Over 20 Imperial County families won’t have to worry about buying their Thanksgiving dinner after donations provided each one with a turkey and a gift box filled with Thanksgiving dinner essentials directly on his doorstep, Tuesday morning.
“It’s the Mission: Thanksgiving today,” said Jessica Aceves, Director of Alternative Education for the Imperial County Office of Education.
“We are going to meet today; we have our lists of families that were recognized by our staff as the most needy families, ”he added.
The families were selected by ICOE members, Alternative Education staff and were selected from each city in the county, Aceves explained.
“We want to highlight the generosity of our partnership with Centinela State Prison,” Aceves said.
“We are grateful for the coordinated efforts of Lt. Mario Alonzo and our principal Monalisa Vitela to provide additional resources to our students and their families,” said the principal.
Alonzo, a San Diego resident, had participated in similar community fundraisers in state prisons he had previously worked for and noted the need for a similar program in Imperial County.
“I had realized that no one was helping the community,” Alonzo said.
After asking for donations from other community officials, several pointed him in the direction of the ICOE Director, Vitela, as a person to help find a home for their donations.
“Mrs. Vitela came about because she had helped a couple of sergeants who used to go to this school,” Alonzo said, referring to Imperial Pathway Charter School.
“Now they have turned around and are working at Centinela,” he said.
In July, Alonzo began the first month of donations to the ICOE by sponsoring pizza dinners to three families from each city in the Valley.
“When we deliver pizzas to families, we make sure to thank parents for making sure their children get to school,” Alonzo said.
As union president of the California Corrections Supervisors Organization, Alonzo got union members to participate in the first round of donations and then challenged other officers to pitch each following month by providing toiletries and other essentials for children. students and adults from across the county.
“It became non-perishable foods like beans, rice, soup and food packages for families to keep at home,” Aceves said.
“Then it became a sock drive for the boys and a sweatshirt drive,” he explained.
In last month’s sweater drive, 88 sweatshirts were distributed to children and students, Aceves recalled.
Alternative Education staff members were inspired by the generosity of Sentinel officers and joined in Thanksgiving donations by providing all the ingredients for dinner, including a box of filler mix, mashed potato mix , butter, pumpkin pie, whipped cream, and muffins.
Twenty-six officers from the Sentinel A Yard State Prison Third Guard joined Alonzo in donating the turkeys that were distributed to each family. Some ICOE officers and staff members also helped distribute each turkey and each box on Tuesday morning.
“I used to work for the well-being of students as a program specialist here at ICOE,” said Sentinel Sgt. Antonio Gomez.
“I have always helped the community. … Now that I have the opportunity to give back, I want to take advantage of it ”, he explained.
Gomez, a Calexico resident, was among the officers who joined El Centro’s Valley Academy School Alternative Education staff members to load boxes of Thanksgiving dinner into cars designated for each family and city, early Tuesday morning.
“There are people who are less fortunate than us, and this gives people hope for the future,” he said.
“You can see that we not only take care of the prisoners, but we also take care of the members of the community,” he said.
Since the school started, several Alternative Education students have enjoyed monthly donations from Lieutenant Alonzo, said Aurora Suárez, ICOE case manager.
“The response from the children (to the donations) has been really good,” Suárez said.
“It was really cool because I saw the students taking care of the sweatshirt they were given,” he explained.
Suarez donated to the Thanksgiving boxes and also participated in the door-to-door distribution on Tuesday morning.
“They are very good children. I know most of these kids and I know they would appreciate something like this, ”Suarez said.
Beyond the 20 families who received a Thanksgiving box, two other homeless students within Imperial Pathway Charter School will receive a collection of gift cards for various local businesses and restaurants, said Yolanda Benito, a teacher at the school.
“We raised money to help them buy the gift cards,” said Benito.
“They are both students approaching graduation in our adult program and they needed that kind of help,” he said.
Donations will continue in December as the Alonzo Sentinel team of officers will sponsor several families selected by ICOE staff to provide their children with Christmas gifts.
Their officers will also donate coloring books to certain students so they can use their donation as a Christmas present for their younger siblings, Alonzo explained.
“We are going to adopt families for Christmas and I am going to challenge other Sentinel lieutenants to adopt a family as well,” Alonzo said.
“In prison, when a challenge is launched, there is no going back, and I already have calls from other lieutenants who want to join,” he said.
Alonzo said he hopes that by giving officers a way to give back to the community, they will learn to continue this tradition of gratitude each time they decide to retire.
“There are a lot of people who want to get involved,” he said.