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A Lenexa neighborhood becomes a refuge after COVID-19 hits close to home

The TV images of isolated Italians performing spirited singalongs from their balconies left me with raw feelings in early March. 

It was a lovely show of humanity. It was eerily terrifying.

Within days, many of my neighbors and I would tangibly feel those same dissonant emotions.

While many of the COVID-19 patients were kept anonymous, one stood apart. On March 14, a letter from the Shawnee Mission School District let us know that a Lenexa Hills Elementary School parent was among the first Kansans to test positive. The school, nestled in our subdivision, is new. It boasts an enviably small student population and tightly woven community supporting it. As news crews pulled into the neighborhood for footage, it was suddenly clear that the parent could be a friend. Possibly a neighbor. The health department doesn’t release names, but having a name wasn’t the point. This was one of us.

“It was not across the ocean. It was here,” says Kristi Lewczenko from her Lenexa driveway while watching over her two children play nearby.

What happened next was something I will remember for decades to come.

On our neighborhood Facebook page someone posted a TV news account. Suddenly neighbors offered to fetch groceries, make dinner, pray and love on this anonymous family.

“Eventually we may all be exposed as the weeks and months roll by,” wrote Jennifer Deardorff. “Love knowing we all are here to support each other. Stay safe and lay low friends!”

Most of us hardly needed a shelter-in-place order to take this seriously. It was past time to isolate. We didn’t need a government edict, although one came more than a week later from Johnson County.

Stores were shuttered, churches went online, businesses sent home employees and school buildings were closed. In many ways, it left neighbors to fill mobilization roles. That can be a stretch, especially in the suburbs where many neighbors hail from all over the country. They sometimes pull out of their attached garages every morning for work and rarely leave after they pull back in for dinner. Yet our neighborhood mobilized.

  • Lenexa Hills neighborhood yards during COVID-19
    A look at how the neighborhood surrounding Lenexa Hills Elementary has become a refuge during COVID-19.

Neighbors I had never met began reaching out, mainly through social media, to energize one another for a collective purpose. A small army of people organized ways to help those in all demographics.

    • Dozens of neighbors began checking on one another, especially older and other vulnerable individuals. Did they need groceries, prescriptions, pet food or other items? 
    • Haley Deardorff, a freshman at the University of Nebraska, baked and delivered sweet bread to stoops for neighbors and attached a Bible verse. 
    • Jodi Schade, a marketing ace, organized a virtual “walk” to donate to local businesses that have long supported our neighborhood fundraisers. 
    • Seamstresses fired up sewing machines to produce fabric masks for medical practitioners. Within days, another neighbor asked to have some masks delivered to her doorstep. She was reporting back to work at her health care facility and needed several for co-workers.
    • Ellen Feiden, a nutrition teacher, seeded lettuce so neighbors would be able to have salad greens when the grocery store shelves were bare. Sustaining others with high-quality food kept her hands busy when her mind raced.
  • A neighbor suggested driveway dinners, where everyone took their meals out to the driveway to try to fend off social isolation. It filled the neighborhood with chatter again.
  • Several mothers with young children led the charge to keep cooped up children busy and families engaged together. They pulled ideas from social media and asked neighbors to hang shamrocks during a particularly gloomy week so families could walk or drive around and “hunt” for the pictures. It took off. Weekly hunts will continue as well as nature scavenger hunts and several other activities, including a chalk-the-walk project that added color to sidewalks in an otherwise dreary month.

“People that don’t even have young kids were doing it too,” says an organizer, Lauren Siegel. “I couldn’t believe how many people were like, yes, absolutely.” 

It started off as something to do, she says, but it’s deeper.

“I feel like I went through the stages of grief with it (COVID-19) and once I thought, OK this is our new normal. What are we going to do about it?” she says. 

Her family walks together daily and stays connected by pointing out the ever-changing landscape. It’s time they might not have had together before.

“You’ve got to look for the hidden blessings,” Siegel says. 

Lewczenko feels it too. Early on she tried to ease her own fear so she wasn’t passing it on to her children. She focused on the big picture. 

“In 20 years, what will our kids remember: What happened or our reaction to it?” Lewczenko says. 

To be clear, things are hardly perfect.

It’s nearly impossible to properly isolate during driveway dinners. The temptation to gather is real, especially along sidewalks.  

The isolation has humbled many a neighbor. Me included. I broke the isolation to hug a neighbor who is dealing with the unimaginable loss of a spouse. I did it twice. Was it right for community health? No. Should I have backed away when her son suddenly leaned against me? Probably, but instead I hugged a child who feels safe with me. That night I simultaneously thanked God for the hug but also beat myself up knowing that I could expose them or my family to a deadly virus. 

The conflicting voices noisily occupy my mind.

When it comes down to it, though, we need our village now more than ever. To grieve the loss. But we also need those self-motivating people who are mobilizing others, be it with sidewalk chalk, lettuce seeds, sewing machines or polite text messages, that hold one another accountable for community health. Our neighborhoods – like it or not – have become a refuge.

Dawn Bormann Novascone is a contributing editor for The Journal. She’s previously reported on a lack of affordable housing in Johnson County.

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/

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