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See more stories about non-profit volunteers here.


There are so many locals in Sonoma County that help make this a special place to live. The Press Democrat is highlighting some of these non-profit volunteers in our special Thanksgiving section this year.

To read about all of them go to www.pressdemocrat.com/specialsections/celebrations.

Inside Shuhaw Hall at Santa Rosa Junior College, there’s an English 100 class that’s doing things a little differently.

They’re in there, behind the door to room 1784, talking about things like food insecurity, hunger and poverty. They’re reading nonfiction essays and novels that discuss those topics. They’re talking about community action. They also are putting what they’re learning into practice through hands-on volunteering experiences.

But it’s not just the class that’s different; the students are different, too.

Angela Romagnoli, their instructor, has worked elsewhere before, at other colleges and universities where students didn’t care about what they were learning; where they weren’t invested in their future or their education; where kids just showed up to get a grade, and that’s it.

At SRJC, she said, the students are different. They’re hungry and eager to learn, and also excited about changing the directions of their lives and the lives of others.

“We start by reading about the power of education,” Romagnoli said. “We read Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass. We read about a lot of people who have used education to change their lives because that’s what the students at the community college are about.

“All of them are there on a mission to change their lives, so they really sink their teeth into these opportunities.”

Through the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Romagnoli brings about 10 classes a year to volunteer as part of her curriculum. Numbers from the food bank show that, in all, she has brought in 530 volunteers, who have donated a total of 1,060 volunteer hours.

“Those numbers are conservative, though,” said Helen Myers, the food bank’s volunteer services coordinator. “It’s pretty amazing because that means she’s helped almost 32,000 people in our community.”

Romagnoli said that the trips help her students learn to think critically.

As part of the semester, students also are assigned a project where they are given two options: Either write a research paper or spend eight hours volunteering and write a reflection.

Most students choose the volunteering option and, with that, many of them choose to go back to the food bank.

“I want (the students) to study the world around them and make some serious moves to change it in the way that they want to change it,” Romagnoli said.

Her idea seems to be working. Aydeli Ortega, 24, is one of Romagnoli’s students.

“It’s really cool that if people don’t have enough they can go (to the food bank),” Ortega said. “They don’t actually have to be homeless people. They can be people that live like right next door to us, but who don’t have enough food or money to buy their food. When I did my hours, there were elderly people, but there were also people my age. It was really interesting.”

Another student, Melissa Baer, is no stranger to food banks herself. The 32-year-old comes from a poor family, she said, as does her boyfriend, Jason Cullen, 35.

When Baer went to the food bank for class, she brought her daughter, Athena Cullen, 10, and Jason along.

See more stories about non-profit volunteers here.

“It’s really cool to go there and help other families when I, myself, have been in that situation,” she said. “We’re out there, hands on. We’re in there doing it; we’re not just reading about it.

“It really helps you gain more empathy because you’re in that situation where you’re seeing it; you’re not just hearing about it,” she said. “You’re actually there, involved.”

Of the 24 students in Romagnoli’s English class at Santa Rosa Junior College, 14 chose the food bank for their project.

“It makes you think critically about what’s going on,” said Guillermo Buenrosto, a 20-year-old student in Romagnoli’s class. “You never expect for it to be you, but other people are facing obstacles every day, and for them it’s like ... a meal is like winning the lottery.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.