TAMPA — Nancy Hernandez knows what it’s like to feel powerless, desperate, isolated, like the people she helps through her charity.
For nearly three decades, Hernandez said, she was under the control of criminals who trafficked her as a sex worker and drug runner, first in Las Vegas and New Jersey and later along the Mexican border and across Latin America.
She was only able to escape, she said, when her abuser was killed in a car crash in Tampa in 2006. Once she finally gained control of her own life, she set about using it to help others.
“It was a new beginning,” Hernandez said, “at a time when I thought I couldn’t change anything. Because in my head, I believed it was too late.”
Hernandez started by collecting donations to buy food and distribute it along Nebraska Avenue and other areas to help victims of drugs, prostitution and alcohol. She gave free haircuts to the homeless. In 2014, she turned her charitable acts into a nonprofit — Mujeres Restauradas por Dios, or Women Restored by God. The charity has expanded to help Latinas through counseling and workshops.
Most people who knock on her door learn about the group through friends or family, Hernandez said. Last month, Mujeres Restauradas por Dios moved into permanent offices at 4310 N. Nebraska Ave.
“It is a dream come true because having our own space will allow us to continue with our social work,” Hernandez said. “This will never end.”
Among those attending the ribbon-cutting was U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, who praised Hernandez for empowering others.
“This organization has done a great job with the community, and during the pandemic they have been able to help thousands of people in need,” Castor said. “Nancy is a local hero.”
Dulce Reyes is one of the people helped by the nonprofit. Reyes and her husband moved from New York to Tampa in 2019 with big dreams. He wanted to start a restaurant, she wanted to be a chef.
The pandemic got in the way. Reyes, who came to the United States illegally from Mexico 17 years ago, started drinking heavily and lost custody of the couple’s five children, 9 months to 16 years old.
Through Mujeres Restauradas por Dios, Reyes, 35, has learned to use the internet and build a resume. She is getting help to further her education. She has been sober 1½ years and is a volunteer at the charity.
“Without the support of this group, it would have been very difficult to regain confidence,” Reyes said. “I have a lot to do and a lot I am grateful for.”
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Reyes’ story calls to mind the depths Hernandez once had to climb from.
Hernandez came to the United States when she was 18. She lived in New York with her father’s family until she met an older man who offered money and opportunities. The reality turned out to be different: She was forced to undergo plastic surgeries and enter a life of prostitution and drug smuggling, she said.
“We used our bodies to hide the drug.”
She traveled around South America in the early 1990s as a prostitute for drug dealers and was forced to carry cocaine into big salsa music festivals in Peru and Colombia, she said. She has no record to prove her story, she said, because by some “miracle” she was never arrested.
“I was one of several ‘dolls’ that this man needed to do his business. I lived 27 years of agony. I was addicted to cocaine and alcohol. I became a monster”.
Hernandez said her abuser ran an office-cleaning business in New York to attract young women and a trucking company he used as a front to launder money.
“They used and abused me. I could not escape. If I refused, I was hit hard.”
Her ordeal ended on New Year’s Eve 2006 when the man died in a crash. Hernandez turned to God. She reconnected with family and friends. She fell in love and married her husband of 15 years. She survived a battle with cancer.
By 2014, her charitable work had drawn the attention of the Tampa Underground Network, a Christian organization based at University Mall that supports more than 100 small mission communities. The group gave Hernandez a small office at the mall and helped her develop her own nonprofit.
Mujeres Restauradas por Dios has provided 1.5 million pounds of food to some 7,000 families during the pandemic.
“We haven’t stopped working because the need is so great,” Hernandez said.
Each Wednesday, a team of five volunteers works an assembly line to fill boxes with canned food, vegetables, rice, fruit and snacks. People line up in vehicles for delivery to their door. Each Friday, the group also sends a truck to migrant communities in places such as Plant City and Wimauma.
Hernandez is the inspiration for the work, said Hannah Devine, finance director of the Tampa Underground Network.
“It is an honor to work with her and support her initiatives for those most in need in the Tampa area,” Devine said. “She is a real fighter.”
Mujeres Restauradas por Dios also played a key role in finding services for people who evacuated from Puerto Rico after the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
Evacuee Iris Vega, 53, said Hernandez’ group helped ease her transition as a woman with no family or friends in Florida.
“They connected me with a psychologist — the change in coming here was very strong,” Vega said. “They fed me and they helped me furnish my apartment in Tampa.”
The nonprofit offers some 20 services in partnership with other local interests through a network called Unidad en un Pacto de Amor, or Unity in a Pact of Love.
Hernandez also organizes community events, like ¡Únete! ¡No al Silencio!, a public campaign to end violence against women. Once a month, they stage Tacones Lilas, or purple shoes, to raise awareness of the problem that affects some 1 in 4 women. One of the events was held in early June at Herman Massey Park in downtown Tampa.
“No matter what kind of problem you are confronting,” Hernandez said, “at all times, in any situation, we are here to help.”
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