For several years, Cuban immigrants Luis Caveda, his wife and two children lived in a one-bedroom apartment with sparse furnishings.
Now, with his daughter-in-law just arriving from the island nation after being separated from her husband for four years, they’ve moved to a larger apartment. But, for the most part, it sat bare.
The living room was furnished with a small table on top of which a small television perched. The recently reunited couple shared a twin bed. In another bedroom, Zuliet Caveda had a bed and a small plastic bin with drawers for some of her belongings.
Then the San Jose Homemakers, a ministry of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, arrived and brought dressers, beds, wall art and linens to furnish the home.
Each Wednesday, at least 10 volunteers converge on a storage unit off Williams Road to pick out lamps, cookware, bed linens, couches and other furnishings for farm families, displaced veterans and others in need.
“A lot of times, we’ve found, people can scrape together enough for the apartment, but they sleep on the floor because they have no money to furnish the place,” said Pam Stamey, president of the charity. “We decided that doesn’t need to happen in our community.”
In the case of Caveda and his family, three of them are working – some more than one job – but, it just isn’t enough.
“We go in and fully furnish, from couches to the art on the wall,” Stamey said. “Several of our volunteers are interior decorators.”
“We make it all match, just like we would for our own children or grandchildren,” said Homemakers Director Susie DeCort. “We only accept donations that are in good condition. We pride ourselves on not giving junk.”
Sometimes, a call comes from the Veterans Administration. An apartment has been secured for a veteran returning from active duty, but there are no furnishings. San Jose Homemakers step in. Sometimes, it’s Catholic Charities calling, telling of a family that has arrived in town with a bag full of tattered blankets and the clothes on their backs, DeCort said.
“I feel God brought me here to help,” said volunteer Nellie Negron, a transplanted Puerto Rican who acts as official translator for the group. “Some don’t speak English or Spanish, but a Mexican Indian dialect. We manage. When you see the light in their eyes” after the crew transforms a bare mobile home or apartment, it makes the effort completely worthwhile, she said.
“One day, we brought a mattress and you should have seen the look on the boy’s face,” said volunteer Anita Rios. “He was so excited. It was my first trip out. I was hooked.”
“It’s a very rewarding ministry,” Negron said. “Instant gratification. Last year, we visited a father with five children, toddler to 12. His wife had left. They were living in a roach-infested trailer. He found a better place, but couldn’t take anything with him because of the roaches. St. Ann’s, in Ruskin, contacted us and we furnished the whole apartment. The children were just… You could see it in their faces, how happy they were.”
Roy Castellanos was once the recipient of this group’s charity. Now, he volunteers. “Everybody deserves a little,” he said. “I live in Gibsonton, but I try to be here every Wednesday. I want to give to someone else like this group gave to me.”
Bob Rios, one of the volunteers that provides muscle for the moves, is a second generation Mexican-American. He remembers his grandmother working with migrant families outside of Chicago. It touched his heart. Now, he’s reaching out to touch the hearts of others.
“It’s very humbling going in to some of these places,” Rios said.
There are needs. Portable cribs, kitchen tables with chairs and bunk beds for kids are in huge demand. Also, San Jose Homemakers needs more liaisons to volunteer to visit homes and determine what is needed. Speaking Spanish is a plus, Stamey said.
The smiles on the faces at the Caveda apartment were telling.
“We just moved here and had almost nothing,” said Zuliet Caveda, who works part-time at a county-run day care, as does her brother, whose name is also Luis Caveda. Her father is a custodian.
“It would have taken us a very long time to be able to afford this,” she said, as volunteers hauled lamps, bed linens, dressers and a chest into the apartment.
“It’s beautiful, what they are doing,” her mother Maria Marin said, with Negron translating.
Lianne Gonzales, the junior Caveda’s wife, just arrived from Cuba a week ago, after waiting several years, filling out reams of paperwork and waiting. “It was a long process,” she told Negron. “I like it here a lot,” she said as volunteers brought in the queen mattress that will replace the twin she and her husband have been sharing. “I like this a lot.”