‘I love to give’: College student returns to Santa Rosa to bake Thanksgiving pumpkin pies

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The aroma of cloves and cinnamon permeated the air inside the Redwood Empire Food Bank commercial kitchen on Tuesday as college student Kati Hilario baked hundreds of pumpkin pies.

“My whole year leads up to this,” Hilario said as she poured freshly mixed pumpkin filling onto a tray of pie crusts. “I want to do this my entire life.”

A Sacramento State University sophomore studying speech pathology, audiology and Spanish, Hilario is back home in Santa Rosa this week to continue her pie fundraising tradition for Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday of the year.

All the money raised through pie sales goes to the food bank.

“Thanksgiving is about family and food, two of my favorite things,” said Hilario, 19, dressed in a T-shirt with a pumpkin image on it. “People always ask, ‘Do you get sick of pumpkin pie?’ No, I eat pumpkin pie year-round.”

Hilario was 12 when she started the Pies for Poverty project eight years ago, baking 15 pumpkin pies in her family kitchen on Thanksgiving week. The operation since has grown exponentially.

On Tuesday, she baked about 325 pies, which sell for $15 each.

“It has become quite a production,” said her mother, Lisa Ann Hilario, who assisted with baking.

The younger Hilario expects to hit the $20,000 mark for the total money raised through the project.

She estimates that she has baked 1,400 pies since starting the project as a seventh-grader at Rincon Valley Middle School.

“It was kind of an independence thing for me at 12,” she said.

Chef Don Nolan helps with the baking, which this year required 35 dozen donated eggs and the use of a 50-gallon kettle to mix nine 29-ounce cans of pumpkin in a batch. He has worked alongside Hilario for the last four years.

“We got it down. I think we have a system now,” Nolan said, as he stacked trays of pies into a commercial oven.

Relatives helped Hilario box up the pies Tuesday night. Eight volunteer drivers will deliver the pie orders today, from Healdsburg and San Jose to Sebastopol and Sonoma.

“They go all over,” her mother said.

Hilario said people also bought 100 pies for first responders, which also will be delivered this week. She calls those orders “double-giving” since the money raised benefits the food bank and the pies bring holiday cheer to first responders.

Following last year’s North Bay fires, she delivered pies to firefighters, police officers, ambulance drivers and hospitals for the first time, and she decided to continue doing that.

“I love to give,” she said. “It’s exhausting, but it’s a fun kind of exhaustion.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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