03 July 2006
by Sara Ganim
Fort Lauderdale, South Florida, USA:
For nearly a year after Hurricane Charley destroyed their home in Orlando, Mary Romero and her family depended on the Salvation Army in Fort Lauderdale for most of their needs.
Now, they are paying back the best way they know how: by volunteering their time to the place they once called home.
"My mom used to cry over us at night because we had no next step to take and nowhere to go," Mary, 15, said of living in the shelter. "She said she wanted to do better for us."
Mary moved with her mother, Cheryl Romero, and two siblings to Fort Lauderdale in 2004 after Charley hit Central Florida.
"I had to try and get back on my feet," she said. "Being homeless doesn't just come from being a drug addict or an alcoholic. Things happen to good people. Hurricanes happen to people, and we had no place to go."
In less than a year, Mary; her sister, Davena, 16; and their brother, Michael, 12, have clocked more than 1,600 volunteer hours helping children at the shelter with math, reading and physical fitness.
"I am helping somebody," Davena said. "It makes me feel good to know that I helped somebody, even if it's only one kid."
Erin McNamee, Salvation Army volunteer coordinator, said the Romeros have been an example of success, speaking at breakfasts and telling their story.
"It's not easy for teens to tell about living in a shelter," Mary said.
At first, the family moved into the Salvation Army shelter in Fort Lauderdale, where they lived until February. The children now commute each day from a Miami Gardens apartment to the Salvation Army Corps Community Centre in Fort Lauderdale.
Mary and her sister began volunteering at the community centre for four hours after school each day and now work more than eight hours a day during their summer break.
At a fundraiser last month at the Salvation Army Centre for Worship and Service, Mary told her story, along with her mother, who is part of a video promoting the services the Salvation Army provides.
"[Mary] has a high level of personal responsibility," McNamee said. "The situation she was in before opened her eyes to a lot of things."
Michael, who volunteers with children ages 10 to 12, said he values learning how to communicate with them. But he also learned that things he used to take for granted, he now takes very seriously.
"We couldn't cook for ourselves," he said. "There is no stove or kitchen [in the shelter]."
Cheryl Romero, who works at a Miami Gardens nursing home and takes classes at Florida Metropolitan University in Pompano Beach, said volunteering helped her children get through their tough time.
"They weren't sitting down thinking about it," she said. "They were out volunteering. To me, it strengthened them."
The teens are dedicated leaders and positive role models to the children they teach, said Lee Mabry, Corps Community Centre director.
Davena said the way she was treated on her first day at the community centre changed her life.
"They looked at me with love, gave me support and someone to talk to," she said.
Like her sister, Mary appreciates what the Salvation Army has given her.
"Everyone here is my role model," she said. "They help me understand that I am going through a time. They give me good advice, encourage me to stay in school, really motivate me."
But Mary said she lives for her mother, who never gave up.
"Never give up," she said. "I'm being there for people, and people are going to be there for me."