By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Though the pandemic shrouded 2020 in darkness, the Vesthaven neighborhood in Vestavia Hills made a silver lining as neighbors came together in ways they had never experienced before.
Over the summer, with no end to the pandemic in sight, Carol Pritchard decided she could do something for the neighborhood kids who spent their days playing out in the yard while their parents worked from home.
“We got to talking in (the) front yard one day and I said, ‘Hey, do y’all want to have a vacation Bible school.’ I’ll put it together and we can share the teaching responsibilities,” Pritchard said. So, she began handing out little bags with scriptures, lessons and arts and crafts activities.
After summer had ended and school was back in session, one of the first graders in the Bible study, Jude, reached out to Pritchard hoping to learn more.
“He wanted to know more about the story of Daniel and the lion’s den,” Pritchard said. “His church was closed. He was supposed to get his Bible this year and he was supposed to be dedicated, but that wasn’t going to happen.”
With the desire for a continued Bible study in place, Pritchard reached out to her neighbors with the idea that she would run an hour-long children’s Bible club once a week.
As Christmas approached, Pritchard found a way to use what they had been learning throughout the summer and fall by making a live Nativity.
Pritchard’s chosen theme for this year’s Bible studies was John 3:16, which says God loved the world so much he gave us his only son, Jesus.
So, as Christmas approached, she took the idea to the kids, who loved it. Parents were all-in, helping coordinate costumes and set designs, and every child had a role to play in the scene, including that of Mary and Joseph, the three Wise Men, angels and the star.
Pritchard counted 69 cars in line to view the live Nativity on Dec. 18, along with 25 people who walked over to the event.
“After it was over, I said to the kids, ‘You realize that you have touched 69 families with the story of Jesus’ birth?’ And they were all amazed,” Pritchard said.
She hopes to do the same thing next year, maybe on a larger scale with more children involved.
“It’s teaching them a little bit about the reality of everything and the simplicity of everything,” she said. “I think that’s the beauty of it.”
It’s not all about the Bible study. The families have found joy watching the children feed off of each other and find ways to thrive in a dark year.
“(The pandemic) has allowed the kids to be kids,” she said. “These children, their job has been to play outside, to get along, to enjoy learning to ride a bike, to have fun on a simple swing and a tree, to have clubs in the clubhouses, play hide and seek and learn to throw a football. These are the things that we take for granted every day.”
The kids also had plenty of free time to hone skills that would have otherwise taken a long time to develop.
“We had bike races in the street in front of the house during the summer, because four of those children learned to ride a bike during quarantine,” Pritchard said.
Pritchard’s neighbors, the Fangs, moved to the area from Taiwan a year ago in September.
“The boys literally came off of the plane and went to school the next day,” Pritchard said.
The two sons, Vincent and Connor, were both born in the United States while the parents were continuing their education. While the older son, Vincent, could speak English, Connor, eight years old at the time, had a language barrier.
“Well, now he’s in the gifted program, because all summer long we spoke English to him,” Pritchard said.
In addition, Vincent, now in seventh grade, struggled with United States history, having spent most of his school years in Taiwan.
“I had the opportunity to teach him civics while he was still in the (staggered) schedule, so on his days at home we would work on it,” she said. “Now he’s got a 99 average.”
Their entire group also had the chance to watch Vincent nurse a blue jay, named Squeaky, back to health. For weeks, he fed the bird with chopsticks to simulate a beak, getting up throughout the night to care for Squeaky until they were able to fledge the bird.
“Blue jays never live,” she said. “Usually, if you find them by the nest, they die within 24 hours,” Pritchard said.
These are the experiences Pritchard defines as little “quarantine miracles.”
Before the pandemic, Pritchard and her neighbors communicated online for the most part.
Pritchard founded the Friends of Vesthaven group, which now exists as a Facebook group online, in 1993.
Several of the children from her Bible study had lived only about five doors from Pritchard, but because of their parents’ work schedules, day care and everyday life, she hadn’t met most of them.
“Being here during this lockdown brought our neighborhood so close together and allowed us to do food trucks and have 4th of July with just (the) little street,” she said.
Community has been especially important as the pandemic separated families. Pritchard’s children are grown and were quarantining on their own, and the children in neighboring families couldn’t see their grandparents during lockdowns.
One of Pritchard’s neighbors who works as a nurse educator at Grandview Medical Center has been hunkered down with her family during the entire pandemic. “They still have all of their groceries delivered,” Pritchard said.
On Halloween, the neighborhood hosted an alternative to traditional trick-or-treating. The live Nativity gave people a save way to celebrate, and the neighborhood organized a caroling night to reach out to other quarantining families.
“It’s been the most wonderful season for this neighborhood,” Pritchard said.
As 2021 brings with it the hope of a new year as well as a vaccine, Pritchard is looking forward to the potential of safely opening the Bible club to other children in the neighborhood.
“The Bible club has been just the group of kids that play together,” she said. “Hopefully, next year we can expand it and include the other kids in the neighborhood who are interested, because parents have reached out.
“We’d love to have them, but we just want to have a little more control over what is going on in the world,” she said.