Published on May 19th, 2020 | by Elizabeth Tettleton0
Coming Together While Pulled Apart: The Oxford Community Thrives During COVID-19
by Elizabeth McDaniel Tettleton
On April 1, 2020, hundreds of Oxonians lined up outside Baptist Memorial Hospital for a parade organized by the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce, to honor the health care workers who are sacrificing their time, health, and emotions to care for those sick with COVID-19.
The month of May boasts flowers, graduations, and end-of-year recitals, but this year, many had to adjust to a new pace of expectations for their spring. Students across the world were forced to forego college and high school graduation ceremonies to commemorate their accomplishments.
On May 9 The University of Mississippi conferred more than 5,000 degrees and celebrated their students with an online live celebration, and numerous departments took additional measures to acknowledge the work their students put into this accomplishment.
Oxford and Lafayette County School Districts followed suit, with OHS even going to lengths of recording each student “walking” across the stage to receive their diploma with up to five family members present. Each student’s walk was recorded and collected for a larger film of all graduates.
Despite COVID-19’s many collateral damages—the missed celebrations, the hampered daily outings, and the unattended funerals—our small town has still thrived. As our mayor leads us into the first true phase of reopenings, many of us enter doors with fear and uncertainty, and many remain at home to extend their precautions. But we would be remiss not to reflect on the good that has been done and continues to be done.
With the rates of unemployment that continue to rise, our county and city are not immune to its effects. Because of unfortunate furloughs and layoffs, makeshift jobs in the interim have not been enough for many families to make ends meet, but numerous organizations have stepped up to the plate to bridge the gap.
Oxford and Lafayette County
The Pantry of Oxford and Lafayette County provides food to individuals and families with insufficient resources. Churches, nonprofits, and fraternal organizations often volunteer monthly to assist with stocking shelves and handing out food and staples to qualifying persons.
With the onslaught of the COVID-19 layoffs and terminations, The Pantry has not only seen a surge in requests, but additional precautions were necessary to keep volunteers safe.
“The Pantry changed to a prebag system that is placed in the client’s vehicle. Social distancing is observed and masks are worn by all volunteers,” said Linda Jansen, publicist for The Pantry.
Local citizens are aware of the influx of need, and those able have been generous to support The Pantry. “The pandemic has brought more financial support to the Pantry, and hopefully this increase in need will taper off soon.”
Monetary Donations can be sent to: The Oxford Pantry, PO Box 588, Oxford, MS, 38655 or paypal.me/pantryoxfordms.
The United Way of Oxford-Lafayette County is often the silent force behind strong organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, Girl Scouts, and Special Olympics, but during the COVID-19 pandemic they have been integral in providing financial stability to organizations, with Interfaith Compassion Ministry being their first COVID-19 fund grant recipient.
The United Way office, headed by the Executive Director Kurt Brummett, has maintained full and normal hours during the crisis. Maintaining that consistency has been vital to providing support to their partners so they can continue to make an impact.
“Our organization understands the importance of working together in order to address challenges our community faces,” said Kurt Brummett.
The United Way has felt a decline in donations in contrast to last year. Unfortunately, it has also had to adjust the date for their largest fundraiser, the United Way Flashback Bash. The postponement of the Double Decker Arts Festival to August 14–15 caused them to move the original date for the Flashback Bash from August 15 to October 22.
The Food Bank at Ole Miss is a resource for all members of the university community. Since the closures and outbreak, the food bank has seen unprecedented demand from its graduate student, undergraduate, and staff populations.
In March and April 2020, the food bank provided 2,500 meals. That’s double the normal demand seen in an entire semester. They adopted a pickup system similar to The Pantry’s. To promote social distancing and the health and safety of the university community, the Ole Miss Food Bank started a Grab N Go bag system. Visit their website at foodbank.olemiss.edu for more information.
The McLean Institute, housed on the Ole Miss campus, partners with Mississippi communities to fight poverty and transform lives through education, innovation, and entrepreneurship. They work not only with students, faculty, and staff, but also with community partners to improve quality of life and instill a lasting commitment to the public good.
One of their key programs is the North Mississippi VISTA Project and the students they sponsor each semester. One VISTA member, Taylor Robertson, used the McLean Institute’s Facebook as a platform to distribute infographics with information on how to give and receive support during COVID-19, and created a page on the McLean website to house all of the resources available in the LOU community.
Jilkiah Bryant, an Innovation Scholar with the McLean Institute’s Catalyzing Entrepreneurship and Economic Development initiative, began preparations for a voter registration drive once the shelter-in-place orders went into effect. (Relevant article here.)
Members of the North Mississippi VISTA Project volunteered at the Oxford Community Market (OXCM) during AmeriCorps Week, which happened days before social distancing transformed our daily routines. VISTA students were able to witness firsthand the impact that OXCM has on the community, as well as the steps they have taken to ensure customer safety.
“We have been enormously impressed with their physical distancing measures alongside ongoing efforts to provide fresh food to those who are most vulnerable. We look forward to again partnering with OXCM when their new VISTA member begins her term of service next month!” said Emily Echols, program manager at McLean Institute.
For more information about the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, visit http://mclean.olemiss.edu/. For more information about the North Mississippi VISTA Project, visit http://vista.olemiss.edu/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Small Businesses and the Arts
The Yoknapatawpha Arts Council (YAC) moved programs online creating the Stay at Home Fest. They even shared that model with other arts groups across the state, creating a statewide sharing of performances, concerts, and events.
The arts council offered services to artists to help them mitigate the loss of funds during the crisis. They assisted by opening an online gallery and shop to help artists sell works, producing mini online conversations with artists through MIssissippi Muse, and creating online content, such as their music series, bartending series, and creative writing prompts.
YAC has offered stipends to artists and restaurant employees to “teach” online programs. Through their online grant form they have provided support with bills, such as utilities and rent, to help make ends meet while so many events were canceled and restaurants closed. Support can still be requested through the JE Pitts Fund at www.oxfordarts.com
Funding is still of great concern for an organization like YAC.
“While there have been generous gifts to support our efforts, we know that our broad base of support is community members. The average gift to the arts council is $75 over the course of a year,” said Wayne Andrews, executive director of YAC. “Knowing that we have had to postpone events such as Miss-i-sippin’ and summer events while closing The Powerhouse and Multipurpose Arena—the rental of which supported our programs—will impact our operations going forward.”
Move On Up, Mississippi (MOUMS) has created a COVID-19 Help effort to ensure no Lafayette County child goes hungry. They want to help provide access to food to anyone who has lost their job, been quarantined under a doctor’s order, or been diagnosed with COVID-19.
The MOUMS team provides a package of food essentials and prepared meals to those approved through their application process. Depending on various levels of need, they may also include Larson’s Cash Saver gift cards for additional grocery items.
“We have seen and heard from many of the families that have benefitted from our efforts,” said MOUMS COVID Relief Coordinator Sierra Dexter. “They have been able to focus their money on bills outside of groceries while still feeling confident their children are being fed quality food.”
Move On Up, Mississippi’s aid application can be found on their website www.moveonupms.com/covidhelp. The meals/food essentials boxes are dispersed based on several factors including, but not limited to, number of family members and food allergy and sensitivity requirements.
“We have had many generous donations from donors! We are extremely grateful for those believing in our mission and our team to accomplish this mission during this time,” said Dexter.
Move On Up, Mississippi did have to cancel their major event, Oxford Bourbon Festival & Auction, this year, which is their largest fundraiser. Due to the COVID-19 donations, they have been able to accomplish the goal of meeting our community’s needs while not affecting grant cycle recipients, who will continue to be supported.
A Long Road Ahead
Although many debate whether this current phase of life is our new normal or a transitional phase, or if the worst is yet to reach our home front, one thing remains certain: our lives have changed, and in many ways, for the better. Families are spending time together, home cooking meals, learning to share their space with work, school, life, and stress. Families are talking unlike they have in the past, and life feels just a bit slower.
I, for one, am really enjoying the pace. I miss friends and social life—shows at Proud Larry’s and drinks at City Grocery. I miss work—creating alumni events and greeting students at the Alumni Association. I miss freedom—the ability to walk into the post office and not be afraid to bump into another human being. I miss interaction—meeting a stranger at Uptown Coffee for the first time while in line and learning what they are passionate about.
We all miss something, but I hope as you continue on for the next few weeks that you thank those putting in a little extra. Not just the nurses and health care workers and grocery baggers, but those you might not think about. The curbside food runner, the Fetcht delivery driver, the mail carrier, the United Way and Pantry and YAC and Food Bank volunteers, the bank teller, the pharmacist, the gas station personnel.
Whether you’re jobless and they’re helping keep you fed this month, or if you’re with a job and braving the store for chicken tenders and Pop-Tarts, know this: the one thing that connects us all right now is fear and isolation. If you can, bring some joy, some mirth, some celebration into the life of each person you interact with. You’ll be glad you did.
Based in Oxford, Elizabeth McDaniel Tettleton is a freelance writer and the leader and co-founder of The Oxford Comma creative writing workshop group. She is an event planner for the Ole Miss Alumni Association and MBA student at the University of Mississippi.