Featured photo: Heaven Sanders stands with Ester Valdez.
For years, Heaven Sanders lived homeless.
Some nights, the Bakersfield High freshman would stay at a Union Avenue motel with her mother as a parade of seedy strangers visited. She stood awake in bed for fear of her safety. Others nights, she would float from one home to another, staying with her mother’s friends until they wore out their welcome.
When it came to affording school supplies, there never seemed to be any money.
Sanders mother would make excuses, she said. Somebody stole her wallet. Her credit card was stolen. It was all lies, she said. Instead, her mother would spend what little they had on drugs, Sanders said.
“I thought positive through it all and kept a smile on my face,” said Sanders, now a recent BHS graduate. “I’m not going to let this get me down.”
Sanders’ story isn’t unique. Thousands of students across Kern County live in unstable housing, bouncing from one home to another every few weeks, or are completely homeless. More than 315 students attending Kern High School District schools in 2017-2018 were living in unstable housing or homeless, according to district records.
Sanders, however, can count herself among those more fortunate. While attending church she met Vanessa Valdez and her family, and it changed her life. Sanders and Valdez became best friends. Valdez would often leave home to spend time with Sanders at the motel she called home.
Except Valdez’s mother, Ester, wasn’t going to allow her daughter to spend the night at a motel. Instead, she began having Sanders stay at her house. One slumber party turned into two nights, and two nights into two months. Sanders spent the entire summer of her freshman year at Valdez’s home.
But then summer ended and as school was getting ready to start Sanders was mentally preparing herself to return back to her reality.
For the Valdez’s, Sanders started to feel like family. After spending a lot of time talking and praying, Ester and her husband Jesse asked Sanders to move in with them two days before school started.
“I thank God that she came into our lives because she has such a good heart regardless of everything she’s been through,” Ester said of Sanders. “I thought we were helping her out, but in all reality, God put her in our lives to help our family — to teach us how to love somebody outside of our family.”
Sanders was filled with happiness and wondering if they were serious. She was worried, however, whether her mom would allow it. So they spoke to her mother together.
“We must have caught her on a good day because she agreed saying, ‘it would be good for her.’ So I just grabbed the little things that I did have and left,” Sanders said.
Three years later, Sanders is still living with the Valdez family and considers them to be her family. She even calls Vanessa’s parents “mom and dad,” and thinks of her four siblings as her brothers and sisters.
The family took Sanders to doctors appointments. They gave her a bed to sleep in. They made her feel safe.
“Knowing I have a roof over my head, a home I can come to, that someone will be home, and there isn’t random people in the house that I don’t know,” Sanders said. “That makes me feel safe.”
With the help of her family and counselors at school who provided a bus pass to her to make sure she can get to school Sanders graduated high school and plans to attend Bakersfield College to major in kinesiology.
She wants to become a physical therapist so she can help others the way that others have helped her.
This story was made possible with a grant from California Humanities, in partnership with the Bakersfield College Foundation and Virginia and Alfred Harrell Foundation.
South Kern Sol is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.