Monday, December 14, 2009

The Season of Sharing Fund is a very good idea

Aspiring performer now answers to higher calling
Berton, Justin. San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 11, 2009.

San Jose -- If you ever find yourself calling for help, you may hear Erica Quinonez's voice on the other end of the line.

The 25-year-old San Jose resident works as an office specialist in Santa Clara County's Social Services Department, and by the time people call her office, they are looking for a lifeline, someone - anyone - to help them navigate a system that, at first glance, can appear overwhelming.

"I can hear it in their voice and I know what they're going through," Quinonez said. "I've been in those shoes."

In October, Quinonez, who has custody of her four younger siblings ages 14 to 20, had gotten behind on her rent and was handed a three-day eviction notice by her landlord. The family, which Quinonez has kept together despite years of bouncing among foster homes, rents a two-bedroom apartment in downtown San Jose.

"I was wondering where we'd come up with the money," she said. "Then I called someone and they helped me."

Through the Season of Sharing fund, contributors paid the rent for November and December, giving Quinonez time to catch up on bills and help purchase winter clothing for her siblings.

"This is the biggest blessing ever," she said. "This is something no one has ever done for us."

Two years ago, Quinonez's father signed over custody of the children before he entered San Quentin Prison, she said. But for many years earlier, the eldest sibling had already learned the nuances of the system to keep her two sisters and two brothers together as they ricocheted among foster homes, their grandparents' homes and homeless shelters.

Growing up, Quinonez attended 12 schools: "Mount Pleasant for one week, Live Oak High School for one day."

After she graduated from high school, and her parents had regained custody of the siblings during a stint of sobriety, Quinonez headed to New York through the City Year program. In exchange for living in the Big Apple, Quinonez provided one year of community service, determined to work with children who had walked a similar path.

"Since I was in the system my whole life, I wanted to give back and do something that no one else was doing," she said. "I wanted to change lives."

Yet when Quinonez said that when she returned, her parents had relapsed, and she was thrust into the parenting role once more.

"I had to be the backbone of the family," she said. "I had to do the cleaning, get the kids to school, buy the clothes, take care of the kids. I had parents, but they weren't doing anything more than providing some money."

Quinonez set aside her dream of attending college and becoming an actress and singer. She took a job as extra office help through a program for former foster care children in Social Services' Department of Child Support. She excelled, earning two promotions, and has since earned a full-time position with benefits.

She also has developed a bond with God, a relationship she once viewed with suspicion.

During a stay at homeless shelter in her youth, her mother asked her to pray for an apartment, and Quinonez remembers thinking, "If there was a God, he wouldn't do this."

"I used to be an atheist," she said, "but now I realize I can't do this alone."

A few weeks ago, Quinonez was at work when she answered the phone and heard a woman crying. The woman was going through a divorce and had been kicked out of the house and had no money and nowhere to sleep.

Quinonez handled it delicately, gave the woman a rundown on all the resources available to her, and led her to help.

"It wasn't my dream to be in social services," Quinonez said. "My dream was to be an actress and singer. But those dreams are over. I can still sleep and pretend like I'm in Rockefeller Plaza singing a song. Then I wake up to kids arguing over who's going to take a shower first or how cold it is. Maybe he has a different calling for me."

Donations to The Chronicle's Season of Sharing fund help thousands of people in the Bay Area throughout the year. Assistance is in the form of grants paid directly to the supplier, such as a landlord. Individuals cannot receive direct grants. For more information, visit www.seasonofsharing.org

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