My sister’s keeper
Cafe nourishes downtown workers, but also the women of fellow nonprofit My Sister’s House
During a Wednesday afternoon lunch rush, just about every seat in this small cafe is filled with downtown workers. Large, steamy bowls of the day’s ramen special, with its generous garnish of leafy greens, warms most diners while others nosh on colorful wraps and stacked sandwiches.
This popular lunch spot is more than a just convenient place to get a quick bite. My Sister's Cafe is also a place that nourishes its employees and its volunteers—and it fuels My Sister's House, a nonprofit that provides shelter and services for women impacted by domestic violence.
Sitting at a table overlooking Downtown Commons, Nilda Valmores twirls a fork full of noodles while using her spoon to shape each broth-soaked bite.
“Eating good food is always my favorite part,” says Valmores, executive director of My Sister's House, “but seeing the women grow and change—I mean, how could anyone not like that part?”
Valmores has worked at My Sister's House for 14 years helping women get the resources they need to live healthier, happier lives. The women are mainly of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, though the nonprofit opens its doors to women of all cultures who seek refuge at its six-bed shelters located in three houses.
“The comforting thing about that is it's an ordinary home. It's an ordinary house,” she said. “That's really important, especially culturally.”
My Sister's House makes all this possible with a staff of 20 who provide job readiness skills to as many as 500 clients a year. The organization's crisis line handles about 3,000 calls annually. And about a quarter of the staff also work the cafe, making American food with an Asian twist.
While the nonprofit holds five different fundraisers a year, each with a different audience, many people learn about its mission through the cafe.
“This cafe, this social enterprise, has been really helpful,” Valmores said.
One of the most popular items on the menu is its bánh mì, with herb-infused pulled pork, pickled daikon radish and shredded carrots, fresh cilantro, thinly sliced jalapeños and cucumbers, with a kick of soy sauce. The bánh mì can also be ordered with lightly fried tofu or rotisserie chicken.
“Our first manager said the secret of the bánh mì is having great bread,” Valmores said. The baguette ties the sandwich together; it's sturdy enough to hold all the delicious ingredients, but also gives a satisfying crunch down to the last bite.
The cafe generates nearly $180,000 a year for My Sister's House, helping fund programs such as Women to Work, which last year provided $100,000 in wage support for domestic violence survivors—like Agnus.
A former refugee, she urgently needed help in Los Angeles, but was having difficulty overcoming a language barrier. A nonprofit there put in a call to Valmores, and Agnus, along with her then 3-year-old daughter, were accepted at My Sister's House.
“Even though she didn't know anything about me, she still opened the door and was willing to take the risk to help me … I'm grateful to have this organization,” said Agnus, who asked that her last name not be used.
Her eyes swelled with tears before she sat up straight and smiled at Valmores.
“She knew that I hardly spoke English, so I had to figure out a way to communicate with the staff in order to express my needs.”
When she was ready to find work, My Sister's House paid the fees so Agnus could obtain her food handler's certification. Valmores also helped her make the connections so she could buy her first vehicle and guided her through her citizenship paperwork.
Today, Agnus holds a steady job, her daughter is thriving in school and she's studying for her California food manager's certification.
She said Valmores—or as she calls her, Ms. Nilda—is very much like a mother.
“If I didn't know My Sister's House, I wouldn't know that I could get help for me and my daughter. It's why I survived and made it through everything,” Agnus said. “All the skills they taught me when I first started, now I'm able to apply it and help other women. I teach them how to do the same thing and sometimes they melt down and say it's hard, but I speak from experience, ‘Don't give up.'”