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In a dark time, bright lights here

The Day and theday.com have a longstanding holiday tradition of publishing a series on interesting local people who come to our attention — or more often, whom the newsroom seeks out, because the subjects are typically not in the limelight. The articles share a theme, and the one for 2020 was crystal clear: people who stepped up to help others in this difficult year. They are the bright lights of 2020.

Eleven articles in all, done by Day reporters and photojournalists, recount the response of people, through their jobs or volunteering, to the familiar litany of hardship: pandemic deaths, emergency calls, recuperation, hunger, job loss, evictions and no way to pay the rent; and in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the need to re-assert the pervasiveness of racism. The effects of pandemic and protest often overlapped.

In all the dark situations profiled, the bright lights were people — many of them young — who have put their energy, skills and courage at the service of others. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary good works. In the course of their work, they have illuminated us with their discoveries of things we will want to address when the bad times recede.

Physical therapist Kendra Price, who makes home visits for the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut, never imagined that she would hear a patient say she had felt afraid that no one would come and help her — because the person was still positive for COVID-19. As a community, we must not let anyone feel untouchable.

Ruben Johnson-Santiago, whose own job ended, has made it his mission to get food to hungry families and organized toy drives, coat collections and backpack distribution in Groton and New London. Abby Laquerre, social services representative for the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, found that people who had been donors to the center are now coming for assistance. Having seen both sides, they can teach others about helping effectively. 

Kathy Rathbun, a cashier at McQuade's Marketplace in Mystic for 25 years, was startled to think of herself as an "essential worker" and still can't see herself as any kind of hero. We must not forget that all the workers in the food supply chain performed everyday heroics we could not live without. They deserve to be treated with appreciation, not ill temper.

Alexis Thornton, out of work herself because of the pandemic, put a local face on the Black Lives Matter movement, surprising herself with the fervor with which she needed to make people understand what has been happening for decades. Her heartfelt message can help others understand why Black Lives Matter is not the opposite of "all lives matter" but a reminder of specific dangers faced by people of color.

Funeral director Lauren Gee began her pandemic mission by helping transport the bodies of New York COVID victims for cremation. In the disproportionate toll the pandemic has had on people of color, she saw the effects of racism and realized that she could no longer stay professionally "neutral," in her words. She embodies a wake-up call for all.

The staff and volunteers at the Homeless Hospitality Center in New London, as well as volunteer Deb Hartley and the staff at Norwich Human Services had to deal in new ways with a familiar fact: Some people cannot stay home or go home in a pandemic — because they have no home.

Sydney Bryan, a Connecticut College dance major, added a second EMT job and isolated herself in her apartment so she could safely attend to patients for American Ambulance and Groton Ambulance Association. Donna Whitehouse, a personal care assistant at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, volunteered to be among the first to be vaccinated so she can give COVID patients as much care and time as possible. Each exemplifies the dedication and sacrifice shown by health care workers across the board.

Rich Balestracci was basically doing his job as a commercial loan officer for Chelsea Groton Bank — but his work helped secure 100 federal Payroll Protection Program loans that saved jobs and may mean the difference between small businesses surviving the pandemic or not.

Southeastern Connecticut has many more bright lights who deserve a shout out. Every day that this pandemic persists and racial inequities drive a wedge into the community, these people make sure that others have the basic necessities. And we would be remiss to omit one more set of bright lights: the journalists whose hard work brings home to us these inspiring stories.  

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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