MARTINEZ -- Last holiday season, Heather Aguilar was homeless, in her third trimester of pregnancy and still reeling from the death of her 10-day-old daughter from a chromosomal defect in August 2010. Having been certified to counsel the homeless, Aguilar knew where to get help. But she had trouble summoning the strength to ask for it.
"I went from an outgoing, outspoken, hardworking person into a lost soul," said Aguilar, 34, wiping tears from her eyes. "I did my schooling for my certification, so I had something substantial for my future. I had pictured myself going back to school. Then all that was gone. My world was ripped. I worked in the field and I knew where to go, but for some reason when it comes to yourself, it's not so easy."
It wasn't until mid-January, three weeks before her due date, that Aguilar contacted Shelter Inc. of Contra Costa County, one of 32 nonprofit agencies participating in the Share the Spirit fundraising program this holiday season.
"I was an absolute wreck," Aguilar said, remembering the day she made the call. "I wanted this child but didn't know if I was going to be able to afford it. I didn't have the support of the father. It's Christmastime. They were really welcoming over the phone. It made me feel like it was going to be OK."
Shelter Inc. case manager Terry Webb remembers trying to gain Aguilar's trust.
"She was in a great deal of crisis," Webb said. "She was extremely emotional. She had been sleeping in a shed outside. It took two or three calls asking her to come into the shelter. The first step was to get her in here and make sure she was safe."
One step led to another. Aguilar spent two months in Shelter Inc.'s Mountain View family shelter in Martinez, during which she received lodging, meals and support. In February she gave birth to a healthy baby boy she named Gage after a character in the movie "Pet Sematary." Today, Aguilar and her son share a Concord apartment, arranged for her by the nonprofit. They lack certain amenities, such as a car and Internet access. But Aguilar, who has two teenage sons living with a relative in Antioch, is happy, looking for work and excited about the future.
"They gave me hope here," she said, cradling Gage -- whom she calls "my gift" -- while sitting on a sofa in the Mountain View community room. "They gave me a chance at life. I wasn't sure I had anything. They made me realize I have a lot."
Shelter Inc., founded in 1986 to address homelessness in Contra Costa County, has served more than 180,000 clients. Supported largely by grants and donations, it has three family shelters and either owns or holds leases on 225 housing units.
The Mountain View facility has a large, bright community room with tables and chairs, a row of infant high chairs, a play area for children, a tutor room with computers, a large kitchen with an industrial-grade freezer and a well-stocked pantry. All items are donated.
Volunteer groups make Monday-through-Friday commitments to buy, prepare and serve hot dinners to residents. That schedule is booked through April, site coordinator Martie Steinmetz said. Smaller groups, such as Boy Scout troops, prepare weekend brunches. Thanksgiving decorations, including children's artwork, give the room a homey, festive feel.
"This isn't just for the holidays," Webb said. "It's all year round. Our donors don't give up on us."
The downstairs living quarters include seven rooms (two of them communal), a kitchen, common living area, laundry room and a large supply area with bedding, household and personal care items -- all donated.
A few days before Thanksgiving, the facility implemented its winter expansion program, which increases the number of beds it can offer clients.
It was during last winter's expansion that Aguilar arrived at Mountain View.
"Any hygiene I needed when I came in, they made sure I had it," Aguilar said. "I had towels, I had bedding. I had a clean place to shower. I had been showering at apartments where they had a shower in their pool area and it was left open (at night).
"They helped me get on aid. They got me with Social Security and they got me with CalWORKS. They arranged the apartment. I didn't have anybody to help me move, so Terry took me. We got there and she left, and I'm sitting there with my son. We didn't have much furniture and we didn't care. It was our home. It was our new beginning."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate. Readers with questions, and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.