This week's issue of PEOPLE pays tribute to people whose lives were cut short by COVID-19
Gerald Welch
Credit: Courtesy Family

Gerald Welch overcame tremendous obstacles in his life before losing it to COVID-19 complications.

“One thing I admired about him he was brutally honest,” wife Donna Welch tells PEOPLE. “He was straight up, wouldn’t sugar coat.”

The Pennsylvania social worker and education reformer began 2020 as the new Harrisburg School Board member and was determined to help the students get the education they deserved.

“Everyone in the community came around him," Donna, 60, says of his "bold" approach.

Gerald said during a campaign interview, "I am running because I understand how education can completely change the trajectory of your life."

The father of five lost a son who was murdered in Washington, D.C. and struggled with a divorce and addiction before successfully going through rehabilitation at the Delancey Street Foundation in New York City. A former high school dropout, Gerald went on to earn his masters from Fordham University in social work.

“When I first met Gerald, he was a resident and did ministry at Delancey to rebuild their lives coming from backgrounds of addiction and incarceration,” Donna says. “I could not tell you the number of people who reached out to say how he had helped them.”

Gerald's dogged desire to help others may have put him at risk for COVID-19. Dedicated to his work as a behavioral outreach social worker, he refused to stop as the coronavirus hit his community. He continued providing rides to work and the grocery store for his clients, people he knew were counting on him.

“The big mystery is how he got it,” Donna says. “It happened so fast.”

The pandemic has taken the lives of more than 300,000 Americans. “As the year ends, we wanted to pause and remember the loved ones who have died,” writes PEOPLE Editor in Chief Dan Wakeford in this week’s issue. “There is no magazine that has enough pages to pay tribute to all the people whose lives were cut short; so instead we have told the story of one person from each state in America.” For more Lost to COVID tributes, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Gerald was attending college in early 2008 when he met his future wife Donna online. Donna says she had a terrible first marriage and was single for two decades. She had no intention of marrying again. But Gerald stole her heart.

“We talked every day online until we met face to face,” Donna says, adding she made sure there were plenty of people in her house at that first meeting.

But Gerald took her aside, pulled out a ring and asked her to make him the “happiest man on the planet." Donna couldn’t believe that she said yes.

“I felt, right away, that this was the Lord’s way of blessing me for taking good care of my mother, who had Alzheimer’s and who lived to be 90,” Donna, a nurse, says. “She lived with me for about 15 years. I took care of her and went to church and the Lord blessed me with Gerald.”

The two made a good team, both sharing an interest in helping others. They started a program called FOCUS to help ex-offenders get back on their feet.

She recalls an emotional episode in which a young man they were helping appeared to be on the right path. He relapsed and died of an apparent overdose.

“I was devastated,” Donna says. “But Gerald said, 'I had addictions and that demon snatches and robs people from so much if you don’t watch out.' ”

A chance encounter with a police officer about four years before he met Donna triggered Gerald's decision to go into recovery.

It was a Thanksgiving Day morning and he had been out drinking all night and found himself in a park across the street from the police station.

A motorcycle officer rode up to him and asked if he needed help. He told Gerald to pour out what he had and gave him money to get something to eat. The officer told him to meet him back there and he would have a place for him to go.

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Gerald was tempted to take the money and run, but didn't.

“He said he made up his mind that he wanted to be free,” Donna says. “The peace officer got him into a Christian detox, and that’s where the change began.”

The long struggle appeared to be paying off for Gerald before his death. He was happily married and active in his church, St. Paul Missionary Baptist. He was working a job he loved and was embarking on a career in politics he hoped would help children in his community.

Instead, he was stopped by a virus.

Gerald was only sick for a few days before Donna took him to the hospital. They even posed for a selfie in the car.

Gerald perked up after first arriving at the hospital, then took a downturn. He had to be intubated, and told his wife in some of his last words, “And that’s when you die.”

Gerald, a diabetic, died of complications from COVID-19 on April 15.

People with underlying medical conditions — including heart conditions, obesity, diabetes, liver disease and chronic kidney disease — are at higher risk of developing life-threatening symptoms from coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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 the WHO and local public health departmentsPEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a 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.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.