How neighborhoods are making life bearable amid COVID-19

AP Member Exchange article from the Fort Myers News-Press

Neighborhood 'bear hunts' helping kids stay busy

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Vik Chhabra wanted to help his church restock local food pantries. But he didn’t want to be that guy in Publix: a villainous hoarder of non-perishables.

Around 6 a.m. Tuesday, Chhabra posted a pitch for a micro food drive on his neighborhood’s Facebook page:

“Any chance I could get one non-perishable food item per house?”

By early evening, a large cardboard box at the end of his drive was full.

Chhabra lives in Country Oaks near Estero. (Disclosure, this is also my neighborhood.)

“To give one thing it’s minuscule, but it’s huge in the grand scheme,” Chhabra said.

He hoped to see more homeowners associations follow suit.

Even while safely spaced at six feet apart, Southwest Florida residents are reaching out to encourage and inspire their neighbors.

Chalked gratitude

Ken Andiorio felt a shot of brightness this week when he saw a chalked message at the end of his Naples driveway.

“Karen, Thanks for being a NURSE!”

Wow, what a nice thing, he thought.

How grateful he was to be living in Victoria Park.

He snapped a photo before heading to work. Karen, his wife of 31 years, was asleep inside. She’s a lactation nurse at North Naples Hospital, and recent weeks have been nerve-wracking for the couple, to say the least.

“We’re in our 60's, just barely,” said Andiorio, the activities coordinator at Barron Collier High School in Naples. “It just makes it a little scary.”

Especially when last week’s news hit about a COVID-19 patient exposing dozens of employees at the hospital.

Oh my gosh, he worried. He texted his wife.

“Are you under quarantine? Are you exposed?”

Nope, she wrote.

“Sorry about being worried.”

"No, I understand, we’re all worried."

On Tuesday, after seeing the driveway gratitude, Karen texted Ken: Awesome!

Later, they mused about suspects. Maybe the neighbors across the street?

Andiorio tweeted out photos of the message.

“We all need to be looking for the positive things in the chaos going on right now.”

Chalk art with a message. (Courtesy @LeftRaven via Twitter)

Pete the Cat, anyone?

Jessica Copeland’s kids, 6 and 10, were running out of books Tuesday morning. She imagined other families were, too.

She needed a plan, a distraction from electronics threatening to rot their brains.

We’ve got to find something else to do, she thought.

On Tuesday morning, the family set up a table for books near the white picket fence around their Sunset Park home in Fort Myers.

Gavin, 6, and Madeline, 10, offered up old favorites. "Pete the Cat." "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." A few adult books by Mitch Albom entered the mix.

A sign in a child’s scrawl read: “Free kids books from beginners to big readers.”

By the afternoon, several books had new owners. Another neighbor had set out books.

Maybe, even more, would join.

There’s a bear in your window

Since Sunday evening, a four-foot teddy bear has been peeking out the upstairs window of Carrie Trepkowski’s two-story home in northwest Cape Coral.

With four children, her family had plenty of bears to spare.

She had seen the idea of putting teddy bears in windows so families with children could go on a bear hunt during walks.

She shared it with her Coral Lakes neighbors and loaned out some bears for their windows.

RELATED: Bear hunting in St. Johns County neighborhood

Driveway moments

What’s a birthday without a party for a kid?

Jenn and John Robinson had planned a pool party for their son Robert’s 10th birthday on March 18. There were 592 water balloons at the ready.

But a week before his birthday, the family began social distancing. They stowed away the balloons. Perhaps they could throw a half-birthday party in September instead?

The past few weeks have been tough for Robert and his sister Leah, 8.

“Both kids miss their friends tremendously,” Jenn Robinson said.

The pull for connection propelled a plan last Friday to distribute 60-some pieces of chalk to roughly 20 homes throughout their Jefferson Park neighborhood in Fort Myers.

She and her son hopped on their bikes and dropped off a few pieces of chalk to each house, even with neighbors they didn’t typically talk to or ones without kids.

Through social media, where she saw the idea, she suggested neighbors write encouraging messages on driveways and sidewalks.

Her kids designed a hop-scotch. They wrote: You are amazing. Welcome.

By that evening, neighbors began drawing. More followed.

One chalked an image of the animated fish Dory with the message: Just keep swimming.

If u can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine, said another.

A man placed cardboard beneath his knees and set to work on a heart that resembled a masterful tattoo. Across it, he sketched: Hope.

Earlier this week, there was another birthday in the neighborhood.

It was a friend of Robert and Leah.

They chalked messages in her driveway.

Happy 9th B-day.

Hope it’s a great day.

From the front porch, the girl watched with a smile.