The Vincennes Civitan Club broke from tradition Friday by honoring not one person, but hundreds of Knox County health care workers as its “Citizens of the Year,” citing their overwhelmingly courageous response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This award normally goes to a single citizen, but things are a little different now,” said club president Amy Kaiser, moments before unveiling a new bench dedicated to local health care workers.

Kaiser, alongside Mayor Joe Yochum, lifted the veil off the new bench at Gregg Park, 2204 Washington Ave., as a handful of health care workers and past Civitan Citizen of the Year award winners looked on.

The Civitan’s highest honor is meant to recognize individuals who promote good citizenship through outstanding service to their community.

“And we feel Knox County’s health care workers have really fit that bill,” Kaiser said. “It was an easy decision.”

Though reluctant to accept the credit for front-line workers, Betty Lankford, the county’s COVID-19 nurse and coordinator for the health department’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic, along with Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart, were on hand to represent the many health care workers being honored.

For Lankford, the opportunity to take a few moments to attend the outdoor Civitan presentation in the park on a beautiful day, while her colleagues continued to work, was emotionally difficult.

“I’m just thinking of all of those at the hospital right now, or those who are sleeping right now after being there, working all last night, and here I am the one who gets to be standing here,” Lankford said, the emotion clear in her voice.

Describing the moment as “touching and very humbling,” Stewart says it’s incredibly meaningful to health care workers to know their community is thinking of them and supporting them in this difficult work.

“This hasn’t been easy for anyone, including the community, but health care workers were in the middle of it for so long — it’s just very meaningful to know the community is supportive,” he said.

The county’s health officer, who says that while he hasn’t been one of the doctors working the ICU during the pandemic, he has been privy to the many stories of health care workers’ struggles, particularly during the worst of the local surge in November and December.

“This was when we had 40-50 COVID patients in the hospital and the health care workers were the only ones with these people when they were dying,” he said. “Their families couldn’t be there, and the staff was so frustrated that they couldn’t do more.

“Sometimes they would just go to the corner of the room and cry — it was that bad,” Stewart said of the emotional and psychological devastation frontline medical professionals have faced.

Kaiser says it was that unyielding drive to heal and protect Knox County, even at their own personal risk and detriment, that made the selection of health care workers incredibly easy for Civitan members.

While the organization’s president says she feels health care workers deserve more than a bench, it’s one humble way to honor them.

“They put their lives on the line to protect everybody, and we feel they truly deserve this — more than this really, but this is a nice way of saying ‘thank you,“ Kaiser said.

Lankford says the bench is the perfect gesture.

“During the tough times of COVID it was always nice to see the blue ribbons on doors and trees and know the community was behind us as we were out there doing as much as we could, working extra hours — really unpleasant hours.

“So to have this bench in the park, inscribed to health care workers, where everyone can see it as they walk by, it’s a really nice thing,” Lankford said.

The unveiling of the bench coincided with Arbor Day, so Civitan members also planted two Eastern Redbud trees near the new bench as part of the ceremony.

Local health care workers are the 61st recipients of the award that was first presented to the late Isaac K. Beckes in 1954. The most recent recipients include Phyllis Sweeney, Robert “Angel” Lange, Scott Shipman, Helen Seirp, Jim Osborne, LaDonna Lane, Georgiann Leonard, Dale Phillips, Nancy Carie and Will Drews.

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