Every Thursday at 1 p.m., there’s a gathering. Like most gatherings in the time of COVID-19, they happen virtually and the main topic of discussion is COVID-19 itself. But that’s just about the similarity between Thrive Counseling Center’s weekly town halls and other virtual gatherings.

Town-hall participant Rick Smith describes these gatherings as a chance to meet other Oak Parkers who are sheltering-in-place and may be having similar experiences. Participant Tom Haney sees the town halls as a “non-political, non-confrontational sharing of feelings and experiences.”

The town-hall gatherings aim to provide a shared space for community members to engage with one another during the pandemic and share coping strategies that work. There is no set agenda and all are welcome. Participants have spoken about their own experiences, ideas about how to help others, and ways to stay “in the moment” when things feel overwhelming. They’ve also shared community resources, their own expertise, and even a few jokes. Thrive moderators begin the meetings with a few ground rules and pose a question to the group to start off, but the conversation varies each week based on the needs of participants. 

The shelter-in-place order has closed off many avenues for meeting new people, but these virtual gatherings connect participants to people outside of one’s immediate circle. These new connections can foster new ideas and ways of thinking. In terms of coping with the pandemic, meeting participant Kathy Haney says the town halls “have shown me different things that I haven’t tried, and think I would benefit from trying.”

For many of us, these unprecedented times have led to unprecedented emotions, ranging from sadness to relief to even joy. “Being secluded with the shelter-in-place, you don’t get too much interaction with other people to know if your feelings and experiences are the same or different,” says Tom Haney. One function of the town halls has been to normalize people’s experiences. The more isolated one is feeling, the more beneficial this can be. “Talking to others going through something very similar to what you’re going through … that’s what the value of this is,” Rick Smith says of the town halls.

While some participants have become “regulars” at the meetings, new participants continue to join in each week. “If you know that you’re going to have something to do on Thursday at 1 o’clock — it gives you something to look forward to. It gives you something on your calendar where you can truly interact with people,” Kathy Haney states. And, as one moderator noted during the second gathering, “We’ll keep gathering until people stop showing up.”

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