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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Embracing life’s battles

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By Audrey Werth/ tr news editor

For TR student Leslie Fernandez, school is the least of her worries. 

Since 2013, she has traveled to Honduras and Iraq helping refugees and residents at a rehab facility. In that time, she has also dealt with her mother’s death and fought to gain custody of her younger brother.

TR student Leslie Fernandez stands with children in an Iraq refugee camp in May. She helped her father put on shows for the children.Photo courtesy Leslie Fernandez
TR student Leslie Fernandez stands with children in an Iraq refugee camp in May. She helped her father put on shows for the children.
Photo courtesy Leslie Fernandez

“It’s been hard, but it’s been good,” Fernandez said.

Though she and her family have been through a lot over the past couple of years, Fernandez takes it in stride saying her faith and belief that in the bigger picture things will work out have kept her going.

“I think I’ve learned so much that normally people don’t learn until their late 20s or early 30s, so I’m definitely grateful for that,” she said.

Before her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Fernandez spent the better part of a year working at a rehab facility in Honduras. After her mother’s death, Fernandez left for Iraq to help families in refugee camps. To understand how she found herself in these places, one has to take a step back to when she was 12 years old.

Fernandez, the eldest of three siblings, grew up without really having a father in her life. When he did make an appearance, he found a way to let her down, she said.

On one occasion, Fernandez was left crying outside her church.

When Chagy Adorno, the father of a friend of hers, saw her crying, he spoke to her and decided if she needed a father, he would be there for her.

“He took that position as my dad because my dad was never in my life,” she said.

Now, nine years later, she still calls him dad.

“I’ve learned that having a dad is so crucial for a daughter,” Fernandez said. “You find acceptance, and you find your identity in yourself. A dad gives you that a lot.”

Adorno said he learned a lot from being Fernandez’ dad as well.

“At that point, my wife was talking to me about adopting, and I remember saying to her, ‘I don’t know how I am going to love someone who is from outside the same as I love my own kids,’” Adorno said.

He said over time, Fernandez became like one of his children.

She is a woman who loves to serve the world. She has become a warrior. From the beginning, she’s had to battle everything in her life.”

Chagy Adorno

“I said, ‘You want a father. I will give you that, but also, I want a daughter,’” he said.

Adorno travels internationally using clowning and illusions as a way to share joy and the Christian gospel with people in need.

“That’s how I got plugged in. My dad has a lot of connections,” she said. “In February 2013, I had already done a few mission trips, and I was going through a really rough time in my life. My dad was like, ‘How about you go to this ministry, it’s in Honduras, and just take a break? Take a break from school, from Fort Worth. How about you just leave for a little bit?’ I was like, ‘I think that’s what I need to do.’”

She left for Honduras that February and worked with the rehab facility through November.

“I was going in as an intern,” Fernandez said. “But, in order to do that, I had to first live like these rehab residents just to see what it is that they go through, what’s their schedule like on a daily basis while they live there. I was living and sleeping with them, so it was a bit scary.”

Fernandez worked predominantly with women and children.

“I saw a lot of crazy stuff,” she said. “The way it works is you’re basically off your drug, whatever it is — sometimes alcoholism, drugs and even depression.”

People had come to this facility not just from Honduras but from Argentina and Mexico. Fernandez even met a woman from Beaumont, Texas.

Leslie Fernandez stands with her mother, a cancer victim.Photo courtesy Leslie Fernandez
Leslie Fernandez stands with her mother, a cancer victim.
Photo courtesy Leslie Fernandez

The program was Christian-based. The ministry included a rehab facility and a school. Fernandez also worked as the kindergarten teacher for the children’s ministry.

She worked with two girls who had been left in a pigpen before they were brought to the ministry: a woman who had been raped by her brother-in-law and her son as well as a young girl whose mother had used her as a drug mule.

“We take these people out of these horrible living situations and give them some hope of any sort, and we teach them English,” Fernandez said.

It was when she first returned home that her mother became ill.

“I came back at the perfect time in my life because my mom got sick within that week that I was back and had surgery,” she said. “She was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor.”

After her mother did six months of chemo radiation, they went on vacation to Cancun, Mexico, as a family.

“She was cancer free for about two months, and then it came back in October of last year. She passed away November of last year,” she said.

Three days after her mother’s burial, Fernandez’ biological father took her youngest brother, Max, to live with him.

“Because legally he was still a living parent, I dropped Max off with him,” she said. “And whenever Max told me ‘Hey, can you come pick me up?’ he wouldn’t give him back to me.’”

Her brother lived with their father for about a month, and during that time, Fernandez searched for a lawyer to help her get him back.

“Finally, I found one downtown, and she helped us,” she said. “Max is living with me, and I have the same custody as my mom.”

They have their final trial in November, and Fernandez is confident it will work out.

“It just sucks knowing that about your dad,” she said. “After your mom passes away, you think your dad is going to be there for you. And then it’s like, ‘Not really, I’m going to make your life even harder.’”

Luckily, Fernandez has had a strong support system of friends and family around her.

This has made it easier though it has still been hard, she said.

“I felt cheated,” she said. “My thinking was, ‘God, I just served you for almost a year in another country, and then I come back and you take my mom away from me. That’s not fair.’”

Then, in May, she went to Iraq to help Adorno with his clowning and illusion productions to entertain families in refugee camps.

“It was Mother’s Day our time, and my dad said, ‘I’m going to go to this little church. I’m going to preach, and I want you to share something,’” Fernandez said. “I was thinking, ‘How am I going to share anything when all of this time I’ve been mad at God?’”

He encouraged her just to share what she could. So she talked about her mom and that Mother’s Day in Texas was approaching.

“After I shared, I was amazed by how many people came up to me and said, ‘I just lost my dad to cancer,’ or ‘I know exactly what you are feeling,’” she said. “That was an awesome thing to experience — knowing that through my suffering, there is joy and joy for others and hope for others to hear.”

Her boyfriend, Cody May, saw what she dealt with over the past year.

“When we first met, she never explained to me that her mom was going through chemotherapy or that she had cancer,” he said. “Outwardly, she would never express it to anyone, never let them know that it was hard.”

He said she has been taking care of her youngest brother, making sure that he does well academically and athletically. And she paid the bills on their house.

“If I had that much responsibility, I just know I couldn’t do it all by myself,” he said. “So for her to have that much stability and determination to be a mother and a student, a girlfriend and a daughter, it’s just really hard things for her to do at this time in her life. But she’s doing them, and she’s doing them well.”

Her friends and family believe Fernandez is up for any challenge she faces.

“She is a woman who loves to serve the world,” Adorno said. “She has become a warrior. From the beginning, she’s had to battle everything in her life.”

Fernandez said she has learned a lot through this experience. Now, she is preparing to finish a degree in biblical studies and plans to spend three or four months this summer helping people in another country.

“You definitely grow up, and you definitely gain a sense of reality,” she said. “You gain so much wisdom from it.”

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