Amongst the unprecedented months of uncertainty, there were people on the front lines of every occupation – whether it be providing food for the public, making sure communities were protected and, of course, saving lives. Not everyone got to stay home in a quarantine bubble.
These courageous individuals deserve some recognition because, in the face of adversity, they fought the good fight. We have heard countless miracle stories and have given attention to many – but what about the officers going to great lengths to protect their communities, the H-E-B employees who kept families fed, the delivery drivers who transported food to people in quarantine, or the assisted living employees who cared for others’ grandparents as if they were their own? They, also, deserve to be celebrated, appreciated and represented. Here you will meet six courageous individuals who are the underrepresented faces of those who stood by Austin during COVID-19.
Lieutenant Vicente Montez and his police department earned the Meritorious Service Award for their incredible efforts to serve the Bee Cave community. Montez ensured his brave officers worked each day as if no risk of contracting COVID-19 existed. His team took 911 calls as if it were just another day. Traffic detail stayed on duty, all ongoing investigations continued and they took every call to be in person.
When I had the pleasure of speaking with the lieutenant, who was kind and humble, he said his officers never once mentioned feeling uncomfortable. They were ready for duty every day – before, during and after the thick of COVID-19. There was a unity that came from the daunting situation, if anything. He said that going through this “brought (his) unit closer together.”
Lt. Montez organized and ensured that Bee Cave had personal protective equipment, and he even thought ahead to get rapid tests to have on standby at the police station so if any of his officers were exposed, they would know in 15 minutes to avoid spreading COVID-19. He is immensely proud of the Bee Cave PD for their nonstop diligent servitude.
When we couldn’t be there for our elderly family members, who was? The great people of Brookdale Senior Living’s Lakeway location fought against COVID-19 together, and the staff played the roles of caretaker, family member and nurse. Specifically, Claudia and Lorrie were there for the patients as if they were caring for their own grandparents.
Lorrie, the director of nursing for the Skilled Nursing facility, helped ensure the department ran seamlessly and stayed organized in the face of chaos. She decided to shut down visitation before the CDC, or even the state, and by doing so, she saved residents from a potential outbreak. Claudia, the director of nursing for the assisted living facility, worked to protect her residents. The Brookdale staff even used their personal phones and computers to video chat with family members for the residents.
Claudia and Lorrie also worked tirelessly to keep morale up for both their staff, the residents and the family members who could no longer be there with their loved ones. They organized activities for the residents to stay active and entertained in their rooms. The facility even created a makeshift isolation bubble where COVID-19 cases could be attended to by specific volunteer-only base staff.
We all saw the videos of folks visiting their parents or grandparents outside windows, but these employees were present every day. It doesn’t get more “front-line” than nursing the elders of our community morning, day and night. Claudia said a major part of enduring the pandemic was “keeping the compassion alive.” Both Claudia and Lorrie stated multiple times that this was a team effort, and they couldn’t have done it without their remarkable staff.
When asked about her students during the pandemic, Riley Cioch, a longtime Austin resident and special needs teacher, said, “How can you expect these kids ages seven to 16 to learn online when learning in person is difficult enough?” She taught her students in person throughout quarantine because it was essential.
Though she and the staff wore masks and encouraged the kids to also wear masks, most kids wouldn’t keep them on. Ms. Cioch and the staff got creative and used hula hoops to socially distance the kids. They did everything to keep normalcy and consistency for their students. She showed up to teach daily, even though Cioch, herself, is immunocompromised. She was quarantined when not at school but it wasn’t for her. “It was to ensure I wouldn’t show up on Monday and infect these kids,” she said.
Sarah Kittner has been with H-E-B for six years, and the months of quarantine were no exception. Without grocery store employees working round-the-clock, there would have been unspeakable misfortunes. Being exposed to most of the general public is a risk Kittner and her staff took to feed you and your families.
Thankfully, Kittner said H-E-B was equipped to handle the effects of the pandemic hysteria. “They were one of the first companies to put up acrylic shields,” Kittner said. She and her staff felt H-E-B prepared them with appropriate expectations. However, these employees had to be calm in the storm of frustrated consumers who had visited many stores in search of items as simple as milk, eggs and toilet paper.
“To see your shelves being wiped was a reality check,” Kittner said. She felt for the community, being a mother herself and also someone who cared for her elderly mother. Kittner was worried about COVID-19, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t there every day helping ensure people were able to feed their families. She adapted to the chaos and comforted her customers.
Salvador Saavedra works for Dana Transport in which he operates an 18-wheeler that contains hazard tanks. When COVID-19 hit, he didn’t get a single day off. Rather, his workload increased. He delivered everything from oil and gas to the alcohol used for hand sanitizer production. He’s been driving since 2006, and in all of those years, this is certainly the most bizarre thing he has ever had to push through.
“People needed things like oil and hand sanitizer,” Saavedra said. “We couldn’t just stop and quarantine with our families like the majority of people could.”
After driving across Texas, he would leave his clothes in the garage when he returned home to ensure he wouldn’t infect his family. He socially distanced himself from others but, at the beginning of the pandemic, proper protection didn’t exist, so he depended on only his mask to keep him safe since he encountered many people in his work daily.
Thankfully, he received hazard pay for his noble efforts to continue to work despite the risks. He and his fellow workers deserve recognition as front-line workers as they played a huge part in getting us through those tough months. We owe them for every delivery made.
I am sure I can speak on behalf of the city of Austin when I say that we are all grateful to these individuals and those like them for taking selfless risks to care for us in one way or another. The next time you use the word “front-line worker,” I hope these brave faces also come to mind.
About the Author
Katerina Cotroneo is a professional photographer turned lifestyle writer. Using her marketing background and her talent behind the camera, Katerina tells unique stories through her lens and captures diverse perspectives.