He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8
The corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Jones Street in San Francisco might be called the intersection of desperation and hope. Each day a line of forlorn figures snakes around the block, waiting to trudge into St. Anthony’s Dining Room for a free meal. Hundreds of homeless huddle on the sidewalk, hugging the walls to stay out of the elements.
Brenda Martinez walked past this intersection in the Tenderloin district often last summer on her way to work at the General Assistance Advocacy Program, a bare-bones nonprofit agency that helps the city’s homeless and destitute navigate a tangle of social service programs.
New Summer Internship on the Mean Streets
She was one of three Saint Mary’s students who served needy clients in a new six-week internship program called the Micah Summer Fellowship that tested their youthful idealism, their leadership skills and their determination to serve others in the cauldron of the real world.
During the day, the students served in local nonprofits that help the needy, working closely with agency directors and administrators and designing a project they would leave as their legacy. Throughout the fellowship, which is funded by alumni donations and administered by the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA), they lived together in a low-income part of West Oakland so they would be immersed in the kind of environment their clients live in every day.
Steep Learning Curve
Brenda Martinez helps one of the homeless clients at the General Assistance Advocacy Program in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
For Brenda, who had just finished her freshman year at Saint Mary’s, the learning curve was steep. But working with GAAP Executive Director Ruth Isaacson, she quickly mastered the alphabet soup of programs for the homeless and poor who populate San Francisco’s streets, and within two weeks, she was doing full-time advocacy work.
“I love fighting for these people and not letting the system take advantage of them, making sure the social workers are doing their jobs, speaking up for people who don’t have a voice,” she said.
Even though Brenda is just 19, she already has years of experience in helping people find a voice. “My parents don’t speak English well, and my mom is really ill,” she explained. “She always struggled with her doctor’s appointments. I know how hard and confusing it is to deal with public agencies.”
So when social workers refused to return the calls of her GAAP clients, she dogged them until they did. She arranged referrals to shelters, free meals, blankets, clothing. Her motto was “Don’t give up.”
An Early Life-Changing Experience
Brenda learned how to surmount challenges at an early age. When she was just 13, her sister had a baby boy, and Brenda’s life changed. Her mother was battling diabetes and other ailments, and her sister wasn’t ready to be a full-time mom, so Brenda stepped in as a caregiver for the boy, who is now 5. “I had to grow up really quickly,” she says.
That emotional maturity helped her handle the barrage of experiences packed into the six-week fellowship. One of them was being surrounded by homeless, often mentally unstable, people all day in her work and on the street.
“It’s a different world in the Tenderloin,” she said. “Coming from Pittsburg and Antioch, I’ve seen homeless people. You give them a dollar and walk away. But now I feel so comfortable and relaxed with them,” she said. “It has really opened my eyes to see this reality. I think now I want to work in the legal field, maybe be a lawyer.” Brenda’s supervisor, who is a lawyer herself, praised her young protégé’s ability to jump into the agency’s work and connect with clients.
“A lot of volunteers come in with the best of intentions, but it’s more challenging than they expect,” Ruth said. “Brenda knows how to direct her energy in a way that’s very productive for us. And she has a knack for talking with the clients. She’s got the people thing down, and that’s actually more important.”
For Brenda, who came to the experience with a passion for social justice work, the experience was all she had hoped for. “I want to have a career where I can help someone else,” she said. “It fills me.”
Kendra Capece sits in front of a window at San Francisco’s City Hall, where she delivered a passionate appeal for benefits for the homeless.
An Advocate for the City's Poor
Just a block down the street from the GAAP office, Kendra Capece ’12 served at the St. Anthony Foundation, which looks out for the needs of the poor, the hungry and the homeless in San Francisco.
Like all St. Anthony’s volunteers, she worked in the dining room, where a steady stream of street people and the poor — 3,000 a day — come for a simple meal and a few moments of respite before heading back out to the Tenderloin. But the heart of her internship, and her biggest challenge, was serving as an advocate for the city’s poor.
“It’s been a lot, to be honest. The work we do — it tries your mind and your heart,” Kendra said. “My mom was a single mom. I’ve seen her sacrifice. But I’ve never experienced the level of poverty of the people in our West Oakland neighborhood and the people I work with.”
On her first day at work, Mayor Ed Lee released the proposed budget for the next year. It contained $8 million in cuts for programs that help the poor and homeless, so she had to get up to speed on advocacy work in a hurry.
“Kendra’s been really open to trying things that may make her feel a little uncomfortable,” said Colleen Rivecca, St. Anthony’s principal public policy advocate, with whom Kendra worked closely.
Her Toughest Personal Challenge
She attended stuffy hearings at City Hall and stormy meetings in community centers. She recruited dining room guests and St. Anthony’s staff members to testify at hearings. Then, in the third week of her fellowship, she faced her toughest personal challenge when Colleen asked her to testify before the Board of Supervisors.
“She had a speech ready but she looked around the packed chambers and said ‘I don’t know if I should do it.’” The huge crowd, the ornate chambers, the big-screen TV where her testimony would be projected — it was all pretty daunting. But she didn’t give up. Colleen modeled the testimony for her, and the next time the council met, Kendra was there, along with the other St. Anthony interns. She gathered her courage, stood up and delivered a reasoned and impassioned speech that ended with this message:
“We’ve all heard the saying, ‘Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,’ but I beg to question, what if you have no boots? The services proposed for cuts are those which allow people to pull themselves up, and without them, we’re taking away any of their real chances.”
The other interns stood up and cheered.
“She learned about fear and how to handle it. Plus, she was able to be a model for the interns,” Colleen said. And she had the satisfaction of hearing, a week later, that the supervisors had voted to reinstate the entire $8 million in proposed cuts.
Lindsay Fukui shares a dinner with one of the young residents of Elizabeth House in North Oakland.
Across the San Francisco Bay in North Oakland, Lindsay Fukui ’12, served her fellowship at Elizabeth House, a transitional home for mothers with children who need a temporary place to live because of abuse, a breakup of their family or lack of funds.
Helping Women Get Back on Their Feet
Unlike the two agencies in the Tenderloin, the stately Elizabeth House stands in a quiet, leafy neighborhood. But the reality hits you at the entrance, where you pass through two locked doors before proceeding down a long hall where every room has a lock and key. A half-dozen families live behind those doors. Elizabeth House helps the women create a plan to finish their education and get a job so they can support their family.
“These women really just need some support,” Lindsay said. “I focus on helping them become not just more stable but better mothers.”
She quickly realized that in a small nonprofit, everybody has to pitch in, no matter how menial the task. In her first week, she was asked to inventory the freezers, file papers and check voicemail.
After just two weeks of training, though, she was entrusted with the intake interviews for prospective residents. “I’ve learned a lot about CalWORKS, Social Security Disability Insurance and Food Stamps,” she said. “They’re relying on me to ask the right questions.”
Lindsay also designed a database of past residents, worked on a Toys R Us grant application and persuaded a local clothing store to donate $150 for toys and books for the children.
For her fellowship project, she created an energy-saving competition called “Love Your Mother Nature” to teach the women how to conserve energy and cut their utility bills when they finally do have a home of their own.
Tina Humphrey, executive director of Elizabeth House, was impressed with Lindsay’s energy — and her organizational skills. “When she told me she wanted to design an energy contest for the home, I told her I needed a detailed outline and timeline for the program. I asked for it at 9 a.m., and she had it to me by 1 p.m., complete with graphs showing our PG&E use.”
“She’s learning real-life lessons,” Tina said. “The popular image of the underserved as down and out is not always the case, especially in today’s economy. To see that is a great experience for an intern. This is real life.”
A Home Away From Home in West Oakland
In the West Oakland neighborhood around 10th Street, faded Victorians stand in various states of renovation and decay, and walls are covered with graffiti. On a nearby corner, Happy Time Liquors sits next to a resource center called The Lord Provides.
Kendra Capece remembers driving into the neighborhood on the first day of the program and thinking, “What did I get myself into? This is gonna be my life for six weeks.”
But all three students said the most surprising part of their fellowship was the warmth and humanity they found in their adopted neighborhood. “Every house has a chain-link fence and it doesn’t look welcoming. Yet there’s more experience of community here than anywhere else I’ve lived,” Kendra said.
It was here that the students met frequently at dinner with their CILSA mentors — Director Marshall Welch, Associate Director Jennifer Pigza and Community Engagement Coordinator Ryan Lamberton, who designed the Micah program — to discuss assigned readings and to share the events of the day, focusing on how they could turn even the most challenging experience into a positive life lesson.
On Saturdays, they served breakfast at the Oakland nonprofit World Impact, just down the street, and helped out around the organization. “The first week, we had to clean the bathroom,” Brenda Martinez recalled. “It was really gross, but we bonded.”
The students also reached out to the neighborhood in any way they could. On a trip to a nearby liquor store to buy cereal, Brenda recalled, they struck up a conversation with some locals on the street corner and promised to make treats for them. The next day, they returned with Rice Krispie treats and cupcakes. The locals were amazed — and grateful. “If you ever need anything or anybody ever messes with you, we’ll help you out,” they said.
With every passing day, the West Oakland house seemed more like home. “It’s been a precious time,” Kendra said. “Six weeks to be engrossed in service and home life. This is our time to really grow and do the things we’ve never done before.”