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Una-Vida leader inspires army of volunteers to feed Petaluma

If Lynne Gordon Moquete had her druthers, her name and personal story would not even appear in this newspaper, simply so that there would be more room to highlight the other needs in our community.

Her parting words during our interview were that she thought I should write about Jennifer King and Jim Maltos, both of whom she met through the fires and who have been at her side ever since, always stepping in where help is needed.

A true giver, Lynne is driven to help lift others up, whether that means assisting kids and families through tough times or simply opening eyes, ears, minds and hearts. She reminds us that a lot of us have it pretty good, while both near and far there are many in need, often of nothing more than compassion and understanding.

“We are primarily serving them dignity and love, but that often comes through the connection we’ve made through food,” Lynne said.

She prefers the word “participant” to “volunteer.”

“We want people to see that we are all on the same level,” she explained. “None of us are any better than any of them. The moment we look down on people, we can’t be of service.”

It is not about giving back; it is simply about giving, no matter how small that effort may seem. Lynne is not pushy nor preachy; she leads by example. She does not have to ask us to be better people – that is something that seems to miraculously manifests itself in those that spend time around her.

I first heard of Lynne a couple of years ago when a request came across the Petaluma Foodies page on Facebook asking for any help available for her PB&J Club. As a teacher at Casa Grande High School for the past 26 years, she had noticed a disturbing pattern when more and more kids were showing up at school without lunch or lunch money. So, she asked for donations of these simple sandwiches, and the community piled on the PB&J. For years, Lynne has always had at least a sandwich available for any student who may wander to her room.

It continued to grow from there. Lynne’s classroom now offers a full pantry, and acts as a safe place for kids to come if they need someone to talk with. Lynne always offers up no-strings-attached compassion.

“They can take whatever and however much they want, but what they are usually here for is more than just food,” she says. “Primarily, we are offering dignity and love.”

Of course, the challenges of COVID and distance learning have caused Lynne and her massive team of “participants” to pivot. It has not dampened their spirits or their efforts. In fact, it has inspired new programs, outreach and donations at a time when it is needed most.

“Normally, the kids are at school, so we can easily feed them if they need it,” she said. “We survey all freshman and find out which families are in need. We are still doing that and then figuring out how to get them that help.”

However, it is a challenge. It is not unusual for Lynne’s crew to give away 500 PB&J sandwiches a week during the regular school sessions — there is no shortage of need.

The Petaluma School District reports that, at Casa Grande High School alone, more than half of the kids are in the free or reduced-cost meal program, a commonly used indicator of food insecurity on school campuses. Although much of Petaluma is affluent, Lynne sees it firsthand every day the needs of our more vulnerable.

Lessons Growing Up

The hardships Lynne grew up with helped shape who she is and what she does.

“People deserve dignity, compassion and understand, no matter what their personal situation,” Lynne said. “If my life experiences can help them see that they are not alone, then I feel like I have an obligation to share them.”

Raised in Marinwood with her family, she had two older siblings. Her father struggled when, as a child, he was moved from Hawaii to San Francisco without his family in order to attend high school. Lynne’s grandfather was employed by the Queen of England at Balmoral Castle, a royal estate in Scotland that is privately owned by the Queen of England. He was lured to Hawaii to manage a sugar plantation, which is where he met Lynne’s grandmother, a teacher from Pennsylvania. They raised Lynne’s father and auntie as part of the tight-knit community of the Big Island until the children finished primary school.

The only option for high school at the time was Punahou, a private school the family could not afford. Instead of ending their education early, the children were shipped off to live with friends in San Francisco where they attended Galileo High School, which was free to the public, something not available in Hawaii at the time. After growing up in such a small, insulated and supportive community, the big city experience was a shock. Lynne’s father finished high school and then attended San Francisco State University, where he graduated with a degree in recreation and then took a job in Marin, where he would retire as the recreational director in Marinwood.

“He was super humble and service-oriented,” remembered Lynne. In fact, he gave so much of himself both in his professional and personal life that the community center was named for him. “People still come up to me and share memories of my father giving them money out of his own pocket to make sure they were okay.”

Lynne’s mother was originally from Michigan but moved around a lot as the daughter of an Air Force Colonel.

“She had a super deep heart,” Lynne said. As a child, she would sit under the table listening to her mother speak with friends and relatives about people in need and what they could and would do about it. “That was 50 years ago and was my first and most important lesson about community.”

Life shattered a bit when Lynne’s mother passed away during Lynne’s high school years.

“She was my biggest fan and supporter,” Lynne said. “I was devastated. I went from winning community service awards to being suicidal.”

Lynne knows that sharing such deeply personal experiences help normalize others’ experiences, and it becomes easier to admit that we are all more alike than we are different.

“That was the beginning of my personal awareness of need,” Lynne said of losing her mother. “We never had a ton of money but always did OK. But then we went from two incomes to just one.”

While in high school, around families with a lot more money, Lynne’s family lost their home to foreclosure.

“We had to move into a trailer and even had to rent rooms out in order to make ends meet. There were eight of us in that trailer. I remember how embarrassed I was. Nobody should feel embarrassed just because they don’t have money,” she said. “I wish every day that mom was alive, but I learned so much about empathy through those experiences. …about when you have versus when you have nothing.”

Another valuable lesson came one day when she returned home to find her father crying on the front porch of the trailer. He could not even speak. With all the tragedy the family endured, Lynne could not imagine what else might have gone wrong.

Through the tears, he showed Lynne a check for $32,500, enough to pay off the trailer. This meant they would not have to rent rooms out anymore. A community member had received an inheritance and wanted to help the family who always helped everyone else. Years later, after her father’s passing, Lynne sold that trailer to put a down payment on a house here in Petaluma.

In the Peace Corps

After high school, Lynne attended College of Marin and San Diego State. She spent two and a half years in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.

“The village I ended up at was one of the poorest of the poor,” Lynne said. “There were only 240 inhabitants in the village, which had no running water or electricity. It was the hardest and most amazing time. What an incredible community. We washed clothes together; picked beans together. I was a participant, not a volunteer.”

She continued, “They took care of me like I was family. There I was supposed to be helping them, but they were helping me. They were helping me to change my perspective both about what is going on in the world as well as people’s infinite capacity to care.”

Lynne helped where she could. Just a first aid kit, something much of the world takes for granted, could mean the difference between life and death for this isolated village. She vividly remembers caring for people who were dying from a lack of simply healthcare.

“Sometimes all I could do was comfort them,” she said.

This village would become Lynne’s home away from home. Her father visited with her many times and even requested his ashes be spread there. Lynne has asked her family to do the same for her.

Since her first year of teaching she has also been able to take her students to visit and participate in this same village. This offers her students a truly unique opportunity because most organizations will not send volunteers to such desolate places.

When I ask what she and the students “do” when in the D.R., Lynne replies, “It is never what we do, it is who we become.”

Speaking with Lynne is like getting a fresh infusion of daily inspirations, and is enough to make you feel like you can do more to give back. She is about each of us doing our best, not matter how small that extra effort may be.

“It is about creating a space where there can be an emotional impact on those that participate,” she said.

She explains that it is not unusual for her Dominican family to come to her during their visits to report that one of her students broke down crying.

“These kids have never seen poverty like this, yet the people are so kind and accepting. It completely changes my kids’ perspective, hopefully for the rest of their lives,” she says.

Off to Casa Grande

After finishing college, Lynne moved to El Paso to attend the University of Texas where she eventually earned her master’s degree in public health and cross-cultural health. During that time, she spent two more years expanding her heart and mind, this time with AmeriCorps. Often considered the domestic version of Peace Corps, AmeriCorps has the stated goal of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.”

After graduation, Lynne moved back to California. With a master’s degree in hand, plus five years at the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, she thought she struck it rich, metaphorically speaking, when she landed a job working with farm workers in Gilroy as a bilingual health educator. Much to her surprise, her two-week evaluation included the word “incompetent” 13 times.

“They had me working with diabetes patients,” said Lynne. “I was supposed to give them pamphlets and send them on their way. There was no relationship building. I was not having a real impact. I was telling them what to do, as if I was somehow superior to them. My employer offered to give me another two weeks to try to ‘improve’ but I knew I was doing right by these people. If they thought my work was incompetent to that degree, there was no reason for me to stay.”

Lynne moved back to Marinwood and almost immediately found work with Petaluma City Schools teaching Human Interaction.

“My first thought was, ‘That’s a class?’,” laughs Lynne. After bouncing around for years, she set down deep roots. “I couldn’t hold a job through my 20s, but have now been at the same one for nearly half my life.”

Lynne has received numerous accolades, although during our conversation she brushes them aside, simply admitting that she has won awards. She appreciates the recognition, but only as a means to help spread the word about the need in our community. It is not like the joy it brings her to hear from former students about what they are doing to give back, locally or internationally.

To help facilitate her work, Lynne started Una-Vida 20 years ago. It was originally called “Building Homes; Building Hope” but she realized that name didn’t convey the right message. Una-Vida translates to “one life.”

“You only have one life, so what are you going to do with it?” Lynne asked with a smile.

Lynne does more in a day than most of do in a month. Recently, she reached out to a student who is going through a rough patch; his mother is ill. She asked him if he could receive one gift right now, what it would be. The next thing her social media friends saw was a post asking if anyone could help this boy get a new pair of Nike Air sneakers. And as is often the case, someone Lynne may not have ever met before immediately stepped in and took care of the request.

“A huge part of the message is ‘no shame’,” Lynne said. “Sometimes new clothes can do that for a kid. But that act of kindness is likely what will stay far longer than those shoes.”

Lynne’s ability to generate momentum is monumental. People seem to flock to her side. Because it is hard to figure out what makes Lynne such an incredible person, I think most are doing what they can to assist her, simply hoping that whatever it is that Lynne exudes will rub off on them.

That is her gift, she inspires, she encourages, she loves and if nothing else, she simply opens peoples’ minds to the idea of caring unconditionally. And she seems to do it without ever running out of energy. Friends have coined the term “Lynned” as a verb, representing the act of opening someone’s heart to the fact that there is a world much bigger than our own and that loving others, in whatever way we can, is the most important thing we can do.

Grace Under Fire

She speaks of being a single parent while raising three boys, who are now 31, 28 and 22.

“It isn’t easy to stand in line for food,” she admitted. “I had to do it, dealing with food stamps, holding up other people in line while the cashier figured everything out, only to tell me certain items didn’t qualify. It was painful, but if I saw any of my students there, I would make a point of not hiding it. I am nothing if not transparent. It’s the only way I know how to be.”

Lynne also openly shares that she was molested for three years during her youth.

“It is more common than people want to believe,” she said. “So, even if someone else isn’t ready to talk about their own experience, maybe hearing that others have been through it too will help them realize that it wasn’t their fault, that there is nothing wrong with them, or at least maybe they won’t feel so isolated. Most people think I’m a pretty good person, but they don’t know the choices I have had to make to not become bitter. We need to step away from our pain if we are going to be of service, or even just to be able to move on with life and not hold that against others who don’t deserve it.”

“We either become better or we become bitter” is yet another heart-warming affirmation she uses frequently.

I hesitate to broach the topic but cannot stop myself from inquiring whether Lynne ever feels her generosity is taken advantage of.

“If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it,” she replied in the kindest of tones. “I have been there myself and know it isn’t easy. So if they are here, they need it. And if they don’t, they will give it to others who do need it. It won’t go to waste.”

She then tells me of a recent experience at Una-Vida’s no-questions-asked, free grocery drive-thru, held each Tuesday evening at the Hillside Church of the Nazarene at 2689 Adobe Road in Petaluma.

“A nice man came to help out the other night,” she said. “We recognized him from previous weeks when he came through the line to pick up food for himself and his family. Partway through the evening, after helping load food, we stepped over to the curb and sat down. He started to cry as he told me how the week prior, he had taken two packages of lunch meat even though he was only supposed to take one. He felt so guilty that he wanted to repay us by coming back this week and volunteering.”

Listening to Lynne is like getting a first-hand reading of personal affirmations. Without any pretension, she strings together thoughts that are upliftingly heavy in thoughtfulness.

“This is not just what I do, but is who I am; it’s part of my soul,” she said.

A Writer’s Existential Crisis

During our conversation, I realized that no matter how much I do or how much I care, I will likely never reach the level of enlightenment that is Lynne Gordon Moquette. As selfish as it may sound, this caused an immediate feeling of depression and subconsciously made it challenging to even put pen to paper in order to complete this article. I wanted to speak with Lynne about my feelings but was afraid it might come off as insulting. That her hard work was making me feel like I paled in comparison was the last thing I wanted to saddle her with. However, after about a week of running that hypothetical conversation around in my head, I had an epiphany, thanks to all the past exchanges we’d had. She would be flattered but would simply say that we each have to do the best we can and not compare ourselves to others. Recovering from my own selfish feelings of inadequacy, I inquired of Lynne how people can help.

Getting Involved

“We share 800 or 900 bags of food a week, plus give away close and help people with special or immediate other needs, so there is always room for those that want to participate,” she replied. “And there are such a variety of tasks that even during COVID, there are things people can do to help even from their home.”

The Una-Vida website and Facebook page are the best way for people to follow Lynne and find out where help is needed.

“Una-Vida donations as tax deductible,” Lynne reminds me. “There is also a ‘participant’ sign-up form on the website. There is a never-ending list of errands, pick-ups and other tasks that we need help with. Even if you can only help for an hour, we welcome it. And during COVID and the fires, we are seeing more need than ever. With the help of the community, we recently secured a car for one family and are sponsoring several other families so they can pay their bills.”

And without batting an eyelash, Lynne is singing the praises of all those around her, yet again deflecting any attention that we might try to focus on what she has helped to create. “We get so much help from the community. Whether it’s the folks at the Petaluma Pie Company, Lunchette, Baskin-Robbins, the Elks or Petaluma Food Taxi, whenever we have a need, someone seems to step forward and fill it. Preferred Sonoma Caterers bakes us 100 loaves of fresh bread each week and has been for the past six months of the pandemic. Petaluma is an incredible community in that way.”

Lynne makes special mention of Torn Ranch and Petaluma Poultry. A Petaluma-based specialty snack company, Torn Ranch has been diverting a lot of their stock that was meant for resorts and cruise ships over to Una-Vida so it would not go to waste. Most recently, Petaluma Poultry, home of the Rocky and Rosie chickens, committed to donate thousands of pounds of chicken each week to Lynne’s efforts.

“Each family will be able to have a 10-pound bag of chicken. This is huge,” she said. “Our mission is to help lighten people’s load and this definitely does that.”

It is not unusual to hear people refer to Lynne as a saint and in all seriousness, there are a lot of parallels. Lynne’s gift to all of us is not what she does so much as what her presence brings out in people. Or more appropriately, it is what she helps people see in themselves. Simply put, she inspires.

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