Maria Luisa Morales felt hopless.
Her family was in disarray: Her 16-year-old son threatened to run away from home. Her 13-year-old daughter wanted to drop out of school. Her 10-year-old son displayed fits of anger.
The trailer they called a home was in shambles: It was small, too small for a family of six. Most of the day, the trailer was dark; it’s tiny windows allowed little light to enter. Clothes, toys and cans of food were shoved and stacked in corners, and there was no room for the baby to play. It felt like living in a storage unit.
Maria Luisa constantly felt the weight of poverty tugging at her soul: Both she and her husband were willing to work, but they could not find jobs. They were barely scraping by. It felt like a never ending cycle of despair.
Maybe she should leave, Maria Luisa thought. Just walk away from her family and give up. Tears owed down her face. She just needed a shred of hope to keep going.
That’s when Maria Luisa found the Buckner Family Hope Center in Peñitas, Texas.
She walked into the Hope Center with low expectations. The school counselor at her children’s school referred her to the center, but she wasn’t sure if anything could help. She was on the brink of giving up.
Sharon Rueda, a Hope Center family coach, sensed Maria Luisa’s frustration. They worked on a family plan to identify goals to build self-sustainability for their family. They discussed classes the whole family could take at the Hope Center, and they prayed together.
Maria Luisa walked into the Hope Center defeated, but left with the hope life could change for her family, if they were diligent in working for it.
“Before she left, we sat and held hands to pray for God to intervene on her behalf,” Rueda said. “I shared the Bible story of Ruth’s faith and steadfastness while she waited to see God provide for her. Later, Maria Luisa returned to tell me God had answered our prayers and provided jobs for her husband that very next week.”
Little by little life changed. Maria Luisa signed up for her first class: Jobs for Life. She learned how to cope practically with day-to-day issues in the home. Then she took a parenting and financial class. Her husband, Alberto, took a fatherhood class, where he learned about his role and impact in the family unit.
Their children started attending a youth class where they learned how to communicate confidently with their teachers and motivated them to continue in their school work. Her younger son took an anger management class and learned skills to control his emotions.
“God has blessed me plenty ever since I entered this place, spiritually and economically,” Maria Luisa said. “In the past year, we were struggling with multiple debts, but now in less than two months [of taking the financial class], we have been able to get out of two of them. The Hope Center has shown how a person can be useful in life. They have taught me that not all things are free. You have to earn it for yourself.”
Still, their cramped living situation troubled Maria Luisa. She shared her frustration with Rueda.
“She changed my way of thinking,” Maria Luisa said. “She told me to look at it differently. She said, ‘You have a roof over your head. Look at it as your castle.’ And that began to change me. I shared it with my children. I told them it was a wonderful place and a gift from God. [This way of thinking] began to change things.”
And change it did. It started with Maria Luisa, who now felt like she had a purpose in life, and worked through her entire family. Alberto started spending more time with their children. Rosbel, their oldest son, worked through his depression. Instead of threatening to run away, he started helping out at home and caring for baby Eric Elias when his parents were at the center taking classes. Carolina became more excited about school because of the youth classes. She’s determined not to drop out of school and motivated to get good grades. Rolando didn’t cry anymore, and he has learned to calm himself down to relax instead of throwing tantrums. Even the baby smiled more.
“I felt peace,” Maria Luisa said. “But thank God our four children have gone through a big change. It was something marvelous, something only God can do. That is what I can say about my children. The center has helped them a lot. My oldest has been helped the most.”
“I want to give thanks to God first and secondly to Buckner for the way each person I have met has been a blessing and seeking to help, moving beyond themselves to give to others and give to our family,” Alberto echoed his wife’s sentiments. “Our family is stronger and better for it.”
Now that Maria Luisa felt this peace, she wanted to help others experience it too. She started volunteering at the Hope Center.
“I like to help,” she said. “I like for others to feel the same way I feel. I want them to feel useful and learn they can succeed if they want to.”
By taking classes, volunteering at the Hope Center and successfully fulfilling their family coaching goals, the Morales family qualified for a home build through Buckner Domestic Missions.
In November, two mission teams through Woman’s Missionary Union of Texas worked from sunup to sundown to build the Morales family a new home. They raised the walls, built the roof, painted the siding and even helped furnish the home when it was complete, but even more important, they spoke truth to the Morales family. They hugged the children, encouraged Maria Luisa and shared their favorite Bible passages. They became friends.
When it came time to raise the first wall, they let Maria Luisa hammer the first nail into her new home. She could barely see past the tears that flooded her eyes as she pounded the nail into the beam, a symbol of what hard work and prayer can do for a family.
“I just can’t believe this day has finally come,” she said. “The relief I have and the overwhelming sense of love and compassion is pouring out of me in tears.”
Alberto rushed home from work to help with the construction. He carried wood panels, drove the construction trucks and painted walls. In the early morning before going to school, the children greeted the volunteers with hugs. They begged to stay and help instead of going to school.
“It means so much that a group of strangers would come from far away, leave their families, their jobs, their comfort zone, to show such love and generosity to my family,” Alberto said. “This feeling of gratitude mixed with relief and undeserving is making me cry like a little boy.”
A few weeks before Christmas, the Morales home was complete. Outside, the family plays volleyball together, laughing as the ball goes astray. As the sun sets, the soft glimmer of the porch light melds with the light shining out of the family room window, but it pales in comparison to the glow on the Morales family as they giggle with glee from their game. Even baby Eric Elias claps his hands while sitting on Alberto’s lap watching the family play.
When it is too dark to see anymore, the family goes inside. Eric Elias plays in his jumper while Maria Luisa makes dinner. The boys settle down to play a game of chess, moments of concentration broken with smiles as they move the pieces across the board. And Carolina sings her favorite Christmas carol: “Silent Night.”
With three bedrooms, a bathroom, family room, kitchen and laundry room, their home is a vast improvement from the small trailer they once shared, but even more, the house is a reminder of what prayer and motivation can do. The children are free to dream again. Rosbel dreams about becoming a story board creator. Carolina wants to become a judge or a singer, and Rolando wants to help Rosbel create games.
And Maria Luisa marvels at the change.
“If I had given up and walked out on my family, I would have missed out on the wonderful ways God has transformed my marriage, my children’s outlook and self-confidence, and my own sense of purpose and meaning, and most of all the faith building miracle of seeing our house being built before our very eyes,” she said. “My heart is so full. It is my hope to continue serving at the center and being a blessing in return.”