“I’ve never done this before.”
That’s what Cherish Doutrich, 26, was thinking as she pulled her car over on the side of a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, road earlier this summer to talk to a crying woman and her baby. “I didn’t feel right now turning around. In the back of my mind I was a little nervous, but I thought, I’m willing to take that chance. Most likely she really needs help.”
As it turns out, she did need help. Jenedith Fontanez, 23, also of Lancaster, had recently been kicked out of her home because she couldn’t pay her rent on time. She had lost her job after pregnancy complications put her on bed rest, she said. Scared, and with her hungry 8-month-old son Isaac at her side, she didn’t know where to turn.
Doutrich let her into her car and helped her calm down. “She gave me a bit about her, what was going on with her,” she tells PEOPLE. “So I took her back to my house.”
There, her husband, Andrew, 27, helped devise a plan. The couple took Fontanez – who needed some formula for her son – to a local market, and stocked a cart of essentials for her. While she wasn’t looking, Andrew withdrew $500 from an ATM and slipped it into her diaper bag.
“They dropped me off, and I went to change my son’s diaper,” Fontanez recalls to PEOPLE. “Out of the clean diaper came a wad of $20 bills. I was chasing after them, asking them to take it back, but they said no, they wanted me to get a place.”
Two weeks later, she got her own place – and a whole lot more. After her story was published, the single mother received an influx of calls from strangers wanting to donate furniture, dishes, food and more.
“It’s amazing,” Fontanez says. “People are still calling.”
So much so, that she’s started to help others in need, matching families who can’t afford such items with donors who are willing to help via Facebook. But she doesn’t want to stop there: Fontanez – who plans to take nursing courses in the fall and will continue volunteering with her local high school’s teen parenting program – hopes to create an organization for the homeless to help them find jobs and places to live.
“We need people to motivate each other,” she says. “For people who are down on their luck, positivity and support from the community are what we need.”
For now, though, she’s just thrilled to have a home to call her own with Isaac and her daughters Inelis, 7, and Arielis, 5 (all pictured). “It’s so much that I can’t wrap my head around everything,” she says. “I want to give back, and never want to miss an opportunity to help someone else, because I’ve been there.”
She also feels that she’s found lifelong friends in the Doutrichs. “Meeting Cherish just changed my whole life,” Fontanez says. “She’s an awesome person to talk to. She’s amazing. People like her don’t come around often.”
For her part, Cherish, an elementary school teacher who works with autistic children, wants her act to encourage others to help.
“I hope this will open the eyes of a lot of other people,” she says, “to look around and be more aware of their surroundings.”