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July 1, 2020

Profiles

The Champs of Summer 2020: Tresa Baldas

Profiles

July 1, 2020

When Tresa Baldas first started reporting on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had no idea she would end up writing from the first-person point of view.

Baldas has a long and storied journalism career, spanning decades, states, and different mediums. From D.C. to Chicago, print to television, Baldas still describes it as “the best job in the world.” She’s been at the Free Press for ten years now, covering the federal court beat—reporting on injustice and justice, holding people in positions of power accountable. In March, she was named the Richard Milliman Journalist of the Year by the Michigan Press Association for her work documenting sexual assault coverups.

But when the pandemic hit, Baldas recalls it was “all hands on deck—everyone will cover this in some way, no matter what beat.” She dove in, calling hospitals and reaching out in Detroit, where she lives with her husband and two of her college-aged daughters. With no documented cases reported yet, she learned of a family who had COVID-19. She reached out to ask if she could tell their story—and she did, with a socially distanced photoshoot in the backyard and interviews over the phone. Baldas watched the family recover and moved on to her next story.

It was a Friday night she’ll never forget. She was interviewing doctors over the phone. Her husband had been struggling with a fever, exhaustion, and a headache—he’d even been to the ER, twice. Baldas recalls feeling warm, taking her temperature, and reading 101.5. She sunk to the floor. She called her sister. “I’ve got it,” she said.

They both did, and over the next two weeks, it would only get worse. Her husband isolated himself on the second floor, while she took the basement and her daughters stayed on the ground floor, leaving food at the top of the stairs to minimize contact.

Even in the short few months since the pandemic started, much has been learned about its effects, with still more to be uncovered. But Baldas contracted COVID-19 early on, when there was still so much mystery. “I was just so scared,” she recalls. “I’m a journalist, and I couldn’t even watch the news because it was so scary.” She woke up soaked in sweat from head to toe after breaking the fever over and over again, only for it to come back. Delirium set in. Taking refuge in her faith, she “prayed like crazy.” She called a COVID-19 survivor for support and encouragement—it was the mother she had interviewed for her first pandemic story. She told Baldas, “Be patient.”

After two weeks, her patience paid off. On the seventeenth day, she shared a meal at the table with her family for the first time. It was Easter dinner.

Baldas has always viewed her job as vital. “Journalism can be life-changing, even life-saving,” she says. Contracting COVID-19 didn’t change that; it amplified it, reinforced it. “When you go through an experience like this, you become humbled. You think about what you can do.” For Baldas, that meant using her voice as a journalist to help people get through COVID-19. Before she was even fully recovered, she began writing survivor stories and tributes to those who had passed. She was even more emotionally and personally invested in informing her community, and the world at large, about this pandemic—and the human toll.

It comes naturally to Baldas, who as a first-generation American from an immigrant Greek family was dubbed “The Explainer.” She would talk to doctors and contractors for her parents, passing along crucial information—“A natural born journalist,” she laughs. She attributes her drive and grit to her upbringing: her parents showed immense dedication to providing for the family. “I watched it, I learned it from them.” Her faith informs her perseverance, too. “I do think God expects that to whom much has been given, much is expected. Sure, I could sit back and enjoy my life. But I want everyone to have what I have—I believe in a just world, and we’re not there, but I want to be part of making it that way.”

How can we help Baldas—and journalists everywhere—help us? The answer is quite simple: support your local papers, no matter where you live or how big the paper is. “You don’t have to subscribe to all of them, just one of them. It doesn’t matter if it’s print or online. Read, subscribe, share our stories.” Baldas also encourages everyone to look for credible sources as a way of helping journalists in pursuit of the truth. Sharing verified, credible sources with strong track records will keep the right information in the hands of the people.

When asked what inspires her, Baldas points to the future generation. “As journalists we can bang our heads against the wall, when the moral compass of the world seems to be off. We try to report social injustice, and we see the numbers and ask, is anyone listening? Is anyone watching? My kids’ generation, they’re so much more engaged. I didn’t expect that.” She cites the Black Lives Matter movement as an example: waves of young people actively educated and engaged in a movement—whether they’re suburban kids or from Detroit proper. “I see so many looking for more ways to make change.”

Baldas has her own Champs—“Oh, so many of them,” she laughs. There’s a special place in her heart for Save the Children, an organization she’s supported for years. She wants to highlight her coworkers and peers at the Free Press on the streets, marching and reporting at the same time: writers, videographers, and photographers. "My husband is a reporter too, he worked for fourteen days straight, marching almost every day for hours in the scorching heat to document the movement."

There’s another set of heroes Baldas looks up to, one she feels a deep personal obligation to speak out about: the families of those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. One in particular stands out to her—Denise Hirschmann, of Fraser, Michigan, whose son Ben passed at age 24 from the virus. “The fact that she can get up in the morning and face the day, given what she’s gone through. Mother to mother, she’s my hero. I want everyone to know this story, of this woman who went into mom overdrive and gave her own son CPR. A different kind of hero.”

She doesn’t consider herself a hero—she repeats the same thing she hears all the time when she interviews others: It’s not about me. “At first I thought, I didn’t do anything,” she laughs. “I got sick.” But the aftermath drives her to use her voice. “I…want people to know this is beatable. I want to share the survivor stories as much as I can. But I do not want to walk away and pretend the 125,000 [deaths] haven’t happened.”

Thanks to the tireless work of Tresa Baldas and journalists like her, those names will always be remembered. That’s why we’re humbled to call her a Champ of 2020.

Read Tresa’s account of her experience with COVID-19 at the Detroit Free Press.

 

This interview is part of a series highlighting everyday Americans who have risen extraordinarily to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic—the Champs of Summer 2020. As a thank-you to the essential workers on the front line, we’re building our limited-edition Champ Detrola as a gift of gratitude. Proceeds go to the Healthcare Workers Fund in partnership with the Community Foundation for Southwest Michigan. Learn more about the Champ and how you can help here.

The Champs of Summer 2020: Eboni Taylor of Mothering Justice

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