After her husband of 15 years got involved with the wrong crowd and committed a felony, he was deported to Mexico in 1999.

“He was a very good home provider until he got into whatever he was doing,” Maria Gonzalez Nuñez said.

But after driving 1,500 miles with their kids to visit him a couple of times, she also realized he wasn’t the man she married.

He didn’t want any responsibilities and slowly lost touch with his family, Maria said.

Maria and her four children were on their own.Maria Gonzalez Nuñez poses in her Milwaukee home with her children, Martin, 19, left to right, Nelson, 14; Itzel, 18; and Jasmin, 26. A single mom, Maria, worked more than one job and went back to school in order to send her children to Catholic grade schools and high schools. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

“So it’s really been a struggle, but thank God, and thank my job, that I really haven’t asked for anything,” said Maria, who is licensed to teach grades one through six and has taught third-grade bilingual for the past five years at Greenfield Bilingual School. “All I ask is for good health and that’s it…. I thank God that I have a job and that I’ve been able to give my children what they need.”

She has always been able to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.

And despite the financial struggles of single-parenthood, Maria, who attends Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Milwaukee, has also given Jasmin, 26, Martin, 19, Itzel, 18, and Nelson, 14, a Catholic education.

“I really don’t have time for me. Well, I do – after 10 o’clock, because I like to watch the 10 o’clock news, but I only watch the 10 o’clock news like for 15 minutes because I end up falling asleep,” she said, laughing. “No, but I really think God has been good to me, because … I’m 55, (and I) haven’t had any serious illnesses. I’ve been able to be the main provider for the family, and I have a lot of energy. I have my work – I love my work. …And I really, unless I sit down and relax, then I’ll fall asleep, otherwise I feel like I’m always on the go and I don’t think of being tired.”

Values power of prayer

Maria said Greenfield Bilingual, a Milwaukee public school, is a “really, really good school,” but she didn’t send her children there.

“One of the reasons was that I truly value prayer, and I thought, ‘No, I know my children will need prayer when they get older,’” she said. “As a young person you don’t value it as much, but when you’re facing obstacles in life, you do need prayer.”

She did whatever she had to, to send Jasmin, operations manager at JAN-PRO Cleaning Systems, to the now-closed St. Stephen Martyr School, Mother of Good Counsel School and St. Joan Antida High School; Martin, a freshman at Cardinal Stritch University, to Mother of Good Counsel School and St. Thomas More High School; Itzel, a senior at St. Thomas More High School, to Mother of Good Counsel School; and Nelson to Blessed Sacrament School, where he’s an eighth-grader.

“I felt safe and secure that they went to the schools that they went to, and I like the simple fact that you can say a prayer without hesitation and or without getting in trouble….” she said. “A little prayer does not hurt anyone; I think it does good to the soul.”

Maria had just graduated from Alverno College when she was going through her divorce 10 years ago. “I knew that I needed to get my master’s in order to provide for the kids; at least my salary would go up a little bit more,” she said.

So, one of her four sisters who lived nearby picked up the kids from school and fed them while Maria attended accelerated classes at UW-Milwaukee for two years.

Faith in home, too

Jasmin helped care for her siblings, making a point to say prayers with them as Maria would have.

Jasmin remembered how proud teachers were of her good grades in religion classes, likely because of her mother, who still attends church with her children and invites them to pray the rosary with her.

“They thought maybe (good grades were) because of my mom’s encouragement and her trying to keep us in the faith and always kind of giving us the teachings and breaking down the teachings as well, so I think they were glad we had that faith in home as well as in school,” Jasmin said.

Thanks to her mother, Jasmin and her siblings returned to their schools each year.

“She would always make things happen, especially when it came to funding schooling,” she said, explaining that Maria volunteered when she could, became a parishioner of the parish that belonged with the school her children were attending and encouraged them to do well in school because scholarships would accompany good grades.

After working her full-time job during the day, Maria attended classes at night.

“Then, of course, I had to do homework. …,” she said. “To stay up, oh my gosh, I remember I used to drink a lot of Coca-Cola with coffee. I mean, like I said, to be able to keep a full-time job and to do the homework that’s what I needed to do.”

Some assistance available

She invested tax return money into her children’s education and she applied for grants, and programs for children of low-income families, including the Milwaukee Parental Choice Voucher Program and PAVE (Partners Advancing Values in Education).

“Jasmin was able to get PAVE, because at that time I did not have my master’s degree and so, we, as a family of five, did qualify for PAVE, so that was really nice that she was able to go through high school at St. Joan Antida,” Maria said. But once she earned her master’s, they no longer qualified for PAVE or any assistance.

Maria took out a couple of loans and a second mortgage.

But every year, she feared she wouldn’t be able to send her children to private schools.

Most expensive was when she had two children in high school and one in middle school. “I had two teenagers attending Thomas More and one attending a middle school; that was very, very difficult, very difficult,” she said. “I talked to them. I sat down, and every time I would say, ‘I don’t know if  I’m going to be able to afford paying for your school,’ they got a scholarship, like a $1,000 scholarship … that would reduce the cost a little bit, so then with that and with the loans, then I was able to get them through.”

A loan also helped Jasmin study in Japan and China as a student at UW-Milwaukee.

“I guess through loans we’ve been making it. …” said Maria, explaining that she felt keeping the kids in their school environments where they developed relationships with friends and teachers was important. She also likes the smaller classroom sizes at the private schools, and the respect she sees in the students.

And she wanted them to take advantage of opportunities offered through school.

“I knew that I had a responsibility,” she said. “I just didn’t want them to suffer, I guess, so I would go through loans, and thank God that I was able to do that.”

When she couldn’t help Martin financially with a pilgrimage he wanted to make to Italy his junior year of high school, Martin did extra work and sold candy bars and was able to go.

“I don’t stop them from doing whatever they want to do,” she said. “I do want them to explore and to see other places, but with respect and with limitations, but I don’t want them to be my limitations; I want them to be their limitations.”

Wins choice lottery

This school year was also the first that St. Thomas More High School accepted choice and by lottery, Itzel was accepted.

“So, this year, I only had to pay a certain portion, which it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness!’” Maria said, noting that without the luck of the lottery, Itzel would not have been able to attend this year. “Well, it’s even hard right now because I’m trying to pay the loans and that small portion and I go, ‘How did I do it before with two, and I only have this small portion?’”

At one point, she worked full time in a Milwaukee public school and managed a restaurant to make ends meet.

Every year she felt she wouldn’t be able to send her children to Catholic schools, but somehow everything worked out. She’s worried about sending Nelson to high school next year, but she’s also told her other children, “If I made it through college on a loan, which I just finished paying not too long ago, I said you guys can do it on a loan, too,” Maria said.

The loans took her about 20 years to pay off, but Maria said “that’s life.” She has food to eat, a house in which to sleep, a car for transportation and good health.

“Those are the essential things that I need,” she said. “I don’t ask for anything else.”

Strength in faith

Veronica Ibarra, a second-grade bilingual teacher at Greenfield Bilingual School, said even when Maria was pregnant with her fourth child, Maria never complained of being tired and was a complete optimist despite what was happening in her personal life.

“I think that she, through her faith and especially her church involvement, it helped her get through it. I mean you wouldn’t know any of the stuff she was going through,” said Ibarra, a Greenfield teacher for about 10 years.

Ibarra worked as a teaching assistant for Maria for about five years at Forest Home Avenue Elementary School while she was a student at UW-Milwaukee.

“I only know because she confided in me, but otherwise she would have come to school looking completely positive and you just would have no idea what was going on – and I think she’s just always found her strength in her faith,” she said.

Ibarra said Maria will turn down invitations to Friday night dinners with other teachers in order to attend her charismatic prayer group at Prince of Peace until 10:30 p.m. She organizes and gives presentations for parish retreats, and she’s involved in events at her school, her children’s schools and in the community, according to Ibarra.

Maria has tutored students, recruited parents and students for the Mexican Independence Parade – the school’s float won first-place several times – and helped with the school’s spring dance performance. She also joined a wellness group last year and continues to walk for an hour, three times a week, after school.

“She’s always looking how she can help in every way possible and how she can contribute for the better of our school and our students, and even extended in the community,” said Ibarra, a member of Blessed John Paul II Parish, Milwaukee.

“Every time I have a hard time, I tell her, ‘I always think of you,’ and I’m always like, if Maria can do it, I can do it,” said Ibarra, who is married with four children, ages 9 months through 11 years old.

Gift to her kids

Even though her kids are getting older, Maria’s days are still busy – on weeknights she also cares for her sister who developed Parkinson’s after their mother died 11 years ago. “Without the help of God, I would not be able to do it myself – sometimes, I even surprise myself,” Maria said.

As her June retirement from Milwaukee Public Schools nears, Maria worries about paying for Nelson’s high school education. Though she’s retiring, Maria said she still has no money.

“Then I think back and I go, no, but that’s my gift to my kids. I feel really proud that yes, I live on the north side. Yes, I do not have any money. Yes, I have been teaching for over 27 years, but my gratification is that they have become good citizens and that investing my money through their education, I have no regrets at all because I see the way they have turned out and I see the way they are and so between home and school, again, we must have done something good to raise them,” she said.