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Holiday Fund: Finding help, and giving it back

Ecumenical Hunger Program a one-stop shop for support services

The Ecumenical Hunger Program, one of 10 local nonprofits that will benefit from The Almanac's Holiday Fund this year, does much more than satisfy the community's need for food, Executive Director Lesia Preston emphasizes.

It's also a center for helping people help each other, helping its clients give back as volunteers and providing placement and support services to the community, she says.

Founded in 1975, EHP has grown to become the largest emergency food provider in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, according to the nonprofit's 2017-18 annual report.

The headquarters is housed in office and warehouse space surrounding a central parking lot at 2411 Pulgas Ave. in East Palo Alto, a block south of University Avenue.

Over time, the agency has branched out to provide for other needs for the individuals and families it serves, distributing clothing, furniture and household items.

It receives no government funding and relies on support from individual donors, foundation grants and other donors.

Volunteers do much of the work, including repairing donated appliances that are distributed to clients.

For the fiscal year 2017-18, EHP received more than $1.5 million in financial support and $3.8 million worth of in-kind support in the form of volunteer hours and donations. During that year it served an array of needs of 452 families and 10,928 individuals through its emergency food program, with 26,000 food boxes.

Nearly 5,600 meals were served through its Hot Meal Program.

The agency, Preston says, attracts donors through speaking at community events and keeps track of volunteer hours to apply for grant funding.

Preston began volunteering at EHP to lend a helping hand to the woman who was then executive director. That person just happened to be Preston's mother, Nevida Butler, who held the nonprofit's top post for 30 years. Preston moved into that position when Butler retired in 2011.

"When I see the children who used to come here with their parents go on to get good jobs and support themselves, that's satisfying," Preston says. "It's amazing to see them go on and donate to us."

Early on, many of the clients' kids were dropouts from grade school, Butler notes, but today some of EHP clients' children have prospered. She cites as examples kids who attended Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto and went on to college at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley.

"One of the dreams of the founders was to get people from this community to prosper and give back," Butler says. "To have them go through EHP makes you really proud to be a part of it."

Finding support

Current EHP client Geraldine Mwende is lucky in many ways, but she's also self-sacrificing and determined to succeed. A native of Kenya, she won an opportunity to move to the United States in an immigration lottery sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

She says that she and her 6-year-old son, Jewel Munyao, didn't have anything and couldn't afford anything when they arrived, but EHP took care of that. The agency helped her find an apartment in Palo Alto and helped place Jewel in the Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, a charter school near the EHP headquarters.

People in Palo Alto, she says, are "very good people, very welcoming."

The nonprofit also provided her with a bed, clothes and everything she needed to outfit an apartment, including kitchen items and other necessities, along with school supplies for Jewel.

Mwende enrolled in a pre-nursing program at Foothill College and now takes the bus to and from the campus, which involves a two-hour round trip. Her schedule is daunting since she works full time in the evenings as a nursing assistant in Santa Clara after her daytime classwork is completed.

She is considering moving to Iowa in December to attend a one-year professional nursing program, but she hopes to return to the Bay Area to pursue a career.

Mwende said she and Jewel will need the jackets they received from EHP if they go to Iowa as they get used to the colder weather they will experience compared with that of California.

She's looking forward to completing a nursing program. "I want to surprise everyone when I tell them I got my RN," she says.

In contrast to Mwende, Altagracia Hernandez has lived most of her life in the Bay Area and has been a EHP client for more than 20 years.

The daughter of farm workers, the 45-year-old Hernandez was born in Anaheim and moved with her parents to East Palo Alto when she was 7.

Her parents traveled south to pick strawberries in Watsonville, and she remembers going with them to the farms where they worked. I remember loving to sample the strawberries," she says.

A graduate of Sequoia High School, she now lives in East Palo Alto with her four children, ages 25, 18, 13 and 10.

Life can be a struggle, Hernandez says, adding that she depends on support from EHP to hold things together. The family gets help with food, clothing, blankets and school supplies.

She and the father of her children never married, but "he helps out every once in a while," she says.

The toughest part is paying the rent, which is going up $100 a month, Hernandez says. "Now rents are very high, and the help (from EHP) is a blessing to us," she adds.

After she drops the kids off at school, she often goes over to EHP to volunteer.

"Sometimes they need help and sometimes they don't," she says. "If they need help, I help them out."

Doreen Huse, 52, is a native of the south Pacific island of Tonga, and came to the United States when she was 12.

She and her husband Kevin, a traveling salesman, live in East Palo Alto and have five children two adopted and three of their own and seven grandchildren.

Three of her children and all seven grandchildren live with her.

They've been lucky with housing and live in a house owned by her husband's aunt, which she bought for $79,000.

They receive food along with toys and clothes for the grandkids from EHP, Huse says.

"Tongans have big families," she notes. "Be fruitful and multiply."

Huse sang during an EHP community fundraising event in August, Butler says. "Doreen has heart of gold and a voice like an angel. She sews all of her clothes and clothes for other people."

Donations to The Almanac's Holiday Fund benefit the Ecumenical Hunger Program and nine other nonprofits serving the local community. To donate, go here.

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