Before the pandemic hit, Natalia Gutierrez thought beating breast cancer would be her hardest battle.
Diagnosed in 2018, in her mid-30s, cancer ravaged Gutierrez’s body, leaving her depressed, exhausted and unable to have more children. But then came the coronavirus, which ripped through her extended family last year, just as her long-standing relationship with her daughter’s father, Camila, was unraveling.
As it did for so many others, her 2020 included a COVID hospitalization that left the immunocompromised 39-year-old in intensive care fighting for her life. But while the arrival of 2021 and vaccines meant renewed hope and stability for many, the new year brought more financial and emotional turmoil for Gutierrez.
Gutierrez, a plant lover, had previously launched Camila’s Garden, a small floral design company named after her beloved 10-year-old. 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 mother struggling to pay the rent for the apartment she shares with her daughter, along with utility, car and food bills.
“I try to do my best,” Gutierrez said. But the challenges felt huge.
She recently got a part-time job at Safeway to complete online orders and struggles to find more work, sometimes helping a friend with a cleaning business and working as an Instacart shopper. But in Redwood City, a stone’s throw from Atherton, one of the country’s most expensive addresses, it hasn’t been nearly enough to make ends meet.
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNI – OCTOBER 19: Natalia Gutierrez, right, talks to her volunteer English teacher Ernestine Faycosh, during their session at the St. Francis Center in Redwood City, California, on Tuesday, October 19, 2021. On the left is Gutierrez’s daughter Camila, 10 Wish Book for the St. Francis Center. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area Newsgroup)
The St. Francis Center, a nonprofit organization founded more than three decades ago in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood where Gutierrez lives, has stepped in to help, seeking $10,000 in Wish Book donations to help pay for her rent and other daily expenses. to cover.
“There’s 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 nonprofit. He is also the director of programs for the organization’s youth center, which offers after-school mentorship and tutoring.
The St. Francis Center also owns affordable apartments, operates a food supply and community gardens, runs a clothing center, provides immigration counseling with help from Catholic charities, has shower and laundry services for those in need, and launches a toy ride every holiday season.
The number of families seeking help during the pandemic has skyrocketed and the organization relies heavily on donors for survival.
“There’s a huge, huge need for every single service,” Torres said.
At one point, the food pantry helped more than 5,000 people a month, he said. While the nonprofit primarily serves residents of North Fair Oaks, which is just minutes from Facebook and other major tech companies and has been threatened by gentrification in recent years, “we got families from all over,” Torres said.
For Gutierrez and her daughter, who attends Holy Family School and attends the after-school program, the St. Francis Center has been a haven.
“I feel so good here,” she said.
In addition to help with food, tutoring and other basic needs, she said, the people who run the center provide encouragement and a sense of community.
Torres, Gutierrez said, “is like an angel. He loves the kids,” offering advice that has helped her be a better parent 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 handle anything.
“Staying positive is so important,” Gutierrez said. And with the help of the center, she said, she’s trying to show Camila that women “can do whatever we want.”
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNI – OCTOBER 19: Natalia Gutierrez, right, laughs with her daughter, Camila, 10, over lunch at their apartment in Redwood City, California, on Tuesday, October 19, 2021. Wish Book for the St. Francis Center. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area Newsgroup)
Ten-year-old Camila loves baking cakes with her mother, and the couple spends hours mimicking the dance moves Camila sees on TikTok when they’re not focused on homework. Gutierrez has tried to protect her daughter from their financial problems and heartbreak.
But the stress keeps Gutierrez up at night, along with the dreams — nightmares, actually — about not being able to breathe, remnants of her previous battle with COVID amid cancer treatments. And then there’s the next cancer surgery she needs, the one she’s putting off right now because the time spent recovering is time not spent applying for jobs, trying to create a stable life for her child, a healthy future.
“Right now it’s so hard to find a job,” she said. “Actually, I just want to work. I don’t just want to receive.”
At St. Francis, the goal is to help families in need become self-sufficient members of the community. And Torres is convinced that one day Gutierrez will get there too.
“She’s putting on such a brave face and she’s doing that for her daughter,” he said, choking. “She never gave up hope.”
THE WISH BOOK SERIES
The Wish Book is an annual series by The Mercury News that invites readers to help their neighbors.
Donations will help Natalia Gutierrez – a client at Redwood City’s St. Francis Center – pay rent, medical bills and basic needs. Goal: $10,000.
HOW TO GIVE?
Donate at wishbook.mercurynews.com or send in the coupon.
Read other Wish Book stories, view photos and videos at wishbook.mercurynews.com.
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNI – OCTOBER 19: Natalia Gutierrez, left, laughs with her daughter Camila (10) over lunch at their apartment in Redwood City, California, on Tuesday, October 19, 2021. Wish Book for the St. Francis Center. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) SAN JOSE, CALIFORNI – OCTOBER 19: Natalia Gutierrez, left, walks with her daughter Camila (10) to lunch at their apartment in Redwood City, California, on Tuesday, October 10, 19, 2021. Wish Book for the St. Francis Center. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) SAN JOSE, CALIFORNI – OCTOBER 19: Sr. Christina Heltsley, executive director of the St. Francis Center, poses for a photo outside downtown in Redwood City, California, on Tuesday, October 19, 2021. St. Francis Center wish book. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area Newsgroup)
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