Marisol Maldonado and her two children and nephew live in a two-bedroom apartment in Fort Lauderdale.
They don’t have the money to go out to dinner, to the movies or to buy anything other than the basics. Instead, they go to the park every weekend, decorate their house with hand-made signs and look for ways to help others.
The two boys and girl sleep in bunk beds in one room, each with their own designated space.
“I wish I had a little more from the family, but I say I’m doing OK, we’re doing fine. At least they’re healthy,” said Maldonado, 33, a single mother and secretary. “I try to tell them that we may not have a flat screen TV, but we still have a TV and we still give to others.”
The family of four live on a budget that covers only the rent and basic necessities. Their wish? Dolls for 5-year-old Lexy and a basketball for 12-year-old Aaron.
“I would like a computer for the house since we don’t have one,” added 11-year-old Isaiah Alicea, Maldonado’s nephew.
“The closest thing we have is the Nintendo 3DS we share,” said Aaron Friedberg, Maldonado’s son. The Nintendo was a belated birthday gift to Isaiah from his older brother in New York.
Isaiah’s mother, Roxanne, Maldonado’s sister, died of breast cancer in 2002. He was 2. His grandparents initially took care of him, until they divorced in 2007.
Enter Maldonado, who became his legal guardian after the state was going to put Isaiah in a foster home.
“After two months, I got the news from another family member that he was going to be put in the system and I said no, that can’t happen,” Maldonado said. “No one stepped up to the plate, and I couldn’t allow that to happen. He’s my blood, my family.”
The family still holds onto the memory of Isaiah’s mother. On Mother’s Day they head to the park and free balloons in memory of her.
“Sometimes all of us sit on bed and look at pictures of the family back then,” Isaiah said.
Although Maldonado can’t afford to replace their 14-year old car that has door handles falling apart, she still appreciates that family, friends and neighbors have donated a television, clothes and furniture to their apartment.
“Even while we’re receiving help, I try to help others,’’ Maldonado said. “I tell them to stay humble, through being humble you’re blessed more.”
While working as a secretary at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Broward, Maldonado registers families with the Prestige Club, a non-profit organization that helps families in need. She invites families to the Love Fest picnic, an annual event in which the hospital gives away turkeys and gift cards for Thanksgiving.
Maldonado was able to do Thanksgiving shopping this year with a gift card from the Love Fest picnic and stuck to a strict budget.
“But this year since we’re tight, we can’t make pasteles,” Maldonado said. “This year we had more expenses we had to spend on the vehicle. The little extra money makes a difference.”
Any other extra money that comes in goes toward necessities. Maldonado used her income tax refund on replacing the ripped rug in the children’s room.
“That’s what I put my taxes into, things that are going to help us as a family in the long run. Like having a washer and dryer here saves us every week from going to the Laundromat,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado tries to save on gas money by waking the boys up at 5 a.m. so they can take the bus to McNicol Middle School in Hollywood. After school, the boys attend Unity for Teens, a program by Hispanic Unity of Florida.
“I think Isaiah’s past has been very interrupted by many things going on. He’s very comfortable now and wants to live the life of a kid his age,” said Daniel Herman, their case manager from Hispanic Unity of Florida. “He’s still determined to do his best.”
Hispanic Unity of Florida, which operates at the school, gives guidance to parents and helps students focus on their schoolwork. After school, the students work with tutors from Hispanic Unity, who also help them with art and science projects.
Although Maldonado won’t be able to buy a more reliable car or new clothes for the kids, she tries to stay positive about the future.
“There are important things in life that we can miss out on if we allow negativity take full control of us. We have to stay focused on the positive, that’s how we bring positive things to us,” Maldonado said.