Having lost their father, Victor Ross, in 2012 to cardiac arrest, the siblings are now orphans facing an uncertain future

By Caitlin Keating
May 28, 2020 10:33 AM
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Nikola Tamindzic

On the surface, the Rutters look like many families doing their best to adapt to a new normal amid the pandemic.

With their schools closed, all six siblings have been navigating the world of online learning from their home in Everett, Washington, while trying to keep as busy as possible.

When Tyree, 24, Alexis, 21, Elijah, 20, Anthony, 16, Keyana, 14, and MaKiah, 13, aren’t doing their schoolwork, they’re cuddling up watching home movies, binging Riverdale and Arrow and making delicious breakfast sandwiches.

But their first priority — and what they think of the most throughout every day — is making their parents proud.

In March, the siblings’ mother, Sundee Rutter, 42, who’d been battling stage 3 breast cancer since 2019, was diagnosed with COVID-19 and died from the virus just one week later.

Having lost their father, Victor Ross, in 2012 to cardiac arrest, the siblings are now orphans facing an uncertain future.

“We are taking things day by day,” Tyree tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. “It’s the only way we can do it.”

And yet there is one thing they are sure of: “We knew we all had to stick together,” says Alexis.

Just two weeks after Sundee’s death, Alexis and Tyree began the process of gaining legal guardianship of their three younger siblings.

“I told Mom that she didn’t have to worry about us,” says Alexis, “and that we will take care of the kids.”

That meant Alexis, who is pursuing a double major in sociology and statistics, leaving her college to move back home and help the younger kids. Tyree, who attends Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, also had to turn down the post-graduation job he had secured in Los Angeles to stay closer to the family.

For more on the Rutter family, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

The Rutter children with mom Sundee (center)
Courtesy Rutter Family

While the oldest two have taken on more responsibilities than they ever could have imagined, they admit they wouldn’t be able to do it without the support they’ve received from near and far.

Their story went public thanks to GoFundMe, and the campaign has so far raised more than $530,000.

“These funds are definitely going to help us move forward together,” says Alexis.

The kids make sure to keep Sundee and Victor’s memory alive and never forget the values they learned from them.

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Before his death at age 49, Victor clocked in at a car lot doing janitorial and maintenance work, while Sundee juggled jobs at a retirement home and a clothing store and also took college classes — all while raising her children.

"Our parents were always such hard workers,” says Alexis. “They always made sure we were happy.”

Even after Sundee was diagnosed with breast cancer, she never missed a day of work and always put her children first. By March 2020, after more than a year of treatment, Sundee’s health seemed to have turned a corner.

“It felt like the whole cancer journey was coming to an end,” says Alexis. “We were excited about that, because we had been through a lot.”

But just as they thought that chapter was behind them, they were forced to face another battle.

Alexis and Sundee Rutter
Courtesy Alexis Rutter

“COVID-19 was something people were starting to get,” says Alexis, who along with Tyree was away at college.

Elijah, a college sophomore, took Sundee to the hospital on March 3 because she was feeling sick, but doctors told her she could go home. Within days she was experiencing shortness of breath and headaches and could barely get out of bed.

Diagnosed with the virus, she was hospitalized and separated from the kids. They were only able to see her through her hospital room window.

“She had her phone so we could FaceTime with her,” says Alexis.

The Rutter family with mom Sundee (center)
Courtesy Alexis Rutter

Even then, Sundee "wasn’t talking like she was scared about losing this battle," says Tyree. "She was just telling me how proud she was of all of us.”

It was those talks and how she raised them that gave all six the courage to push forward after her death on March 13.

“We miss our parents so much,” says Alexis, who goes on daily family bike rides with her siblings, “but we will make them so proud.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.