State lawmakers have their sights set on a small budget request to create a $205 million fund to support children who lost a parent or legal caregiver to the coronavirus during the three-year COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 80,000 New Yorkers died from COVID-19 during the course of the three-year pandemic, leaving 18,000 children across the state without a parent or legal caregiver.

"It changed me because I had to grow up and mature faster," said Zachary Fletcher, a 15-year-old from Brooklyn who lost his father to the virus in 2020." With the absence of my papa and no other father figure, I had to use my imagination to fill the void with what I thought I was supposed to do to be a man."

His father, Joseph Trevor Fletcher, died from coronavirus complications in 2020 when Zachary was 11 years old. The loss devastated his siblings and mother, Roni Fletcher, who stood among several New Yorkers rallying in Albany for a fund in the 2024 budget to help children who lost a caregiver to the virus during the pandemic.

They want up to $205 million for the COVID-19 Children's Fund Program or "baby bonds" for publicly funded savings accounts that can be used to buy a house, further education or start a business after they turn 18.

"Even though their caregiver or parent is absent presently from their lives, that void must be filled," Roni said. "It is the responsibility of the village, the community, our elected officials to make sure the void is filled in a positive way."

Several lawmakers stood with members of the organization COVID Survivors for Change to push for the fund in the budget, which will be at least several days late past the April 1 deadline. 

The program is a spending priority for the Senate and Assembly, and was included in both one-house budgets. The proposal, a one-time expense, for now isn't part of Gov. Kathy Hochul's $233 billion spending plan, but members of the Legislature argue the program is pennies of the final bill and should not be controversial more than four years after the pandemic started.

"We're hoping to get it into this budget so that families can have a little bit of a financial future after they lost so much," said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a Democrat from Queens.

Cruz sponsors the legislation and said it's the least the state can do for families who lost a loved one to the virus, especially after mistakes made during the state's pandemic response.

"We as a government have a duty to these families," she said.

COVID accelerated poverty for many families, especially low-income New Yorkers and people of color. 

"We're looking at kids who may have lost a parent when they were a few years old, and maybe there was no insurance, maybe there was no income to rely on after the parent died, maybe there was, but grief should not make that distinction," the assemblywoman said.

If the fund becomes law, the award each child would be eligible to receive when they turn 18 would depend on how old they were when their parent or caregiver died. A young child who lost their caregiver during the pandemic would receive a higher benefit versus someone who was a teenager when the death took place.

The details will be negotiated if legislative leaders decide the program will be in the final budget. COVID survivors and families argue the fund is about correcting injustices of the pandemic and taking care of those who can't care for themselves.

"Experiencing grief has taught me the value of cherishing every moment with loved ones and the importance of resilience in the face of adversity," Zachary Fletcher said. "...I often ask myself questions like 'What would my papa do?' and 'What would papa say?'. We all need guiding lights. Family and friends and faith are mine."

Members of COVID Survivors for Change continue to push for New York lawmakers to pass legislation to create scholarships for COVID orphans, to create a permanent COVID memorial fund and a proposed bill named for Joseph Fletcher to amend the workers' compensation law and allow COVID-19 death benefit claims to be reopened for essential workers that were previously denied due to legal loopholes.