Monticello family draws closer as pandemic drags on

Families around the United States are having to figure out how to teach their children at home or come up with alternate plans as schools across the country are closed until next fall. For one family in Monticello, the novel coronavirus and the pandemic it is causing has given them a perfect excuse and reason to pull closer together while further strengthening their relationships. 
Cristi Wessel, clinical dietician at Drew Memorial Health System, as such, this is not the time she can take off work, and the closing of the schools caused a real problem for her. 
“I am a single mom,” said Wessel. “I have family in Monticello, my mom and dad. Pretty much my dad would keep Talon after school, he is retired, so Talon would go over there so if they were out for any holiday and I needed to work, he would stay with my dad.”
With short notice of school closing, Wessel found herself in a tough spot. 
“My dad is immunocompromised because he is on chemotherapy,” she explained. “He has colon cancer that had metastasized so he has to do regular chemo treatments, so I knew he couldn’t go over there.”
So she did the only thing she could do at the time and called her six-year-old son Talon’s father, who lives hours away and asked if he could keep him for the first week so she could figure things out. With the custody agreement in place, Talon was supposed to stay with his mom this year for Spring Break and the plan was for her dad to watch him while she was at work but she knew that couldn’t happen. That is when she called on her 21 year-old daughter Cailey Hillis. 
“Originally I was off Wednesday through Friday and I was going to spend those three days in Monticello but about a week and a half before that our hours got cut significantly,” said Hillis, a cosmetologist in Jonesboro. “We had gone from cutting easily 100 heads a day to maybe 40 or 50 and that is a significant drop from what we are used to and it got to maybe 20 haircuts a day.”
With business dropping and hours getting cut it had become obvious that Hillis was probably going to be able to come down on Tuesday to help with her little brother. Then on Monday, March 23, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson gave the orders for salons to close their doors. It was at this time that Hillis realized she would be able to step up and really help her family out.
“That didn’t really necessarily happen until I realized how much help was needed,” she explained. “Mom and Aunt Kelli (McTigrit), and Uma and Poppy are the primary caregivers that Talon goes to. Obviously Mom and Aunt Kelli work at the hospital and they are working like crazy because of everything and Uma and Poppy can’t watch Talon. I needed to step up and help out. “
And that is exactly what she has done. With experience as a teacher’s aide from a high school class she was able to take offered through Brooklyn High School in Brooklyn, Ark., Hillis knew a little bit about what she was getting into and figured she could handle it. 
“I was able to pick what grade I wanted to help with,” Hillis said. “I picked first grade.” 
Talon, is in first grade this year at Monticello Elementary School in Amy Hayes’ class and according to Wessel and Hillis, the Alternative Method of instruction packet has made the transition for Talon, and for Hillis, a smooth transition.
Hillis sometimes takes Talon back to Jonesboro when she has to go back there and he goes to his dad’s, according to Wessel, he just totes his AMI packet around everywhere he goes. 
“It was really hard and stressful because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Wessel. “I don’t know what the parents who both work are doing to keep up with the school work.”
Wessel is just thankful she has Cailey as a daughter and that she is willing to help out with her little brother in a time where everything is different and out of the ordinary.
“Cailey pretty much does everything with Talon now,” Wessel stated. “She plays with him, she does his school work with him. He loves it, he told her the other day, ‘I’m so glad you’re my big sister because you are so much fun.’ I really didn’t know what I was going to do but it has worked out.” 
Hillis, for her part is just enjoying time with her little brother and learning that it isn’t so easy to explain some concepts to a six year old.
“We do school wherever he wants to do it. This morning he wanted to do his work on the blow up mattress in my living room so I let him,” she said. “Most of the time he does really well but it’s like he has forgotten he can go outside anytime he wants so I use going outside as a bribe and incentive to get him to focus when I need to.”
Bribes and google seem to be helping her as she starts this adventure in homeschooling.
“Talon doesn’t just do his work, he asks questions, a lot of questions,” said Hillis. “Some of it I can’t think of how to break it down to where he can understand it. So that is when I google how to teach certain concepts.” 
Knowing who Hillis is and her work ethic, Wessel knows that Talon is in the best hands he can be in right now.
“ I trust her 100 percent and I know she is going to do a good job,” said Wessel. “Whatever she does, she has always done it 110 percent.”
When news came the schools would be closed for the rest of the year, Wessel realized just how much she trusted Hillis. 
“I will tell you what really hit home with me when we got the news (the kids wouldn’t be going back to school for the rest of the year),” said Wessel. “I said okay, I have to figure this out (past April 17) thankfully his dad is able to help out, Cailey is helping out but I don’t know when she will be going back to work. 
 

“We have been in contact with Ms. Hayes, she has done an amazing job of communicating with me through text and the SeeSaw app is really good,” Wessel continued. “We were able to pick up all his school work. But something that has really dawned on me is I have to make sure he is truly ready to go on next year. This isn’t just busy work, this is educating them to the point where they are ready to move on to the second grade.”
 
Wessel talked about the challenges of parents trying to teach their children with new methods that they never learned. 
“I don’t know about you, but I didn’t learn phonics when I was learning to read,” said Wessel. “I learned by sight words. I had to teach myself about phonics when Cailey was little because I never learned that.”
She also pointed out with a chuckle, that phonics can be especially challenging for southerners since we have a habit of making vowels sound different than they really are. 
The experience Wessel has had so far with Talon’s teacher and the Monticello Elementary staff has been nothing short of amazing, according to Wessel.
“I know the teachers are working really hard,” said Wessel. “The other day Ms. Hayes said it was a rainy day so she sent the kids on a scavenger hunt. Find a triangle, find something red.”
For this family the closing of the schools may be an exercise in flexibility but it has also given older sister, Hillis a chance to  grow closer with her baby brother. And that is priceless. 
“He looks at me a little different now,” said Hillis. “I’ve always been his big sister, we’ve always loved each other but now he sees me as someone who is there for him when he needs me.”
The United States may be fighting a battle against a global pandemic, but in these times, even while having to social distance, families are pulling together the best way they know how and in the process growing relationships that will last a lifetime. 

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