Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa, FL, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Southern California, or Joe’s Hometown of Hazleton, PA. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Jeanette Mayer | Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County
“You don’t need a lot to be cared for so if you can help someone else along the way I think that’s beautiful.” – Jeanette Mayer
One of the books Jeanette Mayer read every year to her third grade students meant much more to her than just a topic for story time. For this native Californian, it has served as a blueprint for living. The book, “The Three Questions,” is a children’s version of a tale first told by Russian author Leo Tolstoy in 1885.
“In the book, the character is asked ‘When is the most important time? Who is the most important person? What is the most important thing to do?’” explains Jeanette. “Tolstoy is basically saying ‘Now is the most important time. The most important person is the one you’re with. And the most important thing to do is to help the person who is at your side.’ I am not high- minded or literary, I just love that story. It’s provided a lot of guidance, consciously or unconsciously. It just speaks to my heart and begs the question ‘What are you doing for others?’
“I just want be of help, be of service,” says the University of California, Irvine graduate. “I have regard for people who are less fortunate and always keep that in mind. I am lucky. I have an education, a house, good health. I don’t need a lot to be cared for, so if you can help someone else along the way I think that’s beautiful.
Jeanette has answered Tolstoy’s final question time and time again. The Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, the county’s largest nonprofit hunger relief organization, is one of many who have benefitted.
“She is one of the most selfless individuals who consistently channels her civic virtues through spending countless hours helping lead volunteer projects at the food bank and off site,” says Chrislynn VanSkiver, Volunteer Engagement Manager for Second Harvest. “Her consistency, sacrifice, and perseverance to make our community a better place is truly inspiring and it shows every day.”
Whether it is helping to categorize and process the Second Harvest’s incoming donations, working in the warehouse or at the Honda Center Pop Up Drive Thru Food Distribution Center, Jeanette is willing to help wherever there is need.
The temporary setup at the Honda Center was created to meet the increased need caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and is only one of a number of Second Harvest’s food programs. Originally set up for 3-4 weeks, it is now on its third month distributing food boxes to an average of 4,300 cars every Saturday. Jeanette is ubiquitous on those mornings coaching, directing traffic, handling boxes and giving encouragement to her fellow volunteers who number around 100.
Most impressive to Jeanette is the way Second Harvest prepared for this life- changing worldwide event. “They have adjusted very well,” she says. “To protect the mission was the goal. The staff was even broken into two teams so that if there was an outbreak on one team, the second team could keep the operations going.”
Jeanette has added another new task. “I’ve been making masks with whatever scraps of material I can find, but then I realized that when school starts again, the little kids will need masks. That’s my mission now, making little versions now. They’re cute.”
Growing up in El Cerrito, a suburb of San Francisco, Jeanette always thought of herself as a future teacher. “Somehow,” she says, “I got off that path.” Instead she found herself in the corporate world as a meeting planner for Prudential Real Estate in Southern California in the mid-1990s.
“I began thinking that if I was going to work that hard, I should be trying to find a cure for cancer or teaching the next generation,” she recalled. She decided to make a change. Within one week, she quit her job, bought a condo and began working on her teaching credentials at Concordia University in nearby Irvine. “For a person who didn’t like change,” she says. “I did it all.”
And there was more. Suddenly, finding herself with a bit of free time while going to school, she began volunteering. “I don’t really remember why I started going to the food bank,” she admits. “However, it must have stayed with me, because I definitely knew I wanted to go back.” Following a 20-year teaching career, she did.
After earning her teaching certificate, Jeanette was again sitting behind a desk, but this one was at John Adams Elementary School in Santa Ana, an economically disadvantaged community. “When those are your kids, you realize how big the gap is. It was mostly socio-economical. It doesn’t matter what race you are, where you are, if you’re poor, you’re going to have a tougher time getting an education for a variety of reasons,” she says of the experience that served her well later on. “Whenever there was a student who was having trouble that day, one of my questions was, ‘Did you have breakfast?’ So, I became aware of what kind of nutrition the students had available to them. You want them to be healthy and you want them to do well. “
After nearly two decades at John Adams, she was able to retire and focus on a number of community projects, among them was Second Harvest which by now had moved from the City of Orange to Irvine and grown exponentially.
By no means, has she abandoned teaching. Her husband of 20 years Robert, is a teacher. Twice a week she goes back to her former school to help friends and the kids. “I kinda come with a special set of skills that you wouldn’t get from a normal volunteer,” she says. “Really, I just want to help and support in any way I can. I am just trying to do my part as a citizen of the world.”
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation