It was love that brought COVID-19 crashing down on Carmen Vega. It was caring that left her struggling for every breath. It was compassion that left her isolated from her family and frightened that she would not survive.
“This is a very lonely illness,” said Vega, Shelter Coordinator for Lazarus House. “I was so scared. No one wants to be around anyone who has COVID.”
Vega had successfully eluded the disease while caring for Lazarus House Guests at its emergency Shelter, even in the days before masks were readily available. Ironically, it was when the shelter closed as a precaution and its residents moved to a temporary city-run shelter at the DoubleTree Hotel in Andover, that Vega says, “I stumbled.”
While the City of Lawrence was providing lodging and meals at the hotel, driven by caring and responsibility, Vega could not resist the need to connect with those she cares so much for.
“The Guests were at the hotel, but they still needed to hear me say, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ There were things they needed help with.” Vega brought hope, kindness, guidance, and snacks for the children each visit.
“I walked into a room where one of our Guests was coughing, but she made a really good excuse. She said it was her allergies,” said Vega. “I go back to that day and wonder, ‘Carmen, what were you thinking?’”
Within days she was suffering the initial symptoms of COVID-19, within a week she could not catch her breath.
“I have asthma, so I know what it is like to have breathing issues, but this was something I had never experienced,” Vega said. “There were days upon days when I did not sleep. Because anytime I would go to sleep, I would stop breathing. Every breath had to be intentional. I had to breathe intentionally, and it was easier not to breathe.”
She feared she might not survive.
“I knew a couple of people who had passed away, so I had to block all that stuff, and continue to listen to the voice of God.”
While the prayers left on her voice mail brought hope, a greater despair came when her 10-year-old daughter, Mikeyla-Serenity, developed a fever and other COVID symptoms.
Mikeyla-Serenity’s health care providers said there was no cure, nothing they could do.
“When the nurse said that, I said, ‘You don’t say that to a mother’,” Vega said. “I felt my heart just sink. I felt guilty.”
While her daughter recovered quickly, Vega remained alone and isolated from her family who had often expressed reservations and concern about her continuing to take the risk of going to work.
“My husband did not say ‘I told you so,’ he just felt so bad for me,” she said. “They didn’t hold it against me. They know that this work is what I love.”
When we talked Carmen was 25 days into the disease, she had lost 13 pounds and pain remained in her lungs. She worries about reinfection and reliving the “agony when you are trying to breathe.”
Yet the love, caring and compassion that paradoxically brought her COVID-19 will push her to return to Lazarus House again.
“I love the Guests like they’re my kids. Even though some are older than me, I feel like a mother to them,” she said. “We love so hard, and we love what we do. It’s not a job.”
The staggering level of job loss, which has disproportionately impacted low-income Americans who work in service industries, has increased the resolve of the Lazarus House food pantry staff to remain open.
“People come by and say, ‘Thank you for being open, thank you for this food, thank you for staying here for us’,” said Jeff Hassel, Executive Director. “There is a lot of appreciation from our Guests that we have not closed up and gone home.”
In the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak, the pantry has provided food to as many as 800 families a week.
“We’re still doing a significant distribution even though people have been told to stay home,” said Ken Campbell, who runs St. Martha’s Food Pantry on Hampshire Street in Lawrence, noting these people have put their fears aside for much-needed food.
“We have skyrocketing unemployment, and many people who have not come to food pantries before will come now,” he said.
Keeping the pantry open is worrisome for the staff because of the potential exposure to the coronavirus from hundreds of people within a matter of hours, and then bringing it home to their families.
The stakes are high, especially since there is a COVID-19 surge expected this coming week in Lawrence.
“I am worried about being able to keep this open,” said Hassel. “If someone in the food pantry gets sick, then the rest of the staff has to go home and quarantine.”
The staff has made what they call “loving modifications” to best protect them, their families, and those served.
“The biggest change was a significant alteration to our process of distributing food,” said Campbell. “People are not coming in for a shopping experience; we are prepackaging a bag of groceries for a ‘Grab and Go’ process.”
Bags of groceries are assembled and then pushed from behind a Plexiglas shield one-at-time to Guests who are socially distanced apart.
Lazarus House Staff are so thankful that they can still communicate and connect through conversation and smiling eyes behind the masks yet through the protective shield – crucial to the respect and dignity that is the cornerstone of how Lazarus House interacts with their Guests.
While the selflessness of the staff is noteworthy, so is that of those dropping off food.
“People who I’ve never seen before are calling up and asking if they can drop food off, saying ‘I know it must be difficult’,” said Campbell.
Fred Anderson and his son, long-time supporters of Lazarus House, drove six hours to Maine to load 200 50-pound bags of potatoes onto his trailer. They returned to unload the 10,000 pounds of potatoes for the pantry.
“The only hiccup is that we distribute the food differently,” said Campbell. “Other than that, we’re still doing what we’ve always done and that is to serve our community.”
If gratitude can help calm fear, the frontline workers at the Lazarus House emergency Shelter are rewarded each day for the peril of leaving their homes. In the midst of the pandemic, they are anxiously trying to keep it open for the families and individuals for whom it is their only sanctuary.
“The Guests at the shelter don’t have people they can rely on. A lot of the people don’t have anyone else in the world. Their fear is, ‘If I lose Lazarus House, where will I go?’” said Almarie Silverman, Director of Advocacy, who especially worries about a woman who is nine months pregnant.
Another staff member working to keep it open is Carmen Vega, Shelter Coordinator, who comes in each day feeling her family’s worry she will bring COVID-19 home. She only recently was able to wear a mask.
“We didn’t have masks, so I felt it wasn’t fair if I was wearing a mask and my staff could not,” Vega said.
Vega said the shelter “smells like bleach,” as the staff and shelter Guests thoroughly follow the protocol – taking precautions of social distancing, wearing masks and regularly disinfecting common areas. They all know that does not completely eliminate the risk, but they all hope to stay at the only place they have left.
“It’s scary. I am a woman of faith, so I pray and ask God to cover me,” said Vega. “My family would wish that I wouldn’t come in, but this is my job. This is what I love to do.”
“Our staff really cares about what they do, they are feeling torn between the health concerns they have for themselves and their families, and the sense of calling and duty to care for the Guests in our charge,” said Jeff Hassel, Executive Director of the Merrimack Valley non-profit.
Guests at the shelter are staying in their rooms when possible, coming down mostly for designated mealtimes to aid in physical distancing, knowing that just one case of COVID-19 could force the staff into quarantine and threaten operations.
“Families with fear about having nowhere to go are willing to do anything to keep us open, and have been sweeping, keeping it clean, keeping us open,” said Silverman.
The staff can no longer pray side-by-side with Guests or develop the more personal relationships they are accustomed to – it’s difficult from six-feet away.
However, everyone at the shelter is motivated by the children who help answer the question of why they continue to face the danger and come in. “The kids are amazing, they’re grateful, they always say thank you for being here,” said Silverman.
“There is a lot of joy still in the work,” said Hassel. “I spent the day at the shelter and during lunch the kids were singing a children’s song. So, in the crisis, life goes on. Kids still sing, kids still play. Moms still take care of their kids.”