She's inspiring, inspirational, speaks seven languages, is 83 years young, and she has the dearest, most contagious laugh. Carmen's story started halfway around the world. It's a story of envisioning a better life, working extraordinarily hard, moving her family to the United States, and giving of herself!
TOUGH IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT
"I was born in the Philippines, but my parents are originally from Canton (Guangzhou), China," Carmen recently reflected. She was the sixth of ten children. Education was important to her parents and became essential to her. "When we were very young, at the age of five," Carmen reflected, "my parents said, 'you have to go and learn English; it will help you.'"
That simple act of learning another language would open worlds of opportunities for Carmen.
At six, she already understood two languages, Chinese and Cantonese. Carmen learned English quickly. She had a knack for it. So, she kept going, learning Bhutanese, Mandarin, Tagalog and a little bit of Japanese.
She married Juanito in 1960; they had been college classmates in the Philippines. He studied Chemical Engineering, and she was in the Business Administration department. With two young children, she and Juanito moved to Guam, a US territory. She was a step closer to fulfilling her dream of moving to the United States. Those first few months were challenging. She took a job in a bakery, but the ovens were so hot that she fainted. Carmen was told to rest at home for two months.
The experience was formative. Carmen became even more determined to provide a better life for her family. "After two months, I decided I had to be strong enough. Otherwise, I cannot live in the United States," she said.
Almost defiantly—she came roaring back, taking a second job while continuing to maintain a household, cooking meals every day and sending her children off to school. For five years, she slept three and a half hours each night.
"I am tough," she said in a massive understatement.
In Guam, she worked in the tourism industry—of course, it helped that she spoke so many languages. As a result, she became very good at talking with customers. Anyone who has worked with customers will tell you that it can be challenging. But speaking with Carmen, she clearly handled the thorniest situations with her trademarked charm. She worked hard and passed her US Citizenship Exam. A devout Christian, she prayed and prayed and studied and studied. And passed her exam.
When she arrived in San Francisco, she got a job in Fisherman's Wharf, where she continued to serve customers with class and ease. Carmen and Juanito raised their children and became empty nesters. They finally had some free time for the first time in their lives! So they dove into a new hobby, ballroom dancing. They quickly turned their hobby into community service. They hosted senior dances at Pier 39. Carmen would cook noodles and desserts for 250 people, and her husband would spin the music. The proceeds benefited the local senior center.
A HELPING HAND
Nowadays, Carmen lives alone in her home in the Sunset. She and Juanito were married for about 57 years. Unfortunately, Juanito dealt with health issues and passed away five years ago.
She has macular degeneration and glaucoma simultaneously in both eyes, rendering her legally blind. Her condition made it difficult to get around and tough to cook.
"I just threw everything into a pot," she remembered.
Describing herself as shy, Carmen didn't want to ask for help. But she found her way to a senior center in West Portal. After a lifetime of hard work and serving others, she convinced herself to be strong enough to get help. A social worker at the Senior Center helped her get caregiving services and sign up for Meals on Wheels.
Her vision isn't what it used to be, so she now gets a little help with cleaning and caregiving. Her daughter helps out when she can, but she is currently in treatment for cancer, which makes helping out difficult.
Carmen began receiving Home Delivered Meals in March 2020 as the pandemic began. Having some help, she's been able to join her church's choir. She also loves listening to music.
Carmen is grateful for Meals on Wheels. "The food is so good," she says as she tends to one of the multiple orchids on a beautiful table just blow her living room window.
"I'm really very thankful for you. And I am very pleased with Meals on Wheels." She continued, "I cannot thank you enough. It's so touching. I've never met such kind people!"