By Caroline Slivkoff
This year’s Second Harvest Hunger Fighters of the Year share a dedication to community service that started in early childhood.
When most people reach their golden years, they look forward to slowing down and taking it easy. One might assume, then, that this particular Hunger Fighter Award is honoring a senior citizen who goes above and beyond the ordinary, and that part is true. But Eola Cross is anything but ordinary! She has not only devoted her entire life to helping others, but for more than 20 years she has been the site coordinator for the Grey Bears’ “Healthy Food for Seniors”, a local program dedicated to the health and well-being of senior citizens in Santa Cruz County.
Eola’s weekly schedule includes – but is not limited to – overseeing a crew of truck drivers, coordinating the distribution of hundreds of bags of food, cooking and delivering food for the Seventh Day Adventist meal for needy families and the homeless, and picking up produce from Second Harvest Food Bank in the early morning hours so she can personally deliver it to seniors who are home-bound. Any and all of these voluntary duties are commendable, but there’s one more thing that’s noteworthy about Eola: she’s 91 years old.
“Sometimes when I get to the food bank at 6:30 AM, there’s Eola, waiting in the parking lot to pick up produce,” says Willy Elliott-McCrea, CEO of Second Harvest. “She’s a remarkable person.”
Eola believes that her commitment to helping others stems from her experiences as a girl during the Great Depression. Her memories are vivid as she recalls the challenges her family faced in De Queen, Arkansas. Her father was working for the town, and her mother was raising Eola and her 8 brothers and sisters. And then the Depression hit. Soon everything in town closed down, including the local bank where her parents kept their small savings.
Without their money, they could no longer keep their house, and the large family – which now included a boy whom her parents had taken in because his parents had died — ended up living in a tent next to a creek. Eola’s grandmother, whom she admired for her kindness and generosity, sent her parents $10 and suggested that they come to Texas where they might be able to find work cutting cotton.
They were devout, hardworking, Seventh Day Adventists, and their faith provided the strength they needed to endure many hardships, including their journey to Texas through the Dust Bowl. Eola remembers being 10 years old and looking for dandelions to eat. “I hadn’t had anything to eat for three days straight,” recalls Eola. “And that’s when I made my promise to God.”
Young Eola promised God that if He allowed her to live and not to starve, she would make it her mission that no one she’d meet would ever go hungry. “And that’s what I’ve done my entire life,” she says.
When she grew up, Eola became a nurse, married her husband, Lester, had a family, and moved to California. Just as her parents had done, Eola and Lester opened their home to children who needed a loving, stable environment. “The kids came to us in all different ways. Sometimes they found us and sometimes we found them. Lester and I liked having a house full of kids.” The couple ended up fostering more than 100 children over the years.
As the children grew up, Eola retired from nursing and began actively volunteering with the Grey Bears, an organization that she had learned about through a friend. Now, decades later, her kindness and selflessness continue to make a difference in the lives of the thousands of people who Grey Bears assists each year. “It’s the greatest joy,” Eola says. “You just don’t get any more joy than you do when you help others.”
When members of the Blue Ribbon Selection Committee for Hunger Fighter of the Year were asked why Eola was a standout among the Hunger Fighter nominees, Jess Brown, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau offered, “It was an easy vote. Eola’s energy and dedication are just incredible. She gives back to the community every single day, and she is a role model for all of us.” Added Mike Termini, Mayor of Capitola, “Mrs. Cross is an inspiration. The Grey Bears are like an Army of Good, and Eola is like the General of the Army.”
The Sandoval Family
It is with great sadness that this story must begin with the news that Margaret Sandoval, the beloved matriarch of the Sandoval family, has passed away. Margaret will be greatly missed by her family, friends, and all who knew her through her decades of volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank, but her kind heart, independent spirit, and selfless dedication will never be forgotten.
Margaret and Don Jesus Sandoval, along with their sons Sal and Ignacio (Nacho), are receiving Second Harvest’s Hunger Fighter of the Year Award for their extraordinary dedication to the Second Harvest community. While the family has tallied an incredible 10,728 hours of service over the last forty-plus years, what is even more extraordinary is that their spirit of volunteerism has been passed down from generation to generation.
“I remember Sal and Nacho as little kids coming to the food bank with their parents,” says Willy Elliott-McCrea, CEO of Second Harvest. “They have been volunteering with us for nearly as long as Second Harvest has been open. They are one dedicated family.” Sal and Nacho point out that they are not the only ones in the family who volunteer at Second Harvest. They have an aunt and cousins who volunteer, too.
Sal recalls helping his parents sort and fill food bags at the food bank when he was a young boy. Helping people out, he says, was just something that the family did. “My mom grew up that way, and we grew up that way, too.”
Margaret, who was born not long after the end of WWII, was raised in Hayward, California, in the East Bay. The family didn’t have a lot of money, but what they had, they shared. Margaret’s mother would cook up some food, and she and Margaret would bring it over to the nearby rail yard and give it to the traveling workers, or, “hobos,” who rode the rail cars.
As an adult, Margaret continued the family tradition of helping the hungry, and just like her mother before her, she and her husband Don Jesus encouraged the children to participate alongside her.
“Mom always had a lot going on,” recalls Nacho. “She was a board member for all kinds of organizations. She did lots of volunteering, and she also had a job. I remember one time when she was offered a bigger job with higher pay she asked us, ‘Do you want to have more money, or do you want to have me around more?’ We said that we wanted to have her around more.”
Before he retired, Don Jesus worked at the cannery and volunteered in his spare time. Now, he helps out at a senior center in Hollister, and thirty-three years after starting with Second Harvest, he continues to work with his sons at multiple food distribution sites for the food bank. Each week Nacho picks him up, and the two of them drive from Hollister to the pantry in Aptos, which Sal runs, or to the Seacliff Apartment distribution site, which Nacho runs.
When he’s not volunteering, Nacho works in auto repair. “My mom loved helping people,” says Nacho. “I like helping people, too, and it’s something I can do, so I do it.”
His brother, Sal, shares the same sentiment. Volunteering is just part of who he is. In addition to his duties at the distribution site, he cooks food for the church, makes burritos for the homeless, helps people sign up for CalFresh, hands out info about Second Harvest’s Food Hotline, and offers suggestions for food preparation. “I like talking with people and encouraging them.”
The Blue Ribbon Selection Committee tasked with choosing 2017’s Hunger Fighters of the Year were not only touched by the level of commitment to the community that the family has demonstrated over the years, but by the Sandovals’ close bond.
“It’s remarkable how Margaret and Don Jesus’ dedication to community service was instilled in their boys at such a young age,” says Susan True, CEO of the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. “The Sandovals are such a wonderful example of family strength and love.” Adds Ciel Cirilo, member of the Editorial Board of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, “I love that this family is being honored. They are so deserving because each one of them has dedicated their hearts to the Second Harvest community for so many years.”
It’s been over 40 years since Margaret and Don Jesus brought their children to Second Harvest to sort food, but the experience has had a lasting impact. Sal and Nacho have followed in their parents’ footsteps by dedicating themselves to feeding the hungry, and there is now a new generation of Sandovals who are also volunteering at Second Harvest. Thanks to the way of life modeled by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, it would not be surprising if a future Sandoval is awarded Hunger Fighter of the Year a few decades from now.
Eola Cross and The Sandoval Family will be honored at Second Harvest’s Annual Awards Dinner on March 7, 5:00 – 8:30 p.m. Hotel Paradox 611 Ocean St., Santa Cruz
Tickets $40 per person. For tickets and information, go to www.thefoobank.org/awards2018