Finding Silver Linings While Living in a Pandemic

It’s safe to say most of us won’t be sad to see 2020 in the rearview mirror. It’s been a grueling, often heartbreaking year. But all over Loudoun, the past 10 months have seen inspiring stories of resilience and reinvention amid the COVID crisis. Here’s a look at just a few that have made us smile this year.

‘Any of Us Can Have a Tough Time’

When Leesburg lawyer Peter Burnett turned an empty commercial space on Leesburg’s main drag into a hub for feeding neighbors in need from all walks of life, he thought it was going to be up and running for a few months. Nine months in, the Ampersand Pantry Project is still going strong, serving 300 meals every day. 

“It has been anything but predictable,” Burnett said. “The support of the community was one of the unpredictable. … It’s just come from everywhere.”

In April, Burnett and a team of volunteers expanded Ampersand, which started as a small food pantry drop box at a Leesburg church, taking over the former Tastee Freez building at 338 E. Market St., which Burnett owns and hadn’t yet redeveloped. 

“Our core undertaking was to provide one nutritious meal in the middle of the day for anybody who needs it—no questions asked,” Burnett said. “We’re trying to keep the dignity factor as high as we can.”

COVID has brought hardship to Loudouners from all walks of life, Burnett said. And in many cases, Ampersand is serving residents who have never needed help before. Preserving that element of dignity sparked the idea of handing out a fresh carnation with each meal.

“We said, ‘Let’s lift some spirits,’” Burnett said. “The psychology of it got more positive. … There’s a sense of, ‘Hey neighbor, sorry you’re having a tough time.’”

The project has snowballed beyond expectations. In addition to daily lunches, the nonprofit provides diapers and pantry items to families in needs. Volunteers worked with local chef Kim Evans to serve homemade Thanksgiving meals to more than 100 families. Ampersand also provided Christmas presents to more than 400 children.

With support from area restaurants and other businesses, faith organizations and individual donors making contributions large and small, the project now serves around 300 lunches every day, with a budget of around $10,000 a week.

Burnett is planning to take 2021 one step at a time. Ampersand started as an ad hoc effort in a time of crisis, and he says the project remains tied to pandemic. He plans to keep it running as long as the pandemic’s economic impact continues to affect Loudouners but is hopeful that the need will wane as vaccines allow more employers to get back to business. For now, Burnett and his team will take things week by week for the first part of 2021. Ampersand is a registered 501(c)(3) charity, but there’s no official website. Donors and volunteers make contact through Burnett’s law firm, through the project’s GoFundMe page and through Loudoun Cares organization, which connects volunteers with local nonprofits.

“The ad hoc has worked pretty well so far,” Burnett said. 

Burnett is also planning to redevelop the Market Street building as a commercial space next spring as initially intended. But the organization has the capacity to shift all meal service to locations on Harrison Street and Edwards Ferry Road, he said. 

For Burnett, the dedication of volunteers and donors has been one of the silver linings of 2020.

“I think there’s been a consciousness raising of sorts at a community level about neighbors helping neighbors. That’s what we’re all here for anyway. … Any of us can get in trouble, any of us can have a tough time. But at some very basic levels, we can count on each other to be there to support those who are hurting.”

Keeping the Wines in Front of People’

2020 has brought enormous challenges for Loudoun’s restaurants, wineries and breweries—but also opportunities to get creative and build community. From outdoor seating, igloos and mini-greenhouses to virtual tastings, local wineries have met the challenges of the pandemic, while bracing for a potentially tough winter ahead.

Nate and Sarah Walsh had just celebrated the first anniversary of their Walsh Family Wine near Hillsboro when the initial shutdown hit in March. The couple immediately pivoted to curbside pickup and virtual tastings.

“We closed up, cleaned up, turned off the lights. Then we planned multiple weeks of virtual tastings, without really knowing what the response would be. But we knew we needed some way of staying connected with people and keeping the wines in front of people and keeping people thinking about us,” Nate Walsh said. 

Virtual tastings have become a thing for numerous Loudoun wineries this year. And the Walshes’ Drinkwell series has stood out as one of the most innovative. The couple spotlights their own wines and use Sarah’s connections on the national and international winemaking scene to bring in winemakers from around the world to discuss their wines. A recent online featured a discussion with Uruguayan winemaker Pia Carrau on the Tannat grape varietal, which is gaining traction in Virginia.

The idea was to take the idea of the virtual tasting beyond the basics, bringing in wine pros from around Virginia and beyond.

“The Virginia wine community is so inclusive and collaborative, and Sarah works with the broader national and international wine community,” Walsh said. “We have a really large network of people that we were able to lasso into doing these virtual tastings with us to make them hopefully more interesting.”

Participants can have wines shipped a week in advance and then tune in to the free online class. For Walsh, there’s also a sense of added value that participants wouldn’t get on a normal tasting room visit. 

“If you come to a winery, you aren’t necessarily going to get the vineyard manager or the winemaker, but you do get that with [virtual tastings], which I think is a big draw,” Walsh said.

With 35 virtual tastings under their belt, the winery owners have built an online community of fans and supporters. They’ve also welcomed wine lovers into the tasting room in limited numbers since Virginia’s Phase 3 reopening began this summer. But like many Loudoun wineries, Walsh is bracing for a winter slowdown as cold weather makes outdoor socializing less feasible. They’ve worked that into their budget and will continue curbside pickup and virtual tastings. But for Walsh, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and a strong sense of anticipation for the spring and summer to come.

“Our big picture for 2021—we’re very excited,” Walsh said. “We have a lot of production, new wines and new products coming out … and looking ahead to spring and being able to offer lots of [outdoor] space. We’re very optimistic about that—hopefully being able to be on the other side of this sometime next year.”

‘It’s Been a Whirlwind’

The pandemic has been tough on families in 2020, as parents balanced work with distance learning, and everyone enjoyed plenty of extra togetherness. For one Ashburn mom, an effort to protect her immunocompromised daughter during the pandemic has led to an unexpected—and unexpectedly positive—reinvention. 

Yolanda Latimer, a single mom of three, made local—then regional and national—headlines this summer and fall as efforts to keep her preschool aged daughter Savannah, who has Chronic Lung Disease, healthy led her to launch a cooking blog and start a new business. Latimer’s “Londa’s Laboratory” blog and social media pages followed her efforts to cook every meal at home to limit potential exposure to the virus. That commitment allowed Latimer to tap into a longstanding passion for cooking—and spoke to a growing community of followers. Since Latimer initially spoke to Loudoun Now in May, her Facebook and Instagram pages have taken off, and she registered her business as an LLC in June. Latimer has started offering virtual cooking classes and a curbside meal service offering desserts and appetizers. Latimer has also become an ambassador for Hungry Harvest, a Baltimore-based food delivery service that works to save “ugly produce” from landfills and offer reduced cost and donated produce to low income customers. And Latimer isn’t letting down her guard: at the end of 2020, she was closing in on 300 days with no outside food. 

“It’s just been a whirlwind. I can’t even put into words how much my reach has opened up,” Latimer said. “It seems like I’ve been in business for years. I have to give myself grace about how fast it’s moving. … I have to remind myself when it feels like it’s all too much that it’s really just the beginning.

Nearly a year of restrictions and non-stop family time hasn’t always been a piece of cake. Latimer is balancing her new business with her job as a corporate recruiter, along with virtual and homeschool for her kids and navigating life with a college age son living at home and needing some independence for work and friends. But it’s been worth it.

“We’ve been making pivots every time we can make a pivot,” she said. “For me, this has been nine months of growth, something outside of my comfort zone and really putting my talents to work”

For 2021, Latimer is looking to expand the foodservice side of her business while continuing virtual classes and bringing in guest chefs. Starting in January she’ll go live twice a month with a new guest on Facebook and Instagram (where Londa’s Laboratory recently hit 2,000 followers). 

But she’ll definitely breathe a sigh of relief when the public health circumstances allow her to relax.

“I’m going away for a month,” she said with a laugh.

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