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Family of 7 hopes for another chance to leave their 1-bed, 1-bath apartment

Holiday Hopes 2021 | They had saved money for a deposit on a bigger place but spent it on more urgent needs. Now, rentals are more expensive.
Clothes and gifts for the children are on the Christmas wish list of Sem Melo, third from left, and his wife, Dulce Reyes, second from right. But more important, they say, is a bigger place to live. From left are children Ruth, 16; Jordan, 11; Jade, 1; Sem, 14, and Adam, 6.
Clothes and gifts for the children are on the Christmas wish list of Sem Melo, third from left, and his wife, Dulce Reyes, second from right. But more important, they say, is a bigger place to live. From left are children Ruth, 16; Jordan, 11; Jade, 1; Sem, 14, and Adam, 6. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 13, 2021

Editor’s Note: For the 16th 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. The series so far has profiled seniors in need of home care, a teenager in need of money for college and a family recovering from homelessness.

TAMPA — Dulce Reyes and husband Sem Melo had finally saved up the $1,000 deposit they would need to rent a bigger home for them and their seven children, ages 1-16.

At the time, in April, they were crammed into a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment on West Kennedy Boulevard, the three oldest children in the bedroom and the parents sharing their bed with the two youngest in the living room. The wait for the bathroom seemed to last forever.

But as soon as they had saved it, the money disappeared. Their old Dodge broke down and required $800 in repairs. Then, in early July, Melo came down with fever and a cough and was diagnosed with COVID-19. Within days, Reyes and four of the children contracted the virus, too.

They needed two weeks to recover, but they still feel the effects of the setback — in their health as well as their pocketbook. They have no insurance so they stayed away from the hospital. Mom and dad still experience weakness and shortness of breath. Reyes lost her hair and has intermittent headaches and body aches at night. Melo lost part of the vision in his left eye.

Mujeres Restauradas por Dios, a local nonprofit, is trying to raise money to get a Tampa family of seven into a home bigger than the one-bedroom, one-bath apartment they have now.
Mujeres Restauradas por Dios, a local nonprofit, is trying to raise money to get a Tampa family of seven into a home bigger than the one-bedroom, one-bath apartment they have now. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

They missed their chance at a bigger apartment. And they’re in good company: A full-time worker needs the equivalent of nearly three full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom rental in Hillsborough County, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“It has been very difficult for the whole family,” Reyes said, tears in her eyes. “I don’t know where I found the strength to take care of my children and my husband.”

Reyes and Melo are from Mexico and moved from New York to Tampa in 2019, hoping to find better opportunities. Melo works in a restaurant 10 hours per day, seven days a week, washing dishes and helping in the kitchen. Reyes stays home to care for their 1-year-old girl.

As they suffered from COVID-19, they turned to charities for help and still rely upon them for food, clothes and personal care products.

One of the charities is Mujeres Restauradas por Dios, or Women Restored by God, at 4310 N Nebraska Ave., which has provided 1.5 million pounds of food to some 7,000 families during the pandemic. The nonprofit nominated Reyes and her family for the Tampa Bay Times’ Holiday Hopes.

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“She is a woman who has suffered a lot,” said Nancy Hernandez, founder of Mujeres Restauradas por Dios. “When she knocked on the door of our organization to seek help, she also wanted to join us as a volunteer.”

Her children have come to rely on food from the charity.

“They are like angels for my family,” Reyes said. “They have been with me during times that we have needed it the most.”

Three years ago, suffering from depression, Reyes started to drink heavily. She said she has been sober for two years. Now, she wants to study to be a chef so she can help her husband support the family.

This Christmas season, the couple is asking for $3,000 to find a bigger apartment, enough for a deposit and at least two months’ rent. They’re also seeking a few gifts for their children — arts and crafts supplies, sporting goods, video games, building blocks and Legos, and, for the baby, Minnie Mouse toys.

How to help

To help Dulce Reyes and her family, contact Mujeres Restauradas por Dios at 813-965-4981 or 813-374-4941, or email Nancy Hernandez at nancy@tampaunderground.com

Checks can be mailed to Mujeres Restauradas por Dios 4310 N Nebraska Ave. Tampa, FL, 33603. Write “For Dulce Reyes & Her Family” in the memo section.

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