BRENTWOOD -- Step into the home of Maria de los Angeles Guzman, and it becomes clear why she doesn't spend much time making long-term plans.

Poverty has a way of anchoring a person's thoughts to the here and now, which for the 52-year-old Brentwood woman consists of struggling to make ends meet while caring for her disabled son.

Guzman's belongings are neatly shelved, hung and mounted around her studio apartment, a curtain separating the bathroom from rest of the living quarters.

Two beds dominate the space -- one for her, the other for 26-year-old Miguel Angel, whose bout with meningitis as an infant left him unable to speak and in a wheelchair entirely dependent on others to feed, dress and bathe him.

Next to the front door is a 5-gallon plastic water jug that's one-third full of coins and a few bills, which represent both Guzman's emergency fund and life savings.

She has done what she can to acknowledge the advent of Christmas: A poinsettia sits atop a red-and-green-checked tablecloth, and outside the front door she has assembled a nativity scene decorated with artificial flowers and a clutter of trinkets.

But the celebratory meals and gift giving that many take for granted during the holidays are out of reach on Guzman's budget.

One Brentwood nonprofit is providing a turkey and the fixings; another, Village Community Resource Center, will give her a blanket and a $15 gift certificate.

"I'll buy warm clothing for my son and supplies to cook food," the soft-spoken Guzman said through an interpreter, adding that she uses a small space heater she bought at a yard sale to save on her utilities bill.

The center began in 1997 as a place where youths in the Village Drive neighborhood could congregate safely, established by a homeowners' association after a 15-year-old who had grown up there was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Two years later, Brentwood's parks and recreation department began organizing outings for Village Drive youths, and in 2004 the city awarded the center a seven-year grant.

Grant funding also comes from this newspaper's Share the Spirit campaign, which for the past five years has enabled the center to distribute blankets and clothing store gift cards to needy families.

Last year, Village Community Resource Center bought 184 blankets and 120 gift cards for more than 200 households with Share the Spirit donations, according to Executive Director Kirsten Rigsby.

But the organization does much more than help families stay warm.

Sixty youngsters in kindergarten through eighth grade stop by the center three days a week for an hour of homework help and tutoring.

During school breaks, these same students can sign up for enrichment classes in science. And in the summer, youngsters take swim lessons and junior lifeguard training at Antioch's Contra Loma Regional Park for a nominal fee.

Village Community Resource Center also holds weekly diabetes education classes in Spanish, and John Muir Mobile Health Clinic sends a van every Saturday for those who need free preventive care.

In addition, the center hosts a support group for Spanish-speaking parents, works with a food bank to distribute bags of free groceries to nearly 90 families each week, offers translation services and helps clients apply for public assistance.

These days, the organization's reach extends far beyond the street whose name it bears to clients from Antioch to Discovery Bay.

"There is a very large need," Rigsby said, adding that whereas four years ago the center's clients were nearly all Latino, the numbers of whites asking for free groceries and East Indian children attending its after-school activities have increased.

Donations haven't kept up with the demand for services, Rigsby said, the most important of which are those that help youngsters of non-English-speaking parents succeed in school.

"The families realize that education is the future for their kids," she said.

Modest though they are, the gifts that Village Community Resource Center provides Guzman otherwise might be out of reach for this grandmother of three.

She doesn't speak English, can't read or write and, separated from her husband, is the sole breadwinner.

This time of year, Guzman cleans houses four to five hours a day, earning about $225 per week. During the summer, she works in a Brentwood packing shed sorting prunes, pears and peaches for about $600 per month.

The math isn't in her favor: Guzman's rent is $700, and she shares the cost of busing her son to an adult day care center five days a week, which means when she comes up short she must turn to her daughter for help, ask friends for a loan or unload garage sale items she has bought.

Without help from Medi-Cal or food stamps, there's "basically nothing" left over, said translator Juan Francisco Prieto, a case manager with one of the social services groups that, along with Village Community Resource Center, helps her with donations of food and clothing.

Despite the stress of her trying circumstances, Guzman said Miguel keeps her going.

"I do it for my son even though I get tired," she said. "I have to attend to my son."

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

SHARE THE SPIRIT
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by this newspaper, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Readers who wish to help can clip the coupon accompanying this story and send it to the address printed on it. The Volunteer Center of the East Bay administers the fund. Readers with questions and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of Contra Costa at 925-472-5760.
To make a donation to Brentwood's Village Community Resource Center, call 925-626-7892 or go to www.vcrcbrentwoodca.org.