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The Newly Heroic

The first in a series of stories about Everyday Heroes in Orange County.


What does it mean to be a hero in the midst of a pandemic? How do you battle against an invisible villain? What does victory look like on the other side? These are the questions that roam through my mind, probing for answers in the midst of a crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Driving a car at high speeds forces you to focus on the road in front, not look at what is passing by. We all missed so much of life as we bounded down the road at full throttle toward what we viewed as success.

For most of us, COVID-19 has slowed, if not stalled the typically hectic pace of daily life and while we are all concerned about the health implications and economic uncertainty this crisis brings, there are also silver linings. Very few are driving as fast as we were. Figuratively and literally.

This became clear to me during the last few Saturday mornings at the Honda Center where I was helping to distribute food to thousands of people, many of whom are the newly vulnerable – a term we use to describe those who have recently lost their jobs and now have to turn to the food bank for help. There, when the line of cars starts moving it moves slowly…slowly enough for me to make new friends.

As I walk through the line of waiting cars, I see something I didn’t expect…smiles. People greet me, thank me and ask how I’m doing. I came here to work but feel like I’m just making new friends.

Conversations happen naturally and I use the wait time to get to know some of my new friends, starting with Greg, who arrived at 4:10 AM and was first in line. An Anaheim resident, living in a household of five, Greg shows up weekly to receive supplemental food for those he lives with. At 63, and four months into recovery from back surgery, Greg knows the likelihood of getting a job anytime soon is slight. But the mask he wears can’t hide the determination in his eyes. When I ask him how he remains so positive, Greg explains it’s a decision. The light at the end of the tunnel is there because he chooses to believe it is. And why does Greg get up so early to be first in line? Because with all his physical limitations, this is something he can do, and it’s a practical, tangible way he gets to serve those in his home by bringing them food.

The only married couple I was able to spend time with shared stories, but it was much more than their words that moved me. At 66, Cynthia finds herself in the newly vulnerable category. Her age makes her more at risk of contracting COVD-19, and she understands that being laid off in March was in part to protect her health. But the job Cynthia lost, she started as a young girl at just 14 years of age. This change to her daily reality is clearly not insignificant. While not in her life as long as her past job, Cynthia’s husband Howard is a shining example of compassion.

We spoke for less than 10 minutes, but during that time he paid his wife no less than a half dozen compliments. Howard knows how to serve and comfort his wife of 27 years which was demonstrated by the gentle caress of his hand on the back of Cynthia’s neck, and the smile that touch bloomed. They have a long history of serving others through volunteer work, but now know that serving each other not only helps them survive but thrive in the midst of so much uncertainty.

Calin’s story is a reminder of the multiplication of scarcity created by COVID-19. Calin moved to the US 23 years ago from Romania. At 41, his chief concern is not his own well-being, but the health of the residents in his board and care business, some of whom are bedridden. He mentioned nothing of his own challenges, only of how this crisis threatens his ability to care for others. Resources are hard to come by and he is grateful to receive food at our weekly distributions. Calin’s determination is grounded in his passion to care for his residents who all have struggles greater than his own.

As I reflect on my experiences of the past few weeks, I’m reminded of a quote by Helen Keller, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” If I learned anything from my new friends, it’s that the journey we are on is one that should be taken with others and for others. What we are battling against is not nearly as important as who we are fighting for. Whether it’s family, friends or complete strangers, being there for others creates forward progress and makes our burdens easier to bear.

We can all help – even if it is only a smile. Smile at everyone. Some say you can’t see a smile behind a mask, while others say you can see it in the eyes. Either way, smiling is a decision you can make. It’s a choice to share kindness with others. It’s a resolution to walk through the dark, towards the light, and to brings others with you on this journey, this most daring expedition.

We can survive this COVID-19 crisis by simply making it to the other side. However we will thrive when we bring others through it with us and find new strength along the way. This is how, together, we can transform from being the newly vulnerable to the newly heroic.

Stay healthy and I’ll see you along the path.