LaKesha Roberts was recently tagged by Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as a Change-Maker for her work and impact on our community. Following is an excerpt of the full article which can be found here.
LaKesha Roberts: Assisting Neighbors in Need with Compassion
LaKesha Roberts is the associate director of the Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP). She began working at the organization as a volunteer and is passionate about serving her community and dedicated employees. For Roberts, working at EHP is more than a job. Its mission is to provide compassionate, dignified and practical assistance to families and individuals experiencing economic and personal hardship. The East Palo Alto, California, organization offers several programs, including emergency food assistance, resources for children, and advocacy. Ecumenical Hunger Program is one of CZI’s Community Fund partners.
How It Started
My interest in helping others started with my grandmother, Nevida Butler, former director of the Ecumenical Hunger Program and current outreach staff member. This was her life. Everything about her was EHP. Growing up, I was able to see the work she did and the impact it had. When I used to go to the grocery store with her, everybody wanted to stop and thank her for all that she’s done. It always warmed my heart. I could say it’s hereditary, as my mother and current EHP executive director, Lesia Preston, shared the same compassion and service for the community that was passed down to me.
I’ve volunteered in the program since my high school days at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, California. To be able to give my time and impact somebody’s life is something that has always moved me. Even in school, I was always willing to help or take time for others.
LaKesha Roberts’ passion for serving her community is multi-generational, as both her mother and grandmother are dedicated to the same mission.
I remember being at EHP during the holidays one year, and news reporters were interviewing a family about our Christmas program and its impact. A dad and his son were answering questions, and the little boy said he only wanted an iPod for Christmas. I overheard the interview while listening to an iPod and packing gifts and felt terrible. Here’s a kid who really wanted one, and because of the family’s situation, he would never be able to afford it. So I thought, “Can I give him mine?” We ended up having iPods as Christmas gifts, so we gave him one.
I wasn’t planning on coming back to EHP to work. When I went to school, I studied math and education and was set on being a teacher. But after four years of my education minor and going out to schools, I realized I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. It wasn’t because it wasn’t great; I simply didn’t see myself in a classroom. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience the culture of EHP, you would understand that it’s a feeling like no other.
When I finished at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, I moved to Texas to live with my grandmother after she retired. I worked in an emergency shelter. She became sick and returned to California, so I followed. That same weekend I returned to California, it was EHP’s community block party event. The receptionist had found a new job, and I offered to fill in since I was between jobs. From there, I ended up staying. I worked in several positions — part-time in the food closet, donation pickups, full-time program manager, etc. — before I arrived in my current position as associate director, which the EHP board created for me.
How It’s Going
I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with the Ecumenical Hunger Program for over a decade and counting.
I don’t know when we can say we’re out of the pandemic, but surviving that is probably my most significant accomplishment at EHP. Before COVID-19, we were serving 100-120 families a day. When COVID hit, we were serving 300 families. And on our highest day, we served more than 400. It got really busy here. We shut down all of our services in the warehouse and only focused on food because that’s what our families needed at the time. We had lines wrapped around the block day in and day out — in the heat. We moved everything outside to serve community members safely in the parking lot, which is how we created the drive-thru service.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberts and the EHP team adapted by distributing groceries via a drive-thru and shortening the staff’s work week without loss of pay. | Photo courtesy of Roberts
We also changed our scheduling from a five-day operation to three days a week so we could go strong and then give the staff a break. EHP still paid for the full five days because we value their work and dedication. The team here worked incredibly hard. Getting through COVID and having the staff still be here, in addition to keeping up with and managing to serve all the families that we did, is a huge accomplishment. I’m very proud of that.
Our organization works hard to be open and serve everyone. We don’t turn away anyone — and we never want to. We want everyone to feel comfortable to receive services here. Even if from out of our area, we serve anyone who comes and help them connect to other resources that will be more beneficial to them. We work closely with our families and try to engage with them as much as possible to determine their needs and ensure we meet them. EHP also partners with other agencies in our community to ensure that we are not duplicating their efforts, but to find out how we can all be a part of the solution for the families we’re serving.
Looking to the Future
The pandemic showed us that no matter what is thrown at us or the obstacles we face, we will figure out a way to keep pushing forward.
Right now, we’re going through some serious changes, and EHP is working on providing solutions to supply our clients with the food servings and provisions they need.
Roberts says that EHP doesn’t turn anyone away, even if outside of the organization’s service area. Instead, they connect clients with the resources they need. | Photo courtesy of Roberts
Since the pandemic, we have been surviving off the partnerships of the food bank and other neighboring partners for our food supply. However, due to the toll of the pandemic’s aftermath, we’ve not been able to provide our family with the necessities they’re now accustomed to. We’ve been purchasing food every month — thousands and thousands of dollars of food that we never had to buy before. So, that makes it all scary. Still, I have hope. We genuinely value our donors who have come to the forefront and did everything they could to ensure we were supported during that time.
2019 was the last year EHP held its annual Blockfest event on campus, inviting the entire community to join us for a free barbeque, games, live music and entertainment, dancing and information booths manned by local nonprofits, agencies, school districts, and businesses.
After cancelling 2020 Blockfest due to the pandemic, EHP revived our event in 2021, converting it to a drive-thru event. We still featured free barbeque meals, music, gifts for the entire family and informational flyers from various nonprofits and agencies. This year Blockfest kept the drive-thru format, but we wanted to make it bigger and better. We prepared weeks in advance, seeking and receiving donations from our local businesses for our raffle and giveaways, purchasing food for our barbeque, and gathering informational flyers from our partners.
We were blessed to have the Peninsula Veterans Lions Club, led by Kevin Guess and the Bay Area Global Outreach Lions Club led by Uni Buckley as volunteers for the day. They grilled hundreds of hamburgers and hotdogs and put together hot lunch bags filled with chips, cookies, drinks, and a hamburger or hotdog to go. Other volunteers included Darryl, Miss Opal and Miss Ruth and board members Gloria Wallace and Maria Mata who came a day early to sort goodies and prepare gift bags, and Jenny Bloom, Sandra Sterling, Louanne Rotticci and Amy Sorensen, who came for the event, setting up tables, greeting the families and distributing the goodies. We want to thank all of our volunteers who took time off from their busy schedules to help us out. We could not have done it without you!
We would also like to thank our local McDonald's, Starbucks, Togo's/Baskin-Robbin Ice Cream, Walker's Wild Cotton Candy and Kettle Corn, and the Drew Health Foundation for their donations. We appreciate your support!
On April 28 - 29, 2023, Rebuilding Together Peninsula and Sobrato joined forces to give EHP a much needed facelift. With a grant from RTP, our warehouse floors were restored and the Activity Building received a fresh coat of exterior paint plus deck repairs. Team captain, Peter Tsai from the Sobrato Organization, was able to secure a company to remove the old epoxy flooring and restore the underlying concrete while RTP gathered all the necessary supplies to paint and restore the Activity Room and surrounding deck.
Dozens of volunteers from Sobrato and RTP gathered early on the morning of April 28, to move all freestanding items from the warehouse into our parking lot, storage unit and food pantry. Once that was done, the volunteers led by Greg Bernard of RTP moved on to work on the Activity Building while the flooring contractors began work on the warehouse floors. Tarps were laid while an RTP carpenter replaced broken or deteriorated balusters and deck railings. Soon painting was underway and from the finished product, you would never guess that some of the volunteers had no painting experience whatsoever.
It was a long day and we were thankful for the morning pastries, breakfast sandwiches and beverages and a food truck for lunch provided by Sobrato. By 6 pm, the Activity Building was newly painted with leftover supplies and equipment neatly tucked away and the warehouse floors ready to be polished. The next day was quieter, with the floor company returning to finish the floors and Peter and a few friends to oversee the remaining work. It was amazing how they were able to turn this project around in two days!
EHP is extremely grateful to Rebuilding Together Peninsula and the Sobrato Organization for renovating our warehouse floors and painting the Activity Building. Thank you for helping to sustain and enhance our facility and creating a safer campus for our staff, volunteers, clients and visitors.
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!
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.
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.
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