It was more than a decade ago, but Gina Hunter remembers the Christmas of 2001 like it was yesterday.
Those were times of desperation, exhaustion, and frustration, when the single mother of two could ill-afford the demands of what had become her everyday life. Despite an unyielding drive to accomplish her educational and career goals, Hunter was equally bound by time and money, and things didn’t seem to be getting better anytime soon.
By 4 a.m., Hunter, then 32, was already juggling her numerous priorities – getting her children ready for school, getting herself ready for work as a Marana Middle School bus driver, and trying to catch up on her studies for the University of Arizona. By 5:45, she was heading to work on her Honda motorcycle, which, in the chilly winter months, had become her only form of transportation.
Her truck had broken down. Her water heater was failing. The walls, ceilings, and floors of her trailer were in need of repair. The “to-do” list, it seemed, was unmanageable. Between the 13-hour days of work, school, and taking care of her children, little time remained to concentrate on any of her other priorities. And at about $8 per hour on the job, what time would allow, money would not.
“I was worn out,” Hunter admitted. “I wanted to give up.”
Things didn’t get any easier with Christmas approaching.
“It’s something you hate as a parent, not being able to buy your kids Christmas presents,” said Hunter.
Then, something finally went her way.
Hearing Hunter’s cry for help in an Explorer article published in 2001, the public opened up their hearts, donating several gifts, and one far more significant item.
A woman named Charlene, who was dying of cancer, and whom Hunter had never met, changed Hunter’s family’s lives that Christmas by giving them a new trailer, free of charge.
“We were so grateful,” recalled Hunter’s daughter, Tiffany McClain, who was 11 years old at the time. “I remember that Christmas still, which was also my birthday. It felt like an actual celebration time. We were always used to getting one present we really wanted, and that year we were given a lot more, and we went from an older place to a place that was a lot nicer one.”
Unfortunately, soon after, Charlene passed away. But for Hunter and her family, who became good friends with Charlene, there is no forgetting the good deed done that year, nor what else she did.
“She was always pushing me to finish school,” said Hunter. “A lot of my motivation came from her when I wanted to quit. She got to see an invitation to my graduation before she died.”
Hunter graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology, and then went on to receive her teaching degree before receiving her Master’s Degree at the University of Arizona.
“It was a big sigh of relief (graduating),” said Hunter.
Hunter has been teaching for nine years now, and currently teaches kindergarten at Davidson Elementary School. After the blessing of that Christmas, Hunter continues to pay it forward any way she can.
“I try to teach these kids that they can be successful,” said Hunter. “Many of my students don’t have a lot, so to show them they can be a success is important.”
Hunter also anonymously donates gifts to kids in her class, helping out families she knows are struggling.
The success Hunter has experienced has altogether changed her outlook on life.
“I’m a different person now,” she said. “I can actually imagine good things happening now in my life.”
Hunter’s determination and strong-will has served as an example for her two children, and inspired them to continue their education. Her son currently attends Pima Community College, while her daughter is a senior at the University of Arizona.
“It really put things into perspective for me,” said McClain. “When I start asking myself ‘How can I do this?’ I realize I need to just keep going and stop complaining. Just keep going, believing in what you have to do. Your plan may not go exactly how you wanted, but if you keep trying, it will happen. My mom is amazing, and we are bonded by having to go through all that stuff.”
McClain is currently enrolled at the university’s Eller College of Management, as well as the ROTC program. She plans to go active duty in a branch of military still to be decided.
Hunter is further pursuing her teaching goals, and has recently filed for residency with the University of Arizona.