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Jenelle Yarrish

Our COVID-19 Stories: How the Pandemic Has Hit Families Facing Extra Hurdles

Five Colorado families offer their view of school, work, and childcare challenges during the pandemic.

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All stories as told to Lydia Rueger

There’s certainly a diverse range of perspectives on whether or not families want their kids to return to school this fall, and how they plan to manage it all during the pandemic. It seems to me, though, the perspectives I hear about the least are often those of families facing the most hurdles, who have the fewest options, or the most complicated family situations. We’ve gathered a few of those voices here, to offer a picture of what others are experiencing.

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Darlene, Will, and Alan Beals

Hoping to Get Back to Work

Darlene Beals, mom of three

Unincorporated Arapahoe County

My husband and I taught our three kids to expect the best of all people. That expectation was the same for my two older children as well as my youngest, Alan, now 24, who has Down syndrome. At a young age, Alan started volunteering at the library, as well as with Boy Scouts, our church and the Lion’s Club. We also wanted him working, for all the things you learn on the job.

When Alan was hired for his retail warehouse job two years ago, he met a wonderful person who said ‘we will not set him up to fail.’ He believed Alan could be of value and contribute.

For two years, wearing a tracking bracelet in case of emergency, Alan took the Light Rail to his job, where he stocked and unloaded trucks. He made friends with the RTD drivers.

Alan loved his coworkers; he knew when he was getting his paycheck; he liked packing his own lunch and having a locker at work; he loved that his mom wasn’t there. To him, it was a wonderful life. There are not many people I know who enjoyed going to work as much as Alan did.

Outside of work, going to Boy Scouts, karate, and restaurants with friends and family were some of Alan’s favorites activities. He loved our church’s men’s group—another place he could be himself without his mom. Twice a month they would meet at a local restaurant and discuss politics, sports, or whatever.

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When the pandemic hit, Alan resigned from his job. We didn’t want to risk it—we have three members of our extended family who have died of COVID-19. He doesn’t go outside, and I am paid to be his caregiver. “I hate that virus,” he says.

Since the virus, his speech abilities have declined. So, we signed up for Toastmasters on Zoom and do table topics (conversation starters) at home, usually at breakfast. All his activities are on Zoom now, and they are going well, but it’s not the same. Alan hopes to someday become a fitness coach, but fitness activities are hard for him to do online. Dance parties have moved to Zoom, but it reminds me of the 1980s Bill Idol song, Dancing with Myself.

Sharon Brush

Struggling for Support

Sharon Brush, guardian of one, mom of two

Wheat Ridge, Colorado

I took Chloee, my sister’s grandchild; my great-niece, home from the hospital as a newborn; she was born addicted to meth and she stole my heart. Chloee is now 14, and I’ve had custody of her the entire time. She’s a child that’s struggled with learning, she has anxiety issues, and she’s dyslexic.

Other problems started when she was in 7th grade. She would leave class at her middle school. Sometimes she would cry. She said she didn’t want the other kids to know that she was “dumb.” She was transferred from her middle school to Denver Mental Health because she was cutting. But after an incident with another girl there, she was transferred to Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. At Devereux, she improved, because she’s with kids that have some of her same struggles.

Things got worse when she was home last spring during the pandemic. We had nothing but trouble with online learning. The first Chromebook she was given didn’t work and it was hard to get a hold of the teacher. Then she got another Chromebook and there was a problem with the cord. We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, and she was already so far behind.

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I’m 76 years old, and I’m not able to help Chloee with technology. I really need her to go back to school in person where she would have a teacher that would work with her. She would have a counselor there. I’m not worried about my health of getting her back and forth of school, I try to be careful, and I try not to live in fear. Besides, I’m seeing all the kids out, going to the greenbelt by my house and not wearing masks, and those kids are not being careful outside of school.

The hope is that Chloee can get caught up enough that she can transfer to another school where she can learn a trade. She likes it when she can do something with her hands, and she does beautiful makeup. I don’t care if she goes to college, but she needs to get a job to take care of herself. Her mom’s friends have all been drug abusers. I want her to have a life where she knows if things get tough, she doesn’t have to do what her mom did. I want her to know there is another way. She thinks that “Auntie will fix anything,” and I love her to pieces. But I’m not going to be here forever.

Jenelle Yarrish

Looking for the Positive

Jenelle Yarrish, mom of one

Lakewood

I’m 23, my son Jackson is now almost four, and I’m a single mom. When the pandemic hit, I was furloughed from my server job at a golf course. I wasn’t comfortable sending Jackson to daycare anymore, so I pulled him out on March 13. I stayed enrolled in the two online classes I was taking through Community College of Denver, and started waking up before he did to do my homework. I’d finish the rest when he took his nap. I had some savings and applied for unemployment. I got a ton of support from the people at Hope House, with food donations, a new laptop for school, and through their college, career, and self-care classes.

Jackson developed a stutter once he was out of daycare; I was told it might be due to anxiety with all the changes. He was devastated when I told him that parks were closed. It was a challenge to make sure that we stayed active and did so safely. I got help from the Mental Health Center of Denver and Solace Pediatric Home Healthcare through telemedicine appointments, to help him work through the stutter. We found a lot of ideas of things to do from Pinterest, and we would go out on “nature adventures,” as Jackson called them.

Personally, caring for Jackson became simpler during the pandemic. We were able to reconnect, he was better able to tell me what he needed, and I was able to fully focus on him. It forced me to stop and breathe, and we had time together that we will probably not have again. The pandemic has caused so much loss, and it’s easy to get torn down, but I try to give it a positive spin.

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Jackson went back to daycare on July 13. The daycare has a preschool program which he will start in the fall. They have reassured me about all the things they are doing for safety, and they sent a long email saying what I need to do to keep him safe. He was ready to return, and I was ready for him to return. There haven’t been any problems.

I’ve now returned to work at the golf course, and will finish my associates degree in communications next year. I definitely want to have a career in the wedding industry—at the golf course, they are always doing lots of events—and I’d like to be an event coordinator.

Chrystal Sumlin

Coping with Special Needs and Fear

Chrystal Sumlin, mom of two

Aurora

My 8-year-old son, Sar, has severe autism. I noticed around 22 months that his facial expressions looked different. He stopped making eye contact and wasn’t responding to his name. When he began having seizures, I took him to Children’s Hosptial for testing; we did early intervention through Child Find. My 5-year-old son, Seti, is also on the autism spectrum but very high functioning and in the regular classroom most of the time—they’re like east coast and west coast.

Last year both of my boys attended the same school and rode the bus together for the first time—it was a very good experience. Both boys were familiar with technology used for online school, but the biggest challenge when the pandemic hit was the schedule change. It is almost mandatory that my boys have a schedule; they need to know when things start and when things end. Without the need to get on the bus at a certain time each morning, Sar was up in the middle of the night and his days and nights became flipped. When he was up and couldn’t go back to sleep, I’d do online school with him at night, then with Seti during the day. When I have quiet time, I take that time to be still, recharge, or get an hour of sleep when I can. In May, I was able to get some respite care from a paid provider through Developmental Pathways, who would come twice a week.

This summer we’ve stayed busy with webinars and online classes like yoga and coding. We go on sensory walks, sit on the balcony and listen to nature, and go swimming and jump on the trampoline at my sister’s house. For the fall, we’ve decided to go fully online for their health. Seti wants to be in school and says, “I’ll do it, mom. I’ll wear a mask,” but he has asthma. Sar is allergic to dog dander, and last year at school he spent many days with a running nose and watery eyes. It wouldn’t be fair to ask him to keep a face covering on. I believe there is some flexibility for students on IEPs if online doesn’t work out, but if one of my boys were to catch the virus, it would be very hard to isolate and care for the other.

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In addition to all this, people of color have had other things to deal with during this time, starting with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, which sparked people to remember the case of Elijah McClain, which happened right here in Aurora. They say that Elijah was neurodivergent, and it makes me think of Sar who is eight but wears a size 14-16. He has atypical reactions to situations, and he may appear noncompliant.

During the pandemic, I had a situation where the police showed up at my door in the middle of the night. It turned out, for some reason, Sar had called the police—he likes them, and believes they are there to help—he doesn’t understand that you don’t just call unless it’s an emergency. I had put him to sleep, and suddenly I hear someone beating on my door and saying, “Aurora Police, open up!” I opened the door to four officers with hands on their guns. I was terrified. What if my 8-year-old son would have come flying out of the shadows, waving his hands around like autistic people do? I invited them in, to show them nothing was wrong. But when you are a parent of black sons who are different, it’s hard to feel safe.

Makisha Gant family

Working as a Team

Makisha Gant, mom of four

Denver

When my son Marshawn, now 11, was a baby, I noticed he rammed his head while he was sleeping. He didn’t talk until he was two, and he would never look anyone in the eyes. In Kindergarten, they noticed learning disabilities. He has an IEP, but no one in the public schools seems to take it seriously. They keep switching him to other schools—he’s been to five different elementary schools— and they are not sure how to handle him. He’s a sixth grader, reading at a second grade level. I think they gave up on my son.

What has helped Marshawn the most has been the Redeem program through The Thrive Center, (a mentoring program for African American boys). I’ve seen a dramatic change in him. He had bad behavior, but he listens now, he participates, and they are teaching him how to be a man. He was heading for the streets—his father is a street person and does not help financially. He continued to meet with Redeem online during the pandemic, but he likes it when he can see them in person and do the activities.

I wanted my kids to be back to school, but safety is my main priority right now, so we’ll be doing online school. My girls, Ta’nyia, 15, and Sahirrah, 13, did well with online school in the spring—they are on the honor roll with all As and Bs. My oldest, Jamia, has graduated from high school. With Marshawn, I’m not sure how it will work. He needs a one-on-one tutor and doesn’t do well with online instructions.

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I’m a medical assistant so I have to work outside of the home. It seems like, as a single mom, you have to choose between providing for your kids and caring for them. On school days last spring, I’d tell my girls, “wake, up, get ready, eat breakfast, and then help Marshawn get set up first.” I wrote on the board in our house what time he has to log on for meetings with teachers. I worry about my kids not getting the education they deserve and falling behind, and that I’m not able to be there to help.

I wouldn’t wish being a single mother on anyone. We don’t have family here; I was in the foster care system from eight to 18 and went through about 20 homes. It’s important to have a village, and I’d suggest that if you have one, appreciate what you have and don’t burn your bridges. I tell my kids we’ll be OK as long as we work as team. It’s all we’ve got, and we are trying make the best of what we have.

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