The story of what happens at Puente on a Thursday is the story of the South Coast itself: its children, parents, farm owners and farm workers, teachers, volunteers, patients and medical staff.
On a Thursday, these participant populations overlap in real time over a dizzying six-hour period – crossing paths on the way to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, Zumba, Story Time, La Sala, Homework Club, adult education, the medical clinic, the farmers’ market and several other events hosted and sponsored by Puente.
It’s a magical and purposeful time and it’s all hands on deck for Puente staff, many of whom work into the evening to run programs and provide support.
“Thursday is the day when every single thing Puente does is on display. I enjoy seeing all our programs interrelating. It’s like poetry. It’s exhausting, but I love it,” says Puente Executive Director Kerry Lobel.
Here’s some of what happened on Thursday, September 3.
Puente’s offices are hushed on a fresh, sunny morning, as if in anticipation of the day ahead. Deputy Executive Director Rita Mancera is on the phone and so is Alejandra Ortega, Puente’s Youth Program Associate. Lobel greets them both and heads off to a meeting. In the first portable, Clinical Director Joann Watkins and Mental Health Intern Celia Gagnon work at their computers. Program participants have arrived for a variety of appointments: immigration, behavioral health counseling, health coverage enrollments, and more.
Abby Mohaupt, Puente’s Faith Community Liaison and Volunteer Coordinator, is doing two art-related activities at once: waiting for a chalkboard to dry so she can hand-draw the sign for Puente’s farmers’ market which starts at 3 p.m. and opening bags of bright plastic beads and pipe cleaners to construct an example of a caterpillar. It’s the theme of tonight’s Homework Club, which Mohaupt will coordinate with Ivan Ortega from 7-9 p.m.
“We’re reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ today and then we’re going to make caterpillars and paint butterflies. We’ll talk about how caterpillars become butterflies, combining ecology and art,” she explains.
Today’s farmers' market vendors are setting up their booths in the grassy courtyard next to the Pescadero Country Store. Nichole Mikaelian, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) manager for Blue House Farm (and Puente's former market manager), pulls up in her white truck and unloads crates of green beans, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, and strawberries that glisten like jewels in the sunshine.
Charlea Binford, the Farmers’ Market Manager, takes a break from setting up the Puente booth with Ivan Ortega to make a phone call. “Can you bring a power strip? I forgot to get ours,” she asks someone back at the office. The wind is picking up. Binford and Ortega drop weights on ground to steady the tent. This will be the beginning of a long afternoon and evening for Binford who wears many hats.
Puente is suddenly filled with vegetables – not from the farmers’ market, but from Potrero Nuevo Farm in Half Moon Bay. The farm gives most of its organic produce away to local nonprofits for free. On Thursdays, Puente board member Wendy Wardwell brings Puente’s share to the childcare area to give to the men and women who participate in Thursday evening classes and events -- La Sala and Zumba. It’s another way Puente gets fresh, healthy produce onto the plates of local families who grow the food but can’t always afford it.
Today’s harvest includes leeks, broccoli, basil, squash, tomatoes, rainbow chard, green peppers and stalks of celery. Wardwell starts sorting the food into bags with help from Jovany Rios and Osvaldo Nabor, two Pescadero High School students who work with Puente. “Not everyone’s going to get kale today. Everyone’s going to get peppers, though,” she says, surveying the piles.
Office manager Veronica Ortega picks up a sprig of fragrant basil and places it in a mug with some water, which she puts on her desk. “I love that smell,” she says, giving it a sniff.
Puente’s second portable becomes a pop-up medical clinic on Thursday nights, staffed by a 5-member team from San Mateo Medical Center’s Coastside Clinic in Half Moon Bay. They ready patients’ medical charts on computers and prep the exam room, blood drawing station, supply carts and EKG machine. The clinic is expecting six patients tonight between 5 and 7 p.m.
“We’ve got one new patient physical. The others are hospital discharge follow-ups, medication follow-ups. One has shoulder pain,” says Connie Mendez, one of the county team members.
Puente's safety net team is ready to enroll participants in the health coverage programs for which they are eligible.
Participants have started to arrive for the evening’s busiest period. A family of father, mother and two daughters laughs together as they improvise a volleyball game in front of Puente’s offices. Other children climb on the jungle gym.
The farmers’ market, now in its fifth year, is booming, with 152 visitors so far this afternoon. Shoppers flock to the market stands while local resident Shari Sollars brings her bicycle over to Puente’s Bike Booth for a diagnosis. Every, the bike mechanic on duty, puts the bike up on the rack and discovers a flat almost immediately.
“Your tires are shot. Even though you have tread, the side walls are basically baked,” she diagnoses. Sollars thanks her. “I don’t know anywhere else I can come and get my bike tuned for free,” she says.
Nine ESL students listen avidly as Charlea Binford (who also teachers ESL classes at Puente) stands at the head of Puente’s classroom and teaches them vocabulary words. This is the first of four ESL classes Puente will host back-to-back tonight. And Binford will teach two of them. She will also be teaching a continuing education course for Mexican nationals called Plaza Comunitaria – all before 9 p.m. She left the farmers’ market early to get here.
“To have to teach three classes, plus manage the farmers’ market, is a lot,” she says. “But I love it.”
With ESL classes in session and Puente’s childcare program in full swing, Rita Mancera finds a quiet corner to host a meeting for three local volunteers who want to mentor Pescadero High School students this year. Puente’s mentors form close relationships with their high school mentees, helping them pull their grades up so they can aspire to college.
“There are about 100 students in the high school right now and 16 of them, who worked for Puente this summer, are in critical need of a mentor or tutor. This year we’re going to start with nine of them, so we need more volunteers,” Mancera tells the group.
It’s hard to miss the sound of Puente’s Thursday night Zumba class in the multipurpose room of Pescadero Elementary School. Instructor Lisa Sumano leads 22 strong and sweating women in a series of aerobic dances to hot salsa beats. Puente’s twice-weekly Zumba classes are by donation, and the volunteer instructors take their classes seriously and love them so much that they are informally known as the ‘Zumba queens.’ The women smile back at Sumano as she leads them in one energetic song after another.
Puente’s front offices have been repurposed by a handful of students using staff desks to get their schoolwork done and reading to each other in pairs. Many students on the South Coast lack any space to do their homework in their family's small homes so, for a little while, Puente becomes a quiet haven for schoolwork.
As the sun sets over Pescadero, Puente takes on a hivelike atmosphere and every room is full. The childcare area has been converted into one of three ESL classes now happening simultaneously. ESL classes are divided into three levels. In Puente’s Learning Center (a classroom in a portable in back), Karen Walker leads her Level 3 class in a comprehension-based exercise where they interview each other in pairs and then give the answers in English. The question: what do you like to do?
“I like to dance,” says a male student. His female conversation partner says she also likes to dance, but searches for a way to express a term in English that’s on the tip of her tongue. “How do you say, I have two left feet?” she asks. It turns out to be the same expression in both Spanish and English. Everybody laughs.
The MV Transportation bus is making the rounds, transporting students to Puente and back home again. On Thursday nights, Puente hosts La Sala at the Pescadero Community Church, and MV shuttles the farm workers home at the end of the evening.
La Sala is Puente’s longest continuously running program, a social space geared toward single male laborers who are far from home. Puente volunteers serve food and the men talk, laugh and play music together.
Three of Puente's largest expenses include the costs of transporting participants to La Sala, Story Time, ESL and its many other weekday activities, childcare for all programs, and food and snacks for program participants who would otherwise have to skip a meal to attend classes.
In the multi-purpose room, tables and art supplies have replaced Zumba dancers. A dozen children are in Homework Club tonight while their parents take ESL classes. The elementary and middle school students have finished reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ and have thoroughly enjoyed constructing their own caterpillars out of beads and pipe cleaners. They also painted butterflies, and can explain the butterfly life cycle.
Now it’s snack time. Part of the meal involves ‘ants on a log’ – celery sticks topped with peanut butter and raisins. The kids also make their own caterpillars out of grapes speared on toothpicks.
“We’re playing with our food today, and I feel great about it,” says Mohaupt, surveying the children. When the kids finish their meal, they jump up to start reading or doing math exercises with Puente staff and high school students doing community service.
Puente staff begin to put away tables and vaccuum the childcare area as students of all ages head home. Another full and wonderful day is done.