Two thousand families in the San Jacinto Valley are going to have a Thanksgiving feast to remember due to the generosity of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians through its Soboba Foundation. For the fourth consecutive year, Foundation members have coordinated the event with assistance from local school district representatives and Soboba Casino Resort staff. This collaboration provides struggling and grateful families with all they need to enjoy the holiday.
San Jacinto Unified School District was able to distribute vouchers to 800 families at its school sites as well as Betty Gibbel Regional Learning Center, St. Hyacinth Academy, San Jacinto Valley Academy and 65 for the Valley Community Pantry. Hemet Unified was able to give 1,000 families the opportunity to enjoy this generous donation and included sites in outlying areas such as Anza and Idyllwild. About 200 meal boxes were provided to various nonprofits.
On Nov. 17, close to 100 volunteers spent the afternoon distributing food to voucher holders who drove through the San Jacinto Unified School District’s main parking lot, as well as directing traffic and checking in each vehicle. All food items were delivered on pallets by the district’s nutrition services personnel. Each food box was filled with a 20-plus pound frozen Butterball turkey, six-pound cans of corn and green beans, cranberry sauce, four pounds of frozen mashed potatoes, stuffing mix and a three-pound can of turkey gravy. A 12-count package of fresh dinner rolls and a frozen pumpkin pie rounded out the meal fixings.
SJUSD’s Family & Community Engagement Specialist Carla Adame trains and supports the family liaisons at most of the school sites. They are the ones responsible for identifying and selecting the neediest of families to receive one of the Thanksgiving dinner donations.
“We definitely saw an increase in requests this year. We try to be sensitive to the demographics in determining who gets served,” Adame said. “My favorite part of this event is looking inside the cars and seeing if there are kids that I can say hi too since that is who this is for.”
Each box carries an approximate value of $120 had the families purchased the items outright and Soboba Foundation Coordinator Andrew Vallejos said it was important to help out this year due to inflation affecting everyone. He said he was happy that Sysco was still able to provide a good price on everything and that the Soboba Foundation was able to come together and make this happen again this year.
“The Tribe is fortunate to be in a position to give back at a time when there is so much uncertainty in the economy,” Soboba Tribal Council Chairman Isaiah Vivanco said. “Even now when food prices are up, we are happy that we are able to provide Thanksgiving dinners so families can enjoy this special time together and not have to worry about the cost of the meal.”
Soboba Tribal Council Vice-Chairwoman Geneva Mojado stayed busy at the pallet of pumpkin pies, making sure each roll cart that made its way down the assembly line of food items got what was needed. After all items were placed into one large box marked with a Happy Thanksgiving sticker, other volunteers hoisted them into waiting vehicles.
“I enjoy seeing everyone come together for this event each year,” Mojado said. “We are grateful that we can help the community and students and their families are grateful, too. You can hear it in their voices when they thank us as they drive up.”
Soboba Tribal Council Secretary Monica Herrera said, “During this time of reflection as we prepare for the holiday, our Soboba family wants to provide other local families with a full meal to enjoy, despite these hard economic times.”
“It warms my heart to see all these families smiling and saying thank you as they receive their box of food,” Soboba Foundation President Dondi Silvas said.
SJUSD Superintendent David Pyle volunteered to help fill the food boxes that were loaded into trunks and back seats of vehicles that drove through the District Office parking lot in two lanes.
“An incredible tradition has continued for yet another year,” Pyle said. “The support our families receive throughout the year on behalf of Soboba is unmatched year-round and truly magnified during the holiday season. Providing over 800 Thanksgiving meals to many of our neediest families is yet another example of Soboba’s above and beyond service to the San Jacinto Unified School District. We are hopeful this tradition will continue for many years to come.”
The following day, Hemet Unified School District’s main office set up a distribution center so chosen families could drive through and receive their boxes, which were prepackaged by HUSD nutrition services employees. The Business Services department was highly involved in the entire process, including creating different signage and banners to remind families that Soboba was behind the turkey meals they were receiving.
Soboba Tribal Council Treasurer Daniel Valdez pitched in to help for a second day. “It’s great to be back again this year. I always love contributing when I can,” he said.
Catie Stanley, who is the marketing director for Soboba Casino Resort and a Hemet-San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce board member, recruited a dozen volunteers for the first day of distribution and at least 10 for the second day at HUSD. All sported turkey drumstick headbands and special Thanksgiving tee shirts.
“As a community member myself, I love this event,” Stanley said. “It is so much fun being able to see the people we are giving back to and we get to work together with our team members.”
Soboba Casino Assistant General Manager Jason Cozart was one of those that volunteered his time both days. Also a Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians Tribal member, he enjoys being able to help out each year.
“Our doing this brings a lot of relief to families who are struggling,” he said. “Anything we can do to help is a blessing. It also gives our team a chance to work together with the Foundation, it’s a team effort.”
As the Coordinator of School, Family & Community Partnerships, Miriam Ortiz said she feels everyone at HUSD who was involved with the event helped refine the processes so things were running smoother this year.
Emily Shaw, who is HUSD’s Director of Wellness and Community Outreach, said, “I think the support that Soboba provides to our community is immeasurable. We are so grateful for their partnership because without them, we wouldn’t be able to do this. They always go over and beyond.”
Soboba Foundation Treasurer Julie Arrietta-Parcero said she likes the fact that they are always able to help someone else out. Foundation Secretary Antonia Briones-Venegas worked alongside Julie to keep the line of cars moving as items were placed in the vehicles, two at a time on each side of the canopy-covered pallets of food items.
“I like knowing that there will be kids that won’t go without because we are able to give them this food,” Antonia said. “To me, family gatherings for whatever reason mean a lot. I’m glad we do this.”
Another benefit to SJUSD recipients was the inclusion of a care bag that included hand sanitizer, COVID-19 test kits and other items for a safe gathering. Those items tied into a door hanger that was put in each box, reminding parents and guardians that “Attendance Matters” and the importance of keeping children home if they are sick but verifying all absences for possible follow-up by the District Nurse or school health office staff. HUSD also offered at-home COVID-19 test kits to each family as they checked in upon arrival.
Photos courtesy of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians