A neighborhood is made up of its many residents—the pieces of a puzzle that need to come together to complete a picture. While many make a name for themselves, it is often the people in the background that can truly help lift up a community.
Take someone born in the Mission to a spirited immigrant from El Salvador, the latter a single mother working hard to make a better life for her four children after years before boarding a bus for California by herself. Little did Eva Llanes know that her oldest daughter would wind up making better lives for so many others in their adopted Mission District home.
Finally being recognized after decades of paying it forward, Rosabella Safont is being honored with an “Unsung Hero” award by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) on November 5th at the City Club.
Safont tells of her upbringing, “My mother was a welder during World War II, then worked as a cook, waitress and even a butcher. The five of us lived in a one-bedroom tenement on Woodward Street. Interestingly, this unit sold for over $600,000 five years ago. This shows how the Mission has changed from the mostly Latino refuge of my childhood.”
Inculcated with a strong education and work ethic, Safont studied at San Francisco State University and then dove into the world of banking.
Always the professional, Safont worked her way up the ladder to branch manager after seven years, but never forgot those on the lower rungs. Safont always saw her role in the community as one to help low-income Latinos also succeed, the same way she had done. Taking new bank tellers under her wing, Safont brought out the best in her staff and pointed them on the road to career success, as many were groomed during summer jobs for Latinas from the community—jobs Safont pushed for within the bank.
“I had to teach these young women how to comport themselves. How to do their hair. How to deal with customers and the other tellers,” explains Safont of the need.
While focused on her career and civic activities, Safont still managed to find the time to join the board at MEDA, recognizing that her values clicked with those of the nonprofit. She later served a five-year term as board president, guiding the organization through its years as a loan-packaging agency that focused on building and growing Latino-owned family businesses in the Mission.
On a citywide level, Safont also served on the Civil Service Commission for the City of San Francisco, via appointment by Mayor Willie Brown in 1995. Currently, Safont serves on the San Francisco Elections Commission.
For the past decade, Safont has worked in a number of capacities at MEDA, always willing to help as needed and showing up each day with a smile on her face and a drive to help more clients. With two-thirds of these clients being immigrants, Safont showcases a profound empathy, never forgetting her mother’s story.
When Plaza Adelante, MEDA’s Mission neighborhood center, was christened five years ago, the building was dedicated to Eva Llanes, as a tribute to her inspiring story and to the community-oriented daughter she raised.
MEDA Executive Director Luis Granados sums up Safont’s contributions to MEDA and the larger Mission community as follows: “I often get credit for MEDA’s successes and am recognized for my leadership in the Latino community. The truth is that Rosabella has remained at my side and has been there to hold up the organization through crucial times. Rosabella has neither sought the spotlight nor been recognized for her work, as she serves in a humble and committed way that is truly only about meeting the needs of MEDA’s clients and constituents, and the neighborhood, without concern of recognition.”
For one night at least, that lack of recognition will be addressed, thanks to NCLR’s “Unsung Hero” award.
The award’s criteria for nominees are as follows:
“A special partner/individual who has gone with little or no recognition of their work/contribution to advancement of their community through an act of courage, tenure of advocacy, volunteering, community commitment, etc.”
The Mission is lucky to call Safont its own, for she defines the above.