Posted Dec. 16, 2022
St. Francis Center, led by Christina Heltsley, provides social safety net services for needy families in addition to running a school for young children. Courtesy St. Francis Center.
St. Francis Center champions social safety net services for families in need
by Pam Kelly / Contributor
For 35 years, St. Francis Center, in partnership with the community, has helped provide thousands of very low-income families in Redwood City with the essential services they need to live with dignity and become self-sufficient members of the community.
Located in the heart of the Fair Oaks neighborhood, St. Francis Center, led by Sister Christina Heltsley, has been instrumental in transforming this once crime-ridden, gang-infested area into a safe neighborhood where families raise their children with everything they need to survive and thrive.
This fall, St. Francis Center welcomed 5-year-old Volodymyr Karpenko and his mother Yuilia to Holy Family School. On March 4, the Karpenkos made the difficult decision to leave behind their friends, family, and beloved Ukraine after the first attack on the nuclear power plant in their hometown of Zaporizhzhia. The attack happened at 3:00 a.m., and by 6 a.m. – with only the necessary documents, medicines, and clothing in hand – they left their home with the hope of finding safety in the United States.
After traveling first to Poland and then to Mexico, where they legally crossed the border into California through the Uniting for Ukraine program, they finally settled in Redwood City. Shortly after settling in, Yuilia knew it was time to find the best school for Volodymyr, who was ready to start kindergarten. She was referred to the Holy Family School of St. Francis Center, and after researching all her options, she knew it was the best school for him.
When the war broke out in Ukraine, it was hard for Yuilia and her husband, but even harder for Volodymyr, who had just turned five. He was scared and clung to his parents; afraid he would be taken away from them. For Yuilia, it was crucial that she find a school that would help him feel safe, and get him through what she knew could be a difficult time of adjustment to a new culture, language, and making new friends.
Holy Family School fits the bill with its small class size, personalized teaching and attention. There is also a children's library and a youth center for after-school activities. And one of the best parts? The school is tuition free, as long as Yuilia commits herself to one-on-one tutoring one day per week to learn Spanish. Yuilia, who speaks five languages and is already fluent in English, is excited to learn Spanish so that she can integrate fully into her newfound community.
Yuilia reports that Volodymyr is doing well, learning English, math, writing and making new friends knowing he is safe. He likes school so much that he's disappointed when the weekend comes. She said, "St. Francis Center is a comfortable place where everyone tries to help each other. It is a community, and people who need help can achieve it here. They are knowledgeable, answer all our questions and even helped us find a medical center for health care."
St. Francis Center families like the Karpenkos have access to a wide range of essential services and resources, including the food pantry, clothing closet, shower and laundry facility, elementary school, youth center, affordable apartments, rental assistance, GED & ESL programs, two community gardens, a holiday toy program, and more.
St. Francis Center is one of this year's beneficiaries of The Almanac's Holiday Fund. Donations are divided equally among this year's 10 nonprofit organizations and 100% of the funds raised go directly to the recipients. Donations to the Holiday Fund can be made at almanacnews.com/holiday_fund .
"The need for family services has never been greater," said Sister Christina Heltsley, executive director of St. Francis Center. "We need the community's help now more than ever to help us expand our services and resources for underserved families. We firmly believe that together we can transform lives and build strong, flourishing communities.
"No one person can 'save the world,' but together we can change it for the better," she said.
Pam Kelly is a senior account manager for PRxDigital writing on behalf of St. Francis Center.