Service Providers in East Palo Alto Consider Their Relationship With The Community
by: Zoe Edelman
Before Lesia Preston became the Executive Director of East Palo-Alto based Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP) in 2011 she served as one of the organization’s first volunteers. And then staffed the food pantry. And then served as food coordinator. In fact, during her more than 40 years with EHP, “I think I have done almost every part of the work EHP does,” Preston said.
Preston’s history with EHP - a nonprofit organization that provides 27,000 individuals with needs such as food, clothing, and more - began at age 13 in 1978, when her mother brought her as a volunteer. “I always had a passion for helping others,” Preston said. “My mother used to bring a lot of people in need to stay with us. So I think it was embedded in me from a very young age.”
Preston’s approach to service, shaped by her long-time knowledge of East Palo Alto, highly contrasts the perspectives provided by those who are new to the area. Newer service providers, who may be of different races, educational backgrounds and socioeconomic status than the majority of East Palo Alto residents, must grapple with balancing differing ideology and fresh ideas with their outsider status.
Among those newer to the area is Jenny Bloom. Born and raised in Texas, Bloom received a Masters in Education before moving to East Palo Alto in 2014. Since then, she has become an elected Ravenswood City (the school district which includes East Palo Alto) school board trustee.
“Technically I am one of the gentrifiers, since we are not from here. My husband is white. I'm Indian, and we bought at home in East Palo Alto,” Bloom explained. Despite her recent arrival to the city, Bloom aims to make a difference. “This is our home. This is where we plan to be. This is where we're planning our future. And so as we were thinking about that, how do we continue to really invest in deep relationships with the people in our community?” Bloom asked.
This investment in deep relationships translated on both the personal and organizational level for Bloom. When she and her husband first arrived in the city, “we made a point to make sure that we knew our neighbors. And my next door neighbor we call her grandma Finley, because... I was there with my kids almost every day.”
Bloom was also inspired to use her background in education to “invest my time and energy in community organizations,” including through her role on the school board. This role has felt particularly personal for Bloom, as the only parent of students enrolled in East Palo Alto schools currently serving on the board. “I'm making decisions [that] really do affect my kids... when I
talk about what curriculum we're deciding, I'm deciding what science curriculum my kid is going to be learning.”
The weight of her decisions on the school board also resonates deeply with her relationship to the broader East Palo Alto community. “We have to make a decision and then live amongst the community that we made the decision for... it's something that if you don't live there, and you don't think about what the community is saying, what they want, what they've been through, then it’s an [easier] decision to make.”
Community input is also top of mind for Preston, who uses both her experience within EHP to be “a better director, a better team player,” and her life in East Palo Alto to adapt to the needs of the community. “Communities evolve, people evolve, and you need to be able to ensure that as time goes on, you're still doing what's needed, not just what you assume is needed,” she said.
Preston aims for EHP to serve as a “one-stop shop,” for community members to fulfill their needs for food, furniture, clothing, rental assistance, and even life-skills workshops. But more importantly, Preston believes service is “not just handing out stuff... It's how you do it.”
Beyond merely providing support, service providers pay particular focus to how service is done, a reality which may not be universally agreed upon by all, especially between those originally from East Palo Alto compared to those who are not. Irene St. Roseman has confronted this challenge head on, through her roles both as Executive Director of Realizing Intellect through Self-Empowerment (RISE) from 1996-2004, and more recently, from 2016-2021, as co-founder and Head of School at charter school Oxford Day Academy.
St. Roseman’s mission was to be more than just another outside force “beta-testing” service in East Palo Alto, but to create change centered around what she described as “longevity and sustainability.” Her approach with Oxford Day Academy was two-pronged: urging students to engage in socially-conscious service and “pushing kids to perform academically and not holding them as victims of the circumstances.”
This focus on challenging curriculum led to “resistance from various community members,” who deemed her academic approach, which utilized the esteemed personal-learning Oxford Tutorial system, too tough. St. Roseman disagrees. “[Low standards] create this level of mediocrity around the expectations of what students of color can do,” she countered.
Her rigorous approach paid off. At Oxford Day Academy, students who entered the school three or four grade levels academically behind emerged on or nearly at grade level by graduation, according to St. Roseman. “The impact was great, but we were still coming into the community [from outside] to provide support, so it’s a double edged sword,” she explained.
“Some people would say that I can’t identify, because I’m not from the community,” St. Roseman said. This difference was occasionally reinforced by her ethnic background: hailing from St. Lucia, St. Roseman identifies as Black, but not African American like many of the community members she worked with in East Palo Alto.
Racial identity has particular resonance in relation to education services in Ravenswood City School District, where the vast majority of students are from minority backgrounds, according to demographic data. St. Roseman was troubled by a negative shift in racial attitudes she observed from her original stint in East Palo Alto with RISE to her experience with Oxford Day Academy more than a decade later. Whereas at RISE students were highly aware of Black culture and success, students at Oxford Day Academy had “not one single positive thing [to say] about a Black person,” a pessimism she attributed to a “loss of cultural custodians,” as the Black community has been pushed out of East Palo Alto.
This population exodus and demographic shift in East Palo Alto - where the Black student population declined from 58% to 15% between 1987 and 2006, while the Hispanic population more than doubled from 32% to 75%, according to the New York Times - has also resulted in a decline in school enrollment and a change in the scope of the assistance service organizations can provide. “Due to the cost of living, and the rise of charter and private schools, the number of students we serve has diminished significantly in the last 5 years,” wrote Jenna Wachtel Pronovost, Executive Director at Ravenswood Education Foundation.
Ravenswood Education Foundation works closely with the school district “to ensure that students in East Palo Alto have access to high quality learning opportunities that are on par with those in neighboring communities,” Pronovost explained. Though the foundation has grown significantly since 2007 to now provide nearly a quarter of the school district’s funding, loss of community members “impacts the amount of public funding the district has to work with to meet students' needs.”
Since entering her role three years ago, Pronovost has weathered the unpredictable shifts brought by the pandemic and found gratitude in the support and investment of community members. “I love being part of a community that shares values around equity and where members are willing to roll up their sleeves and even sacrifice some of their own privilege for the betterment of our greater community,” wrote Pronovost.
Despite differing methodology and backgrounds, those doing work in the community express a common thread about their work: the importance of local impact. “At the end of the day, the small things that I do on my street is going to be more impactful for my daily life and for my
neighbor's daily life,” said Bloom. “If we can think about how to be good neighbors, that really does impact the city as a whole.”
From Second Harvest SV:
LaKesha started volunteering at Ecumenical Hunger Program over 15 years ago when she was in high school. Years later, she is now the Associate Director at EHP and oversees the food distribution program in partnership with Second Harvest of Silicon Valley.
Together with Lesia, the Executive Director, they run an impressive operation. Besides food, they ensure families in East Palo Alto have access to food, clothing, furniture, appliances and more. LaKesha said, “In a given week, we serve about 600-650 families. Because of inflation, we see families coming more often because they are stretched to the limit. With the food bank, we get lots of the necessities covered, which helps a lot."
As a part of the food rescue program through the food bank, they also have a lot of store partnerships with retailers like Costco, Sprouts, Trader Joe's, Walmart and Lucky that enable them to feed more families. We're inspired by everything EHP - Ecumenical Hunger Program is doing for the East Palo Alto community!
EHP's Pi Garden Gets a Make Over
When EHP relocated to their current East Palo Alto site in 2003, a portion of the property was reserved for a community garden. EHP envisioned low-income neighbors using our plot to grow their own organic vegetables. Garden boxes were built on one side and the circular Pi Garden soon followed. Shaped like a pie with 8 planter boxes resembling slices, people could grow different crops in each slice of the pie. It was a unique look, but wasted space that could be used to grow more food.
In 2019, volunteer May Chevallier took on EHP's organic garden boxes and in no time, our little garden was growing fresh produce all year long. But there wasn't enough time or volunteers to utilize the Pi Garden efficiently.
Last year, EHP established a partnership with the Housing Industry Foundation. Best known for their Homeless Prevention Programs and Emergency Housing grants, HIF also offers renovation grants to nonprofits. HIF awarded EHP a grant to renovate the Pi Garden and brought in their longtime supporter, BellaVista Landscaping Services, who donated their time and materials. With additional donations from Lyngso Garden Materials and Pine Cone Lumber, the garden expansion project got the green light. During a whirlwind 3-day event in November, the BellaVista team, Scott Clawson, and HIF volunteers built and installed new planter boxes and a drip irrigation system. EHP expects the newly renovated section will easily double our production of fresh vegetables going forward. We would like to thank Housing Industry Foundation, Executive Director, Steve Sullivan, and their Corporate Champion volunteers, BellaVista Landscaping Services, Scott Clawson, Pine Cone Lumber, and Lyngso Garden Materials for giving new life to our Organic Garden.
Baking for a Cause
During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, ninth grader, Tyler Wong, wanted to help families in need. Tyler decided to use his mad baking skills to raise money for EHP by selling homemade key lime pies. In just one week, from August 9 -15, 2020, Tyler baked 14 pies, raising $160 for EHP. By mid-October 2020, Tyler had baked and sold 50 pies, raising $750 which was generously matched by The Market at Edgewood for a total of $1500!
Tyler continued baking pies on the weekends when he had time to raise funds for EHP. Along the way, Jesse Cool, owner of Flea Street restaurant in Menlo Park, heard about Tyler’s work. As a supporter of EHP and a fan of key lime pies, she placed an order. When Jesse picked up her pies, she asked Tyler if he wanted to hang in Flea Street’s kitchen. A baking aficionado since 6th grade, Tyler answered with a resounding “YES”! After meeting with General Manager/Chef Bryan Thuerk, the Flea Street Restaurant collaborated with Tyler to hold a fundraiser, Key Lime Pies for EHP, on January 23, 2022. In total, they sold 90 (ninety) pies. With additional donations from The Market at Edgewood and Flea Street Restaurant, the fundraiser raised over $3000.
Today Tyler is a junior in high school and continues to bake for charity. To date, Tyler has raised over $6,000 to help EHP families. When he has time, Tyler brings special homemade treats for our struggling neighbors. There’s nothing like a bit of kindness wrapped in a delicious dessert. Thank you, Tyler, for caring about our neighbors in need.
EHP was recently recognized by Assemblymember Marc Berman as the California District 24 Nonprofit of the Year, In a letter notifying EHP of our selection, his office stated, "Your work in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and the surrounding area has been critical this last year in helping people to keep food on their tables and to not go hungry during a long period of intense and ongoing need."
EHP will be represented by the President of our Board, Pastor Albert Macklin, at the Nonprofit's Honorees luncheon held at the State Capitol in June 2022.
EHP is extremely honored to receive this distinction and would like to thank Assemblymember Marc Berman and the California Association of Nonprofits.
On October 28, 2021, Lesia Preston, Executive Director of EHP was honored by the Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto as a 2021 Angel Award recipient. This Award is given to an individual in the Palo Alto area who has had a significant, positive impact on children and youth in our community and beyond. We at EHP are thrilled that Lesia has been recognized by the community for her many years of service dedicated to improving the lives of those most vulnerable. Following is the introduction given by Lanie Wheeler, EHP’s bookkeeper, at the 2021 Kiwanis Angel Award presentation.
EHP has been in the safety net business since 1975 when founder, Miriam Nixon Hope and a group from Church Women United channeled surplus and donated food to neighborhood pantries where it was distributed to families in need. In 1978, when the organization was formally incorporated as a nonprofit, Lesia Preston was 13 years old and one of its first volunteers. She helped in the food pantry and was hired as the food coordinator in 1982. As Lesia grew, so did the organization. From its humble beginnings in a church basement, EHP now operates on a 1-acre campus comprised of 5 buildings. From distributing food, its services have expanded to providing clothing, household goods, furnishings and appliances, counseling and a variety of programming and special services directed at the children of the families EHP serves.
Lesia was named Executive Director of EHP in 2011. During her tenure, she continued to grow the community collaborations that resulted in many of the children’s programs instituted prior to the pandemic: tutoring and mentoring, teen health, nutrition and cooking classes, birthday celebrations, Pack the Bag, a weekend lunch program for children during the school year and the Summer hot lunch program, to name a few.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Lesia quickly pivoted the programming of the entire agency to fit the new realities of the Covid-19 world. The emphasis of the agency shifted back to its origins as a food distribution center. The number of clients served doubled seemingly overnight, with lines of cars waiting to get into the parking lot, backing up to the intersection of Bay Road and University Avenue. But that didn’t stop Lesia from continuing to the extent possible the programs for her special children. Programs like Pack the Bang and Cake4Kids birthday cakes continued and others like Back to School and Christmas gift programs were modified to reflect the new challenges and new needs. Today, EHP provides services to over 27,000 individuals, of which over 6500 are children living in East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and neighboring communities.
EHP’s impact on youth extends beyond those children in need. Pre-pandemic, 450 youth volunteers, some as young as 6 years, provided direct service on EHP’s campus, allowing them to see the impact of their kindness and generosity. This does not count the children and teen service and school groups who held off-site food, gift card and clothing drives.
To this latter point, EHP received the following letter from a former volunteer:
I vividly remember my afternoon at EHP 25 years ago. Even as a rambunctious 5th grader, I was captivated by the staff and their earnest commitment to their work. Together, we sorted food and discussed the importance of supporting those in need. I was inspired by the immediate application and positive benefit of our work. Little did I know how impactful that moment would be.
As I navigated my own life, I never forgot the lessons from that day of volunteering. Since then, I have done service projects in many countries and formats often reflecting back to what it felt like as a young kiddo to roll his sleeves up and think of and work to provide for the needs of another.
As the Rabbi of Barrack Hebrew Academy outside Philadelphia, it is my job to coordinate service projects for our 350 students. Last month, during our school wide day of service, as I drove around to our 15 different service projects, I flashed back to my first opportunity to volunteer and was overwhelmed with gratitude.
Thank you for your work, both that which fills our bellies when we need and that which nourishes and inspires our soul.
Rabbi Will Keller
EHP’s mission is to provide compassionate, dignified, and practical assistance to families and individuals experiencing economic and personal hardship. We offer material help, support services and advocacy for our neighbors in need, in a challenging and rapidly changing environment.
Our Angel, Lesia, is the human embodiment of this mission with the vision and creativity to make the words into reality and a smile and a heart as big and radiant as the sun.
EHP's Lawn Area Gets a Makeover
As we all waited for the pandemic to end, EHP made plans to get our campus ready to bring back events such as Blockfest, Santa’s House and Make a Wish Birthday parties, all cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions. Part of this entailed deciding what to do with the lawn area. Planting a new lawn in the face of California’s ongoing drought and the regular maintenance it would require didn’t seem like a feasible plan. Yet, we couldn’t leave it as a bare plot of dirt if we wanted to hold children’s activities and parties outside. We wanted something that didn’t need regular watering or required a lot of manpower to maintain yet looked beautiful and pastoral. We had been thinking of installing artificial turf, but it was very cost prohibitive. Fortunately, we found Green Works ATS whose owner, Cristian, was willing to help us out. Within a few months, EHP was sporting a new look, one that everyone agrees looks fabulous!
EHP was blessed and honored to have volunteer guests this summer from Momentum Bike Clubs, a group mentoring initiative for middle and high school youth in under-served communities and schools in Greenville, SC (www.momentumclubs.org). The Club also gifted us with $800 to support EHP!
"Our time at Ecumenical Hunger Program was one of the highlights of our time in the Bay Area, said lead mentor David Taylor of Momentum Bike Clubs. "It is a privilege to volunteer at an agency that is doing such significant work in the community."
Momentum Bike Club rides weekly, exploring the world on two wheels. Since their founding in 2010, they have ridden over 60,000 miles and supported over 300 youth. High school youth are provided internship opportunities, youth development seminars, workforce training, college preparatory support and trips . . . which brought them to Palo Alto. EHP shares their belief that “all youth are endowed with gifts and talents, but not all youth have the same opportunities or support.” Thank for reaching out to us on your trip and helping us help our neighbors in need!
Annabel and Dan Hanigstein were so impressed by our mission that they donated all the money in their special savings ($192.31) to EHP! We are extremely grateful for this honor and that they believe so strongly in the work we do to help families in need. Our New Red Shoes program was successful because of donations from these children and our other thoughtful donors. Annabel and Dan, we’re so happy you are spreading the news to others at your school and synagogue and encouraging them to also make donations to EHP.
We often receive donations to EHP from children who enthusiastically want to help others in need and give back to their community. Children like this with such generous hearts are truly a blessing to this world! You're an inspiration to us all. Learning to give others is a priceless lesson to learn at any age.
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