Like many people, Sister Christina Heltsley stepped up to support those who were struggling when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.
Heltsley is executive director of the St. Francis Center, a nonprofit in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood of Redwood City that provides free on-site services like a food program, educational programs and housing to low-income families.
Last March and April, Heltsley raised $180,000 to support families in need. The demand for services has grown during the pandemic and now the center needs $230,000 to fund its services.
Following a press conference on Feb. 10, Heltsley said they received some donations towards that goal — including a $120,000 contribution — but the need remains. Many workers in the St. Francis community — nannies, restaurant workers, childcare workers — have lost their jobs.
“If you were to walk into the neighborhood right now, it’s almost palpable, the stress,” Heltsley said.
The center’s services are free and rents for the housing units are below-market rate. Still, it’s the rent, along with donations, that keeps things running. With 20 to 25% of families unable to pay their full rent during the pandemic, the center needs extra funding to stay afloat.
Money will go towards paying bills, maintaining the buildings and continuing the center’s programs and services.
Heltsley said the money will also help pay back rent for families behind on rent. Eviction moratorium or not, the center is dedicated to keeping peopled housed. Late fees and evictions are off the table.
“It makes zero sense to have people carry both in their hearts a burden, but also financially the burden of debt, when they were already people living paycheck to paycheck,” Heltsley said.
With more people staying home due to the pandemic, maintenance costs have gone up but Heltsley said the center is committed to providing, safe, clean and dignified housing.
“I don’t want substandard housing. We want low-income housing. Right now, everybody is home and it’s a lot harder on a building when the families are there 24/7,” Heltsley said. “That means there are more plumbing issues. There are more appliance issues. There are more issues period because they’re densely populated and now they’re populated all the time because people are not at work.”
The center provides 184 units of housing to families who are low-income, very low-income or extremely low-income, meaning that they earn less than the area’s median income.
Donations would support families like Adelina Cortez and her six children. Cortez, a single mother of six, had to quit her food service job to support her autistic son.
The center helps Cortez’ family with rent, food and clothing.
“I love my apartment and thank God for Sister Christina,” Cortez said in a statement. “Without her help, I would have no place to go. Now I have a safe home with neighbors and Center staff who support us in so many ways.”
The center’s food program has quadrupled its service during the pandemic, serving 80 families a day. Counselling sessions for children are also in high demand, Heltsley said. Additional donations would help fund both these programs and more.
At the Feb. 10 press conference, Kathy Kwan of the Eustace-Kwan Family Foundation encouraged people to donate to the center and commended Heltsley’s leadership. Kwan is a local philanthropist who has supported the center since 2006.
“When Casa de Sobrato first came on the market, I can remember sitting in the office with her and wondering: how are we going to fund the purchase of a building that is $22 million?” Kwan said. Casa de Sobrato is one of the community’s housing centers. “And you know what, she found those dollars. That’s leadership here in Redwood City.”
To learn more about the center visit and to donate, visit www.stfrancisrwc.org.