• Jessyca Stoepker

The Chronicles of COVID: Anger, exhaustion, and bittersweet moments in human services

Updated: Jan 24, 2021



I haven't published a blog post in a long time. While I could blame it on being busy (I am) or being unmotivated (also true), it's mostly because I haven't known what I could say that would be at all enlightening or different from the next guy.


But I have been writing a little, and its mostly inspired by my unique positioning: working at a food bank during a global pandemic and semi-collapsed economy.


Unlike most folks, I have not yet been sent home to work remotely. While even healthcare workers took a few weeks' leave in the spring, I still went in to work everyday. So for the most part, during the past nine months my head has been down in the daily grind doing what I have to do. And I've successfully distracted myself when I get home with a multitude of what I call "community projects": the various boards, committees, and working groups of which I've stepped into leadership roles. I've also just finished my first semester of graduate classes, which is probably the only reason I have time to be sitting here typing now.


So yeah, I wasn't rushing to make a public life update. But now that I am, I'll share some snippets of my day-to-day last year. Hopefully these entries can shed some light on where I've been and where I'm at, as a human and essential services worker during this unprecedented time in modern history.


Disclaimers: I love my job. Views and opinions are my own and do not reflect or represent my employer. This is not an exhaustive account (can't all fit in one post!). Also, I meant to publish this mid-December, so let's just pretend I did.



March


The virus, once just a vague concern, was here in all of its demanding, terrifying glory. On Friday, March 13, my workplace had a 3-hour meeting for pandemic preparedness, which is when I began writing our first procedures and documents we'd share with the public.


After being out of the office the day before for positive personal growth and energizing group leadership training, and returning to work with a global emergency looming over us like a lava-gushing Mount Doom, my first "sh*t-hit-the-fan" gut feelings reared their ugly little heads that day. There was so much more unknown than known. The feelings would wax and wane, but I'm not sure if I can say they're officially gone.



Early April


Wednesday night, I took a walk around West Park in Resort Township. I don't know why, but I wanted to get away from everyone and everything, and possibly pry some answers out of my question-filled head. After a short walk around the woods, I hitched up my hammock and swayed in it for an hour, looking up at the naked trees. I had brought a drink with me to hopefully ease my restlessness and relax, but all it did was pry open the melancholy.


You would think some profound realization would come to me at a moment like that, alone in the woods with nothing but birds and distant lake waves in hearing range. I was waiting for it. The closest I got was admitting that sure, I wanted to be away from people, but I didn't want to be alone.


When dusk came and it got too cold, I drove back to Bayfront Park to sit in my car and watch the sunset. Several other cars were there doing the same, and two different couples sat at picnic tables, heads on each others' shoulders. COVID romance. I've always wondered why sunsets were considered more romantic than sunrises.



Late April


Office manager. Social worker. Subway sandwich artist. Warehouse personnel. You don't normally go into these types of jobs expecting to work through a pandemic. Yet our world today demands and depends on it.


In America, we're lucky if health insurance is on the table, let alone sick pay or, gasp, hazard pay.


My job is pretty unique. It can be thought of somewhat as a combination of these positions: I answer phones, write and edit articles, coordinate volunteers, build relationships with farmers and businesses, talk people through crises, pack and stock food, and even personally deliver emergency boxes to people who haven't eaten a good meal in a day or two. I performed these responsibilities before the pandemic; now, I do them during and because of it, somehow with more urgency and importance than before.


The biggest difference between the need pre-COVID and the need during the pandemic has been the folks who have never used food assistance before. I tend to describe these people as having been living "on the brink" for a long while--skimping by paycheck-to-paycheck for one reason or another, but proud of their work and unwilling to ask for help, or just not realizing the seriousness of their budget balancing act.


In reality, many families could have (and should have) been utilizing some form of assistance to help them get along, even if they didn't deem their current situation to be an emergency. If visiting a food pantry saves someone $30 a month, that's $30 that could go to a phone bill, a credit card payment, or a gas tank instead. The 2019 ALICE Report by United Way estimates that 43% of Michigan households do not earn enough to pay for all expenses. This includes those in poverty (about 12%) but also a large chunk of the population who are trapped between a rock and a hard place. The technical term for this is ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) households, sometimes known as the "working poor." This group is only growing, with numbers steadily seeping down from the shrinking middle class.


Folks that had never felt the need to reach out for food assistance, that are now finding themselves hungry, don't know where to go most of the time. How would they have known that food stamps are now called SNAP? Or to visit the health department to apply for benefits? Out of sight, out of mind. With COVID-19, they are double-stuck: lacking knowledge of where to start, people must now jump the additional hurdle of finding resources that are open and accepting new clients during quarantine.




May 22

Mobile pantry at Odawa Casino. Over a hundred households came through. Middle-aged brunette picking up for herself and 2 other families. She was glad to hear of our extension because she just had her hours cut at the hospital.


Another woman, this one from Cheboygan. First time ever thinking she needed food assistance. Throat caught. Heard us on the radio. Said her kids just want fruit. She works for a private hospice company, making less than the unemployed right now because of some corporate loophole. Still has on her lilac-colored scrubs.


Finally a sunny warm day. Sunscreen gradually leaking into my eyes. Kicking fluffy dandelions between clients. It's nice to have a solid group of people (volunteers) to depend on, be able to trust. I don't know their stories, but I feel like I've known them for ages.


As the season warms up, we start purchasing more locally grown fruits and vegetables than ever before. We also started distributing USDA Farmers to Families Food Boxes, a really cool project where we eventually reach 18,000 produce boxes delivered to area families, thanks to a partnership with Coveyou Farms.




June-July


Cases are slightly decreasing. Anti-maskers are wallowing in it, claiming they were right all along. The enormous public re-awakening of the Black Lives Matter movement spurred by the death of George Floyd adds another layer of cynicism to their dangerous arguments. Race and public health become poisonously intertwined.


We see a commissioner in Leelanau county proclaim that COVID-19 is just something those "n*****s down in Detroit" are bringing north. We hear about the Navajo Nation's utter lack of federal monetary or resource support, directly causing very high transmission rates and fatalities. We hear complaints about the mass BLM protests being hypocritical and spreading COVID rapidly, despite proof that they aren't. Mask mandates are much more of a violation of civil liberties than before because the insecure Right is grasping at whatever pride they can find. Masks that are begrudgingly worn display flags with MAGA, Trump 2020, or thin blue lines that illegally desecrate the American flag that they claim to respect so much.



August


August 6 marks my two-year work anniversary. I use it as way to introduce myself in a monthly Petoskey News-Review column dedicated to the Thriving Petoskey Committee, which I co-chair.


"Before Petoskey, I lived downstate and had been working in the nonprofit and human services fields for several years — at a hospital, a YMCA, a dementia care unit, and a county health department. After securing a position with Manna, I thought this sector was where I belonged, where I was meant to stay. My “silo” of health and helping people. While this work is fulfilling to me, and essential in its direct service to people in need, I cannot stand to only put temporary bandages on deep-seated issues. There’s a bigger picture here, and it requires a proactive approach.
Yes, I will be here to provide emergency food assistance to the family who just can’t catch a break. But I will also be here to advocate for and promote better decision-making that alleviates that family’s hardships from the start, so they don’t have to come to me for food in the future.
My belief is that changing underlying systems is the most effective way to solve our problems. And those systems begin at the local level."
"If there’s one thing that COVID-19 has proven, it’s that the best way for us to improve our region’s way of life is to work together—disband those “silos” we put ourselves in and focus on collaborative innovation. That means cross-sector partnerships. Leaders at every experience level. Empathy. Investment in long-term solutions, not short-term fixes. And putting people first, no matter what."

Some may find it hard to believe that I got push-back from writing this article. Honesty can hurt. It's painfully hilarious to me that people find pride in treating symptoms but disagree with preventing the disease.


September


One kind gentleman lacking transportation walks two miles from his house, loads up his backpack with canned goods and produce, and walks the two miles back. It's become a monthly routine now, though he has had someone call the cops on him for "suspiciously" walking down the road with his bag. They even publish it in the newspaper, and the guy explains, "I was just coming back from Manna's food pantry." Now our staff members will occasionally give him a ride back .


October


It's extremely difficult to keep up with sanitizing standards when everyone's struggling to fulfill their original job duties, even with the cleaning service that we hired. Not to mention filling in for employees absent for lack of childcare or for medical procedures. As our annual audit quickly approaches, workplace stress continues to rise.


November


We've come "full circle" with the virus. As in, we're right back where we started, except several times worse off.


Our health systems are overwhelmed, the hospitalization of so many people snowballs into more problems: surgery cancellations or delays, preventable non-COVID deaths, workplace closures, late payments, evictions, and worsening mental health to name a few. All of these situations immediately put people at increased risk of food insecurity, and food banks nationwide are feeling the effects.



In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we see a large increase in client numbers. So many of these faces I have never seen before. In lieu of a turkey or special holiday box, we hand out Meijer food-only gift cards.


I have sore ears and headaches from the tight KN95 masks but I'm afraid to wear anything else. We now have an office air filtration system that's supposed to purify the air in 7 minutes, but it's not a cure nor a reason to let our guard down. Two of my friends in Northern Michigan got it. Another friend and her boyfriend got it downstate. Luckily all recovered with few complications, but learning about it froze the breath in my lungs.


Between the long hours of work and projects, poor sleep quality, and seasonal reduction of daylight, I struggle to find motivation or creativity. I'm frustrated with too many things to count and have never felt more burnt out.

I'm angry at baseless arguments and power dynamics. I'm angry at the people I interact with who still think it's okay to continue their story without their mask on between sips of coffee, as if the virus particles also take coffee breaks. I'm angry at expectations, obligations, and inconsistency. I'm angry at carelessness, stupidity, ignorance, inequity, and audacity. I really do not remember the last time I have felt this much inner rage or this trapped.


My irritability refuses to be stifled for weeks--but at the same time I doubt myself and feel guilty for having these emotions. My therapist and I realize this irritation and helplessness is a result of gaslighting. Still, I can't help but vet these internal questions. Is it just me? How can everyone shrug this things off? What is the ethical thing to do? What is my breaking point?


I've never felt tensions so high in such a small work environment. It's difficult to put specific feelings and instances into words, and to get others to understand. Sometimes I feel very alone. I'm thankful that my friends, family, and therapist validate my experiences.


Though I personally do not celebrate the holiday, my cat and I Zoomed my mom and sister for Thanksgiving and talked to my dad over the phone. That's one of the few days in November when I remember feeling "good."



December


Emmet county's case count has risen to over 1,000. Thirty-one people have died. About every 1 in 33 people have or have had it. I know other places and cities have worse (and much worse) ratios, but it's a startling statistic to know with all the people I see each day at work.


But we're doing okay. We've only had two staff exposure scares this entire year--I'm astounded it hasn't been more, and that none of us have contracted it yet. By now I've taken 5 or 6 COVID tests.


One of our partner pantry directors died of the virus after being on a ventilator for two weeks. I had only met him a couple times, but he was lauded for his community-building and friendliness to everyone. That's the closest I've been so far to a COVID death and the closest I ever want to be. Others have not been so lucky. A business partner lost her mother, who happened to be related to someone else I know.


I'm less angry now, but more out of resignation and fatigue, and self-preservation I guess. Our country is disassociating from COVID and its resulting deaths, even those of us who care deeply and are fighting to stop it. Even as an essential worker, I feel disconnected from it myself--a bittersweet response to universal trauma that keeps us going but shields us from truly understanding. How can one process these millions of tragedies, and the millions of causal tragedies multiplying outward because of them? How can one contain the inner fury we should all feel at the injustices we are forced to endure? Our collective cognitive dissonance, at various levels of severity, is why we are still functioning but is also why this COVID train keeps chugging along.


Essential human service workers like me may be slated for receiving the vaccine early next year. It's definitely earlier than I had anticipated, but there's still a lot of time between now and then. While the pandemic continues into 2021, I hope to use these next few weeks as a mental reset--if anything, cultivating a more composed and healing headspace.


Here's to weathering the long winter ahead, together but apart.



22 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All