Gabriela Valencia, a board member of NFOCA, leads the organization's free mask distribution program. NFOCA has distributed more than 1,300 masks in North Fair Oaks. (Photo by Dale Ramos / CZI)
Ana Juarez purchased a sewing machine in January 2020 — a month before the U.S. reported its first death from COVID-19. She planned to use it to mend clothing and make decorative pillows and curtains. Little did she know that just a few months later, her sewing machine would become a beacon of hope for her community.
“I think God sent me to buy the machine,” Ana says, “… and that happened [so I could] help other people.”
By March 2020, local businesses and schools were temporarily shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19. The CDC issued a mask mandate, but with so many essential workers in need of PPE, masks were hard to find.
But, because she had a sewing machine, Ana raced to help. She measured her face to create a guide and got to work.
The Power of Community-Led Solutions
At the same time Ana began making masks, Everardo (Ever) Rodriguez searched for ways that his organization, the North Fair Oaks Community Alliance (NFOCA), could also support the community. NFOCA empowers residents through community organizing and advocacy. As an unincorporated area of San Mateo County (next to Redwood City, Atherton and Menlo Park), North Fair Oaks relies on the county for funding rather than a city municipality, which is why Ever says community-led solutions are crucial.
“There’s just never enough resources to come here and fix the problems,” he says.
Ever has been a resident of North Fair Oaks for 24 years and is the president of NFOCA. He says the disparities between his community and the more affluent surrounding areas are noticeable as soon as you enter the neighborhood.
“All of a sudden, you enter North Fair Oaks, and there are no trees, there are no sidewalks, the infrastructure looks run down,” Ever says. “Even if you’re not from this place, you can tell that something stopped at this community.”
For six years, Ever has served on the North Fair Oaks Council, trying to improve communication and services, install bike lanes, sidewalks and plant trees, among other community needs. He says it’s been an eye-opening experience.
“It has only helped me to realize that the problem is more systemic in nature,” Ever says. “It’s not that easy for one person to try to change it even with a lot of energy and passion.”
So, in 2018 Ever recruited fellow passionate community members to start NFOCA. They were just hitting a stride in early 2020 — with events planned throughout the year — when the pandemic arrived, forcing them to cancel all public events and re-strategize.
“Masks Made in North Fair Oaks for North Fair Oaks”
Gabriela Valencia, a nurse practitioner and board member of NFOCA, says that many immigrants in North Fair Oaks have jobs that can’t accommodate working from home. So, the impact of COVID-19 on the community was immense. However, the importance of mask-wearing wasn’t getting through to everyone.
“I thought that one way that NFOCA could help the community and introduce ourselves to the community would be to give them face masks,” Gabriela says.
At the time, Gabriela had proposed making face masks and distributing them for free in the community. She researched and presented to her board a unique, protective design with three layers of different fabric and adjustable ear and nose pieces bearing the NFOCA logo.
Ever agreed. He remembered seeing a YouTube video of Ana making masks for the community and NFOCA decided to contact Ana to ask if she wanted to make NFOCA’s mask design and be paid for her work.
“She was already working on this effort on her own, and I felt like it was such a wonderful thing to do to have the masks made in North Fair Oaks for North Fair Oaks,” Gabriela says. “It has been a wonderful collaboration from the very beginning with Ana.”
Ana makes the masks while Gabriela puts the NFOCA logo on the front, packages the masks with an instruction guide and distributes them. The group took free masks to several local, family-owned businesses and publicized them on social media in hopes of protecting the community and drumming up support. The process, says Ever, has been working out great.
NFOCA has distributed 500 of Ana’s handmade masks, and, thanks to a donation of commercially-made masks, they have hit their goal and distributed more than 1300 masks in North Fair Oaks.
NFOCA’s Next Chapter: Addressing Inequities in Vaccine Access
Among several other projects, NFOCA is also working to increase access to vaccines in the community. Vaccination rates in North Fair Oaks have been far lower than those of the affluent neighboring communities. According to the San Mateo County Health website, 100% of residents ages 16 and older are vaccinated in the next-door community of Atherton.
But, in North Fair Oaks, roughly 60% of that same demographic are vaccinated (as of April 27, 2021).
“You know, those numbers, they just speak for themselves,” Ever says.
The inequity around vaccine access is due to a lack of vaccination events in the community and how appointment scheduling works.
“They would need permission from their jobs to take part of the day off or the day off to go get their vaccines,” Ever says. “Then also there is the technology divide. You gotta get registered online, and many folks don’t have WiFi or a device.”
Advocating for vaccine access wasn’t something NFOCA planned to take on. But similar to making and distributing masks, Ever and NFOCA had to step in.
“We just saw that the community was not really being supported in the way that they need it. So, we started voicing our concerns,” Ever says.
NFOCA and other local organizations urged for easily accessible vaccination clinics for BIPOC and immigrant communities. The direct appeal led to media attention, and the county responded by providing more vaccination events to North Fair Oaks. The NFOCA team supported the first events in March with translation services and registration assistance.
“It is great to see our community finally having access to the vaccine,” Gabriela told us at one of the events.
And hope is on the horizon. Since the initial vaccination events, more are happening throughout April.
For Ever, it’s hope that allows him to look beyond the pandemic. He’s planning NFOCA’s next big thing — a block-by-block community engagement project that will help residents communicate with and support each other in the event of new emergencies. It’s a big undertaking with big goals.
“Ultimately, we want to provide support and unification for all of the unincorporated area, including the more affluent and the less affluent areas,” Ever says, “and however or whenever we get there, we’re just going to keep trying.”
The North Fair Oaks Community Alliance is a 2021 CZI Community Fund grant partner. Launched in 2017, the CZI Community Fund supports San Mateo County organizations working to build equity, power, and opportunity in their communities.