In Service to Others

by | Apr 7, 2024 | My Wild and Precious Life

Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know.
Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done,
the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’ ― Lao Tzu


The idea first started coming to me when I was volunteering as a teacher’s helper in the small farming town of Kingsburg. Since I spoke Spanish, the teachers put me in charge of small groups of Mexican children. I began to notice their threadbare clothing and tattered shoes, especially because it was so cold outside.

None of them knew English. None of the children were acquainted with their peers or knew anything about classroom procedure. Each one seemed to feel completely lost, as if they had no idea what to do or say.

They also seemed hungry. I later discovered that, since it was not harvest time, their parents were no longer receiving their usual wages for picking crops. So with no money for food these children’s diets consisted of squash and whatever their parents could grow near their little huts.

I especially remember a first grader named Pedro. He was slight in build and very quiet. His dark hair needed a good washing and a haircut. But his brown eyes were clear and observant of everything going on. Like the others in this group, he rarely made eye contact and his head often drooped as if in embarrassment.

His parents had journeyed from a small town in Mexico to find a better life for their family by picking Thompson Seedless grapes in the summer months, through early September. But come October as the temperature fell, the need for field workers dried up leaving his family without employment. They weren’t documented migrants, so they stayed in their tiny shack and planted squash in the dirt nearby, hoping to survive until the next growing season.

Pedro’s clothes were dirty, way too big for him and had several tears. He never had a coat to keep him warm in the chilly, foggy valley days. He was quiet at first, but as we began to talk more in our small group he seemed to perk up. He was smart, eager to learn and once he got over his shyness he caught on to the lessons quickly. As I watched Pedro and his peers slowly emerge from their shells, I welcomed every day I spent with them.


So now it was the mid-1970s and I was raising my five kids in Kingsburg, a small farming community in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I wanted to be helpful to the teachers in my children’s grade school classrooms. When I offered my services to be a helper, the teachers were eager for my assistance.

Kingsburg was a small agricultural town with a population of about 3,000. The townspeople prided themselves on being a little Swedish community, complete with brightly colored Dala Horses on the lamp posts along Draper, the main street.

In later years, every May I sewed costumes for myself, each of my kids and my oldest granddaughter so we could participate in the Swedish Festival. One year I even had our old doctor’s buggy refinished to a brilliant black and red sheen and trained our black mare to pull the buggy in the parade with my son Matt, granddaughter Stephanie and me at the reins.

Another year, we entered our authentic 12-passenger stage coach packed with several of the kids from Sonshine Learning Center dressed in Swedish costume and pulled by our horses.

Bright flowers filled this little town’s stores and vendors served yummy fruit soup and crispy Ebelskivers. The main industry was farming with thousands of acres of row crops, fruit orchards, and grapevines. There was also a large cotton seed oil plant with a distinctive, but not unpleasant, odor that permeated the countryside.

My family lived in a relatively large house in the middle of town with expansive picture windows and three beautiful willow trees in front. Every day, after I took the kids to school, I would put my two-year-old son, Baird, in my bike’s child seat and pedal over to my neighbor’s house where several moms joined together for morning coffee. I enjoyed getting to know all of these neighborhood ladies and soon felt like I belonged.

My daughter Pam, who was about 12 at the time, was full of energy and really liked helping others. She was a cheerleader at school and belonged to the Tri Hi Y club which was part of the YMCA. Since I was trying to find a way to help the Mexican children in my son’s classroom, with whom I was building sweet relationships, it suddenly occurred to me that I could start with a clothing drive. Pam’s club was looking for a worthy project and this would be perfect. After explaining the children’s need for warm clothing, the girls enthusiastically agreed to this new venture.

I was hoping to use this project as a way for our Tri Hi Y girls to practice thinking strategically and to create an action plan. We all met in one of the junior high classrooms after school and began to make lists of what we would need. The lists included clothing drives in the schools and churches, flyers to get the word out, a way of picking up the donated clothes, a place to sort and store them for distribution, tables, hanging racks and clothes hangers and then a way of inviting the families to pick up their clothes.


I remember the day I met with Robin Petersen, the principal of the elementary school, to ask if he would approve conducting a clothing drive at his school to benefit some of the students. He was a really nice man and I knew him fairly well, since my children had attended his school for a few years. Still, I was a little nervous about asking for his help because the school hadn’t had a clothing drive before. I was relieved when he quickly replied, “Sure. I’m glad to participate. I think this will help our families a lot.”

I also met with three pastors of local churches to ask if their congregations would contribute to the clothing drive. They agreed, partly because some of the girls in the Tri Hi Y club attended their churches.

We created handmade flyers and passed them out at the school and churches, with each girl taking and distributing a stack. We had no idea how many donations we would receive but we knew we would need a place to sort and store them. So we made arrangements with one of the girls’ parents to rent a garage they owned that wasn’t being used. It was a good size but it was full of dust and cobwebs and was located at the end of a dirt road.

The girls jumped in and we all began to clean the dirty old garage. My sons, Rick and Mike, ages eight and 10, even pitched in to help. Baird was only two but he came along sometimes.

Next, we arranged some donated clothing racks from a newly renovated store and put a big plywood table (borrowed from one of the girl’s garages) in the middle of the room for sorting. We all chose the day to pick up the rented U-Haul truck—the enclosed kind with doors that shut. We had no idea how many clothes were awaiting us at the various sites but we wanted to be prepared.

On the appointed day, I picked up the truck and several girls squeezed into the front seat with me. We were excited!

After picking up clothing from the grade school and four churches, we could hardly shut the truck door. We all spent the rest of the day unpacking the truck and finished about dusk when we returned the U-Haul truck. We were all tired and dirty but really happy with our day’s work.

We agreed to meet back at the garage the next day and start sorting the treasures. Since the girls had to go to school until mid-afternoon, a few of their moms agreed to help me. It took two months of continuous sorting, organizing and washing before we were ready for families to come by to choose their favorite clothes.

But how would we invite the families? I didn’t even know where to find them. All I knew was their children went to school with mine and they were in need of basics.


I decided to find a way to introduce myself to these families and gain their trust so I could invite them to visit our very full garage. I went back to Robin and asked him for a list of families he thought were poor. I was surprised when, without a word, he swiveled in his desk chair, looked in his file drawer, and quickly pulled out a paper with several names and addresses. He handed me the list and said, “All of these families live way out in the country and it might be hard to find some of them. So good luck.”

            I have to tell you that I have always had a bad sense of direction and, of course, this was before the days of GPS. So, finding these families (and finding my way back home) was a challenge. But I was determined. So, one morning I set out to find my first family. Driving along the dusty country road lined with rows and rows of lush grapevines with the principal’s list in hand, I realized I did not know exactly where I was going or, for that matter, even where I was. I tried to make mental notes about which direction to turn so I could find my way back home later.

My head was spinning with worry about getting lost. At the same time, I wasn’t even sure what I would say to the families once I found them. I began to rehearse in my head what I would say to them once I discovered someone home.

            I was thrilled when I located the first house. It was actually a square hut built of two by fours with no windows and an old sheet hanging on a curtain rod over the doorway. As I walked up to the door, a woman named Maria came out to greet me. I smiled, mustered up my courage and greeted her in Spanish.

            As a bit of background, during the summer between my junior and senior year in high school, I was a foreign exchange student to La Paz in Baja California. Since this was 1963, La Paz was very underdeveloped. I was the only person there who spoke English, so in order to communicate I had to use the Spanish I had learned in my high school classes. At first, I was tentative but there was no time to be embarrassed, so I plunged right in.

I was surprised that before long I was completely fluent. After three months living among these friendly families and being immersed in their loving culture, I felt right at home conversing in Spanish. I continued to study Spanish when I went to college.

“Some of the nice people in town would like to bring your children Christmas presents,” I said. “Would that be okay?”

Instantly, Maria lit up and smiled. After telling me her kids’ ages and sizes, she invited me inside her humble dwelling. She quickly retrieved a tattered broom and swept the dirt floor until it looked tidy. She smiled as we sat on two rickety old wooden chairs and talked about her children.

She said her family came here two years ago to try to make a better life. Her husband was working in the field and she was home because her daughter was sick with the flu. She seemed happy to have someone to chat with, since it was so lonely out there. As I turned to leave, she said I was welcome to come by anytime.

            I felt a great sense of relief that the first visit went so well and began looking for the next address. After some searching, I found the mother of the next family in a converted chicken coop in the middle of a dirt field. I had to duck down to enter and walk around inside. We sat on slanted wood slats that used to host chickens. The wire mesh and feathers were still present. But the woman seemed happy and glad to have company. As she nursed her baby, we talked about her family and what her children would like to receive for Christmas. After a while, I forgot we were sitting crouched over in a chicken coop because our chat was so engaging.


After several weeks of visiting families and building rapport, I began to invite them to visit our little clothes-filled garage. Typically they would arrive in a borrowed pick-up. The father drove with the mother in the front seat and the kids scattered throughout the truck, depending on their age. I watched out the garage’s side window as each family drove up to the dusty driveway alongside the building and saw something disturbing.

I noticed the father would keep his head down looking somewhat embarrassed. The mother would come into the little shed with kids trailing behind. She seemed a little uncomfortable, which puzzled me since I was always there to help them navigate the racks of clothing.

Pretty quickly I realized something wasn’t right. The families seemed glad for the warm coats and clothes, but they appeared self-conscious about receiving the gifts. It dawned on me that this process undermined their dignity. Receiving charity like this made them feel inferior.

I began to dream of a way for them to obtain the garments in a manner that would affirm their dignity. I decided the only way was to start a thrift store where the families could choose their own clothes at a price they could afford. Since raising children was my only experience at this time, I had no idea where to start. I had never worked in a store, much less started one.

One day, I was discussing my dilemma with a society lady sitting next to me at a chamber of commerce meeting, when the gentleman sitting next to us overheard our conversation and said, “What about my building?”

“Henry, I didn’t know you had a building,” I said.

He invited me to tour it right after the meeting. He carefully unlocked the small door to the site which was located right on the main street. We climbed the long, steep staircase through the dim light and arrived at a maze of long-abandoned insurance offices.

Still not knowing what I was doing and lacking any type of plan, I said, “This is perfect, Henry! I’ll take it.” At $50 monthly rent, I was in business. Now what? How do I start a “sort of” business?


As a bit of background, in 1975 I was a new Christian. Becoming a “believer,” as my friends called it, was an interesting and unlikely process for me. Shortly after I moved from Fresno to Kingsburg with my husband and four children, I began to meet some of the local moms with kids that attended school with my kids who were now one, six, eight, and ten. Later, my son Matt was born at Kingsburg Hospital. And then there were five.

From the time I was a grade schooler moving from coast to coast, I have intentionally angled a way to fit in with people wherever I lived. So when some of my new friends invited me to attend their Bible study, I agreed in an effort to seem like “one of them.” I attended several of these weekly meetings. I always politely paid attention and nodded at the right times, but inside my head I thought, “I hope these people don’t think I really believe this stuff about Jesus being the Son of God.” But, on the outside, I tried to appear as if I believed and fit in.

            One day, as I was driving along taking care of some mundane errands in town, a vision of my high school geometry book appeared out of nowhere in my mind. I always liked geometry and I remembered the lesson often said something like, “Given: All sides of an equilateral triangle are equal. Problem: Side A is one foot long. How long is side B?” I thought it was strange to see my geometry book in my head, but there it was.

Next, I had the vivid thought, “Given: Jesus is the Son of God. Now solve the problem.” My first thought as I drove along on this very mundane shopping trip was, “Well I guess I can think about this as a hypothesis rather than a fact or a belief. If it were true that Jesus was the Son of God, what would be the answer to the problem?” Thinking about this in an abstract, theoretical sense was very different than actually believing it.

But a crack of light had opened in my brain and it began to shine into my heart, without me consciously being aware of it. When I returned to the next week’s Bible study meeting, I could take in the information and discussion in a very different way. Now it was relevant and I didn’t have to pretend to be a believer. I could feel that, somehow, things had shifted in my spirit and now I was actually a believer. I never told anyone of this internal struggle, but later a couple of the women commented that they could tell something was different about me.

            These wonderful ladies continued to minister to me, teach me about the scriptures and show me how to apply these verses and stories to my life.

So now that I had made this important decision, I needed to know what it meant for my life. Always being a bit of a linear thinker, I looked up “Christian” in the dictionary. It said, “A follower of Christ.”  I figured if I was going to be a follower of someone, I should know what their priority list looked like so I could pattern my life accordingly.

I started by reading through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. When I quickly realized the poor were at the top of his priority list, I wondered how I could follow this example.

Even though my husband was gone every day, working at his office, he began to notice me reading scripture and attending Bible study. He became angry and condescending. He said things like, “I never wanted to be married to a Christian.” I began hiding my scripture reading and Bible studies by engaging in them only while he was gone.

Still, he continued to deride me about this. One day as I was leaving for Bible study, he said, “You’re going to have to choose between me and God. When I get home tonight, I want to know your answer.” I knew I was in for a rocky road and I also knew I would not choose him over God. When he returned home from work that day, he seemed to have forgotten his threat. So I didn’t bring it up but I continued my journey through the scriptures.


I thought that since this was a Christian endeavor, I would be able to find ladies in the churches to volunteer to help. I met with a few groups of women, explained the project, and asked for their assistance. Most of them declined, saying they preferred to conduct their spiritual walk through Bible study rather than work.

I was pretty disappointed and somewhat confused— because it made logical sense to me to put one’s beliefs into action to benefit others. But two of the women from Henry’s church, Elaine and Carolyn, agreed to help. So, the Tri Hi Y girls and these two ladies helped me clean up the rooms of the soon-to-be thrift store.

It proved to be quite a big project. We swept the floors, washed the windows and cleaned the walls. One of the volunteers made cute little curtains for the windows. We all agreed we wanted this to be a clean, well-organized store rather than a dusty, messy one. Just because it was a thrift store with donated merchandise did not mean it had to be junky looking.

I wanted to remind everyone who came into the store, especially those who volunteered, exactly why we were doing this. So, I found a nice piece of large, white cardboard and wrote the scripture verse that guided me through this process from the beginning:

“I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, thirsty and you gave me water, a stranger and you invited me in, sick and in prison and you visited me. What you did for the least of these, you did for Me.” Matthew 25:35-40.

I nailed it high up on one of the walls for all to see. Even though my handwriting was a bit crooked it got the message across and seemed to inspire the volunteers.


Now it was time to transfer the clothes from the little garage to the newly spruced up store. We first moved the large wooden table from the garage. We borrowed pickup trucks from a couple of the girls’ parents and gradually carried load after load up the steep stairs, placing them on the big table so we could come back later and organize them. It was hot, tiring work, made more challenging by all of the stairs we had to climb with heavy loads of clothes.

Finally, we brought the clothing racks over and placed them throughout the little rooms. Most of the clothes were clean and in good condition, but I took the dirty ones home to wash. I was so proud of our crew for working so hard for this selfless cause.

It took about four weeks of diligent work, but finally everything was organized and we were ready to welcome our “guests.” So, I once again began my treks out to the fields, little shacks and chicken coops to invite the families to visit the store.

Most were wary and a little uncomfortable with the idea of coming into town, since they were used to spending their days in the fields and they viewed town as a place for the wealthy. These families weren’t used to going into a real store, let alone on the main street.

But little by little, they began to make their way. Soon, the word was out—this was a place where they could choose clothing for their families at a price they could afford.

Their transformed demeanor amazed me. No longer were their heads bowed with embarrassment. Now they smiled and chattered happily as they found just what they needed.

Local church members gladly contributed a steady flow of excellent clothing. We called the store Kingsburg Community Assistance Program, or KCAPS for short. I think I called it KCAPS instead of KCAP because I thought it sounded better and because I had a sense we would create more programs.

Soon everyone in town was talking about KCAPS as though it had always existed. Volunteers began to show up to offer their services and families gradually became more comfortable coming into town and making their way up the steep stairs. Activity grew slowly but steadily.


To help attract families, I arranged for the Fresno County Public Health Department to send healthcare providers to the store every Thursday morning to give well-baby checkups, immunizations and other basic healthcare services. The stairs added to the complexity of this project because we had to carry all their equipment up the stairs. We cleaned off a couple of the tables and covered them with clean tablecloths and hung curtains for privacy in the “exam rooms.” As an added incentive, I brought coffee and donuts for the providers so they would feel more welcome.

This service was important for the families because they had no other place to go for this type of care. It worked very well, served as an attraction for families and provided a needed service. Once the families got into the store for their healthcare, they realized they could come back to shop there.

After about a year of operation, I began to realize we needed a larger space preferably located on a side street rather than on the main street. I found my mind absorbed with how to help these marginalized people. I got the idea to start a food bank so we could collect and distribute food to these conscientious farmworker families. When the picking season was over, the families had no income and usually lived on squash or whatever they could grow on the dirt by their house. So the winter months brought many challenges for these folks.

I talked about the need for a larger space with whoever would listen to me. Then one day Elaine, one of the volunteers who was especially committed to putting her faith to practical use said she owned a large empty building on one of the side streets. This 5,000 square foot structure used to house their family’s heating and air conditioning business before she and her husband, Archie, retired. Now it sat empty. I was beyond excited.

After discussing all of the details, I agreed to rent the building for $200 per month. By now we had accumulated quite a large group of volunteers, most of whom were from the local churches. As it turns out, a couple of the more committed volunteers had explained to their fellow church members why it was important to put their spiritual beliefs into action by serving the poor through KCAPS. So, this army of volunteers moved all of the clothing down the stairs of Henry’s building and into the new building. It took several weeks, but the store was finally open for business. We even had a donated cash register and fixtures.

As soon as the new store was up and running smoothly with volunteers taking daily shifts, I began to plan for a food bank. Our neighbors were scrounging for food, severely undernourished and always hungry. I needed a way to collect the food and a place to store and display it. I arranged to meet with a few of the pastors to ask if their congregations would join in a food drive. Ultimately, six pastors agreed to invite their parishioners to contribute to a food drive. 

I was a bit dismayed when one pastor said he heard that we were telling people about Jesus at KCAPS. He said he didn’t like us doing that and I told him I would let the volunteers know he said this but I was careful not to promise any changes. As a new Christian, I was confused by a pastor expressing these sentiments since I thought that putting one’s faith into action and sharing the Good News of the gospels was the whole point. But I politely (and a bit stubbornly) kept my focus on our goals of serving the poor.

Soon, thanks to the church food drives, a steady stream of donated canned and dry goods flowed into KCAPS. We also gained access to the government cheese donations.

But I had no place to stack and arrange the food. I needed shelves, lots of them. I identified just the right place to build the shelves, with a wall separating the food bank from the thrift store area. One day I stood in the cavernous building alone. I brought a hammer, nails, and some wood from home and was determined to make some shelves. As I stood there, with hammer in hand, I was befuddled. I had a frustrating realization: I had no idea how to build shelves or even go about making this project a reality.

At that moment, I glanced out the expansive windows fronting the street and miraculously saw my friend Archie walking along. I immediately realized this was my answer. Archie and his family owned the building and I was sure he and his many buddies were experienced with carpentry. Archie’s wife, Elaine, was one of our most dedicated volunteers, so I knew them well.

I hurried through the store, opened the heavy glass front door, and hollered out to Archie. When he stopped and turned around, I rushed over to him and explained my dilemma. He came inside and I showed him my idea of where to build the shelves and the wall. He said it would be no problem and within a few days, Archie and several of his friends were sawing, hammering and building our food bank shelves.

After about a week, the food bank area was complete and the volunteers stacked and organized all the donated food. It felt like a miracle. Our little town of Kingsburg was responding resoundingly to the challenge of helping others who were less privileged.

I remembered the lesson I learned earlier about affirming rather than undermining dignity and I wanted to find a novel way of distributing the food to the farmworker families. The food was all donated and I would not charge the families for the food because I knew that they couldn’t afford to pay anything at all during the winter months when they needed it most. But what could I tell the families that would make them feel like they had somehow “earned” the food?

Luckily, my husband Larry and I were friends with many of the large farmers, so I paid them all a visit. I reminded them that the farmworkers they depended upon to harvest their orchards, vineyards and fields lived in our town with their families year-round. I suggested it wasn’t right that they eat only squash and whatever else they could grow themselves during the off-season.

My first meeting was with Don Jackson who was one of the biggest farmers in town, farming hundreds and hundreds of acres of row crops and vines. I knew he depended heavily on these families to pick his crops. He knew about KCAPS because his wife, Pat, was a dedicated volunteer and very involved in one of the churches. But he didn’t know about the new food bank project.

When I explained about the living conditions of the families who served him and why they needed food in the winter, he quickly agreed to do all he could to work with other farmers to contribute large amounts of dry pinto beans and rice. Their help, together with the church food drives, filled the foodbank shelves.

But now I needed to get the news out to the families and invite them to come choose their food from our shelves. In order to affirm their dignity, I drove out to each of the families’ home to tell them the good news about the food bank. When I pulled up to the first family’s residence, I noticed several men gathered around a small campfire. There were also several dogs roaming around, children playing and one of the moms bustling around.

I felt a little nervous, partly because I wasn’t sure how the men would receive me and partly because the dogs looked scary. But I mustered my courage, climbed out of my car and walked over to them as if it was the most natural thing to do.

They all turned to look at me with a bit of suspicion on their faces. This, of course, made me even more nervous. Even though I had met the mom earlier, these men had never seen me. As I greeted them, they seemed confused that someone that looked like me (red hair and freckles) was speaking Spanish to them.

I explained that the farmers and others in town appreciated their work during picking season and they had collected food to give them as a bonus to their salary.  Some of them already knew about the KCAPS thrift store because they had purchased clothing there. When I told them about the food bank and how it was located inside the thrift store, they all seemed surprised but happy and no longer suspicious.

That arrangement suited everyone just fine. The farmers and townspeople were happy to contribute and the families felt they had earned the food they received.


Another thing I noticed while serving as a teacher’s helper in my children’s classroom was that many of their classmates were not prepared for school. They didn’t know English, they weren’t acquainted with their peers, they lacked understanding of classroom procedure and they felt inferior to the other children.

So, about a year after organizing the food bank, I decided it was time to start a pre-school. Back in those days, only wealthy families could send their children to pre-school. But I was determined to find a way for these little Mexican kids to build self-esteem by being properly prepared for their school career.

I knew nothing about education or how to run a school, but I knew I had to find a solution. One morning, while pushing my grocery cart through the aisles of our local grocery store, I saw my son’s pre-school teacher. I stopped in my tracks and knew I had the answer.

As we both picked out our produce, I said, “Janet, I want to start a pre-school in town to prepare the children from farmworker families for kindergarten, but I have no idea how to do it.” She said, “If you find a place and furnish the supplies I need, I can put this together for you.” Since I was so impressed with her teaching talent, I agreed on the spot.

First we needed a place to hold class. I had been attending Bible study with some ladies from the Evangelical Covenant Church, so I told them about my dream of starting a pre-school. I needed a space for this unique pre-school. This school would be open to all kids, wealthy or not, regardless of their primary language. Tuition collected from the ones who could afford to pay would help offset the costs for the less affluent. English would be used for most communication so the young Mexican children could become bilingual. But the English-speaking children would also be learning some Spanish in the process.

The ladies became excited and said they would speak with the pastor to see if I could use one of their Sunday school classrooms. Within a month, we had a signed agreement. There would be no rent to pay, just upkeep of the space. The church would consider this as a “local mission.”

Ladies in the church sewed cute smocks for each child so they all looked alike. That way, no one could distinguish the kids’ income level by their clothing. We named the school Sonshine Learning Center. Since it was in a church, the “Son” referred to Jesus shining down on all the children.

Once again, I drove out to the homes of the farmworker families to tell them about the pre-school and invite them to attend. When I went to the first home, the mom was happy to see me as always. When I told her about the school and how her young children could attend at no charge, she smiled but looked a little concerned. She said she was excited about her kids getting ready for kindergarten and learning English, but she would need to discuss it with her husband.

I arranged for interested parents to tour the facility and meet the teacher. Ultimately, after many conversations, all of the families with pre-school age children agreed to give it a try.

I knew I had a transportation problem, so I talked to Robin, the school principal, to see if he had a suggestion. He told me about a small, old yellow school bus they weren’t using. I agreed to purchase it for $1,000. Fortunately, my husband Larry was willing to supply the funds.

Next, I learned that the driver would have to have a certain license to drive the school bus even though it was small.  A retired school bus driver heard about my dilemma and offered his services for a stipend. By now the thrift store was producing revenue for KCAPS, so we used those funds to pay the driver and the bus expenses. I explained that he would be going around to all the homes in the countryside and picking up the kids who had no way to get to school.

I was glad I had spent so much time visiting with the families and establishing trust, but I knew that sending their young children off in a bus with a stranger would be challenging for them.

So, the first week I rode in the school bus to each family’s home, greeted the parents, and walked with each child onto the bus, assuring them we would deliver their child home in a few hours. I even introduced them to the bus driver. I told them there would be no fee but if they wanted to give $5 per month when they had the funds, it would be appreciated. Many of them contributed, feeling good about doing their part for the project.


Years later, Robin, the same long-time school principal who gave me the list of poor families, told me something that warmed my heart. Kids that came to kindergarten from Sonshine were very well prepared for school, unlike their older siblings who did not have that privilege (since there was no pre-school for them at the time). As my own children grew and went through the upper grades, I paid close attention to the kids who had attended Sonshine. Most of them earned top grades and were excellent students.

I remember one child in particular, Manuel, who seemed to be bright and full of energy. He eventually graduated at the top of his class at Kingsburg High School and went on to attend Fresno City College and then Fresno State University. Several of his friends attended college with him. I have no doubt they are all leading successful lives today.

Eventually, Sonshine Learning Center became its own nonprofit organization with its own board of directors. But it still kept the same mission of serving God by serving the poor.


During several of my earlier home visits, the mothers would tell me they wanted to attend Spanish church services. They had tried to attend the local Catholic Church, but the pastor didn’t speak Spanish so they gave up. I asked each of the many churches in Kingsburg if they would be able to hold a service in Spanish. Not one had a pastor who could do this.

It was about this time that I met Carlos at a neighbor’s house. His employer, who owned a dairy and was a strong Christian, had invited Carlos to attend the weekly Bible study in his home. This is how I learned that Carlos worked at this nearby dairy where he milked cows. I was impressed with Carlos as he told me about his sincere desire to preach the Word to Spanish-speaking people who worked at the dairy. I remember feeling almost giddy as I realized he might be the answer to my plan to start a Spanish-speaking church.

I told him about my dream of creating a place where the farmworker families could come to worship God in their own language. His eyes lit up at the thought of being part of this dream. But since he had four children and a wife to support, I knew I would have to find a way to pay his salary. I was determined to make this dream a reality. I told him to have faith and to pray that I could find a way to pay his salary so he could bring the gospel to the families instead of milking cows.

By now our family had moved a little distance from town into a sprawling 6,000 square foot home, nestled in 120 acres of manicured Thompson Seedless grape vines. The expansive grounds hosted horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens and peacocks. A large riding arena, grassy pastures, a huge swimming pool, tennis courts and an enormous barn we used for charity fundraising events filled the five acres closest to the house.  It was so beautiful that travelers along our country road would often park in our driveway and picnic on our front lawn because they thought it was a park.

One day, I invited 12 of our local pastors to come to my beautiful ranch house for lunch. I was eager to tell them about my idea of starting a Spanish-speaking church. All of these pastors had already been participating in food and clothing drives and promoting Sonshine Learning Center, so they were familiar with KCAPS.

            Remember, I was still a brand new Christian with no understanding of denominational differences, much less variances in theology.  So, inviting all of those pastors to lunch to discuss starting a new church made perfect sense to me.

After lunch was served at my over-sized round oak table, I told them about my dream of hiring Carlos to preach to these families in Spanish. I suggested that each of them could contribute to a fund at KCAPS to pay for Carlos’ salary.

I had no idea what a naïve idea this was until later when I learned about denominational differences and how each church liked to do things their own way. My thinking was simply, “We all love Jesus, so let’s get out there to preach about Him to people in their own language.”

Much later, I discovered that each church has its own particular denominational view of scripture and protocol. So, given the variety in denominations represented around the table, I was foolish to think an idea like this would fly. Looking back, I remember lots of stunned looks and clearing of throats because they were not in the habit of working together, certainly not when theology was involved. Since I realized everyone was uncomfortable with my idea, I felt pretty silly and a bit confused, not knowing where to take the conversation next. So, I suggested they take the idea back to the appropriate committee at their respective churches and we could discuss it later.

I tried to be patient, but I felt pretty anxious as I waited week after week with no communications. I even made an appointment with one of the pastors to ask for his feedback on the idea. I was floored when he said, “Is Carlos going to talk about being born again? Our folks don’t go for that kind of talk, you know.”

I tried to remain composed but I was thinking, “I thought it was Jesus who talked about being born again.” I told the pastor, “Gosh, I’m not sure but I will ask Carlos and get back to you. In the meantime, will you please consider supporting this project?”

Finally, after several long weeks, seven of the churches agreed to form the Kingsburg Coalition of Churches, with KCAPS as the lead. We met faithfully for a few months to work out all the details and then we hired Carlos. He was ecstatic. So was I.

Now I needed to build a bridge of trust between Carlos and the farmworker families. So, I drove us around to all of the rural homes to introduce him to the families and explain the plan for a church. While in each home, Carlos would pray a bit and tell a Bible story or two and then we would move on to the next place, usually two or three miles apart. Each family seemed genuinely excited about the idea of being able to worship in their own language.

Once we had established trust between Carlos and the families, Carlos began going out to the fields and homes to preach alone. After nearly a year of Carlos’ itinerant preaching, we found a large abandoned grocery store that would later serve as a place where everyone could congregate. The original owner had passed away and his son now owned it and attended one of the churches who had agreed to participate in this project.

The son was eager to be part of our new church so he agreed to rent the building to us if we paid the maintenance fees, insurance, and property taxes. Once again, the thrift store provided some of the funds for this, but this time we had financial help from the seven churches who were part of the Kingsburg Coalition of Churches, too.

The building was over 5,000 square feet with high ceilings and old linoleum flooring. Volunteers from the seven churches and others in the community found folding chairs and someone even donated a simple pulpit and a rickety piano.

Carlos was now on his own with the families, so he enthusiastically invited them to the first church service. I was nervous wondering about whether people would actually come. But, sure enough, when the doors opened over 100 people flowed through the door to take their seat on one of the donated folding chairs. I was glad to see that a few representatives from some of the coalition churches were there too.

Carlos stepped up to the front and began the service in Spanish as if he had been doing it all his life. Later he admitted he was nervous, but he seemed calm and sure of himself.

I remember our first Thanksgiving service very well. After the service they had planned a potluck dinner. I didn’t attend the service, but I came to the dinner and brought a salad to contribute to the meal. There was a buzz of activity with the adults chatting in small groups and organizing the food while the kids ran around playing various games. Carlos quieted everyone so he could say the blessing over the food and then everyone got busy filling their plates with the delicious food.

A couple of guys brought guitars and everyone enjoyed the lively Mariachi music. As the evening wore on, I became tired and found myself wishing it would end so I could help clean up and go home to bed. I was glad everyone was having such a good time, but I was really tired and weary.

Right when I thought Carlos was going to wrap up the festivities, he gathered everyone for another sermon and prayer. I thought to myself, “Oh come on Carlos, it’s time to go. It’s so late and I’m sure the people want to leave. Nobody wants to listen to yet another prayer.”

As I stood there with my tired head bowed dutifully in prayer, I peeked out of one eye and was astounded by what I saw.

Kneeling down in front of Carlos were at least a dozen men with their older children kneeling next to them, all praying together. Carlos placed his hand on each head as he walked through the group. The scene took my breath away and I felt a little embarrassed that I was in such a hurry to end the service. Finally, it was over. We all cleaned up the food and everyone filed out into the chilly night happily chatting among themselves.

The church continued to grow and eventually became one of the largest churches in town. Years later the Mennonite Church took this church under its wing. I was surprised when, the next year, I was chosen as Kingsburg’s Citizen of the Year. What a humbling experience.


Three years after starting KCAPS, Bufe Karraker who was the pastor of the church I as attending, Northwest Baptist Church, asked me if I would start a similar program in Highway City, located in what was at the time a very poor area of north Fresno not too far from our church.

I agreed and got busy getting to know the community, meeting farmworker families, and looking for a suitable place to start a thrift store and food bank. This time it was a lot easier to find volunteers because they attended my own church. Since the pastor was promoting the work, many people wanted to help out. This program which we called Highway City Ministries soon began growing as it met the needs of the local families.

By now it was the early 1980s and I heard about something called the Mustard Seed Award, being given by World Vision, the largest Christian ministry in the world. They had two categories: multi-church and single church.

They were looking for projects that started with a small idea and grew into a larger entity that had the potential to be replicated. This concept was based on the parable of the mustard seed from Matthew 13:31-32 where Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

The prize was $5,000 to each first place winner. I had never written a grant before but thought I could figure it out. I carefully filled out all the paper work and submitted two applications: one for KCAPS as a multi-church entry and one for Highway City Ministries as a single church entry.

I’ll never forget the day I received a phone call from a secretary at the World Vision headquarters. She said both projects had received first place in the country as the most enterprising and innovative ministries to the poor. She said she didn’t realize that both were started by the same person until she went to type up the award letters. We were both astounded.

Since then, KCAPS has continued to grow over the years and has spawned similar programs throughout the San Joaquin Valley.


As a bit of background, in the late 1970s, I heard a guest speaker at our church in Fresno whose message completely inspired me. I sat riveted listening to his story about how he was beaten almost to death and thrown in jail during the civil rights era in Mississippi. John Perkins told us about how he decided to respond with love rather than anger by starting Mendenhall Ministries in the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Mississippi.

After devouring his book, Let Justice Roll Down, I knew I had to go there to see his work for myself because he seemed to have the same heart for the poor as I did. I was so impressed by his work because he had done some of the same things I dreamed of doing in Kingsburg. I needed to find out how he did it and see it with my own eyes.

Even though I was busy raising five children and my husband wanted me to stay at home and tend to the family, I was determined to go to Mississippi. I’m still not sure how I convinced him to let me go, but after making preparations for childcare and meals, I packed a small bag and traveled to Mendenhall. John met me at the airport and, over the next couple of days, gave me a tour of his work there.

At least a dozen volunteers from all over the country, who had also been inspired by John’s message, lived for several months at a time in the humble houses nestled together on the compound. Walkways between the houses and the front and back yards were dirt mixed with an occasional bit of grass. Yet it was beautiful to my eyes.

John, his wife Vera Mae, and their crew ran a small thrift store, led the local children and some adults in Bible study and held tutoring sessions for the youngsters in the neighborhood. John named his main call to action The Three Rs: Relocation, Redistribution, and Reconciliation. This concept, along with his strong commitment to sharing God’s love with his neighbors was the key to the success of his work: Mendenhall Ministries.

He advocated that believers relocate to a community of need, find ways to redistribute their talents and skills by teaching others and reconcile the races and all people to each other. He encouraged all those who mastered these skills to remain in the community to teach others rather than to move away to a nicer area.

I returned home after four days with John and his team. I had renewed energy and a clearer vision of what was possible in my little farming town. I was also surprised and energized to see John’s work at Mendenhall Ministries because when I heard him speak at my church, it sounded like his project was very large and elaborate. It was actually focused on a small neighborhood.

I quickly realized that even a small effort could touch lives of disadvantaged families in profound ways. My trip to Mississippi renewed my commitment and clarified my vision of the way forward.

The more I got to know John and Vera Mae, the more I realized we were kindred spirits. More than once they visited as guests in our home, bringing many of the kids from their ministry with them. Eventually, John and Vera Mae moved to Pasadena to a neighborhood that had the highest daytime crime rate of anywhere in the country.

They started the Harambe Center to serve the neighborhood children with Bible study and tutoring. Later they started the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development and my husband and I agreed to serve on their board of directors.


I was so impressed with the impact John’s work had on at-risk communities that I began to urge him to form a national foundation to serve as a model for other communities throughout the country. Many of his other colleagues were giving him the same message.

Finally, he started the Christian Community Development Association. I served as the first executive director and organized their initial two annual conferences, hosting over 300 attendees in Chicago. I also traveled around with him presenting the concept of Christian community development to many Black churches. I have always been proud of being part of that effort. Thankfully, it continues to grow and is larger and stronger than ever today.


 The more lowly your service to others, the greater you are. To be the greatest, be a servant.

Matthew 23: 11