Sunnyvale family of 4 gets up off the floor

For the first month, Eloisa Herrera was grateful just to have an apartment for her fiance and their two small kids. She did not mind that there was nothing in it but carpet, which they sat on to eat and lay on to sleep.

Herrera has lived with less, but she worried about her 2-year-old daughter, Yaretzi Lopez, and 4-year-old son, Jorge Lopez Jr. So when Herrera was at Sunnyvale Community Services, being certified for her monthly food supplement, she asked caseworker Maria Buenrostro, “Do you know where I can find mattresses for my kids?”

Buenrostro has been around long enough to know what that meant — the place was empty. Her hunch was right. The food service job of Herrera’s fiance barely met their monthly rent of $1,500, and the move-in deposit had eaten their savings.

Still, after cramming in with relatives, eight people in a tiny two-bedroom, she and fiance Jorge Lopez and their children finally had their own small one-bedroom apartment in a low-slung cinder block complex on the frontage road along the Bayshore Freeway in Sunnyvale. Herrera did not want to complain or sound greedy, even while eating in the dark on the floor off paper plates with plastic forks.

Buenrostro took down Herrera’s information, then excused herself to see her supervisor. “I said these people have paid their deposit and their first month’s rent. They don’t have any furniture. The kids and everybody else are sleeping on the floor.” Buenrostro said.

That was all it took. She came back to Herrerra with approval for a grant from The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund and sent Herrera to Fine Furniture for Less, a San Jose home-furnishing store that offers discounts to social workers. The Season of Sharing money covered a new set of wooden bunk beds with mattresses for the kids, plus a queen-size mattress with frame, headboard and baseboard for the parents.

And there was enough money left over to afford a wooden dinette set.

The family of four each had a place to sleep, in one small bedroom, and a place to eat in the other room.

“I’m very appreciative of the agency for all the support it provided,” Herrera said, translated by Buenrostro.

Herrera is 40 and has lived in Sunnyvale since emigrating from Oaxaca, Mexico, at age 16. She attended Fremont High School for one year, but dropped out to work as a caterer at Cisco, where she worked for five years. But the kitchen staff communicated mostly in Spanish, and her English remains limited.

“Nothing” is one word she knows. And, other than the beds and table, the apartment still had nothing in it. No pots, no pans, no dishes, no linen, no bedding and no clothes for the kids. Fortunately, Herrera had moved in just in time for the opening of the annual Christmas Center, a free 15-minute shopping spree operated by Sunnyvale Community Services.

On Dec. 4, she got an appointment to come in. The rules are normally two gifts per child and one household gift, but Buenrostro knew Herrera needed more than one household gift. So she had her staff of volunteers set aside household and kitchen items, linens, toiletries, clothing and cleaning supplies. After her allotted 15 minutes in the center, Herrera came away with two cartloads of necessities plus food to get her family through the holiday season.

Most of the residents in the Riviera Apartments are from Mexico, and they do what they can for each other. A deep-cushioned sofa came free from a neighbor who was moving out. Also free were some plastic flowers that Herrera reclaimed from the garbage bin.

Those flowers are a centerpiece for the new dining room table, and the place now looks like a home. Herrera says she will be set as soon as she can find some lamps. What is keeping the living room lit for now are Christmas lights on the artificial tree she found at a yard sale.

For 21 days, those gifts for her children, from the Christmas Center, have stayed wrapped under the tree. After all this anticipation, Jorge Jr. and Yaretzi are probably tearing into them right this minute.

“I’m so happy,” Herrera says, using her favorite word in English.

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @SamWhitingSF

The original article can be found here.