A new way to celebrate: Friends, family in Sumter find ways to connect during virus lockdown


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It was the most unusual of birthdays, but the happy birthday chorus, the I love yous and the tears of joy were still there. They were just exchanged by yelling them from the street.

A birthday party was planned for Sharen Dinkins, but COVID-19 has kept her indoors and away from people. Even her husband, Terry Dinkins, pastor at Revelation Sanctuary Church of God in Christ on U.S. 15 South, is careful around her.

He and their two adult sons make sure to spray themselves with disinfectant, wash their hands and take their shoes off upon entering their home. They know the new coronavirus is a highly contagious respiratory illness that is more deadly for people who have existing health conditions. With her compromised immune system and dealings with cancer, they can't take chances.

"She's been through so much, and we just wanted to make her smile," said Tarsha Carrington, a member of the church.

After having to cancel their original celebration planned for Dinkins' birthday, Carrington and their church family drove up to the Dinkins' house to wish her a happy birthday.

"She cried the whole time," Terry Dinkins said.

Socially distanced celebrations like that have been popping up throughout Sumter. We may have to be physically distant based on federal guidelines and state mandates telling us to stay 6 feet apart from non-household members. That doesn't mean we can't come together.

The celebrations may appear similar, but they have been for myriad reasons, each with their unique spin.

It started with teachers driving through students' neighborhoods. Then, social media videos started popping up of people stuck in high-rises across the world, from Italy to New York to Atlanta, banging, clapping and cheering for health care workers switching shifts.

Now, life-cycle celebrations are taking place outside the home, not within.

Another recent birthday parade was held for a woman's 80th near Second Mill.

Dot Tidwell's daughter organized it, and the 24-year Chick-fil-A of Sumter employee "had no idea whatsoever."

"I was crying. I was so surprised," Tidwell said.

Tidwell hasn't been able to work for weeks. Don't worry, the chicken sandwich is safe. Miss Dot, as she is often called, fell recently, breaking her collarbone and left ankle.

When they rolled her wheelchair outside, she had no idea that waiting for her were her friends, family, people she goes to Bethesda Church of God with and even her boss.

She said she has talked to people plenty on the phone since the outbreak began and her injury. Her friends from church have sent her cards. She has been able to keep in contact with family.

Seeing everyone was different.

"I had no idea I was having a party," she said. "Especially with the virus. I said don't plan a party for me. It really caught me off guard. I thought we were just taking a ride on the golf cart."

Birthday parades have been a fun way to stay connected during lockdown, but parades also have been organized just to show support.

Stuart Ward is in the choir at Church of the Holy Comforter on North Main Street in downtown Sumter.

"They're very fond of Stuart," said Daly Ward, Stuart's father.

Stuart, 40, has special needs and participates in several groups throughout Sumter. He sings in his church choir, which is still performing for services that are streamed online, but it's down to four people. He volunteers at the Sumter Family YMCA, which is closed by state mandate like other gyms and fitness facilities.

He also works at Pizza Hut, likes to bowl and helps with several church ministries.

"It all ground to a halt, and his ability to understand all of this is limited," his father said.

People at church were thinking about him "being home and not doing much," Daly Ward said, so choir director Kipper Ackerman assembled a parade.

"We blindfolded him and sat him in a chair in the front yard," Ward said.

He said his son loved seeing his friends, who all dressed up in a Mardi Gras theme. They drove around the circular driveway six or seven times, playing music and shouting words of encouragement.

Being confined at home is not easy for everyone, especially the elderly and those most threatened by the virus.

Ashleigh Joyner's grandparents are "struggling quite a bit. They're older, but they're extremely active. They're used to getting out."

They "get grumpy" if they can't see Joyner's children, their 9-year-old and 5-year-old great-grandchildren, at least once a week. The last time they saw them, shouting greetings from across their yard on Pinewood Road, the younger girl cried when she couldn't hug them goodbye.

Toni Burr is hard of hearing, so talking on the phone is not ideal for her. They couldn't figure out Skype.

Joyner and her mother have tried to explain the importance of staying isolated.

"At the beginning, she understood, but Grandad is so healthy, so he didn't," Joyner said.

He started to once he realized he could give it to his wife. Now, they're "just trying to weather the storm like the rest of us."

Knowing her grandmother's 85th birthday was coming up, Joyner, who works at Cut Rate Soda Fountain and Drug Store, remembered a local fad called "flocked" where people would surprise-decorate people's yards with plastic flamingos.

That led her to the flamingos she had stored from her 5-year-old's first birthday.

"I called Mom and said, 'This will cheer Granny up,'" she said. "So, we snuck over there at 6 a.m. and put them out. Papa was actually up, and he watched through the window and was so excited he actually woke her up after we left. She cried and cried. She said she felt like a 3-year-old jumping up and down on the front porch she was so excited."