Head of School Blog "A Focus on Compassion"

Sherri C. Helvie, Ph.D.
Dear Orchard Friends and Families,

A few weeks ago I shared that the mindset that frames our work for 2020 is creativity, compassion, and community, and today I want to focus on compassion, and how critical it will be for all of us in the days and weeks ahead.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines compassion as “the feeling or emotion when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.”  As our country continues to navigate a once-in-a-century pandemic, it is no overstatement to use the words “suffering and distress” to describe the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their lives or loved ones, seen their livelihoods disappear, or lost their homes or healthcare.  The impact of COVID-19 on communities near and far is real and acute, and the most compassionate course that each of us as individuals can take at this moment is to consider how our actions can relieve or prevent the suffering of others.  I ask all of us to use this lens as we make choices about every interaction outside of our immediate household:  sleepovers, sports activities, gatherings with friends and neighbors, and yes, Thanksgiving.   We have heard health officials warning for many months that the impact of fall and winter celebrations could have catastrophic consequences for our country.  The CDC issued updated guidelines last week for celebrating Thanksgiving, and their guidance is this: The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to celebrate with people in your household.

This is hard advice to follow, and I feel it personally.  In my family that means there will be four of us celebrating Thanksgiving together, not 14.  When I moved to Indiana to lead Orchard, I was especially grateful that it meant I would be closer to my family in Peru and Logansport.  My mother had passed away two years earlier, but the chance to be near my father and siblings, my nieces and nephews, and my 87 year-old grandmother was, quite frankly, a gift.  

My grandmother is now 90 years old and living in a nursing facility, and I haven’t seen her in person since we were able to visit with each other outside in June.  My boys have cousins who are very close in age, but my sister and I have not brought us altogether for a family gathering since before last March because of navigating the rates of COVID-19 in our local communities, and also knowing that our youngest children (ages 7 and 9) will likely find it impossible not to interact with one another as they typically do when they see each other:  rolling around and playing like a pile of puppies.  

Of course none of these precautions are a guarantee that I or a member of my household or extended family won’t be infected with the coronavirus, but we have made choices and alternative plans in the ways that we stay connected in the hopes of doing our parts to support public health, and with an eye towards getting students back in school as soon as possible as we all navigate the impact of the pandemic.  That’s what I’m asking all of us to do:  to do our part for the health and well being of our entire community, and to help get all of our schools back open as soon possible.  All of us can make some concessions to support the greater good for our children and our community, and I know most of us already have.   

As I think about the upcoming weeks, I continue to reflect on the example that my grandmother set for me about the ways that we can build connections even when we’re apart.  I grew up in Alaska, where my parents were stationed on Eielson Air Force Base when I was just two years old.  My grandmother, Margaret, was thousands of miles away in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but she worked tirelessly to connect with me through the mail and regular telephone calls.  She would tell me stories, and I would talk to her about the scrapbooks she had carefully created and mailed to me:  pages filled with pictures of castles, trees, and fairy tale characters that she had cut from magazines and glued into a scrapbook.  Flipping through the pages and talking to my grandmother forged a close connection with someone I had no memory of meeting in person, and the sound of her voice and her letters to me left no doubt in my mind that she loved me deeply.  As we look ahead to Thanksgiving, I am drawing upon my grandma’s example and finding ways to stay connected with her when we cannot see each other in person:  an example that she first set for me more than 45 years ago.

In the days and weeks ahead, please do everything you can to keep yourselves, your family, and our community as healthy as possible.  It is the most compassionate course of action that all of us can take in this season of Thanksgiving.


Sherri C. Helvie, Ph.D.
Head of School

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