The box contained food, laundry soap and paper towels. But to Irma Avelar, “It felt like I had gold.”
Avelar, who works at a domestic violence shelter and is a single mother of two teenage boys, was on sick leave from work for about a month, she said in a phone interview. She didn’t have COVID-19, but since her work requires her to be in close contact with the public, she couldn’t take any chances.
She thought that her unemployment benefits would kick in, but issues with the system kept her from getting the money she needed to pay rent. Since about 2007 — with the exception of a period when she lived out of state — Avelar has lived in a housing unit owned by the Burbank Housing Corp., a nonprofit that runs affordable housing rented to local residents.
BHC Executive Director Sylvia Moreno explained that the coronavirus pandemic put many of the nonprofit’s residents out of work. The organization received $10,000 in rental assistance grants from Los Angeles County, with the funds distributed to households that had fallen behind on payments. But families like Avelar’s also had other necessities — food and cleaning supplies, for example.
That’s where the care packages came in. Starting in April, BHC has given them to more than 200 households, with about 40 families still receiving monthly gifts.
They are funded by monetary donations from banks, businesses and individuals, including the Wells Fargo Foundation, the Community Foundation of the Verdugos, Trader Joe’s and Costco in Burbank, and the Gain Federal Credit Union. BHC has raised a total of $17,000 for the program, according to Moreno.
Providence St. Joseph Medical Center also donated masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, she added.
“It makes you want to work harder,” Moreno said in a phone interview. “This initiation started with someone asking, ‘What can we do, how can we help these families?’”
Moreno added that the program, which has only about $2,000 in funding remaining, will close at the end of the year, with BHC planning to send a Thanksgiving basket and winter holiday basket for the last two months.
She also credits Emily Lopez, BHC’s community outreach manager, for creating the project. The nonprofit is still accepting donations, Moreno added.
The BHC works with 322 households in total. The nonprofit developer aims to provide affordable housing in Burbank by working with the city government to acquire and rehabilitate buildings, turning them into housing units. Residents who live in a BHC unit pay fixed rent rates based on their household income.
After the pandemic put further pressure on its families’ finances, the BHC has also offered other programs, particularly for students, with other nonprofits sometimes joining in to help.
For example, the BHC, which has partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Burbank and Greater East Valley on after-school programs, extended its hours in August to provide an all-day enrichment program. The initiative allows children of families in BHC housing to receive help from club workers with distancing learning; the workers also run art, STEM and outdoor play activities.
The program, which is held at two of the BHC’s activity centers, hosts about 30 children. Families are charged, at most, $25 a week, with financial aid being provided to families who don’t have the money to pay the fee.
BHC also received a $25,000 grant from the Burbank HealthCare Foundation to help pay for the program’s expenses.
“We’re out there, we’re looking for grants,” Moreno said. “We’re trying to see … how to assist all of our families in so many different ways, not just in food.”
Avelar praised BHC’s variety of programs, saying she particularly likes that its staff can connect her with city-specific initiatives that she might need.
She has also returned to work and has received the unemployment benefits she requested. Though she could have kept receiving care packages, she declined, asking the nonprofit to divert the shipments to other BHC families that needed them more. But she emphasized that she and other residents are very appreciative of the help BHC has given them.
“I don’t think I’d want to live anywhere else,” she said.