For three days at Swedish First Hill, Rocío Luquero stood in as a guardian and interpreter for Rosa Ajanel, 20-year-old high-school student from Guatemala who’d never stepped foot in a hospital before, and was about to give birth.
As she watched over her charge, swapping stories and FaceTiming the student’s mother from the delivery room, Luquero said she was the calmest she’d felt in awhile.
It’s not where Luquero expected she would be during her first year on the job at Seattle World School, where she is a social worker. Yet last week, in the throes of a pandemic, that’s where she found herself after receiving a cry for help from Ajanel, whose parents still live in Guatemala.
“There are many days I’ve felt frustrated and powerless,” said Luquero. “But being with her made me feel useful.”
As one of more than a dozen family support workers employed across Seattle Public Schools, Luquero spends her days in the darkest and poorest corners of the city’s education system, trying to spread thin resources across as many kids as possible.
At the World School, where many of Seattle’s immigrant and refugee kids attend school, 96% of 342 students are low income, one-third are homeless, and 95% are learning English — a staggering pocket of poverty compared with homelessness and low-income rates of the entire district, at 4% and 32% last year.
The students in her care are all recent arrivals to the United States, some of whom don’t qualify for welfare or other government assistance because of their immigration status. Many of them worked in restaurants and in other service jobs that dried up as businesses shut down in response to the virus, leaving them without a way to buy food or pay rent.
Social work in a school was a job Luquero, an 18-year employee of Seattle schools who has a background in clinical psychology, had always wanted. Raised in a poor, single-parent household in Madrid that didn’t benefit from a governmental safety net, Luquero knows the challenge of the families well.
“I saw the pain in my mom’s face all the time,” Luquero says.
But for weeks after schools closed down, Luquero, who once worked as a bilingual instructional aide, felt frozen. Her heart raced often when she thought of how she would keep families slipping even deeper into poverty. She’d call more than a dozen families flagged by teachers as needing help, but only get four or five calls back a day — some weren’t answering her out of fear, or because they’d run out of money to prepay for more minutes.
Her nerves were so frayed in mid-March that she struggled with tasks like writing and speaking.
“I’ve been here since the 1990s,” said Luquero. “But for a while, I’d thought I’d lost all my English.”
As wealthier schools find success in getting all their students to learn online, Luquero and the World School staff are still struggling to contact dozens of families — many of whom need interpretation — to inquire about basic necessities. The district sends recent immigrants to the option school, which is outfitted with a health clinic and instructors who specialize in teaching English learners. After a term or two, the students either leave for a school closer to their home or transition to a high-school program if they’re old enough.
“The majority of our families have lost at least one wage earner,” said Anna Ruby Waxham Blackwell, a bilingual instructional aide at the school. “It’s really not something that can be compared to the experience of a lot of other schools.”
The need for rent assistance and food has soared. On most days, Luquero is cobbling together funding from the district and various nonprofits to buy Safeway gift cards and cash relief — but the money is limited compared with the monthly demand of housing and phone costs from several hundred families, Luquero said.
“That’s a Band-Aid,” said Luquero. “And this is a cancer.”
She has made several visits to students’ houses to deliver food and gift cards, sourced either from her own stash or through nonprofits such as Kandelia. It’s a time where she can get a rare glimpse of the faces she used to see in her office.
When she’s not gathering and handing out resources, the mother of two encourages families to seek help from other places. Three weeks ago, she walked five or six families to Musang, a restaurant offering free food in Beacon Hill, assuring them it was OK to pick up what they needed.
She and other teachers also guide families to legal resources. Staff has heard from some families whose landlords are trying to evict them despite a statewide moratorium.
Through it all, Luquero said, she’s been reminded constantly of the families’ resilience. Especially Ajanel’s.
“If they can do it, I can do it,” she said. “I have to go on.”
On Thursday, Luquero loaded her car with food she’d stashed from the school, and made a special delivery to Ajanel’s home, where she lives with her two younger brothers. It was the first time the two had seen each other since the delivery last week.
She pulled into the gravel driveway, and emerged from her car wearing a mask and gloves, which she peeled off slightly to dial the student’s number on her phone. A few minutes later, Ajanel emerged from behind a red gate, her petite frame hugging her newborn, Gracie, in a light pink blanket.
Luquero’s face lit up when she saw her.
“Oh, it’s the baby! It’s the baby!” she cheered, jumping up and down.
They talked for a few minutes in Spanish as Luquero unloaded the box of goods from the car. Ajanel has experienced stomach pain since the birth, Luquero said. She suspected it’s because the student has been carrying her baby to the clinic for follow-up appointments, a journey that requires two buses from her house.
Ajanel, who was the main source of income for her household, lost her two restaurant jobs at the onset of the pandemic. She has some money saved, but without Luquero’s regular check-ins, she said life would be much harder.
“She’s the best person I’ve ever met,” Ajanel said Wednesday. “Just like a mom to me.”
Her brother, Juan, helps load the food into the house. As the brother and sister turn to walk back inside, Luquero calls out to them, telling them to take care: