The Santiago Reyes family came to Washington in 2006. Aracely was pregnant when she and Eli arrived. They came to work in agriculture, on a raspberry farm in Lynden, Washington. Their first house was a small, drafty cabin on the raspberry farm where they both worked. The couple came to be with family, a common desire among those working on Washington’s berry farms.
Life in the small farm cabin was very difficult, especially in winter. There was a stove, electricity, and a small refrigerator, but no bathroom and no running water. Getting snowed in was common in winter, confining the family, who couldn’t leave or work. They had no heat. Seasonal workers often live in inadequate housing and face insecurity because even though they can’t work all year, they must still find rent.
Aracely’s extended family eventually left Lynden and relocated to Texas, but Aracely and Eli wanted to stay in Washington, which had become home. It was at this point that the family received help from Bellingham’s distinguished grassroots organization, the Opportunity Council, a private, nonprofit community-action agency that serves low-income families and the homeless. Since 1965, the Opportunity Council has focused on local solutions to problems in Whatcom and Island counties, building equitable communities through support for education and direct assistance. They currently help over 18,000 people every year.
It was from the family’s connection to the Opportunity Council that they learned about Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County. The Council helped them one winter pay their $100/month rent, which they couldn’t pay because they couldn’t work on the farm in winter. It was after their daughter was born that the family decided they needed to find something better.
The family moved, again with help from the Opportunity Council, to a hotel and better employment for Eli on a dairy farm in Everson, Washington. Doors started to open for more stable housing in Everson, where the family was able to get a proper apartment. In 2010, they moved to Bellingham, applied for the Habitat program, and Eli got an even better job as a painter in the shipyards at the Port
of Bellingham. Washington.
It’s been a good job, but without seniority, Eli was laid off frequently as work periodically slowed down. He was rehired when things picked up. This fluctuation made income unpredictable, and rent was a constant worry. Again, the family was forced to move to find cheaper housing, this time north to Ferndale. Over time, Eli has increased his seniority and layoffs are less frequent, though they still happen.
“When we applied to Habitat, we wanted to secure something for the family,” said Aracely. Eli and Aracely worked their sweat-equity hours in the Whatcom County Habitat Store when it was in Ferndale. Many of Aracely’s siblings didn’t find a path to security because they didn’t finish high school. “The ones who suffer the most are the kids. That’s why we decided to stay. I saw that in my family. We didn’t want that for our daughter. You always think more about your children that you do about yourself.”
The Santiago Reyes family’s new home is being built in Sudden Valley, a community of about 6,000 residents east of Bellingham, beside Lake Whatcom. Aracely is currently studying English at Whatcom Community College. She still has dreams. “If God gives us the opportunity,” she added, “someday I want to open a restaurant.”