Local high schoolers harvest grapes in Exeter for local food banks

EXETER – What started as a Tulare high school class project eight years ago has now become a student volunteer movement to help fight hunger throughout Tulare County.

Earlier this month, students from Tulare and Exeter gathered at a small, local vineyard to pick thousands of pounds of grapes over the course of two weekends. The students were part of Harvesting Hope, a local nonprofit providing students a way to give back to the their local community by picking grapes which are then donated to local food banks and homeless outreach groups. Organizing the student groups is Michaelpaul Mendoza, a Tulare history teacher. It was Mendoza’s Mission Oak High School class in 2013 which first came up with the idea for the project.

“I challenged my class to come up with a project where they could give back and make a difference and the issue of hunger kept coming up,” Mendoza said.

The students began approaching people with fruit trees in their backyards and offering to pick the fruit, which helps the tree continue to produce larger and sweeter fruit, to then donate to the Tulare Emergency Aid Council.

“This has been one of the highlights of my educational career,” Mendoza said. “It’s a simple act to improve someone’s life and an opportunity to educate youth on hunger and offer them a way to do something about it.”

While Mendoza was building up a labor force of students another Tulare teacher was preparing a place for those students, as well as church youth groups and faith-based fundraisers, to harvest God’s Vineyard, the name of the 5-acre property in Exeter where he and his wife grow grapes. Manuel Garcia, a teacher a Mulcahy Middle School in Tulare, and his wife Catalina, were about to sell off the property when they were inspired to do something else. Their plan was to plant and harvest the grapes on the five acres of somewhat unproductive land and then sell them and use the proceeds to benefit missionaries at their church.

The only problem was neither of them were farmers and didn’t have any money to invest in revitalizing the vineyard, so the entire endeavor was a leap of faith.

“I’m not a farmer and have no expertise in farming,” Garcia said. “But you don’t have to be an expert to be used by God.”

Each time he told someone about his plan, donations soon followed. Stout Built donated $50,000 worth of trellising to reinvigorate the grapevines. Tulare Ag Products donated all of the irrigation lines. A local well driller who did missionary work drilling wells in Africa heard Garcia was having trouble with his agriculture well, and offered to drill a new one for free. Labor was provided by local youth groups who spread the word and ultimately connected with Harvesting Hope which had its best showing ever at the property this month with more than 100 people at the Oct. 2 harvest event.

“If you are willing to give God control of what little we have, He will do great things,” Garcia said. “People just came alongside us and each of them gave something. There was no logical reason this should have worked.”

Edmond Kitchenmaster, pantry manager for the Visalia Emergency Aid Council, which acts as Visalia’s food bank, was on-hand to witness the students harvest 240 boxes of grapes, which he helped to stack and wrap for transport from the Exeter vineyard to Visalia. He estimated the grapes helped feed more than 1,000 families through VEAC and the Bethlehem Center’s food distributions.

“This was my first experience working with Harvesting Hope, and it was a great one,” Kitchenmaster said.

Once they began harvesting commercial acreage, Mendoza said they growers were unable to continue the effort until the organization had liability insurance in case someone was injured while working in the fields. Luckily for him one of his students was the daughter of Rosemary Caso, executive director of United Way of Tulare County. The local United Way acts as a clearinghouse for grant funding for most of the area’s nonprofits. In the case of Harvesting Hope, it also acted as a financial sponsor and was able to extend insurance for the work days.

“We needed a larger support system and United Way provided that for us,” Mendoza said.

James Williams first heard of Harvesting Hope when he was working for a local home retailer. He convinced his employer to donate gloves, shears and harvesting equipment to Mendoza’s student volunteers. In 2018, Williams was now working as a financial advisor with Harvest Wealth Group in Exeter and became one of three volunteer coordinators for the harvests. He said students show up with family and friends, challenge each other to see who can pick the most or who can bring the most people.

“Every single time I am blown away by these students,” Williams said.

Williams said his dream is to have create a branch of Harvesting Hope at every high school in Tulare County in the next 5-10 years.

Mendoza estimates students from nearly every town in Tulare County have participated in Harvesting Hope since 2013 and harvested a total of 400,000 pounds of fruit, ranging from tangerines to grapes from more than 30 commercial properties. Anyone interested in volunteering at one of their harvesting events can find upcoming events on their social media sites @HarvestingHopeTuareCounty or by calling 559-972-9148.

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