Across the U.S., young people are showing their resilience even as they face a new day without a parent.
More than 250,000 children have lost a parent or a primary caregiver to COVID-19. Yet, the voices of those adults, taken too soon, still echo.
For Tre and Jenny Burrows, it’s their mother, Cindy Dawkins. For A.J. Arellano, he hears dad Alan at every football game.
«I just know that he’s watching me. I think it’s helps me with playing better,» Arellano told ABC News’ David Muir, the anchor of «World News Tonight.»
For several months, Muir followed five families — including the Arellanos and the Burrowses — as they faced unspeakable pain and tapped into unmatched strength.
«The Orphans of COVID: America’s Hidden Toll» will stream on HULU and airs TONIGHT on «Nightline.»
Playing hockey for Dad
In Lindhurst, N.J., 13-year-old Colton Koehne and his sister, Kylie, 15, are taking it one day at a time without their father, Eric.
«What’s it been like?» Muir asked Kylie.
«It’s been really hard, like, literally changed my entire life,» she said. «I’ve really tried to, like, live my life more because tomorrow really isn’t promised.»
Eric Koehne was 51 years old when he died on April 29, 2021. He and his wife both had COVID and were treated in the hospital. Eric died the day they got the call saying the vaccines were now available for them.
The two teens said they think of him every day.
«Sometimes I’ll text him and I think that that helps me,» Kylie told Muir. «It’s like my way of communicating. It’s bittersweet because I know I’m not gonna get a reply back.»
Once, she sent him a photo of a sunset.
«What did you say?» Muir asked.
«Thank you for the beautiful sky. I miss you,» Kylie said.
Janice Koehne, their mother, said she has been doing the same thing.
«I started sleeping on his side of the bed because I couldn’t bare rolling over at night and seeing that empty spot,» she said. «And in the morning, you know, (I) tell him, ‘I’m ready to start the day and do the best that I can as a mom’ and that I’ll take care of our kids.»
In honor of his father, Colton took up hockey, playing for the Lindhurst Bears. His father, Eric, was a big Rangers fan and a Marine. Eric Koehne’s hat and pins are on Colton’s dresser, as are his rings.
On another recent day, they visited a farm with a growing tribute called Rami’s Heart. The stones placed there bear the names of loved ones lost.
Kylie and Colton found their father’s name. Then, Kylie gave a speech.
«Learning to live without one of the most important people in my life has not only been beyond difficult but also completely life changing,» she said. «We are slowly learning to find happiness in our lives again.»
Caring for Cornelia
On the Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi, Mylyndie Bell is raising her niece — 7-year-old Cornelia JaRose Hollitoppa Bell.
Hollitoppa means «precious» in Choctaw. Before Cornelia JaRose was born, her parents, Mindy and Craig, had tried to have children for years. She was a gift.
Cornelia JaRose was just 5 when her parents died three months apart in 2020. Both got COVID before the vaccines were ready.
Their photos are still on the refrigerator.
Mylyndie, her paternal aunt, took her in — a wish of Cornelia JaRose’s parents should something ever happen to them.
COVID’s devastating impact has been felt on the reservation. At school, the classrooms are still nearly empty.
Cornelia JaRose is just one of seven children in her first-grade classroom. Many of the children there have lost the parents and grandparents who used to bring them to school.
And it’s not just there — nearly 10 percent of Native American children have lost a parent or caregiver.
According to Dr. Susan Hillis, PhD, in epidemiology, a former researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is working on orphanhood caused by the pandemic, Native American children have been the most affected by COVID-19.
«So many people had passed away from COVID, especially us Choctaws here,» Bell said to Muir.
Bell lost her mother — Cornelia JaRose’s grandmother, Annie — and said two cousins died from COVID a week apart from each other.
‘Everything feels different now’
Tre Burrows and his sister Jenny are now raising their two sisters — Zoe Clarke, 15; and Sierra Clarke, 12 — and hoping to make their mother proud.
The siblings who live in Boynton Beach, Fla., lost their mother, 50-year-old Cindy Dawkins, on Aug. 7, 2021.
On one recent day, Tre, 20, prepares for work at 5:45 a.m. as Jenny gets the girls to school.
«I wake up at 5:30 [a.m.], take a shower … and hopefully I have a little time to read my Bible and eat a bit of food,» he told Muir.
Tre is studying to become a firefighter. He and Jenny have a deal: He fulfills his dream and then she becomes a dental hygienist.
«I really don’t have much time for a lot of other things because I have like more of a responsibility to my sisters now. … I’m always thinking, ‘Do they have food? Am I spending enough time with them?'» he said.
His mother, Cindy, a single mother of four, had been afraid to get the COVID vaccine. He said he cried when he got the news of her death over the telephone.
«And then, my mind went to, like, my sisters. ‘How are we gonna, like, make sure we all stay together? How are we gonna pay for everything? Like, what’s all of that gonna look like?'» he said.
«Found out she had COVID one day. Next day, she was gone,» said 25-year-old Jenny Burrows.
Now she and Tre are the parents. That harsh, new reality was tough to handle at first, with them in charge of the bills and the call from the insurance company.
«My mom used to handle everything. … I have no idea because we look at our bills and we’re like ‘How did she do all this? This is ridiculous.’ … Everything was always paid,» Jenny said.
Then came Janie Yoshida, whose daughter had been in a school play with Tre. She told them she’d help with the rent and do their mother’s taxes, which needed to be filed despite her death. Yoshida also started a GoFundMe for the four, hoping the funds would help keep them all together.
Click here to learn more about the Burrows family.
«Are there moments when you ask your mom how you’re doing,» Muir asked Tre.
«Oh yea, a lot. Just like ‘I hope I’m doing pretty good, ‘cause you were doing amazing,'» Tre said. «So I hope we’re filling your shoes to, I guess, your standards.»
‘I say a little prayer and I talk to my dad’
A.J. and Evan Arellano were just 16 and 14, respectively, when their father, Alan, died of COVID on Aug. 27, 2021.
Alan was 49 years old. He’d gotten his first shot of the vaccine and was waiting on the second.
A.J., 17, still remembers when he learned about his father’s death.
It was the first football game of the season and A.J. was in Georgia. His father was in the hospital in a coma. A.J.; his mother, Karyn; and his younger brother, Evan, sent his father a message.
«When I got home from the long bus ride back home from Georgia at around 4:00, 5:00 a.m., I learned the news from my mom as soon as I walked through the door,» he told Muir. «She was just crying hysterically. And I kinda knew. … So I just gave her a hug. … I was just frozen, kinda. Stuck.»
Nine months after his father’s death, football keeps him going, A.J. said. He said his father never missed a game.
«Before every game, you go to the sideline,» Muir said. «What do you do?»
«Well, I say a little prayer and I talk to my dad just like I would before every game. He would give me a phone call. So I just act like I’m on the same phone call and I just hear him talking back with me…And I know that he’s watching me,» A.J. told Muir. «So I know that I can play the game without any worries.»
The two teen boys are now raised by their mother, Karyn Arellano, in Florida.
«I feel like now my job is really to live for both of us because I, too, don’t like to miss anything so I sit here for both of us. I sit here and I watch for both of us. And I cheer for both of us,» she said.
Her husband, Alan, was a college counselor. The family now lives on her salary alone. Arellano is a kindergarten teacher — the strain of losing one income is overwhelming.
«Because I’m not unemployed, I did not qualify for mortgage assistance,» she said. «With my income, after I pay the mortgage, I have $200 left… That doesn’t include the water, the electricity, the food.»
The family has cut expenses — cable, lawn service — to keep costs low.
A family friend also opened a GoFundMe to help them. It has been a lifeline.
Click here to learn more about the Arellano family.
And in Waldwick, N.J., Pamela Addison raises her young children — 2-year-old Graeme and 4-year-old Elsie.
Her husband, Martin, died on April 5, 2020 before the vaccines were available.
His last birthday with Elsie was when she turned 2. Graeme was just 5 months old.
Elsie’s first time saying «I love you» came while in the car as she spoke to her father in heaven.
«That was the first time she ever said ‘I love you’ ‘cause that was like the stage that she finally understood what was love was and he missed that,» Pamela said.
Pamela said she knows Elsie now carries the weight of her father’s death on her.
«She gets sad when people leave. Like, if we have, like, a gathering… she told me she was sad after. And we’re like, ‘Why are you sad?’ And she says, ‘Because everyone left.’… It’s like that abandonment,» said Pamela Addison.
She said her children’s birthdays get even more special attention, especially for Elsie.
«She definitely knows that this is the time where Papa disappeared. … So, I just try to, you know, keep a happy face and, you know, obviously he’s in our hearts and on our minds,» she said. «I just try to make him present.»
Starting fresh in Florida
Six months after losing their mother, Tre and Jenny Burrows were packing in Florida. With their two jobs and the money raised by Janie Yoshida on GoFundMe, they were moving into their first house.
«She’s always wanted a house for us,» Jenny Burrows told Muir. «So, I know she’s probably ecstatic right now.»
In the new house, everyone has their own room.
«I hear myself sometimes when I talk and I hear her (mother). And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. Wow,'» Jenny said.
As for Tre Burrows, he passed his first test toward becoming a firefighter.
Back in Mississippi, Mylyndie was getting Cornelia JaRose ready for the Choctaw’s first festival in nearly three years, dressing the little girl in traditional wear.
«They get to choose two dances and they dance in front of the whole community,» she said.
Karyn Arellano said Americans cannot forget about the children orphaned during the pandemic.
«We need to check on the kids because even though they may have a smile on their face, inside they could be dying inside. And we need to check on that,» she said.
«I know you worry about that every day,» Muir told her.
«Every day. I pray that my son will be OK, my boys will be OK and that they’ll pull through this,» Karyn said.