After 11 long years of torment, Jeniffer Santiago was broken. Somehow, though, she sold most of what she owned and gathered what was left as well as her three youngest children. Then she stuffed everything and everyone into her car and drove from Las Vegas to Miami.
That was eight months ago.
“There were five different types of abuse that I went through — financial, mental, physical, verbal, and spiritual,” Santiago recalled recently. “It got to a point where they broke down my spirit and I wanted to take my own life. Every woman in my family has suffered domestic abuse, but the cycle has to end with me.”
Santiago and her children now stay in a shelter in Miami. The kids struggle to do their schoolwork because they lack computers. With two of the children’s birthdays coming up in December, she worries about buying them toys and not having a real home.
Santiago has had a chaotic life. She was born in Puerto Rico and had a difficult adolescence after she was left alone at age 14 due to her parents’ drug addiction. Later on, people she trusted stole her money, she says. Her children sometimes did not have food to eat because their father refused to take responsibility.
Starting at about age 20, Santiago became immersed in a violent relationship. Her ex-boyfriend, whom she declines to name, stole her money, often threatened her and sometimes physically assaulted her. They bounced from place to place in Miami — then moved to Las Vegas in 2020. There she ran into trouble with her then-boyfriend’s mother. “I remember grabbing my children to leave the house one day and [his] mother grabbed her gun and tried to shoot me,” Santiago recalled. “If the devil exists in a person, it’s the mother of the father of my children.”
She was stuck in a toxic cycle. “I lived in a life where peace did not exist,” Santiago said.
She knew she wanted a different life for her children, and for them to live in a place where they could heal and feel safe.
Earlier this year, Santiago fled her abusers. One day when she reached the end of what she could bear, and she got on her knees to pray. “God, please help me,” she recalls saying. “I can’t anymore.”
After three days of prayer, a voice told her, “Get up, your train is leaving.” Santiago got in her car and made the journey from Las Vegas back to Miami with only $500, her three youngest children, and her faith. Her oldest had stayed behind in Miami with her father — Santiago’s ex-husband — and his family.
This past April, Santiago found a shelter in Miami that could accept her and her children. The center’s supervisor, Carla Stowe, has influenced the healing of Santiago and her children.
“When women like Jeniffer come to us, we provide a safe space, faith-based classes and a room for their family,” Stowe says. “We have several support programs like Girlfriend 4 Girlfriend, where after they graduate, we continue to support the woman and help the family find affordable housing.”
The shelter has provided Santiago and her kids with a positive environment. The four children — Jayda 12; twins Josiah and Jeremiah, 7; and Barbie, 2 — have their necessities and are able to apply themselves in school.
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help this family and hundreds of others in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
Santiago has committed to her healing journey. She’s working as a crossing guard at a local public school, volunteers at a church in Miami Gardens, and spends her free time taking her children to the park. She says she feels free in a way she has never felt before.
For the holidays, Santiago would like iPads for her four children so they can do their homework and play. Her oldest daughter wants a drum set. Jeniffer would like to find a new, good-paying job where she can help women in situations like hers.
In all this chaos, one person has inspired Santiago: her close friend Inez Camacho. “Jeniffer has changed her life,” Camacho says. “She has left all the suffering behind, I always tell her, ‘Don’t let anyone take your faith away. Keep going for yourself and your kids.’ ”
How to help
To help this Wish Book nominee and the more than 100 other nominees who are in need this year:
▪ To donate, use the coupon found in the newspaper or pay securely online through www.MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
▪ For more information, call 305-376-2906 or emailWishbook@MiamiHerald.com
▪ The most requested items are often laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans
▪ Read all Wish Book stories on www.MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
This story was written for Florida International University’s South Florida Media Network.