Part three of a four-part series.
Back in May, Eligia Rivera was in a parking lot at Webb Middle School, guiding families through a line to pick up groceries. The nonprofit she works for, Austin Voices for Education and Youth, distributes food weekly at schools in Austin.
Since the pandemic began, she said, Austin Voices has seen a bigger need for assistance. She empathizes with these families; the pandemic drastically changed her life, too.
“I encourage them,” she said. “I’m going through it just as much as you are.”
Before the pandemic, Rivera would drop off her 9-year-old son at school every morning, then take her 1-year-old to her aunt's house in Bastrop. Her older son attended an after-school program, and she would pick them both up after she got off work.
It was a routine that worked – until March, when normal life ceased.
Rivera and her husband had separated at the beginning of the year, and he had moved out of their Montopolis home in March.
Rivera was beginning a new phase as a single mom when schools closed and residents were told to shelter in place. She was nervous to have her aunt or mother watch the children because they were both considered high risk for COVID-19.
Then the emergency stay-home order put her husband out of a job, and she was the only one providing for the boys.
“Even before, I was struggling a little bit,” she said. The jump from one kid to two put a dent in her budget. Then when the pandemic hit and both kids were home all day, her grocery bills soared.
“That’s why I ended up getting the second job," she said. She fit in shifts at Walmart after work as an administrative assistance with Austin Voices.
Rivera needed to work, but she also needed someone to watch her kids.
Her husband had moved in with his parents, but she didn't want to send them there, because she didn't think they were taking the same safety precautions.
“I had to make the tough decision of having him move in, because he was available ... so he can watch them and not have the kids exposed,” she said.
As challenging as it was to live with her estranged husband, Rivera realized having him at the house was the easiest solution to the child care puzzle. He offered a consistent routine and could monitor her older son as he finished up the school year online.
But by May, he returned to work, and Rivera again had to figure out who could watch the kids.
Rivera always had family who could help out, so she never had to rely on a child care center. But many of her relatives available to babysit were considered high risk for the coronavirus.
She decided to send the kids to her husband's mom; it was the best option they had.
But it wasn’t a permanent solution.
Her mother-in-law travels back and forth between Austin and Mexico to see family. She leaves for months at a time, and in May, when she told Rivera she could watch the kids, she was also preparing to leave Austin for the summer.
“It’s a growing concern knowing and stressing out about where I’m going to take my kids next month," she said.
When her mother-in-law went to Mexico, Rivera’s dad offered to watch the boys on days she distributed food for Austin Voices.
Rivera said one of the most difficult parts of having to find new child care every couple weeks is that each caregiver has a different routine.
“I know some of the days [my dad’s] been watching them, [the toddler] won’t take a nap,” she said. “I get back home and I’m still trying to do things for work and he’s cranky the rest of the day, and I’m like, ‘Oh, he didn’t take a nap, did he?’”
Her dad has said it's difficult for him to watch both boys and he might not be able to do it much longer. But that’s not Rivera's biggest concern; her older son will be starting virtual school again next week. That means she not only needs someone to watch the kids, but also someone to help him with school.
With her husband working, Rivera was able to quit her Walmart job in August. She said she’s lucky she can work from home for Austin Voices and needs child care only one day a week when she's distributing food.
“I don’t even know if it’s a good plan, but I’m going to try and hold off as long as I can, keep taking care of them here,” she said. “I know my dad’s not going to want to take care of the baby for that long.”
There's not much Rivera can do with an active toddler, so she works around his schedule.
“I try to wake up as early as I can, when the kids are asleep, because that’s the only time I can get a good amount of work done,” she said. “As soon as they get up, it’s all over from there.”
On top of all this, she’s trying to make sure nobody gets COVID-19. Her job involves bringing meals to families if someone is sick and helping them navigate the health care system and find resources if they've lost work. She estimates around 20-30% of families she helped over the summer had someone who contracted the virus.
“It’s hard to concentrate on too many things at once," she said. "I know I have to do eight hours of work and I know I have to feed the kids, and I have to do a little bit of cleaning to keep it decent in here. I’m just trying to take it day by day, I guess, just like a lot of people I know.”
Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.