Pittsburg family was on the verge of eviction before SOS stepped in

At the very worst moment during their very worst year, Mary and Rafael Vasquez looked at each other and knew they had run out of options. Homelessness loomed, and all they could do was pray.

“We were devastated. Everything was going wrong. At that point, we were just waiting and asking for patience and strength,” said Rafael, 45, while recounting the tale Monday with his wife and two children looking on. “It was like the whole world was coming down on us.”

The Pittsburg family had burned through their meager savings after Rafael was laid off from his $17-per-hour job as an auto detailer in March, and by August, they had fallen behind on their rent. Then, one day in mid-September they returned home to find a three-day eviction notice posted to their door. They had applied for help from a slew of government and charitable organizations, but everything was either delayed, denied or simply not enough.

Enter Season of Sharing. With just a day or two before the churchgoing family of four was to lose their home of 16 years, Season of Sharing paid the family’s rent for August and September, including the late fees — delivered to the landlord. Rafael had found a new job in late August, so the family was able to make its future rent payments.

Mary, 43, said she cried when she heard the news.

“It was like everything lifted, like there were angels,” she said. “It was hard to ask for help, but we had to do it. And now we are so grateful.”

The Vasquez family hadn’t always had so much bad luck. In fact, Rafael said he felt like one of the luckiest men in the world after emigrating from El Salvador at age 18 to study nursing, leaving behind the poverty, crime and fear that for many years was rampant in that part of Central America. He worked for several years as a nursing assistant for the elderly, but switched careers when he could no longer face the deaths of beloved patients, he said.

He worked for many years afterward in restaurants around the East Bay, and in 1999 landed a job detailing cars at Livermore’s Auto Mall. That was a job he loved, he said. His bosses were nice and trusted him, and he enjoyed the work. The pay wasn’t great, but the benefits were terrific: medical, dental and vision insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan and vacation time, he said.

On weekends, he worked in the banquet facilities at a hotel in Pleasanton, a job he still holds although the hours have diminished.

But all that was nothing compared to his good fortune one day at the Department of Motor Vehicles. A friend had bought a used car, but the paperwork was incomplete, so he and the friend drove to San Jose to find the seller and straighten out the confusion.

When Rafael knocked on the door, the seller didn’t answer. Mary did.

“This beautiful girl was there … in her pajamas. We forgot all about the car owner, and she invited us into the house,” Rafael said, glowing at the recollection. “My friend said, ‘That girl? You just found your wife.’”

A year later the pair were married, and moved into their apartment complex in Pittsburg. They chose the eastern Contra Costa town because it’s close to their church, Los Pentecostales del Area de la Bahia.

Their two children, Daniel and Sara, were born soon thereafter. Now in middle school, the kids are both studious and respectful of their parents. Sara, 12, said she has straight A’s and wants to be a nurse when she grows up. Her brother, 14, plans to be a heart surgeon.

Mary looks after the kids while Rafael works at his new job, detailing cars at Auto Nation in Fremont. The pay is $14.50 an hour and he commutes more than 100 miles round-trip a day, but he’s grateful for the job, he said.

The family’s case worker at the First Baptist Church Community Outreach Program in Pittsburg said Rafael and Mary were “humble and ashamed” when they asked for help in September.

“They didn’t even know programs like ours existed. Even though Rafael never made much money, they had always gotten by before,” said program manager Sandra Johnson. “That’s what’s so wonderful about Season of Sharing. Sometimes people just need a little boost.”

The Vasquez family plans a low-key holiday season. They don’t usually buy many gifts, preferring instead to just spend time together at some of their favorite local spots: the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek or the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez.

“I am really thankful for Season of Sharing. The way they helped us, I cannot explain. It was wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like that,” Rafael said. “It means so much to me this holiday season.”

Mary smiled and added, “We’ll spend Thanksgiving with my sister in San Jose. But first we’ll go to church and say thanks. We have a lot to be thankful for.”


Carolyn Jones is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. She can be reached by e-mail at carolynjones@sfchronicle.com.

The original article can be found here