Santa Fe Opera. Photography Robert Godwin.

A Pandemic of Kindness

by Meg Peralta-Silva

In the 1960s, sociologists at the Disaster Research Center wondered if times of crisis would bring about chaos and anarchy. They found that time and time again, though, disasters and crises bring communities together. During the coronavirus pandemic, people in New Mexico have responded with generosity, compassion and support. Businesses, organizations and individuals reached out in countless acts of kindness to help meet the needs of those around them. These are some of their stories.

A woman at a sewing machine making masks
An Operation Bandana volunteer sewing a mask strap. Photo by Jerry Carrillo Ortiz.
A mother and daughter at sewing machines making masks
Volunteers Robin Carrillo Ortiz and daughter Katherine making masks for Operation Bandana. Photo by Jerry Carrillo Ortiz.

Operation Bandana New Mexico

When Santa Fean Robin Carillo Ortiz was watching a news story on MSNBC about a hospital in Indiana asking the public to make cloth masks, an idea struck her. She has been sewing for over thirty years and thought, “I could do that.” She started sewing a few masks, and a few became a few more. She started a Facebook page to help connect and organize people who were already making masks. New volunteers flocked in. Ortiz reports, “So many people responded so fast that I called my friend, Erin Price, to help organize a system of logging and managing volunteers, donations and deliveries. The rest is history!” Operation Bandana New Mexico had begun.

Word quickly spread as people across the state looked for ways to help their community. Robin says of the project, “This is much bigger than I ever imagined. Early on, I had [volunteers from] some organizations show up to pick up masks from my porch. They were literally in tears, they were so grateful to be able to protect their group [members].” She concludes, “It was inspiring to see what a difference we were making in people’s lives.”

“The COVID [pandemic] will come and go, like everything else that comes and goes, and in the end what have we created, what have we left?”

More than 700 volunteers have cut fabric, sewn masks, made phone calls and driven hundreds of miles doing pickups and making deliveries. Collectively, they have made, donated and distributed over 45,000 masks to hospitals, clinics, tribes, homeless shelters, assisted living facilities, members of vulnerable populations, detention centers, the New Mexico National Guard and essential businesses. They have also sent masks to the U.S. Navy after New Mexican reservists wrote home requesting them. Since May, Operation Bandana, in collaboration with the National Guard, has collected and delivered tractor-trailer loads of goods to pueblos, Navajo chapters and hospitals in San Juan and McKinley Counties.

“I wasn’t expecting to do this kind of work,” says Robin, “but this is a journey that has led me, rather than the other way around.” Operation Bandana volunteers agree: The crisis has brought people together and strengthened community.

The interior of the Santa Fe Opera
When the Santa Fe Opera canceled its 2020 season, countless ticket holders donated the cost of their tickets. Photo by Insight Foto for Santa Fe Opera.

The Santa Fe Opera 

The Santa Fe Opera transports patrons with the magic of its performances, and these opera lovers are indeed a community. On May 11, Robert K. Meya, the General Director, announced with deep sadness that because of the pandemic, the 2020 season was canceled. In the same announcement, he committed to providing compensation not only to the opera singers, artisans and musicians but also to the more than 600 additional staff members hired for the summer season. One way the Opera sought to cover costs was by asking operagoers to donate the cost of their tickets rather than seek refunds. Many patrons responded by doing just that.

Peggy Durbin is one of the many who donated the cost of her season tickets. She has been going to the Santa Fe Opera since 1968 when she saw The Magic Flute, her first live opera. It gave her chills, and she thought, “This is where I want to be!” Since the 1986 season, she’s held tickets for the Friday night series, attended more than 120 operas and become a docent. Durbin says, “The whole experience on performance nights is a magnet. I love the tailgating, the sunsets, the vistas and being part of a 2,000-person community, all focused on something that speaks to us in the most profound way.” She says donating her ticket cost was a no-brainer. “The Opera is my ‘happy place’ and has given me such joy over the past fifty-plus years,” she says. “I especially wanted to support my backstage buddies. The Opera also did the right thing for the artists who were contracted for the season.”

Janice Pantazelos, an opera singer, founder of Opera West! and an operagoer for more than four decades, also donated the value of her season tickets. She fell in love with opera at twelve when her mother would play Maria Callas albums. “I donated my tickets because we want the Santa Fe Opera to stay strong as it’s a beacon in the opera community throughout the United States.”

It is not the first time the Santa Fe Opera has faced profound challenges. Durbin recalls, “After the fire in 1967, the opera season went on: a new [opera] house was built, and the 1968 season opened right on time. A global pandemic has changed the way we approach life, but the Opera will adapt, respond and come back.” Everyone is looking forward to celebrating together in the 2021 season.

Boxes of produce marked for distribution
Boxes of fresh produce, beans and rice that Just the Best provided at low cost to restaurant- and food-industry workers.
Boxes stacked at Just The Best
Stacked boxes of produce and food staples from Just the Best waiting for distribution. Photo by Stacy Wilson.

Just the Best 

When the world started “raining fire,” Stacy Wilson wanted to see what her family could do to help. Her parents, Bill and Jenny Morris, own and operate Just the Best Produce, a Santa Fe produce company that has been in business for more than twenty-four years. “I thought, we have a 25,000-square-foot warehouse full of food, and there are so many people who might need it.” She continues, “I wanted to help the cooks, bartenders, wait-staff and other restaurant employees that have supported us and loved us and been part of our community for so long.”

Many restaurants throughout New Mexico had to lay off staff because of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Wilson and the Just the Best employees prepared boxes that contained beans, rice, fresh produce and other essentials. They made the boxes available at twenty percent of the cost. She reached out to restaurants and shared on her social media, but never anticipated how deep the need already was. That first Friday in March, 130 people showed up to get boxes. Some restaurant owners purchased boxes for their entire staff, delivering them to the homes of the employees they’d had to lay off.

For the next thirteen weeks, Just the Best Produce prepared boxes every Friday, even driving pallets of them to Albuquerque to make boxes more accessible to those in need there. During one such trip, Wilson invited a staff member who had been going through a rough time to help her drive. After dispensing the boxes, he was teary-eyed and said he was grateful to have been part of something bigger than himself. Wilson says that despite how difficult the circumstances can be during troubled times, that a sense of gratitude and connection reminds everyone about what really matters.

Girls Inc of Santa Fe delivers a tote bag of supplies to a girl in a car
A staff member greets a student to deliver a tote bag of supplies that will used during Girls Inc's online programs.

Girls Inc.

Within weeks of the schools closing, Girls Inc., a nonprofit focused on “inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold” pivoted its programming to online platforms and began looking ahead to what the summer would hold. They refunded over $45,000 in summer tuition to help ease the financial burdens of families during COVID-19. The organization also had to cancel two major fundraising events slated to be held in the spring and summer. However, Kim Brown, CEO, says they knew despite the challenges, the programming they offer is critical, and the staff wanted to show up and support the girls. They chose to go forward, providing virtual summer programming free of charge to families for 130 girls.

Staff now facilitate ninety-minute sessions for groups of six to ten girls with activities such as cooking, art, dance, virtual field trips and — much to parents’ appreciation — clean-up. Madonna Hernandez, the Director of Programs says, “One of the most important things we do is building connection and mentoring relationships. Each girl is an individual, and it’s extremely powerful to feel seen as the person they are.” Every two weeks, Girls Inc. supplies tote bags filled with the supplies that will be needed for upcoming activities. Families stop by to collect them. High schoolers take part in a youth leadership council that has stayed busy with a virtual graduation, a college shower, and planning a city-wide conference on consent.

Brown recounts a story of her six-year-old daughter’s engagement in the program. Her group discussed what leadership is and made crowns with a picture depicting how they are a leader. “My daughter drew that she helps us with the laundry. Well, I’ll tell you, she’s never ever helped us with the laundry, except folding . . . until about ten minutes after she got off the call with Girls Inc. Then she went and did laundry by herself. I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘I’m doing laundry because I’m a leader!’”

cover of the 2020 Essential Guide - Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque
The cover of the 2020-21 Essential Guide - Santa Fe - Taos - Albuquerque
Bottles of hand sanitizer from Aromaland.
Bottles of hand sanitizer from Aromaland. Photography ©Avery Pearson.

The Essential Guide

Every year, The Essential Guide ~ Santa Fe • Taos • Albuquerque gives back to the community by selecting and supporting an “Essential Nonprofit” with a donation and media coverage. “It is a community-centric publication,” explained former owner Trish Byrd. “I don’t know how you can be a business and not give back to the community that supports you.”

This year as she and her husband, Chip, were determining which organization to support, the nation was just becoming aware of COVID-19. “I felt in my gut that is was going to be a tough year,” Byrd said. After she and her family discussed what to do, she and Chip knew their organization couldn’t give to just one nonprofit this year. Instead, The Essential Guide donated to four: ARTsmart, the Artist Relief Fund Initiative of the Culture Connects Coalition, the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation COVID-19 Relief Fund and The Food Depot.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, restaurant workers lost their jobs; many local artists could not sell work for months. “We’re a town that’s known for dining, and we’re one of the largest art towns in the country,” said Byrd. “We wanted to support the restaurant workers and artists that pass through our lives directly and indirectly every day.” ARTsmart has been in existence for more than thirty years, but Byrd noted, “When budgets get cut, it’s usually the arts and sports that are the first to go. We wanted to make sure that children still had something to participate in.” Reflecting on the donations they made, she added, “I may never know who it helped, but I know it helped keep the arts alive.”

Aromaland

Aromaland is a thirty-four-year-old company that started in Ralf Möller’s garage and has grown to a global supplier of high-quality aromatherapy and body care products. In response to the pandemic, the company wanted to make its plant-based wellness products available to those in need. They began donating hand sanitizer and lotion to each of the homeless shelters in Santa Fe, several pueblos and to a Navajo Nation chapter. Aromaland has also donated to first responders and supplied other groups at wholesale cost. They have donated over $15,000 worth of products and will continue to provide hand sanitizer and lotion as needed.

These products contain four essential oils that cleanse, offer antibacterial and antiviral benefits, and moisturize to help prevent coronavirus from remaining on the skin.  The company also distributes two cleansers verified by the EPA and FDA to clean coronavirus from surfaces.

Meg Peralta-Silva
Contributor

Meg Peralta-Silva was born in Baltimore and lived in many states and countries before moving to New Mexico three years ago. She has worked as a youth advocate, creative expression instructor, program director and farm intern. She enjoys learning from others’ perspectives and challenging her own biases.

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