When Sandy Cortez's husband walked out on her and her four children three years ago, she set - and met - a series of goals for herself: Get her GED. Divorce him. Get full custody of the kids. And go to college.
Getting a house of their own was the last unchecked box on her to-do list. By the end of this month, however, she will have accomplished that, too.
Within weeks, Cortez and her children will move into a renovated five-bedroom house in Grand Forks as Red River Valley Habitat for Humanity's 2020 homeowner. Cortez said the move represents a huge step forward for her and her kids.
"We're just looking forward to a new journey of me and the kids together and see what else we can accomplish and start together as a family," she said.
Marisa Sauceda, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity, said Cortez became the recipient of the 2020 home by a stroke of coincidence.
The organization builds or renovates one home per year, and the homeowner for 2020 already had been selected when Cortez reached out to Habitat for Humanity in November. Sauceda encouraged her to apply anyway.
Habitat for Humanity built this year's house in 2012, but its basement was destroyed in the flooding of September 2019. When that homeowner moved away from the area, Habitat for Humanity once again renovated the home to give it to a new owner last year.
But the owner who had initially been selected to receive the home withdrew from the program. Suddenly, Sauceda said, there was a five-bedroom home without an owner and a new application from a single mother with four kids in need.
Sauceda said she couldn't think of a family more deserving.
"She is very strong," Sauceda said. "Her last goal was to buy a house, and now she's doing that. Her kids are over the moon, and she's very happy."
Cortez said that her one biggest goal over the past few years has been to provide for her family and their futures. She had to vacate the apartment she had shared with her husband because it was paid for through his income.
"I just said to myself, 'I can just sit here and feel sorry for myself, or get up and do something for my kids,'" she said. "And I decided to go back to school."
Once she was back on her feet and in an apartment, she got a job at Cabela's and began studying law enforcement at Northland Community and Technical College. Cortez graduated in 2020 at the top of her class while raising her four children, ages 4 through 12.
Now, she's working as a correctional officer at Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston. She feels blessed by how far she's come.
Cortez has begun looking ahead might create a new list of goals. She said her hope now is to focus on putting away money for her kids' college funds and to pursue her dream career as a sheriff's deputy.
She's grateful that, now, she'll be pursuing her goals in a home of her own.
"This house is not only a blessing to show my kids all the hard work has paid off through this journey of me and them," she said. "It's also a place that my kids can call home. I want them to grow up and have a place where they can create memories and say, 'This is a place that my mom, with her hard work, gave us, and this is where we can come back and have our memories built and look forward to our future."