Louder Than Words - The Bend Magazine

Louder Than Words

How the Coastal Bend banded together in the midst of a global health crisis.

By: Kylie Cooper  Photos by: Lillian Reitz

I’ve had a lot of time to think the last few months. We all have. Finding a balance between thinking and thinking way too much has proven to be a lot easier said than done. However, one thought I find recurring continuously amid the COVID-19 crisis revolves around this: In a time when we have been forced to distance ourselves from one another physically, it seems as though we in the Coastal Bend are more connected, more unified, than ever before. The Coronavirus forced us all to take necessary actions that – while perhaps not in the best interest of things from a business owners’ perspective – put the best interests of our community, as a whole, first. 

Everyone, everywhere, was affected by this – still is being affecting by this. But, as we proceed with recovery and eventually normalcy, my hope is that we will be reminded of the acts of courage we saw when things got really tough. I hope we will be reminded of the pure generosity and kindness people displayed during this time. We will be reminded of the grocery workers, the postal service, the entire healthcare industry, the city workers, the pharmacists, the gas station attendants, and everyone in between who continued to get out of bed every morning and go to work for us, for you. We will be reminded of the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops that kept their operations running in different forms to feed our community. We will be reminded of the local business owners who rallied behind one another to promote, share, and shed light on how to help each other out during this time. We will be reminded of the creatives who continued to put out work for us to look at and smile. We will be reminded of the teachers and education workers who moved entire lessons and classrooms online to give our kids some sense of normalcy. We will be reminded of the people who chose to follow recommendations and stay home if they were able. Ultimately, we will be reminded of the simple fact that, amid the chaos, we still had each other – even if we were all at least 6 feet apart. 

State of Mind

Without the luxury of an hour-long coffee date to ask questions and indulge in conversation, the interview process for this story – like much else around the world – went virtual. But the emails to community leaders began by asking just how they were currently feeling … to give them space to share authentic thoughts, and because everyone needs a reminder to check in on themselves from time to time. The responses varied. 

Most hovered around words such as hopeful, tired, overwhelmed, purposeful, and grateful. Lesley Lomax, owner of the popular downtown bar BUS, might have summed it up best: “It seems like my emotions change every five minutes these days,” she wrote. It becomes hard to know how to feel when a crisis is at hand. While we’d like to all hold onto optimism, so many other factors come into play that tell us we should feel worried or overwhelmed. The truth is, we will all inevitably feel somewhat alike – dealing simultaneously with multiple emotions on extreme ends of the spectrum. 

And while it’s okay to sit with the more negative states of mind, clinging a little harder to the positive ones is what has allowed so many people in our community to rally behind one another and embrace silver linings. “I am feeling a sense of gratitude for the outpouring of support in our community,” said City Councilwoman at Large Paulette Guajardo. “The support of neighbors helping neighbors, the acts of kindness and the strong support from the business community who responded, without pause, to not only my call to action, but many others who are spearheading projects, this is why I am choosing to feel grateful.” 

This sentiment, of choosing to feel grateful as opposed to scared or worried in the face of a global crisis, is what I believe has allowed so many – be it community leaders, business owners, or local residents – to step outside themselves and put on a face of resilience. 

 A sense of responsibility also comes into play when our community, our world, faces a common enemy. Council Member, District 2, Ben Molina understands this feeling well. “Honestly, I feel a sense of duty,” he said back in late March. “I want to make sure people are well-informed and taken care of. There was and still is a lot of misinformation, so I want to make sure that I am providing factual information and pointing people to the resources they need.” 

Rockport Mayor Patrick Rios understands this responsibility as well. Not even three full years have gone by since Hurricane Harvey destroyed everything in its path, and all efforts geared towards restoring communities like Rockport, who were hit the hardest, have now had to evolve into efforts geared towards COIVD-19. 

“I am tired, but eager,” Mayor Rios explained. “We will continue to work through this current crisis. The economic impact on my city of Rockport will be deep and hurtful, and I am so sorry this happened so soon after Harvey. We were just starting to see some improvement in our local economy, and this is a huge setback.” 

However, the very setback he speaks of isn’t necessarily an indefinite roadblock, merely an obstacle to overcome. Mayor Rios went on to speak of the incredible resilience he knows Rockport, like the Coastal Bend as a whole, possesses. He saw it first-hand when Harvey hit, and is now constantly reminded of it everywhere he looks. That’s why so much of how we are all feeling is influenced by the incredible surge of helping hands. 

Helping Hands

In all corners of the Coastal Bend, acts of kindness can be seen from selfless individuals putting others before themselves, and from businesses completely altering the way they normally operate to either use their resources for those who might not have any or adapting their business models to continue serving locals. Anytime you turn on the local news or scroll through your social media feeds, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find an uplifting story coming from every industry and section of our community. 

For example, Councilwoman Guajardo set into motion a series of partnerships, including putting out initiatives resulting in acquiring 5,000 items of Personal Protective Equipment and medical masks that were then donated by Stripes to local nurses, doctors, and medical professionals. These efforts also included joining and helping to raise $60,000 for the Coastal Bend Food Bank and jumping on a call to action to the business community alongside Marion Luna Brem, CEO of Love Chrysler Dodge Jeep, as Brem donated $5,000 to the food bank. 

Tony Reyes, Executive Director of Mission 911, has also felt this overwhelming outpouring of help. Reyes knew he and his organization needed to take action, and with a $20,000 donation from the Port of Corpus Christi and TXU Energy, the organization was able to put together bags with non-perishable food, hopeful messaging, and information from the CDC, and distribute the care packages to hundreds of elderly residents who were without access to transportation and were therefore left with limited options to obtain essential necessities. The goals shared by Reyes and Mission 911 resonated with Councilwoman Guajardo, who partnered with them on this project – and also with local businesses such as Hester’s Café, who helped to purchase all of the items in the bags, and The Red Barn Day Care, who allowed Mission 911 to use their building as a place to stage deliveries. 

With schools shut down for extended periods of time, our students who rely on school meals suddenly lost what might be their only food options in a day. “The curbside meals have made a big difference in terms of feeding our area’s children, not to mention lifting spirits throughout the community,” says Leanne Libby, Director of Communications – CCISD. 

School closures also mean navigating learning-at-home practices. Teachers suddenly had to operate completely online, moving everything from physical classroom settings to virtual classroom settings – and creating ways to help those without access to online classrooms. “This was a herculean effort.” Libby says. “This wasn’t about busy-worksheets. This was about loving our students and doing what we could, on short notice and during an anxious time, to help them continue their education.”

These are just a handful of the efforts being seen across our community. The Coastal Bend Food Bank has continued to organize mobile pantries to keep up with the overwhelming demand for food from all sectors of the region. Our Coastal Bend Food Bank covers 11 different counties, and as the demand for food supplies began to surge, so did the food bank’s need for resources. “The response from the community has been extraordinary,” says Micaela Stewart, Multimedia Communications Coordinator for the Coastal Bend Food Bank. “We have received an outpouring of support for the Food Bank’s mission, from funding to people volunteering their time.”

Stewart said that people waiting in line for the drive-thru mobile pantries were surprised to receive hard-to-get food items such as eggs, milk, and produce. “Their eyes lit up,” she says. “Their smiles were joined with words of gratitude, and it’s heartwarming to see hope restored in people’s eyes.” 

Local businesses, who are also hurting, have decided to use their time and resources to help out as well. Restaurants like Water Street Oyster Bar, The Exchange, and House of Rock are just a few of those establishments that have implemented programs to help get meals to medical workers on the front lines of this pandemic, and to service industry employees who essentially lost 100 percent of their income when Stay At Home orders were put into place. 

Casey Lain, managing partner of House of Rock, talked about the impact their “Feed a Friend” program has had on his own staff and others in the local service industry. During the first week of April, he said they had raised just under $4,000 in cash donations, which translated to 236 meals provided to service and entertainment industry professionals and 60-plus 20” pizzas to Spohn Hospital Shoreline, thanks to an anonymous donor and local bartender Casey Ortiz. 

Visit Corpus Christi launched “Virtual Happy Hour” in an effort to support local bartenders in March, and the effects have gone much further than simply helping our favorite bartenders. Ortiz, who works at both BUS and Cassidy’s Irish Pub, donated half of the tips she received from her Virtual Happy Hour to House of Rock’s “Feed a Friend” program to help out her fellows. “At a time like this, when people in the service industry have had their income basically slashed to zero, it’s especially inspiring to see people taking what they can and supporting those on the front lines,” says BUS owner Lomax. 

Local business owners from every industry imaginable have not only had to think on their toes to adapt, adjust, and overcome, but then bring those thoughts and ideas to fruition just as quickly. “As a small business owner myself,” Councilman Molina says, “I know firsthand how important it is to support our local businesses – especially in a crisis. It’s important because the money you spend locally is what builds our local economy and helps provide jobs for our friends and neighbors.” 

One such business owner adapting and reacting is Nikki Riojas, owner of Made in Corpus Christi. Just days after the upheaval of COVID-19 truly set in for our Coastal Bend community, Riojas did what she does best: using her platform to connect and promote others. 

“Personally, I have a hard time sitting by and doing nothing if I know I can help out in a tough situation,” she says. “It’s what I do to create a little sense of control in something we ultimately have no control over, and being helpful gives us all a sense of hopefulness, rather than hopelessness.” So that’s exactly what she did. Riojas put together a list of businesses she could help promote on her website, and within 24 hours of opening the list up to the public, she had more than 100 small businesses reaching out to have their operational status shared with the masses. The resource got so big that a standalone website was created in order to host all of the information, and now has 200-plus local businesses listed in more than 35 different categories. 

Riojas also curated our area’s first Virtual Shop Hop, an Instagram market-type event that allowed consumers to shop from 11 different local brands. In the 24-hour time period of the virtual market, nearly $5,000 in sales were generated for these local businesses. “Most of these businesses have brick and mortar storefronts that have had to temporarily close, and others rely on foot traffic from pop-up markets, and when you aren’t able to operate in those ways, you have to get innovative,” Riojas says.

Better Together

That concept of innovation can be attributed to this notion that, even while being asked to physically distance ourselves from one another, we have still managed to rally behind one another and feel more unified than ever. From virtual happy hours and concerts to online marketplaces and resource guides, even if it’s only though a digital screen, we are one. 

We’ve allowed our hearts, minds, and hands to soften and in turn be tender with one another. How can I help? How are you doing? How may I support you in your hour of need? These are the questions we’ve all found ourselves offering up. “There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t receive several text messages asking how we’re doing and what people can do to help,” Lain from House of Rock says. “I am talking to more people that I normally don’t talk to. Whether it’s about business, how to take care of our staff, or just a simple ‘How are you?’ – we’re all going through this together, we’re just not physically close.” 

So, the question asks itself: How can being forced into physical distance make us connect with one another even more? It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how our desire for connection is amplified in a crisis? “Certainly, a shared enemy creates allies in any situation,” says Alyssa Barrera-Mason, Director of the Downtown Management District (DMD). “Right now, our enemy is this virus that literally threatens our existence. It also threatens our way of life and our ability to connect with one another. The quick adoption of the use of the internet to stay connected shows that this virus doesn’t stand a chance of defeating us, our way of life, or our ability to connect with one another.” 

Barrera-Mason and her team at the DMD have always operated under the role of enhancing downtown, in order to have an asset in keeping our students local, and as a source of pride for our residents. “Every model we operated on would be changed for an unspecified period of time,” she says. Her team immediately jumped on using their communication platforms to keep people updated on the downtown businesses still operating, worked with the City to get street parking downtown dedicated to curbside pickups, and produced signs for businesses to let people know that they were still operating as a part of the DMD’s Curbside Program. 

With innovative steps being taken in every direction to continue supporting local businesses and organizations, we’ve become a more unified body of people. “I think this period makes us realize what’s really important and what things are actual priorities in our lives,” Councilman Molina says. “Despite having to be socially distant, we’ve found creative ways to still listen to each other, entertain each other, support each other, and share a laugh with one another.” 

When COVID-19 began to really take a toll on our local community, we all had a choice to make. As an individual, you could choose to use whatever energy, time, efforts, and resources you have to contribute to the community in a meaningful way. You could choose to donate your money here and your time there. You could choose to share a local business’ Instagram post or purchase a product from their online store. And, thankfully, so many of you chose to do just that. Councilwoman Guajardo put it best: “These are the times in which the very best of humanity is on display, and I am so proud of how we have chosen to respond as a community.”

Our locals have found a way to support one another the way we always do, just in a more virtual way. During one of House of Rock’s live-stream weekly concerts, a viewer commented wishing they were all having a beer together. House of Rock replied, “We are having a beer together.” And that really does sum it up, doesn’t it?

So Forth & Onward

So, what happens when we inevitably reach the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic? What happens when social-distancing mandates are no longer in place and we begin to gather with one another again? What happens when businesses are finally able to open their doors back up? What will we have learned from this moment in history? The truth is, we don’t know. No one does. 

My hope is that this new sense of solidarity carries over, and that we find ourselves asking questions like “How are you doing?” and “How can I help you?” a little more than we had before. 

 “I hope we all come out of this with a newfound trust in one another,” says Rockport Mayor Rios. “In May, my hope is that we will be much closer to the end of this crisis than we are as I write to you. I hope at that time we can all take pride in knowing we each did our part in fighting this pandemic.”

The way so many of our favorite local businesses operate will probably look different, and some might not ever fully recover. Our world will look different – and that isn’t necessarily to say different in a good or bad way, just different. It will be essential for us to help our small businesses recover. “These businesses are the lifeblood of our community,” said Riojas, a small business owner herself. “Without them, we lose the essence and vibrancy that makes our city what it is. Small businesses boost so much into our local economy, so without that, we lose much more than our city’s creative identity.” 

This is exactly why supporting local before, during, and especially after COVID-19 is crucial. “It’s going to be tough for a while, and we’ll learn how to care for one another in a way we’ve never conceived,” says Barrera-Mason. “What can we do right now so that we’re in a better recovery position when all the restrictions on gatherings are lifted? What information do we need to share with our businesses so they can make decisions that have the greatest overall benefit? We’re working every day to answer these questions and plan for the other side of this pandemic.”

Councilwoman Guajardo shares a similar mindset to Barrera-Mason in that the other side of this pandemic won’t be easy; there will still be significant challenges we will have to face. “Unemployment will rise, small businesses will be deeply impacted, we know families will have suffered being apart from their loved ones, and we will have to redefine ourselves as public policy makers to build our economy, create jobs, and respond to the needs of our community,” she says. And she’s right. Even when we get to a point when the virus itself is affecting fewer people, the path of destruction it will leave in its wake will also have to be dealt with. 

This issue went to the printers in early April. A lot has undoubtedly changed between then and whatever day it is as you read this. The only thing we know for certain is that this, too, shall pass. We might not know when, and we might not know what the world will look like when it does, but it will pass. Things won’t go “back to normal,” they’ll become a new normal. Change is painful, especially when it’s forced. But, if how we have chosen to come together during these uncertain times is any indication of what we can expect from the other side of this, I am confident we will be alright. Because actions speak louder than words, and the actions of every individual these last few months – creating perhaps a more unified community than we’d been before – add up to a rather loud voice.