From a plant shop owner to an Episcopal priest, Tarrant County residents withstood the opening months of the pandemic with flexibility, vision and a bucket of slime. As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise once more, the Fort Worth Report chronicled their pandemic journeys below — and how they’re approaching the current surge.
67-year-old college student and veteran builds robots — and a career
When Chris Shelby decided to enroll at Tarrant County College in 2018, he needed a computer. So, he collected the pieces of an old Dell at Goodwill and built one.
He’d worked with electronics most of his life, even serving as a radio tech for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. With each new iteration of technology, he learned to adapt. He “re-skilled.”
In 2015, a stroke almost dismantled that life’s work. He lost his home, his savings and his self-esteem. “I couldn’t talk, and I couldn’t think,” he said. Fellow veterans suggested he go back to school as therapy. “So, what started as a therapy is now a new lease on life,” he said.
The schoolwork — classes toward an associate’s degree in robotics and automation — strengthened his mind after the stroke. It was a “vibrant environment,” he said, brimming with study groups, workshops and the space to engage with his classmates.
As a 67-year-old student, he shared his knowledge with those around him, mentoring high school students who worked at the on-campus robots lab. He worked hard, earning recognition through scholarships and awards for academic excellence.
When the pandemic began and school went online, Shelby said it was “regress.”
“Being remote was not a big part of my everyday world,” he said. His cost of living, too, went up. Studying at home led to larger electricity costs and a hefty internet bill. He has a tooth that needs fixing but can’t afford dental care.
“Being remote was not part of my everyday world.”– Chris Shelby, student at Tarrant County College
Once again, Shelby had to adapt. He learned to study on a screen and take eye breaks when his brain tired. He learned to ask for help without hesitation. And, he realized how much people needed to be helped — especially when it came to computers. So, he augmented his path toward an associate’s degree, which he can’t finish until he feels safe to take classes in person, with a certificate in IT tech support.
And when he gets down, he has one strategy: “I remember. Whenever I get to where I don’t want to stay positive, I remember when I couldn’t talk. I remember when I couldn’t walk.”
He’s closer to employment now than he’s been in years. In part, he credits the pandemic with that momentum, as well as his thriving ability to study: “I like this learning bug.”
Reverend explores new ways for her congregation to gather
Before the pandemic, the congregation at St. Luke’s in the Meadow flourished around bread, wine and coffee. Karen Calafat, the rector at St. Luke’s, said coming to the table is the “focal point of our worship.”
“And we can have theological differences, political differences, ideological differences, but we still come to the same table, shoulder by shoulder and we share a common meal,” she said.
This grace-centric camaraderie is what drew Calafat, who’s 56, to the pulpit in the first place. She hadn’t planned to go into church ministry. She had been a teacher, then a minister in a hospital, then a chaplain for foster children who had experienced trauma.
In the churches she’d been part of, she said it felt like “there was really no place for me.” Then, at an event related to her work in the foster system, she met an Episcopal bishop. He told her, “What are you doing here? You should be one of us.”
“So I started the ordination process and became an Episcopal priest 15 years ago, and have never looked back,” she said. Her heart is for people who have been “turned off by religion, burned, pushed away.”
When the pandemic began, the central symbol of Episcopal worship — communion — became an opportunity for the virus to thrive. St. Luke’s closed its doors, not only for services but also for coffee hour. “I think some people come to church just to go to coffee hour,” she said.
“I think some people come to church just to go to coffee hour.”– Karen Calafat, rector at St. Luke’s in the Meadow
To compensate, she started Zoom coffee hour — and people came (“And these are not computer people”). For Calafat, the learning curve was steep and stressful. Zoom and live-streaming services were “things that you don’t learn in seminary and never even realized that you need to learn.”
Then, after George Floyd’s death, the congregation listened to a sermon about racism and wanted to learn more. So, they formed a book club and met weekly online. “It’s been emotional and hard and taxing,” she said, and she’s proud of the work they’ve done.
It never would’ve happened had they been in person, she said: “The perfect storm came together of being isolated; hearing this incredibly profound, inspirational sermon; and realizing, you know, maybe there’s work that we can do, maybe there’s something we can do to change it.
She thinks the pandemic has taught the congregation something vital. “Whether or not they come to the building and they’re together in the building,” she said, “they are still the church.”
Funky Town Fridge founder teaches community to become self-sustainable
Kendra Richardson, the founder of Funky Town Fridge, LLC., had a vision of community solidarity. The three fridge locations offer free food to their community.
“The whole point of a community solidarity fridge is to heighten the contradictions of food apartheid communities, capitalism and racism to bring awareness and help people build the resources they need to live self-sustainable lives,” Richardson said.
The goal of the fridge is to have community members fill the fridge with groceries so that organizers don’t have to fill the fridge daily, which could cost upwards of $300 daily.
Funky Town Fridge’s efforts extend from redistributing books to people in the community to helping high school students who help their parents with rent. Founded on Sept. 26, 2020 at 2308 Vaughn Blvd., Richardson’s most-known venture was her work during February’s deep freeze.
“First, we set up a phone bank and started calling people in Black and brown communities in the city and asking them if they were OK, if they had power and if they had any immediate needs,’ Richardson said. “We did this grocery delivery with this company that was kind of like Uber. They got some drivers out so that we could touch some of the farther out areas like Arlington, Haslet and North Richland Hills.”
“During the height of the pandemic, Richardson said, she found it hard to balance her health and her services. Racial trauma and listening to residents’ stories of struggle stories combined to create an emotional toll.”
“It’s just a lot. It’s a lot dealing with it, especially hearing other people’s stories on top of your own.”– Kendra Richardson, founder of Funky Town Fridge
“It’s just a lot. It’s a lot dealing with it, especially hearing other people’s stories on top of your own,” Richardson said. “But, in order to build community, you have to be willing to give what you have and also listen and learn from the stories of other people.”
Richardson is taking a more hands-off approach to the fridge locations during a resurgence of cases.
“The fridges will always be there,” she said. “I am going to pace myself a lot more so a lot of the things we did this year, we will not be doing next year until I can find good dedicated help. We’ll mainly focus on the fridges and building community.”
Coffee shop owner pours self into community service
Mia Moss, owner of Black Coffee in East Fort Worth, conquered the pandemic with services beyond its lattes.
Black Coffee’s grand opening at 1417 Vaughn Blvd., preceded the pandemic’s start by a few months, so as a new business owner, Moss said she had to not only manage but find solutions for the situation.
“I put my coffee shop in the Poly area because there is a lack of not only coffee shops but restaurants, shopping and everything, and I wanted to have a coffee shop for the community in the community,” Moss said.
The owner fell in love with coffee shops during her first job out of high school at Seattle’s Best Coffee, now owned by Starbucks, sparking her idea to become a business owner.
To accommodate safety protocols, Moss closed the inside of her shop, sold coffee out of a drive-thru window and scheduled only one barista at a time to avoid exposure to COVID-19. The community saved her business.
“The community really helped; even people from Dallas would drive out,” Moss said. “It felt great, and we’ve always been supportive of small businesses and it just made me realize how important it is to buy local. Without small businesses, we wouldn’t be able to do most of the things that we want to do in our neighborhoods.”
“The community really helped; even people from Dallas would drive out.”– Mia Moss, owner of Black Coffee
Beyond lattes and cappuccinos, Black Coffee was involved in community movements. On social media, the business reposted resources like Funky Town Fridge, LLC., Community Frontline for those who needed help with rent and acted as a voice for their community.
“Social media is a community in itself. We made sure that we not only posted about ourselves but about any people who wanted to help,” Moss said. “We had some individuals that collected enough supplies for three elementary schools, and they brought them here and asked us to give them out to the closest elementary schools.”
Moss learned to multitask and balance her and her family’s health with business. They will continue to roll with the punches of COVID-19 and its variants, she said.
“I feel like whatever decision I make is going to be based on, you know, what’s going on and what we know. And again, just making sure people are safe,” Moss said.
Plant shop fills soil into pots of loneliness
In the midst of a pandemic, people were forced to stay home and live through computer screens, making them feel lonely or hopeless — buying plants was a way of feeling purpose.
“I think people picked up home improvement projects and gardening to, you know, kind of fill that void for the locals,” said Randall Archie, 37, fourth-generation co-owner of Archie’s Gardenland, located at 6700 Z Boaz Place.
Plant buying surged throughout the pandemic to the point that local plant shops, including Archie’s store, had a difficult time keeping up with demand. The plant store did not close during the pandemic because of its outdoor space, but accommodations had to be made.
The Gardenland’s indoor retail area was transferred outdoors, and the store experimented with curbside pickup. Employees had to learn a new level of patience, as delays in plant deliveries called for audibles, and customers learned to be understanding of the situation.
“It’s the type of thing, you know, that you’d see in stories. It was a real dark moment and scary moment for a lot of people but, you know, kind of looking back on that was pretty neat to get to see that wave of support,” Archie said. “We are just a garden center, but I think a lot of folks could come out here and find a little bit of something so they can retreat from the normal day-to-day. I think when customers get in they forget all that.”
“That was pretty neat to get to see that wave of support. We are just a garden center.”– Randall Archie, co-owner of Archie’s Gardenland
Archie’s Gardenland retained 90% of its pre-pandemic staff. The team was overworked, Archie said. Staff was in-house seven days a week often to keep up with the demand.
Staff at the plant shop worked much harder and put in extra hours “not only to keep up with the demand but also to give folks something else to focus on besides the world and where it was spinning.”
Virtual theater missing camaraderie performance arts students seek
Performance arts and a pandemic definitely don’t mix.
“What I would’ve liked to have was an in-person, live theater season with a lot of opportunities and what I got was very limited opportunities, and a lot of it was recorded and over Zoom and very distant,” sophomore theater student at Texas Christian University Annie Vaughan said.
Vaughan, the 19-year-old from Plano, has practiced theatrical performance since her first year in high school; however, the past year did not provide the experience Vaughan sought in college.
The sophomore theater student took half of her courses online and half in person. Her first year at Texas Christian University Vaughan split 38 credit hours between two semesters — a heavy load for any first-year college student.
Virtual theater is something that a lot of performance majors had to get used to. For Vaughan, it was not ideal.
“It was missing the camaraderie and the in-person community experience that I am used to in theater,” she said. “I haven’t experienced the quote-unquote real college experience.”
“I haven’t experienced the quote-unquote real college experience.”– Annie Vaughan, sophomore at TCU
Outside of her struggles as a performing arts student, Vaughan struggled emotionally during the pandemic — her mother is immunocompromised and she had a hard time choosing friends because of their views on masks.
“If someone wasn’t good about wearing their mask, I couldn’t hang out with them, really. There was a lot of partying and stuff going on, but my mom is immunocompromised so I couldn’t participate in that,” she said. “There was just kind of an undercurrent of stress.”
Beyond school, Vaughan saw a counselor and picked up hobbies like kazoo playing, embroidery and crocheting to help her through the stress. Her family had a goal of visiting all 50 states before the end of 2020, but the pandemic stopped that train in its tracks with one state left to go.
“Just the fact that my life was so crazy and busy until everything came to a stop, I just didn’t have time to develop a hobby that wasn’t theater. So, I actually did develop a hobby, and that has been really good for me just to decompress and have something to do that doesn’t require a lot of thinking,” Vaughan said.
Moving forward, she hopes to live her everyday life as usual with a few extra precautions. Texas Christian University has 78 active COVID-19 cases as of Aug. 30.
Stay-at-home mom keeps routine with sensory buckets and aplomb
Danielle Whitlatch can monitor 15 alarms while sorting a heap of “dinkleballs,” her name for the colorful cotton puffs used for crafting. A stay-at-home mom in Azle, she had an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old in school when the pandemic began and a 3-year-old who needed tending.
Whitlatch already knew how to wrangle chaos. She’d had a rough pregnancy with her oldest, a daughter, and decided 10 years ago to stay home and be with her. When her sons were born, she wanted the same connections with them.
In the years since, she’s worked to make their childhoods a regular romp. Before the pandemic, they traveled to libraries and zoos and made art projects via YouTube. When the pandemic began, she had to explain to her kids why they couldn’t continue some of those activities: “The world is sick, and we need to do this to help it get healthy again.”
The challenges were manifold. Amid constant uncertainty, it felt like she had to “reprogram” herself to become a different and more vigilant person. “Going to the grocery store is not just going to the grocery store anymore,” she said.
“The world is sick, and we need to do this to help it get healthy again.”– Danielle Whitlatch, stay-at-home mom
Her older children needed help with schoolwork that sometimes she couldn’t provide. Her middle son struggled to keep pace with his speech therapy; the internet was choppy, so his teacher’s mouth didn’t match her voice. Her youngest needed to be screened for autism, but those appointments were pushed back.
To compensate for the unknowns, she buttoned up their days with structure. “I still very much tried to keep them as routine as possible so it wasn’t like throwing a wrench in their little machines and completely throwing them out of whack,” she said. “Because what they were already dealing with is enough.”
That meant creating workspaces in her oldest childs’ rooms, setting alarms to track various lessons and meetings and buying many, many buckets of sand, magnets, Play-doh and paint. “I just Amazon’d and Pinterested my butt off,” she said.
To relieve stress, they bought an inflatable kiddie pool for the backyard. They’ve invested in their board game closet and started Friday night movie nights for the whole family. They’ve also attempted to learn the Fortnite dances.
But her “mom victory” in the pandemic was letting her kids make slime. In the past, they’d asked and she said no — it was simply too messy. At one point, though, she caved: “The worst of the world is already happening, so what’s some slime?”
All Saints’ physician pivots to boutique gynecology
There were two books: “Gray’s Anatomy,” which Carolyn Moyers’ father gave her for Christmas when she was a girl, and “Half the Sky,” which she read her first year out of residency. The former fed her love for the body; the latter, her passion for empowering women.
Before the pandemic began, Moyers worked as a laborist at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center. The early months of last year brimmed with COVID-19 cases, along with normal emergencies like placental abruptions and cord prolapses. Moyers, who’s 43, worried about exposure; she has a husband and young kids.
“(The hospital) went from being a second home, to a place where it seemed like there was danger at every corner,” she said.
To stave off the trauma she experienced at work, Moyers read, listened to podcasts and connected with a mentor. She’d never forgotten the Chinese proverb, “women hold up half the sky”; the book with a similar title had long captivated her imagination. At last, she leaned in.
“I believed that I could take quality care of women in a way that honored my authenticity in how I want to practice medicine,” she said, “and at the same time, prioritize my own health.”
“Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, we’re being very intentional.”– Carolyn Moyers, owner of Sky Women’s Health
In September 2020, Sky Women’s Health opened its doors. Moyers finished her hospital job in August. She now works at her clinic full time providing boutique gynecology for women. Her niche is reducing back and pelvic pain before, during and after pregnancy.
If the women are pregnant, she helps them have a joyful pregnancy by providing osteopathic adjustments — she uses her hands to move joints and tissues to help expand their range of motion. At the same time, Moyers counsels patients and answers their questions about COVID-19 (yes, she recommends all pregnant women receive the vaccine).
The pandemic not only revitalized her career, but her family, too. They’ve taken this season to slow down. They’ve cut their activities and commitments and share their energy with each other, she said: “Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, we’re being very intentional.”
Freelance animator vents her emotions through art
Mackenzie Myers’ drawings of Sailor Moon earned consistently more money at the local farmers’ market than her mom’s sugar cookies which were, admittedly, their reason for being at the market in the first place.
She was in fifth grade and already a businesswoman. She spent her earnings on art supplies to keep pace with demand.
At 17, Myers sells her artwork — which she dubs “cartoonish with a mix of anime” — on commission while finishing her senior year at Centennial High School in Burleson, navigating dual enrollment at Harding University and staying in touch with her boyfriend who’s already attending. Her last big project, a 3 1/2-minute animation that took four months to make, was for him.
Not long after the pandemic began, so did their long distance. At the same time, her classes went online, and commissions stopped coming in altogether.
“It was a sad and dark time for me personally,” she said. To stave off the loneliness, she jammed her days with work: an animation to commemorate her senior year, a demo reel, an application to sell her art at Anime Dallas in November. Her dream is to own her own anime studio, or maybe dabble in game design. Whichever path, the stories she tells will be romantic. Hopelessly so.
“It was a sad and dark time for me personally.”– Mackenzie Myers, freelance illustrator
In late August, knowing she was down, a classmate in first period brought her a cup of iced coffee. Myers almost cried. Normally, she’s the mom among her friends, and that instinct only deepened in the early days of the pandemic. Because she couldn’t see anyone when schools closed, she contacted them more. She harnessed Discord as a social platform. She learned to read text tones.
Not only did she realize her gratitude for human connection, she sharpened her craft as an artist. She’s not sure how she’ll navigate this fall if local cases keep rising, but she’s counting on one thing: “I’ll be too busy to be sad.”
Editor’s note: Kendra Richardson’s quote was edited Sept. 1 for clarity.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. Cristian ArguetaSoto is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.