Offering hope: Young woman fulfills promise thanks to local group

MANATEE -- Sabrina Foley Puentes is a young woman bursting with confidence and excitement for the future.

In a month, she plans to take the nursing state boards and, if she passes, there’s a job waiting for her at the home health care agency where she is now working.

She is engaged to a graduate nurse and plans to be married on May 20.

But it wasn’t always this smooth for the 24-year-old Bradenton woman who fell in love with nursing when she was 12 and watched nurses take care of her ailing grandmother.

In the summer of 2008, Foley Puentes and her then 3-year-old son, Brycen, were abandoned by her son’s father who had been supporting them both while Foley Puentes was taking courses at State College of Florida.

Mother and son lost their Bradenton apartment and ended up at the Bradenton Salvation Army, homeless and with all their belongings in the back seat of a car.

“I had $50 to my name,” Foley Puentes recalls. “Salvation Army was filled and referred me to Family Promise.”

Family Promise of Manatee County took the young family in and, more importantly, gave them hope.

“I will forever be grateful to Family Promise,” Foley Puentes said. “They played a huge role in my life.”

Family Promise is an organization that provides shelter and, later, transitional housing for people who are highly motivated to help themselves, said Bill Hull, board chairman of Family Promise of Manatee.

Foley Puentes was one of the first benefactors and turned out to be the perfect candidate, Hull added.

“She was in a very difficult position,” Hull said. “But we saw that she was very intelligent and up for a challenge. She never wavered. She ended up getting not only an associates degree from SCF, but also a separate associate degree in science and nursing.”

Mother and son spent four months in Family Promise’s shelter program provided by 12 churches in the area. She rotated among the shelters, staying a week at a time at each one.

Foley Puentes and Brycen slept on cots in meeting halls or tents in dining halls along with other homeless families.

“Every Sunday we packed up our stuff and moved to a new church,” Foley Puentes said.

Can there be anything more difficult than being a single mom, homeless and trying to read 100 pages of text each week for nursing school?

“I would lay on a cot and read my textbooks while my son colored,” Foley Puentes said. “There’s a picture of me sleeping with my head face down in a book.

“I am very lucky that he adapted to the change,” Foley Puentes said of Brycen. “He just rolled with the punches. He’s a happy little boy. He never grasped the situation we were in. He thought it was fun.”

In May 2009, mother and son became the first graduates of the shelter program to move into transitional housing, which is a small home owned by one of the churches. Foley Puentes got a job.

“I was able to stay in transitional housing for only $250 per month,” Foley Puentes said. “It was like a stepping stone and allowed me to save up money to get my own place. What people don’t think about is that when you are homeless, you need deposits for water and electricity and those can amount to large sums that take a while to save up.”

Finally, mother and son were able to graduate from Family Promise and rent a duplex on their own, which is where they are now.

“I would say the best lesson I learned was to stay positive and not to look at everything with a ‘why did this happen to me?’ attitude,” Foley Puentes said. “My advice to people in this situation would be, ‘Don’t give up. Decide what you want to do, and keep at it no matter how many times plans change. There’s always a way to make it work. You need that determination to help you succeed.”

For Hull, attending Foley Puentes’ graduation from SCF was all the payback he needed.

“It’s almost as though she became a new person,” Hull said. “Her face was glowing. She was smiling, telling me about the future. She was standing taller. We see that a lot. That is what keeps us going. Not every story works out this way. We’ve had some disappointments. But we don’t quit.”

After four years of operation in Manatee County, Family Promise estimates 50 to 60 percent of its clients are living independently, Hull said.

As for Brycen, he was not that impressed with all this independent business.

“He’s so funny,” Foley Puentes said. “He came up to me and said, ‘Mommy, when are we going back to the churches?’”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.