Local members of the Youth Advisory Council help with a backpack drive during the pandemic Photo Credit: Jillian Foster
Local members of the Youth Advisory Council help with a backpack drive during the pandemic

Mental health, struggling students and food insecurity. These are the topics on Michigan moms’ minds for 2021 and the solutions they are finding.

MICHIGAN—In Hastings, Michigan, Jillian Foster has put together a comfortable life for herself and her family. She’s the mom of a sharp and studious 12-year-old, she’s a community presence who belongs to various groups and organizations, and she has a good-paying job with a caring employer. She’s also seeing a therapist and is on medication due to the stress of the pandemic, which is something she thinks is important to talk about.

“For me, talking about these kinds of stories is normalizing. It’s ok to say, ‘I was really scared to go back to work and start being in the public again, because I’m afraid to get COVID again, because I had it, and it was awful,’” Foster said.

Foster’s not sure how she contracted the virus, but she does know she was the one who brought it home to her husband and daughter. That sits with her. Though she masked and took precautions, she still feels guilty about being the source last time, and she’s scared of what catching it again would mean for her family. 

When her daughter showed symptoms and had to stay home from school, Foster and her husband decided not to rush her back to class. But they also worried about the long-term impacts that at-home education could have on their child, whose in-person lessons were on and off for the last year and a half. Despite her daughter being an excellent student—honors math, to be exact—grades dropped in virtual school. 

“I had a little bit of PTSD around getting COVID-19,” Foster said.

Mental health has been a challenge during COVID-19, especially in rural areas that lack mental health services. Anxiety and depression are on the up, and for young adults across America, 63% are suffering serious symptoms, per a CDC online study.

Studies suggest that average rates could be higher for rural Americans.

Within Barry County, where Hastings is located, there are no mental health facilities, Foster said. Those seeking help either have to go elsewhere or live with it. 

SEE: How One Michigander Saved Lives Working the State’s New Mental Health Crisis Hotline

A Time Unlike Any Other

That’s not a one-off circumstance. In the Upper Peninsula and other sparsely populated areas, Michelle LaJoie, executive director of Community Action Alger-Marquette, has noticed a worrisome trend in mental health as well. 

People have been stressed. And as primary caregivers for children—and sometimes, for their own aging parents—parents have all the more to worry about.

“Parents had to choose between teaching their kids at home or coming to work,” LaJoie said. 

For Sarah Harris, a Maple Valley mother of two, that decision made itself.

She had been nannying just months prior to the pandemic. But after her husband received a major promotion to project manager at a big-time construction firm, she decided to stay home with her now 3-year-old daughter while her 11-year-old went off to school. 

In just a few months, the family was spending a lot more time together, as COVID-19 forced schools to suspend in-person operations.

“I was able to stay home with them, thankfully, because there’s not really too many daycares here, and actually the preschool that I was going to send my daughter to closed last month,” Harris said in an August 2021 interview—her daughter’s playful exclamations audible in the background.

Maple Valley is down to one preschool and daycare left in the whole school district, Harris said, which means if parents don’t like the lack of offerings, then they’re out of options.

LaJoie added that the pandemic dramatically reduced the availability of childcare throughout the state. It’s a problem officials have noted and are trying to fix.

The Lack-Of Problem

Lack-ofs are common in rural Michigan and the U.S.—lack of schools, lack of WiFi, lack of jobs. 

While the Michigan moms who The ‘Gander spoke with shared stories that will resonate with many, they also recognized they were fortunate in several ways. 

Both Foster and Harris had broadband. Many rural Michigan families don’t.

RELATED: Rural Michiganders Open up About Living Without Broadband

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 22% of people in rural areas and 28% of people in tribal lands lack broadband in the U.S., as opposed to 1.5% of people in urban areas. 

When school went online, kids were left to rely on lagging hotspots or worse—packets. 

“The difference between a paper packet and even seeing their teachers on Zoom is a huge difference for students. They really need that interaction piece,” Foster said. 

Both Harris and Foster also had steady household incomes at a time when job security shriveled beneath a faltering economy. But both know far too many people who have fared worse.

“This isn’t a district that has a lot of money,” Harris said of Maple Valley.

As part of her job working with teenagers, Foster asked her interns what the most important issue facing their community was. Two said homelessness.

Help and Hope

Despite the looming danger of the Delta variant, Harris and Foster said they feel that things are improving, thanks to community mobilization, federal relief, and improved organization in Michigan’s response. 

Stimulus checks have made a major difference in their communities, these rural families said.

And now, recently passed child tax credits could put families on a sustainable path to financial health for years ahead.

“Being able to either save that money, specifically for your child, or being able to use those funds immediately to pay for anything you have is very important for our community,” Foster told The ‘Gander.

Foster is putting aside that money in her daughter’s savings. Her daughter, 12, eventually wants to be a hairdresser.

“I think there’s a very high level of poverty and we have people working to change that pattern,” Foster said. “But having [been] a child of poverty myself, I think that every little bit can really help people.”

Harris is pregnant, expecting her third child, and federal money is going directly toward credit card bills and baby supplies.

In Maple Valley, she said child tax credits have also helped small businesses stay in business, assisting owners who were juggling the responsibilities of employer and parent.

LaJoie agreed that the stimulus and child tax credits have helped, but said that’s just the start.

“Having the benefits, the stimulus money coming to individuals, that was nice, but that was just a Band-Aid at some point,” LaJoie said. “Right now, we need to make sure our families have a living wage, so they can provide for their household.”

Hope is on the horizon, for parents and kids, Foster said. Day by day, she sees Hastings and Barry County rebuilding.

“I have a lot of hope for the children,” Foster said. “As a community, we survived it, and now we’re thriving.”

MORE: Looking for a Family Activity this Summer? Check Out These 20 Michigan U-Pick Farms

The Community Solution

In rural areas across Michigan, amid divisive political rhetoric and isolation, an unlikely theme arose during the pandemic: Communities came together.

Foster is an advisor of the local Youth Advisory Council for Barry County, and when she decided to host charitable events—socially distanced and masked, with two-hour time slots to limit the size of groups—to distribute Christmas gifts and donate to food pantries, she wasn’t sure how many people would show up. 

“I was really surprised. I thought a lot of parents wouldn’t let their kids come because they’d be worried,” Foster said. “But I think the parents were like me when they said, … ‘I’m going to let my kid go and do this because it’s very important for them to maintain those connections to the community, and not just each other.’”

It turns out, many rural families were battling the same isolation and loneliness, and opportunities to get out and make a difference brought people together.

LaJoie said that’s the way it goes and the way it has to be in rural communities: Poverty is high, and resources are limited, so communities have to come together to fight hunger, homelessness, and even bad WiFi.

“We can’t do any activity alone,” LaJoie said. “We have to do it together because the resources are so limited.”