Petaluma teacher founds nonprofit to feed, clothe people facing poverty
Before Lynne Gordon Moquete and her dedicated volunteer team distribute bags of food to those in need, a gesture of kindness always applies.
“The first thing we serve before anything, we give love and dignity,” said Moquete, founder and executive director of Petaluma-based Una Vida, a nonprofit she established more than 20 years ago after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and recognizing the need to help both globally and locally.
Moquete, a longtime teacher at Casa Grande High School, has a personal understanding of hunger and humility, and knows what it’s like to need help.
The divorced mother of three adult sons doesn’t hesitate to say she has been on welfare before. She knows what it’s like to be among the working poor. And especially now, as economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues to hurt local families, it’s particularly important to provide empathy and understanding.
“We want people to feel OK about receiving help. They already feel like sh-- and we don’t need to make them feel worse,” said Moquete, 56. The number of recipients has been rising: 188 households one recent week, 85 more than a month before. “It’s way too many people,” Moquete said. “It’s super sad.”
There’s an honor system in place, rather than a maze of eligibility paperwork. Those “who have the courage to show up” are provided with food, much of it donated by Torn Ranch, a specialty foods distributor in Petaluma. Local and county businesses, community groups and nonprofits also contribute everything from pantry staples to fresh produce.
Even before the pandemic, Una Vida was assisting local students in need by distributing homemade sandwiches and collecting gift cards for holiday giving.
Moquete oversees a Tuesday drive-thru food distribution staffed by some 40 people who donate their time. She prefers the word “participants” rather than “volunteers,” careful not to suggest one group has greater value over the other.
Much of the food was destined for cruise ships and airlines through Torn Ranch; a former student of Moquete’s employed by the food distributor helped connect Una Vida with considerable donations, something for which she’s immeasurably grateful.
In addition to weekly food distribution, Moquete hosts open houses a few times a week and keeps an emergency pantry in her garage. Food also is delivered weekly, and a quarterly “Free Sale” is held to provide gently used clothing and shoes.
Lately, between 800 and 900 bags of food are shared each week with community members, from young families to elderly residents. Many have lost jobs, including one man who began coming for food for his family after losing his two jobs. He showed up on a recent day to help out, telling Moquete he felt bad because he’d previously taken two packages of ham instead of one.
Moquete has numerous assistants, including many former students. She chairs the human interaction department at Casa Grande, where she’s taught since 1995. A required semesterlong course for freshmen, human interaction classes cover a roster of sensitive topics including sexuality, poverty, divorce, suicide, racism and eating disorders.
Moquete shares her own experiences, hoping her students will see she’s persevered through hardships, including the death of her mother when Moquete was 17; her subsequent feelings of grief and despair led to a suicide attempt.
“Then I can be amazing with my pain,” she said. “Transparency and authenticity are all I know.”
Her impact has been profound. She has thousands of cards and notes in her classroom from students expressing their admiration and thanks for her compassion. Moquete becomes teary as she speaks about the joys and value she’s found in teaching. “It’s given me a life of purpose.”
Vicki McMorrow is a full-inclusion instructional assistant at Casa Grande, where she’s worked with Moquete for 20 years. She also volunteers with Una Vida. She said Moquete gives “her heart and soul” to all she does, while providing hope and support to countless people.
“There’s just this magic aura about her,” McMorrow said. “She embraces her students and gives so much to the community.” She has seen Moquete reach even the most defiant and disengaged students. “She changes lives,” McMorrow said.
Moquete has been honored several times, from accolades for community service as a teen to being named a Sonoma County Office of Education Teacher of the Month in 2018. She also was recognized in 2003 by the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce and the Petaluma Argus-Courier for “Excellence in Education” at the annual Petaluma Community Recognition Awards.