Up until about six months ago, Nelson Toala was the primary provider for his wife and two granddaughters.
He has worked as a cook at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin for more than a decade, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, he was temporarily furloughed. He was hoping to return back to the kitchen, but before he got the chance, he had a stroke that left him with partial paralysis on his right side. He is unable to walk or shower on his own and his speech is not as clear.
“We were sent home from work on March 17, and since then I have had a difficult time,” Toala says. “I am head of household. I recently turned 65, and without the income, it has been difficult to maintain bills and cope with my financial responsibility.”
The change is something that is unfamiliar to Toala.
He was born and raised in Ecuador. As the son of a farmer, he grew up working on the farm before going off to college to become a pharmacist. He soon would be married and become a father of three. He has always worked to provide for his family, he says.
In 2006, when he moved from Manta, Ecuador, to Austin with his wife, Maria, 65, he says although things were challenging he did not let that stop him from doing what was expected of him — providing for his family.
“At the very beginning there were a lot of difficulties because of my age, language and culture and economic barriers,” Toala says. “That was challenging for me, but we found good programs, and the people in Austin are so giving.”
He says he started taking classes so he could learn English, and Goodwill was able to help him find a job and go back to school, but he wasn’t sure what was next for him. His pharmacist license from Ecuador would not carry over in Austin. He had to start all over.
Toala first worked at Bealls, but he needed to make more money to keep up with expenses, so he got a second job working at the Marriott. He says everyone in the hotel kitchen seemed to be in culinary school, and so he thought culinary school would be the logical next step for him as well.
While working two jobs, Toala attended part-time classes at Austin Community College’s culinary program and graduated in early 2011, about three years after taking his first culinary course.
“The language barrier was difficult, but my passion to redesign my career helped get me through it,” he says. “It took me three years because I worked two jobs, was going to school and had family responsibilities. But I did it.”
He says while he was in culinary school, Bealls had closed, and so he started applying for another second job. He would eventually land at the Driskill, working his way from a part-time breakfast line cook to banquets. In the last 14 years, he has since been able to purchase a home for his family and transition to just one job, leaving him more time with his family.
Now that he is unable to work, he is worried about how to care for his family, which includes granddaughters Alexssandra, 10, and Isabela, 8, who live with Maria and him, and not fall behind on his bills.
He has applied for Social Security but is still waiting for approval. With the help of neighbors, family and local programs like Meals on Wheels Central Texas and Catholic Charities, he says the family has been able to get by with food and clothes, but bills are stacking up.
“We are simple and survive with the minimum,” he says. He is not giving up on himself or his family.
He hopes to one day be able to work again, but doctors say he might not be able to. He attends physical therapy every day, and although there have not been any significant improvements, he has faith he can get better.
“Faith is what I (cling on to) most,” Toala says. “And I am going to keep faith that I am going to get better because I have a family to take care of.”
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