214,000 children left to rebuild their lives after losing parent to COVID

·2 min read

Florida City, Florida — Kenia Penalba, an emergency medical technician, was unable to comfort her step-father when he was hospitalized with COVID in August.

"As soon as he was intubated, his organs started failing. And we were told he had a day or so left to live. I had to say goodbye on FaceTime because they wouldn't allow visitors due to the pandemic," the 23-year-old told CBS News.

What's worse is her mother was sick with the virus too.

"She died a few days after, which I suspect is more so because of heartbreak than because of the virus," Penalba said.

Penalba was left to care for her 13-year-old brother, Lazaro, and 90-year-old grandmother.

Her younger brother is among more than 214,000 children in the U.S. who have lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19. Experts say the loss of a parent can be linked to an increased risk of substance abuse, dropping out of school, depression and suicide.

"I never expected to lose them. They were my best friends," Penalba said. "So obviously that's the hardest part. I never thought I'd have to live without that. That was my low, realizing that they're gone."

She has since become the head of the household, managing a full-time job, giving insulin shots to her grandmother and ensuring her brother stays on top of his homework.

"I can't really go on a vacation or anything like that and that hurts me, I guess. But ultimately they matter the most to me, so I don't mind sacrificing those things," Penalba said.

And it's appreciated. Lazaro, whose heart broke "in a million pieces" when he heard his mom died, said his sister is "just like my mom."

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