The year 2020 is one of the worst in recent memory, with a pandemic, economic crisis, months of social unrest and a divisive election. Over 300,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19, including nearly 70 in Wilkes County.

Millions of people are out of work and small businesses are closing by the thousands, including restaurants locally. Rates of poverty and addiction are rising and months of isolation will have damaging effects.

This was a year without hugs. We saw fewer people and did less of what we enjoy. We’ll remember 2020 for all the cancelled plans and postponed weddings, but there also were blessings.

We saw the best of America from nurses, truck-drivers, janitors and grocery store cashiers on frontlines of the pandemic. We saw it from food pantry volunteers, parents looking after their children at home, teachers converting lesson plans to Zoom and from local distilleries making hand sanitizer.

We became better neighbors and better citizens this year. We are tougher now and more resilient. That’s a good reason to be grateful this holiday season. After all, Christmas time is about hope and about giving thanks for what we’ve got.

December is the darkest month of 2020 and, so far, the worst month of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this month is also an opportunity to rekindle our faith and regain our spirit for the challenges ahead. The holidays can help us do that.

At midnight on Dec. 31, we’ll celebrate the end of 2020. There is much to look forward to in the New Year. I wrote a column in May predicting that life after COVID would be different, and that those changes would include the rise of telework and more Americans relocating to the country. That’s what’s happening.

According to Gallup, 58% of Americans are working remotely in some fashion. When COVID is gone, hiring managers expect one in four Americans to stay remote. That’s a game changer for Wilkes County and the rest of rural America.

More Americans have the opportunity to live and work anywhere now. After months trapped inside during COVID, many Americans are spreading out now in search of space and privacy. And that’s what Wilkes County has to offer.

We have good schools, low-density, a high graduation rate, hiking and the great outdoors, a close-knit sense of community and access to high-speed internet. Turns out, that’s what people want right now. It’s an opportunity for us to compete in the global economy.

Wilkes still needs new housing inventory, new investments and a comprehensive strategy to attract new growth. But the wind is at our back for the first time in decades. More importantly, young people have more of an option to stay in town or to come back. That’s going to help bridge the rural-urban divide and grow our tax base. It’s a reason to be optimistic about the future.

Ten years ago, I wrote a column titled, “Christmas without a middle-class.” A year before, Wall Street had collapsed and jobs and incomes were disappearing. There were bankruptcies and foreclosures and drug overdose deaths in our town and in communities across the country — but we’ve come through the worst of that and we’ve come through the worst of 2020 too.

While the world deals with COVID, we’ve had a head start in developing character and grit while learning to rebuild from the last recession. Organizations like Project Lazarus and Wilkes Recovery Revolution are getting grants for workforce reentry. We’ve learned to reinvent ourselves economically. Example include condos in old factories, small-businesses like Anchor Coffee and the Artisan Café and a rejuvenated downtown Wilkesboro.

Wilkes also has two big advantages in this moment. We already have the broadband and we know what success looks like. We’ve been on top before with Lowe’s Companies Inc. starting here, NASCAR races and furniture manufacturers and we know how to get there again.

The future won’t look like the past, but it can be better starting with 2021. That’s a reason to look forward to the New Year, rekindle our faith over the holidays and — at a time of chaos and uncertainty — take advantage of this moment and charge into the storm.

North Wilkesboro native Michael Cooper is a 2020 Presidential Leadership Scholar, a fellowship hosted by the George W. Bush Center, Clinton Center, George & Barbara Bush Foundation and LBJ Foundation.

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