NEW BEDFORD — In a year filled with so much heartache, heroes emerged to help us through the pandemic.
Some were expected — obviously an infectious disease will bring out heroes in the medical field.
But who expected grocery store clerks to be our heroes? Or school nurses? Or grandmothers with sewing machines?
Yet they all helped us through some dark times in 2020. And here is our way of celebrating them.
So this year, in lieu of SouthCoast Man and Woman of the Year, we bring you the COVID Heroes.
When the coronavirus first hit this region back in March, doctors in the New Bedford area were — as expected — on the front lines.
In March, as cases began ramping up, Southcoast Health began putting restrictions in place, stockpiling much-needed equipment and formulating a plan to deal with a surge. Dr. Dani Hackner, Southcoast Health chief clinical officer, said at the time, “We feel very responsible for the staff and community.”
More:Southcoast Health, Saint Anne’s hospitals preparing for coronavirus surge
But not only doctors on the front lines were forced to adapt. Other physicians found themselves navigating the new world of telemedicine. At Southcoast Health alone, some 1,500 hospital and physician office staffers were suddenly thrust into telehealth programs that allow them to communicate in meetings and video conferences from home.
More:SouthCoast doctors say telemedicine has proven its worth, hope it will continue
And sometimes, the doctors themselves got sick. When Dr. Michael Barretti, the medical director for St. Luke’s intensive care unit, contracted COVID-19 he was hospitalized for a day and a half, was sick for three solid weeks and out of work for a month.
Being hit by the disease as hard as he was as a young healthy person with no underlying conditions gave Barretti a sound appreciation for what the disease does to the chronically ill and elderly.
“It’s a surreal experience and really reset my priorities,” Barretti said, “I learned what was really important, and if you don’t have your health you don’t have anything.”
More:St. Luke’s ICU medical director shares personal experience with COVID-19
From nurses traveling to hard-hit cities, to harried town nurses, to school nurses whose jobs became infinitely more complicated overnight, we covered them all this year.
School nurses now aren’t just patching up scraped knees or taking temperatures, but rather acting as an educator for parents and students, triage nurse, office clerk and counselor all in one.
“Our school nurses form the frontline of the district’s health services support for students,” said NBPS Superintendent Thomas Anderson in a statement. “They are often the nearest and most visible health care professionals that children encounter, and they are often the first to report health related needs to parents.”
Early on in the pandemic, it was nurses who were alerting the public about the need for more protective gear, locally, and the dangers being faced by medical staff who were caring for seriously ill patients.
More:Tobey nurse who contracted coronavirus worried about risk to coworkers
And who can forget Sarah Firth, a nurse with New Bedford Public Schools, who with her friend Jill Valadao created a fundraiser called FaceTime for Nana to purchase iPads for nursing home residents who could not receive visitors amid the pandemic.
Firth said she just wanted to provide some comfort to those who couldn’t be with their loved ones. “I just want to say elderly people are vulnerable as it is, COVID-19 aside,” she said. “Especially those suffering from dementia and Alzheimers, they feel isolated already. We thought seeing a familiar face might make them feel connected.”
More:‘FaceTime for Nana’ is easing isolation for elders in SouthCoast nursing homes
Those who kept us moving
Ron Deslauriers puts aside his personal fears about the new coronavirus, as a cab driver for Blue Bird Taxi. Blue Bird Taxi ran around-the-clock, seven days a week with less than half the number of drivers and about a third the number of vehicles it deployed before the coronavirus hit. In addition to providing a cab service, they also offer transportation for patients to medical appointments, particularly for dialysis treatment, from their Dartmouth Street headquarters in the city’s South End.
“I love my job,” DElauriers said. “I make them feel comfortable.” He helps them with their grocery bags, baby carriages and clothes with a cheery tone and a smile.
More:A working class hero: New Bedford cabby perseveres in the face of pandemic
And SRTA bus drivers — despite a limited schedule amid the shutdown — was able to transport folks to medical appointments, shopping and pharmacy trips and work. “I think they’re very brave in these tough times,” said Tony Sousa, president of the drivers union, adding they come in contact with people from all walks of life and they have no idea who might be carrying the virus. “It’s scary. That’s for sure.”
More:Driven to help: SRTA bus drivers are key workers in coronavirus pandemic
Those who fed us
When schools closed in March, cafeteria workers stepped up and prepared grab-and-go meals for their students, sometimes hopping in their own cars to drop off meals. Since the pandemic began, they’ve served thousands of meals.
“That’s one relief that you give them,” said Iesha Pina, cafeteria manager at Roosevelt Middle School. She delivers meals to a neighbor who has four kids and can’t get out to a site, she said.
Deb Motta, food service manager at Keith Middle School, said “I don’t feel like that much of a hero, I’m glad to do it,” Motta said.
More:School lunch workers are ‘Frontline heroes’ who deliver for children
And then there were people like Abby Medeiros, a 16-year-old aspiring artist and sophomore in Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech’s culinary program, who built Abby’s Food Pantry, a tiny structure full of nonperishables akin to a Little Free Library that operates on the principle of take what you need; leave what you can; and be safe and stay healthy.
More:Abby’s Food Pantry is GNB Voc-Tech student’s gift to those in need in coronavirus pandemic
Bradford J. Simmons II, of the Simmons Insurance Group, brought to New Bedford, Dartmouth and other area towns across the SouthCoast, his “Feed the First Responder” events, bringing together chefs Brian McElhiney and Eric Eastman, co-owners of the SWAT and Lobsta Luv food trucks, and chef Steven Coe, a two-time “Chopped” winner, to dish out chicken and Portuguese rice with linguica to local police, fire department, medical workers and other first responders.
More:Food Network chef shows appreciation for New Bedford first responders with special meal
In response to community needs in this time of coronavirus outbreak, Sid Wainer & Son hosted emergency Food Rescue Pop Up events. “During these challenging times, we must stick together and provide support to stay healthy, eat well, and be well,” said Allie Wainer.
More:Sid Wainer holds ‘pop up’ market amid coronavirus outbreak
Those who spread cheer
Sure, there were a bunch of birthday parades, drive-by retirement parties, even bridal showers.
On the SouthCoast, people found plenty of ways to cheer one another up. Mariann Pallatroni, of Fairhaven, wanted to “do just a little something for the Essential Workers.” She posted a picture of her front yard garden on Pleasant Street on Facebook and asked the general public to place a spinner (pinwheel) in it. She even suggested writing the person’s name on the spinner they would like to recognize.
More:Acts of kindness brings cheer during coronavirus pandemic
When his seventh birthday party on Saturday got canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kason Picanso decided to celebrate his family and friends instead. He filled eight goodie bags with Play-Doh, chalk, cotton candy and other surprises, and wrote the same message on each one: “Today is my birthday! I have to celebrate a little different. So this year I decided to spread some positive cheer! Here is a gift from me to you! Hope it brings a smile from ear to ear.” Then on his birthday, March 25, Kason delivered the goodie bags to the doorsteps of his friends and family.
More:New Bedford 7-year-old delivered cheer to his friends and family
Local photographer Chelsey Puza contacted her friend, Maegan Powers, who is on the board of the United Way of Greater New Bedford, and decided to raise money for their COVID-19 Response Fund by taking socially distanced photos of families on their front stoops. “To be honest, I thought it would be weird pulling up to a stranger’s house and having to wave hello from 10-plus feet away, but it’s quite the opposite,” Puza said. “When people walk out their front door it feels like we’re old friends. Everyone is eager, excited and gracious. It’s an experience like no other.”
More:Front stoops photos aid Local United Way’s COVID-19 Response Fund
The essential workers
From grocery clerks to pharmacy techs to nursing home staff, delivery drivers to postal workers and package delivery services, the New Bedford area gave thanks this year for essential workers.
More:Supermarkets pitch in amid rush for groceries
Family-owned supermarkets such as Lees Market in Westport and Trucchi’s supermarkets adapted to the changes required by law and common sense in these days of great fear and restriction. And some of those changes, owners and managers have discovered, are ideas that might be worth keeping in place if and when the virus crisis passes or at least chills out a bit.
And all had praise for their staff, especially considering that some of them were just teenagers and being considered an essential worker brought with it a certain amount of pressure and fear. “A lot of our young people stepped up to the plate,” said Trucchi’s owner Jim Trucchi . “We’ve given them hazard pay. They’ve been coming in. Some of our older folks, too. It’s been no problem.”
More:Masks, curbside pickup, extra cleaning: Local markets adapt for the long haul
The mask makers
Stuck inside during lockdown, grandmothers, hobbyists and even children took to their sewing machines to make face masks. In the spring, we probably got contacted two or three times a week about someone making masks. Once the mask mandate was in place, grateful New Bedford area residents were quick to scoop them up.
Steve Methia slept next to his 3D printer, waking up every two hours. Retired from Verizon, he churned out as many 3D-printed face shields as possible for desperate first responders from his hobby shop in Mattapoisett. “It’s important,” he said. “We’re all in this together and we have to help each other. Whatever I can do to help, I’ll do. I’ll do this 24/7 for as long as it takes.”
More:Mattapoisett man using 3D printer to create face shields for local first responders
New Bedford’s Sandy Rosonina began making masks when she could no longer work at Stephen & Company Salon and Spa in Dartmouth due to the shutdown. “I saw the news that they were in desperate need of masks so I found a pattern online and started making them,” said Rosonina, who previously only used her sewing machine to make Halloween costumes for her 4-year-old granddaughter. “I have a lot of friends that are nurses or in the medical field. I said, ‘Let me do something.’ It’s something and that is better than nothing.”
And Debra Pequita, a registered nurse herself with Nightingale Visiting Nurses, watched a YouTube tutorial on how to make masks. “I thought, ‘This is terrible.’ These [nurses] are on the front lines and they don’t have enough protection. I’m just going to make them some.” Pequita even said that employees at Walmart and Joann Fabric purchased supplies themselves and donated them to the effort. Joann Fabric also began handing out kits that included all the supplies needed to make the masks that people could pick up and drop back off with the finished product.
More:SouthCoast sewers are making much-needed masks
The businesses who pivoted to PPE
After initially having to furlough a significant number of its employees at the end of March, Joseph Abboud’s manufacturing facility in the city quickly reopened in a large mask making effort. The company committed early on to producing more than 100,000 masks at its New Bedford facility.
More:Joseph Abboud factory in New Bedford set to produce over 100,000 masks
But they weren’t alone.
In its normal operations, Refried Apparel, located in a Belleville Avenue mill building not far from Joseph Abboud, takes extra inventory from retailers, most notably professional sports teams and college athletic programs, and re-imagines them as fresh garments. Maybe a T-shirt that wasn’t selling becomes a skirt, or a hoodie sweatshirt becomes a bag.
Already used to re-purposing fabric, owners Mark and Lisa Litos researched the best way to make masks for first responders. They also saw a need from essential workers, especially public-facing employees. They researched which materials to use and how to retrofit their factory to efficiently make masks. They even got their teenage children to help out making masks.
More:New Bedford clothing company Refried Apparel starts making, donating thousands of masks
Robert Brunelle, owner of Main Street Formals in Acushnet, also got in on the mask making efforts. He went online and found a pattern and specs for making cotton masks. He was amazed to find methods of making masks out of all kinds of materials, including dishrags and paper towels. “Everybody is affected by (coronavirus) and it’s nice because everyone is trying to look for something good to do,” Brunelle said.
More:Main Street Formals in Acushnet lends a hand by turning pocket squares into masks
But it wasn’t just making PPE. Some businesses donated gear. Skip’s Marine, a supplier of packaging and protective gear for the seafood industry, donated more than 40,000 pieces of equipment, including 20,000 disposable gloves, 500 food-grade masks, 20,000 hair and beard covers and 300 disposable aprons, plus full arm-length disinfecting gloves and safety glasses — all to help the city.
More:Doing its part: Skip’s Marine donates more than 40,000 PPEs to New Bedford first responder
Elections officials who kept voters safe
No doubt this election was unprecedented. New Bedford and surrounding towns embraced mail-in voting as an alternative in the face of the coronavirus, and the town clerks and elections staff rose to the challenge. In many cases, voting locations were changed to allow for more social distancing. Booths were sanitized between voters and special pens were distributed to ease voters’ concerns. And it was not only the national election in November — these hard-working individuals were also able to keep local town meetings (sometimes held outside, even!) running smoothly despite COVID concerns.
More:Voters turn out
Last but not least, the teachers (all school staff, really)
When schools were first canceled back in March, we thought it would be just a few weeks. But then the reopening dates kept getting pushed back as COVID cases increased. But students and teachers rose to the occasion, making the best of what at times was a difficult remote learning situation.
Teachers made packets of learning materials and even dropped off supplies to students who needed them.
More:School districts offer learning packets, resources for students at home
They did what they could to celebrate the Class of 2020, including elaborate drive-by parades and diploma ceremonies.
More:Car parade makes Fairhaven High School graduation as special as any
Even theater and music classes went online. Socially distanced and equipped with masks and special covers for their instruments, the marching band was even able to practice together again.
Some went way above and beyond the call of duty. Chantal Allen, a Macomber School art teacher, turned to her passion and began the HaveHope project, asking her students and others in the community to spread kindness through kind words, phrases and artwork at their homes. Artwork could be made with anything from chalk to paint and had to encompass something that provides hope.
More:Macomber School art teacher wants the community to ‘Have Hope’
The New Bedford Public Schools’ English as a second language program assisted families with technology setup and support to make sure every student had access to internet.
For parents and community members alike, it was a joy to behold the selflessness and creativity of school staff across Greater New Bedford. When students first went remote in March, the lessons weren’t as focused on curriculum units in school, but rather about what language they could teach to get students through that difficult time. Students were learning how to say they weren’t feeling well, as well as advocating for themselves and their families. Many students speak English more fluently than their families, so they serve as a translator, and they had to learn how to communicate basic survival skills while the pandemic progressed.
For parents and community members alike, it was a joy to behold the selflessness and creativity of school staff across Greater New Bedford