‘This put a fire under me’: Lessons learned during pandemic to last a lifetime

Bonds created, career ambitions and joys in life strengthened for many amid COVID.

As normal life slowly resumes, many people across the Dayton region are reflecting on the lessons they learned during the pandemic that will stay with them for a lifetime.

Some have discovered greater joy and purpose in their work. Others are giving themselves permission to savor more down time.

Some have rekindled relationships with far-flung friends and relatives through Zoom reunions. Others have forged closer bonds with neighbors.

Vivienne and Roger Himmell could always count on their neighbors at Cooper Lofts in downtown Dayton for a favor or a friendly hello. But during COVID, their fellow third-floor residents became so much more than neighbors. It all started with a single text to the third-floor residents: “How about happy hour?”

The six families dragged tables and chairs into the hallway for what would soon become a familiar, socially distanced ritual. Throughout the year, they enjoyed countless pizza nights, birthday parties and pot luck suppers.

“They are more than neighbors now; they are family,” Vivienne Himmell said. “We found out each other’s family histories, political beliefs, and what kind of books they liked to read. We met children who lived out of town, and shared pictures of grandchildren.”

After each get-together, Vivienne Himmell said: “I left so uplifted. People really do need people. I feel so sorry for those who were isolated.”

‘I miss my job’

Janelle Hooser of Kettering feels an even deeper commitment to her work as a stylist for 48 Salon and Spa in Washington Twp. Shortly after the salon shut down temporarily last March, she posted on Facebook: “I miss my job. I miss my clients; I miss my creative outlet. I miss conversations from people I see on a regular basis. My job is not just a job to me. It is my ministry, my way to show God’s love. It’s helping talk through emotions; it’s a safe place people can vent. It’s a place that people can feel good about themselves, feel renewed and refreshed.”

During her time off, Hooser took pride in helping her three children with their virtual learning. But at the same time she worried about her clients, worried about paying the bills. “It was a scary time, but God provided for us, and we were OK,” Hooser said.

Once the salon re-opened in May 2020, Hooser adjusted her hours so she could spend more time at home during the school day. “I understand more how much my work helps me to relax — just as much as it helps that person in the chair,” she said. “Everyone deserves to be pampered and to have some hair therapy.”

‘This put a fire under me’

Mark Antony Howard of Kettering also feels more passionate than ever about his chosen career — film acting — even though his senior year at Wright State University didn’t turn out as he had hoped. The musical theater major lost many performing opportunities that typically would come with senior year. The cast was deep into rehearsals for the 2020 spring musical, “Mamma Mia!” when the production was shut down. “At first we thought we would be shut down for two weeks, then a month ...” he recalled.

As it turned out, WSU wouldn’t produce another major musical before Howard graduated 14 months later. But disappointment simply fueled his ambition, and he plans to move to Los Angeles later this summer to pursue film work. “This put a fire under me,” he said. “The plans you do have can be snatched away, so you have to do what you want to do.”

It was a year of introspection for Howard, shaped not only by the pandemic but also the murder of George Floyd. “It changed my perspective on the world, and made me stronger in my beliefs and morals,” he said.

Howard and his friends Jerri Hunt and Mary Kancler, also of Kettering, said they will continue some of their COVID-19 health precautions, such as using hand sanitizer and wearing masks at large gatherings. The psychological scars will linger as well. “I’m afraid it will come back worse,” Kancler said. “I’m worried about a virus with the deadliness of Ebola and the spreading ability of COVID.”

Changing perspectives

Margie Perenic of Beavercreek said her priorities have shifted because of the pandemic. “For a lot of people it illustrated what is really important to us, and what doesn’t matter,” she said.

Health became a top concern — one of her sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer — and shopping fell to the bottom of the list. A retired research assistant for the Greene County Public Library, Perenic realized during quarantine just how much it has remained her second home. “What I missed most was the library,” she confessed. “Once we were able to request items and at least do a pick up, I was ready for a happy dance.”

Lou Brinkman of Centerville said that the pandemic has reinforced his core belief in limited government. He and his wife Yvonne tried to support local restaurants even more than usual, fearing they might shut down. If another pandemic were to strike, he would feel even more reluctant to change his daily habits. “I wouldn’t shut the country down,” he said. “To shut all these businesses down and create this huge debt is wrong. Government has a role, and it’s not to regulate our lives.”

Community building through Zoom

For some, Zoom became a dreaded work duty — for others, a social lifeline. High school and college friends and former colleagues have staged Zoom reunions that turned into monthly or even weekly events.

Christy Piszkiewicz of Spring Valley never dreamed the role that Zoom would play in her adjustment to life in the Miami Valley. A Chicago transplant, she moved to the Dayton area with her husband seven years ago to be closer to their children and grandchildren. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that she truly found her tribe — a group of fellow writers who, early in the outbreak, started meeting on Zoom every Monday night.

The writers initially attended Jude Walsh Whelley’s legacy writing class at the University of Dayton’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Their occasional gatherings turned into weekly Zoom sessions during quarantine, organized by Whelley herself. “All of our writing got so much better, and these seven people became really close,” Piszkiewicz said. “We came from such different backgrounds — from an Air Force colonel to a tropical biologist — and we started sharing personal stories. I never would have thought that a Zoom class could do that.”

Taking an enforced break from her many volunteer activities led Piszkiewicz to a revelation, she said: “It was way too much, and doing fewer things made it feel so much better. There are days now when I have no plans, and that is something I am going to keep.”

Not taking any days for granted

As a six-year brain tumor survivor, Billi Ewing of Harrison Twp. already lived each day with a profound sense of gratitude and “not taking any days for granted,” she said.

Her close-knit family grew even closer, creating a group chat and keeping in more frequent communication with relatives all over the country. “Every generation has a defining moment in its history, and this is one of them,” Ewing said.

When someone in her family was weak during the pandemic, the others were strong. “We were intentionally there for each other,” she said. “Our eyes are open; our hearts are open. My hope is that part stays the same, and that what we have gone through has a lifelong positive effect on everyone.”

The nation’s tragic loss of life due to COVID-19 makes Ewing want to hold her family even tighter. “How can I not hug my loved ones every day?” she asked herself. “It can all be gone in a flash.”