When Samantha Rodriguez lost her mother, Lisa, to cervical cancer in 2013, it didn’t seem like anything could be worse than experiencing that devastating heartbreak. But just three years later, when Rodriguez was 17, she found herself grieving again over the death of her father, Alexander, who died after a battle with lymphoma.
In what could have been her darkest, loneliest hour, there was no time for Rodriguez to feel that desolation, as she was surrounded by her five younger siblings, all of whom needed someone to assume a parenting role. Someone who would let them know that even during these difficult times, everything is going to be OK.
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Though she was still in high school at the time, Rodriguez, now 21, didn’t hesitate to step up to the plate.
“I always knew that I was going to care for them, ever since the start,” she says. “After losing our father I realized, OK, I need to make doctors appointments and sign things for their schools, things like that.”
Rodriguez’s siblings, Milagros, 17, Brenda, 15, Michael, 13, Bella, 9, and Destiny, 7, are all under the legal guardianship of their grandmother, Lourdes Navarro, in Orlando, Florida. However, Rodriguez explains Navarro is limited as to how much she can help with her grandkids because of arthritis pain and a language barrier (she only speaks Spanish). For this reason, Rodriguez asked for power of attorney from her so that she is allowed to take care of all the legalities typically handled by a parent. Now that she is old enough, Rodriguez is in the process of getting legal guardianship of her siblings.
There are five kids. As much as I would love to give them and as much as they deserve, I want to make sure I’m doing the right things for our future.
“I still get weird faces, even now, like look at this 21-year-old, you’re their guardian? You don’t look like their guardian,” she says. “I just put a smile on my face and I don’t let it get to me.”
It’s that tenacious attitude that pushes Rodriguez, who works as a waitress to help support her family while attending Valencia College in Orlando. She has plans to further her education at the University of Central Florida. Still, even the most determined of individuals might be afraid when they find themselves in the dual roles of older sister and parent. For Rodriguez, her biggest fear is not having financial stability.
“Knowing that I want to give them so much and being only one person, it's hard,” she says. “There are five kids. As much as I would love to give them and as much as they deserve, I want to make sure I’m doing the right things for our future.”
Rodriguez describes her days as hectic between taking the kids to school, getting to appointments, picking them up from school, and making sure everyone is fed—not to mention her own work and school schedule.
“Our weekdays are definitely crazier than our weekends,” she says. “I log everything down, take notes, and just try to stay focused. It can be difficult to remember if I don’t write everything down. I have a schedule and I know everything I need to do for the next week, every single day. It might not go perfectly but I have a good idea of what’s going on.”
While Rodriguez continues to adapt to life as a caregiver, she realizes she has to consistently revisit her approach as her siblings get older. Two are teenagers, with her brother on the brink of 14, and as anyone who has been at the parenting game for a long time knows, the challenges are different with each age.
“They want to do their own thing and I’m trying to learn how to talk to them as a friend and a parent,” she says. “They're going to want to make their own decisions. I try to get them to understand that I've been where they are. I know exactly how they want to grow up. I just want them to focus on school. Don't worry about getting a job right now. Leave the responsibility to me and be a kid while you can.”
The Rodriguez family has received support from the Orange County Sheriff's Office aviation unit, who learned of their story on social media. Several anonymous donors in the community bought Rodriguez a car and in April 2019, Samantha started a GoFundMe page to accept donations of support from the community as she continues to provide for her siblings.
"Just to know that there are people out there who want to help me when they don't really know me, I'm lost for words," she says. "It's just amazing to see how much people can care."
In June it will be seven years since she said goodbye to her mother, but Rodriguez will never forget the kind example she set. She taps into her mother’s loving spirit with every move she makes.
“She always kept a smile in any situation,” says Rodriguez. “We went through a lot of crazy stuff as children and I always saw her with a smile. It reminds me to be grateful for the moment and not think of all the worries. I think that is what has really pulled me through all of this. I try to focus on the positives instead of the negatives. Everything is temporary. I’m staying positive and pushing for our future.”
More information about kinship guardianship and available assistance can be found at Childwelfare.gov.