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My kids got their COVID-19 shots yesterday. When my husband brought them home from Walgreens, he described it as a moment that felt sort of… holy. Parents were catching each other’s eyes, tearing up. Pharmacy employees exclaiming, ‘Congratulations!’ After so much hardship, a shared celebration. A collective moment of hope. A koinonia.
Days earlier, our kids had visited their pediatrician for their well-child visits. We discussed the vaccine in preparation for its exciting roll out to kids. We talked about frustration and about trust. And then Dr. Hofman told us the story of three local women, and a trust that changed the world.
Loney Clinton Gordon was a Black woman living in Grand Rapids following the Great Depression. She had a chemistry degree and an aptitude for research. Two local teachers-turned-scientists — Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering — asked Gordon to join them in a passion project that was occupying all their attention and all their energy: developing a vaccine. At that time, like today, a respiratory infection was spreading through the community and taking the lives of far too many. And these women were determined to stop it. Their virus was whooping cough.
At that time, it was common practice for vaccines to be tested for safety on children living in orphanages and institutions. But these women insisted that their vaccine be tested only on those whose parents were informed, involved, and consented to participate. They believed it was possible to find families who were willing to step up to the plate—and were so confident that the community of Grand Rapids would do so that they convinced First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to earmark funds for their trial. They were right: more than 4,000 families asked for a trial vaccine.
The vaccine developed in Grand Rapids was one of the best that was made, and it was distributed across the nation. Death rates and the incidence of whooping cough plummeted.
I’ve needed points of light these last few years. And wow did I found one in the story of these remarkable women and my remarkable hometown. Because of their courage — to pursue their love of science, to persist in their care for a suffering community, to partner across racial division — countless lives were saved. And they could do it because they lived in a city that served as a foundation for trust, for the common good, and for hope.
Reflecting on her world-changing work years later, that’s what stood out to Grace Eldering most. “Perhaps the most interesting fact was the demonstration of what can be accomplished by a whole community working together.”
A community trust. A common good. A koinonia.
*To read more about the story of Gordon, Kendrick, and Eldering, check out this article.
*To get your 5- to 11-year old kid signed up for a COVID-19 vaccine, call the tenacious public servants at your local Health Department.
*To get more information about the pediatric vaccine as you build your own sense of trust, check out this FAQ from a resource I’ve found helpful: “Your Local Epidemiologist.”