Between lives lost and moments stolen, some small gains

Artist and teacher Jason Kofke discovered  phrase he posted in signs around Atlanta (and around the world) starting in 2007 resurfacing during the pandemic. Courtesy: Jason Kofke
Artist and teacher Jason Kofke discovered phrase he posted in signs around Atlanta (and around the world) starting in 2007 resurfacing during the pandemic. Courtesy: Jason Kofke

Credit: Jason Kofke

Credit: Jason Kofke

Georgians reflect on what they’ve learned during the pandemic

The pandemic stole a year from our lives and a half million lives from our world.

Our seniors had to die alone; their families barely had time to say goodbye. These were among the unspeakable costs imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

But Laura Ingalls Wilder said there is no great loss without some small gain, and yes, there were silver linings. Our scientists created a vaccine with brilliant speed. We adjusted to working from home — those whose jobs weren’t ravaged by the ailing economy.

And there were other discoveries. We asked readers to tell us one good thing that came from last year’s disaster. Their answers were encouraging.

Professional magician Debbie Leifer found a new venue, and new cooking skills. Courtesy: Debbie Leifer
Professional magician Debbie Leifer found a new venue, and new cooking skills. Courtesy: Debbie Leifer

Credit: Debbie Leifer

Credit: Debbie Leifer

Debbie Leifer

“It used to be that every meal I ate, I was either eating out in restaurants or taking food home from restaurants,” said Debbie Leifer, a professional magician who, until 2020, spent many days on the road.

“I never ever, ever cooked. Meaning, I was wasting too much money and things like my sodium were way too high.

“Now I’ve started cooking because of the pandemic. I’ve taught myself to cook, and now I’m eating an unbelievably healthy diet.”

Leifer, a resident of Marietta who prefers not to give her age (”I could tell you a number, but it wouldn’t be true”) started cooking with a vengeance. She hasn’t had a restaurant meal or even a cup of drive-through coffee since March 2020.

Her newfound skill should come as a source of pride to her mother, a former home economics teacher who taught hundreds of New York City students how to cook.

But mom didn’t teach Debbie. “This is the cobbler’s children story,” said the daughter. When mom came home after teaching cooking all day, she was too tuckered out to whip up a roux, and would rather open a can.

Faced with the shutdown last year, Leifer began teaching herself how to make shrimp oreganata and chicken quesadillas. She watched cooking shows and studied YouTube. She found that it was not only healthier but very calming.

ExploreTimeline: COVID-19 claims the lives of 18,000 Georgians

“You’d be surprised how relaxing it can be to chop garlic and dice onions.”

One other positive outcome of the pandemic is that Leifer discovered the magic of Zoom. Reluctant at first to do her shows online, she has now fallen in love with the medium.

Without leaving home she’s performed for audiences in Texas, California and New York.

Previously, when doing corporate banquets, she was accustomed to working close-up magic, table to table during the meal, then giving a stage show afterward.

Now, she can do close-up for a group of 60 people. “On Zoom everyone has a front-row seat.”

ExploreHow we gather: Georgians adjust to social distance during COVID but long for intimacy
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Jason Kofke

Jason Kofke became famous for offering optimism at a time when hope was running out.

Back in 2007 his slogan, in its distinctive typography, began appearing on signs here and abroad: “EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.”

He came up with the concept when he was studying art at SCAD in Atlanta and breaking up with a girlfriend.

He thought, disasters will happen, space shuttles (and relationships) will blow up. Why not plant encouraging messages in public and see what happens?

The phrase entered the lexicon. And last year, it rapidly multiplied. “I’m shocked that it kind of took off during COVID,” said Kofke, 42, an adjunct professor at SCAD and a teacher at a project-based high school.

Of course, not everyone buys the message, including one Atlanta journalist whose Twitter avatar is “EVERYTHING WILL NOT BE OK.”

Kofke was also surprised to see the phrase become a rallying motto for the resistance movement in Myanmar.

“I think it’s working as I hoped it would,” said Kofke, a Mechanicsville resident. “When I say working, like any work of art, people bring their own baggage to it. I am just a middle-aged mediocre artist that has no authority to claim that everything is going to be good or bad. But that word, it causes the viewer to check-in at that moment. It’s a polarizing statement that causes you to believe it or to disbelieve. It makes you check-in and say what’s OK and what’s not OK.”

And that’s the point of the sign. As far as Kofke is concerned, the optimism in the phrase is valuable right now. “We need something to tell us that the sun is going to rise tomorrow, some hope or belief in something, even if it’s a dumb sign that some mediocre artist made.”

For Kofke, one other good thing came about as a result of the COVID disaster. Most of the classes he taught at SCAD were canceled, so he had time to create more art. “I’ve been in the wood shop building tons of new canvases.”

ExploreCOVID one year later: How the pandemic has changed our everyday routines and our lives
Jenny Kascsak got a new dog and a new job. Both helped her cope with COVID-19. Courtesy: Jenny Kascsak
Jenny Kascsak got a new dog and a new job. Both helped her cope with COVID-19. Courtesy: Jenny Kascsak

Jenny Kascsak

When Jenny Kascsak, 33, developed COVID-19 on Oct. 30, it was unlike every description of the disease. Her skin was on fire, and her neck felt like it was broken.

It turns out the coronavirus caused inflammation in her spinal cord. She is still dealing with the aftermath.

Kascsak worked for a large flooring company, which had begun laying off people and doubling the work for the survivors. She quit that job and devoted her time to a side business in interior design.

It has flourished.

“I was able to work on myself, spiritually and mentally, and I don’t know how cheesy this sounds, but I eliminated the chaos and the stress that was long overdue,” said the Marietta resident.

Some of that chaos and stress was caused by other people, people she calls vampires.

“I had to sit down and map out what was taking from my life and who was taking from my life,” she said. “Actual names were on that list: energy vampires at work and outside of work. I had to stop trying to control everybody else around me — that was what I was doing: How can I get these people to change? How can I get other things to change? I had to take a look at my participation in that. What could I cut out of my life that, in the long run, would be a positive change for me?”

It sounds harsh, but it was critical for Kascsak. She needed that energy to get better.

Nor does she think she would have made these changes, if she hadn’t been pushed to the brink by the disease.

“The experience hasn’t been all bad. I’m a believer that I don’t think at any point in my life that any real change has been made unless there was a consequence. In order for me to make real impactful change, something needs to happen to motivate that.”

COVID-19 was the motivator: In this case, she suffered nerve damage, and half the things she likes to eat or smell have become repellent.

She had to find new toothpaste and laundry detergent, and she’s working on recalibrating. But her insight into levers that control her well-being, and the reordering of her priorities: Those represent the upside. Those were things that might not have happened without the push from the virus.

“I‘ve accepted it every day,” she said. “That we’re at where we’re at.”

ExploreUnfathomable goodbyes: Stories of those we have lost to COVID in metro Atlanta
Casey Bethel, a science teacher and coordinator at Douglas County Schools, promised his students he would use the time of the pandemic to get healthier, and he has kept his promise. Courtesy: Casey Bethel
Casey Bethel, a science teacher and coordinator at Douglas County Schools, promised his students he would use the time of the pandemic to get healthier, and he has kept his promise. Courtesy: Casey Bethel

Credit: Casey Bethel

Credit: Casey Bethel

Casey Bethel

Last year, after Casey Bethel’s students had been stuck at home for a few months, he could tell they were depressed.

Bethel, 41, teaches science at Manchester High School and is the coordinator of science education for Douglas County Schools. He also talks to kids who need someone to talk to.

He told the worried students, “Instead of looking at things you can’t do, look at it as a blessing of extra time to invest in yourself. Ask yourself, what can you do to make yourself better when it’s over?”

The students came up with some great ideas: take up guitar, learn how to drive, write children’s books. Then they turned the question on Bethel and asked what he planned to do.

Caught off-guard, he said “I’m going to get healthier.” He had doubts about his prospects for success, but he started the next morning, with a two-mile walk.

At 5-foot-7 and almost 300 pounds, Bethel was overweight and borderline diabetic. He wanted to lose weight. More than that, he wanted to keep his promise to his students: If you stick to your COVID self-improvement plan, I’ll stick to mine.

Soon, he expanded that two-mile walk. He began running, up to four miles a day. He lifted weights and practiced kickboxing and posted “sweaty selfies” every day, shared online with fellow strivers. He began taking vitamins and gave up sugary sodas. “One thing snowballed into another.”

Something else also happened. Bethel is the single father of eight-year-old twins, and they began coming with him, riding their bicycles while he ran, spending time together on a healthy pursuit.

Now his cholesterol is lower, his A1C numbers are better, and he is no longer pre-diabetic. “There is no way it would have happened” without being limited by the pandemic, he said.

“What I said to those teens is that none of us would have invited this pandemic to happen. None of us asked for it, but it’s out of our control; you couldn’t escape it. What you do have control of is how you respond, how you look at it.

“All we can do is do the best with what’s given, and what’s given is more time, more opportunity.”

Melanie Pursell (right) and her daughter Avery discovered how small acts of kindness can change the world. Courtesy: Melanie Pursell
Melanie Pursell (right) and her daughter Avery discovered how small acts of kindness can change the world. Courtesy: Melanie Pursell

Credit: Melanie Pursell

Credit: Melanie Pursell

Melanie Pursell

“I’m a big fan of the book ‘Wonder,’” said Melanie Pursell, 46, of Peachtree Corners.

In the book, a 10-year-old boy with a facial deformity, who has been home-schooled all his life, goes to school for the first time.

The experience changes him and those around him.

The book is a meditation on the power of kindness, and kindness is something Melanie Pursell has witnessed firsthand during this plague year.

Pursell’s daughter Avery and a group of Avery’s friends brought gift bags to the isolated seniors at the Mount Vernon Towers Condominiums in Sandy Springs, in an attempt to brighten the days of the shut-ins.

Those small gifts helped, but they also triggered a broader change. Other teenagers saw this happening and copied the idea.

“There were a lot of people willing to step-up and do something when they could, whether it was making masks or delivering food or just helping out,” said Pursell.

“The true definition of kindness is when you are kinder than is necessary. My kids have heard this so many times, they probably roll their eyes. But every now and then it works, and you make a difference. Little things can make a huge difference in people’s lives.”

The upside for Pursell was a renewed belief in the people around her. “There are still a lot of nice people out there, no matter what you see on TV. There is a country song that says ‘most people are good.’ When I walk down the street in my hometown, most people are good. It’s completely contrary to what you see on the news.”

A text chat led to an online mom's group that grew to 10,000 members. Support from those moms was key to making the year easier for Deanna Anderson. Courtesy: Deanna Anderson
A text chat led to an online mom's group that grew to 10,000 members. Support from those moms was key to making the year easier for Deanna Anderson. Courtesy: Deanna Anderson

Credit: Deanna Anderson

Credit: Deanna Anderson

Deanna Anderson

Deanna Anderson, a Dunwoody mother of two who works in marketing and public relations, sent out a text message a year ago to a few friends.

Faced with the shutdown, they were trading information about virtual events, YouTube videos like “Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems,” and other things to do while waiting for the world to begin again.

The texting group grew, then became a private Facebook group for their fellow moms. That group grew even faster.

“I thought it was going to be, maybe, a couple hundred moms that I knew directly or one step past that,” said Anderson, 44. “That was what I thought the group would be. But for a while, it was growing by about 1,000 moms a day.”

Today Moms Making it Together has more than 10,000 members, and the discussions go far and wide. They debate the virtues of virtual school versus in-person lessons and talk about post-COVID fatigue.

They trade tips on how to find vaccines and try to keep each other amused.

There is healthy discussion, but the emphasis is on helping. Criticism is discouraged. “If somebody starts to mom-shame, they will be cut.”

Said Anderson, “I do marketing for a living, and this is a way I can use what I do, which is setting the group up and monitoring it, to help moms when we’re faced with something that no one would have ever thought we would have to do.”

Even as we seem to be turning the corner on the pandemic, the moms group still remains relevant. “I love getting notes from the moms, thanking me for keeping the group going, saying thanks for a supportive place. It’s one of my COVID treasures,” said Anderson.

“It’s like having 10,000 of the best friends you never knew you needed.”

A retired teacher and administrator, Marti Stephens was happy to see her fellow teachers stepping up to help feed hungry schoolchildren stranded without school lunches. Courtesy: Marti Stephens
A retired teacher and administrator, Marti Stephens was happy to see her fellow teachers stepping up to help feed hungry schoolchildren stranded without school lunches. Courtesy: Marti Stephens

Credit: Marti Stephens

Credit: Marti Stephens

Marti Stephens

Marti Stephens, 58, of Carroll County, is a retired schoolteacher, administrator and specialist, who teaches at a technical college at night and coordinates assistance to the Meriwether County students through the West Georgia Regional Education Service Agency.

She comes from a family of teachers, including her husband and her daughter.

What the coronavirus proved to many of us, she said, is that teachers go way above and way beyond.

Schools feed children, provide mental health care, emotional support, “anything missing in their life we took care of.”

When the schools shut down, teachers knew that there were hungry children out there. “But instead of saying ‘we can’t feed them anymore,’ it was the opposite,” said Stephens. “We said ‘let’s see what we can do. We’ll get a bus full of food and take it to the neighborhood.’”

Knowing that there were kids with no internet service, teachers put mobile hotspots on buses and parked them in areas that needed them.

The best part about that, said Stephens, is that teachers demonstrated out in the open how far they will go for their children, and parents saw that.

”The pandemic is not a positive thing, but something positive has come out of it because people see the attitude we have. We love those kids.”

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