As Mother’s Day approaches, most of us are faced with the usual Hallmark-holiday–related concerns — which flowers go best with this year’s card and how soon in advance do we need to make brunch reservations? For Lyndsey Ruiz and Mayra San Juan, Mother’s Day brings concerns of another kind. These two founders of Chula’s Mission, an organization that mentors and nurtures motherless girls, have been planning not only how to acknowledge, celebrate, and continue to mourn their own mothers, but also how best to help their younger counterparts do the same. In honor of Mother’s Day, the women will lead a small ceremony. They will gather together with Chinese lanterns and take turns talking about their mothers, sharing memories, and focusing on what made their mothers special. After that, they’ll light the lanterns and let them go, watching as they float away.
Ruiz and San Juan met in Houston in 2011, at the preschool where they both worked. San Juan was mourning the recent loss of her mother and had taken a leave of absence from her job at a military-housing construction firm in San Diego to spend time with her father in Houston.
“I had never really met anyone else who had lost her mother at a young age,” says Ruiz, who had lost her mother to cancer about a decade earlier. “We have a huge difference between us — Mayra’s mom died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. With my mother, we knew it was coming for a year and a half. We didn’t know when it was going to happen, but we knew it was going to happen. Mayra’s was so sudden that she talked to her mom on a Sunday night, then her mom was dead on Thursday.”
Despite the differences in their experiences, Ruiz says, “I knew what Mayra was going through. I could help her. She knew what I was going through, and she could help me. A lot of people are, like, ‘Oh, at least you had time to say goodbye,’ but the truth is, you can’t really prepare yourself for either [scenario]. My mom didn’t want to talk about the fact that she was dying, it was too hard for her. I kind of wanted to talk about it, to ask, ‘What do you want to tell me before you go,’ but my mom was, like, ‘No.’ Everyone’s experience is different, and they’re both really sad.”
Ruiz says, “I approached her a couple of months later and told her I had an idea for this nonprofit organization, and that I’d already incorporated it and was looking for a cofounder.”
San Juan describes herself as a guarded person, and my notes — a fraction of the length from my conversations with Ruiz — corroborate her claim. Despite her general reticence, she found herself opening up to Ruiz the moment she learned they shared a sad history.
“We’re completely different people,” San Juan tells me. “But as soon as I knew that we had this bond, it was so much easier for me to connect with her, because she gets it. It’s not that I can’t talk to anyone about this. I have wonderful friends, and I can talk to them — but they won’t get it.”
Even though Ruiz had been promoted to director of the preschool, she left her position and followed San Juan back to San Diego in order to make her dream of helping motherless girls a reality.
“I came out here, never having been here,” Ruiz says. “I didn’t have a job, but luckily I found a place to live through a friend. It was perfect timing — things don’t just happen to happen, things happen for a reason.”
Ruiz named the organization after her mother, who had gone by the nickname Chula, a Spanish word for “pretty.” Before moving here, Ruiz was unaware of Chula Vista, the region’s second largest city. She often finds herself correcting the mistaken assumption that Chula’s Mission, currently based in Solana Beach, is named for the South Bay town.
“We’re in North County right now, but our goal is to have a central location,” Ruiz says. Chula’s Mission partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Solana Beach to rent the Center for a Healthy Lifestyle for $200 a month. They found the space after googling “kitchens in San Diego.” Despite the desire to move, San Juan doubts she will be able to find a space that is comparable to where they are now. “It’s the most perfect little cottage. It has a garden, a nice kitchen, a living room — there’s even a chicken there, named Chocolate Chip. When people walk in there, they’re, like, ‘Wow,’ and I’m, like, ‘I know, can we just move all of this?’”
The kitchen and garden are essential, as one of the main activities at Chula’s Mission is its cooking classes, which “are designed to aid in the healing process by providing the comforts found in an age-old tradition shared by mothers and daughters.”
Activities such as cooking and gardening “can be incredibly healing,” says Dr. Rochelle Perper, a clinical psychologist with an emphasis on grief, child, and family psychology. Perper does not work directly with Chula’s Mission, though she does refer patients to the organization. At her practice, Therapy Changes, she says, “We make sure we know of resources and programs in the community, either as an adjunct to therapy or as an alternative.”
Though they were both adults when their mothers died, Ruiz and San Juan agreed to focus their efforts to help younger girls, particularly pre-teens, because, as Ruiz puts it, “it’s such a crucial age because of puberty.” Perper agrees. When a child loses a parent, the major disruption of routine, or lack of normality, can negatively affect their development.
“All sorts of things happen just by being part of a peer group growing up,” says Perper. “You’re defining yourself, finding out how you relate to others, and compare to others. Your likes, dislikes, how you handle conflict, how you make repair attempts when a grievance has been made.” For children who have lost a parent, “It’s lonely and isolating. Unless they know someone who’s gone through this, their peers don’t really get it, and they can feel like an outcast, like they don’t belong, like their friends just don’t understand.”
This is one of the reasons Perper refers girls to Chula’s Mission, where, she says, “They can connect with someone who more or less gets it. They can be comfortable, they can put their guard down; they don’t feel like they have to put on a face. Some children, especially girls, can feel like they have to take care of others. They don’t want to burden a parent or sibling. At Chula’s Mission, these girls are made to feel special and cared for. And it gives them a sense of normalcy. Kids need to be kids, too. Sometimes at home, it feels very serious, and at Chula, they can be a kid and be silly if they need to. They can just have fun.”
Most girls who lose their mothers — not just to death, Ruiz points out, but also incarceration, or even extended military absences — still have family. They’ll have a remaining parent or guardian, sometimes aunts, uncles, or siblings. But familial roles become rattled when a loss in the family occurs. Perper says grieving children often feel as if they’ve lost both parents. This is because the remaining parent, now suddenly thrust into the role of single parent, “is preoccupied with managing the household, dealing with financial issues, and grieving themselves.”
Emili Castaneda is a volunteer mentor at Chula’s Mission. Almost a year ago, she says, “I was listening to the radio, driving home from the grocery store one day, and I heard them talking about a nonprofit created for motherless girls. When I was 11, a couple of days after Christmas, my mom passed away of early onset breast cancer. My ears perked up, and I started crying in my car. I thought, Wow, I’d never heard of that, it’s such a great idea.”
Castaneda considers herself lucky for having two older sisters and a very involved father, all of whom she credits for helping her pull through after her mother eventually succumbed to a long battle with breast cancer.
“My dad should win tons of awards for raising three teenage girls,” she says. “But just having that network of females in my life, and learning from them as they taught me how to be a woman, how to navigate the world of being a female. I thought, Wow, there’s probably girls out there who don’t have aunts or sisters or a strong female presence that can be there for them, or answer their questions, or just kind of hang out. Not to discount dads or uncles, but from my perspective, having my sisters made me who I am today.”
Castaneda’s mentee is eight years old. “She’s just the sweetest little girl, so cute, she has a really great, quirky personality, she’s artistic, loves animals, and is excited to do fun stuff — she’s super outdoorsy, one of those kids who will dig up all the roly-polies, and she’s got all these animal facts in her head.” This mentee, who I’ll call Mary, is an only child. “When I first met Mary’s dad, I was, like, ‘Look, I don’t want to ever make your daughter feel like she has to talk about anything emotional,” Castaneda recalls. “When you’re that young, you don’t want to feel like you’re different than anyone else. When my mom passed away, the counselor would come and check on me and call me into her office, but I was, like, ‘Nothing is wrong with me! I just want to be a normal kid, I don’t want to talk about stuff.’”
Ruiz remembers when Mary first came to Chula’s Mission.
“Her dad called me after hearing about us,” she says. “He was a little nervous, and he said, ‘You know, I really don’t think she needs help. Everything’s great,’ and I was thinking to myself, Oh my gosh, he has no idea. If she doesn’t get help, you never know what can happen — drug abuse, thoughts of suicide, depression, self-hardening, promiscuity. And we want to stop that. But I could tell he wasn’t quite ready. We went back-and-forth. He asked a lot of questions, and I said, ‘Look, we’re here for you and here to help whenever you’re ready.’ He ended up contacting me about three months later and said, ‘Okay, I think we’re ready now.’”
Castaneda says Mary was reserved at first but that, over time, she came out of her shell.
“We’ll do a cooking class or other activities and hang out with all us girls and chat about things like her day at school and whether she dislikes or loves the meal we’re making that night.”
For a single child like Mary, who loves spending time with her dad, Ruiz says, Chula’s Mission provides the complement of a primarily female environment.
“I know at home she plays with cars, and they talk about cars, and it’s really great,” says Ruiz. “But our Valentine’s Day party, for example, was really girly, so she has time to just be a girl.” Ruiz laughs warmly and says, “Her dad walked in a couple of days ago and said, ‘Can you please teach her how to do her hair? I can’t anymore. I tried, but her hair’s a mess every morning.’ We were, like, ‘We’ve got this.’”
Ruiz, San Juan, the mentors, and mentees come together twice a month. Though each girl has her own mentor, most everything is done in a group setting.
“The first day, they can be very shy,” says Ruiz. “So, we do an apron-decorating class. Kids tend to open up more when they’re being creative.”
Castaneda says that part of the struggle of being a girl without a mother is the shame that comes with it.
“You don’t want other people to feel guilty or bad for you.” So being able to spend time with other girls and women who are all part of the same “underground club” lifts that burden. And not just for the kids. “At the end of the day, there is a selfish part of me that enjoys being around women in my age group who have lost their mom,” Castaneda says. “You get a nice satisfaction, being with someone who’s been through what you’ve been through.”
“A lot of times, we don’t really know how to process grief in our society,” says Perper. “We live in a ‘get over it and move on’ sort of world. But you can’t get over it, or under it, or around it — you have to get through grief.” The best way to help a child get through grief, she says, is to provide a safe place. “A child has the right to their own grief experience. They have a right not to be rushed through their grief. It may take some time, and if the child isn’t ready, that’s okay.”
Perper says some surviving parents have a difficult time talking about their lost loved one, and this can prevent children from an important part of the grieving process, of sharing memories of their missing parent. Kids “have the right to talk about what they miss about their parent. Allow them to express themselves and feel comfortable to say and feel whatever it is that they’re feeling. It’s all right for kids to share memories, to search for meaning, to ask questions.”
“The mourning is never going to go away completely,” says San Juan. “And it’s going to be re-triggered through all the milestones we have. When you’re young, you have to go through graduation, applying for college — so many things. I think that being part of this group is only going to be beneficial because the girls have that support.”
Ruiz feels the same way. “‘Lifelong’ is such a really powerful word, but we want this to be a lifelong commitment,” she says. “Not just to be there with them for a semester or year, but for all of their milestones. When they get married, Chula’s Mission is going to be there. I see us as a family walking through their lives and all those important things they’re going to do.” But Ruiz also makes it clear that she wants to supplement, and not replace, existing family. “We’re kind of like this surrogate family. We are coming to them, knowing that we’re not ever going to replace the loss of their mom or replace whoever is now taking care of them and looking out for them, but to enhance their path to wellness and success.”
So far, the mentees have been few. Ruiz and San Juan attribute this to a lack of awareness in the region.
“That’s like a second job in itself, just trying to find the girls,” says Ruiz. The services are free and include grief counseling with a therapist in either private or group settings in addition to the cooking classes, activities, and the mentor program. Ruiz says her ultimate goal is for Chula’s Mission to become an after-school program.
“I would like to have transportation for the kids. To go get the child from whichever school they’re attending, take them to our facility for after-school programs like tutoring, cooking, proper hygiene, maybe an etiquette class, maybe crafting. We want to offer transportation, to make it as easy as possible for the parent or guardian.”
Chula’s Mission currently operates on around $30,000 a year, with money that comes from donations and fundraisers held every six months. Ruiz estimates that to fully realize their vision would cost closer to $500,000 annually. This would include a mortgage or lease for their own facility, insurance, equipment, transportation, the cost of running daily programs, and salaries that would allow the cofounders to quit their current jobs.
“We’re hoping once it becomes an after-school program, that Mayra and I would be able to do this full time — as far as we’ve come, with what’s going on in our daily lives and working full-time, I can’t even imagine just how far we could go if we could do this full-time. Baby steps. You gotta start somewhere, right?”
In the meantime, the women behind Chula’s Mission are beginning to see signs of progress in their current mentees.
“I know that what we’re doing is great. I know it’s appreciated. But I definitely saw it at our Christmas party last year,” says San Juan. “They came in with presents for us. I was not expecting that at all.” Another mentee brought a book of stickers for Mary. “She knows her and knows what she loves,” says San Juan. “It was one of the sweetest things, I just wanted to cry.”