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Almanac's Holiday Fund: Food, clothing, housing for families in need

 

• Gifts to the Almanac's Holiday Fund benefit St. Francis Center and nine other local community-service organizations. Donate now to the Almanac's Holiday Fund.

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Story by Sister Christina Heltsley, executive director, St. Francis Center.

You have to know the story of St. Francis to understand Redwood City's St. Francis Center. Surrounded by wealth, the young Giovanni Bernardone ultimately became disillusioned by it, renounced the worldly life and joined beggars at St. Peter's Basilica.

His piety attracted followers, then acolytes and within a few years, Pope Innocent III acknowledged the group's dedication to the poor by allowing the founding of the Franciscan religious order.

Wealth and prosperity surround St. Francis Center's neighborhood on Buckingham Avenue in North Fair Oaks, also, but poverty is easy to find, not just in its area, where two-thirds of families spend more than half their income for housing, but in its large service area from San Carlos to Redwood City to eastern Menlo Park.

Though it is a 501(c)3 charitable foundation, not a religious organization, St. Francis Center, like its namesake, is dedicated to their service, providing food, clothing and low-income housing assistance to up to 600 families upwards of 3,000 people every month.

Since its founding by Sister Monica Asman in 1996, the center has acquired 41 apartments, which it rents at reduced rates to very low-income families; is building 15 more; built the Siena Youth Center to give children of hundreds of working families a safe place to play, exercise and congregate; runs the 26-student Holy Family School; and collects and redistributes free food and clothing.

More than 200 volunteers participate in every program, from bagging groceries to tutoring children and adults.

Funding comes from private donors and foundations.

The center has transformed its neighborhood into a peaceful, safe place in which to live.

We are mission driven. We try to safeguard very low-income housing for people who are working two and three jobs just trying to make ends meet.

St. Francis' work generates compelling testimonials, but none may be as unique as that of Jacqueline Rueda.

A month after she moved to North Fair Oaks from Mexico in 2000, Jacqueline knocked on St. Francis Center's door to volunteer.

Today, Jacqueline is the center's program manager, responsible for the 41 rental units, the food-distribution program and the clothes closet. She learned English, obtained her GED certificate, became a certified multi-unit apartment manager, and put two children through college and professional school.

Jacqueline shows if you invest in people, be it families or the people in this community, it comes back a hundred fold.

"It's perfect," Jacqueline said. "Amazing. I'm helping somebody every day and it makes me feel good.

"I heard some person tell me they are not happy with their job, but I am. I'm in no hurry to go home. I like it here."

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