Editor’s Note: For the 15th consecutive year, the Tampa Bay Times presents Holiday Hopes, a series profiling people in need that gives readers a chance to help. The Times will update readers about granted wishes in January.
TAMPA — Ana Zepeda says she doesn’t want anything for Christmas.
“I have what I need,” the resident of the University Area said.
She escaped Honduras, survived the journey to the United States and was reunited with her daughters. She has a job in the construction industry and is looking forward to an asylum hearing in October.
“There are people who need help more than me,” Zepeda, 36, said.
But daughters Wendy and Genesis Zepeda say their mother deserves a present. Zepeda lost a front tooth and damaged the molars when she recently tripped and fell. She is in pain.
They hope that for Christmas, their mom can have those teeth replaced.
A friend loaned her $1,400 to have the front tooth replaced, but needs the money paid back soon. And Zepeda still needs root canals and crowns for the molars.
The dental bills total $4,500.
The Florida Institute for Community Studies nonprofit, which provides resources for local immigrant communities, is now hoping to raise the money.
“She deserves this,” institute director Alayne Unterberger said. “She’s been through a lot.”
Zepeda prefers to send her extra income back to Honduras rather than saving for the dental surgery.
“She is totally selfless,” Unterberger said. “She never thinks of herself.”
Zepeda’s journey to the United States began two years ago. Food was scarce in her neighborhood in the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa. Gang violence was not.
Zepeda and daughter Wendy joined a migrant caravan journeying for the Texas border.
“It was scary,” Wendy, now 11, said. “We left our family.”
They travelled on a bus for seven days to Mexico, Zepeda said, and then walked for another 10.
She nearly turned back when they reached the Rio Grande River and were shown the raft that would carry them across.
“I was scared,” Zepeda said. “But we went.”
Upon entering the United States through Reynoso, Mexico, Zepeda said, they were detained and separated in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention center in McAllen, Texas.
Zepeda and her daughter both said they slept on floors with thin blankets.
Wendy recalled being kept awake one night by a woman crying in a distant corner of the detention center. The next morning, she was told the woman had died.
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Zepeda and Wendy were reunited and released after a week. They made their way to Tampa, where they have friends.
Six months later, Genesis, now 5, took the same journey with family members who brought her to Tampa.
Zepeda only keeps enough of her paycheck to pay bills and buy groceries. The rest is used to support family in Honduras. She also volunteers for St. Petersburg-based Sol Relief, which provides humanitarian relief for Honduras.
Such help is increasingly needed in Honduras, as Hurricane Eta’s flooding forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate.
“The situation in Honduras is catastrophic,” said Tampa’s Ana Maria Vazquez, who assists the Zepeda family through the nonprofit Border Patrol Victims Network.
That is why, rather than urging people to fund her teeth, Zepeda prefers “people help her community in Honduras,” Vazquez said.
Zepeda’s children hope people will do both.
“I miss my cousins,” Wendy said. “They are small. I worry about them.”
But Wendy also wants her mother to receive needed dental care.
“She is in pain,” Unterberger said. “She needs help.”
Ana Zepeda is an asylum seeker who recently fell and lost a front tooth and damaged two molars. The dental bills total $4,500. To help, contact the Florida Institute for Community Studies at 813-801-6844 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To contribute to Sol Relief’s humanitarian efforts, visit solrelief.org/