By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 16, 2020
ATHENS—The pandemic crisis ended Nikki Edwards’ senior year as the University of Georgia campus in Athens closed. It also upended the campus organization she co-leads.
Camp Kesem is a nonprofit led by students at the University of Georgia. Its annual gala pays for a free week of fun for youngsters with a parent facing cancer treatments. At its spring fundraiser, hundreds of supporters would have bid on premier Atlanta United tickets and club seats to watch the Atlanta Braves and other popular destinations to support the camp.
But by the time folks were ready to have a good time on March 28, Governor Brian Kemp and civic leaders had warned against large social gatherings to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Edwards and Camp Kesem student leaders pivoted from the hard decision of shutting it down to holding a virtual party.
The pandemic shut down the university and she returned to her parents’ home.
Edwards, 22, is a marketing major with a minor in communications. She grew up at Holy Family Church, Marietta.
She is holed up at her home. But amid this crisis, she’s relished being under one roof with her family again. Her two sisters–Alex and Molly—also returned home from their colleges. Her mom, Lynne, is the director of customer relations at Northside Hospital and dad, Russ, runs his own fundraising consulting business.
The family of five are living together for the first time in six years, said Edwards. She recently repainted her childhood room and took down many of her high school mementos, keeping high school track medals, a few stuffed animals from childhood and paintings done by her younger sister.
“We didn’t think we’d be here ever again. It’s fun for us to all be back together,” she said.
While sad not to wrap up college with friends and the loss of the rites of passage of a graduating senior, she looked for blessings living at home. She said, “I have to keep reminding myself of perspective. It doesn’t take away the sting of it.”
If it were any other year she would be commuting in her green Honda CR-V from her shared Athens townhouse to the parking spot at the UGA Catholic Center. From there, she walked to classes at the Terry College of Business.
Now, she’s taking environmental economics, introduction to risk management, undertaking her marketing degree capstone project and other classes online. She’s looking to acknowledge graduation in some other way at some other time.
The sudden closing of the campus meant she didn’t say her goodbyes to her community at the Catholic Center, the hub of life for Catholic Bulldogs. Student Masses at the center draw more than 400 young adults. She has been here praying and socializing all her years at the university.
The center, when she was new on campus, connected her with other young Catholics.
“You have to find your niche and spot to make a very big place seem small,” she said about university life. Edwards said her “community of best girlfriends” continues a weekly Bible study.
She worked this year at the center. Her job now is keeping the center’s website up to date, letting the dispersed students and local community know the staff is ready to help.
“I know this can be a difficult time for most, so I want our website to give the information needed, but in a positive light with any resources we can provide while everyone is home,” said Edwards.
Unable to attend Mass at their Marietta parish, the family gathered for Easter in the living room with an open laptop showing Mass. A crucifix and flowers decorated the room.
At Camp Kesem, Edwards is one of two directors. She’s called “Salsa” among the 230 campers.
Faced with the public health concerns, the party moved from the historic Trolley Barn in Atlanta’s Inman Park to the web. It became a virtual one, with video speeches from camp leaders, testimonials from counselors and “paddle raises.”
“I knew this place was going to build me up, support me and challenge me to be my best self,” Edwards said about the camp. Her older sister’s roommate encouraged her to join as a freshman. She credited two others, Chase Kessler and Brooke Ethridge, for making the virtual gala a success.
“It’s such a different place. People really commit to the mission. It’s touched a lot of people very closely,” Edwards said about the camp.
In a usual year, the gala raises about $65,000. Leaders lowered the goal this year knowing a virtual event would be hard to pull off. Donors opened their wallets still. The camp raised about $37,000, $7,000 above the goal. “People were very responsive and very generous to us. It was a blessing,” said Edwards.