Hope & Human Connections

By Ashley Maher, Executive Director, Charlotte Community Foundation

This year, 2020, has given us both challenges and, oddly enough, opportunities. Like you, I’ve had my fair share of, “What is happening?” as we learned about and responded to the effects of COVID-19. Worldwide, millions have been affected, with very few if any, exceptions.

During the last seven months, I have homeschooled my two children, both under the age of 10, and worked 7 days a week in response to the need created by the pandemic all while finalizing divorce and moving. It all took a toll and I realized that I needed to rekindle my passions that had been drained by the adversities of 2020. I needed some time for myself, so I went to my home state of Michigan.

My intent was to gain inspiration through some self-care time—praying, energizing my love of life by enjoying the beautiful fall foliage, having some peaceful time and eating! When I landed it was without a definite plan other than to head north, I had no itinerary, didn’t know where I would stay; I just knew it would work itself out, which it did in a way I couldn’t have dreamt.

As I traveled from Ann Arbor to Fenton, Fenton to Flint, Flint to Frankenmuth, Frankenmuth to Munger, Munger to Bay City, Bay City to Traverse City, Traverse City to Cheboygan, Cheboygan to Mackinaw City and Mackinaw City to Mackinaw Island, and met people in each community, I heard countless stories. Each had a different perspective of what 2020 has meant and will continue to mean to them. The one constant, though, was tradition. These strangers shared family stories, love stories, their passion and hope for stronger communities. It was an emotional experience—overwhelming at times—that has left me with enduring hope.


In addition to dealing with the pandemic, we have witnessed unfortunate events that stemmed from inequality and emphasized the ongoing and often overlooked need for more serious social justice and improved opportunities for all.

During my “listening tour,” I was reminded that while we all are working hard in our own inner circles, dealing with unexpected events as well as our daily duties, we sometimes need to press pause and think about what life is like for others. We take much for granted. Every life matters, so why did it take catastrophic events to remind us of that in 2020? Everyone should be afforded the opportunity to thrive in an equitable, inclusive and enhanced community.

We often live in the future using the mantra of, “This next one will be my best year yet!” In each story shared with me, the thread was that we take time and nature for granted. Time is not guaranteed, so why do we waste it? Every year has had opportunities to be our best. We need to take time to breathe and remember that every moment is precious. We cannot get one of them back!

During my time in Michigan, I learned that in spite of everything, there is more hope for the future than ever before. Each of the people I met seemed to have focused on the lesson of time—on not wanting to waste it and to make the most of each moment in relationships. Taking the time to build stronger communities to connect in positive ways and improve conditions that create the best opportunities for each person, so that we say each passing year was our best one yet!

It doesn’t matter where we live, what we have endured individually or as a community, adverse events have a way of creating connections. People connecting to offer compassion and assistance through donating resources, including our precious time. Time spent for the benefit of all, whether we’re feeding the hungry or working to improve opportunities for our neighbors.

We could be listening to stories or simply sitting under the Mackinaw Bridge in 45-degree weather with a 15 MPH wind blowing, watching the white caps, sharing and enjoying moments with strangers who are laughing, smiling while all bundled up, connecting with each other and nature. We have learned lessons that will help create increasing feelings of hope as we move ahead to a better future.


In communities all over the United States, strangers have connected to overcome the devastating effects of adverse events. In Charlotte County our residents came together in a movement of solidarity to help so many who were suffering. People donated to many nonprofit organizations and funds, including the HUG/COVID-19 Emergency Fund through COAD.

In addition to working with COAD, Charlotte Community Foundation continued with other critical projects in
a year that required flexibility and agility for the utmost responsiveness. Separately from COAD, we dispersed $500,000 to area nonprofits, with $65,000 in challenge/match grants ranging in size from $5,000 to $20,000. This year we allowed the monies to be applied to operational costs to help them keep their doors open and staffs employed, a result of the pandemic’s effect on the economy.

During 2020, Charlotte Community Foundation added a new cycle to our scholarship program, awarding $100,000 in the first cycle and $30,000 in the second. Thanks to the James and Marian Pennoyer Fund, we had a record grant-making year that provided increased assistance to the residents of Charlotte County. To help with the increased workload we added two new and much appreciated Foundation team members.

We accepted the call to convene community law enforcement, government, schools and four area activist organizations to work towards improving social justice by having open dialogue to gain increased understanding. Progress has been made with a local academician, who is also a retired police chief, giving an address about implicit bias to law enforcement and interested community members. Our connections have been working to improve our community.

My rejuvenating, listening tour provided so many amazing experiences. I was fortunate to meet incredible people who motivated and encouraged me, believed in me and challenged me to look at what is really important in life. These human connections, their positivity, and the hope that emanated from their stories, has shown me that we will prevail over any adversities that come our way. When we join forces there is power in numbers; we have more than seen that this year. Having hope gives us resilience and strength, it empowers us and creates the will to look forward.There is nothing that we won’t be able to accomplish if we embrace it, work together and use our time wisely.

Charlotte Community Foundation has a two-fold goal: To respond to immediate community needs and to build a sustainable structure for the future. The key to achieving them is data. The Foundation channels passion into philanthropy, and the data helps us to direct that philanthropy into creating the greatest impact. It’s a part of being connected, and this year we have seen how incredibly important connections and collaboration are. There is power in numbers and together Charlotte County is incredibly resilient.

I am most grateful to those who shared their stories, for the connections that I made 1,515 miles north of Charlotte County and for finding renewed hope in those positive moments. Humans are all connected; we have compassion and concern for each other, whether we live next door, over the bridge or 1,000 miles away. We share the hope that each person will have the same opportunities to create a better life. Hope will continue to empower us; if connected, we will use it to create better communities.