What We’ve Learned In 2020, Will Be What We Carry With Us Into 2021

The year 2020 will go down in the history books as an arduous time. A deadly pandemic, racial unrest, a divisive presidential election, an economic crisis. The list goes on.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for many of us was the change to our everyday lifestyle.

Prior to March 2020, most of us were constantly on the move. Work, school, shopping, carting kids around, sporting events, family and social gatherings on the weekends, and lots of time on the road commuting to and from all of these pastimes and obligations.

Now we find things turned upside down: working at home, not commuting. Children learning remotely or on a limited in-person schedule. No parties, bars, or restaurant dining. Holiday celebrations without extended family. Your spouse and children and you home, together, almost all the time.

Sure, it’s been tough being cooped up with family members day and night. It’s been difficult finding activities that everyone enjoys and to fill the time we now find ourselves having. Yet, more than eight months later, many of us have fallen into comfortable routines and are able to appreciate this time.

Swedesboro resident Yolanda Cabana has an 11-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter and explains what 2020 has taught her.

“This pandemic has opened up my eyes more than anyone can imagine,” began the 42-year-old mom who works as a compliance audit services manager. “Work will always be there, but a child’s attention is more important,” she continued.

“I have learned to appreciate walks on trails with the kids and playing games to keep them busy. Life has been so busy for so many years that we never get a chance to stop and appreciate the little things in life. Instead we race to the next task that needs to get completed,” she added.

Sixty-two-year-old Joan Binder Ballard is retired and has been a South Harrison resident for almost 20 years. She explained how life with her husband has changed for the better.

“My husband is usually on an airplane off to somewhere for business. What 2020 taught us is that we can indeed live under the same roof for more than a week!

Taco Bella, a German shorthaired pointer, loves to fish. Spending more time at home has given us a fresh appreciation of our family members and furry friends. Taco lives with her humans in South Harrison but is seen here visiting their lake house in upstate New York.

“Life together 24/7 has been wonderful and crazy. Fortunately, we both love the outdoors, so we go fishing as much as possible. We’ve been married for 27 years and have two boys and a dog, Taco Bella, who loves to fish with us.”

Along with additional family time, 2020 has led many to reflect on what’s truly important.

Maureen Reidenauer is a professor of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Rowan University, and explained what followed her daughter’s ‘virtual’ graduation from Coastal Carolina University in May.

The Reidenauer family at their home in Mullica Hill. Maureen (center), a professor at Rowan University, stressed the importance of family working together to support each other in good times and bad.

“Due to the pandemic, my daughter and her fiancé now face financial and employment hardships,” she shared. “As a family—both blood and friends—we worked together to create ways to [remotely] support and guide them in their new adultness,” said the 58-year-old Mullica Hill resident.

“We learned that it is not what you have in the bank but what you have in your home that really matters–in good times and in bad. Family is your greatest treasure in life,” she concluded.

Donna Sulvetta-Student is an occupation human resources program analyst for the Department of Homeland Security who has been working remotely since March. “People take their family for granted. Don’t think just about yourself, think about others,” she urged.

The 62-year-old widow, mother, and resident of South Harrison, explained that her parents and uncle are suffering from COVID-19. Thankfully, they are all recovering, but it has been heartbreaking for her to be separated from them.

“My mom is 82. She was never in the hospital and just had one really bad day,” she began.

“My dad is 84. He was so weak that I called the ambulance [from my home]. He was just transferred from Inspira Hospital in Mullica Hill to a rehab facility in Woodbury so he can gain his strength back. My uncle is 87 and just got released from the ICU and is still in the hospital.”

“I have learned so much about basic things that are taken for granted like Sunday dinner with my parents,” added Sulvetta-Student.

When it comes to elderly family members, East Greenwich Township resident David Negrin agreed.

“We have a greater appreciation for our elders. Especially, elderly parents and grandparents. Being unable to see them as often as we used to, or even being able to hug them, has been hard on many of us. I certainly value my time with them much more now, and I can’t wait to see them all again in person.”

While many were forced to work remotely during 2020, the process has been surprisingly positive for those in some office-based professions. Saving on transportation costs, reducing or eliminating commuting time, and often getting more sleep as a side effect are only a handful of the measurable benefits.

“Nearly all previous in-person meetings can be held online. Going into the office every day is unnecessary,” reported John Viercinski, a 41-year-old mechanical engineer who lives in Mullica Hill.

South Harrison resident Shelley Mealey has learned that when you have a passion for something, nothing can stop you, and sometimes obstacles make that passion stronger.

Ten-year-old South Harrison Elementary student Gabe Mealey began swimming in the bay when pools closed back in March and has been continuing to swim outside in cold weather. The adversity of the pandemic has made the desire to do what he loves even stronger.

“We have learned so much from our 10-year-old son Gage. He is a competitive swimmer, and when the state was locked down, my husband and I found him crying in his room one day because he missed it so much.”

So, being a mom, and wanting her child to be happy, Mealey devised a solution.

“Well that meant we buy a wet suit and he swims in the bay, even when his lips were blue,” she began.

Gabe Mealey got to enjoy some warm weather pool time too this summer.
— Photo by Ann Silvers

“It was an hour drive, standing there in the freezing cold just to see that contagious smile that consumes him when he swims. It made it all worth it!”

Mealey also explained that when pools started opening up, Gage’s indoor swim team didn’t have a facility to use.

“They started swimming outside and still are today. He has not missed a single practice, even when it’s 40 degrees and the steam is coming off the pool.

“If only we all had this kind of dedication, passion and drive,” she added.

The year 2020 has also taught us the importance of essentials workers, and even questioned how we define essential. David Negrin explained.

“Prior to March 2020, I think it is safe to say that we all thought that fire fighters, police officers, mail carriers, waste management professionals, healthcare professionals, and teachers were essential to the running of society,” he began.

“The Coronavirus has given us a much broader perspective on what “essential” really is and that critical roles like delivery drivers, warehouse workers, grocery store employees, and other professionals that serve the public are also equally important to our daily lives.

“It does not seem like that long ago that some people were complaining about the state ultimately raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for many of these types of roles. I seriously doubt anyone would argue that $15 an hour is being over-compensated anymore,” he added.

Negrin expressed additional gratitude for a group that has been especially stressed and overworked in 2020.

“Having had a child in either a partially virtual or fully virtual learning environment has given me the opportunity to really see some of the challenges our teachers deal with on a daily basis. It’s no small task keeping our children focused and maintaining control of a Zoom call full of easily distracted kids, providing meaningful content, and all the while overcoming technical issues of remote students while they accomplish this Herculean effort.”

Another lesson echoed by many residents is the importance of practicing kindness and patience in your daily life.

Marilyn Winkles Anderson is a cashier at Rite Aid in Mullica Hill, and has learned how important it is for her to be pleasant to her customers, and for everyone to be kind to one another.

“It has not been easy for any essential employee, and not all customers are easy, but you never know what issues they may be experiencing,” said the 69-year-old Mullica Hill resident.

For some, like Christine Batra of South Harrison, the lifestyle changes of 2020 allowed for a rare period of personal reflection.

“I’ve learned that the distractions of life keep us from discovering our inner self and finding authentic fulfillment. Being removed from the outside world and all of its allure has fostered a deeper sense of peace within and a full realization of what is most important,” said the 50-year-old psychotherapist and school counselor.

Sandy Horner, also of South Harrison, noted that some of the changes that were forced upon us in 2020 have become preferable in many ways.

“I will be staying home more. I’ve been home for nine months, putting together puzzles, reading books, sewing. “I’ve gotten used to my own company,” reflected the 77-year-old retired grandmother.

Now that 2021 is here (we made it!) and COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, many things will start to feel more “normal” again as the year progresses.

For all of us who have been fortunate enough to come into 2021, we have much to look forward to.

“The first thing I’m going to do when I can, is hug my grandchildren! Every grandmother I know wants that,” Sandy Horner affirmed.

Donna Sulvetta-Student looks forward to hosting Sunday dinners for her parents later in 2021, and taking them out for Saturday dinners as much as possible, something they love to do.

Yolanda Cabana hopes that the appreciation we have gained for our loved ones will be carried over into more togetherness in coming years.

“I’m hoping to embrace what I have taken away from 2020, as life is precious and every moment counts and we should live every single day as it is our last,” she said.

Yes, 2020 brought us tremendous loss. But it has also taught us much—as families, as neighbors, as community members, and as Americans.

But perhaps the most profound lesson we have all learned is not a lesson in itself, but who we shared our lessons with: every country, every continent, everywhere people dwell on this earth. And this realization, in a strange way, has brought humanity closer together.

“Regardless of where you live on the planet, what political party you support, what religion you practice, or what color you skin is, we all experienced this together,” David Negrin concluded.

We’ve all cried, raged, and mourned; yet we have achieved appreciation, reflection, and shared humanity.

Cheers to 2021.

By Colleen Woods-Esposito

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