By Sherrie Norris
In early September, Bethany Lutheran Church Pastor, Laura Weant, quietly told us about a combined effort of the faith communities, businesses and other entities who were joining forces to show support and offer encouragement to the staff at Watauga Medical Center. The idea was to “surprise” the staff for several weeks with random acts of kindness, to remind them that their efforts, especially during the pandemic, were not going unnoticed — and that what they did was much appreciated. Thus, to keep it a surprise, we were asked to “hold off” on any publicity until all was said and done.
Weant helped coordinate the project, along with Katie Greene, Director of Communication and Marketing for the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, and Lisa Shelton, Director of Employee Assistance at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System/Watauga Medical Center.
Weant said she personally knew some of the hospital staff and was aware that things had not been easy for any of them.
“They had been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic, but just when things were looking brighter, the Delta variant hit, and they were seeing a huge upsurge of local cases.”
Aware of the staff’s exhaustion, Weant was delighted when she first received an invitation to participate in a clergy outreach effort to show support to hospital staff, organized by Jeff McClain at Boone United Methodist Church.
“The clergy showed up at shift change on a Friday to line the sidewalk to the employee entrance in their (clergy) attire with signs of support and offers to pray for or bless anyone who asked for it,” Weant shared. “That effort inspired me to think — how can we build on that event and do a more sustained show of support through September and early October as we, hopefully, ride out the worst of this wave?”
Weant was certain that the churches and faith communities would want to be involved, and she also thought local businesses would like to show their support as well, so she first reached out to Katie Greene at the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce. “Together, we coordinated with Lisa Shelton to determine what the community could do in a coordinated way. We had a Zoom brainstorming session and launched from there.”
The response from the local faith community was immediate, Weant said. “Everyone was on board to do messages in sidewalk chalk one Thursday, and then two weeks later, to have signs and posters and cards to hang on the walls, in various departments and near the employee entrance. That’s where Lisa came in. After I handed off the huge stack of posters, she gathered a team to post them all over the hospital for the staff to see.”
The idea was that the posters would be handmade, Weant emphasized — to show that this was not a generic ‘Thank You,’ but that these were real people in their community who took the time to think about them and write words of encouragement to them that they would see throughout the day as they work.
People of all ages participated, Weant added, from the youngest children lending a handprint, to youth groups, college campus ministry groups, to retired folks.
“So many were involved and the signs were all unique. Our prayer was that it would be a little boost to morale for the staff of our hospital to know that they are not alone. That the community thanks them and supports them and, in the case of faith communities, that we hold them in prayer as they put themselves at risk for our sake.”
After Weant approached the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce in early September with the idea, Greene said they pulled in Lisa Shelton to advise on how to focus their efforts, considering current visitor and gift restrictions on the WMC campus.
“Lisa brought up the positive feedback she received after the pastoral community just simply stood along the employee walkway and thanked the staff for their service.”
Knowing how the ARHS staff “has been full throttle since the inception of the pandemic, almost 20 months ago,” and “absolutely exhausted, both physically and mentally,” Greene said their goal was to make them feel seen, valued and appreciated for protecting our community. “ Every single employee in every single department across the board is feeling the effects of COVID-19 and every single one of them deserves to feel the community rallying behind them.”
At that point, the trio organized consecutive “Thankful Thursday” events, with the hope that the effort builds momentum and that community members continue to be present.
“Putting action behind our gratitude for these employees should be ongoing,” Greene added. “The BACC has a unique platform in terms of audience, and simply served as the ‘community gatherer’ in the Thankful Thursdays . . .The people and businesses that show up is what make this effort so special.”
So it was, Greene said, echoed by Shelton, that a one-hour time slot during shift changes — both morning and evening— would be best, since traffic along the walkway would be at its highest.
“Some folks showed up with hand-made signs, their kids, their dogs, friends and family members. We had businesses bring items to hand out, like cookies, coffee and biscuits from Chick-Fil-A, and personal items. The feedback from the staff was overwhelming: lots of smiles, some tears shed, some even shared stories of how this small gesture gave them the strength to push another day.”
“It was beyond amazing,” Shelton said. “It was incredibly powerful and impactful. . . And with Pastor Laura’s help, there were many, many posters from several churches, again expressing heartfelt gratitude to the staff of WMC. We lined the interior entrance (both sides of the hallway) with these posters and then placed others throughout the facility. The impact was so well received and appreciated!”
Shelton spoke to the “incredibly difficult 18-19 months” the staff has experienced with COVID.
“Our staff are exhausted, but they continue to persevere. At the end of the day, I think most people just want to feel connected. They want to be seen. They want to be heard. And they want to know that they are valued. And it truly is the simple things that we sometimes take for granted that make the biggest impact. What this community and faith community did was to really see, hear, and value our staff. And that connected us all together. That was like breathing a little life back into staff who have worked so incredibly hard for a really long time.”
Shelton’s department has worked diligently, she admitted, to help coordinate community support for staff members, while also providing individual and team support to them as they have navigated all the ups and downs of COVID-19.
So, all in all, Thankful Thursdays had a huge impact upon the hospital staff. Now, the ball is in our court, as a community in general, to continue showing appreciation to this dedicated staff. Let’s keep it going!
Scenes from the many acts of kindness shown to the Watauga Medical Center staff during the recent “Thankful Thursdays” community outreach project. Photos submitted.
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