Community Consolidation

While many maintain social distancing from home, essential workers work tirelessly

It’s 4 a.m., and bleary-eyed firefighter Matt Bonilla had just gotten back to Elgin fire station from a long shift to make himself a cup of coffee. Barely after he sits down, the phone rings again, jolting him awake. Bonilla hurriedly gears up and draws himself back into a focused mentality as his team is quickly dispatched to a house where someone running a high fever has collapsed from shortness of breath. Looks like his coffee will have to wait.

While the coronavirus has impacted all Illinois residents, asking millions to stay at home, those at the frontlines have made sacrifices to stay at work. With at least 9,000 healthcare workers in the United States already testing positive for COVID-19 as of April 15, frontline workers like healthcare workers, first responders and essential business workers have been thrust into the center of the danger as they have a higher chance of exposure because of their job.

“The fact is that anyone who takes the job of a first responder knows that at some point they will put themselves in harm’s way,” Bonilla said. “Our jobs are about taking calculated risks and doing the best we can to help others.”

For many first responders and healthcare workers working around the clock, on top of the responsibility to fight the pandemic’s impacts, they must bear the added weight of taking care of family while potentially endangering those close to them.

“My department has many members who need older family members to help with child care, have children who are immunocompromised or care for an older parent,” Bonilla said. “They are forced to take the chance of passing along a contagious virus, finding alternate care or isolating themselves from their susceptible family members”.
 As the day-to-day lives of many come to an abrupt halt, hospitals are bracing themselves for the threat of the pandemic in lieu of usual operations. In fact, the strain on the healthcare system affects not only COVID-19 patients but also those who aren’t able to get the medical attention they typically need due to cancellation of nonessential procedures. Doctor Donna Hoyer now tends to patients possibly infected by COVID-19 instead of treating chemotherapy patients. 

“All hospitals have cleared out all their schedules, nobody is getting chemo right now,” Hoyer said. “All the treatments have been stopped, and people are only being seen on an urgent basis or if a procedure has to be done.”

With drastic changes to streamline resources to the influx of COVID-19 patients, the non-urgent patients that Hoyer typically sees are a lower priority — making them especially vulnerable during this time. As frontline workers bear the sense of urgency to balance treating both COVID-19 and their regular patients, many communities are stepping up to give back to essential workers.

“The community has really rallied around them,” said Elizabeth Brandt, Mayor of Lincolnshire. “I see a lot of signs on people’s houses or chalk drawings thanking our essential workers.”

Beyond positive messages of encouragement, many in the community have contributed creatively from their own home: people are running masks and medical supply drives or making masks. Bright Stars, a daycare, is providing free service for kids of first responders.

In a time of such crisis, when shelters and charities are most needed in the community, it is also when they are struggling to provide support due to the economic and health implications that COVID-19 has had on their volunteer programs and fundraising events. The Super Joey Foundation is focused on helping families of those with childhood cancer by providing them with essentials during a time when they may be most vulnerable. They are running a fundraiser for the Ronald Mcdonald House, a place for families to stay while their children are in the hospital undergoing treatment.

“It takes a community of volunteers to keep the house up and running,” said Nathan Li ’22, head of the Super Joey Foundation Chicago chapter. “In a time of crisis like this, obviously volunteers can’t really go and make meals, so it is especially crucial that the Ronald McDonald House is sufficiently supported through donations.” 

Similarly, Brandt has worked to ensure that those who may be vulnerable in Lincolnshire are taken care of. She furthermore urges those around her to take similar measures in giving back to their communities in a time of need. 

“I have reached out to a few seniors in the community who have no family in the area and offered to pick up their groceries and they are so grateful,” Brandt said. “Giving back helps people feel less anxious and panicked.”

For Jenny Wierzchon, who owns the Primrose School, these community values are what she continues to encourage and prioritize. Despite having to shut down operations, she remains focused on ensuring her staff is taken care of. 

“Even though we have no income coming in from the school, we have continued paying our staff members,” Weirzchon said. “It’s a pretty big obligation, but we’ve looked at it from a social responsibility perspective because it is our job to help our staff as well as our families.”

Like many leaders in the community, rather than simply watching the news and taking in the negative information, Hoyer recommends taking care of one another. Referring to a study done on medical students which found that laughter and happiness increased one’s level of killer cells —cells that attack viruses —she highlights the holistic benefits that can come from uplifting the community. 

“Once this is all over, it’s important to see whether or not corporations especially truly prioritized the health and welfare of their staff and customers rather than chose money over their community,” Wierzchon said. 

Rather than have things return to ‘normal,’ Wierzchon hopes that one outcome of the pandemic is a greater emphasis will be placed on community well-being as a whole.

In this time of struggle and sacrifice, these members of the community all share a common goal: that their communities will emerge stronger and more unified with a priority on social well-being. Amidst all the negative news that this pandemic has brought, many people are stepping up to bring a positive impact to the world.

“We are all stakeholders in our community,” said Li. “I think that when people, especially the youth, are involved in something greater than themselves, it makes us all stronger in the future.”