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Local nonprofit helps families who lost primary caregiver to COVID-19 pandemic

Texas has seen nearly the highest number of deaths in primary caregivers for children due to COVID-19, according to a recent study, and an official with Buckner International says some of those children have been helped at its Longview facility.

Debbie Sceroler is Bucker’s senior director of domestic foster care and adoption. She recently said that Buckner has seen families impacted by COVID-19 in East Texas and across the state.

“We have had some families come through our (Buckner Family) Hope Center (in Longview) where there has been a loss of a parent, and the Hope Center has provided financial assistance and counseling,” Sceroler said.

Buckner Family Home Centers are “child-centered, family-focused places where families go to find hope, support and empowerment in their community to reach their fullest God-given potential,” according to Buckner’s website. Programs offered through the center utilize education, financial empowerment and child and youth development.

Though Sceroler could not provide specific numbers for how many families that have experienced the loss of a primary caregiver to COVID-19 received services at Buckner in Longview, a New York Times database recently reported that 540 people in Gregg County have died from the virus and roughly one in seven residents have been infected since the pandemic began.

More than 750 COVID-19 related deaths have been recorded in Smith County and nearly 180 in Harrison County.

And according to a study published in October in the journal Pediatrics, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a parent or grandparent caregiver due to COVID-19. About 10%, more than 14,100, of those children are in Texas. California is the only state that has more children who have experienced the death of a primary caregiver than the Lone Star State, according to the study.

The survey’s lead author, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Epidemiologist Susan Hillis, told NPR that the number could be closer to 175,000 children nationwide as the study ran through June 2021. Since June, the U.S. has seen a spike in Delta variant cases.

“High COVID-19 mortality rates may have severe unrecognized consequences: large-scale death of parents and caregivers for children,” the study said. “Children who lose caregivers to the pandemic may face intensified trauma, and may have an immediate need for kinship or foster care at a time when pandemic restrictions may limit access to protective services.”

Sceroler said loss, even of people who are not caregivers but involved in a child’s life, can have wide-ranging effects on children and adults.

“We’ve also had children that have come through our kinship program with the loss of parents, and relatives are taking care of the children now,” Sceroler said. “Overall, I just, I just think that losing a parent as a child is significant trauma, and then you compound that trauma with the effect that COVID has had on our society. It’s just overwhelming for a child that has experienced the loss of a parent.”

Families dealing with loss are at risk, Sceroler said, because loss can destabilize families leading to a large impact on children.

She also said single-parent families and foster care or adoptive families need community support to help care for children dealing with trauma.

According to the study, 10% of children in the country lived with a grandparent from 2011 to 2019. In 2019, 4.5 million children lived with a grandparent providing their housing.

“Black, Hispanic, and Asian children are twice as likely as White children to live with a grandparent,” the study said. “The majority of children co-residing with grandparents live with a single parent or no parents. When custodial grandparents raising grandchildren in the absence of parents die, these children, functionally, face orphanhood a second time. With many caregiving grandparents in highest-risk ages for COVID mortality, children may face a serious new adversity.”

Nearly half of the Texas children who lost a caregiver are Hispanic, the study shows.

Department of Family and Protective Services data show that in August more than 960 children were in foster care in its 23-county Region 4 in Northeast Texas. There were also 791 children in kinship care. The numbers show more than 1,850 children were removed and placed with people who are not their parents.

Sceroler called the numbers significant and said they reflect only children the state knows about who are living with people other than their biological parents.

Region 4 covers Gregg, Smith, Harrison, Upshur, Panola, Rusk, Cherokee, Anderson, Henderson, Van Zandt, Raines, Wood, Hopkins, Delta, Lamar, Red River, Franklin, Camp, Titus, Morris, Marion, Cass and Bowie counties.

“We have relatives who are actually parenting raising children because their biological parents are not able to,” Sceroler said. “(Removal) numbers are related to abuse, neglect, but that abuse (or) neglect could have come as a result of the stress it and the inability to actually parent their children due to the socioeconomic problems that COVID has produced with their families.”

Buckner offers several programs in East Texas that help children and families in crisis.

Kinship foster care and placement focuses on trying to keep children with biological family with the hope of possible future reunification. Family Hope Centers offer services and training to help strengthen families with a goal to keep them together. The Family Pathways program helps single parents with a goal to help them overcome barriers to better care for their children.

More foster families are also needed, according to Sceroler.

“Texas needs more families willing to foster children, especially older children, children with special needs and sibling groups,” she said.

Let there be lights: Kilgore kicks off holiday with downtown event

Almost two weeks before Thanksgiving and with many still trying to finish off Halloween leftovers, hundreds gathered Saturday in downtown Kilgore to usher in the holiday season during the city’s 33rd annual “A Very Derrick Christmas” celebration.

Jill McCartney, president and CEO of the Kilgore Area Chamber of Commerce, said the event is special because it draws so many visitors to downtown Kilgore and kicks off Christmas in East Texas.

“It lets people know what we have downtown,” said McCartney. “All of the unique businesses that we have have their storefronts lit up and are open for the public.”

Every Whiteley, 4, and other children had their photos taken as they visited with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Whiteley said she asked the jolly elf to bring her a remote-controlled unicorn for Christmas.

Others were entertained by local musicians and dance groups as they visited the many vendor booths and shops in the downtown area to get a jump on their holiday season gift-buying.

For the second year in a row and with the help of his grandchildren, Darryl Gillcoat, a longtime member of the Kilgore Historical Preservation Foundation, flipped the switch to light the more than 20 derricks that make up the downtown skyline with Christmas lights.

Spectators then enjoyed a brief performance under the lights by the world-famous Kilgore College Rangerettes.

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Greenberg Smoked Turkeys delivering Thanksgiving again
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The savory smells of Thanksgiving once more permeate the Greenberg Smoked Turkeys building on McMurrey Drive in Tyler.

The call center is staffed and bustling with activity, an electronic board at the front of the room indicating when one of the workers is on the phone, taking an order. Smokers heat up each morning to cook that day’s batch of turkeys and the business’s usual UPS driver arrives before noon to pick up a batch of turkeys for delivery, expertly backing up the truck to a new loading dock at the facility.

About a year after a fire devastated the longtime Tyler company and brought a halt to its holiday turkey season, Greenberg Smoked Turkeys is up and running, with a season that is breaking company records, said Jake Greenberg, son of owner Sam Greenberg and assistant manager at the facility.

“We really did not know what to expect,” Greenberg said of production that restarted Sept. 16, several weeks earlier than normal. The company didn’t know when it turned the smokers back on whether customers had found another source for their holiday turkeys in the year the company has been closed.

“Since we started so much earlier, we’ve been hitting higher numbers earlier than ever before,” he said, adding the company isn’t sure what that means yet. “But it has been fun.”

A typical production season — the business is seasonal and only in operation for several months each year, ending on Christmas Eve — sees the company smoke and ship 190,000 turkeys. This year, that number is going to be about 215,000 to 217,000, Greenberg said. The company specializes in turkeys only, which come in 15 sizes, but the company already is sold out of about half of those.

Greenberg had just been heading to bed in November about a year ago when he received notice the power was out at what was the company’s shipping and freezer area. Then the fire department was dispatched.

When he turned down the street to the business, “It’s lights and sirens all the way down,” he said, adding it was “awful.”

“Luckily, it just hit our shipping room” and freezer area, Greenberg said, as well as the boxes and bags that would have been used in shipping. It was enough to shut the business down for 2020’s holiday season.

The company began planning to rebuild immediately, completing a new shipping and freezer area in less than a year. That happened with “a lot of help and a little luck,” Greenberg said.

“Once you come to terms with ‘there is not going to be a season,’” then the question becomes “how is there going to be a next season,” Greenberg said. “It’s no secret the last year and a half has been a complete nightmare for construction and materials of any kind.”

Embarking on a construction project in that environment made the Greenbergs nervous, but Greenberg said vendors worked with them to move their project to the front of the line. The company also rented a storage facility so that as supplies became available, they could go ahead and be delivered in anticipation of the reconstruction.

The company also was concerned about its employees. Greenberg said most of the more than 100 employees have been coming back for the production season for years.

“They’ve always been very good to us,” he said.

Ultimately, the business decided to pay all the employees for what they would have earned working that season.

“We want to take care of them because we’ll need them this year,” Greenberg said, recalling the thought process. “It seems like a pretty big commitment, but it made the most sense. It’s not their fault, and a lot of these folks — they either only work here every year or they have a variety of seasonal jobs and this one is a very important part of that for them to be able to make it through the year. We were not going to leave all those people high and dry.”

The family-owned business also used the reconstruction opportunity to build efficiencies and improvements into the new freezer and shipping areas that hadn’t existed in the previous facility. Now, the four-day production process is back and running — starting with thawing the turkey, then trimming and seasoning it with Greenberg’s closely guarded secret recipe, smoking the birds and then cooling and freezing.

“It’s going really well,” Greenberg said. “We’re surprised and relieved and thankful.”