2020 was a year of terror and bewilderment, death and poverty — perhaps one of the darkest years our world has faced since World War II.
Northeastern Kentucky wasn’t immune to the troubles of 2020, though the area certainly didn’t get rocked by the civil unrest and the staggering COVID-19 numbers seen in the big cities. But the job losses — especially with the closing of Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital — continue to reverberate throughout the community.
In the midst of tragedy, there’s been a lot of good arising out of this year.
Everyday people have stepped to the plate. The best in humanity could be seen in the area in spite of the adversity.
In short, there’s still good news to share — news to restore one’s faith that maybe, just maybe, everything will turn out all right.
The following are the top 10 heartwarming stories of the year — and a common theme with nearly all of them is people, typically the average Jane and Joe, stepping up the plate and doing the write thing.
1. COVID-19 community response
While it might seem like years ago, it was only back in March when the toilet paper flew off the shelves and everything seemed to shut down in the area. People were tossed out of work. No one quite knew just how deadly this thing was — people were scared.
As some may recall, one thing in short supply was masks.
People around northeastern Kentucky stepped up to the plate to produce masks during the shortages and well into the pandemic. Take local teen Izzy McCloud — daughter of Greenup District Court Judge Brian McCloud — who cranked out masks made out of HVAC HEPA filters for medical professionals as far away as Georgia. Or Danita Miller and Lisa Toppins, of Catlettsburg and Chesapeake, respectively, who turned out masks for businesses and hospitals all over Huntington. Then there’s Debbie Yanacek, who stitched together 300 custom masks for students at Oakview Elementary, citing the Lord as laying it on her heart to do it.
Of course, we’d be remiss to forget about Grace Worthington, who used the sewing machine she asked for her birthday to sew together masks for workers at Wurtland Nursing and Rehabilitation. Miss Grayson Outstanding Teen Jasmine Webb had raised $7,500 as of October for the Children Miracle Network by selling masks with the help of her “adoptive grandmother” Caryolyn Riel Webb.
In a crisis, morale is just as important as basic survival gear.
Part of keeping up that morale was the parades and the reverse parades in the schools, like when teachers at Boyd Middle stood around the parking lot had parents drive through with their students to see them toward the end of the school year. Or at Russell High, where the graduating seniors stood from the bottom of the hill up past their alma mater and their parents, friends, teachers and locals drove by and threw candy at them. Boyd County High had a drive-by graduation, wherein graduates could pop in at stages and grab their diplomas.
Many area schools opted for virtual graduations, which — for graduating seniors who might not know — kind of beats sitting for two to three hours waiting on getting your piece of paper.
Outside of the school systems, Catlettsburg still had its Labor Day event through a little bit of socially distant rejiggering.
In Westwood, Cynthia Gonzalez — led by her faith — decorated her front yard with messages to thank frontline workers and honor those who died from the virus.
Don’t forget the underdog stories this year — small business is tough, what with the gigantic mega chains and what have you. But small business in a pandemic? That sounds down near impossible. But people have risen to the occasion — Mikal Miller, of The Mill Cafe, opened doors right during the first wave of COVID-19 in the area. Despite the setback, she persevered. Same with Richard Ritchie, who opened Whit’s Frozen Custard during the summer, though restrictions weren’t as severe then, it’s still a challenge.
2. Community response to OLBH closure
Taking COVID-19 out of the equation, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind the closure of OLBH was the worst news of the year for northeastern Kentucky. With 1,000 folks tossed onto the streets looking for work after Mercy merged with Bon Secours and essentially looked at the bottom line rather than the service to the community, the closure was another bleak chapter in the woes facing the region.
But as Kentuckians are wont to do, people came together in the wake of the tragedy.
Pews filled the First Baptist Church of Russell within days of the closure — 300 packed the church, which in the COVID times seems crazy. But that was before all that — people came together in prayer, asking for God’s help in getting through this setback.
That help came. The Kentucky Career Center deployed a Rapid Response Team to help OLBH employees fill out unemployment claims and seek job placements. Staff and residents at Morning Pointe and The Lantern by Morning Pointe put together care packages for mothers and expecting mothers working at the hospital.
When the end-of-care date at Bellefonte got pushed forward from Sept. 30 to April 30, people were shocked and angry. However, it didn’t prevent folks from coming out and bidding farewell to the hospital on its last day, to look back and grieve the loss of a community institution.
And for those who might have been born in OLBH, who remember it was a part of their lives, they can go see artifacts and pictures of the hospital at the Highland Museum.
3. Mayor Gilmore rides into sunset
During his last year in office, Ashland Mayor Stephen Gilmore liked to wax poetically at the beginning of city commission meetings about his times in public office. First serving on the park board in the 1970s, Gilmore has been on the city commission and the mayor on and off ever since.
2020 marked his the last of a 48-year public service career. At the last city commission meeting this year, Mayor Matt Perkins announced the commission would name a street after Gilmore.
There’s no doubt Gilmore’s fingerprints can be seen all over the city — the digging up of the pond in Central Park, which years ago had been filled in; the painting of the bridges; the beautification of the Port of Ashland; Broadway Square (formerly Judd Plaza); the Carol Jackson Unity Center; the updates in the water system; the new police station.
All that and then some, Gilmore’s had his hands on it in some shape form or fashion.
4. The Return
Easily one of the most-read stories of the year, the “Return to God” event at Central Park back in late September showed folks are hungering for faith in these trying times.
Between 250 and 300 people turned out to the revival to hear worship music and prayer sermons from local clergy. Event organizer John Riley called the event a success.
“There is a division in our country. But God isn’t a divider. God is a unifier,” Riley said.
The event was part of a much larger event intended to be held in Washington, D.C.
5. The Neighborhood
The Neighborhood is a one-stop shop for homeless and indigent folks needing vital services, such as food and clothing. Playing host to the Ashland Community Kitchen, CAReS, River Cities Harvest, The Dressing Room, The Drop and Transportation Station and other services, The Neighborhood is key to getting folks out of dire situations.
With job losses in the precarious service sector, those services have been in high demand this year. But rather than falter due to missed revenue opportunities, like the Wine and Bourbon Ball, The Neighborhood has risen to the occasion and has continued to serve the community.
6. 9-year-old superhero
Every kid likes to play superheroes, but not every kid actually becomes one.
On May 4, 9-year-old Myla Jade Ruark did just that, when she rescued her family from a house fire, minutes before the structure became engulfed in flames.
Ruark was sleeping in her living room inside a pillow fort when she awoke to the room filled with smoke and found she couldn’t breathe.
Seeing flames, Ruark was able to rouse her family and everyone got out — including the family dog — before the Olive Hill home burned up.
A total loss, the family then turned to the community for assistance by setting up a GoFundMe page.
7. Rally for Rusty
No 5-year-old should have to be facing stage-four cancer, but when Joe and MaKayla Bowling discovered their son Rusty had come down with neuroblastoma, the community came out in force to help.
Like many children the community has rallied around, Rusty’s family had road expenses to cover to take him to treatment at various hospitals. So the owners of Hillbilly Hibachi and the wider community rallied for Rusty, raising a little more than $6,000 for the family in a fundraiser earlier this year.
This situation applies to several children in the area. The community always seems to step up to help.
8. The miracle
Katie Childers, a Boyd County High School student, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma back in September 2019, after a mass was discovered in her throat and chest causing a 90% blockage of her airways.
Childers underwent 20 rounds of chemo radiation and received outpourings of support from locals and folks from around the world. However, after COVID-19 hit, doctors decided to discontinue treatment unless an emergency came up.
That’s when the miracle happened — in the spring of 2020, Childers went in for a check-up and doctors found the blockage had left her airways.
9. Coach Maze
Senior Night in high school sports is a special swan song for the soon-to-be graduates, whether it be in the yellow glow of the Friday night lights or on the shiny wood of the court.
For Ashland senior Luke Maze, Senior Night will probably be much more memorable than most — he coached the team to a win.
Maze, who has Down Syndrome, was made an honorary coach of the game, wherein he gave the team a talk before taking the court, again at halftime and helped with substitution patterns and drew up a couple plays.
Coach Jason Mays said Maze, who is a junior assistant on the team, has always been a part of the team.
“The outside world would say, ‘Aww, they do a good job of making sure he feels welcome.’ It’s not that,” Mays said. “It’s not fake at all. They look at him as a friend and as family, because they’ve been raised with him. I’ve seen pictures where Luke is in kindergarten and there’s pictures with some of our guys where he’s at their house at a birthday party for somebody turning 6 years old. He’s just one of them.
“Yes, Luke has Down syndrome, but our guys don’t look at him as Down syndrome at all. They look at him as one of their teammates.”
10. Return of the ring
Determination pays off.
Back in 1965, Evelyn Lewis found a 1961 Olive Hill High School class ring in the parking lot of a drive-in diner.
After asking around town and being unable to find the owner, she tucked it in a box. When Evelyn went was getting ready to move to Tennessee, she bequeathed the ring to her niece, Marcella, (conjuring up Bilbo’s passing of the ring to Frodo, for all you hobbit-heads out there). The niece hit up radio stations and took out an advertisement in the newspaper, but still could not locate the owner of the ring.
Three years ago, Judy Lewis took ownership of the ring and used social media to track down the daughter of the owner, Dorthy Louise Gilliam. Gilliam had passed years ago, but her daughter came forward to claim the ring.
It’s not as a dramatic as sneaking around an Orc army and tossing it into a volcano, but it’s a neat story nevertheless.
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