Joanna Torno bounced around as a child. Born in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, the 23-year-old was raised largely by both of her grandmothers. Later, when she was in high school and for a short time afterward, she often crashed with the families of her friends and other relatives.
Several years ago, her younger brother and sister were placed in foster homes as their mother struggled with substance abuse. There wasn’t a father as a regular part of their lives.
Torno wanted a more stable life for her younger siblings.
As soon as Torno turned 18, she asked a foster care social worker a question that would motivate the young woman for years: What do I have to do to get my siblings to live with me?
Cassandra Wilson, a caseworker at the Daly City Community Service Center who helped Torno, said she cried when she heard the request.
“It is so rare where I see someone do this. When families get separated, they often get lost in the system,” said Wilson. “Somebody 22 or 23 years old does not go back to get their siblings. A lot of people just leave them.”
At first, Torno would spend weekends with her now-9-year-old brother, Jaywin, and 17-year-old sister, Jessica, either taking them to see their mom or hanging out with them at Pier 39 or with relatives or at friends’ homes. But she wanted more.
Among the most challenging requirements for gaining custody was being able to find – and afford – an apartment large enough.
Season of Sharing aid
Wilson connected Torno with The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing program. The program helped Torno with a security deposit on an apartment in Daly City that is large enough for her siblings and her own 21-month-old daughter, Anaya, and 6-month-old son, T.J.
Torno, who is unemployed, said she and her children’s father are no longer together, but he helps to support them.
Finding an apartment was difficult for other reasons. Though landlords sympathized with Torno’s desire to reunite her family, many balked after learning that she would be using a Section 8 low-income housing voucher to help cover rent. She visited more than 20 places before landing an apartment.
“It was really upsetting,” said Jennifer Romero, who has known Torno since they were 14 years old and accompanied her on many of the apartment visits. “At first they’d sound like they were going to help you, but when they heard you were Section 8 they would change their mind.”
Romero and other friends stop by Torno’s apartment at least once a week to help her with child care and errands or share meals. As Romero played with Torno’s son one day recently in their apartment, she pointed at Torno, smiled and said, “She is really determined. I’m pretty selfish – I don’t know if I would have taken in my younger brother and sister. But she did.”
Torno was driven by “wanting the way they grew up to be different.” She wanted their family to be together.
Juggling the demands of her younger children and her siblings can be challenging. Torno’s sister Jessica is a huge help, often watching the youngest children while Torno helps her brother Jaywin with homework.
Not working now
Torno was working as a broker’s assistant at a real estate office before she became pregnant. She is not working now. Eventually, Torno wants to return to school and pursue a nursing degree. She spent parts of two years attending City College of San Francisco and working as a broker’s assistant.
But for now, she is focused on leading her new family.