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‘Let’s Figure This Out’

Not even a global pandemic can stop the Quilt Gardens from growing.

For 13 years, the Quilt Gardens have been a fixture of Northern Indiana’s Amish Country. In the cities and towns throughout Elkhart County, gardens laid out in the colorful patterns of heritage quilts are a bright spot of summer, and many groups plan their trips to the area to coincide with the Quilt Gardens schedule.

The Quilt Gardens will be in full bloom this summer. But in a year that has turned everything on its ear, that wasn’t a certainty. The Quilt Gardens project is a public-private partnership spearheaded by the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Typically, the CVB funds much of the installation and maintenance of the gardens. But when the pandemic caused tourism organizations around the country to freeze their budgets, the CVB was unable to provide funding for the gardens.

Sonya Nash, director of group and experiential sales and marketing at the CVB, runs the Quilt Gardens project. When she realized there would be no funding this year, she began reaching out to partners to share the news.

“I called each site one by one and laid out the situation,” she told me in a recent Zoom call. “The very first call was to an Amish noodle shop. He said, ‘This brings people to my door. My family loves it. I just can’t imagine not having it. You have helped us with this for the last 12 years. For one year, I can do it. Let’s figure this out.’”

As the calls continued, Sonya found similar reactions from nearly all the Quilt Garden partners.

“One said, ‘This is a rallying cry,’” she told me. “He said ‘It’s going to be a symbol. So many things have been canceled, but this is not getting canceled.’”

“It was those partners who took it upon themselves,” she said. “Our communities and individuals are stepping up more than ever before. They’re funding the flowers and doing the labor. They’re saying they’re not going to let this die because it’s their way to express their love for their community.”

I did my best to maintain my composure during that call. But I’m willing to bet Sonya noticed the occasional crack in my voice and a bit of mist in my eyes.

The past few months have been trying for everyone. For those of us who work in tourism, it has been especially painful. Even as restrictions ease and people begin venturing out, the road to recovery is going to be long. But hearing the story of the Quilt Gardens inspired me.

If the people of Elkhart County can rally together to support something they love, then the people in your community can, too.

All over America, communities are getting ready to rally. And they’re getting ready for guests. Sonya said she already has group bookings for late summer and early fall. And the Quilt Gardens may stay open a bit longer than normal so those visitors can see them.

You may be wondering if your group will ever travel again. But don’t give up hope. Travel is too important to lose.

Instead, I suggest we follow Amish Country’s lead. There are still a lot of unanswered questions for all of us. But we don’t have to surrender to despair.

Let’s figure this out.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.