I am a relentless optimist, but lately, I. Have. Been. Struggling.

Juggling work responsibilities and two young kids who will be distance learning, apparently, until grad school, makes me one of the lucky ones. I know this. I am grateful for all the folks who are shouldering the greater burden during this garbage year.

Some are easy to identify. The scientists who rushed to develop COVID vaccines, for example, deserve laurel wreaths, a lifetime of great parking, or some other great reward equal to their contribution. But there also are countless ordinary people who have made extraordinary efforts in jobs that are now more difficult, and even more important, than before.

They’ve cared for our bodies, minds and spirits and helped us keep faith in a better future. They’ve been exhausted, but they’ve adjusted. They’ve reached down deep and rallied. They might not have set out to be heroes, but there’s no other word that fits.

Jules Mack is a Respiratory Care Clinical Specialist at Harborview Medical Center.  (Photo by Susan Gregg / Harborview)

Take Jules Mack, a Respiratory Care Clinical Specialist at Harborview Medical Center. Her job, overseeing the hospital’s respiratory therapists and monitoring their most critical cases, has always been a literal lifesaver. But this year, she’s helping care for some of our region’s sickest COVID patients while planning for possible patient surges and making sure her staff have the training and equipment they need to stay safe.

Not only has the virus increased the number of her patients and the gravity of their conditions, it has made caring for them more complicated and dangerous. On a recent Thursday, for example, she arrived at work before dawn to learn that overnight, the respiratory therapists had to prone two more intubated patients. Positioning them face down like that can save a patient’s life, but it can be tough on facial tissues and cause other problems. Before COVID-19, she might have had one proned patient in the hospital. These days, it’s not unusual to have five or more, at once.

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During rounds, she saw some equipment out of position on one patient in COVID isolation. Fixing it meant donning a battery-operated powered air-purifying respirator with a full hood — the kind of gear you see in movies about deadly outbreaks. “Make sure you’re safe,” she thought as she triple-checked the battery’s charge, tugged to ensure the belt was secure and reconfirmed the filter was inserted properly. Only then did she enter the room.

The fix was pretty straightforward, not nearly as complicated as the multistep sanitization process that ensures the virus doesn’t escape with her when she exits the isolation room. It’s a ritual Mack and her respiratory therapists perform dozens of times per day.

Then there’s Chef Traci Calderon, who started making free meals for seniors after the bottom fell out of her event and catering business earlier this year.

At Atrium Kitchen at Pike Place Market that same Thursday, Calderon was assembling pans of mini lasagnas for a holiday catering job, one of only two booked this year. In any other year, the kitchen would be bustling as staff helped prep and cook meals for thousands of people. She’d had to let those employees go months ago.

After the shutdown, Calderon tried busying herself with things like cleaning her house and playing with her dog. But she needed to feed people. That is what she does. With surplus supplies from other restaurants and donations from her newsletter subscribers, she started preparing and delivering meals to the seniors who used to come to her community lunches and pay-it-forward breakfasts, where diners could buy a meal for themselves and for someone else facing food insecurity. A former employee volunteered to help create and deliver the weekly bundles. Two others have pitched in. Since then, her roster has grown and she’s making 330 meals a week for 55 seniors, including seniors in Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, Ballard and Belltown. She whips up another 400 weekly meals that she gives to the market food bank at cost.

Calderon is busier than ever. But she needs paying clients if she ever hopes to resume paying rent on the kitchen, hire employees or take a paycheck. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Still, each day she starts again.

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Claire Ellen Smith of Treehouse helps former foster youth launch into adulthood.  (Courtesy of Claire Ellen Smith)

That resilience is something Claire Ellen Smith is trying to kindle in the young adults she works with. The Launch Success Coach at Treehouse helps high school graduates from the group’s Graduation Success program for students in foster care set goals, apply for jobs, rent apartments or enroll in college — all things that have gotten harder to accomplish this year.

Before COVID, her work involved a ton of actual face time. This year, it’s mostly been through texts and phone calls, which makes it literally and figuratively harder to connect. Still, on that Thursday, she helped a 23-year-old who has been couch surfing since she’d lost her housing at the start of the pandemic; helped a young man fill out an Apple Health application in advance of his 21st birthday; counseled another young man who had been procrastinating registering for college classes in part because he’s worried he might fail them; took a call from an 18-year-old who wants to get a job and open a bank account so she can move into her first apartment.

When they’d started talking last July, the young woman had no real plans for the future. Smith was elated to see her making a plan and following through.

Smith wants the young people to know it’s OK if their motivation wavers during this pandemic, that plans often change, that they can try again.

Lynn Kohlwes is a Physical Education teacher at Juanita Elementary School. (Courtesy of Lynn Kohlwes)

That’s something Juanita Elementary School Physical Education teacher Lynn Kohlwes knows all too well.

For more than two decades, the teacher’s main responsibility was to wrangle students around a single activity. This year, she’s had to figure out how to get them moving individually and remotely, no matter what time they’re logging on and where they are. In a way, her job has been turned inside out.

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Although she knows that staying active helps her young students stay calm, fit and focused during this stressful pandemic, she has barely seen them since March. She misses them terribly, even choked up a bit talking about it. When I told her I’ve got elementary-aged kids at home, she asked all about their remote PE instruction and tipped me off to some useful websites. She clearly is all in.

Kohlwes’ instructional videos have the theme and staging of short Hollywood films. Take the one where she’s wearing her winter jacket, goggles, gloves and helmet, jumping and crouching in front of a green tablecloth strung from her living room ceiling. After filming, she edits the makeshift green screen into mountain scenes and adds images of her skiing at Whistler. It’s one of a series of videos intended to take the place of last year’s “winter wonderland” unit, which had different activities set up in the gym.

For a single week of classes, she and her colleague create videos simulating a trail run and “Let It Go” snowball tag, a musical-chairs version of catch. Lastly, a snowman relay where kids run back and forth, stacking three objects on top of each other — bowls, shoes, plastic cups, whatever is handy and unbreakable. In a normal year, the noise would be deafening as sneakers squeaked and classmates cheered for the racers. This year, the relay runners will race against themselves.

And that’s just how this year has felt at times, hasn’t it? As if we’re racing against an invisible opponent, never really knowing if we’re ahead. Stacking roles and responsibilities in teetering piles. Scared it will all come crashing down. And maybe it will. Once, twice or a hundred times more before this pandemic is over, we’ll have to once more pick up the pieces and try again.

But in this year’s darkest season, please remember: We can meet this challenge with efforts that are at once quiet and personal, and vital and extraordinary. We’re almost there. We may be isolated, but we’re not alone.