Wrapped around the trunks of a row of trees in Manchester, and hanging in the windows at many Augusta houses, are efforts by local residents to reach out and bring smiles to neighbors and passers-by, despite not being able to get together due to coronavirus fears.

With schools closed, officials of Augusta’s elementary schools have encouraged city residents – through social media pages – to put paper hearts in the windows at their house so children who are not in school know other members of the community care and are thinking of them.

In Manchester, resident and businessman Kaleb Pushard has again fired up his Christmas lights, colorfully decorating 14 trees along a normally busy stretch of U.S. Route 202 through Manchester, in hope they will bring back the same smiles they prompted at Christmastime.

Kaleb Pushard poses for a portrait with the holiday lights, that he installed six months ago and was going to be taking down but has recently lit up again, on Saturday along Western Avenue in Manchester. He has fired them back along a normally busy stretch of U.S. Route 202 through Manchester, in hopes, he said, that they’ll bring back the same smiles they prompted on people passing through town when even more lights were up around Christmas. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Both seemingly simple gestures have been well-received by people in need of a smile to break the stress of living during a pandemic and trying to follow social distancing protocols that make it difficult to connect with others.

“We have some on our windows, and our kids, when we take walks around the community, love to see those hearts in windows,” said Darek Grant, an at-large city councilor whose children Callan, 7, and Libby, 11, made hearts to put in the windows at the family’s home.

“It’s such a small gesture to do, but it’s amazing how much it means to the kids. These are unprecedented times, but it means a lot to people.”

Sarah Landry, principal of Gilbert Elementary School, told school board members recently the idea behind the heart campaign was to ask community members to put hearts in their windows “so when students take walks, they can count the hearts and see that people care about them.”

A post on the Facebook pages of the city’s elementary schools encouraged residents to take part in the “Heart Hunt” by putting a heart in their windows. The community activity then encourages children to take walks with their families and to count the hearts they find.

“It’s easy!” the post noted. “No human contact. Get fresh air. Don’t buy toilet paper. Just put (a heart) up.”

Taking walks to get exercise is considered an essential activity and allowed under Maine’s “stay at home” order.

Landry said the hearts were part of other efforts school workers are making to reach out to and stay connected with students while schools are closed.

“We’re open to finding other ways we can connect in our community,” she said. “We’re finding ways we can reach out to our families. We call it a caring and sharing message.”

The Christmas lights – now “coronavirus” lights – again brightening trees in Manchester were put up as part of larger efforts to decorate the town for the holidays.

Pushard, chairman of the town’s Community Enrichment Committee, was going to take them down when the ground dried. He was then directed to an article about people putting their Christmas lights back up to lift people’s spirits during these difficult times.

“I thought about it and said: ‘What the heck? Why not?'” said Pushard, whose family owns the Maine Isshinryu Karate Academies in the Manchester Crossing Plaza, off Route 202, also known as Western Avenue, and adjacent to the row of festively decorated trees.

Kaleb Pushard flips the GFI switch, that had turned off the day before in heavy rain, to light colorful holiday lights along Western Avenue in Manchester on Saturday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“There’s almost 27,000 cars that pass through Manchester every day. Maybe less now with the quarantine. But still, it will make somebody smile, I’m sure of it.”

He said he has since heard from people who said the lights made them smile.

The lights are plugged into a power pole that Pushard said draws electricity from the Manchester Plaza’s sign, courtesy of plaza and Stained Glass Express owners Richard and Janet Parkhurst.

Pushard, who said he loves Christmas lights, has a large stash of lights because he has a business, SkyBox Holiday & Event Lighting, that decorates houses and businesses with festive lights.

He noted the lights for the 14 trees brightening Manchester were sponsored by families and businesses in the community, covering the cost of the materials, and he has volunteered his time putting up the lights.

On a Facebook post that includes a photograph of the again-lighted trees, Pushard wrote of how the world has been getting a little too dark lately, “so here’s some light.”

And those lights, he said, will be up until he can leave his house again.


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