RIVERVIEW - Nicole Ponce has struggled all her life, but she's always been willing to lend others a helping hand.
"I'm the kind of person that, if I had a dollar to last me a whole week, I'd give it to someone else if they needed it more," said Ponce, who had her son Julian Soto, 2, when she was 16.
That spirit of paying it forward and all the adventures that come with motherhood inspired Ponce to create Hillsborough Counties Helping Hands, a Facebook group dedicated to assisting parents in need.
Ponce established the donation/support group earlier this month and has already gained more than 200 members.
"We are basically the friend you didn't know you had," said Stacey McFarland, a mother of three who also helps Ponce manage the group. "You can message us, talk to us about your issues and we will do our best to make you happy."
"It doesn't matter how much you have because everyone can give," said Lora Buzbee, another mother of two who pitches in to manage the group. Buzbee had been looking into starting her own nonprofit when she came across the link for Ponce's group. "Even if it's not something tangible, people can offer their support or give encouragement."
Hillsborough Counties Helping Hands is a closed group on Facebook, meaning only people who join can see posts from its members.
"It can be a sensitive topic," Ponce said. "Some people don't want others to see that they're struggling."
The group allows both needy parents and people who have items to donate to post and connect with each other.
Ponce - who lives in Riverview with her baby's father, Alexander Soto, and her in-laws - has seen her share of adversity. She maintains an extended absence from work due to gallstone surgery that cost her a job at a Brandon Walgreens, and the Tampa home she shared with her own mother, Lillian Marcano, was destroyed by a fire in February of last year.
"It just reminds you that you're still in a situation where you can lose everything in a matter of minutes," Ponce said.
She had previously been involved in yard sales and other groups where people exchanged items they needed, but Ponce decided she wanted a group with a more focused approach.
"I thought to myself, 'Why not create a group that has mothers helping mothers?'" said Ponce, who has since expanded the group to include all needy parents.
Ponce said she is happy with the way the group is going so far. Despite its name, a few donations have come from outside Hillsborough County and they range from simple household items to a refrigerator and furniture.
The group is still a work in progress as Ponce admits she has to be on the lookout for people who collect items and re-sell them on different sites like Craigslist.
"We want to expand, but first I realize I have to become more educated with what I can do with the group," Ponce said.
Ponce, McFarland and Buzbee met in person for the first time last week after exclusively corresponding online.
"She's a great girl and we just talked about how we can further what she's started," Buzbee said. "A lot of our ideas aligned."
They are confident about Hillsborough Counties Helping Hands' ability to grow and help others.
"We hope that one day we can get donations from other sources, like clothing and food items to donate," McFarland said. The group is also discussing potentially procuring a space to collect donations. "But everything takes time, and all of us will work hard to help all these families."
For more information, visit Hillsborough Counties Helping Hands at www.facebook.com/groups/160780767437040/ or type "Hillsborough Counties Helping Hands" on Facebook.