• Team Willard


Our first day in Willard


Picture: Fien Leysen on a bench near Seneca Lake, Willard

© Tom Struyf

The morning after arrival, we have no time for jetlags. We are getting up early and following Lesley to the church where she gives the Sunday sermon.

We drive into Willard. The town seems to consist of one long street. Main Street. A straight line to the lake. On the left, barbed wire, a prison. On the right, houses, a charming diner named Riley's Place, and the Christ Episcopal Church. Our first stop in Willard.

After the service, there is time for us to meet the people of the church community in a room adjacent to the church, where they meet for coffee every Sunday after service. The community consists of twelve people. Not everyone is here. But those who are, welcome us with open arms. We are surprised by this much heartwarming hospitality. Lesley's words are still in our heads. Fien quickly types a quote into her iPhone: "I want to be seen and unseen".

We explain why we are here. Judy is touched, she says. That we have come all this way. That we are interested in Willard. "We are only a tiny pin on the map," she says. So are we, we reply in our heads.

We ask about the old psychiatric hospital, the history of this place, the diversity of this church community. A surprisingly liberal and progressive group of people in this predominantly republican region.

South Seneca High

After lunch, we are welcome at South Seneca High School, where Tina Bauder teaches. She invites us to join the Walk for Hunger. We arrive a bit too late, but still get to talk to Tina. The teachers and the school come up with initiatives like this to raise money and collect food and materials for the kids who are struggling. A number of families are living in poverty here.

Everyone does what he or she can to contribute.

The Willard Grounds

We head to our second appointment with another member of the church community: Tom Bouchard. He was a counselor at the prison. He used to evaluate all requests for early release. He gives us a grand tour of the Willard grounds. A lot that contains buildings of the police and the prison, as well as the old psychiatric hospital.

The tour sounded promising, and it is wonderful to see the buildings up close. Tom drives us around the grounds, points out buildings, explains the history. We can only do this by car, he explains. No one is allowed to walk around here. Tom waves at the prison guards who pass us by.

Willard Cemetery

After the tour, we get out of the car and walk towards the cemetery. It's located on a hill, where so many numbered graves lie, each belonging to a patient from the psychiatric hospital. It takes a while for us to find them; the grave markings are round plaques with numbers on them, hidden in the grass, on mowing level.

Meeting the sheriff

Surprised, intrigued, in awe of this beautiful place in this strange country where we suddenly find ourselves, we drive home as soon as it gets dark. Home to our yellow house. Fien is driving, looks over to the passenger side.

"Do you know what you have to do if we ever get pulled over by the police? Calmly pull over, keep your hands on the wheel, and announce each movement. Don't just grab your license from your inside pocket or the glove compartment. Americans have guns and some of them like to use them. I read on this online forum a couple of Australians were sharing experiences, and they we were warning each other: one of them explained how he got pulled over by the cops, as he was traveling through the states, pulled his car over and got out to meet the cop halfway. He would always do that back in Australia, it's considered polite over there. But the American police officer had pulled his gun out. People are scared here. Or suspicious. I don't know."

Before she finishes saying the words, we can see in the dark behind us a flashing light. A police car is signaling us to pull over, with a short siren sound and flickering light. And right away, we can put the Australian's advice to good use. Thanks, internet.

The sheriff says good evening, points his flash light into the car and asks for a driver's license and information. Fien announces each movement. The officer eyes our documents as if he speaks the foreign language that is on it, but quickly gives up. He informs us our headlights aren't turned all the way on. But, just this once, he won't give us a fine for it. He's kind, smiles, wishes us a nice stay.

And we head home.

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