenge not to be able to be with each other, and that affected people in profound and negative ways.”

Parishioners and many others found ways to reach out to people who were isolated or suffered the death of a loved one during the pandemic by, for example, grocery shopping for shut-ins, making telephone check-ins or putting signs in their windows to offer support and encouragement.

The first part of the Covid Community Celebration featured five speakers who outlined how the pandemic affected the work they do helping others: Burlington Fire Chief Steven Locke; Megan Humphrey, Executive of HANDS (Helping And Nurturing Diverse Seniors); Kevin Pounds, executive director of ANEW Place; Jacob Borge, executive director of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont; and Father Tim Sullivan, a chaplain at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Though they all acknowledged general challenges to their work created by often-changing safety protocols, quarantines and fear, some pointed out specific challenges.

For example, Humphrey said many senior citizens were alone and needed food and help getting internet access. So a larger food pantry was set up at a local senior center with staff to help new guests, and volunteers were trained to help seniors with computer access.

Pounds said he has found in Burlington the “ethos that what happens to one of us impacts all of us.” He praised local efforts to set people experiencing homelessness up in recreational vehicles and establishing more beds for them as they faced pandemic safety protocols.

And, he said, “Many of our clients are alive today because of the speed and compassion of our fire department” and first responders.

Locke said his department continued its dedicated service despite challenges presented by changing safety policies, staff shortages during quarantines and Covid fatigue: “That never impacted the quality of service.”

It was difficult for Borge and his staff to translate adequately “quarantine” into the native languages of some New Americans, and it came out as “stay away.” That, he said, “seemed to imply ‘you are a problem for other people’” so they had to further explain that the New Americans were not being rejected but that those helping them wanted them to be safe.

He was uplifted by the many members of the community who wanted to help him in his work: The first call he got in the morning was usually from someone offering help, and the last call of the day was similar.

Father Sullivan praised the staff of the University of Vermont Medical Center, who always “did what needed to be done” for patients. Sometimes facing shortages of personal protective equipment and staff shortages, they nonetheless showed dedication and compassion.

After the speaker portion of the outdoor program, Father St. Peter and others planted a flowering crab “Tree of Hope” in front of the church; a Book of Remembrance is to go bwith it. The tree will serve as a reminder of all that happened during the pandemic, and the book contains people’s personal reflections about it. “It’s important we don’t just move into celebrating but that we also recognize those feelings and the experiences that were very devastating,” Father St. Peter said.

A barbecue luncheon followed the tree planting so parishioners had the opportunity to socialize. They received orange “Hope Courage Faith” bracelets as a tangible reminder of the day and a reminder to continue to pray for those affected by the pandemic. Orange, said, Deacon Tim Gebo of St. Mark’s, is a color of hope.

Burlington Fire Department Captain Jamie Valyou, a parishioner of Christ the King Church in Burlington, attended the Covid Community Commemoration with his family and other members of the department.  “This is a reminder that we are only here (on Earth) for a short time, and we need to make the most we can of it,” he said.

Simeon Lewis, director of evangelization and faith formation for St. Mark’s, was pleased people had the opportunity to gather and experience joy and community, which he said will strengthen them “for whatever remains of the pandemic.”

Vermont Catholic/Cori Fugere Urban

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