Local Heroes 2021

The Independent's Annual Nod to Our Incredible Neighbors

Local Heroes 2021

The Independent’s Annual Nod to Our Incredible Neighbors

By Nick Welsh, Matt Kettmann, Tyler Hayden, Jean Yamamura, Charles Donelan,
Ryan P. Cruz, Jun Starkey, and Caleb Rodriguez | Images by Erick Madrid

This issue marks the Santa Barbara Independent’s 35th year of publishing. From our very first issue in 1986, we have celebrated each Thanksgiving by honoring some of the many people who make Santa Barbara a true and whole community of neighbors. Their daily lives, at work or as volunteers, support our foundational belief that we are all here to help one another. Many of you, our Independent readers, have, over the years, sent in thousands of nominations telling us about those who have directly affected your lives. To you, we also give thanks, for these have expanded our own understanding of what a true local hero is. We hope, by publishing a few of these stories each year, the Independent can shine light on those among us who bring moments of hope and joy to us all. 

Special thanks to the Hutton Parker Foundation 

(L-R) Bella Rubio, Aaliyah Rubio

Aaliyah and Bella Rubio

Youth Makers Market Entrepreneurs

For sisters Aaliyah and Bella Rubio, the boredom that came with the pandemic forced them to embrace their creativity. Inspired by other small-business creators on TikTok ​— ​part of a wave of people monetizing their hobbies in the face of economic hardship ​— ​Aaliyah and Bella enlisted the help of their mother, Cecilia Rubio, to organize the Youth Makers Market, which made its debut in September at the Santa Barbara Community Arts Workshop.

Aaliyah, 13, makes beaded jewelry: bracelets, necklaces, rings, and anklets. She learned by watching videos on social media and turned her free time into something that was not only fun but taught her how to be a young entrepreneur.

Bella, 11, started by making resin-based hair products like brushes and barrettes, but after working with different materials, from plastic resin to honey-based, she transitioned into a natural honey-maker, keeping hives and selling honey by the jar under the business name Honey by Lyla.

Since then, Youth Makers Market has boomed to create a space for like-minded youth and to encourage them to set out and create small businesses of their own. There were 17 youth vendors in the first event: canvas artists, jewelers, fashion designers, and chefs who all set up booths and sold their wares at the Community Arts Workshop. For a special Día de los Muertos community event at Ortega Park, the market was set up across the street in the parking lot of Paragon Gym. At its latest event on November 21, the market changed locations to Santa Barbara High School’s senior parking lot, to accommodate the growing list of nearly 40 vendors.

The sign-ups for the December market have already reached nearly 70 potential vendors, and the Rubios have even begun to receive requests from people in other communities who want to start their own version of a Youth Makers Market. 


Carolina Arias

Carolina Arias

Virus Variant Detective

When a strange virus in Wuhan was first reported, Carolina Arias wondered what path it would take. At UC San Francisco, she had worked on viral research with Joe DeRisi, a pioneer in genomics, and knew COVID virus outbreaks often come to nothing. But then COVID-19 began exploding around the world. 

By then, she was running a lab at UC Santa Barbara, continuing her search for antivirals, specifically ones that could weaken the herpes and Zika viruses. But when COVID-19 was identified as similar to SARS, and was soon found in California, Arias told her husband, scientist Diego Acosta-Alvear, that they’d better go for a last night out. “I didn’t think we’d have many more free evenings,” she said. Arias understood immediately that our community would have no immunity to the new virus.

As a scientist, her reaction was to get to work. Arias cooperated with Acosta-Alvear and colleagues Max Wilson and Ken Kosik to develop a rapid test at a time when the country was struggling for resources. They shared it publicly and successfully surveilled UCSB campus residents and employees for infection.

Within a year, as expected, more-contagious variants began evolving. California labs were taking weeks to sequence the virus genome, while doctors and patients waited for the results. As one doctor working on the COVID front lines described Arias’s contribution, “It was her sacrifices that have been critical to our community’s safety and success. Arias, and her graduate students, patiently worked seven days a week, behind the scenes, to provide our community and its clinicians with the critical variant testing information needed.”

Doctors throughout Santa Barbara relied on her work. “This is what I’ve been training for my whole life,” she said. “There was no question whether we were going to do it or not.” 


(L-R) Oscar Delgadillo, Cathy Mollkoy, Lynn Matis, Chelsea Dean.

Doctors Without Walls

Vaccinating Those Without Homes

Getting COVID vaccines into patients’ arms has proved much tougher than anticipated even for medical professionals operating out of modern offices. Then imagine the challenges for medical practitioners who must beat the bushes at homeless encampments, searching for people to vaccinate. That’s pretty much a routine experience for the four medical outreach workers deployed by Doctors Without Walls. Nine times a week, they pack into a van and make the rounds at various parks, beaches, and parking lots to treat a population that’s famously wary of established medical interventions.

“We meet them where they’re at,” said Dr. Chelsea Dean, a primary care doctor with the county’s Public Health Department and the project’s medical co-director. The patients Dean and her three colleagues see share many of the same concerns about the vaccine as the population at large​— ​unknown side effects. But they also have an experience of “feeling less than” when in the presence of traditional practitioners. That’s why the outreach team​— ​which includes Cathy Mollkoy, a retired emergency room nurse; Lynn Matis, a retired MFT from Sansum; and student coordinator Oscar Delgadillo​— ​began spreading the word about the vaccine months before it first became available in  February. By the time the first dose arrived, they had 200 people signed up. It didn’t hurt that Mollkoy, who had been administering flu shots to people on the streets, was known, trusted, and liked. As a result, Doctors Without Walls managed to vaccinate more than 50 percent of the South Coast’s unhoused population. Given the logistical challenges of administering two doses, the crew opted to use Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine. Now, the focus is on administering booster shots. Dean, who began volunteering with Doctors Without Walls a year after arriving in town in 2016, said, “It’s been incredible. It’s made me a better doctor.”


Javier Cruz

Javier Cruz

Transitioning to Empowerment

At San Marcos High School, Javier Cruz, Ed. D, is known for making the greater Santa Barbara community his classroom. He manages the BEST Transition Program, an acronym for Building Essential Skills Today, which involves special-education high school graduates in community classes, volunteering, and social development experiences as part of their transition to adulthood.

“A lot of our students have struggled with traditional academics … I try to make sure we’re not stuck at our desks, but they get to use their hands to build things and go out in the community and learn functional skills,” said Cruz. “Our class is the community. Our class is the bus. Our class is Vons. Those are the places our students can learn these skills they use every day.”

Cruz’s career journey began with a fervent desire to help others. “I knew education was a way I could do that — helping people be more independent and take care of themselves,” said Cruz. First working at a Camarillo continuation school, then for the Arc of Ventura County, before coming to San Marcos, Cruz empowered students to be agents of their own desires. “Seeing the joy on people’s faces when they could do things they wanted to do and go places they wanted to go really affected me.”

On Fridays, Cruz takes the class to Vons, where they have the opportunity to budget, shop for, and purchase ingredients for cooking lessons, often using his own money to buy the supplies. 

“I care about what the students do during the day,” said Cruz. “I want students to know that whatever is happening in the world, they can come to the program where there are adults and teachers who love them, who care about them, and accept them for who they are every time they walk through the door.”


(L-R) Jacob Mansbach, Joseph Mansbach

Jacob & Joseph Mansbach

Brothers Fighting Food Insecurity

Two brothers times 10 years equals one million meals.

That’s the Mansbach formula, through which Anacapa School students Jacob (a senior) and Joseph Mansbach (a sophomore) have fundraised $125,000 over the past decade to support the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. 

Their efforts started in 2012 with an 8-year-old Jacob, who wanted to run the Santa Barbara Triathlon with his dad and decided to personally raise $4,500 for the Foodbank, which was that year’s beneficiary. He was inspired by having volunteered for one of the organization’s distribution events called Picnics in the Park. By knocking on doors and setting up tables outside of grocery stores, Jacob then raised $10,000 in 2013. The next year, his brother Joseph, who’d reached 8 years old, joined the cause. Together, they’ve enlisted dozens of families to run their first triathlons while raising more money for the Foodbank along the way. They topped the $125,000 cumulative mark after this year’s race, though they had to adopt digital fundraising strategy since their usual in-person campaigns were hampered by the pandemic.

In 2014, they also started Saturday Family Day at the Foodbank, for which more than 2,000 kids have volunteered at both the North and South County locations, sorting produce and putting goods in crates. Altogether, their volunteers have logged more than 7,000 hours and helped distribute a half million pounds of food. 

Though this originally began as a fun thing to do for 8-year-olds, both brothers now understand that their fundraising and volunteer efforts create real results. “More and more, I really saw the impacts of the work we are doing and the impact that food insecurity has on our community,” said Jacob. “For me, it’s such an important problem to solve.”


Onalisa Hoodes

Finder of Lost Dogs

Tilly, Olive, Lizzy, and many other dogs who found themselves lost and scared have Onalisa Hoodes to thank for getting them back home safe and sound. Hoodes, along with friend Maddy Segal, is the guiding force behind the all-volunteer Facebook page “Santa Barbara Lost & Found Pet Resource and Network,” which offers panicked owners support, advice, and phone numbers for those critical first hours and instantly puts the word out that a search is on. “Nobody knows what to do when they lose a dog,” Hoodes said. “We wanted to create a place for owners to go when they feel so vulnerable and overwhelmed.”

Hoodes’s day job is as a top administrator at the Santa Barbara Police Department, where she’s worked for more than three decades. It was about 10 years ago that she became involved in dog rescue and was introduced to two nonprofits — Dog Days Search & Rescue (DDSR) and From Lost to Found — that taught her the techniques she uses to get pets back. That includes scent trails, traps, and the tried-and-true method of big, bright posters. 

The most important thing Hoodes tells people is to never chase a dog. “It’s counterintuitive, but it’s the worst possible thing you can do,” she explained. Along with DDSR, Shadow’s Fund, and the Keep Me Home Program, Hoodes has also developed a handout for new shelter-dog owners on how to keep their pet from running away in the first place.

But Hoodes, a current board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Humane Society, doesn’t just stay behind the keyboard. She often personally leads searches into the early hours of the morning, makes connections with shelters, and coordinates across social media. Not long ago she guided the effort to rescue a pit bull mix named Lucas, who had fallen off the Shoreline bluffs and broken two legs and a hip. She helped raise $24,000 for his medical bills, and Lucas has since been adopted.

“The work is exhausting and emotionally draining, but it’s worth it when you can be part of reuniting a lost pet with its owner,” said Hoodes, who was quick to credit those who’ve searched alongside her. “It’s truly a community effort,” she said.


Tony Becerra

Martial Arts Transformer

Tony Becerra began learning karate at Koei-Kan on Santa Barbara’s Westside in 1985, and more than 30 years later, he now runs the dojo, training hundreds of kids every year in the martial arts.

At Koei-Kan, and as head of the South Coast Youth Community Cultural Center, Becerra understands the importance of affordability in lower-income communities. Classes for the youth center are as low as $10 a month, and at the karate academy, Becerra works with families in need to provide discounts for training. Kids need a physical and mental outlet, Becerra said, and martial arts was the perfect fit for children who were pent up at home during the pandemic.

“They can have a true sense of themselves, build confidence,” Becerra said. “They experience all the different emotions: anger, fear, and stress. Being exposed to these emotions helps them get a grip on them.”

Becerra said living in the Westside neighborhood has exposed him to the dangers and temptations a lot of youth in the area face, and that providing a space for them to learn and just being a supportive adult has helped change a lot of lives.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids fall by the wayside,” Becerra said. He takes pride in reaching the kids who have come in with behavioral issues, and after working together have turned it around and earned praise from parents and teachers. “It’s an amazing transformation,” he said.

During the past two years, Becerra has made a priority to maintain the access and affordability of his classes, holding outdoor classes in local parks. Often, these park days would be the only times the children would have an opportunity to play face-to-face with their peers.

Becerra also serves as president at Page Youth Center; has chaired several nonprofit organizations, including the Santa Barbara Junior Chamber Jaycees; established the South Coast Wrestling Club; and has been the co-chair of the Santa Barbara Easter Relays Committee for many years. 


Leslie Meadowcroft-Schipper

Tools for a Trade

For more than 20 years, TRADART, founded by Leslie Meadowcroft-Schipper, has been working to preserve the industrial arts and skilled trade programs in the Santa Barbara Unified School District by providing supplies, materials, funding, and support.

Meadowcroft-Schipper was born in Seattle but moved to Switzerland soon after, where she said trade schools were much more common for high-school-age students. Industrial arts programs can be beneficial for all students, she believed, and to not include them would be a disservice to young people.

Since the Santa Barbara school district lacked many such programs, she established the TRADART foundation in 2000, which now provides three high schools (Santa Barbara, San Marcos, and Dos Pueblos) and three junior highs (La Cumbre, La Colina, and Goleta Valley) with funding and professional oversight for workshops. In 2005, the TRADART foundation’s current financial officer, Don Gordon, created Tools for Schools, which provides building materials and other supplies to junior high and high schools throughout the district. 

Courses such as woodshop not only provide hands-on experience, Meadowcroft-Schipper said, but they also sharpen a student’s math skills and encourage creativity and critical thinking. Students can gain confidence in their own abilities, Gordon said, by completing a project from start to finish. Through supervision from the TRADART foundation, in 2016, students at San Marcos, Dos Pueblos, and Santa Barbara high schools each began constructing tiny homes, which were completed and sold in 2018. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the foundation enabled schools to give take home kits for students to create their own tool kits, which included glue, a ruler, and a mallet. Meadowcroft-Schipper said students had to record their process of assembling their kits and provide explanations as part of the assignment. This year, all classes are at capacity. “What’s so rewarding is to see students so proud of their work,” Meadowcroft-Schipper said. “Every student that comes to that class stays.”


Fabian ‘Fabs’ De La Cruz

Creative YMCA Counselor

Fabian “fabs” De La Cruz began working for the YMCA when he was 18 years old, in his senior year of high school. Now at 21, De La Cruz has a reputation as a creative and adaptive counselor, finding new ways to engage with kids while protecting them during the COVID pandemic. 

De La Cruz moved to Santa Barbara with his family from Mexico when he was 5 years old, living downtown before eventually settling on the Westside, where his mother enrolled him in kindergarten at Monroe Elementary. “I was able to get the support that I needed and the resources,” he said, “and if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” 

De La Cruz began at the YMCA as a part-time soccer coach during his senior year of high school. During his first summer, he became a summer camp counselor, which allowed him to explore new ways to meaningfully with children, especially when the pandemic began.

De La Cruz had to find ways for kids to interact with one another without risking their safety, keeping in mind the need for social distancing and mask wearing. He initiated activities such as talent shows and dance battles, encouraging the kids to create and teach their own choreography. He also began a “community circle,” which allowed counselors to check in with their kids and encourage them to talk about themselves. “At the end of the day, we want to be there and provide the support,” De La Cruz said.

His creative approach was so successful that De La Cruz was soon promoted to camp coordinator, and he has also been appointed as program director for all after-school activities at Peabody Charter School. De La Cruz said he wants to be an example to children of what dedication can accomplish. “Following my dreams is my service to them,” he said.


Spencer the Gardener

Bandleader

Organic gangster, original Gardener, and cultural custodian of the Santa Barbara sound Spencer Barnitz has played music and made people dance since the 1970s. No Fiesta would be complete without the Annual Unofficial Official Start of Fiesta Wednesday-night dance party in the beer garden at Casa de la Guerra (or more recently in the yard next to The Pickle Room). Untold numbers of Santa Barbara residents have celebrated important life milestones by hiring Spencer and his band to play their unique mix of ska, cumbia, and rock.

Born and raised surfside, Spencer followed his muse to London in the 1980s, where he played music with The Tan and absorbed the scene that produced the Clash, the Specials, and the Pogues as a direct participant. Upon returning to Santa Barbara, he established his identity as Spencer the Gardener by landscaping and gigging here and in Ventura until the name stuck.

Following a series of successful recordings for all ages, Spencer found he was a hit with little kids, and for a while, his music took that direction. In 2007, his Thanksgiving-themed music video “The Gobble Song” went viral on YouTube, landing multiple Santa Barbara personalities on that website’s homepage for the holiday. Today, he’s still making music with his friends and will be the subject of an upcoming documentary titled Hello Santa Barbara. The film will reflect Spencer’s vision, which he describes as “a Latin, Big Band spy movie set on a moody tropical beach.” His friend and former bandmate in the Tan Brad Nack says that he “has proven that you can ‘make it’ in the music business right here in Santa Barbara,” adding that Spencer “has inspired countless artists who have helped make Santa Barbara music go global.”


Kostis Protopapas

Conductor

Ask anyone in Santa Barbara’s performing arts scene about how effective organizations responded to the pandemic, and Opera Santa Barbara General and Artistic Director Kostis Protopapas is bound to come up. His vision and persistence led Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) to a series of remarkable firsts that helped us see light at the end of this long theater-darkening tunnel. 

In addition to lobbying on behalf of the performing arts at the local and state level, Protopapas conceived and executed multiple plans that allowed performers and audiences to return in safety well ahead of what most observers considered possible.

In December 2020, in the depths of a pre-vaccine surge, Protopapas created drive-in opera — live performances on an outdoor stage in the parking lot of the Ventura Fairgrounds. While the vast majority of orchestras and opera companies were relying on Zoom and other digital media, Opera Santa Barbara was selling tickets and parking cars for the first of two successful performances, Carmen in December 2020, and Don Pasquale in April 2021. 

When vaccinations made a safe return to indoor performances possible, Protopapas again set the pace with an exciting and innovative production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Lobero Theatre on June 27, 2021, the first production in that venue since OSB’s Il postino in early March 2020. 

Already this season, the company has scored artistic and popular triumphs with Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, a mariachi opera at the Granada on October 1, and the double bill of Il tabarro and El amor brujo at the Lobero for Halloween weekend. Looking ahead to three more productions scheduled in 2022, it’s clear that under Kostis Protopapas, Opera Santa Barbara has taken a position of inspiring leadership in our arts community.


George Kaufmann

Support, Education, Advocacy

George A. Kaufmann was at the top of his game ​— ​vice president for a major pharmaceutical company in Kalamazoo, Michigan ​— ​when his world exploded. His 19-year-old son began showing signs of the mental-health disorder schizophrenia, which would profoundly disrupt his family’s life for decades. The year was 1994.

“The mental-health system was not a system at all, so much as a collection of dysfunctional services,” Kaufmann quickly concluded. Families such as his were in desperate need of education, support, and advocacy. To rectify these deficiencies, he brought his lifetime of corporate marketing skills. He began working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), first in Kalamazoo and then in Santa Barbara, where his family moved in 1999.  

Kaufmann dived into the fundraising effort that resulted in the Mental Wellness Center in downtown Santa Barbara, which offers 50 housing units for those struggling with mental illness. In 2014, Kaufmann took over as president of NAMI’s Santa Barbara chapter, and it soon became a relentless and credible force in moving county government forward. Most supervisors can’t remember a time when they weren’t getting lobbied by Kaufmann, who was always pushing for better programs and more funding. In public testimony, Kaufmann was a master of the two-minute pitch. But it was the personal stories ​— ​told by family members cast adrift by an incomprehensible system ​— ​that sealed the deal. Kaufmann takes special pride in the success of new initiatives undertaken with law enforcement that have effectively reduced the number of mentally ill people in county jail. Much, however, still needs to be done. His own son ​— ​whom Kaufmann described as his mentor and guide ​— ​found his way out of 10 years of homelessness, addiction, and despair. Not all stories have such happy endings. “That’s the best experience you’re ever going to hear,” Kaufmann said. That’s one reason why he keeps on going.


Lisa Stratton

Putting Back What Belongs

“Restoration” is a rather boring word for what Lisa Stratton actually does. In reality, through the magic of science and the art of fundraising, she resuscitates small worlds, breathing life back into ecosystems co-opted and degraded by people and placing them once more in the capable hands of nature.

Stratton began her career on Catalina Island before moving with her husband to his hometown of Santa Barbara to raise their children. In 2005, she became director of ecosystem management at UCSB’s Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration, a position she has held since, rehabilitating wetlands up and down the Santa Barbara coast and acting as a guiding force behind the university’s many land stewardship efforts.

Her latest — and arguably greatest — achievement is leading the $23 million transformation now taking place at 100 acres of North Campus property. The beautiful estuarine and upland habitat at the upper arm of the Devereux Slough, which had been scraped and bulldozed beyond recognition in the 1960s to build a flood-prone golf course, is again quietly teeming with native flora and fauna. Particularly exciting is the presence of Ventura marsh milkvetch, once thought to be extinct, and the riot of birds that have repopulated the area — from secretive, ground-nesting species like rails and bitterns to their bolder brethren soaring above, including red-tailed hawks and white-tailed kites. Rare burrowing owls are also making a comeback.

While Stratton’s team is putting the finishing touches on the trails and bridges that allow students and others to access the area, she recognizes their work at the newly christened North Campus Open Space is far from over. She’s again pounding the pavement for capital, this time to pay for long-term operations and to endow teaching positions or fellowships. Whatever it takes to maintain the “living laboratory vision” for the property, Stratton said. “We want to teach students here, out in the field,” she said. “We want to mentor those who crave that experience.”


Silvia Ramirez , Julio Rea

Cottage Hospital Environmental Services

On the Frontlines of Cleanliness

The 151 members of Cottage’s Environmental Services Department have always worked valiantly to keep every one of the hospital’s 529 patient rooms and its more than a million square feet of space clean and sanitary. But since the COVID curtain fell, their work has taken on a more dangerous edge, yet they have bravely gone into rooms that most mere mortals would not dare to enter.

“This was something new and scary,” acknowledged Flavid Montoya, department manager. “We had the conversation with our staff. We were not going to ask them to do anything that we weren’t willing to do ourselves.” Clearly it worked. During the first year of the pandemic, Cottage’s rating for cleanliness was 10 percent higher than the national average, and it was one of only two hospitals nationally to win the prestigious Environmental Services Department of the Year award by the Association for Health Care Environment.

Montoya and his boss, Jo D’Ambrosio, have been rigorous about staff training and inspections, everyone wears N95 masks, and an emphasis is placed on hand sanitizing. All rooms are dosed with electrostatic sprayers, leaving the disinfectant mist clinging to every nook and cranny. Underlying all this preventative work is the culture of employee engagement. Workers are encouraged to ask questions and speak their concerns. “People need to have the right information,” Montoya said. The Environmental Services teams have close working relationships with the nurses, and, with support of other hospital experts, all questions are answered directly. At a time when many hospitals are struggling to maintain even minimal staffing levels, Cottage’s Environmental Services has posted 94.5 percent worker retention. 

As intense as the crisis has been, Montoya understands the need for balance. He encourages the staff to keep things light. For him, that means chicken wings. “I eat a lot of chicken wings,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a big fan.”


Sasha Ablitt

Sasha Ablitt

The Planet Protector

The driveway at Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners hummed with the determined energy of a preschool rummage sale. It was another Planet Protector event where a handful of volunteers cheerfully sorted through bags of thin-film plastics brought in by people hoping to have them recycled rather than ending up in the county dump. 

This service was started by Sasha Ablitt, who runs her family business and has spent years finding ways to make it greener. Every month, 2,000 pounds of recyclable plastics are sent to a plant in Riverside to be processed and eventually made into decking boards.

Clearly, not all plastics are created equal. The differences are subtle and take a little education to discern, which is what the Planet Protector volunteers are able to explain. “See those blue-and-white Amazon shipping bags?” Ablitt said, pointing to a mound in the corner. It turns out that not all Amazon bags are recyclable, and it takes some training to learn which ones are.

The Ablitt family has been in the dry-cleaning business for generations, and in Santa Barbara since 1949. Her father, Neil Ablitt, retired in 2002, and Sasha took over. She first switched from the petroleum-based cleaner her father used to a liquid silicone that degrades safely. Then she tackled the plastic bags used to cover cleaned items.

For the first 12 years, the business collected the plastics at its counter, but all too often a bag held someone’s moldy lunch, so it had to be trashed. Nevertheless, Ablitt had almost reached her goal of recycling more plastic than the business used when the pandemic shutdown hit. When she reopened the popular service, she expanded it into an educational program, Planet Protectors’ email notification list (ablitts.com/film-plastic-recycling/), and enlisted dozens of hands-on volunteers.

Ablitt now intends to find a recycler to take Type 5 plastics, which are now being plowed into our landfill. If anyone can do it, she can.


Erik Talkin

Erik Talkin

Foodbank Visionary

One in four of our neighbors relies on food from the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. That statistic never fails to shock, and the need only doubled during these days of COVID, as the Foodbank distributes more than 20 million pounds of food each year through more than 300 nonprofit partners. 

But that’s only half the battle, said Erik Talkin, who’s been the organization’s CEO since 2008. “You don’t change someone’s life by just giving them a bag of food,” said Talkin, who’s expanded elementary education programs to 21 sites and enhanced programs in both Spanish and Mixteco for farmworkers, among other strategies. “You have to give people the skills and the education to use that food to keep their meals healthy. We are teaching people to eat healthy even if they don’t have much money for food.”

Talkin, who was born in the United States but raised in England, landed in Santa Barbara in 1998, first working for the Civic Light Opera. In 2002, he started serving the homeless population as the leader of the Community Kitchen of Santa Barbara, which became the Casa Esperanza shelter. 

“When they started receiving a lot of fresh produce from the Foodbank, I saw how healthy a lot of the homeless people became,” recalled Talkin. “It made me realize that if we can get much healthier food to people at an early age, it can make a real change in their lives.”

When the Foodbank’s top post opened in 2008, Talkin got the gig and turned the organization into a national nutrition leader. “Once I got into food and nutrition, it seemed to click,” said Talkin, who’s written books for adults and children about nutrition and food insecurity. “Food is something you can use as a tool to make a deep impact on people’s lives.”

With the economic effects of COVID expected to linger for years, the work continues, including a forthcoming capital campaign for a new warehouse in Goleta. Said Talkin, “There is just this huge need.”

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