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If you look close, even in a pandemic, a Silver Lining can be found

Hume School Principal Janene Stein said while adapting to change became second nature the feeling of community and connectedness remains the same. — Lauren Penfound photo

If you’re like most people, you keep up with the goings on in town by utilizing social media.

And if you’re tapped into the tattoo culture in town, you would have seen Josh Gatten post one of his infamous contests offering one lucky person a chance to sit in his chair, on his dime, for three hours.

The theme this year?

Silver Linings.

I’ll admit, I entered this contest with the vague dream of winning, but more so to take the opportunity to share my own silver lining from the horror show of a year known as 2020. Josh himself admits in his post that he’s looking forward to reading all the submissions. And hey, couldn’t we all use a little bright side these days?

Arguably, all our lives got a little more complicated in March of 2020 as the novel coronavirus took hold of the media and our little town. Schools failed to resume after Spring Break, some businesses were forced to close, while others were forced to adopt new rules and regulations in order to remain open.

For myself, a single, working parent with two children under the age of seven, life changed dramatically in the span of two weeks. As schools announced their closures and daycares followed suit, finding an affordable, willing childcare solution became nearly impossible.

One by one, my pipeline dried up, and I found myself laid off from work in order to care for my children. After getting over the initial shock of not going to work, the sheer panic of what at home learning was going to look like and topped off with the worry of what my financial situation was going to be, I realized that I had been given a gift: time.

This was precious time that I never would have been afforded if not for a pandemic. Suddenly, I was available for my girls. I wasn’t rushing off to work or to school. Heck, we weren’t even leaving to go to the grocery store.

The years that I spent as the sole income earner for our family meant that I had traded away days where my girls experienced their first crashes on a mountain bike, mastering a new skill in gymnastics, or tying their shoes for the first time. My silver lining in the face of a global crisis was that I was able to reconnect with my kids, plant a garden and reap the rewards of tending to it every day.

I know I am not alone.

I know that there are innumerable members of our community who also felt as though this forced slow down gave them something that they had lost, never knew they missed or had always wanted to try. When I reached out to two of our community members who were most demonstrably affected by the pandemic, I learned some surprising ways that silver linings appeared.

For the Principal of Hume School, Janene Bate Stein, adapting to the changes became second nature and recalling a pre pandemic routine is growing more difficult as time wears on. Stein, who grew up in and around Nelson, was once a student at Hume before returning to the helm after years spent at Selkirk College and University of Victoria, where she earned her Masters in Teacher-Librarianship.

While things look different at Hume School – which I can vouch for, personally, as my daughter attends second grade at Hume — the feeling of community and connectedness remains the same. In fact, it may even be stronger. Before the pandemic hit, morning drop off at Hume appeared chaotic to the untrained eye; there were students and teachers, parents and family members, even family pets all intermixed in the school yard.

These days, though, you’ll see people standing further apart, students waiting patiently in line for the bell to signal the start of the day. But the atmosphere at the school is jovial. The students are talking and laughing with one another still, making jokes and faces at one another from across the playground. It’s easy to spot the differences and take it to a negative place — our brains are not immediately jumping to gratitude for these changes.

If you take the time to look, though, you’ll see just how much more connected this Hume community is. Stein has noticed that along with the increase in cleaning that’s happening at the school there’s a decrease in the number of students who are unwell. Whether it’s due to the ramped up handwashing, or keeping kids home when they seem unwell, or the day-to-day presence of the school custodians, it’s working.

Having the cleaning staff available during the day has also had a positive effect outside of less germs on high touch areas: they are more a part of the fabric that makes the school what it is. Instead of being relegated to the after hours time slot, when there’s no one at the school, these staff members are front and centre each day.

Arguably, though, it’s the teachers that have had the most pivots to make in this challenging time. Stein is proud of her staff and the ways that they showed up for their students and rose to the occasion of a multi faceted teaching approach. Not only were they teaching in school full time, they also taught completely online and then a hybrid of online and in person teaching, all in the span of three months.

This required a new level of communication and it relied heavily on the technology available. While I’m not sad to see Zoom classes halted for now – have you had the pleasure of listening in to two dozen first graders trying to focus on something school related while staring at their teacher who was at home, in her house?

The questions were endless and none of them were related to school – I am happy that certain things from school life have continued to permeate our at home life, and Stein notes that other parents feel the same. Chief among the changes we’ve enjoyed in our house was the morning announcements. Each morning, Stein records her announcements from her office and posts the video on the communication tool we use to stay connected.

It started during the weeks after Spring Break and has continued through the new school year. The morning announcements include student birthdays, a joke and highlights of student achievements. Kids are always proud to hear their names over these announcements and that pride grows twofold when they are able to share it with their families.

There were many things to take away from the pandemic and how it changed life at Hume and other schools in our area. There are things that Stein misses – like hugs! And watching the children play together without worry of getting too close. But there are things that the pandemic has taught us, too. Stein recalls the beginning of the shut down and telling her staff that this was going to show who we were as people.

“It shows how we manage stress and how we care about others,” she says. For her, she became more committed to support people in getting paid sick days and she saw how the unpaid work of parents is the basis to our economy. Like many people, she hopes that once exposed, these challenges we’ve uncovered will be addressed and not just glossed over in a rush to get back to normal.

While some may look at the drastic loss of profit experienced by our local fitness facilities and see certain death, the dramatic decrease in earning potential is actually a silver lining for one gym owner.

Ali Popoff-Grympa has been in the fitness industry in Nelson for over fifteen years. Her gym, Power By You, was a CrossFit affiliate for nine years. A full spectrum offering was available at PBY, where you could, before the pandemic, take a group class at any time of the day from one of nearly a dozen staff members; you could get support for your post surgery rehabilitation, fine tune your nutritional needs or enjoy one on one training.

All of these offerings were facilitated by Popoff-Grympa, with the help of her staff. This meant working 16 hours a day at the gym, rising as early as 4am and being on the go until crashing in to bed a 10pm. It was a beast, she admits, a huge machine, constantly churning. And she was at the heart of it.

“Putting that much of yourself into a business is draining,” she reflects. “And I’ll never do it again. It is not appealing whatsoever.”

As we sat in the empty gym space on Front street, in the thirty minute cleaning slot scheduled in between classes, Popoff-Grypma mused about her journey to where she was at the start of the pandemic until now. “My business has come full circle, 100% I am back to the roots,” she told me as she described how her work life has changed during this pandemic. Things have certainly slowed down. Pre-pandemic, there were a lot of big projects within the gym that required her high level involvement and a whole team to execute. Now, though, it’s just Power By You. That’s the only thing she’s focussing on.

For PBY, the biggest impact with Covid19 was how much was lost within a matter of three days: there was money in the six figure range that had been invested in marketing; membership plummeted amidst the uncertainty of what a pandemic would dictate for the gym and there was the  payroll, all of it slashed to a third of what it had been, lost in matter of days. It meant that people lost their jobs, unfortunately, but that was the hand she was dealt and you won’t find Popoff-Grympa sitting on the curb with her head in her hands. Initially, the blow the pandemic shut down took to her ego was devastating.

Many business owners took time to reflect on the next step and while liquidating crossed her mind, Popoff-Grympa decided against the drastic move. Instead, the full stop to all things fitness caused a switch to flip and the big picture to come in to focus. She and her team of three took the steps to reopen safely and as quickly as possible. They found that there was a group of people that were willing to stick with them, regardless of what the regulations were going to mean.

She had found her core group of supporters and through their support and her own determination, she relaunched PBY, always staying a step ahead of the shoe always threatening to drop.

While Popoff-Grympa has seen her work day cut in half, the number of people trying to reach out to her cut in half and her staff cut down by 2/3, she wouldn’t change it for the world.

“The business was this evolving beast that you could not slow down. You could not slow down this business without a global pandemic. That was the only way this was going to happen,” said Popoff-Grypma.

With more time to focus on her own wellbeing, she finds herself more available to the community she’s built and the community at large. For her, this is her new normal. The standards that have been imposed for Covid19 will likely remain at PBY when restrictions are loosened.

It’s a foolproof way, she thinks, to stay prepared for the next thing that may threaten her livelihood or her family. She has created a plan that focusses on diversity of her business to allow them to convert completely to a virtual space or an open gym. It’s left the PBY family feeling secure that not even a global pandemic can take away their goals of staying healthy and staying connected.

If there was one thing that being forced to stay home and be apart from people was going to produce, greater connectedness would not have been an obvious outcome. And yet, through talking to members of our community, from business owners to educators, the resounding message they have is that they are more connected than ever with the people in their community.

Focussing on hope and gratitude is what this pandemic has brought for them. Mindfulness through meditation, choosing to seek out the positive in what seems like desperate times will see us through to brighter days.

The silver lining is there, you just have to look for it.