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Those recognized were nominated by a mix of peers, co-workers and managers and were determined via categories including great mentorship, overcoming hardships, significant contributions to social causes and acting as a positive role model. Special consideration was also given to nominees impacted by COVID-19.
In this feature, we congratulate, recognize, and celebrate our incredible 2020 Working Mother and Dad of the Year, Brenda Gerald and Eric Lynch.
Eric Lynch, Working Dad of the Year: It was the fall of 2006 when we started to realize something was terribly wrong. My wife, Mary Frances, had been having some back pains and she had thought she had pulled a muscle. After about four months of doctor visits, x-rays and a litany of tests to rule out various diagnoses, a biopsy revealed a tumor. Shortly thereafter, she was officially diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer. A CT and pet scan showed the cancer was stage four and had already metastasized to the bone on her back, which was what was causing the back pain. I remember sitting in the doctor's office and saying flat out to our doctor: “how screwed are we?” It was absolutely devastating. There was this sudden realization that the amazing life we envisioned, with tons of grandchildren running around the backyard and us growing old together, was never going to be. Mary Frances quickly made the difficult decision to start chemo immediately to fight for every minute she had left. To this day, I’m still so amazed at how strong she was during this time. She was determined to cram in as much family time as humanly possible so the kids and I would have a lifetime worth of memories to relive once she was gone. And after 20 amazing years together of dating and marriage, she passed away in hospice at the young age of 39.
Once the initial shock wore off after her passing, everything was about: what would Mary Frances do? How would she have gotten the kids up and ready for school? How she would she do this and how would she do that? My kids were young when their mother passed: my daughters Katherine and Ally were 11 and 8 respectively, and my son Patrick was 5. So each kid had a different level of understanding, and was impacted in different ways. Patrick was starting kindergarten when she passed, and really had a lot of struggles in the aftermath, struggles that we’re still dealing with today. Individual and family grief counseling was critical to picking up the pieces after she passed. It's weird when you lose somebody in this manner; it’s never something that you’re truly going to “get over.” But counseling did help us to better appreciate what we had, what we lost and how, in the end, to process all of it. The saddest part for me: we've had so many huge moments in our lives that we look back on and go, Mary Frances should have been here. Two high school graduations, three grade school or middle school graduations. These are things she should've been here for. And it’s those moments where we look back and realize the huge void that was created when we lost Mary Frances.
Brenda Gerald, Working Mother of the Year: My oldest daughter, Cassidy (25), earned a degree in business from East Carolina University and has such a beautiful heart. She is compassionate, loves people and has this unique way of being able to connect with just about anybody. Always by her side is Chloe, her emotional support dog who has helped so much with her anxiety. They are literally two peas in a pod and travel everywhere together. Collin (22) is currently majoring in geology at East Carolina University. I could easily see him travelling the world in a motor home someday, exploring and just living life to the fullest (with his adorable dog Apollo, of course). He’s very laid back and easy going. My daughter Bella (18) just graduated from high school and is currently enrolled in virtual classes at Wake Technical College. Kindhearted, smart, bubbly and fun, she was a cheerleader all throughout high school and has a tight-knit circle of friends. She's my 18-year old who’s still young at heart. I often look at her and think to myself, how great to be 18 and still enjoying the simple things in life, just as much as she did when she was a child. My youngest son, Jakob (16) is always up to some kind of fun and mischief. Being the baby of the family, I was a little less strict with him, so he’s used to getting away with more shenanigans than my other kids. He plays baseball, and just like most 16-year-olds, enjoys playing video games. He’s my Mr. Fix It Guy, very handy with any tool in his belt and able to repair just about anything.
Lynch: My oldest, Katherine (21), is studying history at Winona State University in Minnesota and will continue on to get her master’s in library sciences. Just like her dad, she’s quite the introvert. We’re very much cut form the same cloth; we’re both bookworms and self-professed nerds. She aspires to be a professional writer someday. My middle child, Ally (18), is a freshman at Illinois State University majoring in theater education. She's the complete opposite of Katherine; if there is a spotlight, she wants it pointed directly at her. Extremely outgoing, she can make friends with anyone. Sewing, painting, choir and theater are just a few of her many interests. If you asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up four years ago, she might have said a big Hollywood star like Scarlet Johannsen. Nowadays, she leans more towards theater education because of how much fun and impactful her high school theater career was on her. My son Patrick (15) is the youngest. A sophomore in high school, he is your typical teenage boy who left to his own devices would most likely watch YouTube and play video games all day. He also enjoys the great outdoors, camping with his Boy Scouts troop, and fishing with me or his grandpa whenever he gets the chance.
Gerald: It all started in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew made landfall in our small North Carolina community as a category 1 storm. Our home is located inland, about a quarter of a mile from the Lumber River. And storms for us have always been relatively uneventful, with some high winds but nothing more. We went to bed thinking the storm had passed but woke up the next morning to water in our yard up to our waist. My car was completely flooded, but thankfully my son had the foresight (or divine intervention) to park his car at the top of our sloped driveway. We grabbed our dogs, a handful of clothes and waded through waist-high water to get to his car and drive further inland towards Greensboro. An hour later, we found out the road in front of our house had washed away. The first few weeks I think we were all in a complete fog; like, is this really happening? What on earth do we do next? Emotions were running high and there were a lot of struggles we had to get through as a family once my kids realized how long it was going to be before everything was normal again.
Forced to live out of hotels for about three weeks, my four kids and I eventually moved back into an undamaged section of the house so we could be onsite to oversee renovations. It certainly wasn't the most ideal situation, but we did our best to make it work. It took about two years in total for repairs to be completed. And I kid you not, all insurance matters were finally settled and the ink was literally dry on all renovations, when Hurricane Florence happened in 2018. The flood damage was even worse the second time around. Once again, the kids and I were forced to live out of a hotel, this time for a couple of months. And once again, renovations started all over again from scratch.
Lynch: A typical Saturday morning at home starts off with chores and getting the house cleaned top to bottom. I tell my kids that Saturdays are my factory-reset day, and that I want the house looking clean enough to sell. In the summers, when the weather is warm outside, Saturday evenings are for grilling in our backyard. My oldest daughter, Katherine, is a talented baker and is usually whipping up delicious desserts for the whole family. And then it's either movie night, or game night – favorite card games include Exploding Kittens, Seven Wonders or UNO. We actually took the ambitious project over quarantine to watch the entire Marvel cinematic universe and put them in order of favorite to least favorite. And every Christmas break we make our way through the Lord of the Rings movies. As a family, we're a bunch of self-professed nerds for the most part. We like nerdy games and nerdy movies, and we always have a ton of fun together.
Gerald: When the five of us are all together, which is a rarity these days, I would say a typical Saturday night would be hanging outside by the pool and cooking some food on our grill. My girls would be helping me or relaxing with the dogs. My boys will be playing some type of sport: baseball, football, basketball. I love sports so I’d probably join in with the boys to toss a football or two. On a side note, my sons and I have been to more football and baseball stadiums than I can count. We're big Clemson football fans; so much so, we hopped in the car and drove 21 hours to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl one year. The girls will tag along if we’re going somewhere cool, but not really for the game … more for the fun and family time.
Lynch: There was definitely a learning curve to taking care of my kids during this unique time in history. One big ‘aha’ moment for me as a dad was that each of my kids are different and thus have different needs. So, while I was able to put some “guidelines” and “routines” in place, I had to ensure I was addressing each of my kids where they needed to be met. And I’m still continuing to learn as it rages on. Some tips I would suggest: 1) make sure that your kids feel reassured that everything's going to be okay; 2) reinforce that they need to be careful, but that they shouldn't be scared -- there's a difference between being cautious and being afraid. They shouldn't be afraid to continue living their lives as long as they conduct themselves in as safe manner; 3) reinforce hand washing and mask wearing, especially in public places; 4) establish a structure to the day -- in our household, a chore chart helps designate weekly scheduled activities around the house for all family members; and 5) remember to be flexible when necessary – sometimes your kids are going to forget to perform a task, so you just have to try to be as sympathetic and understanding as possible.
Gerald: There were several disappointments for my youngest daughter, Bella, who recently graduated from high school. Both her senior prom and spring break trip were cancelled this year. Thankfully, those of us in our small community fought to have an in-person graduation, and the school ended up celebrating with a bit of a twist: a drive-through ceremony. A stage was set-up in front of the school and cars lined up to drive through and drop the graduates off. The kids got out of the car when prompted, walked up the ramp -- in full cap and gown, protective mask, and always remaining six feet apart -- to retrieve their diplomas. It was broadcast over the radio so we could hear the whole ceremony. To continue the celebration, the kids and I rented a remote mountain cabin. I thought it would be fun as a family to get away from everything for a couple of days. And we ended up riding this awesome Alpine roller coaster that sat atop the mountainside. Bella decided to dress up in full cap and gown for the ride, and wouldn’t you know it, there happened to be a professional photographer nearby. When he saw her in the cap and gown, he begged us to get some photos. So even with the odds stacked against her, graduation ended up being quite a memorable experience, even during a pandemic.
Lynch: Watching my kids grow, and change, and overcome things is just so cool. There have been multiple moments in their lives where I’ve just sat back in awe of something amazing they’ve accomplished. My oldest daughter Katherine, who is extremely introverted, decided to study abroad in Ireland last spring semester. Not only was this her first time flying overseas, but she was traveling by herself and staying in a strange country. I can’t tell you how cool it was seeing her tackle this adventure on her own. Just this huge, proud moment for me as her dad. Watching Ally, my theater-loving middle daughter finally get cast in the lead role in her high school play. If there was a role that was written for her, this one would be it. She just shined like a radiant little star when she walked across that stage. It was incredible to see all of her talent and hard work finally pay off. As for my son, Patrick, he had a lot of problems right after his mom died. He didn't really have the words to communicate how much pain he was in at the time. When he began to have anger outbursts at school and started getting into a lot of trouble, we made a tough decision to place him in a different educational environment, one better suited to provide him with more one-on-one attention, manage his anger issues and help him thrive. One of my proudest dad moments with him came a few years later, when he shared that he felt he had come to grips with his anger issues, and felt confident he had acquired the necessary coping skills to rejoin his friends back at his original school.
Gerald: The light bulb moments probably are my favorite part. Simple things going back to when they were small: the first time they learned how to tie their shoelaces, ride a bike, or catch a football. Nowadays, I love watching them become self-sufficient as full-fledged grown-ups. But also when they’re not too proud to seek my advice and realize, “Hey, mom really does know what she's talking about.” Being able to be a kid again, through them; teaching them that they can hold onto some of those joyful moments as they grow up. Watching them blaze their own paths in pursuit of their dreams. Honestly, just watching all of it unfold is priceless. From the day each was born, I always wanted them to know that I'd be their biggest cheerleader, supporter, confidant, and that I'd move mountains to help them achieve their dreams. I promised myself I would always try to be actively involved to ensure I raised four kind, generous, caring adults who would contribute to the world at large. I'm really proud of each one of them. They are truly the reason I do everything, from the moment I wake in the morning, to the moment I go to bed at night.
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