Out of Ashes, Comes Hope


The wildfire reached Sweet T’s restaurant in Santa Rosa on October 9th. It was gone in a matter of minutes–reduced to hot metal and ash. And so was Nina’s only source of income. 

Nina, 30, is a single mom living with her nine-year-old daughter, Kaylee, in the USA Properties Fund community of Terracina at Santa Rosa. Nina had been a server at Sweet T’s restaurant. She applied for unemployment immediately, but it would not come soon enough to pay her November rent.

Nina is not a stranger to hard times or hard work.The daughter of immigrants from Thailand, her father passed away when Nina was just nine years old, leaving her mother to work 2 or 3 jobs at a time to provide the basics for her children. Nina herself entered the workforce at 15 years old to contribute to the family’s income.Though it was necessary, it greatly troubled Nina’s mother. She had hoped for an easier life for her daughter, but Nina’s life has been far from easy. She came to Terracina at Santa Rosa after several years of “couch surfing” among friends. Having an affordable apartment at Terracina at Santa Rosa was a huge break for Nina. It gave her the stability she needed to work and pursue her dream of a college education.

Nina has always believed that hard work and education will be her key to financial security for herself and her daughter. She attended Santa Rosa Community College and slowly chipped away at the classes she needed to earn her degree. In 2016 Nina achieved an Associate of Science degree with honors and promptly entered the competitive Dental Hygienist program at Santa Rosa Community College as the next step on her path forward. The Dental Hygienist program is rigorous and expensive–with student loans and her income from her restaurant job, Nina was barely holding it all together. And then wildfire came to Santa Rosa–bringing devastation and destruction and putting everything she had worked for in jeopardy.

Nancy, LifeSTEPS’ Director of Social Services at Terracina Santa Rosa, heard about Nina’s situation and connected Nina with the local St. Vincent De Paul agency. They agreed to pay both Nina’s November and her December rent. LifeSTEPS was also able to help Nina with other financial needs through a special LifeSTEPS’ Fire Victims Fund and Nancy encouraged Nina to apply for a college scholarship through USA Properties’ JB Brown Fund. Nina will soon be awarded a JB Brown scholarship of $3,500 toward her education. What an emotional rollercoaster the last few months have been for Nina!

For someone who has gotten through life on grit and the strength of her own willpower, Nina is truly overwhelmed with gratitude that so many people have reached out to help her. Perhaps, all Nina’s early years of struggle prepared her for this latest crisis. Her strong will to persevere through difficult times continues to fuel her desire to achieve her goals, but now she carries with her a renewed hope that nothing (not even a raging wildfire) will stop her from creating a better life for her family. 2018 is now looking to be her best year ever!

“Continuing on my path of education shows that even through the tough times, I am still able to achieve my goals. It shows my mother that she did not hinder my dreams by asking me to work at a young age. It shows my daughter what perseverance looks like.” Nina, November 2017

October Story of the Month – A Lifelong Commitment

Watching the health of your lifelong partner decline is a heartbreaking experience. After a lifetime together, nothing really prepares you for the suffering you will witness or the exhaustion you will endure in becoming your spouse’s primary caregiver.

Guillermo, a resident at AMCAL’s Hollenbeck Terrace, is a devoted husband who would do anything to help his wife who struggles with mobility as her health is rapidly declining.

Guillermo often felt ill prepared to help his wife and very isolated in his own life as he was all consumed with caring for his wife. 

At Guillermo’s age, many of his friends faced their own health crisis and his grown children were busy with their own families. This made Guillermo reluctant to bother them with his troubles, but he also knew he wouldn’t be able to continue to care for his wife alone. His own health was affected and though Guillermo didn’t think of himself as depressed, it was getting more difficult by the day to get a good night’s sleep and have enough energy to get through his daily tasks. This is the state he was in when Guillermo met Venessa, LifeSTEPS Director of Social Services, at Hollenbeck Terrace.

Venessa immediately recognized that Guillermo needed some extra support for his own emotional health and also support to find resources that would help his wife with her physical care. Venessa set up weekly check-ins to see how he was doing and to help him connect with local resources. Venessa worked with Guillermo to secure an in-home health aide for his wife.  Since the doctor had previously dismissed this care option, Venessa advocated on the couple’s behalf for the doctor to reconsider. Together they worked on the process to get his wife the in-home care she needed from In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) and eventually their efforts paid off.

Guillermo no longer feels all alone in caring for his wife. The IHSS support has truly been a lifesaver for both Guillermo and his wife. Guillermo is now able to attend LifeSTEPS classes and social events while he knows his wife is well taken care of.  Having more social interaction with others in his community has lifted Guillermo’s depression as well.

He is so grateful LifeSTEPS services were there for him–right within his own home community. It doesn’t change how very hard it is to watch your loved one’s health decline, but it makes it a little easier to bear knowing they can both continue to live together as a couple, sharing a home as they have done for over 50 years.

September Story of the Month: A Grateful American!

Yanelly waited in line at her city’s food bank for hours, often to be turned away. She would walk back to her family’s home to face her younger brothers and sisters empty-handed. At 25 years old this was not the life she had imagined for herself. Yanelly had dreams of getting married, starting a family and even going to college, but this was Nicaragua, 1982. The Contra rebel armies were raging civil war against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, and citizens like Yanelly were caught in the middle.

With a bit of luck, Yanelly was able to immigrate to the United States and settle in Los Angeles at the age of 26. A few years later the first of Yanelly’s dreams came true when she met her husband and they married in 1986. Living in LA as new immigrants was never easy. Together they raised five children working low wage jobs. Every month was a struggle to pay the rent, but somehow they made it all work. They instilled in their children the value of an education–though this was one dream that Yanelly was never able to achieve for herself. Still, she was a proud mother when several of her children graduated with their own college degrees.

In June 2016, thirty years after coming to live in Los Angeles, Yanelly still had one more dream to pursue: her US citizenship. Even after all this time, it was difficult for Yanelly to know how to begin. She brought up her desire for citizenship to Evangelina, LifeSTEPS’ Director of Social Services at Bellflower Apartments where Yanelly lives with her husband. Evangelina provided her with all the necessary handouts on the process of becoming a naturalized US citizen and each time they met they worked through the information, Evangelina translating from English to Spanish as needed.

First, Yanelly’s fee waiver was submitted and accepted. Then she began the process to study US history in preparation for her test. For several months Evangelina provided encouragement to Yanelly and together they discussed the history questions in English. In February 2017 Yanelly received a letter from US Immigration with a date for her interview in March 2017. All the months of preparation with Evangelina paid off–Yanelly passed her exam in March and took her oath of citizenship in April 2017!

Yanelly’s entire family is rejoicing in her accomplishment! Evangelina has already noticed Yanelly appears more self-confident. Yanelly says it is like a huge weight has been lifted from her. She is no longer caught in limbo–she is finally home.

“I am very grateful and honored to have met Evangelina who helped me accomplish the dream of every immigrant. I want to thank LifeSTEPS also for being present in our community. My family thanks you for all the effort, time and resources that were given to me during this process. I am proud to have accomplished this dream!” Yanelly

May Story of the Month: The Right Impact, at the Right Time

Editor’s note: This story is about resilience.  All of us at some point in our lives have faced adversity–this special family from the heart of California was determined not to let it hold them back.

Eva and her daughter Rochelle

Eva firmly taped the box closed and stacked it on top of several others against her living room wall. She let out a huge sigh of relief–this was the last box she had to pack. Soon the boxes and all her family’s belongings would be loaded in the moving truck and headed to their new house.  Earlier that day Eva and her husband Diego had signed the mortgage papers on a home of their own!

It was only three years ago when their family made the move from Texas to California’s Central Valley and were grateful to find an apartment at AMCAL’s affordable community, Villa Escondido. It was a good decision for Eva and Diego, and their adult son Alberto and eleven year old daughter Rochelle*. In California Diego found stable work as a farm laborer, and the children better opportunities in education. Eva and Diego were grateful to find an affordable home; however, affordability was only one benefit from living at Villa Escondido. Soon Eva and her family would have a long list of what they loved about their new community.  For the first time in many years life was going well for them.

Then a letter from the IRS arrived in the mail. (This is rarely good news.) And for Eva and Diego it was the dreaded news that they owed back taxes. Living paycheck to paycheck didn’t leave any extra to pay the IRS and Eva worried this would put them behind on their rent and in jeopardy of losing their apartment. Eva was frantic with worry until she met with Leni, her LifeSTEPS’ Director of Social Services at Villa Escondido and together they worked out a plan to pay the taxes. As part of the plan, LifeSTEPS approved $400 of financial assistance through LifeSTEPS’ Craig’s Fund. This allowed the family to clear the back taxes they owed and still pay their rent on time. As a condition of the assistance, Eva began meeting with Leni weekly to develop a family budget and learn more about how to create a solid financial plan for her family. Within a short time the family was back on track and even began to build a savings account.

The next hurdle to overcome came in the summer of 2016. Eva was called to Mexico to help with a family emergency since her father was ill. Her son, at 26 years old, stayed home to care for his younger sister and her husband stayed to work the crops. When she returned her husband was barely recognizable to her. In just one month’s time, he had lost 40 pounds and was in constant pain. Eva was in total shock. Diego went through multiple tests as his doctors tried to explain his failing health. Unfortunately, he continued to lose weight and grow weaker by the day.

After many trips to the hospital, Diego was finally given a diagnosis, a tumor on his pancreas. Eva was devastated–the weight of this burden fell on her alone, but for the sake of her children and husband, Eva kept up a good face.  Inside she was terrified of what could happen. This time, she turned to LifeSTEPS for emotional support. Leni met with her one on one each week and allowed Eva to have a space to open up and share her fears.  Sometimes she just cried. The time with Leni gave her the strength she needed to not give up hope.

It took consultations with several specialists before Diego finally found a doctor willing to perform surgery to remove his tumor. The surgery was successful and the doctor believed Diego would make a full recovery. Eva again cried with Leni–this time, happy tears as they celebrated the good news.

The move to Villa Escondido proved to be truly life changing for Eva and her family. Through LifeSTEPS Eva took all the tools Leni gave them: financial planning, budgeting and even how to manage her stress and Eva crafted a better future for her family. With practical and timely support Leni helped Eva navigate the system to obtain disability benefits for Diego and helped Alberto obtain employment so he could also contribute to the family budget. (It is actually through her son’s income that the family is able to purchase a home together.)

This family’s remarkable resilience and determination amazingly helped them grow more confident through each obstacle they faced. Eva and her family rose above unforeseen circumstances that could have easily caused them to lose hope, but instead they are moving forward and focusing on the positive.

Leni is sad to see them go; however, she knows without a doubt, Eva and her family were brought to Villa Escondido at exactly the right time in their lives.  The impact LIfeSTEPS had on Eva and her family is undeniable. And, in this situation Leni shared that the impact is mutual, “It’s been such a pleasure working with Eva. She exemplifies what being a woman of faith is and that has blessed me. To see her go through each ordeal and still have a smile on her face has impacted my life greatly.”

*Names have been changed