Single parents find support in online community during pandemic

Single parents find support in online community during pandemic

  • Tara Micic and her son Tallen visit Mall of America in 2018 for Tallen's birthday.

    Tara Micic and her son Tallen visit Mall of America in 2018 for Tallen's birthday. Courtesy of Tara Micic

  • RespectGroup is an online single-parent community serving the greater Chicagoland area.

    RespectGroup is an online single-parent community serving the greater Chicagoland area.

 
 
Updated 7/19/2020 10:26 AM

For soon-to-be 12-year-old Tallen, a trip to the Mall of America in Minneapolis with his mom was all he wanted for his birthday.

They had done the trip once before and he could not wait to go back in early May.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Reggie, a pet of a fellow single parent, pops his head out of the car window during Tallen's birthday parade in early May in Hoffman Estates.
Reggie, a pet of a fellow single parent, pops his head out of the car window during Tallen's birthday parade in early May in Hoffman Estates. - Courtesy of Tara Micic

But that changed when Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued the stay-at-home order and extended it in March, then April and beyond, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"He was having anxiety over it," his mom, Tara Micic of Hoffman Estates, said. "You know, saying, 'What are we going to do? We can't go anywhere.' He was worried for a good two months about his birthday and what would happen. It was always a source of either anger or sadness."

Micic knew she needed to do something to help make this birthday special -- but as a single parent, that proved difficult.

Their extended family members live in Michigan, where Micic grew up, which meant a small family gathering of any kind was out of the question.

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Tara Micic's son Tallen poses for a photo during their first visit to Mall of America in 2018 for Tallen's birthday.
Tara Micic's son Tallen poses for a photo during their first visit to Mall of America in 2018 for Tallen's birthday. - Courtesy of Tara Micic

It was just the two of them, something Micic has grown accustomed to -- and she's certainly not alone in that. According to the most recent census data from 2018, 34% of children in Illinois grow up in single-parent households.

But with her family so far away, Tallen's dad working in Chicago at a job that puts him at risk for virus exposure, and Micic working full time at an ink manufacturer in West Chicago, her options were limited. Even with Tallen spending the days at his close friend's house, she needed to figure out a way to make it more.

So she decided to turn to an online community for support.

"I made a post, more venting than anything," Micic said.

She posted on a single-parent group's Facebook page, RespectGroup, about how upset Tallen was over his canceled trip and how she wished she could find a way to still make his day special despite the lockdowns.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Tommy Tomcyzk, Schaumburg resident and founder of Respect Group, waits in line on his decked out motorcycle during the birthday parade for Tallen.
Tommy Tomcyzk, Schaumburg resident and founder of Respect Group, waits in line on his decked out motorcycle during the birthday parade for Tallen. - Courtesy of Tara Micic

Members of the group began asking if they could send cards and care packages to him, some even willing to drop them off at their door.

And then the idea hit her.

"I'd seen posts here and there about birthday parades. So, we started talking it out, Micic said. "I honestly did not expect it to turn out like it did."

When the day arrived, she was surprised by the turnout. Nearly two dozen cars were decorated with balloons and signs. Some were blasting birthday songs with the windows down. Some close friends, others just acquaintances from past group events. Everyone was there to celebrate Tallen.

More than a dozen cars begin to line up up in a nearby parking lot for the birthday parade.
More than a dozen cars begin to line up up in a nearby parking lot for the birthday parade. - Courtesy of Tara Micic

"I was overwhelmed with how many people showed up to love my kid. I can't tell you what that did to my heart," she said. "Not only that people came through. Cars were decorated, people were wearing birthday tiaras and crowns and blowing horns, bringing their dogs, riding through on a motorcycle. And everybody was handing gifts out the windows of their cars.

"I couldn't believe how many people showed up to show us that we're a part of a community."

A different kind of community

For Micic, having a support system close by is a "lifesaving" thing.

But she found a family in RespectGroup, and that's exactly what founder Tommy Tomcyzk hoped for when he started the group.

Tomcyzk, a Schaumburg resident, organized RespectGroup in the early summer of 2018 after feeling like something was missing from other single-parent pages on Facebook.

"What I really wanted to do was to create something that allowed parents to find their comfort zone within a specific community," Tomcyzk said.

Through sponsored events and member-organized outings, RespectGroup quickly grew to more than 1,700 members across northern Illinois, stretching as far west as DeKalb and all the way into Chicago, and from the Wisconsin border down to the Joliet area.

The sense of support really started to show as the impact of the virus rippled through the suburbs. School closings left many parents with few options for their kids when they still needed to go in to work.

Tomcyzk and the rest of the administrators for the group quickly organized a backstop for the parents in the online community. Those in need of child care filled out one form, while those willing to look after other's kids filled out another. "Matches" were made based on location.

"We ended up having close to 30 locations in Chicagoland of parents offering their homes to watch the children of other members," Tomcyzk said. "And we had close to 50 responses of parents that needed to be coordinated with one of the members offering the help."

Julie Jami of Mount Prospect was one of those members. As a nurse, Jami was unable to stay home with her now-5-year-old daughter, Lillian, and with day cares shut down she had limited options.

"As a single parent, you rely on what family you have, and I always feel guilty or like I'm taking advantage even if I'm not," she said. "If I can figure it out on my own, I feel a lot better. And there was no one to ask.

Continuing the help

The initial rush of child care needs helped spotlight the other ways RespectGroup could adapt during the changing times of the pandemic.

From grocery shopping assistance to virtual playdates and bar nights, the support has not stopped.

"One of the most difficult things we had to overcome was taking away the community events and somehow still keep the sanity through interacting, making friends and coexisting," Tomcyzk said.

RespectGroup has been implementing weekly online events via Zoom for both parents and kids to stay connected.

Gina Fecarotta, a patient care technician and single parent to a 2-year-old boy, even went as far as organizing a couple of "Cards Against Humanity" game nights through Zoom. Fecarotta, of Roselle, was exposed to COVID through her job and had to self-quarantine on two separate occasions.

"We all struggle in different ways. We all have different issues, but we're all still single parents and we can relate," Fecarotta said. "Despite the COVID and everything, they've gotten me through so much."

"This group is nonjudgmental," Fecarotta said. "We're all there for each other. We're respectful. To see such compassion and kindness from people ... I just feel like it's a blessing. You just know, no matter what, you have people who have your back."

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