COVID Stories: Realizing the value you bring can mend relationships

From left to right: Johan, Christel, Sol, and Kelly Figueroa celebrating New Year's in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood.

UC Berkeley student Kelly Figueroa, right, was the glue that kept her family safe and healthy when they caught COVID-19 last summer. That experience, though traumatic, has brought them closer together. Here, her brother Johan, sister Christel, and mother Sol, ring in 2021 on New Year’s Eve. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Figueroa)

The COVID-19 pandemic has separated us, but sharing stories about how members of the campus community have been surviving — and even thriving — since last spring can help draw us together. Berkeley News is gathering inspiring personal tales of heartache and triumph related to the coronavirus and will run them periodically in the coming weeks. If you’d like to pitch us your story, send a brief email to

This story is from student and Berkeley NavCal Scholar Kelly Figueroa.

Growing up, I always felt like the underdog of the family.

My mother and father immigrated to Los Angeles from Honduras in the late 1990s after thousands of people were killed and displaced after Hurricane Mitch hit their home country. Me, my older sister and younger brother were all born in L.A. and grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.

But when I was 8, my father was deported back to Honduras. That left my mom to raise the three of us alone.

Old photo of Kelly Figueroa in an elemntary school uniform

Figueroa attended public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The schools in her neighborhood didn’t have high standards and she felt unprepared when she moved on to higher education. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Figueroa)

We lived in Estrada Courts Section 8 housing my whole life. My mom would work long hours, six days a week cleaning houses in high-end neighborhoods, like Malibu and Bel Air. She was rarely home because of that, so my older sister — who was just in middle school — really took on a lot of the household responsibilities to make sure my brother and I were well taken care of.

As a child, I remember thinking I was stupid. My uncles would often call me dumb and clumsy and would say things like, ‘She’s going to end up getting pregnant.’ It didn’t really make me feel like a valued member of the family.

When I wasn’t home, my mom always thought I was hanging out with boys all the time. But I was really doing a lot of community activism in my neighborhood and school.

So, when my high school held Senior Awards Night, I begged my mom to come with me. I wanted her to understand all the work I had done. That night, I received seven awards around civic commitment. And by the fourth award, my mom wouldn’t let me get up to get the award. She knelt down in front of me and she held my hands: She was crying.

She said she was sorry for not believing me, and she was sorry for accusing me when I really was out helping the community. After that night, my mother trusted me, and she encouraged my school activities and community work: I felt valued and recognized.

A mural of a hand made from faces from a community

Pictured here is a mural Figueroa created while attending Roosevelt High School. Using five different languages, she incorporated the quote “turn your wounds into wisdom.” She said: “I tried to deliver the message that people of color have suffered, but that we have managed to persevere and be resilient.” (Photo courtesy of Kelly Figueroa)

When it came to my family, I always thought that we shouldn’t be suffering. It shouldn’t be so hard to be able to attain a life above poverty.

Once I graduated high school, I went to community college, but I began working a full-time job to help pay bills and rent for the family. There was a different kind of respect my mother had for me after that. I kind of put off going back to school — until 2017, when I started to attend East Los Angeles College, where I majored in political science and also worked part-time as an English tutor.

At that time, everyone in our household was working a service job. So, when the pandemic began, COVID-19 hit my family.

My sister was working at a bank and was exposed in May. I remember, because it was finals week, and I was about to give a virtual class presentation. Thirty seconds before the presentation, my little brother comes up to me crying, saying, ‘Christel has COVID. If she dies, I’m going to kill myself!’

He could not imagine living without us.

It was terrible, but I just went into flight-or-fight mode and said, ‘You need to relax. I have to finish this final. We’ll talk after this.” But my mom and my brother began crying together in the kitchen. As I was about to start my presentation, I had to tell my professor to give me a minute. I stepped away from the computer and told my brother, ‘You need to get your s— together and relax. I have a presentation to do. We will talk about this right after. She’s not going to die. She’s going to be OK.’

Kelly Figueroa and her partner at Grizzly Peak in L.A.

Figueroa’s partner, Luciano Amador, helped support her while she cared for her family. “He was actually the one who encouraged me to go back to school,” she said. “He would drop off tea boba because he knew I liked it while I would study.” (Photo courtesy of Kelly Figureoa)

After the presentation, we talked and kept my sister quarantined in a bedroom. I would cook and bring her food and anything she needed, to keep her away from my mom and brother. This was hard, because we lived in a small two-bedroom unit.

I started to notice my mom — who has always had issues with depression — start to get really depressed. She was not sleeping or eating. A day after we found out my sister had COVID-19, I told her to go lay down in the other room: We soon found out that she had COVID-19, too.

While my sister had mild symptoms, my mom was 56 years old, and things got really bad for her. She had a severe lung infection. She had to get treated for it and had a near-death experience. All of us were really scared of losing her.

But I knew we had to push through.

I was working part-time while going to school, but I tried my best to continue to cook and clean for all of them. I kept my mom in the other room we had, and me and my brother would sleep on the living room floor.

It was a week or so in that I also tested positive. Luckily, I was asymptomatic, so I could continue to function normally and take care of my mother and sister, while trying my best to keep my brother from getting COVID.

I would sleep facing away from him with a towel over my face so that I wouldn’t breathe on him. But it was always hard for me, because whenever my mother or sister needed anything, I would wake up and help out. And also, because my mom was experiencing severe symptoms, I always was scared that things would get worse for her. That maybe I would go in her room, and she would be dead.

It got to the point where any sound in the night woke me and my brother up. It was insane.

Groceries left in front of a door.

Figueroa’s relatives would drop groceries at her front door every week. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Figueroa)

I was trying to juggle so many things at the same time: cooking, cleaning and nursing everybody back to health, while also taking care of school. But I really had the support of my younger brother, partner, friends and family when going through this. My partner and friends would drop groceries at our front door and even give me advice.

After a few months, we got to the point where all of us had recovered and tested negative. Honestly, one thing that I’m proudest of is that my brother did not get infected with COVID-19. He has tested negative every time: I was able to keep him safe and healthy.

My mom’s near-death experience also brought all of us closer together. My siblings and I have never been as afraid of losing her as we did when COVID hit: My mom is my world. Being able to care for her during the pandemic also helped our relationship to grow.

Soon after, I was accepted as a transfer student to Berkeley, majoring in political economy. I started taking classes last summer. It really was a dream come true. But as I started classes, I began to get random panic attacks and experience anxiety all the time. My hands would sweat, and my heart would race: Something was wrong, but I had no idea what it was.

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I talked to a doctor, who gave me medication to help me sleep.

As a student in Berkeley’s NavCal program, I was introduced to the campus Counseling and Psychological Services office. After talking to a counselor, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. I hadn’t realized that my family’s experience with COVID-19 was so traumatic for me.

I had to stay strong that whole time and never gave myself time to deal with the situation in a mentally healthy way.

NavCal really made me feel comfortable reaching out for that help that I really needed. After I was diagnosed, they also walked me through the process to sign up for campus accommodations for my mental disabilities.

I hope people understand how important it is to reach out for help when you can during this pandemic, because for me — it has been life-changing.

Kelly Figeuroa posing in her graduation gown in front of a Che Guevara mural.

This mural is at the Estrada Courts Projects, where Figueroa lived her entire life. In the midst of taking care of her family she still found a way to graduate from East Los Angeles College. “This experience has helped me to understand the trauma I have gone through and to use that experience to help people going through the same challenges,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Figueroa)

I feel like NavCal has provided a support system and has allowed me to present myself in every campus space as my true and genuine self. Right now, I’m doing a project with other women of color. We are researching how COVID-19 has affected the learning environments of low-income students.

I’ve been able to connect my experience with COVID-19 to this research. I had to create a learning environment at home without a desk, a chair to sit on or any kind of learning space at home while caring for my entire family. I feel like a lot of minorities are going through similar experiences and are not equipped to do so.

This experience has helped me to understand the trauma I have gone through and to use that experience to help people going through the same challenges.

I realize now the value that I can bring to any situation and how it can mend relationships. That motivates me to want to continue to make a difference in my community, for myself and my family. With love.