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LAS CRUCES - “It takes a village when you have a mission like ours to put food on the table of those in need,” said
Casa de Peregrinos (CDP) emergency food program Executive Director Lorenzo Alba.
The nonprofit, which “started off as a pipe dream of a few locals who had in their hearts to really make a difference in the lives of the poor and immigrants,” Alba said, is planning a major 40th-anniversary celebration in August.
“It’s a big deal for a nonprofit to reach 40,” said Alba. “We have a story to tell.”
From humble beginnings in April 1979 in La Mesa, New Mexico, CDP has evolved into the state’s largest food pantry, he said. It distributed more than 3.5 million pounds of food last year.
During the anniversary celebration, CDP will recognize its founders and early pioneers, its staff, volunteers, board members, directors and the community at large who have built CDP into “a charitable structure that helps a lot more people,” Alba said. “They had to come to us,” he said. “Now we go to them.”
During an expansion of services that began eight years, CDP has added 13 rural pantries and set up student pantries at New Mexico State University and Doña Ana Community College in Las Cruces, Chaparral, Anthony and Sunland Park, Alba said.
CDP’s “really incredible partnership with the university and community college … impacts students with families that struggle with those kinds of services because they are focused on school,” he said. With CDP reaching out to them through on-campus food pantries, he said, students can “work on their educations, not food,” Alba said. “We want them to stay in school because education is the best way out of poverty.”
NMSU and DACC service programs continue to provide volunteers to CDP that have had “a lasting impact on our mission,” he said.
Through its partnership with the City of Las Cruces, he said, CDP has opened food pantries at senior centers in the city. About 20 percent of CDP’s clientele are seniors, Alba said.
Doña Ana County funds a large part of the nonprofit’s rural initiative, and is another important partner, he said.
DCP’s partnerships with the city and county have “continued to grow and become better because both government agencies trust us to go out into the community and do something that maybe they can’t do,” Alba said.
CDP joined forces with Roadrunner Food Bank in 2011, he said, to create the largest agency partnership in New Mexico. Both struggle financially, Alba said, but Roadrunner has “stepped up when we need them the most. They want us to succeed.”
Other important CDP partners include El Paso Electric, Smith & Aguirre Construction Company, RTD Hardware and many other businesses. Families and individuals have volunteered time, donated food and money and “continued through the years to help us,” Alba said.
Local churches have also been a vital part of CDP’s network of support, he said, including the Catholic community, Calvary Baptist Church and St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, among others. Nonprofits, including CDP’s Mesilla Valley Community of Hope neighbor, El Caldito Soup Kitchen, “want us to move forward,” Alba said. “We lean on each other.”
“Everything we’ve accomplished is because of this community,” Alba said. “We as a community have done this for 40 years. They’re the ones who should really be applauded for us being around this long.”
Alba became executive director eight years ago. That first day, CDP served 38 individual clients and families, which was “a big, big deal,” he said. “I was excited. By the end of the week, we literally ran out of food. Then, a volunteer showed up with cases of food bought at Sam’s Club.
Today, 160-190 families a day rely on food from CDP. “That’s quite a difference in eight years,” Alba said. CDP’s average food basket has grown from 40 pounds in 2011 when the nonprofit provided 750,000 pounds of food to 65-85 pounds today, he said. “And on Fridays, we don’t run out of food.”
When he became executive director, “I wanted to learn everything,” Alba said. “Once I really understood it, the fear came,” he said, because he knew wrong decisions could mean failure. Staff and volunteers passing Alba’s office would often “catch me in here praying,” he said. Alba said he knew “God will provide for his mission. That’s is very much what happens around here. When we least expect it or when we’re struggling, something happens.”
One summer a few years ago, as he drove away from a CDP food drive at the Walton Drive Walmart, Alba was praying that it wouldn’t be too hot for the volunteers in the parking lot. One his way home, Alba got a phone call to return to Walmart because a man had just shown up there and written the nonprofit a check for $15,000. When Alba arrived back to greet the man, he made a second donation of $5,000.
“We struggle with cash flow in the summer,” Alba said. “We’re struggling now. If you don’t have food or money coming in every day, we’re not going to make it.”
Alba remembers one day in particular when CDP had received no food or cash donations. “It was a strange day,” he said. Then, an employee came to him and said, “’Boss, here’s $5. I want to donate this gift.’”
The woman was a part-time employee and didn’t earn a big salary, Alba said. She had her own family to feed, he said, but “was emotionally attached to our mission. It was very humbling to me to say the least because she was generous enough to give us possibly her last $5 for the week.”
“We have great staff,” Alba said. “We have great volunteers. We have stakeholders and donors who believe in our mission.
“It’s part of the legacy we want to leave,” he said. “We want to make sure it continues. Hopefully, we will celebrate 50 years, 75 years. Hopefully, one day we can celebrate 100 years.”
For more information, contact CDP at 575-523-5542 and firstname.lastname@example.org, visit them at 999 W. Amador Ave. Volunteer/donation hours are 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Food assistance hours are 9-11 a.m. and 103 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday. Visit casadeperegrinos.org, where you can make an online donation.
Mike Cook may be contacted at email@example.com.