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Bill Wilson Center featured in the Mercury News Wish Book

Bill Wilson Center featured in the Mercury News Wish Book

Wish Book: At home with Dad
By Patrick May
Posted: 11/28/2010 12:02:00 AM PST
Updated: 11/28/2010 07:49:06 AM PST

This is Johnny's world on the first, third and, if he's lucky, fifth weekend of every month: A small bedroom in a mustard-yellow house on a tree-lined street in Sunnyvale. Green shag carpets. A closet for the two or three shirts the 6-year-old keeps at his dad's place. His Jackson Pollock-like rendition of the Oakland Raiders logo tacked to the wall. And on the pillow of his pint-size bed, a copy of the Toys R Us catalog to consult before Christmas, just in case Santa forgets something.

This is his dad's world too, since March. That's when 23-year-old John Sarinaña, a San Jose native who at his son's age was already ricocheting around the foster-care system, finally came in from the cold after five years of being mostly homeless.

"One of the lowest points was when I was sleeping in a little fishing boat parked in front of my grandma's house," Sarinaña said. Sitting on his bed, which rests perpendicular to Johnny's in this transitional housing site for the recently homeless, he described being bounced around for years by relatives overwhelmed by tough times of their own.

"That feeling of being somewhere where you're not wanted is the hardest, ugliest feeling in the world," he said. "It's like no one has any use for you."

Six years ago, when he was 17 years old, someone finally did: Johnny.

"In a way, my son saved my life," said Sarinaña, who's now working as a peer mentor for the homeless at the Santa Clara-based Bill Wilson Center. The nonprofit organization also placed Sarinaña in the Sunnyvale home. The first single father to ever enter the transitional housing program, Sarinaña shares the house with three single mothers and their four children. "It's like my whole purpose in life now is to be his father," he says of Johnny, who stays at the house with him about 10 days a month.

After crashing in friends' garages off and on for five years, getting into and out of trouble, Sarinaña tapped into the Bill Wilson Center's drop-in program for homeless youth in early 2009, found a summer internship with the center's help, and eventually got hired to help other people like him escape the streets. Sharing custody of Johnny with the boy's mother, Sarinaña moved into the small room in the mustard-colored house, where he and his little boy are guiding each other, hopefully, into a brighter future.

"Moving through the foster-care system, I had this feeling of abandonment over and over again, wondering if these people really loved you like they said they did, then why would they want to get rid of you?" Sarinaña said. "So it's really important now for my son to know that I'm here for him and I'm not going anywhere."

With Sarinaña on a still-uncertain path to becoming a reliable parent, the center's transitional housing program for 16- to 24-year-olds has been a godsend, a fire exit from a dangerous place that many young men can't easily escape. His case manager at the Bill Wilson Center, Laura Foster, says the center is fortunate to have him, too. "John's great with people, and he's a positive role model for youth who have never really had a father figure in their lives."

But the center, which runs several services for homeless youth, needs help as well. Young parents not yet financially self-sufficient could use everything from diapers to car seats, and some of the furniture and appliances at the center's shelter and housing facilities are on their last legs. Donations from Wish Book readers would ease the strain and allow staff members to focus on helping the many young people who show up out front every day.

On a recent day, Johnny followed his dad like a shadow around the drop-in center, which is housed in two Victorian homes under Interstate 280 in downtown San Jose. A gentle and inquisitive kid with the same stocky build as his dad, the boy watched his father make his afternoon rounds, amazed that one man had the power -- and the keys -- to unlock so many different doors. A group of homeless youths loitering nearby stared at them, and father and son glanced back like they were looking at ghosts.

Right then at least, neither had to worry. Because waiting over in Sunnyvale was a warm room, clean shirts in the closet, and a toy catalog ready to give a little boy a little comfort if Santa doesn't come through. After all, he's still figuring out what and whom he can rely on in life.

"I saw Santa once," said Johnny. "But he didn't look like Santa. Santa's bigger."

The needs of the Bill Wilson Center and the youth it serves range from major appliances -- like stoves
for the transitional housing program -- to small but crucial items like twin-bed sheets for the residents. Donations in increments of $10 will buy hygiene items such as shampoo, toothbrushes and baby products; $30 will buy bedding; $100 donations will help buy three regular stoves for the transitional housing program and a commercial grade stove for the drop-in center; $200 will buy an air-conditioning unit for one of the housing units.

Comments about Wish Book stories? E-mail or call coordinator Sue McAllister at 408-920-5833.