The story below could easily have justified making both of the people involved Heroes of the Month, because Sergio Juarez was in desperate straits when he found Yesenia’s money order. I have chosen to highlight Yesenia’s response because she not only stepped up to help Sergio and his family but is going the extra mile to set up a foundation to help others like the Juarez family. America is the greatest country in the world because of the way we have always cared for each other.
My thanks to John Wilkens of the San Diego Union Tribune for finding this story and doing justice to both Sergio and Yesenia:
Doing The Right Thing Rewarded
By John Wilkens, Union-Tribune Reporter
It became San Diego’s feel-good story of the Spring, the kindness of strangers on steroids. And now there’s a happy epilogue.
In April, Yesenia Del Valle lost a $676 money order that was supposed to go to the state for taxes. Sergio Juarez, an unemployed custodian living in a Motel 6 with his family, found the money order wedged under the tire of his van. It had her address on it.
He returned it to Del Valle, who was so touched by Juarez’ kindness that she started a GoFundMe campaign to help his family get back on their feet. She contacted a local radio station, Magic 92.5, and put an item on Facebook. She was hoping to raise $1,000.
The story spread via social media, TV stations, the Union-Tribune, CNN. And what started as a $1,000 campaign became $5,000 and then $10,000 and then $20,000. All in about a week.
“It’s still hard to believe,” Juarez said Friday, “how fast things turned around.”
He was talking while he sat in the living room of the family’s new home, a rented three-bedroom, three-bath condominium in San Ysidro. He was wearing a dress shirt and slacks, preparing to go off to a physical as part of starting a new custodial job at a hospital. Two of his sons were nearby, recounting how instead of missing their high school senior prom, they’d not only gone, but been treated to tuxes and a limo ride.
“There are good people in this country, and they reached into their own pockets to give their hard-earned dollars to my family,” Juarez said. “There are no words for that.”
And then he found some: “It changed our lives.”
It changed Del Valle’s life, too. The real estate agent said she’s starting a non-profit organization to assist other families who are down on their luck. She wants to call it Rise and Shine San Diego.
“What I realized,” she said, “is that my purpose in life is to help other people.”
A ripple effect
Juarez still doesn’t believe he did anything special. Born in Rosarito Beach, raised by his grandmother in Fresno and then Imperial Beach, he said he was taught certain values. Returning the money order, he said, was simply the right thing to do.
Del Valle gave him $40 as a reward that day. It was all she had on her. She told him to take his family to Denny’s.
He told her that sounded nice, but he’d need to use the money to put gas in the van. “I was happy to have it,” he said.
Del Valle said she couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about Juarez and his family. How he’d lost his 15-year job as a custodian. How his wife, Gladys, had lost her 25-year job as an administrative assistant. How they’d lost their home in Otay Mesa.
She headlined the GoFundMe campaign “We rise by lifting others” and she thinks it struck a chord with people because it started with one stranger helping another, and then it spread from stranger to stranger. “There was a ripple effect.”
More than 600 people eventually donated, some as much as $500 but most under $50. As the story moved around the Internet, it reached people all across America, and beyond. One of the contributions came from Lebanon.
Yesenia Del Valle and Sergio Juarez pose with a check for the funds raised by Del Valle to help Juarez and his family. Photo from the March 18, 2017 online edition of the San Diego Union Tribune.
Most of the money went for the rented condominium, Del Valle said. The family paid for several months in advance, to give themselves breathing room as they get back on track. They had some back taxes and overdue bills to pay, too.
What meant almost as much to them as the money were the comments people wrote with their GoFundMe donations, Juarez said. Things like “You are an inspiration” and “If only there were more people like you in the world” and “Honesty should be rewarded.”
When his family lost their home, they lived first in a friend’s garage and then in various motels, Juarez said. They slept occasionally in the van. His wife found another job, and his oldest son worked as a security guard, but money was still tight.
He said his children got so dispirited that they would come home from school or work and just sit in the motel room and watch TV. With the lights off.
“The hardest part was coming home after wrestling practice and I was hungry and there wasn’t much food to eat,” Joshua Juarez, 17, said. “And then getting up the next day and doing it all again.”
His father got so despondent he thought about killing himself. “You’re done,” Sergio Juarez told himself. “You’re nothing. Your kids are going to wind up on the street and be drug addicts. Your wife is going to leave you.”
He went to a hill near Olympian High School in Chula Vista, where his children attended. There was a place where he could leap headfirst onto some rocks. “For about 30 seconds I was going to do it.” But then, he said, his faith in God took over.
Now, if people take nothing else from his story, he said, he wants them to remember this: “You can’t give up.”
Sergio Juarez and his wife stand outside of their new rental condo. Photo from the July 8, 2017 online edition of the San Diego Union Tribune.
Meant to be?
Del Valle always considered herself lucky. She once won a car on “The Price is Right.” She won $1,000 in a radio station contest. Her father was 54 when she was born, and he’s lived long enough to see her get married and have three kids.
So it felt unusual to her on that day in April, when she lost the money order. She said she isn’t usually followed around by a cloud of misfortune.
But now it feels to her like it was all meant to be.
She noted that she and Juarez both went to the same Nestor high school, Southwest, although not at the same time.
After the GoFundMe windfall, when she was trying to help the Juarez family find a place to live, they kept getting turned down. Their recent employment and rental histories worked against them. Then Del Valle heard from someone she went to school with, who said the condominium across the street had just been vacated. The guy who owned the condo — he went to school with them, too. The Juarezes got in.
So now what Del Valle thinks is she’d like to do this kind of thing again.
Her non-profit is still in the planning stages. What she envisions is an organization with a board of directors that would invite submissions from people in need. One family a month would be selected for assistance. Private donations would fund it.
She said she understands there is a lot of polarization in the country right now, a lot of hate and distrust in the air. But her experience with the Juarez family has taught her something else.
“Kindness wins,” she said.