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The Great Divide

Working at a nursing home in a time of unprecedented peril

Manuel Coronado has little time for disappointment at his lost senior year. He works in a nursing home to help pay his family’s bills.

Manuel Coronado, a senior at Brighton High School, lives with his 78-year-old grandmother. He works in a Boston nursing home, navigating risk in the age of coronavirus.
Manuel Coronado, a senior at Brighton High School, lives with his 78-year-old grandmother. He works in a Boston nursing home, navigating risk in the age of coronavirus.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

This is the second story in an ongoing series, Education, Interrupted, which looks at how school closures and the coronavirus crisis are affecting individual students. Sign up to receive a regular newsletter from the Great Divide team. You can reach out to us at thegreatdivide@globe.com with story ideas and tips.

Like any high school senior in the midst of the pandemic, Manuel Coronado is wistful about milestones that may be lost forever: a graduation stage; a beaming crowd below; a moment, as he crosses, of pure ecstatic triumph.

But Coronado, an immigrant from Panama who attends Boston’s Brighton High School, is wrestling with far bigger concerns: He balances in his youthful hands his family’s health and their economic survival.

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As much of the city shelters in place, staying home is not an option for the 20-year-old. He is the sole wage earner in his small Boston household comprising of himself and his grandmother. But his job, which he loves, could put his grandmother at risk: Coronado serves meals in a local nursing home 25 to 35 hours per week.

A Brighton High School senior navigates his future
Manuel Coronado, a senior at Brighton High School, is trying to navigate his future without having teachers and advisors around to help. (Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

He and his grandmother know that senior care facilities have been a hot spot for coronavirus; they both worry he could bring it home. It is just the two of them there: Coronado is not in regular contact with his parents, and it was his grandmother who convinced the then-teenager to come to the United States two years ago to pursue a college education. She is 78 and has asthma; afraid for her health, she goes out rarely these days, if at all.

Coronado gives her part of every paycheck to supplement her fixed government income and cover their bills; when he can, he sends money to Panama to help his relatives. Still, he tries to save a little every week. His college deposit of several hundred dollars is due May 1 — and there is no one but Coronado to pay it.

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“I will say that it is hard,” he allows, when asked, “because I’m on my own, and I need to do it by myself.” His voice is soft and matter-of-fact; he chose this path, and he accepts the challenge. “It will be hard,” he says, “but I think that I can do it.”

Weary from work and distracted by his worries, he struggles to find time to attend to his schoolwork. But he forces himself to focus as late into the night as he can, sitting in front of his computer, alone. He has achieved too much in his two years at Brighton to let his academic record languish now.

Like many young immigrants striving for something better, Coronado is used to big responsibilities. He bears them lightly, with an easy smile and a deep appreciation for the opportunities he sees as the payoff. But, like other hard-working high school students who crossed over long ago from childhood to adulthood, Coronado works now in a time of unprecedented peril. The most basic duty — pitching in at low-wage work to help your family — can carry life-and-death consequences.

Coronado treats the older people he serves almost like grandparents, soothing their fears of their own vulnerability. But he feels the risk that encircles him at work — and extends into his home and to the grandmother who means so much.

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In the past he worked dinner shifts, but since school shut down in March, he now serves lunch some days as well. He earns minimum wage. Coronado works five, sometimes six days a week, five or six hours at a time — more when other employees don’t show up. That has happened more frequently lately, he said, as some workers, fearful of illness, stay home.

Coronado said his workplace, an assisted living community with specialized care for dementia, has taken precautions to keep residents and staff safe. His supervisor sends a Lyft car to pick him up at his home in Jamaica Plain and transport him to work in Brighton, so he doesn’t have to risk a ride on public transportation. Another car takes him home when his shift is over. As soon as he arrives at work, someone takes his temperature to make sure he doesn’t have a fever, and he is given gloves and a mask to cover his face. Hand sanitizer is everywhere. There are no visitors, he says, except those who wave through windows.

The residents no longer gather in the dining room to eat — they are safer secluded in their rooms — so Coronado walks the halls in his mask and gloves to deliver meals to them on trays. They are anxious, with no loved ones stopping by and a steady diet of alarming TV news, so the staff takes time to talk with them and try and calm their fears.

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It is a task that comes naturally to the Brighton senior, whose attentiveness and gentle demeanor have made him a favorite of the residents, his supervisor said. “They love him,” said Juceila Barros, the dining room manager.

One recent evening, he encountered a woman with memory loss who was anxious and upset, confused by the dining room closure and the changes to her routine. Troubled by her refusal to eat, Coronado stopped and talked with her a while.

“I tried to entertain her,” he said, “to make her feel better and to keep her eating.”

In a similar way, he sits at home with his grandmother on his nights off — now across the room, not at the same table — and watches as she cooks his favorite meal of rice and beans. She updates him, in Spanish, on the day’s news, relaying how many more victims the virus has claimed in various places around the world. Sometimes they discuss his future, and the colleges he is considering.

His grandmother once worked as a teacher, Coronado says, before she came to the United States and a life of more menial labor on a cleaning crew. She has quietly, steadily pushed him to continue his education, and become the first of his six siblings to go to college. She never flinches at how much it might cost, he says, or the possibility that he might leave her for a far-off college campus.

Terrified when he first broached that topic, he was stunned at her response: “We will need to buy you some furniture!”

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Some of the nursing home residents have also offered encouragement as Coronado pursues his dreams of college. One woman, upon learning that he hoped to go to Northeastern, wrote a letter of recommendation to someone she knows there.

He applied to work at the nursing home in part because he wanted to practice his English. At his old job, as a dishwasher in a restaurant, he never spoke English, he says; all his kitchen co-workers spoke his native Spanish.

He was nervous, at first, that his English wouldn’t be good enough to communicate with the residents. Ten months later, he has learned their names, their dietary restrictions and allergies, their quirks, and distinctive personalities.

“You get to know them, how they like their food, what they can and can’t eat,” he says. “There’s one lady with Alzheimer’s who is always crying — I bring her coffee and a sandwich, egg or chicken salad, because that is the only thing that she will eat.”

He cares for them almost like family — knowing, all the while, that each tiny act of kindness could pose an unseen risk to the doting grandmother who waits for him.

When he returns to their brick apartment building after work, Coronado follows a meticulous protocol. He drops his uniform straight into the wash, and heads for the shower, before he allows himself to see or speak to his grandmother.

Before or after work, or on his days off, Coronado shops for groceries and does household errands — whatever he can do to keep his grandmother at home. Although he is dutiful about attempting his schoolwork, his already busy days and the intense isolation make it difficult. His focus drifts as the hours pass, to his phone, his nearby bed, his anxieties about the virus and about college. Sometimes he connects with a friend on FaceTime, and they study together. But it is nothing like sitting side by side in the same classroom, in companionable productivity.

“It’s all on you, and you have to push yourself,” he said. “I don’t want to say, ‘I finished high school, but I did nothing at the end.’”

There is also a critical decision to be made about his future: which college he should choose, of more than a half dozen that accepted him.

It is an opportunity he hardly imagined as a boy growing up, first in the Dominican Republic and later in Panama. He had attended high school, but did not know English when he came here two years ago. At his grandmother’s suggestion, he enrolled at Brighton High as a junior, hoping to acquire the English he needed for college. Within a few months, he advanced from ESL (English as a Second Language) 1 to ESL 2; last fall, as a senior, he moved out of ESL altogether, to regular classes.

“What you see with him is the drive,” said his former ESL 2 teacher, Ramon Trinidad, who also coached Coronado on the school’s Spanish language debate team. “He has that hunger, to go to college, to have a profession, to be somebody.”

Initially, Coronado planned to go to a two-year community college. But he was emboldened by his success in high school, and applied to 10 colleges, mostly four-year schools. Without parents at home to help him navigate the process, he leaned on his teachers and school counselors for help.

His grandmother was pleased, but not completely: “Why aren’t you applying to Harvard?” she asked him at one point.

Last month, as he prepared to choose a school with the help of his trusted advisers, the pandemic hit, and his school abruptly closed. He still seeks his mentors’ advice by phone or e-mail, but the decision feels harder, the financial forms and red tape more overwhelming, without his teachers there beside him.

“There is so much to get done, and so much I don’t know anything about,” he says. “I’m scared, because I don’t want to make the wrong decision.”

Rejected by Northeastern, his first-choice school — “It is their loss,” his grandmother told him — he is leaning toward Suffolk University, which offered him significant financial aid. He can live at home with his grandmother to save money, and keep working at the nursing home. It will be one less worry, to have a job that is familiar, with flexible hours.

He imagines a time when the pandemic has passed, when his circuit from home to work feels routine, not threatening, and some hard decisions are behind him. Thinking of the future gives him comfort: he knows how time and hard work can change everything.

For now though, it is time for him to go to work. There are residents waiting alone for coffee and sandwiches, a kind word and a smile offered from a doorway, familiar things to anchor them until the fear is gone.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.