Single mom kept going by dreams of an education helped by Season of Sharing

Araceli Zavala, 30 (back center), with kids Areli, 12 (right); Ashley, 6 (front middle); and Marcos, 9. Zavala overcame a troubled childhood by focusing on her education. As a single mom, she hopes to complete it one day. When recent family illnesses caused her to miss work and fall behind, Season of Sharing helped her catch up in time for Christmas.

For as long as Araceli Zavala can remember, a hunger for education burned like a fire in her belly.

It spurred her as a child, between field work and the cable lash.

It steered her into the laundry closet to study after midnight.

And it pushed her as a teen to leave home to stay in school.

Now at age 30 and a single mom – fatigued and overwhelmed – she clings to the fire’s embers, hoping one day soon to stoke them fully, to fan them into a glorious blaze before they can burn out.

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Zavala recalls like yesterday her younger self at age 10, a girl in a classroom, lost and confused in a maelstrom of words.

It was 2001, and her parents had just brought her and her little brother from Mexico to Arcadia to work in the orange groves. Zavala didn’t know any English, and no one around her in school spoke Spanish.

Persistent and eager, she fought to stay atop math and other subjects with her classmates in fifth grade. But one area vexed her: reading.

To help, teachers let her sit in with third graders for that class.

“I had the ability,” she said. “I wanted to learn.”

Within three months, Zavala was reading aloud for the class in English – grasping the language at a wicked-fast pace. Soon she was getting straight As in all her classes.

Few at the school knew the price that she paid.

At home, she said, where she lived in a trailer with her brother and parents, her mother expected her to clean, cook and tend to the home. Zavala was left with no time to study, told that education was wasted on a girl.

“She wanted me to help with responsibilities that were not mine,” Zavala said of her mother.

But Zavala envisioned more for her life, something far from her mother and the fields where she and her brother worked with their parents on weekends.

If Zavala were late or slipped up on chores before or after school, she said, her mother would administer a “whooping” with a cable, the blows coming down across her arms and back.

Zavala started wearing long-sleeve shirts to school to hide the bruises.

But one woman did take notice of the troubled young girl. Her name was Sister Teresa Gomez, who worked with Catholic Charities in Arcadia. At the time, the agency ran a transport van to its after-school programs, and Sister Teresa saw to it that Zavala and her brother got permission to attend.

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Zavala basked in the warmth and attention the nun showed her, the woman’s affection standing in for the maternal support she so badly sought. For the first time, Zavala said, she felt loved.

But two years later Sister Teresa moved, and Zavala lost her advocate. Transport to Catholic Charities’ programs was also cut.

Heading into middle school, Zavala continued to get top marks and stay on the honor roll. Teachers, though, thought her English needed improvement and encouraged after-school tutoring. Her mother, she said, wouldn’t allow it.

In high school, Zavala’s responsibilities grew after her father got sick. She and her brother not only worked with their mother in the fields on weekends. Now many times they also had to miss school on weekdays, laboring in the groves from 5 in the morning until 7 at night. Between it all, Zavala still carried the burden in the home – cooking, cleaning, washing and drying the family’s laundry.

Zavala pushed harder than ever at her studies, knowing it was her way out. After her parents and brother went to bed, she locked herself in the laundry closet until 1 or 2 a.m. with her books.

“I was doing my homework while everyone slept,” she said. “I fought a lot for my education.”

Despite the demands at home, she still made it to the honor roll, repeatedly winning commendations as student of the month.

She watched with an ache as friends’ mothers attended their awards’ ceremonies and field trips.

By contrast, her own mother, she said, talked for years of pulling her out of school to work more.

“If it wasn’t for the law, I wouldn’t have been able to finish,” she said.

But once Zavala turned 18 in her junior year, her mother insisted she had to quit. Zavala’s father, who supported her education, said no. Her parents argued about it, but Zavala had enough.

Fearing what might come next if she stayed, she moved out of the home and into an apartment with a boyfriend four years older.

“That was the only solution I could find to keep going to school,” she said.

By her senior year, she was pregnant.

Still, she didn’t stop, dropping off baby Areli at a Head Start daycare center before getting to her own classes before the first bell. At 19, when she walked across the stage for her high school diploma, Areli, by then 1, was in the audience.

But when the relationship with Areli’s father fell apart, Zavala moved back in with her parents. Dreams of continuing her education were put on hold while she worked harvesting watermelons. The living arrangement lasted less than a year, when her parents talked of getting custody of Areli.

Zavala moved out once more, again to the home of a boyfriend, repeating a pattern.

“When I got with somebody, it was to run away from the reality I’m facing,” she said.

With the second boyfriend, they had two children together – Marcos and Ashley.

As the three kids grew older and her boyfriend worked – a father figure to all the children – Zavala was a stay-at-home mom, throwing herself into the role.

“I wanted to give them a childhood I didn’t have,” she said.

She lavished her daughters and son with hugs and kisses. She attended so many of their school field trips and activities that teachers hinted that it would be good to give the kids some space.

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“What I am with my kids, that’s the mom I wanted,” she said.

Zavala hung her old school commendations on the walls over the years, not forgetting her dreams. While employed at a daycare for RCMA – a nonprofit that operates 66 child development centers serving underprivileged children – she realized her passion: to work in family support. For this she would need to go back to school, and RCMA was known to help its employees with professional development.

But by now, her relationship was unraveling. Haunted by old patterns and the scars of her own childhood, Zavala sought therapy with her boyfriend.

“What my mom has done to me has marked me my whole life,” she said.

In the end, despite their efforts, they separated two years ago, and Zavala and the children moved into a three-bedroom house at Casa San Juan Bosco, the affordable farmworker housing units run by Catholic Charities.

Zavala took a full-time job at a meatpacking plant near Sarasota where she had already been picking up part-time shifts.

As a single mom the last two years, she is exhausted. Her commute can drag out to two hours one way, with traffic. Often she gets home after 9 p.m., relieving the babysitter and tending to the kids – Areli, now 12; Marcos, 9; and Ashley, about to turn 6.

Her long hours mean she often can’t make the kids’ events, including a recent school ceremony where Ashley was honored for her high marks.

“That killed me,” Zavala said.

When the kids get sick – which they often do, with Marco’s heart condition and Ashley’s frequent ear infections – she must miss work to take them to the doctor. Recently, her father had a stroke and moved in with them, causing her to lose more work hours for his doctor visits. (She no longer speaks to her mother.)

With no vacation or paid sick leave, Zavala started falling behind on bills ahead of the holidays.

To help, Catholic Charities stepped in.

Sister Ann De Nicolo, director of prevention support services for Catholic Charities in Arcadia, tapped Season of Sharing to cover December’s rent and utilities, a total of almost $700.

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“She is an incredible young woman,” De Nicolo said of Zavala and everything that she has overcome. “She really knows what she wants and she goes for it.”

Zavala said she also received gift cards to buy the kids toys and other items for Christmas, including a princess castle that Areli spent two hours putting together for her little sister.

The aid gave Zavala room to breathe, allowing her to purchase additional presents for the kids in the way of clothes.

Fatigue tugging at her face one recent morning, Zavala said though she has taken down her high school commendations that once hung on the wall, she still holds onto her educational dreams.

She would love to resume a job with RCMA. But if she leaves an agriculture post, she will stop qualifying for farmworker housing at Casa. Rents for similar-sized houses, she knows, would cost three times as much in the current real estate market, and she can’t afford it.

She currently works with authorization under the immigration policy known as DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

She hopes to be a citizen someday and believes she’ll reach her educational goals, even if it takes her into her 40s.

“When I finish my role with my kids, I will go back for my education,” she said. For now, they are the fire that keeps her going, though she hasn’t given up on her own.

“The day you stop dreaming is the day that life ends.”

How to help

Season of Sharing was created 21 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.

Donations to Season of Sharing may be made online at, or by sending a check (payable to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County) to Attn. Season of Sharing, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237. Contact the foundation at 941-955-3000 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible.

This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Single mom dreaming of an education helped by Season of Sharing