The year 2020 has been a challenging one with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With protocols of sanitizing measures taken, social distancing and wearing face masks, there have been many adjustments that individuals, schools and businesses have had to make. Schools shut down and implemented at-home learning, nursing homes, restaurants, bars and non-essential stores closed for a period of time and events were either canceled, held virtually or drive-through.
Sadly, some lost loved ones to COVID-19. Amid the crisis there have been some blessings as well, like a local family who fell in love with a little orphan boy, another boy getting a new liver, families coming together for more quality time and a community supporting one another through kind deeds. In early March, one of the first of COVID related stories in the Lifestyle section was about an El Campo High graduate living in Spain where the virus had closed down the country.
In March, Alana Meek, her husband, Louis Serrano and son, Samuel, were living in Spain and in the process of moving to El Campo to live and work when the country went into lock-down mode because of the virus. She reached out to the El Campo Leader-News in hopes of sharing her story to make people back home know the seriousness of the virus.
At this time, air travel was not being allowed to the states for foreigners. She could travel with their son, but her husband would not be allowed to accompany them.
They had sold their home and were visiting with his parents before making the transition to her hometown when the shut-down occured. Not able to leave the apartment during that time, her in-laws had essential jobs, therefore were able to leave for work and do necessary shopping for food. She and her husband tended to meals and other housekeeping duties, while trying to keep their young son entertained. The emotional toll was almost too much for Alana to bear.
“This is not meant to scare you, but to make you aware,” she stated in that March interview. “It will happen in the US if measures are not taken now. So what can you do? Take heed to what is happening in other countries and learn from them. The USA has an advantage that the crisis is not to the level of Italy or Spain, but you do not have much time.”
Meek suggested avoiding large crowds and staying at home if possible.
The good news is, the three finally were able to move to El Campo in July.
As face mask mandates were made, locals got out their fabric, thread and sewing machines to sew hundreds of them. Mother and daughter duo, Sylvia Nielsen, at the machine, and Brenda Tomanek cutting and pressing fabric, worked to produce masks for medical professionals in March.
“Mom ended up making around 300 masks,” Tomanek said. “We felt the need to do this when everything blew up in March. At first, our daughter and her fellow nurses needed them. Once PPE started reaching the hospitals, the need slacked off. Many have gone on to make hundreds more for family and friends. In times like this, people just want to help any way they can.”
Stephanie Cortez, a teacher at El Campo High School, began making masks around the same time, giving them away to family and friends.
Also, Debbie Roome of Louise put her seamstress skills to work. In an effort to be safe and social distance, she would put them in a basket on her front lawn for those who needed one and whereby they could pay by the honor system.
“I had the first masks for free and anymore, they paid a small fee for,” Roome said. “It was not about making money.”
Word of mouth spread, and quickly people were dropping by to get masks.
“A friend told a friend, who told a few more friends,” Roome said.
Another group of volunteers from Christ Lutheran Church and other areas of the community came together to make face masks for healthcare workers at El Campo Memorial Hospital. The El Campo Casual Quilters came on board to help, as well as women of the El Campo Mennonite Church. Fabian Rodriguez contributed his skills by making face shields for healthcare workers.
“This virus is certainly a new thing for us here in El Campo, but this community support and volunteerism is not a new thing,” Donna Mikeska said in an earlier interview. “People are stepping up and doing what they can to help their fellow healthcare workers, community patients and our small rural town in a big way.”
Mikeska serves as the managed care and marketing coordinator at El Campo Memorial Hospital.
Annual Lifeskills Bazaar
Also, in November the El Campo ISD Lifeskills Bazaar went virtual, with items posted on a website for customers to shop from. Traditionally, this event is held at a local church where shoppers can browse through Christmas decor and gifts. In turn, proceeds are used for the program. According to Denise Rek, the ECISD Department of Education was “excited to still be able to hold our bazaar this year,” she said.
The virtual store was the perfect way to keep everyone safe, while still allowing El Campoans a chance to shop.
Drive-Ins, Drive Thrus
In mid-October, organizers got a little creative with drive-in and drive-thru events, like El Campo Memorial Hospital’s Senior TREK parking lot bingo games and drive-in movies at the Danevang Co-op. In October, just in time for Halloween, the movie Ghostbusters was played and then in December, The Grinch made its way to the Co-op. Earlier in the year, Field of Dreams was shown there as well.
Manna Meals, which is operated solely by volunteers, traditionally has dine-in meals free of charge to anyone wanting to attend. When the group decided to have pick-up only, the number of plates quickly escalated. On average, dine-in was about 75 people before COVID hit. By October it was anywhere from 200-300 plates twice a week.
“In mid-March we went from dine-in to take-out only,” Michael Hansen said. “We are still doing that.”
Hansen serves as president of Manna Meals.
Several community events were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, such as the annual Prairie Days in downtown El Campo. Another annual event, the Wharton County Youth Fair, was also canceled with the exception of online sales for exhibitors with eligible sales projects. Organizers tried to reschedule the pageants, but they too were finally canceled for the year.
As businesses had to shut down, so did the El Campo Branch Library and El Campo Museum of Natural History, both of which have since reopened.
Funeral Homes Make Adjustments
As many individuals and businesses made adjustments due to the coronavirus, funeral homes never closed. Adhering to CDC guidelines, they found themselves scrambling to keep enough supplies and protective gear as preparing the body requires extra protection for staff. Guidelines have limited the number attending a visitation or funeral. Today, funeral homes are still practicing all these measures in an attempt to protect the public and themselves.
Gift of Life
A local boy received a new liver on Aug. 28. Ashton Guerra, who was diagnosed with biliary atresia on Valentine’s Day in 2016, was a very sick little boy and was put on the transplant list. After surgery, he had complications, but he was finally well enough to go home Sept. 28. While in the hospital, however, only one parent at a time could be with Ashton.
“Ashton is doing very well. His liver is happy and his labs continue to look better than they ever have,” Mother Shayna Guerra said. “He is still having some trouble keeping his weight up, so he still has his feeding tube and is on an appetite stimulant.”
Ashton has a few other complications, as he “still has high blood pressure and remains on anti-seizure medications,” she said. “He was admitted about a week and a half after his initial discharge to have the tube placed.”
The Guerra family had a good Christmas. Ashton continues to love playing his video games. For Christmas he received a “squeakee balloon dog toy, Amiibos, a Spider-Man remote control car, Mario 3-D Allstars, Mario and Sonic Olympic Games, Playdough sets, a Ryan egg, Marvel Superheroes collection and jammies,” she said.
Shayna and Johnny Guerra have two older children as well. Ashton will be five on Jan. 28.
With social distancing in place, citizens got even more creative for birthday celebrations, visiting the elderly in the nursing home and teachers who wanted to let students know how much they missed them.
In early April, teachers held hand written banners from their cars as they drove throughout neighborhoods where their students lived to let them know how much they missed them.
Birthdays also followed in the same fashion, with family and friends parading in caravans by the birthday honoree’s house. Even yard art bearing a birthday or congratulatory message has been popular and still being practiced today.
El Campo Branch Library held their summer activities online. The Plaza Theatre in Wharton got creative with virtual plays and the kids summer program, but have since opened with their scheduled season of productions.
“The summer program started after parents of kids involved with past Plaza productions approached the theater and asked if there was anything the organization could do to engage the youth in the arts,” Russell Kacer said. Kacer serves as vice president of communications at the Plaza.
Two age levels were created with about 12 kids in each group.
“(The virtual summer program) was the best option we could come up with,” Kacer said. “Basically, we found some public domain productions. We used the Zoom platform and the kids had a few rehearsals. They did a production, a final run of it, that was available for viewing by family and friends of the participants.”
A local art workshop held virtual paint parties, which brought family and friends together via Zoom for a fun activity.
El Campoans got creative during the past year, making more time for families to play board games, complete unfinished projects, read, make art projects and get crafty with ideas from websites such as Pinterest.
Adoption In Process
In mid-November, a story about the Bacak family going through the adoption process was published. Bart and Heather Bacak were hopeful that a four-year-old boy from the Ukraine would be joining their family by mid-summer, but COVID put the process to a halt until recently. Now, he is expected to come home with them in a month or so.
“We’re hopeful that he’ll be home by the end of January,” Heather said. “The odds are in our favor for him to come home, though. If not, then for sure in February. His birthday is Feb. 17 so I’m praying we get to celebrate that with him either way.”
The Bacaks visited Levi in the orphanage first time earlier this month.
“We could hear him coming down the hall before we ever laid eyes on him,” she said. “Surprisingly, he went to Bart right away and took a little more time to warm up to me. He’s going to fit in very well with our crew because he’s very active and full of energy.
He’s very loved there and has formed bonds with all of the staff, especially one of the nannies whose been with him since he arrived at the orphanage at 8 months old.”
The Bacaks have four other children, two girls and two boys.