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Front Porch Diaries

By Anna Lauren Meeks & Katie Wunder

When 2020 began, so many people made yearly resolutions for their lives – businesses, relationships, etc. Going back and doing a search for #2020resolutions, I found the overly popular “workout more,” and “eat healthy,” but some of the other more popular ones were:

• Spend time outdoors doing things like climbing trees and walks with family

• Be more picky about who I spend time with

• Read more books

• Learn something new

• Be more organized

• Cook more and order out less

Fast forward to March 2020: Welcome to the Pandemic; to the Quarantine; to restaurants having to close; to students being out of school for 4+ weeks in some places; to more than 40 million people being forced to stay home – just in California alone; to life quickly becoming completely, unexpectedly different.

Being from a tourist-driven city, I knew the impact here would be a bit greater than in areas that don’t rely on people going out to eat and tipping their servers, putt-putt courses getting mobs of amateur golfers trying for those holes-in-one, and spring breakers and families wandering in and out of stores while walking through places like The Boardwalk, Broadway at the Beach, and Barefoot Landing. The truth is, we’ve only been shut down for about three weeks now, but the lack of tourism has hit, and it has hit this city hard.

I’ve been able to talk with some of the people in the Horry County area about how the Quarantine has affected them. I was expecting all of the stories to be about how hard it has been, about how this is going to cause long-term effects on lives and businesses, and I did hear these stories, but was also surprised and inspired when I heard some of the positive, funny, happy stories of the area, too. I wanted to find a way to share these stories with the community and to shed some light on what’s happening…hopefully bringing some positivity to the situation while also giving a glimpse to everyone on how this is really affecting those in our community. It doesn’t seem “real” until we hear the heart-felt stories from the restaurant owners who have to shut down and aren’t sure how they’re going to pay their employees; students and travelers abroad who have been abruptly brought back home without being able to share goodbyes with friends and colleagues they may never see again; or the doctors who have to face the disease day-in and day-out watching their patients – our relatives and friends – suffering alone in their hospital beds without the comfort of friends and family around.

These are a few of the stories that I have heard from over 60 families in just two short weeks. These are the people that I have had the pleasure of photographing safely at home on their doorsteps. These are The Front Porch Diaries from around the Horry County area.

In the last few weeks, I have witnessed so much good happening around me. Families are spending more time together, neighbors are playing and walking (at a safe distance) in the streets, home meals are being cooked, and business owners are doing all they can to protect and provide for their employees. The simple, important things are becoming the center of life once again. One local business is spending its time selflessly focused on the safety of our healthcare workers. You’d think this business was directly associated with healthcare, but it is not. This is a swimwear and resort wear design and manufacturing company. So what do bathing suits and healthcare workers have in common? Sewing machines.

The Tara Grinna factory has a full staff of volunteers, and these volunteers are working for Tidelands Health helping replacing dated elastics on tens of thousands of desperately needed brand new N-95 masks. When I arrived at the factory, I saw bathing suit parts piled high on shelves, as if they’d been thrown to the side for more important matters. The sewing tables were strategically placed more than six feet apart for appropriate social distancing work, and everyone was focused on sewing masks with strips of elastic that would normally be used to hold together top-of-the-line swimwear.

Two weeks ago, Kirsti, Tara’s daughter and one of the swimwear designers, posted to her social media page: “Yesterday we began to replace the elastics on the N95 masks for Tidelands Health. I now understand why I see photos of nurses with deep red marks and bruising on their faces from the sides of the masks. At first you think they are soft, but after working with a few they begin to be very rough on our skin. My job, along with many other volunteers, is to remove the elastics from the masks and make sure they are ready for the new elastics. After removing over 1000 elastics yesterday, my fingertips were numb, bright red and raw feeling, and the other volunteers were feeling the same. Gloves helped but did not make it much better. As I was working, I kept thinking, wow, their faces must truly hurt. This may take us two weeks, but the nurses will experience this for months.”

Every time the group of seamstresses and volunteers finishes another case of masks to be sent to the hospital, a bell is rung and everyone cheers. There are 35 masks per box and 210 masks per case. Tara said they average over 4,000 masks a day to be sent back and checked by the hospital, and then distributed to the healthcare workers. The group at Tara Grinna factory has a running tally on a board to see who finishes the most masks…a friendly competition to keep them going!

As if this isn’t inspiring enough, Tara and Kirsti told me that each day a business or individual donates food for the group or gives a monetary donation to buy lunch for everyone at the factory. It’s their way of helping the helpers: a chain of helpers, a chain of good. I know you’ll all agree with me when I say, “Thank you, Tara, Rune, Kirsti, Brendon and all of the seamstresses and volunteers for your efforts and time.”

***

Jamie, a marine biology high school teacher, is teaching double-time. As a mother to two elementary school-age daughters, she’s become an interim home school teacher while tackling the immense task of being the best possible virtual teacher for her high school students. When photographing her family, we focused on humorously realistic and sweet images. I asked her how she is juggling everything and this was her response.

“Teachers are putting in very long hours these days. Creating assignments to take the place of hands-on learning is one thing, grading those assignments in the various formats they come in is another entirely, but that is just the beginning. The most exhausting part is the emotions. I worry about my students, particularly the seniors. Of my 87 students, almost 80 are seniors. I loved watching this group of seniors’ excitement and anticipation for the spring semester: prom, the Disney trip, field trips, senior awards, and of course, graduation!

Seeing them on our ZOOM meetings, they say they are having the best “senior skip days of all time,” but they are really scared. ‘Are we going to have prom? Are we going to still have a graduation ceremony? Am I ever going to see you again?’ These questions led me to a complete meltdown after the first meeting. These seniors are my babies, and they are scared and worried – but not about college or the next steps in life. They are worried about how this chapter ends. Not having answers for them is the hardest part. I’m teaching them the most important messages from my class, the ones past students told me helped them the most in their future endeavors, but making sure they are okay right now is most important. Tracking down students I have not heard from in three days – that’s what really matters.

As for my own children, we work hard to stay on task with all the distractions of being at home. We try to balance ‘Sorry, mommy has to work right now,’ with ‘Yes, I would love to play the math game.’ The worry for them is different. Are these assignments enough to make sure they are ready for next year? Did my kindergartener learn enough about procedures and how school works to be ready for first grade? Is my fourth grader getting enough social interaction through her ZOOM meetings? My children are in public schools because I believe in the process, but part of that process is socializing and learning structure, two things that are difficult to provide in this situation. I am out of my element. I’ve learned there is a reason I’m a high school teacher, not a kindergarten or 4th grade teacher. Teaching my passion –ocean awareness doesn’t easily translate to virtual schooling. Students learn best with field studies and hands-on experiences like dissections.

On a positive note, we are spending more time as a family. We are working as a team. My girls are growing their relationship as sisters. ‘The new normal’ is starting to get easier. My girls miss their teachers and friends, and I miss my senior babies, but together, we will get through this.”

***

When I think of Croissants Bistro and Bakery and Hook & Barrel, I think of amazing food, home-style atmospheres, incredible baked goods, and great personal service. Heidi’s Corner Restaurant Group is family owned and family operated by Heidi Vukov and two of her children, Alex and Ben. Maybe that’s why all three restaurants have that “family feel” no matter what day you visit or who your server happens to be.

This feeling stems all the way back to when Heidi opened the first location of Croissants Bakery and Café in 1995. I remember it well: a quaint cafe and bakery on 27th Avenue N. with black and white checkerboard floors, teacup wallpaper, and a few tables sitting between the door and a counter full of delectable, fresh treats of all kinds.

Fast-forward and Croissants has continued to remain one of Myrtle Beach locals’ favorite food establishments. In fact, on March 20, 2020, they celebrated their 25th anniversary. Unfortunately it wasn’t with the big celebration they had planned, but celebrated none-the-less! In these 25 years, the business has faced many challenges, but has continued to prosper and grow. Now the once quaint cafe has two different locations in Myrtle Beach, serving breakfast and lunch, still baking incredible desserts and wedding cakes, and offering catering. In 2017, in addition to adding the second location of Croissants, they opened a sister restaurant, Hook and Barrel; a fish and wine house, serving some of the best seafood dinners you’ll find in the Grand Strand.

After deciding to close the restaurants temporarily due to Covid19, Heidi said, “Now we are facing a health crisis in our nation and our world that no one was remotely prepared for. We had to close our restaurants to the public this week in an effort to stop the spread of this terrible virus. As an owner, it is my first and foremost duty to protect my rockstar staff and the customers we serve. This has been the most painful situation I have experienced in our 25 years of business. I am hopeful that this will move along, and we will all be able to get back to work next to our cherished colleagues. And furthermore, that the spread of the virus and the pain and financial burden it is causing our staff and our faithful customers will be gone forever so that we can return to our restaurants to make more memories with family and friends through our passion for southern hospitality and delicious food. May God bless you.”

Heidi made the decision to close Heidi’s Corner Restaurants, including both Croissants locations and Hook and Barrel, to the public mid-March. It was definitely a tough choice but one made to ensure the safety of staff, their families, and loyal customers. While the restaurant is closed, Heidi, Ben, Alex and others involved with the business have spent their time detailing equipment, redoing floors, painting, and getting the buildings back to what they were before they were opened to the public. They are working on new menu items as well as new software to make them smarter and more efficient operators.

Croissants (both locations) and Hook and Barrel are planning to open in May with curbside options for family meals. After things settle down, and it is safe for them to finally reopen with full service, they are planning a “Re-Grand Opening” with new menus and new options to target the new needs of their guests. I’m excited to see what they have in store for us when we can visit again so I can enjoy more “memories with (my) family and (my) friends” through their passion for southern hospitality and delicious food.

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