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This article appeared in the Oct. 9, 2018, issue of the student newsletter.
It began with a promise. Three years ago, when Hermila Cuevas dropped off her son Alexander for his first day of kindergarten, she was a nervous wreck. The first-day jitters were nothing new. She had already experienced them with each of her four daughters: Angelica, Naudia, Hilda and Priscilla.
But this was different. Clutching Alexander's tiny hand, she approached the classroom door with trepidation, her heart pounding harder with each step. When they reached the doorway, Alexander pulled away from her sweaty palm and eagerly greeted his new classmates, not even telling his mother goodbye.
Hermila broke down in the hallway. School staff and other mothers tried to reassure her that this was a good sign. He was independent, not scared, and this was a good thing. They had no idea what was really going on.
It wasn't just Alexander's first day of school. It was Hermila's first day too. Her first GED class at Eastfield College started about an hour later.
Hermila, who had dropped out of high school as a pregnant 16-year-old and later lived in her car for three months as a young mother, promised herself years earlier that this day would be the start of a new life for her and her family. So she fought through her fears that day and took the first step in her educational journey.
“I have four girls, and I want them to be really strong, so I couldn't just stay at home while they were all at school,” she said. “You see that a lot in the Latino culture, but I didn't see that in me, and I didn't want my kids to see that in me. I wanted them to see a successful mother. An independent mother. The kind of mother who, when everything is falling apart, she can say, 'We got this.'”
Today, Hermila has not only earned her GED, but she will soon receive a photography certificate and an associate degree in digital media. She recently completed a photography internship and landed a contract photo job with the Perot Museum. Her determination also inspired Jacob, who followed her into Eastfield's GED program, earned a degree from Remington College and is currently studying criminal justice at Texas A&M Commerce.
“Jacob is always telling people how proud he is of me and how, had it not been for me, he would have never gone back to school,” she said. “My kids look at me differently too. I've evolved into this other mom who is able to juggle everything.”
The Cuevas family now has their own home and a new car, and they recently took their first Florida vacation, a quick weekend turnaround that Hermila says was totally worth the long drive. Their success story, “Homeless to Home Owner,” was featured in a Famous Footwear's Step Forward ad campaign in 2016.
Although they still struggle to make ends meet each month, it's nothing like in 2007 when Jacob was working a $9 an hour armed security job and the young family was living in an apartment owned by his employer. When the company went bankrupt, Jacob lost his job — and the apartment. Then his mother passed away, leaving the family with even more bills. They stayed with a cousin for a while but eventually had to sleep in their car during the winter months.
“Man, it was cold,” said Hermila, who piled five blankets on top of her two girls to keep them warm during their "adventures” in the car. “We did our best, for the girls, to make it seem like we weren't homeless. Every now and then Jacob would find a side job, and we would have enough money to stay at a hotel. But we parked at a rest stop pretty frequently, until a state trooper warned us that people had been getting robbed there. I didn't want to ever put my kids in that position.”
Jacob was able to find another armed security job, but the low pay forced the family to bounce from apartment to apartment. Crime followed wherever they went. They experienced two murders and a drug raid in the process, and Jacob's work conditions weren't much better. One night, while on duty, he was shot in the back. Fortunately, he was wearing a bulletproof vest.
“That lingered with me for years: What would happen if I lose him?” Hermila said. “How would I provide for my kids? I wanted them to know that if something did happen, everything would be OK.”
That was the extra push she needed to go back to school. It's a decision that she says changed everything.
“I love this school,” she said. “Anytime someone says something about going to college, I say, 'Go to Eastfield. You'll love it there. They're amazing.' I wish I could stay here forever. I'm going to need the best waterproof mascara they have at graduation.”
Now that she has conquered her fears of returning to school, Hermila is ready to take on her next goal of owning her own photography business or working in graphic design. Although the future is uncertain, she is confident that good things will continue to happen in her life.
“Now that I've achieved all this, I know when I set myself to a goal I have to accomplish it,” she said. “I can't leave it unfinished. There have been a lot of times I've wanted to quit. Times when I was overwhelmed or scared or tired. But I know now that I can have anything I want. It's all up to me.”