SAN LEANDRO -- Like most teenage girls, Jessica Gonsales-Vasquez likes cute clothes. But her family has a hard time making ends meet, and there's often not enough money for food, let alone new clothes for a 17-year-old.
For the past five years, Jessica and her family have been going to the Davis Street Family Resource Center, which serves the working poor and others who are struggling.
"Money has been tight," Jessica said. "My mom right now is the only one working; my dad's been out of work for three years. So we go to Davis Street about three times a month. We pick up food, and sometimes we pick up clothes or go to the clinic."
Every December, the center hands out holiday baskets with food and toys. Last year, the center started handing out gift cards for teenagers, said Rose Johnson, Davis Street executive director.
"The entire family often comes in to pick up the holiday basket, and we realized there was nothing for the teenagers. They didn't say anything, but you could see it in their faces. So we tried to give the older kids toys and then said, we don't even know what they want," Johnson said.
The center decided to add gift cards for teenagers in the baskets. On Dec. 22 and 23, the center will hand out 1,000 baskets, including more than 300 gift cards for teenagers.
"Last year, we were able to give gift cards of $25. This year, we have more older kids, so we will hand out $20 cards. It's not a lot; it maybe will buy one CD, a sweater or a sweatshirt. For us, it's showing a teenager that we value you as a human being; this is all we can do right now, but you're worth it," Johnson said.
Jessica was one of the teens given a gift card last year. "I got a gift card for Target; I used it to buy clothes. I really like clothes for school and stuff. I'll use it for the same thing this year because we are short of money," she said.
She also needs clothes for job interviews. "I'm looking for any job that will hire me. I've been looking for work, but it's been really hard," she said. Jessica's family does not have a computer, so she uses Davis Street's computer lab for schoolwork and to help in her job search.
Each month, the Davis Street Family Resource Center on Teagarden Street serves more than 5,000 residents in San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Ashland, Cherryland and Castro Valley, and has about 1,200 kids in its child-care centers at local schools and its original site on Davis Street. The center has 51 paid staff members, and 200-plus volunteers, many of whom are former clients.
Aurelia Tyson, 14, who lives with five brothers and her mom, has been coming to Davis Street with her mother for food baskets for about three years.
"I bring the kids to Davis Street so that they can see we don't have it like we used to," said her mother, Gavina Silva, as she slumps into a chair. She was a stay-at-home mother when her husband lost his job at NUMMI when the Fremont auto plant closed in 2010.
"The holiday basket helped us a lot. We were having a hard time," she said.
The now-single parent leaves the house by 4:30 a.m. to get to her job at Safeway in Alameda. But she is home in the afternoons to look after her six children, ages 4 to 18, including her stepson, who has cerebral palsy and is deaf. He attends the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. Her youngest, Ramon, is in Head Start, and Aurelia plays soccer and softball.
"Between work and juggling the kids, I don't have much time," Silva says. "We barely make it, paying the bills. It's hard."
The center also helped Donna Murray after she suffered a stroke at age 46. "I lost my income, my job, my medical coverage, my apartment, everything," she said.
She needed to see a doctor but could not afford one. A friend suggested she go to the clinic at Davis Street.
"They gave me food and clothing," she said of the workers at the Davis Street center. "I was homeless."
As she talks, her twin 6-year-old grandsons, Fred and Eric Owens, draw at a table nearby. One of the boys runs over. "You're not homeless!" he said.
"Grandma was after I had my stroke," she replied. The Davis Street center got her into a shelter and later helped her find a home.
Murray, now 58, still uses a cane but helps out four to five days a week at the center.
"I started volunteering to give back, because they helped me so much," she said. "I was a single mom, and Davis Street was the only place that ever helped me."
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.
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