County strong: How Aroostook residents are navigating the pandemic

A sign at a Presque Isle business carries two words: “County strong.” 

Aroostook County has known hardship — economic lows, outmigration, rural isolation — but County people are known for their strong work ethic, friendliness and perseverance. And like the rest of the world, they are confronting coronavirus, a worldwide pandemic which has brought normal life to an abrupt halt. 

Schools and community centers are closed. Small businesses are shuttered. Once-busy restaurants are stripped to drive-thru service only. Main streets are strangely empty. People who once hugged or shook hands in greeting now stand at least 6 feet apart to meet CDC recommendations to limit the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Yet people work. Families live. Health care staff tend to patients. Law enforcement, food preparers, teachers, bankers, retail personnel, freight drivers and more serve communities.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills’ Stay Healthy at Home directive requires all Mainers to stay home through April 30, except for essential activities such as necessary shopping, procuring food, caring for loved ones and seeking medical or pharmacy needs. Outdoor exercise, while maintaining social distance, is allowed and encouraged.

How are County people coping in this altered reality? What inspires them to keep going? And what do they see on the other side of this crisis? Several residents shared some of their observations via Facebook.  

The hardest part

Social distancing has uprooted normal routines, and simple tasks like shopping are turned upside-down. 

Donna Barton of Linneus said it’s difficult “knowing it’s best to do everything in one trip and planning far enough in advance.”

Though Easter approaches, churches are closed. 

“The hardest part for me is not being able to walk into our church, St. Mary’s in Presque Isle,” Presque Isle resident Cheryl DeMerchant said. 

But worrying about family and being apart from loved ones is what hurts most. 

“The hardest part of this pandemic is the limitations we face. Not the schools, not the limited groceries or lack of ‘leisure’ shopping; but the relationship limitations,” Lea Henderson of Linneus said.

Peter Smaligo of Houlton, said, “I am worried about family that is not here — my son, daughter-in-law and grandson. I can’t protect them and it is frustrating.”

“My hardest part is not seeing all of my family at Easter,” Butch Turner of Castle Hill said.

Sherry Sullivan of Presque Isle said her family is trying to keep their business and employees going, while serving the community.

“What a piece of history we are all experiencing,” she said. 

Stacey Wheeler of Bridgewater said it’s hard to see her 16-year-old daughter struggling with boredom and the depression resulting from being unable to interact with her friends and teachers. 

“She is very active in sports and right now she and her classmates would be practicing for softball season.  I worry constantly that these kids may go through some very hard times ahead,” Wheeler said.

Sammie Clemmer of Monticello summed up a universal fear: “It really scares me when I think about my loved ones getting sick.”

Keeping the faith

Helping loved ones and serving the community is what inspires most writers to keep on “keeping on.”

Sandy Bishop of Houlton said, “My 82-year-old mother is what keeps our family going. … Family has been important to us always, but even more so.”

“What keeps me going:  knowing I have family and friends living elsewhere that I cannot wait to see again,” Linneus resident Donna Barton said.   

Kendra Bircket of Presque Isle is among parents who are helping kids with schoolwork at home. “Homeschooling two seventh-graders with special learning needs is a big job, but we make the best of it,” she said.

Clemmer, who has a photography business, said, “I’m homeschooling my first- and seventh-grader while helping my clients navigate through this time. … The RSU 29 teachers have been amazing.”

Paula St. Onge Vidito of Eagle Lake — an employee of SAD 27 in Fort Kent who is helping prepare breakfast and lunch for students — said, “What keeps me going is knowing that we are making a difference in the lives of all the children in our community by bringing them two meals every day.” 

Several residents are taking on projects: making maple syrup, creating Christmas ornaments and even sewing masks to donate. Still others find prayer and electronic communication comforting.

“We do a lot more video chats and text messages than we used to,” Jenni and Scott Lowe of Monticello said. 

Christine Thamsen of St. Agatha said her family is keeping busy. “Kids are doing homework, going outside for walks with the dog and snowshoeing, doing puzzles, reading — and of course spring cleaning.”

Carolyn Joseph of Houlton said, “I’m going to start meditation in the a.m. to just try to breathe and relax. And pray — a lot.”

‘Light breaks …’

Amid fear and uncertainty things seem dark. “Light breaks where no sun shines,” Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote, and readers saw light at the end of this tunnel, predicting greater unity, compassion and gratitude.

“I hope that when this is over we will realize what is truly important in life and never take it for granted again,” Smaligo said.

DeMerchant echoed that sentiment. “I hope we learn to not take things for granted. We will celebrate birthdays, graduations and hug each other. And may we all have a newfound respect for those who carried us through this time.”

“I hope after this people start thinking of others more than themselves, knowing the value of community and family,” Bircket said. 

“I look forward to giving the teachers back their jobs of teaching my children,” Vidito said.

Barton said, “I see kids playing outside more. I see family dinners happening more frequently, I see plenty of reunions with laughter, smiles and tons of hugs. I also see more items being made on American soil, and less reliance on foreign-made products.”

“I hope that when we come out on the other side of this, we’re more compassionate toward each other and more considerate of our neighbors.  We are definitely in this together and hopefully we’ll still feel more united when this is over,” Clemmer said.

Turner added, “We will get through this. We are Maine strong.”

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