Lindsey Gies and the American Heart

You’ve probably never been to Shelby, Ohio. In fact, unless you’ve spent significant time in north-central Ohio, the only time you would have even heard of Shelby was a 2008 episode of Oprah about a family of heroin addicts. The town is a tragic victim of the American opioid crisis and has earned nicknames like “Little Kentucky” and the home of the “Shelbillies.” But this quiet, poor little town is reminding people what has always made America great.

In early December, Shelby High School senior and homecoming queen Lindsey Gies was rushed to the hospital. She would spend the next 53 days recovering from a severe infection, losing both of her legs below the knee as well as her fingertips. As her illness continued to unfold, the people of Shelby rallied behind the Gies family.

Within the first week of her illness, the townspeople gathered outside of the high school for a prayer vigil led by the reverend from Trinity United Methodist Church. In early January, when it was clear that Lindsey was going to require amputation to survive, Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church held multiple day-long prayer vigils and adoration services. When Lindsey finally returned from the hospital, Shelby residents lined the streets and decorated the town with yellow ribbon to welcome her home. As of early February, the community had raised over $10,000 to help the Gies family pay for Lindsey’s hospital bills.

The charity of the Shelby community invokes the spirit of older American principles. In the early 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville noted how when a tree fell across the road in America, the locals gathered and cleared it of their own initiative. This concept had become foreign in aristocratic Europe, where people would have left the clearing of a tree to the local authorities. In America, however, the concept of self-government and virtues of hard labor had taken root and nurtured a society where people truly took care of each other. That virtue is alive and well in Shelby.

However, most of America seems fat and aristocratic these days. Our preferred form of charity (if any) is sharing a GoFundMe link on social media. Don’t get me wrong: GoFundMe has helped some great causes—the tree still gets cleared—but it often fails to nourish virtue in the same way true acts of community do. This is because charity isn’t only meant to change the life of the person receiving; it is also meant to change the person giving.

True charity is a form of love. It requires us to truly see another person, be moved to our very souls, and desire what is Good for them. Donating on a website often robs us of that vital first part of the process: human interaction. When we are physically present in community with each other, we see beyond identity politics and divisions and recognize one another’s true dignity. It fosters virtues of respect and humility and softens our hearts despite our own flaws.

Lindsey Gies’s illness, though tragic, has been a mechanism for that goodness in her hometown, reviving the charity of the American heart. It is a beautiful reminder of just how deep and intimate American communities can be. If the American experiment in government is to continue to survive, it will be because of the people in towns like Shelby, Ohio.