St. Francis Center helps Redwood City woman in pandemic

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Before the pandemic hit, Natalia Gutierrez believed that beating breast cancer would be her toughest battle.

She was diagnosed in 2018 in her mid-thirties and cancer ravaged Gutierrez’s body, leaving her depressed and exhausted and unable to have more children. But then the coronavirus arrived, tearing apart her extended family last year just as her long-term relationship with her daughter’s father, Camila, was unraveling.

As with so many others, her 2020 involved a COVID hospitalization that left the immunocompromised 39-year-old woman in intensive care fighting for her life. But while the arrival of 2021 and vaccines marked renewed hope and stability for many, the new year brought more financial and emotional upheaval for Gutierrez.

A plant lover, Gutierrez had previously started Camila’s Garden, a small flower design company named after her beloved 10-year-old daughter. But she spent most of her time raising her child, undergoing cancer treatments and furthering her own education, taking classes to improve her English at Cañada College. Suddenly she was a single mom struggling to pay the rent on the apartment she shared with her daughter, as well as utility, car, and food bills.

“I’m trying to do my best,” Gutierrez said. But the challenges seemed Herculean.

She recently landed a part-time job at Safeway to fill orders online and struggles to find more work, sometimes helping a friend with a cleaning company and working as an Instacart buyer. But, in Redwood City, a short walk from Atherton, one of the most expensive addresses in the country, that wasn’t enough to get by.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 19: Natalia Gutierrez, right, chats with her volunteer English tutor Ernestine Faycosh, during their session at the St. Francis Center in Redwood City, Calif. On Tuesday, October 19, 2021. Left is Camila, 10 years old, daughter of Gutierrez. Greeting book for the Center Saint-François. (Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)

The St. Francis Center, a nonprofit organization established over three decades ago in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood where Gutierrez lives, stepped in to help and is seeking $ 10,000 in Wish Book donations to cover his rent and other daily expenses.

“There is a lot of trust and a lot of love here,” said Hugo Torres, an eighth-grade teacher at Holy Family School, a free school for low-income students from immigrant families run by the association in non-profit. He is also the director of programs for the organization’s youth center, which offers mentoring and after-school tutoring.

The St. Francis Center also has affordable apartments, operates a pantry and community gardens, operates a clothing center, offers immigration counseling with the help of Catholic charities, offers counseling services. shower and laundry for those in need and runs a toy drive each holiday season.

The number of families seeking help during the pandemic has skyrocketed and the organization relies heavily on donors for its survival.

“There is a huge, huge need in every department,” Torres said.

At one point, the pantry was helping more than 5,000 people a month, he said. While the association primarily serves residents of North Fair Oaks, which is located minutes from Facebook and other big tech companies and has been threatened by gentrification in recent years, “we were getting families from everywhere,” he said. Torres said.

For Gutierrez and his daughter, who attend Holy Family School and the after-school program, Center Saint-François has been a refuge.

“I feel so good here,” she said.

Beyond helping with food, tutoring and other basics, she said, the people who run the center provide encouragement and a sense of community.

Torres, said Gutierrez, “is like an angel. He loves children, ”offering advice that has helped her become a better mother to Camila, a better teacher.

And Sister Christina Heltsley, the Executive Director, has been a compassionate sounding board, reassuring her that she is a strong woman who can overcome anything.

“Staying positive is so important,” Gutierrez said. And with the help of the center, she said, she tries to show Camila that women “can do whatever they want.”

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 19: Natalia Gutierrez, right, laughs with her daughter, Camila, 10, during lunch at their apartment in Redwood City, Calif. On Tuesday, October 19, 2021. Greeting book for St. Francis Center. (Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)

Camila, 10, loves baking cakes with her mom, and the couple spend hours trying to recreate the dance moves Camila sees on TikTok when they’re not focused on their homework. Gutierrez tried to protect his daughter from their financial troubles and grief.

But the stress keeps Gutierrez awake at night with dreams – nightmares, really – of not being able to breathe, remnants of her earlier battle with COVID amid cancer treatments. And then there’s the next cancer surgery she needs, the one she’s putting off because time spent recovering isn’t time spent applying for a job, trying to create a job. stable life for her child, a healthy future.

“Right now it’s so hard to find a job,” she said. “Honestly, I just want to work. I don’t just want to receive.

In St. Francis, the goal is to help families in need become independent members of the community. And Torres is confident that Gutierrez will one day make it, too.

“She has such a brave face and she does it for her daughter,” he said, choking. “She never gave up hope.”


THE WISH BOOK SERIES
The Wish Book is an annual series of The Mercury News that invites readers to help their neighbors.

TO WISH
Donations will help Natalia Gutierrez – a client of St. Francis Center in Redwood City – pay rent, medical bills and basic necessities. Objective: $ 10,000.

HOW TO GIVE
Donate at wishbook.mercurynews.com or send the coupon by mail.

ONLINE SUPPLEMENT
Read more Wish Book stories, view photos and videos at wishbook.mercurynews.com.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 19: Natalia Gutierrez, left, laughs with her daughter, Camila, 10, during lunch at their apartment in Redwood City, Calif. On Tuesday, October 19, 2021. Greeting book for St. Francis Center. (Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 19: Natalia Gutierrez, left, walks with her daughter, Camila, 10, for lunch at their apartment in Redwood City, Calif. On Tuesday, October 19, 2021. Greeting book for the St. Center Francois. (Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 19: Sr. Christina Heltsley, executive director of the St. Francis Center, poses for a photo outside of downtown Redwood City, Calif. On Tuesday, October 19, 2021. Greeting book for the St. Francis Center Francois. (Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)
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