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San Ysidro nonprofit Casa Familiar adds services, pivots during pandemic

For nearly 50 years, Casa Familiar has helped support the border community with affordable housing, immigration help, and more.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Just miles from downtown San Diego, the San Ysidro border crossing sees close to 90,000 cars come and go, between Mexico and the United States, during non-COVID times.

During the pandemic, the traffic lessened, but the needs of the community, and the people relying on the business did not.

"That window you see over there is my room," 86-year-old Luciano Lopez Maldonado excitedly explained as he toured News 8 around his home.

For the past five years, he's lived in an affordable housing unit, owned by nonprofit Casa Familiar.

"I always lived in the rooms," Lopez Maldonado said. "And it's very hard to live with another person. I was looking all the time for a place to really live peacefully."

For 48 years, the group has helped with housing, education, business development, and more in the border community. That menu got longer when COVID-19 attacked.

"There was a lot of new that we started doing ever since," President and CEO Lisa Cuestas said.

Throughout the pandemic, Casa Familiar has handed out food to more than 9,000 people. Promotoras working with the group reached more than 18,000 and helped hundreds make vaccine appointments. They also helped nearly 800 unaccompanied kids stuck at the convention center during the pandemic get back to their families.

"We went from 10 meals to 100 meals in a week for about nine months," Cuestas explained of the food distribution. "That was a little crazy! That’s a huge operation, but we did that."

Pandemic or not, Cuestas said the need in San Ysidro is there; from housing to jobs; to infrastructure and public transportation upgrades; partly because of the demands from the border crossing.

"The community doesn't see that— doesn't react as if that's a burden," she said. "I think the community appreciates the bicultural opportunity that presents, the economic opportunity that it can be."

Part of the reason for Casa's new development: the nonprofit finished construction on a new complex of housing and offices just before the pandemic. Amongst the buildings are an updated immigration center and an old church which is now a theater.

"Communities don't need just one thing," Cuestas said. "It's not just housing here."

Just ask Lopez Maldonado, who became a U.S citizen four months ago, with help from Casa's immigration department.

"They helped me to apply for citizenship of the United States," he said. "I filled the form and applied. It's a great help."

On top of the usual services Casa Familiar has for people in need, some of the ones born out of the pandemic will stay. For more information and to sign-up for services if you need them, click here.