On Monday, March 9, Sarah Ebert was starting her first day as Stoughton Chamber of Commerce president.
Two days later, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 had spread across the globe, mobilizing the World Health Organization to declare the illness a pandemic. That move spurred closures that hit Stoughton full throttle — businesses are shuttered, employees are losing their jobs, large events are canceled and people continue to search for glimmers of hope amid the turmoil.
Now, Ebert is both trying to master her new role, as well as leading the chamber in helping Stoughton businesses — and the greater community — weather this unprecedented health crisis together.
That has posed Ebert with a unique challenge — she’s had to use the words cancel and Syttende Mai in the same sentence, come up with ways the chamber can provide resources to struggling establishments — and get used to her new office surroundings.
It doesn’t make it any easier that Ebert is a Stoughton native — she recollects growing up and almost never missing a Syttende Mai weekend, at least stopping by for a brat or to view the latest pieces artists have to showcase.
She said her mentality about her hometown back when she was in high school — Ebert is a 1990 SHS graduate — is much different now, especially with the pandemic.
Back then, she wanted to travel the world and even envisioned living in a big city. Now, she can’t imagine leaving Stoughton after all the connections she’s made and the people she’s come to know — Ebert has always been an extravert, she said, and her family is quite ingrained in the community.
It’s not surprising, then, she has a background in speech therapy. She spent two years at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and graduated in 1994 from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Ebert’s first job right out of college was at Meriter Hospital as a speech assistant.
Most recently, she was coordinator of the Neighborhood Free Health Clinic part-time until two months ago. She was also a foundation assistant for the Stoughton Hospital Foundation board until Wednesday, March 4.
But something — an inkling — was moving Ebert in the direction of applying for the chamber president position.
“I kept getting pulled toward this,” Ebert said. “There were a lot of skills I learned, starting out with speech therapy — working with lots of different people and with the foundation — more administrative skills — that I felt made me equipped for this position.”
Ultimately, it was Ebert’s love of helping people and her ties to the community that Laura Trotter said secured Ebert for the position.
“That will serve her well,” Trotter told the Hub two months ago — the statement almost foreshadowing events to come.
As Ebert spoke with the Hub on the phone last week, she said she was alone in her now closed chamber office. She has the option to work from home, but still wants to get used to her new space.
She went from going to a ribbon cutting and meetings in her first week, to being inundated with webinars and information surrounding COVID-19 — how it’s affecting Stoughton businesses in particular. The chamber also came out with a new strategic plan with a mission and values — which Ebert is applying the best she can, she said.
“Our mission is if we have thriving businesses, we will have a vibrant Stoughton community,” she said. “I want to encourage our community — we check our phones — if they have suggestions for how the chamber can help, I want them to let us know. I want (the chamber) to be one of their resources. We are here.”