After fire, all young mother wants is a safe home for three children

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Guatemalan-Maya Center

Juana Hernandez remembers the wee hours of July 7 when she was awakened by one of her three children coughing.

The room in her West Palm Beach apartment was dark, and she was having trouble breathing. She soon realized that the room was ablaze and filled with smoke.

Terrified, she fled the apartment with her two youngest children, Jose Ichmai, who was only 5 months old, and Ismeralda Morales, almost 2. When they were safe, she ran back to rescue her daughter, Joacquina Morales, 6.

Firefighters arrived within five minutes, but Hernandez stood outside, helplessly, as she watched her apartment burn.

She was grateful she and her children survived, unharmed, but they lost everything — clothing, shoes, furniture, household goods. The fire was caused by an electrical short in the stove.

To this day, Hernandez is haunted by what could have happened if she had passed out before she was able to take her children out of the burning building.

Since then, the petite and soft-spoken Hernandez, 26, has struggled to find a place to live, and she and her children have moved three times. She has yet to secure a long-term rental and feels a sense of desperation about her family’s future.

A friend of a friend, Ana Bonillo, found a family in Palm Beach Gardens who let her stay with them for 12 days following the fire. That was the first of three temporary places.

Bonillo reached into her own pocket and those of friends, neighbors and church members to raise money for the family’s needs, such as clothing and diapers and a double stroller. The Guatemalan Maya Center helped by providing diapers, food, school supplies and used clothing.

On a recent afternoon, Hernandez, who does not speak English, cradled a squirming but smiling Jose in her arms. With Bonillo translating, Hernandez spoke about her baby’s medical problems.

Jose, now almost 10 months, suffers from flat-head syndrome, which could possibly lead to developmental delays if not corrected. He also needs surgery for a testicular defect. He must be taken to numerous doctors and specialists on a regular basis.

The constant medical appointments have made it difficult for Hernandez to work. She has no car, so she either walks, takes public transportation or depends on friends for rides.

Hernandez, who completed the sixth grade in her native Guatemala, found work in food preparation at a local restaurant and was paid $320 a week. However, by the time she paid a babysitter $36 a day, there was not much left.
Despite the turmoil, Joacquina, who attends first grade, is an excellent student and “a very smart girl,” Hernandez said.

In addition to housing, the family needs beds, a dining table and chairs, linens, pots and pans and all the other basics. Hernandez owns nothing except a few clothing items and a small television.

For now, the family is being given free but temporary shelter at a three-bedroom Palm Beach Gardens house already occupied by six adults and three children. It’s neat and clean and brightened by a birthday banner from a recent celebration. Two women are in the kitchen cooking dinner for the crowd. There aren’t enough beds, so some of them must sleep on the floor or on one of the two sofas.

Hernandez struggles to sustain her family every day. She doesn’t know what will happen next. She longs to regain what she lost the day her home was destroyed.

All she wants, she says, is “a good safe place for my kids to live.”

Juana’s wish:

Juana Hernandez and her three children, one of whom has medical issues, need a safe place to live. The family lost all their possessions in an apartment fire in July. Since then, they have moved three times. The family could use help in paying rent and furnishing an apartment with a bedroom set, sofa and table and chairs, kitchen items and other necessities and with basic expenses: diapers, food and other bills such as day care.

Nominating agency: The Guatemalan Maya Center, Lake Worth

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