We started our work 15 years ago in a small office on the second floor of a local cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our vision then – as it is today – was to help improve the financial lives of people pushed aside and left behind without access to the most basic of financial tools like checking accounts or credit scores. Without such tools, how can we expect people to materially improve their financial lives?
Since then, MAF has put the best of technology and finance to serve our clients, allowing us to scale our work nationally. Now, low income immigrant families all across the country are accessing MAF’s programs to help put food on the table, pay rent, launch their small business, and even to apply for citizenship or gain protective status to allow them to work and live without fear of deportation. We have delivered more than 92,000 grants and loans to immigrants, people of color, and low-income families to improve their financial lives with higher credit scores, bigger savings, and smaller debts.
MAF’s financial services work because they are rooted in the lives of the people we serve. While we have much to celebrate – and we did just that this past October to mark MAF’s Quinceñera – there is still more work to be done.
In 2023, we are diving deeper in our research of the 5,000 participants in the largest guaranteed income program for immigrant families. We are expanding small business loans to help clients access credit to recover faster. And we’re improving our tech infrastructure to build and scale our work even further.
MAF is dramatically different than when we first started our work in the Mission. What has not changed is our community-centered approach to financial security and social change. Our clients are at the center of all that we do. They inform and inspire how we show up to build a better future together. For our true power is always in each other.
There’s a lot that Eva loves about being a new homeowner.
She loves having a house in a neighborhood she’s been renting in for years. She loves living close to her family, as a sister, mother, and grandmother of two. And she loves that she can actually enjoy her house without a time-consuming commute.
“There’s a lot of fog, but I love San Francisco,” Eva, a longtime MAF client, says. “One of my dreams always was that I want to live where I work.”
But this dream wasn’t an easy-to-achieve reality. Eva has done a lot in her life: She immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when she was 15, started her own nutrition business on top of her full-time job in social services, sent her three children to college, and endured a financially challenging divorce — one that almost stopped her dreams of buying a home.
“Coming from two incomes to one — I was left with debt,” Eva says. “I never thought that I was going to be given the opportunity back to be a homeowner.”
Eva thought of ways to support her family, including her children and grandmother. She became invested in nutrition to protect her own health, barely taking any sick days to preserve her income. “I couldn’t imagine myself getting sick during the time I needed to stay strong,” Eva says.
Income was one thing, but building credit posed another challenge. Because of the debt from the divorce, Eva knew she had to strengthen her credit score to give herself — and her family — the best possible chance at homeownership.
Joining MAF was a game-changer for Eva’s finances.
Years ago, Eva and her cousin passed by MAF’s office on Mission Street on their way to work. “We like to try everything,” Eva says, so they decided to join an informational meeting.
The energy immediately moved her. She started participating in MAF’s Lending Circles program, which provides interest-free credit-building loans via community support. This formalizes a global tradition of community lending, sometimes known as tandas and susus.
“The people that join [MAF] are from the community. These are working families looking for a resource like me,” Eva says. “Meeting these people and hearing their stories — it was a gathering, it was sharing. There was always food and trying to have that environment of safety and community.”
Over the years, Eva participated in MAF’s financial services for small business owners, services that were tangibly different from the classes she took in college. “They’re basically designed for Latinos, like me, to try to serve our community,” Eva says.
“It’s not just the Latino community,” she adds. “It’s different immigrant communities where the environment becomes more like family and friends, always sharing very personal — sometimes intimate, difficult — growing experiences.”
The community at MAF created treasured friendships and relationships. All the while, Lending Circles were opening a door that Eva once thought was closed to her.
“I saw the changes in my credit score,” Eva says. “It was a dream come true.”
The changes came at exactly the right hour. In the summer of 2022, Eva and her family were hustling to buy a house with their combined income. All the cards were falling into place, but Eva just needed one more boost to her credit score to get a loan approved.
At the time, Eva was participating in a Lending Circle, so she asked Doris, MAF’s Senior Client Success Manager, if there was anything that could be done.
“One more payment,” Eva was told. “One more payment, and it’s going to make a difference.”
The Lending Circles program boosts credit scores by reporting loan payments to all three major credit bureaus. MAF quickly accelerated Eva’s loan payment timeline so her final payment was processed before the closing date.
The whole journey reminded Eva of why she joined MAF in the first place.
“It’s a sense of community, friends, and family, ‘we’re here for you,’” Eva says. “The goal is not just getting participants. The goal is helping the participants make their dreams come true.”
The best part about Eva’s new home? It’s not just for her.
“You’re taking care of your own house for future generations,” Eva says. She hopes that her kids will want to keep and live in the house for a long time.
After all, there’s a lot of value in that home, and not just financially. Family and community motivated and anchored Eva through all those years in her profession, in her personal life, and in her work with MAF.
This house is a symbol of that relationship — and a way for Eva to continue that tradition for years to come. “It’s a team effort,” Eva says.
When Shanique’s mother passed away in 2015, she couldn’t leave the United States for her funeral. Shanique immigrated from The Bahamas when she was 15, and ever since then, she has been “stuck” in the U.S. because of her DACAmented status.
“Although DACA has been a blessing, it has also been a bit of a thorn, I would say, in my flesh,” says Shanique, a MAF DACA fee assistance recipient. If Shanique had left the country to say goodbye to her mother, she would not have been allowed to return home to the United States.
This double-edged sword isn’t uncommon for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Since its inception in 2012, DACA has been a transformative program. It’s allowed Shanique and so many others to receive driver’s licenses, social security cards, and work permits. “If it was not for DACA, I would not have the job I have today,” says Shanique, who works as a hospital clerk.
DACA provided a kind of life-changing safety and security, according to Miguel, a fellow MAF DACA fee assistance recipient. “DACA was able to give me the ability to follow my dreams, to follow my career path, to not be afraid of being deported,” he says. The program gave him the means to pursue a career of advocacy, to fight for others like himself in his role as a nonprofit director.
“Prior to DACA, we always had to be in the shadows and we had to be afraid,” Miguel says. “And that’s no longer the case.”
But DACA was never meant to serve as a long-lasting solution for the thousands of undocumented immigrants in the country. When DACA was first announced in 2012, former president Obama called it a “temporary stopgap measure.” “This is not amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix,” he said.
In the decade since, DACA recipients have faced multiple hurdles — a federal judge challenging the program’s legitimacy, a months-long USCIS backlog jeopardizing renewals, and the $495 application fee, which remains one of the largest barriers to entry for low-income DACA applicants. And as DACA hits its 10-year-anniversary, DACA is closed to new applicants because of legal challenges. Even immigrants who can apply for renewals are still barred from various rights, like voting or being able to travel internationally.
“We’re constantly reminded of our status,” Shanique says. “Something as simple as seeing the word ‘temporary’ on your driver’s license is a little bit of a sting to the heart.”
That’s why a path to citizenship is so crucial — not just for the approximately 800,000 DACA recipients, but for all 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“Actually creating a pathway to citizenship for the millions of people who are in the United States, who are contributing to this country, who are making this country better, would change the lives of people tenfold,” Miguel says. “Just look at someone like myself.”
Miguel recently became a permanent resident — a status change that isn’t an option for most DACA recipients. Becoming a permanent resident has allowed him not just to pursue his passions “unrestricted,” but to see his family in Mexico, whom he had been separated from for 32 years. “I moved here at the age of two. And because of my new status change, I went back to Mexico and met my family for the first time.”
Thirty-two years is an unconscionable amount of time to be separated from family. But a pathway to citizenship can reunite families and allow undocumented immigrants the right to vote, see loved ones, and live a private life of freedom. After a decade of DACA, a pathway to citizenship is long overdue.
“I feel like I’ve lived here long enough. This is the only home I know,” Shanique says. “I don’t even remember much of my life in The Bahamas. America has been my home.”
MAF stands in solidarity with DACA recipients, providing fee assistance so that the filing fee isn’t a barrier for those looking to apply for DACA. Since the DACA program began, MAF has provided loans and matching grants to people in 47 states and the District of Columbia. More than 11,000 DACA recipients have accessed MAF’s DACA fee assistance, including Miguel and Shanique.
Everytime we run errands at a local grocer, eat lunch at a family-owned restaurant, or stock our personal libraries with indie bookstore orders, we are reinvesting in the communities we live in. Small businesses are the lifeblood of neighborhoods: Besides making our local landscapes special, small businesses keep money from the community, in the community.
Of course, small businesses wouldn’t be possible without the creative people who started them, many of whom have endured impossible challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Navigating seas of red tape to access crucial financial support has been a struggle — especially for immigrants and people of color, who were disproportionately hurt by the design of loans like the Paycheck Protection Program.
In the face of these barriers, MAF has seen incredible resilience and savviness from immigrant and BIPOC entrepreneurs. This #SmallBusinessWeek, we’re taking a moment to share their lessons and honor their histories. Behind every small business is a dreamer, entrepreneur, and neighbor, each with their own story:
“At that time, I didn’t have a credit card. I wasn’t familiar with businesses or anything,” Tahmeena says. She had no credit history when she immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan. But she wasn’t discouraged. Tahmeena, who had been interested in fashion since she was a child, quickly saw a need in her community for cultural clothings and accessories that were common abroad, but difficult to acquire in America.
On a whim, she brought back a few items after a vacation to Turkey to see if there would be any interest. And within a month, she had almost too many customers clamoring for more.
So Tahmeena joined MAF’s Lending Circles through the Refugee Women’s Network to establish a credit score and grow her online boutique, Takho’z Choice, further.She took the $1,000 she saved through the zero-interest loan and used it to buy merchandise. In just three months, her small business started to generate profit, and her previously nonexistent credit score jumped hundreds of points.
Reyna’s mother planted the early seeds to their business when she sold tamales as a street vendor in San Francisco. With the support of incubator La Cocina, Reyna and her mother opened La Guerrera’s Kitchen’s first brick-and-mortar in 2019, right before the pandemic forced them to close shop. After two years of pop-ups and online Instagram orders, La Guerrera’s Kitchen was finally able to find a new home in Swan’s Market in Oakland in 2022.
For many, mentorship is an essential part of this process to take off — especially for immigrant entrepreneurs. Through the process of starting La Guerrera’s Kitchen, Reyna learned about marketing and projections, how to negotiate, and how mixed-status homes can build credit with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, or ITINS.
“I would have loved receiving this support at a younger age,” she says. It’s support like this that Reyna wants for all immigrants: “Let people know that, yes, you can be undocumented and still open a business. This is how you do it.”
It took one look from her English bulldog for Diana to realize that she was destined for an entrepreneurial adventure. In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, Diana was feeling stuck. It was difficult to find jobs relevant to her interior design college degree, and the gig she did get at a doggy daycare, she wasn’t satisfied with. “I knew I could do it better,” Diana says. “And my bulldog just looked at me, and I took off on my own.”
That small look proved to be life-changing. “He opened up so many opportunities to me that I didn’t see before,” she says. Over a decade later, Diana is running her own successful doggy daycare business, a feat that she credits to her faith in her entrepreneurial dreams, and to the people (and pets) who helped her build that foundation of trust and support. That includes everyone — from her English bulldog to her clients to MAF. As a MAF client, Diana was able to save the money for a down payment on her first doggy daycare van.
Trust and support are key for any small business owner, Diana says. Even beyond finding these things from your family or community, it’s important to have that faith in yourself.
“You are the boss of your life, not just your job. You’re not creating a job just for you, you’re creating jobs for other people, you’re helping your community, and you’re creating your life and your dreams,” Diana says. “You are the creator.”
Iván, a poet based in the San Fernando Valley, experiments with words, images, and sound as he navigates the world. Recently, he’s had to navigate a lot, from his undocumented status to the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests around police brutality and social justice. These moments are at the forefront of conversations, and he uses his voice to fiercely advocate for these issues.
Iván’s identity and upbringing are woven throughout his creations. Born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico, Iván and his family immigrated to the United States when he was ten years old. Due to his legal status in the U.S., he has not returned to Mexico to visit his grandparents and exists in a state of Nepantla: in-between lands, languages, and cultures.
“A lot of the time, I feel a wanting to break myself free from this repression of not being able to travel freely,” shares Iván.
His undocumented status serves as inspiration, and writing is his healing process. In Rayita en el cielo (full poem below), Iván shares the difficulties of growing up undocumented while staying connected to family in Mexico. The poem is inspired by the phrase, “Voy a hacer una rayita en el cielo”, meaning “I’m going to make a line in the sky,” something his grandfather tells him after not having talked in a while because their schedules do not align.
“‘Voy a hacer una rayita en el cielo’ is a phrase said to celebrate when someone has done something positive or unusual,” Iván describes.
“His voice is raspier than it was eight years ago when I last hugged him at the terminal before his flight back home since then I’ve only heard his voice filtered through metals, traveling through fiber-optic lines & satellites.”
An avid music fan, Iván grew up listening to the songs of Rock en Español bands. He discovered Calle-13, an unapologetic hip-hop band and a master of wordplay. He paid close attention to the lyrics and wanted to replicate the metaphors himself. Without realizing it, Iván was writing poetry. He began taking his craft more seriously when he was a sophomore in college and discovered poets of the Beat Generation, identifying with their rebellion and non-conformity with mainstream American culture. Inspired by the Chicano poets and undocumented poets who utilized art to speak out about their stories, Iván continued writing poetry.
As he experiences the present, Iván seeks answers from the past. “My universal poetry themes are immigration and restorative justice. My writing is experimental and avant-garde. I’m also interested in technology, and mixed media is often within my work,” Iván explains.
“Papá David walks around Tenochtitlan for me He picks up some books and takes photos in la plaza de tlatelolco He reconnects with the ruins and I’m there with him.”
From his roots in Mexico, Iván strives to connect more with the indigenous languages found in Mexico with the hopes of it being studied and spoken more widely. These days, he spends time researching historical events to understand what we are currently living through while finding direction towards the future.
During the pandemic, Iván was forced to look for other job opportunities.
He struggled to make ends meet as a delivery driver, but after receiving a $500 grant from MAF’s LA Young Creatives Fund, he was able to buy a laptop and edit his resume. With this new technology, he continued his artistic endeavors and found work in his field: a summer internship learning about local organizing. He also participated in a collective art project to uplift stories of undocumented and deported communities in Mexico and the U.S.
Iván is currently working on a collection of poems he hopes will soon be published. He continues supporting and showcasing other San Fernando Valley writers and artists as a fellow at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts and Assistant Editor for Drifter Zine. He plans to travel more with his partner and family and envisions reuniting with his grandparents soon.
Iván’s advice to aspiring writers?
“Start publishing your work and read it out loud at open mics. It’s an intro to seeing other poets read their work and what it’s like. Having the courage to read your own stuff is very helpful to develop your voice as a writer. But overall, I think that writers should write for themselves.”
The LA Young Creatives Fund supported 4,800+ artists like Iván and closed last month. You can find more information about the LA Young Creatives Fund here.
To read more of Iván’s poetry, see Rayita en el cielo below and visit his website. You can also find him on Instagram @ivansali_.
Rayita en el cielo By Iván Salinas
Papá David will draw a line in the sky Today is a miracle I’ve answered the phone
Q ovo mi niño, hasta que me contestas ¿Estás trabajando?
It’s not my day off I did work today but I’m driving back home and there’s time to talk
His voice is raspier than it was eight years ago when I last hugged him at the terminal before his flight back home since then I’ve only heard his voice filtered through metals, traveling through fiber-optic lines & satellites
It’s easier to communicate this way It’s easier than getting on a plane where you’re asked for papeles
I ask him: ¿Cómo está mi mamá Pera? Bien, hijo…ya sabes. He says, indifferent.
Life is the same siempre bien for Papá David y Mamá Pera it’s my life that’s constantly changing.
Back home, en la vecindad my friends all still children in my memory they’re now grown up raising their families in the same rooms we had Mamá Pera says this will always be my home and it will be here for when we return.
Mamá Pera always tells me to pray And I never do But I know she prays for me And that I do believe in.
Mira, cuando tengas tiempo tu dile a diosito, echame la mano Y verás que te va ayudar
But I can’t remember the last time I looked up at the sky and asked diosito for any help.
When I call Papá David over the phone he just wants to know when am I gonna make it? Why don’t I apply for a job as a TV reporter for Univision? I hate being on camera and I change the subject, I ask him if he’s heard the statue of Colon is being removed en el paseo de la reforma replacing it with the statue of a mujer indigena
–Si, te voy a mandar unas fotos pa’ que las veas, ahorita tienen una réplica –Órale, aqui tambien estan derribando unas estatuas de las misiones. Te mando unas fotos.
The statues in the missions are also taken down in this valley Papá David likes to mention there’s Spanish blood in him Mamá Pera y Papa David forget somos de sangre indigena.
Papá David walks around Tenochtitlan for me He picks up some books and takes photos in la plaza de tlatelolco He reconnects with the ruins and I’m there with him.
While we wait for papeles and go to appointments in consulates and aduanas with lawyers and customs we only see each other’s faces reconstructed in pixels
I tell Mamá Pera she can visit while Papá David waits for her. I tell Papá David: “Ya merito, ya veras. Quizás hasta yo te alcanze allá en unos años”
Every time we talk They’re just happy to hear my voice. I’m fortunate they can hear me say los amo, los extraño Los quiero volver a abrazar.
While we wait for papeles phone calls will keep us together Fotos de Papá David will keep us connected to home. So I still recognize it.
While we wait, I will make time to answer the phone Papá David & Mamá Pera can draw another line in the sky
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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 three 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.
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.