The day Laura Gonzalez and her husband met, she didn't realize it would mean giving up on her dream. Nor could either of them foresee how that dream would come back to play a critical role in the worst moment of their lives.
At the time, in 2016, Laura was a single mom in her late 20s working as a certified nursing assistant in Alamo, Texas. It was a job she had wanted to do since her teens when she first started volunteering in nursing homes.
Laura was no stranger to work. Born and raised in McAllen, Texas, she would get home from middle school on Friday afternoons and ask her mother for $2. With the money, she set out for the bus to cross the border and accompany her grandmother all weekend in Reynosa, where the two sold clothes and goods at her grandmother's booth in the flea markets in Mexico.
"By the time she got to the flea market, I had half the stuff already set up," Laura said.
Laura adored her grandmother, and when the elderly woman's health began to fail, it was Laura who helped take care of her.
"I was always with her," she said.
Later, after Laura's son was born, Laura put herself through training as a medical assistant and CNA. It had bothered her since her teens to see lackluster care for older and terminally ill people and she vowed that she'd be different. She worked back-to-back shifts in nursing homes as her mother watched her son, first in San Juan then down the road in Alamo.
It was in Alamo one day that a good friend invited Laura to her brother's birthday party. For Laura, arriving alone at the party, it was love at first sight. Her friend's brother was almost a decade older and seemed very mature and kind. Though the party was packed with his friends and large family, Francisco spent most of the time talking to her.
As the two grew close through the coming months, Francisco quickly became like a father to Laura's son, Christian, then almost 8.
Soon the three were living together in his trailer, along with his sister. He and Laura married shortly after that and had a baby girl they named Reyna.
Francisco was the most responsible man Laura ever met. He was her rock and pillar and made her feel safe, though he also had some old-fashioned ideas about marriage.
After they became a couple, Francisco didn't want Laura working outside the home without him. She quit her nursing jobs and the two of them earned money together in small ventures like salvaging scrap metal and selling homemade zacahuil tamales of banana leaves, pork and chicken.
Laura missed her career, but she also loved their family time. Her marriage, she would later recall, was the most loving and stable period of her life.
Then one day in February 2022, Francisco asked one of his sisters to crack his back. He was a large man, and proud, never one to want help. But he felt off.
After his sister obliged, Laura knew right away from her training that something was seriously wrong. His face turned the color of ash. And then he was struggling to breathe.
Francisco was diagnosed was late-stage cancer that had spread to his pancreas and liver.
In the next six months, as her husband declined,, Laura was the only one he trusted to care for him.
While her heart felt like it had been shattered into pieces, she drew strength from her background in nursing. She knew just how to keep him comfortable, how to turn and bathe him with dignity when he could no longer do those things for himself.
Sometimes, Francisco made embarrassed jokes at his own expense.
"I was a big man and now you're helping me," he would say.
At the hospital, refusing meds from the nurses, he would turn to Laura instead: "Babe, I don't want to take this."
"You need to drink this," she'd reply, knowing just how to coax him to get it down.
After his medications made him cranky and cantankerous – blocking Laura from feeding or changing him – he would slip in, "I love you," by way of apology.
"I love you, too," she'd answer, then add with a firm tenderness, "Now let me do my job."
And when the final moments came, in August of 2022, she was there at his side, along with their two kids, to stroke his hair and hold his hand – to reassure him that they would all be okay, that if it was time, he could let go.
But for Laura, nothing felt okay after Francisco died.
"When he passed away," she said, "everything changed."
Her world was falling apart. Her rock gone, she barely had time to mourn before she was in fight or flight mode. Conflicts with his family began almost immediately and soon she was being charged rent in the trailer.
At times she sensed herself succumbing to depression.
"But I have two kids that depend on me," she told herself. "I can't give in."
A fresh and scary start
Refusing to fight over the trailer and wanting to put the drama behind her, Laura decided to make a fresh start. Late last year she moved to Bradenton to stay with her mother, starting a job at Goodwill Manasota in December of 2022 – her first time back in the formal workforce in years.
She excelled at her job. Within months, she had worked her way up to supervisor of cashiers.
"I'm everywhere. If you see me, I'm running around the store like a chicken without a head," she said.
But she and the kids were still without a place of their own. Once more they were sandwiched in the home of family members – this time, hers.
Amid a region-wide crisis in workforce housing availability, Laura had put her name on a waiting list at Harvest House for one of the nonprofit's affordable rentals. But as spring turned to summer, she was starting to despair.
"We've been through a lot," she said of herself and her children.
Then, in late June, she got a call from a woman at Harvest House. A two-bedroom apartment had just become available. Could she get there to fill out some paperwork?
"I was shocked," Laura recalled. But while the paperwork went well, there was another problem. Laura had the $600 for the deposit and a little more for the move. However, nothing remained for the first month's rent.
At Goodwill, Cate Thorp, a Good Partner Coach, found a solution: Season of Sharing, which paid $600 in rent for July. That month, Laura moved in with the kids – Christian, now 16, and Reyna, now 6.
For the first time in a long time, the family had a place just for them. Laura was thrilled to give Christian a room of his own. The food in the fridge was all theirs and they could take showers as long as they like.
What's more, Laura was in charge of her own income and bills.
"It feels good – it really does feel so amazing to be on my feet again," she said. "It feels awesome to have my own home."
Still, she and the kids were struggling – not just with finances over recent car repairs but emotionally as well. No longer in fight or flight mode, Laura has begun to feel the full weight of grief. The kids do, too.
This holiday season, they told Laura not to bother decorating their new apartment. Without their dad, they didn't want a Christmas tree. But she insisted. She bought one anyway. It's thin and not too tall, but after she scrounged up some ornaments and a string of lights, the kids were happy to have it.
Harvest House is helping out with gifts to put underneath the tree in time for Christmas morning.
For Laura, she feels she's already received her gift: the generosity of spirit and help through Goodwill.
"Everybody here is just like a family to me," she said.
Her co-workers and coach push her to go for her goals. She is re-focusing on her old dream: to return to the field of nursing. She's already rounding up her vital documents from Texas to make that happen.
Many times she is afraid – venturing out into the world again without her husband. She still cannot talk about him without breaking down. But with each step she's regaining a new sense of independence and belief in herself.
How to help
Season of Sharing was created 22 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.
You can donate to Season of Sharing by going to cfsarasota.org or calling 941-556-2399. You can also mail a check to Season of Sharing, Community Foundation of Sarasota County, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237.
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 24, 2023: Grieving Sarasota family gets help this holiday from nonprofits and Season of Sharing. See it here.