Why we give to Puente: Rob Johnson and Lary Lawson

Lary Lawson and Rob Johnson

Rob and Lary at the Puente office

It’s wonderful when an organization succeeds – but there is a special kind of parental pride that comes from having been there from the beginning and witnessed its first steps in the world.

That is how Rob Johnson and Lary Lawson feel about Puente. The longtime Pescadero residents have been volunteers from the earliest days of the Puente Ministry, founded in the back of the Pescadero Community Church. Their generous continuing efforts and donations have helped Puente grow its programs. Today, Johnson chairs Puente’s 13-member Board of Directors. Lawson is the South Coast CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) coordinator, helping Puente and the wider community prepare for emergencies.

As Puente celebrates its 15-year anniversary this spring, both men reflect on how they contributed to Puente’s origins – and how it’s been to watch the ‘little nonprofit that could’ become the go-to resource for the entire South Coast community.

“I realized that I was afraid to talk to anybody in town”

Johnson and Lawson, who are a couple, moved to Pescadero in 1988. Johnson describes the South Coast back then as a place even more insular than it is today, cut off from the outside world and stratified between the English-speaking Anglos and the Spanish-speaking Latino field workers.

“I realized that I was afraid to talk to anybody in town,” recalls Johnson. That changed when Rev. Wendy Taylor founded Puente and started offering Spanish classes — really conversation classes that gave Johnson a chance to learn about the background and culture of the fieldworkers in town.

That spirit of connection grows each year with community events that bring locals together, like Puente’s seasonal Pescadero Grown! Farmers’ Markets and the Christmas Posada. Puente’s twice-weekly Zumba classes bring women, children, and sometimes a few men of different backgrounds together to exercise. And Puente’s new upstart ESL curriculum (designed by Professor Guadalupe Valdés of Stanford University) is already paving the way for a new generation of Latinos to learn English — just in time to more fully benefit from forthcoming federal immigration reforms as well as, of course, so much more.

Rob, Rita (Puente's Program Director), and Lary

Rob, Rita (Puente’s Program Director), and Lary

And the learning continues. Johnson has watched the first generation of Puente youth go from teenaged interns to college students.

Johnson joined the Puente Board of Directors as Treasurer four years ago. He says he feels a “good energy” now. He sees it as a direct result of Puente’s spirited staff and dedicated cadre of volunteers.

“I think the town is much more integrated, much less segregated now. I think people are learning from each other.”

From bicycles to tax returns

Long before Puente came along, Lary Lawson used his connections at the Pescadero Thrift Store, run by South Coast Children’s Services, to bring t-shirts and other secondhand clothing to the migrant farm workers scattered around the area. After Rev. Taylor founded Puente, Lawson took on a ‘truck driver’ role – giving single men a lift to the homes of family members, especially at holiday time. Lawson would also pick up donated bicycles and convey them to their recipients in the bike donation program.

Those were the hand-to-mouth years, when Puente was there with a hot meal for field workers. Today, the organization still offers that along with a great deal more.

“They’ve grown from nowhere, to the church back room, to a small space in town, to the elementary school,” says Lawson, describing how Puente’s office space has shifted to accommodate its growth.

One perfect symbol of how much life has changed on the South Coast is that many of the people who never used to have the wherewithal to get around on their own are now filing annual tax returns with Puente’s free tax service. Both Lawson and Johnson are income tax volunteers with Puente, a job they both enjoy this time of year.

“I used to drive them around. Now they’re coming to us to do income taxes. That’s a huge leap,” marvels Lawson.

Rob filing taxes

Rob filing taxes


To donate to Puente, visit https://rally.org/puente. To learn more about volunteering with Puente, contact Abby Mohaupt at amohaupt@mypuente.org or (650) 879-1691 x196.

Why I give to Puente: Pat Farquhar

Pat Farquhar grew up on a farm in Ohio. And even though her life is pretty different now – she lives in urban Foster City and works at Verizon – she’s never forgotten the place she left behind. More than a decade ago, learning about the lives of farm workers in Pescadero sparked a relationship with Puente that continues to this day.

“I know what hard, physical, repetitive work is like,” says Farquhar. “I don’t think people know what the physical tasks are that these people do.”

Farquhar has donated a fixed amount to Puente every year since before 2002, a portion of which is matched by Verizon, her employer. Other Puente donors have had the same idea over the years – Symantec, Genentech and other local companies also have employee matching gift programs that allow Puente to maximize each gift.

Executive Director Kerry Lobel says she’s grateful for every single donation. “We’re constantly trying to find ways to stretch the giving that we have,” she says.

Farquhar’s introduction to Puente came from founder Rev. Wendy Taylor, a former pastor at the Congregational Church of Belmont. Rev. Taylor took Farquhar and other congregants on her behind-the-scenes tours of farm worker encampments, barracks and trailers. These housing sites were well off the beaten path, and seeing them was deeply affecting.

“That was eye-opening,” reflects Farquhar. “I was totally unaware of it – the conditions that people were working and living in.”

She was also deeply influenced by Rev. Taylor’s recent memoir, “No Longer Strangers: The Practice of Radical Hospitality,” which provides an account of the early days of Puente Ministry.

Over time, Farquhar has watched Puente grow from a church-based effort to funnel lifesaving essentials to single migrant workers on the coast, to a community-based nonprofit focused on improving the lives of every resident.

“It’s pretty remarkable… If you look at a decision that one person like Wendy can make, and how it all unfolds,” says Farquhar.


To donate to Puente, visit https://rally.org/puente. To learn more about how you can involve your employer in a matching gift program with Puente, contact Kerry Lobel at klobel@mypuente.org or (650) 879-1691 x 144. 

Why we give to Puente: Two faith groups speak out

Why we give to Puente: Two faith groups speak out

So many of the needs of participants in Puente programs are deeply practical: Blankets. Sweaters. School supplies. Toiletries. Two Puente donor groups, Knitzvah and the Metropolitan Community Church of San Mateo, understand this better than anyone and have brought their communities into the act of giving to Puente – sometimes in surprising ways.

Making blankets for Knitzvah at Shir Hadash Mitzvah Day (photo by Mindy Berkowitz)

Knitzvah gives Puente quilts, sweaters, hats and other items that members knit or crochet themselves. Loosely affiliated with Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, Knitzvah’s volunteers are constantly in “gift mode,” churning out baby booties, winter scarves, and even little knitted dolls for children whose parents can’t afford such a small luxury.

Since their first delivery of hand-crafted gifts to Puente in 2010, Knitzvah members have given 1,076 items to Puente clients, according to Barbara Berlant, founder of Knitzvah.

“People want to do good deeds, and they are thrilled to be able to make something to benefit someone else – especially Puente,” says Berlant. “They have huge hearts. And you could not buy the joy that if gives them to do this.”

Knitzvah crafts gifts for more than 15 hospitals, shelters and nonprofits around the Bay Area. Thanks to a meeting with Puente Executive Director Kerry Lobel, members were deeply moved by Puente’s story.

“It’s not a job for Kerry, it’s a passion. Our group felt that passion. It is our pleasure to help them,” adds Berlant.

See Puente’s wish list here.

Peninsula Metropolitan Community Church at Backpack Altar (photo by Rev. Terri Echelbarger)

The close-knit congregation of San Mateo’s Metropolitan Community Church has made Puente a priority since 2005; back when Puente’s unofficial motto was “Bicycles, Blankets and Beans.” The Rev. Terri Echelbarger, a longtime Puente volunteer, asks her congregation to gather school supplies for South Coast children. Every year, local students count on their generosity.

“In this part of the Bay Area, Pescadero is the area of greatest need. You can’t load up and walk to a Wal-Mart or anything like that,” says Echelbarger.

The church congregation, which numbers around 50, also prepares a Christmas stocking for both kids and adult farm workers living near Pescadero. The men get toiletries and clean socks. The kids get school supplies and small toys.

Another year, Echelbarger distributed empty Chinese take-out food containers and asked people to fill them up with loose change. They raised nearly $500 for Puente.

Echelbarger knows Puente well – she recently took a personal sabbatical to volunteer with Puente and help where she was needed.

“Puente is a very professionally-run, effective service on the South Coast. It’s a wonderful investment of our resources. We know that every penny is used in a responsible way that makes a real difference,” she says.


To donate to Puente, visit http://mypuente.org/. To learn about volunteer opportunities at Puente, call (650) 879-1691 ext 102 or rmancera@mypuente.org.