ST. MARY’S SCHOOL,family and friends celebrated the 90th birthday of beloved crossing guard “Papa Joe” Avarello, shown with Assemblyman John McDonald and Principal Matthew Rucinski, in March. (Emily Benson photo)
ST. MARY’S SCHOOL,family and friends celebrated the 90th birthday of beloved crossing guard “Papa Joe” Avarello, shown with Assemblyman John McDonald and Principal Matthew Rucinski, in March. (Emily Benson photo)
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All right, show of hands: Who has had a good year?

I genuinely wish I knew the answer to this question. I’m sure it’s true for some, but for the most part, I think we can all agree that it was not an easy year. After months of wildfires, isolation, death and racial injustice, I’m just waiting to turn on the TV and see a commercial announcing that if myself or a loved one has been negatively impacted by 2020, I may be entitled to financial compensation.

Yet despite the insanity that has been living through a global pandemic, there must have been some good amongst all the darkness, right? I’ve noticed lately that the usual question of “How was your year?” has shifted to assume a negative experience: “How hard has 2020 been?” or “How are you holding up this year?”

Maybe, in some sort of M. Night Shyamalan plot twist, the best thing from 2020 is that we assumed everybody was going through the worst year. Back in March, a collection of humans looked at the world around them and either saw or thought that their friends, neighbors and even strangers on the street were going through the thick of it, and after they realized this, they stepped forward and asked, “How can we help?”

The famous quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” really took hold of this year. Not only did millions of people fight hard battles, but millions of people chose to be kind. They chose to volunteer at food pantries, to cheer for essential workers, to put up rainbows around town to spread cheer and to march for the importance of Black lives.

Each of my top stories of the year focuses around this theme of kindness and helping others. They are the kinds of stories that we have seen (thankfully) time and time again throughout the pandemic, but they deserve to be shared once more.

QUICK! TO THE ALTAR!

When two parishioners from St. Pius X Church in Loudon­ville had just days to get married, Father Jim Walsh was there to help. Paul Schiller and Kathleen Hensel had been set to marry on March 28, but when Gov. Cuomo announced that New York State’s PAUSE order would go into effect on March 22, the couple had to come up with a quick solution for their wedding. But thanks to the help of their parish, close friends and family, they found a way. Aside from the usual warmth that comes with most wedding stories, this one came with the added thrill of rushing to marry under a deadline. The story was even picked up by the New York Times for its series on weddings during COVID!

CATHOLIC CHARITIES

 I don’t even know how to begin to describe the incredible impact that Catholic Charities has had on the Albany Diocese this year. They have increased food distributions, helped needy families impacted by the pandemic through their COVID-19 Emergency Fund, and continued their work in stride even as the numbers of those in need continue to climb. I am in awe of this organization, and I’m so proud to have reported on their incredible efforts.

POWERFUL PROFILES

 Deacon Miguel Fabian: I first met Deacon Fabian when I went to prison. I covered a Christmas Mass at Washington Correctional Facility where he is also chaplain, and his kindness and gentle demeanor made it clear he was the best man for both of his jobs. This year, I interviewed Deacon Fabian for his work, and, as one of the few Black Catholic leaders in the Diocese, he was able to speak about his experience as a minority in the Church and the impacts of racial injustice that unfolded this year.

Father Charles Onyeneke: There are a rare handful of people in this world who can light up a room just by walking in and I got to interview one of them. Father Charles Onyeneke is sunshine walking on earth. At the time of our interview he was still a deacon, but his passion for the priesthood and his zest for life, faith and helping others was contagious and inspiring. Simply by choosing to become a priest, I believe the Albany Diocese has already become a better place.

ESSENTIAL WORKERS

 If anybody deserves a round of applause this year, it’s our essential workers. After U.S. farmworkers were deemed necessary during the pandemic, I interviewed a local migrant farmworker who spoke of the irony of this shift; a majority of farmworkers are either migrants or undocumented immigrants and are often plagued with a fear of deportation or an inability to seek medical help from lack of documentation. I hope that this story highlights the back-breaking work done by our farmworkers to keep our grocery stores stocked and fridges full of food, as well as the importance of providing them support.

PAPA JOE

My interview with Papa Joe was one of the last stories I covered before the world shutdown. It was a 90th birthday party for Joe Avarello (aka “Papa Joe”), the well-loved crossing guard at St. Mary’s School in Waterford. Avarello is like a caring grandpa to his students, all of whom were running around, dancing and singing songs for their beloved crossing guard on the day of his party. It was a heartwarming story from a brief period in 2020 without face masks or social distancing. Looking back, I think Papa Joe’s story serves as a reminder of the normalcy that we will all eventually find once again. There will come a time when we can dance and sing in the street, and when it comes, I hope to be there covering the celebration.