By Dawn Van Osdell
When knock-it-out-of-the-park restaurant Nopa opened in the Western Addition in 2006, it helped to turn the area north of Golden Gate Park’s panhandle into one of San Francisco’s hippest ‘hoods: NoPA. Some people flock there to bask in that hipness. But hipness is irrelevant to Doniece Sandoval and Sadik Huseny, who moved in just before the restaurant did. To them, NoPA feels like a big family— a quality that’s not easy to find in today’s transient world.
“I know more people in this neighborhood than I have known since I was a little girl,” says Sandoval. She hasn’t called anywhere home since she left the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas, where she was born and lived until she headed off to the University of Texas at Austin at age 19. She traveled extensively before settling in San Francisco in 1996; soon after, she met Huseny at a going-away party for the guy she’d been dating. “It was good timing!” says Huseny. He grew up in the city's Sunset district and has called San Francisco home all his life.
“NoPA is the perfect mix of the old and new San Francisco,” says Huseny, who is a partner and litigator with Latham & Watkins LLP and chair of the firm’s pro bono committee, which helps San Franciscans who are most in need. Sandoval agrees. “What is so unique about our neighborhood is that we know many of our neighbors by name," she says. "That's such a non-San Francisco experience, to walk down a street, make eye contact, and actually share a greeting. We treasure that.” The couple had lived in NoPA for just a few weeks when they adopted Tamasen, now eight years old and a first-grader at Alta Vista School, through the local adoption agency, Adopt a Special Kid, in Oakland. Sandoval found herself at home taking care of her new infant daughter; she says it gave her the opportunity to see, not just what the neighborhood could do for her family, but what her family could do for the neighborhood.
The Huseny-Sandovals, or Husovals as they playfully call themselves, live in a flat in an old Edwardian-style building—not as precious as the pastel Victorian Painted Ladies but just as distinct, classic and memorably San Francisco. Stepping inside reveals a surprise: a contemporary space flooded with natural light thanks to the building’s corner location, which provides 22 windows to the unit. Across the street, in stark contrast, is a once-abandoned building that now serves as public housing for homeless seniors. “More middle-class families have moved in and a lot of older renters have been forced to move out,” Sandoval says. “It was devastating and heart breaking to see some of my neighbors being forced to live on the streets. “
Last year, Sandoval started her company, Lava Mae, to fulfill a basic community need: hygiene, and even more critically, dignity. Lava Mae, which loosely translates into “wash me” in Spanish, transforms out-of-service public buses into mobile showers for the more than 7,300 men, women, and children who are currently homeless in San Francisco, many of whom live on the streets or in their cars. Lava Mae makes stops throughout the city; to date, it's provided 1,500 showers to more than 750 people.
Sandoval says it’s often hard for children, including Tamasen, to understand issues like homelessness without seeing the world as a terrible place. But she thinks even the most sensitive kids can make a difference. Tamasen, for instance, leaves heartwarming notes inside the hygiene kits she helps her mom assemble for Lava Mae’s visitors, so they can stay clean between visits. They often read: “I am sending love,” and “Don’t give up.” She leaves notes for her mom, too: “Mommy is a Super Hero,” announces the one plastered to Sandoval’s computer.
When the Sandoval-Huseny family isn’t hard at work helping others, they take advantage of their easy accessibility to all San Francisco has to offer. They are regulars at several NoPA eateries, including Nopalito, the Mexican kitchen outpost of Nopa, where mom and daughter share dinner after Tamasen’s weekly ballet lesson at ODC dance company. And everyone knows them by name at Matching Half Café, where Huseny stops daily for a smooth latte while taking their pup, Nina Simone, on her morning walk or to nearby Alamo Square Park, where Nina loves to play as much as Tamasen does. When they stray farther from home, they to bike to Ocean Beach, grabbing a bite at the Park Chalet. Sometimes they do a little shopping in Hayes Valley—Sandoval says she’s a sucker for jewelry and shoes; or they eat out in the Mission, likely at Tacolicious or Heirloom Cafe. “I used to be really into trendy spots,” laughs Sandoval. “Now I just want amazing food, where the service is lovely and it’s a beautiful meal every time.” Wednesdays, she and Huseny sneak away for date night, often to attend a forum at the Common Wealth Club.
Recently, they extended their community even further when they bought a weekend bungalow nestled in a patch of Sequoia trees in Oakland’s Montclair Hills. Sandoval happily packs up the car and Tamasen after school on Fridays, meeting up with Huseny for a drive across the Bay Bridge. Huseny, whom Sandoval calls a “MacGyver/DIY/fix-it kind of guy,” likes to grow tomatoes and persimmons in the garden, and mow the lawn. It’s reminiscent of his mother’s family farm in Albania, she says.
Returning to the city on Sunday nights, the Huseny-Sandoval family savors the last drops of the weekend, reading, painting, or playing Scrabble together before lights out; and lingering in bed together on Monday morning before Tamasen and her dad call her uncle, an Uber driver, to arrange for a ride to the bus stop. After school, there’s homework, a few minutes to play with puppets or to draw, and time to give mom a hand with the Lava Mae hygiene kits.
Several days a week, Sandoval walks the neighborhoods that Lava Mae serves, saying hello to regulars and relishing in the reports of progress she hears from those she has helped. “I want to show my daughter that life has more meaning when you make a difference in the world,” she says.
For info on how your family can help make a difference by assembling hygiene kits for Lava Mae, email email@example.com.
Photography by Bonnie Rae Mills