Orange County ASL interpreter opens up about loss of father to COVID-19

You may recognize Jill Kalish from Orange County local government’s weekly COVID-19 press conferences.

Kalish is an American Sign Language interpreter. She interprets messages from Mayor Jerry Demings and other top government officials on local TV news, Orange County’s community live-streams, and other digital outlets.

Her work is critical to keeping the community up to date with COVID-19 information. What people may not know – while Kalish gets the word out and helps families through this crisis, she’s been fighting her own battle involving COVID.

“I missed four months of my dad’s life,” she said. “If we could’ve just gone back and done what we were supposed to do, I might still have my dad and we could be going out together.”

Kalish’s father, Gene Kalish, passed away on July 24 at age 77. Gene fought COVID for six days total – four of those days, he was in the ICU. Before that, Gene was a resident at a Kissimmee assisted living facility.

“He was in the memory care unit because he has Alzheimer’s/dementia. He also had a lot of other pre-existing conditions. But even despite that, my dad was just so full of life,” Kalish explained.

The reality of Kalish’s situation is particularly tough to escape due to constant reminders of COVID-19. Before Gene passed, his family was only able to visit him through a window at the care facility and have virtual conversations. Gene, who was a veteran, would not miss a single press conference because it was one of the few opportunities in which he could see his daughter. He was very proud of Kalish.

“I’ll go somewhere and people aren’t wearing masks. And then I get triggered,” Kalish said while reflecting on how she is grieving. “People, I don’t feel like understand just how serious this actually is. Maybe because it hasn’t affected them.”

Gene loved his family and his grandkids. He also loved his favorite football team: the Detroit Lions. Kalish purchased a Lion’s face mask, hoping to gift it to her father once she was able to see him again in person. Thursday, she wore it to an Orange County press conference to honor him. She wants people to know her father is not just a statistic. She called him "one of the best dads out there."

“This is an actual person, it’s not just a number. Especially [to the] people who think it’s fake, it’s not. I’m living proof that it’s not. I deal with the fact that I wake up every morning and I don’t have my father with me. I’m getting married in March, and my dad’s not going to walk me down the aisle, he’s never going to see me have kids or any of that,” Kalish said as she choked up in tears. “I just want people to realize that this is affecting so many lives and just please, take it serious. Wear your mask, wash your hands, social distance - because this is affecting a lot of people.”