By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
There’s an open field next to the Star Motel on U.S. Highway 192 in Kissimmee
You can see Lake Cecile between the buildings during the day.
At night, neon signs, traffic lights and zooming cars illuminate the open space.
This busy strip is in the heart of Osceola County’s tourism corridor. It’s become home to families in transition living at the extended-stay motels originally built for visitors.
About 70 children live at the Star, which sits between two other extended-stay motels that more school-aged children call home.
School busses pick up students in elementary, middle and high school along U.S. 192 every morning. There are more than 2,000 motel-dwelling kids in Osceola, down from 5,000 just two years ago. District officials said local short-term motels are declining those looking for extended stays with their families.
A typical family moves into the Star’s one-bedroom rooms from houses or apartments after a financial emergency knocks them off their feet, said front desk clerk Marie Arguez.
“It’s often a last resort. It’s hard for them. Especially for the kids.
They’re used to having their own space and you see a lot of older kids taking care of their siblings. They learn to adapt but they still need to be kids, too, ” said Arguez, affectionately known as Mama Maria.
The motel’s new owner and general manager just installed a basketball hoop that’s already a hit. Nearby there’s an old piece of carpet where the kids hang out on the property.
Arguez’s “children” often lack both the necessities and the creature comforts that others in their peer group outside the motels have. Most don’t have computers, cell phones, reliable transportation or fees for extracurricular activities. Some lack decent clothes, shoes and even the most basic toiletries, medicine and fresh foods.
Arguez provides as much as she can and has spent the past eight years developing connections in the community with those similarly inclined.
Despite their needs, the kids living at the Star have high spirits, ambitions to attend college and hope for the future. Syler 15, and Joshua 18, both have lived at the Star with their families for more than two years. Both go to Celebration High School just down the road. Syler’s a sophomore, Joshua a senior.
On Nov. 4, they were among more than 100 kids who came out to take part in Camp Ohana, an all-day event put on by local volunteers – from singers, musicians and dancing coaches to a CPR instructor and a Harlem Globetrotter.
Smiles were bright and the excitement was palpable. There was food, face painting, entertainment and activities for kids of all ages.
The kids living at the motels take any opportunity they can to get some space outside the crowded single room where their whole family eats, sleeps and lives. Most share a bed with a sibling or a parent.
“The smallest kindness goes so far with them. It can make all the difference,” she said.
Arguez said the main thing preventing families in the motels from transitioning back to more stable housing is bad credit. It makes deposits for apartments and electricity out of reach for them, she said.
The Community Hope Center of Osceola County, a nonprofit that works closely with local government, area hospitals and other organizations to help families living in motels, has helped Maria assist five families with getting out of the motel and into homes.
“It’s a blessing. I would love to be able to help at least one family a year but more would be good,” she said.
Miracles are what keep spirits high at the Star, a friendly and relatively safe place for those who call the motel home, said Arguez. She said she also enjoys the support of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office to maintain order in a sometimes chaotic environment.
Churches in the bustling west U.S. 192 area and throughout Osceola County also help Maria help residents, especially the children. There aren’t really any formal partnership, “they just come and bring food and help pay the rent for families sometimes,” Arguez said. “One minister we know only as Pastor Superhero.”