About a year ago today, Elaina Oliver was hard at work caring for people living with disabilities in Jackson and teaching art when she could. A former special education instructor, Oliver said she’s always enjoyed working with others, but when the pandemic hit, everything about her jobs completely changed.
“We knew that we couldn’t be within close contact of other people. And with young children, essentially, we are in close contact,” she said. “So, I had to stop all that work.”
As spring rolled into summer, Oliver was able to collect unemployment insurance, start teaching at camps and work with clients outdoors. But she knew that when cooler weather returned, that income would run out. So, she started looking for opportunities at the Teton County Department of Health.
“And then [in] November, when the spike began, they really needed help. So, I got hired on there in the interim,” she said. “I’ve done that for four months as a case interviewer, and I did some contact tracing.”
Contract tracing can be tough, Oliver said, because she’s often the one responsible for giving people pretty devastating news that will affect their livelihoods. But people have usually been responsive to her instructions on what to do next.
“Most of the time I’d start the conversation with introducing who I am and making sure they knew they had their test results. But more than anything, [I’d ask], ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling today?’ And most of the time the faucet would just turn on after that. Finally, someone to hear and listen to them,” she said.
Oliver also said that many of her clients living with disabilities have struggled more than most during the pandemic. In many cases, they’re more at risk of getting seriously sick or dying due to complications with the novel coronavirus than the general public. That’s made the risk of continuing to work even harder for the disability community.
“Many of them lost their work and still have not gone back to work,” Oliver said.
Also among the local community members whose work life has been upended over the past year is Macey Mott. Mott works as a travel agent and director of Riot Act, a local theater company. Both industries were seriously impacted by the pandemic—travel especially.
“It’s impacted [our field] so negatively that my boss had to lay people off,” Mott said. “And I feel very lucky to still have a job.”
Mott said theater production found a way to continue last year, with many performances being live-streamed for people to watch safely from their homes. But viewership of her plays has actually gone down over time, she said, and she’s worried people may never come back to in-person productions.
“I would say people are getting used to being at home and watching Netflix, and it’s getting harder to engage,” she said.
A Jackson native, Mott volunteered some of her newfound free time by making over 100 masks for the community, and by doing a bit of contract tracing. Reflecting on the past year, she said she had been disillusioned with Jackson before the pandemic hit. The caring community she had grown up with was fading, mostly because of changing local economic realities. But now, her faith has been resurrected.
“A real unifying aspect and positive aspect of the pandemic is that people are really coming together because there’s common ground,” Mott said. “And we all want to see this in our rearview mirror.”
Monday’s announcement that all Teton County residents aged 16 and older can now start registering for their COVID-19 vaccine dose is the most recent piece of positive news indicating that there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But whenever we do come out on the other side, some community members, such as local DJ Elliott Alston, acknowledge that life probably won’t ever be the same.
“I’m also involved as a director of a local nonprofit that we started during the pandemic to try and…bring some more issues to light with an activism type of structure,” Alston said.
Alston is also director of the African American Latinx Multicultural Association, a separate nonprofit. He hopes to provide more resources, and a stronger voice, to Teton County’s minority communities, which he said have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic.
“Imagine like, if you’re an illegal immigrant living in our town and you catch COVID,” he said. “What do you do then? You run the risk of getting deported.”
A resident of Jackson for the past 17 years, Alston said he’s seen the community become less affordable and more attractive to second and third homeowners. And the past year has only accelerated those trends.
“It really showed a lot of Jackson’s true colors,” Alston said. “The true colors of our community—who is working for it, and who’s just living here and using it.”
Alston’s been able to maintain some income by DJ-ing corporate events and other socially distant gatherings. He also said he’s enjoyed using his community platform to try and create change over the past year, and that he’s glad to see other locals doing the same thing.
“I’ve seen a lot of other small organizations pop up,” he said. “Speaking out, [and] trying to create some change against all this hyper-gentrification happening,” he said.
Alston looks forward to continuing his movement building in a post-COVID world. He also looks forward to DJ-ing live events and seeing friends at restaurants again. For Oliver, she’s eager to get back to trivia nights and art exhibitions. And Mott is ready to start traveling again.
All three, though, will be taking lessons from this past year in stride as they reflect and carry on.