The message is as impossible to miss as it is hopeful: WE CAN DO THIS.
It’s posted in a big picture window of a house at 65 Carroll Ave. in Newport’s Fifth Ward neighborhood, not far from Rogers High School.
Suzi Van Ness, the sign’s creator, says she wants the message to echo the spirit of helpfulness she’s witnessed throughout Newport as the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold and accelerates.
“I think that’s an opportunity to come together as a community,” says Van Ness, a retired art teacher. “I see people touching base with people who are isolated. I see that happening a lot.”
Van Ness was taking a break from another task – sewing containment facemasks for residents of Lucy’s Hearth, the family homeless shelter in Middletown, where she’s a member of the board of directors – while she chatted on the phone with a reporter who had called about the sign.
The idea of turning the picture window into a billboard came to her while she was gardening in her side yard and noticed a father pushing a baby carriage, accompanied by his 4-or-5-year-old son, on the sidewalk in front of the house.
Van Ness waved to the family procession.
“I’m counting flags,” the boy called to her.
As the trio moved on, Van Ness noticed to her disappointment that the American flag she and her husband, Dave Van Ness – a retired math teacher – usually display hadn’t been put out that day.
“We’re going to change that,” Suzie Van Ness said to herself and rushed upstairs to her art studio, where she had a bunch of small American flags stored from a past July 4th display. She brought them outside and planted them in a long row in a raised flower bed in front of the house.
“He’ll really have something to count, now,” she thought of the boy who had just gone by.
The sidewalk is often used by people heading to Murphy Field, a city park and athletic complex. But now, the park’s tiny playground is off-limits, nets have been removed from tennis courts and hoops and backboards removed from basketball courts – in the city’s effort to discourage overcrowding and limit spread of the coronavirus.
Suzi Van Ness thought about what families are going through. Parents suddenly turned into home-school teachers; some working from home while trying to manage restless children; and many people feeling the stress of waiting out the pandemic. Whom will it strike? When? How badly?
That’s when the light went on, figuratively, about how she could transform the big window in front of her and Dave’s house.
She called an art supply store in Massachusetts, where she once purchased materials while teaching at a North Shore boarding school, and within 48 hours, banner paper had arrived, and she set to work. The message – WE CAN DO THIS – seemed to come to her out of nowhere.
The sign was soon ready, and she posted it last Friday, April 3.
Dave, who’s often working in the yard, tells her that the sign and the flags are getting a lot of attention from passersby, and Suzi wonders whether the little boy and his carriage-pushing dad are among them.
Her plan is to change the message periodically, since the crisis is expected to last weeks and maybe months.
“The news coming out of those daily briefings – Fauci says it’s going to be hard before it gets better,” Suzi Van Ness says, referring to Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, one of the nation’s most visible experts on COVID-19.
So multiple messages are in order, and she’s been scouring the Internet for ideas and asking friends for suggestions.
“The next one may be totally whimsical or maybe serious,” Van Ness says. She pauses for a moment to reach a decision: “I think it’ll be whimsical. Making us just smile.”