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La Casita might need a new nickname—La Casa, dreams Sr. Heltsley—in the coming months. In 2008, St. Francis will transform its neighborhood presence and consolidate its services into a $4.7 million, three-story building that also features “three more low-income apartments for three more families to get them out of the garage,” Sr. Heltsley says. Private donors and foundations funded the project. She targeted donors she could tell the St. Francis story, bringing them to La Casita to see clients and volunteers working together. Donors, she says, appreciate seeing what happens with their dollars.
“We have no huge overhead,” Sr. Heltsley says. “What they give us directly serves the poor.”
In her position as director, Sr. Heltsley moves comfortably between the roles of educator, counselor, manager, fundraiser, even architect and technology specialist (clients receive a card with a magnetic strip and access services monthly through an automated system). Hugging clients and volunteers, speaking to neighbors in a mix of Spanish and English, Sr. Heltsley tries to embody the center’s motto of “compassion, not judgment.” She repeats the phrase, “dignity and respect,” to explain the atmosphere she aims to create for residents and clients, volunteers and visitors, supporters and potential donors. Add environmentalist to her many titles. The new building meets the latest environment-friendly green construction standards.
“It’s important because I think nonprofits need to lead the way in greening of structures,” Sr. Heltsley says. “If we don’t who will?”
St. Clare Apartments resembled your average apartment building in a bad neighborhood before it became part of St. Francis. Volunteers transformed the building with fresh paint, and created a welcoming common area with picnic tables and ivy-covered trellises. “Dignity and respect” also imbues the community garden, where residents spend hours tending to cornstalks and rows of tomato, cilantro, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers. Murals of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” protect the garden—Sr. Heltsley says the drawings are more effective than rottweilers. It’s hard to believe the space was once a public eyesore—a neglected lot of land filled with abandoned refrigerators, stripped cars, and sofas.
“Just because people don’t have money,” Sr. Heltsley reasons, “doesn’t mean they want to live in a dump.”
Sr. Heltsley neither grew up in dumps nor imagined she would be a Dominican sister working at the pulse of social inequality. Thirty years ago she was engaged to be married. She encountered the Dominican sisters, “these self-actualized women,” working in the tough streets of Chicago, and “was immediately attracted to them” and their approach to education and service.
“I studied so I could serve better,” she says.
The approach is contagious. None of the activity at St. Francis could take place without its volunteers who are fixtures around the center who share the director’s commitment. Maria Parada, a native of Chile, takes a break from a day of recycling at the center to explain why she has worked here for 18 years. Like many of her fellow volunteers, she says life has been good to her and she would like to return the favor. The same goes for 86-year-old Sergio Buranzon, who immigrated to the United States from Italy. Buranzon has volunteered at St. Francis for 17 years “because I like to do something to help someone less fortunate than I am,” he says.
Buranzon calls Sr. Heltsley “wonderful,” and greets her three times a week with a hug before he tends to the lawns and yardwork at St. Francis.
“You wonder how one person could do it all,” says Ann Marchi, an 11-year volunteer. Marchi works in the clothing store with Mimi Nava and Monica Koch, who have worked at the center for seven and 19 years, respectively. Together, they take in bags of donations (20,000 each year), weed out the clothes that would not meet the standard of “dignity and respect,” and arrange and divide the clothing in a fashion on par with any department store complete with bilingual labels.
“We love to work with Sister,” Nava says.
“You must do something, you have to give back to a worthy cause,” adds Koch. “I have so much. I need to give something back.”
Nava, Koch, and Marchi cannot help pausing from clothes distribution to take occasional peaks at the kindergartners in the Holy Families School classroom next door. Students wear blue uniforms and gravitate toward their teacher, Sr. Susan Ostrowski. The school enrolls a cohort of 12 students and educates them from kindergarten until fifth grade. Sr. Heltsley chooses the 12 students from client families facing the greatest financial challenges.
“Scripture tells us the poor will always be among us,” she says. “We are working with the poorest of the poor.”
Students from the first cohort recently graduated and now attend Sacred Heart Nativity School and Our Lady of Grace Nativity School for Girls in San Jose. The second cohort began this year. As part of the condition of enrollment, students’ mothers must attend English classes once a week. The requirement caused a beautiful problem, Sr. Heltsley says. When kids from the first cohort graduated and moved on, their respective mothers refused to stop attending the school. After finishing ESL courses, they started working toward their GEDs.
“Now the great divider is education,” Sr. Heltsley says. “It used to be religion and race, now it’s access to the education. Once you give education, you can’t take that away.”
Sr. Heltsley has made a believer out of Maza-Curry, who echoes her mentor’s ideas about education and opportunity.
“Sr. Susan is a wonderful teacher, and Sr. Christina always tells children to learn and to stick in their minds that they have to be to ready to go to college and to university,” Maza-Curry says. “I just decided that whatever Sr. Christina told me to do with my granddaughter, I would do it. Now she is in Our Lady of Grace in San Jose.
“We still keep our culture. Sr. Christina always tells us she doesn’t want us to lose our roots, not our Spanish. (She says) at home teach Spanish. They have to keep their traditions, their Spanish, and they have to be able to go into American culture, too. They are American, too.”
Another day is winding down at St. Francis. Sr. Heltsley sits in her office talking with a possible volunteer. Construction on the new building can be heard next door. Sr. Heltsley still has $700,000 to raise for the building, but she does not seem worried. Miracles happen from time to time at St. Francis. In those moments when the center cannot afford to pay a utility bill or meet a need, miraculously a check arrives in the mail or money arrives from a former client.
“I’m not complacent,” she says, “but I know God is going to take care of us.”
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