Soboba Foundation Talks Turkey

◆ By Mike Hiles

The Soboba Foundation helped local families give thanks this season by providing turkeys to those most in need. This is the first year that the nonprofit arm of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians has hosted a turkey distribution event. The Foundation’s sponsorship coordinator Andrew Vallejos said the logistics of undertaking such an operation is always a challenge.

“But we knew if we reached out to the two school districts in the valley, they would help us make it happen,” he said.

By accessing the districts’ parent resource staff and parent liaisons at each school site, those most in need were easily and quickly identified. Each school site received an amount of turkeys based on its pupil enrollment with 330 11-plus pound turkeys designated for each district.

Nelida Gonzalez is a community liaison for San Jacinto Elementary School and commented on what a blessing it was to have Soboba reach out to them as they did. Working directly with the families of students at her school, her job is to be observant and be there to help with resources and guidance when needed.

“As liaisons, we help families overcome obstacles so our students can concentrate on their education,” she said. “When told we would be fortunate enough to receive these donations, I reached out to our teachers first, then to our counselors and then to our administration to identify the 25 most needy.”

Gonzalez said when she gave out the vouchers to parents, some cried and one just hugged her.

“We’ve got families going through tough times and this was something they needed,” she said. “One family had their house burn down in August and they are still in the process of recovering from that. There are many different reasons they are in need, but all of their stories really make your heart warm.”

Giovanni Hernandez is the liaison for the San Jacinto Head Start/State Preschool whose campus is adjacent to San Jacinto Elementary. He said that a spreadsheet allowed the schools to easily ascertain families with students at multiple schools in the district to be sure they were maximizing the donations.

“We are very appreciative and thankful that we can do this and to be here giving it to them directly is so nice – such a great feeling,” Hernandez said. Soboba Foundation’s Vice President Dondi Silvas, started at 9 a.m. to help staff from San Jacinto High School distribute its 90 turkeys.

“I’m very grateful we were able to do this,” she said. “We’re very blessed to be able to help the community and I enjoy doing it. We also do the toy drive each year, which benefits families in our valley and beyond. We expanded it this year for an extra week because we received so many requests for donations.”

Two more dates for the Toy Drive will be Dec. 3 and Dec. 10 from 12 to 8 p.m. Toys valued at $20 or more can be taken to the new Soboba Casino Resort Event Center to be redeemed for $40 in free slot play.

In about three hours’ time, all turkeys had been distributed and district personnel were headed home.

“This morning went amazingly smooth for the first year!” said Jacob Briones, Soboba Foundation Treasurer. “Andrew Vallejos never disappoints with his organizational skills. The school districts and all the volunteers helped make this morning great. I definitely look forward to next year!”

Briones is also a Fire Captain with the Soboba Fire Department and brought three other members with him to help unload the frozen turkeys from refrigerated trucks to small wheeled bins that could be kept at each school site table for easier pick up.

Young children who accompanied their parent(s) in redeeming their turkey voucher were invited to explore the inside of the Soboba fire engine parked at the San Jacinto Unified School District warehouse and offices where the Nov. 23 event was held. Schools will be closed for this entire week to celebrate Thanksgiving but for the few families that couldn’t make it to the pick-up event, volunteers agreed to make arrangements to meet them before Thursday at the school site to ensure they have their turkey for the special day.

Miriam Ortiz is a Parent Engagement Specialist with Hemet Unified School District and worked with her team of parent liaisons to determine which families among the 28 school sites would receive a turkey donation. With more than 87 percent of the district’s population considered to be socioeconomically disadvantaged, she said every little bit helps.

Ortiz added that she also appreciated the fact that Soboba helped with transporting turkeys to outlying schools within her district.

“It would have been a hardship for families from our Idyllwild and Anza schools to drive here this morning, so we are thankful that the tribe offered to help out with this,” she said. Ortiz said her department dedicates all its efforts to supporting parents so they can in turn be better advocates for their children.

“Today really kicked off the holiday spirit for me,” she said. “And it’s exciting that we have been able to strengthen our partnership with Soboba.” HUSD’s Tahquitz High School staff leveraged this opportunity to help even more. Associated Student Body’s Lee Jones and parent Liaison Esmeralda Chavez collected $500 in cash donations from other staff members to put together all the fixings for each of the 24 families from their school.

A disposable roasting pan, canned goods, stuffing, gravy, fresh potatoes, eggs and butter were purchased and put together in a complete package for each family picking up a turkey.

Dawn Lawrence, who handles communications for SJUSD, said this event couldn’t have come at a better time for students in her district.

“When you have a mother who cries when she gets her voucher because she had just lost her job a week ago, it’s a game changer,” she said. “Our district offers free breakfast and lunch for students so when they are off for a week at Thanksgiving and three weeks at Christmas, families have to adjust their budgets for these times. For most families, these turkeys will last for more than one meal. Of course, we couldn’t have done any of this without Soboba.”

Photos courtesy of Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Soboba Foundation donated turkeys to needy families from both the Hemet and San Jacinto unified school districts. They were distributed on Nov. 23 at San Jacinto’s District Office

Soboba Foundation donated turkeys to needy families from both the Hemet and San Jacinto unified school districts. They were distributed on Nov. 23 at San Jacinto’s District Office

Trading vouchers for turkeys during the Soboba Foundation Turkey Drive on Nov. 23 were, from left, San Jacinto High School principal Courtney Hall, SJHS Parent Liaison Carmina Camacho and Soboba Foundation Vice President Dondi Silvas

Trading vouchers for turkeys during the Soboba Foundation Turkey Drive on Nov. 23 were, from left, San Jacinto High School principal Courtney Hall, SJHS Parent Liaison Carmina Camacho and Soboba Foundation Vice President Dondi Silvas

Members of the Soboba Fire Department helped keep bins full at each school site that greeted families who showed up with their vouchers on Nov. 23 at San Jacinto Unified’s District Office

Members of the Soboba Fire Department helped keep bins full at each school site that greeted families who showed up with their vouchers on Nov. 23 at San Jacinto Unified’s District Office

San Jacinto Unified School District Liaisons Nelida Gonzalez and Giovanni Hernandez were happy to greet families who traded a voucher for a turkey during the Soboba Foundation’s turkey distribution event on Nov. 23

San Jacinto Unified School District Liaisons Nelida Gonzalez and Giovanni Hernandez were happy to greet families who traded a voucher for a turkey during the Soboba Foundation’s turkey distribution event on Nov. 23

Staff members from Tahquitz High School in Hemet gladly donated money and time to assemble “all the fixings” to present to their school site’s families who arrived to pick up a turkey donated by the Soboba Foundation on Nov. 23

Staff members from Tahquitz High School in Hemet gladly donated money and time to assemble “all the fixings” to present to their school site’s families who arrived to pick up a turkey donated by the Soboba Foundation on Nov. 23