(CNN) – Ariel Walker limited herself to eating pasta with butter for three nights in a row. Breakfast and lunch were always the same: peanut butter and jelly.
She didn’t want to live on such a meager diet. But like thousands of other educators, Walker went unpaid to march in Denver’s first teachers strike in 25 years.
“I barely have enough money to pay … my bills on a normal day,” the elementary school teacher said Wednesday. “This is definitely hurting me.”
The paradox was striking: While teachers demanded higher base salaries, they lost hundreds of dollars each day while on strike — making a difficult situation even more painful.
But Walker said the fight was worth it.
“In order for me to have a bigger gain, and for future educators, too, I need to suffer.”
Tales of personal sacrifice were found up and down the picket lines in Denver, where teachers rallied for three days in the frigid cold before the union and school district reached a deal.
High school teacher Anna Branton, a single mom, said it’s been even tougher this week to buy food for herself and her son.
“I’ve gone to the food bank once already,” Branton said.
Branton said the situation for teachers was so bad, “I haven’t had health insurance in a year for myself because I can’t afford it.”
And her loss of income during the strike meant she couldn’t afford childcare for her 3-year-old son.
“I’m paying only half of his tuition for this month for his childcare, and they’re going to let me get caught up later,” she said. “I know that I’m not going to make it to my next paycheck. I only have $300 dollars in the bank right now.”
High school psychologist Lindsey Rutledge said she hit the picket lines because it was “almost impossible” to live on an educator’s salary in Denver.
“The rent has skyrocketed over the past few years,” she said. “After we pay our rent, our student loan bill, our car payments, we have nothing left over. Most people who work in schools have to have second and third jobs.”
Teachers who went on strike said too many of their colleagues have quit or moved away.
Branton knows she could have a better life if she left Denver. Her sister teaches at a more affluent district nearby, and Branton wouldn’t struggle nearly as much if she did the same.
But she wants to keep teaching where she’s needed — in Denver, helping less privileged children.
“I love my students, and they need good teachers,” she said.
By Holly Yan and Sara Weisfeldt, CNN
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