Why we give to Puente: Ana and Mike Polacek

When Ana Polacek hears her ESL students talk about their English language slip-ups, the humiliation of a botched conversation or a forgotten vocabulary word, she encourages them to persevere. But she also recognizes their frustrations.

“My dad came from India and my in-laws came from Argentina. None of them spoke English. So I let them know: I understand how hard it is,” she says.

Two days a week, from 10 a.m. to noon, Ana volunteers with Puente, teaching ESL to mostly mothers who want to get better at speaking English so they can better connect with their children’s teachers, improve job skills, engage in the larger community, and help their families thrive.

“It’s not just about learning for fun – it’s a necessity. ‘How do I go to the grocery store and ask for a product? How do I talk to my son’s teacher?’ It’s important for them to learn this so they won’t be disenfranchised.”

Ana teaches one of four classes in Puente’s ESL program. The other three occur at night and tend to draw farm workers, who are mostly men. The program has nearly 100 students.

Some of Ana’s students have been with her since she started teaching at Puente four years ago. It’s a lighthearted class, with plenty of laughter and joking. But they also discuss serious matters in their children’s lives, like how to handle schoolyard bullies or bad grades. Ana is a mother too, so that’s another point of commonality.

Mike and Ana Polacek

Mike and Ana Polacek

Ana and her husband Mike live on a hobby farm just outside Pescadero’s main drag, in a house they worked on patiently for years and built from the ground up. The same attitude applies to their work in the community. Ana has teaching credentials in social studies and math, and has taught ESL in countries as diverse as Spain and Japan. She could teach anywhere, but she chooses to invest herself in Pescadero. She and Mike also support Puente throughout the year with funds to help locals buy school supplies, Christmas gifts, and warm clothing for local farm workers.

“There are so many worthy organizations to donate to. We choose to donate locally. Why not help our immediate community?” she says.

Mike Polacek agrees. The couple became aware of Puente at a local house party four years ago, which was hosted by a friend. After that, Ana began working with Puente, while Mike joined the board of PMAC, the Pescadero Municipal Advisory Council, which works with the county to solve problems affecting the area and its residents.

Mike is PMAC president this year. With years of experience in the tech sector and the financial services industry, he joined the board to help improve the strained relationship between PMAC and the county. He can, and does, go “toe to toe” with officials who sometimes overlook his rural area. He took on the issue of flooding in town – a seemingly intractable problem, but one where Pescadero has made some progress in the past three years.

“Making a little bit of a dent in a big problem may seem silly, but it does make a difference. You can’t solve everything, but you can solve something,” he explains.

Here in town, Mike has seen people help keep each other’s tractors going, or rush to donate food and clothing to neighbors who lost everything in a fire. At one point, two Spanish-speaking farm workers helped Mike and his wife pull their car out of a ditch.

It’s the same with Puente, he adds. “Puente really fills a huge gap that people need. It’s always nice to be able to see results, to see people helping each other. Today you write a check to a big organization and you never know where it goes.”

Ana’s favorite moments come from seeing her students go out into the world and get things done without fear or embarrassment. “One student told me she was translating for her husband at a DMV appointment. It gave her confidence. She said she knew it wasn’t perfect, but she did it.” Other ESL students can now understand their children’s homework and text messages. They’re connecting with their families in new ways.

In the next couple of years, Ana will transition out of her role at Puente and into a new position at Pescadero Middle and High School: substitute teacher. But she and Mike will maintain their ties to Puente, and encourage others to volunteer or donate as they can. “He thinks it’s just as important as I do that we spend time to make our community better,” she says.

Why I give to Puente: Lorraine Eberhardt

Lorraine Eberhardt is an example of how grassroots support has an impact on Puente’s ability to serve the community. Eberhardt and her family give a modest monthly donation to Puente, and it really adds up. Each year, Eberhardt’s donations enable Puente to buy holiday-time gift certificates for six families. Yet Eberhardt downplays her contributions.

“I feel like it’s the least I can do. I see what Puente does for the community. I wish I could do more,” she says.

Eberhardt lives at YMCA Camp Jones Gulch in La Honda with her husband and son, who just graduated  from Pescadero High School. As YMCA Group Services Director she lives in a home on camp property, deep in the tranquil redwood forest. She first became aware of Puente eight years ago, when staff members approached the camp about starting a Puente summer program and bringing in Puente youth workers to supervise as junior counselors.

Lorraine Eberhardt with son Lucas and husband Craig

Lorraine Eberhardt with son Lucas and husband Craig

Growing up on the South Coast requires a creative approach to extracurricular and educational opportunities, one reason why Lucas was thrilled when he heard about a new program Puente was offering high school students: a year-long interdisciplinary Introduction to Latin American Studies course through the SAAGE (Stanford Academic Alliance for Global Enrichment) initiative of the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford. He joined a handful of his classmates and other students from East Palo Alto for the seminar experience which was a big success.

“He loved that program. It was very eye opening for him. It was great socially, because he was going over the hill, meeting other high school students. He got his first taste as to what college was like. And it pumped up his GPA,” says Eberhardt. When Lucas graduated from high school this summer, he was class salutatorian. He is headed to college at Belmont University in Tennessee to study nursing in the fall.

With her son out of the house, Eberhardt is hoping to find some time to volunteer with her favorite local nonprofits, South Coast Children’s Services and Puente.

“It just seems like Puente is involved at every level, whether education for families or free help at tax time. Puente is so tuned in to people’s needs and makes sure that they don’t do without,” says Eberhardt.


To donate to Puente, please visit https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/puente

Why I give to Puente: Ben Hernandez

Ben Hernandez sees a lot of himself in the children of farm workers who live on the South Coast. The 65-year-old rancher is descended from immigrant farm workers himself.

Ben Hernandez

Ben Hernandez

That’s why Hernandez donates to Puente: it’s personal. “Puente is capable of opening eyes and giving opportunities to the youth of farm worker families that they would never otherwise have had,” says Hernandez, who has lived in San Gregorio for more than two decades. Two years ago, he became a monthly sustaining donor to Puente.

Hernandez knows from his own childhood how rare, and exceptionally valuable, those opportunities can be. He and his older sister were the first in their family to graduate from university. His father worked two jobs to make that kind of life possible for them, and his parents pushed their kids hard to succeed.

“My dad and grandparents, they thought education was the most important thing that could possibly happen,” recalls Hernandez.

Hernandez’s life has some echoes of the agricultural legacy he inherited from his grandparents on his father’s side. They were migrant workers for years together, harvesting grapes and other crops all around Southern California. His grandfather was a Mexican immigrant from Chihuahua who eventually worked his way on to a railroad company in Los Angeles.

Hernandez grew up in Los Angeles and went to UC Irvine, but found the rural life suited him the most. Today he and his partner raise certified Red Angus cattle on a picturesque seaside property. He is also a watercolor artist who derives much of his inspiration from the agricultural landscape that surrounds him. But his is not an untouched landscape. It’s life, as he knows it. He’ll paint a field where people work, and he’ll also paint the farm workers.

Hernandez says Puente shares his passionate conviction that the low-income, immigrant workforce deserves everything Puente can provide: education, career options, health insurance, immunizations, hot meals and financial assistance. These actions extend a sense of self-worth to a community that struggles every day. That’s work he says he’s proud to support.

“It took me two generations to realize my real potential,” says Hernandez. “Puente gives this same realization to the community they represent, without having to wait decades to accomplish each individual’s potential.”


To donate to Puente through May 6, please visit http://svgives.razoo.com/story/Puente-De-La-Costa-Sur

All future gifts, please visit https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/puente