An American Dream Comes Full Circle – with a Little Help from BayCare

Soledad Flores’ was only seven years old when her family emigrated from Mexico to the United States and settled in Florida’s Tampa Bay region. As her parents worked 14-hour days picking strawberries to support their family, Soledad struggled to understand schoolwork taught in a language she didn’t speak and care for her two younger sisters, then aged four and six months.

Soledad with her two sisters and cousin

Her story is the “American dream’ – where hard work, dedication, and opportunity enabled her to go from barely having enough food to eat and clothes to wear to helping others in similar situations as an RN with the San Jose Mission, one of the free clinic initiatives supported by BayCare’s Faith Community Nursing program and funded by generous donations to the St. Joseph’s Hospitals Foundation.

“It certainly wasn’t easy,” shares Soledad, who now has two children of her own, both college students whose world is very different than their mom’s was at their age. “And I couldn’t have done it without the help of St. Joe’s.”

As a young girl, most of the kids she went to school with didn’t understand her life – the fact that she and her family worked as pickers in the strawberry fields and how her family had to do without so many things, including medical care, because there was little money coming in, especially during the off season. For people like Soledad and her family, you didn’t go see a doctor unless you were literally dying, and then it was a trip to the ER.

Although a good student, Soledad didn’t finish high school, instead marrying and starting a family at only 17. While she planned to stay in school and graduate with her husband’s blessing, she distinctly remembers her mom’s very traditional reaction, telling her “You made a choice to be a wife and mother and that is your life now.” Even though she was married with a baby on the way, Soledad still felt compelled to listen to her mother.

The San Jose Mission in Dover and La Esperanza in Wimauma are two free clinics funded through a partnership between Catholic Charities and BayCare. Both support immigrant families like Soledad’s in a multitude of ways. Teachers at SJM saw potential in the independent young woman they had come to know and told Soledad about a program offered to farm workers to get an education. She enrolled, earning first her high school diploma, and then her CNA certification in 2005.

Her CNA classes were inside the clinic and as she witnessed the wonderful work being done there, Soledad knew she wanted to be more involved.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘someday,’” she recalls.

Soledad was introduced to St. Joe’s while doing clinical hours for her CNA. The manager there was so impressed with Soledad, she offered her a job upon completion of her certification.

“What she really offered me was an incredible opportunity, because that first job at BayCare opened doors for me and helped me realize my dream of becoming a nurse. BayCare not only cheered me on, they also paid for most of my education.”

Soledad on the day of her graduation from USF surrounded by her family

Another person cheering Soledad on was her husband, who made it possible for Soledad to work full time while also attending classes full time. With his support, she earned her nursing degree from Hillsborough Community College and then her bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida in 2019. She was hired as a floor nurse at South Baptist Florida Hospital (part of the BayCare Health System) right before the Covid pandemic hit. The months that followed took a toll on Soledad’s mental and emotional well-being.

“It was extremely challenging and upsetting. Dealing with all that death and uncertainty impacted me tremendously. I didn’t want to leave BayCare, but I didn’t think I could do it anymore.”

With her manager’s support, Soledad started her job search and immediately found an opening for a community nursing position in a free clinic.  She was excited but the thought of leaving her BayCare family troubled her.

She interviewed for the position and discovered she didn’t need to leave BayCare after all! The job was at the San Jose Mission!

“One of the driving forces for becoming a nurse was so I could one day volunteer at SJM – because I knew first-hand how important access to medical care was for the immigrant population there. Being able to do that and still be part of BayCare, I can’t tell you what it meant to me.”

It’s also meant a lot to the community she now serves, who appreciate being cared for by one of their own, someone who understand their challenges and limitations when it comes to their health.

“There’s a certain level of trust. They tell me a lot more than they would someone else who hasn’t experienced what they have. I can offer ideas and help them improvise alternatives because I know what their reality is. I lived it.”

Soledad’s full circle journey also gives the young people and their parents who come to SJM much more than help with their medical care. Her success represents a future filled with possibility.

“I’m so grateful to St. Joe’s and BayCare for the opportunities they gave me professionally during the last two decades, but also personally for enabling me to give back to my community in such a meaningful way.