A Hialeah pawnshop has become a familiar place for Nancy Araujo.
Most recently, the 37-year-old had to pawn her wedding band, high school class ring, her son’s and daughter’s bracelets, and a charm her father gave her before he passed away.
“I had no choice,” she said, solemnly. She held the yellow receipt for $270 in her hand, trembling. “I had to do what I had to. At this point, it’s about survival.”
That $270 didn’t last long. The unemployed mom is behind one month on her mortgage and five months in association fees. With the money, she buys food for herself and her three children, diapers, gas and anything else they might need — until she must go back and pawn something else. Before this visit, Araujo had to sell her television and her sons’ Nintendo system.
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“I get it, and five minutes later, I don’t have it anymore,” she said.
This has been Araujo’s way of life for a while. The woman who once worked full time saw her life spiral out of control after a series of events. Now she could use a helping hand to pay some of her bills.
It started when Araujo’s nephew Matthew, her sister’s son, was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Araujo took on the responsibility of raising him.
“My sister has learning disabilities and had many issues,” Araujo said. “At the time, I was infertile; I couldn’t have children. My sister, who unexpectedly got pregnant, didn’t want the child and offered me her sweet baby boy because she knew he’d have a better life.”
Matthew, who is now 10, calls Araujo “mom.” Years later, Araujo gave birth to a girl, Genesis, now 7, and James, who is almost 3.
“It was a miracle,” she said. “I went from not being able to have any children to having three.”
But soon, “times got harder” and the Araujos’ story “got dark,” she said.
Araujo’s oldest son Matthew was physically abused outside of the home. Matthew told no one, only revealing it to his mom a year and a half after it happened, when the effects of that abuse started to manifest themselves in the classroom.
“Matthew didn’t like noise — anything triggered him. He would kick and scream and say, ‘It’s hurting me,’” said Bibiana Adams, the head teacher at Growing Treasures Learning Center in Hialeah. “At one point, Matthew would roll his eyes back in class and not pay attention. He looked possessed. That is when you knew Matthew was gone. You knew you lost Matthew.”
Adams had to summon Araujo to the school.
“At that point, I needed his mom there,” she said. “I would try my hardest not to call her out of work, but it was out of my hands.”
Around the same time, James was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.
Battling both physical and emotional challenges has been difficult for the mom. With daily five-hour therapy sessions at home for the children and her having to rush to school, no employer has been able to offer her the flexible hours and the income that she needs to take care of her children.
“Even if I could work, the rule is that the child cannot be left alone with the therapist,” she said.
Amid the tough circumstances, Araujo’s husband left the house. The single mom then applied for federal disability benefits but was denied.
Several years ago, she bought a Hialeah Gardens home on Okeechobee Road. Luckily, Araujo was able to get assistance to lower her mortgage payments to $635, but she is behind one month on them, and five months’ behind on her home association fees.
“Lots of people asked me why I didn’t just give back Matthew to his birth parents,” Araujo said. “But no, if you have a child of your own, you go through everything with them. Everything. And Matthew is my child.”
James constantly needs diapers, and due to his autism, his potty training is more of a challenge.
“It is a big expense,” she said.
The McDonald’s value menu and a $5 Little Caesars pizza is the usual dinner menu.
“It’s the only thing I can afford,” she said. “I’ve been balancing my finances and everything else by faith, planning and a lot of praying.”
But Araujo is not alone.
When Matthew began seeing a trauma therapist and physiologist at Kristi House Child Advocacy Center, the shelter began to help her with Publix gift cards, canned food, detergent, wipes and bus pass money
Scarlett Blandon, Matthew’s former trauma therapist, said that although Araujo’s story “is sad,” it brings her “hope.”
“I saw Matthew come in a very sad, embarrassed, hurt and angry boy,” Blandon said. “But now he’s a changed boy,”
“Although he thought he had no strength, we were able to help him through the process. He was able to overcome his abuse. Matthew felt he didn’t have his childhood. He thought he could never be himself again. But he realized and saw that he could, and he now is.”
Blandon noted that Araujo is a special caretaker.
“We have families here who have gone through similar situations, and it’s very difficult for them to overcome it,” Blandon said. “Despite all the things her family has gone through, she never gives up. She always sees the positive in situations, although the situation appears to be, at the time, grim and negative. She’s a natural-born fighter; she motivates her children.
“So when a mom like her asks for help, it says a lot. She always pushes to do things on her own, so for her to ask for help, it means that she’s actually and really struggling.”
But Matthew’s case was closed last year at the shelter, so the help stopped. Her kids now receive Medicaid.
Araujo juggles rushing to and from speech, emotional, occupational and physical therapy sessions and school; cooking; laundry; and helping the kids with homework. When she has a break, she sells food on the street and cleans houses. Right now, she has -$440 in her bank account. She owes the light bill, water bill and car insurance. Her SunPass account was suspended, and her car is close to dying.
“All this, and I’m trying to get the kids a computer because they need it for school,” she said. “I have a library card, but it’s hard because of the school and therapy. I also can’t handle the three kids at the library at the same time.”
She attends a church in Hialeah, Iglesia Cristo Rompe Las Cadenas, where she said she finds refuge.
“That’s my only motivation. My only time to breathe, to feel relaxed and well,” she said. “It’s a time where I see that God is with me.”
Araujo noted that Matthew and James have both improved.
“I’ve seen the fruit of my labor,” Araujo said, her eyes glassy. “I live to see these kids smile.”
As Araujo walked out of the elementary school to her car, her children walked alongside her. She gave them each a kiss and made sure they all had their seat belts on before driving away to Matthew’s next therapy session.
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