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.

MAF Staff Spotlight: Doris Vasquez

Meet Doris Vasquez, MAF’s Client Success Manager. Though she’d never admit it herself, Doris embodies what it means to be a community leader. As MAF’s Client Success Manager, Doris is engaging with the community every day — enrolling clients in MAF’s programs, facilitating the monthly Lending Circles formations, supporting participants throughout their journey, and connecting participants with the best resources for their circumstances and needs. Throughout her nine years at MAF, she has always placed the community at the center of her work. In honor of her incredible tenure, we asked her to share a few reflections on her experience:

How did you first learn about MAF?

DV: One day, I was attending a school council meeting at Sanchez Elementary School and as the principal was speaking, I found myself going back and forth between nodding in agreement and shaking my head in disagreement to whatever he was saying. Suddenly, someone tapped me on my shoulder and said ‘you should speak up and say something if you disagree.’ She could tell that something was on the tip of my tongue, but I was hesitant to speak up. Little did I know that this person was going to be the someone who led me to a lot of really incredible opportunities in life. After this incident, I started getting more involved with school groups (PTA, SSC, ELAC). I didn’t quite have a vision for the work just yet, but I knew that I wanted to make a difference in my kids lives. Soon enough, the woman who had encouraged me to speak up during the school council meeting —  Lorena — was training me to be an organizer and a leader. Little by little, I started volunteering more of my time with San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP), a non profit based in San Francisco, and Lorena was also working with them. As I attended more trainings and rallies, I slowly began to understand the system behind organizing. Eventually, Lorena started working at MAF, and when a position opened up, she told me about it and I decided to apply.

What inspires you to do this work?

DV: My family inspires me. As an immigrant, I know the struggle of coming to a new country and not knowing what opportunities this new country offers. When my dad moved from El Salvador to the U.S, I didn’t hear from my dad for weeks. I knew that he had gone to another country, but I didn’t realize there was an immigration status attached to that. My dad eventually sent for us to come to the U.S, and at first, I didn’t want to be here {U.S.}. In El Salvador, I felt more freedom to be a child and I had the support of my family. I was always very close to my abuelitos. When I moved to the U.S., I had to learn a new language and navigate a new school system. Additionally, my family was going through their own set of financial struggles. My dad was the only one working, and sometimes, we didn’t have food for dinner. I recall my mother and I going to the local store to buy ‘TV dinners’ or standing in line at food banks. Though my parents were always able to financially support our family, we were definitely struggling financially. Even so, my parents never really talked to me about managing finances or what it meant to be in debt. As an independent adult, and especially after I became a mother, I experienced my own set of financial struggles. When I first started working at MAF, my former colleague Alex was MAF’s financial coach at the time. He started guiding me on how to manage my debt and pay it down. I would take part in the financial classes and workshops he would facilitate, and as I started to learn more about managing finances, this topic became really interesting to me. Managing finances is such a huge part of our day-to-day life. Slowly, I was also able to get out of debt.

Oftentimes, when I listen to the stories that our clients share about being in total debt, struggling to support their family back home, those stories start to become part of me and I think back to my own experiences. I feel a strong need to give back by assisting our community be part of the financial system.

Given that MAF’s work is rooted in ‘trust,’ how did you build trust with the community?

DV: I think I built trust by taking the time to listen to each person who walked through the door and providing them with that space and time to open up. At the beginning, I was afraid to get too involved because I’m naturally a very empathetic and emotional person. There have been times that a client has been on my mind for days, weeks, months, and sometimes, even years. But even if I’m bombarded with work, if a client walks in and I see that they want to talk about something, my time is given to them. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to us. Most of the time, that’s what I end up doing. There are some clients that I’ve worked with since 2009, and I feel like they’ve made me part of their family. I feel like I’m very lucky to have clients that are so thoughtful — clients who think about me even when they shouldn’t. Over the years, I’ve been able to build a strong relationship with every person that walks through MAF’s door.

How has the way you’ve approached your work evolved over the past nine years?

DV: All my life, I’ve known that I love working and meeting people. When I first started working at MAF, I had very little formal experience working with the community. Most of my prior experience involved the organizing work I did within the school districts. When I started working at MAF, I didn’t know what this work would require. In the beginning, I didn’t feel like I was giving my 100% because I felt as if I didn’t have all of the answers to the questions clients were asking. It took a lot of independent research to really understand the issues affecting the community and how I can refer them to the right resources. I had no idea that there was such a strong ecosystem of nonprofit organizations in San Francisco. Over the years, I’ve made it a point to get to know these organizations and build my knowledge and relationships with my companeros en la lucha of where to refer clients for different resources.

Even if I can’t help someone in the moment, I feel it’s important to treat everyone with respect, make the effort to direct them to another resource, and offer whatever support I can.

Given that you started working with youth and organizing in the K-12 education space, what your advice to youth?

For me, personally, Lorena, one of my mentors, saw a potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. It’s why I make it a point to always see the incredible potential in everyone who walks through MAF’s doors. I want everyone to know that they are on this earth for a reason. Maybe the reason is not clear right now, but at some point you will realize why you’re here and what you need to make of it. That’s why you can never give up.

My MAF Journey: Bridging Tech and Financial Inclusion

In celebration of the MAF Lab having hit its one-year mark, we want to recognize the role and work of our Tech Advisory Council in supporting our successes. We’ll be sharing a series of blog posts from TAC members, starting with one from co-chair Kathryn Weinmann.  

Everyone should try cold-calling at some point. Let the likely rejection be a reminder that you’re reaching further than you have before. And it’s a total rush when you actually get through. Five years ago this summer, I reached out to Mission Asset Fund, and I haven’t looked back since.

I had tasted microfinance in college and consulted for big banks thereafter, and increasingly I wanted to help define the next generation of financial services. I looked at loads of fintech companies and nonprofits in the Bay Area, but there was something special about Mission Asset Fund (MAF). They had the values and personal touch of a nonprofit, but their approach to technology was more typical of a hungry startup eager to scale. So I guessed the email of MAF’s founder/CEO José Quiñonez, and by some stroke of luck he was free to meet that afternoon.

In our first meeting, José announced the passage of California SB896, game-changing legislation that acknowledged the importance of credit-building loans and empowered nonprofits to support them. I couldn’t believe it. While many fintech companies were struggling within gray areas of the law, this nonprofit was out changing it.

MAF develops critical tools to help people build empowered financial lives. And the effects are far-reaching.

Their Lending Circles program is distributed through a network of nonprofit partners across the country. Jose’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs helps people of all backgrounds by providing structure around an otherwise nebulous and intimidating topic.

For the past few years, I have had the privilege to serve as co-chair for MAF’s Technology Advisory Council (TAC). MAF is constantly innovating – always seeking to serve their clients and nonprofit partners better. The TAC supports that innovation and serves as a bridge to the startup community. We share our experiences to inform MAF’s tech strategy, product roadmap, and implementation approach.

Our team has a diverse set of backgrounds across software development, fintech, and social impact. Together, we strive to support the next generation of product initiatives at MAF.

I constantly learn from this exceptional group, who bring expertise from Google, Stripe, Salesforce, and other incredible organizations.

TAC members come from a diverse set of backgrounds and are united toward a common goal of supporting MAF.

I have seen firsthand the thoughtfulness and intentionality that MAF brings to product development. Whether we are discussing the structure of the MAF Lab, beta testing the MyMAF app, or providing input on the product launch process, the MAF team grounds our contributions in specific goals that further the mission of the organization.

What’s more, my involvement with the TAC makes me better at my day job. I invest in consumer tech, often at an early stage. On more than one occasion, I have pointed founders to MAF as an example of putting the user’s needs first. MAF’s approach to realizing their mission can help us all identify and challenge the assumptions behind inclusive product development.

MAF changed my life, as they continue to do for members of the Bay Area community and beyond.

I am immensely grateful to serve on the TAC and support their mission to bring financial stability to the millions who live in the financial shadows. MAF’s clients are resilient, tenacious, and optimistic. So is MAF – and they inspire me to be that way, too.

About the author: Kathryn has been working with MAF since 2014 and now serves as Co-Chair of the Technology Advisory Council. She is an investor at Norwest Venture Partners in San Francisco.

MAFista Spotlight: Samhita Collur

Samhita Collur has held many roles during her nearly three years at MAF. Officially, she’s been a Partner Success Manager and Communications Manager, but she’s also been a storyteller, a mobile app content developer, a community advocate, a strategist for new programs, a co-chair for an advisory council, and a friend to many MAFistas. Now, she’s off to law school to learn to advocate for community members in new ways. We asked her to impart her wisdom before her last day at MAF.

How would you characterize your experience at MAF?

First of all, my experience at MAF has really shaped the way I now think about working with a community. I was originally drawn to MAF for the values of the organization: meet, build, and respect. Throughout my experience being on the programs team, I’ve seen those values carried out. I’ve seen it in who MAF hires. I think we hire people who are true community leaders. You see how important it is to see those community leaders at the forefront of the work. What’s made my experience so special is seeing the relationships that staff build with community and the way those values are implemented. I want to take these values with me in law school, where I’ll be in a more academic setting, and the community may feel distant at times.

You mentioned seeing MAF’s values in action. Do you have an example of this?

One of the things built into our values is trust. We need to earn the trust of our community. One example that comes to mind is these three blog posts I wrote about MAF clients: Connie, Boni, and Rosa. These three people were actually hesitant to tell their stories. But they had trust in MAF. Boni had trust with Diana, a Financial Coach. Connie had trust with Doris, a Client Success Manager. With Rosa the trust she had with MAF was built through the DACA grant program. These are just a few illustrations of how MAF engages and interacts with the community. You never want to assume that someone is willing to tell their story. People’s stories are complicated — they’re filled with ups and downs. People want to tell an accurate story that shows resilience and lessons learned. Not one that’s super fluffy. I found that there is a way to write someone else’s story, and do it on their terms.

What are you proud of?

Even playing a small role in the DACA campaign is something I’m very proud of. That really made me reflect on what I wanted to do next. It inspired me to pursue law school as a next step. Seeing this small team really shift gears and work so well together to implement this large scale initiative. During this time, I observed what it means for MAF to be at the intersection of financial services and immigration. We end up being an entry point or gateway to other issues. Observing that and seeing how MAF continued to respond to the injunctions that were issued after the initial rescission allowed me to reflect on, how various approaches fit together. That was a big learning. MAF allowed me to see how different organizations can work together to do something really great. It can’t just be one organization. I saw that evidenced through our partnership model, the DACA campaign, and partnering with legal service organizations for referrals.

I’m also proud of being a part of the programs team. I’ve really appreciated the relationships I’ve built with partner organizations. It’s really special to see how they tailor the program to their unique community. Partners like Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI) that really embody what it means to be a community organization. And every organization we partner with is so rooted in the community.

What’s next for you?

This fall, I’ll be going to law school. Something I realized that I really do enjoy here is communicating and writing. This idea of communicating with different audiences and taking information and finding ways to tell a compelling story. I hope to build on that skillset. I want to use this legal knowledge as another toolset to continue telling stories that support and uplift a wide range of communities. The law, at the end of the day, is a really powerful tool that can be used in the right or wrong way depending on who is telling the story. I want to pair love of communications with that knowledge set to continue doing this work in a slightly different arena.

What will you miss?

I want to give a shout out to MAF staff. The programs team is the best team I’ve ever worked with. Just seeing the way that we have a diverse set up of perspectives, and seeing how that plays out in the conversations we have as a team. When we’re brainstorming, seeing different view points adds a really unique element. This is something I hope I continue to get in law school. I’ll miss the dedication on the part of the staff. The way everyone understands the work, and how to work respectfully with the community.

What Resistance Looks Like: MAF’s DACA Campaign, a Year Later

The Trump administration blatantly targeted immigrants by rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 5, 2017. Shocked and angered by his actions, we did not retreat. We stood up and fought back. With little time to waste, we quickly transformed ourselves into a rapid response grantmaker to help young immigrants through the uncertainty of the Trump-inflicted crisis.

We launched a campaign to enable eligible youth to renew their DACA status by offering grants of $495 to help cover application fees.

And when a federal judge in California issued an injunction that ruled the Trump administration’s decision unconstitutional months later, opening the door for more Dreamers to renew DACA, we kept on processing grants, giving young immigrants the support and love that this government was denying.

For college students making minimum wage, $495 can mean choosing between DACA or paying for rent. That’s a choice we didn’t want them to have to make.

That’s why we provided 7,600 fee assistance grants totaling $3.8 million to Dreamers across the country. This was a defining moment of resistance for DACA, and for ourselves.

As the federal courts continue to fight over the future of DACA, we stay vigilant. At this year’s Summit, activists, advocates, and allies across the country will come together to explore how our communities can thrive in Trump’s America. We believe Dreamers will help lead the way. We’re inviting them to share with us their stories of resilience, stories that can inspire and energize us all for the long haul.

Today we remember the work by highlighting stories from our DACA grant recipients that will motivate us for years to come.

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DACA: The stories behind the checks

After September 5, 2017, MAF quickly mobilized to provide financial assistance to DACA recipients across the nation. Our campaign was inspired by our belief that DACA recipients and their families deserve the opportunity to continue building their future in this country. Hundreds of scholarship recipients shared with us the significance of receiving a $495 check from MAF to renew their work permits. The stories we heard reinforced the injustice of the administration’s decision to rescind DACA. But each story also revealed a force more powerful than injustice – hope for the future.

7,000+ scholarships. 7,000+ powerful stories. Here are just a few of the messages we received:


“It’s really hard to save $495 while having rent, utilities, veterinarian costs, and other bills to pay. I am also saving for college and my medical expenses. We always worry and try to help abandoned animals in need over helping ourselves. You help us get closer to our dreams and goals that will help the world someday. It may take forever, but I have hope that we will reach our dreams.”


“I had a very difficult year battling with cancer, and I’m just getting back to work. Without your help, it would’ve been incredibly difficult to put together that amount of money in such a short time. Once again, Thank you very much for your help and all you continue doing for us Dreamers whom solely purpose is to live just everyone else, because we too are Americans.”


“I was running on a great amount of stress because I knew my family was having a hard time economically, and the deadline to submit our renewal applications was very close. I was worried about my future, and even spoke to my college adviser about what would happen if I lost DACA. Thankfully, the president of our school informed us right away that DACA being revoked wouldn’t affect any DACA students at my school. Soon after this, I filled out the application for your scholarship.”


“My fiance and I were really worried that we wouldn’t be able to renew because of the money. You have inspired us. Thank you for all the things you guys are doing. It makes me feel that I have a voice and that I am being heard.”


“I am a student studying Political Science with a minor in Philosophy. I plan to attend law school in the future. I am on a competitive dance team, I have a dog, and I work three jobs, to not only support me financially but also to prepare me for a future career. You may feel this is bizarre, but I just wanted to help put life to the name you wrote a check to. I wanted you to know that your work goes beyond financial assistance. You’re helping us feel secure and pursue our dreams.”

And we will #RiseUpAsOne



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