Bea Salazar was at an all-time low in 1990 when a trip to the Dumpster—yes, the Dumpster—changed her life. Disabled in an accident at the Dallas factory where she worked, the single mom relied on food stamps to care for her five kids. "I was of no use to anyone," she says. "I didn't want to live." Then one afternoon, Salazar was taking out the trash at her apartment complex when she saw a small boy rummaging in a Dumpster. "He had found a piece of dirty bread and was about to eat it," Salazar recalls. "I took it away from him, and he began to cry. That's when I realized he was hungry."

Salazar took him to her apartment and made him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. "He ate it and took off," she says. "But 15 minutes later five or six children were standing at my door asking for sandwiches." The next day more kids showed up. "It made me so happy knowing someone needed me," says Salazar, 58. But it also made her angry. "I started asking, 'What's wrong with this picture? Why are these children so hungry?' "

She lacked an answer but devised a solution. Since 1990 Salazar has helped nearly 2,000 needy children through her own charity, Bea's Kids. With help from area churches, businesses and individuals and an operating budget of $176,000 a year, Salazar, who isn't paid, and a staff of five provide after-school and summer programs, counseling, food, clothes and medical help to children in two low-income housing developments in the Dallas suburbs of Carrollton and Farmers Branch. "With what Bea has been through in her own life, she could have given up," says Dallas social worker Joe Yanez, a Bea's Kids counselor. "Instead, she saw children in need and did something to help them. There is a toughness in her."

Salazar has received awards from former Presidents Bush and Clinton and from Oprah Winfrey, and she has a local middle school named in her honor, but she still lives in the same building where she started, next door to an apartment that serves as Bea's Kids headquarters. Location makes all the difference when it comes to helping the needy, says Yanez: "They're right in the heart of it." At the moment, Bea provides 146 local children aged 14 to 17 with everything from reading help to mattresses for those whose families can't afford beds. "The great thing about Bea's Kids is that Bea is always there," says Beatrice Hernandez, 22, a student at nearby Brookhaven Community College, who credits Salazar with keeping her away from gangs. "She gave me the desire to be what I wanted regardless of what anyone else said."

Salazar experienced the pitfalls of growing up firsthand. When she was still a toddler in rural Eagle Pass, Texas, her parents divorced, and her mother supported Bea and three siblings by working at a dry cleaner and selling tamales. At 16, Bea married Ubaldo Salazar, and the couple relocated to Carrollton, where he found work as a fork-lift operator. "I thought we were going to live happily ever after," says Salazar. But in 1975 the couple divorced. "My grandfather left my grandmother, my father left my mother, and my husband left me—it was a bad cycle," she says.

To support her children (Mona, 39; Orlando, 36; Jesse, 34; Maribel, 31; and Robert, 30), Salazar worked nights at a Dallas semiconductor plant. "She would tell us to go to bed and she would leave and go to work, then come home and wake us up and get us to school," says son Orlando, who now serves as vice president of Bea's Kids. "She didn't have any type of life outside of us."

In 1981 a sleep-deprived Salazar was repairing a machine on the assembly line when the stool she was standing on gave way; she shattered two discs in her back and fractured her pelvis. Bedridden and in constant pain, Salazar took welfare while Orlando, who was still in high school, worked nights at a biscuit factory to support the family. "I didn't want my kid to have to work," says Salazar. "I got out a bunch of pain pills while the kids were at school and decided I didn't want to live anymore." Lee Heron, a social worker friend of Salazar's, decided to stop by the apartment after she had called and got no answer. "I told her that the reason to live was for her children," says Heron, and Salazar set the pills aside.

But as her children grew older and left home, Salazar was still unable to return to full-time work and continued to feel adrift. Her fateful trip to the Dumpster changed all that. Although Salazar still relies on painkillers to combat chronic arthritis, helping others has proved the best medicine. "I'm blessed," she says. "I used to not want to live. Now I live for children. That's what brings me joy."

J.D. Heyman
Alicia Dennis in Carrollton

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  • Alicia Dennis.