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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

In April 2020, as the global shutdown took hold and affected many in the San Juan Capistrano community, CREER Comunidad y Familia stepped up to assist those in need.

The small San Juan-based nonprofit organization previously held afterschool sessions for second-language students whose primary language is Spanish—but as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, CREER’s mission added a slight twist. The nonprofit began distributing food to those in need, with a long line of cars waiting to drive up to their offices near Stone Field Park to receive food and other items—a common sight in town during the early days of the health crisis.

Now, nearly a year after they began the food distributions, members of CREER reflected on the changes, challenges, and lessons they have learned during the worldwide pandemic.

Volunteers have helped CREER Comunidad y Familia distribute food to those in need throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: Collin Breaux

“We’ve been doing the food pantry every Tuesday,” Education Director Rosario Rowell said. “When we started the pantry, we wanted to do the pantry for 90 days.”

Executive Director Angeles Ceballos said they are still serving some of the families they were helping prior to the pandemic.

“We started getting five pallets, 10 pallets, 20, 30 pallets,” Ceballos said of their response during the onset of the distributions. “At the height of the pandemic, we were helping between 800 to 900 families per week. We had a 45-minute wait to come into our pantry.”

CREER’s office has been turned into a practical storage room for food, diapers, and other distributed items. CREER partnered with Alexandra Yates from OCC Food Recovery Kitchen for the distribution and also received CARES Act funding from the City of San Juan Capistrano to buy food and diapers. The Ecology Center, OC Food Bank, and individual residents have also helped financially and in other ways.

“People would drive by and just come over here and say, ‘What can I do to help you?’ ” Rowell said. “People brought us lemons. People brought us oranges. They brought us masks.”

The afterschool tutoring sessions CREER had held before the COVID-19 outbreak are currently on hold, since the majority of their tutors are elderly. Ceballos and Rowell do not want the tutors to risk getting sick.

“When the dust settles, we will be here. Ninety percent of the people we helped before lived at or below the poverty level,” Ceballos said. “It was imperative for us to be here, helping them with their education, to close those gaps that poverty creates—cultural and academic. However, at this time, the main concern they have is food insecurity and housing.”

CREER representatives said the health crisis has been devastating for the area’s Hispanic population, since it’s left long-lasting health and economic effects. Work hours have been cut, people have lost jobs, some haven’t recovered after contracting the coronavirus, and a lot of Hispanic people don’t have access to resources for help, Ceballos and Rowell said.

“It’s like a tale of two cities we have in our small community,” Ceballos said. “We have people living in houses and everything. We have families living in a bedroom. I’m not talking about a one-bedroom apartment—I’m talking about a bedroom, five people living in a bedroom.” 

CREER is still distributing food every Tuesday, from 11 a.m. until it runs out. Their office is at 31322 Camino Capistrano. A mask is required if you go.

“It’s remarkable to think that in moments like this, people come together to help one another,” Ceballos said. “Human beings are very resilient. We learn from our mistakes. We adapt. … We need to work together. It doesn’t matter political affiliations or color of your skin. We all work together for the main goal, which is to survive this thing.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.

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