North Bay Spirit Award winner launches food delivery for students during the pandemic
Maite Iturri rejects the notion that “it can’t be done.” She figures if she allows herself to think too much about the enormity of need in her community, she risks losing faith and momentum. She won’t let that happen.
“I’ve got to keep hope alive,” she said.
So the Sonoma Valley educator keeps moving and stays focused on possibilities. During the 14 years she has been principal at El Verano Elementary School, where the student population is overwhelmingly Latino and from low-income homes, she has worked relentlessly to provide programs and services to give kids the best education possible and to make their lives and the lives of their families a little easier.
For Iturri, the daughter of an immigrant from Spain’s Basque country who fled during the repressive Franco regime, it’s all about leveling the playing field by equalizing access and opportunities.
Many of Iturri’s innovations have spread throughout the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, from on-site preschool so all kindergarteners can start with the same basic skills for success to The Valley Vibes Orchestra to bring music education and leadership opportunities to kids, many from families that could never afford private lessons. Students from 10 different schools in the valley meet at El Verano five afternoons a week for a comprehensive program that includes theory, composition and world music.
Iturri ferrets out opportunities. A master grant writer, she has reeled in more than $7 million in grants and donations for her school and the district, including a $5 million federal grant for an educational partnership with the San Francisco Exploratorium.
When someone sent her a picture of a book vending machine, she was determined to get one and raised several thousand dollars to buy the first “merit-based” book machine in the the state to turn kids on to reading.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, she’s working on a new effort, to make sure low-income families and individuals get the food they need.
“Instead of shaking her head and feeling terrible, she makes things happen,” said Michelle Heston, executive director of public relations for the Sonoma Mission Inn, which “adopted” El Verano School 15 years ago. “She feels she can’t sit on the sidelines when she knows there is something she must do.”
For her unfailing efforts on behalf of her school and her community, Iturri has been selected as October’s North Bay Spirit award winner. Co-sponsored by The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award honors exceptional individuals who go above and beyond in voluntary service to their communities, often by identifying important needs and creating programs or organizations to address those needs.
Food For All
Iturri’s latest challenge came with the arrival of the pandemic in March. The need for food assistance exploded and the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which had been delivering boxes to El Verano and Flowery, another elementary school up the highway in Boyes Hot Springs, decided to move its distribution site to Hanna Boys Center to accommodate more cars. The unintended consequence was that people who had come to pick up their food on foot at the school were cut off — the Hanna Boys Center was too far to walk.
“Moms were coming to me saying they can’t pick up their food,” Iturri said.
A group of parent leaders sprang into action and started delivering boxes to families they knew did not own a car or who shared one vehicle with multiple people. They appealed to Iturri to help coordinate what became Comida Para Todos or Food For All.
The operation quickly grew. Now the all-volunteer crew makes some 1,600 deliveries a month to struggling individuals and families in “The Springs,” a group of unincorporated towns strung along Highway 12 and Arnold Drive between Sonoma and Glen Ellen that includes the historic resort towns of El Verano, Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters Hot Springs and Agua Caliente.
The area is vibrant with small businesses and is far more ethnically diverse than neighboring Sonoma. More than half of the 15,000 people in The Springs are Latino compared to 15% in Sonoma. When the stay-at-home order took effect in March, many who worked in service jobs, tourism industry jobs and agriculture, already struggling to make ends meet, fell into a world of hurt.
“Health care, shelter, food — those needs have become profound with the pandemic and the fires and all the trauma this community is enduring. The consequences of these things are inequitable,” said Iturri, who also chairs the Springs Municipal Advisory Council, which serves as a bridge between the community and county government.