When Jessica Real moved from Mexico to Marin, she was pregnant and living on one income. Then she and her husband were offered a lifeline – help with rent and “everything” for their apartment, from furniture to kitchen utensils.
It’s been 16 years, but she hasn’t forgotten the help she received from North Marin Community Services.
“Since then, the center has been like family to me, as I have always received the support I needed,” said the Novato resident, who received help with counselling, childcare children and, recently, help getting into a condominium.
Residents like Real are among those helped by the Novato-based nonprofit, which this year celebrates 50 years of service. Established in 1972 with the founding of the Novato Youth Center and the Novato Human Needs Center, the two groups merged to become North Marin Community Services in 2018.
An anniversary luncheon is scheduled for April 13 in Novato, with U.S. Representative Jared Huffman of San Rafael speaking at the event. A 10-year-old time capsule will be buried to mark the occasion.
The organization has reached over 150,000 people with services and offers intensive case management. The past two years have been memorable, according to staff, creating unprecedented pressure on resources. Faced with this, the organization has grown to provide better services to people of all ages.
Last year, North Marin Community Services served more than 11,000 people with food, housing assistance, mental health care and childcare grants. About 96% of customers were from very low-income families and 89% were people of color, said Cheryl Paddack, general manager.
As the largest safety net provider in North Marin, the organization has seen a 30% increase in demand for services over the past two years, Paddack said. The nonprofit is hiring more staff and the budget is “the largest ever at $6 million,” she said.
Paddack said “trauma-informed and culturally appropriate” services are being added because about 35% of Novato residents are people of color. She said more than half of all staff and 40% of board members are also people of color and bilingual.
About 73% of Latino households in Marin fail to make ends meet, Paddack said. With that in mind, the organization is focusing on housing support, its pantry and childcare support for essential workers, to “help people stabilize their basic needs”.
Staff members said they have seen the organization change direction over the past few decades, particularly during the pandemic.
Ana Rivera, a case manager for 41 years, said she has helped hundreds of families from Mexico, El Salvador, China and Russia with varying levels of need.
“We have families who didn’t have jobs, and now they own their homes, or they have their own businesses,” Rivera said. “Some are now volunteers or donors.”
Asked about current barriers for residents of North Marin, Rivera said, “The challenge is always housing. It’s so expensive for families to live here. Applications for housing assistance reach about 50 per week, on average.
Rivera said child care and food costs also remain key issues, especially for working parents who must choose which expenses they can manage each month.
Berta Campos-Anicetti, director of Latino services at the nonprofit, said the organization has learned to modify programs offered based on people’s needs and has advocated for more essential services during the pandemic.
“The pandemic really highlighted where people thought frontline workers were impacted by the pandemic,” Campos-Anicetti said. “The Latino community in Novato is very large and we have been affected to the point that we have had to refer people to San Rafael.”
“We were able to build very strong partnerships with a lot of different people to support Novato,” she said.
Jean Gunn, former chair of the board of the Novato Human Needs Center, said she was proud of the organization for adjusting programming when the pandemic hit.
“Even though we live in an affluent area, there are so many needs and they have been exacerbated by current inflation, high gas prices and job loss during COVID,” Gunn said. “We finally have a really nimble and competent group to provide these services to the people of Novato.”
Novato Mayor Eric Lucan called the organization “a great partner of the city.”
“We are so lucky to have an amazing organization like them to provide support to those in our community who need it most,” he said.
For Real, it’s helpful to help the center connect with other families during the pandemic, in hopes it will help others gain the same food and health assistance that got her through the tough times. .
“I know that whenever I have a problem, that’s where I’m going to find the answer and the support,” Real said.