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BEST1 MEAD, CO – APRIL 7:Mead High School freshman Ashton Steele plays the bagpipes from the roof of his home in Mead on April 7, 2020. Steele has been playing his bagpipes around Mead during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a movement to uplift the community. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
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As the coronavirus epidemic upends life and keeps communities apart, many have been trying through daily acts to give hope to their neighbors.

In Denver, residents have been stepping outside their homes to howl in unison every night. And as COVID-19 ravaged Italy, videos circulated on the internet of quarantined balcony dwellers singing ballads.

And in Mead, 14-year-old Ashton Steele has been providing his own brand of musical encouragement to his neighbors by playing his bagpipe around the town every evening at sunset.

“It kind of just gets everybody’s mind off the craziness,” he said.

As part of the “sunset solidarity” movement that has seen firefighters and paramedics across the state pulling out their bagpipes and playing at sundown, it has been a bright spot for many residents, said Ashton’s mother, Laura Steele.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to show hope in a time when people feel hopeless and helpless,” she said. “It’s amazing to me how much the community looks forward to these nightly bagpiping sessions that he does.”

She added that Ashton will change locations, going to different parts of town every couple of nights. At his home, he plays on his roof with the sun setting over him, and Laura Steele said he plans to continue until life can return to normal.

Pauli Driver-Smith, the president of the Historic Highlandlake nonprofit that maintains the Congregational Church of Highlandlake in Mead, also invited Ashton to play Saturday at the church. That evening, she said, he walked across the street to Highland Lake after playing on the steps of the church, and as the sun set over the water, he began the tune “Amazing Grace.”

“There were people crying listening to him play that,” she said, “and I was probably one of them.

“It was very, very moving, and, well, what he’s doing for our community right now — I don’t know if I really have the words for it.”

Driver-Smith said that Mead — and its predecessor Highlandlake — have a Scottish connection, too. The man who founded Highlandlake, Lorin C. Mead, had Scottish and English ancestry.

It’s fitting then, that Ashton Steele has Scottish ancestry as well, on both his father and mother’s sides — his mother also being a Celtic harpist. And before this foray into public performances, he played with the Colorado Youth Pipe Band. He has been a bagpiper since the age of 9.

Just like some of the community members who have watched him play, he has also had his life altered by the coronavirus pandemic. Mead High School, where he attends, canceled in-person classes and moved instruction online to help combat the spread of COVID-19. He said the experience has been a weird one, and classes have been a bit boring.

Driver-Smith said that in the Facebook group that she manages, the Mead Community Corner, she’s seen an outpouring of gratitude for what Ashton has been doing.

“People are saying, over and over again, how much they appreciate what he’s doing and how hopeful it makes them feel,” Driver-Smith said. “It’s like he’s pulling us together during a … very hard time.”

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