Yanely Reyes hasn't seen her son, David, except for photos, since he was born not quite a year ago. It has hurt, knowing he's growing up without her. She listens for laughs and mumbles and thinks his crying sounds cute when she calls Puerto Rico every few days.
This year, the boy with brown eyes like hers is coming back.
For him, she pulled her life together. Summer lessons, with other single mothers, in software and business etiquette at Skyview Learning Group led to hospital work.
This month, she plans to move out of her cold apartment with its broken heating system. In her new place in South Buffalo, she intends to set up the crib she bought at a Black Friday sale.
Buffalo had a reputation as a place so inexpensive, it was easy to strive. Reyes' mother had come while pregnant with her and found a job at the Ford plant.
But when Reyes was 14, her family returned to Puerto Rico. When she graduated from high school four years later, it seemed like there were no jobs. College was expensive. In Buffalo, she thought she would be free, find work and go to school.
At 18, just out of high school, she saved the money she earned serving hot chocolate and arranging flowers at a funeral home. In a few months, she bought a one-way ticket to Buffalo without telling her family.
"I felt that I could beat the world," she said.
Her mother wasn't happy. She let her go with a warning, "If you get pregnant, don't call me."
Making a home by herself was harder than she thought. Reyes lived at a homeless shelter downtown, saving on bus fare by walking to apply for jobs.
Eventually, she got a job as a gas station cashier. She was promoted to assistant manager, earned enough to buy her first car.
Romance followed. It failed. She was pregnant.
Two months before the baby was due, she got up the nerve to call her grandmother in Puerto Rico. Call your mother, the elder advised; she had made mistakes, too.
"Momy" surprised her with understanding. She arrived in Buffalo Feb. 9, at about 8 p.m.
The next evening, Reyes' tiny son was looking at her.
Her mother didn't think it was wise for him to stay. They made a deal: If Reyes could get a good job, David would return.
Thoughts of him pushed her forward. She went back to the circuit of agencies that helped from the start.
A counselor at Hispanics United suggested she call Orlando Perez. She thought she was applying for a job when the serious man asked about her goals. He seemed struck by her determination to get her son back.
He said he had a connection at Women & Children's Hospital. She already had applied and been denied work at Kaleida Health 20 times.
Perez, a former account executive for Ingram Micro, was opening Skyview in a small office on Delaware Avenue. It was a for-profit business, funded by the Buffalo Employment and Training Center.
Perez knew there were lots of back-office, call-center jobs, so he decided to train people to fill those positions.
Reyes went to class all day, Monday through Friday, for the monthlong program. She earned a Microsoft Excel certification. She learned to record a proper voicemail message and to interview without slang.
One morning, two women executives walked in, and Reyes was the only one to stand up. She shook hands with a vice president at Children's Hospital and head of human resources.
"I really wanted them to know that I appreciated them coming there," she said.
When Reyes applied to Kaleida for the 21st time, she got a part-time job at Buffalo General.In October, she took food orders and made adjustments when patients were unhappy with menus.
Last month, her mother called to ask if this new job was sure. They worked out a plan for the family to move back to Buffalo when the weather warms in June. Her stepfather will look for work, her 15-year-old sister will go to high school, and her mother will take care of David.
Days before Christmas, Reyes got word she was promoted to full time, with full health insurance and tuition reimbursement that will help pay for the associate's degree health information program she enrolled in at Erie Community College starting in September.
Soon everyone will be living in the roomy two-bedroom apartment with a little backyard. She's sent money home for plane tickets and stashed away bags of diapers, clothes and toys. One of the best things was something her mother said.
"Yo estoy orgullosa de ti."
The words that mean, "I'm proud of you," meant Reyes finally felt like she was doing something right.