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Working mother-of-three Ivonne Sonato-Vega never imagined herself as someone who would win a national contest, or who’d have a tidy sum in a savings account.

And yet here she is.

The 28-year-old Santa Rosan received $25,000 after being selected as No. 1 among the 350 Americans who entered a contest that encourages an act many people say is impossible for them, and many others simply don’t want to think about:

Stashing at least a few dollars, regularly, into savings.

“I’ve always tried to be a saver,” said Sonato-Vega, a 2007 Montgomery High grad who works as an ophthalmological assistant at Artemedica. But it’s tough.

“There’s always an obstacle,” she said. “It’s one thing or another.”

In addition to the regular expenses that confront her and her husband, Eric Silva, who works in agriculture and construction, the couple often have to deal with out-of-ordinary pediatric medical bills.

They have three daughters — Montserrat, 11, Citlali, 6, and Maya, 2 — and the older two were born extremely prematurely and live still with health issues.

So to feed and care for them and maintain a savings account is difficult.

Earlier this year, Sonato-Vega went to United Way of the Wine Country for its free income-tax preparation for people of low to moderate income. She was happy to learn that thanks largely to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, she and her husband would receive a federal refund of $2,000.

The folks at United Way encouraged Sonato-Vega to use IRS Form 8888 to split her refund and deposit part of it into a savings account. She did, placing $1,000 into savings.

Sonato-Vega learned also that by saving part of her income-tax refund she qualified to enter a nationwide contest called SaveYourRefund. Its sponsors, the national nonprofit Commonwealth and the America Saves campaign through the Consumer Federation of America, provide education and incentives for nonsavers to strive to become savers.

At first, Sonato-Vega didn’t think she’d bother entering the SaveYourRefund contest, which involved submitting a photo and a short, written statement describing one’s savings goals.

She decided there was nothing to lose by entering, so she created a photo collage of her daughters and herself, wrote the essay and sent it in.

“Thank God I did!” she said, because the contest judges chose her entry as the winner.

At a presentation ceremony in Santa Rosa last week arranged by United Way of the Wine Country and hosted by Sonoma County Winegrowers, Sonato-Vega was told her family photo was charming and her statement moving.

She wrote that she wants to save money primarily to be able to afford to go to college and join the profession that saved her two older daughters when they born many weeks earlier than expected.

Montserrat came into the world at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital just 24 weeks after conception — normal is 40 weeks — and weighed only 2 pounds.

Citlali was born at the former Sutter Hospital on Chanate Road at 28 weeks and weighed just 1 pound.

Grateful for the care they received, their mother aspires to become a neonatal intensive-care unit nurse.

She said the $25,000 contest prize will allow her to enroll in the nursing program at Santa Rosa Junior College in the fall.

“This is a huge break,” she said.

It impressed Lindsay Ferguson of America Saves that Sonato-Vega shared the aspiration not only to be trained as a nurse but to one day buy a home.

“You couldn’t have a better savings goal than that,” said Ferguson, whose group is one of the contest’s sponsors.

“I thought that was really inspiring.”

Ferguson said too few Americans are taking the step Sonato-Vega has taken to begin putting away money so they might be prepared for emergencies, pay off debts or be able to afford significant expenses such as a house purchase, children’s college education or retirement.

A recent survey by the Bankrate financial services firm found 21 percent of working Americans aren’t saving anything, and only 25 percent are saving more than 10 percent of their incomes.

Sonato-Vega is pinching herself that her efforts to become a saver just got a $25,000 boost.

Truly, she said, “it’s a dream come true.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.