COVID Coping


When you’re an organization like Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, ‘working from home’ is pretty much a non sequitur. After all, the organization’s entire reason for being is to beautify the places that are not in our own backyard. And a lot of that beautification is done by KIB’s 15,000+ volunteers, working shoulder-to-shoulder, picking up litter, planting trees, or uprooting invasive species.

Not the sort of work you can do during a Zoom call.

“I do miss planting and feel a sense of guilt that I’m not out doing more to improve my community,” says Jill Palmer, a KIB Tree Tender. “ I also miss the distinct break with my work week, when I trade my office computer for a shovel and the great outdoors. Instead, I’m doing some digging around my own property.”

Until tree planting days resume, Palmer says she is getting her fresh air ‘fix’ by taking her dogs outside for a rousing game of Fetch before or during conference calls. Besides getting Palmer, a project manager for an engineering firm, out in the fresh air, the game has another benefit. “Otherwise, they bark when I’m on the phone, because they assume that surely, I’m talking to them.” 


KIB Ambassador and all-around volunteer Maithilee Das continues to wake up most Saturday mornings, ready to pull on her work pants and head out to a tree planting session. “Sleeping in on Saturdays always sounded like a dream, but my internal body clock is still ready to go at 8 am,” she says. ”I look forward to getting my hands dirty again at the next tree planting session with KIB. It truly is a group therapeutic and wonderfully philanthropic experience.”

Since early spring, those tree plantings as well as all of KIB’s other volunteer projects have been put on hold. The ripple effects for the organization will last longer than any government-ordered shutdown. After all, KIB had planned to plant over 1500 more trees this spring, and had dozens of other volunteer projects on the calendar. For now, that dry-erase board in the office is wiped clear.

Esmé Barniskis has no idea what a ‘normal’ week at KIB feels like. “I started as Volunteer Coordinator the day the KIB office closed,” she says. She has received all of her on-boarding and training remotely. “It’s mid-May and I have yet to coordinate an in-person project.” Instead, she’s getting to know her co-workers on the phone and on the computer screen. Still, the newsletters are going out and project to-do lists are being updated. When the time comes to get back outside with a team of volunteers, she says she’ll be ready.

John Winter, an engineer with Cummins when he’s not volunteering for KIB, has been doing his best to keep his neighborhood GreenSpace looking tidy during the rainy spring weather. Interviewed while he was weeding at Ringgold Park, Winter said that he’s determined not to let the gardens get out of control. “Now that I have a lot of extra time, I’m going to try to put a dent in this,” he says. “Every day for the rest of this shutdown, I’m going to be pulling bindweed.” 


Winter’s wife, Diana, is a nurse, so they share the responsibility of home-schooling their two pre-teens, and he takes over when she is working. He’s noticed that the park is less busy, but expects the warmer weather to change that. “On nice days, I’ll bring the kids over and let them run around. Then I make them pull weeds, too.”

As KIB’s Vice President of Program Strategy, Joe Jarzen has been focusing on a term that’s made its way into the daily news coverage: supply chain. “I constantly think about the supplies that we are not giving our block captains, or the trees we would have planted, and native landscapes that we’ll still need to install at some point,” he says. And the big picture, too: “I wonder about how this lack of work is impacting neighborhoods and how they miss it, if at all. I wonder how we will return, and what our business model will look like when we do.”

Jarzen says that working from home took some getting used to. “The first few weeks, I was just trying to get my bearings. Although we were in the same home, seeing my kids during the workday was rare or interactions seemed more like crossing shadows – you’re aware of them but not really taking full note since your mind was busy with so many other things.”

Now, a few weeks later, Jarzen and his family have settled into a routine that includes time for both home fix-up projects and woodland hikes. “We saw a Bald Eagle, pileated woodpeckers, bluebirds, a woodchuck, a fox, heard a barred owl – and half of those were just down the street from our home along Pleasant Run Creek!” he reports. 

Andrew House is a new GreenSpace partner for 2020. His job in the construction industry is considered “essential,” so he’s been driving around the city while so many others are at home. His travels have taken him past by a lot of KIB-supported parks. “It has been really uplifting to continue to see community members utilize these important public spaces,” he says. “One unexpected outcome of the Covid-19 crisis is that we seem to be seeing a lot less new litter, as people limit travel and unnecessary trips.” 

What does House miss the most? Tree planting, for sure. “So while I’m actively enjoying the 65 trees we partnered to add to my own neighborhood last year, I’m sad to be missing out on the amazing program and work they do all over the city this year. Although, my arms are certainly less sore!” 

House says he hopes to make a plan with KIB’s Community Forestry department to get a few trees delivered, to replace part of last year’s planting that didn’t make it through the winter. It won’t be as much fun as a Tree Tender work session, but better than nothing.

For KIB’s new CEO, Jeremy Kranowitz, the Covid-19 pandemic hit less than six months into his arrival in Indianapolis. And since his family had still not made the move from the East Coast, due to school schedules, Kranowitz returned to Connecticut for the duration. 

“I am managing the staff remotely by video conference,” he says. “They are all finding creative ways to accomplish KIB’s mission while they themselves are working in seclusion. We see each other frequently, but only in two dimensions on the screen. We are all missing the human connection.” 

Kranowitz brings a unique perspective to the pandemic crisis. Back in 2011, he worked for the CDC, as part of a team that updated pandemic planning. The scenario – everything from the timeline to develop a vaccine to manufacturing logistics – was eerily prescient. The experience taught him that different localities must develop their own plans. “There is no right or wrong answer.” He predicts that it may be close to 18 months for the U.S. to recover this time around.

Living with the uncertainty of when things will return to normal is a challenge for KIB, too, Kranowitz says he picked up a new book this time around, Thinking in Bets, by Annie Duke, a champion poker player. He says her observations about uncertainty – not knowing what cards the other guy is holding, or which cards will be turned up next – feel resonant right now.  “We have to manage the things we can control, and have comfort with uncertainty. This is a time of unparalleled uncertainty, and I’m learning to become more comfortable with it.”

Nobody is happy with the shutdown. But KIB has plenty of staff and volunteers who are making the best of things, until the coast is clear to pick up shovels and rakes and get back to work outside.

Maithilee Das has been using her extra free-time taking her cat and boyfriend on picnics in their Herron Morton neighborhood. She keeps an eye out for litter along the way.  And she invites her fellow KIB volunteers to do the same. “You don’t have to wait for the next scheduled KIB event to do some good in your neighborhood if you have a pair of gloves (that you dedicate solely to trash pickup), and a few grocery bags (I know you have a drawer full of them)!”

And, ever the social media maven, Das reminds us, “Don’t forget to share a photo of your litter clean up and trash bags on KIB’s various social media platforms.


Volunteer Andrew House speaks for a lot of volunteers, when he says he looks forward to getting his hands dirty working on a KIB project very soon. “What is happening in the world now impacts everyone,” he says. “But it doesn’t have to end the things we love. We must adapt and work together.”