North Bay Spirit Award: Maria Carillo student Elise Curtis delivers healthy food to the sick with a smile

For her efforts to help her community, Elise Curtis is August’s North Bay Spirit Award winner.|

Every Friday after school, Elise Curtis jumps into a car, her mom, Tambra, at the wheel, and hightails it to Ceres Community Project not far from her home near Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake. There is barely enough time to get from Maria Carrillo High School to Ceres and load her precious cargo of food fresh from the kitchen. But Elise rarely misses a week.

For the next hour, mom and daughter drive through town to knock on doors and deliver healthy meals to people with serious, often life-threatening, illnesses. The soft-spoken teen may, for some grateful recipients, be the only other person they see that day. Making it a warm and personal encounter is essential. Elise loves the one-on-one interaction, however brief, even if few words are spoken.

Elise, 16, is the only youth under 18 in the team of volunteers who deliver meals through Ceres, founded 15 years ago by Cathryn Couch to teach young volunteers to cook nourishing meals for people in the community with cancer and other serious health conditions.

Most on the delivery team are retirees. But when when the pandemic hit two years ago, Elise, then a freshman, wanted to stay engaged in volunteering, something she had done since she was 8 and served as a puppy petter for Canine Companions, the service dog training program headquartered in Santa Rosa.

Delivering Ceres meals was one volunteer option still open, and Tambra Curtis, an attorney in the Sonoma County Counsel’s office, was willing to team up and drive, even though it means she sometimes uses vacation time or has to make up work hours later.

For Elise, it sometimes means saying no to friends who want to hang out at the mall on a carefree Friday afternoon. On Friday nights when the Carrillo Pumas have a game, it’s a squeeze for Elise, who also is a cheerleader. She just makes it work.

“I don’t regret being here,” she said on a recent afternoon, seated under a tree in the Ceres garden, which was flush with tomatoes and other summer crops packed with nutrients. “I really love doing it and I really love helping Ceres out and making people’s day better.”

Seeking new ways to help

Service is a way of life for Elise, who is constantly seeking new ways to help. During the pandemic she and her older sister, Tanna, now 18 and a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, created a website and brochure that listed help and legal services, in Spanish, for Latina women in the community who may be victims of domestic violence (

Last year, Elise was selected to participate in a teen naturalist program at Pepperwood Preserve in Santa Rosa to assist with planting native grass and other projects. She also was a delegate for the American Red Cross Northern California Leadership Development Center Conference, where she cultivated leadership skills such as teamwork and public speaking through workshops on disaster preparedness, diversity and international services. She later gave fire-safety presentations to neighbors to help them be better prepared for fire season.

For her continual efforts to help her community any way she can, Elise is August’s North Bay Spirit Award winner. A project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award honors people who go the extra mile to be of service and take initiative, often identifying a need in the community and finding a way to fill it.

“Elise is a kind and reliable part of our team of delivery angels,” said Lisa Baiter, who coordinates deliveries for Ceres’ clients in Sonoma County. “She always shows up with a smile on Friday afternoon after a full week of school to deliver nourishing meals to our clients.”

Ceres expects to deliver 200,000 meals to up to 1,600 families in Sonoma and Marin counties this year. That requires a massive army of volunteers. Elise is among 1,000 volunteers who work out of three sites in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Novato. Among those, 400 are teens like Elise, who work in the kitchen and the garden, a new assignment for which Elise has recently begun training.

“What we hear over and over again from clients is how much it means to them that people who don’t know them — particularly teenagers busy with sports and school and their social lives — take the time to prepare these meals, which are really delicious,” said Deborah Ramelli, development director for Ceres. “And they also talk about how the food is made with love and filled with love. For someone who is ill, that often means as much as the food itself.”

The program teaches teens practical kitchen and garden skills along with professional and social skills such as leadership, teamwork, commitment and responsibility.

“They can volunteer in the kitchen or the garden, but most alternate between the two,” Ramelli said. “They learn on the job from a teen leader who has more experience. They learn life skills, how to do the dishes, mop the floor, how to package meals, wash and strip the leaves off kale and chard, and they build up to taking the lead on a recipe or maybe supervising somebody else in doing the dishes. ... They meet teens from different schools and all walks of life while building communication skills and contributing to preparing a meal.”

“It’s always been important to me to volunteer and give back to the community, and instill that in my kids,” Tambra Curtis said. “They obviously have done a lot of things, like soccer and dance. But, to me, this is even more important than that.”

Meals that promote healing

From a small effort to to help a few people struggling with cancer, Ceres has developed into a large organization aimed at marshaling and empowering youth as gardeners and chefs. They get hands-on experience growing and preparing meals to aid in healing for people with serious health challenges and their families, people who may not be able to afford the nutrient-rich foods that promote health.

Ceres is a pioneer in the “food as medicine” approach that maintains that medical outcomes of chronically ill people improve when they eat nutritious organic meals. Ceres now partners with health care providers and insurers to study and promote the impact of medically tailored meals to health, and to make access to them a routine part of health care.

Demand has risen as the pandemic continues. Ceres anticipates making 20,000 more meals this year versus last year, founder Couch said. It is fielding requests from potential clients, from health centers concerned about patients with chronic underlying diseases who are afraid to leave home and from the growing number of people with food insecurity who also have health issues.

“Many of our clients also have mobility issues,” Couch said. “They’re living alone and might not have transportation. Or their dietary needs are really complex, and it is difficult to manage that with the physical challenge of preparing it,” Couch said.

But caring remains the at the heart of Ceres and its mission.

Included with the meals, packed in recyclable cardboard containers, are personalized notes from the student volunteers, giving each delivery a human touch. Elise also makes the cards. She decorates them with stamps and designs like aprons and oven mitts.

“A few people say, ‘This really makes my day,’ especially when, along with the usual meals, we bring some fresh flowers from the garden and include that in the bag,” Tambra Curtis said. “Some of them are older and live on their own. And you can tell that just seeing somebody that day, even for a few minutes, is uplifting.”

Volunteering is a passion

Her experience with Ceres spurred Elise to join the Jewish Community Free Clinic Tzedek Cohort in Santa Rosa last year. She’s just getting her feet wet, but she’ll join other youth in advocating for racial justice, equity, inclusion and diversity in Sonoma County schools and local organizations to help promote equal access to quality medical care.

Elise said she hopes to someday work in in the medical field or in public health and follow her sister to Cal Poly. She credits her mom with inspiring her and making it possible for her to engage in so many activities until she can get her own driver’s license.

For both of them, however, the effort gives a shot of adrenaline.

“Honestly, there are times when we’re in a rush to get here and it’s the last thing I want to do. I’m tired,” Elise confessed. “But as soon as we start doing it and we see how appreciative the clients are, we can start the weekend feeling good.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or

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