On the face of it, it seems unlikely that an email newsletter could be the thread that keeps a community together. But that’s just what happened in the spring of 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic caused the cancellation of in-person classes and gatherings beloved by Waldo County seniors.
Unable to meet in person anymore, the seniors supplemented virtual meetings with something a little more old-fashioned and personal: a twice-monthly newsletter featuring their own photos, poetry, essays, artwork and more.
“I really do think that it’s been a way to keep people together,” Janet Williams of Searsport, the co-editor of the Corona Chronicles newsletter, said this week.
The newsletter, now in its 43rd edition, has quickly become a favorite element of the students and teachers of the Senior College at Belfast. The college provides programs, classes and special events for those who are at least 50 years old. The Belfast program, with more than 500 members, is the second largest of the state’s 17 such colleges.
With classes held remotely since March 2020, and coffee klatches canceled indefinitely, the newsletter has helped stave off isolation and the fracturing of the vital community that has grown around the college.
Long before the pandemic began, Williams, 79, a retired administrative assistant, had been working on a different newsletter for the college, showcasing the busy schedule of activities and classes. But after students went home, “nothing was going on,” at the college, she said, and there was less to include in the newsletter. Still, folks clearly still wanted to stay in touch and the idea for the Corona Chronicles was born.
“People started sending in poetry or prose or artwork,” she said. “It happened spontaneously. We didn’t ask for it, but people started sending stuff in.”
She and Nancy Perkins, her co-editor, have been delighted with the continued enthusiasm for the project. For instance, in the most recent edition of the Chronicles, Brenda Smith of Belfast shared her reminiscences of a Thanksgiving she spent in Islamabad, Pakistan, in the early 1980s when she was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
She ordered a turkey from the commissary and invited seven Pakistani staff members to join her for a traditional American-style feast, complete with mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. The flavors were often unfamiliar to her guests, but the warm feelings that come with sharing a special holiday meal together needed no translation.
“They all were great sports to share this culinary experience with me, substituting for my real family, who were eating the same meal halfway around the world,” Smith wrote.
Williams had not heard this particular tale before.
“It’s those kinds of stories that people tell from their personal background that are just fascinating,” she said. “We get very positive feedback. People look forward to getting every issue.”
One of those people is John McClenahen of Swanville. The 80-year-old and his partner moved to Maine from Delaware 15 months ago, when the pandemic was already in full swing. But he jumped into the virtual college community, both as a student and a teacher, and it has helped him feel at home here already.
“I think for me, it has made a huge difference in this period,” the retired journalist said.
The Corona Chronicles, which he has contributed his poetry and photographs to, has been a big part of that.
“It’s this sense of community,” McClenahen said. “It’s an insight into people’s lives and adventures. It’s not the classroom, but that’s not to say it means anything less. It’s a different approach, and another perspective. And it’s really important to me, to have that contact with people.”
The newsletter has been so popular with the members of the college community that its creators anticipate it will stick around, even after the pandemic itself eases up.
“We’ll just reinvent the name,” Williams said. “But so long as people keep sending in items, the chronicle will go on.”