When coronavirus killed single mom Cindy Dawkins in August, her two oldest children vowed to raise their younger sisters: "We're taking this one day at a time"
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Cindy Dawkins children
Jenny Burrows (right) with siblings (from left) Tre, Zoe, Sierra
| Credit: Octavio Jones

In the apartment she shares with her younger siblings in Boynton Beach, Florida, 24-year-old Jenny Burrows felt enormous relief one recent morning: A judge in the Palm Beach County Family Court approved her petition of legal guardianship for younger siblings Zoe, 15, and Sierra Clarke, 12. The sisters and their brother, Trey, 20 — whose single mom, Cindy Dawkins, died of COVID at age 50 in August — could stay together. 

"Oh, my gosh, I feel good," a beaming Jenny tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "Knowing we aren't going to be separated — it's a huge weight off my shoulders. Mom used to say she didn't care if we lived in one bedroom, as long as we were together." 

Adds Trey, who helps Jenny with the caregiving, of their mom: "She always put family first."

Dawkins, an immigrant from the Bahamas working two food service jobs, was scheduled to realize her dream of becoming a U.S. citizen when she began feeling tired and achy on a family trip this summer to celebrate her birthday.

She died days later on Aug. 6, and her four children didn't get the chance to say goodbye. "I was completely devastated," says her son Tre.

Cindy Dawkins children
The whole crew (from left, Jenny, Tre, Sierra and Zoe) assists Sierra with math.
| Credit: Octavio Jones

As he and Jenny do their best to care for their siblings while juggling entry-level jobs — he in telemarketing, she as a dental assistant — they worry about bills. "We're taking this one day at a time," Jenny says.

Financial help is on the way. Janine Yoshida, the mother of one of Tre's high school friends, offered to pay their rent until their apartment lease expires in February 2022. She also set up a GoFundMe to raise money for a down payment on a house or condo. So far the campaign has raised over $41,000.

"I didn't want them worrying about anything," Yoshida says, "except what they were trying to get through."

Cindy Dawkins children
Jenny gives pointers on sorting their clothes as Zoe (left) and Sierra prepare to do several loads of washing and drying.
| Credit: Octavio Jones

Christmas was Dawkins' favorite time of year, and Tre and Jenny have been saving money to take their sisters out to eat that day.

That definitely would have brought a smile to their mother's face, says Jenny: "For her to be gone and for us to have each other to keep her memory alive — it's an indescribable feeling."

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The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over 806,000 lives in the U.S. — and the number of kids who have lost a parent or in-home caretaker is an estimated 167,000. 

This orphaning has hit various racial and ethnic groups differently. For every one white American child orphaned, there are 2.5 Black and Hispanic American children suffering the loss of a caretaker. And the children are primarily young, with 70 percent age 13 or younger. 

For more on families navigating the loss of a parent amid the pandemic, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

"Tragically, kids do lose their parents," Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and co-author of a recent study of coronavirus fatalities, tells PEOPLE. "But with COVID, there are layers and layer of complexity that makes things different."

"How do we track the number of orphans left as a result of COVID?" he continues. "Whose responsibility is it to step up and take care of those kids — family members, the community, the state or federal government?" 

Kevin and Misty Mitchem family
Kevin Mitchem with (from left) Riley, Taylor, Leah, grown daughter Angel and Aiden.
| Credit: Courtesy Mitchem family

Family takes care of the children of Misty, 46, and Kevin Mitchem, 48, of Stafford, Virginia, whose lives were claimed by COVID last September. Misty's sister, Janine Sutter, now raises their four kids — Riley, 17, Leah, 15, Taylor, 11, and Aidan, 11. 

"Everybody was talking about splitting the kids up and I thought, 'We can't let that happen,'" says Janine, who moved her nieces and nephews into the home she shares with her husband, Howard.

In Oklahoma, Avion Simon, 18, helps his grandmother care for his two siblings — Cajhmonet "Mo," 8, and Cletis Jr. "CJ," 6, while juggling football, school and, until recently, a part-time job at McDonald's. The kids' widowed mom, Shanna Twyman, 41, died of COVID on Sept. 28 — just two years after, her husband, Cletis Shelby, 44, the father of Mo and CJ, died of liver failure. 

Cletis Wayne Shelby Jr.; Avion Twyman Simon; Cajhmonet Constance Olivia Shelby
Avion Simon with siblings CJ (left) and Mo.
| Credit: Michael Nobel Jr.

"You've got to keep going," he says. "That's what I'm trying to do for Mo and CJ."

Family friend Charity Prather set up a GoFundMe for the siblings. As of Tuesday, the campaign has raised over $15,000 — money that will help Avion deliver on the promise he made to his mom one day before she died: "I'm going to take care of your babies for you."

— With reporting by Wendy Grossman Kantor and Nick Maslow