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Grassroots leadership efforts looking out for others from ‘six feet away’

Even before state and local authorities started imposing stay-at-home orders to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Meg Heriford knew it was time to shut down her diner.

Heriford owns Ladybird Diner, a popular eatery in downtown Lawrence.  She closed the restaurant in mid-March, when authorities were encouraging social distancing but before more drastic actions. Her reason: Despite the growing concern about the pandemic, customers were still filling her establishment.

“We were just still packed,” she says.

“We had lots of extra measures in place, and the staff was disinfecting, disinfecting,” Heriford says. But “I couldn’t control the public’s behavior – people were sitting down at dirty tables, touching staff. … I felt like it was very tense and unpleasant for everyone trying to do the responsible thing in an environment where it was pretty much impossible. So I pulled the plug.”

Heriford didn’t stop working, though. She pivoted immediately to making hundreds of sack lunches a day, given free to anybody in the community who shows up – no questions asked. “What we can do – because we’re good at this – is turn our attention to the need that is increasing,” she says.

Photos by Brad Fanshier

The job of fighting the pandemic has largely fallen to government at all levels. But the COVID-19 outbreak has also sparked displays of community spirit and grassroots leadership across Kansas, illustrating how anyone can lead at any time. Business leaders such as Heriford have pitched in. Community-based organizations have taken on new responsibilities. New organizations and coalitions have sprung up on the fly. And at its most basic level, neighbors have pitched in to help neighbors – all while giving each other sufficient space, of course.

“These folks don’t even know they’re being a servant leader. They’re just doing it,” says Marci Penner, executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. The organization started a Facebook page, Kansas Responds, that is tracking stories of pandemic-related activism across the state – stories like Boot Hill Distillery in Dodge City converting to hand sanitizer production, Greensburg residents using a 3D printer to manufacture personal protective equipment for the medical community and Kingman residents creating a corps of “porch angels” to deliver groceries to the elderly.

“We’re not all just sitting inside and freaking out and being upset,” Penner says.

In Wichita, the Delano Neighborhood Association – typically an organizer of annual neighborhood cleanups – has turned into an information clearinghouse, making sure residents are aware of resources for food, home-schooling assistance and other information they need to get through the pandemic.

“We’re trying to give everybody positive things they can do while kids are out of school, while they’re not working, where they can get assistance when they need it,” says Christopher Parisho, the association’s president and a KLC alum. “A lot of times we hear people say ‘I didn’t even know that was available.’ We tell them how it’s available.”

Nearby, in the Butler County community of Towanda, Jen and Nick Watkins have stepped forward as volunteers under the rubric “Towanda Community” the city’s Facebook page to gauge local needs – cleaning supplies, food and more – and to get those supplies in the right hands.

“Everybody knows everybody. It’s easy to look down the street, see somebody struggling, and want to help them,” Jen Watkins says. “We hope that it will carry us through until we’re on the other side of it.”

Back in Lawrence, a coalition of existing political and social activist groups – who usually work on issues such as immigrant and minority rights, access to housing, and labor issues – have joined to create the Lawrence Mutual Aid Network. The new organization, like efforts in other communities, aims to connect needy residents to groceries, assistance, information and other resources.

“Being able to help each other and receive help helps to strengthen our community and give us a sense of purpose in an uncertain time,” says Elise Higgins, a spokesperson for the group. “Ultimately, I think the network is modeling the kind of community we want to have for each other, where we care for each other and for the most vulnerable.”

A lingering question, though, is whether such efforts will be sustainable as long as the emergency lasts.

“I hope we all weather this as best we can,” says Ladybird’s Heriford. “I don’t expect it to be pretty. I know needs will increase as fatigue increases. I trust that everybody is looking out for each other from six feet away.”

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive twice-a-week updates, subscribe here: https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/contact-us/join-our-email-list/