TAMPA — Xiomara Medrano is grateful — make that thankful — for her room at a homeless shelter in South Tampa.
In her 19 years, she has had it worse.
Childhood was in a place called Sonsonate in El Salvador. Medrano shared a room in her grandmother's house with her mother and three brothers. "It was a hard life," said Medrano, who was a peddler at a flea market. "You had to work to survive."
Things weren't much better after she and her mother made their way to Tampa five years ago. Medrano worked, underage, as a waitress. She shared a rental home with strangers, then lost her job because she lacked immigration papers.
School social worker Kathy Wiggins got involved after meeting Medrano at Leto High School and worked with her on her legal and housing situations.
Today she lives in a shelter operated by a county program called Girls Advancing to Empowerment and Self Sufficiency, known as "the Gates." She spends some time outside the shelter with her mother, who has a baby. Now a legal resident, she gets up as early as 5 a.m. and takes two buses to her classes and clerical job at Hillsborough Community College.
But that's nothing compared to what has befallen El Salvador and the people who live there, including Medrano's three brothers.
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The rains began on Nov. 7 as a storm system churned offshore. Nearly a foot of rain fell in six hours on the Central American country. Rivers burst their banks and hillsides collapsed, isolating parts of the mountainous interior. Mud and boulders swept down the side of the Chichontepec volcano.
Close to 200 people died and more than 10,000 were displaced. Bridges and roads were damaged, some beyond repair.
Medrano was not aware of what had happened until she returned to work after the weekend. A woman told her about the disaster and she started calling up pictures on the Internet. "It was horrible," she said. "I was crying, too, because my brothers were over there."
She was able to contact them. "Where they live, it wasn't that bad," she said. "But in the capital, that was the worst part."
So she started asking if any local groups were collecting aid for the victims. "They need clothes and medications," she said.
The people who run her shelter will let her use a room for storage, she said. While she acknowledges this is not something she can undertake on her own, she hopes she can work with a church or charity, or perhaps a business.
Ultimately, she would like to bring her three brothers here. "That's my dream. So I'm saving all of my money," she said.
She is taking entry-level courses at HCC, she said, and would like to become an ultrasound technician. After that, she'll work in a hospital, save more money and — if all goes as planned — continue on to medical school and become an obstetrician.
Not bad for someone whose only English words when she arrived were mom, dog and cat.
The shelter staff is like family, she said. Staff members give her a ride on days when she stays late at HCC. "I have my own room, and it's the biggest room in the entire house," she said.
Thanksgiving is Medrano's 19th birthday. She had hoped to bring her mother and the baby to the shelter, but did not know how she would manage on the holiday bus schedule. Still, she appreciates how far she has come and what she left behind, she said.
"I wish there was a place like that for people in El Salvador."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602.