How two women found refuge for their families on a Dallas bus
As the temperatures plunged early Tuesday, Marleny Almendarez held her son, Aaron, an 11-year-old on the autism spectrum, to keep him warm. Their Pleasant Grove home had lost power a day earlier.
Matthew, her 14-year-old, also slept in her bedroom. They shut the door to preserve heat and covered themselves with blankets.
When the sun started to rise behind cloudy skies, their pet bird, Little Rainbow, did not sing its morning song.
“We usually in the mornings always have to yell, ‘Little Rainbow, Little Rainbow, be quiet!’” said Almendarez, 38.
Marleny Almendarez, 38, held Little Rainbow in her hands after he appeared dead from low temperatures. Her house in Pleasant Grove lost power after the snowstorm Uri hit Texas last Sunday. Almendarez spent Tuesday and Wednesday night with her two children, one of them on the spectrum, in a bus that the city has provided as a warming center located in Pleasant Oaks Recreation Center. (Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)
They wrapped Little Rainbow in towels, compressing his chest. But their colorful parakeet appeared dead.
With the temperature below 40 degrees, the mother could not allow her children to sleep in the cold anymore.
Miles away from Almendarez’s home, Gloria Sanders on Wednesday called 911.
The 76-year-old moved in with her mother two years ago after the elder woman’s dementia became more severe. And now the temperatures in their home were plummeting.
Police told her to follow them to a warming center close to their home. With the help of neighbors, Sanders got her mother inside her four-door Kia. Sanders’ mother, Maria Barajas, uses a wheelchair. She is 100 years old.
Once they were in the car, Sanders followed Dallas police to a nearby rec center.
Sanders bundled her mother up in layers, placing a colorful ear warmer headband on top of her shoulder-length white hair.
Two caretakers, one bus
A mother. A daughter. Each trying to survive this week’s winter storm as Texas’ electrical grid was pushed to the brink.
Their best option for warmth was to sleep overnight in a charter bus in the parking lot of the Pleasant Oaks Recreation Center.
In Pleasant Grove, a predominantly working-class neighborhood in southeast Dallas, there were limited options for people with disabilities and the elderly to find refuge from the agonizing cold. Most were unable to get downtown safely.
But what was available became lifesaving, they say.
Almendarez learned of the bus through a Facebook group, Reform Dallas, after her council member, Jaime Resendez, posted information there. The city this week set up more than a dozen charter buses for people to shelter from the cold.
“I had no idea,” she said. “The city needs to work on outreach in these cases.”
She also shared concerns that many Pleasant Grove residents likely did not want to leave their homes and belongings, scared of break-ins.
The streets in Pleasant Grove were treacherous as the week’s historic snowfall showed no indication of getting plowed or treated. Half a dozen traffic lights were out in the neighborhood, adding to the danger for those trying to find a way out. There was little food to find in this food desert.
The two caretakers — Sanders and Almendarez — met by unfortunate coincidence.
Almendarez, who has lived in Pleasant Grove for 23 years, endured the 2011 snowstorm when the power went out at her home for about a day and a half.
“This doesn’t even compare,” she said.
‘Couldn’t do another night’
Sanders and her mother on Wednesday afternoon sat inside the Pleasant Oaks Recreation Center. Two staffers from the city of Dallas brought them Cheez-Its and water.
“The police, the staffers have been so kind to us,” Sanders said. She draped a knitted shawl over her shoulders.
After several hours at the rec center, Sanders’ mother became flustered. Barajas grabbed the wheelchair handles to push herself up, trying to leave the empty gym.
Gloria Sanders, 76, and her mother, Maria Barajas, who is 100 years old and has dementia, warmed up at the Pleasant Oaks Recreation Center on Wednesday. Their home lost power early Monday after the cold hit Texas. (Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)
“Can you take me to my house?” she asked two Dallas Morning News journalists. “Please, give me your hand.”
The rec center staff planned to close the building at 5 p.m.
When Sanders heard from a neighbor that power was still off at her house, she made the difficult decision to spend the night on the bus, which was outside in the parking lot.
Unable to carry her, two city employees helped Sanders lift her mother onto the bus.
Once inside, Sanders helped her mother take off her sweater. The bus was warm. Barajas complained she was hot.
“No puedo, no puedo,” Barajas said. “I can’t,” she added as she switched between Spanish and English. Her soft voice trailed off.
Barajas looked out a window and to her daughter.
“Is it raining?” she asked.
“No mama, it snowed,” her daughter responded.
Years ago, Barajas worked as a freight line typist, where she helped type the bills of goods that went into trucks, as she raised Sanders and her brother, who lives in Oregon.
Sanders gave her mother anxiety medication to help settle her nerves.
“Sometimes, I still see glimpses of my mom,” Sanders said. She reached for her mother’s hand.
Gloria Sanders, 76, reached for her mother’s arm, Maria Barajas, 100, as it rested on the armrest of her seat to try to calm her down as they prepared to spend the night on the bus that served as a warming center outside Pleasant Oaks Recreation Center on Wednesday.(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)
Almendarez, who lives with extended family members, makes ends meet on her disability check. Two years ago, a brain aneurysm landed her in the hospital. She had to learn to walk and talk again.
“Dios es grande,” she says. (God is great.)
She planned to drive back home to pick up her 14-year-old son, who wanted to join them on the bus.
“If you want, we can bring you back pillows, food,” Almendarez offered Sanders.
By nightfall, the families turned their bus seats into makeshift beds. They laid out blankets.
Sanders looked at her mom.
“I couldn’t do another night,” she said. “I was scared she’d freeze to death.”
On Thursday morning, Almendarez gave her son, Aaron, a tortilla for breakfast. The boy didn’t want to leave the warmth of the bus.
But for the first time since Monday, they had power at home for several hours.
Around 7 a.m. on Thursday, Dallas Fire-Rescue arrived to help Barajas off the bus and into her daughter’s car. The two drove back to their Pleasant Grove home.
“When mother is in an unusual and unfamiliar environment, it’s very stressful,” Sanders said.
She gauged the temperature in their house. “It’s not as bad. It’s getting better.”
After spending a night on the bus, Sanders decided she and her mother would stay home and brave the cold.