A life redeemed, a family transformed
Family Place mom overcomes her past to claim God’s future
Story by Lauren Hollon Sturdy
Photography by Chelsea Quackenbush
Marisol Suarez’s voice falters as she begins to tell her story. She pauses often, searching for the right words and trying to bottle the emotions that threaten to surface.
“I don’t know where to start,” she says. “There’s so much.”
She takes a deep breath and begins with her family. Her parents are Mexican immigrants who live and work in a farming community outside Midland, Texas. She is the youngest of six children and the only girl. She tells of a difficult and damaging childhood that set the stage for a string of bad choices she’d make later.
Early on, Marisol absorbed the patriarchal idea that “women should serve their men.” She came to believe that a woman’s best efforts to meet her husband’s every need would eventually earn his love and affection. She watched as her mother lived out this notion, spending her entire life trying to make her husband happy. It didn’t always work, though, and Marisol recalls times her father was violent with her mother. Later, the abuse would spread to other family members, including her.
Marisol maintains her parents are “good, loving people.” They shared their home with extended family members in need of help and a roof over their heads, but their unquestioning hospitality had unintended consequences in their children’s lives. Marisol and four of her brothers were abused by some of their relatives. Their parents had no idea it was going on.
Marisol was the only one who worked up the courage to tell her parents what was happening to her. When she did, they made the offending relative move out.
“It was just like, ‘OK, he’s gone, but you still have to respect him when he comes for family functions,’” she explains. “I wasn’t allowed to have feelings about it, so all those feelings were just being held within me this whole time. They hushed it up, fixed it by asking him to leave the home, and then said, ‘That’s it; we’re never talking about this again.’ To this very day, we’ve never talked about it.”
She says she felt her parents were sacrificing her own well-being to save face and keep the peace. She internalized her pain and suffered quietly, but the nightmare didn’t end. She was a target for other predators.
“Anywhere we went, I was being molested by somebody,” she says. “It was just something that I learned: keep quiet, this is normal, just let it be and just move on with life.”
As she tells her story, it’s clear she has a lot of healing left to do. Behind the tears in her eyes is the memory of a scared, angry, vulnerable girl whose childhood had been stolen.
She was sexually active in her preteens and got into a relationship with an older man. She had her first child, Adrian, at 15. The relationship ended, another bad one followed, and at 16, she and her baby moved in with her 17-year-old boyfriend.
Things “started out fine,” she says, but alcohol and drug abuse led to verbal and then physical conflicts. She stayed with him for eight years, and had her second child, Tina, during that relationship.
“I lasted for eight years by believing that if I take care of him, if I maintain a good house, if I help him with everything that he needs … believing the lie from what I saw my mom do all her life,” she says. “I believed that if you do this, things will get better and he’ll love you. He’ll change. Well, he never changed. He just got worse.”
They had a fight one night when their daughter was an infant. Marisol was getting tired of the life they were leading –alcohol and drugs. She knew there had to be something more to life, but her boyfriend was angry with her for not wanting to drink.
He kicked her out of the apartment for the night, forcing her to sleep in the car with her 5-month-old daughter. She had to be at work at 6 a.m. the next day without a change of clothes, a toothbrush or anything her baby needed.
She said a prayer and left the car at dawn to break into her apartment. Her boyfriend was angry and things turned ugly. An image flitted across her mind: the thought of pushing him out the window. Something stopped her, she grabbed her things and left. That night, she called the police and her boyfriend was taken to jail.
“That very first night he went to jail, I realized, ‘You’ve gotta get out of this, or you’re going to end up in jail or you’re going to end up dead or one of your kids is going to end up getting hurt because of this.’”
Finding her way
Marisol worked hard to support her kids and trained to become a certified nursing assistant. With her certification she began earning more money, but she wasn’t happy.
“I was still lost,” she says. “I was no better than [my ex-boyfriend] because I was still lost in alcohol. I was thinking that I was being a mother to my children when I wasn’t; I was neglecting them trying to hide the pain I’ve been having to hide all my life. I prayed to God, told Him, ‘I feel selfish. I don’t know who I am. I want to be happy. And I don’t know what else to do.’ After that, He led me to Midland Fair Havens.”
She spent two years at Fair Havens, a transitional housing program for single mothers pursuing certifications or other education. It’s a tightly structured and controlled environment, and Marisol found the love and support she needed in staff and other residents to begin healing.
“They taught us that we’re worth something—I was worth something,” she says. “I didn’t have to lower my standards just to be loved or cared for. I met other women who were once in the situation I was in and I didn’t feel alone anymore. My kids didn’t feel alone anymore.”
She graduated from the program and moved to Buckner Family Place in November 2011.
“She didn’t do well the first semester,” says Anna Rodriquez, director of Family Place in Midland. “She didn’t pass and couldn’t get it. She became very rebellious and was fighting with herself and struggling with God. Part of it was the transition to more freedom and independence she had at Family Place. She didn’t know how to manage it and started slipping.”
Marisol was struggling with her career path and her classes. She’d become a phlebotomist while living at Fair Havens and had planned to become an RN, but once she entered the nursing program, it wasn’t a good fit. She switched to social work and then back to nursing, all the while feeling frustrated with God and angry that no one was giving her answers.
She started going to church, surrendered her struggles to God and quit her job to take time to work on her relationship with her children and figure out what to do next.
“Probably a month after I quit my job I was out of money, no money saved and I had no diapers for my son,” she says, her voice shaking. “I got to the point where I was broken down. I was just crying, because I had been too prideful to go into Buckner and tell them I need help. I went to Anna and I asked her, ‘Can I have some diapers for my son?’ And I was crying and she was like, ‘You’ve been going through this for awhile.’ I was so afraid to ask for help.”
Asking for help was a turning point. She stopped resisting God and realized the Family Place staff was trying to equip her. She says she’s learned when to bury her pride and ask for advice.
“It’s not necessarily saying, ‘Here’s what I’m having trouble with; fix it for me,’” she explains. “But Buckner has helped me to pinpoint where I’m struggling and go in there and ask for positive guidance in order to get the tools I need so I can apply it to my everyday life.”
She had a career breakthrough when she heard an ad on a Christian radio station about an online college program for a degree in Christian leadership. She always thought ministry ran in the family; she never knew you could learn it in school. She talked with Family Place staff and they helped connect her with other women in ministry who could provide her with a positive model.
Marisol began attending online classes for a bachelor’s degree from Christian University of Colorado in January 2013. She feels called to go into ministry to help teen mothers and children and has been volunteering with her church, Stonegate Fellowship Church.
“When I changed my career to worship leadership, I was afraid that people wouldn’t accept me because of what I’ve been through, what I lived and what kind of the choices I’ve made,” she says. “I thought, ‘How could people see me as a leader when I’ve done all these things?’ But after I was accepted to the college I realized it’s about how you’re living today.”
Finding family, finding faith
Marisol’s family has changed drastically since coming to Family Place.
Before Buckner, she says, her children’s communication with each other was mainly aggressive. They fought and argued and Marisol didn’t have the parenting skills she needed to discipline them and teach them to get along. Now, she calmly redirects her kids when they fight and models good communication skills and positive behaviors.
Her voice softens as she talks about her kids and it’s clear she’s proud to know who they are and what they care about.
“I was never paying attention before,” she says. “I was always too busy trying to keep up with everything.”
She says her oldest, Adrian, now 11, is smart, compassionate and open-minded. He loves Legos and video games. Tina, 5, is firm in her convictions and Marisol says she sees Tina growing up to be a strong woman.
“She’s always smiling,” Marisol says. “I can have the roughest day, and she comes along with this big smile and that is one thing that brightens me up.” She loves dancing and she’s always singing.
Nathan, 2, is strong-willed. He loves cars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and if his mind is made up, there’s no changing it. He’s loving and sweet and loves to play with his brother and sister.
“We’ve grown closer together,” Marisol says. “Before, we didn’t have that much of a closeness. I was hardly ever around – I was too busy with school or working. But now, we’ve grown to communicate. I can spend time with them. And spending time with them doesn’t necessarily mean go out or go to the movies, or a big deal, but spending time at home having family dinners. Those small conversations mean a lot. They never had that before.”
But the most important, transformative change that has brought peace to Marisol’s home is her family’s newfound spiritual life.
“I worried because my children don’t have a male role model,” she says, “But His Word is their role model of how to walk on this earth while we’re here. So we go to church and we practice it here, but it’s not easy. We read His Word every night before we go to bed. We’ve gotten to the point where we pray before our meals now – I never had that growing up – and before they go to school, we pray together.
“I think that’s the greatest example I can ever give them. I can be successful in education, but that’s not it. I’ve learned that it’s not all about education, but it’s what kind of integrity you are living with. I’m living in God’s integrity right now, in every way possible that I can.”
Would you like to join us in the transformational ministry of Buckner Family Place? You can help by donating online now to support single parents like Marisol as they work toward getting an education and achieving self-sufficiency. (Feel free to designate your gift by writing in the comments box on the donation form.) You can also contact Buckner Foundation to learn about more ways to give by calling 214-758-8000.