Living & Growing: Thankful for a community that exceeds expectations

I’m so grateful that I live in Juneau and that you are my neighbors.

By Erin Walker-Tolles

I read an article recently in Time magazine recently that asked “why is everyone so rude right now?”

And I was surprised, because that’s not what I have experienced at all here in Juneau. In fact, when I went to Fred Meyer for the first time after the initial hunker-down, everyone was so friendly it took me twice as long as usual to get through the store for all the little conversations I had in each aisle. It seemed we were just happy to see one another — even if we didn’t know each other. course, it’s not that I haven’t encountered (and been guilty of) more moments of anxiety and short-temper since the pandemic started, but I feel that the good we’ve shared with one another far outweighs the negative.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that— how this incredibly stressful time has brought out the best in so many. And I think it’s something I have sometimes taken for granted— how critical respect and compassion are to our community.

I know that my view of this time and our community is colored by my own belief and experience. I am a Christian person, and my faith is fundamental to who I am and what I do for a living. I got the call to help those in need at the same time I was called to my faith life. I’ve been working in social services and healthcare here in Juneau for 24 years.

But even after decades of experience, I never imagined the challenges we would encounter due to the coronavirus pandemic. I never imagined it would be so challenging to figure out what the “right thing to do” would be.

Oh, of course at first I wasn’t thinking about much of anything! I was just scrambling to adapt. With my family safe at home, I was free to focus on the biggest challenge in our agency’s history — how to continue to provide meals, rides, healthcare and other critical services to seniors and disabled individuals during a pandemic. Honestly, that was a lot of work, but it wasn’t the tough part.

The hardest part for me was wrestling with asking staff and volunteers to risk themselves (and those they live with) by continuing to do hand-on work with those who need physical assistance and care. But how could I just “hunker-down” our agency when those most dependent on us were isolating at home on the order of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local government in an effort to save their lives? Many of the seniors we serve live alone and have no one local but us to support them.

Ultimately, our community exceeded my expectations. There were very few staff and volunteers that didn’t find a way to keep helping. And when we put out an all call for volunteers we got so many that we were able to continue work even as community services almost doubled.

I know many folks are still struggling. Some due to the pandemic, and for others that struggle started long before we’d ever heard about Covid-19. But so many people in Juneau have done what they can to help, and I’m encouraged to see so many continuing to reach out to their neighbors with compassion even as we approach the end of our second year of the pandemic.

You don’t have to be a Christian to be called to help your neighbor. You don’t have to have faith in any higher power at all to be a good, caring and helpful person. But I think you do have to believe in something more than just your own self-interest. I think all good neighbors share in the belief that other people have value and deserve to be treated with respect. That we all deserve a place at the table. I’m so grateful that I live in Juneau and that you are my neighbors.

• Erin Walker-Tolles is executive director of Catholic Community Service and a member of Northstar Vineyard Church.

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