Maria Pena bakes dozens of empanadas and other delicious pastries in her commercial oven in her new kitchen every day. Before, it would take more than an hour to bake 60 empanadas. Today, she bakes more than 100 within 40 minutes.
When we met Maria in 2019, she had recently lost her husband to a sudden heart attack and her now 15-year-old son, Leo, suffered from finding his father dead. She was lost, insecure and not sure where to turn next, until she took a chance and opened the door to the Buckner Family Hope Center up the road in Peñitas, Texas. Quickly, Maria found her footing and was inspired to become the independent businesswoman she always dreamed of.
Through the “Business Incubator” program at the Family Hope Center, Maria started her catering business and has successfully built a sustainable income for her family. But her success story doesn’t end there.
Six hundred miles northeast of Peñitas, Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen, Texas, was ready to begin volunteering again after a long year facing the pandemic. In 2017, the church worked with Buckner Missions on a home build. But this year, the home build looked a little different.
Through a mentorship with First Baptist Church of Lufkin, Cottonwood Creek built Maria’s new home – in their church parking lot in Allen, Texas.
The idea originated in Lufkin 10 years ago when church members were searching for ways to involve their members who couldn’t travel to the Rio Grande Valley for a week. Over the years, FBC Lufkin built and funded six homes in their own parking lot that later found their place in the Rio Grande Valley.
The instant bond between Cottonwood Creek, FBC Lufkin and Buckner teams was astounding.
FBC Lufkin didn’t hesitate to make the six-hour drive to Allen to support the building process, offer knowledge and encourage the volunteers to keep going. The three teams poured over the home plans, adapting and adjusting as needed. The air in the Cottonwood Creek parking lot was thick with harmony and collaboration for the days of building ahead of them.
“Everyone rolled up to the parking lot, rolled up their sleeves and joined us in the effort to build this house,” shared John Hathaway, Cottonwood Creek church member and volunteer. “The team from Lufkin had done a remote home build before, so they provided us with some floors plans, modules and it was so helpful.”
Seeing these two churches collaborate on a build and show each other the ropes is what keeps mission work alive.
“Our work at Buckner simply would not happen without the generosity and sacrifices of others,” shared Chris Cato, Buckner director of missions. “This was such a beautiful picture of how two churches stepped out in faith to deliver Kingdom-sized impact for a family in South Texas. Seeing this come to life makes me hopeful for this idea igniting a passion in churches and groups across Texas – yielding resources and teams so together, we can build a safe and secure home for any family who qualifies, without the hurdle of travel or distance.”
With the foundation Buckner Missions provided for the home build process, and the ongoing support from FBC Lufkin, Cottonwood Creek was given the tools to begin their first remote build.
The challenge of taking a completed home from Allen to the Rio Grande Valley did not phase them. They got straight to work. Because of the remote build, families could play a role locally to impact Peña and her family hours away.
“A lot of families, even without COVID-19, it’s hard for them to take a week to go down the Rio Grande Valley,” shared Keith Sanders, Cottonwood Creek church member and volunteer. “But with the fact they could drive up to the church and see the house being built there, as the house got further along, a lot more people started to sign up.”
Sanders and Hathaway laugh when they think about this project and the skills it took. Before 2021, they couldn’t imagine building an entire home in a parking lot. But they kept their sights on who the home was for, and the rest would come together – piece by piece.
In just 11 days, nail by nail, board by board, the home took shape.
And then the new home was taken down. Organized sections were carefully packed down to make the journey to Peñitas where the teams could quickly rebuild.
For five days in the Valley, the Buckner Missions team alongside 20 Cottonwood Creek volunteers rebuilt the home all over again. The Rio Grande sun rarely took a break, but the volunteers felt relief as they worked tirelessly to bring this home to life for the Peña family.
“There was so much protection from God while we were there building in the Valley. There was a nice cool breeze, cloud cover,” Hathaway said.
For Peña and her son, building alongside these volunteers brought more than hope. It brought back the memories of working side-by-side with her husband, his dad.
As the windows went in, and boards secured, Peña and her son, Leo, smiled and worked beside the volunteers to finish every detail of their home. Today, she enjoys the comfort and security of a professional kitchen to continue her business endeavors.
And yet, this story is waiting for the next chapter.
Remote builds through Buckner Missions bring people together even when we have to be apart. Cottonwood Creek volunteers, through the mentorship they received by FBC Lufkin, are ready to share this knowledge with the next volunteer group.
“We are so excited to help whoever is interested to get going. We are working to create that start-up pack of information that will encourage other groups to traverse that gap of knowledge and fear and just be able to do the build and see who it’s for,” Sanders shared.