Petaluma teacher founds nonprofit to feed, clothe people facing poverty

The former Peace Corps volunteer returns with others to assist people who live in the Dominican Republic every year.|

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.

What matters most to Moquete, who also served in AmeriCorps, is changing lives for the better — whether it’s helping someone struggling with hunger or guiding teens to realize their potential.

She tells her students, “We either become better or we become bitter.” She encourages them to embrace gratitude and find ways to contribute. Through Una Vida — translated to “One Life” — Moquete brings groups of students and adults to the tiny village in the Dominican Republic where she served in the Peace Corps for 2½ years in the early 1990s.

Her own experience there was transformative. Moquete, who holds a master’s degree in public health, lived among 240 villagers, teaching health and nutrition and helping build houses and latrines.

“No one had a latrine. They had no resources to help themselves,” she said. “No electricity, no nothing. In my village I was the only American. They just protected me; I was theirs.”

She lived atop a mountain, where the nearest phone was six hours away. “I had a mule I rode to get supplies,” she said, admitting “it was so hard” to become accustomed to the way of life. “It was just so eye-opening. You become very aware of the world.”

Moquete considers the region “a sacred place” and returns annually. She began taking groups to the Dominican Republic 24 years ago, after a Casa Grande student watched her slideshow and suggested she take students for a visit. She’s coordinated cultural immersion trips for about 300 people, with teens and adults living with host families and helping with projects to improve day-to-day life for villagers.

One of her former students, Kara Klinge, was in the first group to the Dominican Republic. She later founded the Madres Collective, a mission-driven business offering handcrafted goods made by women artisans across the globe. Una Vida supports the effort, and Klinge has become a treasured friend of Moquete’s.

While service trips to the Dominican Republic can be life-changing, Moquete stresses the value of also helping in one’s community. “It doesn’t matter if you do good for a week (in the Dominican Republic). You have to do good in your own community,” she said.

“My goal, even in the heat of the Dominican Republic, is to make Americans better people. Every day, it’s all about helping people.” The nonprofit’s motto is “Building Community, Inspiring Change.”

She is indebted to the countless people who show up week after week to help her, whether dropping off or sorting grocery bags or packing and distributing food, clothing or shoes.

“I have a lot of people who help. I can’t do it without all the people around me,” said Moquete, who is known as much for her compassion as her networking and community-building skills. “Part of the magic of this town is Petaluma is really good at being socially aware.”

Among those, Jennifer King and Jim Mattos donate some 30 hours per week sorting and organizing donated clothing. Audrey Whitbeck has taken over the time-consuming task of handling social media for Moquete. Casa Grande sophomore Kelsey Ferrando set up Una Vida with the timesaving online software tool SignUpGenius, and has so far clocked more than 200 hours helping the nonprofit since the pandemic began.

For Moquete, who dedicates countless hours to the programs (and only recently accepted a stipend from the nonprofit), the pandemic has created a huge demand for community assistance. “Una Vida always has been a full-time job, and COVID has made it a double full-time job,” she said.

For those providing or receiving assistance through Una Vida, community is something that happens right at home — and it makes a world of difference.

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