Mourning the Loss of Our Routines, Our Businesses, Our Lives Before COVID-19
An interview with a business owner and founder, Christina Dorando.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been interviewing women founders across North America. They are supercharged by the challenges presented by COVID-19. They are in go-mode. Brainstorming new ideas. Getting things done, and doing them quickly. They are pivoting “with gusto”. They are fighting tooth and nail to keep their businesses alive.
But even over the disrupted connection of a Zoom video call, I always see more than fight, more than passion. In the moments of peace, the brief pauses between words, I get a glimpse of more than strong women, great leaders, inspiring founders. I see echoes of pain, the trauma that they are holding inside.
Founders build their businesses from the ground up. Their business isn’t simply an accounting sheet showing money in and money out. It’s a part of who they are, a part of their identity. It’s like a best friend who you’ve sacrificed your money, time, and sanity to keep alive. It’s like a first, second, or third child.
Today, I’m sharing the story of Christina Dorando, a founder whose business was immutably changed by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Christina’s resume is a beauty. After getting her B.A. from Carnegie Mellon, she went straight to graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned a Masters of Education in International Education Policy. She’s worked in consulting and as an educator. And in 2010, only three years after graduating from Harvard, she founded Cresthill Academy.
Cresthill Academy started as a small preschool for children ages 2 to 5. The preschool ran out of a home on a Church property in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Over 10 years, the preschool grew to 5 locations in the greater New York City area, serving over 350 children from over 300 families, until COVID-19 brought the schools to a screeching halt.
Growing Cresthill Academy, opening every one of those new daycare centers didn’t come without sacrifice. Christina says, “Every time I open a new center, I always ask myself if I’m doing the right thing because every new center puts my family at financial risk. Am I taking the right risk? Am I being selfish by pursuing this dream? Thinking back to when I had my daughter, I had a C section on Thursday night, and I was back to emailing on Sunday and running payroll on Monday. We were constructing a new site that, of course, was supposed to be done before my due date. But it got delayed and because I was a one-person HQ at the time I took an Uber a week after she was born to go check on the construction site.”
On March 16th, Cresthill Academy began by closing its two Hoboken locations and then weeks later, all five locations were shuttered. By early April, the daycare sites that Christina had devoted her energy, time, and emotion into were all empty.
I remember that night when the termination emails started pouring into my inbox. I remember looking at the emails just ping, ping, ping and I just started crying.
Of Cresthill Academy’s 96 pre-pandemic staff members, most of them were educators. Educators who actively worked with children on the floor at the daycare centers. But when the centers closed, there was no longer on-the-floor work to be done and no tuition money to cover paychecks.
Christina was able to keep 14 of her staff on the payroll, funding their paychecks from her own personal savings, but she was forced to let go of the other 82 staff members.
She describes the experience in heartbreaking detail, “Our HR team started laying people off, and I couldn’t even be there because of the social distancing restrictions…I remember that night when the termination emails started pouring into my inbox. I remember looking at the emails just ping, ping, ping and I just started crying. But I had to be strong for the 14 people that we still had.”
Talking about those emails pinging into her inbox, I commented on how hard it must be to mourn the loss of her business, her team. Christina said, “I think that you hit the nail on the head with ‘mourning’. I did not give myself permission to use the word ‘mourning’ especially when people are mourning the loss of physical lives, but I never realized that I am in a way mourning this loss because Cresthill Academy is like my first baby.”
Christina and I then had a frank and honest conversation about the trauma of losing your business. We honored the pain of letting go of staff who have been with you since year 1. We talked about the difficulties of not being able to hug those team members goodbye. We reminisced about the joy of watching kids grow and blossom, benefiting from the programs that Christina worked so hard to create. We even cried a little bit.
But we also talked about hope for the future, and Cresthill Academy’s continuing commitment to their mission — caring for the needs of young children and their families.
In this time of COVID-19, Christina and her team have embraced the digital world. Cresthill Academy hosts interactive, live circle time four days a week — all free of charge. Christina explains, “Our hope is that whoever can contribute will, but we hope most that everyone will share with friends. Disruptions to education disproportionately affect lower income families. We rely on families to contribute to the program so that children who cannot normally afford it have access to education.”
Cresthill Academy also puts together weekly curriculum kits that they hand deliver (curbside, of course) to parents. The kits have all of the necessary supplies for a week’s worth of activities. Christina says, “They are really taking off. We are now looking into shipping them because we are unable to deliver 60-some curriculum kits every week.”
Despite her commitment to providing parents with the tools they need to continue their children’s education, Christina urges parents to not be too hard on themselves.
She says to the parents who feel overwhelmed by the burden of homeschooling, “Don’t worry about the academic schoolwork right now. I know that there is a lot of pressure in parents working from home right now. Nobody wants their children to fall behind right now. But the academic lag is not as important as caring for your children’s emotional and mental health…The mental health and the emotional safety of our children is important so that they are ready to return to school when the doors reopen.”
Coronavirus swept across the world in a matter of months. And as it spread, it changed all of our lives. It came for the service and hospitality industries first — cancelled flight and vacations, shuttered restaurants. It closed daycares and schools. All but essential workers are laid off, furloughed, or working from home. It locked us all inside our homes, away from family, friends, and much of the great outdoors.
Even as countries around the world start to reopen, we know that things won’t simply return back to “normal”. But we also know that things will not remain the way they are today.
I know, we know that things can and will get better. The Bubonic Plague gave way to the Renaissance, one of history’s greatest period of artistic, cultural, and economic rebirth. World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic were closely followed by the Roaring ’20s and Harlem Renaissance. And the end of World War II heralded the beginning of a multi-decade economic boom.
Things will get better. But life will never be the same as it was pre-pandemic. I am giving all of us permission — grieve the life you lost…even if it’s just the small things. You don’t need to lose a loved one to grieve. You don’t need to measure your losses and decide if they are “enough” to really count. Everyone has the right to grieve.
Take time, take space to mourn every little thing the coronavirus has taken from you.
I’d like to end with some words from Christina about the future, about the post-pandemic world.
I am hopeful because I’m really confident and bullish about humanity as a whole. I think that you have to believe in the goodness of mankind to get into education. I think that we will all be changed and I hope that it’s for the better. I hope that we all become kinder and more united. Ultimately, I’m sanguine in humanity because we have historically always found a solution, even though sometimes that solution may be a few steps forward followed by a few steps back. but we always move forward in the right direction. For example, after the Plague, the Renaissance. After the Great Depression, the boom of industry and growth. We’ve seen some ugly come out, but we’ve seen far more kindness and heroism come out as well. I know that we will get through this. We’ll be different, but we will get through it.