In a Redwood City neighborhood, blocks and gates away from multi-million dollar Atherton homes and a left turn removed from gleaming Ferrari and Maserati showrooms, families living below the poverty level make do in cars and shared garages, alternating between sleep on back seats and mattresses, and rising for shift work at low-wage jobs.
Dominican Sr. Christina Heltsley, EdD ’96, walks through the impoverished streets, raises her arms, and motions how easily she could toss a stone to expanses of wealth and prosperity. As executive director of the nonprofit St. Francis Center, she despairs the inequalities and has made it her life work to erase economic divides and help poor families transition to self-sustainability.
“I personally feel called to serve the economic poor,” she says. “It’s what I want my life energy to be about. It’s worth the cost of my day. The injustices of this world hit you like a brick. I like to solve problems, something puzzling. If someone needs housing, I enjoy being a part of getting that done. We want to help families out, but not make them dependent. We do not want to take away their will to work.”
Franciscan Sr. Monica Asman founded the St. Francis Center in 1986 as a resource and community for the poor in San Mateo County, where the estimated per capita income is $39,000 and fair market rent rates average $1,500 per month. The cost of living is among the highest in California and the country, far exceeding the incomes of St. Francis clients—new immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Tongan Islands, the Philippines, and the southeastern United States.
Sr. Heltsley has led the center since 1999. A former school principal in inner city Chicago, she returned to her native California to pursue doctoral studies in the USF School of Education. After USF, she worked as superintendent of Catholic schools in Monterey County. The experiences, she says, prepared her for the varied and daily challenges of St. Francis.
Among clients, it is affectionately known as “La Casita,” the little house of opportunity occupying a corner lot on streets host to tranquility and children at play by day, gang members and drug transactions by night. Amid the uncertainty, St. Francis, with its fearless nuns and staff of 86 volunteers, serves about 500 families or 2,500 people per month. Clients filter into the center for just about everything—bags of groceries donated from local markets, clothing, English lessons, GED courses, laundry facilities, a place to take a shower. Next door, 24 families live in St. Clare Apartments, purchased by the center in 1996. A leased storefront nearby on El Camino Real holds the center’s clothing store and K-5 elementary school. The center also coordinates a toy drive that not only benefits children locally but also children at an orphanage in Mexico.
“Sr. Christina is like a dream for us,” says Carolina Maza-Curry, a former St. Francis client who now works at the center. “She wants us, the helpers and volunteers, to treat people in the right way. Sometimes women go there, they’re struggling in the marriage because they have husbands or relatives who don’t treat them as human beings. At the center they look for help. You can see the sadness in their eyes, and you can see they’re going there with fear, as if they’re going to be rejected or discriminated against.”
Maza-Curry talks from experience, seamlessly using a language she did not know—save a word or two (“window, apple,” she says)—six years ago. The center arranged for her to study English with an ESL instructor, and educated her granddaughter through the fifth grade.
“I couldn’t have a conversation. I couldn’t use verbs,” she says.
“Our Christina tries to help as much as she can with the people, especially the women and children,” Maza-Curry says. “She doesn’t make distinctions between the sexes, but I think she knows the culture, the Latino culture, is a macho culture, and she tries to protect more women and children.”
Sr. Heltsley admits that some men may initially appear skeptical of “these radical nuns liberating our women.”
“But once they know that’s not what we’re about,” Sr. Heltsley says, “men are a lot more involved —helping unload groceries, garden, paint, build.”
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