Woodlake, California

Meet Desiree Sahagun and her two sons - Elijah, 10, and Gabriel, 8. They live in Woodlake, California, population: 8,000.The year 2020 brought with it a silver lining. It began with her starting a full-time job as an academic advisor, which helped her get pre-approved for a new house through the non-profit, Self-Help Enterprises. Not long after, Desiree began construction on the new home for her and her boys.

Starting a new job during a pandemic wasn’t easy. But thankfully, it meant she could work remotely. The hour she would have spent driving to and from campus could now be used to build her new home - one of the requirements Self-Help Enterprises places on its new homeowners. The nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises program helps families and individuals achieve home ownership. Those selected for the program are responsible for 40 hours of sweat equity per week.

This meant Desiree had to put in at least 10 hours of her own blood, sweat, and tears and was responsible for finding individuals to help with the other 30 hours each week. Her mother and brother helped fill out most of them.

Despite the challenges small-town life can present, having a support network was one of many reasons why Woodlake was never really in question for Desiree as a place to build her home. In her own words, Woodlake is a residential community. She says it's hard to find jobs that pay well enough to support a family. It’s a small enough town that it has no stoplights, and the recently installed roundabout created a bit of a stir among residents. But it’s where Desiree's family is. It’s where her friends are. Friends who look out for one another when times can get rough. It’s the kind of town that puts together a meal fundraiser when a neighbor is in need. Desiree learned that lesson all too well about 8 years ago.

Desiree and her husband, Alfonso “Poncho” Cruz, were two days away from welcoming their second child into their family when tragedy struck.

Poncho, a welder, suffered a medical injury while on the jobsite that resulted in his unexpected death.

Desiree says she remembers arriving home that day and was met by several family members and neighbors. News in their small town had spread that fast.

Desiree recalls being mad before she was sad.

“When I heard the news, it wasn't like people's first instinct to cry. That wasn't my first instinct. My first instinct, I was just angry. I was thinking of the future. Like, how was I supposed to deliver a baby by myself? How was I supposed to support myself and the kids? All that went through my head before shedding the first tear.”

The community of Woodlake quickly rallied around Desiree and her boys. They provided meals for several weeks. They held fundraisers like car washes to help provide some financial relief. But it didn’t take Desiree long to realize she couldn’t provide for herself and her boys if she didn’t do something more than accept welfare.

“I needed to get a degree – some degree – for my kids.” Desiree said she wanted to set the bar high for her two sons. She started by going back to school. She first got her associate's degree and then immediately continued on to her bachelor's degree, which led to her current job as an academic advisor. The same job that helped her get pre-approved for her Self-Help home.

A year and a half after breaking ground, Desiree had already started working toward her master's degree in social work, a path she says she kind of fell into.

She never really saw herself going into social work, but one day, while looking through class schedules, it dawned on her. She never had a social worker when her husband died. She thought of how much of a difference it could have made. And then she thought of how much of a difference she could make… will make.

As Desiree continues to raise the bar higher for her sons, they now have their own bedrooms in their new home. They play in their own yard. They can see orange tree fields and the mountains out the windows. And they still have the support of family and friends nearby.

“I've been wanting a house of my own and I think it means a little bit more just because, literally, I built it,” she said. It’s the same way she’s been building her life for the last eight years. The same way she’s building a future for her boys. And helping others do the same.

I definitely feel accomplished.