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Food, shelter and a helping hand

Facing eviction and a bleak future, Cynthia White turned to Sunnyvale Community Services for much-needed assistance

By Julia Prodis Sulek
MERCURY NEWS

SUNNYVALE — A three-day eviction notice hung on the door of Cynthia White's apartment. Letters from the power company piled up, threatening to cut off her electricity.

She had never asked for help before and, at age 55, was reluctant to start now, even though she was unemployed. It wasn’t in her nature. She was a caregiver by profession and the elderly woman she helped for two years had recently died.

She had driven past Sunnyvale Community Services — a nonprofit that aims to prevent homelessness and hunger — a number of times, but never had the nerve to go in.

"I always felt that people needed the services more than I did," she said.

Finally, worried that she would soon be sleeping in her car, she walked into the front office on Kifer Road.

"I was extremely depressed," she said, "ready to give up."



There, she was greeted by Martha Montenegro, a caseworker who tried to put White's mind at ease, offering groceries, gas vouchers and money to help cover the rent and utilities. And Sunnyvale Community Services did more than offer emergency aid. With help from other local agencies, it created a plan to help White become independent again. For White, the process has been one of self-sacrifice, tough love, humility and, ultimately, empowerment. One of the hardest parts? Moving from her 850-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment to a 230-square-foot space that is so small she had to move out a breakfast table to make room for her queen-size bed and dresser.

"When I saw it, it took my breath away, it was so tiny. It was a tough day," White said. "But I realize all the good opportunities that will follow. It's going to work for the time being."

Sunnyvale Community Services helps some 7,000 low-income families and seniors in crisis each year. Like many community nonprofits, Sunnyvale Community Services was founded in 1970 when government aid programs were being dismantled. Along with emergency food and financial aid, including money to cover prescriptions, the group provides backpacks for children in August and toys at Christmas. The organization receives generous donations from corporations doing business in Sunnyvale, including AMD, Yahoo and Intuitive Surgical right down the street, but the needs of the community keep growing as incomes decline and rents skyrocket.

Over the past year, requests for financial assistance grew 5 percent and food assistance grew 12 percent, said Marie Bernard, executive director of Sunnyvale Community Services. Some of her clients come in after their rent has increased $400 in four months, she said. Government funding for Section 8 affordable housing has also declined.

Donations from Wish Book readers can help the organization continue to provide emergency aid to its expanding clientele.

"Our waiting room lobby has been full of people," Bernard said. "Our assistance is meant to be usually one time. But the next month or two, people will have the same problem. The math doesn't work. Their costs exceed what they have."

Sunnyvale Community Services helps in emergencies. But the staff also devises long-term plans, just as they did for White. Like everyone who enters the front doors of the one-story building, White has a compelling story. She worked for decades as a medical assistant, first at Menlo Medical Clinic, then from 1997 to 2008 at Stanford Hospital where she scheduled surgeries and coordinated admissions. In 2009, White — who is single and has no children — moved to Maine to care for her dying mother. She came back in 2011 and immediately landed a job caring for an elderly Foster City woman. But when that woman died last year, White struggled to find work that would pay enough to cover her $2,300 monthly living expenses, including rent. Most jobs paid only about $1,200 a month on minimum wage.

Her small inheritance, which she had wanted to save to buy a manufactured home, dried up quickly paying the rent. By late summer, her landlord was threatening to evict her.

"It's been a spiral, let's put it that way," White said.

She is trying to get a more lucrative job as a medical assistant again, but often loses out to young people who earned medical assistant certificates preferred by many employers.

The staff at Sunnyvale Community Services, including case manager David Hernandez who worked with the Downtown Streets Team and Tenant-Based Rental Assistance in Sunnyvale, helped find the smaller apartment that rented for $795 a month. With financial help that expires in two years, White will pay just $300 a month, which equals about 30 percent of her income.

Without the financial stress, White will be able to enroll in a medical assistants program and look for a better job, then hopefully a bigger apartment.

"She was able to make tough decisions. She downsized from one bedroom to a small apartment," Bernard said. "She'll get assistance to stabilize her income. But we wanted to make sure as she ages, she'll be able to sustain this."

It's still difficult for White to swallow her pride and accept help, and even agree to use her name and photo for this Wish Book story. But this is her way of thanking Sunnyvale Community Services, especially if her story encourages people to donate to the organization that is helping her and so many others during their toughest times.

"There have been many times I've wanted to "take the bridge," so to speak. I didn't want to go out of the house," she said. "But I feel I have a team who's here for me. If it wasn't for Marie, David and Martha, Lord knows where I'd be."

To learn more about Sunnyvale Community Services, go to www.svcommunityservices.org.

Readers can help Sunnyvale Community Services provide emergency financial aid to people like Cynthia White. Donations of $100 can provide a night of temporary shelter for a family; $40 can fill a bag of food for a family; and $10 can provide a nutritious breakfast for a child for one week.

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© San Jose Mercury News. Donations to the Wish Book Fund, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, are tax deductible. The tax ID number is 77-0229665.