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Interviewing Neighbors During COVID Brought Her Light “When Things Seemed So Dark.”

Leverett, Massachusetts is a rural town of about 1,800 people in the western part of the state. Downtown Leverett, if you can call it that, consists of a church, a post office, and the town hall. You can drive through town without stopping — there are no traffic lights in Leverett. If you need groceries, there’s just one store.

“It’s a beautiful place with not a lot going on,” says Leverett resident Jinny Savolainen. “An exciting moment in town is when the cows get loose and they’re in the road.”

But just like everywhere else, COVID-19 came to Leverett. And when the town went into lockdown, Jinny wanted to do something meaningful with her time. Quarantine was especially isolating for her. In 2019, Jinny lost her daughter. And when the pandemic hit, she lost her job.

So she sent an email to the town listserv asking if anyone wanted to record remote StoryCorps interviews about their life during COVID. 

“I believe our grandchildren [and] great-grandchildren will want to know how we fared during this pandemic,” she wrote in her message. “I think they will be in awe of the way Leverett has come together, in the kindest, most humblest of ways.”

What started with one email ended in a collection of over a dozen interviews recorded with StoryCorps Connect. And we asked Jinny to introduce us to some of her friends and neighbors, including:

Betsy Neisner, a long-time cancer survivor, who has lived in Leverett for almost 25 years. She and Jinny met through the local elementary school, where their children studied together. 

Portia Weiskel, a town fixture for more than 50 years, who is lovingly known as “the egg lady” for her doorstep egg deliveries in her ancient Volvo. She spoke with Jinny about a quirky quarantine tradition that started at Leverett Pond and can be heard throughout the town.

Mary Hankinson, who is a nurse at a long-term care facility working with memory-loss patients. When the pandemic first hit and she realized how hard it was to access personal protective equipment, she coordinated a group of almost a dozen women who volunteered to make masks. They were hung on a rack outside the post office, where anyone could pick one up for free. 

Taken together, these conversations paint a picture of small town life and community during an unprecedented time. As Jinny put it, “Just when things seemed so dark, I found some light in the words of the people all around me.”

Top Photo: Jinny Savolainen standing in the garden of her home in Leverett, MA. Courtesy of Jinny Savolainen.
Second Photo: A quiet day in downtown Leverett. Courtesy of Jinny Savolainen.
Third Photo: Leverett Pond, where people gather on Sundays at 8 PM, to express their gratitude for essential workers by howling. Courtesy of Jinny Savolainen.
Bottom Photo: The Leverett Post Office, where hand-made free masks are available to anyone and everyone. Courtesy of Jinny Savolainen.

Originally aired October 9, 2020, on NPR’s Morning Edition.