FLORENCE — Before the coronavirus outbreak changed her life, a good day for Jessica Whittington meant taking home $80 a day in tips from her job as a Waffle House waitress.

But as restaurants across the state have been forced to implement to-go ordering only, she lost interaction with customers and a sizable chunk of her income. As many people hunker down to avoid exposure to the spreading virus this week, about $20 a day is all she’s gotten.

Whittington, who for years used drugs but has been sober for two years, has been rebuilding her life. She lives in a camper with two of her children: a 7-year-old girl named Sammy and 8-year-old Jared. Both kids attend Simpson Central Elementary School a few miles west of Magee.

Peyton Lester, left, and Joslyn West crossword puzzle at the home of Tim Dear and Beverly Dear in Florence, Miss., Thursday, March 19, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

After officials announced that schools would indefinitely postpone their return from spring break, Whittington struggled on Sunday morning to make plans for her kids.

“It’s not even paycheck-to-paycheck for me. I live day-to-day,” she said. “I had no one to keep the kids. I would’ve had to take off work, which means I would’ve lost the little bit I bring in now. I definitely couldn’t afford childcare. It actually became a question of how I was even going to feed the kids.”

A few miles away that same Sunday morning, a Florence woman named Beverly Dear woke up with an idea. She’d been following news about the coronavirus and heard about the school closures.

“I remembered how stressful it was when one of my kids got sick and I had to balance schedules and make it work,” Dear said. “I thought to myself, ‘We’ve got this big house that’s empty. We can do something here.’”

Dear, whose own children are grown and out of the house, ran the idea by her husband, Tim, who immediately agreed.

So on Sunday at 8 a.m., she logged onto her Facebook page and posted a call-out: “Free child care! We know a lot of parents are experiencing a tremendous hardship right now, knowing the kids are fixing to be out of school with no place to go. The financial burden can be tough in times like this. Tim and I have decided to turn our home into a temporary kid zone!”

The post continued: “We want to help! So just bring your kids (school aged kids only, please) and we will take good care of them, feed them, and make sure they have a good time! We will do this at no costs to you until the kids go back to school through March 27.”

Within a few minutes the post had been shared dozens of times, reaching the eyes of hundreds of people around the region. One of those people was Whittington’s boss at the Waffle House who knew her employee was in a bind.

Whittington became the first parent to reach out to Dear about the free child care. The next morning at 5:30 a.m., Whittington dropped off Sammy and Jared at Dear’s house.

Brody Winstead plays baseball at the residence of Tim Dear and Beverly Dear in Florence, Miss., Thursday, March 19, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

While the spread of the coronavirus has upended lives and threatened the livelihoods of many Mississippians, it connected two women who live a few miles away but worlds apart. It inspired Dear’s act of generosity, and it reminded Whittington of the innate goodness of many Mississippians.

“Good people still exist, even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it,” Whittington said. “I truly don’t know what I would’ve done without (Dear). She’s a godsend.”

In total this week, Dear has taken in 14 kids, ranging in ages between 7 and 11. Dear’s mom, sister and niece have helped keep the kids fed and busy while their parents work.

During the day, the kids have played board games and done puzzles. They’ve played baseball and cornhole and putt-putt golf in the yard, and they’ve watched movies. They’ve loaded up in cars and ridden to a nearby farm that Dear’s niece owns, where the kids have fed goats, cows and horses.

As shares of Dear’s Facebook post continued, she heard from old friends and even strangers who offered to help. They asked for her PayPal information and offered to cook for the kids.

“So many people have reached out wanting to help,” Dear said. “People just started showing up, bringing snacks and stuff. I’d been a little worried about the expense of it all, but everyone started responding.”

For at least this week and next week, Whittington can go to work every day and know her kids are in good hands with Dear. But free child care isn’t the only thing Whittington received from the chance connection this week.

“(Dear’s) mother gave me $200 cash with no strings attached, just to help me get through the next little while,” Whittington said, her voice cracking as she fought back tears. “I didn’t have any money saved up, so it meant everything to me. (Dear) and her momma, they’ve really saved me.”

While she’s given her time and money to help others, Dear said she’s received something bigger than any of that through the experience.

“I think right now especially, helping people is the very least we could do,” Dear said. “Seeing so much good in so many people through all of this — I can’t tell you how big of a blessing this has been.”

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.