Commentary: Kansas family orphaned by death, deportation looks to better days

The Kansas City StarDecember 18, 2012 

SANCHEZ MARY KC

Mary Sanchez is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.

MBR — Kansas City Star/MCT

A baby’s first year — how quickly the time passes.

Baby Camila is babbling, practicing the noises that will soon form her first words. She’s absorbing language as a bilingual listener.

“Un besito” and “a kiss” draw the same response — Baby Camila leans in, puckers her lips and brushes the cheek of her older sister Zenia Acedo.

Like any family, the Acedos eagerly await the baby’s first words. And wonder if she will try to call her big sister “Mom.”

“She can, but she will know where mom is,” said Zenia, 20. “I don’t ever want her to feel like what happened to mom was in any way her fault.”

What happened is why this Christmas is special. The worst has passed.

Last Christmas Camila was still in an incubator at Truman Medical Center, not yet double her birth weight of 2 pounds, 8 ounces. Doctors kept her mother alive as long as possible before delivering the baby three months early by C-section. Olga Jurado died of cancer a few weeks after Camila’s birth.

As the family made funeral arrangements, they learned the father would soon be deported to his native Mexico. He had re-entered the country after previously being ordered to leave.

Zenia, a teenager with a full-time job at a fast food restaurant and no high school degree, was suddenly head of a household of five children: four younger brothers and Camila, a premature infant.

How the Acedo family coped — and is still adjusting — is a testament to the impact of strangers. People were initially moved by the sorrow of the family’s situation. And some who offered help soon found themselves bonded to the family, impressed with the Acedos’ perseverance.

“She gets discouraged,” Edna Salcedo Talboy said of Zenia, “but she just keeps moving, and that is what takes people far.”

Talboy heard about the family’s plight and became their benefactor, funding the cost of their housing.

Hillcrest Transitional Housing, a unique program for homeless families, also heard about the family and made a special place for the Acedos.

The apartments that Hillcrest operates in Kansas City, Kan., had never housed an entire family of parentless siblings. The four boys range in age from 13 to 19.

The program is strict — full of curfews, monitoring of grades and required sessions on budgeting and life skills. Every dollar that passed through Zenia’s hands was tabulated, where it came from and how it was spent.

Last week, the program held a graduation party for the family. They have moved into a house and out of the two apartments they had occupied.

It’s a step closer to being on their own. The rent is still below market price, but they will be weaned from access to many items that had been available to them: the program’s food pantry, toiletries and other household needs.

The mantra of the program is “your money goes to needs, not wants, and the rest of it goes to savings,” said Emily Winkleman, youth case manager with Hillcrest.

Renting the house from Hillcrest will allow the family to establish a credit history, Winkleman said. They can live there up to 18 months.

Zenia’s concerns now are those of any young single mother on a tight budget. She wishes for more time to oversee the youngest boy’s school work, to ensure they eat healthy foods and to be able to scrimp a bit more so she can add to the family’s savings.

And she also has the thoughts that should consume someone her age: studying to pass her high school equivalency test, worries about managing future costs and time commitments of college and doing a good job now at a midtown law office.

“I want to do something to make good money so I will be able to take care of these kids later on,” she said.

Blanca Marin de Stevanov, an attorney with Boulton Marin & Buschart, initially reached out to help with legal issues so Zenia could gain custody of her siblings. Another attorney had already seen to that need.

So Marin offered Zenia a job.

“We’re fortunate to have her here,” Marin said.

They are training her to be a paralegal. She handles many of the medical record requests for personal injury cases and also works on family and immigration law.

Before each work day, Zenia drops the baby off at daycare at the home of a childhood friend, Ana Jimenez.

“We’ve passed through the friend stage and now we are family,” Zenia said of Jimenez.

Hope for future

Only in the last two months has Zenia begun to feel settled into a routine.

She wonders where the time went. The past year seems a blur of appointments and errands — for the baby, for Hillcrest’s requirements, for her own studies and the boys’ schooling.

Mostly, the family simply clung together, with Camila at the center. They had two apartments with the Hillcrest program, one upstairs, another on the first floor of the building. But every night all of the siblings crowded into the lower apartment to sleep.

The anniversary of their mother’s death late last month was rough.

In some of the darkest moments, it was the baby who gently reached out.

About two months ago, exhausted and overwhelmed, Zenia was crying. Camila woke up and brushed the tears from her big sister’s face.

“People say babies don’t know much, but they do,” Zenia said.

The older Camila grows, the more she reminds them of their mother.

“I remember her mom’s face, and it is the baby’s face,” said Jackie Acosta, a Truman nurse who cared for mother and child shortly after the birth.

It’s true, Zenia said.

She has a photograph of her mother at about the age Camila is now. They look remarkably similar.

“The sorrow is the hardest part,” Zenia said. “I have to accept the fact that she is really, really gone.”

Zenia knows the boys still grieve for their mother and miss their father, but they seldom want to discuss it as a family.

And yet, she knows they are moving forward. They visited their father once in Mexico and are planning another trip in the coming year.

Fabian, 19, a student at Johnson County Community College, is the most protective.

The other siblings laugh that he is a germaphobe, the one who is hesitant to let the baby crawl. (Is the carpet clean enough?) He’s the most likely to worry if she will get chilled and to take extra precautions, fussing about shielding her little lungs from car exhaust in parking lots.

Zenobio, 15, has a passion for music and a diligence to raising his academic level, despite some learning difficulties.

Zenon “Junior” is 14 and loves skateboarding. He’s yet another example of why Zenia says she is blessed. None of the boys are tempted by lures that can lead teens astray.

Aron, 13, is the budding scholar-athlete with studious habits who loves soccer and football. He wants to be a doctor.

Camila is known as the feisty one.

The family recently bought a new crib for her. It’s just one way the new house feels more like a home. With pride, the boys are keeping it tidier than the apartment.

“Last Christmas, it didn’t really seem like Christmas,” Zenia said.

This year promises to be different. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the Christmas tree was up and decorated at the Acedo family’s new home.

To reach Mary Sanchez call send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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