As it celebrates its 15-year anniversary, the Day Worker Center of Mountain View is wrapping up its first year in a new building at the north end of Escuela Avenue, a permanent home bought and renovated by the center after rotating through local churches. Along with the new furniture and paint on the walls there is a new energy in the building.
As they wait their turn to take a job from a contactor or homeowner, perhaps gardening or even a fairly complex home repair, day laborers are teaching each other skills or learning from volunteers. Some are learning to blog in a new class that has workers posting stories online, others are using donated sewing machines and learning how to sew from a day worker with experience as a tailor. In some cases, the workers are teaching the volunteers. It's not uncommon for volunteers to learn Spanish, but in one unusual case, a worker is teaching a volunteer how to play the saxophone.
"Self esteem and confidence are really important," said center director Maria Marroquin. "Lack of jobs and lack of family makes a lot of depression and stress. If they are involved in new activities that require more attention to the present, it gives them more support and helps them achieve their goals."
And it couldn't come at a better time. The average worker at the center is finding work one day a week, and for only three to four hours, Marroquin said. Last Friday, only 24 of 77 workers who came to the center got work. An employer who might have had their houses cleaned once or twice a month before the recession is now coming once a month, Marroquin said.
Day laborers on average are earning about $40 a week at the Center, not counting the workers who are more popular with employers. Marroquin says some workers are homeless, living out of their cars or sharing in crowded apartments.
As a result, the center's role has become even more important for the survival of many workers. And not just for the free lunch and the free medical care provided by a mobile clinic that regularly visits, but also for a sense of community, Marroquin said.
Volunteers find meaning
It turns out that many of the volunteers are also unemployed or underemployed. According to Marroquin, the center has become a popular place to volunteer, with 100 volunteers available. Around 10 come in on any given day, teaching the workers English or helping out in the office, among other things. The center isn't necessarily a route to a job for these folks, as many are college educated and would likely work in an office if they could.
On Friday, a young college graduate named Chris had stopped by to see about volunteering. Like some of the other volunteers, Chris is a recent college graduate unable to find full time work. When asked why he wanted to volunteer he said he wanted to brush up on his Spanish by immersing himself in a Spanish-speaking community, but he also talked about something that was a little more intangible.
"The kids I grew up with all had way more than they needed," Chris said of growing up in Palo Alto, where he recently returned to live with his parents. "It baffles me that they don't think they should help other people."
Center reaches out to the neighborhood
Marroquin sees more and more support from a neighborhood that once aggressively opposed the center's relocation into the vacant cinder block building at 113 Escuela Ave. She fondly recalls one neighbor, who was a real opponent, welcome the center to the neighborhood during its grand opening. It probably doesn't hurt that the center has been organizing walks around the neighborhood every month to pick up trash.
The availability of tailoring services has also created a buzz in the neighborhood and Marroquin beamed when talking about an older woman who was very happy to know that tailoring is now available in her neighborhood. Marroquin hopes that next Halloween workers can make costumes for kids who couldn't otherwise afford them.
Neighbors have been learning about the Day Worker Center in quarterly meetings required by the city's conditional use permit, and while the last meeting the city requires will be on Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Center, Marroquin said she expects to continue the practice.
For more information about the center, visit dayworkercentermv.org.