STORM LAKE, Iowa | Maria Vidal Jimenez spends Christmas Eve with her 3-year-old daughter, Ariana Gonzalez, in the home of Ariana's godmother in Storm Lake. They eat and laugh and revel in the comfort and blessings of their sacred holiday.
Just after midnight, Christmas morning, Maria and Ariana head for home. They turn the corner on the 500 block of Hudson Street, but proceed no more, their street blocked by police as a fire engulfs a small home.
Maria peers closer. Smoke and flames pour from the home she's rented for 18 months. She and Ariana occupy the main floor, which consists of a living room/kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom. She pays $450 per month and doesn't have renter's insurance.
Members of the Storm Lake Fire Department work hard to extinguish a blaze Fire Chief Mike Jones says started in the attic wiring. Firefighters poke a hole into the structure's west side, near the roof. They manage to save two of Ariana's gifts under a small Christmas tree inches from the front door.
Maria and her daughter lose everything else.
They visit the house on Friday, joined by friend Isabel Sanchez, who works in marketing and sales at Paxton's Jewelry in Storm Lake. Sanchez, who has lived in Storm Lake for 22 years, interprets for Maria, who has become the sister she never had. The pair met while working on the production line at Tyson Fresh Meats, the meatpacking giant that rises a few blocks east of Hudson Street.
Maria, 29, earns $16 per hour at Tyson, grateful for a job that, while physically demanding as throwing loins and yielding a large knife can be, puts bread on the table for a divorcee and her daughter.
But, now? A New Year beckons and she's lost everything. She walks through the open front door and glances up at exposed rafters, charred, soaked, then frozen. The oven, blackened, has a pot where her Christmas feast was about to cook. The tiny Christmas tree has been toppled, as has her statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, where Maria grew up before coming to the U.S. legally with extended family members several years ago. She married her high school sweetheart and they had Ariana while they worked in Wisconsin.
Now, it's Maria and Ariana, a statue, and little else.
For the time being, the two stay with Ariana's godmother, Maria de Jesus Ramirez, and her husband, Joel Gonzalez, in Storm Lake, where they'd spent that festive Christmas Eve. Maria purchases boots for Ariana and a few other items.
Isabel Sanchez turns to Facebook for help. She posts a message about the fire and her friend's loss. Her employers, Gary and Rhonda Ringgenberg, longtime owners of Paxton's Jewelry, agree that if people read the Facebook post, they may drop off clothing items, money, or whatever else at their store at 608 Lake Avenue.
A woman leaves clothes on Wednesday. Folks call with offers of furniture once housing can be found.
"We're trying to find them a place to live," Sanchez says. "It's hard in Storm Lake because of the pork plant and the turkey plant. There aren't many living units available."
To complicate matters, Maria speaks little English. She leans on Sanchez for communication.
"When we met at Tyson, things clicked between us," says Sanchez, 24, who is married and has a family of her own. "Maria would get done with a hard day of work and make homemade flour tortillas, one dozen or two...not any friend would do that."
They check with local churches as time permits, and meet with the American Red Cross. Maria misses no work. She must continue to earn her keep, providing for her little girl.
Through Sanchez, Maria expresses thanks she and Ariana weren't hurt. They've lost their residence, their clothes, the hand-sewn items her mother made.
But, they're very much alive and, with the help of friends, they'll march into a New Year.
She speaks to Sanchez as we leave. "Gracias," she says softly, nodding, eyes red and weary.
"Maria wants to thank people for helping her," Sanchez says. "She looks forward to 2018. It's a year she'll start from zero, but that's OK."