Nova Scotia·Happy Place

The pandemic changed his plan to move to Cape Breton, but a sign led him down a new path

Daniel Atkins's adventure started with making one sign with a message for his 97-year-old-mom: We love you.

Daniel Atkins’s adventure started with one sign, and one message for his mom

Daniel Atkins lived in Cape Breton two decades ago, and has kept up all of his friendships from that time. He once owned the Highwheeler Cafe and Bakery in Baddeck. (Submitted by Daniel Atkins )

In the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic — where do you go to find joy? Maybe it's a physical spot, or a memory. The CBC Creator Network's new Happy Place series explores both. 

The stories caught Daniel Atkins's attention in Maine, and he got in touch. 

Daniel Atkins dreams of moving to Cape Breton. 

The pandemic upended his 2020 plan to leave Brunswick, Maine, to return to that happy place. Two decades ago, he owned the Highwheeler Cafe and Bakery in Baddeck, N.S. Now, he's on a different joyful adventure. 

It all started with one sign, and one message: we love you. 

Atkins created it for his 97-year-old mom, Lee Atkins, who was in lockdown in a long-term care home in Brunswick. 

"This sign was my mum’s idea," said Atkins. "I asked her if she’d like to choose a slogan for a Christmas Eve sign, and instead of her usual deferring to me she immediately responded with this. These are some of her caregivers." (Submitted by Daniel Atkins)

"The response I got not only from her but from other residents there — including [one] in a wheelchair who gave me the biggest smile and gave me a high-fisted salute when she read my sign," he said. 

"It kind of spurred me to take that message a little further afield." 

Over time, Atkins started putting together more signs. He turned them into chalkboards so he could change up the messages. 

'One of the most extraordinary experiences of my life' 

Atkins made a sign for National Doctors Day, with his wife's help, and brought it to the hospital. The response was great, and he asked about the best place to stand so staff would see his signs. 

He landed at the end of the long driveway into the hospital and he kept coming back for three months, before dawn, to greet the morning shift.

"It was probably one of the most extraordinary experience of my life just to look into the faces of all of these people," he said. 

"Particularly in the early days, heading into the eye of such a frightening and unknown storm every day." 

Daniel Atkins sometimes spent up to 10 hours outside with a sign during the day. (Submitted by Daniel Atkins)

He'd stay for two and a half hours in the morning, and an hour and a half in the afternoon. 

"I stood out there in snow and rain and cold ... these people are all coming in to work in this weather, so I can stand to support them."

He didn't just stay at the hospital. He went to places like bank drive-thrus, animal hospitals, near a pharmacy. At times, he'd spend up to 10 hours outside a day. 

He heard many stories of resilience throughout this pandemic. 

Atkins is discovering new creativity — this one required a borrowed bunny suit. (Submitted by Daniel Atkins )

A single mom who worked at the pharmacy came out to take a photo of his sign every day. He found out that she hadn't seen her five-year-old daughter for six weeks in the early days of the pandemic after sending her to live with her grandmother.

"She never once complained," Atkins said. 

The woman presented Atkins with a book of prints of all the photos she took of him that all of the people in the pharmacy signed. 

The COVID-19 rate in Maine was one of lowest in the United States, so Atkins stopped for a while. He went back to work after fully recovering from a previous shoulder surgery.

But Atkins has been back to stand with his signs occasionally, as the COVID-19 numbers rise. 

'Gratitude will fill any vessel'

While Atkins didn't land in Cape Breton (yet), Mid Coast-Parkview Health's board of directors recognized him for his work and proclaimed March 31, 2020 as Daniel Atkins Day. 

He also strengthened his relationship with his wife and his mom, who's one of the main reasons he's staying put in Maine for now. 

"I sort of discovered that, that instead of it being about a glass half full or glass half empty, that gratitude will fill any vessel."

If you have a Happy Place story idea, email natalie.dobbin@cbc.ca

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