DELANO — Vanessa Marquez remembers very well the single room she lived in with her two boys, that room at her former mother-in-law's with no electricity, heat or AC, with exposed wires, with a bunkbed for the three of them.
But for all it didn't have, it did give her one thing: the overriding motivation to find a home for her family.
Sunday, that was made official by Habitat for Humanity Golden Empire leaders, who gave Marquez a Bible, plaque, mailbox, and, most importantly, a front door key to her new home in Delano.
It didn't matter that she'd already been living in the three-bedroom, two-bath home since September, when her mortgage was approved. What mattered for Marquez was the message Sunday's ceremony sends to other single women.
"I tell single ladies all the time, I always say, 'Don't fear. All you have to do is have faith and believe that it will get better,'" Marquez said.
That single room had been the fourth location she and her boys, Aundre, 5, and Nathan, 4, had lived in since their rental home was destroyed by fire two years earlier.
Marquez's search for a home meant changes in careers and lifestyle.
Her bookkeeper salary with Delano Family Motors wasn't enough to secure a mortgage. So she earned her manicurist license and got a job with Selah Salon and built up her clientele.
The Delano native denied herself in order to save, foregoing friends and self-indulgences in order to save for a down payment.
Stymied by the cost of homes, she was surprised when her Realtor called her one day and suggested Habitat for Humanity.
"I'd never heard of it," Marquez said.
She discovered that Habitat for Humanity Golden Empire was formed in 1991. More importantly, the nonprofit ecumenical Christian ministry had completed more than 50 homes in seven Kern County communities for qualifying families.
The real estate agent, Alex Guerrero, helped Marquez through the application and approval process.
"We'd been trying for a long time" to find a home, said Guerrero, who works with New Homes America. "What's amazing about this young lady is she did not give up."
The home was donated by Bank of America and necessary cosmetic improvements were made. Appliances were donated. And Marquez has added her own touches.
Max Hernandez, associate director of the local Habitat for Humanity, visited Marquez when she still lived in the single room.
"Hearing the desperation in her voice, that definitely made me want to work that much harder to get her into a stable home," he said.
Aundre and Nathan are comfortable in their new home, but not so much they want separate rooms yet. For now, Marquez gets to use the third bedroom as her gym.
She said the boys have been less frustrated and have gotten along better since they've moved in.
Aundre told her one chilly day in a surprised, yet happy, voice: "Mom, it's warm in here."
"And I thought, 'That was one thing they wouldn't have to worry about again,'" Marquez said. "I said, 'it's warm and it's always going to be warm.'"