Alumni Continue Serving Escondido School, Community During Crisis
By Brian Hiro
Last Wednesday, as he does every weekday at 6:15 a.m., José Manuel Villarreal convened a huddle – with appropriate social distancing, of course – of a small team of coworkers in the parking lot of Epiphany Prep Charter School in Escondido.
Each person in the huddle offered a number from one to 10, with one representing “I’d rather be anywhere else” and 10 equating to “There’s no place I’d rather be.” Then someone threw out an ice-breaking question of the day: “What have you learned in the last few months?”
After checking in with a 10, Villarreal gave an answer with his tongue firmly in his cheek.
“What I’ve learned,” he said, “is that you can catch a virus from drinking Corona beer.”
With that welcome dose of levity in the air, it was time to get to work. For the next 3½ hours, from 6:30 until 10, Villarreal and his team operated a drive-through line for Epiphany Prep students and their families to pick up the food and school work they need during this unprecedented period, when much of the country has come to a standstill because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re battling through what is the social norm of staying home,” said Villarreal, the assistant superintendent at Epiphany Prep and a 2010 graduate of the Joint Doctoral Program (JDP) in Educational Leadership at Cal State San Marcos and UC San Diego.
“But what we’re really doing is serving the people we came into this community to serve – not when it’s convenient for us, but rather when they really need us.”
Villarreal is one of five CSUSM alumni who are part of the effort. The other three on site every weekday morning are Blanca Zuñiga, Epiphany Prep’s counseling coordinator and a 2013 CSUSM graduate with a degree in human development; Johanna Sanchez, the school’s coordinator of Multiple Language Learners and a 2013 CSUSM alumna; and Arturo Venegas Montiel, an aide in Epiphany’s before- and after-school program who’s scheduled to graduate this year with a bachelor’s in criminology and justice studies.
There’s also founding principal Ana Lozano-Partida, a 2018 product of the same JDP program that Villarreal completed, who’s leading a newly implemented distance learning initiative with teachers and support staff.
“I’m so proud, and CSUSM should be proud, of this group,” said Villarreal, whose wife, Sarah, is a longtime employee of the university. “We tell them you have every right to be at home; you don’t have to be here. But everyone has decided to be out here on their own.”
Epiphany Prep, which opened in 2016, serves 757 students from transitional kindergarten through eighth grade, and it will be promoting its first class this year. More than 95% of the students are Latino and from low-income families, so their need for food services and educational work that’s not reliant on the internet remains acute while school is on hiatus.
The drive-through line started on March 16, the same day that Epiphany Prep closed as a result of COVID-19. For the last two weeks, the volunteer staff members have handed out an average of about 150 academic enrichment packets and 250 food bags per day. And since each bag contains both breakfast and lunch, that’s nearly 500 meals served to students every day.
“As we see the students through the car windows, they’re waving at us, there are smiles on their faces,” Montiel said. “And we have the same reaction. We’re happy to see all of our students.
“Some of our students by now have access to the internet, but these packets allow them to continue to develop their learning, to continue to have some type of structure at home. As for the food, it brings peace to my heart that we’re helping to ensure they’re eating every day.”
For the small percentage of students whose families have yet to stop by the school for either food or academic packets, Epiphany Prep plans to initiate this week a service that it’s calling Eagle Eats – in a nod to the food delivery service Uber Eats, but with the school’s mascot – in which Villarreal will drive around Escondido and drop off the needed items at the homes of the families.
“We’ve identified them to be the neediest students on campus, and those are the ones who are worrying us right now,” Villarreal said. “They’re not coming to us, so we need to take it to them.”
Villarreal said he has received no reports of anyone in the Epiphany Prep community contracting COVID-19. As for the morning volunteers, they are taking all the necessary precautions, including having a safety officer on hand, wearing gloves and keeping attuned to social distancing.
Zuñiga said her work and her relationships with students and their families is too important for her not to be deeply involved during this crisis.
“I have real heart for this work and am committed to serving not just our students but our community as well,” she said. “I know that I could be at risk, but it’s not something that I think about. I’m more focused on, ‘What impact am I making today?’ ”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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