This Single Mom Proves The Best Gift Isn't The One You Buy — It's The One You Build

"We are going to be forever thankful for this life-changing event... It leaves me, sometimes, with no words."

For the past few years, Marisol Santos and her two sons, Michael, 15, and Ethan, 9, haven't been able to celebrate Mother's Day. This year, however, the single mom will receive "the most amazing ... the most different gift" she could ever ask for: a new, handicap-accessible home.


Though the house, provided by Habitat for Humanity, as part of National Women Build Week, won't be completed until after Mother's Day, Santos is nonetheless overwhelmed with gratitude for this life-changing gift. Because Santos' son, Michael, was born with a very rare disease and is consequently wheelchair bound, he needs wider hallways and a specially-equipped bathroom, which aren't easy to come by in New Jersey, where the family lives.

"I've had trouble all these years trying to find a handicap-accessible place," Santos told A Plus in a phone call. The divorcee has been renting for the past few years, and has had to make the most of her limited income as a clerk in Morris County. Despite placing herself "onto a number of waiting lists for apartment complexes that should be handicap-accessible," she never heard back from any of them. "Right now, we have to make an improvised ramp to get him [Michael] in and out of the house," she explained. "His wheelchair will not go into the bathroom, so I have to carry him from one chair to the other, and then lift him up to be able to get him into the bathroom ... " 

Santos and her two sons, Michael (left) and Ethan (right) 

While Santos would do anything and everything for her sons — and already does — the strenuous work of regularly moving Michael has taken a physical toll on her. After herniating two disks, she is now awaiting surgery. Due to "the situation ... with Michael," Santos said, "I have to put that on hold ... "

"Being a mother of two, but having my oldest, Michael, in a wheelchair, it makes life a little bit more difficult," she explained. Though Santos has "good medical coverage," it's not nearly enough. Her insurance plan provides for only 25 doctor visits per calendar year, and there's no way she — or anyone, really — can afford to pay $100 out of pocket per session when her son needs physical therapy three times a week. "The medical expenses are just out of proportion," Santos said. "... Sometimes I feel like I'm not allowed to be sick." 

But she makes do because she is ready and willing to make sacrifices, knowing how they'll ultimately benefit her sons' lives.

"I have my ups and downs, but the most rewarding thing is that I know he's with me, and together we have come across everything that we could have run into," Santos said. "Even though it's been a hard road, I think we're doing awesome ... My most rewarding feeling is that I had him, and I have done everything in my power to make him better."

Her "little one," Ethan, "is such a great brother," helping Michael with everything from simply picking up a pencil to getting him food. "He will try to help me because he's aware of my health situation, and they can see that I'm in pain," Santos added. She also fortunately has the help of her own parents. 

"Honestly, I don't know how it would be if I didn't have them in my life," she said. Though Santos' parents separated a long time ago, she said, "they came together mostly for Michael. When he was born and him having the disability, that brought them close again." Working together as a team, the trio ensures Michael and Ethan are always taken care of.  Perhaps most importantly, having her parents take such an active role in her and her children's lives has allowed Santos to work without worrying about the high cost of childcare or babysitting. As Columbian immigrants, Santos' parents came to the US "chasing the American Dream." 

None of them shy away from hard work, regardless of personal cost. "... How they supported me through all these years — it has truly made the difference in our lives," Santos said.  "My story is the one of many many other mothers, other fathers, other families that are struggling every day to get by..."

But Santos' story is one that's about to have a happy ending — with a new beginning.

Santos and her oldest son, Michael, outside of their new home. 

Santos first learned about Habitat for Humanity from a friend who encouraged her to apply for a house. The first time she applied, however, she wasn't eligible because of her debt. Nevertheless determined to give her sons the best life possible, she worked a second job to get herself out of debt and applied again. "I handed in the application the very last day," she explained. "I said, 'You know what? It doesn't hurt. If I'm not ready yet, I'm not ready. I will just keep working my way to the point where maybe one day I'll get lucky ...'"

Now, that "one day" has come, and Santos still can't believe her luck.

 "...Being able to have a house in New Jersey, for a first-timer like me with the limit of my income ... with two children, it couldn't have been possible," she said. "... We are going to be forever thankful for this life-changing event ... It leaves me, sometimes, with no words. We truly feel blessed and ... from this point on, our lives are gonna be so much easier." 

On Monday, May 8, Santos and Michael were able to see their family's new "American Dream" become a reality as they spent the whole day at the Habitat for Humanity build site of their future home. "He is just so thankful and excited, and he cannot wait to be able to move into our new and final home ..." Santos said. "Mostly, he knows that he's gonna have everything that he needs and that I need." Ethan, while only 9 years old, is "really happy to know that we're gonna be together, we're gonna have our own home, and we're not gonna have to worry about moving again."

Besides marveling at the ordinary wonder of her future home physically come together this week, Santos has witnessed another — that of her community coming together. "They're building this house to accommodate all of our needs; it means the world to us," she said. "Up until this point, I don't [sic] believe it, but just knowing that I have so many people who don't know me, but they're working so hard to make this happen... It's amazing." 

It's a gift, and one that will continue to give something new — inside jokes, traditions, and memories — with every Mother's Day.

Marisol Santos inside her new Habitat for Humanity home. 


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