If there’s one thing any visitor to Community Food Bank can count on, it’s a warm greeting.
Lourdes Cordova – “Lula” to her friends (and everyone she meets is a friend) – occupies a small office next to the front door most days. When she is not there, she’s running Community Food Bank’s San Juan Bautista location.
Slipping seamlessly between Spanish and English, Lula greets visitors, often by name. As she chats about family and the latest news, one thing comes through: genuineness. Lula has worked at Community Food Bank longer than anyone else. It’s clear that the reason why is because she genuinely cares for people.
The mother of six grown children, Lula came to Hollister from Mexico when she was 13, after her mother secured legal immigration status for her. School waited while Lula went to work in the fields, a happy circumstance, because she quickly met the man who would become her husband. Jesse, a few years older and the son of a labor contractor who employed her, began to woo her with a fresh flower each day.
Many years later, it’s still obvious Jesse and Lula love each other with newlyweds’ passion. Jesse, a chef at Hazel Hawkins Hospital, prepares lunch for her every day so they can pass time together.
They were still quite young when they married and moved to Los Angeles. Both quickly found jobs, and by volunteering for overtime and skipping vacations, they saved enough to buy their first home. The family began to grow, but after each baby, Lula took just two weeks’ leave before returning to her job at a plumbing wholesaler.
After 11 years working for the same firm, life’s course seemed to be assured when Jesse, on his way to the corner store, witnessed a serious crime. It was clear that the criminals had seen him, too. When they continued to show up around the family home, it was decided that the only thing for the Cordova family to do was to leave trouble behind and to return to Hollister.
Lula and Jesse had earned about $60,000 in equity in their home, but with five children and local employment hard to come by, the money went quickly. “That’s how I found out about Community Food Bank,” she said. “Someone referred me.”
Eventually, Lula found work at a local cannery, but when she was taken to the hospital for an examination after a work mishap, she learned that a sixth child was expected. The family pulled together to get by, selling home crafted goods at swap meets on weekends and making do. The cannery closed not long after the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and Lula took advantage of a job retraining program by going back to school to learn office and computer skills. The local newspaper profiled her when she rose to the top of her class. In 1994, Lula accepted a part-time, temporary position at Community Food Bank, not as a client this time, but as a staff member. She’s been here ever since, filling a variety of roles, from bookkeeping to picking up baked goods at local grocers before the sun comes up, to operating a forklift when that was necessary. After school and on weekends, her children got the volunteer habit by pitching in at the Food Bank.
Today, Lula continues to play vital roles, work that in 2008 led to her being named “Hunger Fighter of the Year.” Assisted by volunteer Kathy Flores, Lula is the face of the Food Bank to the families who visit the San Juan Bautista store each Thursday. She coordinates outreach for SNAP, the State Nutrition Assistance Program. The program replaced once familiar food stamps with magnetic card, like a debit or credit card.
Applying for SNAP benefits is not complicated, but thousands of San Benito County residents who qualify for the program are still not enrolled. Should they all get the benefits they deserve, it would return more than $7 million in state tax monies to the local economy.
“It didn’t feel like work,” she said. “It’s something I love doing, so I wouldn’t get tired. I never get tired.”
It’s clear that Lula found a career and an extended family at Community Food Bank. Asked what she’d change if she could do anything she wanted, she did not hesitate.
“I would give better food, more meats and protein,” she said, quickly reminding a visitor that the food going out the doors each week is of excellent quality already. But mindful of the high rates of diabetes and hypertension in the community, Lula dreams of a day when people at risk for such diseases get groceries specifically tailored to their dietary needs.
Living in a community surrounded by children and grandchildren and doing meaningful work helping people, Lula has earned a richly rewarding life.
“Actually feeding people is the most enjoyable thing, she said. “It’s their faces. You can’t describe their faces. How do you describe gratitude?”
Mark Paxton is director of community engagement and fund development at Community Food Bank. In his spare time, he enjoys being outdoors with his wife, Mary. They are the parents of two daughters and live in Hollister.