There may come a day when 2-year-old Mauricio runs into a real-life problem that feels unfixable. In the meantime, though, nothing in the world is too tall a task for his toy hammer.
As he clack-clack-clacks on the wooden table in a side room at the Oakland office of Brighter Beginnings, the boy glances up at his mother, who has temporarily given up shushing him.
Blanca Panigua-Rodriguez, 27, has a lot more to think about in this moment: receiving a high-school GED, finding a steady job, overcoming her inner demons and making a case to regain custody of her other three sons.
These are the kinds of things for which hammers — toy or otherwise — are of little use.
But what does bring her relief is the help she receives from Brighter Beginnings, a Richmond nonprofit that assists mothers across the East Bay with a range of needs, from extra diapers to childcare assistance to an everyday helping hand.
“I’ve felt a lot of emotional distress,” said Panigua-Rodriguez, who lives with her son Maurico and husband Jose in West Oakland. “When I first talked to Brighter Beginnings, they told me, ‘If you need help, just let us know. We’re here for you; you don’t have to be lonely.”
Beyond the family support program in which Panigua-Rodriguez is enrolled, Brighter Beginnings connects clients to cash aid programs and offers an “early head start” program that sends social workers directly to families’ homes, among other services.
The nonprofit was founded as the East Bay Perinatal Council in 1984, intended to help pregnant teen mothers who otherwise are left to figure out their lives on the fly. It’s part of a larger effort to close disparities in birth outcomes that persist among Black infants and others of color.
In the past two decades, the organization’s focus has expanded to immigrant families that come to the U.S. looking to better their children’s future with an untold number of barriers standing in the way.
“There are, at times, 15 people living in a one-bedroom apartment,” said Jennifer Shallat, Brighter Beginnings CEO. “What we try to do, as they come here to work, is to try to support the family’s goals in whatever way we can.”
The organization hopes to raise $5,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which highlights organizations that strive to help vulnerable families trying to establish a better footing in life.
Funds will be used to support Brighter Beginnings’ “adopt a family” program and offer vouchers to hundreds of families for food, furniture, clothing, educational toys and many other unmet needs.
Panigua-Rodriguez has relied on the nonprofit’s services for years, initially receiving parenting classes that taught her to breastfeed and change diapers.
More recently, she has counted on a Brighter Beginnings social worker, Claudia Rivera, to help her organize a calendar and stay on top of the million tasks on her plate. The two get along great.
Childhood ended early for Panigua-Rodriguez: She was pregnant with her first son, Miguel, by sophomore year at Oakland High, an experience that compounded issues with her parents — who immigrated with her from Mexico — and led her to leave home
When Miguel was seized by Child Protective Services and placed with his paternal grandmother, the young mother spiraled. She would have two more children, Andres and Carlitos, with another man before she left her teens and promptly lost custody of them as well.
That period of time now feels like a blur, leaving Panigua-Rodriguez with no shortage of regrets, along with a tendency toward self-harm that she only recently kicked with the help of a therapist.
Now she’s married and in a better place.
“I stopped doing all that (self-harm) because of my kids,” she explained. “Every time (Mauricio) sees me feeling sad, I just hug him; I need him to feel happy even though I can’t.”
Brighter Beginnings helps countless mothers like Blanca who are still overcoming inner struggles they otherwise never had time to deal with. Other mothers, meanwhile, simply need some help raising their kids.
Santa Ramirez, 32, a client in the nonprofit’s early head start program, leans on the services to prepare her 2-year-old son Andres for a world she has never known.
“When I came here, I was 18 or 19,” Ramirez, a native of Guatemala, said in Spanish. “I had done some sewing and done some work for my dad, but not much more than that.”
Brighter Beginnings’ social workers are helping 2-year-old Andres learn the English alphabet, and supplying Santa and her husband, Antonio, who have another child on the way, with basic essentials such as diapers and children’s clothes.
“Many of the (undocumented) families are fearful of sending their children to a daycare center, so our home-based child development services are perfect for them,” Shallat said.
Ramirez can’t help but grin when discussing her children’s future; her hope is that Andres embraces an education in the U.S., unlike “a lot of other kids who don’t like school very much.”
When school does become an everyday activity, Andres already has a car seat ready to go — courtesy of Brighter Beginnings.
“These really are wraparound services for the children,” Shallat, the nonprofit’s CEO, said in an interview. “Wherever needs present themselves, we want to be there.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help Brighter Beginnings’ fund its “adopt a family” program and provide vouchers to 300 families for food, furniture, clothing, educational toys and many other unmet needs to 300 families in Oakland County and in West Contra Costa and East Contra Costa counties. Goal: $5,000
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.