On a dark autumn evening almost four years ago, Janie Yoshida was driving her daughter home from high school play rehearsal when she noticed a teenager walking by himself next to a busy road.
Tre Burrows, it turned out, was also in the play at Somerset Academy Canyons High School in Boynton Beach, Florida.
“I pulled over to the side of the sidewalk and rolled the window down and said, ‘Hey, where do you live? I’ll take you home,’” Janie recalled.
The 17-year-old kept insisting he was fine, until Janie put on “my mom’s voice” and demanded: ‘“Get in the car.”
The polite young man with the gregarious smile complied. But, Janie soon learned, he led a life more challenging than she imagined – one in which she’d soon play a far bigger role.
“He wanted me to drop him off at a main intersection. And I said, ‘Of course not. Just show me where you live.’ And he goes, ‘No, I can walk the rest of the way,’” Janie recalled.
Reluctantly, Tre directed Janie to where he and his family were living.
“I tried to play it off, like no big deal,” Janie recalled. But in reality, “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God … just terrible.’”
From that point on, Janie gave Tre a ride every day after play rehearsal. Sometimes, she would make up an excuse to get fast food along the way, just to make sure Tre had a hot meal.
“‘I don’t want to cook tonight,’” she’d tell him. “’Let’s just go through the drive thru.’”
Then one day, Tre let slip another detail about his family life.
“‘I’m gonna save this (meal),’” he told Janie, “’and split it with my sisters’” – one older and two younger, all together at the motel.
Tre’s mother, it turned out, had been working two jobs and hanging by a thread to support her four children against immeasurable odds.
Despite the financial challenges, Cindy Dawkins worked tirelessly to give her kids everything they needed. She had every meal ready, even without a kitchen. She helped with homework. Instead of asking her older ones to work part-time to support the family, she encouraged extracurricular activities such as track or school theater.
Eventually, Tre told Janie why he’d been so nervous about telling anyone where he lived.
“He didn’t want anybody to know because he was worried that the Department of Children and Families would come and take them away from his mom,” Janie said. “That’s just heartbreaking.”
Janie asked to meet this matriarch – and was floored by her work ethic and strength.
And as much as he loved his mom, Tre had no idea how much she sacrificed for her children.
Soon, immense tragedy would force him to learn.
A ‘supermom’ like no other
A native of the Bahamas, Cindy moved to the US for what seemed like a promising career in the hospitality industry. But an avalanche of “bad luck on top of bad luck” fell on her, Janie said, including a layoff and a divorce.
She ended up waitressing at two restaurants – one during the day, the other at night.
“For the longest (time), she was working two jobs just to keep us afloat, paycheck to paycheck,” said Tre, now 21.
“And she did all of that with a smile on her face because she didn’t want us to know exactly how hard it was to do all that.”
But despite working two jobs, Cindy couldn’t get an apartment on her own because of a prior eviction. So she and her children moved into the motel, which cost far more per month than an apartment.
For three years, Cindy raised her four children in a motel room while working multiple jobs.
Behind the omnipresent smile she put on for her kids, though, Cindy was struggling.
She lamented that “‘in three years, I haven’t been able to make a home-cooked meal,’” Janie recalled.
“She was like, ‘I don’t have a moment to myself or any privacy except when I’m in the shower. So if I’m going to break down, I’m going to cry, it’s going to be in the shower,’” Janie recalled.
“‘And I’ve got to put my face back on, walk out of the bathroom in front of the kids and make sure that they don’t see it from me because I have to make them think everything’s OK.’”
The family’s bad luck culminated the day Tre missed play rehearsal.
The next day, Janie asked if he had been sick.
“‘They kicked us out of the hotel because my mom couldn’t pay,’” Janie recalled him telling her.
Janie went home and told her husband: “We need to get this family an apartment. I’m going tomorrow.”
And as readily as she’d opened her car door to Tre that first time, “we just rented an apartment for them,” she said.
With Janie’s name on the lease, the family of five moved into a two-bedroom apartment – mom in one bedroom, her four children sharing the other.
Cindy meticulously paid the rent and utilities “earlier or on time – always,” Janie said.
She got a raise at one of her restaurant jobs, Tre said, allowing her to quit her second job and spend more time with her kids.
But that cherished time with her children would be short-lived.
A long-awaited celebration turns tragic
With a new home and better pay, Cindy and her kids eagerly anticipated celebrating her 50th birthday last summer.
“We were planning on going up to Orlando a few days before and then spend her birthday up there,” Tre said.
“We noticed that she started getting sick literally the day that we got there. As soon as we arrived, she went to bed and went to sleep and was just sleeping the entire time.”
Cindy spent her birthday, August 1, in bed with severe Covid-19. The disease ravaged her body so quickly, “I didn’t even get to see her after she went into the hospital,” Tre said.
On August 7, 2021 – six days after her birthday – Cindy died.
Disbelief exacerbated her children’s agony.
“She didn’t have any prior illnesses. … We just didn’t think anything like that would happen because we were healthy,” Tre said.
“We were seeing the news (about) all the people passing away from Covid, but you never really understand exactly how bad it is until you experience it firsthand. We weren’t thinking this would completely uproot our lives.”
Tre said his mother did not get vaccinated, in part due to rumors about side effects.
“We didn’t want to do this and then (have it) potentially cause us to get sick,” Tre said. “We know better than that now. But I guess that was the reasoning behind her not getting” vaccinated.
Tre and his siblings joined a growing group of children no one wants to be part of: the orphans of Covid. More than 212,000 US children have lost one or both parents to Covid-19, according to estimates from Imperial College London. And the number of children robbed of their parents keeps rising.
“It never crossed my mind,” Tre said, “that me and my older sister would be the ones taking care of our little sisters.”
‘How are we going to move on?’
Tre was the first to hear from the doctor his mother had passed. He rushed to the hospital and told his older sister, Jenny Burrows, now 25, to get there immediately.
When Jenny arrived, “We cried for hours,” Tre recalled. “Our little sisters were at home (sleeping). Then we gathered ourselves and we tried to figure out, ‘OK, how are we going to tell our sisters?’”
They woke up heir siblings Zoe Clarke, then 15, and Sierra Clarke, then 12. The most horrific nightmare had just turned into reality.
But Tre and Jenny didn’t have time to mourn. Their minds were racing:
“‘OK, are we about to get kicked out of the apartment we’re staying in because we can’t afford the bills?
“‘How are we going to move on from this home?
“‘How are we going to get the girls … everything they need for school?’”
And the biggest question of all: Will the younger children get taken away?
Despondent, overwhelmed and tasked with planning a funeral, Tre told Janie his mother passed.
“I just lost it. I couldn’t believe it,” Janie said. “It was devastating.”
She realized the siblings quickly needed help – and not just financially.
They needed to learn how to parent on the fly.
So once again, like she did all those years back from the driver’s seat, Janie went into mom mode.
How strangers kept the kids afloat
Without a living legal guardian, the children’s greatest fear was getting separated. Maybe the younger siblings would get taken away into state custody and foster care. Or maybe they would be sent to the Bahamas to live with relatives.
Janie helped Jenny get to work on Priority No. 1: Becoming the younger girls’ legal guardian. It was one of the myriad legal complications that followed their mother’s death.
“Another thing that’s helping us tremendously is we were able to get the girls set up with Social Security benefits from my mom,” Tre said, which will help support Sierra and Zoe until they turn 18.
Janie and her husband also paid the remaining six months on the apartment’s lease. And she started a GoFundMe account, with an initial goal of paying for Cindy’s funeral expenses.
Then just as Janie had stepped in as a stranger to help Tre’s hard-working but struggling family, hundreds more strangers did the same.
The crowdsourcing fund grew so popular, it yielded enough for a down payment on a house so the children wouldn’t have to worry about getting evicted. Any extra funds likely will go toward Sierra’s and Zoe’s college education in the coming years.
Janie also taught the older siblings about car insurance, credit and other life skills they would need to know immediately, now that they had dependents.
When grieving siblings must double as stalwart parents
The hardest part of being both a brother and a parent to younger siblings is “definitely the mental aspect of all of that,” Tre said.
“The attitude stuff is a big thing for teenagers. They’re teenagers. Like getting chores done, getting your homework done, the attitude that comes with all that … basically, everything that goes with raising a 16- and 12-year-old,” he said.
He and Jenny try to balance it all “while also making sure they don’t look at it like, ‘Oh, since Mom isn’t here, now you think you’re the boss and you can do all this stuff?’”
And Tre tries to balance tough love with “not being too harsh with them, obviously, because we all just went through a horrible situation.”
Tre and Jenny also now juggle a daily marathon of jobs, their own schooling and taking care of their sisters’ basic needs, their education and their mental health.
Tre works at a computer repair company and has started training to become an emergency medical technician and firefighter. And Jenny, a dental assistant, wants to finish training to become a dental hygienist.
The older siblings devised a plan for how to finish their education while paying the bills and taking care of the girls.
“When I was going through EMT school … my sister would drop them off at school. I would pick them up, and (then) I would head to school. That was our plan,” Tre said.
“And my sister would be the one at home with them, making sure they’re getting their homework done, making sure they’re OK mentally. And obviously I would help with that whenever I’m not in school. And basically I would get through that, get through the fire academy, doing the same thing,” he said.
“And then once I’m done with schooling, the roles will kind of be reversed. So I’ll be the one that’s dropping them off, and I’ll be home with them (while) my sister’s at school, getting her career situated.”
It’s a daunting task. But it’s nothing compared to what his own mother did, Tre said.
“My biggest (concern) was just making sure I can fill her shoes,” he said. “I never really understood exactly how much she was doing until now, when my sister and I are the ones who have to do it.”
Tre is also immensely grateful to the countless strangers who helped him and his siblings find a home and stay together.
And it all traces to Janie giving him a ride home from school that dark autumn evening.
“Without her,” he said, “we wouldn’t know what we would have done.”
And Janie has learned from Cindy’s children, she said. Perhaps they inherited their mother’s fortitude.
“I know they have the same instinct inside of them, just like their mom did – that hey, even if it sucks, let’s get up and make the best of it,” she said.
“They’re my inspiration now.”