A few weeks ago, 12 families got dressed head to toe in black-tie attire, to head to a dinner party. Though they hailed from different parts of the country–Georgia, New York, and California–they gathered together to dine, converse and laugh around tables as they’d done many times before. The only difference this time is that they were in 12 separate locations at 12 different tables, each set with a computer at the head, connecting virtually online to bring long-distance friends shut in by the COVID-19 pandemic a little closer to home.
“We were all at everybody’s table,” said Nancy Sheppard-Pantoliano, whose family was one of the group. “It was as if we were all in the same room having a dinner party. It was lovely.”
Though COVID-19 has meant less in-person face to face interactions, for Sheppard-Pantoliano and many others, it has also provided a unique opportunity to virtually unite in creative and unique ways. As in this instance, many times this happens through Zoom.
The free platform Zoom, an international video communication enterprise, allows people from all over the world to connect digitally. But in Wilton, individuals and organizations alike have used the platform not only to connect for work and school, but to celebrate, create, compete and connect in creative ways.
For Sheppard-Pantoliano, her Zoom dinner party gave her and her family an excuse to dress up, a virtual escape from their quarantined state.
“When we’re at home we tend to be relaxed. Getting the kids especially, even though they’re in their 20s, out of their pajamas sometimes [is a challenge], and I think they really wanted a reason to get dressed up.”
Like Sheppard-Pantoliano, Zoom has become many people’s vehicles for escaping the bleakness of quarantine, in creative and engaging ways.
For Jennifer Angerame, this meant a “bingo” zoom with family in Texas and Colorado. Kyle Shouvlin said his family has been engaging in weekly Zoom Trivia games with 15-20 of his wife Kaitlyn’s childhood friends and their spouses.
“These evenings have been filled with laughs and joy,” Shouvlin wrote in an email to GMW. “We have all been saying that it is incredible that it took a pandemic for us to get creative enough to use a platform like Zoom to spend quality time with one another.”
Ann Fastiggi has been using her newfound free time to connect with her four childhood best friends of more than 30 years in Zoom calls twice a week. She said these conversations have provided the group with “humor and levity” in this hard time.
“It really does change the dynamic to be able to see each other on video,” she said. “And to see people who are relaxing in a big comfy chair, in their sweatpants with a glass of wine kind of thing. It is different than just being on the phone”
She said that not only does seeing her friends visually help connect them more, but it also helps her have confidence in knowing her friends are okay.
“When you’re seeing someone’s face to get a better sense of how they’re doing,” Fastiggi said. “When someone looks tired, looks stressed, looks like they’re having a really good laugh at something or they look like they are well-rested…it does give you peace of mind.”
Donna Peterson wrote in a comment on Facebook that she is using Zoom to plan a makeup birthday party for her 14-year-old daughter. Similarly, Marie Flannigan Demasi used Zoom to celebrate her twins’ 10th birthday party while stuck at home.
“Literally my whole family got on a Zoom; my parents baked their own cake with candles and were able to blow it out. We had like a virtual birthday party,” Demasi said. “It made everybody feel closer when they weren’t there.”
In addition, Demasi said 25 of her family members all along the east coast are connecting on a weekly basis through Zoom calls. They celebrated Easter Sunday together, and have loved the opportunity to see each other’s faces.
“I think it’s helping the older generation in my family, like my mom’s 80 so her getting on Zoom is something she never thought she would do,” Demasi said. “[But] she baked with my kids on Easter because they always bake bunny bread together.”
With many of their planned family events facing potential cancellations, Demasi said the virtual background feature of Zoom, where a user can project a photo or video backdrop behind themselves, has helped the family creatively act things out.
“We’d do a Yankee game every year like the Yankee vs Mets game. And [my cousin] pulled up the picture of it so it was like all of our backs looking at the field, and he put on a Yankee shirt and pretended to be like the game,” Demasi said.
Organizations Keeping Connection Alive
Demasi said that for her three kids all under the age of 10, Zoom has been instrumental in keeping them busy and active. For her twins, this meant engaging with Wilton Children’s Theater‘s (WCT) online programming.
Sarah Beach, the vice president of WCT’s Board, said the organization has been working to share a lot of creative Zoom events to their community.
“Obviously, 59 kids were about to perform in Matilda and they have that kind of taken away from them a week before opening night, so lots of devastated kids out there,” Beach said. “[The board] and I have long thought that we want WCT to be more about just the production, we want to also be about creating community and a kind of family for the kids that take part.”
So far, WCT has put on a karaoke night using Zoom and the website Watch2Gether, and a Zoom trivia event. Beach said that though these events did not happen without some flaws, for the kids, it didn’t matter.
“Like everything at the moment it was a little bit rough around the edges, but it was a lot of fun and I know the kids got a lot from it,” Beach said. “I got a lot of feedback afterward from parents and kids saying that they really needed that.”
In their live Zoom Trivia event, they gave away a roll of toilet paper as the prize, with 24 families competing for the much-coveted product. The WCT high school interns got involved as well, each hosting a round of trivia for the kids. She said they hope to continue this face to face connection in the future, with more live karaoke events.
“Children’s theater is something that the kids are involved…feel like they belong to this group of like-minded children,” Beach said “We all want to get together, and we want to do these things together. I do think [COVID-19 has] meant that we’ve done more than we would normally do, and I think we will continue to because I think that kids need interactions and other people.”
“We all need to keep singing,” Beach added.
St. Matthews Episcopal Church is among many Wilton faith organizations sharing their music and faith online. In St. Matthew’s case, this involves Zoom.
Parishioner Char Griffin said that the church has used Zoom to connect all parishioners in different ways. Youth group meetings, for instance, have allowed middle and high schoolers to connect online weekly. Griffin said that the church is also hosting a book study that meets once a week, and a Tuesday night service called Compline at 9 p.m. in partnership with Christ Church in Montreal, a candlelight prayer service with music.
More informally, the church hosts a live “virtual coffee hour” every Monday from 10-11:30 a.m., and even hosted its own trivia night last week.
Griffin said she thinks Zoom programming is “building [St. Matthews] even stronger.”
“I think it’s stress-relieving and helps to calm our emotions when we can see each other,” Griffin added. “We can laugh with each other and comfort each other and nurture each other, encourage each other I think even better because you can see the faces.”
Beyond connecting for fun, there are many opportunities in Wilton for people to connect for emotional and mental support.
Many mental health organizations have consolidated information about free support groups for addiction or mental illness offered through Zoom. The Hub, Southwestern CT’s Regional Behavioral Health Action Organization, for instance, has compiled a calendar of free, easy online support. Additionally, many practicing mental health physicians are offering telehealth services to help connect with patience despite social isolation.
Liz Salguero, the founder and president of Circle of Care in Wilton, has also been striving to switch some of the organization’s programming online to support children with cancer and their families during this time.
“Especially for our families who are uniquely vulnerable being immune-compromised, it’s very very scary and families are concerned about even taking their children to the hospital to receive their chemotherapy treatment by exposing them to potential germs and the virus while there,” Salguero said.”Tools like Zoom help to alleviate the isolation. And that’s why we’re offering some Zoom programming for our families.
For instance, Salguero said Circle of Care has changed its Art from the Heart program to an online, interactive art program taught from the same teachers through Zoom. The virtual art classes are open to children in the Circle of Care community and their siblings who are 5-10 years old on Tuesdays at 3 p.m., and gives them a way to “be with each other while being apart.”
“The purpose of this is really to maintain engagement with our families and to allow these children to have something to do outside of school and television, that is fun and interactive,” Salguero said.
Circle of Care also hosts all their staff and committee meetings online, as well as interviewing interns and hosting a Childhood Cancer Alliance of Connecticut biannual meeting.
Tech Tips and Zoom Safety
However, like with any form of technology, Zoom does come with some privacy concerns. Overwhelmed with new usage, Zoom has faced complaints of unwanted guests breaking into rooms, or “Zoombombing.” In response, on April 1 Zoom announced a 90-day plan to enhance security, which includes measures such as automatically generating a password when someone forms a meeting.
Additionally, in a series of blog posts, Zoom has advised people on tips to best ensure security–including usage of random meeting IDs (not a personal one) so its harder to find, and not sharing the link on social media.
In terms of other helpful features, Demasi pointed to the “breakout room” feature, in which the host can break up participants into separate conversations, as a way to keep chatter from getting overwhelming for large groups like her own.
Sheppard-Pantoliano suggested that people should avoid being on two different devices for the same meeting in the same room because the audio can get convoluted.
There’s also a “share screen” feature that can help participants share any file or link on their computer with other participants through Zoom.
Some of the other beneficial features of Zoom include the “whiteboard” feature, which allows all participants to “decorate” a blank background. Additionally, for the Demasi family, the “virtual background” feature, which allows participants to change their background to a picture or video, has helped them relive old memories.
“The virtual backgrounds have been fun,” Demasi said. “It’s always exciting to see where’s everybody going to be or which family trip they’re going to pick as their background and then it usually sparks up a memory.”
Zoom also offers features for participants to turn video and audio on and off, and the option for “gallery view” allows a person to see all participants at once.
Big Picture Benefits
Fastiggi said that though using any new technology is intimidating, she thinks Zoom “couldn’t possibly be any easier to use.”
“You don’t need to know anything about technology,” Fastiggi said. “The only thing you need to do is to make sure that whatever device you’re using has a camera.”
Beach said her biggest advice for people apprehensive about the technology is to just go for it because, at the end of the day, connection is what matters.
“I think my biggest thing would be to say to people, ‘Don’t worry about it being perfect, because that’s not what this is about right now and nobody cares when it…doesn’t go completely smoothly,'” Beach said. “People really do just want to connect with one another and have fun.”
Sheppard-Pantoliano echoed the same sentiments, adding that she is thankful to be able to use the service in so many different ways.
“Sometimes you get a little overwhelmed and it’s just good to see that you’re not alone.”