When Bernarda Montes de Oca first began volunteering at the Newton Food Pantry, it was a tiny space in the Waban Library Center. Over the years, she brought her kids to help during the summer, organized food drives at Thanksgiving, and brought kids from Angier to sort food. When she went back to work full time, she gave up her volunteer responsibilities, but the pandemic and an important life milestone pulled her back this year. “When I turned 50 last January, I decided I wanted to spend the second half of my life giving back.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that Bernarda rejoined the pantry when the organization started focusing on recruiting BIPOC volunteers, and the emphasis on serving clients in their own language is deeply important to her: “The part I love most about the Newton Food Pantry is interacting with the clients. When I’m able to speak my first language — seeing the smiles, the connections, we both feel we are at home.” says Bernarda, who came to the US from Argentina in 1999 and now works as a Spanish medical interpreter at Children’s Hospital, “I think this is very important for clients and for Newton too — we are a diverse community. I think it’s important to be present. I wasn’t born here but I always wondered if there was a place for me in Newton. This feels like the opportunity for people to feel like they belong here. In recruiting BIPOC volunteers, we are inviting everyone to come and show themselves as part of the community.”
Bernarda is a member of the team working on providing culturally appropriate food for clients. “We wanted people to feel more at home and show them that we care about what they want and need — we respect their food choices.” Bernarda did some informal research among her clients and co-workers at Children’s, asking them what foods reminded them of home. “We came up with a list of the most popular items and started stocking them at the pantry.” #1 on the list was Maseca, a brand of corn flour used to make tortillas. “We talked about buying tortillas for people, but every family I know makes their own tortillas. When they came in and saw that we had Maseca along with garlic, jalapeno peppers, celery and other items they use in everyday cooking, I could hear them laughing and chattering away about the dishes they were going to make. It was amazing to see how happy they were.”
Bernarda lives in Newton with her husband and their three sons.