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UpValley Family Centers: St. Helena, Calistoga clients find network of caring & trusted friends

UpValley Family Centers: St. Helena, Calistoga clients find network of caring & trusted friends


Last of two parts

The staff of the UpValley Family Centers served 3,161 people in 2019, including Vitalina Ortiz, who arrived in the Napa Valley more than 13 years ago.

“When she arrived, she felt lost, didn’t know where to go,” interpreter and longtime UVFC employee Norma Ferriz said, as Ortiz spoke in Spanish. “She found the family center and it was a magic experience.”

In those early years, Ortiz said she was not doing very well and received counseling that helped her “come out of difficulty.”

Through the years, Ortiz said the UVFC has given her opportunities to learn more, including English, although she preferred to conduct the interview in her native language.

“It’s up to each person how much they want to learn. We are offered that opportunity and all of the services are free,” she said.

On her lap was 5-month-old Gabriel, who joins two siblings, ages 5 and 11. Ortiz and her husband, who works in construction, have been married for seven years. Ortiz cares for Gabriel at home, but she also sells Mary Kay beauty products and cuts hair.

Ortiz was one of 17 people, including several UVFC clients and volunteers, interviewed on Feb. 27, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting photos show people standing next to each other – how odd it looks today – smiling and happy.

The need for services from various agencies, financial assistance in paying bills or rent, or buying food in the Upvalley area is real. As Charlotte Hajer, UVFC Development director, said last week, there is a lot of wealth and a lot of poverty in the Napa Valley. “It’s hard to be poor here, I think in part, because it’s hidden, but also in part, because this is a rural area and there are not that many resources available,” Hajer said.

The people interviewed are only a small part of the UpValley Family Centers, whose budget was $2.78 million in FY 2018-19. I wanted to find out what makes the UVFC tick.

Besides Ortiz, I spoke with clients Rosa Tinoco, Agustina Palafox, Wendy Olivares and Matilde Rosales and volunteers Pat Friday, David Cummings, Marcela Franco, Ray Branstetter and Alma Cortez.

VITA tax program

In 2019, volunteers trained in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program prepared taxes for 705 low-income households – for free – and returned $867,336 in refunds for the clients. Additionally, volunteers with the UVFC provided 469 hours of financial coaching.

Palafox, Tinoco and Rosales all use VITA volunteers for their taxes and go to the UVFC to pay bills so that, as Palafox said, she doesn’t “need to go all the way to Napa, spending gas and time” to pay them.

Palafox has also used the UVFC to renew her green card, become a U.S. citizen and help her translate documents. Palafox is raising three children, ages 9, 12 and 15, by herself, since her husband died three years ago. She’s lived in St. Helena for a dozen years. She works as a housekeeper, but sometimes it’s difficult to make ends meet, so at Christmas she receives gift cards from the UVFC staff.

Sometimes, Palafox said, she comes to the family center when money is really tight, and is grateful for the support, so she can pay her rent.

Marcela Franco (St. Helena) and Ray Branstetter (Calistoga) are VITA volunteers. Franco has volunteered for the tax season for the past 10 years.

“I think is is very important because it is a program that helps a lot of the low-income community,” Franco said.

These are people who work hard all year “just to get some money back from the government,” Franco said. “Having these programs is a great benefit to the community. If the Family Center weren’t here, I don’t know where they would turn.”

Franco came to St. Helena from Mexico 30 years ago and moved to Calistoga in 2017.

Branstetter moved with his family to Calistoga in 1997, after he retired. The Calistoga office does 200-250 tax returns in a year, and in late February he said their schedule was booked solid.

“There are at least four people involved in doing a tax return,” he said. First, conducting the initial interview; doing the taxes on a computer with IRS-certified software (not TurboTax); showing the clients their tax return; and signing the tax forms with the client. The 81-year-old said he’s mostly involved with the computer work.

“I’ve always had a secondary interest in accounting, watching the numbers change on the monitor,” Branstetter said.

The volunteers don’t do complicated taxes — “We don’t want to put professionals out of business,” he said.


Besides paying bills and using the volunteers to prepare her taxes, Rosa Tinoco comes to the UFVC to get help with the Internet.

“If she has any doubt, she calls here; if she has questions about places in Napa, for instance, or Calistoga, she will call here first,” Ferriz said, interpreting Tinoco’s Spanish. The mother of three – a 14-year-old and two “wonderful” 8-year-old twins – had always lived in St. Helena until she moved to Napa last year. Tinoco was married for 10 years and has been divorced for five or six years. “Now I am independent,” she said.

The UVFC, with its bilingual staff, is comforting to Spanish-speakers like Tinoco. “If you’re scared of dealing with someone because of the language, it’s always comfortable to go to a place where they speak your own language,” she said.

Tinoco started with English classes at the UVFC and is studying child development three days a week at Santa Rosa Junior College. She hopes to graduate in January. She is a housekeeper and works at a laundromat in Napa.

Matilde Rosales and her husband have lived in Calistoga for 14 years and have two children, 12 and 13. Rosales works in the evening cleaning a restaurant and her husband is a day laborer, taking care of a ranch.

“I enjoy living in this community,” she said in Spanish to interpreter Lupe Maldonado. “The family center has helped us financially, we get our taxes done here for free and we can get translations of documents. When my children were younger, they were involved in the programs offered by the family center and it was very exciting for them to come and play.”

Another client is Wendy Olivares, who lives in Calistoga with her two daughters. At the end of February, she was pregnant with a baby boy, who was due to be born in April. She was employed at a local gas station, although she wasn’t working at the moment.

Olivares called the UVFC “very important because it not only helped me, but a lot of people who are in need.” The family center has helped her fill out various forms, including disability forms.

Olivares said the staff is friendly and helpful, and she feels very welcome at the center. She has been attending classes to become literate in Spanish and recently earned a certificate as part of the Promotoras Community Outreach and Wellness Program. UVFC Executive Director Jenny Ocón said it is “very impressive the amount of time and work she has put into the schooling.” Olivares was understandably excited to receive the certificate.

“You’re never too old to learn,” she said.


Alma Cortez has been a volunteer Promotora for nine years, helping with community outreach and providing information. “I also used to give Zumba classes for free as a Promotora,” she said in Spanish as Ocón interpreted. “I take advantage of a lot of the trainings the family center has to offer.”

At the moment, the Promotoras are getting the word out about the U.S. Census. It’s important for everyone to be counted because “it brings resources back to the community,” Cortez said — money for schools, health clinics, roads, and “the things we all count on in this community.”

Cortez lives with her four children, ages 21, 15, 12 and 10, in Santa Rosa, but she volunteers in Calistoga because she believes the nonprofit is important.

Why does she work so hard? “For me it is not hard because I feel like I’m doing a service for the community, reaching out to others and letting them know what’s available, what resources are out there and what the family center has to offer.”

Volunteer David Cummings may have one of the best volunteer jobs — he works in the St. Helena Elementary School as a third-grade math tutor.

“The teacher has arithmetic every day, so I go in Wednesday and Thursday at 9:30 and do an hour with them until recess,” he said.

In late February, he was helping kids with their multiplication tables, which he says is “very difficult,” adding, “division is even worse.”

When asked if his charges are getting better at math, he said, “I sometimes wonder.” He added though, “The teacher is happy to have me there to take them out of the classroom,” either in the hall for lessons or in a corner in the room. Ocón said that’s soon going to change – the tutors will have an office at the school.

She added having tutors at the school is “real helpful to the teacher, because there might be a couple of students who are struggling and need more help.” The teacher can rely on the tutors “to give dedicated attention to the students for a while.”

Cummings, who has lived in the area for 40 years, said he gets a lot of satisfaction from tutoring students, participating in other classroom activities, and showing up at the Halloween parade.

Retired St. Helena floral designer Pat Friday volunteers with the UVFC’s citizenship program, which operates in conjunction with two other organizations, including a group of immigration attorneys in the Bay Area. In partnership with the Napa Citizenship Legal Services collaborative, since 2014, the UVFC has helped 1,350 people become U.S. citizens. In 2019, center staff gave 129 immigration consultations and filed 57 naturalization applications.

Friday, who began volunteering three years ago, helps with monthly workshops that draw 40-50 people hoping to become U.S. citizens. Of that number, maybe 30-40 apply. For someone to become a citizen, it typically takes nine months and costs $740. Friday helps applicants fill out all the forms at the beginning of the process.

The UVFC offers a variety of classes, including English and civics, to help applicants get prepared for an interview and test with an immigration officer in San Francisco. Once applicants get an appointment, Friday plugs in as a one-on-one tutor – “to help people get really prepared for their interview and test,” she said.

You may reach David Stoneberg at 967-6800 or

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star and The Weekly Calistogan.

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