Cristina's Story

Dreams Blooming In The Dark: Cristina’s Story

Cristina Velásquez inició un negocio durante la pandemia de COVID-19. Mientras se cerraban industrias enteras, ella y su esposo vieron la oportunidad de hacer realidad su sueño.

Cristina se entrevistó con la MAFista Diana Adame para hablar sobre esa decisión, de cómo los Lending Circles de MAF la prepararon para los negocios y el poder que tenemos dentro de nosotros para hacer realidad nuestros sueños.

Cristina Velásquez started a business during the COVID-19 pandemic. While entire industries were shutting down, she and her husband saw an opportunity to seize their dream.

Cristina sat down with MAFista Diana Adame to talk about that decision, how MAF’s Lending Circles prepared her for business—starting Blind-N-Vision—and more.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Diana Adame: My name is Diana Adame. I work here at MAF.

Cristina Velásquez: My name is Ana Cristina Velásquez. I go by my second name, Cristina. I’m from El Salvador. I’ve been running my own business together with my husband for four months. We manufacture drape curtains which people may know as Roman shades. I’m helping my husband more than anything with delivery. He makes the product and I deliver it.

Cristina's family business

Diana: Why did you decide to open a business during the pandemic?

Cristina: We started to discover what people were telling us — that when people worked outside, they weren’t at home much. They then started to realize that there were many necessary home improvements. Demand for curtains started to rise. And this was how we said to ourselves, wow, here is a real opportunity.

Diana: What is the most unexpected challenge you’ve had to solve in starting your business?

Cristina: Wow, I think the first challenge we had was accessing a space. Talking about San Francisco, there may be space but it’s extremely expensive. We needed a space that was quite large, which we didn’t have available in the apartment we lived in.

Diana: How did you find your space?

Cristina: I always say that God had a plan and will for everything. I have a friend whom I met 15 years ago. She works at a beauty salon. And, well, I knew that the back part of the store was being rented out. It’s now free, it’s still available to be rented. And the first thing I asked was, how tall is it? Very high, she said. I told her, perfect! And this was how my husband and I went to check it out and we fell in love with it, it was perfect for what we wanted to do.

Diana: After everything was finalized, after you’d spoken with your friend, what did it feel like to walk into your space for the first time after you found it?

Cristina: Very proud to say, wow, finally this is a reality. It was a dream but now it’s real and we can touch it. This is beautiful. Really, I feel happy and grateful to God.

Finding the Resources

Diana: How did you first hear about MAF?

Cristina: I believe it was back in 2015. That’s when the story began because that’s when I wanted to start building credit. It was the best decision that I’ve ever made. There, they took me out of the darkness. I used to not have good credit and now I have excellent credit.

Diana: How have MAF’s services impacted your business?

Cristina: What I’ve learned on the personal side, I’m applying to my business. To run a business, you need great credit. In the personal sphere, that has opened doors a little more easily to do certain things with my business.

Diana: These learnings are so valuable when you bring them into other areas of your life, right? Great practices. One question that I would like to ask is, what is the MAF platform that’s most comfortable for you? Which have you benefited from the most?

Cristina: I think the mobile application. I think there was one time, quite late at night that I completed all of the modules because I felt they were so fast and practical. And so, I really love the [MyMAF] app.

Seizing Your Dreams


Diana: My last question, Cristina, is: what advice do you have for others in a similar position with a dream?

Cristina: Dreams should not stay dreams. They can become real. Only we have the power to make them real, no one but ourselves because they are not only our dreams but also what we want for us, for our children, and for our family. And then we can say, sí se puede. I made the effort and now I am a testament that, yes, sí se puede. I was singing to my husband last night. [song] It’s a beautiful song that talks about knowing that dreams are yours and you can realize them, whenever you desire.

Diana: Thanks so much Cristina. Well, I think that you are the motivation we need today. I appreciate you sharing your words with us.

Cristina: Thanks.

If you have a dream you’d like to bring to life, we’re here to support you. Check out our business microloans and financial services to find the tools that will work best for you.

Si tienes un sueño que te gustaría hacer realidad, estamos aquí para ayudarte. Consulta nuestros micropréstamos comerciales y servicios financieros para encontrar las herramientas que mejor se adapten a tus necesidades.

Putting Heart into UpValley’s Lending Circles: Joleen’s Story

Joleen learned valuable lessons navigating the U.S. financial system from her parents and career working at banks and credit unions. Now she runs the Lending Circles program at Napa’s UpValley Family Centers to help her community do the same.

Joleen learned from her parents’ financial lessons.

Joleen fondly remembers sitting in the back seat of her father’s lowrider as her family went on a cruise. Life was a little hectic for the small family of five, but on Sundays they enjoyed quality time together at car shows.  

Joleen’s parents were young teenagers when they moved from Yuba City to Napa, California to raise their three children. Napa provided Joleen’s father with a good paying construction job while allowing the young family to be closer to familial support. Since then, Joleen has called Napa home and hopes to one day purchase a house so that her daughter can grow up there.

Joleen's family

As young parents navigating the U.S. financial system, Joleen’s parents found themselves using payday loans to pay bills since they were the only financial product available to them at the time. “My mom had so many payday loans, she would go hopping from one to pay off the other,” reflected Joleen. Joleen watched as her parents struggled to get themselves out of debt and become financially stable. “Being young and not having much money – it was a lot. Seeing that struggle and feeling like you’re never getting out of this hole.” Eventually, Joleen’s father earned his degree and secured employment which helped the family become financially stable. 

As her parents gained access to better financial products, they better managed their money. “I am so proud of my parents and where they are today,” shared Joleen. After living in apartments all of her childhood, her parents now have their own home. Through years of hard work and sacrifice, Joleen’s father now has a job in the medical field while her mother takes care of the grandkids. 

“What I took from my parents, I decided to obtain [a house] sooner. I really want that for my child. I want my own home, where she will have her own room.” 

Her parents’ growth taught Joleen how to manage her finances at an early age. Soon after graduating high school, she opened her first college credit card. She knew how to read through the credit card terms and fully understand what she was signing before she made a decision. 

Inspired by her mother’s time working as a banker, Joleen also worked at banks and credit unions.

Joleen loved helping clients get banked, although at times she felt limited by capacity and felt like she could not serve everyone due to cost. She was frustrated that even credit cards starting at 0% rates only had those rates for a short period of time, leaving clients in precarious positions when rates increased. On top of this, she struggled with the “shark-like” approach; employees were expected to push certain loan products on clients in order to meet monthly quotas. Monetary incentives served to motivate employees to meet these goals which Joleen thought translated to inauthentic sales interactions with clients. Instead of trying to provide quality service, employees were motivated to boost their own income. 

Joleen yearned for an authentic connection where she could really listen and serve people. She had not envisioned working at a nonprofit but – as she puts it – “life carried her this way.” 

Joleen and her daughter

Although Joleen always considered herself a numbers person, her real dream was to become a traveling makeup artist for a luxe makeup line. As a makeup artist, she helped clients feel good about themselves. She recalls clients feeling overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for her service. “What I loved about artistry was the feeling – the service I could provide. The feeling of making someone feel beautiful.” 

Joleen’s dream of traveling and providing this service on the road was about to become a reality when she realized she was pregnant. She recognized that being a traveling makeup artist meant leaving her newborn daughter for 21 days out of the month. Joleen’s love for her daughter set her on a different path. 

 “It’s crazy how having a child can change what your dreams and goals are.”  

A coworker approached Joleen about a new opportunity at UpValley Family Centers, a nonprofit organization that has served Napa community members through their cross-generational programs for the past 20 years. Her coworker thought Joleen’s heart and care for clients would make her a perfect fit for UpValley. It didn’t take long for Joleen to become UpValley’s newest Economic Success Manager. 

“The fact that I am able to provide a service, free of cost, makes it so much better. I am really able to connect with people and build relationships with people.”

In contrast to her time working for banks and credit unions, Joleen now uses her financial knowledge to coach and help clients reach their financial goals. Through a partnership with MAF, Joleen helped launch the Lending Circles program at UpValley. Now she connects clients to a 0% interest credit-building loan through the program. 

Joleen says Lending Circles opens doors for clients individually, while building community. 

UpValley Family Centers, a MAF Lending Circles partner

In her first UpValley Lending Circle, clients came from different backgrounds and spoke different languages. Despite their differences, they worked together to decide the distribution order for the Lending Circle, taking into account who would benefit from going first.

One member from the circle had recently moved from Mexico. She didn’t think she could establish credit but through the program she purchased a car. It was something that she did not think was possible – and it was because of Lending Circles that she did it. 

As a participant of two Lending Circles herself, Joleen has seen the impacts of Lending Circles firsthand. “Even though I can avoid a high-interest loan now, I was able to pay off my own car, no interest. I was able to do that with what I received [from the Lending Circle]. I loved that. My circle helped me pay off my car and boost my credit. And now Lending Circles are also helping me buy a home.” 

As Joleen works towards owning her own home, she relies on her family’s support. She is saving money on rent and building up her savings by living with family. For Joleen, the Lending Circles program has a similar feeling of familial support.

“It’s that same concept of, how can we help each other – regardless if it’s blood or not – to reach what we really want in life?”  

Joleen jokes that she would have referred clients to the Lending Circles program if she had known about it during her time as a banker. “Had I known, I would’ve been like I’m not trying to make a commission. Join this program instead!” 

San Mateo Neighbors

Neighbors Showing Up: The Story of the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund

A few weeks ago, the MAF team received a Slack message we didn’t expect to see. Our Programs Team had just disbursed the sixteen thousandth cash grant to immigrant families in San Mateo County. Over the course of a year, we were able to touch the lives of one of every two undocumented immigrant households in the entire county by providing unrestricted cash grants of $1,000. These dollars helped families keep a roof over their heads and food in their refrigerators when the federal relief efforts excluded our neighbors in their hour of greatest need.

The San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund was designed to provide aid to those left out of the first CARES Act and began with a total sum of $100,000. It ultimately grew to a $16 million lifeline for those left last and least. Yet it almost didn’t happen.

By many accounts, it should not have. Only through the dedication and conviction of a diverse group of partners, old and new, was the fund willed into being. Against many odds, we came together with leaders across non-profit, philanthropic and civic sectors to weave threads of connection into a fabric of support for those left in the financial shadows. 

It was, put simply, a moment of neighbors helping neighbors. Here’s how it happened.

In late May of 2020, MAF CEO José Quiñonez received an unusual email. It was a request to support a rapid response fund being stood up by a local organization. He considered declining and moving on to the mountain of other urgent messages coming in. The MAF team, after all, had our hands more than full. We were focused on helping people across the country survive the pandemic through the Immigrant Families Fund, providing cash grants to families who had been overlooked again and again by federal relief efforts.

We knew, immediately, that immigrant families would be left last and least in this crisis. We moved quickly to create the Immigrant Families Fund to support families around the country who were facing higher rates of unemployment, eviction and death from COVID-19. This work pushed our team to its limits as we navigated the uncertainty of the pandemic and maintained our existing operations. There was no room for another feather on the camel’s back.

Something, however, pulled at José to respond to the request. For one, this message came from a long-time friend and ally, Stacey Hawver, Executive Director of The Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County. In addition to being a leader in the immigrant rights field, Stacey had been an instrumental partner in 2017 when we created the nation’s largest DACA application fee assistance program. We’d gone through the gauntlet together and knew she shared our values in working tirelessly to support immigrants with dignity and respect. We trusted one another.

Beyond the weight of Stacey’s word, this request hit close to home for José. It was personal. Since MAF’s founding fourteen years ago, our team members, partners and clients have called San Mateo County home. The county is simultaneously one of the wealthiest regions in the country and also has one of the highest rates of income inequality. When the weight of the pandemic was applied to this uneven social fabric, the consequences were devastating.

In an instant, the pandemic evaporated immigrant families’ most basic financial pillar: income to support their families.

More than one in three immigrant households in San Mateo County had no income at the height of the pandemic, a 10x increase from before the pandemic. This strain was particularly hard on immigrant families with young children. Nearly one in three immigrant families in San Mateo County have young children, and among these families, three in four reported that they were unable to pay at least one of their bills in full during the pandemic.

While we might not have known these statistics at the time, we knew, intimately, the challenges our clients there have faced over the years. The relationships we maintain with clients last through triumphs and sorrow. Ever since California’s stay-at-home order was issued in March, our phones rang daily with clients reaching out for help. José had heard one story that he couldn’t get out of his mind.

“I myself am a recovered COVID-19 patient,” said Rosa. “It struck me emotionally and I also lost my job because of it. I’m currently unemployed and have a son I have to look out for. I’m desperate and am in really need of some financial income to support my son and myself with food and rent. The pandemic has struck my life emotionally and changed my way of living, all for the worse.” 

He had never met Rosa personally. He didn’t have to. MAF was created with the mission of providing timely, relevant services to those left in the financial shadows. Knowing that people in our own backyard were being left to suffer through the most extreme crisis in living memory was enough to act. We had to show up for our community, to do more, even if that meant pushing to the edge of our limits and beyond. It’s who we are. 

Amidst the urgency of the moment, there was no time to waste. José fired off a response to Stacey, setting up a call to learn more.

The journey had just begun.

Soon after, José logged on to a Zoom meeting. It was the first time this group was gathering and there was a palpable feeling of potential and urgency. It turned out that the rapid response fund that José had spoken to Stacey about was one of a few funds being germinated simultaneously across the county. One leader at The Grove Foundation, José Santos, had the foresight to see how this could confuse families and turn away potential funders. He convened the groups together in the hope of uniting them in a single effort. 

As Zoom profiles populated across José’s screen, familiar and new faces greeted him. In addition to Stacey, another long-time MAF ally on the call was Lorena Melgarejo, Executive Director of Faith in Action Bay Area. Lorena and her network of community leaders had also played a critical role during our 2017 DACA campaign and we respected their grounded commitment to lifting up the strengths in the immigrant community. Not only that, but Lorena had actually worked at MAF previously, and José knew she was a fierce advocate for our clients.

A brief round of names at the start of the meeting introduced two new partners: John A. Sobrato, a philanthropist based in San Mateo County, and Bart Charlow, the CEO of the non-profit Samaritan House. John, we learned, is a prolific donor who has joined the Giving Pledge and has a history of showing up for families in his community. Family plays a large role in John’s philanthropy: not only does he support causes that support families in the Bay Area, but his own family gives back to the Bay Area through Sobrato Philanthropies. John was also a long-time supporter of Samaritan House and was determined to lead a rapid response fund for immigrants in San Mateo after seeing a similar fund created in Santa Clara County. 

Each partner was fully on board with delivering the grants as quickly as possible. The unspoken question on everyone’s mind, though, was: can we come together to make it happen?

The first call was a dive head-first into just that. José shared with John the details of MAF’s financial technology platform, explaining how we were leveraging our infrastructure to deliver direct cash assistance to immigrant families on a national level. The challenges in doing so were substantial, so MAF’s ability to hit the ground running in San Mateo County situated our team as the natural lead for disbursing funds. José reaffirmed a commitment he made to Stacey that MAF would manage the disbursal process at no cost.

Our goal, first and foremost, was to help people keep a roof overhead and food in their refrigerators.

We heard repeatedly that our neighbors in San Mateo County needed help, people like Milagritos.

“I have been struggling to feed my child who is 10 years old and as a family, we have had a hard time paying our bills and rent,” shared Milagritos. “I have been very stressed because of the job situation during COVID-19. I don’t know when I will be back to normal work hours because I clean houses and people do not want anyone in their homes.”

With Milagritos’ story in mind and the meeting coming to an end, there was a sense that the first hurdle had been cleared. Under normal circumstances, a collaborative might take months to form and a funder might require several rounds of requests for proposals, applications and interviews before making a funding decision. But we were operating in crisis mode. There was no time for business as usual, and John respected and trusted our organizations to serve families in San Mateo County quickly.

We leveraged existing relationships to rapidly forge bonds of trust. José began working the phones to speak with partners, funders and allies who already knew John and Bart in other contexts. He also communicated with both directly, scheduling 1-on-1 calls to get to know them better while emailing back and forth at two in the morning to keep the fund moving forward and get cash into families’ hands faster. The others did the same. 

Within a week of José’s first call with Stacey, the new team convened a second time. We would go all-in on a single effort, the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund. The partners had arrived at this decision from a shared desire to serve the people in our community. There was no time to waste. Collectively, we had the capacity to serve people with dignity and respect. Our partner organizations would leverage their relationships and grounding in the local community to invite as many families as possible. John would lead fundraising and rally the philanthropic community in San Mateo County to support our efforts. MAF would manage the application, approval and disbursal process. Samaritan House and the Core Agency Network would follow up with grant recipients to provide wrap-around services beyond the initial $1,000 grant.

John then blew us all away. He raised our target from $1 million to $10 million and personally wrote a check for $5 million.

The grant was in our account within a day, much to the shock of MAF’s Finance Director. This was the largest individual donation we’d ever received. We weren’t alone in the surprise.

“We’ve never worked on anything at this scale, especially at this pace,” recalled Stacey.

Undaunted and energized, we all moved quickly. By the time we formally launched the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund in July, John had delivered a total of $8.9 million from individual donors, corporate foundations and the County’s Board of Supervisors. While this level of tenacity dropped our jaws, we came to learn it was par for the course with John.

“Here’s a man willing to shake the tree so that people he considers neighbors are taken care of,” shared Bart. “You could see it in his eyes.”

With funding secured, our partners hit the streets to get the word out to families, sharing information through strong networks of church congregations, hospitals, community resource centers and legal aid providers and through television, radio and more. MAF began hosting weekly Facebook Live sessions for clients and provided FAQ materials to partners. With a surge in COVID-19 aid scams rising at the same time, our focus on a single message from many trusted voices was instrumental in cutting above the noise.

The strategy worked. Within the first month, we had received more than 17,000 pre-applications, with more coming in each day.

It was a challenge handling the high volume of applications with limited staff resources, but our commitment to putting the needs of our clients first never wavered. We centered our clients’ experience throughout the application process, providing tireless, individual support to each applicant as needed. 

“If you put out money, and in the middle there are flames and dragons, the money doesn’t matter because people cannot get to it,” explained Carolina Parrales, Faith in Action’s Lead Community Organizer for San Mateo County.

We designed every aspect of the client experience to be relevant, timely and grounded in their reality. We hired translators to translate the application into four languages, refusing a simple Google translate widget to ensure it was accessible to all San Mateo County immigrant communities. We developed two methods of delivering grants to people without checking accounts so the barriers many already faced—lack of a bank account—wouldn’t keep them from getting the relief they needed. And throughout the year, we checked in regularly with our partners to share updates and make sure we were getting the word out to families.

Together, we worked to overcome the “digital grand canyon” for some families. It was one thing to remind an applicant that they had forgotten to upload a photo of their paystub. It was another entirely to walk an applicant through creating their first email account, securely saving a password, filtering junk folders and explaining how to create online profiles. Hundreds of applicants needed this level of support and, together with our partners, we showed up. The Legal Aid Society team even hired a full-time staff person to focus exclusively on assisting applicants in this way.

Our partners provided hands-on support to clients, staying in daily communication with the MAF team to ensure no one was falling through the cracks. It was demanding work. We made it happen, refusing to let go of our conviction that every client feel respected, seen and supported through the process, regardless of whether we could provide a grant immediately or not.

“Help is about more than money,” shared José. “It’s about showing that we care, showing that we see them, that they’re not being left behind.”

One year later, the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund ultimately raised more than $16 million to distribute in its entirety as 16,017 grants to families.

The collaboration between our lead funder, John, and partners MAF, Faith in Action Bay Area, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County and Samaritan House has touched the lives of half of undocumented immigrant families in the county. For comparison, California’s initial $75 million disaster relief assistance funding reached about 5% of undocumented immigrant families across the entire state. 

We would not have been able to achieve this level of impact without John’s persistence in pitching, advocating, calling in favors, twisting arms and challenging even existing donors to step up again with more. He was as relentless as he was clear-eyed in his primary argument.

“If not now, when?” John shared. “Many of these people have helped us for many years. Now is the time for us to help them.”

It is difficult, though, to celebrate a job well done when it was born of the unspeakable, unjust suffering of the people we work with, who live in our neighborhoods and who we greet on evening walks. Words to describe this experience live somewhere between enraged sorrow and humbled gratitude. Yet even that falls short.

As the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund closes out, we know the work is far from over. The light at the end of the tunnel so many of us are looking forward to is dimmer for immigrant families. In San Mateo County, one in five immigrant families depleted their savings during the pandemic, while one in four had to borrow money to pay for basic living expenses. The mountains of debt families have incurred will take years to pay off.

For San Mateo families who had a household member get sick with COVID-19, they face an even longer road to recovery. They were more likely to have fallen behind on rent and utility bills than those families who didn’t get sick. Families who had COVID-19 were also 60% more likely to have skipped meals to make ends meet. 

This financial devastation for immigrant families isn’t unique to San Mateo County. Through our work with the national Immigrant Families Fund, we know that families across the country are struggling financially. In our national survey of more than 11,000 grantees, eight in ten people reported that they were unable to pay at least one of their bills in full during COVID-19. Three in ten respondents have had to borrow money to pay back later, including carrying balances on credit cards. We’ll need to continue to support these families in their financial recovery, listening to their needs and working together to maximize impact for immigrant communities.  

This will require more support, smarter strategies and more active collaborations. To inform these actions, we’ve distilled four insights from our successes and challenges with the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund, which can be applied to serve communities across the country.

1. Client-centered design produces services that treat people with respect and dignity.

“There was always someone applicants could reach,” recalled Stacey. “This was a commitment on José’s part to design a process that makes people feel respected throughout.”

Centering clients in service design comes from our conviction in lifting up the full, complex humanity of the people we serve. This means that from the way a client completes an application, to the way they receive services, to even the language used in every email, we center the lived realities of our clients. We know we’re succeeding when a client feels seen, heard and spoken to, in addition to feeling supported. 

The follow-on impact of this success is services with high engagement and satisfaction rates. However, these measurements should always remain secondary to a focus on remaining timely and relevant to the lives of clients.

2. Coordination requires trust between collaborative partners.

“Collaboration and coordination are not the same animal,” explained Bart. “Collaboration is a good foundation for coordination. But coordination requires mutual trust.”

Effective partnerships begin with a shared vision but succeed only when they come together and deliver. Trust is required to navigate the inevitable challenges any partnership faces and we’ve learned that trust can be built when all partners see, value and respect the strengths of each other. When John stepped up with the first $5 million, he trusted that we would disburse it equitably and with dignity. We, in turn, trusted that John would respect our processes, team and technology. 

Each partner trusted that the others would carry their weight, drawing on their expertise to accomplish our shared goal of serving our community. That’s precisely what happened.

3. Community begins with seeing the humanity in our neighbors.

“Growing up, I attended a Jesuit high school that espoused values in consciousness, competence, and compassion,” said John. “Those values have always stuck with me. We need to treat the neighbors in our community with compassion and respect.”

Language matters. It is no coincidence that today’s political discourse is fraught with ways of dehumanizing those left in the shadows. Language such as ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals,’ ‘foreigners,’ or even ‘janitors’ and ‘baristas,’ all serve to place distance. Yet each person has a name, a story and a place they belong. When we choose language that celebrates connection instead of separation, a thriving community is possible.

MAF has always been adamant in pushing for this shift in discourse, and John consistently carried this sense of community, compassion, and empathy into meetings with other funders. This is a shift we must continue to push.

4. Business-as-usual doesn’t work in crisis. We’re not out yet.

“The reality is that immigrant families face a long and arduous journey to financial recovery,” reflected José. “We’ll need more collaborations and public-private partnerships like what happened in San Mateo County to meet the needs of families.”   

As any organization grows in size, there is always a temptation to focus on maintaining the status quo for its own sake. However, community-based organizations that exist to provide services have an imperative to never lose sight of the realities of the people they serve. If a legacy process is getting in the way of responding to a crisis, a new approach is required. This willingness to do things differently, to move swiftly and boldly, was essential to the formation and delivery of the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund.

And the crisis is not over. We must continue pushing ourselves to respond to the moment, to show up, do more and to do it better.

Paying It Forward: Nancy’s Story

Nancy Alonso is no stranger to the unexpected.  The Southern California native has faced more than her share of challenging and tragic storms.  Through them all she’s kept moving forward, a captain doing what she must to steer ahead with her two children in tow.

Nancy’s story, at its core, illustrates how the financial system can distort itself into shackles on the dreams of hard-working people.  It also shows how community can be the key to set them free.

Since having their first child when Nancy was 21, she and her husband had dove headfirst into the race of life.  

They stretched each dollar to the next month’s paycheck, sometimes, making it through with breathing room. Most often, though, there were hurdles to overcome. Should they pay for the latest medical bill or the week’s groceries? 

Nancy and her husband both worked hard, and both hustled to make ends meet. He would pick up cardboard outside his cousin’s restaurant to sell. She would take their two kids’ outgrown clothes to the flea market for extra cash. They did what they had to.

Yet far beyond the edges of the next immediate hurdle, a horizon of dreams beckoned them ever forward. Nancy and her husband saw a house of their own nestled on that horizon. One day, they knew, she’d leave her retail job to work as a medical assistant. Then they’d be able to breathe not only on occasion, but all the time. Day by day, year by year, they continued pushing ahead knowing that with each other no hurdle was too big.

Then, on October 9th, 2019, Nancy received a call from the hospital.

One month later, her husband had passed away.

In a daze, Nancy moved back in with her parents in San Ysidro as the world moved in slow motion around her. The shock gripped her as she shared a bunk bed with her son, entered the COVID-19 pandemic and helped her family through her father’s stroke in June 2020. Slowly, she began to pick up the shards of her broken life and build a new mosaic of her future.

Her husband, it turned out, had a modest life insurance policy. She’d never known about it because they never spoke about finances. Now, at last, she could afford to buy a home. But when she went to a lender to discuss a mortgage, she found out she had a poor credit score and couldn’t qualify. She’d never looked into her credit so this, too, was devastating news.  

Nancy was stuck. 

The financial system that had never been more than an afterthought was now the moat standing between her and a lifelong dream.  She even looked into private apartments to get back on her feet.  These, however, all required 2-3x income to rent ratios and she was not able to fill the salary gap her husband had left.  Her kids still needed to be cared for and her previous medical assistant program had been less credible than she’d hoped.  Nancy was finally at the doorstep of possibility, yet the hurdle holding her back was one of the biggest she’d faced. And this time, she was alone.

“That’s when someone told me about Casa Familiar,” Nancy recounted. “They mentioned a program to help me improve my credit score. But they are so much more.”

Casa Familiar, a San Diego-based community services organization, brought Nancy to one of their first Lending Circle programs.  

She joined an LC to raise her score and was quickly able to do so.  After 3 months, Nancy raised her credit score by 118 points. 

Then she started asking questions. And the Casa Familiar team had answers. They helped Nancy access Social Security funds she’d never known about, shared resources on financial planning and helped schedule COVID-19 vaccinations for her parents.

“Every little thing I ask, they help me,” she glowed. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Today, Nancy is on track to increase her credit score enough to qualify for a mortgage and is working to secure a job as a medical assistant.

Even though her husband is not with her, she carries on the dreams they’d held together, moving day after day toward the horizon they’d seen so clearly. There are still many hurdles to overcome, and Nancy is resolute that none will stop her. After all, she’s not alone.

“Mariana at Casa Familiar called to tell me she had a surprise,” Nancy shared. “Because I’ve been making all my payments on time, she gave me a bonus of $500 from a Kaiser grant. I cried because I was able to help out my parents more. For all the bad things that have happened to us, good things have happened too.”

Nancy continues asking questions, learning how to navigate a new world while passing on hard-won knowledge to her children, 17 and 13. In this way, she hopes, they will have a head start on the race of life she’d sprinted through for so long. 

Regardless, the children already possess an invaluable gift of their own; grit and steel determination to chase after dreams. This inheritance was passed down by Nancy and her husband, together.

Studying Through A Pandemic: Marlena’s Story

Marlena sat at her desk in April of 2020, unusually unfocused as the biology Zoom lecture droned on in the background. She eyed her phone, blank where she was waiting for notifications. Her finger tapped to the rapid beat of her nervous heart as, for the first time in a long while, she felt the grip over her ambitions slip. She always held the reins to her future firmly in hand. The world, though, was shaken and so was she.

Marlena is not easily shaken. 

At the start of the pandemic, she was in her second year of studying biomedical engineering at Crafton Hills Community College where she blazed a path as a first-generation college student and woman of color in a heavily white, male field. She forged ahead in spite of prejudice, choosing to add it as fuel to her fire. 

However, when her parents both saw their hours cut during the pandemic, Marlena was suddenly uncertain how she’d pay for the next semester’s books. So she reached out for help. Then she waited. The waiting was the hard part.

“Not being able to control everything around me was really hard to process,” she said.

Marlena first learned how painful losing control could be when she was 12. 

Her father, the sole bread-winner of a family of six, worked for a company that got acquired. He turned down an offer to keep his job at a steep pay cut, which caused their mortgage company to come after them like a pack of vultures and sparked a lawsuit that left the family in financial ruin.

“We lost everything,” she recounted. “We lost our home, we had to move and it took us about seven years of living paycheck to paycheck to get back on our feet.”

Marlena’s experience taught her early that there is only so much your own two hands can influence. Sitting with her parents and siblings at their dining table through many hard conversations also taught her that finances are fundamental to building a future. She took these lessons to heart and threw herself into her studies, gripping the reins of her future with characteristic ferocity and discipline.

Marlena graduated with the highest honors from her high school as her class valedictorian and one year early. After completing her associate’s degree, she plans to transfer to a four-year university to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s in biomedical engineering. While her current accomplishments are remarkable enough, for Marlena, they’re just the preamble.

“My dream is to create the world’s first 3D-printed organs,” she shared. “I’m so passionate about my studies because I want to save lives.”

Anyone who knows Marlena understands that while she radiates passion for her field, her love for her family is, somehow, even more potent. She would never trade family for her own ambitions. So in typical Marlena fashion, she has gone about her academic journey with a mission to lift the financial burden of college on her family with unrelenting focus and dedication.

“I’ve probably applied to hundreds of scholarships,” she recounts. “I apply to the big ones and the small ones, too. I know every bit adds up. At one point, I was applying to two scholarships a day.”

Her hard work was paying off.  

Between her scholarships and her parents’ support, she had made it through the first two years of study without compromise. Then the pandemic derailed her plans. Marlena was suddenly considering reducing her course load for the fall semester because of the cost. She then began searching for external resources and came across MAF’s CA College Student Grant.  

The $500 grants were emergency financial relief for students in need, regardless of academic performance. Because of the sheer volume of demand, the MAF team created a financial equity framework to bring those left last and least to the front of the line. We prioritized those who had lost income, were financially strained and were marginalized from other funding.

Students like Marlena should never have to choose between their grocery bill and their books. 

Students should have the time to study without worrying about tracking hundreds of scholarships. For this reason, MAF leveraged the best of technology and finance to deliver grants as effectively and quickly as possible.

Back at Marlena’s desk in April, she released a full-bodied sigh of relief. She’d just received an email from MAF that her application was accepted. By the end of that day, she saw the grant deposited into her account.

“Within 24 hours, I saw the funds in my account and I was able to buy my books,” she beamed. “Receiving the grant gave me hope. There are others out there investing in me and my future.”

With her family firmly beside her and a growing circle of supporters cheering her on, Marlena is well on her way to realizing her dreams. And it’s working. Marlena ended her semester maintaining a 4.0 GPA and will be graduating in 2021 with highest honors before moving on to UC Riverside on a Regents scholarship. She credits honoring her Native American great-grandfather and her faith as key inspirations in making it to this point.

“I know there are many others who are going through the same things I am,” she says. “If I’m able to encourage and inspire them to not give up, that makes everything worthwhile.”

At MAF, we know she will do just that. She already is.

Francisco’s Story: Strength in the Time of COVID-19

Francisco has always hustled and made sacrifices to keep his family safe and financially stable. Before COVID-19 hit the Bay Area, Francisco and his wife were eager to save and make their big vacation plans a reality. Since Francisco was often working during weekends and holidays, his four young children were especially excited to get away and visit extended family in Oregon. At the time, it was difficult to imagine how quickly their plans and lives could change due to the coronavirus.

“We thought it was something that can be controlled. We didn’t think it would come here since it was something that felt so far away. But sometimes life brings us surprises. Good ones or bad ones – we never know and we can’t always be prepared for what’s going to happen.”

When the shelter-in-place order was instituted in March of this year, their world as they knew it turned upside down. Francisco’s wife was laid off from work and schools closed down, forcing their children to stay home and inside. That’s when their family began to struggle. Francisco and his wife did their best to educate themselves and their children about the pandemic with the limited information they had at the time. As a local chef, Francisco is considered an essential worker, so he was the only one who left the house to work and buy groceries.

A few days after his birthday in April, Francisco broke out in a fever.

He was sweating, shivering, and shaking all over – to the point where he was no longer able to walk, taste food, or even talk. He searched his symptoms on Google and determined that somewhere and somehow he had become infected with COVID-19. His wife also started experiencing mild symptoms a couple of days later. To avoid spreading the virus to their children, the couple locked themselves in their room, fearing for their family’s future.

“My fever was the highest during the first four days. It was really hard. My wife and I cried because we couldn’t be close to the children. I was already thinking the worst. How are my kids going to manage? What’s going to happen to my family? It was the worst four days of my life.”

Fortunately, Francisco gradually started to feel better and regained his mobility after weeks of bedrest. Although the darkest days have passed, Francisco continues to worry about his family’s livelihood amidst the coronavirus and economic crises.

COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that financial stability is fragile – especially for immigrant families in America.

Francisco is no stranger to hard work and perseverance. As the sixth of nine children, Francisco started working at the age of 12 to support his family in the fields in Yucatan, Mexico. Pulled by the promise of prosperity and pushed by a desire to help his younger siblings continue their education, Francisco decided to drop out of school and migrate to the United States when he was 18 years old. 

After his original plan to go to Oregon fell through, Francisco settled in San Francisco to pay back the coyote who helped him cross the border. He took on multiple odd jobs at once and worked his way up from a dishwasher to a chef. Now, in his free time, Francisco enjoys enticing his family with different types of dishes, taking his wife out on dates, and spending quality one-on-one time with each of his four children. 

Francisco feels both fortunate for and proud of the life he’s built for his family over the past 23 years. He’s always tried to do the right thing and live life with dignity and respect. Like millions of other immigrants, Francisco pays taxes on the income he earns. Yet when his family needed it most, the federal government excluded them from critical financial relief from the CARES Act due to their immigration status.

“We are all human and need to be treated the same. It is upsetting because we also pay taxes. Although we are not from here, we still pay taxes, but never qualify for anything. We deserved that help too. But that’s not how things are and what’s left for us to do but accept it? We are strangers. We are invisible. That is how we see it – we are invisible.”

In times of struggle, Francisco found strength in family and community.

When the federal government turned its back on them, Francisco leaned on his community and loved ones for support. His two oldest daughters took care of their younger siblings while he and his wife were ill. His younger brother dipped into his savings to help them pay rent. His employer continued to offer health insurance, meals, and other resources. After Francisco and his wife tested positive, even the City of San Francisco followed up to ask how they were doing and offer food assistance. 

Francisco first heard about the MAF Immigrant Families Fund from his son’s school. He and his wife each applied and received the $500 grant for immigrants left out of federal coronavirus relief. They used MAF’s grants to pay utility bills and make late credit card payments. Although Francisco couldn’t benefit from many emergency relief programs because of his status, he’s grateful for all the support he did receive.

“There are many things you can’t do and can’t apply for when undocumented – especially during the pandemic. To get the stimulus check, you have to have papers. To get a loan, you need a social security number. I can’t travel to see my family or even get on an airplane. We are locked down. But I don’t want anything from the government except respect and equal treatment.”

The financial devastation of COVID-19 simply can’t be overstated. While the impact of the global pandemic is far-reaching, the Latinx community has been hit disproportionately hard. Since he has experienced the coronavirus himself, Francisco is now a resource for his community and advises others on how to take care of their health during this unpredictable time.

Francisco also understands that economic recovery won’t happen overnight and that it’ll take a long time before his family can feel the relative stability of pre-COVID days. But he’s determined to continue pushing forward and taking care of his family through this crisis. After all, everything he does is to ensure that his children won’t have to struggle in the same way he has in the past.

“I was stressed a lot. I was worried. But when I don’t know what to do, I always think of my children. I want to be healthy for them. I want to see them grow up and see what they can achieve in life. That is the reason I stand here today. I keep going to do what is best for them.”

Taryn’s Story: Finding Transformation in the Uncertainty

Taryn Williams’ magnetic personality and infectious laugh easily overcome the monotony of the typical video conference call that’s become all too familiar for many of us. A full-time student at the California State University Long Beach and mother of five-year-old twins Isaiah and McKayla, Taryn is no stranger to the challenges of a heavy load under trying circumstances. As she eats her lunch during our video conversation, she excitedly talks about her Executive internship at Target this summer. She leans back to show me her packed color-coded calendar filled with thesis assignments, GRE practice tests, and application deadlines. “It’s absolute madness,” she comments with a wide smile. 

Like many college students, Taryn has experienced the significant disruption that COVID-19 has brought upon the day-to-day social interactions on bustling college campuses. Loss of a passionate exchange of ideas, loss of a study space, and, as a mother of two young children, Taryn has also lost access to childcare and free meals. For Taryn, college was not only her place of academic and personal growth, but it was also her social safety net. “Financial security for me was strongly tied to being in school. When COVID happened, I didn’t get my stimulus check, my husband’s work hours were cut, I lost my government assistance.” As a recipient of MAF’s CA College Student Support Grant, Taryn was able to buy food and basic needs for her family. Losing critical income and food support for her family created new sets of challenges nonetheless. But for Taryn, this was another chapter in a long story of perseverance and hope. 

Inspiration and Hope Emerge in Unlikely Moments

“My children are my driving force for everything I do. I went back to school when they were fifteen months, and that was pretty crazy.”

At 31 years old, Taryn decided she wanted to have a picture of herself in college graduation regalia with her children. And she picked a particularly unexpected time in her life to do that.

“When I went back to school, I didn’t have childcare, I had just totaled my car, we had been forced out of our housing due to gentrification. So, I had no place to live, didn’t have a bank account, didn’t have a job, didn’t have a car, had these two newborns. I really wanted to tell myself that this wasn’t the time to go back to school. But I just kept going.”

More than ten years earlier, Taryn had started college but ultimately had to take a permanent break. Taryn describes the agony of attending school for years and trying to stay focused while dealing with one curveball after another. Raised in the foster care system, Taryn had attended over a dozen elementary schools growing up. She moved so often she worried she didn’t know how to properly read and write. When she was 19, her dad lost his job and left town. She was left homeless. She experienced substance abuse and depression. “Unable to provide basic food, shelter, and clothing, school was just no longer a priority for me.” Nearly ten years after taking a leave from college, Taryn enrolled in Long Beach City College to pursue her associate’s degree. Her goal in coming back to school: show her kids what an alternative future could hold. Timing – where she was in her life and who she had with her – was everything for this new beginning.

The Power of Being Seen and Heard: Finding a Voice in Community and Acceptance

It took that one “A” in her chemistry class to completely change Taryn’s academic trajectory. She was then recommended to the Honors Program. Taryn didn’t feel like that was where she was at all, she recalled with an incredulous laugh. 

“Joining that honors program and having people there totally accept me for who I am – and really meeting me where I was in that part of my academic journey – was really reinforcing.” 

Stepping out of her comfort zone lit a fire in her to keep going. People’s encouragement fueled her motivation and her belief in herself. And then it happened: she got her first 4.0 GPA. “Getting that 4.0 made me realize that I shouldn’t judge myself based on my prior experiences.” She now knew she had to go even further.  

In 2018, Taryn transferred to Cal State University Long Beach with the President’s Scholarship, the most prestigious merit-based scholarships awarded by the university.

“Those scholarships are for 18-year-olds, fresh-out-of-high school valedictorians, who have over a 4.0 GPA. I’m in my 30’s, I have kids at home, I didn’t have a cumulative 4.0 GPA. What did they want with me, I thought?”

But Taryn found her voice on campus. The support she received when she arrived was so overwhelming, she finally felt comfortable sharing a part of her life she had always been quieter about: she had previously been incarcerated. Taryn had been incarcerated right before her twins were born. She never wanted to bring that up before, because she felt she’d be deemed untrustworthy. She didn’t think people would really believe she was a “changed woman.” 

She found healing in opening up. “It was freeing, humbling, and because I’m naturally so loud and free-spirited, I just tapped into that. It gave me so much self-esteem.” She was hearing from students with her background that her openness was helping them heal as well. Taryn found strength in her communities of support, and uses this strength to fuel her motivation to keep going.

Changing the Narrative as a Scholar and Advocate: Looking Beyond COVID-19

Right before COVID hit, Taryn had just given a TEDx talk on bias and judgement, particularly around previously incarcerated people and the negative stereotypes people hold about them. “I come to the stage with a blazer on, and people look at me with a certain type of respect. Then, after a while, I take off my blazer, showing a bunch of tattoos, and people then become more aware of my piercings. Then they look at me differently. They judge me and I can feel it.”

Taryn is on a quest to change the narrative around previously incarcerated and foster youth’s chances at higher education attainment levels.

She wants to apply to PhD programs and become a faculty member at a university one day so she can advocate for and support her communities. Taryn plans to graduate this December with a double bachelor’s in management and operations supply chain management. 

Yes, she deeply worries about COVID’s implications and how she’ll manage her kids’ school schedules this fall now that they’re starting kindergarten.

“Being a parent in college during a pandemic might be one of the harder things I’ve gone through.”

As she finishes her thesis, completes her internship, applies to PhD programs, and actively juggles the needs of her family, Taryn is putting one foot in front of the other, and continuing her journey ahead. She proudly shows me a canvas of her associate’s degree graduation photo with her kids – full regalia and all. She can’t wait to collect more pictures.  

“My biggest hope is that people will understand that you really, truly can do whatever you want. You have to seek out your community. You have to be willing to speak up for what your needs are, and then say when your needs are not being met. Most importantly, you have to be willing to ask for more –you have to know that you’re worth asking for more. And, anything is possible.” 

“Any last words?”” I ask, still soaking in the depth of Taryn’s casual summary of life lessons. “Yes, wear a mask!” she exclaims with laughter. 

Xiucoatl Mejia: Connecting Communities…From A Distance

Art is entrenched in Xiucoatl Mejia’s being. His creative talents can be seen in the beautiful depictions and designs that he has produced as a tattooist and a muralist. Xiucoatl, a twenty-year old native of Pomona, California, is still defining his identity as an artist, but he has articulated this powerful vision—to use his creative energy to (a) uplift the stories of his own indigenous community and (b) engage and connect members from different backgrounds. 

What does this vision look like in practice? One of Xiucoatl’s most cherished projects is a mural he proposed and designed as a high school student in Claremont, California. The ‘Legacy of Creation’ mural features sixteen thought leaders and activists from around the world. His vision was to create a mural that engaged the school community in both substance and process.

“The paint on the mural came from a lot of different hands — teachers, students, and school faculty. This is something that should be emphasized with any sort of community art.”

Like many artists, Xiucoatl has been forced to modify the tools that he once relied on to achieve this vision in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way communities engage with each other. These changing social dynamics have left us with the difficult and unfortunate task of labeling work as ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’—a distinction that has resulted in the loss of work for so many hard working artists and creatives. But in spite of these circumstances, artists like Xiucoatl continue to navigate this difficult moment in creative ways.

Xiucoatl’s creative endeavors are inspired by his family, culture, and community.

Xiucoatl’s family is originally from Mexico, and his parents were born and raised in East Los Angeles. His father, also a tattooist and muralist, was always involved in an art project in his house or in the community, and this upbringing inspired the artistic pursuits of himself and his two sisters. Xiucoatl distinctly remembers accompanying his father to paint murals around their neighborhood in Pomona. His father worked at Good Time Charlie’s, an iconic tattoo parlor founded in the 1970’s in East Los Angeles focused on bringing the fine line style of tattooing to the professional world of tattooing. The fine line style has rich cultural roots. It’s a style born from the resourcefulness of incarcerated Chicanx community members who relied on the tools available to them —like needles and pens—to create tattoos that honored their narratives.

Xiucoatl’s work as a tattooist is inspired by the fine line chicanx style as well as his identity as a member of the Tonatierra indigenous community based in Phoenix. His parents always made great efforts to engage with the traditional rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of their community, and Xiucoatl was deeply inspired by their commitment to engaging with their heritage and the beauty of the traditions themselves.

“My father sun danced. Growing up, I remember attending sun dance and tipi ceremonies, and this really shaped my connection to and understanding of my community. My parents always actively inserted themselves in their community, and this is something I try to do as well.”

Xiucoatl’s family emphasized the importance of knowing the history behind a given art form and instilled in him a curiosity about the cultures and communities around him. He has incorporated his parents’ teachings in his approach as a tattoo artist. He acknowledges that tattooing is an ancient art form, and indigenous communities across the world have engaged in some version of this art form. As a result, he invested his time in studying the practices of these communities, including traditions from Japan and Polynesia. Xiucoatl notes the important symbolic value of tattoos, especially for indigenous communities like his who have experienced horrific atrocities at the hands of colonial powers:

“I’m coming from a people who have experienced one of the most brutal genocides in history. I want to give our communities designs that they can use to identify with their other camaradas and give them something that ties them to the land below us. Tattoos are something that make us feel sacred and connect us to the sentiments that our ancestors felt—many of the sentiments that we still feel today.”

The pandemic has forced Xiucoatl to develop new skills to support himself and his family.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way communities engage with each other, and Xiucoatl’s artistic pursuits were not immune to these changes. Xiucoatl was working at a tattoo parlor just as COVID-19 cases were rapidly increasing in the United States. Under California’s stay at home order issued earlier this year, tattoo parlors throughout the state were ordered to close. Artists and creatives from a wide range of industries suddenly found themselves unemployed, and the expenses and bills continued to pile up. Though the federal government expanded unemployment assistance to self-employed workers under the CARES Act, which allowed a number of artists and gig workers to receive benefits, the assistance is simply not sufficient to manage the losses that the pandemic has produced.

In an effort to pay his rent, bills, and other essential expenses, Xiucoatl turned to creating and selling drawings. He was able to purchase supplies for his drawings with the support of MAF’s LA Young Creatives Grant. The LA Creatives grant is an effort to provide immediate cash assistance to the nation’s most vulnerable communities, including artists and creatives. Thanks to the generous support of the Snap Foundation, MAF quickly mobilized to offer $500 grants to 2,500 creatives in the Los Angeles area as part of the scholarship initiative.

In addition to selling his drawings, Xiucoatl has invested his time in learning a number of new skills to support his family. He recently picked up plumbing, tile work, and throwing concrete to help his family complete renovations to their family home. When asked about the insights he has collected from navigating these unprecedented times, he says:

“Our people, our communities have always found ways to thrive and to hustle. They were thriving and hustling much before the pandemic. Now, there are hundreds of people struggling together. Many folks are starting to understand the struggle of communities around the world whose only choice was to live with these fears and to survive like this.”

In terms of his own profession, he’s hopeful that the pandemic will actually bring about positive changes. He believes that tattoo parlors will become more diligent about complying with safety and hygiene standards. He also remains hopeful about his own future and the future of creatives and artists across the nation. Though this has been a painful time for many communities, he believes that there will be a lot of beautiful work that reflects the inequities and resilience highlighted by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It will be interesting to reflect back on this time. There will be a renaissance of artists producing great pieces and a lot of great artwork.”

Xiucoatl’s story illustrates the incontestable reality that art—in all of its forms—is essential to enabling people to connect with each other through empathy, shared space, or shared experience. Legislative designations aside, art is essential.

To see more of Xiucoatl’s drawings, please visit his instagram account @xiucoatlmejia. All work for sale is posted to his instagram. If you’d like to inquire about prices or commissions, please send a direct message or email to [email protected].

Prioritizing Education in a Pandemic

The pandemic has halted the world’s usual activity, allowing the dust to settle and revealing inequities that lay just below the surface.  The cracks in our social bedrock are now painfully visible in many sectors, not least of which is higher education. Even before this moment, so many students had to overcome staggering barriers to access and navigate our higher education institutions.  First generation students, for example, often juggled multiple jobs and a full course load to reduce debt and support family.  Students with children balanced their studies alongside care-taking.  The stresses of our pandemic reality have only magnified these challenges.

But as always, they persevere. Driven by the hope of using their education to support their families and communities, these incredible students carry on.

At MAF, we recognized our duty to use our platform to support students as they weather this crisis (on top of managing a full course load and a full life load). This is why we started the California College Student Emergency Support Fund — an effort to offer immediate relief to students in the form of $500 grants.

Below, we’ve included a few statements shared by grant recipients that illustrate what their educational opportunities mean to them and the valiant efforts they are making to continue their education during these difficult times.

As a former foster youth, I have already aged out of a lot of programs and services that could support me financially. Given the current pandemic, there are few to no programs to help students in situations like mine. This grant would allow me to take control of my life and alleviate the burden that this pandemic has already placed on me and my family.

-Sheneise, CA College Student Grant Recipient

Due to the pandemic, I was forced to move back home in order to support my dad and my brother. I support my dad financially, and I also pay rent on an apartment near campus. When the lockdown ends, I know I will have little to no money left, and I am also at risk of losing my remaining two jobs. I have a lot to manage, and this is affecting my academics. I want to break the cycle of poverty through my schooling, but these adverse circumstances make this goal very difficult. This grant is important because it provides security and relief.

-Gabriela, CA College Student Grant Recipient

I am currently 8 months pregnant with my second child. I am no longer able to walk across the stage for graduation. I must give birth alone due to the travel restrictions that are in place. I cannot easily access childcare because most facilities are shut down. I spent six years in the navy, and all I could think about was getting out, getting my degree, and doing something I love. I’m ready to graduate strong so I can do what I love for once in my life. I want to show my daughter that she can do anything and be anything no matter what life throws at her.

-Chelsea, CA College Student Grant Recipient

One year ago, I was living on the streets with my children. After losing my daughter to the court system, my son to the county jail, and my husband to state prison, I found myself alone, hopeless, tired, and ready for change. I had reached the point in my life when I had to make a stand and better myself. With my first granddaughter on the way, I wanted to start right away, so I decided to enroll at Coastline Community College. Regardless of what comes my way, I will continue my education. In three years, I hope to be a Professional Paralegal Assistant.

-Betty, CA College Student Grant Recipient

The challenges of the past few months have made it nearly impossible to focus on my education, and I have thought about dropping out to find a part-time job to support my family. Since 2013, I have dedicated so much of my life to this higher education experience. Now, I’m within reach of a huge milestone in this journey and I don’t want to walk away from it. It’s a difficult road ahead, but I’m confident that the skills I’ve gained throughout my life will allow me to stay resilient and work towards obtaining my degree in environmental science while continuing to support myself, my loved ones, and my community.

-Cristobal, CA College Student Grant Recipient

I was working in security and catering—which both involve large gatherings of people. I don’t know when I’ll be able to schedule any gigs in the near future. This grant is important because it could help relieve some of my financial burdens during these troubling times. I believe that grants like this are what help young poor people like myself to continue our education and to pursue careers that can help us and our families.

-Patrick, CA College Student Grant Recipient

Energy Watch Chronicles: How A Small Business Owner Sweetened His Customers’ Experience By Brightening Up His Shop

Whether you’re a San Francisco Bay Area native, or have only visited the city a handful of times, you may have explored the famed “North Beach/Little Italy” neighborhood and crossed paths with the candy shop Z. Cioccolato (cioccolato is the italian word for “chocolate”). The storefront is hard to miss with its bright, playful, showcase window and a personality to match. The intoxicating smell of freshly popped caramel corn fills the sidewalk, compelling passersby to come inside and take a look around. 

Upon entering, you find yourself overwhelmed by bountiful barrels piled high with vibrant saltwater taffy, nostalgic vintage candies, charming childhood toys, and so much more. But there’s one holy grail that makes this candy shop so different than any other– here at Z. Cioccolato, it’s all about the fudge. Each customer that walks through the door is encouraged to try one of 60 unique, regularly rotated flavors.

Each detail of the sensational Z. Cioccolato experience is carefully preserved by the current and sole owner, Mike Zwiefelhofer, who has been on a mission to enhance the retail space by creating an unforgettable customer experience.

Mike comes from a long lineage of business owners.

For Mike, the ability to run a business runs in his blood. Mike’s great grandparents owned a small department store chain in Northern California for over 100 years and he has since followed in their footsteps: he began his first job as a box boy at the age of 14, worked his way up to a frozen yogurt shop owner, and worked in furniture sales before he arrived at the opportunity to purchase Z.Cioccolato.

“There were two major things that attracted me to this shop: One is the location, it’s an amazing location… But the main thing that attracted me to this business is the fudge…Without the fudge, we are just a normal candy shop, but with the fudge, we have something award winning, unique, and different. That is our signature.”

When Mike bought the store from the now-retired owners four years ago, he was excited to put his culmination of experience to the test:

“I did not know much about chocolate, but I did know about desserts from my frozen yogurt shop and I definitely know a lot about retail. So, the chocolate portion I was able to learn over the last 4 years…All of my experience is put to use here at the shop.”

As sole owner of Z.Cioccolato, Mike wears all the different hats in the shop. He has a sales staff to work the front and a chocolatier to work the kitchen, but every job in-between is his daily responsibility. When asked to describe a day in the life of a small business owner, Mike thought about how to answer for a brief moment and articulated:

“It’s a hard question. There are too many things I do…”

Life as the sole owner of a small business comes with its challenges; it can be exhausting and overwhelming at times. As a testament to Mike’s perseverance, in his first two years of learning the ins-and-outs of Z.Cioccolato, he maintained his second job as a furniture salesman to pay his personal bills and remain financially stable. That era was full of long hour days, back-to-back. Despite the odds, four years later, Mike focuses on building a future for his business.

As a small business owner, Mike has to carefully manage his business expenses.

During our conversation, Mike talked about the harsh reality that small businesses typically don’t make that much money. The high cost of running the shop makes it difficult to raise profits. Mike is constantly searching for areas where he can save money, but those opportunities are sparse when it takes a minimum amount of resources to simply run the shop. 

One day as Mike was operating Z.Cioccolato, he received a call from Mission Asset Fund (MAF) introducing the Energy Watch Loan Program. The Energy Watch Loan Program provides small businesses zero-interest, credit building loans up to $2,500 to finance energy efficiency upgrades. Business owners have the opportunity to save energy and money on their utility bill, while at the same time reducing their impact on the environment. The Energy Watch Loan Program is a collaborative initiative between MAF and the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

In a space where sales calls are frequent and in high volume, Mike was protective at first glance and filed away the information as being “too good to be true.” One year later, however, he was reintroduced to the program:

“I happened to meet the contractor who did the lights. He lives nearby and stopped into the store and he brought up the program. Now this is the second time I had heard of it, and I was able to ask him a lot of questions. He gave me an estimate of how much he thought I would save on my PG&E bill, and that’s what really made me say: ‘Well, it’s a no brainer.’

Mike utilized the Energy Watch Program to brighten up his shop (with a few added benefits).

Mike proceeded to get two different lighting upgrades over the following year, totalling around $3,000. Rebates and incentives from the Energy Watch Program enabled him to lower the cost to around $1,680 with a monthly loan payment of about $100 to be completely paid off in the next year. Right off the bat, the gains were noticeable: monthly savings on his PG&E bill added up to about $100, matching the monthly payments and totalling a value of $1,200 a year.

For a small business owner, a $3,000 out of pocket cost may be a high hurdle. As Mike pointed out, saving energy and “being green” is a privilege to some extent. If a business is not especially profitable, an energy efficiency project with upfront costs may become less of a priority. The Energy Watch Program removes this hurdle with affordable, flexible loan products. According to Mike:

“It allows you to do a project that otherwise wouldn’t get done…As a business owner, there are very few times where there’s something with no risk and no downside. It’s interest free money, it helps your business, it saves on your monthly PG&E bill.”

Mike’s energy efficiency upgrade had a bigger impact than just monthly savings.

Mike described that prior to the upgrades, the majority of his lights were burnt out, broken, and slightly different colors which gave the store a “run down” and inconsistent look. A business with this kind of lighting may appear on its way to closing down. Mike described the lighting upgrade as analogous to his ever-flowing candy bins:

“It’s the same thing with my candy bins, I don’t like them to get empty looking because it makes you look like you’re going out of business…”

Since the upgrades, every corner of the store is illuminated and appears the same, consistent, color. Although it’s a fine detail, the customer is positively impacted by it.

Mike is satisfied with his energy improvements and ties the project’s motive back to his commitment to creating a comfortable environment for his customers.

Throughout our conversation, Mike circles back to his loyalty to his customers and dedication to providing them with a unique product for their enjoyment. The shop’s signature seven layered Peanut Butter Pie fudge exemplifies this uniqueness. From what Mike and his staff can tell, Z. Cioccolato is the only candy shop in the world that makes a seven layered fudge.

Mike believes that part of Z. Cioccolato’s future is making the in-store retail experience something so unique and unforgettable that customers prefer to shop in-person rather than online. Over the past year, the lighting upgrades have helped to preserve and further cultivate the look and feel of Z. Cioccolato’s customer-centered, indoor atmosphere.

Mike has a deep passion for his work at Z. Cioccolato and will continue to advocate for the enhancement of all retail experiences to save small businesses the burden of competing with corporate giants. And as his customers, we have the sweet privilege of experiencing all the indulgence they have to offer. If you haven’t already, plan your next trip to make a candy shop stop at Z. Cioccolato on: 

474 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133.



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