The drive to help others started with “little things here and there” when Laura Rivera began working as a volunteer tutor at Main Street Middle School. She was a freshman at Soledad High School at the time and she volunteered all four years, piling up 1,300 service hours – a record at SHS. As a junior, she and other students created the city of Soledad’s first Youth Council. One of the council’s biggest accomplishments was applying for and receiving a grant for $7.6 million to build an accessible playground in town.
Since the age of 11, Rivera had spent summers working in the fields with her farmworker mother. But in the summer of 2020, Rivera got a job in a restaurant. “Of course, my mom didn’t have an option,” Rivera says. “It was the pandemic, and everyone gets to work from home – except our laborers, including farmworkers who had to be out doing physical labor. It would break my heart,” Rivera says.
Then the wildfires came that August, and she worried about her mom and her co-workers inhaling smoke. “‘What can I do to make conditions better for them?’” Rivera remembers asking herself. She raised money to purchase high-quality masks.
Rivera continued her efforts to help others as a student leader at Hartnell College, where she served in Associated Students as a senator-at-large, then director of services and eventually vice president, as well as serving as student trustee to the Hartnell College Board of Trustees. One of her initiatives was Project Pink Bag, which put bags of free feminine hygiene products in every restroom on all five Hartnell campuses.
Her efforts got noticed by the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Monterey Bay chapter, and to Rivera’s surprise, she was named the 2022 Young Adult Philanthropist of the Year. She’s now finishing her final semester at Hartnell and will be transferring to a university in the fall. She plans on eventually attending law school to become an immigration attorney “to keep giving back to those I love the most.”
Weekly: What prompted you to raise money for the masks for your mom and her co-workers?
Rivera: I would see them coming home and they were coughing – it was really bad. I thought I could get a mask for my mom, OK, great, but how could I get them for a whole group of co-workers? I thought maybe businesses would be willing to [donate]. Some of them gave us face masks they already had, and some gave us monetary donations. We were able to take that and buy masks. One day in the morning, I went with [my mom] and gave them out to all the workers and they were very grateful, just seeing their faces, and knowing they were going to be a little more protected and a bit more comfortable when they were working, providing food for all of the Salinas Valley and the rest of the world.
Were you surprised to learn you won the Young Adult Philanthropist award?
Yes, 100 percent. At first I thought it was a prank from the person who told me. I had to look up that word, “philanthropy”… I thought, this is for people like Oprah Winfrey. It said I was generous, but I don’t have money, I don’t have anything.
I didn’t know how big it was until the day of the event. After I got off the stage with the award, people were congratulating me. I thought, “People who have contributed so much are congratulating me for what I thought was so little. If they think I did something right, then maybe I did do something right.”
What advice would you give to other people who want to help their communities?
Ask questions. There’s always somebody who will be there to lend you a hand or point you in the right direction. But you have to take the first step.
If you really want it and if it’s really meant for you, it’s going to happen – but you have to go out there and find those opportunities because they may not come knocking at your door. Most important to doing good in the community and giving back to others is being kind without expecting anything in return.
In the future do you think you’ll continue to be involved, beyond your job, in philanthropic efforts?
Ever since I learned what that word meant, I started looking into what I could do on a bigger scale. When I got the award, it came with a [$1,000] check. I thought, “This check isn’t for me, it’s for the community.” It’s still something I’m thinking about. Going forward, I’m always going to find a way to give back, whatever community I find myself in the future.
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