Bartender Rico De Alba knows better than most the sacrifices families are making during the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the summer De Alba, his wife Guissell Maradiaga and their four children added five cousins to the family after Maradiaga's brother passed away from complications due to COVID-19.
De Alba, who has tended bar at Manhattan Beach's Shellback for more than two decades, called his brother-in-law Marlon Blandon, who was just 36 when he died, one of his best friends. And, the bartender and now father of nine, still struggles with with sadness left in the wake of his death.
“I have this pain inside of me, but I can’t really show it,” Rico De Alba said. “I have to be strong for my wife, and especially for the kids after what they’ve been through.”
De Alba and Maradiaga, a stay-at-home mom, were hosting her brother’s five children at their home in Lawndale, when Blandon, called from Lehi, Utah, in July to tell them he had COVID-19. The diabetic’s health rapidly declined over the next few days, said De Alba.
“He called us on Facetime from the hospital once, and he fainted,” Rico De Alba said. “We were praying and praying that he would be OK, but that’s when we started to realize he might not survive this.”
Blandon was hooked up to a ventilator following that incident. He then died about three weeks after he was diagnosed with the virus.
While his condition worsened, questions regarding who should care for Blandon’s underage children, 14-year-old Melody, 10-year-old Jocelyn, 8-year-old Alya, 5-year-old Luz and 3-year-old James, became a priority. A sixth adult sibling moved in with relatives, and the De Albas formally adopted the others, though the couple was already supporting four kids on a bartender’s wages.
But it was an easy choice for his family to make, De Alba said. He, Guissell, and their four children, 18-year-old Hailey, 13-year-old Hazel, 6-year-old Hayden and 6-year-old J.R., were close to the Blandons despite living hundreds of miles apart. The couple was already accustomed to treating his in-law’s children as their own.
“I lost my mom when I was young, so I know what that’s like,” De Alba said. “And I grew up in a family of nine kids too, so it’s a lot like the full table I remember as a kid.”
All nine children have gotten along well with each other so far, De Alba said. But he admits the sudden growth of his family has raised some challenges.
Those include monitoring and supporting seven school-aged children undergoing online learning.
“I’ll leave for work and Guissell sometimes just gives me this look like, ‘I’ve got to deal with seven kids who have to be on a computer at 7:45, and you’re going to a shift at Shellback, the bar.’”
His family has received some support from the local school district, but paying for class supplies and other essentials has proven difficult, De Alba said. Their financial concerns are compounded by the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has limited the number of patrons bars and restaurants can serve. As a result, the father and bartender brings home less money from tips than he used to.
It wasn’t long before regulars at Shellback Tavern learned about the hardship he and his wife faced after welcoming Blandon’s children into their family. He was resistant when patrons Nicole Rosen and Grant Chalmers suggested starting a Gofundme campaign to help them out.
“I’m really not that kind of person to ask for help like that, but they did it anyway and it sort of blew up,” De Alba said. “To see not just the donations, but the messages people have sent us, that this community cares, it’s so much. I can’t even put it into words.”
More than 600 donors have pledged nearly $60,000 to the campaign as of Wednesday afternoon. That money will mostly go to clothes, food and school supplies, De Alba said.