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.
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.