Maria Peña offers her cookies timidly but proudly. The cookies are more than just cookies - represent new beginnings, hope and healing. The road she has walked has been difficult and yet her smile is infectious. Out of her sadness, she found community, business direction and hope at the Buckner Family Hope Center in Peñitas.
Maria and her husband fell in love when they were just 14 years old. They were married for 29 years and had three children.
“He was my best friend,” Maria said with a smile.
Last June, her husband passed away. For a time, she struggled with grief and overwhelming sadness. At the time only her youngest son lived at home and she found this independence without her husband new and scary. Her 14-year-old son Gus was having a hard time too and yet it was he who pushed Maria to check out the Family Hope Center, just a few blocks from their home.
“My son really pushed me to get out of the house. After my husband’s death, I was really struggling so I was always just locked up at home,” Maria shared. “For me, this place became like a therapy. I live on the next street and have lived there for 14 years and had never participated in Buckner. I started coming here after my husband passed away, and I have received a lot of help – more than I can even express.”
Through the Family Hope Center, both Maria and Gus have blossomed.
“When Gus first came here to the office, he didn’t want to talk," said Liliana Alejandrez, the Peñas’ family coach at the Family Hope Center. "He was very quiet, very reserved and very hurt with his dad’s passing. We’ve just seen him flourish. He’s one of our volunteers and works with the children’s class. Gus is always wanting to help out – for anything. We know we can really count on him to help us out.”
And for Maria, through the classes she attended at the Family Hope Center, her home baking business began to thrive. She learned how to manage her profits as well as how to track her spending in materials. Though she did not receive one of the scholarships awarded to the top three in the class, an anonymous donor gave her a $500 investment.
“I used to bake in my normal kitchen stove, and it would take a long time to make everything,” Maria explained. “With the investment, I put it toward an oven that is specifically for baking. Now I’m able to bake 100 empanadas within 40 minutes. It used to take me about an hour and 15 minutes to make 70 before.”
Maria’s baking business has expanded – she now has clients who request up to 1,500 empanadas. She even has clients in Europe.
Maria’s independence has continued to grow each day, facing one challenge after the next. She was once terrified of driving, and never imagined being able to drive her and her son to see family.
“I remember we sat here in my office and looked through the driving manual and she was so scared of the test,” Liliana said. “Once she realized she could do all of these things she put her mind to, it switched from me asking how her goal was doing – it was Maria telling me how it was going!”
Now, Maria and her son travel often to see family and celebrate the victory of not walking to the grocery store. Through the community they have found at the Family Hope Center, Maria and Gus have embarked on a new journey of independence.
“I am so grateful to God that I’m alive another day,” Maria shared. “I thank the staff every day for everything they have done for me and my son.”