Elba Gonzalez-Mares knew she had good neighbors, but she never imagined they would become a family, bonded together in their efforts to help a homeless couple and their 2-year-old daughter.
Gonzalez-Mares is the executive director of Community Health Initiative Napa County. It is her job to connect families in need with resources. She hears stories of hardship on a daily basis, and those stories only increased after the October fires. But little did she know there was a family in need living just down the street from her home in her Alta Heights neighborhood in east Napa.
“In my office, we’re used to seeing all kinds of clients,” Gonzalez-Mares said. “When the disaster hit in October, it was at work, it was your family, it was in your neighborhood — it was everywhere. This is your community, and it’s hurting. Napa has a way of coming together in a time of need. I just didn’t expect to be involved on such a personal level.”
Ben Mahoney first noticed Miguel Canchola’s vehicle on Highland Drive in early November. After a few days, he decided to approach the vehicle when he saw a man working on the car one evening.
“They were outside my house, so when I saw Miguel out there, I decided I would go investigate to see what was going on,” Mahoney said. “You see someone in front of your house you don’t know, you check it out, right? Well, his English was about as good as my Spanish, but we were able to communicate enough to where I could see he meant no harm. He seemed like a nice guy.”
“I saw his wife and their daughter in the car, and you could tell they’d seen better times. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but I wanted to make sure they were OK for the night, so I brought them blankets and some food. I have friends who speak Spanish, so I asked if they could come by the next day to get the full story.”
However, by the time Mahoney returned home from work the following evening, Canchola and his wife Sandra Cendejas were being put up in a hotel.
Earlier that morning, Jim Hie was walking his dog, Tinkerbell, through the neighborhood when he learned of Canchola and Cendejas’s situation from Mahoney’s in-laws who also live in the area. He decided he, too, was going to investigate.
“I take my dog for a walk every morning and every evening, and I’d noticed their car had been there a while,” Hie said. “But when I heard it was a family with a baby living in the car, I wanted to know what was going on. Miguel was outside the car cleaning some tools and I approached them. I don’t speak Spanish, but I was able to get across that I wasn’t asking them to leave and that I would be back with someone who could translate.”
Hie reached out to his next-door neighbor, Gonzalez-Mares, who arrived home within an hour.
“Jim is our neighborhood watchdog, so when he told me what was going on, I came over as soon as I could,” Gonzalez-Mares said. “I approached their car and was able to talk to Sandra. Miguel had gone for a walk. You could tell she was very nervous, but I let her know that everything was going to be OK.”
No place to go
When Canchola returned, the couple told Gonzalez-Mares their story. They’d been renting a room in a home on Soda Canyon Road for a little more than a month when the North Bay fires roared to life on the evening of Oct. 8. First responders had knocked on their door and told them to evacuate. The couple loaded what they could into their cars and fled the impending flames.
“What little they had, they lost” Gonzalez-Mares said.
Canchola told Gonzalez-Mares that they tried to get to one of the shelters, but the couple was turned away.
“He said the shelter was full, but I think something was lost in translation,” Gonzalez-Mares said. “The phones weren’t working and they didn’t know where to go. All he knew was that they needed to stay together. They needed to be safe.”
Canchola told Gonzalez-Mares that they parked their vehicles in an apartment complex parking lot that seemed safe. Canchola drove the family’s van to Fairfield to work, but when he returned to Napa, his wife and daughter and their car were gone. In his absence, Cendejas had been asked to leave. She took the car and moved it onto the street. Canchola was eventually able to find them, but he vowed he would not leave his family alone again.
The family moved around, trying not to stay in one place for too long. But they were running low on money, food and gas for their car, Gonzalez-Mares said.
“Miguel was feeling very desperate,” Gonzalez-Mares said. “He is a provider and his family depended on him. To see a human being so crushed, to see that hopelessness in his eyes, I knew we had to do something. There was no question about it.”
Gonzalez-Mares regrouped with Hie and started to figure out the next steps. The immediate need was to get the family out of their car and someplace warm as the first frost of the year was expected that evening.
Hie, who Mahoney refers to as the “unofficial mayor of the neighborhood”, began contacting neighbors to see if they could help. A family who lived across the street on Vista Avenue was able to secure a hotel room for the Canchola family for the weekend while other neighbors offered gift cards so that the family could buy food, toiletries and other basic necessities.
The kindness of strangers
Canchola and his wife and daughter had been living in their car for a month before Mahoney, Gonzalez-Mares and Hie intervened.
Gonzalez-Mares said once the family was safe at the hotel, the Alta Heights neighbors continued to assess their resources to see what they could offer the couple. Hie had a spare bedroom downstairs, but his wife would need to use it while recovering from knee replacement surgery. Keeping the family in a hotel would be too expensive in the long term, but the family had no money rent a room elsewhere.
Erin Luby and her husband, Thys-Jan Tepper, heard of the Canchola family’s plight and offered their spare bedroom.
“Jim reached out to us because we have a camper trailer, but there is no bathroom, no heater and as cold as it was getting at night, I was concerned about putting anyone in there,” Luby said. “But we had a spare bedroom. They were sleeping in their car. They had a 2-year-old. There weren’t a lot of other options. You can’t have a family out in the cold.”
Luby knows “very basic Spanish,” but Tepper minored in Spanish in college, so the couples were able to communicate for the most part.
“Thys is fluent, but in ‘book-Spanish,’” Luby said. “Conversational Spanish is a bit different, but thankfully we always have Elba to come in to translate to make sure everyone was on the same page.”
With housing temporarily checked off the priorities list, Gonzalez-Mares began using her work connections to put the Canchola family in touch with the appropriate resources, such as local nonprofits On the Move and Puertas Abiertas Community Resource Center. She reached out to California Highway Patrol to acquire a proper car seat for 2-year-old Angela, and she worked with Rabobank to get the family set up with its first bank account.
To help the family rebuild their finances, neighbors began offering Canchola odd jobs such as tree trimming so that the family could start saving money to get back on its feet.
The neighborhood’s charity and offerings to the Canchola family did not go unappreciated, but Canchola was still depressed as the stress of finding work and proper housing loomed.
Luby said she and her husband tried to include the Canchola family in their routine as much as possible to help them feel a sense of normalcy. Luby and Cendejas bonded over cooking, and everyone adored looking after Angela and making sure the toddler remained happy despite the circumstances.
Gonzalez-Mares checked in with the families regularly to offer assistance and support. After a few weeks, Tepper was able to connect Canchola with a roofing job, and the family’s spirits were lifted, but only temporarily.
In pursuit of happiness
The Canchola’s family’s journey began four years ago, when Canchola came to California from Mexico in search of a better life for his family. Cendejas was born in the Napa County area and dreamed of returning to raise her family in the Bay Area. After two years of working and saving money, Canchola asked Cendejas to join him in California, but advised that they leave their eldest daughter with family until they could get more settled.
Being separated has always been a stressor for the family, Gonzalez-Mares said, but when word reached them that their daughter in Mexico had fallen ill and was in and out of the hospital, Cendejas became inconsolable.
“We talked a lot, and I knew Sandra would be happier if she could go back home to Mexico to be with her daughter,” Gonzalez-Mares said. “Of course, she didn’t want to leave Miguel behind, but when I told her we would find a way to get her and Angela to Mexico, her spirits were lifted. You could see it in her face.”
Gonzalez-Mares turned to her neighbors again and together they were able to procure the funds to buy a last-minute ticket to Mexico, a hefty expense anytime of the year, but more so during the holidays.
“The price isn’t important,” Gonzalez-Mares said. “We made it work.”
Cendejas and Angela returned to Mexico in the mid December and are scheduled to return in early January. Meanwhile, Canchola has continued to work and look for a place for the family to stay.
Gonzalez-Mares said the family has had some leads in finding a room to rent, but space is limited and what is available in Napa is often expensive. Despite the impeding hurdles, Canchola has set his goal to find his family a home by the first of the year, and Gonzalez-Mares said she believes he will stick to it.
“He is a very determined young man,” Gonzalez-Mares said. “You can see how much his family means to him and how much he loves them. I’ve seen how Sandra and Miguel have grown as a couple in these past weeks. They’ve been married for nine years, and they’ve been through a lot together, but it seems that obstacles only make them stronger as a unit, as a family.”
Gonzalez-Mares said she has high hopes for the couple and plans to stay in touch with them even after them move out of the neighborhood.
‘It’s what’s right’
Luby admits welcoming strangers into your home is challenging, but she is quick to note the experience has been rewarding as well.
“It may sound strange to take in a family you’ve never met and welcome them into your home, but this family had lost everything. We have really awesome neighbors who have been bringing us meals and offering to pitch in. This community has really come together, and we’ve had some great times. Miguel and Sandra are great people and we’ve come to know our neighbors in a whole new way.
“When people are in need, this is what you do. It’s what’s right, so you do it.”