SALT LAKE CITY — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Elvira Garcia’s family budget rapidly constricted.

Her husband’s carpet cleaning business slowed way down. Her hours at a local food pantry and thrift store were cut. But for the most part, she said they were making ends meet for their family of five kids.

Then, one month in the middle of the COVID-19 closures, her car broke down and required an expensive fix, and she knew she was going to be $75 short for her Glendale home payment.

Garcia tried to stop it from bothering her. She carried on, her husband telling her not to worry, that they would figure it out somehow. But the worry nagged at her. She didn’t want to fall behind on bills. She knew it was a vicious cycle that was difficult to escape.

Elvira Garcia sorts clothing at the Crossroads Urban Center Thrift Store in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Garcia’s work hours, and those of her husband, have been dramatically reduced since the pandemic occurred. Garcia has received help from her Glendale community friends, and she helped others in return. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Garcia may have been able to hide it from others, but not from Elizabeth Montoya.

Montoya, Garcia explained, was a longtime friend of hers, and used to be her neighbor. They talk regularly, both active volunteers in the tight-knit, west-side Salt Lake City neighborhood of Glendale. Garcia, who works at Crossroads Urban Center’s thrift store, helped hand out donations to those in need.

Montoya, who has spent more than two decades connecting with Glendale parents in her work as a family involvement coordinator at the Salt Lake City School District, is described by Garcia and others as an “angel” in the community, even before the pandemic.

Montoya has a knack for knowing which families are struggling — and she helps hand out food, clothing or other donations to those in need, including those who may not feel comfortable engaging with governmental assistance or other organized charities, whether it be because of immigration status or a general distrust of the system.

Montoya only had to hear Garcia’s voice over the phone to know something was wrong, even though Garcia didn’t want to admit it.

“‘Are you OK? Is everything OK?’” Garcia recalled Montoya asking. Garcia told her everything was fine, but Montoya didn’t drop it.

“She goes like, ‘OK, come right over. I need to see you,’” Garcia said.

Garcia agreed, and went to Montoya’s house, a five minute drive away. She wondered if Montoya had some donations or bags of clothes for her to take to her thrift store. Or if Montoya knew of someone that needed help, and she needed Garcia to lend a hand.

But when Garcia sat down with Montoya, she confronted her.

“She goes, ‘You’re not OK. I know you,’” Garcia said.

Garcia admitted she was a little worried about making her house payment. Montoya then insisted she take $150, enough to cover her shortfall, and some to help cover the negative balance in her bank account.

Garcia choked back tears, saying she would “never forget.”

“I cannot say how grateful I felt,” she said. “She’s awesome.”

Garcia said that’s just one example of how Montoya — and others in Glendale — have been looking out for each other amid the pandemic, and Montoya has gained this reputation as the go-to person in Glendale if a family needs something.

Montoya, knowing she can’t help everyone at every moment they might need help, says she does what she can. But she balks at taking any credit.

It’s a network of people who care, Montoya told the Deseret News, that’s helping the Glendale neighborhood through the pandemic’s challenging times, whether it’s school teachers and counselors who are keeping track of their students — made even more challenging after the learning went virtual — or simply neighbors checking in on each other.

“It’s not just me, it’s everybody else connected,” she said. “We’re all connected.”

She called the Glendale community a “beehive” — one that’s just gotten busier amid the pandemic.

Elizabeth Montoya delivers food to community members who were self-quarantining during the pandemic in the Glendale community in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 12, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Hard-hit

West Salt Lake City and West Valley City ZIP codes have been among the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Utah during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Since early March, some of Salt Lake County’s highest rates of COVID-19 have clustered in Glendale’s 84104 ZIP code, with 487 cases as of Saturday, or a crude rate of 1,871.9 per 100,000 residents. The ZIP code just south, West Valley City’s 84119, has had 926 cases, or a rate of 1,717.7 per 100,000 residents.

The neighborhoods also tend to be lower-income, but are rich with diversity. More than 1 in 3 of those who call Salt Lake City home are racial and ethnic minorities, and many live in west-side neighborhoods like Glendale.

Salt Lake County data also shows minorities have been harder hit by the pandemic, with a rate as of Saturday of 1,984.8 per 100,000 for Hispanic or Latino populations, compared to a rate of 403.2 per 100,000 for other ethnicities.

Ariana Lopez, 5, and her sister, Britni, peer out their window as Glendale Middle School teachers wait at the door to deliver a graduation sign to Britni at their home in the Glendale community on Monday, May 11, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Garcia said she knows some people who have come down with the virus — but she tries to keep it private, out of respect and sensitivity. She said when a family needs to go into isolation, neighbors try to do what they can to make sure they get what they need.

Now, not just because of the pandemic, but also as issues of systemic racism has boiled to the forefront of America after the killing of George Floyd, Garcia said minority communities feel they need to help each other now more than ever.

Because of their tight-knit community, Garcia said she’s confident they’ll get through the pandemic and all the other issues complicating life right now.

“We’re going to get through this. We’re going to be more strong,” she said, clasping her hands together. “We’re going to be more together after this. We have to be.”

Chelsie Acosta, a Glendale teacher and community activist who is involved in many local boards, including the ACLU of Utah and as the secretary for the National Education Association Hispanic Caucus, said the pandemic has only deepened the education, health care and information divide for minority communities.

“COVID-19, without a doubt, has just highlighted what we’ve already known,” Acosta said.

Many factors could influence why the case rates are higher in minority communities. Acosta pointed out many residents in west-side communities are “essential workers” and may not have the luxury to work from home. She also pointed to language barriers, technology access gaps, and inequitable access to resources that have long persisted in minority communities.

“Then you add COVID on top of it, and it’s impossible,” Acosta said, pointing out that Glendale also has a “large undocumented population” that may be fearful of engaging with government or other institutions for testing or help.

So Acosta said community volunteers like herself and Montoya, who know of the families who may be falling through the cracks, have banded together to get food, clothing, medications and other needs to those families themselves.

“It’s innate in black and brown communities to take care of one another. That’s just what we do,” Acosta said. “That’s how we roll, we take care of our people and our families.”

Acosta spoke to the Deseret News as she unloaded a trunk full of grocery bags filled with food in Montoya’s driveway, piling them in front of Montoya’s front door. She jokingly called it “the porch” — where people know they can come to get what they need.

“She’s honestly the community mamá,” Acosta said of Montoya.

Perishable food and clothing donations are piled onto Elizabeth Montoya’s porch in the Glendale community of Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 12, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Later that day, Montoya put on a mask and gloves and loaded up the basket on her bicycle with a few of those grocery bags and set off, riding a couple of blocks down the road to deliver several bags to families she knew who needed the food.

Delivering the food, Montoya said, helped her stay in touch with parents and their kids — something that’s gotten tougher as schools have closed.

Throughout the pandemic, Montoya said it’s been the children she’s worried about the most.

“They have this anxiety,” she said, living in a world changed by the pandemic in so many ways.

A ‘cavern’

Online learning hasn’t been going smoothly for Samuela Tuai, 14.

He said his house didn’t have Wi-Fi, and it’s not the same as learning in a classroom.

So instead, Tuai started up a landscaping business with his cousins to earn some money for his family, to help pay bills, put food on the table for his family, and maybe buy an internet connection for the home.

“We just walk around the neighborhood, helping people make their yard look nice,” he said, adding that sometimes they do it for free if someone really needs the help.

Dane Hess, a teacher at Glendale Middle School, impressed by Tuai’s entrepreneurship, had him and the boys come over to do some yard work at his house, then at his mother-in-law’s house for Mother’s Day.

Hess, who’s watched as students have struggled to adjust to online learning, some disappearing altogether, thought hiring the boys was a “cool way for me to stay connected to the students.”

Staying connected, Hess said, has been enough of a challenge, let alone online learning.

“Even absent the pandemic, some students have a hard time, you know,” Hess said. “And then add the pandemic into it. ... They’re struggling.”

So Hess said he’s prioritized staying in touch with students in other ways, making “tons of phone calls” just to check in on families’ basic needs. He’s also told his students their homework is simply to “take care — take care of yourself, your mind, your body, your spirit, your community, and make sure you’re taking care of the people you love, and that’s all I expect you to do during this.”

And even though neighborhoods have turned oddly quiet during the pandemic, Hess said neighbors seem to be doing their part, checking in if they haven’t heard from one another in a while.

“There’s a real sense of everybody’s looking out for everybody,” Hess said.

Mike Harman, a homeless education liaison for the Salt Lake City School District, has been staying busy, helping pack and distribute bags of food for the Salt Lake Education Foundation, which began providing food for an average of 250 families after schools shut down and kids no longer had school lunch options.

Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” played loud over some speakers as Harman and his team, made up of some recent high school graduates, worked in a hallways of the Glendale Community Learning Center, where stacks of food lined the walls.

“The community recognizes we need to take care of each other,” Harman said.

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In his work as a homeless liaison, Harman said it’s been hard to stay connected, which means volunteers like him have to try that much harder to stay in touch with families who might have fallen off the radar. He said they’re always worried about students falling through the cracks.

“The gap is now a cavern for many families,” he said. “Food is one of those basic things. And we know people are struggling. We have food inequities throughout our community; the west side I think is particularly hard hit by that.”

Harman said he feels grateful he has an income coming in, but he knows that’s not the case for many others.

“So to be able to make sure their basic needs are met, I think it’s just an obligation we all have,” he said.

Glendale Middle School teachers Dane Hess and Lucas Tucker deliver a graduation sign to Fabrice Shema at his home in the Glendale community in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 11, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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