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San Mateo Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The journey had just begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Coordination requires trust between collaborative partners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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