To Be Here in America
A Look Inside the Lives of Four Young Adults During the Year of COVID-19
[In the winter of 2020, we asked Christa Brown to profile four young adults, living in the Merrimack Valley, whose lives had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Brown is the founder and executive director of the Free Soil Arts Collective, a Lowell-based arts organization that has recently been named Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s first-ever Company in Residence. She is also a director, actor, writer, podcaster and consultant. Learn more at FreeSoilArts.org and follow her on Instagram: @choice2bhappy. For this feature, Brown was paired with photographer Rita Tinega, the editor-in-chief and founder of the quarterly magazine VisualMag. Learn more about Tinega and her work at MoritzPhoto.com and follow her on Instagram: @thelovelyrita_. — Editor]
Cassie Van Der Hyde
— Registered Nurse at Lowell General Hospital
“All right, we gotta get the rooms ready. We have COVID patients coming in.”
Cassie Van Der Hyde, a 35-year-old registered nurse with Lowell General Hospital, says that the pandemic came on very quickly.
Once COVID-19 cases began to surge in March, Van Der Hyde isolated in a trailer on the front lawn of her home in order to protect her husband and three children. “My brother and his wife had been trying to sell this camper for a long time,” she says. “So that same afternoon, they carted it over. My brother dropped everything.”
Van Der Hyde recognizes the luxury it was to have that option: “That’s also my privilege, that I have a yard and my kids don’t have to play on a strip of sidewalk out front. I’m not trying to entertain my kids in an apartment.”
At the hospital, she was faced with the harsh realities of the virus. “All of a sudden, our floor was pretty much full of just COVID patients,” Van Der Hyde recalls. “We were putting people up with iPads to talk to their families. It’s really isolating for our patients. When people are talking about this like, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal,’ I’m like, this is awful.”
“There’s a lot of anxiety,” she says. “Anxiety about how we’ll be supported, not by my hospital, but by the government, by the state, by the national government, like, are we going to be supported in this?”
— Owner of Nibbana Cafe in Lowell
Romany Meas, 38, and her husband, Saran Chea, opened Nibbana Cafe on Aug. 25 in the midst of a global pandemic. “We expected the worst, to be honest,” Meas says. Instead, she says, the community rose to meet them.
Meas credits her success to being authentic. This includes using her store and social media platforms to advocate for marginalized communities. “People say don’t mix politics with business,” she says, “but how can we not? When it involves people’s lives? It doesn’t work that way.” She has set up the cafe with a community food pantry and mini-library, which features books that highlight LGBTQ+ issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.
For Meas, advocating for others goes deep. An immigrant from Cambodia, she reflects on the difference between her home country “that is oppressed [and] marginalized against women” and the United States. “To be here in America,” Meas says, “it allows me to use [my] voice. Here, at least I have that choice. Maybe I don’t get killed.”
And the community has largely embraced her. “The community is very supportive,” she says. “I feel like many people are more aware of the issues that we are facing right now, small businesses especially, during this time.”
So why decide to open a coffee shop in such difficult times?
“I wanted to challenge myself,” Meas says. “Do I have what it takes to open a business?”
Ralph Saint Louis
— Chemistry Teacher at Lowell High School
Ralph Saint Louis, 24, has been teaching chemistry to 11th and 12th graders at Lowell High School for the last three years. He is hyperaware of how the pandemic has exacerbated issues in the education field: “We have a lot of students who need to be in person to learn. We are losing so much learning time. We are bare-boning our curriculum, doing what we know students need to know, but not doing everything that we did [before].”
Saint Louis says many students, particularly early language learners and special education students, have been left behind. But he also acknowledges positive changes. “Because of COVID,” Saint Louis says, “we are suddenly recognizing that we are capable of doing things that we never said we could do before.” But he questions the sustainability of these superhuman efforts. “I know too many teachers who are taking an enormous amount of time out of their personal life working regularly through the night to make sure that our students get a quality education,” Saint Louis says. “Our workweeks have shifted from
40 or 50 to 60-, 70-, 80-hour workweeks. … Education, like I always tell my students, is number one. That’s how you bring upward mobility. It’s the only reason why I am where I am today. I’m a first-generation American. My mom is from Haiti. She raised me and my sisters by herself. She’d always be at work, so where I found my greatest support was my teachers.” Saint Louis is committed to playing that same role for his students, now more than ever, despite the personal sacrifices he must make.
Rev. Heather Prince Doss
— Pastor at Eliot Presbyterian Church in Lowell
The services Eliot provided for the homeless in their community have been reduced by state guidelines. Before the pandemic, Eliot housed a ministry called St. Paul’s Soup Kitchen. Heather Prince Doss, 38, says that on busy nights “180 people would be sitting shoulder to shoulder. Well, you can’t do that anymore.”
In May, the city gave Eliot permission to be open for homeless people during the day with a maximum capacity of 35 at a time. So, Eliot developed a day center program in mid-May, hiring a congregation member, Tabitha Karanja, to run it. “We just basically stood that up in two weeks,” Doss says. “It was like, OK, this is a need. How do we answer it?”
The future is uncertain, after having decided to return to their sanctuary no earlier than Easter. But Doss thinks the day center will continue to be a much-needed addition to their services to the community. “It has the potential to be transformative for our congregation,” she says. “We’ve been thinking about poor folks who are homeless in our city as our neighbors for a couple of years. But this really takes it up a notch. … What does it mean to be a good neighbor here?”