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North Bay Spirit Award winner launches food delivery for students during the pandemic

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

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.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

“The marginalized and disenfranchised are always the ones who suffer the most during a crisis,” she said. “The program is led by people who themselves need the service and know what their community needs.”

Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey, who nominated Iturri for the North Bay Spirit Award, has seen her in action many times, such as when she helped create an emergency preparedness plan that addressed specific challenges for the immigrant community, including for people who don’t have cars or speak little or no English.

“She is dogged in her pursuit of providing high-quality services to that community,” Harvey said. “She works very well with other local leaders. She knows how to ask for things in the right way. She knows when and how to push. Sometimes you see activists who don’t know how to make a deal or make a compromise or go after a goal and get it done.”

Immigrant roots

Iturri is sensitive to the barriers immigrants face. Her father, Ciriaco Iturri, came from northern Spain’s Basque region, which has its own language and culture. He lived through the Spanish Civil War, when Francisco Franco cracked down on his people and ordered the bombing of Guernica, a sacred place for the Basque. An activist, Ciriaco Iturri became a political target and was forced to flee for his life without documents. He landed in San Francisco’s North Beach, where he met Maite’s mother and scraped together enough money to buy Des Alpes, a popular neighborhood eatery.

“I attribute my passion for community and the work that I do to him and my mother,” said Iturri, 56, who grew up speaking Spanish at home and who attended racially diverse schools where she was the minority. “When people would come from Spain or the Basque country, he would find them a job and help them find a place to live. He ran a family resource center out of his restaurant.”

In that vein, Iturri created a Family Resource Center at her campus to provide parents with mental health services and other support. She also has figured out how to provide, at no cost, classes for parents in everything from Zumba and English as a second language to art and nutrition. She’s always thinking about ways to provide more support and lift people up.

“I believe in racial and social justice, and it has everything to do with my dad,” she added. “I don’t want others to have that experience of living in fear in a community.”

When her parents bought property outside Sonoma with plans to retire there later, Maite said, “Oh, you can make money off that.“

Her mother, Elaine, set her straight. ”I will never profit from someone’s shelter,” she told her daughter.

Iturri now lives on that property, a family compound of four small houses just down the street from El Verano School. She lives here with her mother; husband Ryan Carpenter; son Cameron Ituirri-Carpenter, 30, and Cameron’s wife. Her father didn’t live to enjoy his retirement retreat in Sonoma.

Most of Iturri’s weekends are consumed by volunteer work, but she sets aside at least a half day on Sunday afternoons for her family. The Sonoma State University graduate also is working on her doctorate through UC Davis.

Iturri carries her fervent belief in social justice to her work heading up the Municipal Advisory Committee. She is a vociferous advocate for The Springs, where a quarter of residents live below the poverty line, according to the county. The median income in 2017 was just under $20,000 a year.

Thompson said Iturri doesn’t waste her time with hand wringing. “She figures out how to get to ‘yes,’” Thompson said. “During the October 2017 wildfires, a small group of us coordinated relief for The Springs, and the next morning of the 9th, she was already on the phone saying people need diapers, people need masks. She was ready to go.”

Encouraging participation

Laurie Salmas, the longtime office manager at El Verano, said Iturri is very detail oriented when it comes to people. If a need, request or question arises, Iturri wants it taken care of immediately.

“Her big thing is customer service. If there is a parent in front of you, whatever else you’re doing, you take care of them first,” Salmas said. “She wants to make sure that the students and the parents really know that this is their school. We call it a community school. We want them to know they’re always welcome on campus and welcome to be part of whatever else is going on.”

When Iturri first came to the school, parent participation was low, even with a translator at PTO meetings.

“She said, it’s not about sending out a notice,” Salmas recalled. “It’s about making it personal.” The face-to-face contact resulted in a surge in parent involvement at a school where the population is 85% Latino, 86% economically disadvantaged and 67% English-language learners.

“Not only are they a part of it; they want to be a part of it,” Salmas said.

Iturri’s openness and inclusivity undoubtedly had a hand in making Food For All come together when the pandemic hit.

Mario Castillo, a community health organizer who has known Iturri since his kids were students at the school, said she used her connections to generate important financial support. He and Iturri were part of a committee to help the mothers who had stepped up to deliver food. Securing additional resources became particularly crucial when they realized there were items people desperately needed — diapers, sanitizer, masks and staples like beans, rice and maize — that weren’t included in the food bank boxes.

Now operating under the aegis of the North Bay Organizing Project, Food For All has 20 volunteer drivers who fan out through the valley, delivering food bank boxes one week and boxes with the additional necessities provided by Food For All the next. Despite their efforts, it doesn’t come close to helping all those in need, including people sick with the virus and the elderly.

“We always have a huge waiting list,” Castillo said. That forces volunteers to make painful decisions about who has the most need.

It costs about $6,000 a month at the current level.

“We have no operating budget. We’re using our own ink and whatever resources we can get,” said Iturri, who does the financial work for the organization. She also helps on delivery days by filling bags and loading cars.

She is motivated by a deep conviction that all her efforts are not just kind charity but a necessary part of addressing deep inequities in society. The effect of the coronavirus on the Latino community has been devastating. In addition to the loss of wages, Latinos have contracted the virus in higher numbers; early on, 54% of all cases in Sonoma County, when ethnically or racially determined, were among Latino people. Yet Latinos represent a little more than a quarter of the county’s population of near 500,000.

“They can’t social distance because they may be living as multiple families in a home,” Iturri said. “They can’t take the time off work because the don’t get sick pay, and they don’t get days off. That, compounded with limited access to health care and other resources, make for an explosive situation.“

Living with hope

As a child Iturri hated her hard-to-pronounce first name (Mytay), which means “love” in Basque. But as she got older, she came to embrace it as a reflection of who she is and what she tries to express in her life.

“If I don’t think things can get better, I would not be able to do what I do,” she said. “And I know every little thing we do makes things a little bit better. So I live with hope and a lot of love.”

Staff writer Meg McConahey can be reached at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

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